US History in the Twentieth Century

To My Esteemed Colleagues:

In light of your current debate, I am honored and privileged to offer my insights. Let me rephrase the understanding that I have of your dilemma: the narrative of United States history since 1940 is inextricably connected to the larger narrative of the history of the world, so it might be misleading to refer to a course covering that period of US history without alluding to that element of the subject matter. However, world history only arises as an issue where it affects United States history, so it might not be necessary to refer to world history in the title of the course. In the light of these concerns, it might not be easy to make a firm decision. For this reason, I would like to refer to the work of two historians, McCormick and Lipsitz, as well as portions of the Brown and Shannon book Going to the Source. In their books, McCormick and Lipsitz both deal with world and US history, the subject matter frequently overlapping. I think that by looking at the approaches of these two narratives to US history, as well as the effects of world history on Americans as evident in Brown and Shannon, we will find that “The US in the World, 1940-2005” is a suitable title for this course.

Lipsitz’s book, Rainbow at Midnight—Labor and Culture in the 1940s, is an effort to explore how the war efforts of the 1940s brought about significant concerns in the social fabric of the United States. The subject matter of this book is, from the very beginning, concerned not only with the domestic issues of the United States, but also with the themes and events from the world abroad, at the very least due to the fact that much of the social change that Lipsitz attempts to document occurs as a direct result of the United States’ involvement in World War II. In Chapter Two, he explains that “while nations fight wars for clearly defined strategic and political goals, individuals often act from more personal motives” (George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 46). Many Americans likely supported the war effort in hopes of returning to an idyllic America—”restored patriarchal authority…a postwar world free of fear, filled with material abundance and comfort, and firmly grounded in family ties and romantic affection,” but the effects of the United States’ role as a nation in the world at war prompted domestic social and cultural changes that would irreversibly alter the face and atmosphere of that very nation (Ibid, 46).

Rainbow at Midnight discusses issues relating to the working class in America in the 1940s and Lipsitz especially concerns himself with the role of organized labor in the shaping of American culture in the period. The war effort placed great demands on manufacturers in the United States, who in turn required more employees for increased production. This came at a period of time when many companies put forth resistance to organized labor and unionization, but the constraints placed on manufacturers by high production demands weakened their resistance. “In the thirties, Yale and Town resisted unionization so bitterly that it closed down a plant in Detroit rather than deal with a union” (Ibid, 121). The United States role as a nation among nations, though, particularly through its involvement in World War II, had significant impact on the struggle for working class rights. “Only after government military spending converted 93 percent of the plant’s production to war needs…did Yale and Towne reluctantly recognize a labor organization it did not control” (Ibid, 121).

Lipsitz’ entire book is devoted to addressing those social changes, the shift in the cultural climate of the United States in the 1940s, and the nation’s history in this period is largely dependent on the larger fabric of world history. A comprehensive narrative of United States history in this time period requires attention to the issues of the rest of the world. Without that attention, the narrative would be grossly incomplete.

McCormick wrote a book called America’s Half-Century—United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After. The aim of this book is to explore the United States’ role as a world power during the Cold War, and one of the topics it addresses is the issue of the decline of the United States’ power in the latter portion of that era. This book is an effort to reflect on the United States in the world, and yet in many places, domestic issues arise where they have played a significant role in the nation’s ability to step up to the plate as a world leader.

McCormick begins in chapter one by explaining how the capitalist world system emerged, overtaking systems of imperialism and a sort of mutual isolationism as it created a world economy. There are three constants to this capitalist world system: “there are always implicit geographical boundaries,” “there is always a center or a pole,” and that there are three types of zones within the system—core, periphery, and semi-periphery (Thomas McCormick, America’s Half-Century, 3). The United States became the center of the world system following World War II, achieving “hegemony,” or the status of a superpower among nations. Hegemonic powers, McCormick explains, tend to promote an internationalist world system because doing so helps to sustain their status as such. Domestic issues quickly become necessary in understanding foreign policy as McCormick describes political leadership (“in-and-outers”) in the United States in order to later explain the government’s process of deciding foreign policy. McCormick also discusses how American economists had differing opinions about the extent to which capital should be invested internationally.

Domestic issues arise again when McCormick discusses the United States’ “high tide for…hegemony.” In the light of threats to American hegemony in the Latin American sphere by way of insurgency, the United States did not want to risk losing ground in Asia as the threat of communist insurgency became clear in Vietnam. McCormick discusses the 1964 presidential campaign, in which Johnson assured voters that American troops would not be sent to fight in Asia, while the government was, in fact, “selecting its future bombing targets in North Vietnam before Americans went to the polls in the fall” (Ibid, 152). In the United States efforts to ensure hegemony during the Cold War and retain its status as a power superior to the Soviet Union, foreign policy must address the danger of allowing peripheral nations to be lost to communism. Economic strength is necessary for hegemony, after all, and communism posed a threat to the ability of the United States to derive economic strength through its use of peripheral nations as bases for trade and suppliers of resources. The fear of a domino effect in Indochina and the hopes of nurturing Japanese economic recovery and the potential return of China to the capitalist world system all served as reasons for the United States to struggle against communism in Vietnam (Ibid, 111). This struggle, however, proved to undermine United States’ hegemony rather than ensure it.

Going to the Source by Brown and Shannon includes a chapter that provides a collection of letters that Jeff Rogers, the son of President Nixon’s Secretary of State, William Rogers, wrote home during his service in Vietnam. These letters demonstrate the complexities of Americans’ reactions to the war in Vietnam and the United States’ role in the world. Shortly after his arrival in Vietnam, Rogers wrote to his parents that he felt “good about doing something relatively positive in this war” (Victoria Brown and Timothy Shannon, Going to the Source, Volume Two, 258). In February 1969, he wrote about Nixon’s positive attributes as president and even mentions that “self-proclaimed ‘liberals'” share in his support (Ibid, 262). By the following month, though, he expressed disillusion with the fact that “we see or sense no progress towards any goal” (Ibid, 263). He pointed out his frustration with the idea that US news sources “exaggerate an d underplay events” (Ibid, 263). “So if intelligence reports and press reports have such little relation to what really is happening, who does one believe” (Ibid, 263). These letters illustrate the role that the war in Vietnam played in the lives of Americans by causing common citizens—and even the children of high-ranking government officials—to question the role of the United States in the world and consequently their faith in their own government.

Rainbow at Midnight discusses the struggle of the working class in America in the 1940s, struggles that were significantly shaped by the role of the United States in the world. America’s Half-Century discusses United States’ foreign policy since World War II, but domestic issues consistently affect America’s role in the world. And Jeff Rogers’s letters in Going to the Source illustrate the role that America’s place in the world plays in the lives of citizens. In light of these demonstrations of intermingling world and US history, I strongly suggest that we call our history course “The United States in the World, 1940-2005.”

Twelfth Night and Shakespeare’s Attitude toward Homosexuality

Twelfth Night is a play that touches on issues that are incredibly sensitive, even by current standards. Homosexuality is the source of a great deal of debate and controversy in today’s world, but Shakespeare wrote this play in the late sixteenth century, approaching the subject of homoerotic desire through humor and comedy. While we have no direct evidence of Shakespeare’s personal views, his treatment of homoeroticism in this play, especially through the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian in Act II Scene I and Act III Scene III, can provide us with insight to his attitude toward such relationships. Antonio seems to be deeply infatuated with and devoted to Sebastian, who has no qualms taking advantage of Antonio in spite of the fact that he is essentially indifferent to him. If this relationship is any indication of Shakespeare’s attitude toward relationships that have homoerotic elements, then his sympathetic treatment of Antonio and his portrayal of Sebastian as opportunistic would suggest that Shakespeare understood the strain that societal attitudes placed on homosexuals.

In approaching this issue, it is important to first look at how Shakespeare ended Twelfth Night by providing safe, heterosexual outlets for the homoerotic overtones that characterize the play. One of the central conflicts of the play—which is apparent in Olivia’s lines Act IV, Scene I—is solved by the mistaken identity of Sebastian. When the play begins, Duke Orsino seeks to woo Olivia, who will have no suitor as she mourns her brother. She allows Cesario to come forth and present Orsino’s suit, but instead of accepting Orsino’s propositions, she falls in love with Cesario. Because Olivia believes that Sebastian is Cesario, a marriage is arranged in Act IV, Scene I between the two. Because Viola has developed a warm relationship with Orsino as Cesario, Orsino does not need to be terribly disappointed at losing Olivia to Sebastian. The appearance of Sebastian in this scene as a character who will accept Olivia’s advances frees Viola not only from Olivia’s pursuit, but also to reveal her true identity and her love for Orsino. This scene is crucial to the peaceful resolution of the play. Sebastian’s appearance at this point in time serves both to redirect the homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships and to allow for a comic rather than tragic ending.

Shakespeare was constrained in his writing by the sensibilities of his audience and society at large. The redirection of homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships does not necessarily provide an accurate impression of how Shakespeare felt about homoerotic relations. His treatment of Sebastian and Antonio provides more insight into his views, especially because Antonio is portrayed as a character who actively embraces homoerotic desire for Sebastian. Orsino’s admiration for Cesario is apparent, but in the action of the play, it is made clear that these characters will not act on their desire, at least before the true identity of Cesario is revealed. Similarly, Olivia’s attraction to Cesario, however obvious, comes across clearly as desire that will not be fulfilled, at least not by Cesario. As we see in these instances, while it might have been on the edge of social acceptability to feature homoerotic desire, Shakespeare avoids treating the desire as acceptable by making it clear that in neither case will the desire be fulfilled. This was not necessarily the case with Antonio and Sebastian.

Beginning in Act II Scene I, Shakespeare introduces the tension between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio has rescued Sebastian, who has called himself Roderigo, and brought him safely to land. Sebastian, in urging Antonio to go his own way, says “I may bear my evils alone: it were a bad recompense for your love, to lay any of them on you.” The love that Antonio has shown Sebastian may simply be the rescue and safe voyage to land, but it seems likely to me that in that safe passage, Antonio and Sebastian might have indulged in their homoerotic desires. It would serve as an explanation for Sebastian’s desire to keep his name secret, as well as Antonio’s remark, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.” This remark certainly seems to give Antonio away as having overt homoerotic desire for Sebastian, but even then, for Sebastian to kill him seems rather extreme. He would, however, have much more reason for wanting to do away with Antonio if they had, in fact, been involved with each other in physical intimacy. Sebastian has no real reason for concern being the object of Antonio’s desire, as that says nothing about his character. If he had, however, been involved with Antonio romantically, he would have much more reason for wanting to be rid of him for good, whether that meant by killing him or simply walking out of his life.

Cristina Malcomson, in her article “What You Will,” says that “the ideology of the play resides in its formulation of love, which includes both dominant, traditional notions of interdependence, and newly emerging attitudes toward individual choice and personal desire, or, as the play puts it, ‘will'” (Wayne 31, 32). In the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, Antonio alone feels the love, and his attempts at establishing interdependence are apparent in his admonishment to Sebastian: “let me be your servant.”

Malcomson also states in her article that “Twelfth Night considers advancement in terms of a marriage market which in the play is much more open to personal choice and status exogamy than it is in traditional society, and which also firmly closes down at particular moments” (Wayne 31). Antonio’s love for Sebastian might be considered one of those moments to which she refers. And because Antonio could never hope to marry Sebastian, neither in traditional society nor in the “more open” marriage market of Twelfth Night, the best he can hope for is the attachment to Sebastian through servitude.

Antonio’s role as a minor character in this play, however, was likely a choice made based on Shakespeare’s preference to focus on other issues. “Not only are female triumphs compared to male inadequacies; the proper attitude towards marriage becomes the mirroring reflection of the proper attitude towards social advancement. . . the play dramatizes the superiority of women to men in order to call into question the rigid structures of the traditional order, and, in the process, to validate certain forms of social mobility” (Wayne 31). Shakespeare’s decisions are not unlike the decisions made by certain civil rights leaders in the twentieth century, who believed that there would be much less resistance to extend rights a little bit at a time, to one group at a time, than to grant equal rights across the board to all minority groups. Not that I think that Shakespeare even vaguely considered the notion of same-sex marriage, nor even hoped to use this play (or any of his others of which I’m aware), to challenge social attitudes toward homoerotic behavior. But while one of this play’s main goals might be to “challenge the rigid structures of the traditional order,” Shakespeare still introduces Antonio on the periphery and through him, gives evidence of a peripheral attitude—namely the attitude toward homoerotic relations that he deftly avoids addressing through his treatment of major characters in the conclusion of the play.

However, Antonio is still involved in the new social mobility to which Malcomson refers. She says of Antonio: “[he] is the model for the new servant imagined by the play, since his service is based on desire rather than duty or reverence.” She suggests that all social mobility, according to this play, should be based on that same desire, as it is with the women. Most social roles at the time, especially those of servitude and other lower-class roles, were the function of a person’s birthright, not their talents, aptitudes, or aspirations. While the women of this play are given freer reign than would have been socially acceptable at the time, there are still relative constraints to that freedom. Sebastian and Viola seem to be of decent stock from whichever country is theirs—the Captain in Act I Scene II addresses Viola as “lady”—so it does not seem outrageous that they would be able to marry Olivia and Orsino, respectively. Even Maria is not too far removed from Toby Belch in social status, and her marriage to him is bestowed as a “reward” for her cleverness. She seems to enjoy, or desire, her service to Toby as Antonio does his service to Sebastian. Malvolio, on the other hand, is too wrapped up in himself to bee very concerned with his service to Olivia, and though he is ecstatic at the false prospect of marriage to her, it has more to do with his desire for social advancement than his desire for her as a lover. Between that and Olivia’s preoccupation with Cesario, Malvolio never stood a chance, much like Antonio, whose desire seems to operate on a completely different level. Malvolio’s desire for service is motivated by a drive to advance himself in terms of social status, and as Malcomson pointed out, “female triumphs [are] compared to male inadequacies” (Wayne 31).

Valerie Traub points out that “the meanings of homoerotic desire during the early modern period seem to have been remarkably unfixed, with contradictory meanings existing across a complex and fractured field of signification. . . homoerotic activity—for men or women—was not a primary means of identification of the self. Homoeroticism had little to do with any of the social roles, statuses, and hierarchies in which an early modern subject might be located and thereby define him/herself.” Antonio might have been well aware of his homoerotic desires, for Sebastian and possibly others, but according to Traub’s suggestions, he likely did not identify himself too strongly with those desires. Other concerns, “social roles, statuses, and hierarchies,” were of much greater importance than a person’s sexual orientation. Marriage between man and woman, whether founded on desire and love or social pressures and constraints, would probably have had very little effect on homoerotic relations, which posed no threat of producing illegitimate children. For Antonio to become Sebastian’s servant leaves open the possibility of ongoing involvement, regardless of Sebastian’s marital status, and this type of relationship would mark the height of what could be hoped for by two men bound by mutual homoerotic desire.

Cristina Malcomson’s suggestion that this play “dramatizes the superiority of women to men” provides an explanation for Antonio’s failure to advance himself socially through his desire to serve Sebastian, but it does not seem to address Sebastian’s own successful social advancement through his marriage to Olivia. In Act IV Scene III, just before he is to be married to Olivia, Sebastian yearns for Antonio’s counsel, in the face of “this accident and flood of fortune.” He imagines that he must be losing his mind, or that Olivia has lost hers, but wonders, “if ’twere so, She could not sway her house, command her followers, take and give back affairs and their dispatch with such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing.” While the marriage between the two should be considered a triumph more for Olivia than for Sebastian, it seems to be significant that he is preoccupied not only with Olivia’s status, but also with Antonio’s whereabouts. When Sebastian encounters Antonio again in the final scene of the play, he greets him: “Antonio, O my dear Antonio! How have the hours rack’d and tortured me, Since I have lost thee!”

While Valerie Traub suggests that “the homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino are displaced onto Antonio, whose relation to Sebastian is finally sacrificed for the maintenance of institutionalized heterosexuality and generational continuity,” she goes on to explain that “the fear expressed, however, is not of homoeroticism per se. . . [it is] fear of erotic exclusivity and its corollary: non-reproductive sexuality” (Traub 123). The problem that the love between Antonio and Sebastian poses is circumvented by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, which frees the two to continue in their relationship, as long as it remains subordinate to Sebastian’s marriage.

Antonio displays a very favorable sort of love in Twelfth Night in that he is as devoted to serving his love as Viola to Orsino and as determined in his desire as Olivia to Cesario/Sebastian. Not only is his plight treated by Shakespeare with extreme sympathy, Antonio is consistently portrayed as a character who maintains his honor and dignity throughout the play. By the end of the play, Antonio is not “sacrificed,” as Traub suggests, but has achieved a rather smashing success in his role as servant to Sebastian, and their relationship is not lost to, but rather legitimized by, Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia. In finishing this play, Shakespeare reinforces social conventions of heterosexual marriage in order to ensure reproductive sexuality, but his treatment of the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian leaves open the possibility for viable non-reproductive sexuality between respectable, even favorable, characters, suggesting that he sympathized with those who are prone to homoerotic desire.

Works Consulted:

  • Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London, Routledge, 1992.
  • Wayne, Valerie, ed. The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1991.

Under the Volcano and Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Through the course of the twentieth century, a great deal of growth took place in civilized nations. With the great changes in political and social climates came the need for change in the arts, to capture and convey peoples’ changing attitudes toward the human condition in a way that could be better understood. The work of D. H. Lawrence broke form with Victorian literature and is now considered modernist. Among his most famous works is the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which tells the story of an upper-class British woman who has an affair with her husband’s gamekeeper. The novel was incredibly controversial primarily because it is so sexually explicit, but its exploration and critique of traditional British values doubtlessly were controversial, as well. As the second World War approached, so did postmodern literature, including Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano, a novel about an alcoholic British consul in Mexico who deals with the rise of fascism and the failure of his marriage. These authors, in their respective novels, employ characters with complex psychological issues to explore larger themes including politics and philosophy.

The main characters in Lady Chatterley’s Lover provide a great deal of insight into Lawrence’s ideas about psychology. Lawrence provides the psychological background for Connie and Clifford early in the novel, emphasizing both the significance of their status as upper-class citizens and their respective phases of rejection of traditional values. Clifford’s early adulthood is marked by the fact that he serves in a war that he doesn’t seem to take very seriously. The war, however, takes him seriously, leaving him paralyzed for life. Connie married him just before the war and didn’t seem too take the marriage too seriously. The two are trapped in a marriage that doesn’t seem to promise much in the way of fulfillment to either. When Clifford moves from writing to business to find the fulfillment and validation that Connie could never give him (because he could never earn it), Connie finds herself involved with Mellors. She is more satisfied and fulfilled by her relationship with him, apparently because he is a dominant lover, taking what he wants while giving her what she needs. Traditional values of the Victorian age would condone neither a relationship between classes such as this one nor such a sensuous and passionate involvement. Lady Chatterley is not only a sexual woman; she is a passionate woman who is only satisfied by a virile and masculine partner. Clifford’s physical impotence as a lover is a manifestation of what Lawrence seems to suggest is a characteristic impotence. Clifford and men like him seem to believe that they are entitled to the benefits the world has to offer, and so they are incredibly dejected when the world does not deliver. Mellors, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want anything from the world, but when Connie comes to him, he responds by putting forth the effort to make her his, in a much deeper and more real sense than that of marriage.

In Under the Volcano, the most psychologically significant character is, by far, Geoffrey. The struggle of his alcoholism against his genius and against his whole being sets the stage for his relations with the other main characters in the novel, as well as his interaction with the increasingly fascist world around him in Mexico. Yvonne and Hugh are psychologically significant, as well, in that they are well-written and believable characters with very real psychological complications. They are not given nearly as much depth as Geoffrey, however. Yvonne seems to be nearly as compelled psychologically to Clifford as he is to mescal and his remorse at having lost her. She seems to be an intelligent woman of respectable status; it seems to be a testament to Geoffrey’s greatness that she married him and is still so in love with him. Of course, the possibility remains that her desperate need to repair their relationship might spring from her overwhelming guilt at having cheated on him. To have her back, though, does not serve Geoffrey’s purposes, as he prefers the misery of his “paradise of despair” to the romantic notions of what life could be if they were to repair their relationship. In the end, he seems to surrender to the idea that this paradise of despair will be too difficult to maintain as it progresses. He stands up against the fascists who were responsible for the death of the Indian in the road earlier in the day, simultaneously distinguishing himself from the weak and frightened cast of people around him and finding an escape from the torture of living in a world that stifles his genius.

These novels, while psychologically complex, also deal with a number of political and philosophical ideas. Through the characters and the atmosphere of the world in which their stories take place, Lowry and Lawrence deliver complex reactions to the political climate of the world in the early twentieth century. The problems experienced by the characters in these novels are symptomatic of the conditions of the world at large, and in their struggles they respond in ways that demonstrate the changing values of the world around them. These characters are at the edges of a society that is growing outward in many directions, the result of all of the growth and change in the world at the time. Both of these writers have succeeded in creating complex novels that address the political and social questions of the era through the stories of their characters.

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence addresses the postwar political climate of the world, and especially Europe, through the lens of a British story. Clifford Chatterley is born into an upper-class family of status but reaches late adolescence and early adulthood without a deep sense of loyalty to the customary values of the time. Connie doesn’t seem to buy into the traditional values structure, either. Certainly most generations throughout history have experienced a phase of rebellion against their parents and the values structures in place as they come of age, but Lawrence’s novel seems to suggest that there is more happening than simple rebellion. With the rise of industry and globalization, the world is changing rapidly during the course of this story’s events, and that rebellion gives way to significant shifts in attitudes toward traditional ideas about the roles of men and women in society and in relationships with each other. Connie and Clifford’s marriage to each other is not in conflict with traditional values, but the complications brought forth as a result of Clifford’s injuries in the war and the failures of traditional means to satisfy the two in the relationship (both very literally and figuratively) emphasize the need for re-evaluation of custom. Clifford resorts to writing and to industry as means for fulfillment—nothing new for a man to do—while Connie suffers an unfulfilling life until she is able to find meaningful relation to another human in her relationship with Mellors. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is very much a novel about the breakdown of a specific relationship, but it is also a novel about the failings of traditional values in a changing world that cause that breakdown. Lawrence does a wonderful job of illustrating the shortcomings of traditional values and how those shortcomings affect people who are not content to settle for what society deems appropriate.

Lowry sets Under the Volcano up during World War II and uses the political tensions of the world as an important backdrop for the story of the consul’s failing marriage and alcoholism. Britain’s withdrawal from Mexico and Geoffrey’s subsequent withdrawal from service as a British Consul to Mexico play an important role in the downward spiral of his alcoholism. Most importantly is the rise of fascism as his alcoholism progresses, which seems to exacerbate his frustration with his situation. More than ever he would like to write and make a difference, but his frustration with the state of affairs, while potentially all t
hat much more reason to make his message heard, also seems to serve as an reason for despair. With such an overwhelming problem as fascism, work toward positive change likely seems incredibly futile. This would be especially true in Geoffrey’s case, as his basis for believing in people’s goodness and ability to overcome is founded in his relationships with Hugh and Yvonne, not to mention his own wavering faith in himself. If he cannot even manage to switch from mescal to that nutritious Mexican beer, how could humanity be expected to overcome fascism? How does he expect that he will be able to reach people with his philosophical and mystical ideas if he can’t even communicate to Yvonne and Hugh his true state of being? The pathologies of the world climate can illustrate themselves through the individuals of the world. Geoffrey’s condition—genius stifled by an oppressive affliction—might serve as a parallel for humanity—potentially beautiful and creative but stifled by the oppression of fascism and materialism. In the end, Geoffrey’s stand against the oppression of fascism is the very catalyst for his destruction. Certainly efforts to shake off the rule of oppressive regimes have been destructive to humanity, and perhaps Lowry foresaw a time when powerful nations pitted against each other could potentially threaten the existence of humanity. Whether or not this was something he intentionally included in his novel, he very effectively creates a story of rich, deep characters in an incredibly well-illustrated time and place.

Novels of modern and postmodern writers display the reactions of those writers to the changing times of the twentieth century. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, highlights the breakdown of traditional values in British life after the World War I through the disintegration of Connie and Clifford’s marriage. Lawrence explores the minds of Connie, Clifford, and Mellors, among others, to illustrate the changing attitudes and sensibilities of the modern age and the politics of a world undergoing great changes. Lowry wrote during World War II, and his work demonstrates an even greater disintegration of the values and sensibilities of the civilized world struggling to incorporate the changes of industrialization and the beginnings of globalization. Lowry’s postmodern novel demonstrates heightened desperation and anxiety in the cast of characters and in the political atmosphere of Mexico as an indication of the world at large. Lowry and Lawrence have helped to document some of the great changes of the twentieth century through modern and postmodern literature in their novels.

The Cynical Bard

Shakespeare, like any good poet, knew a thing or two about unrequited or ill-fated love. The speaker in his sonnets lavishes affection on a young man who seems to be oblivious, indifferent, or intolerant to the love. There doesn’t seem to be much hope for the speaker in the sonnets. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Helen is deeply in love with Bertram, who doesn’t seem to even know at the onset of the play. Because of their different social standings, there is little hope for Helen’s love. The first glimmer of hope comes when she devises a plot by which she might be deemed worthy of Bertram’s hand in marriage. One of the turning points in the play is in Act II Scene III when Bertram resists Helen’s advances in spite of the King’s wishes. Where a more reasonable person might have given up and suffered the pain of unrequited love, Helen pursues further measures to win Bertram—if not in love, at least in marriage.

Helen’s love for Bertram has developed over a period of time, and it seems at the onset of the play that she longs for him to return that love. Because of her social status, their match is not likely even if his feelings are reciprocal. Helen sees the chance to help out the King in trade for the favor of making her marriage with Bertram possible. Her interest in Bertram seems genuine and she manages to arrange it so that their marriage is possible. One might think that a reasonable character would give up on a beloved who refuses to return the love, as he so clearly does in this scene. Bertram’s response to the situation in this scene paints a clearer picture for the audience of the sort of man that he is. He is a man of class and status, but the indignant attitude with which he responds to the King and Helen shows him to be much less refined than might be expected. More surprising is the fact that Helen continues to pine after him even when she’s seen him as he is in this scene.

Just as Bertram as a character is shown to be less appealing than he seems in this act, Helen’s love for him seems to be less authentic than it is portrayed to be in earlier scenes. Her love for him is portrayed as having developed over time as a genuine appreciation of his character—character that is shown in this and later scenes to be less than ideal—but the fact that she is relentless might call into question whether her interest is in a relationship with him or a marriage to him. Having lived in Bertram’s home for some time as a person of less class, Helen seems to have identified her lower-class status with her relationship with Bertram. In spite of the rank and money that the King has promised Helen for her services, she will not feel complete until she has won Bertram. On the surface, it appears as though her persistence comes from her desire for him as a husband and lover, but I think that her desire comes instead from a psychological correlation between Bertram and status of respectability.

This scene is important to the play because it really makes the play stand out as an ironic comedy rather than a romantic drama. Bertram, and Helen’s love for him, are both made to seem silly and flawed. When the play begins, the story is of the struggles that must be overcome for love to prevail. Beginning with this scene, Shakespeare seems to poke fun at the idea of love overcoming. When the obstacles have been surmounted, the ideal turns out to be less than ideal. Bertram isn’t the catch that Helen seems to think he is, but on the other hand, her love isn’t quite what traditional literary notions would suggest. All’s Well That Ends Well because her distorted love falls on a flawed love object.

A Critical Scene in Twelfth Night

Our group was assigned the play Twelfth Night for performance, and we chose Act IV Scene I. Twelfth Night is a play that turns normal social constructs upside-down, particularly gender roles. The title of the play, as we have learned in class, points to this reversal by referring to the twelfth night of Christmas celebration, which at the time was a night of “turning things on their heads.” We are introduced almost immediately in the play to the way that things will be confused, when one of the lead characters—Viola—decides to dress up as a man to serve the Duke. The scene we chose is a significant turning point in the play because this is when Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, first meets the characters with whom Viola has developed relationships. Viola has based her disguise as a male on her brother’s appearance and the people who know her as Cesario mistake Sebastian for her. Shakespeare uses this appearance of Sebastian to resolve complications in the plot that might otherwise result in chaos.

This scene is significant in performance, as we have learned by performing it, in that it provides audience members with an opportunity to see how the other characters react to Sebastian. Shakespeare uses this scene to show just how great the similarity is between the appearance of Sebastian and his disguised sister. The scene opens with Festy trying to relay a summons from Olivia to Sebastian, who he thinks is Cesario/Viola. He attempts to assume the same jovial relationship with Sebastion that he’d developed with Cesario, but Sebastian is not playful and tries to get rid of Festy, who never seems to get the hint that he’s being serious. This is when Andrew and Sir Toby enter, making the same mistake that Festy has made. They immediately resume their conflicts with Sebastian when their vendetta is actually directed at Cesario. Finally, Olivia enters, who proceeds to insist on an answer to her advances from Sebastian, when she’s fallen in love with Cesario. As a performance issue, this serves to make it abundantly clear to the audience that the resemblance between brother and disguised sister is striking. The ease with which the two characters are confused is necessary for the resolution to the play’s conflicts.

One of the central conflicts—which involves Olivia’s lines in this scene—is solved by the mistaken identity of Sebastian. When the play begins, Duke Orsino seeks to woo Olivia, who will have no suitor as she mourns her brother. She allows Cesario to come forth and present Orsino’s suit, but instead of accepting Orsino’s propositions, she falls in love with Cesario. Because Olivia believes that Sebastian is Cesario, a marriage is arranged in this scene between the two. And because Viola has developed a warm relationship with Orsino as Cesario, Orsino does not need to be terribly disappointed at losing Olivia to Sebastian. The appearance of Sebastian in this scene as a character who will accept Olivia’s advances frees Viola not only from Olivia’s pursuit, but also to reveal her true identity and her love for Orsino.

This scene is crucial to the peaceful resolution of the play. Sebastian’s appearance at this point in time serves both to redirect the homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships and to allow for a comic rather than tragic ending. Perhaps if Sebastian had never arrived, or worse—arrived too late, Viola’s true identity might have been revealed, resulting in the anger of both Orsino and Olivia. Perhaps she would have been killed or killed herself, and Sebastian would’ve had to attend her funeral. Perhaps a more fitting title for this play could’ve been All’s Well That Ends Well.

Bottom’s Up: A Strategy for Studying History

There are many possible ways to understand history. We have artifacts and accounts of the events and situations of the past that have shaped what the world is today, and people who study history must make decisions about how to treat this evidence in order to construct a working understanding of what the past actually was. One of the approaches for understanding this evidence is a “bottom-up” approach, by which historians place a greater focus on the common people’s stories of historical events than the traditional approach to historically significant names and events. Rather than focusing on the people of great power and influence, bottom-up history attempts to understand how historical events impacted the people who lived during the periods studied. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Among the primary disadvantages is the scarcity of reliable and extensive primary sources among the common people of certain periods. On the other hand, bottom-up history is advantageous in that it can provide a much more organic understanding of what the events and situations in history actually meant for the people who lived during the period. Among the texts that we are using to study history from the bottom up this semester include the Autobiography of Mother Jones and Going to the Source, Volume Two. Each demonstrates the advantages and disadvantages of studying history from the bottom up.

The Autobiography of Mother Jones is very useful as a source for studying history for a number of reasons. Mother Jones lived through the struggles of the labor movement of the early twentieth century, a movement that has done a great deal to shape the face of the United States and even the world as it is today. As industrialization took place in this country, the working class was faced with a choice of what its role would be in the changing nation. The owners and managers of industry were largely concerned with production and growth. The needs and rights of the working class were of little concern to those who made influential decisions. The working class would need to decide whether or not it would continue to allow the owners and managers to be responsible for their needs. Relying on the consideration of those with power and influence had left the working class in a rather miserable state, and by rising up in the labor movement to assert power and influence of their own, the working class was able to significantly change the way industrialization affected this country and the world. The Autobiography of Mother Jones details the struggles behind this movement and how the battles for the rights of the laborers changed industry and the lives of those who relied on it for their well-being.

There are, however, drawbacks to the picture of history provided by the Autobiography of Mother Jones. These accounts of the history of the labor movement do a wonderful job of describing what the labor movement was for the working class, but they paint a rather shallow, incomplete picture of the owners and managers on the side of industry. Those with power and influence in this period had a great number of issues to consider as they made decisions about the industries they ran, and as businesspeople they should be expected to try hard to get the most for their money. The Autobiography of Mother Jones treats the employers as a faceless entity with very little or no concern for fairness or the rights and struggles of the employed. It would be unfair to say that one striker’s violent actions prove that all strikers are violent and anarchistic. Likewise, it is unfair to suggest that employers in general did not sympathize with the struggles of the employed because some people in management and ownership roles disregarded their needs or utilized shady and subversive measures to undermine the efforts of the labor movement. An adage suggests that there are two sides to every story, but the truth is that there are infinitely more than two sides. The greatest limitation of the Autobiography of Mother Jones is that it provides a limited perspective of the labor movement, but that perspective is exactly why it is helpful in studying the labor movement.

Going to the Source also has its limitations as a source for studying history. The book provides a variety of primary sources as artifacts for gaining an understanding of history, many of which represent traditionally overlooked resources. The main drawbacks of these sources are their biases and lacking context. Once again, these sources provide unique perspectives that fit into a larger story, and the risk is that their relative importance and validity might be inflated or discounted when they are integrated into an understanding of history. This is why context is crucial. These sources fit within a larger framework of artifacts presenting the history of the time. Without the proper consideration of how these pieces fit together, it is incredibly easy to misinterpret their meanings and implications about history.

Providing context is exactly why Going to the Source can be very helpful in gaining an understanding of history. These overlooked or underutilized resources can put traditional historical facts and perspectives into a deeper context. Marginalized voices can be heard and underestimated evidence sheds new light on the backdrop of history. The sources in this volume provide these fresh perspectives on the context of traditional history and enrich our understanding of what it was like to live through it.

The difficulty regarding bottom-up history is simply that historically, “common” people haven’t had a voice or mode of expression as much as the influential people who hold positions of authority in society. Through newspaper interviews, personal writings, and other similar sources, we can get a glimpse of what some of the reactions are to social trends and historical events, but these sources are rare and can provide biased or incomplete pictures of what the actual spirit or attitude of the times was. The Autobiography of Mother Jones, for example, provides us with historical information from a biased perspective. While the text is very illuminating about the struggles of the labor movement in the early twentieth century, this text does not provide us with a clear, objective picture of the social forces against which the labor movement struggled. In order to gain a more complete understanding of the labor movement, it would be necessary to supplement this text with a viewpoint more sympathetic to the owners and managers. The ability to see the issue from both sides is crucial in gaining a strong—and less biased—understanding of the struggle. The text also fails to paint a clear picture of what the social atmosphere was at the time independent of the labor movement. Other social issues at the time, including women’s rights, are present in the text but not given much attention. A more complete understanding of the time period should include an understanding of the wide variety of social concerns at the time. Again, the Autobiography of Mother Jones serves as a strong source of material, but must be supplemented in order to provide a more complete picture.

Traditional historical sources—quotes of influential figures and facts about the dates and locations of historically significant events—can provide a relatively complete picture of the larger themes that shape the patterns of history, but they are lacking in their ability to provide an understanding of how those historical trends affected the people of the times. Bottom-up history provides a more complete understanding of these aspects of history by highlighting the voices of commonly disenfranchised groups or minorities whose place in history might normally be skimmed over by traditional study. Understanding how the stories of these marginalized segments of the population fit into the historical patterns can be just as important as understanding the trends themselves. In Going to the Source, we are exposed to a variety of prim
ary-text media that convey a wide variety of themes. Newspaper articles, advertisements, court testimony, diplomatic communications, and private letters, among other sources, all serve to flesh out the background of the picture that traditional history tends to paint. By filling in the gaps and giving a voice to those usually overlooked by traditional history, these sources conveyer a deeper and broader understanding of the twentieth century.

Certainly there are plenty of legitimate ways to study and understand history. Bottom-up history provides a look at aspects of history that might otherwise go unnoticed or suppressed. With the Autobiography of Mother Jones, we are able to see the labor movement very intimately from the perspective of one of its biggest proponents. The biggest drawback to this approach is the lack of available sources to provide a complete picture. As we have seen with Going to the Source, even with these limited sources we gain a deeper sense of history than is possible with more traditional methods. The drawbacks to this method are clearly outweighed by the benefits, especially because we are steadily gaining a wider number of sources from which to study history and because historians are becoming much more conscientious in their efforts to understand and teach the lessons that history provides.

Freedom: Resolving the Oppositions

In studying Nietzsche’s philosophy, it can be difficult to find a clear understanding of what his views are on freedom. In some areas, he seems to argue strongly against the idea of “free will,” while in other areas he seems to suggest that the heights of human achievement are reached by the “free” spirits. At first glance, Nietzsche might seem to contradict himself on these issues. His views on human freedom, however, are much more complex than to allow for a simple answer of “determinism” or “free will.” Nietzsche views human behavior as being the result of complex relationships between various drives, and to the extent that our drives dictate the courses of our live, we lack “free” will. But to the extent that we are able to moderate the relationships between our drives, we become more “strong” in our will and thus are able to achieve more.

In Beyond Good and Evil, § 21, Nietzsche addresses the issue of free will directly. People who defend the notion of free will want to “bear the whole and sole responsibility for one’s actions.” In order to be so responsible, we must be separated completely not only from all of that which brought us into being, but also from all of that which acts on us in our lives to push us in this direction or that. On the other hand, Nietzsche criticizes what he calls the “unfree” will, “an abuse of cause and effect.” He points out that cause and effect are figured as material things, a cause creating an effect, rather than as simply the conception of the relationships between events. This conception exists in our understanding of the events, though not necessarily in the events themselves. Our understanding of the world in terms of cause and effect is not itself a problem until we begin to believe that these “symbols” exist themselves in nature. When we impose the “mythology” of cause and effect onto the material world, we are stuck with the idea of the “unfree” will. The unfreedom of will is problematic in two very “personal” ways: on one hand it denies a person the glory of his goodness, on the other it allows him to deny responsibility for his failings. Nietzsche does not believe that either of these possibilities is realistic or does any practical good. In answer to the idea of unfree will, Nietzsche points out that “it is only a question of strong and weak wills.”

With what Nietzsche calls the strong and weak wills, the question of human freedom is not whether or not it exists, but to what extent does it exist? Where the human will, the will to power as it expresses itself in an individual, exists strongly, human freedom expresses itself greatly. Where the human will seems to be greatly broken and subverted by exterior forces, it is the weak will, and it might seem to illustrate what Nietzsche would call the “unfree” will. Free will, then, does not exist independently, it is something that must be chosen and embraced by humanity. Where humanity fails to choose and embrace the will to power, human freedom does not exist, but when it is embraced and taken on, such as in Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation, humanity can, and will, be free.

In Beyond Good and Evil, § 26, Nietzsche discusses the relationship of the “superior” human being to the common people, the persons of strong will to the persons of weak. The superior human beings, though they feel compelled to set themselves apart from common humanity, must “go down…above all, ‘go in’.” He suggests that through the process of studying the “average man,” the philosopher will come to a more realistic understanding what it truly means to be free. Though a person with a higher calling than the average man might long to escape humanity—”aspire after a secret citadel where he is set free from the crowd”—in studying average humanity and its bondage are necessary steps toward achieving freedom. The cynics are more honest, he says, than those who would stand on higher moral ground and look upon human drives with disgust, and therefore can lend to the true seeker of knowledge a greater understanding of those human drives. The indignant man wants to deny those drives, is ashamed of humanity’s overall inability to suppress them. Without accepting the reality of these drives of weak will, one can never sublimate them in order to embrace a stronger will, a greater freedom.

Beyond Good and Evil, § 29 discusses those who enjoy more freedom than the average man. “Few are made for independence,” he says, “it is a privilege of the strong.” So much of humanity is blind to its own drives that it cannot possibly overcome those drives and choose freely what it will take from life, what it will make of life. The strong, however, or those who are most insightful into their own spirit and character and the spirit and character of humanity, are able to choose to redefine values, as the lion in the stages of self-transformation. “…he is probably not only strong, but daring to the point of recklessness.” He speaks here of the stages of self-transformation as a labyrinth, and when the strong enter this labyrinth, the average man can no longer sympathize, cannot understand the complexities of what becomes of this strong man. The values of the average man are dictated by the drives to which he is either blind or indifferent, and when a man of strength throws off these values and seeks the values of his own virtue, he leaves the average man behind. This average man does not enjoy the same freedom, but neither does he risk so much as the one who undergoes the process of self-transformation.

Beyond Good and Evil, § 41 addresses the issue of discovering whether or not one is suited for freedom. “One must test oneself,” he begins, “to see whether one is destined for independence and command.” None of us is completely enslaved by our circumstances, but we must judge for ourselves whether or not we will be capable of dictating our own freedom. This is not something that another person can decide for us, and in order to prove this to ourselves, we must be able to let go of all of those things upon which we depend. He provides examples of things that we would let command our will, such as other people, our homeland, or our own values. To attach ourselves to any of these, he suggests, is to sacrifice our independence, to give up our freedom in the name of some other good. “One must know how to conserve oneself: the sternest test of independence.” A person of strong will can choose to give himself prudently to such causes without sacrificing himself wholly, and as a result of this economy, the strong, independent person will retain enough of himself to do as he wills.

In sections 42 through 44, Nietzsche discusses the “new” philosophers, “very free spirits, these philosophers of the future.” He points out that though these philosophers love truth, they do not believe that this is a truth for all. He claims that there can be no common good, as “what can be common has ever but little value.” He criticizes heavily those whom he calls “eloquent and tirelessly scribbling slaves of the democratic taste.” Freedom, liberty, and independence seem to be used synonymously with democracy and equality, and yet Nietzsche points out that to be caught up in this herd, one is about as far from true independence, from “free” will, as one can get. The new philosophers will not be those who find a way for all to achieve freedom, they will simply be those who achieve their own freedom by way of self-transformation and embracing values of their own, not values for all.

Nietzsche points out some of the absurdity of modern thought when he asks, “why atheism today?” (BGE § 53). In the rejection of traditional religion, many modern philosophers are rejecting the idea of free will. The modern philosophers may be anti-Christian, but they are just as religious in their beliefs, Nietzsche suggests. Where once believers in God sacrificed what was precious to His will, modern philos
ophers sacrifice their wills to “stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, nothingness.” Determinism would take the responsibility of living from man just as God would. Where God allows for free will, those who do not follow His will are sinners, and those who do follow His will are “blessed” with his “grace.” Determinism portrays man as a top who spins as he’s been set spinning, without glory or fault in how he spins. Nietzsche does not find either of these scenarios very favorable.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche develops what he calls the stages of self-transformation. Through these three stages, a person can go from being an average human being to becoming an “overman.” In the first stage, called the “camel” stage, a person takes on the burden of the traditional values of his/her culture, perfecting him/herself as a virtuous person by the standards of tradition. Having become disciplined and capable of living values well, the person moves on to what Nietzsche calls the “lion” stage. The lion challenges the values of tradition, (which Nietzsche figures as a dragon), discarding those values that do not serve the person’s higher purpose. The lion replaces these values with practical values that arise from his/her passions to serve that higher purpose. After having thrown off the traditional values and replacing them with his/her own values, the person enters the child stage, where he/she lives as an “over[person],” a carefree value-creator and person of new virtue. The lion stage has also been called the “free-spirit metamorphosis,” and a person who has reached the child stage might also be known as a “free spirit.” These free spirits are the people who have taken not only all that is in them and redirected, but also those who are able to redirect the forces that act on them from without in order to take their lives in a direction of their own choice.

Nietzsche’s arguments in Beyond Good and Evil might often seem to refute the notion of free will, but on closer inspection, we have seen that Nietzsche simply argues that there are stronger and weaker wills. By elevating the notion of cause and effect to a sort of religion, Nietzsche suggests, we arrive at a belief in determinism where no human being is responsible for his life, good or bad, and we detect “in every ‘causal connection’ and ‘psychological necessity’ something of compulsion, exigency, constraint, pressure, unfreedom.” In the ranks of the average men, many are so greatly limited by the outside forces in life, including the pressures of society, culture, custom, religion, family, friends, and even life experiences, that their ability to will from what might be called their own “free” will is nearly non-existent. Ignorance, complacence, indifference, and apathy prevent many people from rising above the forces that shape them in order to make something of themselves. The fact that many people are slaves to all of those forces around them and their own drives to which they are ignorant does not provide us with any argument that all of humanity is constrained by fate or determinism.

This is exactly what Nietzsche hopes to achieve, I think, with his formulation of the stages of self-transformation. The strong and weak wills play themselves out in the world, and in humanity there are those who have the freedom to make their own lives and there are those whose lives are made for them. Nietzsche presents his stages of self-transformation as a set of useful tools for those who would make something of themselves. By mastering one’s own drives and creating values by which to live, a person is able to gain the most strength from all of his inner resources, the drives and passions that make him who he is. When all of the drives are sublimated into one direction, when all of the geese are flying in formation, so to speak, the person has the most strength as an individual and as a human being acting on the world around him. In this way, human freedom does not simply exist, human freedom is something that is available but must be achieved. Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation are a vehicle for achieving this freedom, where otherwise we might be limited to the throes of fate and chance, slaves to our own drives and to the pressures of society.

However, in Beyond Good and Evil § 231, Nietzsche speaks of predetermined aspects of humanity. “But at the bottom of us, ‘right down deep,’ there is, to be sure, something unteachable, a granite stratum of spiritual fate, of predetermined decision and answer to predetermined selected questions.” He asserts that we cannot “relearn” certain things, but only learn them fully, “discover all that is ‘firm and settled’ within”. While this stance on the issue of learning, on the issue of core individual identity, would suggest a certain set of limitations placed on us by fate or God or whomever, this does not necessarily stand as an argument against human freedom. A person is limited by what he is, guided by what he is, directed by what he is, but ultimately has an opportunity, if he is strong, to will with what he has what he may. Nietzsche certainly does not argue for absolute and unlimited human freedom, but he does not argue, either, for a complete lack of human freedom.

Nietzsche’s stance on human freedom seems essentially to be a sort of soft determinism. The hard rules of cause and effect that would support an argument for the fate of hard determinism, as he says, are the symbols of a mythological understanding of the world that should not be mistaken for the world itself. When we transform cause and effect into material things, when we imagine that the relationship between one event and another is absolute and that one necessitates the other, we presume too much. Where it applies to human freedom, the past that gives rise to our present is not immutable, as in one interpretation of the idea of eternal recurrence. What we choose in the moment defines our past as much as our past defines the choices available to us in the present moment. It is an interdependent relationship, and with greater knowledge of ourselves and our resources, we gain greater strength to change who and what we are in both the past and the present.

This seems to be a foundation of the theory of self-transformation. In the camel stage, we perfect our ability to take on the values of tradition in order to learn about value and discipline. Taking on the values of our culture and society does not tie us more greatly to the world around us, does not make us more dependent on the traditional values, so long as we are able to enter the lion stage in which we critically examine those values. It is not our living the values of tradition that defines us when we enter the lion stage; it is how we respond to those values as we challenge what we know that defines us. We challenge the values to determine how they aid or hinder our ability to achieve our higher goals. Our higher goals, which might be what Nietzsche refers to when he speaks of the “granite stratum of spiritual fate,” shape most strongly what we are, and the values that we create to serve the higher goal instruct our virtue in the child stage. If the past was immutable and unchanging, and the doctrine of cause and effect irrefutable, then perhaps society, family, and tradition would dictate our fate completely. According to Nietzsche’s philosophy, the free-spirit metamorphosis is necessary if we are to gain the freedom that is available to humanity.

The aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy that I find the most difficult is simply the formulation of a single, cohesive way of understanding these issues. I see two very important issues at hand: one being the issue of the relationship between human identity or mind or spirit and the physical world or matter and existence, the other being the issue of values and ethical behavior and how a person ought to go about living “well.” I have not so far, in reading Nietzsche’s work, gained a very clear understanding of what his precise views are on human nature. I do not fully understandwhat his views are on the relationship betw

een the consciousness and identity of the individual and the rest of the world. Only with a clear understanding of how he treats that issue do I feel I can fully understand his philosophy on values and ethics.

What are we, as individuals? This is the most important question that I have for Nietzsche. Some philosophers seem to want to define us by the minds with which we think or by the bodies with which we sense. Nietzsche addresses this issue in On the Prejudices of Philosophers, but I do not take from my reading of this section a clear understanding of what he believes. He points out that Shopenhauer believed that the only thing of which we can be completely certain is the will, but then takes great pains to show that even the will is very complex in its modes of existence. Of which part can we be certain? To this question he does not seem to provide an answer. Are each of us as individuals examples of separate and distinct wills, or is existence itself simply a result of the will to exist? Is our consciousness, our sense of identity and separateness from the rest of the world a result of our own personal will, or the result of some indivisible will for many consciousnesses to exist and believe themselves separate and distinct? Are our drives the result of a will to be driven, and does that will to be driven originate in our personal consciousness or is it received from the will of existence? What of our higher purpose? Is that a result of our will to serve some purpose? Or a will of the purpose to be served? As you can see, I have a great deal of questions for Nietzsche with this respect, and while at moments I felt as though I understood his meaning, understood how he would treat these issues, I find myself ultimately at a loss.

Without understanding how Nietzsche treats these issues, I have a difficult time understanding what his premises are for values and ethics. If the basis of his ethics is that each person should discover for him/herself their higher purpose, their own virtue which is separate and distinct from the virtues of others, then it would seem that there can be no hard rules whatsoever for human behavior. I understand this as his basis for a rejection of morality, but I am unclear on what he believes is the source of this higher purpose. Can this innate purpose express itself in some as moralists? Can it express itself in some as murderers? Can we ever know anything with any certainty about anyone else, or about even ourselves?

I appreciate Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation as useful tools for personal growth, but I ultimately feel as though he is at once too hesitant to make claims about what values exist aside from those the “overman” is to create for himself and too eager to criticize the values that have thus far been created or recognized by humanity. Perhaps I am too great a coward to be a “free” spirit, but I believe that values exist to be discovered, not created. I believe that the phenomena of consciousness provides us with the impression that we are separate and distinct entities, when we are in fact simply a part of existence as it experiences itself. Love, or life-energy, is the most fundamental of values as I understand them, and as individuals, our greatest goal should be to act in such a way that we love all of existence to the best of our ability. Love as it expresses itself in human relations would be very much like Nietzschian friendship, and one would do well to love oneself by undergoing something akin to Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation. I believe that all persons do at any given time the best they know how to do, but we are given opportunities to expand this capacity. Fear is how we react to the belief that we are separate from the rest of existence when we believe that the rest of existence will deprive us of having our needs met, and it is fear that prevents us from expanding our capacity to live well when we are presented with the opportunity. I do not believe in black-and-white morality, right or wrong, I believe only in degrees of lovingness. The more concerned we are with ourselves, the greater our fear and mistrust of the world around us will be, and the more afraid we are, the less loving will our actions be, both towards others and ourselves. I do not believe that we can separate what is good for ourselves from what is good for the rest of existence, as we are not separate from existence, and to the extent that we love, we will enjoy the benefits of love. To the extent that we withhold our love, we will suffer the lack of love, as will the world around us. As Nietzschian friends, we have an obligation to help others to broaden their horizons wherever we are capable to do so, and sometimes the most loving, the friendliest (in the Nietzschian sense, of course), thing we can do for a person is to leave him/her alone.

I do not know how best to resolve these beliefs with those we’ve encountered in Nietzsche’s work. It seems that Nietzsche believes strongly in the limitations that individuality imposes upon human beings, and the freedom of will would be one such area. Every individual, he seems to say, is a complex interweaving of physical, social, and psychological phenomena. He seems to call individuals to explore themselves for some defining attribute or purpose so as to gain an understanding of what to do with life. Through the stages of self-transformation, a person will ideally take the best of his society and the best of himself to synthesize some worthwhile cause to call his virtue, at which he will point all of his strength. The strongest individuals will be the most free from hindrances to this goal, though they will not necessarily be any more free in terms of choosing who they get to be. The weaker individuals will be constrained in their efforts to exert power over the world around them, and will often squander their lives chasing whichever wild goose seems to be most within reach at any given moment. In this understanding of things, Nietzsche’s view on freedom would seem to be something akin to the idea that the most strongly-willed people will be most free to achieve greatness, and those who are a confusion of weaker drives will not achieve much.

Becoming the Overman: Nietzsche’s Path to Transformation

Nietzsche’s transformation includes three main stages: the camel stage of putting into traditional values into action; the lion stage of challenging and overcoming useless or obsolete values and replacing those with new values; and the child stage of living the new values. Those who are not already capable of effectively handling their daily lives cannot hope to transform themselves by these processes. Those who have fully developed and become competent individuals, though, can take on these processes of transformation to rise above the standard level of functioning and become creators. When a person is ready to take on such transformation, they are ready to enter the camel stage.

The camel stage is presumably called such because it is a long journey. When a person has developed into an adult, they may have already begun this process of taking on the values of their culture and society. In the camel stage, a person works towards perfecting their ability to live according to these values and take them on as a sort of second nature. Living deliberately and making informed, conscious decisions, as opposed to simply reacting and responding to the world thoughtlessly or carelessly, develops a person such that they are disciplined and able to apply themselves to life. When the person has learned to rely on self-discipline to live intentionally, they become ready to challenge their traditional values in the lion stage of development.

The lion is a fierce and wild animal capable of taking on opponents as fierce and dangerous. The lion challenges what Nietzsche calls the dragon, traditional values. Having lived by these values, the person can make decisions about what is practical and reasonable and what aids or inhibits their ability to live as they want to. This can be called the “free-spirit metamorphosis” because a self-sufficient person who has successfully embodied traditional values has reached a point at which they are able to view values critically and make informed choices about what should be valued. Persons who are not able to embody traditional values do not have a point of reference from which they can discern value. In the free-spirit metamorphosis, a person can revaluate, discarding values that are useless or obsolete and replacing those with values that serve the person’s drives more fully. When the person has parted with these useless values and created those that take him/her to where he/she wants to go, they are read to move on to the child stage.

The child stage is a time when the person is able to enjoy the fruit of their labor, so to speak. Having become disciplined and having created values that serve their higher purpose, the person can live by their values in a “lighthearted, carefree” way. The child is innocent and joyful and does not have to exert great effort to live by the values that have become second nature. The child is not concerned with social norms and is not reactive to the world around him/her, but rather acts on the world outside according to his/her values, embodying his/her virtue and following his/her own drives.

In order to make serious strides in my own character transformation, I believe that the most important tasks at hand include developing a mastery of traditional values and skills and gaining more extensive knowledge of the world around me and the people in it. I especially need to develop my skills in maintaining honest and open relations with my friends and acquaintances and my skills in fostering a sense of respect and compassion for the people around me. I also need to further my education, formal and otherwise, and further develop my level of self-discipline as it pertains to time management and the willingness to complete the tasks for which I am responsible.

My need to develop my skills in dealing with the people around me is apparent because I tend to withhold pertinent information about myself when dealing with my closest friends, specifically information about thoughts and feelings that bother me. In doing this, I fail to process my feelings, and those feelings eventually affect my attitude and my willingness to act reasonably towards the people and situations in my life. In most cases where I’ve acted on ideas that I’ve hidden from others, I’ve found undesirable consequences that might’ve been avoided if I’d have been willing to hear another perspective on the problems and proposed solutions. Similarly, failure to discuss my feelings with my friends leaves me with only my own perspective on the events and situations in my life, and gaining multiple perspectives usually inspires me to overcome pain. Finally, in being open and honest with my friends, I allow them to know me as I really am. Knowing me more fully, they are able to make better decisions regarding our friendship and be more effective as friends. My honesty and openness may also inspire them to be more open and honest about themselves, which would help me to know better how to treat them as friends. So far, in my relationships, I have become skilled in being very open and direct in my communications, but I still fall back on a failure to communicate at sensitive times, some of the times when I most need to discuss things. To this end, I could use improvement.

Another area of my personal relationships that could improve would be my willingness to treat the people in my life with respect and compassion. In most of my affairs, I am both able and willing to behave respectfully and compassionately, but this tends to fall apart in my relationships with members of the opposite sex. I view members of the opposite sex not by looking at who they are, but by looking at what they can do for me. I especially find myself interested in those who can provide relief from my emotional and physical intimacy needs. I am not, however, usually willing to put the effort into developing genuine emotional connections with my partners, though, and so I rely on physical intimacy to meet all of my intimacy needs. Coupled with my failure to meet emotional intimacy needs through friendship when I keep my friends at a distance, my reliance solely on physical intimacy with women would have me be something of a nymphomaniac, provided I could find a willing partner without all that effort of meeting and getting to know people. Essentially, I have reached a point at which I understand that my relation to the opposite sex is poorly founded, and I need to revaluate my approach to such relations with a greater emphasis on respect and appreciation and less emphasis on the needs that I have that I refuse to address myself. I also need to work on taking care of my own needs, wherever possible.

Finally, I need to further my education and master such disciplines as time-management and prioritization. My formal education is following a somewhat prescribed progression, but I can always pursue knowledge on my own time, as well. This would require better time management and prioritization, however. My natural tendency is toward entropy of the spirit. When I’m not at work or school, I usually spend my time “hanging out” with friends, “killing time.” It would do me well to work towards approaching work and school in such a way that I effectively manage my time in order to allow myself more of my own time. It would also do me well to strengthen my willingness to work towards personal goals of self-improvement in my own time rather than simply “killing time” until some entity outside of myself prompts me to work. By changing these things about myself, I would put myself in place to make a transition from Nietzsche’s camel stage of development into the lion stage, in which I could throw off those values that fail to serve my drive and create new values.

Two of the most significant obstacles to my own self-transformation include the fear of failure and established habits that lead in wrong directions. When I think of the ways that I could seek my highest love and the means to embody that in my life, I usually imagine that the process would require a lot of effort and a long-term commitment, so I become incredibly anxious about what a waste it would be to put a great deal of time and effort into the process only to fail. As I said in my answer to question two, I have a tendency to hang out with friends and kill time when I’m not at work or doing something for school. I often find that I want to simply “relax” when I’m not otherwise occupied, not devoting myself to my transformation when I have time of my own. The fact that I operate this way seems to have causes both in my laziness and in my ill-directed habits.

So my fear of failure is one of the most prominent obstacles in my self-transformation, but I believe that it draws force from other problems, as well. Part of my fear of failure includes the uncertainty of what exactly my highest drive is, or should be. I tend to fear that I will misinterpret my drives and make a significant investment of time and effort to something that doesn’t “pan out.” I also worry about whether or not I will properly understand the best ways to act on those drives such that I am actually moving in the right direction. There have been times in my past that I have felt that I was doing work to better incorporate my values into my living, only to discover later that I’d actually reinforced undesirable values. There have also been times when I felt as though certain values should be among my priorities, only to discover later that the values were void of some of the qualities I’d attributed to them. This seems to fit into the scheme of Nietzschian development, though, now that I think about it. I embraced values that I took from the society and culture around me and found them to be unfulfilling, and so had to replace them with something else. I do not claim to be a value-creator yet, but I’ve simply been searching so far, I suppose, for a set of traditional values that complement each other rather than work against each other. The idea that a failure to try is worse than an actual failure makes great sense and takes a lot of wind out of the “fear of failure” sail. There is much to be gained, I’m sure, in the processes of becoming and learning, regardless of whether or not I learn all that I hope to or become what I hope to be. If I learn nothing else, to learn that I do not want to become a certain type of person, or cannot become that person, will be valuable in narrowing my search for exactly whom I should become.

The other significant roadblock in my self-transformation is my set of established habits. As I said before, my natural tendency seems to be toward entropy of the spirit, and I often want to rest on my laurels and enjoy the fruits around me that seem fun. It’s a bit difficult to speak to this issue greatly in the midst of what is perhaps the busiest semester of my life, but in slower times I often find myself wasting time in front of a television or taking unnecessary naps. I smoke cigarettes and drink coffee excessively, and oftentimes both of those habits lend themselves well to doing nothing else other than sitting with friends, “talking shit.” I have established a very strong aversion to such pointless habits as drinking alcohol and engaging in other recreational drug use through membership in a 12-step fellowship. My involvement with that fellowship prompts me to work toward character development or self-transformation to a certain extent, but it only succeeds in doing so to the extent that I’m willing to allow it. One area in which I struggle to find willingness is the drive to enjoy meaningless relationships with members of the opposite sex. In times when I could be putting effort into doing the work that fulfills me, such as reading and writing or enjoying meaningful friendships, I find myself longing greatly to find “victims” or “volunteers” among the fairer sex. Though my exploits in this area are not so involved that I could consider myself promiscuous, the amount of time and energy that I devote are sufficient that I consider myself somewhat lecherous.

The solutions that I try to implement in these areas are very similar to those that I implemented in overcoming my willingness to subject myself to the pointlessness of drug use. I try to devote myself increasingly to meaningful endeavors, including school (15 semester hours), employment (~35 hours a week), 12-step recovery meeting attendance (at least 1 or 2 weekly), service to the recovery fellowship (positions such as Area Service Committee Vice Chair and Regional Service Conference Treasurer), sponsorship of newer members in the recovery community, building a website, writing poetry and stories, and, of course, seeking meaningful Platonic/Nietzschian friendships. Though being so busy helps greatly in my refrain from promiscuity, I have wondered about your suggestion of “Putting yourself in situations where you know those habits will lead to failure or pain is one way [to break a habit].” I wonder if I might be more willing to recognize the emptiness of sex without friendship if I were to engage in a streak of promiscuity that left me feeling hollow. The other solution that I’ve had in mind is to try to learn how to enjoy friendships with members of the opposite sex and intimate relationships that incorporate deep, honest communication. Whatever.

Designing a school for Nietzschian self-transformation would probably be somewhat costly. A great deal of effort would also be required to establish the institution, but the return on the initial investment would be great. Some of the main concerns of the institution would be recruitment, setting, educational programming, methods of instruction, and methods of evaluation.

One of the main concerns that I would have with a small, private school would be the issue of recruitment. With a limited enrollment, which might prove to be optimal for the type of school, it would be very important to ensure that all of the students in attendance merit the right to attend. Student in this facility should be intelligent and skilled in a well-rounded manner. It would be imprudent to recruit students who might require disproportionate levels of instruction and guidance, and students in this institution should be able to walk themselves through the stages of development to ensure that they are being true to their own drives and passions. The students will likely have demonstrated in their performance in traditional education a high level of ability, but it is also important that their abilities and discipline extend beyond scholastic endeavors. They might be able to demonstrate through their achievements with some religion or personal accomplishments both a willingness to advance themselves and a certain sense of disillusionment or dissatisfaction with tradition. Self-motivation would be important, as it would be pointless to attempt to instruct students without a drive to “go under and overcome.” If applicants can demonstrate that they fit those requirements, they might make worthwhile candidates for attendance at this school.

If I had unlimited resources to create private college, I would definitely situate that institution somewhere in Montana. I think that there is something about the majestic nature of wide-open space and freedom from the abundance of industry and technology that helps to inspire human creativity and passion. Nietzsche illustrated the value of solitude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra through Zarathustra’s trips to the mountain. Not only would my students experience some seclusion from society outside of the school, they would have the opportunity to experience solitude from the other students in private, self-contained rooms. Should they find it necessary to isolate themselves in their rooms for indefinite periods of time, they would have the opportunity to do so. The rooms would be like small apartments, but they would also have a cafeteria available for social and practical purposes. Social relations between the students would be encouraged, and the students would be encouraged to approach these relations with a great deal of integrity andauthenticity so as to gain the most from their relations with other seekers. They would also be encouraged to take both group and solitary outings into the wilderness for camping and other recreation so as to cultivate a relationship with the natural world around them and gain an understanding of what they believe about the world and their existence in it. Instructors would be nearly indistinguishable from students in their presence at the institution, living in the same quarters and following the same general guidelines and suggestions. Instructors would likely continue to grow through continued transformation of their own in their roles as such.

Educational programming in this institution would vary greatly from traditional forms. Instructors would hold a variety of seminars and group discussions on topics of their own choosing and scheduled according to convenience during the days of the week. Students would be able to choose from a weekly agenda the various seminars and discussion groups they wish to attend, and they would be free to attend as many or as few as they wish. Among the topics of discussion and presentation would be issues of traditional values, philosophical and theological treatises, contemporary social issues, and various topics in psychology, sociology, and history. Students with an interest in preparing presentations of their own could do so under the auspices of willing instructors with their consent.

The issues of educational programming and methods of instruction blend together to a certain extent. The instructors in the institution would work personally with students, and each instructor’s “case-load” should be as small as possible, perhaps as many as two or three students. Instructors would work very closely with the students as mentors, counselors, and leaders-by-example. The instructors would work with their respective students to explore issues of innate values and personal development. Students would be encouraged to meet with their instructors at least once weekly for at least an hour, but could make arrangements with the instructor to meet as often as necessary. Students would be encouraged also to work closely with other students wherever possible or desirable in aiding each others’ progress through Nietzschian friendship.

The final issue is that of evaluation. Given that the each student’s instructor would have the greatest understanding of the student’s particular standing and development in terms of character, the instructor and the student should work closely together in determining what sorts of accomplishments should be made before the student can begin to consider the idea of requesting formal evaluation. Formal evaluations would not attempt to “grade” the students’ performance, but rather would attempt simply to gauge whether or not the student has made sufficient progress to “graduate.” The student and the instructor would work together to give a formal presentation to a committee of other instructors, and perhaps non-participatory student witnesses, and the committee would discuss the presentation with the student and instructor, propose questions and commentary, and finally come to a decision by way of secret ballot as to whether or not they believe the student has made sufficient progress to complete their role as a student. Students might be encouraged to venture out into the world for anywhere from one to five years to apply their transformation to practical living and then return to the school to become instructors. Because it would do much good for the graduates to return to the school as instructors, it’s likely that the employment span of any given instructor might be relatively brief, i.e. five or ten years, perhaps. Past instructors might retain a status on a sort of council or board to help the school with administrative and decision-making issues so that any person who has been a part of the institution would remain such for as long as is practical and fitting.

This school would not do a great deal to provide the capitalist machine with gears or axles, but it would do a great deal to provide humanity with worthwhile human beings. Though perhaps not an express purpose of this institution, it would be nice to think that by aiding people in overcoming themselves, this institution might instigate dramatic changes in the surrounding society and culture, taking power from the materialist, commercial forces that guide us and reminding people to be humans before they die. On the other hand, there’s the risk that this institution would result in the severe depression and disillusionment of its students who see what an ugly society we’ve created for ourselves thus far. No matter how hopeless the project of overthrowing social conventions might seem, though, Nietzsche (and Schroeder) seem to argue that failure is preferable than a failure to try, so if the institution prompts students to try to make serious changes, it will certainly be worthwhile to at least that end.

Age Is a Number


On my eighteenth birthday, I visited Chicago with my family. My family was going to visit Navy Pier and the downtown business area. I wanted to take advantage of the trip, however, to visit an ex-girlfriend at the University of Chicago. Jenny was the first girl who’d ever been my “girlfriend” for more than a couple of weeks. We met when we studied together at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois. She grew up in Chicago, and I grew up in Paxton, a small town one hundred twenty miles south of the city. I left the academy while we were together, though, and we tried to maintain the relationship long distance. We’d thought that we would last forever, and I’d even given her a “promise” ring for Christmas in 1997. We’d been together for nearly four months by that time, but we wouldn’t last through the fifth, as the distance failed to make her heart grow fonder, I did have a hard time with it and I did find myself looking up sites like go binder for advice during that time. I was still friendly with her, though, so I let her know that I would be in town on my birthday, and we made plans to meet for a cup of coffee.

At the time, I lived alone with my father, who’d been divorced from my mother for thirteen or fourteen years. My father and I had for a long time related to each other as equals, for the most part, so it was not too strange for me that he’d gone to California for the month of December and trusted me to handle myself fairly well. We were almost more like roommates than father and son, oftentimes, and I’d felt a fairly strong sense of independence living with him for the year prior to my eighteenth birthday.

Before living with my father, I’d attended the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois for a little more than a year. This academy was a residential facility that was structured much like a college campus, and students were largely responsible for themselves, though they would always be held accountable to the rules of the institution, academic and residential. I managed to get into some trouble while I was studying there. My friends and I were caught a couple of times with alcohol. Some people think that the drinking age should be lowered. “American teens, unlike their European peers, don’t learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation.” (Newsweek, May 29, 1995 v125 n22 p14). This was certainly true of my friends and me. A big part of our urge to party had to do with our excitement about doing something forbidden. We felt as though we could become more adult, more grown-up by smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. I would like to think that, if such age restrictions weren’t so rigid, I might not have felt so inclined to jeopardize my educational opportunities simply for the chance to feel a little older.

Ultimately, I was put into a position in which I had to choose between studying at the academy or smoking cigarettes, so I moved in with my father. Before the academy, I’d spent nearly all of my life living with my mother, the single parent of six children. Mom spent most of her time when we were children working to provide for us, so often we were responsible for each other. So, even before living alone for the month of December in 1998, I’d always been fairly independent.

On the drive to Chicago that morning, we stopped at the Cracker Barrel for breakfast. We sat in the smoking section, and I smoked a cigarette in front of my mother for the first time in my life. I’d been smoking fairly regularly for two or three years by that time, but I’d always been very careful to hide this fact from my mother, a reformed smoker and a registered nurse. No longer did I have to hide, though. I could legally purchase the cigarettes, and though my mother could certainly disapprove of my choice to smoke, she would no longer attempt to prevent me from doing so.

When we arrived in Chicago, we parked the car in an all-day lot, so I wouldn’t be able to use it to drive down to my ex-girlfriend’s campus without paying the all-day rate. I was a big boy now, though, so I’d just have to learn to use the Chicago Transit Authority’s means of transportation. I made plans with my family to meet for dinner at 6 o’clock and walked up the stairs to the el train. I’d only been on the el once before, when I was significantly younger, and I had been with my family at the time. I approached the ticket booth by myself, and it seemed to have a dark, dirty, and lonely feel to it. I asked the woman in the booth what the best way to reach the University of Chicago would be. She wasn’t very friendly when she told me where I should get off the train, so I didn’t ask her to repeat it though I wasn’t entirely sure what she had said. I thought that I had a general feel for the way it sounded, so I’d probably know it when I heard it. I boarded the next train and rode until we approached a stop that sounded vaguely familiar.

The doors slid shut behind me when I stepped off the train, and the train pulled away just as quickly as it had stopped. I walked down the stairs to the street and tried to figure out how I was going to find out how to get to where I needed to go. I looked down the street in either direction and saw only the barrenness of the inner city. I could only surmise that I was no longer downtown and not yet near campus. I noticed after a moment, though, an office for the Chicago Transit Authority. Perhaps whoever was working would be more polite or helpful than the woman who took my fare for the el. It couldn’t hurt to find out, anyway.

I opened the heavy green door and walked into the dingy transit office. Behind a thick pane of glass sat a couple of obese women who looked like they may be in their late forties. I approached the glass in front of one of the women. She finished what she was saying to her coworker before turning and asking me how she could help me. I asked her how I might get to campus, so she handed me a bus schedule. She tried to explain to me the general vicinity in which the campus was located and told me that I might be able to catch a bus soon out front. She was slightly more helpful, but she still spoke quickly, assuming that I knew more than I did about the city. I thanked her and stepped out of the office.

I looked eagerly up and down the same barren street hoping to see a bus. Among the things she’d told me, I understood, at the very least, that I would catch my bus on that same side of the street, so when I saw a bus coming, I didn’t bother trying to figure out whether or not it was the right one, I just boarded. The bus didn’t have many passengers on board, just a few young black kids in the back and an older Asian man and woman sitting near the middle of the bus. I took a seat halfway back to the Asian couple and frantically studied the bus schedule, hoping to figure out when I should get off the bus. Just as I’d done with the train, I just got off the bus when it felt like a good time to do so.

I examined the map in the bus schedule and looked at my surroundings, and I deduced that I was somewhere near Hyde Park. I trekked through the park and into a business district. I saw a well-dressed man standing on a corner and thought maybe he would be able to help me to find my way, so I approached him. He began talking before I could, and he asked me if I was registered to vote yet. I said that I wasn’t and he began telling me that he was running for office. He was running for some sort of local office, and though I tried to explain to him that I lived more than a hundred miles away, he still insisted that I fill out whatever form it was that he was having people fill out.

Though I liked to consider myself to be fairly well-educated for my age and aware of current events, I really felt a bit of disregard at the time for politics. “18-34 year-olds are most interested in practical solutions to society’s problems.” (US Newswire, Dec 5, 2000 p1008340n0132). I really felt at the time that the state of our society was pretty sad, but I didn’t have a lot of faith in government or politicians to do anything about it. Turning eighteen didn’t make meany more interested in the idea of voting, but I bec
ame able
overnight to do so. In the five years since then, I feel slightly more inclined to participate in the process, but I actually feel like I have an understanding now of the problems that stand in the way of my comfort levels with voting. In order to be more comfortable participating in the process, I would have to feel as though I knew much more about what is actually going on. Throughout my education as a minor, I was bombarded with the rhetoric of “every vote counts” and “vote early, vote often.” We were instructed as to the importance of involvement in the democratic process, but we were not greatly exposed to the issues. If we were instructed more thoroughly in current events, I think that we’d be much more prepared to take part in our own government when the time came. It seems silly that we deny so many young people the right to vote when such a significant portion of the adult citizenship has the right and ignores it. I shook my head and filled out the form that the politician asked me to fill out as I asked him for directions. He gave me a vague idea of how to get to the campus, so I thanked him and continued my journey.

The neighborhood that I was in didn’t seem too bad, but I was pretty worried that my nervousness about being lost would be mistaken for naïve small-town worry about being accosted in “the big city,” so I tried to walk as brazenly as I could. After walking for what seemed like forever, I started to feel like I was heading in the right direction. I was through Hyde Park, and there were some streets with businesses and such, so I was feeling much more comfortable. I’d seen all sorts of “street people,” homeless folks and the like, walking through Hyde Park. I saw them sitting on park benches, smoking cigarettes, and walking down the sidewalk or in the street carrying 120-proof brown-bag lunches. None of these men were minors, and yet they didn’t seem to have the ability to handle their rights to drink and smoke. They didn’t seem to be very responsible. I had only just turned eighteen and had already decided that I did not want the consumption of alcohol to be a very big part, or a part at all, of my life, and it would be three years still before I would earn the legal right to drink. These men had obviously been old enough for some time to drink, and it seemed as though that was just about all that they had in their lives.

Before long I reached the dorm for which I’d been searching, and Jenny and I made our way to a small restaurant where we had a light meal and coffee. We talked about how life had been for each of us in the last year. She was in the midst of her first year in college and I in my last year of high school. We compared notes and discussed ideas about what we might do with our lives, and I soon realized that I should head back downtown quickly so as to only be two hours late meeting my family. I walked with Jenny back to her dorm and found a bus that was headed downtown with her help.

It was dark when I made it back downtown, but I was able to find the restaurant in which we were supposed to meet without too much trouble. Unfortunately, though, my family was not there. The restaurant we’d chosen had more of a bar atmosphere than I’d expected, and when I went in to try to find them, I felt almost drunk just being there. It was dimly lit and very smoky. There was little walking room between the bar seating on the right and the booths along the wall on the left. The seats in the booths had high backs to keep things private, and there were light fixtures hanging from the ceiling above each booth. The lights were fairly bright inside each booth, and walking down the cramped aisle, looking into each booth, I had to adjust my eyes in each booth to try to see if the people sitting there were the people for whom I’d been looking. All of these efforts were to no avail, and it occurred to me that because some of my younger cousins were with us, my family had probably opted for a more family-oriented atmosphere. I left the restaurant wondering where I might go from there.

I stopped into a gas station at one point to stock up on cigarettes. While I was in there, I realized that I could buy a lottery ticket if I wanted to. That had never happened before. I plopped down a dollar on the counter and showed my ID to the clerk, who almost smiled when he realized that it was my birthday. He didn’t, though, and he tore one of the scratch-off tickets from the long roll. I scratched it right there at the counter and didn’t win anything. I was a bit confused. I didn’t know for sure whether I had been protected until that day from being taken by the gambling industry, or if I had been protected from the possibility that I might win and have no idea what to do with the money. I took solace in the fact that I hadn’t won, as my youthful naiveté would not be strained by the responsibilities of handling such a great financial influx.

I wandered around downtown in search of the parking lot in which we’d left the cars, but I soon found that each back-street had three or four dimly-lit parking lots in as many blocks, nearly all of them looking like the one in which we’d parked. Becoming somewhat desperate as I pondered sleeping on a park bench like the many homeless men that I passed in my hike, I decided to call Jenny to see if she might be able to offer me any assistance. Amazingly enough, when I called her she explained that my mother had just called minutes before I did. Jenny told me the names of the streets near where Mom was waiting. I made my way to that general area and found my family waiting anxiously. For all of my independence, I imagined that it might be a while before I grew into the rights and responsibilities that I’d inherited overnight.

I didn’t smoke any cigarettes in the car on the ride home. I was relieved to be surrounded, once again, by the people whom I love and care about. Turning eighteen allowed me certain “adult” privileges, but my experience seemed to say that independence—adulthood—need not mean living without the help or support from others. Becoming an adult allows me greater freedom and responsibility, and learning to handle either didn’t come overnight.



When a person embraces true atheism, they embrace the belief that there is no God, and therefore the belief that anyone who believes in the existence of any sort of God must be wrong. It is important to discuss the issue of defining God, because for all of the possible things that God could be that do not exist—for example: if God is defined as a seven-headed beast on the dark side of the moon who controls the Universe, then I would certainly agree that God does not exist—there are an infinite number of ways to define a God that does exist.

My own understanding of God begins simply with the fact that I live and breathe from one day to the next, and the life that I have was not something that I could give to myself. As a result of the fact that my parents were living, even though they had not created themselves, I was born. None of us has anything without the life that came to us, a gift from fate, chance, random accident, destiny, the Universe, or “God, the life-giver.” And just saying that “God gave me this life” does not necessarily imply that God is intelligent or all-powerful or the God of Abraham or the Father of Jesus or some Great Judge who will condemn me for doing anything that makes the Pope feel uncomfortable or any of that stuff. It means simply this: it is a function of the universe to provide life to all that lives, whether it is strictly through physics and chemistry or by the results of plans made by some Grand Architect who exists outside of the universe (space and time). I live and breathe and eat food and fuck and have an intellect and a capacity for reason, and all of these things came to me from somewhere else, and I have at my disposal the entire world around me with which I can make choices about what I will do with my life. I personally define God as the agent responsible for giving me all that I have, including this Universe to play in, so NO ONE can say that God does not exist, because my existence verifies the fact that something caused me to exist (that infinite string of events leading up to my birth and the existence of the universe in which it occurred). I believe that God is loving and caring because love, which can be defined as simply ‘life energy’ came to me and made me a living being, and care, e.g. air to breathe and food to eat, etc., also are here as a result of those same processes that are responsible for my presence in the first place. Again, I reiterate that this has nothing to do with whether or not God is conscious or aware of what he has done or whether or not this thing was planned or impromptu, but the world and this Universe exist and I in it, so I am supremely confident in saying that I have been loved (given life) and cared for (given the means to sustain life) by some agent or force, even if that is simply chance or fate, and I call that agent or force God, and regardless of what I call it, it still exists.

Finally, to take it a little bit further, all that love (life energy—not only given to me in the form of the fact that I am alive and continue to live, but also in the willingness to live that comes to me when I enjoy life, often the result of other people around me loving me, agents carrying out God’s will that I be loved) and all that care (all those things that keep me going from one day to the next) are things that I can choose to deny or reject. Food is constantly available to me and I can choose to not do the work to get it, and other people can make the choice to prevent me from getting it. In both cases, God’s care is present but I am not receiving it as a result of human choices. All humans are capable of being agents of God’s will (i.e. loving and caring) or of being hindrances to God’s will (esp. self-centeredness that stands in the way of our ability to love ourselves and/or others)…we have the choice to either aid the Universe in giving and nurturing life or to prevent life from blooming and destroy life. The rest of life in the Universe seems to be capable of acting only in life-supporting courses of action, and even where some life is destroyed and/or harmed, it only serves the purpose of continuing life in some other form (lion kills deer, eats dear, lives for another day). Humans have the capacity to choose a course of action that harms/destroys life without adding to life in some other form. I firmly believe that it is a function of all life to be loving and caring and act in ways that add to life and allow it to flourish, and even humans have that drive (conscience), but we are also capable of subverting that drive in self-interest, thinking that by taking and hoarding and preventing life from flourishing we can control it and make it ours and not ever lose it. This is insanity—we fret about whether or not we will get what we need to survive in a world where more than we could ever need is available, but our desires tell us that we need more and we must escape the cycle of death and rebirth and gain immortality by assuming control of a universe that abhors internal controls. We are incredibly foolish in our failure to realize that we will die just as all other forms of life do, and our death will provide life elsewhere in the universe, both through our organic bodies that will decompose and rejoin the cycle of life and through the repercussions of our loving actions that have the potential to encourage (human) life to flourish long after we’ve gone, if we’ve done things during our time that are such testaments to love and care and good will. Our foolishness prevents us from recognizing that our absurd fear of dying (more self-centeredness: we try to place conditions on God’s love for us—”if God really loved me, he wouldn’t let me die/suffer”) cause much more death and destruction than any natural chain of events ever has. Our souls, I believe, are the agents that make the choice between love and self-centeredness, thus to follow a spiritual path allows us to live in loving, caring ways, instead of the self-centered ways marked by fear and anxiety that were more responsible for any pain and suffering we endured than God would’ve ever laid at our feet. The difference between gratitude and entitlement become clear: those with gratitude are content to be able to live another day and take advantage of all that they have; those who feel a sense of entitlement experience anger and resentment about the fact that they must die someday and because they do not have all that they want. When I am grateful for what I have, I am able to use it responsibly, but when I feel that I am entitled to have my desires met, I become chained to my desires and I suffer greatly.

I believe that we all must make an effort to understand the universe if we are going to try to live well in it. The words “God” and “Higher Power” are simply very convenient ways to convey the idea that the universe provides us with love and care. Our failure to recognize this fact is often the source of pain, suffering, and sorrow. Not everyone has to find a “God” to believe in. But if we all would make a point of recognizing that the universe supplies us with all that we need until we pass on, we will be much more capable of accepting the love and care that the universe provides. We will be much better at using that love and care responsibly to nourish ourselves, spiritually and materially. We will be much more willing to pass the rest along and use our lives to add to the strength of the love and care in the universe, instead of detracting from it.