A man without a philosophy of life
Sunday afternoon Erling said, "Early this morning I got a little extra sleep, as the ladies present recommended me to do, because Erling from Rjukan was sticking out here and there under the disguise. When I woke up I took a walk with Julie and Adda. We spoke earnestly about life, which they assumed I must know all about. I recommended they read the history of the Roman Empire, Josephus, Snorri Sturluson, the [p. 246] Old Testament, Fröding, Shakespeare, and The Good Soldier Schweik. They didn't think much of that. They wanted to hear what I thought of life. They wanted my life philosophy, God bless them. I have none. Except that one bends to the conditions of life because one must, and that sounds very simple. Concerning a philosophy of life I have this in common with most people, namely that—at least to themselves—they acknowledge they have none. Contrary to those others, I'm not embarrassed to admit this fact. Once a man or woman has matriculated it would be considered a degradation were it discovered either lacked a life philosophy. But, no matter.
"Many are of the opinion that a life philosophy is something necessary to a respectable individual. They believe others have one and try to make out they themselves are furnished with this spiritual help. Not long ago, in the dining car on the train from Drammen to Kongsberg, someone asked what my life philosophy was, in the midst of pork and beans. With a life philosophy they must have something vague in mind, a sort of belief in some system which they could use as a sort of guide-line, or perhaps a starting point.
"A person with a life philosophy accepts or rejects what he sees in order to create or hold on to a definite plan. For this he is rewarded with words of praise and honor—upright, straightforward, incorruptible—words that sound rather silly when used about others, who are supposed to be dishonest, disjointed, and together or individually downright crooked.
"People with a life philosophy are apt to look down on others who also have one, because they cannot accomplish the impossible: to have an identical one.
"Generally speaking, it would take about a dozen years for one person to define his own philosophy; from there on he might begin to define a few million different views of others.
"It is common to all life philosophies that they make the possessor the epicenter, with his friends being mere adjuncts, and that without this epicenter all philosophies would be crazy, and craziest of all those that pride themselves on being positive. We do not know sufficiently all the elements in any one life philosophy, we do not know what new elements might arise to tumble the whole, and we know nothing about what old elements we must wash off one day. Life doesn't care a hoot what philosophy one uses for it, nor has the Sphinx changed one iota because some slaves lost a few of their lice in his hair.
"Less imposing, but more honest, it would be to say: 'I act as far as I can according to certain simple experiences and inner directives which I [p. 247] hope and believe are right.' Life philosophies have an odor of bad conscience in bad disguise.
"With this I have made myself unacceptable in all life-philosophy company, which undoubtedly I was before and which pleases me. Let me add only one more thing that would make me, if possible, still more unacceptable in that company: people with a life philosophy are so boring I can't endure them. This is something all know but keep quiet about. Who knows, perhaps life's meaning is that we should be bored and sad, but I will have no part of it. Life philosophies resemble most of all frozen flowers on a grave. Religious, ethical, political—all kinds of life philosophies stink up our atmosphere from childhood on. We are not supposed to enter life, and be of it; we are taken by the ear and lead outside, there to shiver and freeze, with no other occupation than to peek through a keyhole at some nonsense placed there for us to look at.
"Like most others I have been partly forced and have partly chosen to assume a rather definite position in regard to life phenomena as they appear within and outside myself—a life attitude, a course of conduct—and I wish I could persuade some of the doubters that this is good enough. Even if they should discover that the term life philosophy in itself is ridiculous as a life confirmation, and its consequent life denial, it might help them to breathe a little easier. If one wants to dress up, one need not necessarily put on a lead hat. All of us are forced to live as opportunists, and our so-called life philosophies are only breastworks for weaklings. They can peek over those breastworks and assume a threatening attitude or throw rotten eggs if their group is large enough. This is called the fight against all evil of our time, fearlessly and openly. God and everyone—not least the former—are well aware that even in the most bigoted family—and perhaps first and foremost there because its members are more interested in being considered morally upright than actually being such—the thought turns to a doctor or a quack if an unmarried daughter gets pregnant, and they will seek out the doctor or the quack regardless of their life philosophy, which still remains applicable to others. For their own case is special, something they hadn't taken into account when they took on their life philosophy. Individuals have built life philosophies on the theories of evolution, which must imply a knowledge as to where they lead; but even if one knew this one must build on what people are today, not what they have been, or might become. An evolutionary life philosophy, then, can absolutely not be defended, and the same is true of religion, which also, incidentally, no one ever tries to follow. But every great vision, whether evolutionary or religious, can of course be registered as valuable, if only esthetically. [p. 248] Perhaps we might say that a life philosophy is a guide-line, tied to hypothetical phenomena outside ourselves, and always an unverifiable construction, or a synthesis of many or all unverifiable constructions.
"We hear enough about life philosophies that are supposed to be common for whole nations, but if we investigate them closer we discover this is not true. The Nazis adhered to a doctrine called obedience to the Fuhrer, but outside of this they could think and believe whatever they chose, indeed, did so. Under the Nazis, freedom of religion was absolute, with the one restriction that all must acknowledge the authority of the state, a condition existing also in the Roman Empire. There have never been so many life philosophies as under Hitler."
Erling discovered with surprise that a full glass of red wine stood beside him; he emptied it and continued: "My attitude to life, and especially the human existence, is regulated by the fact that here we are, and here we must make out as best we can. The surest way to gain permission to live the way we wish, is to grant others the same right—and to remember it well when we use this right. This demands uninterrupted inner guard, because it is difficult for us to let others live the way they want. We have a dark urge to force others to accept our views, our desires, our experiences—as I mentioned earlier, undoubtedly because we (and not a bad idea at that) are not too sure of ourselves. We must keep this guard constantly alert within us: Why do I object when he or she does this or that? Does it actually concern me? Does it hurt me? We must always force ourselves back to this one thing: Everything is permitted so long as it doesn't interfere with others. I have, without success, tried to live up to such an ideal, but ideals too must be unattainable, or one might come to rest when the demands have been met. When well-meaning people have tried to create new moral laws to replace the religious ones, they have done so because Christianity's demands could not be met. The line of thought is on a low plane. I try to let others live as they wish, undisturbed by me, and do not forget that this requires great practice and uninterrupted effort as long as one lives. Let this then be my life philosophy, since I am not allowed to appear without a label."
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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