I am not exactly sure how I got to know the work of Nikos Kazantzakis. It might be through some letters of Lawrence Durrell or Henry Miller. In either case, I am pretty sure the first thing I found out about Kazantzakis is – the inscription from his grave. It really struck me with it’s brilliance, so I guess that was the invitation to explore his works more in depth. (Surely, Kazantzakis is one of the giants of modern Greek literature, possibly mostly know for his novel Zorba the Greek.)
Kazantzakis was also a philosopher, and was influenced by the writings of Nietzsche and Bergson, and the philosophies of Christianity, Marxism and Buddhism. So this interesting mix of influences (Christianity, Marxism and Buddhism – how good that might be?) was another of invitations to explore his worldviews.
Kazantzakis published a really thin volume called Ascesis: The Saviors of God. The subtitle is Spiritual Exercises. The book contains something like commandments, or simply rules that uncover Kazantzakis’ philosophical worldview and answer the question about the meaning of life.
Bellow I will drop some of the most interesting places from the Ascesis, that really knocked me down with their purity of observation.
We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life. As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of life is death! But as soon as we are born we begin the struggle to create, to compose, to turn matter into life; we are born in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of ephemeral life is immortality! In the temporary living organism these two streams collide: (a) the ascent toward composition, toward life, toward immortality; (b) the descent toward decomposition, toward matter, toward death.
1. To see and accept the boundaries of the human mind without vain rebellion, and in these severe limitations to work ceaselessly without protest – this is where man’s first duty lies… I recognize these limitations, I accept them with resignation, bravery, and love, and I struggle at ease in their closure, as though I were free… This is how, with clarity and austerity, you may determine the omnipotence of the mind amid appearances and the incapacity of the mind beyond appearances – before you set out for salvation. You may not otherwise be saved.
2. The mind is patient and adjusts itself, it likes to play; but the heart grows savage and will not condescend to play; it stifles and rushes to tear apart the nets of necessity…. “Heart, naive heart, become serene, and surrender!”…Yes, the purpose of Earth is not life, it is not man. Earth has existed without these, and it will live on without them. They are but the ephemeral sparks of its violent whirling.
3. The heart cannot adjust itself. Hands beat on the wall outside its dungeon, it listens to erotic cries that fill the air. Then, swollen with hope, the heart responds by rattling its chains; for a brief moment it believes that its chains have turned to wings. But swiftly the heart falls wounded again, it loses all hope, and is gripped once more by the Great Fear. The moment is ripe: leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward, take the third step. Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope. This is the third duty….I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.
The rest of the text is really a snippet of Kazantzakis’ cosmogony; how everything on this world is inter-connected, dependent on rest of the parts and how everything is organized into an eternal chaos.
Gaze on the dark sea without staggering, confront the abyss every moment without illusion or impudence or fear. Without illusion, impudence, or fear. But this is not enough; take a further step: battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.
What is meant by happiness? To live every unhappiness. What is meant by light? To gaze with undimmed eyes on all darknesses.
The essence of our God is STRUGGLE. Pain, joy, and hope unfold and labor within this struggle, world without end…. What is the purpose of this struggle? This is what the wretched self-seeking mind of man is always asking, forgetting that the Great Spirit does not toil within the bounds of human time, place, or casualty.
The Great Spirit is superior to these human questionings. It teems with many rich and wandering drives which to our shallow minds seem contradictory; but in the essence of divinity they fraternize and struggle together, faithful comrades-in-arms.
This indestructible prehuman rhythm is the only visible journey of the Invisible on this earth. Plants, animals, and men are the steps which God creates on which to tread and to mount upward.
Our profound human duty is not to interpret or to cast light on the rhythm of God’s arch, but to adjust, as much as we can, the rhythm of our small and fleeting life to his.
It is not God who will save us – it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.
But all our struggle may go lost. If we tire, if we grow faint of spirit, if we fall into panic, then the entire Universe becomes imperiled.
Life is a crusade in the service of God. Whether we wished to or not, we set out as crusaders to free – not the Holy Sepulchre – but that God buried in matter and in our souls.
“Burn your ideas, smash your thoughts! Whoever has found the solution cannot find me.”
We must be ready at any moment to give up our lives for his sake. For life is not a goal; it is also an instrument, like death, like beauty, like virtue, like knowledge. Whose instrument? Of that God who fights for freedom.