In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we are given a picture of two men’s experiences of life in Africa. Soon after Marlow is told that Kurtz has died, he summarized his view of life in one long paragraph (p. 70-71). The experiences and reactions of Marlow and Mr. Kurtz that are discussed in this paragraph can be understood as being a temptation towards nihilism.
Lewis writes that infinite joy is offered to us, but we reject it for silly things. How do we do this? Why do we do it? Socrates says that people act unvirtuously only because they act in ignorance. Maybe we do not understand how joy in Christ is supposed to work. We try to understand it, but can’t quite grasp it.
A primary theme in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche is the duality of master and slave morality. His master morality can be summarized in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s declaration in Self-Reliance that “virtue is Height.” Nietzsche says that slave morality is essentially a psychological trick used by the lower castes of society to take revenge on the nobility for being better than they are. It can be seen that Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is an adherent of master morality rather than slave morality.
This is not about anyone in particular, but is meant to portray a common theme of life.
He told me the story of what is happening in his life, and here I feel an emptiness in my stomach. I am no longer with him, but I am the only one here, solitary in my room, curled on the floor, wielding a wrath and grief against the Evil One who did this and the Divine One who allowed it. His words brought me some unspeakable anguish that raises a mountainous cry that can never be heard by men. It twists my soul into unretractable knots, surges of anger and pain and confusion and hatred and tormented helplessness and blazing hopelessness. My heart does not ache metaphorically. A passion rears large, then is turned to passionate defeat by the thought, “This passion can do nothing, and is felt in vain.” A tremendous, unconquerable spurning in my side to change the past, to pummel the evil thing that has happened until it is dead and then keep beating it over and over until my rage has passed in twenty lifetimes, and knowing I can’t do that and it will happen to millions of others until the End.
Many philosophers have searched for a single motivating factor in humans, or one foundational attribute of human psychology that can explain all of humanity’s actions. One possibility put forward is rational self-interest. This theory claims that a person always acts in their own self-interest, and they discern their own self-interest through their use of reason and rationality. This is an especially common assumption in economics. The theory can explain some phenomena, but it ultimately fails. It is apparent from everyday experience that people do not act rationally. Even if they know a certain path of action will benefit them the most, such as studying for an exam, people sometimes choose to go to a party instead. Furthermore, in Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky observes that people have a deep need to feel that they have free will. If a person’s rationality proves to him that he has no free will, then rationality and self-interest will be in direct conflict. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche calls free will, “The hundred-times-refuted theory” (§18). Therefore, a person is forced to reject either rationality or self-interest. This conclusively proves that people cannot be motivated by rational self-interest, as it results in a contradiction.