Milgram's experiment is rightly famous, but does it show what we think it does?
- In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram was sure that good, law-abiding Americans would never be able to follow orders like the Germans in the Holocaust.
- His experiments proved him spectacularly wrong. They showed just how many of us are willing to do evil if only we're told to by an authority figure.
- Yet, parts of the experiment were set up in such a way that we should perhaps conclude something a bit more nuanced.
Holding a clipboard and wearing a lab coat makes you a very powerful person. Add in a lanyard and a confident voice, and you're pretty much in Ocean's Eleven.
Though we believe ourselves to be contrarians, most of us like to obey authority. We answer questions, help with any number of tasks, and obey commands unthinkingly. The vast majority of the time, this is relatively harmless and even requisite for a functioning society, but it can also lead humanity to very dark places.
It could happen here
As we've seen with Asch's experiments on conformity, the post-World War II community was determined to answer how and why the Holocaust took place. Just after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the American media and public came to see German society as some special kind of monster in just how willing they were to follow orders unthinkingly, at odds with any sense of duty or morality.
Into this came Stanley Milgram. In 1961, Milgram set out a series of experiments to show, in his view, how the German people were more susceptible to authoritarianism than Americans. Milgram believed, as a lot of people did, that the American people would never be capable of such horrendous evil.
The experiment was to be set up in two stages: the first would be on American subjects, to gauge how far they would obey orders; the second would be on Germans, to prove how much they differed. The results stopped Milgram in his tracks.
Shock, shock, horror
Milgram wanted to ensure that his experiment involved as broad and diverse a group of people as possible. In addition to testing the American vs. German mindset, he wanted to see how much age, education, employment, and so on affected a person's willingness to obey orders.
So, the original 40 participants he gathered came from a wide spectrum of society, and each was told that they were to take part in a "memory test." They were to determine the extent to which punishment affects learning and the ability to memorize.
Milgram believed, as a lot of people did, that the American people would never be capable of such horrendous evil.
The experiment involved three people. First, there was the "experimenter," dressed in a lab coat, who gave instructions and prompts. Second, there was an actor who was the "learner." Third, there was the participant who thought that they were acting as the "teacher" in the memory test. The apparent experimental setup was that the learner had to match two words together after being taught them, and whenever they got the answer wrong, the teacher had to administer an electric shock. (The teachers (participants) were shocked as well to let them know what kind of pain the learner would experience.) At first, the shock was set at 15 volts.
The learner (actor) repeatedly made mistakes for each study, and the teacher was told to increase the voltage each time. A tape recorder was played that had the learner (apparently) make sounds as if in pain. As it went on, the learner would plead and beg for the shocks to stop. The teacher was told to increase the amount of voltage as punishment up to a level that was explicitly described as being fatal — not least because the learner was desperately saying he had a heart condition.
The question Milgram wanted to know: how far would his participants go?
Just obeying orders
The results were surprising. Sixty-five percent of the participants were willing to give a 450-volt shock described as lethal, and all administered a 300-volt shock described as traumatically painful. It should be repeated, this occurred despite the learner (actor) begging the teacher (participant) to stop.
In the studies that came after, in a variety of different setups, that 60 percent number came up again and again. They showed that roughly two out of three people would be willing to kill someone if told to by an authority figure. Milgram proved that all genders, ages, and nationalities were depressingly capable of inflicting incredible pain or worse on innocent people.
Major limitations in Milgram's experiment
Milgram took many steps to make sure that his experiment was rigorous and fair. He used the same tape recording of the "learner" screaming, begging, and pleading for all participants. He made sure the experimenters used only the same four prompts each time when the participants were reluctant or wanted to stop. He even made sure that he himself was not present at the experiment, lest he interfere with the procedure (something Phillip Zimbardo did not do).
But, does the Milgram experiment actually prove what we think it does?
First, the experimenters were permitted to remind the participants that they were not responsible for what they did and that the team would take full blame. This, of course, does not make the study any less shocking, but it does perhaps change the scope of the conclusions. Perhaps the experiment reveals more about our ability to surrender responsibility and our willingness simply to become a tool. The conclusion is still pretty depressing, but it shows what we are capable of when offered absolution rather than when simply following orders.
Second, the experiment took place in a single hour, with very little time either to deliberate or talk things over with someone. In most situations, like the Holocaust, the perpetrators had ample time (years) to reflect on their actions, and yet, they still chose to turn up every day. Milgram perhaps highlights only how far we'll go in the heat of the moment.
Finally, the findings do not tell the whole tale. The participants were not engaging in sadistic glee to shock the learner. They all showed signs of serious distress and anxiety, such as nervous laughing fits. Some even had seizures. These were not willing accomplices but participants essentially forced to act a certain way. (Since then, many scientists have argued that Milgram's experiment is hugely unethical.)
The power of authority
That all being said, there's a reason why Milgram's experiment stays with us today. Whether it's evolutionarily or socially drilled into us, it seems that humans are capable of doing terrible things, if only we are told to do so by someone in power — or, at the very least, when we don't feel responsible for the consequences.
One silver lining to Milgram is in how it can inoculate us against such drone-like behavior. It can help us to resist. Simply knowing how far we can be manipulated helps allow us to say, "No."
The banality-of-evil thesis was a flashpoint for controversy.
This was the puzzling question that the philosopher Hannah Arendt grappled with when she reported for The New Yorker in 1961 on the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi operative responsible for organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps in support of the Nazi's Final Solution.
Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was 'neither perverted nor sadistic', but 'terrifyingly normal'. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Instead, he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his 'thoughtlessness', a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann 'never realised what he was doing' due to an 'inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else'. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he 'commit[ted] crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong'.
Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann 'the banality of evil': he was not inherently evil, but merely shallow and clueless, a 'joiner', in the words of one contemporary interpreter of Arendt's thesis: he was a man who drifted into the Nazi Party, in search of purpose and direction, not out of deep ideological belief. In Arendt's telling, Eichmann reminds us of the protagonist in Albert Camus's novel The Stranger (1942), who randomly and casually kills a man, but then afterwards feels no remorse. There was no particular intention or obvious evil motive: the deed just 'happened'.
This wasn't Arendt's first, somewhat superficial impression of Eichmann. Even 10 years after his trial in Israel, she wrote in 1971:
I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer [ie Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer – at least the very effective one now on trial – was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.
The banality-of-evil thesis was a flashpoint for controversy. To Arendt's critics, it seemed absolutely inexplicable that Eichmann could have played a key role in the Nazi genocide yet have no evil intentions. Gershom Scholem, a fellow philosopher (and theologian), wrote to Arendt in 1963 that her banality-of-evil thesis was merely a slogan that 'does not impress me, certainly, as the product of profound analysis'. Mary McCarthy, a novelist and good friend of Arendt, voiced sheer incomprehension: '[I]t seems to me that what you are saying is that Eichmann lacks an inherent human quality: the capacity for thought, consciousness – conscience. But then isn't he a monster simply?'
The controversy continues to the present day. The philosopher Alan Wolfe, in Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), criticised Arendt for 'psychologising' – that is, avoiding – the issue of evil as evil by defining it in the limited context of Eichmann's humdrum existence. Wolfe argued that Arendt concentrated too much on who Eichmann was, rather than what Eichmann did. For Arendt's critics, this focus on Eichmann's insignificant, banal life seemed to be an 'absurd digression' from his evil deeds.
Other recent critics have documented Arendt's historical errors, which led her to miss a deeper evil in Eichmann, when she claimed that his evil was 'thought-defying', as Arendt wrote to the philosopher Karl Jaspers three years after the trial. The historian Deborah Lipstadt, the defendant in David Irving's Holocaust-denial libel trial, decided in 2000, cites documentation released by the Israeli government for use in the legal proceeding. It proves, Lipstadt asserts in The Eichmann Trial (2011), that Arendt's use of the term 'banal' was flawed:
The memoir [by Eichmann] released by Israel for use in my trial reveals the degree to which Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. It is permeated with expressions of Nazi ideology… [Eichmann] accepted and espoused the idea of racial purity.
Lipstadt further argues that Arendt failed to explain why Eichmann and his associates would have attempted to destroy evidence of their war crimes, if he was indeed unaware of his wrongdoing.
In Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2014), the German historian Bettina Stangneth reveals another side to him besides the banal, seemingly apolitical man, who was just acting like any other 'ordinary' career-oriented bureaucrat. Drawing on audiotapes of interviews with Eichmann by the Nazi journalist William Sassen, Stangneth shows Eichmann as a self-avowed, aggressive Nazi ideologue strongly committed to Nazi beliefs, who showed no remorse or guilt for his role in the Final Solution – a radically evil Third Reich operative living inside the deceptively normal shell of a bland bureaucrat. Far from being 'thoughtless', Eichmann had plenty of thoughts – thoughts of genocide, carried out on behalf of his beloved Nazi Party. On the tapes, Eichmann admitted to a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde dualism:
I, '[t]he cautious bureaucrat,' that was me, yes indeed. But … this cautious bureaucrat was attended by a … a fanatical [Nazi] warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright…
Arendt completely missed this radically evil side of Eichmann when she wrote 10 years after the trial that there was 'no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives'. This only underscores the banality – and falsity – of the banality-of-evil thesis. And though Arendt never said that Eichmann was just an innocent 'cog' in the Nazi bureaucracy, nor defended Eichmann as 'just following orders' – both common misunderstandings of her findings on Eichmann – her critics, including Wolfe and Lipstadt, remain unsatisfied.
So what should we conclude about Arendt's claim that Eichmann (as well as other Germans) did evil without being evil?
The question is a puzzle because Arendt missed an opportunity to investigate the larger meaning of Eichmann's particular evil by not expanding her study of him into a broader study of evil's nature. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), published well before the Eichmann trial, Arendt said:
It is inherent in our entire [Western] philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a 'radical evil'…
Instead of using the Eichmann case as a way forward to advance the tradition's understanding of radical evil, Arendt decided that his evil was banal, that is, 'thought-defying'. By taking a narrow legalistic, formalistic approach to the trial – she emphasised that there were no deeper issues at stake beyond the legal facts of Eichmann's guilt or innocence – Arendt automatically set herself up for failure as to the deeper why of Eichmann's evil.
Yet in her writings before Eichmann in Jerusalem, she actually took an opposite position. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the evil of the Nazis was absolute and inhuman, not shallow and incomprehensible, the metaphorical embodiment of hell itself: '[T]he reality of concentration camps resembles nothing so much as medieval pictures of Hell.'
By declaring in her pre-Eichmann trial writings that absolute evil, exemplified by the Nazis, was driven by an audacious, monstrous intention to abolish humanity itself, Arendt was echoing the spirit of philosophers such as F W J Schelling and Plato, who did not shy away from investigating the deeper, more demonic aspects of evil. But this view changed when Arendt met Eichmann, whose bureaucratic emptiness suggested no such diabolical profundity, but only prosaic careerism and the 'inability to think'. At that point, her earlier imaginative thinking about moral evil was distracted, and the 'banality of evil' slogan was born. Moreover, Arendt died in 1975: perhaps if she had lived longer she could have clarified the puzzles surrounding the banality-of-evil thesis, which still confound critics to this day. But this we shall never know.
Thus we are left with her original thesis as it stands. What is the basic confusion behind it? Arendt never did reconcile her impressions of Eichmann's bureaucratic banality with her earlier searing awareness of the evil, inhuman acts of the Third Reich. She saw the ordinary-looking functionary, but not the ideologically evil warrior. How Eichmann's humdrum life could co-exist with that 'other' monstrous evil puzzled her. Nevertheless, Arendt never downplayed Eichmann's guilt, repeatedly described him as a war criminal, and concurred with his death sentence as handed down by the Israeli court. Though Eichmann's motives were, for her, obscure and thought-defying, his genocidal acts were not. In the final analysis, Arendt did see the true horror of Eichmann's evil.
What makes some psychopaths better able to control their antisocial tendencies?
- Researchers have long struggled to explain the stark differences in life outcomes of psychopaths.
- A new study suggests that the personality trait conscientiousness helps psychopaths develop impulse-control skills over time.
- However, this process seems to apply only to individuals who score high in certain psychopathic traits.
What explains the stark differences in the life outcomes of psychopaths? Consider that one in five CEOs is a psychopath. That same rate also applies to prisoners. Of course, not all psychopaths are business leaders and criminals. But researchers have long struggled to explain why some psychopaths are relatively "successful," and others engage in antisocial behavior that ruins lives.
Now, a new study — set to be published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment — aims to shed light on the factors that control psychopathic behavior.
"Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in antisocial behaviors but what our findings suggest is that some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others," lead author Emily Lasko, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, told VCU News. "Although we don't know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more 'successful' than their peers."
'Successful' versus 'unsuccessful' psychopaths
The study notes that psychopathy exists on a spectrum in society, and it can manifest through a variety of personality traits, such as interpersonal manipulation, impulsivity, callousness, grandiosity, and boldness. Some traits may help psychopaths become "successful," defined as those who adapt to social norms and avoid incarceration.
For example, the psychopathic trait fearlessness may help a psychopath become a good first-responder, while interpersonal manipulation might help a psychopath become an effective lawyer. In contrast, the psychopathic trait impulsivity may make a psychopath more likely to commit crime.
The researchers hypothesized that psychopaths who are able develop impulse-control skills are more likely to be successful. The team suggested that successful psychopaths develop a mechanism that gives them greater control over their behavior, helping them thwart their heightened antisocial impulses.
Conscientiousness is the trait that predicts whether a psychopath will develop this mechanism, according to the study.
"The compensatory model posits that people higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their antisocial impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control," Lasko said.
Lasko et al.
To test the hypothesis, the researchers examined data from a seven-year longitudinal study on adolescent criminals in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
"Although these participants are not objectively 'successful,' this was an ideal sample to test our hypotheses for two main reasons," the researchers wrote. "First, adolescents are in a prime developmental phase for the improvement of impulse control. Allowing us the longitudinal variability we would need to test our compensatory model. Second, offenders are prone to antisocial acts, by definition, and their rates of recidivism provided a real-world index of 'successful' versus 'unsuccessful' psychopathy phenotypes."
The study found that adolescents who scored high in grandiose-manipulative psychopathic traits early in the study were more likely to develop better impulse control and less aggression over time. Psychopaths who scored higher in impulsivity didn't see as much of an increase.
The findings support the idea that psychopathy isn't just about personality deficits, but rather a combination of heightened and diminished traits, some of which compensate for each other over time.
"Our findings support a novel model of psychopathy that we propose, which runs contradictory to the other existing models of psychopathy in that it focuses more on the strengths or 'surpluses' associated with psychopathy rather than just deficits," she said. "Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits — there are many forms that it can take."
The findings also suggest that the Big Five model of personality — of which conscientiousness is part — is an important tool for understanding psychopathy.
"Together, these results point to the consequential nature of the development of conscientious traits for psychopathic individuals, which may promote adaptive re-entry into society. Indeed, even 'unsuccessful' offenders in our sample exhibited associations between their grandiose-manipulative traits and greater impulse control (albeit to a substantially lesser degree)."
Philosophy professor James Sterba revives a very old argument.
- In his book, Is a Good God Logically Possible?, James Sterba investigates the role of evil.
- Sterba contends that if God is all-powerful then he'd be able to stop evil from occurring in the world.
- God's inability (or unwillingness) to stop evil should make us question his role, or even his existence.
Why does God allow evil to happen? This question has been at the heart of Western religious philosophy since the dawn of monotheism. The very term and concept of God has long divided humans. Is he the first mover? Beyond definition, as many have argued? If God is all-powerful and humans are incapable of even defining him—I'm using "him" out of convenience, as "it" would be more appropriate in this case; a gendered deity is quite definable—why are so many certain they recognize his moral standing? Given how many sects of religions exist, how can so many people be so wrong?
If we recognize that evil exists (a hard point to dispute), and we also believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, then we are granting this deity—to be clear, we're discussing the Abrahamic god—the power of knowing when evil exists and an ability to eliminate it. If God is incapable of stopping evil he is not all-powerful. If he is capable of stopping evil but chooses not to, well, we've got an evil God on our hands.
The latest thinker to tackle this unnerving question is James Sterba, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and author of the book, Is a Good God Logically Possible? While many forms of evil can be discussed in this context, Sterba builds his argument in one specific domain, as he recently explained.
"I'm thinking about moral evil. This is the evil that human beings do. And I'm not thinking about all the evil of a particular action. I'm only worried about the external consequences. This is the part of the evil action that I think God gets in trouble about."
To highlight his reasoning, Sterba uses the example of homicide. A man gets a gun, loads it, aims, and pulls the trigger. The speeding bullet is the consequence of an idea: he wants to murder someone. Sterba does not concern himself with God's role in the internal process that led to the purchase and usage of that gun. Thinking, he claims, is for man alone. He questions why God would not have stopped the external consequence of the shooting. He's not looking for this deity to play the role of thought police, but to step in as actual police would.
A young boy carrying a placard in London's Trafalgar Square which says, 'Prepare to Meet Thy God'.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
If God is unable or unwilling to stop the external consequences of evil—while good and evil can be culturally relative terms, murder is universally recognized as being in the red—then the implications, to the religious at least, would equate to blasphemy.
"If there's all this evil in the world, maybe God can't prevent it. Then he's still all powerful, he just logically can't prevent it. The problem there is it turns out that God would be less powerful than we are because we can prevent lots of evil. Now if God is stuck in a logical possibility while we're only stuck in a causal one, then he's so much less powerful than us. The traditional God can't be less powerful than we are."
While this discussion is often relegated to religious philosophy, we regularly witness the effects. Sterba mentions the Pauline principle, that "one should never do evil so that good may come." Murdering a doctor that provides abortions, a platform accepted by extreme religious conservatives, falls into this category. We can place the record number of migrant children held in detention centers in 2019, nearly 70,000, because their imprisonment supposedly saves American jobs, or keeps brown people out, or this week's excuse du jour in that category as well.
Sterba says that a religion that purports to champion charity and poverty should not be making a utilitarian argument when at root its adherents should be thinking about not doing evil. Doing evil for a supposed later good is not, by its very nature, a charitable act.
"In traditional religious views, utilitarianism is a horrible thing. Trying to maximize utilitarianism is a bad way of thinking about things. You should be thinking about not doing evil and you should be worrying about intention."
Sterba invokes the Doctrine of Double Effect, citing the famous ethical dilemma known as the Trolley problem. A speeding trolly is about to kill five people. You're standing on a bridge and can pull a lever to veer the car to another track and only kill one. In most studies, five to one is easy for people to grapple with—except when they are asked to physically pull the lever, that is. Regardless, the tradeoff is less evil thanks to the hands of a human.
Sterba says this dilemma works in humans but not God. If God is truly powerful, "he's never stuck in allowing evil to happen. We sometimes are stuck if we're trying to do some good, we're allowing evil to happen, God could always, at the level of external action, stop the evil of all bad actions."
God, he continues, should not be causally or logically unable to stop evil, if he so chooses.
"Either he's not done it because he's an evil god—that's not a helpful result—or he's not done it because he's not very powerful, maybe even less powerful than us."
While Sterba focuses on moral evil, he entertains nature as well. Take climate change. Beyond the acceleration of environmental catastrophes, the planet has never actually been completely hospitable to humans. Natural disasters have always occurred; our species has nearly been wiped out in past eras. Why would an all-powerful god not make this planet more amenable to our survival if we're really his chosen species?
There might never be answers to such questions given the contentious nature of this discussion. While Sterba goes to great philosophical lengths to contemplate the problem of evil, he also grounds his thinking in the practical and applicable. Regardless of your religious belief (or non-belief), it behooves everyone to remember that when it comes to moral evil, we are all empowered to play a beneficent, or evil, role. As he puts it,
"Even if we think God is behind everything, we should do all we can."
We live in contradiction. How we confront that fact matters.
- Absurdism is the philosophical school that recognizes the tension between meaning and a meaningless universe.
- Camus and Kierkegaard wrote extensively on the topic, though modern thinkers continue to contribute to the literature of the Absurd.
- In a politically divided time, the Absurd has come to the forefront of national discussion.
Like many Angelenos, last week I spent a fair amount of time on the LAFD's Twitter feed. As breaking information about regional wildfires was disseminated, I noticed a few comments pointing to some sort of conspiracy as the reason that so many fires were raging. Of course, numerous human-caused climate-oriented forces "conspire" in contribution to this growing problem, but that was not the implication.
Human beings are absurd creatures, a fact that the philosophical school of Absurdism addresses. The ideology represents the tension between our desire to apply meaning to a situation and living in a meaningless universe. The human brain, conspiracy theorist that it is, fills in gaps when explanations are lacking or simply invents them whole-cloth.
Two great Absurdist thinkers, Søren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus, devoted a lot of time contemplating the three responses to the tension that Absurdism spotlights, arriving at different conclusions as how to resolve it.
- Suicide. Exiting existence is the quickest way out, one that neither thinker advocated as effective.
- Belief in the transcendent. Kierkegaard felt that resolution might require an irrational leap — a recent article on science-seeking millennials believing in astrology is a more recent example of this mindset. Camus thought this method led to "philosophical suicide" and was to be avoided.
- Acceptance of Absurdism. Camus's advice was to create personal meaning within the meaningless, which Kierkegaard regarded as a form of madness.
These are not the only thinkers to consider the absurd. One can argue that we are living through especially absurd times in America, with two alternate realities simultaneously presented as fact. Navigating this treacherous terrain has never been easy, but it proved especially difficult in times of social turmoil. The following 10 quotes consider this topic in greater detail.
Why life is meaningless, according to absurdists | BBC Ideas
The ultimate modern absurdist, English author Douglas Adams, kicked off his classic Hitchhiker's series as a BBC radio show in 1978. While Adams left us too early at age 49 in 2001, the atheist and satirist knew how to drive into the heart of contradiction, as when he wrote in The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,
"If there's any real truth, it's that the entire multidimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs."
Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has gotten into her share of trouble for pointing out the contradictions in religious belief systems — namely, Islam, which she was raised in. She beautifully expresses the absurdity of existence in this passage from Infidel:
"The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more."
In Einstein's Monsters, British novelist and screenwriter Martin Amis takes our love of war to task by noting the absurdity of our nuclear predicament.
"What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening to use nuclear weapons. And we can't get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons."
The medieval scholar, Caroline Walker Bynum, knows well the contradictions of past ages. In Fragmentation and Redemption she takes note of the emotional utility of a belief in resurrection.
"If there is meaning to the history we tell and the corruption (both moral and physical) we suffer, surely it is in (as well as in spite of) fragmentation. Bodily resurrection at the end of time is, in a technical sense, a comic — that is, a contrived and brave — happy ending."
The bible of Absurdist literature goes to the French philosopher, Albert Camus, who wrote one of the great philosophical texts of the 20th century with The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays.
"If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance the gap will never be filled."
Albert Camus, seated, his books spread out before him on a table, with the banner 'Nobel Prize.'
Photo credit: Manuel Litran/Paris Match via Getty Images
American professor and essayist Roxane Gay is one of today's most lauded feminists, for good reason: her criticism shines light where darkness has too long pervaded. In Bad Feminist, she notes that judgment in the face of contradiction is itself absurd and should not distract from the bigger message.
"No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I'm full of contradictions, but I also don't want to be treated like shit for being a woman."
Italian anti-fascist poet and anarchist Renzo Novatore had quite a way with words. The early 20th-century writer reminds us in I Am Also a Nihilist that the playing field will always be tilted and that finding your place on that field is essential.
"Life — for me — is neither good nor bad, neither a theory nor an idea. Life is a reality, and the reality of life is war. For one who is a born warrior, life is a fountain of joy, for others it is only a fountain of humiliation and sorrow."
How can any list of contradictions and absurdity be complete without Belgian psychotherapist, Esther Perel? Mating in Captivity is necessary reading for anyone that wishes to be in any sort of relationship in the modern era. (Make sure to check out my 11 quotes from her as well.)
"Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?"
Few can put such a large sentiment in as few words as Jon Stewart.
"I have complete faith in the continued absurdity of whatever's going on."
I listed the quotes in alphabetical order by author name, yet it seems fitting to give the last word to the man that deserves it. Kurt Vonnegut is the king cynic and a brilliant writer that forces you to confront everything in existence. In Breakfast of Champions he sums up the Absurdity of our situation.
"As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide."