Amidst a global ontological state defined by hollowness and superficiality due to an economic, political, and social system that has long been defined by modernity and nihilism, Nietzsche still stands out amongst all the others. Nietzsche was essentially the prophet of a modern and nihilistic age. Those who failed to heed Nietzsche ended up failing themselves. One of Nietzsche’s quotes which hits home the most for me personally is the following: “In loneliness, the lonely one eats himself; in a crowd, the many eat him. Now choose.”
When you are eaten by the crowd as I was during your teens and twenties and are then driven into a state of loneliness and isolation as part of an individuation process, and then come out of the “individuation process” at the prime of your adulthood in order to master the crowd, you are able to appreciate this insight provided by Nietzsche as much I am able to appreciate this insight. One of the ways of mastering a crowd is by mastering one’s own self. As Rumi said: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
By changing one’s self through an “individuation process” defined by loneliness and isolation, one essentially gains a unique perspective in regards to the futile hustle and bustle of a modern and nihilistic world. Coincidentally, the symbol of the Stoics – who were keen on passively observing the world around them through a state of detachment and withdrawal from the world – is a park bench. Detachment and withdrawal – known as Zuhd in the Islamic tradition – are part of a larger scheme. For one, detachment and withdrawal enable both the “self-actualization” and the transcendence required to fulfill the two most important priorities which a human being can possibly fulfill, namely, to manage world affairs and gain one’s fair share of the world on one hand, and to achieve salvation by fulfilling one’s duty to God on the other hand.
When ordinary prose and words cannot wholly express an idea or a message, one seeks recourse to poetry. Thus, poetry is the language of self-actualization and transcendence, and in turn “self-actualization” and transcendence are conditions which only about 1 percent of the world’s population achieves at any given point in time. The British poet Wendy Cope, in a poem titled Engineers’ Corner, best expresses the theme of fulfillment and satisfaction in defiance of conventional thinking and herd mentality. Cope wrote:
Why isn’t there an Engineers’ Corner in Westminster Abbey?
In Britain we’ve always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint…
How many schoolchildren dream of becoming great engineers?
— advertisement placed in The Times by the Engineering Council
We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints —
That’s why so many poets end up rich,
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?
Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It’s always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day.
Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering —
You’re sure to need another job as well;
You’ll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.
While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You’ll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.
No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.
There’s far too much encouragement of poets —
That’s why this country’s going down the drain.
As the old adage goes, when you see people jumping off a cliff, the worst thing to do would be to do the same.