A Socratic Perspective on the Zombie Apocalypse

by Max Maxwell

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Yet, for all their pure simplicity, zombies are horrific. They are inherently violent, brain thirsty and destructive, not to mention kind of ugly. They lack the capacity to reason.  They will eat a child's brain without having a second thought about it. Their horrifying lack of language skills keeps them out of any respectable poetry slam. It is in this combination of the simple and the horrific that zombies complete their representation of humanity. We are all born into this world as the most simple, innocuous little creatures. We all arrive as dear and sensitive little babies. All of these little babies grow up and create the societies and civilizations that fill our human history. One look at human history and we find a very disturbing contrast. All of the hideous wars and all of the demeaning and destructive brutalities of every broken and deluded culture in all of history comes to us through the hearts and minds of these lost little babies. These charmingly simple, sensitive little creatures grow up to create all kinds of human apocalypses of extraordinarily hideous and mindless brutality. And, just like a zombie movie, there are always non-zombie-like humans existing throughout our human history that manage to create new knowledge and understanding in spite of the difficult and demeaning zombie-like civilizations in which they exist.

 

Why do we love to imagine the zombie apocalypse? We love it because we are living in it. It may be relatively rare for one human to want to eat the brain of another human. However, the world is filled with almost seven billion precious little human babies. These babies grow up and often end up viciously chewing off each others little faces in ten thousand metaphorical ways solely on the basis of their simple zombie-like drive to seek to empower themselves through the expression of their wills. Just like zombies, we wreak hideous havoc and horrifying desecration upon one another in our simple minded desire to benefit ourselves. We love to imagine the zombie apocalypse because we are the zombie apocalypse.

 

Of course, many people love zombie movies because they find it fun to imagine being able to run free in deserted cities, and breaking the rules that used to be. The scene in Zombieland, where they smashed up a gift store is an example of this. I am sure some people like the idea of guilt free killing. You canít feel too guilty about killing someone that wants to eat you, especially when she is sort of dead already. And many people enjoy watching movie characters face extraordinarily horrific circumstances with relative nonchalance, as happens in movies like Zombieland and Shaun of The Dead. But the deeper truth of the appeal of the zombie apocalypse is that we are living in a real apocalypse, which is just as horrifying and brutal. However, our human apocalypse is much more complex than our zombie friends offer up in the movies. This is part of the zombie appeal. We all desperately need to think rationally about the reality of all these beautiful, tender little humans existing in the horrifyingly brutal and destructive world that we create. Yet, we also desperately wish to avoid such thoughts as it is quite a violent shock to our sensibilities. How nice it is to have the catharsis of contemplating simpler forms. Zombies, and the zombie apocalypse they create, offer us those simpler forms. The character of the zombie is a simplified human that still operates on the same basic drive as real humans. They seek to empower themselves. Unlike humans, zombies only have one simple way of doing this...Om nom nom! The zombie apocalypse is a simpler form of our real world. The zombie world is filled with destructive, violent, semi-dead people running around making the rest of us miserable. This is a lot like the actual world in which we live. The catharsis of experiencing the simpler zombie version of our world is part of the appeal of the zombies we love and the civilization destroying apocalypses they habitually create.

 

The primary way that zombies are different than humans is that they cannot think or learn. Socrates believed that the path to self improvement existed in gaining new knowledge. In order to become better human beings, we need to devote ourselves to developing a greater understanding. This requires a capacity to learn. Zombies cannot learn and are stuck in their wandering, verbally limited, brain eating state. However, with regard to the Socratic imperative to acquire knowledge, humans seem to be worse off than zombies in one particular way. At least zombies know a brain when they see it! According to Socrates, the only real brain for a human being to lust after is knowledge itself. Yet, most of humanity does not seek knowledge with the pure, all consuming desire of a zombie. Socratically speaking, this is our great sin. For humanity to grow beyond our simple minded brutality, the great simplifying passion of our lives must be a passion for the acquisition of knowledge. We need to seek knowledge like zombies seek brains! Instead of seeking to blindly assert our wills at any cost, we must seek knowledge, which in turn makes our will power more useful and positive. In this Socratic perspective, the human will to power must be founded upon a lifelong quest for knowledge. The only way to assert our will (which IS power in the Nietzschean sense) to our maximum benefit is to base the assertion of our will upon correct knowledge and understanding.

 

Nietzsche was critical of the Socratic "lust for knowledge" because he saw it as setting reason above instincts. However, the will to power is best described as simply being our instinct to express our will and the nature of actual power is in the experience of willing itself. This means that the lust for knowledge is not in opposition to our will to power instinct, because our ability to express our instinct to be willful can be dramatically amplified through knowledge to the extent that knowledge makes our experiences of being willful more useful and productive. If, for example, the expression of your instinct to be willful occurs in a context of ignorance that gets you killed and wins you a Darwin Award, then your instinct to be willful is cut short by a lack of knowledge. To the extent that knowledge assists in survival, the lust for knowledge is the ally of instincts. Regardless of what you think of the distinction between the instinct to be willful (will to power) and the experience of willing (realization of power), it is an error to think that the quest for knowledge and our instinct to be willful must be at odds with one another. This is because a quest for anything, knowledge included, is an expression of human will.

 

Ironically, the only way to reduce the resemblance of human civilizations to a zombie apocalypse is for human beings to become more zombie-like through the creation of a single, simple master desire that stands above all things. The zombie always seeks a juicy brain. You can reject the zombie personally and no inner zombie sadness will reduce its desire to have your brain. You can curse at the zombie and it will not become discouraged from wanting to eat your brain. You can chop off the zombie's arm with an axe and no fear will stop it from trying to devour your brain. Zombies have a clear, unstoppable priority that is their one simple, master desire. They always want to eat your brain. According to Socrates, this master desire for humans must be the desire to gain knowledge and create understanding. Knowledge is the juicy brain we need to seek with a zombie-like lust. Like the zombie, we must have no fear in our quest for knowledge. Socrates believed that the only evil or harm to fear in life is ignorance and the only good is knowledge. Always seeking to learn, always seeking to increase in understanding, always seeking to gain and create new knowledge, the Socratic zombie lives with the simplicity of a single, pure devotion to gain knowledge that guides the expression of her will throughout her life. No matter what the circumstance, the Socratic Zombieís quest for knowledge does not fade away. No matter what competing needs exist in physical life, the need to connect the expression of her will to correct understanding does not diminish in the heart of the Socratic Zombie. Becoming more zombie like, in the Socratic style, is the only hope to free us from the destructiveness of human willfulness, when such willfulness is enslaved by the relative ignorance of our instinctual impulses. Enlightened will power, acquired through a zombie-like lust for knowledge, shall lead us out of our own apocalypse.

 

At first glance, Socrates is not the most inspiring example of a seeker of knowledge. Socrates spent his whole life seeking knowledge. He lived in an intellectual and cultural center of his world and had access to the great intellects of his day. He spent all of his time asking questions designed to learn important things. He lived to be an old man, who spent his years seeking knowledge, and at the end of his days still claimed to know nothing. What???  Many of Socrates questions were like asking, "What is the meaning of life?" You can spend one thousand years studying that question and not get anywhere near a clear answer. Yet, Socrates never thought less of the value of seeking knowledge. Why?

 

At this point, it must be realized that much of the value of seeking knowledge and understanding is not just in the specific answers and data you find or create. A great deal of the redeeming impact on our willfulness is in the journey itself. The quality of mindfulness that develops when we are always open and eager to learn makes us better human beings. If every citizen desired to learn each day from all of their experiences, our societies would be better places to live. We would all be more attentive to our experiences with a view to growing through learning from them. People who have a zombie-like lust for learning from all of their experiences are naturally more attentive to other people in ways that foster greater courtesy and respect. A lifelong quest for knowledge greatly affects the character of the people on that journey. It makes them better human beings and builds better societies. This will happen even if, like Socrates, you fail to find much of the knowledge you seek. In fact, this will happen especially if you relentlessly maintain your quest for knowledge in spite of not finding everything you want. (That is the zombie way!)  

 

Learning must become the high value in our pantheon of values. It is not just learning with a view to advancing in academia. Most of the best knowledge a human can encounter is not taught in schools. The desire to learn and to grow through learning must permeate every aspect of life. Learning from books, learning from love, learning from loss, learning from work, learning from play, learning from our laughter and tears, all of life is filled with the opportunity to grow through learning. However, we must first choose to value learning and we must also choose to be deeply attentive to life in order to facilitate the experience of learning. Socrates lived such a quest for knowledge. In spite of the fact that he claimed to have failed at finding knowledge, he became part of the cornerstone of western civilization. Not bad for an ignorant hack!  When you embrace learning as a way of life that touches all of your experiences, you will be enriched with a depth of character and a quality of mind that will make your existence a blessing to yourself, your family, the society in which you live and maybe even to the future of all humanity!

                                                                                                 

Now, if you will excuse me, I have some learning to do.     Brains!!!!

 

 

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© Copyright 2009 Kenneth J. Maxwell Jr.