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• Last updated: October 14, 2020

Podcast #635: The Existentialist’s Survival Guide

Life isn’t an easy road to navigate. We’re moody creatures, susceptible to an array of psychological setbacks, emotional ups and downs, fruitless searches for meaning, and trials posed by anxiety, depression, and despair. It’s the kind of journey one needs a survival guide for, and my guest today says one of the best can be found in the writings of existential philosophers. 

His name is Gordon Marino and he’s a football and boxing coach, a professor of philosophy, and the author of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age. Gordon and I begin our conversation with how he personally found existentialism, and how his coaching intersects with his teaching. We then get into what existential philosophy is all about, and the thinkers and authors who are considered to be existentialists. Gordon shares what he thinks is the greatest existential novel, and which of Soren Kierkegaard’s books he most recommends reading. From there we delve into what Kierkegaard has to say about anxiety, how he thought existential angst was the ultimate teacher, the distinction he drew between depression and despair, and why he argues that procrastination is one of our greatest moral dangers. We then unpack the different models of living an authentic life that the existentialists espoused, and what Nietzsche meant with his injunction to “live dangerously.” We then get into the existentialists’ take on love, why love is actually hard to accept, and why you should presuppose love in others. We end our conversation with what boxing can teach about existential philosophy. 

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Show Highlights

  • What sorts of questions are existentialist philosophers concerned with?
  • How coaching boxing has influenced his philosophy 
  • Who are the primary existentialists?
  • What set existentialism apart from previous forms of philosophy?
  • What is existential angst? Is there a solution to this angst? 
  • What does it mean to be “authentic”?
  • Nietzsche’s call to “live dangerously” 
  • A bird’s eye view of love according to existentialism 
  • The case for pre-supposing love and goodness

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Life isn’t an easy road to navigate. We’re moody creatures susceptible to an array of psychological setbacks, emotional ups and downs, fruitless searches for meaning and trials posed by anxiety, depression, and despair. The kind of journey one needs a survival guide for, and my guest today says one of the best can be found in the writings of existential philosophers. His name is Gordon Marino, he is a football and boxing coach, a professor of philosophy, and the author of The Existentialist Survival Guide: How To Live Authentically In An Inauthentic Age. Gordon and I began our conversation with how he personally found existentialism and how his coaching intersects with his teaching. We then get into what existential philosophy is all about and the thinkers and authors who are considered to be existentialists. Gordon shares what he thinks is the greatest existential novel, and which of Soren Kierkegaard books he most recommends reading.

From there, we delve into what Kierkegaard had to say about anxiety, how he thought existential angst was the ultimate teacher, the distinction he drew between depression and despair, and why he argues that procrastination is one of our greatest moral dangers. We then unpack the different models of living an authentic life, what the existentialist is espoused to, and what Nietzsche meant with an injunction to live dangerously. We then get into what the existentialists’ take on love is, why love is actually hard to accept, and why you should presuppose love in others. And we end the conversation with what boxing can teach about existential philosophy. After the show’s over, make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/existential.

Alright, Gordon Marino, welcome to the show.

Gordon Marino: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve been looking forward to it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So, you are a professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. You’re the author of the book, The Existentialist Survival Guide: How To Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age. Let’s talk about your backstory of how you became a professor of existential philosophy. How did you discover existential philosophy? And just tell us about that. I think it’s really interesting.

Gordon Marino: Well, I was a football player at Bowling Green State University, and I had this wonderful, wonderful professor in a philosophy class, and he told me, “Now, well, you know about elite athletics and stuff like that, well you need to get some elite training in the mind.” And so I transferred to Columbia University. And he was just… His name is Serge Capper, a huge influence. So I studied philosophy there, and it was later on that I got to… Well, it was during the time when I went through a terrible divorce as a young man, a very hard time, and I was in a coffee shop and picked up this book of Kierkegaard’s, and it was like a light. Just a beautiful maiden page, because one of the things I was having such a hard time and one of things I found was that Kierkegaard and other existentialists really address the impediments in our lives, our inner lives, and the difficulties we face in being decent people. It’s really… It’s easy to be a good person when everything’s going well, but quite different when the lights turn red.

Brett McKay: Right, it’s easy in theory but when you actually have to do it, it gets a lot harder. You’re also a boxing coach at St. Olaf. What’s your…

Gordon Marino: Not at St. Olaf, I’m a professional boxing coach and a trainer, and a USA boxing coach, so I trained both amateurs and pros over 30 years, mostly kids in town, although I’ve had a couple of boxers from St. Olaf.

Brett McKay: And how has that influenced your thinking about philosophy, boxing?

Gordon Marino: Well, the teaching and coaching really influence one another, really go together in an important way. Being a coach helps me be a better teacher, helps me to read kids more accurately, know who to push, when to push, that kinda thing. And really, I also coach football here, and I found that you really get the landscape… When you have somebody in class and the gym and/or the football field, you really get to see the landscape of their mind in a way that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and it’s really remarkable, because some kids, if I hadn’t had them on the football field, they wouldn’t have opened up and I wouldn’t have known how rich their thinking was. So it’s been marvelous like that. Of course, I get a lot of questions of, “How can you train these people’s brains and at the same time get them bashed in?” And stuff like that. So I get a lot of jabs about that over the years. Less so now, but in the beginning.

Brett McKay: What do you respond to that?

Gordon Marino: I’m very careful with my boxers, and I’ve never had anybody get hurt or close to it so I don’t think people understand that if you… It’s well-supervised, boxing.

Brett McKay: Right. And we’ve had Mark Edmundson on the podcast, the professor out of Virginia.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, from the University of Virginia.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and he wrote that book, Why Football Matters.

Gordon Marino: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I thought he answers that, too, that question like, ‘How can you be in favor of a sport where people get a traumatic brain injury’ or whatever. And it’s a tough one, but he still thinks there’s value in the sport because it can teach you something about life that you can’t otherwise learn in the classroom.

Gordon Marino: Right, and there’s also a risk in living a risk-averse life. That’s something you learn from Kierkegaard. It’s very important. One of his main ideas is that not to venture, not to risk is to take one of the greatest risks in life, so.

Brett McKay: Right, well, that’s a good transition. Sport as a way to transition to existential philosophy. But let’s start with this, what is existentialism? For those who aren’t familiar with it. What philosophical questions are the existential philosophers primarily concerned with?

Gordon Marino: Well, they’re a real motley crew, and they’re joined more by themes than by any kind of general theory. So the themes are pretty much things like the individual, there’s limits of rationality, limits of the idea of clarity being concrete in your thinking, and relating your thoughts, your existence. Nothing too abstract. Again, dealing with addressing painful emotions, like despair, depression, anxiety, the issue of freedom, choice. Those are some of the themes. And everybody has a different roster, who’s on the roster. Some people put Shakespeare on there, so it’s quite an array of… A lack of agreement about who is really an existentialist. And actually only Camus and maybe Marcel, Simone de Beauvoir ever really identified themselves… I’m sorry, Sartre, not Camus, Camus denied he was an existentialist. But there’s only two or three people that ever identified themselves as such and only for a short time. But I identify myself as an existentialist.

Brett McKay: Right. Well, you said there’s a motley crew, not only are there philosophers, but there’s also… People lump in novelists in there as well.

Gordon Marino: Oh yeah, Kafka. That’s right.

Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s talk about… Who are some of the big names that people get usually thrown around as existentialists?

Gordon Marino: Okay, so certainly, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus. Those are some of the main ones, Simone de Beauvoir, okay? In terms of novelists, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Miguel de Unamuno, those are some of the people to read. But then everybody should read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which is the greatest existential novel ever, unbelievable, an amazing book.

Brett McKay: I’ve also heard like Thoreau and Emerson thrown in there as well, every now and then.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, there’s connections, I think there are. Yeah, Nietzsche carried around… There’s a book that argues that European philosophy was very much influenced by American philosophy in the sense that… And Nietzsche always carried around a copy of Emerson. And so, yeah, there are some overlapping themes.

Brett McKay: How does existentialists look? They come in, too. The first existential philosopher was Kierkegaard, and that’s sort of how people point to him in that.

Gordon Marino: That’s how many people, that’s how many people…

Brett McKay: Right, but how does existentialism differ from philosophy before existentialism, what’s the big difference?

Gordon Marino: Oh, okay, one of the big differences is that this understanding of the lack of limits of reason. So for Kierkegaard, to become mature is to understand that there’s a lot of things beyond our understanding that are important to life. So another thing is this idea of making your ideals concrete. So he thinks a lot of people… There’s a lot of talk about, say, social justice or whatever, then you have to ask yourself, “But, what really have I done to advance that at all? Have I done anything? Have I walked the talk? To use a cliche. So there’s a lot of emphasis on that, on action, that you don’t find in other philosophies.

Brett McKay: And also, it seems that existentialism is somewhat… It’s psychological, too. As you said… I think Kierkegaard said like the idea of the self, “What is the self?” And it’s like, “The self is the self relating to itself,” or something like that.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, something like that. That’s from the opening page of The Sickness Unto Death, which I think is his greatest book. So if your listeners are interested in one book of Kierkegaard’s, I would certainly recommend The Sickness Unto Death and in that book, I’ve really found this distinction in him, between despair and depression, between a spiritual disorder and a psychological disorder. But for Kierkegaard, we’re born with a self that we need to become. For him it’s, “We’re born a child of God, that we need to be loving, nurturing human beings, faithful.” And with my students a lot of the time, I really press them to think not just about what they wanna do, which they’re obsessed with, but what kinda human being do you wanna be? What kinda person do you wanna be? And there’s a lot of that emphasis in Kierkegaard.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some of the questions you tackle in The Existentialist’s Survival Guide. That you think existentialism… And these are big life questions. That you think existentialism has some, maybe not answers, but questions to help you start thinking about this stuff. And the one question that existentialists grapple with is anxiety. ‘Cause I think everyone here who’s listening to the podcast probably heard this, or used the phrase “existential angst.” And the existential philosopher who really explored this idea the most, of existential anxiety, was Kierkegaard. So let’s talk about what is existential angst and how is that different from anxiety about a test that you’re taking in college?

Gordon Marino: Right. Well, existential angst, the way it’s used today, it means it’s a threat to our existence, that’s the notion. But one of the things with Kierkegaard was that he insisted that the fact that we’re anxious… Anxiety is, in a sense, our visceral understanding the fact that we’re free. It’s a blessing to be anxious, and it’s not a symptom of an illness. It’s not a… It’s something that is itself, because we’re free. That’s an anxiety that you understand that you’re free. And he thinks anxiety is one of the greatest, greatest teachers. It’s contrary to what a lot of people in the medical profession would say, that we need to be able to sit with anxiety. And today we have so little patience for that. It’s just a symptom, get rid of it, this kinda thing. And so it’s quite a different view between Kierkegaard and the medical establishment on that issue.

Brett McKay: And didn’t he say something also that human beings are unique in the world, that we’re the combination of the infinite and the finite.

Gordon Marino: That’s right. Yeah, you got it. You got it. You’re gonna get an A in the course. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, that we have these… He thought… This is with Kierkegaard, you’re referring again to The Sickness Unto Death, and there he says we have these different aspects of our self, finitude, infinitude, temporality, eternity, possibility, and necessity. These are cognitive true aspects of our lives. And as human beings, we need to… We have to be able to relate those things to one another to be able to get some balance to integrate them.

Brett McKay: Right, and so that’s hard to integrate the infinite with the finite, and that it’s something… I don’t know, is it… Did Kierkegaard think it’d ever be resolved?

Gordon Marino: No, one of Kierkegaard’s main messages is that life is an ongoing process. So you can never… So for people who say, “Well, I’ve been saved. It’s all over.” He’d said, “That’s baloney. That’s bull.” That is always… Life is always a struggle. You always have to battle against certain temptations or whatever. There’s no end to it, right? So it’s a process. He’s very adamant about that. And then at any moment, you could lose it. So he talks about… He has this one story in the book, that you could look that up, The Sickness Unto Death, about a monk from India who’s lived on dew his whole life, he comes into the city, has one drink, and becomes an alcoholic. So that’s what our situation is. We’re that vulnerable, we’re that fragile, we need to remember that.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like, for Kierkegaard, anxiety can teach you… Yeah, I mean if you didn’t feel anxiety, would Kierkegaard say something’s wrong with you?

Gordon Marino: Oh, yeah. He’d say, “You were spiritless.” He literally says that in The Concept of Anxiety, that it’s a mark that we’re spirits and that we wanna do… And the anxiety is really about this, our spiritual potential. And he would say that what many of us do is concretize our anxiety, finitize it, in terms of I’m afraid I won’t get this job, or I’m afraid of doing this interview, or doing this or doing that. We try to turn our anxiety into these finite fears to escape it. That’s one of his views. It’s kind of a defense mechanism against the anxiety.

But the anxiety is really about, we have the potential to become human beings, full persons, which again, for him, means being a person of faith, but if the idea of faith is offensive to you, it would mean… Look, your main task in life is not to sit on the beach, not to accrue a… Build your resume up, but to be a decent human being.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And that idea of being spiritless if you don’t have anxiety, reminds me of Nietzsche’s The Last Man.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, that’s a good connection, very good connection, yeah, yeah. It’s funny because Nietzsche did read some Kierkegaard late in the 1880s, apparently, and they disagree on a lot. But they both agree that nihilism, this sense that nothing matters, is the greatest danger. And for the Last Man, he just wants to… The Last Man is just concerned about, “When’s my vacation?” Divides their life into work time and play time, and, “What’s on Netflix tonight?” And so yeah, that’s a very good point.

Brett McKay: Yeah. The Last Man, it’s like… I’ve heard it described as… I forgot the name of the guy who’s like the Nietzsche expert. He died. Solomon.

Gordon Marino: Yeah.

Brett McKay: He described The Last Man as the ultimate couch potato.

Gordon Marino: That’s right, that’s a good description. Solomon was very good. Yeah. No, that’s a really good description of that, couch potato.

Brett McKay: Just watches Netflix and just blinks. That’s all life is. Okay. So we talked about anxiety, and I guess Kierkegaard doesn’t have much of a solution, “Just sit with it, learn what the anxiety can teach with you.”

Gordon Marino: There’s no solution. The solution would be to sit with it and not finitize it, not… ‘Cause he thinks it’s dangerous, he says it can lead to suicide. So in that sense, you recognize it can be very dangerous, but, yeah, to sit with it and not to translate it into… What I’m really anxious about is whether or not I get into med school or this or that, right?

Brett McKay: Right.

Gordon Marino: And it’s okay to be anxious about those things, but that’s not the… That shouldn’t become your sense of identity. So can I make a little turn here?

Brett McKay: Sure, yeah.

Gordon Marino: Yeah. So for him, I think this is where we can get into this distinction for him between despair and depression. For him, it’s basically three selves: You have a concrete self, the self you are, and then you have this ideal self, and then there’s this self you were born to be, this child of God. So when this concrete self doesn’t become its ideal self you might get all your anxiety, all your fears are, “Am I gonna get into med school?” Or whatever. He says when the concrete self doesn’t get to be its ideal self it can’t stand… It wants to get rid of itself, it can’t stand being itself. It’s kind of a self-hatred. And he also says that for the person who does become successful… So that’s despair. Despair is wanting to be rid of yourself. Got it?

Brett McKay: Got it.

Gordon Marino: Okay? This kind of despair sounds a lot like depression. But he also says the person who realizes their dream is equally in danger because they become the big shot or whatever, and they don’t think about… Look, this is whether or not I’m head of the Rotary or all kinds of whatever stuff, that’s not the aim in life, it’s to become this… A certain kind of human being. He says they are also in despair even though they don’t feel bad. So for Kierkegaard, despair is not a feeling, it’s a state of the self, of being unaware of being a self and/or being unwilling to be a self, whereas depression is this kind of self-hatred. And I think we’ve lost that distinction.

Brett McKay: Right. So with depression today, we’ve medicalized it. Every time you feel sad, we’d be like, “Well, here… ” Even like grief, like, “Here, take this antidepressant and you’ll feel better.” Kierkegaard would say, “Maybe don’t do that, maybe that’s not healthy.”

Gordon Marino: Yeah. Learn to sit with it. I don’t think he’d be against all medications. There’s times when we’re just… When they can really rob us of our sense… Life can rob us of our sense of agency at some point. But we’ve gotten to the point where we have a very low threshold for dealing with anxiety and be down to sit with our feelings, sit with bad feelings. And I think that that’s been lost. I think we need to really work at that in our society, as you said. Sometimes, though, when people are dying, doctors will prescribe serotonin uptake drugs or antidepressants to the family as a prophylactic against grief. So we’ve taken human predicaments that are gonna hit us all and turned them into pathologies, illnesses. And I think Kierkegaard would take great issue with that.

Brett McKay: And this idea, this distinction between depression and despair, there’s people… Kierkegaard was a depressive. You quote these lines where he’s at the party, he was witty, and then when he came home, he wanted to kill himself, and he’d write that in his journal. But he said it’s normal to feel down like that. The thing you gotta be careful, like you said, you can’t let that depression fall into despair.

Gordon Marino: Okay. But despair here would not be like, it would be giving up on the project of… Suppose you got some terrible disappointment and you said, “Screw it, man. I don’t care anymore.” And you give up on the project of being a good, faithful person. That’s when despair comes in. Not with the bad feelings, it’s when you give up on being a self. Give up on being a human being.

Brett McKay: Right.

Gordon Marino: So that’s where I think the distinction between despair and depression comes in. He says… So he acknowledges he was depressive, but he doesn’t think he was in despair.

Brett McKay: And how do you know if you’re in despair or not?

Gordon Marino: Okay. That’s a complicated question for him, because you have to have the right concepts. So, he says a lot of people in this world, they’ll experience a jolt, something terrible will happen, and they’ll say they’re in despair. Yeah, they’re right, they’re in despair, but they have the wrong concept, you know what I mean? So they’re right that they’re in despair, but it’s as though they don’t understand what despair really is. The real despair is they’ve given up on being a self. They just… That’s not a big… That’s not an issue for them.

Brett McKay: So it’d be like… Okay, let’s see… So the example of… I like the example of what… To explore this idea with the person who’s doing well in life, who’s happy, got a great job, great family, but they’re still in despair, Kierkegaard said, because maybe they’ve given up on being that self, that true self. And maybe…

Gordon Marino: Yeah, everybody’s patting them on the back, “You’re the greatest thing,” so they don’t really think who their true self is. They ask themselves, “Have I been a good, faithful person?” And if you’re rich and powerful, nobody gives you any crap. They just pat you on the back, and you’re able to give money away without making any sacrifices, and it’s very intoxicating. So, again, you could do that and you could be very successful and be very happy. He thought happiness was really just a matter… We make a god term out of it. For Kierkegaard, it was just a… It had a lot to do with luck, fortune, and it was a passing kinda thing, and it shouldn’t be the aim of our life: Self-fulfillment, happiness. Our aim should be decent human beings.

Brett McKay: But even these happy, successful people, they might have those moments where they recognize… Like they’re laying in bed at night and they realize, “This is empty, this is not… ” So they recognize the despair, but Kierkegaard would say, “Well, you might have the wrong concept of it, ’cause what they probably end up doing is they just keep doing more of the same, right? They keep… ”

Gordon Marino: Yeah, it’s interesting you just bring that up. That’s a good point because he recognizes that kind of a person where they had these glimmers of like, “Yeah, everyone thinks I’m really great, but something’s missing.” And he says they generally go right back to sleep. They just jump into it again and try to forget those moments. He says that that’s the ordinary tendency. But, yeah, that’s a good example of some big CEO sitting in bed at night in his place on the beach or whatever, and he’s thinking, “Well, I’m very successful, but… ” And the next day he’s back to work, or she’s back to work.

Brett McKay: And then would Kierkegaard say that as soon as you recognize that disconnect between who you are and who you should be, you gotta act? Like you have to do something immediately, or otherwise you’ll just start rationalizing like, “Well, I got a mortgage to pay. I’ve gotta do this thing. I gotta do that.”

Gordon Marino: That’s an excellent question, because a lot of people ask about Kierkegaard’s ethics, and I think his greatest contribution to ethics was this idea of our capacity for self-deception, that we don’t need more ethics classes or workshops, whatever, we need to hold on to truths that are gonna lead us against our self-interest a lot of the time.

I think I bring it up in the book, this case where I was gonna tax resist because of our involvement in Nicaragua, the Contras, and a friend of mine told me when he was down there, he was saying they were killing all the midwives, the Contras. And I was going, “I’m gonna tax resist.” But at the same time, I was up for a finalist for a Fulbright, and someone says, “Well, you tax resist, and guess what’s gonna happen with the Fulbright?” And I said to myself, “Well, yeah, I think I better wait until later on in life. I can think of a stronger sin.”

So he thought procrastination was one of our greatest moral dangers, as you’re mentioning. Yeah, that if you think about it too long, you’re gonna convince yourself that the right way is the easy way. And that’s a very important insight, I think, a really important insight that you can convince yourself that the right way is the easy way, when in fact, the right way is oftentimes gonna lead you into a collision with the world.

Brett McKay: The example you just gave of your own personal experience, that reminded me, we talked about Mark Edmundson not too long ago, but he had that great book, Self and Soul, where he… I think it’s an existential book. He explores this idea, there’s these two selves inside of you, they’re competing, and sometimes the soul part, which is our higher conception, that true self, as Kierkegaard would say, and there’s oftentimes in life when their self part, which is like our need for recognition, our need for money, whatever, that conflicts, and you have to decide, “What is it you really want?”

Gordon Marino: That’s right. Well, yeah, it’s not so much what you really want, it’s what you should do.

Brett McKay: What you should do.

Gordon Marino: What’s the right thing to do? Yeah, that’s true. And a lot of times, I think in the course of history, I’ve always mentioned that the family is treated as the core of all moral values, etcetera, etcetera, but a lot of times it’s the biggest temptation to doing the right thing. For example, when lynchings, these thousands of lynchings that took place in America, there were people in those towns that hated them, disagreed with them, but you spoke out, you were gone. And then if you were in that situation where you wanna speak out, and you got kids, you say, “You know, I got my family… ” What do you think Nelson Mandela… He had kids. So sometimes the family can become a moral temptation. I’m sure that was the case in Nazi Germany, “I’d resist, but I have a family to take care of.”

Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s hard. That’s a tough one to do, to think about.

Gordon Marino: But it could also make life easy because then you’re free from having to make some painful decisions, too.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Well, let’s talk about another question that existentialness grappled with, this idea of authenticity, and everyone talks about authenticity these days.

Gordon Marino: You think so? I don’t hear anything.

Brett McKay: Well, but they talk about it I don’t think in the way that existentialists like, ’cause a while… I guess a couple of years ago, you’d see companies really talk about, “We have authentic, artisanal,” whatever.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, that’s true.

Brett McKay: Right. Or like people on… Your self-help type people, the, “You’ve gotta live your true self. I’m living my truth. You gotta be authentic.” And I think we have the existentialists to thank for this… I don’t know, this watered-down version of authenticity. But let’s talk about what do the existentialists think what it meant to be an authentic person?

Gordon Marino: Well, Kierkegaard didn’t talk about… Use that term very much, although it’s dragged out a lot. People find it in him. So for him, it would be to become your true self. But I think there’s… Someone like Nietzsche would’ve thought that to become authentic would be to… It was an act of self-creation, which is a lot of what people I think at some level think today, is to not define yourself in terms of the crowd, to become what he calls “the sovereign individual.”

So there’s this one notion of authenticity that might involve, you have this true self, which we’re born to become, right? And the other is, authenticity is creating yourself. And so those are two different takes on it, but I think we also have to consider the possibility. Well, suppose you’re a real jerk and you’re authentic. So authenticity could be a bad thing if you’re an evil person. So it’s not… It wouldn’t always be a good… It wouldn’t always be a good thing in that sense, but two different models there. Do you have this self you’re born to be or is it one of creating yourself to doing what you feel like, really… Which is the one I think that’s marketed most today. “Follow your passions,” that kinda stuff.

Brett McKay: What would the existentialists think about like the “follow your passion” thing, would some of them be onboard with that, or would they be like…

Gordon Marino: Yeah, some would. Yeah. Yes. Again, they disagree a lot. I mean, you have atheists that are existentialists, you have true believers like Cern. But yeah, Kierkegaard was very emphatic about the importance of passion, that’s for sure. But he wouldn’t say that our destiny in life is to follow our passions. I mean, suppose I have a passion for playing beach volleyball or something, I’m able to do it. I wasn’t put here on earth to play beach volleyball, even though… He would say we have duties and things like that that are very important.

Brett McKay: Well, he would say… Kierkegaard didn’t say the word authentic, but he would say… If we were to just pull it out of him, he’d be like… For him the authentic self would be like a child of God or whatever.

Gordon Marino: Or whatever. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or a good… For people who find talk of God blasphemy, it would be to be a good person, being a good person. That’s what you were born to be. You weren’t put here to hike all day or drive or ride your bike 1,000 miles. You’re here to help each other. We’re here to hold hands and be together and help each other.

Brett McKay: And I like this idea, I think Nietzsche, he was famous for quoting the poet Pindar, “Become who you are.” “Your task in life is to become who you are.” And I think it’s an interesting concept, because it’s like, okay, first you need to know, who are you? What is the you you’re supposed to become? And then, what does that process look like?

Gordon Marino: Yeah, but I think for Nietzsche, it’s an artistic process. Becoming who you are is not like… It’s not like Kierkegaard, where you were born with a certain… You were born a self before God or whatever. For Nietzsche, it’s more, rise above the crowd, develop the discipline, don’t evaluate yourself in terms of the market value or the herd, right? It involves a lot of self-discipline and everything. He talks about as a sovereign individual, but it’s much more of an act of creation for him, self-creation. And I think for Sartre as well, he thinks of it is as like an artistic project. And I think Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky probably would disagree with that. But what do you think of authenticity? What are your thoughts on it?

Brett McKay: I don’t know. It’s one of those… So I’ve read…

Gordon Marino: Who do you think are authentic people? Who have you said, “Man, that person’s authentic.”

Brett McKay: Man, I’ve met a few people, I think Kierkegaard described this person, going back to Kierkegaard’s Christian roots, like the person without guile.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, I think so, too. Yeah.

Brett McKay: You interact with them and you know they’ve got no other agenda. They’re just…

Gordon Marino: Nothing up their sleeve, yeah.

Brett McKay: Nothing up their sleeve.

Gordon Marino: Right. Right.

Brett McKay: I’ve interacted with a few people like that, and it’s really refreshing, because it’s just like you don’t…

Gordon Marino: And don’t you think there’s…

Brett McKay: Well, go ahead.

Gordon Marino: At home, when they’re…in some way, at home with themselves without being arrogant or something like that, I assess that with… Yeah, but you’re right, being a little… I think it’s Nathaniel, the disciples made … Jesus says something like, he’s a person of no guile. Yeah, I agree with you. Yeah, nothing up your sleeve.

Brett McKay: And also the idea of… When I’ve thought about the “become who you are” thing from Nietzsche. So it is an active self-creation, but I think the way I’ve read it is that Nietzsche would recognize that there are limitations to your creation. You have to understand the limits that you have. So for me, for example, I’m not particularly athletic, so becoming an NBA or NFL player, probably not in the books for me, but there’s other things that I could do with discipline and will that I could become who I am.

Gordon Marino: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, that’s right. I think that’s right. Yeah, he’d certainly want us to… Encourage you to recognize the necessity, the concreteness in your life. Yeah. Now, what… But I’m like, Kierkegaard wouldn’t have any normative moral parameters on that, so if you were to become… If you were a viking-type person or a killer or something like that, and that’s what your true passion worked at. I don’t know what there is in Nietzsche that would say, “You can’t do that,” that that’s wrong. He’s kind of a… He doesn’t have a lot of normative force there. But he has things that teach us about the moral life, in particular, not to be… That much of our lives is driven by resentment and the emotions like that. So I think he’s…

And even for people of faith, I think he’s very refreshing and very insightful. Yeah. And to let things go. Like, he read… Before he wrote The Genealogy of Morals, which is one of his greatest books, he read Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and it’s all about this capacity for self-laceration for tearing ourselves apart. For Nietzsche, you recognize there’s something wrong, you let it go, and you forget about it. You try to change your ways, but you don’t just chew yourself up about it, right? And he thinks there’s a lot of that in our society, a tendency to… What he calls bad conscience, to turn all our aggressions inward. So he says, for example, “To forgive someone is to just forget it.” There’s a lot of like, “Yeah, I’ll forgive you ’cause I need to move on in my life,” as though forgiveness were a form of therapy. It’s not. He’s saying, “You need to forget it. Let it go.” So that’s an important moral insight on his part.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I guess, Nietzsche would say, “The noble soul would do that.” Like the noble, he would just… They forget it. But like the resentful person, filled with resentment, would hold that grudge forever, basically.

Gordon Marino: Yeah. That’s right, yeah. Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s a beautiful… That’s a refreshing insight, the way he describes it. But he says that even with respect to our own lives, have you ever… I don’t know, I’ve had times when I’ve just gone over, “I can’t believe I did such and such… Oh my God.” You know, like stuff from 50 years ago or whatever. And it’s like, “Let it go, man.” He thinks this kinda self-laceration is part of what he calls a slave revolt, but that’s another story, and Camus would agree. And if you read Camus’ The Fall, amazing book. It’s the tendency towards self-laceration.

Brett McKay: Speaking of Nietzsche’s ideas about ethical and moral decisions, one thing you taught… You suss out from him is that Nietzsche is a… He has a call for people to live dangerously. What do you think he means by that?

Gordon Marino: Well, to take a risk, and that’s something, again, where Kierkegaard and Nietzsche would complement one another is that this willingness to take risks, to venture, which he thinks in our society is to keep all their bases open. We live in a very pragmatic… And he says, “No, man, live dangerously, take chances.” I yell that at my students when they don’t speak up in class, like, “Come on, live dangerously. Ask a damn question, will you?” [chuckle] We’re reading Nietzsche, and they’re afraid to raise their hand. So I say, “Come on, live dangerously. Ask a question. We’re not leaving until I’ve got three questions,” I’ll say. But yeah, so this willingness to take risks.

Brett McKay: Other than the story you give that is related to that, you talk about how around exam time, you get all these emails from your students asking like, “What’s gonna be on the test? Is this answer… Would this answer be right?” And you finally have to tell them just like, “You guys just need to get a grip.” ‘Cause like they’re concerned about, “I gotta get the A so I can graduate and get the internship,” whatever. They’re thinking last… Being like last men, Nietzsche would say. And he would say, “You guys gotta get a grip.” You talked about… It was like the anniversary of D-Day, and you were saying, “There was 20-year-olds who were just… They were storming Normandy, and you’re worried about whether you’re gonna get an A on this test.”

Gordon Marino: That went over really big, yeah, I said, “Hey man, about this time in 1944, and Eisenhower come out and said a bunch of… Most of you people won’t be coming back tomorrow, baby. Most of you people won’t be coming back.” I said, “That was something to be anxious about. Get it in, get a grip.” And oh man, that was… Some people didn’t like that talk. [chuckle] Go ahead.

Brett McKay: They wanted to play it safe. They wanted to know what the… They wanted to fill in the box. But you would say… Nietzsche would say, like for a test about existentialism like, Nietzsche would say, “Be bold, live dangerously. Answer something that’s coming from yourself that creates something.” Even if the professor doesn’t like it, he would say, “Just go for it.”

Gordon Marino: Yeah, well, I wouldn’t say… Yes, I don’t know about. Now that some students go for it. But yeah, rather than leaving it blank. But yeah. Do your study but don’t be so scared of like… ” I have a student… I love… Students will freak out if they don’t get an A, and they get an A-, that kind of stuff, they’re just so frightened of not being successful, of not… This kind of obsession with their… Whatever, as opposed to… They don’t… Well, academically, what happens all the time is that they won’t take any risks. So people will only take courses they know they can get a good grade in. They won’t study. They’ll come to a liberal arts college and won’t stretch themselves, won’t study things that aren’t on their bailiwick. That’s where the coaching comes in, though, when at times like that where I’m like, “Get a grip, stop the baby stuff, will you?” [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Take a punch.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, man. Yeah. Yeah. And they’ll come… Yeah.

Brett McKay: And going back to Kierkegaard’s idea of like… He would agree with Nietzsche about this idea, “You got to live dangerously.” For him, this segues nicely to Kierkegaard’s concept of faith. For Kierkegaard, faith was kind of a… It was a scary thing, it was a dangerous thing for Kierkegaard.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, he would disagree with Freud, it was someone or Freud who says, “Believe because we want protection for… Yes, to stand before God to realize… ” That’s terrifying for Kierkegaard. And to stand out from the crowd, he thinks it requires great imagination, ’cause he says to book that faith is an offence to reason, it’s a collision with the understanding. So it’s very scary. I never… I don’t see proof of Jesus going around or anybody getting up from the grave quietly. So, yeah, it’s very… It’s scary for him. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Another concept or an idea that existentialists grapple with is this idea of love. How did they… Obviously, they had differing ideas about what love was or what it meant in life. But what gives a bird’s-eye view of what existentialists thought about love?

Gordon Marino: For Kierkegaard, it was a passion, a duty, and involved a feeling. He has all these… It’s a lot of different admissibles, but it’s primarily a duty. We have a duty to love others. And that involves a lot of things like becoming blind to their sins and that kind of a thing. Sartre doesn’t write about it that much, but I found one of the most illuminating passages was from Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground, where he thinks that we have a hard time accepting… It’s just so amazing to be loved by someone who freaking knows you, right? Who knows what an ass… What a jerk you can be. Then that’s just remarkable. We all wanna be loved for like being cool or our accomplishments, right? But to be loved by someone who really knows you, good and bad qualities, is just amazing.

And Dostoevsky said we have a hard… Because of the power dynamic, we don’t want… The problem is, a lot of the time, to accept being loved for who you are. We always think of love as, “I wanna get as much as I can,” or, “I want people to love me.” No, he says, “It’s really one of being able to accept love from someone who knew you.” And he thinks that’s a problem. That’s one of the offensive things about Christianity, is that Jesus knows us and loves us and forgives us, and there’s nothing that makes… Dostoevsky thinks there’s nothing that makes people more angry than to be told, “I forgive you.” So we don’t often think about the task of being able to accept love from people who know all our flaws. And I think that’s a beautiful insight.

Brett McKay: No, yeah. I like this quote in the book that you have. He says, “We need the love of others to love ourselves, but in order to be nurtured by the love of others, we need to love ourselves sufficiently to accept that love.”

Gordon Marino: Yeah, and that’s why I think one of the issues today… With issues about race and social justice, I mean, just… All the boxers that I train are Mexican immigrants. Man, they get nothing but crap half the time. Everyone looks down on them like they’re invisible. That can affect your ability to love yourself. We think we need to think of racism and this social injustice as infecting people’s ability to love themselves, because a lot of times, when you have that kind of social injustice, you also have economic things, things going on at home that are bad, there are kids’ parents who are always pissed off or split up. You go to school angry, you get nothing but crap from teachers, and so… And I think Kierkegaard missed the boat on this one. That to truly love ourselves, it really helps to get love from others and not be treated as dirt or invisible, which is how a great many human beings are treated.

Brett McKay: Well, Kierkegaard did say this thing, he talks, you need to presuppose love in others, that other people are capable of love.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, that’s right. You’ve been doing your studying, man. That’s impressive. Yeah, that’s right. And I think, there he’s saying, “This is hard stuff, because I like to hate certain people. There’s certain people I really like to be angry at.” But yeah, the task of love is to assume that the love in the other person, which I take to mean that, it’s to presuppose our ultimate goodness, which is, that’s a leap of faith, right?

Brett McKay: Yeah, that is a leap of faith. And then…

Gordon Marino: I mean, really like, somebody just… I don’t think it’s a monster, but just somebody that irritates the hell out of you. I mean, somebody just like, “I just… ” David Foster Wallace, you probably heard… What is it, All’s water or warm water…

Brett McKay: Yeah, right.

Gordon Marino: Beautiful, beautiful graduation speech. Almost up there with some of Kurt Vonnegut’s, whom I love. But this idea of just thinking about what might be going on in someone else’s life. A lot of times, I’ve gotten pissed off at people, and then found out later what they were going through. Sometimes, the impediments… We feel like we’re having a hard time presupposing love or caring about somebody who irritates the hell out of us. So at that point, we might wanna catch that feeling and say, “Hey, man, something might… Somethings going on here.” Or maybe… Could be something I don’t know.

Brett McKay: Yeah, sometimes, whenever someone’s annoying, we sometimes justify ourselves to not care about or love that person. It’s like, “Well, they’re annoying, they deserve it. They don’t deserve… ”

Gordon Marino: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But Kierkegaard would say… I mean, by presupposing love in others, Kierkegaard’s saying… I think maybe this is what he’s saying, tell me if I’m wrong, is that you’re recognizing that the other person is spirit, or has the potential for an authentic or whatever self.

Gordon Marino: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Let’s bring back boxing into this. What do you think boxing can teach us about existential philosophy?

Gordon Marino: Well, it’s not what boxing teaches, it’s how boxing can change your life. So in order to be a decent… Yeah, I guess there’s a connection with existentialists. But in order to… I keep harping on the preaching. In order to be a good person, we gotta be able to deal with emotions like anger and anxiety. But we don’t get many workshops on that in everyday life. Most people live in these protected circumstances.

Whether, never takes a medication for your anxiety, anger sometimes treated as more taboo than sexuality. And those are really key emotions. And in boxing, there’s a… It’s like a workshop for dealing with those. You can’t be… George Foreman once told me… ‘Cause he’s a devout Christian, a man of great faith. I have a lot of respect for him. And he once told me, “Man, boxing makes people less violent because you can’t be successful at the sport unless you learn to control your emotions.” You should see people in their first three or four bouts, it’s just fight or flight. But over time, they learn how to control their emotions, but more than that, he said… ‘Cause he was… He came back… His comeback. He started his comeback, after being outta boxing 13 years, to finance his gym he was running, and he said, “Man, there’s a lot of people… There’s a lot of kids in that gym that their parents never… Their father’s never around, but as soon as they start boxing, the folks are there.”

So all of a sudden, some people will get this affirmation that they don’t get anywhere else in life. And we all need affirmation somewhat, like most of… A lot of us are patted on the back, “Oh, you’re smart,” you’re this, you’re that. There’s a lot of kids who never get that affirmation. And then they go to the boxing gym and they work at it, and, man, then they’re going, “You’re cool, you’re this, that’s really… You’re something.” We don’t want just this kind of respect for each other, we need more than that. We need intimacy and a closeness that you also get in a boxing gym. It’s like a family, man. There’s no racist in the box. Everybody… It’s a family.

But more than that, you get affirmed just by getting in the ring. And so that need for affirmation is huge and can make people blossom. I started boxing right after the Wall Street Journal for many, many years, and HBO and everything, and you meet these champions who come from rough circumstances, and you see how they’ve been molded by, how they’ve been changed by. Mike Tyson’s a friend, how they’ve been changed by the love they’ve gotten from the sport. Self-discipline and affirmation can come outta boxing. And again, there’s not many other places…

Even in coaching football, nobody talks about courage anymore. It’s all about strategy and all this technique and stuff like that. Boxing, man, it’s like, “Stick in there, you gotta be courageous. You gotta deal with your fears.” It’s a workshop on that but it’s gotta be in a place where… In a gym, where people know what they’re doing and it’s safe.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ve had a podcast guest on about that idea of affirmation. He made the case, “People need two things, they need to be noticed and they need to be needed.”

Gordon Marino: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good point. Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. And a lot of time we just talk about respect. Respect is such a cold idea. We gotta respect others, yeah, we gotta respect others but we need more than respect, we need love, man, we need togetherness. We need to be sometimes told we’re good at something. And it also involves telling people when they’re screwing up. One of the things I learned in boxing from my mentor, a Marine, when I used to head coach at VMI was, “To love somebody is to tell them stuff they don’t wanna hear.” And so it’s a loving thing to do sometimes ’cause most people don’t wanna do that because it leads to… It’s not fun. Person might get pissed off. That we need to be able, as mentors, to tell people they don’t… Things they don’t wanna hear sometimes. And they’re still the… And you gotta have that base of love where they know you’re not rejecting them wholesale, right?

Brett McKay: Well, Gordon, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work and your book?

Gordon Marino: Well, my book is The Existentialist’s Survival Guide. It’s published by Harper, and they can just go on to Amazon, and get it in most bookstores. If people have questions, they can email me at [email protected] I’m happy to take questions. I’m on Twitter at @gordonmarino. And I have a website, but I haven’t gotten… My kids try and help me get it up and running, and so I’m happy to take any questions. And it’s been a real joy talking with you. And I really appreciate your knowledge of Kierkegaard, etcetera. So I’m giving you an A for the class.

Brett McKay: I appreciate that. Well, Gordon Marino, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Gordon Marino: Thank you, my friend, be well.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Gordon Marino. He’s the author of the book, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at aom.is/existential. You can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you not only listen to the AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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