In 1956, author Colin Wilson set about studying the mind of various artists, writers and philosophers, which included Vincent van Gogh, H. G. Wells, Franz Kafka, William Blake, Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. While investigating the personality of these men, Wilson observed that they possessed psychology quite different from the people around them. Those who belonged in the society around them, whom Wilson referred to as the bourgeois, were preoccupied with the social and material aspects of life. They made up the majority and, because of their temperament, saw the world as fundamentally an ordered place. However, when these artists and writers looked out at the world, they saw existence filled with absurd chaos. Wilson called such people “Outsiders”.
For the Outsider, there is an irrational and terrifying aspect of reality difficult for them to ignore. Unlike the bourgeois, the Outsider has a mind that is unable to disregard the uneasy aspects of the human condition, like the presence of suffering and loneliness, the inevitability of death and the search for purpose. The material and social side of life do nothing to effectively tranquilise the Outsider from contemplating these existential issues. As Wilson states, the Outsider has a problem and that is that they “see too deep and think too much”.
There may exist a time in many people’s lives where the ordinary outside world loses the values it is ingrained with and seems different from what they thought it was. In these moments, daily trivialities disappear and we are thrust into what seems like another dimension of experiencing life. This feeling exists in someone who suffers an existential crisis or a midlife crisis, and such moments are characterised by questions like “who am I?”, “what am I doing here?” and “am I free?” To the majority, these questions may be fleeting and occur randomly throughout one’s lifetime. To the Outsider, however, this type of contemplation is involuntary and relentless. Wilson believed that it is this temperamental difference which makes the Outsider different from the bourgeois around them.
The Outsider’s problems
During an existential crisis, one may conclude that the world does not have any real intrinsic values that are bound and determined. Indeed, this is what the Outsider believes. The Outsider reasons that the values that we live by are just our creations and thus, we are free to create new values. While the bourgeois view such freedom to live and think differently to those around them with terror; the Outsider believes that to accept another person’s concept of order and to live by it is cowardice. They, therefore, desire to be free as freedom is the most imperative thing in life.
The hunger for the freedom to live as one wishes presents the Outsider with their first problem: they must find out what to do with their free will and learn in what accordance to live their life. This is especially the case because existing values are meaningless to the Outsider. Wilson suggested that the Outsider has a preoccupation with free will and how to live in the right way that the bourgeois does not. To the Outsider, one must live for truth and not their nation, society or family. The Outsider concludes that it is essential that they, and everybody around them, think for themself and solve the question of good and evil by themself.
Naturally, the Outsider looks with dismay at the bourgeois. The Outsider sees that the bourgeois, like any human being, has the same impulse to ask existential questions and yet they work very hard to keep these inquiries at bay. To avoid asking questions which have answers that may lie outside mainstream society (like why we suffer, how to prepare for death and what we should with our lives), the bourgeois perform an act of self-delusion. They protect themself from contemplating their suffering, death and intrinsic loneliness by blinding themselves with ideology, material wealth or social trivialities. As the Outsider William blake notes, “Man is born alone and he dies alone. If he allows his social relations to delude him into forgetting his fundamental loneliness, he is living in a fool’s paradise.”
The Outsider believes that they see through this self-delusion, and because of this, that they are conscious of a greater depth of the human condition than the bourgeois. They are convinced that everyone is in a prison, bourgeois and Outsiders alike, but the bourgeois are content in this prison and like a herd of sheep, they have an instinct to follow what the majority does. The Outsider, on the other hand, has no such instinct but instead has the appetite to seek the truth about the human condition. They desire to escape the prison. So long as we are in a prison, we will be unfulfilled – that is the verdict of the Outsider.
But while it might seem that the Outsider views the bourgeois with nothing but contempt; the Outsider believes that everyone, not just those with a temperament like their own, has the faculty to question and contemplate the human condition. This is the second problem for the Outsider: they are eager to show the uneager about the truth of existence. Their view is that all human beings are born with this curiosity about their existence but they lose it. In a way, the ideas of original sin, damnation and salvation are appealing to the Outsider as they represent the need for human beings to return to a state of consciousness which contemplates existence, outside of worldly troubles. According to the Outsider, the ability to contemplate the human condition is lost in many because the society we live in bombards us with trivialities. Their conclusion – we must redeem ourself and regain this ability.
“There is an old Eastern fable about a traveler who is taken unawares on the steppes by a ferocious wild animal. In order to escape the beast the traveler hides in an empty well, but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open, ready to devour him. The poor fellow does not dare to climb out because he is afraid of being eaten by the rapacious beast, neither does he dare drop to the bottom of the well for fear of being eaten by the dragon. So he seizes hold of a branch of a bush that is growing in the crevices of the well and clings on to it. His arms grow weak and he knows that he will soon have to resign himself to the death that awaits him on either side. Yet he still clings on, and while he is holding on to the branch he looks around and sees that two mice, one black and one white, are steadily working their way round the bush he is hanging from, gnawing away at it. Sooner or later they will eat through it and the branch will snap, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveler sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish. But while he is still hanging there he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the bush, stretches out his tongue and licks them. In the same way I am clinging to the tree of life, knowing full well that the dragon of death inevitably awaits me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand how I have fallen into this torment. And I try licking the honey that once consoled me, but it no longer gives me pleasure. The white mouse and the black mouse – day and night – are gnawing at the branch from which I am hanging. I can see the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tastes sweet. I can see only one thing; the inescapable dragon and the mice, and I cannot tear my eyes away from them. And this is no fable but the truth, the truth that is irrefutable and intelligible to everyone.
The delusion of the joys of life that had formerly stifled my fear of the dragon no longer deceived me. No matter how many times I am told: you cannot understand the meaning of life, do not thinking about it but live, I cannot do so because I have already done it for too long. Now I cannot help seeing day and night chasing me and leading me to my death. This is all I can see because it is the only truth. All the rest is a lie.
Those two drops of honey, which more than all else had diverted my eyes from the cruel truth, my love for my family and for my writing, which I called art – I no longer found sweet.”Leo Tolstoy, from A Confession and Other Religious Writings
Wilson points out that those of us who develop an obsession with life’s existential questions also possess a mind that is highly sensitive to the outside world. In particular, the suffering in the world. The Outsider, because he possesses such a mind, is sensitive to the inherent suffering that exists in humanity. They can not help but have a more intense insight into the human condition than the bourgeois. Because of the way their minds work, the Outsider is forced to see too deep and think too much. According to Wilson, this is another key aspect of the Outsider’s nature: they are unwillingly more aware of the depths of human misery.
For the Outsider’s, an intense awareness of human suffering is joined also with an acute understanding of the inevitability of death. And this is yet another problem for the Outsider – they possess a mind that is highly sensitive and because of this, they can not ignore all the things in the world that torment people, from their vices to the malicious people around them to uncontrollable tragedies. Thus, it is common for an Outsider to regularly meditate on the vulnerability of human beings in the absurd world around them. “Most men die like animals” believes the Outsider and in this way, death is in their eyes a harsh reality of existence which has no sympathy for any living being. The Outsiders problems (the search for meaning in a valueless world, the compulsion for triviality in those around them and especially the barbarous presence of suffering and death) may lead them to the view that living is futile. Therefore, the solution to the Outsider’s problems lies in finding an appetite for life.
The solution for a thought-riddled nature
The Outsider’s problems are not new. In many religions, the stories of prophets follow a similar pattern to the life of the Outsider. They are born in a society with values that they are bewildered by. They look out at the world and are consumed by the immeasurable suffering around them. They retreat into solitude to find the truth about existence. Once they return, they preach the rejection of worldly gains for something more ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’. As Wilson states, “the Outsider’s miseries are the prophet’s teething pains”.
When one looks at the Outsider’s problems and what they believe, it is clear to see that they are essentially a religious person. The obsession with what to do with one’s life, the desire to show those around them the truth of the human condition, and the sensitivity to suffering are all religious in nature. When it is understood that thinking too much is the source for all these problems, religion seems like the best solution as it encourages a person to think only about serving a higher purpose. But Wilson found that the Outsider rejects religion. Like all prophets, Outsiders believe that the religions of their time do not sufficiently address the existential questions they have. The Outsider judges that religion is the creation of others to comfort others. Contemplating free will, salvation and suffering may be religious thinking but the Outsider knows that his solution lies outside existing religious systems. To find the solution to their problems, they must create their own values and act them out.
“Recent psychology…speaks of the threshold of a man’s consciousness in general to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other stimuli which it takes to arouse his attention at all. Ones with a high threshold will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold would be immediately waked…And so we might speak of a ‘pain threshold’, a ‘fear threshold’, a ‘misery threshold’, and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness. The sanguine and healthy-minded habitually live on the sunny side of their misery line; the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension.
Does it not appear as if one who live habitually on one side of the pain threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?”The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James
As mentioned, the cause of the Outsider’s problems lies in their overthinking. Thinking is the root of one’s psychological characteristics like one’s intellect, personality and identity. But a human being is more than their thoughts – they are their body and emotions too. For the Outsider, such psychological characteristics dominate these other faculties so that they all are not working in cooperation. Thought alone is impractical and impeding, and a balance with action (the body) is needed. This was the conclusion drawn by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, it can be seen in many human beings that when they change their actions and habits, their mental outlook also changes.
Nietzsche believed that when other philosophers judged human thought as superior to our other faculties, they were separating thought from life itself. According to Nietzsche, they were failing to recognise that thought was just one instrument for living a “more abundant life”. Alongside thought, one must act in a way of affirmation. He suggested that we must live life accepting and praising everything in existence. Nietzsche’s philosophy, otherwise known as vitalism, is one that sees everything as good and it encourages a person to think less about the world and embrace it in their actions.
If the Outsider accepts that they must act with Nietzsche’s affirmation to balance their thought-riddled nature, they might see that their temperament is indeed a biological gift to live more abundantly. Hence, their need to seek the truth, to question what existence is all about, is not a symptom of mental disease. Instead, it is a sign of a healthy mind that is dissatisfied by the trivial world and, in asking questions about what it means to be alive, leads it to a more meaningful life. In accepting Nietzsche’s philosophy, the Outsider not only questions whether they can aim higher but is also not afraid of what life throws at them when they aim higher.
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Gay Science