Nikos Kazantzakis was a Greek writer and philosopher of whom many consider to be the most important and most translated Greek writer of the 20th century. He was one vote short of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature when he was nominated in in 1957, having lost to Albert Camus. Unfortunately, he died that same year, never seeing the fame that would come to him in later years. Most people were introduced to his work through Michael Cacoyannis’s 1964 film version of the author’s great novel, Zorba the Greek (1946). Zorba is basically a philosophical treatise about life. How does one live it? How does one deal with the mutability of it? The tragedies? The failures? Does one stand on the sidelines of life and never jump in? Does one fear getting married or fear having children or fear doing any activity that could fail or come to naught? Zorba tells us what to do. And in the end, when the whole bloody mess comes falling down around us, and all our plans and schemes are for naught, what do you do? Dance. Dance as hard and as wild as you can.
How did Kazantzakis come to philosophies such as this? Even as a young man, he was spiritually unsettled and wrestled with metaphysical concerns. He found many answers to his questions as he traveled, met different types of people and had diverse experiences. His travels took him throughout Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa, and even as far as Japan and China. He studied in Paris under Henri Bergson and wrote his dissertation on the philosophies of Nietzsche. Yet, his spiritual questions lingered and he entered a monastery for a short time. In 1927 Kazantzakis published in Greek his “Spiritual Exercises” (Greek: “Ασκητική”), later translated into English as The Saviors of God. In his book, The Last Temptation of Christ (1953) the Christ shares Katzantzakis’ metaphysical and existential concerns, seeking answers to haunting questions and often torn between his sense of duty and mission, on one side, and his own human needs to enjoy life, to love and to be loved, and to have a family. The work was banned by both the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.
On his tombstone are words that translate into English “I hope for nothing. I fear no one. I am free.” Influenced by Buddhist teachings, Kazantzakis was not opposed to that form of hope that is often coupled with faith and optimism. He was opposed to hope that is based upon desire and expectations of favorable outcomes, because he believed that desire and expectations, like fear, keep people focused on future events, rendering them incapable of living and experiencing life in the present moment. His freedom and his ability to ‘dance’ came from learning to abandon expectations and to live fearlessly in the ebb and flow of every moment.
Here are some quotes by Kazantzakis that you may appreciate:
“That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.”
They think of me as a scholar, and intellectual, a pen-pusher. And I am none of them. When I write, my fingers get covered not in ink, but in blood. I think I am nothing more than this: an undaunted soul.”
“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.”
“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”
“Beauty is merciless. You do not look at it, it looks at you and does not forgive.”
“God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.”
“Everything in this world has a hidden meaning.”
“The highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!”
“I said to the almond tree, “Friend, speak to me of God,” and the almond tree blossomed.”
“In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can.”
“Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all … is not to have one.”
“How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. . . . All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.”
“My entire soul is a cry, and all my work is a commentary on that cry.”
“Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.”
“I was happy, I knew that. While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
“The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness.”
“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel-to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.”