Žižek on Wisdom

Personally, one of the most interesting and entertaining modern philosophers is Slavoj Žižek. If you’re not acquainted then I highly recommend checking out his many works and lectures. I based a large part of my analysis of the film SNOWPIERCER on his book, VIOLENCE.

I love this short excerpt from an interview with Paul Holdengräber where Žižek interrogates the belief in wisdom which, in classic Žižek fashion, he calls “disgusting.” People express proverbial statements quite often. For example, consider all the internet memes that people constantly share with inspirational advice and alleged “truths” about the human experience. Žižek explains how these platitudes are all superficial and devoid of meaning in a few short minutes.

He essentially argues that any iteration using this brand of wisdom, delivered with the right quality of profound emotion, sounds credible. The most dangerous part is implied to be that this recourse to wisdom can be used to interpret any behavior or situation, which leads to rejecting critical thought and analysis about the implications of our actions in favor of perceived intelligence which always justifies our motives.

The example he uses is how we consider the ephemeral nature of our lives when compared to the eternal. There are numerous versions Žižek runs through that all appear to bear deep knowledge, but all lack value because of their interchangeability.

To paraphrase:

We might say that our time is short and instead of concern for material goods and short term satisfaction, we need to think about the afterlife and what lies beyond.

In another variation, you could declare that we should be concerned with the here and now, enjoy what time we have and what pleasures you can; do not worry about eternity.

For another position, one accepts that instead of the eternal and temporary as opposites, we instead recognize that we’re caught between these poles and need to find what is everlasting in the short time we possess.

Yet we still might avow that we must recognize and surrender completely to the fact that impermanence and infinity are not reconcilable.

They all sound “true” and immersed in profundity, saying something that on the surface seems erudite, but, as Harry Nilsson so astutely noted, “a point in any direction is the same as no point at all.”

Žižek extends the argument further, indicating not only do these “wise” statements exhibit flawed thinking because of their malleability to fit any circumstance, but that in accepting and buying into this way of thinking is problematic in addressing challenges and finding compromise.

We may make decisions we regret because we can all too easily qualify our deeds by pointing to wisdom as a shield. It can be used as a defense for all actions because it strikes us emotionally, and feels correct upon initial encounter, but does not hold the substance and gravitas we expect upon further introspection. In other words, approaching our lives with this convenient wisdom makes us hasty and impetuous.

While you may disagree with how Žižek takes this argument in application to Christianity, the takeaway is that we need to be thoughtful and engaged with how we accept beliefs, the ways in which we act upon them, and the reasons behind them. Overall, Žižek argues in support of pausing to think for ourselves and not settling for what we have been traditionally led to believe is insightful.

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