Nikos Kazantzakis is best known for Zorba the Greek, considered his magnum opus. The Last Temptation of Christ and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel brought him additional fame and solidified his literary reputation. He narrowly missed receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, losing to Albert Camus in 1957 by a single vote. On his tombstone on the island of Crete, his birthplace, are inscribed these words: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
These are bold words, chosen by a man who lived life boldly. It has a Nietzschean ring to it, not at all surprising since he admired the author of the Will to Power. In fact, he penned his philosophy dissertation on Nietzsche. By contrast, the Jesuit epitaph, marked by dates, is far more modest, inscribed by three simple words: natus (birth), ordinatus (ordination), mortus (death). The implication here is, “let God be the judge of the deceased’s life and character.”
The main problem with Kazantzakis’ inscription, dramatic as it may be, is that it is impossible to believe. This Greek writer and philosopher was also deeply involved in politics and was disillusioned with Soviet-style communism. No doubt he had hoped for better things on the political horizon and feared that these hopes might not be realized.
Hope and fear are bound to each other. If I hope to recover from an illness, I also fear that I might not. Not to hope or fear may indicate a condition of apathy, rather than boldness. It seems utterly contrary to human nature to live without either hope or fear. But for Kazantzakis, the avoidance of these two emotions means that he is “free.”
Yet, this freedom seems to be sterile and directionless. It seems to lack content. Kazantzakis was intensely creative and his epitaph reflects a condition that he, nor anyone else for that matter, could ever attain, though he may have desired it with all his being.
Life on earth is a pilgrimage. We are wayfarers, hoping to find direction and meaning in a world of troubles. Our hope is shadowed by the fear that the world might betray us. Life is a struggle filled with uncertainties and hidden enemies. We were made to hope for better things than what defines our present situation.
Only in heaven will we no longer need hope, for our highest hope will be perfectly realized with God. At the same time, we will have nothing left to fear. We will be free to be fully ourselves and be united in the arms of Divine Love.
What we most desire on earth cannot be fully realized on earth, but only in heaven. Kazantzakis boldly attempted to have heaven on earth. He believed in only the heaven he could experience on earth. Nothing else mattered.
In his 1956 novel, Freedom and Death, he expresses his own convictions when he has a character state, “What is all this talk put out by the popes? Paradise is here, my good man. God, give me no other paradise!”
“We come from a dark abyss,” he wrote, “we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life.” The searing question, however, remains: how does a luminous light suddenly appear out of sheer darkness, and why is it so quickly extinguished? The mind revolts against this kind of gratuitous discontinuity.
The Christian, whose hopes and fears are his constant companions in his life’s odyssey, firmly believes in continuity. He believes that God knew him in some way from all eternity, gave him birth, and opened the Gates of Heaven for him. The Christian believes that the Son proceeds from the Father and that resurrection follows the sequence of life and death.
Nietzsche advised that since we can save ourselves through our own grace, we do not need God. But if God does not exist, neither does heaven. As a result, we try to create a heaven out of our earthly sojourn. In this way, we cheat ourselves of the real heaven as well as the real value of life. The finite is not an adequate receptacle for the infinite.
Freedom, even empty freedom, is the summum bonum of the atheistic existentialists. Jean-Paul Sartre also proclaimed that, “we must act without hope.” Freedom without connections, however, is both undesirable and worthless. Beatitude is our highest goal, and one that is infinitely more satisfying and enriching than empty freedom.
The world makes an impoverished paradise. The fact of death is ample proof of this. But Kazantzakis was right in describing life as “luminous.” The gift of life is, indeed, luminous, but this luminous quality, as the “Luminous Mysteries” of the Rosary suggest, represents a light that originates in God and illumines man’s path back to Him.
Light does not emerge from darkness. Darkness, which is nothing, has no power to generate anything. God’s light is everlasting. It proceeds from Him—“Let there be light”—and illuminates the mind and heart of man as well as the world around him. Life is luminous only because it originates in God. Life is meaningful because it is a path that leads back to God.
Our world is not a dead-end, but a prelude to a better one, one that is the object of our deepest hope. Heaven is the very last thing we hope to be free from. May Nikos Kazantzakis rest in peace.