Vitalism: The Philosophy of Energy

Energy is Structure, Structure is Beauty

“Summer Idyll” by Auguste Leveque

It was Louise Pasteur who said “A bit of science distances one from God, but much science nears one to him,” an epigram I’d also use for “A bit of materialism distances one from god, but much materialism nears one to him.”

Or if not god, something just as interesting.

Like any idea, materialism is no monolith. You can see ‘empirical pessimists’ like Yuval Harari, for example, arguing that people desire money and status — but that both are ‘fictions.’ Why do these fictions influence us the most? Harari answers: they are the biggest and most successful. Then he concludes Silicon Valley rule is neigh but we’re all just dust in the wind, anyways.

What? Didn’t we postpone the question? Why this fiction above others? Why do these ones particularly resonate with us?

Thus far, ‘materialism’ has been obsessed with language. This includes ‘radical empiricists’ like Marx, John Locke, and every other Anglo, who studied mere incentives. Everyone presumes that just the right language framework will fit everything into place. But is language even material? Didn’t Harari just say money is fictional? This language fetish defers on the main thing: actual material.

True materialism must dig beneath this false cellar. Besides language, what characterizes the world of blood, the body, and nature?

It’s hardly more atoms bumping against each other. Nor is it Darwin’s static encyclopedia of various species.

Viewed in all its variety, life contains such a common motif as to crystallize into an intention. In its beginning and at present, life is the ceaseless pursuit of energy. It is the will to power of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, which I extrapolate as vitalism.

This post will answer the epigram at the beginning to argue materialism is different in tone and profundity than the traditional account. At stake is a philosophy that can encompass science, tradition, futurism, and the good life. Once we conceive of the unity and comprehensiveness of vitality, all of this becomes much easier.

An intention in nature

Penguin Classics cover for Nietzsche’s “The Joyous Science”

When most recall evolution, they think of Darwin’s natural selection. They consider the giraffe’s neck, for example. Short-necked giraffes used to exist but became extinct once low-hanging foliage ran out. Out of this bottleneck came the long-necked giraffes we know today. The story focuses on periods of scarcity. Its praxis — especially in departmentalized academia — is cataloging the scattered circumstances and mutations of life. Like history, nature is rendered as something passive and reactive, as “one thing after another.”

Since Darwin, however, this account has completely changed. Sexual selection, for example, describes aggressive and often ‘absurd’ competition within species. The peacock’s feathers are an absurdity of efficiency. Rather than scarcity, they can only be explained by escalating competition to attract mates through more colorful and creative displays of the feathers and the peacock’s health. While Darwin alludes to sexual selection in Origin of the Species, it was introduced as a secondary concern. Today, few evolutionary scientists in the field refute that the human brain is just like the peacock’s feather and that all our ‘excesses’ in art, science, and civilization are the continuation of this drive. Natural selection describes episodes of scarcity. Sexual selection describes the pursuit of political domination and better mates within a species. Life in this sense is not passive mutation, but an ongoing and present drive fulfilling its will throughout all species’ political and sexual arenas.

Whence this intensity? Why not, on the other hand, an equilibrium between a species’ needs and the ecosystem’s capacity? Why, in other words, a process? And if there is a process, what is its primary trend?

We’ve already alluded to the answer: the will to power, or the pursuit of energy.

Evolution is not a catalog of scattered mutations, but a definitive trend. Scientists describe this as ‘life becoming more complex’ but this an effect of the main event. In the beginning, were amoebas barely differentiated from clusters of chemicals. They absorbed mitochondria to produce ATP and energy more efficiently. This produced structure: confederacies of organelles, cell walls, and eukaryotic life that eventually became plants synthesizing solar energy. Eventually, animals evolved who ate these plants. Just as it seemed life had settled into this new paradigm, predatory animals developed from out of the ruminants. Towards the end of this progression are animals with intellect such as whales, dolphins, and wolves. Finally, is the human mind, the most complex structure we’re aware of in the universe and which demands more energy for our size than any other animal. Like a tree pushing down its roots while reaching upwards, at each stage life has also gone downwards and upwards to create a new order. In the best cases, we are the apex of this intention and all that has led up to now.

Read in this way, a fulfilled human life is profound. Individually, we can’t understand all the competing urges within ourselves. In the arbitrary star gazing Neil de Grasse Tyson promotes, humanity becomes so tiny as to doubt its validity. Situated in life and our extended family, however, we are reminded of tangible and colossal stakes. As Nietzsche wrote:

‘All beings so far have created something beyond themselves: and you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome the human? ‘What is the ape for the human being? A laughing-stock or a painful cause for shame. And the human shall be just that for the Overhuman: a laughing-stock or a painful cause for shame.

…You have made your way from worm to human, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now the human being is still more of an ape than any ape is.

…The Overhuman is the sense of the earth. May your will say: Let the Overhuman be the sense of the earth!’ [1]

Nietzsche is heralding this age of vitality and peoples who will totally revere high energy: the ‘sense of the earth.’ As with microcells subsuming mitochondria, this instinct guides the evolution he believes has brought us from ‘worm’ towards ‘ape’ and the overhuman. The most complex animal, humanity is also the most diverse. As much as this enables us to steward the pursuit of energy, does it create an enormous gulf underneath for pride, ugliness, and disembodiment from this joy.

(This passage, found on page 11 of Zarathustra, should really foil anyone straw-manning Nietzsche into ‘relativism’).

Energy is structure

Life reminds us of this macrocosmic drama in the microcosmic karma of our health.

In simple terms, imagine a flower. If a flower lacks water or good soil, its stems decays until it can no longer support its head, much less develop color and a radiant sheen. Conversely, an energy-rich flower is upright, strong, and glows with warmth. In this pristine condition, the flower is fulfilling its energetic potential, its dharma, as the Vedas would say. It has no need of language, ‘meaning,’ or to read Marcus Aurelius. It is simply radiant, distinguished individually and yet, paradoxically, reflecting a sheen universal to life in its fullness.

Humanity partakes of this same logic. Physiologically, our cells develop looser walls or metabolize their organelles when they lack energy. Eventually, this regression can become cancer, where cells divide indiscriminately like fungus or mold. Lung cancer can destroy the tissue until it is a tumorous black goop that looks like something from out of a swamp. It is like we are being revisited by the archaic versions of life. Every sickness from obesity to Alzheimer’s has this same energetic and aesthetic meaning. All are deviations from humanity’s energetic and structural potential. They are regressions to the bleak slime of primordial life otherwise forgotten in the wake of nature and its pursuit of energy.

In daily life, energy is all that refreshes and nourishes us. This includes, on one hand, the most direct factors. As Freud argued, for example, the refinement of sexual energy from an overwhelming addiction into focused, subtle, and ultimately creative energy plays an essential role in personality and society’s mores. While millennials are, in fact, the least sexually active generation, the ubiquity of porn for children as young as 10 has been an apocalypse of wasted energy. MRI scans unequivocally show that porn causes structural damage in the brain and that it has played a guiding role in epidemics of ADHD, depression, and sociological fallout between men and women due to objectified beauty standards. Besides this invisible calamity, of course, include the usual habits like exercise, diet, sleep, and so on.

Energy also encompasses softer but more pervasive phenomena. Lazy urban planning in cities like Los Angeles tangibly stress and literally poison its inhabitants. The ‘age of utility’ that proudly featured superhighways and modern architecture has matured into characterless sprawls that lock people in traffic. These places force people to put their heads down and abstract themselves from their surroundings. As much as we have a ‘desert of ideology’ or a ‘death of god’ have we designed urban hellscapes robbing people of their energy and alienating them from reality.

These factors control the ascendance or dissolution of energy and joy. Preceding language and intelligibility is this vertical axis of vitality. Where a specimen falls on it predetermines its energy, structural integrity, and, following this, the ideas it will be predisposed to.

Structure is beauty

“The Birth of Venus”

Transitively, beauty is high energy incarnate. It is the most visceral reminder of the pursuit, of union, and that there is more to life than the pettiness of the ego.

Traditionally, love of the beautiful began with cynicism towards civilization. It’s possible, for example, to become so lost in the routine of work and habits that one loses track of time and — as Kierkegaard argued — to literally forget you’re alive. On the subway, this is reminiscent of commuters staring at their smartphones blankly in order to cope with the misery. Other people pro-actively forget themselves in civilization’s games. Fetishizing ‘materialism,’ they compromise their health, relationships, society at large, or the environment. Supposedly ‘finding their meaning,’ the pursuit of abstracts distances them from the basic conditions of joy. Civilization, overall, was traditionally understood as distracting or corrosive for one’s humanity and spirituality.

Beauty was reverenced for cutting past this numbness. In the Sistine Chapel, it’s common to see tourists weeping. In nature, it’s possible to reach such awe we almost merge with our surroundings, shedding our neuroses to become plugged back into the pace of life. Visually, musically or through text, beauty is a singularity point of perfect energy and order. In its presence, our pettiness is totally embarrassed. The suffocation of the ego is lifted — vapor in the face of this grounded reality. The enchantment of childhood is stirred once again, as we remember the titanic order humanity has a stake in.

“Hercules of the Forum Boarium”

The human body, of course, can be beautiful. Like the flower, a beautiful body is one in its energetic potential. The face, spine, and feet require work to develop an elegant bone structure. Clear skin is a reflection the body hasn’t been compromised with processed food or drugs. Musculature in men and leaner curves in women — given their hormonal differences — signal that the cells are loaded with mitochondria, ATP, and thus more energy. This is why Antiquity acknowledged the beautiful body with the highest reverence in their lifestyle and art. The most relevant order to ourselves, the body captivates us even more than landscapes or architecture. It is the most direct intimation to a higher path in life and the intention of nature.

This can be distinguished from mere lust. There is a difference between genuine models versus Instagram girls. As a kind of softcore pornography, the latter keeps us self-involved. On the other hand, someone genuinely beautiful has an ease and elegance drawing on a different complex of emotions. This is why artists have always enjoyed non-sexual friendships with beautiful people as ‘muses.’ Plato argued Athenian philosophy would’ve been impossible without the beauty of its youthful audience in the gymnasiums. Dante required red-haired Beatrice to create The Divine Comedy and — in the poem — to guide him through heaven to see the highest pitches of existence. If a Freudian wants to call this lust, it of such a sublimated variety as to beget the word.

We find landscapes beautiful off similar principles as the body. Inland California is dry and filled with scattered brush. In contrast, counties like Marin are filled with towering redwoods and vistas of the ocean raking the cliffs. The latter is filled with more energy, structure, and thus beauty. Rendering the will to power more completely, these landscapes provide a kind of active recovery for our mind to leave abstraction aside and re-engage with reality.

Granted the premises in this article, we view trends in the culture which are sarcastic or even hateful of beauty with cynicism. Body positivity has advanced from Nike displaying obese women in its ads, to Cosmo promoting obesity as ‘healthy’ and Twitter mobs actively shaming celebrities like Adele for losing weight. When Hudson Yards creates the Vessel, a monument for New York, it is attacked for ‘colonialism.’ Simultaneously, New York’s most historic streets are derided as ‘whitewashed.’ On every front, there is a fetish for the drab: the ‘dad bod,’ ‘happy body weight,’ or the characterless sprawl of Brooklyn. We want utility, but now without the flash or futurism of the 20th century. Half-truths around oppression have cut down the possibility of inherent joy, goodness, or beauty.

That said, it’s hard to target any specific movement when — coming full circle — one considers the energy at play. The fetishization of the ugly stems from toxic energy. Our materialist story is being the reassembled units of animals in factory farms, where cattle and pigs breathe in their own feces and are pumped with steroids and drugs. We are the material of fertilizers raping the topsoil, and vegetables more resembling Styrofoam every year. Of 9–5s churning out sedentary, hunched, timid specimen. The oceans, rain, and water cycles infused with microplastics. Smog and lead in the cities. Psychiatry numbing pain and joy.

Splashing around in this poison, our biomass is exhausted and inflamed. Most of us are misformed in our faces, spines, limbs, posture, and breathing. It is no wonder we are alienated from nature, much less beauty. Thus is our karmic debt, as nature reminds us there is no division between the vitality of the land and of its creatures since they are locked in the most intimate of cycles.

Beyond Language Fetish

“Dante and Beatrice see the Empyrean at the end of their journey to heaven,” by Gustave Dore

Besides introducing vitalism, I wanted to show its comprehensiveness to discerning readers. It goes beyond grifters like Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris, arguing that well-being is good, but life is meaningless except for pursuing your work-fetish in beatboxing or selling goods on Etsy: ‘your passion.’

Vitalism fulfills philosophy’s trifecta: ethics, truth, and aesthetics. Beyond modernism and postmodernism — which failed this test, rather offering expedient maxims instead — vitalism supports a new era in philosophy. It is the great resolver of science vs. religion, tradition vs. futurism, the individual and the collective, is vs. ought, and materialism vs. idealism. The fulcrum of all these concepts is beyond language, in the realm of experiencing energy’s degeneration or ascent. Correspondingly, we need to demote language from ‘analytical philosophy’ to something secondary and referential to this more fundamental reality. The map, as the proverb goes, is not the territory.

Ethics: Habits related to the refinement of energy. As Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil:

“What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”

Elsewhere, this may be compared to Aristotle’s virtue ethics or the ‘glad tidings’ of Christ. It is taken as good that vital life is also joyful, strong, and beautiful. It is accepted as profound that this corresponds to the motif and intention in life.

Truth: Contextualized statements on the structures within life. This is to be distinguished from ‘correctness.’ Any student can make a spark notes observation that’s ‘correct,’ but ends up as a half-truth in the long run. Conversely, creating frameworks of truth is another magnitude of difficulty. This is why we have almost none of it today, as journalists and academia manufacture snarky or righteously indignant critiques. On the other hand, antiquity felt their truths that “God is love” with the most total reverence. Like the lapping of a wave, true Truth is always part of a whole other ocean, flirting with us to continue into the mystery.

Beauty: The embodiment of high energy. Cities like Florence are perennial reminders of humanity’s totality. They radiate a lightness and enchantment with life more fundamental than ‘success.’ Art that doesn’t draw on this — which pursues ‘expression’ — is just eye candy in the long run.

Whatever this is — nihilism, the death of god, postmodernity — there are innumerable ideas for how to solve the milieu but one presumption: if we just tweak out the right ideology, all will fall into place. Individually, we tell ourselves the same story through ‘meaning.’

As for the cultural vectors at hand, however, I say: materialism once more, and cynicism for the language fetishists. I say: materialism but true to its promise. Blood is the beginning and end of all lasting pursuits. Materialism: but now with the biologist’s eye and the exhilaration and warmth of high life.

Works Cited

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody (Oxford World’s Classics) (p. 12). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Director of Programs at an EdTech startup. Studied philosophy at Columbia (CC’18). Likes Nietzsche a lot. Favorite Sci-Fi is Dune. All views are my own.