“First and foremost, nothing exists; second, even if it exists, it is inapprehensible to man; third, even if it is apprehensible, still it is without doubt incapable of being expressed or explained to the next man.”

GORGIAS OF LEONTINI, GREEK ORATOR AND PHILOSOPHER (485–380 BC), SOPHIST AND PROTO-NIHILIST (As paraphrased by SEXTUS EMPIRICUS, [160–210 AD], from Gorgias’s ON THE NON-EXISTENT, a noew-lost manuscript)

I REMEMBER EXACTLY WHY I COPIED THIS ONE INTO MY NOTEBOOK in my midtwenties: to remind myself just how wacky all that meaningless-of-it-all philosophy can seem sometimes. Old Gorgias turned nihilistic doctrine into deadpan drollery.

The construction of Gorgias’s above argument still cracks me up. It sounds like an old eastern European insult joke: “You aren’t my brother, but even if you were my brother, I would have nothing to do with you, and even if I had something to do with you, it wouldn’t be brotherly.”

Gorgias, an orator famous for his parodies, was ancient Greece’s equivalent of a hip stand-up comedian. I guess if it is delivered with an ironic smile, the statement “Nothing exists” can be a real thigh-slapper. Gorgias knocked ’em dead from Delphi to Olympia, charging admission for his performances and making himself a very nice living. One problem translators and scholars have with his opus is that they can never be sure whether he really meant what he wrote or he was just spoofing.

Gorgias’s enterprise of wringing laughs out of an abject assessment of life raises some fascinating questions about humor—how it can help us cope “and how it sometimes does just the opposite. Psychologists believe that humor is a creative defense mechanism for distancing ourselves from anxious-making thoughts and feelings. Sex makes us anxious, particularly adulterous sex, so there are legions of sex and infidelity gags in virtually every culture. And, of course, consciousness of mortality—particularly our own—induces the ultimate angst, so again, gags galore. But sometimes these gags fall flat; or worse, they make the pain less bearable.

After 9/11, the accepted wisdom was that irony was dead and that certainly that particular horror would never become a joking matter. Then, only three weeks after the event, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried opened his routine at the Friars Club by saying, “I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight—they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” 

Gottfried was loudly booed and several of his fellow comedians walked out of the hall. “Too soon,” they cried. “Way too soon.”

I think they were right: We needed the distance of more time before we could find even cold comfort in a 9/11“made us feel unfeeling.

Several years ago, Tom and I wrote a book about the philosophy of mortality in which we used death jokes to illustrate various philosophers’ points of view. A reporter asked us if we thought joking about death really worked, if we believed it actually eased the terror of confronting our mortality. Good question. All I could answer was, “Only when it works.”

I guess the same could be said for Gorgias’s wisecracks about the meaningless of life.

• • •

In any event, Gorgias’s arguments for the nonexistence of everything—from the physical world itself to the so-called values of society (if society existed, of course)—were straight from his cynical heart. He is one of the first recorded nihilists in Western philosophy, beginning a long tradition of philosophers who trashed everything, particularly that absurd notion that life has any meaning. Like for starters, if nothing really exists, what could there be that had meaning?

Even though Gorgias apparently led a pleasurable life, he would have none of hedonism as a philosophy, at least in his recorded teachings. I suppose that even if one is a nihilist, one could still practice hedonism; a life of pleasure does not necessarily need to bear any philosophical meaning, it can just be.

I will refrain from an ad hominem critique of the Greek philo-gagster based on the fact that he enjoyed an extraordinarily long and fortunate life, making pocketfuls of dekadrachm as he traveled from city to city wowing audiences. But I do have to laugh at Gorgias’s final one-liner: At the age of 104, he told his friend Athenaeus that he attributed his longevity to the fact that “I never did anything just for the pleasure.”

Ba-dum ching!

Excerpt from ‘Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It.’ by Daniel Klein, Penguin, 2015