Storytelling, Philosophy and Overthinking

Victor Goleminov
10 min readOct 13, 2022

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Every time I browse for something new to read in the bookstore I always get attracted to the most beautifully designed book covers. I never read lengthy texts of literature from digital screens because I simply enjoy the UX/UI of a traditional paper book. I am acquainted with the cliché “never judge a book by its cover” but honestly have you ever taken up one of those scraggly mold infested books from your grandparents’ basement? The ones with the brown paperbacks and the yellowish pages with leftover stains of coffee and strawberry jam from another era. Even if the library contains authors such as Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Dickens I would still very much prefer not to approach said books just out of aesthetic and hygienic reasons.

Back to the bookstore: having in mind my initial logic of sorting out the books based on the outer shell I came across a familiar title printed on a nicely designed hardback — Alexis Zorbas by Nikos Kazantzakis (the title may vary depending on the language it is written in). I snatched it from the shelf, checked some reviews in Google and thought I’d have a go with the most celebrated Greek author in modern times.

Since what I am writing is something between a blog post, an article, a personal journal and a general outpouring of thought I will approach the matter haphazardly and without any inherent logic or structure. Let’s dive into the mind-bending, tongue twisting reasoning of the duality of human character by exploring the dichotomy of intellectualism and pragmatism. Back in the days the book was a big deal — it gave birth to the movie, which gave birth to the soundtrack, which gave birth to the famous Sirtaki dance, which you would likely listen to while drinking ouzo and eating gyros at a tavern by the Mediterranean seaside. Kazantzakis joins the philosophical 20th century agenda in the same region where ancient philosophers invented the initial basket of Western ideas and values — Greece. He was also nominated for a Nobel prize in literature in 1957 but lost to Albert Camus with one vote. Camus and Kazantzakis both explore topics related to the meaning of human existence triggered by the two World Wars that devastated the world.

Back to the book: the story is written in a first person perspective represented by the narrator — an introverted bookworm academic who loves to read, write, study and ponder about the world. The other main character is Zorbas — an extroverted, cheerful hedonistic womanizer, a man of the people. There are very few places in the world where people with such different backgrounds can team up together and become friends, so it’s no wonder why Greece is such a cool country to live in. The novel tells the story of human cooperation in spite of the fact that two people can be the complete opposite of each other. The narrative is intentionally developed in such a way that both of them influence each other in different fields of life, but the majority of big ideas stem not from the narrator with his large heap of theoretical knowledge about the world, but from Zorbas’ empiricism and practical experiences. If you think about it, though, the gist of the book can seem a bit of a logical conundrum. One of Greece’s greatest intellectuals writes a story about how we should live our life more practically and examines the character development of a fictional intellectual, influenced by a down-to earth ordinary guy. And by the way the story is based on a real person called George Zorbas who influenced Kazantzakis himself to write about him so in a way the intellectual in the novel is a prototype of Kazantzakis himself.

So where is the elixir of wisdom? How do you reach the pinnacle of human sagacity? After reading the novel and watching the movie one can conclude that the best way to live your life is just like Zorbas — to live life to the fullest, without giving in much thought, to approach work, women, religion and human relationships in an instinctively intuitive style and that people who overthink life are bound to be miserable, stuck and unhappy. Actually at one point when Zorbas had a personal problem (no spoiler), he even asked the narrator if his books contained the answer. They actually did but nevertheless, Zorbas still managed to overcome his grief by succumbing to dancing and playing his santouri which again strengthens the main point of Kazantzakis that life should be lived in a more relaxed non-overthinking manner.

How about another example of the dichotomy between intellectualism and practicality. I know its weird that I am a Bulgarian writing in English but I do have some non-Bulgarian friends who might read my stuff :). How about comparing Greece’s greatest literary character with Bulgaria’s: Alexis Zorbas vs Bay Ganyo. The narrative of Bay Ganyo very much resembles that of Zorbas — again it is told from a first person perspective from several people whom the reader recognizes as intellectuals or at least smart European-mannered gentlemen. Similarly to Kazantzakis, the author of the story, Aleko Konstantinov got inspired by a real ordinary person called Ganyo Somov. Bay Ganyo is streetwise, a man of practical wisdom and is even materially better off than Zorbas because of being a travelling merchant, who later becomes a politician. But his practicality later turns resourcefulness into cunningness by falsifying the election votes that he participates in. A great example of how pragmatism can give birth to corruption and immorality.

This is the main problem with literature. You believe the author gives you the answers to life and resolves some kind of issue you are facing but in reality storytelling is just a great way of directing people into one type of ideas or another. I honestly cannot draw any reasonable inference by comparing the two books side-by-side. So are practical people good or bad? Are they happy and if yes, is their egoistical pursuit of happiness at the expense of other people a good or a bad thing? Is it better to be a pragmatic or an intellectual? Zorbas is also a guy that causes trouble and hurts other people but I will not spoil the plot. Storytelling can be engaging but it can also be dangerous. There are lots of books which could be misread, misinterpreted or they are straight up propaganda.

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People read stuff because they want to become more enlightened and wise, so that they can handle and overcome life’s challenges better. But what is the best way to approach wisdom and knowledge? In the novel of Alexis Zorbas the narrator is described studying Buddhism — the newest ideological fad in the 20th century which I believe sheds light upon the greatest questions of life, meaning and happiness. One thing is very obvious to the reader after some thought upon Kazantzakis’ novel. Man, if only you could combine the narrator’s intellectualism and Zorbas’ pragmatism, what would you get? You would get Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

Siddhartha is a really great novel — mainly because it approaches storytelling from a philosophical point of view. The name Siddhartha comes from Sanskrit and literally means “he who has found meaning”. It is also a symbolical cue and a reference to Buddha’s real name before becoming enlightened (that being Siddhartha Gautama). The plot of the novel complements that of Alexis Zorbas — Siddhartha has experienced both deep intellectual spirituality and shallow indulgence in the material. Only after realizing the duality of the world with both opposites containing truth does he become enlightened.

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One of the most influential books that I recently read was Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari where he examines the importance of storytelling and creating abstract ideas to push progress forward. A good example from economic theory is money — we assign meaning to it and agree upon the story that 1 dollar has that nominal value. The real power of knowledge, wisdom and progress comes within the framework — philosophy and science. Ideas, theories and concepts are created within philosophy and science, storytelling propagates them to people. The Pythagorean theorem is the backend code of knowledge, the Math teacher is the frontend and the student is the user. But while the Pythagorean theorem is one of the simplest concepts in Math and its validity is generally agreed upon, there are other concepts in science such as time, religion, consciousness etc. which are not fully explored and understood. The problem is that most people would not approach matters via the scientific method, but would much prefer to believe certain stories which may not be true. A psychologist studying the human psyche approaches the matter with rational thought, he approaches the database of knowledge and tries to expand it by logic. A religious/spiritual person may believe the story that some book/guru tells him that the human soul is reborn, goes to heaven/hell or something else. Believing in abstract concepts on its own is neither good nor bad, but note that there is also a difference between believing in Santa Clause and believing in the value of the dollar. The more you ask yourself questions about why you believe in something, the closer you will get to the reason why an idea exists and whether it benefits us or not.

The main culprit of today’s disinformation or the inefficient acquisition of knowledge is the lack of critical thinking. The Internet is full of meaningless content lacking any sort of great idea or knowledge that just adds up to your mental faculties’ lacuna. Critical thinking is literally thinking about everything when you consume a piece of info — who is the author, why is it created, what type of ideology does it represent, does it benefit me in any way etc.

This, of course, causes another psychological phenomenon called overthinking where a lot of thinking hurts your brain and causes you to experience analysis paralysis. You have a situation in your life where you have to make a decision yet your critical thinking just goes totally out of control leaving you overanalyzing things and diminishing your possibilities of actually doing something. In the end you start telling yourself made up stories about the world because of your overthinking. You tell yourself the story of how you are shy or not good enough or not beautiful, not confident, not worth etc. This is storytelling and overthinking on a whole new level. You create fake scenarios in your head and you mess with your brain functions and chemistry. When sad, people forcefully continue to tell themselves the story of being sad because it actually starts feeling a bit good. Why do you think people like listening to sad songs?

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And this is why Buddhism is such a big deal and is of such great interest to scholars and thinkers from the 20th and 21th century. It creates ways for people to tame their galloping thoughts, emotions and cravings. Meditation is the exact opposite of overthinking. It’s a way to empty your mind. I personally don’t meditate in the traditional ways with the lotus pose and the om chants, I prefer doing sports or hiking. I mean if something clears your head does it really matter if its called meditation, flow state or whatever?

When you combine Buddhism with existentialism you get the best of the best from the Eastern and Western schools of thought. Provided, of course, you are an atheist or at least an agnostic, otherwise this framework would not work that good for you. Existentialism liberates you from the notion of a predefined meaning to life, society and the universe as a whole. There is (probably) no God, no spiritual dimensions after death and humanity is just a tiny speck of dust in the grand scheme of the cosmos. There is a quote I really like from Keynes which goes by the saying “in the long run, we are all dead”.

The hard part is that since there is no inherent meaning, we are the ones to create said meaning. Which requires mental and physical effort, thinking and doing. Defining your goals, values, dreams can be debilitating and it comes with the abovementioned anxiety, stress, depression, sadness. Along the journey you have taken up, you will doubt and question yourself and you will certainly feel lost at times. Finding the meaning to life is not of a constant magnitude. Stuff changes. One period of your life you may think that the meaning of life is to find true love or to become rich and famous. You attain those achievements and then you have another few decades of your life to do something with it. How do you think Federer feels after retiring? Or maybe you have found true love and as the saying goes “and then they lived happily ever after”.

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Everything is possible to happen in life from a statistical point of view. The higher you raise the bar, the more difficulties and mishaps you may face. This is why people with lower expectations can be happier. Buddhism helps you regulate that bar by creating clarity in your actions and focusing more on the moment and your attitude towards the good and the bad moments. My favorite concepts from Aristotle and the stoics can also be added to the equality of finding meaning — the golden medium and the saying “remember that this too shall pass”. Do stuff, plan things, have dreams but when you achieve success treat it as a gift from faith (or as a lucky chance from a statistical standpoint) and don’t take yourself too seriously. Be moderate in your wishes. The dead bodies on Everest were also once very highly motivated people. Life is absurd and to tackle the absurdity you could just do as Zorbas does at the end of the movie. Instead of succumbing to overthinking he just goes out on the beach and starts dancing the Sirtaki.

Combining intellectualism in the form of thinking and pragmatism in the act of doing results in living life to the fullest. Or at least that’s what I think…

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Victor Goleminov

Interested in exploring topics in the context of philosophy, economics, psychology, history, technology and art.