Nikos Kazantzakis on Life, Death and the meaning of it all
18 min read

Nikos Kazantzakis on Life, Death and the meaning of it all

Nikos Kazantzakis on Life, Death and the meaning of it all

The age old questions of why we are here and what is our purpose or mission on this earth has troubled mankind for thousand of years. If we look throughout history we can find reference points when people with the knowledge and understanding of the world at the time had tried to attach meaning and make sense of our existence.

Whether it was Seneca talking about The Shortness of Life or Richard Feynman on the Meaning of It All, covering different both ends of the spectrum or even Jimmy Carter on his 1979 speech called The Crisis of Confidence warning the public that the road to consumerism does not satisfy our longing for meaning.

To contemplate even such questions requires time for introspection and studying of other great minds that have stepped on this earth before us and even during our time.

One such great mind was the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. He was born on the island of Crete in Greece in 1883 and died at the age of 74 in 1957 in Freiburg, West Germany. In the years during his journey on earth he was a restless soul driven by his thirst to understand our purpose in life and our relationship to God.

Among the many famous writings that he left behind( Zorba The Greek, The Last Temptation and many others as well as translations), the one that was of great significance to him was "The Saviors of God" which was a distillation of his beliefs about our journey on earth.

Through his travels around the world and the translation of spiritual and psychology books in others languages, Nikos Kazantzakis inherited invaluable lenses through which to interpret and make sense of the world. His encounter with Saint Francis, Fredricht Nitsche and other great minds have been instrumental in the writing of The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises.

The premise of the book bears Kazantzakis unique viewpoint and it is a guide for the soul on how to ascend to a higher state of being. He describes 5 ascending circles that we need to become aware and move towards. It is a daily fight alongside God, so that we can save God and ultimately save ourselves.

The book is densely written with vivid descriptions from which I have distilled what stood out for me and was of great significance.

The five ascending circles are Ego, Mankind, Earth, Universe and God. It is characteristic throughout the book that God is not depicted as being almighty but as an army General who fights alongside us with victory being uncertain. Kazantzakis explains his relationship to God by providing a view to his prayer.

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.

My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.

The book has 5 parts, the preparation, the march, the vision, the action and the silence.

The 5 ascending circles mentioned earlier are part of the march and the action steps. We need to raise our awareness before we can fathom such concepts and constructs and be ready to take action.

There is a theme of struggle throughout the book  between the body and the soul. In more than one ways Nikos Kazantzakis paints this graphic picture of the mind trying to contain and constrain man within the confines of the skull while the soul speaks through the heart and screams to be let free.

The mind has a way of deceiving us into believing that the superficial world that we see with our eyes is all there is and will ever be, while the heart cries to be heard, hoping to grab our attention and express the limitlessness of the soul.

We are all born into very different times and the inherent unlearning while focusing on useless rumination is overlooked when we anguish about the direction of our lives. We need to filter the noise.

Kazantzakis writes:

“A command rings out within me: “Dig! What do you see?”

”Men and birds, water and stones.”

”Dig deeper! What do you see?”

”Ideas and dreams, fantasies and lightening flashes!”

”Dig deeper! What do you see?”

”I see nothing! A mute Night, as thick as death. It must be death.”

”Dig deeper!”

”Ah! I cannot penetrate the dark partition! I hear voices and weeping. I hear the flutter of wings on the other shore.”

”Don’t weep! Don’t weep! They are not on the other shore. The voices, the weeping, and the wings are your own heart.”

The Preparation

As Nikos Kazantzakis explains in the prologue,

“We come from a dark abyss and end in a dark abyss. The in between luminous interval we call life. As soon as we are born the return begins and what we do or don’t do in that in between space defines our being.
We are fighting to balance the powers of darkness and light and create, compose and turn matter into life.

This again reminds us of Seneca on The Shortness of Life, where he talks about life and how most people truly leave for a very short period.

Most of our lives, we just exist, waiting to return. Kazantzakis believes that it is our duty to harmonise these two enormous holy forces and with this vision to adjust our thinking and actions accordingly.

First Duty:  Discipline, Clarity & Austerity

Our first duty is to become aware of the power of the mind. The mind can create the world around us, through our five senses and attach meaning in order to protect us. In doing so, it also confines us within the limited capacity of the skull.

Through discipline, clarity and austerity we can determine the omnipotence of the mind in all material things and its incapacity in all things beyond this material world.

Second Duty: Boundaries & Meaning

The second duty contemplates the boundaries set by the mind and the unwillingness to look beyond them. Whatever the boundaries, echoes of the heart's open calling can be heard as voices, weeping.

Kazantzakis contemplates the idea of a sixth sense, which he calls heart and invites us to defy the limitations of man and start looking through the eyes and not with the eyes in the words of Adlus Huxley.

“Before they crush me, I want to open my eyes for a moment and to see them. I set my life no other purpose.

Between the boundaries of unseen powers that throw us into existence and back to oblivion.

There is only ephemeral joy to be found in this materialist world of ours eventually leaving a void of purpose and lack of of confidence.

“I want to find a single justification that I may live and bear this dreadful daily spectacle of disease, of ugliness, of injustice, of death.

At the very least, love for other people should allow us to think outside our circumstances and see the power of unity, harmony and love in people.

“Let us unite, let us hold each other tightly, let us merge our hearts, let us create - so long as the warmth of this earth endures, so long as no earthquakes, cataclysms, icebergs or comets come to destroy us - let us create for Earth a brain and a heart, let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle.

Third Duty: The Greatest Temptation of All: Hope

The greatest temptation as Nikos Kazantzakis writes is that of hope.

It was Jim Carey who said:

““hope is a beggar. Hope walks through the fire but faith leaps over it”.

In Kazantzakis own words,

“It is faith in yourself and a higher power as well as bravery.

It takes faith and bravery to overcome the confines of the minds and the circumstances of the season of life we appeared on this earth.

These were also his famous words:

“I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.

The March

Not long after we attune ourselves to these frequencies of duties that we have as people on this earth, we start to hear a calling. This is a calling coming from within and at first it is incoherent but when the time is right, it takes human form and calls you by name.

“I hear the savage cry, and I shudder. The agony that ascends within me composes itself, for the first time, into an integral human voice; it turns full face toward me and calls me clearly, with my own name, with the name of my father and my race.

This is the moment of greatest crisis. This is the signal for the March to begin. If you do not hear this Cry tearing at your entrails, do not set out.

Continue, with patience and submission, your sacred military service in the first, second, and third rank of preparation.

And listen: In sleep, in an act of love or of creation, in a proud and disinterested act of yours, or in a profound despairing silence, you may suddenly hear the Cry and set forth.

Until that moment my heart streams on, it rises and falls with the Universe. But when I hear the Cry, my emotions and the Universe are divided into two camps.

By way of life, there is an ascend and a descent. Yin and Yang. Ascending into life, light and existence and descending into death, darkness and non-existence. We come from nowhere to now here and back to nowhere.

“Which of the two eternal roads shall I choose? Suddenly I know that my whole life hangs on this decision - the life of the entire Universe.

Of the two, I choose the ascending path. Why? For no intelligible reason, without any certainty; I know how ineffectual the mind and all the small certainties of man can be in this moment of crisis.

As mentioned in the Tao Te Ching, one of the verses states:

“The highest virtue does nothing. Yet, nothing needs to be done. The lowest virtue does everything. Yet, much remains to be done.

When you know what your calling is, there is ascending of your spirit without struggle. Everything becomes natural, flowing as if it was effortless, yet all is taken care of.

The spiritual path signifies the ascending path that defies the mind and its assertiveness to comply and stay within the imaginary lines.

First Step: The Ego

The concept of the ego contemplates the existence of a deep seated invisible self within us, that has ways of bending the mind to its will with the ultimate goal of severing the ties of man with its source.

Nikos Kazanantzakis writes:

“I AM NOT good, I am not innocent, I am not serene. My happiness and unhappiness are both unbearable; I am full of inarticulate voices and darknesses; I wallow, all blood and tears, in this warm trough of my flesh.

I am afraid to talk. I adorn myself with false wings; I shout, I sing and I weep to drown out the inexorable cry of my heart.

I am not the light, I am the night; but a flame stabs through my entrails and consumes me. I am the night devoured by light.

Imperiled, moaning and staggering in darkness, I strive to shake myself free from sleep and to stand erect for a while, for as long as I can bear.

A small but undaunted breath within me struggles desperately to vanquish happiness, weariness, death.

Denying our origin and adjusting to the ways of the Ego to please the wishes of the shadow self in the words of Carl Jung.

The balance between body, mind and spirit is what Kazantzakis prescribes. This is all we have and we have everything we need.

“I put my body through its paces like a war horse; I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared. I harden it and I pity it. I have no other steed.

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly so that, all light, it may devour the darkness of the flesh. I have no other workshop where I may transform darkness into light.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless. I feel in my heart all commotions and all contradictions, the joys and sorrows of life. But I struggle to subdue them to a rhythm superior to that of the mind, harsher than that of my heart - to the ascending rhythm of the Universe.

Our struggle as human beings is to realize the workings of the Ego and identify our connection to our source. The source communicates with us and we can receive these messages if we become quiet.

“The Cry within me is a call to arms. It shouts: “I, the Cry, am the Lord your God! I am not an asylum. I am not hope and a home. I am not the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Ghost. I am your General!

“You are not my slave, nor a plaything in my hands. You are not my friend, you are not my child. You are my comrade-in-arms!

It is this source that entrusts in us the fate of this world and expects us to fight alongside. This is a very different perception of God from what mainstream religion advocates and as a consequence has been criticised by Church throughout the years as being a blasphemy.

However, after reading this books I could not imagine this any different. The God that we are taught about when growing up is very controversial. We learn about an almighty God who forgives and we learn to pray for forgiveness, help, hope and for taking our troubles away. Yet at the same time there are parables that teach us not to wait for God to save us, nothings happens if just sit and wait.

This is a quite different God as he writes:

““Hold courageously the passes which I entrusted to you; do not betray them. You are in duty bound, and you may act heroically by remaining at your own battle station.

“Love danger. What is most difficult? That is what I want! Which road should you take? The most craggy ascent! It is the one I also take: follow me!

“Learn to obey. Only he who obeys a rhythm superior to his own is free.

“Learn to command. Only he who can give commands may represent me here on earth.

“Love responsibility. Say: It is my duty, and mine alone, to save the earth. If it is not saved, then I alone am to blame.’

“Love each man according to his contribution in the struggle. Do not seek friends; seek comrades-in-arms.

“Be always restless, unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, smash it! The greatest sin of all is satisfaction.

“Where are we going? Shall we ever win? What is the purpose of all this fighting? Be silent! Soldiers never question!”

I stoop and listen to this war cry within me. I begin to discern the face of my Leader, to distinguish his voice, to accept harsh commands with joy and terror.

Yes, yes, I am NOT nothing! A vaporous phosphorescence on a damp meadow, a miserable worm that crawls and loves, that shouts and talks about wings for an hour or two until his mouth is blocked with earth. The dark powers give no other answer.

But within me a deathless Cry, superior to me, continues to shout. For whether I want to or not, I am also, without doubt, a part of the visible and the invisible Universe. We are one. The powers which labor within me, the powers which goad me on to live, the powers which goad me on to die are, without doubt, its own powers also.

I am not a suspended, rootless thing in the world. I am earth of its earth and breath of its breath.

I am not alone in my fear, nor alone in my hope, nor alone in my shouting. A tremendous host, an onrush of the Universe fears, hopes, and shouts with me.

Again, the false sense of being rootless and part of nothing, only belonging to the constructs of the shadow self is one of the greatest accomplishments of the Ego.

Second Step: The Race

The author talks about the concept of race. The concept or reincarnation is a device for depicting the continuous nature of man's purpose in the history of mankind. There is another cry which comes from all who came before us. They embody our passions and thoughts:

“You are not a miserable and momentary body; behind your fleeting mask of clay, a thousand-year-old face lies in ambush. Your passions and your thoughts are older than your heart or brain.

The question then becomes how are we going to live?

Are we going to shy away from responsibility and blame our shadow self?

We are doomed to make choices as Carl Jung best put it, so why not make these choices count?

“Where are you going? How shall you confront life and death, virtue and fear? All the race takes refuge in your breast; it asks questions there and lies waiting in agony.

You have a great responsibility. You do not govern now only your own small, insignificant existence. You are a throw of the dice on which, for a moment, the entire fate of your race is gambled.

Everything you do reverberates throughout a thousand destinies. As you walk, you cut open and create that river bed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.

When you shake with fear, your terror branches out into innumerable generations, and you degrade innumerable souls before and behind you. When you rise to a valorous deed, all of your race rises with you and turns valorous.

“I am not done! I am not done!” Let this vision inflame you at every moment.

You are not a miserable and momentary body; behind your fleeting mask of clay, a thousand-year-old face lies in ambush. Your passions and your thoughts are older than your heart or brain.

Your invisible body is your dread ancestors and your unborn descendants. Your visible body is the living men, women, and children of your own race.

The concept of cause and effect that we associate with business, marketing and other quantifiable applications, is equally applicable in the spiritual realm as thoughts manifest themselves into things.

There is a knowing and a presence with us at all times. We get to shape our life with our thoughts. Throughs either based on love or fear.

As it was so beautifully put in The Course In Miracles:

““If you knew who walked besides you at all times, on the path that you have chosen, you could not experience fear or doubt ever again”.

Third Step: Mankind

The third step talks about the concept of mankind. The illusion of separateness amongst people of different race and colour that the Ego creates is exactly that. We need to free ourselves from these fabrications.

We overestimate our subjective attention when we focus on the external characteristics of people and begin to believe that our bodies are real in the sense that they never change.

But this is a lie. We deceive ourselves. We have been in many bodies since birth and each one is characteristically different. The author writes:

“Battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.

Train your heart to govern as spacious an arena as it can. Encompass through one century, then through two centuries, through three, through ten, through as many centuries as you can bear, the onward march of mankind. Train your eye to gaze on people moving in great stretches of time.

Immerse yourself in this vision with patience, with love and high disinterestedness, until slowly the world begins to breathe within you, the embattled begin to be enlightened, to unite in your heart and to acknowledge themselves as brothers.

The heart unites whatever the mind separates, pushes on beyond the arena of necessity and transmutes the struggle into love.

Additionally, we are fixated on the ideas of seeking happiness and becoming enlightened.

What if we are looking at these backwards?

“Gather together in your heart all terrors, recompose all details. Salvation is a circle; close it!

What is meant by happiness? To live every unhappiness. What is meant by light? To gaze with undimmed eyes on all darknesses.

It is a matter of perspective.

Remembering the words of Dr. Wayne Dyer:

““It is the space between the bars that holds the lion in the cage”.

Fourth Step: The Earth

The interconnectedness of body, mind and nature supersedes the artificial layers man has built. It is Mother Nature that can sustain us or make us extinct depending on how we approach this relationship. We vibrate to the frequency of this earth as we step on it. We are connected to nature and all livings things. We can listen to nature's music.

“IT IS NOT you who call. It is not your voice calling from within your ephemeral breast. It is not only the white, yellow, and black generations of man calling in your heart. The entire Earth, with her trees and her waters, with her animals, with her men and her gods, calls from within your breast.

Earth rises up in your brains and sees her entire body for the first time.

Henry David Thoreau noted of this connection of man and earth during his two years and two months of living in the woods near Walden lake:

““A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”

As human beings, we have power over all livings things on this planet, but this power should and must be put to constructive use not destructive.

The Vision

There is a an ultimate vision detailed in the book:

“Behind the stream of my mind and body, behind the stream of my race and all mankind, behind the stream of plants and animals, I watch with trembling the Invisible, treading on all visible things and ascending.

The Action

As one would expect theory is followed by action, otherwise it would remain just mere thoughts. There is only so much we can understand by though alone and action comes to validate and unfold the path ahead like the headlights of a car.

“THE ULTIMATE most holy form of theory is action.

Not to look on passively while the spark leaps from generation to generation, but to leap and to burn with it!

Action is the widest gate of deliverance. It alone can answer the questionings of the heart. Amid the labyrinthine complexities of the mind it finds the shortest route. No, it does not “find” - it creates its way, hewing to right and left through resistances of logic and matter.


Nikos Kazantzakis describes our relationship with God in what is humanly possible with the use of the twenty six letters of the alphabet.

“Our profound human duty is not to interpret or to cast light on the rhythm of God’s arch, but to adjust, as much as we can, the rhythm of our small and fleeting life to his.

Only thus may we mortals succeed in achieving something immortal, because then we collaborate with One who is Deathless.

Only thus may we conquer mortal sin, the concentration on details, the narrowness of our brains; only thus may we transubstantiate into freedom the slavery of earthen matter given us to mould.

This striving to encapsulate the invisible into a tangible form that we can fathom is necessary for us to evolve and ascend.

“We struggle to make this Spirit visible, to give it a face, to encase it in words, in allegories and thoughts and incantations, that it may not escape us.

But it cannot be contained in the twentysix letters of an alphabet which we string out in rows; we know that all these words, these allegories, these thoughts, and these incantations are, once more, but a new mask with which to conceal the Abyss.

Yet only in this manner, by confining immensity, may we labor within the newly incised circle of humanity.

What do we mean by “labor”? To fill up this circle with desires, with anxieties, and with deeds; to spread out and reach frontiers until, no longer able to contain us, they crack and collapse. By thus working with appearances, we widen and increase the essence.

For this reason our return to appearances, after our contact with essence, possesses an incalculable worth.

We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence.

The God that Kazantzakis envisions is not almighty but fighting alongside us:

“It is not God who will save us - it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.

This is further reflected in the way that the writer prays:

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.

My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.

Out journey on this earth is a service to God:

“Life is a crusade in the service of God. Whether we wished to or not, we set out as crusaders to free - not the Holy Sepulchre - but that God buried in matter and in our souls.


The 2nd relationship to be understood is that between human beings:

“We, as human beings, are all miserable persons, heartless, small, insignificant. But within us a superior essence drives us ruthlessly upward.

Humanity is such a lump of mud, each one of us is such a lump of mud. What is our duty? To struggle so that a small flower may blossom from the dunghill of our flesh and mind.

Out of things and flesh, out of hunger, out of fear, out of virtue and sin, struggle continually to create God.


Last but not least is the relationship between man and nature.

“ALL THIS WORLD, all this rich, endless flow of appearances is not a deception, a multicolored phantasmagoria of our mirroring mind. Nor is it absolute reality which lives and evolves freely, independent of our mind’s power.


Finally, silence is where you will find God. Silence cannot be divided and inherently has a divine nature.

In his closing paragraphs Nikos Kazantzakis remains unconventional and uncompromising in his choice of words:

“Every person, ascending above and beyond his own head, escapes from his small brain, so crammed with perplexities.

Within profound Silence, erect, fearless, in pain and in play, ascending ceaselessly from peak to peak, knowing that the height has no ending, sing this proud and magical incantation as you hang over the Abyss:











The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises is fascinating in the ways it approaches this multi-dimensional subject of meaning and life and is worth reading and drawing your own interpretations of it. Complement it with The Course In Miracles that also explains the meaning of  our journey and the ways to come closer to nature and essential living as described in Walden.