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Thread: What does "If - nothing we do matters, - then all that matters is what we do" mean?

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    Default What does "If - nothing we do matters, - then all that matters is what we do" mean?

    If - nothing we do matters, - then all that matters is what we do
    is regarded by many people to be Angel`s most iconic and most memorable line.

    I have to admit that I do not really understand that line. What does it actually mean? To me the premise - nothing we do matters - is just wrong, because everything we do matters in some way or another. And Angel actually says that himself in one of the following lines:
    The smallest act of kindness - is the greatest thing in the world.
    I have copied the relevant dialogue from Epiphany and have bolded the two quotes:


    Angel: "Well, I guess I kinda - worked it out. If there is no great glorious end to all this, if - nothing we do matters, - then all that matters is what we do. 'cause that's all there is. What we do, now, today. - I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward - finally just to beat the other guy, but... I never got it."
    Kate: "And now you do?"
    Angel: "Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because - I don't think people should suffer, as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness - is the greatest thing in the world."


    To me, it means, that even if we don`t win a fight, we have already made a difference, because we have tried. And in trying we might also have shown someone the smallest act of kindness. The smallest act of kindness being that even if we don`t save them, we have at least tried. And therefore I think, the second Quote should be the iconic one, whereas the first one is a circular argument.

    What is the difference between the first quote and the second? Is there any relevant difference at all? If so, what does the first quote mean?

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    It is a non-utilitarian position. It is similar to what he says to Buffy in "Gingerbread" about how you never win. The world will always be "harsh" and "cruel." Angel cannot change that. He cannot help that there are forces in this world more powerful than him. All he has are his own choices—what he does in the moment.

    The moral of the Buffyverse is highly inspired by existentialism. According to existentialism, the world is absurd. There is no clear order to things. This chaos makes us feel powerless. This powerlessness is called bad faith (from which we get Faith). When you act in bad faith, you are acting as though the world controls you. Existential philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre argue that we don't have to let our circumstance define us. We are completely free to choose who we want to be. Even if the world is "harsh" and "cruel," Angel can be a "champion." A champion is someone that does not care that the world is wrong, but he or she acts as though their actions matter, even if they may not.

    One problem with existentialism and the Buffyverse is that the notion of a soul makes no sense within existentialism. Existentialism is a form of non-essentialism. We are nothing except what we choose to be.

    I hope that made sense It seems like you were already on the right track.

    I can try to break up the actual words. Nothing we do matters means that nothing matters in the long run. We cannot predict the consequences of our actions. No matter how good we are, the world want be any better than it is. All that matters is what we do means that the act itself is all we control. It is the only thing we can control.

    There is no bigger meaning simply means that there is no larger picture. An act of goodness is not a stepping stone to a final victory against evil. The smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world means that a well intentioned act is the greatest thing there is. There is no level above that. It seems like an odd thing to say in a world where Buffy stops apocalypses, but that is what he is saying.

    If you follow an existentialist morality, you would not kill Dawn to save the world, because that would be to act in bad faith. You would be doing something horrible, because you felt as though circumstance forced your hand. An act like that could only be justified if you believed that your actions can control the future. If you don't believe that, then you have no excuse for letting the ends justify the means.
    Last edited by Willow from Buffy; 17-02-19 at 07:49 PM.

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    I read it as an argument that acts have inherent moral value whether they serve a greater teleological or utilitarian purpose or not. It's sort of Joss trying to articulate an optimistic premise for a virtue-driven life in a world where there is no divine order expecting it of you, since Joss is an atheist.

    That said, what I find most fascinating is that the episode essentially undercuts that message by pointing out that there was a role for providence in the episode, because Something decided Angel would be allowed to go into her apartment uninvited.

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    @WillowFromBuffy: That`s actually brilliant. Thank you so much. i have to think about it for a day or two, but I`ll come back to this!

    KingOfCretins:
    That said, what I find most fascinating is that the episode essentially undercuts that message by pointing out that there was a role for providence in the episode, because Something decided Angel would be allowed to go into her apartment uninvited.
    That actually came to my mind at once. How does it fit into the show`s existentialism, that Angel was able to enter Kate`s apartment and save her? Unless she has a doormat, saying "Welcome"...

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    I interpret it as a small-scale version of Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence," which... sort of boils down to, "If your life were an endless cycle that you could never change/break, and you kept doing your absolute best even knowing that the exact same thing would have happened, then you would have become a superman." (To be clear, I don't think I ever made it all the way through any of Nietzsche's books. Dude brooded straight off the deep end... which arguably makes him more relevant, not less.) Whether or not a person can actually change the world is irrelevant; what defines the superman/hero is their unbroken will.

    Of course, Nietzsche didn't invent the basic idea of intention and will mattering more than effect, he just articulated it in ways that made people think about it. It seems unlikely that Olympe de Gouges believed getting herself executed for talking about women's rights would lead to gender equality (although she did believe that she would be vindicated by history), or that any soldier in "The Charge of the Light Brigade" believed they were paving the way to victory, or that Cato the Younger believed his example would restore Roman tradition. Presumably, they didn't define success by external change, but by personal adherence to an unchanging moral ideal.

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    I haven't seen the episode in question, so I'd probably be interpreting that famous line stripped of its immediate context - but I think it's emblematic of Angel / the AtS universe more than the Buffyverse. Buffy (the show) acknowledges an absurdist reality but then goes on to subvert that premise. I think it makes sense for Angel to say though, as we do see him reading Sartre, but I always took it as a subtle inversion of the existentialist predicament. It could be seen as what Camus meant when he presented Sisyphus as a classic example of the Absurd Man, punished by the gods to endlessly push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back once he reached the top. Condemned to this meaningless task for eternity, Camus concluded at the end that "The struggle itself... is enough to fill a man's heart. We must imagine Sisyphus to be happy." But I'd still like to imagine there's an ironic, subtle inversion to that in Angel's line, because a truly absurdist world doesn't allow for even a glimmer of hope.

    Speaking of "eternal recurrence", here's Woody Allen coming out of Kent Hall on the Columbia campus, ruminating on all the "Great Pessimists" :

    Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
    On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. -- Roy



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    WillowFromBuffy:
    He cannot help that there are forces in this world more powerful than him. All he has are his own choices—what he does in the moment.
    But if that`s the meaning behind his line, wouldn`t it make more sense for him to say "If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we choose to do" instead?

    My problem with his line has always been, that it seems to deny how we are responsible for what we do - no matter if it matters or not. If nothing we do matters, we can do anything. There are no restrictions. No moral values. No boundaries. No hard choices to be made. We can take out the Circle of the Black Thorne and risk the Senior Partners to pull all of L.A. into hell as punishment, because nothing we do matters. We can kill Dawn, because it doesn`t matter.

    WillowFromBuffy
    A champion is someone that does not care that the world is wrong, but he or she acts as though their actions matter, even if they may not
    However if I choose to act as if my actions matter, no matter if they do or not, I would have to take the fate of the innocent inhabitants of L.A. into consideration before I take down The Circle of the Black Thorne. And I would have to take Dawn`s fate into consideration before I kill her.

    If your premise is true, shouldn`t the line be: "If nothing we do matters, we still have to act as if it does." ? Both alterations make much more sense to me than the original line.

    WillowFromBuffy
    There is no bigger meaning simply means that there is no larger picture. An act of goodness is not a stepping stone to a final victory against evil. The smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world means that a well intentioned act is the greatest thing there is. There is no level above that. It seems like an odd thing to say in a world where Buffy stops apocalypses, but that is what he is saying.
    That doesn`t seem to be odd to me. On the contrary, it makes sense. If nothing we do matters (because we can`t control the outcome), than all that matters is that we show someone else the smallest act of kindness. The only meaningful act, the only thing we can control under this premise would be to be kind and not to be indifferent or cruel.

    SpuffyGlitz:
    Condemned to this meaningless task for eternity, Camus concluded at the end that "The struggle itself... is enough to fill a man's heart. We must imagine Sisyphus to be happy." But I'd still like to imagine there's an ironic, subtle inversion to that in Angel's line, because a truly absurdist world doesn't allow for even a glimmer of hope.
    But would you agree with KoC that Joss tried to give an optimistic premise for a virtue-driven life despite being an absurdist with that line? (I just chekced and noticed he didn`t write the Episode himself. It was written by Tim Minear. I don`t know if there is any gossip or rumour or folklore about who actually came up with that line).

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    Quote Originally Posted by flow View Post
    WillowFromBuffy:
    But if that`s the meaning behind his line, wouldn`t it make more sense for him to say "If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we choose to do" instead?
    I guess, but it does not sound quite as snappy. For maximum clarity, he could have said, "If the outcomes don't matter, then only our choices do." Or something to that effect.

    Quote Originally Posted by flow View Post
    WillowFromBuffy: My problem with his line has always been, that it seems to deny how we are responsible for what we do - no matter if it matters or not. If nothing we do matters, we can do anything. There are no restrictions. No moral values. No boundaries. No hard choices to be made. We can take out the Circle of the Black Thorne and risk the Senior Partners to pull all of L.A. into hell as punishment, because nothing we do matters. We can kill Dawn, because it doesn`t matter.
    Actually, the point of Sarte's ethics is to take full responsibility for everything you do, no matter the circumstance. The alternative is to become like Faith. The power Faith feels leads to powerlessness, because her circumstance takes control of her.

    In S5, Angel and the gang work for an evil law firm, believing that they may do more good in the end. This is a utilitarian strategy. The ends (making the world marginally better) justify the means (working with Wolfram and Hart and looking the other way on many of their dealings). Angel would say that he has no choice, because this is the only good option. This means that he is working in bad faith. He sees himself as powerless and as not being responsible for his actions (Of course, he is conflicted, but I am simplifying).

    As the season progresses, Angel discovers that working with Wolfram and Hart is failing to yield the results he was hoping for. He is not helping the world get better and he has become an accomplice to Wolfram and Hart. Angel decides to rebel. He knows he cannot win. All he can do is take back his moral agency. He knows that the Senior Partners are likely to retaliate, but this is something that he cannot control and something he is not responsible for.

    The problem here is the murder of Drogyn. This act does not fit. Angel sacrifices Drogyn to make his plan work, which is a utilitarian justification, which undermines the entire thing.

    As for Dawn... Only a nihilist monster would kill Dawn just for the sake of it. An ethical utilitarian like Giles might kill Dawn to save the world. An existentialist or a deontologist cannot use the same argument. What if you kill Dawn and you later learn that Glory never had the power to open the portal to Hell? How many young girls would you be willing to kill? Where would you stop? Would you murder one person if it could save three people with organ failure?

    Quote Originally Posted by flow View Post
    WillowFromBuffy:If your premise is true, shouldn`t the line be: "If nothing we do matters, we still have to act as if it does." ? Both alterations make much more sense to me than the original line.
    Imagine a perfect world. In a perfect world, good people do good acts and are rewarded. In a perfect world, there would be no justification for murdering Dawn, period. That is the world Angel imagines. In this world, standing up to evil would always be the right thing to do (though there wouldn't really be evil in this world, would there? ). When Angel goes against Wolfram and Hart, he acts as though he would even, even if he can't, because it is better than just working alongside evil.

    So, you in "Epiphany" Angel is saying that he has to accept that his actions won't matter in the actual world, but in "Deep Down" he tells Connor to imagine that he lived in an ideal world, where actions really did matter.

    Giles might have chosen to work with Wolfram and Hart if he believed it would make the world better, because he does not live in a black and white world. He is more flexible in his methods, as long as the likely outcome is a good.
    Last edited by Willow from Buffy; 24-02-19 at 08:24 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by flow View Post
    SpuffyGlitz:

    But would you agree with KoC that Joss tried to give an optimistic premise for a virtue-driven life despite being an absurdist with that line? (I just chekced and noticed he didn`t write the Episode himself. It was written by Tim Minear. I don`t know if there is any gossip or rumour or folklore about who actually came up with that line).
    flow
    I'd probably agree with KofC that there's likely an intended hopeful spin to it. I didn't know it was written by Tim Minear! As I said, I haven't watched the episode and I'm generally less certain about the tone of AtS - though I've always seen BtVS as very hope-driven.

    I interpret that line like this - a play on words to actually overturn the absurdist dilemma by seizing meaning back. I'll try and explain what I mean - i may be totally wrong, but here are my thoughts anyway:

    If nothing we do matters (which is the absurdist premise), then all that matters is what we do (in my reading, the "all that matters is what we do" serves a corrective function - it's not status quo-ist, it's subversive - the "doing" seeks to change the premise I think.) If it were truly absurdist though, it wouldn't be hopeful in that sense. But that's my spin on it.

    To my mind it's the opposite of saying, for instance, if ALL we do still doesn't matter, why bother doing anything? Here he's saying - if NOTHING we do matters, then ALL that matters IS what we DO do. Does that make sense? It sounds a little tautological, but it's something I'm not entirely certain about either. But really interesting to think about!

    eta: I think WfB makes some great points!
    Last edited by SpuffyGlitz; 24-02-19 at 09:52 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by SpuffyGlitz View Post
    To my mind it's the opposite of saying, for instance, if ALL we do still doesn't matter, why bother doing anything? Here he's saying - if NOTHING we do matters, then ALL that matters IS what we DO do.
    That's how I've always read it and I have to say, it's one of my absolute favourite lines in the entire verse. If nothing that we do matters, then all that matters is what we choose to do for the merit of our choices in and of themselves and how that reflects on us. I think there are varying ways of looking at it (a few of the ways people have described it here I think roughly brings the same meaning forth). For me, the point is that our choices are what count and what reflects on us because it is all that we truly control.

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    An important point is that Satre's existentialism is supposed to be liberating. It is radical free choice. You don't have to become a criminal, just because you were born into poverty. You don't have to be a Nazi, even if happen to be a German during the last war. You don't have to destroy the world, even if Warren killed your girlfriend. The world may lock you up, it may spit on you and it may even kill you, but it can never own you. You is you. It is a harsh ideology, and it does not allow you any excuses, but it supposed to be liberating.

    Like Angel say, "For one shining moment, we can show them that they don't own us."
    Last edited by Willow from Buffy; 24-02-19 at 10:42 PM.

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    To provide further context to the line for those who haven't seen the episode, in the previous episode ("Reprise") Holland Manners revealed to Angel that the 'home office' or 'hell' was earth and that W&H have no interest in 'winning' but are content with merely existing;

    Angel: "You're not gonna win."
    Holland: "Well - *no*. Of course we aren't. We have no intention of doing anything so prosaic as 'winning.'"
    Angel: "Then why?"
    Holland: "Hmm? I'm sorry? Why what?"
    Angel: "Why fight?"
    Holland: "That's really the question you should be asking yourself, isn't it? See, for us, there is no fight. Which is why winning doesn't enter into it. We - go on - no matter what. Our firm has always been here. In one form or another. The Inquisition. The Khmer Rouge. We were there when the very first cave man clubbed his neighbor. See, we're in the hearts and minds of every single living being. And *that* - friend - is what's making things so difficult for you. - See, the world doesn't work in spite of evil, Angel. - It works with us. - It works because of us."


    It sends Angel into a pit of despair and he ends up sleeping with Darla. In the next episode "Epiphany" it's only after awakening later that night and realising that sleeping Darla didn't cost him his soul that he has an epiphany. When he tells Kate later in the episode that "if nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do" it's Angel basically rejecting this obsession he has had with taking W&H down and 'beating' them and instead just focusing on helping people because then "the smallest acts of kindness are the greatest things in the world." He can't beat W&H and his obsessive desire to take them down steered him completely off path (including losing sight/interest in helping the helpless in "Dear Boy" and "Reunion") and Angel comes to the realisation here that even if there's no end in sight, no greater purpose, or no winning, that helping people is still worthwhile.

    I mean, that's a pretty dumbed down and abridged version of the general idea but it's a truly wonderful moment for his character. It's one of my favourite moments from the show and probably the show's most iconic line. And in "Not Fade Away" Anne is putting it to great practice;

    Gunn: "What if I told you it doesn't help? What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That it's all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive, and they will never let it get better down here. What would you do?"
    Anne: "I'd get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here."


    Anne would still keep helping people. Even if there was no end to the pain and they'd never truly 'fix' things once and for all she'd never stop trying to help people and ease their suffering.
    Last edited by vampmogs; 25-02-19 at 02:29 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Willow from Buffy View Post
    An important point is that Satre's existentialism is supposed to be liberating. It is radical free choice. You don't have to become a criminal, just because you were born into poverty. You don't have to be a Nazi, even if happen to be a German during the last war. You don't have to destroy the world, even if Warren killed your girlfriend. The world may lock you up, it may spit on you and it may even kill you, but it can never own you. You is you. It is a harsh ideology, and it does not allow you any excuses, but it supposed to be liberating.

    Like Angel say, "For one shining moment, we can show them that they don't own us."
    It’s interesting to think of the show from an Existential perspective, but I’m not sure the actual dialogue goes that far, or that his acceptance of higher powers is compatible with Existentialism. “All that matters is what we do” sounds like a statement of belief in the broader concept of deontology, with an overlay of 19th-century nihilism. I feel like, for Angel to be an Existentialist, he’d have to not only focus his on the small steps of his mission; he’d have to reject the PTB’s overall authority to set his mission. He might wind up agreeing with them on the mission after all, but their approval would carry no weight in that decision.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Willow from Buffy View Post
    An important point is that Satre's existentialism is supposed to be liberating. It is radical free choice. You don't have to become a criminal, just because you were born into poverty. You don't have to be a Nazi, even if happen to be a German during the last war. You don't have to destroy the world, even if Warren killed your girlfriend. The world may lock you up, it may spit on you and it may even kill you, but it can never own you. You is you. It is a harsh ideology, and it does not allow you any excuses, but it supposed to be liberating.

    Like Angel say, "For one shining moment, we can show them that they don't own us."
    Its interesting to think of the show from an Existential perspective, but Im not sure the actual dialogue goes that far, or that his acceptance of higher powers is compatible with Existentialism. All that matters is what we do sounds like a statement of belief in the broader concept of deontology, with an overlay of 19th-century nihilism. I feel like, for Angel to be an Existentialist, hed have to not only focus his on the small steps of his mission; hed have to reject the PTBs overall authority to set his mission. He might wind up agreeing with them on the mission after all, but their approval would carry no weight in that decision.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Willow from Buffy View Post
    An important point is that Satre's existentialism is supposed to be liberating. It is radical free choice. You don't have to become a criminal, just because you were born into poverty. You don't have to be a Nazi, even if happen to be a German during the last war. You don't have to destroy the world, even if Warren killed your girlfriend. The world may lock you up, it may spit on you and it may even kill you, but it can never own you. You is you. It is a harsh ideology, and it does not allow you any excuses, but it supposed to be liberating.

    Like Angel say, "For one shining moment, we can show them that they don't own us."
    Quote Originally Posted by vampmogs View Post
    When he tells Kate later in the episode that "if nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do" it's Angel basically rejecting this obsession he has had with taking W&H down and 'beating' them and instead just focusing on helping people because then "the smallest acts of kindness are the greatest things in the world." He can't beat W&H and his obsessive desire to take them down steered him completely off path (including losing sight/interest in helping the helpless in "Dear Boy" and "Reunion") and Angel comes to the realisation here that even if there's no end in sight, no greater purpose, or no winning, that helping people is still worthwhile.
    I was just wondering when reading these two points, if perhaps S5 makes things more confusing for people sometimes. But then he's off course again of course. The shining moment of showing them they don't own them is taking a turn that's arguably better than continuing looking to do some good whilst accepting having to keep the business running and working there too, which is where they are at the start of that season. But it is still about a dramatic gesture from a corrupted position. They aren't just walking out the door and helping Anne, which would have been a far more positive and dramatic choice which returned to the original goal. So really giving the context of what built into the lines to Kate and led on to the further point about the smallest acts of kindness is great because it is clearer at that point what the basic message and intent behind it is. When you get to S5 when Angel's original point for being there wasn't in truth about wanting to try to take them down from within and believing in that, and where he gets into issues such as killing Drogyn and lying about what he'll be doing in the final fight etc, his direction/mission is struggling again and the 'correctness' of his choices is certainly questionable. I don't have an issue with marrying the two with the character into his overall path and accepting that people lose direction at times, but I suppose I can understand why looking at the whole series makes the point from the earlier seasons feel somewhat lost again and so confusing perhaps.
    Last edited by Stoney; 25-02-19 at 03:40 AM.

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    vampmogs:
    and Angel comes to the realisation here that even if there's no end in sight, no greater purpose, or no winning, that helping people is still worthwhile.

    I mean, that's a pretty dumbed down and abridged version of the general idea but it's a truly wonderful moment for his character. It's one of my favourite moments from the show and probably the show's most iconic line.
    I completely agree (except for the dumbed down part - you rather brilliantly summed it up) but I still stick to my point, that the second line

    "Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness - is the greatest thing in the world."

    says this so much better than the first line.

    I`d still like to know,who actually came up with those lines. Does anybody know?

    Stoney:
    They aren't just walking out the door and helping Anne, which would have been a far more positive and dramatic choice which returned to the original goal.
    That`s actually a rather brilliant idea, if they had wanted to end the series with Angel staying on track. I do think it was a bit more dramatic to have him end up in the alley behind the Hyperion Hotel, although that meant he had to go off the rails before the showdown.

    flow
    Last edited by flow; 25-02-19 at 07:11 PM.
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    Joss Whedon wrote those lines. The episode was penned by Tim Minear but Minear is on record as stating that Whedon wrote that scene.
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