The basic theme of Kazantzakis’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, is the conflict between the body and the soul or, in the words of the novelist himself, “the struggle between God and man.”
“A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for very long,” says Kazantzakis in the Preface. “It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends. But among responsible men… the conflict between flesh and spirit breaks out mercilessly and may last until death.” (emphasis added)
Kazantzakis explored this theme with slight variations in many novels. In The Last Temptation, Jesus overcomes the temptations of the flesh by courting death. In Saint Francis, the eponymous protagonist overcomes his fleshly desires through rigorous mortification. Zorba, in Zorba the Greek, subscribes to a unique version of the Buddhist middle path by blending the body and the soul in his own pragmatic way.
“God and devil are one and the same thing!” Zorba declares repeatedly. That knowledge helps Zorba to strike a balance between the good and the evil. He does not make the mistake of polarising the good and the evil and then pursuing the good alone as Jesus did. He lives each moment as it comes, accepting the good and fighting the evil in his own way without spiritualising or intellectualising anything. “You understand, and that’s why you’ll never have any peace. If you didn’t understand, you’d be happy!” Zorba tells his master who is on a spiritual quest. Acquiring the kind of wisdom that Zorba possesses requires “a touch of folly”.
Jesus also wonders whether God and the devil aren’t one and the same thing. Someone appears to Jesus in a dream in The Last Temptation. Jesus is not sure whether it was God or the devil who appeared. “Who can tell them apart?” he asks himself. “They exchange faces; God sometimes becomes all darkness, the devil all light, and the mind of man is left in a muddle.”
An old lady advises Jesus in the novel, “... don’t you know that God is found not in monasteries but in the homes of men! Wherever you find husband and wife, that’s where you find God; wherever children and petty cares and cooking and arguments and reconciliations, that’s where God is too.... The God I’m telling you about, the domestic one, not the monastic: that’s the true God. He’s the one you should adore. Leave the other to those lazy, sterile idiots in the desert (the monks)!”
Spirituality cannot be isolated from the actual life which is ineluctably a mixture of good and evil. Seeking it in the solitude of deserts and mountains, or the isolation of monasteries and communes, would be quite a sterile exercise in the sense that the God found in such pursuits would be a God of straitjackets and not the God of the ordinary life in the ordinary world.
I’d go with Zorba and say that it’s better to strike the right balance between the body and the soul than nail one’s body to a cross. But I wouldn’t also accept the deification of the body that’s found in the contemporary civilisation. I don’t have to conceal my grey hairs beneath toxic dyes any more than gorge my intestines with junk food. Yet I can stand and admire the beauty of the artificial shade on any pretty head just as I relish a drink of whisky at appropriate times. I’m a follower of Zorba who advocated the passion “to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.” What is life without that passion? Without also the renunciation? What is life without the body? Without also the soul?