The Philosophy of “Zorba the Greek”

How Does Nikos Kazantzakis Use His Characters to Examine Existentialism?

Tyler Piteo-Tarpy
7 min readJan 23, 2020

Existentialism is the philosophy of freedom. By this theory, one is a free agent passing through life without societal, moral, or divine boundaries. Because of this independence, it is wholly up to one’s self to appoint meaning to one’s life. Life is meaningless without a personal choice and in the novel Zorba the Greek, author Nikos Kazantzakis uses his characters to symbolize specific personal choices under the opposing categories of soul and flesh. The characters of the Narrator, Zaharia, and the Widow explore the belief that one should live for the spiritual realm, while Zorba, Uncle Anagnosti, and Mimiko thrive in the physical world. Kazantzakis brings these characters together to combine or contrast, which reveals his own take on Existentialism.

Within that framework, Kazantzakis introduces the Narrator revisiting the memory where he parts ways with his friend, Stavridaki, who is journeying to the Caucasus to support the Greek rebellion. Stavridaki asks the Narrator to join him but he won’t; he says, “pain was a dream and life some absorbing tragedy, in which nobody but a boor or a simpleton would rush onto the stage and take part in the action” (Kazantzakis 5), meaning that he isn’t capable of seeing value in that action because it’s a physical cause. Kazantzakis portrays the Narrator instantly as detached from the world, but he soon recognizes this condition. His friend had once called him a “bookworm” (5) and this title gave his affliction “a name and a shape, and it would be easier for me to combat it” (8). So the Narrator represents the spirit but attempts to start living for the flesh; by instigating this conflict Kazantzakis begins his discussion. Enter Zorba. While the Narrator does desire to change he quite adamantly resists Zorba’s philosophy, despite admitting to admiring it all the same and still wishing he could assimilate it with his own. Zorba tells him as they part ways at the end of the book that “you come and go, and think you’re free, but you never cut the string in two” (300), and he is right. As long as they spent together, the Narrator did not become Zorba; he still seeks a spiritual awakening; to find the “the absolute rhythm” which he can follow “with absolute trust” (233). Kazantzakis doesn’t allow the Narrator to change because his opinion is that it isn’t needed; the Narrator is satisfied with his life. He has learned lessons from Zorba, but he does not need nor want to become him.

Similarly, Kazantzakis uses the monk Zaharia to personify the struggle between spirituality and physicality. As a monk, he is required to abide by what he calls “the monk’s crown:” “Poverty, humility, chastity,” but as a man, he seeks the very things he’s banned from: meat, wine, and cigarettes (189). As the Narrator points out, Zaharia is “very like” (191) Zorba, but Kazantzakis clearly intends him to relate to the Narrator as well. Zaharia longs “for heaven” (191) and he disagrees with the other monks that theirs is the only path to it. He believes that “God must like fun and laughter” and will take him into paradise “as a buffoon” (191). Like the Narrator, Zaharia seeks spirituality, but he has created his own variety to compensate for the dissatisfaction he feels with orthodox views, the same way the Narrator has grown dissatisfied with being a “bookworm” (5). By connecting these two characters, Kazantzakis offers a second possible way of life; instead of forcing oneself into the accustomed piety, one can design it as they best see fit.

Finally, the Widow represents physical passion, as evidenced by the entire town’s obsession with her. Kazantzakis portrays two men’s attractions very differently; Pavli’s infatuation leads him to say things like “‘If she won’t be my wife, I’ll kill myself!’” (98), while the Narrator is much more humble. He resists her at first, believing that “in fighting against the widow I, too, was obeying a great universal rhythm” (113). But then, when he gives in to her, he feels “clearly that the soul is flesh as well” (237). Through her, Kazantzakis shifts the Narrator’s condition; she is able to change him in a way all Zorba’s talk could not. Pavli, however, seems to undo what Kazantzakis advanced; he does end up killing himself because of his unrequited love, seemingly sending the message that physical passion is dangerous and destructive. Kazantzakis says both contradictory things at the same time, which, in itself, expresses another message: neither man is right, and neither is wrong.

Championing the side of the flesh is Zorba, representing the idea that one should only ever do as they please, and in that way, he is the embodiment of Existentialism. This is why Kazantzakis has Zorba as the title character even though the Narrator is the lens through which the story is viewed. He is what the Narrator discovers and learns; the revelation of a new way of life, this way being free. Even so, Zorba is not completely content. He often asks the narrator “Do you understand?” (23) this mystery of life, that philosophical conundrum. And, while the Narrator often doesn’t, his goal, at least, is to figure it out. Zorba criticizes him for the very thing he wishes would find the answer. Kazantzakis illustrates Zorba’s doubts and dissatisfaction for the purpose of bringing him down to the same level as the Narrator, whose doubts and dissatisfactions are evident from the first-person point of view. Zorba’s philosophy of life, “To undo your belt and look for trouble!” (101), is imperfect, just as the Narrator’s is.

Along with Zorba, Uncle Anagnosti also encounters issues with his philosophy. He finds meaning in being a father and grandfather, a purpose which he has achieved. He says “I’ve nothing to complain about. I’ve had grandchildren, too. What more could I want?” (163). And yet, just following that he says “if I had to start my life all over again I’d put a stone round my neck, like Pavli, and throw myself in the sea” (163). His problem is that he can’t understand men’s hearts; he understands why Pavli killed himself but doesn’t know why men are made in such a way as to act like that. He seeks a universal truth, something that he can never find because of the way he has lived. He believes that “even the luckiest life is hard” (163) because although he has everything he wants, he lacks something he needs.

On a different note, Kazantzakis utilizes Mimiko to depict Zorba in the extreme. He has no concerns with how he lives his life, or with anything for that matter. When asked what he likes best Mimiko responds with “Eat, drink, and go to bed, I say” (100). This is the true extent of his life because, as the town named him, and he happily agrees, he’s an idiot. According to Zorba, “You need a touch of folly” (300) to cut the string that holds one back from freedom, and Mimiko is pure folly. Zorba has gotten rid of many of his strings, but, as he even admits, there is still one: women, to which he says “Their turn will come, damn them! It’ll come!” (196). To Mimiko, there are only three parts of life and “All the rest’s just trouble!” (100). Kazantzakis has Mimiko represent the perfect form of life for the flesh and in doing so states that this too is an acceptable lifestyle, at least for those with folly and without questions.

By intertwining these six characters and their respective ideologies, Kazantzakis develops an overarching analysis of Existentialism. With those symbolizing the soul he considers the beliefs of those living for the flesh and concludes that, while they have much to teach, it is not necessary to convert. And with those symbolizing the flesh, he explores the issues accompanying that lifestyle and what it takes to be completely free, coming to the conclusion that it is difficult to be completely immersed without some yearning from the spirit as well. As evidenced by these conclusions, Kazantzakis clearly means to epitomize his specific opinion on Existentialism: he believes that every choice on the ideal way of life is correct for the person making that choice.

Zorba is correct in believing that being present, outrageous, audacious and unfettered is the right way of life because it pleases him to do so. Likewise, the Narrator is correct when he is contemplative, analytical, and a “bookworm” (5), because that’s what he finds meaning in doing. Kazantzakis shows that both lives are worth considering, but only in an effort to develop a perfect system for oneself. In using many diverse characters, Kazantzakis symbolizes all of humanity and it’s many opposing ideologies. His final statement is basically the very definition of Existentialism, but, because he related it first to mankind, he can speak towards an acceptable application of the theory. His true purpose with the novel Zorba the Greek was to explain that it’s not only possible to integrate Existentialism into one’s life, it’s most beneficial to do so, as, like Zorba says, “That’s what you might call being a man: freedom!” (18).

Kazantzakis, Nikos. Zorba the Greek. Trans. Carl Wildman, Simon & Schuster, 1981.



Tyler Piteo-Tarpy

Essayist, poet, screenwriter, and comer upper of weird ideas. My main focus will be on politics and philosophy but when I get bored, I’ll write something else.