Former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was known predominantly in the West as a strange and eccentric dictator. An often-comical man who fit the West’s stereotype of the “foreign” villain.
In 2009, Gaddafi insisted on staying in a Bedouin tent during a trip to New York, and set it up on an estate owned by now-president Donald Trump.
Gaddafi also stayed in a tent during his trips to Brussels, Moscow, and Rome (where the colonel pinned a picture of Libyan martyr Omar al-Mukhtar, who was executed by Italians, to his uniform), and he demanded to park his tent in London’s Holland Park after being invited to a summit in 2008 by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Actions like these, and the many others Gaddafi made during his reign, were clear statements of the leader’s commitment to his Bedouin roots and Libyan identity. But was there also another, more philosophical component involved?
It is rarely mentioned that Gaddafi’s favorite book was reputed to be Colin Wilson’s The Outsider— an existentialist title originally published in 1956, which explored the philosophical role of the outsider.
The book analyzed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, among others, and Gaddafi liked the book so much he allegedly invited Wilson to meet with him in Libya.
Gaddafi’s interest in Wilson has been spoken of by a number of journalists and figures, including by a source who worked with Libya for over fifteen years– working with the World Green Book Center, the World Mathaba, and the Libyan Foreign Information Bureau of the General People’s Committee of Information & Culture.
“It was common knowledge among keen ‘Colonel watchers’ that Colin Wilson’s The Outsider was his favorite book. Wilson was aware of this, commenting on it to friends and admirers,” claimed the source, who will be referred to as ‘Rashid’, in an effort to maintain his privacy. “While I’m not aware of him mentioning Wilson in his public pronouncements or published writings, I do know that when visiting journalists asked about his personal tastes he never hesitated to tell them his favorite book was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider.”
Among the few journalists who reported on Gaddafi’s interest in Wilson was Kate Dourian, who wrote a newspaper article after meeting with the Colonel in 1986, titled, Really, I’m a nice guy, says Gaddafi.
“Gaddafi said he admired former US Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Other past world leaders he admires are Egypt’s late Gamal Abdul-Nasser, India’s Mahatma Gandhi, Sun Yat-sen of China and Italy’s Garibaldi and Mazini,” wrote Dourian in the article. “He learned English at school in Tripoli and later had a brief course at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield, near London, in 1966. But he says he hated England because he felt he did not belong. It must have been then that he read The Outsider by British author Colin Wilson, which he says is his favourite book. Others he likes are Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Roots by Alex Haley.”
The New Yorker, citing Dourian, also wrote in 2011 that The Outsider was one of Gaddafi’s favorite books.
Rashid, who had a working relationship with the Libyan regime, claimed “Dourian’s remarks after meeting the leader are consistent with what other journalists were told when they asked the Colonel about his reading habits, likes and dislikes.”
“Col Gaddafi read widely and enjoyed discussing philosophy with visiting academics. He kept an account with a leading London bookstore to supply him with the new releases on history, politics and philosophy,” he proclaimed. “That Col. Gaddafi held The Outsider in high regard shows his identification with Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’. The Outsider was translated into Arabic not long after being published and enjoyed a certain vogue among 1960s Arab intellectuals in Damascus, Beirut, Cairo.”
“In the follow-up to The Outsider, Religion & the Rebel Wilson examined Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rilke, Shaw, Swedenborg, and Rimbaud among others. Wilson explores the main existential questions and shows how they were driven by a need to become ‘more than men’. If we apply the same analysis to the Colonel’s life it is not too difficult to see him as one of Wilson’s classic Outsider types,” Rashid further expressed. “Some Outsiders choose the area of thought, like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, while others choose religion… Swedenborg, Fox, Law. The Colonel chose revolutionary politics.”
Professor Diederick Vandewalle, a Belgian professor and author who teaches at Dartmouth College, disagreed, however, that Gaddafi was a man interested in philosophy.
Vandewalle, who has authored a number of books on Libya and is reported to have once met with Gaddafi in person, claimed, “As far as I can tell, Gaddafi was someone who was not really very well read at all, and certainly judging by the Green Book, and what it contains, certainly he was not somebody who had any real strain of thought or a systematic way of analyzing things at all. There’s all these references that people have made to so and so on in his writings, and I have always failed to see those. I really don’t see any evidence whatsoever of any systematic understanding of philosophy at all.”
Vandewalle went on to describe Gaddafi as “unsophisticated,” and declared that he couldn’t “really deal very well with ideas, and it reflects his background in a sense, he’s a tribal figure and he’s not very well educated.”
“The only thing he had was a vocal schooling and then one year in Great Britain in military school, or a few months at least… and that’s it,” he proclaimed. “There is this video of David Frost meeting Gaddafi. This was the period when he was inviting all these big luminaries to go to Libya… It shows David Frost talking to Gaddafi, and the first question he asks is where Gaddafi got his ideas about democracy, and whether he got his ideas from Rousseau or somebody else, and the stare on Gaddafi’s face is pure blank, he has no idea what David Frost is talking about and just mumbles on about the Third International Theory and all of that. So, to me, this does not indicate in any way somebody who really knew philosophy at all or studied it in any way, and how could he? He was the leader of a country, he was a very busy man, he was a military figure. There was no time.”
Rashid, however, declared that “Gaddafi didn’t need to ‘embrace’ existentialism because he lived it.”
“He formulated his own unique socio-political program, the Third Universal Theory, as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Swedenborg and Quaker George Fox articulated their own worldviews. And he died fighting for his worldview,” Rashid explained. “Gaddafi identified as a revolutionary, Arab nationalist, but first and foremost as the ‘Leader of the World Revolution’. This was his way of directing that inner drive to become ‘more than men’.”
Gaddafi’s more creative work also contains heavy traces of existentialist philosophy, among the more predictable Islamic influences.
Gaddafi’s short story The Suicide of the Astronaut, which appeared in his compilation book Escape to Hell and Other Stories, is about an astronaut’s existential crisis, which ultimately leads him to suicide.
In the introduction to Escape to Hell and Other Stories, written by former John F. Kennedy aide and 7th White House Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger, Salinger also claims Friedrich Nietzsche and other “modern age” philosophers were Gaddafi’s “second source of inspiration,” following Islam.
Upon asking Rashid whether he also saw existentialist inspiration in The Suicide of the Astronaut, he replied, “For those willing to look, it appears the answer is obvious.”
“The astronaut, despite his vast and superior technical knowledge, is unable to settle down to a rewarding life in the ‘real world’, and thus commits suicide. That the Colonel should make this the first in his book of short stories is revealing,” he speculated. “Also, as in Christianity and Judaism, suicide is anathema in Islam. Adds more weight to the story. As with Escape to Hell, his short stories have a obvious transgressive nature.”
Dr. Hans Köchler, a renown, retired philosophy professor who was involved with the trial disputes surrounding the Lockerbie Bombing in 1988, also pointed me towards Escape to Hell when I asked him about Gaddafi and existentialism, which he said “may give some hints” on Gaddafi’s philosophical beliefs.
Köchler, who was a peer of Jean Genet, the French writer and playwright who Sartre described as a “genius,” further claimed that his book on Heidegger, Skepsis und Gesellschaftskritik im Denken Martin Heideggers, received a “renewed interest” in Morocco, Lebanon, and Libya after it was translated into Arabic following the Arab Spring.
“A Heidegger circle in Libya got in touch with me concerning this book,” he noted.
Though it is now impossible, following his death in 2011, to ask Gaddafi about his views on Western philosophy, it is undeniable that at least some of his work contains heavy similarities to the ideas of Wilson, Nietzsche, Camus, and others.
The only question is: Can Gaddafi be added to the long list of 20th and 21st century figures who were officially influenced by the existentialists?