Philosophy and Science for the Third Millennium
A Book by William Barrett
One recognizes one’s course by the paths that stray from it.
Restricting a body of knowledge to a small group deadens the philosophical spirit of a people and leads to spiritual poverty.
William Barrett’s Irrational Man has been accepted as the finest definition of existentialism ever written. With superb clarity and understanding, he describes the roots of existentialism in ancient thought, and traces its appearances in the art and reflection of such men as Saint Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Baudelaire, Blake, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Picasso, Joyce, and Beckett. The heart of the book is four long chapters in which he explains the views of its foremost spokesmen—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre.
Professor Barrett makes clear that existentialism is anything but a barren abstraction fit only for the classroom. Whenever men have insisted on the limits of reason, declaring that logic alone cannot account for the guilt, dread, anxiety, alienation, and latent meaninglessness of life, they have been taking an existentialist stand. For “Existentialism,” as William Barrett writes, “whether successfully or not, has attempted to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture of man,” and any picture of man that fails to consider the irrational element, the absurd, will be incomplete. In Pascal’s phrase, the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know; and, because existentialism will not ignore these reasons, because it insists that the subterranean impulse, the Furies within all of us, must be recognized, because it realizes that in this atomic age we are in such peril of ceasing to exist before we have even known what our existence means—because of these acute and urgent insights into the crisis of modern man, existentialism has become the philosophy for our time.
When war breaks out people say its stupid and cannot last long. But being stupid does not prevent it from lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way, which we would see if we were not always so wrapped up in ourselves.
What is a rebel? A man who says no—but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes as soon as he begins to think for himself. He rebels because he categorically refuses to submit to conditions that he considers intolerable and also because he is confusedly convinced that his position is justified, or rather, because in his own mind he thinks that he has the right to.
I grew in the sea and poverty was my wealth, then I lost the sea, then all luxury seemed grey, poverty intolerable. Since then, I wait. I wait for the return voyage, the house by the sea, the clear light of day. I wait, I struggle to be polite. People see me pass in elegant cultured streets, I admire the views, I applaud like everyone else, I shake hands, it’s not really me speaking. People praise me, I daydream a little, I’m offended, but show almost no surprise. Then I forget and smile at whoever insults me, or I greet those I love too courteously. What’s to be done if I can only remember a single image? Finally they urge me to say who I am. Still nothing, still nothing.
In this vast cosmic picture the abyss between macrocosmos and microcosmos—the very big and the very little—will be bridged, and the whole complex of the universe will resolve into a homogeneous fabric in which matter and energy are indistinguishable and all forms of motion from the slow wheeling of the galaxies to the wild flight of electrons become simply changes in the structure and concentration of the primordial field.
Chapter 1—The Advent of Existentialism
The story is told by Kierkegaard of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead. It is a story that has a special point today, since this civilization of ours has at last got its hands on weapons with which it could easily bring upon itself the fate of Kierkegaard’s hero: we could wake up tomorrow morning dead—and without ever having touched the roots of our own existence. There is by this time widespread anxiety and even panic over the dangers of the atomic age; but the public soul-searching and stocktaking rarely, if ever, go to the heart of the matter. We do not ask ourselves what the ultimate ideas behind our civilization are that have brought us into this danger; we do not search for the human face behind the bewildering array of instruments that man has forged; in a word, we do not dare to be philosophical. Uneasy as we are over the atomic age, on the crucial question of existence itself we choose to remain as absent-minded as the man in Kierkegaard’s story. One reason we do so lies in the curiously remote position to which modem society has relegated philosophy, and which philosophers themselves have been content to accept.
If philosophers are really to deal with the problem of human existence—and no other professional group in society is likely to take over the job for them—they might very well begin by asking: How does philosophy itself exist at the present time? Or, more concretely: How do philosophers exist in the modem world? Nothing very high-flown, metaphysical, or even abstract is intended by this question; and our preliminary answer to it is equally concrete and prosy. Philosophers today exist in the Academy, as members of departments of philosophy in universities, as professional teachers of a more or less theoretical subject known as philosophy. This simple observation, baldly factual and almost statistical, does not seem to take us very deeply into the abstruse problem of existence; but every effort at understanding must take off from our actual situation, the point at which we stand. “Know thyself!” is the command Socrates issued to philosophers at the beginning (or very close to it) of all Western philosophy; and contemporary philosophers might start on the journey of self-knowledge by coming to terms with the somewhat grubby and uninspiring fact of the social status of philosophy as a profession. It is in any case a fact with some interesting ambiguities.
To profess, according to the dictionary, is to confess or declare openly, and therefore publicly; consequently, to acknowledge a calling before the world. So the word bears originally a religious connotation, as when we speak of a profession of faith. But in our present society, with its elaborate subdividing of human functions, a profession is the specialized social task—requiring expertness and know-how—that one performs for pay: it is a living, one’s livelihood. Professional people are lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers—and also professors of philosophy. The profession of the philosopher in the modem world is to be a professor of philosophy; and the realm of Being which the philosopher inhabits as a living individual is no more recondite than a corner within the university.
Not enough has been made of this academic existence of the philosopher, though some contemporary Existentialists have directed searching comment upon it. The price one pays for having a profession is a déformation professionelle, as the French put it—a professional deformation. Doctors and engineers tend to see things from the viewpoint of their own specialty, and usually show a very marked blind spot to whatever falls outside this particular province. The more specialized a vision the sharper its focus; but also the more nearly total the blind spot toward all things that lie on the periphery of this focus. As a human being, functioning professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation, especially since it has become a law of modem society that man is assimilated more and more completely to his social function. And it is just here that a troublesome and profound ambiguity resides for the philosopher today. The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has. In ancient Greece it had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical discipline philosophy there was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual’s whole life was to be lived. These earliest philosophers among the Greeks were seers, poets, almost shamans—as well as the first thinkers. Mythological and intuitive elements permeate their thinking even where we see the first historical efforts toward conceptualization; they traffic with the old gods even while in the process of coining a new significance for them; and everywhere in the fragments of these pre-Socratic Greeks is the sign of a revelation greater than themselves which they are unveiling for the rest of mankind. Even in Plato, where the thought has already become more differentiated and specialized and where the main lines of philosophy as a theoretical discipline are being laid down, the motive of philosophy is very different from the cool pursuit of the savant engaged in research. Philosophy is for Plato a passionate way of life; and the imperishable example of Socrates, who lived and died for the philosophic life, was the guiding line of Plato’s career for five decades after his master’s death. Philosophy is the soul’s search for salvation, which means for Plato deliverance from the suffering and evils of the natural world. Even today the motive for an Oriental’s taking up the study of philosophy is altogether different from that of a Western student: for the Oriental the only reason for bothering with philosophy is to find release or peace from the torments and perplexities of life. Philosophy can never quite divest itself of these aboriginal claims. They are part of the past, which is never lost, lurking under the veneer of even the most sophisticatedly rational of contemporary philosophies; and even those philosophers who have altogether forsworn the great vision are called upon, particularly by the layman who may not be aware of the historical fate of specialization that has fallen upon philosophy, to give answers to the great questions.
The ancient claims of philosophy are somewhat embarrassing to the contemporary philosopher, who has to justify his existence within the sober community of professional savants and scientists. The modem university is as much an expression of the specialization of the age as is the modem factory. Moreover, the philosopher knows that everything we prize about our modem knowledge, each thing in it that represents an immense stride in certainty and power over what the past called its knowledge, is the result of specialization. Modem science was made possible by the social organization of knowledge. The philosopher today is therefore pressed, and simply by reason of his objective social role in the community, into an imitation of the scientist: he too seeks to perfect the weapons of his knowledge through specialization. Hence the extraordinary preoccupation with technique among modem philosophers, with logical and linguistic analysis, syntax and semantics; and in general with the refining away of all content for the sake of formal subtlety. The movement known as Logical Positivism, in this country; (the atmosphere of humanism is probably more dominant in the European universities than here in the United States), actually trafficked upon the guilt philosophers felt at not being scientists; that is, at not being researchers producing reliable knowledge in the mode of science. The natural insecurity of philosophers, which in any case lies at the core of their whole uncertain enterprise, was here aggravated beyond measure by the insistence that they transform themselves into scientists.
Specialization is the price we pay for the advancement of knowledge. A price, because the path of specialization leads away from the ordinary and concrete acts of understanding in terms of which man actually lives his day—today life. It used to be said (I do not know whether this would still hold today) that if a dozen men were to die the meaning of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity would be lost to mankind. No mathematician today can embrace the whole of his subject as did the great Gauss little more than a century ago. The philosopher who has pursued his own specialized path leading away from the urgent and the actual may claim that his situation parallels that of the scientist, that his own increasing remoteness from life merely demonstrates the inexorable law of advancing knowledge. But the cases are in fact not parallel; for out of the abstractions that only a handful of experts can understand the physicist is able to detonate a bomb that alters—and can indeed put an end to—the life of ordinary mankind. The philosopher has no such explosive effect upon the life of his time. In fact, if they were candid, philosophers today would recognize that they have less and less influence upon the minds around them. To the degree that their existence has become specialized and academic, their importance beyond the university cloisters has declined. Their disputes have become disputes among themselves; and far from gaining the enthusiastic support needed for a strong popular movement, they now have little contact with whatever general intellectual elite still remain here outside the Academy. John Dewey was the last American philosopher to have any widespread influence on nonacademic life in this country.
Such was the general philosophic situation here when, after the Second World War, the news of Existentialism arrived. It was news, which is in itself an unusual thing for philosophy these days. True, the public interest was not altogether directed toward the philosophic matters in question. It was news from France, and therefore distinguished by the particular color and excitement that French intellectual life is able to generate. French Existentialism was a kind of Bohemian ferment in Paris; it had, as a garnish for the philosophy, the cult its younger devotees had made of nightclub hangouts, American jazz, special hairdos and style of dress. All this made news for American journalists trying to report on the life that had gone on in Paris during the war and the German Occupation. Moreover, Existentialism was a literary movement as well, and its leaders—Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir—were brilliant and engaging writers. Nevertheless, that the American public was curious about the philosophy itself cannot altogether be denied. Perhaps the curiosity consisted in large part of wanting to know what the name, the big word, meant; nothing stirs up popular interest so much as a slogan. But there was also a genuine philosophic curiosity, however inchoate, in all this, for here was a movement that seemed to convey a message and a meaning to a good many people abroad, and Americans wanted to know about it. The desire for meaning still slumbers, though submerged, beneath the extroversion of American life.
The philosophic news from France was only a small detail in the history of the postwar years. French Existentialism, as a cult, is now as dead as last year’s fad. Its leaders, to be sure, are still flourishing: Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are still phenomenally productive, though in the case of Sartre we feel that he has already made at least his penultimate statement, so that now we have his message pretty completely; Albert Camus, the most sensitive and searching of the trio, long ago split off from the group, but has continued his exploration into themes that belonged to the original Existentialist preoccupations. As news and excitement, the movement is altogether dead; and yet it has left its mark on nearly all the writing and thinking of Europe of the last ten years. During the grim decade of the Cold War no intellectual movement of comparable importance appeared. Existentialism is the best in the way of a new and creative movement that these rather uninspired postwar years have been able to turn up. We have to say at least this in a spirit of cool critical assessment, even when we acknowledge all the frivolous and sensational elements that got attached to it.
The important thing, to repeat, was that here was a philosophy that was able to cross the frontier from the Academy into the world at large. This should have been a welcome sign to professional philosophers that ordinary mankind still could hunger and thirst after philosophy if what they were given to bite down on was something that seemed to have a connection with their lives. Instead, the reception given the new movement by philosophers was anything but cordial. Existentialism was rejected, often without very much scrutiny, as sensationalism or mere “psychologizing,” a literary attitude, postwar despair, nihilism, or heaven knows what besides. The very themes of Existentialism were something of a scandal to the detached sobriety of Anglo-American philosophy. Such matters as anxiety, death, the conflict between the bogus and the genuine self, the faceless man of the masses, the experience of the death of God are scarcely the themes of analytic philosophy. Yet they are themes of life: People do die, people do struggle all their lives between the demands of real and counterfeit selves, and we do live in an age in which neurotic anxiety has mounted out of all proportion so that even minds inclined to believe that all human problems can be solved by physical techniques begin to label “mental health” as the first of our public problems. The reaction of professional philosophers to Existentialism was merely a symptom of their imprisonment in the narrowness of their own discipline. Never was the professional deformation more in evidence. The divorce of mind from life was something that had happened to philosophers simply in the pursuit of their own specialized problems. Since philosophers are only a tiny fraction of the general population, the matter would not be worth laboring were it not that this divorce of mind from life happens also to be taking place, catastrophically, in modem civilization everywhere. It happens too, as we shall see, to be one of the central themes of existential philosophy—for which we may in time owe it no small debt.
All of this has to be said even when we do concede a certain sensational and youthfully morbid side to French Existentialism. The genius of Sartre—and by this time there can scarcely be doubt that it is real genius—has an undeniably morbid side. But there is no human temperament that does not potentially reveal some truth, and Sartre’s morbidity has its own, unique and revelatory power. It is true also that a good deal in French Existentialism was the expression of an historical mood—the shambles of defeat after the “phoney war” and the experience of utter dereliction under the German Occupation. But are moods of this kind so unimportant and trifling as to be unworthy of the philosopher’s consideration? Would it not in fact be a serious and appropriate task for the philosopher to elaborate what is involved in certain basic human moods? We are living in an epoch that has produced two world wars, and these wars were not merely passing incidents but characterize the age down to its marrow; surely a philosophy that has experienced these wars may be said to have some connection with the life of its time. Philosophers who dismissed Existentialism as “merely a mood” or “a postwar mood” betrayed a curious blindness to the concerns of the human spirit, in taking the view that philosophic truth can be found only in those areas of experience in which human moods are not present.
Naturally enough, something very deeply American came to the surface in this initial response to Existentialism. Once again the old drama of America confronting Europe was being played out. Existentialism was so definitely a European expression that its very somberness went against the grain of our native youthfulness and optimism. The new philosophy was not a peculiarly French phenomenon, but a creation of the western European continent at the moment in history when all of its horizons—political as well as spiritual—were rapidly shrinking. The American has not yet assimilated psychologically the disappearance of his own geographical frontier, his spiritual horizon is still the limitless play of human possibilities, and as yet he has not lived through the crucial experience of human finitude. (This last is still only an abstract phrase to him.) The expression of themes like those of Existentialism was bound to strike the American as a symptom of despair and defeat, and, generally, of the declining vigor of a senescent civilization. But America, spiritually speaking, is still tied to European civilization, even though the political power lines now run the other way; and these European expressions simply point out the path that America itself will have eventually to tread; when it does it will know at last what the European is talking about.
It is necessary thus to emphasize the European—rather than the specifically French—origins of Existentialism, since in its crucial issues the whole meaning of European civilization (of which we in America are still both descendants and dependents) is radically put in question. Jean-Paul Sartre is not Existentialism—it still seems necessary to make this point for American readers; he does not even represent, as we shall see later, the deepest impulse of this philosophy. Now that French Existentialism as a popular movement (once even something of a popular nuisance) is safely dead, having left a few new reputations surviving in its wake, we can see it much more clearly for what it is—a small branch of a very much larger tree. And the roots of this larger tree reach down into the remotest depths of the Western tradition. Even in the portions of the tree more immediately visible to our contemporary eyes, we have something which is the combined product of many European thinkers, some of them operating in radically different national traditions. Sartre’s immediate sources, for example, are German: Martin Heidegger (1889- ) and Karl Jaspers (1883- ), and for his method the great German phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Heidegger and Jaspers are, strictly speaking, the creators of existential philosophy in this century: they have given it its decisive stamp, brought its problems to new and more precise expression, and in general formed the model around which the thinking of all the other Existentialists revolves. Neither Heidegger nor Jaspers created their philosophies out of whole cloth; the atmosphere of German philosophy during the first part of this century had become quickened by the search for a new “philosophical anthropology”—a new interpretation of man-made necessary by the extraordinary additions to. knowledge in all of the special sciences that dealt with man. Here particularly the name of Max Scheler (1874-1928), usually not classed as an “existentialist,” must be mentioned, for his great sensitivity to this new concrete data from psychology and the social sciences, but most of all for his penetrating grasp of the fact that modem man had become in his very essence problematic. Both Scheler and Heidegger owe a great debt to Husserl, yet the relation of the latter to Existentialism is extremely paradoxical. By temperament Husserl was the anti-modernist par excellence among modem philosophers; he was a passionate exponent of classical rationalism, whose single and exalted aim was to ground the rationality of man upon a more adequate and comprehensive basis than the past had achieved. Yet by insisting that the philosopher must cast aside preconceptions in attending to the actual concrete data of experience, Husserl flung wide the doors of philosophy to the rich existential content that his more radical followers were to quarry. In his last writings Husserl’s thought even turns slowly and haltingly in the direction of Heidegger’s themes. The great rationalist is dragged slowly to earth.
But what lifted Heidegger and Jaspers above the level of their contemporary philosophic atmosphere and impelled them to give a new voice to the intellectual consciousness of the age was their decisive relation to two older nineteenth-century thinkers: Sřren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Jaspers has been the more outspoken in acknowledging this filial relationship: the philosopher, he says, who has really experienced the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche can never again philosophize in the traditional mode of academic philosophy. Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche was an academic philosopher; Nietzsche, for seven years a professor of Greek at Basel in Switzerland, did his most radical philosophizing after he had fled from the world of the university and its sober community of scholars; Kierkegaard never held an academic chair. Neither developed a system; both in fact gibed at systematizers and even the possibilities of a philosophic system; and while they proliferated in ideas that were far in advance of their time and could be spelled out only by the following century, these ideas were not the stock themes of academic philosophy. Ideas are not even the real subject matter of these philosophers—and this in itself is something of a revolution in Western philosophy: their central subject is the unique experience of the single one, the individual, who chooses to place himself on trial before the gravest question of his civilization. For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche this gravest question is Christianity, though they were driven to opposite positions in regard to it. Kierkegaard set himself the task of determining whether Christianity can still be lived or whether a civilization still nominally Christian must finally confess spiritual bankruptcy; and all his ideas were simply sparks thrown off in the fiery process of seeking to realize the truth of Christ in his own life. Nietzsche begins with the confession of bankruptcy: God is dead, says Nietzsche, and European man if he were more honest, courageous, and had keener eyes for what went on in the depths of his own soul would know that this death has taken place there, despite the lip service still paid to the old formulae and ideals of religion. Nietzsche experimented with his own life to be able to answer the question: What next? What happens to the race when at long last it has severed the umbilical cord that bound it for millennia to the gods and a transcendent world beyond this earthly world? He placed his own life on trial in order to experience this death of God to its depths. More than thinkers, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were witnesses—witnesses who suffered for their time what the time itself would not acknowledge as its own secret wound. No concept or system of concepts lies at the center of either of their philosophies, but rather the individual human personality itself struggling for self-realization. No wonder both are among the greatest of intuitive psychologists.
Though Kierkegaard was a Dane, intellectual Denmark in his time was a cultural province of Germany, and his thought, nourished almost completely by German sources, belongs ultimately within the wider tradition of German philosophy. Modern existential philosophy is thus by and large a creation of the German genius. It rises out of that old strain of the Germanic mind which, since Meister Eckhart at the end of the Middle Ages, has sought to give voice to the deepest inwardness of European man. But this voice is also a thoroughly modern one and speaks neither with the serene mysticism of Eckhart nor with the intellectual intoxication and dreaminess of German idealism. Here introversion has come face to face with its other, the concrete actualities of life before which the older German philosophy had remained in wool—gathering abstraction; face to face with historical crisis; with time, death, and personal anxiety.
Yet modern Existentialism is not of exclusively German provenance; rather it is a total European creation, perhaps the last philosophic legacy of Europe to America or whatever other civilization is now on its way to supplant Europe. The number of European thinkers of widely varying racial and national traditions who have collaborated in the fabrication of existential philosophy is much larger than the public, still somewhat bedazzled by French Existentialism, imagines. The picture of French Existentialism itself is not complete without the figure of Gabriel Marcel (1889- ), Sartre’s extreme opposite and trenchant critic, a devout Catholic whose philosophic sources are not German at all, but are surprisingly enough the American idealist Josiah Royce and the French intuitionist Henri Bergson. According to the record he has left in his Metaphysical Journal, Marcel’s existentialism developed out of purely personal experience, and perhaps that is its greatest significance for us, whatever final value his philosophic formulations may have. The intimacy and concreteness of personal feeling taught Marcel the incompleteness of all philosophies that deal purely in intellectual abstractions. But the door that opened upon this experience was Bergson’s doctrine of intuition; and the figure of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) cannot really be omitted from any historical sketch of modern existential philosophy. Without Bergson the whole atmosphere in which Existentialists have philosophized would not have been what it was. He was the first to insist on the insufficiency of the abstract intelligence to grasp the richness of experience, on the urgent and irreducible reality of time, and—perhaps in the long run the most significant insight of all—on the inner depth of the psychic life which cannot be measured by the quantitative methods of the physical sciences; and for making all of these points the Existentialists stand greatly in his debt. Yet, from the existential point of view, there is a curious incompleteness about Bergson’s thinking, as if he never came really to grips with the central subject, Man, but remained perpetually dodging and tacking about on its periphery. Certain premises of Bergson’s thought—which remain, to be sure, little more than premises—are more radical than any the Existentialists have yet explored. Bergson’s reputation except in France has greatly fallen off, but he is due for a revival, at which time hindsight will enable us to see that his philosophy contains much more than it seemed to, even at the height of his fame.
The Russians (White Russians, of course) have contributed three typical and interesting figures to Existentialism: Vladimir Solovev (1853-1900), Leon Shestov (18681938), and Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), of whom only the last seems to be known in this country. These men are all spiritual children of Dostoevsky, and they bring a peculiarly Russian vision to Existentialism: total, extreme, and apocalyptic. Solovev, primarily a theologian and religious writer, belonged to the first generation that felt the impact of Dostoevsky as both prophet and novelist, and he develops the typically Dostoevskian position that there can be no compromise between the spirit of rationalism and the spirit of religion. Both Berdyaev and Shestov were Russian émigrés, cosmopolitans of the spirit, but nevertheless remained Russian to the core; and their writings, like those of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, can show us what the mind of western Europe, the heir of classicism and rationalism, looks like to an outsider—particularly to a Russian outsider who will be satisfied with no philosophic answers that fall short of the total and passionate feelings of his own humanity.
Modern Spain has contributed two figures to existential philosophy, in Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) and Jose Ortega y Casset (1883-1955). Unamuno, a poet first and last, wrote one of the most moving and genuine philosophic books of the whole movement; his Tragic Sense of Life is a work that fulfills, though in an anti-Nietzschean sense, Nietzsche’s command to remain true to the earth. Unamuno had read Kierkegaard, but his thought is an expression of his own personal passion and of the Basque earth from which he sprang. Ortega, a cooler and more cosmopolitan figure, is best known in this country as the social critic of The Revolt of the Masses. All the basic premises of Ortega’s thought derive from modern German philosophy: so far as he philosophizes, his mind is Germanic; but he was able to translate German philosophy into the language of the people, without pedantry and jargon, and particularly into the simplicity of an altogether alien language, Spanish, so that the translation itself becomes an act of creative thought. Ortega loves to hide the profundity of his thought behind the simple and casual language of a journalist or belletrist.
On the outer edge of the German tradition moves the remarkable figure of Martin Buber (1878- ), a Jew whose culture is altogether Germanic but whose thought after many peregrinations has succeeded in rediscovering and anchoring itself profoundly to its Biblical and Hebraic inheritance. Buber is one of the few thinkers who has succeeded in the desperate modern search for roots, a fact with which his work continuously impresses us. The image of Biblical man moves like a shadow behind everything he writes. His thinking has the narrowness and concrete power, often the stubborn obstinacy, of Hebraism. At first glance his contribution would seem to be the slenderest of all the Existentialists, to be summed up in the title of his most moving book, I and Thou. It is as if Buber had sought to recast Kierkegaard’s dictum, “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” into: Depth of mind is to think one thought. But this one thought—that meaning in life happens in the area between person and person in that situation of contact when one says I to the other’s Thou—is worth a lifetime’s digging. In any case Buber is a necessary corrective to more ambitious systematizers like Heidegger and Sartre.
Thus we see that Existentialism numbers among its most powerful representatives Jews, Catholics and Protestants—as well as atheists. Contrary to the first facile journalistic reactions, the seriousness of existential thought does not arise merely out of the despair of a world from which God has departed. Such a generalization was prompted largely by the identification of existential philosophy with the school of Sartre. It should appear, from the. foregoing sketch, how tiny a fragment of Existentialism the Sartrian school really does represent. So far as the central impulses of existential thought are concerned, it does not altogether matter, at least in one sense, in what religious sect a man finally finds his home. Nor is it mere heterogenous lumping-together to put Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and atheists under the rubric of one philosophy. This philosophy, as a particular mode of human thought, is single even though its practitioners wind up in different religious camps. What is common, and central, to all these philosophers is that the meaning of religion, and religious faith, is recast in relation to the individual. Each has put religion itself radically in question, and it is only to be expected that the faith, or the denial of faith, that emerges in their thought should be somewhat disconcerting to those who have followed the more public and external paths into a church. Unamuno seemed always on the verge of excommunication by the Spanish bishops; Buber is a prophet with not very much honor in his native land of Israel; and Kierkegaard fought the last battle of his life against the ordained hierarchy of the Danish Church. The atheist sect, on the other hand, sniffs the taint of heresy in Heidegger, whose thought, which he himself calls in one place a “waiting for god,” has been criticized by one American philosopher as opening the back door to theology. It is evident that anyone who has passed through the depths of modern experience and strives to place religion in relation to that experience is bound to acquire the label of heretic.
Modern experience—an ambiguous enough term, to be sure, and one that will require subsequent definition—is the bond among these philosophers. The roster of names we have given is hardly complete, but surely sufficient to indicate that Existentialism is not a passing fad or a mere philosophic mood of the postwar period but a major movement of human thought that lies directly in the main stream of modern history. Over the past hundred years the development of philosophy has shown a remarkable enlargement of content, a progressive orientation toward the immediate and qualitative, the existent and the actual—toward “concreteness and adequacy,” to use the words that A.N. Whitehead borrowed from William James. Philosophers can no longer attempt, as the British empiricists Locke and Hume attempted, to construct human experience out of simple ideas and elementary sensations. The psychic life of man is not a mosaic of such mental atoms, and philosophers were able to cling to this belief so long only because they had put their own abstractions in place of concrete experience. Thus Whitehead himself, who as a Platonist can scarcely be lumped with the Existentialists, nevertheless shares in this general existential trend within modern philosophy when he describes philosophy itself as “the critique of abstractions”—the endless effort to drag the balloon of the mind back to the earth of actual experience.
Of all the non-European philosophers, William James probably best deserves to be labeled an Existentialist. Indeed, at this late date, we may very well wonder whether it would not be more accurate to call James an Existentialist than a Pragmatist. What remains of American Pragmatism today is forced to think of him as the black sheep of the movement. Pragmatists nowadays acknowledge James’s genius but are embarrassed by his extremes: by the unashamedly personal tone of his philosophizing, his willingness to give psychology the final voice over logic where the two seem in conflict, and his belief in the revelatory value of religious experience. There are pages in James that could have been written by Kierkegaard, and the Epilogue to Varieties of Religious Experience puts the case for the primacy of personal experience over abstraction as strongly as any of the Existentialists has ever done. James’s vituperation of rationalism is so passionate that latter-day Pragmatists see their own residual rationalism of scientific method thereby put in question. And it is not merely a matter of tone, but of principle, that places James among the Existentialists: he plumped for a world which contained contingency, discontinuity, and in which the centers of experience were irreducibly plural and personal, as against a “block” universe that could be enclosed in a single rational system.
Pragmatism meant something more and different for James than it did for Charles Sanders Peirce or John Dewey. The contrast between James and Dewey, particularly, sheds light on the precise point at which Pragmatism, in the strict sense, ends and Existentialism begins. A comparison between the earlier and the later writings of Dewey is almost equally illuminating on the same point. Dewey is moving in the general existential direction of modern philosophy with his insistence that the modern philosopher must break with the whole classical tradition of thought. He sees the “negative” and destructive side of philosophy (with which Existentialism has been so heavily taxed by its critics): every thinker, Dewey tells us, puts some portion of the stable world in danger as soon as he begins to think. The genial inspiration that lies behind his whole rather gangling and loose-jointed philosophy is the belief that in all departments of human experience things do not fall from heaven but grow up out of the earth. Thinking itself is only the halting and fumbling effort of a thoroughly biological creature to cope with his environment. The image of man as an earthbound and time-bound creature permeates Dewey’s writings as it does that of the Existentialists—up to a point. Beyond that point he moves in a direction that is the very opposite of Existentialism. What Dewey never calls into question is the thing he labels Intelligence, which in his last writings came to mean simply Scientific Method. Dewey places the human person securely within his biological and social context, but he never goes past this context into that deepest center of the human person where fear and trembling start. Any examination of inner experience—really inner experience—would have seemed to Dewey to take the philosopher too far away from nature in the direction of the theological. We have to remind ourselves here of the provincial and overtheologized atmosphere of the America in which Dewey started his work, and against which he had to struggle so hard to establish the validity of a secular intelligence. Given Dewey’s emphasis upon the biological and sociological contexts as ultimate, however, together with his interpretation of human thought as basically an effort to transform the environment, we end with the picture of man as essentially homo faber, the technological animal. This belief in technique is still a supreme article of the American faith. Dewey grew up in a period in which America was still wrestling with its frontier, and the mood of his writings is unshaken optimism at the expansion of our technical mastery over nature. Ultimately, the difference between Dewey and the Existentialists is the difference between America and Europe. The philosopher cannot seriously put to himself questions that his civilization has not lived.
That is why we propose to limit the scope of our subject to Europe and consider Existentialism as a distinctly European product of this period: in fact, as the philosophy of Europe in this century. In the broadest sense of the term, no doubt, all modern thought has been touched by a greater existential emphasis than was the philosophy of the earlier modern period. This is simply the result of the stepped-up secularization of Western civilization, in the course of which man has inevitably become more attached to the promises of this earth than to the goal of a transcendent realm beyond nature. But while it is important to call attention at the outset to this broad sense of the word “existential,” to carry this meaning through in detail would inevitably dilute the specific substance of Existentialism. It is Europe that has been in crisis, and it is European thinkers who have brought the existential problems to a focal expression, who have in fact dared to raise the ultimate questions. The significance of this philosophy is another matter, however, and can hardly be confined to its place of origin. Its significance is for the world and for this epoch of the world.
The reader may very well ask why, in view of this broader existential trend within modern philosophy, Existentialism should first have been greeted by professional philosophers in this country as an eccentric and sensational kind of tempest in a teapot. We should point out that Anglo-American philosophy is dominated by an altogether different and alien mode of thought—variously called analytic philosophy, Logical Positivism, or sometimes merely “scientific philosophy.” No doubt, Positivism has also good claims to being the philosophy of this time: it takes as its central fact what is undoubtedly the central fact distinguishing our civilization from all others—science; but it goes on from this to take science as the ultimate ruler of human life, which it never has been and psychologically never can be. Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically “meaningful,” while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the “meaningless.” Positivism has simply accepted the fractured being of modern man and erected a philosophy to intensify it. Existentialism, whether successfully or not, has attempted instead to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture of man. Positivist man and Existentialist man are no doubt offspring of the same parent epoch, but, somewhat as Cain and Abel were, the brothers are divided unalterably by temperament and the initial choice they make of their own being. Of course there is on the contemporary scene a more powerful claimant to philosophic mastery than either of them: Marxism. Marxist man is a creature of techniques, a busy and ingenious animal, with secular religious faith in History, of which he is the chosen collaborator. Like Positivism, Marxism has no philosophical categories for the unique facts of human personality, and in the natural course of things manages to collectivize this human personality out of existence (except where a single personality attains power, and then his personal paranoia plays havoc with the lives of two hundred million people). Both Marxism and Positivism are, intellectually speaking, relics of the nineteenth-century Enlightenment that have not yet come to terms with the shadow side of human life as grasped even by some of the nineteenth-century thinkers themselves. The Marxist and Positivist picture of man, consequently, is thin and oversimplified. Existential philosophy, as a revolt against such oversimplification, attempts to grasp the image of the whole man, even where this involves bringing to consciousness all that is dark and questionable in his existence. And in just this respect it is a much more authentic expression of our own contemporary experience. In proof of this we turn now to look at the historical characteristics of the time that has engendered this philosophy.
The definition of risk is that more things can happen than will happen.
Sweet and bitter, cold and warm as well as all the colors, all these things exist but in opinion and not in reality—what really exists are unchangeable particles, atoms, and their motions in empty space.
All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth—in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world—have not any substance without the mind. So long as they are not perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or in the mind of any spirit, they have no existence whatsoever.
—Bishop George Berkeley
May I, monsieur, offer my services without running the risk of intruding? I fear you may not be able to make yourself understood by the worthy ape who presides over the fate of this establishment. In fact, he speaks nothing but Dutch. Unless you authorize me to plead your case, he will not guess that you want gin. There, I dare hope he understood me—that nod must mean that he yields to my arguments. He is taking steps—indeed, he is making haste with prudent deliberation. You are lucky—he didn’t grunt. When he refuses to serve someone he merely grunts. No one insists. Being master of one’s moods is the privilege of the larger animals. Now I shall withdraw, monsieur, happy to have been of help to you. Thank you—I’d accept if I were sure of not being a nuisance. You are too kind. Then I shall bring my glass over beside yours.
Chapter 2—The Encounter with Nothingness
No age has ever been so self-conscious as ours. At any rate, the quantity of journalism the modern age has turned out in the process of its own self-analysis already overflows our archives and, were it not that most of it is doomed to perish, would be a dull burden to hand down to our descendants. The task still goes on, as indeed it must, for the last word has not been spoken, and modern man seems even further from understanding himself than when he first began to question his own identity. Of documentation of external facts we have had enough and to spare, more than the squirrel-like scholars will ever be able to piece together into a single whole, enough to keep the busy popularizers spouting in bright-eyed knowledgeability the rest of their days; but of the inner facts—of what goes on at the center where the forces of our fate first announce themselves—we are still pretty much in ignorance, and most of the contemporary world is caught up in an unconscious and gigantic conspiracy to run away from these facts. Hence the necessity of returning to a subject that only appears to be well worn. With civilizations, as with individuals, the outer (fact is often merely the explosion resulting from accumulated inner tension, the signs of which were plentifully present, though none of the persons concerned chose to heed them.
The Decline of Religion
The central fact of modem history in the West—by which we mean the long period from the end of the Middle Ages to the present—is unquestionably the decline of religion. No doubt, the Churches are still very powerful organizations; there are millions of churchgoers all over the world; and even the purely intellectual possibilities of religious belief look better to churchmen now than in the bleak days of self-confident nineteenth-century materialism. A few years ago there was even considerable talk about a “religious revival,” and some popular and patriotic periodicals such as Life magazine gave a great deal of space to it; but the talk has by now pretty much died down, the movement, if any, subsided, and the American public buys more automobiles and television sets than ever before. When Life magazine promotes a revival of religion, one is only too painfully aware from the nature of this publication that religion is considered as being in the national interest; one could scarcely have a clearer indication of the broader historical fact that in the modem world the nation-state, a thoroughly secular institution, outranks any church.
The decline of religion in modem times means simply that religion is no longer the uncontested center and ruler of man’s life, and that the Church is no longer the final and unquestioned home and asylum of his being. The deepest significance of this change does not even appear principally at the purely intellectual level, in loss of belief, though this loss due to the critical inroads of science has been a major historical cause of the decline. The waning of religion is a much more concrete and complex fact than a mere change in conscious outlook; it penetrates the deepest strata of man’s total psychic life. It is indeed one of the major stages in man’s psychic evolution—as Nietzsche, almost alone among nineteenth-century philosophers, was to see. Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual’s life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual. The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psychological validity of immediate experience, and within which hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been safely contained. In losing religion, man lost the concrete connection with a transcendent realm of being; he was set free to deal with this world in all its brute objectivity. But he was bound to feel homeless in such a world, which no longer answered the needs of his spirit. A home is the accepted framework which habitually contains our life. To lose one’s psychic container is to be cast adrift, to become a wanderer upon the face of the earth. Henceforth, in seeking his own human completeness man would have to do for himself what he once had done for him, unconsciously, by the Church, through the medium of its sacramental life. Naturally enough, man’s feeling of homelessness did not make itself felt for some time; the Renaissance man was still enthralled by a new and powerful vision of mastery over the whole earth.
No believer, no matter how sincere, could possibly write the Divine Comedy today, even if he possessed a talent equal to Dante’s. Visions and symbols do not have the immediate and overwhelming reality for us that they had for the medieval poet. In the Divine Comedy the whole of nature is merely a canvas upon which the religious symbol and image are painted. Western man has spent more than five hundred years-half a millennium—in stripping nature of these projections and turning it into a realm of neutral objects which his science may control. Thus it could hardly be expected that the religious image would have the same force for us as it did for Dante. This is simply a psychic fact within human history; psychic facts have just as much historical validity as the facts that we now, unlike the man of Dante’s time, travel in airplanes and work in factories regulated by computing machines. A great work of art can never be repeated—the history of art shows us time and again that literal imitation leads to pastiche—because it springs from the human soul, which evolves like everything else in nature. This point must be insisted upon, contrary to the view of some of our more enthusiastic medievalists who picture the psychic containment of medieval man as a situation of human completeness to which we must return. History has never allowed man to return to the past in any total sense. And our psychological problems cannot be solved by a regression to a past state in which they had not yet been brought into being. On the other hand, enlightened and progressive thinkers are equally blind when they fail to recognize that every major step forward by mankind entails some loss, the sacrifice of an older security and the creation and heightening of new tensions. (We should bear this in mind against some of the criticisms of Existentialism as a philosophy that has unbearably heightened human tensions: it did not create those tensions, which were already at work in the soul of modem man, but simply sought to give them philosophic expression, rather than evading them by pretending they were not there.)
It is far from true that the passage from the Middle Ages to modem times is the substitution of a rational for a religious outlook; on the contrary, the whole of medieval philosophy—as Whitehead has very aptly remarked—is one of “unbounded rationalism” in comparison with modem thought. Certainly, the difference between a Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and a Kant at the end of the eighteenth century is conclusive on this point: For Aquinas the whole natural world, and particularly this natural world as it opens toward God as First Cause, was transparently accessible to human reason; while to Kant, writing at the bitter end of the century of Enlightenment, the limits of human reason had very radically shrunk. (Indeed, as we shall see later, the very meaning of human reason became altered in Kant.) But this “unbounded rationalism” of the medieval philosopher is altogether different from the untrammeled use later thinkers made of human reason, applying it like an acid solvent to all things human or divine. The rationalism of the medieval philosophers was contained by the mysteries of faith and dogma, which were altogether beyond the grasp of human reason, but were nevertheless powerfully real and meaningful to man as symbols that kept the vital circuit open between reason and emotion, between the rational and non-rational in the human psyche. Hence, this rationalism of the medieval philosophers does not end with the attenuated, bleak, or grim picture of man we find in the modem rationalists. Here, once again, the condition under which the philosopher creates his philosophy, like that under which the poet creates his poetry, has to do with deeper levels of his being—deeper than the merely conscious level of having or not having a rational point of view. We could not expect to produce a Saint Thomas Aquinas, any more than a Dante, today. The total psychic condition of man—of which after all thinking is one of the manifestations—has evolved too radically. Which may be why present-day Thomists have on the whole remained singularly unconvincing to their contemporaries.
At the gateway that leads from the Middle Ages into the modem world stand Science (which later became the spirit of the Enlightenment), Protestantism, and Capitalism. At first glance, the spirit of Protestantism would seem to have very little to do with that of the New Science, since in matters religious Protestantism placed all the weight of its emphasis upon the irrational datum of faith, as against the imposing rational structures of medieval theology, and there is Luther’s famous curse upon “the whore, Reason.” In secular matters, however—and particularly in its relation toward nature—Protestantism fitted in very well with the New Science. By stripping away the wealth of images and symbols from medieval Christianity, Protestantism unveiled nature as a realm of objects hostile to the spirit and to be conquered by puritan zeal and industry. Thus Protestantism, like science, helped carry forward that immense project of modem man: the despiritualization of nature, the emptying of it of all the symbolic images projected upon it by the human psyche. With Protestantism begins that long modem struggle, which reaches its culmination in the twentieth century, to strip man naked. To be sure, in all of this the aim was progress, and Protestantism did succeed in raising the religious consciousness to a higher level of individual sincerity, soul-searching, and strenuous inwardness. Man was impoverished in order to come face to face with his God and the severe and inexplicable demands of his faith; but in the process he was stripped of all the mediating rites and dogmas that could make this confrontation less dangerous to his psychic balance. Protestantism achieved a heightening of the religious consciousness, but at the same time severed this consciousness from the deep unconscious life of our total human nature. In this respect, its historical thrust runs parallel to that of the New Science and capitalism, since science was making the mythical and symbolic picture of nature disappear before the success of its own rational explanations, and capitalism was opening up the whole world as a field of operations for rationally planned enterprise.
Faith, for Protestantism, is nevertheless the irrational and numinous center of religion; Luther was saturated with the feeling of Saint Paul that man of himself can do nothing and only God working in us can bring salvation. Here the inflation of human consciousness is radically denied, and the conscious mind is recognized as the mere instrument and plaything of a much greater unconscious force. Faith is an abyss that engulfs the rational nature of man. The Protestant doctrine of Original Sin is in all its severity a kind of compensatory recognition of those depths below the level of consciousness where the earnest soul demands to interrogate itself—except that those depths are cast into the outer darkness of depravity. So long as faith retained its intensity, however, the irrational elements of human nature were accorded recognition and a central place in the total human economy. But as the modem world moves onward, it becomes more and more secularized in every department of life; faith consequently becomes attenuated, and Protestant man begins to look more and more like a gaunt skeleton, a sculpture by Giacometti. A secular civilization leaves him more starkly naked than the iconoclasm of the Reformation had ever dreamed. The more severely he struggles to hold on to the primal face-to-face relation with God, the more tenuous this becomes, until in the end the relation to God Himself threatens to become a relation to Nothingness. In this sense Kierkegaard, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was the reckoning point of the whole Protestant Reformation that began three centuries earlier: He sees faith for the uncompromising and desperate wager it is, if one takes it in all its Protestant strictness; and he cannot say, like his Catholic counterpart Pascal, “Stupefy yourself, take holy water, receive the sacraments, and in the end all shall be well”—for Protestant man has forsworn the sacraments and natural symbols of the soul as the snares and pomp of the devil. Some of Kierkegaard’s books, such as The Sickness Unto Death and The Concept of Dread, are still frightening to our contemporaries and so are excused or merely passed over as the personal outpourings of a very melancholy temperament; yet they are the truthful record of what the Protestant soul must experience on the brink of the great Void. Protestant man is the beginning of the West’s fateful encounter with Nothingness—an encounter that was long overdue and is perhaps only now in the twentieth century reaching its culmination.
The Rational Ordering of Society
Naturally, none of this was perceived at its beginning. In human history, as in the individual human life, the significance of the small beginnings is perceived at last only in their end. In its secular ethic, Protestantism was much in accord with the spirit of capitalism, as modem historians have repeatedly shown. For several centuries the two went hand in hand, ravaging and rebuilding the globe, conquering new continents and territories, and in general seeming triumphantly to prove that this earth is itself the promised land where zeal and industry really payoff. Even in the midst of the nineteenth century, when capitalism had also succeeded in erecting the worst slums in human history, the Englishman Macaulay could comment smugly upon the fact that the Protestant nations are the most energetic and prosperous and suggest that this may very well be a sign of the superiority of their religion. The great German sociologist, Max Weber, has provided one of the chief keys to the whole of modem history by describing its central process as the ever-increasing rational organization of human life. It is in this light too that the historical rise of capitalism must be understood: the capitalist emerges from feudal society as the enterprising and calculating mind who must organize production rationally to show a favorable balance of profits over costs. Where feudalism is concrete and organic, with man dominated by the image of the land, capitalism is abstract and calculating in spirit, and severs man from the earth. In capitalism, everything follows from this necessity of rationally organizing economic enterprise in the interests of efficiency: the collectivization of labor in factories and the consequent subdivision of human function; the accumulation of masses of the population in cities, with the inevitable increase in the technical control of life that this makes necessary; and the attempt rationally to control public demand by elaborate and fantastic advertising, mass pressure, and even planned sociological research. The process of rationalizing economic enterprise thus knows no limits and comes to cover the whole of society’s life. That capitalism has given way in our time, over large areas of the earth, to a form of total collectivization that has been taken over by the State does not alter the fundamental human issues involved. The collectivization becomes all the more drastic when a mystique of the State, backed by brutal regimentation by the police, is added to it. Collectivized man, whether communist or capitalist, is still only an abstract fragment of man.
We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past. When the contemporary man in the street with only an ordinary education quickly solves an elementary problem in arithmetic, he is doing something which for a medieval mathematician—an expert—would have required hours. No doubt, the medieval man would have produced along with his calculation a rigorous proof of the whole process; it does not matter that the modem man does not know what he is doing, so long as he can manipulate abstractions easily and efficiently. The ordinary man today answers complicated questionnaires, fills out tax forms, performs elaborate calculations, which the medieval man was never called upon to do—and all this merely in the normal routine of being a responsible citizen within a mass society. Every step forward in mechanical technique is a step in the direction of ‘abstraction. This capacity for living easily and familiarly at an extraordinary level of abstraction is the source of modem man’s power. With it he has transformed the planet, annihilated space, and trebled the world’s population. But it is also a power which has, like everything human, its negative side, in the desolating sense of rootlessness, vacuity, and the lack of concrete feeling that assails modem man in his moments of real anxiety.
The sheer economic power of modem society is attended by the same human ambiguities. The rational ordering of production makes possible a material level of prosperity beyond anything known by the past. Not only can the material wants of the masses be satisfied to a degree greater than ever before, but technology is fertile enough to generate new wants that it can also satisfy. Automobiles, radio, and now television become actual needs for great numbers of people. All of this makes for an extraordinary externalization of life in our time. The tempo of living is heightened, but a greed for novelties sets in. The machinery of communication makes possible the almost instantaneous conveying of news from one point on the globe to another. People read three or four editions of a daily paper, hear the news on the radio, or see tomorrow morning’s news on their television screen at night. Journalism has become a great god of the period, and gods have a way of ruthlessly and demonically taking over their servitors. In thus becoming a state of mind—as Kierkegaard prophesied it would do, writing with amazing clairvoyance more than a century ago—journalism enables people to deal with life more and more at second hand. Information usually consists of half-truths, and “knowledgeability” becomes a substitute for real knowledge. Moreover, popular journalism has by now extended its operations into what were previously considered the strongholds of culture—religion, art, philosophy. Everyman walks around with a pocket digest of culture in his head. The more competent and streamlined journalism becomes, the greater its threat to the public mind—particularly in a country like the United States. It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the second-hand from the real thing, until most people end by forgetting there is such a distinction. The very success of technique engenders a whole style of life for the period, which subsists purely on externals. What lies behind those externals—the human person, in its uniqueness and its totality—dwindles to a shadow and a ghost.
In his Man in the Modern Age Karl Jaspers has diagnosed all these depersonalizing forces within modem society so completely that they hardly need pointing out here. Jaspers sees the historical meaning of existential philosophy as a struggle to awaken in the individual the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life, in the face of the great modem drift toward a standardized mass society. Jaspers wrote his book in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power and precisely at the end of a postwar decade in Germany of great intellectual brilliance and greater economic bankruptcy under the Weimar Republic. The book is thus saturated from beginning to end with the dual feeling of the great threat and the great promise of modem life. Jaspers was one of that generation of Europeans for whom the outbreak of the First World War, coming in the first years of their mature life, marked a turning point in their whole way of looking at Europe and its civilization. August 1914 is the axial date in modem Western history, and once past it we are directly confronted with the present-day world. The sense of power over the material universe with which modem man emerged, as we have seen, from the Middle Ages, changed on that date into its opposite: a sense of weakness and dereliction before the whirlwind that man is able to unleash but not to control. That feeling of danger has persisted and grown stronger, and our generation knows it as an uncanny awareness of the explosive quality of man’s secular powers—and now, alas, with the possession of atomic weapons, the word must be taken literally. This awareness is a far cry from that sense of intoxication and power with which the Renaissance and the Enlightenment sought to banish the darkness of the Middle Ages and to turn their energies confidently to the conquest of nature; a far cry from early Protestantism’s conviction of the sincerity of its own conscience and the absolute value of its secular ethic; a far cry from the sense of triumph with which capitalism pointed to the material prosperity of bourgeois civilization as its justification and end. Jaspers is a Protestant who sees in Protestantism no final resolution for the tensions of the human soul; a bourgeois who has lived through a period in which all the stable fabric and norms of bourgeois life have been dissolved; and a man of the Enlightenment, a professor, who philosophizes in order to illumine human existence, but who sees this illumination as a tiny and flickering light set against the encompassing darkness of the forces of night.
The First World War was the beginning of the end of the bourgeois civilization of Europe. Of course, ends often take long in being accomplished, and capitalism is still hanging on by the skin of its teeth in the Western countries. Our point here, however, has to do not with the mere economic organization of society, but with the concrete and total fact of the civilization itself, with all its values and attitudes, unspoken and spoken. It would be superficial to take the outbreak of that war, as Marxists do, as signifying merely the bankruptcy of capitalism, its inability to function further without crisis and bloodshed. August 1914 was a much more total human debacle than that, and the words that catch it are those of the novelist Henry James, exclaiming with shocked horror, “To have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.” As an American, James had experienced to the full the enchantment and refinement of European civilization; it had been a central theme in nearly all his writing, and here in this momentary outburst there rises to his mind the awful vision of all Europe’s elegance and beauty being mere gaudy decoration over the face of a human abyss. August 1914 was a debacle for European man as a whole and not merely for the wicked conspiracy of financiers, militarists, and politicians. The period from 1870 to 1914 has been aptly described by one historian as the generation of materialism: the principal countries of Europe had become unified as nations, prosperity was in the air, and the bourgeois contemplated with self-satisfaction an epoch of vast material progress and political stability. August 1914 shattered the foundations of that human world. It revealed that the apparent stability, security, and material progress of society had rested, like everything human, upon the void. European man came face to face with himself as a stranger. When he ceased to be contained and sheltered within a stable social and political environment, he saw that his rational and enlightened philosophy could no longer console him with the assurance that it satisfactorily answered the question What is man?
Existential philosophy (like much of modem art) is thus a product of bourgeois society in a state of dissolution. Marxists have labored this point but without really understanding it; nevertheless, it remains true. The dissolution is a fact, but neither Existentialism nor modem art produced it. Nor is “dissolution” synonymous with “decadence.” A society coming apart at top and bottom, or passing over into another form, contains just as many possibilities for revelation as a society running along smoothly in its own rut. The individual is thrust out of the sheltered nest that society has provided. He can no longer hide his nakedness by the old disguises. He learns how much of what he has taken for granted was by its own nature neither eternal nor necessary but thoroughly temporal and contingent. He learns that the solitude of the self is an irreducible dimension of human life no matter how completely that self had seemed to be contained in its social milieu. In the end, he sees each man as solitary and unsheltered before his own death. Admittedly, these are painful truths, but the most basic things are always learned with pain, since our inertia and complacent love of comfort prevent us from learning them until they are forced upon us. It appears that man is willing to learn about himself only after some disaster; after war, economic crisis, and political upheaval have taught him how flimsy is that human world in which he thought himself so securely grounded. What he learns has always been there, lying concealed beneath the surface of even the best-functioning societies; it is no less true for having come out of a period of chaos and disaster. But so long as man does not have to face up to such a truth, he will not do so.
Thus with the modem period, man—to recapitulate—has entered upon a secular phase of his history. He entered it with exuberance over the prospect of increased power he would have over the world around him. But in this world, in which his dreams of power were often more than fulfilled, he found himself for the first time homeless. Science stripped nature of its human forms and presented man with a universe that was neutral, alien, in its vastness and force, to his human purposes. Religion, before this phase set in, had been a structure that encompassed man’s life, providing him with a system of images and symbols by which he could express his own aspirations toward psychic wholeness. With the loss of this containing framework man became not only a dispossessed but a fragmentary being.
In society, as in the spiritual world, secular goals have come to predominate; the rational organization of the economy has increased human power over nature, and politically also society has become more rational, utilitarian, democratic, with a resulting material wealth and progress. The men of the Enlightenment foresaw no end to this triumphant expansion of reason into all the areas of social life. But here too reason has foundered upon its opposite, upon the surd and unpredictable realities—wars, economic crises and dislocations, political upheavals among the masses. Moreover, man’s feeling of homelessness, of alienation has been intensified in the midst of a bureaucratized, impersonal mass society. He has come to feel himself an outsider even within his own human society. He is trebly alienated: a stranger to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social apparatus that supplies his material wants.
But the worst and final form of alienation, toward which indeed the others tend, is man’s alienation from his own self. In a society that requires of man only that he perform competently his own particular social function, man becomes identified with this function, and the rest of his being is allowed to subsist as best it can—usually to be dropped below the surface of consciousness and forgotten.
Science and Finitude
The foregoing, all matters of historical fact, have also become the themes of existential philosophy. This philosophy embodies the self-questioning of the time, seeking to reorient itself to its own historical destiny. Indeed, the whole problematic of Existentialism unfolds from this historical situation. Alienation and estrangement; a sense of the basic fragility and contingency of human life; the impotence of reason confronted with the depths of existence; the threat of Nothingness, and the solitary and unsheltered condition of the individual before this threat. One can scarcely subordinate these problems logically one to another; each participates in all the others, and they all circulate around a common center. A single atmosphere pervades them all like a chilly wind: the radical feeling of human finitude. The limitless horizons into which man looked at the time of the Renaissance have at last contracted. Oddly enough, man’s discovery that he himself is finite through and through—is so, one might say, from the inside out—comes at a time when there seem no longer to be any limits to his technological conquest of nature. But the truth about man is never to be found in one quality that opposes another, but in both qualities at once; and so his weakness is only one side of the coin, his power the other. A recognition of limits, of boundaries, may be the only thing that prevents power from dizzy collapse.
But, it might be argued, what makes Western civilization unique is its possession of science, and in science we find uniform and continuous progress without limits. Research goes on, its results are rich and positive, and these are brought together in ever wider and more inclusive systems. There would seem, in this process, to be no contracting of horizons either in fact or in possibility. In a certain sense this is true, and yet science in the twentieth century has come up with answers which make the ambitions of rationalism seem overweening, and which themselves suggest that man must redefine his traditional concept of reason. It would be unlikely if this were otherwise, for scientists too are men and therefore participate in the collective psyche as well as help fashion it. Religion, social forms, science, and art are modes in which man exists; and the more we come to recognize the temporal being of man the more we must recognize a unity within and behind all these modes in which that temporal existence finds its expression.
Science too—and within its own authentic sphere—has come up against the fact of human finitude. That this has happened within science itself, and not in the philosophizing about science, makes the discovery more authentic and momentous. The anthropological sciences, and particularly modem depth psychology, have shown us that human reason is the long historical fabrication of a creature, man, whose psychic roots still extend downward into the primeval soil. These discoveries of the irrational, however, lie outside reason itself; they are stubborn obstacles to the use of reason in our lives, but obstacles which the confirmed rationalist might still hope to circumvent by a cleverer use of that very tool, reason. The more decisive limitations are those that have shown up within the workings of reason, in the more rigorous sciences of physics and mathematics. The most advanced of Western sciences, physics and mathematics, have in our time become paradoxical: that is, they have arrived at the state where they breed paradoxes for reason itself. More than a hundred and fifty years ago the philosopher Kant attempted to show that there were ineluctable limits to reason; but the Western mind, positivistic to the core, could be expected to take such a conclusion seriously only when it showed up in the findings of science. Science has in this century, with the discoveries of Heisenberg in physics, and Gödel in mathematics, at last caught up with Kant.
Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy shows that there are essential limits to our ability to know and predict physical states of affairs, and opens up to us a glimpse of a nature that may at bottom be irrational and chaotic—at any rate, our knowledge of it is limited so that we cannot know this not to be the case. This finding marks an end to the old dream of physicists who, motivated by a thoroughly rational prejudice, thought that reality must be predictable through and through. The figure of the Laplacian Demon was a very striking symbol of this: Imagine, says Laplace, a Being who knows the position and momentum of every particle in the universe, together with the laws of motion governing such particles; such a Being would be able to predict all subsequent states of the universe. Physicists can no longer operate on such cryptotheological faiths, but must take their predictability only where and to the extent that it exhibits itself in experience.
The situation in physics is made more paradoxical by Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity, according to which the electron must be regarded both as a wave and as a particle, according to its context. The application of these contradictory designations would have seemed thoroughly illogical to a nineteenth-century physicist. Indeed, some physicists have suggested a new form of logic, from which the classic law of the Excluded Middle (either A or not A) would be dropped; and when new forms of logic are being constructed, one can only conclude that the nature of what is and what is not rational stands open to doubt. In practice, the Principle of Complementarity sets a rigorous limit upon the observations of physics: As one physicist, Von Pauli, puts it, “I can choose to observe one experimental set-up, A, and ruin B, or choose to observe B and ruin A. I cannot choose not to ruin one of them.” Here the language is perfectly appropriate to the pathos of knowledge in every area in life: we know one thing at the cost of not knowing something else, and it is simply not the case that we can choose to know everything at once. What is remarkable is that here, at the very farthest reaches of precise experimentation, in the most rigorous of the natural sciences, the ordinary and banal fact of our human limitations emerges.
Gödel’s findings seem to have even more far-reaching consequences, when one considers that in the Western tradition, from the Pythagoreans and Plato onward, mathematics as the very model of intelligibility has been the central citadel of rationalism. Now it turns out that even in his most precise science—in the province where his reason had seemed omnipotent—man cannot escape his essential finitude: every system of mathematics that he constructs is doomed to incompleteness. Gödel has shown that mathematics contains insoluble problems, and hence can never be formalized in any complete system. This means, in other words, that mathematics can never be turned over to a giant computing machine; it will always be unfinished, and therefore mathematicians—the human beings who construct mathematics—will always be in business. The human element here rises above the machine: mathematics is unfinished as is any human life.
But since mathematics can never be completed, it might be argued that Gödel’s finding shows us that there are no limits to mathematical knowledge. True, in one sense; but in another sense it sets a more drastic limitation upon mathematical knowledge, since mathematicians now know they can never, formally speaking, reach rock bottom; in fact, there is no rock bottom, since mathematics has no self-subsistent reality independent of the human activity that mathematicians carry on. And if human reason can never reach rock bottom (complete systematization) in mathematics, it is not likely to reach it anywhere else. There is no System possible for human existence, Kierkegaard said a century ago, differing with Hegel, who wished to enclose reality within a completely rational structure; the System is impossible for mathematics, Gödel tells us today. In practice, the fact that there is no rock bottom means that the mathematician can never prove the consistency of mathematics except by using means that are shakier than the system he is trying to prove consistent. Mathematics thus cannot escape finally the uncertainty that attaches to any human enterprise.
The situation is all the more vexing since mathematicians in the last half century have come up with some very troublesome paradoxes. Mathematics is like a ship in mid-ocean that has sprung certain leaks (paradoxes); the leaks have been temporarily plugged, but our reason can never guarantee that the ship will not spring others. This human insecurity in what had been the most secure of the disciplines of rationality marks a new turn in Western thinking. When the mathematician Hermann Weyl exclaims, “We have tried to storm Heaven, and we have only succeeded in piling up the tower of Babel,” he is giving passionate expression to the collapse of human hubris; and we can be sure that mathematics has at last been returned to its rightful status as an activity or mode of being of finite man.
The concurrence of these various discoveries in time is extraordinary. Heidegger published his Being and Time, a somber and rigorous meditation on human finitude, in 1927. In the same year Heisenberg gave to the world his Principle of Indeterminacy. In 1929 the mathematician Skolem published a theorem which some mathematicians now think almost as remarkable as Gödel’s: that even the elementary number system cannot be categorically formalized. In 1931 appeared Gödel’s epoch-making discovery. When events run parallel this way, when they occur so close together in time, but independently of each other and in diverse fields, we are tempted to conclude that they are not mere “meaningless” coincidences but very meaningful symptoms. The whole mind of the time seems to be inclining in one direction.
What emerges from these separate strands of history is an image of man himself that bears a new, stark, more nearly naked, and more questionable aspect. The contraction of man’s horizons amounts to a denudation, a stripping down, of this being who has now to confront himself at the center of all his horizons. The labor of modem culture, wherever it has been authentic, has been a labor of denudation. A return to the sources; “to the things themselves,” as Husserl puts it; toward a new truthfulness, the casting away of ready-made presuppositions and empty forms—these are some of the slogans under which this phase in history has presented itself. Naturally enough, much of this stripping down must appear as the work of destruction, as revolutionary or even “negative”: a being who has become thoroughly questionable to himself must also find questionable his relation to the total past which in a sense he represents.
This apparent “coincidence” of historical forces becomes even more remarkable and meaningful when we consider modem art. What man has experienced historically with the changes in religion, in social and economic forms, and now in modem science as well—all of this experience is revealed to us, in a more striking and more human way, through art. Art is the collective dream of a period, a dream in which, if we have eyes to see, we can trace the physiognomy of the time most clearly. A brief glance at modem art may serve to make plain that the spiritual features of modernity which we have been anatomizing in this chapter have not been bare and empty abstractions, but a living human drama in which we have all been deeply involved, but which the artist has the clearest eyes to see.
The hard sphere has always a definite position in space; the electron apparently has not. A hard sphere takes up a very definite amount of room; an electron—well it is probably as meaningless to discuss how much room an electron takes up as it is to discuss how much room a fear, an anxiety, or an uncertainty takes up.
—Sir James Jeans
The fundamental question of whether light is waves or particles has never been answered. The dual character of light is, however, only one aspect of a deeper and more remarkable duality which pervades all nature.
Those who believe in God strictly of the basis of faith are setting themselves up for failure for the reason that their conception of God is based on a static snapshot that is, by definition, not subject to reason. The Devil is the one who seeks out those who blindly follow. A true God most certainly wants to be constantly challenged by both faith and reason. Kevin Spacey tells us in the 1996 movie The Usual Suspects that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. And now we know the second greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world we can know God by faith alone.
Of whom and of what indeed can I say—I know that! This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects that it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor of these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain undefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as in logic, there are truths but no truth. Socrates’ Know thyself has as much value as the Be virtuous of our confessionals. They reveal a nostalgia at the same time as an ignorance. They are sterile exercises on great subjects. They are legitimate insofar as they are approximate.
Chapter 3—The Testimony of Modern Art
Anyone who attempts to gain a unified understanding of modem art as a whole is bound to suffer the uncomfortable sensation of having fallen into a thicket of brambles. We ourselves are involved in the subject, and we can hardly achieve the detachment of the historian a few centuries hence. Modem art still provokes violent controversy, even after it has been on the scene a good half-century and names like Picasso and Joyce have become almost household words. The Philistine still finds it shocking, scandalous, and foolish; and there is always a case to be made for the Philistine, and surely for the Philistine in ourselves without whom we could not carryon the drab business of ordinary living. Indeed, from the point of view we are taking here, the Philistine attitude, particularly in its irritation, may be just as revelatory historically as any other. But it is a case not only of the Philistine; sensitive observers still exist—directors of museums, connoisseurs, and historians—who find in modem art a disastrous falling away from the excellence of the art of the past. In a sense, all this controversy is pointless; so much of it has to do with the eventual historical rating of our own period, which is something we cannot even foresee. The century from Manet to Matisse may figure in future art histories as a period of impoverishment and decline, whose works cannot stand beside those of the old masters; or it may figure as a period of such abundant creativity that it can be matched only by the Renaissance during the fifteenth century. My own personal prejudice is toward the latter judgment, but I have no way of proving it; and such speculation, in any case, does not enter into my own experience of this art. We have simply got to give up the attempt to assess ourselves for posterity; the men of the future will form their own opinions without our help. What we so self-consciously call “modem art,” after all, is nothing more nor less than the art of this time, our art; there is no other today. If we could have a different art, or a better, we would have it. As it is, we are lucky in this period to have any art at all. The Philistine rebukes the artist for being willful, as if all of modem art were a deliberate conspiracy against him, the viewer; the artist can hardly hope to make this man understand that art is not a mere matter of conscious will and conscious contrivance, and that the artist, by changing his ideas (even by adopting the Philistine’s), will not become a different person living at a different time and place. In the end the only authentic art is that which has about it the power of inevitability.
Nevertheless, the controversy, irritation, and bafflement to which modem art gives rise does provide us a very effective handle with which to take hold of it. Irritation usually arises when something touches a sore spot in ourselves, which most of the time we would like desperately to hide; rarely if ever does the fault lie totally with the provoking object. Modem art touches a sore spot, or several sore spots, in the ordinary citizen of which he is totally unaware. The more irritated he becomes at modem art the more he betrays the fact that he himself, and his civilization, are implicated in what the artist shows him. The ordinary citizen objects to modem art because it is difficult and obscure. Is it so certain that the world the ordinary citizen takes for granted, the values upon which his civilization rests are so clear, either to him or in themselves? Sometimes the artist’s image is very clear (in general, modem art is simpler than academic art), but it goes against the grain of the ordinary man because secretly he understands its intent all too well; and besides, he has already limited “understanding” to the habitual pigeonholes into which he slips every experience. The ordinary man is uncomfortable, angry, or derisive before the dislocation of forms in modem art, before its bold distortions, or arbitrary manipulations of objects. The painter puts three or more eyes in the face, or several noses, or twists and elongates the body at the expense of photographic resemblance in order to build up his own inner image. Has the contrary attitude of strict and literal attachment to objects succeeded in resolving all the anxieties of the ordinary man, and has not in fact the rampant extroversion of modem civilization brought it to the brink of the abyss? Finally, the ordinary man—and in this respect the ordinary man is joined by the learned and sensitive traditionalist in art—objects to the content of modem art: it is too bare and bleak, too negative or “nihilistic,” too shocking or scandalous; it dishes out unpalatable truths. But have the traditional ideals worked so well in this century that we can afford to neglect the unpalatable truths about human life that those ideals have chosen to ignore? Does the aesthete who extols the greatness of the past as an argument against modem art have any idea of how pallid his own response to, say, the Virgin of Chartres appears beside the medieval man’s response? Or that his own aestheticism, however cultured, is in fact a form of sentimentality—since sentimentality, at bottom, is nothing but false feeling, feeling that is untrue to its object, whether by being excessive or watered down?
In a famous passage in A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway writes—I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
For a whole generation that was the great statement of protest against the butchery of the First World War. But it has a greater historical significance than that: it can be taken as a kind of manifesto of modem art and literature, an incitement to break through empty abstractions of whatever kind, to destroy sentimentality even if the real feelings exposed should appear humble and impoverished—the names of places and dates; and even if in stripping himself naked the artist seems to be left with Nothing. Modem art thus begins, and sometimes ends, as a confession of spiritual poverty. That is its greatness and its triumph, but also the needle it jabs into the Philistine’s sore spot, for the last thing he wants to be reminded of is his spiritual poverty. In fact, his greatest poverty is not to know how impoverished he is, and so long as he mouths the empty ideals or religious phrases of the past he is but as tinkling brass. In matters of the spirit, poverty and riches are sometimes closer than identical twins: the man who struts with borrowed feathers may be poor as a church mouse within, while a work that seems stark and bleak can, if genuine, speak with all the inexhaustible richness of the world. The triumph of Hemingway’s style is its ability to break through abstractions to see what it is one really senses and feels. When the modem sculptor disdains the pomp of marble and uses industrial materials, steel wire, or bolts, or even rejected materials like old board, rope, or nails, he is perhaps showing himself to be impoverished next to the heroic grandeur of a Michelangelo, but he is also bringing us back to the inexhaustible brute world that surrounds us. Sometimes the confession of poverty takes a violent and aggressive tone, as when the Dadaists drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Dada itself, like Hemingway, came out of the revolt against the First World War, and despite its clowning must now be regarded as one of the valid eruptions of the irrational in this century. The generation of the First World War could hardly be expected to view Western culture as sacrosanct, since they perceived—and rightly—that it was bound up with the civilization that had ended in that ghastly butchery. Better then to reject the trappings of that culture, even art itself, if that would leave one a little more honest in one’s nakedness. To discover one’s own spiritual poverty is to achieve a positive conquest by the spirit.
Modem art has been an immense movement toward the destruction of forms—of received and traditional forms. The positive side of this has been an immense expansion of the possibilities of art and an almost greedy acquisition of new forms from all over the globe. Around 1900 French painters became interested in African sculpture. (The introduction of Japanese prints into Europe in the nineteenth century had already brought with it a profound shift in the sensibility of Western painters.) And these borrowings were only the beginning: by now we have become accustomed to painters and sculptors drawing their forms from Oriental and primitive art of every culture. This century in art, André Malraux has said, will go down in history not as the period of abstract art but as the period in which all the art of the past, and from every quarter of the globe, became available to the painter and sculptor, and through them became a part of our modem taste. Certainly, we can no longer look upon the canon of Western art—Greco-Roman art as revived, extended, and graced by the Renaissance as the tradition in art, or even any longer as distinctly and uniquely ours. That canon is in fact only one tradition among many, and indeed in its strict adherence to representational form is rather the exception in the whole gallery of human art. Such an extension of the resources of the past, for the modem artist, implies a different and more comprehensive understanding of the term “human” itself: a Sumerian figure of a fertility goddess is as “human” to us as a Greek Aphrodite. When the sensibility of an age can accommodate the alien “inhuman” forms of primitive art side by side with the classic “human” figures of Greece or the Renaissance, it should be obvious that the attitude toward man that we call classical humanism—which is the intellectual expression of the spirit that informs the classical canon of Western art—has also gone by the boards. This is an historical fact the most immediate evidence of which is the whole body of modem art itself. Even if existential philosophy had not been formulated, we would know from modem art that a new and radical conception of man was at work in this period.
It would be a mistake to construe this breaking out on the part of Western artists from the confinement of what had been their tradition as mere expansion or a spiritually imperialistic act of acquisition. It is not simply an external and quantitative change in the number of forms the artist can assimilate, it is also, and more profoundly, an internal and qualitative change in the spirit with which the artist appropriates these forms. This breaking out of the tradition is in fact also a breakdown within the Western tradition. On this point the artistic conservative who rejects modem art, seeing it as a scandal and a departure from the tradition, sees rightly, however he may turn what he sees to his own purposes. That Western painters and sculptors have in this century gone outside their own tradition to nourish themselves on the art of the rest of the world—Oriental, African, Melanesian—signifies that what we have known as the tradition is no longer able to nourish its most creative members: the confining mold of this tradition has broken, under pressures both from within and without. It would be possible to avoid this painful conclusion, and to dismiss this group of artists as mere irresponsibles, and skillful renegades from the tradition, if there were any artists of comparable achievement whose work the anti-modernist could set over against theirs. But what is equally sure—and this negative evidence is strong or even stronger on the side of the modems—is that the academic art of this period is as dead as mutton. It excites no one, depresses no one, and does not even really soothe anyone. It simply does not live; it is outside the time.
If we turn to the internal and formal characteristics of modem art, without reference to its external inspirations in African or primitive or Oriental art, we find the same indications of a radical transformation of the Western spirit. Cubism is the classicism of modem art: that is, the one formally perfected style which modem art has elaborated and from which all modem abstract art that is valid has derived. A great deal of nonsense has been written about the creation of Cubism, connecting it with relativity physics, psychoanalysis, and heaven knows how many other complex and remote things. The fact is that the painters who .created Cubism were creating paintings and nothing else certainly they were not dealing in ideologies. Cubism evolved in a succession of perfectly logical steps out of previous stages of painting, out of the Impressionists and Cézanne, and it raised a series of pictorial problems that had to be solved within the medium of painting and by painters working strictly as painters—that is, upon the visual image as such.
Yet a great formal style in painting has never been created that did not draw upon the depths of the human spirit, and that did not, in its newness, express a fresh mutation of the human spirit. Cubism achieved a radical flattening of space by insisting on the two-dimensional fact of the canvas. This flattening out of space would seem not to be a negligible fact historically if we reflect that when, once before in history, such a development occurred but in the opposite direction—when the flatness of the Gothic or primitive painters passed over into the solidity, perspective, and three-dimensional style of early Renaissance painting—it was a mark that man was turning outward, into space, after the long period of introspection of the Middle Ages. Western man moved out into space in his painting, in the fourteenth century, before he set forth into actual physical space in the age of exploration that was to follow. Thus painting was prophetic of the new turn of the human spirit which was eventually to find expression in the conquest of the whole globe. Have we the right, then, to suggest that the flattening of painting in our own century portends a turning inward of the human spirit, or at any rate a turning away from that outer world of space which has hitherto been the ultimate arena of Western man’s extroversion? With Cubism begins that process of detachment from the object which has become the hallmark of modem art. Even though Cubism is a classical and formal style, the artist nevertheless asserts his own subjectivity by the freedom with which he cuts up and dislocates objects—bottles, pitchers, guitars—as it pleases him for the sake of the picture, which is now no longer held up to us as a representation of those objects but as a visual image with its own independent value alongside that of nature. The subjectivity that is generally present in modem art is a psychological compensation for, sometimes a violent revolt against, the gigantic externalization of life within modem society. The world pictured by the modem artist is, like the world meditated upon by the existential philosopher, a world where man is a stranger.
When mankind no longer lives spontaneously turned toward God or the supersensible world—when, to echo the words of Yeats, the ladder is gone by which we would climb to a higher reality—the artist too must stand face to face with a flat and inexplicable world. This shows itself even in the formal structures of modem art. Where the movement of the spirit is no longer vertical but only horizontal, the climactic elements in art are in general leveled out, flattened. The flattening of pictorial space that is achieved in Cubism is not an isolated fact, true only of painting, but is paralleled by similar changes in literary techniques. There is a general process of flattening, three chief aspects of which may be noted:
(1) The flattening out of all planes upon the plane of the picture. Near and far are pushed together. So in certain works of modem literature time, instead of space, is flattened out upon one plane. Past and present are represented as occurring simultaneously, upon a single plane of time. James Joyce’s Ulysses, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos are examples; and perhaps the most powerful use of the device was made by Faulkner in his early novel The Sound and the Fury.
(2) More important perhaps is the flattening out of climaxes, which occurs both in painting and literature. In traditional Western painting there is a central subject, located at or near the center of the picture, and the surrounding space in the picture is subordinate to this. In a portrait the figure is placed near the center, and the background becomes secondary to it, something to be blended as harmoniously as possible with the figure. Cubism abolished this idea of the pictorial climax: the whole space of the picture became of equal importance. Negative spaces (in which there are no objects) are as important as positive spaces (the contours of physical objects). If a human figure is treated, it may be broken up and distributed over various parts of the canvas. Formally speaking, the spirit of this art is anticlimactic.
When we turn to observe this same deflation or flattening of climaxes in literature, the broader human and philosophic questions involved become much clearer. The classical tradition in literature, deriving from Aristotle’s Poetics, tells us that a drama (and consequently any other literary work) must have a beginning, middle, and end. The action begins at a certain point, rises toward a climax, and then falls to a denouement. One can diagram a classical plot of this kind by means of a triangle whose apex represents the climax with which everything in the play has some logical and necessary connection. The author subordinates himself to the requirements of logic, necessity and probability. His structure must be an intelligible whole in which each part develops logically out of what went before. If our existence itself is never quite like this, no matter; art is a selection from life, and the poet is required to be selective. However, it is important to note that this canon of intelligible literary structure—beginning, middle, and end, with a well-defined climax—arose in a culture in which the universe too was believed to be an ordered structure, a rational and intelligible whole.
What happens if we try to apply this classical Aristotelian canon to a modem work like Joyce’s Ulysses, 734 pages of power and dullness, beauty and sordidness, comedy and pathos, where the movement is always horizontal, never ascending toward any crisis, and where we detect not the shadow of anything like a climax, in the traditional sense of that term? If Joyce’s had been a disordered mind, we could dismiss all this as a sprawling chaos; but he was in fact an artist in superb control of his material, so that the disorder has to be attributed to his material, to life itself. It is, in fact, the banal gritty thing that we live that Joyce gives us, in comparison with which most other fiction is indeed fiction. This world is dense, opaque, unintelligible; that is the datum from which the modem artist always starts. The formal dictates of the well-made play or the well-made novel, which were the logical outcome of thoroughly rational preconceptions about reality, we can no longer hold to when we become attentive “to the things themselves,” to the facts, to existence in the mode in which we do exist. If our epoch still held to the idea, as Western man once did, that the whole of reality is a system in which each detail providentially and rationally is subordinated to others and ultimately to the whole itself, we could demand of the artist that his form imitate this idea of reality, and give us coherence, logic, and the picture of a world with no loose ends. But to make such a demand nowadays is worse than an impertinence: it is a travesty upon the historical being of the artist.
Even where the writer has more of a story, in the traditional sense, to tell, he may prefer not to tell it in the traditional way. In The Sound and the Fury Faulkner has much more of a novelistic narrative than Joyce in Ulysses—the decline of a family, a suicide, the elopement of a girl, and so on—but he chooses not to present these events in the form of the well-made novel. And the choice is wise, for the power of the novel is increased immeasurably thereby. The brute,’ irrational, given quality of the world comes through so strongly in Faulkner’s peculiar technique that he actually shows, and does not merely state, the meaning of the quotation from which his title is derived—Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Shakespeare places these lines in the context of a fairly well-made tragedy in which evil is destroyed and good triumphs; but Faulkner shows us the world of which Shakespeare’s statement would be true: a world opaque, dense, and irrational, that could not have existed for Shakespeare, close as he was still to medieval Christianity. Even where a purposeful human action is planned, in the novel, and the necessary steps taken to carry it through—as in the section on the day Quentin Compson commits suicide—what really happens has little to do with the traditional order, logic, sequence of events that normally accompany such an action. The day described shows us not the abstraction “Quentin Compson commits suicide” but, as the author turns his own and his reader’s eye “to the things themselves,” a process far more concrete and contingent: a sparrow chirps at the window, a watch breaks, the hero gets entangled in a perfectly absurd melee with a little runaway girl, there is a fist fight, etc.; and underneath all this is, but never mentioned, the slow blind surge moving forward like an underground river toward the sea, of a man’s going to his death. This section, and the book itself, is a masterpiece, perhaps as great as anything yet written by an American; and is to be recommended to anyone who wants to know the concrete feel of that world with which in his thinking the existential philosopher has to deal.
In the course of the brute random flow of detail that is that last day of his life, Quentin Compson breaks the crystal of his watch. He twists off the two hands and thereafter, throughout the day, the watch continues to tick loudly but cannot, with its faceless dial, indicate the time. Faulkner could not have hit on a better image to convey the sense of time which permeates the whole book. The normal reckonable sequence of time—one moment after another—has been broken, has disappeared; but as the watch pounds on, time is all the more urgent and real for Quentin Compson. He cannot escape time, he is in it, it is the time of his fate and his decision; and the watch has no hands to reassure him of that normal, calculable progression of minutes and hours in which our ordinary day-to-day life is passed. Time is no longer a reckonable sequence, then, for him, but an inexhaustible inescapable presence. We are close here—as we shall see later—to the thought of Heidegger. (Faulkner certainly never read Heidegger; he may never even have heard of him. So much the better; for the testimony of the artist, the poet, is all the more valid when it is not contaminated by any intellectual preconceptions.) Real time, the time that makes up the dramatic substance of our life, is something deeper and more primordial than watches, clocks, and calendars. Time is the dense medium in which Faulkner’s characters move about as if dragging their feet through water: it is their substance or Being, as Heidegger would put it. The abolition of clock time does not mean a retreat into the world of the timeless; quite the contrary: the timeless world, the eternal, has disappeared from the horizon of the modem writer as it has from the horizon of modem Existentialists like Sartre and Heidegger, and from the horizon of our own everyday life; and time thereby becomes all the more inexorable and absolute a reality. The temporal is the horizon of modem man, as the eternal was the horizon of the man of the middle ages. That modem writers have been so preoccupied with the reality of time, handling it with radically new techniques and from radically new points of view, is evidence that the philosophers in our age who have attempted a new understanding of time are responding to the same hidden historical concerns, and are not merely elaborating some new conceptual novelty out of their heads.
These details about art, it should be apparent to the reader, are not dragged in by the heels. Nor are they the elaborate constructions which it has become the critical fashion in this country to force upon works of art. On the contrary, the features we have mentioned lie open and accessible—on the very surface, so to speak, of the works of art themselves; and to see them requires only that we take art seriously, which means to take it as a revelation: a revelation of its time and of the being of man, and of the two together, the being of man in his time.
No beginning, middle, end—such is the structureless structure that some modern literary works struggle toward; and analogously in painting, no clearly demarcated foreground, middleground, and background. To the traditionalist, immersed in the classical Western tradition, all this will appear negative, purely destructive. But if we do not keep our gaze narrowly riveted on the tradition of the West (and in any case this classical canon is only one of the traditions that have arisen in the course of the whole history of the West), we find that these requirements of logical and rational form do not hold for other traditions of art in other cultures. Oriental art, for example, is much more formless, organic, and sprawling than classical Western art. It has form, but a different form from that of the West. Why is this? The question is not a trivial one; it is perhaps as profound as any the West can ask these days, for this difference in art is not mere happenstance but the inevitable concomitant of a different attitude toward the world.
One of the best indications of this peculiar (to us) sense of artistic form among Orientals is given by E.M. Forster in his novel A Passage to India. A mixed group, English and Indians, are at tea, and Professor Godbole, a Hindu, has been asked to sing, but has let the occasion go by; then, as all are leaving, the Hindu says, “I may sing now,” quite unexpectedly. (This unexpectedness is significant, for the song is not to be given a formal setting, but to drop upon their ears as casually and contingently as life itself.) Forster’s description of the song makes our point so beautifully that it is worth quoting in its entirety—His thin voice rose, and gave out one sound after another. At times there seemed rhythm, at times there was the illusion of a Western melody. But the ear, baffled repeatedly, soon lost any clue, and wandered in a maze of noises, none harsh or unpleasant, none intelligible. It was the song of an unknown bird. Only the servants understood it. They began to whisper to one another. The man who was gathering water chestnuts came naked out of the tank, his lips parted with delight, disclosing his scarlet tongue. The sounds continued and ceased after a few moments as casually as they had begun—apparently half through a bar, and upon the subdominant.
The song begins, goes on, suddenly stops; but there is not the least trace of an Aristotelian beginning, middle, or end. Compare Godbole’s song with the structure of an aria from an Italian opera. In the latter we have a beginning, a development through certain predictable phases toward the inevitable climax of the high note, and then the falling away or denouement, tying up the whole thing in a neat package: here is Aristotelian and rational form in music. But the Oriental song baffles the ear of the Westerner; it appears unintelligible. The reason is that the Westerner demands (or, let us say, used to demand) an intelligibility that the Easterner does not. If the Westerner finds the Oriental music “meaningless,” the Oriental might very well reply that this is the meaninglessness of nature itself which goes on endlessly without beginning, middle or end.
The real reason for the difference between the sense of artistic form in the East and in the West is thus ultimately a difference in philosophic outlook. Since the Greeks, Western man has believed that Being, all Being, is intelligible, that there is a reason for everything (at least, the central tradition that runs from Aristotle through Saint Thomas Aquinas into the beginning of the modern period has held this), and that the cosmos is, finally, intelligible. The Oriental, on the other hand, has accepted his existence within a universe that would appear to be meaningless, to the rational Western mind, and has lived with this meaninglessness. Hence the artistic form that seems natural to the Oriental is one that is just as formless or formal, as irrational, as life itself. That the Western artist now finds his own inherited classical form unconvincing and indeed almost intolerable is because of a profound change in his total attitude toward the world—a change that is no less true even when the artist himself has not been able to bring it to conceptual expression. The final intelligibility of the world is no longer accepted. Our existence, as we know it, is no longer transparent and understandable by reason, bound together into a tight, coherent structure. The world that we are shown in the work of the modem painters and writers is opaque and dense. Their vision is not inspired primarily by intellectual premises; it is a spontaneous revelation of the kind of which perhaps only art is capable: it shows us where we stand, whether or not we choose to understand it. If we really open ourselves to the experience of two works of art as widely separated in time as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the distance that Western man has traveled in the intervening centuries is revealed to us more clearly than through any number of abstract arguments. And the road that has been traveled is irreversible.
(3) The last and most important aspect of what we have called the process of flattening in modem art is the flattening out of values. To understand this one can begin at the simplest level in painting, where it means merely that large and small objects are treated as of equal value. Cézanne paints apples with the same passionate concentration as he paints mountains, and each apple is as monumental as a mountain. Indeed, in some of Cézanne’s still lifes, if one covers up all of the picture except a certain patch of folded tablecloth, one might very well be looking at the planes and peaks of his Mont Saint Victoire. For Cézanne the painting dictates its own values: little and big, high and low, sublime and ordinary outside the painting are of equal importance if in a given painting they play the same plastic role.
Now all this is quite contrary to the great tradition of Western art, which distinguishes sharply between the sublime and the banal and requires that the highest art treat the most sublime subjects. The mind of the West has always been hierarchical: the cosmos has been understood as a great chain of Being, from highest to lowest, which has at the same time operated as a scale of values, from lowest to highest. Painters were expected to portray the sublime scenes from the Gospel, great battles, or noble personages. The beginning of genre painting in the seventeenth century was the first step toward what we now think of as modem painting, but it was not until the present century that the reversal of Western values was really accomplished. By now, the hierarchical scheme has been abolished altogether. Following Cézanne, the Cubists took as subjects for their most monumental paintings ordinary objects like tables, bottles, glasses, and guitars. Now the painter dispenses with objects altogether: the colored shape on his canvas is itself an absolute reality, perhaps more so than the imaginary scene, the great battle, which in a traditional canvas it might serve to depict. Thus we arrive at last at l’art brut (raw, crude, or brute art), which seeks to abolish not only the ironclad distinction between the sublime and the banal but that between the beautiful and the ugly as well. Says the painter Dubuffet, one of the more interesting cultivators of this style: The idea that there are beautiful objects and ugly objects, people endowed with beauty and others who cannot claim it, has surely no other foundation than convention—old poppycock—and I declare that convention unhealthy. . . . People have seen that I intend to sweep away everything we have been taught to consider—without question—as grace and beauty; but have overlooked my work to substitute another and vaster beauty, touching all objects and beings, not excluding the most despised—and because of that, all the more exhilarating. . . . I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, in any case, make no mistake, a work of ardent celebration. . . . I am convinced that any table can be for each of us a landscape as inexhaustible as the whole Andes range. . . . I am struck by the high value, for a man, of a simple permanent fact, like the miserable vista on which the window of his room opens daily, that comes, with the passing of time, to have an important role in his life. I often think that the highest destination at which a painting can aim is to take on that function in someone’s life.
Such ideas seem scandalous to the Western traditionalist; they undermine the time-honored canon of beauty, countenance the most disorderly elements in existence, and strike against art itself. Yet they are ideas that might be easily understood by an Oriental. For the Oriental, opposites have never been put into separate watertight compartments as with the Westerner: as it is above, so it is below, in the East; the small is equal to the great, for amid the endless expanse of countless universes, each individual universe is as but a grain of sand on the shores of the Ganges, and a grain of sand is the equal of a universe. The lotus blooms in the mud; and generally the Oriental is as willing, in his indifference, to accept the ugly dross of existence as he is its beauty, where the Westerner might very well gag at the taste. We are not concerned here with the question of whether the West is now moving toward forms of thinking and feeling that are closer to what were once those of the East. What is of concern to the philosopher is the fact that here, in art, we find so many signs of a break with the Western tradition, or at least with what had been thought to be the Western tradition; the philosopher must occupy himself with this break if he is to recast the meaning of this tradition.
The deflation, or flattening out, of values in Western art does not necessarily indicate an ethical nihilism. Quite the contrary; in opening our eyes to the rejected elements of existence, art may lead us to a more complete and less artificial celebration of the world. In literature, again, the crucial example is Joyce’s Ulysses. It was not a literary critic but a psychologist, C.G. Jung, who perceived that this book was non-Western in spirit; he sees it as Oriental to such an extent that he recommends it as a much-needed bible to the white-skinned races. For Ulysses breaks with the whole tradition of Western sensibility and Western aesthetics in showing each small object of Bloom’s day—even the objects in his pocket, like a cake of soap—as capable at certain moments of taking on a transcendental importance—or in being, at any rate, equal in value to those objects to which men usually attribute transcendental importance. Each grain of sand, Joyce seems to be saying (as the Oriental says), reflects the whole universe—and the Irish writer was not in the least a mystic; he simply takes experience as it comes, in the course of the single day he depicts in the novel. Any such break with tradition, where a serious reversal of values is involved, is of course dangerous, for the artist runs the risk of losing the safeguards that the experience of the past has erected for him. A good deal of modem art has clearly succumbed to this danger, and the result is disorder in the art and the artist; but the danger is the price that must be paid for any step forward by the human spirit.
We have seen thus far that modem art, in its formal and structural qualities, is an art of breakdown and bold innovation, the expression of an epoch in which the accepted structures and norms of Western civilization are either in a state of dissolution or at least stand in question. But now, what about the content of this art? What does this content tell us about man? In what ways does it compel the philosopher to recast his traditional concept of man?
Every age projects its own image of man into its art. The whole history of art confirms this proposition, indeed this history is itself but a succession of images of man. A Greek figure is not just a shape in stone but the image of man in the light of which the Greeks lived. If you compare, feature by feature, the bust of a Roman patrician with the head of a medieval saint—as André Malraux has done with a spectacularly sharp eye in his Voices of Silence—you cannot account in formal terms for the difference between them: the two heads stare at each other and cancel each other out; they give us two different images of the destiny and possibilities of being a man. The Roman head shows us the face of the imperium, of power and empire, the Christian the face of the Incarnation, the humility of the earthly transfigured by the Divine. If we knew nothing at all about Taoism, we could still reconstruct from Chinese Sung painting what the Taoist felt about man and nature. And so it goes. Whenever a civilization has lived in terms of a certain image of man, we can see this image in its art; sometimes the image is present even when it was never articulated in thought, the artist in this way anticipating the philosopher. With primitive or prehumanist art it is another matter; here we are presented with images that are much more primordial and abstract, and we are not able to discern in them the features of man. In those primitive cultures humanism had not yet come into existence. Man was still too close to his totem animal. Yet even in this art if we will, we can see the image—or nonimage—of man in the light of which the primitives lived, in the archetypal images from which man’s own individuated features have not yet emerged.
And now, what about modem art? What image of man do we find in it? It is very suggestive that modem artists have discovered primitive art to be valid for them and have found a strange kinship with its forms. To be sure, when the modem artist uses primitive motifs, they mean for him something altogether different from what they meant for the primitive. One cannot undo thirty centuries of civilization. Nevertheless, the extraordinarily vital attraction which primitive art now has for us is of no little significance. The tradition of Western humanism has faltered, become questionable; we are not so sure any more that we know what man is, and we do know in this century what blind forces can disturb or destroy his so-called humanity. Hence we respond to the archetypal images of prehumanist man, more abstract and impersonal than the features of man as we know him.
The one thing that is not clear in modem art is its image of man. We can select a figure from Greek art, from the Renaissance, or the Middle Ages and say with some certainty, “That is the image of man as the Greek, the medieval, or Renaissance man conceived him.” I do not think we can find any comparably clear-cut image of man amid the bewildering thicket of modem art. And this is not because we are too close to the period, as yet, to stand back and make such a selection. Rather, the variety of images is too great and too contradictory to coalesce into any single shape or form. May the reason why modem art offers us no clear-cut image of man not be that it already knows—whether or not it has brought this knowledge to conceptual expression that man is a creature who transcends any image because he has no fixed essence or nature, as a stone or a tree have?
A good deal of modem art has been concerned, in any case, simply with the destruction of the traditional image of man. Man is laid bare; more than that, he is flayed, cut up into bits, and his members strewn everywhere, like those of Osiris, with the reassembling of these scattered parts not even promised but only dumbly waited for. Our novels are increasingly concerned with the figure of the faceless and anonymous hero, who is at once everyman and nobody. Perhaps, again, it is Joyce who began this process of dissection, and he can even evoke an echo of prehumanist art in the incident of Odysseus’ encounter with the blind giant Polyphemus, in which the Greek hero calls himself ou tis, Noman, the man without an identity. In the novels of Franz Kafka the hero is a cipher, an initial; a cipher, to be sure, with an overwhelming passion to find out his individual place and responsibility—things which are not given to him a priori and which he dies without ever finding out. The existence of this cipher who does not discover his own meaning is marginal, in the sense that he is always beyond the boundary of what is secure, stable, meaningful, ordained. Modem literature tends to be a literature of “extreme situations,” to use Jaspers’ expression. It shows us man at the end of his tether, cut off from the consolations of all that seems so solid and earthly in the daily round of life—that seems so as long as this round is accepted without question.
Naturally enough, this faceless hero is everywhere exposed to Nothingness. When, by chance or fate, we fall into an extreme situation—one, that is, on the far side of what is normal, routine, accepted, traditional, safeguarded—we are threatened by the void. The solidity of the so-called real world evaporates under the pressure of our situation. Our being reveals itself as much more porous, much less substantial than we had thought it—it is like those cryptic human figures in modem sculpture that are full of holes or gaps. Nothingness has, in fact, become one of the chief themes in modem art and literature, whether it is directly named as such or merely drifts through the work as the ambiance in which the human figures live, move, and have their being. We are reminded of the elongated and attenuated figures of the sculptor Giacometti, figures that seem to be invaded by the surrounding void. “Some live in it and never know it,” writes Hemingway in the story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, which presents in its six or seven pages a vision of Nothing that is perhaps as powerful as any in modem art; and he continues, “It was all a nothing, and man is a nothing too.” The example of Hemingway is valuable here, for he is not an artist inspired by intellectual themes; quite the contrary, he is a reporter and a poet intent on reporting what it is he really sees in experience, and what he has seen and reports to us in this story is the Nothing that sometimes rises up before the eyes of human beings. A story by Sartre on the same subject would be much more suspect to us: we would have reason to believe that the Existentialist writer was loading the dice intellectually, reporting on experience out of a previous philosophical commitment. But to reject Hemingway’s vision of the Nothing, of Nothingness, might well be to close our eyes to our own experience.
It is worth emphasizing, once again, that the vision of Nothingness with which modem art presents us does express a real encounter, one that is part of the historical destiny of the time. Creative artists do not produce such a vision out of nowhere. Nor in general do audiences or readers fail to respond to it. When a play Waiting for Godot, by an Irish disciple of Joyce’s, Samuel Beckett—a play in which Nothingness circulates through every line from beginning to end-runs for more than sixteen months to packed houses in the capitals of Europe, we can only conclude that something is at work in the European mind against which its traditions cannot wholly guard it and which it will have to live through to the bitter end. Surely the audience at Beckett’s play recognized something of its own experience in what it saw on the stage, some echo, however veiled, of its own emptiness and, in Heidegger’s phrase, its “waiting for God.” It is not only stuffy and pompous of the Philistine to reject these responses in artist and in audience, but dangerously unintelligent, for he loses thereby the chance of finding out where he himself stands historically.
An epoch, as we have seen, reveals itself in its religion, its social forms, but perhaps most profoundly or, at any rate, lucidly in its art. Through modem art our time reveals itself to itself, or at least to those persons who are willing to look at their own age dispassionately and without the blindness of preconceptions, in the looking glass of its art. In our epoch existential philosophy has appeared as an intellectual expression of the time, and this philosophy exhibits numerous points of contact with modem art. The more closely we examine the two together, the stronger becomes the impression that existential philosophy is the authentic intellectual expression of our time, as modem art is the expression of the time in terms of image and intuition.
Not only do the two treat similar themes, but both start off from the sense of crisis and of a break in the Western tradition. Modem art has discarded the traditional assumptions of rational form. The modem artist sees man not as the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West by the Greeks, but as something else. Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable. At the limits of reason one comes face to face with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life.
This break with the Western tradition imbues both philosophy and art with the sense that everything is questionable, problematic. Our time, said Max Scheler, is the first in which man has become thoroughly and completely problematic to himself. Hence the themes that obsess both modem art and existential philosophy are the alienation and strangeness of man in his world; the contradictoriness, feebleness, and contingency of human existence; the central and overwhelming reality of time for man who has lost his anchorage in the eternal.
The testimony art brings to these themes is all the more convincing in that it is spontaneous; it does not spring from ideas or from any intellectual program. That modem art which is most successful and powerful moves us because we see in it the artist subordinate (as must always be the case in art) to his vision. And since we recognize that man’s being is historical through and through, we must take this vision of modem art as a sign that the image of man which has been at the center of our tradition till now must be re-evaluated and recast.
There is a painful irony in the new image of man that is emerging, however fragmentarily, from the art of our time. An observer from another planet might well be struck by the disparity between the enormous power which our age has concentrated in its external life and the inner poverty which our art seeks to expose to view. This is, after all, the age that has discovered and harnessed atomic energy, that has made airplanes that fly faster than the sun, and that will, in a few years (perhaps in a few months), have atomic-powered planes which can fly through outer space and not need to return to mother earth for weeks. What cannot man do! He has greater power now than Prometheus or Icarus or any of those daring mythical heroes who were later to succumb to the disaster of pride. But if an observer from Mars were to turn his attention from these external appurtenances of power to the shape of man as revealed in our novels, plays, painting, and sculpture, he would find there a creature full of holes and gaps, faceless, riddled with doubts and negations, starkly finite.
However disconcerting this violent contrast between power and impoverishment, there is something a little consoling in it for anyone who is intimidated by excessive material power, as there is in learning that a dictator is a drunkard or marked by some other ordinary failing which makes him seem a trifle more human. If we are to redeem any part of our world from the brute march of power, we may have to begin as modem art does by exalting some of the humble and dirty little comers of existence. On another level, however, this violent contrast is frightening, for it represents a dangerous lagging of man behind his own works; and in this lag lies the terror of the atomic bomb which hangs over us like impending night. Here surely the ordinary man begins to catch a fleeting glimpse of that Nothingness which both artist and philosopher have begun in our time to take seriously. The bomb reveals the dreadful and total contingency of human existence. Existentialism is the philosophy of the atomic age.
In examining our time, we have seen everywhere the signs and omens of a break either with or within the Western tradition; and since Existentialism is concerned with these portents and is indeed one itself, we had better turn back now and cast an eye on this tradition in order to see how deeply the roots of Existentialism extend into it.
History is the biography of great men.
The element of caprice in atomic behavior cannot be blamed on man's coarse-grained implements. It stems from the very nature of things, as shown by Heisenberg in 1927 in a famous statement of physical law known as the Uncertainty Principle.
Relativity is the natural law of spacetime based on lightspeed. Quantum theory is the natural law of matter based on Planck’s constant. The theory of one unites relativity and quantum theory by recognizing lightspeed and Planck’s constant as the same boundary of spacetime. Sir James Jeans once described Einstein’s relativistic universe as the surface of four-dimensional soap bubbles. John Wheeler once described the universe as empty curved spacetime churned into lathering distorted geometry of quantum foam formed in the wake of electrons and positrons popping into and out of existence without limit—revealing that relativistic bubbles are thus equivalent to quantum foam.
The physicist Michio Kaku wrote in his 1995 book Beyond Einstein that the destinies of Einstein and Heisenberg were strangely interwoven in many ways even though the theories they created, relativity and quantum theory, are universes apart. Both were revolutionary iconoclasts who challenged established wisdom and so thoroughly dominated modern physics that their discoveries determined the course of physics for over half-a-century. Einstein was twenty-six when he discovered relativity in 1905 while Heisenberg was twenty-four when he laid down the fundamentals of quantum theory in 1925. Based on lightspeed, relativity encapsulates Newtonian physics into Maxwellian wave mechanics thereby accounting for the dilation and warping of spacetime. Based on Planck’s constant, quantum theory is the foundation of the periodic table, electronics, chemistry, biology and medical science. In The Universe and Dr Einstein from 1948 in which Einstein wrote the forward, Lincoln Barnett wrote that while quantum theory deals with fundamental units of matter and energy, relativity deals with space, time and the structure of the universe as a whole. Both are accepted pillars of modern scientific thought. Einstein’s friend Banesh Hoffman wrote in his 1947 book The Strange Story of the Quantum that the salvation of the planet depends on uniting relativity and quantum theory.
Chapter 4—Hebraism and Hellenism
In the celebrated chapter with this same title, in his Culture and Anarchy, a book about the contemporary situation in nineteenth-century England that has much to say to us even today, Matthew Arnold writes—We show, as a nation, laudable energy and persistence in walking according to the best light we have, but are not quite careful enough, perhaps, to see that our light be not darkness. This is only another version of the old story that energy is our strong point and favorable characteristic, rather than intelligence. But we may give to this idea a more general form still, in which it will have a yet larger range of application. We may regard this energy driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obligation of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in going manfully with the best light we have, as one force. And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent sense for all the new and changing combinations of them which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable impulse to know and adjust them perfectly, as another force. And these two forces we may regard as in some sense rivals—rivals not by the necessity of their own nature, but as exhibited in man and his history—and rivals dividing the empire of the world between them. And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraism and Hellenism—between these two points of influence moves our world. At one time it feels more powerfully the attraction of one of them, at another time of the other; and it ought to be, though it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.
Hebraism sometimes seems for Arnold to wear too markedly the stiff bewhiskered face of a British mid-Victorian member of the Dissenting Churches. We have learned a good deal about the Hebraic mind, since his day, and our picture of it will be more complicated. Nevertheless, it is well to begin with this genial and simple passage from Arnold, which so slightly perceives the distinction between the two types and sets forth their long historical battle in such clear—cut terms.
The distinction, as Arnold so lucidly states it, arises from the difference between doing and knowing. The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right thinking that of the Greek. Duty and strictness of conscience are the paramount things in life for the Hebrew; for the Greek, the spontaneous and luminous play of the intelligence. The Hebrew thus extols the moral virtues as the substance and meaning of life; the Greek subordinates them to the intellectual virtues, and Arnold rightly observes: “The moral virtues are with Aristotle but the porch and access to the intellectual, and with these last is blessedness.” So far all this is quite simple and clear: the contrast is between practice and theory, between the moral man and the theoretical or intellectual man. But then Arnold goes on to make another point, which is somehow outside the framework with which he started-To get rid of one’s ignorance, to see things as they are, and by seeing them as they are to see them in their beauty, is the simple and attractive ideal which Hellenism holds out before human nature; and from the simplicity and charm of this idea, Hellenism, and human life in the hands of Hellenism, is invested with a kind of aerial ease, clearness, and radiancy; they are full of what we call sweetness and light. Difficulties are kept out of view, and the beauty and rationalness of the ideal have all our thoughts.
While Arnold admires this ideal of sweetness and light, he nevertheless feels that it may not take into consideration one troubling aspect of the human condition, and he goes on to quote a remark that mayor may not have been made by Thomas Carlyle—“Socrates,” this saying goes, “is terribly at ease in Zion.” Hebraism—and here is the source of its wonderful strength—has always been severely preoccupied with an awful sense of the impossibility of being at ease in Zion; of the difficulties which oppose themselves to man’s pursuit or attainment of that perfection of which Socrates talks so hopefully, and, as from this point of view one might almost say, so glibly. It is all very well to talk of getting rid of one’s ignorance, of seeing things in their reality, seeing them in their beauty; but how is this to be done when there is something which thwarts and spoils all our efforts? This something is sin.
What Arnold perceives here is that deep within Biblical man lurks a certain uneasiness, which is not to be found in the conceptions of man given us by the great Greek philosophers. This uneasiness point toward another, and more central, region of human existence than the contrast between doing and knowing, morality and reason. To be sure, Arnold seeks to tie in this uneasiness of Biblical man with his main thesis, which is the distinction between moral practice and intellectual culture, by introducing the idea of sin. But the sinfulness that man experiences in the Bible—as in the Psalms or the Book of Job—cannot be confined to a supposed compartment of the individual’s being that has to do with his moral acts. This sinfulness pervades the whole being of man: it is indeed man’s being, insofar as in his feebleness and finiteness as a creature he stands naked in the presence of God. This idea of man’s finiteness takes us beyond the distinctions of practice and theory, morality and knowledge, toward the center from which all such distinctions stem.
It is at this center that we must begin, in our rethinking of Arnold’s distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism. We have learned a good deal not only about Hebraic thought but about the Greeks since Arnold’s time, and we shall have to qualify his picture of the latter’s aerial lightness and ease. The radiant and harmonious Greek Arnold depicted he had inherited from eighteenth-century classicism. We know considerably more now about Greek pessimism and the negation of life that it brought with it. We know more about the Orphic religions, which had their own powerful sense of the sinful and fallen state of man, and which exerted such an influence upon Plato. When Plato says that the body is a tomb and that to philosophize is to learn to die, he is not just tossing off a few idle rhetorical figures. From his Orphic and Pythagorean sources we can see that the whole impulse of philosophy for Plato arises from an ardent search for deliverance from the evils of the world and the curse of time. The Greeks did not produce their tragic plays out of nothing, as Nietzsche was almost the first to observe less than a century ago. Greek tragedy comes out of an acute sense of the suffering and evil of life.
Nevertheless, Arnold is fundamentally right in his distinction between Hebrew and Greek, as is shown by the gifts bestowed on humanity by the two races: the Greeks gave us science and philosophy; the Hebrews gave us the Law. No other people—not the Chinese, not the Hindus produced theoretical science, and its discovery or invention by the Greeks has been what has distinguished Western civilization from the other civilizations of the globe. In the same way, the uniqueness of Western religion is due to its Hebraic source, and the religious history of the West is the long story of the varying fortunes and mutations of the spirit of Hebraism.
The Hebraic Man of Faith
The Law, however, is not really at the center of Hebraism. At the center lies that which is the foundation and the basis of the Law, and without which the Law, even in the most Pharisaical tradition, would be but an empty shell. Here we have to think beyond Arnold. To be sure, the Law—the absolutely binding quality of its ritual and commandments—has been what has held the Jewish community together over its centuries of suffering and prevented this people from extermination. But if we go back to the Hebraic sources, to man as he is revealed to us in the Bible, we see that something more primitive and more fundamental lies at the basis of the moral law. We have to learn to reread the Book of Job in order to see this—reread it in a way that takes us beyond Arnold and into our own time, reread it with an historical sense of the primitive or primary mode of existence of the people who gave expression to this work. For earlier man, the outcome of the Book of Job was not such a foregone conclusion as it is for us later readers, for whom centuries of familiarity and forgetfulness have dulled the violence of the confrontation between man and God that is central to the narrative. For earlier man, seeing for the first time beyond the routine commandments of his religion, there was a Promethean excitement in Job’s coming face to face with his Creator and demanding justification. The stage comparable to this, with the Greeks, is the emergence of critical and philosophical reflection upon the gods and their ways, the first use of rational consciousness as an instrument to examine a religion that had been up to that time traditional and ritualistic. The Hebrew, however, proceeds not by the way of reason but by the confrontation of the whole man, Job, in the fullness and violence of his passion with the unknowable and overwhelming God. And the final solution for Job lies not in the rational resolution of the problem, any more than it ever does in life, but in a change and conversion of the whole man. The relation between Job and God is a relation between an I and a Thou, to use Martin Buber’s terms. Such a relation demands that each being confront the other in his completeness; it is not the confrontation of two rational minds each demanding an explanation that will satisfy reason. The relation between Job and God is on the level of existence and not of reason. Rational doubt, in the sense of the term that the later philosophic tradition of the West has made familiar to us, never enters Job’s mind, even in the very paroxysm of his revolt. His relation to God remains one of faith from start to finish, though, to be sure, this faith takes on the varying shapes of revolt, anger, dismay, and confusion. Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,” but he adds what is usually not brought to our attention as emphatically as the first part of his saying: “But I will maintain my own ways before him.” Job retains his own identity (“his own ways”) in confronting the Creator before whom he is as Nothing. Job in the many shades and turnings of his faith is close to those primitive peoples who may break, revile, and spit upon the image of a god who is no longer favorable. Similarly, in Psalm 89 David rebukes Yahweh for all the tribulations that He has poured upon His people, and there can be no doubt that we are here at the stage in history where faith is so real that it permits man to call God to account. It is a stage close to the primitive, but also a considerable step beyond it: for the Hebrew had added a new element, faith, and so internalized what was simply the primitive’s anger against his, god. When faith is full, it dares to express its anger, for faith is the openness of the whole man toward his God, and therefore must be able to encompass all human modes of being.
Faith is trust—in the sense, at least initially, in which in everyday life we say we trust so-and-so, as trust it is the relation between one individual and another. Faith is trust before it is belief—belief in the articles, creeds, and tenets of a Church with which later religious history obscures this primary meaning of the word. As trust, in the sense of the opening up of one being toward another, faith does not involve any philosophical problem about its position relative to faith and reason. That problem comes up only later when faith has become, so to speak, propositional, when it has expressed itself in statements, creeds, systems. Faith as a concrete mode of being of the human person precedes faith as the intellectual assent to a proposition, just as truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition. Moreover, this trust that embraces a man’s anger and dismay, his bones and his bowels—the whole man, in short—does not yet permit any separation of soul from body, of reason from man’s irrational other half. In Job and the Psalms man is very much a man of flesh and blood, and his being as a creature is described time and again in images that are starkly physical—Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into the dust again? Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast fenced me with bones and sinews.
And when Psalm 22 speaks of the sense of abandonment and dereliction, it uses not the high, rarefied language of introspection but the most powerful cry of the physical—My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . Thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly. . . . I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
Protestantism later sought to revive this face-to-face confrontation of man with his God, but could produce only a pallid replica of the simplicity, vigor, and wholeness of this original Biblical faith. Protestant man had thrown off the husk of his body. He was a creature of spirit and inwardness, but no longer the man of flesh and belly, bones and blood, that we find in the Bible. Protestant man would never have dared confront God and demand an accounting of His ways. That era in history had long since passed by the time we come to the Reformation.
As a man of flesh and blood, Biblical man was very much bound to the earth. “Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into the dust again?” Bound to the dust, he was bound to death: a creature of time, whose being was temporal through and through. The idea of eternity—eternity for man—does not bulk large in the Bible beside the power and frequency of the images of man’s mortality. God is the Everlasting, who, though He meets man face to face, is altogether beyond human ken and comparison; while man, who is as Nothing before his Creator, is like all other beings of the dust a creature of a day, whose temporal substance is repeatedly compared to wind and shadow.
Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.
Hebraism contains no eternal realm of essences, which Greek philosophy was to fabricate, through Plato, as affording the intellectual deliverance from the evil of time. Such a realm of eternal essences is possible only for a detached intellect, one who, in Plato’s phrase, becomes a “spectator of all time and all existence.” This ideal of the philosopher as the highest human type—the theoretical intellect who from the vantage point of eternity can survey all time and existence—is altogether foreign to the Hebraic concept of the man of faith who is passionately committed to his own mortal being. Detachment was for the Hebrew an impermissible state of mind, a vice rather than a virtue; or rather it was something that Biblical man was not yet even able to conceive, since he had not reached the level of rational abstraction of the Greek. His existence was too earth-bound, too laden with the oppressive images of mortality, to permit him to experience the philosopher’s detachment. The notion of the immortality of the soul as an intellectual substance (and that that immortality might even be demonstrated rationally) had not dawned upon the mind of Biblical man. If he hoped at all to escape mortality it was on the basis of personal trust that his Creator might raise him once again from the dust.
All of this carries us beyond Arnold’s simple contrasting of moral man with intellectual man, though his basic distinction is left intact and in fact deepened. To sum up:
(1) The ideal man of Hebraism is the man of faith; for Hellenism, at least as it came to ultimate philosophic expression in its two greatest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, the ideal man is the man of reason, the philosopher who as a spectator of all time and existence must rise above these.
(2) The man of faith is the concrete man in his wholeness. Hebraism does not raise its eyes to the universal and abstract; its vision is always of the concrete, particular, individual man. The Greeks, on the other hand, were the first thinkers in history; they discovered the universal, the abstract and timeless essences, forms, and Ideas. The intoxication of this discovery (which marked nothing less than fl1e earliest emergence and differentiation of the rational function) led Plato to hold that man lives only insofar as he lives in the eternal.
(3) There follows for the Greek the ideal of detachment as the path of wisdom which only the philosopher can tread. The word “theory” derives from the Greek verb theatai, which means to behold, to see, and is the root of the word theater. At a theater we are spectators of an action in which we ourselves are not involved. Analogously, the man of theory, the philosopher or pure scientist, looks upon existence with detachment, as we behold spectacles at the theater; and in this way he exists, to use Kierkegaard’s expression, only upon the aesthetic level of existence. The Hebraic emphasis is on commitment, the passionate involvement of man with his own mortal being (at once flesh and spirit), with his offspring, family, tribe, and God; a man abstracted from such involvements would be, to Hebraic thought, but a pale shade of the actual existing human person.
(4) The eternal is a rather shadowy concept for the Hebrew except as it is embodied in the person of the unknowable and terrible God. For the Greek eternity is something to which man has ready and continuous access through his intellect.
(5) The Greek invented logic. His definition of man as the rational animal is literally as the logical animal, to zoon logikon; or even more literally the animal who has language, since logic derives from the verb legein, which means to say, speak, discourse. Man is the animal of connected logical discourse. For the Hebrew the status of the intellect is rather typified by the silly and proud babbling of Job’s friends, whose arguments never touch the core of the matter. Intellect and logic are the pride of fools and do not touch the ultimate issues of life, which transpire at a depth that language can never reach, the ultimate depth of faith. Says Job at the end of the Book: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.”
(6) The Greek pursues beauty and goodness as things that are identical or at least always coincident; in fact he gives them a single name, the beautiful-and-good, to kalokagathia. The Hebraic sense of sin, to which Matthew Arnold alludes, is too much aware of the galling and refractory aspects of human existence to make this easy identification of the good and the beautiful. The sense of the sinfulness of Biblical man is the sense of his radical finitude in its aspect of imperfection. Hence his good must sometimes wear an ugly face, just as beauty for him may be the shining mask of evil and corruption.
It is unnecessary to extend this list. What is important is to make clear the central intuition that informs each of these two views of man. The reader probably has already divined that the features of Hebraic man are those which existential philosophy has attempted to exhume and bring to the reflective consciousness of our time, a time in which as a matter of historical happening the Hebraic religion (which means Western religion) no longer retains its unconditional validity for the mass of mankind.
This sketch of a comparison perhaps tilts the balance a little too heavily on the side of Hebraism. It is necessary, however, to correct the impression left by Matthew Arnold (and he is here a spokesman for a view that is still prevalent) that the main content of Hebraism is its energy and will toward morality. We have to insist on a noetic content in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek. It is not the kind of knowledge that man can have through reason alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never intellectually know. This kind of knowledge a man has only through living, not reasoning, and perhaps in the end he cannot even say what it is he knows; yet it is knowledge all the same, and Hebraism at its source had this knowledge. To be sure, we have stacked the cards somewhat by considering Hellenism more or less as it came to be expressed by the philosophers, and particularly the philosopher Plato; Hellas also produced the tragic poets Aeschylus and Sophocles, who had another kind of knowledge of life. But it was Greece that produced philosophy, logic, science—and also produced Plato, a figure who sums up all the ambiguity of Hellenism as it circles round the momentous issue of reason and the irrational in human life.
The Anglo-American philosopher Whitehead has remarked that “Twenty-five hundred years of Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato.” Allowing for the disparaging irony of the word “footnotes,” we can take this statement as literally accurate. The themes, the questions, and even to a great extent the terms of all subsequent Western philosophy lie in germ in the writings of Plato. All later philosophers betray a filial dependence on Plato even Aristotle, the great hero of all anti-Platonists. And while existential philosophy is a radical effort to break with this Platonic tradition, yet paradoxically there is an existential aspect to Plato’s thought. Such is the richness and ambiguity of Plato as man and philosopher.
Plato began his philosophic career as the result of a conversion. This is surely an existential beginning. He had aspired to be a dramatic poet, the biographer tells us, but after a youthful encounter with Socrates he burned all his manuscripts and dedicated himself to the search for wisdom to which Socrates had given his life. Plato was to be engaged thereafter, for the rest of his life, in a war with the poets that was first and foremost a war with the poet in himself. The steps in Plato’s career, after that fateful encounter with Socrates, enact a progress, as we shall see later, that might have the title: Death of a Poet. Yet the poet never quite dies in Plato—revile him as he does—and at the end he returns to a great myth of creation, the Timaeus, though it is told as an allegory of science and metaphysics. His career is the victory of reason, or the struggle for that victory, over the poetic and mythic functions, and it is all the more remarkable in that it took place in a man who was so richly endowed with the poetic gift.
But this is more than a highly dramatic bit of personal biography: it is an event of the greatest significance in Western history, as it could only be in a man of Plato’s greatness. In Plato rational consciousness as such becomes, for the first time in human history, a differentiated psychic function. (Perhaps Socrates achieved this before him, but all we know of Socrates as a philosopher is through Plato’s writings.) The momentousness of this emergence of reason can be gauged by setting Greece over against the comparably high civilizations of India and China. These latter had a great flowering of sages at a time close to that of the preSocratics in Greece; but neither in India nor in China was reason fully isolated and distinguished—that is, differentiated—from the rest of man’s psychic being, from his feeling and intuition. Oriental man remains intuitive, not rational.
Great sages like Buddha and Lao-tse rose above the mythic, but they did not become apostles of reason. The lifting of reason fully out of the primeval waters of the unconscious is a Greek achievement. And from the differentiation Western civilization takes on, subsequently, the character that distinguishes it from the civilizations of the Orient. Science itself, a peculiarly Western product, became possible only through this differentiation of reason and its exaltation as the crowning human power.
This emergence of reason that we can see taking place in the Platonic writings was a momentous historical event that spanned Plato’s own lifetime. We can gauge this span by marking out at its beginning two thinkers earlier than Plato, Heraclitus and Parmenides, who were flourishing around 480 BC, and at its end the achievement of Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, who really carried the rational ideal sketched by Plato in the Later Academy to its culmination. In 399 BC Socrates was executed for nothing less than the crime of rationalism—an act of reason that destroyed, so the conservative Athenians thought, the gods of the tribe. These dates can be marked as points on a curve, and this curve is one of the most significant ever traced by man in his history. From 480 BC, the time of Heraclitus and Parmenides, to the death of Aristotle in 322 BC is little more than a century and a half. In that century and a half man enters history as the rational animal.
Parmenides and Heraclitus were visionaries and seers. Parmenides wrote in verse, and his poem opens by describing itself as the account of a vision vouchsafed by the goddess, who has taken the poet in her chariot beyond the portals of the day and night. Heraclitus’ sayings are dark and oracular, and they are meant to be taken as oracles visionary disclosures of the real. The Greek word for “I know,” oida, is the perfect of the verb “to see” and means “I have seen.” He who knows is the man who has seen, who has had a vision. For earlier mankind, the sage, the wise man, was the reader of oracles, of dreams and entrails, the fortuneteller, the shaman. And he was the poet who, in giving expression to the “big dreams” of the tribe, voiced its hidden, its deepest and furthest wisdom. At the end of the century and a half in which Plato and Aristotle lived, this ideal sage had been transformed into the man of pure intellect, whose highest embodiment was to be found in the rational philosopher and the theoretical scientist. The vast intuitive visions of nature, as found in the pre-Socratic thinkers, gave way, in Aristotle, to the sobriety of science.
We are so used today to taking our rational consciousness for granted, in the ways of our daily life we are so immersed in its operations, that it is hard at first for us to imagine how momentous was this historical happening among the Greeks. Steeped as our age is in the ideas of evolution, we have not yet become accustomed to the idea that consciousness itself is something that has evolved through long centuries and that even today, with us, is still evolving. Only in this century, through modern psychology, have we learned how precarious a hold consciousness may exert upon life, and we are more acutely aware therefore what a precious deal of history, and of effort, was required for its elaboration, and what creative leaps were necessary at certain times to extend it beyond its habitual territory. We have seen the history of philosophy written as social history, or as economic history, or interpreted from any number of sociological points of view, but we have yet to grasp fully the history of philosophy as part of the psychic evolution of mankind. But of course the concept of evolution cannot here be interpreted in the simple and unilinear fashion of nineteenth-century thought, as in Hegel and Spencer, but rather in its full concreteness and ambiguity, as simultaneously gain and loss, advance and regress.
Nothing better illustrates this last point than the Platonic celebration of reason. The Greeks’ discovery represents an immense and necessary step forward by mankind, but also a loss, for the pristine wholeness of man’s being is thereby sundered or at least pushed into the background. Consider thus the famous myth of the soul in the Phaedrus: the driver of the chariot, reason, holds the reins of white steeds and of black—the white steeds, representing the spirited or emotional part of man, which is more docile to the dictates of reason, the black and unruly steeds representing the appetites or desires, which have to be whipped into line by the charioteer. Whips and reins convey only the idea of coercion and restraint; and the charioteer alone wears a human face while the rest of man, the non-rational part, is represented in animal form. Reason, as the divine part of man, is separated, is indeed of another nature, from the animal within him. We are a long distance here from another symbol of light and dark which early mankind, this time the Chinese, handed down to us: the famous diagram of the forces of yin and yang, in which the light and the dark lie down beside each other within the same circle, the dark area penetrated by a spot of light and the light by a spot of dark, to symbolize that each must borrow from the other, that the light has need of the dark, and conversely, in order for either to be complete. In Plato’s myth first appears that cleavage between reason .and the irrational that it has been the long burden of the West to carry, until the dualism makes itself felt in most violent form within modern culture.
The same superhuman, or inhuman, exaltation of reason can be seen in another of the Platonic myths, the celebrated allegory of the cave in the Republic. The myth begins with a very grim picture of the human condition as it actually is: Men sit in the darkness of a cave, in chains, their backs to the light and able to see only the shadows of objects cast on the wall they face. One of the prisoners becomes free, turns around to see the objects of which he had previously seen only the shadows, and the light itself that casts the shadows; he may even progress to the mouth of the cave and see the sun beyond.
This is a myth of man’s progress from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge, from dereliction to salvation. As a young man, we are told, Plato had studied the doctrines of Cratylus, a follower of Heraclitus who had taught that all things were in flux and that there was no escape anywhere from death and change; the young Plato, tormented by this vision, desired at all costs a refuge in the eternal from the insecurities and ravages of time. Hence the enormous attraction for him of the science of mathematics, which opens up a realm of eternal truths. Here at least, in pure thought, man can find an escape from time. Hence too the tremendous emotional force for him of the theory of eternal forms or Ideas, since these latter were an everlasting realm to which man has access. We have to see Plato’s rationalism, not as a cool scientific project such as a later century of the European Enlightenment might set for itself, but as a kind of passionately religious doctrine—a theory that promised man salvation from the things he had feared most from the earliest days, from death and time. The extraordinary emphasis Plato put upon reason is itself a religious impulse.
Light and darkness are universal human symbols for the contrasting states of redemption and dereliction. You will find them in all cultures—in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian thought. The sage or saint is always the enlightened man, he who walks in the light. Plato’s myth, taken simply as a story, could be adopted by any of these religions. The use that Plato makes of it, however, is altogether his own, and strikingly different from the use any religion has made of these symbols. For when he has finished the story, Plato goes on to explain it as an allegory: the progress from the cave into the light, in the myth, will correspond to the actual stages to be followed in the education of the guardians of the state, and the chief content of this education, its sole content from the age of twenty to thirty-five, is to be mathematics and dialectic. At this point we may imagine a great Eastern sage such as Buddha or Lao-tse looking somewhat askance: the enlightenment they sought, which was the redemption of the individual, would not have come through any such severely intellectual and logical training. And one’s own observation of professional mathematicians hardly supports the view that they are the most whole and intact psychological specimens mankind has to offer. In Plato’s extraordinary emphasis upon mathematics we see the vestiges of Pythagoreanism, in which mathematics has been given a sacred, a religious status.
Behind Plato’s emphasis upon mathematics lies his theory of Ideas: the “really real” objects in the universe, ta ontos onta, are the universals or Ideas. Particular things are half real and half unreal—real only insofar as they participate in the eternal universals. The universal is fully real because it is eternal; the fleeting and changing particular has only a shadowy kind of reality because it passes and is then as if it had never been. Humanity, the universal, is more real than any individual man. This is the crucial emphasis of Platonism as it was passed on to all subsequent philosophy and that against which contemporary existential philosophy is in rebellion. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century were the first to reverse this Platonic scale of values and to establish the individual, the single one, precisely in the way in which he is an exception to the universal norm, as taking precedence over the universal.
Everything else in Plato follows from his identification of true Being, of “real reality,” with the Ideas. Since art, for example, deals with the objects of the senses, therefore with particulars, it deals only with shadows and is itself a form of untruth. Philosophy and theoretical science have a higher value than art because in them alone truth is realized, as it is not in the arts. The earlier meaning of truth, which embraced also the utterances of the poets, has here been shifted to make it a purely intellectual concept. Psychologically speaking, the significance of Plato’s theory of Ideas is to transfer the weight of emphasis from sensory reality to a supersensible reality. Perhaps nothing short of this would have served historically, at that time: For man to enter history as the rational animal, it was necessary for him to be convinced that the objects of his reasoning, the Ideas, were more real than his own individual person or the particular objects that made up his world. The great step forward into rationalism required its own mythology—such perhaps is always the ambiguity of human evolution.
Plato’s thought, as we have seen, values (which means, finds “really real”) the eternal over the temporal, the universal over the particular, reason over the non-rational other half of man. In all these valuations it is profoundly anti-existential—a philosophy of essence rather than of existence. Yet it remains existential in its conception of the activity of philosophizing as fundamentally a means of personal salvation. Plato had no conception of metaphysics as such, as a purely theoretical branch of philosophy devoted to the study of Being as Being. He was an Athenian to the end, which means that his interest in political life, the polis, was the one to which all other human interests were subordinate. Athens did not produce metaphysicians; these came rather from other parts of the Greek world, from lonia, Milesia, Sicily, southern Italy; and the founder of metaphysics as a strict and separate discipline was Aristotle, a native of Stagira in Macedonia. But for Plato, the Athenian, all metaphysical speculation was simply instrumental in the passionate human search for the ideal state and the ideal way to live—in short, for a means to the redemption of man. The figure of Socrates as a living human presence dominates all the earlier dialogues because, for the young Plato, Socrates the man was the very incarnation of philosophy as a concrete way of life, a personal calling and search. It is in this sense too that Kierkegaard, more than two thousand years later, was to revive the figure of Socrates—the thinker who lived his thought and was not merely a professor in an academy—as his precursor in existential thinking. All of this adds to the richness and ambiguity of the Platonic writings. But the figure of Socrates himself undergoes some radical transformations as we follow the growth and systematization of Plato’s rationalism. In the earlier so-called Socratic dialogues, the personality of Socrates is rendered in vivid and dramatic strokes; gradually, however, he becomes merely a name, a mouthpiece for Plato’s increasingly systematic views, and the dialogues tend toward monologues, mere formal essays. In the Phaedrus Socrates is still a friend to poets: all the greatest gifts to man, he tells us, come out of a form of inspired madness, and the poetic man, haunted by the muses, is ranked near to the philosopher in the hierarchy of human values. In The Sophist, however, a late dialogue, the poets are lumped together in disrepute with the Sophists as traffickers in nonbeing, dealers in untruth. The figure of Socrates himself by then has shrunk from a flesh-and-blood person to a shadowy abstract reasoner. In the later dialogues he even takes a back seat: the principal figure in The Sophist is the Eleatic Stranger; in The Laws it is the Athenian Stranger; and in the Parmenides the venerable figure of Parmenides lectures Socrates on the intricacies of dialectic. Part of this may be due simply to fading memory: the Socrates who died in 399 BC had stamped himself so strongly on the young man’s mind that for the next thirty or forty years he virtually dominated Plato’s life; but with the passage of time even this vivid figure had to grow fainter and, in unconscious compensation, Plato had to assert himself at the end against Socrates. Those unknown figures—the Eleatic Stranger and the Athenian Stranger—are simply the shadow of Plato himself, those portions of his personality which had not been able to speak through the mouth of Socrates but had at last forced themselves to be recognized. Because of his meeting with Socrates, Plato had ceased to be a poet, and finally, at the end of the trail, in his least poetic dialogue, The Laws, he advises the death penalty for those whose thought opposes the religious orthodoxy of the state—the very crime for which Socrates had been put to death by the Athenian orthodoxy and in revolt against which Plato himself had taken up his own career as a philosopher! Unconsciously, at the end, he took his revenge upon the figure that had dominated his life.
When we come to the end, with Aristotle, of the great historical cycle that began with the pre-Socratics, philosophy had become a purely theoretical and objective discipline. The main branches of philosophy, as we know it today as an academic subject, had been laid out. Wisdom is identified as Metaphysics, or “First Philosophy,” a detached and theoretical discipline: the ghost of the existential Socrates had at last been put to rest. (The progress of this great historical curve is all the more remarkable if we consider Aristotle’s own individual development, as it has been established by Werner Jaeger: as a young man and still a Platonist, Aristotle himself conceived of philosophy as the personal and passionate search for redemption from the wheel of birth and death.) The foundations of the sciences, as the West has known them, had been laid, and this was only possible because reason had detached itself from the mythic, religious, poetic impulses with which it had hitherto been mixed so that it had no distinguishable identity of its own.
The West has thought in the shadow of the Greeks; even where later Western thinkers have rebelled against Greek wisdom, they have thought their rebellion through in the terms which the Greeks laid down for them. We must therefore understand Greek rationalism in all its depth and breadth if we are to understand some of the later revolts against it, and particularly the modern effort of existential philosophy at last to think beyond it. The rationalism of the Greeks was not the mere passing salute to reason that a present—day orator might toss off before an academic audience. The Greeks were thoroughgoing, stringent, and bold in their thinking—and never more so than when they placed reason at the top of the human hierarchy. Which is greater, the artist or the thinker? Is Mozart, the creator of music, inferior to the physicist Helmholtz, the theorist who explained the nature of sound? Which is the higher life that of Shakespeare, the greatest poet of the English language, or of Newton, the greatest English scientist? We today would hesitate to answer such questions; and in our timidity we might even reject them as meaningless. Not so the Greeks. A young Greek who felt a disposition toward both poetry and theory, and wanted to choose one for a career, would want to know which was the better life, and Plato and Aristotle would have made no bones about their reply: the theoretical life is higher than the life of the artist or that of the practical man of politics—or of the saint, for that matter, though they did not yet know of this kind of existence. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle gives us a remarkably flexible and well-rounded picture of human nature and the many different kinds of goals, or goods, at which it may aim; but the ethical question still seems unanswered for him until he has declared which of all possible goods is the best, and in the tenth and final book of this work he expresses his own preference (stated, of course, as an objective truth) for the life of pure reason, the life of the philosopher or theoretical scientist, as the highest life. Here his own words must be observed carefully—It would seem, too, that this [Reason] is the true self of every man, since it is the supreme and better part. It will be strange, then, if he should choose not his own life, but some other’s. . . . What is naturally proper to every creature is the highest and pleasantest for him. And so, to man, this will be the life of Reason, since Reason is, in the highest sense, a man’s self.
Reason, Aristotle tells us, is the highest part of our personality: that which the human person truly is. One’s reason, then, is one’s real self, the center of one’s personal identity. This is rationalism stated in its starkest and strongest terms—that one’s rational self is one’s real self—and as such held sway over the views of Western philosophers up until very modern times. Even the Christianity, of the Middle Ages, when it assimilated Aristotle, did not displace this Aristotelian principle: it simply made an uneasy alliance between faith as the supernatural center of the personality and reason as its natural center; the natural man remained an Aristotelian man, a being whose real self was his rational self.
Aristotle did not have, as Plato did, a realm of eternal essences, which is alone “really real,” to guarantee the primacy of reason. Nevertheless, he too found a metaphysical ground for this primacy, in the intelligibility of all Being as it rests on a First Cause. To know, says Aristotle, is to know the cause, and human reason can ascend to knowledge of the First Cause of all things, the Unmoved Mover of the Universe, God. So long as the human intellect has held out to it the prospect of surveying the whole cosmos from its ultimate height to its lowest depth, to the end that it may see the ultimate and sufficient reason why this cosmos exists and why it exists in the manner it does so long as such a goal is promised to the intellect, then all the spectacles afforded by art, all the worldly triumphs of the practical life, will dwindle by comparison. The value of art or of the practical life must necessarily be ranked lower than that of a theoretical vision so complete and all-encompassing. The connection between theoretical reason as the highest human function and the possible completeness of its vision of the cosmos is an intrinsic one: the latter secures the supreme value of the former. For where the ultimate reason of things may be known, who would abstain from the effort to reach it, or be distracted by other goals which partake of the finitude and incompleteness of our poor feeble human existence? “Happy is he who can know the causes of things,” said the Roman poet; and the happiest man would be he who could know the ultimate causes of things.
What happens, however, to this view that the highest man is the theoretical man if we conceive of human existence as finite through and through—and if human reason, and the knowledge it can produce, is seen to be finite like the rest of man’s being? Then the possibility that the system of human knowledge may be closed and completed, that all of Being may be ultimately embraced in one vision, disappears; and man is left patiently treading the endless road of knowledge that never reaches conclusion. If science were to continue its researches uninterruptedly for a thousand years, it would not disclose to us the ultimate ground of things. Being finite, we should never arrive at the highest object of knowledge, God, which this rationalist tradition has celebrated as the goal that outshines all others. This conception ‘of human finitude places in question the supremacy that reason has traditionally been given over all other human functions in the history of Western philosophy. Theoretical knowledge may indeed be pursued as a personal passion, or its findings may have practical application; ‘but its value above that of all other human enterprises (such as art or religion) cannot be enhanced by any claim that it will reach the Absolute. Suppose, for example, that there were a road and we were told we ought to walk it; in response to our question “Why?”, we might be told that we ought to do so because the walking itself would be pleasant or useful (good for our health); but if we were told that there was a priceless treasure at the end of the road, then the imperative to walk would carry overwhelming weight with us. It is this treasure at the end of the road that has disappeared from the modem horizon, for the simple reason that the end of the road has itself disappeared.
Hence, we in our day have to come back to those old, apparently naive questions of the Greeks from a different angle, as Nietzsche was the first to do: Which is higher, science or art? Who is the highest—the theoretical or the practical man? or the saint? or the artist? The man of faith or the man of reason? If man can no longer hold before his mind’s eye the prospect of the Great Chain of Being, a cosmos rationally ordered and accessible from top to bottom to reason, what goal can philosophers set themselves that can measure up to the greatness of that old Greek ideal of the bios theoretikos, the theoretical life, which has fashioned the destiny of Western man for millennia?
Every time someone mentions Schrödinger’s cat, I go for my gun.
History teaches us that we have never learned anything from history.
A company of chessmen stand on the same squares as where we left them—although perhaps the chessboard has, in the meantime, been carried out of the room into another.
When we combine quantum theory and relativity, there seems to be the possibility that space and time might form a finite, four-dimensional continuum without singularities or boundaries. If we do discover a complete theory of everything, it should be understandable by everyone and not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and ordinary people, be able to take part in discussing questions as to why both we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would at last know the mind of God.
Chapter 5—Christian Sources
Faith and Reason
Though strongly colored by Greek and Neo-Platonic influences, Christianity belongs to the Hebraist rather than to the Hellenist side of man’s nature because Christianity bases itself above all on faith and sets the man of faith above the man of reason. Again and again, at the beginning of Christianity, Saint Paul tells us that the faith he preaches is foolishness to the Greeks, for they demand “wisdom” which of course to the Greek meant rational philosophy and not religious faith. But the historical fact that Christianity arose in a world which already knew about reason through the Greeks distinguishes Christian faith from the Hebraic faith of the Old Testament. Ancient Biblical man knew the uncertainties and waverings of faith as a matter of personal experience, but he did not yet know the full conflict of faith with reason because reason itself did not come into historical existence until later, with the Greeks. Christian faith is therefore more intense than that of the Old Testament, and at the same time paradoxical: it is not only faith beyond reason but, if need be, against reason. This problem of the relation between faith and reason, stated by Saint Paul, is not only the root problem for centuries of Christian philosophers to come, it is the root itself of later Christian civilization.
The problem is still with us in our modem civilization, though naturally it presents itself to us in a very different guise than it did to Saint Paul. For what is faith? Philosophers through the centuries have attempted to analyze or describe it, but all their talk cannot reproduce mentally the fact itself. Faith is faith, vital and indescribable. He who has it knows what it is; and perhaps also he who sincerely and painfully knows he is without it has some inkling of what it is, in its absence from a heart that feels itself dry and shriveled. Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be conveyed to a blind man. Fortunately, we are able to recognize it when we see it in others, as in Saint Paul, a case where faith had taken over the whole personality. Thus vital and indescribable, faith partakes of the mystery of life itself. The opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational—and stated in these terms, the opposition is a crucial problem today. The question is one of where the center of the human personality is to be located: Saint Paul locates this center in faith, Aristotle in reason; and these two conceptions, worlds apart, show how at its very fountainhead the Christian understanding of man diverges utterly from that of Greek philosophy, however much later thinkers may have tried to straddle this gulf.
From the point of view of reason, any faith, including the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche. But the paradoxical quality of Christian faith is further heightened by its specific content: that the Son of God became man, died, and rose from the dead. On this matter Saint Paul knows that his adversaries are not merely the Greek philosophers but the faithful Hebrews too. To the Greeks, he tells us, Christianity is foolishness, to the Jews a scandal; if the Greeks demand wisdom, the Jews on the other hand demand a sign—ie. a definite miraculous event to show that this Jesus of Nazareth is really the promised Messiah. Not the Incarnation—that the Infinite God became finite man, which to Kierkegaard, later, is the absolute paradox and scandal of Christianity—but the resurrection of Jesus is the overriding article of the faith that takes possession of Paul’s mind. (It is extremely doubtful, in fact, that there is any clear-cut doctrine of the Incarnation in Saint Paul.) The central fact for his faith is that Jesus did actually rise from the dead, and so that death itself is conquered—which is what in the end man most ardently longs for. The problem of death lies at the center of the religious consciousness—Unamuno was really following Saint Paul when he argued this—and at the center of much more of the philosophic consciousness than this consciousness itself realizes. Plato believed in the eternal Ideas because he was afraid to die. (This is not personal derogation, for the man who is not afraid to die is not really alive.) And because the soul shared in the eternal Ideas, it too could be eternal, and so the man Plato himself might survive death. But Paul’s instincts are shrewder: he knows that neither Platonic nor any other kind of reason can convince us of immortality; nothing short of a miracle will do—and the most astounding one at that, a stumbling block to the skeptical among Greeks and Jews alike. Nowadays we would say that a miracle like the resurrection merely contradicts the natural order, whereas the Incarnation contradicts even logic, but we speak thus looking backward from the vantage point of Kierkegaard. It was not so in the earliest Christianity, where faith, more naive and primitive, came closer to the heart of the matter.
And it was not so more than a century after Paul, with the Church Father Tertullian (150-225), who is often cited as an existential precursor of Kierkegaard. Like Kierkegaard, Tertullian was a brilliant intellectual and a powerful writer, who pitted all his power of mind and his rhetoric against the intellect itself. And like Kierkegaard he too insists on the absolutely paradoxical quality of the Christian faith; but notice in the oft-quoted lines of his De Carne Christi where he places the weight of emphasis, as the central paradox—The Son of God was crucified; I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.
Here the parallel with Kierkegaard ends, as all such historical parallels between men of vastly different epochs must: There is no Kierkegaard before Kierkegaard, no Nietzsche before Nietzsche, and in general nobody before himself simply because in history nothing individual and great happens before it does—before the conditions of its being are present. Tertullian was a Christian writer at the beginning of Christianity, when the faith was aggressive, expanding, conquering; Kierkegaard toward its end, when it was in retreat and half buried under the wave of an advancing secular civilization.
The violence of the conflict between faith and reason, which finds expression in anti-rationalism, in a Tertullian, is mitigated by the time we come to a figure like Saint Augustine (354-430), who is also often cited as an existential precursor and is indeed a more consequential one than Tertullian. The existentialism of Saint Augustine lies in his power as a religious psychologist, as expressed most notably and dramatically in his Confessions. Augustine had an almost voluptuous sensitivity to the Self in its inner inquietude, its trembling and frailty, its longing to reach beyond itself in love; and in the Confessions he gives us a revelation of subjective experience such as even the greatest Hellenic literature does not, and could not, because this interiorization of experience came through Christianity and was unknown to the earlier Greeks. Where Plato and Aristotle had asked the question, What is man?, Saint Augustine (in the Confessions) asks, Who am I?—and this shift is decisive. The first question presupposed a world of objects, a fixed natural and zoological order, in which man was included; and when man’s precise place in that order had been found, the specifically differentiating characteristic of reason was added. Augustine’s question, on the other hand, stems from an altogether different, more obscure and vital center within the questioner himself: from an acutely personal sense of dereliction and loss, rather than from the detachment with which reason surveys the world of objects in order to locate its bearer, man, zoologically within it. Augustine’s question therefore implies that man cannot be defined by being located in that natural order, for man, as the being who asks himself, Who am I?, has already broken through the barriers of the animal world. Augustine thus opens the door to an altogether different view of man than had prevailed in Greek thought.
He opens the door, but he does not really go inside. For the other side of Saint Augustine is Augustine the Neo-Platonist. As a formal theologian, he was concerned with the justification of God’s ways to man and particularly a justification of God’s cosmos; and when he was required thus to think cosmically, rather than personally, he found the metaphysics of Plato’s Timaeus and of the Neo-Platonist Plotinus at hand and suited to his purpose. The duality that gave rise on the one hand to Augustine the existential lyricist of religious experience and on the other to Augustine the formal theologian (thinking with the concepts of Greek metaphysics) is one that lay concealed beneath all the centuries of medieval philosophy that followed; but it did not erupt into painful consciousness until the modem period, when the containing structure of the church, which had held the conflicting elements together in a kind of suspension, could no longer serve this purpose.
The opposition or duality in Augustine can be illustrated on one crucial point: the problem of evil. On page after page of the Confessions he reveals to us with marvelous power the presence of the evil and the negative in our existence; but as a formal theologian, in his Enchiridion (a manual of theology), he has to make the negative disappear from that existence or be sublimated into some larger harmony. All evil, he tells us, is a lack of being, hence a form of non-being; and since the negative is not real, as positive being is, we are somehow to be consoled. Saint Augustine was here engaged in an effort at theodicy, a justification of the goodness of God’s cosmos; after Augustine, theodicy was the central project of all Christian metaphysicians, down through Leibniz and Hegel. Leibniz’s cosmic optimism came to its comic end in the Dr. Pangloss of Voltaire’s Candide, Hegel’s in the existential revolt of Kierkegaard. Hegel is the end of the line because once the spirit of existential revolt has entered the modem world we are forced to take the side of Ivan Karamazov, who says that he “has to decline the ticket”—the ticket of admission to a cosmos where so much evil has to exist as the necessary precondition of good. Similarly, we are forced today to take the side of Augustine’s Confessions against his Enchiridion because we recognize theodicy for what it is, the tragicomedy of rationalism in extremis. Theodicy is an attempt to deal with God as a metaphysical object, to reason demonstratively about Him and His cosmos, to the end that the perfection of both emerges as a rational certainty. Behind this lies the human need to seek security in a world where man feels homeless. But reason cannot give that security; if it could, faith would be neither necessary nor, so difficult. In the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the modem revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modem recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital, since it alone holds firm to those inexpugnable elements of our existence that Augustine described in his Confessions, but then as metaphysician attempted to think away.
Saint Augustine saw faith and reason—the vital and the rational—as coming together in eventual harmony; and in this too he set the pattern of Christian thought for the thousand years of the Middle Ages that were to follow. The formula after Augustine became “Faith seeking understanding”: that is, faith taken as a datum, a given fact within the individual’s existence, then seeking to elaborate itself rationally as far as it can. In a Neo-Platonic cosmos it was easy for faith to seek its own understanding, for that cosmos itself, though the philosophers themselves did not know it, rested on a faith: given a universe through which God already radiated as an infinite sun, one could find analogies and simulacra everywhere to the dogmas of faith. If one could not prove the dogma of the Trinity, one could at least show likenesses to the Trinity everywhere in nature and man. This made the dogma more plausible, even if in its intimate nature it remained a mystery to reason. That such a dogma absolutely contradicts reason was something the medieval philosophers never perceived or acknowledged. Faith, contrary to Tertullian, had become faith beyond reason, but never against, or in spite of it. On the whole, throughout the middle ages the position of reason—and this in itself may seem a paradox—remained unassailable.
The consolidation of the Church, institutionally and dogmatically, helped in this. As the Church enunciated its faith in article after article of dogma, the medieval philosopher was left free to be as rational as he wished, since the nonrational part of him was contained and expressed in the structure of the Church and could thus take care of itself. Secular historians have often represented the medieval Church as placing a galling restraint upon the free intelligence of medieval thinkers. This is undoubtedly true from the point of view of the modem secular mind (to which, by the way, there was no counterpart in that earlier period); but it is not at all the way in which the medieval thinkers themselves felt about the dogmas of their faith. These dogmas were experienced as the vital psychic fluid in which reason itself moved and operated and were thus its secret wellspring and support. It remained for later Protestant philosophers, like Kant, to experience the fateful, but necessary, split between reason and dogma, in such a way that Kant can point out that the traditional proofs of the existence of God really rest on an unconscious faith. What the medieval thinker often took to be reason was in fact faith; and the error occurred not because of a deficiency in logical acumen on the part of those thinkers, but because their reason itself was rooted in their historical existence—the existence, in short, of an Age of Faith.
From time to time, of course, there were rumblings of discord within the medieval harmony. The tension between the vital and the rational in man involves such a delicate balance that it can split apart into open warfare even where man is totally contained in a universal Church. The instincts of man are so earth-bound that they shrewdly sense it whenever the approach of logic threatens them. And so we find in the eleventh century, the age of naive and beautiful Romanesque art, when the logical works of Aristotle were just beginning to circulate in the West, a violent controversy ensuing between “theologians” and “dialecticians.” The theologians were the spokesmen for faith, the dialecticians for logic. It was once again the old conflict between faith and reason, but this time sharpened by the sense of a naive and rude age that the very coming of reason was itself a threat. The most remarkable figure in the controversy was Peter Damiani (1007-1072), the most forceful spokesman for the party of the theologians, who attacked the exaltation of grammar and logic (what nowadays we would call semantics) as the temptation of the Devil. The Devil in fact, Damiani says, was the first grammarian, tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden with the promise “Ye shall be as gods,” and thus teaching him to decline the word “God” in the plural. Logic is quite useless, according to this theologian, in helping us to know God because God in His nature is so incomprehensible and omnipotent that He transcends the basic law of logic, the principle of contradiction; God can even abolish the past, make what has happened not to have happened. Logic is a manmade tool, and God cannot be measured according to its requirements. We are not far here from the later protest of Pascal: “Not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
The enlightenment went on, nevertheless, despite such rumblings; and Greek reason, in the form of the works of Aristotle, became known more and more in the West. It took prodigious labors on the part of the philosophers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to effect the final medieval concordat between faith and reason. The moment of synthesis, when it came in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, produced a civilization perhaps as beautiful as any man has ever forged, but like all mortal beauty a creature of time and insecurity. The fact that the philosophers had to labor so prodigiously in bridging the gap should show us how delicate is the balance between the vital and the rational, and that no harmony between them can be acquired ready-made. The medieval harmony was achieved at a price: In the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the crowning work of the synthesis, man is to use Bernard Groethuysen’s image—really a centaur, a being divided between the natural and theological orders. In the natural order Thomistic man is Aristotelian—a creature whose center is reason and whose substantial form is the rational soul; and Saint Thomas, the Christian, never bats an eye in commenting upon the passage in Aristotle’s Ethics which states flatly that reason is our true and real self, the center of our personal identity, but merely expounds it in straightforward agreement. This might be excused as simply the pedagogic exposition of a teacher identifying himself with his text; but in the Summa Theologica he repeats that the speculative, or theoretical, intellect is the highest function of man, that to which all the others are subordinate. This rational animal in the natural order is subordinated, to be sure, to the supernatural; but again through an intellectual vision—the final one, of the essence of God which informs and purifies the will. This is a synthesis indeed, but how far we have traveled from the experience of Biblical man or of the early Christian, whose faith was felt as something that pierced the bowels and the belly of a man’s spirit!
And despite the synthesis, despite the fact that philosophers in this epoch had come to live with the assumption that faith and reason agree, the ancient problem of the relation between the vital and the rational still did not disappear; it simply went underground and popped its head up elsewhere: this time in the controversy between Voluntarism and Intellectualism. After Saint Thomas, Duns Scotus (1265-1308) and his followers advocated a doctrine that went contrary to the Thomists—that of the primacy of the will over the intellect. In an age of unbounded rationalism (among the philosophers, that is: the actual concrete life of the time was far from that), such a doctrine was the faint but remembered echo of primitive Christianity’s cry as voiced by Saint Paul when he said that he came not to bring wisdom to the philosophers but a saving will to all mankind. Scotus, a Franciscan and therefore an Augustinian, was also remembering the existential voice of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
Saint Thomas, the Intellectualist, had argued that the intellect in man is prior to the will because the intellect determines the will, since we can desire only what we know. Scotus, the Voluntarist, replied that the will determines what ideas the intellect turns to, and thus in the end determines what the intellect comes to know. Put this way, the problem looks as insoluble as which came first the chicken or the egg. And indeed this matter of the primacy of intellect or will is one of the oldest and most vexing questions in philosophy—it is the issue behind Socrates’ perpetual query whether virtue is really knowledge and therefore all the perversities of the will merely forms of ignorance. The question has perhaps to be put differently: not in terms of whether will is to be given primacy over the intellect, or the intellect over the will—these functions being after all but abstract fragments of the total man—but rather in terms of the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, of the concrete and total man himself who is doing the thinking. At least Voluntarism seems to be aware that it is the heart which pumps blood to the brain, and so its own heart is rather in the right place; however excessive or extreme the various voluntarisms have been in the history of philosophy, the fact remains that Voluntarism has always been, in intention at least, an effort to go beyond the thought to the concrete existence of the thinker who is thinking that thought.
Existence vs. Essence
Contemporary Thomists would not accept this comparison between Duns Scotus and Saint Thomas because they are just now in the process of discovering Saint Thomas as the true and authentic existentialist. When Existentialism first appeared on the scene in France, M. Jacques Maritain was scathing and peevish in his denunciation of it, but then later announced that all it contained had been said already in the thirteenth century by Saint Thomas. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
In fact, the issues between Aquinas and Scotus are complicated by another profound and technical problem: the relation between essence and existence. And to shed some light on this problem we shall have to anticipate a little what will be given more extended treatment later. The essence of a thing is what the thing is; existence refers rather to the sheer fact that the thing is. Thus when I say “I am a man,” the “I am” denotes the fact that I exist, while the predicate “man” denotes what kind of existent I am, namely a man.
Modern Existentialism, particularly in the writings of Sartre, has made much of the thesis: existence precedes essence. In the case of man, its meaning is not difficult to grasp. Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence. Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which, he is placed. As Ortega y Gasset puts it, man has no nature only a history. This is one of the chief respects in which man differs from things, which do have fixed natures or essences, which are once and for all what they are. However differently the various Existentialists may put this thesis, they are all agreed on it as a cardinal point in their analysis off man. Sartre proclaims the point as applying, be it noted, only to the case of man; it is only with man that it seems to him to have any significance. Whether or not existence precedes essence in things generally—in the stone, the tree, op a table—or whether the reverse is true is a question that would hardly seem to matter very much, since a thing at any moment is always precisely what it is, and it would not make much sense to raise the question when existence and essence exactly coincide.
In the history of philosophy, however, the question has been raised not only for man but for all beings. The problem breaks down into two separate but related questions: (1) Does existence have primacy over essence, or the reverse? and (2) In actual existing things is there a real distinction between the two? Or are they merely different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing?
The reader may wonder whether questions that sound as abstract and remote as these have any real flesh-and-blood import at all. But its technicality alone need not make a question irrelevant to life, if the technicality results from carrying a question that is indeed one of life and death, as the phrase goes, to the farthest reaches of thought. These two questions touch upon the most fundamental matters of philosophy, and indeed the whole history of Western philosophy revolves around the answers that have been given to them. How one answers them determines one’s view of one’s own life and the life of nature. A glance back at Plato, the father of Western philosophy, will show us the human consequences of the answers to these questions.
Essences Plato called Ideas. These Ideas, as we saw in the previous chapter, were for him “really real,” more real than the particular things that derived their own individual being from participation in the Ideas. The circle, that is, about which the geometrician reasons is the essence common to every individual circle in nature, and without which the individual circles could not exist; it is more real than the individual circle that he may draw on the blackboard for illustration. Now, the circle that the mathematician reasons about is one he never draws upon the blackboard; it cannot be drawn because it never comes into existence; it is outside time and therefore eternal. 50 too it never comes to be in actual physical space; and it is non-spatial in the same sense in which it is non-temporal. All the Ideas, for Plato, thus constitute a realm of absolute realities beyond time, change, and existence, and existence is merely a shadowy replica of essence. When an Idea comes into existence, it is through a fall (a kind of original sin) from some higher realm of Being. Time itself—that invisible and tormenting medium of our own individual existence—becomes merely a shadowy image of eternity.
It requires very little imagination to see how, holding such a philosophic position, one’s attitudes toward life become colored all the way down the line by the Platonic bias. All of Plato’s writings, the whole of his philosophy, are in fact a working out of the consequences of this fundamental conviction of the priority of essence over existence for every field of human experience: for government, ethics, aesthetics; even extending down to the condemnation of the life of the body. Whatever we may think of it, throughout the centuries Platonism has exercised a powerful influence upon the imaginations and lives of men, and in view of the miraculous fertility of that influence we cannot say that the question of existence versus essence is an idle one, or that it is remote from the concerns of life.
Plato’s is the classic and indeed archetypal expression of a philosophy which we may now call essentialism, which holds that essence is prior in reality to existence. Existentialism, by contrast, is the philosophy that holds existence to be prior to essence. The history of Western philosophy has been one long conflict, sometimes explicit but more often hidden and veiled, between essentialism and existentialism.
And it would seem also to be the case that, to the degree to which this history takes its beginnings from Plato, essentialism has always come out on top. This may not be due altogether to the compelling influence of Plato; it may also be due to the very nature of philosophy itself, to the hidden tendency of human reason. We shall have more to say on this question later.
With the foregoing distinctions perhaps a little clearer, let us return now to the point in history where we left matters between Saint Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. On the question of existence in relation to essence it would seem that Saint Thomas is the existentialist. He held that existence is prior to essence in the sense that what primarily constitutes the being of anything is its act of existing (actus essendi). Moreover, he said, in all created things—all things except God that ultimately derive their existence from God—there is a real difference between the thing’s existence and its essence. I am not my essence, since if I were—if essence and existence were identical in me—it would be of my essence to exist, and I would never die. For all contingent beings, beings that are born and that die, existence therefore can never coincide with essence. There is within the being of contingent things a hiatus or cleft, as it were, between existence and essence.
Duns Scotus, on the other hand, maintained the primacy of essence over existence. In the matter of the order of the attributes of God, at any rate, he set God’s essence first as the basic attribute, and His existence after it. To be sure, it might be argued by the Scotist that since God’s being is absolutely one and undivided, in contrast to the complexity and self-dividedness that we find among the things of nature, it does not make much difference whether we assign to essence or existence the status of primary attribute because the two words as applied to God designate the very same thing—God Himself. The order of the divine predicates would thus seem to be merely a matter of verbal arrangement. But this arrangement does show the philosophic cast of mind of the arranger; and even though the attributes in this case denote the same reality in the thing, he who puts essence first, and on grounds of strictest philosophic principle, does so because he considers it more basic than existence. In this respect the Scotist philosophy was certainly more essentialistic than that of Saint Thomas.
With regard to the second of our questions—whether existence and essence in actually existing things are really distinct—Duns Scotus also held a position different from the Thomist one: There is, Scotus says, no real distinction between the essence and existence of a thing, as Saint Thomas had maintained; the two are but different ways in which the mind lays hold of the existing thing.
This question of the identity of essence and existence is one of the most tangled in the history of Scholastic philosophy, and it is still hotly debated between two schools of Catholic philosophers, the Jesuits and the Dominicans. After Scotus, in the sixteenth century, the great Spanish theologian Francis Suarez—really the last voice of medieval Scholasticism—upheld the Scotist position on the question. Suarez became the great philosophical teacher for the Jesuits, and indeed the interpreter par excellence for them of what Saint Thomas was supposed to have meant. Hence the continuing, and even contemporary, debate between Suarezians and Thomists (Dominicans), a controversy that is relevant in that the issue still being debated throws an unexpected and clarifying light on the whole of modem thought.
Much of this light comes from a remarkable, even great, book, Being and Some Philosophers, by the distinguished scholar of medieval philosophy, Etienne Gilson. Whether or not we agree with him that all existential roads lead to Rome—or, more exactly, to the Paris of the thirteenth century where Saint Thomas taught his doctrine of the priority of existence—Gilson has presented a marvelous analysis of the way in which the Scotist influence worked upon the great philosophers of the seventeenth century, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, and through them has permeated the thinking of the last three centuries. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz were all philosophers with a pronounced mathematical bent, and therefore it was likely that they should find congenial a philosophy that exalted essence over existence. The mathematician is enthralled by the timeless self-identity of essences, and hence always gravitates spontaneously to one form of Platonism or another. Moreover, the seventeenth century and those following it were concerned with the extraordinary expansion of mathematics and mathematical physics, and these two disciplines won prestige beyond that of every other intellectual enterprise because of the extraordinary conquests over nature they made possible: hence this bias toward essence with which the contemporary era in philosophy began continued supreme and in fact almost unchallenged until Kierkegaard appeared in the nineteenth century. The roots of a thing always go deeper into the soil than our vision of the plant above the surface would lead us to imagine; and in this case it comes as something of a surprise to know that one, fateful direction of modem thought had its roots in the disputes of theologians in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Modem Catholic philosophers, to whom we alluded earlier, have made a great deal of Saint Thomas as representing the original and true form of what a Christian existentialism should be, an assumption enabling some Thomists to assume a rather papal and condescending attitude toward modem Existentialism as toward a degenerate scion. The existentialism of Saint Thomas, however, is extremely debatable; and one faithful son of the Church, Miguel Unamuno—whose testimony should carry as much weight initially as any medieval scholar’s, since he was at once a scholar and poet—has rejected the mentality of Saint Thomas as expressed in the Summae as being purely legalistic. The Summae plead a case, says Unamuno, they buttress the Church as an institution, in the way that the old codifications of Roman law buttressed an empire; and in this respect we must remember how much of the spirit of the old Roman Empire the medieval Church had inherited. A good deal of the Thomistic existentialism current nowadays looks indeed like a case of special pleading after the fact. A book like Gilson’s, for example, shows so strongly the influence of Kierkegaard (albeit at work on a mind that is granitically Thomist) that it is safe to say the book could not have been written if Kierkegaard had not lived. Without Kierkegaard, indeed, Gilson would not have found in Saint Thomas what he does manage to dig out, and the fact is that a good many other Thomists found quite different things before the influence of Kierkegaard made itself felt. And, to go one step further, what Gilson finds is not enough. The historicity of truth is inescapable, however perennial the problems of philosophy may be, and we should be suspicious in advance of any claim that the answer to modem problems is to be found in the thirteenth century. Granting Saint Thomas’ thesis of the primacy of existence and of the real distinction between existence and essence, we are still very far from an answer to those questions which have led modem thinkers like Heidegger and Sartre to a reopening of the whole subject of Being.
The fact is that the Thomistic distinction between essence and existence leads us into very grave embarrassment when we try to understand our own human existence as men. In his treatise On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia) Saint Thomas cites as an example of essence the traditional definition, “Man is a rational anima1.” This essence is the common characteristic of a whole species. A question then arises, and it is the famous question of universals: How does this essence, which is one as a species, exist as a plurality of individual members of the species? This essence is particularized in each individual: my rational—animality is mine, as distinctly my own and different from that of my friend Peter as my flesh and blood are mine and not his. In fact according to Saint Thomas it is my individual matter, my flesh and blood, that individuates the universal essence. “Signate matter,” Aquinas calls it, and he describes it as matter that exists in determinate dimensions—that is, it is just this particular matter of mine that fills this space which I am now occupying and that excludes any other solid body from filling the same space. Now it is precisely here that the difficulty arises that begets that classical view we referred to earlier of man as a centaur, irremediably split between two parts of his being; here he is divided between the essence and the individuating matter that locates his body uniquely in space and time. The characteristics or qualities that inhere in this individual matter Saint Thomas calls “accidents,” since they are not a necessary part of the essence. But what, we may ask, in the case of any individual human being is the accident and what is the essence? Is it at all clear that in that singular and internal biography of our own selves from birth to death there is a compartment into which certain happenings and characteristics are dumped as being accidental, while in another compartment are other characteristics and events considered as essential? Or, more precisely, are the qualities of here and now—the temporal and spatial qualities that are accorded to me in virtue of that matter which individuates the essence—accidental to my being as a human person?
If I turn a candid gaze “to the things themselves,” as Husserl would say, toward my own individual existence as it has been my actual care and concern through life, quite apart now from any metaphysical presuppositions whatever, can I say that the fact that I exist here and now, rather than there and then, is an accident of my being? I was born and have lived an American in the twentieth century. From the point of view of an essence of man that exists individually in me but is nevertheless really distinct from my existence, such facts are indeed accidents; but they have formed the burdens and tasks of my life, and there is not a part of its warp and woof into which they have not entered. Or, let us take the example of which Sartre has at once properly and improperly made a great deal: the fact of human sexuality. Is the individual’s sexuality part of the essence of his existence or only an accident? I cannot, in introspection, imagine myself harboring any essence, like a nugget at the center of a nest of Chinese boxes, that is not touched by the fact that my life has been lived from birth as a member of one sex and not of the other. The argument applies to all the factual conditions of man’s being—man’s facticity, as Sartre calls it: if we exist our facticity, then we are it, and it makes up the total essence of what we are. These factual conditions, particularly of the historical epoch in which we live, color every portion of our being. Existence and essence, as we take them at any rate in the actual life of the human person, interpenetrate.
The Scotist thesis of the identity of essence and existence would seem then to do more justice to the actual facts of our experience. But, on the other hand, the Thomistic arguments work very well against this position, which ends up by making existence itself a kind of “accident” that occurs to essence. Moreover, with this view it becomes difficult to explain the radical contingency of the human being, since if the essence and existence of the actually existing person are identical, why should his existence not therefore be necessary so that he lives forever? But if neither of these medieval positions works, if there is neither an identity of essence and existence nor a real distinction between them, what then?
The fact is that neither position can work because the very notions with which they deal are too abstract and schematic. The medieval conceptions of essence and existence do not do justice to the full concreteness of modern experience, particularly to our experience of man himself. They need a complete overhauling. That is why Heidegger announced that it was necessary for these questions about Being to be renewed, and he has been the first philosopher to attempt a radical rethinking of the tradition itself. A tradition is kept alive only by such renewal, not by mechanical and idle parroting of the formulae it has bequeathed to the present. But renewal really means renewal, and is therefore a very radical adventure. We should not be surprised therefore that though modern Existentialism, to the degree that it moves in the mainstream of Western thought, inevitably harks back to traditional problems, it nevertheless comes up with conclusions that are bound to shock some of the traditionalists. Time, alas, is of our essence; and our mere recognition of this fact—a recognition that was altogether beyond the an historical medieval man—is so radical that it creates a gulf between us and the medieval past. The solutions of that past can never be totally ours, marvelous as we have come to realize its philosophy as having been.
The Case of Pascal
However numerous these antecedents and precursors, what we know today as Existentialism could not have come to be before the conditions of its being were there. Philosophers breed ideas; and if anything keeps them anchored to existence, it is not philosophy itself but something that comes from outside it—either religion, or the personal drama, anguish, or rebellion of the philosopher’s own life. So in the past it was the dynamite of Hebraism or Christianity that blew to bits the classical temple of Greek rationalism. Before even the possibility of modern Existentialism could be created it was necessary to create its world, and this could have come about only through science, which suddenly projected man out of the Middle Ages. So when we come to Pascal (1623-1662), himself a great scientist, we are no longer dealing, as in the case of Saint Augustine, with a precursor of Existentialism. Pascal is an existentialist.
Nothing could be more confusing than the indifferent lumping together of Pascal and Saint Augustine as great psychologists of religion. To be sure, they were both concerned with the inner life of the religious man, his anguish and restlessness. But the world Saint Augustine inhabited was the Neo-Platonic cosmos, a luminous crystal palace with the superessential Good fixed on its highest point, radiating outward like a beacon and diminishing in brilliance as it shone down through the rest of the perfect structure. Pascal’s was the desolate and desiccated world of modern science, where at night the sage hears not the music of the shining heavenly bodies but only the soundless emptiness of space. “The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” Pascal said, voicing the reaction of the human heart to the universe that seventeenth-century science had fabricated for man. In that world of frightful and empty space man was homeless. Accordingly, he evolved a different image of himself from that of the man who inhabited—and believed himself at home in—a Greek or Neo-Platonic cosmos. In the world of Pascal, faith itself became a much more desperate gamble and a much more daring leap.
Consequently, the struggle between faith and reason gave rise to a more profound psychological discord within man’s being. Despite the arguments of theologians during the Middle Ages about matters of faith and reason, those ages never experienced this division of man within himself. In the Divine Comedy, Dante is led by Virgil, the symbol of human reason, through the depths of Hell and up the slopes of Purgatory; but when it comes to the journey through Heaven, the sphere of the elect who have made it there only by God’s grace, Virgil disappears and Beatrice, symbol of Divine Revelation, takes over as guide. Reason, in short, guides us to faith, and faith takes over where reason leaves off—such is the happy and harmonious lot of man in the ordered, crystalline cosmos of Dante. But the universe of Pascal does not present us with the numerous similitudes and analogies to the Divine Being on which the medieval philosophers had hung their faith, as on so many pegs. In Pascal’s universe one has to search much more desperately to find any signposts that would lead the mind in the direction of faith. And where Pascal finds such a signpost, significantly enough, is in the radically miserable condition of man himself. How is it that this creature who shows everywhere, in comparison with other animals and with nature itself, such evident marks of grandeur and power is at the same time so feeble and miserable? We can only conclude, Pascal says, that man is rather like a ruined or disinherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought to have been his. Thus he takes as his fundamental premise the image of man as a disinherited being.
Consequently, the psychology of a Pascal will be different from that of a Saint Augustine. Pascal’s observations of the human condition are among the most “negative” that have ever been made. Readers of Sartre who have protested that his psychology is too morbid or sordid, and possibly therefore only an expression of the contemporary Paris school of despair, would do well to look into Pascal: they will find his view of our ordinary human lot every bit as mordant and clinical as Sartre’s. “The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition,” Pascal says, “is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” Men escape from considering it closely by means of the two sovereign anodynes of “habit” and “diversion.” Man chases a bouncing ball or rides to hounds after a fleeing animal; or the ball and fleeing game are pursued through the labyrinth of social intrigue and amusement; anything, so long as he manages to escape from himself. Or, solidly ensconced in habit the good citizen, surrounded by wife and family, secure in his job, need not cast his eye on the quality of his days as they pass, and see how each day entombs some hope or dream forgotten and how the next morning wakes him to a round that becomes ever narrower and more congealed. Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” Religion is the only possible cure for this desperate malady that is nothing other than our ordinary mortal existence itself.
Where classical philosophers discuss the nature of man as Aristotle does in his Ethics or Saint Thomas in his treatise on man in the second part of the Summa Theologica—such talk seems to us nowadays to smack of the textbook: the creature the thinkers are discussing may be man, but he does not resemble us in the least. In what Pascal says about the human condition, however, we recognize ourselves all too painfully. As a psychologist, he is a contemporary.
Perhaps Pascal was a better psychologist than were the philosophers because he himself was no philosopher. He has left us in one brief remark his final judgment of the value of philosophy itself: it is, he tells us, “not worth an hour’s trouble.” And considering the quality of Pascal’s mind and his deepest interests as a man, this is an entirely reasonable judgment. To put it somewhat paradoxically, he was too intelligent to be a professional philosopher. To have put himself through the slow and laborious course of training in any academic philosophy would have been to hobble dreadfully his marvelous intelligence, and in any case it was unnecessary for him to do so in order to know what he ultimately needed to know as a man. In this respect he resembles Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, philosophers who went beyond philosophy and so were able to see how it looked from the outside, from the point of view of religion and art, in their cases, from that of science, in his. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche did possess a technical grounding in philosophy, however, while Pascal’s education was scientific and humanistic. He had read some of the classical philosophers, like the Stoics, but apparently only to find out what they had to say about the condition of man and not to follow their metaphysics, for which he had very little taste. His passionate interest as a youth was in science, and he was one of the most precocious scientific geniuses that ever lived, making fundamental discoveries in mathematics before he was twenty-one.
After the death of his father, Pascal, still a young man, came into a fairly comfortable inheritance and was able to cut something of a figure in the world. We know, at any rate, that he kept for a while a coach-and-six, which was enough to establish him as a gentleman and man of the world. In order to understand the mind of Pascal we have to imagine him entering that social world of Paris in the reign of Louis XIV, when the observation and study of man was the consuming passion of worldly and acute minds like Saint Simon and La Rochefoucauld, and recognizing that here was a different kind of datum from that he had dealt with in his, mathematical and physical researches. And not only was the material different, but it required an altogether different kind of intelligence for its comprehension. Pascal, unlike Spinoza, was too intelligent not to recognize that doing geometry was altogether different from doing the study of man.
Out of this realization came his famous distinction between the mathematical and the intuitive mind—l’esprit de géometrie and l’esprit de finesse. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the whole of Bergson’s philosophy is virtually contained in the few pages that Pascal dedicates to this fundamental distinction. French culture has in these matters a marvelous sense of conservation. The most inbred of cultures, it is nevertheless among the richest because it preserves and elaborates what it has in its own kitchen. (This is also the spirit of French cooking, which does not throwaway anything but uses it to create a stock—the fundamental element in cooking, Escoffier tells us—or else to throw into a pot au feu that can be kept simmering indefinitely.) Because it kept sight of Pascal’s distinction, French culture never quite surrendered itself to the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes. Now, the mathematical mind, as Pascal describes it, is defined precisely by its preoccupation with clear and distinct ideas, from which it is able to extract by deduction an infinite number of logical consequences. But the material with which the intuitive mind is dealing is so concrete and complex that it cannot be reduced to clear and distinct ideas that can be set forth in a few simple axioms. In a human situation the waters are usually muddy and the air a little foggy; and whatever the intuitive person—whether he be a politician, courtier, or lover—can perceive in that situation is not by virtue of well-defined logical ideas. Quite the contrary: such ideas are more likely than not to impede his vision. What Pascal had really seen, then, in order to have arrived at this distinction was this: that man himself is a creature of contradictions and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp. This was something the philosophers had not yet grasped.
By delimiting a sphere of intuition over against that of logic, Pascal had of course set limits to human reason. Perhaps nowhere did he use his own esprit de finesse more shrewdly than in his estimate of the value of reason, and perhaps no writer has ever balanced more judiciously the claims and counterclaims of reason: As a mathematical genius he had known all the power and glory of reason, but he also saw its corresponding feebleness and limitations. Three centuries before Heidegger showed, through a learned and laborious exegesis, that Kant’s doctrine of the limitations of human reason really rests on the finitude of our human existence, Pascal clearly saw that the feebleness of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our human condition generally. Above all, reason does not get at the heart of religious experience. As Pascal had very little use for formal philosophy, so he had even less for formal or rational theology, whose supreme task is the fabrication of rational proofs for the existence of God. Such proofs, Pascal held, are beside the point: one day they seem valid to us, the next day not, and if we postpone our salvation until the proofs are satisfactory we shall stand forever wavering from one foot to the other. There are today, Pascal said, extremely intelligent minds who find the proofs for the existence of God entirely convincing, and equally intelligent minds that find them misconceived or inconclusive; and each side suspects the other of bad faith. But the fact is that the proofs convince those who want to be convinced, fail to convince those who do not want to be convinced, and so are not really proofs at all. In any case, God as the object of a rigorous demonstration, even supposing such a demonstration were forthcoming, would have nothing to do with the living needs of religion. He would become as neutral an entity as the abstract circle or triangle about which geometricians reason. It is here that Pascal raises his famous outcry—“Not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
He himself had had a religious experience, connected with what he thought to be a miraculous recovery from an illness, and so overpowering had been the visitation that he wrote down a note about the experience and sewed it into his clothing, as if it were a secret that he had to keep as close as possible to himself and never forget. Whatever we may think of the validity of such experiences, for Pascal himself this lightning from heaven needed no proofs: it was of the order of life itself, not of rational theology. His life thereafter turned round that single and shattering experience, and he dedicated that life to religion; particularly to an attempt at a great explanation and defense of the Christian religion, which he never completed and of which we have only those glorious ruins, the Pensées. Another equally drastic experience, this time rather negative than positive, was equally decisive for his thinking. While he was driving by the Seine one day, his carriage suddenly swerved, the door was flung open, and Pascal almost catapulted down the embankment to his death. The arbitrariness and suddenness of this near accident became for him another lightning flash of revelation. Thereafter he saw Nothingness as a possibility that lurked, so to speak, beneath our feet, a gulf and an abyss into which we might tumble at any moment. No other writer has expressed more powerfully than Pascal the radical contingency that lies at the heart of human existence—a contingency that may at any moment hurl us all unsuspecting into non-being. Death does not arrive punctually by appointment. The idea of Nothingness or Nothing had up to this time played no role at all in Western philosophy. At the very beginning of Greek philosophy, Parmenides had warned against following the path of nonbeing, for non-being, he said, cannot even be thought. During the ages of Scholastic philosophy the Nothing, nihil, had been a purely conceptual entity, an empty abstraction that lay at the farthest reaches of thought. But for Pascal it was no longer an abstraction but an experience. At a certain moment of his existence, Nothingness had suddenly and drastically revealed itself to him. Thereafter, Pascal searched everywhere for evidences of the contingent in human existence—in the length of Cleopatra’s nose, which altered the destinies of Mark Antony and the Roman Empire, in the grain of sand in Cromwell’s kidney that put an end to his military dictatorship. And long before Heidegger and Sartre introduced their jawbreaking names for all the categories that define human contingency, Pascal had seen that to be born is itself for the individual the prime contingency, since it means to be born at this time, this place, of these parents and this country—all of these brutally given facts on which his life has to seek to found itself.
Nothingness, for Pascal, opens as it were both downward and upward. He lived in the age of the microscope and the telescope, when the tight, tidy, finite cosmos of Aristotle and the medieval thinkers was being expanded in both directions, toward the infinitesimally minute and the infinitely great. We go downward, cleaving matter and space, and finding the unbelievable and minute organizations of life at lower and lower levels; and always there are things beyond these that exceed our comprehension because of their minuteness. Or we go outward into space and find the universe dwarfing us by its vastness. Man thus occupies a middle position in the universe, as Pascal saw, between the infinitesimal and the infinite: he is an All in relation to Nothingness, a Nothingness in relation to the All. This middle position of man is the final and dominant fact of the human condition with which Pascal leaves us, and it suggests perfectly what we can expect of the range and powers of man’s reason. It is also a perfect image of the finitude of human existence, invaded as it were on both sides by the Nothing. Man is his finitude. And if we add a consideration of the infinite duration of time to this predominately spatial and material image, we get Pascal’s ultimate judgment on the nature of human existence—When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished being here rather than there, why now rather than then.
Reading this, we are no longer in the world of a Tertullian or a Saint Augustine, in the violent fervor of an expanding and conquering Christianity; nor in the Romanesque world of a Peter Damiani or Saint Bernard when the most naive and beautiful works of Christian art were being created; nor in the world in which Duns Scotus debated the positions taken by Saint Thomas and in which Christian faith was so strong that it could make a miraculous marriage with the philosophy of Aristotle. No; it is our world, the modem world, that Pascal depicts,. and reading him we enter that world as our home just because we are as homeless there as he was.
Pascal died in 1662. There followed a century of such blinding light, the century of the Enlightenment, that his example seemed not to be needed and so was forgotten. The light of the Enlightenment became thus its own darkness. The accomplishments of this extraordinary era cannot be undervalued. In that century the conquests in mathematics and physics were extended; the universe of Newton became a consolidated conquest and, due to the marvelous fertility and ingenuity of mathematical analysis, seemed to afford answers to all the problems of nature. The great victories won by reason in mathematics and physics suggested inevitably its extension into all other fields of human experience in order to dispel the shadows of ancient superstition: into law, custom, government, and history. The idea of Progress was announced not only as fact, but as a law of history. The perfectibility of human nature was to be realized through the universal application of reason. The philosopher Condillac outlined a scheme of universal history, whose guiding thread was the progress of man from darkness to light—a progress that had gone steadily forward in the past and would continue so indefinitely. Philosophers became critics, attacking the medieval barbarisms of the society around them. The century found its symbol and summation in that curious episode at the height of the French Revolution when the goddess of Reason, in the person of a well-known actress, was enthroned in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Our Lady of Reason in the temple of the Queen of Heaven—an ironical switch that might have suggested to anyone faintly familiar with the personality and history of goddesses that extremely stormy weather lay ahead, and not only for France but for European civilization as a whole.
But there were also some unhappy souls in the universe of Newton and of the goddess of Reason, and to these we must now lend an ear. The first voices to be heard are, as we might expect, those of the poets. Poets are witnesses to Being before the philosophers are able to bring it into thought. And what these particular poets were struggling to reveal, in this case, were the very conditions of Being that are ours historically today. They were sounding, in poetic terms, the premonitory chords of our own era.
Die young stay pretty.
We are approaching the time of a major paradigm shift.
While nineteenth-century psychology was busy at work analyzing the conscious mind, psychoanalysis was engaged in explorations of the unconscious mind. Freud felt that consciousness was only a thin slice of the total mind, that like an iceberg, the larger part of it existed below the surface of awareness. Psychologists answered Freud by saying that the notion of an unconscious mind was a contradiction in terms; the mind, by definition, was conscious. The controversy never reached a final conclusion because both psychology and psychoanalysis changed their objective during the twentieth century. Psychology became the science of behavior and psychoanalysis became the science of personality.
Chapter 11—The Place of the Furies
This book began with a look at the present situation of man and of philosophy; then outlined the historical background against which this situation must be understood; and moved on to a view of four philosophers who have given explicit formulation to the issues implicit in that history. Now, at the end, we come back to our beginning—to the situation of the world here and now, from which all understanding must start and to which it must return. In all existential thinking it is we ourselves, the questioners, who are ultimately in question.
The four philosophers whom we have considered Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre—do not in any way represent all the facets of Existentialism; there may even be, among the Existentialists whom we have not treated at length, figures that would prove more humanly appealing to the individual reader. These four, however, seem to me to be, intellectually speaking, the most considerable figures that the movement has yet brought forward. In any case they pose, for me, the chief questions that stand at issue for philosophy, and indeed for man himself, at this point in Western history. The fact that certain of these thinkers—Heidegger in particular—have disclaimed the label of Existentialist should not deter us from recognizing in them a well-defined movement. We may remember that Kant once protested against the term “idealist” as applied to himself—and with good reason; but history in its rough-and-ready need for groupings overrode his protest, and as an idealist he now stands classified in all the textbooks and with equally good reason. Perhaps the ungentle hand of history is guided by a keener sense of reality than is possessed by philosophers themselves, as they squabble over the niceties of how they are to be labeled. History senses beneath and beyond all the differences and squabbles—the unity of source, of influence, and of milieu; just as the reader of this book will sense, I hope, by this time that there are certain clearly defined themes and even some definite and agreed-upon theses common to all the figures we have called Existentialists, and to something that can be called existential philosophy.
The four figures we have considered are, in any case, sufficient for our purposes here, where the aim has been not to provide a surveyor compendium of Existentialism but rather to deal with the more central question: What is the meaning of Existentialism? Here we are using “meaning” not in its external sense, as a body of more or less organized information on what these philosophers are talking about, but in a more internal sense: What, we have asked, is really happening in our own historical existence that it should come to expression in this way and in these philosophers? Or—in terms that echo Heidegger—what is happening within the Being of the West? This has been our single theme and subject throughout; and it brings us back now to the point from which we started, the present situation.
The Crystal Palace Unmanned
It may seem strange, particularly to American readers, that rationalism has been made so much of a target throughout this book. As a teacher of philosophy, a very dubious profession in this country, I am in a position to observe how precarious a hold the intellect has upon American life; and this is not true merely of the great majority of students but of cultured people, of intellectuals, to whom here in America a philosophical idea is an alien and embarrassing thing. In their actual life Americans are not only a non-intellectual but an anti-intellectual people. The charm of the American as a new human type, his rough-and-ready pragmatism, his spontaneity and openness to experience are true of him only because he is unreflective by nature. The two greatest American writers of the present day—Hemingway and Faulkner—are superior artists because of their power over physical fact, not because of their grasp of ideas or of the subtleties of psychology. What point, then, do the various animadversions upon rationalism—as put forth by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger—have for Americans today? Americans are not likely at this point to swallow a classical Platonism—to become the dedicated priests of godlike reason as philosophers in the tradition of Plato became.
The fact is that a good dose of intellectualism—genuine intellectualism—would be a very helpful thing in American life. But the essence of the existential protest is that rationalism can pervade a whole civilization, to the point where the individuals in that civilization do less and less thinking, and perhaps wind up doing none at all. It can bring this about by dictating the fundamental ways and routines by which life itself moves. Technology is one material incarnation of rationalism, since it derives from science; bureaucracy is another, since it aims at the rational control and ordering of social life; and the two—technology and bureaucracy—have come more and more to rule our lives.
But it is not so much rationalism as abstractness that is the existentialists’ target; and the abstractness of life in this technological and bureaucratic age is now indeed something to reckon with. The last gigantic step forward in the spread of technologism has been the development of mass art and mass media of communication: the machine no longer fabricates only material products; it also makes minds. Millions of people live by the stereotypes of mass art, the most virulent form of abstractness, and their capacity for any kind of human reality is fast disappearing. If here and there in the lonely crowd (discovered by Kierkegaard long before David Riesman) a face is lit by a human gleam, it quickly goes vacant again in the hypnotized stare at the TV screen. When an eclipse of the moon was televised some years ago, E.B. White wrote in The New Yorker that he felt some drastic turning point in history had arrived: people could have seen the real thing by looking out of their windows, but instead they preferred looking at the reflection of it on the screen. Kierkegaard condemned the abstractness of his time, calling it an Age of Reflection, but what he seems chiefly to have had in mind was the abstractness of the professorial intellectual, seeing not real life but the reflection of it in his own mind. We, however, have fabricated for our time a new kind of abstractness, on a mass scale; through our extraordinary mastery of technique we provide a ready-made reflection in place of the real, and not for university dons but for the millions. Our journey into untruth has gone farther than Kierkegaard could have imagined.
To be rational is not the same as to be reasonable. In my time I have heard the most hair-raising and crazy things from very rational men, advanced in a perfectly rational way; no insight or feelings had been used to check the reasoning at any point. Nowadays, we accept in our public and political life the most humanly unreasonable behavior, provided it wears a rational mask and speaks in officialese, which is the rhetoric of rationality itself. Witness the recent announcement that science had been able to perfect a “clean” hydrogen bomb—to be sure, not perfectly” clean” yet, but “95 per cent clean” or even “96 per cent clean.” Of course the quantitative measurement makes the matter sound so scientific and rational that people no longer bother to ask themselves the human meaning of the whole thing. No doubt, they tell themselves, there must be a perfectly rational chain of arguments which, starting from the premise that there must be hydrogen bombs, leads to the conclusion that there must be “clean” hydrogen bombs otherwise war itself would become impossible! The incident makes us suspect that, despite the increase in the rational ordering of life in modem times, men have not become the least bit more reasonable in the human sense of the word. A perfect rationality might not even be incompatible with psychosis; it might, in fact, even lead to the latter.
It may be objected that the fear of what may happen to mankind in our time—the specific fear, today, of atomic extermination—is a recurrent thing; man has such fears in every age, and yet has managed to survive all his presentiments of disaster. Karl Jaspers cites the complaint of an Egyptian of four thousand years ago that things are going to rack and ruin in his time: “Robbers abound. . . . No one ploughs the land. People are saying: We do not know what will happen from day to day.” And Ortega y Gasset quotes the lament of the Latin poet Horace, uttered when the Roman Empire was at its very height. “We [Horace and his contemporaries] are the degenerate descendants of fathers who in their turn were degenerate from their forebears.” The harking back to an earlier and better state of mankind, to some golden age of the past, is indeed a perpetual tendency of human nature. The present situation must always, when we come to see it fully, appear threatening: it is a situation, we think, that has to be transformed or redeemed. Today is always and for all men the digging of one’s way out of the ruins of yesterday. However, it is not a question of rating our own age lower—or higher—than the past; as we have indicated throughout this book, ours is an age of unparalleled achievements and power, and in a variety of fields. The question, rather, is one of assessing the present in all its uniqueness. If, as the Existentialists hold, an authentic life is not handed to us on a platter but involves our own act of self-determination (self-finitization) within our time and place, then we have got to know and face up to that time, both in its threats and its promises. It will not do to say that every age has been like this, that man has always felt threatened and yet managed to survive. The point is precisely that every age is different: each time has been unique, both in what it promised and what it threatened; and sometimes the catastrophe has occurred. It is the very uniqueness of the present in which we live that affords man his unprecedented power—including ultimately the power to blow himself and his planet to bits. But the law of opposites, the oldest tragic wisdom of the race, suggests that at the very height of his power man is bound to experience, as Oedipus did, his absolute impotence. There are a good many straws in the wind today that point in that direction, including the testimony of modem art, as we have seen. I for one am personally convinced that man will not take his next great step forward until he has drained to the lees the bitter cup of his own powerlessness. The trouble is, however, that this chastening experience may come only with the destruction of his world—a calamity in which the tragic hero also destroys himself. That is why all the politics—as usual of today seems so terribly antiquated; it lags so sadly behind the actual situation of man—and behind even our present knowledge of man.
The two chief contestants in the present international situation are both rooted in the Enlightenment, so far at any rate as their respective civilizations reflect any general conception of man. The uniqueness of the United States is that it is a nation that was founded at a certain time in history in the full light of historical consciousness; it did not grow out of the soil of its own prehistory. Moreover, it was founded in the eighteenth century in the very heyday of the Enlightenment, and by men who participated in the clear rationality of that period. The soil of America appeared to the American as an alien wilderness to be conquered, something inimical, set over against himself, not as something out of which he himself and his institutions had, so to speak, grown. Lacking the roots the European has, in prehistory and the chthonic unconscious, the American shows an admirable freedom and flexibility in consciousness, particularly of a practical kind. But with this goes also that celebrated American “innocence”—a quality which in philosophical terms is simply an ignorance of how questionable a being man really is and which strikes the European as alien and possibly even somewhat disingenuous. Hence, the ineptness of the American in handling the human side of foreign politics, and his inability to understand why his European allies should look at him askance and question his generosity and good will. Sartre recounts a conversation he had with an American while visiting in this country. The American insisted that all international problems could be solved if men would just get together and be rational; Sartre disagreed and after a while discussion between them became impossible. “I believe in the existence of evil,” says Sartre, “and he does not.” What the American has not yet become aware of is the shadow that surrounds all human Enlightenment.
The philosophy of the other contestant—to look on its best and most “idealistic” side, a side that still enlists the enthusiasm of millions of men—is Marxist humanism. This humanism harks back to the justly celebrated statement of Marx: “To be radical is to go to the root of the question. Now the root of mankind is man.” Marx here speaks as a member of the generation of Feuerbach and the young Hegelians, those who turned against Hegel and his Idea of the State and toward the concrete man, the historical creature of flesh and blood. This actual and historical man, they said, is to be the root of mankind, the root of society and the state. But there is a further question that this leaves unasked: In what is the individual man to be rooted? The thoroughly problematic nature of man, this highly questionable and self-questioning animal, is conveniently and fatefully dropped out of sight. Marx turned his attention to the social problem, assuming that the only thing in the way of man’s coming into his full humanity was the capitalist system. In this he was simply echoing the Enlightenment’s optimistic assumption that, since man is a rational animal, the only obstacles to his fulfillment must be objective and social ones. Communism, following Marx, has thus always exhibited a strange ambivalence: the most naively optimistic view of human nature in theory, and in practice the most brutal and cynical attitude toward human beings.
Marxism is the ideology of Communism; but in fact and in its actual historical unfolding, the real philosopher of Communism, or what Communism has become, is Nietzsche, as we have seen. The question of power has become paramount; it usurps everything else, as is shown in the recent remarkable book by Milovan Djilas, The New Class. The collective effort to master nature, to have power over things, requires that men have power over other men; and the movement ends by thinking of the men underneath merely as things, for its thinking has long since discarded all the categories that recognize the humanity of the person and his subjectivity. The historical turning point in this case was Lenin, the practical genius and the Saint Paul of the Communist movement. Before returning from exile in 1917, Lenin had written a little pamphlet, State and Revolution, in which he dealt with human nature in terms of the most naive and utopian rationalism; but as soon as he was back in Russia and engaged in actual politics there was one, and only one, question before his mind as an active politician: power. Marxist manuals of philosophy refer to all philosophies that deal with the human subject as forms of “irrationalism.” Their rationalism, of course, consists in technical intelligence, in the power over things (and over men considered simply as things); and this exalting of the technical intelligence over every other human attribute becomes demoniacal in action, as recent history has shown.
Behind the problem of politics, in the present age, lies the problem of man, and this is what makes all thinking about contemporary problems so thorny and difficult. The intellectual collapse that occurred in this country after the decade of the 1930’S, when our intellectuals had been able to submerge themselves totally in a program of political action, shows that philosophy can no longer be considered a mere appendage to politics. On the contrary, anyone who wishes to meddle in politics today had better come to some prior conclusions as to what man is and what, in the end, human life is all about. I say “in the end” deliberately because the neglect of first and of last things does not—as so-called “practical” people hope—go unpunished, but has a disastrous way of coming in the back door and upsetting everything. The speeches of our politicians show no recognition of this; and yet in the hands of these men, on both sides of the Atlantic, lies the catastrophic power of atomic energy.
Existentialism is the counter—Enlightenment come at last to philosophic expression; and it demonstrates beyond anything else that the ideology of the Enlightenment is thin, abstract, and therefore dangerous. (I say its “ideology,” for the practical task of the Enlightenment is still with us: In everyday life we must continue to be critics of a social order that is still based everywhere on oppression, injustice, and even savagery—such being the peculiar tension of mind that we as responsible human beings have to maintain today.) The finitude of man, as established by Heidegger, is perhaps the death blow to the ideology of the Enlightenment, for to recognize this finitude is to acknowledge that man will always exist in untruth as well as truth. Utopians who still look forward to a future when all shadows will be dispersed and mankind will dwell in a resplendent Crystal Palace will find this recognition disheartening. But on second thought, it may not be such a bad thing to free ourselves once and for all from the worship of the idol of progress; for utopianism -whether the brand of Marx or of Nietzsche-by locating the meaning of man in the future leaves human beings here and now, as well as all mankind up to this point, without their own meaning. If man is to be given meaning the Existentialists have shown us, it must be here and now; and to think this insight through is to recast the whole tradition of Western thought. The realization that all human truth must not only shine against an enveloping darkness, but that such truth is even shot through with its own darkness may be depressing, and not only to utopians. But it has the virtue of restoring to man his sense of the primal mystery surrounding all things, a sense of mystery from which the glittering world of his technology estranges him, but without which he is not truly human.
In comparison with traditional philosophy, or with other contemporary schools of philosophy, Existentialism, as we have seen, seeks to bring the whole man-the concrete individual in the whole context of his everyday life, and in his total mystery and questionableness-into philosophy. This is attempted with varying degrees of success by the different Existentialists; but the attempt itself, even if it did not succeed at all, would be necessary and valuable for our time. In modem philosophy particularly (philosophy since Descartes), man has figured almost exclusively as an epistemological subject-as an intellect that registers sense-data, makes propositions, reasons, and seeks the certainty of intellectual knowledge, but not as the man underneath all this, who is born, suffers, and dies. Naturally, the attempt to see the whole or integral man, in place of the rational or epistemological fragment of him, involves our taking a look at some unpleasant things. Nowadays there is much glib—talk, particularly in this country, about “the whole man,” or “the well-rounded individual,” the terms evoking, in this context, only the pleasant prospect of graciously enlarging the Self by taking extension courses, developing constructive hobbies, or taking an active part in social movements. But the whole man is not whole without such unpleasant things as death, anxiety, guilt, fear and trembling, and despair, even though journalists and the populace have shown what they think of these things by labeling any philosophy that looks at such aspects of human life as “gloomy” or “merely a mood of despair.” We are still so rooted in the Enlightenment—or uprooted in it—that these unpleasant aspects of life are like the Furies for us: hostile forces from which we would escape. And of course the easiest way to escape the Furies, we think, is to deny that they exist. It seems to me no accident at all that modem depth psychology has come into prominence in the same period as Existentialism and for the same reason: namely, that certain unpleasant things the Enlightenment had dropped into the limbo of the unconscious have begun to backfire and have forced themselves finally upon the attention of modem man.
This is not the first time man has been faced with the problem of placating the Furies. At the very dawn of Western history the Greeks went through a similar experience, the record of which has been left us in the great Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus; a record in which we can also read a prophecy of our own conflict (with differences) as well as the only reasonable proposal for its solution (with differences).
Clytemnestra, in the tragedy, has killed her husband Agamemnon; and Orestes, their son, is directed by Apollo, an extremely promasculine deity, to avenge his father’s murder. Orestes kills his mother and is immediately set upon by the Furies, the old goddesses of night and earth who were responsible for the protection of the lines of blood and who therefore must punish the son who murders his mother, as the perpetrator of the most horrible crime man can imagine. Up to a point the drama revolves around human beings, with the gods of course always in the background; but when we come to the last play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, in which Orestes meets his final ordeal, the gods themselves take the center of the stage, and Orestes, the human bearer of the conflict, is dwarfed in their shadow. The conflict is now between Apollo, the new god—and the god of the Enlightenment—on the one hand and the Furies, the old matriarchal goddesses of the family and the soil, on the other. Apollo is protecting Orestes, and the Furies seek his destruction. There ensues a trial between the rival deities on the hill of the Acropolis at Athens; the verdict of the jury, comprised of citizens, will set Orestes free or hand him over irremediably to the Furies.
The modem reader who skims the play too hastily may get the impression that this trial is a rather prosaic piece of legalism, hardly worthy of the sublime drama that has preceded it; but for the Greek this trial was as intense and dramatic as the more sensational scene in which Orestes murders his mother—was, in fact, the nub of the whole matter. Aeschylus’ tragedy records the moment in Greek history at which the old matriarchal deities were superseded by the new patriarchal gods of Olympus; but the average Greek citizen still remembered the older deities and he was still a little bit uneasy forced to choose between old and new. Thus at the very beginning of the Eumenides we are told by the Pythian priestess that the first prophetess or seer among the gods was old Mother Earth herself; it was only very lately that Apollo had come to occupy the temples of the oracles throughout Greece. This development from the old matriarchal to the new patriarchal deities parallels the development of Greek consciousness itself, as it advanced in civilization and enlightenment. The question of the play, thus interpreted, becomes: What kind of tribute will this advanced consciousness have to pay to the old earth-bound unconscious?
The vote of the citizen jurors is a tie; and Orestes (as was the Greek rule) is allowed to go free. The tying vote has been cast by Athena herself, an ambiguous female deity, in spirit halfway between man and woman. The Furies wail disconsolately and threaten all kinds of destruction on the land. They are placated, however, by being told that they shall not be entirely displaced by this new upstart of enlightenment, Apollo; they are to be given a revered place, a sanctuary, and every child born of woman shall be born into their protection. The goddess Athena, who was born out of the brain of Zeus, in allotting this final justice to the Furies, acknowledges that they are older and wiser than she.
It would be a mistake to take this as merely a cool barter, a quid pro quo. Greek religion was in deadly earnest here, and perhaps it was never wiser. The Furies are really to be revered and not simply bought off; in fact, they cannot be bought off (not even by our modem tranquilizers and sleeping pills) but are to be placated only through being given their just and due respect. They are the darker side of life, but in their own way as holy as the rest. Indeed, without them there would be no experience of the holy at all. Without the shudder of fear or the trembling of dread man would never be brought to stand face to face with himself or his life; he would only drift aimlessly off into the insubstantial realm of Laputa.
Aeschylus’ tragedy speaks to us in an archaic language, but it does speak, and directly. We are the children of an enlightenment, one which we would like to preserve; but we can do so only by making a pact with the old goddesses. The centuries—long evolution of human reason is one of man’s greatest triumphs, but it is still in process, still incomplete, still to be. Contrary to the rationalist tradition, we now know that it is not his reason that makes man man, but rather that reason is a consequence of that which really makes him man. For it is man’s existence as a self-transcending self that has forged and formed reason as one of its projects. As such, man’s reason is specifically human (but no more and no less than his art and his religion) and to be revered. All the values that have been produced in the course of the long evolution of reason—everything that goes under the heading of liberalism, intelligence, a decent and reasonable view of life—we wish desperately to preserve and enlarge, in the turmoil of modem life. But do we need to be persuaded now, after all that has happened in this twentieth century, how precariously situated these reasonable ideals are in relation to the subterranean forces of life, and how small a segment of the whole and concrete man they actually represent? We have to establish a working pact between that segment and the whole of us; but a pact requires compromise, in which both sides concede something, and in this case particularly the rationalism of the Enlightenment will have to recognize that at the very heart of its light there is also a darkness.
It would be the final error of reason—the point at which it succumbs to its own hubris and passes over into its demoniacal opposite, unreason—to deny that the Furies exist, or to strive to manipulate them out of existence. Nothing can be accomplished by denying that man is an essentially troubled being, except to make more trouble. We may, of course, be able to buy off the Furies for a while; being of the earth and ancient, they have been around much longer than the rational consciousness that would entirely supplant them, and so they can afford to wait. And when they strike, more likely than not it will be through the offending faculty itself. It is notorious that brilliant people are often the most dense about their own human blind spot, precisely because their intelligence, so clever in other things, conceals it from them; multiply this situation a thousand-fold, and you have a brilliant scientific and technological civilization that could run amuck out of its own sheer uprooted cleverness. The solution proposed by Greek tragic wisdom through the drama of Aeschylus may not, then, be as frightening as we imagine: in giving the Furies their place, We may come to recognize that they are not such alien presences as we think in our moments of evading them. In fact, far from being alien, they are part of ourselves, like all gods and demons. The conspiracy to forget them, or to deny that they exist, thus turns out to be only one more contrivance in that vast and organized effort by modem society to flee from the self.