Philosophymagazine

Philosophy and Science for the Third Millennium


Existentialism From Dostoyevsky to Sartre

A Book by Walter Kaufmann


Philosophymagazine

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


 

Restricting a body of knowledge to a small group deadens the philosophical spirit of a people and leads to spiritual poverty.

—Albert Einstein

 

The functional harmony of nature Berkeley, Descartes, Spinoza and Einstein attributed to God.

—Lincoln Barnett

 

The human eye suppresses most of the light in the world and what man perceives of the reality around him is distorted and enfeebled by the limitations of his organ of vision.

—Lincoln Barnett

 

If one makes a false or superficial beginning, no matter how rigorous the methods that follow, the initial error will never be corrected.

—FS Northrop

 

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

—Martin Luther Jr King

 

Foreword

Existentialism is essentially a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Most of the living “existentialists” have repudiated this label, and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing they have in common is a marked aversion for each other. To add to the confusion, many writers of the past have frequently been hailed as members of this movement, and it is extremely doubtful whether they would have appreciated the company to which they are consigned.

Existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists—Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre—are not in agreement on essentials. Such alleged precursors as Pascal and Kierkegaard differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians; and Pascal was a Catholic of sorts, while Kierkegaard was a Protestant’s Protestant. If, as is often done, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold, we must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, Ortega, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism. The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life lies at the very heart of existentialism.

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life is the heart of existentialism. It is a timeless sensibility that can be discerned here and there in the past—but it is only in recent times that it has hardened into a sustained protest and preoccupation.

It may be best to begin with the story of existentialism before attempting further generalizations. An effort to tell this story with a positivist’s penchant for particulars and a relentless effort to suppress one’s individuality would only show that existentialism is completely incongenial to the writer. This is not meant to be a defense of arbitrariness. A personal perspective may suggest one way of ordering diffuse materials, and be fruitful, if only by way of leading others to considered dissent.


Forward

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


 

Sweet and bitter, cold and warm as well as all the colors, all these things exist but in opinion and not in realitywhat really exists are unchangeable particles, atoms, and their motions in empty space.

—Democritus

 

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

  

When any creativity becomes useful, it is sucked into the vortex of commercialism, and when a thing becomes commercial, it becomes the enemy of man. 

—Arthur Miller

 

Ideas have to be wedded to action—if there is no sex, no vitality in them, there is no action.  Ideas cannot exist alone in the vacuum of the mind.  Ideas are related to living. 

—Henry Miller

 

Dostoyevsky

In some of the earliest philosophers, such as Pythagoras and Heraclitus and Empedocles, we sense a striking unity of life and thou ht; and after the generation of the Sophists, Socrates is said to have brought philosophy down to earth again. In the Socratic schools and in Stoicism a lift later, philosophy is above all a way life. Throughout the history of philosophy other, more or less similar, examples come to mind, most notably Spinoza. It is easy, and it was long fashionable, to overestimate the beautiful serenity of men like these, and it is well to recall the vitriolic barbs of Heraclitus, the inimitable sarcasm of Socrates, and the passions of Spinoza. Even so, it is an altogether new voice that we hear in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

The pitch is new, the strained protest, the self-preoccupation. To note a lack of serenity would be ridiculous: poise does not even remain as a norm, not even as an element of contrast; it gives way to poses, masks-the drama of the mind that is sufficient to itself, yet conscious of its every weakness and determined to exploit it. What we perceive is an unheard-of song of songs on individuality: not classical, not Biblical, and not at all romantic. No, individuality is not retouched, idealized, or holy; it is wretched and revolting, and yet, for all its misery, the highest good.

The bias against science may remind us of romanticism; but the Notes from Underground are deeply unromantic. Nothing could be further from that softening of the control which distinguished all romantics from the first attack on classicism to Novalis, Keats, and Wordsworth. Romanticism is flight from the present, whether into the past, the future, or another world, dreams, or, most often, a vague fog. It is self-deception. Romanticism years for deliverance from the cross of the Here and Now: it is willing to face anything but the facts.

The atmosphere of Dostoevsky’s Notes is not one of soft voices and dim lights: the voice could not be shriller, the light not more glaring. No prize, however great, can justify an ounce of self-deception or a small departure from the ugly facts. And yet this is not literary naturalism with infatuation with material circumstances: it is man’s inner life, his moods, anxieties, and his decisions, that are moved into the center until, as it were, no scenery at all remains. This book, published in 1864 is one of the most revolutionary and original works of world literature.

If we look for anything remotely similar in the long past of European literature, we do not find it in philosophy but, most nearly, in such Christian writers as Augustine and Pascal. Surely, the differences are far more striking even here than any similarity; but it is in Christianity, against the background of relief in original sin, that we first find this wallowing in man’s depravity and this uncompromising concentration on the dark side of man’s inner life.

In Rousseau’s Confessions, too, his Calvinistic background has to be recalled; but he turned against it and denied original sin, affirmed the natural goodness of man, and blamed his depravity on society. Then he proceeded to explain how an depravity could be abolished in the good society, ruled by the general will.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground no good society can rid man of depravity: the book is among other things an inspired polemic against Rousseau and the whole tradition of social philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through Hobbes and Locke to Bentham, Hegel, and John Stuart Mill. The man whom Dostoevsky has created in this book holds out for what traditional Christianity bas called depravity; but he be1ieves neither in original sin nor in God. and for him man’s self-will is not depravity: it is only perverse from the point of view of rationalists and others who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality.

Dostoevsky himself was a Christian, to be sure, and for that matter also a rabid anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and anti-Western Russian nationalist. We have no right whatsoever to attribute to him the opinions of all of his most interesting characters. Unfortunately, most readers fail to distinguish between Dostoevsky’s views and those of the Grand Inquisitor in Ivan’s story in The Brothers Karamazov, though it is patent that this figure was inspired by the author’s hatred of the Church of Rome; and many critics take for Dostoevsky’s reasoned judgments the strange views of Kirilov though he Is mad. As a human being, Dostoevsky was as fascinating as any of his characters; but we must not ascribe to him, who after all believed in God, the outlook and ideas of his underground man.

I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written. With inimitable vigor and finesse the major themes are stated here that we can recognize when reading all the other so-called existentialists from Kierkegaard to Camus.


Forward

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


 

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.

—Lincoln Barnett

 

I am sure that you are all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation if the facts were suddenly made public without adequate presentation and conditioning.

2001—A Space Odyssey

  

Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.

—Henry Adams

 

 

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard was dead nine years when Notes from Underground was published first in 1864. He had not known of Dostoevsky nor did Dostoevsky know of him. Nietzsche, on the other hand, read Notes from Underground in 1887 and was impressed as rarely in his life; and a year and a half later, toward the end of his career, he heard of Kierkegaard, too late to secure any of his books. Henceforth, the sequence of our major characters is clear. It is only at the beginning, faced with Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, that we do better to reverse the strict chronology and start with Dostoevsky.

Kierkegaard confronts us as an individual while Dostoevsky offers us a world. Both are infinitely disturbing, but there is an overwhelming vastness about Dostoevsky and strident narrowness about Kierkegaard. If one comes from Kierkegaard and plunges into Dostoevsky, one is lost like a man brought up in a small room who is suddenly placed in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. Or you might even think that Dostoevsky had set out to deliberately make fun of Kierkegaard. Those, on the other hand, who listen to the Notes from Underground as to an overture, are well prepared when the curtain rises to hear Kierkegaard’s account of how he first became a writer. Even his Point of View for My Work as an Author won’t be altogether unfamiliar. It is as if Kierkegaard had stepped right out of Dostoevsky’s pen.

The underground man pictures the ease of the “crystal palace” as a distant possibility and tells us that some individual would certainty rebel and try to wreck this utterly insufferable comfort. And Kierkegaard, not exiled to Siberia, as Dostoevsky was as a young man, but well-to-do in the clean, wholesome atmosphere of Copenhagen, sees how easy life is being made and resolves, “to create difficulties everywhere.”

If it is the besetting fault of Dostoevsky criticism that the views and arguments of some of his characters are ascribed, without justification, to the author, the characteristic flaw of the growing literature on Kierkegaard is that the author is forgotten altogether and his works are read impersonally as one might read those of Hegel. Nothing could be less in keeping with the author’s own intentions. Hence it is well to begin a study of Kierkegaard with The Point of View for My Work as an Author.

How strange Kierkegaard is when he speaks of himself, and how similar to Dostoevsky’s underground man—in content, style and sensibility! There is something novel about both which may be brought out by a brief contrast with Heinrich Heine. Heine’s self-consciousness is almost proverbial and at one time embarrassed romantic readers; but the strain in Heine is due largely to the tension between reverie and reason. Kierkegaard’s self-consciousness, like the underground man’s, is far more embarrassing because it comes from his humiliating concern with the reactions and the judgments of the very public which he constantly professes to despise. That he was physically misshapen might have remained without effect on his style and thought; but, like the underground man, he was inwardly out of joint—so much so that Heine seems quite healthy by comparison. How fluent is Heine’s prose, and how contorted Kierkegaard’s! Their love of irony and even vitriol they shared; but Heine’s world is relatively neat and clean-cut: even his melancholy seems pleasant compared to Kierkegaard’s. They were contemporaries who died within a year, and yet Heine seems almost classical today, and Kierkegaard painfully modern.

Both concerned themselves with Hegel: Heine even knew him personally, while Kierkegaard, a little younger, heard only the diatribes of the old Schelling after Hegel’s death. Heine came to part with Hegel because the philosopher was not liberal enough for him and too authoritarian. For Kierkegaard, Hegel was too rational and liberal. Heine cannot fairly be called a romantic because he steadfastly refused to give up the ideals of the Enlightenment and because he would not curb his piercing critical intelligence to spare a feeling. Kierkegaard escapes classification as a romantic because he, too, rejects the dim twilight of sentiment as well as any lovely synthesis of intellect and feeling, to insist on the absurdity of the beliefs which he accepts.

Dostoevsky is surely one of, the giants of world literature; Kierkegaard, one of its great oddities: an occasionally brilliant but exasperating stylist, a frequently befuddled thinker, yet a writer who intrigues and fascinates by virtue of his individually. His own suggestion for his epitaph is unsurpassable: “That Individual.”

Kierkegaard not only was an individual but tried to introduce the individual into our thinking as a category. In the vast thicket of his unpruned prose it is not easy to discover his importance for philosophy. He was an aggressive thinker, and the main targets of his attacks are

Hegel, of whom he lacked any thorough first-hand knowledge, and Christianity as it existed for approximately eighteen centuries, which seems at first glance to have no immediate bearing on philosophy. In fact, Kierkegaard was in revolt against the wisdom of the Greeks: it was the Greek heritage that he attacked both in philosophy and in Christianity.

Owing to the vast prestige of Greek philosophy, which in turn was influenced by a profound respect for mathematics, Western thought has made its calculations, as it were, without the individual. Where something of the sort is recognized at all today, it is customary to blame secularism and to preach a return either to the Middle Ages, as if the individual had been central then, or to Plato’s belief in the eternal verities or values. Kierkegaard, however, was anti-Platonist no less than an anti-Hegelian, and an anti-Thomist no less than an anti-Copernican. He sweeps away the whole conception of a cosmos as a mere were distraction. “And it came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only one, Isaac, whom thou lovest.” This is for Kierkegaard man’s situation, la condition humaine, man’s fate. The world has no part in it; it is no help. Here is man, and “one thing is needful:” a decision.

Kierkegaard rejects belief in the eternal verities, as well u Plato’s trust in reason as a kind of second sight. Ethics is for him not a matter of seeing the good but of making a decision. The crucial difference between an informed and uninformed, a reasoned and unreasoned, a responsible and irresponsible decision, escapes Kierkegaard. Yet he is unquestionably right that reason cannot absolve us from the need for decisions, and he see. that Greeks and Christians and modem philosophy have tried to important fact. They have tried to escape the need for choices whether they sought refuge in attempts to contemplate what is eternal or in analysis of moral terms, whether they tried to prove their Weltanschauungen or tried to prove the superiority of Christianity or, perhaps, God’s existence. Kierkegaard attacks the proud tradition of theology, ethics, and metaphysical as a kind of whistling in the dark, as self-deception, as an unrelenting effort to conceal crucial decisions that we have made and must make behind a web of wholly secondary and at times invalid, demonstrations.

At least by implication, Kierkegaard contests the dualistic legacy of Plato and the popular conception of the soul or self as substance, comparable to the body. The self is essentially intangible and must be understood in terms of possibilities dread, and decisions. When I behold my possibilities, experience that dread, which is “the dizziness of freedom,” and my choice is made in fear and trembling.

These are motifs that remain central in all so-called existentialism: we recognize them in the non-denominational religiousness of Jaspers and in Sartre’s atheism as well as in the mutually opposed theologies of Barth and Bultmann. Herein lies Kierkegaard’s importance for a vat segment of modem thought: he attacks received conceptions of Christianity, suggest a radical revision of the popular idea of the self, and focuses attention on decision.

He is a man in revolt, and even if one quite agrees that a revolt was called for, one may yet regret that, he went much too far, and that his followers have not seen fit to redress his excesses. Instead of offering a circumspect critique of reason indicating what it can and cannot do, he tried a grand assault. Instead of questioning to what extent mathematics or the other sciences are valid models for philosophy, or ethics in particular, he had recourse to patently invalid arguments. Instead of asking whether Descartes’ fine ideal that our reasoning should be clear and distinct, reinforced since by the tremendous progress of the sciences, might not eventually lead philosophers to concentrate on logic and trivialities to the neglect of large and certainly important areas, Kierkegaard rashly renounced clear and distinct thinking altogether.

Kierkegaard’s central error is epitomized by his two epigrams: “The conclusions of passions are the only reliable ones” and “What our age lacks is no reflection but passion,” This was not true in the 19th century, much less is it true today. Even those who share his violent distaste for desiccated writing should not find it difficult to see that his diagnosis is mistaken and that his prescription would be fatal. Reason alone, to be sure, cannot solve some of life’s most central problems. Does it follow that passion can, or that reason ought to be abandoned altogether?

At this point Kierkegaard fans back into Plato’s dichotomy of reason and belief, of mathematics and mere myth, as if, where mathematic certainty is unattainable, we must be satisfied with stories which cannot be questioned. (Plato’s myths, of course, are beautiful—but never scrutinized or simply countered with a rival story which might make a different point with equal grace.) This spurious alternative—that where reason cannot offer certain knowledge it is altogether impotent-was made more fateful yet by its revaluation in Christianity. Plato had maintained on the whole that in the things that matter most reason is competent, while in Christianity the position gained adherents that those questions which our reason can decide are eo ipso not of ultimate importance while the most crucial statements must be above rational scrutiny. St. Thomas was one of those who opposed this position, but rational scrutiny was allowed by him—insofar as it was allowed at all—only against the background of the stake for heretics which he specifically affirmed. Kierkegaard, of course, was far closer to Luther: anti-philosophical and individualistic. A little more subtly, to be sure he echoes Luther’s famous dicta: “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason” and “You must part with reason and not know anything of it and even kill it; else one will not get into the kingdom of heaven” and “reason is a whore,”


Forward

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


 

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.

—Lincoln Barnett

 

To be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant.

—AB Alcott

  

In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself astray in a dark wood where the straight road had been lost.

—Dante Alighieri

  

The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crises.

—Dante Alighieri

Nietzsche


Forward

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


 

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.

—John Locke

 

Endeavor to think well, for it is the only morality.

—Saint Augustine

 

Give me one fixedpoint and I will move the earth.

—Archimedes

  

If the mental illness of the United States is megalomania—that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia.

—Margaret Atwood

Jaspers


Forward

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


 

Miracles happen, not in opposition to nature, but in opposition to what we know of nature.

—Saint Augustine

  

Miracles happen, not in opposition to nature, but in opposition to what we know of nature.

—Saint Augustine

  

Until a hundred years ago electricity and magnetism—while known and studied since early Greek times—were regarded as separate quantities.

—Lincoln Barnett

 

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.

—Lincoln Barnett

 

Heidegger

 


Forward

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


  

The first step forward is to see that attention is fastened on the truth.

—Saint Augustine

  

The universe was created with time and not in time.

—Saint Augustine

  

In man’s brief tenancy on earth he egocentrically orders events in his mind according to his own feelings past, present, and future.  But except on the reels of one’s own consciousness, the universe, the objective world of reality, does not happen—it simply exists.  It can be encompassed in its entire majesty only by a cosmic intellect.  But it can also be represented symbolically, by a mathematician, as a four-dimensional spacetime continuum.  An understanding of the spacetime continuum is requisite to a comprehension of the general theory of relativity and of what it says about gravitation, the unseen force that holds the universe together and determines its shape and size.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

A few years ago Einstein observed—The idea that there are two structures of space independent of each other, the metric—gravitational and the electromagnetic is intolerable to the theoretical spirit.  Moreover, as Relativity showed that energy has mass and mass is congealed energy, the Unified Field Theory will regard matter simply as a concentration of field.  From its perspective the entire universe will be revealed as an elemental field in which each star, each atom, each wandering comet and slow-wheeling galaxy and flying electron is seen to be but a ripple or tumescence in the underlying spacetime unity.  And so a profound simplicity will supplant the surface complexity of nature; the distinction between gravitational and electromagnetic force, between matter and field, between electric charge and field will be forever lost; and matter, gravitation, and electromagnetic force will all thus resolve into configurations of the four-dimensional continuum which is the universe.

—Lincoln Barnett

Sartre


Forward

Dostoyevsky

Kierkegaard

Nietzsche

Jaspers

Heidegger

Sartre

A Story with a Moral

 


 

Completion of the Unified Field Theory will climax the long march of science towards unification of concepts.  For within its framework all man’s perceptions of the world and all his abstract intuitions of reality—matter, energy, force, space, time merge finally into one.  It touches the grand aim of all science, which, as Einstein defines it, is to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest possible number of hypotheses or axioms.  The urge to consolidate premises, to unify concepts, to penetrate the variety and particularity of the manifest world to the undifferentiated unity that lies beyond is not only the leaven of science; it is the loftiest passion of the human intellect.  The philosopher and mystic, as well as the scientist, have always sought through their various disciplines of introspection to arrive at a knowledge of the ultimate immutable essence that undergirds the mutable illusory world.  More than twenty-three hundred years ago Plato declared—The true lover of knowledge is always striving after being.  He will not rest at those multitudinous phenomena whose existence is appearance only.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

In its popular sense, mass is just another word for weight.  But as used by the physicist, it denotes a rather different and more fundamental property of matter—namely, resistance to a change of motion.  A greater force is necessary to move a freight car than a velocipede; the freight car resists motion more stubbornly than the velocipede because it has greater mass.  In classical physics the mass of any body is a fixed and unchanging property.  Thus the mass of a freight car should remain the same whether it is at rest on a siding, rolling across country at 60 miles an hour, or hurtling through outer space at 60,000 miles a second.  But relativity asserts that the mass of a moving body is by no means constant, but increases with its velocity.  The old physics failed to discover this fact simply because man’s senses and instruments are too crude to note the infinitesimal increases of mass produced by the feeble accelerations of ordinary experience.  They become perceptible only when bodies attain velocities close to that of light.  And this phenomenon does not conflict with the relativistic contraction of length.  One is tempted to ask how can an object become smaller and at the same time get heavier?  The contraction, it should be noted, is only in the direction of motion; width and breadth are unaffected.  Moreover mass is not heaviness but simply the resistance to motion.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

In the evolution of scientific thought, one fact has become impressively clear—that there is no mystery of the physical world which does not point to a mystery beyond itself.  All highroads of the intellect, all byways of theory and conjecture lead ultimately to an abyss that human ingenuity can never span.  For man is enchained by the very condition of his Being, his finiteness and his involvement in nature.  The further he extends his horizons, the more vividly he recognizes the fact that, as the physicist Niels Bohr put it, we are both spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.  Man is thus his own greatest mystery.  He does not understand the vast veiled universe into which he has been cast for the reason that he does not understand himself.  He comprehends little of his organic process and even less of his unique capacity to perceive the world about him in his rationality and his dreams.  Least of all does he understand his noblest and most mysterious faculty—the ability to transcend himself by perceiving himself in the act of perception.  Man’s inescapable impasse is that he himself is part of the world that he seeks to explore—his body and proud brain are but mosaics of the same elemental particles that compose the dark, drifting clouds of interstellar space.  Man is, in the final analysis, merely an ephemeral confirmation of the primordial spacetime field.  Standing midway between macrocosm and microcosm, he finds barriers on every side and can perhaps but marvel, as Saint Paul did nineteen hundred years ago in saying that the world was created by the word of God so that what is seen is composed of things which do not appear.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

In the evolution of scientific thought, one fact has become impressively clear—that there is no mystery of the physical world which does not point to a mystery beyond itself.  All highroads of the intellect, all byways of theory and conjecture lead ultimately to an abyss that human ingenuity can never span.  For man is enchained by the very condition of his Being, his finiteness and his involvement in nature.  The further he extends his horizons, the more vividly he recognizes the fact that, as the physicist Niels Bohr put it, we are both spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.  Man is thus his own greatest mystery.  He does not understand the vast veiled universe into which he has been cast for the reason that he does not understand himself.  He comprehends little of his organic process and even less of his unique capacity to perceive the world about him in his rationality and his dreams.  Least of all does he understand his noblest and most mysterious faculty—the ability to transcend himself by perceiving himself in the act of perception.  Man’s inescapable impasse is that he himself is part of the world that he seeks to explore—his body and proud brain are but mosaics of the same elemental particles that compose the dark, drifting clouds of interstellar space.  Man is, in the final analysis, merely an ephemeral confirmation of the primordial spacetime field.  Standing midway between macrocosm and microcosm, he finds barriers on every side and can perhaps but marvel, as Saint Paul did nineteen hundred years ago in saying that the world was created by the word of God so that what is seen is composed of things which do not appear.

—Lincoln Barnett

 

A Story with a Moral

 


 

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