Athens and Jerusalem \  Part I  \ Parmenides in Chains


     Although Seneca may not have been an original philosopher, he succeeded quite well at times, as is known, in expressing the thought of others. Everything discussed in our preceding chapters was formulated by him in a few words that have become famous: Ipse omnium conditor et rector... semper paret, semel jussit (The founder and guide of all things... always obeys, but has commanded only once). So thought Seneca, so thought the ancients, so all of us think. God commanded only once and, thereafter, He and all men after Him no longer command but obey. He commanded a long time ago, an infinitely long time ago, so that He Himself has forgotten when and under what circumstances there occurred this absurd, unique of its kind, and consequently unnatural, event. Perhaps, having taken on this habit of passive and submissive existence, God has even forgotten how to command; perhaps, like us ordinary mortals, He can only obey. In other words, the will to act that He once manifested forever exhausted His creative energy, and now He is condemned, like the world that He created, to fulfill His own prescriptions, prescriptions that He Himself can no longer violate. To put it still differently, the Creator of the world has Himself become subordinate to Necessity which He created and which, without at all seeking or desiring it, has become the sovereign of the universe.

     I repeat: Seneca's formula belongs unquestionably to him, but the thought that he expresses is not his own. So thought and so continue to think all the learned men of all countries. Why do they think so? Were they witnesses of the world's creation, or did the Creator reveal his secret to any of them? No one was present at the creation of the world, no one can any longer boast of any special intimacy with the Creator. The thought expressed by Seneca allured men because the mysterious and inconceivable moment of command (jubere) was pushed back into the eternity of the past and declared unique (semel jussit), while for ordinary usage men chose obedience, the parere, which seems to be the comprehensible, natural, and normal fate not only of the creature but also of the Creator Himself. And, indeed, Seneca was right: in the parere everything is comprehensible, clear to all, and — consequently — natural, while in the jubere everything is mysterious, arbitrary and — consequently — fantastic, eternally inconceivable and puzzling.

     Had it been possible, Seneca and those from whom Seneca learned to "think" would have preferred not to remember the mysterious jubere at all. No one has ever commanded anything, all have always done nothing but obey; for there has never been anything supernatural or mysterious, either in the remotest times or in our own day. Everything has always been dear and natural. And the task of philosophy is then to strengthen and sustain Necessity by all the means at its disposal. But what are these means? It is not given mortals to change anything whatsoever of the nature of Necessity, to enhance or strengthen it in its own being. There remains, then, only one thing to do: to convince men by reasonings or by incantations that, on the one hand, Necessity is omnipotent and to fight it serves no purpose; on the other hand, that Necessity is of divine origin (that is why the semel jussit is preserved) and that it is impious and immoral to refuse it obedience. This same Seneca is inexhaustible in his praise of God who has forgotten how to command and of men who manifest a boundless submission. "I do not obey God, I agree with Him; I follow Him with all my soul, but not because it is necessary." Or again, in the famous translation of the words of the Stoic Cleanthes which Cicero so admired: "the fates lead the willing, but the unwilling they drag." One could cite hundreds of pages from Seneca or Cicero filled with reflections of this kind.

     It will be said that Seneca, as well as Cleanthes on whom Seneca relied, expresses the ideas of the Stoic school, and that we have no right, in speaking of Aristotle, to refer to the Stoics whose narrowness of mind was already well known to the ancients. But I believe that Dilthey was right when he frankly admitted that the modern age received the philosophy of antiquity through Cicero and Seneca, and that it is with their eyes that we see the ancients. It is even more exact to say that the narrow philosophy of the Stoics and the overly simple logic of the Cynics at times reveal to us the essence of ancient thought (and of our own) better than the works of Plato and Aristotle. The Stoics are regarded with scornful condescension, but it cannot even be imagined what would have become of European thought if the ideas sown in the world by the Stoics had not produced so abundant a harvest. The Stoics at times were only too frank. Now, many ideas are admitted only if they agree not to show their true face and, when necessary, to deny it. Ham, who turned around to look at his father's nakedness, has been nailed to the pillory by history. But how many have turned around without anyone thinking of blaming them? To turn around, to reflect, besinnen, is considered one of the most honorable of things; Hegel's entire philosophy reduces itself finally to a looking around. It will be said that the "nakedness of the father" did not interest Hegel. I would answer that he looked at nakednesses that are even more criminal to contemplate than one's father's. But Hegel knew what one can say and what must be passed over in silence.

     This knowledge was foreign to the Stoics, and even more so to the Cynics. The Cynics' whole error derives from the fact that they had an absolute confidence in reflective human reason. Other men, almost all, especially the philosophers, have committed the same mistake. Who does not trust reason? But others knew how to keep to themselves the greatest part of what they had received in payment for their absolute confidence in reason, and they are praised as sages while the Cynics are called "dogs." Noah's third son, the Cynics and, to some extent, the Stoics are not reproached for turning around and looking at the completely "naked" truth; this is permitted and even encouraged. What is not forgiven them is only their calling things by their right names, their saying that they are looking around when they are looking around and that nakedness is nakedness. Blessed are those who look around and are silent, blessed are those who see but hide what they see. Why is this so? No one can answer. It seems that every man, like Socrates, has at his side a demon who, in decisive moments, demands of him judgments and acts whose meaning remains incomprehensible to him and forever hidden. But if such a demon exists in nature and if even the most courageous of men dare not disobey him, how can one not ask whence, from what worlds, this mysterious being has come to us? But no one greatly desires to ask this. People know that there is someone (or perhaps even something: it is not known in advance how the demon should be spoken of, whether as a thing or as a being) that has received or has arrogated the right to present to men completely unmotivated demands, and they are satisfied with that. The demon prescribes, men obey. And all are happy that a power should finally be found which binds and decides, which delivers us from freedom of the will, and that one can, one should, one must stop — "cry halt before Necessity."

     Again it will be said that I have exceeded the limits, that I began by speaking in the name of "all" and ended with the words of a famous philosopher. For the phrase, "cry halt before Necessity," that I have just quoted belongs to Aristotle. But the average person is not so far removed from the philosopher. Somewhere, at the beginning or at the end, in the depths or at the surface, the average man and the philosopher meet. Seneca, who proclaimed his paret semper, jussit semel as the last word of the philosophers' wisdom, was only paraphrasing Aristotle. Quite like the average man, Aristotle wishes to know nothing of commanding (jubere); he needs only to obey (parere) in order to accomplish, in obeying, what he believes, what all men believe, to be the destiny of man. It does not matter to him at all whence the commandment comes — all the more so since, as Seneca has frankly admitted to us, the sources of jubere are now forever dried up. No one in the world will ever again command, all will forever obey — the great and the small, the righteous and the sinners, men and gods. "Truth" does not make any distinctions; it constrains all alike, the great Parmenides as well as the humblest day laborer.

     "Parmenides is constrained" and the day laborer is constrained. The gods themselves are in the power of Necessity: "Not even the gods fight against Necessity." [1] It is impossible to investigate whence Necessity derives this power of constraining all living beings. One cannot even ask what the nature of this Necessity is and why it must constrain living beings. Not only will it not reply, but it will not even hear the questions that are addressed to it. And still less is it capable of allowing itself to be persuaded or convinced. Aristotle himself, like no one else, knew how to look around and investigate what was before him and behind him; he tells us that "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded."

     Whatever field of philosophical thought we approach, we alway run up against this blind, deaf and dumb Necessity. And we are convinced that philosophy begins only where the kingdom of strict Necessity discloses itself. Our thought, in the final analysis, is only the search for this strict Necessity. And still more, it is not for nothing that Parmenides affirmed "being and thought are one and the same." To think is necessarily to take cognizance of the necessity of everything that forms the content of being. Whence comes Necessity? Does it come from being and end in thought? Or does it come from thought and end in being? We do not know. We do not even raise this question, knowing — doubtless instinctively — that such questions not only would not reconcile the theory of Knowledge which is concerned with "thought" (noein) with the ontology which is concerned with "being" (einai) but would forever separate them and set them at enmity with each other. No one wishes to take upon himself the responsibility for the results to which so ancient and universally recognized an idea as that of Necessity may lead. Thought would have preferred to consider Necessity a creation of being, that being, which by its very nature is more turbulent, might easily repudiate Necessity and declare it to be the child of pure thought. Being, despite what Parmenides says, is not the same as thought. But, on the other hand, being, at least within the bounds of philosophical systems, has not been able to find any adequate expression outside of thought. Even though it is not always submissive to Necessity, its attempts at struggle do not reach the domain of philosophy.

     We have said that philosophy has always meant and wished to mean reflection, Besinnung, looking backward. Now it is necessary to add that "looking backward," by its very nature, excludes the possibility and even the thought of struggle. "Looking backward" paralyzes man. He who turns around, who looks backward, must see what already exists, that is to say, the head of Medusa; and he who sees Medusa's head is inevitably petrified, as the ancients already knew. And his thought, a petrified thought, will naturally correspond to his petrified being. Spinoza was in error when he said that if the stone were endowed with consciousness it would imagine that it falls to the ground freely. If someone had endowed the stone with consciousness, at the same time preserving for it its nature as a stone (this is obviously possible - the authority of the sober-headed Spinoza is sufficient guarantee for it), it would not for a single moment have doubted that Necessity is the primordial principle upon which all being in its totality — not only the real, but also the possible — is based. Is not the idea of Necessity the most adequate expression of petrification? And would not the thought and being of a stone endowed with consciousness be completely exhausted by the content that we find in the idea of Necessity?

     But let us go further. Philosophy — we have seen — was, is, and wishes to be, a looking backward. To look backward does not at all mean, and we know this well, merely to turn the head. When Noah's third son turned around he drew upon himself universal scorn. When the Cynics turned around they became dogs. But even worse things happen: one who turns around sees the head of Medusa and is changed into a stone. I know that the philosophers do not believe much in the possibility of such miraculous transformations and do not like to have them spoken of. But this is why I have reminded myself of Socrates' demon. If Socrates had prejudices, if Socrates was superstitious, if Socrates sought protection against the light of his reason in the fantastic, if Socrates fled the clear and distinct world of ideas that he had himself created in order to take refuge with his demon — have we not the right, are we not obliged, even if it be only once in our life and only for a moment, to doubt, not our existence (there is no need for us to doubt this, any more than there was for Descartes), but that our thought, which we have become accustomed to consider as the only possible thought, leads us precisely to the sources of the final truths? Should we not tell ourselves that to think means not to look backward, as we habitually believe, but to look forward? And that we may even not look at all but proceed venturously forward with eyes closed, without foreseeing anything, without asking anything, without being disturbed by anything, without being concerned with adapting ourselves to the laws, great and small, the observance of which has always appeared to men as the condition of the possibility of seeing truths and the realities which these truths uncover? In general, must we forget fear, apprehension, anxiety?

     It will be said that this is not given to man. But, then, let us recall once more the divine Plato, the great pupil of a great teacher, and his lesson: "everything must be dared." We must try to stand up against Necessity itself, try to free the living and feeling Parmenides from dead and altogether indifferent power. To Necessity all things are indifferent, but to Parmenides all things are not indifferent. On the contrary, it is infinitely important to him that certain things should be and that certain other things should not be — for example, that the hemlock should be dependent on Socrates and not Socrates on the hemlock. Or rather, to make the matter still clearer, let us say this: in the year 399 B.C. the aged Socrates, condemned to death by his fellow citizens, took from the jailer's hands the cup of hemlock and in that very moment, by Socrates' will, the hemlock became a healthful drink. And this is not imagination or fantasy but reality, that which actually was. Imagination and fantasy, rather, are all that is related of Socrates' death in the history manuals. And similarly, what Aristotle teaches us, "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded," is also only an invention. Necessity does listen and does allow itself to be persuaded, and it cannot oppose itself to Socrates; it cannot in general oppose itself to any man who has discovered the secret of its power and has enough audacity to command it without turning backward, to speak to it as "one who has power."

     Aristotle would certainly have paid no attention to thoughts of this kind. And Seneca and Cleanthes would have completely ignored them as being of no concern to themselves. But Epictetus, perhaps because he was more sensitive or perhaps because he was less well-bred, would have been enraged by them. Is this not an attempt to escape the principle of contradiction? In his eyes, as in Aristotle's, this was clearly a mortal sin, and he considered that he had the right in this instance to give free reign to his anger. "I should have wished," he said, "to be the slave of a man who does not admit the principle of contradiction. He would have told me to serve him wine; I would have given him vinegar or something still worse. He would have become angry and complained that I did not give him what he asked. But I would have answered, ‘You do not recognize the principle of contradiction; hence, wine, vinegar or any loathsome thing are all the same. And you do not recognize Necessity; therefore, no one has the power to compel you to regard the vinegar as something bad and the wine as something good. Drink the vinegar as if it were wine and be content!' Or again, the master orders me to shave him, and I cut off his nose or his ear with the razor. He would again cry out, but I would repeat to him my argument. And I would do everything in the same way until I forced my master to recognize the truth that Necessity is invincible and the principle of contradiction omnipotent."

     We see that Epictetus repeats what Aristotle said or, more precisely, gives a commentary of Aristotle's words. And, as almost always happens with the Stoics, Epictetus, in commenting, discovers what in Aristotle had been intentionally left in the dark, and so betrays the secret of the philosophical foundation of the Aristotelian truths. The principle of contradiction, as well as Necessity and the truth itself, with a capital letter or a small letter, are supported only by threats: one cuts off your ears or your nose, one pierces your eyes, etc... Before such constraint all living beings — men and devils and angels, and even the gods — find themselves equal. Epictetus speaks of an imaginary master, but he would say the same thing of Heraclitus, of Parmenides, of Socrates and of God Himself.

[1] Plato, Protagoras, 345D.

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC