Athens and Jerusalem \  Part I  \ Parmenides in Chains


     Aristotle and Epictetus submitted to Necessity and reconciled themselves to it. Plato did not reconcile himself to Necessity, even though he understood, quite as well as Aristotle and Epictetus, what dangers threaten the man who refuses to submit to this power. Plato saw quite well, just as all of us see, that in the year 399 Socrates was poisoned. And nevertheless, or rather precisely because he had seen it, because he had been "constrained" to see it with his own eyes, he suddenly had for the first time that deep, indestructible suspicion which is so incomprehensible to men: are our own eyes, then, really the source of the final metaphysical truths? In the Symposium he writes: "The spiritual eye becomes keen when the corporeal eyes begin to lose their sharpness"(219A).

     It may be assumed that when this idea came to his mind for the first time Plato himself was frightened by it and, before deciding to express it aloud, had more than once to give himself courage by remembering "it is necessary to dare everything." And indeed, if there are two kinds of eyes, who will say with which eyes we see truth and with which error? With all the good will in the world we should never be able to answer this question. Is it the corporeal eye that discovers the truth or is it the spiritual eye? The one supposition is as admissible as the other. The physical eyes can distinguish truth from error. Epictetus could force a man to distinguish vinegar from wine, shaving from cutting, etc., but Epictetus, quite like Aristotle, had no power over the spiritual eyes. For both of them relied on Necessity, both of them were "constrained by the truth itself," and they wished and were able also "to constrain" others. But this was possible only so long as those to whom they addressed themselves were beings equipped with corporeal eyes. These one can constrain by threats. Necessity has power over them. But he who has lost his corporeal eyes, who, instead of corporeal vision, possesses "spiritual vision" - does Necessity have any power over him? Is it not in this that that miracle of transfiguration which was mentioned above consists? Parmenides is no longer constrained but rather constrains; the principle of contradiction does not command but obeys; the vinegar becomes wine, the razor does not cut, etc. And the whole arsenal of Aristotle's and Epictetus' threats loses, like salt which ceases to be salty, all sense and meaning.

     I think that there cannot be two opinions on this matter: Plato's "spiritual vision" is nothing other than a desperate attempt to tear himself away from the power of Necessity which has been throughout all time the foundation of human thought. The best commentary on the passage of the Symposium that we have quoted is found in the words of Plotinus: "Thought was granted to the divine, but not to the best beings, as an eye intended to correct their natural blindness. But what would it serve for the eye to see what is, if it were itself the light? And so if someone has need of eyes, it is that, being himself blind, he seeks the light." [1] "Spiritual vision" is no longer vision in the proper sense; that is, the passive consideration and acceptance of truth prepared in advance, imposed by an external constraint - as truth, according to Aristotle or Epictetus, is imposed. What appears to the latter as the essential moment of truth, the power of constraining all men, is found to be a mere accident. Circumstances change and this constraint becomes at first useless, inconvenient, intolerable, then finally a distortion of the very nature of truth - at least of the metaphysical truth concerning which we are here speaking. The truth of the corporeal eye maintains itself by force, by threats. Sometimes it also employs allurements. It forces the disobedient to drink vinegar; it cuts off their noses, their ears, etc... It does not know any other means of bringing it about that men should agree to recognize it. If you deprive such a truth of the means of coercion that it has at its disposal, who would then be willing to follow it? Who would recognize of his own free will that Socrates has been poisoned? Who would delight in seeing the phenomena lead the great Parmenides, as if he were not Parmenides but a horse or a mule? All that is human in the living being imperiously demands that no one should be permitted to touch Socrates, and that the phenomena should not lead the great Parmenides as they wish but rather docilely and trustingly follow Parmenides.

     Spinoza's stone endowed with consciousness would have approved, one may believe, the order of existing things or, rather, the ordo et connexio rerum visible to the corporeal eye. But the living person will never accept this order. And if, nevertheless, many have sincerely sought to secure such a state of affairs in saecula saeculorum, it is not at all necessary to deduce therefrom what people ordinarily deduce: namely, that one can see the final truths with the corporeal eye and that Necessity has at its disposal a miraculous power, a supernatural force, to transform the temporal into the eternal. It is necessary to draw therefrom a conclusion which will perhaps seem at first sight paradoxical and consequently completely inadmissible for our ignava ratio (lazy reason) but which, it is to be believed, is the only truth: "Not all are created under the same conditions but to some eternal life is preordained, to others eternal damnation." Or, if you do not care for theology and Calvin, the same thought may be formulated using Spinoza's words: most men only resemble men, in reality they are not men but stones endowed with consciousness. And what we customarily call "the laws of thought" are only the laws of the thought of stones endowed with consciousness. Or again: it seems that, in the course of man's brief existence, each of us often has occasion to see himself transformed into a stone endowed with consciousness - and this precisely when he turns backward, inquires, and begins to reflect. Plato sadly felt this and sought with all the powers of his soul to escape the petrification that threatened him. For Aristotle, on the other hand, to try to fight what he considered the natural order of things and, consequently, the final and definitive reality, was the height of folly. Can it be hoped that the enfeebled physical eye may be replaced by a spiritual eye that will permit us to see another world and no longer that which we have always seen and shall always and everywhere see? It is here that there begins, for Aristotle, the domain of the fantastic, against which he defends himself and others by means of his logic as well as his metaphysics and his ethics, by his categorical statement "Cry halt before Necessity." Plato, on the contrary, drew his inspiration from the fantastic. For Plato, the corporeal vision was so intimately bound to the idea of "constraining and being constrained," to the idea that the death of Socrates is an eternal truth in the world where it is the corporeal eyes that discover the truth, that it did not seem to him sufficient to weaken our physical vision and our physical being in general. As long as we exist physically we are under the domination of Necessity. One can put us to the torture and force us to recognize anything whatever.

     I shall recall again - for one repeats these things in vain, people always forget them - how the noble Epictetus treated all those who were unwilling to follow him, how he pierced their eyes and cut off their noses and ears, and how Aristotle forced the great Parmenides to accept his truths. Can one live in a world where the truth - i.e., that which, according to us, is the most powerful, the best, and the most desirable thing on earth - tortures men and transforms them into stones endowed with consciousness? We must flee this world, flee it as quickly as possible, flee it without turning backward, without asking where we are going and without considering what the future will bring us. We must burn, tear out, and destroy in ourselves everything that stupefies, petrifies, crushes, and draws us towards the visible world, if we wish to save ourselves from the terrible danger (damnatio aeterna) that lies in wait for us. Not only the corporeal eye but all of the "corporeality" through which we arrive at the constraining truths must be torn out of man, so that the vinegar may become wine and that a new eye may arise in place of the pierced eye. But how can we do this? Who can do it? Plato replies: this is the task of philosophy, of a philosophy that is no longer science and no longer even knowledge but, as he says in the Phaedo, meletÍ thanatou, "the practice of death" - of a philosophy capable of replacing the natural eye of man by a supernatural eye, i.e., an eye which sees not what is but thanks to which what one sees "by one's will" becomes what is.

     Aristotle does not understand Plato's "practice of death," even though this "thought," if one may call it a thought, is developed in the Phaedo and emphasized with all the force of which Plato was capable. Plato says that all those who sincerely devoted themselves to philosophy were doing nothing but preparing themselves by degrees for death and to die. It is true that he adds immediately afterwards that the philosophers generally hide this from the whole world. But there was no need even, it seems, to hide it. Plato did not hide it: he proclaimed his "practice of death" aloud and yet no one understood it. Before as after Plato, the whole world is convinced that truths and revelations are not to be sought in death but that death is rather the end of revelations and truths.

     People do not argue with Plato or contradict him, but almost no one speaks of the "practice of death." The only exception is Spinoza, who, like Plato, was not afraid "to dare everything" or to approach the limits of being. As if in answer to Plato, he declares: "a free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life." [2] This is basically what Aristotle would already have had to say. Here is the only way of freeing oneself from Plato with his spiritual eye and his "preparation for death." There are no eyes other than the corporeal eyes, and even Spinoza's oculi mentis (eyes of the mind) are in a certain sense only the corporeal eyes arrived at a higher degree of evolution or, if you wish, the corporeal eyes par excellence. The oculi mentis bring us to the tertium genus cognitionis (third kind of knowledge), to cognitio intuitiva (intuitive knowledge), that is, precisely to the kind of knowledge where Necessity shows itself to us in all its omnipotence and terrible magnificence. Sub specie necessitatis is transformed, through Spinoza's will, into sub specie aeternitatis, that is, Necessity becomes an ideal at the same time that it is a reality. It comes from reason, which Spinoza, forgetting his promise to speak of everything as the mathematicians speak of lines and surfaces, calls "the greatest gift and the divine light," and to which he erects an altar as the only god worthy of veneration: "what altar will he build for himself who insults reason's majesty?" Reason alone can give us that "one thing necessary" which, as all the wise men have taught, makes man, whom we see and who exists, and the gods, whom no one has ever seen either with corporeal eyes or with spiritual eyes, to live. "Contentment with one's self can spring from reason, and that contentment which springs from reason is the highest possible."[3]

     Spinoza did not like Aristotle, perhaps because he did not know him well enough but more perhaps because even in Aristotle he discovered too obvious traces of that "mythological" thought of which he wished to believe himself completely freed. Spinoza endeavored to create not the "best philosophy" but the "true philosophy." He assured everyone else as well as himself that man has no need of the "best," that it is enough for him to have the "true." But Spinoza was doubly wrong. Aristotle, as we have seen, believed in the sovereign rights of truth and never attempted in his philosophical and scientific researches to protest against the subordinate and dependent situation to which the very conditions of our existence condemn us. He spoke, it is true, of the purposes of creation, he said that nature does nothing in vain, etc. But this was only a methodological procedure, a procedure for seeking truth, just as his primum movens immobile (first unmoved mover) was no longer a living god inhabiting Olympus or any other place in the real universe, however distant from us, but only an active force determining the formation and succession of all the observable phenomena of the external world. For him, the summum bonum (highest good) of men is limited by the possible, and the possible is determined by reason.

     And if Aristotle found this summum bonum in our world, Spinoza in this respect is hardly far from Aristotle. His "contentment with oneself which springs from reason" is not essentially distinguishable from the Aristotelian ideal of wisdom, from his noÍsis noÍseŰs (thinking of thought). So that it is rather Spinoza (did he not affirm that his task was the search for the "true philosophy" and that he was not concerned with the needs and aspirations of men, for men are to him only perpendiculars or triangles and do not deserve to be considered in any way other than perpendiculars or triangles?) whom one could accuse of being untrue to his principles by erecting an altar to reason, by glorifying ratio as the "greatest gift and the divine light," by singing the praises of "contentment with oneself," etc. But it is precisely because Spinoza, quite like Aristotle, permitted himself this inconsequence, whether unconsciously or deliberately, that he succeeded in reaching the goal that he had set himself: to convince men that the ideal of human existence is the stone endowed with consciousness. Why? Even if it is correct that the stone endowed with consciousness is best fitted to perceive the truths, why address oneself to living men and demand of them that they accomplish such a transformation of themselves? And why did neither Aristotle nor Spinoza attempt (what at first appears easier), by means of their incantations and their sorceries, to endow with consciousness the inanimate objects which have not and cannot have any motive for opposing such attempts? But no one has ever attempted anything of the kind. No one is interested in seeing that the stones are transformed into thinking beings, but many are interested in seeing that living men are transformed into stones. Why? What is finally in question here?

[1] Enneads, VI, 7, 41.
[2] Ethics, IV, LXVII.
[3] Ethics, IV, LII.

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