Athens and Jerusalem

Part II


Knowledge and Freedom

"Happiness is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself."

       - SPINOZA, Ethics, V, 42.

"Ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil."

       - GENESIS, III, 5


     In his preface to his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel writes: "Philosophy, however, must beware of wishing to be edifying." As is generally the case with him, he is here only repeating what Spinoza had said when he considered his philosophy not the best but the only true philosophy. It seems at first glance that this declaration came, so to speak, from the depths of the heart. But Hegel, who repeated Spinoza, was no more veridical than the latter. Before as after Socrates, all the great philosophers have always sought to preach to, and edify, their listeners and readers. And it was precisely those among them who preached and edified with the most insistence who proclaimed that their purpose consisted in discovering the truth, and nothing but the truth. I do not think that Socrates himself was an exception in this respect, although he did not, as is known, in any way hide the fact that he wished to better his fellow-men. But he succeeded in so closely fusing knowledge and edification that when he was preaching he appeared only to be seeking the truth, while when he was seeking the truth he was in reality preaching.

     To Socrates belongs the merit of having created what was later called "autonomous ethics." But it was also Socrates who laid the foundations of scientific knowledge. He was the first to distinguish the "morally good" from the "pleasant," the "morally evil" from the "bad." At the same time he taught that virtue is knowledge, that the man who knows cannot but be virtuous. But since Socrates there was introduced into philosophy the enigmatic "passing over into another realm" that the opposition of "good" and "evil" (in the moral sense) to "pleasant" and "bad" makes possible. When one begins to speak of the bad, one generally glides — without effort, without wishing it, without even realizing it — into the morally evil, just as one airily substitutes, as if the thing happened of itself, the morally good for the pleasant or vice versa...

     Hegel's words that I have just quoted, as well as Spinoza's declaration, contain a problem that is worth studying closely. Whatever philosophic question is presented to us, we discover in it obvious traces of the confusion that Socrates openly admitted when one identifies knowledge with virtue; and even those philosophers who in no way shared the fundamental postulate of Socratic thought could not, or perhaps did not wish to, avoid this identification. It might be said that this confusion constitutes the "point on which philosophy stands or falls," that philosophy would lose its raison d'κtre if it renounced this mistaken substitution or (what is perhaps still more terrible) if it admitted that it lives only thanks to this substitution. Yet no one today would identify knowledge with virtue. The most limited mind realizes that one can know and at the same time be full of vice just as one can be ignorant and at the same time a saint. How is it, then, that Socrates did not see what common sense today clearly perceives? No one dreams of raising this question. Still less does one dream of asking himself: can philosophy exist if common sense is right, if the wisest among men was grossly deceived when he proclaimed that virtue and knowledge are one and the same thing?

     It is generally assumed that German idealism — in the person of Kant and of his successors, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel — finally and definitively overcame Spinozism. This judgment of history is correct only in the sense that toward the end of their careers the German idealists, those even who like Fichte and Schelling could call Spinoza their first philosophic love, tried by every means to draw a sharp line of demarcation between themselves and Spinoza. People esteemed Spinoza but they feared him and moved far away from him. Leibniz argued with Locke in a respectful and friendly tone, while in his polemic against Spinoza an icy hostility breaks through: he did not wish to be confused with the author of the Ethics. This hostility is also to be discerned in Kant when he speaks of Spinoza. As for Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, one might believe from their attitude toward Spinoza that they had left him far behind and had completely rid themselves of him. But the development of German philosophy testifies to the contrary. Kant was indeed further removed from Spinoza than his successors. What separated Kant from Spinoza was submitted in the post-Kantian philosophy to the sharpest criticism.

     As German idealism developed it drew ever nearer to Spinozism, and we are justified in considering Hegel's "Philosophy of the Spirit," in its content if not in its form, as the restitutio in integrum of Spinozism. Hegel affirmed that philosophy must not be edifying. Spinoza said that he was seeking not the best but the true philosophy. As for Socrates, he identified virtue with knowledge, or to use his formula: nothing bad can happen to a virtuous man, nothing good can happen to a wicked man. It seems then that Spinoza and Hegel took their departure from a principle sharply opposed to that of Socrates. Spinoza wrote in the Ethics that daily experience shows us that successes (good) and failures (bad) are distributed equally among the just and the impious. Hegel, of course, was completely in accord with Spinoza in this matter. In his Philosophy of Religion he affirms that a miracle, as a breaking of the natural relationships of things, would be violence against the spirit. Hegel shows himself in this case even more Spinozist than Spinoza himself. Spinoza appeals to daily experience which convinces him that successes and failures are distributed indifferently among the good and the wicked. This knowledge, like all empirical knowledge, is still not the highest, true knowledge (the tertium genus cognitionis, cognitio intuitiva) that philosophy seeks. Hegel does not in any way appeal to experience; what he knows, he knows before all experiences. He does not need "experience." He, like Spinoza, needs tertium genus cognitionis, and he is not content with the simple fact but finds for it a foundation in the very structure of being. If misfortune struck only the impious and if the just alone knew success, this would be a miracle; but a miracle is violence against the spirit. Consequently, since the spirit does not tolerate violence, virtue — to employ the language of Socrates — is one thing and knowledge is another.

     This is the meaning of Spinoza's words, this is also the meaning of Hegel's words. And yet, Spinoza and Hegel followed the way opened up by Socrates: throughout their work they never ceased to develop the idea that virtue and knowledge are one and the same thing, that nothing bad can happen to a just man and nothing good to a wicked man. Not only could not and would not their philosophy renounce edification, but it was precisely in edification that it saw its principal, one could even say its unique, task. Spinoza concluded on an inspired note the reflections on God and the soul that he set forth in the first two parts of the Ethics: "How useful the knowledge of this doctrine is for the conduct of life... First, inasmuch as it teaches us to act solely according to the decree of God, and to be participants in the divine nature, and so much the more, as we perform more perfect actions and more and more understand God... This doctrine then... teaches us wherein our highest happiness or beatitude consists, namely, solely in the knowledge of God.. Secondly, inasmuch as it teaches us how we ought to conduct ourselves with regard to the gifts of fortune or things that are not in our power... namely, to await and endure both faces of fortune with equanimity." [1]

     Hegel is, in this respect, in no way outdone by Spinoza. Having taken up, against Kant, the defense of the ontological argument, he says in his Logic: "Man must, through thought, raise himself to a generality in which it is really indifferent to him whether he does or does not exist, that is, whether he does or does not exist in finite life, etc., so that si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae [2] — as a Roman said, and the Christian must feel himself still more in this state of indifference." Try to remove from Spinoza his docet (it teaches) and his quomodo nos gerere debeamus (how we ought to conduct ourselves) — what will remain of his philosophy? And what will remain of the ontological argument if man does not consent "to raise himself to a generality in which it is really indifferent to him whether he does or does not exist" — as Hegel translated into his own language Spinoza's suggestion that "we ought to await and endure both faces of fortune with equanimity"?

[1] Ethics, II, 49
[2] "If the heavens should crack over him, the ruins would strike him unafraid." (Horace)

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC