Athens and Jerusalem \  Part II  \ In the Bull of Phalaris


     The problem of free will is usually connected with ethical questions. But as was already brought out in part in the preceding chapter, the problem is still more closely connected with that of knowledge. More precisely: freedom, on one side, and our ideas of good and evil, on the other, are intertwined to such a degree with our theories of knowledge that every attempt to treat the problems outside their mutual relationships leads inevitably to partial or even false conclusions. When Leibniz stated with assurance that a man with his hands tied can still be free, his assurance was based on the conviction that it is given to "knowledge" to answer the question of freedom and that we must accept the answer furnished by knowledge as final and without appeal. Such was also Spinoza's conviction. But "knowledge" furnished Spinoza an answer completely different from what it furnished Leibniz. Leibniz "knew" that our will was free, Spinoza that it was not free.

     The celebrated debate between Erasmus of Rotterdam and Luther turned around the same question. Erasmus wrote Diatribae de libero arbitrio; Luther answered him with his De servo arbitrio. And if we ask ourselves how it was that Erasmus and Leibniz knew that the will is free while Luther and Spinoza discovered that it is not free, we shall find ourselves in a very difficult situation from which we shall not be able to escape in the ordinary way, that is to say, by checking the arguments of the two parties. It is certain that they were both equally honest and correctly reported their personal experience. But how is one to know which of these personal experiences testifies to the truth? The problem appears even more complex if one takes account of the fact that there is a conflict not only between different individuals, but also between the experiences of one and the same individual, who sometimes feels himself free and sometimes unfree. Spinoza is an example: when he was young he affirmed free will, but when he was older he denied it. "Freedom is a mystery," said Malebranche, and like everything that bears the mark of mystery, freedom hides within itself an inner contradiction. Every attempt to rid oneself of it always leads to the same result: one rids oneself not of the contradiction but of the problem.

     Is it necessary to show this in the case of Spinoza? An ass placed at an equal distance between two bales of hay will die of hunger, he says, but it will not turn towards the one or the other unless an external force intervenes. And man is in a similar situation: he goes to his ruin, he knows that death lies in wait for him, but even the consciousness of the greatest dangers will not draw him out of the lethargy to which he has been condemned by the "order and connection of things" that has always existed and remains forever unchangeable - just as the bird hypnotized by the serpent throws itself, on its own, into the monster's jaws. If Spinoza's thought is translated into simpler language, it appears that his reflections have finally the same meaning as Luther's words: by nature man is free, but his freedom is paralyzed by someone or something. Hence this puzzling contradiction, so sad and so torturing: man, who above all others in the world prizes his freedom, feels that it has been taken away from him and sees no possibility of recovering it. Everything that he does, everything that he undertakes, not only does not deliver him but makes him still more a slave. He acts, he writes, he reflects, he perfects himself in all sorts of ways, but the more he strains his powers, the more he perfects himself and reflects, the more he becomes conscious of his complete incapacity to bring about, by his own power and on his own initiative, any change whatsoever in the conditions of his existence. And what most weakens and paralyzes his will is thought, that precisely on which men ordinarily base all their hopes of deliverance.

     As long as man did not "think," he believed that "God directs everything to a definite end." But when he began to reason, he suddenly discovered that this was only a prejudice, an error, born of the free will to which he so eagerly aspires and which once perhaps had the power of transforming his desires into realities but which today, enfeebled and impotent, can only torment man by recalling to him a past forever lost. When it was still itself, it inculcated in man the conviction that high and important purposes are realized in the universe, that the good, the evil, the ugly, the beautiful, etc., exist. But "knowledge" has disarmed the will and deprived it of its decisive voice when it is a question of truth and of being. God does not set Himself any purpose. The will and the intellect of God as little resemble the will and the intellect of man as the constellation called the Dog resembles the dog, the barking animal. Let us turn our gaze toward the ideal science, toward mathematics, and we shall know where and how truth is to be found. We shall then become convinced that truth is one thing and that the "best" is another. There is no "best" for God, and those who "maintain that God does everything with a view to the good" are still more in error than those who suppose that "everything depends on His (God's) discretion." Necessity reigns over everything: "God does not act out of freedom of the will."

     Spinoza does not cease repeating to us that Necessity is the essence and foundation of being: "things could not have been brought into being by God in any manner or in any order different from that which has in fact obtained." [1] For him, sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity) has the same meaning as sub specie necessitatis (under the aspect of Necessity). In all the history of thought probably no other philosopher developed with such obstinacy, with such passion, the theme of the omnipotence of Necessity. And he assures us, along with this, that he has "demonstrated" his theses luce meridiana clarius (clear as day light). That he has expressed luce meridiana clarius the conviction that has seized hold of the human mind is indisputable, but can this pass for a demonstration? When he affirms, on the one hand, that "God acts solely by the laws of His own nature and is not constrained by anyone," [2] and, on the other hand, is indignant at those who admit that God can act sub ratione boni (with a view to the good), the question quite naturally arises: whence does he know that the sub ratione boni does not constitute one of the "laws of His (God's) nature," and perhaps even the supreme law? If Spinoza had affirmed that God is outside and beyond all laws, that He is Himself the source and creator of laws - very well! But this thought is far from Spinoza. Human reason can renounce everything, but it will not consent to free either the highest or the lowest being, either the Creator or the creatures, from obedience to laws. So, even though Spinoza affirms that "if men were born free, they would form no conception of good and evil," it is no more given him to realize the ideal of the man who stands beyond good and evil than the ideal of freedom.

     The end of the fourth part and all of the fifth part of the Ethics testify clearly to this: the man whom Spinoza calls free is not at all free, and the happiness that the philosopher brings has for its primary condition the distinction between good and evil. If we wish to decipher the profound meaning of the Socratic doctrine that knowledge is identical with virtue and that nothing bad can happen to a good man, we must address ourselves, not to the historians who show how na´ve and superficial was the wisest of men, but to Spinoza who, two thousand years later, took upon himself the burden of the problems raised by Socrates. We even find in Spinoza Socrates' irony, but it is hidden under the more geometrico (according to the geometric method). The mathematical method - is it not indeed an irony in the mouth of the man who affirmed that summum mentis bonum est Dei cognitio (the mind's highest good is the knowledge of God) and that summa mentis virtus Deum cognoscere (the mind's highest virtue is to know God)? Since when is mathematics interested in things like summum bonum or summa virtus? And how does it happen that God who has bound Himself "not to act with a view to the good" has yet brought the summum bonum?

     It is clear that Spinoza's summum bonum was of a very special kind. Like Socrates, Spinoza plucked the fruits of the tree of knowledge, which became for him the principle of philosophy for all time. His summum bonum and his beatitudines, like Socrates' "happiness" and "highest good," have absolutely nothing in common either with happiness or with the good. That is why he demands so insistently of men that they renounce the beautiful, the good, all "purposes," desires and instincts. It is on this condition alone that men will obtain the "contentment with oneself" - which "understanding" brings and become "like God, knowing good and evil." All human attachments must be replaced by "love for the eternal and infinite" which is none other than the "intellectual love of God," of which Spinoza says that it "necessarily springs from the third kind of knowledge." The noblest part of man is his mens (mind), ratio (reason), intellectus (understanding). And Spinoza knows firmly that "the human mind is eternal, the human mind cannot be completely destroyed with the body," and again, "we feel and experience that we are eternal."

     At first reading it may seem that Spinoza contradicts himself when he says, on the one hand, "properly speaking, God neither loves nor hates anyone" and proclaims, on the other hand, "hence it follows that God, insofar as He loves Himself, loves men, and, consequently, that the love of God towards men and the intellectual love of the mind towards God are one and the same." [3] But there is no contradiction here. The God of Spinoza "knows no passions"; joys and sorrows are alien to him, and "love" in the first instance has a meaning quite different from what it has in the second. It is here that the spiritual relationship between Socrates and Spinoza becomes especially clear. Both of them, like the first man, allowed themselves to be seduced by the promises of the tempter, "you shall be like God, knowing good and evil." Both of them, like the first man, exchanged the fruits of the tree of life for those of the tree of knowledge, that is to say, "the things that are not in our power" for those that are in our power. Did they decide to do this freely or did they, as the Bible says, act under the influence of a mysterious enchanter? We shall return again to this question. What is certain is that, having stretched forth their hands toward the tree of knowledge, men have forever lost their freedom. To put it differently, they have preserved only the freedom to choose between "good" and "evil."

     It is not for nothing that Spinoza, who denied freedom, entitled the two last parts of his Ethics "of human freedom" and "of human bondage." Not only is there no contradiction here, but rather a strict relationship, one of immense metaphysical significance. Men have completely forgotten that at some distant, perhaps mythical, time of their existence, they had the possibility not of choosing between good and evil but of deciding whether evil should exist or not exist. They have forgotten this to such a degree that we are all convinced that man never had such freedom, that such freedom is an impossibility not only for man but for a higher being as well.

     In his remarkable study "On the Essence of Human Freedom," a study certainly inspired by the fourth and fifth parts of Spinoza's Ethics, Schelling brings us testimony of touching. candor on this matter. "The real and living concept, however, consists in the fact that it (freedom) is a capacity for good and evil. This is the point of greatest difficulty in the whole doctrine of freedom, and it has always been felt as such." And indeed, according to our conception, freedom is the freedom to choose between good and evil: if we wish, we choose the good; if this does not suit us, we choose the evil. But evil might not have existed in the universe at all. Whence did it come? Do not Necessity and the capacity for choosing between good and evil testify, not to our freedom - as Spinoza and Hegel thought and as all of us also think - but to our enslavement, to our loss of freedom? The free being possesses the sovereign right to give names to all things, and they will bear the names that he confers on them. The free man might not have authorized evil to enter the world, but now man must be content with "choosing" between the evil that is not subordinated to him and the good that is likewise no longer in his power. But for Socrates already it was evident that man had never possessed such power and such possibilities. Names were given to things neither by man nor even by the Being in whose image man was created, and evil entered the world without demanding authorization of anyone. In his first incarnation Socrates did not even try to struggle against this self-evidence; in any case, he says not a word of his attempts, perhaps because they always ended in shameful failure. But in his second incarnation, when he appeared to men in Spinoza's form he showed himself a little more candid. He allowed us to have a glimpse of his fruitless struggles and even admitted to us, as we recall, that his situation, that is to say, the situation of a man "who is led by reason alone," was no better than that of Buridan's ass who dies of starvation between two bales of hay.

     In his youth he could not admit this idea. In the Cogitata metaphysica he still maintained human freedom, and added that if we were not free, "man would have to be regarded not as a thinking being but as a most infamous ass." But the years passed, and with a terror to which the first pages of his Tractatus de intellectus emmendatione bear witness, Spinoza declared that there is no difference between man and Buridan's ass: they are both deprived of freedom, their will is similarly paralyzed. It was long ago that the choice was once and for all made for them: "God has no principle or end of action." This is reality - the final and definitive reality. And the philosopher is as little capable of changing anything in it as the man in the street or "the ass, the most infamous of animals." These are "things that are not in our power." The philosopher has at his disposal only the docet (teaching) how "to bear with equanimity" what fate brings us. And man must be content with this: "happiness is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself."

[1] Ethics, I, 33.
[2] Ethics, I, 17.
[3] Ethics, V, 36.

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