Athens and Jerusalem

Part IV


Struggle and Reflection

"The ancient and blessed wise men who were better than we and lived nearer to the gods."

      - PLATO, Philebus.

"A great and final struggle awaits souls."

      - PLOTINUS, Enneads I, 6, 7.


Can reason be anything but lazy? Laziness is of its very essence, as is cowardice. Open any manual of philosophy and you will soon be convinced that reason even boasts of its submissiveness, its humility, its cowardice. Reason must "servilely" reproduce what is "given" to it, and it reproaches as the greatest of crimes every attempt at free creation. As for us human beings, we in turn must servilely obey all that reason dictates to us. And this is what is called "freedom." For he only is free who is "guided by reason alone." So Spinoza taught, so the ancients taught, so think all those who wish to learn and teach. And since almost everyone either learns or teaches, "lazy reason" (ignava ratio) becomes, in fact, the sole master of the world.


I irritate people, they say, because I am always repeating the same thing. This was also the reason for the Athenians' dissatisfaction with Socrates. One could rightly say that others are not always repeating the same thing. But no, it is clear that this irritation has another cause. No one would get angry if the things that I repeated were those to which people have become accustomed, which have always been admitted and are therefore comprehensible and agreeable to everyone. Then it would not seem that I am repeating "the same thing," that is, always the opposite of what people wish to hear. Everyone, for example, for centuries - ever since Aristotle - has repeated: the principle of contradiction is an unshakeable principle; science is essentially free examination; God Himself could not make that which has been not to have been; man must overcome his selfhood or particular being; everything must tend toward unity, etc. And no one gets angry, everyone is very happy and imagines that all this is new. But if you say that the principle of contradiction is not even a principle, that the self-evidences deceive us, that science is afraid of free examination - not only will people not permit you to repeat such things two or three times, but they will fly into a rage at your very first words.

We must believe that people become irritated for the same reason that a sleeper gets angry when one tries to awaken him. He would like to sleep, but they will not let him alone: "Wake up!" Why, however, should one get angry? One cannot, for all that, sleep forever. I certainly do not hope to succeed in waking sleepers (on this subject I have no illusions), but - no matter - the hour will come and someone else will wake them, not by discourses, but otherwise, quite otherwise. And then he who is called to awaken will awaken.

But, in that case, people will ask me, "Why do you struggle so?" Yes - it is true - I take pains, I struggle, knowing quite well that I shall arrive at nothing and that what I cannot do will be done without me. It is then easy to demonstrate that I contradict myself. And, indeed, for a long time now people would have demonstrated it to me if they had not felt that such a demonstration not only would not be disagreeable to me, but, on the contrary, give me great pleasure. Now one convinces people of error, however, only to annoy them.


Socrates was not poisoned because he invented new truths and new gods but because he annoyed and troubled everyone with his new truths and new gods. Had he remained quietly at home and written books or taught at the Academy, people would have left him in peace, as they left Plato in peace.

It is true that Plato also almost lost his life when he tried to interest the tyrant Dionysius in his ideas, but he succeeded in getting out of this bad situation. As for Plotinus, no one ever dreamed of laying a hand on him. Kings themselves venerated him, for he was not at all concerned with spreading his philosophy and even hid it from non-initiates.

What Hegel says about the "fate" of Socrates is, then, completely arbitrary. The death of Socrates did not by any means result from the clash of two orders of opposing ideas; Socrates perished because he did not know how, or did not wish, to be silent. Men are afraid not so much of truths, new or old, as of preachers of truths. For truth does not pursue or trouble anyone, while preachers are a very disagreeable lot, in perpetual disquietude and agitation, leaving no one in peace.

In brief, Socrates was condemned to death because he poisoned the existence of the Athenians (he himself, in the Apology, compares himself to a gadfly). Had he only been content to awaken himself or his friends, he would have been left in peace. People would even have repeated his words about the "true awakening."

And this is what happened at the end: no sooner had Socrates died than everyone began to sing his praises. It was known that he was no longer dangerous. Silent truths do not frighten anyone.


Intellectual honesty led Spinoza and, after him, Leibniz, Kant and all the philosophers of modern times to the conviction that the Bible does not contain truth, that it is only morality, and that revelation is a fantastic imagination, while the postulates of practical reason have a high value and are very useful. Consequently? Consequently, you will say, it is necessary to forget the Bible and follow Spinoza and Kant... But what if one should try for once to conclude otherwise and say: "consequently," we must send intellectual honesty to the devil, in order to rid ourselves of Kant's postulates and learn to speak with God as our ancestors spoke with Him.

Intellectual honesty consists in submitting to reason not externally, through fear, but willingly, with all of one's heart. It is a virtue when the power of reason is legitimate. But what if reason has seized power illegally? Is not then our submission to its decrees a shameful slavery? No one wishes to speak of this or even to think of it. And people fly into a passion if anyone permits himself even to raise this question. At the very most we agree to interpret the Bible and to reconcile it with Spinoza and Kant. Hegel spoke readily of revelation, of the incarnation of God and of the absolute religion; and his intellectual honesty is beyond doubt. Hegel could betray Schelling, but he served reason with all his soul and heart.


Essentially the intellectual vision aspires to discover, behind living beings, the eternal and immutable principles which govern the universe. The "freest" human thought ceases to search and is satisfied when it thinks (or, as people prefer to say, when it is convinced) that, having transcended the limits of the individual, the arbitrary and the changing, it has penetrated into the domain of immutable laws. That is why all metaphysical systems begin with freedom and end with necessity.

But since necessity in general does not enjoy a very good reputation, one usually tries to demonstrate that this final and supreme necessity to which the intellectual vision aspires is in no way distinguishable from freedom or, to put it otherwise, that reasonable freedom and necessity are one and the same thing. Now, in reality, they are not at all the same. Reasonable or not, necessity is always necessity. But people ordinarily call "reasonable" every necessity that cannot be overcome - a thing which they carefully dissimulate. And that is quite understandable. The indestructible need to live "according to one's own will" is inherent in the human soul; nothing will make it renounce its eternal dream. But a reasonable will, and what is more, a necessary will, is not "my own will"; the latter is something altogether different. What is more important to man than anything else in the world is to "act according to his own will," even if that will be unreasonable or foolish. And the most eloquent and convincing arguments remain useless in this matter.

Certainly it is not difficult to force man to silence, be it even by the blows of arguments (although there are much more powerful means); and, as history shows, reasonable arguments have always accepted all alliances. But silence is by no means a sign of acquiescence. It often happens that we are silent because we realize the uselessness of speech. Many people, moreover, are not at all lovers of argument. The philosophers (or at least the most intelligent of the philosophers) know this well. That is why they detest the mob so much (they "scorn" it, they say - this sounds more noble), although the mob only very rarely permits itself to contradict them. Men listen, nod in approval, and finally act as if they had heard nothing. Sometimes they even repeat what has been said to them. They repeat it continually, but they live and act as they please. "I see the better and approve of it, but I follow the worse."

Is it not strange? Freedom and necessity are identical; the systems which subordinate reality to ideal laws are true. Man recognizes all this, but when he passes on to action, one might truthfully say that the intellectual vision and its ideal essences never existed. Who, then, is right - the metaphysicians who seek ideal principles, or the simple mortals to whom their instinct whispers that ideal principles are of the devil, just as are all mechanistic explanations of the universe and of life?


It appears to us that it is always good to inquire, and that the road which leads to truth is marked out by questions. We ask, What is the speed of sound? Into what sea does the Volga empty itself? How many years do ravens live? and so on, endlessly. To these questions we obtain precise answers which we consider true. And at once we conclude: since to thousands, to millions of questions of this kind we have obtained answers containing a certain truth, it follows that in order to find truth we must inquire. That is why we ask whether God exists, whether the soul is immortal, whether the will is free (to these three questions, according to Kant, all of metaphysics is reducible), convinced in advance that in this case, as in all others, we shall obtain the truth only by raising questions. Our reason thus anticipates what we have not yet verified, and we are finally quite satisfied: our "knowledge" has been broadened.

As daily experience proves, these kinds of burglary often remain unpunished - but not always. Sometimes someone does interfere in order to punish. Of course, it is not reason that will be punished (reason is too crafty or too ideal to assume any responsibility whatever), but rather the artless representatives of reason - men. Despite their insistence, men do not receive any answer to their questions, or rather, they obtain answers quite other than those which they expected. It serves them right. Why did they inquire? How can anyone hand over to anyone or to anything his right to God, to the soul, to immortality? For the fact is that, in inquiring, we renounce our right, we hand it over to someone. To whom? Who, then, is the someone or something that has stolen from us our soul and our God? And why has this something, to which our existence is perfectly indifferent, to which everything is indifferent, arrogated the right to pronounce final judgment on that which is more important to us than everything in the world?


"Whence comes evil?" people ask. Many theodicies, very little different from each other, give answers to this question - answers which satisfy only their authors (do they satisfy them?) and the lovers of amusing literature. As for others, theodicies annoy them, and this annoyance is directly proportional to the intensity with which the question of evil pursues an individual. When this question acquires for us the importance that it had - for example - for Job, every theodicy appears sacrilegious. Every attempt to "explain" his misfortunes does nothing but aggravate them in the eyes of Job. He does not want explanations and answers. He does not want consolations. Job curses the friends who have come to see him precisely because they are his friends and because, in their condition as friends, they wish to "alleviate" his situation, insofar as any man can help another. And it is precisely this "insofar as" that is unbearable for Job. If it is impossible to help him, it is better not to console him.

To put the matter otherwise, one can ask (sometimes, as in the case of Job, the question is inevitable) "Whence comes evil?" but one cannot answer this question. And it is only when the philosophers recognize that one cannot answer this and many other questions that they will know that one does not always ask to obtain answers, that there are questions whose significance lies precisely in the fact that they do not admit of answers because answers kill them.

Is this not very understandable? What is to be done? Be patient. Man must resign himself to many things still more difficult.


One person asks how knowledge is possible, how it can be that something which differs essentially from us enters into us. Having put this question, he will be satisfied only when he will have proved, or imagine himself to have proved, that the subject and object of knowledge do not differ and are at bottom one and the same thing and that, consequently, the impossible does not exist. Why should the thought that the impossible exists trouble him so much, and why should he find so reassuring the thought that the impossible does not exist. And again, why should he yearn so strongly for tranquility, as if tranquility were the greatest of human goods? I do not undertake to answer these questions, and I am inclined to believe that he cannot answer them either.

Another person has other concerns. He would be very happy to learn that not only what is possible exists, but that it happens sometimes that the impossible also exists. But reality forces him to recognize, on the contrary, not only that the impossible does not exist, but that many things that are possible do not exist either. There would be nothing finally impossible in the fact that men should love one another; now, in reality, homo homini lupus est - There would be nothing impossible either if men, like certain animals, lived for several centuries or if they died when they themselves wished and not on a day and at an hour fixed no one knows by whom or by what. Still many other things of this kind appear to experience unrealizable. And the thirst for absolute knowledge that torments mankind is also unrealizable: we know very little, and what we do know is relative. The final truth hides itself behind impenetrable darkness, though there would be nothing impossible if the truth did not remain hidden to men who long for it so greatly.

But it happens that the theorist of knowledge at times feels other disturbances as well: Why does that which is in no way correspond to that which we wish would be? I shall be told that this is not an appropriate question for the theory of knowledge. But, yes, it is, much more so than that of which we spoke above - how it is possible that what is not similar to us becomes the object of our knowledge. This question appears fundamental and essential only because we are superstitiously convinced that the possible alone exists. But that is a prejudice which daily experience contradicts. This experience shows us that if one combines in a certain proportion oxygen with hydrogen, one obtains water - oxygen with nitrogen, air. Now this is something that is clearly impossible. Why should oxygen and hydrogen produce water? Why should they combine and give birth to a new product, or rather, why is not the result of their combination air? All this is perfectly arbitrary; all this is groundless and, consequently, impossible. Chemistry is the science of the absolute arbitrariness that rules in nature. Chemistry takes its rise from the principle that anything one wishes may arise from anything else one wishes, but with this restriction - that it is not a question of our wish or that of other men who study chemistry, but of the wish of someone or of something that we are incapable even of naming. We are constrained, whether we will it or not, to study chemistry, that is, to recognize the wish of this someone or something which acts as it pleases.

But one is then justified in asking: Whence does it come that this someone or something (at bottom everyone is convinced that it is not a living being) commands and we are constrained to obey? To put the matter otherwise, whence comes the constraining power of knowledge? Why should oxygen and hydrogen combining produce water, and not bread, gold, or a musical symphony? Or why is water the product of oxygen and hydrogen, and not of sound and light? Whence comes the irresistible force of scientific truths or even of simple empirical truths? And how does it happen that men who are so disturbed at the idea that the least impossibility might steal into reality establish with indifference that that reality contains many things inadmissible to us? It is, for example, much easier to admit Pygmalion's statue, Joshua's sun, and all the rest, than to accept the fact that the Athenians poisoned Socrates. And yet we are constrained to affirm the opposite. Joshua did not stop the sun, Pygmalion did not animate his statue - but the Athenians did poison Socrates.

Now, to admit this would be only half a misfortune. But the most incomprehensible thing of all is that philosophers should glorify and bless this constraint which knowledge exercises and demand that everyone else do the same (the theory of knowledge is in fact nothing else than knowledge raised to the level of the ideal, identified with truth). Those who are so agitated at the thought that any impossibility might be introduced into reality consider the constraint which knowledge exercises perfectly reasonable and legitimate. Why? There is here something that is incomprehensible. Should not one ask himself, before everything else, whence this constraint comes? And who knows: if the philosophers were to make the impossible more of their business, if this constraint were to trouble them, if they were to resent it as an offense - perhaps many judgments considered today as necessary and consequently obligatory for everyone would appear absolutely foolish and ridiculous. And the greatest of absurdities would then be found to be this very idea of a truth which constrains.


Ipse conditor et creator mundi semel jussit, semper paret. "The Master and Creator of the world Himself commanded once and obeys always," says Seneca - repeating, as is his custom, the words of others. But if this is so, if God commanded once in order thereafter to content Himself with obeying this single order, then, even in that case, the fact that He commanded, be it only once, is much more important for Him and for us than the obedience to which He has ever since kept.

It is not obedience that characterizes the power of God and His role in the universe. The weakest of beings, even the inanimate objects of the inorganic world, are also capable of obedience. And yet our knowledge is devoted exclusively to the study of the laws of phenomena, as if free creation were something criminal or shameful, so that men and God Himself must not think of it or, at the very least, must not speak of it any more. All truth for us flows from the parere, even metaphysical truth. And yet, the only source of metaphysical truth is the jubere; and as long as men will not participate in the jubere it will seem to them that metaphysics is impossible. Kant turned away from metaphysics only because he had caught in it a glimpse of the terrible jubere, that jubere which he translated (and rightly) by a term which everyone holds in horror - "the arbitrary."


The mortal sin of the philosophers is not the pursuit of the absolute. Their great offense is that, as soon as they realize that they have not found the absolute, they are willing to recognize as absolute one of the products of human activity, such as science, the state, morality, religion, etc. Obviously the state, just like science, morality and religion, has very great value - but only so long as it does not pretend to occupy the throne of the absolute. Religion itself, no matter how profound and sublime it be, is, in the last analysis, only a vessel intended to contain the absolute - the vestment, so to speak, of the absolute. And it is necessary to know how to distinguish the sacred treasure from the vessel which contains it; otherwise one risks falling into idolatry. But men do not know how, or rather, do not wish, to make this distinction. Idols are to them - why, one does not know - nearer, more comprehensible, than God. Holy Scripture speaks much of these things. Idols seduced even the Jewish people, which was called to reveal God to half the human race, and it was only thanks to the prodigious efforts of its prophets that it succeeded in attaining the heights where eternal truth is discovered.

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