In Job's Balances \ Part II \ Revolt and Submission


Plato called time a moving image of eternity. It might be more correct to say: eternity is an unmoving image of time. Philosophers have always looked on time as their enemy, and it is the dream of all metaphysicians to overcome time, in which, with matter, we commonly see the source of evil. Time devours its own children - so we are taught; from time come instability, mutability, lability, and from time also, destruction. And he who would fight against destruction and death aims at overcoming time and the mutability which proceeds from it. At the same time, indeed, we fight also against "matter"; although matter is in itself inertia, i.e. the direct opposite of mutability and instability. If matter were alone in the world, everything, always, would be like itself, there would be no changes and consequently also no destruction. But the material world is death itself! From such a comparison of the immutability of matter and the instability of forms, it should follow that time is no enemy, but an ally of the living man, and alone gives him a hope of the possibility of escaping the might of dead matter. And that the true enemy of man, the symbol and incarnation of death, is eternity, the absence of time. For that reason the basic predicate of matter is eternity and immutability. Time came to the world together with the human soul, eluding the watchfulness of eternity, which guarded it jealously, and together with the soul it declared war on inertia. So that one can perhaps rightly see in time the beginning of all genesis (birth), but in no circumstances may one couple phthora (destruction) with time, as the ancients did. Time only creates the possibility of changes and great transformations. Destruction, however, does not come from time. And if time is as mighty as it appears to the empirical consciousness, then humanity's supreme hopes must be bound up with its might. In the beginning was immovable eternity and its brother death. When time came, having escaped the fetters of inertia and immutability, with it came life. And since that day life and death fight against one another in the world.

Which is the final victor? There is in any case no ground for saying that death is victorious. So far, at least, death has not succeeded in driving life from the world. It often seems as though death and eternity, like matter, have already made important concessions to time, even abdicated their sovereign rights. It seems as though eternity, and death, and matter were turning gradually from substance into accidents, from kings who autocratically lay down the law to being into yielding, conciliatory leaders. Already Plato suspected in matter the "not being"; Aristotle saw in it only the potential being; Plotinus a futile, wretched, weak ghost. Indeed, matter is most like a ghost, and it seems as though it were not real even in our empirical being, as though it did not bind the living man. It only serves him; whether his temporal or metaphysical needs, I know not: perhaps both. It was not for nothing that Plotinus finally resolved to take it with him into yonder world, where it is already no longer the source of evil, but of good. Obviously as soon as we part matter from the idea of "necessity" it will at once be clear that it contains not only evil but also good.

Still more can one say this of forms. Even here, in the empiric world, we convince ourselves that forms are not altogether subject to the law or laws of necessity. The whole glory and beauty of forms is very largely rooted in their capability of passing from one to another. An ugly block of stone transforms itself under our eyes into a beautiful statue. Even ugly men, we are forced to think, may become beautiful - but this is of course much more complicated and difficult, and human art has not succeeded, or only to a very small degree, in achieving the miracle of such transformations. But obviously art is in a position to guess at the possibility of it. This is precisely the starting-point of Plotinus's theory of ideas, and on it he constructs his philosophy of awakening. Plato does not hold our world for real. Plotinus strives vehemently to pass the frontiers of the empiric - his ekstasis (ecstasy) is an attempt to awaken here on earth from the auto-suggestions, to dispel the eternal magic which, embodied in the form of "self-evident truths", paralyzes the understanding and the will of the boldest man. This is precisely the famous "flight from life". And strangely enough, neither in Plotinus nor in Plato does the flight from life at all presuppose hatred or contempt of the world.

How vexed Plotinus was over the teaching of the Gnostics! Plotinus does not despise the world, he loves it with his whole heart - he who, following Plato's example, ever repeats that death is better than life. This "glaring contradiction" (and it is far from being the only one: the whole philosophy both of Plato and of Plotinus consists of glaring contradictions which are carefully hidden from the uninitiated, but no less carefully preserved quite inviolate) is not to be removed from Plotinus's philosophy, which would then lose its soul and life. The fundamental error of most, indeed of almost all, studies on Plotinus, lies in the fact that their authors usually try to tone down the contradictions which they find in him by explanations and commentaries, or to eliminate them by their own additions and emendations. This method is absolutely impermissible... When Eduard von Hartman, who believes himself a kindred spirit of Plotinus and is held by others to be such, attempts, simply in order to eliminate the contradictions which he has remarked, to replace Plotinus's "One" through the conception of "substance" coined by Spinoza, meanwhile transforming "reason" and the "world-soul" into an attribute of thought and will, he is simply concealing the true Plotinus from himself and others. He does this with a perfectly easy conscience, being convinced that philosophy is "common action" and that the series of philosophers who followed Plotinus had added to what they inherited much which Plotinus himself would not reject if one could recall his spirit to earth. Whence comes this conviction? Philosophy is no common action and cannot be so, as it cannot be science in the ordinary sense of the word.

This is especially true of Plotinus's philosophy. Plotinus cannot be supplemented out of Spinoza, Schelling, Schopenhauer, or Hegel. Plotinus cannot be supplemented at all. He can only be heard and, so far as possible, felt. It is not even possible to submit him to a critique in that part of his Meditations in which he touches on truly philosophic questions. We are, of course, not bound to accept his physics and astronomy. His knowledge in the field of positive science is naturally small in comparison with ours. But philosophy - that we seek from him, and he again sought it from men who lived before him and were even less instructed than he. Both he and Plato were deeply convinced that the ancients were "better" than they and nearer to the gods...

Is that right? Must we also assume that Plotinus, who lived so long ago, was better than we and - the main point - nearer to the gods and consequently to the sources of ultimate truth? A question of fundamental importance, which the present day unfortunately does not dare pose, much less solve. We today take the history of philosophy for the fundamental science - fundamental not only for historians, but also for philosophers. The physicist or botanist does not find it necessary to study the history of physics or botany; even if he interests himself in the history of his science it is only by the way. But in philosophy, not even those who believe in the progress of philosophic thought will confine themselves to acquaintance with the modern authors. We need Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus no less than Kant or Hegel. Indeed, even more; one can get along without modern philosophers, such as Wundt or Spencer, but not without Plato or Plotinus. Ancient philosophers, for all their backwardness and, indeed, their ignorance in the field of positive science, are for us eternal and irreplaceable teachers. Similarly, in the field of art the present does not allow the modern poets any advance over Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus or even Horace or Virgil. Dante and Schopenhauer delight us more than Hugo and Musset. And this can be said more truly of religion. The Bible remains the book of books, the eternal book. It would be no loss to exchange the theological literature of a whole generation of later epochs against a single Epistle of St. Paul or a chapter from Isaiah.

This is certainly no chance. The sciences develop and perfect themselves. Positive knowledge accumulates, transmits itself. For that reason each successive generation is more learned than its predecessor. Aristotle is right; a characteristic of knowledge is that it can be transmitted to any man. But in philosophy, art and religion, the case is quite different. The "knowledge of the philosopher, the artist, the prophet, does not enter into man's everyday life as an article of use. For Plato his anamnesis, his "ideas", his "Eros" were knowledge, supreme philosophical knowledge. But even Aristotle "refuted" him. Even today all this knowledge can be drawn from Plato's own works alone, while those theses of the old physics or mechanics which have proved correct are reproduced in any textbook, without even an indication by whom and when they were given to humanity. If we speak of Pythagoras's theorem, Archimedes' level, or even of Newton's laws, it is only for the sake of simplicity and brevity. It is quite different when one speaks of Plato's ideas, of Plotinus's "One", of Aristotle's Entelechy, of Spinoza's amor intellectualis, or even of Kant's postulates. Here the creator is as important as his work. Just as it is impossible to describe or retell in one's own words Phidias or Praxiteles, Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael, Sophocles or Shakespeare. One must oneself see or read their works. Not to speak of the Psalms, the Books of the Prophets, the Epistles of the Apostles; unless one has read them, if one only knows them from the words of others, one cannot even guess what they say. It is true that even those who have read them often do not understand and appreciate them. The fact probably is that, however we strain our imaginations, we yet cannot penetrate into the distant past. And the more distant the past, the more difficult it is to reconstruct it by means of the ordinary historical methods.

One should not deceive oneself and trust too much any one's ability to read the history of the earth, of life, of men, of peoples, from the material traces which have remained behind. There is every reason to suppose that we "read" badly, very badly, and that our bad reading has provided us with a considerable store of false ideas and knowledge. We always read" starting from the presupposition that there is and can be nothing new under the sun, a presupposition that is obviously quite false and entirely unfounded; there is new under the sun, but we lack eyes to recognize it - we only understand how to see the old. The Biblical legend of Adam's fall, for example, is something new. If we examine it as historians should, as men should who seek a natural relationship between phenomena and are convinced a priori that they can find nothing in the darkness of the centuries which does not also exist in our days, we shall be forced either to interpret it wrongly or to hold it for a later, even for a very late interpolation. This would be absurd. The legend of the Fall is so closely bound up with the whole Biblical story that we should be obliged to attribute the whole of Genesis, and consequently, all other books of the Bible, to an epoch near our own. But what then? How can one explain naturally how a little, uneducated, nomad people could come upon the idea that the supreme sin which deformed human nature and brought with it the expulsion from paradise, with all the consequences of that expulsion: our heavy, tortured life, labour in the sweat of our brows, sickness, death, etc. - that the supreme sin of our forefathers was trust in "reason"? and that man in plucking the apple from the tree of knowledge did not save himself as one would suppose, but damned himself for ever?

How, I ask, could such a thought come into the heads of primitive herdsmen who were obliged to devote all their time and forces to the "struggle for existence", i.e. to tending their cows and sheep? What acuteness and refinement of understanding, what culture is necessary even to approach this fateful question! Even today very learned men abstain from such torturing problems, feeling that it is seldom or never granted to man to solve them, or even to grasp them in their whole depth and complexity. One might say more: although the Bible has been for centuries the most widely read book of European humanity and each of its words is held holy, yet the most highly educated and deepest thinkers have never understood the legend of the Fall. Even today none of us understands the riddles hidden in it; we are organically incapable of understanding it. Why is the tree of knowledge the tree of death, while the tree of life gives no knowledge? Our whole experience proves the opposite. Knowledge protects life, enables man - a weak animal without natural weapons - to fight with other animals dangerous to him. Knowledge is the source of our force and might... So it would seem! But if we do not understand the legend of the Fall - how then could uneducated, rude herdsmen understand - much less invent - it.

It is clear that they could neither understand nor invent it; just as they could obviously not come to the conclusion from the visible traces which remained behind that there once had been a flood. The legend of the Fall came to the Jews from somewhere outside, they received it as "a tradition and then it was transmitted from generation to generation. Consequently, its origin must be ascribed to a very remote period of human history. Yet however far back into the darkness of time we remove the legend of the fatal tree, we are not facilitating our task, but rather complicating it more than ever. The forefathers of the Jews who lived in Palestine were even less educated than they; they were quite primitive men, savages. Were they capable of reflecting about such problems at all, far less of solving them? Were they able to contrast life and knowledge?... I repeat that the most highly educated man, even today, could not make such a contrast "with his own reason". When Nietzsche brought back his Beyond Good and Evil from his subterranean and super-terranean wanderings, the world was dumbfounded, as though it had never seen its like before. And that although he was only repeating once again the immemorial legend of the trees which grew in paradise. And that although the story had already been told with such passion and fire by the Prophet Isaiah, by St. Paul, who based himself on the Prophets, and even by Luther, who filled the world with his thunder - Luther, who taught that man is saved, not by works, but by faith alone - sola fide - and that he who trusts in his good works is condemned to everlasting death.

If, then, although the prophets, apostles, and philosophers proclaimed this truth to us so often, we could not and cannot grasp it, how could the Jews invent it for themselves? Obviously they could not. It is equally obvious that they could not have taken it over from any one else. Then whence came it to them? And if it came to them in "natural" wise, why are we, even today, unable to guess its mysterious meaning? Why does it appear, if not exactly false, yet utterly senseless, even to those who look on the Bible as a book of revelation?

It cannot be - so our reason, our whole spiritual being, repeats ever and again - that death came of knowledge. This would mean that man could only free himself from death if he freed himself from knowledge, and lost the power to distinguish good from evil! This was "revealed" to our remote forefathers, and they preserved the truth revealed to them through thousands of years. Hundreds of millions of men have known and know today that passage in the Scriptures which describes the Fall, but no one is able to understand it, still less to explain why a mystery was revealed to us which none can grasp, even after the revelation. The theologians, even those like St. Augustine, have feared this secret, and instead of reading what was written in the Bible, viz: that man became mortal because he ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they read that man became mortal because he disobeyed God. Others have conceived it still more crudely, and seen the original sin in the concupiscentia which Adam, seduced by Eve, is alleged to have been unable to overcome in himself. But this is not a reading; it is an artificial and calculated interpretation. If man had disobeyed some other commandment of God's, the consequences would not have been so heavy and disastrous; the Bible itself relates this later.

The point was simply that the fruit of the tree of knowledge which grew in Eden beside the tree of life bore within itself inevitable death. It was against this that God had warned man. But the warnings had proved useless. Even as man, "after he had eaten of the fruit and become aware" that he was naked and must be ashamed of his nakedness, could not help but be ashamed, so "after he became aware that death existed, he could no more deliver himself from death. It was not God who "condemned" him to it - God only put into words what had happened without him; man passed his own death-sentence. He believed the Serpent's words that knowledge would increase his strength, and became a knowing, but a limited and mortal being. And the more he "knows", the more limited he is. The essence of knowing lies in limitation; this is the sense of the Biblical legend. Knowing is the power and the eternal preparedness to look about one, which again is the outcome of fear that unless one looks what is behind, one will fall victim to a dangerous and guileful enemy. Before the Fall Adam looked on Eve and was not ashamed - in human nakedness, as in all that was in the Garden of Eden, was only beauty.

The shameful, the bad, the frightful came from knowledge and together with knowledge, with its "criteria" which arrogate the right to judge and condemn. Direct seeing cannot bring with it anything bad or false. After creating lies and evil, knowledge tries to teach man how he can save himself from lies and evil through his own strength, his own works. But "knowledge" and "works" - if one accepts the mysterious Biblical legend - were precisely the source of all evil upon earth. - One must redeem oneself in other wise, through "faith" as St. Paul teaches, through faith alone, i.e. through a spiritual exertion of quite peculiar nature, which we describe as "audacity". Only when we have forgotten the "laws" which bind us so fast to the limited existence, can we raise ourselves up above human truths and human good. To raise himself man must lose the ground under his feet.

It is true, "dialectic" cannot help here, neither the yearning for "eternity" which we are alleged to feel through conscious reason in mutable time. We need not fear mutability: our arch-enemies are the "self-evident truths". I know it is immeasurably hard for man to be condemned to go without knowing whither. Obviously this ought not to be asked of him. But it is not a case of "asking". No one asks that all men should invariably disregard evidence. Perhaps, on the contrary, every one must invariably reckon with it. But many a man can also often not reckon with it, and often does not reckon with it. And then it begins to appear as though eternity were only motionless pictures of time, as though that which had a beginning had no end, as though the Biblical philosophy were far deeper and wiser than modern philosophy, and even - to be quite frank - as though the Jews had not invented the legend of the Fall, but had received it in one of those ways about which the latest theories of knowledge can tell us nothing.


Plato says in the Timaeus that natural death is painless and rather pleasurable than grievous. Very many philosophers are of like opinion. This is comprehensible. A philosopher is "obliged" to answer questions, i.e. to explain the problematical, to reduce the unknown to the known. Yet to him who himself wishes to learn, not to instruct others, death has always appeared something supremely unnatural, something unnatural kat' eksochÍn, and will always so appear to him. He sees in death the eternal problematical, a thing not compatible with the usual ordo et connexio rerum or even idearum. For him there is no need to be hypocritical, to declare that death in old age is "pleasant". Death is always frightful. It is true that nature could have arranged it differently, could have contrived that when once man feels that his bonds with the world are relaxing, he should feel great joy.

So it would have to be if death were a "natural" phenomenon. And why do we really believe that death is more natural in old age than in youth? If the word "natural" has any meaning at all, we must allow that everything in the world is alike natural: health and sickness, death in old age and death in youth. Nothing unnatural, i.e. nothing against nature, can be. If it exists, it is natural. And if this is so, then it should be much more natural, because it is more common, to die in youth or middle age, through sickness or some other "chance" cause, to die in agony, than in old age and painlessly. Look at the statistics, if personal experience and observation are insufficient; only very few men reach a great age, and painless or happy death is practically unknown. Death is monstrous, agonizing and frightful. Even the outward appearance of death is ghastly. Even if the decay of the organism were not accompanied by danger to other men, yet we should have to burn or bury corpses. Those who are not used to the sight cannot see even a skeleton without a shudder which is usually called superstitious, but would be described quite differently if we looked more closely.

Thus, despite Plato, death is the most unnatural, mysterious, and enigmatic thing of all that goes on around us. And it is not by chance that it is accompanied with such horror and dread, but rather, perhaps, precisely in order to emphasize its inexplicable quality. Consequently, there is no need to palliate death, to make it less frightful and problematical. The fear of death is not fortuitous, it is integrally bound up with our innermost essence, bound with indissoluble bonds: This should be our starting-point. Plato himself knew this when he wrote the Phaedo under the fresh impression of Socrates' death. Indeed, when the Master dies under our eyes, we shall hardly entertain considerations of the naturalness of death, or of any naturalness. In such a case one thinks only of the unnatural, the supernatural. Can we then feel convinced that the natural is more legitimate and mightier than the supernatural? It is, indeed - at first sight - more comprehensible, more thinkable, more expected. But what is the value of first sight, thinkableness, comprehensibility? Socrates has been poisoned, he is no morel It is true, the "natural" does not disquiet us, it is easily borne and accepted, while it is immeasurably difficult to open the soul to the supernatural. And only before great terror does the soul resolve to apply to itself that compulsion without which it could never raise itself up above the commonplace; the ugliness and agony of death make us forget everything, even our "self-evident truths", and force us to seek the new reality in those fields which seemed to us before to be peopled with shadows and ghosts.


Plotinus passes for the most "sublime" of philosophers. Some rank him even above Plato. And not, it seems, without reason. Plotinus never laughs, he does not even smile. He is solemnity incarnate. His whole task - in this he is continuing and complementing the work of Socrates, "the wisest among men" - consists in detaching man from the outer world. The inner joys, inner contentment, are, he teaches, quite independent of the conditions of our outward existence. The body is a prison wherein the soul resides. The visible world is the wall of this prison. So long as we let our spiritual welfare depend on our jailers, we can never be "happy". We must learn to despise all that is external, created; more, we must learn to regard it as "non-existent". Only then shall we attain that freedom lacking which life seems to Plotinus miserable, empty, illusory. today ordinary men treasure success, fame, health, beauty, etc. If all this is given them, they are glad; if not, sorry. Every joy and every sorrow has for ordinary, unphilosophical men its own cause.

The philosopher's joy and sorrow, however, according to Plotinus, must be groundless, autonomous. The soul is not glad because something has been "given", "presented" to it. It is glad because it wishes to be glad. It makes itself gifts and is glad in its gifts. And this possibility is reached in the state of ekstasis, of ecstasy, of departure from the world, of complete detachment from it. What cares the ecstatic for personal events, even for events which shake the whole world? Has he lost his good name, health, friends, relatives? This troubles only those who think that life is better than death. Even the destruction of his fatherland will make no impression on him who has learned the joy of fusion with God. As virtue knows no lord over itself - aretÍ adespotos - so there is also no lord over the wise man who has grasped ultimate truth. Whatever may betide in the world, the wise man will ever preserve his loftiness and spiritual calm.

Now the question arises: Wherein lies the essence of man's oneness with God? Who needs this - God, or the lonely human soul? But God is passionless, He needs nothing. That is Plotinus's axiom. Consequently it is the soul that needs it. The soul which, again according to Plotinus's teaching, once in wanton audacity resolved to escape from the womb of eternal being into independent existence. But is it worth while pondering over so wanton a soul and creating a philosophy for it? And then - joy of oneness! It is again only the same wanton, individual soul that can rejoice; God remains passionless, as He was ever. Is not the way pointed out by Plotinus a new audacity - this time not open, but masked - of the individual entity? In the material world it has had no luck, its first audacity has been a failure, and so it seeks to cheat God in a new way, merely to preserve its right to personal being and personal joys?

Or is Plotinus wanting to be particularly "sly", an unconscious tool in the hand of "Almighty God", a "cheated cheat"? He has been sent "from on high" to lure the audacious apostates, to lead them back to eternal submission, and, all imbued with his great, prophetic mission, he tells of the supposed "sublime" joy of the last oneness; he knows that there can be no joys for him who renounces his own self - how can there be joy and delight more when one rushes into the arms of something that has not even a being, as a hypnotized bird rushes into the cobra's jaws? But he also knows that no one would follow him if he spoke the truth, and that the eternal crime, the thought of which is such torture to his philosophic conscience, would then remain unatoned. Justice must triumph, even at the price of the destruction of the entire human race. Herein and herein alone lie the "beauty" and "sense" of sublimity. It is of this that that "One" dreams which Plotinus hymns so incomparably, at this alone does it aim. The joys, the delights, the beatitude - they are only enticements, only bait by which man must be lured, since he is incapable of understanding that the purpose of the world structure does not lie in him and his destiny, but in eternal lawfulness and the sublime severity of unalterable order.


In his life man often changes from audacity to subservience. But in the end he usually obeys. The history of philosophy - if the historians' opinions are to be trusted - is that of human humiliation. But has the history of philosophic teaching really expressed the history of our spiritual wrestling? And is the history of civilization, as usually portrayed, really the balance-sheet of all human activity, of all our endeavours and cognition? I think we must answer, no, it is not. Such admissions occasionally escape even professional historians in their more sincere moments. Hegel's philosophy of history is a crude and noxious falsification of life. His rational reality is neither rational nor real. Audacity is no fortuitous sin of man's, but his supreme truth. And those men who have proclaimed humility have been in their innermost being the most audacious of men. Humiliation was for them only a means, only a way in their battle for their rights. And that is why Aristotle conquered. The conquered and rejected are Plato, Protagoras, the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul among the ancients, Pascal, Shakespeare, Heine and others among the moderns. But "history", our history, reckons without its host. The judgment, the dreadful Last Judgment, is not here. Here the conquerors have been the "ideas", the "consciousness as such", and those men who have esteemed the "universal" and proclaimed it God. But "there" - there those who were rejected and defeated will be heard. The one objection might be that there was no "there", only a "here". And God is only here, not there. That is an objection, I do not contest it. Hoc signo vinces, hoc signo vincunt et vincent et vincant.

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