Athens and Jerusalem

Part I

PARMENIDES IN CHAINS

On the Sources of the Metaphysical Truths


"Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded."

      - ARISTOTLE, Met., 1015A, 32.


"The beginning of philosophy is the recognition of its own powerlessness and of the impossibility of fighting against Necessity."

      - EPICTETUS, Dissert., II, 11.


1

     We live surrounded by an endless multitude of mysteries. But no matter how enigmatic may be the mysteries which surround being, what is most enigmatic and disturbing is that mystery in general exists and that we are somehow definitely and forever cut off from the sources and beginnings of life. Of all the things that we here on earth are the witnesses, this is obviously the most absurd and meaningless, the most terrible, almost unnatural, thing - which forces us irresistibly to conclude either that there is something that is not right in the universe, or that the way in which we seek the truth and the demands that we place upon it are vitiated in their very roots.

     Whatever our definition of truth may be, we can never renounce Descartes' clare et distincte (clarity and distinctness). Now, reality here shows us only an eternal, impenetrable mystery - as if, even before the creation of the world, someone had once and for all forbidden man to attain that which is most necessary and most important to him. What we call the truth, what we obtain through thought, is found to be, in a certain sense, incommensurable not only with the external world into which we have been plunged since our birth but also with our own inner experience. We have sciences and even, if you please, Science, which grows and develops before our very eyes. We know many things and our knowledge is a "clear and distinct" knowledge. Science contemplates with legitimate pride its immense victories and has every right to expect that nothing will be able to stop its triumphant march. No one doubts, and no one can doubt, the enormous importance of the sciences. If Aristotle and his pupil Alexander the Great were brought back to life today, they would believe themselves in the country of the gods and not of men. Ten lives would not suffice Aristotle to assimilate all the knowledge that has been accumulated on earth since his death, and Alexander would perhaps be able to realize his dream and conquer the world. The clare et disctincte has justified all the hopes which were founded upon it.

     But the haze of the primordial mystery has not been dissipated. It has rather grown denser. Plato would hardly need to change a single word of his myth of the cave. Our knowledge would not be able to furnish an answer to his anxiety, his disquietude, his "premonitions." The world would remain for him, "in the light" of our "positive" sciences, what it was - a dark and sorrowful subterranean region - and we would seem to him like chained prisoners. Life would again have to make superhuman efforts, "as in a battle," to break open for himself a path through the truths created by the sciences which "dream of being but cannot see it in waking reality." [1] In brief, Aristotle would bless our knowledge while Plato would curse it. And, conversely, our era would receive Aristotle with open arms but resolutely turn away from Plato. But it will be asked: What is the force and power of the blessings and curses of men, even if these men be such giants as Plato and Aristotle? Does truth become more true because Aristotle blesses it, or does it become error because Plato curses it? Is it given men to judge the truths, to decide the fate of the truths? On the contrary, it is the truths which judge men and decide their fate and not men who rule over the truths. Men, the great as well as the small, are born and die, appear and disappear - but the truth remains. When no one had as yet begun to "think" or to "search," the truths which later revealed themselves to men already existed. And when men will have finally disappeared from the face of the earth, or will have lost the faculty of thinking, the truths will not suffer therefrom. It is from this that Aristotle set out in his philosophical researches. He declared that Parmenides was "constrained to follow the phenomena." In another place,[2] speaking of the same Parmenides and of other great Greek philosophers, he wrote, they were "constrained by the truth itself." This Aristotle knew definitely: the truth has the power to force or constrain men, all men alike, whether it be the great Parmenides and the great Alexander or Parmenides' unknown slave and the least of Alexander's stable-men.

     Why does the truth have this power over Parmenides and Alexander, and not Parmenides and Alexander who have power over the truth? This is a question that Aristotle does not ask. If someone had asked it of him, he would not have understood it and would have explained that the question is meaningless and obviously absurd, that one can say such things but one cannot think them. And this is not because he was an insensible being who was indifferent to all and to whom everything was the same, or that he would have been able to say of himself, like Hamlet, "I am pigeon-livered and lack gall to make oppression bitter." For Aristotle Oppression is bitter. In another passage of the same Metaphysics he says that it is hard to bow down before Necessity: "everything which constrains is called necessary and that is why the necessary is bitter, as Evenus says: 'every necessary thing is always painful and bitter.' And constraint is a form of necessity - as Sophocles also says: 'But an invincible force necessitates me to act thus.' [3] Aristotle, we see, feels pain and bitterness at ineluctable Necessity, but, as he himself adds immediately, he distinctly knows that "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded." And since it does not listen to persuasion and is not to be overcome, one must submit to it - be this bitter or not, painful or not - submit and henceforth renounce useless struggle: anankÍ stÍnai, "cry halt before Necessity."

     Whence comes this "cry halt before Necessity?" Here is a question of capital importance which contains, if you wish, the alpha and omega of philosophy. Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded, it does not even listen. The injustice cries to heaven, if there is no longer anyone here to whom one can cry. It is true that in certain cases and even very often, almost always, the injustice will cry and protest only to end up by becoming silent; men forget both their sorrows and their cruel losses. But there are injustices that one cannot forget. "If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem...let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth." [4] For two thousand years we have all repeated the Psalmist's oath. But did the Psalmist not "know" that Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded, that it does not listen to oaths or prayers, that it hears nothing and fears nothing? Did he not know that his voice was and could be only the voice of one crying in the wilderness? Of course he knew it, he knew it quite as well as Aristotle. But, doubtless he had something more than this knowledge. Doubtless when a man feels the injustice as deeply as did the Psalmist, his thought undergoes, in a way that is completely unexpected, incomprehensible and mysterious transformations in its very essence. He cannot forget Jerusalem, but he forgets the power of Necessity, the omnipotence of this enemy so terribly armed - one does not know by whom or when or why; and, without thinking of the future, he begins a terrible and final, battle against this enemy. This is surely the meaning of Plotinus' words: "A great and final battle awaits human souls." And these words of Plato have the same meaning: "If it is necessary to dare everything, should we not dare to defy all shame?" [5] Man decides to take up the struggle against all-powerful Necessity only when there awakens in him the readiness to dare everything, to stop before nothing. Nothing can justify this boundless audacity; it is the extreme expression of shamelessness. One has only to look at Aristotle's Ethics to be convinced of this. All the virtues are placed by him in the middle zone of being, and everything which passes beyond the limits of "the mean" is an indication of depravity and vice. "Cry halt before Necessity" rules his Ethics as well as his Metaphysics. His final word is the blessing of Necessity and the glorification of the spirit which has submitted to Necessity.

     Not only the good but the truth as well wishes man to bow down before it. All who have read the famous Twelfth Book, especially the last chapter, of the Metaphysics and the Ninth and Tenth Books of the Ethics know with what fervor Aristotle supplicated Necessity which does not allow itself to be persuaded and which he had not the power to overcome. What irritated him or, perhaps, disturbed him most in Plato was the latter's courage or rather, to use his own expressions, Plato's audacity and shamelessness, which suggested to him that those who adore Necessity only dream of reality but are powerless to see it in the waking state. Plato's words seemed to Aristotle unnatural, fantastic, deliberately provoking. But how to silence Plato, how to constrain him not only to submit to Necessity in the visible and empirical world but also to render to it in thought the honors to which, Aristotle was convinced, it is entitled? Necessity is Necessity, not for those who sleep but for those who are awake. And the waking who see Necessity see real being, while Plato, with his audacity and shamelessness, turns us away from real being and leads us into the domain of the fantastic, the unreal, the illusory, and - by that very fact - the false. One must stop at nothing in order finally to extinguish in man that thirst for freedom which found expression in Plato's work. "Necessity" is invincible. The truth is, in its essence and by its very nature, a truth that constrains; and it is in submission to the constraining truth that the source of all human virtues lies. "Constrained by the truth itself," Parmenides, Heraclitus and Anaxagoras accomplished their work. It has always been so, it will always be so, it must be so. It is not the great Parmenides who rules over the truth but the truth that is the master of Parmenides. And to refuse obedience to the truth that constrains is impossible. Still more: to do other than bless it, whatever be the thing to which it constrains, is impossible. Herein lies the supreme wisdom, human and divine; and the task of philosophy consists in teaching men to submit joyously to Necessity which hears nothing and is indifferent to all.


[1] Republic, 533C.
[2] Metaphysics, 984b, 10.
[3] Metaphysics, 1015a, 28 ff.
[4] Psalms, 137:5-6.
[5] Theaetetus, 196D.

Orphus system


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