Athens and Jerusalem \  Part I  \ Parmenides in Chains


     Such was the way that Plato followed. In the Phaedo Socrates relates that when he was a young man he was present at a reading of fragments of the work of Anaxagoras. Having heard that reason was the orderer and cause of all, he felt a tremendous joy and told himself that here was precisely what he needed and that he would not be willing to exchange this doctrine for all the treasures of the world. To ascribe such a power to reason meant, according to him, that it is given to reason to find for everyone what best agrees with him. Consequently man has the right to expect that there will come to him nothing but happiness and good. But how disillusioned Socrates was when, having probed Anaxagoras' words to the depths, he saw that Anaxagoras' reason seeks and discovers in the world only the natural relationships of things! Socrates found this deeply offensive and, turning away from Anaxagoras, began to seek at his own risk and peril the principles and sources of all that exists.

     By what right did Socrates so decide? Was reason obliged to furnish Socrates an explanation of the universe in which "the best" would also be the strongest? Does reason possess the faculty of discovering everywhere only the "good" and not what is - the evil as well as the good? We have no right, i.e., we have no ground, to be certain that reason will find in the world more good than evil. It may be that it finds more good, or it may be that it finds more, even enormously more, evil. Aristotle also knew Anaxagoras, but Anaxagoras was quite agreeable to him; he considered him "a sober man among the drunken." Are the notion of reason and the notion of "the best" juxtaposable? Should it not be admitted, on the contrary, that the notion of "the best" must be deduced from the notion of reason? The best may not be reasonable, and the reasonable may exclude the best. It is completely reasonable, not to take any other example, that the judgment "Socrates was poisoned" should be an eternal truth, quite like the judgment "a mad dog was poisoned." It is similarly reasonable that the stone endowed with consciousness and the divine Plato, who would have given everything in the world to wrest his master from the clutches of this eternal truth, should be equally constrained to recognize the reality of this judgment.

     One could cite an endless number of examples of this kind. Did not Plato and Socrates know this quite as well as we? Had they so wished, they would have been able to say, as people now say: "The inferior categories of being are the strongest, the superior the weakest." And even if there were only a little good here, even if there were no good at all, this would have been completely reasonable. It would have been well if the superior categories were the strongest. But to demand of reason that it recognize that the superior categories are the strongest, would this not be to "constrain" reason? And does reason submit to force, wherever it may come from? People can say to us, as they have said to us, "Parmenides constrained" or even "God constrained." But to say reason constrained," even if it be by the good itself - no matter how highly one glorifies the good and even if one affirms, following Plato, "the good is not essence but that which is beyond essence and surpasses essence both in value and in power" [1] - who would dare say such a thing? Who would have the courage to declare that the truth "Socrates was poisoned" will cease to exist in some near or distant future and that (this is what is now most important for us) reason itself will have to recognize this, and not on its own initiative but "constrained" by something stronger than itself? Is there a power capable of ruling over the truths?

     There cannot be two opinions on this matter: there is no such power. And yet Plato sought this power and followed it even into death where, according to the general opinion, one cannot find anything. But it must be recognized: Plato did not find what he was seeking. Or, to be more exact: Plato did not succeed in bringing back to men what he had found beyond the limits of all possible knowledge. When he tried to show men what he had seen, the thing changed itself mysteriously under his eyes into its contrary. It is true that this "contrary" beguiles and charms us through the reflection of the ineffable, which awakens in mortals the remembrance of the primordial, infinite and supernatural fullness and beauty of being. But the ineffable remains ineffable. "To see the Creator of the world is difficult, to show Him - impossible." The ineffable is ineffable because and inasmuch as it is opposed by its very nature not to realization in general, as people are inclined to believe, but to definitive and final realization. It does realize itself but it cannot and does not wish to be transformed into knowledge. For knowledge is constraint, and constraint is submission, loss, and privation, which finally hides in its depths the terrible threat of "contentment with oneself." Man ceases to be man and becomes a stone endowed with consciousness. The Parmenides "who is constrained by the truth itself," the Parmenides who turns around to look at the truth, is no longer the Parmenides who, as Plato later did, dares to penetrate into the land which is known by no one but only promised to men, to seek there the golden fleece or some other treasure that in no way resembles those that men know. He is no longer the living, restless, insubmissive, tortured and -by that very fact - great Parmenides. The Medusa's head, which he saw in turning backward, brought him a deep and final repose.

     Plato himself writes: "But the pleasure which is to be found in the knowledge of true being is known only to the philosopher." [2] But he has explained to us what pleasure is: pleasure is the nail by means of which man is riveted to his illusory, shadow-like, and mortal being. Now if contemplation brings pleasure, whatever the contemplation may be, we shall not escape the fateful payment. And Plato, as if he were doing it purposely, as if he wished to emphasize that it is not given to man to go beyond "pleasure" and that pleasure is the recompense and goal of all our efforts, repeats again on the following page: "All pleasure, except that which a reasonable man feels, is impure and shadow-like." And later he expatiates with still more warmth on the pleasure which this same contemplation brings to us. [3] Everything that Aristotle later said with so much eloquence about "contemplation being what is most pleasant and best" [4] is taken from Plato. And in Plotinus also we find not a few eloquent pages of the same kind. By means of pleasure man is effectively nailed, as with enormous nails, to that place of being where he was obliged by chance to begin his existence. And accordingly, fear, armed with threats of every kind, does not permit him to tear himself away, be it only in imagination, from the earth and to rise above the plane which our thought has become accustomed to consider as containing everything real and everything possible.

     We have preserved this mysterious thought of Heraclitus: "For God everything is good and just, while men consider certain things just and certain other things unjust." This thought is also found in Plotinus. He repeats it in the last, chronologically, of his Enneads (I, VII, 3): "for the gods there is only good, there is no evil." And again (I, VIII, end): "there, there is no evil," as if he were echoing to us the no less mysterious "it was very good" of the Bible. But this "absurd" thought, whose very absurdity makes it so seductive, does not find any root in the world where pleasures and pains have power over us, where pleasures and pains are a sufficient reason" for the acts and thoughts of man, where it is they that determine what is significant and important for us. For it is also a "fundamental law" that pleasures and pains here on earth come not when and for as long as a man calls them but when they themselves wish. Then they make themselves masters of a man's soul and, as Plato taught us, nail him to the subterranean place which was prepared for him in advance, by suggesting to him the invincible conviction that this was and always will be so, that even among the gods everything happens as it does on earth, that pleasures and pains govern and command while no one governs or commands them. In Spinoza's terminology: good and ill fortune is distributed indifferently among the just and the wicked. Socrates' statement that no good can come to the wicked and no evil to the good is only an "empty babbling," a "poetic image" that he picked up on the street or some place still worse (Socrates went everywhere and disdained no one); it was certainly not drawn from the sources whence the eternal truths flow for man.

     It is not difficult to guess where Socrates found his pseudotruth and to what source he went to seek it. It obviously flows from the "by my will," from the primordial jubere, which men and gods have forgotten and of which they do not dare to remind themselves. Socrates' conviction was born of his desire, but what good can there be in an idea derived from such low parentage? Socrates turned away from Anaxagoras because the latter glorified the reason (nous) which does not take any account of human desires and is indifferent to "the best." The universe is maintained only by obedience: "Law is the king of all, of mortals and immortals." [5] There is no way of escape from this. Wherever one looks there are laws, demands, commandments that rest on the "sufficient reasons" of which we have heard so much said by Aristotle and Epictetus. Plato and Socrates dared to defy the laws and Necessity, and opposed to them "by my will." But - and here is the most terrible and mysterious of all the "buts" that have ever limited man - they were not able to renounce pleasure, not even the pleasure that forms the essence and content of "contentment with oneself." How could it be otherwise? If "by my will" remains itself, for as long as it remains itself, one cannot show it, as one cannot show men the Demiurge who is the source of all "by my will." No eye, either corporeal or spiritual, can see either the Demiurge or the commandments that emanate from him. Here vision ends, here begins the mysterious region of the no less mysterious participation. Here constraint ends, for the commandments of the Demiurge, contrary to the commandments of Necessity which is indifferent to all, do not constrain anyone. They call to life, make gifts, enrich suddenly.

     The more the Demiurge commands, the less it is necessary to obey. The Demiurge calls the man enchained by Necessity to ultimate freedom. He is not even afraid, no matter how strange this may appear to the human thought based upon fear - but the Demiurge fears nothing - to give all his endless power and all his creative forces which are also endless to another being whom he has created in his image. "For God everything is very good." For men it is otherwise; for them the "very good" is the greatest of absurdities. "Daily experience" teaches us that it is necessary to be afraid, that everything surrounding us hides endless dangers in itself. And to avoid these dangers we take refuge behind the ramparts, created by ourselves, of "eternal, self-evident truths." Plato himself, despite his desperate struggle against Necessity maintained in the depths of his soul the clear and irreducible conviction that "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded," that one may at times outwit its vigilance and trap it but that it is finally given no one to escape its power. Without pleasures one cannot live; but pleasures come and go, not when we desire but when they themselves please. And if one wishes to enjoy them, he must go and seek them at all-powerful Necessity; he must reluctantly renounce the sovereign jubere (command) and return to the parere (obedience) that has been admitted throughout all time.

     As soon as Plato turned away from the Demiurge - even if it were only to show him to others, to show him to all - the "by my will" grew dim and became a shadow, a phantom. But when Plato, in communing with him, discovered the Demiurge, he lost the possibility and faculty of giving men truths "capable of being proved." Communion presupposes "the flight of the one to the One," as Plotinus was later to say. It begins with the "true awakening" and carries man "beyond reason and knowledge," beyond the limits of the world "given" once for all that is "the condition of the possibility" of knowledge and where the conditions of the possibility of knowledge were created by Necessity which does not allow itself to be persuaded and which exists especially for this. And indeed, if Necessity were not deaf and blind, the idea of knowledge would lose all meaning. Truth could not be in the adaequatio rei et intellectus (approximation of thing and intellect), for how could one take as the standard a thing that is not at the disposal of deaf and, by that very fact, unchangeable Necessity but depends on the will of a relenting, susceptible to persuasion and, consequently, "capricious" being (Kant's deus ex machina or höheres Wesen)?

     If one drove Necessity from the world, knowledge would become a dream as unrealizable as it is useless. At present, as we recall, even empirical, a posteriori judgments have obtained the exalted rank of eternal truths; but if Necessity disappeared, a priori judgments themselves would return to the subaltern state of perishable beings. The very gods would no longer be omniscient. Can one accept such a state of things? "Contemplation is what is most pleasant and best," we have heard Aristotle say above. And Plato spoke the same way. In return, however, we should once again possess the "by my will," the primordial freedom. And to ariston (the best), as well as to hędiston (the most pleasant) would come not when they wish but when we called them! And pleasures would no longer enchain us but rather follow us into that world where laws do not rule over mortals and immortals but where the immortals and the mortals whom they have created would, by their divine will, themselves make and unmake laws, where the proposition "a mad dog has been poisoned" would really be an eternal truth while the proposition "Socrates has been poisoned" would be a temporary and provisional truth, where for men also "everything is very good."

     I repeat once more: Plato sought only this - to flee from the cave where the shadows pretend to reality and where one cannot look at the illusory reality because it petrifies. Indeed, it is necessary that our corporeal eyes forget how to see when it is given us to penetrate into the region where the gods live with their tęs emęs boulęseôs (limitless freedom) and without our knowledge, without even the perfect knowledge that we call omniscience. Plato, I say, sought only this. But Necessity does not merely refuse to let itself be persuaded. In the course of its millennial relationships with the men over whom it had power it acquired consciousness from them. If many men are changed into stones endowed with consciousness, Necessity - although preserving its stony and altogether indifferent nature - also finds itself provided with consciousness. And it succeeded in deceiving Plato himself, in persuading him that in the "other" world also only he who is on good terms with Necessity can exist, that the gods do not fight against Necessity, that the world was born of the union between reason and Necessity.

     It is true that, according to Plato, reason convinced Necessity of many things and seems to have succeeded even in gaining ascendancy over Necessity; but this domination was illusory and conditioned by the tacit recognition of the primordial rights, and even the birthright, of Necessity. Still more: in order to "achieve dominion" over Necessity, reason had to give way on the most important and most essential point; it had to agree that all conflicts between truths should be resolved by "force" (bia) and to admit that truth is truth only when and for as long as it is given to it to constrain men. Through their corporeal eyes men are bound to their prison; "the spiritual vision" must then also bind, "constrain."

     The disciples of Socrates gathered around their condemned master to receive from his mouth not simply the truth but the truth that constrains — not through the corporeal eyes, it is true, but through the spiritual eyes. Its power of constraint, however, is not weakened thereby but further augmented. In the presence of death and preparing to die, Socrates gives proofs, proofs, and again proofs. He cannot do otherwise: "unbelief is proper to the masses." If one does not furnish them with proofs, the masses will not believe. But who are hoi polloi, "the masses"? The disciples of Socrates are not hoi polloi; they are the elect. But the elect are no exception; they do not wish, and are not able, to "believe." Hoi polloi — these are "all of us," not only the mob but also the disciples of Socrates, not only the disciples of Socrates but Socrates himself. Socrates also wishes first to see, be it only by "the spiritual vision" or by the "eyes of the mind," and only thereafter to accept and believe. This is why he listens so attentively to the objections of his interlocutors. This is why the divine Plato, who took over his intellectual heritage, could not, to the very end of his days, renounce dialectic. Dialectic is as much a "force" as physical force; it is a death-dealing weapon, like the sword or the arrow. It is a question only of knowing how to use it, and the whole world will be at our feet. "The whole world" means all men. All men will be obliged to repeat what you proclaim as the truth.

     I insist upon this: in the presence of "all," Socrates and Plato did not dare to go back to the sources of their truths. In the presence of "all," they also became like everyone else, like hoi polloi, of whom it is said that unbelief is proper to them, who accept only the proven truth which constrains — the apparent, visible, evident truth. Beyond the limit of what is visible either to the spiritual or the physical eye, there is no longer anything to seek, there is no longer anything to expect. Under the pressure of Necessity, Socrates had to give way on this point. He offered his disciples "the vision of what is" and "the pleasure" that depends on the vision of what is. He offered these to his disciples in place of the various pleasures which are bound, for the inhabitants of the cave, to the perception of that subterranean reality where Plato suddenly felt the presence of corrupting, destructive elements (damnatio aeterna). And he regarded this "vision" as "a great gift to men of the gods, who will not give them and have never given them any greater."[6]

     The "masses" have obtained what they desired. They desired to receive their reward immediately, even before Socrates had closed his eyes, and they did receive it. "Philosophy" makes this categorical declaration to us in the Phaedo: "to believe no one except oneself." But he who believes only in himself, only in his own eyes, even if they be the spiritual eyes, will inevitably become the vassal of Necessity and be condemned to content himself with the leavings that it hands over to mortals and immortals. Without realizing it Plato let himself slide (or was carried away) from the heights that he had attained when — "the one before the One" — he forgot, thanks to the practice of and meditation on death, all fear and all the threats that close for men the gateway to the final truth, and fell back again to the place where the great Parmenides himself, "constrained to follow the phenomena," does not dare to seek anything other than the pleasure obtained by the contemplation of that which is, of that which was created and formed without him and before him. And not only Parmenides but the gods themselves, "constrained by the truth," have refused to create or to change anything whatever in the universe. Plato did not succeed in "persuading" Necessity; Necessity outwitted Plato. For the "pleasure" of being with all and of thinking like all, he had to surrender everything to it. Necessity remained the sovereign of the world; the whole world belongs to it while the "by my will" became transformed into a shadow. And at the same time the cave, as well as everything that happens in the cave, became again the kingdom of the sole and final reality, outside of which there is neither being nor thought.

[1] Republic, 509B.
[2] Republic, 582C.
[3] Republic, 585E, 586A.
[4] Metaphysics, 1072b, 23.
[5] Gorgias, 484B.
[6] Timaeus, 47B.

Orphus system

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