Athens and Jerusalem \ Part IV \ On the Second Dimension of Thought


It often happens that man deceives himself, that he believes he knows something when in fact he does not know. To guard himself from errors he has had to seek out "criteria" of truth. One of the surest criteria of truth that men have found is coherence among different pieces of knowledge, or, to put it differently, the absence of contradiction between these pieces of knowledge. Man seeks and finds relationships between phenomena, and the existence of these relationships is the guarantee of truth for him. Little by little he comes to imagine that his task is not to discover truth, but rather somehow to create around himself an atmosphere of agreement, an ensemble of coherences from which all contradiction will be banished. Finally he is ready to recognize as "truth" every coherence, even if it be imaginary or nonexistent. And there is no way of making him let go of this idea. It is also impossible to make him remember that there was a time when he himself knew that truth has absolutely nothing to do with coherence. When Plato reminded himself of this, people accused him of foundering in dualism and mythology - others even say, of babbling (Hegel). At the very best, people try to interpret him in a modern fashion by reducing, for example, his anamnesis to synthetic judgments a priori.


Reason is judex et princeps omnium, according to St. Anselm of Canterbury. It would seem that reason should be satisfied with such a high token of respect. But no, this does not suffice for it. Reason wishes to be the creator, the sole creator, of everything that exists. There is room to believe that those who have fought against reason have basically always fought against its immoderate pretensions. It does not suffice for reason to be the prince and judge of the world. Like the old peasant woman of the Russian folk tale, it wishes that the golden fish itself should be under its command.

This is not a figure of speech nor an exaggeration. It is just so that things really happen. Over many minds the pretensions of reason work in an irresistible fashion: if reason demands our obedience, it must follow that it has the right to demand it. But there are others to whom these pretensions appear insupportable. In The Life of St. Abraham of Smolensk it is said that the teachers "weighed down" the students. And it is told also of St. Serge of Radonezh that he was "tormented" by his teacher. Indeed, teachers live only on the alms of reason, and the students whom they force to submit to a nonexistent omnipotence are thereby weighed down and tormented.


The "initiate" is not a man who "knows," that is to say, one who has once and for all seized the "mystery." One cannot once and for all possess mystery, as one can truth. Mystery rises and disappears, and when it disappears the initiate is only the most insignificant of the insignificant children of the world. For the ordinary children of the world are completely ignorant that they are insignificant and even imagine that they are worth a great deal, while the initiate knows that he is lowly; and this knowledge makes him the most miserable of men, as Pushkin testifies. St. Bernard bears similar witness. "But for these years that I wasted on the enjoyment of life, for I lived in corruption, my contrite and humble heart, 0 God, thou wilt not despise."

But men do not believe Pushkin; they no longer believe the saints. They must, however, venerate great men and saints. Now he who wishes to venerate must learn, before everything else, the "great art" of not seeing.


The Cynics were convinced that reality aspires to light, and they were not afraid to demonstrate their conviction by the most repugnant of acts. Ham also sought clarity and distinctness, and he cast eyes on the nakedness of his father. But all the philosophers have been persuaded that light is always good. Why, then, did they call the Cynics dogs, and why did they scorn Ham? What was it that prevented them from putting everything into full light, as did Ham and the Cynics? It is not in vain, obviously, that Socrates himself asked his demon to protect him from clarity and distinctness. There are truths that do not wish to be truths for all; and they are drawn from a source which no one could call luminous, even by way of metaphor.


Heinrich Heine says that when he was a child he used to amuse himself by teasing his French teacher. When the latter, for example, asked him how one said "la foi" in German, Heine would answer: "der Kredit." And still today many very serious people, without the least intention of amusing and in all sincerity, identify faith and credit. It seems to them, indeed, that faith is nothing other than knowledge - with this single difference: that he who has faith takes proofs on credit under the verbal promise that they will be presented in time. You cannot convince anyone that the essence of faith and its most admirable, its most miraculous, prerogative consists precisely in that it does not feel the need of proofs, that it lives "beyond" proofs. This privilege is sometimes considered a privilegium odiosum, sometimes - still worse - as skepticism badly dissimulated. For what is a truth that cannot be imposed by means of proofs?


When a man tries to convince others of his truth, that is to say, when he tries to make what he has discovered obligatory for all, he usually believes that he is guided by the most exalted of motives - love of neighbor, the desire to dissipate the darkness of error, etc. The theory of knowledge maintains these pretensions as well as does ethics. Both, indeed, set it down that truth is one, that it is truth for all. But the theory of knowledge and ethics, like the humanitarian wise men, does not clearly discern whence the need comes which man feels to bring it about that all should recognize one truth.

No, he who tries to lead all men to his unique truth is not thinking of his fellow man. But he does not dare, he cannot himself, accept his truth as long as he has not obtained its recognition, real or fictional, by all others. For it is less important for him to possess truth than to obtain universal recognition. That is why the theories of knowledge and ethics occupy themselves so much with limiting as much as possible the rights of questioners. Aristotle already considered all "exaggerated" curiosity the sign of a defective education. This way of dealing with objectors would appear less convincing if men were not more concerned with the general recognition of their truth than with the truth itself.


The Aristotelian definition of matter as "that which exists only in potentiality," has played a very great role in the development of the sciences, and it seems that it still continues to direct our thought.

The potential existence of matter furnishes us a "natural" explanation of the innumerable and strange transformations that we observe in the universe. The atomic theory, the theory of the electron, and even pure energy - all rest on the idea that matter exists only potentially, or, to put it differently, that matter is "nothing," but a nothing whence there can arise, and do arise, the most extraordinary things. Neither Aristotle, of course, nor any of his pupils and disciples ever said anything of the kind. The idea that something, no matter how lowly or insignificant it may be, can be born of nothing, was unacceptable, insupportable even, to Aristotle and to all those who followed him (and who has not followed him?). The great merit of Aristotle lay precisely in having succeeded in a way in "domesticating" and "ennobling" this idea, which is mad and fantastic but which, nonetheless, gushes from all the pores of being. Instead of saying, "Matter does not exist; things are born capriciously of themselves despite all reasonable evidence," Aristotle says, "Matter is what exists only in potentiality."

The term "in potentiality" swallowed up and perfectly digested, it seems, the capricious and the arbitrary and even the outraged self-evidences. Thanks to this magic formula, the enigma immediately ceased to be an enigma, the fantastic was transformed into the natural. Since matter exists only potentially, it is possible to make anything one wishes arise from it: for it is in this precisely that the meaning of the idea of potentiality resides. The enigma has disappeared, I say; it has apparently been buried forever. It is henceforth unnecessary to ask by virtue of what miracle all the extraordinary things that we see around us can arise from a nonexistent matter, and how it happens that from this same matter there are born things as different from each other as, on the one hand, the dust of the earth or stinking mire, and, on the other hand, Alexander the Great or the wise Socrates. The magic formula has been found: matter possesses being only in potentiality and consequently we are assured that we shall obtain all answers to all questions.

It is then correct to say that our thought owes everything to Aristotle. He knew, in fact, what it was necessary to do in order to kill mystery. And yet the mystery is not dead and never will die; it only seems to be dead. And, at the side of the "natural" thought which was satisfied with the simplified "explanations" of Aristotle, there will always persist in the human soul an unrest which seeks and finds its own truths.


According to Aristotle, as everyone knows, the "fortuitous" cannot not be the object of knowledge. In order to make himself perfectly clear, he cites the following example (Met. 102530 ff.): In digging up the ground to plant a tree, a man falls on a treasure. It is clear that this event was not produced by necessity and it is clear, also, that such things do not happen constantly. Therefore the treasure is that "fortuitous" which cannot be an object of knowledge and awaken our scientific interest. Human reason, the human need to know, and science - the daughter of this need and this reason - have nothing to do here. However, the man has discovered a treasure. Aristotle himself says it. Should he not act to possess himself of it as quickly as possible? It is a question of a treasure, I repeat, and not of an earthworm or a decaying log.

It can happen to a man, it has at times happened to him, thus to put his hand, by accident, on some good that is still better than a treasure. He may be engaged in working his field and suddenly he discovers a source of "living water," or else the edge of his plow breaks open a Pandora's box deeply buried in the earth, and lo, all the evils this box contains escape and are dispersed throughout the world. That is a matter of chance also. And, since it is a matter of chance, science and thought have nothing to see in it. It is necessary for us "simply" to accept, in the first case, the advantages and, in the second case, the disadvantages which result, and to direct our attention to that which happens necessarily and constantly, or at least frequently.

One cannot raise questions about Pandora's box or the source of living water. One cannot even think of them, since one has found them by chance, that is to say, not by seeking them "methodically" but only because one has found them on his way. That which must determine our researches is not the importance of the object and its value, but the conditions under which it appears to us. If it has been discovered "regularly," if it repeats itself with a certain constancy, then we shall seek and study it. But if, like the treasure in Aristotle's example (what was it that moved Aristotle to speak of a "treasure"? Could he not as well have said a "stone"?) or the Pandora's box and living water of my examples, the object - no matter how important and how precious it may be - permits itself to rise before us capriciously without concern for any rules or even contrary to all rules, then for nothing in the world shall we admit that it may have any part in the stock of our truths.

Now, since treasures are always discovered "accidentally" and there is not, there cannot be, a theory for the methodical search and discovery of treasures, people draw from this a conclusion which is surprising but which appears indubitable to everyone: treasures do not exist and neither do wells of living water. So everyone reasons, and people are so completely habituated to this reasoning that they do not notice that it does not even satisfy the demands of elementary logic. From the fact that men discover "treasures" only "accidentally" it does not at all follow that treasures do not exist. One may "deduce" only one thing from this fact, and that is, that he to whom it has been given to discover a treasure must renounce methodical researches and entrust himself to chance. Men have, at times, had this audacity. I think that it has even happened to every man, at least once in his life, to have more confidence in chance than in reasonable necessity. But people guard themselves well against admitting this. It is impossible to draw from "chance" a theory, or, to put it otherwise, a proposition which is valid for everyone and always. So that whatever one does, whatever one says, men will continue, as in the past, to seek and to find only that which happens by necessity or at least frequently, and they will always hold that not only revelations but treasures also exist only in imagination.


The appearance of man on earth is an impious audacity. God created man in His own image and likeness and, having created him, blessed him. If you accept the first of these two theses, your philosophical task will be catharsis (purification) or, to put it another way, you will try to kill in yourself your particular being, your so-called "ego," and aspire to be dissolved in the "supreme" idea. The fundamental problem for you will be the ethical problem, and ontology will be in a way a derivative of the ethical. Your ideal will become the kingdom of reason to which all who are prepared to renounce the primordial jubere (the right to command) and to see the destiny of man in the parere (obedience) free access.

If, on the other hand, you accept the second thesis, the fruits of the tree of knowledge of good and evil will cease to tempt you; you will aspire to that which is "beyond good and evil." The anamnesis, the remembrance of that which your ancestor Adam contemplated in paradise, will not stop troubling you. Hymns to the glory of reason will appear tiresome, and in the midst of your self-evidences you will feel yourself as if in prison. Plato felt himself shut up in a cave; Plotinus was ashamed of his body; the men of the Bible were ashamed and afraid of their reason.

There is every reason to believe that Nietzsche turned away from Christianity because the Christians, taught by Aristotle and the Stoics, completely forgot the primordial jubere and remembered only the parere which follows it. That is why Nietzsche spoke of the morality of slaves and the morality of masters. He could have, he should have, spoken as well of the truth of masters (of men to whom it is given to command) and the truth of slaves (of those whose destiny is to obey).

I could also mention in this connection Dostoevsky, but no one will believe me. Everyone is convinced, in fact, that Dostoevsky wrote only the several dozen pages devoted to the starets Zossima, to Alyosha Karamazov, etc., and the articles in the Journal of a Writer where he explains the theories of the Slavophiles. As for Notes from the Underground, as for The Idiot, as for The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, as for the nine-tenths of all that constitutes the complete works of Dostoevsky - all that was not written by him but by a certain "personage with a regressive physiognomy" and only in order to permit Dostoevsky to cover him with shame.

So profound is our faith in the parere (that is what we express in affirming that everything happens "naturally"), so great is our fear of everything, no matter what it may be, that recalls even from afar the jubere (the miraculous, the supernatural)!


How strangely the great thinkers sometimes deceive themselves! The transiency of terrestrial things has always been a matter of trouble and anguish for men: everything that has a beginning has an end. Among the important philosophers of antiquity there were hardly any who did not reflect on the inevitable end of everything that is born. But all those who have meditated on this question have established (one hardly knows why) so strict a bond between the idea of death and the idea of change that the two ideas at present are only one. That which changes now appears as insignificant, as miserable, as that which is condemned to die.

Why? There is nothing evil in the capacity for change that things have. Why is it evil that Julius Caesar should first have been born an infant, then become an adolescent, then an adult man? Would it have been preferable that he had remained throughout his entire existence what he was when he left his mother's womb? It is clear that change in itself has nothing evil in it. What is evil is that things and men often change quite otherwise than we should wish them to. The years make wine better, but sometimes they also make it sour. Man also changes. He changes, and suddenly is transformed into an old man - weak, decrepit, dribbling.

That is why young people do not feel how strictly time is limited. They bathe in its infinity. Not only behind them, they believe, but before them also there extends a boundless immensity; one can then spend without counting. They even have the impression that time flows too slowly and seek to hasten its course. They feel that changes await them. They hope these changes will be beneficial, and would wish that they happen as quickly as possible. Old men, however, see things quite differently: time flies much too quickly for their liking. Each day that passes brings them new sorrows, it "calls and brings them closer to the grave" as the Russian poet Derzhavin "sang" at the end of his life. But old men, quite like young, have nothing against the changes and flow of time. What saddens the former and rejoices the latter is not the fact that they are subject to change; it is the character of the change. If life were even more in flux than it now is and hid within itself the possibility of still more unexpected surprises, but if these changes and surprises did not threaten man with diverse evils, there would never occur to anyone the idea of lamenting over the instability of existence and of seeking the permanent behind the changing.

Now, however, not only do people seek this, but they see in the stable and permanent the ideal, God Himself. For it was not Spinoza who invented amor erga rem aeternam (the love for the eternal). Philosophy has cultivated res aeternae since time immemorial. Men are so afraid of the possible evils which, they believe, lurk in change that they are ready to renounce everything which changes and finally to deify that which remains always equal to itself, that which never had any beginning and will never have an end, even though this should be only an inanimate, dead thing. And indeed, the dead, the inanimate, does not change...

Now it may be that our terrors are in vain; it may be that our thought deceives us - this thought that is always incited by fear and nourished by dread. It may be that the bond between change and the end, or death, that we observe in the conditions of our existence and that our frightened thought has elevated to the rank of truth a priori and immutable - it may be, I say, that this bond does not in any way constitute a law or a general rule having absolute power over men. Under other conditions, perhaps, when there will be men who will make themselves obeyed by the laws and there will no longer be laws which oblige men to obey them, and when human "thought" will possess once more the rights which formerly belonged to it, it will appear that the changes and continuous flux of existence do not lead us necessarily to death and, in general, do not threaten us with any catastrophe. Amor erga rem aeternam is not then to be considered what Spinoza and his predecessors imagined, as the only response that we could make to the questions which life puts before us. But in order that we may be capable of catching a glimpse, be it ever so vaguely, of the possibility of this new dimension of thought, we must have the courage to drive away our habitual terrors and cease to listen to the a priori of every kind that reason whispers to us. And then "there will no longer be anything impossible for us.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio Index    ToC