30 - ON THE USEFULNESS OF PHILOSOPHY
Men believe so little in the possibility of participating, no matter how partially, in the final truth that the deepest thirst to know, the most sincere searches - when they pass beyond certain limits - only excite their irritation and danger. Before you no one has found anything and, after you, no one will find anything either; why, then, disturb yourself and trouble the equilibrium of others? For every search begins with disquietude and ends with the loss of equilibrium.
One can, of course, interest himself in metaphysical problems and occupy himself with them, but on the condition of not connecting them with our own fate or that of humanity. Metaphysical systems must be constructed in such a way that they do not irrupt into life and do not shake the established order of existence, or, better yet, in a way such that they bless and sanctify the established order. And when a man arises to declare that metaphysics can discover a new truth and completely transform life, the whole world together throws itself upon him. Metaphysics must be useful to society, just like science and art and religion. A useless metaphysics, a useless religion - has anyone ever thus characterized the object of his final aspirations? And yet all those who seek have always known, and without the least doubt, that metaphysics cannot be useful and that there is nothing more terrible than to fall into the hands of God.
But people do not speak of this, or only very rarely. Even the religion of the crucified God tries to imitate metaphysical systems, and Christians almost always forget, even though they wear a cross on their breasts, that the saviour of the world cried out from the height of the cross, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" They believe that the saviour must know this terrible despair, but that men may escape it. Men need a metaphysics which consoles and orders existence, and a religion which also consoles and orders existence. But no one cares for a truth of which he does not know beforehand what it will bring, nor for a religion which leads us into unknown territory. Even more than very rare, I repeat, are those who admit that religion and metaphysics may lead us ultimately toward anything worthwhile. Everyone demands that religion and metaphysics be visibly and indubitably useful right here, on the shores of time.
31 - THE LIMITS OF THE POWER OF THE PRINCIPLES OF IDENTITY AND OF CONTRADICTION
If we take it into our heads to say that "sound is heavy," the principles of identity and of contradiction immediately become involved in the matter and oppose their veto. It is impossible, they declare. But when we say that Socrates was poisoned, these two principles do not intervene. May it be that there is a reality in which the principles of identity and of contradiction would remain indifferent and inactive when sounds become heavy but rise up in rebellion when one kills the just? If such a reality is possible, these principles are not principles but simply "executive organs" and their role is completely different from that which people ordinarily ascribe to them.
It will be asked, "How is one to know if such a reality is possible or impossible, and if it is given us to penetrate into this reality?" Yes, this is just it: how is one to know. Obviously, if you ask, "Is such a reality possible?" people will answer you that it is impossible, that the principles of identity and of contradiction have always reigned autocratically and will always reign over the world, that there will never be heavy sounds, and that people will continue to kill the just. But try not to ask anything of anyone! Will you thus be able to realize the free will which the metaphysicians promise you? Or, to put it better, do you want this free will? It seems, indeed, that you would hardly have any desire at all for it, that "sacred Necessity" would be nearer and dearer to you, and that, after the manner of Schelling, you would see in Herrschaft the source of all Herrlichkeiten.
32 - THE HUMAN TRUTH AND THE LIE TO GOD
Descartes affirmed that God could not be a deceiver, that the commandment "Thou shalt not lie" is observed by God also. However, God does deceive man. That is a fact. He shows man a sky - a blue, solid crystalline dome - which does not exist. Thousands of years have been required for man to free himself from this lie and to recognize the real truth. God often deceives us, and how difficult it is to escape from these deceptions! Yet, if God never deceived us, if no man ever saw the blue sky but knew only an infinite space, empty or filled with ether, if, instead of hearing sounds, men only counted waves - it is probable that they could not have gained much. It may even be that they would have ended by feeling disheartened by their truths and would have agreed to recognize that God may violate His own commandment.
Or would they not have agreed to this? Is the truth above all? Perhaps another idea would then have come to their minds: Is the truth really that which men themselves find, while that which God shows them is only a lie? To put it another way, may it not be that the sky is nevertheless a crystalline dome, the earth is flat, and sounds themselves exist and are essentially different from movement? May it not be that colors obey, not the laws of physics, but the will of God? Is it not possible that man may one day be called to this "knowledge," that he may renounce his demonstrated truths and return to the indemonstrable truths? And - who knows - will he not then find that the commandment "Thou shalt not lie" has only a relative and temporary value? No, it is not better to die than to speak falsehood, even if it be only once, as Kant taught; but it is better not to be born at all than to live in the world of our truths. In other words, a time perhaps will come (Plato many times spoke of it, but no one listened to him) when the "better" will triumph over our truths and our self-evidences.
33 - THE POSSIBLE
Everything that has a beginning has an end, everything that is born must die: such is the unshakeable law of existence. But what about truths? For there are truths which have not always existed, which were born in time. Such are all truths that state matters of fact. Four hundreds years before Christ the truth, "the Athenians poisoned Socrates," still did not exist; it was born in the year 399. And it still lives, although it took place almost 2,500 years ago. Does this mean that it will live eternally? If it must disappear like everything that is born, if the general law that we apply with such assurance to everything that exists does not - as a truth a priori - admit of any exception, then there will come a moment when the truth about the poisoning of Socrates will die and cease to exist. And our descendants will then have the possibility of affirming that the Athenians did not poison Socrates, but that, quite simply (or, on the contrary, not "simply" at all) men lived a certain time, a very long time even, in an illusion which they took for an eternal truth because they forgot, through chance or intentionally, the law of birth and death and its ineluctable character.
34 - DOCTA IGNORANTIA
We complain that we do not know whence we come, where we are going, what has been, what will be, what must be done, what must be avoided, etc., for we are convinced that it would be7 preferable for us to know these things. But it may be that it would be worse for us; knowledge would bind and limit us. Since we do not know, nothing binds us. The possibility is not even excluded that a day may come when we will be completely freed from knowing, that it will not be we who must adapt ourselves - as at present - to the "given" reality, but rather reality which will have to adapt itself to us: and then the adaequatio rei et intellectus (approximation of thing and intellect), to which knowledge is always reducible, will lose its element of constraint and make place for the free decision of men.
Certain people have already had a presentiment of this. The docta ignorantia had perhaps nothing other in view than the submission of res to intellectus and the deliverance of the intellectus from all its chains, and even from "first principles." We will no longer be obliged to adapt ourselves to things, but they, rather, will be ready to modify not only their form but also their substance at the word or demand of man. At present we can give a piece of wax the form of a chessman or of a seal; but then we shall be able to transform the wax into a piece of marble or into an ingot of gold by the power of our thought alone. It will then appear that the philosopher's stone was something quite other than the absurd dream of ignorant and superstitious men, and the legend of Pygmalion itself will then take its place in "history." This is what the docta ignorantia promises us and whereof Nicholas of Cusa probably had a presentiment.
35 - A QUESTION
Did the great philosophers notice their own contradictions? Or did they not see them, and did only their successors take account of them? I speak of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus. Of course, they were aware of their own contradictions but these hardly troubled them; they knew that this was not the most important thing.
36 - "SIMPLETONS" AND "POSSESSED"
The Russian people have always had their "simpletons" and "possessed," and it is to be assumed that their stock is not about to die out. In the better organized, more cultivated countries, where life is relatively easier and where "thought" (the principle of order without which existence on earth would be so painful) acquired its rights well before it had obtained them among us, one hardly ever has occasion to be present at the crises of possessed persons or to observe the wandering and miserable existence of simpletons. The Cynics, about whom the history of philosophy gives us a rather large number of details, belong to a distant past and no longer interest anyone.
Now in Russia, the people venerate and even love (one does not know why) their mental cripples. One might say that they somehow feel that the howlings of the possessed are not completely devoid of meaning and that the miserable existence of the simpletons also is not as absurd and repugnant as appears at first sight. And indeed, an hour will come when each of us will cry, as did the most perfect of men: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" And then we shall leave the riches we have accumulated and set out on the road like miserable vagabonds, or like Abraham, who, according to the word of the Apostle, departed without knowing where he was going.
37 - ILLEGITIMATE THOUGHTS
It sometimes happens that a thought, rising one knows not whence but coming obviously from outside, suddenly presents itself to you and obstinately refuses to leave you - even though it has no connection with the psychological elements that constitute the ordinary material of your reflections. But do not hasten to drive this thought away, no matter how bizarre or strange it may appear to you. And do not demand that it furnish you proof of its legitimate birth. If the habit of verifying the origin of your thoughts is too deeply rooted in you, admit at least that illegitimate children may at times be closer to their parents than legitimate children. However, take care not to generalize: it is not a question of all illegitimate children but only of some of them. It is the same as in the case of the prodigal son. The prodigal son who has returned home is dearer to us than he who never left - at times, but not always.
38 - THEORY AND FACT
Was Socrates' demon a "fact"? To answer this question we must first have a theory of fact. Now people believe that "facts" precede "theory." Theory recognizes neither the demon of Socrates as "fact" nor the vision of St. Paul on the road to Damascus as "fact," because a fact is a fact that has been established; but it is theory that determines how one establishes facts. Despite the interdiction of theory, however, Socrates always considered that his demon was a real fact, just as St. Paul was always persuaded that he had really seen the Christ. Both even succeeded in convincing a very large number of people, so that history, which agrees to admit only what is important for a large number of people, has recorded the vision of Socrates and that of St. Paul and even reserved for them a place of honor. There is room to remark in this connection that Socrates and even more, infinitely more St. Paul, were personally interested that the memory of their visions, which theory refused to recognize as facts, should be preserved.
But everyone is not in the same situation; and the great majority of men are incapable, even if they wished it, of forcing history to admit their visions. Perhaps others besides Socrates have received the visit of some genie, of some demigod, perhaps even of the true God; but they said nothing of it, or else they tried to relate what they saw but the words were so flat and weak that they persuaded no one. And posterity knows nothing of them. Have these men failed? In other words, what is more important: that Socrates should really have had relationships with a "demon," or that a great number of people should have believed in the reality of these relationships? History would certainly reply, and without the least hesitation, that the latter belief is the more important - that, indeed, it alone has any importance at all.
But Socrates himself and even St. Paul would, without any doubt, have said the contrary, even though history has given such an eminent place and accorded so high a value to everything that concerns their life and work. And both of them would have added - no longer for the historians but for the philosophers - that the theory of fact hides from men the most important realm of being, and that those facts which theory does not admit are precisely the most precious and the most significant. This statement would appear completely inadmissible because it disagrees with the fundamental principles of our conception of the world. Also, as long as we use this conception, we accept only the facts recognized by theory. But when we no longer have need of this conception, when it becomes an obstacle (which sometimes happens and more frequently than we imagine), we begin to admit facts without demanding authorization by theory.
Most of the time, it is true, we do not succeed in bringing those around us to recognize these facts: Socrates and St. Paul, as I have already said, are completely exceptional cases. Then we become accustomed little by little to do without the recognition of our neighbors. "Suddenly" we discover a blinding truth, as new as it is unexpected: just as the ancients recognized the gods by the sign that they did not touch the earth while walking, one can distinguish the truth by the sign that it cannot be recognized by "all," that unanimous recognition deprives it of that light and divine bearing which belongs only to the immortals but which mortals have always esteemed above everything else.
39 - DEBATES OVER TRUTH
Why are men always debating? Debates are quite understandable when there are material interests involved. If it is a question of dividing up a legacy, for example, each of the opposing parties tries to prove his right in the hope of obtaining more. But the philosophers and the theologians also debate, though it seems that they have nothing to divide up. It appears, then, that they are fighting among each other rather than debating. But why, for what object, are they fighting? Must we believe that in order to fight it is not necessary to be fighting for something? War is the father and king of all, said Heraclitus: the chief thing is to fight; as for the object of the fight, that is a secondary matter. One man proclaims, "Man is the measure of everything that exists"; another immediately counters, "No, not man, but God is the measure of everything"; and, lo, war is declared. One person affirms "identical in essence," the other, "similar in essence" - and again there is a battle.
The entire history of human thought, philosophical and theological, is the history of a relentless, mortal struggle. There is room to believe that the idea of truth as a thing which does not bear contradiction flows basically from men's passion for fighting. Old people (philosophers and theologians are usually old men) cannot fight with blows of the fist, and so they have invented the fiction that there is only "one" truth in order to be able to fight at least with words. Now the truth is not at all "one" and in no way demands that men fight on its account.