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


The leitmotif of all of the last works of Chekhov is this: "You feel that men do not hear you well, that it is necessary to raise your voice and shout. But shouting is repugnant to you. So you begin to speak more and more softly, and soon you may be able to be completely silent."


Yes, "again"; for no matter how much one says on this subject it is never enough. To doubt the principle of contradiction is not at all "the same thing" as to deny the principle of contradiction. It would be "the same thing" if, having conceived doubts on the matter, we should continue all the same to recognize its sovereign rights. But those who have felt in all their being, even if it be only at certain moments, that the power of the principle of contradiction is limited, know that this in no way obliges them to deny its utility and importance. But they refuse to see in it "the most unshakeable of all principles," as Aristotle expressed it. They refuse to admit that it must always and everywhere be appropriate, that it must be the supreme judge and master of man. For it is not the master, it is only the executor of someone's orders.

Thus in certain cases it is all-powerful - not, however, by itself or by its "own nature"; its power is given to it by someone who is above it. Orpheus declared that Eurydice was Eurydice and that no other woman was Eurydice. And by the will of Orpheus, in this instance, the principle of contradiction becomes "the most unshakeable of all principles." Among the millions of women who have existed and who will exist no other can be Eurydice. Hell and the gates of hell themselves could not conquer the will of Orpheus and the power which it conferred on the principle of contradiction. But the statement "Giordano Bruno was burned alive," which up to now has enjoyed the protection of the principle of contradiction and has barred the road to the contrary statement - "Giordano Bruno was not burned alive" - can this statement be assured the eternal protection of the principle of contradiction? Can it also assume that the gates of hell will never prevail against it? Or, let us take a more general statement: "It is impossible to make that which has been not to have been." Are we not free to admit that certain things among all those which have been will never be effaced, but that others will disappear and become nonexistent, and that, consequently, the principle of contradiction, submitting to the commands of a superior principle, will to the end of time protect certain pages of the past and utterly destroy others, so that the past itself will be modified?

We are free, of course, to admit this possibility. But we shall not admit it precisely because we "are afraid" (our thought is continually afraid of something) that it will result in a situation too difficult, too complicated, and that it would be necessary for us to transform our entire logic, or even (and this is what appears most terrible) to renounce the services of ready-made criteria and "lose our footing." Instead of asking, we would have to answer; and instead of obeying, we would have to command. We ourselves would have to choose our Eurydice and descend to hell in order to wrest from it the recognition of our rights. Is this not too much to ask of man, feeble and mortal man?


There come to me again the words of Occam: Est articulus fidei quad Deus assumpsit naturam humanam. Non includit contradictionem, Deum assumere naturam asininam. Pari ratione potest assumere lapidem aut lignum. ("It is an article of faith that God assumed human nature. It involves no contradiction for God to assume the nature of an ass. With equal reason he could take on the nature of stone or wood.")

What, at bottom, is the significance of Occam's thought? Why does it appear so daring, so unacceptable? What irritates us is not only the form which Occam gave to his thought, even though this form may be crude and offensive to all pious men: Deum assumere naturam asininam (for God to assume the nature of an ass)... Occam brings together terms which ought to be as far away as possible from each other and which would be found next to each other only in a dictionary where the words follow each other without any regard to their meaning. And yet it is not the form that is essential here - far from it. Occam is not among those who seek to strike the reader by some audacious, unexpected turn. It is not against others that he fights but against himself or, to use the language of Hegel, against the "spirit of his time."

It is generally believed that it was with Occam that the dissolution of scholasticism began. He is regarded as a "decadent." And, indeed, one does find in him certain traits which commonly characterize decadence. Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and the other principes theologiae had built splendid cathedrals to the glory of thought, when suddenly Occam arose with his questions which undermined the very foundations of the grandiose edifices of what was, from the spiritual point of view, the most creative of the centuries of the Middle Ages. This was the work of a "decadent." Are not decadents recognized above all else by their passion for destruction, by their love of novelty, whatever it may be, by their need to contradict their time?... Non includit contradictionem Deum assumere naturam asininam. If this is so, if the thesis of Occam is true, and if God may, by His will, become incarnate not only in a despised animal but in a piece of wood or in a stone, then why did all the doctores angelici, subtillissimi, etc... expend such tremendous efforts? Why did they call forth from the depths of the centuries the shades of Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus? Why all the Summae, the immense cathedrals, the monasteries, the universities? For all these were created by men only to explain and make acceptable to reason the fundamental dogma of the Christian religion. The Bible relates that the son of God became man, was treated like the worst of criminals, subjected to frightful humiliations, and died at last on the cross between two robbers. No one in the Middle Ages doubted the biblical account, and Occam himself also believed it, as his works prove and as does the very fragment which I have quoted and which begins with the words: Est articulus fidei...

But it was not sufficient for men to "believe." They wished also to "reconcile" their faith with reason. They posed the question: Cur Deus homo? Why did God make Himself man? And they could not rest until they had found an answer to this question. But what did the term "an answer" mean to them? What it means to us is this: he "answers" who can show that what happened could not have not happened and could not have happened otherwise than it did happen. God had necessarily to become incarnate in man, for it was impossible to save man in any other way. In order that man might be deified, God had to become man. Despite their apparent diversity, all the answers to the question Cur Deus homo? were variations on one and the same theme: to show that what had happened was due to a natural necessity.

Man could not satisfy his need to know except with the nectar which goes by the name "explanation." To obtain it, men went to the farthest countries. It replaced that philosopher's stone of which the alchemists dreamed day and night. And then, suddenly, Occam's non includit contradictionem and pari ratione, which ruin the foundations not only of medieval thought but of all rational "thought"! For if it is not given us to discover the necessary in the real, does not "thought" become impossible? How, then, can reason justify not its existence (existence has no need of justification), but its pretensions to a primary role? It was assumed, indeed, that it was precisely reason that prepared the divine draught which could quench the most ardent thirst for knowledge and does definitely and forever quench it: "Contentment with oneself can arise from reason, and that contentment which arises from reason is the highest possible." (Spinoza, Ethics IV, LII). Reason leads us to the boundary beyond which stretches the kingdom of Necessity, where all questions vanish of themselves and where man obtains the supreme peace which is the final goal of his aspirations. The Summae, the cathedrals, the solemn services - all these were created by the great minds of the Middle Ages only for the purpose of attaining this peace. And the role of reason also consisted in tranquilizing man, in extinguishing his doubts and anxieties. But reason can accomplish its work only if it succeeds in blending and becoming one with Necessity, for it is to Necessity, to Necessity alone, that there is given an absolute power over everything that exists, over the living and over the dead, over man and over God. Cur Deus homo? One can answer this question only when one recognizes in advance that God could not choose, that He was obliged to become incarnate, that it was impossible for Him not to become incarnate even if He had wished it.

All the effort of the Middle Ages, all its concentrated and immense spiritual labor, had for its end to render rationally explicable the mystery which Scripture contains. And man is so constructed that when he undertakes a task and gives himself up to it entirely, he begins to think that the object of his efforts is the most important and the most precious thing in the world for him and for others. The essential thing, it would seem, is that God became incarnate, that He came among men and revealed Himself to them - and it is precisely this that Scripture tells us. But the important thing for "thought" is what it itself invents and not what Scripture says; and it accepted Scripture only because it could understand and explain it. To put it otherwise, it could demonstrate that the biblical story in no way offended or contradicted the principles to which man has always been subject and which he proclaims to be eternal and unshakeable. If it had appeared, in the light of its principles, that it was not suitable for God to become incarnate, or that this was impossible for Him, one would have been obliged to renounce Scripture. Now this is exactly what happened at the end. It was discovered that the "proofs" and the "explanations" thought out by the medieval philosophers explained nothing and could explain nothing. It was discovered that it is impossible to defend, by means of reason, the truths of "revelation," that, in general, one cannot defend revealed truths, that they are indefensible. This means that one then has the choice: either to admit that the truths of revelation are not truths and that the Bible must be banished to the realm of poetic fiction, just like the stories of Homer - or else...

There was, there still is, an "or else"; there is still an escape. But this escape seems to such a degree contrary to human nature (not only to the "first" nature, perhaps, but also to the "second," following the dictum that habit is a second nature) that people do not even speak of it, or it is invoked only by those who are resolved in advance to speak without any hope of being understood. "It is not necessary to explain God, and one cannot justify Him." This is what Occam wished to say. And this is what no one heard. And if I now recall these words that people did not hear, it is not at all in the hope of drawing attention to them and of opening for them a way into the heart.

Here is a strange and troubling enigma. There are, indeed, words which are destined not to be heard, and yet, by some mysterious will, these words, it seems, must from time to time be pronounced in a loud voice. Let us recall the ancient vox clamantis in deserto. Perhaps it is not as useless and ridiculous as one imagines to recall to men at times those "heralds of the truth" whose voice possesses the magical power of transforming into deserts the most populous of regions. And then another still more mysterious "perhaps." Repeating the words of Tertullian, Pascal said that there is no place on earth for the truth, that the truth is condemned to wander among men who do not recognize it and refuse to accept it. What he meant was that truth is truth precisely because, by its very existence, it transforms populous cities into deserts. When the truth illuminates a man, he feels immediately that "all," that "human beings" - that is to say, those who transform deserts into populous cities - possess the gift or incomprehensible power of killing the truth. This is why Dostoevsky, in his better moments, had such a horror of, such a disgust for, "omnitude." That is why Plotinus speaks of the "flight of the one to the One." That is why all the theories of knowledge that have triumphed in the course of the centuries have always concealed the truth. We must leave them and turn toward the blessed men who, as Plato says, were better than we and closer to God, and whose thought soared freely in that second dimension which we discover only and, moreover, very rarely at the cost of the most painful exercitia spiritualia.


What makes dogmatism unacceptable is not, as people ordinarily think, the indemonstrable propositions which it arbitrarily sets forth. Arbitrariness and contempt for demonstrations might, on the contrary, dispose men in favor of dogmatism. Whatever people may say, man in fact, by his nature, loves the arbitrary more than anything in the world and submits to demonstrations only when he cannot overcome them. One might then consider dogmatism the Magna Charta of human freedom. But it is precisely freedom which dogmatism fears above everything else, and it tries by all means to appear as obedient and reasonable as all other doctrines. It is just this that takes away all its charm, that even provokes our disgust - for if it dissimulates, it must be that it is ashamed and wishes that we should be ashamed also. To be ashamed of freedom and independence - can one pardon that?


Salieri, says Pushkin, tested harmony by algebra, but it was not given to him to "create." And he was astonished, he was indignant even, that Mozart, who did not at all concern himself with testing, heard the heavenly songs that he, Salieri, did not succeed in hearing. Was not his indignation justified? Even in this life "the idle loafer" is admitted to the porch of paradise, while the honest and conscientious worker is left outside and waits vainly to be called. But it is said in an ancient book, "the ways of God are inscrutable." There was a time when men understood this, when they understood that the road which leads to the Promised Land does not reveal itself to him who tests harmony by algebra, to him who tests in . Abraham departed without knowing general where he was going. If he had set about "testing" he would never have arrived at the Promised Land. Thus it is that testing, looking backward, the "light" of knowledge - these are not, contrary to what we have been taught, always what is best.


The great majority of men do not believe in the truths of the religion they profess. Plato already said, "Unbelief is proper to the mob." Thus they demand that those around them profess the very truths which they themselves officially believe and say the same things as they: that alone supports them in their "faith"; it is only from their environment that they draw the force of their convictions. And the less convincing the revealed truths appear to them, the more important it is to them that no one doubt these truths. It is for this reason that people who believe the least are ordinarily the most intolerant. While the criterion of ordinary, scientific truths consists in the possibility of making them binding upon all, there is room to believe that the truths of faith are true insofar as they are able to do without the consent of men, insofar as they are indifferent to recognition and demonstrations. However, the positive religions do not hold truths of this kind in very high esteem. They maintain them, for they cannot get along without them, but they rely on other truths, on those which constrain men; and they seek to place under the protection of the principle of contradiction even the revealed truths in order that these shall in no wise yield to ordinary truths.

As is known, the protection of the principle of contradiction appeared insufficient to Catholicism and it invented the Inquisition, without which it would not have been able to accomplish its immense historical work. It defended itself by means of "intolerance" and even made a virtue of its intolerance. It never occurred to the mind of Catholicism that that which requires the protection of the principle of contradiction or of executioners and jailers is outside the divine truth, and that what truly saves men is precisely that which, according to our human reckoning, is feeble, weak, and devoid of all protection. The truths of faith are to be recognized by this sign: that, contrary to the truths of knowledge, they are neither universal nor necessary and, consequently, do not have the power of constraining human beings. These truths are given freely, they are accepted freely. No one officially certifies them, they do not justify themselves to anyone, they do not make anyone afraid, and they themselves fear no one.


It is known that autonomous morality found its most complete and final expression in the doctrine of Socrates. Socrates affirmed that virtue has no need of reward, that it is of little importance whether the soul is immortal or not, that the virtuous man obtains everything that he needs from "the good." But I think that Socrates (quite like Kant, who, in his Critique of Practical Reason, walked in the footsteps of Socrates) stopped midway, and that "the good" will not be content with such signs of humility. He should have taken still another step; he should have admitted that the virtuous man has no need of "the immortality of the soul" and renounced immortality completely. In other words, he should have admitted that Socrates is mortal, since already here on earth he has obtained from "the good" everything that he could wish, but that Alcibiades and those who resemble him are immortal. The "good" gives them nothing or very little, and they exist by virtue of another principle which, in the course of this earthly life, does not succeed in accomplishing its promises and postpones the accomplishment of them to another life.

On this condition, only on this condition, will "the good" receive a complete satisfaction and will discussions on the subject of autonomous and heteronomous morality be finished. Let men of Socrates' type who willingly recognize the "good" as the supreme principle equally willingly renounce the future life, which they do not at all need, for the benefit of people of Alcibiades' type who, having submitted to a principle other than Socrates' "good," have a right to expect and demand that their existence should continue after death. Certainly from the point of view of Socrates, the Alcibidians lose by the exchange. A hundred lives deprived of "the good," no matter how happy they may be, are not worth one single life in "the good," no matter how painful and horrible it may be. Philosophy would then at last be able to celebrate its triumph. The Socratics and the Alcibidians would finally obtain complete satisfaction and all debates would cease.


The more positive knowledge we obtain, the more estranged we become from the mysteries of life. The more the mechanism of our thought perfects itself, the more difficult it becomes for us to recover the sources of being. Knowledge weighs heavily upon us and paralyzes us, and perfected thought makes of us submissive, will-less beings who seek, see and appreciate in life only "order" and the laws and norms established by this "order." Our teachers and guides are no longer the prophets who spoke "as those who have power" but the scientists, for whom the supreme virtue consists in obeying the Necessity which they have not created and which never allows itself to be persuaded by anything or anyone.


When we look at anything that is ours, that belongs to us, we "understand" it and even approve of it. When, however, we discover the same things in others, they often provoke our disgust. We willingly examine our own wounds while we turn away from those of others. But as we become more objective, our own wounds become as repugnant to us as those of others. Consequently? One has a choice between two "consequences": either to renounce objectivity, or else to learn to see others as we see ourselves - not to fear the wounds of others or the ugliness of others. Objectivity is not indisputably the way to truth, and fear is always a bad counselor.


In the theory of knowledge, it is the idea of Necessity that rules. In ethics it is the idea of Duty - which is, in fact, only Necessity diluted and weakened. Contemporary thought can make headway only on this condition.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio Index    ToC