LEV SHESTOV \ Penultimate Words & Other Essays


IDe omnibus dubitandumVIIWhat is Philosophy?
IISelf-renunciation and Megalomania          VIII     Heinrich Heine
IIIEternal TruthsIXWhat is truth?
IVEarth and HeavenXMore on truth
VThe Force of ArgumentXII and Thou
VI     Swan Songs


De omnibus dubitandum

There are but few orthodox Hegelians left among philosophers nowadays, yet Hegel is still supreme over the minds of our contemporaries. It may even be that certain of his ideas have taken deeper root nowadays than when Hegelianism was in full bloom: for instance, the conception that history is the unfolding of the idea in reality, or, to put it more briefly and in terms more familiar to the modern mind—the idea of progress. Try to convince an educated person of the contrary: you are sure to be worsted. But, de omnibus dubitandum, which means in other words, that doubt is called upon to fulfill its mission above all in those cases where a conviction is particularly strong and unshakable. Therefore one must admit, whether he will or no, that progress so called—the development of mankind in time—is a fiction.

We have wireless telegraphy, radium and the rest, yet we stand no higher than the Romans or the Greeks of old. You admit this? Then, one step further: although we have wireless telegraphy and all the other blessings of civilisation, still we stand no higher than red- or black-skinned savages. You protest: but the principle compels. You began to doubt: then what is the use of drawing back?

For myself, I must confess that the idea of the spiritual perfection of savages entered my mind but lately, when, for the first time for many years, I looked through the works of Tylor, Lubbock and Spencer. They speak with such certainty of the advantages of our spiritual organisation, and have such sincere contempt for the moral misery of the savage, that in spite of myself stole in the thought: Is it not exactly here, where all are so certain that no one ever examines the question, that the source of error is to be found? High time to recall Descartes and his rule! And so soon as I began to doubt, all my former certainty—of course I fully shared the opinion of the English anthropologists—disappeared in a moment... It began to appear that the savage indeed is higher and more important than our savants, and not our materialists only, as Professor Paulsen thinks, but our idealists, metaphysicians, mystics, and even our convinced missionaries (sincere believers, not the profit-mongering sort), whom Europe sends forth into the world to enlighten the backward brethren. It seemed to me that the credit transactions common among savages, with a promise to pay in the world beyond the grave, have a deep meaning. And human sacrifices! In them Spencer sees a barbarity, as an educated European should. I also see in them barbarity, because I also am a European and have a scientific education. But I deeply envy their barbarity, and curse the cultivation which has herded me together with believing missionaries, idealist, materialist, and positivist philosophers, into the narrow fold of the sultry and disgusting apprehensible world. We may write books to prove the immortality of the soul, but our wives won't follow us to the other world: they will prefer to endure the widow's lot here on the earth. Our morality, based on religion, forbids us to hurry into eternity.

And so in everything. We are guessing, at the best we are sicklied with dreams, but our life passes outside our guesses and our dreams. One man still accepts the rites of the Church, however strange they may be, and seriously imagines that he is brought into contact with other worlds. Beyond the rites no step is taken. Kant died when he was eighty; had it not been for cholera, Hegel would have lived a hundred years; while the savages—the young ones kill the old and... I dare not complete the sentence for fear of offending sensitive ears. Again I recall Descartes and his rule: who is right, the savages or we? And if the savages are right, can history be the unfolding of the idea? And is not the conception of progress in time (that is the development from the past to the present and to the future) the purest error? Perhaps, and most probably, there is development, but the direction of this development is in a line perpendicular to the line of time. The base of the perpendicular may be any human personality. May God and the reader forgive one the obscurity of the last words. I hope the clarity of the foregoing exposition will to some extent atone for it.


Self-renunciation and Megalomania

We are obliged to think that nothing certain can be said either of self-renunciation or of megalomania, though each one of us in his own experience knows something of the former as well as of the latter. But it is well known that the impossibility of solving a question never yet kept people from reflecting. On the contrary: to us the most alluring questions are those to which there is no actual, no universally valid, answer. I hope that sooner or later, philosophy will be thus defined, in contrast to science:—philosophy is the teaching of truths which are binding on none. Thereby the accusation so often made against philosophy will be removed, that philosophy properly consists of a series of mutually exclusive opinions. This is true, but she must be praised for it, not blamed: there is nothing bad in it, but good, a very great deal of good. On the other hand, it is bad, extremely bad, that science should consist of truths universally binding. For every obligation is a constraint. Temporarily, one can submit to a restraint, put on a corset, fetters; one can agree to anything temporarily. But who will voluntarily admit the mastery over himself of an eternal law? Even from the quiet and clear Spinoza I sometimes hear a deep sigh, and I think that he is longing for freedom—he who wasted all his life, all his genius in the glorification of necessity... With such an introduction one may say what he pleases.

It seems to me that self-renunciation and megalomania, however little they resemble one another apparently, may be observed successively, even simultaneously, in one and the same person. The ascetic, who has denied life and humbles himself before everybody, and the madman (like Nietzsche or Dostoevsky), who affirms that he is the light, the salt of the earth, the first in the whole world or even in the whole universe—both reach their madness—I hope there is no necessity to demonstrate that self-renunciation as well as megalomania is a kind of madness—under conditions for the most part identical. The world does not satisfy the man and he begins to seek for a better. All serious seeking brings a man to lonely paths, and lonely paths, it is well known, end in a great wall which sets a fatal bound to man's curiosity. Then arises the question, how shall a man pass beyond the wall, by overcoming either the law of impenetrability or the equally invincible law of gravity, in other words, how shall a man become infinitely small or infinitely great? The first way is that of self-renunciation: I want nothing, I myself am nothing, I am infinitely small, and therefore I can pass through the infinitely small pores of the wall.

The other way is megalomania. I am infinitely strong, infinitely great, I can do all things, I can shatter the wall, I can step over it, though it be higher than all the mountains of the earth and though it has hitherto dismayed the strongest and the bravest. This is probably the origin of the two most mysterious and mighty spiritual transformations. There is no single religion upon which are not more or less clearly impressed the traces of these methods of man's struggle with the poverty of his powers. In ascetic religions the tendency to self-renunciation predominates: Buddhism glorifies the suppression of the individual and has for its ideal Nirvana. The Greeks dreamed of Titans and heroes. The Jews consider themselves the chosen people and await the Messiah. As for the Gospel, it is hard to say to which method of struggle it gives the preference. On the one hand are the great miracles, the raising from the dead, the healing of the sick, the power over the winds and the sea; on the other: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ The Son of God who will sit on the right hand of power now lives in the company of publicans, beggars, and harlots, and serves them. ‘Who is not for us, is against us’; the promise to thrust down his enemies into the fiery hell; eternal torment for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and equal with these the exhortation to the extreme of humility and love to the enemy: ‘Turn to him the other cheek also.’

Throughout, the Gospel is permeated with contradictions, which are not extraneous and historical, concerned with facts, but intrinsic, contradictions of mood, of ‘ideals,’ as the modern man would say. What is in one chapter praised as the noblest task is in the next degraded to an unworthy labour. It is in no way strange that the most opposite teachings should find justification in this little book, which is half composed of repetitions. The Inquisitors, the Jesuits, and the old ascetics called themselves Christians; so do the modern Protestants and our Russian sectaries. To a greater or less degree they all are right, even the Protestants. Such contradictory elements are intertwined in the Gospel, that men, above all those who travel the high road, who can move in one direction only, and under one conspicuous flag, who have become accustomed to believe in the unity of reason and the infallibility of logical laws, could never fully grasp the teaching of the Gospel, and always aspired to give to the words and deeds of Christ a uniform explanation which should exclude contradictions, and more or less correspond to the common conceptions of the work and problems of life. They read in the mysterious book, ‘Have faith and thou shalt say to this mountain: be thou removed,’ and understood it to mean that always, every hour and every minute, one must think and desire the self-same thing, prescribed beforehand and fully defined; whereas in these words the Gospel allows and commends the maddest and most perilous experiments. That which is, did not exist for Christ; and only that existed, which is not.

The old Roman, Pilate, who was apparently an educated man, clever and not bad at heart, though weak in character, could neither understand nor elucidate the cause of the strange struggle which took place before him. With his whole heart he pitied the pale Jew before him, who was guilty of nothing. ‘What is truth?’ he asked Christ. Christ did not answer him, nor could He answer, not through ignorance, as the heathen desired to believe, but because that question cannot be answered in words. It would have been necessary to take Pilate's head, and turn it towards the other side, in order that he might see what he had never seen before. Or, still better; to have used the method to which the hunch-backed pony turns in the fairy tale, in order to change sleepy Ivanushka into a wizard and a beauty: first, to plunge him into a cauldron of boiling milk, then into another of boiling water, then a third of ice-cold water. There is every reason to suppose that with this preliminary preparation Pilate would have begun to act differently, and I think the hunch-backed pony would agree that self-renunciation and megalomania would be a fair substitute for the cauldrons of the tale.

Great privations and great illusions so change the nature of man that things which seemed before impossible, become possible, and the unattainable, attainable.


Eternal Truths

In the Memorabilia Xenophon tells of the meeting of Socrates with the famous sophist Hippias. When Hippias came to Socrates, the latter as usual held forth, and as usual asked why it is that men who wish to learn carpentry or smith's work know to whom they should apply, but if they desire to learn virtue, cannot possibly find a teacher. Hippias, who had heard these opinions of Socrates many times before, remarked ironically: ‘So you're still saying the same old things, that I heard from you years ago!’ Socrates understood and accepted the challenge, as he always accepted challenges of this kind. A dispute began, by which it was demonstrated (as usual in Plato and Xenophon) that Socrates was a stronger dialectician than his opponent. He succeeded in showing that his conception of justice was based on the same firm foundation as all his other conceptions, and that convictions once formed, if they are true, are as little liable to the action of time as noble metals to rust.

Socrates lived seventy years. He was once a youth, once a man, once a greybeard. But what if he had lived a hundred and forty years, experienced once again all the three seasons of life, and had again met Hippias? Or, better still, if the soul, as Socrates taught, is immortal and Socrates now lives somewhere in the moon or Sirius, or in any other place predestined for immortal souls, does he really go on plaguing his companions with discourses on justice, carpenters, and smiths? And does he still emerge victorious as of old from the dispute with Hippias and other persons who dare to affirm that everything (human convictions included) may be, and ought to be, subject to the laws of time, and that mankind not only loses nothing, but gains much by such subjection?


Earth and Heaven

The word justice is on all men's lips. But do men indeed so highly prize justice as one would think, who believed all that has been said and is still being said concerning it? More than this, is it so highly appreciated by its sworn advocates and panegyrists—poets, philosophers, moralists, theologians—even by the best of them, the most sincere and gifted? I doubt it, I doubt it deeply. Glance at the works of any wise man, whether of the modern or the ancient world. Justice, if we understand it as the equality of all living men before the laws of creation and how else can we understand it?—never occupied anyone's attention. Plato never once asked Destiny why she created Thersites contemptible and Patroclus noble. Plato argues that men should be just, but never once dares to arraign the gods for their injustice. If we listen to his discourses, a suspicion will steal into our souls that justice is a virtue for mortals, while the immortals have virtues of their own which have nothing in common with justice. And here is the last trial of earthly virtue. We do not know whether the human soul is mortal or immortal. Some, we know, believe in immortality, others laugh at the belief. If it were proved that they were both in the wrong, and that men's destinies after death are as unequal as they are in life: the successful, the chosen take up their abode in heaven, the others remain to rot in the grave and perish with their mortal clay. (It is true that such an admission is made by our Russian prophet, the priest of love and justice, Dostoevsky, in his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.)

Now, if it should turn out that Dostoevsky is really immortal, while his innumerable disciples and admirers, the huge mass of grey humanity which is spoken of in The Grand Inquisitor, end their lives in death as they began them with birth, would Dostoevsky himself (whom I have named deliberately as the most passionate defender of the ideal of justice, though there have been yet more fervent and passionate and remarkable defenders of justice on earth whom I ought perhaps to name, were it not that I would avoid speaking lightly of sacred things—let him who finds Dostoevsky small, himself choose another)—would Dostoevsky reconcile himself to such an injustice, would he rise in revolt beyond the grave against the injustice, or would he forget his poor brethren when he occupied the place prepared for him? It is hard to judge a priori: a posteriori one would imagine that he would forget.

And between Dostoevsky and a small provincial author the gulf is colossal; the injustice of the inequality cries out to heaven. Nevertheless we take no heed, we live on and do not cry, or if we do, we cry very rarely, and then, to tell the truth, it is hard to say certainly why we cry. Is it because we would draw the attention of the indifferent heaven, or is it because there are many amateurs of lamentation among our neighbours, like the pilgrim woman in Ostrovsky’s Storm, who passionately loved to hear a good howl? All these considerations will seem particularly important to those who, like myself at the present moment—I cannot speak for tomorrow—share Dostoevsky's notion that even if there is immortality, then it is certainly not for everybody but for the few. Moreover, I follow Dostoevsky further and admit that they alone will rise from the dead who on the existing hypotheses should expect the worse fate after death. The first here will be the first still, there, while of the last not even a memory will remain. And no one will be found to champion those who have perished: a Dostoevsky, a Tolstoy, and all the other ‘first’ who succeed in entering heaven will be engaged in business incomparably more important.

So continue, if you will, to take thought for the just arrangement of the world, and, after the fashion of Plato, to make the teaching of justice the foundation of philosophy.


The Force of Argument

Schopenhauer answered the question of the immortality of the soul in the negative. In his opinion, man as Thing-in-Himself is immortal, but as phenomenon mortal. In other words, all that is individual in us exists only in the interval between birth and death; but since each individual according to Schopenhauer's teaching is a manifestation of ‘Will’ or ‘Thing-in-itself,’ the unalterable and eternal principle which is the only reality of the world, continually made object in the manifold of phenomena, then, in so far as this principle is displayed in man, he is eternal. This is Schopenhauer's opinion, evidently derived as a logical conclusion from his general philosophic doctrine, both from that relating to the Thing-in-Itself, and from that which relates to the individual.

The first part shall go unregarded: after all, if Schopenhauer was mistaken, and the Thing-in-Itself is mortal, we need not weep over it, nor is there any cause to rejoice over its immortality. But here is the individual. He is deprived of his right to immortality, and for reason is alleged an argument which is at first sight irrefutable. Everything which has a beginning has an end also, says Schopenhauer. The individual has a beginning, birth; therefore an end, death, awaits him. To Schopenhauer himself the general proposition as well as the conclusion seemed so obvious, that he did not admit the possibility of mistake even for a moment. But this time we have an incontestable case of a wrong conclusion from a wrong premiss. First, why must everything which has a beginning also have an end? The observations of experience point to such an hypothesis; but are the observations of experience really strong enough to support general propositions? And are we really entitled to make use of propositions so acquired as first principles for the solution of the most important problems of philosophy? And even if we admit that the premiss is correct, nevertheless the conclusion at which Schopenhauer arrived is wrongly drawn.

It may indeed be that everything which has a beginning also has an end; it may indeed be that the individual is sooner or later doomed to perish; but why identify the moment of the soul's destruction with the death of the body? it may be that the body will die, but the soul which the same fate attends at some future time will find for itself a more or less suitable integument somewhere in a distant planet, perhaps still unknown to us, and live on, though only for a little while and not for all eternity, as the extreme optimists believe. How important would it be for poor humanity to retain even such a hope: particularly seeing that we can hardly say with certainty what it is that men desire when they speak of the immortality of the soul. Is it that they merely desire at all costs to live eternally, or would they be satisfied with one or two lives more, especially if the subsequent lives should appear to be less offensively insignificant than this earthly existence, wherein even the lowest rank of nobility is to many an unattainable ideal? It seems to me that it is not every one who would consent to live eternally. And what if every possibility should have been exhausted, and endless repetition should begin?

It does not of course follow from this that we have the right to reckon upon an existence beyond the grave. The question remains open as before, even when Schopenhauer's arguments have been refuted. But it does follow that the best arguments on closer consideration often appear worthless. Quod erat demonstrandum—naturally pending the discovery of arguments to refute my refutation of Schopenhauer's. I make this reserve to deprive my critics of the pleasure and possibility of a little wordplay.


Swan Songs

It cannot be doubted that When We Dead Awake is one of the most autobiographical of Ibsen’s plays. Nearly all his dramas reveal striking traces of his personal experience; their most valuable quality, even, is the possibility of following out in them the history of the author's inward struggle. But there is a particular significance in When We Dead Awake, which comes from the fact that it was conceived and written by the author in his old age. Those who are interested in overhearing what is said and watching what is done on the outskirts of life set an extraordinary value on the opportunity of communing with very old men, with the dying. and generally with men who are placed in exceptional conditions, above all when they are not afraid to speak the truth, and have by past experience developed in themselves the art and the courage—the former is as necessary as the latter—to look straight into the eyes of reality. To such men Ibsen seems even more interesting than Tolstoy.

Tolstoy indeed has not yet betrayed his gift; but he is primarily a moralist. Now, as in his youth, power over men is the dearest thing of all to him, and more fascinating than all the other blessings of the world. He still gives orders, makes demands, and desires at all costs to be obeyed. One may, and one ought, to consider this peculiarity of Tolstoy's nature with attention and respect. Not Tolstoy alone, but many a regal hermit of thought has to the end of his life demanded the unconditional surrender of mankind. On the day of his death, an hour before end, Socrates taught that there was only one truth and that the one which he had discovered. Plato in his extreme old age journeyed to Syracuse to plant the seeds of wisdom there. It is probable that such stubbornness in great men has its explanation and its deep meaning.

Tolstoy, and also Socrates and Plato, and the Jewish prophets, who in this respect and in many others were very like the teachers of wisdom, probably had to concentrate their powers wholly upon one gigantic inward task, the condition of its successful performance being the illusion that the whole world, the whole universe, works in concert and unison with them. In Tolstoy's case I have elsewhere shown that he finds himself at present on the brink of Solipsism in his conception of the world. Tolstoy and the whole world are to him synonymous. Without such a temporary delusion of his whole being—it is not an intellectual delusion, of the head, for the head knows well that the world is by itself, and Tolstoy by himself—he would have to give up his most important work. So it is with us, who know since Copernicus that the earth moves round the sun, that the stars are not clear, bright, golden rings, but huge lumps of various composition, that there is not a firm blue vault overhead.

We know these things: nevertheless we cannot and do not want to be so blind as not to take delight in the lie of the optical illusions of the visible world. Truth so-called has but a limited value. Nor does the sacrifice of Galileo by any means refute my words. E pur si muove, if ever he uttered the phrase, might not have referred to the movement of the earth, though it was spoken of the earth. Galileo did not wish to betray the work of his life. Who will, however, stand surety to us that not only Galileo is capable of such sacrifice, but his pupil also, even the most devoted and courageous, who has gained the new truth not by his own struggle but from the lips of his master. Peter in one night thrice denied Christ. Probably we could not find a single man in all the world who would consent to die to demonstrate and defend the idea of Galileo.

Evidently great men are very little inclined to initiate the outsider into the secret of their great deeds. Evidently they cannot themselves always give a clear account of the character and meaning of the tasks which they set themselves. Socrates himself, who all his life long so stubbornly sought clarity and invented dialectics for the purpose, and introduced into general use definitions designed to fix the flowing reality; Socrates, who spent thirty days without interruption in persuading his pupils that he was dying for the sake of truth and justice; Socrates himself, I say, perhaps, most probably even, knew as little why he was dying as do simple people who die a natural death, or as babes born into the world know by what beneficent or hostile power they have been summoned from nonentity into being.

Such is our life: wise men and fools, old men and children march at random to goals which have not yet been revealed by any books, whether worldly or spiritual, common or sacred. It is by no means with the desire to bring dogmatism into contempt that I recall these considerations. I have always been convinced, and am still certain, that dogmatists feel no shame, and are by no means to be driven out of life; besides, I have lately come to the conclusion that dogmatists are perfectly justified in their stubbornness. Belief, and the need of belief, are strong as love, as death. In the case of every dogmatist I now consider it my sacred duty to concede everything in advance, even to the acknowledgment of the least, and least significant, shades of his convictions and beliefs. There is but one limitation, one only, imperceptible and almost invisible: the dogmatist's convictions must not be absolutely and universally binding, that is, not binding upon the whole of mankind without exception. The majority, the vast majority, millions, even tens of millions of people, I will readily allow him, on the understanding that they themselves desire it, or that he will show himself skillful enough to entice them to his side—violence is surely not to be admitted in matters of belief. In a word, I allow him almost the whole of humankind, in consideration whereof he must agree that his convictions are not intrinsically binding upon the few units or tens that remain. I agree to an outward submission. And the dogmatist, after such a victory—my confession is surely a complete victory for him—must consider himself satisfied in full.

Socrates was right, Plato, Tolstoy, the prophets were right: there is only one truth, one God; truth has the right to destroy lie, light to destroy darkness. God, omniscient, most gracious and omnipotent, will like Alexander of Macedon conquer nearly all the known world, and will drive out from his possessions, amid the triumphant and delighted shouts of his millions of loyal subjects, the devil and all those who are disobedient to his divine word. But he will renounce his claim to power over the souls of his few opponents, according to the agreement, and a handful of apostates will gather together on a remote isle, invisible to the millions, and will there continue their free, peculiar life. And here—to return to the beginning—among these few disobedient will be found Ibsen as he was in the last years of his life, as he is seen in his last drama. For in When We Dead Awake Ibsen approves and glorifies that which Gogol actually did fitly years ago. He renounces his art, and with hatred and mockery recalls to mind what was once the business of his life. On April 15, 1866, Ibsen wrote to King Karl: ‘I am not fighting for a careless existence; I am fighting for the work of my life, in which I unflinchingly believe, and which I know God has given me to do.’

By the way, you will hardly find one of the great workers who has not repeated this assertion of Ibsen’s, whether in the same or in another form. Evidently, without such an illusion, temporary or permanent, one cannot compass the intense struggle and the sacrifices which are the price of great work. Evidently, illusions of various kinds are necessary even for success in small things. In order that a little man should fulfill his microscopical work, he too must strain his little forces to the extreme. And who knows whether it did not seem to Akaky Akakievitch that God had assigned to him the task of copying the papers in the office and having a new uniform made? Of course he would never dare to say so, and he would never be able to, first because of his timidity, and then because he has not the gift of expression. The Muses do not bring their tribute to the poor and weak: they sing only Croesus and Caesar. But there is no doubt that the first in the village consider themselves as plainly designated by fate as the first in Rome. Caesar felt this, and not mere ambition alone spoke in him when he uttered the famous phrase. Men do not believe in themselves and always yearn to occupy a position wherein the certainty, whether justified or mistaken, may spring up within them that they stand in the sight of God. But with years all illusions vanish, and among them the illusion that God chooses certain men for his particular purposes and puts on them particular charges.

Gogol, who had thus long understood his task as an author, burnt his best work before his death. Ibsen did almost the same. In the person of Professor Rubek he renounces his literary activity and jeers at it, though it had brought him everything that he could have expected from it, fame, respect, riches... And think why! Because he had to sacrifice the man in him for the sake of the artist, to give up Irene whom he loved, to marry a woman to whom he was indifferent. Did Ibsen at the end of his life clearly discover that God had appointed him the task of being a male? But all men are males, while only individuals are artists. Had this been said, not by Ibsen, but by a common mortal, we would call it the greatest vulgarity. On the lips of Ibsen, an old man of seventy years, the author of Brand, from which the divines of Europe draw the matter for their sermons, on the lips of Ibsen who wrote Emperor and Galilean such a confession acquires an unexpected and mysterious meaning. Here you cannot escape with a shake of the head and a contemptuous smile. Not anybody, but Ibsen himself speaks—the first, not in the village, not in Rome even, but in the world. Here surely is the human law at work: ‘Forswear not the prison nor the beggar’s wallet!’

Perhaps it is opportune to recall the swan songs of Turgenev. Turgenev, too, had high ideals which he probably thought he had received direct from God. We may with assurance put into the mouth of Brand himself the phrase with which his remarkable essay, Hamlet and Don Quixote, concludes: ‘Everything passes, good deeds remain.’ In these words is the whole Turgenev, or better, the whole conscious Turgenev of that period of his life to which the essay belongs. And not only in that period, but up to the last minutes of his life, the conscious Turgenev would not recant those words. But in the Prose Poems an utterly different motive is heard. All that he there relates, and all that Ibsen tells in his last drama, is permeated with one infinite, inextinguishable anguish for a life wasted in vain, for a life which had been spent in preaching ‘good.’

Yet neither youth, nor health, nor the powers that fail are regretted. Perhaps even death has no terrors... What the old Turgenev cannot away with are his memories of ‘the Russian girl.’ He described and sang her as no one in Russian literature before him, but she was to him only an ideal; he, like Rubek, had not touched her. Ibsen had not touched Irene; he went off to Madame Viardo. And this is an awful sin, in no wise to be atoned, a mortal sin, the sin of which the Bible speaks. All things will be forgiven, all things pass, all things will be forgotten: this crime will remain for ever. That is the meaning of Turgenev’s senilia; that is the meaning of Ibsen’s senilia. I have deliberately chosen the word senilia, though I might have said swan songs, though it would even have been more correct to speak of swan songs. ‘Swans,’ says Plato, ‘when they feel the approach of death, sing that day better than ever, rejoicing that they will find God, whom they serve.’

Ibsen and Turgenev served the same God as the swans, according to the Greek belief, the bright God of songs, Apollo. And their last songs, their senilia, were better than all that had gone before. In them is a bottomless depth awful to the eye, but how wonderful! There all things are different from what they are with us on the surface. Should one hearken to the temptation and go to the call of the great old men, or should he tie himself to the mast of conviction, verified by the experience of mankind, and cover his ears as once the crafty Ulysses did to save himself from the Sirens? There is a way of escape: there is a word which will destroy the enchantment. I have already uttered it: senilia. Turgenev wished to call his Prose Poems by this name—manifestations of sickness, of infirmity, of old age. These are terrible; one must run away from these! Schopenhauer, the philosopher and metaphysician, feared to revise the works of his youth in his old age. He felt that he would spoil them by his mere touch. And all men mistrust old age, all share Schopenhauer's apprehensions. But what if all are mistaken? What if senilia bring us nearer to the truth? Perhaps the soothsaying birds of Apollo grieve in unearthly anguish for another existence; perhaps their fear is not of death but of life; perhaps in Turgenev’s poems, as well as in Ibsen’s last drama, are already heard, if not the last, then at least the penultimate words of mankind.


What is Philosophy?

In text-books of philosophy you will find most diverse answers to this question. During the twenty-five hundred years of its existence it has been able to make an immense quantity of attempts to define the substance of its task. But up till now no agreement has been reached between the acknowledged representatives of the lovers and favourites of wisdom. Every one judges in his own way, and considers his opinion as the only true one; of a consensus sapientium it is impossible even to dream. But strangely enough, exactly in this disputable matter wherein the agreement of savants and sages is so impossible, the consensus profanorum is fully attained. All those who were never engaged in philosophy, who have never read learned books, or even any books at all, answer the question with rare unanimity.

True, it is apparently impossible to judge of their opinions directly, because people of this kind cannot speak at all in the language evolved by science; they never put the question in such a form, still less can they answer it in the accepted words. But we have an important piece of indirect evidence which gives us the right to form a conclusion. There is no doubt that all those who ha~e gone to philosophy for answers to the questions which tormented them, have left her disenchanted, unless they had a sufficiently eminent gift to enable them to join the guild of professional philosophers. From this we may unhesitatingly conclude, although the conclusion is for the time being only negative, that philosophy is engaged in a business which may be interesting and important to the few, but is tedious and useless to the many.

This conclusion is highly consoling as well for the sage as for the profane. For every sage, even the most exalted, is at the same time one of the profane—if we discard the academical use of words—a human being, pure and simple. To him also it may happen that those tormenting questions will arise, which ordinary people used to bring to him, as for instance in the case of Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych or Chekhov's professor in The Tedious Story. And then he will of course be obliged to confess that the necessary answers are missing from the great tomes which he has studied so well. For what can be more terrible to a man than to be compelled in the hard moments of his life to acknowledge any doctrine of philosophy as binding upon him?

For instance, to be compelled to hold with Plato, Spinoza, or Schopenhauer that the chief problem of life is moral perfection, or in other words, self-renunciation. It was easy for Plato to preach justice. It did not in the least prevent him from being the son of his time, or from breaking to a permissible extent the commandments which he himself had given. By all the evidence Spinoza was much more resolute and consequent than Plato; he indeed kept the passions in subservience, but that was his personal and individual inclination. Consistence was not merely a property of his mind, but of his whole being. Displaying it, he displayed himself. As for Schopenhauer, it is known that he praised the virtues only in his books; but in life, like many another clever, independent man, he was guided by the most diverse considerations.

But these are all masters, who devise systems and imperatives. Whereas the pupil, seeking in philosophy an answer to his questions, cannot permit himself any liberties and digressions from the universal rules, for the essence and the fundamental problem of any doctrine reduces to the subordination not merely of men's conduct, but of the life of the whole universe to one regulating principle. Individual philosophers have discovered such principles, but to this day they have reached no final agreement among themselves, and this to some extent lightens the burden of those unhappy ones who, having lost the hope of finding help and guidance elsewhere, have turned to philosophy. If there is not in philosophy one universal principle binding upon and acknowledged by all, it means that it is permitted to each man, at least for the meantime, to feel and even to act in his own way. A man may listen to Spinoza, or he may stop his ears. He may kneel before Plato's eternal ideas, or he may give his allegiance to the ever-changing, ever-flowing reality. Finally, he may accept Schopenhauer's pessimism, but nothing on earth can compel him to celibacy on the ground that Schopenhauer successfully laughed at love.

Nor is there any necessity at all, in order to win such freedom for one's self, to be armed with the light dialectic of the old Greek philosopher, or with the heavy logic of the poor Dutch Jew, or with the subtle wit of the profound German. Neither is it necessary to dispute them. It is even possible to agree with them all. The room of the world is infinite, and will not only contain all those who lived once and those who are yet to be born, but will give to each one of them all that he can desire: to Plato, the world of ideas, to Spinoza, the one eternal and unchangeable substance, to Schopenhauer, the Nirvana of Buddhism. Each of these, and all the other philosophers, will find what they want in the universe even to the belief, even to the conviction, that theirs are the only true and universal doctrines. But, at the same time, the profane will find suitable worlds for themselves.

From the fact that people are cooped up on the earth, and that they must put forth efforts beyond belief to gain each cubit of earth, and even their illusory liberties, it by no means follows that poverty, obscurantism, and despotism must be considered eternal and original principles, and that economical uniformity is the last refuge of man. A plurality of worlds, a plurality of men and gods amid the vast spaces of the vast universe—this is, if I may be forgiven the word, an ideal. It is true it is not built according to the idealists. Yet what a conclusion does it foreshadow! We leave the disputes and arguments of philosophers aside, so soon as we begin to speak of gods. According to the existing beliefs and hypotheses the gods also have always been quarrelling and fighting among themselves. Even in monotheistic religions people always made their God enter a fight, and devised an eminent opponent for him—the devil. Men can by no means rid themselves of the thought that everything in heaven goes on in exactly the same way as it does on the earth, and they attribute all their own bad qualities as well as their good ones to the denizens of heaven.

Whereas it is by far the most probable that a great many of the things which are, according to our notions, perfectly inseparable from life do not exist in heaven. Among other things, there is no struggle. And this is well. For every struggle, sooner or later, develops inevitably into a fight. When the supply of logical and ethical arguments is exhausted, one thing is left for the irreconcilable opponents—to come to blows, which do in fact usually decide the issue. The value of logical and ethical arguments is arbitrarily assigned, but material force is measured by foot-pounds and can be calculated in advance. So that where on the common supposition there will be no foot-pounds, the issue of the fight will very often remain undecided. When Lermontov’s demon goes to Tamara’s cell, an angel meets him on the way. The demon says that Tamara belongs to him; the angel demands her for himself. The demon will not be dissuaded by words and arguments: he is not built that way. As for the angel, he always considers himself doubly right. How can the issue be decided? At last Lermontov, who could not or dared not devise a new solution, admitted the interference of material force: Tamara is dragged away from the demon exactly as the stronger robber pulls his prey from the weaker on earth.

Evidently the poet admitted that conclusion, that he might pay his tribute to the piety of tradition. But in my opinion the solution is not pious, but merely blasphemous. In it the traces of barbarity and idolatry are still clearly visible. The tastes and attributes of which earthly despots dream are attributed to God. By all means he must be, he desires to be, the strongest, the very first, just like Julius Caesar in his youth. He fears rivalry above all things, and never forgives his unconquered enemies. This is evidently a barbarous mistake. God does not want to be the strongest, the very first, at all. Certainly—for that would be intelligible and in accordance with common sense—he would not like to be weaker than others, in order that he might not be exposed to violence; but there is no foundation at all for attributing to him ambition or vainglory. Therefore there is equally no reason to think that he does not suffer equals, desires to be supreme, and seeks at all costs to destroy the devil. Most probably he lives in peace and concord even with those who least adapt themselves to his tastes and habits. Perhaps he is even delighted that not all are as he, and he readily shares his possessions with the devil, the more readily because by such a division neither loses, since the infinite—I admit that God's possessions are infinite—divided by two and even by the greatest possible finite number still leaves infinity.

Now we can return to the original question, and it seems that we can even give an answer to it—two answers even, one for the sage, another for the profane. To the first, philosophy is art for art's sake. Every philosopher tries to construct a harmonious and various system, curiously and nicely fashioned, using for his material his own intrinsic experience as well as his own personal observations of the life beyond him, and the observations of others. A philosopher is an artist of his kind, to whom his works are dearer than everything in life, sometimes dearer than life itself. We very often see philosophers sacrifice everything for the sake of their work—even truth. Not so the profane. To them philosophy—more exactly, that which they would call philosophy if they possessed a scientific terminology—is the last refuge when material forces have been wasted, when there are no weapons left to fight for their stolen rights. Then they run for help and support to a place which they have always taken care to avoid before. Think of Napoleon at St. Helena. He who had been collecting soldiers and guns all his life, began to philosophise when he was bound hand and foot. Certainly he behaved in this new sphere like a beginner, a very inexperienced and, strange to say, a pusillanimous novice.

He who feared neither pestilence nor bullet, was afraid, we know, of a dark room. Men used to philosophy, like Schopenhauer, walk boldly and with confidence in a dark room, though they run away from gun shots, and even less dangerous things. The great captain, the once Emperor of nearly all Europe, Napoleon, philosophised on St. Helena, and even went so far as to begin to ingratiate himself with morality, evidently supposing that upon morality his ultimate fate depended. He assured her that for her sake, and her sake alone, he had contrived his murderous business—he who, all the while a crown was on his head and a victorious army in his hands, hardly knew even of the existence of morality. But this is so intelligible. If one were to come upon a perfectly new and unknown world at the age of forty-five, then surely everything would seem terrible, and one would take the incorporeal morality for the arbiter of destiny. And one would plan to seduce her, if possible, with sweet words and false promises, as a lady of the world.

But these were the first steps of a tyro. It was as hard for Napoleon to master philosophy as it was for Charlemagne at the end of his days to learn to write. But he knew why he had come to the new place, and neither Plato nor Spinoza nor Kant could dissuade him of this. Perhaps at the beginning, while he was as yet unused to the darkness, he would pretend to agree with the acknowledged authorities, thinking that here too, just as there where he lived before, exalted personages do not tolerate opposition; perhaps he would lie to them as he lied to morality, but his business he would not forget. He came to philosophy with demands, and would not rest till he had received satisfaction. He had already seen how a Corsican lieutenant had become a French Emperor. Why should not the beaten Emperor fight his last fight?... And how shall he be reconciled with self-renunciation? Philosophy will surrender: it is only necessary not to surrender in one's self. So does a Napoleon come to philosophy, and so does he understand her. And until the contrary is proven, nothing can prevent us from thinking that the Napoleons are right, and therefore that academical philosophy is not the last nor even the penultimate word. For, perhaps, the last word is hidden in the hearts of the tongue-tied, but bold, persistent, implacable men.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC