The Seventh Day of Creation
Socrates said that he often used to hear from poets thoughts remarkable for their profundity and seriousness, but when he began to inquire of them more particularly, he became convinced that they themselves did not understand what they were saying. What did he really mean? Did Socrates wish to compare the poets to parrots or trained blackbirds who can learn by heart, with the assistance of a man to teach them, any ideas whatever, perfectly foreign to them. That can hardly be. Socrates hardly thought that what the poets say had been overheard by them from some one, and mechanically fixed in their mind, though it remained quite foreign to their soul. Most probably he used the word ‘understand’ in the sense that they could not demonstrate or explain the soundness and stability of their ideas,—they could not deduce them and relate them to a definite conception of the world. As every one knows, Socrates thought that not merely poets, but all men, from eminent statesmen down to ignorant artisans, had ideas, even a great many ideas, but they never could explain where they had got them, or make them agree among themselves.
In this respect poets were the same as the rest of people. From some mysterious source they had acquired truths, often great and profound, but they were unable to explain them. This seemed to Socrates a great misery, a real misfortune. I do not know how it happened—not a single historian of philosophy has explained it, and indeed very little interest has been taken in it—but Socrates for some reason decided that an unproven and unexplained truth had less value than a proven and explained one. In our times, when a whole theory, even a conception of the world, has been made of Socrates's ideas, this notion seems so natural and self-evident that no one doubts it. But in antiquity the case was different. Strictly, Socrates thought that the poets had acquired their truths, which they were unable to prove, from a very respectable source, which deserved all possible confidence: he himself compared the poets with oracles, and consequently admitted that they had communion with the gods. There was, therefore, a most excellent guarantee that the poets were possessed of real, undiluted truth—the pledge of its purity being the divine authority. Socrates said that he himself had frequently been guided in his actions, not by considerations of reason, but by the voice of his mysterious ‘demon.’ That is, at times, he abstained from certain actions—his demon gave him never positive, but only negative advice—without being able to produce reasons, simply because the secret voice, more authoritative than any human mind, demanded abstinence from them.
Is it not strange that under such circumstances, at an epoch when the gods vouchsafed truths to men, there should have suddenly appeared in a man the unexplained desire to acquire truths without the help of the gods, and in independence of them, by the dialectic method so beloved of the Greeks? It is doubtful which is more important for us, to acquire the truth or to acquire for one's self with one's own effort, it may be a false, but one's own judgment. The example of Socrates, who has been a pattern for all subsequent generations of thinking men, leaves not the slightest doubt. Men do not need a truth ready made; they turn away from the gods to devote themselves to independent creations. Practically the same story is told in the Bible. What indeed was lacking to Adam? He lived in paradise, in direct proximity to God, from whom he could learn anything he wanted. And yet it did not suit him. It was enough that the Serpent should make his perfidious proposal for the man to forget the wrath of God, and all the dangers which threatened him, and to pluck the apple from the forbidden tree. Then the truth, which until the creation of the world and man had been one, split and broke with a great, perhaps an infinitely great, number of most diverse truths, eternally being born, and eternally dying.
This was the seventh day of creation, unrecorded in history. Man became God's collaborator. He himself became a creator. Socrates renounced the divine truth and even spoke contemptuously of it, merely because it was not proven, that is, because it does not bear the marks of man's handiwork. Socrates really did not prove anything, but he was proving, creating, and in this he saw the meaning of his own life and of all human lives. Thus, surely, the pronouncement of the Delphic oracle seems true even now: Socrates was the wisest of men. And he who would be wise must, imitating Socrates, not be like him in anything. Thus did all great men, and all great philosophers.
What does the History of Philosophy teach us?
Neo-Kantianism is the prevalent school of modern philosophy. The literature about Kant has grown to unheard-of proportions. But if you attempt to analyse the colossal mass that has been written upon Kant, and put the question to yourself, what has really been left to us of Kant's teaching, then to your great amazement you will have to reply: Nothing at all. There is an extraordinary, incredibly famous name—Kant, and there is positively not a single Kantian thesis which in an uninterpreted form would have survived till our day. I say in an uninterpreted form, for interpretations resolve at bottom into arbitrary recastings, which often have not even an outward resemblance to the original. These interpretations began while Kant was still alive. Fichte gave the first example. It is well known that Kant reacted, demanding that his teaching should be understood not in the spirit but in the letter. And Kant was, naturally, quite right. Of two things one: either you take his teaching as it is, or you invent your own. But the fate of all thinkers who have been destined to give their names to an epoch is similar: they have been interpreted, recast, till they are unrecognisable. For after a short time had elapsed, it became clear that their ideas were so overburdened with contradictions, that in the form in which they emerged from the hands of their creators, they are absolutely unacceptable. Indeed, all the critics who had not made up their minds beforehand to be orthodox Kantians, came to the conclusion that Kant had not proved a single one of his fundamental propositions.
Something stronger may be said. By virtue of the fact that Kant, owing to the central position which he occupied, attracted much attention to himself and was forced to submit to very careful criticism, there gradually emerged a truth which might have been known beforehand: that Kant's teaching is a mass of contradictions. The sum-total of more than a century's study of Kant may be resumed in a few words. Although he was not afraid of the most crying contradictions, he did not have the smallest degree of success in proving the correctness of his teaching. With an extraordinary power and depth of mind, with all the originality, boldness, and talent of his constructions, he really provided nothing that might be indisputably called a positive acquisition of philosophy. I repeat that I am not expressing my own opinion. I am only reckoning the sum-total of the opinions of the German critics of Kant, of those same critics who built him a monument aere perennius.
The same may be said of all the great representatives of philosophic thought beginning with Plato and Aristotle, and ending with Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Their works astonish by their power, depth. boldness, beauty and originality of thought. While you read them it seems that truth herself speaks with their lips. And what strong measures of precaution did they take to prevent themselves from being mistaken! They believed in nothing that men had grown accustomed to believe. They methodically doubted everything, reexamined everything, tens, hundreds of times. They gave their life to the truth not in words, but in deed. And still the sum-total is the same in their case as in Kant's: not one of them succeeded in inventing a system free from internal contradictions.
Aristotle was already criticising Plato, and the skeptics criticised both of them, and so on until in our day each new thinker struggles with his predecessors, refutes their contradictions and errors, although he knows that he is doomed to the same fate. The historians of philosophy are at infinite pains to conceal the most glaring and noticeable trait of philosophic creation, which is, at bottom, no secret to any one. The uninitiated, and people generally who do not like thinking, and therefore wish to be contemptuous of philosophy, point to the lack of unity among philosophers as evidence that it is not worth while to study philosophy. But they are both wrong. The history of philosophy not only does not inspire us with the thought of the continual evolution of an idea, but palpably convinces us of the contrary, that among philosophers there is not, has not been, and will never be, any aspiration towards unity. Neither will they find in future a truth free from contradiction, for they do not seek the truth in the sense in which the word is understood by the people and by science; and, after all, contradictions do not frighten them, but rather attract. Schopenhauer begins his criticism of Kant's philosophy with the words of Voltaire: ‘It is the privilege of genius to make great mistakes with impunity.’
I believe that the secret of the philosophic genius lies here. He makes great, the greatest, mistakes, and ‘with impunity. Moreover his mistakes are put to his credit, for the important matter is not his truths, or his judgments, but himself. When you hear from Plato that the life we see is only a shadow, when Spinoza, intoxicated by God, exalts the idea of necessity, when Kant declares that reason dictates laws to Nature,—listening to them you do not examine whether their assertions are true or not, you agree with each of them, whatever he says, and only this question arises in your soul: ‘Who is he that speaketh as one having authority?’
Later on, you will reject all their truths, with horror, perhaps with indignation and disgust, even with utter indifference. You will not consent to accept that our life is only a shadow of actual reality, you will revolt against Spinoza’s God, who cannot love, yet demands love for himself, Kant's categorical imperative will seem to you a cold monster,—but you will never forget Plato, or Spinoza, or Kant, and will for ever keep your gratitude to them, who made you believe that authority is given to mortals. Then you will understand that there are no errors and no truths in philosophy; that errors and truths are only for him above whom is set a superior authority, a law, a standard. But philosophers themselves create laws and standards. This is what we are taught by the history of philosophy; this is what is most difficult for man to master and understand. I have already said that the historians of philosophy draw quite a different moral from the study of the great human creations.
Science and Metaphysics
In his autobiography Spencer confesses that he had really never read Kant. He had had The Critique of Pure Reason in his hands, and had even read the beginning, the Transcendental Aesthetic, but the beginning convinced him it was no use for him to read further. Once a man had made the unconvincing admission which Kant had made, by accepting the subjectivity of one form of perception, of space and time, he could not be seriously taken into account. If he is consistent, all his philosophy will be a system of absurdity and nonsense; if he is inconsistent, the less attention does he deserve.
Spencer confidently asserts that, once he could not accept Kant's fundamental proposition, he not only could not be a Kantian any more, but he found it useless even to become further acquainted with Kant's philosophy. That he did not become a Kantian is nothing to grieve over—there are Kantians enough without him—but that he did not acquaint himself with Kant's principal works, and above all with the whole school that rose out of Kant, may be sincerely regretted. Perhaps, as a new man, remote from Continental traditions, he would have made a curious discovery, and would have convinced himself that it was not at all necessary to accept the proposition of the subjectivity of space and time in order to become a Kantian. And perhaps with the frankness and simplicity peculiar to him, which is not afraid to be taken for naïveté, he would have told us that not a single Kantian (Schopenhauer excepted), not even Kant himself, has ever seriously accepted the fundamental propositions of the Transcendental Aesthetic, and therefore has never made from them any conclusions or deductions whatever.
On the contrary, the Transcendental Aesthetic was itself a deduction from another proposition, that we have synthetic judgments a priori. The original role of this, the most original of all theories ever invented, was to be a support and an explanation of the mathematical sciences. It had never had an independent, material content, susceptible of analysis and investigatiOn. Space and time are the eternal forms of our perception of the world: to this, according to the strict meaning of Kant's teaching, nothing can be added, and nothing abated. Spencer, not having read the book to the end, imagined that Kant would begin to make deductions and became nervous. But if he had read the book to the end, he would have been convinced that Kant had not made any deductions, and that the whole meaning of The Critique of Pure Reason indeed is ~that from the propositions of the Transcendental Aesthetic no deductions can be made. It is now about a hundred and fifty years since The Critique of Pure Reason appeared. No philosophic work has been so much studied and criticised. And yet where are the Kantians who attempt to make deductions from the proposition as to the subjectivity of space and time? Schopenhauer is the only exception. He indeed took the Kantian idea seriously, but it may be said without exaggeration that of all Kantians the least like Kant was Schopenhauer.
The world is a veil of Maia. Would Kant really have agreed to such an interpretation of his Transcendental Aesthetic? Or what would Kant have said, if he had heard that Schopenhauer, referring to the same Aesthetic in which he saw the greatest philosophic revelation, had admitted the possibility of clairvoyance and magic? Probably Spencer thought that Kant would himself make all these deductions, and therefore threw away the book which bound him to conclusions so absurd. It is a pity that Spencer was in such a hurry. Had he acquainted himself with Kant, he would have been convinced that the most absurd idea might serve a very useful purpose; and that there is not the least necessity to make from an idea all the deductions to which it may lead.
A man is a free agent and he can deduce if he has a mind to; if he has not, he will not; and there is no necessity to judge the character of a philosophic theory by its general postulates. Even Schopenhauer did not exploit Kant's theory to the full, which, if it had really divined the truths hitherto hidden from men, would have not only put an end to metaphysical researches, but also have given an impulse and a justification to perfectly new experiments which from the previous standpoint were quite mad and unimaginable. For if space and time are forms of our human perception, then they do indeed hide the ultimate truth from us. While men knew nothing of this, and, simple minded, accepted the visible reality for the actual real, they could not of course dream of true knowledge. But from the moment when the truth was revealed to them through Kant's penetration, it is clear that their true task was to use every possible means to free themselves from the harness and to break away from it, while consolidating all those judgments which Kant calls synthetic judgments a priori for all eternity.
And the new, the critical metaphysics, which should take account of the stupid situation in which these had hitherto found themselves who saw in apodeictic judgments eternal truths, had a great task to set herself: to get rid at all costs of apodeictic judgments, knowing them for false. In other words, Kant's task should not have been to minimise the destructive effect of Hume's skepticism, but to find a still more deadly explosive to destroy even those limits which Hume was obliged to preserve. It is surely evident that truth lies beyond synthetic judgments a priori, and that it cannot at all resemble an a priori judgment, and in fact cannot be like a judgment of any kind.
And it must be sought by methods quite different from those by which it has been sought hitherto. To some extent Kant attempted to describe how he represented to himself the meaning hidden beneath the words: ‘Space and time are subjective forms of perception.’ He even gave an object-lesson, saying that perhaps there are beings who perceive the world otherwise than under the forms of space and time: which means that for such beings there is no change. All that we perceive by a succession of changes, they perceive at once. To them Julius Caesar is still alive, though he is dead; to them the twenty-fifth century A.D., which none of us will live to see, and the twenty-fifth century B.C., which we reconstruct with some difficulty from the fragmentary traces of the past which have accidentally been preserved to us, the remote North Pole, and even the stars which we cannot see through the telescope—all are as accessible to them as to us the events which are taking place before our eyes.
Nevertheless Kant, in spite of all temptation to acquire the knowledge to which such beings have access, notwithstanding his profound conviction of the truth of his discovery, did nothing to dispel the charm of forms of perception and categories of the reason, or to tear the blinkers from his eyes and see all the depth of the mysterious reality hitherto hidden from us. He does not even give a little circumstantial explanation why he considered such a task impracticable, and he confines himself to the dogmatic assertion that man cannot conceive a reality beyond space and time. Why? It is a question of immense importance. Compared with it all the problems of The Critique of Pure Reason are secondary. How is mathematics possible, how are natural sciences possible?—these are not even questions at all compared to the question whether it is possible to free ourselves from conventional human knowledge in order to attain the ultimate, all-embracing truth.
Herein the Kantians display an even greater indifference than Kant himself: they are even proud of their indifference, they plume themselves upon it as a high virtue. They assert that truth is not beyond synthetic judgments a priori, but indeed in them; and that it is not the Creator who put blinkers upon us, but we ourselves devised them, and that any attempt to remove them and look open-eyed upon the world is evidence of perversity. If the old Serpent appeared nowadays to seduce the modern Adam, he would retire discomfited. Even Eve herself would be no use to him. The twentieth-century Eve studies in a university and has quite sufficiently blunted her natural curiosity. She can talk excellently well of the teleological point of view and is quite as proof as man against temptation. I do not share Kant's confidence that space and time are forms of our perception, nor do I see a revelation in it. But if I had once accepted this apocalyptic assertion, and could think that there was some truth in it, I would not depart from it to positive science.
It is a pity that Spencer did not read The Critique of Pure Reason to the end. He would have convinced himself of an important truth: that a philosopher has no need to take into consideration all the deductions from his premisses. He need only have goodwill, and he can draw from the most paradoxical and suspicious premisses conclusions which are fully conformable to common-sense and the rules of decency. And since Kant's will was as good as Spencer's, they would have agreed perfectly in their deductions, though they were so far apart from each other in their premisses.
A Tacit Assumption
Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to ask the value of life. And he gave a definite answer: in life there is much more suffering than joy, therefore life must be renounced. I must add that strictly speaking he asked not only the value of life, but also the value of joy and suffering. And to this question he gave an equally definite answer. According to his teaching joy is always negative, suffering always positive. Therefore by its essence joy cannot compensate for suffering.
In all this philosophical construction, both in formulating and answering the questions, there is one tacit, particularly curious, and interesting and unexpressed postulate. Schopenhauer starts from the assumption that his valuation of life, joy and suffering, in order to have the right to be called truth, must contain something universal, by virtue of which it will in the last resort coincide with the valuation of all other people. Whence did he derive this idea? Psychologically the train of Schopenhauer's thought is intelligible and easily explained. He was used to the scientific formulation and solution of problems, and he transferred to the question which engaged him methods of investigation which by general consent usually conduct us to the truth. He did not verify his premiss ad hoc, and usually it is impossible to verify a premiss every time that a need arises for it. It is not even becoming to exhibit it, to speak of it. It is understood. If the fundamental sign of any truth is its being universal and obligatory, then in the given case the true answer to the question of the value of life can only be something which will be absolutely admissible by all men to all creatures with a mind. So Schopenhauer would probably have answered, if any one had questioned his right to formulate in such a general way the question of the value of life.
Still Schopenhauer would hardly be right. This, by the way, is being made clear by the objections which are put forward by his opponents. He is accused because his very statement of the question presupposes a subjective point of view—eudaemonism.
The question of the value of life, people object, is not at all decided by whether in the sum life gives more joy than pain or vice versa. Life may be deeply painful and devoid of joy, life may in itself be one compact horror, and still be valuable. Schopenhauer's philosophy was not discussed in his lifetime, so that he could not answer his opponents. But, if he were still alive, would he accept these objections and renounce his pessimism? I am convinced that he would not. At the same time I am convinced that his opponents would be no less firm and would go on repeating: ‘The question is not one of happiness or suffering. We value life by a quite different and independent standard.’ And in the discussion it would perhaps become clear to the disputants that the premiss mentioned above, which both accepted as requiring no proof and understood without explanation, does indeed require proofs and explanations, but is provided with neither.
To one man the eudaemonistic point of view is ultimate and decisive, to another contemptible and degrading, and he seeks the meaning of life in a higher, ethical or aesthetic purpose. There are also people who love sorrow and pain, and see in them the justification and the source of the depth and importance of life. Nor do I mention the fact that when the sum-totals of life are reckoned different accountants reach different and directly contradictory results, or that insoluble questions arise concerning these, or other details. Schopenhauer for instance finds, as we have seen, that sufferings are positive, joys negative. And hence he concludes that it is not worth while to submit to the least unpleasantness for the sake of the greatest joy. What answer can be made? How can he be convinced of the contrary?
Nevertheless the fact is obvious: many people regard the matter in quite a different light. For the sake of a single happiness they are ready to endure a great many serious hardships. In a word, Schopenhauer's premiss is quite unjustified, and not only cannot be accepted as an indubitable truth, but must be qualified as an indubitable error. It is impossible to be certain beforehand that to the question of the value of life a single, universally valid answer can be given. So here we meet with an extraordinarily curious case from the point of view of the theory of knowledge. It appears that by the very essence of the matter no uniform answer can be given to one of the most important questions, perhaps the most important question of philosophy. If you are asked what is life, good or evil, you are obliged to say that life is both good and evil; or something independent of good and evil; or a mixture of good and evil in which there is more good than evil, or more evil than good.
And, I repeat, each of these answers, although they logically quite exclude each other, has the right to claim the title of truth; for if it has not power enough to make the other answers bow down before it, at all events it has the necessary strength to repel its opponents’ attacks and to defend its sovereign rights. Instead of a sole and omnipotent truth before which the weak and helpless errors tremble, you have before you a whole line of perfectly independent truths excellently armed and defended. Instead of absolutism, you have a feudal system. And the vassals are so firmly ensconced in their castles that an experienced eye can see at once that they are impregnable.
I took for my instance Schopenhauer's doctrine of the value of life. But many philosophic doctrines, although they issue from the premiss of one sovereign truth, display examples of the plurality of truths. It is usually believed that one should study the history of philosophy in order to be palpably convinced that mankind has gradually mastered its delusions and is now on the high road to ultimate truth. My opinion is that the history of philosophy must bring every impartial person, who is not infected by modern prejudices, to a directly opposite conclusion. There can be no doubt that a whole series of questions exists, like that of the value of life, which by their very essence do not admit of a uniform solution. To this testimony is often borne by men whose very last concern is to curtail the royal prerogative of sovereign truth: Natorp confidently asserts that Aristotle not only did not understand but could not understand Plato. ‘Der tiefere Grund ist die ewige Unfähigkeit des Dogmatismus sich in der Gesichtspunkt der kritischen Philosophic überhaupt zu versetzen.’ ‘Eternal incapability’—what words! And used not of any commonplace person, but of the greatest human genius known to us, of Aristotle. Had Natorp been a little more inquisitive, ‘eternal incapability’ of that kind should have worried him at least as much as Plato's philosophy, on which he wrote a large book. For here is evidently a great riddle. Different people, according to the different constitution of their souls, are while yet in their mother's womb destined to have different philosophies. It reminds me of the famous Calvinistic view of predetermination. Just as from before birth God has destined some to damnation, others to salvation; so to some it is given and from others withheld, to know the truth.
And not Natorp alone argues thus. It would be true to say all modern philosophers, who are always contending with each other and suspecting each other of ‘eternal incapability.’ Philosophers have not the same means of compelling conviction as the representatives of other positive sciences: they cannot force every one to undeniable conclusions. Their ultima ratio, their personal opinion, their private conviction, their last refuge, is the ‘eternal incapability’ of their opponents to understand them. Here the tragic dilemma is clear to all. Of two things one: either renounce philosophy entirely, or allow that that which Natorp calls the ‘eternal incapability’ is not a vice or a weakness, but a great virtue and power hitherto unappreciated and misunderstood. Aristotle, indeed, was organically incapable of understanding Plato, just as Plato could not have understood Aristotle, just as neither of them could understand the skeptics or the sophists, just as Leibnitz could not understand Spinoza, as Schopenhauer could not understand Hegel, and so on till our riotous modern days when no philosopher can understand any one except himself.
Besides, philosophers do not aspire to mutual understanding and unity, but usually it is with the utmost reluctance that they observe in themselves similarity to their predecessors. When the similarity of Schopenhauer's teaching to that of Spinoza was pointed out to him, he said Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerint. But representatives of the other positive sciences understand each other, rarely dispute, and never argue by referring to the ‘eternal incapability’ of their confreres. Perhaps in philosophy this chaotic state of affairs and this unique argument are part of the craft. Perhaps in this realm it is necessary that Aristotle should not understand Plato and should not accept him, that the materialists should always be at war with the idealists, the skeptics with the dogmatists.
In other words, the premiss with which Schopenhauer began the investigation into the value of life, and which as we have shown he took without verification from the representatives of positive science, though perfectly applicable in its proper sphere, is quite out of place in philosophy. And indeed, though they never speak of it, philosophers value their own personal convictions much more highly than universally valid truth. The impossibility of discovering one sole philosophic truth may alarm any one but the philosophers themselves, who, so soon as they have worked out their own convictions, take not the smallest trouble to secure general recognition for them. They are only busy with getting rid of their vassal dependence and acquiring sovereign rights for themselves. The question whether there will be other sovereigns by their side hardly concerns them at all.
The history of philosophy should be so expounded that this tendency should be clearly manifest. This would spare us from many prejudices, and would clear the way for new and important inquiries. Kant, who shared the opinion that truth is the same for all, was convinced that metaphysics must be a science a priori, and since it cannot be a science a priori, must therefore cease to exist. If the history of philosophy had been expounded and understood differently in his day, it would never have entered his mind thus to impugn the rights of metaphysics. And probably he would not have been vexed by the contradictoriness or the lack of proof in the teachings of various schools of metaphysics. It cannot be otherwise, neither should it be. The interest of mankind is not to put an end to the variety of philosophic doctrines but to allow the perfectly natural phenomenon wide and deep development. Philosophers have always had an instinctive longing for this: that is why they are so troublesome to the historian of philosophy.
The First and the Last
In the first volume of Human, All Too Human, which Nietzsche wrote at the very beginning of his disease, when he was still far from final victory and chiefly told of his defeats, there is the following remarkable, though half-involuntary confession: ‘The complete irresponsibility of Man for his actions and his being is the bitterest drop for the man of knowledge to drink, since he has been accustomed to see in responsibility and duty the very patent of his title to manhood.’
Much bitterness has the inquiring spirit to swallow, but the bitterest of all is in the knowledge that his moral qualities, his readiness to fulfill his duty ungrudgingly, gives him no preference over other men. He thought he was a man of noble rank, even a prince of the blood, crowned with a crown, and the other men boorish peasantry—but he is just the same, a peasant, the same as all the rest. His patent of nobility was that for which he fulfilled his most arduous duty and made sacrifices; in it he saw the meaning of life. And when it is suddenly revealed that there is no provision made for titles or patents, it is a horrible catastrophe, a cataclysm—and life loses all meaning. Evidently the conviction expressed with such moving frankness in these words was with Nietzsche a second nature, which he could not master all his life long. What is the Superman but a title, a patent, giving the right to be called a noble among the canaille? What is the pathos of distance and all Nietzsche's teaching of ranks? The formula, beyond good and evil, was by no means so all-destructive as at first sight it seemed. On the contrary, by erasing certain laws graven on the tables of mankind of old, that formula as it were revealed other commandments, obliterated by time, and therefore invisible to many.
All morality, all good in and for itself is rejected, but the patent of nobility grows more precious until it becomes, if not the only value, at least the chief. Life loses its meaning once titles and ranks are destroyed, once he is deprived of the right to hold his head high, to throw out his chest, his belly even, and to look with contempt upon those about him.
In order to show to what extent the doctrine of rank has become attached to the human soul, I would recall the words of the Gospel about the first and last. Christ, who seemed to speak in a language utterly new, who taught men to despise earthly blessings—riches, fame, honours, who so easily yielded Caesar his due, because he thought that only Caesar would find it useful—Christ himself, when he spoke to men, did not think it possible to take away from them their hope of distinction. ‘The first shall be last.’ What will there be first and second there, too’? Yes, so it stands in the Gospel. Is it because there is indeed in the division of men into ranks something original and warrantable, or is it because Christ who spoke to humankind could not but use human words? It may be that, but for that promise, and generally the series of promises of rewards, accessible to the human understanding, the Gospel would not have fulfilled its great historic mission, it would have passed unnoticed on the earth, and no one would have detected or recognised in it the Evangel.
Christ knew that men could renounce all things, save the right to superiority alone, to superiority over one's neighbours, to that which Nietzsche calls ‘the patent of nobility.’ Without that superiority men of a certain kind cannot live. They become what the Germans so appropriately call Vögelfrei, deprived of the protection of the laws, since the laws are the only source of their right. Rude, nonsensical, disgusting reality—against which. I repeat, their only defence is the patent of nobility, the unwritten charter—approaches them closer and closer, with more and more menace and importunacy, and claims its right. ‘If you are the same as all other men,’ it says, ‘take your experience of life from me, fulfill your trivial obligations, worse than that, accept from me the fines and reprimands to which the rank and file are subject, even to corporal punishment.’ How could he accept these degrading conditions who had been used to think he had the right to carry his head high, to be proud and independent? Nietzsche tries with dull submissiveness to swallow the horrible bitterness of his confession, but courage and endurance, even his courage and endurance, are not enough for this his greatest and most terrible task. He cannot bear the horror of a life deprived of rights and defences: he seeks again for power and authority which would protect him and give him his lost rights again. He will not rest until he receives under another name a restitutio in integrum of all the rights which had previously been his.
And surely not Nietzsche alone acted thus. The whole history of ethics, the whole history of philosophy is to no small degree the incessant search for prerogative and privilege, patents and charters. The Christians—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—do not in the least differ from the enemy of Christianity, Nietzsche. The humble Jew, Spinoza, and the meek pagan, Socrates, the idealist Plato, and the idealist Aristotle, the founders of the newest, noblest and loftiest systems, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, even Schopenhauer. the pessimist, all as one man seek a charter, a charter, a charter. Evidently life on earth without a charter becomes for the ‘best’ men a horrible nightmare and an intolerable torment. Even the founder of Christianity, who so easily renounced all privileges, considered it possible to preserve this privilege for his disciples, and perhaps—who knows?—for himself too.
Whereas if Nietzsche and those other philosophers had been able resolutely to renounce titles, ranks, and honours, which are distributed not only by morality, but by all the other Sanhedrim, real and imaginary, which are set over man; if they could have drunk this cup to the dregs, then they might have known, seen, and heard much that was suspected by none of them before. Long since men have known that the road to knowledge lies by way of a great renunciation. Neither righteousness nor genius gives a man privilege above others. He is deprived, for ever deprived, of the protection of earthly laws. There are no laws. To-day he is a king, to-morrow a slave; to-day God, tomorrow a worm; to-day first, to-morrow last. And the worm crushed by him to-day will be God, his god to-morrow. All the measures and balances by which men are distinguished one from another are defaced for ever, and there is no certainty that the place a man once occupied will still be his.
And all philosophers have known this; Nietzsche, too, knew it, and by experience. He was the friend, the ally, and the collaborator of the great Wagner, the herald of a new era upon earth; and later, he grovelled in the dust, broken and crushed. And a second time this thing happened to him. When he had finished Zarathustra, he became insane, more exactly, he became half-idiot. It is true he carried the secret of the second fall with him to the grave. Yet something has reached us, for all his sister's efforts to conceal from carnal eyes the change that had befallen him.
And now we ask: Is the essence of life really in the rank, the charter, the patent of nobility? And can the words of Christ be understood in their literal sense? Are not all the Sanhedrim set over man, and as it were giving meaning to his life, mere fictions, useful and even necessary in certain moments of life, but pernicious and dangerous, to say no more, when the circumstances are changed? Does not life, the real and desirable life, which men have sought for thousands of years, begin there where there is neither first nor last, righteous nor sinner, genius nor incapable? Is not the pursuit of recognition, of superiority, of patents and charters, of rank, that which prevents man from seeing life with its hidden miracles? And must man really seek protection in the College of Heralds, or has he another power that time cannot destroy? One may be a good, able, learned, gifted man, even a man of genius, but to demand in return any privileges whatsoever, is to betray goodness and ability, and talent and genius, and the greatest hopes of mankind. The last on earth will nowhere be first...