ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY
Here on earth everything has a beginning, and nothing an end.
CHILDREN AND STEPCHILDREN OF TIME
Spinoza in History
Et audivi vocem Domini dicentis: quem mittam? et quis ibit nobis? Et dixi: ecce ego, mitte me. Et dixit: et dices populo huic: Audite audientes et nolite intelligere, et videte visionem et nolite cognoscere. Excaeca cor populi hujus et aures ejus aggrava, et oculos ejus claude; ne forte videat oculis suis et corde sua intelligat.
And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn again, and be healed.
- ISAIAH vi, 8-10.
Few today would be prepared to repeat Hegel's dictum that the history of philosophy represents the stages of the spirit's development. The modern historians of philosophy look down on such abstract interpretations. They want to be historians first, and foremost, i.e. to tell truthfully "what was", and they reject in advance all kinds of preconceived ideas which hamper the freedom of inquiry. If one is to believe what men say, one must suppose that the impulse towards free inquiry was never so strong in them as it is today. The first commandment of modern philosophy runs: Thou shalt emancipate thyself from all postulates. The postulate has been declared a deadly sin, and he who makes one is the enemy of truth.
One may ask: Have we gained anything by introducing a new commandment, a new law? In St. Paul we find the enigmatic words: "But the law came that offense might abound." And in verity, where there is law, there is offense also. Hard as it is to reconcile ourselves with this, yet we must say: were there no laws, there would be no offenses. In the present case men should say openly that their postulates are more important to them than their philosophy, or than anything else in the world, and that their whole life's work consists in proclaiming and defending their postulates.
Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy", who was the first to proclaim the commandment: "there shall be no postulates in philosophy" (which he expressed in the words "de omnibus dubitandum" - doubt all things), had of course his own postulate. Some mighty, insuperable force, which he could not have called by its name and whose name he did not try to discover, but which dominated him absolutely, drove him ceaselessly to the one end: to banish mystery from our lives at all costs. The truth, he says, is contained only in that which can be recognized clearly and distinctly (clare et distincte). Whatever can only be known indistinctly, whatever is mysterious, cannot be truth. And this assertion is in his opinion no postulate. It is something which no one has ever doubted or ever could doubt; neither men nor angels nor even God Himself. To exclude in advance any possibility of reproach and reply, he began himself with the assurance that he doubted everything. And only when he had convinced himself that there is a truth which withstands the assaults of any doubt, did he begin to philosophize, firmly convinced that philosophy could now no longer stray from its path, since now at last it had found the reliable compass - no mere talisman - of which men had dreamed almost since the creation of the world. God Himself, Descartes taught, wishes, must wish, us to be in possession of the truth. And this was for him as clear and distinct, i.e. as indubitable, as his first discovery: cogito, ergo sum - I think, therefore I am. God did not desire to cheat man. Velle fallere vel malitiam vel imbecillitatem testatur, nec proinde in Deum cadit: the wish to cheat testifies either to malice or to weakness, and consequently may not be ascribed to God. God did not want to be a cheat, and - the main point - He could not, even if He wished: cogito, ergo sum.
For those who have not read Descartes' works it is difficult to imagine the extraordinary vigour, the uncommon passion and emotion which fills them. In spite of the apparently abstract nature of the subject-matter, they are not treatises but poems full of inspiration. Even Lucretius's famous philosophical poem De rerum natura is not written with nearly such fire and vigour, although, as is well known, Lucretius had his own presupposition, which in many ways recalls that of Descartes, and which meant far more to him than Epicurus's atomism, to the exposition of which the poem is devoted. Descartes, I repeat, had one ambition: to free the world, life, man from mystery and from the mysterious forces which held all in their power. Dependence, on even the most perfect conceivable being, seemed to him intolerably oppressive and painful. He trusted only himself. And the thought that there was no one in the whole universe who would or could cheat him, that he need trust or believe no one, that he himself (for he trusted himself absolutely) was henceforward lord and creator of his fate, filled his soul with ecstatic delight; his treatises became poems, songs of triumph and exaltation, hymns of victory. God did not wish to cheat man, God could not cheat man even if He wished. Above God and man there was an eternal "law". Could one but see that law clearly and distinctly, all that was mysterious would become plain, mystery would vanish from the world, and men would become as gods.
Men will become as gods. This was not Descartes' language. So spoke Hegel, two centuries after him. Descartes was forced still to leave some things unspoken; he remembered, as the historians explain to us, Galileo's fate. Even his contemporaries thought so of him. Bossuet wrote of him: "Monsieur Descartes a toujours craint d'être noté par l'église et on lui voit prendre des precautions qui allaient jusqu'à excès." [Mister Descartes has always feared being noticed by the Church and he took precautions that were often excessive - AK.] And yet with all his caution he fulfilled his historical mission with incomparable genius. Descartes is a milestone at the end of the thousand-year night of the Middle Ages; he is the great "leap" or turning point with which the new history, the new thought, begins. Descartes was, at that, a true "child of his age". Hegel's words can be applied to him wholly, or at least in their main part: "Every philosophy, precisely because it is the reflection of a certain stage of development, belongs to its age and is subject to its limitations. The individual is the child of his people, his world; stretch as he may, he will not reach beyond it. For he belongs to the one general spirit, which is his substance and essence; how should he transcend it ?" (Works, XIII, 59).
These are remarkable words, and merit reflection; particularly in view of the care-free self-satisfaction, or, if you will, the naïve confidence with which they are spoken and which, incidentally, always accompanies clear and distinct judgments, "ut unusquisque, qui certitudinem intellectus gustavit, apud se sine dubio expertus est!" (as every man who has tasted intellectual certainty has undoubtedly experienced in himself) (Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, cap.I).
Philosophy - so Hegel, the greatest of the rationalists, teaches us - is condemned to limitation by the spirit of its age, and there is no possibility for man to emancipate himself from this limitation. And this does not in the least embarrass Hegel; on the contrary, it charms him, for it is what resembles most closely the much - desired, long - awaited scientific truth, that which is cognized clare et distincte, so clearly and distinctly that we cannot even suspect that God Himself, did He wish it never so strongly, could mislead us now. And even after a man has read Hegel's dictum that he is a child of his age and reproduces in his judgments, not the truth, but what the general spirit wishes at any given historical moment, not only is he unable to emancipate himself from the limitation, but it is not even granted him to feel that limitation and to recognize it for something that should not be, something imposed from outside, for a repulsive, oppressive nightmare, of which, even if one cannot awake from it, one should yet know that it is no reality but an agonizing dream. Represent a fortuitous, limited truth and be satisfied, aye, be glad and rejoice thereat!
Hegel writes again in the same work, indeed, in the very chapter from which the previous lines were quoted: "Philosophy is not somnambulism, but the most waking consciousness." But if what he said of the spirit of the age is true, then philosophy - what Hegel calls philosophy - is the purest somnambulism, the philosophic consciousness is the most unawaking consciousness. It is, indeed, most important to note here that the state of somnambulism, as such, cannot, generally speaking, be held to be any great misfortune; perhaps it is even a piece of "good fortune". Somnambulists often do things which seem to waking men supernatural. Perhaps somnambulistic thinking is useful, even very useful. But however useful it may be, yet in no case - even though it should turn out (and there is every indication in favour of this supposition) that the supreme scientific discoveries and inventions have been made by men in a state of somnambulism - in no case must philosophy be led into temptation by profit and advantage, however great. Thus Descartes' own rule of de omnibus dubitandum still leads us, willy-nilly, to doubt his postulate and forces us to ask ourselves: Are we then really cheated by clear and distinct judgments? Are not the clarity and distinctness of a judgment a sign of its incorrectness? In other words, is it not the case that God both desires and is able to cheat men? And that precisely when He has to cheat men, He sends them philosophers or prophets who instil into them judgments which are clear and distinct, but false?
And yet Hegel is right, far more right than he himself suspected. Descartes was a child of his age, and his age was doomed to limitation and errors, which it was its lot to expound and proclaim as truths; it is astonishing that out of all God's predicates Descartes was interested in one only, and that a negative: God cannot be a cheat. Descartes asked of God only not to disturb him in his scientific researches, i.e. not to interfere in human affairs. God could not cheat men in everything. Cogito, ergo sum. By this very act of awakening man to life, hence to thought, God was compelled to reveal to him that he, man, existed, and thus to reveal to him the first truth. But after He had revealed to him the first truth, God, through that act, revealed to him also the truth of what are the signs of truth: he enabled him to comprehend that only clear and distinct perceptions are true. A fulcrum has been found - the new Archimedes can continue their work confidently. Already they no longer pray: "Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses"; they simply propose to God politely that He should not interfere in human affairs: noli tangere circulos nostros. Thus Descartes taught, joyous and enthusiastic, obedient to the spirit of his age. Thus, too, many other eminent men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries taught after Descartes and before him. They were all convinced that God would not and could not cheat us, that the source of our errors was ourselves, our free will, and that clear and distinct judgments could not be false: this was required by the almighty time-spirit.
But now something more. Pascal was Descartes' younger contemporary. Like Descartes, he was one of the outstanding representatives of the scientific thought of his epoch. Descartes', teaching of the clear and distinct judgments was well known to him. He also, of course, knew that the spirit of the age was with Descartes, and he was easily able to guess, and probably did guess, what the spirit of the age required of its children. But he evaded fulfilling these requirements. To Descartes' gay "clare et distincte" he answered brusquely, gloomily, and surlily: "I want no clarity, and qu'on ne nous reproche pas le manque de clarté, car nous en faisons profession" (do not reproach us with lack of clarity, because we make it our profession). This means: clarity and distinctness kill truth... Thus spake Pascal, like Descartes a child of the seventeenth century, like him a Frenchman, and like him, I repeat, an outstanding scientist.
But how could it happen that two men who should have belonged to the same general spirit and consequently should both have represented the essence of their people and their age - that they spoke so differently? Or was Hegel "not quite" right? Obviously, a man cannot deny his nature, but surely man does sometimes succeed in disobeying the time-spirit and emancipating himself from the limitations of his time? And a second question: where is the last, final truth to be sought? With the gloomy and surly rebels against the time-spirit, who in defiance of possibility emancipate themselves from the might of their age, or with those who do not deny the impossibility and dash onward down the great highway of history in triumph and glee, in the firm belief that human understanding differs in no wise from the divine? For no one will doubt that the great highway of history is open only to the subservient. Pascal with his enigmatic "profession" stood apart from events, from the idea as it "developed". His scrappy and unordered Pensées have by chance been preserved to us, but it is not Pascal but Descartes who has remained till today the ruler of minds. Descartes was the true representative of the one general spirit of which Hegel told us. Consequently the truth, if by truth we are to understand that which stands the test of centuries, lay with Descartes.