In Job's Balances \ III \ Children and Stepchildren of Time


     One of the leading modern philosophers, Henri Bergson, writes in his first book: "Le moi, infaillible dans ses constatations immédiates, se sent libre et se declare" ("The ego, infallible in its immediate cognitions, feels itself free and declares this"). The chapters of this brilliant book which are devoted to inquiry into freedom of will are among the best products of the philosophic literature of recent years. Bergson's perspicacity is extraordinary. It is all the more strange that he was able to write this sentence. Immediate cognition presupposes not "our" ego but my ego. Our ego, i.e. the ego as such, le moi, is not a thing which is given immediately, and is correspondingly incapable of any immediate cognition. If Bergson wished to remain within the limits of immediate cognition, he could only say: my ego feels itself free and declares this. But he has no right to assert that every ego feels itself free; this is the mistake described in logic as metabasis eis allo genos (a transition into another field). There is nothing improbable in one ego feeling itself free and another unfree. And if immediate cognition is infallible, then in those cases where we are confronted with two opposite assertions, we have no alternative but to accept both, even though they appear mutually exclusive. Bergson's ego feels itself free; that requires no contradiction. But the ego of another man feels itself unfree; he too, must not be contradicted.

     The problem of free will is thus complicated infinitely. But if we admit immediate cognition to be infallible, philosophy will find itself by its very nature placed in an extraordinarily difficult position; it will have to renounce general judgments - and will any one ever consent to this? How can we be sure that all egos will always feel alike and cognize alike? Bergson feels himself free, as he tells us. But Spinoza tells us something quite different. With obstinate conviction he repeats many times, he hammers into us, that he does not feel himself free; see especially Letter LXII, where he writes, inter alia: "Ego sane, ne meae conscientiae, hoc est, ne rationi et experientiae contradicam, nego, me ulla absoluta cogitandi potentia cogitare posse, quod vellem et quod non vellem scribere." ("I indeed deny, in order not to contradict my conscience, i.e. my reason and experience, that I am enabled by any absolute power of thought to think what I meant to write and what not.") He repeats that the feeling of freedom is an illusion, that a stone, if it possessed consciousness, would be convinced that it was falling to earth freely, although it is quite evident to us that it cannot do anything else except fall. And all these assertions of Spinoza's are neither theory, nor "naturalism", nor "conclusions" from general theses, but they are a witness of experience, a voice of the deepest and most serious inner events. Other men also whom we cannot possibly call "naturalists", and whose honesty we have no right to doubt, have testified with equal force and persistence to similar experiences. Remember, for example, Luther's De servo arbitrio, written by him in answer to Erasmus of Rotterdam's Diatribae de libero arbitrio.

     It is astonishing, too, that Spinoza "felt" differently during the different periods of his life. When he wrote his Cogitata Metaphysica he maintained with decision that the will was free dari voluntatem. In his Ethics and Letters he maintains the contrary with equal decision. If we regard the law of contradiction, we say that in one or the other case he was speaking untruth. But if we disregard this "law" and assume, as Bergson rightly teaches, that our ego is infallible in its immediate cognitions, then we shall come to a quite unexpected result, or rather, we shall be confronted with a great riddle. Not only is one man's will free and another's unfree, but even the will of one and the same man is free at one period of his life and unfree at another. When Spinoza wrote his Cogitata Metaphysica, his will was still free. When he wrote the Ethics it was already enslaved; some power had mastered him to which he submitted himself with the same obedience with which the stone submits to the law of gravity. It was not he speaking now, but something speaking within him, from his mouth; clearly that same "time-spirit" in which Hegel saw and hailed the motive force of history. Or, if we are not afraid of Biblical metaphors, Spinoza spoke, not what he wished, but what God commanded him to say. It is all one now whether or not he agreed with what he proclaimed to mankind: he could not help but proclaim it. Go hence and tell thy people, or even not thy people alone, but all peoples (Spinoza, like Philo, was an apostle of the Gentiles, he appealed to all mankind), and speak so that they shall see but perceive not, shall hear but understand not, that their hearts shall be fat and their eyes shut.

     And thus Spinoza had to act. If, he taught, ye would attain the truth, then forget all, forget the Biblical revelation, remember only mathematics. Beauty, ugliness, good, evil, joy and sorrow, fear and hope, order and disorder, all these are human matters, all this is transitory and has no connection with truth. Ye imagine that God cares for the needs of man? That He created the world for man? That God has great purposes? But where there are purposes, care, joy, and sorrow, there is no God. To comprehend God one must strive to emancipate oneself from cares and joys, from fears and hopes, from all purposes great and small. The true name of God is necessity: "Res nullo alio modo a Deo produci potuerunt, quam productae sunt" (things could not have been created by God in any other way than they were created). As all theorems of mathematics and all its truths proceed, with the necessity which knows no law above itself, from its fundamental conceptions, so too everything in the world happens with the same ineluctable necessity, and there is no force capable of taking up the battle with that order of being which has existed since all eternity. Deus ex solis suae naturae legibus et a nemine coactus agit (God acts only in accordance with the laws of His own nature, and is compelled by none), says Spinoza, explaining at once what these words mean: ex sola divinae naturae necessitate, vel (quod idem est) ex solis ejusdem naturae legibus (only according to the necessity of His divine nature or - what is the same thing - only according to the laws of His very nature). This is the supreme truth which we can comprehend, and after comprehending which we seek to achieve the highest of existing goods, namely, spiritual satisfaction and peace, acquiescentia animi. Think not that through your virtues ye could win God's favour. Everyday experience teaches us that good and ill fortune befall in like measure the godless and the pious, the virtuous and the vicious. This is so, this was so, this will be so. Consequently also, it must be so, for this proceeds from the necessity of the divine nature and there is neither need nor possibility to alter the existing order of things. (Hegel said then: What is real is rational.) Must virtue be rewarded? Virtue is its own reward. Vice seeks for reward - and receives it; since if virtue needs no reward and if there is any reward in the world, then it necessarily falls to vice, which does need it and receives it gladly.

     Spinoza did not stop here. He says: Si homines liberi nascerentur, nullum boni et mali formarent conceptum quam diu liberi essent (If men were born free they could have no conception of good and evil so long as they were free). And to illustrate this truth of his he appeals to the Biblical legend of the Fall. The power to distinguish between good and evil was lacking in the first man, i.e. vice differs in no way in its nature" from virtue. And this did not prevent Spinoza from devoting the whole of his Tractatus Theologico-politicus - a treatise of immense historical importance, determining amongst other things the Protestant, and not only the Protestant, theology - to proof of the thought that the Bible does not at all try to teach men the truth, but that its task is solely a moral one: to teach man to live virtuously.

     But how in this case could the legend of the Fall get into the Bible? And why does the Bible begin by revealing to men a truth utterly incomprehensible to their understanding: that their ideas of good and evil are fundamentally quite illusory: that "law", in St. Paul's words, "came after", only when history began, and "that offense should abound"; that the first man could not distinguish between good and evil, did not know the law, but when he plucked the fruit from the tree of knowledge - i.e. began to distinguish between good and evil - accepted the law, and together with the law also death? This is a very obvious contradiction, and no fortuitous one, as none of the contradictions of which Spinoza's works are full are fortuitous. The legend of Spinoza's unusual logicality should long since have been forgotten. It is due only to the outer form of his presentation, which is apparently mathematical on the surface: definitions, axioms, postulates, syllogisms, proofs, etc. Spinoza's system is composed of two quite irreconcilable ideas. On the one hand the "mathematical view of life" (this is what possessed "historical" significance and made Spinoza so "influential"); everything in the world happened with the same necessity with which mathematical truths develop. When a correspondent reproached him for esteeming his philosophy the best, he answered brusquely: "I esteem it, not the best, but the true. And if you ask me why, I will tell you: for the same reason why you think the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles."

     Spinoza speaks constantly of mathematics. He declares that man would never have known truth had there been no mathematics. Mathematics alone possess the true method of inquiry, mathematics alone are the eternal and perfect prototype of thought, and precisely because they deal, not with human ends and needs, but with figures, lines, surfaces; in other words, they seek the "objective" truth which exists in itself, independent of men or other conscious beings. Man imagines that everything was created for him, that he forms within the universe a sort of State within the State. It is true that the Bible contains the words: When God created man, He said to him that the whole world was his. But these are only phrases, to be taken, not literally, but metaphorically. A reason trained by mathematics to clear and distinct judgment sees that man is only a link in the endless chain of nature, is nothing different from the other links, and that the Whole, the whole nature of God or Substance (what universal rejoicing there was when Spinoza described God by the "liberating" word substance!) is that which exists over man and for its own sake - and not even for its own sake, since any "sake" humanizes the world, but simply exists. And this Whole is God, whose reason and will have as little in common with those of man as the dog-star with the dog, the barking animal; i.e. God can possess no reason and no will at all. This is the first point which man must grasp. And after he has grasped such a God - here begins again the "contradiction" of which I spoke - he must learn to love Him, as it is commanded in the Bible, with all his heart and with all his soul.

     Learn to love God with all one's heart and with all one's soul! Why go with such a demand, not to a stone, a tree, a plane, or a line, but to man, who, as we have just been told, is no different from the stone, the tree, or a plane? One might equally well ask a second question: Why love God? The Bible demanded love of God. That was natural; the Biblical God possessed reason and will. But how learn to love a God that is only Cause, that does what He does with the same necessity as any inanimate thing? Spinoza, indeed, calls God free, since He works after the laws of His nature. But everything works after the laws of nature. Spinoza himself concludes the introduction to the third part of his Ethics thus: "I shall treat of the nature and force of the affections and of the power of the spirit over them, using the same methods as I employed in the previous part of my work, when I treated of God and the soul, and shall treat of human actions and appetites as though dealing with lines, planes, and bodies." I ask again: if we judge of God, of the soul, of human passions even as we do of lines, planes, and bodies, who then will entitle us to ask of man, or even to advise him, to love God and not a plane, a stone, or a lump of wood? And why do we address the demand to love to a man and not to a line or an ape? Nothing of what is in the world may claim a peculiar position; all "things" in the whole universe have proceeded with the same necessity out of the eternal laws of nature. Why, then, does Spinoza himself, who was so vexed when man contrasted himself with nature, as though wishing to form a State within a State, set man apart, as something toto caelo different both from a plane and from a line, both from a lump of wood and from an ape; make demands of him, begin to evaluate, speak of ideals, etc.? Why did he introduce a "State within a State", why in his main work - not in vain called Ethics - did he not submit himself without a murmur to mathematics, and speak of man, despite his solemn vow, as mathematician never yet spoke of triangles and perpendiculars? Is this that Spinoza whom God commanded to go among men and blind them? How then, has he not fulfilled God's will? Has he resisted that which none could resist?

     No, certainly not. God's will had been fulfilled. If Spinoza had once answered the "Whom shall I send?" with "Here am I, send me," he could then no longer evade his "historic" mission, even as Descartes and other great sons of the early and late Renaissance could not evade it. Spinoza had slain God, i.e. he had taught men to think that God is not, that there is only a substance, that the mathematical method (i.e. the method of indifferent, objective, or scientific inquiry) is the only true path of inquiry, that man does not form a State within a State, that the Bible, the Prophets, and the Apostles did not discover the truth, but only brought men moral instruction, and that moral instructions and laws can replace God entirely, notwithstanding that man, if he were born free and if he had not plucked the fruit of the tree of knowledge, could not distinguish good and evil, and that there would have been no good and evil at all, but everything would have been "very good", i.e. everything would have been as God proposed it when He created the world - not after the laws of His own nature, but after His own will - looked upon it, and found it good. But this divine "outlook" which the first man had before the Fall is no more given to man. "Blind their hearts, that they behold and see not." Or that they see clearly and distinctly, clare et distincte, but not that which is, and be convinced that that which they see clearly and distinctly is that which God beheld on the Seventh Day, the day of rest, when He rested from His work and found the world good.

     Spinoza did all this. He imbued men with the thought that one could love God with all one's heart and with all one's soul, even as the psalmists and the prophets loved Him - even if God is not, if in God's place be set objective, mathematical, reasonable necessity or the idea of human good, which differs in nothing from reasonable necessity. And men believed him. The whole of modern philosophy, which in general expresses, not what is interesting men deeply, but what the time-spirit whispers in their ear; modern philosophy, which is so firmly convinced that its visions or, as they are now commonly called, its "intuitions" are the greatest possible fullness of vision, not only for men, but also for angels or gods (this is the usual modern mode of expression, not my own invention) - this proceeds straight from Spinoza. Any "philosophy of life" other than "ethical idealism" is almost unthinkable today. Fichte said with full conviction that the whole meaning of Christianity lay in the first verse of the Gospel according to St. John: en archêi ên ho logos. With no less equanimity Hegel saw the supreme task of mankind in the Stoic commandment of the abandonment of personality and its melting into substance. I say "equanimity" - for here is the essential. Neither Fichte nor Hegel slew God. Another slew God. They did not even guess that they had inherited the certitudo (certitude) won at the price of the supreme crime. They imagined that this their certitudo, this their self-assured vision, was given them by nature itself. When confronted with self-evidence face to face, it never occurs to them that its source could be so strange and mysterious a one.

     Our contemporary Edmund Husserl, a direct and legitimate spiritual descendant of Descartes, who continually and openly appeals to him, declares solemnly: "Self-evidence is not in fact a sort of index of consciousness attached to a judgment, calling to us, like a mystic voice from another world, 'here is the truth!', as though such a voice had something to say to us free spirits, and had not to prove its title" (Ideen, p. 300). And it could not be otherwise. God sent out his prophets to blind and bind men, that they, fettered and blinded, should hold themselves free and seeing. Why was that necessary? Did Spinoza know that? Do we know it, who read Isaiah and Spinoza? Not only can this not be answered; such a question cannot even be put... There can be no doubt that Spinoza, going the way pointed out by Descartes, overcoming the "dualism" of space and thought and creating the idea, so dear to Hegel and our contemporaries today, of a "substance", felt that he was slaying Him whom he loved above all else in the world. And that he was slaying Him at His own, divine, free command and of his own, unfree, human will. Read the lines with which the - unhappily little-read - De intellectus emendatione begins. This is not Descartes' gay de omnibus dubitandum, not Fichte's ethical idealism, not Hegel's dignified Panlogism, not Husserl's faith in reason and science. I repeat that not a trace of triumph or gaiety is to be found in anything which Spinoza wrote. Not like a priest, but like a victim he goes to the sacrificial altar.

     He will slay God, he has slain God for history, but in the innermost depths of his soul he feels "vaguely" "sentimus experimurque nos aeternos esse" ("we feel and learn that we are eternal"); that without God there is no life, that true life lies not in the perspective of history, sub specie temporis, but in the perspective of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis. And this "vague", hidden, barely visible knowledge (not always, indeed, visible even to himself or to others) appears in his whole philosophy. Not in those clear and distinct judgments which history has received from him, and which he himself received from the spirit of the age, but in those strange, mysterious, elusive, hardly definable sounds which we cannot in our tongue describe even as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and whose name is soundlessness. A great, eternal mystery lies in the dreadful words of the prophet: Et audivi vocem Domini dicentis: quem mittam? et quis ibit nobis? Et dixi: ecce ego, mitte me. Et dixit: vade 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 suo intelligat.

Orphus system

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