ON THE ROOTS OF THINGS
A commonplace of philosophy: "Only that possesses true reality which does not know change, which has no beginning and is not subject to destruction."
Even if one grants that this is correct (but one cannot grant it), the opposite statement, that everything that is not subject to change or destruction possesses true reality, cannot be at all considered correct, if only for the reason, in any case, that it is absolutely impossible for us to know that which is not subject to change and destruction; we know only things that are not subject to more or less rapid change or destruction. It seems even that it is only thanks to a misconception that the existence of the ideal is considered eternal and immutable. A general idea - the lion, the mosquito, the ichthyosaur, for example - remains while living lions, mosquitos, and ichthyosaurs disappear, one knows not where. And the concept "man" continues to exist to the present day, even though there remains only a memory of Socrates, of Caesar, and of Alexander the Great, a memory which will also one day sink into Lethe. But where is true being - in the vanished Socrates who, though only for a short time, nevertheless was alive, or in the concept "man" that has been preserved to this day but was never alive? For Hegel such a question did not even exist. But there is certainly a question here, and one of cardinal importance. For, after all, though the concept "man" is more long-lived than Socrates, it is nevertheless not eternal and many general ideas have already perished so completely that not even the memory of them has been preserved.
"He who knows what true philosophy is," says Hegel, "is troubled by Plato's mythology; he understands his theory of idea as the theory of general concepts." But here also a question arises: who knows what true philosophy is, and wherein is it distinguished from that which is not true? More exactly: Who has the sovereign right to give the final and definitive answer to this question, and by whom has this right been granted? As is known, every philosopher pretends to this right. It is true that the great majority of philosophers since distant times have been persuaded, as I have already said, that only the eternal and the immutable may be the object of their researches. In this respect, Hegel is not at all distinguished from the majority, one could even say the great mass, of the philosophers, if one did not disdain certain very effective polemical methods currently in use among the scientists.
It is true that the eternal presents many very seductive external advantages over the temporal, such that one can admit that weak human nature has manifested itself in the philosophers in this case also: the eternal and the immutable has seduced them not only because it is superior by its "nature" to the transitory and the changeable, but also, among other things, because it lets itself more easily be fixed and therefore studied. Heraclitus teased reason: one cannot, he said, bathe twice in the same river. In reality, however, one cannot even bathe once in one and the same river. The river flows ceaselessly; at every moment it becomes something else; one cannot stop or fix it, even if only for the brief moment that is required to plunge into the water. And it is not only the river that flows - everything flows, everything changes, everything becomes something else. General ideas, however, remain. And it is only through general ideas that it is possible to stop the crazy dance of being.
General ideas appear to the philosophers, so to speak, like a rainbow above a waterfall: the rainbow remains immobile and immutable, while the water gushes, crashes, and evaporates into a cloud. Where then must the essence of things be sought - in these splashes and these drops that are born and disappear, or in the rainbow? To what must our thought be applied? So men put the question, losing sight of the fact that the rainbow also passes, that it ceases to exist when the sun sets, while the drops of water remain, though they disappear much earlier from our field of vision. The drops which appear and disappear so quickly are finally more "eternal" than the rainbow; even though they follow one another and disappear, they do not perish but only change their place. So then, if what is essential is what endures, it is evident that it is not the rainbow that is the essence but the drops of water. But this is still not the most important thing. The important thing is that philosophical realism (I here take the term realism in its medieval, not in its modern sense), which has always been so proud of its nobility and which arrogantly despised materialism as a non-philosophical theory, is so close to materialism in its fundamental character that one can only be astonished at the relentless war that has always been carried on between these doctrines. This must be said especially of the philosophy of Hegel.
I have said above that Hegel did not take Plato's mythology seriously. Nor did he like the way in which Plato wrote. He even speaks in one place of the "babbling" of the divine philosopher. It is true that, following custom and obedient to tradition, he begins by praising the beauty and nobility of Plato's style, but he could not and would not pass over his prolixity in silence. And this is not at all a matter of chance, so that there is room to regret that Hegel did not further develop the thought which he threw out in passing. Plato's "babbling" obviously stands in direct relation to the interest he manifested in mythology.
From the point of view of the philosophy which Hegel represents, all mythology is finally nothing but babbling. The philosopher must think in conceptual terms, and he who does not know this does not know what philosophy is. Neither Hegel nor his predecessors could ever demonstrate this statement, and it can never be demonstrated, for every demonstration presupposes it.
The problem of philosophy for every realistic philosopher (I recall once more that I have always in mind realism in the medieval sense of the term, i.e., what is today called idealism) is the statics and dynamics of the ideals. Concepts are in motion and are transformed into one another according to their own laws which are immanent in them. The task of philosophy is to grasp the inner logic and necessity of this movement. Hegel is then consistent with himself when he transforms logic into ontology. He remains likewise faithful to himself when he rises against the critique made by Kant of the ontological proof for the existence of God. It is known that Kant declared that the idea of "a hundred thalers" does not presuppose the existence of the hundred thalers. Hegel considers such argumentation dull and vulgar. Certainly, he says, for the individual person (that is, the common man), this difference exists: he wishes to have a hundred real thalers and not the idea of a hundred thalers. But he must rise to the philosophic state; then it will be completely indifferent whether he has or does not have a hundred thalers, even if they constituted his entire fortune. Hegel goes even further in his claims: for the philosopher, he says, it must be indifferent whether he himself exists or does not exist, at least - he adds - in this earthly, finite life. Hegel goes so far as to recall the famous verse of Horace: Si fractus illabatur orbis impavidum ferient ruinae, [If the earth, falling to pieces, were to slip away, still the crashing ruins will strike him unafraid.] and he makes of it a fundamental philosophical law that is still more obligatory for the Christian philosopher than for the pagan philosopher.
But Hegel was wrong to limit his thought by demanding of man that he remain indifferent only to his own earthly, finite being. He was wrong, for there is an obvious and fatal error here. Infinite being is to such a degree separated from finite being that it is only through the customary confusion of our ideas that one can explain how Hegel brought these two concepts into one and the same genus. It would have been more correct to designate them by different and even directly opposite names, as Hegel, by the way, at times did. In other words, if we speak of the being of the finite, the particular, the individual, we must apply to the general the predicate of non-being, and vice versa. So then, for Hegel's judgment that I have just quoted to have been expressed in the exact sense of the terms, it would have been necessary to brush aside the limitation he introduced there and to say simply that for the philosopher who has risen above the everyday, the ordinary, whether the whole world exists or does not exist must be a matter of indifference. Particular being must be led back to being in general in all its proud and sublime abstraction - this is the first theoretical and practical demand presented to the philosopher. To know how to scorn the particular in favor of the general means to raise oneself philosophically.
Before proceeding to determine the value of this thesis of Hegel's, I would draw the reader's attention to the fact that it was not Hegel who invented this demand and not he who first formulated it. It dominates all of philosophy and, as I have already had occasion to say, was already expressed in that single fragment of Anaximander's writings that has come down to us. But Hegel repeats it with special insistence, as if he wished to emphasize that it is the articulus stantis et cadentis philosophiae [proposition on which philosophy stands or falls]. And it is for this reason perhaps that no idealistic system is as closely related to materialism as Hegel's. His "thought," his "ideal," contain in themselves as little of life, of the animate, as the materialists' matter. And his God (Hegel mentions God more often than any other philosopher), his Absolute and Spirit - all these sublime ideas are not at all distinguished from matter. It is obvious that the first condition and postulate of scientific thought is the death of what is animated. Hegel, his predecessors and successors, idealists and materialists - all triumph when they succeed in establishing for all living beings genesis kai phthora (birth and destruction). God Himself, if He is living, must be subjected to genesis kai phthora, and God must then rise above Himself and be absorbed in the general idea which is the only object worthy of the philosopher's attention.
It is for this reason that it is absolutely impossible to deny that the pretensions of the extreme Hegelian Left Wing to the right to the magister dixit [the master has spoken] are perfectly legitimate. The master said, really said, all that the school of economic materialism has deduced from his theses. History is a process, and materialism is not at all "individual." Materialism also rises above individual existence. Horace's verses are as sacred for it as for Hegel, and it is completely indifferent to individual beings. As far as the personal God is concerned, materialism is even more radical than Hegel and resolutely denies to Him the right to the predicate of being.
Only matter and order exist. For these are permanent and do not change. All the rest is only superstructure.
If you wish, the Hegelians of the Left Wing were wrong to call themselves materialists: their matter is just as ideal as their order, and in any case it does not contain a dram more of that criminal life against which, following Anaximander, all of Greek philosophy struggled and against which Hegel also warned.
The fundamental demand of philosophical morality - philosophy also has its morality, morality forms the very essence of philosophy - is maintained with all the rigor to which the most scrupulous science can pretend. For the crime of individual or animated being consists in its arbitrariness. But in the kingdom of economic materialism there is no place for individual arbitrariness, for everything there is accomplished with "iron necessity," according to an order established once for all.