Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and at King’s College London, takes listeners through the history of philosophy, “without any gaps.” The series looks at the ideas, lives and historical context of the major philosophers as well as the lesser-known figures of the tradition. Visit the website here.
Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and at King’s College London, takes listeners through the history of philosophy, “without any gaps.” The series looks at the ideas, lives and historical context of the major philosophers as well as the lesser-known figures of the tradition. Visit the website here.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1879
“Quite impossible, as you see, to start without an introduction,” laughed Ivan. “Well, then, I mean to place the event described in the poem in the sixteenth century, an age—as you must have been told at school—when it was the great fashion among poets to make the denizens and powers of higher worlds descend on earth and mix freely with mortals… In France all the notaries’ clerks, and the monks in the cloisters as well, used to give grand performances, dramatic plays in which long scenes were enacted by the Madonna, the angels, the saints, Christ, and even by God Himself. In those days, everything was very artless and primitive. An instance of it may be found in Victor Hugo’s drama, Notre Dame de Paris, where, at the Municipal Hall, a play called Le Bon Jugement de la Tres-sainte et Gracièuse Vierge Marie, is enacted in honour of Louis XI, in which the Virgin appears personally to pronounce her ‘good judgment.’ In Moscow, during the prepetrean period, performances of nearly the same character, chosen especially from the Old Testament, were also in great favour. Apart from such plays, the world was overflooded with mystical writings, ‘verses’—the heroes of which were always selected from the ranks of angels, saints and other heavenly citizens answering to the devotional purposes of the age. The recluses of our monasteries, like the Roman Catholic monks, passed their time in translating, copying, and even producing original compositions upon such subjects, and that, remember, during the Tarter period!… In this connection, I am reminded of a poem compiled in a convent—a translation from the Greek, of course—called, ‘The Travels of the Mother of God among the Damned,’ with fitting illustrations and a boldness of conception inferior nowise to that of Dante. The ‘Mother of God’ visits hell, in company with the archangel Michael as her cicerone to guide her through the legions of the ‘damned.’ She sees them all, and is witness to their multifarious tortures. Among the many other exceedingly remarkably varieties of torments—every category of sinners having its own—there is one especially worthy of notice, namely a class of the ‘damned’ sentenced to gradually sink in a burning lake of brimstone and fire. Those whose sins cause them to sink so low that they no longer can rise to the surface are for ever forgotten by God, i.e., they fade out from the omniscient memory, says the poem—an expression, by the way, of an extraordinary profundity of thought, when closely analysed. The Virgin is terribly shocked, and falling down upon her knees in tears before the throne of God, begs that all she has seen in hell—all, all without exception, should have their sentences remitted to them. Her dialogue with God is colossally interesting. She supplicates, she will not leave Him. And when God, pointing to the pierced hands and feet of her Son, cries, ‘How can I forgive His executioners?’ She then commands that all the saints, martyrs, angels and archangels, should prostrate themselves with her before the Immutable and Changeless One and implore Him to change His wrath into mercy and—forgive them all. The poem closes upon her obtaining from God a compromise, a kind of yearly respite of tortures between Good Friday and Trinity, a chorus of the ‘damned’ singing loud praises to God from their ‘bottomless pit,’ thanking and telling Him:
Thou art right, O Lord, very right,
Thou hast condemned us justly.
“My poem is of the same character.
“In it, it is Christ who appears on the scene. True, He says nothing, but only appears and passes out of sight. Fifteen centuries have elapsed since He left the world with the distinct promise to return ‘with power and great glory’; fifteen long centuries since His prophet cried, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’ since He Himself had foretold, while yet on earth, ‘Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven but my Father only.’ But Christendom expects Him still. …
“It waits for Him with the same old faith and the same emotion; aye, with a far greater faith, for fifteen centuries have rolled away since the last sign from heaven was sent to man,
And blind faith remained alone
To lull the trusting heart,
As heav’n would send a sign no more.
“True, again, we have all heard of miracles being wrought ever since the ‘age of miracles’ passed away to return no more. We had, and still have, our saints credited with performing the most miraculous cures; and, if we can believe their biographers, there have been those among them who have been personally visited by the Queen of Heaven. But Satan sleepeth not, and the first germs of doubt, and ever-increasing unbelief in such wonders, already had begun to sprout in Christendom as early as the sixteenth century. It was just at that time that a new and terrible heresy first made its appearance in the north of Germany.* [*Luther’s reform] A great star ‘shining as it were a lamp… fell upon the fountains waters’… and ‘they were made bitter.’ This ‘heresy’ blasphemously denied ‘miracles.’ But those who had remained faithful believed all the more ardently, the tears of mankind ascended to Him as heretofore, and the Christian world was expecting Him as confidently as ever; they loved Him and hoped in Him, thirsted and hungered to suffer and die for Him just as many of them had done before…. So many centuries had weak, trusting humanity implored Him, crying with ardent faith and fervour: ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not come!’ So many long centuries hath it vainly appealed to Him, that at last, in His inexhaustible compassion, He consenteth to answer the prayer…. He decideth that once more, if it were but for one short hour, the people—His long-suffering, tortured, fatally sinful, his loving and child-like, trusting people—shall behold Him again. The scene of action is placed by me in Spain, at Seville, during that terrible period of the Inquisition, when, for the greater glory of God, stakes were flaming all over the country.
Burning wicked heretics,
In grand auto-da-fes.
“This particular visit has, of course, nothing to do with the promised Advent, when, according to the programme, ‘after the tribulation of those days,’ He will appear ‘coming in the clouds of heaven.’ For, that ‘coming of the Son of Man,’ as we are informed, will take place as suddenly ‘as the lightning cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the west.’ No; this once, He desired to come unknown, and appear among His children, just when the bones of the heretics, sentenced to be burnt alive, had commenced crackling at the flaming stakes. Owing to His limitless mercy, He mixes once more with mortals and in the same form in which He was wont to appear fifteen centuries ago. He descends, just at the very moment when before king, courtiers, knights, cardinals, and the fairest dames of court, before the whole population of Seville, upwards of a hundred wicked heretics are being roasted, in a magnificent auto-da-fe ad majorem Dei gloriam, by the order of the powerful Cardinal Grand Inquisitor.
“He comes silently and unannounced; yet all—how strange—yea, all recognize Him, at once! The population rushes towards Him as if propelled by some irresistible force; it surrounds, throngs, and presses around, it follows Him…. Silently, and with a smile of boundless compassion upon His lips, He crosses the dense crowd, and moves softly on. The Sun of Love burns in His heart, and warm rays of Light, Wisdom and Power beam forth from His eyes, and pour down their waves upon the swarming multitudes of the rabble assembled around, making their hearts vibrate with returning love. He extends His hands over their heads, blesses them, and from mere contact with Him, aye, even with His garments, a healing power goes forth. An old man, blind from his birth, cries, ‘Lord, heal me, that I may see Thee!’ and the scales falling off the closed eyes, the blind man beholds Him… The crowd weeps for joy, and kisses the ground upon which He treads. Children strew flowers along His path and sing to Him, ‘Hosanna!’ It is He, it is Himself, they say to each other, it must be He, it can be none other but He! He pauses at the portal of the old cathedral, just as a wee white coffin is carried in, with tears and great lamentations. The lid is off, and in the coffin lies the body of a fair-child, seven years old, the only child of an eminent citizen of the city. The little corpse lies buried in flowers. ‘He will raise the child to life!’ confidently shouts the crowd to the weeping mother. The officiating priest who had come to meet the funeral procession, looks perplexed, and frowns. A loud cry is suddenly heard, and the bereaved mother prostrates herself at His feet. ‘If it be Thou, then bring back my child to life!’ she cries beseechingly. The procession halts, and the little coffin is gently lowered at his feet. Divine compassion beams forth from His eyes, and as He looks at the child, His lips are heard to whisper once more, ‘Talitha Cumi’—and ‘straightway the damsel arose.’ The child rises in her coffin. Her little hands still hold the nosegay of white roses which after death was placed in them, and, looking round with large astonished eyes she smiles sweetly …. The crowd is violently excited. A terrible commotion rages among them, the populace shouts and loudly weeps, when suddenly, before the cathedral door, appears the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor himself…. He is tall, gaunt-looking old man of nearly four-score years and ten, with a stern, withered face, and deeply sunken eyes, from the cavity of which glitter two fiery sparks. He has laid aside his gorgeous cardinal’s robes in which he had appeared before the people at the auto da-fe of the enemies of the Romish Church, and is now clad in his old, rough, monkish cassock. His sullen assistants and slaves of the ‘holy guard’ are following at a distance. He pauses before the crowd and observes. He has seen all. He has witnessed the placing of the little coffin at His feet, the calling back to life. And now, his dark, grim face has grown still darker; his bushy grey eyebrows nearly meet, and his sunken eye flashes with sinister light. Slowly raising his finger, he commands his minions to arrest Him….
“Such is his power over the well-disciplined, submissive and now trembling people, that the thick crowds immediately give way, and scattering before the guard, amid dead silence and without one breath of protest, allow them to lay their sacrilegious hands upon the stranger and lead Him away…. That same populace, like one man, now bows its head to the ground before the old Inquisitor, who blesses it and slowly moves onward. The guards conduct their prisoner to the ancient building of the Holy Tribunal; pushing Him into a narrow, gloomy, vaulted prison-cell, they lock Him in and retire….
“The day wanes, and night—a dark, hot breathless Spanish night—creeps on and settles upon the city of Seville. The air smells of laurels and orange blossoms. In the Cimmerian darkness of the old Tribunal Hall the iron door of the cell is suddenly thrown open, and the Grand Inquisitor, holding a dark lantern, slowly stalks into the dungeon. He is alone, and, as the heavy door closes behind him, he pauses at the threshold, and, for a minute or two, silently and gloomily scrutinizes the Face before him. At last approaching with measured steps, he sets his lantern down upon the table and addresses Him in these words:
“‘It is Thou! … Thou!’ … Receiving no reply, he rapidly continues: ‘Nay, answer not; be silent! … And what couldst Thou say? … I know but too well Thy answer…. Besides, Thou hast no right to add one syllable to that which was already uttered by Thee before…. Why shouldst Thou now return, to impede us in our work? For Thou hast come but for that only, and Thou knowest it well. But art Thou as well aware of what awaits Thee in the morning? I do not know, nor do I care to know who thou mayest be: be it Thou or only thine image, to-morrow I will condemn and burn Thee on the stake, as the most wicked of all the heretics; and that same people, who to-day were kissing Thy feet, to-morrow at one bend of my finger, will rush to add fuel to Thy funeral pile… Wert Thou aware of this?’ he adds, speaking as if in solemn thought, and never for one instant taking his piercing glance off the meek Face before him.”….
“I can hardly realize the situation described—what is all this, Ivan?” suddenly interrupted Alyosha, who had remained silently listening to his brother. “Is this an extravagant fancy, or some mistake of the old man, an impossible quid pro quo?”
“Let it be the latter, if you like,” laughed Ivan, “since modern realism has so perverted your taste that you feel unable to realize anything from the world of fancy…. Let it be a quid pro quo, if you so choose it. Again, the Inquisitor is ninety years old, and he might have easily gone mad with his one idee fixe of power; or, it might have as well been a delirious vision, called forth by dying fancy, overheated by the auto-da-fe of the hundred heretics in that forenoon…. But what matters for the poem, whether it was a quid pro quo or an uncontrollable fancy? The question is, that the old man has to open his heart; that he must give out his thought at last; and that the hour has come when he does speak it out, and says loudly that which for ninety years he has kept secret within his own breast.”
“And his prisoner, does He never reply? Does He keep silent, looking at him, without saying a word?”
“Of course; and it could not well be otherwise,” again retorted Ivan. “The Grand Inquisitor begins from his very first words by telling Him that He has no right to add one syllable to that which He had said before. To make the situation clear at once, the above preliminary monologue is intended to convey to the reader the very fundamental idea which underlies Roman Catholicism—as well as I can convey it, his words mean, in short: ‘Everything was given over by Thee to the Pope, and everything now rests with him alone; Thou hast no business to return and thus hinder us in our work.’ In this sense the Jesuits not only talk but write likewise.
“‘Hast thou the right to divulge to us a single one of the mysteries of that world whence Thou comest?’ enquires of Him my old Inquisitor, and forthwith answers for Him. ‘Nay, Thou has no such right. For, that would be adding to that which was already said by Thee before; hence depriving people of that freedom for which Thou hast so stoutly stood up while yet on earth…. Anything new that Thou would now proclaim would have to be regarded as an attempt to interfere with that freedom of choice, as it would come as a new and a miraculous revelation superseding the old revelation of fifteen hundred years ago, when Thou didst so repeatedly tell the people: “The truth shall make you free.” Behold then, Thy “free” people now!’ adds the old man with sombre irony. ‘Yea!… it has cost us dearly.’ he continues, sternly looking at his victim. ‘But we have at last accomplished our task, and—in Thy name…. For fifteen long centuries we had to toil and suffer owing to that “freedom”: but now we have prevailed and our work is done, and well and strongly it is done. ….Believest not Thou it is so very strong? … And why should Thou look at me so meekly as if I were not worthy even of Thy indignation?… Know then, that now, and only now, Thy people feel fully sure and satisfied of their freedom; and that only since they have themselves and of their own free will delivered that freedom unto our hands by placing it submissively at our feet. But then, that is what we have done. Is it that which Thou has striven for? Is this the kind of “freedom” Thou has promised them?'”
“Now again, I do not understand,” interrupted Alyosha. “Does the old man mock and laugh?”
“Not in the least. He seriously regards it as a great service done by himself, his brother monks and Jesuits, to humanity, to have conquered and subjected unto their authority that freedom, and boasts that it was done but for the good of the world. ‘For only now,’ he says (speaking of the Inquisition) ‘has it become possible to us, for the first time, to give a serious thought to human happiness. Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be ever happy?… Thou has been fairly warned of it, but evidently to no use, since Thou hast rejected the only means which could make mankind happy; fortunately at Thy departure Thou hast delivered the task to us…. Thou has promised, ratifying the pledge by Thy own words, in words giving us the right to bind and unbind… and surely, Thou couldst not think of depriving us of it now!'”
“But what can he mean by the words, ‘Thou has been fairly warned’?” asked Alexis.
“These words give the key to what the old man has to say for his justification… But listen—
“‘The terrible and wise spirit, the spirit of self annihilation and non-being,’ goes on the Inquisitor, ‘the great spirit of negation conversed with Thee in the wilderness, and we are told that he “tempted” Thee… Was it so? And if it were so, then it is impossible to utter anything more truthful than what is contained in his three offers, which Thou didst reject, and which are usually called “temptations.” Yea; if ever there was on earth a genuine striking wonder produced, it was on that day of Thy three temptations, and it is precisely in these three short sentences that the marvelous miracle is contained. If it were possible that they should vanish and disappear for ever, without leaving any trace, from the record and from the memory of man, and that it should become necessary again to devise, invent, and make them reappear in Thy history once more, thinkest Thou that all the world’s sages, all the legislators, initiates, philosophers and thinkers, if called upon to frame three questions which should, like these, besides answering the magnitude of the event, express in three short sentences the whole future history of this our world and of mankind—dost Thou believe, I ask Thee, that all their combined efforts could ever create anything equal in power and depth of thought to the three propositions offered Thee by the powerful and all-wise spirit in the wilderness? Judging of them by their marvelous aptness alone, one can at once perceive that they emanated not from a finite, terrestrial intellect, but indeed, from the Eternal and the Absolute. In these three offers we find, blended into one and foretold to us, the complete subsequent history of man; we are shown three images, so to say, uniting in them all the future axiomatic, insoluble problems and contradictions of human nature, the world over. In those days, the wondrous wisdom contained in them was not made so apparent as it is now, for futurity remained still veiled; but now, when fifteen centuries have elapsed, we see that everything in these three questions is so marvelously foreseen and foretold, that to add to, or to take away from, the prophecy one jot, would be absolutely impossible!
“‘Decide then thyself.’ sternly proceeded the Inquisitor, ‘which of ye twain was right: Thou who didst reject, or he who offered? Remember the subtle meaning of question the first, which runs thus: Wouldst Thou go into the world empty-handed? Would Thou venture thither with Thy vague and undefined promise of freedom, which men, dull and unruly as they are by nature, are unable so much as to understand, which they avoid and fear?—for never was there anything more unbearable to the human race than personal freedom! Dost Thou see these stones in the desolate and glaring wilderness? Command that these stones be made bread—and mankind will run after Thee, obedient and grateful like a herd of cattle. But even then it will be ever diffident and trembling, lest Thou should take away Thy hand, and they lose thereby their bread! Thou didst refuse to accept the offer for fear of depriving men of their free choice; for where is there freedom of choice where men are bribed with bread? Man shall not live by bread alone—was Thine answer. Thou knewest not, it seems, that it was precisely in the name of that earthly bread that the terrestrial spirit would one day rise against, struggle with, and finally conquer Thee, followed by the hungry multitudes shouting: “Who is like unto that Beast, who maketh fire come down from heaven upon the earth!” Knowest Thou not that, but a few centuries hence, and the whole of mankind will have proclaimed in its wisdom and through its mouthpiece, Science, that there is no more crime, hence no more sin on earth, but only hungry people? “Feed us first and then command us to be virtuous!” will be the words written upon the banner lifted against Thee—a banner which shall destroy Thy Church to its very foundations, and in the place of Thy Temple shall raise once more the terrible Tower of Babel; and though its building be left unfinished, as was that of the first one, yet the fact will remain recorded that Thou couldst, but wouldst not, prevent the attempt to build that new tower by accepting the offer, and thus saving mankind a millennium of useless suffering on earth. And it is to us that the people will return again. They will search for us catacombs, as we shall once more be persecuted and martyred—and they will begin crying unto us: “Feed us, for they who promised us the fire from heaven have deceived us!” It is then that we will finish building their tower for them. For they alone who feed them shall finish it, and we shall feed them in Thy name, and lying to them that it is in that name. Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? And even supposing that thousands and tens of thousands follow Thee in the name of, and for the sake of, Thy heavenly bread, what will become of the millions and hundreds of millions of human beings to weak to scorn the earthly for the sake of Thy heavenly bread? Or is it but those tens of thousands chosen among the great and the mighty, that are so dear to Thee, while the remaining millions, innumerable as the grains of sand in the seas, the weak and the loving, have to be used as material for the former? No, no! In our sight and for our purpose the weak and the lowly are the more dear to us. True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them—so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men! Then we will tell them that it is in obedience to Thy will and in Thy name that we rule over them. We will deceive them once more and lie to them once again—for never, never more will we allow Thee to come among us. In this deception we will find our suffering, for we must needs lie eternally, and never cease to lie!
“Such is the secret meaning of “temptation” the first, and that is what Thou didst reject in the wilderness for the sake of that freedom which Thou didst prize above all. Meanwhile Thy tempter’s offer contained another great world-mystery. By accepting the “bread,” Thou wouldst have satisfied and answered a universal craving, a ceaseless longing alive in the heart of every individual human being, lurking in the breast of collective mankind, that most perplexing problem—”whom or what shall we worship?” There exists no greater or more painful anxiety for a man who has freed himself from all religious bias, than how he shall soonest find a new object or idea to worship. But man seeks to bow before that only which is recognized by the greater majority, if not by all his fellow-men, as having a right to be worshipped; whose rights are so unquestionable that men agree unanimously to bow down to it. For the chief concern of these miserable creatures is not to find and worship the idol of their own choice, but to discover that which all others will believe in, and consent to bow down to in a mass. It is that instinctive need of having a worship in common that is the chief suffering of every man, the chief concern of mankind from the beginning of times. It is for that universality of religious worship that people destroyed each other by sword. Creating gods unto themselves, they forwith began appealing to each other: “Abandon your deities, come and bow down to ours, or death to ye and your idols!” And so will they do till the end of this world; they will do so even then, when all the gods themselves have disappeared, for then men will prostrate themselves before and worship some idea. Thou didst know, Thou couldst not be ignorant of, that mysterious fundamental principle in human nature, and still thou hast rejected the only absolute banner offered Thee, to which all the nations would remain true, and before which all would have bowed—the banner of earthly bread, rejected in the name of freedom and of “bread in the kingdom of God”! Behold, then, what Thou hast done furthermore for that “freedom’s” sake! I repeat to Thee, man has no greater anxiety in life than to find some one to whom he can make over that gift of freedom with which the unfortunate creature is born. But he alone will prove capable of silencing and quieting their consciences, that shall succeed in possessing himself of the freedom of men. With “daily bread” an irresistible power was offered Thee: show a man “bread” and he will follow Thee, for what can he resist less than the attraction of bread? But if, at the same time, another succeed in possessing himself of his conscience—oh! then even Thy bread will be forgotten, and man will follow him who seduced his conscience. So far Thou wert right. For the mystery of human being does not solely rest in the desire to live, but in the problem—for what should one live at all? Without a clear perception of his reasons for living, man will never consent to live, and will rather destroy himself than tarry on earth, though he be surrounded with bread. This is the truth. But what has happened? Instead of getting hold of man’s freedom, Thou has enlarged it still more! Hast Thou again forgotten that to man rest and even death are preferable to a free choice between the knowledge of Good and Evil? Nothing seems more seductive in his eyes than freedom of conscience, and nothing proves more painful. And behold! instead of laying a firm foundation whereon to rest once for all man’s conscience, Thou hast chosen to stir up in him all that is abnormal, mysterious, and indefinite, all that is beyond human strength, and has acted as if Thou never hadst any love for him, and yet Thou wert He who came to “lay down His life for His friends!” Thou hast burdened man’s soul with anxieties hitherto unknown to him. Thirsting for human love freely given, seeking to enable man, seduced and charmed by Thee, to follow Thy path of his own free-will, instead of the old and wise law which held him in subjection, Thou hast given him the right henceforth to choose and freely decide what is good and bad for him, guided but by Thine image in his heart. But hast Thou never dreamt of the probability, nay, of the certainty, of that same man one day rejected finally, and controverting even Thine image and Thy truth, once he would find himself laden with such a terrible burden as freedom of choice? That a time would surely come when men would exclaim that Truth and Light cannot be in Thee, for no one could have left them in a greater perplexity and mental suffering than Thou has done, lading them with so many cares and insoluble problems. Thus, it is Thyself who hast laid the foundation for the destruction of Thine own kingdom and no one but Thou is to be blamed for it.
“‘Meantime, every chance of success was offered Thee. There are three Powers, three unique Forces upon earth, capable of conquering for ever by charming the conscience of these weak rebels—men—for their own good; and these Forces are: Miracle, Mystery and Authority. Thou hast rejected all the three, and thus wert the first to set them an example. When the terrible and all-wise spirit placed Thee on a pinnacle of the temple and said unto Thee, “If Thou be the son of God, cast Thyself down, for it is written, He shall give His angels charge concerning Thee: and in their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest at any time Thou dash Thy foot against a stone!”—for thus Thy faith in Thy father should have been made evident, Thou didst refuse to accept his suggestion and didst not follow it. Oh, undoubtedly, Thou didst act in this with all the magnificent pride of a god, but then men—that weak and rebel race—are they also gods, to understand Thy refusal? Of course, Thou didst well know that by taking one single step forward, by making the slightest motion to throw Thyself down, Thou wouldst have tempted “the Lord Thy God,” lost suddenly all faith in Him, and dashed Thyself to atoms against that same earth which Thou camest to save, and thus wouldst have allowed the wise spirit which tempted Thee to triumph and rejoice. But, then, how many such as Thee are to be found on this globe, I ask Thee? Couldst Thou ever for a moment imagine that men would have the same strength to resist such a temptation? Is human nature calculated to reject miracle, and trust, during the most terrible moments in life, when the most momentous, painful and perplexing problems struggle within man’s soul, to the free decisions of his heart for the true solution? Oh, Thou knewest well that that action of Thine would remain recorded in books for ages to come, reaching to the confines of the globe, and Thy hope was, that following Thy example, man would remain true to his God, without needing any miracle to keep his faith alive! But Thou knewest not, it seems, that no sooner would man reject miracle than he would reject God likewise, for he seeketh less God than “a sign” from Him. And thus, as it is beyond the power of man to remain without miracles, so, rather than live without, he will create for himself new wonders of his own making; and he will bow to and worship the soothsayer’s miracles, the old witch’s sorcery, were he a rebel, a heretic, and an atheist a hundred times over. Thy refusal to come down from the cross when people, mocking and wagging their heads were saying to Thee—”Save Thyself if Thou be the son of God, and we will believe in Thee,” was due to the same determination—not to enslave man through miracle, but to obtain faith in Thee freely and apart from any miraculous influence. Thou thirstest for free and uninfluenced love, and refuses the passionate adoration of the slave before a Potency which would have subjected his will once for ever. Thou judgest of men too highly here, again, for though rebels they be, they are born slaves and nothing more. Behold, and judge of them once more, now that fifteen centuries have elapsed since that moment. Look at them, whom Thou didst try to elevate unto Thee! I swear man is weaker and lower than Thou hast ever imagined him to be! Can he ever do that which Thou art said to have accomplished? By valuing him so highly Thou hast acted as if there were no love for him in Thine heart, for Thou hast demanded of him more than he could ever give—Thou, who lovest him more than Thyself! Hadst Thou esteemed him less, less wouldst Thou have demanded of him, and that would have been more like love, for his burden would have been made thereby lighter. Man is weak and cowardly. What matters it, if he now riots and rebels throughout the world against our will and power, and prides himself upon that rebellion? It is but the petty pride and vanity of a school-boy. It is the rioting of little children, getting up a mutiny in the class-room and driving their schoolmaster out of it. But it will not last long, and when the day of their triumph is over, they will have to pay dearly for it. They will destroy the temples and raze them to the ground, flooding the earth with blood. But the foolish children will have to learn some day that, rebels though they be and riotous from nature, they are too weak to maintain the spirit of mutiny for any length of time. Suffused with idiotic tears, they will confess that He who created them rebellious undoubtedly did so but to mock them. They will pronounce these words in despair, and such blasphemous utterances will but add to their misery—for human nature cannot endure blasphemy, and takes her own revenge in the end.
“‘And thus, after all Thou has suffered for mankind and its freedom, the present fate of men may be summed up in three words: Unrest, Confusion, Misery! Thy great prophet John records in his vision, that he saw, during the first resurrection of the chosen servants of God—”the number of them which were sealed” in their foreheads, “twelve thousand” of every tribe. But were they, indeed, as many? Then they must have been gods, not men. They had shared Thy Cross for long years, suffered scores of years’ hunger and thirst in dreary wildernesses and deserts, feeding upon locusts and roots—and of these children of free love for Thee, and self-sacrifice in Thy name, Thou mayest well feel proud. But remember that these are but a few thousands—of gods, not men; and how about all others? And why should the weakest be held guilty for not being able to endure what the strongest have endured? Why should a soul incapable of containing such terrible gifts be punished for its weakness? Didst Thou really come to, and for, the “elect” alone? If so, then the mystery will remain for ever mysterious to our finite minds. And if a mystery, then were we right to proclaim it as one, and preach it, teaching them that neither their freely given love to Thee nor freedom of conscience were essential, but only that incomprehensible mystery which they must blindly obey even against the dictates of their conscience. Thus did we. We corrected and improved Thy teaching and based it upon “Miracle, Mystery, and Authority.” And men rejoiced at finding themselves led once more like a herd of cattle, and at finding their hearts at last delivered of the terrible burden laid upon them by Thee, which caused them so much suffering. Tell me, were we right in doing as we did. Did not we show our great love for humanity, by realizing in such a humble spirit its helplessness, by so mercifully lightening its great burden, and by permitting and remitting for its weak nature every sin, provided it be committed with our authorization? For what, then, hast Thou come again to trouble us in our work? And why lookest Thou at me so penetratingly with Thy meek eyes, and in such a silence? Rather shouldst Thou feel wroth, for I need not Thy love, I reject it, and love Thee not, myself. Why should I conceal the truth from Thee? I know but too well with whom I am now talking! What I had to say was known to Thee before, I read it in Thine eye. How should I conceal from Thee our secret? If perchance Thou wouldst hear it from my own lips, then listen: We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him, yes—eight centuries. Eight hundred years now since we accepted from him the gift rejected by Thee with indignation; that last gift which he offered Thee from the high mountain when, showing all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, he saith unto Thee: “All these things will I give Thee, if Thou will fall down and worship me!” We took Rome from him and the glaive of Caesar, and declared ourselves alone the kings of this earth, its sole kings, though our work is not yet fully accomplished. But who is to blame for it? Our work is but in its incipient stage, but it is nevertheless started. We may have long to wait until its culmination, and mankind have to suffer much, but we shall reach the goal some day, and become sole Caesars, and then will be the time to think of universal happiness for men.
“‘Thou couldst accept the glaive of Caesar Thyself; why didst Thou reject the offer? By accepting from the powerful spirit his third offer Thou would have realized every aspiration man seeketh for himself on earth; man would have found a constant object for worship; one to deliver his conscience up to, and one that should unite all together into one common and harmonious ant-hill; for an innate necessity for universal union constitutes the third and final affliction of mankind. Humanity as a whole has ever aspired to unite itself universally. Many were, the great nations with great histories, but the greater they were, the more unhappy they felt, as they felt the stronger necessity of a universal union among men. Great conquerors, like Timoor and Tchengis-Khan, passed like a cyclone upon the face of the earth in their efforts to conquer the universe, but even they, albeit unconsciously, expressed the same aspiration towards universal and common union. In accepting the kingdom of the world and Caesar’s purple, one would found a universal kingdom and secure to mankind eternal peace. And who can rule mankind better than those who have possessed themselves of man’s conscience, and hold in their hand man’s daily bread? Having accepted Caesar’s glaive and purple, we had, of course, but to deny Thee, to henceforth follow him alone. Oh, centuries of intellectual riot and rebellious free thought are yet before us, and their science will end by anthropophagy, for having begun to build their Babylonian tower without our help they will have to end by anthropophagy. But it is precisely at that time that the Beast will crawl up to us in full submission, and lick the soles of our feet, and sprinkle them with tears of blood and we shall sit upon the scarlet-colored Beast, and lifting up high the golden cup “full of abomination and filthiness,” shall show written upon it the word “Mystery”! But it is only then that men will see the beginning of a kingdom of peace and happiness. Thou art proud of Thine own elect, but Thou has none other but these elect, and we—we will give rest to all. But that is not the end. Many are those among thine elect and the laborers of Thy vineyard, who, tired of waiting for Thy coming, already have carried and will yet carry, the great fervor of their hearts and their spiritual strength into another field, and will end by lifting up against Thee Thine own banner of freedom. But it is Thyself Thou hast to thank. Under our rule and sway all will be happy, and will neither rebel nor destroy each other as they did while under Thy free banner. Oh, we will take good care to prove to them that they will become absolutely free only when they have abjured their freedom in our favor and submit to us absolutely. Thinkest Thou we shall be right or still lying? They will convince themselves of our rightness, for they will see what a depth of degrading slavery and strife that liberty of Thine has led them into. Liberty, Freedom of Thought and Conscience, and Science will lead them into such impassable chasms, place them face to face before such wonders and insoluble mysteries, that some of them—more rebellious and ferocious than the rest—will destroy themselves; others—rebellious but weak—will destroy each other; while the remainder, weak, helpless and miserable, will crawl back to our feet and cry: “‘Yes; right were ye, oh Fathers of Jesus; ye alone are in possession of His mystery, and we return to you, praying that ye save us from ourselves!” Receiving their bread from us, they will clearly see that we take the bread from them, the bread made by their own hands, but to give it back to them in equal shares and that without any miracle; and having ascertained that, though we have not changed stones into bread, yet bread they have, while every other bread turned verily in their own hands into stones, they will be only to glad to have it so. Until that day, they will never be happy. And who is it that helped the most to blind them, tell me? Who separated the flock and scattered it over ways unknown if it be not Thee? But we will gather the sheep once more and subject them to our will for ever. We will prove to them their own weakness and make them humble again, whilst with Thee they have learnt but pride, for Thou hast made more of them than they ever were worth. We will give them that quiet, humble happiness, which alone benefits such weak, foolish creatures as they are, and having once had proved to them their weakness, they will become timid and obedient, and gather around us as chickens around their hen. They will wonder at and feel a superstitious admiration for us, and feel proud to be led by men so powerful and wise that a handful of them can subject a flock a thousand millions strong. Gradually men will begin to fear us. They will nervously dread our slightest anger, their intellects will weaken, their eyes become as easily accessible to tears as those of children and women; but we will teach them an easy transition from grief and tears to laughter, childish joy and mirthful song. Yes; we will make them work like slaves, but during their recreation hours they shall have an innocent child-like life, full of play and merry laughter. We will even permit them sin, for, weak and helpless, they will feel the more love for us for permitting them to indulge in it. We will tell them that every kind of sin will be remitted to them, so long as it is done with our permission; that we take all these sins upon ourselves, for we so love the world, that we are even willing to sacrifice our souls for its satisfaction. And, appearing before them in the light of their scapegoats and redeemers, we shall be adored the more for it. They will have no secrets from us. It will rest with us to permit them to live with their wives and concubines, or to forbid them, to have children or remain childless, either way depending on the degree of their obedience to us; and they will submit most joyfully to us the most agonizing secrets of their souls—all, all will they lay down at our feet, and we will authorize and remit them all in Thy name, and they will believe us and accept our mediation with rapture, as it will deliver them from their greatest anxiety and torture—that of having to decide freely for themselves. And all will be happy, all except the one or two hundred thousands of their rulers. For it is but we, we the keepers of the great Mystery who will be miserable. There will be thousands of millions of happy infants, and one hundred thousand martyrs who have taken upon themselves the curse of knowledge of good and evil. Peaceable will be their end, and peacefully will they die, in Thy name, to find behind the portals of the grave—but death. But we will keep the secret inviolate, and deceive them for their own good with the mirage of life eternal in Thy kingdom. For, were there really anything like life beyond the grave, surely it would never fall to the lot of such as they! People tell us and prophesy of Thy coming and triumphing once more on earth; of Thy appearing with the army of Thy elect, with Thy proud and mighty ones; but we will answer Thee that they have saved but themselves while we have saved all. We are also threatened with the great disgrace which awaits the whore, “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots”—who sits upon the Beast, holding in her hands the Mystery, the word written upon her forehead; and we are told that the weak ones, the lambs shall rebel against her and shall make her desolate and naked. But then will I arise, and point out to Thee the thousands of millions of happy infants free from any sin. And we who have taken their sins upon us, for their own good, shall stand before Thee and say: “Judge us if Thou canst and darest!” Know then that I fear Thee not. Know that I too have lived in the dreary wilderness, where I fed upon locusts and roots, that I too have blessed freedom with which thou hast blessed men, and that I too have once prepared to join the ranks of Thy elect, the proud and the mighty. But I awoke from my delusion and refused since then to serve insanity. I returned to join the legion of those who corrected Thy mistakes. I left the proud and returned to the really humble, and for their own happiness. What I now tell thee will come to pass, and our kingdom shall be built, I tell Thee not later than to-morrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock which at one simple motion of my hand will rush to add burning coals to Thy stake, on which I will burn Thee for having dared to come and trouble us in our work. For, if there ever was one who deserved more than any of the others our inquisitorial fires—it is Thee! To-morrow I will burn Thee. Dixi’.”
Ivan paused. He had entered into the situation and had spoken with great animation, but now he suddenly burst out laughing.
“But all that is absurd!” suddenly exclaimed Alyosha, who had hitherto listened perplexed and agitated but in profound silence. “Your poem is a glorification of Christ, not an accusation, as you, perhaps, meant to be. And who will believe you when you speak of ‘freedom’? Is it thus that we Christians must understand it? It is Rome (not all Rome, for that would be unjust), but the worst of the Roman Catholics, the Inquisitors and Jesuits, that you have been exposing! Your Inquisitor is an impossible character. What are these sins they are taking upon themselves? Who are those keepers of mystery who took upon themselves a curse for the good of mankind? Who ever met them? We all know the Jesuits, and no one has a good word to say in their favor; but when were they as you depict them? Never, never! The Jesuits are merely a Romish army making ready for their future temporal kingdom, with a mitred emperor—a Roman high priest at their head. That is their ideal and object, without any mystery or elevated suffering. The most prosaic thirsting for power, for the sake of the mean and earthly pleasures of life, a desire to enslave their fellow-men, something like our late system of serfs, with themselves at the head as landed proprietors—that is all that they can be accused of. They may not believe in God, that is also possible, but your suffering Inquisitor is simply—a fancy!”
“Hold, hold!” interrupted Ivan, smiling. “Do not be so excited. A fancy, you say; be it so! Of course, it is a fancy. But stop. Do you really imagine that all this Catholic movement during the last centuries is naught but a desire for power for the mere purpose of ‘mean pleasures’? Is this what your Father Paissiy taught you?”
“No, no, quite the reverse, for Father Paissiy once told me something very similar to what you yourself say, though, of course, not that—something quite different,” suddenly added Alexis, blushing.
“A precious piece of information, notwithstanding your ‘not that.’ I ask you, why should the Inquisitors and the Jesuits of your imagination live but for the attainment of ‘mean material pleasures?’ Why should there not be found among them one single genuine martyr suffering under a great and holy idea and loving humanity with all his heart? Now let us suppose that among all these Jesuits thirsting and hungering but after ‘mean material pleasures’ there may be one, just one like my old Inquisitor, who had himself fed upon roots in the wilderness, suffered the tortures of damnation while trying to conquer flesh, in order to become free and perfect, but who had never ceased to love humanity, and who one day prophetically beheld the truth; who saw as plain as he could see that the bulk of humanity could never be happy under the old system, that it was not for them that the great Idealist had come and died and dreamt of His Universal Harmony. Having realized that truth, he returned into the world and joined—intelligent and practical people. Is this so impossible?”
“Joined whom? What intelligent and practical people?” exclaimed Alyosha quite excited. “Why should they be more intelligent than other men, and what secrets and mysteries can they have? They have neither. Atheism and infidelity is all the secret they have. Your Inquisitor does not believe in God, and that is all the Mystery there is in it!”
“It may be so. You have guessed rightly there. And it is so, and that is his whole secret; but is this not the acutest sufferings for such a man as he, who killed all his young life in asceticism in the desert, and yet could not cure himself of his love towards his fellowmen? Toward the end of his life he becomes convinced that it is only by following the advice of the great and terrible spirit that the fate of these millions of weak rebels, these ‘half-finished samples of humanity created in mockery’ can be made tolerable. And once convinced of it, he sees as clearly that to achieve that object, one must follow blindly the guidance of the wise spirit, the fearful spirit of death and destruction, hence accept a system of lies and deception and lead humanity consciously this time toward death and destruction, and moreover, be deceiving them all the while in order to prevent them from realizing where they are being led, and so force the miserable blind men to feel happy, at least while here on earth. And note this: a wholesale deception in the name of Him, in whose ideal the old man had so passionately, so fervently, believed during nearly his whole life! Is this no suffering? And were such a solitary exception found amidst, and at the head of, that army ‘that thirsts for power but for the sake of the mean pleasures of life,’ think you one such man would not suffice to bring on a tragedy? Moreover, one single man like my Inquisitor as a principal leader, would prove sufficient to discover the real guiding idea of the Romish system with all its armies of Jesuits, the greatest and chiefest conviction that the solitary type described in my poem has at no time ever disappeared from among the chief leaders of that movement. Who knows but that terrible old man, loving humanity so stubbornly and in such an original way, exists even in our days in the shape of a whole host of such solitary exceptions, whose existence is not due to mere chance, but to a well-defined association born of mutual consent, to a secret league, organized several centuries back, in order to guard the Mystery from the indiscreet eyes of the miserable and weak people, and only in view of their own happiness? And so it is; it cannot be otherwise. I suspect that even Masons have some such Mystery underlying the basis of their organization, and that it is just the reason why the Roman Catholic clergy hate them so, dreading to find in them rivals, competition, the dismemberment of the unity of the idea, for the realization of which one flock and one Shepherd are needed. However, in defending my idea, I look like an author whose production is unable to stand criticism. Enough of this.”
“You are, perhaps, a Mason yourself!” exclaimed Alyosha. “You do not believe in God,” he added, with a note of profound sadness in his voice. But suddenly remarking that his brother was looking at him with mockery, “How do you mean then to bring your poem to a close?” he unexpectedly enquired, casting his eyes downward, “or does it break off here?”
“My intention is to end it with the following scene: Having disburdened his heart, the Inquisitor waits for some time to hear his prisoner speak in His turn. His silence weighs upon him. He has seen that his captive has been attentively listening to him all the time, with His eyes fixed penetratingly and softly on the face of his jailer, and evidently bent upon not replying to him. The old man longs to hear His voice, to hear Him reply; better words of bitterness and scorn than His silence. Suddenly He rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten-year-old lips. That is all the answer. The Grand Inquisitor shudders. There is a convulsive twitch at the corner of his mouth. He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, ‘Go,’ he says, ‘go, and return no more… do not come again… never, never!’ and—lets Him out into the dark night. The prisoner vanishes.”
“And the old man?”
“The kiss burns his heart, but the old man remains firm in his own ideas and unbelief.”
“And you, together with him? You too!” despairingly exclaimed Alyosha, while Ivan burst into a still louder fit of laughter.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. I put this stream together a few years ago and just recently came across it again. It’s some friends and I doing a questline in Tibia set to some electronic music and some lectures by Alan Watts. Kind of funny to look back on as it seems excessively silly, but it is what it is. Hopefully sometime soon I will gather the courage and strength of mind to write about my more recent philosophical developments and life experiences. For now, enjoy the show.
Tool – Pneuma
We are spirit
Bound to this flesh
We go around one foot nailed down
We’re bound to reach out and beyond
This flesh become Pneuma
We are will and wonder
Bound to recall, remember
(We are born of)
One breath, one word
(We are all)
One spark, sun becoming
Child, wake up
Wake up now, child, wake up
Wake up now, child
Bound to this flesh
This guise, this mask, this dream
Wake up, remember
(We are born of)
One breath, one word
(We are all)
One spark, sun becoming
Reach out and beyond
Wake up, remember
(We are born of)
One breath, one word
(We are all)
One spark, eyes full of wonder
Songwriters: Adam Jones / Daniel Carey / Justin Chancellor / Maynard Keenan
Pneuma lyrics © BMG Rights Management
‘Despite all our medical advances,’ my friend Jason used to quip, ‘the mortality rate has remained constant – one per person.’
Jason and I studied medicine together back in the 1980s. Along with everyone else in our course, we spent six long years memorising everything that could go wrong with the human body. We diligently worked our way through a textbook called Pathologic Basis of Disease that described, in detail, every single ailment that could befall a human being. It’s no wonder medical students become hypochondriacal, attributing sinister causes to any lump, bump or rash they find on their own person.
Jason’s oft-repeated observation reminded me that death (and disease) are unavoidable aspects of life. It sometimes seems, though, that we’ve developed a delusional denial of this in the West. We pour billions into prolonging life with increasingly expensive medical and surgical interventions, most of them employed in our final, decrepit years. From a big-picture perspective, this seems a futile waste of our precious health-dollars.
Don’t get me wrong. If I get struck down with cancer, heart disease or any of the myriad life-threatening ailments I learnt about in medicine, I want all the futile and expensive treatments I can get my hands on. I value my life. In fact, like most humans, I value staying alive above pretty much everything else. But also, like most, I tend to not really value my life unless I’m faced with the imminent possibility of it being taken away from me.
Another old friend of mine, Ross, was studying philosophy while I studied medicine. At the time, he wrote an essay called ‘Death the Teacher’ that had a profound effect on me. It argued that the best thing we could do to appreciate life was to keep the inevitability of our death always at the forefront of our minds.
When the Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware interviewed scores of people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, she asked them their greatest regrets. The most frequent, published in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2011), were:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
The relationship between death-awareness and leading a fulfilling life was a central concern of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose work inspired Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist thinkers. Heidegger lamented that too many people wasted their lives running with the ‘herd’ rather than being true to themselves. But Heidegger actually struggled to live up to his own ideals; in 1933, he joined the Nazi Party, hoping it would advance his career.
Despite his shortcomings as a man, Heidegger’s ideas would go on to influence a wide range of philosophers, artists, theologians and other thinkers. Heidegger believed that Aristotle’s notion of Being – which had run as a thread through Western thinking for more than 2,000 years, and been instrumental in the development of scientific thinking – was flawed at a most fundamental level. Whereas Aristotle saw all of existence, including human beings, as things we could classify and analyse to increase our understanding of the world, in Being and Time (1927) Heidegger argued that, before we start classifying Being, we should first ask the question: ‘Who or what is doing all this questioning?’
Heidegger pointed out that we who are asking questions about Being are qualitatively different to the rest of existence: the rocks, oceans, trees, birds and insects that we are asking about. He invented a special word for this Being that asks, looks and cares. He called it Dasein, which loosely translates as ‘being there’. He coined the term Dasein because he believed that we had become immune to words such as ‘person’, ‘human’ and ‘human being’, losing our sense of wonder about our own consciousness.
Heidegger’s philosophy remains attractive to many today who see how science struggles to explain the experience of being a moral, caring person aware that his precious, mysterious, beautiful life will, one day, come to an end. According to Heidegger, this awareness of our own inevitable demise makes us, unlike the rocks and trees, hunger to make our life worthwhile, to give it meaning, purpose and value.
While Western medical science, which is based on Aristotelian thinking, sees the human body as a material thing that can be understood by examining it and breaking it down to its constituent parts like any other piece of matter, Heidegger’s ontology puts human experience at the centre of our understanding of the world.
Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with melanoma. As a doctor, I knew how aggressive and rapidly fatal this cancer could be. Fortunately for me, the surgery seemed to achieve a cure (touch wood). But I was also fortunate in another sense. I became aware, in a way I never had before, that I was going to die – if not from melanoma, then from something else, eventually. I have been much happier since then. For me, this realisation, this acceptance, this awareness that I am going to die is at least as important to my wellbeing as all the advances of medicine, because it reminds me to live my life to the full every day. I don’t want to experience the regret that Ware heard about more than any other, of not living ‘a life true to myself’.
Most Eastern philosophical traditions appreciate the importance of death-awareness for a well-lived life. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, is a central text of Tibetan culture. The Tibetans spend a lot of time living with death, if that isn’t an oxymoron.
The East’s greatest philosopher, Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, realised the importance of keeping the end in sight. He saw desire as the cause of all suffering, and counselled us not to get too attached to worldly pleasures but, rather, to focus on more important things such as loving others, developing equanimity of mind, and staying in the present.
The last thing the Buddha said to his followers was: ‘Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!’ As a doctor, I am reminded every day of the fragility of the human body, how closely mortality lurks just around the corner. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, however, I am also reminded how empty life can be if we have no sense of meaning or purpose. An awareness of our mortality, of our precious finitude, can, paradoxically, move us to seek – and, if necessary, create – the meaning that we so desperately crave.
Many of the beliefs that play a fundamental role in our worldview are largely the result of the communities in which we’ve been immersed. Religious parents tend to beget religious children, liberal educational institutions tend to produce liberal graduates, blue states stay mostly blue, and red ones stay mostly red. Of course, some people, through their own sheer intelligence, might be able to see through fallacious reasoning, detect biases and, as a result, resist the social influences that lead most of us to belief. But I’m not that special, and so learning how susceptible my beliefs are to these sorts of influences makes me a bit squirmy.
Let’s work with a hypothetical example. Suppose I’m raised among atheists and firmly believe that God doesn’t exist. I realise that, had I grown up in a religious community, I would almost certainly have believed in God. Furthermore, we can imagine that, had I grown up a theist, I would have been exposed to all the considerations that I take to be relevant to the question of whether God exists: I would have learned science and history, I would have heard all the same arguments for and against the existence of God. The difference is that I would interpret this evidence differently. Divergences in belief result from the fact that people weigh the evidence for and against theism in varying ways. It’s not as if pooling resources and having a conversation would result in one side convincing the other – we wouldn’t have had centuries of religious conflict if things were so simple. Rather, each side will insist that the balance of considerations supports its position – and this insistence will be a product of the social environments that people on that side were raised in.
The you-just-believe-that-because challenge is meant to make us suspicious of our beliefs, to motivate us to reduce our confidence, or even abandon them completely. But what exactly does this challenge amount to? The fact that I have my particular beliefs as a result of growing up in a certain community is just a boring psychological fact about me and is not, in itself, evidence for or against anything so grand as the existence of God. So, you might wonder, if these psychological facts about us are not themselves evidence for or against our worldview, why would learning them motivate any of us to reduce our confidence in such matters?
The method of believing whatever one’s social surroundings tell one to believe is not reliable. So, when I learn about the social influences on my belief, I learn that I’ve formed my beliefs using an unreliable method. If it turns out that my thermometer produces its readings using an unreliable mechanism, I cease to trust the thermometer. Similarly, learning that my beliefs were produced by an unreliable process means that I should cease to trust them too.
But in the hypothetical example, do I really hold that my beliefs were formed by an unreliable mechanism? I might think as follows: ‘I formed my atheistic beliefs as a result of growing up in my particular community, not as a result of growing up in some community or another. The fact that there are a bunch of communities out there that inculcate their members with false beliefs doesn’t mean that my community does. So I deny that my beliefs were formed by an unreliable method. Luckily for me, they were formed by an extremely reliable method: they are the result of growing up among intelligent well-informed people with a sensible worldview.’
The thermometer analogy, then, is inapt. Learning that I would have believed differently if I’d been raised by a different community is not like learning that my thermometer is unreliable. It’s more like learning that my thermometer came from a store that sells a large number of unreliable thermometers. But the fact that the store sells unreliable thermometers doesn’t mean I shouldn’t trust the readings of my particular thermometer. After all, I might have excellent reasons to think that I got lucky and bought one of the few reliable ones.
There’s something fishy about the ‘I got lucky’ response because I would think the very same thing if I were raised in a community that I take to believe falsehoods. If I’m an atheist, I might think: ‘Luckily, I was raised by people who are well-educated, take science seriously, and aren’t in the grip of old-fashioned religious dogma.’ But if I were a theist, I would think something along the lines of: ‘If I’d been raised among arrogant people who believe that there is nothing greater than themselves, I might never have personally experienced God’s grace, and would have ended up with a completely distorted view of reality.’ The fact that the ‘I got lucky’ response is a response anyone could give seems to undermine its legitimacy.
Despite the apparent fishiness of the ‘I got lucky’ response in the case of religious belief, this response is perfectly sensible in other cases. Return to the thermometers. Suppose that, when I was looking for a thermometer, I knew very little about the different types and picked a random one off the shelf. After learning that the store sells many unreliable thermometers, I get worried and do some serious research. I discover that the particular thermometer I bought is produced by a reputable company whose thermometers are extraordinarily reliable. There’s nothing wrong with thinking: ‘How lucky I am to have ended up with this excellent thermometer!’
What’s the difference? Why does it seem perfectly reasonable to think I got lucky about the thermometer I bought but not to think that I got lucky with the community I was raised in? Here’s the answer: my belief that the community I was raised in is a reliable one is itself, plausibly, a result of growing up in that community. If I don’t take for granted the beliefs that my community instilled in me, then I’ll find that I have no particular reason to think that my community is more reliable than others. If we’re evaluating the reliability of some belief-forming method, we can’t use beliefs that are the result of that very method in support of that method’s reliability.
So, if we ought to abandon our socially influenced beliefs, it is for the following reason: deliberation about whether to maintain or abandon a belief, or set of beliefs, due to the worries about how the beliefs were formed must be conducted from a perspective that doesn’t rely on the beliefs in question. Here’s another way of putting the point: when we’re concerned about some belief we have, and are wondering whether to give it up, we’re engaged in doubt. When we doubt, we set aside some belief or cluster of beliefs, and we wonder whether the beliefs in question can be recovered from a perspective that doesn’t rely on those beliefs. Sometimes, we learn that they can be recovered once they’ve been subject to doubt, and other times we learn that they can’t.
What’s worrisome about the realisation that our moral, religious and political beliefs are heavily socially influenced is that many ways of recovering belief from doubt are not available to us in this case. We can’t make use of ordinary arguments in support of these beliefs because, in the perspective of doubt, the legitimacy of those very arguments is being questioned: after all, we are imagining that we find the arguments for our view more compelling than the arguments for alternative views as a result of the very social influences with which we’re concerned. In the perspective of doubt, we also can’t take the fact that we believe what we do as evidence for the belief’s truth, because we know that we believe what we do simply because we were raised in a certain environment, and the fact that we were raised here rather than there is no good reason to think that our beliefs are the correct ones.
It’s important to realise that the concern about beliefs being socially influenced is worrisome only if we’re deliberating about whether to maintain belief from the perspective of doubt. For recall that the facts about how my particular beliefs were caused are not, in themselves, evidence for or against any particular religious, moral or political outlook. So if you were thinking about whether to abandon your beliefs from a perspective in which you’re willing to make use of all of the reasoning and arguments that you normally use, you would simply think that you got lucky – just as you might have got lucky buying a particular thermometer, or reaching the train moments before it shuts its doors, or striking up a conversation on an airplane with someone who ends up being the love of your life.
There’s no general problem with thinking that we’ve been lucky – sometimes we are. The worry is just that, from the perspective of doubt, we don’t have the resources to justify the claim that we’ve been lucky. What’s needed to support such a belief is part of what’s being questioned.
Imagine the following. You are living a life with enough money and health and time so as to allow an hour or two of careless relaxation, sitting on the sofa at the end of the day in front of a large television, half-heartedly watching a documentary about solar energy with a glass of wine and scrolling through your phone. You happen to hear a fact about climate change, something to do with recent emission figures. Now, on that same night, a friend who is struggling to meet her financial commitments has just arrived at her second job and misses out on the documentary (and the relaxation). Later in the week, when the two of you meet for a drink and your friend is ignorant of recent emission figures, what kind of intellectual or moral superiority is really justified on your part?
This example is designed to show that knowledge of the truth might very well have nothing to do with our own efforts or character. Many are born into severe poverty with a slim chance at a good education, and others grow up in religious or social communities that prohibit certain lines of enquiry. Others still face restrictions because of language, transport, money, sickness, technology, bad luck and so on. The truth, for various reasons, is much harder to access at these times. At the opposite end of the scale, some are effectively handed the truth about some matter as if it were a mint on their pillow, pleasantly materialising and not a big deal. Pride in this mere knowledge of the truth ignores the way in which some people come to possess it without any care or effort, and the way that others strive relentlessly against the odds for it and still miss out. The phrase ‘We know the truth [and, perhaps, you don’t]’, weaponised and presented without any qualifying modesty, fails to recognise the extraordinary privileges so often involved in that very acquisition, drawing an exclusionary line that overlooks almost everything else of significance.
A good attitude towards knowledge shines through various character traits that put us in a healthy relationship with it. Philosophers call these traits epistemic virtues. Instead of praising those people who happen to possess some piece of knowledge, we ought to praise those who have the right attitude towards it, since only this benchmark also includes those who strive for the truth and miss out on it for reasons not entirely under their control. Consider traits such as intellectual humility (a willingness to be wrong), intellectual courage (to pursue truths that make us uncomfortable), open-mindedness (to contemplate all sides of the argument, limiting preconceptions), and curiosity (to be continually seeking). You can see that the person ready to correct herself, courageous in her pursuit of the truth, open-minded in her deliberation, and driven by a deep curiosity has a better relationship to truth even where she occasionally fails to obtain it than does the indifferent person who is occasionally handed the truth on a silver platter.
In a sense, it’s difficult to answer to the disjunction ‘Is it better to know, or to seek to know?’ because there is not quite enough information in it. In respect to knowing (the first half of the disjunction), we also want to hear how that knowledge came about. That is, was the knowledge acquired despite the disinterest and laziness of the possessor, or was it acquired through diligent seeking? If the latter, then it is better to know since the second half of the disjunction is also accommodated in the first: the possession of knowledge and the attitude of seeking it. We can build on the idea with another example.
Would you rather have a fish or know how to fish? Again, we need some more information. If having the fish is the result of knowing how to fish, then once more the two halves of the disjunction are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and this combination is the ideal. But, if the having is the result of waiting around for someone to give you a fish, it would be better to know how to do it yourself. For where the waiting agent hopes for luck or charity, the agent who knows how to fish can return to the river each morning and each evening, throwing her line into the water over and over until she is satisfied with the catch.
And so it is with knowledge. Yes, it’s better to know, but only where this implies an accompanying attitude. If, instead, the possession of knowledge relies primarily upon the sporadic pillars of luck or privilege (as it so often does), one’s position is uncertain and in danger of an unfounded pride (not to mention pride’s own concomitant complications). Split into two discrete categories, then, we should prefer seeking to knowing. As with the agent who knows how to fish, the one who seeks knowledge can go out into the world, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, but in any case able to continue until she is satisfied with her catch, a knowledge attained. And then, the next day, she might return to the river and do it all again.
A person will eventually come up against the world, logically, morally, socially, even physically. Some collisions will be barely noticeable, others will be catastrophic. The consistent posture of seeking the truth gives us the best shot at seeing clearly, and that is what we should praise and value.
With our collapsing democracies and imploding biosphere, it’s no wonder that people despair. The Austrian psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl presciently described such sentiments in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). He wrote of something that ‘so many patients complain [about] today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives’. A nihilistic wisdom emerges when staring down the apocalypse. There’s something predictable in our current pandemics, from addiction to belief in pseudoscientific theories, for in Frankl’s analysis, ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.’ When scientists worry that humanity might have just one generation left, we can agree that ours is an abnormal situation. Which is why Man’s Search for Meaning is the work to return to in these humid days of the Anthropocene.
Already a successful psychotherapist before he was sent to Auschwitz and then Dachau, Frankl was part of what’s known as the ‘third wave’ of Viennese psychoanalysis. Reacting against both Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Frankl rejected the first’s theories concerning the ‘will to pleasure’ and the latter’s ‘will to power’. By contrast, Frankl writes that: ‘Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives.’
Frankl argued that literature, art, religion and all the other cultural phenomena that place meaning at their core are things-unto-themselves, and furthermore are the very basis for how we find purpose. In private practice, Frankl developed a methodology he called ‘logotherapy’ – from logos, Greek for ‘reason’ – describing it as defined by the fact that ‘this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man’. He believed that there was much that humanity can live without, but if we’re devoid of a sense of purpose and meaning then we ensure our eventual demise.
In Vienna, he was Dr Viktor Frankl, head of the neurology department of the Rothschild Hospital. In Auschwitz, he was ‘number 119,104’. The concentration camp was the null point of meaning, a type of absolute zero for purpose in life. Already having developed his theories about logotherapy, Frankl smuggled a manuscript he was working on into the camp, only to lose it, later forced to recreate it from memory. While in the camps, he informally worked as a physician, finding that acting as analyst to his fellow prisoners gave him purpose, even as he ostensibly assisted others. In those discussions, he came to conclusions that became foundational for humanistic psychology.
One was that the ‘prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed’. Frankl recounts how even in the camps, where suicide was endemic, the prisoners who seemed to have the best chance of survival were not necessarily the strongest or physically healthiest, but those somehow capable of directing their thoughts towards a sense of meaning. A few prisoners were ‘able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom’, and in the imagining of such a space there was the potential for survival.
Frankl imagined intricate conversations with his wife Tilly (who, he later discovered, had been murdered at another camp), or of lecturing a future crowd about the psychology of the camps – which was precisely his work for the rest of his life. Man’s Search for Meaning – with its conviction that: ‘Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions’ – became a postwar bestseller. Translated into more than two dozen languages, selling more than 12 millions copies, and frequently chosen by book clubs and college psychology, philosophy and religion courses, Man’s Search for Meaning has its place in the cultural zeitgeist, with whole university and hospital departments geared around both humanistic psychology and logotherapy. Even though Frankl was a physician, his form of psychoanalysis often seemed to have more in common with a form of secularised rabbinic Judaism than with science.
Man’s Search for Meaning is structured in two parts. The first constitutes Frankl’s Holocaust testimony, bearing similarity to writings by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. In the second part, he elaborates on logotherapy, arguing that the meaning of life is found in ‘experiencing something – such as goodness, truth and beauty – by experiencing nature and culture or … by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him’, not simply in spite of apocalyptic situations, but because of them.
The book has been maligned as superficial pop-existentialism; a vestige of middle-brow culture offering platitudinous New Age panaceas. Such a reading isn’t entirely unfair. And seven decades later, one might blanche at the sexist language, or the hokey suggestion that a ‘Statue of Responsibility’ be constructed on the US West Coast. However, a fuller consideration of Frankl’s concept of ‘tragic optimism’ should give more attention to the former rather than the latter before the therapist is impugned as overly rosy. When he writes ‘Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake,’ it’s hard to accuse him of being a Pollyanna.
Some critics accuse Frankl of victim-blaming. The American scholar Lawrence Langer in 1982 even wrote that Man’s Search for Meaning is ‘almost sinister’. According to him, Frankl reduced survival to an issue of a positivity; Langer argues that the book does a profound disservice to the millions who perished. A critique such as this has some merit to it, and yet Frankl’s actual implications are different. His book evidences no moralising against those who’d lost a sense of meaning. Frankl’s study doesn’t advocate logotherapy as an ethical but as a strategic response to tragedy.
When identifying meaninglessness, it would be a mistake to find it within the individual who suffers. Frankl’s fellow prisoners weren’t responsible for the concentration camps, just as somebody born into a cycle of poverty isn’t at fault, nor is any one of us (unless you happen to be an oil executive) the cause of our collapsing ecosystem. Nothing in logotherapy implies acceptance of the status quo, for the struggle to alter political, material, social, cultural and economic conditions is paramount. What logotherapy offers is something different, a way to envision meaning, despite things not being in your control. In his preface to the book’s 2006 edition, Rabbi Harold Kushner glosses Frankl’s argument by saying that: ‘Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.’
Far from being obsessed with the meaning of life, logotherapy demands that patients orient themselves to the idea of individual meaning, to ‘think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly’, as Frankl writes. Logotherapy – asking patients to clear an imaginative space to orient themselves towards some higher meaning – provides a response to intolerable situations.
Frankl writes that he ‘grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.’ It is easy to be cynical about such a claim, proving Frankl’s point. In our small, petty, limited, cruel era, it seems hard to come across much collective human affection, and yet our pettiness, limitations and cruelty are in their own way a response to the looming apocalypse. ‘Every age has its own collective neurosis,’ Frankl writes, ‘and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it.’ If we’re exhausted, fatigued, anxious, enraged, despairing and confused at the collapse of our individual fortunes, our social networks, our communities, our industries, our democracy, our very planet, it’s no wonder we’ve developed a certain collective neurosis. Yet humanistic psychology has not been in vogue for decades; in its place, we have fashionable sociobiology and misapplied neuroscience in the form of the Panglossian Steven Pinker and the Svengali platitudes of Jordan Peterson.
In one of the book’s most remarkable passages, Frankl recounts how, when his work group was allowed a meagre few hours of rest, a fellow prisoner interrupted them and ‘asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see a wonderful sunset’. With a prose style that tends towards the clinical, albeit with a distinct sense of the sacred, Frankl here gives himself over to the transcendent:
Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colours, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky.
From this vision, here in a place whose very definition was the nullification of meaning, another prisoner remarked: ‘How beautiful the world could be!’ Such is the promise of logotherapy – not to ensure that there will be more sunsets, for that is our individual and societal responsibility. What logotherapy offers, rather, is the promise to be in awe at a sunset, even if it does happen to be our last one; to find wonder, meaning, beauty and grace even in the apocalypse, even in hell. The rest is up to us.
Johnny Cash – Hurt (Cover)
I hurt myself today,
To see if I still feel.
I focus on the pain,
The only thing that’s real.
The needle tears a hole,
The old familiar sting.
Try to kill it all away,
But I remember everything.
What have I become,
My sweetest friend.
Everyone I know,
Goes away in the end.
And you could have it all,
My empire of dirt.
I will let you down,
I will make you hurt.
I wear this crown of thorns,
Upon my liar’s chair.
Full of broken thoughts,
I cannot repair.
Beneath the stains of time,
The feelings disappear.
You are someone else,
I am still right here.
What have I become,
My sweetest friend.
Everyone I know,
Goes away in the end.
And you could have it all,
My empire of dirt.
I will let you down,
I will make you hurt.
If I could start again,
A million miles away.
I will keep myself,
I would find a way.
Originally performed by Nine Inch Nails
Songwriters: Trent Reznor
Hurt lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.