Athens and Jerusalem \  Part I  \ Parmenides in Chains


     "Parmenides constrained, Socrates constrained": it seems to Aristotle - no, it does not seem to him, it is obvious to him (and he is convinced that the whole world considers it obvious along with him) - that the truth has the power to constrain the great Parmenides, the great Socrates, anyone whomsoever. And (this is the most important thing) it is also obvious to him that it is completely absurd to ask who endowed the truth with this extraordinary power, and still more absurd to fight against this power. Whence came this conviction to him? From experience? But experience - Aristotle knew from Plato - is never the source of eternal truths. Experiential truths are just as limited and contingent as experience itself. "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded" - the source of this truth is not experience but something else.

     Even the most ordinary experiential truth, even what is called the establishment of a fact, does not wish to be a relative and limited truth; the truths of fact claim, and indeed successfully, the title and dignity of eternal truths. I have given examples of this. In the year 399 B.C. Socrates was poisoned at Athens. This is a truth of experience, the establishment of a fact. But it does not wish to remain in this state. "That Socrates drank a cup of poison is, it is true, something that in reality happened once; but the historical truth that this was so will remain for all time, independently of the fact whether it is forgotten or not" - this is what we read in a book by a very prominent modern philosopher. No one will ever again have the right to say, "No, it was not so. It did not happen. Socrates was not poisoned." Whether it be a question of the poisoning of Socrates or the poisoning of a mad dog is of no importance. The eternal truth, just like the necessity of which it was born, does not listen and does not allow itself to be persuaded. And, just as it does not hear or listen to anything, it does not make any distinctions: that Socrates should have been poisoned or that a mad dog should have been poisoned is absolutely indifferent to it. It automatically affixes the seal of eternity on both events and thus forever paralyzes the seeker's will. Once Necessity has intervened, man no longer dares to doubt, to be indignant, to contradict, to struggle and say, for example, "Yet it is not a dog but Socrates, the best and the wisest of men, a saint, who has been poisoned!"

     Even if one agrees to recognize the proposition "a dog has been poisoned" as a truth which, though it establishes something that happened only once, is nevertheless an eternal truth, one cannot willingly resolve to fix the seal of eternity on the proposition "Socrates has been poisoned." It is already quite enough that this truth should have subsisted for a long period of history. It has lived in the world all too long - almost twenty-five hundred years. But to promise it immortality, an existence outside of time that no forgetfulness will ever be able to destroy - who has taken upon himself the right to give such promises? And why does philosophy, which knows that everything that has a beginning must also have an end, forget this "eternal truth" and grant everlasting existence to a truth which did not exist before the year 399 B.C., which was born in 399 B.C.? Aristotle did not ask himself such questions. For him the truth was more precious than Plato, more precious than Socrates, more precious than everything in the world. Plato and Socrates, having had a beginning, must therefore have an end, while the truth which had a beginning, quite like the truth which had no beginning, will never have an end. And, if you should try to argue with Aristotle or to persuade him, it would be in vain; he would not hear, as Necessity does not hear. Even Aristotle is ti "something" (not tis, someone," but ti, "something") that "does not hear"; he can but will not, or perhaps he cannot and will not, listen to any argument. He has lived so long in the company of "the truths" that he has assimilated their nature; he has himself become like a truth and sees the essence of his being, of all being, in "constraining and being constrained." And if anyone should refuse obedience to him he would - as the honest Epictetus has told us - cut off his ears or his nose. He would force him to drink vinegar, and if all this were not enough, he would present him the cup of hemlock which, as we know, finally and once and for all (an eternal truth!) finished Socrates himself. Whatever one might say to him, Aristotle would not renounce his statement, "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded." And he does not rely, I repeat once more, on experience; experience does not give us eternal truths, it gives us only empirical, provisional, temporary truths. The source of his truths is something quite other.

     In 399 B.C. the Athenians poisoned Socrates, and Plato his disciple, "constrained by the truth itself," could not do other than think that Socrates had been poisoned. He speaks of Socrates' death in the Crito, in the Phaedo and in his other dialogues. But in everything that he writes, there is always apparent this question: is there really in the world a power to which it is given to constrain us finally and forever to admit that Socrates was poisoned in 399? For Aristotle such a question, which in his eyes was obviously absurd, did not exist. He was convinced that the truth "Socrates was poisoned," quite like the truth "a dog was poisoned," is beyond all divine or human objections. The hemlock makes no distinction between Socrates and a dog. And we, "constrained to follow the phenomena, constrained by the truth itself," are obliged in our judgments, whether mediate or immediate, to make no distinction between Socrates and a dog, even between Socrates and a mad dog.

     Plato knew this no less than Aristotle. He also, let us recall, wrote: "Not even the gods fight against Necessity." Nevertheless he himself did struggle against Necessity all his life. From this derives the dualism for which he has always been reproached; from this come his contradictions and paradoxes which so infuriated Aristotle. Plato was not content with the sources of truth that satisfied the curiosity of his great pupil. He knew that it is difficult to find "the Father and Creator of all the universe" and that "if one finds Him, one cannot show Him to everyone." Nevertheless, he strained all his powers in an attempt to overcome these difficulties as well as this impossibility.

     It seems at times that it is only difficulties that attract Plato, that his philosophical genius deploys its full activity only before the impossible. "It is necessary to dare everything," and it is all the more necessary to dare when there are fewer chances, in the eyes of the average man, of obtaining anything. There is no hope of wresting Socrates from the power of the eternal truth, which is as indifferent to Socrates as to a mad dog and which has swallowed him up forever. Therefore, philosophy and the philosophers must think of nothing other than to deliver Socrates. If one cannot do this otherwise, he must go down to the netherworld, as Orpheus did. He must implore the gods, as Pygmalion once did, whom the inert Necessity which directs the natural course of things would not hear. Pygmalion's desire to animate the statue that he had made - was this not and is it not still, for logical thought, the height of madness and immorality? But before the tribunal of the gods, who, unlike Necessity, know how and arc willing to allow themselves to be persuaded, the impossible and the senseless become possible and sensible. God thinks and speaks quite otherwise than Necessity. "Everything that is bound," says God in the works of Plato, "may be dissolved; but only the wicked can wish to dissolve that which is well bound and holds together as it should. This is why, in general, you who were created are not protected against dissolution and are not immortal; but you will not be dissolved and you will not experience the fate of mortality because, by my will, you will receive a more lasting strength than that which you had at your birth."[1]

     Not only Aristotle but no one, not even the most ardent admirers of the Platonic truth, can read these words without irritation or resentment. What is this "my will" which arrogates to itself the right and power to change the natural course of things? We "understand" Necessity, and we "understand" also that "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded" (why we understand it and who the "we" are who understand - these questions we do not even wish to raise). But when "by my will" intervenes, the whole spiritual nature of thinking man, his soul (in general the soul does not exist, but for this occasion it will be rehabilitated), is indignant at the daring and impudence of these pretensions. "By my will" is nothing else than the deus ex machina; but we think, with Kant (can we think otherwise?), that "in the determination of the origin and validity of our knowledge, the deus cx machina is the greatest absurdity that one could choose." Or as the same Kant says elsewhere with still greater force, "to say that a supreme being has wisely introduced into us such ideas and principles a priori is completely to destroy all philosophy."

     Why does Necessity which does not listen and does not allow itself to be persuaded seem to us a reasonable supposition, while the deus ex machina seems to us to open the way to, and protect, all kinds of caprices (jeder Grille...Vorschub gibt) and appears to us so absurd? The deus ex machina threatens to destroy the very possibility of knowledge. But Kant's task was not to defend and glorify knowledge at all costs. He had undertaken the "critique" of pure reason. He should therefore have put, before everything else, this question: are our knowledge and that which people ordinarily call philosophy so precious that we must take up their defense at the cost of any sacrifice, no matter how great? On the contrary, perhaps, since knowledge is so intimately bound to Necessity that it becomes impossible when one admits the deus ex machina (höheres Wesen), would it not be better to renounce knowledge and seek the protection of the "caprice" that so frightened Kant? To show oneself ready to renounce knowledge - is this not the only means (or at least the first step) to free oneself from that so greatly detested Necessity (which as we know, sometimes made Aristotle himself groan), from that Necessity which is not even afraid to offend the gods?

     What Kant and all of us after Kant judge to be the most absurd of suppositions allows us to entertain the possibility of freeing mortals and immortals from that implacable power which, by some unknown miracle, has conquered the world and subjugated all living beings. Can it be that the deus ex machina might put an end to the hateful parere (obedience) and return to men the creative jubere (commanding) which the gods themselves had to renounce at some mysterious and terrible moment of the distant past? Can it be that the fall of Necessity would bring about the fall of the other usurpers to whom we feeble slaves, accustomed to the parere, have handed over our destiny? The principle of contradiction and the principle of identity have also been introduced into the world without authorization to act as masters therein. When we affirm that sound is heavy, these principles intervene and immediately oppose their veto: "we do not permit this, therefore it is not so." But when it is said "Socrates has been poisoned," these two principles remain passive and even give their blessing to this judgment and confer upon it, as we recall, eternity. But does there not exist somewhere in the depths of being a "reality" wherein the nature of the principles of contradiction and identity undergoes a radical transformation, wherein it is not they but man who commands, wherein they obey man's commandments, i.e., wherein they do not intervene when sounds become heavy but protest when righteous men are put to death? Then the proposition "sound is heavy" would not seem absurd, while the proposition "Socrates has been poisoned" would become contradictory and, by that very fact, nonexistent.

     If such things be possible, if it be possible that Necessity which does not allow itself to be persuaded bows down before the caprice (Grille) of man, if the principles of contradiction and identity cease to be principles and become merely executive instruments, if the impossible becomes possible - what is then the value of the eternal truths" accumulated by thinking humanity? It will be asked: how is one to know if such a reality is possible? That is just it: how is one to know? Once we begin to ask, we shall be told, as we have already been told, that such a reality is impossible; that Necessity, the principle of identity, the principle of contradiction and the other principles have ruled, do rule and will forever rule in our world as well as in all the worlds which have existed and will ever exist; that there never have been and never will be heavy sounds; that people have put to death and will continue to put to death wise men; and that the power of the gods themselves has limits that cannot be transcended.

     But what if we do not ask anything of anyone? Are we capable of such daring and of so realizing the free will with which the philosophers entice us? Or better still, do we desire such freedom - a freedom such that the principles of contradiction and of identity and Necessity itself should be under our command? It seems that we have no great desire for it and that we should be afraid to grant such freedom to God Himself.

[1] Timaeus, 41B.

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