Athens and Jerusalem \  Part I  \ Parmenides in Chains


      Here I have only touched lightly on the philosophy of Spinoza; elsewhere I speak of it in greater detail. I wished only to emphasize the basic opposition between the tasks Plato and Spinoza set for themselves. The one sees in philosophy the "practice of death" and declares that the true philosophers have always done nothing other than apothnÍskein kai tethnanai (prepare themselves for death and to die). For Plato, philosophy is not knowledge or science - one cannot call the "practice of death" a science - but something of a completely different order. He wishes to render the human vision not more penetrating but, on the contrary, less so - that vision to which, according to general opinion, it is given to discover the ways that lead to the sources of all truths. "Have you not noticed," he writes, "in observing those of whom it is said that they are wicked but intelligent men the keen vision that a soul such as theirs has, how well it sees what it looks at, and how the capacity for sight that it possesses is considerable; but it is obliged to serve the evil, and the keener its vision the more evil it does." [1]

     The faculty of seeing (Einsicht, intuitio), even if it be very great, does not bring man to the truth; on the contrary, it leads him away from it. Cognitio intuitiva, bestowed by reason and bringing us "contentment with oneself which is the highest possible" - Plato knew quite well that here was the supreme wisdom for men, but he also felt in the depths of his being that under this "contentment with oneself" was hidden the most terrible thing that there is in life. He tells us that Socrates, his teacher, said of himself that he was a gadfly and considered that his task was not to calm men but ceaselessly to irritate them and bring into their souls an intolerable restlessness. Spinoza's ratio brings men "contentment with oneself" and a peace "which is the highest possible." This means that ratio threatens us with the greatest of dangers, that we must fight against it night and day without shrinking before any difficulties or sacrifices. Plato, the father of dialectic, possessed a remarkable vision. But the sources of philosophical knowledge were not, for him, either in dialectic or in the faculty of discerning what others do not discern. Vision and dialectic can be in the service of the "evil," and then of what use are they? The better we see, the more deeply do we sink into evil. Perfect vision would thus end in the definitive triumph of evil in the world.

     It is of this, and of this alone, that Plato's myth of the cave speaks to us. The inhabitants of the cave see clearly and distinctly everything that takes place before them, but the more firmly and solidly they believe in what they see, the more desperate does their situation become. They should seek neither what is clear and distinct nor what is fixed and lasting. On the contrary, they should experience the greatest suspicions, the deepest unrest. It is necessary that their spiritual tension reach the ultimate limits so that they can break the chains which bind them to their prison. The clarity and distinctness which seduce all minds and not only Descartes' (Descartes merely formulated what led men astray long before him) and which, in the eyes of all, are a guarantee of the truth, seem to Plato forever to hide the truth from us. The clear and distinct draw us not toward the real but toward the illusory, not toward what exists but toward the shadow of what exists.

     If you ask where Plato learned this and how he, being himself an inhabitant of the cave wherein all of us live, could divine that what he saw was not reality but only the shadow of reality and that real life begins elsewhere, beyond the limits of the cave - you will not get any answer. Plato has no proofs for this and yet, it must be recognized, he exhausts himself in searching for proofs. It was for this purpose that he invented his dialectic; and in his dialogues he tried by all dialectical means to obtain from his imaginary interlocutors that they recognize the truth of his revelations. But it is precisely because and inasmuch as Plato wished to make his revelation a truth that constrains, a truth obligatory for all, that he laid himself open to Aristotle's criticisms.

     As long as it was a question of the anankazein kai anankazesthai (to constrain and be constrained), it seemed that Aristotle, and not only Aristotle but Epictetus as well, were invincible. We have no means of constraining a man to recognize that his reality is not real. On the contrary, as we recall, all the means of constraint are on the side of those who see in reality the final and only possible reality. This reality is sufficiently protected against the attempts that might be made to disqualify it not only by the threats of Epictetus but also by the all-powerful principle of contradiction. He who doubts reality also doubts his doubt, for the doubter, together with all his doubts, belongs to this reality. Plato well knew this irrefutable argument, which later tempted two men as dissimilar as Saint Augustine and Descartes. Plato himself used it more than once to refute the Sophists, and he realized very well that his myth of the cave, as well as his theory of ideas, were shot through and through with contradictions. He understood this and yet he did not renounce his ideas and sought all his life to escape from the cave. What does this mean? Is it that "the practice of death" bestows upon man the mysterious gift of no longer fearing the principle of contradiction? Does he learn, in general, to fear nothing and "to dare everything"? Dialectic was not at all necessary for Plato and his revelations, and he used them not so much because his revelations could not do without them but because the men before whom he set forth his truths could not do without them. Men are accustomed to think that, by the very nature of things, where there is no force there is no truth; that force, whenever it wishes (by its own caprice), authorizes or does not authorize the truth to "be," but that it itself exists without asking authorization of anything whatsoever (and especially of truth). In Spinoza's terminology: it is necessary to seek the "true philosophy" and not the "best philosophy."

     This problem runs through all of Plato's work, but nowhere is it posed with as much clearness and sharpness as in the Phaedo, where Plato tells us that philosophy is "the practice of death." And this is not merely an accident. In the presence of Socrates, who awaits death, one cannot speak of anything else. If philosophy is really "the practice of death," then a man who awaits death can still meditate and philosophize. But if the truth is with Spinoza and if "a free man thinks of death least of all things," then the sentence of the judges forever closed Socrates' mouth, even before he had drunk the hemlock. The human thought which wishes and is able to look death in the face has other dimensions than the thought of those who turn away from death and forget death. To put it in another way: the truths that Plato sought have no place on the plane of reason. They presuppose another dimension, a dimension which is generally not taken into consideration.

     When Plato found himself before the dilemma, the "true philosophy" or the "best philosophy," he did not hesitate: he has no need of the "true philosophy." Thus, he seeks and finds the "best philosophy." If he had been asked who gave him the right to choose, if there had been demanded of him what the lawyers call justus titulis and which the philosophers also ordinarily desire to obtain, he certainly would not have known how and perhaps would not even have wished to answer this question. Or else he would have answered this question by another question: Does anyone have the right to grant what the lawyers (i.e., men who by their vocation and their mentality are called to defend the pseudo-reality they have discovered in the cave) call "justus titulis"? And, indeed, who or what determines the fate of men? As long as we obtain no answer to this question, all our truths will have only a conditional significance. We say "who" or "what." This means that the justi tituli are at the disposal perhaps of a living being who feels and chooses or, perhaps, of something that is interested in nothing and in no one. This something that is without will and indifferent to everything automatically pronounces -without hearing anything, without taking account of anything - judgments that are definitive and without appeal. And if this indifferent and inanimate "something" is the source of life and of truth, then what meaning, what importance, can human choice have? In that case, choice is only a delusion, an auto-suggestion, a shameless insolence that will inevitably be uncovered and severely punished at the first conflict of man with reality.

     We could lengthen the list of these questions, but it is obvious that on the plane where they were born and developed we shall obtain no answer. Or worse still: on this plane all these questions are decided in advance. There is no "who" at the sources of being; therefore there is no "who" at the sources of truth. And even if there once was a "who," long ago, in time immemorial, he renounced both himself and his sovereign rights by handing over their eternal use to the inanimate "what" from whose stony hand the power cannot be wrested, no matter how great our efforts and our daring may be. This is the meaning of the semper paret, semel jussit (He always obeys but has commanded only once), this is the meaning of all the "constraining and being constrained" which were discussed above. Reasoning and dialectic, quite like prayers and persuasion, can do nothing here. If true reality is found on the two-dimensional plane of the "what" and if the thought expressive of this reality knows only two dimensions [einai (being) = noein (thought)], then there is no escape: we must give up free choice, submit to Necessity, and no longer receive any truths without its consent and authorization. Necessity does not authorize choice. If you wish to acquire the right and freedom to choose, you must abandon the plane where Necessity realizes its power, without allowing yourself to be stopped by any impossibilities and, above all, despising all the justi tituli which fetter not only our thought but also our being. Without asking anything of anyone, on our own initiative, we must oppose to the Necessity which does not allow itself to be persuaded the authority of the "by my will." So that the "Parmenides constrained" of Aristotle becomes the Parmenides who speaks "as one who has power." For it is written: the kingdom of God is conquered only by violence.

     It will be said that this amounts to fighting the self-evident. But Plato, all his life, did nothing but fight the self-evident. To subdue it he went to the most distant boundaries of being, where no one ventures, where-according to general opinion - life even no longer is or can be, where death, which puts an end to everything, reigns. To be sure, this is great daring, the greatest of daring, the final impudence of which man is capable. But what other means is there of obtaining the "by my will"? That "Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded" was, I repeat once more, quite as incontestable for Plato as for Aristotle. But what death is, no one knows. It is true that it is uncanny to behold. But "the beautiful is difficult." Spinoza himself did not deny this: "all sublime things are as difficult as they are rare." That is how he concluded his Ethics. It may be that, behind the difficulties and the horrors of death, there is hidden something that we need much more than the facilities and pleasantries of daily life. We have nothing more to lose. We have appealed to Necessity, questioned it and begged it; it has not budged and will not budge. As long as it preserves its power, the judgment "Socrates has been poisoned" will remain an eternal truth, quite like the judgment "a mad dog has been poisoned." But if one becomes intimate with death, if one passes through the needle's eye of final and terrible solitude, of forsakenness and despair, then one may perhaps succeed in recovering the sacred "by my will," the primordial and powerful jubere that we have exchanged for the weak, automatic and soothing parere. We must overcome fear, summon up all our courage, go toward death and try our luck with her. Ordinary thought, the thought of the man who obeys and recoils before threats, gives us nothing.

     The first step is to accustom oneself to take no account of "sufficient reason." If Epictetus or anyone else threatens to cut off our ears, pierce our eyes, make us drink vinegar or hemlock, we will not listen to his threats - just as Necessity does not listen to our supplications. "The human soul," says Plato, "when it feels pleasure or pain in connection with something is constrained to consider this thing as the most evident and the most true, even though it is not really so... Each pleasure and pain is like a nail and rivets the soul to the body, fixes it to the body and makes it similar to the body, so that it begins to consider as true what the body considers as true." [2] As if he were defending himself in advance against Aristotle and Epictetus, for whom the anankazein (constraint) and the endless lupethÍnai (eyes pierced, ears cut off, vinegar, hemlock, etc.) were the final court of appeal in the conflict between truth and error, Plato tries not to refute them but rather to flee from the places where arguments of this kind have, and can have, any force. The body and all that is related to the body is subordinated to Necessity and fears its threats. As long as man is afraid, he can be terrorized; and once he is terrorized, he can be constrained to obedience. But the philosopher who has arrived at the boundaries of life and passed through the school of death, the philosopher for whom apothnÍskein (dying) has become the present reality and tethnanai (death) the reality of the future, has no fear of threats. He has accepted death and become intimate with it, for dying and death, by weakening the corporeal eye, undermine the very foundation of the power of Necessity, which hears nothing, as well as of all the evident truths which depend on this Necessity. The soul begins to feel that it is given to it not to submit and obey but "to lead and govern." [3] In fighting for this right it does not fear to pass beyond the fateful limit where what is clear and distinct ends and the Eternal Mystery begins. Its sapientia (wisdom) is no longer a meditatio vitae (meditation on life) but a meditatio mortis (meditation on death).

[1] Republic, 519A.
[2] Phaedo, 83D.
[3] Phaedo, 80A.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC