Athens and Jerusalem \  Part II  \ In the Bull of Phalaris


     The serpent did not deceive man. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (i.e., as Hegel has explained to us, reason, which draws everything from itself) has become the principle of philosophy for all time. The "critique of reason" that contained the prohibition against tasting the fruit of the tree from which must come all our evils was replaced by the "distrust of the distrust," and God was expelled from the world that He had created while His power passed over entirely to reason. The latter, it is true, had not created the world, but it offered us in limitless number the very fruits against which the Creator had warned us. It is to be believed that it was precisely their "infinity" that seduced man: in the world where the fruits of the tree of knowledge became the principle not only of all philosophy but of being itself, thinking humanity dreamed of the possibility of the greatest victories and conquests. Whom should it distrust the serpent who praised reason, or God who criticized reason? The answer could not be doubtful. It is necessary, according to Hegel, to oppose distrust to distrust. Hegel forgot only one thing, doubtless bona fide: if the serpent spoke the truth, if those who taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge really become "like God," if Pythia was also right and Socrates was indeed the wisest of men, then philosophy cannot be other than edifying; its essence, its meaning, is to edify. And not only among us on earth but in the other world also, if man is destined to live again after death, nothing will change in this respect: "The greatest good of man is to discourse daily about virtue." [1] To put it differently, according to the wisdom of Socrates, the greatest good for man is to feed on the fruits of the tree of knowledge.

     It is not for nothing that Hegel recalled, in speaking of Socrates, the myth of the fall of man. It appears that the sin is hereditary: Socrates repeats Adam. In Hegel's interpretation one finds again all the circumstances of the fall of the first man (and it may be that Hegel deliberately emphasized the parallels). The serpent is the Delphic god, and the woman intervenes this time also. Xanthippe could not play the role of Eve, it is true, but Pythia fills it perfectly; she gathers the fruits of the tree of knowledge and persuades Socrates that they are "the greatest good for man" and that, consequently, it is they and not the fruits of the tree of life that supply man with "the one thing necessary." Yet, though Hegel does not cease stubbornly repeating that knowledge is bound up with distrust of distrust, with the break with God and with faith in the serpent, his philosophy does not show us with the desired clarity and fullness what the fruits of the tree of knowledge have brought us.

     If Hegel went with such enthusiasm to the serpent, it is doubtless because he did not suspect what could result from this commerce. The illuminations of Socrates were strange and incomprehensible to Hegel. As for Heraclitus, he pretended to have assimilated all his philosophic ideas, but he required them only in order to attain certain external purposes. Among the ancients it is Aristotle alone who was really close to him, and I believe that I am not exaggerating in saying that of all the philosophers of antiquity it was Aristotle who exercised a decisive influence over Hegel. Aristotle, who was "moderate to excess," who knew with such inimitable art to stop in time and who was so deeply persuaded that he had to seek truth and authentic reality in the middle zones of being, seeing that the limits of life present no interest for us Aristotle appeared to Hegel as the model of the philosophic mind. The caution of the Stagyrite was, in his eyes, the best guarantee of what he considered his ideal scientific rigor. The "best" must be sought between the "too much" and the "not enough." It is there also that the truth must be sought. Limitation, Aristotle taught, is the sign of perfection; and it was in this doctrine that Hegel found a sure refuge against the waves of the "bad infinity" that threaten to drown men.

     When Socrates heard the serpent's words (let me be allowed, following Hegel, to hold on to the biblical image) "you shall be like God," and, turning away from God, tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge - he went to the end: these fruits alone give life to men. Aristotle, however, stopped in time.. Throughout his Ethics one finds remarks of this kind: "those who say that a man on the rack ... can be happy, provided only that he be a virtuous man, speak whether they mean to or not an absurdity." [2] Such remarks, thrown out in passing, constitute the very foundation of Aristotle's ethics; they are obviously directed against Socrates whose ardent thought and life bear a quite different testimony. His conviction that nothing bad can happen to a good man and that knowledge is virtue, a conviction that appears to many people as the expression of a nave optimism, hid in itself the most terrible and cruelest "truth" that the human soul has ever accepted.

     When the schools deriving from Socrates declared solemnly that the virtuous man would be happy even in the bull of Phalaris, they contented themselves with expressing under a new form what constituted the meaning, the very essence, of the Socratic ethic. And, on the contrary, when Aristotle insisted that virtue alone did not suffice for happiness and that the latter demanded a certain minimum of temporal goods, he was defending himself against Socrates. Aristotle refused to admit that the fruits of the tree of knowledge could end by pushing man into the belly of the bull of Phalaris and make him taste that happiness of which not only the Stoics but also the Epicureans speak and which constitutes the foundation of the ethics of the last of the great philosophers of antiquity, Plotinus. The dishonoring of his daughters, the murder of his sons, the destruction of his fatherland nothing troubles the happiness of the wise man, teaches Plotinus. [3] The meaning and the importance of ethics lies precisely in the fact that its "good" is autonomous, that is to say, completely independent of "things that are not in our power." The ethics that is afraid and therefore turns aside, as in Aristotle, from the bull of Phalaris renounces in the end its essential task.

     Socrates saw this; he knew what the fruits of the tree of knowledge bring to men; he had tasted of them as Adam had once tasted of them. For Aristotle, however as well as for Hegel in our day these fruits were only "a mental perception" (theria); he was content with contemplating them and did not even suspect the terrible poison with which they were permeated. So it is not to Socrates that one should go to seek navet and unconcern but to those who have betrayed Socrates "willingly or unwillingly." Aristotle had recourse to a minimum of temporal goods in order to escape the bull of Phalaris. But the bull is not a fiction, it is reality itself. And knowledge does not have the right to deny its existence; it must even cut short every attempt to drive the bull of Phalaris outside the limits of the real. Everything that is real must be recognized as rational. That is what Hegel said. That is also what Aristotle said two thousand years before Hegel: "There is something of the divine in the nature of everything." [4] Thus one can find traces of the divine even in the bull of Phalaris, and reason, consequently, has not the right to refuse its benediction to it. Finally, wisdom brings man not "happiness" (eudaimonia) but something quite different; or, to put it more accurately, the happiness promised by wisdom is worse than the worst misfortunes that strike mortal men.

     But how could the wisdom that leads men to the bull of Phalaris seduce them? Being a practical man Aristotle felt the danger; he understood that Socrates' wisdom could not find in the world the "selflessness," the "spirit of sacrifice" on which his ethic relied. And the same practical sense whispered to Aristotle that the scorn which the philosophers ordinarily bear to the mob, hoi polloi, is simulated. Philosophy cannot get along without general agreement; in this respect it strives for the goodwill of hoi polloi or mob that it rejects in words. But if this is so, there is no place in ethics for the bull of Phalaris. Ethics must keep at its disposal a certain minimum of temporal goods. When such a minimum is guaranteed or even when one succeeds at least in convincing men that what terrifies them and consequently appears to them eternally problematic is pushed to a sufficient distance, so that every direct threat is avoided then only can one set about philosophizing in all tranquility. In that case one can accept from the hands of Socrates his truth that virtue and knowledge are one and the same thing; this truth then acquires, to be sure, another significance than that conferred upon it by the wisest of men, but this is precisely what is required. Philosophy becomes at the same time vera and optima (the true and the best), but it is not obliged to demand of men the impossible.

     It was all the easier for Aristotle to escape the bull of Phalaris since Socrates himself had suggested to him (perhaps intentionally) how he should go about doing this. It would seem that the knowledge with which Socrates had promised to enrich humanity should have led it to entirely new sources that had been ignored up until then, and that the good discovered by this knowledge could have nothing in common with the good which men had previously obtained. But, as I have already indicated, Socrates, in setting out on the search for knowledge and the good, turned precisely to men of whom he himself said that they knew nothing, that they had no relationship with the good, and that they boasted of their knowledge only because they had lost all shame; Socrates turned to doctors, cooks, carpenters, politicians, etc.

     The historians of philosophy have often asked how the wisest of men could confuse what is useful in daily life with what is morally good; they have seen here one of those inconsequences which the greatest minds do not succeed in avoiding. But it is to be believed that if there is inconsequence here it was intended. It would not have been difficult for Socrates himself to expose the metabasis eis allo genos (passing over into another realm) of which he was guilty. And, alone by himself, not surrounded by anxious disciples who wished to obtain answers to all questions and sharp-eyed opponents who threatened to call by its true name the source whence he drew his truths, Socrates doubtless saw clearly that the "useful" of the doctors and the cooks did not at all resemble the "good" with which he was called to endow men. It was in this probably that Socrates' "secret," which he concealed with so much care under the mask of irony and of dialectic, consisted: since the gods do not exist, it is necessary to accept the wisdom of the serpent. The serpent, however, has no power over the tree of life, over res quae in nostra potestate non sunt; it has power only over the tree of knowledge. From the moment the gods left the world, the tree of knowledge forever hid the tree of life.

[1] Apology, 38A.
[2] Ethica Nicomachea, 1153b, 20.
[3] Enneads, I, IV, 7, 8, 9.
[4] Ethica Nicomachea, 1153b, 32.

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