« There are not many Jewish philosophers, » says Leo Straussi.
This statement, however provocative, should be put into perspective.
The first Jewish philosopher, historically speaking, Philo of Alexandria, attempted a synthesis between his Jewish faith and Greek philosophy. He had little influence on the Judaism of his time, but much more on the Fathers of the Church, who were inspired by him, and instrumental in conserving his works.
A millennium later, Moses Maimonides drew inspiration from Aristotelian philosophy in an attempt to reconcile faith and reason. He was the famous author of the Guide of the Perplexed, and of the Mishne Torah, a code of Jewish law, which caused long controversies among Jews in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Another celebrity, Baruch Spinoza was « excommunicated » (the Hebrew term is חרם herem) and definitively « banished » from the Jewish community in 1656, but he was admired by Hegel, Nietzsche, and many Moderns…
In the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn tried to apply the spirit of the Aufklärung to Judaism and became one of the main instigators of the « Jewish Enlightenment », the Haskalah (from the word השכלה , « wisdom », « erudition »).
We can also mention Hermann Cohen, a neo-Kantian of the 19th century, and « a very great German philosopher », in the words of Gérard Bensussanii.
Closer in time, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Lévinas .
That’s about it. These names don’t make a crowd, but we are far from the shortage that Leo Strauss wanted to point out. It seems that Leo Strauss really wished to emphasize, for reasons of his own, « the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things, » as he himself explicitly put it.iii
It is interesting to recall that Leo Strauss also clarified his point of view by analyzing the emblematic case of Maimonides: « Philosophers are men who try to account for the Whole on the basis of what is always accessible to man as man; Maimonides starts from the acceptance of the Torah. A Jew may use philosophy and Maimonides uses it in the widest possible way; but, as a Jew, he gives his assent where, as a philosopher, he would suspend his assent.”iv
Leo Strauss added, rather categorically, that Maimonides’ book, The Guide of the Perplexed, « is not a philosophical book – a book written by a philosopher for philosophers – but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews.”v
The Guide of the Perplexed is in fact entirely devoted to the Torah and to the explanation of the « hidden meaning » of several passages. The most important of the « hidden secrets » that it tries to elucidate are the ‘Narrative of the Beginning’ (the Genesis) and the ‘Narrative of the Chariot’ (Ezekiel ch. 1 to 10). Of these « secrets », Maimonides says that « the Narrative of the Beginning” is the same as the science of nature and the “Narrative of the Chariot” is the same as the divine science (i.e. the science of incorporeal beings, or of God and angels).vi
The chapters of Ezekiel mentioned by Maimonides undoubtedly deserve the attention and study of the most subtle minds, the finest souls. But they are not to be put into all hands. Ezekiel recounts his « divine visions » in great detail. It is easy to imagine that skeptics, materialists, rationalists or sneers (whether Jewish or not) are not part of the intended readership.
Let us take a closer look at a revealing excerpt of Ezekiel’ vision.
« I looked, and behold, there came from the north a rushing wind, a great cloud, and a sheaf of fire, which spread a bright light on all sides, in the center of which shone like polished brass from the midst of the fire. Also in the center were four animals that looked like humans. Each of them had four faces, and each had four wings. Their feet were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like polished bronze. They had human hands under the wings on their four sides; and all four of them had their faces and wings. Their wings were joined together; they did not turn as they walked, but each walked straight ahead. As for the figures of their faces, all four had the face of a man, all four had the face of a lion on the right, all four had the face of an ox on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.”vii
The vision of Ezekiel then takes a stunning turn, with a description of an appearance of the « glory of the Lord ».
« I saw again as it were polished brass, fire, within which was this man, and which shone round about, from the form of his loins upward, and from the form of his loins downward, I saw as fire, and as bright light, about which he was surrounded. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of that bright light: it was an image of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”viii
The « man » in the midst of the fire speaks to Ezekiel as if he were an « image » of God.
But was this « man » really an « image » of God? What « philosopher » would dare to judge this statement ?
Perhaps this « man » surrounded by fire was some sort of « reality »? Or was he just an illusion?
Either way, it is clear that this text and its possible interpretations do not fit into the usual philosophical canons.
Should we therefore follow Leo Strauss, and consequently admit that Maimonides himself is not a « philosopher », but that he really wrote a « Jewish book » for the Jews, in order to respond to the need for clarification of the mysteries contained in the Texts?
Perhaps… But the modern reader of Ezekiel, whether Jewish or not, whether a philosopher or not, cannot fail to be interested in the parables one finds there, and in their symbolic implications.
The « man » in the midst of the fire asks Ezekiel to « swallow » a book, then to go « to the house of Israel », to this people which is not for him « a people with an obscure language, an unintelligible language », to bring back the words he is going to say to them.
The usual resources of philosophy seem little adapted to deal with this kind of request.
But the Guide for the Perplexed tackles it head on, in a both refined and robust style, mobilizing all the resources of reason and criticism, in order to shed some light on people of faith, who are already advanced in reflection, but who are seized with « perplexity » in the face of the mysteries of such « prophetic visions ».
The Guide for the Perplexed implies a great trust in the capacities of human reason.
It suggests that these human capacities are far greater, far more unbounded than anything that the most eminent philosophers or the most enlightened poets have glimpsed through the centuries.
And it is not all. Ages will come, no doubt, when the power of human penetration into divine secrets will be, dare we say it, without comparison with what Moses or Ezekiel themselves were able to bequeath to posterity.
In other words, and contrary to usual wisdom, I am saying that the age of the prophets, far from being over, has only just begun; and as well, the age of philosophers is barely emerging, considering the vast scale of the times yet to come.
Human history still is in its infancy, really.
Our entire epoch is still part of the dawn, and the great suns of the Spirit have not revealed anything but a tiny flash of their potential illuminating power.
From an anatomical and functional point of view, the human brain conceals much deeper mysteries, much more obscure, and powerful, than the rich and colorful metaphors of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel’s own brain was once, a few centuries ago, prey to a « vision ». So there was at that time a form of compatibility, of correspondence between the inherent structure of Ezekiel’s brain and the vision which he was able to give an account of.
The implication is that one day in the future, presumably, other brains of new prophets or visionaries may be able to transport themselves even further than Ezekiel.
It all winds down to this: either the prophetic « vision » is an illusion, or it has a reality of its own.
In the first case, Moses, Ezekiel and the long list of the « visionaries » of mankind are just misguided people who have led their followers down paths of error, with no return.
In the second case, one must admit that a “prophetic vision” implies the existence of another “world” subliminally enveloping the « seer ».
To every « seer » it is given to perceive to a certain extent the presence of the mystery, which surrounds the whole of humanity on all sides.
To take up William James’ intuition, human brains are analogous to « antennae », permanently connected to an immense, invisible worldix.
From age to age, many shamans, a few prophets and some poets have perceived the emanations, the pulsations of this other world.
We have to build the neuroscience and the metaphysics of otherworldly emanations.
Philo, in a short, dense passagei, describes the search of the ‘wise man’ who wants to know the secret of the universe, the origin of all things, the ultimate end – the Sovereign Mystery.
Let us reveal at once that this secret can never be reached.
Understanding this is the first step on the road of the ‘wise man’. It is necessary to know that the Mystery is too transcendent, too elusive, too unimaginable to ever be within reach. And yet it is worth continuing the search.
After a while, looking back over the road traveled so far, the walking ‘wise man’ surely knows that he knows almost nothing. At least he knows that, – which is not nothing, really, but indeed is really not much, and even one can say that it is almost absolutely nothing.
But the ‘wise man’ also knows that he has to get back on the road, and continue the search, without delay.
Looking at what still seems like a long way ahead to go before the next stop, he believes he can decipher the scattered signs in the distance. Some tracks. A few fragments.
Tending his ear, he may perceive confused clamors, rare echoes, silent sighs, indistinct words, tenuous, almost inaudible voices.
Raising his eyes, he may distinguish with some difficulty, very high in the nebula, kind of scintillating memories, and a background of faint glimmers, originally immensely distant, far beyond the forgotten ways, and lost nights.
The ‘wise man’ sets off again. He has no more time to lose. This last halt has lasted too long.
He walks with slow steps, eyes open, memory alive. From time to time he comes across thin, quickly outdated clues.
Peaceful, solitary, he reflects on the geometry of his unlimited, illogical walk. The more he advances, it seems, the less he arrives.
But he continues walking, however. In a sense, maybe doing so he does not go backwards, at last.
Towards the front, very far, in the distance, the horizon fades away.
The walker clearly sees only his slow steps, and what is just around him. He also sees that what seems quite close to him constantly slips away from him as he approaches, slowly moving away, into a blind spot.
Only the immeasurably distant, the absolutely separated, the utterly unapproachable, does not leave him, in his slow approach.
The ‘wise man’ in his walk rarely has his joy, his thirst: minute traces, celestial analects, pollens in the wind, inchoate echoes, iridescent sounds, allusive gleams, unearthed nitescences, …
But none of this is enough for him.
Walking again, continuing the search, that alone, in a sense, is enough for him.
Il y a une sorte de connaissance qui est, par nature, séparée de son objet, ainsi celle que peut obtenir un observateur, détaché de ce qu’il observe. Il observe une chose ou un phénomène, et n’y voit que l’« autre » que lui-même.
Si c’est lui-même que l’observateur observe, alors son être en tant que sujet est encore « autre » que son être observé.
Et il y a une sorte de connaissance qui est une étreinte intime, une fusion, une intuition de la présence enveloppante, une participation à la chose connue, en laquelle on s’immerge entièrement. Cette deuxième sorte de connaissance n’a rien à voir avec la méthode rationnelle, scientifique. Pourtant c’est bien une forme de connaissance, ultime, directe, et en un sens, sans aucun intermédiaire.
Qu’est-ce qu’un intermédiaire ? C’est ce qui relie des extrêmes antinomiques, ce qui résout des oppositions contradictoires, ce qui connecte deux niveaux de réalité, ce qui comble le fossé qui sépare les différences.
Car il faut bien que le sens circule, du Levant au Couchant, ou du Ciel vers la Terre. Il faut qu’en la poussière une haute essence puisse s’immiscer, si le Dieu veut étendre son règne du haut sur le bas, du lointain sur le proche, du caché au révélé.
S’Il veut vraiment être partout où sa volonté se meut, Il peut s’attacher à tout ce qu’Il n’est pas.
D’y être ainsi joint ou mêlé, ne L’enserre ni ne Le lie. Et la Terre n’en est pas non plus désertée, par cette déliaison, même dans ses moindres confins.
Thalès l’avait déjà dit, avant les autres philosophes, « Tout est plein de dieux »i. Phrase prémonitoire et programmatique, désormais délaissée.
L’âme en conséquence en a aussi sa part, sa masse et sa foule de dieux innommés. C’est pourquoi le Philosophe avait conclu, imparablement, à une explication de l’origine divine de ses dons: « La connaissance appartient à l’âme, ainsi que la sensation, l’opinion, et encore le désir, la délibération, en un mot les appétits. »ii
Son propre maître lui avait ouvert la voie de ce penser : « L’âme est quelque chose de plus ancien, et, à la fois, de plus divin que le corps… ‘Tout est plein de Dieux’, et jamais les puissances supérieures, soit manque de mémoire, soit indifférence, ne nous ont négligés !.. »iii.
Thalès, Platon, Aristote convergent en somme vers l’idée qu’en l’âme vit quelque essence divine. Leçon nette, aujourd’hui bien oubliée. Les Modernes, cyniques, secs et méprisants, se passent volontiers des poètes, de l’âme et des dieux, et les ont remplacés par de vibrants éloges du néant, un goût vain pour le théâtre de l’absurde, et un incommensurable provincialisme cosmique.
Le divin est le principe de la lumière, tant la matérielle qui traversa les mondes, et tout le visible, que l’immatérielle, qui illumine encore la raison et fait voir les intelligibles.
Lumière une et indivisible, pour qui la voit, ou, pour qui, par elle, la comprend, et pour qui tout le malheur vient de son ombre portée.
C’est un fait: toute lumière projette une écume d’ombre, dans la vague qu’elle ouvre en l’abîme.
D’ailleurs, la lumière des dieux n’est elle-même, au fond, qu’une sorte d’ombre, si on la rapporte (comme il se doit) à l’origine qui l’engendre, à la puissance qui la propulse.
La métaphore même, qui suit la danse de l’onde et du corpuscule, comprend l’idée d’un mouvement de la lumière à l’intérieur d’elle-même, jamais là où l’on attend, toujours ailleurs, à jamais mue, mais jamais nue.
L’âme aussi est une sorte de lumière, une étincelle d’origine. Lorsqu’elle arrive dans l’embryon endormi, dans le corps qui se forme, elle l’enveloppe et le nourrit, non de lait et de caresses, mais de suc et d’essence, de vues et de sens.
Elle lui donne le un et le deux, l’union et la différence, le silence, le rythme – et la symphonie sans fin des organes affamés.
Elle lui donne toutes les formes, celles qui la feront toujours vivre et même sur-vivre.
L’âme se donne, et le corps rue sans raison, pur-sang pris à son lasso, d’un côté cravaché par le souffle, et de l’autre la matière est son mors. Ils s’enlacent sans fin comme du même à de l’autre.
Cet enlacement, cet embrasement, est comme une brève image d’un embrassement plus infini, plus vaste que tous les mondes, celui que le divin entretient avec lui-même, et dans lequel il emporte sans fin tous les êtres, nonobstant leur néant et leur évanescence. Enfouis dans le devenir, la fugacité est leur partage. Mais les êtres créés, éphémères fumées, sont aussi, un par un, don à la cause, tribut à l’être. Ils prennent part au sacrifice, au silence du Soi, à la saignée de la sève, aux salves du sang, au souffle sourd, dans les souterrains du destin.
Enlacement, embrasement, embrassement, enfouissement, emport et entretien, toutes ces métaphores disent encore le lien. Alors que le divin, même uni, est aussi séparé de ce qu’il est ou semble être. Il s’envole aussitôt posé sur la terre, oiseau toujours, aux ailes de ciel.
L’âme aussi vole, ses ailes sont d’aube ou de soir, elle se projette par à-coups dans l’abîme du jour, dans la différence des lumières. Elle caresse la lèvre des peuples endormis, ou des filles éveillées, et elle s’envole toujours à nouveau, comme un moineau blessé, ou un autour chanteur.
Elle ne ressemble à aucun être, unique à jamais, et même d’elle-même elle se plaît à se détacher, dans la liberté de son désir. Elle est de la race des dieux, sans avoir ni leur vie ni leur infinité, mais elle peut monter en leur ciel plus haut que toutes les puissances et les autres anges.
In Platonic philosophy, the God Eros (Love) is always in search of fulfillment, always moving, eager to fill His own lack of being.
But how could a God lack of being? How could he fail to be ?
If Love signals a lack, as Plato says, how could Love be a God, whose essence is to be?
A God ‘Love’, in Plato’s way, is fully ‘God’ only through His loving relationship with what He loves. This relationship implies a ‘movement’ and a ‘dependence’ of the divine nature around the object of His ‘Love’.
How to understand such a ‘movement’ and such a ‘dependence’ in a transcendent God, a God whose essence is to ‘be’, and whose Being is a priori beyond any lack of being?
This is the reason why Aristotle harshly criticizes Plato. For Aristotle, Love is not an essence, but only a means. If God defines Himself as the Being par excellence, He is also ‘immobile’, says Aristotle. As the first immobile Motor, He only gives His movement to all creation.
« The Principle, the First of the beings is motionless: He is motionless by essence and by accident, and He imprints the first, eternal and one movement.”i
God, ‘immobile’, sets the world and all the beings it contains in motion, breathing love into them, and a desire for their ‘end’ (their goal). The world is set in motion because it desires this very ‘end’. The end of the world is in the love of the ‘end’, in the desire to reach the ultimate ‘end’ for which the world was set in motion.
« The final cause, in fact, is the Being for whom it is an end, and it is also the end itself. In the latter sense, the end can exist among immobile beings.”ii
For Aristotle, then, God cannot be ‘Love’, or Eros. The Platonic Eros is only an ‘intermediate’ god. It is through Eros that God sets all beings in motion. God sets the world in motion through the love He inspires. But He is not Love. Love is the intermediary through which He aims at the ‘final cause’, His ‘aim’.
« The final cause moves as the object of love.”iii.
Here we see that Aristotle’s conception of the God differs radically from the Christian conception of a God who is essentially “love”. « God so loved the world » (John 3:16).
Christ overturned the tables of Aristotelian law, that of a ‘still’ God, a God for whom love is only a means to an end, abstractly called the ‘final cause’.
The God of Christ is not ‘immobile’. Paradoxically, not withstanding all His putative power, He places Himself at the mercy of the love (or indifference, or ignorance) of His own creation.
For Aristotle, the divine immobile is always at work, everywhere, in all things, as the ‘First Motor’. The divine state represents the maximum possible being, the very Being. All other beings lackbeing. The lowest level in Jacob’s ladder of the aeons is that of being only in power to be, a pure potency, a purely virtual being.
The God of Christ, on the other hand, is not always ‘present’, He may be ’empty’, He may be ‘mocked’, ‘railed », ‘humiliated’. And He may ‘die’, and He may remain ‘absent’.
In a way, the Christian conception of divine kenosis is closer to the Platonic conception of a God-Love who suffers from a fundamental ‘lack’, than to the Aristotelian conception of God as ‘First Mover’ and ‘final cause’.
There is a real philosophical paradox in considering that the essence of God reveals in a lack or an ‘emptiness‘ in the heart of Being.
In this hypothesis, love would not only be a ‘lack’ of being, as Plato thinks, but would be part of the divine essence itself. This divine Lack would actually be the highest form of being.
What is the essence of a God whose lack is at its heart?
There is a name for it – a very old name, which gives a rough idea of it: ‘Sacrifice’.
This profoundly anti-intuitive idea appeared four thousand years before Christ. The Veda forged a name to describe it: Devayajña, the ‘Sacrifice of God’. A famous Vedic hymn describes Creation as the self-immolation of the Creator.iv Prajāpati totally sacrifices Himself, and in doing so He can give His Self entirely to the creation. He sacrifices himself but lives by this very sacrifice. He remains alive because the sacrifice gives Him a new Breath, a new Spirit.
« The supreme Lord said to His father, the Lord of all creatures: ‘I have found the sacrifice that fulfills desires: let me perform it for You’ – ‘So be it’, He replied. Then He fulfills it for Him. After the sacrifice, He wished, ‘May I be all here!’ He became Breath, and now Breath is everywhere here.”v
The analogy between the Veda and Christianity is deep. It includes the same, divine ’emptiness’.
« The Lord of creatures [Prajāpati], after having begotten living beings, felt as if He had been emptied. The creatures departed from Him; they did not stay with Him for His joy and sustenance.”vi
« After having generated everything that exists, He felt as if He was emptied and was afraid of death.”vii
The ’emptiness’ of the Lord of creatures is formally analogous to the ‘kenosis‘ of Christ (this word comes from the Greek kenosis and the verb kenoein, ‘to empty’).
There is also the Vedic metaphor of ‘dismemberment’, which anticipates the dismemberment of Osiris, Dionysus and Orpheus.
« When He had produced all the creatures, Prajāpati fell apart. His breath went away. When His breath was no longer active, the Gods abandoned Him”viii.
« Reduced to His heart, He cried out, ‘Alas, my life!’ The waters came to His aid and through the sacrifice of the Firstborn, He established His sovereignty.”ix
The Veda saw it. The Sacrifice of the Lord of Creation was at the origin of the universe. That is why, it is written: « the sacrifice is the navel of the universe »x.
Perhaps the most interesting thing, if we can get this far, is to allow to conclude that: « Everything that exists, whatever it is, is made to participate in the Sacrifice » xi.
One chisel stroke, and the thread ends. The bobbin unwinds endlessly; but always, one day, there is a cut. The thread, however white it is, knows nothing of the cut to come.
The thread only knows that it is spinning, that it is following its thread. Cotton or chitin, it spins. For what? It does not know.
It spins, and as long as it spins, it is only thread.
What can a thread of wool or silk understand about a blade of steel ? Or to the soul of a knife? Or to the spirit of the razor?
Thread is thread. Infinitely thread. The length is on its side, he believes. What can an horizontal thread comprehend about a perpendicular blade?
Even a very long thread has an end. Comes the cut, the stroke. The end of the continuous, the condition of appearance.
Thought follows her thread; straight, sinuous, zigzagging, she follows this thread, or that other, she weaves her web. Does the blade think about the end? Made of various threads, how would she think what is not made of thread? Can the thread think about the thickness of the carpet, its surface, its pattern, or the cat that sleeps on it?
The thought following her thread is quite assured, from premises to inductions. She does not yet think about what is expecting her, maybe, what is beyond her, – the cut, or the knot.
The birth of the cut, at the end of the thread.
And the cut is also of a wire, of steel. Sharp wire, destined to cut, not to bind. Carrot, or carotid, the wire cuts. The blade cuts the soul’s core.
The Spinner, Clotho, weaves the thread of life. Lachesis unwinds it. Atropos cuts it. O fates cut short!
In ancient Greek dictionaries, just right after the name Orpheus, one may find the word orphne (ὄρφνη), « darkness ». From a semantic point of view, orphne can be applied to the underworld, the « dark » world. Orpheus, also descended into the Underworld, and was plunged into orphne.
Orpheus was « orphic » par excellence. He sought revelation. He ventured without hesitation into the lair of death, and he came out of it alive – not without the fundamental failure that we know well. But later, the shadows caught up with him. A screaming pack of Thracian women tore him apart, member to member.
Only his severed head escaped the furious melee, rolled ashore. The waves swept him across the sea, and Orpheus‘ head was still singing.
He had defeated death, and passed over the sea.
The myth of Orpheus symbolizes the search for the true Life, the one that lies beyond the realm of Death.
The philosopher Empedocles testifies to the same dream: « For I was once a boy and a girl, and a plant and a bird and a fish that found its way out of the sea.”1
In tablets dating from the 6th century BC, found in Olbia, north of the Black Sea, several characteristic expressions of Orphism, such as bios-thanatos-bios, have been deciphered. This triad, bios-thanatos-bios, « life-death-life », is at the center of orphism.
Orpheus, a contemporary of Pythagoras, chose, contrary to the latter, to live outside of « politics ». He refused the « city » and its system of values. He turned towards the elsewhere, the beyond. « The Orphics are marginal, wanderers and especially ‘renouncers‘ », explains Marcel Detiennei.
Aristophanes stated that the teaching of Orpheus rested on two points: not making blood flow, and discovering »initiation ».
The Greek word for initiation to the Mysteries is teletè (τελετή). This word is related to telos, « completion, term, realization ». But teletè has a very precise meaning in the context of Orphism. Among the Orphic mysteries, perhaps the most important is that of the killing of the god-child, Dionysus, devoured by the Titans, – except for his heart, swallowed by Zeus, becoming the germ of his rebirth within the divine body.
Several interpretations circulate. According to Clement of Alexandria, Zeus entrusted Apollo with the task of collecting and burying the scattered pieces of Dionysus’ corpse on Mount Parnassus.
According to the neo-Platonic gnosis, the Mysteries refer to the recomposition, the reunification of the dismembered body of God.
The death of Orpheus is mysteriously analogous to the more original death of the god Dionysus, which probably derives from much older traditions, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped Osiris, who was also torn to pieces, scattered throughout Egypt, and finally resurrected.
For the comparatist, it is difficult to resist yet another analogy, that of the sharing of Christ’s « body » and « blood, » which his disciples « ate » and « drank » at the Last Supper just before his death. A scene that has been repeated in every Mass since then, at the time of « communion ».
There is a significant difference, however, between the death of Christ and that of Osiris, Dionysus or Orpheus. Contrary to the custom that governed the fate of those condemned to death, the body of Christ on the cross was not « broken » or « dismembered, » but only pierced with a spear. The preservation of the unity of his body had been foretold by the Scriptures (« He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken », Psalm 34:20).
No physical dispersion of the body of Christ at his death, but a symbolic sharing at Communion, like that of the bread and wine, metaphors of flesh and blood, presented at the Last Supper, symbols of a unity, essentially indivisible, universally shareable.
This makes all the more salient the search for the divine unity apparently lost by Osiris or Dionysus, but found again thanks to the analogous care of Isis, Zeus, or Apollo.
Beyond the incommensurable divergences, a paradigm common to the ancient religions of Egypt and Greece and to Christianity emerges.
The God, one in essence, is dismembered, dispersed, really or symbolically, and then, by one means or another, finds Himself unified again.
One, divided, multiplied, dispersed, and again One.
Again One, after having been scattered throughout the worlds.
So many worlds: so many infinitesimal shards within the divine unity.
« Modern atheism is dying a beautiful death » and « modern nihilism » will soon, too, « lose the game », Philippe Nemoi wants to believe. The good news, he prophesies, is that as a consequence, a period of glory will open up for new ideals, with infinite possibilities for the development of the human adventure, on the way to the highest destinies…
Quite a radiant perspective…
But « modern atheism » and « modern nihilism » actually do resist very much. They have occupied the front stage in the West during the last two centuries.
Only two centuries, one may ask? …. Is atheism a « modern » specialty?
When it comes to anthropology, nothing beats the measure of millenia.
Traces of religious practices dating from 800,000 years ago have been found in the excavations at Chou-Kou-Tien (Zhoukoudian 周口店 ). Eight thousand centuries ago, then, so-called « Peking Man, » or « Sinanthrope, » painted red carefully prepared human skulls and placed them in a composed circle for ceremonial purposes. To evoke what? For what purpose? For what sort of Deity?
Almost a million years ago, hominids in the Beijing area could probably answer these questions in their own way, and not necessarily confusedly, but we actually know next to nothing of their understanding of the world.
We only can infer from the clues left behind that death was certainly a profound mystery to them.
Analogous questions will no doubt still arise for future anthropologists, who will analyze the few remains of our own “civilization”, that may still be accessible in a million years from now, preserved in a some deep geological layers… Future anthropology, assuming that such a discipline will then still make sense, will perhaps try to infer from the traces of many future, successively « modern » civilizations yet to appear, the role of « atheism », « nihilism » and religious « creeds », throughout millenia?
I find it is a stimulating thought experience. It is necessary to try to project oneself into the distant future, while at the same time connecting through a reflexive and memorial line to the still accessible depths of the paleontological past. In order to test our capacity to represent the ‘human phenomenon’, we can try to draw a perspective on the history of religious feeling (or absence thereof), to gauge its essence, to understand its nature and foundation.
Some provisional lessons can already be drawn. Let us listen to Benjamin Constant: « The time when religious feeling disappears from the souls of men is always close to that of their enslavement. Religious peoples may have been slaves; but no irreligious people remained free.”ii
Benjamin Constant was without illusion about human nature. « India, Ethiopia, Egypt, show us the humankind enslaved, decimated, and, so to speak, confined by priests.”iii The priests of antiquity were « condemned to imposture », by their very functions, which involved constant communication with the gods, with oracles to be rendered, – the correctness of which could be easily checked afterwards, not to mention the wonders, miracles and other revelations. Fraud must have been, one can imagine, a permanent temptation, if not a vital necessity.
Regardless of past and future (religious) frauds and impostures, the most significant question that men of all times have asked themselves and will ask themselves remains that of the meaning of life, for a man confronted with the mystery of an assured death, after a rather short life.
Hence this quite logical (and cynical) statement:
« To defend freedom, one must know how to immolate one’s life, and what is there more than life for those who see beyond it only nothingness? Also when despotism meets with the absence of religious sentiment, the human species prostrates itself in dust, wherever force is deployed.”iv
Absurd, useless, inessential lives and deaths, crushed by despotism, pose a question to which neither atheism nor nihilism can provide the slightest answer.
Perhaps « atheism » is already « dying its beautiful death », if we are to believe Nemo.
This does not mean that from this death will arise some « theism » ready to live a new life.
The mystery cannot be solved by such elementary, simplified qualifiers.
In a million years, it is a good bet that all our « philosophies », all our « religions », will appear only just as some sort of red skulls, arranged in forgotten circles.
iPhilippe Nemo. La belle mort de l’athéisme moderne. 2012
iiBenjamin Constant. De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes et ses développements. 1831
Ernst Haeckel was the biologist and philosopher who made Darwin known in Germany. He was one of the first to apply Darwinian ideas to human ‘races’. Nazi ideologues used his writings to support their racist theories and social Darwinism. Haeckel is also the author of the « recapitulation » theory, according to which ontogenesis « recapitulates » phylogenesis.
Haeckel had a monistic view of the world, an acute perception of divine immanence and proposed a quasi-deification of the « laws of nature ». « God is found in the law of nature itself. God’s will acts according to laws, both in the raindrop that falls and in the crystal that grows, as well as in the scent of the rose and in the minds of men. »i
This immanence can be found in the « cell memory » (« Zellgedächtnis ») and in the « soul of crystals » (« Kristallseelen »).
From such a interpenetration of « Nature » and « God », Haeckel deduced the end of « the belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul and in the freedom of human will.”
The whole metaphysics was to be called into question.
« Alongside the law of evolution and closely related to it, one can consider as the supreme triumph of modern science the almighty law of substance, the law of conservation of matter (Lavoisier, 1789) and of conservation of energy (Robert von Mayer, 1842). These two great laws are in manifest contradiction with the three great central dogmas of metaphysics, which most cultured people still today consider to be the most precious treasures: belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul, and in the freedom of the human will. (…) These three precious objects of faith will only be removed, as truths, from the realm of pure science. On the other hand they will remain, as a precious product of fantasy, in the realm of poetry. »ii
There are two points to consider, here. On the one hand the question of the validity of the « supreme laws » of modern science, the law of evolution and the law of conservation, and on the other hand the question of the « manifest contradiction » between these laws and the « three central dogmas of metaphysics ».
On the first point, it should be recalled that the purely scientific vision of the conservation and evolution of the world cannot alone account for singular phenomena such as the Big Bang. Where does the initial energy of the universe come from? « It has always been there, by the law of conservation », answer the believers in pure science.
But this very thesis is in itself undemonstrable, and therefore unscientific.
« Pure science » is apparently based on an unprovable axiom. Hence « pure science » does not seem quite scientific.
The second point is the question of the « manifest contradiction », according to Haeckel, between the two laws of conservation and the central dogmas of metaphysics such as freedom of the will or the immortality of the soul.
In 1907, only one year after the publication of Haeckel’s quoted work, the American physician Duncan MacDougall measured the weight of six patients just before and after their death. He found a decrease of 21 grams, which he deduced could be the weight of the soul escaping from the human bodyiii. A heated controversy ensued. The experiment was deemed to be flawed, for many commentators.
In any case, obviously, if an immaterial soul « exists », it cannot have mass. Or, if it has a « mass », then it is a SISO, a Soul In Name Only…
However, assuming the validity of D. MacDougall’s experimental results, one may infer that the 21-gram loss of mass, supposedly observed in some individuals after death, may come from causes other than the alleged soul’s exit from the body.
It would be possible to imagine, for example, a « sublimation », in the chemical sense, of certain components of the human body, which would thus pass directly from the solid state to the gaseous state, without passing through a liquid state. In fact, this « sublimation » would result in an exhalation or evaporation of the matter transformed into a gaseous mass.
The « last sigh » would thus not only consist of the air contained in the lungs of the dying body, but also of a mass of body matter « sublimated » by the metabolic transformations accompanying death itself. Among these transformations, those affecting the brain would be particularly crucial, considering that the brain consumes about a quarter of the body’s metabolic energy.
Death would have a physico-chemical effect on the brain in the form of a « sublimation » of part of its substance.
The « soul » may not have any mass and any weight. But the biological « structure » of a living brain, its « organization », this specific seal of a singular person, could prove to have a weight of several grams. At the time of death, this « structure » would rapidly decompose and « exhale » out of the body.
The « structure » of the brain, or its « systemic » organization, constitutes – from a materialistic point of view – the very essence of the individual. It can also be defined as the very condition of its « freedom », or « spirit », to use metaphysical concepts.
What is certain is that whether one has a materialistic point of view or not, death obviously produces a systemic loss, which also translates into a loss of matter.
How can the laws of « conservation » of substance and energy account for such a « loss »?
Just as every birth adds something to the unique and unheard of in this world, so every death subtracts something unique and unspeakable.
Whether we call this unique, unspeakable something: « soul », « breath », « structure » or « 21-gram mass », has no real importance, from the point of view that interests us here.
In any case, death results in a net, absolute loss, which the scientific laws of « conservation » cannot explain.
The soul, or freedom of the will for that matter, really have no « mass ». When they are « lost », the laws of conservation do not find them in their balance sheets.
It is an important lesson.
The « supreme triumph of modern science, the almighty law of substance » just cannot grasp a spiritual « essence ».
Not just any essence. Particularly the essence of our own personal soul. Once this is well understood, the implications are immense.
iii MacDougall, Duncan. “The Soul: Hypothesis Concerning Soul Substance Together with Experimental Evidence of The Existence of Such Substance.” American Medicine. April 1907. Here is a significant excerpt : « The patient’s comfort was looked after in every way, although he was practically moribund when placed upon the bed. He lost weight slowly at the rate of one ounce per hour due to evaporation of moisture in respiration and evaporation of sweat. During all three hours and forty minutes I kept the beam end slightly above balance near the upper limiting bar in order to make the test more decisive if it should come. This loss of weight could not be due to evaporation of respiratory moisture and sweat, because that had already been determined to go on, in his case, at the rate of one sixtieth of an ounce per minute, whereas this loss was sudden and large, three-fourths of an ounce in a few seconds. The bowels did not move; if they had moved the weight would still have remained upon the bed except for a slow loss by the evaporation of moisture depending, of course, upon the fluidity of the feces. The bladder evacuated one or two drams of urine. This remained upon the bed and could only have influenced the weight by slow gradual evaporation and therefore in no way could account for the sudden loss. There remained but one more channel of loss to explore, the expiration of all but the residual air in the lungs. Getting upon the bed myself, my colleague put the beam at actual balance. Inspiration and expiration of air as forcibly as possible by me had no effect upon the beam. My colleague got upon the bed and I placed the beam at balance. Forcible inspiration and expiration of air on his part had no effect. In this case we certainly have an inexplicable loss of weight of three-fourths of an ounce. Is it the soul substance? How other shall we explain it? »
Cette formule fameuse date du 6ème siècle avant notre ère. Elle prend d’une part à rebours toute la conception matérialiste, déterministe et positiviste de la modernité occidentale. D’autre part, elle porte une vision de l’immanence divine, un panthéisme multiplié à l’infini, qui tranchent avec la conception strictement monothéiste de religions prônant une divinité « unique », « séparée », – « transcendante ».
Rien de moins moderne, — ou de moins monothéiste, donc. En revanche, rien de plus classique, ô combien !
Cette formule est due à Thalès de Milet, l’un des tout premiers philosophes de la Grèce antique, l’un de ses plus grands sages, mais aussi un éminent mathématicien et célèbre astronome, et l’un des plus brillants esprits de tous les temps.
Aristote le cite: « Certains prétendent que l’âme est mélangée au tout de l’univers ; de là vient peut-être que Thalès ait pensé que toutes choses étaient remplies de dieux. »i
Diogène Laërce et Aétiusii ont ajouté à ce jugement concis quelques précieuses précisions :
« Aristote et Hippias disent qu’il attribuait une âme même aux êtres inanimés, se fondant sur les phénomènes observés dans l’ambre et dans l’aimant. »iii
« L’eau était pour lui le principe de toutes choses ; il soutenait encore que le monde est vivant et rempli d’âmes.»iv
Thalès disait encore :
« L’esprit est ce qu’il y a de plus rapide : il se répand à travers toutes choses.»v
Selon Thalès, les « dieux », la « vie », l’« âme » et l’« esprit » sont donc présents en toutes choses. De cela, il tire la conséquence, parfaitement logique, qu’il n’y a aucune différence entre la vie et la mort: « Qui t’empêche donc de mourir? lui dit-on. — C’est, reprit-il, qu’il n’y a aucune différence.»vi
Il n’est pas indifférent de noter enfin, dans ce contexte, que Thalès est le véritable auteur de la célèbre maxime, souvent attribuée à Socrate, qui répéta un siècle après Thalès, l’oracle de Delphes: « Connais-toi toi-même ».vii
Pour ma part, je suppute que se révèle ici un lien profond entre cette dernière formule et le constat de la présence universelle du divin. S’y noue un nœud, une intrication, entre immanence et conscience.
Thalès percevait la présence immanente du divin en chaque point de l’univers. L’immanence baigne aussi chaque ‘partie’ de la conscience. « Connais-toi toi-même » revient à dire : «Sache que le divin, qui est en Tout, est en toi. »
Un siècle environ après Thalès, Empédocle reprit l’idée en la charpentant :
« Sache en effet que toutes choses (ta panta) possèdent la conscience et un lot de pensée. »viii
Ou dans une autre traduction :
« Sache-le, en effet, toute chose a conscience et part à la pensée (logos). »ix
Ce vers conclut le fragment 110 d’Empédocle, dont Hippolyte a conservé la version la plus complète:
Sextus Empiricus a cité le dernier vers de ce fragment pour montrer qu’Empédocle attribuait la pensée aux bêtes et aux plantes. « Empédocle, d’une manière encore plus paradoxale, considérait que toutes choses se trouvaient douées de raison, et non seulement les animaux, mais encore les plantes, lorsqu’il écrit expressément : ‘Sache-le, en effet, toute chose a conscience et part à la pensée.’ »xi
Mais le neutre pluriel, ta panta (« toutes choses »), comme souvent en grec, a aussi un sens abstrait. Il désignerait au-delà des animaux et des plantes toutes choses au monde, selon le commentaire que Clémence Ramnoux a fait de ce fragmentxii.
Elle ajoute qu’Hyppolyte veut introduire ici la notion d’une troisième puissance, et donc un Principe par delà la dualité du Bien et du Mal. Il s’agirait, pour Empédocle, du ‘logos juste’ (dikaios logos), qu’Empédocle appelle symboliquement ‘la Muse’, et à laquelle il ne faut pas cesser de donner des « soins » (« tu les contemples entretenant des soins purs »xiii).
Mais Hippolyte avait sans doute des intentions apologétiques. L’important est de voir qu’il s’agit surtout d’un « logos en voie de croissance », comme le souligne la traduction que C. Ramnoux livre du Fragment 110 :
« Alors ces choses sûrement toutes te demeureront présentes le long de la vie. Et même à partir d’elles tu en acquerras davantage : car ce sont choses qui croissent toutes seules, chacune en son genre, selon que sa nature la pousse. »xiv
Non seulement il faut voir et comprendre que « tout est plein de dieux », mais il faut aussi voir et comprendre que cette pensée même, ainsi exprimée, il faut la garder toujours présente en soi, il faut la garder toujours immanente en son propre logos, pour la « connaître » en soi. « D’elle-même en effet, [cette idée] croît, au cœur de chaque individu », dit le Fragment 110.
C’est à cette unique condition que l’idée du divin pourra croître, se développer, et porter tout son fruit.
Le divin, en toutes choses, comme dans notre moi, est une idée qui croît, qui vit, et fructifie, pourvu que cette idée, on la garde toujours vivante, et croissante, en nous.
ii Selon Aétius le Doxographe : « Thalès disait que Dieu est l’Intellect du monde, que le tout est animé et plein de démons. » Aétius, Opinions, I, 7,11. In Les Présocratiques, Thalès. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1988, p.21
L’inconscient contient et maintient tous les mondes. La conscience est appelée à aller au-delà.
La conscience se meut comme l’éclair, vive, légère, ou bien reste immobile, lourde, lente, – du soupir à la gorge, de la douleur à l’épaule, de l’iris à l’ongle, de la papille au nez, de la paume au cœur, de la lèvre à la jouissance, de la mémoire au pas, du rêve au théorème, de l’acte à son absence, de la vérité à l’idée.
Nous avons gagné en naissant une conscience issue de notre inconscient. En mourant, nous hériterons aussi de l’inconscient de toutes les consciences.
Il faut observer les lumières que l’on croit posséder sur le moi. La connaissance de leurs ombres, fût-elle infime, mène au soi. Elle est le démon du moi, le divise, le multiplie, l’additionne, le soustrait et l’exhale.
La peur inconsciente épure.
Les malaises vagaux, – répétitions générales de la mort immédiate, vague immédiatement avortée.
La conscience et l’inconscient : le dos et son fardeau, l’aveugle et le paralytique.
Souffrances, maux, contrariétés, infirmités, induisent une perte partielle de la conscience générale, un évidement local. En contrepartie, on gagne un grain d’ultra-conscience, une fixation éblouie sur un détail.
Après la mort, le moi s’extasie, sans se dissoudre, aux dimensions du soi. L’âme re-née vagit. Et la vie la ravit. Tout est autre, à la vérité, mais on reste le même. Vaste programme, dont l’infini sait le secret.
La substance du moi, c’est le soi, en puissance. Alors rien n’est impossible. La substance du soi, c’est le mystère en acte. Alors tout est possible.
Avant d’être, on a la chance de naître. Avant de renaître, on a eu la chance d’être. Avant de « *** », on aura eu la chance de renaître.
Le mot « *** » appartient à une langue sans grammaire, sans dictionnaire, sans racine, mais non sans inconscient. Cette langue, très vivante, ne cesse de s’inventer, elle se pense au moment où elle se parle. Elle ne se tait jamais.
La vie, c’est gagner sur le vide, et perdre sur le temps.
La conscience est un peu moins inconcevable que son contraire.
Pas le moindre signe de non-réalité nulle part. Tout est beaucoup trop plein.
L’esprit de sérieux : « Extase de la chrysalide. Enfin pouvoir papillonner ».
Conscient, je suis aveugle à l’inouï. Inconscient, je suis sourd à ses cris.
La foi est la paresse de la voie.
Dès que la conscience se met à vivre, elle se substitue à tout ce qui n’est pas elle.
« Dieu » n’est pas une solution. Tout reste à inventer. Pour « Lui » aussi.
In India at the end of the 19th century, some Indian intellectuals wanted to better understand the culture of England, the country that had colonized them. For instance, D.K. Gokhale took it as a duty to memorize Milton’s Paradise Lost, Walter Scott’s Rokeby, and the speeches of Edmund Burke and John Bright.
However, he was quite surprised by the spiritual emptiness of these texts, seemingly representative of the « culture » of the occupying power.
Perhaps he should have read Dante, Master Eckhart, Juan de la Cruz, or Pascal instead, to get a broader view of Europe’s capabilities in matters of spirituality?
In any case, Gokhale, tired of so much superficiality, decided to return to his Vedic roots. Striving to show the world what India had to offer, he translated Taittirīya-Upaniṣad into English with the famous commentary from Śaṃkara.
At the time of Śaṃkara, in the 8th century AD, the Veda was not yet preserved in written form. But for five thousand years already, it had been transmitted orally through the Indian souls, from age to age, with extraordinary fidelity.i
The Veda heritage had lived on in the brains of priests, during five millenia, generation after generation. Yet it was never communicated in public, except very partially, selectively, in the form of short fragments recited during sacrifices. The integral Veda existed only in oral form, kept in private memories.
Never before the (rather late) time of Śaṃkara had the Veda been presented in writing, and as a whole, in its entirety.
During the millenia when the Veda was only conserved orally, it would have been necessary to assemble many priests, of various origins, just to recite a complete version of it, because the whole Veda was divided into distinct parts, of which various families of Brahmins had the exclusive responsibility.
The complete recitation of the hymns would have taken days and days. Even then, their chanting would not have allowed a synoptic representation of the Veda.
Certainly, the Veda was not a « Book ». It was a living assembly of words.
At the time the Taittirīya-Upaniṣad was composed, the Indo-Gangetic region had cultural areas with a different approach to the sacred « word » of Veda.
In the Indus basin, the Vedic religion has always affirmed itself as a religion of the « Word ». Vāc (the Sanskrit word for « Word ») is a vedic Divinity. Vāc breathes its Breath into the Sacrifice, and the Sacrifice is entirely, essentially, Vāc, — « Word ».
But in the eastern region, in Magadha and Bihar, south of the Ganges, the Deity remains ‘silent’.
Moreover, in northeast India, Buddhism, born in the 6th century B.C., is concerned only with meaning, and feels no need to divinize the « Word ».
These very different attitudes can be compared, it seems to me, to the way in which the so-called « religions of the Book » also deal with the « Word ».
The « word » of the Torah is swarming, bushy, contradictory. It requires, as history has shown, generations of rabbis, commentators and Talmudists to search for all its possible meanings, in the permanent feeling of the incompleteness of its ultimate understanding. Interpretation has no end, and cannot have an end.
The Christian Gospels also have their variations and their obscurities. They were composed some time after the events they recount, by four very different men, of different culture and origin: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
As human works, the Gospels have not been « revealed » by God, but only « written » by men, who were also witnesses. In contrast, at least if we follow the Jewish tradition, the Torah has been (supposedly) directly revealed to Moses by God Himself.
For Christianity, the « Word » is then not « incarnated » in a « Book » (the Gospels). The « Word » is incarnated in Jesus.
Islam respects the very letter of the Qur’an, « uncreated », fully « descended » into the ear of the Prophet. Illiterate, Muhammad, however, was its faithful mediator, transmitting the words of the angel of God, spoken in Arabic, to those of his disciples who were able to note them down.
Let us summarize. For some, the « Word » is Silence, or Breath, or Sacrifice. For others, the « Word » is Law. For others, the « Word » is Christ. For others, the « Word » is a ‘Descent‘.
How can such variations be explained? National « Genius »? Historical and cultural circumstances? Chances of the times?
Perhaps one day, in a world where culture and « religion » will have become truly global, and where the mind will have reached a very high level of consciousness, in the majority of humans, the « Word » will present itself in still other forms, in still other appearances?
For the moment, let us jealously preserve the magic and power of the vast, rich and diverse religious heritage, coming from East and West.
Let us consider its fundamental elevation, its common aspiration, and let us really begin its churning.
i Cf. Lokamanya Bâl Gangâdhar Tilak, Orion ou Recherche sur l’antiquité des Védas, French translation by Claire et Jean Rémy, éditions Edidit & Archè, Milan et Paris, 1989
L’être paraît d’abord d’ombres et d’odeurs, bouche et toucher. Faim, voix, soif. Chaleur, délices, liquides. Temps, lumières, sons, lèvres, peau, langue. L’être lent, gouffre sans fin, abîme mou, terre confuse, rêve fendu, sourire clos. Mystère ouvert. Franc pourquoi.
Avant de surgir à l’être, la conscience se pressentait, se prélassait, se présentait peut-être à sa présence. Quelle était-elle, avant seulement d’être ? Virtuelle et vertige. Ivre et vive. Pur projet, sans sujet, ni objet. Non sans songe.
De l’inconscient à la conscience, et retour. Toujours, sauts, sursauts, soubresauts. Le sommeil bondissant de l’éveil.
Paix, faste, pompe et vélocité. L’inconscient, maître des temps. Lui lâcher la bride. Le laisser galoper au loin, au fond.
La conscience, bref florilège : Nue mise à nu. Buée bue. Boue lourde. Aurore, orée. Pantoise pâmoison. Bouffée touffue. For un tiers rieur. Éclair accru. Par Aton, aile, erre. Orage orange. Nuée exténuée. Désert désempli. Mer mi-roide. Soleil celé.
En naissant, en un instant, on plonge hors du soi, et en soi. On naît au dehors, et en dedans. On aspire, on s’ouvre. Tout à la fois : lumière, voix, chaleur, peau, haleine. Irruption de l’autre. Toutes sortes d’autres. Par tous les pores, les ports. Vagues, ils déferlent. Le bruit de la mère s’est tu. Mais on sent son pouls, tout contre la peau. Les poumons s’emplissent. Le sang bat. L’air neuf coule dans le sang renaissant. Nouvellement né, lentement, le Soi s’initie, sort de son oubli, se sent déclore, conscient de son inconscience.
Five centuries after Luther, some followers of the Reformed religion were able to affirm without blinking an eye that it is the modern religion par excellence and that it even embodies the « legitimacy of modern times ».i As for other religions, according to them, they « flee » the world and reality. ii
These rather arrogant statements may be, in fact, symptoms of the changing world at work. If thousand-year-old religions seem to be « fleeing » modernity, with some level of credibility, how can we not see this as a sign of the coming catastrophe?
The era of the post-human has been announced. Everything is possible, once again, now that modernity has definitively freed itself from pre-modern thoughts. We must prepare ourselves for a new great leap forward.
In order to understand what kind of leap the Reformation implied, it is necessary to recall its foundations, laid when modernity emerged from the Middle Ages.
The Reformation suddenly and strongly called into question a world order that had prevailed until then. The effects were considerable. It changed the religious and political map. It encouraged the development of science and technology. It was even instrumental in the rise of capitalism – and the « disenchantment » of the world.
This legacy is appreciable.
Protestantism also has been generously credited with the liberation of consciousness and the birth of the rights of the individual. This is an interesting paradox for a religion whose fundamental dogma absolutely denies free will, and whose founders advocated the enslavement of men to a predestination decided from all eternity.
But, in a sense, this apparent contradiction sums up the essence of modernity, and the whole post-modern agenda.
The other principles of the Reformation seem to explain its historical success. They have the merit of simplicity: the sovereign authority of the Bible and salvation by grace.
Luther specified them in his famous sola.
–Sola Scriptura (« the Scriptures alone »): Canonical texts are the only infallible sources of faith and religious practice. There is no recognized authority for the interpretation of the texts. Exegesis is free, individual. The believer, with an unshakeable faith, is alone in front of the text. Extreme individualism is justified.
–Sola Fide (« Faith alone »): Faith is everything, and works are nothing. The Law can only bring about the Fall. By it, all are condemned. Only faith can save. Human merit can do nothing. Human reason is powerless to grasp an unintelligible God. Luther said it was the « bride of Satan », the « Prostitute ».
–Sola Gratia (« Grace alone »). God chooses a few souls, and to them alone He gives His grace. Luther and Calvin borrowed this idea from St. Paul. There are very few « chosen ones », and the « rest » of humanity is condemned from all eternity to its doom. This theory of Predestination is considered the essential doctrine of Protestantism. iii
The Scriptures alone: the individual is isolated from any communal tradition, and sent back to himself. Faith alone: it is separated from reason. Grace alone: everything, everyone is determined. There is no free will.
These inaugural cuts were later secularized and mundanized. Nowadays, the cult of the individual, the hatred of the common (or, in the speaking of running neo-liberal slogans, the hate of any sort of ‘socialist’ or ´communist’ ideals) , but also the nominalist passion, the deterministic yoke, all bear witness to this.
The sola have five centuries of existence. But they themselves take their sources from very ancient theological disputes. And they now deeply (and paradoxically) imbue a « modern » society that is more and more dechristianized, paganized and disenchanted. They sum up the modern agenda surprisingly well: individualism, nominalism, determinism. Post-modernity will no doubt take on the task of pushing this program ever further. And quite possibly to the extreme and perhaps to the absurd.
Paradoxes and contradictions abound. Predestination, a Pauline and Calvinist idea, analogous to the ancient and pagan fatum, is clearly opposed to the ideas of freedom, will and personal responsibility. It is therefore surprising that this idea of predestination (secularized as determinism) has been able to permeate all modernity. Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Diderot, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Einstein took it up and adapted it, each in his own way.
The rhetorical form of the « sola« , their sharpness, their brittleness, their bleeding edge, must be emphasized. They affirm the « absoluteness » of faith and grace and of the « manifest destiny » of the chosen one,. But as a direct consequence, humanity as a whole is also deemed a « mass of perdition », the (Catholic) Church is judged « satanic », reason seems « diabolical », and free will simply does not exist. All this is not very cheerful. But for those who believe they are on the right side, who will make it, what a triumph!
Max Weber famously explained the link between Protestantism and capitalism, hard work and accumulation. One should now go even further, and also consider its links with the deep economic, social and political decomposition of the « living together », the dissolution of the « glue of the world ».
The pre-eminence of the « chosen one » over the « rest » of humanity justifies everywhere the war of each one against each one, an exacerbated individualism, and propagates hatred of the common. What does the ideology of grace and election imply politically in an overpopulated, compressed planet dominated by structural, systemic injustices? Isn’t the image of the chosen few, hermetically sealing off the world ghetto, the prodrome of a possible final catastrophe?
The dissociation of faith and reason has favored nominalism and anti-rationalism. But after the humiliation of reason, its negation, what can we expect from faith deprived of reason, if not barbarism?
The negation of free will has led to the theological and philosophical justification of determinism, with its innumerable political, economic and social translations. Universal enslavement is on the march – for whose benefit?
It has been written that the doctrine of the Reformer was « childish » iv. The sola can easily be summed up: the individual is ‘separated’, reason is ‘discarded’, freedom is ‘alienated’. Only the « Chosen one », the Faith and the Law remain, — but « alone ».
From this initial base of beliefs, Protestantism developed several variations, not without contradictions.
For example, the Lutheran saint turns away from politics, abandons the kingdom of the earth. On the contrary, the Calvinist ‘chosen one’ seizes the world to transform it. v
Lutheran piety favors the purely interior feeling. Calvinist religiosity is opposed to this quietist flight from the world, and requires engagement, action. vi
Calvin believes that the ´works´ remain a sign of the election. Luther rejects them as a curse.
These differences explain divergent historical destinies: Lutheranism remained confined to Northern Europe, and Calvinism was to be « globalized ». vii
They also reflect the structural problem of Protestantism: how to reconcile the freedom of individual conscience with the demands of community life? How to build a community of belief if the interpretation of the texts is free?
This contradiction was underlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The two fundamental points of the Reformation (the Bible, the only rule of belief, and the believer, the only interpreter of the meaning of the Bible), imply that the Reformed Church cannot have « any profession of faith that is precise, articulated, and common to all its members ». viii
Protestant culture, critical and individualistic, was defined from the outset by an ideal of autonomy and inner freedom, regardless of the weight of the dogma of predestination. Having abolished all authority imposed from outside, the culture of intimate conviction is based on the exercise of personal judgment. The argument of authority being rejected, one must turn to one’s own resources. The soul, alone, seeks its way with the help of its own lights.
This is a strong encouragement for critical exercise. Hence, also, the potential for social or political questioning.
The culture of individualism can lead to a general relativism. The moral segregation of the « chosen » and the « fallen », like all « apartheid », also carries the seeds of decomposition and social fragmentation.
Individualism is not a modern invention. But Protestantism added a radical, metaphysical dimension to it. Salvation depends on an incomprehensible God, who grants his grace without reason. Predestination, assigned from all eternity, is equivalent to establishing an absolute difference between people. Salvation has been given to the chosen few, and to the vast majority of the fallen, has been given the Fall. There is such a difference in destiny between them that it amounts to a difference in nature. Their common humanity itself radically separates them: for some it is a source of divine election and dilection, for others of eternal punishment and damnation.
This metaphysical apartheid is so despairing that it implies social, economic, political, cultural, psychological effects. In several countries of Protestant culture, poverty or social exclusion are considered as the consequence of a moral defect, or even as the visible punishment of an invisible degeneration, willed by God. For Calvin, poverty is a sin, damaging to the glory of God. He had forbidden begging, whereas the Middle Ages had tolerated it, and even exalted it with Francis of Assisi and the mendicant orders. The harshness of English legislation on assistance to the destitute was influenced by this asceticism indifferent to the misfortunes of the world. Michaël Walzerix notes in Calvin, as in English puritan literature, the frequency of warnings aboutmutual aid and human friendship. It is recommended not to trust anyone. The Puritan should only be concerned with his personal salvation. And he has only one possible confidant: God himself.
The certainty of the « chosen ones » to be saved, their metaphysical optimism, are powerful levers for action.
The « saints » believe that the planet, and the entire universe, are offered to them, that they are « manifestly » to be taken, for the greater glory of God, for example by means of force, in the service of highly militarized states. This state of mind also favors the development of capitalism, in its most inegalitarian forms.
A military-industrial economy, an encouragement to grow at all costs, at the expense of the rest of the world, are all assets in the confrontation of the « saints » with a fallen world.
There is no room for the idea of equality in this system. It is God who willed an ontological, metaphysical inequality between the « saints » and the « rest ».
The divine plan includes all individual and collective misfortunes. However unjustifiable they may be to human eyes, misfortunes are part of this divine plan, and they are somehow mysteriously necessary for the election of the few predestined.
Several remarkable psychological consequences can be deduced from this.
The « chosen ones » must believe without fail in their own predestination, they must display unshakeable trust and resolve.
There is no room for doubt. The constant dread of decay and doom provokes in return a need for external signs, for concrete proof of the election. One of the best possible proofs of this election is, for example, to be able to declare war on the rest of the world, and to win it. In such a disposition of mind, how can one avoid Manichaeism, arrogance, contempt?
The « chosen ones » may have a tactical advantage in overlooking the immense distance that separates them from the « fallen ». Hypocrisy and double talk are however recommended. The real thoughts of the « saints » and the opinion of the « chosen ones » about the « fallen » are not publicly avowable. They must hide their contempt and disgust from those whom they think are destined for damnation. What would happen if, crushed with contempt, and lost for lost, the « fallen » revolted?
It is very logical that a religion of election, individualistic and nominalist, propagates hatred of the universal, the general and the common, which are all negations of the gratuitous and inexplicable character of the singular, the particular and the unique. When God has « spoken », when He has « decided » and « chosen », who will dare to evoke reason, justice or equity, to dare contradict ´God´s will´? There is no room for universal salvation before singular grace.
To understand how such radical, astounding, incredible ideas actually arose in the Europe of Erasmus and the Renaissance, one must turn to one of its main ideologues, John Calvin.
For Calvinx, the human heart is completely wretched. Everything in man is unclean. His soul is an abyss, a cavern of garbage and « stench ». Human nature loves evil, and enjoys multiplying it. Man is perverse. Left to himself he is like a beast. All his desires are vicious, defiled, corrupt. Man is nothing but rottenness, and the devil reigns over the world.
There is no recourse to this rot and corruption. Man is lonely and powerless. The world and human society are of no help to him. Decline is irremediable. Whatever he does, whatever his actions, he is damnable. His fate is death and nothingness.
There is, however, a tiny hope. Strangely enough, God wants a few men, rare exceptions, to escape from nothingness.
But a fearsome enemy lies in wait: the devil, who tries to deceive man by imitating God. Hence a perpetual war. The life of the « saint » is a permanent, military combat. To counter the devil, he can resort to violence and war.
If the « saint » loses the battle, God’s punishment awaits: eternal fire and the swarming of worms that gnaw at his heart.
As for the Gnostics and Manicheans, the Calvinist « devil » also embodies the permanent, irremediable cut that separates man from God.
Calvin feels particularly this impenetrability of God, His absolute mystery, His infinite distance from mankind. He makes it a key element of his system. And if Calvin calls himself anti-Manichean like his master, Augustine, he, like him, displays deeply Manichean traits in the very structure of his thought.
Calvin denies Manichean dualism and reaffirms the unity and transcendence of God. But by lowering man and creation to nothingness and pleading the absolute decay of human nature, he recreates a kind of metaphysical dualism between the nature of the One, who is everything, and the nature of creatures, who are nothing. Man has absolutely nothing to do with God. There is no portion of divinity in him, not the slightest spark. The gulf between them is immeasurable. The anguish of such an annihilation is inextinguishable.
Calvin never dreamed of an impossible reconciliation with a « good » God. It is necessary to be content with humble and submissive obedience, to subdue the « vain swelling » of men, to bring down their arrogance.
Only in humility can man understand his nakedness and ignominy. It is necessary to renounce all presumption, however small it may be, and decisively lose all self-confidence. All men are useless. « Their gullet is like an open sepulchre » xi.
The thesis of man’s decay is central, massive. Fallen, man is always alone. He is cut off from God, and he is isolated on earth. After the Fall, he has become an essentially perverse, asocial being. There is nothing to expect from society. Particular vices invariably lead to public error. People are stupid. The whole human race is condemned.
The only exceptions are the few « saints » who have abolished everything in them that is of common nature. For if nature is ´common´, grace absolutely is not.
God separates those He has chosen. He uses the Law as a « wall ». He sets them apart from one another. Calvin reminds us that God did not hesitate to cut off from Israel a multitude of the fallen. This sharp and tough God can go to extremes. Elijah was left alone, after the entire people had been condemned.
The new Law separates « saints » from the fallen, just as the old Law separated Jews from Gentiles. For Calvin, this law is a law of general, absolute exclusion. It separates the chosen few from the rest of the world, but also the chosen ones from each other. All remain irremediably alone.
This general solitude implies a rigorous, assumed individualism. The righteous suffer alone, but it is for his/her own salvation.
The « saint », separated from men, remains a stranger in the world. He/she also remains separated from God. Without reference points, without support of any kind, he/she has no other sign than his/her faith alone.
There is no question of believing that the benefit of grace can be universal, under the pretext that God’s promises are addressed to all and that He is the common father of men. We must harshly castigate the error of those who, using the generality of the (biblical) promises as a pretext, would like to « level the whole human race« .
Yet, it is true that Luke affirmed that salvation is for the whole human race. Could it be possible that the new covenant concerns the whole world? No! The number of the chosen ones is very small, it is infinitesimal. It is God’s hidden treasure.
Decay has an absolute meaning, and it affects the vast majority of creatures. The reprobates are all destined for a total, abyssal nothingness.
God, a loving father, protects the interests of His only children, the « saints », and He is careful to rigorously exclude the « rest », the scum. To a few, all mercy, and grace, to all others all punishment, and doom. Calvin admits that it is « strange » that everything is given or taken away so absolutely. He recognizes the incomprehensible nature of this arbitrariness.
To those who object that the « cruelty » of exclusion is incompatible with God’s mercy, Calvin responds that it is not God who refuses forgiveness. It is sinners who do not ask for it – but he adds that they do not ask for it because God has blinded them .
Calvin has no problem with so few chosen ones in the face of so many fallen. But we must remain cautious. If the ontological fracture between the chosen ones and the fallen were to become known, assumed, claimed, it would obviously bring about atrocious, immense, irreconcilable violence. In such a case, the elected representatives would have to assume the monopoly of a just war and fight against the rest of the world. It is better to keep this burning issue under wraps as long as possible.
The chosen few are neither better nor worse than the fallen, – according to the judgment of men. But they are chosen for other, hidden reasons. It must be concluded that there can be no « common good ». In the face of such inequality of nature and grace, it makes no sense to speak of the good of society as a whole, let alone the good of humanity as a whole. There is no real good other than the good of the chosen ones. The only « common good » is the good of the chosen ones alone, and it consists in the union with God, reserved only for them. The demands of natural morality mean nothing in the face of God’s impenetrable designs. The whole of humanity is now only a kind of background, a setting, a passive figure in the global scene, unintelligible, directed by God.
The election of the presumed elected officials comes with a very high price for the fallen, at least according to common morality. The chosen one must get used to the idea that there is no universal mercy. Faced with the incomprehensibility of his own predestination, he must make the sacrifice of his reason, devalued, unable to provide the slightest explanatory argument.
He must accept the perspective of a fully determined world order, inhabited by creatures deprived of free will and free will. For « we are enslaved ».xii It is our very nature that is enslaved. God is an absolute master who assigns to us without recourse, and without justification, either eternal life or eternal damnation. In any case, the enslavement of men is radical.
The meaning of individual destinies is a mystery that is impossible to unravel. No one is entitled to glorify in one´s divine election, no one is entitled to complain about the decline into which God has thrown him. To apply the norms of earthly justice to divine decrees is completely devoid of meaning.
If by any chance the damned were to complain about an obviously undeserved fate, they would behave like animals who would lament not having been born human.
An important point of the Calvinist view is that the attainment of salvation does not depend in any way on the behavior of the creature. Only God’s will, not human works, is decisive for salvation.
Above all, one should not try to penetrate this « totally incomprehensible » mystery. God is accountable to no one. He can violate the laws of nature as he pleases. « No wind ever rises without God’s special commandment »xiii.
If one even tries to understand, this is a sure sign of corruption…
The chosen one must believe that he is always under the direct control of God. He sees the finger of God in the smallest details of his life. This constant presence strengthens and justifies him, and makes him all the more confident in his predestination.
Puritans never cease to gratify God for their election and their singular perfection. The unequal distribution of the goods of this world seems to them to respond to a special decree of Providence, pursuing its secret ends, and to which there is no need to return, and nothing to correct. Certainly we must not expect from the Puritans a revolt against Providence, or against the social order.
Thomas Adamsxiv believed that if God leaves so many people in poverty, it is probably because they cannot resist the temptations that wealth brings with it.
When material success happens to manifestly « damned » individuals, the Calvinist interprets it as a divine will to harden them in evil…
Calvin did not question his own state of grace and represented himself as a « vase of election » as opposed to the « vases of dejection » xv, the « mud pots ». The chosen ones form an oligarchy, separated from the rest of defiled and corrupt humanity. Their keen awareness of the grace that has fallen to them can incite them to contempt, even hatred, for those they consider enemies, marked with the seal of damnation.
Such awareness of the degradation of others facilitates the encouragement of social segregation. One thinks of these examples of protected areas, exclusive, indifferent to each other’s fate. Communities physically closed to the outside world (gated communities) are a contemporary illustration of elective, individualistic communitarianism.
The Calvinist thesis of the election and separation of « saints » is brutal, ruthless. It has always been highly controversial. Based on divine decrees beyond the reach of human intelligence and reason, it casts a definitive shadow on the capacity of reason to articulate any notion related to divine things. It has inspired disgust and revolt throughout the centuries in souls enamored of justice, provoking their instinctive repulsion.
From a political perspective, the doctrine of predestination points to an elitist, oligarchic, and certainly undemocratic system. It explains why the right to vote must be limited, since there is no reason to give voice and power to the « common », to the multitude of the « fallen ».
This oligarchic system is, however, compatible with the contractual election of political authorities, because the authority can be considered as « elected » by God to fulfill a mission inspired by Him.
We are far from the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The idea of a democracy based on the will of the people is completely foreign to Calvinism. The only thing that counts is the interest of the « saints » and their tightly knit, sacred, invisible community.
This doctrine never ceased to raise serious doubts, given its fantastic and desperate radicalism: « Such a God will never command respect, » said John Milton.
The problems raised are such that Melanchton deliberately avoided introducing this « dangerous and obscure » doctrine into the Augsburg Confession. Max Weber notes that Luther firmly believed that God’s « secret decrees » are the sole source, devoid of apparent meaning, of his own state of grace. The idea of predestination was never central to his concerns. For Lutherans, grace can be lost, but it can also be regained through humility, penance and trust.
For Calvin, on the other hand, the meaning of predestination has been steadily reinforced. The predestined sees himself as one of the masters of the world. He is on a mission on Earth. He is called to intervene for the glory of God in the world in order to transform it.
Thus, under the guise of total humility before divine decrees, Calvinism makes possible the boundless arrogance of the privileged, since the powerful and the rich are supposed to owe their fate to a divine decision. On the other hand, Calvinist ideas introduce the seeds of a certain political passivity towards the powers that be, for all those who find themselves in an inferior social position.
Election implies a radical break between the chosen few and the mass of the fallen; predestination adds to it the idea of the absolute determination of each individual’s destiny, even before the creation of the world.
In this conception, God completely determines all existences. The slightest event is under his control. He counts every hair on every head, and every drop of rain.
Why this integral and permanent control by an all-powerful and omniscient God? The reason for this order of things is hidden. The whole matter is incomprehensible to man. God governs everything, and it is He who dispenses good and evil. All misfortunes, poverty, prison, sickness, happen only by His will. Calvin says that God even goes so far as to marry men badly or give them ungrateful children to teach them humility.
The logical consequence of this universal determinism is irresponsibility. There is never any merit, since there is no free will. God wants His grace to have absolute power.
So what´s the purpose of all this?
One can wonder. What is the point of creating the creation and creatures, if from all eternity the dice of all destinies have already been thrown? Why the Law and the Prophets, if everything is already written, even before the creation of the world, and the works are useless? If neither man’s desire nor effort can do anything,xviwhat is the point of living?
And how can we explain the subjective feeling of freedom that everyone can experience in their lives? Is it just another illusion, sent by a God who is decidedly very manipulative?
Calvin repeats over and over again that there is no point in asking these types of questions: all these mysteries are incomprehensible. As for subjective freedom, it is only apparent. Man is truly stripped of all freedom, and he is necessarily subject to evil. xvii
Even if we have the subjective feeling that something is happening according to our will, we must in fact attribute all the responsibility to God.
For Origen, S. Augustin and S. Thomas Aquinas, reason could help to discern good from evil. The will can choose one or the other. Calvin denies both the power of reason and the power of will.
S. Bernard used to say that all good will is the work of God, but that man can desire this good will with his own heart.
Calvin refuses such compromises. The will is entirely chained, enslaved. Human nature itself has lost all freedom. The (absolutely false) feeling of ´free will´ can only lead to evil and death. It is equivalent to the poisonous fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which gives death.
That is why it is best to move away from these issues. To even mention them is dangerous. From the outset, Calvin invites the « saints » to be very careful. Above all, the doctrine of predestination, which is so pernicious in its implications, must not be divulged to the people. The people could revolt, indulge in laziness and despair, or else, lost for lost, go further and further into evil.
On the one hand, appalling prospects are opening up for the multitude. On the other hand, there is no point in trying to ward off fate, by trying to show good will, by acquiring merits, by means of works.
One cannot dream to be the equal and companion of God. Or even arrogate to oneself the right to be above His council. No! It is not a question of looking for signs of election, by exhibiting such and such a work or such and such an action. Calvin mercilessly hunts down every form of pelagianism. God’s grace gives everything. Man brings nothing, and cooperates in nothing. There is in him only a necessity to sin. It is not that man is devoid of all will. What man lacks is not will, but a healthy will. The will necessarily goes towards evil. In no way does it have the faculty to go towards good.
The so-called freedom of the human will is a trap. This freedom is in reality a servitude, because it leads inevitably, irresistibly, to evil. It enslaves all the more because it believes itself to be « free ».
The most ancient Christian source on all these matters is S. Paul. It was he who inspired the Augustinian and Calvinist theses. But St. Paul offers contradictory formulas. On the one hand, « it is God who makes all things in all » (1 Cor 12:6). On the other hand, « God creates and puts in us the will (Phil 2:13)« . What is will, if it is entirely determined by « a God who makes all things »? And if will is not determined, it is because God does not make « all things in all ».
Far from these subtleties! Calvin suffers no compromise: man is not free, period. He quotes the prophet Jeremiah: « I know, Lord, that the way of man is not free« (Jer. 10:23).
Pelagius was declared a heretic in the 4th century for having maintained that by free will one can abstain from sin, that nature is not bound, and that freedom of choice is always present. S. John Chrysostom admitted a cooperation of will and grace, a possibility to choose between good and evil. More pelagianism!
Calvin absolutely vomits pelagianism. Grace cannot cooperate with the will. It is always God who does all the work. His grace is indispensable at all stages, at all times. It alone makes one free. It is freedom that enslaves. It is grace that makes it possible to do good. It is grace that makes it possible to resist evil. And it is freedom that binds evil.
Calvin goes as far as possible in the direction of predestination and absolute determination. But he is also careful to affirm that his doctrine has no connection, despite appearances, with the fatum of the Stoics.
The fact remains that the two doctrines are similar. What does it matter whether the fate of men is due to fatum or to the hand of God? Being slaves to fate, or enslaved to predestination, is it not the same thing?
There is obviously a language problem. The words freedom and servitude are really only metaphors. « Freedom » is not freedom of choice, since free will is denied. This « freedom » is only the freedom to feel « safe ». It is only a word, or an image, to give confidence in one’s election. The only « freedom » is the freedom to choose to recognize oneself as chosen.
Freedom is in no way a freedom to act on the world. It gives no power. Freedom is only the freedom to free oneself entirely from the crushing yoke of the Mosaic Law. To be « free » for Calvin is to be free from this Law.
Calvinism is based on a fantastic thesis, that of God’s election of a few « saints » and the exclusion of all the rest of humanity. This thesis generates immense anguish among the « chosen ones » themselves. How can one recognize whether one is elected or fallen? How can one be assured of one’s election? In this life, the chosen ones are in no way distinguished, externally, from the reprobates. In fact, all the subjective experiences of the former are also within the reach of the latter, with the exception, however, of persevering and faithful trust.
The very fact of asking oneself this question (« Am I chosen? ») is already a sign that one is giving in to the devil. Calvin affirms it: it is impossible to find proof of election in man. Nor can they be found in God. So where then?
The only mirror of the election is Christ. To be elected implies reflecting Christ himself; which is certainly not within the reach of the first to come. Moreover, the chosen one must prove his election by leaving no room for doubt. Any kind of doubt is a symptom of degeneration.
The chosen one must be content to know that God has decided his destiny from all eternity. He must persevere in the unshakeable confidence that he is one of the fortunate chosen ones, this confidence being moreover the sign of his true faith.
God cannot be satisfied with anything man does. On the other hand, He can accuse him of a thousand crimes. The smallest defilement is enough to invalidate any work. There is no intermediary between perfection and nullity. It is all or nothing.
However, the works remain indispensable, not for their value, which is null, but as « signs of election ». It is less the works that signify this election than their absence, which testifies to the decline. The (good) works that one has not done give a bad signal. But the (good) works that one has done also give a bad signal, if by misfortune one should glorify in them. The only merit is to acknowledge that one has no merit at all.
In short, works are indispensable, but they are nothing in front of faith, in which everything is concentrated. It is faith alone that gives works their value, not the other way around.
Among the early apostles, this question had been the subject of debate. Against St. Paul, St. James affirmed that faith without works is « dead in itself » and that it is therefore « useless ». But for Calvin, this fundamental divergence between Paul and James is only a simple battle of words.
Faith does not need works, nor does it need reason. The mystery of God is totally beyond man and remains entirely elusive to the intellect. Reason is only capable of foolish daydreaming, and intelligence leads only to error and chimeras.
Thinkers and poets are like « barking dogs ». The doctrines of men are of straw, compared to the Spirit, which is of fire. Philosophers can teach us nothing about the soul. They are « sophists ». Calvin rains insults down on the Sorbonne. The Jesuits are « scum ». Clerics are « swine ».
All men decidedly are « of nothingness » and can only conceive « of nothingness ».
There are, obviously, some political and societal consequences to Calvinism…
God determines all societies. He is the cause of all political realities. He institutes the powerful.xviii No matter the qualities of the leaders, or their faults. They are put where they are by God.xix The power of princes is due to God, but the power of popes is due to the devil. The Church is a sham. It is the fantasy of men. The only true and only invisible Church is that of the « saints ».
The coexistence of the two kingdoms, the earthly and the spiritual, is a fact. There are like two worlds in man. They must be carefully distinguished, and the Christian must submit to the laws of one and the other. Above all, the existing order must not be called into question, because it is willed by God. xx
God established the social and political order for all men, including the « saints ». Moral discipline must strengthen the bonds between the members of their community, their « Church ». Calvin defines it as a political society and even as a republic of « princes ».
This republic has the vocation to extend to the whole State, if it happens fortunately that the « saints » occupy the power. Thus Calvin urged the pastors of Geneva to demand in 1537 that the entire city make a public profession of faith, following the model of the covenant pact between God and the Jews.
The « saint » is a militant, a soldier who carries « the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the spiritual sword ».xxi He must participate in the life of the community, and in the government of the Christian republic if it comes to power.
The republic of the « saints » must compel the godless and the unelected to submit to God’s law, including the use of force and war.
Calvin repeatedly insists on the need for restriction and social control because of man’s wickedness. Submission to the system and repression are necessary to counteract its effects. Tyranny is acceptable, from this perspective, because it serves to maintain society. xxii
Luther also preached obedience to superiors and submission to the prince. Every man is bound to accept his conditions of existence, since they are due to Providence. But unlike Calvin, Luther does not encourage the « saints » to take care of the earthly city, much less to direct it. The saints are first and foremost citizens of the heavenly city.
For Calvin, political reality is an embodiment of God’s will. Hence an extremely conservative vision of politics, strewn with serious contradictions, and also, in germ, a potentially devastating ambiguity for the powers that be.
When a political power is successfully overthrown, should we not also see in it the direct action of the divine will? If everything happens by God’s will, a victorious revolution can and must be considered part of the divine plan.
But then, the « saints » could be led to allow themselves all kinds of revolt against the established order, if they judge inwardly that they are called to do so. The success of their revolt will be the sign justifying seditious acts a posteriori. Are not the chosen few convinced that they are instruments of God? God has marked them, predestined them, « called » them. They carry in their conscience the assurance of the divine will. Their intimate conviction is their only order of mission. Can this mission not go as far as revolt against the tyrant?
Calvinism carries a strong political conservatism, but, if the opportunity arises, it can also open the door to forms of anarchy.
Calvin pushed his political ideas much further than Luther, with uncompromising radicalism that was not devoid of sharp ambiguities. He is a master of equivocation, a flowery and devious casuist. He cautiously seeks to hide from the common eye the inevitable consequences of his dogmatic extremism. He is aware that his harshest, most ruthless theses could not be revealed without danger to the immense crowd of the « damned » and the putative « fallen ».
How could the « fallen » live for a long time in a world that promises them nothing? In the interest of the « chosen ones » themselves, efforts must be made to preserve civil peace. The tragic and definitive nature of their destiny must be concealed from the « fallen ». That is why a rhetoric of ambiguity, « tolerance » and hypocrisy is necessary, in order to safeguard the political and social order for as long as possible.
This order has an implicit structure. It obeys a fundamental idea: men must be « separated » from one another, — not « reunited », as the Papists wish.
Calvin predicts the final « sacrifice » of men on the altar of God. Knowing this perspective, it is certainly not his priority to seek to « reconcile » men.
From this point of view, Calvinism anticipates Hobbes’ authoritarianism and political cynicism. Calvin’s tyranny of the divine is the implacable model of the necessary tyranny of Leviathan.
The Reformation occupies a special place in the history of the West. It called into question the entire classical, pre-modern tradition. It took the opposite side of the humanism of the Renaissance. It affirmed a principle of separation and exclusion, dividing the world into two irreducible camps. It proclaimed the election of a few « chosen ones » and the forfeiture of almost all humanity. It drew a definitive line of demarcation between a few « chosen ones » and the immense mass of the « fallen ».
The theological or philosophical questions stirred up by Luther and Calvin had ancient roots. The themes of freedom and necessity, of reason and faith, had been debated since the dawn of Christianity. But the Reformation suddenly gave them a singularly sharp solution through the addition of several negations (the sola), and through a metaphysics of the cut.
The Reformation articulated a triple « no », a « no » to humanity, a « no » to reason and a « no » to freedom. The individual, separated from every community and every tradition, faces alone the mystery of the Scriptures. Reason is rejected; faith alone is accepted. Freedom is nothing more than alienation before grace and predestination.
The impact of these radical ideas, apparently so far removed from contemporary modernity, was profound, matrix-like, as we shall see.
Harnack said that the essence of Christianity should be sought in its germs, not in what came out of it. The multiplicity of Churches, the diversity of spiritualities and sects must not lead us astray. What is important are the mother ideas.
Protestantism has undeniably multiplied the variations; there are myriads of them. But they share some original seed ideas.
Different moments in the history of religious ideas have contributed to this. The most significant influences come from Paulinism, Gnosticism, Augustinism.
A little less than 2000 years ago, Paul initiated the first controversy in the history of Christianity. The issue for Jewish Christians was whether certain aspects of the Jewish Law should be renounced in order to make faith in the Gospel more accessible to non-Jews. For example, should new converts to Christianity also be circumcised?
In other words, in a more abstract style, what has primacy, faith or Law?
At the conclusion of a debate between himself and Peter, Paul said: « We can agree: to you the Gospel of circumcision, to me the Gospel of the foreskin ».
He set out to preach the faith of Christ to the uncircumcised Gentiles around the Mediterranean. Peter remained in Jerusalem, among the Judeo-Christians, respectful of the Mosaic Law. Paul declared that he would be the apostle of the faith, and that Peter was the apostle of the Law.
This was basically the resurgence of a fundamental duality that existed within Judaism itself, that of the Law and that of the Prophets. On the one hand, the Law separates Israel from the rest of the world. On the other hand, Prophets like Isaiah dream of « gathering all the nations ».
Paul’s doctrine immediately appeared to be « folly to the Greeks and scandal to the Jews ». Emphasizing faith, he also affirmed the predestination of souls, and declined it in its ultimate consequences. Fates are decided even before the foundation of the world. He also claimed a strong conservatism, showing his detachment from politics. xxiii At the height of Nero’s reign, he advocated submission to the tyrant. xxiv
Luther and Calvin mimicked his tone and posture. They borrowed his pessimism, the idea of predestination, the separation of the fallen from the chosen ones, the antinomy of faith and reason from faith and works, and indifference to politics.
If the main themes of Calvinism have their origin in Paul’s thought, it is important to note that the latter remains more complex, diverse, and deeper and. Paul put faith in the pinnacle, but he also placed charity above faithxxv. He affirmed that faith has no use for works, without renouncing them. He was not a pelagian, but he spoke of « the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his works »xxvi. He recognized the fortunate fate of the chosen ones, but he also implied that salvation must be universal, and that it must be for the whole world. God will have mercy on all. All men have a vocation to be saved. All barriers must be broken down.
Paul also took the side of the weak and the foolish, xxvii and he defended the general interest, putting particular gifts at the service of all. xxviii
In spite of his defiance of reason, Paul reconciled it with faith. xxix He believed in predestination, but defended the prospect of a moral metamorphosis of everyonexxx and he was a prophet of freedom. xxxi
It is difficult to lock all these elements into a coherent system.
Renan and Harnack considered Paul a crypto-gnostic thinker, and even a kind of « Simon the Magician ». He seemed to give in to dualistic forms of thought. And his ideas were pushed to the extreme by some of his followers. The Gnostics, who were flourishing in the dying days of Rome, seized them for their own use.
Gnosis, which appeared in the Greco-Roman world between the 1st and 3 rd centuries, tried to formulate the « philosophy » that was missing from the Gospel. It wanted to Hellenize Christianity, but it also wanted to do this without the Old Testament. It denigrated the God « creator » and « lawgiver » celebrated in the Torah as opposed to the figure of the God « savior » of the Gospel.
The early followers of Jesus were not preoccupied with philosophy. But the new converts, with a culture more Greco-Roman than Semitic, were asking questions, they needed explanations, systems. The Gnostics tried to superimpose on Christianity an outline of theology, a set of dogmas. They undertook to add metaphysics, theogony, cosmology and a philosophy of history.
The name « gnosis » (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge) testifies to their intentions: to attain absolute knowledge, the knowledge of God. Renan notes that the word gnostic (gnosticos) has the same meaning as the word Buddha, « he who knows ». Gnosticism claimed to be the path to the integral knowledge of God, the world and history.
The original Church immediately fought the Gnostic sects, considered « poisonous vegetation ». There was no shortage of points of profound disagreement.xxxii
The Judeo-Christians wanted to preserve the legacy of the Law and the Prophets, which Christ had said he had not come to « abolish » but to « fulfill ». They wanted to maintain their connection with the Hebrew Scriptures. But the Scriptures, because of certain contradictions with the message of Jesus, required at least new interpretations.
Interpretation is always possible, and one does not deprive oneself of it. But a Hellenization of the Jewish Bible, in the philosophical way, was obviously impossible. This is why the Gnostic schools, which in the 2nd century applied the ways of thinking of Greek philosophy, did not want to recognize the Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Instead, they built a philosophical system mixing Greek reason and Eastern mysticism, and focusing on Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of the world.
Some specialists agree on the name of Simon the Magician, as being at the origin of the Gnostic heresy. Who was this Simon? Ernest Renan, with his usual taste for provocation, supported by impeccable references, guesses that Simon the Magician could well be Paul himself. Adolf von Harnack, more cautious, also puts forward this hypothesis but does not settle the question.
Whether or not he was Simon the Magician, Paul divided the early Christians. He influenced the new converts with his anti-Judaism turned against the Law, and he alienated the Judeo-Christians who wanted to « save » the Old Testament. He inspired those who stood against Tradition to universalize the Gospel message. He wanted the « good news » to be proclaimed to all nations, not only to the people of the Old Covenant.
The Gnostic theorists (Menander, Saturnine, Basilides, Valentin the Egyptian, Marcion of Sinope, Carpocrates, Bardesanes) took up and transformed the Pauline ideas.
To salvation by faith or works, the Gnostics substituted salvation by knowledge, salvation by Gnosis. What kind of knowledge is this? Let us summarize. The divine Being is infinite, His nature is inconceivable, far above all human thought. From Him emanate « intermediate » beings (the Aeons). Among them, the Demiurge, creator of the Cosmos. He is an evil being, for Matter is the receptacle of Evil. The material world was created by evil powers, and the mere fact of existing is sinful, since the existence of the world is due to a fallen Spirit.
The God of the Old Testament, creator of the world and its imperfections, is none other than this Demiurge. The Gnostics thus reject the Jewish Bible since it deifies the creator of a « satanic » world.
To this Creator God, to this wicked Demiurge, they oppose the Savior God, the Good God.
It is He who sanctifies and delivers the chosen few, separating their spirit from matter and the world. The vulgar profane is excluded from salvation. Basilides has this characteristic formula: « We are men; the others are only pigs and dogs »xxxiii, and this other one: « I speak for one in a thousand ». xxxiv
Gnosticism is profoundly dualistic. God, the principle of Good, is separated from the world whose Matter is the principle of Evil. The Spirit of God can in no way take part in this material world, which is essentially evil. He could not incarnate himself in human flesh, doomed to evil. We must therefore distinguish the « two natures »: that of Jesus, simply a man, and that of Christ, a divine being. Christ is a pure spirit; his incarnation is only an illusion, a simple appearance (in Greek « dokèsis« , hence the name given to this doctrine: Docetism).
Many Gnostic ideas offer analogies with Calvinism: the domination of Evil over this world, a marked dualism between Good and Evil, the election of a few saints and the forfeiture of all, the impossibility of understanding anything about divine things through reason, revelation reserved for the chosen few.
On the other hand, some ideas of Gnosis are frankly incompatible with Christianity, reformed or not. Thus the idea that the God of the Bible is a « bad God ».
Gnosis was immediately refuted by the Church. Marcion was excommunicated in 144 in Rome. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon attacked the Gnostics in Against Heresies. To their dualism and pessimism, he opposed the unity of the Old and New Testaments and an optimistic vision of the fall of Adam and Eve, redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ.
But in the 3rd century, Gnosticism resumed a second life with Mani, who preached throughout the Middle East. His ideas reached a vast area, from Gaul to China. Manichaeism, influenced by ancient Iranian Mazdeism and Indo-Iranian Zoroastrianism, and imbued with Buddhist elements, embodies an extreme version of Gnosis.
The universe is cut in two, on one side Good and light, on the other side Evil and darkness. Light and darkness have coexisted since the beginning, without mixing. Manichaeism postulates that a universal catastrophe took place at the beginning of the world, and that darkness then entered into the realm of light. The battle of light and darkness is that of good and evil. Satan, the « Prince of Darkness, » stands against God, the God of Light.
Participating in this struggle, the Manichean must help to restore order, to end the confusion. On one side must be the light, on the other the night. Since the soul of every man is woven of light and his body weighed down with matter, the primary objective is to separate one from the other. Once the break is complete, the soul will melt into the great divine light.
The Fathers of the Church endeavored to respond to the theses of the Gnostics and Manicheans.
Clement of Alexandria, a disciple of the Platonic School, argued that Christianity is reconcilable with a rational philosophy, and that faith can go with reason. Christ is the Logos, he embodies the rational law of the world, dispensed for the benefit of all humanity. Universal salvation, operating throughout the history of humanity, is guaranteed by the goodness of God and the responsibility of man.
Tertullian argued that the Gnostic conception of a God who was supposed to be sovereignly powerful, but who remained inactive, passive, « inert », « lethargic », was contradictory, contrary to common sense, and scandalous.
The good God must have an obligation to manifest Himself through His works. He cannot remain hidden, for that would be tantamount to making the good God a « perverse » God, complicit in the cruelty and barbarity of the Demiurge.
If the goodness of the good God does not apply to all, if it does not save men in general, it is because it is imperfect, « defective and small, » which is contradictory. Consequently, universal salvation is certain.
Origen reaffirmed the uniqueness of the divine principle, against the dualism of Marcion, Valentine and Basilides. God is the one power, both creator and savior of the world. All the diversity of the world will be brought back, at the end of time, to the unity of a perfect accord.
The good God is also the righteous God, since in the divine nature one cannot conceive of goodness without justice, nor justice without goodness.
God, good and just, uses no coercion; He preserves the freedom of each spirit, but He does so with such wisdom that all end up contributing to the world’s harmony.
Origen conceived of the universe as « an immense and huge animal », governed by God’s reason, as by a single soul. All spirits are equal. Souls can fail, but they can also grow and progress, and return to God. No soul can fail forever and irretrievably.
Origen emphasized the free will of the soul, and the kinship between human reason and divine nature. At the end of time, the inevitable inequalities and divergences caused by the diversity of intelligences, will be resorbed in a single agreement, in a « common » world.
Origen’s optimism offers an invigorating antidote to the pessimism of modern times. He was the forerunner of a political philosophy of globalization and a political theology of salvation for all.
Among those who attacked Gnosis, St. Augustine occupies a special place because he himself was a victim of the Manichean heresy, as he recounts in his Confessions. After his radical break with Manichaeism and his conversion to Christianity, he tackled the famous question of the existence of evil.
For Gnosis, the principle of evil was at the center. Evil is the Demiurge, the irreconcilable adversary of the God of Salvation.
Augustine purely and simply denied the existence of evil. Evil is nothing but the deprivation of good. Evil is a non-being. Whatever one may think of this assertion, it cannot be denied that it is fundamentally non-dualistic.
Augustine, however, did not remove from his thought any dualistic tendency. He affirmed the irremediable rupture between the elect and the fallen, and emphasized the opposition between the evil which has dominated the world since original sin and the salvation which can come only from God alone.
The first Fathers of the Church therefore immediately rebelled against Gnostic dualism and pessimism, because they threatened the essential message of the Gospel. Harnack believes that the entire history of medieval thought can be interpreted as a « Catholic » attempt to protect oneself against the Gnostic syndrome.
But one could also interpret the end of the Middle Ages as in fact announcing the revenge of Gnosis on Catholicism, a revenge that was to be fully revealed through the successes of the Reformation.
Through it, Gnosis has succeeded in reintroducing acute forms of dualism and irremissible pessimism into Western thought and into modernity as a whole.
Dualism and pessimism, shared by the Reformation and Gnosis, also have a deep, structural relationship with modern times. Eric Voegelin puts it this way: Modern times are a failure of history, they represent a regression, a return to paganism and Gnosis. This is why he proposes to qualify the modern era as « Gnostic ».
Hans Blumenberg, while protesting against this radical thesis, nevertheless confirms it in partxxxv. Modern times are not a « new Gnosis », according to him. They represent « the overcoming of Gnosis, » he proposes. Midern times have assimilated Gnosis, they have dialecticized it and pushed it to its limits.
The pagan regression and the Gnostic temptation had already manifested themselves forcefully from the beginning of Christianity, but were apparently refuted. The Middle Ages had also tried to eradicate Gnosis, which was always resurgent.
If we follow Voegelin, the Reformation partially reintroduced certain Gnostic themes into the framework of reformed Christianity, such as the dualism of good and evil, the pessimism attached to an evil world, and « knowledge » (or « grace ») reserved for the « chosen ones ».
In the reading if Voegelin, the history of modern times would testify to the return in force of a new Gnosis, including in a secularized and mundanized form, — in the philosophies of the Enlightenment, in Hegelianism or in positivism.
But if we can really affirm that modern times are « Gnostic », then we must also recognize that they are in a head-on opposition to original Christianity.
Hans Blumenberg refuses to adopt this clear-cut thesis (of Voegelin). He still wants to « save » modernity, to « legitimize » it. Original Christianity still has a role to play in this legitimized modernity. What role? The answer depends on how one looks at the Reformation. Does the Reformation embody Christian modernity, or is it decidedly nothing more than a new Gnosis?
If the Reformation was influenced by Gnosis, as Voegelin thinks, if it even embodies a new Gnosis, then one could induce the « illegitimacy » of modern times.
Blumenberg refuses this fatal judgment. Modern times have been able to « overcome » Gnosis, he says. As a result, the Reformation and modernity can both be « saved », one with the other. In support of the thesis of « overcoming the Gnosis », Blumenberg asserts two things. On the one hand, modern times have overcome the dualism of the Creator God and the Savior God, and on the other hand, they have promoted a new « quality of consciousness ».
Let us analyze these two arguments.
The dualism of the Creator God and the Savior God was Marcion’s main thesis. For him, the idea of a single God, both creator and savior, was contradictory because if God is the sole creator and all-powerful of the world, He cannot really want the destruction of His own creation. That an « almighty » God needs to save His own creation is illogical. It was more logical that there was a creator God opposing the savior God, and that the latter had to defeat the former. The good God, a « stranger » to the world, could then annihilate a cosmos He had not created, and preach disobedience to a Law He had not given. Redemption was equivalent to enlightening man on the fundamental imposture of the Cosmos and the Law, both due to the evil God. And Gnosis represented and explained the « knowledge » of this imposture.
But the price of the break, the cost of the separation between the « foreign » God and the world, is the loss of metaphysical and cosmic unity, and the destruction of trust in the world, now the place of evil.
Men must then leave behind them the world, a foreign land, a land of evil. They are invited to emigrate to heaven, as in « a beautiful foreign land », by the grace of the good God.
Gnosis promised this salvation to its followers at the price of demonizing the world. It was necessary to radically reject this evil, demonic world.
But Christian thinkers have always denied the Gnostic thesis of the evil world. They still wanted to save the Cosmos, and to maintain a profound unity between the immanence of the world and divine transcendence. The world cannot be only the prison of evil. Evil cannot remain undefeated. Man can and must be responsible for the world. xxxvi
For them God can still be both creator and savior.
Blumenberg says that this solution represents in fact the « first overcoming » of Gnosis by the modern thinkers.
The « second overcoming » of Gnosis took place with the appearance of a new « quality of consciousness », with the awareness of human freedom.
The « chosen one » has the task of testifying to his or her election. He is responsible for the state of the world, he finds himself the bearer of a demand turned towards the future, seeking in action the proof of his grace. He can undertake to assert himself. This is how modernity began. The world can be « bad » or « indifferent », but the « chosen one » asserts himself as free, creative.
Copernicus had shown the true place of humanity, relegated to the confines of the universe. Lost on the margins of the world, men had to invent a role, a mission. Faced with the mute, silent cosmos, they were lost in infinity, their only territory was their own representations. All they had to do was define and express a will, — a will to represent, a will to build, a will to live.
Man was lost in the cosmos, but he could also assert himself without limits, and go beyond a universe that denied him.
The beginning of modern times corresponded to this moment: the individual was to be magnified, in an indifferent world. This was the « second overcoming » of Gnosis, according to Blumenberg.
Did these two « overcoming » really take place? Did the Augustinian moment and the Copernican moment really make it possible to « overcome » Gnosis?
This is doubtful.
By liquidating the Middle Ages, modern times have in fact revived, at a new cost, the old Gnostic dualism and pessimism. Gnosis is more modern than ever: evil is still there, and man is still not free.
It is extremely significant that from the beginning of the modern age the Reformation claimed the ideas of predestination, serfarbitrage, original sin, and condemned mankind to decay and doom, except for the chosen few.
Against Blumenberg’s arguments, it must be affirmed that the Reform does not « overcome » Gnosis. It only « transposes » it.
Augustine himself had not really « overcome » Gnosis. He fought against it vigorously at the end of the Roman Empire. But did he explain the evil? Was he able to convince the following generations, including the future « modern » ones, that evil is only a « non-being »? Luther was once an Augustinian monk. The immense work of Augustine was not enough, it seems, to persuade Luther and Calvin, these two « moderns », of the non-essence of evil.
Augustine had kept from the Manichean influence of dualistic inflections and a turn of thought favoring sharp cuts and absolute oppositions: the dualism of sin and grace, the separation between « men who live according to man » and « men who live according to God », the cut between « heaven from heaven » and earth, the abyss between God and nothingness.
Augustine had been in all the battles of his time, against Pelagius and against Mani, against the Donatists and against the Aryans. These struggles against heresies helped to ensure Catholic dogma. But these very successes could lead to slippery slopes. Some of Augustine’s ideas did not fail to pose serious problems from the point of view of dogma. The quarrels on the merit of works, between pelagians, semi-pelagians and anti-pelagians, or on the question of predestination, bear witness to this. Augustine continued to stir up a latent opposition within the official Church on these questions, because of the extremist conclusions that could be drawn from some of his positions. Harnack summed it up as follows: Over the centuries, « the Church has become more and more secretly opposed to Augustine ». xxxvii
Before Augustine, the Fathers of the Church advocated the morality of popular, stoic, pelagian Christianity, attached to the merit of works, not without rationalist accents. Augustine’s morality is completely at odds with this tradition. It is an anti-Pelagian, fidelistic, elitist morality, reserved for an elite of predestined chosen ones. Although far removed from common sense, this new conception of morality was to see its influence develop and extend to the present day, after having been taken up by the Reformation.
In the 5th century, in the face of Augustine’s doctrine, other trends of thought crossed Christianity, such as neo-Platonism or Stoicism, which could have imposed themselves then.
But Augustine favored the victory of a radical conception, highly improbable and very unpopular. It can be summed up in one sentence: only a few predestined chosen ones will be saved. As for the « mass », it is lost forever: massa perditionis.
Until then Christians had had a rather optimistic view of human nature and a reasonable hope for themselves. There was no reason to sink into despair. The word « gospel » is translated from the Greek as « Good News ».
Augustine quite accentuated the Pauline pessimism and made it more rigorous. Evil was the lever of all human action. Men had no enemies but themselves. Everything that was not God was sin. In God alone was good. It was necessary to surrender unconditionally to God, and to submit entirely to the Church.
Before Augustine, people oscillated between the fear of punishment and the unreasoned hope of salvation. People relied on free will and on their own merits to save their souls.
Augustine asserted that sin is inherent in man. The fall of Adam is the source of damnation for all. For the chosen few, there is the infinitesimal hope of grace.
The Church took up some of these conceptions. The Christian, convinced that he was a sinner, had to renounce his own strength for his salvation, and keep trust in the grace of the merciful God.
But on the questions of the merit of works, election and predestination, the Church was less assured. One could not deduce the idea of predestination from the words of Jesus. It was first of all a Pauline idea, not a Christic one. On this point Augustine had thus innovated in relation to the evangelical tradition, pushing Paul’s views to their extreme consequences. Hence the strong opposition within the Church, especially on the part of the monastic orders.
Departing from the Christianity of the « Good News », Augustine had inflected Catholic dogma in a generally pessimistic sense for the mass of sinners. He had never completely overcome the Manicheism of his youth. His doctrine of sin always contained a latent Gnostic element. The very structure of his thought was, as has been noted, dualistic, in the Manichean manner (God and the fall, sin and grace, the two « Cities »). Harnack sums up Augustine’s Gnosticism in a lapidary formula: « Augustine is a second Marcion ».
Clarifying this link between Augustine and Gnosis, Hans Blumenbergxxxviii compared the Augustinian dogma of universal fault to Marcion’s belief in the « wickedness » of the Old Testament legislator. The doctrine of absolute predestination and the few chosen ones is borrowed from St. Paul, and is perfectly compatible with the gnosis of the corruption of the world.
Augustine had criticized in his writings the Gnostic and Manichean dualism and supported the principle of the unity of all creation in God. But he introduced another form of dualism: the separation of the elect and the outcast, which implies a divine responsibility for evil. Predestination gives God an initial role in cosmic corruption.
This is why Blumenberg admits that Augustine did not « overcome » Gnosis, but only « transposed » it. He sketched the figure of an almighty and hidden God, with absolute and incomprehensible sovereignty. And Gnosis continued to appear in Augustinism, under the species of the irremediable rupture between the elect and the fallen, in the abysmal darkness of the divine plan.
Augustinism did not contribute little to establishing in Christianity the « terror » of a divine order of Gnostic structure. The invention of purgatoryxxxix in the early Middle Ages was an attempt to calm the panic of uncertain, potentially damned souls. It was not until a certain return of reason, at the height of medieval scholasticism, that Gnosis was intellectually refuted. This refutation was, moreover, far from being definitive. Its multiple subsequent resurgences, in other forms, to the present day, bear witness to this. xl
The original fault, the eternal guilt of man, the resignation before the predestination to good or evil, affecting each individual, the annulment of all individual responsibility in the state of the world, the denial of reason, the renunciation of transforming by action a fundamentally fallen reality, these are all new heads constantly pushing back on the Gnostic Hydra, decidedly not defeated.
Paul and Augustine had one thing in common with Marcion and Mani: a taste for dualism.
Augustine, for his part, conceived a synthesis of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Paulinism intertwined with original Christianity. Through his own Gnosticism, « not outmoded » but « transposed », and through the affirmation of predestination, he was undoubtedly one of the precursors of the Reformation.
In fact, the Reformation could itself be considered as a modern « transposition » of Gnosis. Calvin’s work has been assimilated to a « Gnostic Koran » by E. Voegelin.xli Luther or Calvin were not second or third Marcion. But, just as Augustine « transposed » Gnostic ideas at the time of the crisis of the Roman Empire, Luther and Calvin ensured the « transposition » of Augustinism and Gnosticism into early modern times.
In conclusion, it is necessary to understand the depth of the influence of the mother ideas contained in the Lutheran sola. These ideas were then widely received by « modernity », under the species of nominalism, determinism and individualism.
(To be continued).
iCf. H. Blumenberg. The Legitimacy of Modern Times. 1999
iiSee E. Troeltsch. Protestantism and modernity. 1911
iii« The idea of predestination, the guiding axis of the only effective system produced by the Reformation ». Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinism and Lutheranism (1909)
ivQuoted by Lucien Febvre, in Martin Luther, un destin, 1928. Foreword to the 2nd edition, 1944
v« The Lutheran saint, in his quest for the invisible kingdom of heaven, turns away from politics and abandons the kingdom of the earth, in Luther’s own words, to whomever he takes it. Calvin’s secular commitment, his concern for organization, prompts him to « take » the kingdom of the earth and transform it. » Michael Walzer. The revolution of the saints. Paris, 1987
vi« Lutheranism tolerates the world through the cross, suffering and martyrdom; Calvinism masters this world for the glory of God through unremitting toil. » Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinismand Lutheranism, 1909
vii« Lutheranism remained confined to its country of origin, Germany, and Scandinavia. Calvinism has acquired a worldwide status. » Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinismand Lutheranism, 1909.
viii« If one wanted to have one, in that very thing one would hurt evangelical freedom, one would renounce the principle of the Reformation, one would violate the law of the State. J.J. Rousseau. Letters written from the mountains.
xviiThe Christian Institution, II,3,5. Chapter 2 of Book II has the title: « That man is now stripped of the free will of the freewill and miserably subject to all evil.
xviii« God puts the sword and the power in the hands of those whom it pleases Him to set over others. Lessons from the book of Daniel’s prophecies, Geneva, 1569
xix« It must be enough for us that they preside. For they have not ascended to this high degree by their own virtue: but they have been put there by the hand of the Lord. « Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, XIII, 1
xx« It is not for us to inquire into what right and title a prince has to rule… and whether he has that of rightful succession and inheritance. Sermons on the First Epistle to Timothy, Sermon 46, vol. LIII
xxxvi Five years after turning away from Manichaeism and a year after his baptism, Augustine wrote De libero arbitrio, Of free will. In it, freedom of will is described as a means for God to punish man with the evils of the world. God modifies the initially perfect world to make it an instrument of justice exercised over man, justice rightly exercised since man is free and responsible.
xxxviiiH. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of Modern Times. 2nd part. Theological Absolutism and Man’s Self-affirmation.
xxxixCf. Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du purgatoire.
xlOne thinks of the manifestly Gnostic texts of C.G. Jung, Seven Sermons to the Dead in Symbolic Life, Psychology and Religious Life, and ofHenry Corbin, Heavenly Earth and Body of Resurrection: from Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Islam.
xliCf. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics. « The Reformation clearly marked a period in Western history: that of a successful invasion of Western institutions by the Gnostic movements. (…) Calvin’s work can be considered as the first Koran deliberately Gnostic. »
J’avais sept ans. Un matin humide d’octobre, marchant vers l’école, je fus soudain, dans une fulgurance, conscient de ma conscience. Jusqu’alors, de la conscience m’habitait certes, mais dans une sorte d’évidence vague, ouatée, sans pourquoi, ni comment. J’étais conscient d’exister, de vivre, pendant les premières années de la petite enfance, mais sans que je fusse pleinement conscient de la nature unique, du fait même de la conscience, du fait brut de l’existence de la conscience, et de toutes ses implications. Un voile brusquement se déchirait. En un instant, je me découvris singulièrement « présent » au monde, je me sus « là », considérant ma présence dans ce « là », cette présence à moi que jusqu’alors j’avais royalement ignorée. Je me vis pour la première fois consciemment « présent » à moi-même.
J’en déduisis aussitôt que, tout ce temps, j’avais été inconsciemment « conscient », « conscient » et inconscient de cette « conscience ». Un monde nouveau s’ouvrit. Je commençai à penser ceci : que je me sentais à la fois conscient de mon inconscience et de ma conscience.
Dès la conception, la conscience s’insinue lentement en elle-même, sous la forme d’infimes mais multiples événements de proto-conscience, au niveau des cellules de l’embryon, qui commencent aussitôt à se différencier, et à se singulariser. Embryons minuscules de conscience, dans les replis de l’embryon.
La conscience du « moi » proprement dit n’apparaît que bien plus tard, après la naissance, à l’âge dit « de raison ». Non pas lentement, mais soudainement.
L’idée du « moi » se présente à l’improviste, comme une fente, une fissure, une fêlure, dans le ciment de l’être. Fini l’uni. Terminée l’apnée. Un souffle, un vent d’inspiration écarte le voile. C’est comme si l’on faisait un pas de côté, et que l’on marchait dès lors à côté de soi-même, à quelque distance. Un dévoilement, et non un déchirement. Une révélation, et non un tourment. Une route, et non un doute.
J’ai très peu de rêves dont je suis conscient au réveil. Comme si la barrière entre le Soi et le Moi était opaque, étanche. Le Soi et le Moi, chacun pour soi. Chacun dans son monde propre, et rares, bien rares, les passerelles, les raccourcis, les sentes, les voies, les pistes, les liant.
Tout se passe comme si le Soi était excédé du Moi, et le Moi las du Soi.
Le Soi : un inconscient vide de toute conscience, – mais qui est plein de ce vide. Plein de la vérité de ce vide. Plein d’un éveil plénier au vide. Et à la liberté qui s’ensuit. Plus on approche du fond de ce vide, plus on se sent libre.
Le monde paraît avec la conscience, et disparaît avec elle. La conscience a donc une puissance d’être comparable à celle du monde. Une puissance complémentaire, duale, d’un poids métaphysique au moins équivalent, celui du sujet par rapport à l’objet. En mourant, nous emportons cette puissance, intacte.
Il y a trois sortes de consciences, parmi les créatures dites raisonnables.
Les consciences défaillantes, les conscientes désirantes, et les consciences secourables.
Les premières sont tombées en naissant dans les corps, par suite de « la défaillance de leur intelligence »i.
Les secondes y ont été entraînées par « le désir des réalités visibles »ii.
La troisième catégorie de consciences, les plus rares, sont descendues avec l’intention de porter secours aux deux premières.
Dans leur dévouement, leur altruisme, elles ont fait preuve, elles aussi, d’une certaine défaillance, et d’un grand désir.
Ne me séduit guère ce qui fut, et qui me précède. Le déjà né. Le déjà vu. Le déjà dit.
Me fascine bien plutôt la conscience de tout ce qui reste à venir.
Tout le non-né. Tout le non-vu. Tout le non-dit.
Qui peut-être restera, à jamais, non-dit, non-vu, non-né.
Ma conscience a la semblance des éthers et des nues, des confins et des nuits.
Je ne rêve pas de plonger dans le ciel, dont j’ai su jadis l’écorce et la sève.
« Amer savoir, celui qu’on tire du voyage ! » a dit le Poète.
Non ! Il faut repartir, sans cesse, et toujours encore.
Je dis pour ma part :
« Âpres extases, gloires liquides, vins si purs, mille chemins. »
Deux gouffres, l’un fort ancien, l’autre très nouveau.
La conscience, – accrochée au corps, comme à un clou aigu, perçant.
Tout comme la lumière atteint un jour l’horizon cosmologique, la conscience finit à la fin par se fatiguer d’elle-même. C’est la condition de son épigenèse.
Ne dure que ce qui se conçoit dans l’inconscience. La conscience a encore tout à apprendre.
Dès la conception, dans l’utérus, la conscience naît à elle-même, et quoique infime, minuscule, elle réalise alors un saut de l’ange, infini, un saltus indicible en proportion de son absolu néant un peu auparavant.
A la mort, un nouveau saltus métaphysique de la conscience est plus que probable. Mais vers quoi ? Le néant absolu ? L’abîme éternel ? Une lumière divine? Une vie nouvelle ? Personne n’en sait rien. Tout est possible. Y compris une plongée dans une forme d’être qui serait aussi éloignée de la vie terrestre que notre conscience actuelle l’est du néant originel dont elle a été brusquement tirée.
Systole. Diastole. De même, la conscience bat.
Entre sa nuit et son jour.
Pour irriguer de son sang lourd les éons vides.
Ce qu’on appelle l’« âme », et que raillent tant les matérialistes modernes, est absolument indestructible. Très fine pointe de l’être, diamant métaphysique, essence ultra-pure, quantum divin, elle sera appelée à franchir les sept premiers cieux, en quelques bonds précis, dès la nuit venue de l’être… Et alors… Accrochez vos ceintures… Personne n’a encore rien « vu ».
La naissance a projeté la conscience hors de l’abîme du néant. La mort projettera la conscience hors de l’abysse infini de l’inconscient, dans l’ultra-lumière. Exode saisissant pour elle, – qui fut poursuivie sans relâche toute la vie par les armées pharaonesques du réel, des sens, des illusions, des chimères et des fallaces.
Après la mort, projetée d’un seul coup dans ce nouveau monde, comme un bébé ébloui naît dans la lumière, la conscience nouvellement re-née à elle-même saura d’emblée trouver le sein palpitant, nourricier, nourrissant. Elle en saura alors, instantanément, bien plus que toutes les philosophies passées et à venir, tous les savoirs imaginés dans l’univers.
Elle en saura bien plus, c’est-à-dire bien peu…
« Naître c’est s’attacher ».i Mais l’essence de la conscience, c’est plutôt de se détacher toujours d’elle-même, un peu plus chaque jour. La mort alors sera comme la bride lâchée sur le cou d’un pur-sang, le mettant enfin au grand galop, dans les steppes, vastes et venteuses, de l’éternité.
Ce sont les maux, les malaises, les chutes, les rêves, les sommeils, les éveils et les silences qui façonnent peu à peu, ici-bas, la conscience. Vous avez aimé la saison 1 ?
A la demande générale, la saison 2 se prépare…
Conscience, – clinging to the body, like a sharp, piercing nail.
Just as light reaches the cosmological horizon one day, conscience eventually tires of herself. This is the condition of her epigenesis.
Only lasts what is conceived in the unconscious. Conscience still has everything to learn.
From the moment of conception, in the womb, conscience is born to herself, and even though it is tiny, minuscule, she then performs an angel’s leap, an infinite, unspeakable saltus, in proportion to her absolute nothingness a little earlier.
At death, a new metaphysical saltus of conscience is more than probable. But towards what? Absolute nothingness? The eternal abyss? A divine light? A new life? No one knows. Everything is possible. Including a plunge into a form of being that would be as distant from earthly life as our present conscience is from the original nothingness from which she was abruptly drawn.
Systole. Diastole. Likewise, conscience beats.
Between her night and her day.
To irrigate the empty eons with her heavy blood.
The so-called « soul, » which modern materialists mock so much, is absolutely indestructible. Very fine point of the being, metaphysical diamond, ultra-pure essence, divine quantum, she will be called to cross the first seven heavens, in a few precise jumps, as soon as the Death’s Night comes… And then… Hang up your belts… Nobody has yet « seen » anything.
Birth projected conscience out of the abyss of nothingness. Death will project conscience out of the infinite abyss of the unconscious into the ultra-light. A striking exodus for her, – which was relentlessly pursued all her terrestrial life by the pharaonic armies of the real, the senses, illusions, chimeras and fallacies.
After death, projected at once into this new world, like a dazzled baby born into the light, the newly born-again conscience will immediately know how to find the throbbing, nourishing breast. She will also instantly know more than all the past and future philosophies, all the knowledge imagined in the universe.
She will know much more, i.e. much less than there is yet to discover…
« To be born is to become attached. »(i) But the essence of conscience is rather to always detach herself from herself, a little more each day. Death then will be like the bridle dropped on the neck of a thoroughbred, finally putting him at full gallop, in the vast and windy steppes of eternity.
It is the evils, the uneasiness, the falls, the dreams, the sleeps, the awakenings and the silences that shape little by little, here below, the conscience. Did you like your life’s season 1?
By popular demand, season 2 is getting ready… Keep watching!
iCioran. De l’inconvénient d’être né. Œuvres. Éditions de la Pléiade. 2011, p. 746.
Prophetic projections or disenchanted salvos, the blows come from all sides. « Decadence » (Nietzsche). « Malaise in civilization » (Freud). « Decline of the West » (Spengler). « Mechanical petrifaction » (Max Weber). « Crisis of the mind » (Paul Valéry). « Spiritual sickness of humanity » (C.-G. Jung). « Absence of meaning » (Hannah Arendt). « Crisis of meaning » (John Paul II).
These judgments, recent on the scale of history, testify to the acceleration of a massive phenomenon, but we must go back further to understand its deepest sources.
One of the first signs of decomposition appeared more than a thousand years ago. The via moderna (the « modern way ») inaugurated the deconstruction of metaphysics in the Middle Ages. A few monks, tired of the scholastics, began to scatter to the wind the « chimeras » and « empty abstractions » of classical philosophies. « Truth » or the « universal » were now just empty words, fallacies. Only in facts was truth to be found. The only universals were now the singularities.
With nominalism was thus founded the first basis for modern ideas. It took several centuries to broaden and deepen it. Empiricism, relativism and positivism subsequently accompanied the progress of science and technology. At the same time, the nominalist lesson, coming out of philosophical circles, was adapted to politics, for the benefit of the Prince and the advantage of Leviathan.
We had finished with metaphysics, and with the classical age, but certainly not with religion. Shortly after the fall of Constantinople, the invention of printing, the discovery of America and the Copernican revolution, markers of the entry into « modern » times, a part of the West became religiously and lastingly infatuated with a core of ruthless and pessimistic ideas: universal reign of sin, absolute decay of man, assured perdition of the whole of humanity, – with the inexplicable exception of a few « saints ».
These singular, self-proclaimed « saints », imbued with an exceptional ethos, did not remain inert. Assuming their « manifest destiny, » they began to preach relentlessly, century after century, a corrosive despair, contempt for the weak, abandonment of the poor, while the « war of each against each » raged.
Nominalism and the Reformation had attacked, from two different angles, the old « Good News » that had once been offered to all. The Enlightenment came, also dominated by nominalism, in a resolutely more materialistic version. It was then possible to assert without detours that humanity is in reality only an « abstraction », and that there are only « concrete men » (Goethe). The idea made its mark, and just before the First World War it was declared that « natural law » and the idea of « humanity » had become « almost incomprehensible in Germany » (E. Troeltsch). The death of the word heralded the death of the thing. This misunderstood « abstraction » was soon to be given an appallingly concrete meaning.
After two world wars and several genocides, nominalism still occupies the top of the pavement. The philosophers who claim to be its advocates still seem incapable of defining the essence of « good, » « true » and « just ».
And now the end of the « great narratives » (les « grands récits »), announced by Foucault and Lyotard, adds a final touch to this millennial deconstruction.
From now on, the Dasein, alone and naked, without Idea and without Narrative, can be delivered to the games, without why and without hindrance, of the political and social forces, in the economic and technological immanence, and in the continuous confrontation with the resurgence, providential and reactionary, of tribalisms and identities.
Special groups, special interests, selfishness are exalted. The idea of a common world is moving further and further away.
The cleavages are getting worse and settling over time. Globalized capitalism produces an oligarchy of super-dominants and an infinite number of proletarians, enslaved in circles concentric to the Empire. On one side, a few masters of the world, on the other, all the « rest ». The future promises to be sectarian, oligarchic and mafia-like.
Clear, irrevocable signs of decay, poverty, weakness, servitude are, generation after generation, devolved to the immense mass of losers, condemned on earth and « reproved » in heaven.
In this planetary division of destinies, the faith of the « saints » of the day guides and energizes them beyond measure. Their religion is not opium for them, it is their cocaine.
They went to school. Metaphysical egoism and hatred of the common have been transposed far beyond the religious sphere, into a world that is already no longer common, but divided. Inclusion is reserved there to the few, general exclusion is for all the rest, and dissociation is universal.
The ancient battle of the Calvinist « saints » during the Wars of Religion and the Hobbesian War of All Against All in 17th century England has spread and extended beyond all expectations.
The Christian fundamentalists and the born again who today wage war on the « axis of evil » are the heirs of the Puritans who approached the shores of New England, to appropriate in blood a land that was « manifestly » intended for them.
Untouchable ideas (Manichaeism of good and evil, of the chosen and the fallen, of friend and foe) adapt to all times, all religions, all latitudes. Formerly Gnostic, yesterday Calvinistic, they can be summarized as follows: « After me, the Flood ».
In more formal style: God’s grace is reserved for the chosen few and nothingness is promised to the rest of the world.
These ideas have provoked countless wars over the centuries. Today, they serve as mantras in the worldwide « war of civilizations ». They are translated into all languages: « In God we trust », « Gott mit uns », « Dieu avec nous », « Allahu-akbar ».
It’s not that there is no alternative.
Famous thinkers have long been engaged in other or contrary utopias.
Leibniz proposed to build the « republic of the minds ». Rousseau believed in the expression of the « general will ». Kant philosophized about the « general interest of humanity ».
But have the peoples, crammed into the world’s jungle, heard them? The law of the powerful is always stronger than the law of the weak. What can « paper and words » do before « the sword and the hand of men »? i
The religion of global dissociation and disenchantment continues to grow. The once religious and moral schism has become secularized and trivialized. A ferocious schizophrenia gnaws at the global unconscious, psychically cracked, torn, mutilated.
It is necessary to analyze and anamnesis it, to understand the decomposition of the modern mind and the programmed end of the common. It is necessary to delve into the early days of the era, to find its Manichean and Gnostic preliminaries, to reveal its initial wounds, and their innumerable after-effects.
The ancient past also tells of a possible future. The « knowledge societies » take up the ancient Gnostic utopia in another way.
The new believers believe in other immanent gods: knowledge, technique, science, indefinite progress.
They love a new law, « convergence ».
They compose a neo-Genesis, where there is no longer evening or morning, no abyss or firmament, no divine wind, but the demiurgic fusion of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, neurosciences and artificial intelligence. Immanence emerges at the nanoscale, and universally spreads its Gospel, through the globalization of materials, materials and capital. Bits, atoms, neurons, and genes will be the unsuspecting heroes of the new Global Narrative.
A new Promised Land can be hoped for. Immense « free lands », with indefinite, putative borders, have already been appropriated by the pioneers of invention, the pilgrim fathers of appropriation.
A trans-humanity with « augmented » genes ii will tomorrow take exclusive possession of it. Homo Sapiens 2.0 will leave behind them an obsolete « remnant », humanity 1.0.
iiA report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expressed alarm about this in the following terms: « In the long term, nanomedicine could lead to a radical transformation of the human species. Humanity’s efforts to change itself as and when it wants to could lead to a situation where it would no longer be possible to speak of a « human being » at all « . Cf. Bert Gordjin, « Les questions éthiques en nanomédecine« , in Nanotechnologies, éthique et politique, UNESCO Editions, Paris, 2008.
La Crítica de la Razón Neurobiológica, de C. Malabou, es una carga anti-Changeux. La neurobiología, con su joven arrogancia, ha procedido a una « captura de ideas metafísicas ». La neuroética se arroga el discurso sobre lo bueno, la neuroestética el discurso sobre lo bello. Todo esto puede ser preocupante para el filósofo profesional. La neurociencia se ha convertido en « un instrumento de fragmentación filosófica ».
Inmediatamente me viene a la mente la imagen de las bombas de racimo que destrozaban los cuerpos en Vietnam. Probablemente nos perdamos de nuevo.
Pero Malabou es inflexible: « La aparición de la neurociencia es una amenaza pura y simple a la libertad – la libertad de pensar, actuar, disfrutar o crear. » Es una especie de « Darwinismo mental ». La epigénesis selecciona las sinapsis. El volumen del cerebro aumenta cuatro veces y media después del nacimiento. La génesis de las sinapsis continúa hasta la pubertad, y durante todo este tiempo la educación, el entorno familiar, social y cultural, forman parte del sistema nervioso. Nuestro cerebro es por lo tanto en gran parte lo que hacemos de él, es el resultado de la vida misma, día tras día, con sus peligros, sus sorpresas y sus peligrosas andanzas.
Entonces, ¿el desarrollo de las sinapsis está determinado o no? Esta es la gran cuestión filosófica que atraviesa las épocas, simbolizada por la batalla de los Titanes. Einstein contra Planck. La última interpretación de la mecánica cuántica.
Malabou resume: « El objeto de la ciencia se ha convertido indiscutiblemente en la libertad ».
Este debate es en realidad bastante antiguo. Para mantenerlo moderno, comenzó con las enconadas diatribas entre Erasmo y Lutero. No salimos de eso.
El gen añade una nueva piedra al concreto del determinismo. El contenido del ADN es aparentemente invariable. De ahí la idea de un código, un programa. Tanto los ratones como los humanos están programados genéticamente. Pero entonces, ¿cómo podemos explicar las sorpresas encontradas durante la epigénesis, si sólo se trata del determinismo de un código y un programa? La plasticidad epigenética plantea cuestiones delicadas, que la imagen demasiado simple del « programa » de ADN es incapaz de abordar. Changeux propone abandonar la noción de programa genético en favor de la interacción entre células y las « comunicaciones celulares ».
Pero si salimos de un determinismo simplista, ¿hasta dónde puede llegar en teoría el campo cubierto por la neurobiología? Este campo cubre una vasta área, extendiéndose a la sociedad y la cultura. También son consecuencias de la plasticidad sináptica de las redes nerviosas de millones y miles de millones de personas. Por el contrario, las sociedades y culturas favorecen la epigénesis de los cerebros. Todo un programa de investigación podría basarse en la exploración de los fundamentos biológicos de la cultura. Por ejemplo, el juicio moral sería simplemente la traducción del cerebro del fenómeno neurobiológico de la empatía. Otro rasgo neurobiológico que es único en los humanos es la existencia de una sensibilidad a la « belleza de la parsimonia ». Este rasgo sería útil para la especie porque nos permite detectar formas, agrupaciones y distribuciones ordenadas. De esto, Malabou deduce una conclusión que nos acerca a nuestra pregunta inicial: « La libertad epigenética aparece precisamente hoy en día como el origen mismo de lo trascendental. »
La epigénesis es la condición de la libertad; y la libertad es el fundamento de la idea trascendental en sí misma. De ahí esta pregunta: ¿es la libertad una posible ventana a la trascendencia?
El cerebro libre es capaz de reflexionar sobre sí mismo, y de provocar acciones y experiencias que le afectan a cambio. En un futuro no muy lejano, es concebible que los cerebros humanos sean capaces de diseñar y llevar a cabo modificaciones estructurales en el cerebro humano, primero experimentalmente y luego a gran escala.
¿Podríamos considerar cambiar el nivel de conciencia, podríamos despertar a la gente a otras formas de experiencia a través de modificaciones neurobiológicas? Las prácticas de los chamanes de varias épocas y regiones del mundo durante las iniciaciones nos muestran que la ingestión de plantas sagradas puede causar tales resultados. Entonces, ¿por qué no un equivalente con drogas psicotrópicas, especialmente perfeccionadas para este propósito?
Si hay un « hombre neuronal », también hay, es obvio, un hombre social, un hombre cultural, un hombre espiritual, que no puede ser resumido como un hombre material, una masa de genes y neuronas. También hay un hombre libre, un hombre crítico, que puede y debe ejercer su espíritu para « criticar libremente » las condiciones de su propia evolución, material, neuronal y quizás psíquica.
What was it that Empedocles did refuse to reveal? Why didn’t he tell what he was « forbidden to say »? What was he afraid of, – this famous sage from Agrigento, this statesman, this gyrovague shaman and prophet? Why this pusillanimity on the part of someone who, according to legend, was not afraid to end up throwing himself alive into the furnace of Etna?
« I ask only what ephemeral humans are allowed to hear. Take over the reins of the chariot under the auspices of Piety. The desire for the brilliant flowers of glory, which I could gather from mortals, will not make me say what is forbidden… Have courage and climb the summits of science; consider with all your strength the manifest side of everything, but do not believe in your eyes more than in your ears.”i
Empedocles encourages us to « climb the summits of science » …
The Greek original text says: καὶ τὸτε δὴ σοφίης ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι θοάζειν, that translates literally: « to impetuously climb to the summits (ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι, ep’aikroisi) of wisdom (σοφίης sophias) ».
But what are really these « summits of wisdom »? Why this plural form? Shouldn’t there be just one and only one « summit of wisdom », in the proximity of the highest divinity?
In another fragment, Empedocles speaks again of « summits », using another Greek word, κορυφή, koruphe, which also means « summit, top »:
John Burnet and Auguste Reymond translated (in French):
« Marchant de sommet en sommet,
ne pas parcourir un sentier seulement jusqu’à la fin… »iv i.e.:
« Walking from summit to summit,
not to walk a path only to the end…”
Paul Tannery adopted another interpretation, translating Κορυφὰς as « beginnings »:
« Rattachant toujours différemment de nouveaux débuts de mes paroles,
et ne suivant pas dans mon discours une route unique… »v
« Always attaching new and different beginnings to my words,
and not following in my speech a single road…”
I wonder: does the apparent obscurity of this fragment justify so wide differences in its interpretation?
We are indeed invited to consider, to dig, to deepen the matter.
According to the Bailly Greek dictionary, κορυφή (koruphe), means « summit« , figuratively, the « zenith » (speaking of the sun), and metaphorically: « crowning« , or « completion« .
Chantraine’s etymological dictionary notes other, more abstract nuances of meaning for κορυφή : « the sum, the essential, the best« . The related verb, κορυφῶ koruphô, somewhat clarifies the range of meanings: « to complete, to accomplish; to rise, to lift, to inflate« .
The Liddell-Scott dictionary gives a quite complete review of possible meanings of κορυφή: « head, top; crown, top of the head [of a man or god], peak of a mountain, summit, top, the zenith; apex of a cone,extremity, tip; and metaphorically: the sum [of all his words], the true sense [of legends]; height, excellence of .., i.e. the choicest, best. »
Liddell-Scott also proposes this rather down-to earth and matter-of-fact interpretation of the fragment 24: « springing from peak to peak« , i.e. « treating a subject disconnectedly ».
But as we see, the word κορυφή may apply to human, geological, tectonic, solar or rhetorical issues…
What is be the right interpretation of κορυφή and the ‘movement’ it implies, for the fragment 24 of Empedocles?
Etymologically and originally, the word κορυφή relates to κόρυς, « helmet« . Chantraine notes incidentally that the toponym « Corinth » (Κόρινθος) also relates to this same etymology.
The primary meaning of κορυφή, therefore, has nothing to do with mountains or peaks. It refers etymologically to the « summit » of the body, the « head ». More precisely, it refers to the head when « helmeted », – the head of a man or a woman (or a God) equipped as a warrior. This etymology is well in accordance with the long, mythological memory of the Greeks. Pythagorasvi famously said that Athena was « begotten », all-armed, with her helmet, « from the head » of Zeus, in Greek: κορυφἆ-γενής (korupha-genes).
If we admit that the wise and deep Empedocles did not use metaphors lightly, in one of his most celebrated fragments, we may infer that the « summits », here, are not just mineral mountains that one would jump over, or subjects of conversation, which one would want to spring from.
In a Greek, philosophical context, the « summit » may well be understood as a metaphor for the « head of Zeus », the head of the Most High God. Since a plural is used (Κορυφὰς, ‘summits’), one may also assume that it is an allusion to another Godhead, that of the divine « Wisdom » (a.k.a. Athena), who was born from Zeus’ « head ».
Another important word in fragment 24 is the verb προσάπτω, prosapto.
Bollack translates this verb as « to join, » Burnet as « to walk, » Tannery as « to attach”, Liddell-Scott as « to spring »…
How diverse these scholars’ interpretations!… Joining the summits one to the other… Walking from summit to summit… Attaching new beginnings to a narration… Springing from peak to peak, as for changing subjects…
In my view, all these learned translations are either too literal or too metaphorical. And unsatisfactory.
It seems to me necessary to seek something else, more related to the crux of the philosophical matter, something related to a figurative « God Head », or a « Godhead »… The word koruphe refers metaphorically to something ‘extreme’, — also deemed the ‘best’ and the ‘essential’. The Heads (koruphas) could well allude to the two main Greek Godheads, — the Most High God (Zeus) and his divine Wisdom (Athena).
More precisely, I think the fragment may point to the decisive moment when Zeus begets his own Wisdom, springing from his head, all armed….
The verb προσάπτω has several meanings, which can guide our search: « to procure, to give; to attach oneself to; to join; to touch, to graze » (Bailly).
Based on these meanings, I propose this translation of the first line of fragment 24:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other ».
The second verb used in fragment 24 (line 2) is τελέειν, teleein: « To accomplish, to perform, to realize; to cause, to produce, to procure; to complete, to finish; to pay; (and, in a religious context) to bring to perfection, to perform the ceremony of initiation, to initiate into the mysteries (of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom) » (Bailly).
Could the great Empedocles have been satisfied with just a banal idea such as « not following a single road », or « not following a path to the end », or even, in a more contorted way, something about « not saying a single path of words »?
I don’t think so. Neither Bollack, Burnet, nor Tannery seem, in their translations, to have imagined and even less captured a potential mystical or transcendent meaning.
I think, though, that there might lie the gist of this Fragment.
Let’s remember that Empedocles was a very original, very devout and quite deviant Pythagorean. He was also influenced by the Orphism then in full bloom in Agrigento .
This is why I prefer to believe that neither the ‘road’, nor the ‘path’ quoted in the Fragment 24, are thought to be ‘unique’.
For a thinker like Empedocles, there must be undoubtedly otherways, not just a ‘single path’…
The verb τελέειν also has, in fact, meanings oriented towards the mystical heights, such as: « to attain perfection, to accomplish initiation, to initiate to the mysteries (of divine Wisdom) ».
As for the word μύθων (the genitive of mythos), used in line 2 of Fragment 24, , it may mean « word, speech », but originally it meant: « legend, fable, myth ».
Hence this alternative translation of μύθων μὴ τελέειν ἀτραπὸν μίαν (mython mè teleein atrapon mian) :
« Not to be initiated in the one way of the myths »…
Here, it is quite ironic to recall that there was precisely no shortage of myths and legends about Empedocles… He was said to have been taken up directly to heaven by the Gods (his « ascension »), shortly after he had successfully called back to life a dead woman named Panthea (incidentally, this name means « All God »), as Diogenes of Laërtius reportedvii.
Five centuries B.C., Empedocles resurrected “Panthea” (« All God »), and shortly afterwards he ‘ascended’ to Heaven.
One can then assume that the Fragment 24 was in fact quite premonitory, revealing in advance the nature of Empedocles’ vision, the essence of his personal wisdom.
The Fragment 24 announces an alternative to the traditional « way of initiation » by the myths:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other,
Not to be initiated in the only way of the myths. »
Empedocles did not seem to believe that the myths of his time implied a unique way to initiation. There was maybe another « way » to initiation: « joining the Most High Godhead and his Wisdom …
The biblical Genesis puts the beginning of creation at the « beginning ». It is simple, natural, effective, perhaps even logical.
In contrast, one of the deepest hymns of the Rig Veda does not begin with the beginning, but with what was before the beginning itself.
The first verse of the Nasadiya Sukta (« Hymn to Creation », Rig Veda, X, 129, 1) contemplates what was before being and before non-being:
Which reads: nāsadāsīno sadāsītadānīṃ
The Vedic text links words in a fluid, psalmodized diction, preserved orally for more than six thousand years, before being transcribed, relatively recently, in the Brāhmī writing system of Sanskrit.
For a better understanding, the sentence ‘nāsadāsīno sadāsītadānīṃ’ can be broken down as follows:
na āsad āsī no sad āsīt tadānīṃ
The translations of this enigmatic formula are legion.
« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. « (Renou)
« Nothing existed then, neither the being nor the non-being. « (Müller)
« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible. « (Langlois)
« Then even nothingness was not, nor existence. « (Basham)
« Not the non-existent existed, nor did the existent then » (Art. Nasadiya Sukta of Wikipedia).
« Nicht das nicht seiende war, nicht das seiende damals. « (Ludwig)
« Zu jener Zeit war weder Sein, noch Nichtsein. « (Grassmann)
« Weder Nichtsein noch Sein war damals. « (Geldner)
The grammar of the modern languages does not seem to be well adapted to the translation of this grammatically subversive hymn. Moreover, how can one render with ´words´ what was before words, how can one say what ´was´ before being and before non-being, how can we make people ´see´ what existed before existence and non-existence?
And besides, where does the knowledge of the speaker come from? On what is this revelation based? Since it reports of a time when all knowledge and all non-knowledge did not exist?
One begins to think: what thinker can ´think´ what is obviously beyond what is thinkable? How, in spite of everything, does a volley of insolent words come, from beyond the millennia, to brighten our dark nights?
Fragile footbridges, labile traces, short quatrains, the first two verses of the Nasadiya Sukta weave words slightly, above the void, far from the common, between worlds.
Es atmete nach seinem Eigengesetz ohne Windzug dieses Eine.
Irgend ein Anderes als dieses war weiter nicht vorhanden. »vi
The comparison of these translations shows several elements of ‘consensus’.
Before there was anything, there was « Him », the « Unique Being ».
Before Everything was, this Being was One, alone, and He breathed without breath.
The One was, – long before a « wind of God » could even « begin » to « blow on the waters », according to what says the Bible, written some three thousand years after the oral revelation of the Veda…
After the two initial verses just mentioned, the Vedic creation story takes off, using words and images that may awaken some biblical memories.
Here is how Louis Renou, Max Müller and Alexandre Langlois account for this.
« Originally darkness covered darkness, everything we see was just an indistinct wave. Enclosed in the void, the One, accessing the being, was then born by the power of heat.
Desire developed first, which was the first seed of thought; searching thoughtfully in their souls, the wise men found in non-being the bond of being.
Their line was stretched diagonally: what was the top, what was the bottom? There were seed bearers, there were virtues: below was spontaneous Energy, above was the Gift. »vii
« The seed, which was still hidden in its envelope, suddenly sprang up in the intense heat.
Then love, the new source of the spirit, joined it for the first time.
Yes, the poets, meditating in their hearts, discovered this link between created things and what was uncreated. Does this spark that springs up everywhere, that penetrates everything, come from the earth or the sky?
Then the seeds of life were sown, and great forces appeared, nature below, power and will above. »viii
« In the beginning the darkness was shrouded in darkness; the water was without impulse. Everything was confused. The Being rested in the midst of this chaos, and this great All was born by the force of his piety.
In the beginning Love was in him, and from his spirit sprang the first seed. The sages (of creation), through the work of intelligence, succeeded in forming the union of the real being and the apparent being.
The ray of these (wise men) departed, extending upwards and downwards. They were great, (these wise men); they were full of a fruitful seed, (such as a fire whose flame) rises above the hearth that feeds it. »ix
Some translators say that in the beginning, « darkness envelops the darkness ». Others prefer to read here a metaphor, that of the « seed » hidden in its « envelope ». Is it necessary to give a meaning, an interpretation, to the « darkness », or is it better to let it bathe in its mystery?
It is amusing to see some explain the birth of the Whole by the role of « heat », while others understand that the origin of the world must be attributed to « piety » (of the One). Material spirits! Abstract minds! How difficult it is to reconcile them!
Let’s take a closer look at this point. The Sanskrit text uses here the word tapas, तपस्.
Huet’s Dictionary translates tapas as « heat, ardor; suffering, torment, mortification, austerities, penances, asceticism », and by extension, « the strength of soul acquired through asceticism ».
Monier-Williams indicates that the verbal root tap- has several meanings: « to burn, to shine, to give heat », but also « to consume, to destroy by fire » or « to suffer, to repent, to torment, to practice austerity, to purify oneself by austerity ».
There are clearly, here again, two semantic universes taking shape, that of nature (fire, heat, burning) and that of the spirit (suffering, repentance, austerity, purification).
What is the correct meaning of this hymn from the Rig Veda?
Taking into account the intrinsic dualism attached to the creation of the Whole by the One, both meanings fit simultaneously, in my opinion, without contradiction. An original brilliance and warmth probably accompanied the creation of some inchoate Big Bang.
This being conceded, the Vedic text underlines, it seems to me, the true cause, not physical, but metaphysical, by opening up to the figurative meaning of the word tapas, by evoking the « suffering », or the « repentance », or the « asceticism » or even the « sacrifice » that the One would have chosen, in His solitude, to impose on Himself, in order to give the world its initial impulse.
One cannot help but find there a kind of Christic dimension to this Vedic vision, when the One consents to asceticism, to suffering, to give life to the Whole.
One cannot deny that the Veda is fundamentally a « monotheism », since it stages, even before the beginning, the One, the One who is « alone », who breathes « without breath ».
But soon this One is transformed into a kind of trinity. What emerges from these verses are, dominating darkness, water, emptiness, confusion and chaos, the two figures of the Being (the Creator) and the Whole (the created world).
The Whole is born of the Being by His « desire » (or by His « Love »), which grows within His « Spirit » (or His « Intelligence »).
A Trinitarian reading is possible, if one adds, intimately, to the idea of the One, the idea of His Spirit and that of His Desire (or His Love).
The last two verses of the Nasadiya Sukta tackle head-on the question of mystery, the question of origin, the « why all this »?
« Who knows in truth, who could announce it here: where does this creation come from? The gods are beyond this creative act. Who knows where it emanates from?
This creation, from where it emanates, whether it was made or not, – He who watches over it in the highest heaven probably knows it, or maybe He did not know it? »x
« Who knows the secret? Who here tells us where this varied creation came from? The Gods themselves came into existence later: who knows where this vast world came from?
Whoever was the author of all this great creation, whether His will commanded it or whether His will was silent, the Most High « Seer » who resides in the highest heaven, He knows it – or perhaps He himself does not know it? »xi
« Who knows these things? Who can say them? Where do beings come from? What is this creation? The Gods were also produced by Him. But He, who knows how He exists?
He who is the first author of this creation, supports it. And who else but Him could do so? He who from heaven has his eyes on all this world, knows it alone. Who else would have this science? »xii
It is obviously the final point (« Perhaps he doesn’t know it himself? ») that carries the essence of the meaning.
That the Gods, as a whole, are only a part of the creation of the Most High, again confirms the pre-eminence of the One.
But how can we understand that the « Seer » may not know whether He Himself is the author of creation, and how can He not know whether it was made – or not made?
One possible interpretation would be that the Whole received the initial impulse. But this is not enough. The Whole, though « created », is not a determined mechanics. The Seer is not « Almighty » or « Omniscient ». His asceticism, His suffering can only be understood as the testimony of a « sacrifice » given for the freedom of the world, an essential freedom created and given freely by the will of the One.
This essential, ontological freedom implies that the Whole is, in a sense, in the image of the One, in terms of freedom and therefore of ontological dignity.
This also implies that the future of the Whole depends on the Spirit, and whether the Whole will be able to render the Spirit fecund from Desire.
iRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942
iiRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Max Müller. Histoire des religions. 1879
Milk is like the soul, says one Upaniṣad.i How come?
In milk, butter is hidden… As in potency… It must be churned and it appears.
In the soul, knowledge also is hidden… As in potency… When the spirit searches, it increases its strength, makes it grow, and knowledge comes.
Another metaphor: from two sticks rubbed together, fire springs forth. From the soul and the spirit rubbing together, comes the Brahman.
The word Brahman (ब्रह्मन्) is neutral. It designates a principle: « growth, increase, strengthening ». It comes from the verbal root BṚH- , to strengthen, to increase, to augment, to enlarge.
In the Bhagavad-Gītā, the Lord defines Brahman as his own Self:
« The universe is entirely pervaded by Me, invisible, formless. All beings are in Me, but nothing that is created is in Me, and I am not in them. Behold My supernatural power! I sustain all beings. I am everywhere present. I remain the source of all creation. Just as in space the power of the wind is established, and everywhere its breath, in Me stand all beings. »ii
The Lord, transcendent, descends incognito to earth, and He does not mince His words:
« The fools denigrate Me when in human form I come down to this world. They know nothing of my spiritual, absolute nature, nor of my supremacy. Ignorant, they go astray. They believe in demons, not in Me. Vain are their hopes, vain are their interests, vain are their aspirations, vain is their knowledge. « iii
Neither fools nor vain, are the « great souls », the mahatmah.
« Those who are ignorant of ignorance, the mahatmah, are under the protection of the divine nature. Knowing Me as God, the Supreme, original, inexhaustible Person, they absorb themselves, they devote themselves. Unceasingly singing my glory, they prostrate themselves before Me. Determined in their effort, these spirits, these magnanimous souls love Me.” iv
What happens then?
« Those who know, look at me: I am the Unique Being. They see Me in the multitude of beings and things; My form is in the universe.”v
If the Self is the Whole, it is also in each one of the forms in it, in their infinite variety, their total sum, and their common nature.
« But it is I who am the rite and the sacrifice, the oblation to the ancestors, the grass and the mantra. I am the butter and the fire, and the offering. Of this universe, I am the father, the mother, the support and the grandfather, I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable OM. I am also the Rig, the Sâma and the Yajur. I am the goal, the support, the teacher, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the dearest friend. I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of all things, the resting place and the eternal seed. I am heat, rain and drought, I am immortality and death personified. Being and non-being, both are in Me, O Arjuna.”vi
But the Veda itself is not enough, nor the rites. The most important thing is yet to attain knowledge, the only necessary knowledge. Where is it hidden?
« It is indirectly that they worship Me, the men who study the Vedas and drink soma, looking for delicious heavens. They are reborn on the planet of Indra, where they enjoy the pleasures of the devas. When they have enjoyed these celestial pleasures, when their merits have been exhausted, they return to this mortal Earth. A fragile happiness, such is the only fruit they reap, after having followed the principles of the Vedas. But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My absolute Form, I fill their lacks and preserve what they are. Every oblation that man with faith sacrifices to the devas is destined for Me alone, O son of Kunti. For I am the sole beneficiary and the sole object of the sacrifice. Those who ignore My true, absolute nature, fall back. Those who worship the Devas will be reborn among the Devas, among the ghosts and other spirits those who live in their worship, among the ancestors the worshippers of the ancestors: likewise, those who are devoted to Me will live with Me.”vii
Following that logic, let’s wonder: from all the « whited sepulchres » of the world, what will really be reborn? New whited, sepulchral worlds? New whited, sepulchral galaxies?
The poet said: « the Milky Way, – luminous sister of the white streams of Chanaan, and of the white bodies of the lovers ».viii
But it seems to me that the Milky Way, with all its grandeur, has less milk and less light than one living soul… As for the streams of Chanaan and the bodies of the lovers, that’s still an open discussion, to compare their ´milk´ to the soul.
There are cultures that value prose, argument, dialectics, in the search for truth. Others praise the hymn, the psalm, the enigma. Some have pushed far the love of wisdom, or maieutic. Others have preferred prophecy or mystery.
The ways forward are multiple. Variations are legion.
Hard climates, short summers, open landscapes, undoubtedly influence the view, life, and everything else. Scattered archipelagos, high valleys, alluvial plains, tawny deserts, wet basins, all these eclectic places hardly resemble each other. They have had, in their time, in their turn, respective affinities, sudden impulses, for thoughts coming from elsewhere, or born within them. Greece has its light. On the Indus flows a heavy and sweet air. The Nile is not the Oxus. The Rhine is not the Tigris.
Each people has their own way of seeing the sea and the stars, of following the sun and the course of the mountains, of telling the fire and the milk, the cow and the night.
Their languages sometimes bear witness to this, beyond the centuries.
Images, which have become seemingly banal, yesterday founded grandiose metaphors, and for millennia have nourished original intuitions. The arid stone of the desert gave birth to a mineral monotheism. The laughing myriads of the sea waves are of a more pantheistic nature – they diffract the solar unit abundantly into billions of labile shards.
One people alone does not create the idea of the divine; the climate also exudes it, the landscape cherishes it, and the language welcomes it.
Besides, the One has too many names. Prajāpati, El, Adonaï, Eloh, Baal, Elion, El Shaddaï, YHVH, Deus, Allah.
The Elohim themselves testify that the One hides in the plural …
All these names are one. These so many names all say that the One is, but they are very many to proclaim it.
It is inferred that all these names and even the number “one” are but veils.
One, one, one, … One, only one, not two, not three, not a thousand or billions.
How could the One rub shoulders with the Two? Or engender the Three? Or breathe the Infinite?
No, no, no. One, One, One…
Only One, there is only the One!
One is one. The Divine is infinite. How to limit the infinite by the One? Idle question. The world is larger than all the deserts, deeper than all the cosmos: no matter the quarrels of hackneyed words…
There, for millennia, towards the Indus, beyond the Oxus, ancient peoples saw the Divine everywhere they looked. They drank it with their eyes, when the light set its dazzling wing, and offered this very light as a sacrifice.
Grammar, words, style, rhythm, liberty, criticism, were other wings for them, making other prisms glimmer in their unbounded intelligence.
The mind then became aware of its destiny, unique and colorful.
The north still lives in the south of itself. East and west close together at the ends of the day. The one and the infinite make two… and they open the way to the possible and to the unity of being.
Today, it is time to think about the unification of the human, after so much blood has been shed just to claim the “oneness” of the divine.
Renan provoked: « Who will dare to say that by revealing the divine unity and definitively suppressing the local religions, the Semitic race has not laid the foundation stone for the unity and progress of humanity?”i
The Semitic God is far from man, immensely distant. But occasionally He comes near. He chooses a Nabi, an Anointed One, a prophet, a chosen one, or a pure soul, and He reveals Himself, absolutely elevated, infinitely unspeakable, all “Other”.
Next door, close by, elsewhere, the multiple, the diverse, the lowly, the “Other”, are neither « one » nor « far ».
One day, the man of the future will link the One and the Multiple, the distant and the near, the earth and the sky.
Deserts, seas, mountains and valleys will blow various winds, unique and shadowy geniuses, inaudible wisdoms, thoughts yet to be born.
iErnest Renan. Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques. (1863)
All human languages are animated by a secret spirit, an immanent soul. Over the millennia, they have developed within them their own potency, even without the participating knowledge of the fleeting peoples who speak them. In the case of ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Hebrew (biblical), Greek (Homeric), Latin, or Arabic, this spirit, soul, and other powers are still at work, many centuries after their apogee, albeit often in a hidden form. The keen, patient observer can still try to find the breath, the strength, the fire, well in evidence in ancient, famous pages or left buried in neglected works. One may sometimes succeed, unexpectedly, to find pearls, and then contemplate their special aura, their glowing, sui generis energy.
The innumerable speakers of these languages, all of them appearing late and disappearing early in their long history, could be compared to ephemeral insects, foraging briefly in the forest of fragrant, independent and fertile language flowers, before disappearing, some without having produced the slightest verbal honey, others having been able by chance to distill some rare juice, some suave sense, from time to time.
From this follows, quite logically, what must be called the phenomenal independence of languages in relation to the men who speak and think them.
Men often seem to be only parasites of their language. It is the languages that « speak » the people, more than the people speak them. Turgot said: « Languages are not the work of a reason present to itself.”
The uncertain origin and the intrinsic ‘mystery’ of languages go back to the most ancient ages, far beyond the limited horizon that history, anthropology and even linguistics are generally content with.
Languages are some kind of angels of history. They haunt the unconscious of men, and like zealous messengers, they help them to become aware of a profound mystery, that of the manifestation of the spirit in the world and in man.
The essence of a language, its DNA, is its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language, and it structures its spirit, without being able to understand its own genius. Grammatical DNA is not enough to explain the origin of the genius of language. It is also necessary to take the full measure of the slow work of epigenesis, and the sculpture of time.
Semitic languages, to take one example, are organized around verbal roots, which are called « triliters » because they are composed of three radical letters. But in fact, these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect,…) are not really « triliters ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan saidi. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical letters, with the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
In Hebrew, the biliteral root פר (PR) carries the idea of separation, cut, break. The addition of a third radical letter following פר modifies this primary meaning, and brings like a bouquet of nuances.
Thus, the verbs : פּרד (parada, to divide), פּרה (paraa, to bear fruit), פּרח (paraha, to bloom, to bud, to burst),ּ פּרט (paratha, to break, to divide), פּרך (parakha, to crumble, to pulverize), פּרם (parama, to tear, to unravel), פּרס (paraça, to break, to divide), פּרע (para’a, to detach from, to excel), פּרץ (paratsa, to break, to shatter), פּרק (paraqa, to tear, to fragment), פּרר (parara, to break, to rape, to tear, to divide), פּרשׂ (parassa, to spread, to unfold), פּרשׁ (parasha, to distinguish, to declare).
The two letters פּ et ר also form a word, פּר, par, a substantive meaning: « young bull, sacrificial victim ». There is here, in my view, an unconscious meaning associated with the idea of separation. A very ancient, original, symbolic meaning, is still remembered in the language: the sacrificial victim is the one which is ‘separated’ from the herd, who is ‘set apart’.
There is more…
Hebrew willingly agrees to swap certain letters that are phonetically close. Thus, פּ (P) may be transmuted with other labials, such as בּ (B) or מ (M). After transmutation, the word פּר, ‘par’, is then transformed into בּר, ‘bar’, by substituting בּ for פּ. Now בּר, ‘bar‘, means ‘son’. The Hebrew thus makes it possible to associate with the idea of ‘son’ another idea, phonetically close, that of ‘sacrificial victim’. This may seem counter-intuitive, or, on the contrary, well correlated with certain very ancient customs (the ‘first born son sacrifice’). This adds another level of understanding to what was almost the fate of Isaac, the son of Abraham, whom the God YHVH asked to be sacrificed.
Just as פּ (P) permuted with בּ (B), so the first sacrificial victim (the son, ‘bar‘) permuted with another sacrificial victim (‘par‘), in this case a ram.
The biliteral root בּר, BR, ‘bar‘, gave several verbs. They are: בּרא (bara‘, ‘to create, to form’; ‘to be fat’), בּרה (baraa, ‘to eat’), בּרח (baraha, ‘to pass through, to flee’), בּרך (barakha, ‘to kneel, to bless’), בּרק (baraq, ‘lightning’), בּרר (barara, ‘to purify, to choose’).
The spectrum of these meanings, while opening the mind to other dimensions, broadens the symbolic understanding of the sacrificial context. Thus the verb bara‘, ‘he created’, is used at the beginning of Genesis, Berechit bara’ Elohim, « In the beginning created God…. ». The act of ‘creating’ (bara‘) the Earth is assimilated to the begetting of a ‘son’ (bar), but also, in a derivative sense, to the act of fattening an animal (‘the fatted calf’) for its future sacrifice. After repetition of the final R, we have the verb barara, which connotes the ideas of election and purification, which correspond to the initial justification of the sacrifice (election) and its final aim (purification). The same root, slightly modified, barakha, denotes the fact of bringing the animal to its knees before slaughtering it, a more practical position for the butcher. Hence, no doubt, the unconscious reason for the late, metonymic shift to the word ‘bless’. Kneeling, a position of humility, awaiting the blessing, evokes the position taken by the animal on the altar of sacrifice.
Hebrew allows yet other permutations with the second radical letter of the word, for example in the case cited, by substituting ר with צ. This gives: פּצה (patsaa, ‘to split, to open wide’), פּצח (patsaha, ‘to burst, to make heard’), פּצל (patsala, ‘to remove the bark, to peel’), פּצם (patsama, ‘to split’), פצע (patsa’a, ‘to wound, to bruise’). All these meanings have some connotation with the slaughter that the sacrifice of the ancient Hebrew religion requires, in marked contrast to the sacrifice of the Vedic religion, which is initiated by the grinding of plants and their mixing with clarified butter.
Lovers of Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, or Arabic dictionaries can easily make a thousand discoveries of this nature. They contemplate curiously, then stunned, the shimmering of these ancient languages, sedimenting old meanings by subtle shifts, and feeding on multiple metaphors, for thousands of years.
Unlike Semitic languages, the semantic roots of Chinese or the ancient language of Egypt are monosyllabic, but the rules of agglutination and coagulation of these roots also produce, though in another way, myriads of variations. Other subtleties, other nuances are discovered and unfold in an entirely different grammatical context.
These questions of grammar, roots and settled variations are fascinating, but it must be said that by confining ourselves to them, we never remain but on the surface of things.
We need to go deeper, to understand the very texture of words, their fundamental origin, whose etymology can never be enough. The time travel that etymology allows, always stops too early, in some ‘original’ sense, but that does not exhaust curiosity. Beyond that, only dense mists reign.
It has been rightly pointed out that Arabic is, in essence, a desert language, a language of nomads. All the roots bear witness to this in a lively, raw, poetic way.
In the same way, one should be able to understand why and how the Vedic language, Sanskrit, which is perhaps the richest, most elaborate language that man has ever conceived, is a language that has been almost entirely constructed from roots and philosophical and religious (Vedic) concepts. One only has to consult a dictionary such as Monier-Williams’ to see that the vast majority of Sanskrit words are metaphorically or metonymically linked to what was once a religious, Vedic image, symbol or intuition.
It is necessary to imagine these people, living six, twelve, twenty or forty thousand years ago, some of them possessing an intelligence and a wisdom as penetrating and powerful as those of Homer, Plato, Dante or Kant, but confronted to a very different ‘cultural’ environment.
These enlightened men of Prehistory were the first dreamers, the first thinkers of language. Their brains, avid, deep and slow, wove dense cocoons, from which were born eternal and brief butterflies, still flying in the light of origin, carefree, drawing arabesques, above the abyss, where the unconscious of the world never ceases to move.
The fables that people tell, the myths that they create, the stories that they invent, help them to shape identity, to manufacture memory, to distinguish themselves from other peoples.
Fables, myths, narratives, produce an abundance of « barbarians » and « pagans, » « unbelievers » and « idolaters », distill multiple kinds of “strangeness” – all in order to strengthen the illusion of unity, the cohesion of the group, the persuasion of exception, the arrogance of election.
For those with a taste for history and anthropology, it is easy to find resemblances, analogies, cross-borrowings, in the diverse beliefs of peoples who believe themselves to be unique.
But peoples are more alike than they are dissimilar. In particular, they resemble each other in that they believe they are the only ones to believe what they believe, that they think they are the only ones to think what they think.
Monotheism, for example, has not appeared in a single culture, it is not the prerogative of one single people. In the West, the original monotheistic worship is readily associated with the ancient religion of the Hebrews. But another form of monotheism had been invented in Egypt, even before the pre-dynastic period, more than five thousand five hundred years ago. Funerary rituals and numerous hieroglyphic inscriptions bear witness to this, of which an impressive compilation was in its time collected and translated by the Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougéi. Numerous secondary gods were able to coexist without any real contradiction with the idea of a unique and supreme God, all the more so as many of these gods were in reality only « names » embodying this or that attribute of the unique God. The fact that after a period of decadence of the idea, it was possible for Pharaoh Amenophis IV (Akhenaten) to forcefully reintroduce it several centuries before the time of Abraham, only shows that the passage of time produces variations and interpretations about forceful ideas once conceived in their first evidence, at a very early stage in human consciousness. Before Abraham and Melchisedech, the Bible testifies that other patriarchs such as Noah, believed in the unique God.
Freud famously asserted that Moses would have been a defrocked priest of the cult of the God Aten. Moses initiated a new form of monotheism allegedly ‘different’ from the ancient monotheistic idea still latent in the Egyptian soul. He added to it various tribal laws and customs, however, in reaction to what he no doubt judged to be a form of decadence in the Egyptian politico-religious power of the time.
Before Moses, the « monotheistic » idea, far from being confined to the Nile Valley, had already traveled far and wide in time and space. Traces of it may be easily found in other ancient cultures, such as that of the Veda and the Avesta.
Reading Max Müller’s Essay on the History of Religions (1879), which devotes a chapter to the study of the Zend Avesta, and Martin Haug’s Essays on the Sacred Language, Scriptures and Religion of the Parsis (Bombay, 1862), provides examples of the curious and striking similarities between certain avestic and biblical formulas.
In the Zend Avesta, Zarathustra prays to Ahura Mazda to reveal his hidden names. The God accepts and gave him twenty of them.
The first of these names is Ahmi, « I am ».
The fourth is Asha-Vahista, « the Best Purity ».
The sixth means « I am Wisdom ».
The eighth translates as « I am Knowledge ».
The twelfth is Ahura, « the Living One ».
The twentieth is Mazdao, which means « I am the One who Is ».
These formulas are found almost word for word in different passages of the Bible. Is it pure chance, an unexpected encounter with great minds, or is it deliberate borrowing? Perhaps the most notable equivalence of formulation is « I am He who Is », which is found in the text of Exodus (Ex. 3:14).
Max Müller concludes, with a rather neutral tone: « We find a perfect identity between certain articles of the Zoroastrian religion and some important doctrines of Mosaism and Christianity.”
There are also analogies between the Genesis writers’ conception of the « creation » of the world and the ideas of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Indians. These analogies are reflected in the choice of words for « creation”.
For example, in the first verse of Genesis (« In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth »), the English verb « to create » is translated from the Hebrew בר, which does not mean « to create » in the sense of « to create from nothingness, » but rather « to cut, to carve, to flatten, to polish, » which implies a “creation” made out of pre-existing substance. Similarly, the Sanskrit verb tvaksh, which is used to describe the creation of the world in the Vedic context, means « to shape, to arrange », as does the Greek poiein, which will be used in the Septuagint version.
Even more troubling, some proper names evoke borrowings across language barriers. The name Asmodeus, the evil spirit found in the late biblical book of Tobit, was certainly borrowed from Persia. It comes from the Parsi name Eshem-dev , which is the demon of concupiscence, and which is itself borrowed from the demon Aeshma-daeva, mentioned several times in the Zend Avesta.
Another curious coincidence: Zoroaster was born in Arran (in avestic Airayana Vaêga, « Seed of the Aryan »), a place identified as Haran in Chaldea, the region of departure of the Hebrew people. Haran also became, much later, the capital of Sabaism (a Judeo-Christian current attested in the Koran).
In the 3rd century BC, the famous translation of the Bible into Greek (Septuagint) was carried out in Alexandria. In the same city, at the same time, the text of the Zend Avesta was also translated into Greek. This proves that at that time there was a lively intellectual exchange between Iran, Babylonia, and Judeo-Hellenistic Egypt.
It seems obvious that several millennia earlier, a continuous stream of influences and exchanges already bathed peoples and cultures, circulating ideas, images and myths between India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Judea and Egypt.
This prestigious litany of famous names testifies moreover that even more ancient cultures, coming from earlier, more original, « pre-historic » ages, have precisely left little trace, since they have been forgotten.
I believe that it is of the utmost philosophical and anthropological importance to consider, today, in the face of this cluster of clues, that the thinkers, prophets and magi of the Palaeolithic, already had an intuition of the One, and of the Whole.
The only traces of these extremely ancient beliefs can be found in the formulas of Egyptian rituals and Vedic hymns dating back more than two millennia before Abraham, i.e. at least more than three millenia BC.
One must realize that the monotheistic idea originated even earlier. It is part of the most ancient heritage of all mankind.
But today, sadly, and contrary to its very essence, this same idea has become one of the most subversive and explosive factors of human division, on the face of a narrow and overpopulated planet.
iRituel funéraire des anciens égyptiens (1861-1863). Recherches sur les monuments qu’on peut attribuer aux six premières dynasties de Manéthon (1865). Œuvres diverses (6 volumes, 1907-1918)
The Hebrew word temounah has three meanings, says Maimonides.
Firstly, it refers to the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. For example: « If you make a carved image of the figure (temounah) of anything, etc., you are making an image of the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. « (Deut. 4:25)
Secondly, this word may be used to refer to figures, thoughts or visions that may occur in the imagination: « In thoughts born of nocturnal visions (temounah), etc.”, (Jb. 4:13). This passage from Job ends by using a second time this word: « A figure (temounah), whose features were unknown to me, stood there before my eyes. « (Jb. 4:16). This means, according to Maimonides, that there was a ghost before Job’s eyes while he was sleeping.
Finally, this word may mean the idea perceived by the intelligence. It is in this sense that one can use temounah when speaking of God: « And he beholds the figure (temounah) of the Lord. « (Num. 12:8). Maimonides comments: « That is to say, he contemplates God in his reality.” It is Moses, here, who ‘contemplates’ the reality of God. In another passage, again about Moses, God Himself says: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear appearance and without riddles. It is the image (temounah) of God himself that he contemplates. » (Numbers 12:8).
Maimonides explains: « The doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look at God’ (Berakhot 7a) ». Indeed, one text says: « Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look towards God.” (Ex. 3:6)
It is difficult to bring anything new after Maimonides and the doctors. But this word, whose image, vision and idea can be understood through its very amphibology, deserves a special effort.
The word temounah is written תְּמוּנָה (root מוּן ).
The letter taw, the initial of temounah, can be swapped with the other ‘t’ in the Hebrew alphabet, the teth ט, as is allowed in the Hebrew language, which is very lax in this respect. This gives a new word, which can be transcribed as follows: themounah. Curiously enough, the word thamana טָמַן, which is very close to it, means « to hide, to bury ».
One may argue that it’s just a play on words. But the salt of the matter, if one lends any virtue to the implicit evocations of the meaning of the words, is that Moses « hides » (thamana) his face so as not to see the temounah of God.
By hiding (thamana) his own face (temounah), Moses contemplates the figure (temounah) of God, which remains hidden from him (thamana).
What does this teach us?
It teaches us that the divine figure does not show itself, even to a prophet of the calibre of Moses. Rather, it shows that the divine figure stays hidden. But by hiding, it also shows that one can contemplate its absence, which is in fact the beginning of the vision (temounah) of its very essence (temounah).
By renouncing to see a temounah (an image), one gains access to the temounah of the temounah (the understanding of the essence).
Through this riddle, hopefully, one may start to get access to God’s temounah.
It is also a further indication that God is indeed a hidden God. No wonder it is difficult to talk about His existence (and even more so about His essence) to ‘modern’ people who only want to « see » what is visible.