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 The diffusion of culture.

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PostSubject: The diffusion of culture.    Sun Dec 11, 2011 11:50 am

“...the spiritual disorder of our time, the civilizational crisis of which everyone so readily speaks, does not by any means have to be born as an inevitable fate; that, on the contrary, everyone possesses the means of overcoming it in his own life. And our effort should not only indicate the means, but also how to employ them. No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crises of society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid the folly and live his life in order.” - Voegelin


This seems like a nice prelude to place before the following piece, Paul Valéry's Crisis of the Mind.



-----


We later civilizations . . . we too know that we are mortal.

We had long heard tell of whole worlds that had vanished, of empires sunk without a trace, gone down with all their men and all their machines into the unexplorable depths of the centuries, with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences pure and applied, their grammars and their dictionaries, their Classics, their Romantics, and their Symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics. . . . We were aware that the visible earth is made of ashes, and that ashes signify something. Through the obscure depths of history we could make out the phantoms of great ships laden with riches and intellect; we could not count them. But the disasters that had sent them down were, after all, none of our affair.

Elam, Ninevah, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their very existence. But France, England, Russia...these too would be beautiful names. Lusitania too, is a beautiful name. And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as a life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join the works of Menander are no longer inconceivable; they are in the newspapers. That is not all. The searing lesson is more complete still. It was not enough for our generation to learn from its own experience how the most beautiful things and the most ancient, the most formidable and the best ordered, can perish by accident; in the realm of thought, feeling, and common sense, we witnessed extraordinary phenomena: paradox suddenly become fact, and obvious fact brutally believed.

I shall cite but one example: the great virtues of the German peoples have begotten more evils, than idleness ever bred vices. With our own eyes, we have seen conscientious labor, the most solid learning, the most serious discipline and application adapted to appalling ends.

So many horrors could not have been possible without so many virtues. Doubtless, much science was needed to kill so many, to waste so much property, annihilate so many cities in so short a time; but moral qualities in like number were also needed. Are Knowledge and Duty, then, suspect?

So the Persepolis of the spirit is no less ravaged than the Susa of material fact. Everything has not been lost, but everything has sensed that it might perish.

An extraordinary shudder ran through the marrow of Europe. She felt in every nucleus of her mind that she was no longer the same, that she was no longer herself, that she was about to lose consciousness, a consciousness acquired through centuries of bearable calamities, by thousands of men of the first rank, from innumerable geographical, ethnic, and historical coincidences.

So -- as though in desperate defense of her own physiological being and resources -- all her memory confusedly returned. Her great men and her great books came back pell-mell. Never has so much been read, nor with such passion, as during the war: ask the booksellers. . . . Never have people prayed so much and so deeply: ask the priests. All the saviors, founders, protectors, martyrs, heroes, all the fathers of their country, the sacred heroines, the national poets were invoked. . . .

And in the same disorder of mind, at the summons of the same anguish, all cultivated Europe underwent the rapid revival of her innumerable ways of thought: dogmas, philosophies, heterogeneous ideals; the three hundred ways of explaining the World, the thousand and one versions of Christianity, the two dozen kinds of positivism; the whole spectrum of intellectual light spread out its incompatible colors, illuminating with a strange and contradictory glow the death agony of the European soul. While inventors were feverishly searching their imaginations and the annals of former wars for the means of doing away with barbed wire, of outwitting submarines or paralyzing the flight of airplanes, her soul was intoning at the same time all the incantations it ever knew, and giving serious consideration to the most bizarre prophecies; she sought refuge, guidance, consolation throughout the whole register of her memories, past acts, and ancestral attitudes. Such are the known effects of anxiety, the disordered behavior of mind fleeing from reality to nightmare and from nightmare back to reality, terrified, like a rat caught in a trap. . . .

The military crisis may be over. The economic crisis is still with us in all its force. But the intellectual crisis, being more subtle and, by it nature, assuming the most deceptive appearances (since it takes place in the very realm of dissimulation)...this crisis will hardly allow us to grasp its true extent, its phase.

No one can say what will be dead or alive tomorrow, in literature, philosophy, aesthetics; no one yet knows what ideas and modes of expression will be inscribed on the casualty list, what novelties will be proclaimed.

Hope, of course, remains -- singing in an undertone:

Et cum vorandi vicerit libidinem
Late triumphet imperator spiritus.

But hope is only man's mistrust of the clear foresight of his mind. Hope suggests that any conclusion unfavorable to us must be an error of the mind. And yet the facts are clear and pitiless; thousands of young writers and artists have died; the illusion of a European culture has been lost, and knowledge has been proved impotent to save anything whatsoever; science is mortally wounded in its moral ambitions and, as it were, put to shame by the cruelty of its applications; idealism is barely surviving, deeply stricken, and called to account for its dreams; realism is hopeless, beaten, routed by its own crimes and errors; greed and abstinence are equally flouted; faiths are confused in their aim -- cross against cross, crescent against crescent; and even the skeptics, confounded by the sudden, violent, and moving events that play with our minds as a cat with a mouse . . . even the skeptics lose their doubts, recover, and lose them again, no longer master of the motions of their thought.

The swaying of the ship has been so violent that the best-hung lamps have finally overturned. . . .

What gives this critical condition of the mind its depth and gravity is the patient's condition when she was overcome.

I have neither the time nor the ability to define the intellectual situation in Europe in 1914. And who could pretend to picture that situation? The subject is immense, requiring every order of knowledge and endless information. Besides, when such a complex whole is in question, the difficulty of reconstructing the past, even the recent past, is altogether comparable to that of constructing the future, even the near future; or rather, they are the same difficulty. The prophet is in the same boat as the historian. Let us leave them there.

For all I need is a vague general recollection of what was being thought just before the war, the kinds of intellectual pursuit then in progress, the works being published.

So if I disregard all detail and confine myself to a quick impression, to that natural whole given by a moment's perception, I see . . . nothing! Nothing . . . and yet an infinitely potential nothing.

The physicists tell us that if the eye could survive in an oven fired to the point of incandescence, it would see . . . nothing. There would be no unequal intensities of light left to mark off points in space. That formidable contained energy would produce invisibility, indistinct equality. Now, equality of that kind is nothing else than a perfect state of disorder.

And what made that disorder in the mid of Europe? The free coexistence, in all her cultivated minds, of the most dissimilar ideas, the most contradictory principles of life and learning. That is characteristic of a modern epoch.

I am not averse to generalizing the notion of "modern" to designate certain ways of life, rather than making it purely a synonym of contemporary. There are moments and places in history to which we moderns could return without greatly disturbing the harmony of those times, without seeming objects infinitely curious and conspicuous . . . creatures shocking, dissonant, and unassimilable. Wherever our entrance would create the least possible sensation, that is where we should feel almost at home. It is clear that Rome in the time of Trajan, or Alexandria under the Ptolemies, would take us in more easily than many places less remote in time but more specialized in a single race, a single culture, and a single system of life.

Well then! Europe in 1914 had perhaps reached the limit of modernism in this sense. Every mind of any scope was a crossroads for all shades of opinion; every thinker was an international exposition of thought. There were the works of the mind in which the wealth of contrasts and contradictory tendencies was like the insane displays of light in the capitals of those days: eyes were fatigued, scorched.... How much material wealth, how much labor and planning it took, how many centuries were ransacked, how many heterogeneous lives were combined, to make possible such a carnival, and to set it up as the supreme wisdom and the triumph of humanity?

In a book of that era -- and not one of the most mediocre -- we should have no trouble in finding: the influence of the Russian ballet, a touch of Pascal's gloom, numerous impressions of the Goncourt type, something of Nietzsche, something of Rimbaud, certain effects due to a familiarity with painters, and sometimes the tone of a scientific publication...the whole flavored with an indefinably British quality difficult to assess! Let us notice, by the way, that within each of the components of this mixture other bodies could well be found. It would be useless to point them out: it would be merely to repeat what I have just said about modernism, and to give the whole history of the European mind.

Standing, now, on an immense sort of terrace of Elsinore that stretches from Basel to Cologne, bordered by the sands of Nieuport, the marshes of the Somme, the limestone of Champagne, the granites of Alsace . . . our Hamlet of Europe is watching millions of ghosts.

But he is an intellectual Hamlet, meditating on the life and death of truths; for ghosts, he has all the subjects of our controversies; for remorse, all the titles of our fame. He is bowed under the weight of all the discoveries and varieties of knowledge, incapable of resuming the endless activity; he broods on the tedium of rehearsing the past and the folly of always trying to innovate. He staggers between two abysses -- for two dangers never cease threatening the world: order and disorder.

Every skull he picks up is an illustrious skull. This one was Leonardo. He invented the flying man, but the flying man has not exactly served his inventor's purposes. We know that, mounted on his great swan (il grande uccello sopra del dosso del suo magnio cecero) he has other tasks in our day than fetching snow from the mountain peaks during the hot season to scatter it on the streets of towns. And that other skull was Leibnitz, who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant...and Kant begat Hegel, and Hegel begat Marx, and Marx begat. . . .

Hamlet hardly knows what to make of so many skulls. But suppose he forgets them! Will he still be himself? His terribly lucid mind contemplates the passage from war to peace: darker, more dangerous than the passage from peace to war; all peoples are troubled by it. . . . "What about Me," he says, "what is to become of Me, the European intellect? ...And what is peace? Peace is perhaps that state of things in which the natural hostility between men is manifested in creation, rather than destruction as in war. Peace is a time of creative rivalry and the battle of production; but I am not tired of producing? Have I not exhausted my desire for radical experiment, indulged too much in cunning compounds? ...Should I not perhaps lay aside my hard duties and transcendent ambitions? Perhaps follow the trend and do like Polonius who is now director of a great newspaper; like Laertes, who is something in aviation; like Rosencrantz, who is doing God knows what under a Russian name?

"Farewell, ghosts! The world no longer needs you -- or me. By giving the names of progress to its own tendency to a fatal precision, the world is seeking to add to the benefits of life the advantages of death. A certain confusion still reigns; but in a little while all will be made clear, and we shall witness at last the miracle of an animal society, the perfect and ultimate anthill."

[ Second Letter ]

I was saying the other day the peace is the kind of war that allows acts of love and creation in its course; it is, then, a more complex and obscure process than war properly so-called, as life is more obscure and more profound than death.

But the origin and early stages of peace are more obscure than peace itself, as the fecundation and beginnings of life are more mysterious than the functioning of a body once it is made and adapted.

Everyone today feels the presence of this mystery as an actual sensation; a few men must doubtless feel that their own inner being is positively a part of the mystery; and perhaps there is someone with a sensibility so clear, subtle, and rich that he senses in himself certain aspects of our destiny more advanced than our destiny itself.

I have not that ambition. The things of the world interest me only as they relate to the intellect; for me, everything relates to the intellect. Bacon would say that this notion of the intellect is an idol. I agree, but I have not found a better idol.

I am thinking then of the establishment of peace insofar as it involves the intellect and things of the intellect. This point of view is false, since it separates the mind from all other activities; but such abstract operations and falsifications are inevitable: every point of view is false.

A first thought dawns. The idea of culture, of intelligence, of great works, has for us a very ancient connection with the idea of Europe -- so ancient that we rarely go back so far.

Other parts of the world have had admirable civilizations, poets of the first order, builders, and even scientists. But no part of the world has possessed this singular physical property: the most intense power of radiation combined with an equally intense power of assimilation.

Everything came to Europe, and everything came from it. Or almost everything.

Now, the present day brings with it this important question: can Europe hold its pre-eminence in all fields?

Will Europe become what it is in reality -- that is, a little promontory on the continent of Asia?

Or will it remain what it seems -- that is, the elect portion of the terrestrial globe, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body?

In order to make clear the strict necessity of this alternative, let me develop here a kind of basic theorem.

Consider a map of the world. On this planisphere are all the habitable lands. The whole is divided into regions, and in each of these regions there is a certain density of population, a certain quality of men. In each of these regions, also, there are corresponding natural resources -- a more or less fertile soil, a more or less rich substratum, a more or less watered terrain, which may be more or less easily developed for transport, etc.

All these characteristics make it possible, at any period, to classify the regions we are speaking of, so that at any given time the situation on the earth may be defined by a formula showing the inequalities between the inhabited regions of its surface.

At each moment, the history of the next moment will depend on this given inequality.

Let us now examine, not our theoretical classification, but the one that actually prevailed in the world until recently. We notice a striking fact, which we take too much for granted:

Small though it be, Europe has for centuries figured at the head of the list. In spite of her limited extent -- and although the richness of her soil is not out of the ordinary -- she dominates the picture. By what miracle? Certainly the miracle must lie in the high quality of her population. That quality must compensate for the smaller number of men, of square miles, of tons or ore, found in Europe. In one scale put the empire of India and in the other the United Kingdom: the scale with the smaller weight tilts down!

That is an extraordinary upset in equilibrium. But its consequences are still more so: they will shortly allow us to foresee a gradual change in the opposite direction.

We suggested just now that the quality of her men must be the determining factor in Europe's superiority. I cannot analyze this quality in detail; but from a summary examination I would say that a driving thirst, an ardent and disinterested curiosity, a happy mixture of imagination and rigorous logic, a certain unpessimistic skepticism, an unresigned mysticism...are the most specifically active characteristics of the European psyche.

A single example of that spirit, an example of the highest order and of the very first importance, is Greece -- since the whole Mediterranean littoral must be counted in Europe. Smyrna and Alexandria are as much a part of Europe as Athens and Marseilles. Greece founded geometry. It was a mad undertaking: we are still arguing about the possibility of such a folly.

What did it take to bring about that fantastic creation? Consider that neither the Egyptians nor the Chinese nor the Chaldeans nor the Hindus managed it. Consider what a fascinating adventure it was, a conquest a thousand times richer and actually far more poetic than that of the Golden Fleece. No sheepskin is worth the golden thigh of Pythagoras.

This was an enterprise requiring gifts that, when found together, are usually the most incompatible. It required argonauts of the mind, tough pilots who refused to be either lost in their thoughts or distracted by their impressions. Neither the frailty of the premises that supported them, nor the infinite number and subtlety of the inferences they explored could dismay them. They were as though equidistant from the inconsistent Negro and the indefinite fakir. They accomplished the extremely delicate and improbable feat of adapting common speech to precise reasoning; they analyzed the most complex combinations of motor and visual functions, and found that these corresponded to certain linguistic and grammatical properties; they trusted in words to lead them through space like far-seeing blind men. And space itself became, from century to century, a richer and more surprising creation, as thought gained possession of itself and had more confidence in the marvelous system of reason and in the original intuition which had endowed it with such incompatible instruments as definitions, axioms, lemmas, theorems, problems, porisms, etc.

I should need a whole book to treat the subject properly. I wanted merely to indicate in a few words one of the characteristic inventions of the European genius. This example brings me straight back to my thesis.

I have claimed that the imbalance maintained for so long in Europe's favor was, by its own reaction, bound to change by degrees into an imbalance in the opposite direction. That is what I called by the ambitious name of basic theorem.

How is this proposition to be proved? I take the same example, that of the geometry of the Greeks; and I ask the reader to consider the consequences of this discipline through the ages. We see it gradually, very slowly but very surely, assuming such authority that all research, all the ways of acquiring knowledge tend inevitably to borrow its rigorous procedure, its scrupulous economy of "matter," its automatic generalizations, its subtle methods, and that infinite discretion which authorizes the wildest audacity. Modern science was born of this education in the grand style.

But once born, once tested and proved by its practical applications, our science became a means of power, a means of physical domination, a creator of material wealth, an apparatus for exploiting the resources of the whole planet -- ceasing to be an "end in itself" and an artistic activity. Knowledge, which was a consumer value, became an exchange value. The utility of knowledge made knowledge a commodity, no longer desired by a few distinguished amateurs but by Everybody.

This commodity, then, was to be turned out in more and more manageable or consumable forms; it was to be distributed to a more and more numerous clientele; it was to become an article of commerce, an article, in short, that can be imitated and produced almost anywhere.

Result: the inequality that once existed between the regions of the world as regards the mechanical arts, the applied sciences, the scientific instruments of war or peace -- an inequality on which Europe's predominance was based -- is tending gradually to disappear.

So, the classification of the habitable regions of the world is becoming one in which gross material size, mere statistics and figures (e.g., population, area, raw materials) finally and alone determine the rating of the various sections of the globe.

And so the scales that used to tip in our favor, although we appeared the lighter, are beginning to lift us gently, as though we had stupidly shifted to the other side the mysterious excess that was ours. We have foolishly made force proportional to mass!

This coming phenomenon, moreover, may be connected with another to be found in every nation: I mean the diffusion of culture, and its acquisition by ever larger categories of individuals.

An attempt to predict the consequences of such diffusion, or to find whether it will or not inevitably bring on decadence, would be a delightfully complicated problem in intellectual physics.

The charm of the problem for the speculative mind proceeds, first, from its resemblance to the physical fact of diffusion and, next, from a sudden transformation into a profound difference when the thinker remembers that his primary object is men not molecules.

A drop of wine falling into water barely colors it, and tends to disappear after showing as a pink cloud. That is the physical fact. But suppose now that some time after it has vanished, gone back to limpidity, we should see, here and there in our glass -- which seemed once more to hold pure water -- drops of wine forming, dark and pure -- what a surprise!...

This phenomenon of Cana is not impossible in intellectual and social physics. We then speak of genius, and contrast it with diffusion.

Just now we are considering a curious balance that worked in inverse ratio to weight. Then we saw a liquid system pass as though spontaneously from homogeneous to heterogeneous, from intimate mingling to clear separation.... These paradoxical images give the simplest and most practical notion of the role played in the World by what -- for five or ten thousand years -- has been called Mind.

But can the European Mind -- or at least its most precious content -- be totally diffused? Must such phenomena as democracy, the exploitation of the globe, and the general spread of technology, all of which presage a deminutio capitis for Europe...must these be taken as absolute decisions of fate? Or have we some freedom against this threatening conspiracy of things?

Perhaps in seeking that freedom we may create it. But in order to seek it, we must for a time give up considering groups, and study the thinking individual in his struggle for a personal life against his life in society.
-------------





Of great import are these last lines:

"This coming phenomenon, moreover, may be connected with another to be found in every nation: I mean the diffusion of culture, and its acquisition by ever larger categories of individuals.

An attempt to predict the consequences of such diffusion, or to find whether it will or not inevitably bring on decadence, would be a delightfully complicated problem in intellectual physics.

The charm of the problem for the speculative mind proceeds, first, from its resemblance to the physical fact of diffusion and, next, from a sudden transformation into a profound difference when the thinker remembers that his primary object is men not molecules.

A drop of wine falling into water barely colors it, and tends to disappear after showing as a pink cloud. That is the physical fact. But suppose now that some time after it has vanished, gone back to limpidity, we should see, here and there in our glass -- which seemed once more to hold pure water -- drops of wine forming, dark and pure -- what a surprise!...

This phenomenon of Cana is not impossible in intellectual and social physics. We then speak of genius, and contrast it with diffusion.

Just now we are considering a curious balance that worked in inverse ratio to weight. Then we saw a liquid system pass as though spontaneously from homogeneous to heterogeneous, from intimate mingling to clear separation.... These paradoxical images give the simplest and most practical notion of the role played in the World by what -- for five or ten thousand years -- has been called Mind.

But can the European Mind -- or at least its most precious content -- be totally diffused? Must such phenomena as democracy, the exploitation of the globe, and the general spread of technology, all of which presage a deminutio capitis for Europe...must these be taken as absolute decisions of fate? Or have we some freedom against this threatening conspiracy of things?

Perhaps in seeking that freedom we may create it. But in order to seek it, we must for a time give up considering groups, and study the thinking individual in his struggle for a personal life against his life in society."










How to endure the final diffusion of culture without becoming decadents- that is a great task that is set before us.
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PostSubject: Re: The diffusion of culture.    Sun Dec 11, 2011 11:54 am

As I put it in my own book:





"Just as heterosexual love, marital love, and romantic love were realized through the degeneration of the fundamental erotic impulse, so the fundamental impulse toward knowledge has, over time, degenerated into the philological science, aesthetics, morality, natural science, and philosophy. Only when the impulse toward knowledge learned to take cognisance of the different means of knowing, the different means of pursuing knowledge, could the emergence of these different schools be possible. The coexistence of these disparate means and modes of knowing cannot be imagined at the present time, and their incompatibility now operates upon us as a profound kind of sickness. It is possible that the fundamental impulse toward knowledge was not even born out of doubt, nor the erotic impulse out of the desire for some beloved; doubt and desire may very well be symptoms of this disease. Now that the fundamental impulse to knowledge has been completely degenerated, as the beam of light is transformed into the colors of the visible spectrum, it remains to be seen rather these different colors can be united in a single image that provokes something more than discord, ugliness, and pity. To what extent is the realization of the universality of knowledge possible without a retrogression in our mode of knowing? Does the realization of the truly synthetic human being imply a return to the primordial conditions of the undifferentiated pathos? If not, what form does this mode of knowing belonging to the truly synthetic human being assume? Instead of coloring our knowledge now with artistic ennoblement, now with philological scrutiny, is it possible to embody the realized unity of knowledge- the concept of knowledge, in these different modes? One would need to find in the established languages of philosophical systems and modes of knowing a kind of canon; "true" ideas, that is, ideas which represent the unity of knowledge, would thereby become more and more articulate by being re-phrased in the languages of different philosophical systems. A "false" idea would, through such repeated translations, simply become less and less articulate. Among the most spiritual human beings the variances in knowledge and in the means to knowledge, this genuine sickness, has proven to be a fruit perhaps sweeter than knowledge itself, with its own joys, and to draw this variance in the arts and sciences within the individual so that it is itself what philosophises and that through which one thinks, this is the now the great task."
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PostSubject: Re: The diffusion of culture.    Wed Apr 11, 2012 3:37 pm

Of a somewhat different scope and focus, but a useful contribution here nonetheless.

____

By Daniel Epstein, on the rise and decline of Europe.


A Letter to Europe:

[Jan] Patocka distinguishes between three main types of movement, which describe the different types of human life in the world: the movement of acceptance, the movement of defense and the movement of truth. These basic types are at one and the same time stages in life, characteristics of various cultures that emphasize one type of movement or another, and different dimensions of time.

Contrary to the opinion of those who look down on metaphysics, the soul about which Plato is speaking is not a non-material object whose existence cannot be proved (as Socrates tried in vain to prove in “Phaedon”); it is the movement in which man, from within himself and without any external coercion, directs his entire self to the truth. By this movement, which does not expect any benefit, man expresses his freedom

“As opposed to all other civilizations, which are based on tradition, Europe based itself on seeing, on intuition. The observation of what it is remains the most characteristic trait of European culture, making possible its expansion and its outcomes, such as technology and technique.” The problem is that Europe enthusiastically and energetically adopted and developed the outcomes, and grew distant from the root, which is, as Plato said, “care for the soul”

On March 13, 1977, Jan Patocka left the Prague police station. It had been the latest and longest in a series of interrogations since his name appeared atop the list of signatories to Charter 77, the famous document in which Czech dissidents demanded that their legal government uphold the civil rights as they appear in the Czech law books and in the Helsinki Convention, which was signed by the Czech government. Later that day, the philosopher died of a brain hemorrhage. His funeral was attended by a thousand people or so, as well as about 100 policemen, equipped with cameras. By order of the police, the florist shops remained closed that day. The eulogies were drowned out by the noise of motorcycle and helicopter engines, and some of the funeral-goers were already arrested as they left the cemetery.

What does this story have to do with the Jews? Don't we have enough victims and misery of our own without having to reflect on the fate of a philosopher we don't even know, one of the myriad intellectuals who were at the time groaning under the boot of a sinister regime? After all, we don't live in Europe. But doesn't European alienation toward Israel and Israeli alienation toward Europe – feelings of which many people on both sides of the Mediterranean are keenly aware – harm something essential within each of the partners to a history that stretches back 2,000 years, which, in the final analysis, is the history of mankind?

Perhaps the fate of the philosopher, who left his study and stood on the front line in a war waged by a handful of individuals for the right of every person to think, speak and live as a human being in the full sense of the word, is of particular significance to us now, in our time of severe distress. Could Patocka's attempt to return to the spiritual root of his culture arouse in us a feeling of brotherhood and a desire to understand the deep connection between Socrates, the first European, and ourselves?

One of Patocka's most beautiful books is called “Plato and Europe”, which concerns the spiritual history of Europe and the role played by soul in this history. I would like to emphasize this little word, so rare in contemporary discourse: soul. Patocka links the rise and fall of Europe to its involvement and the end of its involvement with soul. Indeed, in the world of the Nazis, and of the Communists that persecuted him so mercilessly and prohibited him from teaching, publishing or expressing himself, Jan Patocka writes about the soul in his studies of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Husserl and Heidegger, who are not spokesmen for anyone ideology, and are driven only by a desire to arrive at the truth.

This preoccupation with the soul, not as intellectual entertainment or mystical experience but as an expression of social and political commitment, and as an ethical exercise, is the connecting thread between Socrates and Patocka; and between Patocka and us.

This is what Socrates said as he stood before the judges in Athens: “For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul” (“The Apology of Socrates”).

These words are not foreign to us. In certain editions of the Jewish prayer book, we can still find the wonderful entreaty that begins with the words: “Keep your mind on the soul... whose light is like that of the sun, sevenfold, like the morning light”. It concludes thus: “And breathe life into the poor, singular, innocent and pure one. Those whose soul is not alive, how will they see the morning light?”

Man is commanded to rejuvenate his soul. This is apparently the responsibility of all human beings, as long as they are interested in conducting their lives as human beings worthy of the name.

Patocka was not only a profound and original philosopher, a great student (like Emanuel Levinas) of Husserl and Heidegger. Nor was he only one of the most brilliant interpreters of phenomenology. Yet these praises only serve to obscure his main contributions to the debates now underway about the status of Europe and its contribution to world history. In this article, I will present the substance of Patocka's ideas, out of a desire to underscore the connection between philosophical research and ethical concerns that impelled Patocka to be among the initial signatories of Charter 77.

Patocka was born in 1907 in the small town of Turnov in eastern Bohemia, where his father was a school principal. Patocka senior was a linguist and an expert on Greek culture, and taught his son Greek. Jan specialized in Romanian and Slavic studies and philosophy at Charles University in Prague. In 1928-29, he had a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne, where he met Alexander Koyre, who introduced him to Edmund Husserl when the German philosopher came to lecture in Paris. From 1932 to 1933 Patocka studied in Berlin and in Freiburg, and attended the lectures of Husserl and Heidegger. In 1937, he published his doctoral thesis in Prague on “The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem”.

In this work, the philosopher already addresses a problem that bothered him throughout his life: What is the significance of the “life-world”, the world in which all human beings live before adopting the concepts and values of rational culture? What is the influence of the “life-world” on the development of concepts of culture, and to what extent can distance from the life-world and its replacement by the technical world explain the crisis in which Europe has found itself since World War I?

Patocka didn't get to use his teaching degree very much; he taught at Charles University until it was closed in 1939, and then again from 1945 to 1950, at which time he was thrown out by the Communist regime until the late 1960s. During these years, he worked as a library clerk and was also involved in the effort to publish the writings of Tomas Masaryk, the philosopher who was also the founder and president of the first Republic of Czechoslovakia. Patocka's writings included a book about Masaryk's struggle against anti-Semitism. Needless to say, the books were banned from publication.

That was the fate of most of Patocka's books, which were circulated from hand to hand in underground editions. Whether he wrote about the Greek philosophers, the great Czech humanist Jan Amos Comenius, Masaryk, Husserl, aesthetics in Hegel or the meaning of Sophocles' tragedies, his writings were suspected of attempting to subvert the regime. There is no reason to doubt the validity of this suspicion. The authorities properly assessed the challenge presented by this unique man.

Patocka wrote a great deal – about 10,000 pages – on numerous and diverse topics. Practically every great philosopher was discussed. Aside from his philosophical writings, he also wrote extensively about aesthetics, literature and Greek mythology. Nevertheless, his is not a mosaic of ideas, but a coherent body of consistent thought.

We will attempt to follow this path, which leads us from the preoccupation with the “natural world” to the meaning of European history, and history in general, through observation of the various existential movements and the significance assigned to the soul in the writings of Plato and in the European tradition.

Two questions hover over all of these discussions: What does it mean to be a human being? What is Europe's contribution to this question?

The “life-world”

Husserl's philosophy, “transcendental phenomenology” (i.e., the study of the meaning of phenomena and the role of the subject as the source of meaning), starts with observation of something that each individual is given from the outset: the natural world. Husserl therefore studies culture in an effort to reconstruct the past and its deepest roots. As opposed to other philosophers, he does not search for these roots in books, but in life itself.

Philosophy, claims Husserl, did not begin in the mind of a single thinker, brilliant as he may be, or in a research institute, but in real life: at home, in the street, in every place where people meet.

When we speak of the “life-world”, what life do we mean? This question is answered by Vaclav Havel, Patocka's outstanding student, who was also the first president of Czechoslovakia after the expulsion of the Communist regime:

“...Most people of our time have not grown alienated from the world of their actual personal experience, the world which has its morning and its evening, its down (the earth) and its up (the heavens), where the sun rises daily in the east, traverses the sky and sets in the west, and where concepts like ‘at home' and ‘in foreign parts', good and evil, beauty and ugliness, near and far, duty and rights, still mean something living and definite; a world that is aware of the boundary between things with which we are familiar, and for which we are responsible, and things that are beyond the horizon, to which we should bow down in humility because they are shrouded in secrecy. The natural world is one, that our ‘ego' observes directly, and that same ‘ego' is personally responsible for it” (Vaclav Havel, “Politics and Conscience”, 1984).

The word secrecy, which appears in Havel's words, is not part of the vocabulary of Husserl, the strict rationalist, but it reveals his connection to his teacher and mentor Patocka. Patocka repeatedly emphasized the difference between the natural life-world and the substitute invented by rational civilization. Patocka's innovation – which is no less rationalistic than Husserl – is his attempt to confirm through phenomenology the findings that emerge from studying how a child, or a medieval man, views the world. Very surprisingly, the problem of philosophy in its classical formulation – the world as a wholeness – is closer to their worldview than to that of someone who was educated in the tradition of modern technical rationalism and lives in a divided, broken world.

This indicates the depth of the change that has taken place in culture. It is no coincidence that the child, the medieval man and the philosopher deal with the world in its entirety, and no coincidence that modern man is not aware of the world in its entirety. The connection between the philosopher's question and the world of a child or a “primitive” man stems from one basic fact: “The need for philosophy is well rooted in people's practical lives. Man doesn't come to philosophy today because of wonder (Patocka uses the Greek word ‘thaumazein'– to be amazed, to admire – which appears in Plato and in Aristotle, to explain the primary motivation for philosophy investigation), but because of the essential difficulties in his spiritual life, because of his general mood.” (From Patocka's “Plato and Europe”)

The involvement in philosophy, believes Patocka, is not an abstract academic study that is unconnected to man's problems in everyday life. This alienated concept of philosophy, which is extremely well suited to many contemporary philosophical discussions, testifies to the serious deviation from the primary source that is revealed in life and in the early philosophers, and especially Socrates.

As opposed to many historians, Patocka believes that philosophy did not come into being ex nihilo; it wasn't the marvelous sunrise after the darkness of barbarism. On the contrary, there is no way to understand its appearance without taking into account what preceded it. In his book “Plato and Europe”, Patocka explains, in illuminating chapters, the connection between philosophy and myth; and the two are not opposites. Myth is “something without which it is difficult for man to live. Not because of external needs, as in the case of ideology, in which man makes demands on reality. Man cannot live without myth, because myth is real. Man lives in reality, and cannot live any other way, because the entire structure of his being is related to a phenomenon, and to the appearance of the phenomenon, and the primary phenomenology – prior to any judgment – is expressed in the form of myth.”

Myth doesn't relate the history of the world; it describes man's relationship with the world. Man isn't found in the world as is a tree or an animal. He not only exists and is concern about his existence, but he also relates to the world and is interested in things that appear in the world and in the appearance of the world in its entirety.

The world speaks to man at all times, whether he is near or he is far. Myth is no less objective than any other human concept, and is likely to describe man's initial contact with the world in a more reliable manner than does science.

Myth says one thing: man is searching for the meaning of his existence. But this light, as the drama of Oedipus tells us, is not his. He is lost, and will pay for this with his life. Philosophy begins at the point where myth reaches a dead end. It wants to transform the curse of lost human existence into a blessing. Has it succeeded? Patocka's answer is not unequivocal, and by and large he is inclined to answer in the negative. In order to understand this answer in relation to the degree of philosophy's success or failure to address man's distress, we have to take two additional steps in Patocka's thought. The first will bring us closer to his philosophy of existence, and the second to the original interpretation he offers for the meaning of Platonic philosophy.

Human existence and movement

Patocka is a phenomenologist: he doesn't offer a theory of existence, but rather, like Husserl, places all the theories in parentheses and returns to the phenomenon itself. “Human life is always life in the world, life within a given wholeness” (Jan Patocka, “Le monde naturel et le mouvement de l'existence humaine”, p. 5).

What is our attitude toward this wholeness, or as Patocka puts it, toward this inclusive horizon, which is called the world? We are not standing in front of the world and regarding it as indifferent spectators; nor are we to be found in it like a rock, plant or animal. By its essence, human movement is different from the movement of an object from place to place, or from an animal attacking its prey. When we speak of human movement, even the simplest movement, such as walking – if that is in fact a simple movement – it is not subjective, because it takes place in the world, but neither is it objective, because it expresses our attitude toward the world. What is amazing here is the similarity between movement in Patocka and the precedence of “We will do” to “We will hear” in the Bible.

“Man and the world are combined in joint movement”, says Patocka (ibid., p. 46).

The natural criteria of movement, that enable us to orient ourselves to the world, are, on the one hand, the stable foundation, which gives us the answer to the question “where?” – the earth; and on the other hand, the inaccessible foundation, which defines the horizon, which gives us the answer to the question “when?” – the heavens. Man moves between the low and the high, and between the near and the far. Through movement, with all the possibilities it opens to us, we purchase a foothold in the world.

Patocka distinguishes between three main types of movement, which describe the different types of human life in the world: the movement of acceptance, the movement of defense and the movement of truth. These basic types are at one and the same time stages in life, characteristics of various cultures that emphasize one type of movement or another, and different dimensions of time.

The first type, the “movement of acceptance”, expresses man's essential need to be accepted by other human beings, in order to survive and develop. Even if we accept Heidegger's difficult definition, which describes man as being “thrown” (geworfen) into the world, a baby is delivered to human beings that have prepared the world for it. The other person, writes Patocka, “is the original home that is not only an external necessity, but is the very anchor of existence, our attitude to what has already been prepared for us in the world, to what takes us in and must be here from the beginning, and without which we cannot live and continue with the movement of life” (ibid., p. 9).

A person who comes into the world naked seeks shelter, a roof over his head. Movement of the first type leads to the acceptance of the individual at home, into the language, into the tradition, into that same world in which “the answers come before the questions”.

The dimension of time that characterizes the movement in which man encounters what has already been prepared for him is the past. This is also the time of the myths that remind us of the things that have “always” been.

Movement of the second type is the movement of man's leaving home for the outside. He acquires the skills and tools needed to protect himself and continue living in the changing circumstances of life. Patocka calls this type of movement the “movement of defense”, in which man is preoccupied with the needs of the present. Life is revealed as fragmentary pieces of living, which present us with problems that require a solution. That is the finest hour of technique, which emphasizes strength and the ability to solve problems by means of knowledge and exertion of the requisite strength.

Why does Patocka add to the above a third type of movement, and why does he consider it the principal meaning of human life? Although in the first two types of movement, the world opens before man, it closes immediately. In the first type of movement, it closes at the joyful moment when the child – and the adult as well, if his development is arrested at this stage – finds his complete satisfaction in being passively handed over to the other, who embraces him. In the second type of movement, man creates a circle around himself, while trying to expand the realm of his control over things and over others.

The only open movement is the third type of movement, which is directed at the future. It is called here the “movement of truth”. According to Patocka, we can understand the rise and decline of Europe only if we understand the place of this movement in the life of man in its entirety.

Patocka's starting point is the philosophy of Plato, or to be more precise, a very specific Platonic philosophy, which differs beyond recognition from the Plato known in European culture as the father of metaphysics, as well as the father of rational European culture. Patocka's Plato is an ambivalent Plato who can be interpreted both as the father of science and technology and as the father of metaphysics, which is not the same thing! This ambivalence, which we will now find in Plato, is the ambivalence of European culture and of Europe as a whole. It can explain the major crisis experienced by Europe in the 20th century, and in its wake, by the entire world in the 21st century. Plato is above all the student of Socrates, the barefoot wanderer who walks the paths of the world.

Socrates – and Patocka feels that there is no point to the question of whether he was a literary myth or a historical figure – is the representative of a very specific type of knowledge, the knowledge of a man who knows that he has no knowledge aside from “negative” knowledge. Socrates is above all “the great questioner”. In order to be the brilliant interlocutor that Plato describes him as being, he had to be “totally free, without any connection to finite things, on earth or in heaven. Socrates' authority depends on his total freedom, as he is freed repeatedly from any connection to nature, tradition, schemes (his own and those of others), and from any material or spiritual property” (“Negative Platonism”, p. 61, in “Liberte et Sacrifice”).

In other words, Socrates leaves the world and its totality of defined things – entities, property, knowledge – in short, everything that man is given in the life of cultural tradition and in everyday life. He leaves a world that is a totality of “things that are” for a world that is a wholeness that cannot be acquired and cannot be dominated. For him, philosophy is not knowledge, theory or ideology, but movement. This is the movement of deviation from the totality of things, which the philosophers call transcendentalism. In this movement of deviation, man does not relate to what exists, but to what does not exist. He does not aspire to achieve a certain object, purchase one thing or another, or control something or someone; he aspires to be. This aspiration, which removes him from the closed circle of members of the tribe who reminisce about their past, and of partners in everyday life who conduct a war of survival, opens what Patocka calls “the expanse of truth”. In this sense, the truth is not a fixed spiritual entity or dogma, but an open space that enables people to live an increasingly more authentic life.

Patocka calls this “Negative Platonism”. Its greatness lies in its negativism: it preserves one possibility of human existence – the possibility of aspiring to what is loftiest, to the eternal and the timeless, as opposed to the relativism of values, and as opposed to nihilism, which enslaves man to the ephemeral.

In Patocka's interpretation, Plato himself did not always meet the challenge that Socrates set for him. He tended to interpret the idea to which Socrates aspired as an entity, as an objective reality, instead of as the incomprehensible wholeness that is always open and speaks to man in the language of mystery.

If that is the case, Socrates is the first intellectual in the philosophical tradition, and at the same time the man of mystery who preserves the world as an open expanse. Plato, his student, tries to solve the riddle of the universe once and for all. That is how “Positive” philosophy was born, and after many incarnations became the positivist philosophy of the 19th century, and the empirical philosophy, which is so confident of the achievements of the 20th century.

In the transition from open Socratic Platonism to closed, Positive Platonism, philosophy gave up transcendentalism, and thus European culture gave up its soul. “Europe as Europe was born out of its interest in dealing with the soul. It died when it allowed this interest to be covered with a cloak of forgetfulness” (“Plato and Europe”, p. 79).

Care for the soul

In Greek, the soul is the psyche. Patocka reminds us that in the mythical literature, as in the books of Homer and the mystery literature, the soul is a shadow that is in need of something extra to continue existing: a mummified body, words engraved in stone. In this structure, the soul is always seen through the eyes of the other. Demokritos and Plato are the first to speak of the soul from within, the soul that is I. Thus says Demokritos:

“Human beings should pay more attention to their souls than to their bodies: because the wholeness of the soul will repair the evil of the tent, but maintaining the tent without thought does not improve the soul in any way” (S. Skolnikov, “The History of Greek Philosophy”, 1981, p. 145, in Hebrew).

It makes no difference if for Demokritos the materialist, the soul disintegrates into atoms when man dies; it is sufficient for him that it has touched the divine for an instant. Man is man because of this possibility.

With Plato, the soul becomes the central topic in the life of the philosopher. Plato reveals a new possibility for man beyond a life of labor and creativity, and in his opinion, this possibility is the only one that will save him from the crisis in which he became mired upon the collapse of the mythical world.

Myth provided human beings not only with a system of beliefs and opinions, but also – and perhaps mainly – with solid ground under their feet. What exists, exists thanks to what was, and to what will be in the future. The transition from myth to philosophy is a transition from the past to the present. From here on in, man observes the world in the present and tries to find a foothold in the present.

The question posed by philosophy is how to find a solid foundation in the present, and the answer is: man must learn to see, through the many hues of ephemeral phenomena, what is really there. The act of turning to that which always is, is the care for the soul.

“As opposed to all other civilizations, which are based on tradition, Europe based itself on seeing, on intuition – in the sense of observing what is. The observation of what it is remains the most characteristic trait of European culture, making possible its expansion and its outcomes, such as technology, technique, etc.” (“Plato and Europe”, p. 95). The problem is that Europe enthusiastically and energetically adopted and developed the outcomes, and grew distant from the root, which is, as Plato said, “care for the soul”.

Shaken by the horrors of the present

“Of course, Europe was also something else. Along time ago, care for the soul underwent a profound change, and seemed to vanish under the burden left behind by another concern, the concern for dominating the world. That is a different history, which contains the seed of what is happening before our eyes: the disappearance of Europe, apparently forever” (“Plato and Europe”, p. 99).

Contrary to the opinion of those who look down on metaphysics, the soul about which Plato is speaking is not a non-material object whose existence cannot be proved (as Socrates tried in vain to prove in “Phaedon”); it is the movement in which man, from within himself and without any external coercion, directs his entire self to the truth. By this movement, which does not expect any benefit, man expresses his freedom. He is liberated from everyday life without relinquishing his responsibility for the future. The more Patocka progressed in his philosophy, the more he understood that the soul would not be revealed in bureaucratic and hedonistic Europe, without shaking its foundations.

Only someone shocked at the present situation, as described by Havel in his “Open Letter to Gustav Husak”, only someone who “rises up against all the uniformity and unity of form”, only someone who understands that the purpose of life “is not monotony, but variety, the unquiet of the transcendental, the adventure of the new and a rebellion against the status quo” (Havel, “Politics and Conscience”) can reveal and effect the movement of the soul toward truth. The isolation that the regime imposed on Patocka did not imprison his soul. In the open expanse of truth, man is never alone.

“The community of the shaken”, as Patocka called it, cuts across borders. Its participants don't fight for themselves, their country or their culture; they have chosen world life, for everyone's sake.

And thus ends the path that began with the study of the meaning of the “life-world” as a given wholeness, in life and in myth, continued with a description of the various life movements, from the closed to the open, and finally arrives at a possible renewal of philosophy as a desire for the truth and for freedom for all. Doesn't this path have something in common with the path we are following? We, who are shaken by the horrors of the present and desire to revive the soul so that we will be able to live as human beings? Let us not despair of Europe, let us not lose despair of ourselves: we share the same soul. "

 

___________
"Since the old God has abdicated, I shall rule the world from now on." --Nietzsche

"Do you hold out hope, then?" ... "I hold out dignity." ... "She will need opiates before long, for the pain. She will cease being who she is." ... "Then I will love who she becomes."  --Penny Dreadful
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