Shestov, on the Fall

In the 1950s, the poet Czeslaw Milosz was living in Paris when he heard through mutual friends that a fellow writer wanted to meet him.  Her name was Sorana Gurian.  She had arrived as a refugee from Romania with nothing, but within a few short years her first three novels had been published in France.  Now, she was dying of cancer.  Milosz met with her shortly before her death, when she was mostly bedridden.  Milosz writes:

We talked about many things, including writers.  She showed me the books on her night table; they were books by Shestov in French translation.  She spoke of them with that reticent ardor we reserve for what is most precious to us.  “Read Shestov, Milosz, read Shestov.”

Milosz shared this encounter at the beginning of his excellent essay, “Shestov, or the Purity of Despair.”  In another essay (“Dostoevsky”) Milosz wrote:

Shestov is very important for me.  It was thanks to my reading of him that Joseph Brodsky and I were able to understand each other intellectually.

Why does Shestov inspire such depth of feeling?  Now that I’ve had more time to read him, I’ve discovered that I share this sense of reverence.  It’s not easy to articulate the reasons, but I’ll try.

It has to be admitted that a large part of the attraction lies in the writing itself.  Shestov’s writing style is exemplary for its honesty and directness.  There is nothing affected or ornamental about it.  You will never be made to wander about, and risk getting lost in, cathedral-like sentences like the following by Maurice Merleau-Ponty from The Phenomenology of Perception:

The relation of reason to fact, or eternity to time, like that of reflection to the unreflective, of thought to language or of thought to perception is this two-way relationship that phenomenology has called Fundierung: the founding term, or originator – time, the unreflective, the fact, language, perception – is primary in the sense that the originated is presented as a determinate or explicit form of the originator, which prevents the latter from reabsorbing the former, and yet the originator is not primary in the empiricist sense and the originated is not simply derived from it, since it is through the originated that the originator is made manifest.

(An aside: Years ago when I was interested in Merleau-Ponty I read The Phenomenology of Perception, which has over 500 pages filled with sentences like the one above, cover to cover.  I must admit that there were a few nuggets of gold in there, but the denseness and prolixity of M-P’s writing style made reading his magnum opus an ordeal I won’t forget, or repeat.  I can remember wanting to throw the book aside in disgust, a mere hundred pages in, but I forced myself to continue on to the bitter end – which says something about my character, at least at the time.  I’m fairly sure that if I picked the book up for the first time now, I would demote it to doorstop-status straightaway.)

No, it is pleasure itself to read Shestov.  His Russian contemporary, the poet D. S. Mirsky, called his writing “the tidiest, the most elegant, the most concentrated – in short, the most classical prose – in the whole of Modern Russian Literature.”

But aesthetics can only be part of the attraction.  There is also content to consider.  And what extreme content there is in Shestov!  Can philosophy (or, if you prefer, religious philosophy) be conceived broadly enough to permit Shestov a place under the tent?  Or will the canvas be rent in the stretching?  Shestov himself seems to defy classification.  Like a handful of other great Russian thinkers, he so exceeds the usual disciplinary boundaries – of philosophy, religion, and literature – that one quickly loses track of the borrowings back and forth, and it may be just as well.

Shestov meant to unsettle his readers, to shake them up.  Profoundly.  Amusingly, back in the day of prerevolutionary Russia, defiant adolescents used to threaten their parents, “I’ll read Shestov,” if lesser threats did not avail.  But why, exactly, was he considered so radical?  In brief, because he severely questioned (okay, ruthlessly assaulted) the sovereign rights of reason.  If this hardly seems like a hanging offense to you, wait a bit.  You may want to reserve judgment until you’ve seen the full bill of particulars against him.

Shestov was not your garden-variety, indiscriminate bomb-throwing thinker.  His knowledge of philosophy – ancient, medieval, and modern – was profound.  He knew where all the bodies were buried.  He also knew his Bible thoroughly.  Thus, Shestov’s polemics were devastatingly accurate and insightful, even if he could be a bit monotonous in his choice of targets.  Many commentators have picked up on Shestov’s characteristic singularity of purpose and his repetition of favorite themes.  Less noticed, perhaps, is the fact that he never quite repeated himself.  Each treatment of one of his favorite topics was at least a little different, and often significantly so.

No theme was more foundational for Shestov than the biblical legend of the Fall.  To understand the Fall, in the precise way that Shestov understood the Fall, is to understand Shestov; to miss it, is to miss Shestov.  No more; no less.  But in preparing for this post, I had trouble remembering where he had definitively covered this topic.  In Shestov’s works, the Fall seems to be both everywhere and nowhere – that is, it is easy to find mentions of it, but hard to find definitive treatments of it.  Happily, a web site exists with the full text of the vast majority of Shestov’s works.  This, in conjunction with Google’s ability to search within a web site, allowed me to quickly locate, and then drill down on, all the places in his texts where Shestov mentioned “the Fall.”  Since there is no substitute for actually reading Shestov, I will conclude this post with excerpts from two of his most extensive discussions about the Fall.

From Athens and Jerusalem, Part III, On the philosophy of the Middle Ages, Section II:

God planted in paradise the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and He said to man: “From every tree of paradise you may eat; however, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.”  While God ordinarily proclaims His truths “without any trace of proof,” this time His prohibition is accompanied not by His sanction, as we have tried to believe in order to simplify the problem, but by His motivation: the day you taste the fruits of the tree of knowledge you shall surely die.  A relationship is thus established between the fruits of the tree of knowledge and death.  God’s words do not mean that man will be punished for having disobeyed, but that knowledge hides in itself death.  This appears beyond doubt if we recall the circumstances in which the fall took place.  The serpent, craftiest of the animals created by God, asks the woman, “Why has God forbidden you to eat of the fruit of all the trees of paradise?”  And when the woman replies to him that God had forbidden them only to eat of the fruits of a single tree that they might not die, the serpent answers, “You shall not die, but God knows that the day you eat of these fruits your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  “Your eyes will be opened,” says the serpent.  “You shall die,” says God.  The metaphysics of knowledge in Genesis is strictly tied to the metaphysics of being.  If God has spoken truly, knowledge leads to death; if the serpent has spoken truly, knowledge makes man like God.  This was the question posed before the first man, and the one posed before us now.

It is not necessary to say that the pious thinkers of the Middle Ages could not even for a moment admit the thought that truth was on the side of the tempting serpent.  But the Gnostics declared openly that it was God and not the serpent who had deceived man.  In our age Hegel was not at all embarrassed to say that the serpent had spoken the truth to the first man and that the fruits of the tree of knowledge became the source of philosophy for all time.  If we ask on what side the truth is, and if we admit in advance that our reason is called to pronounce the final judgment in the argument between God and the serpent, no doubt is possible: it is the serpent who triumphs.  And as long as reason remains “prince and judge of all,” we cannot expect any other decision.  Reason is the source of knowledge: how can it then condemn knowledge?  On the other hand – we must not forget this – the first man possessed a certain knowledge.  In the same book of Genesis it is said that when God created all the animals, He led them to the man in order that he might give a name to each.

But the man, seduced by the serpent, was not content with this knowledge: the “that” (hoti) did not suffice for him; he desired the “why” (dioti); the “that” irritated him just as it irritated Kant.  His reason aspired avidly to universal and necessary judgments; he could not feel satisfied as long as he had not succeeded in transforming the truth that was “revealed” and situated above both the universal and the necessary into a self-evident truth that certainly deprives him of his freedom but protects him against the arbitrariness of God.  Certain conscientious theologians, concerned no doubt with defending man against the arbitrariness of God, have tried to derive the Greek word alêtheia (truth) from a-lan-thanô (to open up, to reveal).  In this way revelation was inwardly related to truth: revelation consisted in opening up the truth, and so there was no reason to fear that God could have abused His limitless freedom: the universal and necessary truth dominates God as well as man.  It came finally to the same result as in Hegel: the serpent did not deceive the man.  But it ended there not explicite but implicite.  The theologians avoided Hegel’s frankness.  . . .

One could, in this connection, reproduce still many other passages from scholastic thinkers quoted or not quoted by Gilson: the “knowledge” by means of which the serpent succeeded in seducing the first man continued to attract them with an irresistible force.  “Experience” does not satisfy but rather irritates them, just as it was later to irritate Kant; they wish to know – in other words, to be convinced that what is not only is but cannot be other than it is and must necessarily be what it is.  And they seek guarantees not from the prophet who brought God’s word to them from Sinai nor even in God’s word itself: their intellectual longing will be satisfied only when the word of God brought by the prophet will have obtained the blessing of the principle of contradiction or some other principle that is as immutable and impassive as the principle of contradiction.  Now this is precisely what the first man wished when he stretched forth his hand to the tree of knowledge; it is this by which he let himself be tempted.  He also wished “to know,” not “to believe”; he saw in faith a kind of diminution, an injury to his human dignity, and he was certain of this when the serpent told him that after he had eaten of the fruits of the forbidden tree he would become like God – knowing.

I repeat: The medieval philosophers who aspired to transform faith into knowledge were far from suspecting that they were committing once again the act of the first man.  Nevertheless it is impossible not to agree with Gilson when he writes, regarding the attitude of the Scholastics toward faith: “Faith as such suffices for itself, but it aspires to transmute itself in the understanding of its own content; it does not depend on the evidence of reason but, on the contrary, it is faith that engenders reason.”  And further, “This effort of the truth that is believed to change itself into the truth that is known is truly the life of Christian wisdom; and the body of rational truths that this effort gives us is the Christian philosophy itself.”

It may be supposed that the first man, when he heard the tempter’s words, thought likewise: it seemed to him, too, that there was nothing dangerous or condemnable in his desire to know, that this desire was good.  It is a remarkable thing: most of the great scholastic thinkers (there were, however, some exceptions: Peter Damian and his followers of whom we shall speak later) never wished to see and never came to understand that the original sin consisted in the fact that man had tasted of the fruits of the tree of knowledge.  In this respect the mystics hardly distinguished themselves from the philosophers.  The unknown author of the famous Theologia deutsch declares openly: Adam could have eaten twenty apples – no evil would have come of it; the evil was in his disobedience to God.  St. Augustine says the same thing but in a less trenchant way: “For in that place of so much happiness God did not wish to create and plant evil.  But obedience was inculcated by the commandment – a virtue that in the rational creature is, so to speak, the mother and keeper of all virtues, for the creature was so made that it is useful for it to be subjected to God but injurious for it to do its own will and not the will of Him by Whom it was created.”  And so perceptive an eye as that of Duns Scotus did not succeed in distinguishing (or perhaps did not dare to distinguish) the true significance of the biblical account. “The first sin of man . . . according to what Augustine said, was an immoderate love of union with his wife.”  In itself Adam’s act, the eating of the fruits of the tree of knowledge, was not evil. . . .

The medieval philosophers never stopped reflecting on sin; moreover, they were not content with reflecting on it, they suffered from it.  But they could never resolve to connect the fall of man with the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  How could they resolve to do this since all – and we also, for that matter – have at the bottom of our hearts only one thought, only one care: “I believe, Lord, but if it is also possible, it is this that I would wish to know.”  They knew well that “obedience is the mother and keeper of all virtues,” but they did not for an instant admit that the knowledge to which they aspired so eagerly could conceal sin within itself and were only astonished that the first man should have been incapable of submitting himself to a prohibition so insignificant, so easy, as not eating the fruit of one of the trees that grew in Eden.  Yet the biblical story spoke to them clearly and distinctly of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, while only the truths that had come to them from the Greeks testified to obedientia.

The Greeks, indeed, placed obedience above everything else.  Seneca’s phrase is well known: “The Creator and Ruler of the world Himself once commanded, always obeys.”  For the Greeks there was always something suspicious in the jubere (commanding): it contained, in their eyes, the germ of limitless freedom, that is, a detestable arbitrariness, while the parere (obedience) was the principle and promise of the good.  And they established on the parere the knowledge that puts an end to unbridled freedom.  It is enough to recall the dispute between Callicles and Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, which passed on to St. Augustine, the Fathers of the Church, Duns Scotus, and to all medieval philosophy the extraordinary, exclusive value that they accorded to the parere as well as to the knowledge that is based on the parere, and from which they also drew, along with this knowledge, the opposition between good and evil which, as Gilson has just told us, could not exist even for a moment without the idea of obedience.  A breach occurred in the central or fundamental idea of the philosophy of the Middle Ages which aspired so passionately, so violently, to become Judeo-Christian: the Bible warned man of the horrible danger involved in tasting the fruits of the tree of knowledge, Greek philosophy considered gnôsis (knowledge) as the spiritual nourishment par excellence and saw the supreme dignity of man in his faculty of distinguishing between good and evil.  Medieval philosophy was incapable of renouncing the Greek heritage and found itself obliged in the face of the fundamental problem of philosophy, the problem of the metaphysics of knowledge, to ignore the Bible.

From In Job’s Balances, Part II, Revolt and Submission, Section 49, Sola Fide:

One should not deceive oneself and trust too much any one’s ability to read the history of the earth, of life, of men, of peoples, from the material traces which have remained behind.  There is every reason to suppose that we “read” badly, very badly, and that our bad reading has provided us with a considerable store of false ideas and knowledge.  We always “read” starting from the presupposition that there is and can be nothing new under the sun, a presupposition that is obviously quite false and entirely unfounded; there is new under the sun, but we lack eyes to recognize it – we only understand how to see the old.  The Biblical legend of Adam’s fall, for example, is something new.  If we examine it as historians should, as men should who seek a natural relationship between phenomena and are convinced a priori that they can find nothing in the darkness of the centuries which does not also exist in our days, we shall be forced either to interpret it wrongly or to hold it for a later, even for a very late interpolation.  This would be absurd.  The legend of the Fall is so closely bound up with the whole Biblical story that we should be obliged to attribute the whole of Genesis, and consequently, all other books of the Bible, to an epoch near our own.  But what then?  How can one explain naturally how a little, uneducated, nomad people could come upon the idea that the supreme sin which deformed human nature and brought with it the expulsion from paradise, with all the consequences of that expulsion: our heavy, tortured life, labour in the sweat of our brows, sickness, death, etc. – that the supreme sin of our forefathers was trust in “reason”? and that man in plucking the apple from the tree of knowledge did not save himself as one would suppose, but damned himself for ever?  How, I ask, could such a thought come into the heads of primitive herdsmen who were obliged to devote all their time and forces to the “struggle for existence”, i.e. to tending their cows and sheep?  What acuteness and refinement of understanding, what culture is necessary even to approach this fateful question!  Even today very learned men abstain from such torturing problems, feeling that it is seldom or never granted to man to solve them, or even to grasp them in their whole depth and complexity.  One might say more: although the Bible has been for centuries the most widely read book of European humanity and each of its words is held holy, yet the most highly educated and deepest thinkers have never understood the legend of the Fall.  Even today none of us understands the riddles hidden in it; we are organically incapable of understanding it.  Why is the tree of knowledge the tree of death, while the tree of life gives no knowledge?  Our whole experience proves the opposite.  Knowledge protects life, enables man – a weak animal without natural weapons – to fight with other animals dangerous to him.  Knowledge is the source of our force and might.  . . .  So it would seem!  But if we do not understand the legend of the Fall – how then could uneducated, rude herdsmen understand, much less “invent” it.

It is clear that they could neither understand nor invent it; just as they could obviously not come to the conclusion from the visible traces which remained behind that there once had been a flood.  The legend of the Fall came to the Jews from somewhere outside, they received it as “a tradition”, and then it was transmitted from generation to generation.  Consequently, its origin must be ascribed to a very remote period of human history.  Yet however far back into the darkness of time we remove the legend of the fatal tree, we are not facilitating our task, but rather complicating it more than ever.  The forefathers of the Jews who lived in Palestine were even less educated than they; they were quite primitive men, savages.  Were they capable of reflecting about such problems at all, far less of solving them?  Were they able to contrast life and knowledge?  . . .  I repeat that the most highly educated man, even today, could not make such a contrast “with his own reason”.  When Nietzsche brought back his Beyond Good and Evil from his subterranean and super-terranean wanderings, the world was dumbfounded, as though it had never seen its like before.  And that although he was only repeating once again the immemorial legend of the trees which grew in paradise.  And that although the story had already been told with such passion and fire by the Prophet Isaiah, by St. Paul, who based himself on the Prophets, and even by Luther, who filled the world with his thunder – Luther, who taught that man is saved, not by works, but by faith alone – sola fide – and that he who trusts in his good works is condemned to everlasting death.

If, then, although the prophets, apostles, and philosophers proclaimed this truth to us so often, we could not and cannot grasp it, how could the Jews invent it for themselves?  Obviously they could not.  It is equally obvious that they could not have taken it over from any one else.  Then whence came it to them?  And if it came to them in “natural” wise, why are we, even today, unable to guess its mysterious meaning?  Why does it appear, if not exactly false, yet utterly senseless, even to those who look on the Bible as a book of revelation?

It cannot be – so our reason, our whole spiritual being, repeats ever and again – that death came of knowledge.  This would mean that man could only free himself from death if he freed himself from knowledge, and lost the power to distinguish good from evil!  This was “revealed” to our remote forefathers, and they preserved the truth revealed to them through thousands of years.  Hundreds of millions of men have known and know today that passage in the Scriptures which describes the Fall, but no one is able to understand it, still less to explain why a mystery was revealed to us which none can grasp, even after the revelation.  The theologians, even those like St. Augustine, have feared this secret, and instead of reading what was written in the Bible, viz: that man became mortal because he ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they read that man became mortal because he disobeyed God.  Others have conceived it still more crudely, and seen the original sin in the concupiscentia which Adam, seduced by Eve, is alleged to have been unable to overcome in himself.  But this is not a reading; it is an artificial and calculated interpretation.  If man had disobeyed some other commandment of God’s, the consequences would not have been so heavy and disastrous; the Bible itself relates this later.  The point was simply that the fruit of the tree of knowledge which grew in Eden beside the tree of life bore within itself inevitable death.  It was against this that God had warned man.  But the warnings had proved useless.  Even as man, “after he had eaten of the fruit and become aware” that he was naked and must be ashamed of his nakedness, could not help but be ashamed, so “after he became aware” that death existed, he could no more deliver himself from death.  It was not God who “condemned” him to it – God only put into words what had happened without him; man passed his own death-sentence.  He believed the Serpent’s words that knowledge would increase his strength, and became a knowing, but a limited and mortal being.  And the more he “knows”, the more limited he is.  The essence of knowing lies in limitation; this is the sense of the Biblical legend.  Knowing is the power and the eternal preparedness to look about one, which again is the outcome of fear that unless one looks what is behind, one will fall victim to a dangerous and guileful enemy.  Before the Fall Adam looked on Eve and was not ashamed – in human nakedness, as in all that was in the Garden of Eden, was only beauty.  The shameful, the bad, the frightful came from knowledge and together with knowledge, with its “criteria” which arrogate the right to judge and condemn.  Direct seeing cannot bring with it anything bad or false.  After creating lies and evil, knowledge tries to teach man how he can save himself from lies and evil through his own strength, his own works.  But “knowledge” and “works” – if one accepts the mysterious Biblical legend – were precisely the source of all evil upon earth.  One must redeem oneself in other wise, through “faith” as St. Paul teaches, through faith alone, i.e. through a spiritual exertion of quite peculiar nature, which we describe as “audacity”.  Only when we have forgotten the “laws” which bind us so fast to the limited existence, can we raise ourselves up above human truths and human good.  To raise himself man must lose the ground under his feet.

It is true, “dialectic” cannot help here, neither the yearning for “eternity” which we are alleged to feel through “conscious reason” in mutable time.  We need not fear mutability: our arch-enemies are the “self-evident truths”.  I know it is immeasurably hard for man to be condemned to go without knowing whither.  Obviously this ought not to be asked of him.  But it is not a case of “asking”.  No one asks that all men should invariably disregard evidence.  Perhaps, on the contrary, every one must invariably reckon with it.  But many a man can also often not reckon with it, and often does not reckon with it.  And then it begins to appear as though eternity were only motionless pictures of time, as though that which had a beginning had no end, as though the Biblical philosophy were far deeper and wiser than modern philosophy, and even – to be quite frank – as though the Jews had not invented the legend of the Fall, but had received it in one of those ways about which the latest theories of knowledge can tell us nothing.

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This entry was posted in Fall of man, Fall of man, series of posts, Russian religious philosophy, Shestov, Lev. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Shestov, on the Fall

  1. Pingback: Shestov on cupiditas scientiae (lust for knowledge) | Extravagant Creation

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