Shestov on cupiditas scientiae (lust for knowledge)

[This is a slightly revised version of something I posted yesterday at Arts & Faith.  Given how often I’ve written here about Shestov, it’s clearly relevant here too.  It’s in the context of a question I got as to the relevance, to Christian doctrine, of Shestov’s views on the Fall.]

I realize now that I haven’t connected the dots, so to speak, very well at all.  The interpretation of the Fall would, naturally, seem to you like a totally peripheral issue.  Okay, I will try to connect the dots better.  I wrote the following on my blog, in this post (but read the whole post, if you have time):

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.

So, yeah, the Fall is not a side issue with Shestov.  He bases pretty much everything he wrote on it.  Also, I’m a little sorry now that I included that “Q & A” addendum about mortality and immortality because I think it directed your attention to the wrong place.  The addendum was offered simply to anticipate a possible question as to man’s state with respect to death prior to his partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The more important part of my post, I think, was the argument for mortality being intrinsic to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  To put it in a shorthand form, for better dot-connecting purposes: Knowledge = Death.  Shestov says:

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.

What does this have to do with Christian doctrine?  In terms of the contents of Christian doctrine, perhaps nothing.  But in terms of whether a nonbeliever approaches Christian doctrine or anything concerning God, and whether a believer stays where he is, perhaps everything.  How so?  Because it speaks to the terrible danger of cupiditas scientiae (lust for knowledge).  Shestov writes about this in his book Athens and Jerusalem:

One would think that the religious philosophers of the Middle Ages should have seen that it was precisely this question of the eternal truths, the truths independent of God, that hid in itself the greatest dangers, and that they should consequently have strained all their powers to defend Jerusalem against Athens and recalled in this connection the warning of the Bible against the fruits of the tree of knowledge.  Some of them did remember it.  Gilson quotes in a footnote Peter Damian who affirmed that cupiditas scientiae (lust for knowledge) was for men “leader of the flock of all vices,” but Gilson realizes that no one listened to Peter Damian; Bonaventura himself found these words strange.  The enchantment of the fruits of the tree of knowledge always persists: we today aspire as eagerly to the eternal truths as the first man.

But what is it that seduces us in these truths that depend neither on ourselves nor on God, and why is it that we base our best hopes on the principle of contradiction or on the idea that what has once been cannot not have been?  We do not even raise this question – as if the independence of the eternal rational and moral truths were the guarantee of our own independence.  But it is just the opposite: these truths condemn us to the most repugnant slavery.  Being independent of God’s will, they themselves have neither will nor desire.  They are indifferent to everything.  They are not at all concerned with what they will bring to the world and to men, and automatically actualize their limitless power with which they themselves have nothing to do and which comes to them one knows not whence nor why.  From the “law” – what has once been cannot not have been – may flow for us a good but also an evil – a horrible, insupportable evil; but the law will accomplish its work without caring about this.  One cannot persuade the eternal truths, one cannot move them to pity.  They are like the Necessity of which Aristotle said that “it does not allow itself to be persuaded.”  And despite this – or precisely because of this – men love the eternal truths and prostrate themselves before them.  We can obtain nothing from them, consequently we must obey them.  We have not the power to escape them, we see in our impotence an “impossibility,” consequently we must worship them.  This is the true meaning of the cupiditas scientiae: a puzzling concupiscentia irresistibilis carries us toward the impersonal, indifferent to everything, truth that we raise above the will of all living beings.

Is it not clear that we are in the power of that terrible, hostile force of which the Book of Genesis speaks to us?  We have seen that all the commentators believed that the sin of the first man consisted in an act of disobedience: Adam wished “to be free,” he refused to submit.  In reality it is just the opposite that happened: having tasted of the fruits of the tree of knowledge, man lost the freedom that he possessed on leaving the hands of the Creator and became the slave of “the eternal truths.”  And he does not even suspect that the eritis scientes (you shall know) by means of which the tempter bewitched his soul led to his “fall.”  He continues to the present day, indeed, to identify his eternal salvation with knowledge.

Shestov is all about trying to break the deadly grip of cupiditas scientiae on men’s minds.  There is a certain class of people, and it is vast today, who may never come to Christ until or unless they free themselves, at least partly, from cupiditas scientiae.

About divine truth (and its “defenselessness” in the face of reason), Shestov writes:

It is a truth of “revelation.”  Like David in the Bible before the gigantic Goliath armed from head to foot, it remains invisible even to the “eyes of the mind,” unarmed and defenseless before the innumerable army of all historic philosophy’s arguments.  It does not even have the sling possessed by the young shepherd, the future great king and psalmist.  And yet, weak as it was, it entered into combat with “the wisdom of the century.”  “The unlearned rise and storm heaven,” as Saint Augustine with amazement exclaimed.  And Saint Thomas Aquinas echoed him: “But it would be more wonderful than all signs if the world were brought to believing such hard things, executing such difficult things, and hoping for such exalted things by simple and unlearned men without miraculous signs.”  And indeed, the Bible was brought to the world by simple, ignorant people who were absolutely incapable of defending it by the methods which learned people use to attack it.

But this Bible did not satisfy the philosophers.  Even Saint Bonaventura, whose “Adam, as Brother Alexander of Hales said of him, did not seem to have sinned,” wished to obtain “demonstrated” truth.  Even the saints no longer escaped the consequences of the original sin: the doctor seraphicus (angelic doctor), the spiritual heir of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had overcome all earthly passions, is nevertheless possessed, like all of us, with the cupiditas scientiae (lust for knowledge) and cannot overcome this passion.  He wishes to “defend” the truth of revelation, to make it self-evident.  Temptation lies in wait for us just where we least expect it.  Our Greek teachers put our vigilance to sleep by suggesting to us the conviction that the fruits of the tree of knowledge were and must be the principle of philosophy for all time.  Even the doctor subtilis allowed himself to be tempted, as we have seen.  He believes, but faith is not enough for him.  He asks of God permission to taste the fruits of the tree of knowledge.  All the most remarkable and influential representatives of the philosophy of the Middle Ages repeat endlessly: credo ut intelligam [I believe so that I may understand].

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

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