The irrational residue of being

[Here is a scintillating “mini-essay” from the pen of perhaps the greatest essayist Russia has ever produced: Lev Shestov.  It is the forty-third of fifty-two pensées originally published in a Paris-based Russian journal in 1922 and 1923, under the title (as translated) of “Revolt and Submission,” and subsequently published in book form, along with other essays by Shestov, in 1929, under the title (as translated) of In Job’s Balances.  The English translation – from a German edition, with collation against the original Russian edition – by Camilla Coventry and C. A. Macartney, was published in 1932.  A second edition in English appeared in 1975 with a new introduction by Bernard Martin.  The complete text of In Job’s Balances can be viewed online, here.

Rereading these words written by Shestov, and perhaps because I have recently been rereading William James, I was struck, for the first time, by their Jamesian tenor.  Compare them, for example, with the first of James’ Hibbert Lectures in The Pluralistic Universe, or the following words from the fifth chapter of Some Problems of Philosophy:

Conceptual knowledge is forever inadequate to the fulness of the reality to be known.  Reality consists of existential particulars as well as of essences and universals and class-names, and of existential particulars we become aware only in the perceptual flux.  The flux can never be superseded.  We must carry it with us to the bitter end of our cognitive business, keeping it in the midst of the translation even when the latter proves illuminating, and falling back on it alone when the translation gives out.  ‘The insuperability of sensation’ would be a short expression of my thesis.  . . .

The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience.  Here alone do we acquaint ourselves with continuity, or the immersion of one thing in another, here alone with self, with substance, with qualities, with activity in its various modes, with time, with cause, with change, with novelty, with tendency, and with freedom.  Against all such features of reality the method of conceptual translation, when candidly and critically followed out, can only raise its non possumus, and brand them as unreal or absurd.

James’ thought was unquestionably influential in pre-revolutionary Russia (there is even a book on the subject, although I have not yet been able to read it).  But I do not know to what extent Lev Shestov himself was actually influenced by William James.]

“The Irrational Residue of Being,” by Lev Shestov

The irrational residue of being, which has disquieted philosophers from the earliest times of the awakening of human thought and which men have striven so passionately and so fruitlessly to “apprehend” i.e. to resolve into elements congruous to our reason  must that really be the cause of so much fear, so much hostility and hatred?  Reality cannot be deduced from reason, reality is greater, much greater than reason  is that such a misfortune?  Why do men see in it a misfortune?  If we had found a deficit in the balance-sheet of the world’s structure, that would be different.  That would mean that someone was robbing us secretly and robbing us perhaps of something very valuable and important to us.  But the final balance-sheet has shown a certain “residue,” a “surplus,” and a substantial one at that!  We have discovered an invisible and generous benefactor, and one who is considerably more powerful than human reason.  We have this generous benefactor and in so far as we seek for “knowledge” we are anxious at any price to be rid of him!  Even in metaphysics we strive for a “natural” explanation: there is to be no benefactor.  Why?  Out of pride?  Or out of suspicion?  “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes?”  We fear that although he is a benefactor and makes us gifts, in the end he will turn into an enemy and a robber and take all from us.  Can we believe no one, trust no one except ourselves?

There is no doubt that mistrust and suspicion of our understanding are the chief sources of rationalism.  If the benefactor were always benevolent, always gave gifts, then there would be no rationalists, and also no skeptics, who are blood-brothers of the rationalists.  Men would then no longer trouble about methodologies and about criticism of the power of judgment, they would hymn the beauty of the world and the might of the creator in confidence and joy.  Instead of tracts “De intellectus emendatione” and investigations about method, we should have psalms, like the old Jews who had not yet learned to reckon and examine.  We today understand how to reckon, and have learned how to think also.  We say: the giver is also a taker.  Even with the Greeks the chief theme of philosophic contemplation was genesis and phthora birth and destruction.  A creator has made things, has given them a beginning but as experience teaches, everything that has a beginning has also an end, and a wretched, bitter, lamentable end at that.  With the Greeks the thought appears even in the pre-philosophic period that it would be best for men not to be born at all.  It is better not to live at all than to live and be destined to inescapable destruction.  And if some power has cast us unasked into the world, then the best thing left to us is to die as quickly as possible.  Our life, that eternal hesitation between being and not being, cannot possibly have any value . . .

Experience has shown that all that has a beginning also comes to an end.  Reason, which is convinced that it knows even more than experience tells it, sets up a veritas aeterna: all that arises cannot help finishing, all that has a beginning cannot help having an end.  Consequently, concludes reason with self-assurance, gifts of any kind, precisely because they are gifts and were not there before, will inevitably be taken away again.  They are given us only on loan; we have but the usufruct of them.  The only thing left to us to do is to refuse gifts and giver alike.  The gifts are bad because they are taken away again, and also the giver is bad because he takes away.  Good alone is that which is won by our own strength, which is not given us but made our own through the “nature of things”, i.e. through someone who cannot voluntarily either give or take away because, metaphorically speaking, he has no “hands.”  This is probably why Plotinus falls with such rage on the Gnostics in the last book of his second Ennead.  They had discovered his own secret thought, but with much greater clarity and sequence than he would have wished.  In other words, they were much more consistent, not only inwardly but also outwardly.  Neither with Plotinus nor with Plato did “flight from the world” mean rejection of the world.  Plotinus, of course, found many things repulsive here on earth, and there were many things of which he wished passionately to be rid.  But there was also something which he would not have renounced at any price, even if he had had to promote matter a step and allow it a certain being.  Much as Plotinus speaks of the nothingness of sensuous apperceptions, much as he tries to prove that “beauty” is better than beautiful objects  for objects appear and disappear but beauty is eternal  yet he was furious when the Gnostics proposed complete renunciation of the world.  This world, our visible, sensuously perceptible world, which is corrupted by the addition of the non-existent, false, dark, and evil element of matter, this world is yet wonderfully beautiful; and although, like all “sensuous” things, it is subject to change and consequently must have had a beginning and be doomed to an end, yet Plotinus will not give it up and does not even hesitate to declare it eternal and to pillory the Gnostics, who despise the world and its creator . . .

But, we ask, in whose name is such a fearful warfare waged?  In the name of objective truth?  But neither Plotinus nor the Gnostics, of course, knew certainly whether the world was eternal or whether it arose in time and would be destroyed again.  They had no “proofs”  they lacked even those empirical data which have been acquired by modern geology and paleontology and on which modern science builds up its “history of the world.”  But this lack of proofs no more prevented Plotinus from putting forward his own opinion than it prevented the Gnostics from standing by their own.  For the Gnostics, “evil” in the world enhances beauty, and they thought: May the world perish if only the arch-evil which was intruded into it by the clumsiness of the Demiurge who created it perishes together with it.  Plotinus, on the other hand, who was completely absorbed in the contemplation of the beauty of the world, said: Let us rather allow an inconsistency of thought and permit the forbidden sensuous to creep into the world again, so long as we need not give up this glorious heaven, the divine stars and the lovely sea.  For although they are apperceived by the senses – without eyes one can see nothing of all this; for although “absolute beauty” should be better than the beauty of the earth, the sky, and the sea, yet without this concrete, “single” beauty, the world is no world.  Such beauty must be eternal and imperishable.

And evil?  Before evil one can flee, withdraw into oneself; one can, after all, put up with something on this earth where there is so much beauty.  And then one can think oneself out a theodicy against evil which can scare away all human misfortune, however great.  Even the moral “evil” can be explained, if one permits a barely perceptible inconsistency, which even an expert in philosophy would not notice.  The main thing is not to abandon the beauty of the world, not to give it up under any circumstances.  Here is the important difference between Plotinus and the Gnostics.  Plotinus accepted gladly both gifts and giver, although, in obedience to Hellenic philosophic traditions, he was anxious to limit and bind the world-creator in every way and to represent him as giving “necessarily” or “naturally.”  In other words, he retained in theory the right of control and the greatest possible independence for himself and his reason.  The Gnostics, on the other hand, being clearly more impressed by the terrors than the beauties of earth, resolved to reject all that is earthly, hoping that somewhere, in another place, they would find both the imperishable gifts and the perfect Demiurge.  But here on earth men lived only to fight tirelessly against death.  It is obvious that the Gnostics were more consistent.

Does this mean that they were nearer the truth?  Not at all.  It is fairly certain that neither the Gnostics nor Plotinus approached the truth.  It is probably correct that the truth has little relation to what men like the Gnostics or Plotinus taught.  Consequently they had no reason to dispute, although each of them was talking and doing on his own lines, which were quite different.  Neither the Gnostics’ world-renunciation nor Plotinus’s world affirmation has a right to assume the name of truth and sail under its flag.  Then was their dispute superfluous?  If one likes to say it, they never disputed at all, and would de facto have got on perfectly well together, if tireless reason had not dragged them quite unnecessarily before the court and confronted them with one another.  When there is judgment, when it is stated in advance that either condemnation or acquittal must result, one begins, of course, involuntarily to find defence and proofs of innocence, even to squabble and scratch.  But is it, I ask, so absolutely necessary to run to the judge?  Does the evening star strive with the lightning flash for beauty?  Or the cypress with the palm?  I think that Plotinus and the Gnostics only went to court “here.”  “There” it would not have occurred to any one to raise the question of their “rightness.”  The Gnostics were right when in their search for justification and compensation for the tortures of the world they forgot the beauty of the world, and Plotinus was right also when in his enthusiasm for the beauty of the world he forgot the evil that lies here.  We, their distant descendants and followers, who listen in the night for the voice of men who left our earthly vale of tears more than fifteen hundred years ago, we hear both their laments and their songs of praise and only wonder how it could be that the intensive creative activity of these illustrious men could remain so entirely without influence on our modern science.  Science does not trouble itself with what went on in the souls of these men.  Science does not even know that they had “souls.”  All their “better,” “worse,” “for nothing in the world” and “at all costs” will not outweigh in the balances of science a pound, an ounce, a grain of ordinary sand or even dirt.  All that is the “irrational residue” which is subject to no investigation.

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