By Charles Matthews

Thursday, May 26, 2011

40. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 868-890

Existence: Value in Existence (Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger). Faith: Christianity and Christendom (William Blake, Søren Kierkegaard)

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Common Condition of Man 
In Existentialism and Humanism (1946) Sartre takes "the Cartesian cogito" -- "I think, therefore I am" -- as a "point of departure": "the absolute truth of consciousness as it attains to itself." Anything outside of the individual consciousness is "no more than probable." 

But in fact, "I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another." Sartre calls this "inter-subjectivity." Through our experience with others, we arrive at "a human universality of condition. It is not by chance that the thinkers of today are so much more ready to speak of the condition than of the nature of man." This condition consists of "all the limitations which a priori define man's fundamental situation in the universe." These include the unvarying "necessities of being in the world, of having to labor and die there." Nevertheless, we "attempt either to surpass these limitations, or to widen them, or else to deny or to accommodate oneself to them."
What is at the very heart and center of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realizes himself in realizing a type of humanity -- a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch -- and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment.
It is the particular nature of the commitment that makes us part of a given culture: i.e., French, American, Chinese, modern, ancient, medieval, etc. "There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity," which is why we recognize other commitments, other cultures, as still human. This "existential humanism" is the recognition that "man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe." Thus "it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, that man can realize himself as truly human." 
Martin Buber: The Primary Words 

Martin Buber, date unknown
Like Sartre, in I and Thou (1923) Buber also recognizes relatedness as a key function in the human condition. The "Thou" of Buber's thought is the German du, the second-person pronoun that has no equivalent in modern English other than "you"; it presumes a familiarity between the speaker and the person addressed -- e.g., an adult and a child, members of the same family, lovers, close friends, etc. 

Buber contends that in all relatedness between subject and object there are what he calls "primary words": "the combination I-Thou" and "the combination I-It; wherein ... one of the words He and She can replace It." 
Primary words are spoken from the being. If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it. If It is said, the I of the combination I-It is said along with it. The primary word I-Thou can only be said with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being. 
Buber is not making a linguistic statement here, but rather a statement about the role of subject and object in human existence. To "experience" the world is to hold it in an I-It relationship. "The world has no part in the experience. It permits itself to be experienced, but has no concern in the matter." 

The I-Thou arises when a relationship, a mutuality, has been established. We can have an I-Thou relationship with nature, though it is a vague and tenuous one. In our relationship with other humans, however, "the relation is open and in the form of speech. We can give and accept the Thou." And then there's what Buber calls "our life with intelligible forms," which is the role of the imagination: "we feel we are addressed and we answer -- forming, thinking, acting." 
In every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us as we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou; in each we are aware of a breath from the eternal Thou; in each Thou we address the eternal Thou
In each case we perceive relatedness, but when we reduce this relationship to experience, when we attempt to objectify, the Thou becomes an It
This is the eternal source of art: a man is faced by a form which desires to be made through him into a work. this form is no offspring of his soul, but is an appearance which steps up to it and demands of it the effective power. The man is concerned with an act of his being. If he carries it through, if he speaks the primary word out of his being to the form which appears, then the effective power streams out, and the work arises. 
Love is a manifestation of I-Thou. Hate is a rejection of it. "Hate is by nature blind. Only a part of a being can be hated. He who sees a whole being and is compelled to reject it is no longer in the kingdom of hate, but is in that of human restriction of the power to say Thou.... Yet the man who straightforwardly hates is nearer to relation than the man without hate and love."

Eventually, "every Thou in our world must become an It." The relation terminates, if not because of separation or disaffection, eventually because of death. Even "love cannot persist in direct relation." But Thou is essential for the liberation of humanity from the sense of inevitability, of fate: "He who goes out to it with concentrated being and risen power to enter into relation becomes aware of freedom. And to be freed from belief that there is no freedom is indeed to be free." 

Karl Jaspers: The Encompassing 

In Reason and Existenz (1935) and "On My Philosophy" (1941), Jaspers examines the context of existence, the Encompassing. "We always live and think within a horizon. But the very fact that it is a horizon indicates something further which again surrounds the given horizon." It is "the medium or condition under which all Being appears as Being for us." We sense it as "the most extreme, self-supporting ground of Being." It urges us, "Do not lose yourself in what is merely known! Do not let yourself become separated from Transcendence!" In this sense, Jaspers is echoing Buber's encouragement not to remain in the I-It but to strive for the I-Thou. 

"In the world man alone is the reality which is accessible to me. Here is presence, nearness, fullness, life.... To fail to be human would mean to be to slip into nothingness." But is there more beyond the human? 
In every form of his being man is related to something other than himself: as a being to his world, as consciousness to objects, as spirit to the idea of whatever constitutes totality, as Existenz to Transcendence.
Jaspers rejects the positivism of the nineteenth century that resulted from scientific discovery. Humankind must continue to strive "more decisively than ever for a certainty that he lacks, for the certainty that there is that which is eternal, that there is a Being through which alone he himself is. If the Deity is, then all hope is possible." But this "Deity, if it exists, is only as it appears to us in the world, as it speaks to us in the language of man and the world." 

Martin Heidegger: Recollection of Being

In "The Way Back Into the Ground of Metaphysics" (1949), Heidegger also seeks the transcendent, the Encompassing, to overcome "the barrier which keeps man from the original involvement of Being in human nature." We have confused "beings" with Being, Heidegger says, and need "a different kind of thinking which is brought to pass by Being itself and, therefore, responsive to Being.

Which is a segue into the final section of the book: Faith. 

William Blake: The Lord's Prayer Modernized

The introduction to this section observes, "The declining authority of the Christian churches, with the decline of individual Christian faith, is a cultural fact that weighs heavily upon the modern consciousness.... There have been attempts to turn the discrediting of public Christian institutions into a renascence of personal Christian belief; there have been reinterpretations of Christian doctrine and of the meaning of religion in general; and there have been embattled declarations of orthodoxy." 

Blake is one of those severe critics of institutionalized Christianity and of "the conventional believer [who] clings to his church in proportion to his own lack of real faith and his secret commitment to an irreligious secular world." His "modernization" of the Lord's Prayer (1827) is addressed to "Our Father Augustus Caesar" and is the prayer of a Tory for worldly success. 

Søren Kierkegaard: A Hypocritical Generation

Kierkegaard's "Attack Upon 'Christendom'" (1854-55) is a sardonic look at ecclesiastical materialism, which is "playing Christianity" by substituting the outward observances of faith for the actual practice of it. Preachers in their churches as "Artists in dramatic costumes [who] make their appearance in artistic buildings." They are "tradesmen-priests," and the "official Christianity" of Sundays "is much worse than ... weekday worldliness, it is hypocrisy, it is blood-guilt."
The Christianity of the New Testament was truth. But man shrewdly and knavishly invented a new   kind of Christianity which builds the sepulchers of the prophets and garnishes the tombs of the righteous, and says, "If we had been in the days of our fathers." And this is what Christ calls blood-guilt.
For Kierkegaard, Christianity is predicated on suffering, which is precisely what today's Christians prefer to avoid. If Christ were to return, he would turn his anger on the hypocrisy of the ministers for leading the faithful astray "and likely as of yore He would make a whip of small cords and drive them out of the temple." In "the Sunday twaddle" of the church services, "Christ ... becomes a languishing figure, the impersonation of insipid human kindness," instead of the figure who turned his wrath upon the hypocrites.  

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