Nikolai Berdayev On Philosophy’s Therapeutic Function

In Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography (Macmillan, 1950) Nikolai Berdayev writes:

It has been said that ‘green is the tree of life and grey the theory of life.’ Paradoxical though it may seem, I am inclined to think that the reverse is true: ‘grey is the tree of life and green the theory thereof.’…What is known as ‘life,’ however, is as often as not an embodiment of the commonplace and consists of nothing but the cares of workaday existence. ‘Theory’ on the other hand, may be understood as creative vision, as the Greek theoria, which raises us above the habits of daily life. Philosophy, ‘the green theory of life,’ is free of anguish and boredom. I became a philosopher and a servant of ‘theory’ that I might renounce and be relieved of this unspeakable anguish. Philosophical thinking had always freed me from life’s ugliness and corruption. To ‘being’ I have always opposed ‘creativity,’ that is to say, not ‘life,’ but the breaking through and flight from ‘life’ into ‘existence,’ from the finite into the infinite and transcendent.

In making note here of Adorno and Horkheimer’s commentary on the ideological convergence of art and science, I had pointed out how a realistic art serves a conservative and reactionary function: it merely faithfully reproduces ‘workaday existence.’ So do the injunctions that bid us concentrate on life and praxis and disdain theory: they confine our attention to the here and now, they bid us not look away at alternative possibilities and fantasies and imagined reconfigurations of the existent–all of which might have political import. The suggestion or claim that life is colorful while theory is pallid now stands exposed as an ideological maneuver too, one that makes us disdain the pleasurable indulgences of theoretical speculation, daydreams about how what is may morph into the what may be.

Berdayev makes note of the therapeutic function of philosophy in this context: it relieves us from the ‘anguish’ of ‘workaday existence’: ‘the longing for another world, for what which is beyond the boundaries of this finite world of ours.’ (We should hear echoes of Tolstoy‘s complaint in A Confession that his perplexity–which ended in his choosing faith–arose from his attempts to reconcile ‘the finite with the infinite.’)  Theory and philosophy accomplish this function because they embody ‘creativity,’ a departure from the here and now. It is this movement that for Berdayev has true vitality, the kind that can promise deliverance and exhilaration. Perhaps akin to the kind I made note of here in another post on the inspirational effect of two paragraphs by J. D. Mabbott--which introduced me to the work of the philosopher in terms of the exalted view it provided of the everyday world. In making these observations we should keep in mind, of course, Nietzsche’s contempt for philosophical speculation that breeds contempt for this life, this now, in favor of an afterlife and a hereafter. Keeping these two views in a creative tension of sorts may be the most fruitful, if not the most difficult, intellectual maneuver of all. We shouldn’t expect any less.

Talking Kierkegaard With ‘Non-Traditional’ Students

Philosophy being the discipline it is, I often find myself commenting on the identity of my students: it is how I remind those on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ that there are possibilities here, not always acknowledged, of ways of thinking about the practice of philosophy, inside and outside the classroom. I offer this vague preamble to set up a brief note about a wonderful discussion that took place in my classroom yesterday morning.

Our assigned reading was an excerpt from Kierkegaard‘s Fear and Trembling: the section on the ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,’ which draws upon the Old Testament legend of Abraham and Isaac. I was apprehensive about the reading assignment; Kierkegaard is not straightforward at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried; his central thesis, of individual, incommunicable to the rest of the world, departure from the universal ethical to a personally determined goal or purpose, was highlighted quickly. We were able to examine this claim in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac and to contrast it with the behavior of the ‘tragic hero’ in the legend of Iphigenia:

The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is clearly evident. The tragic hero still remains within the ethical. He lets one expression of the ethical find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; the ethical relation…he reduces to a sentiment which has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of morality. Here there can be no question of a teleological suspension of the ethical itself….With Abraham the situation was different. By his act he overstepped the ethical entirely and possessed a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended the former.

The discussion in class was dominated by four women students: two African-American, one Pakistani, one Jewish. Each drew upon the text, drawing the class’ attention to passages–like the one above–they thought were crucial and deserving of closer attention and analysis. One of them–no prizes for guessing which one–placed the legend in a broader context, supplying details from the Old Testament which enabled a better understanding of Abraham’s actions. Each, by focusing on the text, enabled its close reading and analysis for the benefit of their class mates. My responses to these students–in making note of how such ‘individual faith’ can come to resemble madness, and how Kierkegaard finds Abraham simultaneously worth admiring and yet incomprehensible and “appalling”–invoked the examples of CS Lewisinfamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and Jon Krakauer‘s  Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. They responded to these, in turn, with sharp and perceptive insights and further questioning. (They responded to my little joke about how Sarah would have told God to get lost with a few chuckles.) In responding to these, and in trying to offer as charitable an interpretation of Kierkegaard’s claims as possible, we were able to revisit central existentialist themes and establish connections with Kierkegaard’s distinctive relationship to theism and organized religion.

I could not help thinking, as I interacted with these students, of what a distinctively pleasurable moment it was to see them, by their presence in the classroom, and their responses to the reading, demolishing preconceptions and helping reconceive philosophy and philosophical practice in the process.

Camus On The Death Penalty And The Right To Make Amends

In Reflections on the Guillotine Albert Camus writes:

Deciding that a man must have the definitive punishment imposed on him is tantamount to deciding that that man has no chance of making amends….none among us can settle the question, for we are all both judges and interested parties. Whence our uncertainty as to our right to kill and our inability to convince each other….Now, we have all done wrong in our lives….There are no just people merely hearts more or less lacking in justice. Living at least allows us to discover this and to add to the sum of our actions a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. The lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible. None among us is authorized to despair of a single man, except after his death, which transforms his life into destiny and then permits a definitive judgment. But pronouncing the definitive judgment before his death, decreeing the closing of accounts when the creditor is still alive, is no man’s right. On this limit, at least, whoever judges absolutely condemns himself absolutely.

The strongest ‘practical’ i.e., quasi-consequentialist argument against the death penalty is that it it is irreversible. No amends, no reparations can be made to the condemned if the sentencing is incorrect; the price that might be paid for the satisfaction of the impulse to seek retribution is too high.

To that familiar argument, Camus adds two interesting embellishments. First, there is the Biblical ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’, which indicts the accusers and condemners of inevitable hypocrisy and sanctimony (there is an interesting echo here of Tolstoy‘s reading of the Gospels’ ‘Judge not, condemn not’ in My Religion).

And then there is a ‘right to live, which allows a chance to make amends’ for past wrongdoings, which Camus describes as a ‘natural right of every man’. The denial of the right to live, to make amends, amounts to a premature condemnation, a denial of the right to live  a ‘moral life.’

These are novel rights. (They might especially seem novel in the context of an agent accused of a crime terrible enough to warrant consideration of the death penalty.) But their grounding seems clear enough: we are condemned to be free, to bear the burden of our actions’ consequences, to live a life of trials, of making choices. There is no afterlife; this is all there is, the here and now. This world is the only one in which our wrongs may be redressed by us. And since we are all together, condemned to the same fate, the same imperfections present in varying degrees in each of us, we owe a duty to our fellow beings to allow them this chance at redemption.