Shankara on the disenchantment of the world

A fascinating text from Shankara’s Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya on the disenchantment of the world:

“For what is not accessible to our perception may have been within the sphere of perception of people in ancient times. Smriti also declares that Vyâsa and others conversed with the gods face to face. A person maintaining that the people of ancient times were no more able to converse with the gods than people are at present, would thereby deny the (incontestable) variety of the world. He might as well maintain that because there is at present no prince ruling over the whole earth, there were no such princes in former times; a position by which the scriptural injunction of the râgasûya-sacrifice would be stultified. Or he might maintain that in former times the spheres of duty of the different castes and âsramas were as generally unsettled as they are now, and, on that account, declare those parts of Scripture which define those different duties to be purposeless. It is therefore altogether unobjectionable to assume that the men of ancient times, in consequence of their eminent religious merit, conversed with the gods face to face. Smriti also declares that ‘from the reading of the Veda there results intercourse with the favourite divinity’ (Yoga Sûtra II, 44). And that Yoga does, as Smriti declares, lead to the acquirement of extraordinary powers, such as subtlety of body, and so on, is a fact which cannot be set aside by a mere arbitrary denial. Scripture also proclaims the greatness of Yoga, ‘When, as earth, water, light, heat, and ether arise, the fivefold quality of Yoga takes place, then there is no longer illness, old age, or pain for him who has obtained a body produced by the fire of Yoga’ (Svet. Up. II, 12). Nor have we the right to measure by our capabilities the capability of the rishis who see the mantras and brâhmana passages (i.e. the Veda).–From all this it appears that the itihâsas and purânas have an adequate basis.–And the conceptions of ordinary life also must not be declared to be unfounded, if it is at all possible to accept them.”

Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya, I-3, 33 (Translated by George Thibaut)

Is there a meaning to history?

Augustine’s theological response

St. Augustine was the first Christian to offer a comprehensive Philosophy of History (…) One of his greatest accomplishments was the sanctification of Plato’s understanding of the two realms: the perfect Celestial Kingdom and the corrupt copy. (…) For Plato, the two realms never met, except on rare and mystical occasions. For St. Augustine … one also cannot readily separate the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, in any Manichean sense. While the two cities do not meet spiritually, they intermingle physically …. which is expressed in the teaching of the Gospel on the opposition of the World and the Kingdom of God and in St. Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities Babylon and Jerusalem whose conflict run through all history and gives it its ultimate significance.” Christians live in the City of Man, St. Augustine argued, but sojourn as pilgrims in this world, as citizens of the City of God.
Bradley J. Birzer, “St. Augustine: Founding Philosopher of History.

The modern concept of revolution

A great democratic revolution is taking place among us. Everyone sees it, but not everyone judges it in the same way. There are those who regard it as something new and, believing it to be an accident, still hope to arrest it, while others deem it irresistible because in their view it is the oldest, most continuous, most permanent fact known to history. (…)
If, starting in the eleventh century, we examine the state of French society at fifty-year intervals, we see a twofold revolution taking place. The noble has moved steadily down the social ladder, and the commoner has moved steadily up. One is descending, the other rising. Every fifty years they move closer together; soon they will touch.
None of these changes is peculiar to France. Wherever we look in the Christian world, we see the same ongoing revolution. Everywhere a diversity of historical incident has redounded to democracy’s benefit. Everyone played a part: those who strove to ensure democracy’s success as well as those who never dreamt of serving it; those who fought for it as well as those who declared themselves its enemies. Driven pell-mell down a single path, all worked toward a single goal, some in spite of themselves, others unwittingly—blind instruments in the hands of God.
The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact. It has the essential characteristics of one: it is universal, durable, and daily proves itself to be beyond the reach of man’s powers. Not a single event, not a single individual, fails to contribute to its development.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Book II, 1835-1840).

Hegel’s philosophy of history

The only thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process. (…) The inquiry into the essential destiny of Reason — as far as it is considered in reference to the World — is identical with the question, what is the ultimate design of the World? (…)
All will readily assent to the doctrine that Spirit, among other properties, is also endowed with Freedom; but philosophy teaches that all the qualities of Spirit exist only through Freedom; that all are but means for attaining Freedom; that all seek and produce this and this alone. (…) [Therefore] it may be said of Universal History, that it is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. And as the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of that History. The Orientals have not attained the knowledge that Spirit — Man as such — is free; and because they do not know this, they are not free. They only know that one is free. But on this very account, the freedom of that one is only caprice; ferocity — brutal recklessness of passion, or a mildness and tameness of the desires, which is itself only an accident of Nature — mere caprice like the former. — That one is therefore only a Despot; not a free man. The consciousness of Freedom first arose among the Greeks, and therefore they were free; but they, and the Romans likewise, knew only that some are free — not man as such. Even Plato and Aristotle did not know this. The Greeks, therefore, had slaves; and their whole life and the maintenance of their splendid liberty, was implicated with the institution of slavery: a fact moreover, which made that liberty on the one hand only an accidental, transient and limited growth; on the other hand, constituted it a rigorous thralldom of our common nature — of the Human. The German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to attain the consciousness that man, as man, is free: that it is the freedom of Spirit which constitutes its essence. This consciousness arose first in religion, the inmost region of Spirit; but to introduce the principle into the various relations of the actual world involves a more extensive problem than its simple implantation; a problem whose solution and application require a severe and lengthened process of culture. In proof of this, we may note that slavery did not cease immediately on the reception of Christianity. Still less did liberty predominate in States; or Governments and Constitutions adopt a rational organization, or recognize freedom as their basis. That application of the principle to political relations; the thorough moulding and interpenetration of the constitution of society by it, is a process identical with history itself. I have already directed attention to the distinction here involved, between a principle as such, and its application; i.e., its introduction and carrying out in the actual phenomena of Spirit and Life. This is a point of fundamental importance in our science, and one which must be constantly respected as essential. And in the same way as this distinction has attracted attention in view of the Christian principle of self-consciousness— Freedom; it also shows itself as an essential one, in view of the principle of Freedom generally.
The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature, it is our business to investigate.
G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (published posthumously in 1837).

Revolution, Philosophy of History and Millenarianism

Philosophy of history as a topic does not go further back than the eighteenth century. From its beginning in the eighteenth century, it became associated with the constructions of an imaginary history made for the purpose of interpreting the constructor and his personal state of alienation as the climax of all preceding history. Until quite recently, philosophy of history has been definitely associated with the misconstruction of history from a position of alienation, whether it be in the case of Condorcet, Comte, Hegel, or Marx. This rigid construction of history as a huge falsification of reality from the position of an alienated existence is dissolving in the twentieth century. Once the deformation of existence, which leads to the construction of ideological systems, is recognized as such, the categories of undeformed human existence become the criteria by which deformed existence and systems must be judged.
(…) One of the important insights gained by philosophers, as well as by the prophets of Israel and by the early Christians, is the movement in reality toward a state beyond its present structure. So far as the individual human being is concerned, this movement obviously can be consummated only through his personal death. The great discovery of the Classic philosophers was that man is not a “mortal,” but a being engaged in a movement toward immortality. The athanatizein—the activity of immortalizing—as the substance of the philosopher’s existence is a central experience in both Plato and Aristotle. In the same manner, the great experience and insight of Paul was the movement of reality beyond its present structure of death into the imperishable state that will succeed it through the grace of God—i.e., into the state of aphtharsia or imperishing. This movement toward a state of being beyond the present structure injects a further tension into existential order inasmuch as life has to be conducted in such a manner that it will lead toward the state of imperishability. Not everybody, however, is willing to attune his life to this movement. Quite a few dream of a shortcut to perfection right in this life. The dream of reality transfigured into imperishable perfection in this world, therefore, becomes a constant in history as soon as the problem has been differentiated. Already the Jewish apocalyptic thinkers expected the misery of the successive empires of which they were the victims soon to be superseded by a divine intervention that would produce the state of glory and the end of empire. Even Paul expects a Second Coming in the time of the living and revises the dream only under the impact of the experience of believers in Christ dying before the Second Coming.
Metastatic expectation of a new world succeeding the old one in the time of the presently living has become a permanent factor of disturbance in social and political reality. The movement had been suppressed by the main church with more or less success; at least the apocalyptic expectations were pushed into sectarian fringe movements. But beginning with the Reformation these fringe movements moved more and more into the center of the stage; and the replacement of Christian by secularist expectations has not changed the structure of the problem.
In the modern period, an important new factor entered the situation when the expectation of divine intervention was replaced by the demand for direct human action that will produce the new world. Marx, for instance, expected the transformation of man into superman from the blood intoxication of a violent revolution. (…) The eschatological state of perfection will be reached through direct violence. The experience of a movement in reality beyond its structure has been transformed into the magic vulgarity of aggressive destruction of social order.
Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (1966).

What can we know?

Kant’s “dogmatic slumber”

Since the Essays of Locke and Leibniz, or rather since the origin of metaphysics so far as we know its history, nothing has ever happened which was more decisive to its fate than the attack made upon it by David Hume. He threw no light on this species of knowledge, but he certainly struck a spark from which light might have been obtained, had it caught some inflammable substance and had its smoldering fire been carefully nursed and developed.

Hume started from a single but important concept in Metaphysics, viz., that of Cause and Effect (including its derivatives force and action, etc.). He challenges reason, which pretends to have given birth to this idea from herself, to answer him by what right she thinks anything to be so constituted, that if that thing be posited, something else also must necessarily be posited; for this is the meaning of the concept of cause. He demonstrated irrefutably that it was perfectly impossible for reason to think a priori and by means of concepts a combination involving necessity. We cannot at all see why, in consequence of the existence of one thing, another must necessarily exist, or how the concept of such a combination can arise a priori. Hence he inferred, that reason was altogether deluded with reference to this concept, which she erroneously considered as one of her children, whereas in reality it was nothing but a bastard of imagination, impregnated by experience, which subsumed certain representations under the Law of Association, and mistook the subjective necessity of habit for an objective necessity arising from insight. Hence he inferred that reason had no power to think such, combinations, even generally, because her concepts would then be purely fictitious, and all her pretended a priori cognitions nothing but common experiences marked with a false stamp. In plain language there is not, and cannot be, any such thing as metaphysics at all. (…)

The question was not whether the concept of cause was right, useful, and even indispensable for our knowledge of nature, for this Hume had never doubted; but whether that concept could be thought by reason a priori, and consequently whether it possessed an inner truth, independent of all experience, implying a wider application than merely to the objects of experience. This was Hume’s problem. It was a question concerning the origin, not concerning the indispensable need of the concept. Were the former decided, the conditions of the use and the sphere of its valid application would have been determined as a matter of course. (…)

I openly confess, the suggestion of David Hume was the very thing, which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber, and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy quite a new direction. I was far from following him in the conclusions at which he arrived by regarding, not the whole of his problem, but a part, which by itself can give us no information. If we start from a well-founded, but undeveloped, thought, which another has bequeathed to us, we may well hope by continued reflection to advance farther than the acute man, to whom we owe the first spark of light.

Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783).


Reason, experience and the limits of knowledge

That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses, and partly of themselves produce representations, partly rouse our powers of understanding into activity, to compare to connect, or to separate these, and so to convert the raw material of our sensuous impressions into a knowledge of objects, which is called experience? In respect of time, therefore, no knowledge of ours is antecedent to experience, but begins with it. But, though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience. For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself (sensuous impressions giving merely the occasion), an addition which we cannot distinguish from the original element given by sense, till long practice has made us attentive to, and skillful in separating it.

(…) Of far more importance than all that has been above said, is the consideration that certain of our cognitions rise completely above the sphere of all possible experience, and by means of conceptions, to which there exists in the whole extent of experience no corresponding object, seem to extend the range of our judgments beyond its bounds. And just in this transcendental or supersensible sphere, where experience affords us neither instruction nor guidance, lie the investigations of reason, which, on account of their importance, we consider far preferable to, and as having a far more elevated aim than, all that the understanding can achieve within the sphere of sensuous phenomena. So high a value do we set upon these investigations, that even at the risk of error, we persist in following them out, and permit neither doubt nor disregard nor indifference to restrain us from the pursuit. These unavoidable problems of mere pure reason are God, freedom (of will), and immortality. The science which, with all its preliminaries, has for its especial object the solution of these problems is named metaphysics—a science which is at the very outset dogmatical, that is, it confidently takes upon itself the execution of this task without any previous investigation of the ability or inability of reason for such an undertaking. Now the safe ground of experience being thus abandoned, it seems nevertheless natural that we should hesitate to erect a building with the cognitions we possess, without knowing whence they come, and on the strength of principles, the origin of which is undiscovered. Instead of thus trying to build without a foundation, it is rather to be expected that we should long ago have put the question, how the understanding can arrive at these a priori cognitions, and what is the extent, validity, and worth which they may possess? We say, “This is natural enough,” meaning by the word natural, that which is consistent with a just and reasonable way of thinking; but if we understand by the term, that which usually happens, nothing indeed could be more natural and more comprehensible than that this investigation should be left long unattempted. For one part of our pure knowledge, the science of mathematics, has been long firmly established, and thus leads us to form flattering expectations with regard to others, though these may be of quite a different nature. Besides, when we get beyond the bounds of experience, we are of course safe from opposition in that quarter; and the charm of widening the range of our knowledge is so great that, unless we are brought to a standstill by some evident contradiction, we hurry on undoubtingly in our course. This, however, may be avoided, if we are sufficiently cautious in the construction of our fictions, which are not the less fictions on that account. Mathematical science affords us a brilliant example, how far, independently of all experience, we may carry our a priori knowledge. It is true that the mathematician occupies himself with objects and cognitions only in so far as they can be represented by means of intuition. But this circumstance is easily overlooked, because the said intuition can itself be given a priori, and therefore is hardly to be distinguished from a mere pure conception. Deceived by such a proof of the power of reason, we can perceive no limits to the extension of our knowledge. The light dove cleaving in free flight the thin air, whose resistance it feels, might imagine that her movements would be far more free and rapid in airless space. Just in the same way did Plato, abandoning the world of sense because of the narrow limits it sets to the understanding, venture upon the wings of ideas beyond it, into the void space of pure intellect. He did not reflect that he made no real progress by all his efforts; for he met with no resistance which might serve him for a support, as it were, whereon to rest, and on which he might apply his powers, in order to let the intellect acquire momentum for its progress.

Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781, second edition 1787)


Space as an a priori condition of our experience

By means of outer sense (a property of our mind) we present objects as outside us, and present them one and all in space. In space their shape, magnitude, and relation to one another are determined or determinable: By means of inner sense the mind intuits itself, or its inner state. Although inner sense provides no intuition of the soul itself as an object, yet there is a determinate form under which alone [as condition] we can intuit the soul’s inner state. [That form is time.] Thus everything belonging’ to our inner determinations is presented in relations of time. Time cannot be intuited outwardly, any more than space can be intuited as something within us. What, then, are space and time? Are they actual beings? Are they only determinations of things, or, for that matter, relations among them? If so, are they at least determinations or relations that would belong to things intrinsically also, i.e., even if these things were not intuited? Or are they determinations and relations that adhere only to the form of intuition and hence to the subjective character of our mind, so that apart from that character these predicates cannot be ascribed to any thing at all?

(…) (1) Space is not an empirical concept that has been abstracted from outer experiences. For the presentation of space must already lie at the basis in order for certain sensations to be referred to something outside me (i.e., referred to something in a location of space other than the location in which I am). And it must similarly already lie at the basis in order for me to be able to present [the objects of] these sensations as outside and alongside one another, and hence to present them not only as different but as being in different locations. Accordingly, the presentation of space cannot be one that we take from the relations of outer appearance by means of experience; rather, only through the presentation of space is that outer experience possible in the first place.

(2) Space is a necessary a priori presentation that underlies all outer intuitions. We can never have a presentation of there being no space, even though we are quite able to think of there being no objects encountered in it. Hence space must be regarded as the condition for the possibility of appearances, and not as a determination dependent on them. Space is an a priori presentation that necessarily underlies outer appearances.

(3-4) Space is not a discursive or, as we say, universal concept of things as such; rather, it is a pure intuition.

(…) Space represents no property whatever of any things in themselves, nor does it represent things in themselves in their relation to one another. (…) Only from the human standpoint, therefore, can we speak of space, of extended beings, etc. If we depart from the subjective condition under which alone we can – viz, as far as we may be affected by objects – acquire outer intuition, then the presentation of space means nothing whatsoever. This predicate is ascribed to things only insofar as they appear to us, i.e., only insofar as they are objects of sensibility.

Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781, second edition 1787)


Different perspectives on Kant and the problem of the “Thing-in-Itself”

What is knowledge? It is above all else and essentially representation. What is representation? A very complicated physiological occurrence in an animal’s brain, whose result is the consciousness of a picture or image at that very spot. Obviously the relation of such a picture to something entirely different from the animal in whose brain it exists can only be a very indirect one. This is perhaps the simplest and most intelligible way of disclosing the deep gulf between the ideal and the real. This is one of the things of which, like the earth’s motion, we are not immediately aware; the ancients, therefore, did not notice it, just as they did not observe the earth’s motion. (…)

If, without questioning further, we stop altogether at the world as representation, then of course it is immaterial whether I declare objects to be representations in my head or phenomena that exhibit themselves in time and space, since time and space themselves are only in my head. In this sense, then, an identity of the ideal and the real might still be affirmed; yet since Kant, this would be to say nothing new. Moreover, the inner nature of things and of the phenomenal world would obviously not be exhausted in this way, but with it we should still always be only on the ideal side. The real side must be something toto genere different from the world as representation, namely that which things are in themselves; and it is this complete diversity between the ideal and the real that Kant has demonstrated most thoroughly. (…)

In consequence of all this, on the path of objective knowledge, thus starting from the representation, we shall never get beyond the representation, i.e., the phenomenon. We shall therefore remain at the outside of things; we shall never be able to penetrate into their inner nature, and investigate what they are in themselves, in other words, what they may be by themselves. So far I agree with Kant. But now, as the counterpoise to this truth, I have stressed that other truth that we are not merely the knowing subject, but that we ourselves are also among those realities or entities we require to know, that we ourselves are the thing-in-itself. Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot-penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that could not be taken by attack from without.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (1844).


Hume’s critique had been for Kant the death blow to metaphysics. After that there was nothing left to do but search for the cause of its death in the very nature of reason. Such an undertaking, a judgment of the validity of metaphysics’ claims, thus presupposes a certain conception of metaphysics itself. More precisely, it presupposes that metaphysics be conceived, after the manner of Descartes, Leibniz and Wolf, as an abstract rationalism devoid of all empirical content, owing its preeminent position to its perfect isolation from sensible knowledge. When Kant declares that the origin of all metaphysics’ troubles is reason’s claim to a knowledge attained “independently of all experience”, it is clear that he has forgotten the existence of a metaphysics like that of Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. His formula, which applies in full to Descartes and Leibniz, leaves classical metaphysics untouched. I know quite well what objections Kant would have raised, but it is a fact that he did not take classical metaphysics into consideration. The immediate consequence of this oversight was that, instead of criticizing metaphysics, Kant criticized its two bastard offspring which the eighteenth century had bequeathed him: on the one hand a rigorous but empty rationalism, on the other hand a concrete empiricism devoid of all necessity. Having lost the notion of a rational knowledge fertilized by an intelligible datum, he had no other recourse but to deduce the intelligibility of experience from knowledge. Thus Kant was able to obtain an experiential knowledge that was both concrete and necessary, but by locating the unique source of the intelligibility of experience in knowledge he confined it within the limits of its own perfection and shut it off from any external contribution capable of fertilizing it.

(…) It might be possible to start from within the critical position in order somehow to force the knowing subject to go beyond itself and make contact with things in themselves. But here we would come in conflict not merely with the letter of the Kantian critique but with the spirit from which it was born. Kant’s critique is not content simply to ignore the question of what things-in-themselves are; it actually forbids any such question. It is of the very essence of the critical spirit to pose all questions from the point of view of the a priori conditions of knowledge and strictly to forbid all other questions. For example, the study of the conditions of knowledge must be related to two sources: sensibility and understanding. It is therefore necessary to posit both. If we ask if these two conditions of experience arise from a common source, Kant will respond: perhaps, but this source is unknown to us; there is therefore no point in spending any time trying to discover it.

(…) It is [therefore] necessary to choose between Aristotle and St. Thomas (truth is the conformity of intelligence with what is) and Kant in his logic (truth is the accord of reason with itself). Shall we judge reality as a function of knowledge or knowledge as a function of reality? That is the whole question.

Etienne Gilson, Thomist realism and the Critique of Knowledge (1939).


“Quantum mechanics introduced another point of view, which consists essentially that the aim of science is not to describe ultimate reality as it really is …Rather, it is to make account of reality as it appears to us, accounting for the limitations of our own mind and our own sensibilities … It’s not that science will explain the ultimate reality of certain objects or events … Rather, it is that the concepts we use, such as space, time, causality, and so on, … are not applicable to ultimate reality.”

Bernard D’Espagnat, quoted in Brendan Conway, “Work on ‘veiled reality’ earns French physicist $1.4 million award”, The Christian Science Monitor March 2009, (Source:


Intellectual intuition is even more immediate than sensory intuition, for it is beyond the distinction between subject and object which the latter allows to subsist; it is at once the means of knowledge and the knowledge itself, and in it subject and object are identified. (…) Knowing and being are fundamentally but one and the same thing; they are, so to speak, two inseparable aspects of a single reality, being no longer even really distinguishable in that sphere where all is “without duality” [advaita]. This in itself is enough to show how purposeless are all the various “theories of knowledge” with metaphysical pretensions which occupy such a prominent place in modern Western philosophy, sometimes even going so far, as in the case of Kant for example, as to absorb, or at least to dominate, everything else. The only reason for the existence of such theories arises from an attitude of mind shared by almost all modern philosophers and originating in the Cartesian dualism; this way of thinking consists in artificially opposing knowing and being, an opposition that is the negation of all true metaphysics.

(…) It is necessary to say something at this point about the way in which we use the word “theory”: etymologically, its primary meaning is “contemplation”, and if it is taken thus, it might be said that metaphysics in its entirety, including the realization which it implies, is theory in the fullest sense; but usage has given the word a rather different and above all a much narrower meaning. In the first place, it has become usual to oppose theory and practice, and in its original sense, this antithesis, which meant the opposition of contemplation to action, would still be justifiable here, since metaphysics is essentially beyond the sphere of action, which is the sphere of individual contingencies; but the Western mentality, being turned almost exclusively toward action and being unable to conceive of any realization outside the sphere of action, has come to oppose theory and realization in a general sense.

(…) In all doctrines that are metaphysically complete, as are those of the East, theory is invariably accompanied or followed by an effective realization, for which it merely provides the necessary basis; no realization can be embarked upon without a sufficient theoretical preparation, but theory is ordained entirely with a view to this realization as the means toward the end, and this point of view is presupposed, or at least is tacitly implied, even in the exterior expression of the doctrine.

René Guénon, General Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines (1921).


Can we prove the existence of God?

The 5 ways of Saint Thomas

The existence of God can be proved in five ways. The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. (…) The second way is from the nature of efficient cause. In the world of sensible things we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or one only. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate, cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

The third way is taken from possibility and necessity. (…) The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. (…) The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Summa Theologica.

The ontological argument

The mind … looks around in all directions in order to extend its knowledge further. First of all, it finds within itself ideas of many things; and so long as it merely contemplates these ideas and does not affirm or deny the existence outside itself of anything resembling them, it cannot be mistaken. Next, it finds certain common notions from which it constructs various proofs; and, for as long as it attends to them, it is completely convinced of their truth. For example, the mind has within itself ideas of numbers and shapes, and it also has such common notions as: If you add equals to equals the results will be equal; from these it is easy to demonstrate that the three angles of a triangle equal two right angles, and so on. And so the mind will be convinced of the truth of this and similar conclusions, so long as it attends to the premises from which it deduced them. (…)

  1. The existence of God is validly inferred from the fact that necessary existence is included in our concept of God.

The mind next considers the various ideas which it has within itself, and finds that there is one idea- the idea of a supremely intelligent, supremely powerful and supremely perfect being – which stands out from all the others. (And it readily judges from what it perceives in this idea, that God, who is the supremely perfect being, is, or exists. For although it has distinct ideas of many other things it does not observe anything in them to guarantee the existence of their object.) In this one idea the mind recognizes existence – not merely the possible and contingent existence which belongs to the ideas of all the other things which it distinctly perceives, but utterly necessary and eternal existence. Now on the basis of its perception that, for example, it is necessarily contained in the idea of a triangle that its three angles should equal two right angles, the mind is quite convinced that a triangle does have three angles equaling two right angles. In the same way, simply on the basis of its perception that necessary and eternal existence is contained in the idea of a supremely perfect being, the mind must clearly conclude that the supreme being does exist.

  1. Our concepts of other things do not similarly contain necessary existence, but merely contingent existence.

The mind will be even more inclined to accept this if it considers that it cannot find within itself an idea of any other thing such that necessary existence is seen to be contained in the idea in this way. And from this it understands that the idea of a supremely perfect being is not an idea which was invented by the mind, or which represents some chimera, but that it represents a true and immutable nature which cannot but exist, since necessary existence is contained within it.

(…) Since, then, we have within us the idea of God, or a supreme being, we may rightly inquire into the cause of our possession of this idea. Now we find in the idea such immeasurable greatness that we are quite certain that it could have been placed in us only by something which truly possesses the sum of all perfections, that, by a God who really exists. For it is very evident by the natural light not only that nothing comes from nothing but also that what is more perfect cannot be produced by – that is, cannot have as its efficient and total cause – what is less perfect.

Furthermore, we cannot have within us the idea or image of anything without there being somewhere, either within us or outside us, an original which contains in reality all the perfections belonging to the idea. And since the supreme perfections of which we have an idea are in no way to be found in us, we rightly conclude that they reside in something distinct from ourselves, namely God – or certainly that they once did so, from which it most evidently follows that they are still there.

René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy (1644).


Kant on the impossibility of an ontological proof of the existence of God

In all ages men have spoken of an absolutely necessary being, and in so doing have endeavored, not so much to understand whether and how a thing of this kind allows even of being thought, but rather to prove its existence. There is, of course, no difficulty in giving a verbal definition of the concept, namely, that it is something the non-existence of which is impossible. But this yields no insight into the conditions which make it necessary to regard the non-existence of a thing as absolutely unthinkable. It is precisely these conditions that we desire to know, in order that we may determine whether or not, in resorting to this concept, we are thinking anything at all. The expedient of removing all those conditions which the understanding indispensably requires in order to regard something as necessary, simply through the introduction of the word unconditioned, is very far from sufficing to show whether I am still thinking anything in the concept of the unconditionally necessary, or perhaps rather nothing at all.

Nay more, this concept, at first ventured upon blindly, and now become so completely familiar, has been supposed to have its meaning exhibited in a number of examples; and on this account all further enquiry into its intelligibility has seemed to be quite needless. Thus the fact that every geometrical proposition, as, for instance, that a triangle has three angles, is absolutely necessary, has been taken as justifying us in speaking of an object which lies entirely outside the sphere of our understanding as if we understood perfectly what it is that we intend to convey by the concept of that object.

All the alleged examples are, without exception, taken from judgments, not from things and their existence. But the unconditioned necessity of judgments is not the same as an absolute necessity of things. The absolute necessity of the judgment is only a conditioned necessity of the thing, or of the predicate in the judgment. The above proposition does not declare that three angles are absolutely necessary, but that, under the condition that there is a triangle (that is, that a triangle is given), three angles will necessarily be found in it.

(…) To posit a triangle, and yet to reject its three angles, is self-contradictory; but there is no contradiction in rejecting the triangle together with its three angles. The same holds true of the concept of an absolutely necessary being. (…) ‘God is omnipotent’ is a necessary judgment. The omnipotence cannot be rejected if we posit a Deity, that is, an infinite being; for the two concepts are identical. But if we say, ‘There is no God’, neither the omnipotence nor any other of its predicates is given; they are one and all rejected together with the subject, and there is therefore not the least contradiction in such a judgment.

(…) I should have hoped to put an end to these idle and fruitless disputations in a direct manner, by an accurate determination of the concept of existence, had I not found that the illusion which is caused by the confusion of a logical with a real predicate (that is, with a predicate which determines a thing) is almost beyond correction. (…)’Being is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment. The proposition, ‘God is omnipotent’, contains two concepts, each of which has its object – God and omnipotence. The small word ‘is’ adds no new predicate, but only serves to posit the predicate in its relation to the subject. If, now, we take the subject (God) with all its predicates (among which is omnipotence), and say ‘God is’, or ‘There is a God’, we attach no new predicate to the concept of God, but only posit the subject in itself with all its predicates, and indeed posit it as being an object that stands in relation to my concept. The content of both must be one and the same; nothing can have been added to the concept, which expresses merely what is possible, by my thinking its object (through the expression ‘it is’) as given absolutely. Otherwise stated, the real contains no more than the merely possible. A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers. For as the latter signify the concept, and the former the object and the positing of the object, should the former contain more than the latter, my concept would not, in that case, express the whole object, and would not therefore be an adequate concept of it. My financial position is, however, affected very differently by a hundred real thalers than it is by the mere concept of them (that is, of their possibility).


Kant on the impossibility of a cosmological proof of the existence of God

The cosmological proof, which we are now about to examine, retains the connection of absolute necessity with the highest reality, but instead of reasoning, like the former proof, from the highest reality to necessity of existence, it reasons from the previously given unconditioned necessity of some being to the unlimited reality of that being.

(…) This proof, termed by Leibniz the proof a contingentia mundi … runs thus: If anything exists, an absolutely necessary being must also exist. Now I, at least, exist. Therefore an absolutely necessary being exists. The minor premise contains an experience, the major premise the inference from there being any experience at all to the existence of the necessary. The proof therefore really begins with experience, and is not wholly a priori or ontological.

(…) But the cosmological proof uses this experience only for a single step in the argument, namely, to conclude the existence of a necessary being. What properties this being may have, the empirical premise cannot tell us. Reason therefore abandons experience altogether, and endeavors to discover from mere concepts what properties an absolutely necessary being must have, that is, which among all possible things contains in itself the conditions (requisita) essential to absolute necessity.

(…) In this cosmological argument there lies hidden a whole nest of dialectical assumptions, which the transcendental critique can easily detect and · destroy. (…) We find, for instance, the transcendental principle whereby from the contingent we infer a cause. This principle is applicable only in the sensible world; outside that world it has no meaning whatsoever. For the mere intellectual concept of the contingent cannot give rise to any synthetic proposition, such as that of causality. The principle of causality has no meaning and no criterion for its application save only in the sensible world. But in the cosmological proof it is precisely in order to enable us to advance beyond the sensible world that it is employed.

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781, second edition: 1787)


Two modern defenses of the proofs of God’s existence

The classical proofs of God seem suspended between two extremes lying beyond their reach—one in an upward and the other in a downward direction, or one through its richness and the other its poverty—namely: direct intellection and materialistic rationalism; there is nonetheless a sufficiently ample area between these two positions to justify the existence of arguments that aim to set forth evidence for the divine Being in the language of logic. No doubt one can immediately accept the supernatural and have no need of such proofs, Deo juvante, but it shows a lack of sense of proportion and a certain temerity—hardly compatible with true certainty and rather uncharitable toward the needs of others—to look down upon these proofs as if they were valueless in themselves and could have no possible usefulness; such an attitude would in fact be strangely presumptuous, especially since a logical demonstration in favor of the Eternal and of our own final ends always offers some insight and “consolation”, even for those who already possess certainty through intellection or grace.

(…)To be able to accept the ontological proof of God, which deduces the existence of an objective reality from an innate concept corresponding to it, one must begin by understanding that truth does not depend on reasoning—obviously truth is not created by reason—but that it reveals itself or be­comes explicit thanks to the key provided by the mental operation; in every act of assent by the Intellect there is an element that escapes the thinking process rather as light and color elude the grasp of geometry, which can nonetheless symbolize them indirectly and remotely. There is no such thing as “pure proof”, for every proof presupposes knowledge of certain data; the ontological proof —formulated in particular by Saint Augustine and Saint Anselm—carries weight for the person who already has at his disposal some initial certainties, but it has no effect upon the willfully and systematically superficial mind. Such a mind no longer understands the profound nature of causality; it regards intelligence as proceeding not from the outward toward the inward but from the inward toward the outward, until it forgets the very reason understanding exists.

As is well known, those who belittle the ontological argument claim that the existence of a notion does not necessarily involve the objective existence of the content of the notion; the answer to this is that it all depends on the nature of the notion in question, for what is plausible in the case of a notion relating to a fact is by no means so in the case of a notion relating to a principle.

The cosmological proof of God, which is found in Aristotle as well as in Plato and which consists in inferring the existence of a transcendent, positive, and infinite Cause from the existence of the world, finds no greater favor in the eyes of those who deny the supernatural. (…) Here again we observe that the objection results from ignoring what is implicit: rationalists forget that at the level in question “proof” is a key or symbol, a means of drawing back a veil rather than of giving light; it is not by itself a leap out of ignorance and into knowledge. The principial argument “indicates” rather than “proves”; it cannot be anything more than a guideline or aide-mémoire, for it is impossible to prove the Absolute outside itself. If to “prove” means to know something only by virtue of a particular mental stratagem—without which one would necessarily remain in ignorance—then there are no possible “proofs of God”, and this explains moreover why one can do without them in symbolist and contemplative metaphysics.

(…) [Apart from the ontological, the cosmological and the teleological or moral proof] there remains the experimental or mystical proof of God. While one must admit that from a strictly logical standpoint and in the absence of doctrine it proves nothing to anyone who has not undergone the unitive experience, there is nonetheless no justification for concluding that it must be false simply because it is incommunicable; this was the error of Kant, who went so far as to give the name “theurgy” to what is simply a direct experience of the divine Substance.

Frithjof Schuon, “Concerning proofs of the existence of God”, Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1973).


In the Proslogion, Anselm’s analysis is explicit about the limits of the noetic quest. In the second part of his work, in Proslogion XIV, he acknowledges that the God found by the truth of reason is not yet the God whom the seeker has experienced as present in the formation and re-formation of his existence. He prays to God: “Speak to my desirous soul what you are, other than what it has seen, that it may clearly see what it desires.” And in Proslogion XV he formulates the structural issue with classic exactness: “O Lord, you are not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived, but you are also greater than what can be conceived.” This is the limit of the noetic conceptual analysis disregarded by Hegel. (…) The noetic [philosophical] quest of Anselm thus assumes the form of a Prayer for an understanding of the symbols of faith through the human intellect. Behind the quest, and behind the fides the quest is supposed to understand, there now becomes visible the true source of the Anselmian effort in the living desire of the soul to move toward the divine light. The divine reality lets the light of its perfection fall into the soul; the illumination of the soul arouses the awareness of man’s existence as a state of imperfection; and this awareness provokes the human movement in response to the divine appeal. The illumination, as St. Augustine names this experience, has for Anselm indeed the character of an appeal, and even of a counsel and promise. For in order to express the experience of illumination he quotes John 6:24: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” The Johannine words of the Christ, and of the Spirit that counsels in his name, words meant to be understood in their context, express the divine movement to which Anselm responds with the joyful counter-movement of his quest (XXVI). Hence, the latter part of the Proslogion consistently praises the divine light in the analogical language of perfection. Anselm’s Prayer is a meditatio de ratione fidei as he formulates the nature of the quest in the first title of the Monologion. The praying quest responds to the appeal of reason in the fides; the Proslogion is the fides in action, in pursuit of its own reason.

…. But in what sense can Anselm at all connect the term “proof’ with a noetic quest in response to the movement of the Spirit, a quest which he correctly recognizes as a Prayer? The key to the answer is given in the fact that the term does not occur in the Proslogion itself but only in the discussion with Gaunilo. There is no reason why the term should be used in the Proslogion; for when a believer explores the rational structure of his faith the existence of God is not in question. In his answer, however, Anselm must use the term “proof’ because Gaunilo acts the role of the fool, of the insipiens, who says “there is no God” and assumes that the explorer of faith is engaged in a “proof’ for the assertion that God exists. The noetic reflection of the spiritualist acquires the character of an affirmative proposition concerning the existence of God only when confronted by the insipiens who advances the negative proposition that God does not exist. The symbolism of the noetic quest threatens to derail into a quarrel about proof or non-proof of a proposition when the fool enters the discussion. The existence of God can become doubtful because, without a doubt, the fool exists.

The fool cannot be dismissed lightly. The folly of responding to the divine appeal by denial or evasion is just as much a human possibility as the positive response. As a potentiality it is present in every man, including the believer; and in certain historical situations its actualization can become a massive social force.

…   One cannot prove reality by a syllogism; one can only point to it and invite the doubter to look. The more or less deliberate confusion of the two meanings of the word “proof’ is still a standard trick employed by the negators in the contemporary ideological debates; and it has played an important role in the genesis of the “proofs” for the existence of God ever since the time of Anselm.

Eric Voegelin, “Quod Deus Dicitur” (1985).

Is evil always diabolical?

No man is voluntarily evil.
“Socrates: Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?
Meno: I think not.
Soc. There are some who desire evil?
Men. Yes.
Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?
Men. Both, I think.
Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?
Men. Certainly I do.
Soc. And desire is of possession?
Men. Yes, of possession.
Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?
Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.
Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?
Men. Certainly not.
Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?
Men. Yes, in that case.
Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?
Men. They must know it.
Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?
Men. How can it be otherwise?
Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?
Men. Yes, indeed.
Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?
Men. I should say not, Socrates.
Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?
Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.”
Plato (427-347 BC), Meno.

The Christian theodicy
“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.”
Saint Paul (5-67 CE), Epistle to the Romans (7:18-19).

“For God, the author of natures, not of vices, created man upright; but man, being of his own will corrupted, and justly condemned, begot corrupted and condemned children. For we all were in that one man, since we all were that one man, who fell into sin by the woman who was made from him before the sin. For not yet was the particular form created and distributed to us, in which we as individuals were to live, but already the seminal nature was there from which we were to be propagated; and this being vitiated by sin, and bound by the chain of death, and justly condemned, man could not be born of man in any other state. And thus, from the bad use of free will, there originated the whole train of evil, which, with its concatenation of miseries, convoys the human race from its depraved origin, as from a corrupt root, on to the destruction of the second death, which has no end, those only being excepted who are freed by the grace of God.”
Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book XIII, Chapter 14 (429).

“All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its “nature” cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed. There is good reason, therefore, to praise an uncorrupted thing, and if it were indeed an incorruptible thing which could not be destroyed, it would doubtless be all the more worthy of praise. When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good. As long, then, as a thing is being corrupted, there is good in it of which it is being deprived; and in this process, if something of its being remains that cannot be further corrupted, this will then be an incorruptible entity [natural incorruptibility], and to this great good it will have come through the process of corruption. But even if the corruption is not arrested, it still does not cease having some good of which it cannot be further deprived. If, however, the corruption comes to be total and entire, there is no good left either, because it is no longer an entity at all. Wherefore corruption cannot consume the good without also consuming the thing itself. Every actual entity is therefore good; a greater good if it cannot be corrupted, a lesser good if it can be. Yet only the foolish and unknowing can deny that it is still good even when corrupted. Whenever a thing is consumed by corruption, not even the corruption remains, for it is nothing in itself, having no subsistent being in which to exist.”
Saint Augustine, Enchiridion (around 420).

“Prosyllogism: Whoever makes things in which there is evil, which could have been made without any evil, or the making of which could have been omitted, does not choose the best.
God has made a world in which there is evil; a world, I say, which could have been made without any evil, or the making of which could have been omitted altogether.
Therefore God has not chosen the best.
Answer: I grant the minor of this prosyllogism; for it must be confessed that there is evil in the world which God has made, and that it was possible to make a world without evil, or even not to create a world at all, for its creation depended on the free will of God; but I deny the major, that is, the first of the two premises of the prosyllogism, and I might content myself with simply demanding its proof; but in order to make the matter clearer, I have wished to justify this denial by showing that the best plan is not always that which seeks to avoid evil, since it may happen that the evil be accompanied by a greater good. For example, a general of the army will prefer a great victory with a slight wound to a condition without wound and without victory. We have proved this more fully in the large work by making it clear, by instances taken from mathematics and elsewhere, that an imperfection in the part may be required for a greater perfection in the whole. In this I have followed the opinion of St. Augustine, who has said a hundred times, that God permitted evil in order to bring about good, that is, a greater good; and that of Thomas Aquinas’ (in libr. II sent. dist. 32, qu. I, art. 1), that the permitting of evil tends to the good of the universe. I have shown that the ancients called Adam’s fall felix culpa, a happy sin, because it had been retrieved with immense advantage by the incarnation of the Son of God, who has given to the universe something nobler than anything that ever would have been among creatures except for this. And in order to a clear understanding, I have added, following many good authors, that it was in accordance with order and the general good that God gave to certain creatures the opportunity of exercising their liberty, even when he foresaw that they would turn to evil, but which he could so well rectify; because it was not right that, in order to hinder sin, God should always act in an extraordinary manner.
To overthrow this objection, therefore, it is sufficient to show that a world with evil might be better than a world without evil; but I have gone even farther in the work, and have even proved that this universe must be in reality better than every other possible universe.”
G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy (1710).

Kant on radical evil
The depravity of human nature, then, is not so much to be called badness, if this word is taken in its strict sense, namely, as a disposition (subjective principle of maxims) to adopt the bad, as bad, into one’s maxims as a spring (for that is devilish); but rather perversity of heart, which, on account of the result, is also called a bad heart. This may co-exist with a Will [“Wille”] good in general, and arises from the frailty of human nature, which is not strong enough to follow its adopted principles, combined with its impurity in not distinguishing the springs (even of well-intentioned actions) from one another by moral rule. So that ultimately it looks at best only to the conformity of its actions with the law, not to their derivation from it, that is, to the law itself as the only spring. Now although this does not always give rise to wrong actions and a propensity thereto, that is, to vice, yet the habit of regarding the absence of vice as a conformity of the mind to the law of duty (as virtue) must itself be designated a radical perversity of the human heart (since in this case the spring in the maxims is not regarded at all, but only the obedience to the letter of the law).
Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793).

Process or Holocaust Theology
And God let it happen. What God could let it happen? …After Auschwitz, we can assert with greater force than ever before that an omnipotent deity would have to be either not good or (in his world rule, in which alone we can “observe“ him) totally unintelligible. But if God is to be intelligible in some manner and to some extent (and to this we must hold), then his goodness must be compatible with the existence of evil, and this it is only if he is not all powerful. Only then can we uphold that he is intelligible and good, and there is yet evil in the world. And since we have found the concept of omnipotence to be dubious anyway, it is this that has to give way.”
Hans Jonas, « The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice », The Journal of Religion, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 1-13.

The banality of evil
Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister, the Reverend William Hull, who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live, and therefore no “time to waste.” He walked the fifty yards from his cell to the execution chamber calm and erect, with his hands bound behind him. When the guards tied his ankles and knees, he asked them to loosen the bonds so that he could stand straight. “I don’t need that,” he said when the black hood was offered him. He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.
(…) There is of course no doubt that the defendant and the nature of his acts as well as the trial itself raise problems of a general nature which go far beyond the matters considered in Jerusalem. I have attempted to go into some of these problems in the Epilogue, which ceases to be simple reporting. I would not have been surprised if people had found my treatment inadequate, and I would have welcomed a discussion of the general significance of the entire body of facts, which could have been all the more meaningful the more directly it referred to the concrete events. I also can well imagine that an authentic controversy might have arisen over the subtitle of the book; for when I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing . It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted. In principle he knew quite well what it was all about, and in his final statement to the court he spoke of the “revaluation of values prescribed by the [Nazi] government.” He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace. It surely cannot be so common that a man facing death, and, moreover, standing beneath the gallows, should be able to think of nothing but what he has heard at funerals all his life, and that these “lofty words” should completely becloud the reality of his own death. That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.
Hannah Arendt, Eichman in Jerusalem (1963).

What is the basis of morality?


Presumably … to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity; the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle. (…) Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say ‘a so-and-so’ and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), Nicomachean Ethics, book I.



A metaphysic of morals is … indispensably necessary … because morals themselves are liable to all sorts of corruption, as long as we are without that clue and supreme canon by which to estimate them correctly. [A] For in order that an action should be morally good, it is not enough that it conform to the moral law, but it must also be done for the sake of the law, otherwise that conformity is only very contingent and uncertain. (…)

(…) Reason recognizes the establishment of a good will [striving to act according to the moral law] as its highest practical destination.

(…) The second proposition is: [B] That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire. (…) The third proposition, which is a consequence of the two preceding, I would express thus: [C] Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.

( …) But what sort of law can that be, the conception of which must determine the will, even without paying any regard to the effect expected from it, in order that this will may be called good absolutely and without qualification? As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law, there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law; in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, i.e. (I) I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.

(…) The will is conceived as a faculty of determining oneself to action in accordance with the conception of certain laws. And such a faculty can be found only in rational beings. (…) Supposing, however, that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute worth, something which, being an end in itself, could be a source of definite laws; then in this and this alone would lie the source of a possible categorical imperative, i.e., a practical law. Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end. (…) Accordingly the practical imperative will be as follows: (II) So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.

(…) Looking back now on all previous attempts to discover the principle of morality, we need not wonder why they all failed. It was seen that man was bound to laws by duty, but it was not observed that the laws to which he is subject are only those of his own giving, though at the same time they are universal, and that he is only bound to act in conformity with his own will; a will, however, which is designed by nature to give universal laws. (…). I will therefore call this the principle of autonomy of the will, in contrast with every other which I accordingly reckon as heteronomy

The conception of the will of every rational being as one which must consider itself as giving in all the maxims of its will universal laws, so as to judge itself and its actions from this point of view- this conception leads to another which depends on it and is very fruitful, namely that of a kingdom of ends.

By a kingdom I understand the union of different rational beings in a system by common laws.

(…) Morality consists then in the reference of all action to the legislation which alone can render a kingdom of ends possible. This legislation must be capable of existing in every rational being and of emanating from his will, so that the principle of this will is (III) never to act on any maxim which could not without contradiction be also a universal law and, accordingly, always so to act that the will could at the same time regard itself as giving in its maxims universal laws.

(…) If the will seeks the law which is to determine it anywhere else than in the fitness of its maxims to be universal laws of its own dictation, consequently if it goes out of itself and seeks this law in the character of any of its objects, there always results heteronomy. The will in that case does not give itself the law, but it is given by the object through its relation to the will. This relation, whether it rests on inclination or on conceptions of reason, only admits of hypothetical imperatives: “I ought to do something because I wish for something else.” On the contrary, the moral, and therefore categorical, imperative says: “I ought to do so and so, even though I should not wish for anything else.”

(…) Here as elsewhere human reason in its pure use, so long as it was not critically examined, has first tried all possible wrong ways before it succeeded in finding the one true way.

All principles which can be taken from this point of view are either empirical or rational. The former, drawn from the principle of happiness, are built on physical or moral feelings; the latter, drawn from the principle of perfection, are built either on the rational conception of perfection as a possible effect, or on that of an independent perfection (the will of God) as the determining cause of our will.

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. (1785. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott).



[The] niceties [of Kant about the basis of morality] are doubtless admirably adapted for the lecture-room … They can never be the cause of the impulse to act justly and to do good, which is found in every man ; as also they are powerless to counterbalance the deep-seated tendency to injustice and hardness of heart.

(…) How can that which affects another for good or bad become my immediate motive, and actually sometimes assume such importance that it more or less supplants my own interests, which are, as a rule, the single source of the incentives that appeal to me? (…) It is, what we see every day, the phenomenon of compassion [Mitleid]; in other words, the direct participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, in the sufferings of another, leading to sympathetic assistance in the effort to prevent or remove them; whereon in the last resort all satisfaction and all well-being and happiness depend. It is this compassion alone which is the real basis of all voluntary justice and all genuine loving-kindness. Only so far as an action springs therefrom, has it moral value.

Arthur Schopenhauer, On The Basis of Morality – Part III, Chapter V.


Each living unit is an entity radically different from all others. In my own self alone I have my true being; every- thing outside it belongs to the non-ego, and is foreign to me.” This is the creed to the truth of which flesh and bone bear witness: which is at the root of all egoism, and which finds its objective expression in every loveless, unjust, or malicious act.

[But as Kant himself suggests in Critique of Pure Reason]Individuation is merely an appearance, born of Space and Time; the latter being nothing else than the forms under which the external world necessarily manifests itself to me, conditioned as they are by my brain’s faculty of perception. Hence also the plurality and difference of individuals is but a phenomenon, that is, exists only as my mental picture. My true inmost being subsists in every living thing, just as really, as directly as in my own consciousness it is evidenced only to myself.” This is the higher knowledge: for which there is in Sanskrit the standing formula, tat tvam asi, ” that art thou.” Out of the depths of human nature it wells up in the shape of compassion, and is therefore the source of all genuine, that is, disinterested virtue, being, so to say, incarnate in every good deed. It is this which in the last resort is invoked, whenever we appeal to gentleness, to loving-kindness; whenever we pray for mercy instead of justice. For such appeal, such prayer is in reality the effort to remind a fellow-being of the ultimate truth that we are all one and the same entity.

Arthur Schopenhauer, On The Basis of Morality – Part IV, Chapter II.



Now it is plain to me, first of all, that in this theory the source of the concept ‘good’ has been sought and established in the wrong place. (…) It was ‘the good’ themselves, that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian. It was out of this pathos of distance that they first seized the right to create values and to coin names for values: what had they to do with utility! (…) The pathos of nobility and distance, as aforesaid, the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order in relation to a lower order to a ‘below’ – that is the origin of the antithesis ‘good’ and ‘bad’. (…) It follows from this origin that the word ‘good’ was definitely not linked from the first and by necessity to ‘unegoistic’ actions, as the superstition of these genealogists of morality would have it. Rather it was only when aristocratic value judgments declined that the whole antithesis ‘egoistic’ ‘unegoistic’ obtruded itself more and more on the human conscience -it is, to speak in my own language, the herd instinct that through this antithesis at last gets its word (and its words) in.

(…) That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. (…) To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength. (…) When the oppressed, downtrodden, outraged exhort one another with the vengeful cunning of impotence: ‘let us be different from the evil, namely good! And he is good who does not outrage, who harms nobody, who does not attack, who does not requite, who leaves revenge to God, who keeps himself hidden as we do, who avoids evil and desires little from life, like us, the patient, humble, and just’ – this, listened to calmly and without previous bias, really amounts to no more than: ‘we weak ones are, after all, weak; it would be good if we did nothing for which we are not strong enough.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay.


Jürgen Habermas

On the one hand, we have the ethical abstinence of a post-metaphysical thinking, to which every universally obligatory concept of a good and exemplary life is foreign. On the other hand, we find in sacred scriptures and religious traditions intuitions about error and redemption, about the salvific exodus from a life that is experienced as empty of salvation; these have been elaborated in a subtle manner over the course of millennia and have been kept alive through a process of interpretation. This is why something can remain intact in the communal life of the religious fellowships—provided of course they avoid dogmatism and the coercion of people’s consciences—something that has been lost elsewhere and that cannot be restored by the professional knowledge of experts alone. I am referring to adequately differentiated possibilities of expression and to sensitivities with regard to lives that have gone astray, with regard to societal pathologies, with regard to the failure of individuals’ plans for their lives, and with regard to the deformation and disfigurement of the lives that people share with one another. The asymmetry of the epistemological claims allows us to affirm that philosophy must be ready to learn from theology, not only for functional reasons, but also (when we recall philosophy’s successful “Hegelian” learning processes) for substantial reasons. This is because the mutual compenetration of Christianity and Greek metaphysics not only produced the intellectual form of theological dogmatics and a hellenization of Christianity (which was not in every sense a blessing). It also promoted the assimilation by philosophy of genuinely Christian ideas. This work of assimilation has left its mark in normative conceptual clusters with a heavy weight of meaning, such as responsibility, autonomy, and justification; or history and remembering, new beginning, innovation, and return; or emancipation and fulfillment; or expropriation, internalization, and embodiment, individuality and fellowship. Philosophy has indeed transformed the original religious meaning of these terms, but without emptying them through a process of deflation and exhaustion. One such translation that salvages the substance of a term is the translation of the concept of “man in the image of God” into that of the identical dignity of all men that deserves unconditional respect. This goes beyond the borders of one particular religious fellowship and makes the substance of biblical concepts accessible to a general public that also includes those who have other faiths and those who have none.

Jürgen Habermas, The Dialectics of Secularization (2005).

Le Majlis philosophique de Doha (Archive)

Institut français du Qatar

Animé par Renaud Fabbri (Université de Versailles, SFS Qatar, contact :

Un café philosophique n’est pas un cours magistral mais une invitation à penser en commun. Il n’y a pas de sujets proprement philosophiques, mais une manière philosophique d’aborder des problèmes suffisamment importants pour qu’ils n’aient pas de solution.


Avant chaque rencontre, quelques textes de base ainsi quelques lectures optionnelles seront postés sur le site internet de l’Institut, comme une invitation à la méditation.

Au début de chaque rencontre, l’animateur introduira le sujet puis laissera la place à la discussion. Dans la deuxième partie de la rencontre, nous irons à la rencontre de quelques textes. Ils seront l’occasion de découvrir ou de redécouvrir un auteur classique ou contemporain ou un thème de la philosophie occidentale, islamique ou indienne.

L’animateur ou un autre participant sera chargé de proposer une synthèse finale. Vous ne sortirez jamais du café philosophique avec des réponses toutes prêtes mais avec de nouveaux éléments pour votre réflexion.

Sur la base du volontariat, les participants du café pourront eux-mêmes présenter sur un thème de leur choix après consultation avec l’animateur et en fonction des sujets de rencontre.


Ce calendrier est provisoire et partiel. Le contenu de chaque session sera reconfirmé sur le site internet de l’Institut. Les rencontres ont lieu le Samedi à l’Institut de 11h à 13h.

18 janvier 2014 : Décoloniser la philosophie. Sophie à l’ère de la mondialisation

15 février 2014 : Vivons-nous dans un monde désenchanté ? (Marcel Gauchet et de Jürgen Habermas)

15 mars 2014 : La science pense-t-elle ? (Science et Ontologie)

19 avril 2014 : Le Mal est-il toujours diabolique?

17 mai 2014 : L’avenir de l’utopie : y-a-t-il des révolutions réussies ?


Pour aller plus loin, vous êtes invités à consulter la médiathèque de l’Institut qui met à votre disposition un certain nombre d’ouvrages de philosophie. Il y a aussi des ressources en ligne pour les cyber-philosophes :

Philo magazine :

La vie des idées :

Contre point philosophique :

Cours de philosophie de Simone Manon :

Philosophies TV :

La rubrique « Idée » de France Culture :

What is it to be wise? (readings)

The modern conception of philosophy

Wisdom … is no doubt too much to demand of human beings. But also not even the slightest degree of wisdom can be poured into a man by others; rather he must bring it forth from himself. The precept for reaching it contains three leading maxims: 1) Think for yourself, 2) think into the place of the other (in communication with human beings), 3) always think consistently with oneself.

Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view (1798).


Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)


The Ancient conception of philosophy

From the preceding examples, we may get some idea of the change in perspective that may occur in our reading and interpretation of the philosophical works of antiquity when we consider them from the point of view of the practice of spiritual exercises. Philosophy then appears in its original aspect: not as a theoretical construct, but as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way. It is an attempt to transform mankind. Contemporary historians of philosophy are today scarcely inclined to pay attention to this aspect, although it is an essential one. The reason for this is that, in conformity with a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages … they consider philosophy to be purely abstract-theoretical activity.

(…) With the advent of medieval Scholasticism … we find a clear distinction between theologia and philosophia. Theology became conscious of its autonomy qua supreme science, which philosophy was emptied of its spiritual exercises, which, from now on, were relegated to Christian mysticism and ethics. Reduced to the rank of a “handmaid of theology,” philosophy’s role was henceforth to furnish theology with conceptual—and hence purely theoretical—material. When, in the modern age, philosophy regained its autonomy, it still retained many features inherited from this medieval conception. In particular, it maintained its purely theoretical character, which even evolved in the direction of a more and more thorough systemization. Not until Nietzsche, Bergson, and existentialism does philosophy consciously return to being a concrete attitude, a way of life and of seeing the world.

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (1995), p. 107


Socrates on philosophy as the practice of dying

SOCRATES: Never mind him, said Socrates. Now for you, my jury. I want to explain to you how it seems to me natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished. I will try to make clear to you, Simmias and Cebes, how this can be so.

Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death. If this is true, and they have actually been looking forward to death all their lives, it would of course be absurd to be troubled when the thing comes for which they have so long been preparing and looking forward.

SIMMIAS: Simmias laughed and said, Upon my word, Socrates, you have made me laugh, though I was not at all in the mood for it. I am sure that if they heard what you said, most people would think–and our fellow countrymen would heartily agree–that it was a very good hit at the philosophers to say that they are half dead already, and that they, the normal people, are quite aware that death would serve the philosophers right.

SOCRATES: And they would be quite correct, Simmias–except in thinking that they are ‘quite aware.’ They are not at all aware in what sense true philosophers are half dead, or in what sense they deserve death, or what sort of death they deserve. But let us dismiss them and talk among ourselves. Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?

SIMMIAS: Most certainly, said Simmias, taking up the role of answering.

SOCRATES: Is it simply the release of the soul from the body? Is death nothing more or less than this, the separate condition of the body by itself when it is released from the soul, and the separate condition by itself of the soul when released from the body? Is death anything else than this?

SIMMIAS: No, just that.

SOCRATES: Well then, my boy, see whether you agree with me. I fancy that this will help us to find out the answer to our problem. Do you think that it is right for a philosopher to concern himself with the so-called pleasures connected with food and drink?

SIMMIAS: Certainly not, Socrates, said Simmias.

SOCRATES: What about sexual pleasures?

SIMMIAS: No, not at all.

SOCRAES: And what about the other attentions that we pay to our bodies? Do you think that a philosopher attaches any importance to them? I mean things like providing himself with smart clothes and shoes and other bodily ornaments; do you think that he values them or despises them–in so far as there is no real necessity for him to go in for that sort of thing?

SIMMIAS: I think the true philosopher despises them, he said.

SOCRATES: Then it is your opinion in general that a man of this kind is not concerned with the body, but keeps his attention directed as much as he can away from it and toward the soul?

SIMMIAS: Yes, it is.

SOCRATES: So it is clear first of all in the case of physical pleasures that the philosopher frees his soul from association with the body, so far as is possible, to a greater extent than other men?

SIMMIAS: It seems so.

SOCRATES: And most people think, do they not, Simmias, that a man who finds no pleasure and takes no part in these things does not deserve to live, and that anyone who thinks nothing of physical pleasures has one foot in the grave?

SIMMIAS: That is perfectly true

Plato, Phaedo 63e-65a.


The allegory of the cave

SOCRATES: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! Human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.


SOCRATES: And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

GLAUCON: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

SOCRATES: Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

GLAUCON: True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

SOCRATES: And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

GLAUCON: Yes, he said.

SOCRATES: And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

GLAUCON: Very true.

SOCRATES: And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

GLAUCON: No question, he replied.

SOCRATES: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

GLAUCON: That is certain.

SOCRATES: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow it’ the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

GLAUCON: Far truer.

SOCRATES: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

GLAUCON: True, he now

SOCRATES: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

GLAUCON: Not all in a moment, he said.

SOCRATES: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

GLAUCON: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

GLAUCON: Certainly.

SOCRATES: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

GLAUCON: Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

SOCRATES: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

GLAUCON: Certainly, he would.

SOCRATES: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”

GLAUCON: Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

SOCRATES: Imagine once more, I said, such man coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

GLAUCON: To be sure, he said.

SOCRATES: And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

Plato, The Republic, Book VI.


Axial Age and Oriental Philosophy


An axis of world history, if such a thing exists, would have to be discovered empirically, as a fact capable of being accepted as such by all men, Christians included. This axis would be situated at the point in history which gave birth to everything which, since then, man has been able to be, the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity. (…) It would seem that this axis of history is to be found around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. (…) The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao Tse were living China … India produced the Upanishads and Buddha … In Iran, Zarathustra taught … In Palestine, the prophets made their appearance … Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers (Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato) of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes.

Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (1949).


In Ancient India each department of learning was associated with a highly specialized skill and corresponding way of life. The knowledge was not to be culled from books primarily, or from lectures, discussions, and conversation, but to be mastered through apprenticeship to a competent teacher. It required the wholehearted surrender of a malleable pupil to the authority of the guru, its elementary prerequisites being obedience (śuśrūṣa) and implicit faith (śraddhā).

(…) As for the life and morals of the guru himself: it is required that there should be an identity—an absolute, point-for-point correspondence—between his teachings and his way of life; the sort of identity that we should expect to find in the West only in a monk or priest.

(…) Precisely in this way, Oriental philosophy is accompanied and supported by the practice of a way of life—monastic seclusion, asceticism, meditation, prayer, yoga-exercises, and daily devotional hours of worship.

(…) This Indian view of the identity of personality and conduct with teaching is well rendered in the apt comment of a Hindu friend of mine in criticism of a certain popular book on Oriental philosophy. “After all,” said he, “real attainment is only what finds confirmation in one’s own life. The worth of a man’s writing depends on the degree to which his life is itself an example of his teaching.”

Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (1951).