‘Bulverism’ by C. S. Lewis

The Foundation of 20th Century Thought

C. S. Lewis

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, we must then ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [Note: This essay was written in 1941.] is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reasonitself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does “I know” involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called “a reason.” Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.

[The remainder of this essay, which was originally read to the Socratic Club before publication in the Socratic Digest, continues in the form of notes taken down by the Secretary of the Club. This explains why it is not all in the first-person, as is the text-proper.]

One might argue, Mr. Lewis continued, that reason had developed by natural selection, only those methods of thought which had proved useful surviving. But the theory depends on an inference from usefulness to truth, of which the validity would have to be assumed. All attempts to treat thought as a natural event involve the fallacy of excluding the thought of the man making the attempt.

It is admitted that the mind is affected by physical events; a wireless set is influenced by atmospherics, but it does not originate its deliverances – we’d take no notice of it if we thought it did. Natural events we can relate one to another until we can trace them finally to the space-time continuum. But thought has no father but thought. It is conditioned, yes, not caused. My knowledge that I have nerves in inferential.

The same argument applies to our values, which are affected by social factors, but if they are caused by them we cannot know that they are right. One can reject morality as an illusion, but the man who does so often tacitly excepts his own ethical motive: for instance the duty of freeing morality from superstition and of spreading enlightenment.

Neither Will nor Reason is the product of Nature. Therefore either I am self-existent (a belief which no one can accept) or I am a colony of some Thought and Will that are self-derived from a self-existent Reason and Goodness outside ourselves, in fact, a Supernatural.

Mr. Lewis went on to say that it was often objected that the existence of the Supernatural is too important to be discernible only by abstract argument, and thus only by the leisured few. But in all other ages the plain man has accepted the findings of the mystics and the philosophers for his initial belief in the existence of the Supernatural. Today the ordinary man is forced to carry that burden himself. Either mankind has made a ghastly mistake in rejecting authority, or the power or powers ruling his destiny are making a daring experiment, and all are to become sages. A society consisting solely of plain men must end in disaster. If we are to survive we must either believe the seers or scale those heights ourselves.

Evidently, then, something beyond Nature exists. Man is on the border line between the Natural and the Supernatural. Material events cannot produce spiritual activity, but the latter can be responsible for many of our actions in Nature. Will and Reason cannot depend on anything but themselves, but Nature can depend on Will and Reason, or, in other words, God created Nature.

The relation between Nature and Supernature, which is not a relation in space and time, becomes intelligible if the Supernatural made the Natural. We even have an idea of this making, since we know the power of imagination, though we can create nothing new, but can only rearrange our material provided through sense data. It is not inconceivable that the universe was created by an Imagination strong enough to impose phenomena on other minds.

It has been suggested, Mr. Lewis concluded, that our ideas of making and causing are wholly derived from our experience of will. The conclusion usually drawn is that there is no making or causing, only “projection.” But “projection” is itself a form of causing, and it is more reasonable to suppose that Will is the only cause we know, and that therefore Will is the cause of Nature.

A discussion followed. Points arising:

All reasoning assumes the hypothesis that inference is valid. Correct inference is self-evident. 
“Relevant” (re evidence) is a rational term. 
The universe doesn’t claim to be true: it’s just there
Knowledge by revelation is more like empirical than rational knowledge.

Question: What is the criterion of truth, if you distinguish between cause and reason? 
Mr Lewis: A mountainous country might have several maps made of it, only one of which was a true one; i.e., corresponding with the actual contours. The map drawn by Reason claims to be that true one. I couldn’t get at the universe unless I could trust my reason. If we couldn’t trust inference we could know nothing but our own existence. Physical reality is an inference from sensations.

Question: How can an axiom claim self-evidence any more than an empirical judgment on evidence?

[The essay ends here, leaving this question unrecorded.]


The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools

Lewis's notes are placed at the bottom of each chapter. 
Transcriber's notes and explanations follow Lewis's.

The Master said, He who sets to work on a different strand destroys the whole fabric.

Confucius, Analects II. 16

Men without Chests

So he sent the word to slay
And slew the little childer.


I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text-books. That is why I have chosen as the starting-point for these lectures a little book on English intended for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools’. I do not think the authors of this book (there were two of them) intended any harm, and I owe them, or their publisher, good language for sending me a complimentary copy. At the same time I shall have nothing good to say of them. Here is a pretty predicament. I do not want to pillory two modest practising school-masters who were doing the best they knew: but I cannot be silent about what I think the actual tendency of their work. I therefore propose to conceal their names. I shall refer to these gentlemen as Gaius and Titius and to their book as The Green Book. But I promise you there is such a book and I have it on my shelves.

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it ‘sublime’ and the other ‘pretty’: and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When the man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. . . . Actually . . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.’ Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. But the authors are not yet finished. They add: ‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’[1]

Before considering the issues really raised by this momentous little paragraph (designed, you will remember, for ‘the upper forms in schools’) we must eliminate one mere confusion into which Gaius and Titius have fallen. Even on their own view—on any conceivable view—the man who says This is sublime cannot mean I have sublime feelings. Even if it were granted that such qualities as sublimity were simply and solely projected into things from our own emotions, yet the emotions which prompt the projection are the correlatives, and therefore almost the opposites, of the qualities projected. The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings. If the view held by Gaius and Titius were consistently applied it would lead to obvious absurdities. It would force them to maintain that You are contemptible means I have contemptible feelings: in fact that Your feelings are contemptible means My feelings are contemptible. But we need not delay over this which is the very pons asinorum of our subject. It would be unjust to Gaius and Titius themselves to emphasize what was doubtless a mere inadvertence.

The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant. It is true that Gaius and Titius have said neither of these things in so many words. They have treated only one particular predicate of value (sublime) as a word descriptive of the speaker’s emotions. The pupils are left to do for themselves the work of extending the same treatment to all predicates of value: and no slightest obstacle to such extension is placed in their way. The authors may or may not desire the extension: they may never have given the question five minutes’ serious thought in their lives. I am not concerned with what they desired but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy’s mind. In the same way, they have not said that judgements of value are unimportant. Their words are that we ‘appear to be saying something very important’ when in reality we are ‘only saying something about our own feelings’. No schoolboy will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only. I do not mean, of course, that he will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all. The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.

Before considering the philosophical credentials of the position which Gaius and Titius have adopted about value, I should like to show its practical results on their educational procedure. In their fourth chapter they quote a silly advertisement of a pleasure cruise and proceed to inoculate their pupils against the sort of writing it exhibits.[2] The advertisement tells us that those who buy tickets for this cruise will go ‘across the Western Ocean where Drake of Devon sailed’, ‘adventuring after the treasures of the Indies’, and bringing home themselves also a ‘treasure’ of ‘golden hours’ and ‘glowing colours’. It is a bad bit of writing, of course: a venal and bathetic exploitation of those emotions of awe and pleasure which men feel in visiting places that have striking associations with history or legend. If Gaius and Titius were to stick to their last and teach their readers (as they promised to do) the art of English composition, it was their business to put this advertisement side by side with passages from great writers in which the very same emotion is well expressed, and then show where the difference lies. They might have used Johnson’s famous passage from the Western Islands, which concludes: ‘That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.’[3] They might have taken that place in The Prelude where Wordsworth describes how the antiquity of London first descended on his mind with ‘Weight and power, Power growing under weight’.[4] A lesson which had laid such literature beside the advertisement and really discriminated the good from the bad would have been a lesson worth teaching. There would have been some blood and sap in it—the trees of knowledge and of life growing together. It would also have had the merit of being a lesson in literature: a subject of which Gaius and Titius, despite their professed purpose, are uncommonly shy. What they actually do is to point out that the luxurious motor-vessel won’t really sail where Drake did, that the tourists will not have any adventures, that the treasures they bring home will be of a purely metaphorical nature, and that a trip to Margate might provide ‘all the pleasure and rest’ they required.[5] All this is very true: talents inferior to those of Gaius and Titius would have sufficed to discover it. What they have not noticed, or not cared about, is that a very similar treatment could be applied to much good literature which treats the same emotion. What, after all, can the history of early British Christianity, in pure reason, add to the motives for piety as they exist in the eighteenth century? Why should Mr. Wordsworth’s inn be more comfortable or the air of London more healthy because London has existed for a long time? Or, if there is indeed any obstacle which will prevent a critic from ‘debunking’ Johnson and Wordsworth (and Lamb, and Virgil, and Thomas Browne, and Mr. de la Mare) as The Green Book debunks the advertisement, Gaius and Titius have given their schoolboy readers no faintest help to its discovery. From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible. He will have no notion that there are two ways of being immune to such an advertisement—that it falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water. There are two men to whom we offer in vain a false leading article on patriotism and honour: one is the coward, the other is the honourable and patriotic man. None of this is brought before the schoolboy’s mind. On the contrary, he is encouraged to reject the lure of the ‘Western Ocean’ on the very dangerous ground that in so doing he will prove himself a knowing fellow who can’t be bubbled out of his cash. Gaius and Titius, while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.

But it is not only Gaius and Titius. In another little book, whose author I will call Orbilius, I find that the same operation, under the same general anaesthetic, is being carried out. Orbilius chooses for ‘debunking’ a silly bit of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the ‘willing servants’ of the early colonists in Australia.[6] And he falls into the same trap as Gaius and Titius. Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the charger in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—he has not a word to say.[7] Even of the problems of animal psychology as they exist for science he says nothing. He contents himself with explaining that horses are not,secundum litteram, interested in colonial expansion.[8] This piece of information is really all that his pupils get from him. Why the composition before them is bad, when others that lie open to the same charge are good, they do not hear. Much less do they learn of the two classes of men who are, respectively, above and below the danger of such writing—the man who really knows horses and really loves them, not with anthropomorphic illusions, but with ordinate love, and the irredeemable urban blockhead to whom a horse is merely an old-fashioned means of transport. Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost: some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received: some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds. That is their day’s lesson in English, though of English they have learned nothing. Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.

I have hitherto been assuming that such teachers as Gaius and Titius do not fully realize what they are doing and do not intend the far-reaching consequences it will actually have. There is, of course, another possibility. What I have called (presuming on their concurrence in a certain traditional system of values) the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ may be precisely the kind of man they really wish to produce. The differences between us may go all the way down. They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. That position will be discussed later. If it is the position which Gaius and Titius are holding, I must, for the moment, content myself with pointing out that it is a philosophical and not a literary position. In filling their book with it they have been unjust to the parent or headmaster who buys it and who has got the work of amateur philosophers where he expected the work of professional grammarians. A man would be annoyed if his son returned from the dentist with his teeth untouched and his head crammed with the dentist’s obiter dicta on bimetallism or the Baconian theory.

But I doubt whether Gaius and Titius have really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy. I think they have slipped into it for the following reasons. In the first place, literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier. To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do. Even Dr. Richards, who first seriously tackled the problem of badness in literature, failed, I think, to do it. To ‘debunk’ the emotion, on the basis of a commonplace rationalism, is within almost anyone’s capacity. In the second place, I think Gaius and Titius may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess or sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

But there is a third, and a profounder, reason for the procedure which Gaius and Titius adopt. They may be perfectly ready to admit that a good education should build some sentiments while destroying others. They may endeavour to do so. But it is impossible that they should succeed. Do what they will, it is the ‘debunking’ side of their work, and this side alone, which will really tell. In order to grasp this necessity clearly I must digress for a moment to show that what may be called the educational predicament of Gaius and Titius is different from that of all their predecessors.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same. The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions. But for this claim there would be nothing to agree or disagree about. To disagree with This is pretty if those words simply described the lady’s feelings, would be absurd: if she had said I feel sick Coleridge would hardly have replied No; I feel quite well. When Shelley, having compared the human sensibility to an Aeolian lyre, goes on to add that it differs from a lyre in having a power of ‘internal adjustment’ whereby it can ‘accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them’,[9] he is assuming the same belief. ‘Can you be righteous’, asks Traherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.’[10] St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.[11] Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.[12] When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.[13] Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.[14] In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’[15] In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.[16] The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.[17] ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’[18] The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true’.[19]

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement: in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.

Over against this stands the world of The Green Book. In it the very possibility of a sentiment being reasonable—or even unreasonable—has been excluded from the outset. It can be reasonable or unreasonable only if it conforms or fails to conform to something else. To say that the cataract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion: just as to say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet. But this reference to something beyond the emotion is what Gaius and Titius exclude from every sentence containing a predicate of value. Such statements, for them, refer solely to the emotion. Now the emotion, thus considered by itself, cannot be either in agreement or disagreement with Reason. It is irrational not as a paralogism is irrational, but as a physical event is irrational: it does not rise even to the dignity of error. On this view, the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.

Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind: or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’. The latter course involves them in the questionable process of creating in others by ‘suggestion’ or incantation a mirage which their own reason has successfully penetrated.

Perhaps this will become clearer if we take a concrete instance. When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgement discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him. But Gaius and Titius cannot believe that in calling such a death sweet and seemly they would be saying ‘something important about something’. Their own method of debunking would cry out against them if they attempted to do so. For death is not something to eat and therefore cannot be dulcein the literal sense, and it is unlikely that the real sensations preceding it will be dulce even by analogy. And as for decorum—that is only a word describing how some other people will feel about your death when they happen to think of it, which won’t be often, and will certainly do you no good. There are only two courses open to Gaius and Titius. Either they must go the whole way and debunk this sentiment like any other, or must set themselves to work to produce, from outside, a sentiment which they believe to be of no value to the pupil and which may cost him his life, because it is useful to us (the survivors) that our young men should feel it. If they embark on this course the difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.

It is to their credit that Gaius and Titius embrace the first alternative. Propaganda is their abomination: not because their own philosophy gives a ground for condemning it (or anything else) but because they are better than their principles. They probably have some vague notion (I will examine it in my next lecture) that valour and good faith and justice could be sufficiently commended to the pupil on what they would call ‘rational’ or ‘biological’ or ‘modern’ grounds, if it should ever become necessary. In the meantime, they leave the matter alone and get on with the business of debunking.

But this course, though less inhuman, is not less disastrous than the opposite alternative of cynical propaganda. Let us suppose for a moment that the harder virtues could really be theoretically justified with no appeal to objective value. It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’.[20] The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity,[21] of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.


[1] The Green Book, pp. 19, 20.

[2] Ibid., p. 53.

[3] Journey to the Western Islands. Inch Kenneth.

[4] The Prelude, viii, ll. 549-59.

[5] The Green Book, pp. 53-5.

[6] Orbilius’ book, p. 5.

[7] Orbilius is so far superior to Gaius and Titius that he does (pp. 19-22) contrast a piece of good writing on animals with the piece condemned. Unfortunately, however, the only superiority he really demonstrates in the second extract is its superiority in factual truth. The specifically literary problem (the use and abuse of expressions which are false secundum litteram) is not tackled. Orbilius indeed tells us (p. 97) that we must ‘learn to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate figurative statement’, but he gives us very little help in doing so. At the same time it is fair to record my opinion that his work is on quite a different level from The Green Book.

[8] Ibid., p. 9.

[9] Defence of Poetry.

[10] Centuries of Meditations, i. 12.

[11] De Civ. Dei, xv. 22. Cf. ibid. ix. 5, xi. 28.

[12] Eth. Nic. 1104 B.

[13] Ibid. 1095 B.

[14] Laws, 653.

[15] Republic, 402 A.

[16] A. B. Keith, s.v. ‘Righteousness (Hindu)’. Enc. Religion and Ethics, vol. x.

[17] Ibid., vol. ii, p. 454 B; iv. 12 B; ix. 87 A.

[18] The Analects of Confucius, trans. Arthur Waley, London, 1938, i. 12.

[19] Psalm cxix. 151. The word is ěmeth, ‘truth’. Where the Satya of the Indian sources emphasizes truth as ‘correspondence’, ěmeth(connected with a verb that means ‘to be firm’) emphasizes rather the reliability or trustworthiness of truth. Faithfulness and permanence are suggested by Hebraists as alternative renderings. Ěmeth is that which does not deceive, does not ‘give’, does not change, that which holds water. (See T. K. Cheyne in Encyclopedia Biblica, 1914, s.v. ‘Truth’.)

[20] Republic, 442 B, C.

[21] Alanus ab Insulis. De Planctu Naturae Prosa, iii.

Transcriber’s Notes

Bimetallism – use of two precious metals (e.g. gold and silver) as the standard of currency

Baconian theory – theory that holds Francis Bacon to have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare

Elemetary text-books – (1940’s British) equivalent to high school-level books

Dulce (sweet) Decorum (seemly or honorable) from the Roman saying dulce et decorum est pro patria mori “It is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.”

Margate – resort area on the southeastern coast of England

Marathon…Iona Marathon is a plain in southeast Greece, where the Athenians defeated Persian invaders in 490 B.C. and saved Western civilization. Iona is a remote island west of Scotland, where despite many hazards monks preserved the Christian faith and much of Western learning. Samuel Johnson meant that seeing these famous sites, scenes of the greatest human dedication, should inspire a good person to greater love of his own country and religious faith.

Pons asinorum – bridge of asses, a basic geometric theorem

Obiter dicta – incidental judgements or opinions

Ordo amoris – order of love

Ruksh, Sleipnir, etc. – majestic or lovable animals of literature

Secundum literam – literally true

Stick to their last – stick to their proper job, from the expression “Shoemaker, stick to your last” (the last is a model of the human foot, made of wood or metal)

Upper forms of schools (1940’s British) equivalent to American upper grades

The Way

It is upon the Trunk that a gentleman works.

Analects of Confucius, 1. 2.

The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it. But this is not necessarily a refutation of subjectivism about values as a theory. The true doctrine might be a doctrine which if we accept we die. No one who speaks from within the Tao could reject it on that account; ἐν δὲ φάει καὶ ὄλεσσον. But it has not yet come to that. There are theoretical difficulties in the philosophy of Gaius and Titius.

However subjective they may be about some traditional values, Gaius and Titius have shown by the very act of writing The Green Book that there must be some other values about which they are not subjective at all. They write in order to produce certain states of mind in the rising generation, if not because they think those states of mind intrinsically just or good, yet certainly because they think them to be the means to some state of society which they regard as desirable. It would not be difficult (though it would be unkind) to collect from various passages in The Green Book what their ideal is. But we need not. The important point is not the precise nature of their end, but the fact that they have an end at all. They must have, or this book (being purely practical in intention) is written to no purpose. And this end must have real value in their eyes. To abstain from calling it ‘good’ and to use, instead, such predicates as ‘necessary’ or ‘progressive’ or ‘efficient’ would be a subterfuge. They could be forced by argument to answer the questions ‘necessary for what?’, ‘progressing towards what?’, ‘effecting what?’; in the last resort they would have to admit that some state of affairs was in their opinion good for its own sake. And this time they could not maintain that ‘good’ simply described their own emotion about it. For the whole purpose of their book is so to condition the young reader that he will share their approval, and this would be either a fool’s or a villain’s undertaking unless they held that their approval was in some way valid or correct. In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars.[1] Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values: about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted.

Let us continue to use the previous example—that of death for a good cause—not, of course, because virtue is the only value or martyrdom the only virtue, but because this is the experimentum crucis which shows different systems of thought in the clearest light. Let us suppose that an Innovator in values regards dulce et decorum and greater love hath no man as mere irrational sentiments which are to be stripped off in order that we may get down to the ‘realistic’ or ‘basic’ ground of this value. Where will he find such a ground?

First of all, he might say that the real value lay in the utility of such sacrifice to the community. ‘Good’, he might say, ‘means what is useful to the community.’ But of course the death of the community is not useful to the community—only the death of some of its members. What is really meant is that the death of some men is useful to other men. That is very true. But on what ground are some men being asked to die for the benefit of others? Every appeal to pride, honour, shame, or love is excluded by hypothesis. To use these would be to return to sentiment and the Innovator’s task is, having cut all that away, to explain to men, in terms of pure reasoning, why they will be well advised to die that others may live. He may say ‘Unless some of us risk death all of us are certainto die’. But that will be true only in a limited number of cases; and even when it is true it provokes the very reasonable counter question ‘Why should I be one of those who take the risk?’

At this point the Innovator may ask why, after all, selfishness should be more ‘rational’ or ‘intelligent’ than altruism. The question is welcome. If by Reason we mean the process actually employed by Gaius and Titius when engaged in debunking (that is, the connecting by inference of propositions, ultimately derived from sense data, with further propositions), then the answer must be that a refusal to sacrifice oneself is no more rational than a consent to do so. And no less rational. Neither choice is rational—or irrational—at all. From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preservedThis will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself: or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of ‘rational’ value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. The Innovator will not take the first alternative, for practical principles known to all men by Reason are simply the Tao which he has set out to supersede. He is more likely to give up the quest for a ‘rational’ core and to hunt for some other ground even more ‘basic’ and ‘realistic’.

This he will probably feel that he has found in Instinct. The preservation of society, and of the species itself, are ends that do not hang on the precarious thread of Reason: they are given by Instinct. That is why there is no need to argue against the man who does not acknowledge them. We have an instinctive urge to preserve our own species. That is why men ought to work for posterity. We have no instinctive urge to keep promises or to respect individual life: that is why scruples of justice and humanity—in fact the Tao—can be properly swept away when they conflict with our real end, the preservation of the species. That, again, is why the modern situation permits and demands a new sexual morality: the old taboos served some real purpose in helping to preserve the species, but contraceptives have modified this and we can now abandon many of the taboos. For of course sexual desire, being instinctive, is to be gratified whenever it does not conflict with the preservation of the species. It looks, in fact, as if an ethics based on instinct will give the Innovator all he wants and nothing that he does not want.

In reality we have not advanced one step. I will not insist on the point that Instinct is a name for we know not what (to say that migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way), for I think it is here being used in a fairly definite sense, to mean an unreflective or spontaneous impulse widely felt by the members of a given species. In what way does Instinct, thus conceived, help us to find ‘real’ values? Is it maintained that we must obey instinct, that we cannot do otherwise? But if so, why are Green Books and the like written? Why this stream of exhortation to drive us where we cannot help going? Why such praise for those who have submitted to the inevitable? Or is it maintained that if we do obey instinct we shall be happy and satisfied? But the very question we are considering was that of facing death which (so far as the Innovator knows) cuts off every possible satisfaction: and if we have an instinctive desire for the good of posterity then this desire, by the very nature of the case, can never be satisfied, since its aim is achieved, if at all, when we are dead. It looks very much as if the Innovator would have to say not that we must obey instinct, nor that it will satisfy us to do so, but that we ought to obey instinct.[2]

But why ought we to obey instinct? Is there another instinct of a higher order directing us to do so, and a third of a still higher order directing us to obey it?—an infinite regress of instincts? This is presumably impossible, but nothing else will serve. From the statement about psychological fact ‘I have an impulse to do so and so’ we cannot by any ingenuity derive the practical principle ‘I ought to obey this impulse’. Even if it were true that men had a spontaneous, unreflective impulse to sacrifice their own lives for the preservation of their fellows, it remains a quite separate question whether this is an impulse they should control or one they should indulge. For even the Innovator admits that many impulses (those which conflict with the preservation of the species) have to be controlled. And this admission surely introduces us to a yet more fundamental difficulty.

Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people’. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding it in its own favour would be rather simple minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged: or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.

The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic’, or ‘fundamental’, or ‘primal’, or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgement passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation, and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. It is the old dilemma. Either the premisses already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative.[3]

Finally, it is worth inquiry whether there is any instinct to care for posterity or preserve the species. I do not discover it in myself: and yet I am a man rather prone to think of remote futurity—a man who can read Mr. Olaf Stapledon with delight. Much less do I find it easy to believe that the majority of people who have sat opposite me in buses or stood with me in queues feel an unreflective impulse to do anything at all about the species, or posterity. Only people educated in a particular way have ever had the idea ‘posterity’ before their minds at all. It is difficult to assign to instinct our attitude towards an object which exists only for reflective men. What we have by nature is an impulse to preserve our own children and grandchildren; an impulse which grows progressively feebler as the imagination looks forward and finally dies out in the ‘deserts of vast futurity’. No parents who were guided by this instinct would dream for a moment of setting up the claims of their hypothetical descendants against those of the baby actually crowing and kicking in the room. Those of us who accept the Tao may, perhaps, say that they ought to do so: but that is not open to those who treat instinct as the source of value. As we pass from mother love to rational planning for the future we are passing away from the realm of instinct into that of choice and reflection: and if instinct is the source of value, planning for the future ought to be less respectable and less obligatory than the baby language and cuddling of the fondest mother or the most fatuous nursery anecdotes of a doting father. If we are to base ourselves upon instinct, these things are the substance and care for posterity the shadow—the huge, flickering shadow of the nursery happiness cast upon the screen of the unknown future. I do not say this projection is a bad thing: but then I do not believe that instinct is the ground of value judgements. What is absurd is to claim that your care for posterity finds its justification in instinct and then flout at every turn the only instinct on which it could be supposed to rest, tearing the child almost from the breast to crèche and kindergarten in the interests of progress and the coming race.

The truth finally becomes apparent that neither in any operation with factual propositions nor in any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find the basis for a system of values. None of the principles he requires are to be found there: but they are all to be found somewhere else. ‘All within the four seas are his brothers’ (xii. 5) says Confucius of the Chün-tzu, the gentleman or cuor gentilHumani nihil a me alienum puto says the Stoic. ‘Do as you would be done by’ say Jesus and Confucius both. ‘Humanity is to be preserved’ says Locke.[4] All the practical principles behind the Innovator’s case for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao. But they are nowhere else. Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premisses. You may, since they can give no ‘reason’ for themselves of a kind to silence Gaius and Titius, regard them as sentiments: but then you must give up contrasting ‘real’ or ‘rational’ value with sentimental value. All value will be sentimental; and you must confess (on pain of abandoning every value) that all sentiment is not ‘merely’ subjective. You may, on the other hand, regard them as rational—nay as rationality itself—as things so obviously reasonable that they neither demand nor admit proof. But then you must allow that Reason can be practical, that an ought must not be dismissed because it cannot produce some is as its credential. If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.

To some it will appear that I have merely restored under another name what they always meant by basic or fundamental instinct. But much more than a choice of words is involved. The Innovator attacks traditional values (the Tao) in defence of what he at first supposes to be (in some special sense) ‘rational’ or ‘biological’ values. But as we have seen, all the values which he uses in attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. If the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it. Not one of them can claim any authority other than that of the Tao. Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it. The question therefore arises what title he has to select bits of it for acceptance and to reject others. For if the bits he rejects have no authority, neither have those he retains: if what he retains is valid, what he rejects is equally valid too.

The Innovator, for example, rates high the claims of posterity. He cannot get any valid claim for posterity out of instinct or (in the modern sense) reason. He is really deriving our duty to posterity from the Tao; our duty to do good to all men is an axiom of Practical Reason, and our duty to do good to our descendants is a clear deduction from it. But then, in every form of the Taowhich has come down to us, side by side with the duty to children and descendants lies the duty to parents and ancestors. By what right do we reject one and accept the other? Again, the Innovator may place economic value first. To get people fed and clothed is the great end, and in pursuit of it scruples about justice and good faith may be set aside. The Tao of course agrees with him about the importance of getting the people fed and clothed. Unless the Innovator were himself using the Tao he could never have learned of such a duty. But side by side with it in the Tao lie those duties of justice and good faith which he is ready to debunk. What is his warrant? He may be a Jingoist, a Racialist, an extreme nationalist, who maintains that the advancement of his own people is the object to which all else ought to yield. But no kind of factual observation and no appeal to instinct will give him a ground for this opinion. Once more, he is in fact deriving it from the Tao: a duty to our own kin, because they are our own kin, a part of traditional morality. But side by side with it in the Tao, and limiting it, lie the inflexible demands of justice, and the rule that, in the long run, all men are our brothers. Whence comes the Innovator’s authority to pick and choose?

Since I can see no answer to these questions, I draw the following conclusions. This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

Does this mean, then, that no progress in our perceptions of value can ever take place? That we are bound down for ever to an unchanging code given once for all? And is it, in any event, possible to talk of obeying what I call the Tao? If we lump together, as I have done, the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew, shall we not find many contradictions and some absurdities? I admit all this. Some criticism, some removal of contradictions, even some real development, is required. But there are two very different kinds of criticism.

A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy. That is one thing. A great poet, who has ‘loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue’, may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within. The language which suffers, has also inspired, the changes. That is a different thing—as different as the works of Shakespeare are from Basic English. It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical.

In the same way, the Tao admits development from within. Those who understand its spirit and who have been led by that spirit can modify it in directions which that spirit itself demands. Only they can know what those directions are. The outsider knows nothing about the matter. His attempts at alteration, as we have seen, contradict themselves. So far from being able to harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit, he merely snatches at some one precept, on which the accidents of time and place happen to have riveted his attention, and then rides it to death—for no reason that he can give. From within the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao. This is what Confucius meant when he said ‘With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel’.[5] This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible.[6] He may be hostile, but he cannot be critical: he does not know what is being discussed. This is why it was also said ‘This people that knoweth not the Law is accursed’[7] and ‘He that believeth not shall be damned’.[8] An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing either the Tao or anything else.

In particular instances it may, no doubt, be a matter of some delicacy to decide where the legitimate internal criticism ends and the fatal external kind begins. But wherever any precept of traditional morality is simply challenged to produce its credentials, as though the burden of proof lay on it, we have taken the wrong position. The legitimate reformer endeavours to show that the precept in question conflicts with some precept which its defenders allow to be more fundamental, or that it does not really embody the judgement of value it professes to embody. The direct frontal attack ‘Why?’—‘What good does it do?’—‘Who said so?’ is never permissible; not because it is harsh or offensive but because no values at all can justify themselves on that level. If you persist in that kind of trial you will destroy all values, and so destroy the bases of your own criticism as well as the thing criticized. You must not hold a pistol to the head of the Tao. Nor must we postpone obedience to a precept until its credentials have been examined. Only those who are practising the Tao will understand it. It is the well-nurtured man, the cuor gentil, and he alone, who can recognize Reason when it comes.[9] It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.[10]

In order to avoid misunderstanding, I may add that though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed. Whether this position implies a supernatural origin for the Tao is a question I am not here concerned with.

Yet how can the modern mind be expected to embrace the conclusion we have reached? This Tao which, it seems, we must treat as an absolute is simply a phenomenon like any other—the reflection upon the minds of our ancestors of the agricultural rhythm in which they lived or even of their physiology. We know already in principle how such things are produced: soon we shall know in detail: eventually we shall be able to produce them at will. Of course, while we did not know how minds were made, we accepted this mental furniture as a datum, even as a master. But many things in nature which were once our masters have become our servants. Why not this? Why must our conquest of nature stop short, in stupid reverence, before this final and toughest bit of ‘nature’ which has hitherto been called the conscience of man? You threaten us with some obscure disaster if we step outside it: but we have been threatened in that way by obscurantists at every step in our advance, and each time the threat has proved false. You say we shall have no values at all if we step outside the Tao. Very well: we shall probably find that we can get on quite comfortably without them. Let us regard all ideas of what we ought to do simply as an interesting psychological survival: let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.

This is a very possible position: and those who hold it cannot be accused of self-contradiction like the half-hearted sceptics who still hope to find ‘real’ values when they have debunked the traditional ones. This is the rejection of the concept of value altogether. I shall need another lecture to consider it.


[1] The real (perhaps unconscious) philosophy of Gaius and Titius becomes clear if we contrast the two following lists of disapprovals and approvals. A. Disapprovals: A mother’s appeal to a child to be ‘brave’ is ‘nonsense’ (Green Book, p. 62). The reference of the word ‘gentleman’ is ‘extremely vague’ (ibid.). ‘To call a man a coward tells us really nothing about what he does’ (p. 64). Feelings about a country or empire are feelings ‘about nothing in particular’ (p. 77). B. Approvals: Those who prefer the arts of peace to the arts of war (it is not said in what circumstances) are such that ‘we may want to call them wise men’ (p. 65). The pupil is expected ‘to believe in a democratic community life’ (p. 67). ‘Contact with the ideas of other people is, as we know, healthy’ (p. 86). The reason for bathrooms (‘that people are healthier and pleasanter to meet when they are clean’) is ‘too obvious to need mentioning’ (p. 142). It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values: those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked. Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker’s van: peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.

[2] The most determined effort which I know to construct a theory of value on the basis of ‘satisfaction of impulses’ is that of Dr. I. A. Richards (Principles of Literary Criticism, 1924). The old objection to defining Value as Satisfaction is the universal value judgement that ‘it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. To meet this Dr. Richards endeavours to show that our impulses can be arranged in a hierarchy and some satisfactions preferred to others without an appeal to any criterion other than satisfaction. He does this by the doctrine that some impulses are more ‘important’ than others—an importantimpulse being one whose frustration involves the frustration of other impulses. A good systematization (i.e. the good life) consists in satisfying as many impulses as possible; which entails satisfying the ‘important’ at the expense of the ‘unimportant’. The objections to this scheme seem to me to be two. (1) Without a theory of immortality it leaves no room for the value of noble death. It may, of course, be said that a man who has saved his life by treachery will suffer for the rest of that life from frustration. But not, surely, frustration of all his impulses? Whereas the dead man will have no satisfaction. Or is it maintained that since he has no unsatisfied impulses he is better off than the disgraced and living man? This at once raises the second objection. (2) Is the value of a systematization to be judged by the presence of satisfactions or the absence of dissatisfactions? The extreme case is that of the dead man in whom satisfactions and dissatisfactions (on the modern view) both equal zero, as against the successful traitor who can still eat, drink, sleep, scratch, and copulate, even if he cannot have friendship or love or self-respect. But it arises at other levels. Suppose A has only 500 impulses and all are satisfied, and that B has 1,200 impulses whereof 700 are satisfied and 500 not: which has the better systematization? There is no doubt which Dr. Richards actually prefers—he even praises art on the ground that it makes us ‘discontented’ with ordinary crudities! (op. cit., p. 230). The only trace I find of a philosophical basis for this preference is the statement that ‘the more complex an activity the more conscious it is’ (p. 109). But if satisfaction is the only value, why should increase of consciousness be good? For consciousness is the condition of all dissatisfactions as well as of all satisfactions. Dr. Richards’s system gives no support to his (and our) actual preference for civil life over savage and human over animal—or even for life over death.

[3] The desperate expedients to which a man can be driven if he attempts to base value on fact are well illustrated by Dr. C. H. Waddington’s fate in Science and Ethics. Dr. Waddington here explains that ‘existence is its own justification’ (p. 14), and writes: ‘An existence which is essentially evolutionary is itself the justification for an evolution towards a more comprehensive existence’ (p. 17). I do not think Dr. Waddington is himself at ease in this view, for he does endeavour to recommend the course of evolution to us on three grounds other than its mere occurrence. (a) That the later stages include or ‘comprehend’ the earlier. (b) That T. H. Huxley’s picture of Evolution will not revolt you if you regard it from an ‘actuarial’ point of view. (c) That, any way, after all, it isn’t half so bad as people make out (‘not so morally offensive that we cannot accept it’, p. 18). These three palliatives are more creditable to Dr. Waddington’s heart than his head and seem to me to give up the main position. If Evolution is praised (or, at least, apologized for) on the ground of any properties it exhibits, then we are using an external standard and the attempt to make existence its own justification has been abandoned. If that attempt is maintained, why does Dr. Waddington concentrate on Evolution: i.e. on a temporary phase of organic existence in one planet? This is ‘geocentric’. If Good = whatever Nature happens to be doing, then surely we should notice what Nature is doing as a whole; and nature as a whole, I understand, is working steadily and irreversibly towards the final extinction of all life in every part of the universe, so that Dr. Waddington’s ethics, stripped of their unaccountable bias towards such a parochial affair as tellurian biology, would leave murder and suicide our only duties. Even this, I confess, seems to me a lesser objection than the discrepancy between Dr. Waddington’s first principle and the value judgements men actually make. To value anything simply because it occurs is in fact to worship success, like Quislings or men of Vichy. Other philosophies more wicked have been devised: none more vulgar. I am far from suggesting that Dr. Waddington practises in real life such grovelling prostration before the fait accompli. Let us hope that Rasselas, cap. 22, gives the right picture of what his philosophy amounts to in action. (‘The philosopher, supposing the rest vanquished, rose up and departed with the air of a man that had co-operated with the present system.’)

[4] See Appendix.

[5] Analects of Confucius, xv. 39.

[6] Eth. Nic. 1095 B, 1140 B, 1151 A.

[7] John vii. 49. The speaker said it in malice, but with more truth than he meant. Cf. John xi. 51.

[8] Mark xvi. 16.

[9] Republic, 402 A.

[10] Phil. iii. 6.

Transcriber’s Notes

Cuor gentil – a noble heart

‘εν δε φαει και ‘δλεσσου – ‘en de faei kai dlessou’ roughly “in the light you perceive it [light]” (?)

Dulce et decorum – sweet and seemly, from the Roman saying dulce et decorum est pro patria mori It is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.

Humani nihil a me alienum puto from Terence: homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto: “I am a man; and nothing of man is foreign to me.”

Nietzschean ethic – an ‘ends justify the means,’ ‘win at any cost’ philosophy; the starting point his philosophy is his own desire instead of reality; he is a nihilist.

Olaf Stapledon – a famous science fiction writer (1886-1950) whose most famous works include Last and First MenDarkness and the Light, and Star Maker.

Theist – a believer in one or more gods, e.g. Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Zoroastrians

The Abolition of Man

It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me home to his house, he would sell me for a slave.


‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science. ‘Man has Nature whacked’ said someone to a friend of mine not long ago. In their context the words had a certain tragic beauty, for the speaker was dying of tuberculosis. ‘No matter’, he said, ‘I know I’m one of the casualties. Of course there are casualties on the winning as well as on the losing side. But that doesn’t alter the fact that it is winning.’ I have chosen this story as my point of departure in order to make it clear that I do not wish to disparage all that is really beneficial in the process described as ‘Man’s conquest’, much less all the real devotion and self-sacrifice that has gone to make it possible. But having done so I must proceed to analyse this conception a little more closely. In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

It is, of course, a commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the powers that science has given them. But that is not the point I am trying to make. I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions. In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors. And we must also remember that, quite apart from this, the later a generation comes—the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct—the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future. The real picture is that of one dominant age—let us suppose the thirtieth century A.D.—which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But even within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant ‘a bastard nursed in a bureau’, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women,[1] and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry[2] —we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please. The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao—a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered—like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. For we are assuming the last stage of Man’s struggle with Nature. The final victory has been won. Human nature has been conquered—and, of course, has conquered, in whatever sense those words may now bear.

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. They are the motivators, the creators of motives. But how are they going to be motivated themselves? For a time, perhaps, by survivals, within their own minds, of the old ‘natural’ Tao. Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a ‘duty’ to do it ‘good’. But it is only by confusion that they can remain in this state. They recognize the concept of duty as the result of certain processes which they can now control. Their victory has consisted precisely in emerging from the state in which they were acted upon by those processes to the state in which they use them as tools. One of the things they now have to decide is whether they will, or will not, so condition the rest of us that we can go on having the old idea of duty and the old reactions to it. How can duty help them to decide that? Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge. And ‘good’ fares no better. They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them to decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison.

To some it will appear that I am inventing a factitious difficulty for my Conditioners. Other, more simple-minded, critics may ask ‘Why should you suppose they will be such bad men?’ But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived. Nor is their difficulty factitious. We might suppose that it was possible to say ‘After all, most of us want more or less the same things—food and drink and sexual intercourse, amusement, art, science, and the longest possible life for individuals and for the species. Let them simply say, This is what we happen to like, and go on to condition men in the way most likely to produce it. Where’s the trouble?’ But this will not answer. In the first place, it is false that we all really like the same things. But even if we did, what motive is to impel the Conditioners to scorn delights and live laborious days in order that we, and posterity, may have what we like? Their duty? But that is only the Tao, which they may decide to impose on us, but which cannot be valid for them. If they accept it, then they are no longer the makers of conscience but still its subjects, and their final conquest over Nature has not really happened. The preservation of the species? But why should the species be preserved? One of the questions before them is whether this feeling for posterity (they know well how it is produced) shall be continued or not. However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on. Every motive they try to act on becomes at once a pelitio. It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.

Yet the Conditioners will act. When I said just now that all motives fail them, I should have said all motives except one. All motives that claim any validity other than that of their felt emotional weight at a given moment have failed them. Everything except the sic volo, sic jubeo has been explained away. But what never claimed objectivity cannot be destroyed by subjectivism. The impulse to scratch when I itch or to pull to pieces when I am inquisitive is immune from the solvent which is fatal to my justice, or honour, or care for posterity. When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains. It cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretensions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure. I am not here speaking of the corrupting influence of power nor expressing the fear that under it our Conditioners will degenerate. The very words corrupt and degenerate imply a doctrine of value and are therefore meaningless in this context. My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse. We may legitimately hope that among the impulses which arise in minds thus emptied of all ‘rational’ or ‘spiritual’ motives, some will be benevolent. I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned. Though regarding as an illusion the artificial conscience which they produce in us their subjects, they will yet perceive that it creates in us an illusion of meaning for our lives which compares favourably with the futility of their own: and they will envy us as eunuchs envy men. But I do not insist on this, for it is a mere conjecture. What is not conjecture is that our hope even of a ‘conditioned’ happiness rests on what is ordinarily called ‘chance’—the chance that benevolent impulses may on the whole predominate in our Conditioners. For without the judgement ‘Benevolence is good’—that is, without re-entering the Tao—they can have no ground for promoting or stabilizing these impulses rather than any others. By the logic of their position they must just take their impulses as they come, from chance. And Chance here means Nature. It is from heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas, that the motives of the Conditioners will spring. Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour. If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’) is the only course left open.

At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit: and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold.

My point may be clearer to some if it is put in a different form. Nature is a word of varying meanings, which can best be understood if we consider its various opposites. The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. The Artificial does not now concern us. If we take the rest of the list of opposites, however, I think we can get a rough idea of what men have meant by Nature and what it is they oppose to her. Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality: of objects as against consciousness: of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous: of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value: of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes. Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience we reduce it to the level of ‘Nature’ in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to ‘body-snatchers’ is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psycho-analyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, our selves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly, of those who are our public enemies at the moment. The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the present rulers of Germany. Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent ‘ideologies’ at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere ὕλη, specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language. Once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration and diligence dynamism, and boys likely to be worthy of a commission are ‘potential officer material’. Most wonderful of all, the virtues of thrift and temperance, and even of ordinary intelligence, are sales-resistance.

The true significance of what is going on has been concealed by the use of the abstraction Man. Not that the word Man is necessarily a pure abstraction. In the Tao itself, as long as we remain within it, we find the concrete reality in which to participate is to be truly human: the real common will and common reason of humanity, alive, and growing like a tree, and branching out, as the situation varies, into ever new beauties and dignities of application. While we speak from within the Tao we can speak of Man having power over himself in a sense truly analogous to an individual’s self-control. But the moment we step outside and regard the Tao as a mere subjective product, this possibility has disappeared. What is now common to all men is a mere abstract universal, an L.C.M., and Man’s conquest of himself means simply the rule of the Conditioners over the conditioned human material, the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce.

Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come. I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak. There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead. If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from his devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’.[3] In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit.[4] The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work;[5] but his goal is that of the magician. In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the ‘natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe’s approach to nature deserves fuller consideration—that even Dr. Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the inly known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.

Perhaps I am asking impossibilities. Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing. But if the scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it. What I most fear is the reply that I am ‘only one more’ obscurantist, that this barrier, like all previous barriers set up against the advance of science, can be safely passed. Such a reply springs from the fatal serialism of the modern imagination—the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds. Because we have to use numbers so much we tend to think of every process as if it must be like the numeral series, where every step, to all eternity, is the same kind of step as the one before. I implore you to remember the Irishman and his two stoves. There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis—incommensurable with the others—and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labour of your previous journey. To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.


[1] The Boke Named the Governour, I. iv: ‘Al men except physitions only shulde be excluded and kepte out of the norisery.’ I. vi: ‘After that a childe is come to seuen yeres of age . . . the most sure counsaile is to withdrawe him from all company of women.’

[2] Some Thoughts concerning Education, § 7: ‘I will also advise his Feet to be wash’d every Day in cold Water, and to have his Shoes so thin that they might leak and let in Water, whenever he comes near it.’ § 174: ‘If he have a poetick vein, ’tis to me the strangest thing in the World that the Father should desire or suffer it to be cherished or improved. Methinks the Parents should labor to have it stifled and suppressed as much as may be.’ Yet Locke is one of the most sensible writers on education.

[3] Dr. Faustus, 77-90.

[4] Advancement of Learning, Bk. I (p. 60 in Ellis and Spedding, 1905, p. 35 in Everyman Edn.).

[5] Filum Labyrinthi, i.

Transcriber’s Notes

Buber, Martin (1878-1965) philosopher who said the I-Thou approach to relationships is the only way people can be fully authentic; only a part of our humanity is expressed in the I-It relationship.

Clotho – of the three Fates of Greek mythology, she was the one who wove the fabric of life

factitious – contrived, artificial

Faustus – the magician of Renaisance legend who bargained his soul to the devil in exchange for power

Ferum victorem cepit – from Horace Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et/ Artes intulit agresti Latio.: “Greece, once overcome, overcame her wild conqueror,/ And brought the arts into rustic Latium.” The vanquished were actually the victors; Lewis is saying that nature, being conquered, is the true winner.

Francis Bacon – proponent (1561-1626) of the “scientific revolution” who advocated science as a tool to gain power over nature; he is known more for his polemical writings on science than his advancement of human knowledge

Goethe Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) Romantic poet who reverenced nature as divine

H.C.F. – highest common factor

Inter alia – Amongst other things

Paracelsus – (1493-1541), more properly Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, who was known for his medical innovations during the Renaisance. Traditionally it has been said that Paracelsus was taught by several bishops and the occultist abbot of Sponheim, Johannes Trithemius.

Petitio – short for petitio principii or begging the question: a logical fallacy in which the thing to be proved is implicitly assumed.

Sic volo, sic jubeo – short for sic volo, sic jubeo, stat pro ratione voluntas: “Thus I will, thus I command, my pleasure stands for law.”

Sui generis – adj. [literally, of its own kind] constituting a class alone: unique, peculiar.

υλη – hule or matter, as used by Aristotle

Wireless – radio

Illustrations of the Tao

The following illustrations of the Natural Law are collected from
such sources as come readily to the hand of one who is not a professional
historian. The list makes no pretence of completeness. It will be noticed that
writers such as Locke and Hooker, who wrote within the Christian tradition, are
quoted side by side with the New Testament. This would, of course, be absurd if
I were trying to collect independent testimonies to the Tao. But
(1) I am not trying to prove its validity by the argument from
common consent. Its validity cannot be deduced. For those who do not perceive
its rationality, even universal consent could not prove it. (2) The idea of
collecting independent testimonies presupposes that
‘civilizations’ have arisen in the world independently of one another; or even
that humanity has had several independent emergences on this planet. The
biology and anthropology involved in such an assumption are extremely doubtful.
It is by no means certain that there has ever (in the sense required) been more
than one civilization in all history. It is at least arguable that every
civilization we find has been derived from another civilization and, in the
last resort, from a single centre—‘carried’ like an infectious disease or like
the Apostolical succession.

1. The Law of General Beneficence


‘I have not slain men.’ (Ancient Egyptian. From the Confession of the Righteous Soul, ‘Book of the Dead’, v. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics [= ERE], vol. v, p. 478.)

‘Do not murder.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus xx. 13.)

‘Terrify not men or God will terrify thee.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Precepts of Ptahhetep. H. R. Hall, Ancient History of Near East, p.133 n.)

‘In Nástrond (= Hell) I saw . . . murderers.’ (Old Norse. Volospá 38, 39)

‘I have not brought misery upon my fellows. I have not made the beginning of every day laborious in the sight of him who worked for me.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Confession of Righteous Soul. ERE v. 478.)

‘I have not been grasping.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Ibid.)

‘Who meditates oppression, his dwelling is overturned.’ (Babylonian. Hymn to SamašERE v. 445.)

‘He who is cruel and calumnious has the character of a cat.’ (Hindu. Laws of Manu. Janet, Histoire de la Science Politique, vol. i, p. 6.)

‘Slander not.’ (Babylonian. Hymn to Samaš. ERE v. 445.)

‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus xx. 16.)

‘Utter not a word by which anyone could be wounded.’ (Hindu. Janet, p. 7.)

‘Has he . . . driven an honest man from his family? broken up a well cemented clan?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins from incantation tablets. ERE v. 446.)

‘I have not caused hunger. I have not caused weeping.’ (Ancient Egyptian. ERE v. 478.)

‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects of Confucius, trans. A. Waley, xv. 23; cf. xii. 2.)

‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.’ (Ancient Jewish. Leviticus xix. 17.)

‘He whose heart is in the smallest degree set upon goodness will dislike no one.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, iv. 4.)

(b) Positive

‘Nature urges that a man should wish human society to exist and should wish to enter it.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Officiis, I. iv.)

‘By the fundamental Law of Nature Man [is] to be preserved as much as possible.’ (Locke, Treatises of Civil Govt. ii. 3.)

‘When the people have multiplied, what next should be done for them? The Master said, Enrich them. Jan Ch’iu said, When one has enriched them, what next should be done for them? The Master said, Instruct them.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, xiii. 9.)

‘Speak kindness . . . show good will.’ (Babylonian. Hymn to Samaš. ERE v. 445.)

‘Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. vii.)

‘Man is man’s delight.’ (Old Norse. Hávamál 47.)

‘He who is asked for alms should always give.’ (Hindu. Janet, i. 7.)

‘What good man regards any misfortune as no concern of his?’ (Roman. Juvenal xv. 140.)

‘I am a man: nothing human is alien to me.’ (Roman. Terence, Heaut. Tim.)

‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ (Ancient Jewish. Leviticus xix. 18.)

‘Love the stranger as thyself.’ (Ancient Jewish. Ibid. 33, 34.)

‘Do to men what you wish men to do to you.’ (Christian. Matt. vii. 12.)

2. The Law of Special Beneficence

‘It is upon the trunk that a gentleman works. When that is firmly set up, the Way grows. And surely proper behaviour to parents and elder brothers is the trunk of goodness.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, i. 2.)

‘Brothers shall fight and be each others’ bane.’ (Old Norse. Account of the Evil Age before the World’s end, Volospá 45.)

‘Has he insulted his elder sister?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins. ERE v. 446.)

‘You will see them take care of their kindred [and] the children of their friends . . . never reproaching them in the least.’ (Redskin. Le Jeune, quoted ERE v. 437.)

‘Love thy wife studiously. Gladden her heart all thy life long.’ (Ancient Egyptian. ERE v. 481.)

‘Nothing can ever change the claims of kinship for a right thinking man.’ (Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf, 2600.)

‘Did not Socrates love his own children, though he did so as a free man and as one not forgetting that the gods have the first claim on our friendship?’ (Greek. Epictetus, iii. 24.)

‘Natural affection is a thing right and according to Nature.’ (Greek. Ibid. I. xi.)

‘I ought not to be unfeeling like a statue but should fulfil both my natural and artificial relations, as a worshipper, a son, a brother, a father, and a citizen.’ (Greek, Ibid. III. ii.)

‘This first I rede thee: be blameless to thy kindred. Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong.’ (Old Norse. Sigrdrifumál, 22.)

‘Is it only the sons of Atreus who love their wives? For every good man, who is right-minded, loves and cherishes his own.’ (Greek. Homer, Iliad, ix. 340.)

‘The union and fellowship of men will be best preserved if each receives from us the more kindness in proportion as he is more closely connected with us.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. xvi.)

‘Part of us is claimed by our country, part by our parents, part by our friends.’ (Roman. Ibid. I. vii.)

‘If a ruler . . . compassed the salvation of the whole state, surely you would call him Good? The Master said, It would no longer be a matter of “Good”. He would without doubt be a Divine Sage.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, vi. 28.)

‘Has it escaped you that, in the eyes of gods and good men, your native land deserves from you more honour, worship, and reverence than your mother and father and all your ancestors? That you should give a softer answer to its anger than to a father’s anger? That if you cannot persuade it to alter its mind you must obey it in all quietness, whether it binds you or beats you or sends you to a war where you may get wounds or death?’ (Greek. Plato, Crito, 51 A, B.)

‘If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith.’ (Christian. I Tim. v. 8.)

‘Put them in mind to obey magistrates.’ . . . ‘I exhort that prayers be made for kings and all that are in authority.’ (Christian. Tit. iii. 1 and I Tim. ii. 1, 2.)

3. Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors

‘Your father is an image of the Lord of Creation, your mother an image of the Earth. For him who fails to honour them, every work of piety is in vain. This is the first duty.’ (Hindu. Janet, i. 9.)

‘Has he despised Father and Mother?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins. ERE v. 446.)

‘I was a staff by my Father’s side. . . . I went in and out at his command.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Confession of the Righteous Soul. ERE v. 481.)

‘Honour thy Father and thy Mother.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus xx. 12.)

‘To care for parents.’ (Greek. List of duties in Epictetus, III. vii.)

‘Children, old men, the poor, and the sick, should be considered as the lords of the atmosphere.’ (Hindu. Janet, i. 8.)

‘Rise up before the hoary head and honour the old man.’ (Ancient Jewish. Lev. xix. 32.)

‘I tended the old man, I gave him my staff.’ (Ancient Egyptian. ERE v. 481.)

‘You will see them take care . . . of old men.’ (Redskin. Le Jeune, quoted ERE v. 437.)

‘I have not taken away the oblations of the blessed dead.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Confession of the Righteous Soul. ERE v. 478.)

‘When proper respect towards the dead is shown at the end and continued after they are far away, the moral force () of a people has reached its highest point.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, i. 9.)

4. Duties to Children and Posterity

‘Children, the old, the poor, etc. should be considered as lords of the atmosphere.’ (Hindu. Janet, i. 8.)

‘To marry and to beget children.’ (Greek. List of duties. Epictetus, III. vii.)

‘Can you conceive an Epicurean commonwealth? . . . What will happen? Whence is the population to be kept up? Who will educate them? Who will be Director of Adolescents? Who will be Director of Physical Training? What will be taught?’ (Greek. Ibid.)

‘Nature produces a special love of offspring’ and ‘To live according to Nature is the supreme good.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. iv, and De Legibus, I. xxi.)

‘The second of these achievements is no less glorious than the first; for while the first did good on one occasion, the second will continue to benefit the state forever.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. xxii.)

‘Great reverence is owed to a child.’ (Roman. Juvenal, xiv. 47.)

‘The Master said, Respect the young.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, ix. 22.)

‘The killing of the women and more especially of the young boys and girls who are to go to make up the future strength of the people, is the saddest part . . . and we feel it very sorely.’ (Redskin. Account of the Battle of Wounded Knee. ERE v. 432.)

5. The Law of Justice

(aSexual Justice

‘Has he approached his neighbour’s wife?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins. ERE v. 446.)

‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus xx. 14.)

‘I saw in Nástrond (= Hell) . . . beguilers of others’ wives.’ (Old Norse. Volospá 38, 39.)

(b) Honesty

‘Has he drawn false boundaries?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins. ERE v. 446.)

‘To wrong, to rob, to cause to be robbed.’ (Babylonian. Ibid.)

‘I have not stolen.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Confession of Righteous Soul. ERE v. 478.)

‘Thou shalt not steal.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus xx. 15.)

‘Choose loss rather than shameful gains.’ (Greek. Chilon Fr. 10. Diels.)

‘Justice is the settled and permanent intention of rendering to each man his rights.’ (Roman. Justinian, Institutions, I. i.)

‘If the native made a “find” of any kind (e.g. a honey tree) and marked it, it was thereafter safe for him, as far as his own tribesmen were concerned, no matter how long he left it.’ (Australian Aborigines. ERE v. 441.)

‘The first point of justice is that none should do any mischief to another unless he has first been attacked by the other’s wrongdoing. The second is that a man should treat common property as common property, and private property as his own. There is no such thing as private property by nature, but things have become private either through prior occupation (as when men of old came into empty territory) or by conquest, or law, or agreement, or stipulation, or casting lots.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. vii.)

(c) Justice in Court, &c.

‘Whoso takes no bribe . . . well pleasing is this to Samaš.’ (Babylonian. ERE v. 445.)

‘I have not traduced the slave to him who is set over him.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Confession of Righteous Soul. ERE v. 478.)

‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus xx. 16.)

‘Regard him whom thou knowest like him whom thou knowest not.’ (Ancient Egyptian. ERE v. 482.)

‘Do no unrighteousness in judgement. You must not consider the fact that one party is poor nor the fact that the other is a great man.’ (Ancient Jewish. Leviticus xix. 15.)

6. The Law of Good Faith and Veracity

‘A sacrifice is obliterated by a lie and the merit of alms by an act of fraud.’ (Hindu. Janet, i. 6.)

‘Whose mouth, full of lying, avails not before thee: thou burnest their utterance.’ (Babylonian. Hymn to Samaš. ERE v. 445.)

‘With his mouth was he full of Yea, in his heart full of Nay?’ (Babylonian. ERE v. 446.)

‘I have not spoken falsehood.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Confession of Righteous Soul. ERE v. 478.)

‘I sought no trickery, nor swore false oaths.’ (Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf, 2738.)

‘The Master said, Be of unwavering good faith.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, viii. 13.)

‘In Nástrond (= Hell) I saw the perjurers.’ (Old Norse. Volospá 39.)

‘Hateful to me as are the gates of Hades is that man who says one thing, and hides another in his heart.’ (Greek. Homer. Iliad, ix. 312.)

‘The foundation of justice is good faith.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. vii.)

‘[The gentleman] must learn to be faithful to his superiors and to keep promises.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, I. 8.)

‘Anything is better than treachery.’ (Old Norse. Hávamál 124.)

7. The Law of Mercy

‘The poor and the sick should be regarded as lords of the atmosphere.’ (Hindu. Janet, i. 8.)

‘Whoso makes intercession for the weak, well pleasing is this to Samaš.’ (Babylonian. ERE v. 445.)

‘Has he failed to set a prisoner free?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins. ERE v. 446.)

‘I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, a ferry boat to the boatless.’ (Ancient Egyptian. ERE v. 478.)

‘One should never strike a woman; not even with a flower.’ (Hindu. Janet, i. 8.)

‘There, Thor, you got disgrace, when you beat women.’ (Old Norse. Hárbarthsljóth 38.)

‘In the Dalebura tribe a woman, a cripple from birth, was carried about by the tribes-people in turn until her death at the age of sixty-six.’ . . . ‘They never desert the sick.’ (Australian Aborigines. ERE v. 443.)

‘You will see them take care of . . . widows, orphans, and old men, never reproaching them.’ (Redskin. ERE v. 439.)

‘Nature confesses that she has given to the human race the tenderest hearts, by giving us the power to weep. This is the best part of us.’ (Roman. Juvenal, xv. 131.)

‘They said that he had been the mildest and gentlest of the kings of the world.’ (Anglo-Saxon. Praise of the hero in Beowulf, 3180.)

‘When thou cuttest down thine harvest . . . and hast forgot a sheaf . . . thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.’ (Ancient Jewish. Deut. xxiv. 19.)

8. The Law of Magnanimity


‘There are two kinds of injustice: the first is found in those who do an injury, the second in those who fail to protect another from injury when they can.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. vii.)

‘Men always knew that when force and injury was offered they might be defenders of themselves; they knew that howsoever men may seek their own commodity, yet if this were done with injury unto others it was not to be suffered, but by all men and by all good means to be withstood.’ (English. Hooker, Laws of Eccl. Polity, I. ix. 4.)

‘To take no notice of a violent attack is to strengthen the heart of the enemy. Vigour is valiant, but cowardice is vile.’ (Ancient Egyptian. The Pharaoh Senusert III. cit. H. R. Hall, Ancient History of the Near East, p. 161.)

‘They came to the fields of joy, the fresh turf of the Fortunate Woods and the dwellings of the Blessed . . . here was the company of those who had suffered wounds fighting for their fatherland.’ (Roman. Virgil, Aen. vi. 638-9, 660.)

‘Courage has got to be harder, heart the stouter, spirit the sterner, as our strength weakens. Here lies our lord, cut to pieces, our best man in the dust. If anyone thinks of leaving this battle, he can howl forever.’ (Anglo-Saxon. Maldon, 312.)

‘Praise and imitate that man to whom, while life is pleasing, death is not grievous.’ (Stoic. Seneca, Ep. liv.)

‘The Master said, Love learning and if attacked be ready to die for the Good Way.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, viii. 13.)


‘Death is to be chosen before slavery and base deeds.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. xxiii.)

‘Death is better for every man than life with shame.’ (Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf, 2890.)

‘Nature and Reason command that nothing uncomely, nothing effeminate, nothing lascivious be done or thought.’ (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. iv.)

‘We must not listen to those who advise us “being men to think human thoughts, and being mortal to think mortal thoughts,” but must put on immortality as much as is possible and strain every nerve to live according to that best part of us, which, being small in bulk, yet much more in its power and honour surpasses all else.’ (Ancient Greek. Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1177 B.)

‘The soul then ought to conduct the body, and the spirit of our minds the soul. This is therefore the first Law, whereby the highest power of the mind requireth obedience at the hands of all the rest.’ (Hooker, op. cit. I. viii. 6.)

‘Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live, let him wait for his time . . . let him patiently bear hard words, entirely abstaining from bodily pleasures.’ (Ancient Indian. Laws of Manu. ERE ii. 98.)

‘He who is unmoved, who has restrained his senses . . . is said to be devoted. As a flame in a windless place that flickers not, so is the devoted.’ (Ancient Indian. Bhagavad gita. ERE ii. 90.)


‘Is not the love of Wisdom a practice of death?’ (Ancient Greek. Plato, Phaedo, 81 A.)

‘I know that I hung on the gallows for nine nights, wounded with the spear as a sacrifice to Odin, myself offered to Myself.’ (Old Norse. Hávamál, l. 10 in Corpus Poeticum Boreale; stanza 139 in Hildebrand’s Lieder der Älteren Edda. 1922.)

‘Verily, verily I say to you unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it.’ (Christian. John xii. 24, 25.)

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: New Questions that Arose in 90s: Position of Faith and Theology Today

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

The Crisis for Liberation Theology

In the eighties, the theology of liberation, in its radical forms, appeared as the most urgent challenge facing the belief of the Church, demanding response and clarification. For it offered a new, plausible, and at the same time practical answer to the basic question of Christianity: the question of redemption. The word liberation was supposed to express, in another, more readily comprehensible way, what in the traditional language of the Church had been called redemption. In fact the same underlying question is always there: we experience a world that does not correspond to a good God. Poverty, oppression, unjust domination of every kind, the suffering of the righteous and of the innocent are the signs of the times—in every age. And each single person is suffering; no one can say about the world, or about his own life: Stay yet awhile, you are so lovely. Liberation theology said, in response to this experience of ours: This state of affairs, which cannot be allowed to continue, can only be overcome by a radical change in the structures of the world, which are sinful structures, evil structures. If, then, sin applies its power through structures, and if our reduction to misery is preprogramed through them, then sin cannot be overcome by individual conversion but only by a struggle against the structures of injustice. Yet this struggle, it was said, would have to be a political struggle, because the structures were strengthened and maintained by politics. Thus redemption became a political process, for which Marxist philosophy offered the essential directions. It became a task that men themselves could—indeed had to—take in hand and became, at the same time, the object of quite practical hopes: faith was changed from “theory” into practice, into concrete redeeming action in the liberation process.

The collapse of the Marxist-inspired governments of Europe was for this theology of redeeming political practice a kind of twilight of the gods: precisely there where the Marxist ideology of liberation had been consistently applied, a total lack of freedom had developed, whose horrors were now laid bare before the eyes of the entire world. Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes, not divine, but demonic. The political events of 1989 have thus also changed the theological landscape. Marxism had been the most recent attempt to formulate a universally valid code for determining the correct action to be taken in history. It believed it knew the fundamental structure by which the history of the world is built up and that it was therefore able to show how this history could finally be brought onto the right track. The fact that it underpinned all this with what seemed to be strictly scientific methods, and thus completely replaced belief by science and turned knowledge into practice, made it enormously, monstrously fascinating. It seemed as though all the unfulfilled promises of religion could be realized by means of a system of political practice with a scientific basis. The collapse of this hope inevitably brought with it an immense disillusionment that is still far from having been worked through. It seems to me quite conceivable that we will meet with new forms of the Marxist view of the world. At first people were at a loss. The failure of the one system incorporating a scientifically based solution to human problems could only favor nihilism or at any rate absolute relativism.

Relativism—The Dominant Philosophy

So in fact relativism has become the central problem for faith in our time. It by no means appears simply as resignation in the face of the unfathomable nature of truth, of course; rather, it defines itself positively on the basis of the concepts of tolerance, dialectic epistemology, and freedom, which would be limited by maintaining one truth as being valid for everyone. Relativism thus also appears as being the philosophical basis of democracy, which is said to be founded on no one’s being able to claim to know the right way forward; and it draws life from all the ways acknowledging each other as fragmentary attempts at improvement and trying to agree in common through dialogue, although the advertising of perceptions that cannot be reconciled in a common form is also part of this. A free society is said to be a relativistic society; only on this condition can it remain free and open-ended.

In the realm of politics this view is to a great extent true. The one single correct political option does not exist. What is relative, the construction of a freely ordered common life for men, cannot be absolute—thinking that it could be was precisely the error of Marxism and of the political theologies. Even in the realm of politics, of course, one cannot always manage with absolute relativism: there are things that are wrong and can never become right (killing innocent people, for instance; denying individuals the right to be treated as humans and to a way of life appropriate to that); there are things that are right and can never become wrong. In the realm of politics and society, therefore, one cannot deny relativism a certain right. The problem is based on the fact that it sees itself as being unlimited. And now it is being quite consciously applied to the field of religion and ethics. I can only give a couple of brief references here to the developments that are determinative for theological intercourse today. The so-called pluralistic theology of religions had in fact been gradually developing since the fifties, but it did not occupy the center of attention for Christians until now.[1] With respect to the ramifications of the questions it raises, and likewise to its being present in the most various cultural spheres, it occupies much the same place as did liberation theology in the past decade; it is also frequently combined with the latter in an attempt to give it a new, updated form. It appears in widely varying forms, so that it is impossible to express it in a short formula and present its essential elements briefly. On the one hand, this is a typical product of the Western world and of its thought forms, yet, on the other hand, it is astonishingly close to the philosophical and religious intuitions of Asia, and especially of the Indian subcontinent, so that in the current historical situation the contact of these two worlds gives it a particular impact.

Relativism in Theology—The Revocation of Christology

That is clearly visible in the work of one of its founders and principal representatives, the English Presbyterian J. Hick, whose philosophical starting point is found in Kant’s distinction between phenomenon and nouomenon: we can never know ultimate reality in itself but only ever its appearance in the way we perceive things, seeing it through various “lenses”. Everything we perceive is, not actual reality as it is in itself, but a reflection corresponding to our capacities. This approach, which Hick first tried to apply in a context that was still christocentric, he transformed after a year’s stay in India, in what he himself calls a Copernican turning point in his thinking, into a new form of theocentrism. The identification of one single historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, with “reality” itself, with the living God, was now rejected as a relapse into myth; Jesus was consciously relativized, reduced to one religious genius among others. There can be no absolute entity in itself, or absolute person in himself, within history, only patterns, only ideal figures, which direct our attention toward the wholly other, which in history cannot in fact be comprehended in itself. It is clear that by the same token Church, dogma, and sacraments must thereby lose their unconditional status. To regard such finite mediations as absolute, or even as real encounters with the universally valid truth of the God who reveals himself, amounts to setting up one’s own experience as absolute and thus failing to perceive the infinity of the God who is wholly other.

From such a standpoint, which dominates thinking far beyond the scope of Hick’s theories, the belief that there is indeed truth, valid and binding truth, within history itself, in the figure of Jesus Christ and in the faith of the Church, is referred to as fundamentalism, which appears as the real assault upon the spirit of the modern age and, manifested in many forms, as the fundamental threat to the highest good of that age, freedom and tolerance. Thus to a great extent the concept of dialogue, which certainly held an important place in the Platonic and in the Christian tradition, has acquired a different meaning. It has become the very epitome of the relativist credo, the concept opposed to that of “conversion” and mission: dialogue in the relativist sense means setting one’s own position or belief on the same level with what the other person believes, ascribing to it, on principle, no more of the truth than to the position of the other person. Only if my fundamental presupposition is that the other person may be just as much in the right as I am, or even more so, can any dialogue take place at all. Dialogue, it is said, has to be an exchange between positions that are fundamentally of equal status and thus mutually relative, with the aim of achieving a maximum of cooperation and integration between various religious bodies and entities.[2] The relativist elimination of Christology, and most certainly of ecclesiology, now becomes a central commandment of religion. To turn back to Hick: the belief in the divinity of an individual, he tells us, leads to fanaticism and particularism, to the dissociation of faith from love; and this is the thing that must be overcome.[3]

The Recourse to Asian Religions

In the thought of J. Hick, whom we have particularly in mind here as a prominent representative of religious relativism, the postmetaphysical philosophy of Europe converges in a remarkable way with the negative theology of Asia, for which the Divinity can never enter, in itself and undisguised, into the world of appearances in which we live: it only ever shows itself in relative reflections and in itself remains beyond all words and beyond all comprehension in absolute transcendence.[4] In their starting points, as in the direction they give to human existence, the two philosophies are in themselves fundamentally different. Yet they appear nonetheless to support one another in their metaphysical and religious relativism. The a-religious and pragmatic relativism of Europe and America can borrow a kind of consecration from India, which seems to give its renunciation of dogma the dignity of a heightened reverence for the mystery of God and of man. Conversely, the way that European and American thinking has turned back to India’s philosophical and theological vision has the effect of further strengthening that relativizing of all religious figures which is part of India’s heritage. Thus it now actually seems imperative in India, even for Christian theology, to extract from its particularity the figure of Christ, regarded as Western, and to set it beside Indian redemption myths as if it were of similar status: the historical Jesus, so people now think, is actually no more uniquely the Logos than any other savior figures from history are.[5] The fact that here, in the context of the encounter between cultures, relativism seems appropriate as the true philosophy of humanity gives it (as we have already suggested) such an appreciable impact, both in East and West, that it hardly seems possible to offer further resistance. Anyone who opposes it is not only setting himself against democracy and tolerance, that is, the fundamental rules of human intercourse; he is obstinately insisting on the preeminence of his own Western culture and thus refusing to share in that coexistence of cultures which is obviously the order of the day. Anyone who wants to stick with the Bible and the Church starts by finding himself thrust out into a cultural no-man’s land; he has to come to terms again with the “folly” of God (1 Cor 1:18) in order to recognize true wisdom in it.

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

In that kind of feeling one’s way toward truth within the folly of faith, it helps if we can, at least to start with, try to make sure what purpose is served by Hick’s relativist theory of religion, in what direction it is pointing man. What religion means in the end for Hick is that man passes from “self-centeredness”, the life of the old Adam, to “reality-centeredness”, the life of the new man, thus reaching out from within his own self, his “I”, to the “Thou” of his neighbor.[6] That sounds fine, but in the cold light of day it is just as meaningless and void of content as Bultmann’s call to authenticity, which he borrowed from Heidegger. You do not need religion for that. The former Catholic priest P. Knitter, clearly aware of this, has tried to overcome the emptiness of a theory of religion that is ultimately reduced to the categorical imperative with a new and more concrete synthesis between Asia and Europe, with a greater content.[7] His suggestion is to give religion a new concrete dimension by linking pluralist theology of religions with the liberation theologies. Interreligious dialogue was to be radically simplified, and at the same time made effective in practice, by basing it on one single premise: “on the primacy of orthopraxy over orthodoxy”.[8] This giving practice superior rank over knowledge is also bequeathed from good Marxism, yet Marxism for its part puts into practice only what is the logical result of the renunciation of metaphysics: when it is impossible to know, it only remains to act. Knitter says: One cannot comprehend the absolute, but one can do it. The question is: How, in fact? Whence do I derive right action if I have no idea what is right? The collapse of the Communist regimes resulted directly from the fact that they had changed the world without knowing what was good for the world and what was not; without knowing in what direction it must be changed so as to be better. Mere praxis gives no light.

This is the point at which the concept of orthopraxy must be critically investigated. The older history of religions had established that the religions of India knew nothing, in general, of any orthodoxy but that they did have an orthopraxy; it is probably from this that the concept crept into modern theology. But it has a quite specific meaning in describing the religions of India: people were trying to say that these religions had no generally binding teaching and that belonging to them is therefore not defined by acceptance of a given creed. Yet these religions do have a system of ritual actions that are regarded as being necessary for salvation and that distinguish the “believer” from the unbeliever. He will be recognized, not by any particular intellectual content, but by the conscientious following of a ritual that embraces the whole of life. What orthopraxy means, what “right action” is, is quite precisely determined: a whole code of rites. In any case, the word “orthodoxy” originally had almost the same meaning in the early Church and in the Eastern Churches. For in the “doxy” part of the word, doxa was of course not understood in the sense of “opinion” (correct opinion)—in the Greek view, opinions are always relative: doxa was understood rather in the sense of “glory”, “glorifying”. To be orthodox, therefore, meant: to know and to practice the right way in which God wishes to be glorified. It refers to worship and, on the basis of worship, to life. In that sense, there might well be a substantial bridge here for a fruitful dialogue between East and West.

But let us return to the use of the word orthopraxy in modern theology. No one any longer was thinking here about following ritual. The word thus acquired an entirely new significance, which had nothing to do with the genuine ideas of India. One thing does of course remain: if the demand for orthopraxy is to have some meaning, and is not merely to serve as a fig leaf for being indeterminate, then there must be a recognizable common practice for everyone that goes beyond all the generalized talk about being centered on the “I” or being related to the “Thou”. If we exclude the ritual sense, which was what was signified in Asia, then “praxis” may be understood in terms of ethics or politics. In the first case, orthopraxy would presume the existence of an ethic with a clearly defined content. In the relativist discussion of ethics, that is of course absolutely excluded: there is no such thing as good in itself or evil in itself. Yet if orthopraxy is understood in terms of politics and society, the question once more arises as to what is correct political action. Liberation theologies, which were animated by the conviction that Marxism tells us clearly what correct political action is, were able to use the concept of orthopraxy in a way that made sense. There was no vagueness or indecisiveness here but a system of correct action laid down for everyone, that is, a true orthopraxy that united the community and distinguished it from those people who refused to act correctly. In that sense the Marxist-oriented liberation theologies were in their own way logically consistent.

Yet as we can see, this orthopraxy is entirely based upon a certain orthodoxy (in the modern sense)—a scaffolding of obligatory theories about the path to freedom. Knitter is staying close to this base when he says that that freedom is the criterion by which orthopraxy is to be distinguished from pseudopraxy.[9] But he fails to satisfy us with a practical and persuasive explanation of what freedom is and of what helps toward the true liberation of man: Marxist orthopraxy certainly does not help us, as we have seen. Yet one thing is clear: the relativist theories, without exception, lead to what is binding upon no one and thus render themselves superfluous; or, on the other hand, they suggest absolute standards in the realm of practice, where in fact absolutes can have no place. It is of course a fact that today, even in Asia, we can see how concepts drawn from liberation theology are being put forward as supposed forms of Christianity that more closely correspond to the Asian spirit, that transpose the essential elements of religious action into the realm of politics. When mystery no longer counts for anything, then politics necessarily becomes the religion. This, of all things, is of course profoundly opposed to the native conception of religion in Asia.

New Age

The relativism of Hick and Knitter and other related theories is ultimately based on a rationalism that holds that reason in Kant’s sense is incapable of any metaphysical knowledge;[10] religion is then given a new basis along pragmatic lines, with either a more ethical or a more political coloration. There is, however, a consciously antirationalist response to the experience that “everything is relative”, a complex reality that is lumped together under the title of New Age.[11] The way out of the dilemma of relativism is now sought, not in a new encounter of the “I” with the “Thou” or the “We”, but in overcoming subjective consciousness, in a re-entry into the dance of the cosmos through ecstasy. As in the case of Gnosis in the ancient world, this way believes itself to be fully in tune with all the teachings and the claims of science, making use of scientific knowledge of every kind (biology, psychology, sociology, physics). At the same time, however, it offers against this background a completely antirationalist pattern of religion, a modern “mysticism”: the absolute is, not something to be believed in, but something to be experienced. God is not a person distinct from the world; rather, he is the spiritual energy that is at work throughout the universe. Religion means bringing my self into tune with the cosmic whole, the transcending of all divisions. K.-H. Menke epitomizes the turning point in the history of ideas that is taking place just precisely here when he says that: “That self, which hitherto wished to subject everything to itself, now wants to dissolve itself in ‘the whole’.”[12] Objectifying reason, New Age thinking tells us, closes our way to the mystery of reality; existing as the self shuts us out from the fullness of cosmic reality; it destroys the harmony of the whole and is the real reason for our being unredeemed. Redemption lies in breaking down the limits of the self, in plunging into the fullness of life and all that is living, in going back home to the universe. Ecstasy is being sought for, the intoxication of infinity, which can happen to people en masse in ecstatic music, in rhythm, in dance, in a mad whirl of lights and darkness. Here it is not merely the modern way of domination by the self that is renounced and abolished; here, man—in order to be free—must let himself be abolished. The gods are returning. They have become more credible than God. Aboriginal rites must be renewed in which the self is initiated into the mysteries of the universe and freed from its own self.

There are many reasons for the renewal of pre-Christian religions and cults that is being widely undertaken today. If there is no truth shared by everyone, a truth that is valid simply because it is true, then Christianity is merely a foreign import, a form of spiritual imperialism, which needs to be shaken off just as much as political imperialism. If what takes place in the sacraments is not the encounter with the one living God of all men, then they are empty rituals that mean nothing and give us nothing and, at best, allow us to sense the numinous element that is actively present in all religions. It then seems to make better sense to seek after what was originally our own than to permit alien and antiquated things to be imposed on us. But above all, if the “rational intoxication” of the Christian mystery cannot make us intoxicated with God, then we just have to conjure up the real, concrete intoxication of effective ecstasies, the passionate power of which catches us up and turns us, at least for a moment, into gods, helps us for a moment to sense the pleasure of infinity and to forget the misery of finite existence. The more the pointlessness of political absolutisms becomes obvious, the more powerful will be the attraction of irrationalism, the renunciation of everyday reality.[13]

Pragmatism in Everyday Church Life

Side by side with these radical solutions, and side by side also with the greater pragmatism of the liberation theologies, there is also the gray pragmatism at work in the everyday life of the Church, whereby everything is apparently being done right, yet in reality the faith is stale and declining into a shabby meanness. I am thinking of two phenomena that I regard with some concern. On one hand, there are attempts, some more determined than others, to extend the majority principle to matters of faith and morals and, thus, to “democratize” the Church in a decided fashion. What is not obvious to the majority cannot have any binding claim upon us, so it seems. Majority of whom, in fact? Will this majority be different tomorrow from what it is today? A faith we can decide for ourselves is no faith at all. And no minority has any reason to allow a majority to prescribe what it should believe. Either the faith and its practice come to us from the Lord by way of the Church and her sacramental services, or there is no such thing. The reason many people are abandoning the faith is that it seems to them that the faith can be decided by some officials or institutions, that it is a kind of party program; whoever has the power is able to decide what should be believed, and so it is a matter of getting hold of power oneself within the Church or, on the other hand—more obviously and logically—just not believing.

The other point I would raise concerns the liturgy. The various phases of liturgical reform have allowed people to gain the impression that liturgy can be changed as and how you wish. If there is any unchanging element, people think, then this would in no instance be anything other than the words of consecration: everything else might be done differently. The next idea is quite logical: If a central authority can do that, then why not local decision-making bodies? And if local bodies, then why not the congregation itself? It ought to be expressing itself in the liturgy and should be able to see its own style recognizably present there. After the rationalist and puritan trend ofthe seventies, and even the eighties, people are tired of liturgies that are just words and would like liturgies they can experience; and these soon get close to New Age styles: a search for intoxication and ecstasy, not the λογικ←λατϱεία, the rationabilis oblatio (the rationally directed worship conformed to the logos, “spiritual worship”) that Paul, and the Roman liturgy with him, is talking about (Rom 12:1).

Now, I admit—and I say this with emphasis—that what I am saying does not apply to the normal situation of our congregations. But these tendencies are there. And that is why it is appropriate to be on our guard, lest some other gospel than that given us by our Lord is secretly substituted for this.

The Tasks Facing Theology

Thus, all in all, we are facing a remarkable situation: liberation theology had tried to give a new practice to a Christendom that was tired of dogma, a practice by means of which redemption was finally to become an actual event. This practice, however, instead of bringing freedom, left destruction in its wake. What was left was relativism and the attempt to come to terms with it. Yet what that offers is in its turn so empty that the relativist theories look for help from the liberation theology, so as thus to become of more practical use. Finally, New Age says, “Let’s just leave Christianity as a failed experiment and go back to the gods—it’s better that way.” Many questions arise Let us just take the most immediately practical one: Why has classic theology proved so impotent in the face of these developments? Where are the weak points at which it lost credibility?

I would like to mention two points suggested by what Hick and Knitter say. Both refer to exegesis for their revocation of faith in Christ: they say that exegesis has shown that Jesus himself certainly did not regard himself as the Son of God, as God incarnate, but that he was only subsequently transformed into that, gradually, by his followers.[14] Both, but Hick more clearly than Knitter, also refer to philosophical evidence. Hick assures us that Kant has irrefutably demonstrated that no one can perceive any absolute entity or person in history and that no such entity or person could, as such, be present in history.[15] On the basis of our ability to perceive and to know things, according to Kant, the things the Christian faith asserts cannot exist, cannot happen: it is crazy to believe in miracles, mysteries, and channels of grace, Kant explains to us in his book on “religion within the bounds of mere reason”.[16] The question concerning exegesis and that concerning the limits and possibilities of our reason, that is, about the philosophical premises of faith, seem to me in fact to indicate the real point of crisis of present-day theology, on account of which faith—and to an ever-increasing extent, even the faith of simple people—is reaching to a crisis.

I would just like here briefly to indicate the task facing us because of that. First, as concerns exegesis, it should first be remarked that Hick and Knitter certainly cannot call on the support of exegesis as a whole, as if what they are talking about were a clear and universally recognized conclusion. That is impossible in historical research, which does not deal in such certainties. It is still more impossible in the case of a question that is not purely historical or literary but involves value judgments that go beyond just establishing a sequence of events or interpreting a text. What is true is that a quick survey of modern exegesis may leave you with an impression that agrees with what Hick and Knitter say.

Yet how certain is that? Even supposing that a majority of exegetes think like that (which must be open to doubt), the question still remains: How well founded is that kind of majority opinion? I maintain that many exegetes think like Hick and Knitter and reconstruct the history of Jesus accordingly because they share the same philosophy. It is not a case of exegesis providing evidence that supports a philosophy; rather, it is a matter of a philosophy that produces the exegesis.[17] If (to speak in Kant’s terms) I know a priori that Jesus cannot be God, that miracles, mysteries, and means of grace are three things it would be crazy to believe in, then I cannot discover in Holy Scriptures any fact that cannot exist as a fact. I can then only discover why and how people came to make such assertions, how these gradually came about.

Let us look a little closer. The historicocritical method is a marvelous instrument for reading historical sources and interpreting texts. But it does include its own philosophy, which generally—if, for instance, I want to learn about the medieval emperors—hardly affects anything. For in that case I want to learn about the past, that is all. Even that is not entirely free of values and value judgments, and to that extent the method has its limitations. If you apply it to the Bible, then two factors you would otherwise scarcely notice are clearly manifest: the method seeks to know about the past as something past. It seeks to know what happened then, in the form it took then, at the point at which things stood right then. And it assumes that all history is in principle the same kind of history: man, in all his different manifestations, the world in its manifold variety, are yet determined by the same laws and the same limitations, so that I can eliminate what is impossible. What cannot possibly happen could not have happened yesterday and, likewise, cannot be going to happen tomorrow.

If we apply this to the Bible, it means that a text, an event, or a person is strictly fixed in his or its place in the past. We are seeking to bring out what the writer said at the time and what he could have said or thought at the time. It is a matter of what is “historical”, what was “current at the time”. That is why historicocritical exegesis does not transmit the Bible to today, into my present-day life. That possibility has been excluded. On the contrary, it distances it from me and shows it as firmly set in the past. This is the point at which Drewermann was right in criticizing historicocritical exegesis, insofar as it aims to be all-sufficient. Of its nature, it does not speak about today, or about me, but about yesterday, about other people. Therefore it can never show Christ yesterday, today, and forever, but only (if it remains true to itself) Christ as he was yesterday.

Then there is the second presupposition, that history and the world are always the same, that is, what Bultmann called the modern view of the world. M. Waldstein has shown, by a careful analysis, that Bultmann’s theory of epistemology was entirely determined by the neo-Kantian philosophy of Marburg.[18] It was on that basis that he knew what could happen and what could not. In the case of other exegetes, their philosophical consciousness will be less clearly determined, but the foundation in Kant’s theory of epistemology is always silently present, as a self-evident hermeneutic entry to the path that criticism should follow. Since that is the case, the authority of the Church cannot simply impose from outside the obligation of arriving at a Christology of Jesus as the Son of God. But it certainly can and must challenge scholars, require them to look critically at the philosophy of their own method. In the revelation of God it is, in the end, precisely a matter of him, the Living and True One, breaking into our world and thus breaking open the prison of our theories, by means of whose iron bars we seek to protect ourselves against this coming of God into our lives. Today, praise God, in the crisis of philosophy and theology through which we are passing, a new consciousness of these fundamentals has come into play, not least on the basis of knowledge that has come to light through the careful historical interpretation of the texts.[19] This is helping to burst as under the prison of philosophical presuppositions that was hindering interpretation: the wide realm of the Word is opening up again.

The problem concerning exegesis, as we have seen, to a great extent coincides with the problem of philosophy. The desperate situation of philosophy—that is to say, the desperate situation into which reason obsessed by positivism has maneuvered itself—has become the desperate situation of our faith. Faith cannot be set free unless reason itself opens up again. If the door to metaphysical knowledge remains barred, if we cannot pass beyond the limits to human perception set by Kant, then faith will necessarily atrophy, simply for lack of breathing space. Of course, the attempt to use a strictly autonomous reason that refuses to know about faith, to pull ourselves out of the slough of uncertainties by our own hair, so to speak, can hardly succeed in the end. For human reason is not autonomous at all. It is always living in one historical context or other. Any historical context, as we see, distorts the vision of reason; that is why reason needs the help of history in order to overcome these historical limitations. It is my view that the neoscholastic rationalism that was trying to reconstruct the praeambula fidei, the approach to faith, with pure rational certainty, by means of rational argument that was strictly independent of any faith, has failed; and it cannot be otherwise for any such attempts to do that kind of thing. In that sense, Karl Barth was right when he rejected philosophy as a basis for faith that is independent of faith itself: for in that case, our faith would in the end be based on changing philosophical theories. Yet Barth was mistaken in declaring faith on that account to be a sheer paradox, which can only ever exist contrary to reason and quite independent of it. By no means the least important practical function of faith is to offer healing for the reason as reason, not to overpower it or to remain outside it, but in fact to bring it to itself again. Faith, as a historical instrument, can set reason itself free again, so that—now that faith has set it on the right path again—reason can once more see properly for itself. We have to strive toward such a renewed process of dialogue between faith and philosophy, for each has need of the other. Without faith, philosophy cannot be whole, but faith without reason cannot be human.


If we look at the current constellation in the history of ideas that I have been trying to sketch in outline, then it must seem like a real miracle that, despite all this, people still hold the Christian faith—not just in the substitute versions of Hick, Knitter, and others, but the full and joyful faith of the New Testament, of the Church down all the ages. Why has faith still any chance at all? I should say it is because it corresponds to the nature of man. For man is more generously proportioned than the way Kant and the various post-Kantian philosophies see him or will allow him to be. Kant himself ought to have found a place for this, somehow or other, among his postulates. The longing for the infinite is alive and unquenchable within man. None of the attempted answers will do; only the God who himself became finite in order to tear open our finitude and lead us out into the wide spaces of his infinity, only he corresponds to the question of our being. That is why, even today, Christian faith will come to man again. It is our task to serve this faith with humble courage, with all the strength of our heart and of our mind.


[1] A survey of the most significant authors of the pluralistic theology of religions is offered by P. Schmidt-Leukel’s “Das Pluralistische Modell in der Theologie der Religionen: Ein Literaturbericht” [The pluralist model in the theology of religions: An annotated bibliography], Theologische Revue 89 (1993):353-70. For a discussion of it, see: M. von Brack and J. Werbick, Der einzige Weg zum Heil? Die Herausforderung des christlichen Absolutheitsanspruchs durch pluralistische Religionstheologien [The sole path to salvation? The challenge from pluralistic theologies of religion to the Christian claim to absolute validity], Quaestiones Disputatae 143 (Freiburg: Herder, 1993); K.-H. Menke, Die Einzigkeit Jesu Christi im Horizont der Sinnfrage [The uniqueness of Jesus Christ against the horizon of the question of meaning] (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1995), especially pp. 75-176. Menke offers an excellent introduction to the ideas of two ofthe principal representatives of this tendency, J. Hick and P. F. Knitter, upon which much of what I say here is based. Menke’s discussion of this question in the second part of his book includes much that is important and deserving of our attention, but as a whole, unfortunately, it remains unsatisfactory. An interesting systematic attempt at a new approach to the problem of other religions from the starting point of Christology is offered by B. Stubenrauch, Dialogisches Dogma: Der christliche Auftrag zur interreligiösen Begegnung [Dialectical dogma: The Christian task of interreligious encounter], Quaestiones Disputatae 158 (Freiburg: Herder, 1995). On the problem of the pluralistic theology of religions, cf. also the document published in 1996 by the International Theological Commission.

[2] Cf. on this point the most illuminating editorial in Civiltà Cattolica I (1996): 107-20: “Il cristianesimo e le altre religioni” [Christianity and the other religions]. The editorial engages in discussion especially with Hick, Knitter, and R. Panikkar.

[3] Cf., for example, J. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, p. 90.

[4] Cf. E. Frauwallner, Geschichte der indischen Philosophie, 2 vols. (Salzburg: O. Muller, 1953 and 1956) [English trans., History of Indian Philosophy, trans. V. M. Bedekar (New York: Humanities Press, 1974)]; H. von Glasenapp, Die Philosophie der Inder [The philosophy of the Indians], 4th ed. (Stuttgart: A. Kroner, 1985); S. N. Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols. (Cambridge: University Press, 1922-1955); K. B. Ramakrishna Rao, Ontology of Advaita with Special Reference to Maya (Mulki: Research and Publication, Vijaya College, 1964).

[5] F. Wilfrid, Beyond Settled Foundations: The Journey of Indian Theology (Madras: Department of Christian Studies, University of Madras, 1993), is clearly moving in this direction; Wilfrid, “Some Tentative Reflections on the Language of Christian Uniqueness: An Indian Perspective”, in Pontificium Consilium pro Dialogo inter Religiones, Pro Dialogo, Bulletin 85-86, no. 1 (1994):40-57.

[6] J. Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 4th ed. (Norfolk, 1975), pp. 240f.; Hick, Interpretation of Religion, pp. 236-40; cf. Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, pp. 81f.

[7] P. F. Knitter’s major book No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985) has been translated into many languages. Cf. on this Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, pp. 94-110. A careful critical evaluation is also offered by A. Kolping in his review in Theologische Revue 87 (1991):234-40.

[8] Cf. Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, p. 95.

[9] Cf. ibid., p. 109.

[10] Knitter, like Hick, claims the support of Kant for his denial that the absolute can exist in history; cf. Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, pp. 78 and 108.

[11] The concept of “New Age”, or “Age of Aquarius”, was introduced toward the middle of the twentieth century by Raul Le Cour (1937) and by Alice Bailey (she talked about messages she said she had received in 1945 concerning a new world order and a new world religion). The Esalen Institute was set up in California between 1960 and 1970. Marilyn Ferguson is the best-known representative of New Age thinking today. Michael Fuß (“New Age: Supermarkt alternativer Spiritualität”, Communio 20 [1991]:148-57) sees New Age as the result of a conjunction of Judaeo-Christian elements with the process of secularization, with gnostic tendencies, and with elements of oriental religions. The 1990 pastoral letter of Cardinal G. Danneels, Le Christ ou le Verseau [Christ or Aquarius], which has been translated into many languages, offers some helpful guidelines. Cf. also Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, pp. 31-36; J. Le Bar (ed.), Cults, Sects and the New Age (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1989).

[12] Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, p. 33.

[13] On this point, it must be noted that two different tendencies of New Age are increasingly being crystallized out: a gnostic, religious tendency, which seeks for transcendental and transpersonal being and looks to find the true self therein, and an ecological, monistic tendency, which worships material existence and mother earth and, in the eco-feminist movement, is linked with feminism.

[14] References for this in Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi, pp. 90 and 97.

[15] See n. 10, above.

[16] B 302. The spiritual climate deriving from this philosophy, which is still widely influential to this day, is most graphically described, from his own experience, by M. Kriele, in Anthroposophie und Kirche: Erfahrungen eines Grenzgängers [Anthroposophy and the Church: The experiences of someone who went to the limits] (Freiburg: Herder, 1996); especially pp. 18ff. [Anthroposophy and the Church: The experiences of someone who went to the limits] (Freiburg: Herder, 1996); especially pp. 18ff.

[17] This can be very clearly seen in the encounter between A. Schlatter and A. Harnack, at the end of the last century, which is carefully portrayed, on the basis of the original sources, by W. Neuer in his book Adolf Schlatter: Ein Leben fur Theologie und Kirche (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1996), pp. 301ff. [English trans., Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian, trans. Robert W. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1996). Schlatter commented on this in a letter: “We have defined the religious difference [between us]: he said that the prophet’s cry, ‘O, that thou wouldst rend the heavens’ (Is 64:1), was in fact unfulfilled; that we were restricted to the psychological plane, to faith” (p. 306). When Harnack declared, in a meeting of their colleagues on the faculty, “Only the question of miracles separates me from my colleague Mr. Schlatter!” Schlatter interrupted, calling out: “No, the question of God!” Schlatter saw the basic point of difference as being embodied in Christology: “Whether Jesus was being shown to us as he is. . . or whether the New Testament disappeared behind our ‘scholarship’, that was the question” (p. 307). Nothing has changed with regard to this question in a hundred years. Cf. also in Kriele, Anthroposophie und Kirche, the chapter on “Loss of Faith through Theology”, pp. 21-28. I have tried to present my own view of the problem in Schriftauslegung im Widerstreit [Controversy concerning the interpretation of Scripture], ed. J. Ratzinger, Quaestiones Disputatae 117 (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1989), pp. 15-la Potterie, R. Guardini, J. Ratzinger, G. Colombo, and E. Bianchi, L’esegesi cristiana oggi [Christian exegesis today] (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 1991).

[18] M. Waldstein, “The Foundations of Bultmann’s Work”, in Communio (American ed.) 1987: 115-45.

[19] Cf., e.g., the collection of essays edited by C. E. Braaten and R. W. Jensson: Reclaiming the Bible for the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995), and in it especially that by B. S. Childs, “On Reclaiming the Bible for Christian Theology”, pp. 1-17.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Faith, Truth, and Culture

Reflections Prompted by the Encyclical Fides et Ratio

For anyone who looks below the surface, a false humility and a false pride at once become apparent in this fundamental attitude of modernity: false humility, which denies man the capacity to know and recognize truth, and false pride, with which he sets himself above things, above truth itself, by setting the expansion of his power, the domination of all things, as the goal of all his thinking.
Joseph Ratzinger

What is the encyclical Fides et Ratio really about? Is it a document intended only for specialists, an attempt from a Christian perspective at restoring philosophy, a discipline that is in a state of crisis and thus of interest only to philosophers, or is it putting a question that matters to us all? We could also put it another way: Does faith really need philosophy, or is faith—which, according to a saying of Saint Ambrose, was given into the keeping of fishermen and not dialecticians—quite independent of the existence of a philosophy that is open to faith? If we regard philosophy as just one academic discipline among others, then faith is in fact independent of it. But the Pope understands philosophy in a far broader sense, and one far more in keeping with its origins. This philosophy puts the question of whether man can know truth, know the fundamental truths about himself, about his origin and his future, or whether he lives in a twilight that cannot be illuminated and must finally restrict himself to the question of what is useful. It is the peculiarity of Christianity, in the realm of religions, that it claims to tell us the truth about God, the world, and man and lays claim to being the religio vera, the religion of truth. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”: this saying of Jesus from the Gospel of John (14:6) expresses the basic claim of the Christian faith. The missionary tendency of this faith is based on that claim: Only if the Christian faith is truth does it concern all men; if it is merely a cultural variant of the religious experience of mankind that is locked up in symbols and can never be deciphered, then it has to remain within its own culture and leave others in theirs.

That, however, means that the question about the truth is the essential question of the Christian faith as such, and in that sense it inevitably has to do with philosophy. If I had briefly to sketch the main intention of the encyclical, I would say that it is trying to rehabilitate the question of truth in a world characterized by relativism; it is trying to reinstate it as a rational and scientific task in the situation of modern science, which does indeed look for truths but which to a great extent disqualifies the search for the truth as being unscientific; it is attempting this, because otherwise faith loses the air it breathes. The encyclical is quite simply attempting to give us courage for the adventure of truth. It is thereby speaking far beyond the sphere of faith yet also into the heart of the world of faith.

1. Words, the Word, and the Truth

In his best-seller, The Screwtape Letters, which appeared in the forties, the English writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis depicted very wittily how unmodern it is to ask about truth today. This book consists of fictional letters from a senior devil who is giving advice on how best to proceed to one beginning in the work of leading men astray. The younger devil has expressed concern to his superior that especially intelligent people, in particular, might read the books of wisdom of the ancients and might thus come upon the track of the truth. Screwtape calms him by pointing out that the “Historical point of View”, with which the intellectuals of the Western world have fortunately been inculcated by the devils, means in fact that “when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected other writers”, and so on.[1] Josef Pieper, who quotes this passage from C. S. Lewis in his essay on interpretation, points out in this connection that the editions of Plato, for instance, or Dante produced in Communist countries always gave an introduction to the works being reprinted, which gave the reader a “historical” understanding of them and were meant thus to preclude the question of truth.[2]

Scholarly activity carried on in such a manner will have the effect of immunizing against the truth. The question of whether, and how far, something an author says is true is supposed to be an unscholarly question; it would indeed lead us beyond the realm of what can be demonstrated and supported by quotation, would be a relapse into the naïvete of a precritical world. In this way even the reading of the Bible is neutralized: we can say when, and in what conditions, some statement originated, and we have thus placed it in its historical setting, which does not ultimately concern us. Behind this kind of “historical interpretation” stands a philosophy, a basic attitude toward reality, which tells us that it is meaningless to ask about what is; we can only ask about what we are able to do with things. It is a matter, not of truth, but of action, of dominating things to our own advantage. As against such an apparently obvious restriction of human thought, the question of course arises: What is to our advantage? And in what way to our advantage? What are we here for? For anyone who looks below the surface, a false humility and a false pride at once become apparent in this fundamental attitude of modernity: false humility, which denies man the capacity to know and recognize truth, and false pride, with which he sets himself above things, above truth itself, by setting the expansion of his power, the domination of all things, as the goal of all his thinking.

We can today find presented in scientific form in the study of literature what appears in Lewis’ writing in ironical form. There, the question of truth is quite openly excluded as unscholarly. The German exegete Marius Reiser recently referred to the words of Umberto Eco in his best-selling novel The Name of the Rose, where he says: “The only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for the truth.”[3] The essential basis for this unmistakable renunciation of truth consists of what people call nowadays the “linguistic turning point”: No one can get back behind language and its images; reason is conditioned by language and restricted to language.[4] As early as 1901, F. Mauthner had coined the phrase, “what people call thinking is only empty words.”[5] In this connection, M. Reiser talks of a “surrender of the belief” that one could relate “by linguistic means to nonlinguistic things”.[6] The eminent Protestant exegete U. Luz observes that—just as we heard Screwtape saying to start with—historical criticism has in modern times renounced any approach to the question of truth. He believes himself bound to accept this capitulation and to admit that truth is not to be found today beyond the texts themselves; rather, there are only competing truth constructs, offers of truth, which have to be presented and justified in public discourse in the marketplace of all the views of life.[7]

Anyone reflecting on these views will almost inevitably feel reminded of a very profound passage from Plato’s Phaedrus. Socrates is telling Phaedrus a story he had from the ancients who knew about truth. Thoth, the “father of letters” and the “god of time” once came to the Egyptian king Thutmose of Thebes. He taught this ruler about various arts he had invented and especially about the art of writing that he had thought up. In praise of his invention, he said to the king: “This knowledge, O King, will make the Egyptians more wise and better able to remember things; for it has been invented as an aid to the memory as well as for wisdom.” But the king was not impressed. On the contrary, he foresaw as the result of the art of writing that:

This will bring forgetfulness into men’s souls. . . through the neglect of remembering, in that by trusting in writing they will draw remembrance from without. . . and not from within, from their own selves. You have not, therefore, invented a means of remembering but of recording, and you pass on to your pupils only the appearance of wisdom, not the thing itself. For they are people who hear much without learning anything and will therefore think themselves very knowledgeable, since in general they are ignorant, and they are people who are difficult to deal with, in that they are apparently wise but not truly so.[8]

Anyone who thinks of the way television programs from all over the world overwhelm people with information and thus make them apparently knowledgeable; anyone who thinks about the further possibilities of computers and the Internet, which make available, for instance, to anyone searching, all the texts of some Church Father containing some particular word, yet without the person’s having worked his way into his thinking, will not consider these warnings to be exaggerated. Plato is not rejecting writing as such, just as we do not reject the new information media but rather give thanks and make use of them; but he sets up a warning sign, the seriousness of which is demonstrated every day by the consequences of the “linguistic turning point” and by many developments of which we are all currently aware. H. Schade points out the essence of what Plato has to say to us today in this text: “What Plato was warning us about was the domination of a philological method and the accompanying loss of reality.” [9]

When writing, when what has been written, becomes a barrier to the content, then it has itself become an anti-art that does not make man more wise but sentences him to a sick appearance of wisdom. A. Kreiner is thus right when he remarks, about the linguistic turning point, that “the surrender of the belief that one can relate by linguistic means to nonlinguistic contents amounts to much the same thing as surrendering the possibility of any meaningful discourse at all.”[10] On the same point, the Pope in his encyclical makes the following remark: “The interpretation of this word [= the word of God] cannot merely keep referring us to one interpretation after another, without ever leading us to a statement that is simply true.”[11] Man is not caught in a hall of mirrors of interpretation; he can and must look for the way out to the reality that stands behind the words and manifests itself to him in and through the words.

This brings us to the heart of the Christian faith’s struggle with a certain type of modern culture, which would like to be seen as modern culture as such, but which—praise God—is only one variety of it. That is, for instance, glaringly obvious in the criticism leveled at the encyclical by the Italian philosopher Paolo Flores d’Arcais. Precisely because the encyclical insists on the need to put the question of truth, he declares that “the official Catholic culture has no more to say to ‘culture tout court [as such]’.”[12] Yet that also means that the question of truth stands outside “culture tout court”; And is not then this “culture tout court” rather an anticulture? And is not then its presuming to be culture itself, as such, an arrogant presumption showing how it despises people?

That this is the main point becomes clear when Flores d’Arcais accuses the Pope’s encyclicals of having “murderous consequences for democracy” and identifies his teaching with the “fundamentalist” version of Islam. He indicates as the basis for his charge the Pope’s having described laws that permit abortion and euthanasia as being beyond the pale of authentic legal validity.[13] Anyone setting himself against an elected Parliament in that way and trying to exercise worldly power on the basis of ecclesiastical claims shows, he says, that his thinking still bears the watermark of Catholic dogmatism. Such assertions assume that there can be no appeal from the decisions of a majority. The chance occurrence of a majority becomes an absolute. For there is still such a thing as something absolute, beyond which there is no appeal. We have been handed over to the rule of positivism and of the erection of what is accidental, what can indeed be manipulated, into an absolute value. When man is shut out from the truth, he can only be dominated by what is accidental and arbitrary. That is why it is, not “fundamentalism”, but a duty of humanity to protect man from the dictatorship of what is accidental and to restore to him his dignity, which consists precisely in the fact that no human institution can ultimately dominate him, because he is open to the truth. In its very insistence on our capacity to know and recognize the truth, the encyclical is a most necessary apology for the stature of man against everything that would like to be seen as “culture tout court”.

It is of course difficult, in view of the canon of methodology that has established itself today as bearing the “watermark of scholarly seriousness”, to get a further hearing in public debate on the question of truth. It is therefore necessary to clear the ground through an argument about the nature of science and scholarly work, about truth and method, about the task of philosophy and its possible paths. The Pope did not see it as his task to tackle in the encyclical the quite practical question of whether, and how, truth can once more become “scientific” or “scholarly”. But he does show why we have to set ourselves this task. He did not want to carry out the philosophers’ task himself, but he was aware of the task of raising an objection to a self-destructive tendency in “culture tout court”. Raising this objection is itself a genuinely philosophical step, conjures up the presence of the Socratic origins of philosophy, and thereby witnesses to the philosophical potentiality that lies in the biblical faith.

There is a kind of scientific attitude that is contrary to philosophy, that forbids it to deal with the question of the truth or makes the question impossible. Such a self-circumscription, such a contraction of reason cannot constitute the yardstick for philosophy, and science as a whole cannot end by rendering impossible man’s real questions, without which it would itself remain an empty, and ultimately dangerous, bustle of activity. It cannot be the task of philosophy to submit itself to a methodological canon that in particular sectors of thought may be correct. Its particular task must be to reflect on science and scholarship as a whole, to achieve a critical comprehension of its nature, and at the same time to transcend it in a manner that can be rationally justified in an approach to what gives meaning to science and scholarship. Philosophy has always to ask about man himself and must therefore always be seeking its way toward life and death, toward God and eternity. To this end it will today have to handle right at the start a problem with that type of scientific and academic attitude that cuts men off from such questions, and starting from those problems, which our society sets right in front of our eyes, will have to try to open up a way to what is necessary and what answers our needs. In the history of modern philosophy there has never been a lack of such attempts, and even today there are sufficient heartening approaches being made toward opening the door to the question of truth, the door that leads out of the circle of language turning around on itself.[14] There is no doubt that the call uttered by the encyclical is in this sense critical of our current conception of culture, yet it is at the same time in a profound unity with essential elements of the spiritual struggle of the modern age. The confidence to seek for the truth and to find it is never anachronistic: it is precisely this that maintains the dignity of man, that breaks down particularism, and that leads men toward one another beyond the bounds of their cultural settings on the basis of their common dignity.

2. Culture and Truth

a. On the Nature of Culture

What we have reflected on thus far might be described as the disputation between the Christian faith as it finds expression in the encyclical and a certain type of modern culture, from which we have left out of consideration the side of culture associated with natural science and technology. Our attention was directed to the side of culture to do with humane studies. It would not be difficult to show that their helplessness in the face of the question of truth, which has in the meantime developed into a quite angry reaction to it, rests in the final analysis on the fact that these disciplines would like to use the same methodology, and to attain the same measure of certainty, as is available in empirical spheres. The methodological restriction of natural science to what can be tested by experiment has become a real certificate of scholarly seriousness, indeed, of being rational at all. The methodological renunciation that makes sense, and is, indeed, necessary, within the framework of empirical science thus becomes a barrier before the question of truth: this is fundamentally a question of truth and method and concerns the universality of a strictly empirical canon of methodology. As against this, the Pope is defending the multiplicity of paths followed by the human mind and, likewise, the breadth of rationality, which has to use varying methods in accordance with the nature of its object. Immaterial things cannot be approached with methods appropriate to what is material; we might thus very roughly summarize the Pope’s objection to a one-sided form of rationality.

The dispute with modern culture, the dispute concerning truth and method, is the one basic thread running through the encyclical. Yet the question about truth and culture is also represented under yet another aspect, which essentially refers to the realm of religion as such. People nowadays often like to put forward the relativity of cultures to counter the universal claims of Christianity—which are grounded on the universal nature of truth. We can hear this as early as the eighteenth century in the writings of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who represented the three great religions in the parable of the three rings, of which one is the genuine and true ring, though there is no longer any way to establish this genuineness: the question of truth is insoluble and is replaced by the question of the healing and purifying effects of religion. At the beginning of our own century, Ernst Troeltsch then explicitly formulated the themes of the question concerning religion and culture, truth and culture. If at the outset he still posited Christianity as “the most concentrated revelation of personalist religious sensibility and practice, the only one that makes a complete break with the limitations and conditional forms of natural religion”, in the course of his reflections the perception of the cultural determination of religion increasingly overlaid his view of the truth and left all religions subject to a cultural relativity. The validity of Christianity ended by becoming for him an “affair of Europeans”: Christianity was for him the appropriate form of religion for Europe, whilst he recognized Buddhism and Brahmanism as having “absolute independence”. For practical purposes, the question of truth has been rendered redundant, and cultural boundaries can no longer be transcended.[15]

An encyclical that is entirely directed toward the adventure of truth had therefore necessarily to put the question concerning truth and culture. It had to ask whether there can ever be a communion of cultures in the one truth—whether truth can be expressed for all men, beyond its cultural forms, or whether it is ultimately to be only dimly perceived as a convergence behind varying or even contradictory cultural forms.

In his encyclical, the Pope has contrasted a dynamic and communicative understanding of culture as against a static concept of culture that assumes set forms that merely stand side by side together and remain constant, being unable to transpose and merge into one another. He emphasizes that, if they “are deeply rooted in experience, cultures show forth the human being’s characteristic openness to the universal and the transcendent”.[16] Hence cultures, as the form of expression of the one being, man, are marked by the dynamics of man, which transcend all boundaries. Cultures are not therefore fixed once and for all in one single form; they have the inherent capacity for progression and metamorphosis, though also of course the risk of decadence. They are concerned with encounter and with mutual fertilization. Because the inner openness of man to God is more influential in them, the greater and more pure they are, the inward readiness for the revelation of God is written into them. Revelation is not something alien to them; rather, it corresponds to an inner expectation in the cultures themselves.

Theodore Haecker spoke in this connection about the advent character of the pre-Christian cultures,[17] and many and various studies in the history of religions have meanwhile been able to show quite clearly this progression of cultures toward the Logos of God, who became flesh in Jesus Christ.[18] In this context the Pope turns to the list of peoples in the story of Pentecost, in the Acts of the Apostles (2:7-11), which tells us how the witness to Jesus Christ can be heard through the medium of all languages and in all languages, that is, in all the cultures that present themselves in language. In all of them, the words of men become bearers of God’s own utterance, of his own Logos. The encyclical says about this: “While it demands of all who hear it the adherence of faith, the proclamation of the Gospel in different cultures allows people to preserve their own cultural identity. This in no way creates division, because the community of the baptized is marked by a universality that can embrace every culture.”[19] On this basis, and taking as his example Indian culture, the Pope develops criteria which, in the general relationship of the Christian faith with pre-Christian cultures, should be observed whenever these cultures encounter the faith. He first briefly refers to the great spiritual striving for higher realms in Indian thought, which struggles to free mind and spirit from the limitations of time and space and thus effects that metaphysical opening up of man that has then also been given form in the thought of several important philosophical systems.[20] These few references show the universal tendency of great cultures, their transcending of time and space, and thus the forward impetus they impart to man’s being and to his highest capacities. Therein exists the capacity of cultures to enter into dialogue with one another—in this case, dialogue between Indian cultures and the cultures that have developed on the basis of Christian faith. Thus, out of the inner contact with Indian culture, the first criterion arises, as it were, of itself: this consists in “the universality of the human spirit, whose basic needs are the same in the most disparate cultures”.[21] From that a second criterion follows directly: “In engaging great cultures for the first time, the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Graeco-Latin thought. To reject this heritage would be to deny the providential plan of God.”[22] Finally, the encyclical specifies a third criterion, which follows from the previous reflections on the nature of culture: One should take care “lest, contrary to the very nature of the human spirit, the legitimate defense of the uniqueness and originality of Indian thought be confused with the idea that a particular cultural tradition should remain closed in its difference and affirm itself by opposing other traditions.”[23]

b. The Transcending of Cultures in the Bible and in the History of Faith

If the Pope insists that the particular cultural heritage that has once been won and has become a vehicle for the truth shared by God and man is then irreplaceable, the question then naturally arises of whether this is not then a Eurocentric character of the faith that is being canonized, a characteristic that does not seem to be eliminated even when in the continuing history of the faith new elements of heritage can enter, and indeed have entered, into the persisting identity, that which concerns us all, of the faith. There is no avoiding the question of how “Greek”, and how “Latin”, the faith actually is that originated, not in the Greek or the Latin world, but in the Semitic world of the Near East, within which Asia, Africa, and Europe have always rubbed shoulders and still do. The encyclical takes a definite view of this question, especially in its second chapter, on the development of philosophical thought within the Bible, and in the fourth chapter, on the fateful encounter of this wisdom of reason, which had developed within the faith, with the Greek philosophical wisdom. This is a question we meet in this book from various angles, again and again, and a few indications concerning it may be helpful at this stage.

Even within the Bible itself the intellectual material, both religious and philosophical, drawn from a variety of cultural worlds, is being worked into new form. The word of God reveals itself gradually in a process of encounters, in the course of man’s search for answers to his ultimate questions. It did not simply fall directly down from heaven, but it is a real synthesis of cultures. Yet looking more deeply into it, we are able to perceive a process in which God struggles with man and gradually opens him up for his most profound Word, for himself: for the Son, who is the Logos. The Bible is not simply the expression of the culture of the people of Israel; rather, it is ever at odds with the natural temptation these people have simply to be themselves, to make themselves at home in their own culture. Faith in God and an assent to God’s will are forever being wrung from this people against their own wishes and their own ideas. This faith is in continual opposition to Israel’s own religious inclinations and to its own religious culture, which is inclined to express itself in the cult of high places, in worship of the queen of heaven, and in the claims to power of its own kingdom. From the anger of God and of Moses against the worship of the golden calf on Sinai, right down to the late postexilic prophets, it is always a matter of tearing Israel out of its cultural identity, contrary to its own religious wishes, so that it has, so to speak, to leave off the worship of its own nationality, the cult of “blood and soil”, to bow down before the wholly other, the God who is not their own, who has created heaven and earth and who is the God of all peoples. The faith of Israel signifies a continual transcending of the limits of its own culture into the wide-open spaces of truth that is common to all.

The books of the Old Testament may in many respects seem less pious, less poetic, less inspired, than important passages in the holy books of other peoples. Yet the feature peculiar to them is this struggle of faith against what is Israel’s own, in this leaving behind of one’s own, which starts with the wandering of Abraham. Paul’s struggle to break out from the limits of the law, which he wages on the basis of his encounter with the risen Jesus Christ, takes this fundamental movement of the Old Testament to its logical goal. This signifies the complete universalizing of the faith, which is freed from being proper to the social order of a particular people. All peoples are now invited to participate in this process of transcending their own heritage that first began in Israel; they are invited to turn to the God who, for his part, transcended his own limits in Jesus Christ, who has broken down “the dividing wall of hostility” between us (Eph 2:14) and in the self-deprivation of the Cross has led us toward one another. Faith in Jesus Christ is, therefore, of its nature, a continual opening of oneself, God’s action of breaking into the human world and in response to this man’s breaking out toward God, which at the same time leads men toward one another. Everything anyone possesses now belongs to everyone, and everything else becomes at the same time our own, this whole comprehended in the Father’s words to the elder son: “All that is mine is yours” (Lk 15: 31), which returns again in the high-priestly prayer of Jesus, as the Son addresses the Father: “All mine are thine, and thine are mine” (Jn 17: 10).

This basic model likewise determines the encounter of the Christian message with Greek culture—which, of course, did not begin with the Christian mission but had already developed within the writings of the Old Testament, especially through its translation into Greek, and on the basis of that within early Judaism. This encounter was made possible because within the Greek world a similar process of self-transcendence had started to get underway. The Fathers did not just mix into the gospel a static and self-contained Greek culture. They could take up a dialogue with Greek philosophy and could make it an instrument of the gospel, wherever in the Hellenistic world the search for God had brought into being a self-criticism of that world’s own culture and its own thought. Faith links the various peoples—beginning with the Germans and the Slavs, who came into contact with the Christian message in the era of tribal migrations, and right up to the peoples of Asia, Africa, and America—not with Hellenistic culture as such, but with Hellenistic culture in the form in which it transcended itself, which was the true point of contact for the interpretation of the Christian message. From that starting point, faith drew these peoples into the process of self-transcendence. Quite recently, Richard Schäffler aptly remarked that from the beginning, the Christian preaching “had demanded” of the peoples of Europe (which, in any case, did not exist as such before Christian missionary activity) “that they take leave. . . of every native god of Europe long before they set their sights on any cultures beyond Europe”.[24] That helps us to understand why it was that the Christian proclamation sought points of contact with philosophy, not with religions. Where people did make this latter attempt, where for instance people tried to interpret Christ as the true Dionysius, the true Asclepius or Heracles, these attempts were soon rendered obsolete.[25] The fact that they sought points of contact, not with the religions, but with philosophy is connected with the fact that they were not canonizing a culture but did find it possible to enter into it at those points where it had itself begun to move out of its own framework, had started to take the path toward the wide spaces of truth that is common to all, and had left behind its comfortable place in what belonged to it. That is even today a fundamental indicator of the answer to the question concerning points of contact and transitions to other cultures and peoples. Faith cannot of course find points of contact with philosophies that exclude questions concerning the truth, but it can do so with movements that are trying to break out of the relativist prison. It can certainly not take over the old religions directly. Yet these religions can prepare such forms and usages, especially attitudes—reverence, humility, readiness to make sacrifices, kindness, love of one’s neighbor, the hope of everlasting life.[26] Let me add that this seems to me to be also of some importance for the question of the significance of the religions for salvation. They do not save people, so to speak, as closed systems and through faithfulness to the system; rather, they bring redemption only when they bring men to the point of “asking after God” (as the Old Testament puts it), “seeking his face”, “seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness”.

3. Religion, Truth, and Salvation

Let me pause for a moment here, because this touches on a fundamental question of human existence that is quite rightly one of the main questions in the current theological debate. For it is a matter of the true underlying motive that is the starting point of philosophy and to which it must always return; if they remain true to their tasks, philosophy and theology necessarily touch upon this question. It is the question: How is man healed? How does he become righteous? In facing this question, the ancient world thought mainly of death and of what comes after death; the contemporary world, which sees as uncertain the existence of the world beyond and, therefore, to a great extent leaves it out of the questions it asks, has nonetheless to seek after righteousness within time and, in doing so, cannot leave the problem to one side of how to get the better of death. In the debate about Christianity and world religions, of course, the real point at issue has remained, quite remarkably, that of how religions relate to eternal salvation. The question of how men can be saved still tends to be put in the classical manner. And then the theory has been fairly generally accepted that the religions are paths of salvation. Perhaps not the proper, ordinary path of salvation, but—if at all, then “extraordinary paths of salvation”: one attains salvation through all the religions, that has become the current view.

This answer corresponds not only to the idea of tolerance and of respect for others, which so thrusts itself upon us these days. It also corresponds to the modern idea of God: God cannot reject people just because they know nothing of Christianity and happen to have grown up in other religions. He will accept their worship and religion just as he does ours. However obvious this theory seems to be at first sight—and it is meanwhile underpinned with many other arguments—it does still raise questions. For what each of these religions demands of people is, not just different from, but contrary to what is demanded by others. Meanwhile, in the face of the rising number of people who are not committed to any religion, this theory of universal salvation is even being extended to include nonreligious ways of life that are lived out seriously. Then it becomes quite true that things that contradict each other are seen as leading to the same goal—in other words, that we are once more facing the question of relativism. It is being silently assumed that all contents are basically of equal use. What is actually of any use, we do not know. Everyone just has to go his own way—to become happy in his own “façon”, as Frederick II of Prussia used to say. Thus, by way of the various theories of salvation, relativism slips in through the back door again: the question of truth is excised from the question concerning religions and the matter of salvation. Truth is replaced by good intentions; religion remains in the subjective realm, because we cannot know what is objectively good and true.

a. The Inequality of Religions and Their Dangers

Do we just have to put up with this? Is there an inevitable choice to be made between dogmatic rigorism and a humane, kindly relativism? I think that in the theories we have just been talking about, there are three things people have not thought through carefully enough. First of all, religions (and, nowadays, also agnosticism and atheism) are seen as being all of the same kind. But that is by no means the case. There are in fact sick and degenerate forms of religion, which do not edify people but alienate them: the Marxist criticism of religions was not entirely based on delusions. And even religions whose moral value we must recognize, and which are on their way toward the truth, may become diseased here and there. In Hinduism (which is actually a collective name for a whole multitude of religions) there are some marvelous elements—but there are also negative aspects: involvement with the caste system; suttee [self immolation] for widows, which developed from beginnings that were merely symbolic; offshoots of the cult of the goddess Sakti—all these might be mentioned, to give just a little idea. Yet even Islam, with all the greatness it represents, is always in danger of losing balance, letting violence have a place and letting religion slide away into mere outward observance and ritualism. And there are of course, as we all know but too well, diseased forms of Christianity—such as when the crusaders, on capturing the holy city of Jerusalem, where Christ died for all men, for their part indulged in a bloodbath of Moslems and Jews. What that means is that religion demands the making of distinctions, distinctions between different forms of religion and distinctions within a religion itself, so as to find the way to its higher points. By treating all content as comparably valid and with the idea that all religions are different and yet actually the same, you get nowhere. Relativism is dangerous in quite particular ways: for the shape of human existence at an individual level and in society. The renunciation of truth does not heal man. How much evil has been done in history in the name of good opinions and good intentions is something no one can overlook.

b. The Question of Salvation

That brings us already to the second point, which is generally neglected. When people talk about the significance of religions for salvation, it is quite astonishing that they for the most part think only that all of them make eternal life possible and when they think like that, the concept of eternal life is neutralized, since everyone gets there in any case. But that sells the question of salvation short, in most inappropriate fashion. Heaven begins on earth. Salvation in the world to come presumes a righteous life in this world. Thus one cannot simply ask who will get to heaven and suppose that this disposes of the matter of heaven. We have to ask what heaven is and how it comes upon earth. Future salvation must make its mark in a way of life that makes a person “human” here and thus capable of relating to God. That in turn means that when we are concerned with the question of salvation, we must look beyond religions themselves and that this involves standards of right living that one cannot just relativize at will. I would say, therefore, that salvation begins with man becoming righteous in this world—something that always includes the twin poles of the individual and society. There are kinds of behavior that can never serve man’s growth in righteousness and others that are always a part of man’s righteousness. That means that salvation does not lie in religions as such, but it is connected to them, inasmuch as, and to the extent that, they lead man toward the one good, toward the search for God, for truth, and for love. The question of salvation therefore always carries within it an element of the criticism of religion, just as, contrariwise, it can build a positive relationship to religions. It has in any case to do with the unity of the good, with the unity of what is true—with the unity of God and man.

c. Conscience and Man’s Capacity to Know the Truth

This statement leads to the third point I wish to address here. The unity and integrity of man has an organ: the conscience. It was Saint Paul who was daring enough to maintain that all men were capable of listening to their consciences and, thus, to separate the question of salvation from the matter of knowing and keeping the Torah and setting it on the common ground of the demands of conscience, in which the one God is speaking, and declaring to each one what is truly essential in the Torah: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom 2:14-15). Paul does not say, If the pagans keep their own religion, that is good before the judgment-seat of God. On the contrary, he condemns the majority of the religious practices of his time. He points to another source—to what is written in everyone’s hearts, the one good, from the one God. There are in any case two opposing concepts of the conscience here, although they are most often simply lumped together. For Paul, the conscience is the organ within all men—who are one man—which makes transparent the one God. In current thinking, on the other hand, the conscience appears as an expression of the absolute value of the subjective self, above and beyond which there can be no further judgment in the moral realm. What is good as such cannot be known. The one God cannot be known. As far as morality and religion are concerned, the self is the final arbiter. That is logical, if we have no access to the truth as such. Thus, in the modern concept of the conscience, the conscience represents the canonizing of relativism, of the impossibility of establishing common moral and religious standards; just as for Paul and for the Christian tradition it had been, on the contrary, the guarantee of the unity of man and the possibility of knowing God, of the common and binding character of one and the same good.[27] The fact that in every age there have been, and still are, “pagan saints” is because everywhere and in every age—albeit often with difficulty and in fragmentary fashion—the speech of the “heart” can be heard, because God’s Torah may be heard within ourselves, in our creaturely being, as the call of duty, and it is thus possible for us to transcend what is merely subjective in order to turn toward each other and toward God; And that is salvation. Beyond that, what God makes of the poor broken pieces of our attempts at good, at approaching him, remains his secret, which we ought not to presume to try to work out.

Final Reflections

At the close of these reflections I should like to draw your attention to a methodological suggestion the Pope offers concerning the relationship between theology and philosophy, between faith and reason, because it addresses the practical question of how a renewal of theological and philosophical thinking, as the encyclical conceives it, might start to come about. The encyclical talks about a “circular movement” between theology and philosophy, understood in the sense that theology must always start from the word of God; but since this word is truth, theology will set it in relation with man’s search for truth, with the struggle of reason for the truth, and will thus bring it into dialogue with philosophy. The believer’s search for the truth will accordingly take place through a movement in which listening to the word that has gone forth will continually be meeting with the seekings of reason. Thereby, on the one hand, faith becomes purer and more profound, while, on the other hand, thought is also enriched, because new horizons are opened up for it.

It seems to me that this idea of circularity could be taken a little farther: Philosophy, too, ought not to shut itself in within its own material, within what it has itself thought up. Just as it has to pay heed to empirical perceptions that emerge within the various scientific disciplines, so also it ought to regard the holy traditions of religions and especially the message of the Bible as a source of perception and let itself be made more fertile by this. There is in fact no great philosophy that has not received illumination and guidance from religious tradition, whether we are thinking of the philosophy of Greece and that of India or of the philosophy that developed within Christianity or even of the modern philosophies that were persuaded of the autonomy of reason and held this autonomy of reason to be the ultimate criterion of thought—but that still remained indebted for the great themes of thought that biblical faith had given to philosophy on the way: Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling would be unthinkable without all that faith had already given, and even Marx, in the midst of his radical reinterpretation, drew his life from the horizon of hope, which he had taken from the Jewish tradition. When philosophy completely blanks out this dialogue with the thought of faith, it ends—as Jaspers once expressed it—in a “seriousness that is becoming empty”.[28] In the end, it finds itself forced to renounce the question of truth, that is, forced to give up itself. For a philosophy that no longer asks who we are, what we are here for, whether there is a God and an eternal life, has abdicated its role as a philosophy.

Finally, it may be helpful to refer to a commentary on the encyclical that appeared in the German newspaper Die Zeit, which has otherwise been somewhat distant from the Church. The commentator, Jan Ross, grasps the essence of this papal teaching document quite precisely when he says that the dethroning of theology and metaphysics has made thought “not just more free, but also more narrow”; indeed, he does not shy away from talking about people “rendered stupid by lack of faith”. “Reason, in turning away from the ultimate questions, has rendered itself indifferent and boring, has resigned its competence where the keys to life are concerned: good and evil, death and immortality.” The voice of the Pope, he says, “has given courage to many people and to entire nations and has sounded hard and piercingly in many people’s ears and has even aroused hatred; but when it falls silent, that will be a moment of frightful silence.” And indeed, if no one talks about God and man, about sin and grace, about death and eternal life, any more, then all the shouting and all the noise there is will only be a vain attempt to deceive ourselves about the voice of true humanity falling silent. With his candor, with the fearless frankness of faith, the Pope has stood up against the danger of such a silence, and in doing so he renders a service, not only to the Church, but to mankind. We should be grateful to him for that.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942; Glasgow: Collins, 1955), pp. 139f. Quoted by J. Pieper in “Was heißt Interpretation?” [What does interpretation mean], in his Schriften zum Philosophiebegriff [Writings on the concept of philosophy], vol. 3 of his Werke, ed. B. Wald (Hamburg: Meiner, 1995), pp. 226f.

[2] Ibid., p. 227.

[3] M. Reiser, “Bibel und Kirche: Eine Antwort an U. Luz” [Bible and Church: A reply to U. Luz], Trierer Theologischer Zeitschrift 108 (1999): 62-81, this point on p. 72; U. Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (1983; London: Picador, 1984), p. 491.

[4] Reiser, “Bibel und Kirche”, p. 63, with a reference to O. Tracy, Theologie als Gespräch: Eine postmoderne Hermeneutik [Theology as conversation: A postmodern hermeneutic] (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1993), pp. 73-97.

[5] F. Mauthner, Beitrage zu einer Kritik der Sprache [Contributions to a criticism of language], 3 vols., 2nd ed. (1923; reprt., Frankfurt, 1982); the quotation is from 3:635. See Reiser, “Bibel und Kirche”, p. 73.

[6] Quoted by Reiser, “Bibel und Kirche”, pp. 73f.

[7] See ibid., pp. 63f. U. Luz, “Kann die Bibel heute noch Grundlage für die Kirche sein? Über die Aufgabe der Exegese in einer religiös pluralistischen Gesellschaft” [Can the Bible still be the basis of the Church? On the task of exegesis in a society of religious pluralism], New Testament Studies 44 (1998): 317-39.

[8] Phaedrus 274d—275b. Cf. on this H. Schade, Lamm Gottes und Zeichen des Widders [The Lamb of God and the sign of the ram] (Freiburg: Herder, 1998), pp. 27f.

[9] Schade, Lamm Gottes, p. 27.

[10] A. Kreiner, Ende der Wahrheit? [The end of truth?] (Freiburg: Herder, 1992), p. 116, quoted by Reiser, “Bibel und Kirche”, p. 74.

[11] No. 84.

[12] P. Flores d’Arcais, “Die Frage ist die Antwort: Zur Enzyklika Fides et Ratio” [The question is the answer: On the encyclical Fides et Ratio], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, no. 51 (March 2, 1999): 47.

[13] In nos. 68-74 of the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Pope deals in detail with the thesis that the lawgiving of any society should restrict itself to registering and giving established status to the convictions of the majority and that private conscience and public order should be strictly separate, and he argues against this (no. 69). As against this, the Pope asserts that democracy cannot become a surrogate for morality; the value of democracy, he says, stands and falls with the values it embodies (no. 70). This fundamental exposition of the principles of politics and the state cannot be set aside by brashly referring to them as “fundamentalism”; they do at least deserve a fresh examination and discussion. In this connection I might refer the reader to my book A Turning Point for Europe? trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994).

[14] In this respect, the list of names mentioned in no. 74 of the encyclical is certainly too modestly framed. One need only think, in our own century, of the importance of the phenomenological school, from Husserl to Scheler, and of the great movement of personalism, with names such as F. Ebner, E. Mounier, and G. Marcel, or to recall such great Jewish thinkers as Bergson, Buber, and Levinas, to see that philosophy in the sense in which the encyclical is speaking is possible even today and is indeed at work in many and various forms.

[15] See on this point H. Bürkle, Der Mensch auf der Suche nach Gott—Die Frage der Religionen [Man in search of God—The question concerning the religions], Amateca, no. 3 (Paderborn: Bonifatius, 1996), pp. 60-67.

[16] No. 70.

[17] T. Haecker, Vergil: Vater des Abendlandes [Virgil: Father of the West], 5th ed. (Munich: Kosel, 1947), e.g., pp. 117f.

[18] See, e.g., Burkle, Mensch auf der Suche nach Gott, pp. 14-40.

[19] No. 71.

[20] No. 72.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] R. Schäffler, “Ent-europäisierung des Christentums?” [De-Europeanizing Christianity?], Theologie und Glaube 86 (1996): 121-31; quoted from p. 131.

[25] Cf. ibid., p. 125.

[26] These connections, with acceptance and transformation, the making of distinctions and rejection, are very well portrayed by Burkle, Mensch auf der Suche nach Gott, pp. 18-40.

[27] For the question of the conscience, I may refer the reader to my little book Wahrheit, Werte, Macht [Truth, values, power], new ed. (Frankfurt: Knecht, 1999), pp. 25-62.

[28] Quoted by J. Pieper, in “Die mogliche Zukunft der Philosophie” [The possible future of philosophy], in his Schriften zum Philosophiebegriff, pp. 315-23; quoted on p. 323.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Faith, Religion, and Culture

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

The final word of the Risen Lord to his disciples is a word of mission to the ends of the earth: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them. . . [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19f.; cf. Acts 1:8). Christianity entered the world in the consciousness of a universal commission. The believers in JesusChrist knew, from the first moment on, that they had the duty of handing on their faith to all men; they saw in their faith something that did not belong to them alone, something to which, rather, everyone could lay claim. It would have been utterly faithless not to carry what they had received to the farthest corner of the earth. It was not the drive to power that launched Christian universalism but the certitude of having received the saving knowledge and the redeeming love to which all people have a claim and for which, in the inmost depths of their being, they are waiting. The mission was regarded, not as the acquisition of people for their own sphere of domination, but as the passing on, as a matter of obligation, of something meant for everyone and of which everyone stood in need.

Today doubts have arisen about the universality of the Christian faith. The history of the worldwide mission is seen by many, not as the history of the spread of liberating truth and love, but to a great extent as the history of a process of alienation and of domination by force. The strongest expression within the Church of this new consciousness was perhaps in the text for the “European Procession of Penitence ‘92”, in which we read:

1492-1992 are dates that in the perspective of native and black South Americans mark out a way of the cross, with countless stations of suffering and a Good Friday that has now lasted for five hundred years. The European Christians. . . conquered bodies with the sword and dominated souls with the cross. . . . For the natives and for the enslaved Africans, Christianity appeared as the religion of the enemy who subjugated and killed people. For them, the gospel could not be a message of joy; rather, it was bad news, which brought misfortune. . . . 1992 could be the year that represents the resumption of their religions, which were just and worthy, the coming of God to his peoples through these religions, and the peoples starting on their way to God through them.[1]

The protest that breaks out in these words goes far beyond the problem of the gospel and culture; and it signifies far more than the justified complaint against all of Europe’s sins in connection with the discovery of America: ultimately, it raises the question of the truth of the Christian faith and of whether mission is justified at all.

To that extent, the new consciousness expressed here demands of Christians a radical process of reflection about what they are and what they are not, what they believe and what they do not believe, what they have to offer and what they cannot offer. Within the framework we have at present, we can only attempt a few steps toward part of this great process of reflection. In any case, we are not here concerned with judgments about the historical events involved in Europe’s encounter with America in the centuries since 1492, or with a speech to celebrate “five hundred years of America”, of which I do not feel capable and for which I was not asked. My intention is both more modest and, at the same time, more demanding: a reflection on whether the Christian faith has the right, or the capacity, to share with other cultures, to take them into itself and to give itself to them. When you come down to it, this includes all the questions about the basis of Christian existence: Why believe? Is there any truth for men, truth that is accessible as such for all men and belongs to all men, or are we only ever, in differing symbols, just touching on the mystery that never unveils itself to us? Is it a presumption to talk about the truth of faith, or is it a duty? These questions, too, cannot be addressed directly at this point or discussed in their full dimensions; we will have to deal with them at greater length in other parts of this book. Here they have to remain as a conscious backdrop to our problems with faith and culture.

In this chapter, we are directly dealing only with the question of how the one faith relates to the multiplicity of cultures and how true universality is possible in this multiplicity of cultures, without one culture setting itself up as the only valid one and repressing the others. We hardly need to make a point of saying that this question applies to the whole extent of history and right across all the continents. Five hundred years have passed since Columbus’ epoch-making journey, but the first direct contact between Christianity and black Africa, too, in the then kingdom of the Congo, present-day Angola, takes us back to the same period; and likewise the beginning of the Portuguese mission in India, which of course already had a long Christian history behind it, which goes back perhaps as far as the time of the apostles. America, Africa, Asia are the three great cultural spheres that brought to the saying about “the ends of the earth” and “all nations” an entirely new meaning and brought new dimensions to the task of mission. But perhaps the consciousness of the inadequacy of previous attempts at Christian universality has become so urgent today because there is meanwhile another kind of universality that has truly reached to the farthest corners of the earth: the unity of technical culture, which imposes itself by the power of its capacities and its successes and yet, at the same time, through its method of centralizing power and through its exploitation of the earth, has brought about that division of the world into north and south, into rich and poor, which represents the real emergency of our time. It is therefore ever more strongly emphasized today that in order to survive, faith must inculturate itself into the modern technical/rational culture. But then the question naturally arises: Can we refer to the civilization of technical unity as a “culture” in the same sense as the great cultures that have grown up at different times and places in the life of mankind? Can faith be inculturated in one and in the other at the same time? What identity could it then still have at all?

1. Culture—Inculturation—The Meeting of Cultures

We shall come back to these questions, at least indirectly; for the moment, what we have said is only intended to indicate the size of the problem we finally have to face up to: What in fact is culture? How does it relate to religion, and in what way can it forge links with religious entities that were originally alien to it? We should say straightaway that only in modern Europe has a concept of culture been developed that portrays it as a sphere separate from religion, or even in opposition to it. In all known historical cultures, religion is an essential element of culture, is indeed its determinative center; it is religion that determines the scale of values and, thereby, the inner cohesion and hierarchy of all these cultures. But if that is how things are, the inculturation of the Christian faith in other cultures only looks that much more difficult. For one cannot see how a culture that is interwoven with religion, that lives in it and intertwines with it, could be transplanted into a different religion, so to speak, without both being destroyed in the process. If one takes from a culture its own religion, which has begotten it, one is robbing it of its very heart; if one plants a new heart into it—the Christian one—then it seems inevitable that this organism, which is not adapted to it, will reject it. A positive outcome to this operation seems hard to envisage.

It can only really make sense if the relationship between the Christian faith and the respective other religion together with its living culture is not one of absolute foreignness, if there is, rather, a certain inner openness, each to the other, within them; or, to put it another way, if the tendency to move toward each other and to unite is in any case a part of their nature. Inculturation thus assumes the potential universality of every culture. It assumes that the same human nature is at work in all of them and that there is a common truth of humanity alive within that human nature that aims toward union. To put it yet another way, the intention of inculturating makes sense only if no harm is being done to the culture by the way that, through the common direction imparted by the truth of humanity, it is opened up and further developed by a new cultural force. Whatever elements in any culture exclude such opening up and such cultural exchange represent what is inadequate in that culture, because exclusion of what is different is contrary to human nature. The height of development of a culture is shown in its openness, in its capacity to give and to receive, in its power to develop further, to let itself be purified and thus to become better adapted to the truth and to man.

At this point we can try to give something like a definition of culture. We could say: Culture is the social form of expression, as it has grown up in history, of those experiences and evaluations that have left their mark on a community and have shaped it. Let us now try to consider a little more closely the individual elements of this definition, so that we may better be able to understand those possible exchanges between cultures to which the term “inculturation” must refer.

a.  In the first place, culture has to do with perceptions and values. It is an attempt to understand the world and the existence of man within it; an attempt, however, not of a purely theoretical nature, but rather guided by the fundamental interest of our existence. This understanding is meant to show us how to go about being human, how a man takes his proper place in this world and responds to it, so as to improve himself, to live his life successfully and happily. This question, in turn, does not in the great cultures refer to the individual alone, as if each person could work out for himself a pattern of coping with the world and with living. Each can do this only with the help of others; the question of correct perception is thus also a question concerning the proper shaping of the community. This in turn is the prerequisite for each individual’s life being successful. Culture is concerned with understanding, which is a perception that opens the way for practical action, that is, a perception of which the dimension of values, of morality, is an indispensable part. We should just add one thing, which would have been self-evident for the old world: In any question concerning man and the world, the question about the Divinity is always included as the preliminary and really basic question. No one can understand the world at all, no one can live his life rightly, so long as the question about the Divinity remains unanswered. Indeed, the very heart of the great cultures is that they interpret the world by setting in order their relationship to the Divinity.

b.  Culture in the classical sense thus includes going beyond what is visible and apparent to the real basis of things and, at its heart, opens the door to the Divinity. Bound up with that (as we have seen) is the other feature, of the individual transcending his own self and finding mutual support for himself in a greater social agency, whose perceptions he can, as it were, borrow and then, of course, also carry farther and develop for himself. Culture is always associated with a social agent, which accepts into itself the experiences of the individuals and, on the other hand, also molds them. This social agent preserves and develops perceptions that go beyond what any individual is capable of—insights we may describe as prerational and suprarational. In doing this, cultures refer to the wisdom of the “elders”, who were closer to the gods; to traditions from the beginnings, which have the character of revelation, that is, they are the result, not simply of human questioning and reflection, but of aboriginal contact with the ground of all things; to communications from the Divinity.[2] The point of crisis for a cultural agent is when it can no longer succeed in relating this given suprarational element with new critical perceptions in a persuasive fashion. The truth of the element already given is then placed in doubt; from being true it becomes merely usual and loses its living power.

c.  This already hints at something further: society progresses through time, and culture therefore has to do with history. Culture develops along the way, through the encounter with new realities and the assimilation of new perceptions. It is not closed up in itself but is affected by the impetus of time’s onward flow, in which the confluence of different currents, the processes of union are important. The historical character of culture signifies its capacity for progress, and that implies its capacity to be open, to accept its being transformed by an encounter. We do indeed distinguish between cosmic/static cultures and historical cultures. In that view, the older, prescriptive cultures would in essence represent the mystery of the universe, which remains always the same, while the Jewish and Christian cultural paths, especially, are said to understand their path with God as history and are therefore molded by a conception of history as a fundamental category. That is true to a certain extent, but it does not cover everything, since the cosmic cultures, too, point to death and rebirth and to human existence as a path. As Christians, we would say that they carry within themselves the dynamic of advent, and we are going to have to talk about this in more detail.[3]

This little attempt to clarify some of the the basic categories of the concept of culture will now help us better to understand the question of their contact with one another and their merging together. We can now say that what is special about cultures lies in theassociation of culture with a cultural individuality, with a certain culturalagent, giving the multiplicity of cultures and also the particular nature ofeach one. We can see, on the other hand, that their historical nature, theirmovement with time and in time, includes an openness. Each particular culture not only lives out its own experience of God, the world, and man, but on its path it necessarily encounters other cultural agencies and has to react to their quite different experiences. This results, depending always on the degreeto which the cultural agent may be closed or open, inwardly narrow or broad inoutlook, in that culture’s own perceptions and values being deepened andpurified. That may lead to a profound reshaping of that culture’s previousform, yet this does not necessarily involve any kind of violation oralienation. In a positive case, it may be explained by the potentiallyuniversal nature of all cultures, which is concretized in the acceptance ofwhat is other and the change of what is its own. A process of this kind can infact lead to a breaking open of the silent alienation of man from the truth andfrom himself that exists within that culture. This can represent the healing Pasch for a culture, which through an apparent death comes to new life and becomes then for the first time truly itself.

With this in mind, we should talk, no longer about “inculturation”, but about a meeting of cultures, or—if we have to use a technical term—about “interculturality”. For “inculturation” presupposes that, as it were, a culturally naked faith is transferred into a culture that is indifferent from the religious point of view, so that two agents that were hitherto alien to each other meet and now engage in a synthesis together. But this depiction is first of all artificial and unreal, because there is no such thing as a culture-free faith and because—outside of modern technical civilization—there is no such thing as religion-free culture. But above all one cannot see how two organisms that are in themselves totally alien to each other should, through a transplantation that starts by mutilating them both, suddenly become a single living whole. Only if it is true that all cultures are potentially universal and have an inner capacity to be open to others can interculturality lead to new and fruitful forms.

With everything we have said thus far, we have remained in the phenomenological sphere, that is, we have recorded how cultures function and how they develop, and we have established the potential universality of every culture as an essential concept for a history leading toward cultural unions. But the question now arises: Why is that so? Why are all cultures, on the one hand, just particular cultures and, thus, differentiated one from another, and why are they at the same time open toward each other, capable of mutually purifying each other and of merging with each other? There are also, of course, positivistic answers, and I do not want to go into them here. It seems to me that at this point in particular one cannot avoid reference to the metaphysical dimension. A meeting of cultures is possible because man, in all the variety of his history and of his social structures and customs, is a single being, one and the same. This one being, man, is however touched and affected in the very depth of his existence by truth itself. The fundamental openness of all men to others, and the agreement in essentials to be found even between those cultures farthest removed from each other, can only be explained by the hidden way our souls have been touched by truth. But the variety, which can even lead to a closed attitude, comes in the first instance from the limitation of the human mind: no one can grasp the whole of anything, but many and varied perceptions and forms come together in a sort of mosaic, suggested by the way that each is complementary with regard to the others: in order to form the whole, each needs all the others. Only in the interrelating of all great works of culture can man approach the unity and wholeness of his true nature.

Yet we can certainly not rest content with this optimistic diagnosis, for the potential universality of cultures is often blocked by quite insurmountable obstacles that prevent it from turning into an actual universality. Not only a communal dynamic exists, but equally communal divisions, barriers against others, contradictions that exclude, an impossibility of transition because the waters between are far too deep. We have been talking just now about the unity of the human being and about his being secretly touched by the truth spoken by God. We are now brought to recognize that there must be in opposition to this a negative factor in human existence: an alienation that hinders our perceiving things and that, at least partially, cuts men off from the truth and thus also from each other. In this undeniable factor of alienation lies the real difficulty in all the struggle to bring about any meeting of cultures. That is why anyone who sees in the religions of the world only reprehensible superstition is wrong; but also why anyone who wants only to give a positive evaluation of all religions, and who has suddenly forgotten the criticism of religions that has been burned into our souls not only by Feuerbach and Marx but also by such great theologians as Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer, is equally wrong.

2. Faith and Culture

All this has brought us to the second part of our consideration. Up to now we have set out the essence of culture and, on that basis, the conditions for a meeting of cultures and for their merging into new cultural entities. Now we must venture forth from the sphere of principles into that of facts. First we have once more to sum up our essential findings and to ask what is it that can bind cultures so closely together that they are not just externally tied to each other but, through their encounter, are inwardly fertilized and purified? The medium by which they encounter each other can only be their shared truth concerning man, within which the truth about God and about reality as a whole is always involved. The more human a culture is, the higher it is, the more it can lay claim to truth that was hitherto hidden from it; and the more it will be capable of assimilating that truth and of adjusting itself to that truth. At this point, what is special about the self-understanding of Christian faith can be seen. It knows very well, if it is aware and uncorrupted, that there is a great deal of what is human in its particular cultural forms, a great deal that needs purifying and opening up. But it is also certain that it is at heart the self-revelation of truth itself and, therefore, redemption. For the real problem of mankind is the darkening of truth. This distorts our action and sets us against one another, because we bear our own evil within ourselves, are alienated from ourselves, cut off from the ground of our being, from God. If truth is offered, this means a leading out of alienation and thus out of the state of division; it means the vision of a common standard that does no violence to any culture but that guides each one to its own heart, because each exists ultimately as an expectation of truth. That does not mean reduction to uniformity; quite the opposite: only when this happens can things in opposition become complementary, because they can all, each in its own way, unfold and be fruitful in relation to that central standard.

That is the high claim with which the Christian faith entered the world. From this claim there follows the inner obligation to send all peoples to the school of Jesus, because he is the truth in person and, thereby, the way to be human. We do not, for the moment, want to enter into the argument about the truth of this claim, although we will naturally have to come back to it later. Right now we are asking: What follows from that claim, for the concrete relationship of the Christian faith to the cultures of the world?

A first point we should note is that faith itself is cultural. It does not exist in a naked state, as sheer religion. Simply by telling man who he is and how he should go about being human, faith is creating culture and is culture. This message of faith is not an abstract message; it is one that has matured through a long history and through manifold inter-cultural fusions, in the course of which it has shaped an entire way of life, a way of man’s dealing with himself, with his neighbor, with the world, and with God. Faith itself exists as culture. But that also means that it exists as an independent agent: a social and cultural community that we call “the people ofGod”. It is probably in this concept that the nature of faith as a historical agent is most clearly expressed. Does faith, therefore, stand as one cultural agent among others, so that one would have to choose to belong either to it—to this people, as a cultural community—or to another people? No. At this point, what is quite particular and peculiar to the culture of faith becomes apparent. The people of God, as a cultural agent, differs from the classic cultural agents, which are defined by the boundaries of a communal life as a tribe, as a nation, or otherwise, in that it subsists within various different cultural entities, which for their part do not thereby cease, even for the individual Christian, to be the primary and immediate agent of his culture. Even as a Christian, one remains a Frenchman or a German, an American or an Indian, and so on. In the pre-Christian world, even in the high cultures of India, China, and Japan, the cultural agent is one and indivisible. Belonging to two cultural entities is impossible in general, although of course Buddhism represents an exception, in the way it is able to combine itself with other cultural entities as an inner dimension of them, so to speak. But the full development of this double cultural identity first appears with Christian culture, so that man now lives within two cultural entities: in his historical culture and in the new one of faith, which meet and mingle in him. This existing together will never be a complete synthesis; it brings with it a need for continuing processes of reconciliation and purification. Again and again there must be a going beyond into wholeness and universality, into the sphere, not of an empirical people, but of those who are indeed the people of God and, from there, the sphere of all mankind. And, contrariwise, again and again this shared entity has to be brought into our own territory and has to be lived out and even struggled for in the concrete historical place.

From what we have said there follows a most important point. One might think that culture is always the business of an individual cultural entity (Germany, France, America, and so on), while faith is simply in search of a cultural expression. The various cultures would thus, so to speak, provide faith with a cultural body. Faith, in that case, would live only through borrowed cultures, which would, however, all remain somehow exterior toit and could be stripped off again. Above all, none of these borrowed cultural forms would mean anything to or for people living in any of the others. Universality would, thereby, become ultimately a fiction. Thinking like this is basically Manichaean: it reduces culture to a mere interchangeable embodiment; faith is dematerialized into a mere spirit, ultimately lacking in reality. Sucha conception is of course typical of post-Enlightenment spirituality. Culture is relegated to mere outward form, and religion to mere inexpressible feeling or into pure thought. Thus the productive tension, which ought normally to arise from the coexistence of two cultural entities, disappears. If culture is more than mere form or mere aesthetics, if it is much more a way of ordering values within a historic form of life, and if it cannot ignore the question concerning the divine, then there is no way of getting around the fact that, for believers, the Church is a separate cultural entity in her own right. This cultural entity or agency, the Church, the people of God, does not—even in periods when particular peoples seem to have been fully christianized, as people used to believe was the case in Europe—coincide with any of these other historic cultural entities; rather, she retains her own overarching form and is indeed on that account significant.

If that is how things are, then in the encounter between faith and its culture and another hitherto foreign culture, it cannot be a matter of dispensing with this duality of cultural entities on either oneside or the other. The sacrifice of one’s own cultural heritage in favor of a Christianity with no particular human coloring or the disappearance of the cultural features of faith in the new culture would both be equally mistaken.It is the tension itself that is productive, renewing faith and healing theculture. It would accordingly be nonsense to offer a Christianity that was, soto speak, precultural or deculturalized, as such a Christianity would bedeprived of its own historical power and reduced to an empty collection ofideas. We should not forget that Christianity, as early as the period of theNew Testament, carries within itself the fruit of a whole history of culturaldevelopment, a history of acceptance and rejection, of encounter and of change.Israel’s history of faith, which was taken up into itself, was shaped instruggles with Egyptian, Hittite, Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greekculture. All these cultures were at the same time religions, all-embracing historicalways of life that in the course of God’s struggle with Israel, of the strugglesof its great prophetic figures, were assumed and transformed in a passionateendeavor to provide an ever more pure vessel for the new cultural element, therevelation ofthe one God; yet it was in this very process that those culturesfound their lasting fulfilment. They would otherwise all have sunk into thedistant past had they not remained present as purified and uplifted in thefaith of the Bible. Israel’s history of faith begins, of course, with the callto Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house”(Gen 12:1); it begins with a cultural break. There will always be such a breakwith one’s own prehistory, such a setting forth, at the beginning of a newmoment in the history of faith. Yet this new beginning then proves to be aforce for healing, creating a new center with the ability to draw to itself allthat is true to the measure of humanity, all that is true to the measure ofdivinity. “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”(Jn 12:32)—this saying of the ascended Lord also has a place in our contexthere: the Cross is, first, a break, the being cast forth, the being lifted upfrom the earth, but in that very way it becomes a new center of gravity, apoint of gravitation drawing things up from the history of the world, for thebringing together of what is divided.

Anyone entering the Church has to be aware that he is entering a separate, active cultural entity with her own many-layered intercultural character that has grown up in the course of history. Without a certain exodus, a breaking off with one’s life in all its aspects, one cannot become a Christian. Faith is no private path to God; it leads into the people of God and into its history. God has linked himself to a history, which is now also his history and which we cannot simply erase. Christ remains man to eternity, retains a body to eternity; but being a man, having a body, includes having a history and a culture, this particular history with its culture, whether we like it or not. We cannot repeat the process of the Incarnation at will, in the sense of repeatedly taking Christ’s flesh away from him, so to speak, and offering him some other flesh instead. Christ remains the same, even according to his body. But he is drawing us to him. That means that because the people of God is, not just a single cultural entity, but is gathered together from all peoples, therefore the first cultural identity, rising again from the break that was made, has its place therein; and not only that, but it is needed in order to allow the Incarnation of Christ, of the Word, to attain its whole fullness. The tension of many active entities within a single entity is an essential part of the unfinished drama of the Son’s Incarnation. This is the real inner dynamic of history, and of course it stands always beneath the sign of the Cross; that is to say that it must always be struggling against the opposing weight of shutting off, of isolation and refusal.

3. Faith, Religion, and Culture in the Technological World

That is all quite correct if Jesus of Nazareth is truly the meaning of history, the Logos who has become man, the self-revelation of truth itself. It is then clear that this truth is the sphere within which everyone can find and relate to one another and, in so doing, lose nothing of his own value or his own dignity. This is the point at which criticisms are made today. To lay claim to truth for one religion’s particular expressions of faith appears today, not merely presumptuous, but an indication of insufficient enlightenment. Hans Kelsen was expressing the spirit of our age when he represented the question of Pilate, “What is truth?” as being the sole appropriate attitude for determining the structure of society within the state, in the face of the great religious and moral difficulties of mankind. Truth is replaced by the decision of the majority, he says, precisely because there can be no truth, in the sense of a binding and generally accessible entity for man.[4] Thus the multiplicity of cultures serves to demonstrate the relativism of all cultures. Culture is set against truth. This relativism, which is nowadays to be found, as a basic attitude of enlightened people, penetrating far into the realm of theology, is the most profound difficulty of our age. This is also the reason why practice is now substituted for truth and why the whole axis of religions is thereby displaced: we do not know what is true, but we do know what we should do: raise up and introduce a better society, the “kingdom”, as people like to say, using a term taken from the Bible and applied to the profane and utopian sphere. Ecclesiocentricity, christocentricity, theocentricity—all these now seem to be rendered obsolete by regnocentricity, the centering of things around the kingdom as the common task of all religions; and it is held that they should meet only from this point of view and according to this standard.[5] There is thus no longer any reason to move them closer to one another in their essentials, in their moral and religious teaching; but they will certainly all be reshaped at the deepest level, insofar as they are now to serve as instruments for the construction of the future, in a way that was not hitherto their task and that ultimately deprives their content of any object or point of reference.

The dogma of relativism has, however, yet another effect: Christian universalism, which is carried out concretely in mission, is no longer the obligatory handing on of a good meant for everyone, that is, of truth and love; with this presupposition, mission becomes the mere presumptuous attitude of a culture that imagines itself to be superior, that tramples upon a whole multitude of religious cultures in the most shameful fashion, thus, it is held, depriving those peoples of what is best: their own heritage. Thence comes the imperative: Give us back our religions, as the right ways for the various peoples severally to come to God and God to them; where these religions still exist, do not touch them! Is this demand appropriate? It is at any rate here that the good sense, or nonsense, of the dogma of relativism in the sphere of cultures and religions must be demonstrated.[6]

At least, in the face of such demands, one ought to look carefully at each religion to see whether its restoration would really be desirable. When we think, for instance, of how on the occasion of the most recent rebuilding of the main Aztec temple, in the year 1487, “at the very lowest estimate, twenty thousand people” bled to death, “over four days, on the altars of Tenochtitlán” (the capital city of the Aztecs, in the upper Mexico valley) as human sacrifices to the sun god, it will be difficult for us to encourage the restoration of this religion.[7] Such a sacrifice took place because the sun lived on the blood of human hearts, and the end of the world could only be prevented through human sacrifice. Thus, the wars in which captives were taken who served as sacrificial victims were undertaken by divine command. To the earth gods and the vegetation gods, the Aztecs offered “men and women, who were for the most part flayed alive”; to the gods of rain, who were thought of as being like dwarfs, they offered up little children, who were drowned in springs, in water holes, and in certain parts of the Lake of Tetzcoco. There were rituals, a part of which was the slaughter of human beings. All of this derived, as W. Krickeberg has established, not from some inborn “inclination to bloodthirstiness”, but from a fanatical belief in the duty of men to provide in this fashion for the continuation of the world.[8] This is, of course, an extreme instance, but it nonetheless shows that one cannot simply see in any and every religion the way for God to come to man and man to God.

But we have to tackle the question at a more basic level. Can one, in any circumstances, simply allow religions to remain as they are, stopping history right there, so to speak? It is obvious that one cannot declare some people to be living in a kind of “nature conservation park” for religious and cultural history, into which the modern age would not be allowed to come. Any such attempts are not merely undignified and, ultimately, lacking in respect for people, they are also completely unrealistic. The meeting of cultures and the gradual growing together of the separate geographical areas of history into one common history of mankind are grounded in the nature of man himself. Likewise, one cannot make use oneself of the possibilities offered by technological civilization, while at the same time forcing upon other people one’s own dream of a pretechnological world. It is in fact quite undisputed nowadays, not only that the spread of modern civilization is in fact incapable of being prevented, but that making its instruments available to those cultures as yet untouched by it is a question of justice. That one must proceed with more caution and show more respect for these people’s own traditions than was the case hitherto is quite a different question. It is not the spread of technological capabilities themselves that is bad but rather the presumption, typical of the Enlightenment, with which people very often destroyed structures that had grown up over time and trampled upon men’s spirits, carelessly sweeping aside their religious and ethical traditions. This tearing up of people’s spiritual roots and the destruction of the network of social relationships that happened in such cases are certainly one of the main reasons why development aid has so far brought positive results only in very rare instances. People thought it was enough to develop technological capabilities; that man also needs traditions and inner values to sustain him was—and still is—widely disregarded.

But we could now ask, ought we not now to proceed by handing on the technology, cautiously, but leaving the religion untouched? This idea, at first sight such an obvious one, is nonetheless misleading. For in situations that are quite different, one cannot preserve fully developed religions as such, shutting them up in a kind of religious nature reserve, and at the same time superimpose the technological view of the world. Technological civilization is not in fact religiously and morally neutral, even if it believes it is. It changes people’s standards and their attitudes and behavior. It changes the way people interpret the world, from the very bottom up. The religious cosmos inevitably starts to shift on account of technology. The arrival of these new opportunities in life is like an earthquake that shakes the spiritual landscape to its foundations. What takes place with increasing frequency, at any rate, is that the Christian faith is shaken off for the sake of people’s own authenticity, and in the realm of religion the pagan religions are restored, while at the same time technology, although it is no less Western, is passionately received and applied. This division of the Western heritage into what is useful, which is accepted, and what is foreign, which is left aside, most certainly does not lead to the saving of ancient cultures. For it now becomes evident that what is great in the old religions, the elements that point the way forward, I would say, their advent dimension, drops out, because it seems impossible to reconcile with the new knowledge about the world and is no longer of interest to people, while the element that is (in the widest sense of the word) magical—everything that offers some power over the world, is preserved and becomes really decisive in people’s lives. These religions are thus losing their real value, because what is best in them is pruned off, and the only thing left is what represented the danger in them.

That could be clearly shown in the instance of Voodoo. In its original form, it was in the last analysis shaped by an anticipation of the Paschal Mystery, of death and resurrection; the business of initiation into being a man, of the marriage of the two sexes, of the forgiveness of sins—all these basic sacramental forms were determinative in its essential structure.[9] But this mythological form stands in need of a new rational means of communication, of a new center, which Voodoo itself is unable to offer. From within its historical moment, it reaches out toward the unknown. Yet where technology and Voodoo are superimposed, these forward-looking gestures break down, and what is left are the magical powers, which now constitute an irrational second world alongside the technological world and its one-sided rationalism. More and more Europeans, whose Christian faith has collapsed, are taking up these irrational forces, and that brings a real paganizing process: man being cut off from God; man is now just looking for various systems of power, and in doing so he is destroying both himself and the world. This, however, is precisely the wrong way for cultures to encounter one another, basically a non-meeting in which rational and irrational attitudes combine with each other in a fatal manner. In a world that is moving with history, religions cannot simply stand still, just as they were or as they now are. Yet the Christian faith, which carries within itself the great heritage of the religions and which opens up this heritage to the Logos, to true reason, could offer a new basis to them at the deepest level and could at the same time make possible a real synthesis of technological rationality and religion, something that can only come about, not by a flight into the irrational, but by opening up reason to its true height and breadth.

Here lie the great tasks of our contemporary historical moment. Christian mission will doubtless have to understand other religions far more profoundly and accept them at a deeper level than has been the case hitherto, but these religions, on the other hand, in order for their best elements to survive, need to recognize their own adventual character, the way they point forward to Christ. If in this sense we proceed on an intercultural search for traces of a path toward a common truth, then something unexpected will appear: Christianity has more in common with the ancient cultures of mankind than with the relativistic and rationalistic world that has cut loose from the fundamental insights of mankind and is thus leading man into a vacuum, devoid of meaning, which risks being fatal for him unless the answer to it comes to him in time. For the knowledge that man must turn toward God, and toward what is eternal, is found right across all the cultures; the knowledge about sin, repentance, and forgiveness; the knowledge concerning communion with God and eternal life; and finally the knowledge of the basic rules of morality, as they are found in the form of the Ten Commandments. It is not relativism that is confirmed; rather, it is the unity of the human condition and its common experience of contact with a truth that is greater than we are.


[1] L. Boff, “I cinquecento anni della conquista dell’America Latina: Un ‘venerdì santo’ che dura ancora oggi” [The five hundredth anniversary of the conquest of America: A “Good Friday” that is still continuing today], quoted after the Italian version of the text, circulated by the Adista news agency on January 25, 1992.

[2] Cf. on this point J. Pieper, Überlieferung: Begriff und Anspruch [Tradition: Its concept and its claim] (Munich: Kosel, 1970); Pieper, Über die platonischen Mythen (Munich: Kösel, 1965).

[3] The concept of “advent” within pre-Christian paganism is one that T. Haecker introduced in this area with some emphasis; see T. Haecker, Vergil: Vater des Abendlandes [Virgil: Father of the West], 5th ed. (Munich: Kösel, 1947).

[4] Cf. V. Possenti, Le società liberali al bivio: Lineamenti di filosofia della società [The liberal society in life: Outlines of a social philosophy] (Genoa: Marietti, 1991), pp. 315-45, especially 345f.; W. Waldstein, Teoria generale del diritto [General theory of law] (Pont. Univ. Lat., 2001).

[5] Cf. the literature referred to by J. Dupuis, “The Kingdom of God and World Religions”, Vidyajyoti: Journal of Theological Reflection 51 (1987): 530-44; Dupuis, Vers une théologie chrétienne du pluralisme religieux (Paris: Cerf, 1997) [English trans., Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997)].

[6] A most significant contribution to this discussion is to be found in C. Gnilka, “La conversione della cultura antica vista dai Padri della chiesa” [The conversion of classical culture as seen by the Church Fathers], Cristianesimo nella storia 11 (1990):593-615, where he expounds the important insights of the Fathers on the question of inculturation in the struggle with the relativism of late antiquity. We can see here that contemporary relativism is merely a return to the theory of religion of late antiquity. This is reflected, for instance, in the dialogue Octavius, by Minucius Felix (around A.D. 200), in which the pagan participant says that everything is uncertain in human existence, probable rather than true, and one should therefore stick to the old religious traditions. The Christians are ironically referred to as “champions of the truth” (antistites veritatis). The classic formulation of this religious pluralism, based on the obscurity concerning truth, is to be found in the famous reflection of Symmachus (d. 402): “Uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum [It is not by a single way that one can attain to such a great mystery].” Julian the Apostate takes a similar philosophy as his starting point and emphasizes that one should respect the variety of national cultures and ways of life and likewise, accordingly, the multiplicity of divinities and religions. The principal reproach he makes against Christianity, and his sole objection to Judaism, lies in his rejection of the First Commandment: he sees in monotheism, in the denial of other gods, the original sin of Christian and Jewish religion. To this theory of the many ways, the Christians oppose the teaching about the two ways (Mt 7:13): the way of life and the way of destruction; the many ways of the pagan religions are in reality only a single way—the wide path that the Gospel talks about. Gnilka then shows how the Fathers quite consciously talk about the conversion of cultures; conversion—they say—is a reshaping (transformation), not destruction. As a process of transformation this always includes preservation—an idea that is also worked out in practice in dealing with temples and idols just as in dealing with the renewal and continuity of languages and of thought. C. Gnilka has described this whole area in his book Chrēsis: Die Methode der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der antiken Kultur [Chrēsis: The Church Fathers’ method in dealing with classical culture], vol. 2: Kultur und Conversion (Basel: Schwabe, 1993).

[7] Cf. W. Krickeberg, H. Trimborn, W. Müller, and O. Zerries, Die Religionen des alten Amerika (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1961), p. 49 [English trans., Pre-Columbian American Religions, trans. Stanley Davis (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968)].

[8] Ibid., pp. 50f.

[9] Cf. on this point B. Adoukonou, Jalons pour une théologie africaine: Essai d’une herméneutique chrétienne du Vodun dahoméen [Blazing the trail for an African theology: An attempt at a Christian hermeneutic of Dahomian Voodoo], 2 vols. (Paris: Namur 1980); Y. K. Bamunoba and B. Adoukonou, La Mort dans la vie africaine [Death in African life] (Paris: UNESCO, Préserce africaine, 1979).

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Faith Between Reason and Feeling

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

The Present-Day Crisis of Faith

In his conversations “around atomic physics”, Werner Heisenberg tells of a dialogue with some younger physicists that took place in Brussels in the year 1927, in which, besides Heisenberg himself, both Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Dirac took part. They got to talking about the way Einstein often spoke about God and about the fact that Max Planck argued that there was no conflict between science and religion; the two could—and at that time, this was a somewhat surprising notion—perfectly well be reconciled with each other. Heisenberg interpreted this new openness of scientists to religion on the basis of his experience of his parents’ home. This was based, he said, on the view that natural science and religion dealt with two completely different spheres, which were not in competition with each other: in natural science it was a matter of things being true or false; in religion, of their being good and bad, valuable or worthless. The two realms were quite separate, belonging to the objective and the subjective aspects of the world. “Natural science is to some extent the way we approach the objective aspect of reality. . . . Religious faith, on the contrary, is the expression of a subjective decision, by means of which we determine for ourselves the values by which we direct ourselves in life.”[1] This decision of faith had of course various preconditions in history and culture, in one’s education and environment, but it was—Heisenberg was still talking about the view of the world shared by his parents and Max Planck—ultimately subjective and thereby not amenable to the criterion of “true or false”. Planck, he said, had in this fashion made a subjective decision in favor of the Christian value system; the two realms—the objective and the subjective aspects of the world—remained however narrowly yet clearly divided from each other. At this point, Heisenberg added: “I have to admit, that I do not feel happy about this division. I doubt whether any human society can in the long term live with this sharp division between knowledge and faith.”[2] Then Wolfgang Pauli took up the thread of the discussion and agreed with Heisenberg’s doubt, asserting in fact that this was quite certain: “The complete division between knowledge and faith is surely just a temporary stopgap measure. In Western society and culture we could for instance, in the not-too-distant future, come to the point at which the parables and images that religion has used up to now are no longer convincing, even for simple folk; and then, I fear, traditional morality will also very rapidly break down, and things will happen that are more frightful than anything we can yet imagine.”[3] At that time, in 1927, those taking part in the conversation could have at most a vague suspicion that soon afterward the unholy twelve years would begin, in the course of which things did indeed happen that were “more frightful” than could previously have been thought possible. There were of course a good number of Christians, some of whose names we know and some who have remained nameless, who opposed the demonic forces with the power of their Christian conscience. But on the whole the power of temptation was stronger; those who just went along with things left a clear path for evil.

In the new start that was made after the war, there was real confidence that nothing like that could ever happen again. The fundamental legal structure that was decided upon, on the basis of “responsibility before God”, was intended to express the connection of law and politics with the great moral imperatives of biblical faith. The confidence of that time looks frail today in face of the moral crisis of humanity, which is taking new and desperately urgent forms. The collapse of old religious certainties, which seventy years ago still seemed stoppable, has in the meantime to a great extent become reality. Thus the fear of a collapse of humane values, inevitably linked with this, has itself become more widespread and intense. I will simply recall the warnings of Joachim Fest, struggling with the difficult dialectic of freedom and truth, of reason and faith: “If all utopian models. . . lead to dead ends, yet at the same time the Christian certainties are powerlessly. . . toppling, then we have to come to terms with the fact that there are no more answers available to our demand for transcendence.”[4] Yet none of the appeals addressed to man in this situation “are able to say how he is to live without the other world and with no fear of the day of judgment and yet still time after time manage to act against his own immediate interests and desires”.[5] Fest reminds us in this connection of a saying of Spinoza, which in fact underlines that dialectic between subjective and objective reality, between the abdication of truth and the assertion of values, which is ultimately intolerable and which we have already met in the post-Christian bourgeois world represented by Planck: “Even if I am an atheist, I would at least like to live like a saint.”

I do not want to describe further here how Heisenberg, together with his friends, both in the conversation of 1927 and in a similar one in 1952, this latter dialogue conducted in the face of the National Socialist horrors, tries to find a way out of this schizophrenia of modern culture, to work toward a central order and organization on the basis of a view of natural science that questions its own principles, an order that can become the measure and limit of our action and that belongs equally to the subjective and the objective realms.[6] I would like to try here to find another way to move toward the same goal.

But let us first try to summarize and elucidate what has become clear thus far. The Enlightenment raised the banner of “religion within the bounds of sheer reason” as an ideal. But this purely reasonable religion soon crumbled, above all because it possessed no vital force: a religion that is to serve as the fundamental force for life as a whole does no doubt need to be comprehensible to some extent. Both the collapse of the religions of antiquity and the crisis of Christianity in modern times show us this: if a religion can no longer be reconciled with the elementary certainties of a given view of the world, it collapses. But, on the other hand, religion also needs some authorization that reaches beyond what we can think up for ourselves, for only thus will the unconditional demand it makes upon man be acceptable. So it was that, after the end of the Enlightenment, being aware of how religion is indispensable, people sought for a new sphere for religion, within which it might be able to continue to exist, beyond the assaults of the progress of rational knowledge, upon some unattainable planet, so to speak, where this posed no threat. That is why “feeling” was assigned to it as its own domain within human existence. Schleiermacher was the great theorist of this new concept of religion: “Action is art, speculation is science, religion is the sense of and the taste for the infinite”,[7] was his definition. Faust’s reply to Gretchen’s question about religion has become proverbial: “Feeling is all. The name is just noise and smoke.” Yet religion, however necessary its separation from the plane of science may be, cannot be pigeonholed in a particular area. That is what it is there for, to integrate man in his entirety, to unite feeling, understanding, and will and to mediate between them, and to offer some answer to the demand made by everything as a whole, the demands of living and dying, of society and myself, of present and future. It should not claim to be able to solve problems in areas that work by their own laws, but it must make men capable of taking those ultimate decisions in which the whole of man and of the world is always at stake. And that is precisely what we are lacking, in that nowadays we divide the world into discrete areas and are thereby able to dominate it in our thought and action in a way that could previously hardly be imagined, yet the unavoidable questions concerning truth and values, life and death, become thereby ever more unanswerable.

The present-day crisis is due to the fact that the connecting link between the subjective and objective realms has disappeared, that reason and feeling are drifting apart, and that both are ailing because of it. Reason that operates in specialized areas in fact gains enormously in strength and capability, but because it is standardized according to a single type of certainty and rationality, it no longer offers any perspective on the fundamental questions of mankind. The result is an unhealthy overdevelopment in the realm of technical and pragmatic knowledge, as against a shrinking in that of basic fundamentals, and thus the balance between them is disturbed in a way that may be fatal for man’s humanity. On the other hand, religion today has by no means been made redundant. In many ways there is indeed a real boom in religion, but religion that collapses into particularism, not infrequently parting company with its sublime spiritual context, and that—instead of uplifting man—promises him greater power and the satisfaction of his needs. People look for what is irrational, superstitious, and magical; there is a danger of their falling back into an anarchic and destructive form of relationship with hidden powers and forces. We might be tempted to say that there is no crisis for religion today, but there is a crisis for Christianity. But I would disagree. For the mere spread of religious phenomena, or of those resembling religion, is not the same as a flourishing of religion. If there is a boom in defective forms of religious practice, that does indeed confirm that religion is not declining, yet it still shows that it is in a serious state of crisis. Even the illusion that in the place of a worn-out Christianity the Asiatic religions or Islam are a rising force is deceptive. It is quite obvious that in China and Japan the great traditional religions have proved incapable of resisting modern ideologies, or they do so only feebly. Yet even the religious vitality of India does not change the fact that there, too, new questions and old traditions have not as yet succeeded in coming to terms with each other. To what extent the new surge forward of the Islamic world is fuelled by truly religious forces is equally open to question. In many places, as we can see, there is the danger of a pathological development of the autonomy of feeling, which only reinforces that threat of horrifying things about which Pauli, Heisenberg, and Fest have been telling us.

There is nothing else for it: reason and religion will have to come together again, without merging into each other. It is not a matter of preserving the interests of old religious bodies. It is for the sake of man and the world. And neither of them, it is clear, can be saved unless God reappears in a convincing fashion. No one can claim to be sure of the way to deal with this emergency. That is impossible, if only because in a free society truth can find no other way to prevail, and should seek no other way, than simply by power of persuasion; yet persuasion can only be achieved with difficulty amid the multitude of pressures and demands to which people are subjected. We must venture an attempt to find the way, however, so as to make plausible once more, through various converging indications, something that for the most part lies far beyond the horizon of our own interests.

The God of Abraham

I have no intention here of taking up Heisenberg’s attempt to find a way of transcending the limitations of science on the basis of the inherent logic of scientific thought, so as to attain the “central order and organization”, however rewarding this effort may be and however indispensable. In this lecture I shall be aiming to disentangle, so to speak, the inner rationale of Christianity. The method will be that of asking what it actually was that made Christianity so persuasive, amid the collapse of the religions of antiquity, that it could, on the one hand, absorb the decline of that world and, at the same time, be able to pass on its answers to the new forces entering upon the stage of world history, the Germans and the Slavs, in such a way that, despite many radical changes and much destruction, a mode of understanding reality came into being that lasted for over fifteen hundred years, in which the old world and the new could form a unity. Here we meet with a difficulty. Christian faith is not a system. It cannot be portrayed as a complete, finished intellectual construction. It is a path, and it is characteristic of a path that it only becomes recognizable if you enter on it and start following it. This is true in two senses: for any individual, Christianity only opens up in the experiment of going along with others; and as a whole it can only be grasped as a historical path, whose main course I should like to sketch out in broad outline.

The path begins with Abraham. In the brief sketch I am attempting I cannot of course plunge into the undergrowth of multifarious hypotheses as to what may be regarded as historical in these old stories and what cannot, nor do I wish to do so. It is only a matter here of asking how these texts themselves, in the form in which they eventually became part of history, saw this path. The first thing to be said is that Abraham was someone who knew that God was speaking to him and who shaped his life on the basis of what was said. For comparison we might think of Socrates, whose “daemon” gave him a remarkable sort of inspiration—not, indeed, any positive revelation, but something that turned him onto another track whenever he was inclined just to follow his own ideas or to agree with the general opinion.[8] What can we make out about this God of Abraham’s? He certainly does not yet appear as making the monotheistic claims of the only God of all mankind and of the whole world, yet he does have quite specific traits. He is not the God of a particular nation, of a particular country; not the God of some particular sphere or realm, of the air or of water, and so forth, which were, in the religious context of the time, among the most important manifestations of divinity. He is the God of one person, of Abraham. This peculiarity, that he did not belong to a country, a people, a sphere of life, but related himself to a person, has two consequences worthy of note.

The first consequence was that for those people who belonged to him, for those he had chosen, this God was powerful everywhere. His power is not restricted by geographical or any other boundaries; he is able to accompany the person concerned, to guard him and guide him wherever he chooses and wherever he goes. Even the promise of land does not make him just God of a particular land, which would thenceforth be his only land. It shows, rather, that he can distribute lands as he chooses. We can therefore say that the personal God has effective power without limitations of space. Then there is a second thing, that he also has power without limitations of time, indeed, his way of speaking and acting essentially bears on the future. The dimension of his existence seems, at least at first sight, to be principally that of futurity, since he gives very little that is present. All the important things are given in the category of promise of what is to come—the blessing, the land. That means that he is plainly in control of the future, of time. For the persons concerned, this involves an attitude of a quite particular kind. They always have to live outward, beyond the present moment, life in a state of reaching out toward something else, something greater. The present moment is relativized. If, finally—and this could represent a third element—we refer to the particular character of this God, his “otherness” over against other people and other things, with the concept of “holiness”, then it becomes clear that this holiness, his being himself, has something to do with the dignity of man, with his moral integrity, as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah shows us. In this story there clearly appears, on one hand, the care and the kindness of this God, who is willing to spare even the wicked for the sake of a few good people; yet, on the other hand, there is at the same time the rejection of what may damage the dignity of man, which indeed takes effect in the judgment upon the two cities.

The Crisis and the Enlarging of Israel’s Faith in the Exile

In the subsequent development of the league of twelve tribes, together with their taking possession of the land, the rise of the monarchy, the building of the Temple, and with the giving of a highly diversified and detailed cultic law, the religion of Israel seems to a great extent to enter the realm of the kind of religion typical of the Near East. The God of the Fathers, the God of Sinai, has now become the God of a people, the God of a country, of a particular ordered way of life. That that was not all, and that in all the to-and-fro of religious life in Israel the particular and distinctive elements of its faith in God survived, and indeed developed further, can be seen at the time of the Exile. In the normal way of things, a God who loses his land, who leaves his people defeated and is unable to protect his sanctuary, is a God who has been overthrown. He has no more say in things. He vanishes from history. When Israel went into exile, quite astonishingly, the opposite happened. The stature of this God, the way he was completely different from the other divinities in the religions of the world, was now apparent, and the faith of Israel at last took on its true form and stature. This God could afford to let others have his land because he was not tied down to any country. He could allow his people to be defeated so as to awaken it thereby from its false religious dream. He was not dependent on this people, yet nevertheless he did not abandon them in their hour of defeat. He was not dependent upon the Temple or on the cult celebrated there, as was then commonly supposed: people gave nourishment to the gods, and the gods maintained the world. No, he did not need this cult, which to some extent had concealed his real being. Thus, together with a more profound concept of God, a new idea of worship developed. Certainly, since the time of Solomon the personal God of the Fathers had been identified with the high god, the Creator, who is known to all religions, but in general this latter had been excluded from worship, as not being responsible for one’s individual needs. This identification, which had been made in principle, although it had probably hitherto impinged little upon people’s consciousness, now became the driving force for survival of the faith: Israel has no particular God at all but simply worships the one single God. This God spoke to Abraham and chose Israel, but he is in reality the God of all peoples, the universal God who guides the course of all history. The purifying of the idea of worship belongs with this. God needs no sacrifice; he does not have to be nourished by men, because everything belongs to him. The true sacrifice is the man who has become worthy of God. Three hundred years after the Exile, in the similarly severe crisis of the Hellenistic suppression of the Temple cult, the Book of Daniel expressed it thus: “At this time there is no prince, or prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation,. . . no place to make an offering before thee or to find mercy. Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted” (Dan 3:38 = Prayer of Azariah 15-16). At the same time, given the failure of the present time to match up to the power and the goodness of God, the future aspect of Israel’s faith emerges with correspondingly greater emphasis; or, better, we might say that the present is made relative to a wider horizon that runs far beyond the moment, indeed beyond the whole world, so that the present can be properly dealt with and understood.

The Path to a Universal Religion, after the Exile

There are above all two new factors that characterize the five hundred years following the Exile, up to the appearance of Christ. There is first of all the rise of the so-called wisdom literature and the spiritual movement that underpins it. Alongside the law and the prophets, on the basis of whose books a canon of Scripture gradually began to be built up, as a yardstick for the religion of Israel, there appears a third pillar—that is, wisdom.[9] This is at first especially influenced by the Egyptian wisdom tradition, but subsequently it shows more and more evidence of contact with Greek thought. Here the faith in a single God is developed and given greater depth, and the criticism of the other gods, which already appears in the prophets, becomes more radical. The meaning of monotheism is further elucidated, and, associated with an attempt to understand the world in rational fashion, it becomes more rationally persuasive. It is the concept of wisdom that enables the idea of God and the interpretation of the world to be bracketed together. The rationality that is to be seen in the structure of the world is understood as a reflection of the creative wisdom that has produced it. The view of reality that now develops corresponds to some extent to the question Heisenberg formulated in the conversation we referred to in our introduction, when he said: “Is it completely meaningless to imagine, behind the ordering structures and principles of the world as a whole, a ‘consciousness’ whose ‘intention’ these would express?”[10] In the present-day discussion about the interplay of nature and thought, for instance in man, the question of reductibility is articulated: Can the phenomenon of thought be reduced to material terms, or is there some inexplicable element still remaining?[11] In this case, we would be able to talk rather of the opposite perspective: Thought is capable of producing material and is to be regarded as the true point of origin of reality, the starting point from which everything can be explained; the question remains of whether there is not some dark remainder that can no longer be derived in this way? The question has to be asked whether such a view is any less probable than the opinion expressed by Monod, which is to some extent representative of contemporary thinking, that the whole of nature’s concerto has grown up and developed from a few random murmurs of noise,[12] that is to say, that rationality has been derived from the irrational. The view of the wisdom books, which links God and the world through the idea of wisdom and conceives of the world as reflecting the rationality of the Creator, also then permits the association of cosmology with anthropology, that of understanding the world with morality, because wisdom, which builds up matter and the world, is at the same time a moral wisdom, which expresses essential guidelines for living. The whole of the Torah, Israel’s law for living, is now understood as wisdom’s self-portrait, as the translation of wisdom into human language and human instruction. A natural consequence of all this is a similarity to Greek thought, to some themes of Platonism, on one hand, and, on the other, to the Stoic association of morality with the interpretation of the world as divinely inspired.

The question concerning the remaining ungodly, irrational element in the world, which we touched on above, takes on the form in the wisdom literature of a dramatic struggle with the question of theodicy: the experience of suffering in the world becomes a major theme—in a world in which righteousness, goodness, and truth lose out time and again in the face of the unscrupulousness of those who are powerful. This produces, from a quite different starting point, a more profound understanding of morality, which is now dissociated from success and looks for significance precisely in suffering, in the defeat of righteousness. Finally there appears, in Job, the figure of the man from beyond the bounds of Israel whose piety and whose suffering are both exemplary.[13] There is then a second important step, which logically corresponds to the closer inner relationship to the world of Greek thought, to its enlightenment and its philosophy: the transition of Judaism into the Greek world, which took place above all in Alexandria, as the central meeting point of various cultures. The most important step in this process was the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, and the first stage—the translation of the five books of Moses—was completed as early as the third century before Christ. From then up to the first century there developed a Greek canon of sacred books, which was taken over by the Christians as their canon of the Old Testament.[14] The custom of calling this Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures the “Septuagint” (Book of the seventy) derives from the old legend that this translation was the work of seventy scholars. According to Deuteronomy 32: 8, seventy was the number of peoples in the world. Thus this legend may signify that with this translation the Old Testament moved beyond Israel, reaching out to all the peoples of the earth. That was indeed the effect this book had, and its translation did indeed in many respects further accentuate the universalistic trait in Israel’s religion—not least, in its picture of God, since the name of God, JHWH, no longer appeared as such but was replaced by the word Kyrios, ”Lord”. Thus the Old Testament’s spiritual concept of God was further developed, which was for practical purposes entirely consistent with the inner tendency of the development we have mentioned.

The faith of Israel, translated into Greek, insofar as it was reflected in its sacred books, quickly became an object of fascination for the enlightened minds of the ancient world, whose religion had, since the criticisms leveled by Socrates, suffered an increasing loss of credibility. In Socratic thought, however—in contrast to that of the sophistic movement—it was not scepticism, or even cynicism or mere pragmatism, that was the decisive element; here the longing for an appropriate form of religion, which would yet go beyond the capacities of reason itself, had come into play. Thus, on the one hand, people sought after the promises of the mystery cults that were spreading from the East, and, on the other hand, the Jewish faith looked like it might offer the answer that would save them. There was a connection made between God and the world, between rational thought and revelation, which exactly answered the requirements of reason and of the deeper religious longings. There was monotheism—and not deriving from philosophical speculation, in such a way that it would have no real religious force, because one cannot worship one’s own intellectual concepts, one’s own philosophical hypotheses. This monotheism derived from original religious experience and thus confirmed from above, so to speak, what thought had hesitantly been groping for. For the finest circles in late antiquity, the religion of Israel must have had something of the same fascination as did the Chinese world for Western Europe in the time of the Enlightenment, when people thought (mistakenly, as we now know) that they had at last discovered a society without any revelation or any mysteries, with a religion of pure morality and reason. Thus, all across the ancient world, there developed a network of so-called “God-fearers”, who attached themselves to the synagogue and its pure worship of the word, who felt sure that in attaching themselves to the faith of Israel they were coming into contact with the one God. This network of God-fearers, who believed in the faith of Israel in its Greek guise, was the precondition for the Christian mission: Christianity was that form of Judaism, with a universal dimension, in which what the Old Testament had hitherto been yet unable to give was now fully granted.

Christianity as the Synthesis of Faith and Reason

The faith of Israel, as portrayed in the Septuagint, demonstrated the harmony between God and world, between reason and mystery. It gave moral guidance, but there was still something missing: the universal God was still linked to a particular people; the universal morality was linked to most particular ways of life, which could simply not be lived at all outside of Israel; spiritual worship was still connected with Temple rituals, which one could well interpret symbolically but which had basically been rendered obsolete by the prophetic spirit and could not be appropriated by an inquiring mind. A non-Jew could only ever stand in the outer circle of this religion. He remained a “proselyte”, because full membership was bound up with physical descent from Abraham, with a national community. A dilemma also remained about how far specific Jewishness was needed in order for someone to be able to serve God aright and about who should be able to draw the line between what was indispensable and what was obsolete or historically incidental, the result of chance. Full universalism was impossible, because full membership for everyone was impossible. Christianity first brought about a breakthrough here, having “broken down the dividing wall” (Eph 2:14), and it did so in a threefold sense: the blood relationship with the patriarch is no longer necessary, because being united with Jesus brings about full membership, the true relationship. Everyone can now belong to this God; all men are to be permitted and to be able to become his people. The particularist legal and moral structures are no longer binding; they have become a historical prologue, because everything has been brought together in the person of Jesus Christ, and anyone who follows him is carrying within himself, and fulfilling, the whole essence of the law. The old cult has become invalid and has been abolished in Jesus’ self-offering to God and to mankind, which now appears as the true sacrifice, as the spiritual worship in which God and man embrace one another and are reconciled—something for which the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, stands there as a concrete and evermore present assurance. Perhaps the finest and most succinct expression of this new Christian synthesis is to be found in a confession in the First Letter of Saint John: “we know and believe the love” (1 Jn 4:16). Christ had become for these people the discovery of creative love; the rational principle of the universe had revealed itself as love—as that greater reason which accepts into itself even darkness and irrationality and heals them.

Thus the spiritual development that could be perceived in Israel’s path had attained its goal, the uninterrupted universality that was now a practical possibility. Reason and mystery had met together; the very fact that the whole had been brought together in one person had opened the door for everyone: through the one God, all could become brothers and sisters. And the theme of hope and the present moment took on a new form: the present was running toward the Risen One, toward a world in which God would be all in all. But precisely on that account, the present became significant and valuable as being present, permeated as it already was by the close presence of the Risen One, so that death no longer had the last word.

Seeking How to Make Truth Readily Acceptable

Can this evident truth, which at that time struck the ancient world to its depths and transformed it, be reinstated? Or is it irrevocably lost? What is standing in its way? There are many reasons for the current collapse, but I would say that the most important consists of the self-limitation of reason, which is paradoxically resting upon its laurels: the laws of method that brought it success have, through being generalized, become its prison. Natural science, which has built a new world, rests upon a philosophical foundation whose origin must be sought in Plato.[15] Copernicus, Galileo, and even Newton were Platonists. Their basic assumption was that the world is mathematically and rationally structured and that, starting from this assumption, we can decipher it and by experiment can make it equally comprehensible and useful. The innovation consisted in associating Platonism and an empirical approach, ideal and experiment. The experiment is based on an existing interpretative concept, which is then tried out in a practical test, corrected, and opened up to further questions. This mathematical anticipation alone can permit subsequent generalization, the recognition of laws, which then make possible appropriate action. All our ideas about natural science and all practical applications are based on the assumption that the world is ordered according to rational, spiritual laws, is imbued with rationality that can be traced out and copied by our reason. At the same time, however, our perception of it is associated with the test of experience.

Any thinking that goes beyond this connection, that tries to look at reason in itself or to see it as preceding the present world, is contrary to the discipline of scientific method and is therefore utterly rejected as being a prescientific or unscientific way of thinking. The Logos, Wisdom, about which the Greeks spoke, on the one hand, and the Israelites, on the other, has been taken back into the material world and cannot be addressed outside of it. Within the specific path followed by natural science, this limitation is necessary and right. If, however, it is declared to be the absolute and unsurpassable form of human thought, then the basis of science itself becomes contradictory; for it is both proclaiming and denying the power of reason. But above all, a self-limiting reason of that kind is an amputated reason. If man cannot use his reason to ask about the essential things in his life, where he comes from and where he is going, about what he should do and may do, about living and dying, but has to leave these decisive questions to feeling, divorced from reason, then he is not elevating reason but dishonoring it. The disintegration of man, thus brought about, results equally in a pathological form of religion and a pathological form of science. It is quite obvious today that with the detachment of religion from its responsibility to reason, pathological forms of religion are constantly increasing. But when we think of scientific projects that set no real value on man, such as cloning, the production of fetuses—that is, of people—simply in order to use their organs for developing pharmaceutical products, or indeed for any economic exploitation, or if we think of the way science is made use of to produce ever more frightful means for the destruction of men and of the world, then it is obvious that there is such a thing as science that has taken a pathological form: science becomes pathological and a threat to life when it takes leave of the moral order of human life, becomes autonomous, and no longer recognizes any standard but its own capabilities.

That means that the scope of reason must be enlarged once more. We have to come out of the prison we have built for ourselves and recognize other forms of ascertaining things, forms in which the whole of man comes into play. What we need is something like what we find in Socrates: a patient readiness, opened up and looking beyond itself. This readiness to look at things, in its time, brought together the two eyes of reason, Athens and Jerusalem, and made possible a new stage in history. We need a new readiness to seek the truth and also the humility to let ourselves be found. The strict application of methodical discipline should not mean just the pursuit of success; it should mean the pursuit of truth and the readiness to find it. That methodological strictness, which again and again lays upon us the obligation to subject ourselves to what we have found, and not just to follow our own wishes, can amount to a great school in being human and can make man capable of recognizing and appreciating truth. The humility that gives way to what has been found and does not try to manipulate it should not, however, become a false modesty that takes away our courage to recognize the truth. All the more must it oppose the pursuit of power, which is only interested in dominating the world and is no longer willing to perceive its inner logic, which sets limits to our desire to dominate. Ecological disasters could serve as a warning to us, that we may see where science is no longer at the service of truth but is destructive both of the world and of man. The ability to hear such warnings, the will to let oneself be purified by the truth, is essential. And I would add that the mystical capacity of the human mind needs to be strengthened again. The capacity to renounce oneself, a greater inner openness, the discipline to withdraw ourselves from noise and from all that presses on our attention, should once more be for all of us goals that we recognize as being among our priorities. We find Paul pleading that the inner man may be strengthened (Eph 3:16). Let us be honest about it: today there is a hypertrophy of the outer man, and his inner strength has been alarmingly weakened.

So as not to remain on too abstract a level, I should like to end by using a picture to make clear what has been said: a picture taken from history. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), in his Dialogues, tells about the last weeks in the life of Saint Benedict. The founder of the monastic order had lain down to sleep in the upper story of a tower, which was reached from below by “a vertical ladder”. He then got up, before the time for night prayers, to keep a nighttime vigil; “He stood at the window and prayed earnestly to almighty God. While he was looking out, in the middle of the dark night, he suddenly saw a light pouring down from above and driving all the darkness of the night away. . . . Something quite marvelous happened in this vision, as he himself later recounted: the whole world was held before his eyes, as if brought together in a single ray of sunshine.”[16] Gregory’s interlocutor countered this story with the same question that springs to the mind of someone hearing it today: “What you have said, that Benedict saw the whole world brought together before his eyes in a single ray of sunshine, is something I have never encountered, and I just cannot imagine it. How could one person ever see the whole world?” The essential sentence in the Pope’s reply is as follows: “If he. . . saw the whole world as one before him, then it was not that heaven and earth became narrower but the visionary’s soul became so wide.”[17]

Every detail is significant in this picture: the night, the tower, the ladder, the upper room, the standing, the window. It all has, over and beyond the topographical and biographical narration, great symbolic depth: by a long and difficult journey, which began in a cave near Subiaco, this man has climbed up the mountain and finally up the tower. His life has been an inner climb, step by step, up the “vertical ladder”. He has reached the tower and, then, the “upper room”, which from the time of the Acts of the Apostles has been understood as a symbol of being brought together and drawn up, rising up out of the world of making and doing. He is standing at the window—he has sought and found the place where he can look out, where the wall of the world has been opened up and he can gaze into the open. He is standing. In monastic tradition, someone standing represents a man who has straightened himself up from being crouched and doubled up and is thus, not only able to stare at the earth, but he has achieved upright status and the ability to look up.[18] Thus he becomes a seer. It is not the world that is narrowed down but the soul that is broadened out, being no longer absorbed in the particular, no longer looking at the trees and unable to see the wood, but now able to view the whole. Even better, he can see the whole because he is looking at it from on high, and he is able to gain this vantage point because he has grown inwardly great. We may hear an echo of the old tradition of man as a microcosm who embraces the whole world. Yet the essential point is this: man has to learn to climb up; he has to grow and broaden out. He has to stand at the window. He must gaze out. And then the light of God can touch him; he can recognize it and can gain from it the true overview. Our being planted on earth should never become so exclusive that we become incapable of ascending, of standing upright. Those great men who, by patient climbing and by the repeated purification they have received in their lives, have become seers and, therefore, pathfinders for the centuries are also relevant to us today. They show us how light may be found even in the night and how we can meet the threats that rise up from the abysses of human existence and can meet the future as men who hope.


[1] W. Heisenberg, Der Teil und das Ganze: Gespräche im Umkreis der Atom-physik (Munich: R. Piper, 1969), p. 117 [Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (New York: Harper and Row, 1971)]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 118; cf. p. 295.

[4] J. Fest, Die schwierige Freiheit: Uber die offene Flanke der offenen Gesellschaft [Difficult freedom: The unguarded flank of the open society] (Berlin: Siedler, 1993), p. 75.

[5] Ibid., p. 79.

[6] Heisenberg, Teil und das Ganze, pp. 288ff.

[7] F. Schleiermacher, Uber die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihrer Veröchtern, Philosophische Bibliothek., vol. 225 (1799; reprt., Hamburg: F. Meiner, 1958), p. 30 [English trans., On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. J. Oman (1893; reprt., New York: Harper, 1958)].

[8] The negative character of this “voice” is made clear, for instance, in Apologia 31d:ϕωνη τις γενομένη. . . ἀέι ἀποτϱέπει . . . πϱοστϱέπει δέ οὐδέποτε. On the form of this voice, see R. Guardini, Der Tod des Sokrates, 5th ed. (Mainz and Paderborn: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1987), pp. 87ff. [English trans., The Death of Socrates: An Interpretation of the Platonic Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948)].

[9] G. von Rad, Weisheit in Israel (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1970) [English trans., Wisdom in Israel, trans. James D. Marton (London: S.C.M. Press, 1972)], still remains basic for understanding the wisdom literature of the Old Testament; see also L. Bouyer, Cosmos (Paris: Cerf, 1982), pp. 99-128 [English trans., Cosmos: The World and the Glory of God, trans. Pierre de Fontnouvelle (Petersham, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1988)].

[10] Heisenberg, Teil und das Ganze, p. 290.

[11] G. Beintrup, Das Leib-Seele-Problem: Eine Einführung [The problem of body and soul: An introduction] (Stuttgart, 1996), offers a good account of the current discussion of this subject. See also O. B. Linke and M. Kurthen, Parallelitat von Gehirn du Seele: Neurowissenschaf und Leib-Seele-Problem [The parallel between brain and soul: Neurology and the problem of body and soul] (Stuttgart, 1988).

[12] J. Monod, Zufall und Notwendigkeit: Philosophische Fragen der modernen Biologie, trans. from the French [Le Hasard et la necessite: Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne], 5th ed. (Munich: Piper, 1973), p. 149 [English trans., Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York: Knopf, 1971)], cf. pp. 141f.: “It thus necessarily follows that only chance alone can be the basis of each and every innovation, every creative development in living nature. Sheer chance, nothing but chance, blind and absolute freedom as the foundation of the marvelous construction of evolution—this central insight of modern biology is today no longer merely one among various possible, or at least imaginable, hypotheses; it is the only conceivable hypothesis, since it is the only one that corresponds to the facts of observation and experience.” Cf. J. Ratzinger, Im Anfang schuf Gott, 2nd ed. (Einsiedeln and Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 1996), pp. 53-59 [English trans., In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990)].

[13] On Job one should consult above all the great commentary of G. Ravasi, Giobbe: Traduzione e commento, 3rd ed. (Rome: Edizioni Borla, 1993), which also gives detailed consideration to the modern philosophical and theological interpretations of this figure.

[14] On the question ofthe relationship between the Hebrew and Greek canon and the Christian Old Testament, see C. Dohmen, “Der Biblische Kanon in der Diskussion” [The canon of the Bible in discussion], Theologische Revue 91 (1995): 451-59; A. Schenker, “Septuaginta und christliche Bibel” [The Septuagint and the Christian Bible], Theologische Revue 91 (1995): 459-64.

[15] On the Platonic origins of modern natural science, see N. Schiffers, Fragen der Physik an die Theologie [Questions posed by physics to theology] (Düsseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 1968); W. Heisenberg, Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik, 7th ed. (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1959) [English trans., The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958)]. Cf. also Monod, Zufall und Notwendigkeit, e.g., p. 133, where he explicitly portrays modern biology as owing much to Platonism: The “hopes of the most convinced Platonist”, he says, have been “more than fulfilled” by modern discoveries. B. d’Espagnat, “La Physique actuelle et la philosophie” [Current physics and philosophy], Revue des sciences morales etpolitiques, 1997, no. 3:29-45, is also prepared to allow that modern physics resembles the ideas of Plato and Plotinus in some respects.

[16] Gregory the Great, Dialogi 2:35:1-3; I have used the Latin-German edition of the Salzburg Conference of Abbots: Gregory the Great, Der heilige Benedikt: Buch II der Dialoge (St. Ottilien: EOS-Verlag, 1995). My interpretation is heavily indebted to the excellent introduction to be found there, especially pp. 53-64.

[17] Ibid., 2:35:5 and 7.

[18] See the interpretation offered in ibid., pp. 60-63.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Freedom and Truth

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

1. The Question

In the consciousness of mankind today, freedom is largely regarded as the greatest good there is, after which all other good things have to take their place. In legislation, artistic freedom and freedom of speech take precedence over every other moral value. Values that conflict with freedom, that could lead to its being restricted, appear as shackles, as “taboos”, that is to say, as relics of archaic prohibitions and anxieties. Political action has to demonstrate that it furthers freedom. Even religion can make an impression only by depicting itself as a force for freedom for man and for mankind. In the scale of values with which man is concerned, to live a life worthy of humanity, freedom seems to be the truly fundamental value and to be the really basic human right of them all. The concept of truth, on the other hand, we greet rather with some suspicion: we recall how many opinions and systems have already laid claim to the concept of truth; how often the claim to truth in that way has been the means of limiting freedom. In addition there is the scepticism fostered by natural science regarding anything that cannot be precisely explained or demonstrated: that all seems in the final analysis to be just subjective judgment, which cannot claim to be obligatory for people in general. The modern attitude to truth shows itself most succinctly in Pilate’s words:

What is truth? Anyone who claims to be serving truthwith his life, and with his words and actions, must be prepared to be regardedas an enthusiast or a fanatic. For “Our line of sight to all above is blocked”;this quotation from Goethe’s Faust sums up the way we all feel about it.

There is no doubt that we have reason enough, in the face of a sentimental and all-too-confident claim to truth, to ask: What is truth? Yet we have just as much reason to put the question: What is freedom? What do we actually mean when we praise freedom and set it on the highest level of our scale of values? I believe that the content generally associated with the demand for freedom is most accurately described in the words Karl Marx once used to express his dream of freedom. The state of affairs in the future Communist society will make it possible “to do one thing today, another tomorrow, to go shooting in the morning and fishing in the afternoon and in the evening look after the cattle, to indulge in criticism after dinner, just as the fancy takes me”.[1] It is just in this way that the average attitude, without thinking about it, understands by “freedom” the right, and the practical possibility, of doing everything we wish and not having to do anything we do not wish to do. Putting it another way, freedom would mean that our own will was the only criterion for our action and that this will would be able to want to do anything and also be able to put into practice anything it wanted. At this point the question arises, of course: How free in fact is our will? And how rational is it?—And, is an irrational will truly a free will? Is irrational freedom truly freedom? Is it really a good thing? Does not the definition of freedom, as being able to decide to do anything and being able to do what we decide, have to be expanded to include the connection with reason, with mankind as a whole, in order to avoid becoming tyranny and unreason? And will not seeking for the common reason of all men, and thus the mutual compatibility of freedoms, be a part of the interplay of reason and the will? It is obvious that the question of truth is concealed within the question of the rationality of the will and its relation to reason.

We are brought up against such questions, not merely by abstract philosophical reflections, but also by our quite concrete situation in a society in which the demand for freedom is indeed unbroken yet doubts concerning all previous forms of movements for freedom and systems for ensuring freedom appear in ever more dramatic form. Let us not forget that Marxism, as the one great political force of our twentieth century, made its appearance with the claim to be bringing a new world of freedom and of free people. This very promise of knowing the scientifically guaranteed way to freedom, and of creating the new world, drew to it many of the boldest spirits of our age; ultimately, it even appeared as the force through which the Christian teaching of redemption could be transformed into a realistic practical means for liberation—as the force that could bring the Kingdom of God as the true kingdom of men. The collapse of realist socialism in the East European states has not quite laid aside all such hopes, and here and there they still subsist, silently awaiting some new form. There was no real spiritual defeat corresponding to the political and economic collapse, and to that extent the questions raised by Marxism have by no means been solved. Even so, the fact that his system did not work in the way that had been promised is quite clear. No one can any longer seriously deny that what was supposed to be a movement to bring freedom was, along with National Socialism, the greatest system of slavery in modern history: the extent of the cynical destruction of human beings and of the world is very often passed over in shame and silence, but no one can deny it any longer.

The moral superiority of the liberal system in politics and the economy that thus emerged arouses no enthusiasm, even so. The number of those who have no share in the fruits of this freedom is too great—those, indeed, who lose every kind of freedom: being out of work has once more become a mass phenomenon; the feeling of not being needed, of being superfluous, torments people no less than material poverty. Unscrupulous exploitation is becoming widespread; organized crime is making use of the opportunities of the free world; and in the midst of it all the ghost of meaninglessness is wandering around. At the Salzburg Further Education sessions in 1995, the Polish philosopher Andrej Szczypiorski described in pitiless clarity the dilemma of freedom that came into being with the fall of the wall; it is worthwhile listening to him at some length:

No doubt canremain that capitalism was a great step forward. And equally, no doubt canremain that it failed to fulfill expectations. In capitalism, the cry of thegreat masses is always to be heard, the masses whose cravings are unfulfilled. . . . The declineof the Soviet conception of the world and of man embodied in its political andsocial practice meant the liberation of millions of human lives out of serfdom.But in terms of the heritage of European thought, in the light of the traditionof the last two hundred years, the anti-Communist revolution also means the endof the illusions of the Enlightenment, that is, the destruction of theintellectual concept that formed the basis of the development of early Europe. . . . A remarkableage of growing uniformity in development, hitherto unknown anywhere, has begun.And suddenly it has appeared—probably for the first time in history—as if therewere only a single recipe, a single way forward, one single model, and just oneway of shaping the future. And people lost their belief in the sense of thetransformations that were taking place. They lost hope in the possibility ofchanging the world at all and in its being worth the effort to change theworld. . . . Yet the current lack of any alternative inducespeople to ask entirely new questions. The first question is: Perhaps the Westwas not right, after all? The second question: If the West was not right, thenwho was right? Because no doubt remains, for everyone in Europe, that Communismwas not right, then the third question arises: Perhaps there is no such thingas being right? But if that is the case, then the entire intellectual heritageof the Enlightenment is worthless. . . . Perhaps the veteran Enlightenment steam engine,after two hundred years of useful and undisturbed work, has stopped before oureyes and with our cooperation. And the steam is just going up into the air. Ifthat is in fact so, then the outlook is indeed dark.[2]

However much one might put counterquestions here, the realism and the logic of Szczypiorski’s fundamental questions cannot be set aside; yet at the same time, the diagnosis is so oppressive that one cannot just stand still in the face of it. Was no one right? Perhaps there is no such thing as being right? Are the foundations of the European Enlightenment, upon which our path to freedom is built, false—or at least, defective? The question, “What is freedom?” is ultimately no less complicated than the question, “What is truth?” The dilemma of the Enlightenment, into which we have undeniably fallen, obliges us to put these two questions anew and also to renew our search for the relation between the two. To find a way forward, we have therefore to reconsider the starting point of the modern path to freedom; the correction to our course, which we obviously need so that paths may become visible once more in the darkness before us, must be made on the basis of the starting points themselves and be worked out from there. Here, of course, I can only try to highlight a couple of points, to hint at some of the strong points and the dangers of the modern way, so as to prompt new reflections.

2. The Problems Associated with the Modern History of Freedom and with Its Conception of Freedom

There is no doubt: the era we call modern times has been determined from the beginning by the theme of freedom; the striving for new forms of freedom is the only basis upon which to justify such a division into periods. Luther’s controversial polemic “The Freedom of the Christian Man” immediately strikes the note of this theme in strong tones.[3] It was the call of freedom that caught men’s ear, that set off a real avalanche and brought into being, from the writings of a monk, a mass movement that completely changed the face of the medieval world. It was a matter of the freedom of conscience as against ecclesiastical authority, that is, of the inmost freedom man has. It is not social institutions that save man, but his own personal faith in Christ. The fact that, suddenly, the whole institutional system of the medieval Church no longer ultimately counted for anything was felt to be an enormous liberating thrust. The institutions that were actually supposed to support and save people appeared to be a burden; they were no longer obligatory, which meant they no longer had any significance for redemption. Redemption is liberation, being liberated from the yoke of supra-individual institutions. Even if one ought not to talk about the individualism of the Reformation, this new significance of the individual and the transposition of the relationship between the individual conscience and authority is nonetheless a characteristic trait. This movement for liberation did of course remain limited to the religious realm. Wherever it became a political program, as in the peasants’ wars and in the Baptists’ movement, Luther vigorously opposed it. In the political sphere, quite to the contrary, with the creation of state churches and provincial churches, worldly authority was increased and strengthened. In the Anglo-Saxon sphere, the Free Churches then broke out of the mold of this amalgamation of religious and political power structures and thus became heralds of a new historical structure, which then in the second phase of the modern period, the Enlightenment, took clear shape.

What the whole Enlightenment has in common is the desire for emancipation, first of all in the sense of Kant’s sapere aude—; dare to use your reason for yourself. It is a matter of the individual reason breaking free of the constraints of authority, which should in every case be subjected to critical examination. Only what can be rationally comprehended should be allowed to continue. This philosophical program is of its nature also a political program: reason alone should rule; there should ultimately be no authority other than reason. Only what can be readily understood should be allowed. What is not “rational”, that is, able to be readily understood, cannot be obligatory either. This basic trend of the Enlightenment is, however, presented in various, indeed contradictory, social philosophies and political programs. It seems to me we may distinguish two main tendencies: the Anglo-Saxon trend, which is more inclined to natural law and tends toward constitutional democracy as being the only system realistically ensuring freedom; over against that, the radical direction launched by Rousseau, which ultimately aims at complete freedom from any rule. The natural law school of thought criticizes positive law and concrete forms of rule by the standard of the inherent rights of human existence, which are prior to all legal ordinances and constitute their standard and their basis. “Man is created free, is free even if he is born in chains”, is what Friedrick Schiller said to the same effect. That is not a statement to comfort slaves with metaphysical thoughts; rather, it is a polemical assertion, a principle for action. Legal systems that create slavery are systems of injustice. Man has rights on the basis of his creation, rights that must be brought into effect, that justice may prevail. Freedom is not granted to man from without; he has rights because he was created free. The idea of human rights developed from this way of thinking, as the Magna Carta of the movement for freedom.

If “nature” is being talked about here, then what is meant is not just a system of biological processes. Rather, what is being said is that prior to all systems of order, within man himself, on the basis of his nature, there are rights. In that sense, the idea of human rights is in the first instance a revolutionary idea: it stands against the absolutism of the state, against the arbitrary will of positive legislation. Yet it is also a metaphysical idea: inherent in being itself there is an ethical and legal claim. Being is not blindly material, so that one might shape it in accordance with sheer utilitarian aims. Nature bears spirit within it, bears ethical value and dignity, and thus at the same time constitutes the legal claim to our liberation and the standard for this. What we have here is in principle identical with the concept of nature in Romans 2, which was inspired by Stoic teaching transformed by the theology of creation: the pagans know the law “from nature” and are thus a law for themselves (Rom 2:14).

What we may regard as specifically enlightened and modern in this line of thought is that the legal claims of nature against the existing institutions of government take the form above all of calling for the rights of the individual over against the state and against institutions. It is seen as being the nature of man, above all, that he has rights against society, rights that have to be protected from society: the institution appears as the opposite pole to freedom; the individual appears as supporting freedom and as its goal, the emancipation of the individual.

Therein this tendency joins forces with the second movement, which was from the start more radical: for Rousseau, everything created by reason and the will is contrary to nature, is a corruption and a contradiction of it. The concept of nature is not so much itself shaped here by the idea of justice, so that the natural law is prior to all of our institutions. Rousseau’s concept of nature is antimetaphysical, directed toward the dream of a complete freedom unregulated by anything.[4] Something similar again makes its appearance with Nietzsche, who sets the intoxicating Dionysiac element in opposition to the ordered Apollonian, conjuring up primeval oppositions from the history of religion: the ordering activity of reason that Apollo stands for spoils the free and untrammeled intoxication of nature.[5] Klages took up the same theme, with the idea of spirit as that which opposes the soul: The spirit is not the great new gift that alone brings freedom for the first time; rather, it is the factor that undermines our original self with its passion and freedom.[6] In a certain sense this attack on the spirit is anti-Enlightenment, and to that extent National Socialism, with its hostility to the Enlightenment and its adoration of “blood and soil”, could claim support from such tendencies. Yet the basic theme of the Enlightenment, the cry for freedom, is not just at work here; rather, it has been taken to its most extreme form. In the political radicalism of the last century, as of the present one, in contrast to the domesticated democratic form of freedom, such movements have broken out again and again, in many different forms. The French Revolution, which had started with an idea of constitutional democracy, quickly threw off these shackles and set out on the road of Rousseau and of anarchic concepts of freedom; and in doing so it inevitably turned into a bloodthirsty dictatorship.

Marxism, too, continues this radical line: it has always criticized democratic freedom as merely apparent freedom and has promised a better and more radical freedom. Indeed, its fascination derived from the fact that it promised a greater and more daring freedom than is ever realized in democracies. Two aspects of the Marxist system seem to me to be of particular importance for the whole problem of freedom in the modern era and for the question of freedom and truth:

a. Marxism makes the assumption that freedom is indivisible, that is, that it only exists as such when it is the freedom of everyone. Freedom is linked to equality: in order for freedom to exist, equality must first be restored. That means that in pursuit of the goal of complete freedom, some renunciation of freedom is required. The solidarity of those who are fighting for the common freedom of all must precede the establishment of individual freedoms. The quotation from Marx with which we started shows that the end is once more nonetheless the idea of the limitless freedom of the individual, but for the present the social aspect takes priority; equality takes priority over freedom, and therefore the rights of society as against the individual.

b. Associated with that is the assumption that the freedom of the individual is dependent upon the structure of the whole and that the struggle for freedom must for the moment be waged, not as a struggle for the rights of the individual, but as the struggle for a changed social structure in the world. As to the question of what this structure would look like and, hence, what the rational means to achieve it would be, Marxism runs out of breath at that point. For a blind man could see that none of the structures that have been constructed, for the sake of which the renunciation of freedom is demanded, truly render freedom possible. But intellectuals are blind where their mental constructs are concerned. That is why they could dispense with any realism and continue to struggle for a system whose promises just could not be kept. People took refuge in mythology: the new structures would produce a new man—for indeed, the promises could only work with new men, with quite different men. If the moral character of Marxism lies in promoting solidarity and in the idea of the indivisibility of freedom, in its heralding of a new man a lie could be seen that also paralyzed the initial moral effort. Partial truths are made subordinate to a lie, and thus the whole thing comes to grief: the lies about freedom cancel out the elements of truth. Freedom without truth is no freedom.

That is where we are standing now. We have come back again to the problems that Szczypiorski formulated in such drastic fashion in Salzburg. We now know what is a lie—at least in relation to the forms Marxism has hitherto taken. But we are still a long way from knowing what is true. Indeed, our fear is growing: Perhaps there is no such thing as truth? Perhaps there is no such thing as being right or the right thing to do? Perhaps we have to be satisfied with a minimum of absolutely necessary institutions? Yet perhaps even those may not work, as the most recent developments in the Balkans and in so many other parts of the world show us? Scepticism is growing, and the reasons for it are becoming stronger, yet the desire for the absolute is not to be set aside.

The feeling that democracy is still not the right form of freedom is fairly general and is steadily becoming more widespread. One cannot simply push aside the Marxist criticism of democracy: How free are elections? To what extent is the people’s will manipulated by publicity, that is, by capital, by the agency of a few people who dominate public opinion? Is there not a new oligarchy of the people who decide what is modern and progressive, what somebody enlightened has to think? How fearsome this oligarchy is, the way they can publicly execute people, is well enough known. Anyone who gets in their way is an enemy of freedom because he is preventing freedom of expression. And what about the way public opinion is shaped in democratically representative councils and committees? Who can still believe that the general good is what really determines their decisions? Who can doubt the power of interests whose dirty hands are being seen more and more often? And is this system of majority and minority really a system of freedom at all? Are not alliances in this or that interest, of every kind, becoming visibly stronger than the actual political representation in Parliament? In this confusion of forces the problem of society becoming ungovernable is an ever greater threat: the desire of opposing groups for domination blocks the freedom of the whole.

There is, no doubt, flirtation with authoritarian solutions, a flight from uncontrolled freedom. But this attitude is not yet characteristic of the spirit of this century. The radical tendency of the Enlightenment has not lost its effectiveness; indeed, it is growing stronger. Precisely in view of the limitations of democracy, the call for total freedom is growing louder. Now as ever—indeed, quite noticeably—“law and order” is seen as the opposite of freedom. Now as ever, institutions, tradition, authority as such appear as the opposite pole from freedom. The anarchistic trait in the demand for freedom is growing stronger, because people are not satisfied with the ordered forms of social freedom. The great promises of the dawn of the modern era were not redeemed, yet their fascination is unbroken. Nowadays the democratically ordered form of freedom can no longer be defended just by this or that reform of the law. The foundations are being called into question. It is a matter of what man is and of how he, as an individual and as a whole, can live the right life.

One can see it: the political, the philosophical, and the religious problems of freedom have become an indissoluble whole; anyone looking for ways forward into the future must keep the whole of this in view and cannot make do with superficial pragmatic action. Before I attempt to give a few indications, in the final section, as to the ways forward that seem to me to be open to us, I should like to glance at what is perhaps the most radical philosophy of freedom in this past century, that of J. P. Sartre, where the whole seriousness and stature of the question become clear. Sartre regards the freedom of man as being his damnation. In contrast to animals, man has no “nature”. An animal lives its life according to the pattern of law that it has inbuilt within it; it does not need to consider what to do with its life. But the being of man is undetermined. It is an open question. I have to decide for myself what I understand by “being a man”, what I can do about it, what shape I can give it. Man has no nature but is simply freedom. He has to live his life in some direction or other, yet it runs out into nothingness even so. His meaningless freedom is man’s hell. What is exciting about this proposition is that the separation of freedom and truth is carried through quite radically here: there is no truth. Freedom is without direction or measure.[7] Yet this complete absence of truth, the complete absence also of any kind of moral or metaphysical restraint, the absolute anarchic freedom of man constituted by his self-determination, is revealed, for anyone who tries to live it out, not as the most sublime exaltation of existence, but as a life of nothingness, as absolute emptiness, as the definition of damnation. In this extrapolation of a radical concept of freedom, which was for Sartre his experience of life, it becomes clear that being freed from truth does not engender pure freedom; rather, it abolishes it. The anarchistic freedom, taken to a radical conclusion, does not redeem man; rather, it makes him into a faulty creation, living without meaning.

3. Freedom and Truth

3.1 On the Nature of Human Freedom

Following this attempt to understand the origins of our problems, and thus to bring their inner impulse before us, it is now time to look for an answer. It must have become clear that the crisis in the history of freedom in which we find ourselves arises from an unclarified and one-sided conception of freedom. On the one hand, people have isolated the concept of freedom and have thereby distorted it: freedom is good, but it is only good in association with other good things, with which it constitutes an indissoluble whole. On the other hand, people have narrowed down the concept of freedom to individual rights and freedoms and have thus robbed it of its human verity. I should like to make clear the problem of this understanding of freedom with one concrete example, which can at the same time open up for us the way toward a more appropriate conception of freedom. I mean the question of abortion. In the radical version of the Enlightenment’s individualistic tendency, abortion appears to be one of the rights of freedom: a woman must be able to have total control over herself. She must have the freedom to bring a child into the world or to rid herself of it. She must be able to make decisions concerning herself, and nobody else—so we are told—can impose upon her, from without, any ultimately binding norm. It is a matter of the right of self-determination. But, in an abortion, is the woman actually making a decision that concerns herself? Is she not in fact making a decision about someone else—deciding that this other person should be allowed no freedom, that the sphere of freedom—his life—should be taken away from him because it is in competition with her own freedom? And thus we should ask: What kind of a freedom is this that numbers among its rights that of abolishing someone else’s freedom right from the start?

Now people should not say that the problem of abortion touches on a specific special case and does not help to clarify the problem of freedom as a whole. On the contrary, in this particular example the basic shape of human freedom, its typically human character, becomes clear. For what is at issue here? The being of another person is so closely interwoven with the being of this first person, the mother, that for the moment it can only exist at all in bodily association with the mother, in a physical union with her, which nonetheless does not abolish its otherness and does not permit us to dispute its being itself. Of course, this being itself is, in quite radical fashion, a being from the other person, through the other person; conversely, the being of the other person—the mother—is forced through this coexistence into an existence-for-someone that contradicts its own self-will and is thus experienced as the contrary of its own freedom. Now, we have to add that the child, even when he is born and the outward form of being-from and of coexistence changes, remains even so just as dependent, just as much in need of someone being there for it. Of course, you can push it away into a home and assign someone else to be there for it, but the anthropological figure stays the same; it remains the derived being, demanding someone be there for it, meaning an assumption of the limits of my freedom, or rather the living of my freedom, not in competition, but in mutual support.

If we open our eyes, we see that this is not only true of a child, that the child in its mother’s womb just makes us most vividly aware of the nature of human existence as a whole: it is also true of the adult that he can exist only with the other person and from him and is thus forever dependent on this being for that he would most of all like to eliminate. Let us put it more precisely: Man presumes completely of his own accord that others will be there for him, as has been arranged today in the network of services provided, yet for his own part he would prefer not to be included in the constraint of such a “from” and “for” others; rather, he would prefer to become entirely independent, to be able to do and allow only just what he wants. The radical demand for freedom that arose with ever greater clarity in the path of the Enlightenment, especially along the line established by Rousseau, and that today is largely determinative of general consciousness, wishes to be neither “coming from” nor “going toward”, wishes to exist neither from nor for another, but just to be completely free. That is to say, it regards the real basic shape of human existence itself as an attack on freedom that is prior to every individual life and activity; it would like to be freed from its own human nature and existence itself to become a “new man”: in the new society, these dependencies that restrict the self and this obligation to give of oneself should not be allowed to exist.

Basically, what clearly stands behind the modern era’s radical demand for freedom is the promise: You will be like God. Even if Ernst Topitsch believed he could establish that no rational man still wanted nowadays to be like God or equal to God, if we look more closely we have to maintain the very opposite: The implicit goal of all modern freedom movements is, in the end, to be like a god, dependent on nothing and nobody, with one’s own freedom not restricted by anyone else’s. When we first take a look at this hidden theological core in the radical desire for freedom, then the fundamental error also becomes clear, which is having an effect even where such radical programs are not specifically desired, where they are even rejected. Being completely free, without the competition of any other freedom, without any “from” and “for”—behind that stands, not an image of God, but the image of an idol. The primeval error of such a radically developed desire for freedom lies in the idea of a divinity that is conceived as being purely egotistical. The god thus conceived of is, not God, but an idol, indeed, the image of what the Christian tradition would call the devil, the anti-god, because therein lies the radical opposite of the true God: the true God is, of his own nature, being-for (Father), being-from (Son), and being-with (Holy Spirit). Yet man is in the image of God precisely because the being for, from, and with constitute the basic anthropological shape. Whenever people try to free themselves from this, they are moving, not toward divinity, but toward dehumanizing, toward the destruction of being itself through the destruction of truth. The Jacobin variant of the idea of liberation (let us just use that term for modern forms of radicalism) is a rebellion against being human in itself, rebellion against truth, and that is why it leads people—as Sartre percipiently observed—into a self-contradictory existence that we call hell.

It has thus become fairly clear that freedom is linked to a yardstick, the yardstick of reality—to truth. Freedom to destroy one-self or to destroy others is not freedom but a diabolical parody. The freedom of man is a shared freedom, freedom in a coexistence of other freedoms, which are mutually limiting and thus mutually supportive: freedom must be measured according to what I am, what we are—otherwise it abolishes itself. Now, however, we come to a substantial correction to the superficial present-day picture of freedom that has hitherto been largely dominant: If the freedom of man can only continue to exist within an ordered coexistence of freedoms, then this means that order—law—is, not the concept contrary to that of freedom, but its condition, indeed, a constitutive element of freedom itself. Law is not the obstacle to freedom; rather, it constitutes freedom. The absence of law is the absence of freedom.

3.2 Freedom and Responsibility

When we recognize this, of course, a new question also arises: What kind of law is consonant with freedom? How must the law be constituted in order for it to be a law of freedom, for there is definitely a pseudo-law that is a law of slaves and is therefore, not a law at all, but a regulated form of injustice. Our criticism should not be directed against law itself, which belongs to the essence of freedom; it should serve to convict merely pseudo-law as such and should serve the emergence of true law—of that law which is consonant with the truth and, therefore, with freedom.

But how do we find it? That is the big question, the question that is at least correctly put, concerning the real history of liberation. Let us proceed here, as we have done up to now, not with abstract philosophical considerations, but let us try instead to feel our way toward an answer, starting from the given realities of history. Let us start with a small community we can view as a whole, so that from its capabilities and limitations it may to some extent be possible to fathom what form of order best serves the life together of all its members, so that a common shape of freedom arises from their coexistence. But no small community exists of itself; it is sheltered and its nature partially determined by the greater institutions to which it belongs. In the era of nation-states, people assumed that their own nation was the unity that set the standards—that its common good was the accurate yardstick of common freedom. The developments in our own twentieth century have made it clear that this point of view is inadequate. On this subject, Augustine said that a state that measured itself only by the common interests of that state, and not by justice itself, by true justice, was not structurally differentiated from a well-organized band of robbers. It is characteristic of such a band that it takes as its standard the good of the band, independent of the good of others. Looking back on the colonial period, and the damage it left behind it in the world, we can see today that, however well-ordered and civilized states may have been, in some way or other they resembled robber bands, because they only thought from the point of view of their own good, and not from that of good in itself. A freedom guaranteed in that way does have something of the freedom of robbers about it. It is not true, genuine human freedom. In seeking the true yardstick of freedom, the whole of mankind must be kept in view, and—as we see more and more clearly—again, not just today’s mankind, but also tomorrow’s.

The yardstick of true justice, that which can really be called justice and, therefore, a law of freedom, can thus only be the good of the whole, good itself. Starting from this perception, Hans Jonas explained how the concept of responsibility should be the central concept of ethics.[8] That means that freedom, in order to be properly understood, must always be thought of together with responsibility. The history of liberation can, accordingly, only ever take place as the history of growing responsibility. The growth of freedom can no longer consist simply in the demolishing of barriers to individual rights ever more widely—something that leads to absurdity and to the destruction of those very individual rights. The growth of freedom must consist in the growth of responsibility. That includes the acceptance of ever greater ties, as demanded by the claims of human coexistence, by what is appropriate for the essence of being human. If responsibility means answers to the truth of human existence, then we can say that a constant purification in the direction of truth is a part of the true history of liberation. This true history of freedom consists of the purification of the individual and of institutions by this truth.

The principle of responsibility establishes a framework that needs to be filled with some content. It is in this context that the suggestion of developing a universal ethic, to which Hans Küng is above all passionately committed, needs to be seen. No doubt it makes sense, and indeed in our present position it is necessary, to search for the basic elements held in common by the ethical traditions in the various religions and cultures; in that sense, such activity is certainly both important and appropriate. On the other hand, the limits of such an attempt are obvious, and Joachim Fest has pointed them out in an analysis that is entirely supportive of Küng yet also very pessimistic and moves in the same direction as the scepticism of Szczypiorski.[9] For such an ethical minimum, distilled out of the world religions, would in the first place lack any binding character, that inner authority which any ethic needs. And despite all efforts toward understanding, it lacks also the rational evidence that, in the opinion of the authors, could and should probably replace authority; it lacks also the concrete character that alone makes any ethic effective.

One thought, which is probably associated with this attempt, seems to me correct: Reason needs to listen to the great religious traditions if it does not wish to become deaf, blind, and mute concerning the most essential elements of human existence. There is no great philosophy that does not draw its life from listening to and accepting religious tradition. Wherever this relationship is cut off, then philosophical thinking withers and becomes a mere game of concepts.[10] It is precisely in connection with this theme of responsibility, that is, with the question of freedom’s being rooted in the truth of what is good, in the truth of man and of the world, that the need for listening is most clearly seen. For however appropriate the principle of responsibility may be, as an approach to the matter, the question remains: How shall we gain an overall view of what is good for everyone and of what is good not only for today but for tomorrow? There is a twofold danger lurking here: on the one hand, we risk slipping off into “consequentialism”, which is something the Pope quite rightly criticized in his encyclical on morality.[11] Man is quite simply taking on too much if he believes he can work out the all-around consequences of his actions and take these as the norm for his freedom. Then the present is straightaway being sacrificed to the future, and yet not even the future is being built up. On the other hand, the question is there: Who, then, will decide what our responsibility demands? If truth is no longer seen as understanding and appropriating the great traditions of faith, then it is replaced by consensus. But again, we must ask: The consensus of whom? Then it is said that this should be the consensus of those who are capable of reasoning. Because no one can then overlook the elitist presumption of such an intellectual dictatorship, it is then said that those who are capable of reasoning must stand in for those who are supposedly incapable of rational discourse, as their “advocates”. All that can hardly inspire much confidence. We can all see with our own eyes how fragile any consensus is and how easily and quickly, in a certain intellectual climate, parties and interest groups can impose themselves as the only legitimate representatives of progress and responsibility. It is only too easy here to drive out the devil with the help of Beelzebub; all too easy for our house to be occupied, in the place of the devil of past spiritual combinations, by seven new and worse devils.

3.3 The Truth of Our Human Existence

The question of how to set responsibility and freedom in the right relationship cannot simply be decided by calculating the effects. We must look back to our previous notion, that human freedom is a freedom in a coexistence of freedoms; only thus is it true—that is, appropriate to the true reality of man. That means that I have no need at all to seek corrective factors for the freedom of the individual from without; if that were so, then freedom and responsibility, freedom and truth would remain forever opposites, and they are not. Correctly perceived, the reality of the individual carries in it an element of reference to the whole, to others. Accordingly, we shall say that there is such a thing as the common truth of the one human existence within every man, what is referred to in tradition as the “nature” of man. We can formulate this more clearly on the basis of our belief in creation: There is one divine idea of man, and our task is to correspond to this. In this idea, freedom and community, order and being turned toward the future, are all one thing.

Responsibility would then mean living our existence as a response—as a response to what we are in truth. This one truth of man, in which the good of all and freedom are indissolubly related to each other, is expressed most centrally in the biblical tradition in the Ten Commandments, which in many respects correspond to the great ethical traditions of other religions, besides. In the Ten Commandments God presents himself, depicts himself, and at the same time interprets human existence, so that its truth is made manifest, as it becomes visible in the mirror of God’s nature, because man can only rightly be understood from the viewpoint of God. Living out the Ten Commandments means living out our own resemblance to God, responding to the truth of our nature, and thus doing good. To say it again, another way: Living out the Ten Commandments means living out the divinity of man, and exactly that is freedom: the fusing of our being with the Divine Being and the resulting harmony of all with all.[12]

So that this proposition may be properly understood, one further remark must be added. Every great human utterance reaches beyond what was consciously said into greater, more profound depths; there is always, hidden in what is said, a surplus of what is not said, which lets the words grow with the passing of time. If this is true of human speech, then it is certainly true of the word that comes from the depths of God. The Ten Commandments can never simply be completely understood. In the circumstances and situations of historical responsibility that follow one another and change each other, the Ten Commandments appear in ever-new perspectives, and ever-new dimensions of their meaning open up. What is occurring is a process of being guided into the whole of truth, into the truth that absolutely cannot be carried within one historical moment alone (see Jn 16:12f.). For the Christian, the interpretation that was completed in the words and the life and the death and the Resurrection of Christ represents the ultimate interpretative authority, wherein emerges a depth that could not previously have been foreseen. Because that is so, human listening to the message of faith is no passive reception of hitherto unknown information; rather, it is the awakening of our submerged conscience and the opening up of the powers of understanding that are awaiting the light of truth within us. Thus, such understanding is a highly active process, in which the quite rational search for the standards of our responsibility really gains in strength. This rational search is not stifled but is rather freed from helpless circling around what is unfathomable and brought onto the right track. If the Ten Commandments, as expounded by rational understanding, are the answer to the inner demands of our nature, then they are not at the opposite pole to our freedom but are rather the concrete form it takes. They are then the foundation for every law of freedom and are the one truly liberating power in human history.

4. Summary of Conclusions

“Perhaps the veteran Enlightenment steam engine, after two hundred years of useful and undisturbed work, has stopped before our eyes and with our cooperation. And the steam is just going up into the air.” That is Szczypiorski’s pessimistic diagnosis, which at the start challenged us to reflect on our path. Now, I should say that this machine had never worked without disturbance—think of the two world wars in our own twentieth century and of the dictatorships we have lived through. But I would add that we do not by any means need to bid adieu to the heritage of the Enlightenment as such and, as a whole, to regard it as a superannuated steam engine. What we do of course need is to correct our course in three essential points, in which I should like to summarize the results of my reflections.

1. An understanding of freedom is wrong if it would see as liberating simply an ever-wider loosening of norms and the constant extension of individual freedoms in the direction of a total liberation from all order. Unless it is to lead to lying and self-destruction, freedom must relate to the truth, that is to say, to what we actually are, and must correspond to this nature of ours. Since man is a being who exists in being-from, being-with, and being-for, human freedom can only exist in an ordered coexistence of freedoms. Law is, therefore, not the opposite of freedom, but its necessary condition; it is indeed constitutive of freedom. Liberation consists, not in gradually getting rid of law and of norms of behavior, but in purifying ourselves and purifying those norms, so that they make possible that coexistence of freedoms which is appropriate to man.

2. A second point follows, out of the true reality of our nature: Within this human history of ours the absolutely ideal situation will never exist, and a perfected ordering of freedom will never be able to be achieved. Man is always moving on and always finite. In view of the obvious injustice of the socialist ordering of society, and in view of all the problems of the liberal order, Szczypiorski put the despairing question: Perhaps there is no such thing as being right? We now have to say to that: Indeed, an ordering of things that is simply ideal, that is all-around right and just, will never exist.[13] Wherever such a claim is made, truth is not being spoken. Belief in progress is not false in every respect. But the myth of a liberated world of the future, in which everything will be different and everything good, is false. We can only ever construct relative social orders, which can only ever be relatively right and just. Yet this very same closest possible approach to true right and justice is what we must strive to attain. Everything else, every eschatological promise within history, fails to liberate us; rather, it disappoints and therefore enslaves us. That is why the mythological glamor that has been added onto such concepts as change and revolution has to be demythologized. Change is not good in itself. Whether it is good or bad depends on its particular content and how it relates to other things. The opinion that the main task in the struggle for freedom is that of changing the world is, I repeat, a myth. There will always be ups and downs in history. In relation to the actual moral nature of man, it does not run in a straight line; rather, it repeats itself. It is our task always to struggle for the relatively best possible framework of human coexistence in our own present day and, in doing so, to preserve anything good that has already been achieved, to overcome anything bad that exists at the time, and to guard against the outbreak of destructive forces.

3. We must also bid farewell to the dream of the absolute autonomy of reason and of its self-sufficiency. Human reason needs a hint from the great religious traditions of mankind. It will certainly look at the individual traditions in a critical light. The pathology of religion is the most dangerous sickness of the human spirit. It exists within the religions, yet it exists also precisely where religion as such is rejected and relative goods are assigned an absolute value: the atheistic systems of modern times are the most frightful examples of passionate religious enthusiasm alienated from its proper identity, and that means a sickness of the human spirit that may be mortal. When the existence of God is denied, freedom is, not enhanced, but deprived of its basis and thus distorted.[14] When the purest and most profound religious traditions are set aside, man is separating himself from his truth; he is living contrary to that truth, and he loses his freedom. Nor can philosophical ethics be simply autonomous. It cannot dispense with the concept of God or dispense with the concept of a truth of being that is of an ethical nature.[15] If there is no truth about man, then he has no freedom. Only the truth makes us free.


[1] K. Marx and F. Engels, Werke in 39 vols. (Berlin, 1961-1971), 3:33; quoted by K. Löw, Warum fasziniert der Kommunismus? [Why does Communism fascinate us?] (Cologne: Deutscher Instituts-Verlag, 1980), p. 65.

[2] I am quoting from the manuscript that was available at the Further Education sessions.

[3] On this whole subject, see, e.g., E. Lohse, Martin Luther (Munich: Beck, 1981), pp. 60f., 86ff.

[4] See D. Wyss, “Zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Verblendung: J.&nsbp;J. Rousseau und M. Robespierre, die Begründer des Sozialismus” [On the psychology and psychopathology of blindness: J. J Rousseau and M. Robespierre, the founders of socialism], Jahres- und Tagungsbericht der Görres-Gesellschaft, 1992, pp. 33-45; R. Spaemann, Rousseau—Burger ohne Vaterland: Von der Polis zur Natur [Rousseau—A citizen without a country: From the polis to nature] (Munich: Piper, 1980).

[5] See P. Köster, Der sterbliche Gott: Nietzsches Entwurf übermenschlicher Größe [The dying God: Nietzsche’s sketch for superhuman greatness] (Meisenheim: Hein, 1972); R. Low, Nietzsche Sophist und Erzieher [Nietzsche as sophist and educator] (Weinheim: Acta humaniora, 1984).

[6] See T. Steinbuchel, Die philosophische Grundlegung der christlichen Sittenlehre [The philosophical basis of Christian moral teaching], 3rd ed., vol. I, pt. I (Dusseldorf: Mosella-Verlag, 1947), pp. 118-32.

[7] See J. Pieper, “Kreaturlichkeit und menschliche Natur: Anmerkungen zum philosophischen Ansatz von J. P. Sartre” [Being a creature and human nature: Notes on J. P. Sartre’s attempt at philosophy], in his Uber die Schwierigkeit, heute zuglauben (Munich: Kösel, 1974), pp. 304-21 [English trans., Problems of Modern Faith: Essays and Addresses, trans. Jan van Heurck (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1984)].

[8] H. Jonas, Das Prinzip Verantwortung [The principle of responsibility] (Frankfurt am Main: Insel-Verlag, 1979).

[9] J. Fest, Die schwierige Freiheit [Difficult freedom] (Berlin: Siedler, 1993), especially pp. 47-81; on p. 80 he summarizes his comments on Küng’s “universal ethic” in these terms: “The farther we push such elements of agreement, which cannot be achieved without concessions, the more flexible—and, consequently, the less powerful—the ethical norms will then necessarily become, until the whole project is directed toward merely strengthening that non-obligatory moral behavior that is in fact, not our aim, but the problem from which we start.”

[10] There are some penetrating comments on this in J. Pieper, Schriften zum Philosophiebegriff [Writings on the concept of philosophy], vol. 3 of his Werke, ed. B. Wald (Hamburg: Meiner, 1995), pp. 300-323; likewise pp. 15-70, especially pp. 59ff.

[11] Veritatis splendor, nos. 71-83.

[12] See the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2052-82.

[13] See the Vatican II constitution Gaudium et spes, no. 78: “. . . numquam pax pro semper acquisita est. . . . ”

[14] See Fest, Schwierige Freiheit, p. 79: “None of the appeals made on man’s behalf is able to say how he can live without a life beyond this, and without any fear of a final judgment, and nonetheless act, time and time again, contrary to his own interests and desires.” See also L. Kolakowski, Falls es keinen Gott gibt [If there is no God] (Munich: Piper, 1982).

[15] See Pieper, Schriften zum Philosophiebegriff.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Faith – Truth – Tolerance

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Are tolerance and belief in revealed truth opposites? Putting it another way: Are Christian faith and modernity compatible? if tolerance is one of the foundations of the modern age, then is not the claim to have recognized the essential truth an obsolete piece of presumption that has to be rejected if the spiral of violence that runs through the history of religions is to be broken? Today, in the encounter of Christianity with the world, this question arises ever more dramatically, and ever more widespread becomes the persuasion that renouncing the claim to truth in the Christian faith is the fundamental condition for a new universal peace, the fundamental condition for any reconciliation of Christianity with modernity.

The “Mosaic Distinction”—Or, Does the Question of Truth Belong in Religion?

The Egyptologist Jan Assmann recently reformulated this whole complex of questions and reinforced them with further argument, on the basis of a contrast drawn between biblical religion and Egyptian religion—indeed, polytheistic religion in general—and has expounded them in such a way that their whole historical and philosophical foundation is made clear.[1] it is worthwhile listening to what Assmann has to say, and it seems to me that his conception can be summed up in three theories. Assmann leaves the question of the historical Moses open, as also that of the original formulation of monotheistic faith in Israel, and he regards “Moses” as a placeholder for a memory, for the way that memory has shaped historical consciousness. It is in this sense that he talks about the “Mosaic distinction”, which he sees as the true watershed in the history of religion as a whole. What he means by that is expressed as follows: “By the ‘Mosaic distinction’, I mean the introduction of a distinction between true and false in the realm of religion. Hitherto, religion had been based on the distinction between pure and impure, or between sacred and profane, and had no place at all for the idea of ‘false gods’. . . , whom one should not worship.”[2] The gods of the polytheistic religions, he says, are ranged in a functional equivalence one to another and have therefore always been able to be transposed or interchanged with each other. Religions, he says, always used to function as a medium of intercultural translation and transposition. “The divinities were international, because they were cosmic. . . . No one disputed the reality of foreign gods or the legitimacy of foreign ways of worshipping them. The concept of a religion being untrue was wholly alien to the ancient polytheistic religions.”[3] With the introduction of belief in a single god, something completely new and revolutionary occurred accordingly: this new kind of religion was of its nature an “anti-religion”, which excluded everything that came before as “paganism” and was a medium, not of intercultural translation, but of intercultural alienation. From now on, the concept of “idolatry” as being the greatest of all sins began to develop: “In the portrayal of the golden calf, the biblical ‘original sin’ of monotheistic iconoclasm,. . . the potential for hate and for violence was set down in writing, and in the history of monotheistic religions this has ever and again taken concrete form.”[4] With this potential for violence, the story of the Exodus appears as the foundation myth of monotheistic religion and is at the same time an enduring depiction of the way it works.

The conclusion to be drawn is clear: the Exodus must be reversed; we must go back to “Egypt”—that is to say, the distinction between true and untrue in the realm of religion must be done away with; we must return to the realm of the gods, which are an expression of all the wealth and the variety of the cosmos and thus do not ever exclude one another but rather facilitate mutual understanding. The demand to reverse the Exodus runs through the whole of the Old Testament, in any case. It breaks out again and again in the story of the wanderings in the wilderness and is once more present, in dramatic fashion, at the end of the Old Testament literature, in the First Book of the Maccabees. There we are told about “lawless men”, who suggested making “a covenant with the Gentiles”, “for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us”. They decide to live no longer according to the law of Moses but “to observe the law of the gentiles” (1 Macc 1:11-15).

For his part, Assmann depicts in detail the longing for Egypt, for a return to the time before the Mosaic distinction, from the Renaissance with its reverence for the Corpus Hermeticum as a primeval theology to the Enlightenment’s Egyptian dreams, with Mozart’s Magic Flute as the wonderful artistic embodiment of this longing. He demonstrates quite impressively how the religious and political conflicts of that age gave rise to this new interest in Egypt, the age that had lived through “the frightful experience of the wars of religion and, following the work of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, the religious controversies concerning atheism, polytheism, deism, and free-thinkers”. As the “source of all religions”, Egypt stood for the “ultimate convergence of reason and revelation, or nature and scripture.”[5] There is no doubt that, in his own way, Assmann takes his place in this movement to get back behind the Exodus, simply because he sees the “Mosaic distinction”, which is what the Exodus is for him, as the source of the evil, distorting religion and bringing intolerance into the world. If I have rightly understood him, Spinoza’s formula “Deus sive natura” [God, that is, nature; God and nature are indistinguishable] is at the same time the summary of what is meant by this return, by his notion of “Egypt”: the distinction between true and false can be removed from religion if the distinction between God and cosmos disappears, if the divine and the “world” are once more seen as an undivided whole. The distinction between true and false in religion is indissolubly linked with the distinction between God and the world. The return to Egypt is the return to the gods, inasmuch as it rejects a God who stands over against the world but regards the gods merely as symbolical forms of expression for nature, which is divine.

At the end of Assmann’s book, however, yet a third dimension of the Mosaic distinction becomes apparent, which affects the existential aspect of religion, so to speak, and which speaks from the heart to modern man: With the Mosaic distinction, so Assmann tells us, there appears inevitably “the consciousness of sin and the longing for redemption”. Assmann further says that “sin and redemption are not themes of Egyptian religion”.[6] What is characteristic for Egypt, he says, is rather the “moral optimism to ‘eat your bread with enjoyment’, conscious that ‘God has already approved what you do’—one of the Egyptian verses in the Bible” (Eccles 9:7-10).[7] “It looks”, writes Assmann, “as though sin came into the world with the Mosaic distinction. Perhaps that is the most serious reason for questioning the Mosaic distinction.”[8] One thing in all this has certainly been correctly perceived: The question of truth and the question of what is good cannot be separated from each other. If we can no longer recognize what is true and can no longer distinguish it from what is false, then it becomes impossible to recognize what is good; the distinction between good and evil loses its basis.

It is quite clear that in the theories here briefly outlined, the essential contents of the crisis of Christianity, which is at present becoming ever more acute, have been quite precisely formulated, and that any effort to understand and to renew Christianity must face up to the questions they pose. For here the fundamental problem of our time, the question of truth and toleration and, likewise, the whole area of questions concerning Christianity’s place in the history of religions and, likewise again, the existential problem of guilt and redemption, has been laid bare in one single great interconnected context. Obviously, no satisfactory answer to all this can be given within the limits of one lecture; I can only try to suggest some lines along which the conversation, so it seems to me, will have to move.

Perhaps it will be useful, before we enter into the discussion about these problems, to indicate one more variant of the renunciation of truth in religion, which arises this time, not from history, but from philosophical thought—the theses Wittgenstein posed concerning our subject. G. Elizabeth M. Anscombe has summarized the views of her teacher, Wittgenstein, on this question in two theses: “1. There is no such thing as being true for a religion. This is perhaps suggested when someone says: ‘This religious statement is not the same as a statement of natural science.’ 2. Religious faith may be compared rather to a person’s being in love than to his being persuaded that something is true or false.”[9] In accordance with this logic, Wittgenstein noted, in one of his many notebooks, that it would make no difference to the Christian religion whether or not Christ had actually done some of the things recounted concerning him or whether indeed he had existed at all. This corresponds to the thesis of Bultmann that believing in a God who is the Creator of heaven and earth does not mean that we believe that God really created heaven and earth but only that we understand ourselves as being his creatures and thereby live a more meaningful life. Similar concepts have in the meantime become widespread in Catholic theology and may be heard, more or less clearly enunciated, in preaching.[10]

The faithful sense this and are asking themselves whether they have been being made fools of. Living in beautiful fictions may be something that people who hold theories about religion can do; for the person who is asking himself how he can live and die, and for what, they are not enough. Renouncing the claim to truth, which would be a renunciation of the Christian faith itself, is here being sugared over by allowing faith to go on existing as a kind of being-in-love, with its lovely subjective consolations or as a kind of make-believe world side by side with the real world. Faith is transposed onto the plane of play, of make-believe, whereas hitherto it had mattered on the plane of life itself.[11] Faith that is make-believe is at any rate something fundamentally different from faith that is believed and lived out. It does not show us the way but is merely decorative. It does not help us in living or in dying; at most it provides us with a little change, a little fine appearance—but only the appearance, and that is not enough for living and for dying.

Interchangeability and War between the Gods

Now let us turn back to Assmann. What about the “Deus sive natura”, the good-natured and tolerant gods who do not inquire about truth, what about being set free from the distinction between sin and what is good? How is that lived? How “true” is it? For Assmann proposes his theses as a serious scholar, and thus the question of whether they are true must at any rate be directed to them. He also recommends a way. So we will also have to ask whether and how we can follow that way. When we look into the actual history of polytheistic religions, then the picture he sketches—a rather vague one, by the way—appears itself as a myth. In the first place, polytheistic religions differ considerably among themselves. In not a few of them, there is an awareness in the background, in some shape or form, of the one God who is truly God. In Buddhism, and in some parts of Hinduism, as also in late forms of Platonism, the gods appear as the powers belonging to a world that is only appearance, or at any rate is not the ultimate one, and should be left behind if one really wishes to attain full salvation. The theory that polytheistic gods are completely interchangeable and are hence a medium for cultural interchange and greater understanding can claim the support of the religious policy of the Imperium Romanum but by no means corresponds to the history of polytheism in general.[12] Reading Homer is quite enough for us to remember the wars between the gods and to remember that human wars were regarded as reflecting and resulting from the wars of the gods. It is illuminating to read what Athanasius of Alexandria—who was an Egyptian and had himself lived in the age of the gods—has to say about this:

Once, when people still gave worship to the gods, the Greeks and barbarians went to war and showed themselves without mercy toward their fellowmen. It was practically impossible to travel by land or by sea without taking a sword in one’s hand, in view of their endless fighting with one another. They spent their entire lives under arms; the sword took the place of the staff and was the only way to get through life. Although they sacrificed to the gods, as we have said, their reverence for the gods in no way helped to correct this attitude.[13]

In the conversion of the peoples to Christ, Athanasius sees the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah the prophet that swords would be beaten into ploughshares (Is 2: 4), and he says:

This prophecy has nothing incredible about it. For as long as the barbarians, with their naturally uncivilized behavior, offered sacrifice to their gods, they became enraged with one another and could not pass one hour without their swords. Yet when they accepted the teaching of Christ, they left off war straightaway and turned to cultivation, and, instead of arming themselves with sword in hand, they lifted their hands in prayer—in brief, instead of waging war among themselves, they arm themselves against the devil and against the demons and are victorious through their moderation and the virtues of their souls.[14]

Certainly, this picture is stylized and schematic, in accordance with apologetic purposes. Yet Athanasius certainly had to reckon that some readers had lived in the time before the Christian mission and could not simply let his fancy have free reign. What he says is quite enough to demythologize the picture of the oh-so-peaceful world of the gods, however one might judge its historical content in detail.

We can note this: the gods were by no means always peaceful and interchangeable. They were just as often, indeed more often, the reason for people using violence against each other; and we also know of the phenomenon of the gods of one religion becoming the demons of another. Besides that, the Bible sets the reality of Egypt side by side with the dreams of Egypt in the most realistic fashion: the real Egypt had been, not a land of lovely freedom and peace, but a “house of slavery”, a land of oppression and of wars. And now we must go one step farther. Polytheistic religions are not a static reality that once existed as an essentially identical entity, which we can restore whenever we wish. They are entirely subject to historical processes, which we can observe with particular clarity in late antiquity. Those myths that initially express men’s experience of the world and of living, which are lived out in worship and given form in poetry, increasingly—in the very process of being given concrete shape—lose their credibility. The way things developed in Graeco-Roman antiquity shows us in exemplary fashion how people’s growing awareness of wider realms inevitably, and with increasing urgency, raises the question of whether the whole of this is actually true. The question concerning the truth was not invented by “Moses”. It inevitably appears wherever people’s consciousness attains a certain maturity.

Something like Wittgenstein’s fiction (if I may so term the theory concerning “games”, which relativizes all religions) then automatically offers itself as an approach to the problem. Graeco-Roman antiquity provides some classic instances of this. In his important book Chrēsis, Christian Gnilka has given a detailed picture of the way the question of truth broke into the world of the ancient gods and of Christianity’s encounter with this situation. Characteristic of this process is the figure of the Roman Pontifex Maximus, C. Aurelius Cotta, who is described by Cicero; in his functions as augur and as head of the Collegium Pontificum, Cotta represented the pagan religion of that era. In conformity with his office, Cotta insisted on the conscientious observation of the rites of the public cult and declared that he would defend the “views” (opiniones) concerning the gods inherited from the forefathers and would never let himself be diverted from this.[15] Yet at home, among friends, the same Cotta showed himself to be an academic sceptic who raised the question of truth. He would have liked to be persuaded by the truth, rather than by mere acceptance, and concluded from his reflections that it was to be feared that the gods did not exist at all. “The criterion of truth, when introduced into the world of the ancient gods, had the effect of an explosive device”, Gnilka observes.[16] Assmann himself showed how this schizophrenia led to a fiction defended by the state: for the uninitiated the gods remained as entities necessary to maintain the state, while the initiated could see through them as nonentities.[17]

The question concerning the truth had arisen among the pre-Socratic thinkers and had found its most sublime form in the thought of Socrates. It may be helpful, in order to perceive the whole depth of the question, to give at least a quick glance at Socrates. For the entry of the question of truth into the realm of the gods, the short dialogue with Eutyphron seems to me especially helpful, with the priest who is still entirely caught up in the myths and their careful observance in the cult but who in conversation with Socrates becomes ever more entangled in contradictions. Finally, Eutyphron has to admit, in the face of Socrates’ penetrating questions, that the same thing is both loved and hated by the gods. To the question, “So along these lines, what is pious and what is impious would be the same, Eutyphron?” he has to answer, “That is how it is.”[18] This brings us to a very important point. Socrates had referred to war among the gods. Guardini comments here: “Everything is divine. There are powers everywhere, and each one is a part of existence. . . . All powers are swallowed up in the unity of the world, which is itself the ultimate divinity and comprehends all contradictions. . . . The fact that they have to fight represents the necessary tragedy.”[19] That means that the equation “Deus sive natura”, the renunciation of the Mosaic distinction, does not mean universal reconciliation but that the universe is irreconcilable. For being itself is now contradictory; war derives from existence itself; good and evil are ultimately indistinguishable. Ancient tragedy is the interpretation of existence on the basis of men’s experience of the contradictory world, which inevitably brings forth guilt and failure. In his system of the ideal, which develops itself in dialectical steps, Hegel was basically taking up this view of the world again and, of course, trying to portray its reconciliation in the totally comprehensive synthesis as a hope for the future and thus, at the same time, as a solution of the tragedy. The Christian eschatological direction has here been amalgamated with the ancient vision of the unity of being and now appears to “assume” them both and thus to explain everything. Yet the dialectic remains dreadfully cruel, and the reconciliation merely apparent. At the moment when Marx transformed Hegel’s speculation into a concrete conception for the shaping of history, this cruelty became visible, and we have become witnesses of all its cruelty. For, quite simply, it is the case that the dialectic of progress, speaking in practical terms, requires its sacrificial victims: in order for the progress brought about by the French Revolution to be made, people had to accept the sacrifices it demanded—that is what we are told. And in order for Marxism to set up the reconciled society, the mass sacrifice of human beings was necessary; there was no other way: There we see the mythological dialectic translated into facts. Man becomes the plaything of progress; as an individual, he does not count; here he is merely fodder for the cruel god, “Deus sive natura”. The theory of evolution teaches us something similar: Progress has its price. And the present-day experiments with man, who is being turned into an “organ bank”, show us the entirely practical application of such ideas, in which man himself takes further evolution in hand.

The Inevitability of the Question of Truth and the Alternatives in the History of Religions

Let us return to our theme. The notion that the gods are peacefully interchangeable will not stand up to reality. They have, rather, a profoundly irreconcilable aspect, which is founded in the contradictions of being itself. The second point we have noted is even more important in this connection: The question concerning truth cannot be avoided. It is necessary to man and particularly concerns the ultimate decisions in his life: Is there a God? Is there such a thing as truth? Is there such a thing as good? We may say that the “Mosaic distinction” is the same as the Socratic distinction. At this point, the inner basis—and the inner necessity—of the historical encounter of Hellas and the Bible becomes apparent. What unites the two is precisely the question of truth, and of good as such, which they put to religion, the Mosaic-Socratic distinction, as we may now call it. This encounter began to take place long before the beginning of the synthesis between biblical faith and Greek thought, which was the work of the Church Fathers. It was already happening in the middle of the Old Testament, above all in the wisdom literature and in the memorable step of translating the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, a step in the process of intercultural encounter with the widest possible implications. Certainly, in the ancient world the issue of the Socratic question remained open, different in Plato from what it is in Aristotle. In that sense, there remained an expectation within the Greek world, to which the Christian message appeared to be the longed-for answer. This open expectation, seen in Greek thought as an outward-looking attitude, was one of the main reasons for the success of the Christian mission.[20] Let us reiterate that the polytheism of the “nature religions” is not a static entity to which one could return at any time. Religious development, so far as we can see, goes through three stages—leaving open the question of whether there were other forms of worship that came before polytheism. If here, for the sake of simplicity, we regard polytheism as the first stage, it then becomes increasingly subjected to the criticism of enlightenment, that is, to questions concerning its truth, which gradually dissolve it and, after a phase of division of truth (the useful fiction and the knowledge of the initiated), then cause its collapse. At this point, in the Mediterranean world, and later in the sphere of Arabia and in parts of Asia, monotheism offers a reconciliation between enlightenment and religion: the Divinity toward which reason is moving is the same as the Divinity who shows himself in revelation. Revelation and reason correspond to one another. There is the “true religion”; the question concerning truth and the question of God have been reconciled.[21] Yet the ancient world does show us another possible outcome, which today is once more of immediate interest. On the one hand, there is the Christian interpretation of Plato, the amalgamation of the Greek expectation and its question concerning truth with the Christian answer and its claim to truth, in which the basic Greek material is taken up and at the same time fundamentally reshaped. There is, on the other hand, also the late Platonism of Porphyry and Proclus, which aims to refute the Christian claims and to offer a new foundation for polytheism—the other face of Platonic thought. Now it is the sceptical position itself that becomes the foundation of polytheism: Because one cannot know the divine, one can only worship it in place holders of many forms, in which the mystery of the cosmos and its multiplicity, too great to be comprehended in any name, is expressed.[22] In late antiquity, this attempted restoration of a polytheism that was given a philosophical justification and the appearance of rationality could not endure. It remained an academic construction, from which the necessary power of hope and truth did not emanate. This was the more so, since its originators could not quite renounce the division of truth. The polytheistic dedications and rituals were seen as the way for the many, those who were incapable of higher things, while the philosophers intended for themselves, as the “chosen spirits”, the “royal way”, which climbed up above all this in mystical union into the ineffable sphere. Here again it was Christianity’s luck that it opened up the way of the simple ones, as the true “royal way” in fellowship with him who lived in the bosom of God and who saw God.

Present-day attempts to offer a way of getting back to Egypt, a “redemption” from Christianity and from its teaching about sin, will fare the same. For here too everything remains in the sphere of fiction, in what can be thought out academically but is not enough for living. Certainly, the flight from the one God and his claims will continue. And scepticism will continue, for there seem to be stronger grounds for this than in the ancient world. Christianity’s claim to be true cannot correspond to the standard of certainty posed by modern science, because the form of verification here is of a quite different kind from the realm of testing by experiment; because the kind of experiment demanded—pledging one’s life for this—is of a quite different kind. The saints, who have undergone the experiment, can stand as guarantors of its truth, but the possibility of disregarding this strong evidence remains. And thus people will continue to look for other solutions, to seek them in the form of mystical union, for the attainment of which advice and techniques are, and will be, available. In that sense, what late Platonism has to offer remains on the menu for the day; I would assign what Assmann says to this category.

Yet does not Asia show us a way out? Religion that works without having to raise any claim to be true? This question will, without doubt, form the theme for other future dialogues. Just a suggestion here. Even Buddhism has its own way of raising the question of truth. It asks about redemption from the suffering that arises from the thirst for life. Where is the place of salvation? Buddhism comes to the conclusion that it is not to be found in the world, in the whole of apparent being. This is in its entirety suffering, a circle of rebirth and ever-new entanglement. The way of enlightenment is the way out of the thirst for being into what seems to us to be nonbeing, Nirvana. That means that in the world itself there is no truth. Truth comes by leaving the world. In that sense, the question of truth is swallowed up in the question of redemption—or perhaps abolished in it. There are gods, but they belong in the world of what is temporary, not to the ultimate salvation. Only in the Hinayana version is this view strictly adhered to. Mahayana Buddhism has a much stronger social dimension, help toward the redemption of others and for the helper. Yet the basic expectation of the annihilation of existence and of the person of the individual remains intact, if far removed into the future.[23] There can be no talk of “Deus sive natura” here. The world in itself is suffering—and is thereby also void of truth—and only removal from the world can in the end be salvation. This is a matter of existential attitudes, which include a view of the world that is far removed from the Western vision and also from that of “Egyptian” polytheism and which stands as an alternative over against the Christian view of the world, with its fundamental affirmation of the world as creation. This way, of all others, does not of course dispense us from facing the question of truth.

Christian Tolerance

One final reflection is needed. Assmann praises the way that the gods may be transposed one into another, since it appears as a path of intercultural and interreligious peace. The “intolerance” of the First Commandment and the condemnation of idolatry as a fundamental sin are opposed to this. This, in turn, looks like a canonization of intolerance, as we have seen. Now, it is true that the one God is a “jealous God”, as the Old Testament calls him. He unmasks the gods, for in his light it becomes clear that the “gods” are not God, that the plural of “God” is as such a lie. But a lie always means a lack of freedom, and it is no mere chance, above all no untruth, that in Israel’s memory Egypt appears as the house of slavery, as the place of lack of freedom. Only the truth makes us free. Wherever usefulness is set above truth, as happens in the case of the division of truth we were talking about earlier, then man becomes a slave to practical purposes and to those who make the decisions about what is useful and practical. In this sense the “demythologizing” is necessary, to strip the gods of their false glamor and thereby of their false power, so that the “truth” of them may stand out, that is, to explain which worldly powers and real entities stand behind them. To put it another way: when this “demythologization”, this unmasking, has taken place, their relative truth can and must appear.

There are, accordingly, two phases in the Christian relationship with “pagan” religions, which of course are interconnected and inwardly involved with each other and cannot be assigned places in a purely temporal sequence. The first phase is the alliance of the Christian faith with enlightenment, which dominates Christian literature from Justin to Augustine and beyond: those who are propagating Christianity put themselves on the side of philosophy, of enlightenment, against religion, against the divided truth of those such as C. Aurelius Cotta. They see the seeds of the Logos, of divine rationality, not in the religions, but in the movement toward rationality that destroyed these religions. But a second point of view becomes ever clearer, in which the connection with the religions and the limits of enlightenment emerge. Gregory the Great’s thought seems to me quite clearly characteristic of this. In a first letter of his—still in the phase of enlightenment—he writes to the English King Ethelbert: “Therefore, my most illustrious son, carefully preserve the grace you have received from God. . . . Inflame your noble zeal. . . . Suppress the worship of idols; destroy their temples and altars. Uplift the virtues of your subjects by outstanding behavior and morality.” [24]

Yet Gregory reflects further on the question within himself, and just a month after that letter he writes quite differently to a group of missionaries who have just departed and to a certain Mellitus:

But when, with the grace of almighty God, you reach our most reverend brother, Bishop Augustine, then tell him that I have been reflecting at length about one matter concerning the Englishmen. That is, one should by no means destroy the temples of this people’s idols; rather, simply destroy the idols to be found within them. . . . When the people see that we are not destroying their temples, then they will nonetheless abandon their errors and will that much more joyfully turn to the knowledge and the worship of the true God in their accustomed places.[25]

Gregory also suggests that the ceremonies and animal sacrifices at the festivals should be transformed in honor of the saints and martyrs and that the animals that are slaughtered as sacrifices should be eaten on those occasions. This shows what we call continuity in worship. The holy place remains holy, and the intentions and petitions of prayer, and the worship of the divine, which formerly took place, are taken up and transformed, given a new significance. In Rome you can study that all over the place. In a name like Santa Maria sopra Minerva transformation and continuity are equally demonstrated. The gods are no longer gods. As such, they have been overthrown: the question of truth has itself deprived them of divinity and brought about their downfall. Yet at the same time their truth has emerged: that they were a reflection of divinity, a presentiment of figures in which their hidden significance was purified and fulfilled. In that sense, there is such a thing as the “transposition” of the gods, who, as intimations, as steps in the search for the true God and for his reflection in creation, may become messengers of the one God.

Finally we must once more return to Assmann’s closing theory, that with the Mosaic distinction the concept of sin also entered the world. “Sin and redemption are not Egyptian themes”, was what we heard. Yet they certainly are themes of most world religions, which sought with multitudes of sacrifices—including human sacrifices—to reconcile the divinities and to find expiation. But we cannot take this dispute farther here. One thing seems to me important for the question we are facing: the themes of what is true and what is good cannot in fact be separated one from another. Plato was right when he identified the highest divinity with the idea of good. To put it the other way round: if we cannot know the truth about God, then the truth about what is good and what is bad remains equally inaccessible. Then there is no good and evil; only the reckoning up of consequences remains: ethics is replaced by calculation. To put it still more clearly: the three questions, concerning truth and good and God, are but one single question. And if there is no answer, then as far as the essential things in our life are concerned, we are groping around in the dark. Then human existence is truly “tragic”—and then, of course, we understand what redemption really means. The Bible’s concept of God recognizes God as good, as the One who is Good (see Mk 10:18). This concept of God attains its climax in the Johannine declaration: God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Truth and love are identical. This sentence—if the whole of its demand is understood—is the surest guarantee of tolerance; of an association with truth, whose only weapon is itself and, thereby, love.


[1] J. Assmann, Moses der Agypter: Entzifferung einer Geddchtnisspur (Munich and Vienna: Hanser, 1998) (Eng. ed.: Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism).

[2] See E. Zenger, “Was ist der Preis des Monotheismus? Die heilsame Provokation von J. Assmann” [At what price monotheism? The healthy provocation of J. Assmann], Herder-Korrespondenz 55 (2001): 186-91; quoted here, p. 187; cf. Assmann, Moses der Agypter, pp. 17-23.

[3] Assmann, Moses der Agypter, p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 20; cf. Zenger, “Was ist der Preis”, p. 188.

[5] Assmann, Moses der Agypter, p. 40.

[6] Ibid., p. 281.

[7] Ibid., p. 282.

[8] Ibid.

[9] I am relying here on what J. Seifert has said. Seifert refers to Elizabeth M. Anscombe, Paganism, Superstition and Philosophy, in Mariano Crespo, ed., Menschenwürde und Ethik [Human dignity and ethics] (Heidelberg: Winter, 1998), pp. 93-105; L. Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen / Culture and Value, p. 32; L. Wittgenstein, Über Gewifiheit, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1969), p. 29 [English trans., On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969)].

[10] This approach has been worked out consistently by G. Hasenhüttl, Glaube ohne Mythos [Faith without myth], 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 2001).

[11] In the article to which we have referred, Seifert remarks that “For Wittgenstein, the religious person and the nonreligious live, as it were, in two make-believe worlds and move upon different planes without contradicting one another.” According to Wittgenstein, in religious statements nothing is basically being said. . . “just as little as would be said in a game of chess or of checkers about the people represented by the pieces outside of these games. Religion must there be interpreted, he said, not in the same way as meaningful sentences with some claim to truth, but in a purely anthropological and entirely subjective sense, like a game that is simply someone’s personal preference.”

[12] According to Assmann, Moses der Ägypter, pp. 74ff., the tradition of translating the foreign names of gods goes back to the Mesopotamian “literary studies” of the third century before Christ. He then refers us to the Akkadian assimilation of the Sumerian pantheon and sees in this a process that developed into a “general technique of culture”. His great example of this universalistic concept of divinity, then, is Isis, as she was understood and invoked in the “Graeco-Egyptian” cult of Isis. It is undisputed that such processes of translation and transposition took place amid the cultural amalgamations in great empires that included various peoples and cultures, above all on account of political motivations, but the problem of polytheism goes far beyond these processes.

[13] Athanasius of Alexandria, De incarnationi verbi 51:4; Sources chrétiennes, vol. 199, ed. C. Kannengiesser (Paris, 1973), p. 450.

[14] Ibid., 52:2-3, p.452.

[15] C. Gnilka, Chresis: Die Methode der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der antiken Kultur [Chresis: The method of the Church Fathers in dealing with classical culture], vol. 2: Kultur und Conversion (Basel: Schwabe, 1993), p. 15.

[16] Ibid., p. 16.

[17] Assmann, Moses der Agypter, pp. 272ff.

[18] Eutyphron 8a (Oxford ed., vol. 1).

[19] R. Guardini, Der Tod des Sokrates, 5th ed. (Mainz and Paderborn: Matthias-Griinewald-Verlag, 1987), p. 38 [English trans., The Death of Socrates: An Interpretation of the Platonic Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948)].

[20] For more on this point, and on what follows, see the section: “The Truth of Christianity?” in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance – Christian Belief And World Religions.

[21] This synthesis of rational religion and biblical revelation, of which the foundations were laid in the Old Testament, is the central theme of the Church Fathers; Augustine, in his arguments with Plotinus and Porphyry in De civitate Dei, gave it its final systematic form.

[22] See on this point Gnilka, Chresis, 2:9-55. Yet another stage in the encounter between Christianity and Platonism occurred at the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century, when Pseudo-Dionysius reinterpreted the world view of Proclus in a Christian sense, transformed his polytheism into the teaching about choirs of angels, and became, with his negative theology, one of the fathers of Christian mysticism.

[23] See H. Burkle, Der Mensch auf der Suche nach Gott—Die Frage der Religionen [Man in search of God—The question concerning the religions], Amateca, no. 3 (Paderborn: Bonifatius, 1996), pp. 143-60.

[24] Ep. XI, 37. See on this point J. Richards, Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (London: RKP, 1980); German trans., Gregor der Grofie: Sein Leben—seine Zeit (Graz: Verlag Styria, 1983); ref. to pp. 235-56, especially p. 250f., in the German edition.

[25] Ep. XI, 56. See Richards, Gregor der Grofie, pp. 251f.

Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

We cannot have it both ways, and no sneers at the limitations of logic . . . amend the dilemma.
I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, chap. xxv.

If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System. I say ‘explicable in principle‘ because of course we are not going to demand that naturalists, at any given moment, should have found the detailed explanation of every phenomenon. Obviously many things will only be explained when the sciences have made further progress. But if Naturalism is to be accepted we have a right to demand that every single thing should be such that we see, in general, how it could be explained in terms of the Total System. If anyone thing exists which is of such a kind that we see in advance the impossibility of ever giving it that kind of explanation, then Naturalism would be in ruins. If necessities of thought force us to allow to any one thing any degree of independence from the Total System — if any one thing makes good a claim to be on its own, to be something more than an expression of the character of Nature as a whole — then we have abandoned Naturalism. For by Naturalism we mean the doctrine that only Nature — the whole interlocked system — exists. And if that were true, everything and event would, if we knew enough, be explicable without remainder (no heel-taps) as a necessary product of the system. The whole system being what it is, it ought to be a contradiction in terms if you were not reading this book at the moment; and, conversely, the only cause why you are reading it ought to be that the whole system, at such and such a place and hour, was bound to take that course.

One threat against strict Naturalism has recently been launched on which I myself will base no argument, but which it will be well to notice. The older scientists believed that the smallest particles of matter moved according to strict laws: in other words, that the movements of each particle were ‘interlocked’ with the total system of Nature. Some modern scientists seem to think — if I understand them — that this is not so. They seem to think that the individual unit of matter (it would be rash to call it any longer a ‘particle’) moves in an indeterminate or random fashion; moves, in fact, ‘on its own’ or ‘of its own accord’. The regularity which we observe in the movements of the smallest visible bodies is explained by the fact that each of these contains millions of units and that the law of averages therefore levels out the idiosyncrasies of the individual unit’s behaviour. The movement of one unit is incalculable, just as the result of tossing a coin once is incalculable: the majority movement of a billion units can however be predicted, just as, if you tossed a coin a billion times, you could predict a nearly equal number of heads and tails. Now it will be noticed that if this theory is true we have really admitted something other than Nature. If the movements of the individual units are events ‘on their own’, events which do not interlock with all other events, then these movements are not part of Nature. It would be, indeed, too great a shock to our habits to describe them as super-natural. I think we should have to call them sub-natural. But all our confidence that Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on, would have disappeared. There is apparently something outside her, the Subnatural; it is indeed from this Subnatural that all events and all ‘bodies’ are, as it were, fed into her. And clearly if she thus has a back door opening on the Subnatural, it is quite on the cards that she may also have a front door opening on the Supernatural-and events might be fed into her at that door too.

I have mentioned this theory because it puts in a fairly vivid light certain conceptions which we shall have to use later on. But I am not, for my own part, assuming its truth. Those who like myself have had a philosophical rather than a scientific education find it almost impossible to believe that the scientists really mean what they seem to be saying. I cannot help thinking they mean no more than that the movements of individual units are permanently incalculable to us, not that they are in themselves random and lawless. And even if they mean the latter, a layman can hardly feel any certainty that some new scientific development may not tomorrow abolish this whole idea of a lawless Subnature. For it is the glory of science to progress. I therefore turn willingly to other ground.

It is clear that everything we know, beyond our own immediate sensations, is inferred from those sensations. I do not mean that we begin as children, by regarding our sensations as ‘evidence’ and thence arguing consciously to the existence of space, matter, and other people. I mean that if, after we are old enough to understand the question, our confidence in the existence of anything else (say, the solar system or the Spanish Armada) is challenged, our argument in defence of it will have to take the form of inferences from our immediate sensations. Put in its most general form the inference would run, ‘Since I am presented with colours, sounds, shapes, pleasures and pains which I cannot perfectly predict or control, and since the more I investigate them the more regular their behaviour appears, therefore there must exist something other than myself and it must be systematic’. Inside this very general inference, all sorts of special trains of inference lead us to more detailed conclusions. We infer Evolution from fossils: we infer the existence of our own brains from what we find inside the skulls of other creatures like ourselves in the dissecting room.

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really ‘must’ be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them — if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work — then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

It follows that no account of the universe can be true I unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound — a proof that there are no such things as proofs — which is nonsense.

Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ (Possible Worlds, p. 209)

But Naturalism, even if it is not purely materialistic, seems to me to involve the same difficulty, though in a somewhat less obvious form. It discredits our processes of reasoning or at least reduces their credit to such a humble level that it can no longer support Naturalism itself.

The easiest way of exhibiting this is to notice the two senses of the word because. We can say, ‘Grandfather is ill today because he ate lobster yesterday.’ We can also say, ‘Grandfather must be ill today because he hasn’t got up yet (and we know he is an invariably early riser when he is well).’ In the first sentence because indicates the relation of Cause and Effect: The eating made him ill. In the second, it indicates the relation of what logicians call Ground and Consequent. The old man’s late rising is not the cause of his disorder but the reason why we believe him to be disordered. There is a similar difference between ‘He cried out because it hurt him’ (Cause and Effect) and ‘It must have hurt him because he cried out’ (Ground and Consequent). We are especially familiar with the Ground and Consequent because in mathematical reasoning: ‘A = C because, as we have already proved, they are both equal to B.’

The one indicates a dynamic connection between events or ‘states of affairs’; the other, a logical relation between beliefs or assertions.

Now a train of reasoning has no value as a means of finding truth unless each step in it is connected with what went before in the Ground-Consequent relation. If our B does not follow logically from our A, we think in vain. If what we think at the end of our reasoning is to be true, the correct answer to the question, ‘Why do you think this?’ must begin with the Ground-Consequent because.

On the other hand, every event in Nature must be connected with previous events in the Cause and Effect relation. But our acts of thinking are events. Therefore the true answer to ‘Why do you think this?’ must begin with the Cause-Effect because.

Unless our conclusion is the logical consequent from a ground it will be worthless and could be true only by a fluke. Unless it is the effect of a cause, it cannot occur at all. It looks therefore, as if, in order for a train of thought to have any value, these two systems of connection must apply simultaneously to the same series of mental acts.

But unfortunately the two systems are wholly distinct. To be caused is not to be proved. Wishful thinkings, prejudices, and the delusions of madness, are all caused, but they are ungrounded. Indeed to be caused is so different from being proved that we behave in disputation as if they were mutually exclusive. The mere existence of causes for a belief is popularly treated as raising a presumption that it is groundless, and the most popular way of discrediting a person’s opinions is to explain them causally — ‘You say that because (Cause and Effect) you are a capitalist, or a hypochondriac, or a mere man, or only a woman’. The implication is that if causes fully account for a belief, then, since causes work inevitably, the belief would have had to arise whether it had grounds or not. We need not, it is felt, consider grounds for something which can be fully explained without them.

But even if grounds do exist, what exactly have they got to do with the actual occurrence of the belief as a psychological event? If it is an event it must be caused. It must in fact be simply one link in a causal chain which stretches back to the beginning and forward to the end of time. How could such a trifle as lack of logical grounds prevent the belief’s occurrence or how could the existence of grounds promote it?

There seems to be only one possible answer. We must say that just as one way in which a mental event causes a subsequent mental event is by Association (when I think of parsnips I think of my first school), so another way in which it can cause it, is simply by being a ground for it. For then being a cause and being a proof would coincide.

But this, as it stands, is clearly untrue. We know by experience that a thought does not necessarily cause all, or even any, of the thoughts which logically stand to it as Consequents to Ground. We should be in a pretty pickle if we could never think ‘This is glass’ without drawing all the inferences which could be drawn. It is impossible to draw them all; quite often we draw none. We must therefore amend our suggested law. One thought can cause another not by being, but by being seen to be, a ground for it.

If you distrust the sensory metaphor in seen, you may substitute apprehended or grasped or simply known. It makes little difference for all these words recall us to what thinking really is. Acts of thinking are no doubt events; but they are a very special sort of events. They are ‘about’ something other than themselves and can be true or false. Events in general are not ‘about’ anything and cannot be true or false. (To say ‘these events, or facts are false’ means of course that someone’s account of them is false). Hence acts of inference can, and must, be considered in two different lights. On the one hand they are subjective events, items in somebody’s psychological history. On the other hand, they are insights into, or knowings of, something other than themselves. What from the first point of view is the psychological transition from thought A to thought B, at some particular moment in some particular mind, is, from the thinker’s point of view a perception of an implication (if A, then B). When we are adopting the psychological point of view we may use the past tense. ‘B followed A in my thoughts.’ But when we assert the implication we always use the present — ‘B follows from A’. If it ever ‘follows from’ in the logical sense, it does so always. And we cannot possibly reject the second point of view as a subjective illusion without discrediting all human knowledge. For we can know nothing, beyond our own sensations at the moment unless the act of inference is the real insight that it claims to be.

But it can be this only on certain terms. An act of knowing must be determined, in a sense, solely by what is known; we must know it to be thus solely because it is thus. That is what knowing means. You may call this a Cause and Effect because, and call ‘being known’ a mode of causation if you like. But it is a unique mode. The act of knowing has no doubt various conditions, without which it could not occur: attention, and the states of will and health which this presupposes. But its positive character must be determined by the truth it knows. If it were totally explicable from other sources it would cease to be knowledge, just as (to use the sensory parallel) the ringing in my ears ceases to be what we mean by ‘hearing’ if it can be fully explained from causes other than a noise in the outer world — such as, say, the tinnitus produced by a bad cold. If what seems an act of knowledge is partially explicable from other sources, then the knowing (properly so called) in it is just what they leave over, just what demands, for its explanation, the thing known, as real hearing is what is left after you have discounted the tinnitus. Anything which professes to explain our reasoning fully without introducing an act of knowing thus solely determined by what is known, is really a theory that there is no reasoning.

But this, as it seems to me, is what Naturalism is bound to do. It offers what professes to be a full account of our mental behaviour; but this account, on inspection, leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking, as a means to truth, depends.

It is agreed on all hands that reason, and even sentience, and life itself are latecomers in Nature. If there is nothing but Nature, therefore, reason must have come into existence by a historical process. And of course, for the Naturalist, this process was not designed to produce a mental behaviour that can find truth. There was no Designer; and indeed, until there were thinkers, there was no truth or falsehood. The type of mental behaviour we now call rational thinking or inference must therefore have been ‘evolved’ by natural selection, by the gradual weeding out of types less fitted to survive.

Once, then, our thoughts were not rational. That is, all our thoughts once were, as many of our thoughts still are, merely subjective events, not apprehensions of objective truth. Those which had a cause external to ourselves at all were (like our pains) responses to stimuli. Now natural selection could operate only by eliminating responses that were biologically hurtful and multiplying those which tended to survival. But it is not conceivable that any improvement of responses could ever turn them into acts of insight, or even remotely tend to do so. The relation between response and stimulus is utterly different from that between knowledge and the truth known. Our physical vision is a far more useful response to light than that of the cruder organisms which have only a photo-sensitive spot. But neither this improvement nor any possible improvements we can suppose could bring it an inch nearer to being a knowledge of light. It is admittedly something without which we could not have had that knowledge. But the knowledge is achieved by experiments and inferences from them, not by refinement of the response. It is not men with specially good eyes who know about light, but men who have studied the relevant sciences. In the same way our psychological responses to our environment — our curiosities, aversions, delights, expectations-could be indefinitely improved (from the biological point of view) without becoming anything more than responses. Such perfection of the non-rational responses, far from amounting to their conversion into valid inferences, might be conceived as a different method of achieving survival — an alternative to reason. A conditioning which secured that we never felt delight except in the useful nor aversion save from the dangerous, and that the degrees of both were exquisitely proportional to the degree of real utility or danger in the object, might serve us as well as reason or in some circumstances better.

Besides natural selection there is, however, experience — experience originally individual but handed on by tradition and instruction. It might be held that this, in the course of millennia, could conjure the mental behaviour we call reason — in other words, the practice of inference — out of a mental behaviour which was originally not rational.

Repeated experiences of finding fire (or the remains of fire) where he had seen smoke would condition a man to expect fire whenever he saw smoke. This expectation, expressed in the form ‘If smoke, then fire’ becomes what we call inference. Have all our inferences originated in that way?

But if they did they are all invalid inferences. Such a process will no doubt produce expectation. It will train men to expect fire when they see smoke in just the same way as it trained them to expect that all swans would be white (until they saw a black one) or that water would always boil at 212º (until someone tried a picnic on a mountain). Such expectations are not inferences and need not be true. The assumption that things which have been conjoined in the past will always be conjoined in the future is the guiding principle not of rational but of animal behaviour. Reason comes in precisely when you make the inference ‘Since always conjoined, therefore probably connected’ and go on to attempt the discovery of the connection. When you have discovered what smoke is you may then be able to replace the mere expectation of fire by a genuine inference. Till this is done reason recognises the expectation as a mere expectation. Where this does not need to be done — that is, where the inference depends on an axiom — we do not appeal to past experience at all. My belief that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another is not at all based on the fact that I have never caught them behaving otherwise. I see that it ‘must’ be so. That some people nowadays call axioms tautologies seems to me irrelevant. It is by means of such ‘tautologies’ that we advance from knowing less to knowing more. And to call them tautologies is another way of saying that they are completely and certainly known. To see fully that A implies B does (once you have seen it) involve the admission that the assertion of A and the assertion of B are at bottom in the same assertion. The degree to which any true proportion is a tautology depends on the degree of your insight into it. 9 x 7 = 63 is a tautology to the perfect arithmetician, but not to the child learning its tables nor to the primitive calculator who reached it, perhaps, by adding seven nines together. If Nature is a totally interlocked system, then every true statement about her (e.g. there was a hot summer in 1959) would be a tautology to an intelligence that could grasp that system in its entirety. ‘God is love’ may be a tautology to the seraphim; not to men.

‘But’, it will be said, ‘it is incontestable that we do in fact reach truths by inferences’. Certainly. The Naturalist and I both admit this. We could not discuss anything unless we did. The difference I am submitting is that he gives, and I do not, a history of the evolution of reason which is inconsistent with the claims that he and I both have to make for inference as we actually practise it. For his history is, and from the nature of the case can only be, an account, in Cause and Effect terms, of how people came to think the way they do. And this, of course, leaves in the air the quite different question of how they could possibly be justified in so thinking. This imposes on him the very embarrassing task of trying to show how the evolutionary product which he has described could also be a power of ‘seeing’ truths.

But the very attempt is absurd. This is best seen if we consider the humblest and almost the most despairing form in which it could be made. The Naturalist might say, ‘Well, perhaps we cannot exactly see — not yet — how natural selection would turn sub-rational mental behaviour into inferences that reach truth. But we are certain that this in fact has happened. For natural selection is bound to preserve and increase useful behaviour. And we also find that our habits of inference are in fact useful. And if they are useful they must reach truth’. But notice what we are doing. Inference itself is on trial: that is, the Naturalist has given an account of what we thought to be our inferences which suggests that they are not real insights at all. We, and he, want to be reassured. And the reassurance turns out to be one more inference (if useful, then true) — as if this inference were not, once we accept his evolutionary picture, under the same suspicion as all the rest. If the value of our reasoning is in doubt, you cannot try to establish it by reasoning. If, as I said above, a proof that there are no proofs is nonsensical, so is a proof that there are proofs. Reason is our starting point. There can be no question either of attacking or defending it. If by treating it as a mere phenomenon you put yourself outside it, there is then no way, except by begging the question, of getting inside again.

A still humbler position remains. You may, it you like, give up all claim to truth. You may say simply ‘Our way of thinking is useful’ — without adding, even under your breath, ‘and therefore true’. It enables us to set a bone and build a bridge and make a Sputnik. And that is good enough. The old, high pretensions of reason must be given up. It is a behaviour evolved entirely as an aid to practice. That is why, when we use it simply for practice, we get along pretty well; but when we fly off into speculation and try to get general views of ‘reality’ we end in the endless, useless, and probably merely verbal, disputes of the philosopher. We will be humbler in future. Goodbye to all that. No more theology, no more ontology, no more metaphysics . . .

But then, equally, no more Naturalism. For of course Naturalism is a prime specimen of that towering speculation, discovered from practice and going far beyond experience, which is now being condemned. Nature is not an object that can be presented either to the senses or the imagination. It can be reached only by the most remote inferences. Or not reached, merely approached. It is the hoped for, the assumed, unification in a single interlocked system of all the things inferred from our scientific experiments. More than that, the Naturalist, not content to assert this, goes on to the sweeping negative assertion. ‘There is nothing except this’ — an assertion surely, as remote from practice, experience, and any conceivable verification as has ever been made since men began to use their reason speculatively. Yet on the present view, the very first step into such a use was an abuse, the perversion of a faculty merely practical, and the source of all chimeras.

On these terms the Theist’s position must be a chimera nearly as outrageous as the Naturalist’s. (Nearly, not quite; it abstains from the crowning audacity of a huge negative). But the Theist need not, and does not, grant these terms. He is not committed to the view that reason is a comparatively recent development moulded by a process of selection which can select only the biologically useful. For him, reason — the reason of God — is older than Nature, and from it the orderliness of Nature, which alone enables us to know her, is derived. For him, the human mind in the act of knowing is illuminated by the Divine reason. It is set free, in the measure required, from the huge nexus of non-rational causation; free from this to be determined by the truth known. And the preliminary processes within Nature which led up to this liberation, if there were any, were designed to do so.

To call the act of knowing — the act, not of remembering that something was so in the past, but of ‘seeing’ that it must be so always and in any possible world — to call this act ‘supernatural’, is some violence to our ordinary linguistic usage. But of course we do not mean by this that it is spooky, or sensational, or even (in any religious sense) ‘spiritual’. We mean only that it ‘won’t fit in’; that such an act, to be what it claims to be — and if it is not, all our thinking is discredited — cannot be merely the exhibition at a particular place and time of that total, and largely mindless, system of events called ‘Nature’. It must break sufficiently free from that universal chain in order to be determined by what it knows.

It is of some importance here to make sure that, if vaguely spatial imagery intrudes (and in many minds it certainly will), it should not be of the wrong kind. We had better not envisage our acts of reason as something ‘above’ or ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ Nature. Rather ‘this side of Nature’—if you must picture spatially, picture them between us and her. It is by inferences that we build up the idea of Nature at all. Reason is given before Nature and on reason our concept of Nature depends. Our acts of inference are prior to our picture of Nature almost as the telephone is prior to the friend’s voice we hear by it. When we try to fit these acts into the picture of Nature we fail. The item which we put into that picture and label ‘Reason’ always turns out to be somehow different from the reason we ourselves are enjoying and exercising while we put it in. The description we have to give of thought as an evolutionary phenomenon always makes a tacit exception in favour of the thinking which we ourselves perform at that moment. For the one can only, like any other particular feat, exhibit, at particular moments in particular consciousness, the general and for the most part non-rational working of the whole interlocked system. The other, our present act, claims and must claim, to be an act of insight, a knowledge sufficiently free from non-rational causation to be determined (positively) only by the truth it knows. But the imagined thinking which we put into the picture depends—because our whole idea of Nature depends—on the thinking we are actually doing, not vice versa. This is the prime reality, on which the attribution of reality to anything else rests. If it won’t fit into Nature, we can’t help it. We will certainly not on that account, give it up. If we do, we should be giving up Nature too.

Chapter Three of C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947)

Humanitarian Theory of Punishment by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

In England we have lately had a controversy about Capital Punishment. I do not know whether a murderer is more likely to repent and make good on the gallows a few weeks after his trial or in the prison infirmary thirty years later. I do not know whether the fear of death is an indispensable deterrent. I need not, for the purpose of this article, decide whether it is a morally permissible deterrent. Those are questions which I propose to leave untouched. My subject is not Capital Punishment in particular, but that theory of punishment in general which the controversy showed to be called the Humanitarian theory. Those who hold it think that it is mild and merciful. In this I believe that they are seriously mistaken. I believe that the “Humanity” which it claims is a dangerous illusion and disguises the possibility of cruelty and injustice without end. I urge a return to the traditional or Retributive theory not solely, not even primarily, in the interests of society, but in the interests of the criminal.

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable? One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments. If a tendency to steal can be cured by psychotherapy, the thief will no doubt be forced to undergo the treatment. Otherwise, society cannot continue.

My contention is that this doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law, is deprived of the rights of a human being.

The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.

The distinction will become clearer if we ask who will be qualified to determine sentences when sentences are no longer held to derive their propriety from the criminal’s deservings. On the old view the problem of fixing the right sentence was a moral problem. Accordingly, the judge who did it was a person trained in jurisprudence; trained, that is, in a science which deals with rights and duties, and which, in origin at least, was consciously accepting guidance from the Law of Nature, and from Scripture. We must admit that in the actual penal code of most countries at most times these high originals were so much modified by local custom, class interests, and utilitarian concessions, as to be very imperfectly recognizable. But the code was never in principle, and not always in fact, beyond the control of the conscience of the society. And when (say, in eighteenth-century England) actual punishments conflicted too violently with the moral sense of the community, juries refused to convict and reform was finally brought about. This was possible because, so long as we are thinking in terms of Desert, the propriety of the penal code, being a moral question, is a question n which every man has the right to an opinion, not because he follows this or that profession, but because he is simply a man, a rational animal enjoying the Natural Light. But all this is changed when we drop the concept of Desert. The only two questions we may now ask about a punishment are whether it deters and whether it cures. But these are not questions on which anyone is entitled to have an opinion simply because he is a man. He is not entitled to an opinion even if, in addition to being a man, he should happen also to be a jurist, a Christian, and a moral theologian. For they are not question about principle but about matter of fact; and for such cuiquam in sua arte credendum. Only the expert ‘penologist’ (let barbarous things have barbarous names), in the light of previous experiment, can tell us what is likely to deter: only the psychotherapist can tell us what is likely to cure. It will be in vain for the rest of us, speaking simply as men, to say, ‘but this punishment is hideously unjust, hideously disproportionate to the criminal’s deserts’. The experts with perfect logic will reply, ‘but nobody was talking about deserts. No one was talking about punishment in your archaic vindictive sense of the word. Here are the statistics proving that this treatment deters. Here are the statistics proving that this other treatment cures. What is your trouble?

The Humanitarian theory, then, removes sentences from the hands of jurists whom the public conscience is entitled to criticize and places them in the hands of technical experts whose special sciences do not even employ such categories as rights or justice. It might be argued that since this transference results from an abandonment of the old idea of punishment, and, therefore, of all vindictive motives, it will be safe to leave our criminals in such hands. I will not pause to comment on the simple-minded view of fallen human nature which such a belief implies. Let us rather remember that the ‘cure’ of criminals is to be compulsory; and let us then watch how the theory actually works in the mind or the Humanitarian. The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And or course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts—and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature—who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

It may be said that by the continued use of the word punishment and the use of the verb ‘inflict’ I am misrepresenting Humanitarians. They are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Vienese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.

If we turn from the curative to the deterrent justification of punishment we shall find the new theory even more alarming. When you punish a man in terrorem, make of him an ‘example’ to others, you are admittedly using him as a means to an end; someone else’s end. This, in itself, would be a very wicked thing to do. On the classical theory of Punishment it was of course justified on the ground that the man deserved it. That was assumed to be established before any question of ‘making him an example arose’ arose. You then, as the saying is, killed two birds with one stone; in the process of giving him what he deserved you set an example to others. But take away desert and the whole morality of the punishment disappears. Why, in Heaven’s name, am I to be sacrificed to the good of society in this way? — unless, of course, I deserve it.

But that is not the worst. If the justification of exemplary punishment is not to be based on dessert but solely on its efficacy as a deterrent, it is not absolutely necessary that the man we punish should even have committed the crime. The deterrent effect demands that the public should draw the moral, ‘If we do such an act we shall suffer like that man.’ The punishment of a man actually guilty whom the public think innocent will not have the desired effect; the punishment of a man actually innocent will, provided the public think him guilty. But every modern State has powers which make it easy to fake a trial. When a victim is urgently needed for exemplary purposes and a guilty victim cannot be found, all the purposes of deterrence will be equally served by the punishment (call it ‘cure’ if you prefer0 of an innocent victim, provided that the public can be cheated into thinking him will be so wicked. The punishment of an innocent, that is, an undeserving, man is wicked only if we grant the traditional view that righteous punishment means deserved punishment. Once we have abandoned that criterion, all punishments have to be justified, if at all, on other grounds that have nothing to do with desert. Where the punishment of the innocent can be justified on those grounds (and it could in some cases be justified as a deterrent) it will be no less moral than any other punishment. Any distaste for it on the part of the Humanitarian will be merely a hang-over from the Retributive theory.

It is, indeed, important to notice that my argument so far supposes no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian and considers only what is involved in the logic of his position. My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.

In reality, however, we must face the possibility of bad rulers armed with a Humanitarian theory of punishment. A great many popular blue prints for a Christian society are merely what the Elizabethans called ‘eggs in moonshine’ because they assume that the whole society is Christian or that the Christians are in control. This is not so in most contemporary States. Even if it were, our rulers would still be fallen men, and, therefore neither very wise nor very good. As it is, they will usually be unbelievers. And since wisdom and virtue are not the only or the commonest qualifications for a place in the government, they will not often be even the best unbelievers.

The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish. And when they are wicked the Humanitarian theory of punishment will put in their hands a finer instrument of tyranny than wickedness ever had before. For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be treated as a crime; and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to plead that states of mind which displease government need not always involve moral turpitude and do not therefore always deserve forfeiture of liberty. For our masters will not be using the concepts of Desert and Punishment but those of disease and cure. We know that one school of psychology already regards religion as a neurosis. When this particular neurosis becomes inconvenient to government, what is to hinder government from proceeding to ‘cure’ it? Such ‘cure’ will, of course, be compulsory; but under the Humanitarian theory it will not be called by the shocking name of Persecution. No one will blame us for being Christians, no one will hate us, no one will revile us. The new Nero will approach us with the silky manners of a doctor, and though all will be in fact as compulsory as the tunica molesta or Smithfield or Tyburn, all will go on within the unemotional therapeutic sphere where words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ are never heard. And thus when the command is given, every prominent Christian in the land may vanish overnight into Institutions for the Treatment of the Ideologically Unsound, and it will rest with the expert gaolers to say when (if ever) they are to re-emerge. But it will not be persecution. Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, that will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic. In ordinary medicine there were painful operations and fatal operations; so in this. But because they are ‘treatment’, not punishment, they can be criticized only by fellow-experts and on technical grounds, never by men as men and on grounds of justice.

This is why I think it essential to oppose the Humanitarian theory of punishment, root and branch, wherever we encounter it. It carries on its front a semblance of mercy which is wholly false. That is how it can deceive men of good will. The error began, with Shelley’s statement that the distinction between mercy and justice was invented in the courts of tyrants. It sounds noble, and was indeed the error of a noble mind. But the distinction is essential. The older view was that mercy ‘tempered’ justice, or (on the highest level of all) that mercy and justice had met and kissed. The essential act of mercy was to pardon; and pardon in its very essence involves the recognition of guilt and ill-desert in the recipient. If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned. How can you pardon a man for having a gumboil or a club foot? But the Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. This means that you start being ‘kind’ to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties. You have overshot the mark. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice; transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety. But we ought long ago to have learned our lesson. We should be too old now to be deceived by those humane pretensions which have served to usher in every cruelty of the revolutionary period in which we live. These are the ‘precious balms’ which will ‘break our heads’.

There is a fine sentence in Bunyan: ‘It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said, and however he flattered, when he got me home to his House, he would sell me for a Slave.’ There is a fine couplet, too, in John Ball:

‘Be war or ye be wo;

Knoweth your frend from your foo.’


On Punishment: A Reply

I have to thank the Editor for this opportunity of replying to two most interesting critiques of my article on the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment (Res Judicatae (1953), vi, 2), one by Professor J.J.C. Smart and the other by Drs N. Morris and D. Buckle.

Professor Smart makes a distinction between questions of the First and of the Second Order. “First” are questions like “Ought I to return this book?”; Second, like “Is promise-making a good institution?” He claims that these two Orders of question require different methods of treatment. The first can be answered by Intuition (in the sense which moral philosophers sometimes give that word). We “see” what is “right” at once, because the proposed action falls under a rule. But second-order questions can be answered only on “utilitarian” principles. Since “right” means ”agreeable to the rules” it is senseless to ask if the rules themselves are “right”; we can only ask if they are useful. A parallel would be this; granted a fixed spelling we may ask whether a word is spelled correctly, but cannot ask whether the spelling system is correct, only if it is consistent or convenient. Or again, a form may be grammatically right, but the grammar of a whole language cannot be right or wrong.

Professor Smart is here, of course, treating in a new way a very ancient distinction. It was realised by all the thinkers of the past that you could consider either (a) Whether an act was “just” in the sense of conforming to a law or custom, or (b) Whether a law or custom was itself “just”. To the ancients and medievals, however, the distinction was one between (a) Justice by law or convention nomo(i) and (b) Justice “simply” or “by nature”, haplos or physei, or between (a) Positive Law, and (b) Natural Law. Both inquiries were about justice, but the distinction between them was acknowledged. The novelty of Professor Smart’s system consists in confining the concept of justice to the First-order questions. It is claimed that the new system (1) avoids a petitio inherent in any appeal to the Law of Nature or the “simply”. just; for “to say that this is the Law of Nature is only to say that this is the rule we should adopt”; and (2) gets rid of dogmatic subjectivism. For the idea of desert in my article may be only “Lewis’s personal preference.”

I am not convinced, however, that Professor Smart’s system does avoid these inconveniences.

Those rules are to be accepted which are useful to the community, utility being (I think) what will make that community ”happier”.1 Does this mean that the happiness of the community is to be pursued at all costs, or only to be pursued in so far as this pursuit is compatible with certain degrees of mercy, human dignity, and veracity? (I must not add “of justice” because, in Professor Smart’s view, the rules themselves cannot be either just or unjust). If we take the second alternative, if we admit that there are some things, or even any one thing, which a community ought not to do however much it will increase its happiness, then we have really given up the position. We are now judging the useful by some other standard (whether we call it Conscience, or Practical Reason, or Law of Nature or Personal Preference). Suppose then, we take the first alternative: the happiness of the community is to be pursued at all costs. In certain circumstances the costs may be very heavy. In war, in some not improbable future when the world’s food runs short, during some threat of revolution, very shocking things may be likely to make the community happier or to preserve its existence. We cannot be sure that frame-ups, witch-hunts, even cannibalism, would never be in this sense “useful”. Let us suppose (what, I am very sure, is false) that Professor Smart is prepared to go the, whole hog. It then remains to ask him why he does so or why he thinks we should agree with him. He of all men cannot reply that salus populi suprema lex is the Law of Nature; firstly, because he “does not know what the Law of Nature is”, and secondly, because we others know that “the people should be preserved” is not the Law of Nature but only one clause in that Law. What then could a pursuit of the community’s happiness at all costs be based on if not on Professor Smart’s “personal preference?” The real difference between him and me would then be simply that we have different desires. Or, rather, that I have one more desire than he. For, like him, I desire the continuance and happiness of my country (and species),2 but then I also desire that they should be people of a certain sort, behaving in a certain way. The second desire is the stronger of the two. If I cannot have both, I had rather that the human race, having a certain quality in their lives, should continue for only a few centuries than that. losing freedom, friendship, dignity, and mercy, and learning to be quite content without them, they should continue for millions of millenia. If it is merely a matter of wishes, there is really no further question for discussion. Lots of people feel like me, and lots feel the other way. I believe that it is in our age being decided which kind of man will win.

And that is why, if I may say so without discourtesy, Professor Smart and I both matter so little compared with Drs Morris and Buckle. We are only dons; they are criminologists, a lawyer and a psychiatrist respectively. And the only thing which leads me so far off my own beat as to write about “Penology” at all is my intense anxiety as to which side in this immensely important conflict will have the Law for its ally. This leads me to the only serious disagreement between my two critics and myself.

Other disagreements there are, but they mainly turn on misunderstandings for which I am probably to blame. Thus:

(1) There was certainly too little, if there was anything, in my article about the protection of the community. I am afraid I took it for granted. But the distinction in my mind would not be, as my critics suppose (ibid p. 232), one between “subsidiary” and “vital” elements in punishment. I call the act of taking a packet of cigarettes off a counter and slipping it into one’s pocket “purchase” or “theft” according as one does or does not pay for it. This does not mean that I consider the taking away of the goods as “subsidiary” in an act of purchase. It means that what legitimises it, what makes it purchase at all, is the paying. I call the sexual act chaste or unchaste according as the parties are or are not married to one another. This does not mean that I consider it as “subsidiary” to marriage, but that what legitimises it, what makes it a specimen of conjugal behaviour at all, is marriage. In the same way, I am ready to make both the protection of society and the “cure” of the criminal as important as you please in punishment, but only on a certain condition; namely, that the initial act of thus interfering with a man’s liberty be justified on grounds of desert. Like payment in purchase, or marriage as regards the sexual act, it is this, and (I believe) this alone, which legitimises our proceeding and makes it an instance of punishment at all, instead of an instance of tyranny – or, perhaps, of war.

(2) I agree about criminal children (see ibid, Morris & Buckle, p. 234). There has been progress in this matter. Very primitive societies will “try” and “punish” an axe or a spear in cases of unintentional homicide. Somewhere (I think, in the Empire) during the later Middle Ages a pig was solemnly tried for a murder. Till quite recently, we may (I don’t know) have tried children as if they had adult responsibility. These things have rightly been abolished. But the whole question is whether you want the process to be carried further: whether you want us all to be simultaneously deprived of the protection and released from the responsibilities of adult citizenship and reduced to the level of the child, the pig, and the axe. I don’t want this because I don’t think there are in fact any people who stand to the rest of us as adult to child, man to beast, or animate to inanimate.3 I think the laws which laid down a “desertless” theory of punishment would in reality be made and administered by people just like the rest of us.

But the real disagreement is this. Drs Morris and Buckle, fully alive to dangers of the sort I dread and reprobating them no less than I, believe that we have a safeguard. It lies in the Courts, in their incorruptible judges, their excellent techniques, and “the controls of natural justice which the law has built up” (p. 233). Yes; if the whole tradition of natural justice which the law has for so long incorporated, will survive the completion of that change in our attitude to punishment which we are now discussing. But that for me is precisely the question. Our Courts, I agree, “have traditionally represented the common man and the common man’s ·view of morality” (Ibid). It is true that we must here extend the term “common man” to cover Locke, Grotius, Hooker, Poynet, Aquinas, Justinian, the Stoics, and Aristotle, but I have no objection to that; in one most important, and to me glorious, sense they were all common men.4 But that whole tradition is tied up with ideas of free-will, responsibility, rights, and the law of nature; Can it survive in Courts whose penal practice daily subordinates “desert” to therapy and the protection of society? Can the Law assume one philosophy in practice and continue to enjoy the safeguards of a different philosophy?

I write as the son of one lawyer and the lifelong friend of another, to two criminologists one of whom is a lawyer. I believe an approximation between their view and mine is not to be despaired of, for we have the same ends at heart. I wish society to be protected and I should be very glad if all punishments were also cures. All I plead for is the prior condition of ill desert; loss of liberty justified on retributive grounds before we begin considering the other factors. After that, as you please. Till that, there is really no question of “punishment”. We are not such poltroons that we want to be protected unconditionally, though when a man has deserved punishment we shall very properly look to our protection in devising it. We are not such busybodies that we want to improve all our neighbours by force; but when one of our neighbours has justly forfeited his right not to be interfered with, we shall charitably try to make his punishment improve him. But we will not presume to teach him (who, after all, are we?) till he has merited that we should “larn him”. Will Dr Morris and Dr Buckle come so far to meet me as that? On their decision and on that of others in similar important offices, depends, l believe, the continued dignity and beneficence of that great discipline the Law, but also much more. For, if I am not deceived, we are all at this moment helping to decide whether humanity shall retain all that has hitherto made humanity worth preserving, or whether we must slide down into the sub-humanity imagined by Mr Aldous Huxley and George Orwell and partially realised in Hitler’s Germany. For the extermination of the Jews really would have been “useful” if the racial theories had been correct; there is no foretelling what may come to seem, or even to be, “useful”, and “necessity” was always “the tyrant’s plea.”


1 See the penultimate paragraph of Professor Smart’s article.

2 I am not sure whether for Professor Smart the “community” means the nation or the species. If the former, difficulties arise about international morality, in discussing which I think Professor Smart would have to come to the species sooner or later.

3 This is really the same objection as that which I would make to Aristotle’s theory of slavery (Pol. 1z54A et sq.). We can all recognise the “natural” slaves (I am perhaps one myself) but where are the “natural” masters”?

4 See also Lewis: Abolition of Man (1947), especially the Appendix