Monday, February 10, 2014

Paul Evdokimov on Existentialist Philosophy

By Paul Evdokimov

Existentialist philosophy appears more nostalgic than aggressive. Its pessimism seems to be deliberate. An aphorism of Heidegger expresses a certain virility in despair: “Man is a powerless god.”

Unquestionably all goes back to Kierkegaard and to his violent reaction against Hegelian rationalism. Hegel’s panlogic speculation introduces no harmony into the real, and it offers no salvation. Kierkegaard centered his very personal and very concrete reflection on the religious question: What must I make of myself? in other words, what must I do to be saved?

He built up a most penetrating vision of self-knowledge and anticipated depth psychology. In the depths of the soul he discovered anguish and a feeling of a priori guilt which divide a human being and instill an infernal element into him. It is at this level that a thirst for salvation springs up. The ultimate alternative sets the choice between nothingness and the absolute. It offers the greatness of faith contemplating Christ, who has made himself the contemporary of every soul. On the other hand, to flee idealistic metaphysics is to flee the judgment of God.

Reason can function only between the beginning and the end, therefore it is placed between the two. This is why the intermediary sphere of the immanent has no ontological foundation. Only anguish in the face of nothingness can shatter the immanent and lead toward the religious “wholly other”. It is because he is “other” that he requires the crucifixion of reason and appeals to “the crucified judgment”. The case of Abraham illustrates how morality is transcended by the folly of the cross. Since then the only true witness to the truth is the martyr. Man in himself is only a passover. Now the paschal resurrection-passage of the transitus brings about the transcendence whereby death is made Christian; it is no longer an intruder, but the great initiator into the great mystery of eternity.

However, dialectic theology, the theology of the cross, is not yet a theology of the Parousia. The God of Kierkegaard, like the God of Jaspers, remains an absolutely transcendent God. Man is not in God and God is not in man; man stands before God. His tragic thirst is not assuaged; he does not yet know all the mystery of the immanent God and the mystic espousal of every soul with God. Kierkegaard did not know that in marrying Regina Olsen his soul could have espoused Christ.

Heidegger took up the formula: man is the existent ego. Existence precedes essence, which means that man creates himself, that no essence determines his destiny; consequently he has no nature but he has a history.

Thrown into co-being with others, finding himself always “in situation”, the average man does not oppose the world. Now his cares, an immediate element of life, disperse his attention, direct it toward “non-being”, and veil the real. Alienated from himself, he loses his true ego and veers toward the impersonal and anonymous— expressed by “one”, das Man. Constructed by man’s cares, the world is illusory, deceitful, ghost-like, for cares make us forget the real, namely, the ego and its liberty. That is why the ego does not emerge except on the background of nothingness, on that crude screen where the inevitable experience of death is projected. This is the tragedy of man.

It is because by themselves nothingness and freedom are without reason and without foundation; they are limitless and therefore correlative and related. In fact, liberty is limited only by nothingness; it experiences its bounds only in the feeling of death which is essentially concrete, personal and inevitable. Only by transcending his cares toward death is man offered the experience of absolute freedom.10 Even more, and this is essential, awareness of death arouses and imposes the decision to realize all the possibilities of liberty and thus to assume the full responsibility of the ego faced with its own destiny.

Man in the metaphysical emotion caused by anguish in the face of death experiences the finiteness of his temporal being, but he grasps above all his “non-being”, evident as soon as it was founded on his cares and preoccupations. We understand then the fundamental thesis of Heidegger, which can be reduced to the celebrated formula, Freiheit zum Tode, freedom toward death; man’s tragic grandeur reveals to him his Sein zum Tode, his being toward death.

Man’s ethical task consists in transcending the world of his cares toward the heroism of that freedom which is responsible for his destiny. This moral teaching is closely related to the ethics of the Stoics. Powerless mortal man is declared to be a god. Not responsible for the being imposed upon him, he assumes his liberty of evaluation and thereby assumes his destiny, whatever may be the final results. He imposes on himself the duty of judging. His freedom is not then purely arbitrary, but he remains a powerless judge through want of an objective criterion of judgment, that is, an axiology of values in function of the Absolute. Is this not the penitent judge of Camus’ The Fall?

Only an extreme and profound subjectivism, one that is serious and truly tragic, can condition such a vision. The philosophy of nothingness is a theology without God, the place of God being granted to nothingness, and the characteristic of nothingness is to annihilate, or to nothingize. Such an impasse, however, could become salutary. Heidegger will never write the second volume of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), for he has remarked that his philosophy is not an explanation but a description, and that it is not a denial of God but a certain expectation.11

Sartre continues Heidegger’s theses. His psychoanalysis constructs a mythology of the en-soi and the pour-soi, of being and nothingness. The vision is complicated because being is divided and nothingness is multiple. On the plane of being, the en-soi is irreconcilable with the pour-soi; they establish and destroy each other reciprocally. The union of these two realities, or the convergence of essence and existence, is declared impossible; this is a radical denial of the idea of God, who is this very union.

The pour-soi (conscience, idealism), dynamic and changing through its choices, appears as a fissure in the static en-soi (being, realism). To establish oneself means to deny the static order, to deny above all, one’s own immutability. In affirming its freedom as independence of the world and of the en-soi, the pour-soi effects negation, annihilates ceaselessly and thus enlarges the gap of non-being in the static being of the en-soi and places it at the limit of nothingness.

The denial of a beginning and of an end, both transcendent renders freedom tragic, places it outside pardon, which is possible at the beginning, and outside justification, which is possible at the end. Between the massive existence of a world deprived of meaning, where every value is artificial and irremediable, and the human mind inhabited by the exigency of its reason, the rift is inevitable. There remains to man only the freedom to deny a world that denies him.

Man is terribly alone in his fearful and absolute freedom for which, as in Heidegger’s philosophy, he experiences full responsibility. In thus making freedom the formal element of truth (when it is a condition of it) he arrives logically at the affirmation: “Man is condemned to liberty.” Condemned because he is not the creator of his being, and free because he is wholly responsible. Sartre clearly belongs to the great French school of moralists.

The analysis of bad faith shows the failure of communication. This is because each pour-soi tends to transform another pour-soi into an en-soi, to make of a subject an object. In the end, he risks transforming himself into an en-soi, to petrify himself in a static state by his memories and projects. We either take possession of another or we are possessed by him. Our relationship to another is always deceitful, and that is why other people are hell for us.

If Marxism is a philosophy of totality, Sartrian existentialism is just the opposite; it is the philosophy of what cannot be made total. According to it, totality expresses the ultimate abstraction; on the contrary, the concrete is the individual. Its reality is in function of the gap, the discontinuous, the absurd and the free will. We can understand how the whole idea of God, of the one who fills in the gaps, makes unity out of plurality, and gives meaning to things, would diminish the tragedy of existence, suppress solitude, limit the arbitrary and lessen the sense of autonomous responsibility.

We must give heed to this existential speculation, which, from a philosophic point of view, is very powerful. It overthrows the smug optimism of religious philosophies according to which evil serves the good and in so doing is non-existing as evil; this would render the death of God on the cross incomprehensible. For Sartre, God would diminish the radicalism of evil, of misfortune, of guilt. We can recognize here Kantianism become a religion, but having lost the postulate of the practical reason; it is a Kantianism without God. Kantian rigorism would here attain its climax. The idea of God would contradict the absolute of moral exigency, and it is this absolute character that requires a morality without the Absolute. The greatest paradox is that despair at its height necessarily refers to the Absolute that has been declared impossible. Tacitly, in order to retain its grandeur, existence is a cooperator of value, and thus the ontological argument is denied and described simultaneously. In the last analysis, it is the absence of God that makes the world absurd and hopeless. Therefore, this absence alone justifies the extreme positions of existentialism. Certainly there is no answer to the question posed by this relationship; there is not even a question, for there is no “judge” in this world without finality. Nevertheless, God serves here as a point of reference, although negatively; all is thought of in relation to the absence of the divine meaning. Dostoevsky has shown that suffering in its extremes can pass into a complacency in suffering, and that from this state no return is possible; the pleasure of suffering suppresses every solution capable of transcending it.

The more free a man is the more alone he is and the more a stranger to the world. In the rarefied air of the heights, the permanent act of establishing himself, of inventing himself, dominates man’s fear and despair. Does it give him the right to be the supreme arbiter? If God does not exist, is everything permitted? For Sartre, who understands this formidable question of Dostoevsky, the sufficient reason for ruling out crime resides in the absolute of liberty, which is related to values, even if the latter are contingent and contrived. Because being is to be-with, it has a side that touches the existence of others.

When a man posits himself, he at the same time posits others. To be free and to remain upright and sincere, is to posit oneself morally; it is to be in good faith. A criminal, on the contrary, destroys the integrity of his being and of his choice; he is in bad faith. The being in situation is inserted into history, and since Marxism offers a meaning of history in its theory of social evolution, Sartre seeks in it possible human communication. The abyss of liberty, very strangely, arouses dizziness, disgust, nausea. One would say that the deception pays off. This is what Dostoevsky has indeed foreseen, saying that man will never be able to bear the yoke of freedom and that Marxism offers the maximum possibility of getting rid of this royal gift. Sartre confesses: “I lead to nothing, my thought does not allow me to construct anything; then there is no other solution but Marxism” (La critique de la raison dialectique). The difficulty, however, remains without a solution. Marxism exaggerates the importance of matter in order to make it creative. Existentialism, on the other hand, makes it blind in order better to fight against it and to hold man in check.

Nietzsche, and Sartre in his wake, have proclaimed the death of the adversary without ever succeeding in definitely eliminating him. His shadow pursues them; the reverse of God is indeed present in man’s every thought. Man’s drive toward the superman is thwarted by his impotence and is defeated. Freud had discovered the mysterious original fault, the “death of the Father”. The man who brought it about could never overcome his remorse, and this is the origin of the collective neurosis. The profound pessimism of the last works of Freud comes from his tardy clairvoyance. His utopia of human happiness had crumbled away, and his resignation was bitter. Moreover, the superman came to nothing, and the closed humanism of the atheists is doomed to failure.

Malraux in his Mitamorphose des dieux declares that in order to invent and to start his own divinization, man has to conquer his obsessive complex of the Absolute. Can he do this? Freud as a psychotherapist answers negatively. According to Sartre, man kills God in order to say: “I am, therefore God does not exist.” But even for Sartre, this power of liberty manifests its emptiness and the vanity of nothingness. Gide wished his moral teaching to be more consistent. His only principle was that a man should go to the limit of himself, to conform sincerely to the standards which each one would give to himself according to his free choice.

However, the impunity that every atheist enjoys during his earthly existence is not the last word; death jealously hides its mystery. The devil told Ivan Karamazov the story of an atheist who after death perceived that reality was different from his advanced ideas. “I do not accept it, it contradicts my convictions,” he cried, and lay down across the road. He was condemned to walk until his chronometer would decompose into its elements.

In answering Sartre, Merleau-Ponty12 said that man is not condemned to freedom; he is condemned to meaning, in other words, he is called upon to decipher the meaning of existence and, above all, the meaning of freedom itself.

We must recognize the grandeur of existentialism that has centered all its reflection on freedom. Fundamental evidence of the human mind, freedom constitutes the creative activity of man. Now in this function, unless it contradicts itself, it cannot come from the world with its system of dependencies and constraints. It is evident that freedom is transcendent to the world, has its origin elsewhere, and is offered as a royal gift. That is why in his profound philosophy Jaspers designates clearly the Giver and bears powerful witness to the existence of God. Jaspers’ great merit is his discovery of a proof of divine existence in freedom. We find there the fatherland of freedom, where it has its roots, and in this way it effects an opening toward God. God inspires it to be truly free; this renders it different in every respect from the type of dependence found in Kantian theonomy. God has created a “second freedom”. To this gift of God man answers by the gift of himself; he dies and rises in the convergence of these two freedoms, and by this experience he has access to the meaning of his existence. His freedom is never an object for man. It is not even action, but rather a creative reaction to the Giver, to his invitation to become a freedom of service and to testify to its heavenly origins.


10 See the dialectic of Kirilov in The Possessed by Dostoevsky.

11 See Holzwege, Ist Gott tot?

12 Phenomenologie de la perception, p. XIV. According to the Gospel, it is the truth, the meaning that makes man free.

From The Struggle With God by Paul Evdokimov (Paulist Press, Glen Rock, New Jersey)  1966 pp. 20-27.