Schelling’s philosophy seems to be breaking free from its long-term neglect. While the earliest Schelling has always been recognized as a valuable intermediary between Kant and Hegel, the traditional reception saw his middle philosophy as an unfortunate step into Romanticism and his latest philosophy as a retreat into Christian orthodoxy. The last decade or two has shown renewed interest in Schelling’s philosophy in its own right, and tries to read Schelling not merely as a philosopher on the way to Hegel, but as someone who offers valuable arguments himself. This volume is a welcome contribution to this renewed interest in Schelling’s thought, specifically because it aims to discuss Schelling’s “contribution to and internal critique of the basic insights of German idealism, his role in shaping the course of post-Kantian thought, and his sensitivity and innovative responses to questions of lasting metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, aesthetic, and theological importance” (2).
This volume follows the trend of dividing Schelling’s trend in ever-increasing periods: early idealism, philosophy of nature, philosophy of freedom and late philosophy. While such a periodization can be helpful for fleshing out the exact meaning and context of Schelling’s argument, it does risk obfuscating the developmental nature of Schelling’s thought as such. Some of the contributors do point out how certain periods of thought follow naturally from previous premises and arguments, in such short contributions, an idea of the whole of the development of Schelling cannot be provided. The chapters of this book are thus concerned with fairly specific topics narrowed down to a specific period in Schelling’s philosophical development. Though attempts are made to spread the attention evenly to all periods of his thought, there does seem to be more attention paid to his earlier thought up to 1809 (the first 15 years of his career) rather than Schelling’s very latest philosophy up to 1854 (the last 45 of his career). On a whole, the contributions are well-crafted, clearly structured and well-argued. The editor maintained a firm hand in streamlining the different chapters, which made for that a singular style pervades all different chapters.
The first set of chapters deal with Schelling’s earliest idealism, mostly in relationship to two contemporaries: Kant and Novalis. In her opening essay ‘Nature as the World of Action, Not of Speculation’, Lara Ostaric proposes a reading of Schelling’s ‘Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism’ where Schelling’s engagement with Kant in that essay is geared towards interpreting Kant in the spirit rather than the letter of his idealism. At the time, the Tübingen theologians saw Kant’s practical postulates as a way to speak of revelation again, while for Kant, Schelling argues, it signals that God is known through freedom and action, not thought. Ostaric’s purpose is then to show that Schelling is in greater proximity to Kant in his earliest development than is usually believed. In my view, Ostaric gives too much credit to the theological reading of Kant’s postulates (e.g. Storr). In fact, Schelling’s reading of Kant’s postulates seems to be in line with Kant’s text, not just the spirit of that text. Ostaric’s approach to Kant’s argument seems to miss the constitutive difference between a ‘proof’ and a ‘postulate’ of God. She supports her reading by turning to the first Critique, while it would be better to investigate the development of this issue in the third Critique. The second chapter in this series, by Joan Steigerwald titled ‘Schelling’s Romanticism’, traces certain overlapping concerns between Novalis and Schelling. Her approach is speculative rather than historical. The point is that Novalis and Schelling start both from a discontent with how Fichte’s idealism is too focused on the activity of the I, and so tends to forget the world and nature. Both philosophers then seek to come to a more organic relationship between world and the I. Both Novalis and Schelling see this in term of opposing forces of ‘lowering’ and ‘raising’. While the set-up of this paper is very interesting, its speculative nature makes it so that it hovers over texts rather than deals with these in more detail and nuance. Here, a more specific focus might have been more enlightening.
The second set of papers, four in total, deals with Schelling’s philosophy of nature. In the first essay in this series ‘Freedom as Productivity in Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature’, Naomi Fisher takes a look at Schelling’s view of freedom prior to writing his famous Freedom-Essay. Her point is that Schelling is trying to make sense of two things: (1) Nature acts freely; (2) Human freedom is yet an escape from nature. The key to understanding this conundrum is ‘lawful productivity’. This paper offers a sustained, systematic discussion of how Schelling treats with productivity, freedom and determinism, which is very helpful to understanding how Schelling came to his famous argument in Freedom-Essay. In the second essay in this series ‘From World-Soul to Universal Organism’, Paul Franks aims to offer a reading of a part of Schelling’s philosophy of nature which is unpalatable to many scholars, namely his views of a world-soul. In accordance with his usual erudition, Franks shows how discussion regarding certain Cabbalistic notions, most importantly tsimtsum, was widespread at the time and how Maimon paved the way for Schelling’s views of a world-soul. Schelling came to his own views regarding the world-soul by blending his reading of Maimon with his understanding of Plato. In the third essay in this series, ‘Deus sive Vernunft. Schelling’s Transformation of Spinoza’s God’ Yitzhak Y. Melamed offers the obligatory discussion of Spinoza’s impact on Schelling’s philosophy of nature. He offers a reading of the Darstellung (1801) where Schelling transforms Spinoza’s God into reason. After offering a, rather hasty, overview of how Schelling became increasingly critical of Spinoza in his later thought (without mentioned Freedom-Essay!), Melamed aims to show that Schelling retains an appreciation for Spinoza throughout his work. Then, Melamed moves to show the formal and stylistic similarities between Schelling’s Darstellung and Spinoza’s Ethics – a point which is rather obvious and does not really enhance the claims in this paper. After that the paper turns to showing how in Schelling reason takes over the role of God in Spinoza’s thought. Regrettably, this does not move beyond a mostly formal discussion. In the final essay in this series, ‘Schelling on Eternal Choice and the Temporal Order of Nature’, Brady Bowman asks whether we can call Schelling a naturalist. The question, of itself, seems rather anachronistic and does not do justice to the complex meaning of the term nature in Schelling’s thought – 1800s and contemporary views of nature are quite distinct. In order to elucidate this, Bowman turns to Schelling’s notion of eternal choice, which undergirds Schelling’s naturalism. While Bowman warns against reading Schelling as a naturalist in our contemporary sense, he does not take into consideration other ways of thinking about naturalism which would more naturally blend with Schelling’s thought.
The third series of essays deal with Schelling’s views of freedom, mostly in Schelling’s Freedom-Essay and The Ages of the World. In the opening essay ‘Schelling on the Compatibility of Freedom and Systemacity’, Markus Gabriel offers a sustained and very helpful discussion of how Schelling thinks freedom and systematicity can be compatible. He does this by means of a reconstruction of Schelling’s discussion of the law of identity and the copula. Regrettably, the discussion is cut short towards the end when the ethical and religious consequences of this new understanding of freedom come up for discussion. In the second essay in this series ‘The Personal, Evil, and the Possibility of Philosophy in Schelling’s Freiheitsschrift’, Richard Velkley gives what is mostly an overview of the general argument of Schelling’s Freedom-Essay, focused mostly on the ground of God as a will to revelation. Velkley does make some interesting notes towards the end on how Schelling interacts with Kant’s notion of radical evil. In the third essay in this series, ‘Nature, Freedom, and Gender in Schelling’, Alison Stone turns to a much-neglected topic in Schelling’s scholarship, namely his views of gender. Schelling entertains, Stone argues, a gendered duality in a number of his works, which tends to associate ‘reason’ with masculinity and ‘nature’ (or receptiveness) with femininity. He seems not to argue for this association and merely assumes this duality, because of his philosophical pedigree. While critical of the way gender is portrayed in Schelling’s thought, Stone does recognize the ambiguity of a simplistic sense of male supremacy in Schelling’s philosophy. Nature does always precede reason in Schelling, and so the female precedes the male as well. In the final essay in this series ‘The Facticity of Time’, G. Anthony Bruno, also the editor, discusses Schelling’s attack on Hegel (how reason is unable to ground itself) from the perspective of The Ages of the World. He insightfully argues how Schelling views the Past and Future as necessary conditions for the possibility of reason, while for Kant and idealism generally, reason was seen as the condition for time.
The last series of essays deals with Schelling’s last philosophy. In the first essay in this series ‘Thought’s Indebtedness to Being’, Sebastian Gardner offers a very complex, speculative take on the Schelling-Hegel debate by offering two ways of reading one of Kant’s pre-critical essay ‘The Only Possible Proof for the Existence of God’. In the final essay in this series ‘An Ethics for the Transition’, Dalia Nassar discusses how Schelling can solve a difficulty in environmental ethics. Schelling namely offers a diagnosis for our problematic relationship to nature and a means by which environmental ethics can be spurred into action.
While some essays are better crafted than others, the papers in this volume are generally very insightful and helpful towards a variety of issues in Schelling’s philosophy. While some topics, mostly of the latest Schelling, are left out (such as revelation, metaphysical empiricism, etc.) the papers that did appear in this volume will ignite further discussion on Schelling’s philosophy
“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil—such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).
DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).
At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.
But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.
Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).
For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.
That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).
Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.
From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).
This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.
Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.
Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).
But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).
I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).
All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.
Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.
Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).
For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:
A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).
And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.
It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.
More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.
How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.
But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.
We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).
Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.
This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.
This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?
DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:
…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?
Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.
That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.
Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.
DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.
Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.
Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
A Chapter of the Philosophical Anthropology in Germany: Helmuth Plessner
The discipline of philosophical anthropology can be described as the work of an historically specific group of conservative German intellectuals, with figures such as Max Scheler and Arnold Gehlen who exerted a relatively large influence in the philosophical debate of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, in an explicitly leftist and anti-conservative milieu, something of a “negative anthropology” was developed (in an independent manner) by authors such as Günther Anders, Theodor Adorno, and Ulrich Sonnemann, whose intent was to think dehumanization without a positive image of what the human is. Due to his entry into the German intellectual debate of the 1920s, Helmuth Plessner is typically included among the first group, despite the somewhat modest and mostly local reception of his work and his rather moderate and anti-radical political positions. As a Jew, he fled Nazi Germany (while Gehlen’s career was advancing in Frankfurt and then in Leipzig during the period of Hitler) and survived the war hidden in the Netherlands (curiously, in his reflections on language in his lectures, Plessner employs often quite particular examples from Dutch). Although he later received a Lehrstuhl in sociology in Germany, the author of Die verspätete Nation remained relatively isolated in the academic scenario of post-war Europe.
Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, and Kevin Liggieri, the transcripts of Plessner’s lectures on philosophical anthropology held at the University of Göttingen in the summer of 1961 have been published by Suhrkamp. This course is comprised of 18 lessons. The first three lessons are dedicated to the idea and the definitions of philosophical anthropology. In the second block of three lessons, Plessner works on the problem of language. Afterwards, a third block of the course proceeds to the relation of man and his environment (Umwelt). After a lesson dedicated to the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” in which the conceptions of natural man (derived mostly from Rousseau) are criticized, and another lesson on the concept of person, Plessner approaches in three lessons the concept of role, thought in its theatrical, anthropological and functional sense. In the fifth block of the course, Plessner exposes the main points of a study already been published in English under the title Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, in which he works out the relation between expressivity and human condition, comparing these with examples from empirical sciences such as biology and zoology. At the end of the course, two lessons address the problem of disembodiment [Entkörperung] and the human consciousness of death. The last one approaches the actuality of philosophical anthropology, with Plessner reviewing the questions worked through during the semester.
Those are already familiar with the work of Plessner will not find new theoretical material, as these lectures are the basis for his work Conditio humana. But the book certainly permits a different access to Plessner’s formulations on philosophical anthropology, in a similar manner as in recent decades the publication of lecture transcripts of authors such as Foucault and Adorno have thrown new light on their work. Plessner (like Adorno) shows a generous and pedagogical clarity with the students, in strong contrast to the technical jargon present in some of his texts. The spontaneity of spoken thought, the constant evocation of the second person (and also of the we) and a text marked by the contingency of a lecture produce a different complicity between author and reader, the latter of whom is treated as a listener.
First, we should highlight the context of the philosophical anthropology. This discipline saw its high point in Germany after the First World War and began losing relevance in the mainstream intellectual scene around the 1970’s. The relationship between the essential determinations of man and the experience of the first enormous catastrophe of the 20th century is a question not ignored by Plessner. In a strict materialistic sense, Plessner says that “this science [philosophical anthropology] made significant progress with the experiment of brain injuries occasioned by the First World War” so that “the war worked as a violent experimenter” (12). The war “opened up” man for insight in different senses, but also literally. The image of mutilated human beings revealed that it was not any longer evident what “man” was: this was the moment of the rise of philosophical anthropology. In the notes to the first lesson of the course, Plessner writes: “Ph[ilosophical] A[nthropology] is the expression of the uncertainty of man about his ‘determination’ [Max Scheler]” (9). The reference is probably to the essay The Human Place in the Cosmos from 1928 (the same year of the publication of Plessner’s Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch), where Scheler writes that “in no historical era has the human being become so much of a problem to himself as in ours.” Already in his Die verspätete Nation (first published in 1935 and then reedited in 1959), which was an attempt to understand the genealogy of fascism, he quoted Golo Mann, who said: “The question of what Germany is, and what should be done with it, was an inevitable one hundred years ago. But time worked fast… What man is, and what man should do with himself: that is the question of the future.” It is also no accident that the new period of ontological uncertainty coincided with a rebirth of conservative humanism (centered in the figure of Scheler).
The historical delimitation of philosophical anthropology as a discipline is something that Plessner approaches explicitly in his lectures: he criticizes openly the idea that there has always been philosophical anthropology, so that it must be seen as an anachronism to speak of a philosophical anthropology in Plato or Saint Augustine. He situates it rather as a late product of bourgeois society that begins to appear in the 19th century, as well as in sociology (that presupposes itself a philosophical anthropology and that has a concept of man diverse from the medical and natural sciences). However, it is effectively in the 1920’s, and as a sibling of the “philosophy of existence,” that philosophical anthropology sees its rise. He says: “Let me say something about the date of origin of philosophical anthropology, in the sense that we want to gradually develop here, and of the philosophy of existence. It is not an accident that both emerged in the 20’s of this century, and at the same time. The first works on philosophical anthropology – if I don’t think of the predecessors in the 19th century, that actually exist, especially Feuerbach – appear after the First World War, that is, in the beginning of the 1920’s. The problem developed there” (27). Also, the early philosophical anthropology of Günther Anders was named by commentators as a hypostasis of the Homo weimarensis, in which the existential condition of not being completely merged with the world (that is, the “world-estrangement of man”) was at the same time the condition for man’s freedom. (The latter was, however, “pathological,” as this freedom was a result of man’s “non-identification” and contingency relatively to world – in opposition to animals, that have in the world their “natural place.”) The proximity to Plessner’s formulation of the “ex-centric positionality of man” is evident.
Plessner approaches this motif of the “deficitary nature” of man, of man as a Mangelwesen, a motif that can be traced back to the 19th century, at least back to Herder: Herder would speak of man as an animal without claw, horns, poison fang, or strong bite. That means that the biological existence of man, his instincts, are not enough. If this natural weakness of man was something to be denied – and eliminated – by fascist naturalism (legitimized by the doctrine of race, which was, as Plessner points out, a dominant philosophical anthropology of the 1930s that wished to affirm the natural and “original” force), this separation from nature is, on the contrary, what Plessner wants to affirm: “Man is, before everything, instinctually weak [instinktschwach]” (119). What is not openly said by Plessner, but which we could interpret in this way, is that the instinctual realm carries a historical trauma, the same way as German backwardness appears as an excess of nature, as the “biological fall of man” [biologischer Sündenfall] (as Habermas says in his interpretation of Die verspätete Nation). A moral problem, linked to a specific historical experience as the problem of “evil” (understood as aggression), appears between these lines of philosophical anthropology, which does not wish to naturalize the bestiality happened in the past. Therefore, Plessner’s intention is not to understand fascism as a “destiny” written in human nature – although in these lectures, specifically, Plessner’s reference to German fascism, are quite lateral. In this sense, in a less pessimistic manner as Freud in his Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, the essential determinations of man lie in the fact that he is not subordinated to his instincts (as animals are). The essential is not instinct, but its restraint (the “super-ego,” Freud would say). Plessner became, as it is known, an expert in biology and in other fields of the natural sciences. But at the same time, his interest lies in the limits of nature: a constant procedure of philosophical anthropology is the comparison between man and animals, in order to distinguish them.
What underlies Plessner’s considerations is an anti-Nietzscheanism (in other texts he names the origin of three radicalisms he despises: Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), and also the critique of what he calls the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” for him a “biological interpretation of civilization and culture as precisely the fall of man [Sündenfall] from nature” (124). As Habermas points out, Plessner’s vision of human Sündenfall is its involvement in nature, not in civilization (as Rousseau sees it). Plessner certainly doesn’t follow the Frankfurtian interpretation of the Dialectics of Enlightenment and doesn’t see the civilized restraint of the instinctual realm in a pathological manner. Rather, such restraints are what characterize the specifically human and should be positively affirmed. Social norms, which are not identical to vital and biological norms, have a “regulative braking function” [regulierende, bremsende Funktion] (121). “To be human therefore means to be guided and inhibited by norms, to be quickened and braked, directed and at the same time limited. That is, to be human means to be a represser [Verdränger]” (122). A defense of these “humanizing” brakes as a defense of civilization shows an inversion of Rousseau that we could call Plessner’s “utopia of the lost civilized form of man,” that has a special meaning during the Reconstruction and Denazification of post-war Germany. Man may be a “blond beast” – but the “blond beast is in the stable” (126). In a certain manner, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is a praise to the success of domestication of man.
This negation and repression of instinctual nature has a violent dimension. This theory of compensation of the biologically underprivileged condition of man (in which the spirit would result from the insufficiency of the body) finds in Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology a more authoritarian version, as man becomes not a peaceful creature when he leaves the natural condition of animal, but rather becomes a kind of ultra-strong animal. Plessner criticizes Gehlen in these terms: “Capacity of abstraction, language, intelligence become weapons. They become so to speak second order horns and claws” (120). We could even make a comparison on Adorno’s view of the violence of the abstraction as a “second-order” instinct of self-preservation (so that civilization appears as a continuation of the state of nature), but that would lead us too far. However, the compensation of the biological weakness for Gehlen is the social strength – the institutions. Plessner’s view on the break of the biological dimension is different, as he emphasizes language: “Where does man show himself as man, specifically? There where the breaking [Brechung] through language takes place, that is, there where he enters a totally other dimension as the purely biological dimension” (107). To become human means to leave nature behind. We could even identify a proximity with the Habermasian approach (formulated a decade later) on the communicative action as the “breaking out” of the dialectics of enlightenment, in which reason (understood by Adorno and Horkheimer as originally instrumental) is no longer a “second order” instinct, that is, a continuation of the history of violence. However, strangely enough, Plessner doesn’t make any reference to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text he certainly knew. When he understands language as a social structure, Plessner “sociologizes” his philosophical anthropology, in which this being for the other – the “communality” [Gemeinsamkeit] – is central. But Plessner never ceases to investigate the relation to nature and the form of the body. He is interested in the mouth, the tongue, and in the capacity to produce sounds. “Language and voice belong to each other” (73). His interests continuously flow from biology to sociology, and back, so that we notice a continuous tension between nature and society, although they always need to be separated.
If Plessner performs this double movement between biology and sociology, it is because his interest lies in the “determination of the double nature of man” (9): on the one side, the cultural and spiritual existence of man, and on the other side, his vital expressions in the biological world. And so he comes back to the discussion with Descartes and the separation of body and soul. This disruption as the essential determination of man is Plessner’s point of departure, and also the point to which he comes back in the last lesson: “a unity that has a break [Bruch] in itself” (219). It is interesting to note how this idea of a unity that breaks itself in two (the gap between body and spirit) is also present in his interpretations of the German historical process. The epigraph of the second edition of Die verspätete Nation (1959) was a quote from Thomas Mann in 1945: “There are no two Germanies, an evil one and a good one, but one, whose best turned to evil through a diabolical ruse.” This was the classical question for German liberal humanists: how was so much hatred and aggression possible in the country of poets and philosophers?
It is difficult to say if Plessner applies his model of philosophical anthropology to understand Germany or the contrary, if his reflections on human nature are an attempt to explain a determinate historical experience. This German unity-in-duality (that in the 19th century allowed the modern rebirth of dialectics) was represented by Marx as Germany’s small body (material and political backwardness) with its huge head (the advanced ideas). But in Plessner there is no dialectics produced by this gap between Germany’s body and spirit and his vision is not the same as Marx’s (neither is dialectics’ two the dualism of body-spirit). For him, Germany’s small body was actually a monster, it was a body without spirit: “Bismarcks Reich, eine Großmacht ohne Staatsidee,” power and force without “idea.” The problem was not the State, incorporated in an idea, but rather an excess of nature. Instead of humanity (the spirit), in backward Germany appeared the organic body: the people, the German Volk. The problem was that the ideological national fundament was: “Nicht Staat, sondern Volk”. On the idea of Volk, which for Plessner represents the German anti-humanism, he affirms: “This category, shaped by Herder in opposition to the generalizing abstraction of the universal idea of humanity, in order to overcome the vacuum between the individual rational being and the general human reason, the generic human being, is romantic and flourished in the 19th century towards the significant reality, through which it today reveals the power of a political idea.” To sum it up, Plessner interprets Germany’s backwardness as a lack of spirit: in its excess of nature, Germany “lacked political humanism.” As Habermas affirms, in Plessner’s work “humanism, also the political humanism of the western world, should as a mere postulate continue to ethically maintain its force.”
Although we speak of Descartes’ ontological separation of spirit and body, it is important to say that Plessner is not Cartesian, as he follows the break of the 19th century philosophy that brings nature under philosophical consideration. But following the humanist tradition of Enlightenment, evil is always related to what is not spirit: the organic res extensa (as Deleuze remarked about Kant). For Plessner, however, nature is not evil in itself: evil is a specific human tendency that appears in this division between nature and spirit. Man is no “beast of prey,” says Plessner. At the same time there are no murders in nature, properly said. Only man, in his particular “eccentric position,” can become a criminal. Plessner comes back to this problem in the last lesson of the semester: “Evil in this sense only becomes possible as reality through this peculiar disruption [Zerrissenheit] and brokenness [Gebrochenheit]” (221). It is a conception of human essential determinations, and at the same time we can’t avoid reading it as a response to historical problems. Plessner’s philosophical anthropology has its place in 20th century Germany.
 Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 5.
 Apud Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 133.
 Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen: Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie. München: Beck, 2018.
 On Plessner’s concept of “exzentrische Positionalität”, see: Joachim Fischer, “Exzentrische Positionalität: Plessners Grundkategorie der Philosophischen Anthropologie”. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 48, (2000) 2, p. 265-288.
 Helmuth Plessner, Die verspätete Nation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 11.
 For an interpretation of the relation between the modern rebirth of dialectics and the historical experience of backwardness in 19th century Germany, see Paulo Arantes, Ressentimento da Dialética: Dialética e Experiência Intelectual em Hegel. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996.
 Plessner, Die verspätete Nation, p. 48.
 Ibid., p. 52.
 Ibid., p. 59
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 134.
Augustine’s Confessions is not a book. It has no title in the titular or thematic sense. It is simply what it is: confessions. What more could it be? A collection of thirteen small books? An evangelical memoir? A developmental prayer diary? A pre-modern work of speculative non-fiction? These are tedious questions. No one cares whether the Confessions is a book or not. Augustine does not seem to care. This reveals that, as with most things taken for granted, we do not know what books are when we address or review them as books. So what is the intellectual genre of Augustine’s Confessions? Jean-Luc Marion has remarked that the Patristic period of theological thought would have understood itself as philosophy, not theology, and thus scholastic theology begins after the end of theology.[i]
It is helpful to keep these opening remarks in mind if one seeks an encounter with John Panteleimon Manoussakis in The Ethics of Time. It is a book that cannot be read, even if one tries to read like a cow through rumination, as Nietzsche demands in his preface to Genealogy of Morals.[ii] The Ethics of Time must be encountered. Reading is certainly an encounter of a certain kind, but the kind of encounter this book demands goes much further than any other recent philosophical book I have read. This may be because our present mode of reading is detached from the type of reading we find in Ezekiel, where the prophet is fed a holy scroll, and I suspect that my suggested encounter beyond reading is in many respects nothing but a truer form of reading. Nonetheless, there is a distinction to be drawn between a literary encounter and the phenomenological encounter that Manoussakis’ book investigates (through desire) and demands (through ethics). (This distinction is carefully attended to by Manoussakis in the theological realities of the beginning, logos, and flesh throughout the book, but especially in chapter 7, “The Time of the Body.”)
To encounter something implies many things. The adversarial sense of an encounter is perhaps the most obvious. Manoussakis seems to suggest these terms of encounter in the book’s epigraph that quotes from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon: “It is a violent grace that gods set forth.”[iii] After all, to “encounter” is to be en contra. This may begin to explain why wresting and sex are hard to distinguish from each other en vivo. No one can deny that the one I lay with until the break of dawn is one I have encountered. When Jacob wrestles the angel of God in Genesis, it is not so different an erotic description from the one we read in the Song of Songs. This means that the encounter is not adversarial so much as it is erotic. Manoussakis seems to endorse this erotic notion of encounter in his analysis of the emptiness of the pouring jug, broken jar, and eucharistic chalice. He writes, “the body’s corporeality does not lie at all in the material of which it consists (the body as object), but in the void that holds (the body as flesh).”[iv] This account of incarnate emptiness, among many other passages, eventually repeats itself enough to demand an erotic encounter with Manoussakis. An encounter, as we will see, that ends in kenosis.
One might object that presenting ideas in a book is not the same thing as demanding them as the terms for a specific kind of encounter, but this takes us back to the reason why I insist that this book must be encountered as opposed to being read, however unsatisfying that opposition may be for philosophical logic-chopping (to use the Jamesian expression). More important for my purposes here, if I take the erotic terms for this encounter seriously, then this review must struggle and fail to break free from Manoussakis in the course of re-viewing his book. Perhaps he will break my hip as I beg him for a blessing. We will have to see, again and again. That is what it means to re-view something.
One might consider The Ethics of Time to be an eclectic book in light of its variety of sources. This would be a mistake. It is true that Manoussakis works from Ancient Greece and the Early Church to contemporary phenomenology and cinema. However, this seems to be more of a personal reflection of Manoussakis—more reasons for my insistence on an erotic encounter—than evidence of technical or systematic pyrotechnics. It may be hard to ignore the sheer volume of philological, theological, psychoanalytic, exegetical, and phenomenological resources put to use in this volume, touching equally upon ancient scriptures as recent films, but this quantified sense of eclecticism misses more than it hits. It mainly misses the book’s constant refrain: Augustine’s Confessions. Unlike Heidegger, who despite his occasional explicit turns to Augustine is in constant dialogue with him throughout the entirety of Being and Time, Manoussakis never pretends to stray from him. In other words, Manoussakis repeatedly draws upon the only other book I can think of that can to the same degree be misunderstood through its voluminous variety. Perhaps he is being vain in tempting this comparison? Or maybe he is too humble to admit it?
Beyond the constant presence of Augustine’s Confessions in the book as a musing refrain, Manoussakis just as constantly invents original interpretations of the classic text. Before I mention any of these insights, and immediately attract the philosopher’s skepticism, I would like to remark on how Manoussakis phrases his inventions. This is not a note on method in the sense of construction or composition; it is more a note on voice and style. If one would permit the expression, I would say this is a brief note on the musicality the book. For me this was the most philosophically challenging aspect of the book but also the most delightful.
“What we call life is a series of intervals from sleep to sleep.”[v] This line comes within a discussion of boredom and just before a deeper look into the radical implications of having “nothing to do.” Even without puzzling together the meaning of the line within its proper textual context, it serves as an example of the barrage of poetic impulses that assault the Academician and exhort the Artist. They often come in swift lines and fine-tuned associations. The urge to call them hasty is the desire to read, the desire to take Manoussakis at his word is the urge to encounter.
All of this is to say that there is an active wit in the book that is sharp and playful enough to verge on being unserious. But these risky moments of “Will and Grace”—anyone who misses this is too dull to understand this book—are contained with a form and structure where metaphors bear the mythopoetic weight of the book’s absent thesis. For instance, Manoussakis titles his Chapter 5, “After Evil,” hinting at the ethics of time where we move beyond evil without ventured beyond it entirely. This chapter features a stunningly clear and original rendition of Augustine’s account of the privation of evil—where evil is not simply metaphysically privitive of the good, but where sin becomes the ethical condition for the possibility of freedom—and reveals a powerful account of the book’s major preoccupations. The account does not so much make this preoccupation clear so much as it makes it serious enough, to the one willing to accept the terms of encounter, to see with eyes of faith.
For Manoussakis, the difference that lies in the interval between evil and goodness is only time. This difference is presented by Manoussakis through the two gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, which allude to his most steady companions, the Confessions and Christian scripture. These two gardens hold within them the capacity to re-present an ethics that is opposed to stasis; in other words, an ethics of time. This rendition of an ethics of time is central to the book’s unmet desire to address itself as a book titled The Ethics of Time.
A key feature of the above analysis is important to understand on its own terms, without too many distractions. Manoussakis makes this point plain, but rather than quote him directly, I would like to try and bend his words in my direction. Rather than resolve the apparent tension in sin or evil by positing a Manichean notion of the good, Manoussakis asserts the goodness of sin and evil revealed in time. This is not as radical as it may seem. I recently asked the question “What is an ethical way to teach ethics?” Socrates answers this question when Meno raises it by rejecting the assumption of the possibility of knowing what is ethical. In De Magistro, Augustine rejects the possibility of teaching entirely. Manoussakis, for his part, follows suit in a clever way. When we admit that we know not what we do, when sin admits to being sinful, when evil can encounter itself as evil, there we find the goodness and the ethics of time. The implications of this idea in moral theology and normative philosophical theories are interesting in their own right, but the phenomenological scope of this book takes us in another more scandalous direction.
The book ends with three scandals. The first two—evil and goodness—have been mentioned to some extent already. The third is grace but becomes more articulate as what Paul calls “the scandal of the cross.”[vi] Here the enigmatic and aphoristic wit of Manoussakis makes its last attempt to call the reader into encounter—the encounter of conversion. One may reject this encounter since it has now modulated from Manoussakis himself to Christ, but this raising of the pitch and register of the erotic appeal seems to be the entire point of the final scandal and, indeed, the book that exists beyond its title. In the cross we find the ultimate body, the broken body that survives the violence of resurrection. After all, Christ’s resurrected body was glorified with all five wounds sustained on the cross still intact and poor saints wear them as scandalous signs of grace. One cannot speak of open wounds as being good and no one can speak of these wounds as being evil. Within Manoussakis’ phenomenology of change presented as the ethics of time, I find a profound and moving meditation on the suffering, sacrifice, and salvation of wounds and woundedness.
Whatever ethics may be, I am fairly certain that it cannot afford to be entirely blind to the moral significance of things, especially the things that go beyond the recognizable the boundaries of moral significance. As we have seen, this would include a genuine ability to understand, as Augustine did and as Manoussakis clearly does, the evil of goodness and the goodness of evil within the interval of time.
Judging something to be morally important is not the same as seeing it as it is. There is a moral field of vision that goes well beyond judgement’s moral capacities. In at least this sense, phenomenology is fundamentally ethical. But this is not always true in practice. Phenomenology as well water is little more than a series of constructive historical notes and debates, on the one hand, and methodological squabbles, on the other. Phenomenology as living water is always opposed to every “ology” and “ism”—including phenomenology and constant opposition. In other words, as its rich history and methods suggest, phenomenology is fundamentally philosophical and this philosophical conception applies equally to phenomenology after the so-called “theological turn.” This turn would be a poor way to try and capture Manoussakis’ project, unless it is to show that every real turn is in some sense a theological one, preceded and anticipated in the Hellenistic tradition. The beginning chapters of The Ethics of Time bear this out in a series of preliminary meditations on movement but they only arrive at their fundamental insight as one allows time—not only the time of duration but above all the time of the interval, the sliding, wailing, and fretless interval—to work across the pages of the book to transform the reading into a dynamic encounter of time in the place of das Ding.
[i] In his Berkeley Center Lecture, “What Are the Roots of the Distinction Between Philosophy and Theology?”, delivered at Georgetown University on April 7, 2011.
[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morailty, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swenson, (Indiannapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998), 7.
[iii] John Panteleimon Manoussakis, The Ethics of Time, (London and New York: 2017), front matter.
[iv] Ibid., 156.
[v] Ibid., 21.
[vi] Ibid., 161.