Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Angst of reason

Rémi BRAGUE (Paris I)

        The main move in the Encyclica [1] is a powerful turning the tables. The "et" in the title is in fact a hinge. Apologetics traditionally conceived of its role as being a defence of faith against an overly obtrusive reason. Such a task was accomplished by the first Vatican Council, more than a century ago. The Pope reminds us of this achievement (§ 52-53, p. 71-73). But what is at stake at present is no longer staving off reason by showing that it has not a clear consciousness of its own limits. On the contrary, reason itself must be defended against its own devils. Faith becomes the advocate of reason (§ 56, p. 79).

        The all-pervading keytone is uneasiness. At first sight, this somehow contrasts with the famous first words of the newly elected Pope: "don't be afraid". However, the ultimate aim is the same: courage asserts itself in the teeth of what is fearful. In order to be courageous, and not simply foolhardy, you have to feel how scared you could be. By this token, there is no contrast. On the contrary, the Encyclica applies the battle-cry to the realm of intellectual pursuits.

        In what follows, I will first summarize the diagnosis, and complement it by delineating the types of dangers that await reason. I will remind us of the rationalistic nature of Christianity and the Christian nature of rationality. Then, I will elaborate a plea for the metaphysical dimension of reason. Finally, I will say some words on the implicit concept of Truth that underlie our enterprise.

1. The diagnosis

        The Pope ventures a diagnosis on the present disease of reason. He does that from several outlooks. Some are traditional, some more original. Among the former, he f.i. mentions reason that does not look upwards any more and rejects any transcendence. He calls this by the name of bent reason, "ratio incurvata" [2], a variation on Bernard of Clairvaux' anima incurvata (§ 5, p. 9). Behind this lurks the attempt at a self-sufficiency of man, the alleged "humanism".

        Furthermore, the vice of philosophical pride is mentioned twice. Curiously, the phrase is to be read in Voltaire: " [É] l'orgueil philosophique / Aigrit de nos beaux jours la douceur pacifique" [3]. Reason should not be overbearing (§ 4, p. 7 and § 76, p. 101). A whole school of apologetics took this as its point of departure: humiliating reason by the tools of scepticism, in order to make place for faith. F.i. Montaigne's endeavour is to be replaced in a whole tradition of christian scepticism, and Pascal somehow flirts with it: "humiliez-vous, raison impuissante" [4]. Even Kant alluded to this procedure in the famous formula in the second preface to his first Critique: "das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen" [5]. It is important to note that, with the Encyclica, the bells are tolling for this style of apologetics.

        For the Pope stresses heavily the opposite vice of pusillanimity. On the one hand, the critique of pusillanimity is hoary. This is the ancient, Aristotelian mikroyucia [6]. Descartes called this: lowlyness (bassesse) or vicious humility [7]. What is new is its application to intellectual pursuits, all the more in a Christian context. Overly modesty of reason is harped upon. The theme crops up no less than four times: we should not content ourselves with partial and provisional truths, and give up the hope of reaching ultimate meaning (§ 5, p. 10); we should not yield to the diffidence against reason theat arose at the end of the Middle Ages (§ 45, p. 63); we should not set our sights too low in philosophical reflection (§ 56, p. 78); we should overcome our crisis of confidence towards reason's capabilities (§ 84, p. 114).

2. Historical pathology of reason

        Let me know replace this on a broader setting. In order to do that, I will have to sketch a typology of the various dangers that lie in ambush around reason. I will do that on the basis of history of ideas. This approach receives some legitimacy from the fact that the Pope himself makes use of a historical frame, very broad in nature, that takes its bearings from the commonly accepted distinction between ancient, medieval and modern times, nay condones the characterization of our present time as post-modern. He f.i. suggests that modern reason sinned more seriously than its antique or medieval versions (§ 49, p. 69). Nevertheless, the diagnosis itself has a modern ring, f.i. when the concept of nihilism is brought to bear, three times (§ 46, p. 64; § 81, p. 109; § 90, p. 120), for this is an idea that was brought to the fore by Nietzsche.

        The crisis of the Ancient World may have been a crisis of reason, too [8]. Classical reason was supposed to spread light and to be itself a light that can't fade. Its devils were outer fiends: either other powers of the soul: the senses, as in Plato's Phaedo, passions or imagination as in the Stoa or Spinoza. They could be placed in an evolutive scheme. Prejudices of individual childhood (Descartes) or of the early ages of the whole mankind, what the rhetoric of the Enlightenment called the powers of darkness and prejudice.

        More recent reason has inner fiends, too. The idea has several aspects. The first one, more moderate, is static. Reason is supposed, not so much to yield to its enemies, but to somehow switch itself off. This can be expressed through the images of drowsiness. As a philosopher, the Pope Wojtyla belongs to the phenomenological school. Now, the founder of this school, Husserl, explained in a famous lecture given in Vienna in 1935 that the most serious danger for Europe is tiredness (Müdigkeit) [9]. There is somewhat more refined version of the idea in the Encyclica. According to the Pope, the present-day disease of reason is despair -- the "temptation to despair" (§ 91, p. 122), a phrase coined by the French novelist Georges Bernanos [10]. Despair is more than simple tiredness. It has a temporal dimension. Post-modern man despairs because he has given up the idea of progress. But this idea originated in Enlightenment reason.

        Thise leads us to a deeper, more radical assessment of the problem. Reason does not only fades; it puts itself out. Let us look at a famous etching by a man of the Enlightenment, the spanish painter Goya (1746-1828) -- drawn, by the way, exactly two centuries ago. A man is sitting at a table, asleep and reclining on his elbow. From the rearground, strange animals emerge. A feline creature is sitting behind his chair, another one right behind his back. Flying creatures that can be bats or birds overshadow him. The birds evoke birds of prey. One is about to land on the sleeper's shoulder. The legend is: "the sleep of reason produces monsters (el sue-o de la raz -- n produce monstruos)" [11]. We are not given any answer to the question as to how it is that reason can fall asleep and have nightmares. Now, the picture is more complex than it looks like at first blush. On the one hand, the sleeping man might be the painter himself. On the table lie sheets of paper and what looks to be a painter's brush. The sleeper is not a brute, but a civilized white male, clad in correct garments. On the other hand, the nightmarish birds that assault him resemble very much owls, the very bird that functions as a symbol of Athena, the goddess of reason. The title itself is ambiguous, for the spanish sue-o may mean "sleep" and "dream" as well. We don't know whether the danger is to be looked for in reason's dozing off or in its very unability really to lose consciousness.

        The idea that reason can be endangered by itself originates in Kant's transcendental dialectics in the first Critique. Reason can get caught in its own snares, be "hoist by its own petard". Kant's revolution somehow brushes the classical ranking of psychological faculties against the nap. He rehabilitates the lower faculties of the soul, such as perceptual knowledge, to begin with, or imagination. He even very forcefully pleads for the senses [12]. The lower faculties are no longer fetters or traps. On the contrary, they are helpful banisters that prevent it from falling prey to itself. Nietzsche's idea of a "faithfulness towards the Earth" is -- strange bed-fellows -- a remote consequence of Kant's discovery.

        The idea of a dialectic of the Enlightenment was first expressed by Adorno and Horkheimer in their famous book [13]. It can be understood as the historicized version of Kant's transcendental dialectics. If reason undermines itself, the historical project of a full rationalization of life is doomed to failure. Modernity, that set out to fulfil this project, and that always conceived of itself as an experiment, does not meet its own claims. It parasitically feeds on what it can't reproduce -- an idea that is to be read in Péguy [14].

3. Christian rationalism.

        The Pope pleads for what he calls an alliance between "parrhesia of faith and audacity of reason" (§ 48, p. 67). I will begin with the second point, reason. I don't do that for the sake of rhetorics only, but because I feel impelled by the thing itself.

        It looks like that, according to the Pope, despair in reason is more serious than giving up christian faith. The Pope mentions: "a positivistic mentality [É] which not only abandoned the christian vision of the world, but more especially rejected every appeal to a metaphysical and moral vision", § 46 [French, p. 64]). We witness the same stance some pages further, in a different context: "quite apart from the fact that it conflicts with the demands and the content of the word of God, nihilism is a denial of the humanity and of the very identity of the human being" (§ 90 [French, p. 120]). There are obviously two steps: first comes metaphysics, morals, or man, second faith. The danger is not only atheism, but man's destruction. To quote a phrase made famous by Foucault, but that originally stems from André Malraux, God's death must be followed by Man's death [15]. As a matter of course, the claim is that lack of faith endangers man's humanity. But the logical move has to be paid attention to. It shows that Christianity does not preach for itself, which it would unmistakably do if it were an ideology. It defends man. It is the deacon of Truth (§ 2, p. 5).

        Now, defending reason is not a strategic ploy, but belongs to the very essence of Christianity. Chesterton's Father Brown, when he is asked how he succeeded in unmasking a fake priest, answers: "he spoke against reason, this is bad theology". Jews and Christians are rationalists. At the Beginning, at the Principle of everything, there was Logos. The first words of the Fourth Gospel echo the first words of Genesis. God is a rationalist, too. This is beautifully expressed by Isaias, who has God say: "For this is the word of the lord,who created the heavens -- he is God! -- who formed the earth and made it; he established it firmly; he did not create it a chaos (tohu), he formed it to be inhabited: "I am the lord, and there is no other. / I have never spoken in secrecy, in some place in the land of darkness; I have never said to the children of Jacob, 'Seek me in the void' (tohu). I, the lord, speak the truth (dÜber î dq), declare what is right (maggid mey ëarim "" (Isaiah, 45, 19-20) [16]. Little wonder that the human response should be a "sacrifice of the intellect" -- i.e. a sacrifice brought by the intellect -- or a "rational worship (logikh latreia)" (Romans, 12, 1).

        We are not only rationalists, we may be the only who are, we may be the last consequent rationalists left. Alleged "rationalists" are not. According to them, reason comes from the Irrational. Reason is a behaviour selected by natural selection of the fittest: a being endowed with reason has more trumps in such a struggle. For us, all those phenomena, or, to be precise, all those hypotheses, come after Logos. Logos alone is at the beginning, is the principle. The ultimate principle is not a big bang that is, as the very name has it, a meaningless noise.

        The intelligibility of Being is commonly taken for granted and left unexplained. It should become again the center of philosophical reflexion. We need an up-to-dated version of German idealistic and/or romantic Naturphilosophie that could at least give an account of the very rationality of nature, a logos of the logos, so to speak. To be sure, christian faith does not claim to refute the scientific hypotheses that have just been mentioned and displace them with better ones. Neither does it expect to provide this philosophy of nature. The affirmation of an ultimate rationality of Being does not furnish science with any answer. But it gives it the very ground that it treads. Nietzsche saw this with a perfect lucidity: even if we are the most confirmed supporters of Enlightenment, we are still too pious; our belief in reason is still the aftermath of a Faith kindled by Plato [17]. As for Nietzsche, he wanted us to cast the last moorings that link us up to this faith. But can we?

4. Do we need Truth?

        We must now face a radical objection. Couldn't we do without reason, and without truth? Why shouldn't we imagine a "happy (gaio) nihilism", to borrow the felicitous phrase probably coined by the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce? In the last resort, there isn't anything, but this does not matter. This is an Epicurean stance, properly speaking. This may hold water as long as we stick to the present time: since we anyway exist, since we already belong to the whole show, why shouldn't we make ourselves comfortable? In order to do that, you need some practical savvy, but no metaphysics. On the contrary, we should listen to Nietzsche's contention: the very fact that we say that life has a meaning -- the core affirmation of any metaphysics -- presupposes that life needs something different from, and superior to, itself. Hence, it debases and condemns life while wanting to salvage it.

        Let me first answer with a pun that can be done in French only. In my mother tongue, the word for "meaning", sens, has several acceptions. One is "meaning", but other ones are "perception" and "direction". Now, life is not only being alive (Greek zwh), but having a life story, a bioV -- the subject-matter of what we accordingly call a biography. Life is a motion of sorts, too. It spreads from one individual of a species to its offspring. It evolves from one simpler level of organisation to another, more complex one. In human beings, it accumulates its own experience through psychological and social memory (language and writing, etc.) and grows like a snow-ball. Now, even if we granted, for the sake of argument, that life has no sens as "meaning", the question would remain as to whether we can do without a sens as "direction". We don't understand such a sens by outsoaring concrete realities, but on the contrary by sort of inserting ourselves into their stream, or, to use an image by Plotinus, by dancing to their rhythm.

        We are supposed to accept life as such, without asking whether it measures up to some external standard. But the question must arise: do we really love life? I will bring to bear on the question a distinction that Augustine makes in a passage from the Confessions that the Pope quotes in another context § 25, p. 36f. The passage I would like to use comes right afterwards [18]. It was commented upon by Heidegger, in a lecture-course that was published some years ago [19]. The question is exegetical in nature: how is it that the Scripture, more precisely John, can say that some people hate Truth? Augustine distinguishes two aspects of Truth. Truth can be lucens and it can be redarguens. We love lucens truth, whereas we hate redarguens truth.Lucens does not mean only shining, but light-shedding. Truth does not only shine in itself, thereby manifesting itself. It casts its glow on other things and enable us to get cognizant of them. Redarguens means first: what "argues" against us, but at the same time, as the very root *arg- suggests it, it is some sort of light. I suggest it could be rendered as lucidity. Now, lucidity is not that pleasant, because it reveals many shades, no to say dust and cobwebs, in the nooks and corners of our soul.

        Now, if we really loved Truth, we would wish other people, nay everybody, to be able to pry into our soul and expose its content. The first love of Truth is thirst for knowledge. The second one is: honesty towards oneself. The Pope alludes to this function when he mentions that, among the reasons that thwart our access to Truth, there is the fact that we fear its demands (§ 28, p. 40). The first love for truth, for truth lucens, unmasks itself as love for the knowledge that we can get. Hence, it is in the last resort self-love. We don't like Truth, we like what truth enables us to know. To apply a classical Augustinian distinction, we use (uti) Truth, whereas we should enjoy (frui) it.

        In the same way, love for life may mean two very different things. There is the lucens love for life, such as it is expressed by the set phrase in Homeric Greek: "to live and see the sunlight (zwein kai oran faoV helioio)" [20]. Life is bathing and basking in the light of presence. We naively love our life, such as we can experience it. We like to be alive because this enables us to do and enjoy many pleasant things, from the basest to the highest and most dignified. But to what extent do we love life as such? There must be an equivalent of the redarguens kind of life. We love our own life, i.e. we love ourselves. We can be sure that we love life as such in so far as we foster life outside of ourselves.

        The trouble comes to a head when what is at stake is not merely living on, but transmitting life, i.e. "creating" a life that is not there, making the present encroach upon the future. This question is not academic; it lies at the bottom of several crucial problems that all have to do with the long run: demography, ecology, education. As a matter of course, you can live without truth. To be precise, you can survive without it. But you cannot love life, i.e. foster life. Playing one's part on the scene properly can be done -- since it must be done, anyway. The trouble begins when the question is whether one has a right to bringing other players onto the scene. Are we allowed to foist life off on other people, whom we can't ask about their wishes?

        We can't do that unless we are sure that life is a gift, that life is good in itself. If we are not, the taking Schopenhauer or Buddha seriously becomes a sacred duty. If we are, the question is whether we can do that without something like implicit or explicit faith. This has direct consequences on the idea of truth. For some people, the Pope reminds us, Truth is nothing more than the result of consensus (§ 56, p. 78). Now, obviously, such a consensus must obtain among people who are alive at the same time. Thus, the truth that they decide will have to be imposed upon future generations. Clearly, those generations will be able to change by building a new consensus that will make new decisions. But they will have to do that on the basis of the "truth" of the former generation. Democracy will boil down to absolute lack of democracy. There must be something like an objective truth to be handled down to generations still to arise, if they are not to be left prey to the whims of their forebears [21].

5. Conclusion: Truth as ocean

        Modern consciousness has misgivings with that kind of Truth, because it mistakenly conceives it as a set of ready-made objects. It therefore values research higher than possession of truth. We remember Lessing's well-known parable: if God were to present us with Truth in one hand and unceasing striving for Truth in the other one, we should have to choose the latter [22]. But Christian tradition possesses an idea that is worth retrieving, for it could prove more palatable for modern mentality. Truth is something in which we are, a field more than a thing.

        This is the implicit concept of truth conveyed through the splendid image that closes ch. 2: launching oneself onto the infinite ocean of truth (§ 23, p. 34). This is an implicit quotation of the Greek Church Fathers, who spoke of the infinite ocean (apeiron pelagoV) of the Godhead [23], a phrase that entered the Latin West through commentaries written on Dionysius by people like Eriugena or Hugo of Saint-Victor [24]. God is thereby conceived of as a field, not as an object. God can't be reached, but -- sit venia verbo -- sailed or surfed upon. The Goodfriday liturgical sequence quoted § 24, p. 36, takes up the Augustinian theme of the cor inquietum. But the same Augustine strikes another chord elsewhere, that must complement the first one: "Ut inveniendus quaeratur, occultus est; ut inventus quaeratur immensus est" [25].


[1] I quote the paragraphs and the pages of the French translation, Paris, Téqui, 1998. I checked on the English translation wherever the wording seemed crucial. Unfortunately, I could not access the Latin official text.

[2] First in Persius, Saturae, II, 61; see Bernard of Clairvaux, In Cant. , XXIV, II, 6-7; PL, 183, 897ad.

[3] Voltaire, À Horace (1772).

[4] Pascal, Pensées, Br. 434, t. 2, p. 347 and see Br. 282, p. 205.

[5] Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft , B XXX.

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , IV, 3, 1129b9-11; 1125a19-27.

[7] Descartes, Traité des Passions , III, § 159; AT, t. XI, p. 450.

[8] M. Zambrano, La agonía de Europa , Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1945, p. 105-106 [non vidi].

[9] Husserl, "Die Krisis des europäischen Menschentums und die Philosophie" (Vienna Lecture 1935); Husserliana, t. VI, p. 348.

[10] Bernanos, Sous le soleil de Satan (1926), Title of the 1st part.

[11] Goya, Los caprichos , n° 43 (around 1799).

[12] Kant, Anthropologie, § 8-10; ed. W. Weischedel, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1983 [1964], vol. 6, p. 432-436.

[13] T. W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente (1947).

[14] See Péguy, De la situation faite au parti intellectuel dans le monde moderne devant les accidents de la gloire temporelle (1907); Oeuvres, Paris, Gallimard, Pléiade, t. 2, p. 725.

[15] A. Malraux, La tentation de l'Occident (1926), Paris, Livre de poche, p. 128.

[16] See my La Sagesse du Monde. Histoire de l'expérience humaine de l'univers , Paris, Fayard, 1999, p. 59f.

[17] Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft , V, § 344; KSA, t. 5, p. 574-577.

[18] Augustine, Confessiones, X, XXIII, 34.

[19] Heidegger, Phänomenologie des religiösen Lebens (GA, vol. 60), Francfort, Klostermann, 1995, p. 199-201.

[20] Homer, Ilias, 24, 558; Odyssey, 4, 540 et al .

[21] For a forceful illustration of this point, see C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man , ch. 3.

[22] Lessing, Eine Duplik , 1, last words; Werke, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, t. 8, p. 33.

[23] St. Basil, Against Eunomius , I, 16; PG, 29, 548c; st. Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 38 ; PG, 36, 317; Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy , IX, 3; ed. M. de Gandillac, SC n° 58, Paris, Cerf, 1958, p. 135.

[24] John Scotus Eriugena, Expositiones super Hierarchiam caelestem ; PL, 122, 218a; Hugo of Saint-Victor, In Hierarchiam caelestem ; PL, 175, 1093d-1094a, etc.

[25] Augustine, Commentary on John , 63, 1; CCSL, t. 36, p. 485.