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VII: The Question of Man in History

VII: The Question of Man in History
The Conception of Man in Greece and in the Bible. Individualism in the West. Realism in the West.

We ended the last lecture with the question: is not man the real subject of history? Now we have to consider how man has been understood in the course of our Western history in order to find an answer to this question. Therefore we have to return again to the origins of our Western history in the Biblical tradition and in Greek culture. Let us begin with the Greek understanding of man.

(1) With regard to the question of how man understood himself in Greece we have to distinguish between the citizen of the Polis (the City-State) in the Classical age and the conception of man found in Greek science and philosophy.1 Both agree however in essential trends: (a) in the peculiar Greek individualism according to which man is an autonomous person who is conscious of his freedom; (b) in the thought that the individual is a member of an order. That may seem to be a contradiction but in fact is not because the order was conceived as one into which the individual fits organically since the law of the order agrees with the law of his own nature. The very nature of man is believed to be mind or reason and reason is also the origin of the order both of the Polis and of the Cosmos.
Freedom within the Polis is not arbitrary freedom. It is bound by the law (Nomos) in which it is grounded. This freedom contains within it right and duty. It endows the individual with the honour of responsibility for the whole. For the authority of the Nomos docs not stem from a tradition given in history but from the idea of law conceived by reason. The development of this idea was to be of the greatest importance for the history of the West.
I can no more than mention how the peculiar dialectic of freedom and order expresses itself within the different fields of life in Greece the rôle which it plays in the contests (Agon) athletic games as well as in discussions and philosophical dialogues. Nor can I here give an account of the fate which this dialectic experienced in Greek history and how its breakdown was one reason for the collapse of Greek democracy.
The dialectic between freedom and order appears also in Greek science and philosophy. The question about truth was answered not by the authority of a tradition but by methodical thinking. In thinking the individual is independently guided by his reason and he acknowledges as truth only that of which he is convinced by reason. But at the same time science established community because reason is a common gift of all mankind and truth is to be found in free discussion.
A main theme of philosophical discussion is the relation between individual and Cosmos. The attempt to understand the Cosmos originated in the question about its Arche its origin out of which its unity and its lawful order grow. Rational thinking detects the unity and the lawful order; in other words it perceives the world to be a Cosmos a harmonious whole the structure of which can be explained by mathematics. Reason or mind is the origin of the cosmic order as well as the very nature of man. Therefore man can be understood as a member of the Cosmos not a stranger within the world but secured within the Cosmos as his home.2
Precisely stated the Cosmos is the whole within which the material stuff becomes moulded into harmonious unity by the power of organising reason and all coming to be and passing away is ruled by the eternal laws of reason.3 Man is understood in the same way in so far as he has to master his sensuality the physical impulses of his body by his rational mind. Because his genuine nature is mind or reason ethics are not conceived as commandments of an authority but from the viewpoint of rational education and culture by which the genuine nature of man is to be realised.
Education is the task of learning.4 It goes without saying that everyone is striving for good but only reason can say what the good is. Likewise it goes without saying that the man who knows the good will realise it by his actions that the will will follow reason. According to the dialectic between freedom and law between autonomy and limiting measure the goal of education is the culture of the individual. This however does not mean that his personal peculiarity is to be cultivated in an individualistic sense. The individual has to realise the ideal image of man an image which like a work of art represents a harmonious figure in which body and soul have found their right proportion. A sign of this is the ethical terminology e.g. κόσμιος (harmonious) εὐσχήμων (well-shaped) and so on. Therefore ὕβρις (exceeding all measure) is the real evil and σωφροσύνη (self-control) and δικαιοσύνη (Justice) are the chief virtues.
In all this the freedom of man is presupposed. The question about the freedom of the will did not arise in philosophical research in ancient Greece because it was believed that the will follows reason and reason has its own law which cannot be altered by any fate. Later on the question about freedom of will was raised by Stoic philosophers. But the problem was only the relation of free decision to the causal determination of events and not as later in Augustine the question about the essence and power of the will as such. Therefore the Stoic philosophers did not deny freedom of decision.5
In consequence of all this—namely the conception of the nature of man as mind as reason—the historicity of man was not detected by Greek thinking nor was history perceived as a peculiar theme of philosophy as has been shown in the second lecture. According to Greek thinking man cannot really be touched by encounters but encounters can only be for him occasion and material for unfolding and shaping his timeless nature. In principle the future cannot bring anything new in so far as man is independent of time in realising his real nature. This thought was consistently developed by the Stoic philosophers. Their ideal of the wise man is the man who is independent of all that can encounter him good as well as evil because he is untouchable in his interior in his mind. He lives completely unhistorically enclosing himself against everything that the future may bring.
With this the Greek conception of the relation between man and God agrees. The transcendence of God is thought of as his timelessness for his essence is mind. He is transcendent over against everything concrete and particular which comes to be and passes away within time. But his transcendence is not conceived in terms of the independence and absolute freedom of his will nor of his being a God who might ever come into this world. Man has to venerate God with awe (εὐσέβεια) and to take care that he does not offend him by violating the measure by hubris; but by acts of hubris man would also insult his own nature. Inasmuch as he is mind he is related to God and shares so to speak in the transcendence of mind over against the material sensual and historical world. Man is free over against God in so far as it is just his obligation to the divine order which makes him free; for the law of this order is also the law of his own nature. Violation of this order revenges itself but it cannot destroy human nature; it does not involve man in debt to God which needs divine forgiveness; it is not a positive wrong but is error which man can overcome by education. Man is not qualified by his past he does not convey his past into his present. In other words he has not become aware of his historicity.
(2) In depicting the Biblical conception of man I will point to the difference between Old Testament and New Testament only incidentally because their conception of man is the same in its main trends.
In the Bible man is seen in his relatedness to God. First of all therefore we must elucidate the difference between the Biblical and the Greek conception of God. In the Bible the transcendence of God is conceived not as the transcendence of mind over against the material and sensual world as timelessness over against the course of history but as absolute authority. God is absolutely independent of every other power he is the ever-coming ever-encountering God. He is of course the eternal God but he is a God who acts and acts in history. He is the almighty creator of the world and is not conceived as the law of mind which forms the Cosmos into a harmonious shape which can be recognised by reason. Certainly the pious Israelite admires and praises the wisdom of God but he does not see it in the rational cosmic structure. Therefore the conceptions of providence and theodicy discussed by the Stoic philosophers are strange to Biblical thinking. If the question about the nature of God should be raised the answer has to be that the nature of God is will. All that man sees and experiences has its ground in the will of God.
Therefore God is the God of history and therewith always someone new always the God who comes to men in historical encounters. He is the God who guides history to an end which for later Jewish and Christian thinking is the eschatological goal.6 The concept of man is in accord with this. Certainly man consists of body (or flesh) and soul. But soul is not the rational mind which is related to the divine mind. There is no trace of the Greek conception of an ideal image of man which is to be formed according to the law of mind like a work of art nor does the idea of rational education and culture exist. The very nature of man is his will which can be good or evil. Its goodness consists in obedience to the demands of God; its badness is disobedience and revolt against the will of God. The good or bad will of man manifests itself also in his attitude to God's guidance in history either thankfully accepting the divine ordinances and praising God or else resisting and grumbling.
The demands of God are not rules grounded in reason but are given for the first time in the Old Testament by a tradition whose authority is grounded in history. And it is characteristic that in the Old Testament there is on the whole no distinction between cultic and moral commandments. In the preaching of the prophets and even more in the New Testament however the ethical commandments are recognised as the real demands of God and the cultic and ritual commandments are eliminated.
The ethical demands however are not orientated towards an ideal human image of the individual but towards the concrete life of community. And the community is not thought of as constituted by rational law like the Greek Polis but as given by the history of the people within which everyone is joined with his fellow-men. The main content of the ethical commandments in the Old Testament therefore is right and justice and love and mercy by which the relationship between neighbours is kept sound. In the New Testament of course the demand of love is paramount. The authority of the commandments is the authority of God who in being will wills community. He brings about and also demands community between men in and through history and he puts himself into community with men.
The peculiar dialectic between freedom and law is unknown to the Bible. The conception of freedom is not known at all in the Old Testament neither does it appear in the preaching of Jesus. It occurred for the first time in Paul. But although the word is taken over from Hellenistic language it no longer has the sense of freedom belonging to man as a rational being but has become so to speak a historical conception for it means the freedom of man from his sin from his past which weighs upon him from himself. This freedom does not belong to the timeless nature of man but can only happen as an event.
This event happens by the grace of God. For since the nature of man is will he is evil in his totality when his will is evil and so inevitably enters each present moment as evil. Only the grace of God can make him free from evil. In the Old Testament this is not clearly recognised with all its consequences from the beginning. So long as cultic trespasses have the same value as moral man is indeed dependent on the grace of God but he receives it by the cultic offerings which are ordained by God for this very end. In the prophetic preaching the insight is gained that man does not become a new person by cultic offerings and this preaching therefore demands renewal of heart i.e. will or hopes that God himself will produce such renewal. So also Jesus says that good and evil come out of the heart of man. He praises the pure in heart and he demands that we love God with all our heart. The demands of the Sermon on the Mount are nothing but the demand for conversion and renewal of will; for they teach that the will of God is not fulfilled by fulfilling the commandments of law; on the contrary God demands a good will. When man becomes aware that he has disregarded the will of God and when he confesses before God his unworthiness then he can be sure that God forgives him.
Jesus complains: ‘How can you speak good when you are evil’ (Matt. xii. 34) Paul developed the knowledge of the evil within man. According to him man is not free but prisoner of his sin. He recognises that man fails to fulfil the will of God not only by violating the commandments of law but even in fulfilling them because man imagines that he is able by fulfilling the law to make a claim on the grace of God. For this means trusting in his own power and failing to realise that man as a whole is a prisoner of sin and has to become an entirely new person. This can happen only by the grace of God revealed in Christ. Man who opens himself to this grace is ‘in Christ’ and therefore a ‘new creature’.
Paul makes clear the real essence of sin when he recognises boasting as the chief sin. Sin is the striving to stand before God in one's own strength to secure one's life instead of to receive it—and therewith oneself—purely as a gift from God. Behind this striving lies man's fear of giving himself up the desire to secure himself and therefore the clinging to that which is at his disposal be it earthly goods or be it works performed according to the commandments of the law. Lastly it is fear in face of the future fear in the face of God himself for God is the ever-coming God. Already in the Old Testament this is the real sin: not to trust in what God has done in the past of his people and not to be open for what he will do in the future not to expose oneself to the future but to endeavour to have disposal over it. Isaiah had already admonished the people against such behaviour:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength (xxx. 15.)
Paul hears the Lord speaking to him: “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness’ and he confesses: ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness that the power of Christ may rest upon me… for when I am weak then I am strong’ (2 Cor. xii. 9 f.). Faith is faith in God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Rom. iv. 17). Faith is therefore faith in the future which God bestows on man in the coming God. And this means that in the Bible man is understood in his historicity as qualified by his past and required by his future.
(3) The Greek conception of man came to life again in a new form in the idealist philosophy as a whole. I will only describe the typical trends of the idealist image of man in so far as in Germany at least it came into opposition to the Biblical concept and on the other hand also influenced evangelical theology in a considerable measure until the days of the so-called dialectical theology.
In Idealism the very nature of man was understood as it was in Greece as mind. Mind or reason however was primarily understood as practical reason which according to Kant has the primacy over theoretical reason. Practical reason is independent of theoretical reason and has its own ground in conscience which knows itself challenged by the duty to be virtuous. In other words the nature of man is the moral will. This will is in tension with the impulses (‘Triebe’) of the physical body with sensuality (‘Sinnlichkeit’); duty stands over against inclination. The dualistic relation between mind and sensuality (‘Geist and Sinnlichkeit’) can be understood as in Greece: sensuality is the material which is to be ruled and formed by mind that the pure figure of man may be shaped. The conception of education and culture gains the same importance as in Greece. And as in Greece the forming of character can be conceived by analogy with artistic production. Indeed there is more than analogy. According to Plato the teaching of mathematics is the basis of education and according to Schiller aesthetic culture is its principal method. In both cases the presupposition is that education according to the law of measure and order leads to the harmonious figure of man.
The idea of the dialectic relation between freedom and law as characteristic for human beings is also common to the Ancients and to Idealism. It is formulated by Goethe in the sentence: ‘Only law can give us freedom’. Schiller characterises the ‘most mature man of the time in the end of the (eighteenth) century’ as ‘free by reason strong by laws’. In the poem The Eleusinian Festival he says about man: ‘Only by his morals can he be free and mighty’. This dialectic is most clearly unfolded by Kant. He recognised that will if it is to be really free must be determined not by empirical motives but by a law in obeying which man becomes free from natural (sensual) impulses. The law has to be a ‘categorical imperative’. That means a law which is valid without condition a law which is the expression of practical reason a law to which man assents because it is the self-determination of the rational will.
Here there appears a characteristic difference from ancient thought which is brought about by modern empirical science represented most of all by Newton. Modern natural science has divested nature of Gods as Schiller complains in the poem The Gods of Greece:
Like the dead striking of the pendulum-clock
Nature deprived of Gods
Slavishly serves the law of gravity.
Therefore the law corresponding to freedom is not the cosmic order recognised by theoretical reason but the law of a supersensible world. It cannot be the object of theoretical reason but only of faith; of a faith however which is grounded in necessity a priori a faith which understands the moral law experienced in conscience as divine demand. With this the faith is also given that the sensual world object of theoretical reason belongs to a moral world-order. From this conviction arises the postulate of immortality.
In spite of all parallels with ancient thought the characteristic difference becomes clear. It is that according to Idealism the will is paramount in human essence. Schiller says:
You must receive God (the Deity) in your will
then he descends from his Throne of the universe.
The severe chain of the law binds only
the slavish mind which repudiates it.
With the reluctance of man
so the majesty of God vanishes.
Therefore the relation between mind and sensuality is not only and not always understood by analogy with artistic production but also as a struggle between two opposite principles. In this the influence of the Christian tradition is at work as it appears in Kant. He transformed the Christian conception of original sin into the doctrine of ‘radical evil’. According to him within man there is an inclination to evil which is not indeed explicable but is a fact. Therefore the inversion of motives is demanded. Against the doctrine of radical evil however opposition arose especially from Schiller. But Schiller too can describe the relation between mind and sensuality as one of opposites between which decision is demanded:
Between pleasure of sensuality and peace of soul
there is only the dangerous choice.
Schiller admonishes the men who are striving for a higher life of mind:
Throw away the fear threatening earthly being
you must flee from the limited gloomy life
into the realm of the ideal.
And he says: ‘The good and the right are always obliged to engage in combat. The enemy will never be overcome’.
Finally a difference from the Ancients may be seen in the fact that the figure into which man is obliged to shape himself by his moral will is not so much the ideal image of man in general as rather the figure of individuality which is however an expression of humanity. Let me again cite a word of Schiller:
No-one be equal to the other but everyone be equal to the Highest.
How is it to be done? Everyone be perfected in himself.
Therefore it may be said: on the one hand the Greek image of man is taken over by Idealism but on the other hand it is modified by the influence of the Christian tradition. The will of man is now acknowledged as a decisive trait of human nature. With this the historicity of man begins to be recognised although it is not yet clearly perceived. For the freedom of man is understood as the power over himself which is not called in question either by his past or by his future. Man is not seen as qualified by his past. The future is thought of as being at the disposal of man—not of course the future of fate of events which occur but the future of the human self because man has the power by his will to remain as he is or to become ever more himself within all events. Fate therefore is not experienced as the judging or blessing power but as the Stoic philosophers also taught as the occasion for proving man's own power. It is in this sense that Schiller looking on the tragic figures of Shakespeare speaks about the ‘great gigantic fate which raises man in crushing man’.
Faith in the mental power of the individual leads Idealism to trust in the improvement and perfection of humanity. In this optimism Idealism is related to the Enlightenment although it was interested only in moral evolution and its consequences for political order and not in material welfare. And it goes without saying that in Idealism optimism was grounded upon the evolution not of science and technics but of moral education and the self-perfection of the individuals.
(4) It would now be proper to speak about the understanding of man in Romanticism. But I must restrict myself and I will only say that the understanding of man in Romanticism corresponds to its understanding of history.7 The historical process is understood as ruled by irrational powers and the individual is understood as an irrational mystery unfolding itself according to its own peculiar law. Respect for originality reverence for genius are characteristic of Romanticism and they are symptoms of its aesthetic view of humanity.
But we must deal in greater detail with Realism; I do not mean with the philosophical school of Realism but with a peculiar type of mental behaviour. Realism in this sense conceived as reality only what can be perceived by the senses and can be explained in its structure by rational thinking. Of course perceiving senses and rational thinking themselves belong to this reality. Realism therefore does not accept the idealistic dualism between mind and nature but holds that mind belongs to nature and understands man as a natural phenomenon. Just as nature is seen as ruled by the law of causality so also the life of man and human community are understood as ruled by this law. Therefore sociology and economics are sciences which originate from the realistic understanding of man.
As Erich Auerbach has shown in his brilliant book Mimesis;8 in the ancient literature the realistic view of human life is to be found only in literature of the lower or middle style in comedy and satire as distinct from high literature. Auerbach has also shown that it is through the influence of the Christian understanding of man that the realistic view of life enters into high literature. Now too for the first time the everyday life of man is seen as the field of serious problematic and tragic happenings. In consequence of this the historical and social forces at work in everyday life came into consciousness and became interesting. In our context I cannot sketch the history of Realism from its beginning in ancient literature through the Middle Ages and Renaissance till the present day but must be content to give a survey of modern Realism in contrast to Idealism.
It can be said that the sceptic Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) inaugurated modern Realism by describing in his Essays ‘La Condition humaine’ (the human situation) his own life as representing any human life. Here for the first time the life of a human being just as his own particular life becomes problematic and the consciousness of the insecurity of human existence begins to arise.
This Realism which takes human daily life seriously and sees its problematic and tragic nature found its expression in the literature of the eighteenth century especially in England and France. In English literature however the serious view is veiled at first by humour as for instance in Sterne Fielding and Smollett and later in Dickens and Thackeray. But even in these novelists the problems of social life in the different classes are well recognised and brought into consciousness—problems which later are the subject of the novels of Galsworthy Meredith and others and once again the subject of comedy in Wilde and Shaw.
For the development of serious Realism the French novel was of the greatest weight. In this the French Revolution was of special importance. For as Auerbach stresses it was the first of the great movements in modern times in which large masses took part. It resulted in the various convulsions which spread over the whole of Europe. The consequence for the understanding of man was this ‘that the social basis upon which man lives is not firm even for one moment but is incessantly changed by various convulsions’.9 Stendhal can be regarded as the originator of this modern Realism by his description of man as imbedded in the whole of the political and social reality which is constantly in process of development. Beside him Honoré de Balzac must be named. He not only sets man in the frame of temporal and social conditions but tries to depict the atmosphere which rules in the milieu the environment. For him ‘every sphere of life becomes a moral and sensual atmosphere which gives a peculiar character to landscape dwelling furniture tools clothes body character acquaintances sentiments actions and occurrences of man and the general situation of the time appears as the embracing atmosphere of the whole’.10 The title which Balzac gave to the corpus of his novels is ‘Comédie humaine’.
The realistic view of human life and its problematic and tragic character was carried further by Flaubert and finally by Émile Zola. For him the social problem of the society of the present is the main theme. His interest went beyond the purely aesthetic for by his description of the problems he intends to make clear the responsibility of man for his world.
I pass over German literature within which the realistic moral novel is represented by Fontane and the Swiss Jeremias Gotthelf. There was also Realism in dramatic poetry especially in Gerhard Hauptmann. He and Jeremias Gotthelf also stressed the responsibility of man for his time.
It is a question whether the most recent novels are still to be characterised as realistic. At all events they show the consequences to which Realism leads as long as it only depicts the world in so far as it can be perceived with the senses and explained by rational research the world within which all things have become problematic so that man cannot perceive fixed orders which can give a hold for his existence. Auerbach gives a picture of the most recent novels by characterising Virginia Woolf Marcel Proust and James Joyce. In the view of these authors there seems to be no objective reality distinct from the subjective consciousness of the persons. These authors as Auerbach says have discovered a method of reducing reality to a manifold and ambiguous reflection of consciousness.
The interest no longer lies in the history of the persons and in the entire course of their life. On the contrary the author is convinced that in moments chosen at random the whole of the personal life is contained. The analysis of the occasional moment unveils something totally new and elementary the fullness of reality and the depth of life contained in every moment. In this moment a deeper reality so to speak a more real reality appears which is relatively independent of the disputed and wavering orders within which men are struggling and despairing. It lies below all this as our everyday life. It is difficult to describe this reality. It is not a metaphysical substance but it is the ever-increasing result of the whole of our experiences and hopes of all our aims in interpreting our life and our encounters it forms itself apart from our purpose and consciousness but it comes into consciousness in moments of reflection.
In contrast to Idealism Realism has recognised the historicity of man and that with increasing clearness. The older Realism as represented by Flaubert and Zola or by the social drama of G. Hauptmann understood man in his historicity in the sense that it recognised man as being at the mercy of history. Man is determined by the historical economic and social conditions by his milieu and that not only with regard to his fate but also with regard to his thoughts and volitions and his morality. All this is at bottom nothing but fate and man himself is not a stable and constant person. What is constant is only his bodily nature with its impulses and passions its striving for earthly welfare. Man was understood as coming out of a past on which the present depends. But the past is not his past strictly speaking qualifying him in his genuine self which he can appropriate as his past and from which he can distance himself. His present goes into a future which strictly speaking is not his future for which he can make himself open or against which he can close himself and for which he is responsible. Therefore it must be said: a genuine self seems not to exist at all. But if it is an indelible urge of human nature to be a real self to gain ‘true existence’ then it seems that man is thrown into complete helplessness into despair.
In the most recent Realism the real self seems to be detected in so far as a reality of life is unveiled which lies beneath the external events and occurrences and which as the whole of the personal life is present in every occasional moment. But we must ask: is historicity so understood the genuine complete historicity? Or does there not belong to this what Idealism has taken over from the Christian tradition namely the will of man who apprehends responsibility for himself? The responsibility for the past as my past and for the future as my future? According to the Biblical understanding of man responsibility for the past leads to the consciousness of being guilty before God and responsibility for the future is to be taken upon one as an open readiness over against all that the future brings gives and demands.

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