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Chapter V: Opinion And Faith

If I am to develop the hints which I suggested at the end of the last chapter, I shall have to resume the analysis of opinion and faith with which I have been concerned in my former books. I have noticed that, at all events with modern thinkers, there is a most distressing tendency for the two to be confused. I began to realize this during the agonizing years just before the second war. I felt that a catastrophe was imminent, and that in it everything I loved might perish; and I said to myself that there was nothing to stop what I thought would be the worst of all calamities. I may add, incidentally, that no one can look at the world today and not have the same feeling. Then I considered what was happening to my faith. I no longer felt it in me as a living reality, it seemed to me to be so devitalized that it was reduced simply to an opinion which I knew to be part of my mental equipment, nothing more. I argued the matter with myself. I cannot wilfully shut my eyes, I said: there is a sort of optimism which I cannot force myself to share, because to do so would seem to me to run counter to a certain probity of mind. I can have no guarantee against the destruction of what I love. In those days I used to discuss things with a Catholic who was animated by a very profound faith, but at the same time was a man of exceptional clarity of mind. At first I was annoyed at the calm way in which he took the menace of danger, but I soon realized that it did not come from indifference, and in the end I saw that he indeed had true faith, because he had peace. Later we shall meet again this connection I found between peace and faith, and make what I may call a new harmony of it. But I realized also that I could recognize true faith in him only in so far as there was true faith in me; as in my own case, it was like a plant but at a much earlier stage of development. I took great comfort from this thought.

It was this sort of crisis that led me to examine the nature of opinion, and I reached the following conclusions. In a general way, one can have an opinion only of that of which one has no knowledge; this is of course a point where we are bound to come across Plato's critique of doxa, but it must be added that this lack of knowledge is not self-evident or self-admitted. We can see this in the opinion we can have of a person or a work of art. If I am asked for my opinion of Mozart or Wagner, I am at a loss for an answer. It is as though my experience of Mozart or Wagner were too rich or too intimate, as if I lived with their works in a genuine familiarity. One might say the same of a near kinsman, someone whom I have known for a long time and to whom I am linked by a very strait bond of affection. It seemed to me that opinion can be formed only at a distance; one might say that it is essentially long-sighted, though to use that optical metaphor may be misleading: a long-sighted person sees distant objects more distinctly, whereas it is precisely distinct vision that opinion lacks. Opinion wavers between the two extremes of impression pure and simple, and affirmation. To have an impression of something or someone, is not yet to have a true opinion. Opinion properly so called seems always to imply a ‘I maintain that’. We must note on the one hand that to maintain an opinion is necessarily to maintain it against someone else— the someone may be myself in so far as I can picture to myself an interlocutor or even an opponent. Such was the discussion I had with myself, which I quoted above. On the other hand, to maintain merges imperceptibly with to claim. We arrive, then at this definition: in a general way opinion is a seeming which tends to become a claiming. And in what does the mechanism of this change consist? That is easily answered; the change comes by lack of reflection. The truth is that if the initial seeming could be recognized as such, as no more than seeming, it could never make way for an affirmation; or, to put it more accurately, the affirmation could be concerned only with the seeming itself. So long, however, as I confine myself to saying that it seems to me that such a person has or lacks such a quality, I stay on this side of what is properly called opinion.

These remarks throw a very harsh light on political opinions, for example; it is only too clear that at the root of these opinions there is frequently—I am tempted to say always—nothing but a completely vague seeming. But in such matters the development of the claim is generally most markedly aggressive. One might even say that the less authentic information there is about the subject under discussion, the more pronounced is that character of aggression; nor would it be extravagant to say that the more information one has on a political matter, the more impossible it is to form a unilateral judgment of it—and opinion is, by definition, unilateral.

So far I have been speaking as though in this matter we were dealing with isolated individualities. The truth, it is only too clear, is very different. As far as political opinions at least are concerned, we know too well that everyone tends simply to reflect what he reads in his morning paper. So it is that we get an imperceptible transition from ‘For my part I maintain that’ to ‘Everybody knows that’—and ‘everybody knows’ actually means ‘my paper says’. You can say—and this is particularly true of extremists—that for the man in the street ‘my paper’ is something that can no more be transcended than can ‘my consciousness’ for the idealist. Applied to political matters, ‘my paper is my consciousness’ would hardly be an exaggeration. You might object that it was I, after all, who chose the paper, and it should, accordingly, answer some vague need in my nature which it satisfies. The root of this vague need would lie in my own personal way of valuation. Such an objection is not completely false, but it is none the less far from corresponding to reality. The part played by choice, in this as in other matters, is actually very restricted. The truth is rather that the individual is submerged by his surroundings, and in the great majority of instances, what takes place is either imitation properly so called, or a mental contradiction which is simply an inverted form of imitation. You can see this particularly clearly in young middle-class communists who always make a point of contradicting their families and maintain the exact opposite of whatever they accept without question.

To be quite accurate we should, however, distinguish at this point between the essentially impure opinion with which we have been concerned, and an element of ideal justification which corresponds to the more or less inarticulate affirmation of certain values. These values sometimes refer to order and tradition, sometimes to justice and humanity: what I call the hyperdoxal element of opinion, the element which cannot be reduced to doxa in Plato's meaning.

These considerations give us a base from which to examine what are called opinions in religious matters. The aspect of claim which I emphasized above is seen nowhere more clearly than in the militant atheist. The atheist is nearly always someone who could express his meaning by saying ‘For my part I maintain that God does not exist’. The tone of defiance is sometimes quite overt—the anarchist atheist, for example, who made a great impression, I suppose, at public meetings by proclaiming, ‘God does not exist’ and adding, ‘If he did, he would strike me dead. I can deny his existence and he does not strike. Therefore he does not exist’. It is evident that the case is the same as the one we looked at before—I is taken as one or as everyone. The atheist more or less explicitly claims that his own opinion or statement is generally held. But if we disregard that claim, what direct experience do we find that he has? In fact it would be more accurate to say that there is no experience, and that its absence is moreover self-evident. I remember a man I knew in a high academic position; what was more, he was a philosopher, or at any rate he appeared in reference books under that description. He once said to me in a debate that if God existed, he would have been made aware of His existence; in other words it was inconceivable that God should be hidden to an eye so penetrating as his. Let us say that he deemed himself too prominent a personality for God not to have introduced Himself to him.

Another thing; we know that the atheist claims to have made good a collection of facts, and that these facts are incompatible with the existence of God. All these facts are connected with the presence of evil in the world. But what then comes in as the factor that determines his position is not so much his actual experience of evil—believers, also have experienced evil in all its manifestations—as a judgment of absolute incompatibility. The atheist's opinion, accordingly, puts itself forward as resting on a rational basis. But it would be well to have a close look at this judgment of incompatibility, and in doing so I shall have to re-open my earlier analysis.

When I am speaking of a particular person and say, ‘If that person had been there, such a thing would not have happened; if it happened, it must be because that person was not there’, my ground for so speaking is a precise knowledge, or my claim to a precise knowledge, of the person in question. Nurse would have stopped the child from playing with the matches; which means, that she is prudent and careful, she can be trusted completely; she could not have let the child play with matches. But two suppositions are implied in this: first, that the person—the nurse in this case—does really exist; and secondly, that we know her so well that we can say what sort of person she is and what she would do in any given circumstances. The atheist, however, relies not on an experience but on an idea, or pseudo-idea, of God: if God existed, He would have such and such characteristics; but if He had those characteristics He could not allow etc. His judgment of incompatibility, in fact, is based on a judgment of implications. Or rather, what he wants to say is that if the word ‘God’ has any meaning—of which, indeed, we cannot be certain—it can be applied only to a being who is both completely good and completely powerful. This part of the argument might well be granted; but not so with what follows. When I am speaking of the nurse, I am relying on situations or circumstances which actually occurred, and in which she effectively demonstrated her prudence; or at least on an inner certainty of what I should have done in her place. But does such an assertion retain any meaning when it is applied to the behaviour of God? Whether those last words have any meaning at all and whether the idea of divine behaviour is not self-contradictory, is a very serious question, but we can leave that on one side for the moment. If I proceed to draw conclusions from what the divine behaviour has been in any particular historical instance, then I am ipso facto debarred from agreeing with what the atheist maintains. But is the alternative any better? Can I so put myself in the place of God as to be able to say how I should have behaved in any particular circumstances, what I should have allowed and what I should have forbidden? We may note that when we are speaking of an important public figure who is called upon to make a crucial decision, we often find it impossible to imagine ourselves in his place; in fact the very idea of doing so seems ridiculous. If we pursue that line of thought, we are obliged to recognize the absurdity of trying to put ourselves in God's place. It may be objected, of course, that the statesman has to grapple with a situation which is not of his making, though he has to disentangle it, master it and finally find a solution. But should not God, if He is thought of as a creator, be conceived as having the privilege of needing only to exercise His will? The atheist will say that, if He does not will good, it must be because He Himself does not exist. The extreme insecurity of this position is now very apparent to us, and later it will become progressively more clear that the affirmation of God cannot be separated from the existence of free beings who have reason to think of themselves as creatures. In these circumstances, or at least from one point of view—metaphysically speaking, it may not be a final one, but in the complicated pattern of human life we cannot overlook it—we have grounds for admitting that God Himself may have to to take into account (it would be ridiculous to use the word ‘suffer’), in the very name of his creative intention, a state of affairs—an extraordinarily complex pattern, that is, of situations for which men have the right to hold themselves responsible. From this point of view the comparison between God and the statesman in whose place we cannot put ourselves, is not fundamentally as absurd as it seemed at first. This is rather an exoteric way of envisaging the relation between God and the finite beings which He has created free, and I do not claim that it is metaphysically satisfactory. It is only a halting place, and for the moment we may have to leave it behind. But, whatever happens, we cannot just rush by this halt, as an express rushes through a station at which it is not stopping. Let us put it another way, and say that though objections may be raised to the notion of something being permitted by God, permitted without being willed, yet it is a notion that cannot just be neglected. It provides a sort of resting place on a certain road; again it provides a way, rather a negative way, no doubt, of rejecting another much cruder conception of the relation between the divine will and the history of mankind. That digression was necessary, but we must come back to the distinction between opinion and faith which has not yet been completely cleared up. And first it is interesting to note that midway between the two lies the notion of conviction.

Conviction, the fact of being convinced that, appears with the character, which may or may not be deceptive, of taking up a definitive position. If I profess republican convictions, I shall assert that I have come to the conclusion, once and for all, that the republican regime is preferable to all others. We may note for a start that my affirmation does not relate only to the immutability of my interior disposition, but by a sort of extension it tends to turn itself into a judgment, arbitrary or not, which bears upon the object itself. If I really am a convinced republican, in the fullest sense of the word, I shall be led—arbitrarily, maybe—to assert that the republic will always meet the requirements of the most reasonable minds.

But on reflection I am obliged to question the legitimacy of the emphasis on the aspect of finality, in the English sense of the word. If the term ‘unshakeable’ is applied to the assertion of a conviction, does it not always imply a claim which strict thought can hardly allow? If I were on my guard against a temptation which has a distinct admixture of pride, the furthest I could go would be to say: given the constellation which is made up by my present interior dispositions and the trend of the events which are known to me at this moment, I am inclined to think that—but it is not apparent by what right I could affirm the immutability of the constellation itself.

In the political order the unforeseen plays a very large part, and it is there, accordingly, that all this can be seen most clearly. Those who have lived right through the fifty years that have passed since the end of the last century, have only too solid grounds for appreciating that, at least if their minds are not distorted by fanaticism—and fanaticism itself is something of which I shall have more to say.

The point which matters at this stage is the discovery of the difference in orientation—in polarization, I am almost tempted to say—between conviction and faith. When a man says that he is convinced, he puts up a sort of barrier. He claims the assurance that nothing which may happen later will modify his way of thinking. Faith, so long as it is conceived in its truth, has a very different aspect. I should be inclined to say that when we weigh the matter, we shall have to avail ourselves again of Bergson's distinction, in his Les deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion, between the open and the closed.

One thing is certain: we must beware of a certain confusion which is embodied in current speech. The verb to believe is commonly used in an extremely vague and fluctuating way. It can simply mean, ‘I presume’ or ‘it seems to me’. In that context to believe appears as something much weaker and more uncertain than to be convinced. But in our domain, if we are to reach a greater precision of thought, we shall have to concentrate our attention not on the fact of believing that but on that of believing in. The idea of credit can put us on the right lines. We speak of ‘opening a credit’; and there, I think, we have an operation which constitutes belief as such. We must not, of course, let ourselves be hypnotized by the material aspect of this operation in the business or financial world. When a bank grants a credit to an individual, it puts at his disposal a certain sum of money, in the hope that this sum will be repaid, with interest, by a predetermined date. It is further agreed between the bank and the individual, that if the sum is not repaid in accordance with the agreement, the bank shall have the right to take certain action against the defaulter.

But as soon as we are concerned with speaking of belief in its proper meaning, we have to get rid of the material ballast, if I may call it such, in this opening of a credit. If I believe in something, it means that I place myself at the disposal of something, or again that I pledge myself fundamentally, and this pledge affects not only what I have but also what I am. In a modern philosophical vocabulary, this could be expressed by saying that to belief is attached an existential index which, in principle, is completely lacking to conviction. Even if my conviction concerned the nature or worth or merits of a certain person, one would certainly be wrong in saying that, in as much as it was a conviction, it implied on my part anything resembling a pledge to that person. It would, at root, be just as if I lived a sort of self-enclosed existence, and without coming out of my enclosure, I were to pronounce a certain judgment, which did not pledge me to anything. Again, we might put it that from this point of view to believe is essentially to follow; but we must not attach a passive meaning to that word. The metaphor of rallying may very profitably be used to fill out that of credit. If I believe in, I rally to; with that sort of interior gathering of oneself which the act of rallying implies. From this point of view one might say that the strongest belief, or more exactly the most living belief, is that which absorbs most fully all the powers of your being. Before we go any further, we may note that it will always, admittedly, be possible to translate this belief into the language of conviction. But this translation, I think, will be effected in so far as I am led to discuss my belief with another person; we already know, besides, that this other person may be simply one's own interior interlocutor. To the extent to which I am concerned to account for my belief, I am obliged to treat it as a conviction. That sentence encloses a point of very great importance; because it puts in its right place the idea that a belief is something different from a conviction. The truth is quite certainly much more subtle: it is a question of two completely different vistas—in a certain sense they are even opposite vistas—on something which in so far as it is a content, can in truth be treated as one and the same.

To put it more precisely: if I believe in God and I am questioned or I question myself about this belief, I shall not be able to avoid the assertion that I am convinced of the existence of God. On the other hand, this translation, which is in itself inevitable, misses, I think, what is essential in the belief and is precisely its existential character.

When I spoke of the act of believing in… I purposely left a blank. But I think we can now fill it in. What can we say of this X for whom we open a credit, to whom we rally? We can say, I think, that it is always a reality, whether personal or supra-personal, I may add, moreover, that it is not certain that there is any real opposition between the personal and the supra-personal. I should be much more inclined to admit that the personal is authentically itself only by reason of whatever is in it which smashes the frame in which it is always in danger of allowing itself to be imprisoned as ego pure and simple. In any case, I shall be able to open a credit only to what presents itself to me as incapable of being reduced to the condition which is that of things. The distinguishing mark of things lies, in fact, in being unable ever to provide me with anything which can be made to resemble an answer. To believe in someone, on the contrary, to place confidence in him, is to say: ‘I am sure that you will not betray (‘que tu ne trahiras pas’) my hope, that you will respond to it, that you will fulfil it’. I have purposely used the second person singular—one cannot have confidence except in a ‘toi’, in a reality which is capable of functioning as ‘toi’, of being invoked, of being something to which one can have recourse. But it is abundantly clear that the assurance which we have just presupposed, is by no means a conviction; it goes beyond what has strictly speaking been given to me, it is a jump, a bet—and, like all bets, it can be lost.

From the sum of these analyses it emerges that I can myself be cut off from my own faith and no longer see it; it can even happen that I may come to look on it as an opinion which I have picked up and blindly adopted. But this corresponds to a sort of fall, or to what at any rate a believer has grounds to look upon as a temptation. If the phrase ‘to lose one's faith’ has any meaning, it designates the position of a being who has fallen in this way and cannot recover himself. We may note also that there is a certain ambiguity in this position. It may happen that the man who has ‘lost his faith’ looks on himself purely and simply as having been freed from an error and congratulates with himself on this freedom; but it may also be that he feels regret at no longer being in a certain state of blessedness. Even that is an over-simplification of a much more complicated position, for it may be that these two contradictory dispositions are co-existent. It is possible, existentially, to admit at times that the state which has been upset corresponded to an error and yet to be sorry that one has left it: for when I believed or believed that I believed, I was convinced after all of having the truth; yet there are times when I am so confused that it is possible to go so far as to say, ‘After all, can I be sure that then I was mistaken and that now I have the truth?’

If we keep to this outlook, however, we are obliged to grant that it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to bridge the gap between the two positions of the man who believes, and the man who does not, or has ceased to, believe. But we must now distinguish between belief taken in its full or comprehensive reality and a particular belief which may always lie open to the attack of primary reflection. So we come back to the problem of confidence properly so-called.

Let us look at an extreme case taken from ordinary daily life. A banker has approached me, and I have decided to entrust him with a certain sum of money. A friend of mine, however, thinks that he should warn me that there are some ugly rumours about the banker; he has had to leave the town in which he used to live, after an affair that was never properly cleared up. I won't listen to him, I like the banker and I say that I am sure he is the victim of calumnies spread by a competitor of his. I entrust my money to the banker, but the upshot soon shows that my friend was right and that I was dealing with a crook. It is quite likely that the advantageous nature of the banker's proposals helped to deceive me as to his own character. This is a case on which critical reflection could work freely. But we can imagine a very different case. Take a mother who refuses to despair of her son, in spite of the deceptions he has practised on her and the deliberate lies he has often told her; she still refuses to listen to the advice of those who tell her to wash her hands of her unworthy son, or at least not to give him the money for which he asks her. What is the difference, not simply the psychological, but the strictly metaphysical, difference, between the two situations? Everything goes to show that it concerns the actual nature of the intersubjective bond. In the first case we may say that such a bond does not exist, by which I mean that there is no relation between one being and another being. The banker is not my friend, even if I am taken in by his prepossessing bearing and his charming ways and feel something like sympathy with him. One might say that in this case the banker comes in only as a tempter, rather like an advertisement which raises boundless hopes in simple minds. In the other case the converse is true. There will doubtless be people to say to the mother, ‘You refuse to see your son in his true light, you persist in seeing him as you would like him to be’. But even if this objection seems well grounded at first, it implies a misunderstanding of a fundamental datum—that the mother, in as much as she is a mother, is incapable of forming an objective picture of her son; she may even be quite without the right to do so, if we admit—and it is after all strictly true—that gestation is protracted well beyond birth properly so called, such birth being, spiritually speaking, only a pre-birth. It would be a mistake, however, not to go further here than the fact of gestation taken in its literal sense. It is more a question of a taking in charge, and that is what is effected in all love worthy of the name. It seems, however, that this taking in charge should not be understood strictly as a voluntary commitment; let us keep in mind that in this case the voluntary act is settled on an affirmation of a different order, and that that order is properly speaking onto logical. I say ‘an affirmation’—I should not acknowledge that I have the right to speak in this instance of intuition. Present-day philosophers who have used that word have, I think, been too much inclined to lose sight of the fact that intuition is a viewing, the derivation of the word is optical. Here, it seems, nothing like this can be in question. We are faced by an assurance which in many respects may be defined as an anticipation-of something which, discursively, could be reached only by successive stages. We might describe it, as we did before, by the metaphor of a short cut across the zigzags of a mountain track. There is no doubt that to critical reflection such an assurance can appear only as a pretension without anything in it to justify itself; but it is precisely the conditions under which this assurance can be anything but pretension that we now have to discover.

I have said elsewhere that pretension is always essentially centred on the I, the I who make the claim. It is not enough to say that the pretension is the expression of the I; in reality it constitutes it. It would be absurd, moreover, to deny that confusion can arise between the domain of pretension and that of love; but it arises only as love fails, and the nature of this failure is just what we have to put our finger on. A wife, for example, might well say to her mother-in-law, in a markedly aggressive tone, ‘I can claim to know my husband as well as you do, if not better’; but that remark implies that an element of what is really rivalry, or, if you like, a competitive element, is introduced. One could say that the young woman claims to base her remark on experience that she has acquired, on an ‘I have always noticed’. She is speaking as an expert, as a specialist addressing laymen. That, however, is precisely the attitude that a being who is animated by a true love will never adopt, or will at least reproach itself immediately for adopting; for such an attitude fundamentally cannot but be degrading to the person to whom it is directed; indirectly, too, to the person who adopts it. Taken to extremes, it practically amounts to denying the liberty and uniqueness of the loved being; for at bottom it amounts to putting him in a category and labelling him.

The degradation for the person himself who adopts the attitude lies in that the specialist as such ceases to behave as one being open to another being; to benefit a technique he betrays intersubjective reality.

But can we rise to a clearer and more positive view of what constitutes the non-pretension which lies at the root of the assurance of which I spoke? One word will prove helpful; true love is humble. Now, it is precisely the positive notion of humility which tends to become unintelligible to beings who are imbued with belief in the value of technique. This brings us to one of the critical points of our enquiry; and we shall have to concern ourselves with its examination in my next chapter.