In a general way it would seem that thinkers, so far as they concentrated their attention on humility, have contented themselves with looking at it from a point of view which is either psychological or ethico-theological. But if we are to follow up the line of our enquiry, it is the metaphysical outlook which concerns us most. If humility is conceived as Sartre, for instance, conceives it, it can only be emphatically denied: or, to put it more exactly, it can only be robbed of its value in the name of existential psychoanalysis. The tendency will be to see in it only a sadistic craving for mortification. In this instance, as always with the author of L'Être et le Néant, the analysis holds good only in a quite restricted area of the life of consciousness; to put it more exactly, of a life of degraded consciousness. And it is in taking an arbitrary and sophistic step that the philosopher extends to other sectors the conclusions he has reached in this one.
There is room, no doubt, for a pathology of humility, or, more exactly, of humiliation. There are striking examples of it in Dostoievsky. But humility is not a taste for self-humiliation. We could go so far as to say that it consists not in the act of self-humiliation, but rather in the recognition of our own nothingness. At the root of humility lies the more or less unexpressed assertion, ‘By myself, I am nothing and I can do nothing except in so far as I am not only helped but premoted in my being by Him who is everything and is all-powerful’.
It may be objected that this is an arbitrary interpretation, in as much as it ties humility up with categories of a specifically religious order; but the truth would seem to be that the difference between humility and modesty lies precisely in this, that the latter, and the latter only, can be just a natural or profane habitus, whereas humility properly so called presupposes a certain affirmation of the sacred. It is by that affirmation that humility is in the most radical opposition to hybris, which one may describe as essentially sacrilegious. We may note, too, that sacrilege depends in a way upon the sacred in order to deny it, or rather to defy it, and that in that sense a philosopher of hybris who categorically denies the sacred cuts the ground from under his own feet. That, again, can be seen very clearly in Sartre: if his atheism is not to sink to the level of sheer platitude, it needs a god as a target for his denial. It is, after all, to use a distinction to which I attach importance, and to which I alluded previously, an anti-theism rather than an a-theism. Numerous riders could be developed from this point, notably on the subject of the incompatibility of humility and technique, in so far as the latter claims to function over the whole range of human activities: in other words, in so far as it tends to become technocracy or technomania. There is no doubt at all that an engineer can be humble, but he can be humble only in so far as he keeps something in reserve beyond the world of theoretical and applied calculations which is his own professional world.
This may be an appropriate place at which to consider whether there is or is not an identity of nature between humility, properly so called, and that effacement of self which is implied by every objective knowledge. Reflection would seem to answer in the negative. The effacement of self actually consists purely and simply in abstracting from a certain number of recognized contingent conditions. But humility properly so called is of quite a different order; it is a mode of being, far removed from amounting to a collection of methodological precautions. The scientist has to guarantee his work against a whole series of possible errors which up to a point can be gauged in advance. Once he has taken these precautions he has both the power and even the duty to be emphatic in his assertions. But humility has nothing at all in common with this concern to rule out error; in the case of humility it is not error that is to be feared, but rather a claim which is incompatible with our condition of finite beings, the claim which would consist in believing that we are, or have the power to make ourselves, dependent only upon ourselves. The question arises only so soon as I take cognizance of my quality as a subject and of its hidden implications. But for the scientist as such this quality can never be included in his reckoning; in that, moreover, lies the nobility of his vocation. The work to which, within the limits of his specialization, he has to devote himself, enforces a realist attitude; but there is no abuse until he tries to claim a metaphysical justification for that attitude.
We may note on the other hand that with many of our contemporaries a pride which is essentially like that of Prometheus has become almost an habitual disposition, and they will accordingly show, in spite of everything, a marked propensity to confuse humility and humiliation. By that I mean calling humiliating, and hence injustifiable, the act by which a human consciousness is led to acknowledge itself as tributary to something other than itself. I may remind the reader that this acknowledgment is always liable to degenerate according as the other-than-self is levelled down to the stage of something inferior to the individual consciousness; if it sinks, that is to say, to a sociological reality which has never, in fact, and never will become genuinely conscious of itself. The world today shows us terrifying examples of what this moral masochism can become. I am thinking primarily, of course, of the self-condemnation pronounced in the course of a large number of trials staged in countries of Eastern Europe by men who declared that they had deserved all the penalties which their judges had decided to inflict on them. The word ‘judge’, I may add, should not be used here: judgment does not come into the matter at all; it is rather some sort of transposition into a pseudo-juridical plane of ritual actions as practised among so-called primitive peoples. It is in fact a make-believe. Nor must it be held that this self-condemnation is obtained in every case by the administration of drugs or the cutting of certain nerves. There are techniques—so-called psychological techniques—which can be effective enough by themselves. Moreover, instances are known in which the subject has been left entirely by himself, without any visible restraint, and has ended by developing a complex of guilt, which has led him to make the desired admissions of his own accord. Here we are at the very heart of ignominy, precisely because consciousness abdicates in favour of what we should call a pseudo—or an infra-consciousness. There is no common measure shared by such a situation and that in which the human creature turns humbly and freely towards Him from Whom it holds its very being. But we must realize at the same time that the opposition between the two is fated to be more and more misunderstood in such a time as ours. In our time society, in its most restrictive form, is either literally divinized in the totalitarian states and those threatened by totalitarianism; or develops the tendency (and some theologians are partly to blame for this) to make for itself a degraded image of God, of the divine power, which a true believer would be the first to consider offensive.
Our enquiries last year gave us a clear warning against this image; for they brought to light what I designated by the name of creative receptivity: a thing which, with very few exceptions, has been so strangely misunderstood by idealist philosophies. Sartre, however strongly he may claim to be the philosopher of the ‘project’, of the se faire, is still, whether he admits it or not, the heir of these philosophies; but it should be added that the greatest representatives of idealism—Fichte I am thinking of particularly—retained an extraordinarily vigorous realization of values; and it must be added further, that the absolute I which is the starting point of the Wissenschaftslehre has certainly nothing in common with the projecting subject of L'Être et le Néant. What we are bound to notice here, there can be no doubt, is a phenomenon of degeneration.
These have been only apparent digressions; it is, in fact, only by working in a roundabout way that we can state in their specific reality the fundamental notions at which we are aiming.
To carry further what I said above, I should say that the more it is an authentically transcendent reality which is effectively revered, the more it holds a warning for the being which turns its dazzled eyes to it, not to be tempted into what would properly be called debasing itself before reality. Another way of putting this would be to say that in so far as there is such a thing as religious masochism, it is always a perversion. The words ‘authentic transcendence’ will need interpretation; and, as we have so often found before, we shall have to reach that interpretation by an indirect approach. It is quite obvious as soon as we think of the false prophets we have seen swarming around us. When I speak of ‘false prophets’ I am not thinking only of their often having been wrong in their predictions, or of their bragging about powers which are not theirs. There is no doubt that they have exercised a really magical ascendancy over a large number of men who have either heard them directly or have been exposed to their propaganda in some other way. However little we may be masters of certain sectarian dispositions which can exist in any of us, what gives us legitimate grounds for calling them false prophets is this: that they have all claimed to announce, even to set up, a particular order, and this while they aggressively misunderstand the conditions without which no true order at all can be founded. On this point it is of prime importance to rejoin the path marked out by the highest philosophic thought since Socrates and Plato on the one hand, and the highest religious preaching on the other; we have the right, and even the obligation, without falling into a rash syncretism, to keep in mind the implications of certain revealing points of agreement between the higher religions. Every prophet who denies the universal should be looked on as a false prophet. That is only a preliminary indication; later on we shall have to ask ourselves more precisely at what sort of universality we are aiming; we know too well how this notion of the concrete universal has degenerated with the descendants of Hegelianism, and even perhaps, after all, with the Hegel of the last period.
The preliminary conclusion, then, at which we are arriving, and it is an important one, is that at all costs a connection must be maintained between authentic transcendence and true universality, and that without this mankind inevitably falls into idolatry.
It must be granted that this assertion itself could always be questioned in the name of a certain a priori. Nietzsche comes to mind as an obvious example—I am thinking, of course, of the Nietzsche of the last period, and not of the intermediate period, the period of Menschliches, allzu Menschliches, or of Morgenröthe. For Nietzsche, transcendence is a going beyond, and the word has a more precise meaning here than it has with most of our contemporaries, man being obliged to rise above himself by an heroic effort, not perhaps in order to become the superman, but to make way for him. It is obvious that in Nietzsche's eyes the superman will trample on all the principles which hold good for the common man, that is to say for the ordinary man; and that idea has given birth to a great deal of nonsense. There is no doubt at all that Nietzsche never granted for a second that the Superman could allow himself a licence which would be denied to ordinary men. If he has to show hardness, it is above all because he is hard to himself, and that in the most extreme degree. One might say that for Nietszche the Superman has to face the utmost difficulty and danger; and that from a certain point of view the concept should be retained even though the idea of the advent of the Superman should be looked on as mythological, even—for in spite of everything it is still tied up with a certain evolutionist dogmatism—looked down on as a myth in the worst sense of the word. If one endeavoured to set up what would be a remote transposition of Nietzsche's thought, one might perhaps say the authentic universal of which we spoke is as little assimilable as possible to the masses as such: and it is just the mass-man which Nietzsche already rejects. Our own ghastly experience forces us to think that the masses naturally conform with the various sorts of propaganda which are spread nowadays by means of the extraordinarily powerful methods of publicity available; but propaganda itself is the favourite weapon of the false prophets or of those who spread their doctrines.
We have still, however, failed to get rid of the objections which were put to us. We cannot fail to notice that, at least in certain sectors of contemporary thought, the universal, when it is thus purged, consists in a set of values which are preferred or chosen by some individuals, while others are indifferent to them. This is to stay on the plane of pure subjectivity, that is, fundamentally, of choice in its most gratuitous form.
We must, however, face the fact that if this possibility were to be accepted, it would be the end of man and of the order which in the course of history he has tried, painfully and at the cost of countless experiments, to establish for himself. The way would then lie open to the worst abuses and to abominations which are expressly condemned by the very people who are so incredibly frivolous as to defend this idea of a choice of values. Significant, too, is the sort of sneering contempt which some of these philosophers are inclined to show for moral traditions which have for so long been recognized as sacred. By a most unhappy confusion, they will sometimes go so far, particularly in the domain of sex, as to label as pharisaical all conduct that we call virtuous, without making any distinction between prejudice and the free adoption of loose conduct.
At the same time, is there not a danger, when we speak of rules freely adopted, that we may find ourselves thrown back below the level on which our enquiries are being carried out, and remaining in the sphere of pure ethics; is there not a risk that in the end we may find ourselves back in a more or less emended Kantian formalism?
There is no doubt that it would be untimely and even highly imprudent in these days to depreciate Kantian ethics. By asserting once and for all that persons should be treated as ends in themselves, Kant has anticipated us in his just and definitive condemnation of the shocking practices which we have seen multiply before our eyes, and there is indeed a sense in which it is to this assertion that we are continually compelled to return. But at the same time it must be added that if the Kantian formula held a privileged position, notably with many free-thinkers of the late nineteenth century, it was because they enjoyed without knowing it a mental climate soaked in the Christian spirit: this our contemporaries have lost. Kant's delusion probably lay in thinking that there was no reason to take this mental climate into account; that reason, in fact, could legislate without considering the historical context in which moral subjects have to act under concrete conditions. This omission would seem to be legitimate only in the domain of abstract relations, particularly in mathematics; but I think that in these days we must recognize that it does not hold good in the same way when we are concerned with what Kant called persons, and that his mistake lay, no doubt, in looking at the matter outside any existential perspective. What I want to stress, moreover, is not at all that it may be possible to introduce at this point a relativism which would eventually tend to annul, to annihilate the affirmations of the moral conscience, but rather that the qualities proper to those affirmations and the way in which they should actually be considered, cannot be taken as being independent of the concrete context which is their setting.
This digression has not been without a purpose. Our aim is to allow ourselves a more precise view of the nature of the venerable (le réveréntiel) which must be posited if humility is to be true and significant. Here again it is important to refer to Kant; it would not be easy nowadays to agree with the view of respect which he gave in his Critique of Practical Reason, but that by no means implies that his view is mistaken. It would be more accurate, I think, to express the truth as follows: it is as though there were a general change of perspective, and in this change the same reality shows us a different contour—as a mountain massif does, when we shift our ground. I should go so far as to suggest, for example, that since Kant's time the notions of Gesetz and Gesetzmässigkeit have lost much of their prestige, and that this is perhaps partly because they are now embodied in a system of state-regulations whose arbitrary and murderous character is daily more woefully felt by serious thinkers.
This may give rise, it is true, to a mistaken interpretation which I mention only in order to rule it out. I have spoken of a shifting of perspective, but it would be extremely dangerous to think of that shift as a progress, in the sense of the word which has prevailed since the philosophers of the latter half of the eighteenth century. I shall certainly have to expound my own views on this notion in my last chapter; it is one which seems to me to be at present applicable exclusively to the technical sphere, but at this point I shall say that we must do no more than state this shifting of perspective, without giving an opinion as to the label we should attach to it.
Now that we have done something to clear the ground, we can begin to consider how the pure révérentiel should appear to us. And it is now that we must persevere in our efforts to guard against prematurely formulating conclusions which derive from current theological thought.
Here we meet the paradox that while religion implies distance, yet as distance tends to be annihilated, religion is degraded. The English word worship seems to fit the case particularly well. At this point we have to take into account a tendency which is very common among our contemporaries; it consists in bringing out the purely subjective character of religion and is only apparently counterbalanced by a concentration on the so-called sociological aspects of this ‘phenomenon’. Our minds have been so shaped, or mis-shapen, by idealism that it is only with the greatest difficulty that we can refrain from locating in the subject, which is reduced to its mere psychological function, not the attributes but rather, let us say, the energies with which the adorer endows the reality he adores. There you have an extension or a simple expression of the revolution, as fundamental as that of Copernicus, whose fulfilment in his own time was Kant's main achievement. It is true that the sociologist claims to free himself from the fetters of subjectivism by asserting that adoration is not the act of an isolated consciousness but rather of a constituted group. But the answer to this is that Kierkegaard's protest is still unanswerable in itself, without at the same time being of such a nature as to make us overlook the presence of a genuinely collective element in religious life. Even if I pray alone in my room, we can and should maintain that I am uniting myself by or in this prayer to a community which does not belong exclusively, or even primarily, to the visible world. But this bears little relation to the claims of an objective sociology which concentrates on the institutional aspect of religious life.
We have reached a point at which we must note that prayer is not brought in as in any way a contingent fact; on the contrary it is the essential datum, although we have in reality no right to make any categorical pronouncement about the forms that it must take, and we must certainly beware of a formalism which grants validity only to certain specific prayers. If we reflect on this, we shall have to ask precisely what meaning the notion of validity can bear in this context. Without going so far as to say that in such a domain it is purely and simply inadequate, we should at least resolutely rule out the idea of a sort of official stamp which can be put on or withheld from any particular prayer. We must emphasize, moreover, that visas and permits have been given an extravagant importance in the world today, and it would be intolerable to attempt to force them in any way into the realm on which we are now focussing our attention. We can only guess that some prayers may be more pure than others, and some may be completely impure. I should be inclined to think that these ideas of purity and non-purity ought to be substituted for those of validity and non-validity. But what actually is this purity? Should we interpret it as a conformity with essence? In that case, what is this essence of prayer? What is it that allows us to say that one prayer is more authentically prayer than another?
Let us look at a petition or request as such, and, more precisely, the petition as centred on itself. For example, I can pray that a disease from which I am suffering may be cured. There is no doubt that it would be unjust to say that such a prayer is not legitimate, although it must be granted that it is not without some kinship with purely human requests addressed to other beings who are themselves also purely human. In other words, it seems that in my prayer I imply the existence of a powerful being, even an all-powerful being, on whom my cure depends in the same way, for example, as a prisoner's release depends on a tyrant. One might perhaps think that if this request is impure, it is because it implies an assimilation which tends to reduce God to a non-divine scale. What at first seems strange is that when the request refers not to me but to someone else, even though it may be a very near kinsman, we cannot but think of it as less impure than the first sort of request; and yet in this case the assimilation of which I spoke is even more obviously presupposed. But reflection will show us clearly that if I have in me a capacity for prayer, I have not, strictly speaking, the right not to appeal to this mysterious power on behalf of another, from the moment when I realize, however vaguely, that I am responsible for what concerns him. To refuse to pray for him would be to forsake and betray him; and we should perhaps add that, if my faith is real, it is impossible for me not to think that the being whom I invoke will take into account the act by which I assume this responsibility.
The situation is complicated by a mixture of elements; what I mean is, that as I am in a way carnally attached to the being for whom I am praying, my prayer could always be looked upon as somewhat selfish. But I do not think that I have the right to give way to a sort of excessive purism, and argue from the relative impurity of my prayer that I have no right to pray for the safety of the person who is in danger. It may well be understood that the idea of God implied in that case is nevertheless already much more pure than that implied in the purely selfish request; what we now presuppose is the active recognition, in God and through God, of the bond which constitutes all real love.
It is true that a further question, complementary to the first, might well be put at this point: under what conditions can love be known as genuine? At this stage of our investigation we may be satisfied with saying that my love is the more authentic according as I love less for my own sake, that is for what I can hope to obtain from another, and more for the sake of the other. That is, however, only a cut and dried answer, and still implies too dualist a notion of the lover and the loved. Will not the truth be found to lie rather in the more and more indivisible community, in the bosom of which I and the other tend to be continually more perfectly absorbed? So one might come to distinguish, taking the act itself of praying as a starting point, the possibility of a progress in the actual way in which God is thought of. We must grant, however, that to do so is bound to give rise to objections. The first would be that we may be arbitrary in asserting as a principle that the selfish request is spiritually speaking inferior to that which is made on behalf of another. To meet this objection we shall do well to avail ourselves again of secondary reflection; we must, that is, bring out the full implications of the idea by virtue of which it is alleged that such an affirmation may be condemned as arbitrary. Some years before the war I remember hearing one of a small party of guests, a young man evidently of marxist tendencies, say that we do not yet know what are the true values, and that we must wait for science to progress further and enlighten us. The fact is, however, that such a notion testifies to a lack of reflection that is really distressing. How can one imagine for a moment that the future development of science will be able to throw any light on true values? All we can anticipate is a continuation of more and more extensive research, from which we shall learn what is judged to be good or bad in different types of society. We can easily imagine also that a sort of social physics might explain approximately the connection, for example, between various moral beliefs and the birth or suicide rate. But it is quite obvious that such conclusions can tell us nothing about values. It is beyond the power of science to tell us whether it is right or wrong to increase the population; it will only be able to remind us that unless certain economic conditions are fulfilled, over-population can become a grave social danger. As for what are called popular polls, they are necessarily without any real significance. It would be ridiculous to suppose that the majority can ever get a clear view of these matters; the contrary is much more true. We may admit that Ibsen's phrase, ‘the majority is always wrong’ goes too far, but we must realize all the same that in this connection the category of number has no significance at all.
The outcome of all these considerations is the conclusion that whatever technical progress posterity may make when compared with us, there will be no progress in its knowledge of values themselves. I shall go further and say that if there is no sign of conversion—in my last chapter we shall have to consider the nature of this conversion—the technocratic craze will gradually succeed in drowning every feeling for values; and this precisely because they are eternal, and a man who lived two thousand years ago was at bottom no better and no worse off than we are, for knowing what is or is not right.
To go back, however, to where we started: it is literally beside the point to imagine that a more advanced science than our own could one day enable us to assert the primacy of the selfish demand over the demand which is not selfish. In that there would be no progress, only the most terrifying retrogression. Moreover, we must remember that in such a sphere it is not just a question of a simple step backward—there is a danger of falling far below the level at which we started; far below, to be more precise, the level of pre-christian thought, of a thought, that is, which was a preparation, though maybe a distant one, not only for welcoming Revelation, but even for the acceptance of any moral evidence.
This detour, then, has shown us quite clearly wherein lies the legitimacy of judging to be inauthentic a prayer which pivots on me, and on me alone. But does this give us any ground for saying that the God to whom the prayer is addressed does not exist? Conversely, shall we be right in alleging that it is impossible for the God of the other prayer, of the authentic prayer, not to exist? Before we answer these questions, we must reflect on the use of the words existence and non-existence when they are meant to apply to a being who cannot form part of the web of our experience.
In such matters, however carefully we may choose our terminology—and this refinement is often misleading—it is still extremely difficult to rule out certain considerations which hold good only in the empiric world. Obviously I can write a letter or address a request to a personage of whom I have heard and who I have been told is all-powerful; but it may well be that this personage does not exist, and in that case my letter will be sent back to me marked ‘addressee unknown’. But in this same world it would still be wrong to say that because my letter contained a selfish request, it was bound to come back to me with that post office mark. In other words, in what we call ‘our world’ there cannot be any suspicion of a sure or guaranteed connection between the content of the request and the existence or non-existence of the person to whom it is addressed. But it is important to be fully aware of the difference between that realm and the one in which we are struggling to make our way. We must keep in mind a point we made before: in this sphere the opposition between far and near is transcended. No sort of transmission, accordingly, can be conceived, for the medium, whatever it may be, in which the transmission should take place is absent.
From now on, we must make a strict rule not to ask ourselves whether there is or is not someone in whom we could find certain attributes which would allow us to qualify him as God. But that is not all. It would also be unreasonable to claim, as the atheists claim, that there is no one who has such attributes. And it would be as unreasonable to conceive of the person who prays as addressing himself to someone who receives his prayer—as a tyrant receives a petitioner—as it would be to maintain that the individual who prays does so in the void. The phrase ‘in the void’ is particularly useful for stimulating reflection. It is enough to think of people who speak in the void—they address themselves to a listener who is either absent or incapable of hearing them.
But how can we hope to overcome this opposition which is valid and meaningful only in the empirical order? The great difficulty with which we are faced seems to me to be this: if I try to reconcile the contradiction, shall I not be inclined to persuade myself that the act of praying, unlike the act of asking, contains in itself its own answer, its own granting, I might say? But is the granting an answer to the need which is implied in the prayer? I think it would be difficult to maintain such a view. Prayer, as we see it practised by the most fervent souls, can in no instance be understood as containing in itself its own granting. On the contrary, it may be thought of as depending on the mysterious will of an incomprehensible power whose plans we cannot fathom. The man who is praying thinks of himself as quite uncertain, however hopeful he may be, of the answer which will be made to his prayer.
Should we, then, say that in as much as the praying consciousness takes heed of its uncertainty, it is labouring under an error or delusion, that to some extent it is misled by an anthropomorphic realism; and add that it is the philosopher's business to expose and denounce this delusion? That would be an extremely dangerous position to take up, I must admit. It amounts to giving primacy to philosophy in matters that concern religious life, and the final result of that is to depreciate the latter. That is what the intellectualist teachings of the past, particularly those derived from Spinoza, have done. The philosophy of existence, as I have tried to define it, cannot but be completely dissatisfied with such a devaluation.
The truth is probably that when prayer is pure—and I need not elaborate again the meaning of purity in this context—it cannot be thought of as remaining unanswered; it cannot be like a letter which the addressee has left unopened or thrown by mistake or without bothering into the waste paper basket. The believer cannot feel sure that he has a living relation with God, without, by reason of that certainty, having grounds for a pronouncement on the manner in which empirically his prayer will be granted. It would seem that what is definitely excluded is the possibility that his prayer may be treated as though it had never been made. This is only to be expected in so far as we do not ourselves take prayer seriously or as our manner of praying is a justification, by way of a salving of our conscience, of this sort of more or less unacknowledged contempt of prayer.
From this again we can see, and this time indirectly, how we are in a position to distinguish what authentic prayer can be. It can be neither the request which we discussed before, nor a mechanical recitation of formulae. We could add that it is nothing if not a certain very humble and fervent way of uniting oneself with…—though we must admit that that phrase itself is still inadequate. The fact is that in a general way it is almost impossible for us to think of union except in relation to what is akin to us, in which case we integrate ourselves into a whole whose elements are homogeneous. In the case of prayer such a union cannot be thought of. Here the mystery lies in that I have to merge in something which infinitely transcends me, and at first it seems impossible to conceive such a thing. It might perhaps be suggested that the union we claim might be interpreted as a surrender—but a surrender to what? To a will whose ends and whose very nature go infinitely beyond anything we can conceive. But would not that amount to a blind unconditional surrender? ‘Whatever you may will, your will shall be mine.’
It is not to be denied that the believer feels that this absolute submission seems to be required of him by the being in whom he has faith, but it would appear extremely difficult to maintain this formula, and for a very simple reason: in the world in which we have, literally, been put, it is extremely difficult for us to distinguish what is willed and what is only permitted. It is quite impossible to imagine that any circumstance at all should be looked on as willed for its own sake, simply because I am faced by that circumstance; otherwise we might end in approving the manifestly absurd attitude of those who think it sacrilegious to treat a disease medically or to cure it by an operation. (Such an attitude, moreover, is unanimously condemned as unreasonable nowadays, except for one or two sects, and one might well go further into the reasons for that condemnation.)
Reflection seems to make it quite clear that we have to force our way between two errors which are of very different natures, and the path is narrow and full of obstacles. One of the errors lies in taking up a position exclusively within the sphere of causality, which is to say of technique. From that point of view, prayer would appear as a pure epiphenomenon, or rather as auto-suggestion. The other error, which I pointed out just above, lies on the contrary in neglecting, that is to say, in dismissing as non-existent, the correlations which reason enables us to disclose. The truth would seem to be that we must try to understand how ‘the spirit of prayer’ can be fitted in with the series of positive steps which reason demands in any given situation. To take a very simple example: we may readily imagine that a surgeon who is a believer may feel the need for prayer before he undertakes a particularly difficult operation. It is by no means impossible to imagine how this prayer may open and clear the road for his action. But the situation with which he has to deal cannot really be thought of either as having been willed or produced by the divine will, considered as a pure agent, or as being a mere link in a chain of cause and effect—which is what a metaphysic determinist in inspiration would maintain that it is. By this second hypothesis the only way out would be in the direction of a stoicism which would disregard the situation as being quite indifferent in its bearing upon a certain inalienable essence in the subject. Ultimately, however, this is sheer fiction, though it may be a very noble fiction. To take an extreme example, a man suffering from an incurable disease cannot take refuge in this lofty apatheia; or, if we can imagine that he might, he will always be liable to entertain doubts of the validity of such an attitude. The truth is rather that he should look at the position as touching him very fundamentally. Can we, then, see how what I have called the spirit of prayer may be manifested in a similar case? Or again, that union of which we said that it could not be reduced to the union which can be achieved between finite beings?
The spirit of prayer, I think, may first be defined negatively as the rejection of a temptation; and the temptation would consist in being shut in on oneself in pride or despair, two things which are closely connected. Positively, however, is not the spirit of prayer seen to be primarily a receptive disposition towards everything which can detach me from myself and from my tendency to blind myself to my own failings? It is not, however, simply a spirit of detachment; the man who is concerned only with abstracting from himself is still but at the beginning of a road which climbs infinitely higher. We may note, moreover, that the progress which is possible is not required by anything resembling a dialectical necessity. It is an unfortunate delusion, fostered by philosophers like Hegel, that belief entails such a necessity. This delusion is tied up, also, with a phenomenon of pure substitution. Simple representations arranged by thought to suit itself, as one might deal out a pack of cards, are substituted for the real phases of a development which is that of the existent. All one can say is that when thought works a posteriori on a development which is in reality a conversion (we shall try later to attach a more precise meaning to ‘conversion’) it is always on the road to interpreting it dialectically. Bergson is here the necessary complement to Kierkegaard.
It would be quite useless, however, to disguise the fact that everything we have said so far is still shrouded in ambiguity. Both the non-believing and the believing philosopher who counts himself obliged to make a provisional abstraction from his personal belief, are inevitably involved in a persistent and almost ineluctable difficulty. When we speak of the spirit of prayer, can we mean anything but an interior disposition? Do we not feel that we are enclosed in a circle in which consciousness seems to come back on itself? Once more secondary reflection has to be called in. To what do we oppose this ‘anything but’? Surely it is the idea we rejected earlier of a sort of external relation between the person who prays and the person who should hear his prayer but may be absent? But we must repeat and emphasize what we said above: if prayer is to be recognized as real, it must be possible to mark out a road to serve as an intermediary. Every time, however, that we try to advance along this road we are open to the temptation of putting forward again the dilemma which we have been concerned to circumvent. We must realize from the start that the more we look at the believer from a monadist point of view, the more insoluble and even, no doubt, meaningless, the problem will appear. It is here more than anywhere that we may see the strict connection which links this second series of lectures to the first. Prayer is possible only when intersubjectivity is recognized, where it is operative. We must, it is true, keep well in mind that intersubjectivity can never be looked upon as a mode of structure which can be stated or verified in any way; that would be to make it into a spurious sort of objectivity. The positive corollary of this is that the intersubjective can only be acknowledged freely, and that implies further that it is always within our power to deny it. I can always behave as though I had in reality no means of access to the reality of another, as though the other were only a bunch of possibilities to be made use of, or of threats to be neutralized. There we have a practical solipsism, and this solipsism can not only be overt but even, if I may so put it, can provide its own justification. It is only, however, the man who has contrived to make his way into the intersubjective sphere who can see this practical solipsism as nothing but a blinding, and a blinding which is at least to some extent voluntary. One may, in fact, say almost with certainty that there is nobody who has all his life been so unlucky as to have found it impossible ever to unite himself with another, or obliged to deny the other as a real presence.
In my next chapter, however, we shall have to define more precisely exactly what we should understand in this context by liberty; for there we have an idea, or something more than an idea, which philosophers, and contemporary philosophers in particular, have done their best to obscure.