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Chapter VII: Freedom And Grace

In my last lecture I chiefly tried to disclose certain fundamental connections: in particular we saw that it seems possible to recognize prayer as real only when intersubjectivity is found in it; and a Christian will have grounds for thinking that the fullest experience we can be granted of this is provided by the Church, although that does not mean that anything is specified as to the theological concept we should form of it. We must realize, too, that intersubjectivity itself cannot be considered in any way as a structure comparable to that which comes within the grasp of objective knowledge. Here the example of the Church can be revealing. If it is impossible even for the adversaries of the Church to call her existence into doubt, it is only in as much as she is one institution among others, that is, at bottom, in as much as she is not the Church; and from that point of view it will always be permissible for these same adversaries to see in her nothing but a machine, built up, for example, by the propertied classes to mystify and crush those they oppress. If we are to think of it as a Church, as, that is, an agape or as incarnate intersubjectivity, we must in some way at least be on the inside of it. I say ‘in some way’, because even if I am quite unconscious of belonging to the Church, I can have a sort of diviner's sympathy which detects a mode of intersubjective presence from which the Church derives her value and significance. Hence it would appear that I am free, according to the sort of person I am, to deny the Church or on the other hand to recognize her; and so it is just by this circuitous route that we have reached our view of freedom. It is apparent, of course, that freedom was to some extent presupposed, but in a way which was still approximate and vague, by all that has been said since the beginning of this second series; now we must scrutinise with care exactly what we are to understand by freedom or free will. But there is more. It might well be objected that whether the choice of allegiance is real or evoked by sympathy, it depends much less on freedom properly so called than on grace, on a gift, that is, which might have been granted to me or withheld from me. Thus the real problem would now turn on the intimate relation which must be established between gift and freedom, between freedom and grace. Everything will depend on the answer we ultimately give to this most difficult of all questions; whether we shall be able to make up our minds about the very existence of God; or, to put it more accurately, to give definite expression to the type of solution which, in the eyes of a metaphysician, can be given to the general question which has been at the centre of all our enquiries since the beginning of this second series.

If I am to take into account my own living experience, it is apparent that the first question I must ask myself is: up to what point or within what limits can I or can I not assert that I am a free being. I have purposely put the question in the first person, because after all it is a question which can only be asked by me of myself. No outside answer will satisfy me, unless it coincides with my own answer, unless ultimately it is my answer.

At the same time it is impossible to overlook the difficulty in which I become involved as soon as I ask myself this question. Can I with all sincerity answer it by a comprehensive ‘yes’ or ‘no’? To begin with, am I quite sure of the meaning which I am to attach to it? It is true that I can interpret it in a way which seems, at any rate, to be simple enough: am I conscious of doing what I want to do? The question would then revolve round the bond which unites will to action. But it is only too clear that there are countless instances in which I by no means do what I want to do; and we have the support of irrefutable evidence when we say that certain beings in captivity, in conditions, that is, which would involve the reduction to a minimum of what we commonly think of as independence, have nevertheless enjoyed a much deeper experience of their inner freedom than they would have been able to do in what we all call normal life. These considerations would lead us to presume that there is a freedom which is not concerned with doing; after all, the phrase ‘do what I want to do’, is at bottom ambiguous. To want, indeed,—I take this word in the sense of the French vouloir—is not to desire. The question with which we should now be concerned certainly cannot consist in asking ourselves whether or no I do what I desire. It might well be—the stoics first saw this, and all the subsequent thinkers who drew their inspiration from stoicism—that will is essentially opposed to desire. Do I not chiefly, if not exclusively, seem to myself to be free only when I succeed in using my will in opposition to my own desire—provided, of course, that it is not just a question of a mere whim, but that the will is embodied in acts which themselves form part of what I call reality? From this point of view one might say that the will appears as a resistance to the seductions to which desire exposes me, seductions which, if I yield to them, are quick to turn into compulsions.

We are still, however, I think, falling short of a reality which is much more complex and disconcerting. Let us suppose that I come to realize that in some particular circumstance I yielded to my desires, although I admit that I should not have done so. Would I be right in claiming that I did not act freely? It is a very delicate matter to answer such a question. In order to find some sort of self-justification, or to put it more exactly, in order to shift my responsibility, I should probably be inclined to say that the temptation was too strong for me to resist; that amounts to saying that a power independent of my will tyrannized me, and I was forced to obey. It may prove useful at this point to question what I shall call the legal force of such an assertion. We cannot just make a pure and simple affirmation of its truth or falsity. But I may be forced to conclude that the saving clause in which I took refuge against a particular accusation, does not provide me with the shelter on which I counted. Apart from any metaphor, it was meant to disarm the possible accuser within my own consciousness. Now, it may well be that it does not actually succeed in doing this. Here we meet again the inner plurality on which I laid such stress last year, and without which the very life of consciousness is completely unintelligible. I tried to excuse myself in my own eyes, but there is something in me which refuses to countenance this way of proving my innocence. The symptom of this refusal is a feeling of uneasiness, as though I had to admit that I have no right to locate in something internal (let us say in the circumstances themselves), the responsibility for what was in spite of everything my own act. What sort of a thing is this refusal or protest? If we examine it closely we cannot really focus it, unless we free ourselves from the categories which are nowadays our increasingly strict gaolers, the categories of power or efficiency. If I protest, it is because I have a vague feeling that I cannot win such an acquittal except at the expense of my own being. To put it in a much more concrete way, and in words whose meaning can be more readily grasped, if I allow to my desires, which are in some way detached from me, the power to reduce me to slavery, I put myself more and more at their mercy: almost as a man who has once yielded to the demands of a blackmailer finds that he is caught up in a web from which there is no escape. From the same point of view, we might say that the protest is tied up with the recognition of what I expose myself to if I make this plea of personal irresponsibility. The question then would not be whether the proposition is true or false, which is perhaps a meaningless question, but whether or not it entails consequences which will be fatal, not to what I am at the moment, but to what I intend to be.

The true bearing of these remarks is evidently to enrich but also to obscure the idea I can form of my freedom. I have used the word obscure, but it is only an apparent obscurity. We can use the word in this connection only as opposed to a superficial clarity which is that of the understanding; but in fact this latter clarity is not the one which can throw light on freedom for us; to that extent one has probably good grounds for saying that it is false clarity; we can see things by its light, but it cannot be the clarity in which we see ourselves; in so far as we endeavour, I shall not say to think of ourselves, but to make a representation of ourselves which takes things as its model, we make it impossible for ourselves, by definition, to attach the least meaning to the word freedom; we have, accordingly, to take refuge in some determinist conception which implies an active misunderstanding of what we are, of the being which questions its own self when it examines itself as we did at the beginning of this chapter.

A sharply defined conclusion seems to me to emerge from the above analysis. This conclusion is that my freedom is not and cannot be something that I observe (constater) as I observe an outward fact; rather it must be something that I decide and that I decide, moreover, without any appeal. It is beyond the power of anyone to reject the decision by which I assert my freedom, and this assertion is ultimately bound up with the consciousness that I have of myself. Jaspers puts it extremely well in his Introduction to Philosophy (pp. 61–62);1 ‘We are conscious of our freedom when we recognize what others expect from us. It is upon us that the fulfilment or shirking of these obligations depends; we cannot, accordingly, deny with any seriousness that we have thus to make a decision about something, and so about ourselves, and that thus we are responsible. Further, anyone who refused to accept this responsibility would ipso facto make it impossible for himself to exact anything from other men’. I may add, however, that it will be fatal to try to think of this freedom in terms of causality, though so far we have not reached any precise definition; and as we have just seen, in the whole history of philosophy there has been no more tragic error than that of trying to think of free will in its opposition to determinism; in reality it lies in a completely different plane. I would readily agree that it is meaningless from the point of view of determinism, just as there would be no significance in trying to find a bond of cause and effect between the successive notes of a melody.

Reflecting on quite different lines, we may add that freedom can in no way be thought of as a predicate which somehow belongs to man considered in his essence. We commonly express ourselves as though there were a real foundation for the judgment of predication, and we should recognize, accordingly, that it is our business to make a strenuous effort to free ourselves from the verbal forms to which in practice we are obliged to have recourse when we speak of freedom; for we do in fact express ourselves as if it were a predicate which belongs to us (taken as subjects). Ultimately, to say, ‘I am free’, is to say, ‘I am I’. Now the latter assertion either amounts simply to the equation ‘I=I’, or should be looked at not only as something to be accepted with caution, but as being radically false in some of its bearings; for if we examine ourselves conscientiously, we must admit that there are countless circumstances in which each one of us must say, ‘I am not myself; my behaviour is automatic, or I am yielding to social mimicry, and so on’. One might add that this assurance of being myself can be dimmed, as a light can be dimmed, when I undergo a process of alienation of which (we may note parenthetically) marxism has diagnosed only one particular modality. In particular it is clear that there is alienation so soon as there is obsession or a fixed idea. This implies that the state of interior dialogue is reduced and diminished, to give way to a unity of a lower order; and that is what we always see in fanatics. But we must note, from another angle, that the preservation of the interior dialogue is always bound up with the act of keeping oneself open to the other, that is to say with being ready to welcome whatever positive contribution the other can make to me, even if this contribution is liable to modify my own position. We must admit, however, that we can be open to others in this way only on certain conditions. When I am faced by a fanatic, it is impossible for me not to feel on the defensive. This is necessarily so because the fanatic, in as much as he is a fanatic, ceases to be an interlocutor, and becomes only an adversary who handles what he calls his ideas as offensive weapons. The result is that I am forced to find some defensive armour for myself, and as what is properly called discussion is shown to be impossible, I feel bound in the end either to meet violence with violence, or to refuse the battle. I need hardly add that the most serious fault which could be laid to the charge of fanaticism, is that of forcing on its opponents the cruel compulsion of falling themselves into the same fault. The Saint alone, it would seem, can escape this compulsion, but only we may add, provided that his sanctity does not degenerate into weakness, provided that he possesses, on the contrary, the highest degree of that virtue of strength which at present seems to be ill understood by a vast number of Christians.

We see also—and this, I think, is a most significant illustration of the ideas I have been trying to bring to light—that fanaticism is the born enemy of freedom. Not only does it kill freedom in the man in which it dwells, but it has the further tendency to surround itself with a depopulated zone, a no-man's-land.

The sum of these remarks will prepare us, I think, to understand that we must once and for all break with the idea that freedom is essentially liberty of choice—the latter, moreover, being conceived as indetermination. Descartes had already seen this with profound insight. The ‘liberté d'indifférence’ is the lowest degree of freedom, and yet it would seem that choice seems most absolute exactly when the reasons for choosing one way or the other are the least strong. One is always inclined to imagine free will as being something that finally tips the scale of a balance which but for this decisive intervention would swing indefinitely. But this is another of those materialist representations which we have constantly had occasion to criticize. It is bound up, moreover, with a conception of motives or motors whose effect is to picture them as forces which display a certain degree of intrinsic intensity, whereas the determining value of these motives or motors depends directly on personality itself.

We must, it appears, assert most emphatically on the one hand that the ‘liberté d'indifférence’ implies that the stake is insignificant, and on the other hand that we can speak of freedom only when the position is reversed and we can see that the stake has a real importance. The value of the stake, however, has no existence outside my consciousness; though this in no way means, as one might be inclined to say at first blush, that it is created by my consciousness. The truth would seem rather to be that I must realize in concreto that I should be betraying or denying myself if I failed to set this value on the stake. In this line of thought we must say that the free act is essentially a significant act. But it is impossible not to see that the pointless plays an enormous part in our lives, and that this part is that of the contingent. At this point it would be necessary for us to push our analysis much farther and ask ourselves what is this betrayal or non-betrayal, this denial or non-denial. Shall we say that essentially they turn on an ideal? The notion of ideal, however, is one of those notions which we should be most sparing in calling in to help us, for it is just a convenient word which we use to bring out something which in reality is generally lived or felt rather than conceived or represented. Moreover we must allow for the fact that, as we have already seen, in so far as treason is significant—revealing, that is—it is itself a free act. No doubt one might say that what distinguishes the free act is that it helps to make me what I am, as a sculptor might carve me, whereas the contingent or insignificant act, the act which might just as well be performed by anybody, has no contribution to make to this sort of creation of myself by myself. To that extent it can scarcely be considered as an act. We must add that the value which constitutes the free act as such will hardly be acknowledged except a posteriori: there is no doubt that it is something which reflection will recognize as a value, rather than a sort of immediate evidence accompanying the act at the actual moment of its performance. This entails a wide variety of consequences. I should be sadly deceived if I were to imagine that I am acting freely when I am struggling to realize a certain coherence. When coherence is a goal which I set before myself, there is a risk that it will come between me and myself, and in that case it keeps a certain mechanical character. We should never forget that my position is such that I cannot rightly know who I am and who I shall be: in the same way the artist cannot know exactly what his work will be, before he creates it. It may well take the artist himself by surprise, we might say. The same thing happens on occasion with the free act, by which I mean the act which I come to think of, after the event, as having helped to make me what I am.

Do the above considerations help us to see how freedom and grace fit together? Our first task must be to consider what a gift is. It is in so far as it is a gift that grace can concern us, though for the moment we need not complicate the issue for ourselves by introducing the difficulties of a theological order which are raised by this notion, when it is related to a certain dogmatically given context.

What is a gift? Can it be looked at as a simple transfer? The most cursory reflection will show us that it is more than that. Let us suppose that I make someone a present and he comes to thank me for it. If I cut his thanks short by the laconic remark ‘It's only a transfer’, my words will affect him like a cold douche. To transfer would be simply to move a certain object, a certain possession, from one account to another. Now, even if this is what happens materially, both I and the recipient see it as the expression of something quite different. To understand this, we have only to consider that any gift is in some way a giving of oneself, and that, however difficult it may be to think of a gift of oneself, such a gift cannot on any showing be compared to a transfer.

We should note, in addition, that the gift has a certain character of unconditionalness. It would be no gift at all, for example, to say to someone, ‘I am giving you this house, but only on condition that you make no alteration to it except such as I have specified, or receive in it nobody except such people as I shall give you the names of’. We may go deeper and add that to give with a predetermined end in view, such, for example, as using the beneficiary's gratitude to secure a hold over him, is not giving. To give is not to seduce.

Here we meet a difficulty. If we say that the gift has no precise end beyond itself, must we thereby deny it significance? The answer to that is that we must probably, as Bergson says, reach a higher level than finality. To give is to expand, to expand oneself. But we must be careful not to interpret that phrase in a semi-material way, as though it was the overflow of something that is too full. The soul of a gift is its generosity, and it is manifest that generosity is a virtue—therefore to be carefully distinguished from prodigality. Would not a fairly accurate definition of generosity be a light whose joy is in giving light, in being light? There can be no substitute here for the word ‘light’. There could be no question of using instead the term consciousness, for example. The property peculiar to light is that of being illuminating, illuminating for others—it goes beyond the boundaries which contemporary philosophy attempts to fix or lay down between the for self and the for the other. One might even say that this distinction does not exist for light, but that if its joy is in being light it can only wish to be always more so. It knows itself, then, as illuminating; and far from this knowledge being comparable to an enfeebling waste of self, it helps on the contrary to increase its power. Like fire, generosity feeds on itself. There is a possibility, however, of a certain perversion, and we must be careful of this. If generosity enjoys its own self it degenerates into complacent self-satisfaction. This enjoyment of self is not joy, for joy is not a satisfaction but an exaltation. It is only in so far as it is introverted that joy becomes enjoyment.

At first this distinction may seem over-subtle. The best way of understanding it more fully is to think of taking part in an orchestra or a choir. There we should undoubtedly find that joy is fundamentally bound up with a consciousness of being all together; which all together, moreover, can affect even the consciousness which the organism has of its own functioning, in dancing for example, when that functioning is perfectly synchronized with other energy (synergetic). We may note that enjoyment, on the contrary, always implies a certain retiring within oneself; it would hardly be putting my meaning too strongly to say that, to some degree at least, there is something of onanism in it.

The term ‘light’ has, moreover, this invaluable advantage that it provides a way of interpreting experiences as different as those of the artist, the hero, or the saint. ‘Radiance’ is the only word which can express these experiences, and this radiance must emanate from the being itself, taken in its act, its example, or its work.

If we begin by defining human being in a way which excludes the possibility of conceiving this light or this radiance, we may be certain that our definition is false; it will need to be readjusted to meet the true fundamental data.

Let us try to carry further both of these analyses at the same time: that of generosity and that of the comparison between generosity and light; and let us try to envisage how this double analysis might lead us to a metaphysic of light. There is a double relation between generosity and gift. On the one hand, it is generosity which makes the gift possible; it is not the cause of the gift, or, to be more exact, there would be no precise or significant meaning in saying that it is the cause. It would certainly be more exact to say that generosity is its soul. Generosity, however, seems itself to be a gift; this means in the first place, negatively, that it is not something which can be got either from oneself or from another. A thing can be got only by dint of insistence and tenacity, and what one acquires is always the result of an effort. A gift, however, is not a result, it arises spontaneously.

We may thus understand why generosity tends to arouse resentment as well as admiration. The former is always bound up with that turning in on oneself—‘Why has he treated me in this way? Why this difference between us? It looks as though he were trying to put me down by forcing me to make this comparison between us. Besides, he isn't doing anything praiseworthy by behaving like this—merit always consists in extracting from poor ground, by dint of hard work, what that ground could not have produced by itself. Admitting, at a pinch, that his ground may be more fertile than mine, yet it is only luck that he has it at his disposal, and there's nothing admirable in luck’.

Just as light can be recognized only through the medium of that which it illuminates—for in itself it is blinding and I cannot look straight at it—so generosity can be discerned only through the gifts it lavishes.

What seems to me most worthy of note in this matter, is that there is a sort of rebound by which to reflect on generosity puts us in a better position for understanding the nature of light; and I am no longer speaking of physical light. One could put it schematically and distinguish three stages: light as a physical agent helps us to think of generosity: but in return as soon as we turn our attention to generosity in its essence, generosity shows us the road to the metaphysical light, which is indeed the light of which St. John speaks as enlightening every man who comes into the world.

So we may see how the road climbs by which we can ascend from the gift considered in its most empiric manifestations to something which can be thought of only as grace.

To sum up and complete these notes, we should consider also the gift from the point of view of the beneficiary. If I am to be certain that something has been given to me and not simply lent, I need a formal assurance; and looked at in this way, the word, whether written or not, may appear as constituting the gift as such. This is true at least for a particular thing which can be designated and whose possessor can be identified. But can that assertion retain any meaning when it is a question either of an inborn disposition—a gift for music or mathematics—or of what is an infinitely more important thing, the fundamental gift: the gift of life, that is, of the fact, with all its concrete applications, of being in the world? for I cannot be in the world without being fitted into it in conditions which are fixed to a certain point or extent in the vast human adventure. Again, is there any significance at all in imagining a word which would in some way guarantee this gift? At first this question may seem disconcerting, and there can be only one possible answer to it: this word can only be a Revelation, without, however, it being necessary for us at the moment to specify in any way the conditions in which this revelation may be introduced. I cannot undertake to give a more precise answer to a question which is still by no means clear to me, and I shall content myself with pointing out that speech itself, human speech, far from being reducible by any transition to spontaneous expression such as we find it among animals, can probably be interpreted only as a reflection of the Word, that is to say, the Logos.

Thus it is only in so far as I somehow become gratefully conscious of this revelation that I can come to apprehend life and my own life as a gift. But it is none the less true that this apprehension can exist without my being articulately and distinctly conscious of the Revelation as such. This is the case of those whom one may call naturally religious beings. On the other hand it always remains possible for me to deny myself such a view of life and of my own life: by that I mean that I can interpret either of them as absurd phenomena, freaks, a sort of flaw in the diamond which is Being in itself. In our own day such an interpretation is embodied in the work of Valéry, for example, and in that of Sartre too. For my own part I may say that it presents itself to us as a temptation, like the poisonous berries which a little child is tempted to pick and put in its mouth.

This is an ambiguous way of putting it, however, and may be dangerous. Are we to interpret it as meaning that we have some sort of arbitrary choice between two conceptions of which it cannot rationally be claimed that one is more true than the other? In that case the affirmation of grace would have only a sort of pragmatic value, inasmuch as it would allow us to preserve certain values which we are not prepared to sacrifice. It is impossible, however, not to realize that, inspired by a certain notion of courage and uprightness of mind, any philosopher worthy of the name would be chary of allowing himself to be duped and seduced, and would never be able to resist the temptation to reject grace.

Nevertheless, I am quite sure that the problem cannot be put in these terms. No doubt it is very difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate that the negative interpretation is false, but in return we can see quite clearly that this same interpretation makes it extremely difficult for us to understand what truth can be, or even, to go deeper, how the term ‘truth’ can retain any significance.

At this point we should co-ordinate what was said earlier in this chapter about the light which is a joy in giving light, and the conclusions we reached in my first volume about the intelligible medium. From that point of view we should probably be able, not to prove, but to show that the negative interpretation must almost inevitably be self-destructive. It is possible, no doubt, at least verbally to be satisfied with this self-destruction, to enjoy it in a satanic sort of way; and one cannot, strictly speaking, refute a man who experiences this enjoyment, for the refutation requires at least a minimum of good will in the man who is refuted. It is precisely this good will which is lacking in such a case. But—and here we meet the conclusion to which we are driven—it would still be necessary to enquire whether freedom retains any meaning or value when that good will is no longer present. In that case it shrinks in fact to an anarchical disposition which bears no relation to what a reflective mind can understand by the word and can at the same time regard as a value. Our argument leads us, then, to what seems to me the absolutely essential idea that values—freedom, for example, and truth—cannot be arbitrarily divorced from one another without losing their character; and I may add that they cannot be looked at as values except by a man who has placed himself, if I may so put it, within the axis of intelligible light. By those last words I do not mean a light that could be understood—a meaningless phrase—but a light which is at the root of all and every understanding.

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    Zurich, 1949.