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Chapter II: A Broken World

Before pressing further forward, I feel it necessary to go back a little, to consider certain objections that will have undoubtedly occurred to many of my listeners.

I assert that an investigation of the sort in which we are engaged, an investigation of an eminently theoretical kind, can appeal only to minds of a certain sort, to minds that have already a special bias. Is there not something strange and almost shocking in such an assertion? Does it not imply a perversion of the very notion of truth? The ordinary idea of truth, the normal idea of truth, surely involves a universal reference—what is true, that is to say, is true for anybody and everybody. Are we not risking a great deal in wrenching apart, in this way, the two notions of the true and the universally valid? Or more exactly, in making this distinction, are we not substituting for the notion of truth some other notion—some value which may have its place in the practical, the moral, or the aesthetic order, but for which truth is not the proper term?

Later in this course of lectures we shall have to look very deeply into the meaning, or meanings, of the word ‘truth’, but we have not yet reached a stage where such an investigation would have practical use. We must at this stage simply attempt to disentangle, to lay bare the presupposition which is implied in this objection, and to ask ourselves what this presupposition, as a postulate, is really worth. What the objection implies, in fact, is that we know in advance, and perhaps even know in a quite schematic fashion, what the relation between the self and the truth it recognizes must be.

In the last two or three centuries, and indeed since much more remote periods, there has been a great deal of critical reflection on the subject of truth. Nevertheless, there is every reason to suppose that, in our everyday thinking, we remain dominated by an image of truth as something extracted—extracted or smelted out, exactly as a pure metal is extracted from a mixed ore. It seems obvious to us that there are universally effective smelting processes: or, more fundamentally, that there are established, legitimate ways of arriving at truth; and we have a confused feeling that the man who steps aside from these ways, or even from the idea of these ways, is in danger of losing himself in a sort of no man's land where the difference between truth and error—even between reality and dream—tends to vanish away. It is, however, this very image of truth as something smelted out that we must encounter critically if we want to grasp clearly the gross error on which it rests. What we must above all reject is the idea that we are forced to make a choice between a genuine truth (so to call it) which has been extracted, and a false, a lying truth which has been fabricated. Both horns of this dilemma, it should be noted, are metaphorically modelled on physical processes; and there is, on the face of it, every reason to suppose that the subtle labour involved in the search for truth cannot ever be properly assimilated to such physical manipulations of physical objects. But truth is not a thing; whatever definition we may in the end be induced to give to the notion of truth, we can affirm even now that truth is not a physical object, that the search for truth is not a physical process, that no generalizations that apply to physical objects and processes can apply also to truth.

Teaching, or rather certain traditional inadequate ways of conceiving the teacher's function, have encouraged the general acceptance of such gross images of truth. In Dickens's novel, Hard Times, there is a character called Mr. Gradgrind, for whom anybody and everybody can be treated as a vessel capable of containing truths (such as, ‘The horse is a graminivorous quadruped’) extracted from the crude ore of experience, divided, and evenly dealt out. Mr. Gradgrind is aware, certainly, that one vessel is not so sound as another; some are leaky, some are fragile, and so on… I believe I am not exaggerating when I say that the educational system, even in countries that think of themselves as rather advanced, has still something in common with the coarseness and absurdity of Dickens's satirical picture of it. The interesting question is, under what conditions does this illusory image of truth as a physical substance, even as the stuff contained in a vessel, present itself naturally to the mind? It is obvious that the use of fixed forms of words in teaching plays a prominent part in fostering the illusion. A history teacher, for instance, has to din dates into his pupils. They have to give back just what they have been given, unchanged by any mental process, and they have to memorize the dates in a quite mechanical way. It is very natural in this case to think of the pupil as a vessel, into which a certain measure of liquid is poured, so that it may be poured out again; an even apter metaphor would be that of the gramophone record. Such metaphors, however, cease to apply in the case where, having explained some idea to a pupil, I ask him to explain it back to me in his own words and if possible with his own illustrations; the idea certainly may still be thought of as a content, but it is a content that has to be grasped by the intelligence; it cannot be reduced, like the history master's dates, to some exact, particular formula. It is this irreducibility that we must keep a grip on if we want to get beyond the illusory image of truth as a physical object, a substance, the contents of a vessel, a mere thing, and to recognize the impossibility of adequately representing by material images those processes by which I can both conceive a true proposition and affirm it to be true.

But perhaps there is a principle that we can already postulate (though reserving our right to expatiate more largely on this important topic at a later stage). The principle is this. On the one hand, everything that can be properly called technique is comparable to a kind of manipulation, if not always necessarily of physical objects, at least of mental elements (mathematical symbols would be an example) comparable in some respects to physical objects; and I suggest on the other hand, that the validity for anybody and everybody, which has been claimed for truth, is certainly deeply implied (though even here, subject to certain provisos) in the very notion of technique, as we have conceived that notion here. Subject to certain provisos, I say, since every technical manipulation, even the simplest, implies the possession by the manipulator of certain minimal aptitudes, without which it is not practicable. There is a story, for instance, that I often tell, of how I had to pass an examination in physics which included, as a practical test, an experiment to determine one of the simpler electrical formulae—I forget which now, let us say the laws of electrolysis—and I found myself quite incapable of joining up my wires properly; so no current came through. All I could do was write on my paper, ‘I cannot join up my wires, so there is no current; if there were a current, it would produce such and such a phenomenon, and I would deduce…’ My own clumsiness appeared to me, and it must have appeared to the examiner, as a purely contingent fact. It remains true in principle that anybody and everybody can join up the wires, enable the current to pass through, and so on.

Conversely, we must say that the further the intelligence passes beyond the limits of a purely technical activity, the less the reference to the ‘no matter whom’, the ‘anybody at all’, is applicable; and that in the extreme case there will be no sense at all in saying that such and such a task of lofty reflection could have been carried out by anybody whatsoever. One might even say, as I indicated in my first chapter, that the philosopher's task involves not only unusual mental aptitudes but an unusual sense of inner urgent need; and as I have already suggested, towards the end of that chapter, we shall have to face the fact that in such a world as we live in urgent inner needs of this type are almost systematically misunderstood, are even deliberately discredited. Our world today really gathers itself together against these needs, it tugs in the other direction like, as it were, a sort of counterweight; it does so, also, to the very extent to which technical processes have emancipated themselves today from the ends to which they ought normally to remain subordinate, and have staked a claim to an autonomous reality, or an autonomous value.

‘Don't you feel sometimes that we are living… if you can call it living… in a broken world? Yes, broken like a broken watch. The mainspring has stopped working. Just to look at it, nothing has changed. Everything is in place. But put the watch to your ear, and you don't hear any ticking. You know what I'm talking about, the world, what we call the world, the world of human creatures… it seems to me it must have had a heart at one time, but today you would say the heart had stopped beating’.

That is a speech by the heroine of one of my plays, and from time to time I shall be quoting from my own plays in this way. For it is in these imaginative works of mine that my thought is to be found in its virgin state, in, as it were, its first gushings from the source. I shall try later on to explain why this is so and how the drama, as a mode of expression, has forced itself upon me, and become intimately linked with my properly philosophical work. The young woman who makes this speech is not intended to rank among what we usually call intellectuals. She is a fashionable lady, smart, witty, flattered by her friends, but the busy, rushing life that she seems so much at home in obviously masks an inner grief, an anguish, and it is that anguish which breaks through to the surface in the speech I have just quoted.

A broken world? Can we really endorse these words? And are we being the dupes of a myth when we imagine that there was a time when the world had a heart? We must be careful here. Certainly, it would be rash to attempt to put one's finger on some epoch in history when the unity of the world was something directly felt by men in general. But could we feel the division of the world today, or could some of us at least feel it so strongly, if we had not within us, I will not say the memory of such a united world, but at least the nostalgia of it. What is even more important is to grasp the fact that this feeling of a world divided grows stronger and stronger at a time when the surface unification of the world (I mean of the earth, of this planet) appears to be proceeding apace. Some people make a great deal of this unification; they think they see in it something like the quickening in the womb of a higher conscience, they would say a planetary conscience. Much later in these lectures we shall have to face that possibility, and finally to make a judgment on the real worth of such hopes. But for the moment we have only to ask ourselves about the particular, personal anguish felt today by people like Christiane in my Le Monde Cassé. What is the substance of that anguish? And, in the first place, have we any grounds for attributing a general relevance to such personal experience?

There is one preliminary point that must occur to all of us; we live today in a world at war with itself, and this state of world-war is being pushed so far that it runs the risk of ending in something that could properly be described as world-suicide. This is something one cannot be over-emphatic about. Suicide, until our own times, was an individual possibility, it seemed to apply only to the individual case. It seems now to apply to the case of the whole human world. Of course, one may be tempted to say that this new possibility is only part of the price we pay for the amazing progress of our times. The world today is, in a sense, at once whole and single in a way which, even quite recently, it was not. It is from this very unity and totality that it draws its sinister new power of self-destruction. The connection between the new unity and the new power is something we ought to concentrate on very carefully. Let us postpone, for the time being, a consideration of the conditions that make world-suicide possible and their significance; we are still forced to recognize that the existence of the new power implies something vicious in the new unity. It is not enough, I think, to say that the new unity is still mixed with diversity, or at least ‘mixed’ is a weak and inadequate word for what we mean. Mixture is in itself a certain mode of unity, but we must recognize that it is a mode which in a certain sense betrays the very need that has called it into existence. And this suffices to show, as we shall see by and by much more clearly, that unity is a profoundly ambiguous idea, and that it is certainly not correct to take the scholastic line and to regard unity and goodness as purely and simply convertible terms. There is every reason to suppose that the kind of unity which makes the self-destruction of our world possible (and by possible, I mean perfectly conceivable) cannot be other than bad in itself, and it is easy to perceive where the badness lies. It is linked to the existence of a will to power which occurs under aspects that cannot be reconciled with each other, and which assume opposite ideological characters. On this topic, I cannot do better than recommend to you Raymond Aron's book, The Great Schism.1 But it is clear also that from a strictly philosophical point of view we must ask certain questions which fall outside the field of the political writer as such.

From the philosophical point of view, the fundamental question is whether it is a mere contingent fact that the will to power always presents this character of discordance, or whether there is a necessary connection between this discordance and the essential notion of the will to power itself. It should also be our business, indeed, not to content ourselves with a mere analysis of the notion of the will to power, comparing that with the notion of discordance, but to reflect in the light of history, whose lessons, in this instance, have a strict coherence, on the inevitable destiny of alliances, which, when they are instituted for purposes of conquest, are inevitably fated to dissolve and to transform themselves into enmities. It is, alas, true that one can imagine the possibility of a single conqueror's gaining possession, today, of the technical equipment that would render both rebellion and opposition futile; and, in principle at least, it seems that a government based on slavery and terror might last for an indefinite period. But it is all too clear that such a government would be only another form of the state of war, and indeed perhaps the most odious form of that state that we can imagine. Besides, if one refuses to let oneself be deceived by mere fictitious abstractions, one soon sees that the victor, far from himself being an indissoluble unity, is always in fact a certain group of men in the midst of whom there must always arise the same sort of rupture which, as we have seen, always menaces alliances; so that at the end of the day, it is still to war, and to war in a more obvious form than that of a perpetual despotism, that the triumphant will to power is likely to lead. It could only be otherwise—and yet this is a real possibility, and should not be passed over in silence—in a mechanized world, a world deprived of passion, a world in which the slave ceased to feel himself a slave, and perhaps even ceased to feel anything, and where the masters themselves became perfectly apathetic: I mean, where they no longer felt the greed and the ambition which are today the mainsprings of every conquest, whatever it may be. It is very important to notice that this hypothesis is by no means entirely a fantastic one; it is, at bottom, the hypothesis of those who imagine human society as transformed into a sort of ant-hill. I would even be tempted to say that the possibility of such a society is implicit in, and that its coming into existence would be a logical development of, certain given factors in our own society. There are sectors of human life in the present world where the process of automatization applies not only, for instance, to certain definite techniques, but to what one would have formerly called the inner life, a life which today, on the contrary, is becoming as outer as possible. Only, it must be noticed that in a world of this sort (supposing, which is not proved, that it would really come into existence) it would no longer be proper to speak of the will to power; or rather that expression would tend to lose its precise psychological significance and would in the end stand merely, as in Nietzsche, for some indistinct metaphysical something. Our thinking tends to get lost, in fact, at this point, in the more or less fictitious notion of a Nature considered as the expression of pure Energy. I will quote, on this topic, a very characteristic passage from Nietzsche's great work, The Will to Power—a great work which is, in fact, nothing more than a heap of fragments.

‘And’, says Nietzsche, ‘do you know what the world is for me? ‘Would you like me to show you it in my mirror? This world, ‘a monster of energy, without beginning or end: a fixed sum ‘of energy, hard as bronze, which is never either augmented ‘or diminished, which does not use itself up but merely ‘changes its shape; as a whole it has always the same invariable ‘bulk, it is an exchequer in which there are ‘no expenses and no losses, but similarly no gains through interest or new ‘deposits; shut up in the nothingness that acts as its limit, with ‘nothing vaguely floating, with nothing squandered, it has no ‘quality of infinite extension, but is gripped like a definite ‘quantum of energy in a limited space, a space that has no room ‘for voids. An energy present everywhere, one and multiple ‘like the play of forces and waves of force within a kinetic field ‘that gather at one point if they slacken at another; a sea of ‘energies in stormy perpetual flux, eternally in motion, with ‘gigantic years of regular return, an ebb and a flowing in again ‘of all its forces, going from the more simple to the more ‘complex, from the more calm, the more fixed, the more ‘frigid, to the more ardent, the more violent, the more ‘contradictory, but only to return in due course from multiplicity ‘to simplicity, from the play of contrasts to the assuagement of ‘harmony, perpetually affirming its essence in the regularity of ‘cycles and of years, and glorying in the sanctity of its eternal ‘return as a becoming which knows neither satiety, nor ‘lassitude, nor disgust… Do you want a name for this universe, ‘an answer to all these urgent riddles, a light even for ‘yourselves, you of the fellest darkness, you the most secret, the ‘strongest, the most intrepid of all human spirits? This world ‘is the world of the Will to Power and no other, and you ‘yourselves, you are also the Will to Power, and nothing else.’

To whom is Nietzsche addressing himself here, if not to the Masters whose advent he is announcing? Certainly, these masters, as he conceived them, are far from resembling the dictators we have known, or know still. The case really is, as Gustave Thibon has shown beautifully in the fine book on Nietzsche he brought out a few months ago, that a confusion tended to arise in Nietzsche's thinking between two categories which cannot really be reduced to each other.2 Let us put it this way, that he was hypnotized by a role, a purely lyrical role, which he wished however to assume as his own role in real life, but with which he was incapable of effectively identifying his actual self. This purely personal yearning was enough to vitiate his philosophy of history; nevertheless there is something, in the sort of glimpse of an imaginary cosmos which I have just quoted, that does retain its worth and its weight. Otherwise, I would not have quoted that page. It does remain true that, in the ‘broken world’ we live in, it is difficult indeed for the mind to withdraw itself from the dizzying edge of these gulfs; there is a fascination in that absolute dynamism. One would be tempted to call Nietzsche's picture of the world ‘self-contained’, in the sense that his ‘monster of energy’ does not refer outwards to anything else that sustains or dominates it; except that for Nietzsche this ‘self-contained’ world is essentially a mode of escape from the real self, in its pure ungraspability. Let us note also in passing that if our world really were such a world as Nietzsche here has described it to be, one has no notion at all of how it could give birth to the thinker, or the thought, which would conceive it as a whole and delineate its characteristics. It always seems to happen so; when a ‘realistic’ attitude of this sort is pushed to the very limit with brutal, unbridled logic, the ‘idealistic’ impulse rises to the surface again and reduces the whole structure to dust. But let us notice that, at the level of dialectics, it is this very process which makes manifest the disruption of the world. The world of the Will to Power, as Nietzsche describes it—and it would be easy to show that this world today provides the obscure and still indistinct background of everything in contemporary thought that rejects God and particularly the God of Christianity—that world cannot be reconciled with the fundamental direction of the will that underlies every investigation bearing upon what is intelligible and what is true. Or rather, when, like Nietzsche, one does attempt to reconcile the intention of the philosopher and that picture of the world, one can only succeed in doing so by a systematic discrediting and devaluation of intelligibility and truth as such; but in discrediting these, one is undermining oneself, for, after all, every philosophy, in so far as it can be properly called a philosophy at all, must claim to be true.

These general remarks may help us to see in what sense the world we live in today really is a broken world. Yet they are not enough to enable us to recognize and acknowledge how deep and how wide the break really goes. The truth of the matter is that, by a strange paradox and one which will not cease to exercise us during the course of these lectures, in the more and more collectivized world that we are now living in, the idea of any real community becomes more and more inconceivable. Gustave Thibon, to whom I referred just now in connection with Nietzsche, had very good grounds indeed for saying that the two processes of atomization and collectivization, far from excluding each other as a superficial logic might be led to suppose, go hand in hand, and are two essentially inseparable aspects of the same process of devitalization.

To put it in quite general terms, and in simpler language than Thibon's, I would say that we are living in a world in which the preposition ‘with’—and I might also mention Whitehead's noun, ‘togetherness’—seems more and more to be losing its meaning; one might put the same idea in another way by saying that the very idea of a close human relationship (the intimate relationship of large families, of old friends, of old neighbours, for instance) is becoming increasingly hard to put into practice, and is even being rather disparaged. And no doubt it is what lies behind this disparagement that we ought to bring out. Here I come to one of the central themes of these lectures; but I shall confine myself, for the moment, to treating the matter merely in terms of a superficial description of the known facts.

It is, or so it seems to me, by starting from the fact of the growingly complex and unified social organization of human life today, that one can see most clearly what lies behind the loss, for individuals, of life's old intimate quality. In what does this growingly complex organization—this socialization of life, as we may call it—really consist? Primarily, in the fact that each one of us is being treated today more and more as an agent, whose behaviour ought to contribute towards the progress of a certain social whole, a something rather distant, rather oppressive, let us even frankly say rather tyrannical. This presupposes a registration, an enrolment, not once and for all, like that of the new-born child in the registrar's office, but again and again, repeatedly, while life lasts. In countries like ours, where totalitarianism so far is merely a threat, there are many gaps in this continuous enrolment; but there is nothing more easy than to imagine it as coextensive with the whole span of the individual life. That is what happens in states governed by a police dictatorship; in passing, I should like to make the point that a police dictatorship is (for many reasons, there is not time to go into them now) merely the extreme limit towards which a bureaucracy that has attained a certain degree of power inevitably tends. But the essential point to grasp now, is that in the end I am in some danger of confusing myself, my real personality, with the State's official record of my activities; and we ought to be really frightened of what is implied in such an identification. This is all exemplified in a book called The Twenty-Fifth Hour by a young Rumanian called C. Virgil Gheorgiu. In this extraordinary novel, we see a young man who has been falsely denounced to the Germans by his father-in-law and is sent to a deportation camp as being a Jew; he has no means of proving that he is not a Jew. He is labelled as such. Later on, in another camp in Germany he attracts the attention of a prominent Nazi leader, who discovers in him the pure Aryan type; he is taken out of the camp and has to join the S.S. He is now docketed as ‘Pure Aryan, member of the S.S’. He contrives to escape from this other sort of camp with a few French prisoners and joins the Americans; he is at first hailed as a friend, and stuffed with rich food; but a few days later he is put into prison; according to his passport, he is a Rumanian subject. Rumanians are enemies; ergo… Not the least account is taken of what the young man himself thinks and feels. This is all simply and fundamentally discounted. At the end of the book, he has managed to get back to his wife, who has meanwhile been raped by the Russians; there is a child, not his, of course; still, the family hope to enjoy a happy reunion. Then the curtain rises for the Third World War, and husband, wife, and child are all put into a camp again by the Americans, as belonging to a nation beyond the Iron Curtain. But the small family group appeals to American sentimentality, and a photograph is taken. ‘Keep smiling’, in fact, are the last words of this interesting novel,3 which summarizes graphically almost everything I have tried to explain in this lecture.4

The point, here, is not only to recognize that the human, all too human, powers that make up my life no longer sustain any practical distinction between myself and the abstract individual all of whose ‘particulars’ can be contained on the few sheets of an official dossier, but that this strange reduction of a personality to an official identity must have an inevitable repercussion on the way I am forced to grasp myself; what is going to become of this inner life, on which we have been concentrating so much of our attention? What does a creature who is thus pushed about from pillar to post, ticketed, docketed, labelled, become, for himself and in himself? One might almost speak, in this connection, of a social nudity, a social stripping, and one might ask oneself what sort of shame this exposure is likely to excite among those who see themselves condemned to undergo it?

To be honest, it does not seem to me that there is any real deep analogy between this social nakedness and actual physical nakedness, with the sense of slight shame which normally accompanies such nakedness in man—a sense of shame on which the Russian thinker, Soloviev, has some deep and original observations. On the other hand, it is, I think, highly significant to compare the state of a man in his social nakedness—stripped, by society, of all his protections—to that in which a man finds himself who believes himself exposed to the observation of an omnipresent and omniscient God. This comparison is all the more necessary and important because the Moloch State of totalitarian countries does tend to confer on itself a sort of burlesque analogue of the Divine prerogatives. Only the essential is lacking (that is to say, the State is not in fact God, or a God), and this fundamental lack lies at the basis of the evils from which any society must suffer that seeks to enchain itself by submitting to the yoke of the Moloch State. The common factor in the two types of nakedness—nakedness under the eyes of the State, nakedness under the eyes of God—is, most assuredly, fear. But in the presence of a real God, I mean a God who is not reduced to the status of a mere savage idol, this fear has a note of reverence, it is linked to our feeling for the sacred, and the sacred only is such in and through our adoration of it. In the case of nakedness under the eyes of the State, it is clear, on the other hand, that an adoration, worthy properly to be called adoration, is impossible, unless it attaches itself to the person of a Leader; it is then pure fanaticism, and it is enough to recall the hysterical cult of which Hitler was the object to understand what fanaticism means, and what great gulfs of temptation are masked by that word. But between the Moloch State and such figures as Hitler the relationships that can be established are uncertain, unstable, threatening either to the Leader or the State—if only because of the envy and hate that Leaders must arouse in others who either would covet their position for themselves or at any rate could not think of somebody other than themselves enjoying it without impatience and rage. It is all too clear that the state of universal continuous registration and enrolment, from birth to death, to which I have already alluded, can only be brought into being in the bosom of an anonymous bureaucracy; now, such a bureaucracy cannot hope to inspire any other sentiment than a vague fear—the same feeling that takes possession of me personally every time I have to deal in a government office with some impersonal official who identifies himself with his job. One cannot avoid, at this point, bringing in the familiar metaphor of the administrative machine: but it is important to notice that the workings of this machine are not something I can contemplate, its presence is simply something I feel: if I could contemplate its workings, I might be forced to feel a certain reluctant admiration for it—as it is, as a person who is being governed, who is being taxed, for instance, my sentiments when the machine has been in contact with me must be purely negative. To make them positive I would need a chance to get to the other side of the counter and become myself one of those privileged beings who contain a morsel of this mysterious power. Thus it is quite natural that, in countries where a bureaucratic system prevails, there should be a tendency towards the general bureaucratization of life; that is to say, really, towards the abandonment of concrete and creative activities in favour of abstract, depersonalized, uncreative tasks and even—one could illustrate this point easily—an active opposition to all kinds of creativity.

Let us take it, though it is by no means certain, that in such a bureaucratized world a certain social equality would prevail. It would be an equality obtained by levelling down, down to the very level where the creative impulse fails. But this kind of equality—and perhaps every kind of equality—is (though in my own country the opposite has for long been thought to be the case) in the last analysis rigorously incompatible with any sort of fraternity; it appeals to a different need, at a different level of human nature. One could prove this point in various ways. In particular, it is easy to see that the very idea of fraternity implies the idea of a father, and is not really separable, indeed, from the idea of a transcendent Being who has created me but has also created you. It is exactly at this point that we see the yawning central gap, which I mentioned earlier, in the claims of the Moloch State to be treated as a sort of God. One can see clearly enough that the State can in no case be treated as a creator or a father. Yet almost unconsciously here I have stumbled on an ambiguity. There are different levels at which men understand the word God. It is true that the State in our time, even in countries where it has not reached the totalitarian phase, has become more and more the engrosser and dispenser of all sorts of favours, which must be snatched from it by whatever means are available, including even blackmail. In this respect the State is properly comparable to a God, but to the God of degraded cults on whom the sorcerer claims to exercise his magic powers.

From the moment, however, when the ties of fraternity are snapped—and there is nothing that can take their place except a Nietzschean ‘resentment’ or, at the very best, some working social agreement strictly subordinated to definite materialistic purposes, as in the social theories, say, of the early English utilitarians—the state of social atomization, of which I spoke earlier, inevitably tends to appear. All this, of course, cannot be taken literally as the expression of a state of affairs which has been, by now, established for once and for all. In different countries, this state of affairs is established to different degrees, and even sometimes in different parts of the same country; and in any case, wherever there are men, there are certain vital persisting elements. Using the histological simile which always seems to crop up in this sort of discussion, I would say that there are some kinds of tissue that have a good resistance to this contagion, or rather to this malignant growth. But the main point is to see that here we have what is really the general prevailing tendency today in most countries that we usually think of as civilized. I am not talking merely about the states, for instance, that follow in the path of Soviet Communism. We can show, and in fact it has already been shown (I am thinking particularly of the remarkable books by Arnaud Dandieu and Robert Aron5) that large-scale capitalism exposes the countries in which it is a controlling factor to similar risks. In any case, it is not the usual antithesis between the Communists and the enemies of the Communists that is our point here; no doubt I shall come back to this at the end of these lectures, when I shall try to make clear the conclusions towards which this investigation has led us.

‘But’, you may feel inclined to say to me at this point, ‘we do not see exactly in what sense our world can be called a broken world, since you yourself admit that it is on the way to being unified, though you have added that the unification is probably the pleasing stamp on a coin that rings false.’ The answer, it seems to me, is that—even given a degree of atomization of which we have as yet no direct experience, and which can only be conceived entirely in the abstract—it seems impossible that man should reduce himself to that mere expression of an official dossier, that passive enrolled agent, with which some seek to confuse his essential nature.

Let us notice this fact: even if, as is certainly the case, there should be a tendency for a sinister alliance to be concluded between the masters of scientific technique and the men who are working for complete state-control, the real conditions under which a human creature appears in the world and develops there remain, in spite of everything, out of reach of this strange coalition—even though certain experiments which are now being carried out in laboratories give us reason to fear that this relative immunity may not be of long duration. But what we can affirm with absolute certainty is that there is within the human creature as we know him something that protests against the sort of rape or violation of which he is the victim; and this torn, protesting state of the human creature is enough to justify us in asserting that the world in which we live is a broken world. That is not all. Our world is more and more given over to the power of words, and of words that have been in a great measure emptied of their authentic content. Such words as liberty, person, democracy, are being more and more lavishly used, and are becoming slogans, in a world in which they are tending more and more to lose their authentic significance. It is even hard to resist the impression that just because the realities for which these words stand are dwindling away, the words themselves are suffering an inflation, which is just like the inflation of money when goods are scarce. It may be, indeed, that between the development of tokens of meaning, and that of tokens of purchasing power, there is some obscure connection, easier to feel in a general and indistinct way than to work out in detail. But certainly that break in the world which I have been trying, all through this lecture, to make you feel, is broad and gaping here. The depreciation, today, both of words and of currency corresponds to a general failure of trust, of confidence, of (both in the banker's sense of the word and in the strongest general sense) credit.

There is, however, one more question which we must examine, and which might be put from a strictly religious point of view. If anybody accepts the dogma of the Fall, is there not implicit in that acceptance an admission that the world is, in fact, broken? In other words, is it not the case that the world is essentially broken… not merely historically broken, as we have seemed to be saying, basing ourselves, as we have done, on a certain number of facts about the contemporary world? Does not our talk about a broken world imply that there have been periods when the world was intact, though this implication contradicts both the teachings of the Church and all the showings of history?

For my own part, I would certainly answer, without any hesitation, that this break in the world cannot be considered as something that has come about in recent years, or even during recent centuries, in a world originally unbroken. To say so would not only be contrary, I repeat, to all historical likelihood but even metaphysically indefensible. For we should be forced in that case to admit that some incomprehensible external action or other has been brought to bear on the world; but it is all too clear that the world itself must have already contained the possibility of being broken. But what we can say, without contradicting either the recorded facts of history or the more obvious principles of metaphysics, is that in our time the broken state of the world has become a much more obvious thing than it would have been for, say, a seventeenth-century philosopher. In general, such a philosopher would have recognized that broken state only on a theological plane; a man like Pascal, who came to such a recognition through a long process of psychological and moral analysis, anticipating the thought of a much later day, was an exception. In the eighteenth century, the optimism which was common among non-Christian philosophers suffices to show that this feeling of living in a broken world was not, on the whole, widely diffused; even those who, like Rousseau, insisted that the time was out of joint, felt that a certain combination of rationality and sensibility might set them right. It is clear enough that this belief in the possibility of benevolently readjusting human affairs persisted throughout the nineteenth century among various schools of rationalists, and that it has not entirely disappeared even today. Marxism itself might be considered, in its beginnings, as an optimistic philosophy, though today the general darkening of the historical horizon makes that element of optimism in it less and less perceptible. Besides, it is becoming more and more clear that there is nothing in Marxism that would serve to dissipate that deep sense of inner disquiet that lies at the very roots of metaphysics. At the most, the Marxist can hope to numb that, as one numbs a pain. There is nothing easier than to imagine an analgesic technique for this purpose; metaphysical uneasiness would be considered as a psychosomatic malady and would be treated according to the appropriate medical rules. Thus, for Marxists in general, the problem of death as such must no longer be faced, or rather they consider that the problem will cease to have its present agonizing character for an individual who is fully integrated with his community. But integration conceived after this fashion runs the risk, as we shall see later on when we discuss the nature of liberty, of reducing itself to mere automatization.

Why, it may be well asked at this point, have we lingered so long, in this lecture, over topics which at a first glance seem quite foreign to the proper themes of a metaphysical investigation? Simply because it was necessary to describe those conditions, in our life today, which are the conditions most unpropitious to such an investigation; so unpropitious, indeed, that in countries where these conditions are fully operative, metaphysical thinking loses its meaning and even ceases to be a practicable possibility. Perhaps it may not be wholly useless to enlarge a little on this point.

The world which I have just been sketching for you, and which is tending to become the world we live in, which is already indeed the world we live in, in so far as that world is exposed to the possibility of self-destruction, rests wholly on an immense refusal, into whose nature we shall have to search much more deeply, but which seems to be above all the refusal to reflect and at the same time the refusal to imagine—for there is a much closer connection between reflecting and imagining than is usually admitted. If the unimaginable evils which a new world war would bring upon us were genuinely imagined, to any extent at all, that new world war would become impossible. But do not let us be led into supposing that this failure to reflect and to imagine is merely the fault of a comparatively few individuals in positions of power and responsibility; these few individuals are nothing at all without the millions of others who place a blind trust in them. But this failure to reflect and imagine is bound up, also, with a radical incapacity to draw conclusions from the sort of thing that has been happening for at least fifty years. Was it not already incredible, in 1939, that men should be found ready to launch another war when the ruins piled up by the previous war had not yet been wholly rebuilt, and when events themselves had demonstrated in the most peremptory fashion that war does not pay? Possibly somebody may feel that such remarks smack of journalism and are hardly worthy of a qualified philosopher. But I fear that any such criticism would merely be an expression of a gravely erroneous conception of philosophy, a conception which for too long has weighed heavily on philosophy itself, and has helped to strike it with barrenness; this erroneous conception consists in imagining that the philosopher as such ought not to concern himself with passing events, that his job on the contrary is to give laws in a timeless realm, and to consider contemporary occurrences with the same indifference with which a stroller through a wood considers the bustlings of an ant-hill. One might be tempted, indeed, to suppose that both Hegelianism and Marxism have considerably modified this traditional way of looking at philosophy; but that is true only up to a certain point, at least in the case of present-day representatives of these doctrines. An orthodox Marxist accepts without any real criticism the daring extrapolation by which Marx treated as quite universal those conditions which had been revealed to him by an analysis of the social situation of his own time in those countries which had just been transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Let us add that the Marxist sets out to criticize existing societies using as his yardstick the indeterminate and psychologically empty idea of a classless society. In this respect, it would be no exaggeration to say that the Marxist places himself in the worst sort of timeless realm, an historical timeless realm, and that it is his stance on this non-existent point of vantage that enables him to decide so confidently whether such and such an event, or such and such an institution, is or is not in keeping with ‘the meaning of history’. I, for my part, think on the contrary that a philosophy worthy of the name ought to attach itself to a given concrete situation in order to grasp what that situation implies; and I think it should not fail to acknowledge the almost inconceivable multiplicity of combinations of events that may arise from the factors it has laid bare by its analysis.

In a very general way, one may say that the refusal to reflect, which lies at the root of a great many contemporary evils, is linked to the grip which desire and especially fear have on men. On this topic, of the baleful effect of the passions if the reasonable will does not control them, it is all too sadly clear that the great intellectualist doctrines of philosophy (those, above all, of Spinoza) are being grimly borne out. To desire and fear we ought, certainly, to add vanity, above all the vanity of specialists, of those who set themselves up as experts. This is true, for instance, in the educational world; in France to my own knowledge, but not only in France. I have often said that if one were rash enough to ask what will remain, under any form at all, in the minds of children, of all that has been painfully taught them, what will be the final positive result of the effort that is demanded from them, the whole system would fall to bits, for it is absolutely certain that as regards most of the subjects taught this final positive result will be precisely nothing. Those who are responsible for our educational programmes have not the elementary shrewdness of the industrialist who, before undertaking a new enterprise, ascertains what will be the initial outlay, what are the probable yearly profits, and whether the proportion between these two figures makes the whole thing worth his while. One is careful not to ask such a question of educational experts; would one not be insulting a noble profession? Yet fine words butter no parsnips. They are simply taking advantage of the fact that in teaching the outlay is less visible, less easily definable than in the case of an industrial enterprise; hence a waste of time and strength whose remoter consequences are beyond all calculation.

We shall be starting off, in the lectures that are to follow, from the double observation that nothing is more necessary than that one should reflect; but that on the other hand reflection is not a task like other tasks; in reality it is not a task at all, since it is reflection that enables us to set about any task whatsoever, in an orderly fashion. We should be quite clear about the very nature of reflection; or, to express myself in more exact terms, it is necessary that reflection, by its own efforts, should make itself transparent to itself. It may be, nevertheless, that this process of reflective self-clarification cannot be pushed to the last extreme; it may be, as we shall see, that reflection, interrogating itself about its own essential nature, will be led to acknowledge that it inevitably bases itself on something that is not itself, something from which it has to draw its strength. And, as I said above, it may be that an intuition, given in advance, of supra-reflective unity is at the root of the criticism reflection is able to exert upon itself.

  • 1.

    Grand Schisme, Paris, 1947.

  • 2.

    Nietzsche, Lyons, 1949.

  • 3.

    La Vingt-cinquième Heure, Paris, 1949.

  • 4.

    George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, which I read only a few months ago, is of course another illustration, even more striking than The Twenty-fifth Hour of this set of ideas.

  • 5.

    Arnaud Dandieu, Décadence de la Nation française, Paris, 1931. Robert Aron, La Révolution nécessaire, Paris, 1933.