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Chapter V: The Mystery of Man

Greek, medieval, and modern conceptions of man agree in that they describe man as a rational being. To be sure, there are deep and important differences in the definitions of the three ages, but there is also a remarkable concord among them. Man is a rational being; to be rational is the one distinguishing character of man. The beasts may be endowed with a certain kind of intelligence and ability to comprehend the things surrounding them, but they are irrational in that they cannot really know. Knowledge is based upon the consciousness of the universal nature of particular things. The universal is not only a certain idea in the mind of man derived from experiences of particular impressions and originating from their similarities and affinities; it is not only an indefinite image that copies and resembles the real things or the impressions of things; it represents rather the essence of things; it concerns their true nature: it is not only a psychological but also an ontological, not only a subjective but also an objective entity, not only an idea of the mind but also a factor, indeed the determining factor, in the thing itself.

We know things because we know this factor. We can know things because we possess the consciousness of the universals or a conceptual consciousness that can penetrate into the objective things and can discover their essence—be this essence determined in the way of Greek and medieval philosophy as the Idea, the substantial form of the particular things, or in the way of modern science as the functional law of natural processes. We know the objects in such a way not because they generate impressions in our mind, but because our mind can think. The energy of thinking is the energy of reason. Reason is not impressed by things, it is rather an active and productive power by which man can attain to truth, that is, to a genuine knowledge of the objects. This knowledge is objective in so far as it is true; it is true in so far as it is objective. Man as a rational being, is a thinking being; his intellect has the transcendental power of transcending the sphere of mere subjective impressions and ideas by means of universals or concepts.

But this power of reason, mysterious as it is, is not the deepest mystery of man. Indeed, it would not seem to be mysterious at all, if man were not able to transcend the province of reason altogether and to penetrate into a sphere which is no longer subject to reason.

How can man transcend reason, and what kind of sphere is it which lies beyond the limit of reason and beyond the limit of the objective world? How can man know this limit, if it is the limit of knowledge altogether? This question opens the abyss of the mystery that we call man. Man is not only a rational being, an animal endowed with reason; he is a super-rational being at the same time, he confronts a super-rational realm, and he is man just because he is able to confront this realm.

Reason, as the power of the thinking mind, attains to objective knowledge by means of concepts or universals which correspond with the essence of things. Universals represent a kind of unity. The substantial form as well as the functional law unifies a certain manifold of sense data; they express the objective unity which holds the data together and gives them an objective reality. But reason is not satisfied to know sense objects, that is, relative units; it cannot rest until it knows the unity of all units, the ultimate or absolute unity of all things—not only of these objects, but also of the knowing subjects. Reason can function at its best as long as it is supported by sense perception; the activity of reason needs a material that it can order by means of conceptual thought: a manifold that can be unified by universals. It can work only if experience furnishes the intellect with a content. The ultimate unity cannot be experienced; it cannot be known. Nevertheless it is an indispensable, unavoidable demand of reason to conceive this unity. Reason meets its limit precisely if it tries to overcome all limits and to reach its ultimate horizon.

As it is impossible to reach the ultimate horizon of the sensible world, it is also impossible to comprehend the absolute whole of all things whatsoever. Although it is reason itself that aspires to extend itself to its utmost range, and although the concept of the ultimate unity, therefore, is a rational concept, reason encounters in this concept an insurmountable barrier: the ultimate mystery. A mystery is a problem that reason cannot yet solve; the ultimate mystery is a problem that reason can never solve. Man is man not because he is a rational being but because he can proceed to the utmost limit of reason and there face the ultimate mystery. So man himself is a mystery. Facing the ultimate mystery, man is not longer to be determined by reason.

To be sure, reason is the sign and symbol of man's dignity; of his being superior to the whole objective world; of his being superior to his own animal nature. But it is not the sign and symbol of his highest value; it is not the ultimate summit of his nature. On the contrary, man reaches this summit only when he conceives of himself as a mystery, as a being that cannot be conceived by reason, that cannot be conceived by any conceptual means whatsoever. Man is man just because his nature transcends itself, or because he has no fixed nature at all, but rather is a mystery transcending his rational power in facing the ultimate mystery—the mystery of the Ultimate.

The Ultimate cannot be grasped by a universal, it cannot be comprehended by a concept. The term “Ultimate” of course is a concept, but it does not really conceive the object at which it points: it indicates only the direction in which the object should be sought. But at the same time it indicates that the object is not found and cannot be found by conceptual means. It is in this sense that the Ultimate is conceived of as a mystery, as the ultimate mystery. In this mystery the chasm between the universal and the particular, between the ideal sphere of concepts and the real sphere of things is assumed to be filled. But precisely for this reason, no universal whatsoever, no concept can perform this ultimate task. The Ultimate challenges reason to strain itself to its utmost frontier at which it collapses.

Thus, reason is not the summit of man. Man, the total man, transcends reason: his consciousness participates in the ultimate mystery. Man is not only like everything else, embraced by the mystery of the Ultimate, he is also conscious of being embraced by it; he is “mystery-conscious,” as he is conscious of his own self. He is mystery-conscious, just because he is endowed with reason, but also with the faculty of transcending reason. Only a rational being that is super-rational at the same time can become aware of the ultimate mystery, of the Ultimate as a mystery. Reason is the indispensable precondition of man's ultimate consciousness.

The definition of old, that man is a rational being is, therefore, utterly insufficient. Precisely what characterizes man as man is both: that he is a rational being and that he confronts what is beyond all reason; or that he knows himself not to be a rational being only. The philosopher may be prone to forget this fundamental truth; indeed, he may really forget it in the course of his thought, because this truth threatens all his endeavor and endangers his system. The non-philosophizing man knows it better; he is more philosophical just because he philosophizes less.

The Ultimate is neither a universal, nor can it be grasped by a universal. From this it follows, that the universal is not ultimate. No concept can ever be absolute. Conceptual (logical) knowledge always hints at something beyond its limit. The very nature of the concept prohibits the possibility of its serving as an instrument of ultimate knowledge. Ultimate knowledge, if there is such a thing, must transcend the horizon of scientific and philosophic, of empirical and metaphysical, of all knowledge based on logical procedure. Therefore no knowledge of this kind can be ultimate: on the contrary, it will always and, by its very nature, be penultimate and incomplete. The realm of universals can never contain the full and absolute truth as Plato assumed.

Everything we know and can know is embraced by the ultimate mystery and can, therefore, not be known completely and unconditionally. There is an ultimate barrier to all knowledge in all realms of science and thought. This insight deprives every knowledge of its ultimacy. It humiliates man, but it also elevates man above the level of merely finite and relative knowledge. It marks the summit and the limit of man's intellectual capacity. It marks the boundary between logical thought and religious faith, between reason and revelation, between man and God. Faith calls the Ultimate God: this holy name, however, does not enlarge our intellectual capacity; it is not the name of a concept. On the contrary, it enlarges the horizon of man's total consciousness precisely because it establishes a knowledge beyond all conceptual knowledge. The knowledge of God, as religion possesses it, confirms and illuminates man's consciousness of the Ultimate as the ultimate mystery that permeates everything, embraces everything, completes everything.

Man is man, because he is both a rational being and a mystery. It is the glory of Socrates that he emphasized both man's dignity and man's limit, the greatness of reason and the abyss of ignorance. While he was surrounded by a multitude of scientists and thinkers who pretended to know the essence of the Universe, he insisted upon man's complete and final lack of ultimate knowledge, he stressed the fact that we face an ultimate mystery and that the dignity and the limit of man are bound together with iron chains, for it is man's highest dignity to know that he knows nothing—nothing whatsoever in ultimate respect.

The consciousness of the ultimacy of our ignorance is the source of religious awe. There cannot be such an awe, if we lose this consciousness; there cannot be genuine faith, if we deny the limit of reason and the realm beyond this limit. Faith is what it is, only if we recognize and acknowledge that it reaches beyond reason into the unknown and unknowable. Only then faith ceases to be a provisional attitude, a mere assumption, a substitute for a genuine knowledge and an anticipation of a rational solution not yet obtained. Only then do the real depth and the real superiority of faith appear in their full light. Only then is the primacy of faith, as compared with all rational knowledge, revealed. It cannot be denied that the human mind and human life are related to ultimate mystery, in so far as we are always uncertain as to the total meaning and goal of our endeavors and labors. Although in our minds there are certain purposes and aims, we never know the end toward which we are striving, as individuals or as a race. Man's life is intrinsically incomplete and unsatisfying. Most thinkers of all ages have suggested that the highest goal of man is a state of perfect happiness or blessedness. But no thinker can tell us how such a state is constituted, nor what it would be like, because life ceases to be life if dissatisfaction and incompleteness no longer perturb and impede us.

Some ancient and medieval thinkers have suggested that the state of contemplation is best wherein the object of contemplation is absolute truth. Thus Aristotle depicts the life of God as an eternal contemplation of eternal truth, which at the same time is His own nature, so that He is contemplating Himself in contemplating truth. Is such a picture convincing? Does not the pleasure we enjoy in thinking or theorizing rest on the tension between our ignorance and the truth at which we aim? A state of full completion of knowledge cannot be assumed to grant the same pleasure or a higher degree of happiness even if the perfectly disclosed truth is a joy or a blessing in itself. On the contrary, it must lead to an intolerable weariness of mind, as far as we can anticipate it on the basis of our present experience. And the same must be true with respect to all other previsions of an eternal joy or delight. It seems as if the earthly alternation of joy and grief is the only possible standard of life if we do not apply the term “life” also to a completely unknown and unknowable state of existence.1

It is difficulties that show what men are, Epictetus says.2 Our human state is bewildering and thrilling. While all other animals are determined by nature, we are destined to determine ourselves. It is our privilege and the source of all our moral evils that we possess this freedom. This ambiguous gift originates with the consciousness of the ultimate mystery; for in facing it we discover that we ourselves are ultimate. We are not constrained to set definite particular ends to our will, we rather entertain universal views upon the meaning of our life while deciding particular issues. The consciousness of the ultimate mystery frees us from all finite ends, although we do not cease to live our finite life and to pursue finite aims. Thus we try to envisage a goal beyond all those ends, although we are unable to grasp this goal in a concrete manner. This unknown goal looms beyond all our purposes, intentions, plans, and concerns. Our ideals are made possible only by that consciousness of the infinite end, the ultimate meaning of life. Therefore, the good appears in the light of its transcendency and majesty superior to anything we can accomplish. Our life would be poor and even more miserable than it is, did not the idea of the good, uncertain though it be and devoid of concrete content, elevate our mind and endow it with the splendor of its own infinity and ultimacy.

On the other hand, the same consciousness takes away, as it were, the solid ground and stable earth in which all finite things and beings are rooted. It lifts man above the level of nature without granting him any other footing. It confronts him with the abyss of his ignorance in both theoretical and ethical respects. It is a huge vacuum, a darkness in which the light of the infinite good shines, illuminating it without dispelling it. “The light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.” Therefore, the face of the infinite mystery overwhelms man as much as it frees and ennobles him. It threatens and frightens him as much as it diminishes the threatening and frightening power of finite and definite dangers or adversities. It causes man's greatness and his insignificance as well. Neither the life of any individual nor the life of any group contains its ultimate meaning. Therefore, all aims and ends within the scope of our human life are relative.

Infinity comprehended as only the endlessness of time does not comfort or elevate us. On the contrary, it emphasizes the fact that our life is fugitive and without significance in itself, if something does not exist, whatsoever its character, that transcends the bounds of the restless stream of time. The instability of our life and of all things accomplished in it conveys the sense of a tragic fate. If there is no meaning beyond the existence of our own labor and work then this tragedy is final and inescapable. We could never feel such doom, we could never become conscious of the relativity of our life and meaning, if we were not aware of the absolute mystery, the mystery of the Absolute. But the same awareness opens the door to a view beyond its bounds. The reality experienced in our life is not final, for there is something that we can never experience. Our horizon is not the horizon of the universe or of ultimate reality. Our life does not rest on itself. There is something “beyond tragedy.”

This something is omnipresent and nowhere, inescapable and never attainable, all in all and nothing definite. It cannot be experienced but it can be found in all experiences. It is universal and, therefore, it can be grasped by reason. At the same time it restricts the realm of reason. It makes even reason itself mysterious! Indeed, it is a mystery that reason exists in a world which is thoroughly mysterious. What can reason mean in such a world? How far does it reach, if the ultimate meaning of reality does not rest on it, if the world ultimately is superrational? No longer can reason pretend to be the source of meaning exclusively. There is a meaning which certainly does not rest on reason, and this meaning is not one among all the others. It is not a special or particular meaning. It is the all-embracing meaning; the meaning of all meanings, comprising all things and beings, all structures and all strata of reality, all experiences and all ideas, all purposes and all works, all institutions and all endeavors of the human race, science, art, philosophy and even religion! And this cardinal meaning does not rest on reason, cannot be comprehended by reason, but rather comprehends reason itself!

This is the stumbling block and the scandal which makes the offending of reason by the theological paradox meaningful, which makes the existence of all the mystical and mythical elements in religion intelligible and thus even reasonable! On the other hand, reason is itself universal by virtue of its very character and nature; otherwise we could not have said that the mystical becomes reasonable. Reason penetrates everything; its limitation must needs be intelligible and thus reasonable itself. But this means that reason must limit itself, that it must draw the demarcation line between itself and the realm beyond. How is that possible? Kant has shown the way: reason must advance until it touches unavoidable and insoluble contradictions, or until it becomes dialectical. The all-embracing mystery penetrating reason appears within reason as antinomy.

Reason is ultimately self-contradictory, not because the Ultimate denies reason: on the contrary it confirms reason, for otherwise it would be impossible to experience it as mystery. Reason does not contradict itself, as long as it dwells on finite things and concepts; it seems to be adapted to the objective world and to the moral life, if we do not transcend their bounds. It fails, if we do not respect this restriction; if we try to grasp the Ultimate with finite concepts—and all concepts are finite, qua concepts, that is, as defined ideas—reason demonstrates its own restrictions by contradictions. These contradictions, therefore, are reasonable and necessary. They confirm and illuminate the limit of reason. They are inescapable and insoluble. They do not imply refutations of either the thesis or the antithesis, rather they indicate that both thesis and antithesis are one-sided and unable to express ultimate truth. But the two opposite statements are not simply erroneous; on the contrary, they are the only rational possibilities of expressing ultimate truth—a truth which cannot properly be expressed by rational means. The antinomies, therefore, offer genuine though only negative knowledge of the Ultimate; they demonstrate the truth that the Ultimate denies the duality of the opposite concepts and propositions—that it ultimately unites them; but they also demonstrate that this ultimate unity is super-rational.

Reason is ultimately self-contradictory. This is the solution of the problem of how reason can become mysterious for reason. There is no other way out. And this solution alone can make religion intelligible. The words of Tertullian are bearers of truth: credo quia absurdum. Of course, we do not believe because the content of religious belief is self-contradictory; but this content must be self-contradictory, in the eyes of reason, because the ultimate is mysterious and transcends reason. Kant and Hegel tried to avoid this conclusion and to save reason, in spite of the contradictions, acknowledged by both thinkers. Kant thought it possible to solve the antinomies of the transcendental dialectic with the aid of the vexed concept of the thing-in-itself. Thus he introduced mystery in a conceptual form into his system, without recognizing that the concept itself implied inescapable contradictions. The most obvious of these contradictions is the opposition between the alleged incomprehensibility of the thing-in-itself and its being comprehended by Kant's own system; another contradiction lies in the opposition between the idealistic version which suggests that the objects of knowledge are phenomenal only, or appearances in our consciousness, and the realistic version that those objects are the things-in-themselves. Both interpretations of Kant's theory are right and both are wrong.

It was this contradition which generated all the disputes amongst the followers of Kant, and which motivated the development of post-Kantian thought from Fichte to Hegel.3 Kant held that the antinomies of pure reason could be solved by relating each thesis to the world of the things-in-themselves, i.e., the world beyond space and time, and each antithesis to the phenomenal world. But he did not realize that the relation between the two worlds or spheres renews the antinomies; in other words, that the idea of ultimate reality, as conceived in the thing-in-itself, does not permit the opposition between itself and the phenomenal world, just because it is ultimate.

Hegel, on the other hand, transformed the all-embracing mystery into a system of necessary contradictions, derived from each other by means of a dialectical method, which are solved eventually as the final result of the development of the whole system. This system replaces the mystery. This conception is the most daring solution of the ultimate problem ever proposed, and nobody who has studied the system of Hegel thoroughly can deny that it is one of the greatest monuments of thought in the history of European philosophy. Still it cannot be maintained. It destroys and falsifies the mystery instead of preserving its character. It does not succeed in overcoming the contradictions. The opposition between philosophy and religion is not reconciled. Philosophy pretends to have translated the content of religion completely into the language of thought. The system, therefore, does not point beyond itself, it is self-sufficient and all-inclusive.4 But this program cannot be carried out. Many rifts appear in the development of the “absolute idea” and the antinomy between this idea and reality is not removed. It cannot be resolved at all. Reason must abdicate ultimately, “to make room for faith.”

But one thing is made clear by the supreme effort of Hegel: that the antinomies are not avoidable contradictions which simply indicate that reason has gone astray. The antinomies are “real,” they are the adequate expression of the ultimate position which philosophy can and must assume, in order to draw the boundary line between its own field and that of the ultimate mystery. The antinomies disclose in the only possible logical form that there is something which cannot be at all expressed by means of logical thought. Herein lies the difference between an ordinary contradiction which implies nothing beyond the nullity of one of two conflicting propositions, and the metaphysical antinomy, which means that the distinctions of thought are no longer valid in the realm that stretches beyond thought. The metaphysical dialectic thus reveals something about the mystery without unveiling it: it points out that there is an ultimate synthesis of those distinctions, an ultimate unity which reconciles the opposite concepts, and that this unity cannot be conceived of by means of thought in a positive, but only in the negative way of antinomies.5

The mystery of man consists in the fact that he faces the all-embracing mystery. Everything else is embraced by it while man embraces it and is embraced by it at the same time. This bestows upon man a unique prerogative and a unique task. It elevates him above all other creatures and makes him the center of the objective world. It is this unique position which induced Kant to reverse the usual conception concerning the relation between the objective world and the subjective consciousness, or between the objects of knowledge and the knowing subject, and to bring about that “Copernican revolution” in the epistemological field which conceives the knowing subject as the lawgiver of the objective world, i.e., of nature. All thinkers before Kant took it for granted that the intellect is bound to copy things. Kant teaches that the intellect prescribes logical forms for the objects of nature: that the objective world can be made the object of knowledge only because the intellect constitutes the intelligible order of the objects. The objects can be investigated and known just because they “obey” the intellect from the outset or “a priori.

Thus Kant solves the problem of how the intellect can transcend the sphere of merely subjective impressions and ideas, and can penetrate into the essence or substance of the objects—a problem that Hume held to be insoluble. This famous theory of knowledge, though it represents a revolutionary turn in the history of philosophy, is not as revolutionary as it seems to be. There is a traditional element in the theory, that is somewhat obscured in the presentation of Kant, because of the emphasis Kant laid upon the criticism of natural theology. But it is not difficult to detect this element and to show its connection with older views, especially with the scholastic conceptions regarding the nature of knowledge.

The human intellect, Kant insists, prescribes to nature its own laws. What is the true kernel of this daring and seemingly paradoxical doctrine? Is it really the human intellect that has this magical power over nature? Kant calls the human intellect, in connection with this power, “transcendental understanding.” Man's understanding is transcendental, because it transcends its subjectivity and constitutes the logical order of nature. But in so far as man's understanding is transcendental, the term “man” is used not in the sense of the “rational animal,” but rather in the sense of the universal self that underlies all acts of knowledge as well as all objects of knowledge. In other words: the term “transcendental understanding” takes exactly the place of the divine intellect in older theories. Kant teaches that man is able to know, because he participates in the divine intellect, or because his intellect is, though in a restricted way, nevertheless divine. This is the meaning of the term “transcendental” in the last analysis.

To be sure, the modern and revolutionary element in this theory should not be minimized. Kant stresses the restricted fashion in which the divine intellect is represented by man. Whereas the older theories naïvely spoke about the divine intellect as if it were possible to know it, Kant's issues from human knowledge, analyzes the human understanding, and discovers its transcendental power and proceeds to criticise all natural theology. This makes it appear as if Kant's theory were absolutely new, and as if the term “transcendental” had no relation whatsoever with former insights and doctrines. This is not true. On the contrary, Kant renews, in opposition to most modern theories which had denied the divine origin and dignity of man's intellect and had analyzed it in an empirical fashion, the old theological interpretation of knowledge, of the universals and of the categories. He renews it in a modern way by transforming the theological to a humanistic aspect. But the deeper we look into the theory the more shall we rediscover the old background out of which it has risen.

The revolutionary element consists in the insight that the intellect (and reason altogether) is restricted—and so far human—because the entire opposition of object and subject, of the things to be known and the knowing self, of nature and man, of the world of sense and the intellectual forms cannot be ultimate. Or to put it otherwise: Kant has seen that the Ultimate means ultimate unity of those opposites which are the very foundation of human knowledge and life. The idea of God is the idea of this ultimate unity; it is this idea in the form of an ultimate self, for the self is the source of unity altogether. The human intellect is transcendental, it prescribes to nature its laws, just because it imposes upon the manifold of sense data its own unity in various ways, called intellectual forms or categories. The transcendental power of the intellect thus rests ultimately on the ultimate unity.

Knowledge of nature is possible, because ultimately nature is a unity to be restored by man's intellect and because this intellect, as the capacity of unifying the sense data, participates in the ultimate unity, or is this unity, though only in a restricted, that is, in an abstract fashion. Knowledge is a process; it is the process of filling the abstract unity of the human intellect and its forms, or of applying these forms to the sense material. Knowledge thus unifies this material in itself by subjecting it to the intellect. Knowledge approaches in this way ultimate unity; it approaches the divine intellect in which the cleavage between sensation and intellect, and consequently the source of error, is overcome, and knowledge is consummated.

Although science does not penetrate to the center of the divine mystery, it does nevertheless grasp something of it. Otherwise the truth of science would not be real truth at all. Science would be only a way of dealing with nature for practical purposes, as the pragmatic conception of truth would have it. If the truth discovered by science really has objective validity, if it is really truth and not merely a useful operational technique, then it reveals something of the universal mystery. Indeed, man can investigate nature in a scientific sense only because he participates in the ultimate intellect or in ultimate truth. He is investigating this truth in a restricted field with restricted means when he investigates nature. It is his peculiar mystery, his being able to face the mystery of the universe, that allows him to build up his system of science. If he did not face this mystery, he would not enjoy the relation to universal truth and would therefore have no relation to the truth whatever. He would be what the pragmatists think he is: a clever animal that seeks his advantages as the beasts seek their prey. Man can become a scientist only by virtue of his faculty of seeking the truth without practical interests and aims. And he can seek it in such a way only because he is able to strive after the infinite or unbounded truth. And he can strive after this truth only because he participates in the infinite mystery of the whole, however restricted this participation may be. Man is man because he enjoys this participation, or because of his awareness of the ultimate.

This participation alone makes Kant's epistemological revolution intelligible and at the same time corrects his conclusions. If man is able to attain objective knowledge because man's understanding prescribes the logical forms to nature, then these forms are no longer confined to man's intellect, rather they are rooted in the ground of the universal truth and the universal mystery. It is not man's intellect which commands nature and prescribes its forms, but the universal intellect, i.e., the human intellect freed from every restriction (and therefore no longer the human one) which exercises this authority. Kant's epistemological theory thus undergoes a certain transformation and reapproaches the old conceptions of knowledge and truth. The forms of nature are forms in the divine reason, and we are able to attain objective knowledge because we participate in this reason to a certain degree. This participation is man's mystery. Hegel came to the same conclusion but he vitiated it by deifying the system of forms and by supposing that the restricted human intellect is able to free itself from all restrictions and to transform itself into the divine intellect. In other words, he transgressed the boundary line between philosophy and religion and thought it possible to rationalize the divine mystery by making reason mysterious.

What Kant calls “the transcendental apperception,” i.e., the human consciousness, in so far as it contains the logical or, better, the metaphysical forms of nature, is man's intellect considered from the point of view of man's mystery. This mystery remains a mystery, although man is able to attain objective knowledge of nature, and although philosophic reflection can inquire into the system of the metaphysical forms of nature and of the understanding. It remains a mystery because we cannot overcome the restriction peculiar to the human intellect and reach ultimate truth or the divine reason. On the contrary, the concept of such a reason is problematic, for we encounter the dialectical antinomies as soon as we begin to think it out. The mystery of man, though closely connected with that of the divine reason, is disclosed to a certain degree by Kant's epistemological theory, notwithstanding the necessary correction which we have discussed. Man's intellect is the center of the objective world in so far as man is able to find out the objective truth, or in so far as he is not an object himself but rather the perceiving and judging subject of knowledge, the thinking self. Man is a self in so far as he faces the ultimate mystery. He is a self on the ground of his being related to ultimate truth. It is this relation which elevates man above all things and beings which are not selves. Being a self, man can put himself opposite the objective world, he can make himself the center of his volition and action, he can determine himself, he is a moral being.

Man as a self is a mystery because he is never completed but always striving to become a self in the fullest sense. He is a restricted self for he is divided against himself. He is a self and he is not yet a self but endeavors to overcome all divisions and limitations in order to realize his self. Man is what he ought to be and what he always is becoming without ever being. He is always on the way toward himself and that means at the same time toward the ultimate mystery, the ultimate truth, and the ultimate good. Man is a self divided against himself; he belongs at the same time to the objective world like every other animal, and he lives in his own world, in the world constituted by his being a self, in the world of his human volitions and emotions, struggles and achievements, thoughts and plans.

Man as a self is divided into sensation and intellect, into desire and obligation, into objective knowledge and intuitive imagination, or into that sphere which he can perceive and experience with his senses and his understanding, in which he can pursue his interests and perform his duties and that sphere which is beyond all these bounds, which he can neither perceive nor experience with his senses and his understanding, and which transcends all his interests and even all his duties. Man can strive to overcome these divisions and to unify himself by unifying the different spheres of his being, but he can never completely reach this goal. There are ultimate oppositions which cannot be reconciled either in life or in thought. Indeed, all human struggles can be understood in the light of those oppositions, but this understanding does not reconcile them.6

The inner disunity of man is the source of his inner life. It is the source of his happiness as it is of his misery, the source of all social and historical developments and revolutions, of all progress and of all retrogression. But man also lives or can live beyond all these changes, as it were, in advance of himself. He can come to rest in the consciousness of the universal mystery that must be the origin of all divisions and of their unity as well. We call such a coming to rest piety, not in a religious but in a mystical sense. Thinkers like Plotinus and Hegel have tried to deduce from this unity all the content of our experience; in vain, for it is just the character of the mystery to make such a deduction impossible. The peace we can derive from the consciousness of that unity should not urge us to any venture of reason which destroys the very nature of the mystery and does not really satisfy our intellect.

The origin of man out of the original unity, the origin of the cleft between man and nature, self and world, is as much veiled as is the origin of all the dualities in man himself. Thought can ascend from the region of our human disharmony toward the idea of the highest unity, but it cannot finish this “itinerarium mentis in deum” because of the antinomies which finally bar the way. No more can thought descend from its highest point to the human world of strife and struggle.

We can trace these divisions in man to a primary duality in thought. Parmenides and Plato and Hegel are right in assuming that the opposition of being and not-being must be acknowledged as the most abstract and, therefore, as the original duality from the standpoint of metaphysics or ontology. This opposition is a priori to every other, for every other one is an opposition because one of the opposites is what the other is not. It also is true that being is a priori to not-being; the negation presupposes what it negates. But negation cannot be deduced from positive being. It is true that there is a problem arising out of the opposition between being and not-being, for although being is a priori to not-being, being cannot itself be conceived without an opposite, be it that of thought, or of becoming, or ultimately of not-being. Thus the highest or first opposition is already hidden in being itself. Being could never be being without being opposed to not-being. There is something which is a priori to the opposition of being and not-being, that is the unity of both. But thought cannot grasp and determine this something beyond the opposition. Hegel thinks that the development of all categories from “being,” to the category of thought itself or of the “absolute idea,” can determine this unity beyond all oppositions; but at the end the highest synthesis turns out to be not really the highest synthesis but to produce a new opposition, that of thought and nature. There is no category, no concept, no entity or substance that could be thought of as being the unity without any opposition whatever.

Man never abandons the sphere of oppositions as long as he remains in the realm of thought. Ultimate unity looms beyond this realm. It is the mystery of man, that he envisages this unity without being able to grasp it by means of thought. But in spite of this lasting ignorance, which is our human part, we can know the direction in which we have to strive after the truth.

We know that the ultimate is a unity and not an opposition. Although we cannot think of this unity without being confronted with unsurmountable antinomies, although even the very category of unity itself cannot be thought of without the opposite category of diversity, we know that we must seek ultimate truth in the direction of unity. For we know that opposition is the source of our being prevented from reaching the ultimate goal of all knowledge and, indeed, of all human striving. We know that the positive and not the negative side of the opposition fixes the way beyond and leads to ultimate truth. We know that being and not not-being indicates the place of the “absolute idea” which we can never achieve without contradiction. We know that truth and not error, that good and not evil, is the goal of all our aspiration, although we cannot be rid of error and of evil; and although even the idea of good as having absorbed or overcome all evil cannot be grasped without contradiction. We know the direction in which the true and the good needs be sought. But this knowledge is never entirely complete because it could be completed only by the complete knowledge of the goal, and this knowledge is beset with inescapable and insoluble antinomies.

  • 1.

    Comp. F. Royce, Studies of Good and Evil, p. 22.

  • 2.

    Diatr. I, ch. XXIV.

  • 3.

    Comp. the author's Von Kant bis Hegel, 1921–24.

  • 4.

    There is an undercurrent of a “negative theology” in Hegel's system which is not compatible with the positive character as described above. Comp. my essay: “God, Nation, and Individual in the Philosophy of Hegel” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Dec., 1941.

  • 5.

    Comp. my essay: “Die Einheit der Gegensätze—das Grundprinzip aller Metaphysik” in De Idee, 1936.

  • 6.

    Comp. my book: Die Selbstverwirklichung des Geistes, Tübingen, 1928.

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