Maine de Biran:
The Philosopher in History
Systematic knowledge of historical trends and "waves of the future" is sought only by the intellectual few. But every individual lives here and now, and is more or less profoundly affected by the fact that now is not then, nor here somewhere else. What are, and what should be, the relations between the personal and the historical, the existential and the social? Our philosopher, Maine de Biran never posed this question in so many words; consequently we have to infer his answers from what he says in other contexts. What he seems to suggest, throughout the Journal Intime, is that the individual's relation to history and society is normally that of victim to monster. This being so, every reasonable person should try, so far as he can, to escape from history - but into what? Into abstract thought and the inner life, or else (and this was the conclusion reached by our philosopher toward the end of his career) into the loving contemplation of the divine Spirit.
The problem is so important that it deserves a more thorough examination than Biran chose to give it. Let us begin with an analogy drawn from inanimate matter. The laws of gases are concerned with the interdependence of volume, pressure and temperature. But the individual molecules of which the gas is composed have neither temperature nor pressure, but only kinetic energy and a tendency to random movement. In a word, the laws of single molecules are entirely different from the laws of the gases they constitute. Something of the same kind is true of individuals and societies. In groups consisting of large numbers of human individuals, certain regularities can be detected and certain sociological laws can be formulated. Because of the relatively small size of even the most considerable human groups, and because of the enormous differences, congenital and acquired, between individual and individual, these regularities have numerous exceptions and these sociological laws are rather inexact. But this is no reason for dismissing them. For, in the words of Edgar Zilser, from whose essay on "The Problems of Empiricism" I have borrowed this simile of molecules and gases, "no physicist or astronomer would disregard a regularity on the ground that it did not always hold."
For our purposes the important thing about the sociological laws is not their inexactness but the fact that they are quite different from the psychological and physiological laws which govern the individual person. "If," says Zilser, "we look for social regularities by means of empathy" - feeling ourselves into a situation by imagining what would be our own behavior in regard to it - "we may never find them, since ideas, wishes and actions might not appear in them at all." In a word, changes in quantity, if sufficiently great, result in changes in kind. Between the individual and the social, the personal and the historical, there is a difference amounting to incommensurability. Nobody now reads Herbert Spencer's Man Versus the State. And yet the conflict between what is good for a psycho-physical person and what is good for an organization wholly innocent of feelings, wishes and ideas is real and seems destined to remain forever unresolved. One of the many reasons for the bewildering and tragic character of human existence is the fact that social organization is at once necessary and fatal. Men are forever creating such organizations for their own convenience and forever finding themselves the victims of their homemade monsters. History reveals the Church and the State as a pair of indispensable Molochs. They protect their worshiping subjects, only to enslave and destroy them. The relations between social organizations and the individuals who live under them is symbolically expressed by the word "shepherd," as applied to the priests and rulers, who like to think of themselves as God's earthly representatives, and even to God Himself. The metaphor is of high, but not the highest, antiquity; for it was first used by the herd-owning, land-destroying, meat-eating and war-waging peoples who replaced the horticulturists of the first civilization and put an end to that Golden Age of Peace, which not long since was regarded as a mere myth but is now revealed by the light of archaeology as a proto- and pre-historical reality. By force of unreflecting habit we go on talking sentimentally about the Shepherd of his people, about Pastors and their flocks, about stray lambs and a Good Shepherd. We never pause to reflect that a shepherd is "not in business for his health," still less for the health of his sheep. If he takes good care of the animals, it is in order that he may rob them of their wool and milk, castrate their male offspring and finally cut their throats and convert them into mutton. Applied to most of the States and Churches of the last two or three thousand years, this pastoral metaphor is seen to be exceedingly apt - so apt, indeed, that one wonders why the civil and ecclesiastical herders of men should ever have allowed it to gain currency. From the point of view of the individual lambs, rams and ewes there is, of course, no such thing as a good shepherd; their problem is to find means whereby they may enjoy the benefits of a well-ordered social life without being exposed to the shearings, milkings, geldings and butcheries which have always been associated with the pastoral office. To discuss those means would lead us too far afield. Let it suffice to say that, given, first, the manifest unfitness of almost all human beings to exercise much power for very long, and, second, the tendency for social institutions to become pseudo-divine ends, to which individual men and women are merely means, it follows that every grant of authority should be hedged about with effective reservations; that political, economic and religious organizations should be small and co-operative, never large, and therefore inhuman and hierarchical; that the centralization of economic and political power should be avoided at all costs; and that nations and groups of nations should be organized as federations of local and professional bodies, having wide powers of self-government. At the present time, unfortunately, all signs point, not to decentralization and the abolition of man-herders, but rather to a steady increase in the power of the Big Shepherd and his oligarchy of bureaucratic dogs, to a growth in the size, the complexity, the machine-like efficiency and rigidity of social organizations, and to a completer deification of the State, accompanied by a completer reification, or reduction to thing-hood, of individual persons.
Maine de Biran's temperament was such that, even when he found himself on the winning side, even when - as Quaestor of the Chamber under Louis XVIII - he was an official personage of some importance, he continued to regard the social and the historical with the same apprehensive dislike as he had felt toward them in the days of Bonaparte and the Jacobins. In his diary the longing to escape from his pigeonhole in the social hierarchy, to break out of contemporary history and return to a purely private life, is expressed almost as frequently as the longing to be delivered from the body of this death. And yet he remained to the end embedded in politics and chained to his legislative functions. Why? To begin with, our philosopher was far from rich and found it very hard, without his official salary, to make both ends meet. Next there was his sense of duty. He felt morally obliged to do all he could for the royal house and for his rustic neighbors in Périgord. And finally there was his very unphilosophical desire to seem important, to be a personage among the pompous personages of the great world. Groaning and reluctant, yet perennially hopeful of the miracle that should transform him from a tongue-tied introvert into the brilliant and commanding herder of men, he went on clinging to his barbed perch among the great. It was death, and not his own will, that finally relaxed that agonizing clutch.
Fortunately for Biran, his martyrdom was not continuous. Even at moments when history pressed upon him most alarmingly, he found it possible to take a complete holiday in abstract thought. Sometimes he did not even have to take his holiday; it came to him, spontaneously, gratuitously, in the form of an illumination or a kind of ecstasy. Thus, to our philosopher, the spring of 1794 was memorable not for the executions of Hébert and Danton, not because Robespierre had now dedicated the Terror to the greater glory of the Supreme Being, but on account of an event that had nothing whatever to do with history or the social environment. "Today, the 27th of May, I had an experience too beautiful, too remarkable by its rarity ever to be forgotten. I was walking by myself a few minutes before sundown. The weather was perfect; spring was at its freshest and most brilliant; the whole world was clothed in that charm which can be felt by the soul, but not described in words. All that struck my senses filled my heart with a mysterious, sad sweetness. The tears stood in my eyes. Ravishment succeeded ravishment. If I could perpetuate this state, what would be lacking to my felicity? I should have found upon this earth the joys of heaven."
During the Hundred Days Biran was a good deal closer to history, than he had been at his ancestral estate of Grateloup in 1794. Every event that occurred between the return from Elba and Waterloo filled him with a bitter indignation. "I am no longer kind, for men exasperate me. I can now see only criminals and cowards. Pity for misfortune, the need to be useful and to serve my fellows, the desire to relieve distress, all the expansive and generous sentiments which were, up till now, my principles of action, are suffering a daily diminution in my heart."
Such are the ordinary psychological consequences of violent events on the historical level. Individuals react to these events with a chronic uncharitableness punctuated by paroxysms of hate, rage and fear. Happily, in the long run, malice is always self-destructive. If it were not, this earth would be, not a Middle World of inextricably mingled good and evil, but plain, unmitigated Hell. In the short run, however, the war-born uncharitableness of many individuals constitutes a public opinion in favor of yet more collective violence.
In Biran's case the bitterness with which he reacted to contemporary history filled only his heart. "My mind, meanwhile, is occupied with abstract speculations, foreign to all the interests of this world. The speculations keep me from thinking about my fellow men - and this is fortunate; for I cannot think of them except to hate and despise."
The life of every individual occupies a certain position in time, is contemporary with certain political events and runs parallel, so to speak, with certain social and cultural movements. In a word, the individual lives surrounded by history. But to what extent does he actually live in history? And what precisely is this history by which individuals are surrounded and within which each of them does at least some of his living?
Let us begin by considering the second of these two questions: What is history? Is history something which exists, in its intelligible perfection, only in the minds of historians? Or is it something actually experienced by the men and women who are born into time, live out their lives, die and are succeeded by their sons and daughters?
Mr. Toynbee puts the question somewhat differently: "What," he asks, "will be singled out as the salient event of our time by future historians? Not, I fancy, any of those sensational or tragic or catastrophic political and economic events which occupy the headlines of our newspapers and the foregrounds of our minds," but rather, "the impact of Western Civilization upon all the other societies of the world," followed by the reaction (already perceptible) of those other civilizations upon Western Civilization and the ultimate emergence of a religion affirming "the unity of mankind." This is an answer to our question as well as to Mr. Toynbee's. For, obviously, the processes he describes are not a part of anybody's immediate experience. Nobody now living is intimately aware of them; nobody feels that they are happening to himself or sees them happening to his children or his friends. But the (to a philosophical historian) unimportant tragedies and catastrophes, which fill the headlines, actually happen to some people, and their repercussions are part of the experience of almost everybody. If the philosophical historians are right, everything of real importance in history is a matter of very long durations and very large numbers. Between these and any given person, living at any given moment of time, lie the events predominantly "tragic or catastrophic" which are the subject matter of unphilosophical history. Some of these events can become part of the immediate experience of persons, and, conversely, some persons can to some extent modify the tragedies and control the catastrophes. Inasmuch as they involve fairly large numbers and fairly long durations, such events are a part of history. But from the philosophical historian's point of view they are important only in so far as they are at once the symptoms of a process involving much greater numbers and longer durations, and the means to the realization of that process. Individuals can never actually experience the long-range process which, according to the philosophical historians, gives meaning to history. All that they can experience (and this experience is largely subconscious) is the circumambient culture. And should they be intellectually curious, they can discover, through appropriate reading, that the culture by which they are surrounded is different in certain respects from the culture which surrounded their ancestors. Between one state of a culture and another later state there is not, and there cannot be, a continuity of experience. Every individual simply finds himself where in fact he is - here, not there; now, not then. Necessarily ignorant of the meaningful processes of long-range history, he has to make the best of that particular tract of short-range tragedy and catastrophe, that particular section of a cultural curve, against which his own personal life traces its organic pattern of youth, maturity and decay. Once again, it is a case of the gas and its constituent molecules. Gas laws are not the same as the laws governing the particles within the gas. Though he himself must act, suffer and enjoy as a molecule, the philosophical historian does his best to think as a gas - or rather (since a society is incapable of thought) as the detached observer of a gas. It is, of course, easy enough to take the gaseous view of a period other than one's own. It is much more difficult to take it in regard to the time during which one is oneself a molecule within the social gas. That is why a modern historian feels himself justified in revising the estimates of their own time made by the authors of his documents - in correcting, for example, the too unfavorable view of the age of Aquinas and the cathedral-builders taken by all thirteenth-century moralists, or the too favorable view of industrial civilization taken by many Victorian moralists.
History as something experienced can never be fully recorded. For, obviously, there are as many such histories as there have been experiencing human beings. The nearest approach to a general history-as-something-experienced would be an anthology of a great variety of personal documents. Professor Coulton has compiled a number of excellent anthologies of this kind covering the medieval period. They should be read by anyone who wants to know, not what modern historians think about the Middle Ages, but what it actually felt like to be a contemporary of St. Francis, or Dante, or Chaucer.
History-as-something-experienced being unwritable, we must perforce be content with history-as-something-in-the-minds-of-historians. This last is of two kinds: the short-range history of tragedies and catastrophes, political ups and downs, social and economic revolutions; and the long-range, philosophical history of those very long durations and very large numbers in which it is possible to observe meaningful regularities, recurrent and developing patterns. No two philosophical historians discover precisely the same regularities or meanings; and even among the writers of the other kind of history there is disagreement in regard to the importance of the part played by individuals in the short-range political and economic movements which are their chosen subject matter. These divergences of opinion are unfortunate but, in view of our present ignorance, inevitable.
We may now return to the first of our two questions: To what extent does the individual, who lives surrounded by history, actually live in history? How much is his existence conditioned by the sociologists' trinity of Place, Work and Folk? How is he related to the circumambient culture? In what ways is his molecular personality affected by the general state of the social gas and his own position within it? The answer, it is evident, will be different in each particular case; but it is possible, nonetheless, to cast up a reckoning sufficiently true to average experience to have at least some significance for every one of us.
Let us begin with the obvious but nonetheless very strange fact that all human beings pass nearly a third of their lives in a state that is completely non-historical, non-social, non-cultural - and even non-spatial and non-temporal. In other words, for eight hours out of every twenty-four they are asleep. Sleep is the indispensable condition of physical health and mental sanity. It is in sleep that our body repairs the damage caused by the day's work and the day's amusements; in sleep that the vis medicatrix naturae overcomes our disease; in sleep that our conscious mind finds some respite from the cravings and aversions, the fears, anxieties and hatreds, the planning and calculating which drive it during waking hours to the brink of nervous exhaustion and sometimes beyond. Many of us are chronically sick and more or less far gone in neurosis. That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep. Even a Himmler, even a Marquis de Sade, even a Jay Gould and a Zaharoff must resign themselves to being, during thirty per cent of their existence, innocent, sane and obscurely at one with the divine ground of all being. One of the most dreadfully significant facts about political, social and ecclesiastical institutions is that they never sleep. In so far as individual human beings create and direct them, they embody the ideals and the calculating cleverness, inextricably combined with the conscious or unconscious cravings, aversions and fears, of a group of waking selves. Every large organization exists in a state of chronic insomnia and so can never receive directly those accessions of new life and wisdom which, in dreams and dreamless unconsciousness, come sometimes trickling, sometimes pouring in from the depths of the sleeper's being or even from some source beyond those depths. An institution can be revivified only by individuals who, because they are capable of sleep and inspiration, are capable of becoming more than themselves.
The enlightened person, as the word "Buddha" implies, is fully and forever awake - but with a wakefulness radically different from that of the social organization; for he is awake even during the day to that which the unregenerate can approach only in sleep, that which social organizations never approach at all. When such organizations are left to their insomnia, when they are permitted to function according to the laws of their own being, subordinating individual insights to collective tradition, they become mad - not like an individual lunatic, but with a solemn, traditional and systematic madness that is at once majestic and ludicrous, grotesque and terrifying. There is a hymn which exhorts us to thank God that the Church unsleeping her watch is keeping. Instead of rejoicing in the fact we should lament and deplore. Unsleeping, the Church kept watch, century after century, over its bank accounts, its lands, its prestige, its political influence, its idolatrously worshiped dogmas, rites and traditions. All the enormous evils and imbecilities recorded in ecclesiastical history are the products of this fatal incapacity of a social organization to go to sleep.
Conversely all the illuminations and charities of personal religion have their source in the Spirit, which transcends and yet is the most inward ground of our own being, and with which, gratuitously in sleep, and in moments of insight and illumination prepared for by a deliberate "dying to self," the individual spirit is able to establish contact.
One culture gives us the pyramids, another the Escorial, a third, Forest Lawn. But the act of dying remains always and everywhere identical. Like sleep, death is outside the pale of history - a molecular experience unaffected by the state of the social gas. Every individual has to die alone, to die by himself to himself. The experience cannot be shared; it can only be privately undergone. "How painful it is," writes Shestov, "to read Plato's account of the last days of Socrates! His hours are numbered, and he talks, talks, talks. . . That is what comes of having disciples. They won't allow you even to die in peace. The best death is the death we consider the worst, when one is alone, far from home, when one dies in the hospital like a dog in a ditch. Then at least one cannot spend one's last moments pretending, talking, teaching. One is allowed to keep silence and prepare oneself for the terrible and perhaps specially important event. Pascal's sister reports that he too talked a great deal before he died. Musset, on the contrary, wept like a child. May it not be that Socrates and Pascal talked as much as they did because they were afraid of crying?"
Hardly less unhistorical than death is old age. Modern medicine has done something to make the last years of a long life a little more comfortable, and pension plans have relieved the aged of a dependence upon charity or their children. Nevertheless, in spite of vitamins and social security, old age is still essentially what it was for our ancestors - a period of experienced decline and regression, to which the facts of contemporary history, the social and economic movements of the day are more or less completely irrelevant. The aging man of the middle twentieth century lives, not in the public world of atomic physics and conflicting ideologies, of welfare states and supersonic speed, but in his strictly private universe of physical weakness and mental decay.
It was the same with our philosopher. Laplace was his older contemporary; Cuvier and Ampère were his friends. But his last years were lived, not in the age of scientific progress which history records, but in the intimate experience of dying ever more completely to love, to pleasure, to enthusiasm, to sensibility, even to his intellect. "The most painful manner of dying to oneself," he writes, "is to be left with only so much of a reflective personality as suffices to recognize the successive degradation of those faculties, on account of which one could feel some self-esteem." Compared with these facts of his immediate experience, the social and the historical seemed unimportant.
Progress is something that exists on the level of the species (as increasing freedom from and control over natural environment) and perhaps also on the level of the society or the civilization (as an increase in prosperity, knowledge and skill, an improvement in laws and manners). For the individual it does not exist, except as an item of abstract knowledge. Like the other trends and movements recorded in books of history-as-something-in-the-mind-of-the-historian, it is never an object of individual experience. And this for two reasons. The first of these must be sought in the fact that man's organic life is intrinsically non-progressive. It does not keep on going up and up, in the manner of the graphs representing literacy, or national income, or industrial production. On the contrary, it is a curve like a flattened cocked hat. We are born, rise through youth to maturity, continue for a time on one level, then drop down through old age and decrepitude into death. An aging member of even the most progressive society experiences only molecular decay, never gaseous expansion.
The second reason for the individual's incapacity to experience progress is purely psychological and has nothing to do with the facts of physiology. Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. By the mere fact of having come into existence, the most amazing novelty becomes in a few months, even a few days, a familiar and, as it were, self-evident part of the environment. Every aspiration is for a golden ceiling overhead; but the moment that ceiling has been reached, it becomes a commonplace and disregarded floor, on which we dance or trudge in a manner indistinguishable, so far as our feeling-tone is concerned, from that in which we danced and trudged on the floor below. Moreover, every individual is born into a world having a social and technological floor of a particular kind, and is completely unaware, except through reading and by hearsay, that there was ever any other kind of floor. Between the members of one generation and the members of the preceding and subsequent generations there is no continuity of immediate experience. This means that one can read or write books about progress, but that one cannot feel it or live it in the same way as one feels a pain or lives one's old age.
Sleep and old age account for about thirty years of our allotted three score and ten. In other words, nearly half of every life is passed either completely outside of the social and the historical or in a world of enforced privacy, to which the social and the historical are only slightly relevant. Like the experience of old age, the experience of sickness takes the individual out of history and society. This does not mean, of course, that history is without effect on the bodily and mental health of individuals. What it does mean, however, is that, though certain diseases are less common and less dangerous than in the past, though hospitals are better and medical treatment more rational, sickness still causes an alienation from the world of history, and that, while it lasts, this alienation is as complete as ever it was in the past. Moreover, in spite of the progress in hygiene and medicine, in spite of the elimination from many parts of the earth of the contagious diseases which used to plague our forefathers, sickness is still appallingly common. Chronic, degenerative ailments are on the increase, and so are mental disorders, ranging from mild neuroses, with their accompanying physical disabilities, to severe and often incurable psychoses. Our fever hospitals are empty, but our asylums are full to bursting. Thanks to events which can be recorded in social history, a person living in the twentieth century is much less likely to catch the plague than was a person living in the fourteenth, but rather more likely to develop cancer, diabetes, coronary disease, hypertension, neurosis, psychosis and all the varieties of psychosomatic disorders.
Like death, sickness has had a great variety of cultural concomitants; but these changing concomitants have not changed the essential fact that sick persons experience an alienation from their culture and society, that they temporarily fall out of history into their private world of pain and fever. Thus, because Biran was a child of the century which had perfected the chronometer and the clockwork flute player, he always, though a strenuous anti-mechanist, referred to his body as "the machine." And because St. Francis had been brought up in thirteenth-century Umbria, among peasants and their beasts, he always referred to his body as "Brother Ass." Differences in place, work and folk account for these differences in terminology. But when "the machine" suffered, it suffered in just the same way as "Brother Ass" had suffered nearly six hundred years before, in just the same way as St. Paul's "body of this death" had suffered in the first century. Sickness, then, and old age take us out of history. Does this mean that the young and the healthy are permanently in history? Not at all. In the normal person, all the physiological processes are in their nature unhistorical and incommunicably non-social. The arts of breathing and assimilation, for example, of regulating body temperature and the chemistry of the blood, were acquired before our ancestors were even human. Digestion and excretion have no history; they are always there, as given facts of experience, as permanent elements in the destiny of every individual man and woman who has ever lived. The pleasures of good and the discomforts of bad digestion are the same at all times, in all places, under whatever political regime or cultural dispensation.
Maine de Biran, as we learn from his Journal, had a very delicate and capricious digestion. When it worked well, he found life worth living and experienced a sense of well-being which made even a dinner party at his mother-in-law's seem delightful. But when it worked badly, he felt miserable, found it impossible to think his own thoughts or even to understand what he read. "Van Helmont," he thinks, "was quite right when he situated in the stomach the center of all our affections and the active cause of our intellectual dispositions and even our ideas." This is not a piece of cheap cynicism, for never was any man less cynical than our philosopher. It is simply the statement of a fact in the life of incarnated spirits - a fact which has to be accepted, whether we like it or not, and made the best of. A great Catholic mystic has recorded his inability to place his mind in the presence of God during the half hour which followed his principal repast. It was the same with Biran. After dinner he was generally incapable of any but the most physiologically private life. The psychologist and the metaphysician disappeared, and for an hour or two their place was taken by the mere dim consciousness of a stomach. Biran felt these humiliations profoundly and never ceased to bemoan them. His friend Ampère, on the contrary, preferred to treat his body with a slightly theatrical defiance. "You ask of my health," he writes in reply to an inquiry from Maine de Biran. "As if that were the question! Between us there can be no question but of what is eternal." Noble words! And yet all knowledge is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. Can the man who has an unsound body acquire an undistorted knowledge of the eternal? Perhaps health is not without its importance even for philosophers. Though themselves non-historical, physiological processes can, of course, be influenced by the kind of events that are recorded in short-range, non-philosophical history books. By way of obvious example, wars and revolutions ordinarily result in famine, and famine strikes at the very roots of organic life in countless individuals. On a smaller scale, the same effects may be produced by a slump or, for certain classes of a population, by a faulty distribution of purchasing power.
As an organic experience, sex is as private and unhistorical a matter as death or sleep, digestion or sickness. As a psychological experience it may be shared to some extent by two people - not indeed completely, for no experience can be shared completely, but as much as any experience of one person can be participated in by another. Je crois bien, says Mallarmé.
Je crois bien que deux bouches n'ont
Bu, ni son amant, ni ma mère,
Jamais à la même Chimère.
In the final analysis the poet is right. But fortunately analysis is rarely pushed to the limit. For the practical purposes of life, the Chimeras which two lovers drink at one another's lips are sufficiently alike to be regarded as identical.
Social control of sex behavior is through laws, religious precepts, ethical ideals and codes of manners. At every period of history great organizations and a host of individuals have dedicated themselves to the task of compelling or persuading people to conform, in sexual matters, to the locally accepted norm. To what extent has this drive for conformity been successful? The evidence on which an accurate answer to this question might be based is simply not available. But such evidence as we have tends rather emphatically to suggest that collective efforts to make the sexual life of individuals conform to a socially acceptable pattern are seldom successful. In a minority of cases they are evidently successful enough to produce more or less severe mental conflicts and even neuroses. But the majority go their private way without paying more than lip-service to religion and respectability.
Thus, fifty years ago, the rules of sexual decorum were much more rigid than they are today, and yet, if the Kinsey Report may be believed, the actual behavior of men who were young at the beginning of our century was very similar to the behavior of those who were young in its middle forties. Among the writers of memoirs, diaries and autobiographies few indeed have left us an honest and unvarnished account of their sexual behavior. But if we read such all but unique documents as Jean-Jacques Bouchard's account of a seventeenth-century adolescence and youth, or as Samuel Pepys's day-by-day record of how the average sensual man comported himself a generation later, we shall be forced to the conclusion that laws and precepts, ideals and conventions have a good deal less influence on private life than most educators would care to admit. Pepys grew to manhood under the Commonwealth; Bouchard, during the revival of French Catholicism after the close of the religious wars. Both were piously brought up; both had to listen to innumerable sermons and exhortations; both were assured that sexual irregularity would lead them infallibly to Hell. And each behaved like a typical case from the pages of Ellis or Ebbing or Professor Kinsey. The same enormous gulf between theory and actual behavior is revealed by the casuists of the Counter Reformation and, in the Middle Ages, by the denunciatory moralists and the secular tellers of tales. Modern authors sometimes write as though the literary conventions of chivalrous or Platonic love, which have appeared at various times in European history, were the reflections of an unusually refined behavior on the part of writers and the members of their public. Again, such evidence as we have points to quite different conclusions. The fact that he was the author of all those sonnets did not prevent Petrarch from acting, in another poet's words, "as doves and sparrows do." And the man who transformed Beatrice into a heavenly principle was not only a husband and father, but also, if we may believe his first biographer - and there seems to be absolutely no reason why we should question Boccaccio's good faith or the truthfulness of his informants - a frequenter of prostitutes. Culture's relation to private life is at once more superficial, more spotty and more Pickwickian than most historians are ready to admit.
In the individual's intellectual, artistic and religious activities history plays, as we might expect, a much more considerable part than in the strictly private life of physiological processes and personal emotions. But even here we find enclaves, as it were, and Indian Reservations of the purest non-historicity. The insights and inspirations of genius are gratuitous graces, which seem to be perfectly independent of the kind of events that are described in the works of philosophical or non-philosophical historians. Certain favored persons were as richly gifted a thousand or five thousand years ago as similarly favored persons are today. Talent exists within a particular cultural and social framework, but itself belongs to realms outside the pales of culture and society.
At any given moment the state of the gas sets certain limits to what the creative molecules can think and do. But within those limits the performance of the exceptionally gifted is as remarkable, aesthetically speaking, in one age as another. In this context I remember a conversation between the directors of two of the world's largest and best museums. They agreed that, from the resources at their disposal, they could put on an exhibition of Art in the Dark Ages which should be as fine (within the limits imposed by the social conditions of the time) and as aesthetically significant as an exhibition of the art of any other period. Historians have tried to find social and cultural explanations for the fact that some epochs are very rich in men of talent, others abnormally poor. And, in effect, it may be that certain environments are favorable to the development of creative gifts, while others are unfavorable. But meanwhile we must remember that every individual has his or her genes, that mating combines and recombines these genes in an indefinite number of ways, and that the chances against the kind of combination that results in a Shakespeare or a Newton are a good many millions to one. Moreover, in any game of hazard we observe that, though in the long run everything conforms to the laws of probability, in the short run there may be the most wildly improbable runs of good or bad luck. Periclean Athens, Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England - these may be the equivalents, on the genetic plane, of those extraordinary freaks of chance which sometimes permit roulette players to break the bank. To those politically minded people who believe that man can be perfected from outside and that environment can do everything, this is, of course, an intolerable conclusion. Hence Lysenko and the current Soviet attack upon reactionary, idealist Mendelo-Morganism. The issue between Soviet geneticists and the geneticists of the West is similar in essence to that which divided the Pelagians from the Augustinians. Like Helvétius and the Behaviorists, Pelagius affirmed that we are born non pleni (without an inherited character) and that we are affected by the sin of Adam non propagine sed exemplo - in our modern jargon, through social heredity rather than physical, individual heredity.
Augustine and his followers retorted than man in his nature is totally depraved, that he can do nothing by his own efforts and that salvation is only through grace. According to Soviet theory, Western geneticists are pure Augustinians. In reality they occupy a position halfway between Augustine and Pelagius. Like Augustine, they affirm that we are born with "original sin," not to mention "original virtue"; but they hold, with Pelagius, that we are not wholly predestined, but can do quite a lot to help ourselves. For example, we can make it easier for gifted individuals to develop their creative talents, but we cannot, by modifying the environment, increase the number of such individuals.
Where religion is concerned, the experiences of individuals may be classified under two main heads: experiences related to homemade deities and all too human notions, feelings and imaginings about the universe; and experiences related to the primordial fact of an immanent and transcendent Spirit. Experiences of the first class have their source in history; those of the second class are non-historical. In so far as they are non-historical and immediately given, the religious experiences of all times and places resemble one another and convey a knowledge of the divine nature. In so far as they are concerned with the all too human, the homemade and the historically conditioned, the various religions of the world are dissimilar and tell us little or nothing about the primordial fact. The direct apprehension of the immanence of a transcendent Spirit is an experience of which we have records going far back in time, an experience which, it would seem, can be had by persons belonging to very primitive cultures. At what point in their development human beings became capable of this apprehension we do not know; but for practical purposes we are probably justified in saying that, at least for some persons, this apprehension is as much an immediate datum, as little conditioned by history, as the experience of a world of objects. Only the verbal descriptions of the mystical experience are historically conditioned; the experiences themselves are not. Compare, for example, the literary styles of William Law and Jacob Boehme, the first exquisitely pure, lucid and elegant, the second barbarous, obscure, crabbed in the extreme. And yet Law chose Boehme as his spiritual master - chose him because, through the verbal disguises, he could recognize a spiritual experience essentially similar to his own. Or consider our philosopher and his English contemporary, William Wordsworth. Both were "Nature mystics," to whom were vouchsafed ecstatic insights into the divine ground of all being. Their immediate experiences were essentially similar. We may add, I think, that they were both essentially non-historical.
In Europe, it is true, the capacity to see in the more savage aspects of Nature, not only terrifying power, but also beauty, love and wisdom is of fairly recent growth and may be regarded as being, in some measure, historically conditioned. In the Far East, on the contrary, this capacity is of very high antiquity. Moreover Nature is not invariably savage, and at all times and in all places many persons have had no difficulty in perceiving that her more smiling aspects were manifestations of the divine. The ubiquitous cult of trees, the myths of Eden and Avalon, of Ava-iki and the Garden of the Hesperides, are sufficient proof that "Nature mysticism" is primordial and permanent, as unconditionally "built-in" and non-historical as any other unchanging datum of our psycho-physical experience. Biran and Wordsworth were among those moderns who had not chosen or been compelled to close the doors of their perception. They actually saw - as all might see if they were not self-blinded or the victims of unfavorable circumstances - the divine mystery that manifests itself in Nature.
But while Wordsworth (in his youth) was a great poet, capable of creating, within the splendid tradition of English poetry, a new medium of expression as nearly adequate to ineffable experience as any expression can be, Biran at his most lyrical was merely an imitator, and an imitator merely of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Both historically and non-historically, as inheritor of a stylistic tradition and as literary genius, he was far less well equipped than Wordsworth to tell of what he had actually perceived and understood. And yet there is no reason to suppose that his experiences at Grateloup and in the Pyrenees were intrinsically inferior to the experiences which Wordsworth had in the Lake Country or at Tintern.
We see, then, that while every person's life is lived within a given culture and a given period of history, by no means all the experiences in that life are historically conditioned. And those which are not historically conditioned - sleep, for example, all the processes of our organic life in health or sickness, all our unmediated apprehensions of God as Spirit and of God as manifest in Nature and persons - are more fundamental, more important for us in our amphibious existence between time and eternity, than those which are so conditioned.
Gas laws are entirely different from the laws governing molecules. Individuals think, feel and variously apprehend; societies do not. Men achieve their Final End in a timeless moment of conscious experience. Societies are incapable of conscious experience, and therefore can never, in the very nature of things, be "saved" or "delivered." Ever since the eighteenth century many philosophers have argued, and many non-philosophers have more or less passionately believed, that Mankind will somehow be redeemed by progressive History. In his book Faith and History, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr has rightly insisted that, in itself, history is not, and cannot be, a redemptive process. But he goes on airily to dismiss the age-old revelation that man's Final End is the unitive knowledge of God here and now, at any time and in any place, and proclaims that, though history is not redemptive in any ordinary sense of the word, it is yet supremely important for salvation in some Pickwickian sense - because of the General Resurrection and the Last Judgment. "These eschatological expectations in New Testament faith, however embarrassing when taken literally, are necessary," he insists, "for a Christian interpretation of history." So far as I am able to understand him, Dr. Niebuhr seems to imply that the meaning of life will be clarified only in the future, through a history culminating in "the end of history, in which historical existence will be transfigured."
This seems to imply that all persons living in the past, present and pre-millennial future are in some sort mere means and instruments, and that their redemption depends, not upon a personal relationship, here and now, with the divine Spirit, but upon future events in which it is impossible for them to participate. Dr. Niebuhr rejects the classical and oriental conceptions of history on the ground that they reduce historical events to the "inferior realm of coming-to-be and passing away." They offer no hope for the fulfillment of the unique capacities of human personality. But "human personality" is an abstraction. In reality there are only individual personalities. Between personalities existing today and personalities existing in 3000 B.C. there is no continuity of experience. Fulfillments of persons living now are not fulfillments of persons living then; nor will fulfillments of persons living during the millennium be fulfillments of persons living in the twentieth century. Dr. Niebuhr obscures this obvious fact by speaking of societies as though they possessed the characteristics of persons. Thus "mankind will continue to 'see through a glass darkly.' " Again, "collective organisms," like individuals, have a "sense of the contingent and insecure character of social existence." But it is very doubtful whether a society is an organism; and it is certain that it can know nothing about the character of human existence. Individuals may make true statements about large groups; but large groups can say nothing about either individuals or themselves. Or consider the following: "Man in his individual life and in his total enterprise, moves from a limited to a more extensive expression of freedom over nature." Here everything depends upon an ambiguity of language. By a simple trick of sentence construction "man in his individual life" is assimilated to "man in his total enterprise." But the first phrase stands for Smith and Jones, for all the Smiths and Joneses since the Ice Age, each considered as an experiencing person; the second stands for those very large groups with which actuaries, sociologists and historians are accustomed to deal. Gas laws are not the same as the laws governing molecules. What is true of large numbers is not true of individuals. From the fact that a society has achieved some measure of control over its natural environment it does not follow that the individuals who at any given moment constitute that society enjoy an analogous freedom in regard to their environment - an environment consisting of Nature, their neighbors and their own thoughts, passions and organic processes. In the history of societies novelty is constantly emerging; but within the framework of these novelties the problems with which individuals have to deal remain fundamentally the same. The fact that one can travel in a jet plane rather than on foot does not, of itself, make the solution of those problems any easier.
"I show you sorrow," said the Buddha, "and the ending of sorrow." Sorrow is the unregenerate individual's life in time, the life of craving and aversion, pleasure and pain, organic growth and decay. The ending of sorrow is the awareness of eternity - a knowledge that liberates the knower and transfigures the temporal world of his or her experience. Every individual exists within the fields of a particular history, culture and society. Sorrow exists within all fields and can be ended within all fields. Nevertheless it remains true that some fields put more obstacles in the way of individual development and individual enlightenment than do others. Our business, as politicians and economists, is to create and maintain the social field which offers the fewest possible impediments to the ending of sorrow. It is a fact of experience that if we are led into powerful and prolonged temptations, we generally succumb. Social, political and economic reforms can accomplish only two things: improvement in the conditions of organic life, and the removal of certain temptations to which individuals are all too apt to yield - with disastrous results for themselves and others. For example, a centralized and hierarchical organization in State or Church constitutes a standing temptation to abuse of power by the few and to subservient irresponsibility and imbecility on the part of the many. These temptations may be reduced or even eliminated by reforms aiming at the decentralization of wealth and power and the creation of a federated system of self-governing co-operatives.
Getting rid of these and other temptations by means of social reforms will not, of course, guarantee that there shall be an ending of sorrow for all individuals within the reformed society. All we can say is that in a society which does not constantly tempt individuals to behave abominably the obstacles to personal deliverance will probably be fewer than in a society whose structure is such that men and women are all the time encouraged to indulge their worst propensities.
Of all possible fields, about the worst, so far as persons are concerned, is that within which ever greater numbers of our contemporaries are being forced to live - the field of militaristic and industrialized totalitarianism. Within this field, persons are treated as means to non-personal ends. Their right to a private existence, unconditioned by history and society, is denied on principle; and whereas the old tyrannies found it hard to make this denial universally effective, their modern counterparts, thanks to applied science and the improved techniques of inquisition and coercion, are able to translate their principles into practice on a scale and with a discriminatory precision unknown in the past.
"How small," Dr. Johnson could write two centuries ago,
How small of all that human hearts endure
The part which kings or laws can cause or cure!
In the eighteenth century it was still perfectly true that "public affairs vex no man"; that the news of a lost battle caused "no man to eat his dinner the worse"; that "when a butcher tells you that his heart bleeds for his country, he has, in fact, no uneasy feeling." And even in the bloody sixteenth century Montaigne "doubts if he can honestly enough confess with how very mean a sacrifice of his peace of mind and tranquillity he has lived more than half his life, whilst his country was in ruins." But the progress of technology is rapidly changing this relatively happy state of things. The modern dictator has, not only the desire, but also the effective means to reduce the whole man to the mere citizen, to deprive individuals of all private life but the most rudimentarily physical and to convert them at last into unquestioning instruments of a social organization whose ends and purposes are different from, and indeed incompatible with, the purposes and ends of personal existence.
(From "Variations on a Philosopher," Themes and Variations)