METAPHYSICS OF PERSONAL EXISTENCE
“Personal life is the fine flower of life.” Emanuel Mounier
I. The Gist of Existentialism
Personalism might be a popular ideology or at least a household word today if existentialism had not better suited the aversive reaction to the cult of supreme personality that had fostered two massive world wars. Whereas personalism emphasizes the social human being, existentialism places the onus on the individual alienated from society, and affords bare existence priority over clothed being. Existentialism is an anxiety-bound mélange of rationalizations spawned by homelessness, alienation, the meaningless of life and absurdity of death made apparent in the horrors of two world wars systematically fought pursuant to the institution and breakdown of political and economic systems deemed “objective’, “rational”, “reasonable.” Not only irrational faith in a personal god but faith in impersonal reason and universal, abstract systems-of-being was also lost when confronted with the disastrous effects of being fanatically rational and reasonable. Considering humankind as a whole, it does seem suicidal and therefore unreasonable to murder others; yet it also seems quite rational to align individuals or divide the population into fractions that murder perceived enemies for the sake of individual and group survival – there is safety in numbers.
The term “existentialism” was picked up by the press in a smoky Paris jazz cellar from a casual remark made by a jazz singer to a reporter about the “scene” observed by the American tourists flocking to Paris in the aftermath of the war. Jean Paul Sartre and other “existentialists” dismissed the term at first – they were just philosophizing – but when the label came into vogue, they adopted and employed the appellation much to their advantage. Existentialism as they described it includes especially the notion that the particular individual must be solely responsible individual for his own thinking instead of relying on habitual culture or rationalized systems of being; but existentialists seek the impossible, for language itself is a social tool dependent on and responsive to the will of others. Existentialism is not a system at all, but is more or less an anxious and absurd reflection of the human predicament, particularly the predicament of a man’s individuality made obvious by the disturbing fact of death. Indeed, any sort of systematic existentialist thought put forward by a so-called existentialist would contradict the very premise of existentialism – thus did Sartre, for example, strive never to repeat himself.
The subject of Existentialism abstracted from human personality, the subject that is individual human existence as distinct from and prior to human being, is the broadest of subjects, the subject of all subjects subjected to particular existence. Kierkegaard appropriately called abstracted individuality the “category of one.” Being and existence somehow converge in the category of one. The category of one is presumably a general term for particulate being or qualitative individual existence, as if objects stripped of their predicates still had a quality in common – “existence” – but still remain unique in themselves. We might revert to Leibniz and speculate on independent existences as windowless monads that are identical but for number, yet, although identically constituted, somehow have slightly different perceptions.
Suffice it to say that the category of one is incomprehensible hence is compatible with irrationality; the non-categorical category of absolute individual freedom has no relation to hence no dependence for its category on others; thus is existentialism is non-systematic, indefinite, and irrational despite the volumes of rationalizations that justify it. A perceived individual or particular is a unique coincidence of universal qualities had in common by many particulars, qualities that “survive” the individuals involved, so to speak; the qualities are sorts of general beings that have no perceivable existence absent their coincidence in particular objects. The uniqueness of individuals, needless to say, does not preclude their being typecast according to their similarities, thus they are accorded with a higher, more conceptual being. But denuded existence, or the conception of existents stripped of the qualitative predicates necessary for being, is virtually nothing and unknowable to boot.
Christian existentialism, for instance, is a contradiction in terms; Christians in need of an seemingly objective standard or external authority in order to prolong isolated or “freed” subjective individuality beyond the inevitable fate of all individuals, death, project the vague qualitative impressions of the fleeting willful self within onto a screen: the eternal Subject external, the Immortal Subject of subjects, the unknown self-god painted large, the Divine Individualist crucified by existence in the world. But then the Christian existentialist has placed Being before denuded existence, and in the form of a social creature, a human being, thus slips from Existentialism to Personalism. Yet here the human being is still alienated from the Supreme Being although reflecting it.
As Boethius said, “Nothing is said to be because it has matter, but because it has distinctive form. But the divine substance is form without matter, and therefore one, and is its own essence. But other things are not simply their own essences. For each thing has its being from the things of which it is composed. The Pure Form “is truly One in which is no number, in which nothing is present except its own essence,” of “God that differs from God in no respect,” and “where there is no difference there is no sort of plurality and accordingly no number; here therefore is unity alone…..” Precisely how this Being differs from Nothing is unclear, but like the category of one that is said to be individual existence before being, the being before existence strips or alienates the godly person from material existence, and it remains to be seen how this person really exists at all.
However that might be, long before the term ‘existentialism’ was coined, the abstract yet irrational subject of individual subjective existence was considered to be unlimited by or even antithetical to grandiose systems-of-being such as those cranked out by theologians and the likes of Hegel and Marx. Indeed, we have a history of centuries of alienation, freedom, irresponsibility, guilt, despair, and dire circumstances of persecution unto death, not to mention other factors of enormous interest to today’s existentialists.
II. The Gist of Personalism Personalism shares existentialism’s concern with the plight of the existent individual; the rhetoric is similar is several respects. Yet we may draw a convenient distinction to posit that personalism is the hopeful affirmation of the absolute value of the socially organized human personality, in contradistinction to existentialism’s pessimistic denial of the virtue of socially organized being. Personalism’s social optimism is not the positive mental attitude of the bourgeois towards the rational organization of economic mass man for production and consumption. Shortly before the Great War, optimistic leaders at international peace conferences declared that free trade between countries had rendered war obsolete; for, they argued, unprofitable war would certainly be self-destructive hence insane. But self-destruction is the unconscious motive for war. Of what avail is it to tell angry competitive men, for whom economic trade is an unsatisfactory surrogate for war, that the murder of particular enemies is on the whole a form of mass suicide no matter who wins or loses? The enemy, sayeth the prophets, are the rods of god, thus does the death instinct serve the god of death and relieve the swarm of its crowded stress that the remainder can begin anew with more elbow room. Once the ground is leveled, the survivors clutch their bibles, glorify their god, and the say ‘never again’ during the reconstruction period; but once prosperity sets in, bibles are laid aside and the golden calves are reestablished on altars for a repeat performance.
Emmanuel Mounier, a pioneering Personalist of Catholic disposition who took refuge in Vichy France, where he was involved in the moral indoctrination of youth, had this to say of the vicious cycle wherein the cheap, hypocritical optimism of having a positive mental attitude no matter what transpires plays an important role when business is done as usual before the next apocalypse:
“But our countries, devastated by weariness, now need the builders of hopes and duties. I have developed the theme of triumphant history, because it is the Christian view of history, not in order to make the plethoric Christians feel more at ease than the cavaliers of anathema and scorn. Perhaps tomorrow we shall be invaded by worse than barbarians, by Babbitts, with crucifixes of gold, teeth of gold, and hearts of gold, coming to preach their new theologals in a big way: optimism, good temper and philanthropy, which can be achieved much more easily, we know, through using the right toothpaste, well-adjusted foundations and a Parker pen, than through the Word of God. Then once more we shall need those great sombre voices.”
Personalism is essentially conservative and at odds with modernism and the unrestrained advancement of objectivist science. “Material” science, with its emphasis on analytical thought, its obsession with breaking everything down into bytes and bits, disintegrates the various social masks upon which dynamic human intercourse depends, reducing the human being to the status of a bare unit, a programmed, windowless monad whose program gives him cause to perceive that his existence is independent, while, at the same time, responsible. Ironically, he has been thoroughly socialized in the totalitarian sense. Nothing stands between him and the political-economic dictatorship. So devoted is he to rational production and consumption that he has little or no time left for clan or club or community; as for the nuclear family, it is an empty vestige of the productive institution it once was.
Not only has science dispelled belief in spirits, gods and other mythical entities, but its mechanical way of thinking if taken to its logical conclusion would transform nature and man into machines. Thus God, Nature, and Man are dead. Yet if a man were acting like a machine, we would deem him insane; providing, however, that we were not machines ourselves – in which case his behavior would seem normal. Wherefore we must revitalized and restore the human person – the social human being. This person is at least metaphysical or spiritual if not “divine.” Biological evolution and scientific progress are irrelevant in the personal context: in that context, only the person is real; the rest is mere phenomena. Our thoughts about the phenomenal world may or may not be valid, but reasoning will never disclose the ultimate foundation of reality or nature; for thought itself is phenomenal, and Being is prior to thought. A being, say, a human being, then, is always more than and prior to a thought.
Personality has an individuality or existent aspect, but it is one shaped by society: the individual human being is naturally a social, thinking, rational and reasoning creature. Theological personalism – in contrast to anarcho-Christian protestations of anarchic individuality represented by an arbitrary, divine Anarchist, avers that the ultimate reality of the world is a Divine Person who sustains the universe by a continuous act of creative will. For Emmanuel Mounier, that incarnate god or Christ calls human beings to be Christian gods:
“Christianity gives man his full stature and more than his full stature. It summons him to be a god, and it summons him in freedom. This, for the Christian, is the final and supreme significance of progress in history.”
Mounier pointed out that the bourgeois conception of individualism emerged from the revolt of the individual against traditional society during the Renaissance; it was a revolt against an inflexible church and domineering economic system; the revolt lead to the Reformation and Industrial Revolution. But the conception of freedom that inspired the revolt doomed society to another sort of decadence, a corruption presided over by commercial speculators who profit from doing little or nothing.
“This speculation, in which profit is gained without the rendering of service, was the ideal towards which all capitalist endeavor tended. Thus the motive passion of adventure gradually gave way to the soft enjoyment of comfort, the passion of conquest to the ideal of the impersonal mechanism, of the automatic distributor of pleasures devoid of risk or of excess, regular and constant, derived from the machine and from fixed income…. The substitution of speculative profit for industrial profit, and the values of comfort for the values of creation, has gradually dethroned the individualistic ideal and opened the way to the spirit which we call bourgeois because of its origin and which seems to us to be the exact antithesis of spirituality.”
The new Christian “is a man without love, a Christian without conscience, an unbeliever without passion. He has deflected the universe of virtues from its supposedly senseless course towards the infinite and made it centre about a petty system of social and psychological tranquility…” Therefore contemporary man “needs the tragic, the Cross, as a goad to prick him along the right course.” God did not create man perfect because he wants him to work for a living, to perfect his self.
No doubt the socio-psychological disposition dubbed ‘personalism’ has ruled the sentiments of sages since prehistoric times. Even people who fervently believe in abstract existents denuded of personal qualities tend to imitate personal models and behave according to their socially derived personal biases and prejudices – Camus depicted the typical atheist of his day, who fell down on his knees and prayed to God in secret when he felt his life was at stake. Despite the many professions to the contrary, personality is the ultimate reality for personalists.
Mundane personalism strives for the full awareness and understanding of the human condition so that an happy accord may be realized between the universal WE and the particular I, or the person as the synthesis of individual existence with the socialized individuals or persons it introjects from its environment during the course of its development towards being an ideal human being in existence; that is to say, in a philosophical phrase, the human concrete universal, or, in theological terms, god incarnate. Personalism therefore is not contemporary individualism:
“Individualism is a system of … mutual isolation and defense,” Mounier explained. “Man in the abstract … the sovereign lord of a liberty unlimited and undirected, turning towards others with a primary mistrust, calculation and self-vindication; institutions restricted to the assurance that these egoisms should not encroach upon one another, or to their betterment as a purely profit making association…. (Personalism) is opposed to contemporary individualism. Personal man is not desolate, he is man surrounded, on the move, under summons…. It is the primal sin of the West to have departed dangerously from the original truth.”
Nor is personalism other-worldly: “It is not affirmed outside the world or separately from the other, but against the impersonal world of the ‘one’, the world of irresponsibility and flight, of lethal slumber, amusements, ideologies and chatter, it asserts the world of responsibility, presence, of effort, of ‘abundance.'”
Personalism, according to Mounier, is a form of communion: “There is one affirmation that is common to all Personalist philosophies… that the basic impulse in a world of persons is not the isolated perception of self (cogito) nor the egocentric concern for self… but the communication of consciousness…. We should prefer to call it the communication of existence, existence with the other, perhaps we should say co-existence.”
III. Religious Implications of Personal Existence
We find nothing fundamentally novel in the modern personalism that places being before existence and thus emphasizes social being over the individual existence or existential aspect of the personal unity we call a person. The late Polish pope was certainly conservative of the ancient personal tradition; his admirers may be unfamiliar with the term, personalism, yet the pope, whom they consider qualified for personal sainthood at his death, was committed to formal personalism early on in his intellectual career. And the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church has as a matter of course taken religion personally; that is, as a religious commune of individuals who have their personal identify in the Divine Person of Jesus the Christ.
Hindus have enjoyed a lively dialectic on the personal or impersonal nature of the divine Subject of subjects for many centuries. Religious personalists insist that persons can only have genuine and effective faith in personal deities or in Supreme Personal Being. They claim that impersonalists, who roundly deny the reality of personal deities, are in fact atheists. The Invocation of the Sri Isopanisad, purportedly the essential verse of the variegated Hindu religion, of ultimate importance since it seems to indicate that people would presumably overlook their differences and be at peace if only everyone would realize that everyone and everything is part and parcel of the infinite, has become the main bone of contention on that point:
Om purnam adah purnam idam
purnaat purnam udacyate.
purnasya purnam aadaaya,
purnam eva vashishyate
That is infinite, this is infinite;
From That infinite this infinite comes.
From That infinite, this infinite removed or added:
Infinite remains infinite.
Brahman is limitless, infinite number
of universes come out
and go into the infinite Brahman,
Brahman remains unchanged.
If we assume that numbers do not exist in themselves but are merely invented counting terms of a contrived mathematical language, then the insertion of the numerical concept in the Purport to demonstrate the being of an ideal infinite super-reality abstracted from material existence is problematic, for there would be nothing in that infinite sphere to count. At first glance we find nothing particularly religious in the original verse, unless religion is the exaltation of the abstract idea of the infinite or unlimited, which can indeed be expressed metaphorically as the mathematical concept of the infinite series; it is not difficult to conceive that there is an infinite number of odd numbers within the infinite series of numbers. Infinity is certainly not a conception beyond the reach of mere mortals, for something is always beyond our grasp; we always want something more than what can be had: so when we think of an object, even the universe, we think there must be something beyond it, perhaps more universes, ad infinitum.
If the Infinite is the unlimited deity, then we might hold that the adoration of any particular form besides the metaphysical form named by an arbitrary term (e.g., the Infinite) is sacrilegious idolatry. There may be an infinite or countless number of finite things to dispose of, but Infinity itself, which transcends every particular thing, is not finite. One might say that Infinity is the feeling of something more to be had, something besides what is grasped and apprehended, the unsatisfied want or desire for complete satisfaction that constitutes the essential dissatisfaction of existential life; for each instantiated life would persevere forever without impedance if only it could, and thus be unlimited power. Each thing would want for nothing and no thing would stand in another’s way; in time, every other installation would be consumed by an existent’s absolute power, and likewise for each other instance – in fact all things do perish, but they perish variously in differing instants of time.
Individual identity depends on relationship. Mr. & Mrs. Jones say they want to be one with one another in marriage, yet once in holy wedlock both complain that they cannot be their true selves because they have lost their identities to each other. If they were in fact identical, they would not have their separate identities, and in fact they need each other and others to be themselves. By virtue of their individual existence they are moved to fly apart. Yet the two may, instead, because they abhor the isolation within which they would each, standing alone, as social creatures be worthless or unwholesome (not sane), work to make inherent strife harmonious, that their differences be concerted in the composition of a mutual personal relationship transcending occasional discordance and cacophony. And that ideal marriage would be naturally motivated – although its ultimate success would require personal education of the existential motive – for each existent would not perish, and to that end it seeks temporal refuge in relationships with others.
Although intimacy is lost in the crowd, safety is found in numbers greater than one, and the more the better. Hence the whole is called good. Absolute safety in an infinite number compounded is thought best. That ideal security might be called Infinity or Supreme Being; as a relationship between socialized individual existents, namely, persons, the whole that is greater than its parts might be projected as Supreme Personality. But compound things are bound to disintegrate, for each particulate as such is, in the final analysis, fated to strive for independence or absolute power over the others and the whole to the best of its ability, and to perish in the process. Even harmonious strife will eventually bring the particulates as they exist to an end, as if they must die for one another that each may live. But if each arrived at the same conclusion at once in the One, nothing finite would remain; call it not-finite or infinite nothingness, if you please. That is to say, the apocalypse would uncover Nothing. Everyone might set aside multiplicity at once to end the war over differences; they might then “enjoy” absolute peace, but the death of the struggle for life would be beyond celebration, wherefore we are naturally moved to struggle against total assimilation and to take pains to enjoy some independence. Wherefore the wave prays to the ocean to protect it from the other waves. Understanding the very process that seemingly makes fools out of us might move us to make sport of war and to take to the arenas instead of the killing fields.
Variety is indeed the spice of life. A little girl in a pink blouse with the word SWEET embroidered across its front appeared with her mother at the Starbucks on South Pointe – the south end of Miami Beach. She had her mom’s facial features and her dour expression as well. Her mother got her a glazed donut, a bottle of orange juice, and a plastic cup of ice. As the tot chewed on her donut, without much interest despite her serious countenance, her mom offered her orange juice from the plastic bottle; but she reached for the ice instead, picked up and popped a cube in her mouth. Instead of pouring the juice into the container with the ice, her mother starting dropping cubes into the bottle, as if to show her child what should be done with ice cubes if picked up one by one. But the girl did not have that objective: she insisted on pressing the plastic lid on the bottle; then she took another ice cube from the glass and popped it into her mouth, whereupon her face lit up with delight. She did not want the liquid; she wanted the ice: she appreciated the sensational difference of form, and no doubt she appreciated the fact that she had obtained it for herself.
Again, nothing in particular would exist without differences; nothing exists within the simple unity and absolute self-identity of the perfect wholeness sometime called the final cause or the end for which all things were created and in which they are presumably perfected and therefore have their truth and beauty; to wit: Good. All existents in unity have hypothetically canceled each other out; nothing but Infinity remains once the vanities are consumed by the bonfire; but That would be Nothing in Itself, which is to say nothing in particular.
On the verge of the abyss, then, we might say “From Nothing to Nothing” instead of “From dust to dust.” We find variations of such nonsensical nihilism or idiotic iconoclasm at the esoteric or occluded core of several religions. Religious ascetics whose sacrificial religion constitutes the good death or virtual suicide, and who identify absolute being with nothingness, might deny the charge of negativity by stating that the affirmation of what is tantamount to Nothing is in fact an affirmation of the All; for example: empty space is the positive permanent fact; the forms of space are ephemeral negations.
In any event one might want eternal life, but in the end each must submit, so perhaps it is best to accept the fact of existential death forthwith and be glad and thankful for one’s small quota of life instead of grasping selfishly and vainly beyond the grave for more than one’s allotment. Of course the end of a finite existence in the infinitude does not erase the fact of its existence in time, wherefore the finite has its infinity within the Infinite. Yet even this scant thought is too much for those freedom fighters who would be finally done with determined existence at its end, and who loath even the idea of being remembered and thus further defined after their bodies are cremated and the ashes scattered in the river. The idea of reincarnation or survival in any form or a marker somewhere is a horror to them. They love Infinitude.
Brahman was not originally identical with the Infinite. We would have no problem with the interpolation of the term in the Gita Society’s Purport if it were yet another term for the Infinite, an arbitrary label completely unladed of its historical predicates. In fact, the accidental qualities attributed Brahman over time unduly limit the substance they are attributed to. The honest etymologist and lexicographer will warn us that the origin and meaning of ‘Brahman’ is rendered uncertain by various, often conflicting attributions. We may for instance boil the word down to the root, brh, which ancient Indian exegetes said meant “being strong,” hence we might conclude that Brahman, a neuter noun, names the absolute or unconditioned power that endures forever and ever, hence is permanent and eternal. Of course our denotation falls apart with the conception of “eternity”, for that which is eternal is timeless hence does not, strictly speaking, “endure” over time; so we dispose of time, the commonsense notion rooted in the experience of succession, and claim that time is an illusion.
Absolute power might be personified as an almighty god and named Brahma. But that would be a waste of breath according to other scholars, for the Brahman found in the Vedas is not eternal or immutable but is said to be “carpented” or made. According to Hindu lore, the personification of Brahman, Brahma, was the first created living being. Accordingly, Brahma does not get the attention or reverence due to an almighty god, not even from his wife, who considers him as her subordinate in one context. Indeed, Brh might have been made by Ma, she who draws out or gives birth to “breathing” things – Maya is at once the maker, the making, and the made. Now brh might also mean “swelling”, as in the swelling of “breath” or speech, or “formation” and “formulation”; wherefore our strongest power might be the creative power that formed the one verse or universe in one breath, perforce in a big bang from a non-dimensional point.
Such an incredible inflation presents a paradox or riddle to this very day – the term barh, incidentally, means “riddle.” Such enigmas are best presented by poets in poetic form. We might imagine Brahma as the poet who utters the universe as a poem; Vishnu maintains the verse by chanting it; Siva finishes it when he decapitates Brahma. Of course there is quite a debate as to this illusory process of creation, maintenance, and destruction. The riddling contest is called Brahmodya; it is a life or death ritual because the maintenance of life above and below depends on it. The loser must submit to becoming the disciple of the Brahmin who wins the contest, or else lose his head. The winners inhabit Brahman, “the highest heaven of speech.”
Now the intellectuals are at leisure to ponder at length and to weave finer and finer abstractions out of nothing and mount the metaphysical ladder or Chain of Being to the Vacuum of Being-in-itself, where they have their faith in Supreme Being, which is indistinguishable from Nothing, The vulgar lot below, who are given to working for their living or who do not want to wither away chained to their computers at the tops of towers, have cause to believe that the highly educated brahmins, no matter how pure they might be, are in fact atheists. What is sorely needed is an exoteric and practical religion; a material religion with representative objects to adore; a personal model, if you please, for the vulgar masses. A totemic idol, say a black bull or golden calf or redheaded jackass will not suffice: only a perfect person will serve the purpose of realizing completion of the whole as god-headed Good. Yes, a perfected human person, a supreme being, an absolute power incarnate might do very well. But how could That be That if the essence of That or the being of Being has no delimiting form or positive definition? We are confronted with an absurd riddle if not the Vanity of human vanities, the sort of contradiction that Luther liked to confidently refer to as “one of God’s mysteries.” For example, in Hinduism we are confronted with Krishna.
The mystery is further compounded by those who claim that the cosmos is really the body Brahman created out of itself, which is nothing in particular; and if we subtract that finite creation, we are somehow left with the universal infinite form, that of the famed person, Krishna, who would seem to be, at least to an ignoramus, a formless form or nothing at all that can somehow, nevertheless, take fantastic personal form on our planet. The Gita Society puts it this way:
”After taking away the infinite creation from the infinite Brahman during the creative cycle or adding infinite universes to the infinite Brahman during the great dissolution, the infinite Brahman remains in His infinite Universal form. This can be mathematically expressed as infinity, plus or minus infinity, equals infinity. This infinite Universal form of Krishna, the Brahman, was revealed to Arjuna and is described in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita in great detail.”
How the infinite Brahman wound up as an He, instead of a She or S/he or It, to begin with, we do not know as of yet. How a form might remain after the forms of the universe are subtracted remains a mystery – we might suppose the possibility of a formless form, whose gender is merely metaphorically male, a He who may be described in detail when He appears on earth to tell warriors it is their duty to make war even against their own relatives because that is what warriors are ordained to do – we are mindful of the fact that the cause is ethical, for the society our enemies fight for is decadent and dissolute, as the Brahmins who sanction war know very well. Suffice it to say that Brahman may be considered as a fictional persona, a mask over reality, as it were, analogous to a man’s personality, a mask worn by, say, Brahma, the primordial living being, who is analogous to the super man who composes the constituent castings of humankind – His feet are the lowest caste of people, the Sudras, his head the highest class, the Brahmins. How Brahman can be a presumably subordinated form of Krishna, allegedly the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is a question only bona fide spiritual masters can answer appropriately. And answer they must, for the most of us are left clutching at thin air despite the mention of the being of a divine personality.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society For Krishna Consciousness, examined the Invocation to Sri Isopanisad and declared that om literally means, “the Complete Whole, and purnam means, “perfectly complete.” He is not satisfied to leave it at that, and goes on to discuss the traditional implications. He rejects the obvious meaning, that, since no persons were mentioned, the deity must be impersonal. He says the Sanskrit words ‘Sri Isopanisad’ means “the knowledge that brings one nearer to the Supreme Person, Krishna. “ He identifies “Brahman” as eternal existence. In that impersonal sense, Brahman alone is insufficient for the Hari Krishna swami and his followers; although they do celebrate Arjuna on the warpath, Bhakti yoga, the path of love, is their path to the union with the godhead; they would be conscious of their dance and blissfully blessed in it. So the ‘Prab’ the acarya rendered this interpretative translation of the verse:
“The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete, and because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal world, are perfectly equipped as complete wholes. Whatever is produced of the Complete Whole is also complete in itself. He is the Complete Whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance.”
“Realization of impersonal Brahman or Paramatma, the Supersoul,” Prabhupada explains in his ‘Purport’, “is incomplete realization of the Absolutely Complete. The Supreme Personality of Godhead is sac-cid-ananda-vigraha. Realization of impersonal Brahman is realization of His sat feature, or His aspect of eternity, and Paramatma realization is the realization of His sat [existence] and cit [consciousness] features, His aspects of eternity and knowledge. But realization of the Personality of Godhead is the realization of all the transcendental features – sat, cit, and ananda, bliss. When one realizes the Supreme Person, he realizes these aspects of the Absolute Truth in their completeness. Vigraha means “form.” Thus the Complete Whole is not formless.”
The impersonalists speak of an infinite number of finite things, and hold that human beings can rest peacefully as replicated common denominators of the common denomination called infinity; they are somehow comforted by knowing there is no fundamental difference between the waves in the ocean, or between the material forms of energy; fundamentally speaking, a cow, a man, a rock and a tree are the same. In fine, Thou art That, so stop fighting it, just accept it.
But contemporary Western culture would rather demolish the traditional forms or render them into commercialized relics in order to accept each other as equals in mutual animosity and make a profit to boot. Once the war of democracy on the world is won and the booty distributed according to merit rather than privileged rank, everyone shall presumably live most complaisantly. The disintegration of traditional cultural modes is graphically represented by the iconoclastic assault on the old art forms that paid ample respect to common human beings if not allegorical or divine persons. Art became increasingly abstract, and eventually the order or structures abstracted fell under the iconoclasts’ hammers, until the art world was converted to a post-modern anti-art world, a veritable junkyard or trash heap where ‘Thou art That’ means the individual is a junkyard dog. The only value remaining was the subjective appreciation of junk, perchance expressed idiotically as an absurd concept that nobody understands, particularly the anti-artist, whose popularity is determined randomly as each rebel contends to be more original or idiosyncratic than the next rebel, not understanding that the their rebellion is stultifying conformity with the status quo of the junkyard. No particular production is really worthy of praise or blame, not according to the dictum, “Art is not right or wrong.” Everything has equal moral value or is amoral, and this is all very democratic and seemingly peaceful and tolerable until the bombs start exploding at home – democracies thrive on wars abroad to tame anarchism at home, and are inherently imperialistic in their pre-emption of competition. Underneath the appearance of peaceful existence in substantial equality lurks an alienated crowd of potential suicide-bombers who would be glad to finally settle any remaining differences between people.
All this would be perfectly acceptable to someone who recognized the Supreme Impersonal Being in it all, for such is life and one might as well enjoy it.
Swami Prabhupada also believed that peace could be found in the Complete Whole, but only if it were a Supreme Person. A human personality, in contrast to the ‘personalities” of animals, is a cooperative fabrication learned and in part fashioned by individuals – hence we use the term “person” in the sense that a person is a synthesis of individual existence and social being. For Swami Prabhupada, the Person of persons, or Supreme Person, seen by Arjuna as Krishna, was the ultimate or transcendent reality of personal life. People who believe civilization causes their discontent may want to revert to wild-animal life, figuratively speaking, they would fain don an animal mask and dance around their totemic fetish. At least there would be no sin, then, in fighting over the kill and its scraps.
“Men face one another in enmity and snarl just like cats and dogs,” observed Swami Prabhupada in his Purport to Mantra One of the Sri Isopanisad, which advises individuals to want no more than their quota. “If they do not recognize the proprietorship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, all the property they claim is stolen…. Animals, birds, reptiles and other lower life forms strictly adhere to the laws of nature; therefore there is no question of sin for them, nor are the Vedic instructions meant for them. Human life alone is a life of responsibility.”
Human dignity is obviously at stake in this controversy between the impersonalists, for whom existence is sufficient reason to live, and the personalists, who desire an ideal personal example for their improvement. Krishna takes some delightfully human and superhuman forms in the literature, a literature far more entertaining than the published episodes of the life of Jesus the Christ, whose dignity was sacrificed to the mundane human order; he was all too human when crucified by existence. Jesus put a kind face or personal mask on the impersonal god – although ineffable Yahweh was, as the Lord, a “He” and a “Father”, he was no respecter of persons, particularly idolaters, and even murdered innocent children to have his way with the folk. Whereas Hinduism was an umbrella over diverse cults and was tolerant of diverse beliefs and behavior providing everyone kept to their kind, Judeo-Christians demanded a choice of either this or that: one choose this saving form of behavior or be doomed to that hell. Fundamentalists may have believed in the fundamental equality of individuals, who are “born equal in the eyes of God,” but not in the equality of developed personal qualities. Their religious form or social system of being takes precedence over naked existence.
Modern existentialist thought, the mainstream of which tends to impersonality in its rejection of social systems of being, professes individual responsibility: the responsible individual is faced with Either/Or and makes a choice: the existentialist does not choose, first of all, a system of being social, a system of relatively defined good and evil, but chooses his or her existence or self, or at least all subsidiary choices are meant to obtain that “selfish” end, an end compatible with certain protesting forms of Christianity, where the eternal salvation of the individual self and the will to endure forever of the existent meet and embrace.
IV. Existentialist Godfather
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is the godfather of the anti-systematic movement of thought we call existentialism. His corpus elevates the arrogant individual to divinity and therefore gives us due cause to pause and distinguish between existentialism and personalism, a less well-known response to the horrors of the two world wars.
The subject of existentialism, the individual existent, when socialized, is a person. The person, the socialized individual, is a synthetic system. While existentialism focuses on the individual, personalism emphasizes the socialized individual. Indeed, its adherents may go so far as to claim that the person is a blessed spiritual substance.
For example, Karol Wojtyla (the late John Paul II), confronted with the despairing and anxious mental processes of war-shocked intellectuals whose main concern was their dreadful existence as alienated individuals, worked to rejuvenate the conception of the substantial person in his early work, The Acting Person. As a devout Catholic, he undoubtedly had a universal model in mind; that is to say, a supreme personal model people could systematically imitate and identify with rather than losing themselves speculating on an incomprehensible unknown god or impersonal force. A number of existentialists, all too familiar with the crimes against humanity fomented by charismatic personalities, abhorred the cult of personality in any shape or form, and they decried the “rational” systems of thinking and corresponding ways of acting that had apparently led to widespread havoc and panic instead of a new world order.
Many but not all existentialists were atheists. Some Christians among them were “protesting” Christians if not philosophical anarchists. After all, Soren Kierkegaard, existentialist godfather, studied for the Lutheran ministry and was in effect an independent Danish theologian. Most of all, existentialists are supposed to hate systems – Kierkegaard believed intricate systems of thought were big lies leading the world to ruin. The greatest existentialists systematically decried systems at length. Their literature often interchanged the term “person” with “individual,” but make no mistake about it, inasmuch as the person is a social system, anti-systematic thinkers would rid the world of that fictional entity along with the lies of the Establishment. But the reduction of the person to a supposedly “responsible” individual would unwittingly leave him, in his discontent, vulnerable to the charismatic likes of Mussolini and Hitler. Thus do we notice that some of the philosophical notions of the existentialists who survived World War II resembled in some instances the ideology of the enemy – not that the existentialists knowingly or willingly collaborated with the occupiers. Of course, the same might be said of personalists – after the war was over, the ranks of the Resistance swelled dramatically.
In any case, one cannot get rid of the vulgar person and still communicate effectively. Although Kierkegaard’s contempt for society led him to prefer the abstract individual or “category of one” behind imperfect personal masks, he preferred to project his inner conflicts and conceal his self-contradictions and hypocrisy by speaking indirectly through several personifications: his thought-provoking Either/Or , for instance, is presented as a conversational work of fiction involving fictional persons, and not as a direct philosophical tome in the form of a coherent system of thought. Prominent existentialists deliberately tried to popularize their abstract philosophy by presenting it in fictional form, in plays and novels, behind which their fundamental incoherence would be hidden by the obvious absurdity of characteristic life. Albert Camus, for instance, who admired Kierkegaard, is best known as the philosopher of The Absurd; he noted in his diary that a good novelist must be a philosopher. Jean Paul Sartre and others followed suit.
Philosophers have traditionally identified the highest good if not god with social goodness; however, as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, an ethical man had no choice but to choose himself, the penultimate good; the religious man worshiped the unknown god, his ultimate good; while the aesthete was a sort of pantheist, finding his good in anything he pleased. We concoct three equations for Kierkegaard’s three types. For the Aesthete, the relative: I am that multiplicity. For the Ethical, the duality: I am not that world. For the Religious, the absolute: I am I. We shall see that Kierkegaard’s distinction between the Ethical and Religious realms was in vain. Despite his assertion that the ethical man chooses his true self instead of creating it from scratch, his fondness for the individual reveals the individual, as an abstract “category of one”, as the indefinite or infinite wherefore unknown I-god, the YHWH or I-AM of yore.
“Only when I absolutely choose myself,” wrote Kierkegaard, “do I infinitize myself absolutely, for I myself am the absolute for only myself can I choose absolutely, and the absolute choice of myself is my freedom, and only when I have absolutely chosen myself have I posited an absolute difference, the difference, that is to say, between good and evil…. The good… being in and of itself, and this is freedom…. It is… not so much a question of choosing between willing the good or the evil, as of choosing to will, but by this in turn the good and evil are posited….”
Hence it appears that the Absolute One chosen by Kierkegaard is a private and absolutely free godhead, an Anarch, in a word, that disposes of and therefore transcends relative good and evil. Of course the essence of this “category of one”, the universal individual and god presumably chosen by all self-chosen, self-integrated, hence ethical individuals, differs from the nature admired by unethical persons, the dissolute aesthetics who are preoccupied with the highest sort of feelings called beauty. Beauty is normally identified with pleasurable feelings ascetics abhor because the painful contrary, the want of pleasure or pain, is implied by pleasure felt – in either case, of pain or pleasure, the dignity of the self-caused person, an arrogance found in his freedom, is threatened to be demolished by an external cause. To rid themselves of pain, ethical ascetics would dispose of pleasure as well; they throw out the baby with the bath water and lay claim to transcendental indifference to the felt qualities of life, the relative value of which philosophers tend to dispute.
The aesthete’s preference for felt qualities instead of abstract ideation seems mistaken because the feelings vary one from the other, hence provide no absolute escape from the disturbing dialectic rooted in the basic social conflict between the existent individual and its society. The basic conflict is internalized and gives the person over to normal anxiety. The person’s joint role as an “I” and a “We” – the “I” as part and parcel of “We” – are both “introjected” as social conditions, yet the mystical unification and at-one-ment of subject and object wanted by the anxious ethical individual in flight from his existence cannot be obtained in fact short of death; and then the objective world ironically survives the particular subject, which was in fact the temporary, unique coincidence of universal conditions, but who when alive might find take pleasure in his existential crucifixion, on the crossbars of time and space, in the notion of eternal life free of the impediments that gives him cause to suffer life in hopes of salvation from it. This supreme arbiter loves himself only, in his finality, and cannot part with himself to merge with the nymphs calling to him from the social forest. Life then, for Kierkegaard’s ethical person, burdened by the necessity of dreadful choices, which in effect constitute a negation of possibilities, is a bitter thing. But the lemon can be made sweet by a faithful leap to the religious sphere, a transcendental planet far removed from both the aesthetic and ethical planets.
That ideal religious sphere, fortunately for Kierkegaard’s temperament, would not be inhabited by the established church of socially compromising and therefore hypocritical Christians he knew on Earth. As a devout Christian-of-one, Kierkegaard, instead of loving his neighbors wholeheartedly despite their sins, was moved to hatefully denounce professed Christians for falling far short of his fundamentalist notions. He chose to elevate himself to the rooftop and to cry out to his neighbors, “Hypocrites!” When he collapsed on the street in the midst of his violent attack on the Danish National Church, he told a friend that someone must die for the cause, and he died shortly thereafter.
It is no wonder that the seemingly absurd commandment, to love thy neighbor as thyself, had to be written down long ago for lip services, since it is so easily forgotten by the human heart. Thus does the anarcho-Christian become the reflection of his fellow enemy – a bigoted, irrational, unethical hypocrite – instead of the reflection of the only Christian who has walked upon this Earth thus far, the very Criterion of Christianity, Jesus the Christ. Although Kierkegaard may not have been the Strange God of Love’s prophet, he was certainly a seer, and in his prescience he was himself, in his representative anxiety and egoism, a prefiguration of our own time. The godfather of Existentialism is highly regarded as a theologian. Indeed, he was a good Christian as far as many of our contemporaries are concerned, a Christian who died for a good cause: calling organized Christians hypocrites for the usually reasons: for selling their souls to the devil and their consciences to the state.
Kierkegaard advocated individual integrity and responsibility. But to what end? What does he integrate his self with? The ethical individual abandons his reasonable reflections, which are the very means to ethical conduct, and leaps blindly to faith in What, which, when described, turns out to be some quiddity or the other. He evidently no longer has faith in his ability to choose, so he chooses nothing, really, but non-sense, and he does whatever might come to mind in the form of an authoritarian command from the charismatic leader of a totalitarian state of being – Kierkegaard admired the biblical willingness of a father to kill his own son (Isaac) upon command of the unknown god. Thus do intelligent men whose criticism eventually leads them to suspend judgment even in the value of criticism fall prey to the preaching of that ignorance in which they find their bliss, and may go forth to wreak havoc throughout the world for its sake. Wherefore, until freedom is realized in death, let individuals rebel. “Down with the Establishment! Down with the System! Give me Liberty or give me Death!” are the slogans of misfits; that is, until their own system is firmly established on uncompromising, fanatical principles. Freedom from compromise is found only in the omnipotent god, and those who believe they are gods have the noun spelled backwards.
Kierkegaard, to pursue what he believed was the ethical life of either/or, ultimately choose himself alone. Some of us may choose things to get rid of them, so that we may feel miserable for doing what we thought was the self-righteous thing to do. Only a mate can adequately sum up humanity. Kierkegaard dismissed the flawed queen of his mundane affections, his girlfriend, Regine, upon whom he thereafter literally reflected at length, in lieu of the consummation he had forsworn. She was not good enough or god enough for him: only the unknown god was worthy of his debasement. The true lover must always be wrong; the beloved must always be right. He thought he had ditched her to save her from the mistake of loving the likes of him, a man with cold feet. He eventually made the ultimate choice, a suicidal leap to faith in perfection. Only god can do no wrong despite appearances to the contrary. But nothing is perfect. Kierkegaard’s faith was really in his own reflection in the pool slowly swirling around the drain, the very mirror of his perturbations, as it were, from which only a chimpanzee with distorted figure could foolishly grin back, for the apostle gazing therein had renounced his reason with an open proclamation of his foolhardiness. Only faith in something absurd can escape the torment of doubting reason; absolute certitude can only be had in ignorance. Nothing, no thing in particular, is really worthy of unadulterated love.
“(The Ethical) is not a question of the choice of something…. The alternative is the aesthetical, the indifferent ….” The aesthetically inclined person would find his escape from the ultimate cause of anxiety – mortality – in the enjoyment of ephemeral feelings and the appreciation of beauty found in nature and art, including the art of personal living, But Kierkegaard’s ethical individual finds his solace in absolute solitude, in premature or living death, in virtual suicide. He mistakenly charges the aesthete with his own melancholic indifference to the world at large: he claims that the ethical realm is an infinite movement along hierarchically arranged values whereby one realizes (not creates) what he is by making important choices, but the choices available in the aesthetic realm are relative hence of equal value, constituting a flight from the ultimate Either/Or, that of good or evil. Of course Kierkegaard’s ethical doctrine does not require a preoccupation with choosing good things: his point is that an individual must make willful decisions, and it is in those decisions and not the particular things or acts chosen that he eventually finds his real self.
Kierkegaard was an idealist in the Platonic sense: the ideal is the real; reality is in heavens unknown as of yet – if only horses had wings. “The poetic ideal is always a false ideal, for the true ideal is always the real. So when the spirit is not allowed to soar up into the eternal world of spirit it remains midway and rejoices in the pictures reflected in the clouds and weeps that they are so transitory. A poet’s existence is therefore, as such, an unhappy existence, it is higher than finiteness yet no infiniteness.” Infiniteness is, to wit, the ineffable X – we might aptly call it Nothing, or, if you wish, the Origin. The path to X is heady stuff; as Kierkegaard himself remarks: “There is hardly an anaesthetic so powerful as abstract thinking.”
[Indeed, we who are given to infinite reflections recommend that aesthetes withdraw from their addictive substances and take up philosophy instead. Still, we would not have them forsake the fine arts. In truth, the highest aesthetic expression of intelligent love of life found in fine art varies largely in technique but little in principle. Works of fine art would be worthless without social agreement, and that accord or harmony is common to human nature. The so-called anti-art movement of the modern cult of individualism that rejected the traditional and only principle of art, the feeling of beauty, amounts to a lazy reduction to an absurd claim that art is merely subjective, hence one individual work is as good as another, and any criticism of an individual work is an unwarranted intrusion into the right of “contemporary” artists to individual equality. Since the anti-artist is unable to think coherently, that is, along social lines, his concepts are as incoherent as his constructions – he is unable to give us a beautiful drawing of a person; may heaven forbid if he does turn to fine art, and that his gift of personal beauty is the ideal beauty of a clothed Madonna or nude Venus. The anti-artist’s success of course is a matter of whimsical chance – some piece of nonsense or an accident widely publicized may turn him into a celebrity].
Kierkegaard’s self craves its very self, apparently the highest good or Good, or even God. The dualist refrain is familiar: Self is Good, wherefore World is Evil. Kierkegaard wants it all for himself: unity, freedom, omnipotence. He chooses nothing in particular: he chooses will in general, the will to the Good, or goodwill. But that constant choice is really of the self, for Self is Good. Such a choice would make a subjective god of a man, a man whose will is free no matter what the objective circumstances might be.
Kierkegaard’s iconoclastic self, in its constant flight from objective determination by sensation, would be perpetually becoming and not a choice of a permanent being; only Nothing or God is permanent. His subjectively omnipotent self-god would apparently be, in opposition to its circumstances, more reliable than a projected hence ambivalent objective god, particularly if that unreliable objective god represents Good, in the social sense that the good of society is Good, or in the sense that society itself is god. In that case, Power would have to be gradually rationalized, no doubt by political intervention – religion worships Power, politics distributes it. No, the individual must be absolutely free.
Man (humankind) is naturally social. But thou shalt not have any god before god; wherefore thou shalt not idolize Man, for man exists by virtue of original sin – he is aesthetically inclined. Thus it seems to follow that, at least for Kierkegaard, the individual soul is, ironically and actually, the sole good, and not the Absolute God or Supreme Being. He does not mention the possibility that the real original sin is the sin of individuality, of being born individuals, and that his choice of self as the category of one adds insult to injury. Of course one might imagine that the microcosmic god reflects the macrocosmic god, or is part and parcel of god, or is in fact god in mystical unity with himself. Ah, but that would be utterly selfish and solipsistic. Kierkegaard avoids that conclusion with ambiguity or doublespeak:
“The mystic chooses himself abstractly … out of the world … The truly concrete choice is that wherewith at the very same instant some instant I choose myself out of the world I am choosing myself back into the world. For when I choose myself repentantly I gather myself back into the world … in all my finite concretion, and in the fact that I have thus chosen myself out of the finite I am in the most absolute continuity with it.”
Furthermore, “I do not create myself. I choose myself. Therefore while nature is created out of nothing, while I as an immediate personality am created out of nothing, as a free spirit I am born of the principle of contradiction.”
Is not that the principle of original sin? Is not that the hypocrisy or underlying crisis of man? Is not that the principle of original slavery that dooms us to choose or to die? Free will disobeys to god’s law, hence Kierkegaard’s formerly lauded ethical choices were in fact sinful acts. He says he repents even of his father’s sins. Why does he not repent of original sin? In effect he has repudiated his creative choice and his freedom. Afraid to love another, he had no choice but to choose himself, but that self must die. In the end, once he finds his true nature, he must resign his freedom and accept god’s law, that all individuals are born in sin and must therefore must die.
Repenting of it all, the existentialist theologian gets it all back: “He repents himself back into himself, back into the family, back into the race, until he finds himself in God.” Repentance, he says, is the only word that expresses love for God. He chooses to surrender to X. His choice destroys all options. He sets the self up as god and chooses god, thus destroying self and god for he has not chosen something but has rejected everything. From nothing he came and to nothing he returns – god or nothing is permanent. It appears that he identifies his instinct to survival with his particular self or the apotheosis thereof.
“I do not create myself. I choose myself. Therefore while nature is created out of nothing, while as an immediate personality I am created out of nothing, as a free spirit I am born of the principle of contradiction, or born by the fact that I choose myself.”
Kierkegaard would forsake the evil world for himself, for the category of one; but once he is at one with the category of one, he shall love the world: “If the despairing man makes a mistake, if he believes that his misfortune lies in his multifarious surroundings, then his despair is not genuine and it will lead him to hate the world…. When in despair you have found yourself you will love the world because it is what it is.”
And what is despair? “Despair is doubt of personality,” he says. Again, the assumption is that this self, whatever it is, is good if not the highest good or Good or God. It seems that if only one would love the self for what it is, first of all, then love for the world would follow, just as night follows day. If one loved himself rightly, he would love the world so much that he would gladly stretch out his neck for his executioner if need be.
It is a matter of attitude, really, and one’s attitude in choosing oneself must be sincere, for as one believes, so one is. What counts, says Kierkegaard, is the energetic sincerity of choosing the real either/or over the mere either/or, such as choosing to visit the bank or barber. The real choice is ultimately between good/evil, good being the real self. Kierkegaard admits that many other worthwhile decisions may be made along the way to finding/receiving one’s self.
We hear the familiar song hand down from ancient times: the treasure is within, in the inner unity where man is reconciled with himself if not his collective self projected as god. Kierkegaard criticizes critics for not taking up the inner life, for losing themselves in illusions, professions, callings and other forms of escape. Yet his own approach is also an escape. Indeed, life is an escapade! Are we to deride the philosopher who said, “As a matter of fact, I am not slightly interested in self-spelunking, given all the objects the universe has to offer.”
“You are capable of spending a whole month reading nothing but fairy tales – Kierkegaard writes in his either/or novel – you make a profound study of them, you compare and analyze, and your study is not barren of result – but what do you use it for? To divert your mind; you let the whole thing fire off in a brilliant display of fireworks.”
Kierkegaard opines that philosophy mediates the past but cannot mediate what has not occurred yet: it cannot choose the future. And philosophers would have no past to mediate unless there were an absolute Either/Or. One obviously has to do something besides philosophize to get something done. Life would come to a dead stop with philosophy alone.
“We have the disgusting sight of young men who are able to mediate Christianity and paganism, are able to play with the titanic forces of history, and are unable to tell a plain man what he has to do in life ….”
That is true. We must not entirely abandon self-spelunking – and we study others to discover our own nature. Nevertheless we find in Kierkegaard’s philosophy the usual Christian activism without specification of particular deeds. Kierkegaard’s philosophical protagonist offers nothing in particular except marriage and family to the hypothetical young man addressed in the book-long letter constituting the novel Either/Or.
“In my capacity as a married man it is my custom on every occasion to maintain against you, both orally and in writing, the reality of love….” In real life Kierkegaard did not marry his sweetheart Regine Olson. He broke of the engagement in 1840; supported by his inheritance, he took up philosophy while she embraced another in holy matrimony.
It is evident that Kierkegaard’s novel is a self-divided letter, a dialectical epistle to himself from himself, expressing a conflict or dialogue between his artificially divided emotional and moral nature. In a fugue of bourgeois self-contempt, he poses a conflict between art for its own sake and the realistic business of the mind, that he might continually choose something valuable upon which profit can be realized and infinitely accrued rather than something for fleeting gratification to be eliminated as waste. Why not pile up treasure in heaven instead of counting on earthly things that are bound to be relatively disappointing because they fall short of the ideal? He chooses for the sake of choosing, thinking he is making the ultimate choice, of his absolutely good self, as distinguished from creating art for its own sake – today students of contemporary art are taught that there is no such thing as good or bad art.
The primary ethical action we find in Kierkegaard’s is symbolic action – thinking – and that to criticize others for not acting ethically, for not taking the one-god versus the satanic multiplicity seriously. It is no wonder that confident persons of the enthusiastic confession conclude that almost anything goes as long as one has faith and hopes for self-salvation. Kierkegaard means to say that a man thinks before he acts if he would act of his own accord. He thinks self-importantly: his choice is very important because he believes he is choosing himself, whatever that might be. We think that in his feeling of self-importance he has self-consciousness, or his unity of consciousness as a subject posed before virtually infinite objects. He is an I or individual, a Category of One at Dodge City, facing down the multiplicitous world, a world rendered as multiple by the psychological interpretation of diverse inchoate sensations that the mind is delighted to organize and represent as a reflection of its microcosmic god, the individual.
V. The Russian Philosopher of Freedom
Nicolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev, the “Russian philosopher of freedom”, is mistakenly labeled an existentialist because he emphasized anthropocentric subjectivity in his theory of “objectification”. His nods to Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and other non-systematic philosophers also served to place him in the existentialist camp. Berdyaev, nonetheless, was more of a personalist than an existentialist.
According to Berdyaev, personalism idealizes the human person. There is no such thing as a national person. That is a self-conceited lie, stupid and ludicrous. The nation is the projection of everything evil as a collective ideal. Evil is called good. Hate, violence, egoism, pride, will to power are all converted into virtues. Do not idolize Nation or Volk. Do not be a slave to “the People.” Real personality has an existential center – of conscience. Real personalities are individual, and therefore Volk will crucify them.
Egocentricity and personalism are contrary concepts.
“Egocentricity is the original sin of man … an illusory, distorted universalism … a false perspective … under the power of objectivization, which it seeks to turn into an instrument of self-affirmation … Man is the salve of the surrounding external world, because he is the slave of him ….”
Of course, “The genius lives near to primary reality and to real existence whereas the culture elite is subject to the laws of objectivization and socialization.”
“All possession, whether it is possession by base passion or by lofty ideas denotes the loss of the spiritual center in man.”
The very notion of the soul as a unity derived from physical processes is false. The unity of the soul-process is the dynamic spiritual principle itself and not arbitrarily conceived points or ‘souls.’ The notion that the individual of individualism constitutes resistance to its environment and is thus constituted by isolated exercises of its own will is an illusion.
Such an individual would have to be exterior to the world in order to rebel against it, hence the individual would have to be alienated, impersonal, and self-determined or self-caused, as if it were a god facing a violent enemy. The enmity projected onto a seemingly violent world would define the supposedly self-determining individual who blames the objective world for everything perceived to be in opposition; thus is he in fact determined by objectivity rather than his presumed subjectivity. As ‘subject’ in distinction from ‘object’, he thinks he is a free individual, but the emperor has his foot on his neck. Since humankind is natural and human beings are a social species, the individual of individualism has dissociated himself from nature and society. For him, nature is dead; god is dead; society is dead. Since society comprises individuals, the person is dead as well, for the person is a social individual who enjoys not only individuality but the commune as well.
Ironically, the individualist believes he is free when in fact he is enslaved. Today he is in reality the over socialized, bourgeois individual of the militant protestant-capitalist system. He is fully engaged in the war of all against all where each individual crushes other and is crushed in the material arena of economic forces and interests. He has internalized the anti-social rules of engagement that subjugate him. Like a prisoner in Bentham’s panopticon-prison, he is constantly under observation and control by unseen wardens. But he is a virtual slave; a slave not to his circumstances, but to himself. He is, as it were, self-imprisoned, and is like the animal that stays put when the fence is torn down.
“The individualist is the slave to himself, he is under the spell of slavery to his own ego, and, therefore, he cannot resist the slavery which comes from the non-ego …. Man is always a slave of the non-ego through the ego…. The object world can make a person a martyr but it cannot make him a conformist.”
On the other hand, whereas individualists are “wolfish” and vicious, Berdyaev’s person of personalism is virtuously communal and fraternal. For personality is emancipation from slavery to the ego, and, at the same time, to the non-ego
“The fundamental nature of the person is not originality nor self-knowledge nor individual affirmation. It lies not in separation but in communication.”
Slavery and Freedom by Nicolas Berdyaev, New York: Scribner’s 1944
Be Not Afraid, a Denunciation of Despair by Emmanuel Mounier, transl. Cynthia Rowland, New York: Sheed and Ward ’62