"...the true philosophers. In
the number of whom, during my whole life, I have been seeking, according
to my ability to find a place; -- whether I have sought in a right way
or not, and whether I have succeeded or not, I shall truly know in a little
while, if God will, when I myself arrive in the other world -- such is
—Socrates, in Plato's Phaedo
the anniversary of my father's death, I started rereading his book on
the philosophy of Karl Jaspers. It struck me that not only did he adopt
Jaspers' views pretty much wholesale, but that he made a religion out
of Jaspers' philosophy. The holy scripture of this religion was not Jaspers'
own writings, though Fred Wallraff had pored over the obscure philosophical
German in these difficult and technical books. It was the works of the
hundred greatest Western philosophers, written over the last two and a
A central notion of Jaspers' is that of
an existential philosophic faith, akin to religious faith. This is how
he decides the "big questions." I'd assumed that religious faith
must be the result of transcendent personal experience, some undeniable
revelation of the "let Jesus come into your heart" or "Buddha
at the bodhi tree" sort. Fred's book showed me another basis for
faith. In the absence of a personal revelation, or even having had one,
if you're as skeptical about the validity of these experiences as I am,
the only way you can decide about the "big questions" like morality
and ethics is to choose according to your values or aesthetics, without
knowing for sure that you've chosen right.
I haven't discovered if the idea of philosophical
faith is supposed to include some sort of "belief" in the principles
you adopt. If you aren't convinced by reason or argument, and haven't
had some sort of transcendent personal revelation, is there a third way
to attain the absolute certainty that we might call belief? I picture
a forced "believing in," screwing up your mind and, as an act
of will, forcing yourself to believe.
It's always seemed perverse to me that the
Gods of the West care so much whether humans believe in them or not. "If
you believe in God, you'll go to Heaven; if you don't, you'll go to Hell."
There is no conclusive evidence in this world for God's existence. If
there were, if, say, He talked to us from Heaven in a big booming voice
from time to time, then it would simply be reasonable to believe in him.
Failing this, and lacking personal revelation (He could presumably manifest
himself just as plainly directly to one's soul), one can only try the
third way -- belief by an act of will. Why would He want us to do this?
Why should He care if these miserable, puny, ill-informed humans "believe"
in him or not? How much do you have to correctly guess about Him to be
said to believe?
My father always claimed to be an agnostic,
but I think he had philosophic faith in the Judeo-Christian ethical system,
with an emphasis on the Old Testament. He didn't accept the divinity of
Jesus, and was only marginally enthused by the exuberant evangelism of
the New Testament. His enthusiasms (when he allowed himself some -- his
was always the ethos of Yahweh, where pleasures were sinful or, at least,
suspect) were for literature, art and music. I seldom observed in him
a zest for philosophy, it was an Old-Testament sort of undertaking: serious.
He used to compare Plato's somewhat fictionalized
account of Socrates' teaching with the four apostles' accounts of Jesus,
never to the advantage of the latter. If he thought he was divine, Jesus'
martyrdom was easy for him; he had his role to play, and absolute certainty
to help him. Socrates' daemon gave him only philosophic faith, making
his death a statement of his principles, and earning him a place in the
panoply of philosophic saints.