“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” –Alfred North Whitehead
Thinking the Holocaust with Schelling…
A few days ago, I decided to re-read Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809). It’s a reasonably short text of about 75 pages, so I’ve read it 3 or 4 times in the past year. The text’s key conceptual innovations regarding the essence of freedom (which Schelling defines as the scission between good and evil) are as difficult to understand this time as they were when I first read it. Reading Heidegger’s treatment of it a few months ago was helpful (HERE), but perhaps also somewhat misleading given my preference for Iain Grant’s reading, which emphasizes the priority of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie (HERE). Schelling’s obscurity regarding human freedom does not seem to be just an accident of his presentation. Rather, obscurity is constitutive of his topic. Indeed, you might say Schelling’s task in this text is the impossible one of bringing darkness itself to light.
“All birth is birth from darkness into light; the seed kernel must be sunk into the earth and die in darkness so that the more beautiful shape of light may lift it and unfold itself in the radiance of the sun” (29).
I will continue to read this text again and again in search of its deeper, occult meanings, but it has already had a major impact on my conscious worldview. One of the reasons I feel so compelled to reach to the very bottom of Schelling’s inquiry into good and evil is that his text as much as any other has helped me come to philosophical terms with the single most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had. It happened when I visited Jerusalem back in 2005 during a “birthright trip” organized by the Hillel Foundation at my university (UCF in Orlando, Fl): an all expenses paid 16-day adventure across the entire country of Israel. At the end of it, they offered all the college aged American Jews in my group Israeli citizenship right then and there. They even offered to pay for our wedding if we met our sweetheart on the trip! That is, if only we were also willing to be conscripted by the Israeli Defense Force. I was 19 years old at the time, immersed in (and inflated by) the California Buddhism of Alan Watts, the depth psychology of Carl Jung, and the anarchist politics of Chomsky and Zinn. I was living in suburban Orlando, a city almost entirely surrounded by the scariest aspects of post-war America: theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios on one side of town, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman on the other. In between there were endless subdivisions of prefab houses with identical SUVs in their driveways all linked together by shopping center parking lots. Which is just to say that Israel felt like a dangerously mystical desert island that I might escape to, thereby saving myself from the nihilistic void at the core of suburban life. My desire for a spiritual home (a god, a people, and a land to call my own, and to belong to) made living in Israel very appealing to my meaning-seeking survival instincts. I thought of finding a kibbutz, though it seems they aren’t what they used to be. In part it was the geopolitical situation, and the Israeli state’s role in that situation (something I separate from the Jewish religious tradition: prophets are not politicians), that kept me from accepting citizenship there. Mostly though it was my spiritually formative experience at Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that made taking sides in any nationalist war impossible for me.
The trigger for the experience was the children’s memorial. I descended by stairway into a dark space, within which I first encountered a dozen or so photographs of children who had been killed in camps, followed by a wall of candles fitted with mirrors that reflected each flame’s image hundreds of times as it receded into the infinite darkness. The name and place of birth of murdered child after murdered child was read over a speaker.
As I climbed the stairs at the other end of the long, dark hall, my mind was racing, desperately questioning “How? How is such evil possible?!How could human beings do this to one another??!!” My initial question was not “why?” mind you, it was “how?” I wanted to know the metaphysical conditions of evil; that is, I wanted to know the nature of the structural flaw in creation that clearly must exist in order for something so heinous to be permitted to take place. It wasn’t long before I realized there was no answer to my question. I saw that my sailing off into the abstractions of theory was only a thinly veiled attempt to avoid and repress the swelling emotional turmoil that had been stirred up within me as a result of being confronted with the systematic murder of 1.5 million children. My question changed to “why?“—a question of immanent meaning rather than metaphysical possibility. I quickly found myself shamanically merging with the soul of a Nazi guard at Auschwitz, experiencing his wavering degrees of self-justification and self-doubt, realizing that he was just as human as me, just as capable of love and friendship, of deceit and jealousy, just as flawed and complex… “But this can’t be!,” I thought. “Nazis must be evil, how else could they murder so many children, how else could they send so many tiny faces to their deaths?“
As I left the memorial and returned again to the sunlight, I found that I could not help but sob, not only because of my feelings of overwhelming remorse for so many murdered children, but because I couldn’t find a suitable scapegoat to hold accountable for such evil. I inhabited as many Nazi souls as I could manage, searching for someone who might take responsibility for the Holocaust. I found no one. Only other fragile human souls like me, most of whom were already dead. Tears welled up in my eyes. Why? why did humanity do this?… Or, was it God’s fault?
Just thenI caught the gaze of another person and was immediately torn out of my inward struggle with theodicy. I took in the living faces all around me. That each could be so externally unique and yet also hide something so universal just beneath the surface—that each could be so individual and yet also so God-like (see p. 47)—overwhelmed me even more than the photographs of the murdered children had.
I became somewhat embarrassed when I remembered I was still crying, so I turned away from my fellow humans and looked down at the grass below my feet. I couldn’t help but notice the individuality of each separate blade. I noticed each blade’s infinite difference from the one next to it. I realized how much beauty was being destroyed every time I took a step. I was overwhelmed again. The unending originality of reality swallowed me in that moment. I like to think that it was then and there that I first became responsible for myself, for my freedom, for my goodness and for my wretchedness. I saw immediately (perhaps through a kind of intellectual intuition) that evil is in all of us, that it is a necessary by-product of our creative freedom as individuals. Without the possibility of evil, there would be no opportunity for love, for the free decision to love. Schelling writes that “whoever has neither the material nor the force in himself to do evil is also not fit for good” (64). The creative struggle between individuals and communities, between me and we, is the engine of evolution. It’s as true for humans as it is for any other living being. But for the human, the creature who “stands on the threshold” between good and evil, the stakes of the struggle are infinitely higher. “It would be desirable ” writes Schelling, summarizing Franz Baader, “that the corruption in man were only to go as far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40).
Life itself, as Schelling understands it, depends upon struggle and opposition. “Where there is no struggle, there is no life” (63). Without continual crisis to disrupt the very ground of our existence, all creative activity would cease, all the whirling worlds would slow and sink into the silent ocean of indifference (a dark night, yes, but without cows of any definite shade).
“The whole of nature tells us that it in no way exists by virtue of a merely geometrical necessity; in it there is not simply pure reason but personality and spirit…God himself is not a system, but rather a life” (59-62).
Kant was right after all about the singular blade of grass (see sec. 75 of his Critique of Judgment). Its life exceeds finite understanding. How much more so the life of God. For Schelling, the divine life reveals itself in the evolution of the universe, both through its cosmic phase (the primordial struggle between gravity and light) and its anthropic phase (the spiritual battle between good and evil). “The birth of spirit is the realm of history as the birth of light is the realm of nature” (44). Our humanity depends for its existence on the abyssal depths of nature, the same groundlessness that first called even God into consciousness. But unlike God, the human being “never gains control over his condition, since it is only lent to him” (62).
Here’s a video of me describing my experience at Yad Vashem:
It is an impossible task to bring darkness into light? The sun does it every day! Since the time of Plato the sun, which bathes everything in light its without darkness, has been an image of divine reason. The thing about the sun, though, is that it drowns out other light sources. Thinking must plunge into the depths to see a star by day. It wasn’t on a momentary impulse that Heidegger had a star put on his headstone. Even if we cannot reconcile the Holocaust with the existence of God, by trying to think it, we can at least cast a dim light on the darkest moment in humanity’s history.
[…] my identity only by continuing to decide again and again, eternal moment by eternal moment. I do not have freedom; freedom has me. Religion emerges from this tensional experience of self-conscious freedom. But it is not here that […]
[…] The trip indeed proved to be spiritually nutritious, particularly a pair of mystical experiences, one at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, and another alone under the stars in the Negev desert. My time in Israel also re-ignited my social […]
What do you think?