Leszek Kolakowski published an essay in 1959 entitled “The priest and the jester.” In the article, he claims that the question of “whether eschatology is possible” is a crucial one. “Eschatology” is usually regarded as a subject in theology, where it is the study of the goals and ends of human history, or the goals and ends of individual human beings, particularly in light of truths about the divine. (Though this did not stop my mischievous preacher uncle from claiming he was an “eschatologist” in order to get hospital access to his parishioners.) Kolakowski does intend this theological meaning, but he also has a broader idea in mind. As he sees it, we have two philosophical approaches open to us — yes, you guessed it, that of the priest and that of the jester.
The answer [to the question of whether eschatology is possible] determines how we approach the facts and events of our everyday lives: as the absolute and final reality, to be taken at its direct, empirical value, or as sections of a broader path at the end of which lies peace and consolation: pennies in a piggy-bank, saved up toward our (or mankind’s) eternal retirement. In the latter case we run the risk of dismissing present facts and present values as insignificant; in the former, of dismissing those that go beyond the present and require, for their fulfillment, a certain amount of effort and preparation on our part.
The choice is a common and familiar one, almost banal: either (at one extreme) we fritter away our lives by disregarding present values in favor of some imagined ultimate values (which may turn out to be illusory); or (at the other) we impoverish them by shutting our eyes to the possibility of greater values, refusing to recognize facts that go beyond the present and demand a transcendental interpretation – one that endows them with meaning by virtue of their relation to something greater that lies beyond them.
As for the “transcendental values” here, one might think of values advocated by many a secularist: the value of sustaining the environment, of advancing social justice, of building futures for our children, etc. One can tell a secular backstory here – why evolution has made us so that we can’t help but feel obligations here or there – but the “frontstory” is lacking: why should we continue to respect those urgings, once we know their arbitrary and valueless origins? How do we respect our oughts when we see they’re made out of complex isses? Thus the question of the possibility of eschatology is indeed important even outside the domain of theology.
The question is ongoing and dynamic, lived out in real time in individual lives and in human history, and is enlivened by two opposing, forceful personalities:
The priest is the guardian of the absolute; he sustains the cult of truths accepted by tradition as ultimate and unquestionable. The jester is the impertinent upstart who questions everything we accept as self-evident. If he belonged to good society, he could at best be merely a purveyor of dinner-party scandal. In order to point out the unobviousness of its obviousnesses and the nonultimacy of its ultimacies, he must be outside it, observing it from a distance; but if he is to be impertinent to it, and find out what it holds sacred, he must also frequent it.
Kolakowski outs himself as a jester (though every thinker must be both priest and jester, in varying strengths, on varying days, I think), and he says he is a jester because it allows for the possibility of turning off the philosophical engine, and expressing values that he thinks may not necessarily hold up under intellectual scrutiny.
To adopt this attitude is to adopt a view of the world which holds out a hopeful but difficult prospect: that of a gradual and laborious process of working out, in our interactions, how to reconcile those elements of human thought and behavior which are hardest to reconcile: how to achieve goodness without universal indulgence, courage without fanaticism, intelligence without disenchantment and hope without blindness. All other fruits of philosophical thinking are of little worth.
I recently read this great little book by Leszak Kolakowski. He is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers: he’s amazingly learned, and he takes a bemused, skeptical stance toward the human ability to plumb The Great Deep, while at the same time admiring the many attempts to do so. A representative quote: “In all the universe man cannot find a well so deep that, leaning over it, he does not discover at the bottom his own face.”
Here’s the blurb for the book:
Can nature make us happy? How can we know anything? What is justice? Why is there evil in the world? What is the source of truth? Is it possible for God not to exist? Can we really believe what we see? There are questions that have intrigued the world’s great thinkers over the ages, which still touch a chord in all of us today. They are questions that can teach us about the way we live, work, relate to each other and see the world. Here Leszek Kolakowski explores the essence of these ideas, introducing figures from Socrates to Thomas Aquinas, Descartes to Nietzsche, and concentrating on one single important philosophical question from each of them. Whether reflecting on good and evil, truth and beauty, faith and the soul, or free will and consciousness, Leszek Kolakowski shows that these timeless ideas remain at the very core of our existence.
I think I already knew most of what he covers, but I really enjoyed his style. I don’t know of a better introduction to philosophy, or a recap of what you may already know.
Here is the Wikipedia entry on Kolakowski.
Leslak Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial, pp. 135-6:
“My general attitude may be thus expressed: What philosophy is about is not Truth. Philosophy can never discover any universally admissible truths; and if a philosopher happened to have made a genuine contribution to science (one thinks, say, of the mathematical works of Descartes, Leibniz, or Pascal), his discovery, perhaps by the very fact of being admitted as an ingredient of established science, immediately ceased being a part of philosophy, no matter what kind of metaphysical or theological motivations might have been at work in producing it. The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the truth but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious or definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be “another side” in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it. All the most traditional worries of philosophy – how to tell good from evil, true from false, real from unreal, being from nothingness, just from unjust, necessary from contingent, myself from others, man from animal, mind from body, or how to find order in chaos, providence in absurdity, timelessness in time, laws in facts, God in the world, world in language – all of them boil down to the quest for meaning; and they presuppose that in dissecting such questions we may employ the instruments of reason, even if the ultimate outcome is the dismissal of reason or its defeat. Philosophers neither sow nor harvest, they only move the soil. They do not discover truth; but they are needed to keep the energy of mind alive, to confront various possibilities for answering our questions. To do that they – or at least some of them – must trust that the answers are within our reach. Those who keep that trust are real diggers; and although I cannot share their contention that by digging more and more deeply they will eventually reach the Urgrund, the foundation of all foundations, I do believe that their presence in the continuation of our culture is vital and indispensable. They are utopians and we need them. Next to diggers, however, we need healers who apply skeptical medicine in order to clean our minds from prejudices, to unmask the hidden premises of our beliefs, to keep us vigilant, to improve our logical skills, not to let us be carried away by wishful thinking. Philosophy, to survive, needs both diggers and healers, both reckless adventurers and cautious insurance brokers. They even seem to prop each other amidst their never-ending squabbles. The trouble is that whoever says so while being himself interested in philosophical riddles and thus involved in the conflict in one way or another cannot avoid the risk of antinomy or contradiction: he is not capable of taking sides in the conflict, and he asserts something that would ultimately compel him to be at both extremes simultaneously. We can escape the contradiction only by trying to place ourselves outside philosophy, to suspend our interest in the issues and to climb up to a vantage point from which philosophy itself appears part of the history of civilization. The trouble is, however, that to reach this point we almost certainly need some premises and some conceptual instruments that have been elaborated in the ambiguous realm of philosophy.”