Second Thoughts on Existentialism

Leon Shestov, a gifted Russian writer on philosophy, once criticized Plato and Aristotle, as well as Spinoza, Descartes, Kant and Hegel on the following grounds: Nothing said by these thinkers could be convincing or important, since none of them would have had anything important or convincing to say to Job. In Job’s balances their moral exhortations would have weighed as nothing. A strange idea that Job, who was not a philosopher, should be the ultimate critic of philosophy, and that the test of rational doctrine should be its meaningfulness to one who, from his dunghill, saw all life as meaningless. But if the test seems unfair when applied to rational thinkers, might it not take on appropriateness if applied to our modern Existentialists?

What, we ask, would a Heideggerian, a Sartrian, a Jaspersman have to say to Job? Let us begin with the Jaspersman, who would no doubt prove the most foolish of the three. Though not so foolish, I think, as to tell the famous sufferer that he was indeed in an “extreme situation”—this could scarcely be news to Job. But what other wisdom or comfort can be found in Jaspers’ doctrine? Oh yes: the philosophy of the Cipher. And our Jaspersman could have explained this theory to Job, informing him that at the limit of his endurance he would be rewarded by a message from transcendence: The message would be a cipher, and say nothing. What is the difference, Job might have argued, if at all inclined to argument, between a message which says nothing, and no message at all? But I think the worst thing about the Jaspersman’s performance would have been Jaspers’ doctrine. Oh yes: the Philosophy of the Cipher to one whose mouth, opened by anguish, had become “an O crying to be rubbed out.” (I have lifted this beautiful figure from Jean Cocteau’s play, The Infernal Machine.)

The Heideggerian, I suppose, would begin by citing one of the Master’s dark and most arrogant utterances: “Woe to the grain of wheat which does not want to be pulverized!” Job would have answered with still another cry of woe. Whereupon the Heideggerian would have been forced to state the Master’s doctrine: “Job, now is the occasion to make of your sufferings something great; you are in a position to unify your future, your present and your past by means of a Resolute Decision. Resolved to live dyingly, you can now make a gift to yourself of your own past, of the day of your birth, from which you have been cut off so far by practically every happy moment of your life. This, your day of pain, can become your first real—that is to say, metaphysical—birthday.” To which Job no doubt would have answered with his famous curse of the day on which he was born.

The Sartrian, in my view, would probably be the most intelligent, but also the most aggressive of the three. He would have …

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