Karl Jaspers
Karl Jaspers; drawing by David Levine

The layman’s notion of what a philosopher ought to be differs greatly from that of the professional and academic student or practitioner. Karl Jaspers is an excellent example of the layman’s philosopher. His remarks sound deep and strange and yet in some indefinable way informative. They reverberate and they console. He seems to be talking about how the world is and how a man ought to live. If we move from the philosopher to the man, placed in the context of history and the German nation, then we find him a person of noble character. His record vis-à-vis the Nazis is creditable, quite unlike the record of the other notable German existentialist philosopher (more admired by some at least of the professionals), Martin Heidegger. He is interested in everything. He has written an informative work on Nietzsche. To judge from the number of his works translated into English, or at least into a kind of English—this is not to criticize translators who are given a virtually impossible task—he is read widely in England and the United States.

Philosophical Faith and Revelation, the latest of his works to be translated, has been praised in extravagant terms by someone as intelligent as Hannah Arendt. All the same, it is undoubtedly and sadly true that among most English and many American philosophers, especially those for whom Wittgenstein, Malcolm, Black, Quine, et al. are names of power, his writings would be thought rather closer to Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite than to the recognized classics of modern philosophy, such as Wittgenstein’s Investigations, Elizabeth Anscombe’s Intention, Professor P. F. Strawson’s Individuals, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Sartre’s L’Imaginaire, Ryle’s Concept of Mind.

This reviewer finds it impossible to admire Jaspers’s performance as a philosopher. He lacks logical rigor and (much more important) the ambition to achieve it, and these lacks are not compensated for by any notable intuitive performances. He is to the existentialist tradition a kind of death-mask, but one that is so poorly molded that it betrays no genuine likeness of what was once alive. All the same, what he writes is full of interest, for he does succeed in identifying a range of problems, especially in the philosophy of religion, that are neglected by more precise and less ambitious philosophers. A very German intelligence and sensibility are put in the service of a kind of grand tour of problems in the philosophy of religion. The comment on the monuments surveyed is sometimes gnomic, sometimes obscure, sometimes paralyzingly commonplace, sometimes acute.

As good an example as any of Jaspers’s approach to the philosophy of religion is to be found in his doctrine of the “cipher” (Chiffer). What the doctrine seems to convey is this. Concepts that have a straightforward use and status in empirical discourse cannot be grasped in the same way when they are applied, to take some characteristic examples, to the universe as a whole, to history as a whole, to God. It may be that what Jaspers is saying does not, from a logical point of view, go beyond what Kant said about metaphysics, about the use of concepts that get their purchase from their application to the phenomenal world in discourse upon what goes beyond the limits of possible experience.

The outstanding sign that something has gone wrong in their application is the occurrence of antinomies, as in what Kant took to be the traditional proofs for the existence of God. Jaspers says more or less the same thing. For instance, he remarks of such concepts as “progress” and “evolution,” which have a genuine application within history, that “what is to the scientist a special aspect, subject to proof and of limited validity, becomes a cipher if it is applied to history as a whole.” If we subject the cipher to logic’s press and screw, or if we attempt to justify it by the use of inductive arguments, it comes to pieces in our hands. But this only happens if we expect of the ciphers of history the same logical behavior as that of the concepts we apply within history.

There is a difficulty here. Jaspers wants at one and the same time to argue that “progress” or “evolution” applied to history as a whole is a pseudo-concept and that such ciphers are nevertheless indispensable to metaphysical and religious discourse. In this discourse they are only dangerous if their character as ciphers is forgotten, as too often happens (so Jaspers believes) in the writings of traditional theologians. Also, it seems important to maintain that the concept of cipher does not itself have the character of being a cipher. If it were, what Jaspers says would be self-stultifying.

WHAT THEN is the role of the ciphers? They liberate us from the narrow world of middle-class materialism, of ignoble commonsense, of religions that claim truth for a particular revelation (“philosophical faith must give up the reality of revelation in favour of the ambiguous movement of ciphers”). “The one Transcendence speaks, to those that hear and see it, in the diversity of historic ciphers and is inaccessible as the real One.” The tragedy of our time is that “our modern, public, common intellect seems to be all but hermetically sealed against the reality of Existenz and Transcendence.” To live in the mode of Existenz is—to borrow from the Glossary in The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, New York, 1957)—“being a self suspended between itself and Transcendence from which it derives its being and on which it is based.” We may gloss this, though some may find this explaining the obscure by the more obscure, as saying that human subjectivity, that which is spiritual as distinct from that which is psychological, does not fall under any empirically determinable concept. Instead, it has to be spoken of indirectly, in cipher. The ciphers, understood as such and not degraded into concepts that have an empirical reference, liberate us from the historical religions from which we derive many of the ciphers but within which the ciphers are degraded, and enable a free philosophical faith to be the ground of decision and action.


The step goes from bondage to corporeal concepts and sensory fears to freedom in the realm of ciphers. This is where the existential, original decisions for eternity are made.

The danger of our time is that with the shedding (inevitable, so Jaspers would argue) of the religious traditions in which historically the ciphers have been embodied, the ciphers themselves are discarded.

In the past ciphers mattered. Their energies moved the faithful…. Embodiment was for the masses, and not a subject of inquiry for the thinking believers, the philosophers…. The cipher language was the public language. It was the air you breathed. Today…the cipher language is no longer tied to embodiment. Embodiment cannot be maintained unchanged in a world illuminated by scientific realism.

That philosophical faith, mediated by the ciphers, is possible at all, except accidentally and for this or that exceptional man, is something Jaspers seems not quite sure about and is for him strictly a matter of faith and hope.

That today the cipher language withers along with embodiment is a calamity of our time. The air we breathe is not only diluted but polluted by concepts of scientific superstition. An insight into the nature of ciphers is the premise of their chance to regain their old existential vigour and wealth of language.

It seems that Jaspers is trying to make two points. The first is the fundamentally Kantian point, however much it may be dressed up in Kierkegaardian language: that where moral issues, questions of decision, are concerned, we have to bear and, as it were, live through the logical predicament in which we find ourselves when we employ concepts beyond the limits of possible experience. For Kant the crucial case is the need simultaneously to posit the empirical, phenomenal self subject to the determination of psychological laws and the free, noumenal self that is a necessary postulate of moral discourse. The second point is concerned with the situation of men in a culture ruled by the concepts and models of the natural sciences. In such a culture the human stature is diminished, man is no longer thought capable of freedom and tragedy, of risking a decision “for eternity.” The freedom of the world of ciphers restores to man that seriousness and weight enjoyed by ancient or medieval man but absent from the man of modern technological society. This time, however, the ciphers are entertained, can only be entertained, just as ciphers and not, as once they were, under the form of concepts having a determinate reference.

JASPERS seems to make no attempt seriously to face the difficulties of a philosophical kind that arise from his attempt to make the ciphers both meaningful and, strictly speaking, pseudo-concepts, poetic ways of talking. A sufficient illustration of his being content with a good deal less than logical rigor in his talk about ciphers is provided by his adopting, within a few pages, two positions which cannot both be true. He first maintains that ciphers do not refer to anything and that the language in which they function is a closed system. (I do not raise any question as to the intelligibility of this position.) “Ciphers mean a language that is heard in ciphers alone, that does not refer to something else, and whose speaking subject is unknown, unknowable, untraceable.” On the other hand, he also maintains that ciphers do point beyond themselves. He speaks of the cipher as “a signpost” and says of each cipher that it “requires us to realize its limitations, to feel what lies beyond it.”


His second point about ciphers is less obscure but offers just as many difficulties. The cipher only comes to us as embodied, that is, as this or that particular historical form, as, for example, in the myths of the great religions. For us, crudely for man since the Enlightenment, these embodiments cannot be taken in the same spirit as by those men who accepted the cipher in its particular historical embodiment, as, for example, the early Christians accepted that complex of ciphers that is the Judaeo-Christian sacred history. We are compelled, by the rise of the historical method, of the natural sciences, of the post-Kantian philosophy, to be demythologizers. But Jaspers himself is well aware that when the embodiment goes the enchantment of the cipher goes too, at least for most men.

At most, the ciphers seem to have a role in the life of a philosophical elite. In practice this surely represents rather a suburban middle-class religion, without content and without commitments of any specific sort, than a faith for which a man can live and die. It is plain that Jaspers is an impenitent bourgeois individualist. He is still involved in the senseless opposition between man as social and man as individual.

Everything men do is done by persons…it is always individuals who are awakened and made aware of themselves, their freedom, and their responsibility and that by ciphers of Transcendence.

But one of the characteristic things men do is to talk; and while a man may certainly talk in an individual way, the language in which he talks is prior to his talking and constitutive of his human existence. The notion that men act as individuals is either truistic—I cannot raise another man’s arm in the way in which I can raise my own—or false; a human action, as distinct from a twitch or a convulsion, has sense for the actor or for others only within a social complex of rules and conventions. For Jaspers man is a Cartesian ego, not the man of flesh. Of course, the Cartesian ego is capable of constructing the whole world from a priori principles.

Jaspers feels the attractive power of Christianity but has a resolutely polemical attitude toward it and toward any other religion claiming to be “revealed.” Since Barth, perhaps since Kierkegaard, that Christianity brings one up against “the scandal of particularity” has been a commonplace. Indeed, it is this scandal St. Paul speaks of when he says of the Cross that it is “foolishness to the Greeks.” In this respect Jaspers is indeed a Greek. The notion that the Transcendent should have given a final embodiment of itself within the limits of a single human life and a single society is for him an absurdity, as is its corollary, that a body of men, an ecclesia, immersed in the processes of history and marked by crimes and stupidities, should be the authentic embodiment and spokesman of this revelation. That a man should not believe, this is altogether understandable. What one finds strange about Jaspers is that he is able to believe something much more remarkable: that a renaissance of the human spirit can be brought about by a philosophical faith in the saving power of unembodied ciphers.

All the same, the virtue of Jaspers is that he throws into relief the range of philosophical problems that must arise for any man who attempts to bring together into one intellectual view a religion rooted in history and the results of philosophical analysis. Not even the most fervent believer thinks that anyone has succeeded in the attempt. (Where are the neo-Thomists of the day before yesterday?) Few have made the attempt. More have felt the task as a temptation or an obligation they were unable to face, for reasons that belong to the very way the task has to be defined. To be a Christian philosopher is, on this view, to be torn apart by paradox. “The fact that God could create free beings vis-à-vis of himself is the cross which philosophy could not carry, but remained hanging from”—Kierkegaard.

PERPLEXITY in the philosophy of religion, the cipher-like aspect of religious ideas, these are not peculiar to the modern philosophical consciousness. Aquinas is sometimes portrayed as a theologian who attempted a tidy and clear philosophico-religious synthesis; but if there is one thing that is quite clear in his philosophical approach to theological problems it is that when we speak of God we don’t strictly know what we are talking about. Quid Deus sit nescimus: what God is we do not know. God stands outside every genus and our discourse upon him thus has a logically strange character that sets it apart from every other kind of discourse. Aquinas, too, has the idea of a language of ciphers of which we don’t possess the code.

In the middle of the fourth century, at Thagaste in North Africa, then a source of grain, wine, and olives for the Roman World, a land of handsome cities, of universities, of rival religions and philosophies, there was born, of a Christian mother and a pagan father, a man of singular abilities and vast influence, Augustine. The man who was born into the immemorial world of classical culture, a world that must have appeared to be a great, incontrovertible fact, like the existence of the mountains and the sea, was to die in the city of which he was bishop, Hippo, in the year 430, his city surrounded by the Vandals. The whole of Christian Africa, so affluent, so sophisticated, so fascinating, presented a mournful spectacle: “whole cities sacked, country villas razed, their owners killed or scattered as refugees, the churches deprived of their bishops and clergy, and the holy virgins and ascetics dispersed; some tortured to death, some killed outright, others, as prisoners, reduced to losing their integrity, in soul and body, to serve an evil and brutal enemy.”

Within a few centuries Roman and Christian Africa is to become a land of broken aqueducts, columns half-hidden in the sand, the nomadic tribes living where once the great cities had stood. But the work and influence of Augustine have outlived Roman Africa. Half of scholasticism comes from him; his reflections upon self-knowledge, upon what it is for a word to mean something, upon time, reverberate through the history of philosophy; Cartesian doubt and the Cartesian solution to the problem of doubt are there in the works of the great African bishop; and in our day it is to Augustine that Wittgenstein goes to find a text that will serve as a starting point for the activity of philosophy.

Augustine is not only a man of vast historical importance, a theologian who stands at the center of the great crisis of the Reformation and of the agony of Port-Royal; he is also, as the writer of the Confessions, recognizably a modern man, a personality and interested in the problems of personality as, say, William James was, or Freud. The men of the Middle Ages, even of the sixteenth century, are curiously remote, as though the mode of their presence to us were that of the figures, gold-encircled, of a Byzantine painting. But the passion and vitality of Augustine speak to us in an idiom we understand very well, the idiom of a man and a society divided against itself, with no sureness about the future, and a feeling of guilt in the face of social evils and personal disasters, but an apparently idle guilt, for no one can tell how evils and disasters are to be avoided.

TO WRITE a good book about so complex a figure and period is to bestow a great benefit upon our own tormented age. It is, of course, hard to judge contemporary writing, especially when it is concerned with matters in which one is not oneself a specialist; but it seems to the present reviewer that Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo is a great work, likely to be esteemed a classic, and very remarkable as coming from so young a scholar. It is an intellectual biography, a portrait in depth of the man, and a brilliant study of the period.

The assertion of historical parallels is a risky business, as critics of Toynbee’s historicism have shown. All the same, when I passed from reflecting upon Jaspers’s doctrine of the cipher to a reading of Brown’s book I was struck by the extent to which the philosophical and theological problems considered by Jaspers and by Augustine were both related to the collapse of a received scheme of interpretation of the world and were both attempts to salvage from the wreck of things what could with a good conscience be salvaged. Take, for example, the following passage from Brown.

The idea of allegory had come to sum up a serious attitude to the limitations of the human mind, and to the nature of the relationship between the philosopher and the objects of his thought…. The religious philosopher explored a spiritual world that was of its very nature, “ever more marvellous, ever more inaccessible.” It should not be rendered “insipid with veracity” by bald statements; but rather the mind must move from hint to hint, each discovery opening up yet further depths.

This is a doctrine of the cipher, but one Augustine had learned in part from the Neo-Platonists, in part from his meditation upon the Scriptures, read as a mysterious account of the God who hides himself—Deus absconditus—and who reveals himself only to hide himself behind the cipher of ciphers, Jesus of Nazareth, “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” to the Jews a stumbling-block, a scandal, to the Greeks a folly. In a famous passage in the Confessions Augustine tells how he had already found “everything”—of course, there is the exaggeration of the old professor of rhetoric here—in the writings of the philosophers: except…that the Word became flesh. It is this identification of the Logos, the word and wisdom of the hidden God, with the human existence of the Jewish preacher and wonder-worker, that Jaspers cannot “take.” Anything, we hear him protest, anything rather than that.

This was a difficulty for Augustine, too; but it was in a great crisis of his personal life, too well described by himself to bear another description, that he resolved to believe in order that he might understand. And Credo ut intelligam is to remain the sign under which one half of the theological tradition is to take its stand forever after. There were others, cultivated philosophers who professed a refined and perhaps somewhat etiolated version of paganism and who treated the whole Christian scheme of things as intrinsically absurd. Brown writes:

These men were deeply religious. They could compete with the Christians in their firm belief in rewards and punishments after death…. For such men, Christianity appeared, as it appears to many today, as a religion out of joint with the assumptions of a whole culture. The great Platonists of their age, Plotinus and Porphyry, could provide them with a profoundly religious view of the world, that grew naturally out of an immemorial tradition. The claims of the Christian, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation. For a man such as Volusianus to accept the Incarnation would have been like a modern European denying the evolution of the species: he would have had to abandon not only the most advanced, rationally based knowledge available to him, but, by implication, the whole culture permeated by such achievements. Quite bluntly, the pagans were the “wise” men, the “experts,” prudentes; and the Christians were “stupid.”

A shrewd and uncommitted man of that world would no doubt have put his money on Volusianus to win; but he would have lost. Volusianus is no more than a fly caught in the amber of Augustine’s thought.

AUGUSTINE is never a remote and aloof sage; and no Catholic bishop at that period could have remained a spectator, uttering a moral platitude from time to time, of the course of events. It is from his implication in the day-to-day events of his own time that many of what, historically, must be regarded as his mistakes spring. This is not to say that these were simply blunders that could have been avoided with a little more thought. They are too great for that and are rather cases of tragic error; one thinks of the hamartia that is the fatal and decisive move within the tragic plot.

The first and most important of these errors is his sanctioning of the persecution of the Donatists by the agents of the Roman State for the profit, as he supposed, of the Catholic Church. It would be absurd to think that but for Augustine matters would have turned out differently. The sacral society of the Middle Ages and the alliance between throne and altar brought about, in both Catholic and Protestant societies, by the Reformation, these are the products of secular trends that are on the whole independent of the justificatory formulas that men appealed to. But that the appeal to antiquity was also an appeal to Augustine was of decisive importance in the crisis of the Reformation, and his influence may have had some importance in the extreme reluctance of Catholicism, until our own day, to abandon, in principle if not for the most part in practice, the claim to the right to ask the State to intervene in favor of theological orthodoxy. Again, his one-sided presentation of sexual ethics is something Christianity has not yet recovered from. As Brown puts it, “his defense of married life was conscientious [but] his treatise on virginity was quite lyrical.”

His intellectual quality is shown, Brown argues, above all in the sermons.

…the cumulative impression is quite overwhelming. He is very much the product of a culture that admired a complete mastery of texts combined with great dialectical subtlety in interpretation. His memory, trained on classical texts, was phenomenally active. In one sermon, he could move through the whole Bible, from Paul to Genesis and back again, via the Psalms, piling half-verse on half-verse…. He never relaxes for a moment the impression of a mind of terrifying acuteness. This hard intellectual quality, tenacious to the point of quibbling, was what Augustine plainly valued most in himself, and communicated most effectively to his audience…. But, above all, there is Augustine’s amazing power of integration. He could communicate to perfection the basic idea of the “Word” in the Bible, as an organic whole. His beautiful sermons on the Psalms are quite unique in Patristic literature. For, for Augustine, each psalm had “a single body of feeling that vibrates in every syllable.” Each Psalm, therefore, could be presented as a microcosm of the whole Bible—the clear essence of Christianity refracted in the exotic spectrum of a Hebrew poem.

But the secret of his charm does not lie only in his intellectual acuteness and his dialectical power. Like Newman, he can be possessed by a landscape and a mood; and he can give to us the feeling of the life of Roman Africa across the centuries. In the sermons preached when he was sixty we begin, Brown tells us,

to hear the songs of Africa. The “sweet melody” of a Psalm sung in the streets, the “serenades,” above all, the strange rhythmic chant of the labourers in the fields. It is this chanting in the countryside that will, at last, provide Augustine, the austere Neo-Platonic bishop, with an image worthy of the fullness of the Vision of God: “So men who sing like this—in the harvest, at the grape-picking, in any task that totally absorbs them—may begin by showing their contentment in songs with words; but they soon become filled with such a happiness that they can no longer express it in words, and, leaving aside syllables, strike up a wordless chant of jubilation.

Here at least, the cipher has found its voice; and it is not in the activity of a philosophical elite but in the life of flesh and of human work that the enlivening word finds its home and its authentic expression.

This Issue

August 1, 1968