On Plato’s ‘Philebus’​ — Philosopher Unlimited

But these are foolish things to all the wise,

And I love wisdom more than she loves me;

My tendency is to philosophise

On most things, from a tyrant to a tree;

But still the spouseless virgin Knowledge flies,

What are we? and whence come we? what shall be

Our ultimate existence? What’s our present?

Are questions answerless, and yet incessant.

- Lord Byron, (1788–1824), ‘Don Juan’.

Pleasure? Or wisdom? Which will you go for? Well, we know which Don Juan opted for and what happened to him, after a life of pleasure. A chorus of demons drag him down to Hell, (I have in mind Mozart’s opera here), although a statue had offered him a final chance to repent as his demise drew closer, but Don Juan doggedly refused, while Donna Elvira, one of the ladies abandoned by Don Juan, subsequently withdrew from society for the rest of her days, and we are presented with a moral: ‘Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life’.

‘The Stone Guest. Don Juan and Doña Ana’, 1885, Ilya Repin

Curiously however, Albert Camus, (1913–1960), considered the seducer Don Juan to be an absurd hero although he he took care to point out that, exemplar of the absurd hero the Don may well be, Camus was not suggesting that he be emulated (chance would be a fine thing), for he did not want him held up as an ideal but only to use him to clarify his position on absurdity. The absurd man relies merely upon his courage and hopes for nothing more than life has given him and upon his reasoning that informs him that all his actions are limited to having consequences in this world, and not in a world beyond. The absurd man is amoral (which is not to say that he is immoral), for either morality comes from God or it is invented by humans in order to justify certain kinds of behavior, and the absurd man cannot believe in God, and he has no need of justification, guided only by his own integrity, (whatever that means), and integrity has no need to be guided by a moral code. In virtues of the fact that he is released from the bondage of morality, and thereby from the concepts of guilt or wrong-doing, the absurd man as innocent. Don Juan proceeds from woman to woman seducing each one in turn with the same strategy, the same maneuvers, with which he seduced his previous lovers and he never remains with one woman too long before proceeding on to his next conquest, and he by no means is desperately searching for true love neither is he a melancholy fellow, neither is he unimaginatively repetitive, neither is he callously selfish, neither will he be a miserable old man, (well we know that part is true anyway).

Any such accusations of that kind presuppose that Don Juan is ultimately hoping to achieve transcendence, to find something that will take him beyond his day-to-day seductions, and that he is totally incapable of finding that transcendence, but on the contrary,in Camus’portrayal of him, Don Juan isa man who lives for the passions of the present moment, he lives without hope of finding any transcendent significance in his life, and he recognizes the meaninglessness of his seductions. He is not seeking for true love but wants merely to experience the continual repetition of his conquests, and he is not melancholy for that would assume that he hopes for something more or that he does not know all that he needs to know, and he is not unimaginatively repetitive in his seductions for he is interested in quantity, not quality, and so if the same techniques always get him the desired result there is no reason to alter them, and he is not callously selfish, he may be selfish in his own way, but he does not seek to possess or control those whom he seduces. And he will not suffer the consequences of his actions, he lives in full awareness of who he is and of where he is going and hence old age and impotence can hardly catch him unprepared and not on the job if I may so put it.

Needless to say I disagree almost entirely with all of that. See my article A World of Gods and Monsters — part three for my thoughts on the nonsense that is existentialism. I do not know if Camus was familiar with Plato’s ‘Philebus’ though anyone with serious aspirations to be a philosopher should certainly be well read in past philosophers, if they are then they are less likely to repeat mistakes that have already been made, sometimes such a long time ago.

The principal ideas forwarded in the ‘Philebus’ are as follows:

1. Philebus has maintained that pleasure is the good, while Socrates contends that wisdom is better than pleasure.

2. To decide the issue, Socrates considers whether a life of pleasure without wisdom or knowledge would be worth while, and he decides that if pleasure is not known, or realized, it has no value.

3. A life of wisdom which is in no way pleasant is also without value.

4. Wisdom contributes more than pleasure does to the good, for by wisdom order and harmony are achieved, and they are the essential features of the good.

5. In the final ordering of goods, as a result of the discussion, measure is ranked first, second is that which is ordered by measure, the symmetrical and the beautiful, third is mind or wisdom, which possesses more of beauty, symmetry, and truth than does pleasure, fourth is the class of arts, sciences, and true opinions, and fifth is the class of pure pleasures, those accompanying the practice of the pure arts and sciences.

The ‘Philebus’ is concerned with the question as to whether pleasure or wisdom is the good. Philebus is represented as having maintained that pleasure is the good, while Socrates has contended that wisdom, right opinion, and right reasoning are better than pleasure. It is agreed at the outset of the discussion that if a third state of being turns out to be better then either pleasure or wisdom, then neither Philebus nor Socrates will be considered the victor in the argument, but if either pleasure or wisdom turns out to be more akin to the good than the other, the victor will be the one who has defended the state allied with the better and happier life. Protarchus agrees to defend Philebus’ position, and the discussion begins.

Socrates begins his criticism of Philebus’ view by asking Protarchus to identify the quality common to pleasures of various sorts which Philebus designates by the word good. Protarchus objects to the question, arguing that pleasures, insofar as they are pleasures, do not differ from one another. Protarchus agrees to say that there are many different kinds of pleasures, just as there are many different kinds of sciences. The dialogue here takes an intriguing although somewhat technical turn. Pleasures are one, but they are also many. This fact suggests the problem of the one and the many, a problem that has nothing to do with concrete things, for an individual man, for example, can easily be one man with many parts, it has, rather, to do with the question as to how Man (the universal) is one, a unity, while the class of men is many, a plurality. The problem is to explain how the one (the universal) can be distributed among the many without losing its unity.

Socrates explains that his favourite way of learning is to begin with one idea, a unity, and to proceed to infinity by means of finite steps. A musician, for example, understands that sound is one, but he also knows that there are many sounds, and he realizes how these various sounds can be combined. Also, Socrates adds, if inquiry begins with the infinite, then one should proceed to the unity not directly but only by means of a definite number. Thus, beginning with the infinite number of sounds possible to man, some god or divine man, perhaps the Egyptian Thoth, selected a definite number of sounds, and finally unified them by the art of grammar. In the present discussion the problem is to determine, in the case of the unities pleasure and wisdom, the definite number of species or kinds of each, before pressing on to the infinity of particular pleasures and instances of wisdom. Philebus interrupts to beg Socrates either to divide pleasures and wisdom, in the manner described, or to find between them some other way of settling the issue.

Socrates suggests that perhaps neither pleasure nor wisdom is the good, and, if so, there is no need to divide either of them into species. To settle the question as to whether either of them is the good, the proper method would be to consider, first of all, a life of pleasure without wisdom, and then a life of wisdom without pleasure, for if either is the good, it is self-sufficient and does not depend on the other. Philebus and Protarchus assent to this discussion. Protarchus at first is convinced that he would like nothing better than a life spent in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures, but Socrates points out that if he had neither mind, nor memory, nor knowledge, he would have neither the intelligence nor the knowledge to discover that he possessed pleasure or that he had possessed pleasure in the past. Consequently, without knowledge life would be reduced to the kind of existence an oyster has. Viewing the alternative in this way, Protarchus loses his enthusiasm for a life of pleasure.

Socrates then considers the life of wisdom without pleasure. It, too, appears unsatisfactory. It does seem to be the case that a life of both pleasure and wisdom, a third alternative, would be superior to a life of nothing but pleasure or nothing but wisdom.

‘Thanatos II’, 1899, Jacek Malczewski. A much sexier goddess than the titan Thanos of Marvel comics, the cold moonlight, holding her scythe, behind her a mansion is burning, with figures and several dogs gathered on the lawn in front of it. That says it all.

The next pertinent question, then, is the question as to whether pleasure or wisdom is the element which makes the mixed life good. Socrates claims that wisdom, or mind, is the cause of the good, if he can establish his point, Philebus’ claim that pleasure is the good will not take even third place. There is the possibility, briefly mentioned by Socrates, that the divine mind is the good, by the time the argument is over, pleasure has fallen to fifth place, and even then, only as pure pleasure. To lay the foundation of his argument in support of mind over pleasure, Socrates introduces a principle of division according to the distinction between the finite and the infinite. The finite and the infinite form two classes, the compound of them is a third class, and the cause of the compound is the fourth. Socrates then shows that the infinite is many and the comparatives (such as the hotter and the colder) have no definite quantity, since there is no end to the possibilities of degree, the comparative then, whatever admits of more or less, belongs to the class of the infinite. In Socrates’ terms, ‘the infinite … is their unity ..’

Whatever has definite quantity and is measurable is, then, finite. When the finite and infinite are combined, a third class appears, the class of the harmonious and proportionate (since the finite is the class of the measurable and is therefore able to introduce number, or order, into the infinite). Health, music, moderate temperature, the seasons, beauty, strength, and ‘ten thousand other things’ belong to the third class. Protarchus is reminded that the fourth class is the cause of the union of the finite and the infinite. It is then decided that pleasure and pain belong to the class of the infinite, the unlimited. Wisdom, (knowledge, mind), however, as that which orders the universe and the elements of the universe and provides human beings with souls and minds, must belong to the fourth class, the cause of the union of the finite and the infinite in a state of harmony.

Socrates then explains that pain is the consequence of the dissolution of harmony in the body, the restoration of harmony is a pleasure. But it is possible for a person to be in a condition of rest between periods of dissolution and restoration, and it may be that such a condition, possible to those who live a life of wisdom, is ‘the most divine of all lives …’. The pleasures of memory are mentioned, and Protarchus is reminded that not all bodily affections reach the soul, for sometimes men are not conscious, to be conscious is to achieve union of body and soul. Memory is the preservation of consciousness, and recollection is the soul’s power of recovering some feeling once experienced. Since desire is the ‘endeavour of every animal .. to the reverse of his bodily state’ — as when a man who is hungry (empty) desires to be full, desire must be of the soul, or mind, which apprehends the replenishment when it occurs (remembering the state of being empty). Most people are in an intermediate state. as, for example, those who, experiencing pain, take some pleasure in remembering past pleasures.

A distinction is then made between true pleasures and false pleasures. Those persons who beguile themselves with false fancies and opinions derive pleasure from the false, consequently their pleasures are false. Socrates also shows how the quality and quantity of pleasures can be misjudged when they are compared with different amounts of pain, pleasures compared with pains appear to be greater than they actually are, such pleasures are also false. The greatest of bodily changes are felt as pleasure or pain, and they appear to be greater when the body is in an unhealthy state than when it is healthy. Furthermore, the pleasures of the intemperate are more intense than those enjoyed by the wise and temperate.

‘The Flea Catcher’ (‘Boy with his Dog’), c. 1655, Gerard Ter Borch

Socrates then carefully outlines the class of mixed feelings, combinations of pleasure and pain which are only of the body, or only of the soul, or common to both. The pleasure of scratching an itch, for example, is a mixed feeling of the body only, and there are certain kinds of anger, belonging to the soul,which are compounds of pleasure and pain. In explaining the ridiculous as ‘the vicious form of certain habit’, Socrates refers to the inscription at Delphi, ‘Know thyself’, and asserts that the ridiculous are those who do not know themselves and who are powerless in their ignorance. Since neither false nor mixed pleasures could possibly rank very high in the scale of values, Socrates goes on to consider true and pure pleasures. If he can show that even these pleasures are inferior to wisdom or mind, he will win his case.

Having previously rejected the notion that pleasure is merely the absence of pain, Socrates classifies the true pleasures as those given by beauty of colour and form, by smooth and clear sounds, by sweet smells, and by knowledge when there is no hunger (pain) for knowledge. These pleasures are true and pure because they are unmixed with pain. Since the excessive pleasures have no measure, they are infinite, the moderate pleasures are finite. A small amount of pure pleasure is truer and more valuable than a large amount of impure, or mixed, pleasure. Socrates then refers to the philosophical opinion that pleasure is a generation, that is, is relative to some absolute essence which has true being. Since pleasure is not an end, or absolute, but is feeling provoked in a generative process toward an end, and is thus allied with the instrumental, it cannot be truly good. The contrary view, that pleasure is good, would lead to the denial of the value of courage, temperance, understanding, and the other virtues, and it would further entail the absurd position that a man possessing pleasure is a man possessing virtue, or excellence, since only pleasure is good.

Turning to a consideration of knowledge, Socrates first of all distinguishes between productive knowledge (aiming at products) and educational knowledge. Arithmetic, measurement, and weighing are the pure elements of the productive arts, the rest is conjecture. Socrates claims that music, medicine, husbandry, piloting,and generalship involve more of the impure elements of conjecture than does the art of the builder. Even the exact art of building, considered in its pure aspect, the arithmetical, is not always pure. One must distinguish between rough-and-ready practical calculation, where things are counted, and the pure arithmetic of the person who is concerned only with number. Of the arts, the purest is dialectic, the science of Being and reality, the knowledge at which dialectic aims is the highest kind of knowledge, the knowledge of the changeless and essential. The words mind and wisdom are most truly and exactly used to refer to the contemplation of true Being.

In summarizing, Socrates reminds his listeners, Philebus and Protarchus, that neither pleasure nor wisdom in isolation is a perfect good, since neither would be acceptable without the other. The good, then, is a feature of the mixed life. At first it seems as if the greatest good could be achieved by mixing true pleasures with pure knowledge, but since life without knowledge of practical matters, to supplement knowledge of the essential, would not be worth while, all kinds of knowledge were admitted into the compound of the good. But only the true pleasures were admitted, for wisdom knows the trouble that the impure can cause. Truth, too, is added. But without measure to regulate the order of the parts of the good, no good would be possible. The mixture conceived by Socrates is regarded as the ideal because of the beauty, symmetry, and truth which order it.

The rival claims of pleasure and wisdom can now be judged by consideration of the beauty, symmetry (measure), and truth of each. On all three counts, wisdom wins, it surely has more of beauty, symmetry, and truth than does pleasure. The conclusion is now possible, the final ordering of the goods. Measure is first, because without measure nothing is worth while. Second is that which has been ordered by measure, the symmetrical and the beautiful. Mind and wisdom, as that which possesses the three essentials, is third. Then comes the arts and sciences and true opinions which are the mind’s activities and products. In fifth position are the pure pleasures of the soul, the pleasures accompanying the practice of the pure arts and sciences. Although wisdom turns out to be only third in the list of goods, Socrates wins the argument, for pleasure, and only pure pleasure at that, is fifth. Furthermore, measure and the symmetrical, the first two on the list, characterize the mind and are the mind’s objectives. Insofar as pleasure is allowed at all, it is only as the pure pleasures of wisdom.

‘Thy Word is a Lamp unto My Feet and a Light unto My Path’, 1878–1881, Eastman Johnson

So ends a dialogue named after an interlocutor, Philebus, who hardly says a word. Perhaps he dozed off. And the dialogue itself begins in the middle of a conversation, handsome young Philebus had been arguing that pleasure is good to which Socrates countered that thinking is good and so the argument was about to end when another young fellow Protarchus s takes up Philebus position. Socrates endeavours to get Protarchus to agree that some pleasures are not good but are indeed bad, for pleasures come in many kinds and sometimes are opposed to one another. But Protarchus insists they are all pleasure hence they are good, whereupon Socrates gives Protarchus the option of a life of pleasure without thinking, somewhat like an oyster, or a life of thinking without pleasure, whereupon Protarchus affirms that neither would be a truly happy life, for in his view the more preferable would be a life mixed of the two.

Whereupon Socrates asks which one is it to be, pleasure or mind, that is allotted second place? Socrates categorises the pleasures, some are restorative, the pleasure of eating when you are hungry, some are anticipatory, when you are looking forward to eating when you are hungry, and he contends that some pleasures are false because they are mixed up with emotions, such as hope or love, which in turn depend upon imagination which can be true or false. In contrast to the false pleasures there are pure or unmixed pleasures that arise from the perception of simple shapes colours and smells. And how do we mix pleasure and thought in the best life? Protarchus concurs that the best life should include all forms of thinking, theoretical and practical, and as for pleasure, the pleasures themselves (in a dialogue within this dialogue) recommend leaving out the deranged and demented kinds and admitting only the truly simple and useful pleasures. Socrates and Protarchus then proceed to rank the elements in the best life placing measure top, second is proportion and beauty, third is intellect and prudence, fourth is knowledge, art and true opinion, fifth is the pure, necessary and harmless pleasures. Intellect is nearer the top than pleasure, which is exactly fifth best, and the dialogue concludes with Protarchus saying that more remains to be discussed.

From its beginning and ending in the middle of a conversation the ‘Philebus’ conveys an impression of being incomplete, a dialogue about pleasure wherein the interlocutors never ask never mind answer the fundamental question: what is pleasure? And further, it is one of the few dialogues taking up the question as to what the best life is, but the answer, a life mixed of thought and pleasure, appears decidedly unhelpful And they never even consider the most obvious answer, a moral life, doing what is right, which often requires hard choices to forgo pleasure or endure pain. Pleasure is certainly desirable and yet for most of us it initially comes to light as that which is forbidden, against the law, that which we must sacrifice in order to do what is right, iy assumes the form not of a goddess but of a temptress. And yet Protarchus never even considers or examines this side of pleasure. Does he then believe that morality with all of its thou shalts and thou shalt nots is so much baloney?

Hardly, for he asserts that good men live in good hope for good things from good gods whose pleasures are good, and hence he believes in morality and the goodness of pleasure, a pleasure that aligns with morality, Which is to say, for a chap like Protarchus his notion of morality assumes the following rankings, measure, proportion, and beauty comes first, that is the very pinnacle, while prudence, intelligence, the steering of the beautiful Whole, the activity of the cosmic mind, comes next. And then knowledge art and true opinion. Only in fifth place does Protarchus permit pleasure whereby the true pleasure is the necessary pleasures that accord with the cosmic order. Protarchus is hardly thinking’s adversary, for he ranks it higher than pleasure in the scale of goods, but both are subservient to the measure, the proportional, and the beautiful. Socrates thereby offers us an analysis of a particular kind of moralist who claims to honour pleasure but honours a beautiful cosmic order even more highly. In response Socrates defends the simple pleasures which the moralist may otherwise have looked down upon as of little importance and unworthy of much respect, not to mention raising the profound questions that the moralist thought he had already answered.

‘The Cosmic Athlete’, 1968, Salvador Dali

And what of our absurd hero Don Juan then? We can be certain he did not honour a beautiful cosmic order and was quite content with the simple pleasures. How can we demonstrate that such a way of life is undesirable, empty, and with nothing courageous about it? (Without bringing up the fact that he was dragged down to Hell, given that Hell is a fable). Like any great philosophy text the ‘Philebus’ offers so much more to delve into than may first appear. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), offers an interpretation of the ‘Philebus’ in his ‘Shorter Logic’, for present in Hegelian logic is the notion that knowledge imposes order and limitation, and this is the cause of the world, for Hegelian logic is the thinking of thought, which is to say, as the manner by which any rational being proceed into thinking anything whatsoever he or she has to start with that which is highly indeterminate and proceed to its gradual determination, (I may seem to be getting off point here, concerning Don Juan,but stay with me).

The philosophical category of Being is highly abstract, and thereby unlimited as Plato would put it, it is very much like its opposite, that is, Nothing, and the unity of Being and Nothing which is a unity of opposites has to discover a more determined form if thinking is to proceed, for the simple conclusion that Being is Nothing cannot direct us towards the pathway of thinking but rather to an impasse. Similarly, for Plato the only way out of such a state of indeterminateness is a step further into determination, which is to say, into determining how precisely Being and Nothing constitute a unity, for Nothing comes to be as well as Being ceases to be, that is, becomes Nothing, and hence the only way out of the impasse of indeterminateness concerning the category of Being is the thinking of generation and decease, of Becoming, which appears to approximate to the outcome of Socrates’ argument.

A determinate Being is caught up in the constant flux of turning from something into another, an unstoppable change, the Hegelian bad infinite, in which the operation to overcome finiteness always remains the same, repeated, n + 1, and never comes to its destination, its end, that is, reaching infinity. The determinate Being, that is, the finite Being, becomes another and this other is again something which becomes another and so on. At this point, the impasse is that infinitude is itself only a negative aspect of Being, the decease of finite Being and its becoming another, while finitude is the law. Hegel writes:

‘Plato says: God made the world out of the nature of the ‘one’ and the ‘other’. Having brought these together, he formed from them a third, which is of the nature of the ‘one’ and the ‘other’. In these words, we have in general terms a statement of the nature of the finite, which, as something, does not meet the nature of the other, as if it had no affinity to it, but being implicitly the other of itself, thus undergoes alteration’.

It is unclear if Hegel is referencing the ‘Philebus’ here but the notion that the opposites are mixed or brought together to constitute a third category of things points to an affinity to the theme of ‘Philebus’ coupled with an extraneous addition of a Christian God that made the world out of such a mixture of opposites. Hegel does explicitly reference the ‘Philebus’ in the thought of determinate Being, after the passage out of the impasse of indetermination, when another impasse is reached, the one of the bad infinite. He explains how the constant flux of change of something to another, of a determinate Being into another determinate Being, constitutes a negative or a bad concept of infinity, one in which infinity is grasped only by the deceasing of the finite, hence as the negative or opposite side of the finite, an opposition that necessarily leads to contradiction for if the infinite is merely an opposed Being to the finite, then the infinite is limited by the finite, being therefore another finite. ‘It comes to an infinite which is only a finite, and the finite, which it had left behind, has always to be retained and made into an absolute’, said Hegel. The ‘Philebus’ forwards an account for the unity or the mixture of the two categories of finite and infinite, as Hegel explains:

‘After this examination (with which it were well to compare with Plato’s Philebus), tending to show the nullity of the distinction made by understanding between the finite and the infinite, we are liable to glide into the statement that the infinite and the finite are therefore one, and that the genuine infinity, the truth, must be defined and enunciated as the unity of the finite and the infinite. Such a statement would be to some extent correct; but is just as open to perversion and falsehood as the unity of Being and Nothing’.

Hegel sees the ‘Philebus’ as shedding some light upon the way out of the impasse of the bad infinite, for rather than separating the categories of the finite and the infinite Socrates unites or mixes them together, making a unity out of them, and furthermore, as Hegel points out, the unity is correct only ‘to some extent’ for it is ‘open to perversion and falsehood’ in the same way as the unity of Being and Nothing. Hegel suggests that the Platonic unity which is certainly a solution to the problem of the bad infinite is however, only a partial solution, for it falls into a similar impasse to that of the abstract and undetermined unity of Being and Nothing. Hegel contends that the unity advocated by Socrates, a unity of the unlimited with the limited, or of the infinite with the finite, is an abstract unity, one which lacks further determination, just like the unity of Being and Nothing, at first, also lacked further determination, hence Plato has not explained how precisely the first and the second class of things in the ontological scheme of Socrates are united to constitute the third class.

‘Orbits’, 1934, Agnes Lawrence Pelton

The finite and the infinite are significant in Hegel’s interpretation of the Christian Incarnation, the theme of the relationship between the categories of finitude and infinity presenting a fundamental problem in his philosophy of religion, together with the relationships of other pair of categories such as the universal and the singular and so on. Hegel defines the concept of religion as a complex unity between finiteness and infinitude, which can only be apprehended through the ‘speculative standpoint’, that is, through a standpoint that rejects the fixed opposition between finite and infinite, but also rejects the abstract unity of them. Hegel refers to the ‘Philebus’ in his lecture ‘Transition to the Speculative Standpoint of Religion’:

‘The finite is a moment of the infinite. These abstractions were especially prevalent in antiquity, being the offspring of the beginning of reflective abstract thought. In due course Plato equated the infinite with the bad and the determinate with the higher, and he defined the idea as the balancing of both, containing the boundary as bounded within itself. The truth is the unity of the infinite in which the finite is contained’.

The reference is certainly to the ‘Philebus’ and Socrates’ argument for the unity of the finite with the infinite, indeed this may be the principle achievement of the dialogue, but the notion that such a unity of finitude with infinity is an abstraction is still present, and further, the abstraction is present in the beginning of reflective abstract thought, which is to say, in the beginning of the history of philosophy. Plato discovers a way out of the impasse of the bad infinite, of the mere separation between finitude and infinity, by arriving at the insight that ‘the truth is the unity of the infinite, in which the finite is contained’. But if this unity is still conceived as an abstraction, one typical of the beginning of philosophy, how then can the contemporary philosopher conceive of a more concrete or actual determination of the unity of the finite with the infinite?

What is needed is a philosophy of incarnation as a manifestation of the infinite within the finite, for the principal purpose of Hegel’s philosophy of religion is to read the speculative truth behind the representational language of religion in general and especially of the Christian religion. It is hence a logical reading of events and stories which appear to be anything but arbitrary tales, and this rationality that lies behind the religious language can be interpreted by the philosopher and with the Christian religion it has been historically revealed to the whole of mankind. It is Reason that holds the truth of the religious representation, and reason is a common feature of man and of God, it is ‘the divine within the human’ as Hegel puts it. But if the divine is the infinite and the human is the finite, we are facing what seems to be a contradiction, for if reason is the divine within the human, then how can that which is infinite be within that which has limits?

To a degree this is the central feature of the Hegelian speculative interpretation of the Christian religion, indeed, the so-called revealed religion, Christianity, reveals precisely the divine within the human, the infinite within the finite as presented in the phenomenon of the incarnation of God. Even the historical presentations of religions in Hegel’s lectures disclose somehow this strange relationship between the finite and the infinite or, in this case, between the singular and the universal, for the Hegelian reading of the history of religions is marked by the concept of consummation (Volledung) which, as Karl Löwith, (1897–1973), once observed, is an essential feature of Hegelian philosophy of history. Hegel calls Christianity the consummate religion (Vollendete Religion), (but see footnote below), since for him the Christian religion is the one in which the very concept of religion is fully manifested, whereas in previous religion, one could grasp the concept only partially, and for Hegel, ‘this means nothing other than that the concept of religion is itself fully posited’.

From the perspective of the historical development of the concept of religion, this means that, first, the Christian religion, as a particular religion, contains within itself all the features of the previous religions and all the manifestations of the universal concept of religion. However, this also means that the history of the Christian epoch, so to say, contains within itself the history of humanity as a whole. This last aspect is explicitly presented by Hegel in his ‘Philosophy of History’, in which he explains how the so-called German-Christian Epoch as a particular epoch, contains within itself the most important features of all the epochs of history. Christianity begins in ancient world, it derogates the ancient world, it develops the peculiar contradictions of Middle Ages and, finally, it generates modernity. Hegel is using his very concept of consummation, or rather, the idea that the concept consummates itself in actual reality, to show that the universal is fully manifested within the particular just like God is fully manifested in ‘the shape (Gestalt) of the singular human being’.

This brings the consequence that history itself is consummated in the Christian idea of eschatology, for the idea that historical time has a limit, and the idea that the infinite nature of God, was manifested in the finite nature of man, brings a totally different conception from that exposed by Plato in his dialogues, especially the ‘Philebus’. Therefore, the very fact that Plato can only conceive of the unity of infinite and finite as ‘the infinite in which the finite is contained’ is the historical reason for his abstract apprehension of truth, according to Hegel. After all, Plato could not grasp another kind of unity, namely, one in which it is the infinite that takes part in the finite. For this speculative revelation is historically conditioned by the advent of Christianity and the incarnation of God. Instead of a goddess who stands at the gates of creation with its infinite wisdom imposing limitation to actual reality, the Christian God with his divine wisdom, cross the line and become part of its own creation, the infinite and unlimited ideality of divinity becomes part of finite reality. The death of Christ in the cross also means the death of the transcendence of God, God has completely revealed himself, there is no aspect of God that cannot be known by human knowledge, because God has fully manifested Himself in human form. So that the revelation that this singular man is God (an infinite being) is to be taken literally.

With the advent of Christianity it became established that not even God, this infinite, unlimited being, is impossible to be apprehended by human knowledge, and the notion of philosophy as a longing for knowledge, which falls short of actuality is, for Hegel, an expression of the beginnings of philosophical history in which the supreme revelation of Christ’s divine essence has not yet come. Hegel is therefore critical of the Platonic conception of philosophy as a longing for knowledge, as opposed to the actual knowledge of the sage and philosopher: ‘To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowing — that is what I have set myself to do’. Christ, with his revelation, brings about the universal cognition of God, all the boundaries that could separate the common people from the sages and philosophers are dissolved with the emergence of the universal community of human beings in which God is present as the spiritual revelation of its appearance in flesh, in other words, its full manifestation within the finite realm of creation.

Don Juan is an absurd man certainly, because he is very much a kind of moralist and doesn’t know it, (amorality is a delusion), his supposed courage, his shallow reasoning informing him that all his actions are limited to having consequences in this world and not in a world beyond, (therein is the problem, thinking in terms of transcendence, for we can certainly know nothing of the transcendent, being beyond human experience, rather it is reason that is the divine (unlimited) within the human (limited)), his skewed belief that his behaviour needs no justification for he is guided by his own integrity, which is based upon what exactly? Don Juan as absurd man is not innocent but unlearned and uninformed, disregarding of the divine within all of us, (although I suppose that could be a kind of innocence), for pleasure and pain belong to the category of the infinite, the unlimited, while it is wisdom, (knowledge, mind), that orders the universe and the elements of the universe and provides human beings with souls and minds, (there is no need to think of a soul as something that can be dragged down to hell), the cause of the union of the finite and the infinite in a state of harmony.

But ne’ertheless I hope it is no crime

To laugh at all things — for I wish to know

What, after all, are all things — but a show?

- Lord Byron, (1788–1824), ‘Don Juan’.


Early on Hegel conceived of Judaism as ‘a condition of alienation’, for the Jew is a ‘stranger’, and Christianity, therefore, would be the religion, which overcomes such an alienated consciousness by introducing the very notion that God incarnates in Jesus Christ, that is, God assumes human form. But he had a change of heart later, towards the end of his life. In his ‘Lectures on Philosophy of Religion’, from 1821 to 1827, Judaism has a crescent importance in his reconstruction of historical religions. This means that by 1827, not only the Jewish religion switches places with the Greek religion in the presentation of historical religions, but Judaism will be presented as the discovery of the principle of sublimity or divine self-consciousness. An increasingly positive account of the Jewish religion in Hegel’s view then, that was influenced by his close companionship with his disciple and friend Eduard Gans, (1797–1839), a Jewish lawyer who would also become an important character in the development of Hegelian philosophies of right and of history after Hegel’s death.



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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.