Emmanuel Levinas, the father of personalist-oriented phenomenology, reminds us that war is the model for classical philosophy since time immemorial.
This is will be the jumping off point for this odd Memorial Day meditation on the biblical tradition.
After all, one of the oldest statements in Western philosophy is the following from the Fragments of Heraclitus:
War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.
The French-Jewish phenomenologist, whose ethical thinking John Paul II called, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope “a testimony for our age,” begins from this connection between philosophical thinking and war in his first major work, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Remember that the following words, questioning the value of ethics in the face of endless war, come from a Jewish thinker who had the Holocaust still fresh in his mind:
Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.
Why would he say that? Because war is what we know best.
Therefore, war sacrifice (many call it “ultimate”) is what we count as worthy of memorializing, not peace:
Does not lucidity, the mind’s openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war? The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives. In advance its shadow falls over the actions of men. War is not only one of the ordeals–the greatest–of which morality lives; it renders morality derisory. The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means–politics–is henceforth enjoined as the very exercise of reason. Politics is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naïveté.
For those of you in academia, note how this is a complete summary of Agamben’s “state of exception” avant la lettre.
In the subsequent paragraph Totality and Infinity appeals to everyday experience to demonstrate how much we, the readers, identify with the necessity of war, and how much we equate war with what’s truly real:
We do not need obscure fragments of Heraclitus to prove that being reveals itself as war to philosophical thought, that war does not only affect it as the most patent fact, but as the very patency, or the truth, of the real. In war reality rends the words and images that dissimulate it, to obtrude in its nudity and in its harshness. Harsh reality (this sounds like a pleonasm), harsh object-lesson, at the very moment of its fulguration when the drapings of illusion burn war is produced as the pure experience of pure being.
The classical philosophical presuppositions behind this are as follows:
The ontological event that takes form in this black light is a casting into movement of beings hitherto anchored in their identity, a mobilization of absolutes, by an objective order from which there is no escape. The trial by force is the test of the real. But violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action. Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them. It establishes an order from which no one can keep his distance; nothing henceforth is exterior. War does not manifest exteriority and the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same.
The rest of Totality and Infinity argues for a biblical-ethical supplement to this self-destructive tendency in classical philosophy; one that would move away from the totalizing of war (the reduction of persons to general concepts) into the peaceful possibility (as opposed to necessity) of personal encounter. Whereas classical philosophy favors the One, the biblical account favors the encounter with the Many, especially the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.
I’ll be coming back to Levinas soon, since I’m presently translating the book, The Philosophy of Drama, by Solidarity’s chaplain Fr. Jozef Tischner–a thinker who is featured in my post about the Central European and social heart of phenomenology. The Philosophy of Drama, available in French for those who can’t wait, takes the form of a critical engagement with Levinas’ Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being.
In the meantime, I would suggest that when John Paul II asks, “In whose political interest could there ever be a new war?,” like Levinas, he is speaking from within a biblical idiom that is mostly foreign to classical philosophy.
Time is running out for you to read: The Jonah Paradox: Is Humanity Living on Borrowed Time?
If you know nothing about phenomenology, then read Derrida and Theology + Phenomenology as Catholic Philosophy = The French Theological Turn
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