di Maria Barella 5^C
Czech philosopher Jan Patočka has analysed the role of philosophy in life, comparing it to other aspects of human existence, such as art and religion. From his discussion, we can understand the freeing power of the act of creation which philosophy entails – but we also have to accept the pain and responsibility that come with it.
At the banquet to celebrate the birth of Venus, Penia, goddess of Poverty, took advantage of Plutus, god of Wealth, while he was unconscious: the result of this union was Love. Love was condemned to be miserable like his mother, but longed for the beauty of his father; he was a beggar, an insatiable traveller who knew his wandering was destined to perpetuity and to the impossibility of reaching a destination. Since philosophy is the love for knowledge, the philosopher becomes like Love: his condition is that of eternal struggle to reach a complete understanding of all there is, while being aware that this struggle is neverending. This is how Plato paints the figure of the philosopher in his Symposium, and this figurative reference is crucial to keep in mind as we analyse Jan Patočka’s take on the role of philosophy.
Patočka opposes myth, religion and poetry to philosophy: the formers are said to originate from a state of ecstasy and possession, whereas the latter takes place when the individual discovers the problematic nature of life. This entails that religion and art are given to us by an external source, thus belonging to a dimention of absolute certainty characterised by a lack of questioning; philosophy, on the contrary, has its foundation in doubt, because it derives from the interior dimension of the individual, and from there it is projected onto the outer world.
Philosophical thinking, then, becomes the truest act of creation: the individual has complete ownership over the doubts they pose to themselves and can choose how to approach them and, because of this, philosophy is the ultimate path towards liberty. First, I will reflect on the correlation between philosophy and culture. Because culture is an excessively broad term, I will focus on two elements mentioned by Patočka in this passage, namely religion and art. Using the term religion, I am not referring to a singular, specific religious belief, but more vastly to the general idea of religiousness as transcendence and even spirituality.
I believe the irreconcilable fracture that Patočka poses between philosophy and religion to be particularly convincing; if we consider the way religion and philosophy interact with the individual, it becomes clear that they are polar opposites. A key concept in religion is that of “revelation”: this exemplifies very effectively the
movement with which the individual comes into contact with religion, which goes from absolute exteriority towards internalisation. As Patočka stated, religion is given as perfect from the outside and is meant to be taken as it is. Therefore, a person who relies solely on religion differs enourmosly from the beggar Love; their life is built around dogmas and certainties, their existence is characterised by contentment with what they are given, they are sure of the ultimate destination they will reach and believe it to be considerably more important than the journey to get there.
But because they steer away from the dimention of doubt, they are depriving themselves of the liberty that comes with philosophy, which can be ultimately defined as possession of the self. Even though there can be no such thing as absolute interiority, because it is impossible to remain immune to the influence of one’s surroundings, philosophy is what gives interiority the most space of action, therefore granting the highest level of freedom to the individual.
Concerning art, however, I found Patočka’s consideration of it to be extremely reductive.
In the first line of this passage, he states that poetry is closely associated with myth and religion and clearly opposed to philosophy. Then why would some of the greatest poets of all time also be considered to be
pivotal philosophers? In the works of a poet like Giacomo Leopardi, art and philosophy coincide perfectly.
He is the perfect example of how art does not necessarily have to come from an exterior revelation, but can be a mean through which philosophical investigation is brought out and made accessible to the self and to others. Leopardi’s art was neither revealed to him by an external entity nor dictated by the paradigm in which he was living: it was the projection of his interiority, it was rooted in the dimension of doubt and, as such, it evolved continuously. It was undoubtedly free and freeing. Unlike the man of religion, it is not hard to identify Leopardi with the miserable vagabond Love, making clear that he was both, necessarily and indistinguishably, a poet and a philosopher. Therefore, I believe Patočka is commiting a fallacy in categorising art so strictly as a
product of the possession of the self by the divinity. I would rather consider art as fluid, belonging to a spectrum, where on one side lies the spiritual, revelatory aspect of life, and on the opposite does the endless
philosophical pondering. The greatest liberty the artist is entitled to, is that to choose where on this spectrum
to place themselves and their work. We have analysed the role of philosophy in its theoretical aspect; however, throughout his works, Patočka put great emphasis on the necessity to translate theory into practice.
A concept dear to Patočka was that of responsibility, both individual and collective; this concept is indissolubly tied to the concept of philosophy as liberty, made clear in this passage. The general opinion is that liberty is a right and, because of this, it is always put exclusively under a positive light. Yet, I would rather see liberty as what the Latins would call a “vox media”, devoid of a negative or positive connotation. This is not to say that freedom can be wrong or evil, but rather that we should not forget the pain that comes with it and upon which it is built: liberty is a right, but it is also, most certainly, a duty. We, as a society, have always been prone to seeing the act of creation as either a miraculous event or a remarkable achievement: we rarely focus on the suffering it derived from and the burden that comes with it.
Philosophy, which we have identified as true liberty of the self, is an act of pure creation, of birth (this idea was already formulated by Socrates): therefore, it is painful and it places great responsibility on both the creator and the creation. This idea has already been explored in various forms throughout the centuries: it is made visible in Eloim’s distraught face as he gives life to an evidently suffering Adam in William Blake’s painting, it was captured in its essence by Jean-Paul Sartre’s quote “men are condemned to be free”. At the end of Patočka’s extract, however, he stresses the necessity to take a step further, and I think he encapsulates perfectly in very few words the ultimate role of philosophy in life.
Realising the conflicting nature of philosophy (and, therefore, of liberty) is not sufficient. Philosophy is ceratinly a tool we build to emancipate ourselves: but it is also a duty we should all comply to. It is our duty as human beings to be aware of the collective responsibility that falls upon us, and from which we cannot subtract ourselves. It is impossible to just stop thinking, because that would imply disavowing our own
nature as human beings: therefore, it becomes clear that philosophy is not a choice. To be a responsible human being means to wander on ceaselessly like the vagabond Love, to bear the pain and the struggle that come with endless doubt without giving in to indolence and passiveness, and to maintain integrity when it comes to translating thoughts into actions.