I. The Ancients

Custom having once given the name of “the ancients” to our pre-Christian ancestors, we will not throw it up against them that, in comparison with us experienced people, they ought properly to be called children, but will rather continue to honor them as our good old fathers. But how have they come to be antiquated, and who could displace them through his pretended newness?

We know, of course, the revolutionary innovator and disrespectful heir, who even took away the sanctity of the fathers’ sabbath to hallow his Sunday, and interrupted the course of time to begin at himself with a new chronology; we know him, and know that it is—the Christian. But does he remain forever young, and is he to-day still the new man, or will he too be superseded, as he has superseded the “ancients”?

The fathers must doubtless have themselves begotten the young one who entombed them. Let us then peep at this act of generation.

“To the ancients the world was a truth,” says Feuerbach, but he forgets to make the important addition, “a truth whose untruth they tried to get back of, and at last really did.” What is meant by those words of Feuerbach will be easily recognized if they are put alongside the Christian thesis of the “vanity and transitoriness of the world.” For, as the Christian can never convince himself of the vanity of the divine word, but believes in its eternal and unshakeable truth, which, the more its depths are searched, must all the more brilliantly come to light and triumph, so the ancients on their side lived in the feeling that the world and mundane relations (e. g. the natural ties of blood) were the truth before which their powerless “I” must bow. The very thing on which the ancients set the highest value is spurned by Christians as the valueless, and what they recognized as truth these brand as idle lies; the high significance of the fatherland disappears, and the Christian must regard himself as “a stranger on earth”;1 the sanctity of funeral rites, from which sprang a work of art like the Antigone of Sophocles, is designated as a paltry thing (“Let the dead bury their dead”); the infrangible truth of family ties is represented as an untruth which one cannot promptly enough get clear of;2 and so in everything.

If we now see that to the two sides opposite things appear as truth, to one the natural, to the other the intellectual, to one earthly things and relations, to the other heavenly (the heavenly fatherland, “Jerusalem that is above,” etc.), it still remains to be considered how the new time and that undeniable reversal could come out of antiquity. But the ancients themselves worked toward making their truth a lie.

Let us plunge at once into the midst of the most brilliant years of the ancients, into the Periclean century. Then the Sophistic culture was spreading, and Greece made a pastime of what had hitherto been to her a monstrously serious matter.

The fathers had been enslaved by the undisturbed power of existing things too long for the posterity not to have to learn by bitter experience to feel themselves. Therefore the Sophists, with courageous sauciness, pronounce the reassuring words, “Don’t be bluffed!” and diffuse the rationalistic doctrine, “Use your understanding, your wit, your mind, against everything; it is by having a good and well-drilled understanding that one gets through the world best, provides for himself the best lot, the pleasantest life.” Thus they recognize in mind man’s true weapon against the world. This is why they lay such stress on dialectic skill, command of language, the art of disputation, etc. They announce that mind is to be used against everything; but they are still far removed from the holiness of the Spirit, for to them it is a means, a weapon, as trickery and defiance serve children for the same purpose; their mind is the unbribable understanding.

To-day we should call that a one-sided culture of the understanding, and add the warning, “Cultivate not only your understanding, but also, and especially, your heart.” Socrates did the same. For, if the heart did not become free from its natural impulses, but remained filled with the most fortuitous contents and, as an uncriticised avidity, altogether in the power of things, i. e. nothing but a vessel of the most various appetites,—then it was unavoidable that the free understanding must serve the “bad heart” and was ready to justify everything that the wicked heart desired.

Therefore Socrates says that it is not enough for one to use his understanding in all things, but it is a question of what cause one exerts it for. We should now say, one must serve the “good cause.” But serving the good cause is—being moral. Hence Socrates is the founder of ethics.

Certainly the principle of the Sophistic doctrine must lead to the possibility that the blindest and most dependent slave of his desires might yet be an excellent sophist, and, with keen understanding, trim and expound everything in favor of his coarse heart. What could there be for which a “good reason” might not be found, or which might not be defended through thick and thin?

Therefore Socrates says: “You must be ‘pure-hearted’ if your shrewdness is to be valued.” At this point begins the second period of Greek liberation of the mind, the period of purity of heart. For the first was brought to a close by the Sophists in their proclaiming the omnipotence of the understanding. But the heart remained worldly-minded, remained a servant of the world, always affected by worldly wishes. This coarse heart was to be cultivated from now on—the era of culture of the heart. But how is the heart to be cultivated? What the understanding, this one side of the mind, has reached,—to wit, the capability of playing freely with and over every concern,—awaits the heart also; everything worldly must come to grief before it, so that at last family, commonwealth, fatherland, and the like, are given up for the sake of the heart, i. e. of blessedness, the heart’s blessedness.

Daily experience confirms the truth that the understanding may have renounced a thing many years before the heart has ceased to beat for it. So the Sophistic understanding too had so far become master over the dominant, ancient powers that they now needed only to be driven out of the heart, in which they dwelt unmolested, to have at last no part at all left in man.

This war is opened by Socrates, and not till the dying day of the old world does it end in peace.

The examination of the heart takes its start with Socrates, and all the contents of the heart are sifted. In their last and extremest struggles the ancients threw all contents out of the heart and let it no longer beat for anything; this was the deed of the Skeptics. The same purgation of the heart was now achieved in the Skeptical age, as the understanding had succeeded in establishing in the Sophistic age.

The Sophistic culture has brought it to pass that one’s understanding no longer stands still before anything, and the Skeptical, that his heart is no longer moved by anything.

So long as man is entangled in the movements of the world and embarrassed by relations to the world,—and he is so till the end of antiquity, because his heart still has to struggle for independence from the worldly,—so long he is not yet spirit; for spirit is without body, and has no relations to the world and corporality; for it the world does not exist, nor natural bonds, but only the spiritual, and spiritual bonds. Therefore man must first become so completely unconcerned and reckless, so altogether without relations, as the Skeptical culture presents him,—so altogether indifferent to the world that even its falling in ruins would not move him,—before he could feel himself as worldless, i. e. as spirit. And this is the result of the gigantic work of the ancients: that man knows himself as a being without relations and without a world, as spirit.

Only now, after all worldly care has left him, is he all in all to himself, is he only for himself, i. e. he is spirit for the spirit, or, in plainer language, he cares only for the spiritual.

In the Christian wisdom of serpents and innocence of doves the two sides—understanding and heart—of the ancient liberation of mind are so completed that they appear young and new again, and neither the one nor the other lets itself be bluffed any longer by the worldly and natural.

Thus the ancients mounted to spirit, and strove to become spiritual. But a man who wishes to be active as spirit is drawn to quite other tasks than he was able to set himself formerly: to tasks which really give something to do to the spirit and not to mere sense or acuteness,3 which exerts itself only to become master of things. The spirit busies itself solely about the spiritual, and seeks out the “traces of mind” in everything; to the believing spirit “everything comes from God,” and interests him only to the extent that it reveals this origin; to the philosophic spirit everything appears with the stamp of reason, and interests him only so far as he is able to discover in it reason, i. e. spiritual content.

Not the spirit, then, which has to do with absolutely nothing unspiritual, with no thing, but only with the essence which exists behind and above things, with thoughts,—not that did the ancients exert, for they did not yet have it; no, they had only reached the point of struggling and longing for it, and therefore sharpened it against their too-powerful foe, the world of sense (but what would not have been sensuous for them, since Jehovah or the gods of the heathen were yet far removed from the conception “God is spirit,” since the “heavenly fatherland” had not yet stepped into the place of the sensuous, etc?)—they sharpened against the world of sense their sense, their acuteness. To this day the Jews, those precocious children of antiquity, have got no farther; and with all the subtlety and strength of their prudence and understanding, which easily becomes master of things and forces them to obey it, they cannot discover spirit, which takes no account whatever of things.

The Christian has spiritual interests, because he allows himself to be a spiritual man; the Jew does not even understand these interests in their purity, because he does not allow himself to assign no value to things. He does not arrive at pure spirituality, a spirituality such as is religiously expressed, e. g., in the faith, of Christians, which alone (i. e. without works) justifies. Their unspirituality sets Jews forever apart from Christians; for the spiritual man is incomprehensible to the unspiritual, as the unspiritual is contemptible to the spiritual. But the Jews have only “the spirit of this world.”

The ancient acuteness and profundity lies as far from the spirit and the spirituality of the Christian world as earth from heaven.

He who feels himself as free spirit is not oppressed and made anxious by the things of this world, because he does not care for them; if one is still to feel their burden, he must be narrow enough to attach weight to them,—as is evidently the case, for instance, when one is still concerned for his “dear life.” He to whom everything centres in knowing and conducting himself as a free spirit gives little heed to how scantily he is supplied meanwhile, and does not reflect at all on how he must make his arrangements to have a thoroughly free or enjoyable life. He is not disturbed by the inconveniences of the life that depends on things, because he lives only spiritually and on spiritual food, while aside from this he only gulps things down like a beast, hardly knowing it, and dies bodily, to be sure, when his fodder gives out, but knows himself immortal as spirit, and closes his eyes with an adoration or a thought. His life is occupation with the spiritual, is—thinking; the rest does not bother him; let him busy himself with the spiritual in any way that he can and chooses,—in devotion, in contemplation, or in philosophic cognition,—his doing is always thinking; and therefore Descartes, to whom this had at last become quite clear, could lay down the proposition: “I think, that is—I am.” This means, my thinking is my being or my life; only when I live spiritually do I live; only as spirit am I really, or—I am spirit through and through and nothing but spirit. Unlucky Peter Schlemihl, who has lost his shadow, is the portrait of this man become a spirit; for the spirit’s body is shadowless.—Over against this, how different among the ancients! Stoutly and manfully as they might bear themselves against the might of things, they must yet acknowledge the might itself, and got no farther than to protect their life against it as well as possible. Only at a late hour did they recognize that their “true life” was not that which they led in the fight against the things of the world, but the “spiritual life,” “turned away” from these things; and, when they saw this, they became—Christians, i. e. the moderns, and innovators upon the ancients. But the life turned away from things, the spiritual life, no longer draws any nourishment from nature, but “lives only on thoughts,” and therefore is no longer “life,” but—thinking.

Yet it must not be supposed now that the ancients were without thoughts, just as the most spiritual man is not to be conceived of as if he could be without life. Rather, they had their thoughts about everything, about the world, man, the gods, etc., and showed themselves keenly active in bringing all this to their consciousness. But they did not know thought, even though they thought of all sorts of things and “worried themselves with their thoughts.” Compare with their position the Christian saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts; as the heaven is higher than the earth, so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts,” and remember what was said above about our child-thoughts.

What is antiquity seeking, then? The true enjoyment of life! You will find that at bottom it is all the same as “the true life.”

The Greek poet Simonides sings: “Health is the noblest good for mortal man, the next to this is beauty, the third riches acquired without guile, the fourth the enjoyment of social pleasures in the company of young friends.” These are all good things of life, pleasures of life. What else was Diogenes of Sinope seeking for than the true enjoyment of life, which he discovered in having the least possible wants? What else Aristippus, who found it in a cheery temper under all circumstances? They are seeking for cheery, unclouded life-courage, for cheeriness; they are seeking to “be of good cheer.”

The Stoics want to realize the wise man, the man with practical philosophy, the man who knows how to live,—a wise life, therefore; they find him in contempt for the world, in a life without development, without spreading out, without friendly relations with the world, i. e. in the isolated life, in life as life, not in life with others; only the Stoic lives, all else is dead for him. The Epicureans, on the contrary, demand a moving life.

The ancients, as they want to be of good cheer, desire good living (the Jews especially a long life, blessed with children and goods), eudaemonia, well-being in the most various forms. Democritus, e. g., praises as such the calm of the soul in which one “lives smoothly, without fear and without excitement.”

So what he thinks is that with this he gets on best, provides for himself the best lot, and gets through the world best. But as he cannot get rid of the world,—and in fact cannot for the very reason that his whole activity is taken up in the effort to get rid of it, that is, in repelling the world (for which it is yet necessary that what can be and is repelled should remain existing, otherwise there would no longer be anything to repel),—he reaches at most an extreme degree of liberation, and is distinguishable only in degree from the less liberated. If he even got as far as the deadening of the earthly sense, which at last admits only the monotonous whisper of the word “Brahm,” he nevertheless would not be essentially distinguishable from the sensual man.

Even the Stoic attitude and manly virtue amounts only to this,—that one must maintain and assert himself against the world; and the ethics of the Stoics (their only science, since they could tell nothing about the spirit but how it should behave toward the world, and of nature [physics] only this, that the wise man must assert himself against it) is not a doctrine of the spirit, but only a doctrine of the repelling of the world and of self-assertion against the world. And this consists in “imperturbability and equanimity of life,” and so in the most explicit Roman virtue.

The Romans too (Horace, Cicero, etc.) went no further than this practical philosophy.

The comfort (hedone) of the Epicureans is the same practical philosophy the Stoics teach, only trickier, more deceitful. They teach only another behavior toward the world, exhort us only to take a shrewd attitude toward the world; the world must be deceived, for it is my enemy.

The break with the world is completely carried through by the Skeptics. My entire relation to the world is “worthless and truthless.” Timon says, “The feelings and thoughts which we draw from the world contain no truth.” “What is truth?” cries Pilate. According to Pyrrho’s doctrine the world is neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly, etc., but these are predicates which I give it. Timon says that “in itself nothing is either good or bad, but man only thinks of it thus or thus”; to face the world only ataraxia (unmovedness) and aphasia (speechlessness—or, in other words, isolated inwardness) are left. There is “no longer any truth to be recognized” in the world; things contradict themselves; thoughts about things are without distinction (good and bad are all the same, so that what one calls good another finds bad); here the recognition of “truth” is at an end, and only the man without power of recognition, the man who finds in the world nothing to recognize, is left, and this man just leaves the truth-vacant world where it is and takes no account of it.

So antiquity gets trough with the world of things, the order of the world, the world as a whole; but to the order of the world, or the things of this world, belong not only nature, but all relations in which man sees himself placed by nature, e. g. the family, the community,—in short, the so-called “natural bonds.” With the world of the spirit Christianity then begins. The man who still faces the world armed is the ancient, the—heathen (to which class the Jew, too, as non-Christian, belongs); the man who has come to be led by nothing but his “heart’s pleasure,” the interest he takes, his fellow-feeling, his—spirit, is the modern, the—Christian.

As the ancients worked toward the conquest of the world and strove to release man from the heavy trammels of connection with other things, at last they came also to the dissolution of the State and giving preference to everything private. Of course community, family, etc., as natural relations, are burdensome hindrances which diminish my spiritual freedom.

  1. Heb. 11. 13.
  2. Mark 10. 29.
  3. Italicized in the original for the sake of its etymology, Scharfsinn—”sharp-sense.” Compare next paragraph.