Interrupting evil and the evil of interruption Revisiting the question of freedom
’Interrupting evil’ – in these words we hear urgencies and assumptions. We hear the urgency of interruption and an assumption on continuity. Not only does evil continue to befall and overcome us but the question of conceiving evil also continues to challenge contemporary philosophy. We face natural and political catastrophes almost everywhere. We recall Hannah Arendt’s statement that the question of evil should be the central philosophical issue after the Second World War. Evil has become a huge subject for studies focusing on its aesthetic, political, social, psychological, theological, philosophical, cultural, natural, and other aspects. We have probably never spoken and philosophized so much about both natural and moral evil than today. However, we have probably never been so passive and conformist towards evil. We testify today, even more than natural and moral evil, to the evil of indifference and ambiguity. But in post-Enlightenment analytical discourse on ethics and morality, which more and more governs our institutions and our souls, evil is disguised. We could so often utter Phaedra’s words in Euripides’ Hippolytus:
Women of Trozen, dwellers in his extreme forecourt to the land of Pelops, I have pondered before now in other circumstances during the night’s long watches how it is that the lives of mortals are now in ruins. I think it is due to lack of understanding that they fare worse than they might, since many people possess good sense. Rather one must look at it this way: we know and understand what is noble to do but do not bring it to completion.1
The fact that we may know what should be done, deducing it from rational argument, does not imply that we are able to do it. Despite all clever arguments, the gap between theory and practice is still the biggest riddle of our ethical-philosophical issues. In rare moments of sincerity we may perhaps admit that best arguments are still not enough to face the multiple faces of evil. The face of one’s suffering; the face of one who provokes the suffering of others; the evil face of egoism and indifference, of despair and madness, of hunger and death continues to surpass reason. Here we face an ‘I don’t know what to say or to think’. Nevertheless, we remain convinced that reason – in its widest philosophical spectrum of meanings – is the only way of interrupting evil. It seems that we have first to know what evil is in order to act for the sake of interrupting evil.
Western philosophical tradition has developed some knowledge of evil, which centres evil in the heart of the metaphysical question about negativity. As a negative concept, evil is what negates the Good and what can be thought only in relation to the Good. Negation of the Good has traditionally been conceived in two major senses: as privation and as perversion. Defined as privatio boni, recalling the Augustinian definition, evil is not only what is negatively related to the Good but privation as such is evil. Privation, absence, lacking, losing – all these words name the worst of all sins, that is the sin of not having, which constitutes the negative economy of evil. As privation, evil expresses what is lacking and wanting, something that is unaccomplished and incomplete. Metaphysically, evil as privation is located in finitude. Evil, placed in finitude and defined as deprivation or absence of the Good, appears as ‘condition for the Good’, and as ‘almost nothing’, recalling Leibniz’s expression: a little thing if compared with the incommensurable plenitude of the Good. Evil is thus non-Good. But even if evil is to be conceived from the perspective of the incommensurable plenitude of the Good as ‘almost nothing’, this still does not answer why evil exists. We do not have to be a Castilian king to wonder that God could have created a better world than ours – a world without evil. Does not evil hide at the end a nature which is independent from the Good? However, to affirm that evil has an independent nature outside the totality of the Good both threatens the absolute plenitude of the Good and denies the negativity of evil. It seems that ontologically, as well as theologically and logically, there is no other way left than to admit that evil is located within the Good as much as lacking finitude is located within infinite plenitude. At this point there appears a dangerous insight, namely that the Good is somehow evil and evil is somehow the Good. The danger of pantheism is the danger of the identity of good and evil. Kant’s concept of radical evil is an attempt to clear up the danger of possible identity of the Good and evil defining evil as perversion of the Good.2 Assuming evil as perversion, Kant had also to admit the possibility of perverting this perversion, the possibility of evil becoming good. Admitting that the perversion of evil can be perverted, Kant reaffirmed the sovereignty of the Good. Kant’s position seems to be a position of hope: radical evil implies the possibility of perverting the perversion of evil. From this point of view, the Good would be non-evil. But we still have to ask what kind of Good is the one that emerges from the perversion of evil? Is non-Evil good enough? As perversion of evil perversion, the Good could be considered a normalized Good, but is normalized Good enough or even able to interrupt evil? All these questions need to be asked. However, in order to answer them it is necessary to ask a very principal question, the one about how to conceive interruption as such? In order to reflect upon this question, I will follow Schelling’s and Heidegger’s thinking, concentrating on Schelling’s essay on human freedom3 and Heidegger’s dialogue between a younger and an older prisoner-of-war in Russia.4
Schelling’s Freedom essay can be read as a ‘deconstruction’ – even if the essay is very idealistic – of the metaphysical meaning of interruption. I use the term deconstruction here in the sense Miklos Vetö gave to it: ‘the works of the spirit that, through a genetic method … decompose and break down rigid forms in order to reveal the living articulation of its productivity’, that is of its coming to a form.5 In its basic metaphysical meaning, interruption has been conceived as the fundamental character of finite existence, of individuality and singularity. Finite individual existence can be considered as an interruption of the continuity of a lineage, in so far as it is a unique life and thereby ineffable, incomparable. Continuity of species is though only possible through the ‘interruption’ as discontinuity of individual life, a central thought developed by Georges Bataille in his L’Érotisme.6 A child is at the same time interruption and continuity of a lineage. Antigone is undeniably the most accomplished tragic expression of this basic paradox of life. That which unites divides at the same time. Interruption means the life of continuity itself. In this tragic sense of interruption, which outlines Greek understanding of life as a whole, interruption or mortality is integrated in continuity, in the being-forever of life. It is fundamentally understood as discontinuity. Life and death, continuity and discontinuity, being-forever and interruption are integrated in the rhythmic and circular being-forever of bio-cosmological life. That is why Greek words that could be used to translate the word ‘interruption’ express the idea of a pause or break, in the sense that sleep is a break in our waking life or rest is a break in movement.
For the Greeks, however, the individual existence of animals and plants shall be distinguished from the individual existence of human beings. From a rigorous point of view, only finite human existence can be considered mortal, can be seen as interruption because it represents a ‘cut’ in the circular movement of bio-cosmological life. By the distinction between bio-cosmological life and human-biographical life, between the concepts of zoe and bios, between immortality of life and mortality of human life, between athanatoi and thanatoi, an idea of interruption as cut within continuity is also present in the ancient Greek cosmology and ontology.7 That is why human death is rather ‘evil’ than natural, as Sappho meant in one of her fragments when she said, ‘Death is evil. Otherwise Gods would have chosen to die.’8 However, this human cut is to be understood as a cut within continuity and not as a cut or interruption of continuity of life as a whole. There is not enough hubris in the human hubris to cut itself away from the continuity of bio-cosmological life. Human life, finitude, as a cut or break within continuity is therefore not evil. Instead, evil takes place when human mortal life and human interruption strive to become as immortal and continuous as divine continuity. Evil appears as not accepting the discontinuous and interruptive nature of human life. But human freedom is self-limitation and acceptance of its discontinuous, mortal and interruptive nature. The Greeks conceived it as the virtuous self-delimitation of Theseus. This ancient experience of discontinuity and interruption is still present in Schelling’s Freedom essay. Indeed, Schelling will deepen this view by casting upon it what I would like to call the light of paradox. Under the light of paradox, interruption is brought back to possible and future meanings.
Christianity represents an interruption in this ancient experience of interruption within continuity. For it, human finite life is neither a break in continuity nor a cut within continuity. It is a fall. The scenario of fall, which Vetö described well in relation to Schelling’s position, is the scenario of a hard separation, which is the event of selfness.9 Interruption means fall, and fall means the constitution of finitude as selfness. However, selfness means not only separation but the possibility of unredeemable separation. With Jewish-Christian metaphysics of creation, interruption becomes the place of evil, the place of unredeemable separation from God, of a life outside God. But this place of evil, this place of unredeemable separation, this outside God, must still be within God, otherwise God would not be deus pantocrator et creator, God would not be creation. As fall, interruption makes even more explicit the challenge of conceiving human freedom within absolute freedom, finitude within infinitude, conditional within the unconditional, evil within the Good. This is the basic question of the pantheistic struggle, which is in its turn a central point in the idealistic attempt to go beyond Kant through Spinozism. Schelling’s Freedom essay presents a solution to this struggle by means of deconstructing the question itself and its presuppositions. The presupposition of the pantheism struggle is the idea of interruption as fall, which assumes ‘fall’ as an expulsion, a throwing outside what was inside. One of the most obscure fundaments of this long history of trying to conceive evil within creation is the distinction between interiority and exteriority, between an inside and outside creation, between immanence and transcendence. Schelling’s solution is to bring this discussion to a more radical, mystical experience of creation, liberating it from dogmatic theological views. Creation is not exteriorization and expression but self-revelation, Selbstoffenbarung.10 As Schelling claims, ‘God is not a God of the dead, but a God of the living.’11 God is a living God, and life is fundamentally self-revelation. Finitude, fall, interruption and human freedom are to be understood as God’s life, that is as self-revelation. However, self-revelation is not a transition from inside to outside, which implies that something was first one and then other. Self-revelation is a self which only is itself becoming other. Self-revelation is the paradox of one being other, the paradox implied in self-formation, that is in being a becoming. God is becoming, God is living God. Hence, Schelling says, the big problem with Spinozism is not really the idea of immanence. It is the idea of thinghood, of being as substance or as thing.12 Understood as becoming, the concepts of immanence and transcendence also have to be dimensioned anew. Becoming is a paradoxical proposition: fulfilment is unfulfilment, continuity is interruption, Good is evil. Becoming means a transformation of the meaning of copula itself by which the copula leaves behind its logical-gnoseological sense and discovers its creative sense. Copula, the Ist, is creation, as Vetö says, closely following Heidegger.13 Becoming as creation means that the principle of identity discovers itself as the light of paradox. Schelling’s position can be summarized as follows: self-revelation is the ontological constitution of becoming as the paradox of one being other.
Let us now approach how Schelling describes self-revelation as the ontological constitution of becoming. Self-revelation is a speculative concept in a literal meaning. It is understood from out of the miracle of a reflected or mirrored (speculum) image, the miracle of an Ein-bildung and Lichtblick, which are both important concepts in Schelling’s philosophical vocabulary. At the same time, the image is and is not what it reflects. Both what is imaged and an image are distinct and paradoxically identical. Janus’ face is nothing but the image of what an image is. An image is at once difference and identity and as such it reflects on its own reflection what an image is. It images its ‘model’ but also its imaging action. This imaging action is, according to Schelling, language. It is Word. To say a ‘tree’ is to bring a tree to presence but also to say that we are saying.
Man is the image of God. Man reveals in his structure the creational becoming that God himself is. But in order to really understand human finite life as image of God’s becoming, and not of God’s being, the life of God must become visible as life. Nature is life becoming visible as life. God’s life becomes visible in the life of nature. Or, in more speculative terms, the nature of life becomes visible in the life of nature. The life of nature is productive reproduction; it reproduces continuously the species by producing infinite numbers of finite forms of life. Nature is the life of forms. However, there is no form of life that would be able to exhaust the life of forms. Nature makes ‘becoming’ visible as productive reproduction. It reproduces itself by means of producing new forms of life which both interrupt and give continuity to former lives. Or with Schelling’s own formulation in the lectures held at Erlangen in 1821, the nature of life is ‘to go through all things and to be nothing, namely, to be nothing such that it could always be otherwise – this is the demand’.14 On the one hand, this means that the abundance of life forms can never exhaust the life of abundance; that life’s nature is infinitude in so far as it can never accomplish itself in one absolute form. On the other hand, it says that the life of life, vita vitae, is nothing; it is no thing. This nothingness of the life of life makes it possible not only to recognize the paradoxical structure of continuity through discontinuity and interruption, which characterizes the ancient Greek understanding of nature and life, but also to discover the optic of this paradox, the constitution of its own light.
Schelling shows that self-revelation means, for the first, that one can only show itself in its contrary – love in hate, good in evil, God in man. That is the tragical constitution of self-revelation as the ontological constitution of a becoming. Schelling moreover underlines the sliding away or withdrawing structure of this paradox. Becoming other in finite forms of life, means a withdrawing of life’s own ground. In order to expand itself, life’s nature has to expand itself both outwards, becoming a new life, and inwards, letting its own unaccomplishment alive. The ground of existence designates this never fulfilled remainder that expands as remainder when a new life expands life beyond itself. The infinitude of life wants to remain infinite. However, in order to remain infinite, life has to become the infinity of finite forms of life. Only losing itself in finite forms, life can win itself as infinitude. This insight in the sliding away or withdrawing ground of life in the coming out of a new finite existence is very central in Schelling’s philosophy of nature. He says explicitly that the properness of his philosophy of nature lies in having assumed the distinction between ground of existence and existence.15