Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others


From Fortune, 29:6, June 1944, 165-167, 198, 201-202, 204, 206.  A black-and-white photographic portrait of Cassirer at work—a well-stocked bookcase behind him, his eyes trained on the paper on which he is taking notes, his left hand resting on an open tome of reference—fills page 164. (Fortune’s over-sized pages measured 10” x 13”.)

This never-anthologized article is neither Cassirer’s book of the same title (Yale University Press, 1946), nor his 1945 unpublished lecture, “The Technique of Our Modern Political Myths,” anthologized in Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945, ed. Donald Phillip Verene, Yale University Press, 1979, with which it invites comparison.  Charles W. Hendel, chairman of Yale’s philosophy department when Cassirer taught there (1941-1944), narrates its genesis:

. . . the friends of Professor Cassirer looked to him as the man who could speak with the wisest judgment [on the “crisis of world history”], since he could interpret the situation of our time in the two greatest perspectives of history and philosophy.  Some of those who were close to him ventured to ask: “Won’t you tell the meaning of what is happening today, instead of writing about past history, science, and culture?  You have so much knowledge and wisdom—we who are working with you know that so well—but you should give others, too, the benefit of it.”  He then set to work, in the winter of 1943-44, on a sketch of a book on the theme “the myth of the state.”  The magazine Fortune issued June, 1944, an abbreviated version of what he had so far written. 

Foreword, Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State, Yale University Press, 1946.  The foreword is dated April 13, 1946, the anniversary of Cassirer’s death.

As Hendel recalled seven years later:

While Cassirer was busy writing his new book, word of this enterprise was quietly passed on to an editor of Fortune, Mr. Richardson Wood, who saw the timely merit of it and proposed straightaway an essay on the subject, which was very shortly published . . . . Before Cassirer could finish the final revision of the book he was suddenly stricken fatally in New York on April 13, 1945.

Preface, Ernst Cassirer, The Philoso-phy of Symbolic Forms, Volume One: Language, Yale University Press, 1953, xi.

I suspect Fortune’s editor would have killed this article if he had grasped what his invited author had made plain elsewhere: myth underpins every regime, not just fascist ones.  Copious evidence of American mythology incongruously surrounds Cassirer’s analysis in the form of wartime advertisements—virtually every one of them an imago sacra for the edification of democracy’s faithful.  Neither the word “democracy” nor any of its cognates appears in the article.  Only his graciousness prevented him from applying his diagnosis to his host country.

Anthony Flood

Posted September 9, 2008


The Myth of the State

Ernst Cassirer 

[The article’s subtitle reads:] “Almost at the moment when political thinking freed itself of illusions, it fell prey to myth.  It can be rescued if we have the courage to be wise.”  [Two prefatory paragraphs, also supplied by the editor, precede the article:]

For generations men have labored to construct a science of politics, but the twentieth century has seen politics stripped of its rationality and clothed in the trappings of mindless myths.  From these myths totalitarianism springs.  In the following article, Ernst Cassirer, Research Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, illuminates the great social issue of our century by tracing its backgrounds in men’s ideas.

Dr. Cassirer is particularly qualified to make such an analysis.  He is not only one of the greatest living philosophers, especially noted for his work on symbolic forms, but one of the great philosophic historians, the author of an extensive work on the history of the problem of knowledge and of books on the Renaissance and enlightenment.  Dr. Cassirer taught philosophy in Germany until the fateful year of 1933, when, the German state falling a final prey to myth, he left the University of Hamburg for England’s Oxford, Sweden’s University of Göteborg, and finally for America’s Yale.  In addition to his university duties, he has written an Essay on Man, shortly to be published by the Yale University Press, and is now working on The Myth of the State, the source of the present article.  The photograph opposite shows Dr. Cassirer in his study.


In the intellectual history of the last hundred years there is perhaps no more difficult and no more disconcerting phenomenon than the rapid and sharp ascent and the sudden decline and fall of political thought.  During the nineteenth century political thought entered on entirely new paths.  New sources of knowledge had been made accessible.  Econo-mists, sociologists, and philosophers vied with each other to utilize and exploit them.  They were con-vinced that the theory of politics, when compared with former ages, was elevated to a higher level. Henceforth it was no longer groping in the dark; once and for all the “royal road of science” had been found.

The different economic, sociological, and philoso-phical schools by no means agreed in their general views.  They followed different ways of investigation and they strove for widely divergent political ideals. Nevertheless there was one point on which all seemed unanimous.  They had the same conception of the meaning and task of a political theory.  Such a theory, they told us, cannot indulge in mere specula-tions or vain desires.  It must be based on empirical facts and general principles derived from them.  By this method alone can we make the decisive step that leads “from utopia to science.”

In the philosophy of the nineteenth century this new tendency found its clearest expression in the system of Auguste Comte.  His ambition was to find a uniform method of scientific thought that would over-come all the artificial barriers between the different branches of knowledge.  Comte’s Positive Philosophy leads us, in an uninterrupted progress, from astro-nomy to physics, from physics to chemistry, from chemistry to biology, from biology to politics and sociology.

One of the principal arguments by which Comte tried to prove the profound unity of human culture was his discovery of a fundamental law prescribed by the very nature of the human mind that, according to him, holds good for all the forms of man’s cultural life: the human mind cannot reach its full scope without passing through three different stages in its approach to each branch of knowledge.  It begins with a mythological stage, it develops into a metaphysical stage, and it ends in a scientific or “positive” stage.  But, as Comte pointed out, it requires a much greater intellectual effort to make the final step in the field of political thought than in the field of mathematics, or physics, or natural history.  In order to comprehend and organize his own world—the world of his social experience—man has first to study and to master the physical world.  He has to discover the laws of nature before he can even raise the question of the existence and validity of fundamental sociological laws.

“Theological and metaphysical methods, explod-ed in other departments,” wrote Comte, “are as yet exclusively applied, both in the way of inquiry and discussion, in all treatments of social subjects.” So, after innumerable vain attempts, this last spell is about to be broken.  Even in the world of poltics we need no longer live in a world of illusions.


A Light That Failed

This philosophical ideal of the nineteenth cen-tury—an ideal shared by all the pioneers of modern political, economic, and sociological thought—seems suddenly to break to pieces.  Nothing is perhaps more characteristic of the present crisis in our culture than the fact that what a few decades ago was regarded as one of the great hopes and one of the highest triumphs of human science has been abruptly abandoned.

It is not only the fulfillment of the task set by Comte that is negated, it is the conception of the task itself.  Since the first decades of the twentieth century political thought has slowly begun to change not only its content but its fundamental form.  And this change implies the complete reversal of all the former intellectual or moral standards.  Mythological thought openly takes precedence over rational thought.  In his political and social life man is ex-pected to forget all he ever learned in the deve-lopment of his intellectual life; he is admonished to go back to the first stages of human culture.

When viewed from a mere theoretical angle, this seems to be a complete breakdown of thought.  But the phenomenon is not to be accounted for in such a simple way.  In order to understand it we must take into consideration its practical motives and its practical consequences.  The twentieth century union of the disparate elements of myth and politics appears at first sight to be paradoxical.  But the purport of this paradox is clear.  By the alliance both powers gain a new and unprecedented strength. Politics becomes a mysterious thing, highly elevated over all our common standards.  Its authority is no longer open to any skeptical doubts or critical objections.  And myth gains not only by invading a special province but by conquering the whole of human civilization.

It is not by chance that all the new myths main-tain and defend a “totalitarian” conception of the state.  By this conception every appeal to any other tribunal is from the very beginning declared null and void.  There is nothing in the world to restrict the power of the myth of the state.  To mythicize man’s political life means at the same time to mythicize all other human activities.  There exists no longer a separate sphere that has value of its own. Philoso-phy, art, religion, science are under the control of the new ideal.  The hybrid of myth and politics becomes omnipotent and irresistible.

In order to understand the strange fusion of political and mythical thought that takes place in our modern theories, we must, first and foremost, possess a clear insight into the nature of the two elements that center in the combination.  I shall therefore describe some of the most important and most important and most interesting combats that have taken place between the rational and the mythical theories of the state.  I can give only a very brief and rough sketch; but perhaps even such a sketch may lead to better understanding of our present situation.


The Beginnings of Reason

A rational theory of the state did not come forward before the times of Greek philosophy.  In this field, as in others, the Greeks were the first pioneers of rational thought.  Thucydides was the was the first to attack the mythical conception of story and to introduce a new method of historical inquiry and psychological analysis.  In the philosophy of the sophists man becomes ‘‘‘the measure of all things,” and all possible knowledge is directed to a political end.  Plato added that to understand the nature of man we must begin by studying the structure of the state.  Politics is the clue to psychology.

Plato was the first thinker who introduced a “theory” of the state, not a knowledge of many, multifarious, haphazard facts, but a coherent system of thought.  What was new in this theory was a postulate that has put its stamp upon the whole subsequent development of political thought.  Plato began his study of the political and social order with an analysis and a definition of the concept of “justice.”  The true state has no other and no higher aim than to be the administrator of justice.  

In Plato’s language the term “justice” does not mean the same as in common speech.  It has a much deeper and more comprehensive meaning.  Justice is not on the same level with other virtues of man.  It is not, like courage or temperance, a special quality or property.  It means a general principle of order, of regularity, of unity, and of lawfulness.  Within the individual life this lawfulness appears in the harmony of all the different powers of the human soul; within the state it appears in the “geometrical proportion” between the different classes, according to which each part of the social body receives its due and cooperates in maintaining the general order. By this conception Plato became the founder and the first defender the idea of the “legal state.”

In order to attain this end Platonic theory had to overcome a dangerous and powerful adversary. From the Greek point of view philosophical thought is opposed to mythical thought.  If we allow mythical thought to influence our political ideals and to intrude into the order of the state, all our hopes for a rational organization of society are lost.

Here we find the approach to one of the most con-troversial elements of Plato’s theory.  For all the commentators, Plato’s attack on Greek poetry has always been a stumbling block.  We cannot think of Plato as being personally an enemy of poetry.  He is the greatest poet who has appeared in the history of philosophy.  But in Greek culture the bond between poetry and myth was indissoluble, and this is the point at which Plato’s attack aims.  To admit poetry means to admit myth.  But myth cannot be admitted without frustrating all our philosophical efforts and without undermining the very foundations of our phi-losophical state.  It was for this reason that Plato had to banish the poets from his republic.

What Plato attacks most violently are the mythical stories about the deeds of gods and heroes. Plato no longer believes in the gods of Greek popular religion.  They have been dethroned by a stronger power: by the highest idea, “the idea of the Good.” The Divine and the Good have become synonymous. The tales of gods who quarrel with each other, who lie and commit the worst crimes, can no longer be tolerated.

For Plato there was a far-yawning gulf between such myths and philosophical thought.  In his theory of the state he could no longer make allowance for mythical imagination.  His was a moral theory, a theory of justice that had to exclude all imaginative, all fictitious or irrational elements.


Man’s State and God’s

The idea of the legal state, discovered by the Greek thinkers, became an everlasting possession of human culture.  But with the beginning of the Middle Ages political problems were no longer in the center of philosophical thought.  The new emphasis is best felt if we pass from Plato to St. Augustine.

St. Augustine stands on the borderline of two ages.  His education is rooted in the Latin and Greek classics.  But all he finds there can no longer satisfy his mind.  He is longing for another world—far beyond the world of learning and intellectual culture.  That makes the real difference between Plato’s Republic and St. Augustine’s City of God.  Both works are closely related to each other.  The very title of St. Augustine’s work is borrowed from Plato.*

*In heaven, said Plato, there is laid up a pattern of that city (i.e., state) which exists in idea only, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order.

And St. Augustine always speaks of Plato with the greatest admiration and with a sort of religious awe.

Nevertheless St. Augustine was no “Platonist.” Plato’s principal aim was to found a purely rational theory of political life.  For, this purpose he had to eliminate all mythical elements.  Of course, St. Augustine followed him in this so far as Plato’s criticism was concerned with the gods of Greek popular religion.  But there remained one essential element that could not be accounted for in a rational way and that nevertheless, from the Christian point of view, was the basic problem of both religion and politics: original sin and the fall of man.

Plato’s theory of the state is philosophically true, St. Augustine conceded, but the fall of man is no philosophical fact.  Knowledge of it is based upon a special divine revelation that was denied to Plato. And since Plato’s state is derived from man’s mind, it is the outcome of the original sin of man and shows all its marks.  It is not reason, therefore, seeking its models in the tainted mind of man, it is only the grace of God that can extinguish these marks.

The medieval conception of the state has never completely abandoned this view of St. Augustine.  As late as in the eleventh century, seven hundred years after St. Augustine, Gregory VII still declared that the state was a work of sin and the devil.  But generally speaking, this uncompromising view could not be upheld in the political literature of the middle ages. Even St. Augustine could not forbear making a very important concession: if we cannot ascribe to the political and social order any absolute value, we must admit that, within its limits, it fulfills a positive and indispensable role.  The evil of the state, lodged as it is in the original sin of man, is deep and incurable; but it is only a relative evil.  When compared with the highest absolute religious truth, the state proves to be at a very low level; but it is still good in compari-son to our common human standards, which, without the state, would lead us to chaos.

In the further development of medieval thought this tendency to admit and to emphasize the positive value of the state and the social order wins con-stantly in strength, owing largely to the influence of Aristotle.  According to Aristotle’s famous phrase, man is by nature a social animal.  Whenever we find man, we find him in a social order.  The superiority of man over the other animals consists in the fact that he has developed the natural social instinct into a new rational form.  The human state is at the same time a natural and a rational product.  It has grown by a natural process through the gradual enlarge-ment of the aboriginal community, the family.

This theory of the origin of the state was accepted and elucidated by Thomas Aquinas.  As the creator of all things God is also the creator of the state.  But here he works only as a remote cause.  Under the direction of God man builds up, by his own forces and natural impulses, the political and social order.  Yet in this natural theory of the state the dogma of original sin is still a necessary and preponderant element.

To fill the abyss between man’s primitive condi-tion and his condition after the Fall was impossible for earlier medieval thought, but in Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine the gap is bridged. According to him there is no insuperable gulf between the temporal and the divine order.  Grace, he declares, does not destroy nature; it perfects nature. The secular and the reli-gious order are different links of one and the same chain.  Despite the Fall, man has not lost the faculty of using his forces in the right way and of thus pre-paring his own salvation.  Although, because of the Fall, salvation is not possible without a special act of divine grace, man plays no mere passive role in this great religious drama.  His active contribution is re-quired, and is, indeed, indispen-sable.  By this con-ception not only man’s political life but the whole of his cultural life has won a new dignity.  The “earthly state” and the “City of God” are no longer opposite poles; they are related to each other and comple-ment each other.


The “New Science” of Politics

A famous chapter in Jakob Burckhardt’s book on the civilization of the Italian Renaissance is entitled: “The State as a Work of Art.”  Here Burckhardt gives a very clear description of the new forms of political life.  More than ever before state appeared to be the work of individual men or of combined and continued efforts of the members of a special family.  It was planned by these men and it was managed like a work of art.  The predominance of the Medici in Florence, the rise of the Visconti in Milan, the rule of the Gonzagas in Mantova are famous examples of this phenomenon.

Machiavelli, the first man to have a clear concep-tion of the dynamics of political life, was deeply im-pressed by phenomenon.  But as a theoretician he wished not only to describe it but to understand it; to detect its origin and its reason.  The reason for the state and the mere fact of the state are his principal and fundamental problems.  If these reasons are to be sought in great individuals we are in need not only of a historical or sociological but also of a psychologi-cal interpretation of political life.  We must study the psychological motives and the procedures of the great artists of the state.

Machiavelli’s Prince, written in 1513, is an unpre-cedented step in this study.  It analyzes political movements in the same spirit that Galileo analyzed physical movements.  But the treatise does not pursue a theoretical end alone; it has a very definite practical purpose.  Political analysis has to prepare and to pave the way for political action. Every artist and every craftsman needs a certain technique in order to perform his work in the right way.  All the other arts are in possession of such technical rules. But in politics all this is still missing. Our actions are the result of instinct or feeling, not the outcome of methodical observation and rational thought.  It is this obvious lack that Machiavelli’s book strives to fill. Like any other craftsman the politician must know both his material and his tools. His material is man; his tools are the various ways in which human nature and conduct are to be influenced.

How much this new attitude toward political life affected all the traditional conceptions is evident. Machiavelli never attempted to refute the earlier conceptions; he simply ignored them.  In his hands the secularization of politics became complete.  To Machiavelli nothing in political life is wrapped in mystery.  All its features have, so to speak, become permeable to human reason.  We can understand the hidden motives and we can calculate the effects of political actions in the same way that we understand the effects of any natural phenomenon.

If we look at the problem in this way, as Machia-velli himself did, we can exculpate the theory of Machiavelli from one of the principal charges that has been made against him: its profound immorality. Machiavelli spoke as a psychologist and as a technician of political life who did not allow himself to be influenced by any moral concerns.  His theory is not immoral, but it is entirely amoral.  He is concerned with the causes and effects, not with the moral ends of political action.  His state holds its ground against all attacks.  Its sovereign is absolute. It is freed from all moral or religious obligation.

For all this the theory had to pay a heavy price. With Machiavelli the state loses some of its most essential social functions.  The sharp knife of Machiavelli’s analytic thought not only severs all the bonds that connect political life with moral or religious life; it also cuts off all the threads which the state is fastened to the organic whole of social life.  In the pursuit of the interests of the state the rulers are longer bound to any consideration for the commonweal.  The state has become omnipotent; but on the other hand it is completely isolated; it has lost its connection with the rest of man’s cultural life. It stands, so to speak, in an empty space.  For power as sheer power, power for power’s sake, is, after all, a meaningless thing.

It was this problem that had to be faced by all the political theorists of the following centuries.  The work of Machiavelli could not be undone.  Even his strongest opponents could not think of going back to the medieval conception of the state.  On the other hand, even his followers and admirers very seldom admitted his radical consequences.  The doctrine of the reason of the state as the ultimate reason for any social action was accepted; but in most cases there was made an express reservation for other and higher reasons; for the inviolability of Divine or natural law.  But by such a compromise the problem could not be solved.  It was not enough to deny the inferences drawn by Machiavelli.  It became imperative to attack and refute the very premises of his theory.


The Rights of Man

The seventeenth century is the period of the labor pains of the modern world, and the political thought of that century is a battlefield between two opposite and irreconcilable conceptions.  On the one hand the theory of the “absolute” state is represented in its full strength.  In thinkers like Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes this theory is developed into its most radical consequences.  On the other hand a new ideal begins to form itself, and finally wins the ascendancy.  The doctrine of popular sovereignty eclipses the principle of absolute government.  Nevertheless these widely divergent elements of political thought are held together by a common intellectual bond.  The cham-pions of absolutism and the defenders of the sove-reignty of the people accept a common basis of thought.  The doctrine of the “state-contract” be-comes in the seventeenth century a self-evident axiom of political thought.

In the history of our problem this fact marks a great step forward.  For if we adopt this view, if we reduce the legal and social order to free individual acts, to a voluntary contractual submission of the governed, all mystery is gone.  There is nothing less mysterious than a contract.  A contract must be made in full awareness of its meaning and conse-quences; it presupposes the free consent of all the parties concerned.  If we can trace back the state to such an origin, it becomes a perfectly clear and understandable fact.

This rational approach is by no means a historical approach.  Only a few thinkers are so naive as to assume that the origin of the state, as explained in the theories of the social contract, gives us a true insight into its historical origin.  We cannot assign a definite moment of history in which the state made its first appearance.  But this lack of knowledge does not concern the theoreticians of the state-contract. What they are seeking is not the beginning of the state, but its principle.  The thinkers of the seventeenth century are no historians; they are logicians.  Thus origin, according to Hobbes, is not an origin in time but in reason.

The idea of the social contract looks back at the classical distinction between “natural” and “positive” law-natural law; in contrast to positive law, is prior to the state and not subject to its rules.  And it looks back especially to the doctrine of man’s natural “equality” to other men, as developed by the Stoics.

The ideal of equality is not to be found in the politics of Plato or Aristotle.  Plato’s ideal state is the state of justice.  But according to Plato justice does not mean the same as equality of rights.  The state of justice will give to everyone and to all the social classes their allotted work in the life of the state; but it will not give them an equal share.  And according to Aristotle slaves are slaves by nature; the abolition of slavery is no political ideal, but a mere dream.

The Stoics were the first to remove all these bar-riers.  They started from a sharp distinction between what is necessary and what is accidental in human nature.  There are innumerable differences in men that are regarded as being of the highest importance, but that do not count in an ethical and philosophical estimation of human life.  Whatever depends on ex-ternal circumstances, on conditions that are not in our own power, is to be left out if we wish to deter-mine the true value of our personal life. Riches, rank, social distinction, even health or intellectual gifts—all these belong to the class of irrelevant and indifferent things.  There remains only one essential good: the personal value of the human soul—that value which the individual gives to himself. All the conventional barriers—the distinction between Greeks and barbari-ans, between social classes, between masters and slaves—are declared by the Stoic philosophers to be null and void.  The history of Stoic thought confirms and elucidates this maxim: of the great Stoic thinkers one, Marcus Aurelius, was the ruler of the Roman Empire, whereas another, Epictetus, was a slave.

All the Stoic thinkers are determined individual-ists.  The autonomy and independence of the indivi-dual will is the highest principle in Stoic ethics.  But this Stoic freedom does not mean the isolation of the individual will, its emancipation from all social bonds. Man finds his true individuality in the fulfillments of his social tasks and obligations.  The state itself, when seen in its true light and interpreted in its right sense, is the consummation and the guaranty of hu-man freedom.  In Stoic thought the strictest individu-alism and the largest cosmopolitanism are fused to-gether into an indissoluble unity.

These theoretical presuppositions, pushed into the background by the medieval feudal system, were suddenly turned into most powerful practical weapons at the beginning of the modern era.  In the seventeenth century they proved their full strength in the combat against the doctrine of the absolute state.  According to the theory of the absolute state developed in the work of Hobbes, the social contract makes an end to all individual liberty.  This contract is a contract of submission by which the individual wills are extinguished and cease to exist.  In the civil state all powers are transferred to and concentrated in the ruler.  As against the sovereign power of the ruler the individuals have no rights whatever.

According to the opponents of Hobbes, the very concept of an absolute sovereignty is a contradiction in terms.  If the power of the sovereign is to be not only a physical force but a legal power, it is bound to certain fundamental and inviolable rules.  These rules, being universal, are not subject to the freaks and fancies of individual wills; and they cannot, therefore, be transferred from one individual will to another.  In the seventeenth century the classical expression of this principle was given in the famous saying of Grotius, that even the will of an omnipotent being, the will of God, is not at liberty to change or cancel rights guaranteed by natural laws.

This is neither an isolated dictum nor a mere pa-radox.  It is a general opinion upheld by many of the most influential political writers of the seventeenth century.  That might and right coincide in God does not mean that God is exempt from all obligations; it means on the contrary that to him these obligations are no external demands imposed upon him but that they are derived from his very essence and, there-fore, are necessary elements of his own being.

This means at the same time that the individual will is not entirely absorbed by the universal will.  It maintains and preserves a sphere of its own.  There are certain inborn and indefeasible rights of the individual that the state has to respect.  If man is to be truly man he can never surrender his indepen-dence; he cannot entirely submit to the rules and commands of an external power.  In forming the social contract the individual has not given up his personality.

The question of how far this sphere of the indivi-dual will extends was answered in different ways. Liberty and equality were regarded as the original natural rights of man, whereas the problem whether individual property is to be reckoned among these inalienable rights found no unanimous solution. We meet here with all the theoretical foundations of those practical ideals and demands which in the eighteenth century found their expression in the De-claration of the Rights of Man.


Toward the Myth of the State

The German romanticism that began to flourish at the time of the Napoleonic Wars marks a new and decisive epoch.  It paved—though it did not point—the way that led to the modern fascist and nationalist myths of the state.  In this development romanticism played a negative, not a positive, role.

Romanticism removed one of the principal bar-riers that hitherto seemed to be invincible and insu-perable.  The romantic movement completely changed the valuation of myth.  To all the thinkers of the eighteenth century, myth was a barbarous thing—a strange and uncouth mass of confused ideas and gross superstitions.  Between myth and philosophy there could be no point of contact.  Myth ends where philosophy begins—darkness gives way to the rising sun.  Even to look back at it would be to renounce mankind’s intellectual progress.

This view undergoes a radical change as soon as we pass from the period of enlightenment to early romanticism.  Myth becomes not only a subject of the highest intellectual interest, but also a subject of awe and veneration.  It is regarded as the mainspring of human culture.  Art, history, poetry originate in it.  A system of philosophy that overlooks or neglects it is declared to be shallow and inadequate.  One of the principal aims of Schelling’s philosophy was to give myth its right and legitimate place in· human civilization. In Schelling’s works we find, for the first time, a philosophy of mythology—side by side with his philosophy of nature, history, art.  And the more Schelling proceeds, the more important becomes this part of his system.  Finally all his interest seems concentrated on it.  Myth has become the very focus of philosophical thought.

Romantic poetry goes the same way.  Mythology was always a part of poetry; and mythical subjects have been treated, time and again, in classical literature.  But all this—it is now declared—was only accidental and superficial.  What is demanded in poetry is the revival and rehabilitation of the mythical spirit.  Romantic poetry is no longer to speak in mere images, in the language of clear sensuous or intuitive forms.  It must learn to speak a new language—a language of hieroglyphs, of secret and sacred symbols.  That is the new gospel that we find in Novalis’s poetical works.  To Kant’s critical idealism, which had played such a decisive role in the formation of the aesthetic ideals of classic German literature, Novalis opposes “magic idealism,” his keystone of philosophy and poetry.  The poets and philosophers of the romantic era had come full circle from Plato.  The poet was now to banish the politician.

To the Romanticists, politics was not the first and principle concern.  They lived much more in the world of “spirit,” in the world of poetry, of art, of philosophy than in the world of hard political facts.  And in this world they discovered a new province.  Henceforth their whole attention was focused on this discovery, which filled them with the greatest enthusiasm.  In early romanticism, the interest in history oversha-dows all other interests.  It is from this point of view that they denounce the “nature-right” theories of the state.  The social compact is not a historical fact; it is a fiction.  All theories of the state that start from such presuppositions are built on sand.  Law and the state have not been “made” by men.  They are no product of individual wills, and they are, therefore, not under the jurisdiction of these wills; they are not bound to and restricted by our pretended individual rights.  According to the principles of the historic-right school, man could not make law any more than he could make language, myth, religion.  Human culture is not an offspring of free and conscious human activities; it originates in a “higher necessity,” in the national spirit, which works and creates unconsciously.

That is the real philosophical center of all the political theories developed by romantic writers.  The Romanticists love the past for the past’s sake.  Even here we find the deep influence of that mythical spirit that sees in the past the only justification of all forms of personal life.  The Romanticists always see the past in a halo of sanctity.  To them everything becomes understandable as soon as it is traced back to its origins.

The romantic emphasis on history came at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent rise of national states, which continued throughout the nineteenth century until finally national history became, in the hands of Hitler and Mussolini, the material from which the mythical state was built.  The early Romanticists had had no such intention.  Their historical interest was universal.  Before the Roman-ticists, Goethe had been the first to use the term “world literature,” and the Romanticists adopted the concept with enthusiasm.  Ranke’s monumental work was a world history.  Friedrich Schleiermacher, the greatest of the romantic theologians, developed the ideal of a universal religion comprising all sorts of creeds.  But the rising national forces of the epoch diverted this historical and mythological interest to narrow and particular ends.  A whole school of German political historians of the nineteenth century developed and glorified the idea of the “power state.”  The most extreme among them, Heinrich von Treitschke, boasted that to avoid becoming confused in writing the history of Prussia he had avoided looking into the archives of Austria.  Only one voice, that of the Swiss, Jakob Burckhardt, was raised to say that power is evil in itself.  No one listened.  The devotees of the “power state” had turned them-selves from philosophers and historians into political pamphleteers.  They had opened the way for the mythmakers of the twentieth century.


The Antidote to Myth

What we have learned in the hard school of our modern political life is the fact that human culture is by no means the firmly established thing that we once supposed it to be.  Modern civilization is very unstable and fragile.  It is not built upon sand; but it is built upon a volcanic soil.  For its first origin and basis was not rational, but mythical. Rational thought is only the upper layer on a much older geological stratum that reaches down to a great depth. We must always be prepared for violent concussions that may shake our cultural world and our social order to its very foundations.

The deep and ardent desire to reconstruct our cultural world from its debris is now generally felt.  But this aim cannot be reached at once.  The modern political myths have intoxicated our thoughts and poisoned our feelings.  It will be a long time before the social organism can overcome or eliminate this poison.  I do not doubt that philosophy will have its share and do its duty in this slow process of reconstruction.  And perhaps its greatest contribution can come through a reassertion of the ethical analysis made by Spinoza at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

No philosophical thinker was more convinced of the power of rational thought than Spinoza.  Never-theless he was perfectly aware of the fact that a passion cannot be overcome by argument.  It must be destroyed by a stronger and contrary passion.  But where can we find this stronger passion?

According to Spinoza our emotional life is irra-tional in its very principle.  It is based on dim feelings and confused ideas, on imagination rather than reason or intuitive knowledge.  Yet there are two passions that, in the system of Spinoza, are declared to be exempt from this flaw.  They have their origin in the active, not in the passive, part of human nature.  In Spinoza’s system the distinction between “active” and “passive” emotions does not follow the traditional lines of thought.  According to the Spinozistic theory not only hatred but also love, not only pride but also humility, not only cruelty but even pity belong to the class of passive emotions.

There remain only two active emotions: fortitude and generosity.  They are the fundamental virtues of man; for they are those affections by which alone he can reach the supreme goal: philosophical and ethical freedom.  This freedom means not only freedom from violent desires and emotions.  It means freedom from false conceptions, from inadequate ideas, from all sorts of prejudices and superstitions.  To get rid of all these obstacles to true freedom high courage is required.  This courage is not the same as mere physical courage.  Its true sense may be described by the words: “Sapere aude!”—“Dare to know!”  Fortitude is the courage to be wise, to live an independent, active, and rational life.

But it is not enough that we reach this goal for ourselves.  We must freely communicate the good that we have acquired for ourselves to others.  And to do this we need the active passion of generosity.  Fortitude and generosity are the only means to attain and secure the freedom of the individual mind and of human society.  By the former we win the mastery over ourselves, by the latter we build up a social, a truly human order.

It was perhaps never more imperative to recall these maxims of Spinoza than at the present moment.  A passion can only be overcome by a stronger passion.  Only if we learn to develop, to cultivate, and to intensify our active emotions can we hope to check the wild chase of our passive emotions and to remold our social and cultural life.


Cassirer main page