The Ancients

Since tradition once gave our pre-christian ancestors the name of “the ancients,” we won’t advance it against them that, in comparison with us experienced people, they actually should be called children, and instead still honor them as our fine ancients. But how have they come to be out of date, and who could edge them out with his alleged newness?

We know the revolutionary innovator and disrespectful heir well, who himself profaned the sabbath of the fathers to sanctify his Sunday, and interrupted the flow of time to begin a new era with himself; we know him and recognize that he is – the Christian. But does he stay forever young, and is he still the new one today, or will he also be surpassed, as he surpassed the “ancients”?

The ancients themselves were the ones who gave birth to the young one who carried them to the grave. So let’s eavesdrop on this procreative act.

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 behind, and finally actually did. It is easy to recognize what is meant by these words of Feuerbach, if they are placed alongside the Christian theorem of the “vanity and transience of the world.” For, as the Christian can never convince himself of the vanity of the divine word, but believes in its eternal and unshakable truth, which, the more its depths are searched, has to come all the more brilliantly to light and triumph., so the ancients, for their part, lived in the feeling that the world and worldly circumstances (for example, the natural ties of blood) were the truth before which their powerless “I” must bow. The very thing on which the ancients placed the greatest value is discarded as useless by the Christian; and what the former recognized as truth, the latter brand as idle lies; the importance of the fatherland disappears, and the Christian must view himself as “a stranger on the earth”1; the sanctity of funeral rites, from which arose a work of art like Sophocles’ Antigone, is referred to as something wretched (“let the dead bury their dead”); the inviolable truth of family ties is represented as an untruth from which one can’t unchain himself quickly enough2; and so on with everything.

Seeing now that the two sides consider opposite things to be truth, the one side the natural, the other the spiritual, the one side earthly things and relations, the other heavenly (the heavenly fatherland, the “Jerusalem that is above,” etc.), it still remains to be seen how the now time and that undeniable reversal could arise out of antiquity. But the ancients themselves worked to make their truth a lie.

Let’s plunge straight away into the midst of the most brilliant years of the ancients, into the century of Pericles. That’s when sophistic culture proliferated, and Greece pursued as an amusement what had hitherto been a hugely serious matter to her.

The fathers had been enslaved by the power of unshaken existence for too long for the descendants not to have to learn from bitter experience to feel themselves. Thus, the sophists, with courageous impudence, speak the encouraging words, “don’t be perplexed!” and spread the enlightening teaching, “use your reason, your wit, your mind, against everything; with good and practiced reasoning one gets on best in the world, prepares for himself the best lot, the most pleasant life.” They recognize in the mind the human being’s real weapon against the world. This is why they so strongly hold to dialectical agility, language skills, the art of disputation, etc. They proclaim that the mind is to be used against everything; but they are still far from the holiness of the mind, because they value it as a means, a weapon, just as cunning and defiance serve children for the same purpose; their mind is incorruptible reason.

Nowadays we would call this a one-sided intellectual education, and would add this admonition, “don’t just cultivate your intellect, but also, and especially your heart.” Socrates did the same. For if the heart was not freed from its natural impulses, but remained filled with the most random contents, and as an uncriticized covetousness, completely in the power of things, i.e., nothing but a vessel for various appetites, then it was inevitable that the free intellect would serve the “bad heart” and was ready to justify everything that the wicked heart desired.

Therefore Socrates said that it wasn’t enough to use the intellect in all things, but it was important to know for which cause one was exerting it. We would now say: one must serve the “good cause.” But to serve the good cause is – to be moral. Thus, Socrates is the founder of ethics.

Certainly the principle of sophistry had to lead to this, that the blindest and most dependent slave of his desires might still be an excellent sophist, and, with intellectual sharpness, lay out and prune everything in favor of his crude heart. What could there be for which one couldn’t find a “good reason,” and which one wouldn’t let oneself struggle through?

Therefore, Socrates says: you must be “pure of heart,” if one is to respect your wisdom. This is where the second period of Greek intellectual liberation begins, the period of purity of heart. The first came to its end with the sophists, because they proclaimed the omnipotence of reason. But the heart remained worldly-minded, remained a slave of the world, always affected by worldly desires. From now on, this crude heart was to be molded: the era of the education of the heart. But how is the heart to be molded? What reason, that one side of the mind, achieved, namely the ability to play freely with and above all content, the heart also approaches this; everything worldly must come to shame before it so that finally one gives up family, community, fatherland, etc., for the heart, i.e., for blessedness, the blessedness of the heart.

Everyday experience confirms that one’s reason may have long since renounced a thing, while the heart goes on beating for it for many years. So also sophistic reason had come to master the dominant, ancient powers so much, that they now only had to be driven from the heart, where they dwelt unmolested, to finally have no part left in humanity.

Socrates opened this war, and its peaceful end does not occur until the dying day of the old world.

The examination of the heart has its beginning with Socrates, and all the contents of the heart are inspected. In their last and most extreme efforts, the ancients all the content out of the heart, and didn’t let it beat for anything: this was the act of the Skeptics. The same purity would be achieved for the heart in the skeptical age, as was achieved for reason in the sophistic age.

Sophistic education brought it to pass that one’s reason won’t stand still before anything, and skeptical education, that the heart won’t be moved by anything.

As long as the human being is involved in the turmoil of life and entangled in relations to the world – and he is so up to the end of antiquity, because his heart still has to struggle for independence from the worldly – for so long he is not spirit; because spirit is bodiless, and has no relation to the world and physicality; the world and natural ties do not exist for it, but only the spiritual and spiritual ties. Therefore, the human being must first become so ruthless and reckless, so completely disconnected, as he is represented in skeptical education, so utterly indifferent to the world that its collapse would not touch him, before he can feel himself as worldless, i.e., as spirit. And this is the result of the vast effort of the ancients: that the human being knows himself as an essence without relations or world, as spirit.

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

In the Christian wisdom of serpents and innocence of doves, the two sides of the ancient spiritual liberation are so perfected that they seem young and new again, and neither one lets itself be perplexed by the worldly and natural any more.

So the ancients also soared to spirit, and strove to become spiritual. But a person who wants to be active as a spirit, is drawn to quite different tasks than he was able to set for himself before, to tasks which actually give the spirit something to do, and not just sense or keen perception, which only makes an effort to become the master of things. The spirit strives solely after the spiritual, and seeks in all things the “traces of spirit”; to the believing spirit, “everything comes from God,” and interests him only insofar as it reveals this origin; to the philosophic spirit, everything appears with the stamp of reason, and only interests him insofar as he can discover reason, i.e., spiritual content, in it.

So the ancients did not exert the spirit, which has absolutely nothing to do with the unspiritual, with any thing, but only with the essence that exists behind and above things, with thoughts, for they didn’t yet have it; no, they only struggled toward it, longed for it, and therefore sharpened it against their overpowering enemy, the world of sense (but wouldn’t this still have been sensual for them, since Jehovah or the gods of the pagans were still a long way from the conception “God is spirit,” since the “heavenly” fatherland had not yet taken the place of the sensible one, etc.?); they sharpened their sense, their keen perception, against the world of sense. Even today, the Jews, those precocious children of antiquity, have not come farther, and with all the subtlety and strength of wisdom and reason, through which they become the master of things with little difficulty, and force these things to serve them, cannot find spirit, which makes nothing at all of things.

The Christian has spiritual interests, because he allows himself to be a spiritual person; the Jew doesn’t even understand these interests in their purity, because he doesn’t let himself ascribe no value to things. He doesn’t achieve pure spirituality, a spirituality like the one religiously expressed, for example, in the faith of Christians, which alone justifies (without works). Their lack of spirituality forever sets Jews apart from Christians; for the spiritual is incomprehensible to the unspiritual, as the unspiritual is contemptible to the spiritual. But the Jews only have the “spirit of this world.”

The ancient sharpness and depth of perception lies as far from the spirit and the spirituality of the Christian world as earth lies from heaven.

One who feels himself to be a free spirit does not get depressed or frightened by the things of this world, because he has no respect for them; if one still feels their burden, he must be narrow-minded enough to give them weight, as is evidently the case, when one is still concerned for his “dear life.” The one for whom everything depends on knowing and conducting himself as a free spirit raises few questions about how wretchedly it fares with him, and doesn’t think at all of the arrangements he has to make to have thoroughly free or enjoyable life. The inconveniences of a life dependent on things doesn’t disturb him, because he lives only spiritually and on spiritual food, but aside from this, almost without knowing it, he merely feeds or gulps things down, and when the food gives out on him, of course, dies bodily, but as spirit he knows he is immortal and closes his eyes with a devotion or thought. His life is preoccupation with the spirit, is – thought; the rest doesn’t matter to him; if he may deal with the spiritual as he always can and wants, in devotion, in contemplation, in philosophical insight, his doing is always thinking; and thus Descartes, to whom this finally became clear, could put forth the proposition: “I think, therefore I am.” Here it says, my thinking is my being or my life; only when I live spiritually do I live; I truly am only as spirit, or – I am spirit through and through and nothing but spirit. Unlucky Peter Schlemihl,3 who lost his shadow, is the portrait of this person who’s become spirit; because the spirit’s body is shadowless. – In contrast, how different with the ancients! However strong and manly they might act against the power of things, they still had to acknowledge the power itself, and got no further than protecting their life against it as well as possible. It was only later that they recognized that their “true life” was not the one they led in the struggle against the things of this world, but rather the “spiritual life”; when they “turned away” from these things, an saw them as they were, they become Christians, i.e., moderns and innovators against the ancients. But life turned away from things, spiritual life, no longer draws any nourishment from nature, but rather “lives only on thoughts,” and so is no longer “life,” but – thinking.

But one shouldn’t assume now that the ancients were unthinking, just as one shouldn’t conceive of the most spiritual person as if he might be lifeless. Rather they had their thoughts about everything, about the world, human beings, the gods, etc., and proved themselves extremely active in bringing all this to their awareness. But they didn’t know thought, even though they thought of all sorts of things and “were plagued by their thoughts.” You can compare them with 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 about our child-thoughts.

So what was antiquity seeking? The true enjoyment of life, the pleasure of living! In the end it will prove to be “the true life.”

The Greek poet Simonides sings: “Health is the noblest good for mortal man, the nest one after this is beauty, the third is wealth acquired without guile4, the fourth the enjoyment of social pleasures in the company of young friends.” These are all the good things of life, the joys of life. What else was Diogenes of Sinope looking for if not the true enjoyment of life, which he found in having the least possible wants? What else Aristippus, who found it in good spirits under every circumstance? They are seeking for cheerful, unclouded courage to face life, for cheerfulness; they are seeking to “be of good cheer.”

The Stoics want to realize the sage, the man with life wisdom, the man who knows how to live, therefore, a wise life; he finds him in contempt for the world, in life without development, without expansion, without friendly interactions 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 other hand, require a moving life.

Because they have a desire for good things, the ancients call for good living (Jews, in particular, for a long life, blessed with children and goods), for eudaemonia, for well-being in the most varying forms. Democritus, for example, praises as such “peace of mind,” in which one “lives placidly, without fear and without excitement.”

He thinks that with this he gets on best, provides the best lot for himself and gets the best from the world. But since he can’t get away from the world, and in fact can’t do so for the very reason that all his activity rises from his endeavors to get away, therefore in pushing the world away (for which it is still necessary that what is to be pushed away and rejected continues to exist; otherwise there would be nothing more to push away); thus, at most, he reaches an extreme degree of liberation, differing from the less liberated only in degree. If he himself achieved the deadening of the earthly senses, which only allows the monotonous whispering of the word “Brahm,” He would still not differ essentially from the sensual human being.

Even the Stoic attitude and manly virtue only go this far, that one has to maintain and assert oneself against the world; and the ethics of the Stoic (their only science, since they could tell nothing of the spirit except how it should behave toward the world, and of nature [physics] only that the wise have to assert themselves against it) is not a teaching of the spirit, but only a teaching of repulsion of the world and self-assertion against the world. And this consists in “imperturbability and equanimity of life,” and so in the most explicit Roman virtue.

The Romans (Horace, Cicero, etc.) took it no further than this life wisdom.

The well-being (hêdonê) of the Epicureans is the same life wisdom the Stoics teach, only craftier, more deceitful. They only teach another behavior against the world, only admonish taking a cunning attitude against the world; the world must be deceived, because it is my enemy.

The break with the world is completely carried through by the Skeptics. My whole relationship to the world is “worthless and truthless.” Timon says, “The feelings and thoughts we gather from the world contain no truth.” “What is truth?” Pilate cries. In Pyrrho’s teaching, the world is neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly; rather these are attributes which I give to it. Timon says that, “in itself nothing is either good or bad, but the human being only thinks of it as this or that”; the only ways left for facing the world are ataraxia (imperturbability) and aphasia (becoming silent – or, in other words, isolated inwardness). There is “no more truth to be recognized” in the world; things contradict themselves; thoughts about things are undiscriminating (good and bad are all the same, so that what one calls good another finds bad); so knowledge of the “truth” has ended, and only the person without knowledge, the person who finds nothing to recognize in the world, remains, and this person just lets the truth-empty world be and takes no account of it.

So antiquity finishes with the world of things, with the world order, with the world as a whole; but it isn’t just nature that belongs to the world order or to the things of this world, but all the relationships into which the human being feels that nature places him, e.g., the family, the community, in short the so-called “natural bonds.” Then Christianity begins with the world of the spirit. The person who still stands on guard against the world is the ancient, the – heathen (to which the Jew too, as a non-Christian, belongs); the person who is guided by nothing except his “heart’s desire,” his sympathy, his compassion, his – spirit, is the modern, the – Christian.

As the ancients worked toward the conquest of the world and strive to release human beings from the heavy, entangling bands of relationship with others, so they came at last to the disintegration of the state and the preference for everything private. Communities, families, etc., as natural relationships, are tiresome inhibitions which curtail my spiritual freedom.

1Hebrews 11:13.

2Mark 10:29

3The central character of story about a man who sells his shadow to the devil for a bottomless wallet, only to find that a person without a shadow is shunned by everyone. – Translator’s note.

4I don’t know the original Greek here, but the German word “Tücke” could mean “guile,” but it also could mean “peril.” – Translator’s note.