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The Intimate UniversalThe Hidden Porosity Among Religion, Art, Philosophy, and Politics$

William Desmond

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231178761

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231178761.001.0001

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Philosophy and the Intimate Universal

Philosophy and the Intimate Universal

Neither Theory nor Practice

(p.116) Chapter 3 Philosophy and the Intimate Universal
The Intimate Universal

William Desmond

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 3 asks how the intimate universal might have a significant bearing on the practice of philosophy itself. Many immediately think of philosophers as the high priests of the universal, but these high priests do not always convince non-philosophers, be they artists or religious believers. if sometimes the philosophers demand from the intimacies of religion and art that they prove themselves in connection with the universal, here the call is directed to philosophy itself, as a practice of truth, to prove that its service of the universal is in the spirit of the most intimate truthfulness. To this end, Desmond connects the philosophical service of the universal with a more intimate sense of “doing justice” that is prior to the more usual juxtaposition of theory and practice.

Keywords:   theory and praxis, social justice, politics, truth and doing justice

Opening on the Intimate Universal and Philosophy

If the intimate universal is communicated with art, and most ultimately bound up with our being religious, in both cases what is communicated cannot be closed into a sphere that circles around itself, but what might we say about philosophy? To refer to Hegel one more time: he seems to be the last high king of the universal, against whom, since Kierkegaard, we have had a plurality of protestors for the particular. Existential protest may reaffirm the truth of the intimate in face of the self-less universal of the rationalist, but without some engagement with the universal, can philosophy continue to be philosophy? Granting the intimate universal, must we not again reject an exclusivist “either-or” that sets the terms brutally against the universal and in favor of the particular? Do we not also have to say that equally unjust(ified) is a rationalistic hauteur against the particular? Philosophy is not just thought thinking itself but also entails thought thinking what is other to thought. In our philosophical attendance on the intimate universal there is more than the autonomous self-determination of thinking seeking to be consistent and at home with itself. There is the opening of thinking, either through itself or through interruption by what (p.117) is beyond thought, to what is more than thought itself. Such a view of philosophy is metaxological in being in a between space, doubly stressed by the need to be coherent with the immanent norms of thought itself and yet receptive and faithful to what being as other reveals itself to be. Does the intimate universal not have something to do with that doubleness? Might this doubleness not be seen as expressing a plurivocal relationality, namely, both the intimate self-relation of thought to itself and the charge of unrestricted openness to all being other to thought, being itself as communicating the most original and most ultimate of universals? Is there not an intimacy of the most original and ultimate of universals marking the exigency of thinking itself, its being called to do justice to the truth of being?

After Nietzsche, there are philosophers quite willing to grant the dialogue of the thinker and poet, Heidegger being among the foremost. I think this dialogue might be fruitfully seen in light of the intimate universal. It is a worthy question if our exploration in relation to art can be extended into philosophical thought itself. Can we look at the intimate universal in connection with the practice of philosophy as not a matter simply, in the terms of art, either of imitation or self-creation? Applied to philosophy, that suggests the contrast, so to say, of correspondence and construction: the contrast of truthful thinking lacking an originality and an originality lacking truthful fidelity. The question would then be: Does the practice of philosophical thinking call for a more original fidelity to the truth of the intimate universal?

But must we also ask if the dialogue between philosophy and being religious can be sidestepped, relative to such an original fidelity? If we do not sidestep it with art, why should philosophy sidestep it with religion? No reason. As almost nothing, as almost a porous “being nothing,” being religious itself enables a fertile permeability between itself and art, between itself and philosophy, indeed between itself, ethics, and politics. Can we point to an analogous permeability in philosophy to its significant others, in the very practice of philosophy itself? Certainly, there was a permeability between philosophy and religion at work in premodern philosophy, though without this being made a theme of reflective mindfulness. This permeability has been blocked to greater or lesser degrees in modern practices of philosophy as self-determining thought. Something must be unblocked in philosophy after modernity, one could argue, if a new or renewed intermediation can be recommenced between being religious (p.118) and being philosophical. The permeability is almost always unnoted or unnoticed, denied or stopped, but there are practices of philosophizing, perhaps neither ancient nor modern, that attempt to think again in its openness. I propose such an attempt in light of a certain understanding of justice: a “doing justice” secretly at work in the practices of philosophy.

This sense of “doing justice” demands of us another focus than one immediately directed to more usual themes about social justice, social power, freedom and equality, and the like.1 Instead of a side step, perhaps we need a step back: a recession into what is recessed by the foreground of these considerations in their more usual determinate forms. Such a step back, opening onto the intimate universal, would make us inquire into reserved resources bearing on our habitation of the ethos of being. Within that ethos we forge determinate practical responses that attempt to enact social justice in this way or that. But this ethos also reserved resources that are always more than every such determinate enactment. Though reserved, they remain at work in these enactments, and are resources just in the sense of sourcing such enactments. Such sourcing has something intimate about it, even when it resources magnificent social configurations within which take shape our more determinate engagements with justice. On that score, our investigation must move at an angle to discussions dealing with such more normalized determinacies. It must try to name matters more or less recessed and out of mind, whenever our attention is too taken over by the foreground intricacies of social and political engagements.

As philosophers we often think of the universal, in relation to ethical and political practice, in terms of metaphysical considerations of the ideal. Think here of the Platonic dream of the philosopher king in the Republic. The (in)famous dream bodies forth the intimate relation of philosophy and the rule of the ideal. This looks like the rule of the universal, the idea. But this is not a univocal matter, since there is at least this doubleness to it: the universal good seen as above us; the good seen as to be intimate in the just community, as well as interior to the just soul. Hence the proposal here is not the construction of an abstract theory about the good and social justice, such that from above down one pursues the application of an abstract universal to the sublunary world. The intimacy of the universal tells against such an approach. Such an approach, in truth, would make the ideal philosopher less like a king and more like a tyrant, turannos rather than basileus. The philosopher would impose a form on things by (p.119) the will to theoretical domination from top down. This is a common view of Plato: he is a dictatorial thinker (Popper: an enemy of the open society) who imposes an intellectual abstraction, a rational blueprint on the raw materials of human existence. Dictatorial thinking means the superimposition of the universal on the particular. One could suggest the opposite: Plato takes steps from the micro to the macro and steps back to the micro, from the small to the large, from the psyche to the polis, from the intimate to the universal and back. A politics that does not respect the intimate is dictatorial in a mutilating way and tortures the human being in the name of the ideal. A politics that stresses only the intimate evacuates politics of ethical seriousness,2 decamping from the more communal concerns of the public sharing of the good, concerns potentially universal.

Dictatorial thinking does not reflect the practice of philosophy here proposed as a matter of “doing justice.” It is also not true to Plato, I think. There is much bearing on the intimate universal in the Platonic paideia of the philosopher: not only in the upward ascent to the good, but in the downward descent into the cave again, in the name of justice; for the dark of the cave requires the intimate night vision of the philosopher practicing justice. There is movement from the intimate to the universal, but also justice in the return movement from the universal to the intimate. This asks true political phronesis, not exclusive of night vision. This is what we try to get into focus: not any top-down theory of justice but a “doing justice” that ferments in the intimacy of being, both singular and communal, one that does not fit into the normal binary opposition of theory and practice. This sense of the intimate universal, in fact, might allow us to look differently even on the dream of Socrates-Plato—now as a story about the intimate universality of “doing justice” with hints of agapeic service, not the reign of erotic sovereignty verging on eros turannos. Everything in Plato tells of a struggle against eros turannos. And perhaps we need terms beyond eros to see truly the difference between the heavenly eros and the tyrannical.3

If there is a “doing justice” at the heart of metaphysical thinking itself, there may well be a closer accord between metaphysics and the normalized care for issues of ethical and political justice. Perhaps this accord is often quite hidden from view, but this is all the more reason why we ought to attend to it. This reserved “doing justice” brings us in range of certain ultimate metaphysical considerations normally not thought the concern of ethical and political reflection. It brings us into a neighborhood of a (p.120) mindfulness, hard to define as simply either theoretical or practical, where an elemental permeability takes form between philosophy and more normal questions of ethical and political justice. Too simply put, metaphysics as a practice of philosophy has implications for practical justice in nurturing mindfulness of the most intimate reserves of our being human at all. My concern will be more archeological than teleological, relative to a sense of archē that makes possible diverse practices of justice but that entails a call to do justice not exhausted by any of these determinate practices. In a kind of step back from the foreground of these determinate practices into the reserved promise of the intimate universal, we must consider an originating “doing justice” that enables and exceeds, and that rarely is in focus for, such diverse determinations of justice. Among considerations of importance will be: the prior “doing justice” in relation to the more traditional juxtaposition of theory and practice; its connection with our “being true” and with a fidelity, again neither theoretical nor practical, to the patience of being prior to our efforts to enact more determinate configurations of justice; its transcendence of will to power, in an original “being nothing” that rejoins the practice of philosophizing to the reverence of being religious.

A Prior “Doing Justice”?

It is worth reiterating that philosophy has always been concerned with justice. Nevertheless, there is the quite common view that philosophy from its inception displays a certain bias against praxis. Such a bias is said to follow from our privileging of the allegedly abstract universal of theory. One thinks of Hannah Arendt’s stylization of Platonic philosophy as tilted toward the primacy of theory, hence toward a certain contemplative ideal.4 Moreover, this contemplative bias is sometimes associated with putative claims to a kind of absolute knowledge that again favors the abstract universal. Platonic theōria is said to be determinative for the entire tradition wherein theory in the end dictates to praxis, and justice becomes a top-down superimposition of the ideal eidos on the raw, formless mass of humanity, as the monarch imposes power on the many who otherwise all but count for nothing. There is little of the intimate universal in this alleged dictation to praxis of the abstract eidos. Against the dictatorial theory of the abstract universal, Arendt calls for a revaluation of praxis. (p.121) Even granting such a revaluation, one has to ask: What happens to the intimate universal? Does it figure at all? Or do some reconfigurations of its promise insinuate themselves? Can the intimate universal be fit into this relatively straightforward juxtaposition of theory and praxis?

Of course, this proposed revaluation is continuous with a longer tendency in modern thought, perhaps encapsulated in Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: the philosophers till now have understood the world, the point is to change it.5 Revolutionary praxis transcends the abstract universal of tradition theory, and claims to work out a more intimate relation to concrete life, in its economic, social, political realities. Does it attain the intimate universal? This is in question. I doubt that it could ever attain it, without rethinking and reconnecting with our being religious. A complication here for Marx’s children is that our being religious is a family relation of traditional contemplation. If we are to transcend the latter, we must also surpass the former. How then to remain true to the intimate universal? Is it possible on these terms alone?

What percolates in Marx’s dictum circulates through many forms of modern discourse.6 The relation of theory and practice is at issue, but the terms of its formulation no longer reflect the alleged contemplative bias of the tradition—suitable for a top-down hierarchical society, whether of humans or knowers, but not appropriate for a democratic, egalitarian autonomous ethos where no one is to dictate to another what is true or to be true, whether in knowing or in deed. But there are more recessed considerations, as I suggest, that bear on the intimate universal, and that must be named again, if the justice of determinate praxis is itself to be seen in a light other than the abstract universal. One might even say there is no surprise in the necessary failure of the project of revolutionary praxis, since it is a project of a still abstract universal, imposed with the aid of revolutionary violence, necessarily mutilating justice in the name of justice, and doing so because it has turned its back on the ways being religious offers humanity access to appreciating the intimate universal. The appreciation can flower in both contemplative and practical ways but is not simply either contemplative or practical.

Notwithstanding the traditional tendency of philosophy to favor theory over praxis, philosophy’s enduring concern with justice is complex, not simplistic. I do not want to enter here into the contested interpretation of Plato, but justice is surely one of the central concerns of his whole work. This is obviously true of the Republic, whose question—What is (p.122) justice?—is not just theoretical since, among other things, it has an explicit bearing on the nature and practice of philosophy itself. And this practice insofar as it bears on mindfulness concerning all the essential areas of human significance, like gymnastics and music, art and religion, the family and child-rearing, geometry and the ultimate askēsis of the erotic soul, the point of it all and eschatological justice.

A charge is laid on the philosopher—he or she comes under the demand and solicitation of “doing justice.” This cannot be a matter of the abstract universal alone—a matter of simply seeing the eidos and ending there, or perhaps “applying” the vision of the eidos. It is hard to accept without crucial qualifications any view of Plato as, so to say, a hypertheorist. To be sure, there is something “hyper” in the vision the Republic offers: there is a glimpse of the good that is above (huper) us whose measure we are not, the good that rather subjects us and our measures to true measure. Nevertheless, despite this hyperbolic dimension of the transcendent good, crucial also is the doing of justice by the philosopher in the equivocal immanence of time. There is something intimate to time about this, as well as to the soul of the philosopher. There is no univocity of the abstract universal offered by the noetic glimpse of the transcendent good. The philosopher is a servant of justice in the equivocities of time, not a dictator of justice to becoming. Instead of top-down dictatorial “theory,” the return to the cave is a sign that the intimate soul must develop a kind of night vision to discern differences amid fluctuating forms. We must go down, as Socrates says, into the common dwelling places and become accustomed to the things that are dark (ta skoteina: Republic, 520b5–c3). I see this “going down” into the things that are dark as closely connected with the service of the intimate universal. Discerning differences in the dark things is a form of “doing justice” to what is happening in the concrete events of immanent life. This is never a matter of an escape beyond—even though there is a beyond. It is not a matter of imposing from the heights a universal on the flux of happening—even though there is also a height.7

Premodern as much as modern philosophies, and now postmodern thought, have all concerns with justice, but the terms of their engagements differ. A crucial dimension of the engagement bears on the question of the universal, even if the issue of the intimate universal is not always or almost never posed in such terms. One might think of the premoderns as pointing to a transhuman universal whose transcendence does raise the issue of the intimate universal—but this is inseparable from a porosity (p.123) between religion and reason. One might think of the moderns as pointing to a human universal, in terms of our rational being, but this too raises the question of the intimate universal, since the modern universal often tends toward the depersonalized objectivism of rationalized Enlightenment, and reason is often set over against religion, repudiating its premodern permeability in the name of its own claim to absolute autonomy. One might think of the postmoderns as wringing their hands at the humanistic bad faith hiding in this modern universalism; but though hand-wringing is a token of some sort of intimacy, the universal as such is here so subject to suspicion that a new espousal of the intimate and universal does not come to the fore. It will not come to the fore unless we are ready to come clean, a bit more fully, on religion and the intimate universal.

Even when the premoderns were not so strongly religious, there was an acknowledgment of something more than the human, of relevance to the human, of incomparable relevance since without it the human was nothing. The repudiation or eclipse of this “something more” significantly alters the terms of philosophical thought and its power to approach the intimate universal. One thinks of Aristotle: the human being is not the highest in the universe. Aristotle also remarks that if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science (Nichomachean Ethics, 1141a2–22). There is a measure beyond human measure, difficult as it may be exactly to determine what this measure is. Again there is no necessity that this must be assimilated to some invidious tyrannical top-down superimposition of hypertheory. Much depends on how that measure is conceived. Granting it, as well as granting that we are not the absolute measure, changes our relation to ourselves and nature, as well as the divine. The issue of the intimacy of being becomes all the more complex and rich when our sense of the superior measure is defined by the personal God of biblical monotheism. Whether with most of the ancient philosophers, or with monotheistic religion, we are not the makers of justice, even when in our deeds we must do justice. The intimate universal may well remain unnamed in all of this. Nevertheless, how we understand our doing of justice calls for a discernment that cannot be simply called practical, since the practical is itself in question relative to its claim to be true to justice. Without its permeation by something like this discernment, a discernment in incognito relation to the intimate universal, practice itself looks more like lurching in the dark. It is all the more likely to remain one of the dark things.

(p.124) This must mean that the matter cannot be one of just having the right theory either—certainly not if we mean by theory some disembodied hypothesis or free-floating ensemble of neutral universals that claims to comprehend what is at stake in practice, dictating to it from its high conceptual perch what is to be done. If there is a kind of theory, it must be of a different sort—its intimate relation to praxis must entail a practice not identical with praxis, and without which praxis becomes the bluster of blind power. A simple contrast of theory and praxis will not do, in terms of giving either some disengaged priority to theory or some urgent ultimacy to a reformulated praxis. There is something more.

“Doing Justice” and Being True

In ordinary language there are reserves to the notion of “doing justice” that are helpful for our reflections. A teacher, for instance, will speak of trying to “do justice” to his or her subject, or to the examinations of his or her students. A parent will encourage a promising child to “do justice” to herself, say, in the forthcoming talent contest. An honest, representative political leader will worry whether he is “doing justice” to the often divergent demands of his constituency. A performer may be concerned whether he or she has “done justice” to the great score of Mozart. A gifted athlete will torment himself or herself with having finished second, wondering if the placing “did justice” to his or her talents. Of course, there are some perhaps less somber instances of doing justice. My mother places a fine meal before me, and I “do justice” to it. I eat it up with relish. What is doing justice here? It is not merely in the consumption, but in the gusto of the appreciation. My pleasure in the meal does justice to it, and communicates my being pleased with its maker. Doing justice communicates my thanks. The meal is not a bad example, for doing justice in connection with the sharing of a meal recalls us to something elemental of what I call the agapeics of being, indeed the agapeics of the intimate universal (on this, more in chapter 8).

There are many more examples I might cite but I think at the core of all of them is a certain notion of “being true.” “Doing justice” entails no abstract plan of perfection imposed from the outside—though in certain instances, the need of a plan may be necessary. It entails the solicitation of a certain “being true” that is discerned to be immanent in the practice or (p.125) the practitioner. “Being true” asks something of the practice or practitioner that is both intimate and transcendent at the same time. Intimate: for this requirement is felt in the immanence of the practice; transcendent in that it may call for something more that might be difficult to account for in terms of immanence alone. Philosophy is itself a practice, and there are different practices of philosophy,8 but none of them can escape from the demands of “doing justice” in this sense of “being true.”

“Doing justice” in the sense here intended is not a determinate activity, not a particular passivity, but refers us to a more primal patience of being. This more primal patience is not determined by the normal contrast of theory and practice. “Doing” is obviously a word of act and action. We often feel at home with action, and nowhere more than in relation to justice. We are called to do something; and our sometime frustration with an unjust situation is alleviated by doing something. “Willing liberates,” to steal a Nietzscheanism. Liberates what? Liberates from what? Liberates for what? Liberates toward what? Not always easy to say or pin down. Desist from picky analysis. Just do it!

Philosophers traditionally prefer to look before they leap, but more recently they have been boxed on the ears for their diffidence when it comes to acting. They show themselves chronically in need of flappers (I bow to Swift). Nevertheless, they still demur and excuse themselves as thinkers, not doers: thinkers of the universal, always serenely the same, not doers of this-here-now action, under the contingent urgent sign of change. Recurring to Marx’s rejoinder in his thesis on Feuerbach—until now the philosophers have interpreted the world, now they must change it—if I am right about a prior patience of being, with both intimate and universal dimensions, we risk being seduced by the sloganesque character of this thesis. I know that the gist of its injunction has been immensely influential in defining the comportment of many thinkers. We have a bad conscience about being “mere” thinkers—say, armchair metaphysicians. Eager to prove we are happy campers in the real world, we are often exaggerated in our own announcement of our engagement. I think of Sartre—anxious in a wall-eyed way lest history with a big H should pass him by. One can prove the point of engagement to the extreme of becoming a groupie of some currently ascendant ideology. Then it is perhaps too true that such a philosopher doth protest too much.

If there is a universal here, it is in the announced program of the reigning ideology. If there is an intimacy here, it consists in being engagé, with (p.126) sneers for the cautious on the sidelines. One becomes what one might call an agenda philosopher. There is nothing wrong with agendas: an agenda is literally “what is to be done,” “what must be done.” The fundamental conditions of life make human beings agenda creatures. What we are is defined by the question, made (in)famous by Lenin, What is to be done?—and how we respond to it. I grant that: but an agenda philosophy, one suspects, is as constraining of thought as, perhaps more constraining than, the allegedly “top-down” dictatorial theorist. For in agenda philosophy there is a determination in advance of what is to be thought in terms of an anticipated response to the question “What is to be done?” The agenda determines what is to be thought, as well as what is to be done. Agendas can be immensely helpful in confused practical circumstances; they can also be dictatorial. They can especially be dictatorial when they define how we relate to reality as a whole, dictating in advance the kind of mindfulness and praxis that is deemed appropriate. And this dictation has a bearing not only on this situation or that, but in a more pervasive and encompassing sense. Agenda philosophizing then imposes what it takes as more universal on what it perceives as the particular urgencies intimate to immanent life. What being is or is to become, or concrete reality is to be, is determined in terms of the agenda we bring to bear on it. To be at all means to be on the agenda. Thus viewed, the agenda can induce a kind of policing of our thinking. What is not on the agenda is nothing, or to be condemned to be nothing.

By contrast, there is a “doing justice” that is not, or seeks not to be, agenda driven, which, just as a being true, is not either a matter of the hypertheory of “absolute knowledge” or the projects of agenda-driven humans. Exhausted neither by abstract universality nor by obsessional singularity, such “doing justice” is something intermediate for humans. Before all agendas there is something received. This reception in intimacy is not devoid of its own universal call. There is a promise in immanence that is more than immanence. As well as the promise given, this intermediate nature also means we have to reckon with human fallibility, failure, ignorance, and malice—be we as well intentioned as we can be. We betray the promise of what we have received. We mess things up.

“Doing justice,” like our “being true,” is in between. One must reject terms which imply that the whole tradition is guilty of overstated claims of absolute knowing qua theory to the devaluation of praxis (such as we find with Arendt). There is a practice of philosophy that goes with this “being (p.127) true,” this “doing justice.” The simple contrast of theory and practice does not do justice to our ontological situation. Philosophy, as I understand it, is a practice of life asking us to do justice to the most opposed requirements, and with all the tension of this: remoteness and engagement, distance and intimacy. If it were a matter of mere remoteness, the result would be the loss of life. If it were a matter of mere engagement, the result might be the loss of lucidity. Mere distance can breed a kind of arrogance, even when it touches nothing. Mere intimacy can beguile us with an apparent relevance—close-up relevance that by far is irrelevant. But to be intimate and to know distance, to be engaged and to respect range—this is not easy. The practice of philosophy asks of us this hard poise of truthful thought.

The view I am trying to get into focus is, in some ways, both the easiest to defend and the hardest to accept. Easiest, because we all know the patience of being in our ontological vulnerability as finite creatures. Hardest, because we find it least easy to grant this and what follows from it. What we intimately know, we expressly refuse to grant. There is an ontological vulnerability prior to definition by social status, and the significance of this is not confined to a kind of autistic singularity. It has a more universal significance in implicating all in the promise endowed in us with the patience of being. But we struggle to consent to the ontological vulnerability of our patient being, of our being patient. Social status and all the issues of social justice that go with the good governance of power in a human community are themselves responses to this prior vulnerability. We make ourselves secure only because we live out of an intimate ontological vulnerability.

We are impatient with being patient beings. Take an extreme instance: our desire to be on top. We desire not only to be on top of things, we desire to be on top, simpliciter. The desire to be number one, the desire to be boss, the desire to be sovereign—understood communally or politically—are easily recognizable configurations of our social life, but they are themselves derivative, derivative from responses of power that want to recess even more the recessed patience of our being. It is not only the socially vulnerable who are vulnerable. There is no one who is not socially vulnerable. Being on top recesses the primal patience and its ontological vulnerability. The desire to be on top, while active, is reactive to the primal patience of our being. The issue of the prior “doing justice” is not to be first situated on the level of derivative configurations of (p.128) this more primal ontological condition—this more primal poverty. The view is again hardest to defend because we do not want to acknowledge this about ourselves, about our very being. In accession to power(s), we are tempted, again and again, with the apotheosis of invulnerability. Again and again we succumb.

If the contrast of theory and practice is often too crudely drawn, the matter is not one of simply reactively reasserting the virtues of the contemplative life—though I would certainly stress the perennial importance of the contemplative. I want to say that this “doing justice” must be understood in relation to the more primal patience—and this relative to the character of being true with respect to human beings and their good governance of power in a just social accord. There is a sense of “doing justice” that is connected to, and can become the fruit of, a deeper metaphysical patience. Let me explain this in relation to truth or, better put, being true.

Being True and Our Intermediate Being

The strong tendency in modernity to give a certain privilege to praxis is in line with the dictum of Vico: the true is the made (verum et factum convertuntur).9 Marx cites this dictum with approval, and there is a widespread view that there is no truth for itself, the true is the constructed. By extension also the universal is defined by the range of human power in its productive spread. We construct the universal, and this might be taken in either a theoretical or a practical sense. In the theoretical sense, we meet varieties of post-Kantian idealism (not Platonic) in which the universal is constituted by the (self-)activity of successors of the transcendental ego, whether more logical or historicized in form. In the practical sense, the constructive power of humanity makes itself the universal in the range of its projects that claim to be potentially unrestricted in refusing all arrest by any “mere given.” In the construction of this universal we could name the scientific-technological will to power of consumer capitalism, the social will to power we detect in social(ist) (earlier communist) political projects. The constructive impulse continues—in postmodernity globalization is now overtly, now secretly, in the business of constructing its universal.

None of this does justice to a sense of the true prior to construction, and that enables construction. The intimate universal is not a (p.129) construction, though it may seed us with the promise of being constructive in shaping our lives. The true here is not the made, and to do justice to it, we need an understanding of “doing justice” as inseparable from a fidelity to this prior “being true.” This sense of “being true” and of “doing justice” prior to the normal contrast of the theoretical and the practical has everything to do with the fact that we are between-beings. Consider it in the following way.

It is true that we do not possess absolute truth; perhaps only God can and does. That we do not possess the absolute truth is not a postmodern view—it is as old as the despised Plato. We are not the universal. Human beings are not God; hence we do not, in a sense, cannot, possess absolute truth. This does not mean we are licensed through ourselves alone to construct “truth” or “truths,” such as we might consider relevant or interesting for ourselves alone. The painter George Braque, one not devoid of the constructive power of the artistic creator, was on to something true when he said: “Truth exists; only lies are invented.”10 One might add: we can only invent lies because we are already in a prior relation to truth, witnessed by the call on us to “be true.” The call is intimate and yet implicates the universal. Not possessing absolute truth, we seek the true, but we could not seek at all were there no relation between us, our desire, and the truth sought. To know we do not know the absolute truth is already to be in relation to truth. Otherwise we could not know our ignorance, or seek what we lack and obscurely anticipate. We are intermediate beings: neither in absolute possession of truth, nor in absolute destitution—somewhere between.

We do not construct this “somewhere between.” It is the space, indeed ethos, of being, within which we might seek to construct this or that, but it is presupposed by all our constructing power. This place is the metaxu (Greek for “between”), and being in the metaxu defines our participation in the milieu of being, within which our own middle being intermediates with what is, and with itself, seeking to do justice to itself and what it is to be, as well as to what is other, both as it is and as it is to be. We are endowed before we construct.

This intermediacy has implications for “doing justice” and the intimate universal. There emerges in our very searching, prior to theory and practice, a call to fidelity to the true that we neither possess nor construct, and yet that endows us with the power to do justice, not only in this practical endeavor or that, but in a “being true” that keeps faith in openness to (p.130) all that is. The point does not have to be put negatively. It is not a matter of deep instabilities in denying a sense of truth that is not our own construction—though this is important. It is rather a matter of attending to what is intimate in the search for all truth, even in the denial that we possess the truth, namely, an elemental and primal call to “be truthful.” Being truthful and “doing justice” are inseparably connected. Moreover, one can be truthful in one’s very searching for truth, and even in knowing that one does not possess the true. “Doing justice” to this “being true” is testament to that intermediate condition: the honest seeker as between the fullness of truth of the divine and the ignorance of the beast: beyond the second, though the first be beyond us, and yet in intimate relation to what is so beyond us, by virtue of the call to be truthful. The solicitation of the universal is intimate to the call to be truthful. The solicitation of the universal is itself an intimate call. Twinned with this “being true” is the call to “do justice” that is prior to the particular truth or justice of this or that determinate theory or form of praxis. The justice or truth of the latter comes to manifestation out of this prior “being true” and “doing justice.” The call to “do justice” of the intimate universal is neither theoretical nor practical but because of it both theory and practice are solicited and enabled.

The charge to be truthful makes a call on us before we endeavor to construct any system of science or philosophy that might claim to be true, and before we seek to put into practice any agenda we deem needful for the just governance of human affairs. It may call us actively to construct or act; but the call itself shows us to be open to something other than our own self-determination, something that endows us with a destiny to be truthful and just to the utmost extent of our human powers. Because the call of the intimate universal is neither theoretical nor practical, there is no way of absolutely separating the theoretical and the practical, the metaphysical and the ethical. For this being truthful is called to a fidelity that solicits a way of life appropriate to it, that issues in a way of being mindful in which we are to live truthfully, and to live truly. “Doing justice” to this call to be truthful is needed if we are to remain true to “doing justice” in this or that practical endeavor. This point will have repercussions for the intermediation between politics and religion, both as profoundly concerned with the appropriate way of life for the human being.

“Being true” is not a univocal, objective truth fixed “out there” but has a bearing on the immanent porosity of the human being to being as it (p.131) is, and to what is good and worthy in itself to be affirmed.11 Not simply objective, it is not simply subjective either. Intimately in our selving there opens up the space of an ontological porosity wherein we are called upon intimately to be truthful. The call intimates something trans-subjective, for there is a communication that comes to us, endowing us with a promise we could not construct through ourselves alone. The intimate spirit of truthfulness is suggestive of something trans-subjective in our own subjectivity. This spirit of truthfulness is also “objective” just in being trans-subjective, in that it communicates something other to us that in its otherness is also in intimate relation to us. This otherness is not objective in terms of this determinate object or that; rather in what is objective this spirit of truthfulness witnesses to something that is trans-objective. Though not exhausted by this or that objective truth, without it we would have no participation in objective truth. It endows us with the ability to do justice to this or that objective truth.

I find Pascal’s distinction between l’esprit de géométrie and l’esprit de finesse helpful here. At first glance, we seem to have here a contrast stressing, on the side of geometry, a kind of selfless universality and, on the side of finesse, the intimacy of human selving without claim to universality. While l’esprit de géométrie does tend to the ideal of selfless universality, and while l’esprit de finesse is not devoid of an immanent promise of universality, it is the intimate universal that is essentially at issue. Such truths as we pursue in the hard sciences and mathematics call upon l’esprit de géométrie. They are open to the more objective univocalization of the seemingly selfless universal. By contrast, the intimacy of the human being eludes complete objective univocalization—even if only because as seekers of the true we are always more than any univocal truth. Even the project of univocal truth emerges from sources that themselves cannot be univocalized. Our passion for univocal truth is not itself a univocal passion. This passion is the intimate eros for truth as universal, hence witnesses to more than the selfless universal. Our desire for the selfless universal itself solicits a truthful selving. Truthful selving is intimate to what we are most deeply in an ontological sense, but it shows us intimately in relation to the true beyond us, and as universal in a sense we neither project nor construct. Projection and construction presuppose a more primal patience to truth in our being truthful, a patience more ontologically reserved than every determinate project or construction. The intimate universal endows the spirit of truthfulness gestating in the deepest intimacy of human selving. (p.132) “Doing justice” is the practice of being truthful in the living endowment of the intimate universal.

We especially need l’esprit de finesse when we try to do justice to the human being, in the intimate ambiguity of its being, defined in the tension between its own being truthful and the true as other than its own construction. Our being truthful calls first upon powers of mindfulness that flower in l’esprit de finesse rather than l’esprit de géométrie. One could, of course, say that the selfless universality of l’esprit de géométrie itself secretly participates in the more intimate truthfulness of l’esprit de finesse. For the proper sense for the appropriate employment of l’esprit de géométrie is not itself an instance of l’esprit de géométrie. As a deeming of the appropriate, it asks for l’esprit de finesse. In that regard, l’esprit de finesse is more basic than l’esprit de géométrie. Without the former the latter cannot judge the appropriate or deem the worthy. There is a sense in which the spirit of truthfulness transcends the difference of geometry and finesse, and in such a way that we must resist the temptation to see these two as just dualistically opposed. They are held together in something more primal. The universal of one is wedded to the intimacy of the other in the intimate universal. The spirit of truthfulness is itself intimate to the finesse of the human being. As transcending the difference of geometry and finesse, the spirit of truthfulness participates in and gives witness to the intimate universal.

Finesse has significant implications for both the neutralizing, homogenizing universality of modern Enlightenment and the repudiation of universality by post-Enlightenment postmoderns. Relative to the first, finesse is crucial in a time such as ours in which l’esprit de géométrie, floating cybernetically high with powerful theoretical knowledge, and arrogating to itself selfless universality, is often in the ascendant. Finesse is rather a readiness for a more intimate knowing, in communication with what is prior to and beyond geometry. Finesse articulates a mindfulness that reveals a readiness to read the equivocal signs of human existence. The élan of such a mindfulness is not simply a matter of converting these signs into the neutral universals of a univocal science or a philosophical system. Finesse is an excellence of mindfulness that is singularly embodied and that resists being rendered without remainder in neutral generalities. The matter has its ethical and political manifestation also. Ethical finesse and political finesse, one might say, find their practical embodiment in the excellences of phronēsis. Finesse concerns the concrete suppleness of living (p.133) intelligence that is open, attentive, mindful, attuned to the occasion in all its elusiveness, subtlety, and unrepeatable singularity. Singularity here is not a kind of autism of being. It communicates of what is rich with a promise, and indeed danger, promise perhaps initially, not fully, communicated, and yet available for, making itself available for, communicability. Communicability itself is not to be rendered in terms of neutral generality, or homogeneous universality. The mindfulness of finesse asks that we be in attendance on what the intimacy of being communicates. We are not confined to the merely private but come to ourselves in the space of open porosity that is at the heart of living communicability.

Relative to the second, namely, the postmodern repudiation of Enlightenment universality, postmodern pluralism often luxuriates in ambiguity and equivocity. But since not everything is worthy of celebration, we need finesse to tell the difference and to do justice to what is worthy. Finesse does not deny ambiguity, is not false to it, but it is also not an indiscriminate glorification of ambiguity. In deeming what is worthy to be affirmed, there is a self-transcending toward others beyond oneself in the deeming and the affirming. There is the promise of something more universal than oneself alone. If nothing else, finesse is always more than any project or construction or agenda. It is a matter of “doing justice”—justice to intimate nuance, without which our projects or constructions or agendas only lurch in half-light. It fosters receptive mindfulness of singular occasions, happenings, and persons, ready to be surprised, if not amazed. In the past, religion and art have been the great mistresses of finesse. Without religious finesse, reverence turns into terrified servility before enslaving powers. Without aesthetic finesse, the gentle insinuations of shining beauty are overtaken by the violations of crude imaginations. Without finesse for ethical ambiguity, we turn the law into a moralistic tyrant. Without finesse in thought, there is no wise philosophy. Without finesse in politics, the huckster takes over, or worse, the tyrant. The tyrant is the counterfeit double of sovereignty—mutant will to power usurps the noble will of the statesman.

“Doing Justice” and the Patience of Being

Agenda philosophers generally think that our being is just to do: the deed is in the beginning, the middle and the end. And of course, we are to do (p.134) justice, but this is not just to do. As doers we come to act constructively but the question concerns the limits of construction. The constructive act cannot be the first or the last, or the middle either, if our being true indicates first a patience to the true before we ourselves are called to be truthful in a more active sense. We do, we act, we make. But our true making is not just “making things up.” There is a “doing justice” to what is not made by us, or not “made up.” There is a patience of being before there is an endeavor to be, a receiving of being before an acting of being. The patience and receiving mark our participation in the intimate universal—we come to be in a more primal porosity of being in which the endowment of our elemental powers are communicated to us. This more primal patience offers the conditions that make possible the determinate acting that will come to mark our assumed endeavor. When the primal patience is acknowledged with finesse, our action and assumed endeavor are understood differently than within a philosophy that projects the self-absolutizing of our activist character or our endeavor to be.

I put it thus: More primal than the conatus essendi is the passio essendi. These are ideas to which we will return more than once, but here I note that Spinoza describes the essence of a being as its conatus (Ethics, part 3, prop. 7). The essence of a being as its conatus essendi is defined by its power to affirm itself and its range. This range for Spinoza is potentially unlimited (Ethics, part 3, prop. 8),12 if there are no external countervailing beings who express their power of being in opposition to, or in limitation of, the power of other beings. One could say that, abstracting from the other, in itself and for itself, the conatus would be the universal. It would pass unrestrictedly through the whole, no other conatus opposing it. One thinks of Sartre later: the human being is the desire to be God—the conatus would be the absolute universal—though interestingly this is impossible since the intimate and the universal cannot be brought into ultimate unity. Sartre’s “God” is the impossible synthesis of the en-soi (the self-less universal whole) and pour soi (the intimate selving). Sartre’s God mimics the intimate universal in a way that makes our ultimate, intimate passion for God into a passion inutile.

For Spinoza the conatus essendi is the being of a being, hence also the being of the human being. Without an external limitation, the endeavor to be is potentially infinite. If there is an intimate universal here, it is a matter of the intimacy of the conatus that, left unopposed, desires to be the universal. Since this desire, stated in these terms, is always (p.135) impossible (Sartre is not wrong on this), the shadow of threat always falls over it. An external other always presents itself as potentially hostile to my self-affirming. The other, so seen, is alien to my most intimate self-affirmation. All self-affirming is shadowed by the potential negation of the other. Our relations to the other may settle down into suitable, even reasonable accommodation between different conatuses, but even so settling, these relations always harbor implicit hostility. Within the unity of the whole the ultimate settling may happen but that holistic settlement circles around the immanent universality of strife. The other, like I, as simply conatus also endeavors to be itself, which means endeavors to be the universal. It is not then that you and I participate in the intimate universal. Your endeavor to be and my endeavor both instantiate the will to erotic sovereignty, not the willingness of agapeic service. On this understanding, the continuation of the conatus essendi must disarm the threat of the other, or arm itself against it from the outset. On such a view passivity is to be avoided or overcome. Being patient seems to place us in a position of subordination. To receive from the other communicates a dangerous sign of weakness. To receive is to be servile, while to endeavor and to act are to be sovereign. This attitude fits in with the ethos of modernity in which the autonomous subject as self-law (autonomos) is implicitly in ambiguous, potentially hostile relation to what is other, or heteros. It is difficult on these terms to grant the promise of agapeic service, beyond the alternatives of sovereignty and servility.

Stepping back into the space of the porosity and the passio essendi suggests something different. We are first given to be, before all endeavor and doing. The passio essendi calls on the recognition of an otherness more original than our own self-determination. We are only self-determining in a relative sense because we have originally been given to be as selves. We are only creative because created, only loving because already loved, only become good because we properly participate in a good we do not ourselves produce, only truthful because a more original truth endows us with the desire to be true and seek truth. This prior receiving is our being given to be as endowed participants in the intimate universal.

There implies no denial of the conatus but we need to grant a crucial doubleness in what, to all appearances, looks like a singular self-affirmation. This doubleness is evident if we remember that the conatus is a co-natus: a (being) “born with.” It comes to be from and with an other to itself. All endeavor to be makes reference back to a more original source, signaled (p.136) here in this being “born with.” I offer a simple example that bears on what later (in part 2) I will explore as the aesthetics of the intimate universal. I am thinking of what the health of the human body communicates. In the vibrant body we see something of the conatus in the elemental will to self-affirmation that marks its vitality. It is our being to affirm itself, and the self-affirmation communicates of the good of the “to be” in our own incarnate being at all. That granted, there is something in self-affirmation that relativizes self-affirmation. There is something in its self-affirmation communicating of its being given to be at all, something making it porous relative to what is other than itself, and porous not just as a servile passivity. In the flesh itself, we find ourselves in this self-affirmation; we do not first construct it. In the flesh itself, it is so intimate to what we are that we mostly pay it no notice, when it pours itself forth with unbidden vitality. In the flesh of our very embodied being, we live this affirmation of the “to be” as good; we do not first choose it or construct it, for it is what we are. Mostly we only pay it more reflective notice, when it is interrupted by injury or sickness or begins to ebb through age. Since we find ourselves as thus self-affirming, there is a patience to this primal self-affirmation. There is something received in our being given to be, something not constructed through our own powers. Our constructive powers presuppose this vitalizing ontological energy.

In the intimacy of the flesh we are an original “yes” to being, but we find ourselves as already given to be in an original “yes” to being that is received and not produced through ourselves alone. We do not first incarnate the “yes,” we are incarnated as this living “yes.” It is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. Our incarnate being finds itself in the communication of this original “yes.” It is what it is as singularly communicating this “yes.” We also have to say our “yes” to this original “yes.” When we do so the endeavor to be emerges in a more self-chosen way. Our second “yes” can be in living communication with the first “yes,” for instance, if we live with respect for the integrity of the body, with finesse for its subtle rhythms, even seeking to embody an ontological reverence intimate to the flesh itself. In the communicative expansion of the intimate “yes,” in our being at all, we can discern the promise of a more universal affirmation of being. We do not know this theoretically, we first participate in it—and philosophically we can come to a kind of knowing of it if our “being true” is faithful to the intimate universal. This participation in the intimate universal is the incognito companion of all our constructivist endeavors. (p.137) Nothing of our further endeavor to be tells against the more primal patience. The agenda-driven projects of constructivist philosophies too often tend toward an amnesia of this patience. At an extreme they may even give rise to a hatred of this patience, for it is the incontrovertible reminder of our participation in the intimate universal as finite, a constitutive sign that we are not masters of being, not even masters of our own being. Falsely fleeing the patience of being as something servile, we falsely construct ourselves as untrue sovereigns. Doing this is thus an undoing. Paradoxically, when we turn away from the more primal patience, our self-affirmation is the counterfeit double of self-hatred. It covers itself with the regal insignia of sovereignty, but in an intimacy beyond intimacy the counterfeiting “knows” itself to be such. The ontological giving making possible our being at all is refused as such. This refusal, just in self-affirmation, is self-refusal. In thus affirming ourselves, we have not done justice to what we are. We are not “doing justice” to the intimate universal or our singular participation in it.13

“Doing Justice” and the Practice of Philosophy

In light of the prior “doing justice” what can we say about the practices of philosophy and the intimate universal? While philosophers have always been overtly concerned with justice, in many approaches this has much to do with power, its expression, circulation, and governance. One recalls the identification of might and right we find, for instance, in Thrasymachus. Here we witness the hypertrophy of the conatus essendi—the overriding of the passio essendi in the sense of primal reception, and instead all passion and endeavor are poured into will to power, blunt or devious as circumstances dictate. True justice does have to do with the good governance of power, the determinate distribution and balance of powers, the correction of overweening powers. The inseparability of justice and power has itself much to do with what is most intimate to our being, whether seen individually or communally. Individually, there is an elemental truth in the understanding of human beings as will and will to power. I connect this with the intimate upsurge of what is implicit in the endeavor to be: self-affirmation, self-expression, self-assertion, over others in certain circumstances. Communally: a many is marked by a general eros, and this too communicates itself as a shared expression of will and will to power: (p.138) a way of social life whose very living is sustained by its communal will to be itself.

The sources of individual and social will are in the intimacy of being, though they flower in the space of a potentially more general, even universal communality. The promise of the intimate universal insinuates itself in the expression, circulation, and governance of will to power. The question of justice implicates the fitting measure of power, the moderation of destructive power, the appropriate fulfillment of enabling power(s). The issue of injustice is not the betrayal of power, but the betrayal of the promise of power. There is an intimate promise to power, power that finally is rooted in the power of the “to be.” In light of the primal affirmation explored above, we cannot avoid the question whether the power of the “to be” is the power of the good or of the “to be” as good.14 This is easier said than understood. Injustice has no power in itself—not if injustice is the betrayal of the promise of power. Without power, the power of the “to be” that allows an unjust man or society to be thus or thus, injustice would be nothing at all. The intimate universal as enabling “doing justice” is not first a project we construct but the promise of a patience we first receive, and out of which we endeavor to redeem a promise in our constructive response.

I take Socrates to offer a rejoinder to Thrasymachus throughout the fuller length of the Republic by showing that without justice as a condition of being, the power of injustice as a betrayal of power would not itself be possible. Without the presupposition of some condition of ontological togetherness or harmony, even crime is impossible. A gang of criminals cannot function as such without some harmony, however minimal or flawed, between them (Republic, 351c–d). There is an idiocy to injustice that points back to an intimacy of being and a kind of trust in the justice of (some) others, more primordial than injustice itself.

The patience of being suggests that there is a justice that is a condition of being more primal than the exercise of power as an expression of being. Moreover, the doing of justice has to do with our condition of being as marked by more than will to power. This means we have to modify those modern theories of justice that tend to take more account of the will to power of endeavoring protagonists and, in a minor key, the passio of those lacking power. The standard of reference here tends to be the possession of power. Hence to the justice of the patient justice itself is not always done. Nor is justice done to the power of the good of the (p.139) “to be.”15 If my reflections to this point are not entirely untruthful, we need to consider this patience again at a deeper level than the usual duality of activity and passivity that often defines our understanding of the (social) endeavor to be.

For instance, we tend to think of social justice in connection with those less well off in society. We think of the poor and ways of alleviating their poverty, be it through a variety of purposeful interventions, or through economic activity that will contribute, if let be, to better circumstances for prosperity. Or we think less locally of those in other lands and continents less well off, and to whose distress we ourselves can contribute, and sometimes help to diminish. Philosophy cannot turn a deaf ear to these concerns, though it is not immediately clear what it distinctively can contribute to their consideration. One does not have to be a philosopher to offer one’s services to the many agencies dealing with issues of social justice in the sense at issue here, or to dedicate oneself to the study of the economic aspects of social justice, or to give one’s life to the political processes necessary to protect and enhance ways of life hospitable to social justice. We can also contribute to various reflective debates about what all of such things amount to, can reflect on issues like individualism and communitarianism, the conservative and the progressive, the reformist and the revolutionary. All these issues are very important in their own way, but finesse for the intimate universal asks of philosophy a step back into the space of the prior sense of “doing justice.”

It is not that philosophers should not be involved in such issues but there are other questions no less important—perhaps more important—and that often are recessed when our thoughts are too absorbed in the foreground of immediate happening. There are excitement and even intoxication in being engaged in the forefront. Not being in the forefront means being nothing. But being nothing is not nothing, and may be asked for in closer connection with the intimate universal. The idiocy of being is in one sense a being alone, in another sense an opening of intimate communication. In the porosity of being, being nothing is a different exposure, and such exposure is mostly shunned with determinate projects and agendas that fill up and fill in the porosity. This can be done through self-assertion, it can be done through social and political projects that engage the energies of the conatus and veer away from the vulnerable exposure in the patience of being. There can be something essentially lonely in stepping back philosophically and trying to take the longer look. History with (p.140) a big H (sigh …) might be passing one by. I remember again the fretting Sartre. The solitudes of philosophy are not opposed to the quest of the universal, but the universal as also calling on the intimacy of being is never exhausted by any constructive agenda for universality.16 History with a big H has been claimed as the universal, of course, but the intimate universal is not to be identified with this History. Not quite outside but not quite inside, it is immanent and transcendent, on the threshold between time and its beyond, in the world but not of it, neither one nor the other and yet the place of passing between them, a porosity between the human and the divine, and it does not matter whether we think of this as above us or below us, within us, or without us. The universal is all of these and none, and the intimate universal is communication from all of them and none, and yet there is access to it in terms of mindfulness of what is intimate to the porosity of our being.

Obsessed with big H History, we cover over all of this with our temporary constructions of importances, our importances. There are crucial considerations that can very easily become recessed rather than expressed in these importances. In a certain regard, it is of the very nature of practical life just to bring about that recess. Human beings as finite must engage life under determinate conditions. We are what we are to be, and what we are to be as endeavoring beings. We are engaged with our own efforts at self-determination and with the determinacies that define the finite conditions of our becoming ourselves. Our determination and self-determination are carried out in the metaxu, and this is also the intermedium of the determinate. Mindfulness of those conditions is not always the first condition for such engagements, undertaken often in the heat of the moment. Quite the opposite: too much thinking on those conditions can be eviscerating of a practice of life, or paralyzing to the sources of engagement. The passion of engagement is relativized by the reflective posture of standing back and hence the purpose turns awry and we lose the name of action. The patience involved in stepping back into the prior “doing justice” is not quite this standing back. It involves more a matter of mindfulness, a finesse that can lead to a kind of second philosophical patience. It can be likened to becoming a child again, insofar as the child is still a creature of wonder, and porous to the surprise in things, porous to the passio. Very true, one sometimes has no time to weigh options, one has to act. But even in extreme circumstances of urgency the “doing justice” of the primal patience can still inform the acting itself. Admittedly, to live with (p.141) poise amid urgency, to do justice to the patience of being in the stresses of immediately requisitioned action, is an excellence of rare wisdom. But it is not impossible.

When Hamlet praises Horatio it is something of this poise to which he is drawn. Hamlet initially cannot act, but he is not patient either. His passio is perhaps in disarray in perplexed suspicion about his fratricidal uncle. His porosity is perhaps clogged by repressed fury at his widowed and too-soon remarried mother. He has not found access to the doing of justice that is beyond retributive justice, cryptically hinted in the providence of the sparrow’s fall. In not being able to act, Hamlet is often taken as emblematic of something of the condition of modernity paralyzed by its hyper-self-reflexivity. There is something of the perplexing intimacy of hyper-self-consciousness about Hamlet. One way of seeking release from this condition of paralyzing self-reflection is a lurch in the opposite direction: a turn toward hyperactivity. “Willing liberates,” to make a call on Nietzsche again. But this does not so much overcome the paralysis as fly from it—still frozen in itself. Such hyperactivity brings its own paralysis with its flight. Not being true to the patience of being, such hyperactivity really suffers from a secret lassitude of being that it alleviates by ceaselessly throwing itself into this project and that. Still the human being is itself and nothing but itself—in lassitude or in hyperactivity. This is the inescapable idiocy of it, the intimacy it itself is, in flight from itself into projects. The practice of philosophy can quickly become an agenda-driven ideology when it is too seduced by foreground circumstances to the oblivion of the recessed conditions that enable the practices of different forms of life. Philosophers offer something more true to practical life when they nurture mindfulness of these enabling recesses. Thinkers who love the forefront push themselves to the fore. They do not impress us with poise. Willingness to be nothing, this is part of philosophy: the willingness to count for nothing; the willingness to be a nobody, in order to open to everybody and everything. Being nothing in this sense is a condition of finesse for the intimate universal.

The patience of being and the endeavor to be can be doubled equivocally in theory and practice in the form of hypertheory and hyperactivity. Interestingly, hypertheory and hyperactivity often go together—perhaps not so much in the same person, as in a community, or even an entire epoch. Am I wrong to detect in modernity a passage from activity to hyperactivity—with less and less of the patience of being, less and less (p.142) of the ultimate porosity that is to the divine? Is there not here a project of the universal? But it is in flight from the intimate universal, so far as this is enacted in the porosity to communication with the divine. This universality enacts the project of the God’s-eye view because there is no God. Because there is no God, the project of the universal becomes our project to be God or to be as God: agent of the universal, greater than which none can be either thought or enacted. This is all in the business of humanity’s constructing a counterfeit double of the intimate universal.

It is said that in premodernity, there was hypertheory such as the putative God’s-eye view of the Platonic philosopher. Given our intermediacy, very much granted by Plato, this is entirely too simple. The finitude of the philosopher, of the human being, seems incontrovertible: between beasts and gods, we remain intermediate, hence finite, even where we are to become like God—for we never are nor will we ever be God. Modern philosophy strikes one often as much more hypertheoretical. Our more elemental participation in the intimate universal, communicated in the primal patience of our being, suffered as wonder, and praised as worthy, is overtaken by an ontological distrust, when doubt, distanced from a more celebrant astonishment, becomes hyperbolic. Suspicion of being as other overtakes love. Curiosity is substituted for wonder. “Theory” will construct for us the intelligibility of the world, but “theory” is sucked more and more into the space of being an instrumental hypothesis that, in sometimes remote and sometimes proximate manners, serves a particular purpose of practical humanity. As we move from activity to hyperactivity, at a certain point we pass a threshold and a defect of patience is followed by a lack of true measure. This hyperactivity becomes defective in the “doing justice” that is also our “being true.” In all of this, paradoxically there is nothing truly “hyper”—nothing above—hence no basis of a reverence for the divine on our part, when we claim to be the measure of ourselves and what is other. In getting above ourselves we fall below ourselves.

“Doing Justice” and Being Nothing

The prior “doing justice” points to a fidelity to good already given, not just a good actively constructed or done—a good making possible all active constructions and doings of the good. In some ways, the relation of philosophy and more determinate social justice is analogous to the relation (p.143) between professing religion and the ethical service that one would expect as its concrete witnessing. There is a doubling of fidelity here: the prior fidelity to the reserves of the intimate universal, and the expressed fidelity that enacts justice in a more determinate communication in the space of the commons. There is never a necessary guarantee that the expressed practice or witness will hold entirely true to the intimate universal, or faithfully conform to theory or what one holds to be true. In life there are always failures to hold true to what one holds to be true, to what holds one to the true. We do not enact what being true promises and solicits of us. We are dealing with freedom, and the equivocity of the human condition. There are uses of both philosophy and religion that are ideological in the worst sense, serving merely as sly means to questionable ends. Again they are too agenda driven—driven by a claim to the universal but the claim covers over a counterfeit double of the intimate universal, since something is not there in the drive, say, the spirit of truthfulness, or the friendship of wisdom, or the love of the good. Instead of a form of agapeic service, their services become ones of serviceable disposability.17

Consider the following line of thought about Spinoza’s way of speaking of religion: religious piety is salutary with respect to social order, salutary in serving obedience to the political sovereign.18 By contrast, philosophy, it is said, serves truth, not piety. Philosophical truth brings us the true placeless universal, nowhere because everywhere; piety induces submission to the particularized generalities of local rules of political order. The nowhere-because-everywhere-universal here is not the intimate universal, for the intimate would bring us closer to the universal that is the personal God of biblical monotheism. For Spinoza this universal, as so intimate, services the imaginations of the people, not the reason of the philosophers. But if the god of biblical monotheism communicates to us in the space of the intimate universal, the matter must be put differently to the Spinozistic way. The contrast of truth and piety does not quite work that way, nor does it amount to a bifurcation of intimacy and universality, with perhaps a special intimacy accorded to those philosophical sages who enact amor intellectualis Dei. The love of the intimate universal is not Spinoza’s amor intellectualis Dei, for the God of biblical monotheism comes to incarnation in the love of agapeic service. The absence of the intimate universal, in the sense here intended, produces a particular “take” on the serviceability of religion vis-à-vis submission to the Spinozistic sovereign, not unlike that of Hobbes. For the latter sovereignty must be (p.144) undivided, and hence there cannot be two masters, and the master who is given the palm is not Christ but Caesar.19 Political sovereignty determines the local form of piety, that is, submission to authority, which has a certain generality, but not the faceless universality of truth. One wonders if the community of agapeic service has been subordinated to the dictates of the erotic sovereign whose regnant conatus gathers below him the lesser energies of the other conatuses. The possibility that there is something to the agapeic servant outside these terms of reference is not calculated into the determination of importances—importances that would keep reminding us of the irreducibility of the intimate universal either to the local political generalities of regnant sovereigns or to the faceless universality of the geometrical sages.

Is there nothing more ultimate to which we are to be true, or to do justice, than such obediences to the sovereign? If there is nothing more, is this not to subject religion to the requirements of serviceable disposability—serviceable to the political sovereigns, but disposable with respect to claims of ultimate truth? I ask: Does philosophy itself escape the temptation to serviceable disposability in a similar sense? Escape committing sins similar to a religion that bows before Caesar and none other? Philosophy, sometimes honorably, sometimes to its shame, has served obedience to the sovereign. We have seen this happen with the revolutionary obediences of Marxists serving the agenda of revolution; we have seen it in Heidegger’s shocking idolatry of Hitler; we have seen it with well-paid excusers within the space of consumer capitalism. Just as there are theologians, there are philosophers like Job’s comforters who come up with a theory of unimpeachable logic to mollify our ethical discomforts and even shrug off every horror.

There is a deeper level of fidelity and “doing justice”—and it is not just the transition from theory to practice. This is the more primordial level of the patience of being, patience in being true. A true practice of religion in a society fosters attendance on this patience and fidelity. I think the true philosopher is also a servant of this patience—keeping open the porosity of the human being to the most ultimate wonder and unsettling perplexity, not letting this porosity get clogged with dubious theories, and with practices that are not faithful to the good of human desire. “Doing justice” at this level of the patience of being is the most difficult. It is the most important in the long run. Its immediate importance is not always evident. Quite the contrary, it can seem prevaricating and unhelpful, indeed pusillanimous in seeming not willing to (p.145) commit itself to now needed action. It seems to make cowards of us all. In fact, we require courage in a different dimension—courage to take the long view, the wider view, the more ontologically intimate view. Such would be the courage of the love of wisdom, courage that comes out of the secret sources of strengthening, courage to speak of and for the intimate universal.

Consider the much discussed issue of terror. Granted, in certain circumstances immediate steps must be undertaken, and done in order to do justice. But there is an equally important, sometimes in the longer run more important, matter of “doing justice.” This entails trying to understand truly the sources of terror, and this means stepping back into the intimate universality of our original porosity of being. One must be more than a thinker of the immediate foreground. One recalls, for instance, from some decades ago the ideological intoxication on the Left with political terror. One recalls further back in the nineteenth century the historical appearance of the political terrorist as such. One recalls the connection of terror and theory in the left-Hegelian line of thinking, summed up by Bruno Bauer’s call for the “terrorism of pure theory.” One recalls further back again the French Revolution as the mother of all modern political terrors, a terror and revolution that Hegel both judged and exculpated for being sourced in “abstract” freedom. One recalls the ambiguous Edmund Burke, prescient of the ominous horror stirring with modern political terror.20

This first paradigmatic terror of the French Revolution has taught us something about the intimate universal: preaching about the universal, and calling forth images of intimate fraternity, but the intimate fraternity is cannibalized in the unbounded spirit of suspicion, for the enemies of the revolution are perhaps everywhere, for how else, why else, would it fail. The universal attests itself, self-evidently to men of political good will. But good will is not universal. It draws us back to the intimate, and stepping there the worm turns. Where then, the desolate cry goes up, are the brothers promised by the intimate universal? The brothers have become the hindering others, the counterfeiting comrades whose face shows the smile of the universal, but the smile too hides the intimate and again in the idiocy of the soul the worm must not just be scotched, but killed (with a bow to Macbeth, act 3, scene 2). The universal itself becomes a project of the enforcement of revolution—a total agenda for the complete transformation of social life, down to the new recalibrating of time from now (p.146) on. Now the absolutum novum begins—but this is a dictated novum, and hence utterly devoid of “doing justice” to the patience of being. Rather a tyrannical conatus overtakes every passio, only to find itself overtaken by a passion of negation in which universal death threatens to reign, not elemental life, worthy in itself. The universal “perhaps” of unbounded suspicion is transmuted through terror into the universality of unbridled certainty that the enemy must be liquidated. And behind it all the waiting god of war is ready to extend its empire when its appetite, still not sated with the immanent terror, follows its urge to embark on a war of conquest, justifying itself in high moral songs about saving the revolution, or with missionary hymns extolling its agenda of liberation for all of humanity. This is all verging on a sacrilege to the intimate universal. The agenda did indeed tip over into desecration.

There are considerations that might be said to be even more recessed, not bearing on this or that event, or this or that doing, this or that undoing. They have to do with our being, at its most intimate and idiotic, in its paradoxical condition of “being as nothing.” We are but we are as if nothing. We were nothing once, we will come to nothing again. We are but once and now are not nothing, but the “once” we are is qualified with its own possible being nothing, a possibility that will be realized in the course of time. The affirming of being we now are is qualified by its own “being nothing.” Being nothing has senses bearing on the porosity and the patience of our being. Being nothing has senses bearing on our power to bring things to naught, through our own power to negate, for the conatus of our being can affirm itself in its determination of things through its negation. More secret than the power of negation is the void space of the human soul. Into this deepest cave of nothing the philosopher too must enter. One must know the susceptibility of this void space to being terrorized, its susceptibility to terrorizing. Terror before an enemy, terror against a declared enemy, perhaps even the need of an enemy take form in this void—on both the side of the terrorizing and the terrorized.21 Then one endeavors to be oneself over against the other; the conatus overrides the passio essendi, both one’s own and that of the others. Then too all patience seems like nothing but a void to be overcome, and one will not step back, lest one sink back into oneself as one’s own void. I, as active conatus, endeavor to be over every other as patient to me, as the conquered passio essendi of myself shows itself lord over the conatus and passio of the overcome other. But all of us, whether sovereign or servile, (p.147) whether ascendant or dejected, are what we are simply as a porosity of being, and hence in our ontological roots are vulnerable to terror and tempted to terrorize. Less negatively put, I think this is where we can appreciate some of the redeeming power of tragedy: tragedy exposes us to the things that are dark (ta skoteina); coming to know our patience to the terrible (to deinon), we are brought to an acknowledging of our finitude, in a knowing marked with the sacred patience of compassion (eleos). I will return to this.

The deeper sources of terror are not simply in proximate grievances. They are in the void space of our nothingness that we know in the intimate universal. For our being given to be in the intimate universal brings home to us the endowed character of all our power, that is, its absolute impotence to be absolute as endeavoring to be. Our nothingness is known in the intimate universal because as being at all we are not nothing but live and move and have our being in virtue of an endowing power that communicates beyond every void. That is why there is something rather than nothing, why we are at all, rather than being just nothing.

The matter need not be taken in the negative sense that would look upon our being in deprecating, nihilistic terms. For this reason I prefer to speak of the porosity of the soul rather than just the void—this porosity opens up a kind of fecund void. It is true that out of this void of the soul there can come to be an entire nihilistic outlook—be it religious or secular. This must be addressed. In the end, it can only be addressed reflectively in terms of a metaphysics of the “to be” and the “to be” of the human being. It also calls on an address to living that appreciates that there is more to the fertile void than our emptiness, and that enacts its more communal sense by way of religious communications that keep open the porosity. Such communications can be liturgies, can be modes of prayer, especially of the meditative sort, can be ethical commitments to the practice of agapeic service.

There have been philosophies that have gloried in the language of terror. There are languages overtly religious that are closures of this porosity—to God, to one’s neighbor. Be it in religious or secular form, the conatus that arrogates truth for itself can overtake the passio that endows us with the promise of being true. To address this matter, to do justice to it, requires that we face the nothing—and the porosity of our being and its vulnerability. This does not mean one will have a panacea or even can propose a method for dealing with terror. It does not (p.148) mean the exculpation of evil acts. It need not mean the evasion of social responsibilities, in inciting terror and responding to it. But it will mean that the recessed ontological (re)sources of our being will be more honestly acknowledged, and that the deepest will not be ignored. Terror comes with communication in the intimate universal: the holy terror of the divine that fills us with fear and trembling and perhaps the beginning of wisdom; unholy terror, which is the counterfeit double of divine wrath, though it is not the divine that is wrathful but the human being roaring in the realization that it is and never can be God. Realizing that, it wills to realize itself as God. The counterfeit double of God is not what it would be, and would be what it is not. The wrath of the counterfeit double of God can be born as religious fanaticism that kills in the name of the purity of faith. The wrath can also be reborn as political terror intent on the agenda of its world-historical mission.22

The fundamental porosity of the human soul, by contrast with this particular project or that, seems to look like a void; but it is a nothing that allows all openness, all receiving, all self-transcendence. Out of it come all the practical energies that feed this project and that. That there is such a porosity, or fecund void to the soul, also means that the nothing can be looked at as otherwise than a justification for nihilism, theoretical or practical. This is an important point—for there is a nihilation whose reduction is, so to say, a desacralization of the human being. Trotsky: “We must get rid of, once and for all, this Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life.” “Getting rid of, once and for all”: a terrifying univocal agenda, even a project of a final solution. Not too far behind desacralization comes along the desecration. By contrast, I am talking about a sacred nothing, if one could say that—a nothing that marks the human being’s porosity to the divine, that constitutes something of the trace of the divine in the human being, a trace that can become a consecrated nothing. This trace is in passing in the porosity of being, and its communication brings to be the community with the divine that is communicated in the intimate universal. We are in this universal, this universal is in us; it is hard to know what “in” means here, since it is inside and outside, here and now and yet also nowhere, frozen in no time and flowing in all times. We live out of it. Graced with prayer, we are granted some knowing of it—though the knowing can be sleeping in other forms too, if one could speak of a knowing that sleeps.

(p.149) Being Nothing and the Poverty of Philosophy

As there is a patience to the true in “doing justice,” there is also a paradoxical destitution in what we are. There is a justice for the vulnerable—there is justice as a vulnerability. The intimate universal is often hidden in the incognito of elemental things. There is justice as a kind of poverty: poverty in opening a space not only for one’s own good but for the good of the other. The practice of philosophy calls for its own kind of poverty: the poverty of philosophy itself.23 This situates philosophy in the same family as the religious. There is to be an abdication of power for power’s sake: the practice of philosophy as “doing justice” is not will to power, not even self-determining reason. It asks for reasonable mindfulness, indeed agapeic mindfulness, in the services of the true: thought thinking the other to thought. It means a willingness to be as nothing. There is a poverty that is a “being nothing” to make a way for what is true to communicate itself, to make way for those who have lost their way, or have no way, or are seeking a way. This poverty is being a way along no way. There is a return to zero that interfaces newly with creation as given. “Doing justice” asks a pilgrim philosophy from the wayfarer. Our being between defines us as homo viator.

Relative to such a poverty, the first charge for the practice of philosophy would not be quite the more normal task of a practical fight, say, against poverty. This last is considerable, not at all to be slighted, but with relation to the intimate universal we are moving in a different space, one that seeds the promise of struggles against debilitating poverties (in the more usual sense). Not granting this other space, there can come again to the fore a certain activism that rouses worry. One wonders if many of us in the West, losing attunement to the intimate universal, suffer from what has been a recurrent and sapping debility of spirit: horror at the emptiness of life. To buffer ourselves against meaninglessness, we throw ourselves into hyperbolic activity, thus alleviating the lassitude that squats at the bottom of our souls. This lassitude is not the patience of being. Hyperactivity, as we know, has come to be called “attention deficit disorder.” What if an epoch suffers from hyperactivity? Would it not be marked by “attention deficit disorder” of quasi-universal proportions? Where is the medicine, is there Ritalin enough, is there Ritalin at all, to cure such an attention deficit on an epochal scale?

(p.150) Lathe biosas: Epicurus was not unwise in saying this. It is good to be nothing. One is happy to be nothing. Perhaps something important will pass in the porosity. Perhaps some sabbatical thought. Being nothing opens us to the intimate universal. Living her own eccentric hiddenness, Emily Dickenson touched on it:

  • I’m nobody! Who are you?
  • Are you nobody, too?
  • Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
  • They’d banish us, you know.
  • How dreary to be somebody!
  • How public, like a frog
  • To tell your name the livelong day
  • To an admiring bog!

Horror at the emptiness of life: We cannot stand the silence. With bullfrog souls we croak and make a racket. We cannot wait, cannot abide the silence. We speak into the silence. We shout into the silence. We insist on telling the silence what its meaning is. We tell our story to the silence. There is nothing there to hear this story. We hear nothing but the echo of our own croak. We croak this story to ourselves. It is our song of ourselves, or racket, and it can be sung in the notes of agony or smugness, but it is sung to protect ourselves against being nothing. It is a dictation to nothing. We cannot sit still; something has to be done. The hyperbolic energy of the soul tries to exhaust itself in activism, exhaust itself with its own activity. One thinks of those runners who exercise and exercise not to attain the maximum of physical well-being, but to run from themselves. Perhaps in the past there were certain ascetic practices in religion that claimed to offer an analogous therapy for self, but now no religious justification can be offered for these secular therapies—beyond fear of having to face oneself, fear of the silence—fear of being nothing, fear of the porosity that we are, act up as we will.

Are the historicist narratives of secular modernity, doubling for the recessed intimate universal, not often such songs of self—be the self the more solitary individual, or the privileged nation, or the party, or one’s race or class, or all together now in liberal equality? They are not slow in offering their own justification: self-justification in flight from self in hyperactive selving. They can serve as huge diversions from the (p.151) nakedness at the heart of the human being. They are fables of justification, of self-justification, we tell ourselves as we sit around the campfire and keep at bay the night that circles on the outside. The night is not outside, the night is in us all, and so we sing to drown the silence that is there in the deeper porosity of our being. We do not let the moon come out in our souls.

The dream of a redeeming universal is not absent in these songs of self, but it is not the intimate universal but a universal we claim once again to construct. These historicist philosophies have exerted bewitching effects on many of the major ideologies of modernity. One thinks of Marxism, but there are other bewitchments in the glorification of technological progress, or the deification of market economics. Humans are intent to construct purpose in what appears to them as a purposeless universe. But if the universe is purposeless, we as participants in the universe are finally also purposeless. Our constructions also come to nothing in the universal purposelessness; they are provisional protections against pointlessness. We are reluctant to face this, and the consequences that follow from it, not least because we cannot continue to live without some purpose, and hence we continue to sing around the campfire. The campfire is almost everything now, since we have let the blaze burn over every nonhuman other in nature—nature, the fuel by which we keep the incessant lights burning through the night. In thus dispelling the night, we suffer from light pollution. More often than we admit, we are the light that pollutes the night.

There are so many carapaces of protection against nothing.24 “Doing justice” requires something more than the further construction of such carapaces. It is true we have to construct protections for the naked human being—much justice asks to be done in this mode. But if this mode is made the absolute, and makes us forget the ontological nakedness, it is built upon a falsity. The point is evident in the fact that this just activism, constructivism, can serve to do justice to those who are nothing: those who are naked, those destitute. The nakedness we flee in ourselves comes back to haunt us in the nakedness of the destitute other. This nakedness is something social. Most of the time we can cover ourselves before human others. We can be in cover-up even before ourselves. I speak in homage to Job: there is the Other before whom we all stand naked. For some activisms no true space is allowed for any such an Other. It is the idolization of our own autonomy that fuels the constructivism. There are religious practices infected by the idolatry of certain activisms: do something, we are (p.152) told, to make the world a better place. But more often than we admit, it is something of foreground distraction that we seek, since “making a difference” is an agenda to remake the world in accord with what we deem valuable. “Making a difference” does not make a difference, since it is secretly ourselves we want to feel confirmed. We cannot “make a difference” if there is not a more ultimate difference of which we ourselves are not the makers. We are almost incapable of silence and attending on what it can communicate. We have lost the taste of the intimate universal.

Defection from the patience of being is also sometimes evident in the way we have divorced ourselves from the play of nature: for instance, in our unwillingness to generate new life beyond ourselves; in our reduction of the mystery of eros to recreational sex, as we morally preach about our own rights of self-determination; in our resisting being given over to anything greater than our own selfish satisfaction. Nature can be a great teacher, but we reck it not, unless it can be made to serve us. Animals now are sometimes more universal than we are. They live beyond themselves, are lived beyond themselves in the erotic rhythms of nature—except of course where our interventions have polluted and hindered the spontaneous unfolding of these dances of begetting.

Since the Enlightenment it has been said frequently that we are historical, not natural, beings, yet in the stories we have constructed it is the core intimacy of our being that keeps coming back. This is nowhere more evident than in the play of eros—it saturates everything. It is as if in our denial of the dance of nature, the music and its rhythms come back, and we still find ourselves going through the motions but we neither attend to what we are doing nor wonder why at all. There is the subjection of eros to the dictates of serviceable disposability: making it a means to an end—and we are the end—for after all, is not every historical story just the song of ourselves? We make history we say, even if we are made by history: history is the only self-begetting power. It is we who have made ourselves the causa sui. The catch cry will not be deus sive natura but deus sive historia sive humanitas. All of this, of course, can be claimed in the name of “doing justice.” If so, it is extremely doubtful if this is at all “doing justice” to the patience at the heart of “doing justice.”

There is also a temptation sometimes to act as if we were nature’s (or God’s) most important gift to existence. We pride ourselves on the power to improve the world. We say: we make the world a better place. It all goes askew, however, when we act as if we could outdo God, as if we could (p.153) best God. The old saying had something truer: there but for the grace of God go I. This is, in fact, only a half-truth. For by the grace of God we all go there. There is the astonishing beatitude: “Blessed are the poor.” One will be scorned for repeating this as escapism from the practical call of social justice. Being poor: By the gift of the divine we are all naked. We are all like Job. Naked we come hither, naked we go hence, in between we cover up. In the between, though, we are all offered the patience of being: patience to a more ultimate good that we do not construct ourselves; patience to a justice more ultimate than our own construction. We are given to be as constituted by a fundamental porosity of being: itself the opening in us that allows our every act of self-transcending but that itself is not any act of self-transcending. It allows, it creatively possibilizes self-transcending, allows “doing justice” to ourselves, to the others. For there is a promise in the porosity that asks to be redeemed, though it can be betrayed. It is betrayed if we act as if it did not exist.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the destitute and the sick and the dying, for they remind us of the givenness of our being, and the graced porosity that allows us to be at all. We think “doing justice” is doing them a favor but there is a sense in which it is quite the opposite. We hate what they remind us of, for we are happy when we cover ourselves. When we take mind of them, we step back from becoming monstrous. Our cover up is blown away.

The poem of W. B. Yeats called “The Great Day” recalls us to something elemental:25

  • Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
  • A beggar on horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
  • Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
  • The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

Going with the patience of being, “doing justice” takes us beyond servility and sovereignty. It is beyond the passive and the active and calls for a new poise—a poise that is a readiness defined in a freedom beyond the servility of the slave and the sovereignty of the master. The intimate universal is beyond servility and sovereignty. This calls for something like the nakedness of Yeats’s beggar but without the soul of will to power that finds its outlet in the lash—whether on horseback or on the ground. There is a nakedness in the intimate universal—a “being nothing” to which the (p.154) practices of philosophy must be open in a new poverty of mindfulness, beyond science and system and beyond agendas.

There is a tragic element to this too. I mentioned the redeeming power of tragedy: exposure to the terrible that endows us with a sacred compassion. We spend a life, expend the endeavor to be, in covering ourselves—and sometimes are relatively successful—though always relatively. Then one is reminded of King Lear: the sovereign, the regal self, and then the sovereign gave away his kingdom, gave away his power. He did not first know it but he was being unclothed, being stripped, in giving his power away. Regal Lear becomes unselved—becomes a nothing. The Fool: “I can tell why a snail has a house.” Lear: “Why?” The Fool: “Why, to put ’s head in; not to give it away to his daughters, and leave his horns without a case” (King Lear, 1.5.28–32). Lear becomes like the Tom O’Bedlam—even less, like Edgar who says of himself: “Edgar I nothing am” (2.3.21). There is an idiot wisdom to this nothing. Edgar is as wise in his compassion as Lear’s Fool, a “bitter fool” (1.4.140) is wise in his worldly savvy. The king and the beggar are no longer well-placed selves; placeless, they become nothings; in becoming nothings, they begin to come to see. They at last begin to see things from the bare stripped outlook of the nothings who have nothing. “Nothing almost sees miracles but misery” (2.2.167–68). There is a certain “democracy” of suffering—it is a kind of catholicism of patience—in our being ultimately patient in the intimate condition of being. “Doing justice” begins anew in being nothing. The divine commons of the intimate universal can be on the blasted heath or in the Church, in the hovels or on the mean streets of ugly cities. Being nothing, Lear becomes able to make way for the Fool:

  • In, boy, go first … you houseless poverty—
  • Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
  • Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
  • That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
  • How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
  • Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
  • From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
  • Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
  • Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
  • That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
  • And show the heavens more just. (3.4.26–36)

(p.155) There is much on patience in Shakespeare’s King Lear but it is not a matter of romantic sentimentality about poverty.26 Nor is it a matter of being nothings, understood as Marx understood the proletariat—the nothings who, owning nothing, will become everything through revolutionary praxis and war against the sovereigns, the exploiting capitalists, and with the agenda-driven guidance of those revolutionary philosophers who have scientifically understood the implacable universal of History. Here with Marx, Hegel’s self-relating negativity becomes historically incarnate in the weaponed nothings, through whom the revolutionary violence of the endeavor to be overtakes the passio essendi, and the deeper meaning of the patience of being is mutilated in this overriding. It should not surprise anyone who thinks on it that the outcome cannot but be disastrous, if this understanding is projected as the agenda of History and enacted as a project on a world-historical scale. The lash becomes king of all.

I am not asleep to the lash hidden in the seemingly gentler caresses of consumer capitalism.

It is true: The sovereigns who refuse justice as masters construct the servile, by deconstructing them, as food for their wrath. In the name of the injustice they call justice, they do not do justice.

It is equally true: The servile who revolt against the old sovereigns construct themselves, in wrath, as new sovereigns. In the name of justice, they do no justice.

Being nothing can begin to reveal something other to both masters and slaves. We can come to know intimately that there is a patience of being before servility and sovereignty and beyond them, that there is a justice before servility and sovereignty, calling us to the doing of justice beyond them. The call comes from before servility and sovereignty, and solicits us in the intimate universal into an agapeic service, beyond the master lashing, and for the slave lashed.


(1.) When I refer to this prior sense of “doing justice” I will signal it with quotation marks to differentiate it from the more determinate sense of doing justice in this or that more specific enterprise or endeavor.

(2.) A charge against the Epicurean cultivation of one’s garden.

(3.) See Plato, Phaedrus, 248dff., where we are offered a hierarchy of excellences in relation to the gift of divine mania: from the philosopher, friend of beauty, music, and the erotic as in the first rank, to the basileus, or “warlike ruler,” as second, all the way down to the ninth rank and, at the bottom, the tyrant. Striking is the difference between the basileus, the king for whom true justice governs power and the tyrant for whom power governs his justice. The mania of this bottom form of will to power is the least divine. Not often enough does discussion of practical philosophy do justice to the extremities—either the Platonic extremity and what is intended by his philosophical story, or at the other extreme, what is at issue in the intimate universal and the prior “doing justice.”

An example of the philosopher king where the contrast of erotic sovereign and agapeic service is at work: Julian (the apostate) the emperor who sought to revive pagan wisdom, in theory and practice, seeking to weaken the Christian ethos (of agapeic service) for its enfeebling of pagan piety and emasculation of the courage of the warrior—both bad for the empire and its political powers. The ideal: not a Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ, but a Roman Caesar with the soul of Plato or Plotinus, perhaps. The Antichrist Nietzsche’s war on Christianity often reminds me of the earlier apostate Julian. See the discussion of Julian in William Desmond, Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity (London: Continuum, 2011).

(4.) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 7–21.

(5.) Karl Marx, Early Writings, intro. L. Colletti, trans. R. Livingstone and G. Benton (London: Penguin, 1975), 423.

(6.) One thinks also of John Dewey: the supremacy of the ideal of contemplative theory in ancient philosophy reflects the social political structure with its hierarchy and elitism. Pragmatism, with its turn from theory to practice, is truer to the more (p.449) egalitarian and democratic ethos of modernity. I think the matter is more complicated than this. If I am right and there is a patience of being before theory and practice in the usual sense, it is with respect to this that the invidious distinction between higher and lower social orders, between sovereigns and slave, is undercut. There is a doing of justice prior to this and exceeding it. Dewey does not have the terms to think the intimate universal, since religion is transmuted into social morality in an entirely humanistic frame. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934). Dewey turned against the Hegelian absolute taken as transcendent, but he is still a kind of pragmatic Hegelian in offering us a postreligious humanism. Of course, one might propose something like the intimate universal in a humanistic sense—nihil humanum a me alienum puto. My argument is that without the religious and its promise of a more personal universalism, we risk a counterfeit double of the intimate universal. Consider, for instance, Kant’s moralistic counterfeit of the intimate universal, in his kingdom of ends, as well as his counterfeit of rational ecclesiology in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone. Hegel, like Dewey, can be understood to offer a form of postreligious humanism. Hegel’s state is the successor to, takes the place of, the Church as merely a spiritual community. The religious community is not the full worldly embodiment of immanent freedom, as the modern state is. All these moves are enabled by some aspect of the promise of the intimate universal but the account rendered does not do justice to it.

(7.) In considering ta skoteina one remembers also the dark things to be encountered in the intimacy below ground. These are the dark things of the monstrous intimacy. The cave is reminiscent of Hades, and while there is ascent to the surface of the earth to see the sun and the things in its light, one is put in mind also of the descent of, so to say, a philosophical Orpheus into Hades to bring out into the light those there who are beloved. One recalls also the theme of going into hell, the harrowing of hell, of Christ, as well as of the poet going into the underground, be it Virgil or Dante. Confronting the monstrous intimacy is to encounter the issue of being posthumous to the first difference of life and death.

(8.) On this, see Desmond, “Between System and Poetics: On the Practices of Philosophy,” in Between System and Poetics: William Desmond and Philosophy After Dialectics, ed. Thomas Kelly (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2007), 13–36.

(9.) In Vico God makes nature, man makes history. We can know history as its makers. But God is the maker par excellence—the creator. In that regard, there is a sense of truth with relation to God that is not our construction at all: we are the recipients; we are the ones endowed; we ourselves are constructions, in the sense of God’s creations. This more original sense of “construction” is divine, not human: creation (which in fact is not construction at all). Relative to creation all created being is absolutely patient—it comes to be by being given to be. When Marx takes over the dictum of Vico there is no maker except the human maker, the historical human. There is no divine “making.” There is no patience to divine truth; we are rather the industrial producers of historical truth(s). Vico may overstate the certainty humans can have from the history he claims they make, for we are enigmas to ourselves and what we make. In Vico, nevertheless, there is mysterious Providence; (p.450) hence the wisdom at the center of his New Science itself is, as he says, inseparable from piety. There is no piety in Marx’s constructivism. On historicism see Desmond, Beyond Hegel and Dialectic: Speculation, Cult and Comedy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), chap. 1.

(10.) Braque, Le Jour et la Nuit: Cahiers de George Braque, 1917–1952 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988).

(11.) Consider the step back into the intimate universal and being true as not asking about determinate truths that might be formulated in more or less univocal propositions, into mindfulness of the metaxu as enabling all our endeavors to be true, some of which issue in more univocal determinacies, some of which are tinged with equivocal indeterminacy, some of which yield to dialectical self-determination, and yet there is more than indeterminacy, determination, and self-determination. See Desmond, Being and the Between (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), on “Being True.” I note that the step back into the intimate universal and its “doing justice” and being true is not unreminiscent of Heidegger’s claim of a prior sense of truth with aletheia, prior in relation to the apophatic truths of propositional correspondence. What the metaxological step back finds is not coincident with Heidegger’s understanding. Among other things, the alpha of a-letheia is for Heidegger a privative alpha, and he speaks of truth as like a robbery (Sein und Zeit [Halle: Niemeyer, 1941], §44, 222, 265, “ist gleichsam ein Raub”). “Beings get snatched out of hiddenness.” This suggests agon and polemos (crucial themes in Heidegger); and robbery even might bring to mind Prometheus’s theft of fire from the gods. This is not at all what is meant by the endowing of the porosity; and the struggle to wrest truth from untruth seems less an opening of the porosity and the passio essendi than a variation on the conatus essendi as striving to be itself by taking to itself what is other to itself. How one gets from polemos to Gelassenheit is a question I pose in connection with the still unthought between in Heidegger in Desmond, Art, Origins, Otherness: Between Philosophy and Art (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), chap. 7. On how the philosophical way in Desmond, Ethics and the Between (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001) might be likened to a step back in ethics, from determinate ethical systems or orders to the enabling sources of our being ethical, which receive more determinate form in particular ethical systems or orders, see Desmond, “The Potencies of the Ethical,” in An Ethics of/for the Future, ed. Mary Shanahan (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 62–75.

(12.) Spinoza, Ethics, in Spinoza Opera, ed. Carl Gebhart (Heidelberg: Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1924); see The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover, 1955).

(13.) On the theme of pluralism, truthfulness and the patience of being, see Desmond, The Intimate Strangeness of Being (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2012), chap. 7. I draw on some of the ideas there, here turned to the theme of the intimate universal.

(p.451) (15.) See the discussion of being as power, dunamis, in Plato’s Sophist 247d–e.

(16.) See Desmond, “The Solitudes of Philosophy,” in Loneliness, ed. Lee Rouner (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 63–78.

(17.) On the meaning of serviceable disposability, see Desmond, Ethics and the Between, chap. 14; see also below in part 2, especially chapter 6.

(18.) See Paul Bagley, Philosophy, Theology, and Politics: A Reading of Benedict Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Leiden: Brill, 2008). “It is expedient that there should be gods, and since it is expedient, let us believe that gods exist.” Ovid, Ars Amatoria, bk. 1, line 637.

(19.) Leviathan, part 4; I say nothing here of the univocalization of sovereignty.

(20.) Burke was horrified and perhaps secretly awestruck by the monstrous power of the human, exceeding measure, including all human measure, even when man claims to be the measure of all things. He was prophetic about the intimacy of the monstrous and its spilling on to the revolutionary streets with a surge in excess of finite measure—ominous with sacred signs in the desecration of hitherto established forms of life. Hegel’s famous discussion of freedom and terror in the Phenomenology of Spirit (§§582–95) is less penetrating from the point of view of prophetic clairvoyance than Burke’s acute foreboding. Put this down to Irish seeing before catastrophe by contrast with German system after the fact. On the connection with critique and thinking as negation, see Desmond, “Is There Metaphysics after Critique?,” in The Intimate Strangeness of Being, chap. 4.

(21.) See Desmond, “Enemies: On Hatred,” in Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), chap. 9.

(22.) Cato the Elder would end (all) his speeches to the Roman Senate thus: Carthago delenda est—Carthage must be destroyed. Augustine had a view different from the Roman heroic ideal that Cicero’s optimi viri represents.

(24.) Is the Islamic umma the universal to which one is to be sacrificed, with the whole absorbing the individual? Is this an “absorbing god” in which the devotee is not a friend in service but a subordinate in subjection? Servility produces sovereignty; sovereignty produces slavery; sovereignty in the form of religious fanaticism generates the slave who would be a master. This is not the agapeic service of the intimate universal but a form of serviceable disposability in religious and political form. Redemption from purposelessness is promised in the intimate universal, but try as we might this is hard to make true sense of outside the agapeic service of God.

(25.) W. B. Yeats, The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1990), 358.

(26.) See King Lear, 2.4.218ff.: “I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad … I can be patient.” 2.4.269–70: “You heavens, give me patience, patience I need.” 3.2.37–38: “No, I will be the pattern of all patience, I will say nothing.” There is much on the nothing, on being nothing in 1.4, especially after line 186.