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Josef Seifert

RE: Truth? Who cares?

Oct. 10, 2010, at 7:58am

Dear Jules,
Your text on and by the Maritains is just wonderful. The young Maritains must have had a very similar experience to the one Friedrich Nietzsche describes so forcefully in the third Untimely Meditation (Unzeitgemäße Betrachtung); this is a work which overtly deals with Schopenhauer but, as we know from later letters and works of Nietzsche, really recounts Nietzsche’s own experience. There Nietzsche expresses his conviction that every philosopher who takes his starting point from Kant will fall into a scepticism which ‘corrodes and smashes everything.’ Nietzsche expresses his own feelings in the moving words of the famous German poet Heinrich von Kleist (see picture below) who wrote in a letter that, after having studied Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he felt that his deepest aspirations and search for meaning had been frustrated, the ‘most sacred inner sanctuary of his soul had been deadly wounded,’ and ‘the highest and only goal of his life had sunk.’ The goal referred to by Kleist was his hope to come to know a truth which was not relative to human consciousness and opinion, a truth ‘which remains true until after the grave.’

Here is the text:

This was the first danger in whose shadow Schopenhauer grew up: isolation. The second was despair of the truth. This danger attends every thinker who sets out from the Kantian philosophy, provided he is a vigorous and whole man in suffering and desire and not a mere clattering thought- and calculating-machine. Now we all know very well the shameful implications of this presupposition; it seems to me, indeed, that Kant has had a living and life-transforming influence on only a very few men. One can read everywhere, I know, that since this quiet scholar produced his work a revolution has taken place in every domain of the spirit; but I cannot believe it. For I cannot see it in those men who would themselves have to be revolutionized before a revolution could take place in any whole domain whatever. If Kant ever should begin to exercise any wide influence we shall be aware of it in the form of a gnawing and disintegrating skepticism and relativism; and only in the most active and noble spirits who have never been able to exist in a state of doubt would there appear instead that … despair of all truth such as Heinrich von Kleist for example experienced it as the effect of the Kantian philosophy. “Not long ago,” he writes in his moving way, “I became acquainted with the Kantian philosophy—and I now have to tell you of a thought I derived from it, which I feel free to do because I have no reason to fear it will shatter you so profoundly and painfully as it has me.—We are unable to decide whether that which we call truth really is truth, or whether it only appears to us to be it. If the latter, then the truth we assemble here is nothing after our death, and all endeavor to acquire a possession which will follow us to the grave is in vain.—If the pointed edge of this thought does not pierce your heart, do not smile at one who feels wounded by it in the deepest and innermost sanctuary of his being. My only and highest goal has sunken and I have no other one left.” [Letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, Mar. 22, 1801.] When indeed will men feel in this natural Kleistian fashion, when will they again learn to assess the meaning of a philosophy in the “innermost sanctuary” of their soul?

I will look for a fuller translation of the truly outstanding letter of Kleist on truth being the condition of a life worth living, of which Nietzsche only quotes a part. Unfortunately Kleist’s despair of truth did not end so happily as the Maritains’. He did not encounter a Bergson and committed suicide with his fiancee.


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