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12/12/2008

Good readers are cannibals

Kurt Flasch's book "Kampfplätze der Philosophie" strides across the battlefields of philosophy from Augustine to Voltaire. After a weekend spent scribbling furiously in its margins, Arno Widmann was enlightened, exhilarated and hungry for more.

A history of philosophy in controversies. Kurt Flasch, one of leading connoisseurs of Medieval history of philosophy takes us on a twenty-stop tour of people's thoughts about life, the universe and everything from Augustine to Voltaire. He lays it all out before us. It all starts with the debate between St. Augustine and Julian of Eclanum about whether man has the potential for goodness or whether he is sullied at birth by original sin and headed only for hell.

If you spend a weekend in Flasch's seven-mile boots striding through 13 centuries of Occidental reflection, you will understand the impact made by Augustine's option – we are all condemned to sin – and how furiously it was contested over the years. You will also understand – Flasch is most insistent on this – that the debate about whether man is inherently capable of good and evil or whether he is wholly in the grip of evil, resurfaced again and again, to be answered anew in all manner of constellations. And our historian of philosophy is hot on the trail.

The reader will encounter, for example, a passage from Abälard (1079-1142) which Kurt Flasch paraphrases thus: "If the executioners who hammered Jesus onto the cross thought this execution was fulfilling God's will, then they were not only not sinning, they were morally bound to crucify Jesus. When heathens or Jews reject the Christian faith because they don't believe it stems from God, from a moral point of view they are obliged to keep their faith and are therefore beyond reproach.

This attitude won Abälard few friends. It was so plausible that he was accused of "presenting faith as so straightforward that it demanded no effort of the will." Just think of Brecht's "In Praise of Communism": "It makes sense, everyone understands it. It is easy. ... It is not madness, but the end of madness. It is the simplest thing, so hard to achieve."

Flasch's book also has a level of simplicity that is hard to achieve. All you need is curiosity and a bit of patience with your own limitations and hey presto, Flasch has unlocked controversies and texts you were convinced were beyond you. Anselm's proof for the existence of God, for example, the idea that something that cannot conceivably be improved upon, has to exist because otherwise its imperfection would be lacking something essential, no longer seems like a mere sleight of logic thanks to Flasch's explanation. This is because Flasch brings in the objections made by the Benedictine monk Gaunilo and Anselm's subsequent response, and by following the pro and contras of this controversy step by step you understand the thought processes of the adversaries a thousand years after they happened.

Flasch's precise readings are interrupted by thoughts, "about the historical role of polemics" or "praise of mediocre writers" for example. These are not digressions but thoughts which lead to the heart of the sort of history of philosophy which is not interested in systems, big names or eternal questions, but which wants to find out how people in a particular place at a particular time learned about world though thinking and research. And this was done by debating the ideas of the time and the time that went before. Written texts played a key role but they were never set in stone. They were interpreted and applied to individual needs. And Kurt Flasch is an expert at explaining the process. Just read the chapter about Leibniz's critique of Pierre Bayle. Leibniz extends the Augustinian concept of the "city of God" to the entire universe. He sees no other way of defending his view that this is the best of all possible worlds. If you look only at the world of man, Leibniz agrees with Bayle here, you will encounter too much misery and desperation. But you only need to look at the order of the stars to see how brilliantly God constructed everything. This was Leibniz's flight into space.

Flasch retraces these philosophical movements. We follow him as best we can. But he makes us think, too. We drift off and find our own ideas entering the fray. Flasch himself seems to be free of this burden. He keeps his opinions about the ideas and issues to himself. He does not want to tell us was Flasch thinks, but what Berengar of Tours, was Albert the Great and of course what Averroes and Al-Ghazali thought, because without these Muslim thinkers, European history would be unthinkable and indescribable.

At one point Kurt Flasch writes: "The reader of a book will want to know what the author was thinking." This is true for philologists, for historians. But even they will not be satisfied at that. A reader wants to be entertained, wants to learn new things. Even better, he wants to be stimulated. To be stimulated into reading on, researching on, spurred on to a life where knowledge and nescience alternate. "The Battlegrounds of Philosophy" by Kurt Flasch does exactly that. It makes you curious to read Nicholas of Cusa, and it gives you the courage to so do. Flasch showed the reader the buoyant irreverence that led Abälard to compare God with a merchant laying out his gems before his customers who could exercise free will in choosing what they wanted. He encourages you to do the same.

At the end of a weekend spent scribbling notes on twenty controversies with a sharp pencil, this inflamed reader recalled the words of Walter Benjamin, which he read many, many years ago: "Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby."

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Kurt Flasch: "Kampfplätze der Philosophie"
Verlag Vittorio Klostermann
2008, 362 pages, 34 euro.

This article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Arno Widmann is the feuilleton editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation:lp
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