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The title thus proposed harbors a question. We are asking about the possible birth of philosophy. But immediately another question arises: Is our first question not a pseudo-question, like those concerning the origin of language or of inequality between men?

Does philosophy really have a birth? Or, like language and perhaps like inequality, is it not always and already there, as far as one goes back, and to some degree everywhere? In other words, are not some things without origin? And would not philosophy be one of them? So self-evidently is philosophy called the art of developing on any subject ideas that are more or less general and generally contradictory between themselves, as in the French proverbs that teach at the same time that a habit does not make a monk and that feathers make a bird, it is to be presumed that philosophy is as old as the world and that it is from time immemorial that men, since they began to think and speak, must have begun to philosophize.

But if philosophy is not simply the exercise of thought, if it is, as Hegel said, a very particular manner of thinking, then things could be quite different. It could be that men have thought, even profoundly and at length, without, for all that, having been philosophers. This second possibility is what comes to the fore as soon as we are attentive to the word philosophy. It is, in our language, a direct and literal transposition of a Greek word.

This, in the first instance, is nothing original. Most French words derive from Greek and Latin, or from Greek through Latin, since the latter borrowed much from Greek. But what is interesting here is that it is not only in our language, but in all languages, that philosophy is called philosophy.

At this time the Iliad and the Odyssey are already five centuries old. The Greeks indeed thought and spoke in the interval without, however, philosophizing.

Plato presents philosophy, which he baptizes as such, as something new and original. In this way we make quite an advance; we have, in fact, advanced from Greece to Rome. It is the Romans, not the Greeks, who opposed wisdom and science, and the unity of both terms is to be found in the verb savoir, to 'know', which although of the same family as sagesse or 'wisdom' signifies also the possession of science. When today, for example, we say un savant, it is about a man of science that we are thinking and not about a sage.

In reality the distinction between wisdom and science is foreign to the Greeks, a distinction that a peculiarly modern mania sometimes poses as an opposition of theory to practice. Nothing is more anti-Greek than this opposition. Theory, in the Greek sense, is in no way opposed to practice or, as one says in taking from Marx's German a word that is only a transliteration of Greek, to praxis.

In other words, the Greeks were in no way men of theory against praxis, but much rather those for whom theory was the highest praxis-theory not signifying for them that they were confined within 'purely theoretical' occupations, but that they had what was properly in question in view as a task. It was in no way to hide themselves in the world of speculations-a Latin and not a Greek word-in order to escape the harsh necessities of praxis.

Otherwise we would be unable to understand why, for Plato, the free man did not have one, but two, essential occupations; philosophy and politics, such as it will be, for Marx, the summit of praxis; and why the same Plato had been able to give to his longest and most elaborate philosophical dialogue the title Politics, which was Latinized with the name Republic.

But then would for Plato the philosopher essentially be a politician? Of course; and what a politician: a true communist! Doubtless, it is not yet a question, as it will be for Marx, of the socialization of the instruments of production, but rather of the relegation of production to the bottom of the scale, where it still functions socially due to the pressure exerted by the superior on the inferior, that is, of the political on the economic.

The result of this is that if the earth is not cultivated in common, then it is nevertheless in thought that the lot attributed to each individual is common to him with the State as a whole, which supposes that the producers are protected from an excess of riches as much as from an excess of poverty. But above this level everything becomes deliberately communal, even women. This applies to the same degree to the guardians of the state as it does to, higher again, those men and women for Plato also has his moments of feminism selected from all the classes in view of knowledge, that is, in view of philosophy, who will dedicate their efforts to political affairs, taking the helm successively with solely the public good in sight — not as one receives an honor, but as one fulfils a task, with one of the central aspects of this task being, for the governors, the choice and the formation of their successors.

Such was the famous state of Plato, whose uncommon structure will make Aristotle say of his master that it makes him think of someone who always confuses "symphony and unison, rhythm and regularity. It is clear, thus, that for the Greeks no barrier comes to separate theory from practice. If the privilege of the gods is to be exempt from the second, with men the current does not cease to pass from one to the other, and this at all levels.

But what is proper to human practice is that it is established at a theoretical level, from which animal nature is quite happily preserved. This is why, as Sophocles said:. Is this breakthrough of man into the world, however, something specifically Greek? Has man achieved this breakthrough everywhere, before Greece and outside of it?

Or is it necessary to say that he had differently and perhaps better broken though in Greece than anywhere else? This was Hegel's thought in the contrast that he established in the course of his lectures on Aesthetics between Greece and Egypt, where the breakthrough of man had only yet made space for the apparition of an enigma, symbolized by the Sphinx. In Greek myth, on the contrary, and as he adds, the Sphinx is itself interpreted as the monster posing enigmas:.

The Sphinx propounded the well-known conundrum: What is it that in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening on three? Oedipus found the simple answer: a man, and he tumbled the Sphinx from the rock. The know thyself that Socrates read much later and meditatively on the inscription at Delphi echoes Oedipus's response.

But what is it to be a human being? How it is possible to become one? In the eyes of Plato, Pericles was a man, for his speech knew so well how "to be lofty" in its "free flight" without, for all that, losing itself in the clouds.

This was true no less, in opposition to Lysias, of Isocrates. But why? As Socrates explains to Pheadrus in the dialogue which carries his name, because "there is, by nature, a sort of philosophy in the thought of such a man. The question What is the human being? Man only truly breaks through as man by the breakthrough in him of philosophy. What, then, is philosophy as that which constitutes the very humanity of man in the eyes of a Greek of the fourth century? Do we have a definition of philosophical language — for it is indeed a question of a language — as that which knows so well, as we have seen, how to elevate itself above the matter-of-fact and to take to the heights without losing itself in the clouds?

Do we have a properly Greek definition? But we adopt this definition less from Plato than from his disciple Aristotle. There is, he says, a certain knowledge, we might say a certain perspective, which, as a whole, brings beings into view insofar as they are. To be capable of such a perspective is to be a philosopher. But how are we to understand this quite sober definition of philosophy: "as a whole, to bring beings into view insofar as they are"?

L'etant: this use of the present participle is as unusual in French as it is frequent in German — das Seiende — or in English: a being. A being is whatever is — a mountain or an animal, my watch, each one of us, a river or a stone, the obelisk at the Place de Concorde, etc.

But it is a question of bringing it into view insofar as it is. Here we remain in suspense. How could we bring it into view in any other way? What else can a being do than be? To bring into view a being, is this not necessarily to bring it into view insofar as it is? In truth, the problem is not so simple.

One can, in fact, face up to a being or grapple with it without necessarily bringing it into view insofar as it is. One can eat or drink a being, sit on it, dress oneself with it, live in it, describe it or tell a story concerning it, and even expect from it, if it is taken at a sufficient level, the eternal salvation of one's spirit.

But is this to bring it into view insofar as it is? In other words, is this to approach it according to the dimension of its being? Or, on the contrary, does not such an approach to a being presuppose much more a stepping back from it? Does it not suppose that it is first of all to be left to itself, in such a way that it itself appears, in what it is and as it is, language thus having the task to name, as Aristotle says "what its being already was," before it became the particular, concrete thing before us with such and such a familiar figure: this man, this dog, this book, this house, this tree?

In other words, in fifth century Greece a turning occurred. Our question is no longer that of a particular being such as a mountain, a house, a tree, in the sense of having to climb a mountain, of living in a house, of busying ourselves with the planting of a tree. On the contrary, it is a question of the mountain, of the house, of the tree as a being, in order to bring into view only what holds itself in reserve in the word being, whether it is a question of the mountain, of the tree, or of the house.

Thus spoke Heidegger some years ago. It is essential here to see clearly that being is no longer a quality that one can encompass in the definition of a house, as when one says of a house, for example, that it is a construction that can be inhabited in a bourgeois fashion, or that a tree is a plant with roots, a trunk, and branches.

Without doubt, not every construction is a house, not every plant is a tree; construction and plant are something more general than tree or house. But being is still beyond that which is only general. Where, then, does being reside? Not in the foreground of what is, as when I say: this tree is in blossom, nor in the background of what is, as when I say: it is an apple tree. But rather in the much more peculiar proximity in which the tree appears in front of me in order simply to let itself be seen as that which it is.

In other words, the question cannot be posed in the terms of a foreground, nor of a background, but in terms of the ground itself that carries both, as much the one as the other without being identified with either of the two, and which hence remains hidden in both.

One might say that here there are too many subtleties. Yet it is precisely these subtleties that the Greeks took up as a fundamental question, and it is the elaboration of this question that they named philosophy. They let themselves be provoked by questions only under the pressure and the urgency of a unique question, namely the question of being.

Well before Plato and Aristotle, it is what already burst open in the speech of those which modern erudition has named, not without a certain disdain, pre-Socratics, in the sense that one says pre-Columbians, pre-Raphaelites, and pre-hominids. It is the same thing to say, of course, that Ronsard is a pre-Malherbian and Victor Hugo a pre-Mallarmeen. Who is not, relatively to some other, in the situation that is said in the prefix pre-?

The whole question is obviously one of knowing if this pre- is only a not yet, if it is the pre- of a still unrefined primitivism, or on the contrary, if it is that of a precursor, in other words, that of an initiator who opens the way with both a suddenness and a casualness that will never be surpassed, although it is provisionally misunderstood by those who immediately follow him.

Aristotle himself was not far from treating his predecessors as pre-Socratics, when he presented them as having only, as he says, "spoken falteringly. All this does not mean that what comes before is a priori more perfect than what comes after, the latter being merely the decline of the former, as it is sometimes fashionable to say, but only that in the use that one makes of the antagonistic notions of progress and decadence, perhaps it is necessary to introduce a little more consideration than one ordinarily does.

To come back to the pre-Socratics, who are in no way primitives in the domain of thinking, I propose to you that we read together fragment 18 of Heraclitus. It can be translated as follows:. If one does not expect the unexpected one will not find it: it is unavailable and difficult to compass. Only the qualities that a being presents, either in the foreground or in the background, are accessible and available.


Letter on Humanism



Jean Beaufret


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