I read the Riemen’s book Nobility of Spirit, which, frankly is going to need another reading. I had expected the kind of thing Berdyaev would have written but from a more western and modern perspective, something to which we can easily relate. I was forced to accept the fact that the style of this book was different, one of anecdotes and imagined narratives. Examples given were the trial of Socrates and the torture by the Nazis of a Jewish philosopher in Rome by the use of a Catholic priest won over to the ideology. We are directly taken to the Grand Inquisitor and the interrogation of Christ by a cardinal whose main conviction was that Christ was wrong to restore freedom to man.
This theme has come up throughout history. What is freedom? Is it limitless and unconditional like in the insane yearnings of Nietzsche? Is it a liberty of indifference, arbitrary, or a freedom of perfection as expressed in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas? What about the idea of the limit of our freedom beginning where someone else’s begins – the very basis of the social contract?
Riemen’s examples of the philosopher – the lover of wisdom – all come from individual persons, never from the collectivity. The collective represents only the tyranny and ideology of the Grand Inquisitor or the Führer – who also were individuals but conditioned by the collective. We are taken from section to section, from Nietzsche to Socrates thousands of years before him, then to Spinoza in the seventeenth century to the German Romantics.
The narrative of 9/11 is quite interesting, because Riemen’s brings out the truth of fundamentalist Islam, being no different in essence from the Spanish Inquisition, the Gestapo or the KGB. Only yesterday, I was recommended to see a video about working conditions in a supermarket chain and its distribution system and an internet provider. The ideology of productivity and efficiency have crushed human dignity for obscene profits. We are brought to think of the satire in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and The Dictator – and Blake’s Jerusalem. Poetry critics argue whether the dark satanic mills were the factories of the industrial revolution, or the churches that preached bourgeois morals but gave no spiritual consolation. That would be the context of John Wesley’s movement among the ordinary folk of England. It is debatable and we need to know more about Blake’s life and philosophy.
If ever we have a sense of vocation in this world, it is to join this movement of individual persons who live for for this ideal of freedom and transcendence in the image of God and the universal. In my own life, I have discovered that one thing matters in life – philosophy, the aspiration to wisdom, beauty, truth and everything that is good and brings true happiness, freedom from evil and barbarity. The next book I am going to try to find is Riemen’s main inspiration, Mann’s Nobility of Spirit: Sixteen Essays on the Problem of Humanity from 1945. I remember my grandfather whose memories of the war and his imprisonment in the Oflag were painful to him, and the privilege of reading his diary, now in the possession of my sister. They all had a tale to tell – and the barbarity and cruelty continue to this day, albeit in different and sometimes covert forms.
The essay on Leone Ginsberg, the Italian Jewish intellectual murdered by the Nazis,is poignant. The priest with the swastika is particularly painful to read, since he was Ginsberg’s fellow student at university and who had also studied philosophy. The final quotes are chilling.
Why, the, all this nonsense about a soul and divine truth! I know, I’ll burn in hell if it’s true. But the only hell there is, my friend, is here on earth – a hell from which I’ve managed to escape.
Do you understand what it would mean if Socrates is wrong? Do you understand that your entire life, everything you’ve accomplished, would rest on nothing but one huge, ghastly error? That you are letting them torture you, and will soon die, only thirty-five years young, because you believed in something false?
This from the mouth of a priest! Thoughts are taken to the Grand Inquisitor and the dense black fog of Nihilism. I once watched the end of Der Untergang, a film from which many young enthusiasts like to make what they will of Hitler raging in the Berlin bunker at his army’s inability to resist the Soviets. My attention was not taken by Hitler raging but the final Götterdämmerung of the Führer himself and his faithful committing suicide, Goebbels killing his own children before doing himself in, the scorched earth policy of the Nazi dystopia or nothing. That is the chilling indictment of human evil and the forces of the Archons of this world.
Unlike the ends of 1984 and Brave New World, Riemen’s book ends with the victory of love and the entry into heaven. We have to “be brave” faced with terror, hatred and ignorance. We are left with hope. For us priests wallowing in the morass of political ideas on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet, there are things we need to guide our minds – a study of history and true philosophy in accordance with the etymological meaning of this word. It is in this freedom and light that we will find our transcendence and that of God, that union of love which constitutes the redeemed and divinised person.