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The Lost Prophecy of Rudolf Eucken
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Saturday, July 18, 2009
Posted: Monday, July 06, 2009

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The outcome of the Nobel Prize winner's Christian Activism remains to be seen.


Every month or so I visit the beautiful, downtown Miami-Dade Library to copy out a few more pages of Rudolf Eucken’s The Problem of Human Life As Viewed By The Great Thinkers From Plato To The Present Time, published in 1914 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. I enjoy reading two pages of Professor Eucken’s philosophical review every Sunday morning over coffee and two guava and cheese pastels, preferring it to the expensive New York Times. I have gotten as far as Page 361, the end of the section on Descartes, which I found fascinating inasmuch as I had recently read almost all of Descartes in conjunction with my research into the underlying motivations of why his rationalizations are considered such a great evil by postmodern thinkers – the frustrated philosopher George Soros’ fallibilism inspired me to pose the question.


Professor Eucken, whose popular philosophy was a spiritualistic reaction to the materialism of his time, called his own approach to philosophy Christian Activism. He had nothing evil to say about Descartes’ or his careful distinction of mind from body. No, the spiritualist philosopher found no heresy in Descartes’ definitive separation of the thinking being from the mechanical body and the exaltation of the former over the latter. And those spiritualists who stand upright on two legs with their heads in heaven are disinclined to blame him, for have not some of the greatest theologians averred that the immortal human soul is rational?


But of course Descartes’ postmodernist detractors, who are none to pleased with their meager rations under the Western political-economic rationalization plan, imply that his identification of thinking with being and his association of the ‘I’ or thinking-thing with the singular deity necessary for its exalted existence was merely a sop thrown to the Christian authorities, that his mathematical agenda actually undermined those authorities and helped set the mental stage for the totalitarian tyranny of our day; that is, the democratic-capitalist monopoly of the Western Way, which postmodern thinkers relatively resent from their respective multicultural perspectives, as the desire of unity in one god gradually translates into one world government.


For his part, Professor Eucken focused on what he perceived to be the positive side of Descartes’ philosophy, a side necessary for the mental development of humankind; since human are thinking beings, intellectual development is required for human progress. To that end, Nature had to be emptied of spiritual content and controlled.


“As the claims of thought become more imperative, they prove fatal to that conception of body and soul which had been hitherto prevalent – a conception which regarded them as mutually inseparable, but endowed the material factor with forces and impulses, whereas the spiritual was left vague and undefined…. Thus dualism became a necessity…. It was yet an inevitable stage in his progress, and a stimulus to further effort. Especially has it rendered valuable service by its clear separation of mind from matter… Now for the first time each can be explained from its own particular context, the psychical psychologically, and the physical by physics. It was this which first made possible the exact sciences and a self-interpreting psychology. Again, as regards the social life, this separation of mind from matter was the most important agency is restraining the barbarous crusade against witchcraft…. Nature thus loses all soul and psychic quality; she stands over against man as something strange and alien…. Nature, freed from all psychic elements…presents herself as a collection of tiniest atoms endowed from the outset with a power of movement; she becomes a system of simple powers and laws, a great piece of machinery…. Even the most intricate organism is nothing more than a machine of the highest possible degree of perfection…. Nature is one vast, immeasurable network of reciprocal relations….”


We might observe that this modern, scientific sort of attitude towards nature renders it meaningless in itself, a meaninglessness that the existentialist thinker Albert Camus dwelled upon, but without much regret, for he still loved nature, especially the Sun; life was enough for him, even if it were the life of Sisyphus, whose Task was rolling the Stone or Sun to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down again – he gleefully ran back down after it to take up his Task, thereby mocking the gods who put him up to it as punishment for the crimes of his existence.


Excuse me for a moment. My toast just popped up my mass produced, machine-sliced bread, and my microwave oven is signaling that my machine-processed tea is ready. Thank God for machines.  Long before anthropologists took up the subject, the Sufis made much of the law of reciprocity in ethics – “Everything that exists maintains and is maintained by other existences.” The universe is a web of mutually supporting systems for transforming energy, each system producing sustenance for others hence a person cannot spiritually advance absent service to others. The human automaton, aided by enlightening revelation, must come under the volition of its own soul if it would progress. However that might be, Professor Eucken does not leave Descartes with the mere mechanics of things:


“The separation of the psychical from the physical necessitated an important understanding concerning the demarcation of boundaries. The sense-properties of things – the rich variety of colours, sounds, etc. – which had hitherto been looked on as inherent in the things themselves, prove on closer examination to be contributed by the soul, and to the reactions with which she responds from the storehouse of her own inner nature to the stimulus from outside.”


The world is, from our constructivist perspective, what we make it out to be. At least we have a hand in the making. The Great Machine is a beauty to behold in its form and operations, whether or not we believe it was manufactured by God. We certainly take pride in our own inventions, and, although we could with equal logic start with matter and proceed to mind, we begin with mind elevated over matter, and take credit for our creations, as if we were gods, for the sake of our dignity. Professor Eucken observes that the “transformation of nature into an inanimate mechanism made upon later generations a general impression of artificiality and lifelessness, but at the time, the prevalent feeling was one of pride and delight in the control of nature by means of our ideas, and – secondarily – in its subordination to our purposes.” As for the autonomy of nature, the soul is equally autonomous. “Though with Descartes the soul is deprived of all extension in the universe and strictly limited to man, it becomes thereby, only the more certainly, underived and independent. No outside influence can reach it, save with its own cooperation.”


We are naturally hungry for more than an explanation of how things work. We want something more than understanding. We want the perfection of our power in Absolute Power so that we can endure forever without further impedance; of course then we would not exist as we do, as individuals. Wherefore we speculate on the possibilities…. Now with Professor Eucken and with Rene Descartes as well, a superhuman power transcends and somehow resolves the contradictions between mind and body, freedom and slavery, and so on. Indeed, all the great contradictions conceived of are cancelled out in the nullity of a conveniently inconceivable Beyond. Martin Luther excused himself, when his contradictions were pointed out, by counting them among “God’s mysteries.”      


So this is what Professor Eucken was up to in his recounting of the history of philosophy in The Problem of Human Life. I enjoy the lyrical and sometimes poetical way he tells the tale. I am not surprised that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1908 over the objections of some that philosophy is not literature.  Now I have retrieved the professors sections on Spinoza and Locke – I am looking forward most of all to his take on John Locke’s political philosophy, as I do not find Mr. Locke’s notions on human rights very realistic, although they might be realized in a perfect state before birth or after death. In the “state of nature,” Mr. Locke wrote, all men are naturally in a “state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature….” Methinks the “law of nature” is no respecter of humankind on the whole, and nature’s conditions render persons naturally unequal at conception. Mr. Locke opposed the hearsay of the “judicious” ecclesiast Richard Hooker to those who said the state of nature never existed, and the fact princes of various states apparently exists in such a state, lawless but for the mysterious law of nature.


I once had a large collection of Professor Eucken’s works and biographies, but I had to leave them behind in Honolulu and Kansas City, therefore I checked Miami-Dade Library’s catalogue to see what else I could find on Professor Eucken and came up with a reference to him under the title Six Major Prophets, by one Edwin E. Slosson, whom I soon discovered had attended one of Professor Eucken’s lectures before the outbreak of the Great War, and then had dinner with him at his salon – to his right at table was a lady from Nebraska, and to his left dined a lady from Switzerland.


“He speaks no evil,” wrote Mr. Slosson. “Very curiously, it has been Eucken’s lot to have been closely associated, on the faculties of small universities, with the two men whose views are most antagonistic to his; at Basel with Nietzsche and at Jena with Haeckel, and he has been on the best terms with both of them. I was particularly interested in what Professor Eucken told me of Nietzsche, whose personality and philosophy were in such violent contradiction. This advocate of ruthless brutality, this scorner of sympathy and compassion, was in reality a most tender-hearted man, but too shy and sensitive to be popular; and when his feelings were hurt he wrote down in a passion what he felt at the moment.”


Professor Eucken, he said, boomed like a German preacher, throwing his arms out to his sides as his heart overflowed: “Who can doubt the reality of ‘the spiritual life’ after he has seen Eucken? We do not need to be told that Activism is his philosophy. It shows in his movements. He lives with his theories.”


The professor, who was sixty-seven at the time, proclaimed in his lecture on happiness that labor is not merely activity; it has a purpose. “A man is more than his work. Mankind is more than his culture.” And we are more than nature. Mr. Slosson quoted Professor Eucken’s Life’s Basis and Life’s Ideals: “A transcendence of nature is already accomplished in the process of thought. A consideration of all the facts leads us to the result that a life consisting solely of nature and intelligence involves an intolerable inconsistency…. Life is in a state of painful uncertainty and man is a Prometheus bound in that he must experience all the constraint and meaninglessness of the life of nature, and must suffer therefrom an increasing pain without being able to change this state in any way.”


Well, we might ask, if change is impossible, what good does the philosopher’s Activism do us, other than as a wordy opiate to alleviate our suffering? How is perfection to be attained if we cannot “change this state in any way”? Perhaps this activism is, like thought, merely symbolic action, an attempt to resolve vital contradictions through rationalizing faith in reference to an imaginary blissful beyond, a beyond different from embittered Nietzsche’s immediately imperfect Beyond Good and Evil.


Mr. Slosson explains that, according to Professor Eucken, “From time to time in the course of history spiritual impulses arise which are fundamentally different from physical self-preservation. ‘They force human activity into particular channels, they speak to us with a tone of command and require absolute obedience’…. This line of thought leads Eucken to the conclusion that a new life distinct from that of nature arises in our soul…a universal life which transcends man, is shared by him and raises him to itself. The philosophical treatment of history ought to have first of all to trace the liberation of life from the mere human; the inner elevation of our being to a more than human.”


From whom do the spiritual commands come, and how? From God, naturally, by way of direct revelation. But although Professor Eucken said we cannot change our state of nature, and that any change must come from above, the change does not just happen to man: he needs to decide to accept and take up this spiritual activity; therefore the label Activism. This Activism is similar to Pragmatism inasmuch as it rejects vapid intellectualism, but it differs from pragmatic activity because Pragmatism shapes the world in accordance with merely human conditions and needs, whereas Activism declares its independence from worldly conditions: “Religion,” quoth Eucken, “has always been concerned with winning a new world and a new humanity, not with the achievement of something within the old world and for the old humanity.”


Our professor’s "Activism" seems to be another word for Spiritualism. I suppose we might call Pragmatism materialistic activism, and Activism spiritualistic activism. But Professor Eucken’s Activism, says Mr. Slosson, is not Quietism: “Eucken does not regard the individual as seeking a peaceful haven by absorption into the infinite; on the contrary, the infinite enters the individual and rouses him to interest and creative activity.” As for religion, “He never falls into the error of thinking that a ‘new’ religion can be made to order to suit the times, or even the needs of one person. He finds in historic Christianity all the essentials of a permanent and universal religion….”


We are not informed as to just what the “error of thinking” is, nor are we told whether or not the “essentials” of religion found in historic Christianity can be found in other organized religions. Nor can we say for sure whether one of the “essentials” is the recognition of Jesus Christ as our one and only lord, as God incarnate. Professor Eucken himself said that “religion is not primarily a mere theory…it discloses revelations of the spiritual life, further developments of reality…which have…proved themselves strong enough to attract large portions of mankind.”


So, according to Activism, we must depend on personal revelations to know what we are to do for certain. No doubt in the absence of experiencing direct communications from the Supreme Being, we will have to rely on the revelations of others, perhaps on the purported revelations of Holy Scriptures, to the best of our interpretations, or the interpretations of those spiritual leaders who claim they do not speak for themselves but are merely messengers for the divinity. As for the great churches, Professor Eucken recognized the alienation of the organized churches in German from the practical and cultural life of his day. The Catholic and Protestant organization in Germany were reactionary. Mr. Slosson thought it fortunate that America has many churches; the proliferation of sects setting them all equally free to adapt themselves to changing circumstances, he said, and to prove themselves in their own way – an independent “Christian of one” that I knew, a high-rise window washer and disc jockey who lived in a rope-accessible cave in the watershed above the University of Hawaii Manoa, called them “dens of vipers.”


Needless to say, spiritually inclined people frustrated by materialistic culture expect spiritual authorities to tell them exactly what to do, for God’s sake. We do not hear Professor Eucken issuing imperious commands from the pulpit. But in Christianity and the New Idealism, he does say that “we need not make any timid compromise with certain superficial contemporary movements,” saying religion can never have the certainty of 2+2=4. On the contrary, religion’s truth is far more certain than 2+2=4. In fact, he says, “religion is based on facts of a suprahuman order, and in that case the most violent onslaught cannot shake her.”


After the Great War broke out, Professor Eucken among other notable German professors, including his colleague and philosophical opponent, Ernst Haeckel, whose materialistic philosophy is sometimes identified with fascism, blamed it on British greed and egotism. “Philosophy,” proclaimed Professor Eucken in a homily appearing in the April 1916 edition of New York’s ‘Homiletic Review’, is summoned to proclaim the unity of mankind over against the present split among the peoples…. They are not merely scholars, they are also living men and citizens of their own nation. When they see this assaulted and its existence put in peril, it is for them a holy duty to come to the defense of the fatherland…. Meanwhile, the belief is entirely proper that the intellectual gains which are the result of philosophical labor remain unharmed by war, that a realm of intellectual creation will remain fully recognized beyond the enmities of man…. Let each, therefore, remain true to his own people, but never forget the task and aim of philosophy – to consider things under the form of perpetuity, maintaining for humanity in the present a world superior to all the littleness of human action.”


We witness here yet another instance of utter hypocrisy, the underlying crisis of being human, of constantly falling short of our stated ideals. Professor Eucken, declared that his purpose in The Problem of Human Life was “to afford historical confirmation that conceptions are determined by life, not life by conceptions…. Human destinies are not decided by mere opinions and whims, either of individuals or of masses of individuals, but rather that they are ruled by spiritual necessities with a spiritual aim and purport….” But we can philosophize, and this intellectual effort may be a help us achieve a higher mode of existence. In this contradiction, we are presented with yet another of God’s great mysteries.


We may conceive of the state of nature as a perfectly peaceful state inhabited by inherently good and reasonable people, but this state is oft converted into a state of war, described by Mr. Locke as a “state of enmity and destruction.” Mr. Locke would as clearly distinguish the states from one another as Rene Descartes differentiated mind from body. “Here we have the plain difference between the state of nature and the state of war which, however some men have confounded, are as distance as a state of peace, good-will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence, and mutual destruction are from one another. Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war; and it is the want of such an appeal that gives man the right of war even against an aggressor, though he be in society and a fellow subject.”


It would seem that ideal anarchy, the supposed equality in the state of nature, is a myth; that if we are not to confuse the two states, then the state of war is the natural state; and that the human being needs a superior to willingly subject himself to, just as the helpless child will subject himself, or else perish. And then he is a “good boy.” Peace then is an interlude between wars, a respite wherein people can prepare themselves for the next war, which may be waged on the slightest pretext but is apparently prerequisite for humankind’s moral and mental progress. The minds in the ivory towers cannot stand the abstract synthesizing of antinomies for long. The human mind is naturally a moral instrument. Good and evil must be clearly distinguished. Decisive action is longed for to settle the inner conflicts projected onto the world. The war to end all wars may bring the globe under one peaceful order, no doubt one’s own favored order. Many astute students of the pretexts for war have declared its sufficient reason unknown. If there is no sufficient reason for war, if war is unreasonable, one might as well be a patriot and take the side of one’s own nation, and rationalize the irrational if need be.


That is what the infamous “German professors” did. For example, Professor Max Weber, who is today the darling of many protestant capitalists, incited students to war for German national aggrandizement. But Professor Eucken was not a warmonger: he was a Christian activist. The war happened to him in spite of his high flown thoughts. He put down the universal god of love and took up the narrow national cause. He preached to the troops in Belgium even as some of them were engaged in horrific atrocities. Later on he signed, along with other German notables, the White Paper that denied that any war crimes were committed.


Mr. Slosson’s five other prophets were George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, F.C.S. Schiller, and John Dewey. The sixth, Rudolf Eucken, is barely heard of nowadays, despite his Nobel Prize. Still, we should “never forget the task and aim of philosophy – to consider things under the form of perpetuity, maintaining for humanity in the present a world superior to all the littleness of human action.” One day our ideals may accord with our reality, and the good god shall, as the Zoroastrians believed, finally eliminate the evil god.










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Reviewed by Claudio Ianora 11/29/2009
It is-in a way- so wonderful for me to find out how much I dont know and how much I cannot understand. But alas, I was hoping to communicate with you. I know now that I have to work on my humility to maintain whatever humor I may derive from my simple simple mind. the only comment I may hazard is that it seems to be of a brilliant cut.

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