Some excerpts from the opening chapter of The Conquest of Illusion

Words and actions

by J.J. Van Der Leeuw (1929)

It is one of the platitudes of our age to say that the time for words is past and the time for action has come. All around us is this clamour for action, all around the contempt for mere words, however verbose the exponents of the action cult may be. But then, even action needs expounding. Yet there is sound reason underlying this impatience with words that are not vitally connected with action. Especially in philosophy we have suffered for many years from a deluge of words, barren of action, and consequently the man in the street has come to look upon philosophy as a pretentious speculation leading nowhere, an intellectual game, subtle and clever, sometimes not even that, but always without practical value for the life of everyday. Often it has been such; disguising its lack of reality under the cloak of a difficult and technical terminology it frightened away the investigating layman and made him feel that it was his fault, his shortcoming which prevented him from understanding its profound mysteries. Only the bold and persevering investigator discovers that its cloak often hides but a pitiful emptiness.

The profoundest minds have ever spoken the simplest language. The thought of Plato may be deep, his language is ever simple and may be understood by any cultured man. Here Oriental philosophy may well teach the West. Lao Tze, Patanjali, Gautama speak a language of utter simplicity, by the side of which Kant or Hegel appears ponderous and confused. When a thing is clear to a philosopher he must be able to say it in simple and intelligible language. If he fails to do so and if many volumes must needs be written to expound what he might have meant, it is a certain sign that his knowledge was confused. Only imperfect knowledge goes hidden under a load of words.

But apart from its intricate and unbeautiful language philosophy has often been a stranger to life. See again how the truly great touch life at every step and ever bring into this world of daily life the fire which they steal from the gods. If our philosophy leads to wisdom and not merely to knowledge it must bear fruit in action. Hear Epictetus the Stoic:

The first and most essential part of philosophy is that concerning the application of rules, such as for instance: not to lie. The second part is that concerning proofs such, as for instance: whence does it follow that one should not lie? The third part is the confirmation and analysis of the first two parts, for instance: how does it follow that this is a proof? For what is a proof? What is a consequence, what a contradiction? What truth, what error? Hence the third part is necessary because of the second and the second because of the first; but the most necessary and that in which we must find peace, is the first. We, however, do the opposite; for we stop at the third part and all our interest concerns it; but the first we neglect entirely. Hence we do lie, but we know by heart the proof that we should not lie. (Encheiridion, 52)

It is in the acid test of daily life that the worth of a philosophy is proved. Morality is never the beginning, but always the end. While knowledge may remain a stranger to action, wisdom, being experience of life, can never fail to stamp our every word andaction with its seal.

Morality, however, or ethics, is but one way in which wisdom becomes action; true philosophy inspires civilization at every point. There was never a Platonist worthy of the name who did not leave the world the better for his philosophy, whether he was poet or politician. But it is only when philosophy has ceased to be merely intellectual and has become experience of living truth that it can be thus creative. It is possible, with infallible logic, to build up an intellectual structure that has the appearance of a philosophy of life, but is in reality a phantasm of death. Only when philosophy as experience is rooted in our consciousness, and thence draws the life-giving force that makes of it a living organism, can it bear fruit that nourishes man. Thus the facts on which a vital philosophy is based must needs be of a psychological nature or, using a much dreaded word, 'subjective.' But then, even though we may be happily oblivious of it, all facts are of a psychological nature, since we do not know a thing except in so far as it becomes awareness in our consciousness. The division of knowledge or truth into subjective and objective is misleading; the moment a thing becomes knowledge it is subjective, though its validity may well be objective. A fact of our consciousness or psychological truth may well be of objective value in so far as it is not a merely personal appreciation, but of universal application. In that case the method is subjective, the value objective. On the other hand there are facts we call objective since they belong to what we call the outer world, but which are subjective in value since they apply to us only. It is the confusion of the two ways in which the word subjective is used, the one pertaining to *method*, when subjective means 'belonging to the consciousness,' and the other pertaining to *validity,* when subjective means 'of personal value only,' which makes us dread the term subjective. There are many facts of the consciousness which we come to know in a subjective way, but which yet are objective in validity since they hold good not only for us, but for all men.

It is therefore no disparagement of philosophy to say of it that, in contrast with science, its method is subjective. Did we but realize it, there is greater safety in the knowledge of our own consciousness, which is direct, than in the knowledge of the world around us, which is indirect.

The Birth of Wonder

There is no more pathetic spectacle than that of an age which is bored with life. Materially our modern world is richer than perhaps any preceding age; spiritually we are paupers. Not all our truly wonderful physical accomplishments, not all our abundance of amusements and sensations can hide the fact that we are poor within. In fact, the task of the latter is but to hide the poverty within; when our inner life is arid we must needs create artificial stimuli from without to provide a substitute, or at least cause such an unbroken succession of ever varying sensations that we have no time to notice the absence of life from within.

There are but few who can bear either solitude or silence, and find a wealth of life arising in themselves even when there is naught from without to stimulate. Yet such alone are happy, such alone truly live; where we find the craving for amusement and sensation from without we see an abject confession of inner lifelessness. There lies the difference between the quick and the dead, some are dead even in life, others can never die since they are life. We all seek life, since life is happiness and life is reality. But it is only when we have the courage to cease from sensationalism and outer stimulants that we may be successful in our quest.

Philosophy is the quest of life. It is more than a love of wisdom, unless we understand wisdom as being different from knowledge, as different as life is from death. Wisdom is knowledge which is experience and therefore life; the quest of wisdom is in reality the quest of life. It is true that the name of philosophy has often been used to cover a game of intellectual question and answer which leaves men no richer than before. Thus the average man distrusts philosophy and accuses it of giving stones for bread. But real philosophy is not the intellectual solving of problems; in the words of Plato, philosophy is the birth of wonder, and he is the true philosopher who begins to wonder about life, not he who is certain of having solved that which is beyond solution. It is profoundly true that, until we can see the wonder of life all around us, unless we see ourselves surrounded by a mystery that challenges our daring exploration, we have not entered on the path of philosophy.

Unawakened man knows only facts, no mysteries, to him things are their own explanation; the world is there and what else is there to know? Such is the animal outlook; to the bovine mind pastures may be good or bad, but they need no explanation. Thus unawakened man is content with the facts of existence - his environment, his food, his work, his family and friends are so many facts surrounding him, pleasant or unpleasant, but never in need of explanation. To speak of him of a mystery hidden in his life and his world would not convey any meaning; he exists and the fact of his existence is sufficient unto him. Death and life themselves may for a while cause him anxiety or joy, but even then they do not arouse any questions; they are familiar and customary.

It is the very familiarity of life which hides its mystery to the animal mind That which seen once would be a marvel becomes familiar when seen a hundred times and ceases to suggest the possibility of further explanation; have we not switched on the electric light so many times that the unexplained wonder of electricity is lost in the familiarity of the action and the fact has become its own explanation?

To Part 8

With thanks for selecting this and typing it out to Leo Bartoli.