Sunday, 26 April 2015

The dialogue of Beelzebub and the Hermit—Leibniz, The Philosopher's Confession

Further to a previous post, and particularly Tim Howles' comment thereon, I thought I'd post an extract from Leibniz's 'The Philosopher's Confession,' which Isabelle Stengers references in her Penser Avec Whitehead (although it isn't mentioned in the English translation).

It is a dialogue on God's justness. The interlocutors are 'The Theologian as Catechist [i.e. instructor]' and 'The Philosopher as Catechumen [i.e. instructed].'

We may join them in the closing stages of their discussion, as our principal interest vis-à-vis Stengers' remark concerns a 'dialogue within a dialogue' that occurs soon after:
Philosopher: [...] No one who does not know God can love him properly, but such a person can hate him nevertheless. Therefore, he who hates God, hates nature, hates things, hates the world: he who wants these things to be different wants God to be different. He who dies malcontent dies a hater of God and now, as if pushed to the edge of an abyss, he follows the path on which he began, external things no more calling him back. With the access to the senses closed off he nourishes his soul, which has withdrawn into itself, with the hatred of things already began, and with that misery and loathing, indignation, jealousy and displeasure, which increase more and more. When reunited with the body, and when the senses have returned, he continually finds new material for contempt, disapproval and anger, and is so much more tormented the less he is able to change and endure the torrent of things displeasing to him. However, in a certain way the pain turns into pleasure and the wretched are glad to find something by which they are tormented. Just as with humans too, the unhappy, while envying the happy, seek at the same time to wear them down, with no other outcome than that they become indignant, as they think the inept are the masters of things, and their pain, more unimpeded and more unchecked, is turned into a kind of harmony, i.e. an appearance of reason. For in the case of the jealous, indignant and malcontent of this kind, pleasure is mixed with pain in a remarkable way, for just as they are pleased and delighted by their belief in their own wisdom, so they suffer so much more furious pain because they lack the power they think is due to them, or rather is in others they deem unworthy. Here you have the explanation of those extraordinary paradoxes, that no one is damned unless he wills it, but also that no one remains damned unless damned by himself. The damned are never absolutely damned, always damnable. They are damned by stubbornness and a perverse appetite, by an aversion to God, so that nothing gladdens them more than to have something by which they may feel pain; they seek nothing more than to discover a reason for them to get angry. This is the highest degree of madness of reason - it is voluntary, irredeemable, desperate and eternal! The damned, therefore, even if they wanted to, can never make use of those complaints which we ascribed to them earlier, and so cannot accuse nature, the universal harmony and God as being the authors of their own misery. 
Theologian: Immortal God! How you have brought about endoxa from your paradoxes. I realize that the Holy Fathers were not averse to this kind of explanation. And the pious ancients summed up the innate character of the damned very much like this in a simple but wise fable. Some hermit, in the depths of contemplation as if intoxicated, begins to be pained in earnest on account of there being so many creatures coming to ruin. Therefore he approaches God with his prayers, and shows the sincerity of his own longing - 'Oh father,' he says, 'can you watch the destruction of so many healthy children? Ah, receive into your grace those wretched demons, which drag so many souls with them into the abyss.' To him who cried out like this, the almighty calmly replies, with an expression which brightens the sky and quietens the storm: 'I see, my son, the simplicity of your heart, and I forgive the exuberance of your emotions, and in my case there is indeed no obstacle. Let those who seek forgiveness come to me.' The hermit then says, in adoration: 'You are blessed, oh Father of all mercy, oh inexhaustible source of grace. And now I go with your permission in order to meet he who is wretched to himself and others - he who so far is ignorant of the happiness of this day.' He departs to meet the prince of devils, not an infrequent visitor for him, and immediately upon making his way in, says: 'Oh you are fortunate! Oh fortunate this day, on which the way of salvation is opened to you, which almost from the beginning of the world has been closed! Come now, and complain about the cruelty of God, in whose presence the supplication of a miserable hermit on behalf of rebels of so many centuries has been effective.' The prince of devils, like the indignant and like those speaking menacingly, replies 'And who has appointed you as our agent? Who has persuaded you to so foolish a pity? Understand, foolish one, that we need neither you as mediator nor God's pardon.'
The Theologian then proceeds to recount this intra-dialogue:
Hermit: Oh the stubbornness! Oh the blindness! Stop, I beseech you, and allow me to discuss this with you.
Beelzebub: Evidently you will tell me.
Hermit: But how trifling is the loss of a few moments you spend listening to a little man who is desirous of the best for all?
Beelzebub: So what do you want?
Hermit: You should know that I have pleaded with God concerning your salvation.
Beelzebub: You? With God? Oh disgrace of heaven, oh infamy of the world, oh humiliation of the universe! And this is he who rules things, this is he who so demands the angels tremble before an authority which has prostituted itself before these worms of the earth? I am bursting with anger and rage.
Hermit: Ah, refrain from these curses as we are on the verge of reconciliation.
Beelzebub: I am beside myself.
Hermit: You will return to yourself when you have learned with how much fatherly tenderness the lap of God hopes for the return of a son.
Beelzebub: And is it possible that he who has exasperated us through so many injustices wants reconciliation? He who has so often harmed has recovered his senses? He who considers himself all-knowing has recognized his error, he who considers himself all-powerful humbles himself? Eh, and what is the price, do you think, for agreeing to the peace?
Hermit: A single supplication will extinguish the angers, will bury the hatreds, and will make the memory of earlier events submerge as if in the depths of the sea.
Beelzebub: Go and announce that by this condition I am prepared for friendship.
Hermit: Seriously?
Beelzebub: Not a doubt.
Hermit: You are not making fun?
Beelzebub: Only go, and enable the matter to be accomplished.
Hermit: Oh happy me! Oh cheerful day! Men freed, God blessed! 
God: What news do you bring with so much dancing?
Hermit: The matter is settled, oh Father! Now the kingdom and the power, and the salvation, and the strength, and the honour, and the glory are of our God and his son Christ, because he who accused us every day, and who bellowed by night and by day for our death, has turned.
God: What? You have also added the condition of begging mercy?
Hermit: He has approved it.
God: See that you should not be deceived.
Hermit: I go in order to bring him so that he will keep his promise.
God: But listen, you: let us work out in advance the form of words.
Hermit: I shall follow them.
God: Therefore give notice to whoever may want to be accepted in grace that they will have to commit to the use of these words before my throne: 'I confess with my mouth and acknowledge with my heart that my wickedness has been the cause of my misery and that it would have been made eternal if your ineffable pity had not dispelled my stupidity. Now that I, with a subdued mind, have understood the distinction between light and darkness, I would rather suffer everything to the end than return to the condition where I repeated the offence to him, which the nature of things can consider nothing so vile.'
Hermit: I have it. And now I shall go, or rather I shall fly. 
Beelzebub: Can it be that you are winged?
Hermit: The emotion has made me so fast. Here is the form of words of the supplication.
Beelzebub: I shall read it if it pleases you. But when will the condition be fulfilled?
Hermit: Whenever you want.
Beelzebub: As if the delay is on account of me.
Hermit: Come then. Let us go to the throne of God.
Beelzebub: What? Are you quite sane? Do I go to him, or him to me?
Hermit: Do not mock with regard to a matter so great.
Beelzebub: He who is going to beg for pardon will go.
Hermit: Let's go then.
Beelzebub: You are mad.
Hermit: Are you not the one who has to beg for pardon?
Beelzebub: Is this what you have promised?
Hermit: Who would think differently, even if he were dreaming?
Beelzebub: Is it not I who am offended? Shall I become suppliant to that tyrant? Oh excellent mediator! Oh plague of man! Oh model of a colluding advocate!
Hermit: Ah, what are you doing?
Beelzebub: Poison enters the limbs, and already rages the anger Through the whole body: crime is heaped upon crime. Thus we are purified. The only victim for the frenzied Is the sacrifice of his enemy. It is pleasing that he be scattered in the winds And mangled alive, drawn into a thousand pieces, Persecuted with as many marks of my own pain, The trumpet itself summoning those to be resurrected To withdraw the flesh.
Hermit: God, turn to my assistance.
Beelzebub: Gaping jaws of pale Avernus, and you lakes of Taenarum...
Hermit: He has vanished, I breathe again. That wretched creature left behind testimony of where he would go in his last words. Oh despair! Oh enemy of God, of the universe, of himself! The cursed should go to him, and have their deliberate insanity. But to you praise, honour, glory, oh my God, who have condescended to reveal your pity and also your justice so splendidly to your servant; you have removed all those temptations of doubts which were trying to make out that you are either unjust or powerless. Now my soul is at peace, and basks with unexhausted delights in the light of your beauty.

Thus spoke our hermit, and I with him.
 To quote Tim's previous comment:
This is not Milton's Satan. It's a much more cowardly, dastardly, niggardly refusal of truth: the perfect analogy, as Stengers points out, for the destructive/ deconstructive/ denunciatory reaction that she doesn't want from the reader of this book.
The crucial thing here is mediation (this is why I think that the figure of the diplomat must be kept in mind throughout Stengers' writings, even when she doesn't mention it explicitly).

The Hermit is the mediator here who is abused and betrayed by Beelzebub. God, as the previous discussion between the Theological and the Philosopher indicates, is conceived of as a substance of pure harmony. To make peace with God is thus to find peace; to reject God is to wallow in an inwardly and outwardly destructive circle of loathing and contempt.

However, I am inclined to hold at least a moment's thought for Beelzebub's position here. Is his objection not that he is being summoned to kneel before a Father? He is being granted a divine invitation to peace and harmony—an invitation that his loathing and self-importance cannot allow him to accept. However, it is an offer issued from a position that is discernibly monarchical.

Indeed, Stengers says something similar on this same dialogue towards the end of her Cosmopolitics II:
"When Leibniz attempted to consider the question of damnation and introduced Beelzebub's refusal to 'ask forgiveness,' which God had decreed to be the condition for his salvation, he also showed, perhaps in spite of himself, the extent to which apparent generosity, whenever it is one-sided, can exacerbate the rage of the one it was supposed to benefit. The cosmopolitical calculus will always remain exposed to rage, to Beelzebub's despair [...]." (415)
She goes on:
"Beelzebub's venomous rage is the rage liable to invade the victims of crimes to whom the risky commitment of the calculemus is proffered." (415)
The calculemus ('let us calculate') in Stengers' reading refers to the construction of a temporary common measure, a 'middle ground' between estranged parties for the purposes of conciliation. It takes two to conciliate; we may infer that the condescension of a benign deity is insufficient to this end.

I think it's also important that Stengers notes that Leibniz might be making this case "perhaps in spite of himself." Her reading of Leibniz posits him as a 'minor key' thinker, in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari. Leibniz is notoriously impossible to pin down—a multiplicity if ever there was one. However, the minoritarian, diplomatic reading is, I think, really fruitful, even if it has to be constructed to some degree 'in spite of' certain facets of the man himself.


  1. why diplomat instead of cosmopolitan?

  2. Well, I think for Stengers there are any number of reasons to prefer diplomat over cosmopolitan. The latter has all kinds of Kantian 'citizen of the world'-type connotations for a start.

    The crucial thing about the diplomat is its 'schizo' quality, in the Guattarian sense of being 'split' and multiple. The diplomat is doubled, duplicitous, duplex on all kinds of axes (or, rather, along all kinds of rhizomatic filaments).

    Moreover, the diplomat is the quintessential pragmatist, always interested in 'what will work' in a concrete, particular situation and always wary of general principles that are applied unthinkingly.

    Personally, I'm interested in building a bridge (or exploring the one that has already been built) between this pragmatic/process philosophy and diplomatic practice in both its formal/conventional and everyday/anthropological forms.

    I think if one were to riff on cosmopolitics it'd have to be cosmopolitician rather than cosmopolitan. In fact the former could very well be a synonym for diplomat.

  3. most folks have never heard of Kant let alone read him but that aside:

  4. Perhaps not but they'll probably be familiar with the general (more or less Kantian) dictionary definition of the word:

    "a person who is free from local, provincial, or national bias or attachment; citizen of the world; cosmopolite."

    Exactly the opposite of Stengers' conception of cosmopolitics.

  5. ah you didn't check out the link the public understanding is rather one of progressive pluralism not being free of anything but nostalgic racism and such.

  6. Thanks for the link. Of course, cosmopolitanism is certainly preferable to vitriolic, xenophobic nationalism.

    However, cosmopolitanism tends to take the point of view that 'we can all get along because we're all really the same,' always taking themselves as the baseline for what constitutes 'same.'

    A diplomatic attitude would tend to argue that 'we can all get along because we're all differentiated by contrasts rather than contradictions.'

    Doesn't sound as good on a bumper sticker, I'll admit.

  7. Brilliant, Philip, thanks for posting this great snippet from Leibniz.

    I'm very much on your side in your intention to re-evaluate theology away from that which is 'discernibly monarchical' (albeit I appreciate that your background and project is not primarily theological!).

    But I suppose the subtlety of Christian theology has always been to say that (however paradoxical it might seem) the monarchy (= the 'sovereignty') of God does not turn out to be the negation of diplomacy between human and nonhuman entities here on earth; rather, it turns out to be the only thing that can ensure it takes place at all. When the bulwark of this doctrine is lost, humans do not become diplomats, nor is a common world progressively composed, facing Gaia or not: rather, when the doctrine is lost, human individuals morph into bastardised typologies of each other (pace Girard) and the possibility (let alone the practice) of forging a common society disintegrates with no hope of return. This, I suppose, is what Job experiences: he only enjoys a diplomatic encounter when he is finally able to acknowledge YHWH’s majesty and his own little-ness in comparison with Him (cf. Leibniz' reference to 'quietening the storm', which references back to Job 38:1). The ‘happy ending’ thing in chapter 42, when Job is restored as a human being and reinserted into his community, is indicative of the success of these ‘peace talks’.

    Here's a lovely quote from C. S. Lewis:

    Until you have given yourself up to Him you will not have a real self. Sameness is to be found most among the most 'natural' men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints ... Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

    C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, Macmillan, 1956), p.190

    To be clear: I think Lewis would say that these 'most natural men' are not just the Moderns, but also those nonmodern diplomats who think that YHWH is the God of Religion One. And the 'death' that Lewis thinks we must undergo is not the Latourian enveloping of monads or anything like that: it is quite simply a human being’s singular act of total identification with the cross of Christ, such that ‘by dying to the old self’ (Romans 6:6) that person becomes something new by the power of the monarch himself.

    It has always been tempting to pine for the libertarian image of Satan (William Blake thought that Milton had actually succumbed: ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it’), but true freedom is not to be found there.

    Isn’t this the problem with the image of diplomacy? - the diplomat is sent off with negotiating powers, yes, but ultimately flourishing will come by dint of obedience to the monarch.

  8. PS. Sloterdijk's concept of 'Zorn' might be interesting here too.

  9. I suppose it comes down to: between anarchy and God, we must choose!

    Given that the choice will never be settled definitively, the question then becomes: how can these options be rendered, as Stengers puts it, 'contrasting rather than contradictory'?

    That is the diplomatic task. Not so much the convergence of the sides towards an accord (welcoming the lost son back into the fold) as finding a settlement whereby these antagonistic frictions become unnecessary -- not to say eliminated but unnecessary.

    That is the way out of a warpath -- not peace in the sense of harmony but peace in the sense of dulling unnecessary feuds and allowing us to concentrate on our real problems and focus on our real mutual enemies.