In the Beginning Is Philosophy

On Desire and the Good

by Brayton Polka (Author)
©2016 Monographs 276 Pages
Series: American University Studies, Volume 223


Philosophy, when understood to embody the values that are fundamental to modernity, is biblical in origin, both historically and ontologically. Central to this idea is the question famously posed by Tertullian: What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? The answer – as based on a comprehensive and systematic discussion of the key texts and ideas of Spinoza, Vico, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche – is that we can overcome the conventional opposition between reason and faith, between philosophy and theology, and between the secular and the religious only if we learn to see that, as Spinoza shows us, both philosophy (reason) and theology (faith) are based on caritas: love – on the divine command to do unto others what you want others to do unto you. Provided throughout is a commentary on how fundamentally different philosophy is in the Greek and in the biblical traditions (in Athens and in Jerusalem). Whereas Socrates argues that (human) desire and the (divine) good are contradictory opposites, Spinoza shows that it is human desire that truly constitutes the divine good of all.
This book would be indispensable to courses (both undergraduate and graduate) in philosophy, religious studies, and the history of ideas – in interdisciplinary courses in the humanities, generally – that focus on the values that are central, both historically and ontologically, to modernity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for In the Beginning Is Philosophy
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Introduction: In Beginning with Adam and Eve as the Story of Two Beginnings—in Athens and Jerusalem
  • 2 History: What Do I Believe? In Beginning with History as Faith in the Absolute
  • 3 Ontology: What Do I Think? In Beginning with God as Necessary Existence
  • Introduction: The Ironies Multiply
  • Testing the Spirits with Nietzsche
  • The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra On the Genealogy of Morals
  • Conclusion: The Ironic Truth of Modernity
  • 4 Ethics: What Do I Love? In Beginning with the Neighbor as My Creation
  • Introduction
  • Spinoza
  • Aristotle
  • Conclusion
  • 5 Hermeneutics: What Do I Interpret? In Beginning with the Other as the Truth of Myself
  • Introduction
  • Spinoza
  • Vico
  • Conclusion
  • 6 Politics: What Do I Will? In Beginning with Relationship as the Freedom and Equality of All
  • Introduction
  • Rousseau
  • Spinoza
  • Conclusion
  • 7 Conclusion: In Ending with Philosophy as Beginning with the Good of Desire
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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I am pleased to thank Jason Hoult, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program in Social and Political Thought at York University, for the help he provided me, as my summer Research Assistant, in making the final revisions to my book. I also thank John Elias, Grant Havers, and John Mahaffy for their generous yet always critical support. Finally, I am grateful for the financial support that York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies provided for the publication of my book.

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I intend my book to be an essay in philosophy. I undertake, in the spirit of the essays of Montaigne, to essay philosophy, to try philosophy, to put philosophy on trial, and so, at one and the same time, to put the author and his readers as philosophical thinkers, as thinkers whose thought is philosophical, on trial. I write, then, also in the spirit of Descartes—I think, ergo I am—and of Spinoza in accord with Axiom 1 of Part 2 of his Ethics: Homo cogitat (man thinks). Thinking, Descartes shows us, begins with doubt, with doubting absolutely all that you can doubt, at least once in your life. Thinking ends, consequently, with the demonstration that, in doubting absolutely everything there is, there is at least one thing or, rather, there are two things whose existence you absolutely cannot doubt: that you necessarily exist as the one who doubts something (the other) as necessarily existing. All thinking, all doubting—all desire, all will—involves both the thinking self and the other that is thought, both I and thou, we may say. Thinking is not given outside of the subject thought. The subject thought (the other) is not given outside of the thinking subject (the self). Thinking, we see, affirms, verifies, proves—desires—existence. Existence, then, is the affirmation, the verification, the demonstration—the desire—of thinking. Descartes is, consequently, the revolutionary founder of modern philosophy precisely because he demonstrates that the subject of the doubting thinker—the thinker who, in doubting, affirms existence—is the God of the Bible. ← 1 | 2 →

Consequently, Spinoza, in following Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, initiates his Ethics with what since Kant we call the ontological argument for the existence of God. There is one thing that cannot be conceived—by human beings—without necessarily (freely) existing and that is God (also called by Spinoza infinite substance and causa sui, the cause of itself). Thus, Spinoza, like Descartes, shows us that God does not exist outside of human conception (thought) and that the content constituting (necessitating, determining …) human conception (thinking) is existence (the existence of God). The concept of God determines human existence (to think God is to be human). The content of human thinking determines the existence of God (to be human is to think God).

Before undertaking in this introductory chapter to reflect in outline on the implications that are contained, for our essaying of philosophy, in the ontological argument uniting human thinking with the existence of God and human existence with the concept of God, I want, first, to indicate how critically imperative it is for us to understand what Spinoza intends when he writes that his principal aim in the Theologico-Political Treatise is to separate philosophy from theology. (The Ethics and the T-PT are Spinoza’s two great—philosophical?—works.) Indeed, consistent with the observation that we find voiced in Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments—“Basically, an unshakeable insistence upon the absolute and absolute distinctions is precisely what makes a good dialectician.”—I shall, throughout my book, insist upon the importance of establishing distinctions, differences, separations … that, in being dialectically absolute and absolutely dialectical, constitute the very essence of philosophy. (108) For what Spinoza undertakes to demonstrate in the T-PT, once he has separated not only religion from what he calls superstition but also philosophy from what he views as the speculations of Aristotelians and Platonists, is that theology (religion) and philosophy are each founded on caritas as the covenantal love of neighbor whose rationis dictamen, dictate of reason, is that you are to do unto others what you want others to do unto you. Thus, what Spinoza makes absolutely clear to us is that to separate philosophy from theology is to show that the difference between them is not in itself either philosophical or theological, either rational or faithful. In other words, he denies that philosophy (reason) is to be viewed either as the standard of theology (faith), in the tradition of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (in his Guide of the Perplexed), or as the ancilla, the handmaiden, of theology, in the tradition of the medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (in his Summa Theologiae). When, consequently, Spinoza undertakes to separate philosophy from theology—consistent with the principle that he articulates in the Ethics: truth is its own standard, the standard both of itself and of the false—he ← 2 | 3 → absolutely rejects the high medieval tradition, common to both Maimonides and Aquinas, of identifying philosophy (reason) with Aristotle (with the whole of Greek philosophy). Thus, in rejecting the idea that modern philosophy (reason) is Greek in origin, whether historically or ontologically, what Spinoza shows us, to invoke, now, the title of my book, is that in the beginning is philosophy as at once the concept (thinking) of existence and the existence of the concept (thinking). In the beginning philosophy is biblical, and the beginning of philosophy is biblical.

Not only, then, is philosophy on trial. But also, consequently, theology (religion) is on trial, as are readers (thinkers) who view themselves either as philosophers (but not theologians) or as theologians (but not philosophers). For in the beginning the Bible is philosophy: the beginning of the Bible is philosophy. To be a rational human being is to adhere faithfully to the critique of pure reason. To be a faithful human being is to adhere rationally to pure faith as critique. What, consequently, I shall be arguing throughout my book is that, in the spirit of Spinoza, to be a faithful, rational human being is to be no less a loving individual than a thinking individual. History, ontology, ethics, hermeneutics, and politics—the subjects of the principal chapters of my book—are all profoundly related one to the other. In absolutely separating one from the other we learn to discern their absolute unity. Neither philosophy nor theology, neither reason nor faith is to be identified either with dogmatism (absolutism), as uncritical dependence on the “objective” authority of the other, or with skepticism (relativism), as uncritical dependence on the “subjective” authority of the self. Consistent, then, with Kierkegaard’s pronouncement that truth is subjectivity, our task is to learn to see that the absolute is relationship and that relationship is the absolute, what Kierkegaard calls the absolute relation to the absolute.

My essay in philosophy is, then, critically radical—historically, ontologically, ethically, hermeneutically, politically—in its aims and in its implications. For in and through it I undertake to show, in critique of the standard views of philosophy, that philosophy is, historically and ontologically, biblical in origin. But I also undertake to show, in critique of the standard views of theology (religion), that theology, insofar as it is truly understood to be biblical, is, historically and ontologically, philosophical (rational). Both philosophy and theology are to be separated from their historical and ontological entanglements in Greek philosophy. What is at stake here, then, are both philosophy and theology, the concepts both of reason and of faith, both of man (human being) and of God (divine being), and so their relationship, again, historical and ontological. The concepts of history and ontology will sound and resound throughout my essay, like the base continuo ← 3 | 4 → in a Bach passion or a Handel oratorio, in supporting and giving structure to its many themes and variations.

Before saying a word on history and ontology, I want to locate this my present book in the context of the previous books, together with the numerous essays, essay-reviews, and reviews, that I have published, plus the many conference papers, lectures, and talks that I have given, in what is now a period of nearly thirty years. From my first two, more general books on the dialectic of biblical critique and on truth and interpretation to my later, more specialized books on Freud, Spinoza (in two volumes), and Shakespeare, together with my two most recent books, Rethinking Philosophy in Light of the Bible: From Kant to Schopenhauer and Modernity between Wagner and Nietzsche, their composition has involved the elaboration of key themes and their multiple (dialectical) variations: the Bible as modern, modernity as biblical and so as fundamentally different from Greek antiquity, the dialectical relationship between philosophy and theology (and so between reason and faith and between the secular and the religious)—viewed both historically and ontologically—and hermeneutics as a theory of interpretation that, in being covenantal, is radically (at root) at once biblical and democratic. The test of the adequacy of the themes of my composition is to be found in the singularity of their variations; and the test of the adequacy of its variations is to be found in the universality of their themes. I would, then, call my present book, not a summing up but a further demonstration of my basic ideas that exposes, as a labor of love, the dialectic of their hermeneutical bare bones in all their working parts (in and through all the parts of the work)—including their parenthetical syncopation.1

I want now to say an introductory word on history and ontology. History is not to be simply understood as the objective recital of (successive) facts, Ma’am, as savagely parodied by Dickens in Hard Times. Nor is history to be identified with the eternal flow (continuity) of what Aristotle calls the natural generation and corruption of beings. History represents, then, not objects but rather what Hegel calls the infinite self-consciousness of subjects (persons), consistent with the observation of Vico that human beings create their history in narrating it: they tell their history in creating it. The concept of temporality as the historical self-consciousness of subjects is uniquely, and universally, biblical. As for ontology, it provides me with a concept of being, of existence, that is not immediately (directly) either philosophical or theological. Is, we may ask, the ontological argument proving the existence of God philosophical or theological, rational or faithful? I want to add here, in anticipating the learned inquiry of my readers, that Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, decisively repudiates as fallacious the ontological argument in its claim to unite logical (analytic: deductive) necessity ← 4 | 5 → with empirical (synthetic: inductive) existence. I reply, yes. I do acknowledge that Kant, in following Hume, definitively shows that both the analytic (deductive) logic of necessary relations and the synthetic (inductive) logic of contingent relations are hypothetical or conditional. If something is (not), then it is (not). But whether it is or is not, that is forever unknown and unknowable.

But my learned readers will also remember that Kant no less advances a concept of logic that is unthinkable to the Greeks and that Hume, in finding, to his eternal despair, his concept of reason to be inescapably contradictory, is unable to think. In calling his non-Greek logic transcendental, Kant plays what is surely the greatest joke in the history of ontology. It is a joke on philosophers, a joke on theologians, and a joke on himself. The joke, tout simple, is that transcendental logic is practical reason. What is transcendental is the necessary existence of reason as practice, with practice understood as the obligation on the part of free, rational, self-determining individuals to treat all human beings, not as things or means to their (instrumental) ends (not as instruments to be used for their own ends) but as ends in themselves. Necessity—obligation, duty, law, command, the categorical imperative—is neither deductive (analytic) nor inductive (empirical): it is relationship; it is freedom; it is existence. The premise on which self-determining individuals found their practice is neither a priori necessity (deduction) nor a posteriori experience (induction) but the necessary existence of the other and so their mutual relationship.

The joke, then, on philosophers is that the transcendental logic of practical reason, whose center is the categorical imperative, simply embraces, as Kant himself explicitly acknowledges, the biblical law of covenantal love: the command to do unto others what you want others to do unto you. The joke on theologians is that the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself constitutes the critique of pure reason as practice. The joke on Kant himself is that, having explicitly demonstrated in the Critique of Pure Reason that the ontological argument is powerless to unite a priori necessity (whatever is, is logically necessary) with a posteriori existence (whatever is, is empirically contingent), he implicitly shows in the Critique of Practical Reason, without explicitly acknowledging that he is doing so, that the demonstration that reason is first and last practice embodies (presupposes) the ontological argument for necessary existence. Reason as practice is transcendental in and through the demonstration of the necessary existence of human beings as ends in themselves. There is one thing that cannot be conceived by human beings without existing necessarily or, in other words, without existing freely, and that is the other (person: God and neighbor) whom we are commanded to love as we love ourselves. ← 5 | 6 →

The joke of/on modern philosophy is, then, in short, that the ontological argument that Kant rejects in the Critique of Pure Reason is not the argument uniting necessity and existence that St. Anselm originally formulates in the later eleventh century (and which Maimonides and Aquinas consequently dismiss as contradicting Aristotle) and that Descartes and Spinoza then reformulate in the seventeenth century as the very basis, in their rejection of Aristotelian teleology, of the new science of modernity, together with the new politics of modernity (as the social contract of democracy). But this development is hardly to be wondered at since, as we have already observed, Spinoza founds ethics on the ontological argument for existence, having already shown in the Theologico-Political Treatise that to separate philosophy from theology is to demonstrate their common ground in caritas.

The trial of philosophy is, consequently, the discovery, never ending, that reason is the categorical practice of love and that it is love that truly demonstrates the categorical (covenantal) relationship of necessity and existence. Indeed, is this not the very story of Abraham as related in Genesis 22 and then as meditated on in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling? Abraham loves (his) God. Abraham loves (his son) Isaac. The existence of God and the existence of Isaac are each necessary to the life of Abraham as they are, too, to the life of his people, to the ontology and history of the covenantal existence of the chosen people. Yet, God commands Abraham to go forth to Mount Moriah and there to sacrifice his son to his god (or we can say his god to his son). This is not logical contradiction (what is, is not); nor is it empirical contradiction (what is, is not). This is transcendental self-contradiction, the contradiction of existence as necessary practice and the contradiction of necessity as existential practice, which is what Kierkegaard calls paradox. The fear and trembling involved in the paradox uniting necessity and existence is such that it cannot be relieved (relived) by sacrificing either necessity to existence (chance) or existence to necessity (fate), as we find in the world of the ancient Greeks (and Romans). Indeed, in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle recalls the maxim of Solon that, because no man can be said to be happy until or unless he sees his end, no living man can be considered to be happy. For the end of life is known only in death (only to dead individuals). Death is the end of life. To be happy is to be a dead, not a living man. In contrast, we find written, at once categorically and consequently, in the Jewish, apocryphal book Sirach: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.” (7.36) To remember the end of your life in all you do, now, i.e., to make the end of your life the continuously free beginning of your life, now and forever, is, it is evident, eternal salvation, not from life (in death) but in and through life in the face of (before) ← 6 | 7 → death. But since it is also evident that we cannot know the end (the history) of our life separate from the historical life that we live now, there is no escape from sin, from the fear and trembling of life’s trial through death as ever threatening to sever the bond between existence and necessity.

But why, then, do I focus my book on philosophy, on the history and ontology of philosophy, my readers will surely ask, and not on theology, or thinking, or critique, or deconstruction, or …? My answer, as contained in my book, is at once conventional (traditional) and polemical (radical). We call our great modern thinkers philosophers; and the philosophers on whom in my book I shall principally call are, as is already becoming evident, surely, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard, together with Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, Vico, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, plus significant thinkers since 1900; and they called themselves, and they were and continue to be called philosophers (Montaigne, Pascal, and Kierkegaard excepted?), reflecting what is typically regarded as our post-Enlightenment, post-Christian, secular age of modernity (and post-modernity). It is also the case that I have made my professional life in the secular temple of the university, not in church, synagogue, or mosque, etc. (Confessional commitment or religious affiliation is not at issue here.) I address, then, philosophers, in other words, thinkers, both academic and non-academic, both formal and informal, who typically view their interests as philosophical and not as theological. But I do hope, no less, to engage those who are theologically (religiously, spiritually) oriented, whether professionally or non-professionally.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
Tertullian Athen Jerusalem Philosophy Religious studies History of Ideas Ontology
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 276 pp.

Biographical notes

Brayton Polka (Author)

Brayton Polka is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Senior Scholar at York University in Toronto. He is the author of a number of books and many smaller studies in which he examines the emergence, in the early modern period, of the values that constitute modernity and their development through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Focusing on the issue of hermeneutics – of what it means to interpret a text – this books include studies of Shakespeare, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Wagner (his operas), Nietzsche, and Freud.


Title: In the Beginning Is Philosophy