Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

William Barrett, fully William Christopher Barrett

American Philosopher and Historian, Editor of Partisan Review and Literary Critic of The Atlantic Monthly, Professor of philosophy at New York University

"The decline of religion in modern times means simply that religion is no longer the uncontested center and ruler of man’s life., and that the church is no longer the final and unquestioned home and asylum of his being."

"Anxiety is simply part of the condition of being human. If we were not anxious, we would never create anything."

"Man occupies a middle position in the universe, between the infinitesimal and the infinite: he is an All in the relation to Nothingness, a Nothingness in relation to the All. This middle position of man is the final and dominant fact of the human condition… It is also a perfect image of the finitude of human existence… Man is his finitude."

"Anxiety is not fear, being afraid of this or that definite object, but the uncanny feeling of being afraid of nothing at all. It is precisely Nothingness that makes itself present and felt as the object of our dread."

"Hebraism contains no eternal realm of essence, which Greek philosophy was to fabricate, through Plato, as affording the intellectual deliverance from the evil of time. Such a realm of eternal essences is possible only for a detached intellect, one who, in Plato's phrase, becomes a "spectator of all time and all existence." This ideal of the philosopher as the highest human type--the theoretical intellect who from the vantage point of eternity can survey all time and existence--is altogether foreign to the Hebraic concept of the man of faith who is passionately committed to his own mortal being. Detachment was for the Hebrew an impermissible state of mind, a vice rather than a virtue; or rather it was something that Biblical man was not yet even able to conceive, since he had not reached the level of rational abstraction of the Greek. His existence was too earth-bound, too laden with oppressive images of mortality, to permit him to experience the philosopher's detachment."

"It is the familiar that usually eludes us in life. What is before our nose is what we see last."

"Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual's life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual. The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psychological validity of immediate experience, and within which hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been safely contained. In losing religion, man lost the concrete connection with a transcendent realm of being; he was set free to deal with this world in all its brute objectivity. But he was bound to feel homeless in such a world, which no longer answered the needs of his spirit."

"Hebraism and Hellenism – between these two points of influence moves our world."

"Since the Greeks, Western man has believed that Being, all Being, is intelligible, that there is a reason for everything ... and that the cosmos is, finally, intelligible. The Oriental, on the other hand, has accepted his existence within a universe that would appear to be meaningless, to the rational Western mind, and has lived with this meaninglessness. Hence the artistic form that seems natural to the Oriental is one that is just as formless or formal, as irrational, as life itself."

"The chief movement of modernity, Kierkegaard holds, is a drift toward mass society, which means the death of the individual as life becomes ever more collectivized and externalized. The social thinking of the present age is determined, he says, by what might be called the Law of Large Numbers: it does not matter what quality each individual has, so long as we have enough individuals to add up to a large number – that is, to a crowd or mass. And where the mass is, there is truth – so the modern world believes."

"A society coming apart at top and bottom, or passing over into another form, contains just as many possibilities for revelation as a society running along smoothly in its own rut. The individual is thrust out of the sheltered nest that society has provided. He can no longer hide his nakedness by the old disguises. He learns how much of what he has taken for granted was by its own nature neither eternal nor necessary but thoroughly temporal and contingent. He learns that the solitude of the self is an irreducible dimension of human life no matter how completely that self had seemed to be contained in its social milieu. In the end, he sees each man as solitary and unsheltered before his own death. Admittedly, these are painful truths, but the most basic things are always learned with pain, since our inertia and complacent love of comfort prevent us from learning them until they are forced upon us. It appears that man is willing to learn about himself only after some disaster; after war, economic crisis, and political upheaval have taught him how flimsy is that human world in which he thought himself so securely grounded. What he learns has always been there, lying concealed beneath the surface of even the best-functioning societies; it is no less true for having come out of a period of chaos and disaster. But so long as man does not have to face up to such a truth, he will not do so."

"If a man has learned to think, no matter what he may think about, he is always thinking of his own death. All philosophers were like that. And what truth can there be, if there is death?"

"Man's feeling of homelessness, of alienation has been intensified in the midst of a bureaucratized, impersonal mass society. He has come to feel himself an outsider even within his own human society. He is trebly alienated: a stranger to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social apparatus that supplies his material wants. But the worst and final form of alienation, toward which indeed the others tend, is man's alienation from his own self. In a society that requires of man only that he perform competently his own particular social function, man becomes identified with this function, and the rest of his being is allowed to subsist as best it can - usually to be dropped below the surface of consciousness and forgotten."

"Even if there were no ear for them but the void, our prayers would still be the only things that sanctify our existence."

"From what deep springs of character our personal philosophies issue, we cannot be sure. In philosophers themselves we seem always able to notice some deep internal correspondence between the man and his philosophy. Are our philosophies, then, merely the inevitable outcome of the body of fate and personal circumstance that is thrust upon each of us? Or are these beliefs the means by which we freely create ourselves as the persons we become? Here, at the very outset, the question of freedom already hovers in the background."

"Hunger is not the worst feature of unemployment; idleness is."

"Certainly, we can no longer look upon the canon of Western art - Greco-Roman as revived, extended, and graced by the Renaissance - as -the- tradition in art, or even any longer as distinctly and uniquely -ours-. That canon is in fact only one tradition among many, and indeed in its strict adherence to representational form is rather the exception in the whole gallery of -human- art. Such an extension of the resources of the past, for the modern artist, implies a different and more comprehensive understanding of the term human itself: a Sumerian figure of a fertility goddess is as human to us as a Greek Aphrodite. When the sensibility of an age can accommodate the alien inhuman forms of primitive art side by side with the classic human figures of Greece or the Renaissance, it should be obvious that the attitude toward man that we call classical humanism - which is the intellectual expression of the spirit that informs the classical canon of Western art - has also gone by the boards."

"Modern Existentialism... is a total European creation, perhaps the last philosophic legacy of Europe to America or whatever other civilization is now on its way to supplant Europe."

"Much like tobacco companies want to keep smokers dependent on their deadly product, the oil industry wants to keep California dependent on oil ? an expensive, dirty and limited resource that damages health."

"Not only do I not know what I believe, but also I cannot know for sure that I believe. How can I define precisely what my attitude is toward something it cannot conceivably grasp? Can I be said to be in the relation of belief, in any usual sense of that term, toward something that I cheerfully and readily acknowledge to be absolutely incomprehensible to me?"

"No man can be sure that he is in faith; and we can say of no man with certainty that he has or does not have faith."

"Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically meaningful, while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the meaningless. Positivism has simply accepted the fractured being of modern man and erected a philosophy to intensify it. Existentialism, whether successfully or not, has attempted instead to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture of man. Positivist man and Existentialist man are no doubt offspring of the same parent epoch, but, somewhat as Cain and Abel were, the brothers are divided unalterably by temperament and the initial choice they make of their own being."

"Our freedom is the way in which we are able to let the world open before us, and ourselves stand open within it."

"Not only does faith always carry its opposite uncertainty within itself, but also this faith is never a static condition that is -had-, but a movement toward... And toward what? In the nature of the case we cannot state this what. We cannot make a flat assertion about our faith like a simple assertion that we have blue eyes or are six feet tall. More than this, the affirmation of our faith can never be made in the simple indicative mood at all. The statement I believe can only be uttered as a prayer."

"The happiness of mankind, if it ever should come to pass, would still leave men asking: Why? What point to it? To what end?"

"The more severely he struggles to hold on to the primal face-to-face relation with God, the more tenuous this becomes, until in the end the relation to God Himself threatens to become a relation to Nothingness."

"The bond that attaches us to the life outside ourselves is the same bond that holds us to our own life."

"The deflation, or flattening out, of values in Modern art does not necessarily indicate an ethical nihilism. Quite the contrary; in opening our eyes to the rejected elements of existence, art may lead us to a more complete and less artificial celebration of the world."

"The path of specialization leads away from the ordinary and concrete acts of understanding in terms of which man actually lives his day-to-day life."

"The philosopher cannot seriously put to himself questions that his civilization has not lived."

"We really know time, says Heidegger, because we know we are going to die. Without this passionate realization of our mortality, time would be simply a movement of the clock that we watch passively, calculating its advance?a movement devoid of human meaning."

"Truth and untruth weave the seamless web of human nature."

"The nature of consciousness is to point beyond itself. It is a tending toward or pointing to... Since consciousness points beyond itself, it is in its very being a self-transcendence."

"To discover one's own spiritual poverty is to achieve a positive conquest by the spirit."

"This capacity for living easily and familiarly at an extraordinary level of abstraction is the source of modern man's power. With it he has transformed the planet, annihilated space, and trebled the world's population. But it is also a power which has, like everything human, its negative side, in the desolating sense of rootlessness, vacuity, and the lack of concrete feeling that assails modern man in his moments of real anxiety."

"We exist within the question of God."

"The philosopher seeks a generality beyond the boundaries of science; he attempts to frame a comprehensive and coherent framework of ideas within which the partial results of science may become more intelligible."

"We must be free for the truth; and conversely, to be able to be open toward the truth may be our deepest freedom as human creatures."

"We have come to understand the phenomena of life only as an assemblage of the lifeless. We take the mechanistic abstractions of our technical calculation to be ultimately concrete and fundamentally real, while our most intimate experiences are labelled mere appearance and something having reality only within the closet of the isolated mind. Suppose however we were to invert this whole scheme, reverse the order in which it assigns abstract and concrete. What is central to our experience, then, need not be peripheral to nature. This sunset now, for example, caught within the network of bare winter branches, seems like a moment of benediction in which the whole of nature collaborates. Why should not these colours and these charging banners of light be as much a part of the universe as the atoms and molecules that make them up? If they were only in my mind, then I and my mind would no longer be a part of nature. Why should the pulse of life toward beauty and value not be a part of things? Following this path, we do not vainly seek to assemble the living out of configurations of dead stuff, but we descend downwards from more complex to simpler grades of the organic. From humans to trees to rocks; from higher grade to lower grade organisms. In the universe of energy, any individual thing is a pattern of activity within the flux, and thereby an organism at some level."

"What emerges from these separate strands of (modern) history is an image of man himself that bears a new, stark, more nearly naked, and more questionable aspect. The contraction of man's horizons amounts to a denudation, a stripping down, of this being who has now to confront himself at the center of all his horizons. The labor of modern culture, whenever it has been authentic, has been a labor of denudation. A return to the sources; to the things themselves, as Husserl puts it; toward a new truthfulness, the casting away of ready-made presuppositions and empty forms - these are some of the slogans under which this phase in history has presented itself. Naturally enough, much of this stripping down must appear as the work of destruction, as revolutionary or even negative: a being who has become thoroughly questionable to himself must also find questionable his relation to the total past which in a sense he represents."