Existentialism – though it is never an ‘ism’ but an attitude, a slant — goes against one of the most deeply lodged Western prejudices= that truth needs to be formulated. This goes back to Plato. For Plato laid down the foundations for the modern belief that truth must always be stated ‘positively’ in his teaching on ontology [what exists, what is]. Why so?
Plato attributed ultimate being to ideas of things, rather than the things themselves. The famous dictum ‘essence precedes existence’ is most relevant to the Platonic Forms that pre-exist everything, such that the metaphysical idea is the starting point, and only thereafter does it take on flesh and become an actually existing physical entity. Its ‘essence’ contains all defining features of the idea; thus the idea is a universal category covering all possible instances of it, and such instances are merely specific, or local, variations on its general theme. As Christos Yannaras [‘Elements of Faith’, 1991, p 34] points out= “..what exists before the concrete existence is a logical necessity, certain principles, or ideas, to which each concrete existent is subject… a world of ideas which contain the ‘models’ of every existence” must precede and define their actual existence.
Against this metaphysical idealism, Yannaras argues for the ontological priority of personhood. It is not the ideal essence which precedes and defines the existent, but it is the concrete person who constitutes the initial possibility of existence, the beginning possibility of being. The person precedes ideas, the person precedes essences.. Hence existentialism repeats the old Jewish, and anti-Platonic, mantra= ‘existence before essence.’
Existence is not just the manifestation of a pre-existing essence. Existing has its own reality, which is stranger, and more at risk. Eternal Forms do not become manifest as particular existing things/beings/persons. The uniqueness, distinctive and unrepeatable, of the actually existing person precedes the categorical and schematic scaffolding of ‘pure’ ideas.
But modern science repeats Plato’s idealism, simply transferring it from the metaphysical to the physicalist. Science puts ideal laws above, or before, concrete existence, and as with Plato, sees the concrete existent thing/being/person only as a particular and local ‘variation’ on the Invariant Rule.
This way of seeing kills the particular’s living mystery, its otherness and ultimate value as a unique, concrete, immediate, thing, or being, or person.
Science, as a modern Platonism, has what is primary and what is secondary in reverse order. The living mystery of the particular, the local, the specific, the here and now, the immediate= this is the event of life, experienced and related with, on the ground.
Categorical schemes, rules, universals and generalities= these are secondary, just a framework, but not the real life.
Yannaras [pp 149-150] singles out another facet of this scientised Platonism. People nowadays in the West reckon truth can be individually possessed and thus made into an object which can be dominated.
“For truth to be transformed into an object of possession, it must have a given and definite character, it must be identified with its formulation, with the ‘letter’ of its formulation– the truth must find in its formulation its immutable boundaries. The identification with the definitive formulation objectifies the truth: it makes it an object which the comprehension can possess and rule. And insistence on orthodoxy, on the first and authentic objectification, is the fullest possession of the truth.”
Against this ‘cataphatic’ approach which favours positive formulation, Yannaras offers the ‘apophatic’, or negative, approach to the truth that is lived, from the ground, by the concrete, unique and unrepeatable, person in relationship with other persons. He says of this= “The ‘apophaticism’ of.. truth excludes any objectified understanding.. whatsoever. The truth is not exhausted in its formulation, the formulation is simply a boundary or border of truth, a ‘garment’ or ‘guard’ of truth. ..Therefore knowledge of the truth is not attained by comprehension of the formulations, but with the sharing of the event of truth, in the truth of life, in the immediacy of experience” [p 150].
Sharing in the event and experience of truth, not insistence on the correctness of theoretical formulations, is how truth operates between persons. Sharing the event of truth in life precedes any formulations. Knowledge is verified as an event of communion. Heraclitus= “Everything that we share, we know to be true; what we have that is peculiar to us, we know to be false.”
Yannaras comments= “Knowledge is only proved true when it is verified by common experience – only when by its announcement we share with others, understand and are understood, are in tune with the common experiential.. [wisdom]” [p 153].
Yannaras’ apophaticism identifies truth with life, and life with its only bearer= the person. Intellectual schemes cannot be substituted for the immediacy of experience and the emergent truth of relationship.
Existence — the practical and existential terrain — is marked by what Yannaras speaks of as ‘the dynamic indeterminacy of life.’ This is another description of the terrain in which all truly ‘on the ground’ activity operates.
However, just as we fraught human beings change love into a commodity easy to get, so too we constantly “substitute the dynamic indeterminacy of life with schemata and definitive models of life” [p 154]. Then “the uniqueness of life is understood by its classification in the objectivity of the general case– the verification of experience is assured by refuge in its schematic definition” [pp 154-155].
Yannaras puts his finger on the net result= “The defining of truth assures the effective objectivity of knowledge and constitutes a kind of law of truth” [p 155].
“…truth is identified with its formulation and knowledge with the individual understanding of this formulation. The truth is separated from the dynamic of life, it is identified with the concept, with right reasoning. Right reasoning replaces the dynamic indeterminacy of life; …logic is raised to a final authority, either in the form of moral rules or as a command of social and political practice” [p 155].
Yannaras concludes= “Apophaticism means our refusal to exhaust knowledge of the truth in its formulation. The formulation [seeks to] …distinguish.. it from every.. falsification of it. ..At the same time though, this formulation neither replaces nor exhausts the knowledge of the truth, which remains experiential and practical, a way of life and not a theoretical construction” [p 17].
A way of life is a path to maturity, both in the work and in the one doing the work. Going deeper into the world, and going deeper into oneself, in the relationship of world and self, bears its own fruit of living and doing. This fruit is not fame and fortune, but the ripening of world and of self, in collaboration.
The same is so in regard to the Mystery of God. We draw near to the divine reality by means of a way of life, not by means of a way of thinking. A way of life includes every organic function of growth and maturity..
Yannaras sums up [p 14]= if a relationship is loving, you have faith in what you relate to, be it mother or father, or the earth itself. This bond does not require logical proofs or theoretical securities, unless the relationship has itself been disturbed. Only then do the arguments of the mind try to substitute for the reality of life.