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War and the Fate of Europe: Jan Patočka’s Political Testament, Part II by David L. Dusenbury

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War and the Fate of Europe: Jan Patočka’s Political Testament, Part II

In Part I of this two-part series, I addressed the question of what caused the World Wars. In this essay, I will take up Patočka’s striking question, namely why the World Wars haven’t caused the sort of ‘conversion’ he thinks we need. And, I will ask, what is the ‘conversion’ that Patočka thinks we need?

Why the World Wars Haven’t Caused the Sort of ‘Conversion’ We Need 

If Patočka’s question of what caused the World Wars is one of destroying potential, he also formulates a question about the “saving potential”—his words—of both wars. This ‘saving potential’ is not political. By which I mean, it cannot be tied to the concrete political objectives of any of the warring states—certainly not those of Germany. Also, this ‘saving potential’ has not been realized. 

It is precisely that—the failure of the wars’ ‘saving potential’—which leads Patočka’s to ask:

Why has this grandiose experience, alone capable of leading humankind out of war into a true peace, not had a decisive effect on the history of the 20th century, even though humans have been exposed to it twice for four years, and were truly touched and transformed thereby? Why has it not unfolded its saving potential? Why has it not played and is it not playing in our lives a role somehow analogous to that of the fight for peace after the Great War?

In other words, Patočka is asking: Why the Cold War? Or, as he prefers to call it, “the smoldering war”? Why did the Second World War conclude, not with a ‘true peace,’ but with a sort of untrue war? Of course, the Cold War’s coldness is conditioned by what he calls “the nuclear reality.” He alludes to a “Hiroshima complex”—that is, a global mood brought on by the “eschatological impression” of that Japanese city’s instantaneous annihilation. Patočka registers a postwar feeling of “spectacular intensity,” namely, a fear that humans could precipitate the “end of the world.”

The ‘nuclear reality’ may explain why the Cold War is cold, but Patočka’s deeper question is why there is a war. He is troubled by the fact that—after two destructive global conflicts—there is still no real peace. And here, his reflections are contemporary. I do not think they are nullified by the end of the Cold War, roughly a decade after Patočka’s death—nor for that matter, are they altered by the recent stirrings of what some are calling, however dubiously, a Second Cold WarNew.

Our fascination with force

Patočka’s basic claim is that in postwar Europe, “we continue to be fascinated by force.” This echoes his critique of a modern “metaphysics of force” in the fifth Essay, which he also calls a “deification of force.” For late-modern Europeans, he claims, “Force is the Highest Being.” Clearly, then, the quasi-mythical hold that Force has on us is, in part, of our own making. This is what makes it, in Patočka’s terms, ‘demonic.’ He defines the ‘demonic’ as an influence which “deepen[s] the [human] self-estrangement to which, on the other hand, it points.”

Force is modern Europeans’ false god, says Patočka, and it is because they deify Force that it has a ‘demonic’ hold over them. What, then, is the modern European ‘creed’? It is Francis Bacon’s formula: “knowledge is power.” It is because Force is modern Europeans’ highest being, that they hold knowledge to be power. For knowledge has always been held to give us access to what is. If what is, ultimately, is Force, then to know what is, is to enhance human power. Technology, therefore, is really the only form of knowledge in a civilization which is ordered by a ‘metaphysics of force.’

But war, for Patočka, is an ineliminable effect, or moment, of Force. The forces that our machine-systems capture must be released. And Patočka warns that, because of this, “War as the means of releasing Force cannot end.” The Cold War is a prolongation of the World Wars by other means. Patočka’s deepest objection to late-modernity’s ‘deification of force,’ which is reflected in our ‘cult of machines,’ is that it is deceptive. He writes:

We continue to be fascinated by force, [and we] allow it to lead us along its paths, fascinating and deceiving us, making us its dupes. Where we believe we have mastered it and can depend on it for security, we are in reality… losing the war which cunningly changed its visage but has not ceased.

Why has the war not ceased? Because war as a means of releasing force cannot end, and technological civilization is ordered by a metaphysics of force. In other words, where knowledge is power, there will be war.

“Chaining humans to life”     

Patočka recognizes that there is something strange about the ineradicability of war. Humans tire of war, and many hope and strive for peace. “Life would like so much to live at last,” he says, “but it is precisely life itself which gives birth to war and cannot break free of it with its own resources.” 

What does Patočka mean when he says that life ‘cannot break free of war with its own resources’? He seems to be evoking, here, a concept from the very first pages of the Heretical Essays—namely, “the bondage of life to itself.” In deep antiquity, it is the self-bondage of life which dooms humans to what Patočka calls a “servile consciousness.” It is a certain form of questioning, namely, questioning the world, the whole, or Being, that liberates humans from this self-bondage to life. It is only after questioning that they come to know human freedom, a freedom which is, “in the end, freedom for truth.” To live in that freedom is to “care for the soul,” and care for the soul—the heart of European culture—is a legacy, regulated by Roman law and the Christian religion, of what Patočka calls “Platonic conversion.”

This, then, is the place for us to take note of the place of death in ‘Platonic conversion.’ There is a remarkable passage in Patočka’s fifth Essay; he writes this:

The Platonic philosopher overcame death… not by fleeing from it but by facing up to it. This philosophy was “care for death.” Care for the soul is inseparable from care for death, which becomes the true care for life. Life (eternal) is born of this direct look at death, of an overcoming of death … [Only because it faces up to death] the soul is absolutely free, that is, it chooses its destiny. 

It is this text from Patočka’s fifth Essay that illuminates his claim in the sixth Essay that life desires to live in peace, and yet “gives birth to war and cannot break free of it with its own resources.” Paradoxically, what he means is that life needs the resources of death in order to break free of war. How could that be?

Patočka reasons in the sixth Essay that governments govern—in war, and in peace—“by means of death; by threatening life.” In this picture, death is not liberatory. On the contrary, Patočka calls death “the means of maximal human unfreedom.” He even suggests that it is “the terror [of death] that drives humans… into fire [on the Front]—death, chaining humans to life and rendering them most manipulable.” 

Patočka thinks that what divides a Platonic philosopher’s—or a Christian’s—relation to death, from the one who is ‘chained to life,’ is precisely the question of whether death is faced. Death only makes us servile, Patočka says, when it is a “force from behind.” Once we turn to face it—which is, literally, what ‘conversion’ means—death makes possible a “true care for life.” Stated differently, Patočka holds that “it is precisely life itself which gives birth to war,” and that life “cannot break free” of war as long as life is in bondage to itself. It is only a true care for life, a life that is free, that can break free of war—and in order to become free, humans must face death. Again, in literal terms, they must convert.

Ultimately, Patočka believes that the World Wars didn’t end all wars because we have not converted. The inner experience of war didn’t break Europeans’ obsession with force; it didn’t free us from our bondage-to-life. However unrealistic this conclusion might seem, it is not ‘unanticipated’ in the Heretical Essays. Patočka already expresses his hope, in the third Essay, for “a gigantic conversion.” His hope is unchanged in the sixth Essay. What is this ‘gigantic conversion’ that we need, if we’re to live free—and if a true peace is to be possible? 

The Conversion We Need

The wars that led to the “collapse of Europe” are not glorified in Patočka’s Heretical Essays. Nor are the wars that led to Europe’s rise in the modern period. In the second Essay, Patočka considers Saint Augustine’s critique of a human lust-to-conquer (libido dominandi). And in the fourth Essay, he criticizes early modern Europe’s turn from “Christian motifs of life which had… constrained… [Europeans’] will-to-rule.” For him, the 16th century marks the birth of “a new life” in Europe, one in which “care for the external world and its conquest”—rather than care for the soul—became “the dominant concern.” 

Patočka is programmatically critical of the modern national and imperial cultures which immolated themselves at the “flaming line” that twice sundered Europe in the 20th century. And notably, Patočka faults Germany for both World Wars, savaging the Germans’ “fostering of hate … [and] inconceivable acts of revenge and ressentiment” (his evocation of the Holocaust). 

For these and other reasons, it’s unconscionable for Patočka to be read as an apologist of European war. He is, on the contrary, a philosopher of European peace—one who faults German Romanticism, for instance, for “reinforcing… tendencies of European disintegration.” Patočka is not a philosopher who wishes to reinforce tendencies of European disintegration. He does, however, ask: What is the condition of possibility of a true European civilization and a lasting European peace? 

Patočka gives a negative indication of that condition in the fourth Essay, when he criticizes Europe for abandoning its “universal bond”—by which he means the ‘universality’ of Latin Christianity. “The primacy of having over being excludes unity and universality,” he writes, “while the attempts to replace them with power prove vain.” 

What were the World Wars—and, more than a century before them, what were the Napoleonic Wars—for Patočka? They were catastrophically vain attempts to replace a lost European unity with power. And why had European unity been lost? Because the primacy of being which pre-modern Europe honored in its Platonic-Christian culture, gave way to the primacy of having. This primacy of having Patočka sees reflected in a 20th century metaphysics of force. And where “Force is the Highest Being,” he warns, there will be wars.    

Patočka is a philosopher of European peace. And yet, he does write in the Heretical Essays’ last pages that the World Wars revealed that “some [humans] are capable of… touching the divinity of that which forms the ultimate unity and mystery of being.” And he does take inspiration from a remarkable text by the Catholic intellectual Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, entitled Nostalgia of the Front. In this text, Teilhard writes:

Nothing except the Front will give me the kind of freedom that intoxicated me on [that] night of September [1917] … I have the impression of having lost a Soul—a Soul greater than my own, and which lived among the front-lines, and which I have left over there.

For Patočka, this experience of a man of Teilhard’s stature is nothing like a ‘War-ideology’; it is a phenomenon. This is Teilhard, writing in 1917 when he is still within sight of the Front. He says that when “the peace will come [which is] desired by all… and first of all desired by me”:

Something like a light will abruptly become extinguished on Earth… [At the Front, a] region was formed where it was possible for humans to breathe an air charged with heaven… [Those who lived and died at the Front have experienced] a freedom greater than their own, when they were exalted to the edge of the World—near in the proximity of God

It is Teilhard’s mysticism of the Front which lies behind Patočka’s claim that the World Wars revealed that some humans are “capable of… touching the divinity.” For all its horror, war is revelatory. Why? Because in war, as in Platonic philosophy and Christianity, humans face death. And in war, humans are shaken. It is not possible for Patočka to deny this liberatory potential, or “saving potential” of modern machine-centered war, becauseit is attested by men like Teilhard de Chardin (who, far from being a German ideologue, held the line against the Germans).

What is a philosopher of peace, such as Patočka, to make of the liberatory potential in war?      Well, this returns us to the question of what he means when he writes that war reveals some to be “capable of… touching the divinity.” What is this ‘divinity’? What does it mean to ‘touch’ it? And how could the liberatory experience of war lead us beyond the dooms of war—that is, to a true peace?

Platonic philosophers are described in the Heretical Essays as they who “overcame death… not by fleeing from it but by facing up to it.” Those at the Front—who are not an elite, but masses—are given an occasion to face death, and, like a philosopher or a Christian saint, to overcome it. The World Wars—for all their horror—offered the possibility of a ‘Platonic conversion’ to the masses. 

“Life (eternal) is born of this direct look at death,” says Patočka in the fifth Essay, which makes it not at all strange that the experience of war might offer an experience of ‘eternity’ in the sixth Essay. But the crux of Patočka’s theory of ‘Platonic conversion’—and, indirectly, of European culture, which derives from a certain Platonism—is that, in his words: “Care for the soul is inseparable from care for death, which becomes the true care for life.” The true care for life is one that, like a true peace, is not in bondage-to-life. It is only facing death that permits us to care for life—or, for peace—in freedom. Thus, for Patočka, it is only after we face up to death that “the soul [becomes] absolutely free.” 

But how is the ‘conversion’ of one fighter, and thus, the freedom of one fighter’s soul—say, that of Teilhard de Chardin, writing near what he calls the “lethal line”—related to Patočka’s idea of a true and lasting peace in Europe? Well, there is an arresting passage in the sixth Essay which resolves this question:

The adversary [of one who is ‘converted’ at the Front] is a fellow participant in the same situation, a fellow discoverer of absolute freedom with whom agreement is possible in difference, a fellow participant in the [same] upheaval … Here [at the Front] we encounter the abysmal realm of “prayer for the enemy,” the phenomenon of “loving those who hate us”—the solidarity of the shaken for all their contradiction and conflict.     

This picture of enemies—who are alike ‘exalted to the edge of the World’ (in Teilhard’s words), and who are alike facing death (and thus, offered a chance to ‘convert,’ and become free, and care for life not out of bondage to it, but freely)— calls to mind a passage in the third Essay. Writing about the Church, Patočka says: 

It is a community in which, for all its hierarchy, all humans are equal before the face of the ultimate ‘true’ reality; in which they are thus true fellow participants in a meaningfulness which they did not create but which they are called to bring about.

Patočka detests the World Wars. But there is, in them, a certain ‘divinity,’ a certain ‘saving potential,’ because—at the Front, as within the Church—‘all humans are equal before the face of the ultimate reality.’ Both at the Front and in the Church that reality is death—through which, all hope to be saved by God. At the Front, as in Church, humans are forced to dwell with, and in, the knowledge that “life leans out into the night.”

Given that ‘conversion’ is an act of freedom—perhaps, the act of freedom par excellence—it is only ever a possibility. This is true in Church, and this is true at the Front. Patočka is troubled that the vast, ‘fatal lines’ of the World Wars did not result in the ‘gigantic conversion’ for which he hoped. However mystical or naïve this hope for a mass ‘conversion’ may seem, Patočka is convinced at the end of his life that nothing but a new embrace of care for the soul—a deep and a free revival of the Platonic-Christian legacy of Europe—can save Europe from a dark and violent future.

What the Front and the Church both offer is a zone within which ‘all humans are equal before the face of the ultimate reality.’ It is only in such a zone that we can enter into what he calls a “realm of the ‘prayer for the enemy.’” Only in this zone can we glimpse the “phenomenon of ‘loving those who hate us.’” “Adversaries,” he writes in one of the last lines of the Heretical Essays, “belong to each other.” 

This is not a strange or novel thought. On the contrary, Patočka is lifting it from the Platonic dialogues and, even more clearly, from the Gospels. “The divinity of that which forms the… mystery of being,” in Patočka’s words, is the same divinity “which forms the ultimate unity… of being.” However nebulous such words might seem to us, this is Patočka’s ‘heresy.’ He is convinced that if Europeans forget them, they will not only be forgetting the inmost core of a Platonic-Christian legacy that made Europe beautiful—but they will also be forgetting the highest intimations of a human unity in the absence of which a true and lasting peace in Europe is unthinkable. 

David L. Dusenbury is a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest, and a visiting professor at Eötvös Loránd University. His books are The Space of Time (2014), Platonic Legislations (2017), and The Innocence of Pontius Pilate (2021). His essays and criticism have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, Corriere della Serra, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Affairs, and other cultural and political reviews.