Human All-Too-Human, Part 1

Page 68 of 70


Conviction and Justice.—The requirement that a person must afterwards, when cool and sober, stand by what he says, promises, and resolves during passion, is one of the heaviest burdens that weigh upon mankind. To have to acknowledge for all future time the consequences of anger, of fiery revenge, of enthusiastic devotion, may lead to a bitterness against these feelings proportionate to the idolatry with which they are idolised, especially by artists. These cultivate to its full extent the esteem of the passions, and have always done so; to be sure, they also glorify the terrible satisfaction of the passions which a person affords himself, the outbreaks of vengeance, with death, mutilation, or voluntary banishment in their train, and the resignation of the broken heart.[Pg 396] In any case they keep alive curiosity about the passions; it is as if they said: "Without passions you have no experience whatever." Because we have sworn fidelity (perhaps even to a purely fictitious being, such as a god), because we have surrendered our heart to a prince, a party, a woman, a priestly order, an artist, or a thinker, in a state of infatuated delusion that threw a charm over us and made those beings appear worthy of all veneration, and every sacrifice—are we, therefore, firmly and inevitably bound? Or did we not, after all, deceive ourselves then? Was there not a hypothetical promise, under the tacit presupposition that those beings to whom we consecrated ourselves were really the beings they seemed to be in our imagination? Are we under obligation to be faithful to our errors, even with the knowledge that by this fidelity we shall cause injury to our higher selves? No, there is no law, no obligation of that sort; we must become traitors, we must act unfaithfully and abandon our ideals again and again. We cannot advance from one period of life into another without causing these pains of treachery and also suffering from them. Might it be necessary to guard against the ebullitions of our feelings in order to escape these pains? Would not the world then become too arid, too ghost-like for us? Rather will we ask ourselves whether these pains are necessary on a change of convictions, or whether they do not depend on a mistaken opinion and estimate. Why do we admire a person who remains true to his convictions and despise him who changes them? I fear[Pg 397] the answer must be, "because every one takes for granted that such a change is caused only by motives of more general utility or of personal trouble." That is to say, we believe at bottom that nobody alters his opinions as long as they are advantageous to him, or at least as long as they do not cause him any harm. If it is so, however, it furnishes a bad proof of the intellectual significance of all convictions. Let us once examine how convictions arise, and let us see whether their importance is not greatly over-estimated; it will thereby be seen that the change of convictions also is in all circumstances judged according to a false standard, that we have hitherto been accustomed to suffer too much from this change.


Conviction is belief in the possession of absolute truth on any matter of knowledge. This belief takes it for granted, therefore, that there are absolute truths; also, that perfect methods have been found for attaining to them; and finally, that every one who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three notions show at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thought; he seems to us still in the age of theoretical innocence, and is practically a child, however grown-up he may be. Whole centuries, however, have been lived under the influence of those childlike presuppositions, and out of them have flowed the mightiest sources of human strength. The countless numbers who[Pg 398] sacrificed themselves for their convictions believed they were doing it for the sake of absolute truth. They were all wrong, however; probably no one has ever sacrificed himself for Truth; at least, the dogmatic expression of the faith of any such person has been unscientific or only partly scientific. But really, people wanted to carry their point because they believed that they must be in the right. To allow their belief to be wrested from them probably meant calling in question their eternal salvation. In an affair of such extreme importance the "will" was too audibly the prompter of the intellect. The presupposition of every believer of every shade of belief has been that he could not be confuted; if the counter-arguments happened to be very strong, it always remained for him to decry intellect generally, and, perhaps, even to set up the "credo quia absurdum est" as the standard of extreme fanaticism. It is not the struggle of opinions that has made history so turbulent; but the struggle of belief in opinions,—that is to say, of convictions. If all those who thought so highly of their convictions, who made sacrifices of all kinds for them, and spared neither honour, body, nor life in their service, had only devoted half of their energy to examining their right to adhere to this or that conviction and by what road they arrived at it, how peaceable would the history of mankind now appear! How much more knowledge would there be! All the cruel scenes in connection with the persecution of heretics of all kinds would have been avoided, for two reasons: firstly, because the inquisitors would above all have[Pg 399] inquired of themselves, and would have recognised the presumption of defending absolute truth; and secondly, because the heretics themselves would, after examination, have taken no more interest in such badly established doctrines as those of all religious sectarians and "orthodox" believers.


From the ages in which it was customary to believe in the possession of absolute truth, people have inherited a profound dislike of all sceptical and relative attitudes with regard to questions of knowledge; they mostly prefer to acquiesce, for good or evil, in the convictions of those in authority (fathers, friends, teachers, princes), and they have a kind of remorse of conscience when they do not do so. This tendency is quite comprehensible, and its results furnish no ground for condemnation of the course of the development of human reason. The scientific spirit in man, however, has gradually to bring to maturity the virtue of cautious forbearance, the wise moderation, which is better known in practical than in theoretical life, and which, for instance, Goethe has represented in "Antonio," as an object of provocation for all Tassos,—that is to say, for unscientific and at the same time inactive natures. The man of convictions has in himself the right not to comprehend the man of cautious thought, the theoretical Antonio; the scientific man, on the other hand, has no right to blame the former on that account, he takes no notice thereof, and[Pg 400] knows, moreover, that in certain cases the former will yet cling to him, as Tasso finally clung to Antonio.


He who has not passed through different phases of conviction, but sticks to the faith in whose net he was first caught, is, under all circumstances, just on account of this unchangeableness, a representative of atavistic culture; in accordance with this lack of culture (which always presupposes plasticity for culture), he is severe, unintelligent, unteachable, without liberality, an ever suspicious person, an unscrupulous person who has recourse to all expedients for enforcing his opinions because he cannot conceive that there must be other opinions; he is, in such respects, perhaps a source of strength, and even wholesome in cultures that have become too emancipated and languid, but only because he strongly incites to opposition: for thereby the delicate organisation of the new culture, which is forced to struggle with him, becomes strong itself.

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