Groundlessness and the Wish for the Impossible

Vid Snoj


The paper discusses the concept of groundlessness in Shestov’s thought within the framework of the dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem, or reason and faith, which marks Shestov’s late work. Groundlessness emerges when rational truths in which philosophy has grounded human existence are left hanging in the air, and a man loses the ground under his feet. It is, on the other hand, precisely here that Shestov’s own existential philosophy begins, namely, where there is no possibility left for reason. Here only the eye of faith sees the possibility that is not possible for reason, being thus an impossible, absurd possibility, and the all-possibility opens itself for man through faith in the almightiness of God. Before such a possibility, Shestov draws the figure of human existence with the help of the biblical story about Job. In his interpretation, he follows Kierkegaard’s famous thought on repetition and connects it with the cancellation of the law, which postulates that even God cannot undo what has happened. But he also repeats the eisegetic move made by Kierkegaard when he interpreted Abraham sacrificing Isaac: as Abraham should have believed that God would give him a new Isaac, so should Job have requested that God return precisely what had been taken from him, annihilating all that happened in-between. So, the belief that everything, i.e. anything, is possible with God becomes an utterly distinctive faith, and the wish for the impossible turns out to be a wish for something impossible which man wishes for himself, yet is at the same time beyond his power. The question remains, however, whether this wish is also the wish of God or, ultimately, the wish of one’s own will.


The title of our symposium raises a question and propels us to reflect on one of the basic concepts of Shestov’s thought, which traverses the realms of literature, philosophy and religion – “groundlessness”. Allow me, for the moment, to answer this question: bespochvennost, or “groundlessness”, appears to be an existential correlate of the suspension of rational truths. In my contribution I will examine groundlessness and attempt to unfold its definition within the context of the dichotomy that Shestov himself put into the title of his most important work, Athens and Jerusalem (1938). This dichotomy metonymically epitomizes the opposition that Shestov deals with in various forms in his later opus, namely, the opposition between philosophy and faith, between Greek wisdom and Jewish-Christian revelation, between philosophy and the Bible or philosophical speculation and biblical thought, between Hegel and Job or between the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. In pondering groundlessness within the framework of the dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem, I want to get to the nerve of Shestov’s thought, to the point which, as the the title of my paper suggests, I have named “the wish for the impossible”.
According to Shestov, Athens triumphed in the history of European thinking; wisdom or philosophy triumphed over revelation or biblical thought. In the perspective of this judgement, Shestov’s own philosophy appears to be a radical critique of the history of philosophy, perhaps even a deepest existentially enga-ged fight against reason and its truths, which demand obedience.
Before proceeding to outline the principle features of Shestov’s historiosophy, I would like to draw attention to the peculiarity of his philosophical hermeneutics. Shestov’s interpretation never appears to be close reading, the slow and gradual unfolding of a text which traces different meanings and possibilities of reading. It rather concentrates on some key statements which are simultaneously a key to the story of European philosophy, and it quotes and paraphrases them time and again. Shestov’s view is a view from afar, yet a view with insight which, from the aspect of the whole of the story, never loses sight of what it is really all about – a view from above into the depths. A catascopia: Shestov is always one step ahead, i.e. a step ahead into the depths, and, while stubbornly piercing a handful of statements he has chosen, always tackles a root intertwinement of suppositions from which grows the edifice of thought of a philosopher. For Kant, a philosopher of reason par excellence, who in his three critiques rejected traditional philosophical metaphysics and outlined three realms of reason as areas of its own power, if reason is properly used in them, such a supposition is reason itself and justification of its power. In Shestov’s eyes, Kant in his critique of reason “turned to reason,”1 entrusting it to reason itself. That is why Kant’s famous awakening from the “dogmatic slumber” described in the introduction to his Critique of Pure Reason is perceived by Shestov as the creation of a new dogma, the “dogma of sovereignity of reason.”2
In Shestov’s historiosophy, which I can only briefly outline here, the “discoverer” of reason is Socrates. According to Shestov, it was Socrates who decided that proven, rationally evident truths were superior to unproven ones, i. e. those coming to poets from the gods. In this way, Socrates also became a discoverer of truth, with Shestov himself describing its reign throughout the entire subsequent history of philosophy using the attributes of self-evidence, eternity and necessity. What is such a truth like?
First and foremost, it is “metaphysical”: invisible, yet visible to reason. Through reason it is seen, i.e. brought to evidence and recognised, as (self)-evidence, as the transparency of that which exists. For this reason, the self-evidence of truth is not, strictly speaking, the visibility of something that is evident in itself, but the evidence that discloses itself – that has always already been disclosed – to reason. Truth therefore passes from invisibility to self-evidence by means of reason. Furthermore, truth is eternal, because it does not originate in time, yet determines all that originates and disintegrates in time. Having no temporal origin itself, truth makes transparent the “being-so,” or So-sein, of things. In light of this “it is so,” it is a compelling truth, a truth that compels man – that has always already compelled him – to accept it. For the meaning relayed by “it is so” is “it must be so.” In view of this “must,” however, truth is the law. The law of contradiction says: A is A, which means that A cannot simultaneously be B; A is necessarily A.
It was Aristotle who established the law of contradiction as the fundamental law of logic, as the basis of all other truths and laws, and consequently became, in Shestov’s eyes, the insurer of Socrates’ discovery. Hence, the word of God also had to obtain a “blessing from the law of contradiction or some other law”3 in mediaeval philosophy, which attempted to rationally prove the truth of the revelation. Even God himself was placed under the reign of rational truths or laws. In mediaeval philosophy, for example, the law of contradiction does not belong to the sphere of God’s almighty power – and neither does the law quod factum est infectum esse nequit: even God cannot undo what has happened. Such laws do not depend on the will of God, but are themselves without a will: “It is not possible to talk with them, we cannot beg or convince them – therefore, we must submit to them.”4
According to Shestov, in modern philosophy the God of philosophers gradually became increasingly more bound by rational truths. Spinoza’s rationalisation of the divine, for example, led Shestov to the conclusion that “ the real name of God is a necessity,”5 and it was Hegel who, in his judgment, brought this rationalisation to an end and finally transformed the God of philosophers into an idol of reason by including the otherness of the divine in the movement of the absolute spirit, which is gradually becoming aware of this otherness through Be-greifen, the work of a concept, and appropriating it. Yet Husserl allegedly went even further when he separated truth in its absolute self-certainty from both the divine as well as from human existence.6
Moreover, Shestov also sees in Socrates’ identification of knowledge with virtue a point of contact between the real – under the aspect of the necessary – and the good, i.e. between ontology and ethics. Epictetus, a member of one of the philosophical schools that emerged out of Socrates’ thought, says: “The beginning of philosophy is an acknowledgement of one’s own inability and impossibility/powerlessness [synaísthesis tês autoû astheneías kaì adynamías] in face of necessity.”7 The truth which reason recognises as self-evidence and acknowledges to be a necessity, thus limits the horizon of human thought and deed and, by simultaneously delimiting the possible from the impossible in this horizon, demands the adjustment of a human wish. Acknowledgement or acceptance is, at the same time, a submission to necessity, a translation of ontology into ethics, by which necessity on the ontological level emerges as a duty on the ethical level. That is why the task of philosophy was, Shestov stresses, to lead man to the point where he comes to love necessity and willingly assumes acting in accordance with necessity as his duty. Even more: this task was to educate the human wish, so that it would strive for the principle of truth, sub specie necessitates, as the supreme good.
Shestov points to the universal ontological-ethical value of rational truths with an preinterpretative allusion to “ the starry sky above myself and the moral law inside myself” from the beginning of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, by saying: “The eternal truths shined before Kant and also after him, and it is after them that weak mortals orientate themselves…”8 But the truths in the sky that existed before man and also before God, the truths that exist above man and also above God – these truths are also below in a way; when below, they make ground: they offer ground to man, Grund in the sense of the “foundation” or rational “reason” on which man stands on earth. They are ground for his existence with regard to that which exists or must exist and, therefore, that which man should wish for. Yet ground – and here Shestov has gone one step further than the philosophy he is fighting against – is in reality being given and the path of desire paved by reason. Although it is presented in the history of philosophy only as a medium in which truth discloses itself, reason does not actually enable truth to pass from invisibility to self-evidence by seeing and bringing it to evidence, but sets it up. Rational truths, i.e. those brought to evidence through reason, are truths of reason itself.
There are, nevertheless, exceptions in the history of philosophy. As .. Shestov often says, some thinkers “lost the ground under their feet” and are familiar with the groundlessness that emerges when rational truths lose the value of a grounding instance and are left hanging in the air: Pascal, who began to sense an abyss, though not on his left, as Shestov remarks in connection with groundlessness, but under his feet,9 Kierkegaard, who also had the experience of abyss and dizziness,10 and before them perhaps Luther, who did not name it this way. And after them, of course, Dostoyevsky, who created the first real critique of reason in the figure of the “underground” man, which is not his apology as is Kant’s.11
Groundlessness is a “circumstance” which, in Dostoyevsky’s literature, accompanies and surrounds the underground man. This man acts within the frames of accustomed ways of thinking, undermining the ground on which normal man stands by saying, for example, “two times two is five.” Yet the underground has no ground: the underground man himself stands without support, in a groundlessness spreading all around and surrounding him on all sides offering no ground, centre or support.
On the other side, following Kierkegaard’s lead, Shestov conceives also his own existential philosophy by means of suspense, abolishing eternal truths above and opening Ab-grund, abyss below, that is, in groundlessness.12 This is a philosophy that no longer turns to eternal truths and, if anything, teaches “man to live in uncertainty.”13 It does not seek truth in reason and its possibilities. Inasmuch as they are within reach of rational judgment of the realisable out of the real, these possibilities are limited and, therefore, on this side of the line, which delimits what is possible or what in all rational probability could happen, from the impossible. They are limited precisely by delimitation, by separation of the impossible, whose other side is nothing other than the enclosure of the possible in the rational possibility that must be accepted as the only possible possibility.
Shestov’s existential philosophy thus begins at the point where it is shown to reason that an individual without ground under his feet stands before the impossible – at a place where reason sees no possibility at all. For the eye of reason, there is no way out of this place, and the impossible is absurd to the individual who sees with the eye of reason.
Absurdum, as Lewis and Short’s Latin-English dictionary tells us, is what is “out of tune.” Absurd is thus that which is not in tune and does not sound together with reason, with its truths or laws. Yet it is for this reason by all means not senseless. In spite of finding ground in reason and its truths, thinking hits against the absurd and then reverses and adjusts itself differently. Absurd is harsh in relation to reason and is impossible for it. Absurd is a certain possibile that is impossible for reason. Absurd is a possibility that is impossible for reason. But for possibility to emerge in the impossible at all, one requires the eye of faith. In any case, thinking does not end with faith, for faith appears to be a “dimension of thinking.”14 In other words: when thinking hits against the absurd, it adjusts itself in the di-mension of faith according to the measure of the absurd. Absurdum mensura.
Before that which is impossible for man, it is faith in God that gives thinking another dimension. When in groundlessness, the all-possibility opens for man in the impossible, but only through faith in the almightiness of God. Only divine almightiness freed from rational truths presents the all-possibility to a man of faith. For “with God all things are possible,” says evangelist Mark (10:27), or “with God nothing will be impossible,” says evangelist Luke (1:37); and, as Kierkegaard already established, it was Abraham sacrificing Isaac who also believed “by the power of the Absurd,”15 assuming that everything is possible with God. What is impossible for man is possible for God – and from the point of view of reason, it is absurd. Yet in terms of the possibility, the absurd is not limited as reason is. The absurd possibility is impossible for reason, yet nevertheless a possible possibility for faith. The absurd possibility is an impossible possibility, a possibility of faith. It is neither a potentiality, an unused possibility of what exists, nor its capability as an entirety of such possibilities, but a pure, absolute possibility.
Before this possibility, thinking is different. Without looking towards eternal truths in the sky that are forcing it to the ground, in a groundlessness in which the dimension of faith has opened for it, thinking flies – and flies with ease in the wish for the impossible. And because “impossibility is a stone wall,”16 it rises from straits over the walls of the impossible towards all-possibility.
In such thinking, the use of reason is different as well. There is no need to sacrifice reason: to renounce reason does not mean to sacrifice it, but to shake off its “hostile yoke.”17 Therefore, when thinking reverses itself alongside the absurd in the dimension of faith, it is not a sacrifice that is at stake – or at least not, as in the case of Abraham’s sacrifice, a sacrifice with a final victim, a performed sacrificium intellectus –, but a renouncement of the hidden pretension of reason, of the pretension to autonomy, to be a self-legislative instance. To be an instance which in reality issues its own laws.
Still more: this thinking renounces the law of contradiction, but again only as a commanding and not also as an executing instance, too. It does not want to rely on rational proof, nor release itself from it completely. Fondane explains: “But why should we renounce rational proof? To be logical? If we have the freedom to reject it, we have the same freedom to use it.”18
Thinking measured in the dimension of faith does not, when renouncing the pretensions of reason, sacrifice lógos. It does not sacrifice the basic logicalness or the grammatical regularity of the language matrix that enables its own discursive structuring. On the other hand, it runs in incessant paradoxical turns. By paradox, by thinking contrary to rational thinking and bypassing it, his thinking rises above its limited condition. Yet it is still a discourse, and its dis-coursing is an incessant re-coursing to the elements of logical thinking in grammar. For the paradox is what preserves the “logic” of a language and reverses the logic of thinking within it.
Let me go back a step or two. I would like to point out that Shestov interprets the inaugural event of both traditional and his own philosophy in the biblical key. On the one hand, he represents the inauguration of reason at the beginning of the history of philosophy through the biblical story of the Fall of Man. In this story the threads of the story common to both Athens and Jerusalem are intertwined: rational knowledge becomes the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Socrates becomes Adam, his ethics a doctrine of the fallen man, etc. On the other hand, Shestov draws on the birthplace of his own philosophy the figure of human existence before the impossible. And he draws it with the help of the biblical story about Job.
In his interpretation of this story, Shestov follows Kierkegaard, who, facing the problem of the limits of divine almightiness, turned away from Hegel and philosophical speculation, and sided with Job. As Kierkegaard says: at the end of The Book of Job, when Job gets back everything he has lost – his property, children and health, his property and years of his life even in doubly – the almightiness of God is presented by “repetition.” Namely, Kierkegaard understands the return of all that Job has lost as repetition that occurs when it is “in all human wisdom and probability impossible.”19
Repetition brings restoratio in integrum to Job, and thus for him represents the complete return of what he has lost. Because it is not within the power of man, but of God, it may be called an event of the impossible. But considering the fact that God undoes what has happened, as Shestov understands the essence of repetition, it is ultimately the return of the same. God makes the impossible possible: he undoes the loss of property, children and health – and what was before that, at the beginning, returns, because God has turned the time in-between into something that “was not,” just the same in the end. Repetition, therefore, does not simply involve the restoration of the primary state of things; the point is that the end – after the things that happened in-between have returned into nothingness, into “was not” – is the same as the beginning. Repetition is the return of the same from non-being to being by annihilation of the in-between.
In his interpretation of The Book of Job, Shestov links God’s cancellation of the law quod factum est infectum esse nequit with the Kierkegaardian repetition by repeating the move made by Kierkegaard in his explanation of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, when he put into Abraham’s mouth the following words: “This [a sacrifice, my note] will not happen, but if it nevertheless happens, God would give me a new Isaac through the power of the absurd.”20 In this way, Kierkegaard verbalizes what is happening inside Abraham and, by the use of direct speech, makes Abraham say what he does not say in the biblical narrative. In interpreting the biblical figure of Abraham, Kierkegaard fills it up with faith – not with the faith that everything, i.e. anything, is possible with God, but with an utterly specific and distinctive faith. A faith determined by the wish for a new – repeated, i.e. the same, – Isaac.
Although this explanatory move is in-ventio, the invention that comes into Abraham’s interior as a congenial fulfillment is nevertheless an eisegesis.
Shestov repeats it in his explanation of Job. In his words, Job did nothing less than “demand [my emphasis] that what happened should be as if it had not happened, that the burnt property should be as if it had not been burnt, that the children who were killed should be, as if they had not been killed, that his health should be as before.”21 Supposedly, Job himself demanded the annihilation of the past, that is, of the time in-between, a time of “inhuman” suffering, in which he was left without his property, children and health. He himself allegedly believed that God would return what he had taken from him.
Here we are dealing with an interpretation of the unsaid in The Book of Job. Yet in reality Job does not demand all of that at all. In wanting to accuse God in front of God, he demands only to have a lawsuit with God, a case implying his request for God’s acknowledgement that he is right and is not guilty of the evil that struck him. Nowhere does he voice the wish for the impossible, the wish for the return of his property, children and health. The question is, of course, whether Job’s accusation actually does imply a request for return; but if it does, it by all means does not imply a request for precisely such a return, for the return of those very things which he had lost. Furthermore, if Job had voiced a request for that, wouldn’t God have fulfilled his request by returning all that he has lost, and wouldn’t this return be a recompensation, i.e. an act of compensation, redemption or settlement belonging to the sphere of exchange economy and not a gift of God outside of such economics. And the event of the impossible in The Book of Job, the Kierkegaardian repetition, is a gift, a repeated divine gift of all that has been lost. For Job does not get everything back on a request which God recognizes as justified. He gets it all back only after two divine speeches from a whirlwind which do not proclaim he is right, but, avoiding Job’s request, permit a double, divine and human right, more specifically, only after he himself withdraws his request (cf. Job 42:6.10). The gift of God is the return of the same without recompensation.
Using Shestov’s words, Job “demands,” yet this is not his voice, but the voice of the wish for the impossible. This wish certainly does not in any way count on man’s own power, or on human power in general. In the fiftieth aphorism from the last part of his magnum opus, Athens and Jerusalem, Shestov says: “A man remembers God when he wants the impossible. For the possible, he turns to men.”22 But nevertheless: although the wish for the impossible cannot exist without faith, which is “an immense power,”23 and its fulfillment cannot occur without the transcendent power, without the almightiness of God, which makes the impossible possible, it has priority in Shestov’s thought precisely as its own wish. It is perhaps no coincidence that Shestov discusses only those biblical cases that can be explained, as though God fulfills such wishes, and ignores those in which wishes are not fulfilled. In this way, the question of God’s call which precedes man’s wish and configures differently the relation between man’s wish and God’s wish remains undisscussed. For example, the question of the call that sets Abraham on his way to the Promised Land and to the sacrifice of Isaac.
Hence, does all of this mean that God must fulfill the wish for the impossible? That the human wish is necessarily a “wish of the Other” and that God has no choice but to meet it? That it is also the will of God to fulfill it? Does, on the other hand, even God submit to this wish which does not acknowledge the necessity? And finally, is God here not to fulfill the wish of the possible, but of the impossible?
In the middle of the fifth aphorism, Shestov says: “Man’s ultimate wish in the world is to live according to his own will…”24 Although this sentence had been taken out of its context, in my judgment it nevertheless uniquely speaks about the priority of the human wish before the divine wish: about the wish of one’s own will, about everything happening in accordance with one’s will.
Let me conclude with a suspicious hint. Perhaps Berdyaev is right in observing that Shestov is closer to Nietzsche than to the Bible.25 Shestov rebukes Nietzsche only when Nietzsche submits to necessity confessing his love of fate;26 otherwise, he judges this German thinker to be first of all a challenger of rational truths and a fighter for the possibilities beyond such truths. In Shestov’s eyes, Nietzsche discovered something that is more important than the eternal return of the same: what makes “it was” become “it was not” is will. So, concealed behind Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same is the will to power, and this very will reveals itself to Shestov as a “force of endless power,” a force of absolute freedom and infinite creativity, a creator of all-possibility or, finally, as “Luther’s creator omnipotens ex nihilo faciens omnia.”27
In short, the wish for the impossible is perhaps the wish for the almightiness of will made possible by the will of God. Of my own will.                    Translated by Suzana Stančič

1     Lav Šestov, Atina i Jerusalim. Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolimis?, Serbian translation, Budva: Mediteran, 1990, p. 76.
2     O.c., p. 11.
3     O.c., p. 185.
4     O.c., p. 205.
5     Léon Chestov, Les favoris et les déshérites de l’historie: Descartes et Spinoza, Mercure de France, June 1923, p. 666.
6     Cf. Ramona Fotiade, Conceptions of the Absurd: From Surrealism to the Existential Thought of Chestov and Fondane, Oxford: European Humanities Research Centre, University of Oxford, 2001, p. 205.
7     Šestov, Atina i Jerusalim, p. 67 et al.
8     O.c., p. 11.
9     Lev Šestov, Getsemanska noč. Pascalova filozofija, in: Lev Šestov, Med razodetjem in resnico. Izbor iz filozofskih del, Slovene translation by Borut Kraševec, Celje: Mohorjeva družba 2001, p. 42.
10     Lev Šestov, Kierkegaard – religiozni filozof, in: o.c., p. 99.
11     Cf. Lev Šestov, Nietzsche in Dostojevski. Premagovanje samorazvidnosti, Slovene translation by Borut Kraševec, Ljubljana: LUD Literatura, 2002, p. 155; cf. also footnote on page 18 in Atina i Jerusalim.
12     In the mid thirties of the past century, Shestov and his pupil, Benjamin Fondane, who contributed the most to the dissemination of Shestov’s thought in France, used the term philosophie existentielle to separate this thought from the first outbursts of German and French “Existentialism”. Cf. Ramona Fotiade, Conceptions of the Absurd: From Surrealism to the Existential Thought of Chestov and Fondane, Oxford: European Humanities Research Centre, University of Oxford, 2001, p. 6.
13     Lev Shestov, All Things are Possible. Penultimate Words and Other Essays, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1977, p. 12.
14     Šestov, Atina i Jerusalim, p. 21.
15     O.c., p. 148.
16     O.c., p. 229.
17    Šestov, Kierkegaard – religiozni filozof, p. 87.
18     Benjamin Fondane, Léon Chestov et la lutte contre les évidences, Revue de la France et de l’étranger, July-August 1938, p. 34.
19     Sören A. Kierkegaard, Ponovitev. Filozofske drobtinice ali drobec filozofije, Slovene translation by Franc Burgar, Ljubljana: Slovenska matica, 1987, p. 213.
20     Seren Kjerkegor, Strah i drhtanje, Serbian translation, Belgrade: Beogradski izdavačko-grafički zavod, 1975, p. 180.
21     Šestov, Atina i Jerusalim, p. 207.
22     O.c., p. 305.
23     Lev Šestov, Kierkegaard – religiozni filozof, p. 93.
24     Šestov, Atina i Jerusalim, p. 262.
25     Berdyaev’s observation cites Pavel Kuznecov in the afterword of Shestov’s anthology in Slovene Med razumom in razodetjem, p. 230.
26     Cf. Šestov, Atina i Jerusalim, p. 138.
27     O.c., p. 134.