A recently retired academic, with a background in psychology and philosophy.
Emanuele Severino, an outstandingly original and rigorous thinker, died on January 17, 2020 in his native Brescia, in Northern Italy, a month or so shy of his 91th birthday.
In his precocious and long academic career, Severino held posts in several Italian universities, including the Catholic University of Milan. He served there as a professor from 1954 to 1969, when his employment was terminated following an extensive examination of his works by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the direct heir of the Inquisition of dire memory - which concluded that his thought was fundamentally incompatible with Christian doctrine. He is likely to remain one of the last philosophers who underwent a sort of trial for heresy.
Commenting on his passing, much a' propos a colleague of his1 recalled Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between intellectuals who ‘know many things’, and those who ‘know one thing only, but big’.
Severino belonged to an eminent degree to the latter category. And the big thing that ‘he knew’ led him to one of the most radical critiques of the dominant philosophical tradition of the West, and therefore of that civilization - now extended in several respects to the whole world - which upon it is conceptually based.
Severino’s views are all the more remarkable when seen in the context of post-modern thought, which has long abandoned any pretension to arrive at - nay, rejects the very possibility of - any objective truth about the nature of reality, Severino’s dominant concern.
This disquieting development of late Western thought is seen by Severino as a complete reversal of the original intent of Greek philosophy, which understood its task as searching for ‘a knowledge absolutely undeniable, that neither men nor gods could deny, nor changes of places and of times, and not even an omnipotent God’ 2. [My translation, MT]. Paradoxically, it was precisely the attempt, pursued over many centuries, of determining the content of this ‘indubitable knowledge’ which led to the ‘extreme error’ and the ‘folly’ which has reached its culmination in our days.
Still, Severino regards it as possible, indeed necessary, to undo this error, and to return philosophy to that irrefutable foundational knowledge that alone can constitute the basis for true philosophizing, and that was first formulated, however imperfectly in his view3, by a pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides of Elea (b. ca 515 BC).
EVERYTHING THAT IS, IS ETERNAL
What is then, that ‘big thing’, as Berlin puts it, that ‘central vision… inspiring principle, unique and universal, that alone can grant significance’4 [MT] to everything that Severino wrote over a period of seven decades?
In his own words: ‘Each state of the world, each part of each state, the content of each instant, each being and each event are eternal. That they are eternal means that it is impossible that they be not.’5 [MT]
Why impossible? Because nothing can be other than itself. A tree cannot be a star. In more abstract terms: a being - any being - is not a not-being; a being is not a nothing. Denying this is holding that a being is a not-being: a denial that denies itself. Hence that a being is, and cannot be other than itself, is a non-deniable truth.
If a being cannot be other than itself, there cannot be a time in which a being is not. Which means in turn that nothing can come from nothing and return to nothing: for this implies that there are times when a being is not-being, a nothing; that a being is an oscillation between nothing and not nothing. Which is impossible. Which in turn necessarily implies that everything: absolutely everything that is, was and will be, is already eternally existing.
Such statements clash with our ordinary way of thinking. When we say ‘this Thursday is over’ we assume that this particular being, that was a nothing the day before, has again become nothing. This thinking, once more, is thinking that all that is, anything we live and experience, is ultimately nothing. And it necessarily leads to the rejection of any eternal truth; any truth, to use Parmenides’s words, ‘that has a heart that does not tremble’.
This view: of the becoming of beings in the world, is for Severino the essence of nihilism, what he calls the ‘extreme error’ and the extreme ‘folly’ that lies at the core of our civilization. An error that is also shared by what at first appears to be the sovereign Remedy to it, the belief in a Creator God.
CHRISTIANITY TOO IS NIHILISTIC
In the philosopher’s view, every being, every thing is eternal. To Christians, only the divine is eternal5. The world is a creatio ex nihilo, a creation out of nothing, and destined to perish, which means that it is ultimately nothing. Earthly life is not an absolute value, it is not eternal. God incarnated in Jesus and met the cross thereby renouncing earthly life, but not his immutable, eternal being. His sacrifice actually testifies the nullity of this life. His resurrected body is a glorious body, other than the earthly one, which is surrendered to nothingness. Our own resurrection is a gift, God’s grace. We have faith, we hope, that we will be resurrected. But since this is a gift it also implies that it could have not been. This contingency is also the contingency all the things of this world. In fine, the proclamation of the ‘Death of God’ marked the final triumph of death as annihilation. Man* is alone in the midst of nothing: the essence of nihilism.
Even these sparse remarks suffice in helping us understand why Severino’s thinking was declared incompatible with Christian doctrine6.
THE BECOMING OF THINGS IS ILLUSORY
The persuasion that all things come from nothing and return to nothing, according to Severino, is at the core of our most profound anguish. Evoked by Post-Parmenidean Greek philosophy and elaborated over many centuries by later thinkers, it draws its strength from being regarded as the supreme evidence, as a sort of ultimate, rock solid fact.
Yet, Severino argues, the becoming of things is not a fact: it is merely a belief, and a wrong one, an incorrect way of interpreting our experience, which is contradicted by experience itself5.
If we take a log and set it on fire, in time the wood ceases to be seen, and we see only ashes. This seems to show unequivocally that something, the wood, over time has become other from what it was, that it has become ashes. This we can experience every time.
But do we really? What do we really see? Well, at moment t1 we see the log; at t2 the log begins to burn; at t3 the brightness of the burning increases; then it peaks; eventually it begins to decline; next it declines some more; then something grayish begins to appear; and then we see only ash. This is what appears within the circle of our experience: a sequence of states. And each state is always the being itself of what is. What we see is the succession of the appearing of eternals, not the becoming of a being into something other than itself. All the elements of this sequence are parts of the ensemble whose appearing is completed when wood appears no longer.
Everyday reality is the circle in which the eternals begin to appear, and then eventually cease to appear. But they always are, eternally, even when they cease to appear. In sum: what does appear in the world is not the coming from nothing and the returning to nothing of things, it is just their appearing and disappearing5.
It is worth noting in passing - as Severino knew - that this claim: that each state of the world, the content of each instant, each being and each event are eternal is in agreement with Einstein’s theories of relativity, which can be interpreted as affirming the illusory nature of change and the eternity of each state of the world. The metaphor often used to illustrate this refers to the photograms of a film and its projection. Each being and event is like a photogram of a film. The photograms are all coexisting and immutable. It is their projection which produces the illusion of motion and change. All things, present, past, and future, are like photograms that already are regardless of their projection. Philosopher of science Karl Popper, in recalling his discussions with Einstein7, affirmed that the scientist indeed concurred that he conceived the world as a Parmenidean four dimensional closed universe in which the appearance of change was illusory.
Note however that whereas in Einstein’s view change is an illusion, in Severino’s view, the variation of experience is not an illusion, it is the most real appearing and disappearing of the eternals.
DEATH IS NOT ANNIHILATION
Countless philosophers, poets, and writers have placed death at the core of our anguish and fears, for it seems to show that each one of us is destined to become nothing. Some critics have argued that the undeniable fact of man’s death is the ultimate refutation of Severino’s view of the eternity of things.
Of course, Severino does not deny that man dies, and that as he dies all is left is his corpse (and the memory of living people). He denies that death is a going into nothingness.5 Those who believe this cannot possibly believe that man goes into nothingness and that this is also a fact of experience; that going into nothingness belongs to experience in the same way that experiencing a corpse is. For one cannot possibly experience… nothing. A similar line of thinking applies to the belief that it is a fact of experience that things come out of nothing.
Accordingly, affirming the eternity of all that appears, Severino argues, does not clash with experience, with the fact that man dies. On the contrary, it is those who claim that experience shows the annihilation of men and of things, who actually see in it what is not, and cannot possibly be, there.
One of Severino’s favorite sayings is that men are kings who believe they are beggars. This certainly applies to his view of death. The idea that death means annihilation is the opposite of the realization that one is eternal, that death is but a going out of the experience that others have of one’s life5 (and of our own as it appears). If we were to negotiate reality from this latter standpoint, a most heavy burden would be lifted from us. Our life would be essentially, joyously different. (Of course, Severino’s views have nothing in common with spiritualistic affirmations of post-mortem survival.)
In his later writings, Severino argued that after death ‘we are destined to a Joy infinitely more intense than that promised by the religions and wisdoms of this world’8 [MT], one in which all contradictions of our life are dissolved. He sought to demonstrate strictly by logical reasoning the necessity of this outcome.
Yet, beyond this reasoning, an immense residue of mystery remains. Since we are eternal, ‘the meaning of every being is disclosed along a path which has no end. Hence our being is destined to see always more in the Joy after death… The meaning of every being is inexhaustible. In the sky of truth there is an infinite space that will never be experienced and uttered by what is finite, but which is the foundation of our destination to Joy.5[MT]
It is worth noting that whereas our secular culture is pervaded by the view that death is annihilation, the exploration of the unconscious life of contemporary people unveils a different picture. As a psychotherapist, Carl Jung was able to observe many people’s unconscious activity as they approached death. ‘As a rule - he wrote - the approaching end was indicated by those symbols which, in normal life also, proclaim changes of psychological condition – rebirth symbols such as changes of locality, journeys, and the like. … On the whole, I was astonished to see how little ado the unconscious psyche makes of death. It would seem as though death was something relatively unimportant.’9
Freud also noted that in the unconscious everyone is convinced of his immortality, that ‘at bottom no one believe in his own death’.
And we may as well recall that Baruch Spinoza, long before these explorers of the unconscious, had declared in his Ethics that ‘We feel and experience ourselves to be eternal.’10
It is important to keep in mind that these three authors, though they seem to converge on the same insight, do so from very different theoretical contexts. Still, they help illustrating one point: that Severino’s strictly logico-philosophical tenets about the eternity of all beings may well find experiential sustenance within the depths of our psyche.
This article sought to outline however briefly a few elements of a complex philosophy which, well known in Europe, has not commanded comparable attention in English speaking countries largely due, I suspect, to the paucity of translations of Severino’s books in that language3.
This is regrettable, for his opus is decidedly worthy of serious consideration, not least because the orientation of his thinking was refreshingly unlike most of what contemporary philosophizing in its drab uniformity cares to debate.
Severino’s thought is arduous. His terminology, although always rigorously defined, is nevertheless much his own, and can confuse the casual reader. Over a period of nearly seven decades he produced an impressive body of work whose individual components – his books especially - refer to one another with remarkable conceptual coherence and continuity.
To follow him along this long tortuous itinerary calls for singular determination.
But it may well be worth the effort, for there is something profoundly compelling at the core of his thought. Even those who disagree with his ideas are impressed by the cogency of his arguments. Although I can by no means claim a profound knowledge of his oeuvre and of its critics’ rebuttals, I am not aware of any decisive refutation of his ‘big idea’, arrived at strictly on the basis of relentlessly logical analyses.
In view of the fact that his thinking points in a direction far more desirable and hopeful than the grim nihilistic orientation of most modern thought, this is reason enough to be grateful.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
*To be consistent with Severino’s writings, and those of other authors quoted here, I have retained the use of the term ‘man’ to refer to humankind.
1. Bonazzi, M. (2020). Morto il filosofo Emanuele Severino. Corriere.it https://www.corriere.it/cultura/20_gennaio_21/morto-emanuele-severino-b34a3a26-3c60-11ea-a78f-84ea93852c9b.shtml.Downloaded on October 2020.
2. D’Alessandro, D. (2019). Filosofeggiando con Emanuele Severino. Il Foglio.it. https://www.ilfoglio.it/filosofeggio-dunque-sono/2019/04/07/news/filosofeggiando-con-emanuele-severino-248074/. Downloaded October 2020.
3. Severino, E. (1982/2016). Returning to Parmenides. In The Essence of Nihilism. Translated by Giacometti Dons ; edited by Ines Estonian and Alejandro Cabrera. Brooklyn, NY : Verso.
4. Berlin, I. (1998). Il riccio e la volpe e altri saggi. Milano: Adelphi
5. Severino, E. (2018). Dispute Sulla verita’ e la morte. Milano: Drizzle.
6. Severino, E. (2001). Il mio scontro con la Chiesa. Milano: Rizzoli.
7. Popper, K. (1982). Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography. LaSalle, Ill. : Open Court.
8. Severino, E. (2011). Il mio ricordo degli eterni. Autobiografia. Milano: Rizzoli.
9. Jung, C. (1945/1999). The Soul and Death. In J. Yates (Ed.), Jung on Death and Immortality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
10. Spinoza, B. (1677/1981). Ethics. Translated by George Eli; edited by Thomas Deegan. Salzburg : Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik.
© 2020 John Paul Quester
John Paul Quester (author) from North America on October 29, 2020:
Very pleased it was of some use. Thanks.
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on October 28, 2020:
Very thought provoking...and since I have a well loved relative on the verge of the gear transition, very comforting.