[271] {307}


Given the refined and decisive philosophical situation in which we undoubtedly find ourselves placed, at the very pinnacle of time, it scarcely seems justifiable to be concerned with pre-Socratic thought unless there is some very urgent reason for doing so. If we were moved only by an inclination to take pleasure in rehashing the past on account of the fact that it once was, the matter-though perhaps problematic-would have no great importance. But this is not the reason for our interest. Rather, it is that we are caught up in this occupation as a result of a preoccupation with philosophical truth. And therefore the situation changes completely. In order for this occupation to be justified it will only be necessary to see in it an intellectual obligation imposed by the problem which philosophy today sets before us. There is no other justification than the method itself of approaching the pre-Socratic thinkers. And the image they project before our mind depends in turn on this method.

Thus we see the three questions to which we must successively respond;

1. What is our attitude toward the Greek world in general, and especially toward pre-Socratic thought?

2. What meaning does our occupation with human history have?

3. What kind of internal intellectual obligation brings us to fastidiously detain our attention on and cause a good part of our thought to gravitate to this extremely remote philosophical past? {308}

[272] {309}


Nietzsche defined his attitude toward the pre-Socratics in these words:

For what they invented was the archtypes of philosophical thought. All posterity has not made an essential contribution to them since. All other cultures are put to shame by the marvelously idealized philosophical company represented by the ancient Greek masters Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Democritus and Socrates. These men are monolithic. Their thinking and their character stand in a relationship characterized by strictest necessity.... Thus all of them together form what Schopenhauer in contrast to the republic of scholars has called the republic of creative minds: each giant calling to his brother through the desolate intervals of time. And undisturbed by the wanton noises of the dwarfs that creep past beneath them, their high spirit-converse continues....Only a culture such as the Greeks possessed can...justify philosophy at all, because it alone knows and can demonstrate why and how the philosopher is not a chance random wanderer, exiled to this place or that. There is a steely necessity which binds a philosopher to a genuine culture.

Leaving aside the antipathetic problem of culture which is alluded to by Nietzche who, when all is said and done, was a man of his time, we see his attitude toward pre-Socratic philosophy is quite clear: admiration in the face of the definitive.

At times a different attitude has prevailed. Thus, Holderlein savs:

We dream of culture and yet totally lack it; {310}we dream of originality and independence, we think we are saying something completely new, and yet all of it is no more than a reaction, a type of sweet revenge upon the enslavement of our conduct with respect to antiquity. It really seems as if there were no other option than that of being crushed beneath the weight of the received and the positive, or rebelling violently against everything learned, against everything given and everything which is positive in the sense of a vital force. And the most perplexing aspect of all this is that antiquity seems [273] radically opposed to our natural impulse.... And what has been the general cause of the decadence of every nation, viz. asphyxiation of its originality and natural vitality through accumulation of positive forms and through the affluence bequeathed to us by our forefathers seems to be our destiny too, and even to a greater extent, because an earlier world weighs down on and oppresses us, a world which is almost unlimited, and which infuses itself into us through education or experience.

Whatever may have been Holderlein's final attitude toward the Greeks, in these lines he expresses an attitude quite different from that of Nietzsche: rebellion against slavery.

We have all to a greater or lesser degree felt our spirit oscillate from one attitude to the other. Likewise to some degree we all reveal a measure of both of these ingredients deep inside. And the fact is that however opposite they may seem, both reactions to the Greek world nourish themselves on the same fundamental idea: the idea of the classical. Greece, Greek philosophy, is the sphere of the classical.

But the truth is that today we are not ready to be classical. Apart from other reasons-seemingly much deeper-it is because we have neither the disposition nor the time for it. Understand me well. It is one thing-a very significant thing-to occupy oneself with what are called the classics. It is something quite different to take them as classics. The tendency to see in Greece philosophical classicism proceeds from a most serious attitude toward the intellectual past. Because prior to being defined and canonized as a classic, indeed, precisely in order for this to happen, it is necessary to take from a thinker and a world the figure which they present and the form they have created. The idea of the {311} classical nourishes itself on cultural and living forms, and converts them into types. And in the face of a type only two attitudes are possible: admiration or rebellion.

And this is the decisive question, because considered in this way, it is clear that apart from their chronological order and possible mutual dependence, the various philosophies are nothing but so many systems or ways of thinking which the understanding has adopted, once it has thrown itself into the arduous task of philosophizing. From this point of view, the philosophies have a form and, above all, a date; and the internal articulation of both dimensions of the problem can no doubt provoke a great deal of curiosity and stimulate a keen interest. In the case of pre-Socratic [274] philosophy we are dealing with a series of thoughts which sprouted in the minds of several brilliant Hellenes in the brief span of time extending approximately from the end of the seventh century BC to the end of the fifth. Our sources of information are meager. But our curiosity is whetted, to a large degree, by the fact that they constitute man's first sketches in the realm of philosophy.

In spite of everything-and aside from a legitimate archeological curiosity-it cannot be denied that we are dealing with archaic forms of thought. The articulation between pre-Socratic philosophy, considered in its actual form, and its date, permits no other vision of that philosophy than archaic, from arkhe, which in this case means beginning. As archaic it can scarcely interest us today, if what we seek in it is philosophical truth.

But the question immediately becomes more serious if one approaches the matter from another dimension. Let us relinquish the preoccupation with form, i.e. dismiss, at least for the time being, the idea of the classical, and consider in philosophy the effort of philosophizing. Let us take from it not its form and its figure, but its internal effort. Then pre-Socratic philosophy is not simply the first in a chronological series of philosophies, but the first philosophical effort in history. And then this adjective "first" takes on a meaning which differs from the merely chronological. It expresses an articulation, not just external, but also internal, between the {312} pre-Socratic philosophy and its time. This has nothing to do with its being the first datable philosophy, but rather that this is the moment in which philosophical effort came into existence on the Earth. It is the ascension of the human spirit to philosophizing. And with this, the word "first" means not so much beginning as fundamental. If the previous vision of pre-Socratic philosophy was archaic, the second vision is fundamental. In it we are present at the very birth of philosophy in the spirit, and not just at the first form of philosophy.

This is the way in which we should like to approach the Greek world.

Leaving aside explanation of the fact of philosophy's birth, we shall try to become present at its realization. For us, Greece does not represent a museum of classical philosophical types. It represents, first, the concrete way in which man's spirit entered into philosophy. At the moment of their maturity, the Greeks themselves were acutely aware of this stupendous fact. It is true [275] that when in the first book of his Metaphysics Aristotle summarized the various pre-Socratic systems, he did so from a systematic point of view. But on the other hand, given only the fragments themselves, a genetic vision of philosophy emerges. And likewise with Plato: when in the sixth book of the Republic he wishes to explain to his readers the fundamental origin of philosophy, he relates a myth, "the myth of the cave," which in Plato's own words expresses a happening of our physis, of our mode of being, and is not just a chronological relating of events.

In the second place, Greece-as a consequence of the foregoing-also represents the first and most primary conjunction of possibilities which man had at his disposal for philosophizing. We must promptly renounce the idea of the classical in order to bring ourselves close to Greek philosophy so as to see therein the first possibilities of philosophy which man assembled in this his first ascent to philosophizing, the possibilities which have decided the course and destiny of philosophy throughout history, and which constitute, be it known or not, the primary base upon which our own philosophical possibilities rest and are available. It is not that the Greeks are our "classics"; it is, rather that in a certain way we are ourselves the Greeks. {313}

But this requires more explanation, because I do nor refer to something which affects Greek philosophy uniquely, nor even Greece as a whole, but rather our attitude toward the past in general. We are, in a certain respect, all of our past. How? {314}

[276] {315}


What the "past" is, we may say, is something which can only be understood based on a "present." The past, just in virtue of being so, has no other reality than that of its effect on the present. Whence our attitude toward the past depends purely and simply on the reply which is given to the question: How does it affect the present?

According to the variety of replies given to this question, so likewise diverse will be the manner in which the men of today justify their occupation with the past.

As a first consideration, and one which in a certain way is quite natural, the past "already happened," and therefore "no longer is." Human reality, is, according to this conception, its pure present, that which it in fact is and does. And history is just this: a succession of realities which are present. The past has no form of real existence; in place of it we have fragmentary memory of it. This purely mnemonic form of the living on of the past has a great utility. In order to resolve his present problems man is not indifferent to how they were dealt with in previous analogous situations. Whence the pragmatic would then be the true justification of our occupation with the past: historia magistra vitae, the ancients used to say.

But the 18th and above all the 19th century made us see in the past, qua past, something which is in a certain way diametrically opposed to what we have just said. If in the foregoing conception the past vanishes, in this other the past is conserved. In fact, the way in which time gnaws away at things is {316} quite varied, depending on whether one deals with matter or spirit. For matter, time is pure succession, and therefore reality is reduced to its present. If an intelligence could realize the Leibnizian fiction of an infinite analysis of the material reality of today, it would not find therein anything other than a system of masses and forces; nothing which would reveal to it what this material was thousands of years ago. In other words, such an understanding would relate to us the differing condition, distribution, and activity of these various masses and forces. But with respect of the spirit, the situation changes radically. If we feign this same infinite analysis, executed [277] on the spirit of today, we would find ourselves surprised to discover that in what today is, in the present, what the past was is in fact included. Nothing of what once was is completely lost. Time is not pure succession, but an ingredient of the very constitution of the spirit. History is not a simple succession of real states, but a formal part of reality itself. Man not only has had and does have history; man is, in part, his own history. This justifies occupation with the past; occupying oneself with the past is, in such case, occupying oneself with the present. The past does not live on in the present under some form of remembrance, but under the form of reality.

Everything then depends on how one understands this real living on of the past in the present.

The 19th century seized on two ideas: biological evolution and dialectical development.

In the first, whether in its most elemental forms of organic biology, or in the brilliant interpretation of Dilthey's bios, the spirit is shown to us as a living being which continues to grow during the course of time. The past is disclosed in the present under the guise of age. When this concept is elevated to the rank of an historical category, it leads us to the idea of historical ages." In the second of the two notions, the spirit turns in upon itself by means of rational comparisons. The past lives on in the present and functions under the guise of rational instability or uneasiness. On account of being in a certain way internally contradictory, the past is what urges on the present. But in both cases-biological evolution or dialectical truth-(though in different ways) the past is conserved in the present, as each building stone supports the one above it. {317} For underlying what we are today there would be sustaining us what we were yesterday. The outcome of history would be something like an organic stratification of the various layers which are produced during the course of it, in the same way as in the trunk of a tree the layers or rings of its incremental life live on.

This manner of understanding the living-on of the past in the present is more clearly revealed when we try to understand the pre-existence of the present in the past; this is the problem of the future. In both conceptions, the biological and the logical, the present is virtually precontained in the past, and the future in the present, in the same way as the tree is precontained in the seed, or a scientific truth in the premisses of a logical deduction. [278]

It is easy then to understand the image of the course of history which is sketched out for us. Whereas for the old manner of seeing, history is a simple succession of present realities, in this interpretation from the 19th century history is a progressive actualization of what the spirit already was from its inception. For this reason nothing is lost or, if it is lost, such a loss is felt as an amputation or retraction of the human spirit. Employing other terminology, we may say that each one of the multiple facets of the present is found "complicated" with the others; all are found "implicated" in the past, and the course of history is only its temporal "explication." This triple dimension of complication, implication, and explication constitutes at bottom the whole structure of the happening of history for the 19th century.

The partisan of pure succession has, nonetheless, an easy reply: where and how is the past conserved except in memory or the simple fact that the present follows from the past? What can conservation mean as presumed stratification of the past except as a geological metaphor? Today's man no longer believes in the subsoil of the soul, in the divinity of fire, nor is he feudal under the political forms of the modern world. As reality, strictly speaking, the past "isn't" in any way; it only "was."

Independently of its greater or lesser polemical value, this allegation has a singular power, viz. that of revealing to us {318} the hypothesis which identically underlies these conceptions of history which on the surface seem so opposite yet which are manifested in the identical consequence that follows from both of them.

Identical consequence. Whether one understands history as a succession or an actualization, the truth is that in both interpretations there is a strenuous and determined effort to avoid the most radically historical part of history. As a succession, history "isn't". What is, is man today, and history is only what was. As actualization, history is nothing but a revealor of what man already was forever. Ultimately not even Dilthey himself escapes this consequence. "The nature of man, we are told, is always the same; but as for the possibilities of existence contained therein, they are brought to light by history." In both cases, then, history "isn't" or if one wishes, the "is" of man is not affected by history otherwise than extrinsically at the most; history [279] is purely and simply what happens to man, but not something affecting his being. The 19th century did not succeed in perceiving, in the passing itself, one of the radical dimensions of man's being.

And then, suddenly, the generic supposition upon which all these conceptions are nourished appears before our eyes; history must be an articulation and production of realities. Given that supposition, there are two possible cases: either reality passed away an d hence is no longer real, or it is indeed real, and hence did not pass away. Either everything is lost, or everything is conserved. Viewed from another angle, either the future still is not, and hence is not real, or it is indeed real, and hence is already virtually contained in the present.

And so this is the great question: is it true that history in its ultimate root is a production of realities? And this compels us to ask once again: in what does the human present consist?

Let us direct our attention only to history, and deliberately leave aside the question of the being of man. In order to find the thread leading us to a first reply to the question {319} thus posed-which is sufficient for the purposes of this study-let as start from the fact that history is woven by the things and deeds man does or does not do, and the manner in which he does them. What is the internal structure of this doing? That is the problem.

1. In the first place we have in each "doing" that which is done and the act which is executed. From this point of view, the past, present, and future are not three different systems of "doings." Of them, only the so-called "present," in the chronological sense of the word, has reality. And each point of time constitutes a reality, precisely because it incorporates the effects of the previous point; and this reality is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different. Thanks to our system of technology, the legacy of a great physics, today we cross the skies in splendid airplanes, while our grandparents traveled by stagecoach or ox cart. The Athenian of the fifth century BC produced a splendid philosophy, while the Altamiran man carried on a life which was anything but intellectual. History, from this point of view, is a progressive substitution of human deeds one for another. Whence arises the interpretation of history as pure succession.

There is no doubt whatever: things are this way. The error is in believing that this is the whole story. Because the truth is that today too I can travel by stagecoach. Would I therefore be a man of [280] the 18th century? Clearly not. We then understand that the difference does not lie only in what man does, but also in the meaning of what he does not do. Nothing, and certainly not man, can be understood only on the basis of what it is not. In man, this problem acquires a special urgency, as we shall shortly see. Voltaire is a man of the 18th century, not so much because he traveled by coach as because he was unable to fly. On the other hand, the man of the 20th century, though he may travel by coach, and not fly, may nevertheless fly. In both cases he does not fly. But in the second, this "not" refers only to the act of flying; in the first, to the act and to its possibility. Suddenly, the problem of history leads us beyond the simple reality of human acts {320} to their internal possibility. This has been the great merit of the 19th century, viz. history is not restricted to substituting one reality for another, because reality, be it what it may, is always "emerging"; it emerges from a prior capacity. In the happening of history there is not simply the act which happens, but also the capacity through which it is brought about. The problem of history affects, above all, these capacities or powers which man possesses. The present is not simply what man does, but what he can do.

2. Being able to do something is, before all else, having the faculty to realize it. In every faculty there is then a double dimension. On one hand, it is a type of "force" implanted in whomever possesses it and, by virtue thereof, is an element of reality like any other. From this point of view, an acorn is a reality under the same name as an oak. But then I do not consider the acorn as the "germ" of the oak. For this it is necessary to attend to the second dimension of any faculty. In order for something to be a faculty, it is necessary to see in the "force," more than a reality on its own, the other reality to whose production it is destined. In this case what makes a force or power into a faculty is that type of virtual presence of the second reality (oak) in the first (acorn). This is what we express in the preposition "for," when we say every faculty is for something. If to reality, in the first sense, we give the name "act" without further qualification, the power or faculty for realizing it will be "potentiality." Reality, in such case, will not simply be a conjunction of acts or actualities, but of actions or actualizations of the potentiality from which it emerges. In the [281] human present, together with what man does, there are also his potentialities for doing.

From here arises, ultimately, the whole of the 19th century's historical conception. As the human possibilities or virtualities are not always actualized in the same way, we find ourselves faced with the fact that history is not just the conjunction of what man does, but the progressive actualization of his powers. {321} We see, then, that if the faculties pertain to human nature, their acts will belong to the domain of history. And as it is the case that since Aristotle the actuality of a potentiality as such, i.e. the actualization, is movement it follows that the fundamental category which dominates this conception of history is that of movement. The course of history is a "movement" of that reality called "human spirit." Droyssen and Hegel are the exponents of this conception.

There is no doubt that this interpretation of reality, which can be traced back to Aristotle, is more accurate and complete than the previous one. In that first one, reality is the effective actuality; in the second, actualization or actuation. Nevertheless, although much more difficult to perceive, its insufficiency when applied to human history is well known. According to Aristotle's conception, actualization, at the same time it confers actual reality on the act, in a certain way gives its complete or full being to the potentiality. In this way actualization is a revealer of everything, and it only exists virtually in potentiality. Now, if this were true, history would be a simple revealing of human nature; and in such case, in each man, indeed in the first of men, all of the reality of future history would already have been given virtually. The mere fact of arriving at this statement makes us stop and think. Really, was it possible to fly in the 18th century?

Yes and no, we are told. From the moment the man of today first flew there was in his nature the potentiality for flight and, consequently, the man of the 18th century possessed it too, through the mere fact of possessing human nature in its integrity. What happens is-so we are told-that the faculties are not always immediately capacitated for their actions: they are susceptible to perfection and preparation. And without that perfection, the potentiality for flight was not "available," it was not "ready" in the 18th century. In this sense, one could not then fly. Now one can, not because we have potentialities that yesterday were lacking, but because this potentiality today has an aptitude or [282] disposition that yesterday it did not possess. History would be no more than the progress or regression in the disposition of the {322} potentialities of man. History would be a movement of perfection or "defection."

But even so we still cannot rest. Because if one looks closely, the only thing which remains assigned to history in this conception is to be "exerciser" of the potentialities that nature has bestowed upon us. In order to carry out its acts, to be exercised, every potentiality requires circumstantial conditions whose complexity may vary. But all of them affect the way the proper object of each faculty acts on it. Let this formulation suffice for understanding that these concepts, despite being imprescindable, are radically insufficient for interpreting history. Animals too have some potentialities whose exercise depends upon the most varied conditions. Nevertheless, this animal life is not historical. Natural history is not the same as human history. If at the end of its days we could ask an animal to recount its life, it would no doubt respond by pointing out the raison d'etre of its "acts." But if we ask a man the same question, the answer given by the animal would not satisfy us. Independently of the explanation of the exercise of his capabilities or potentialities, he would have to justify the use which he made of them, the life which he led with them. We would not be content with a raison d'etre; we must have a "reason for happening." Man's life is not just a simple exercise or execution of acts, but a use of his potentialities. And we only have what is specifically historical when we explain that this is what, provisionally, we call use of potentialities, as opposed to simple carrying out of actions. Here, "use" does not simply mean "handling," but a worked-out plan. The potentialities of all men are exercised, in each epoch, in a way which is perceptibly the same. But the life which is built up from them, the use which we make of them, is quite variable. And these changes are in fact history. The irreducibility of use to a simple exercise is what makes up the whole of the subtle dimension which leads us to history as such. It is what changes the mere "fact" into "event" or "happening." History is not woven from facts, but from events and happenings. Not having realized this is the cardinal blindness of the philosophy of history in the 19th century. For this reason it was unable to comprehend the specifics of the course of {323} history. The idea of movement is not sufficient. We are not dealing with facts and movements, but events and happenings. This is the [283] central question. It is not as if man in the 18th century did not have potentialities as perfect as today. The matter is much simpler: airplanes had not been invented. For this reason, and for just this reason, he could not fly. This is a triviality, but one pregnant with metaphysical implications, because it means that the very structure of human potentialities is much more complicated than what was described in the foregoing scheme. Besides acts and potentialities, man possesses something which, in a certain way, is prior to the acts and the potentialities; or if one wishes, his acts and potentialities have a more complicated structure than that derived from the simple consideration of their exercise.

3. In order to see this-and so as not to become too involved in the question-let us return to the idea of potentiality and exercise in an animal. In it, objects affect its organs, and these impressions eventually lead to their respective actions. The animal's entire life depends upon the articulation between its impulses and impressions. And this articulation is expressed by the two words stimulus" and "response." For an animal, things are stimuli. And, in turn, his potentialities are immediately and effectively prepared to perceive them. Therefore, the acts of the animal are responses. This is sufficient for us to come to realize that in every potentiality and in the nature of the exercise of its actions there is implied a particular manner of being situated with respect to its proper object. The potentialities of the animal situate it in this intimate relation of immersion in or articulation with things.

Is this the situation with human potentialities? Clearly not. The most elemental of the specifically human acts interposes a "plan" between things and our actions. And this radically alters our situation with respect to that of the animal. The primary situation of man, with respect to things, is just being "faced" with them. Consequently, his acts are not responses, but "plans," i.e. something which man casts onto things. If the situation of the animal is an immersion in things, the situation of man is being at a distance from them. At a distance, but among them, not without them. {324} Man possesses a function thanks to which he remains, on one hand, referred to things, but repels them, carrying with himself something which is not identified with the physical reality of them. And this is thought. In it the situation of distance and contact with things is constituted. Contact: thinking shows "what there is" in things. Distance: it tells us "what they are." The entire ontological function of thought consists in this subtle [284] unfolding of the difference between "what there is" and "what is." Aristotle called this function of thought "potentiality" too; but he also says in the ninth book of his Metaphysics that the logos is a singular potentiality among all others. Here one surmises-as at many other points-the insufficiency of some Greek ideas. Thanks to thinking, man possesses an irreducible ontological condition; he does not form part of nature, but is at a distance from it, both with respect to physical nature and his own psychophysical nature. This ontological condition of his being is what we call freedom. Freedom is the ontological situation of him who exists from "being." This does not mean that all of man's acts are free, but that man is free. And only he who is thus radically free can go on to see himself deprived of freedom, in many-perhaps most-of his acts.

Whence the singular condition in which man finds himself where he must realize his life. He does not respond directly to things except by preserving the distance which separates him from them, going from the "being" to the "things" which are. This reply is no longer a reaction; it is a march, the realization of a plan. In it man decides what must be done and how to do it. The potentialities produce their acts always in the same way, but mediating between the latter and the former is "what one wishes to do." This is what we vaguely refer to as "use of potentialities." While in the case of the animal we were dealing only with the conditions of his exercise, here we deal with something prior and more radical, the meaning of what is going to be done. With it, human acts are, rigorously speaking, "events": realization or failure of plans.

About what does man conceive his plans? Naturally, about things and the capability of his own potentialities. But thanks to the singular distance which intervenes between man {325} and what surrounds him, the articulation between things and potentialities is not that of stimulus and response. Both things and potentialities are means which man has at his disposal; they are neither "given" to him nor "put" before him, as Idealism said, but "offered" for existing.

What is it that we are offered?

In the first place, things. The primary way they are offered to us is not the patency of their "physical entity." What we call things are, above all, "instances" which pose "problems." Naturally, then, they are the problem of life at each "instant"; in turn, they are the problem of what things are in themselves. But [285] things are offered to us also as "means" for resolving those instances. Aristotle himself arrived at the idea of ousia, of substance, starting from the idea of a "means." We see that our plans are based on what things "are"; instances and means constitute, on the other hand, the sphere of "what there is."

Instances and means, on one side, and offering on the other, make up the two dimensions of one single situation. Because things are not given, but "offered," that which in them is offered to us is either the necessity of actuating (instance), or that which permits actuating (means). As means, things and human nature itself are not simple potentialities which enable, but possibilities which permit functioning. We still say, in everyday speech, that a rich man has "many possibilities." Every human potentiality executes its acts relying upon certain possibilities.

Reality, we said, is something emergent. But that from which emerges the reality of human acts is not just the potentialities of human nature, but the possibilities at its disposal. In the idea of dynamis the Greeks confused these two quite different dimensions of the problem, and, at bottom, studied only the first.

But it is necessary to emphasize that these two dimensions are only this: two dimensions of the same reality, and not two distinct realities. The human potentialities have, in their own nature, a structure such that their actuation demands and implies recourse to possibilities. The same reality which is {326} Nature is likewise History. But that through which it is Nature is not the same thing as that through which it is History. Man is beyond nature and history. He is a person who makes his life with his nature, and with his life also makes his history. But if man is beyond history, nature is on this side of history. Between his nature and his personal existence man traces the line of his life and his history.

These possibilities are not constituted in the pure act of thought. Thinking itself does not function save in real contact with things and it adopts the form of a comparison or probing among them. It discovers possibilities, encounters resistances which compel it to modify its ideas about what things are and hence its plans. Dealing with things circumscribes and modifies the realm of possibilities which man discovers in them. This is the objective content of what we call "situation."

So as to avoid confusion, it should be pointed out that these possibilities are not just of human production or creation. Several pages ago I indicated, in fact, that the "means" at man's disposal [286] are not found only in him, but also in things. Things themselves, then, in varying degrees and independently of human vicissitudes, offer some possibilities which can vary from one moment to the next. Matter itself, in virtue of its own physical structure, can offer or take away possibilities from man. For example, good weather is not the same as bad weather for combat activities. But the essential thing is to distinguish, even in this case, two completely different aspects of cosmic reality. On one side, it has diverse states, in accordance with which it does or does not possess a capacity or aptitude for being utilized, and this in varying degrees. This is what since ancient times has been called passive potentiality, in the broadest sense of the word (for the effects of its utilization, the same active potentialities of nature are, in a certain way, passive). But from time immemorial matter may have possessed these potentialities and yet they have not functioned as a "means" for human actuation. For this reason it is necessary that the situation of man permit him to discover in these cosmic possibilities means for his acts. {327} This new formality, the only one which can rigorously be called possibility, that situation of being "at man's disposal" which things offer, is only constituted in the situation of man's existence itself. Therefore the idea of situation is not something which primarily and exclusively affects man in his proper reality, but involves things themselves with which he makes his life. Moreover, man could not even "stumble upon" things and the potentialities except in a concrete situation. The situation is not something added to man and things, but the radical condition of there being things for man, and for them to reveal to man their potentialities and offer their possibilities. Analogous considerations could be made with respect to social reality, even up to the very individual reality of man.

In virtue of this, what man does in a situation is certainly the exercise and actualization of a potentiality; but it is also the use and realization of several possibilities. In the first place, human action is movement; in the second, it is event or happening. Acts are "historical facts" only insofar as they are realizations of possibilities. The course of history is not simple "movement," but "happening." Consequently, historical ratio is not purely raison d'etre, or if one wishes, every integral raison d'etre must involve the idea of a specific ratio for happening.

In order to understand this, let us see the internal connection of the present with the past and the future. [287]

The present is not constituted solely by what man does, nor by the potentialities which he has, but also by the possibilities which he has. From this last dimension the nature of the historical past takes shape. The possibilities, in fact, are always the means which things and human potentialities offer to man. They are constituted, then, as we said, through dealings with things and the exercise of the potentialities. Whence every act, once realized, not only perfects the potentiality, but also modifies its scope of possibilities. The reality of the act disappears, but the situation in which it has left us and the possibility it has bequeathed remain. We can now give a more precise answer to the question {328} concerning the living on of the past. The past does not live on under the guise of an underlying reality. In respect to reality, the past is inexorably lost. But it is not reduced to nothing. The past is "disrealized," and the sediment from this phenomenon is the possibility which is conferred upon us. "Passing" does not mean ceasing to be, but ceasing to be reality, so as to allow the possibilities whose conjunction defines the new real situation to live one. In the 16th century feudalism no longer existed; but the men of that time were different thanks to the possibilities which were bequeathed to them by having been feudal earlier. In the 18th century man indubitably had the naked faculty of fabricating airplanes; but he lacked the possibilities. What we are in our present time is the conjunction of possibilities which we possess on account of what we were yesterday. The past lives on under the guise of making the present possible, under the guise of possibility. The past, then, is conserved and is lost.

But we see then that the great error of the philosophy of history in the 19th century was entirely due to supposing that an historical happening is a production or destruction of realities. To this it is necessary to energetically affirm that what there is in human actions which is not natural but historical is on the contrary the actualization, illumination, or obturation of pure possibilities. If one wishes to speak of historical dialectic, bear in mind that it is a dialectic of possibilities. And this may be seen still more clearly [288] by considering the problem of the future.

What is future being? If I am asked what I am going to do at 7 o'clock this evening, the question makes perfect sense. I am struck certainly by doubt about whether I will be alive at that hour or whether circumstances will permit me to do what I plan. But there is {329} no doubt that I can plan and, consequently, that I can univocally reply to the question. If, on the other hand, I am asked what I am going to do at 7 o'clock on the evening of the 29th of August, 1953, I cannot reply. But my perplexity is much deeper than in theprevious case. It is not a question of being sure that I can do what I want; it is rather that it makes no sense to plan for that date. I can feign a plan; but it will be only a desire or whim. I cannot take the question seriously; it is not a matter of willing. Why? The answer is clear. Doing at any moment requires relying on certain possibilities. So, I now have, more or less, the possibilities on which I am going to act within the next two hours. But I do not have in my hands the possibilities with which I will act eleven years hence. Possibilities, in fact, are continually illuminated or obscured in the real execution of our acts. With the possibilities I now have I will act within two hours; then, as a result of my action, the realm of possibilities at my disposal will be different. I shall have to choose among them, and this choice will likewise determine the realm of possibilities of later hours. As this system of selective actions is not predetermined, neither is that of the possibilities I can act on eleven years hence. In order to be able to talk seriously about the future, it is not enough to call upon everything which still is not, even though there may be physical potentiality for realizing it. That alone is future which still is not, but for whose reality all the necessary possibilities are already given in the present. That which does not now exist, and for which its concrete possibilities do not exist either, is not properly speaking future. The future is something on which, in my own way, I can rely. Rehabilitating an old expression that is a brilliant invention of Suarez, we should not say "future," but "futurable, when referring to that for which we possess the naked potentiality, but whose possibilities are not as yet in existence. At least, this is the sense in which we shall employ Suarez' expression, independently of the meaning which he himself gave to it.

We can now comprehend the ontological novelty which historical happenings represent. Every finite reality is emergent, is the act of some virtualities. If in them we see no more than the [289] potentialities of human nature, history would be {330} nothing but the mere unfolding of what man already was. This in fact was the idea of the 19th century. But in history not only acts are produced, but also-and prior-the possibilities themselves which condition the acts are produced. Whence the great proximity of history to the creative act. History is diametrically opposed to mere unfolding. In the first man all human potentialities were already given, but not all the possibilities of the history of humanity. Therefore the structure of the spirit, as producer of history, is not explication of what was implied, but a "quasi-creation." Creation, because it affects the very root of the reality of its acts, viz. their individual possibilities; but no more than quasi-creation, because, naturally, we are not dealing with a rigorous creation ex nihilo. The 19th century sought out the properly historical part of history, viz. this radical and original production of reality, which antecedently produces the ground of its own possibility. This is what is most properly historical. History is not a simple doing, nor is it a mere "being able to do"; it is, strictly, "doing something which is possible." The explanation of events submerges us in the ontological abyss of a reality, the human one, in fact, which is the source not only of its own acts, but of its own possibilities as well. This is what makes man, in Leibniz' phrase, un petit Dieu. {331}

Returning now to the question which motivated these considerations, we can say that we are our past. But not in the form of a living on of the archaic. This idea of the 19th century [290] always leads to a nostalgia for heroic times and the idea of classicism, to cultures which never grow old, which are perennial and drift outside of time. It cannot be. We are the past, because now we are really no longer the reality which the past was in its time. We are the past, because we are the conjunction of possibilities for being which was conferred upon us when reality passed into non-reality. Therefore, to study the present is to study the past, not because the latter prolongs its existence into the former, but because the present is the conjunction of possibilities to which the past was reduced upon being "dis-realized." Classicism nourishes itself on the idea of the real living-on of the past. For this reason it is always archaizing. This makes no sense. One must see in the past, in a certain way, the opposite, that which no longer is real and, as it ceases to be so, compels us to return to be ourselves, with the possibilities it bequeathed to us. The Greeks are not our classics, I said; rather, we ourselves are the Greeks. That is, Greece constitutes a formal element of the possibilities of what we are today.

What is there in our contemporary philosophical situation which leads us to possibilities of such remote origin? {332}

[290] {333}


For the moment, I said, Greece constitutes our most remote and formal possibility of philosophizing. In what sense?

The reality of the present is not limited to carrying us to a subsequent situation having no more relation with the present than that of cause and effect. Speaking of human reality, the situation, as we saw, is not defined only by the things which surround man, but also by the possibilities at his disposal for dealing with them. In this way, what one instant bequeaths to the next is a unique mode of drawing near to things, born and put into action in the past. With the securities which the past confers upon him, man throws himself into the task of capturing new things. Reality, nevertheless, with its particular resistances, compels man-with greater or lesser intensity-to modify his possibilities, and therewith his ideas about things. But this resistance could not be manifested if in the first place there was no possibility to resist. If the past had not bequeathed to us its insufficient possibilities, there would be no way that things could demonstrate their particularities. Whence it follows that the past not only leaves us a state," but also a "situation"; or if one wishes, a situation is not a state, but something which essentially leads us to pass on from the present to the future. The past, if one wishes to employ a physical metaphor, not only leaves us the outlines of a state, but sketches out for us a route, a way of access to things, a methodos as Parmenides would say. The vision which we have of things at any moment is found to be based, at one and the same time {334} both positively and negatively on the possibility given us by the past. The past, then, is in the present; the past not only produced the present, but furthermore is making us as we presently are. The possibilities we have at our disposal, in respect to what they lack of reality, are pure non-existent past. In regard to their making possible what we are, in a positive sense, they are what there is of the present in us. In this way, the present is also inexorably past.

In this sense, Greece has traced out the path of European philosophy. For this reason we are Greek, and not by virtue of a romantic classicism. In Greece the understanding accomplished the first phase of its full maturity. And everything that has come since [292] is founded, in one or another way, on Greek thought. But because to history the moment at which things take place is not a matter of indifference, the same thing occurring in two different orders of possibilities can mean totally different things. At a certain moment of time, men in Greece and India discovered science. In Greece this yielded fruits and later a series of attempts to create a "theoretic life." The result was our rational knowledge and the very structure of philosophy as science. In India this discovery happened within the constitution of the thesophy of the Vedanta. Science now did not produce the same effects, and India as a whole was never able to ascend to a purely theoretical consideration of things. When Christianity entered the Hellenic world it brought-independently of its specifically religious content-some fundamental ideas; among others, that of a spiritual and transcendent world. The mature understanding did not limit itself to receiving them and believing in them, nor to granting them its full intellectual assent. Precisely on account of the maturity it had acquired in Greece, the understanding could not but indulge in the intellection of the new reality. Its own state of maturity compelled it to do so. This is Greece, trying to understand Christian Revelation, because it is Christian Revelation which is directing itself to mature Greeks. Despite what has all too often been rather superficially affirmed, we are not dealing with an external syncretism, nor a type of symbolic transformation of sentiment into ideas, but the inevitable {335} movement which a mature understanding carries out in order to try to intelligibly assimilate the new reality offered to it. Greece thematically struggles with this reality. This reality thematically struggles with Greece. Whence the first theology is a veritable intellectual monster which sought to understand Christianity utilizing the concepts which had served the Greeks. But Christianity, as we Attic world. And therefore we are witness, in the first centuries, to a reelaboration of the metaphysical ideas received from Greece. It is superfluous to continue relating what happened in the Middle Ages and in modern times. The only thing which is essential for us to emphasize is that Greece finds itself formally inscribed in the philosophical maturity of Europe.

But the importance and scope of pre-Socratic philosophy is much greater still. Every point of the historical trajectory defines in its way the general course of the future. And if we are Greek, we are also medieval or 17th century men. But the pre-Socratics era [293] represents a singular point in this trajectory. It is the origin of the trajectory, the discovery and very constitution of philosophizing. Whereas afterwards men continued philosophizing, in Miletus, Ephesus, Elea, Sicily, and Athens men created philosophizing. We are Greek or medieval because we have in our philosophy Hellenic or medieval ingredients; we are pre-Socratics, not just by virtue of that part of their philosophy which has come down to us, but moreover, and above all, because we are philosophizing. Whence the singular importance of pre-Socratic philosophy in our time. The pre-Socratics sketched the first outlines of the philosophic sphere; they undertook the first voyage in the ocean of philosophy.

So our time is present not only at the unfolding of new philosophical problems, but also at a unique manner in which the very idea of philosophy has been converted into a problem. In a certain respect, our problem is the very problem of philosophizing. Whence the possibilities which today's reality puts into action are just these ultimate and definitive possibilities of philosophizing as such, which the pre-Socratic bequeathed to us. {336}

But we are not dealing with a trivial occurrence. If problems are supposed to have the character of true intellectual questions, they must arise, as if unwillingly, from concrete interaction with things. When we draw close to things with the possibilities which the past bequeathed to us, we collide with reality. There is nothing which is absolutely transparent and docile to the glance and action of the human intellect. And, when he collides with things, man feels, in a certain way, strange and estranged before them; he recoils from them, and in this entrance there stands revealed, before his eyes, the clear outline of the possibilities with which he drew near the world. The resistance which things offer makes possible and indeed compels man to understand himself, to realize "where he is." Thus it is that, upon entering into his presence, things leave man debating with his past. And in this process, according to the nature of the collision, there are varying types of possibilities which for the man who is present are converted into a problem. Not every collision represents a moment of identical gravity. Fresnel undertook the study of optics, of the vibrations of the aether, employing the theory of elasticity. That could not be; and Maxwell abandoned elastic forces and discovered the electromagnetic field. But Lorentz studied the optics of bodies in motion with the electromagnetic aether. Reality resisted him; the encounter is now much more profound; it disrupts the idea of [294] aether, and Einstein saw himself compelled to abandon it.

The 17th century discovered in thought a reality which was difficult to comprehend adequately with just the Greek concepts; even the Middle Ages had sensed, in varying degrees, a similar difficulty. The result was the modification, fortunate or unfortunate-it matters little-of the idea of substance, when dealing with thinking substances. But today we have come upon other realities, among them history. The insufficiency of our concepts is manifested more seriously. The encounter has disrupted the very idea of being, and for this reason, this very reason, the problem of philosophizing has been converted into a problem for us.

For almost two centuries man has been hammering away at this theme. But, in fact, during this time he has thought more about its content than about history itself; he {337} has meditated more about what occurs than about the occuring itself. In the 19th century this new dimension of the problem began to be seen. The first reaction to it was to see in history a passing from non-being to being; and man has tried to resolve the difficulty by seeking a way to avoid this circumvention of non-being.

Something similar happened in pre-Socratic philosophy from Parmenides to Democritus. Nothing was seen in movement except the passage from non-being to being. And to avoid this circumvention, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus turned movement into pure appearance or disappearance of eternal elements. At bottom, this is the negation of movement, or at least, its exclusion from the realm of being properly speaking. Only the elements "are".

But Aristotle had the brilliant idea of making movement a form of being. It seems as though he would have had to then attribute a type of reality to non-being. That was Plato's idea. But no, Aristotle followed a different path. Movement is not the passage from non-being to being, but the passage from one manner of being to another. Heating is not the passage from non-being to heat, but from cold to heat. What up to then had been called reality had to undergo a profound modification: there are realities which are affected formally and positively by a dimension of non-being. This is the idea of dynamis, of potentiality. Movement thus 'definitively entered into ontology, as a form of being.

Now, the parallel between this and what happened in the problem of history is striking. The reduction of historical [295] happening to movement is mutatis mutandis similar to the reduction of movement to a combination of elements in Athenian physics of the 5th century BC. In order to avoid the circumvention of non-being men pretended to reduce history to the actualization of germinal possibilities. This is a great swindling of history: Hegel sought to realize this titanic enterprise. Dilthey had some brilliant intuitions leading to a new vision of the problem, but nothing more than intuitions. One must resolve to introduce the idea of movement into it. Our first impulse would lead us to substantize non-being. {338} But, history would thereby become a romantic non-being. But, history would thereby become a romantic inspiration based on nothing, or rather, a radical inconsistency. But just as Aristotle transcended the pure mobilism of the Sophists, the ontological interpretation of history must avoid falling into radical historicism. Neither is it sufficient to juxtapose-pardon the expression-historical being with natural being, nor even countenance an absorption of the latter by the former. Heidegger's brilliant vision-at least insofar as it comes out in his book-leaves one with serious misgivings on this point.

The idea of being, precisely on account of its somewhat ethereal character, seems to lack presuppositions. Having called attention to them is one of the inalienable merits of Heidigger. But it is necessary to formally emphasize what has occurred in order for man to have reached this idea of being. There is no doubt that matters would have been quite different if philosophizing had arisen somewhere else, in the globe and in a situation different from that of Ionia in the 7th century BC. Let us leave aside the question of whether or not that was possible. The fact of the matter is that it happened in Ionia, and only in Ionia. The lonians did not exactly discover the idea of nature, as is often said; they discovered something which flourishes in the understanding of their successors, the problem of a nature, of a physis. The Ionians-it is difficult to explain on account of various subtleties-have discovered to us that things not only are endowed with heat, moisture, force, etc. but moreover possesses all this, or at least some of it, as "their own", as "constitutively proper to them". This is a new way of drawing near to things which bequeathed to immediate posterity the particular problem which it [296] involved: the possession of something "as its own" is the basic intuition which presents the problem of what something has and transmits "as its own." This is the problem of nature, generation, and physis. To my way of thinking, it is essential to point out that the Ionians did not start from the idea or the problem of physis, but from a new concrete intuition, which much later engendered that problem and that idea. A century later, what things "naturally" possess and present triggers in the mind of the philosopher a new problem. In reality, things do not have nature, but are nature; what we call a thing is, first of all, a {339} singular nature. Being a thing consists precisely of possessing by oneself the conjunction of characteristics which make up the nature of the thing. But, then, possessing has two sources: one, that which stems from the outside, the actions of a thing on others; second, that which originates from within, what makes up the internal scope of the thing itself. If by virtue of the former this possession is called "nature", by the second it receives the name "reality", "being". This is the idea of ousia, of Aristotelian substance, in which Aristotle's idea of being culminates. There is no doubt that in Aristotle, being is not thematically limited to nature. But it is always found to be somewhat molded in the image and likeness of it. Aristotelian substance is the apex of the trajectory of Greek thought. From nature to being: here we have the route followed by Greece.

The encounter with the historical is a disturbance along this path. It is a question neither of curiosity nor of choice. The mere fact of understanding ourselves, of clarifying the difficulties with which we wrestle before history and before other realities (which need not be enumerated) while following this Greek route is already, velis nolis, an intellection of and discussion with pre-Socratic philosophy.

And what the intellection of the past secures for us is not a simple explanation of the present. The retrogression has no legitimate meaning except when it makes possible a more efficacious leap toward the future. Every decision of the present, in fact, elects some possibilities and casts aside others, not on account of any frivolous preterition, but because these other possibilities are not those which must come into play given the reality which spurs us on. Even limiting ourselves to the possibilities which a present allows, many times the present does not actualize more than a fragmentary aspect of them. The past is [297] pregnant with what might have been and wasn't, sometimes on account of elimination, other times a retraction which has left some of its most fertile dimensions unexhausted. Thus, when Christianity set the Greek minds in motion, it did not manage to arouse in them, for the effects of a philosophy of the created world, any other reactions than those which are grouped around the substantial reality discovered by Greece. Here and there suddenly brilliant intuitions came to light with respect to the historicity of the human spirit. But {340} they were left, finally, crushed and buried under the weight of what was handed down. It is not by chance that the supreme ontological error, from the point of view of Christianity, has been Pantheism, a deification of nature. it originated under the pseudomystical guise of the gnosis and Manicheism; and at the other pole of time, in the ontological pantheism of Hegel. In the 19th century, when history disrupted our idea of being, it at the same time posed new problems for us; it made us turn our eyes to the fundamental intuitions contained ab initio in Christianity, but for whose conceptual fecundity the time had not seemed to have arrived. The reaction, within the Christian sphere, was very much like that produced in the early times with regard to nature. There was some essential probing in order to cautiously and slowly approach the new reality, and a fundamental change of direction, very similar to the gnosis, of which we today possess no more than that first initial mythical and pseudo-mystical moment, viz. what was called "modernism," a type of germinal yet enormous gnosticism and pantheism of history, squarely based on the idea of evolution and development.

When we thus take ourselves back to the past we do not lose any of what was. Quite the contrary. It is then when we reconquer it and most truly make it ours. Mostly truly, I say this conscious of its limitations and therefore, with the amplification of our possibilities. We must go from nature and from history to being.

To occupy ourselves with the pre-Socratics is to occupy ourselves with ourselves, with our possibilities of philosophizing, all of which are consistent with and dependent upon the possibility of reaching one idea of being which includes history. Not archeology, and not classicism.

Madrid, 29 August 1942; from Escorial