How do we come to know reality fully, “in three planes,” as Carl Schmitt would say?
Schmitt offers an answer in the conclusion of his essay “And/Or” which we referred to in our last post. He does not speak of enlightenment and wonder, or the contemplation of artistic beauty, as one might expect from an artist. Rather, the path seems to be in the opposite direction, what Schmitt calls “catastrophe.” “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued to the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.”
It is this “catastrophe” which leads to that docility before reality which is necessary to wisdom, indeed to an authentically human life: “For, only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.” In the final analysis a full grasp of reality does come through those experiences we mentioned but through humility. It is humility that makes possible true enlightenment, real wonder, and an authentic appreciation of beauty.
This insight reveals the deepest reason for Schmitt’s insistence that the artist, and anyone else searching for a truly human life, must resist mightily the trap of money, comfort, “security”—being “immersed in means.” All these “means” insulate the person from real life, from reality, from wisdom. Humiliation and poverty are not ends in themselves, but precisely those genuine means which are needed to “go forward to [innocence] through wisdom.”
Schmitt knew of what he spoke. His long struggle as an artist, his poverty and all the humiliations that go with it, and his years of chronic illness, far from embittering him, shaped his conviction that only humility before reality could lead to wisdom. As he sums up in another passage: “Wisdom is the full exercise of the free-will . . . . the battle of the will against pride.”
For the artist, this battle takes on a special character, what Schmitt called “criticism.” We’ll take this up in our next post.
The complete text of the essay “And/Or” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.