The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Advice regarding the words faith and reason: use in small doses

What our world urgently requires is that operation which, according to Confucius, ought to precede all others: the rectification of names. As we read in his Analects, once a disciple asked him: 'If one day a king were to give you a territory to rule according to your ideas, what is the first thing you would do' Confucius replied: 'I'd rectify the names.' And then he explained to his student: if names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object, no affair can be effected. Hence all human affairs are disrupted and managing them becomes futile and impossible. So the first task of a true statesman is to rectify names.

If we try to apply these words to our world, we would be seized by a feeling of paralysis. For it would be very hard to find even one of the fundamental words that may be said to be used in a way that does not require rectification. If we take a look around any part of the world, we will come across swarms of people who rally under the banner of the word faith ' and sometimes brandish it menacingly. But, if we think that the word faith ought to have something to do with the divine and the sacred, we are immediately assailed by perplexity on a grand scale. For many of those who flaunt their faith seem to have no precise notion of either the divine or the sacred. And, what's more, if the word faith should to some extent correspond with the densest definition given it up to the present day ' the definition we encounter in Dante's Paradise and the translated passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews: 'Faith is the substance of the things we hope for/ And evidence of those that are not seen' ' it would seem eminently reasonable to doubt whether large numbers of those countless people who profess to be 'faithful' actually follow the lines of that definition. If only because few people seem to share a precise perception of an invisible reality, which is the assumption underpinning Dante's words. What is immediately noticeable is that, in all the four quarters of the globe, the word faith has become the most efficient of social cements, the only one that provides an inexhaustible reserve of certainties, on the basis of which the most diverse actions can be carried out, the most benign but also the deadliest, with no need for any further justifications. And this already makes any action potentially lethal.

The sense of Gemeinschaft, or the 'community', imagined by certain outmoded sociologists such as T'nnies and rendered inapplicable by the development of the technical world, has thus been reactivated and recovered by using the word faith, which at this point no longer has any need to refer to the perception of an invisible reality, but contents itself with the animal warmth given off by the community of the faithful. This leads us to a very bitter realization: that the true ecumenical religion of our time tends to be society itself, the 'great animal' that Plato wrote of ' and that Simone Weil recognized around her in the Europe of the Thirties.

It is no insignificant irony of history that a parallel discourse can be applied to the word reason. In a certain part of the scientific community the word reason continues to be used as a sort of universal remedy. Those who do this are the legitimate heirs of those late-19th-century positivists who maintained that consciousness and mind were epiphenomena to be traced back to the mother of all certainties and of all reason: matter. In the meantime, matter has become the locus of a progressive explosion of paradoxes, at first sight rather unreasonable ones. An explosion that does not seem to be over yet. Consequently, no one more than the physicists who must daily make their way through those paradoxes has become diffident, if not even downright sarcastic, about the word reason.

At this point a wise silence would seem advisable ' or at least a little pharmacological advice regarding the two words faith and reason: use in small doses. If, however, we wished to seek an example in the opposite sense, a case in which the two words faith and reason acted together, it would be advisable to turn back towards a point that is almost three thousand years behind us. I am thinking of a Sanskrit word ' sraddha ' which is frequently found in the Brahmanas, texts on ritual which go back to the Vedic period.

Mauss observed that sraddha corresponds to the Latin credo. Dum'zil suggested translating it as 'quiet confidence'. But what was this Vedic faith' First of all a conviction about ritual acts. Without sraddha, that is to say 'faith' in the efficacy of the act being carried out, the sacrifice is in vain. And, for Vedic thought, if the sacrifice is in vain then all is in vain. Hence sraddha is the confidence, not demonstrable but implicit in every act, that the visible may act upon the invisible and, above all, that the invisible may act upon the visible. The Brahmanas devote the boldest speculations to this word. And they also try to answer an insidious question: in the event of nothing tangible being available, how could the sacrifice be made' The answer comes to us through the sage Yaj'avalkya. Even if the milk and the fire in which to pour it were lacking, then that most elementary of sacrifices, the agnihotra, could nonetheless be celebrated. But how' 'By offering as a libation truth ' satya ' in faith, sraddha', said Yaj'avalkya. Sylvain L'vi translated satya not as 'truth' but as 'exactitude'. This makes us feel how the most tenacious aspiration of reason ' the adaequatio rei et intellectus ' may be conjoined with a ritual act. And the knot tightens in a memorable formula, which we encounter in the Aitareya Brahmana. This is how L'vi translated it: 'Faith and exactitude; this is the most beautiful couple.'

But is there anything in the West that vaguely resembles this formula' Perhaps there is ' and we can find it in Musil's Man Without Qualities, where we read that Ulrich had imagined the establishment of a 'General Secretariat of Exactitude and the Soul'. Even more than the United Nations, it is perhaps this Secretariat that we need. And never as in this moment have we been so far from it.

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