The ability to speak both lucidly and interestingly to a non-professional audience on a theme that concerns abstract concepts is a rare gift. C. S. Lewis is an outstanding example of a man who had this ability and used it to good effect. This facility of communication is apparent also in the writing of Paul Roubiczek. Mr. Roubiczek is a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and his most recent book, entitled Existentialism: For and Against, is an admirable example of the art of instruction in what is to so many a difficult and abstruse subject. The book is based on a number of university extension lectures that were attended by persons with widely varying backgrounds.

The existential philosophy has assumed a variety of forms, but in general it represents a desperate attempt to assert the dignity of man in the face of the sense of futility and hopelessness that gripped the inter-war and post-war generations. In what Roubiczek calls its “absolute” form, existentialism has denied the existence of universal standards and values, affirming that the only reality is that which belongs to my own individual existence. This means that the only absolute is that all is relative; in other words, man is engulfed in meaninglessness. “Obviously,” observes Roubiczek, “man loses his foothold in reality once he loses his belief in values, once he cannot trust anything higher than man, once there is no transcendental basis for his spiritual experiences.”

The phenomenal advance of both relativism and materialism in our day can be attributed to the general acceptance of the theory of evolution as the basis for the explanation of all things. Roubiczek emphasizes that it is only a theory, but that, nonetheless, it has been made the basis of a complete philosophy. The consequence is that “for the first time in human history, mind and reason are no longer seen as some mysterious higher power, as part of a supernatural, divine sphere breaking in upon human existence, but as the product of lower, biological factors, and nothing has done more to fortify materialism.” Indeed, “the lowering of the status of reason has lowered the status of man and undermined the foundations of his dignity.” It is of course plain that “if man is to be entirely understood as the product of biological evolution, everything he does has to be explained as an effect of his physiological make-up; moral standards and values must be shown to be relative, because they are dependent on these conditions.”

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Psychology, to which so many have turned today as a substitute-gospel, cannot help, because, by explaining value-judgments, ethics, and even faith as the effects of inner complexes, social pressures, and hereditary factors, it too makes everything relative. In fact, far from liberating man, it places him under a tyranny of determinism that robs him of his true personal freedom. No more can reliance on history deliver man. “We never discover basic truth. All values and all beliefs, right and wrong, religion, Christianity, simply become historical phenomena; history as such cannot tell us anything about their validity.”

Existentialism is a reaction against facile philosophies of inevitable progress and quasi-omniscient scientific techniques—and also against optimistic proclamations of the deification of man. Brutally and brilliantly it was shown by Nietzsche (the thrust of whose thought is penetratingly, if unfashionably, expounded by Roubiczek) that “man as god still cannot explain his origin, nor understand his destiny, nor master the universe. Instead, he is plunged into despair.” The existentialist thinker has sought refuge in subjectivism; he has tried to limit his world to himself, to the essence of his own existence. But subjectivism is synonymous with relativism; for the rejection of objective reality is at the same time the rejection of absolute values. The fact of the moral consciousness alone is incompatible with the pretensions of the mere subjectivist. The fallacies inherent in the arguments whereby psychologists, historicists, philosophical skeptics, and existentialists think to explain away the authenticity of morality are incisively exposed by Roubiczek. “When man,” he concludes, “observing himself, discovers the presence of a moral order within his very being, he also becomes aware, whether he likes it or not, of a connexion with an objective order.” In any case, “the fact that morality raises so many problems arises precisely because it is absolute; otherwise there would be no need to pay so much attention to it.”

The existentialist, insulating himself as the only focus of reality, ruthlessly analyzes and accepts the absurdity and hopelessness of life. He sees himself surrounded by an abyss of nothingness. He looks the ultimate negation of death full in the face. He proudly seeks to assert his self-sufficiency, however, by passionately choosing that over which he has no choice: the hopelessness of his life, which he did not originate, and the annihilation of his death, which he cannot avoid. But this too is attended by nemesis, for the denial of objectivity is the destruction of true subjectivity. The choosing of the inevitable has not even the dignity of Attic tragedy; it is sheer futility—the disintegration of man.

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This, then, is the type of “absolute existentialism” which Roubiczek declares himself against. There is, however, another kind of existentialism which he is for, namely, the philosophy of personal relationships expounded by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber, particularly in his small book significantly entitled I and Thou, Far from being able to understand myself in the isolation of pure subjectivity, I can understand myself only, Buber insists, in my relation to others—and not to others as things (the I-It relation, which involves only superficial knowledge of an impersonal nature) but to others as persons (the I-Thou relation, which involves knowledge in depth and fellow-feeling and love). Were it not for the I-Thou relation, not merely between ourselves and others but supremely between ourselves and God, we should have no knowledge of ourselves and no content to our existence.

The finitude (even leaving out of account the fallenness) of man is enveloped by the mysterious, the impenetrable, the infinite—the transcendental world that is beyond his understanding. Roubiczek makes a plea, finally, that this “irrational” aspect of existence should be equated, not (as the atheistic existentialist equates it) with “senselessness,” but with what is “supra-rational”—“something transcending reason which can yet be seen as meaningful.” This is the reality that lies behind the paradoxes of biblical doctrine, such as judgment and grace, and predestination and free will.

One cannot help wishing, however, that Mr. Roubiczek would reveal his own position more frankly. It is plain that he writes as a Christian; but there are indications of pragmatic and Pelagian tendencies that would involve his outlook in a measure of religious relativism. Is his impressive diagnosis of the illness of contemporary philosophy matched by the only adequate cure in all its absolute uniqueness?

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