The Conflict of Modern Culture
Georg Simmel

posted May 23, 2002

Be sure that you understand what Simmel means here by the key term Central Idea and the various specific examples  of it.
Also, do check out the examples of Expressionist art here.
[1] As soon as life progresses beyond the purely biological level to the level of mind, and mind is its turn progresses to the level of culture, an inner conflict appears. The entire evolution of culture consists in the growth, resolution and re-emergence of this conflict. For clearly we speak of culture when the creative dynamism of life produces certain artifacts which provide it with forms of expression and actualization, and which in their turn absorb the constant flow of life, giving it form and content, scope and order: e.g. civil laws and constitutions, works of art, religion, science, technology and innumerable others. But a peculiar quality of these products of the life-process is that from the first moment of their existence they have fixed forms of their own, set apart from the febrile rhythm of life itself, its waxing and waning, its constant renewal, its continual divisions and reunifications. They are vessels both for the creative life, which however immediately departs from them, and for the life which subsequently enters them, but which after a while they can no longer encompass. They have their own logic and laws, their own significance and resilience arising from a certain degree of detachment and impedance vis-à-vis the spiritual dynamism which gave them life. At the moment of their establishment they are, perhaps, well-matched to life, but as life continues its evolution, they tend to become inflexible and remote from life, indeed hostile to it. 

[2] This is ultimately the reason why culture has a history. Life, as it becomes mind, continuously creates such artifacts: self-sufficient and with an inherent claim to permanence, indeed to timelessness. They may be described as the forms which life adopts, the indispensable mode of manifestation as spiritual life. But life itself flows on without pause. With each and every new form of existence which it creates for itself, its perpetual dynamism comes into conflict with the permanence or timeless validity of that form. Sooner or later the forces of life erode every cultural form which they have produced. By the time one form has fully developed, the next is already beginning to take shape beneath it, and is destined to supplant it after a brief or protracted struggle.

[3] The transformation of cultural forms is the subject of history in the widest sense. As an empirical discipline, it is content to identify in each individual case the concrete basis and causes of these external manifestations of change. But the deeper and underlying process is surely a perpetual struggle between life,  with its fundamental restlessness, evolution and mobility, and its own creations, which become inflexible and lag behind its development. Since, however, life can take on external existence only in one form or another, this process can be clearly identified and described in terms of the displacement of one form by another. The never-ending change in the content of culture, and in the long run of whole cultural styles, is the sign, or rather the result, between its eternal evolution and the transformation and the objective validity and self-assertion of those manifestations and forms in which, or by means of which, it exists. It moves between the poles of death and rebirth, rebirth and death.

[4] This nature of the process of cultural history was first observed in respect of economic developments. The economic forces of any age give rise to an appropriate form of production: slavery, the guilds, peasant stature labor, free wage-labor, and all the other forms of any the organization of labor. When they arose, they were all the adequate expression of the capacities and aspirations of the age. But always within their norms and restrictions there arose economic energies whose nature and proportions could not find adequate scope in these forms. They therefore broke free of them, either gradually or in violent upheavals, and the former mode of production was replaced by one more suited to the current energies. But a mode of production has, as a form, no inherent energy to oust a different mode. It is life itself (in this case in its economic aspect) with its impetus and dynamism, its transformation and differentiation, which provides the driving force behind the entire process, but which, being itself formless, can only manifest itself as a phenomenon by being given form. However, it is the essence of form to lay claim, the moment it is established, to a more than momentary validity not governed by the pulse of life. This can be seen even more clearly in intellectual than in economic spheres. That is [225] why there is from the very outset a latent tension between these forms and life, which subsequently erupts in various areas of our lives and activity. This can, in the long run, accumulate as a pervasive cultural malaise in which all form comes to be felt as something forcibly imposed on life, which then tries to break out of any form, not just one specific form or other, and to absorb it into its own spontaneity, to put itself in the place of form, to allow its force and plenitude to gush forth in their primal untrammeled spontaneity, and in no other way, until all cognition, values and structures can only be seen as the direct revelation of life. We are at present experiencing this new phase of the age-old struggle, which is no longer the struggle of a new, life-imbued form against and old, lifeless one, but the struggle against form itself, against the very principle of form. The moralists, the eulogists of the good old days, the stylistic purists have the facts on their side when they complain of the ubiquitous and growing formlessness of modern life. But they tend to overlook the fact that what is happening is not merely something negative, the death of traditional forms, but that an altogether positive vital impulse is sloughing off these forms. But because the magnitude of this process does not as yet permit this impulse to focus on the creation of new forms, it makes, as it were, a virtue of necessity and feels obliged to struggle against form simply because it is form. This is perhaps only possible in an age which feels that all cultural form are like exhausted soil, which has yielded all it can but which is still entirely covered with the products of its earlier fertility. In the eighteenth century, of course, something similar occurred, but first it happened over a much longer period of time, from the English Enlightenment of the seventeenth century to the French Revolution; and secondly, each upheaval was inspired by a very definite new ideal: the emancipation of the individual, the rational conduct of life, the reliable progress of humanity towards happiness and perfection. And from each upheaval there arose, giving men a sense of inner security, the image of new cultural forms which in a way were already prefigured. Hence they did not produce the cultural malaise as we know it, which we of the older generation have seen grow gradually to the point where it is no longer a question of a new cultural form struggling against an old, but of life, in every imaginable sphere, rebelling against the need to contain itself within any fixed form at all.

[5] This situation, which is now clear for all to see, was anticipated in a way some decades ago when the concept of life began to assume a dominant role in philosophy. In order to relate this phenomenon [226] correctly to the general history of ideas, it is necessary to digress a little. In any great cultural era with a definite character of its own, one particular idea can always be discerned which both underlies all intellectual movements and at the same time appears to be their ultimate goal. Whether the age itself is aware of this idea as an abstraction, or whether it is merely the ideal focal-point of such movements, whose import and significance for the age become apparent only to later observers, makes no difference. Every such central idea occurs, of course, in innumerable variants and disguises, and against innumerable opposing factors, but it remains withal the hidden principle of the intellectual era. In every such era it is to be found (and can hence be identified), where the highest life, the absolute, the metaphysical dimension of reality coincides with the supreme value, the absolute demand made of ourselves and of the world. A logical paradox is involved here, of course: what is absolute reality does not need anything to make it real; it cannot, clearly, be said that what most indubitably exists has yet to come into being. But as its highest peaks, philosophy is not inhibited by this conceptual difficulty; indeed, the point where this paradox appears, where the series of that which is and that which ought to be, otherwise alien to each other, meet, is, one may be sure, an authentic central aspect of that particular philosophy of life.

[6] I will only indicate with the utmost brevity the ideas which seem to me to be central in this way to certain broad eras. In the era of Greek classicism, it was the idea of being- being which was unified, substantive and divine, but not of a pantheistic formlessness, yet which rather existed, and could be shaped, in meaningful concrete forms. The Christian Middle Ages replaced this idea with that of God, at once the source and goal of all reality, the unconditional lord of our lives, yet one who demanded free obedience and devotion from those lives. From the Renaissance onwards, this supremacy was gradually accorded to the idea of Nature: it appeared to be the absolute, the sole embodiment of existence and truth, but at the same time also the ideal, that had yet to be endowed with presence and authority - initially in artistic activity, for which, of course, the vital prerequisite, is a priori the unity of the ultimate essence of reality and the highest value. Then the seventeenth century focused its philosophy on the idea of natural laws, which alone it regarded as fundamentally valid, and the century of Rousseau erected upon this foundation an ideal of 'nature' as the absolute value, aspiration and challenge. In addition, at the end of the era, the ego, the spiritual personality, emerges as a central idea: on the one hand, [227] existence in its entirety appears as a creative idea of a conscious ego, while on the other hand personality becomes a goal. The assertion of the pure individual comes to be seen as the absolute moral imperative, indeed the universal metaphysical goal of life. The nineteenth century, with its motley variety of intellectual currents, did not produce any comparable all-embracing guiding concept. If we restrict ourselves to the human sphere, we might here speak of the idea of society, which in the nineteenth century was proclaimed for the first time to be the true reality of our lives, reducing the individual to a point of intersection of various social series, or even a hypothetical entity such as the atom. But on the other hand, man is required to relate his entire life to society; complete social integration is regarded as an absolute obligation subsuming all other obligations, moral or otherwise. Only at the turn of the twentieth century did large groups of European intellectuals appear, as it were, to be reaching out to a new basic idea on which to construct a philosophy of life. The idea of life emerged at the center where reality and values - metaphysical or psychological, moral or artistic - both originate and intersect.

[7] As for which individual phenomena, among those which make up the general tendency of our most recent cultures described above, find in the multi-faceted 'metaphysics of life' the soil to nourish their growth, the vindication of their proclivity, their conflicts and their tragedies - this will be investigated later. But it must be mentioned here how remarkably the emergent philosophical significance of the concept of life is anticipated and confirmed by the fact that the two great adversaries in the modern articulation of values,  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, have precisely this idea in common. Schopenhauer is the first modern philosopher to inquire at the most profound, crucial level, not into any specific contents of life, any conceptions or aspects of existence, but to ask exclusively: what is life, what is its pure significance qua life? The fact that he does not use the term, but speaks only of the will to life, or just of the will, must not be allowed to obscure this fundamental stance. Notwithstanding all his speculative exploration of areas beyond life, the 'will' provides his answer to the question of the meaning of life as such. This answer is that life cannot attain to any meaning and goal beyond itself, because it always follows its own will, albeit in innumerable shapes and forms. Precisely because its metaphysical reality condemns it to remain within its own bounds, any apparent goal can only bring disappointment and an endless series of further illusions to pursue. Nietzsche, on the other hand, started in exactly the same way from the idea that life is entirely self-determining and constitutes the sole substance of all its contents. But he found in life itself the purpose that gives it the meaning which it cannot find outside itself. For the essence of life is intensification, increase, growth of plentitude of power, strength and beauty within itself-in relation not to any definable goal but purely to its own development. By its increase, life itself takes on potentially infinite value. However profoundly and vitally these two opposing responses to life, despair and jubilation, differ - beggaring any attempt to make a rational choice or compromise between them - they have in common the basic question which sets them apart from all earlier philosophers: what does life mean, what is its intrinsic value? For them, questions of knowledge and morality, of the self and reason, art and God, happiness and suffering, can only be asked after they have solved that prime mystery; and the answer to them depends on the solution given. Only the fundamental fact of life itself gives to all other things positive or negative value, meaning and proportion. The idea of life is the point of intersection of the two diametrically opposed ways of thinking, which between them have mapped out the crucial decisions to be taken in modern life.

[8] I shall attempt to illustrate in relation to some of the manifestations of our most recent culture, i.e. that which had evolved up to 1914, how it has diverged from all the former cultural evolution. In the past, old forms have always been destroyed by a former desire for new forms. But today the ultimate impulse for underlying developments in this sphere can be identified as opposition to the principle of form as such, even where consciousness is actually or apparently advancing towards new forms. The fact that at least for several decades we have no longer been living by any sort of shared idea, nor indeed, to a larger extent, by any idea at all, is perhaps - to anticipate a later point - only another manifestation of the negative aspect (as regards its identifiable phenomena) of this intellectual current. The Middle Ages, by contrast had the idea of the Christian Church; Renaissance had the restoration of secular nature as a value which did not need to be legitimized by transcendental forces; the eighteenth-century Enlightenment lived by the idea of universal human happiness through the rule of reason, and the great age of German idealism suffused science with artistic imagination, and inspired to give art a foundation of cosmic breadth by means of scientific knowledge. But today, if one were to ask educated people what idea actually governs their lives, most of them would give a specialized answer relating to [229] their occupation. One would not hear much of any cultural idea governing them as whole men and guiding all their specialized activities. If even within the whole cultural sphere the present peculiar stage of historical evolution is a stage where life aspires to manifest itself in pure immediacy; and, this being possible only in some form or other, if the inadequacy of any such form reveals that this is indeed the truly decisive impulse, then not only is there no raw material, as it were, for an all-embracing cultural idea, but also the spheres whose new form it would encompass are far too diverse, indeed disparate, to permit any such ideal unification.

[9] Turning now to specific phenomena, I propose first to discuss art. Of all the hodgepodge of aspirations covered by the general name of futurism, only the movement described as Expressionism is that the artist's inner impulse is perpetuated in the work, or to be more precise, as the work, exactly as it is experienced. The intention is not to express or contain the impulse in a form imposed upon it by something external, either real or ideal. Thus the impulse is not concerned with the imitation of any entity or event, either in its objective natural form or, as was the ambition of the impressionists, as registered by our momentary sense impressions. For after all, even this impression is not the artist's purely personal creation, coming exclusively from within. It is, rather, something passive and secondary, and the work which reflects it is a kind of blend of artistic individuality and a given alien entity. And just as this non-subjective element is rejected, so likewise is the formal procedure, in the narrower sense, which is only available to the artist from the external source: tradition, technique, a model or an established principle. All these are obstructions to life, whose urge is to pour out spontaneously and creatively. If it were to accommodate itself to such forms it would survive in the work only in a distorted, ossified and spurious guise. I imagine the creative process, in its purest form, of an Expressionist painter (and similarly, though less simple to formulate, in all the other arts) as a process whereby the emotional impulse is spontaneously transferred into the hand holding the brush, just as the gesture expresses an inner feeling or a scream expresses pain. The movements of the hand obediently follow the inner impulse, so that what eventually takes shape on the canvas is the direct precipitate of inner life, unmodified by any external, alien elements. The fact that even Expressionist paintings have names denoting objects, although they bear no resemblance to them, is, of course, rather puzzling, and perhaps superfluous, but it is not as pointless as it is bound to appear in the light of traditional expectations  regarding art. The artist's inner impulse, which simply gushes forth as an Expressionistic work, can, of course, originate in nameless or unidentifiable spiritual sources. But it can clearly also originate in the stimulus of an external object. It used to be thought that the artistically productive result of such stimulus must show a morphological similarity to the object that provided it (the entire Impressionist movement was based on this assumption).

[10] But Expressionism rejects this assumption. It takes seriously the insight that a cause and its effect can have wholly dissimilar external manifestations, that the dynamic relationship between them is purely internal and need not any visual affinity. The sight of a violin or a human face, for example, may trigger off emotions in the painter which, transmuted by his artistic energies, eventually produce an artifact with a completely different appearance. One might say that the Expressionist artist replaces the 'model' by the 'occasion' which awakens an impulse in that life in him which is obedient only unto itself. In abstract terms (but describing a very real act of will), it is the struggle of life to be itself. Its ambition is to express itself purely as itself, and hence it refuses to be contained in any form which is thrust upon it by some other reality which is valid because it is real, or by a law which is valid because it is a law. Conceptually speaking, the artifact eventually produced in this way does, of course, have a form. But as far as the artistic intention is concerned, this is merely an unavoidable extraneous appendage, as it were. It does not, as in all other conceptions of art, have any significance in itself, requiring creative life merely as the basis of its actualization. That is why this art is also indifferent to beauty or ugliness. These are qualities associated with such forms, whereas the significance of life lies beyond beauty and ugliness, for its flux is governed not by any goals, but merely by its own driving force. If the works thus created do not satisfy us, this merely confirms that a new form has not been discovered, and is thus not at issue. Once the product is completed, and the life process that engendered it has departed from it, we see that it lacks that meaning and value of its own which we expect from any objective created thing existing independently of its creator. Life, anxious only to express itself, has, as it were, jealously withheld such meaning from its own product. 

{11} Perhaps this is the basic explanation of the peculiar preference for the [231] late works of the great masters observable in recent times. Here creative life has become so sovereignly itself, so rich in itself, that it sloughs off any form which is at all traditional or common to other works also. Its expression in the work of art is purely and simply its own inmost essence and destiny at that particular time. However coherent and meaningful the work may be in relation to this essence, it often appears, when measured against traditional forms, uneven, fragmentary and disjointed. This is not a senile waning of formal artistry; it reveals not the infirmity but the strength of old age. Having perfected his creative powers, the great artist is so purely himself that his work shows only the form spontaneously generated by the flow of his life: form has lost its autonomy vis-à-vis this life.

[12] It would, in theory, be perfectly possible, of course, for a form with its own intrinsic perfection and significance to be the wholly appropriate expression for such spontaneous life, to fit it like a living skin. This is doubtless the case with the truly great classic works. But, disregarding these works, one can observe here a peculiar structural feature of the spiritual world which far transcends its consequences for art. It is true to say that, in art, whose forms are available in their perfection, something which exists beyond those forms is articulated. In all great artists and all great works of art there is something more profound, more expansive, of more mysterious origin than is offered as art considered purely as artistry, something which is, however, accommodated, presented and made visible by art. In the case of the classics, this something fuses entirely with art. But where it actually conflicts with, or indeed destroys, the forms of art, we feel it, we are conscious of it rather as something separate, something with a voice of its own. An example of this inner fate which Beethoven attempts to articulate in his last works. Here it is not a matter of a particular art form being shattered, but rather of the form of art itself being overwhelmed by something different, vaster, something from another dimension. The same applies to metaphysics. Its aim, after all, is knowledge of truth. But in it something which lies beyond knowledge struggles to be heard, something greater, or more profound, or merely different, which reveals itself unmistakably by doing violence to truth as such, making paradoxical, easily refutable claims. It is a typical intellectual paradox (which, of course, a superficial and complacent optimism tends to deny) that some metaphysical beliefs would not have the truth they do as symbols of life or the expression of a particular typical human stance towards life as a whole if they were true as "knowledge".  Perhaps there [232] is in religion also something that is not religion, something profounder lying beyond it which transcends all its concrete forms, however genuinely religious these are, and reveals itself as heresy and dissent. Some, perhaps all, human creations which spring entirely from the creative power of the soul, contain more than can be accommodated in their form. This property, which distinguishes them from anything produced in a purely mechanical fashion, can only be seen unmistakably when there is a tension between work and its form.

[13] This is the reason, in a general if not so extreme a way, for the interest currently enjoyed by the art of Van Gogh. For here, more than with any other painter, one surely feels that a passionate vitality far transcending the limits of painting, erupting from an altogether unique breadth and profundity, has merely found, in the gift for painting, a way of channeling its surging flux - by chance, so to speak, as if it could equally well have found fulfillment in religious, literary or musical activity. It seems to me that it is more than anything else in this incandescent, palpable spontaneous vitality - which, it is true, only occasionally conflicts with its pictorial form to the extent of destroying the latter - which attracts large numbers of people to Van Gogh in line with the general intellectual tendency under discussion. The existence, on the other hand, in some young people of today of a desire for a wholly abstract art probably arises from the feeling that an insurmountable paradox is created when life acquires - no matter how blithely - a passion for direct, unveiled self-expression. It is precisely the tremendous dynamism of these young people which pushes this tendency to an absolute extreme. It is, incidentally, perfectly understandable that the movement we are describing is, above all, a movement of the young. Revolutionary historical change, external or internal, is generally brought about by the young, and this is particularly true of the current changes with its special nature. Age, with flagging vitality, concentrates more and more on the objective content of life (which in the present context can equally appropriately be described as its form). But youth is primarily concerned with the process of life, it is anxious only to develop to the utmost its powers and its surplus vitality; it is relatively indifferent, and quite often unfaithful, to the particular objects involved. In a cultural climate which enthrones life itself, with its utterances that are well-nigh contemptuous of all form, the significance of youthful life such as is, as it were objectified. 

[14] Finally, we encounter within our sphere of discourse a further fundamental confirmation both in the pursuit of art and also, to a large [233] extent, in other areas. The mania for originality in so many young people of today is often, but by no mean invariably, vanity and sensationalism, both private and public. In the better cases, the passionate desire to articulate an authentic personal sense of life plays an important part, and the conviction that it really is authentic appears to require the exclusion of anything pre-established or traditional - any permanent forms objectified independently of spontaneous creativity. For when personal life is channeled into such forms, it not only forfeits its uniqueness, it also runs the risk of squandering its vitality on something that is no longer alive. The intention in these cases is to preserve not so much the individuality of life as the life of individuality. Originality is only the ratio cognoscenti, so to speak, which guarantees that life is purely itself and that no external, objectified, rigid forms have been absorbed in its flux, or its flux in them. We may have here a more general underlying motive for modern individualism (a point which it can only suggest in passing here).

[15] I shall now try to demonstrate the same basic impulse in one of the most recent movements in philosophy, one which departs most radically from the historically established modes of philosophy. I will refer to it as pragmatism, because the best-known offshoot of the theory, the American version, has acquired this name- a version, incidentally which I consider to be the most narrow and superficial one. Independently of this or any other specific version that has become in the context of our present interests. Of all the individual spheres of culture, none is as independent vis-a-vis life, none as autonomous, as remote from the stress and turbulence, the individual patterns and destinies of life, as knowledge. Not only are the statements that twice two is four, or that matter attracts matter in inverse proportion to the square of distance true, regardless of whether they are known to any living minds or not, or of what changes the human race may undergo during the period in which is directly interwoven with life owes its importance precisely to its complete independence of the fluctuating fortunes of life. Even so called practical knowledge is, of course, simply theoretical knowledge that is put to practical use at some later stage, by which qua knowledge, remains part of an order of things obedient to its own laws, an idea realm of truth.

[16] This independence of truth which has always been accepted in the past is denied the pragmatists both inner and outer life are based at every step - so their argument runs - on particular imagined ideas. These ideas sustain and foster our lives if they are true, or they bring us to ruin if they are false. But our ideas are dependent on our mental make-up, they are by no means a mechanical reflection of the reality with which our practical life is interwoven. It would therefore be the most remarkable coincidence if ideas shaped exclusively by the logic of subjective thinking were to produce desirable and predictable results within reality. On the contrary, it is more likely that of the innumerable ideas which determine our practical life some are regarded as true because they affect that life in a dynamic, positive way, while others which have the opposite effect are dismissed as false. There is therefore no independent, pre existent truth which is merely later incorporated, as it were, into the stream of life in order to guide its course. On the contrary, the opposite is the case: among the vast mass of theoretical elements which are engendered by the stream of life and are subsequently fed back and affect its course, there are some whose affects match our vital desires (by chance, one might say, but without this chance we could not exist). These we call true, epistemologically correct. The truthfulness of our ideas is not a matter of objects per se, nor of any sovereign intellect in us. Life itself, rather creates, sometimes on the basis of crude expedience, sometimes of the most profound spiritual needs, the scale of values within our ideas, the one pole of which we call the complete truth, the other complete error.  I can neither elaborate nor criticize this doctrine here. I am, indeed, not concerned with whether it is correct or not, merely with the fact that it has evolved at that present time, and that it denies the time-honored claim of knowledge to be an autonomous realm governed by independent, ideal laws. It now becomes one element interwoven with and sustained by life, guided by the totality and unity of vital impulses and goals, and legitimized by the fundamental values of life. Life has thus reasserted its sovereignty over a sphere which hitherto appeared to be separate and independent of it. In more profound philosophical terms: the forms of knowledge whose internal consistency and self-sufficient meaning constitute a firm framework or an indestructive backdrop for our entire mental world, are dissolved by and in the ebb and flow of life. They are seen to be molded by its evolving and changing energies and ambitions, not standing firm in their own rightness and timeless validity. Life as the central concept of philosophy finds its purest form where, far transcending the reformulation of the problem of epistemology, it becomes the prime metaphysical fact, the [235] essence of all being, making every existing phenomenon a heart-beat, or a mode of representation, or a stage of development of absolute life. Life ascends as spirit, in the course of the overall evolution of the world of knowledge in terms of an 'intuition' which transcends all logic and all the operations of the intellect and directly apprehends the essential inner truth of things - which means that only life is capable of understanding life. That is why, in this way of thinking, all objective reality (the object of knowledge) had to be transformed into life, so that the epistemological process, conceived entirely as a function of life itself, could be sure of encountering an object essentially similar to itself, which it can thus wholly penetrate. Thus, whereas the original pragmatism dissolved our conception of the world into life only from the point of view of the subject, this has now been performed from the point of view of the object also. Nothing remains of form as a universal principle external to life, as a governing factor of existence with its own import and its own power. Any surviving remnant of form in this conception would exist only by the grace of life itself.

[17] The repudiation of the principle of form culminates not only in pragmatism, but also in all those thinkers imbued with a modern sense of life who reject the coherent systems in which an earlier age, dominated by the classical notion of form, saw its entire philosophical salvation. Such systems attempt to unify all knowledge (at least with regard to its most general concepts) symmetrically, as it were, in a regular, harmonious edifice with dominant and subordinated elements, all based on one fundamental principle. In such a system, the architectural, aesthetic perfection, the achieved harmony and completeness of the edifice is regarded as proof (and this is the crucial point) of its objective correctness, the proof that existence has been truly grasped and comprehended in its entirety. This is the culmination of the principle of form, for it makes intrinsic formal perfection and completeness the ultimate touchstone of truth.

[18] It is against this that life is now on the defensive, for although it is forever creating forms, it is also forever bursting their bounds. These theories specify in tow ways the philosophical significance which they claim for life. On the one hand, mechanism is rejected as a fundamental principle of the universe; it is, perhaps, a technique employed by life, perhaps a symptom of its decadence. On the other hand, the belief in ideas as metaphysically autonomous, as the supreme and absolute guiding principle or substance of all existence is also rejected. Life refuses to be governed by anything subordinate to itself, but it also refuses to be governed at all, even by any ideal realm with a claim to superior authority. If, for all that, no higher life can escape the awareness of some guiding idea, be it a transcendental power, or some ethical or other value-based obligation, if this is so, it now seems to be possible, or to have any prospect of success, only by virtue of the fact that the ideas themselves come from life. It is the nature of life to produce within itself that which guides and redeems it, and that which opposes, conquers and is conquered by it. It sustains and enhances itself by way of its own products. The fact that these products confront it as independent judges is the very foundation of their existence, their modus vivendi. The opposition in which they thus find themselves to the life which is superior to them is the tragic conflict of life as mind. This conflict is now, of course, becoming more perceptible with the growing awareness that it is in fact created by life itself, and is therefore organically and ineluctably bound up with life.

[19] In the most general cultural terms, this entire movement constitutes the repudiation of classicism as the absolute ideal of humanity and its evolution. For classicism is altogether dominated by form: harmonious, fulfilled, serene and self-contained, the confident norm of life and creativity. Here, too, it is certain that nothing positive, clear and satisfactory has, as yet, been found to put in place of the former ideal. This is why one can see that the battle against classicism is not, for the moment, concerned with creating a new cultural form at all. What is happening is simply that life, with its own self-assurance, is endeavoring to emancipate itself altogether from the formal restraint historically embodied in classicism.

Erotic Life
[20] A very brief look may be taken at the same basic trend underlying a specific phenomenon from the sphere of ethics. The term 'the new ethics' has been adopted for a critique of existing sexual relationships being propagated by a small number of people, but whose aspirations are widely shared. The critique is directed chiefly against two elements of the existing order of things: marriage and prostitution. The theme of the critique is, fundamentally, that erotic life is striving to assert its own authentic, inmost energy and natural proclivity against the forms in which our culture has in general imprisoned it, robbed it of it vitality and caused it to violate its own nature. Marriage is contracted in innumerable cases for other than actual erotic reasons, and thus, in innumerable cases, the vital erotic impulse either stagnates or perishes when its individuality comes up against inflexible traditions and legal [237] cruelty. Prostitution, which has almost become a legalized institution, forces young people's love life to take on a debased form, a caricature which transgresses against its inmost nature. These are the forms against which authentic spontaneous life is in revolt. Under different cultural conditions, they would perhaps not be quite so inadequate, but at the present time they are being challenged by the forces which spring from the other areas of our culture the almost complete lack hitherto of any positive new forms as a concomitant of the basic (and entirely positive) desire to destroy existing forms. No proposal put forward by these reformers regarded at all generally as an adequate substitute for the forms which they condemn. The typical process of cultural change - struggle against an old form by a new form in a successful bid to replace it - has conspicuously failed to occur. The energy which should by rights occupy the new form is, for the time being, aimed directly, as it were naked, against those forms from which authentic erotic life has departed. Thus, in perpetrating the paradox which has by now been repeatedly stressed, it finds itself in a vacuum, for the moment erotic life enters any sort of cultural context, it simply must adopt a form of some kind. For all that, as in the areas discussed earlier, it is only the superficial observer who sees here merely licentiousness and anarchic lust. In this sphere, formlessness in itself does indeed appear in such a light; but at a deeper level (wherever this exists) matters are different. Authentic erotic life flows along wholly individual channels, and the above forms arouse hostility because they trap this life in institutionalized patterns and thus do violence to its special individuality. Here, as in many of the other cases, it is the struggle between life and form which, in a less abstract, metaphysical way, is being fought out as struggle between individuality and standardization.

[21] A tendency in current religious life must, it seems to me, be interpreted similarly. I refer here to the fact, which has been observable for the past ten or twenty years, that quite a number of intellectually progressive people find satisfaction for their religious needs in mysticism. It can be reasonably assumed, by and large, that they as grew up within the intellectual orbit of one of the existing churches. Their turn to mysticism very clearly reveals two motives. First, the forms which channel religious life by means of a series of specific, objective images no longer do justice to that life. Secondly, religious longings are not thereby killed, they merely seek other paths and goals. The decisive factor in the turn towards mysticism seems to be more than [238] anything else its freedom from the clear contours and boundaries of religious forms. Here there is a divinity which transcends any personal (and hence, in people's minds, ultimately specific) form. Here there is an indefinite expansiveness of religious emotion, free from all dogmatic restrictions, given profundity in formless infinity, and evolving solely from the yearning of the soul, transmuted into energy. Mysticism appears to be the last resort of religious individuals who cannot as yet dissociate themselves from all transcendental forms, but only (for the time being, as it were) from any fixed, specific form.

[22] But the most profound impulse (no matter if it be self-contradictory and its goal eternally remote) is to my mind the impulse to replace the structures of faith by a religious life that is purely a functional quality of inner life: the spiritual state which once gave rise, and still does give rise, to such structures of faith. In the past, the evolution of religious culture has followed the course demonstrated throughout these pages: a particular form of religious life, initially wholly appropriate to the nature and energies of that life, gradually becomes externalized, constricted and inflexible. It is then ousted by a new form, which once again accommodates the spontaneous dynamism of the religious impulse in its current manifestation. What takes the place of the obsolete form is thus still a religious form, with various articles of faith. Today, however, the other-worldly objects of religious faith are being radically rejected, at least by very many people. But this does not mean that these people no longer have any religious needs. In the past, these basic needs revealed themselves in the creations of appropriate new dogmas. But today the whole situation of a believing subject confronted by something that is believed in is no longer felt to be a proper expression of the religious life. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this whole spiritual evolution would make religion into a kind of direct mode of living, not a single melody, so to speak, within the symphony of life, but the key of the entire symphony. Life, in all its secular aspects, action and fate, thought and feeling, would be permeated in its entirety by that unique inner blend of humility and exaltation, tension and peace, vulnerability and consecration, which we can describe in no other way than as religious. Life thus lived itself produce the sense of absolute value which, in the past, appeared to be derived from the specific forms of religious life, the particular articles of faith in which it had crystallized. A pre-echo of this, albeit transposed into the last surviving form of mysticism, can be heard in the writings of Angelus Silesius, where he rejects any restriction of religious values to [239] specific forms and locates them in life itself as it is lived: 'The saint, when he drinks, pleases God as much as when he prays and sings.' It is not a question of so-called secular religion.

[23] This, too, is still associated with a specific content, which is simply empirical rather than transcendental. It, too, channels religious life into certain forms of beauty and grandeur, sublimity and lyric emotion. It is, in essence, an obscure hybrid form, animated by the disguised surviving remnants of transcendental religiosity. What we are speaking of is religiosity as an all-embracing, spontaneous process of life. It is a state of being, not of having, a piety which is called faith when it has an object, but which now lies in the way life itself is lived. Needs are no longer satisfied by anything external. (The Expressionist painter likewise does not satisfy his artistic needs by faithful adherence to an external object.) What is sought is a continuity at that profound level where life has not yet split into needs and satisfactions and thus requires no object which would impose a specific form upon it. Life seeks religious expression of a direct kind, not using language with a given vocabulary and fixed syntax. One might say (and it only appears to be a paradox) that the soul desires to preserve the quality of faith even though it no longer accepts any specific predetermined articles of faith.

[24] This desire of religious souls is often perceptible in tentative beginnings, bizarre confusion, and critique that is wholly negative because its proponents do not understand their own sentiments. It faces, of course, the most intractable difficulty in the fact that spiritual life can, from the outset, only become articulate in forms. Its freedom likewise can only be actualized in forms, even though they also immediately restrict that freedom. Certainly piety or faith is a spiritual state entailed by the very existence of the soul; it would give life a particular coloring even if it never had any religious object - just as people of an erotic temperament would perforce retain and fulfil that temperament even if they never met anybody worthy of their love. Nevertheless, I doubt whether a fundamental religious need does not inevitably require an object. A purely functional quality, a formless dynamism which does no more than give a color, a spiritual quality to the universal ebb and flow of life, appears to be the essence of much contemporary religious feeling. But I doubt whether this is not merely an interlude of an ideal nature which can never become reality, the symptom of a situation where existing religious forms are being repudiated by the inner religious life, which is, however, unable to replace them with new ones; and where, as elsewhere, the notion then [240] arises that this life can entirely dispense with forms that have their own objective significance and legitimate claims, and be content to give free rein to its eruptive inner force. One of the most profound spiritual dilemmas of innumerable modern men is that although it is impossible to preserve the traditional church religions any longer, the religious impulse still exists. No amount of 'enlightenment' can destroy it, for it can only rob religion of its outer garment, not of its life. The intensification of religious life to the point of complete self-sufficiency, the transformation, as it wee, of 'faith' from a transitive into an intransitive concept, is a tempting way out of the dilemma, but one which is in the long run perhaps involves no small degree of self-contradiction.

[25] Thus all these phenomena (and a number of others besides) reveal the conflict which arises from the inescapable essence of all cultural life in the widest sense of the word, whether creative or responsive to what has already been created. Such life must either produce forms, or proceed within given forms. What we are is, it is true, spontaneous life, with its equally spontaneous, unanalyzable sense of being, vitality and purposiveness, but what we have is only its particular form at any one time, which, as I have stressed above, proves from the moment of its creation to be part of a quite different order of things. Endowed with the legitimacy and stature of its own provenance, it asserts and demands an existence beyond spontaneous life. This, however, goes against the essence of life itself, its surging dynamism, its temporal fortunes, the inexorable differentiation of all its elements. Life is ineluctably condemned to become reality only in the guise of its opposite, i.e. as form. This paradox becomes more acute, more apparently insoluble, to the degree that the inner being which we can only call life1tout court asserts its formless vitality, which at the same time inflexible, independent forms claim timeless legitimacy and invite us to accept them as the true meaning and value of our lives - i.e. the paradox is intensified, perhaps, to the degree to which culture progresses.

[26] Thus life here aspires to the unattainable: to determine and manifest itself beyond all forms, in its naked immediacy. But knowledge, volition and creation, though wholly governed by life, can only replace one form by another; they can never replace form itself by the life that lies beyond form. All the onslaughts on the forms of our culture, passionate and iconoclastic or slow and cumulative, which either overtly or covertly oppose them with the power of life purely qua life because it is life, are revelations of the most profound internal paradox [241] of the spirit wherever it evolves as culture, that is to say, takes on forms. Indeed it seems to me that of all the periods of history in which this chronic conflict has become acute and affected the entirety of life, no period has revealed as clearly as our own that this is its fundamental dilemma.

[27] It is, however, pure philistinism to assume that all conflicts and problems are meant to be solved. Both have other functions in the history and make-up of life which they fulfil independently of any solution. Hence they are by no means pointless, even if the future resolves them not by solving them but merely by replacing their forms and contents with others. For, of course, all these problematic phenomena which we have discussed make us aware that the present state of affairs is far too paradoxical to be permanent. The dimensions of the problem clearly indicate some more fundamental change than the mere reshaping of an existing form into a new one. For, in such cases, the link between the past and the future hardly ever seems so completely shattered as at present, apparently leaving only intrinsically formless life to bridge the gap. But it is equally certain that the movement is towards the typical evolution of culture, the creation of new forms appropriate to present energies. This will only replace one problem, one conflict by another; though it may perhaps take longer to become conscious of it, open battle may be postponed for a longer period. But this is the true destiny of life, for life is the struggle in the absolute sense that overrides the relative distinction between struggle and peace, while absolute peace, which perhaps also overrides this distinction, remains a divine mystery.

1. Life is the opposite of form, but obviously an entity can be conceptually described only if it has a form of some sort. Hence the term 'life,' in the very fundamental sense meant here, is inevitably somewhat vague and logically imprecise. Life precedes or transcends all forms, and to succeed in giving a conceptual definition of it would be to deny its essence. Life can become conscious of itself only directly, by virtue of its own dynamism, not via the stratum of mediating concepts, which coincides with the realm of forms. Thus the nature of the case restricts our ability to describe it, but this does not make the fundamental philosophical antagonism any less evident.

pgs. 223-24 [Brant] ; pgs. 225-26 [Meghan]; pgs 227-228 [David]; pg. 229-230 [John]; pgs. 231-232 [Jeremy]; pgs. 233-234 [Julie]; pgs. 235-6 [Themi]; pp. 237-8 [Emily]; pgs. 239-41[dw]   -     joe , barbara and flynn cursory proofreaders