What does it mean “To Believe”?


20 February 2018 – Video and text of the paper by Professor Marco Vannini, philosopher, at the International Convention Law and Freedom of Belief in Europe, an arduous journey, held in Florence on 18-19 January 2018.

What does it mean “To Believe”?

In this short speech of mine I would like to throw some light on what we can call the dialectics of faith. Dialectics of faith is also the title of one of my books - written several years ago, enlarged and republished recently[1] - in which I discuss the faith in its double aspect, conflicting and at the same time dialectically united, that is that the aspect of belief and that of detachment. It is in particular this second aspect, the detachment, to give its stronger meaning to faith, as it appears in authors like Eckhart, Saint John of the Cross, Hegel, and, in our times, Simone Weil.

That faith is belief it is a commonplace – it is true, but it becomes then false if it is thought that it is only belief. It is then that the common, foolish oppositions between reason and faith, or between science and faith, arise, which as Weil says they are distinctive of those who do not quite know what faith is and also know little about science. In this connection I mention Sabina Moser’s book, The supernatural physics. Simone Weil and the science,[2] useful to become conscious of the ambiguities science’s idolatry it is feeding on.

However that may be, faith is belief, that is it has a content, by the way variable, also inside the religion itself, with the times, places, the degree of culture and even the particular situation of the individual "believers." This personal, given aspect, I would say even fluctuating, of belief, it brings faith closer to devotion, and in this connection I like to repeat once more what a great intellectual of the Middle Ages, William of Ockham, would say, “Christian faith is all of it already contained in the naïve devotion of the little old woman that heats the pews”. Another great intellectual, Hegel, for its part points out how in the devotion (in German Andacht) is already contained the thought (Denken), that is what unites Man to God. It is not by chance that in the Bhagavad-Gita - the masterpiece of the Indian spirituality - the "path of devotion" (bakhhti-marga) it is one of the possible paths to salvation.[3] I say this also to emphasize in advance that in my speech there is absolutely not any form of contempt for the faith, also the naïve faith that we have received from our parents.

Faith, as belief, has an absolutely subjective character, it is always my faith and its "truth" it depends on how the subject relates to the faith content, not in the "what". As Kierkegaard writes in this connection:

“When the question of truth is put forward in an objective manner, reflection is directed objectively to the truth as an object to which the knower is related. The reflection is not on the relationship but on whether he is related to the truth. If that which he is related to is the truth, the subject is in the truth. When the question of truth is put forward in a subjective manner, reflection is directed subjectively to the individual's relationship. If the relation's HOW is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if the WHAT to which he is related is not true”.[4]

The Danish philosopher speaks here as Simone Weil, and the reason is obvious: in both of them the style of thought is the Greek one, a a way to do philosophy whose first and essential requisite is honesty. In this connection I remember the Weil’s excellent essay on The Iliad, or the Poem of Force[5] and, to illustrate her thought I would like to give an example here. I take it from The Histories of Herodotus: it is the story of the battle of Plataea, that I sum up from memory. In the valley the Persian army, which was stronger, gets near the Spartans, that are separated by a hill from the Athenian allies. Then the Spartan king Pausanias sends immediately a messenger to the Athenians so that they rush to their aid, since the Hellas’s freedom is at stake, and meanwhile he gets ready to meet the enemy without abandoning the position that was already taken up. First he offers sacrifices, to see if he is able or no to fight, but the sacrifices were unfavorable. Meanwhile the Persians get nearer and they start to shoot their arrows. Then Pausanias offers other sacrifices, but they are still unfavorable. The Spartans are there, standing fast, ready to fight, waiting the king’s order and the gods’ favor, while the Persians are by now near, their arrows start to hit and the first Spartans to fall. Then the king turned his eyes to the Plataea’s Heraion, that is to the sanctuary of Hera, on the summit of a hill, that dominates the valley, invoking the goddess, and then once more offer sacrifices. This time they are favorable and so the Spartans advance against the enemies putting to rout them even before the arrival of the Athenians[6].

This striking story all by itself it is enough to disprove once and for all the myth of the biblical-Christian religion superiority over that one called derogatorily "pagan". It all depends on that look and in that invocation. The Spartans, according to Plato, are the most religious people of Hellas, because, when they pray, they don't ask anything to the gods except that they grant them what it is best. Against the prayer as a request, that shows that what it is requested it is more important than the God to whom one turns to, Meister Eckhart has scathing words,[7] and Simone Weil writes just that religion consists of a looking:[8] it doesn't consist of the object, but of the way according to which one looks at.

Following the Kierkegaard’s thought that we quoted previously, therefore we can say that the Spartan king was in the truth - paradoxically, then. Hera is indeed a goddess, even if we believe that she has never existed - because faith, as Weil writes, creates the truths to which it adheres. And here, obviously, it is a question of faith as belief.

The Christian world believes this as well. For instance, this is evidenced by the medieval story of the believer that in the Holy Land has purchased what he believes to be a relic of the true Cross, and that instead it is only the piece of a boat. When, in the backward journey, Satan caused a storm against the ship that brings him home, the believer address a prayer to the relic and Satan has to run away, exclaiming angrily, "It is not the tub’s wood / but the faith that dispels me!".

However, as we told at the beginning, faith is not only belief, but likewise detachment. The relationship between the two aspects is dialectical, not oppositive, because it is the intelligence itself to be dialectical. In fact Simone Weil again remarks that:

"Faith is the experience that the intelligence is lighted up by love. Truth as the light coming from good — the good which lies above essences. The organ in us through which we see truth is the intelligence; the organ in us through which we see God is love”[9]

Intelligence and love are the two eyes of the soul, according to an ancient image, that we find in the Greek world and that then it passes to the Christian one. To go on with the speech, we find it again at the end of that Mirror of Simple Souls of Marguerite Porete that Weil read in the last years of her life, when Porete was still not recognized as the true author and therefore the text appeared as the work of "an unknown French mystic".[10] The two eyes of the soul, intelligence and love, operate together, and together they make the look "simple", or detached and so bright, able to become light in the light.[11]

It has to be noticed that both these eyes, together, bring about not a bond, adhesion, but detachment. That love is detachment it is the subject of that book that quite rightly Simone Weil considered was the foundation of the Western mystic theology , that is the Plato’s Convito. It is true that love arise as desire, attachment to that beauty that is the sensible demonstration of the good, that cannot present itself to the senses, and as such a visible trace that God leave to us so that we start to search for him, but, just being a desire, it grows without cease and therefore " I take leave of you for evermore", as just writes Marguerite Porete.[12] As a desire of the good in itself, of the beauty in itself, it is not satisfied with small objects of one's affection, it is not satisfied with the possession of a young girl or a young boy "as a servant", but he makes for "the immense sea of the beautiful",[13] always removing what is not the beauty and the good. Therefore, love, in its stronger and truer meaning is not passion, but, on the contrary, terminus et finis omnis passionis, as Eckhart defines it, that is not a bond but detachment.

In this crucial respect, love is the same as intelligence, since just this does the intelligence: it detaches, that is it recognizes always the finiteness, the limited nature, the not absoluteness, of our contents. Very justly the Sabina Moser’s book, The Simone Weil’s “creed”,[14] quotes in the first page, as if it was a maxim, the Simone’s thought, "It is not the man's turn to look for God and to believe in him; he simply has to refuse to love those things that are not God".[15] In fact the French writer explains elsewhere:

"Faith. To believe that nothing of what we are able to grasp is God. Negative faith. But also, to believe that what we are unable to grasp is more real than what we are able to grasp; that our power to grasp is not the criterion of reality, but on the contrary is deceptive. To believe, finally, that what lies beyond our grasp appears nevertheless – hidden".[16]

Notice here the dialectics of faith, that consists surely of a belief, but a belief that doesn't have a positive content, but, on the contrary, it is made of detachment - hence the expression "negative faith", a little bit like the upanishadic neti, neti ("not this one, not this one").

Nothing of what we are able to grasp: all the supposed knowledges of God are lie; all, without exception, including the theologies. On the other hand, "The Gospel doesn't contain a theology but a view of life" - writes curtly Simone.[17] The supposed knowledges are aimed to hold together a community, and therefore they obey to that principle of obedience to society in which the French writer recognizes, platonically, the "big animal" of Plato, something that is always diabolic, opposite to the evangelical teaching. In a passage of her Notebooks she writes, in this connection, that Christ has promised to be present where two or three are gathered together in his name: two or three, not a crowd.[18]. And elsewhere she writes that thought, in its authenticity, it is distinctive only of the individual, since "a community doesn't think”[19] (incidentally: another typically Kierkegaardian idea), and the definition of community it is not limited to the screaming crowd of the stadiums, but also a party conference, and even an assembly of bishops. Do not be scandalized too much: also Diego Lainez, that succeed to Ignatius of Loyola as general of the Society of Jesus, faced the conciliar fathers reunited in the Trento cathedral saying that he feared always a crowd, even a crowd of bishops.

Therefore Weil is convinced that:

“Faith is an attitude of all the parts of the soul other than the supernatural love with respect to what they are unable to apprehend and in so far as it goes unapprehended by them. If they grasp something, it is a question of something of a different order from faith, and the object does not correspond to the label. Dark night".[20]

Notice the use of that verb, "to grasp", that depict perfectly the action of the egoistic appropriation in which consists of the alleged knowledge, that in reality is an attachment. Only intelligence is able to recognize it:

“Discrimination on the part of the intelligence is essential in order to separate supernatural love from attachment. For we can be attached to something which we name God”[21].

The essential point to be understood is just that when one is attached to something, even if we give him the name of God, there is no doubt: surely it is not God, because the attachment is amor sui, and where there is amor sui there is no love of God.[22] From here it derives the profound thought that Weil notes down in the same pages of the Notebooks that we have quoted above, where they are contained some of her reflections on faith:

“Contact with human creatures is given to us through the sense of presence. Contact with God is given to us through the sense of absence. Compared with this absence, presence becomes more absent than absence”.[23]

God is the "far-near", as Marguerite Porete calls it:[24] always absent, but it is an absence that is more present than the physical presence of the people that are next to us. Dialectics of faith, exactly. Suffice it to underline here that Dark night that concludes the thought on faith quoted above. This expression refers directly to Saint John of the Cross, that in Simone estimation is one of the essential two points of reference of the supernatural knowledge - the other one being Plato. In this connection one need to notice how the French writer thought that philosophy was not a science that grows as time goes by, like chemistry or biology, but a knowledge that somebody has, or somebody has not, in an absolutely identical way, today as yesterday. Only ignorance, the sister of the conceit, can consider philosophy as something that grows as time goes by, in connection with that idea of progress that Simone considers fool and atheist par excellence.

The mystical Castilian Doctor writes:

"Faith not only fails to produce knowledge and science, but also deprives and blinds the soul of any other information and knowledge […] Faith, manifestly, is a dark night for souls, but in this way it gives them light. The more darkness it brings on them, the more light it sheds. […] Faith, a cloud dark in itself, could illumine the night. A dark and obscure cloud to souls - it blinds and deprives them of their natural light - illumines and pours light into the darkness of the soul by means of its own darkness”.[25]

The soul stays devoid of its natural light, that is the intellect, if and when faith, that "proposes an infinite God, being Him infinite", stays "pure and void of all that pertains to sense, and detached and freed from all that can clearly be apprenhended by the understanding".[26]

Since faith "proposes an infinite God", faith removes every finiteness, that is, as we said, it is not belief but detachment, or, better, belief as detachment and detachment as belief. Therefore there is a main road to do philosophy as detachment, as "mystical death", that from the ancient teachers goes to Meister Eckhart and from Plotino goes to Saint John of the Cross, up to Hegel[27]. This road has been fully covered also by Simone Weil and her importance for us it is in the fact that, unlike those teachers that may appear to us in a sense far-off , Simone is a contemporary of ours: she is a woman that faced history and science, she knew quantum physics and the mathematics of our time, as also the Extra-European philosophies and religions, in particular the India’s literatures. Therefore, I want to conclude my short speech just with a text from the beloved Upanishad:

“When one has faith, only then does one reflect. One who does not have faith does not reflect. Only one who has faith reflects”.[28]


[1] Le Lettere Publishing House, Firenze 2011.

[2] San Paolo Publishing House, Cinisello Balsamo 2011.

[3] Cf. Bhagavad-Gita, cap. XII: “The Yoga of Devotion”.

[4] Cf. S. Kierkegaard, Werke, VI, 274 (Jena, 1909 ss.). We draw the quote from K. Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche, Einaudi, Torino 1971, p. 5354.

[5] It can be read in: S. Weil, Athens against Jerusalem, edited by M. Vannini, Lorenzo de’ Medici Press, Firenze 2017, pp. 20-51.

[6] Cf. Herrodotus, The Histories, IX , 61.

[7] Cf. for instance the sermon 65, “God is love” (in: Meister Eckhart, Sermons, edited by M. Vannini, Paoline Pubblishing House, Milano 2002, p. 457), where he who asks to God something different from Him it is called unfair and idolater.

[8] Cf. S. Weil, Waiting for God, Rusconi, Milano 1972, p. 154, and see B. Iacopini, S. Moser, A New Look .The problem of evil in Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil, San Paolo Publishing House, Cinisello Balsamo 2009.

[9] Cf. S. Weil, Notebooks II, edited by G. Gaeta, Adelphi, Milano 1985, p. 168.

[10] Cf. Margherita Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, edited by G. Fozzer, R. Guarnieri, M. Vannini, San Paolo Publishing House, Cinisello Balsamo 1994.

[11] Ibidem, pp. 496 s. and note 401.

[12] Ibidem, for instance p. 162 and note 57.

[13] Cfr. Platone, Convito 210 d.

[14] Le Lettere Publishing House, Firenze 2013.

[15] Cf. S. Weil, Waiting for God, Rusconi, Milano 1984, p. 111.

[16] Cf. Notebooks, II, cit., p. 142.

[17] Cf. S. Weil, Notebooks, IV, edited by G. Gaeta, Adelphi, Milano 1993, p. 185.

[18] Cf. Waiting for God, cited, p. 52.

[19] Cf. S. Weil, Reflections on the causes of freedom and social oppression, edited by G. Gaeta, Adelphi, Milano 1983, p. 94.

[20] Cf. Notebooks II, cited, p. 171.

[21] Ibidem, p. 170.

[22] The limits of this paper don't allow me to treat in full the Weil’s concept of decreation and its profound relation with the spiritual tradition. Therefore I take the liberty to refer to the "Simone Weil’s mystical universalism" essay, contained in my Mystic theology and philosophy (Le Lettere, Florence 2007, pp. 163-179), as well as to the chapter "Simone Weil: presence and absence of God" of my I Pray God to Free me From God. The religion as truth and as lie (Bompiani, Milan 2009, pp. 127-168).

[23] Cf. Notebooks II, cited, p. 168

[24] Loingprés, far-near, in this way God is often called by Marguerite in her The Mirror of Simple Souls. Compare for instance p. 354 in the work quoted.

[25] Ascent of Mount Carmel II, 3, 3-5.

[26] Ibidem, II, 9, 1.

[27] Cf. T. Kobusch, Freiheit und Tod. Die Tradition der ‘mors mystica’ und ihre Vollendung in Hegels Philosophie, in <Theologische Quartalschrift>, 164 (1984), pp. 185-203. My Soul’s death. From the mystic theology to psychology, Le Lettere, Firenze 2004, is dedicated to this issue. In particular, about the relation between John of the Cross and Hegel, compare G. Morel, Le sens de l’existence selon saint Jean de la Croix, 3 voll., Aubier, Paris 1961. This work is used in the chapter “Faith as 'dark night' " of my Dialectics of faith, cited, pp. 47-64..

[28] Cf. Chandogya Upanishad, VII, 19.