Robert Spaemann, who passed away on December 10, 2018, at age 91, was a crucial voice among those contemporary philosophers who acknowledge that human reason can know truth and, moreover, who assert that reason is identical with the ability to know truth.
Born in 1927, Spaemann came from a bohemian milieu: Artist Käthe Kollwitz brought his parents—the young art historian and poet Heinrich Spaemann and the dancer Ruth Krämer—together. After reading Rousseau, his parents became curious about religion, and entered a period of study and reflection that finally led them together into the Catholic Church. In 1936, Spaemann's mother died of tuberculosis and his father was subsequently ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
Spaemann grew up in an atmosphere that rendered impossible any fascination with National Socialism; from the start the Spaemanns’ world was a counter-world. Even today, in certain circles, people are reluctant to accept that this kind of incorruptible counter-current actually existed in Germany—and that it was associated with the Catholic Church. Robert Spaemann is evidence of this, however. His integral, unbroken life during a century marked by brokenness provokes astonishment and even envy.
That he was an “outsider” during the Nazi years did not mean he felt superior to those who were not. He refused to allow any collective force to relieve him of his own moral responsibility. At age seventeen he wanted to know what had happened to the vanished Jews. Refusing to believe stories that said they had simply been sent to work camps, he questioned soldiers on leave from the Eastern Front until he learned the gruesome truth.
Yearning for truth not only entails bidding farewell to seductive falsehood. It also forbids an “ironic attitude to the world,” as Richard Rorty would define it, “putting the ‘world’ in quotation marks.” In the overuse of phrases such as “so to speak” by many so-called educated people, Spaemann saw a vulgarized form of the modern philosopher’s rejection of reality. He also understood “virtual reality” and “simulation”—key concepts of contemporary thought—to be summed up in poet Charles Péguy's simple dictum: Modernism “does not believe what it believes.” For the young Spaemann, it was insufferable to accept the world of “appearance” as the final goal. His whole aim was to penetrate the veil of appearance and reach the objective wall of reality—even if in the end he could not scale it.
He refused to follow Wittgenstein’s advice to “take away the ladder by which one has arrived at knowledge.” Each of the ladder’s steps, he believed, deserves detailed examination, because no one step is completely incorporated into the steps that follow it. “Philosophy is characterized by a movement that is both an advance and a retreat,” he wrote. “Philosophical progress does not take place like progress in the empirical sciences, in linear surges.” Since it does not regard the past as something completely settled but as something inserted into the present and the future, with challenges as yet undiscovered, the pursuit of philosophy is an intense way of life. Every person and every idea Spaemann encountered reinforced in him a feeling of being alive.
Spaemann's writing has an appealing clarity: He never invoked the right to obscurity that so many (particularly German) thinkers have claimed. Nor did he find it necessary to invent his own philosophical jargon or dialect. In this he followed Descartes, of whom, in other matters, he was so critical. He saw the “Fall” of modern European thought as its break with an attitude that had distinguished European philosophy for two thousand years, namely that the fullness of being was to be understood as a great performance to be accepted (in an anthropomorphic vision) as something familiar and yet unique—not to be exploited for its utility. In attempting to achieve a real revision, to change the course of thought after three hundred years, when domination over nature had turned into the danger of nature’s destruction, he was not merely aiming to return to Thomas Aquinas—with whom ancient philosophy had attained a radiant consummation. It was rather with the categories of Kant, Hegel, Karl Marx, and Nietzsche that he attempted to burst open the prison of modern nihilism and relativism. It was Spaemann’s nature to cherish the knowledge of philosophy “not like robbery” (St. Paul) but to allow it to prove its worth in practical life. He drew moral and political consequences from his understanding of truth. For him, philosophy without consequences was a pointless undertaking.
Spaemann was married to Cordelia Steiner, daughter of painter Heinrich Steiner (a pupil of Hans von Marées) and a Jewish mother. This of course meant that Cordelia was under threat during the Nazi period, and the story of her conversion to the Catholic Church is closely connected with her deliverance from danger. She was a woman of letters, a poet and translator of the great hermetic poem Anathemata by David Jones. After her death, Spaemann said that throughout their marriage he had seen the world with four eyes. Cordelia supported him in his decades-long battle for the traditional Catholic liturgy, suppressed after the Second Vatican Council. This battle was not merely a matter of never-ending debate between philosophers: at stake was an experience that both precedes thought and forms its crown. For Spaemann, it was only in the rite—spanning all time—that a person experienced the unity of the human family.
As a three-year-old on his mother’s lap he listened consciously to the Gregorian chant of the Benedictine monks and protested when his parents tried to carry him out of church. And in old age he nodded with smiling approval upon hearing Confucius’s dictum, “The superior man who has thoroughly studied the books of the wise and who then submits his knowledge to the inherited rites, cannot go astray.” Truth—unlocked by the power of thinking—manifests itself and is confirmed in its compelling character by the senses. This was the mental backdrop of the passionate philosopher Robert Spaemann.
Martin Mosebach is the author of The 21. This essay was translated from the German by Graham Harrison.