I think this is a great quote. It comes from the French philosopher, Andre Glucksmann:
Socrates’s uncertainty revealed a rupture that gave birth to philosophy. The divine word is a mystery; it can mean everything or nothing. Zeus neither speaks nor holds his tongue but makes a sign, as Heraclitus said. Man discovers that he himself is responsible for giving meaning to this sign. The word from above, or from elsewhere, must be deciphered. This is the Greek genius: the separation of heaven and earth.
Am I a postmodernist who revels in relativism? Is that why I like the quote?
In my reading of the quote, I highlight the word responsibility: interpretation and emphasis have moral components. Will you:
- choose to read accurately and critically, with an eye on love, compassion, and the actual truth of matters?
Or will you:
- submit your intellect and will to the gods?
It is the ironic metacognitive gesture that constitutes “the separation of heaven and earth.” Responsibility is yours. Now choose. Will you let the gods tell you what their texts should and ought to mean, and what’s important about them? To echo James Fenton’s poem, “Jerusalem”, are you “a worm, a thing of scorn” who dares not make yourself the measure of any text or experience—especially a holy text or experience?
I am not endorsing a postmodern demand to read texts or experiences any old way, but to take responsibility for interpretation and emphasis. The raw data of texts don’t speak, we speak. Obviously, texts have messages, and their authors have (or had) intentions for them. But there’s no giving away to others your responsibility for interpretation and emphasis.
I suppose what I salivated to in the quote, and that got me to post it in the first place, is the implication it has for hatred. There are people in the world who are all too willing to blame their hateful and murderous behavior on the demand or permission of religious texts. Andre Glucksmann’s quote pushes back against this and puts the blame where it belongs: not just on the authors (who may indeed have had vile intentions for their messages), but on those interpreting and emphasizing their signs.