Under the influence…


For quite some time now, I have been investigating Max Scheler’s influence on Jan Patočka, especially in Patočka’s Heretical Essays in the History of Philosophy. There, Patočka has a peculiar use of the notion of “force” and also develops his famous idea of the “forces of the night” / “forces of the day”. All these ideas develop without a distinct introduction in the 5th essay and then fully gain theoretical momentum in the 6th essay where Patočka gives his rather unique interpretation of the First World War as the decisive event in the history of the 20th century. In short, Patočka’s ideas of force and the forces of the day/night are tightly connected to his understanding of the First World War. However, the question is: who or what inspired this rather unusual interpretation?

One possible source of inspiration could be Max Scheler whom Patočka read extensively around the time he was writing the Heretical Essays. We find direct traces of this engagement with Scheler in the first chapter of Plato and Europe, structural similarities in concepts in the Heretical Essays and countless other references all throughout Éternité et historicité. However, I recently stumbled upon another rather unknown text which Patočka wrote on occasion of the release of the Czech translation of Scheler’s Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos. For this release, Patočka sets out for the rather ambitious task to introduce the Czech audience to Scheler’s thinking in its entirety: “Max Scheler. Versuch einer Gesamtdarstellung”. This text can be found in the big volume Texte, Dokumente, Bibliographie (edited by Ludger Hagedorn and Hans Rainer Sepp) which compiles a lot of interesting materials of Patočka that do not suit for standalone publications.

In the part where Patočka speaks about Scheler’s philosophical engagement in the First World War, it is somewhat surprising to see that he finds appreciating words for Scheler’s infamous war writings. These war writings of Scheler, such as Der Genius des Krieges or Die Ursachen des Deutschenhasses are collected in the Gesammelte Werke, Vol. IV with the title Politisch-pädagogische Schriften. Patočka writes about them the following:

“Zwar kampfeslüstern und zweifellos in die Irre gehend, lassen sie aber doch die Tiefe nicht vermissen und sind voll von Beobachtungen, die auch unter veränderten Vorzeichen Gültigkeit behalten – dazu zählt vor allem das Buch über die Ursachen des Deutschenhasses, das bis heute nichts an Interessantheit verloren hat.” (342-343)

(“Although belligerent and erroneous without doubt, they do not miss depth and are full with observations that remain valid even under different circumstances – this concerns above all the book on the reasons for the hatred on Germans (Die Ursachen des Deutschenhasses) which until today did not lose interestingness.”, transl. by Christian Sternad)

Given this, it is apparent that Scheler figures as one of the rather overlooked sources of inspiration for Patočka. Patočka did not only know Scheler’s thinking very well, he was also familiar with Scheler’s war writings. This is important to mention since Scheler’s Der Genius des Krieges begins with an analysis of the force of war. Here, Scheler fosters the idea that wars are guiding and creative principles of human history, ending with the very provocative claim that peace (and especially Kant’s notion of the eternal peace) is the stagnation of human evolution and development. According to Scheler, human history is a history of wars – they bestow meaning and thereby define the ontological state in which mankind finds itself. This comes very close to what Patočka develops at the end of the 5th essay as a “mythology”, even a “metaphysics of force”, and finally putting all these elements in play in his analysis of the First World War in the 6th essay where the war figures as a “laboratory for releasing reserves of energy accumulated over billions of years”. (124)

In his late seminar Plato and Europe – written around the time of the Heretical Essays –, Patočka explicitly refers to Scheler when he speaks about the current state of mankind. Scheler argues in his speech from 1927 Der Mensch im Weltalter des Ausgleichs that the current state of mankind was induced by the First World War which figures as the first “total experience of mankind”. Interestingly, also this interpretation revolves around the idea of force. In his interpretation, the First World War is the watershed between an old and a new world-era. Whereas in the old world-era, forces went against each other and manifested in chaotic outbursts with all the violence that this entails, the new world-era will be the age of the adjustment of forces leading towards a continuous composition of force. Also here, Scheler’s and Patočka’s interpretations of the First World War seem to be very close as they both interpret the First World War in terms of force.

Putting all of these pieces together, it is likely that Patočka’s peculiar and unexplained use of “force” in his interpretation of the First World War, might indeed go back to or was at least influenced by Scheler’s war writings, especially Scheler’s most famous writing Der Genius des Krieges.

A more lengthy discussion and textual analysis will be performed in my upcoming article, so make sure to take a look at it when it’s finished!

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