In common with Jürgen Habermas, whose work Costantino Esposito studied along with that of Heidegger and Kant, the University of Bari history of philosophy professor is especially interested in the connection between philosophy and the spiritual quest, specifically the place of religion in the public sphere. “The positive aspect of Habermas,” Esposito says, “is his belief that everyone takes part in the public sphere. The part we disagree with in Communion and Liberation,” the Catholic movement founded by Luigi Giussani in 1954, “is the idea that we have to give up ownership of the truth, which is only right if the truth means the creed. But we do not possess the truth, as Pope Benedict XVI said. It is the truth that possesses us. In this sense my feeling is that we can claim and ask others to see and realise the truth in the public sphere, not as an ideology but as experience.”
Unlike the nihilist, who puts on a show of looking for the truth in order to assert the pointlessness of life, the philosopher searches — however indefinitely — in order to find answers: “And so great philosophers always say that our search is not dependent on a goal but on a truthful desire to find answers. If you think about the history of contemporary philosophy, particularly Descartes who is the main signpost for establishing the notion of doubt, it becomes clear that the most important thing we learned is to doubt out of the desire to know and realise the truth. Philosophy to Descartes is thus an erotic drive to speak the truth. This desirable thing is not something that we can obtain or possess but something we must live. So — and this is the simple example I use with my students — let’s say a young man is searching for love but is perpetually dissatisfied with the relationships he has. But when that young man falls truly in love with someone — finds what he’s looking for — does that mean he no longer needs to search for love? On the contrary, it is arguably at this point that the true search begins. And so on.”
When it comes to faith the process, he says, takes the opposite direction. Rather than the subject beginning their own search, it is God who “takes the initiative”, as he puts it: “Though in my case before He gave me faith God gave me doubt, and my feeling is that faith is a kind of talent, but it only arises after God sets it off. And there is no contradiction. Many of my students are secularists or atheists but my issue is not to persuade them of the existence of God, it is to perform my duty as a teacher and awaken them to the questions that may lead to experience of faith.”
Can aesthetics be an antidote to extremism, though? For Esposito, no matter where in the world or in what cultural context it occurs, extremism is a form of ugliness, and since the purpose of beauty is to confront ugliness then it should confront extremism. He says he feels that if someone listened to Mozart while they set out to kill they wouldn’t be able to commit the crime. Though unlike epistemology, the pursuit of beauty is a subjective as opposed to an objective endeavour, Esposito insists it is essential to knowledge too, in the sense that it opens up the horizons of the world and performs the ultimately political function of driving humanity to search for happiness and practise absolute spiritual values like justice and good. Through the criteria of beauty, he says, we can balance out rights and duties.
“It’s true the challenges are huge,” he concurs, “but we don’t know the future, and what we do know is that coexistence does not result from everyone making an effort but only some people, and we have to be among those handful who will help us believe that what connects us as human beings is far greater than any differences between us. That is why it is important to endorse the quest to change the world however idealistic or quaint that idea seems. We should remember that the drive to change the world can always be translated into a political solution through institutions. The more important objective, however, is for it to touch the heart. And I wouldn’t be saying anything new if I pointed out that intellectuals and philosophers are by and large unable to influence politics or change the world, but if you contemplate their failure deeply you might agree with me that it is better that way.
“Why? Because since ancient Greece once philosophers try to rule dictatorship and authoritarianism have resulted, and philosophy itself has turned into an ideology with which to justify the status quo. The power and magic of philosophy resides in the question, it’s the difference between owning the truth and living in search of it. The greatest role of philosophy is to ask about the reason for things, and so it has a critical function, not in the sense of bringing anything down but of building something more important. The revolutionary question in philosophy is the question of what exists in the world. Because what we see most of the time is far from the essence, we look at things and do not see them because our vision is unable to penetrate to the depths. And at a time when nihilism prevails philosophy’s job is more difficult, having to say to people, Look what’s there in the world today.
“A problem like illegal immigration raises questions that are ignored. In Europe we tend to ask ourselves what images of those who drown and those who reach our shores suggest, but do we ask ourselves about our responsibility towards these people and what drove them to such a fate in the first place?”
Can it be said, in this case, that we live in nihilist times? “Nihilism is a slogan that uncovers the crisis of traditional metaphysical principles in the 20th century, and its most important definition you find in Nietzsche’s announcement that God is dead, and Nietzsche was of course talking about a moral God. Some people still believe that nihilism is a form of liberation, arguing that human beings obtained their freedom when they realised their ability to do something without any moral motivation. For me nihilism represents the time during which I live, which impresses me not because I agree with it but because it is what drives me to live and search for the truth. I believe nihilism is a great opportunity because when values are lost this means you can think again about the bases of life.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Seeds of doubt