The devils’ question chapter III: rebellion

Such an unmasking of the taboo of the question, with in itself enough probability to be inspiring for some time, can lead to a persisting of the question and an entering of a road that might be called ‘independent investigation’, which is deemed to lead to a more solid form of maturity than the one that is prospected by following tradition. Instead of a direct growth, there now is a process in which a crisis, a negative phase or a detour is included.

In this investigation the world loses its obviousness for the time being. The devil’s question works like a crowbar. It does that merely by being a question, opposite to an affirmation. It pushes aside the ever-ready ‘because’ and strikes a breach in the massive world. The continuity with tradition, ancestry and community is put on the line. That is a great risk, but it is better that the world perishes than that it continues to exist unexplained. The question is an adventure of which no one knows how it will end. For no outside force can determine the course of one who critically investigates and breaks through the taboo of the question. And even uncertainty and goose chases at ones own risk are preferable above the most safe dependence on authority and tradition.

The ‘I’, bedded in traditions into a tight community and a continuation of generations, comes loose of that pinching connection. It gets more worth and responsibility. If you carry through the why question, you affirm yourself against the tradition and the community. You voluntarily risk isolating yourself in exchange for the chance of becoming more mature and realising more human possibilities in your own existence than your ancestry. Attached to the question why there is the fame and the symbolism of lonely heroism, adventure and rebellion. And it remains stuck to it even when the hero of this story has long since started an existence of civil service, because the revolution has succeeded and has become a bureaucracy.

Rarely has hero-worship been put to words more eloquent and rhetorical than by the young Karl Marx, who in his preface to his dissertation on the natural philosophy of Epicures says that philosophy mirrors itself to the rebellion of Prometheus, who brought fire from the heavens to earth, and resists all gods in heaven and on earth who do not acknowledge human consciousness as the highest deity, next to which no other god should be tolerated. ‘Prometheus is the most important saint and martyr on the philosophical calendar.’ No wonder Marx too ended up on that calendar.

Cornelis Verhoeven


* Translator’s note: on the 19th of october 1956 Cornelis Verhoeven defended his thesis ‘Symbolism of the foot’ successfully, obtaining his doctorate. He celebrated this day every year in a small way. This translation is a continuation of that, but the subject matter and language of the thesis are a bit above the abilities of the translator/son, that’s why this essay, a personal favorite, was picked.


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