woensdag 22 oktober 2008


To speak about illusions and about unmasking them is one of my favourite things.

The Pope likes to do so as well, and recently he told us that the financial crisis learns us that “money is just an illusion”. With this statement he followed in Plato’s footsteps, who called the world around us just appearence and who found consolation in thinking that ‘somewhere else’ there is a world of ideas which is much more real. If only you know to discern false from real you will be less bothered by the ups and downs of this sublunar world, so he thought.

From that perspective I take part, by my workshops Good Intentions and Illusions, in the unmasking-industry which, already since Plato and early Christianity, opposes the reality of a spiritual world to the appearance of the material world.

But I don’t feel comfortable at all with their standpoints. That’s why I want to make clear what’s the difference between their unmasking and mine.

The first thing I don’t like in their unmasking is that they overreact. It is certainly true that the material world at times fools us and that behind seeming glimmer a rotten reality can hide. But to postulate in reaction a world of ideas that is supposed to be much more stable and reliable, that goes too far. It seems to me to spring from wishful thinking.

That brings me to my second objection: the denial of realitystatus to our material world leads to nothing. We happen to be connected by many threads to our body, our needs and our enjoyments. Disregarding those connections leads to unsavoury masochism or – more usual – to hypocrisy. You are rooted with all your fibres into material reality, but you don’t want to know it.

That’s why Marlies Pernot, the head of the Dutch association of house-owners, is angry with the Pope. It’s easy for him to talk like that, she thinks, with the many millions of Euros of the Church behind him. Completely different from “ordinary consumers for whom the possession of a house or a pension is not in the least illusory”. It also is, so she says, so much derogatory, towards the people who earn their money by working hard.

Following Plato the Church apparently has trouble finding a good relationship with the world. Perhaps she managed to find it at the political level, namely in the distinction between the domain of Caesar and the domain of God. But at the level of money and economy it seems to be much more difficult. Of course at a certain moment money had to circulate, also during the Christian Middle Ages. But those affairs were preferably left to others, for example to Jews. That was very convenient because they were not allowed to have other occupations. And besides, you could reproach them to be so materialistic. Hypocrasy thus accompanied the Christian West as its shadow.

The question which still remains is: wherein lies the difference between my illusionbusiness and the Pope’s? Essentially the difference is that I don’t believe in a sharp line of distinction between appearance and reality. And certainly not that one could link appearance and reality to domains like the worldly or the spiritual atmosphere. Appearance and reality are not to be mapped out in such a dualistical way. They alternate in a way we can hardly systematically catch.

If anything systematic could be discovered in the appearing of illusions, in my view that‘s linked to our thinking. The same faculty of thinking which we take recourse to for clarifying the world, can get entangled in its own categories. Plato’s unmaskingproject may be the best illustration of the way in which thinking creates its own illusions.

Also see Levinas and Egoism and (Un)purity