Leszek Kolakowski published an essay in 1959 entitled “The priest and the jester.” In the article, he claims that the question of “whether eschatology is possible” is a crucial one. “Eschatology” is usually regarded as a subject in theology, where it is the study of the goals and ends of human history, or the goals and ends of individual human beings, particularly in light of truths about the divine. (Though this did not stop my mischievous preacher uncle from claiming he was an “eschatologist” in order to get hospital access to his parishioners.) Kolakowski does intend this theological meaning, but he also has a broader idea in mind. As he sees it, we have two philosophical approaches open to us — yes, you guessed it, that of the priest and that of the jester.
The answer [to the question of whether eschatology is possible] determines how we approach the facts and events of our everyday lives: as the absolute and final reality, to be taken at its direct, empirical value, or as sections of a broader path at the end of which lies peace and consolation: pennies in a piggy-bank, saved up toward our (or mankind’s) eternal retirement. In the latter case we run the risk of dismissing present facts and present values as insignificant; in the former, of dismissing those that go beyond the present and require, for their fulfillment, a certain amount of effort and preparation on our part.
The choice is a common and familiar one, almost banal: either (at one extreme) we fritter away our lives by disregarding present values in favor of some imagined ultimate values (which may turn out to be illusory); or (at the other) we impoverish them by shutting our eyes to the possibility of greater values, refusing to recognize facts that go beyond the present and demand a transcendental interpretation – one that endows them with meaning by virtue of their relation to something greater that lies beyond them.
As for the “transcendental values” here, one might think of values advocated by many a secularist: the value of sustaining the environment, of advancing social justice, of building futures for our children, etc. One can tell a secular backstory here – why evolution has made us so that we can’t help but feel obligations here or there – but the “frontstory” is lacking: why should we continue to respect those urgings, once we know their arbitrary and valueless origins? How do we respect our oughts when we see they’re made out of complex isses? Thus the question of the possibility of eschatology is indeed important even outside the domain of theology.
The question is ongoing and dynamic, lived out in real time in individual lives and in human history, and is enlivened by two opposing, forceful personalities:
The priest is the guardian of the absolute; he sustains the cult of truths accepted by tradition as ultimate and unquestionable. The jester is the impertinent upstart who questions everything we accept as self-evident. If he belonged to good society, he could at best be merely a purveyor of dinner-party scandal. In order to point out the unobviousness of its obviousnesses and the nonultimacy of its ultimacies, he must be outside it, observing it from a distance; but if he is to be impertinent to it, and find out what it holds sacred, he must also frequent it.
Kolakowski outs himself as a jester (though every thinker must be both priest and jester, in varying strengths, on varying days, I think), and he says he is a jester because it allows for the possibility of turning off the philosophical engine, and expressing values that he thinks may not necessarily hold up under intellectual scrutiny.
To adopt this attitude is to adopt a view of the world which holds out a hopeful but difficult prospect: that of a gradual and laborious process of working out, in our interactions, how to reconcile those elements of human thought and behavior which are hardest to reconcile: how to achieve goodness without universal indulgence, courage without fanaticism, intelligence without disenchantment and hope without blindness. All other fruits of philosophical thinking are of little worth.