Respondeo, etsi mutabor

While we are on the subject of “dialogics” (and while it is still fresh on my mind this morning) I might offer a word or two (or many more) about Rosenstock-Huessy’s own formula he proposed to supplant the Cartesian one and the Scholastic formula, and what is really accomplished for the life of the mind and society by that move.

That formula runs “respondeo, etsi mutabor” (or, equivalently, “audi, ne moriamur“) . These translate as “I respond, although I will be changed” (or, conversely, “listen, lest we die”).

You are all familiar with the famous Cartesian formula, cogito ergo sum — “I think, therefore I am”. You may also be familiar with the Scholastic (ecclesiastical) formula for thinking, credo, ut intelligam. The latter translates as “I believe” or “I have faith, that I might understand”. The single requirement of the Scholastic formula was belief in the resurrection, even though it was absurd. This is what required the “credo” — faith. If the resurrection were true, all else in Scriptural teaching would follow logically and persuasively from that. Faith in the resurrection was the sine qua non for understanding and proving all the rest of Scripture.

Descartes shifted this focus of thinking from faith to radical doubt, from the credo of the Scholastics to the cogito of the European “Illuminati”. This is what we are calling the shift to the “mental-rational consciousness structure”, and is the shift from Age of Faith to Age of Reason or Enlightenment.

Now, it took me many years to realise what Rosenstock-Huessy was on about. I was too “Cartesian” myself, thanks to my schooling, and I had to de-educate myself in some respect before I could penetrate to his meaning — his “grammatical method” and “cross of reality”. It took me a very long time before I understood the significance of his “respondeo, etsi mutabor” as a replacement for the deficiencies of both the credo and the cogito. Here, I hope to save you a few steps and even the missteps that bedeviled me in coming to grips with Rosenstock’s dialogical philosophy.

Rosenstock understood that the true life of the mind does not begin in the “credo” or the “cogito“, but that faith or thinking were both responses to the questions put to us by existence. In other words, the ego, either by faith or by reason, is not the first person in any real sense. In being a respondee, the actual first person shifts to the “world”, while the ego, as addressee, is reinterpreted as a “you” or a “thou”. We become conscious because, for most of our lives, we are continuously responding to imperatives — challenges — put to us by existence, even in terms of “survival of the fittest”. We are really “the second person” in this relationship, and we discover our “I” and its capacities for both faith and reason, only in response to these challenges put to us by the world or cosmos. Rosenstock summarised all these various challenges or imperatives in a question that occurs in the Bible, when God asks “who art thou, Man, that I should care for thee?” But the first person could be Nature, Society, Parents, World as we think of these — powers which put to us the question and challenge of our existence and value, and our lives are lived in continuous response to these challenges, questions, and imperatives, and we grow into faith, or into reason, or into love and so on as our responses to these challenges.

The proper relationship is thus not “I-Thou” as Martin Buber believed, but “Thou-I”. Before we discover our “I”, we are a “you”, a “thou”, and are first addressed as such by parents, teachers, society, nature, or “reality”. An interesting anecdote about that is Hellen Keller’s biography The Story of My Life (which is available online). Keller had her “Eureka” moment when she finally learned the meaning of speech from Ann Sullivan. Thereafter, she referred to her earlier feral state as “the Phantom”.

So, our ego consciousness unfolds within the matrix or field formed by these grammatical relations. The ego is not the “first person” in this field of relations. That matrix or field of relations is what is illustrated as his “cross of reality”,

Cross of Reality AIn terms of the “circulation” of speech, here: “You or Thou!” is first person, “I” is second, “We” is third, and finally “He, She, It” is fourth in the order of realisation. In other words, the movement is from imperative, to subjunctive, to narrative, to indicative moods, or, correspondingly from dramatics, to lyrics, to epics, to analytics. This phasic ordering of times and spaces is inviolable. Rosenstock uses the example of the fourfold phasic realisation of love. First, there is the imperative, “Love!”, then follows the subjective response, “May I love”, then follows the action — the epical or historical act in “We have loved”, and only then, “when all is said and done”, as we say, is it possible to speak the indicative or analytical “Love is….”. But before I can speak my truth and say or define what “love is”, I must first have passed through all these other phases or stations in the grammatical relationship: Thou, I, We, It (He, She, or They) is the proper order of realisation. It does not begin with the ego or “I” form.

In any such response, we risk being changed by the experience. That is the key to the rest of the formula — the “etsi mutabor“, or “even though I will be changed”. This is, in other words, a formula for self-overcoming. I must be open to existence and to the possibilities of the future. The formula asks that we not simply accept as “inevitable” the terms of our existence, as fates, or respond mechanically, but to consciously choose our responses in full knowledge that we will be changed by them. This “mutabor” or mutation is, in those terms, a very apt formula for understanding Gebser’s approach to changes or “mutations” in consciousness structures historically.

So the formula in its two aspects also includes the complement of the respondeoaudi ne moriamur, or “listen, lest we die”, attesting to the fact that in speaking and listening really, we are engaged in a struggle for life in the face of a world of Time and Death. Our responses, and the adequacy of our responses, is therefore crucial. In the respondeo and its complement audi, is performed the true dialogical process of listening and speaking. And in those terms, the emphasis also shifts from the eye to the ear as the organ of knowing.

“Society” isn’t something you see. It’s something you hear. And it’s quite revealing of the inadequacy of older forms of logic when Margaret Thatcher declared “there is no such thing as society”. She “saw” only “individuals and families”, probably as befits someone with a chemistry background who only sees atoms and molecules and transposes that paradigm to the interpretation of “society”. But society is not something you “see” like atoms and molecules. It’s what you hear. It’s the daily circulation of shared speech. It’s speaking and listening. It’s the daily organisation and reorganisation of the spaces and times through imperatives, optatives, narratives, and indicatives by which society tries to balance and rebalance its time and space axes — the past and the future, the inner and the outer. And in those terms, we are never the “I” alone, but also pass through the various roles as a “you”, as a “we” or as a “he or she”. The so-called “culture of narcissism” is a faulty interpretation of this process. We are never just one person, but multiform.

This, too, belongs to Blake’s “fourfold vision” inasmuch as it is a reflection, in grammar, of the fourfold nature of the human form. It cannot be otherwise because the human form occupies space and time, and space and time are also fourfold in nature — as past and future, as inner and outer. The “grammatical mirror” is a reflection of that fourfoldness. And to each of these fronts of reality — past, future, inner, outer — the human being brings different powers or faculties, and the harmonious articulation of those powers or faculties is what we are calling “integral consciousness”.

This is why Rosenstock states that every mature human being is as if “crucified” on the cross of reality, for their awareness must expand into the four contradictory directions of space and time and unify, arbitrate, synchronise, coordinate, or conciliate them. This has been called “the sacred balance”, and the model for that is the mandala form. As our cosmos is fourfold, so are we fourfold, and this is reflected in the “field” or “matrix” of grammar and grammatical relations.

A society or civilisation that fails to achieve balance in that respect, or that runs off into one arm of the cross of reality (it’s bias) is doomed, therefore. It becomes “diseased” through neglect of its other fronts of life. It is no longer “integral” and its consciousness and mode of perception no longer adequate to its full reality. That was the fate of earlier forms of civilisation, such as the magical or mythical. It is also the incipient fate of the “mental-rational” or “modern”. It has exaggerated one function of consciousness at the expense of the others, and that is what Blake condemned as “single vision”.

If anything constitutes a “universal” in the human experience, this is it — the fourfold. It’s the Guardians of the Four Directions in Buddhism, or the Four Directions of the Sacred Hoop, or the Four Evangelists of the Christian Cross, or the Four Beasts who surround the throne of God in Revelation, or the Four Riders of the Apocalypse, also. It’s the Hindu’s “fourfold Self” and William Blake’s “Four Zoas”, too, and it’s reflected in the four-person system of human grammars. Even when we speak of North, South, East, and West, these aren’t just geographic terms or cardinal points on a map or compass. We also use them to speak of value-orientations. They are values. “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet” is nonsense if taken as a statement about geography. It’s also even nonsense taken as a statement about values.

Rosenstock’s quadrilateral model of logic can help us out of the morass of these multiple confusions. But it took me a long time to understand why.



2 responses to “Respondeo, etsi mutabor

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    Too many gems in the essay, as usual.

    “we are never the “I” alone, but also pass through the various roles as a “you”, as a “we” or as a “he or she”. The so-called “culture of narcissism” is a faulty interpretation of this process. We are never just one person, but multiform.”

    And it is the “Thou!” that is held responsible, only.

    There are at least three opinions about me among my colleagues. On occasion, I ask myself: ‘So, which am I?” 🙂

  2. abdulmonem says :

    Rephrasing is great help in the process of understanding, listening before death is helpful to appreciate life, thinking to understand my Iamness in relation to His Iamness is important to grasp existence, being an addressee, having faith in order to understand the purpose of existence and having response to the surrounding challenges is our tool for self-realization. They complement and substantiate each other. like the integral consciousness comprising the other four types of consciousness. I hope I am translating correctly.

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