Karl Jaspers on the Struggle for Existence

Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969)

My existence as such deprives others, just as they deprive me. Every position I occupy excludes another, claiming some of the limited space available. Every success I have diminishes others. My very life is due to the victorious struggle of my forebears, and my defeats will ultimately show up in the fact that in centuries to come no one will know me as his forebear.

At the same time, however, the reverse is true: all existence rests on mutual aid. I owe my existence to my parents’ care; all my life I depend upon help and extend it in turn, in the context of human community. Yet, rather than help, peace, and overall harmony, the ultimate remains contention, with the consequence of exploitation by the victors. Two facts will make this clear.

First, all historically real life of the mind rests upon a social order favoring the freedom and the leisure of a few. The majority works in a different sense, for there the intellectual and spiritual reality of the few is nobody’s purpose. Instead, there is a class of men who rule by their own strength and live on incomes–or of men who, though relatively poor themselves, are nonetheless in possession of the indispensable means of subsistence and thus not forced to do mechanical labor–and these men, by self-disciplined work on their own being, will perform an educational and creative function. Individuals in these strata become carriers of what later, always as a singular creation, has a value which all those who contemplate it would like to own, detached from the soil it grew in. The premise is always a cruel and at crucial points violent exploitation, which the individual need not consciously know about, since others accomplish it for him. The individual merely consumes what comes to him by rights, from somewhere, not in payment of any material service rendered on his part. It took socioeconomic knowledge to bring this fact to full visuality. If we want to abolish exploitation, we must do without a real life of the mind, without the life that grows in the continuity of an educational process and always in the individual.

The other fact is this: as far as we can see empirically, all mutual aid will simply build up units struggling in turn. Mutual aid is just an enclave. The struggle in economic life, above all, is no less a matter of existence as a whole, of benefiting and injuring certain limited groups, than is military combat. It makes room for posterity, or it exterminates. It is only the slowness of the gradual process, the silent sinking at the end, which hides the battles, the triumphs and annihilations, from an eye trained to see only suddenness and pathos, Eventually the sole reality appears to be the peaceful blossoming and multiplying of the survivors. But how can we blind ourselves to the constant recurrence of situations distinguished only by camouflage from that of two shipwrecked men with but one plank to cling to? If the plank will not hold more than one, they must either both die or one must win in a fight, unless one decides to give up his life voluntarily, 

Against this fact a finite view is possible, one that manifests no boundary situation, Disregarding the whole, I may regard contention as avoidable. I try to dodge it when I believe vaguely in life under law, in peace with living conditions provided for all. I do not think things through to the boundaries; I live content as long as my shrouding of the real foundations permits. While to me the conditions of my existence seem stable, I misconceive the character of struggle as qualifying and limiting all existence. I let myself be deceived by the façades of social intercourse and choose a comfortable neutrality in the no less deceptive form of objective balance. And yet, no matter how I fool myself about the conditions of my own existence–conditions from which I benefit without having created them–there will be occasions when I scent threatening perils, when I get nervous and feel vaguely oppressed as it becomes clear that lawlessness and strife may be insoluble. Or I may calm down when I do not feel imperiled; living in fact by combat constellations that favor me. I may again believe in a life without combat.

Jaspers, Karl.

Philosophy, Vol II. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 206-07.

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