Notes on The Magic Mountain: “By the Ocean of Time”

Image is from Pixabay

Not to deny reason, but to set limits to it. Beyond the limit of reason is life. If reason were allowed to dominate all, there would be no room for life, which after all needs room to experiment, and see for itself, and be itself.

Not to deny the value of reason. But outside of its appropriate sphere, reason becomes monstrous in its confusion disguised as certainty, knows not of what it speaks and yet does so volubly.

Kant wanted to limit reason to leave room for faith. Thomas Mann is suggesting we do so to leave room for life. Perhaps these amount to the same thing, since what is life without faith? Life is always uncertain, and so a certain faith and optimism is required to live well.

Imagine walking beside an ocean, and far out at sea you see a boat. How far away is that boat? Impossible to tell in that glance; just looking at it, the distance might be infinite. Beyond a certain limit there is no longer any visual frame of reference to allow any answer with certainty. So it is with reason when it moves outside its sphere.

And yet in some things, things distant and transcendent yet essentially human, certainty is required. Things of the soul and human purpose. Reason can’t help us with these things having no frame of reference, and so faith is required.

This is not to take a medieval view, where everything confusing is deemed illusory, and the only reality is “an abiding present.” Faith without reason would send us back into a dark age. And even as reason finds its limit, and the need for faith is accepted, reason will continue to push outward, tentatively and experimentally, into the realm of faith. No longer content to merely glimpse that sail in the distance, ways and means are learned to calculate its location, when this is required. The mystery remains, and perspective, as experienced in the moment of glancing, is still a mystifying thing. Reason’s sphere will be extended, gradually and over time. The appeal to faith and the limit of reason is, after all, an appeal to our thinkers to use reason well, and carefully, and with due patience and respect for the mysteries they would solve.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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