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Is God Happy? Selected Essays

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
November 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Leszek Kolakowski
Total Pages: 
Basic Books

Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009), a professor of history of philosophy at the U. of Warsaw, went into exile in 1968 and also became a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He wrote many books and received many awards. This gift book has 27 essays.

The Amazon website for the hardcover edition is

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief summary (click on ‘Read more). I highly recommend scrolling down to the Top Customer Reviews by Hans G. Despain and Michael J. Mangan and click on ‘Read more’ for both of these detailed reviews. In the following I focus on the particular aspects that I found especially interesting. But first I recommend going to the Kindle edition to read the very informative 7-pp Introduction written in 2012 by his daughter Agnieszka Kolakowska, for it describes this book as the editor who put this book together. I also need to note that two of my Polish physics friends had high recommended to me the work of Leszek Kolakowski. The elder of the two, who passed away knowing that this book was being put together, asked his daughter to be sure to send a copy of it to me, for which I am very grateful. These two friends had much admired Kolakowski’s critique of the Soviet Union (which had him flee Poland) as being some of the most knowledgeable about how far communism had fallen from the original ideas. The people of Poland, Russia, and other captive nations taken over by the dictatorial system (it had inevitably become) appreciated the work of Leszek Kolakowski, with his knowledge of the psychology of the dictators. Most of those leaders who had become dictators, had little, if any, real difference between those who became dictatorial rulers of their subjects – the people. Whether via royalty or religious authority or as ‘controller’ of the military, the path from leader to dictator seemed very similar to most historians.

The book’s Contents lists these 27 essays in three topics: Part I. Socialism, Ideology and the Left; Part II. Religion, God, and the Problem of Evil; Part III. Modernity, Truth, the Past and Some Other Things. I found little that was new to me in Part I, although I greatly appreciated Kolakowski’s writing style. For a philosopher, he wrote with clarity, wit, and reason (perhaps this may be in part by translation to English – if so, his daughter Agnieszka Kolakowska should be given credit as well).

I enjoyed reading each of the seven chapters in Part II. The last chapter – Is God Happy – is just four and a fraction pages long but he asks many questions. His last paragraph sums things up. [Comments by me are in square brackets.] “Happiness is something we can imagine but not experience. If we imagine that hell and purgatory are no longer in operation and that all human beings, every single one without exception, have been saved by God and are now enjoying celestial bliss, lacking nothing, perfectly satisfied, without pain or death, then we can imagine that their happiness is real and that the sorrows and suffering of the past have been forgotten. Such a condition can be imagined, but it has never been seen. It has never been seen.” [If you think this doesn’t sum things up, reread this thought-provoking chapter.]

I found Part III to reveal his philosophy best. The chapter On Natural Law gave me a new and highly plausible concept to contemplate. Before reading it I had long thought that we humans have the usual five physical senses: ssstt (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) plus a sixth senses of imagination and a seventh sense of the transcendental. But Leszek Kolakowski has added the sense of intuition with regard to the moral insights of humanity. Here’s how he builds up the case for a moral natural law that is not a part of the natural laws as normally considered.

“Those who believe in natural law have frequently been accused (for example, by John Stuart Mill) of committing what analytical philosophical call the naturalist fallacy: that is, of attempting to deduce normative propositions from empirical ones (an impossible feat), or confusing the two. According to this criticism, believing in natural law amounts to failing to distinguish between law as a regularity of nature, such as Newton’s laws for instance, and law in the sense of a norm established within a legal order. This charge can be justified in some cases of natural-law theory, but not in others. Aquinas believed that all things in the world participate in the eternal, God-created order, but that human creatures, being endowed with reason, participate in it by conscious obedience: the rules of natural law, including the distinction between good and evil, were inscribed by God in our minds [as part of God’s creation of reasoning human beings], and so everyone, including pagans, participate in this knowledge.” [Here I skip many of his points of discussion to get to the heart of his idea of moral laws as quite distinct from natural physical laws.]

“… It was a widespread (though not universal) view in the Christian Middle Ages that knowledge of natural law is accessible to us apart from Revelation because the Creator endowed us with the intellectual faculties necessary and sufficient for this purpose. In this respect our natural knowledge of the world does not differ from the natural recognition of moral principles.” …”Belief in natural law was popular among the writers of the Enlightenment, too, although it was variously expressed.” …”Many thinkers, Christians and otherwise, have believed that natural law provides us with a paradigm according to which we can judge positive law. Many of them thought that we have no obligation to obey laws that are incompatible with natural law; we may, even should, reject and violate such laws.

“Here, then, is my main question: mindful of the skeptical challenges I have reviewed above, can we still believe in natural laws? My reply is yes. Not only may we believe in natural laws, but by denying it we deny our humanity. We may believe that good and evil, instead of being projections of our likes and dislikes, emotions, or decisions, are ‘real qualities’ of human life – of our actions, thoughts, desires, our conflicts and our friendships. And if someone were to say, ‘We can determine the speed of light and the chemical composition of ethyl alcohol, and we can prove that heat causes gases to expand, but we cannot approve, in the same sense, that torturing people is evil and helping the homeless is good,’ we may reply, ‘No, such moral judgements cannot be ‘proved’ in the same sense as the laws of physics or chemistry, but need we accept the kinds of proofs required in experimental science as the only model for all our truth-judgements? Nothing compels us to embrace the view of proponents of logical empiricism [aka ‘scientism’] that only propositions which are empirically verifiable (or falsifiable), in the same way as propositions in the sciences, are meaningful.” …”Similarly, large areas of our knowledge have their indispensable foundation in intuition, the intuition of experience, and we do not for this reason dismiss them as figments of the imagination. Why then should we dismiss our intuition about moral experience? There is a moral intuition by which moral truths can be recognized, just as there is the intuition of sense experience and that of mathematical and logical truths. These three kinds of intuition are not reducible to each other; they work separately. Moral intuition is also a kind of experience, different from sense perception – neither of them is infallible.

“Our belief in natural [moral] law is not impaired by the fact that the results of this intuition are not necessarily identical in everyone’s mind, always and everywhere, nor by the fact that centuries were needed before people recognized the good and evil of their various actions and intuitions – before they admitted, for example, that torture is evil and equality before the law good.

“Natural law does not, of course, allow us to infer from it the details of any constitution or civil or penal code.” …”Natural law is built around human dignity. Thus it invalidates legislation that, for instance, admits slavery, torture, political censorship, inequality before the law, compulsory religious worship or the prohibition of worship, or the duty to inform the authorities about the non-conformity of people’s political views. Within these limits, various constitutions and various codes are possible; natural law does not dictate their details.”

Where he uses ‘natural law’ in the above, he means both natural physical law and natural moral law. He seems convinced that both forms are to be understood as built into human beings. To me the best example is the worldwide natural moral law ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This law seems to be known in all human cultures. Regarding it as a moral law of natural moral intuition for all humans resolves the puzzle of how this concept has been found in every culture and religion in our world.

He is a Christian, but he holds that human spirituality and religion are separate – not intuitive or natural or based on natural moral law but as ‘received’ insights. He also allows for the growth of knowledge and, I surmise, wisdom, as well, (with wisdom being how, when, and where to use knowledge) and wisdom's positive growth with time, as the historical record of human behavior changes as being positive changes, with few exceptions.

Now I’ve added intuition as a new sense to our basic five physical senses (ssstt) then imagination and the transcendental as our highest sense. But where to place intuition and imagination? In other words, in my single-letter human sense list (now expanded to sssttiit) I’ve been trying to decide which ‘i’ should come first. I can argue for imagination as the sixth (since imagination can be simpler – children do it easily) and I can also regard intuition of ‘natural moral laws’ as much more relevant to right living – teens and adults usually learn to rely on it as self-evident, so perhaps it should be placed next to the last ‘t’ (transcendental). I think I need to contemplate and meditate more on this self-imposed question.

This book has many other essays of value by Leszek Kolakowski. I am very thankful for this gift. I rate it at five stars.