Luminous realm of values

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Does a minor point of translation mislead us about one of the most elegantly evocative sentences in modern philosophy?

‘Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.’

Such a perfect expression of human freedom, summoning the visual of shining lights as values and meanings that don’t exist.  It’s like that first time, when you realized that fairy tale magic isn’t real.

And yet, Sartre may never have meant it this way.

When looking at Philip Mairet’s 1948 translation of Sartre’s seminal 1945 lecture, he entitled it Existentialism and Humanism, not Existentialism Is a Humanism, as seems implied by the original French L’existentialisme est un humanisme.  Is there a subtle shift between existentialism as distinct from humanism, and existentialism being a form of humanism?

Am I making too much of this, or does Mairet’s title give Sartre’s existentialism a sui generis status, while Sartre’s own title suggests merely a continuity within a wider humanist school of thought?

The title is a minor point compared to the sentence about a luminous realm of values.  In the original French, this sentence was: ‘Ainsi, nous n’avons ni derrière nous, ni devant nous, dans le domaine numineux des valeurs, des justifications ou des excuses’.  No hint of ‘luminous’, which would be ‘lumineuse’ or ‘lumineux’.  Instead we have ‘numineux’, meaning ‘nouminous’.

What does numinous actually mean?  Conventional wisdom has it that it refers to a profound, mysterious, awe-inspiring experience.  A meaning which German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) extended or appropriated to mean a religious experience.

Why does this matter?  After all, either word suits Sartre’s theme, which is that there are no a priori rules on which we can rely to guide our decisions.  Yet ‘luminous’ is so much more evocative of shining truth and wisdom than the more mundane idea of inexplicable revelation.

Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell (1903-1950), British journalist and novelist.
Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell (1903-1950), British journalist and novelist.

More than just a discussion about a lecture, my personal interpretation decades ago, based on the Mairet translation into English, included also the idea that if there were no given luminous realm of values, it was always possible for us, humans, to create one.  A shiny, bright, beckoning reservoir of human wisdom and insight to guide our decision-making and progress.  That would indeed be awe-inspiring. And of course that’s exactly what happens. Sartre must have already known that every generation or two, bright young things turn words into more holdings in the luminous realm library. For future consideration, just not in the way I had expected.

Before I ever used my present vocabulary to describe my ideas, I had a crude notion that I would be given access to a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom by my teachers, and others.  That they would at least point me in the right direction.  For better or worse, however, my education progressed along lines more like those described by George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens.

Who can forget, having once read ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, the excruciating details about St Cyprian, Orwell’s preparatory school.  The rote learning of dates, names, and events, clinically removed from significance or meaning.  The sadistic taunting and beatings from masters (and in my case, the other boys, too).  The impossibility of independence and autonomy.

A child believes that the school exists to educate and that the schoolmaster disciplines him either for his own good, or from a love of bullying. Flip and Sambo had chosen to befriend me, and their friendship included canings, reproaches and humiliations, which were good for me and saved me from an office stool. That was their version, and I believed in it. It was therefore clear that I owed them a vast debt of gratitude. But I was not grateful, as I very well knew. On the contrary, I hated both of them.

To grasp the effect of this kind of thing on a child of ten or twelve, one has to remember that the child has little sense of proportion or probability. A child … has no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgements. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and powers of the adults surrounding it.

Fortunately for me, I never quite had to swim in a tidepool with someone else’s turd floating on the water, nor was I as desperately hungry and sick, the way Orwell recounts.  What Orwell doesn’t really touch on is an experience of insights about knowledge acquired as part of his education.

In god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens recalled a moment when a well-meaning but stupid ‘nature’ class teacher, Mrs Jean Watts, had one day explained that grass and leaves were green as god’s gift to mankind:

… there came a day when poor, dear Mrs. Watts overreached herself. Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.”

… I was frankly appalled by what she said. My little anklestrap sandals curled with embarrassment for her. At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and chlorophyll. The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else. I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself. I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.

I’m not certain I had such clearly defined moments and insights, but I did, in my tweens, begin to question the wisdom and motivations of my betters.

When recollecting his early adulthood at Oxford University in Hitch 22, Hitchens realized that authority figures weren’t always as insightful as expected:

… I began to discern one of the elements of an education: get as near to the supposed masters and commanders as you can and see what stuff they are really made of. As I watched famous scholars and professors flounder here and there, I also, in my career as a speaker at the Oxford Union, had a chance to meet senior ministers and parliamentarians “up close” and dine with them before as well as drink with them afterward, and be amazed once again at how ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country. This was an essential stage of my formation and one for which I am hugely grateful, though I fear it must have made me much more insufferably cocky and sure of myself than I deserved to be.

For me, there weren’t any really eminent figures in a global sense, but rather a progressive, growing awareness of the unreliability of the received wisdom on subjects, and a growing sense of how much authority figures didn’t deserve emulation, or, sometimes, even respect.  And I suppose I was insufferably cocky, too.

Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011), British and American journalist, writer.
Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011), British and American journalist, writer.

During my schooldays, I was left to consider how I would have acted, in each instance I observed, to achieve reasonable outcomes, sans cane, tears, or trauma. I imagined how I might argue with those schoolmasters to explain my reasoning, and my justifications for each point I made.  I was not yet quite arrogant or courageous enough to put my thoughts into practice.  It was and remains an intimidating proposition to stand up for your own ideas, arguing against critics, and suffering odium for being thought wrong, or foolish, or to be mercilessly torn down just for fun.

At university I was more critical, and outspoken, but still disappointed that no one had yet revealed to me that luminous realm I had now read about.

Maybe it was, I thought at the time, that there really is no more sophisticated version of that realm than religion and ideology, which are of a piece.  I could see that real people actually adhere, more or less, to the rules prescribed by various denominations and political movements.  But watching how that played out in practice convinced me this was not evidence of anything remotely shiny or luminous.

It took me many more years before I recognized that I had made a fundamental mistake when I was younger, assuming despicable people had not, in fact, pointed me at knowledge and values, in between being despicable. Even if by accident and carelessness, the cruel masters had referred many times to historical figures, events, and ideas.  I had just not recognized that I had to discover all these for myself, not shackled to the motives of teachers who hated children and teaching.

My luminous realm is the millions of brilliant lights in the darkness of the universe that are the works of thinkers, artists, scientists, and many others, across the centuries.

What my teachers had not prepared me for, ever, was the realization that this luminous realm was no path to a manual for life. It was for me to discover and apply to my own circumstances, not as iron rules, but as an expanding consciousness of how others have described their own ideas and experiences, and how that might apply to me now.  Why couldn’t an early teacher have just said that to me?

The luminous ream isn’t just for learning new things.  It’s for the pleasure of being able to encounter and experience what others have thought about their lives.  It’s the pleasure of reading a really well written passage, seeing a really arresting painting, hearing a really heartrending composition … and so on.

I wonder whether I would have ever conceived of knowledge and the Western canon of arts, ideas, and letters in quite this way if I had read a translation of Sartre that had him talk of a numinous, not luminous, realm of values.

Sartre was right to say that we have no shiny rules to tell us why and how to live, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have denied that we can drawn on very deep resources in our histories and cultures to guide us in making our own way.

[Last edited, 28 December 2020.]


George Orwell (1947), ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds, (1968). The Collected Works of George Orwell, Vol IV, In Front of Your Nose: 1945-1950, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp 330-368.

Christopher Hitchens (2007), god is Not Great, Allen & Unwin, pp 2-3.

Christopher Hitchens (2011), Hitch 22: A Memoir, Allen & Unwin, pp 113-114.

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