Giles Fraser: Humankind needs limits for reality

18 March 2009

“We must divest ourselves of the idea that limitation implies some­thing derogatory, or even a kind of curse or affliction,” wrote Karl Barth in his monumental Church Dog­matics. He is right.

The very idea of limit is a curious thing: on the one hand, it implies restraint: a limit is the boundary of possibility, the edge of what one is allowed to do. To this extent, it sounds like something that hems us in. Yet, also, a limit is precisely what determines the shape of a thing. It is significant that when children first learn to draw, they trace the outline of a thing, as if describing a boundary is the best way of calling something into being. Here limit does not constitute a threat to our freedom. Quite the contrary: it makes us what we are.

This is why the attempt to erad­icate limit is nonsensical. Thus, for instance, Barth attacks those philo­sophers — his target is J. G. Fichte — who seek to offer human beings the possibility of limitless existence. Fichtian humanity “has no limits, he thus lacks the very thing which is proclaimed in the title of Fichte’s work: a determination.”

These days — or until fairly recently — this fantasy of unlimited Fichtian humanity has been most active in the financial markets through the availability of cheap and seemingly endless credit. Credit can easily foster a fantasy lifestyle that refuses to acknowledge the existence of boundaries. Something can be had now, and paying for it can be deferred. Credit enables us to outwit those irritating limits that seem to hem us in and deny us what we want.

Barth’s point was thus remade recently by the Archbishop of Can­ter­bury in a speech on the state of modern capitalism (News, 13 March): “Without . . . restriction, nothing is solid: we should face a world in which everything flows, melts, dissolves, in a world of con­stantly shifting and spectral valuations.”

At this time, when all our finan­cial chickens seem to be coming home to roost, we are beginning to see that deregulated markets dealing in complex and seemingly virtual financial products had little con­nection with reality. Finance became so convoluted that nobody was able to trace the value of anything back to its source in reality.

If we ever got a bit giddy about all this, we comforted ourselves with that tired cliché that something is worth what somebody is prepared to pay for it. With that philosophy, we built castles in the sky. Barth would have understood what went wrong. We got suckered by Fichte’s fantasy. The credit crisis is a reminder that, however clever we think we are, we cannot escape the limitations of reality.

Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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