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Isabela Vasiliu-Scraba, Wherein Lies the Charisma of This Thinker? (Nae Ionescu and Mircea Vulcănescu)


“We know that by the death of martyrs the country gains a transcendence, a vertical axis, a dignity and saving halo upon the big Judgment of history, but its horizontal axis, our everyday horizontal remains empty, the life of the ones left behind for ever impoverished.” Stefan Fay

Mircea Vulcănescu is Nae Ionescu’s sole disciple to have materialized his awe for his master in the writing, after the latter’s death, of a whole volume of memories. However, as early as December 1926, after graduating the university in Bucharest, he made some notes titled Nae Ionescu’s Philosophical Thinking-Notes for a Commentary, preserved in the family archives. The philosopher’s outlook seemed all the more exciting to the young philosophy graduate as he had already noticed the existence of “a long row of responses from and influences on several generations of students.”

The bibliographic material that Mircea Vulcănescu had in mind at that time included articles on philosophical topics published by Nae Ionescu in various magazines, the course of the history of logic held by his master in 1924-1925, as well as the course of the philosophy of religion (1924-1925), to which added notes from other courses and from seminaries, since it is only in 1924-1925 that Nae Ionescu’s courses started to be written in shorthand. On the margin of the course on the Theory of Cognition (1925-1926), young Vulcănescu had also scribbled a plan for a work on “existence.” After making a precis of this part of the course, namely after going over the distinction between real and existent, the distinction between “to be” and “to be known,” the distinction between “that which can be known” and “that which is known”, etc., Vulcănescu tried to combine the various outlooks on existence.

It was like an attempt of globalization by detecting common features for three subject matters (logic, aesthetics and ethics), all three of them focusing on the study of “existence.” To this purpose, he subordinated logic, aesthetics and ethics to the following features, according to which each subject matter could become concrete in its speciphic manner: their way of approaching existence, according to the approaching perspective, according to the principle underlying each of the three subject matters, according to methos, purpose, norm, topic. This rather unassuming attempt at “synthesizing human outlooks on existence” was to be discarded, becoming a gain all the same.

More than a decade later, in his next research work on existence, Mircea Vulcănescu knew how to avoid the temptation of reduction, of the synthesis of the various subject matters as a philosophical effort. The result, downright spectacular, was his book The Romanian Dimension of Existence, dedicated to his friend, Emil Cioran. The success of this work was to a great extent ensured by the experience accumulated by Vulcănescu during the summers when, in the Romanian villages, he had become the philosopher lost among the teams of sociologists studying the life and spirituality of the Romanian peasant.

It is obvious that when, on the margin of the course on the Theory of cognition, Vulcănescu was writing about existence from a logical, aesthetic and ethic standpoint, as well as when he was putting down the notes on Nae Ionescu’s Philosophical Thinking, and when he was to write his book on Nae Ionescu, Mircea Vulcănescu was aware that the reflection of his master’s thinking on whatever one of his disciples might write would be a reflection “from a personal angle bearing the imprint” of the respective disciple.

Constantin Floru, having read the manuscript on Nae Ionescu, wrote a letter to Mircea Vulcănescu on his impressions. C-tin Floru had noticed the perspective going ever more to the inside, from one chapter to another, but also that “personal angle”, pointed out by Mircea Vulcănescu as early as 1926 in his notes for a commentary on Nae Ionescu’s thinking. “You’re speaking about Nae while looking rather inside yourself,” Floru was writing to him. “You’re searching your past and meditate on the topics of life. The story leaves room for the interpretation of a world that includes us all, after all.”

In December 1926, in order to approach Nae Ionescu’s thinking, Mircea Vulcănescu was already perfectly aware of the difficulties posed by such an attempt. And that was not only because the professor was still alive, and his physiognomy as a thinker in his thirties could not have been established as long as it was still acquiring new forms, fruit of an ever renewed meditation.

There was just one thing stable with Nae Ionescu. And Mircea Vulcănescu could not fail noticing it. Since the great philosopher’s major feature was to approach most topics in a rather direct and perspicacious way. This salient trait of his manner of philosophize, distinguished Nae Ionescu from the other professors of the Philosophy Department, who, noted Mircea Vulcănescu, were more concerned with indirect “reporting” rather than direct “reasoning”.

Subsequently, the disciple refers to the distinction made by Nae Ionescu himself at a debate on “contemporary philosophy.” On the one hand, the Professor said, answering the questions asked, there are philosphers pursuing a university career, “who absorb whatever has been said about the various topics elsewhere,” avoiding to personally approach “some basic matter.” On the other hand, there are “philosophers as such, who make philosophy because they can’t do otherwise.”

Nae Ionescu was as aware of the value of his efforts, says Mircea Vulcănescu, as were the students who gathered around him: “Nae Ionescu created a school. He did that even before crystalizing his thinking into a system,” wrote Mircea Vulcănescu in December 1926.

Among the ones who were to become notable figures of the Romanian spiritual life, at that time had already been his students C. Floru, a remarkable translator of Hegel’s and Nicolai Hartmann’s works, as was his friend, Virgil Bogdan. Also his students had been Dumitru Cristian Amzăr (a translator of Kant) and Vasile Băncilă, who was to write the first book on Lucian Blaga’s philosophy; and the historian P.P. Panaitescu, as well as the two philosphers and sociologists who, together, had been in the teams studying the Romanian villages: Erenst Bernea and Mircea Vulcănescu himself.

In order to get a proper idea about the master-disciple relationship, we shall quote below an excerpt from a letter that Nae Ionescu sent to his former student, Vasile Băncilă, who, although in Paris for specialization courses, continued to publish at home (as was to happen with Mircea Eliade when he left for India).

In the letter mailed on May 15, 1926, Nae Ionescu makes a few remarks on an article published by Băncilă in the Gîndirea magazine, pointing to the “fresh and personal observation” to which Băncilă added a proper philosophical approach by “commenting the trivial thing up to theoretization.” Nevertheless, Nae Ionescu warns Băncilă to beware of the “Schwaermerei“, a term that refers here to the idea of literaturization of philosophy-something much like what Noica was to do in some of his writings, partially due to the circumstances under which he wrote after being released from prison and up to his death, not only to a genuine literary gift. Therefore, Băncilă, who was also quite talented, was warned by Nae Ionescu to avoid those excesses that literary talent may trigger, since “this kills all creative energy.”

And what was he recommending instead? The Profesor, who had been all too often accused of superficiality, gave him the following piece of advice, fruit of his own experience no doubt: “As much minute work; as dry erudition as possible; as little essay as possible and general ideas. And as much severe discipline as you can muster.”

While Petre Țuțea was preparing his doctor’s degree in Berlin, Nae Ionescu helped   him get into contact with the most prominent economists of the time, meet Werner Sombart and others.

During Băncilă’s specialization in France’s capital city, in the same manner, the Professor sent him to Jacques Maritain. Nae Ionescu had met the neo-Tomist philosopher during WW 1, while a POW interned in an intellectual camp in Germany: “You’re not saying whether you went to see Maritain (Meudon, Rue du Parc, 10). If you haven’t gone it yet, please do it. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.”

As a matter of fact he had also given the recommendation of going to J. Maritain to Mircea Vulcănescu upon his departure to Paris, to further his studies. Margarita-Ioana Vulcănescu wrote about his husband’s study period there: “he goes regularly to Meudon-Fleury, to attend Jacques Maritain’s reunions.”

In his attempt at grasping, or rather fathoming Nae Ionescu’s spiritual physiognomy, Mircea Vulcănescu asked himself in December 1926: “Wherein lies the particular charisma and the indisputable influence of this thinker upon the young people?”

Sketching up an answer to the best of his ability, he places first the “incentive” that a living thinking exercise upon the youth, then the “variety” of the issues dealt with by Nae Ionescu at his lectures and seminaries, as well as the “novel” approach he takes in tackling them. To these, young Vulcănescu added: (a) the simplicity with which the Professor presented the most complex problems; (b) the acumen with which he used to analyze a theory in order to identify its basic suppositions; (c) the way he “enlightened” the issues of logic or philosophy by placing them against a larger background; (d) his “concern for accurate and unpretentious expression,” that Mircea Vulcănescu saw as “a huge ascendancy in the making of his students’philosophical style.”

About Professor Nae Ionescu’s exposition style, he pointed out to the presence of “picturesque details, flashes of irony and a native humor that reminded one of Creangă’s.” This had already attracted the “criticism of a few prigs.”

But, above all, Mircea Vulcănescu had detected in his former pofesor of philosophy “the sense of the structural unity of the philosophical thinking.”

He saw Nae Ionescu as one of the “leaders of the so-called Orthodox renaissance,” highlighting that, as early as his first years of teaching at the University, Nae Ionescu had approached issues never before tackled in the Romanian philosophical education so far: deism, theism, pantheism, as solutions in the issue of divinity.

“To speak about Christianity and Christian philosopphy at the University was, in 1921, a true revolution,” observed Mircea Eliade as well in the postword to The Wind Rose.

The debates conducted by Nae Ionescu helped his apprentices to clear op the problems troubling them. This is what noted young Vulcănescu along this line: “As far as I’m concerned, I have always looked at every talk I had with him as a test I was taking, to the end of making out how far I had gone into a certain issue. The first results were, needless to say, disastruous! But highly stimulative- true intellectual wipe lashes; seeing yourself plunging into contradictions or insufficiently thought over obscure things. Later, my ability of standing up to him during a talk was highly rewarding,” noted Mircea Vulcănescu towards the end of his 1926 notes.

In the postword to the collection of articles titled, upon Nae Ionescu’s suggestion, The Wind Rose, Mircea Eliade wrote about the huge influence the Professor exerted upon his students, as well as about the response his lectures would trigger with the audience, when dealing with the most urgent issues of the european spiritul life: “…Starting 1922, the students of the Bucharest University have lived under the spiritual influence of Professor Nae Ionescu […] when the history of the issues of the Romanian philosophy is written, it will come out how, for fifteen years, we have been Europe’s contemporaries by Professor Nae Ionescu’s courses alone.”

When, at the opening of the University year 1930-1931, Professor Constantin Radulescu Motru had spilled out all the resent (smouldering until then) he felt at the huge success Nae Ionescu enjoyed on account of his courses, Mircea Vulcănescu stepped in with an article he published. For this, he reread the pages written in 1926, keeping the title he had chosen at the time. In his 1930 article about the fact that Nae Ionescu did not rush to publish books, not even his Ph.D. thesis, which had not been published in Germany because of the post-war paper shortage, Vulcănescu wrote that “the gesture should obviously be taken as a sign of deliberate distinction and aristocratic protest […] against the intrusion of all ignorants and parrots into the matters of philosophy.”

Picking up once more the question “wherein comes profesor Nae Ionescu’s indisputable influence upon the young generation?” he provides now the following answer: “The explanation lies in Nae Ionescu’s thinking being in continuous procesing. His thought is never ‘learnt’, but always fresh, alive. In the lecture hall, Nae Ionescu does not teach, he thinks. He lives, in turn, the issues he is displaying before his audience; the Professor can feel their subtleties, debates and solve them incessantly with himself, unaware of where he will stop or end when he leaves, same as it happens with all that is living. The audience is therefore, in turns, surprised, captivated, pasionate, invited to search themselves, to ask themselves questions, to go to their core and solve them. Rare are indeed those people who have the capacity to make others think, as Nae Ionescu stimulates his students to do at his lectures. This is how comes that, over the ten years since he has been a lecturer, during which he has given almost twenty courses, the Profesor has never repeated himself once while teaching the same course. Even when teaching circumstances made go over some already taught matter, the issue was tackled from a different angle, as one can see from the comparison between the two courses of the history of logic of 1924-1925 and 1929-1930.”

In the volume Nae Ionescu as I Knew Him, Mircea Vulcănescu lingers on the Professor’s lectures of the philosophy of religion because, through them, his young mind “clashed with Nae Ionescu’s in a conflict of issues” that were dearer to his heart than all the logics in the world.

Proof thereof stands his work Two Types of Medieval Philosophy, published in 1942 in the “Sources of Philosophy” journal, in the same jurnal he had published Nae Ionescu’s famous opening lecture, The Epistemological Function of Love.

That was because, beyond the typological differentiation of the Christian philosophic thinking following in the footsteps of Augustin or Thomas Aquinas-which may lead, in certain respects, to a conflict of stands-, the final point towards which Mircea Vulcănescu had directed his thinking was none else than the love that elevates the soul up to “the source of all life that is God’s creative love.”

The dating of this study subtitled Outline of a Conflict of Issues, Paris-1927-Paris-1942 evinces the interest he nurtured for medieval philosophy since his specialization stage in Paris, more exactly the time he was seeing neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain.

Actually, Mircea Vulcănescu was broadly concerned with the philosophy of religion as early as his student years in Bucharest. In the summer of 1925, as a member of a Christian Association, in the summer of 1925 Vulcănescu had made an attempt at presenting Nae Ionescu’s course of the philosophy of religion. This first attempt failed, as did the second one (1926), into a portrait sketch.

To a young man of twenty-one, in search of a model, the man as such was much more appealing than the abstract field of philosophy that Nae Ionescu was dealing with at his lectures, even when it was about the “philosophy of religion.”

The starting point of this first unfinished piece of writing was the course of the Philosophy of Religion held by Nae Ionescu in the second semester of the University year 1924-1925. However, the title picked up by Vulcănescu only points to the initial intention of the work, and not the contents of the pages left in his family’s archives: “Nae Ionescu. General outline of a Course of the Philosophy of Religion.”

In the course of the philosphy of religion held by their professor of logic and metaphysics, the Christian students expected to find an “Orthodox guide,” noted Vulcănescu early in the text, after establishing that, as far as the philosophy of religion was concerned, everything that the Christian students had access to was “imported stuff.”

Looking more like the pages of a diary than a work written for publication, we find there the information according to which Nae Ionescu “skipped class” when the Christian students expected him to be among them.

Tempted to ask himself the most inconvenient questions, no matter how annoying, Vulcănescu wondered-as serious as a member of a youth association may have done- whether they weren’t, unknowingly, “free-of-charge police tools.” The question had been triggered by the epithet of “police religion” with which Nae Ionescu had labeled the religious faith of the Christian students about whose Association Nae Ionescu had also said that it had “vague pretensions of preaching moral catechism to others.”

In the book on Nae Ionescu, most likely edited in 1943-1944-but completed over the following two years, until his arrest-, Vulcănescu recalls his bewilderment at the Christianity entirely orientated towards the afterlife professed by Nae Ionescu, as well as at the fact that his former professor opposed “liturgic life and the Church’s grace participation” to his lay meditations.

To the exaltations for social values from the Preach on the Mountain , Nae Ionescu “opposed an a-social and exclusively theocentric Christianity, the most important principle of which was the love for God. Compared to this maxim, ‘the love for thy neighbor’, that I thought to be the key of Christianity, appeared to Nae Ionescu as a mere Western misinterpretation.”

Astonished at Nae Ionescu’s religious thinking, Vulcănescu noted that it was only much later that he managed to understand his professor, when he could discover by himself that the religious act “did not take shape in the privacy of solitude […], but between God and the world as a whole,” linked to man by a feeling of intimate solidarity, in sin and in suffering, which changed the inner experience, “bestowing on it that feeling of strength and lastingness that one can acquire only through the community of tradition.”

These aspects of the Orthodox Christianity that Nae Ionescu set forth before his students, much as they would have echoed in the disciple’s soul and wonderfully transfigurated as they may have seemed in the pages Vulcănescu wrote about the “Romanian dimension of existence,” grow rather pale before the profoundly ethical Christianity that Mircea Vulcănescu (1904-1952) believed in to the last day of his life.

Because he never ceased to measure the essence of Christianity after what a person may sacrifice to someone “that is not one’s flesh and blood.”

Proof stands the sacrifice of his life, in prison, in order to save a young man whose name was so obscure that it could not survive even by the memory of Mircea Vulcănescu’s supreme sacrifice.*

Translated by Ileana Barbu


“My generation,” said Petre Țuțea, “made its debut in the euphory of Romania’s union making and died in the communist prisons of a lesser country.”