Wygyctstw? Or what does the end of the world mean?
On a troubled April evening two virtual avatars of the same man are sitting in a train occupying the same body and wishing they were home. A question strikes the more inquisitive of the two and he puts it to the more reflective. As the body binding these two persons has a laptop at his disposal, the conversation becomes an exercise in dispersive thought.
Jake: What does the end of the world mean?
Jacob: It means nothing.
Jake: How can it mean nothing? It would be the greatest catastrophe to befall the world and everything in it!
Jacob: Yes. That is true from this side of things. All meaning would be at stake. But the end of the world surely constitutes the abandonment of all meaning, its capitulation to simple non-being, or at least non-thinking at our scale of observation. It literally ends in non-meaning. At least for us who are the subject of this catastrophe. Who knows what the gods would make of it.
Jake: They might just be relieved
Jacob: That they might!
Jake: So, is the end of the world a terrible thing?
Jacob: Well, as I said, it depends on your point of view. Not from the other side of the catastrophe, as all meaning would have been abandoned as far as we are concerned. And nothing can be terrible when meaning has been abandoned. At the same time we can never be completely sure about all this, what happens after death and such; at the same time I hold little hope for Dante’s model. But on this side of the catastrophe it would surely be the most terrible thing. Nothing more terrible can be imagined. Your own death is bad enough, that of your children as bad as it can get. The end of the world, the end of Tolstoy, mathematics, Vermeer, Fra Angelico Velazquez together with the death of your family and children. It is quite literally unthinkable.
Jake: Would the enslavement of the world’s people not be worse?
Jacob: Maybe in one sense. Enslavement is certainly no joy. The Greeks called it a fate worse than death. However, enslavement does not kill the hope of escape; as such it can be responded to. In fact it can be responded to well. If the world comes to an end, there is, as far as we know, no response possible. There will be silence and stillness which cannot even be experienced by those dependent on the world for survival. There will be nothing, no meaning at least, no thought and as such no conception of being.
Jake: So how terrible is it from this side of the catastrophe? Is it worse than, say, me losing my life?
Jacob: Yes, definitely, much worse.
Jake: Why? Surely we are our life. The end of the world is no more awful than each of us losing our own life? Every death is the end of the world for a life. For all of us together it would amount to no more than losing the one life we have. So the end of the world is no more than a single death, our own. At the other end of death, meaning stops for that life and so the end of the world could not mean anything to it.
Jacob: That is true, but we are on this side of our life and I have my wonderful wife, four lovely children and all my friends and relatives, my way of getting on with things, my enjoyments: art and science, music and food, running, sailing, philosophy. All that is priceless and I would happily sacrifice my life to save my wife and children and the idea of a world.
Jake: For an idea?
Jacob: Well the life of my family is more than an idea even though I can only participate in their life through the development and maintenance of my idea of it. If that is what you mean by idea I would go along with that: Yes, for my idea about their life, feeling confident that their life is full and that they will have the freedom to continue it after I am gone. It is on this side of my life that I can make sacrifices, and even though meaning stops for me when I die, I do not like the idea of living with the idea encapsulated in the saying: après moi la deluge. After me the world should go about its business, as it no doubt will.
Jake: You would no longer be part of it though.
Jacob: True. I would lose my participation in these wonderful things and the ideas I maintain of them, but if I were to value my life above the participation of my family in the good life, I would be merely selfish. I am not sure the selfish can enjoy life in any form of fullness; surely their enjoyment is confined to the small and nutty-bitter triumphs within the hard-boiled egg dryness of their selfishness, very little more, surely.
Jake: No person is only selfish.
Jacob: No, you are right… I suppose, although I am not sure… I have known people….. Anyway, I’ll go along with that. People are people and as such always more than merely any one thing. They are not objects and as such always more than merely selfish. And so they can enjoy the fruits of whatever else they are as well. We shall give them their fullness after all, even if they waste some of it in selfish behaviour.
Jake: Being is being-there-and-then, in-time-and-place, being is becoming, it is being-in-a-particular-situation which is under continual transformation, being is a process of emergence. So being selfish is being in a certain way in a certain situation and shaping that situation and one’s self by selfishness. Given another situation, that person might well not behave selfishly and make something else of their day.
Jacob: Yes I suppose I would agree with you. Being human is being anything a human being is capable of being. It may happen of course that a selfish person is always selfish towards a specific person, or because he is stuck within a certain situation, like anger or whatever. But we are wandering off course a bit aren’t we. What happened to the end of the world?
Jake: So, we have agreed: the end of the world is more terrible than the end of my life. Which is perhaps the reason that I am prepared to die for a just cause of sufficient enormity and urgency.
Jacob: Yes, you would happily die to save your children, wouldn’t you?
Jake: Yes, I would certainly hope to have the courage to do so, certainly.
Jacob: But why? Why are your children more precious to you than the rest of humanity?
Jake: That is a good question but I don’t want to get stuck in cheap psychology or easy evolutionary theory. After all, I am man, the organism that can, in small steps, overcome his psychology and even the inclinations given him through evolution. The choice to find my children important is existential in nature. I could choose to find them less important. There are examples of fathers who care very little about their family. So why do I answer so decidedly? I don’t know, but I know that I would happily die for my children if that were the necessary thing to do, if it were the best course of action.
Jacob: Would I die for my nation? Or for humanity at large, to save the planet? Yes I could conceive wanting to do such a thing in particular circumstances. So there are ideas I would happily give up all my access to meaning for. The idea of my children able to live their life and the idea of helping some cause that I would see as sufficient.
Jake: So now comes the ultimate test: would you sacrifice your wife and children to save the world?
Jacob: To do what? To save the world did you say?
Jacob: Ho, that is a different kettle of fish!
Jacob: To decide that we have to first decide why children and wives are more special to us than other people or creatures around us. It won’t be enough to say something like you just said: “I don’t know why but I just do..”. We’d have to get to the bottom of things. Why are my children more precious to me than the idea of the world? Are they? Nor are we clear what we mean by sacrificing them. I would need more to go on: Do they want to sacrifice themselves for a cause they have chosen to respond to in a certain way and do I have to let them get on with it, is that what you mean? Or, do I have to murder them in order to save the planet? Those are important distinctions to make.
Jacob: I would feel proud of my children if they were to give themselves freely to a just and urgent cause. I would hope they would not have to die for it. What I cannot imagine is there ever being a situation where my killing of my own children would benefit the world at large except perhaps in the case where they are themselves the active agent and cause of an imminent catastrophe. I could, God forbid, imagine them as terrorists, or murderers although I hope they are balanced enough to not take such a stupid road. I do not much respect terrorists and murderers. I do not respect the terrorists of the establishment, the strong men of autocratic power, nor do I think much of the terrorists of misguided ideology and their sickening altruism. All of them are weak and easy on their minds. Macho men are the real sissies. They do not think rigorously on the basis of an adequate frame of reference. They are narrow minded stupid and banal. On top of that I feel different towards innocence than I do towards calculating evil. So if one of my children were calculatingly evil, I could imagine a situation where things might come to a terrible head. But for me that would be very near to the equivalent of the end of the planet. It would be hard to imagine to want to live on after such a discovery.
Jake: Yeah, yeah, nice sentiments for a father and all that, but for this exercise in hypothesis we’ll have them innocent: they are just your happy children, without a care in the world, except their homework and their weekend parties. Now imagine there is a very evil man who says: “sacrifice your children otherwise I shall destroy the world and everything in it, hahahaha!”
Jacob: Hmm. This is beginning to resemble a rather well-known story, but ok, I’ll go along with it. Let’s repeat the question: Would I sacrifice my innocent and lovely children to prevent such evil from befalling the world? It is an absurd demand that this lord of evil is making of me. Might he just be testing me and pull his order back at the very last moment?
Jake: Well, he might, but you can’t count on it. As far as you are concerned he is simply evil, the world is in imminent danger and it is your children he wants as a ransom: all four of them, to be killed by you.
Jacob: He is mad, asking me to indulge in completely absurd behaviour!
Jake: Well that seems to be what most evil people enjoy, watching other people perform absurd and humiliating tasks to affirm their evil power; they are rapists of morality in the sense that they abuse morality for their own purposes and do not treat it gently. They do not care for it.
Jacob: Yes alright.
Jake: Is that a yes?
Jacob: Noooh nonono. No it isn’t.
Jake: You are procrastinating, give me an answer.
Jacob: I am not procrastinating, the situation is quite clear and the answer is: No. I would not do it.
Jake: What? You would not sacrifice your innocent children to save the planet?
Jacob: No. I would not. Of course, I don’t know the exact situation. I don’t know how the case is presented. I don’t know what pressure I would be under. But here, in my comfy chair, I would say: “No. Fuck off you evil monster, how dare you demand such an absurd and senseless thing of me? Bugger off! And stop making a nuisance of yourself, grow up!” At least I would dearly hope I would have the courage to react like that.
Jake: And risk the whole of the world to come to an end? But you would lose your children anyway….
Jacob: Yes, exactly. At least I would not have killed them to satisfy the silly whim of some evil monster with a self-confidence issue.
Jake: No. But how do you know it is the whim of an evil monster? Do you think he told you he is an evil monster? He might be very good at presenting his case, making you appear a noble martyr in a good cause? In fact, he might be good man with a sincere request. Anyway, evil monsters don’t always look like evil monsters and we rarely know beforehand what we know afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight. I mean Stalin looks quite cuddly. Adolf Hitler didn’t know how to shave himself well, but if I were to show you a photograph and tell you he was the country solicitor in some Austrian Village and had a delight in dressing up in uniforms, you would quite happily believe me if you did not know him already.
Jacob: I am not so sure, look at Vladimir Putin, look at Geert Wilders and George W. Bush. They all look evil to me and of what I hear, they would fit the bill as potential evil monsters.
Jake: Now you are being silly.
Jacob: I am not, but fair enough: So, let's rehearse the situation: I do not know he is an evil monster. He may have a good reason to ask this of me, even though I cannot possibly imagine what it is and why he would not want to tell me. (...) Honestly, the only scenario I can picture that could possibly match this silly idea is one that is largely confined to children’s books or comics and I don’t want this conversation to lose itself in silliness or improbable fairy-tales. Now evil is banal of course, and at the same time deadly serious, and there have been horrible cases where evil people have demanded absurd behaviour of others, but the effect was always local. Something like: If you don’t kill this child I will kill the other or some such horribleness. Sophie’s choice is a well know case in hand: a dilemma of inhuman proportions for any one person to bear, but real: its effect was local, it confined itself to the problem of one person who had to make an impossible choice between one dear one and another. It is easy when it is a choice between the child’s life or mine, in such cases the choice does not even present itself as a choice, I would of course give myself to save my child. To have to choose between two children is enough to make someone go mad. But the choice would have to be made, I would not want both children killed. I can imagine having to go through such a process, even though I thankfully haven’t a clue as to what it would feel like, nor do I ever hope to experience it. But here we have a different case, we have the case that I am asked whether I am prepared to sacrifice my innocent children in order to save the planet! This is my final answer: Because the reason for such a sacrifice is unimaginable, unthinkable and unknowable and because I would have to suspect mere cruelty and foul play I would definitely keep to my earlier answer: NO! Bugger off! There is not a single situation that I can conjure up in my otherwise fertile imagination that would make such a demand either reasonable, compelling, or in any way justifiable and that makes my answer categorical: I will not do it. I refuse to bow to an absurdity that would end in the atrocious and despicable killing of my own children by my own hand. In fact, coming bakc to that rather well-known story, I think Abraham should have thought about things a little longer. He is very lucky that an angel came to him on time, he should feel ashamed. I have never ever been able to see him as anything but deeply, deeply misguided, enslaved to his patriarchal super-machismo godfather-God. In fact it is his story as analysed by Kierkegaard that has made all religion deeply suspicious to me. I can admire Kierkegaard’s explanation and I go along with it completely. I think it is brilliant. The concept of the Knight of Faith is one which I espouse. But precisely because I go along with it I would take another course of action to Abraham, I would have made another choice. After all, what was Abraham doing and for who? What does obeying your God mean? Is such obeisance interest-free? Is it a case of obeying for the joy of doing so or is it about being frightened of the consequences? I would hope to be less impressed by such unreasonable and unthinkable demands and tell God to grow up and stop asking such ridiculous questions, stop behaving like some machismo loyalty-addict. Honestly, the God of the Old Testament is a worrying figure. I prefer the Greek gods, they at least did not rpetend to be perfect.
Jake: But what you can say of Abraham is what you can also say of yourself. Abraham obviously puts service to his God above everything regardless of the reason and you put service to your children above everything, regardless of rhyme or reason.
Jacob: That is not true. For me it is a clear choice between my children and some unthinkably stupid demand. And because I cannot think it, it requires a special response, a preemptive response. My knighthood consists in resisting the unthinkable, the obscene and the absurd. I can argue my position with regard to my children. They are mine as children. I fathered them and have a responsibility towards them and their well-being, but the fact is that they are not mine in the sense that I might dispose of them in any way I might see fit. They are not objects I can lay claim to for my own use. Children are more than objects or tools; they are more than subjects even. They are a part of the world and growing into their freedom, their responsibility, their response and their lives cannot or at least should not be sacrificed to any use that I can impose upon them. To ask them to help me clean up the garden or clear the table is a very different thing. I can use my children well; I can bring pressure to bear on them to do things which might benefit their upbringing, and make them into responsible and self-disciplined grown-ups, but I cannot sacrifice them. They are not mine to sacrifice. In that sense I can understand the fury and grudge of Clytemnestra: you do not sacrifice your children to utility, however great the promised benefit. Agamemnon was a creep and deserved eveyrthing he had coming to him. Lucretius was right on that score.
Jake: Ok. So you would refuse to sacrifice your children to save the planet?
Jacob: Well yes. That is right and for the two reasons I just mentioned: they are not mine to dispose of, and I cannot conceive of any possible situation in which such a course of action would appear reasonable or right and I do not want to bow to the absurd and the cruel.
Jake: Ok, so three reaqsons.
Jacob: If there is one kind of person I really loathe it is the macho-dork-evil-monster type. I enjoy absurd humour precisely because it is absurd and funny and macho men are absurd and funny at a safe distance. But close up they are more dangerous than gorillas and I feel for the poor people who are at their mercy; there is nothing more revolting than macho autocracy. As soon as the absurd starts taking itself seriously it becomes seriously frightening and needs to be responded to unequivocally and I will not give it my children never mind the promised benefit.
Jake: With what?
Jacob: What do you mean?
Jake: Responded to unequivocally with what? How do you respond to them?
Jacob: With reason and the appeal to the reasonable, which is not quite the same thing.
Jake: But that’s precisely the problem, you are not reasoning your position. You just do not much like gorillas disguised as men.
Jacob: Well that is certainly true. It is a form of weakness: enslavement to a bad idea. But that is beside the point. I think I have argued my position. If a situation is unimaginable and unthinkable you have good reason to stop at the point where reason can still function adequately. I can imagine killing my children, it is imaginable and it is the worst thing I could imagine. I cannot think of any reason to ever be persuaded to do so. Imagining killing them for a cause that is unimaginable takes me beyond my powers. I am lost. And therefore I keep to safe ground: I could never willingly kill my children not even if it is to save the planet from a dickhead who wants to put me to the test.
Jake: Yeah, well that is what I am doing now, by confronting you with a hypothetical situation. You are not doing too well: you are responsible for having us all killed!
Jacob: No I am not! That fool of a vanity-circus-superman who is demanding absurd behaviour of me is responsible for that, it is him we should be focusing on. I am responsible not just for my life and that of my child but also for my dignity and that of my child.
Jake: So you consider your dignity more important than your life?
Jacob: Ehm… now that is a good question. Yes, I suppose I do in the sense that I can imagine not wanting to live in certain circumstances where my dignity is torn to shreds. And with dignity I mean something special. Not the view that others have of me, the importance of which is conditional, while my ability to respond to that image is limited. With dignity I refer to the view I have privately of myself, which may be flawed but which is all I have got. One of the situations where I could imagine putting my dignity above my life would be the situation where I have allowed myself to be dictated into truly despicable behaviour by some idiot with a vanity issue.
Jake: So you would prefer to have all of us suffer death rather than suffer a dent in your dignity?
Jacob: Well, now you are putting it in a very black and white sort of way. I am quite prepared to suffer indignities for a greater good. But now you are asking a supreme sacrifice of something that is not mine to give, so that I have to arrogate my claim in the face of something that I can only judge completely stupid and absurd. There comes a moment where my dignity would have to prevail over my own life and even over the survival of the planet as a whole. And what choice do I have? My children, which to a great extent are what I live for, die in both scenarios. The absurd is one of my moral guides in a negative sense. A soon as society or any person demands absurd behaviour of me I will judge it case by case. If the absurdity is insignificant and needs to be suffered for a reasonable and greater good, then I will suffer the absurdity with some patience although I will look towards technology or management to help solve the problem. Traffic lights are a good case in point: I will stop for a red light when driving in a car because I recognize the greater good of an orderly and safe circulation of car traffic. Cars are cumbersome creatures and dangerous, they can hurt people and other creatures. Traffic lights help and I can see the need to obey them in every case, as a driver of a car. So even late at night, I will obey the traffic lights when driving my car, even when there is no other traffic about. I have much less patience with bicycle stoplights and least of all with pedestrian lights. After all, bikes and bodies are agile, quick to respond and much less destructive to others. Moreover we are autonomous and the more so when a choice affects only our own safety. When I disobey the rules in a responsible way I am at most risking my own life. That is a risk I am often, though not always, prepared to take. I spend a lot of time preparing my children for responsible and critical participation in traffic, getting them to understand the difference between the rules of traffic and the dangers of traffic. Rules become numbing and make you acquiesce in the absurd, at the same time, without rules we would be in a situation where the strongest, the most daring and the most stupid dictate the terms of my life. That is not a desirable situation. The tension between rules and the spirit that informs them changes with each situation. There is a reciprocal tension between the spirit and the legislative effect of the rule. That tension needs to be the focus of our constant reformative and critical attention. Laws need to be tested. So now for the supreme sacrifice: my children for the planet. Never. Fuck the idiot who thought of such a terrible and stupid exchange, I will not bow for it, even at the risk of taking the whole lot of you into meaninglessness on the other side of catastrophe. I mean listen to the story! Here is Vlad le Putain, he has an arsenal of weapons and says to me: “Kill your children or I will destroy the planet HAhahaha!” It is ridiculous; let him grow up!
Jake: But aren’t you yourself being absurd now? Aren’t you saying: dignity is worth more than life? My dignity is worth more than the planet? You are after all not saying that the life of your children is worth more than the planet. Because by your failure to kill them you will have sealed their fate together with that of the whole planet. So what you are saying is: “Your demand is absurd, beneath my dignity; I will not bow to it. My dignity in this issue is of greater value to me than the whole planet.” The question we have come to now is: what basis do you have for such a point of view? Isn’t that just a choice you have made, a choice moreover on the basis of a narrow frame of reference? After all, if you kill your children you might be able to salvage something of an admittedly bad situation. Like the slave you mentioned. At least you would have a life to attempt to do the salvage-work in. But now: all is quiet and meaningless because Apie Japie wanted to preserve his dignity for the moment before the catastrophe plunges us into oblivion and meaninglessness. Wow, that’s quite an absurd stand you are taking.
Jacob: Yes you are right I guess. Even so. I still feel it is the right one. I suppose because I feel angry at the macho culture that uniquely would make such a situation imaginable.
Jake: So we all have to suffer because of your petty little issue with macho-men?
Jacob: Well, yes. But imagine the reverse. I kill my children and the macho strong men says: “Great!” What then? Life just goes on as if nothing happened? I don’t think so. I would want to die for having committed such a horrendous crime. So maybe I would make sure I do. However, I am not going to commit such a crime, so forget it. The world will just have to end for the benefit of my moral comfort: the situation that brought me to this stand is so stupid that it doesn’t deserve the attention we’re giving it. It could never happen and if it did happen we would instead of giving into such idiocy try to salvage the situation, and our dignity, by convincing the macho man to grow up and stop being so ridiculous. And if we can’t and the catastrophe happens, well, nothing will matter anymore anyway, least of all the macho man. That at least, is a relief.
Jake: From the other side of the catastrophe the one does not measure up against the other because there is nothing to measure. But we still have questions to ask. Why is it your children who can inspire such a reaction? Would you refuse to kill anyone for the same purpose?
Jacob: My wife would inspire the same reaction. With others I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it and, quite honestly I would prefer not to, the whole exercise is beginning to irritate me intensely.
Jake: Because you are feeling uncomfortable.
Jacob: No, not really… because I am feeling impatient with the ridiculousness of the hypothetical situation. It is too far from reality.
Jake: Oh come off it, you are feeling uncomfortable.
Jacob: No I am not. But OK, I’ll again go along with you. Look, my children are dear to me because I have helped bring them forth and bring them up, I have helped shape them and they have turned out lovely kids to have around. But also, and perhaps more importantly, they are people with their own freedom, their own good to search out. Who am I to take away their lives? I would prefer to take my own. Their lives are mine in a very specific sense: I have devoted my care and my love to them. That is the full extent of my ownership of them: my investment in their lives. The return of that investment is their life as something I can observe from my position as their dad. It amounts to very little after they have become adults. Their life is ahead of them and who am I to determine that life by ending it for the purposes of some absurd demand? Quite apart from the fact that I could never be sure that the demand is part of some fantastic humiliating hoax, one does not bow to the absurd in such a way, never.
Jake: But why not?
Jacob: Because life is only priceless if it is lived well and freely and is kept well free from any pricing index. It is quite easy to put a price on life. I choose not to. It receives a price only in the destruction of its fullness. By putting price on life, you determine it, to some extent, and make it into an object. I don’t think life is, or should be an object in anything but a grammatical sense. Of course no one escapes paying the price for this or that silly action. Ironically people dented by such debts paid off are much to be preferred to those without any dents at all. We live in a world where our response to situations form the building blocks of a life. To be without any dents at the end of such a life is to have not lived fully. Innocence at our age is no longer innocence but ignorance and naivety. Dented people have lived and understand that life is more than any set of principles. That is why an aged face can be so beautiful. We pay for all our deeds in some way or another, some by sculpting our face, some by becoming larger and more generous. To kill one’s own children is to pay a price with something that should be kept priceless whatever the exchange rate offered. The objective of a life is to live it well, to forge its meaning and to respond well to that which is given you in emergent situations, to make things into something of which you can be proud. To sacrifice another person’s chance of a life for some absurd demand can never be justified. The attempt to justify it is in itself absurd. I once talked to a lady whose husband….
Jake: No no no, no lady with a husband. I don’t understand. What we are discussing is the price of humanity at large, the world at large and the price of your children relative to that.
Jacob: Not really. That is what we appear to be talking about. What we are actually talking about is a situation which is in itself so stupid and improbable that it makes mincemeat at any attempt to rationalise it. That is in fact what is interesting about this problem. Let me tell you about this lady and her husband. You see, he committed suicide, or tried to, I cannot remember quite which. I did not know about his suicide at the time that this story occurred. Anyway, I had come in late to work and told her the reason, which was that someone had jumped in front of the train. Somehow I felt that to suffer delay as a result of something so momentous was trivial. If a person is that desperate, that unhappy, I thought I should reprioritise my own concerns and not mind about the delay. And I felt that that was a good response. We discussed the fact that it was unattractive to feel impatient about people who jump in front of trains. But as it is a popular form of suicide in Holland, especially in the autumn when the leaves start falling, there are, inevitably, some fellow passengers who, sotto voce, would make jibes like: why couldn’t he jump off a building or something, or take pills, then at least he wouldn’t bother anybody else. And of course one can feel some sympathy for such an attitude, especially if one suspects that suicides look for a dramatic setting for their last act. But the lady looked at me with eyes that had seen too much and said: look, such a person is at the end of something. He no longer cares either one way or the other, he just wants to die and he wants to make sure he succeeds. I could understand that, I think. What I mean is, that I could imagine someone feeling that way even though I could not imagine what it must feel like. Now, if we project that onto our silly situation, I would, I imagine, feel something similar. If my lovely children have to die to keep a world alive in which this kind of situation can occur, well I am not sure I would feel it is worth it, especially if I am made the murderer-saviour.
Jake: Isn’t that cynical? You said yourself that evil is banal and that it leads to the absurd. That is just a fact of life. So the situation is more probable than you might want to believe. The moment the evil man makes his evil proposition, is the moment that you need to respond, the ball is in your court, however stupid the route it took to get there. And here you are getting us all killed and everything destroyed for the sake of your most precious possession. I am not even sure your children would want that.
Jacob: I’m tired.
Jake: After all there are lots of other innocent children who would suffer as a result of your feeling that way.
Jacob: But would I care? I suppose that I would. I would care. And now it looks as if I am dangerously close to admitting that there might be a moment of doubt in my mind. And that would certainly be true. I am not afraid of doubt. Doubt is thought, and thought is being-in-the-world and being-with-the-nothing, the clearing that we have in front of us, to think the gap between theory and practice and so build a well-conceived bridge between thinking and doing. But I am afraid that I would in the end allow the whole world to destroy itself in this madness. In such a situation I would stop caring as a result of caring. I would be caught in a terrible paradox where I care so much that I stop caring and can no longer develop a view across the clearing. I would end up becoming supremely selfish. I would begin to wish for silence, for complete stillness and meaninglessness rather than have to go through that absurd anomaly.
Jake: Would you commit suicide rather than having to decide to kill your children?
Jacob: No, I would not. I would offer my life instead, but I would not kill myself for some idiot.
Jake: Goodness me, things have become serious now. This conversation has numbed me. And all because of a situation that surely could never happen. So what about killing your children in order to save a million other children.
Jacob: Oh shut up! Bugger off! Such situations are ridiculous!
Jake: You realize what has happened don’t you?
Jacob: Yes, I think I do.
Jake: We have come to the end of reason. The end where nothing helps, where there is no categorical imperative no hypothetical imperative, no story to help us, nothing that is holy and beyond question.. There is only absurdity in every direction. There was a case once of someone giving their son to save the world.
Jacob: Yeah, I know. I was beginning to suspect you weren’t working within a narrative vacuum.
Jake: So you’re no god then?
Jacob: It would appear not.
Jake: Do you believe all that stuff?
Jacob: I’m not sure that matters in the present context. There are people who do.
Jake: Yes, but do you?
Jacob: No, I don’t I don’t believe in such gods. My god is Spinoza’s god.
Jake: What did you mean when you said that you are not sure it matters?
Jacob: Well, there are people who believe it and who act on the basis of that belief. That is what matters
Jake: But they are wrong.
Jacob: How do you know?
Jake: Why don’t you believe it?
Jacob: Well, apart from the fact that I don’t believe in a Santa-Claus-kind-of-god, it didn’t work.
Jake: What do you mean?
Jacob: Well He supposedly gave His son and He is supposedly perfect but the gift didn’t work did it?
Jake: You mean that humanity wasn’t saved?
Jacob: No! It wasn't. In fact as many or even more people have been killed, raped and humiliated in the name of that gift, in the name of the three Abrahamic faiths than in the names of Hitlerism, Stalinism and Maoism put together! Communism, Social Darwinism and National Socialism are child’s play compared to the destructive forces of the three western religions. As an ideology they are all three disasters and why? Because the God they each of them picture is a Mafiosi paternal loyalty addict: a god perhaps, our father perhaps, but also our Godfather: A sugar daddy demanding absolute loyalty and theological monogamy while he is free to impregnate any married lady he feels the urge to use.
Jake: Yeah but there is something beautiful in Christ.
Jacob: Oh yes I agree, something profoundly beautiful and if they had left off all that crap about miracles…. What do you have left if you leave out all the miracles? You have the sermon on the mount and the health of a morality that turns the other cheek, the most beautiful fact of Christ’s morality, even though he probably took it from Socrates, I mean, read the Gorgias, it is all there. All the rest of the New Testament is nonsense. That one deed, done, not out of altruism, but done in the full humanity of enlightened self-interest in the interest of your own moral health, that is beautiful. If only he left it at that.
Jake: He probably did.
Jacob: Just that one example to all of humanity. But no, all sorts of nonsense had to be invented around that one deed to beef him up as a brand name. I think I understand Dostoyevsky’s story in the Brothers Karamazov. It is Putin doing Christianity.
Jake: You don’t like Putin do you?
Jacob: It is not just Putin as a person. I don’t know the man and admittedly hope never to have to meet him. It is rather that he, like Stalin and Hitler and all the strong men before him, are rather good examples of a certain way of being: Institutionalised strength, making all of us, including himself into the slaves of his banal wishes. Lots of things wished for should not be wished for. It is a case of bad wishing, bad aesthetics, bad desiring. Christ, when we relieve him of the accretions of all that nonsense about miracles and divinity, was decidedly gentle. He was no strong “manly” man with a quick temper and a limitless capacity for violence and revenge. He was gentle, therein lay his strength. He found his strength in his submission to the care of his soul, the being that he was in the process of becoming for himself. It was the gentle strength that was able to turn the other cheek. He was healthy because he did not allow himself to become infected and affected by the desire to respond in kind, which, by definition is the response whereby you mirror the other to whom you are giving a response. He, like Socrates before him, was larger, truly generous. But not large enough to stand out. His humanity wasn't enough. His poor apostles and followers had to make him into superman. That was unfortunate. And if it was his own doing, then I am wrong about him in a very profound way, for in that case he was not the man I imagined him to be. Luckily we will never really know and each of us can have our own story as long as some orthodoxy does not claim to be speaking the truth and threatening to kill its heretics. As far as I am concerned, God never needed to give his son, was never asked to do so and those who said he did ascribe to God a banal category of the pure.
Jake: What are you on about?
Jacob: Well his son was born of a virgin wasn’t it. His son had to be born of a pure woman according to his evangelists. As if virgins are pure simply because they are virgins. That is machistic aesthetics, the aesthetics of the human gorilla. Virgins are not pure, nor are they necessarily innocent. They are virgins, nothing more nothing less. Innocence is an autonomous category, it does not depend on virginity. You cannot and should not infer qualities that are subject to freedom from qualities that are not. If a man rapes a virgin she loses not her purity but her innocence perhaps and her virginity, her hope in a fair lot perhaps, but she loses none of her purity unless she herself sacrifices it to the event. God’s rape of Mary had the advantage that its violence was minimal, but it was rape nevertheless. She never consented, she was just told. A virgin is by virtue of her virginity no more pure than my sock. If Mary was a good girl it was not because she was a virgin, it was because she was good. Whatever good means. Jesus Christ was no more the son of God than anyone else. Jesus gave himself and it was a wasted gift. He saved no-one except those who learnt gentility and generosity from his example: a tiny few. It is not in the gift of a son that made the event so momentous, it was in the giving of a body to preserve the full health of a self as… a human being. Jesus’ sacrifice was Socratic, it was the sacrifice of someone who is happy to die well in order to preserve the health of his soul. It is the Crito but then different. It was the same gift as Socrates had given: his life as a work of art. Neither of them felt the need to kill others. They were gentle. They submitted to absurd power, not by murdering others and becoming an accomplice to the absurd, but by becoming its resigned victim, they are knights of resignation, accepted the force of the absurd and died privileged as full lives. Christ’s life was a supreme work of art. If God was perfect and all-knowing when he gave his son to save his people, he must have known at least one of two possible things: 1. That the world would not be saved by his gift or, 2. as perhaps Spinoza would have argued, that the world is perfect already and as such does not need saving. The perfection of the world is admittedly autonomous, it is perfect as a world and may not, as such feel perfect to individual people, who have only their own myopic perspective on things which easily rubs out the beauty of the world as it is. Jesus Christ’s gift of his body to his soul is merely another chapter in that curious perfection that the world manifests in its being a world. Christ is not the medicine the world needed to be cured, it is not ill; it is a world in which humanity is…perfectly human. Not too human, but fully human, not too human, but human in all its possible ways of being. Christ and Socrates achieved a fullness in their lives that few people have, but they they are far from unique. There have been many who have given themselves to fulfill themselves and meeting violence with gentleness and generosity. I feel sorry for those who misguidedly give themselves in sacrifice by hurting others. That is no martyrdom, it is merely misguided misery and unfair to those they kill, who are as innocent and as guilty as the rest of us. Unfortunately the institutions that grew around Christ are nearly all of them strong institutions. Christ’s name became the name of a strong man’s institution. Not always. There are examples of people imitating Christ and doing that well by showing gentleness and generosity, the ability to love the world as it is in its perfection. They made their lives into beautiful things, to be cherished as stories. I prefer the power of gentleness to the power of violence, even though the virile strong man is rather marvellous to watch: he is like a tiger: beautiful and dangerous, never to be trusted to be any other than a tiger.
Jake: Hitler was like that?
Jacob: Well no. Hitler was even more frightening: a stupid frenzied baboon with technology, order and discipline at his command. Watching the old films it is almost impossible to understand the magic he wielded.
Jake: We’re wondering off again. I want to get back to the father sacrificing his children to save the world.
Jacob: I thought we had done that one?
Jake: Yes, but don’t you want to change your mind?
Jacob: No. I am no Maffia godfather. I will not kill my children
Jake: But we just said that with this moral dilemma we had entered the realm of the absurd, that there are no guidelines. That whatever you do is both bad and good.
Jacob: I know.
Jacob: So what? I will not kill my children. The example is absurd, it will never happen, and because of that I do not have to even come near to the borders of my comfort zone. I will not kill my children, under no circumstances that I can imagine. There are far more real moral dilemmas to deal with. God giving his son was spurious. Surely we are all his children. What was he doing with Mary? The story is too strange on all sides and the cultural context of a strong man’s culture too telling by half. I’m sorry to say this but I suspect that Mary was very frightened by the consequences of possible illegitimacy. I mean, look at some countries now: the merest suspicion and the fault is always the woman’s. Strange things happen when you are in the midst of a culture ruled by the narrowly conceived and the absurd.
Jake: So you are denying the virginity of Mary?
Jacob: I am not denying anything as such. I cannot prove a thing. It is just not something I would believe. But then it is not my religion. People must believe what they deem good. But it would be a good idea to stop murdering, raping and humiliating others for holding a different belief. I rather like Grayson Perry’s advice: hold your beliefs lightly. As a story the New Testament, stretches the conceivable. In fact both testaments cannot be taken too seriously as wie es gewezen. The explanation of the virgin birth as a means of cultural escape, I find personally much more compelling. In that way I guess I feel sorry for people who have to go to such ridiculous lengths to save their skin and their dignity. The point is that Christ’s position, if I read him correctly, is that people have their dignity whatever. And nothing that anyone can do to them can change that. And even if someone behaves in an undignified way, it is your duty to restore that dignity to that person by kindness and generosity. We are not to judge others, we are to judge ourselves. Now that is not tenable. We have to judge others and we do so all the time. What matters is not that one judges other people but how we treat them as a result of that judgment. One’s duty there is to be gentle, generous, just and fair.
Jake: But you hold the belief that it is better to let the world go to damnation than give your children to save it.
Jacob: Yes I do. First of all because I cannot imagine a reasonable or otherwise convincing demand for me to give such a sacrifice. As long as that is unthinkable I do not have to think its possibility through to the end. Furthermore I cannot imagine myself withdrawing the freedom my children have, to determine their own good. It is not up to me to kill them for a cause I believe in. It contradicts the first rule of Rawls’ fair society which, up until now I have found the most attractive and workable ethic I have come across. Lastly, even though the banal and the absurd cruelty of an evil man is realistically possible, I do not have to take such a situation seriously, partly because he is very unlikely to be able to wield such devastating power and partly because he would not be very likely to privilege me with such a pivotal position in his evil scheme and most importantly in that I do not think such people should be indulged in any way. The tyrant is created and maintained by his minions. They are as guilty as he is. The tyrant is culpable, but never less so that the minions who keep him in power. So: I can return to my comfort zone and love my children and they can rest assured that there is no Abrahamic monster where they see their dad.
Jake: I don’t think you’ll ever be a great leader.
Jacob: Well, no. I suppose you are right. But if leadership requires me to become macho-child-killer, I do not want leadership. There are many ways of leading.
Jake: You lead by example?
Jacob: No, I don’t lead. I think and reflect and when that becomes impossible I arrogate a position that feels right. I contemplate and ruminate. That is what I do. I write and if people want to, they read, if not, they don’t.
Jake: A world at that pace would be far too slow too hesitant and too polite to accomplish much.
Jake: The meaning of the end of the world at this side of the catastrophe is almost as meaningless as it probably is on the other side.
Jacob: I think you are right.
Jake: We’re nearly home.
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