When Paris was liberated in August, 1944, everything was possible. A new world needed to be created to protect their regained freedom. The philosophy that epitomized this desire for freedom was “existentialism.” The term, originally used in a derogatory sense to characterize those who followed the philosophical concept of the primacy of “being,” was grudgingly accepted by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as a description of their thinking. Existentialism fitted easily with the idea of the absurd proposed by Albert Camus. These concepts became the main focus of both art and philosophy in the decade that followed the end of World War II.
Although there were precursors, existentialism was largely the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). They met in 1929 and became lifelong companions, although they were never married and never monogamous (Bakewell, 2016; Seymour-Jones, 2008). Women should be just as free as men (de Beauvoir, 1949). In the agrégation en philosophie of 1930, a national exam organized by the French civil service, Sartre and de Beauvoir placed first and second. Sartre was short – about 5 feet – and the exotropia of his right eye (caused by a childhood infection) gave him a disconcerting appearance; de Beauvoir was tall – about 5 feet 10 inches – and elegant.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were the leading intellectuals of France during the war. In a break with tradition, they were as much creative artists as philosophers. The theory of Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) was illustrated in the novel La Nausée (1938), and in the plays and Les Mouches (1943) and Huis Clos (1944). Since art is far more convincing than theory y, existentialism became more popular than any previous philosophy.
The main tenets of existentialism were summarized by Sartre in a lecture in October 1945, subsequently published as Existentialisme est un humanism (1946). The key to the philosophy is the idea that “existence precedes essence:”
What do we mean here by “existence precedes essence”? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and onlv afterward defines himself. If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it. Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be, and since he conceives of himself only after he exists, iust as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism. (Sartre, 1946)
We could therefore not look to God for guidance as to what was right. Instead, we must create our own morality. In her essay Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations (1945), de Beauvoir wrote:
I throw myself without help and without guidance into a world where I am not installed ahead of time waiting for myself. I am free, and my projects are not defined by pre-existing interests; they posit their own ends. … Man may not be naturally good, but he is not naturally bad either; he is nothing at first. It is up to him to make himself good or bad depending on whether he assumes his freedom or renounces it. (de Beauvoir, 1945).
In addition to being responsible for his own actions, a person must by his or her example be responsible for the actions of others. The recognition of others is part and parcel of the existential being:
Therefore, the man who becomes aware of himself directly in the cogito also perceives all others, and he does so as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which we say someone is spiritual, or cruel, or jealous) unless others acknowledge him as such. I cannot discover any truth whatsoever about myself except through the mediation of another. The other is essential to my existence, as well as to the knowledge I have of myself. (Sartre, 1946).
And so, we are “condemned to be free:”
If, however, God does not exist, we will encounter no values or orders that can legitimize our conduct. Thus, we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. We are left alone and without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. (Sartre, 1946).
The existentialism of Sartre was atheistic. If there is no Creator, there is no design that defines the essence of man and that determines how he should act. Man defines his own essence. However, although most existentialists tended to atheism, several religious thinkers promulgated a Christian variant of existentialism (Marcel, 1949,1951; Macquarrie, 1965). In this philosophy existence is a gift – we are allowed rather than condemned to be free. Faith is an act of freedom.
Sartre had studied the philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger in the period when he was appointed to the Institut français d’Allemagne in Berlin (1933-34). The title of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) clearly alluded to Martin Heidegger’s, Being and Time (1927). The concept of existence preceding essence was likely derived from Heidegger’s philosophy, which distinguished man from other beings in terms of his freedom. Heidegger (§10) did claim that existentia preceded essentia, but for him the latter was simply the properties of a being, without Sartre’s connotation of a design used in the creation of particular examples (Flynn, 2014, p 237; Webber, 2018, p 8). For Heidegger, human beings were distinct from other beings since their consciousness granted them a particular point of view within the world – a Da-Sein or “being-there.” One of Heidegger’s numerous neologisms described this as Jemeinigkeit – always being my own being. Da-Sein was characterized by embodiment, location in space and time, and an awareness of mortality. Heidegger denied that he was an existentialist, though many have so described him (e.g., Kaufmann, 1963; Macquarie, 1965; Flynn, 2006).
Heidegger (1889-1976) had become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1928, and was elected Rector in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power. Heidegger was entranced by the idea of the German Volk and became an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party. He claimed to have been blind to the racism and warmongering of the party, but his reputation was forever tainted by his support of Hitler. Heidegger was a philosopher who recognized the importance of being, and realized the freedom it entailed. Yet he failed to exercise that freedom with responsibility. One of the main ideas of the existentialism proposed by Sartre and de Beauvoir was the necessity that actions freely chosen must be held accountable.
At the opening night of Les Mouches in 1943, Albert Camus (1913-1960) introduced himself to Sartre. Camus had just published a novel L’Étranger and a book of philosophical essays entitled Le mythe de Sisyphe. Sartre had been impressed by these works, and he was charmed by the young author. Sartre and Camus became fast friends (Aronson, 2004; Zaretsky, 2013).
Camus was an Algerian of French origin (derogatively known as a “pied noir,” though no one is completely sure of the origin of the term). After graduating from university, he joined the Algerian Communist Party and wrote for a leftist newspaper in Algiers. When this was banned by the new government of occupied France in 1940, Camus moved to Paris. There he worked for Combat, the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance, becoming its editor in 1944. Throughout his life he suffered from chronic tuberculosis. The 1954 portrait below is by Karsh.
Camus’ Le Mythe of Sisyphe has the most striking opening of any work of philosophy:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions whether the mind has nine of twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.
Camus points out the paradox of the question. What makes life worth living – whether it be freedom, truth, love, beauty –is also that for which one is willing to die. The absurd rests at the heart of the human condition (Carroll, 2007). The word derives from the Latin ab (from, out of) and surdus which means deaf (and by association, silent) and generally means lacking in reason or meaning. Nagel (1971) describes our sense of the absurd as the discrepancy between how seriously we attempt to understand the universe and how arbitrarily the universe actually proceeds. Camus describes it:
What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. (Camus, 1942).
Camus traces the idea of absurdity in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Kafka. (The chapter on Kafka was removed from the initial edition of the book by the censors since Kafka was Jewish). Camus finds that the absurdity of the human condition is what makes artistic creation necessary. He quotes Nietzsche (from the Nachlass)
We have art in order not to die of the truth.
And proceeds to describe the process of art in an absurd world:
The problem for the absurd artist is to acquire this savoir-vivre which transcends savoir-faire. And in the end, the great artist under this climate is, above all, a great living being, it being understood that living in this case is just as much experiencing as reflecting. The work then embodies an intellectual drama. The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. If the world were clear, art would not exist.
Camus concludes his book with an essay on Sisyphus. The illustration below shows a 1920 painting by Franz von Stuck. Sisyphus refused to accept death and insisted on living. For this love of life, the gods condemned him forever to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back as soon as it reached the top, so that he must continuously begin again. Camus sees in Sisyphus the artist in an absurd world:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Darkness at Noon
Between the liberation and the elections leading to the Fourth Republic in 1946, France was governed by the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Française, consisting of representatives from the communist party, the socialists, and the Christian democrats. Given the economic debacle of the 1930s and the war against the fascists, politics tended toward the left and many considered the possibility of joining the international communist revolution. However, the institution of the Marshall Plan in 1947 led the French government to exclude the communists from the governing coalition. The Cold war was beginning.
Everyone remembered Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 and 1938, wherein countless members of the military and the government were put on trial for being traitors to the revolution, and either executed or sent to forced-labor camps in the Gulag. The most striking of these trials was that of Nikolai Bukharin, who had written The ABC of Communism (the “communist bible”), and who had served on the Politburo and the Comintern. The illustration below shows Bukharin with Stalin in 1929 on the tribune of the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.
At his trial Bukharin confessed to his crimes against the Revolution, but did not acknowledge any specific acts of treason. His confession is often interpreted as the last act of a true believer – one who willingly sacrificed himself so that the revolution might prosper.
In 1940, Arthur Koestler published Darkness at Noon, a novel that is based on the interrogation and trial of Bukharin. The title, derived from Job 5:14 by Koestler’s translator and mistress, Daphne Hardy, described the state of moral confusion that surrounded the trial.
They meet with darkness in the day time, and grope in the noonday as in the night.
The novel’s main character, Rubashov, undergoes three interrogations and finally admits to betraying the revolution, and is executed. The issue is whether it is justified to abrogate present morality for the sake of a future utopia. Should one deny truth and justice in order to bring about a paradise promised, but certainly not guaranteed, by the revolution. As the epitaph for the second interrogation Koestler quoted from Dietrich von Nieheim’s 1410 history of the Avignon papacy:
When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as the end, the use of every means is sanctified, even deceit, treachery, violence, usury, prison, and death. Because order serves the good of the community, the individual must be sacrificed for the common good.
When published in France in 1944, Koestler’s novel initiated extensive discussion. Could the show trials, the executions and the labor camps of the USSR be justified by the goals of the communist revolution? How far can the ends justify the means? In the years that followed World War II, the USSR continued to restrict the freedom of its artists, and to conduct show trials of those who had supposedly betrayed the revolution. In his 1947 essay on Humanism and Terror, Merleau-Ponty attempted to justify the purges and the labor camps. Merleau-Ponty later recanted, but Sartre continued his steadfast support of the communists, despite the Berlin blockade (1948-9) and the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution (1956). Only when the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, did he finally renounce the USSR’s claim to represent the true course of history
Man in Revolt
In 1951, Camus published L’homme révolté. The title is usually translated as The Rebel, though Camus is more concerned with revolution than rebellion – with changing society for the future rather than reacting against the past. In this work, Camus considered whether violence can be justified in order to alter the course of history toward a better future. The book poses a question complementary to that posed in Le mythe de Sisyphe:
In the age of negation, it was to some avail to examine one’s position concerning suicide. In the age of ideologies, we must examine our position in relation to murder.
In his book Camus reviews the history of revolution and terror as treated by philosophers and writers. He considers Ivan’s story of the “Grand Inquisitor” in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as representative of how revolutions end with loss of freedom:
the Grand Inquisitors who imprison Christ and come to tell Him that His method is not correct, that universal happiness cannot be achieved by the immediate freedom of choosing between good and evil, but by the domination and unification of the world. The first step is to conquer and rule. The kingdom of heaven will, in fact, appear on earth, but it will be ruled over by men — a mere handful to begin with, who will be the Caesars, because they were the first to understand — and later, with time, by all men. (Camus, 1951).
Camus castigates the totalitarian movements of the 20th Century – communism and fascism – for promising freedom but, in reality, making the people mindless slaves. The future must not be used to justify violence in the present. In opposition to totalitarianism he proposed, albeit not very forcefully, the need for solidarity and moderation.
Camus, the one-time communist, had come to realize that the cult of history can support crimes against humanity. He had thus distanced himself from many of his intellectual friends who supported the ideals of the communist revolution. His book was lauded by right-wing critics, and led to a complete rupture with Sartre (Aronson, 2004; Forsdick, 2007)
Sartre, the editor of Les Temps Modernes disliked the book’s conclusions, but did not wish to review it personally because of his friendship with Camus. Ultimately, he arranged for a very negative review by Francis Jeanson to be published in the journal. Jeanson’s critique infuriated Camus, who immediately wrote a rebuttal. He felt it inappropriate to be described as “being separated from reality” given his activity with the Résistance:
I am beginning to get a little tired of seeing myself – and even more, of seeing former militants who have never refused the struggles of their time – endlessly receive lessons in efficacy from critics who have never done anything more than turn their seats in the direction of history.
Jeanson replied to Camus, and Sartre then published a patronizing public letter to Camus, beginning “My dear Camus,” wherein he accuses him of a “dismal self-importance” and claimed:
If you really hope to prevent any movement of the people from degenerating into tyranny, don’t begin by condemning it without appeal, and threatening to retreat to a desert.
Camus and Sartre never talked again.
The Death of Camus
On January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car accident. After celebrating the New Year in Lourmarin, he accepted a ride back to Paris with his publisher Michel Gallimard. Gallimard was driving, Camus was in the front and Gallimard’s wife and daughter were in the back. The car suffered a punctured tire at high speed and crashed into a tree. Camus was killed instantly and Michel Gallimard died several days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter survived.
There has been some speculation that the tire was sabotaged by the KGB to silence Camus as a critic of international communism (Catelli, 2020). However, there is little hard evidence. It is easier to accept the crash as another example of the arbitrary absurdity of human life. Camus had intended to take the train back to Paris, before Michel Gallimard offered him a ride in his luxurious Facel Vega.
In his eulogy for his old friend, Sartre, who had not been in contact with Camus since 1952 wrote:
He represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters. His obstinate humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged an uncertain war against the massive and formless events of the time. (Sartre, 1960).
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The Axial Age
In his 1949 book Vom Ursprung und Ziel des Geschichte (translated in 1953 as The Origin and Goal of History), Karl Jaspers proposed that the millennium before the time of Christ (or more specifically 800-200 BCE) could be considered an Achsenzeit or “Axial Age.” During this period, in five isolated regions of the world (China, India, Persia, Israel/Palestine, and Greece), human society and thought changed radically and irreversibly. A world that had until then been understood in terms of legends (mythos) was now examined in the light of reason (logos). During this time, “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.” A multiplicity of gods and demons ceded their power to one universal god or life force. Sages, prophets and philosophers proposed rules for how we should behave. Though the axial age passed long ago, we still return to these teachings for moral guidance.
Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
Jaspers trained in medicine and spent his early years as a psychiatrist. Due to his chronic lung disease, he found the demands of the clinic exhausting, and switched his interest to psychology and philosophy. Since he was married to a Jew, he lost his teaching position at Heidelberg University in 1937, and barely survived World War II without being arrested. After the war he moved to Basel, Switzerland, and presented an influential set of lectures on The Question of German Guilt in 1947.
Though he disliked the term, Jaspers became one of the existentialists. Confronted with the reality of a world that is beyond our powers of understanding, we have no recourse but to proclaim our own existence and connect with that which transcends reality. The following two quotations (via Walraff, 1970) from Jaspers’ Philosophie, originally published in 1932, are noteworthy since they foreshadow his later thinking on the Axial Age:
Every limit encountered by scientific investigation provides an opportunity to transcend. There are two kinds of limits. On the negative side appears the irrationality of the incalculable—the unintelligibility manifested by physical “constants,” atomic movements, and the so-called contingency of natural laws. On this side we are confronted by matter—the other that is not permeated by Logos. On the positive side it is freedom that appears as a limit. The sort of independently existing being that, because of its resistance, physical science could determine, though only negatively [as an unknown and unknowable thing-in-itself], now is assuredly present. The natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) undertake to capture the cognitively impenetrable with their laws and theories; the humanistic disciplines (Geisteswissenschaften) submit the results and appearances of freedom to interpretation in terms of their own laws, norms, and meanings. But the final boundary is, for the natural sciences, the dark absolutely other, and for the humanistic disciplines the freedom of Existenz as a source of communication. This latter leads me to myself.
If everything that cognitive orientation yields in the form of universally and necessarily valid knowledge is to be called “world,” then the question arises as to whether being extends beyond the world, and thought beyond orientation within the world. The soul and God—or Existenz and Transcendence as we say when we exchange the language of mythology for that of philosophy—lie outside of the world. We cannot know them in the sense in which we know things within the world. . . . Although they are not known, they are not nothing, and while they are not accessible to science they can still be thought of.
The Origin and Goal of History (1949/1953)
Jasper devoted the first section of his book on history to the Achsenzeit or Axial Age (which was also considered in a brief paper for Commentary in 1948). The German word Achse can mean “axis” (a reference line about which a vector can rotate, or which serves as a basis for measurement), “axle” (about which wheels rotate), or “pivot” (a point about which something turns). Jasper was likely using all of these meanings, though the idea of the pivot seems most salient.
This axis would be situated at the point in history which gave birth to everything which, since then, man has been able to be, the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity (p 1)
The Axial Age gave birth both to our modern rational way of thinking and to the major world religions:
What is new about this age, in all three areas of the world, is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence. (p 2)
In comparison Pre-Axial cultures appear unawakened – “as though man had not really come of himself” (p 7). Mythical narratives that were part of the pre-axial culture were sometimes maintained, but these were interpreted as parables rather than as fact.
Jaspers identified five cultures as participating in the Axial Age: China with the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tze, India with the Upanishads and the Buddha, Iran/Persia with Zoroaster/Zarathustra, Israel/Palestine with the prophets Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Greece with their philosophers and tragedians. These regions developed the new Axial way of thinking synchronously and independently. The changes likely resulted from the fact that these societies were in a state of war and turmoil, and people were avidly seeking respite from the chaos (pp 17-18).
According to Jaspers the importance of the Axial Age (pp18-20) was that
a) it was related to humanity in general rather than to specific groups:
It is one thing to see the unity of history from one’s own ground and in the light of one’s own faith, another to think of it in communication with every other human ground, linking one’s own consciousness to the alien consciousness (p 19)
b) it promoted communication and discussion, with an acknowledgement that no one has an exclusive grasp of the truth.
c) it was pre-eminent in its creativity – the writings of the sages of this period have become a yardstick against which all later creations are measured:
Until today mankind has lived by what happened during the Axial Period, by what was thought and created during that period. In each new upward flight it returns in recollection to this period and is fired anew by it. (p 7)
The Axial Age was essential to Jaspers’ schema of human history (pp 24-26) which proposed with three main stages in human development:
(i) the foundation of the major ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Northern India (valley of the Indus River) and Northern China (valley of the Huang-Ho/YellowRiver)
(ii) the Axial Age in five particular regions (China, India, Persia, Palestine, Greece) wherein civilization was allowed to grow spiritually
(iii) the age of science and technology initiated and developed in the West (Europe and North America) and then transferred (dashed lines) to other regions of the globe
Jaspers’ thinking about the Axial Age was far from precise, and has been criticized extensively (see Mullins et al, 2018). His characterization of Axial thinking appears more of a post hoc description of the cultures that he chose to include in his survey than any defining criteria for Axiality.
It is unclear why the cultures of Egypt under Akhenaten (14th Century BCE), or of Mesopotamia in the time of Hammurabi (18th Century BCE) were not considered Axial. Perhaps these cultures were too transient to be considered Axial. However, as Jaspers points out, the cultures that he included in his Axial Age also did not last.
Among the cultures that he does include, some definitely predate his Axial Period. Although the life of Zarathustra is impossible to date, his teachings appear to come from the Second Millennium BCE (Boyce, 1984; Rose, 2011). Jewish thought may have been formally written down during the Axial period but its basic ideas originated before the time of Solomon (10th Century BCE).
Although Jaspers stresses the importance of the 1st Millennium BCE to the origin of the major world religions, Christianity and Islam – the two religions with the most adherents in the modern world – began after the Axial Period. The interpretation that
Christianity and Islam fall outside the axial age chronologically, but are historically intelligible only as developments of Israel’s axial breakthrough (Bellah, 2072)
inappropriately discounts their clear origins in the 1st and 7th Centuries CE.
Nevertheless, Jaspers’ concept of an Axial Age was enthusiastically taken up by many scholars of religion (Armstrong, 2004, 2005, 2006; Bellah, 2005, 2011; Eisenstadt, 1986; Schwartz, 1975). The period has been given several other names: the Moral Revolution (Halton, 2014); the Great Transformation (Armstrong, 2006); the Age of Transcendence (Schwartz, 1975), and the theoretic age (Donald, 1991).
Extension of the Idea of Axiality
Each of those who followed Jasper fleshed out the description of the Axial Age to include some defining features:
a) the formulation of an ethical rather than coercive morality. People should do what is right and not what those in power demand. Leaders may be necessary but their powers must not be absolute. Every person should have equal opportunities for success in life.
b) the idea of a “moralizing god,” a supreme force who (or which) requires human beings to live a good life, rewards virtuous behavior, punishes the sinful (typically in an afterlife), and always knows when laws are being transgressed.
c) the replacement of the ritual of animal (or human) sacrifice by the life of religious devotion. The divine does not require the sacrifice of animals but rather the dedication of a believer’s life to compassion and service.
d) the creation of concepts not immediately related to the external world. The Axial Age addressed questions such as what happens after death and whether the world was exactly how it appears. As Schwartz (1975) stated this “transcendent” type of thinking was “a kind of standing back and looking beyond – a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.”
e) the use of external memory devices such as written records (Donald, 1991). This allowed culture and technology to be transmitted from one generation to another without the need for their continual rediscovery.
Seshat History of the Axial Age (2019)
The Seshat (Turchin, 2015) is a data bank of global history, founded in 2011 and used by many different investigators to examine questions about human cultural evolution, economic development and sociological change. These studies support the new field of “cliodynamics” – the science of historical change – a term deriving from the Greek Goddess of History. The data bank itself is named after Seshat, the Egyptian Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge. Seshat is usually depicted holding a palm stem on which she notches the passage of time. She wears a leopard skin, the pattern of which denotes the stars and eternity. Above her head is a seven-pointed emblem, the meaning of which is not known, but may signify enlightenment.
In 2019, Hoyer and Reddish edited the results of a Seshat History of the Axial Age. The study looked at societies in multiple regions of the world and at multiple times in order to determine when the characteristics of the Axial Age became apparent. Because it is relatively easy to document, the study focussed on the origins of defined moral principles, such as the definition of moral norms often in terms of a legal code, the setting of punishments for the violation of moral rules, the conceptualization of an omniscient and omnipotent supernatural force or being that required obedience to the law, and constraints on the power of social leaders. The study confirmed that these principles began during the 1st millennium BCE in the regions named in Jaspers’ book. However, the principles also became evident in other regions at other times.
The conclusion was therefore that axiality was not an age but rather a “stage” in the evolution of a complex society:
the initial rise of archaic states led to the distortion and repression of at least some components of natural morality and that axiality provided a way of restoring those principles, and especially their cohesion-building effects, under the guise of a more benevolent regime of supernatural enforcement in ways that applied equally to rich and poor, the powerful and the meek. Such a restoration, we have argued, was necessary for political systems to evolve beyond the megasociety threshold. (pp 406-7)
Turchin (2018) has proposed that as states or empires reach a particular size (in terms of population) and level of complexity (in terms of the different factions within that population) dissension arises between those who lead the state and those who are its subjects. The state may then fail, either through external forces taking advantage of the internal divisions in the state, or through the rebellion of its constituent parts. Developing a sense of “group feeling” or “collective solidarity” can prevent the internal dissension and help fight against external forces. This group felling was present in early small bands of human beings, but needed to be reinstated when the groups became larger and more susceptible to despotic rule. Turchin names this solidarity asabiya – a word used by the Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in his studies of the peoples of the Maghreb (Northern Africa). A bust of Ibn Khaldun on the right is located at the Casbah of Bejaia in Algeria.
The Seshat data bank has allowed scholars to relate the rise of such moral principles as “moralizing high gods” and “broad supernatural punishment” (heaven and hell) to the level of social complexity, as measured using the principal component of an analysis of 51 measurements of government levels, infrastructure, written records, religious texts, financial instruments, etc. Whitehouse et al. (2019) examined 30 different regions of the world and found that these moral principles only occurred after a significant increase in social complexity.
powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established.
The authors therefore suggest that
if moralizing gods do not cause the evolution of complex societies, they may represent a cultural adaptation that is necessary to maintain cooperation in such societies once they have exceeded a certain size, perhaps owing to the need to subject diverse populations in multi-ethnic empires to a common higher-level power.
A map of the 30 different regions that they evaluated shows that the first occurrence of moralizing high gods (MHG) was in ancient Egypt when the idea of maat – universal justice – was first proposed 4.8 ka (thousand years before the present). The size of the circles represents the relative complexity of the society in that region.
Jaspers’ axial societies are represented by Confucianism in Northern China 3 ka, Zoroastrianism in Persia 2.5 ka and Buddhism in India 2.3 ka. This particular Seshat survey did not include Jaspers’ other two axial regions – Greece and Palestine. Although Christianity was and is one of the great religions with a moralizing high God and broad supernatural punishment (BSP), regions of Europe (early Rome and Celtic France) developed such ideas prior to their actual conversion to Christianity. Although large societies developed in the Americas, these were not characterized by moralizing high gods and this (in addition to their technological inferiority) may have rendered them susceptible to colonization by the Christian countries.
Modern religions are characterized by a moral code that promotes the social virtues of compassion and temperance and a concept of justice administered either by an omnipotent deity or by a universal force. These religions originated when societies became sufficiently complex that they needed their citizens to feel solidarity with each other. A sense of morality was a tool for survival when humans lived in small groups. Codified and intensified by the sages and prophets of more complex societies, morality then became the glue that held together empires. Several of our modern religions originated in the 1st Millennium BCE in what Jaspers described as the Axial Age. However, others originated at other times and we must consider axiality as a stage in the development of any human society rather than as a particular age
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Hatred is directed anger. Though we can claim metaphorically to hate
unconscious objects or abstractions, hatred is typically directed at another person or persons. Hatred is evoked by suffering that we perceive they caused. Since it leads to actions against these persons, hatred can also be described as “ill
Emotions can overwhelm reason. Passion is not logical. We often hate
without any justification. Hatred must then be maintained by fictions that describe the evil nature of those we hate.
Antisemitism is the most enduring and most unjustified of human hatreds.
The ill will suffered by the Jewish people has lasted for thousands of years, and has led to countless crimes, the most terrible of which was the Holocaust wherein 6 million Jews were put to death by the Nazi Government of Germany (Bauer, 2001; Marrus, 1987). ;
Antisemitism has been inspired by many fictions. This posting considers the unfortunate power of some of the stories that paved the way to the Holocaust.
Some Simple Psychology
Anger arises when we experience suffering, especially when we believe it
to be unwarranted, and when we are thwarted from achieving what we desire,
especially when we believe that we entitled to it. Anger seeks to attack these causes: to hit out at those who strike us; to break those who obstruct us.
We tend to think of events as caused by persons. Even when forces of
nature act against us we may attribute them to a divinity or a devil, or to
those who worship them. Only in that way can anger find a target for its
Sometimes the causes of our anger are too complicated to understand or too powerful to fight against. In these cases, we may vent our anger elsewhere and attack other human beings, while inventing plausible (though fictional) reasons for so doing.
…every instance of suffering, every feeling of displeasure, by whomsoever and in whatsoever way it may have been caused, whether it arises from the guilt or from the lawful activity of another person, or through the sufferer’s own fault, or without any fault, or even without any human influence, tends to transform itself into a feeling of enmity, to direct itself against fellow-humans and if possible to express itself against them. (Bernstein, 1951, p 85)
As we were growing up during childhood, we realized – at about the age
of three – that we can exert some control over our environment. We therefore created a self as the agent of this control. At about the same time we realized that the world contains other agents. These could either help us or hinder us. We became comfortable with those that helped and learned to cooperate with them. We feared the others.
The group appears to be a curious form of extension of the individual. It seems as if under the influence of the necessities of human communal life, human beings who need love and produce hate combine into new, collective and collectively selfish individualities of a higher order; directing their love inwards, their hate outward, their social instincts towards the insider, their anti-social tendencies toward the outsider. (Bernstein, 1951, p 109-110)
Those who cooperated in groups came to have similar desires and modes of
behavior. They followed the same rules and sought the same goals. Those who
were different became isolated. These “others” challenge our group-identification (Chanes, 2004, p 3). In our search for where to vent our anger, we often light upon those that are different from us. Especially if these people are small in number and not inclined to violence.
While for normal group enmity a certain regularity in the mutual expression of enmity is characteristic, the antagonism between a powerful majority and a powerless minority is characterised by a onesidedness of hostile actions which is fatal for the minority. For the latter is exposed to continual attacks and must confine itself to laborious attempts to maintain its existence, without a chance to resist actively to any extent; even its passive means of defense are totally inadequate and its existence often has to rely on nothing but periodical flight from place to place. This onesided relation of
permanent attack and failing defense is called persecution. Weak minority
groups are usually persecuted more or less emphatically. (Bernstein, 1951, p 224)
The actual psychological mechanisms that lead to antisemitism are not
really understood. Some believe that there are personality-types that are more easily convinced to vent their hatred on minorities. The role of authority and power is undoubtedly a factor (Morse & Allport, 1952; Milgram, 1974). Those who seek power or wish to maintain it gain great support by fomenting hatred. Propaganda – invented stories – have a tremendous power. For some reason the more incredible the story the more easily it is believed (Baum, 2012). Dehumanization of the victims serves to attenuate our inherent tendency to help our fellows. (Bandura et al., 1975)
For millennia the Jewish people have allowed us to vent our hatred. For
millennia we have invented reasons for our violence.
The hostility toward a minority exacerbates the feelings that initially triggered. When persecuted, a minority does not fare well in society and often comes to appear even more deserving of denigration and oppression (Beller, 2007, p 5).
Antisemitism is not caused by the Jews but by the inadequacy of those who need to hate them.
…two psychological characteristics are present in the individual antisemite: excessive hostility and the need (and a capacity) to project one’s aggression on other groups. Persons who have these traits generally suffer from feelings of inadequacy and from the feeling that their own personal borders, psychologically speaking, are easily invaded by others (Chanes, 2004, p 7)
We can perhaps conclude this section with two epigrams from Jean-Paul Sartre (1948):
If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him (p 13)
Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem: it is our problem. (p 152)
The People of the Covenant
The Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew
scripture Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham, and then renewed the covenant with Jacob and with Moses. The Jews were to worship Yahweh as the one true God and to follow his commandments. The Jews would then serve as an example for the rest of humanity
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles (Isaiah
In return, the Jews would be considered special
For thou art an holy people unto the Lord
thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto
himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
And were promised as their home the land containing what is now the country of Israel
In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates (Genesis 15:18)
God’s covenant with the Jews was based on their keeping the commandments that he revealed to Moses. Rembrandt’s 1659 painting Moses with the Tablets of the Law shows Moses holding aloft the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written. These were engraved on two separate stones (Exodus 31:18, 32:15). In the painting, only the second tablet is completely visible giving the 6th to 10th commandments (Exodus 20:13-17). These begin with: “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal:” (Hebrew illustrated on the right).
No one is sure what moment in the story of the tablets Rembrandt is representing. Is it when he first displays these to the Hebrews? or when he is about to shatter them on the ground because the Hebrews had been worshipping the Golden Calf while he had been on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 32:19)? or is it when he returns to God and brings a second set of tablets back to the chastised Hebrews (Exodus 34:1). Moses’ face is shining with revelation rather than angry. Perhaps, Rembrandt has painted the moment when Moses first displays the commandments.
No group of people is perfect. However, the Jews have contributed more than their share to the human endeavor – in philosophy, science, medicine, politics, art, music, literature. And for the most part the, laws that they accepted as part of their covenant with God have served them well. They are indeed an example to other people.
So why were and are they so often reviled? It is unlikely a reaction to their chutzpah in claiming to be God’s chosen. In the Middle Ages this was called the Insolentia Judaeorum. Yet every one of the world’s many religions claims to be just as special.
One defining aspect of the Jewish religion is that it is monotheistic. The first commandments state that a Jew must obey Jehovah and not even pay lip-service to any other god or idol:
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them (Exodus 20:2-5).
The Jewish religion thus combines the worship of one god with strict obedience to his commandments. As Prager and Telushkin (2003) have suggested, this ethical monotheism may have offended those who followed other gods. Jews refused to follow the proverbial injunction that when in Rome do as the Romans do. For example, the outburst of violence against the Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE (then part of the Roman Empire) was triggered by their refusal to place statues of the Emperor Caligula in their temples (Goldstein, 2012).
One should respect the beliefs of others. However, respect does not mean obeying rules that go against one’s own moral principles. The Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge or worship other gods has continued to the present. In particular Jews do not recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.
In addition to the Ten Commandments, Yahweh’s covenant with the Jewish people involved numerous other rules of behavior. These included strict stipulations about the types of food that they might eat and the methods in which this food should be prepared. Over the ages observant Jews have thus been unable to share meals with those of other faiths. And although some of the ancient Jewish philosophers – Hillel and Maimonides for example – were open to ideas beyond the Covenant, strict Judaism limited itself to the study of the Torah and its interpretations.
The Covenant with Yahweh thus isolated the Jewish people from the rest of humanity. They could not share the beliefs, the food or the thoughts of others. They antagonized others by their claim to be the chosen people.
So we have the idea that antisemitism is in part caused by the very character of the Jewish religion. This would explain why the Jews have been reviled by so many different people in so many different countries. The following was written Bernard Lazare in 1894. He was a Jewish polemicist who wrote the first defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Yet even he thought that the Jews were partly to blame for antisemitism.
Inasmuch as the enemies of the Jews belonged to divers races; as they dwelled far apart from one another, were ruled by different laws and governed by opposite principles; as they had not the same customs and differed in spirit from one another, so that they could not possibly judge alike of any subject, it must needs be that the general causes of antisemitism have always resided in Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it…. Which virtues or which vices have earned for the Jew this universal enmity? Why was he ill-treated and hated alike and in turn by the Alexandrians and the Romans, by the Persians and the Arabs, by the Turks and the Christian nations? Because, everywhere up to our own days the Jew was an unsociable being. (Lazare, 1894/1903, pp 8-9)
This seems so reasonable. Yet it is false. It does not explain the cause of antisemitism. It is just an excuse. It blames the victim for the crime.
The Crucifixion of Christ
In the early decades of the Common Era, Jesus, a Jewish teacher from Nazareth, brought new insight to the interpretation of Jewish law. He simplified the commandments by expressing them as the need to love the Lord and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He criticized the rigid adherence to the Sabbath, and the commercialization of the Temple. He proclaimed the idea of a Kingdom of Heaven. Many of the more observant Jews were disconcerted by his teachings. The Romans were upset that he was proposing a new kingdom. Jesus was arraigned before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, condemned and crucified.
A few days after his death and burial, the tomb of Jesus was found empty. Many of his followers claimed that they afterwards saw him in person. They therefore believed that he had been resurrected. They continued to meet and discuss his teachings. They were either tolerated by other Jews or condemned as heretics.
A learned Jew named Saul was one of those that persecuted the followers of Jesus. However, on the road to Damascus he had a vision of Jesus that completely altered his thinking. He changed his name to Paul, and began to provide an over-arching theory about the death and resurrection of Jesus. His main ideas were that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah prophesied in the scriptures, that he died to release us from our sins, and that we shall all be saved from death by having faith in Jesus called Christ (the “anointed”).
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4)
Paul’s major teaching was that one could never attain salvation by following the Mosaic laws. No one is perfect. Everyone breaks the law. However, Christ offers salvation if we repent our sins and have faith in him.
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16).
Paul’s letters describing these ideas are the earliest of the Christian scriptures. Written in the years 50-60 CE these predate by 20 to 50 years the four gospels, which describe the life and teachings of Jesus.
The followers of Jesus in the 1st Century CE differed in their opinion about his relationship to the Jews. Some thought that the message of Jesus was for the Jews; others that it was for both Jews and Gentiles. Most of Paul’s teaching was directed to the Gentiles. In some of his letters he laments the inability of many of his Jewish colleagues to understand God’s new covenant.
For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost. (I Thessalonians 2:14-16)
Some of the gospels continued this criticism of the Jews (Crossan, 1995). This is perhaps most evident in the gospel of Matthew. He describes how the Jews forced Pilate to crucify Jesus, and willingly accepted the responsibility for his death:
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27: 24-25)
The major event in Jewish history of the 1st Century CE was the Great Revolt of the Jews against Roman rule. This began in 66 CE and culminated in the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The illustration below shows a representation in the Arch of Titus of the Romans carrying the spoils from the temple. Among the spoils is the great Menorah that once gave light to the Tabernacle.
At this time many Jews fled their homeland and settled in other countries. The Jewish people have been exiled at many times in its history – the Assyrian conquest (733 BCE), the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE), the Great Revolt (70 CE), the later Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132 CE). Though some Jews remained in Israel, most lived in the Diaspora (“scattering”) – far from the land that from the days of Moses they had considered their God-given home.
The Destruction of the Temple seemed to many Christians a divine response to the action of the Jews in crucifying their Lord. Though the Romans crucified Jesus, some of the early Christians considered the Jews responsible. The Jews were thus guilty of deicide and should be reviled and cast out from Christian society. Even if they were not guilty, they should be chastised for not recognizing the salvation offered by Christ – for staying with the old dispensation rather than following the new.
These ideas have long permeated the thinking of the Christian Church. Many of the cathedrals illustrate these concepts by contrasting sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga. The statues on the south portail of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg from the 13th Century CE are particularly impressive. Legend has it that these were created by a female sculptor Sabina von Steinbach, though there is no real evidence for this. Ecclesia with her crown, holds in her hands the cross and the chalice. She looks with pity on Synagoga, who is blindfolded and cannot see the truth. She holds in her hands the tablets of the law and the lance that the centurion used to bring the crucifixion to an end. The lance was shattered by the resurrection.
The following illustration shows the complete portail. Ecclesia and Synagoga are on the left and right sides. In the center sits Solomon in judgement between the old covenant and the new. Above him is Christ, Salvator Mundi (savior of the world). The carvings in the tympanums represent the dormition, assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary.
The statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga are impressive examples of gothic art. Though superficially beautiful, they obscure rather than convey the truth. The feelings against the Jews that they evoke are a complete betrayal of Jesus, a Jew who taught in the synagogues of Palestine.
One might have hoped that the antisemitism of the Christian Church would have been excised by the Reformation. But this was not to be. Martin Luther was virulently antisemitic. In his The Jews and Their Lies (1543, pp 39-42) he advises Christians to burn their synagogues of the Jews, their houses, and their books, prohibit their Rabbis from teaching, not allow them to travel on the highways, and prohibit them from lending money. Luther was a harbinger of Kristallnacht.
During the Middle Ages people could not understand why life was so often brutal. An easy way to explain the various disasters was to attribute them to the Jews. If the Jews could kill God, there was no telling what other crimes they were capable of.
On Good Friday in 1144 the body of a child called William was discovered in the woods near Norwich in England. The Jews were accused of murdering the child. No credible evidence was ever found. However, a monk who had just converted from Judaism to Christianity claimed that the Jews had decided to sacrifice a Christian child to re-enact the death of Christ. Several Jews were slaughtered. William was declared a martyr. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb. Miracles occurred.
William of Norwich was the first documented case of Jews being accused of ritual murder. As the years went by similar accusations arose in multiple different regions of Europe (Goldstein, 2012). Many of these cases included the idea that the Jews used the blood of their victims to make the unleavened bread used in the celebration of Passover. This particular accusation was called the “blood libel.” It makes no sense. Kosher regulations require that observant Jews never eat food contaminated with blood. Jews go to great lengths to remove blood from meat before it can be eaten.
The Christian Bible contains the Hebrew scriptures in what it calls the Old Testament. Some of these writings described how the blood of sacrificed animals played an important role in the ceremonies of the ancient Hebrews, e.g.
And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 1:5).
Other ancient Hebrew writings are even more disconcerting. One of the foundational stories of Judaism is the Akedah (“binding”), wherein the Patriarch Abraham, at the request of Jehovah, takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him (Genesis 22). Although an angel stays Abraham’s hand at the last moment, this fails to attenuate the story’s horror. The illustration below shows Rembrandt’s 1655 etching.
The Old Testament contains other stories wherein children were sacrificed. To defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah promised the Lord that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house when he returned from battle. Jehovah gave the victory to the Israelites. When Jephthah returned home, his daughter came to greet him, dancing and playing the tambourine (Judges 11).
There is also a suggestion that King Manasseh sacrificed his son – the wording is “he made his son pass through the fire” (2 Kings 21:6). These events and the idea that the terrible place near Jerusalem called Gehenna or Tophet was actually a site of human sacrifice are discussed at length by Stavrakopoulou (2004). The practice was banned by Yahweh speaking through his prophet Jeremiah:
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not; neither came it into my heart. (Jeremiah 7:31).
One can perhaps imagine how such stories from the Old Testament might have allowed credulous people to accept the idea that the Jews might sacrifice Christian children and use their blood for their ceremonies. When one’s faith requires a belief in miracles, wild rumors are not easily contradicted.
The main sacrament of the Christian Church is the Eucharist, wherein the congregation partakes of bread and wine that have been especially blessed. According to the church, these had been miraculously “transubstantiated” to the body of Jesus, who was sacrificed to save the world. The sacramental bread is called the host (from the Latin hostia for sacrificial victim). In many places and at many times the Jews were accused of “desecrating” the host. The following illustration shows a 1469 sequence of paintings by Paolo Uccello that tell the story of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host. Both the full sequence and the particular panels illustrating the second and fifth episodes are shown. The paintings were on the predella to the altar in the Corpus Domin church in Urbino. The retable painting above the predella by Justus van Gent presented the Institution of the Eucharist.
The six episodes in the predella show
a woman sells a portion of the consecrated host to a Jewish merchant
when the Jew tries to burn the host, it starts to bleed, alerting the city guards
a holy procession is needed to re-consecrate the host
the woman is burned at the stake; she repents and an angel descends from heaven to save her
the Jew and his family are burned at the stake; no angel intervenes
two angels and two devils argue over the woman’s body
As the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) spread across Europe in the 14th Century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the disease. Many Jews were condemned to death by fire fort these crimes. No one noticed that Jews died from the pandemic just as frequently as their Christian neighbors. Nor that burning Jews at the stake had no effect on the spread of the disease. A half century later, Jacob von Königshofen wrote a critical history of these times. The following is his description of the massacre of the Jews in Strasbourg at the height of the Black Death in 1349:
In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells – that is what they were accused of – and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there. On Saturday-that was St. Valentine’s Day, they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the direct cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors. Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg. (quoted in Marcus, 1938, p.47)
Forces other than the plague were at play. Debt caused as much suffering as disease. As the historian notes, “The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews.”
The Old Testament contains several injunctions against usury. Originally “usury” was simply any interest charged on loans. The meaning of the term has changed as the relations between religion and commerce have developed. At present, usury is generally limited to exorbitant interest.
In one of the earliest mentions of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people are forbidden to charge interest on loans to fellow-Jews although they may so charge strangers:
Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury (Deuteronomy 23:20).
In the New Testament usury is only occasionally considered:
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again (Luke 6:35).
Nevertheless, the Christian Church decided early in its history that usury was a sin (Moehlman, 1934). In the council of Nicaea of 327 CE it forbade clergy to collect interest on any debts. In the Third Lateran Council of 1179, it decreed
Since in almost every place the crime of usury has become so prevalent that many persons give up all other business and become usurers, as if it were permitted, regarding not its prohibition in both testaments, we ordain that manifest usurers shall not be admitted to communion, nor, if they die in their sin, receive Christian burial, and that no priest shall accept their alms. (Moehlman, 1934, pp 6-7)
Thus for most of the middle ages it was difficult for people in business to obtain financial support for their enterprises. Jewish merchants, untrammeled by Christian prohibitions, unable to own land, and often prevented from practicing trades because of exclusively Christian guilds, gradually assume the responsibility for lending money in return for interest (Foxman, 2010). Some kings and princes found the linguistic abilities and financial connections of the Jews appealing and appointed them to their courts. However, most Jews remained poor and unrecognized – traders, shopkeepers, pawnbrokers and minor moneylenders.
In later years the Catholic Church found itself in need of capital to build its churches, and revised its doctrine on usury, founding its own lending organizations called Mounts of Piety (Monte de Pieta). The oldest bank in the world, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, derives from one of these lenders. After the Reformation, Protestants re-interpreted the scriptures and established their own investment banks.
Jewish lenders prospered and some of our current banks have Jewish roots, the Rothschild banks and Goldman-Sachs being two of the biggest. However, almost all of the world’s largest banks were actually founded by Gentiles. The idea that the Jews control international banking is ludicrous. Why one should only consider the religion of a banker when he is Jewish is invidious (Foxman, 2010). One never mentions the Roman Catholic origins of the Bank of America or the Presbyterian origins of Wells Fargo. Yet Jewish bankers have long been game for hateful cartoons. The depiction of “King Rothschild” by Charles Lucien Léandre shown on the right is from the cover of Le Rire, April 16, 1898. Above Rothschild is the Golden Calf that was worshipped by the the idea of Mammon, the idol of wealth condemned in the New Testament:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24).
The myth of Jewish greed has become a mainstay of antisemitic thought. Richard Wagner (1850) cannot get away from it even though he is supposed to be writing about music.
According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force.
Even Jewish writers have been convinced of the myth
Thus, by himself and by those around him; by his own laws and by those imposed upon him; by his artificial nature and circumstances, the Jew was directed to gold. He was prepared to be changer, lender, usurer, one who strives after the metal, first for the pleasures it could afford and then afterwards for the sole happiness of possessing it; one who greedily seizes gold and avariciously immobilizes it. (Lazare, 1903, p 110).
The Pale of Settlement
As the Middle Ages progressed, the Jews were expelled from many European countries: England, 1290; France, 1306; Hungary, 1349; Austria, 1421; Spain, 1492; Portugal, 1497 (Baum 2012, p. 18). Other countries required that the Jews live apart from Christians in regions that came to be known as ghettos, from the Venetian dialect word for “foundry” located near where the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Other ghettos were later set up throughout Italy, and then in Germany and in Poland (Goldstein, 2012, p 130)
Many of the expelled Jews moved to Eastern Europe. They settled in the regions that now form the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Much of this area was then part of the Kingdom of Poland. Polish nobles welcomed the new immigrants. Many Jews were used as tax-collectors. This did sit well with some of the Eastern Orthodox Slavic people who chafed under the control of Catholic Poland. In 1648, the Cossacks in Ukraine rebelled under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. During this war, tens of thousands of Poles and Jews were massacred (Bacon 2003). The Eastern Orthodox Church was every bit as antisemitic as the Roman Catholic Church. Ukraine became independent of Poland and soon became part of the Russian Empire. Later Poland itself would be partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia and cease to exist as an independent kingdom.
The “Pale of Settlement” was set up in 1791 by Catherine the Great. This was an area in the Western regions of the Russian Empire wherein Jews were allowed to live. The term “pale” refers to the stakes that delineated the area – the word was originally used to describe an area in Ireland under the control of the English crown. Over the years many of the Jews in central Russia were exiled to the Pale of Settlement. As shown in the map (adapted from Wikipedia, originally created by Thomas Gun) the Jewish percentage of the population in these regions was significant. Around 1900, the Jews in the Pale of Settlement numbered almost 5 million (about half the total number of Jews in the world), and formed about 10% of the general population of the area.
The ghettos and the Pale of Settlement separated the Jews from their neighbors. Their resultant isolation of the Jews increased their “unlikeness” or “otherness.” By closing them off in localized areas beyond the reach of normal civil authorities, it also made them more susceptible to random violence.
In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a group of revolutionaries. The group Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) was composed of Russian-born anarchists, but one young woman was Jewish. The new Tsar Alexander III believed that the Jews were behind the assassination and unleashed a series of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement to avenge his father’s death.
The word “pogrom” derives from a Russian word for storm or devastation. Christians in a community were encouraged to murder their Jewish neighbors – killers of Christ and assassins of the Emperor. The police were ordered not to intervene. These pogroms continued into for several years. Thousands of Jews were killed.
The pogroms returned in 1903-1906 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. These appear to have been instigated by members of the Tsar’s secret police. One political rationale for these actions against the Jews was to rally the Russian people around the Tsar and against all those that were promoting the modernization of Russia.
The first pogrom of the 20th Century began in Kishinev, Moldava (then known as Bessarabia), on Easter Sunday in 1903. A child had been found murdered, and city leaders accused the Jews of his murder. Patriotism, blood libel and deicide worked together to create a rampaging and murderous mob (Penkower, 2004). The following is an illustration from the French Journal L’Assiette de Beurre of April, 1903, depicting the aftermath of the Easter pogrom.
The novel The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon (2008), which tells the story of a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom who immigrated to the United States, provides a vivid description of the violence and its far-reaching consequents. The epic poem City of the Killings written in 1903 by the Jewish poet Chaim Bialik to commemorate the massacre begins:
Rise and go to the town of the killings and you’ll come to the yards and with your eyes and your own hand feel the fence and on the trees and on the stones and plaster of the walls the congealed blood and hardened brains of the dead.
At about this time there appeared the first traces of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Nilus, 1906/1922). This document purported to be the secret plans of Jewish Leaders to take over the world. The protocols describe how these elders will sow dissension and confusion amidst the goyim and ultimately step in to rule:
In order to put public opinion into our hands we must bring it into a state of bewilderment by giving expression from all sides to so many contradictory opinions and for such length of time as will suffice to make the goyim lose their heads in the labyrinth and come to see that the best thing is to have no opinion of any kind in matters political, which it is not given to the public to understand because they are understood only by him who guides the public. This is the first secret. The second secret requisite for the success of our government is comprised in the following; To multiply to such an extent national railings, habits, passions, conditions of civil life, that it will be impossible for anyone to know where he is in the resulting chaos, so that the people in consequence will fail to understand one another. This measure will also serve us in another way, namely, to sow discord in all parties, to dislocate all collective forces which are still unwilling to submit to us, and to discourage any kind of personal initiative which might in any degree hinder our affair. There is nothing more dangerous than personal initiative; if it has genius behind it, such initiative can do more than can be done by millions of people among whom we have sown discord. We most so direct the education of the goyim communities that whenever they come upon a matter requiring initiative they may drop their hands in despairing impotence. The strain which results from freedom of action saps the forces when it meets with the freedom of another. From this collision arise grave moral shocks, disenchantment, failures. By all these means we shall so wear down the goyim that they will be compelled to offer us international power of a nature that by its position will enable us without any violence gradually to absorb all the State forces of the world and to form a Super-Government. (Protocol 5)
The reader easily recognizes the confusions of the modern world. Our natural paranoia quickly attributes this to outside agents rather than to the simple complexity of political forces. Human beings have long imagined that our lives are controlled by secret societies such as the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Masons, and the New World Order (Eco, 1994, pp 132-139). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion identified these clandestine agents as the Jews.
The protocols are a complete fiction (Eisner, 2005; Hagemeister, 2008). They were largely plagiarized from a satire against the French Emperor Napoleon II written by Maurice Joly in 1864 entitled The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (Graves, 1921). The most widely accepted story is that a Russian exile living in France, Mathieu Golovinski, adapted Joly’s satire into an antisemitic tract at the instigation of the Tsar’s secret police, who wished to impugn the forces of modernization in Russia, and to whip up hatred of the Jews as a distraction from the government’s problems.
Despite being proven a fiction, the Protocols have been republished over and over again. The illustration at the right shows the cover of a French Version published in 1934. The design is loosely based on Léandre’s 1898 cartoon depiction of Rothschild. The cover artist goes by the alias ‘Christian Goy.” In the 20th Century the Protocols are widely published in Muslim countries, where they serve to foster animus against Israel. Why do people still believe that this tract represents the truth? It is easier to believe in a simple fiction than in complex facts. The confusion of the modern world is caused by the interactions of many different political forces. It is simpler to believe it is caused by the Jews than to try to understand the real causes.
During the 18th and 19th Century nationalism became one of the main forces in European politics. As the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution undermined the legitimacy of divinely ordained dynasties, the people developed the idea of a nation – a community conceived or “imagined” in three ways: shared culture, limited geographic extent, and governance by the people (Anderson, 2016). Inherent in the concept of a nation was the idea that all its citizens should have equal rights. Nationalism gained its greatest impetus from the revolutions in the United States and France in the 18th century, and from the later Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.
According to the ideals of nationalism, no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. As part of this movement Jewish citizens began therefore to be accepted as equal participants in the new nations (Mendes-Flohr, 1996; Barnavi, 2003, pp 158-9). This emancipation occurred slowly: France in 1791; Prussia in 1812; Belgium in 1830; the Netherlands in 1834 the United Kingdom in 1858; Austria 1867; the United States in 1877 (reviewed in Wikipedia).
Although nationalism wants all its citizens, regardless of their beliefs or background to be equal, it would prefer them to be homogeneous, all believing in the same national ideals. Yet no nation is homogeneous. The success of a nation depends on how it comes together despite its differences.
As nationalism progressed, suspicions about the Jewish people remained. This worry was presaged by the Conte de Clermont‑Tonnere in a speech to France’s new National Assembly in 1789. He initially proposed the principle “that the profession, or manner of worship of a man, can never be motives for depriving him of the Rights of Election.” He then listed some of the arguments against giving citizenship to the Jews and declared them invalid:
It is here I am at tacked by the adversaries of the Jews. That people, say they, are unsociable; usury is enjoined them; they cannot be united with us, either by marriage, or habitual intercourse; they are forbidden our meats, and interdicted our tables. Our armies will never be recruited by Jews; they will never take up arms for the defense of their country. The weightiest of these reproaches is unjust, the others are but specious.
However, he then recognized that Jews may have commitments outside of the nation in which they would be granted full citizenship. They have religious and financial ties to colleagues in other nations. They may wish to be governed by their own laws and judged according to their scriptures. They could thus be a nation within a nation. So he suggested that
you should deny the Jews every thing as a distinct nation, and grant them every thing as individuals.
This idea that Jews were still different from other citizens persisted. The very fact of the diaspora worked against them. With their allegiances to other Jewish communities in other countries, they seemed “cosmopolitan” rather than patriotic. They interfered with a nation’s sense of itself. In the Middle Ages the Jew was assailed because he was not Christian. In the Modern Age he was assailed because he was not truly French or German or Russian. In both cases he was not “one of us.”
The idea of the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” was (and is) one of the main tenets of Russian antisemitism. It was basic to the foundation of the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist times and it continued in the socialist regime that followed the Russian Revolution. The following is a description of cosmopolitans from Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th century literary critic who promoted the idea of a truly Russian literature:
The cosmopolitan is a false, senseless, strange and incomprehensive phenomenon, a manifestation in which there is something insipid and vague. He is a corrupt, unfeeling creature, totally unworthy of being called by the holy name of man (quoted in Pinkus, 1988, pp 153-154).
Despite Soviet Russia’s professed goal of the brotherhood of man, the idea of the Jew as a “rootless cosmopolitan” persisted after the Revolution. It came to a frightening culmination in the accusations against the Jewish doctors in 1952-3 (Carfield, 2002). It is frightening to note the similarity between Communist thought and the Fascist idea of Bodenlosigkeit (lack of “ground” in the sense of a place to have roots).
The ideas of nationhood radically changed the lives of many Jews (Arendt, 1951). Intent on proving themselves good citizens of the new nations, they relinquished some of their religious beliefs and behaviors. They became secular. Some even converted to the state religion, hoping to become “assimilated” into general society. Despite all these efforts to become involved as a citizen, the Jews continued to be considered alien. Rather than being welcomed as a compatriots they reviled as pretentious upstarts.
And so many Jews began to think that the only solution was to return to Palestine to found their own new nation of Israel. No longer cosmopolitan they would reclaim their homeland. Zionism would provide Jews with a nation wherein they were not alien (Miller& Ury, 2010).
These new developments made it even more difficult for the Jews who remained in the countries of their birth. Would a Jew support Israel against the interests of the country in which he lives? Zionism raised fears about the allegiance of the Jews, and provided an excuse to exile them from the nations they could not be part of.
So arose the idea that the Jews could never really be part of any non-Jewish nation. This concept was presented by T. S. Eliot (1934) in a series of talks about literary traditions. He describes “tradition:”
What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place.’ (p 18)
He goes on to suggest how tradition should be established and maintained:
What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desired. (p. 19)
And then he brings up something that is essential to any great tradition:
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and gricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.
The remarks about the free-thinking Jews are strange and terrifying. They are completely out of context in a discussion of the literary traditions of the American South. They clearly reflect the antisemitism of the writer and of his time. In the years subsequent to Eliot’s book, the great liberal democracies of the world refused to accept Jews fleeing from the Nazi regime in Germany for fear that they would pollute their national identities.
Although nationalism fostered the idea of governance by the people, it also promoted war in the pursuit of a nation’s destiny. As Anderson (2016) has pointed out, one of the measures of nationalism’s success is how easily a people will lay down their lives to defend their country. Surely cosmopolitanism is a better ideal.
Human beings unfortunately seem to need to hate. We make an enemy of any one who is different from us. And so we revile those who gave us the Ten Commandments. We need to stop this senseless behavior. The main way forward is to learn abou those who are not us. This will broaden our understanding. With understanding will come tolerance and cooperation. And we should follow ideals that refuse to be limited to one faith or to one nation.
Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1983/2016). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition. London: Verso.
Arendt, H. (1951, reprinted 1973). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
Bacon, G. (2003). “The House of Hannover”: Gezeirot Tah in modern Jewish historical writing. Jewish History, 17, 179-206.
Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9, 253–269.
Barnavi, E. (2003). A historical atlas of the Jewish people: From the time of the patriarchs to the present. New York: Schocken.
Bauer, Y. (2001). A history of the Holocaust. Revised edition. New York: Franklin Watts.
Baum, S. K. (2012). Antisemitism Explained. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
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Beller, S. (2007). Antisemitism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Bernstein, P. (1951). Jew-hate as a sociological problem. New York: Philosophical Library.
Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55, 429–435.
Chanes, J. A. (2004). Introduction and Overview. In Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO
Clermont Tonnerre, S. (1790) Translation of a speech, spoken by the Count Clermont Tonnere, Christmas-eve last: on the subject of admitting non-Catholics, comedians, and Jews, to all the privileges of citizens, according to the Declaration of rights. Available at Hathi Trust.
Crossan, J. D. (1995). Who killed Jesus? Exposing the roots of anti-semitism in the Gospel story of the death of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper
Eco, U. (1994). Six walks in the fictional woods. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Eisner, W. (2005). The plot: The secret story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: W.W. Norton.
Penkower, M. N. (2004). The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903: A turning point in Jewish history. Modern Judaism, 24, 187–225,
Pinkus, B. (1988). The Jews of the Soviet Union: The history of a national minority. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prager, D., & Telushkin, J. (1981, reprinted 2003). Why the Jews? The reason for antisemitism. Touchstone Books.
Sartre, J.-P. (translated by Becker, G. J., 1948). Anti-Semite and Jew. New York: Schocken.
Stavrakopoulou, F. (2004). King Manasseh and child sacrifice: Biblical distortions of historical realities. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Sternberg, R. J. (2003). A duplex theory of hate: Development and application to terrorism, massacres, and genocide. Review of General Psychology 7, 299-328.
Wagner, R. (1850, translated by William Ashton Ellis, 1894). Jews in Music.
Last Night in Sweden
At a Florida rally on February 18, 2017, Donald Trump spoke about threats of terror:
We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe. (NY Times)
Trump’s words suggested that something terrible had happened the night before in Sweden. Something like the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris. Something caused by undocumented refugees. But there had been no terrorist activity in Sweden the night before (Independent). The only recent Swedish terror attack had been over a month ago: Neo-Nazi members of the Nordic Resistance Movement attacked an immigrant asylum in Gothenburg and injured one person.
Trump later said that he was referring to a report on an increase in crime in Sweden since the Syrian refugees had been accepted into the country (Independent). Swedish sources, however, however, have denied any significant recent change in crime rates.
The world is changing rapidly. It is becoming harder to know what is true and what is false. What do we know of the world? What should we believe?
Truth, Knowledge and Belief
Some comments on the philosophy of knowledge might help us determine where we stand in this new world. Epistemology considers what a subject, denoted by S, knows in terms of propositions, denoted by p, e.g. “Snow is white.” The most commonly accepted understanding is that knowledge is “justified true belief:”
S knows p if S believes p on the basis of evidence supporting p, and if p is true.
The truth condition is necessary because we may have false beliefs. This occurs when we conclude on the basis of some evidence that something is true when it is actually false. We may believe that a terror attack occurred in Sweden on January 17, 2017, because the President of the United States said so (or seemed to say so), but this is a false belief.
What is ultimately important then is not what we believe but whether what we believe is actually true. Truth is even more difficult to understand than knowledge. Most commonly we consider something as true if it corresponds to something (a “fact”) in or about the real (or “actual”) world. This approach works fairly well for propositions about the physical world, e.g. “Snow is white.” However, it does not work as well for propositions requiring judgment rather than perception, e.g. “Killing is wrong.” In this case, there may be different kinds of truth. The truth of a proposition depends on its context. “Killing is wrong” may be false in the context of self-defense.
Yet everything is true or not depending on the context. Even “Snow is white” is false in the context of colored illumination. So we have to come together and decide what we mean by things, and what we consider their appropriate contexts. Philosophy considers this state of affairs in terms of pluralist theories of truth.
These ideas become very complex when we consider predictions about what will happen. We have created laws and theories about what will happen on the basis of what has occurred before. These laws and theories are true inasmuch as the predictions they entail have not proved false when we have tested them. Laws about the physical world are more easily considered true or false than laws about human behavior. It is easier to know that the sun will rise tomorrow than that refugees will initiate terror attacks.
Most importantly, we usually have to accept the evidence of other people when we decide about what we know. We cannot personally experience everything, nor can we personally test all possible theories about the world. We depend on others to support what we believe. People in Sweden quickly pointed out that there was no terrorist attack in their country on February 18, 2017.
In evaluating the evidence of others, we have to consider several factors. Most crucial is whether those providing the evidence are trustworthy, and whether they have previously been correct in their assessment of the world. A second factor is that our beliefs must be coherent. We cannot believe that there was a terrorist attack in Sweden on February 17, 2017, and at the same time believe that no one in Sweden noticed this. Finally, we often agree with what most people believe to be true. It is difficult to insist that something happened when most people say it did not. Conforming to majority opinion is clearly not as good as finding out for ourselves, but in most cases we have neither the time nor the ability to do so.
The Clear and Present Danger
Given our understanding of knowledge and truth, we must realize that the present state of truth is precarious.
First is the problem of majority opinion. The vicious circle whereby innuendo becomes fact is terrifying. When Trump proposes his belief about something, many people may accept this, both because they trust their President and because it is coherent with their world-view. Then the opinion of the these many people can be used to justify the belief. David Bromwich describes this phenomenon in the London Review of Books:
Trump’s most disturbing habit is also his most ridiculous trait: he credits and is apt to repeat his professed beliefs when – and in exact proportion as – he sees other people credit them. We normally think of beliefs as something you cannot choose (unlike opinions or estimations), but Trump does choose and he correlates the numbers of his followers with truth in the physical world. So when, in an interview on 25 January, the ABC reporter David Muir inquired into his unsubstantiated belief that between three and five million people voted illegally, accounting for Hillary Clinton’s popular majority, Trump replied: ‘You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that.’ The when-I-say-that is essential to Trump’s belief and essential to the relationship to his beliefs enjoyed by millions. His belief, triggered by impulsive attraction to something dressed as a fact, is fortified against refutation by the echo of the belief from his followers.
Second is the problem of reliable sources. The world has long depended on the Free Press to describe what is happening in the world. Sometimes reporting has been biased, but for the most part the professional media have tried their best to be objective. The internet has made available multiple other sources of information, some extremely biased and some completely fallacious. Capitalism has contributed to the problem. Monetized websites pay by the number of times they are accessed. Outrage is far more effective than truth in attracting “hits.”
Fake news has become recognized as a powerful force in molding public opinion. Yet Trump and his colleagues have now begun to call all sources that treat them critically as fake news. Thus they attenuate any criticism of either themselves or the fraudulent news-sources that support them. As Charles Sykes in the New York Times, one of the media sources that Trump considers “dishonest,” remarks
In a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Mr. Trump and his allies in the right media have already turned the term “fake news” against its critics, essentially draining it of any meaning.
In this world of alternative facts and fake news, we are approaching the “doublethink” of George Orwell’s 1984 (Part 2, Chapter 9):
To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.
Even the description is impossible to pin down. We cannot even define doublethink without getting lost in contradictions.
Where to now?
How can we now “know” what is going on? On what do we base our beliefs? Somehow we must find a way of assessing the truthfulness of sources. Fact checkers are essential. Probably the most important is the non-partisan FactCheck.Org. The Washington Post runs a good fact-checking blog. Another source is Snopes.com, which was originally set up to evaluate urban myths but now also deals with fake news. We must support the Free Press – this may be our last bastion of reality. The internet has wreaked havoc with the financing of the press. Most people take their news from the internet for free. This may be dangerous. We must subscribe to proper journalism.
The increasing role of fake FaceBook accounts in spreading disinformation is described on the Comparitech website.
In the Name of God
In recent years we have seen an escalation in violence inspired directly or indirectly by religion. Perhaps humanity is just by nature violent and religion is just an excuse. The terrible regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao show clearly how evil and violence can exist in the absence of God. Furthermore, most instances of religious violence are perversions of the religion’s true goals. As much as religion may lead to violence, so may violence call upon religion for justification. Nevertheless, the recent examples of religiously driven violence are very disheartening.
Religion can embody many of the ideals of humanity. Sometimes, it is as if we take all that we consider good and make this into God. If we so do, we must be careful not to let this process lead to evil rather than to good. We must limit the way in which we use our God. Even if we do not believe in God, we must still be careful about how we put our ideals into practice.
The Decalogue (Exodus 20: 1-17) provides the fundamentals for Judaeo-Christian morality. There are several ways to number these Ten Commandments (summary in Wikipedia). I shall follow the most common of the numbering traditions – that used by most Jewish authorities and by most Protestant churches.
The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God. The first is to have no other gods. This is easy to understand. The second is not to worship graven images. This has been interpreted in many ways. Though some say that it prohibits any representational art, it most likely means that such material objects should not be worshiped as divine. The fourth is to reserve one day of the week for God. This commandment to celebrate the Sabbath is only controversial in terms of which day is to be so honored and what types of work are not allowed on that day.
For this posting, I am particularly concerned with the third commandment not to take the name of God in vain. This commandment is not easy to understand. The following is the commandment (first half of Exodus 20:7) in the original Hebrew (from right to left), in transliterated Hebrew, in a word-by-word translation, in the King James Version (from left to right), and in spoken Hebrew:
The name of God is given by four consonants, typically transliterated as YHWH (Gianotti, 1985; Meyers, 2005, pp 57-59; Durousseau, 2014). This Tetragrammaton (“four letters”) likely comes from the Hebrew verb “to be” in the third person. The first-person version of the verb is the name used by God in the episode of the burning bush – I Am That I Am (Exodus 3:14).
. Tetragrammaton, Douglas Larsen, 2007 .
The third commandment, which specifically concerns the Tetragrammaton, has been interpreted in many different ways. Since its meaning is not clear, many pious Jews never use the name of God in any secular context, and do not speak the actual name aloud during religious worship. Various substitutes are used, most commonly Adonai (my Lord) or Elohim (God). The King James Version uses Lord in small capitals to express the Tetragrammaton. Other translations have used Jehovah, adding to the Tetragrammaton’s four consonants the vowels from the word Adonai. This has no real justification. The actual sound of the name was probably more like Yahweh.
Interpretations of the Third Commandment.
Ancient Hebrew is not easy to translate. Michelangelo’s 1515 statue of Moses in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli Church shows Moses with horns. This unusual depiction derived from the Vulgate’s translation of Exodus 34:29 describing Moses after he came down from Mount Sinai. The Vulgate translated the Hebrew word karan as cornuta or “horned.” It is better translated as “shining,” – “because light radiates and protrudes like a type of horn.”(Rashi’s commentary).
I have little knowledge of the Hebrew language. The following discussion of the interpretation of the third commandment therefore refers to others who know much more. The meaning of the commandment depends mainly on the verb nasa which is given in the second person (imperative) and on the word shua or shav used adverbially at the end of the commandment.
The verb nasa has been translated as “lift,” “raise,” “carry,’ “take,” and “bear.” Raising the name of the Lord suggests the idea of swearing by his holy name: one usually takes an oath by raising one’s hand (Benno, 1992, p 557). A common interpretation has therefore been that the third commandment prohibits the taking of an oath in God’s name and then not doing what one has sworn to do (Meyers, 2005). The keeping of contracts is a necessary part of social life (Teehan, 2010; Hazony, 2010). We need to trust that someone will do what he or she has promised. Winwood Reade (1872) described the importance of the oath to early societies:
But the chief benefit which religion conferred upon mankind, whether in ancient or in modern times, was undoubtedly the oath. The priests taught that if a promise was made in the name of the gods, and that promise was broken, the gods would kill those who took their name in vain. Such is the true meaning of the Third Commandment. Before that time treaties of peace and contracts of every kind in which mutual confidence was required could only be effected by the interchange of hostages. But now by means of this purely theological device a verbal form became itself a sacred pledge: men could at all times confide in one another; and foreign tribes met freely together beneath the shelter of this useful superstition which yet survives in our courts of law. In those days, however, the oath required no law of perjury to sustain its terrors: as Xenophon wrote, “He who breaks an oath defies the gods”; and it was believed that the gods never failed sooner or later to take their revenge. (Reade, 1872, p 153).
However, this interpretation makes the third commandment similar to the seventh: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus, 20: 16). One might differentiate the two by saying that the third concerns promises to do something in the future and the seventh testimony about something in the past or present, but both ideas require swearing.
If the verb nasa is interpreted as “carry,” one can interpret the third commandment as forbidding hypocrisy. One must not present oneself as a follower of JHWH without living by his teachings. Matthew Henry said that the commandment prohibited “making a profession of God’s name, but not living up to that profession” (Henry, 1710, p 644).
If nasa is interpreted simply as “take,” the meaning of the commandment is determined by the adverbial shav, which describes the way in which the name is not to be taken. This word shav is uncommon and difficult to interpret. It is usually translated as “emptiness” or “vanity.” The third commandment is therefore commonly interpreted as prohibiting the profane or trivial use of God’s name. The name of God should not be associated with angry expostulations – cursing in the everyday sense of the word. The sacred name should not be thus blasphemed.
Shav can also mean “illusion,” “deception” or “falseness.” Thus the commandment can forbid the invocation of God’s name in magical conjuration (Buber, 1976, p 194; Alter, 2004 p 430) – cursing in the voodoo sense of the word. Sometimes, shav can mean a false thing such as an idol. Thus Staples (1939) suggested that the third commandment prohibited giving the name of JHWH to other gods – assimilating other false beliefs into the true faith. This interpretation, however, makes the third commandment merely a corollary of the first two.
Some commentators have interpreted shav as related to shoah, which means “devastation,” “storm,” “disaster” or “destruction.” Childs (1974, p 411) also considers that the word may also include the idea of “malice” or “evil.” This is the meaning that I think the commandment intends: not to do evil in the name of God. This more general formulation would subsume those specific meanings already considered.
Evil in the Name of God
This interpretation fits with the suggestion that the third commandment should be more widely and importantly interpreted than is commonly done (e.g. Meyers, 2005). This would befit its being listed as third among the ten. Gerhard von Rad has proposed
The purpose of this command is to say “no” thoroughly and completely to that desire that lies so deep in the heart of man, the desire to infringe the freedom of God (Von Rad, 2012, pp 24-25).
This idea is not easy to understand. God’s purpose is good. We should take care lest we subvert this purpose and do evil in His name.
This is perhaps the true meaning of the commandment. Religion tends so easily to the position that believers are right and infidels are wrong. Ultimately, this leads to idea that the infidels should be destroyed. Much of the Hebrew Bible describes how the Israelites waged war on those who did not believe in their God. The times have not changed. In the past fifty years, factions within all major religions have committed atrocities in the name of their God (Juergensmeyer, 2003).
John Teehan (2010) has reviewed the evolution of religious violence. He points to the division between those who believe and those who do not, the lack of critical thinking that often goes with faith, and the idea of some cosmic battle between good and evil:
The initial move is to discriminate between an in-group and an out-group, with a set of practices and/or beliefs that function as signals of commitment to the in-group. Next, there is a differential in moral evaluation of the two sides of the divide: The in-group is owed a higher level of moral consideration and accorded a greater level of moral protection than those outside the group or those who defect from the group. Thus far, this structure is not unique to religious violence, it simply flows from the basic evolutionary strategies for allowing systems of reciprocity to develop and group cohesion to form. Religion comes into play with the integration of one or more minimally counterintuitive concepts (e.g., gods) into the moral matrix. God comes to represent the moral bonds that hold a community together and functions as both legislator and enforcer of the group’s moral code. This gives that moral code a heightened sense of significance and obligation. Commitment to that god can then function socially and psychologically as a signal of commitment to the group. Also, by clothing the social code of the group in divine authority it can relieve the individual of responsibility for the consequences of his or her decisions (“If god commands, I must obey”).
Consequent to this is that the out-group, by virtue of being the out-group, is not aligned with that god, or is not in proper relationship to that god. This further distinguishes the moral status of the two groups and leads to an escalation of the stakes at play. This becomes even more dramatic in universalist systems. In this case the out-group is not simply “other” but, in being aligned against God, is in league with evil itself. Inter-group conflict is no longer simply a competition between two groups seeking to promote their own interests, it is now a cosmic struggle with no middle ground available, and nothing short of victory acceptable. (Teehan, 2010, p 174).
Importance of the Third Commandment
I am not interpreting the Decalogue as the word of God. Or at least not in the sense that a God dictated it to Moses. Whatever one’s beliefs, the Ten Commandments are an impressive summary of the principles of human morality. They concisely delineate the behaviors that we have learned to forbid for the benefit of human society.
And I am not interpreting the God of the first three commandments as necessarily existing. Or as being a person rather than a universal force like in the Eastern religions. God could easily be considered as the abstract representation of human purpose and morality: what we have set as our goal and how we wish to get there. Human beings think in this way. To do away with such religion is to remove a powerful force for good.
The problem with the idea of believing either in a real God or in an abstract principle that we call God is that it makes us think that we know the truth. We then consider those who think of God differently and those who refuse to accept the idea of God as misguided. Perhaps even evil. Since violence is part of our nature, this may sometimes lead us to do terrible things – and to do these in the name of God.
I think that those who put together the Ten Commandments had some inkling of these problems. One should not use the name of God to justify actions such as murder that are forbidden by the later commandments. Those who counsel murder in the name of God are false prophets. I am suggesting that the third commandment urges us not to use God’s name to justify evil.
Alter, R. (2004). The five books of Moses: A translation with commentary. New York: Norton.
Buber, M. (1946). Moses. Oxford: East and West Library. The chapter “The Words on the Tablets” on pp 119-140 is reprinted in Herberg. W. (Ed.) (1974). The writings of Martin Buber. New York: New American Library.
Childs, B. S. (1974). The book of Exodus: A critical, theological commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Staples, W. E. (1939). The Third Commandment. Journal of Biblical Literature, 58, 325-329.
Von Rad, G. (1940, translated by Neill, S., 2012). Moses. Cambridge, UK: James Clark.
Shostakovich: Music and Meaning
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the greatest of the Soviet composers. Unlike Prokofiev, who spent many years abroad, Shostakovich lived all of his adult life in the Soviet Union (1922-1991). His relations with the state were difficult. Artists do not work easily in a dictatorship.
Shostakovich talked very little about his music. His work evokes powerful emotions, but what Shostakovich means often remains unclear. Although much of his music appeared to glorify Soviet Communism, recent writers such as Volkov (1979) and MacDonald (1990) have suggested that many of his works carried subversive meanings. His life, like his music, has had many interpretations.
This posting considers some of the issues of interpretation. In a society wherein one is afraid to say what one thinks or feels, history becomes uncertain. And music is often ambiguous.
Dmitri Shostakovich entered the conservatory in St Petersburg in 1919 at the age of thirteen and studied both piano and composition. His graduation piece, Opus 1Symphony No. 1 (1926) was well received. He was granted a professorship at the Leningrad Conservatory.
However, his later compositions were not as highly regarded. Dissonance did not attract the proletariat. Russia’s new society had initially embraced modernism. However, the politicians soon decided that the new forms of art were not really revolutionary but rather were symptomatic of bourgeois decadence, and called for a return to the simple forms of the people.
After his father died in 1922, the student Shostakovich earned money to support his family by playing music for the cinema (Fay, 2000, p. 28). His Opus 35 Piano Concerto No. 1 conveys in its ending a sense of the madcap pursuits of these silent movies. The piano briefly quotes Beethoven’s Opus 129Rondo: Rage over a Lost Penny. Beethoven – ever the revolutionary – was one of the few classical composers still revered in Soviet Russia.
This signed photograph was taken in the early 1930s – at the time of the first piano concerto. A confident young man beginning to make his mark. However, his early success was not to last.
Dmitri Shostakovich first ran afoul of the Communist government for his opera Opus 29 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which was first performed in 1934 to favorable reviews. The opera is a tale of oppression, lust and murder. Its tone veers betweeen satire and tragedy. Opera had always portrayed intense emotions. Modernism considered these high emotions in lowly people rather than aristocrats – Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is perhaps a precursor to Shostakovich’s opera.
The opera opens with Katerina Izmailova waking up from her lonely and loveless bed. The music is languid but “endowed with the lyric intonations of Russian folk song” (Taruskin, 1989):
Katerina flirts with one of the workers in her husband’s store. He later rapes her. The music of this scene is graphic:
The rape music reaches its climax with an unmistakable ejaculatio praecox, followed by a leisurely detumescence. The salacious trombone glissandos that portray the behavior of Sergei’s member achieved instant world fame when an American magazine dubbed them an exercise in “pornophony.” (Taruskin, 1989, the reference is to a review in the New York Sun).
Katerina and her lover go on to murder her father-in-law and her husband. At the end, justice is served and they are both sentenced to Siberia. Her lover rejects her and takes up with another convict. Katerina casts herself and her rival to their death in an icy river.
Stalin did not see the opera until 1936. He did not like it. Two days later an anonymous editorial in the newspaper Pravda denounced it as a “Muddle instead of Music.”
From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible. Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. …
The composer of Lady Macbeth was forced to borrow from jazz its nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music in order to lend “passion” to his characters. While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism. …
The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life. Some critics call the glorification of the merchants’ lust a satire. But there is no question of satire here. The composer has tried, with all the musical and dramatic means at his command, to arouse the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar inclinations and behavior of the merchant woman Katerina Izmailova … (from translation of review)
Many believed that the review had been written or dictated by Stalin himself. Volkov (2004, pp 105-106) points out that some of the criticisms, such as “create originality by cheap originalizing,” were nonsensical and would never have got by the editors unless they had been too frightened to change them.
What Stalin and his colleagues wanted was music to inspire the masses. In a speech to the Union of Socialist Writers in 1932, Stalin had called on them to be the “engineers of human souls” (Ross, 2007, p 225). The party fostered the idea of socialist realism – art that portrayed the triumph of the people. Art should be representational, uplifting, and easily understood by the proletariat. Formalism was anathema. Art for art’s sake was a reversion to bourgeois decadence.
Shostakovich was devastated. He withdrew his Symphony No. 4 from performance for fear it would further offend the politicians, and published no other music until Symphony No. 5 late in 1937.
The Great Terror
This was the time of the Great Terror (Conquest, 1968). Society was to be purged of those that impeded the progress of Socialism. Show trials brought politicians, generals and artists to confession and abasement. Exile to the Gulag or summary executions followed. Many of his friends and family were arrested and sent to labor camps. Shostakovich was justifiably in fear for his life.
The composer Basner (quoted in Wilson, 1994, p 126) recalled that in the spring of 1937 Shostakovich was summoned to the security police, and interrogated about his relationship to Marshal Tuckhachevsky. The Marshal, a great music lover and competent violinist, had often invited Shostakovich to his house to talk about music and to play together. Shostakovich was asked if politics were discussed at these meetings. Shostakovich denied this, but the security officer then told him to return in two days: “By that day you will without fail remember everything. You must recall every detail of the plot against Stalin of which you were a witness.” Shostakovich assumed that he would be arrested, and slept on the landing of his apartment so that the police would not disturb his family. However, on his return to the ‘big house,’ he found out that the officer who had interrogated him had himself been arrested, and Shostakovich’s name was no longer listed among the suspects. Tuckhachevsky was executed on June 12, 1937.
Symphony No. 5
During this period of fear and death, Shostakovich composed his Opus 47 Symphony No. 5, first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on November 21, 1937 under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky.
The symphony was a tremendous success. The largo moved the audience to tears and the finale had them on their feet. A member of the audience described the response:
Many of the listeners started to rise automatically from their seats during the finale, one after the other. The music had a sort of electric force. A thunderous ovation shook the columns of the white Philharmonic Hall, and Evgeny Mravinsky lifted the score high above his head so as to show that it was not he, the conductor, or the orchestra who deserved this storm of applause, these shouts of ‘bravo’; the success belonged to the creator of this work. (Wilson, 1994, p 126)
What the symphony means remains unclear. The politically correct interpretation was that it represented the life of the Socialist artist, overcoming his initial tribulations and finally realizing the full power of the people. Shostakovich agreed to the subtitle “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.” Taruskin (1995) summarizes an influential review of the symphony by Alexei Tolstoy:
In the first movement the author-hero’s ‘psychological torments reach their crisis and give way to ardour’, the use of the percussion instruments suggesting mounting energy. The second movement, a sort of breather, is followed by the most profound moment, the Largo. ‘Here the stanovleniye lichnosti [formation of a personality] begins. It is like a flapping of the wings before take-off. Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.’ The finale is the culmination, in which ‘the profundity of the composer’s conception and the orchestral sonority coincide’, producing ‘an enormous optimistic lift.’
This interpretation is impossible to fit with the actual music. The crux of the symphony is the Largo, the movement that brought the audience to tears. The movement has the solemn rhythms and mystical harmonies of the Orthodox liturgy (Taruskin, 1995; Tilson Thomas, 2005). The following clip gives the last few minutes of the movement, ending on the sublime notes of harp and celesta:
It is impossible not to hear this as a lament, a requiem for the people who had died during the Great Terror. At a time when religious services were not allowed, people found solace in music. Zoya Leybin describes the audience’s response to the Largo:
They could relate to this music. It had the Russian soul in it, had a power. And people felt connected. They couldn’t pray, so music became religion. (in Tilson Thomas, 2009).
In a poem dedicated to Shostakovich, Anna Akhmatova (quoted by Bullock, 2010) described music as the friend that would never betray or deny her:
Something miraculous burns within her
And in her eyes, lines come into sharper focus.
She is the only one to speak with me,
When others are afraid to approach.
When the final friend had averted his gaze
She was with me in my grave
And sang like the first storm,
Or as if all the flowers had begun to speak.
The last movement of the symphony begins with an enthusiastic march. However, this soon ends and echoes of the preceding movement return. Taruskin (1995) quotes Mravinsky
somewhere in the middle of the movement the quick tempo spends itself and the music seemingly leans against some sort of obstacle and then forces itself onward.
During this interlude, Shostakovich quotes some phrases from his Opus 46 setting of a Pushkin Song called Rebirth, a work that was not published or performed until much later (Ross, 2007, p 235; Bullock, 2010). One cannot tell whether the music was just in his mind, whether he wished to bring the text of the poem to mind, or whether he was relating Pushkin’s lines to Stalin’s suppression of the arts. The poem begins
A barbarian artist with a lazy brush
blackens out the painting of a genius
tracing senselessly over it
his own illegitimate drawing.
The poem then goes on to tell how over the years the paint flaked away to reveal the masterpiece. We must look below the present surface to find the original beauty.
After the interlude, the symphony goes on with a march that has led to many conflicting interpretations. According to Volkov, Shostakovich considered the exuberance of this final march as forced:
It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shakily, and go marching off, muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ (Volkov, 1979, p 183)
Volkov’s book has been considered by some as a fraud, a compendium of Shostakovich’s writings strung together with Volkov’s ideas (e.g. Fay, 2004. Taruskin, 1995). Nevertheless, some of the bitterness is undoubtedly true. And it is impossible not to consider this quote when listening to the finale.
Different conductors have used different tempos for this ending. In his documentary on Shostakovich, Aranovich (1981) juxtaposed without judgment the slow solemn rhythm of Mravinsy to the franticly rushed tempo of Bernstein. Slow is much more powerful:
Yet this does not mean that Volkov’s interpretation is correct. The message underlying the symphony’s ending is not triumph but it is also not despair. Other interpretations consider the coda as much more personal, repenting Shostakovich’s need to survive or his inability of to defeat evil with his art. I think that it conveys the resilience of humanity despite the current tragedy. We shall survive. This interpretation is not common (but see a review A Pillar to Help Humanity Prevailby Jeff Wall)
The wonder of music is that it resists only one interpretation. Margarita Mazo recalled:
For many of us, listening to a new piece by Shostakovich was a sacred experience. Was he a dissident or was he not? Was he a Communist or was he not? He was so much more complex than that. Besides, can you tell music with words? Can you say with words what this music is about? If so, then why do you need music? (quoted in Mitchinson, 2002, pp 318-9)
Shostakovich remained in Leningrad during first part of the war. He served in the fire brigade during the siege. A propaganda photograph shows a very uncomfortable Shostakovich in full uniform atop the roofs of Leningrad.
At that time Shostakovich composed his Opus 60 Symphony No. 7 Leningrad, which was performed in 1942 in the besieged city, with loudspeakers defiantly broadcasting the music to the Germans. The symphony illustrates how Shostakovich played with the meanings of his music. The opening movement of the Leningrad symphony provides an enthralling march that begins like the Pied Piper and ends as a “gargantuan, vulgar rant” (Ross, 2007, p. 247). The selection gives the middle of this transition:
Initially we cannot help but be swept up by this militaristic Bolero even when we know it represents the German invasion. Emotions are fickle – they can give force to bad ideas as well as good. And music is the mother of emotion.
Volkov claimed that this movement was composed before the German invasion and that the music represented Stalin rather than Hitler, but Fay has pointed out that this may have been a misinterpretation, since the dates on the initial autograph versions of the score are clearly after the invasion (Fay, 2000, note 7, p 313).
Despite the success of his wartime music, by 1948 Shostakovich had once again fallen into disrepute for his formalist tendencies. The criticism is hard to understand. Particularly in his symphonies, Shostakovich’s music is easy to appreciate. His melodies are memorable and moving, his orchestration always exciting.
The criticism of formalism can be invoked against abstract painting, but it is difficult to apply to music. Music is formal by nature. Music can be composed programmatically, but the much of music’s appeal is that it freely plays with the emotions independently of thought.
Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s second-in-command, singled out Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, and Khachaturyan as “the leading figures of the formalist trend in music, a trend which is fundamentally wrong.” Soviet classical music should convert the songs of the people into classical forms:
Any listener will tell you that the works of Soviet composers of the formalist type differ fundamentally from classical music. Classical music is marked by its truthfulness and realism, its ability to blend brilliant artistic form with profound content, and to combine the highest technical achievement with simplicity and intelligibility. Formalism and crude naturalism are alien to classical music in general and to Russian classical music in particular. …
The neglect of programme music is also a departure from progressive traditions. It is well known that Russian classical music was as a rule programme music. …
Melodiousness is beginning to disappear. A passionate emphasis on rhythm at the expense of melody is characteristic of modern music. Yet we know that music can give pleasure only if it contains the essential elements in a specific harmonic combination. (Zhdanov, 1948)
In his criticisms Zhdanov was harking back to the ideas that initially empowered 19th-Century Russian music. Revolutionary theories can be quite reactionary.
Shostakovich was dismissed from the Conservatory and required to repent his misdeeds before the General Assembly. He retreated into himself, and over the next few years composed mainly chamber music. Stalin did not listen to string quartets.
However, as the most famous of the Soviet composers, Shostakovich was selected as a member of the Soviet delegation to the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1949 (Saunders, 2000). Shostakovich played a piano transcription of the second movement of his Symphony No 5 and read a speech written for him by the politicians. The conference was a free-for-all. Protesters, supported by the CIA, marched outside the hotel with signs demanding Shostakovich’s defenestration:
At one of the conference sessions, Shostakovich was confronted by Nicolas Nabokov, a composer and first cousin of the novelist Vladimir. Though born in Russia, Nicolas had been an American citizen since 1939, and was at the time of the conference in the pay of the CIA. He publicly asked Shostakovich whether he agreed with a recent Pravda article denouncing Hindemith, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Ashen-faced, Shostakovich murmured that he supported the Pravda statements. To do otherwise would have risked his life. For Nabokov not to have realized this was cruel. Nothing is as oblivious as righteousness.
Shostakovich composed music that mixed the emotions. He was therefore fascinated by Jewish music (Scheinberg, 1995). He was intrigued by how Jewish people built a cheerful melody on sad intonations: “Why does he sing a cheerful song? Because he is sad at heart” (Fay, 2000, p. 169). During and after the war, Shostakovich befriended the composer Moishe Vainberg (or Mieczysław Weinberg), a Jewish refugee from Poland. They enjoyed discussing each other’s compositions, and learning each other’s musical traditions
In last movement of his Opus 67 Piano Trio No. 2 (1944), Shostakovich uses a Jewish theme:
Some have suggested that this trio commemorates the Holocaust (e.g. Dubinsky, 1989, pp 111-157). News of the concentration camps was becoming available at the time of the trio’s composition. Some have interpreted the last movement of the trio as representing Jews being asked to dance before they were executed. Although this idea fits the music, the trio was not specifically written to honor the victims of Nazism, but as a requiem for Shostakovich’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky.
Shostakovich directly considered the Holocaust in his Opus 113 Symphony No. 13 Babi Yar (1962). The symphony is a choral setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko written to commemorate the massacre of the Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar. The poems and the symphony were discredited by the Soviet government for placing the sufferings of the Jewish people above that of the Russians. Mravinsky refused to conduct the symphony. Though Stalin was dead, Soviet Russia continued to suppress the arts.
Toward the end of his life, Shostakovich was bitter. The photograph on the left by Ida Kar shows Shostakovich in 1959. The anxiety is palpable. Shostakovich was angry about the way artists such as Akhmatova had been treated in Soviet Russia. He was depressed that he had not been free to compose as he wished. The bitterness comes out in Volkov’s Testimony. Although much of the book comes from prior publications, some of it was indeed based on Volkov’s interviews with the elderly composer between 1971 and 1974.
Laurel Fay points out that
Soviet history was always a work-in-progress; people, ideas and facts that became unpalatable were routinely “airbrushed “out of existence in later Soviet sources. Only rarely was anything so erased later on restored. Shostakovich himself was obliged to reinvent his past on occasion. By the time successive generations encountered the “expurgated” pages of their history, they often had lost track of what had been excised, and why. (Fay, 2000, p. 5)
Perhaps only fiction can get at the truth. Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a fictional retelling of Shostakovich’s life, is slated for publication early in 2016.
Shostakovich died of lung cancer in 1975. His last work was Opus 147 Sonata for Viola and Piano. The final movement of the sonata is similar in length to the last movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. However, where Beethoven is transcendent, Shostakovich is austere. The following clip gives the beginning of the last movement. The piano accompaniment makes allusion to Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, but the violin theme is very Russian.
Aranovich, S., & Sokurov, A. (1981/2005). Dmitri Shostakovich:Sonata for Viola (DVD). Paris: Idéale Audience.
Barnes, J. (2016). The noise of time. London: Jonathan Cape.
Brown, M. H. (2004). A Shostakovich casebook. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bullock, P. R. (2010). The composer’s voice, the poet’s echo: Monologic verse or dialogic song? In P. Fairclough (Ed.) Shostakovich Studies 2 (pp.207-227). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Conquest, R. (1968, revised 1990). The Great Terror: a reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dubinsky, R. (1989). Stormy applause: Making music in a worker’s state. London: Hutchinson.
Fay, L. E. (2000). Shostakovich: A life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fay, L. E. (2004). Volkov’s Testimony reconsidered (2002). In Brown, M. H. A Shostakovich casebook. (pp 22-66). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
We cannot choose the moment of our birth. And death usually comes in its own time, not ours. Sometimes, however, we can decide to end our life. The reasons for suicide are various. Most common is the desire to end intractable suffering. Faced with the prospect of a prolonged period of pain and suffering at the end of life, most rational people would prefer euthanasia – a “good death.” This term first came into English in Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (Book II, X.7). Bacon was encouraging physicians to assuage the pains and agonies of death: to practice what we now call palliative care.
Over the course of time “euthanasia” became differentiated from palliative care, and now generally means the inducement of death so as to prevent intolerable pain and suffering in patients with incurable disease (Young, 2012; Sumner 2011). Euthanasia may be voluntary or involuntary, based on whether the patient provides consent or not. Involuntary euthanasia, where the patient does not provide consent although capable of so doing, is sometimes distinguished from non-voluntary euthanasia (“mercy killing”), where the patient is unable to either object or consent. Some would consider both involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia as equivalent to murder and limit the term euthanasia to cases wherein consent is explicit. Euthanasia may be active or passive, based on whether death is induced by the administration of a lethal medication or by the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, nutrition or hydration. Active euthanasia may be initiated by the patient, in which case it is essentially suicide, or by someone else (a physician or a nurse acting under the direction of a physician), in which case it can be described as assisted suicide or assisted dying. Sometimes voluntary euthanasia, where the lethal medication is administered to the patient, is distinguished from assisted suicide, where the patient takes the drug, but this distinction appears unnecessary. When the word is unmodified, euthanasia generally means physician-assisted suicide performed at the request of the patient.
Our attitudes to euthanasia have changed over the centuries (Dowbiggin, 2005). Developments in religion, law, and medicine have all contributed to these changes. Over the past century or so medicine has increased its ability to treat disease and manage pain. We are now more able to make end-of-life decisions than we have ever been. Nevertheless, the decisions remain extremely difficult, since they involve our cherished belief in the sanctity of human life and our ancient laws against killing (Pappas, 2012). Any proposal for euthanasia must address our general prohibition of suicide.
In the Eastern religions, suicide was not forbidden. In India, a wife could cast herself on the funeral pyre of her husband in the process of sati. Elderly yogis with no remaining responsibilities could seek death by starvation – prayopavesa. In Japan, suicide by means of seppuku could preserve one’s honor. Since one of the goals of Buddhism is to relinquish any attachment to the world, suicide might even be considered as a means to this release, though this should only come after enlightenment has been attained (Attwood, 2004). However, some Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monks sought enlightenment through a process of sokushinbutsu or self-mummification, accomplished by slow starvation and self-suffocation.
In the Abrahamic religions, however, suicide was considered an unpardonable sin, tantamount to murder (Cholbi, 2012). Suicide was contrary to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). The main scriptures, however, do not specifically prohibit killing oneself. The Bible provides various examples of suicide (Samson, Saul, Judas) without ever stating that this is prohibited. However, the scriptures convey a general sense that one should not interfere with divine providence: “My times are in thy hand” (Psalm 31:15). One verse of the Qur’an (4:29) is sometimes translated as “Do not kill yourselves,” though it is more usually rendered as “Do not kill each other.”
Through most of its history, the Christian Church has adamantly condemned suicide. The body of a suicide was denied burial in consecrated ground and the soul denied access to salvation. In recent years, the churches have relaxed their condemnation, though suicide is still considered a mortal sin. Until recently, suicide was illegal in almost all European countries, and the property of the suicide was confiscated by the state. Part of the reason why Christian societies have been so severe in their condemnation of suicide may have been the attractiveness of heaven. Without severe sanctions, believers might easily choose the happiness of an after-life to the suffering of a present life.
During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, thinkers began to question the Church’s stance. When one is coming to the end of life and faced with unrelenting pain, one should be able to choose a quick and painless death rather than undergo prolonged and unnecessary suffering
In Thomas More’s Utopia
…when any is taken with a torturing and lingering pain, so that there is no hope either of recovery or ease, the priests and magistrates come and exhort them, that, since they are now unable to go on with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and to all about them, and they have really out-lived themselves, they should no longer nourish such a rooted distemper, but choose rather to die since they cannot live but in much misery; being assured that if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or are willing that others should do it, they shall be happy after death: since, by their acting thus, they lose none of the pleasures, but only the troubles of life, they think they behave not only reasonably but in a manner consistent with religion and piety; because they follow the advice given them by their priests, who are the expounders of the will of God. Such as are wrought on by these persuasions either starve themselves of their own accord, or take opium, and by that means die without pain. (More, 1516, pp 140-141).
One cannot be sure whether More was advocating euthanasia or just presenting the policy for discussion. The title of his book means “nowhere” – only later did it assume the additional connotation of eutopia or “good place.” As a devout Roman Catholic, More likely supported his church’s opposition to euthanasia. Death should come when God wills, not when we want.
In an essay that was only published posthumously, David Hume provided a rational view of suicide. He proposed that it is no more contrary to divine providence than building houses to protect ourselves from the weather or cultivating the earth to prevent ourselves from starving. Furthermore, when we become old and infirm suicide is no longer contrary to our duties to society, since we may have become more of a burden than a benefit to our fellows. Thus
both prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence, when it becomes a burthen. ’Tis the only way, that we can then be useful to society, by setting an example, which, if imitated, would preserve to every one his chance for happiness in life, and would effectually free him from all danger of misery. (Hume, 1777)
In the concluding note to his essay, Hume quoted Pliny the Elder who described suicide as an advantage that man possesses over God.
Deus non sibi potest mortem consciscere, si velit, quod homini dedit optimum in tantis vitæ poenis. [God cannot put himself to death even if he wanted to, since among the many ills of life he gave away this best of boons to man]. (Pliny, 79, Book II Chapter V)
The modern interpretation of euthanasia can probably be traced to the much-discussed essay on the subject by Samuel D. Williams published in 1870 (Kemp, 2002). He proposed
That in all cases of hopeless and painful illness it should be the recognized duty of the medical attendant, whenever so desired by the patient, to administer chloroform, or such other anæsthetic as may by-and-by supersede chloroform, so as to destroy consciousness at once, and put the sufferer at once to a quick and painless death; all needful precautions being adopted to prevent any possible abuse of such duty and means being taken to establish, beyond the possibility of doubt or question, that the remedy was applied at the express wish of the patient. (Williams, 1870, p 212).
In the decades subsequent to this essay, many groups in England, Europe and North America began to advocate the legalization of euthanasia.
In the 20th Century euthanasia became entrammeled with another idea that promoted the good of society – “eugenics.” Unfortunately, joining the “good death” with the “good birth” led to actions of great evil.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had proposed that humanity’s current success derives from the selection of the fittest for survival and propagation. Followers of Darwin warned that we should not alter the course of evolution by social policies to protect the weak and vulnerable. Rather we should encourage our best and brightest to have more offspring, and we should prevent the feeble-minded, criminal and insane from multiplying. These ideas formed the basis of eugenics.
In the first few decades of the 20th Century several jurisdictions in North America and Europe enacted eugenic laws enforcing the sterilization of the mentally defective and the insane. The most efficient of such programs was brought in by the German Nazi government when it came to power in1933 (Proctor, 1988, Chapter 4; Pichot, 2001, Chapter 10). The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring required the sterilization of patients suffering from feeble mindedness, schizophrenia, manic-depression, Huntington’s chorea and alcoholism. While the program was in operation between 1933 and 1939, about 400,000 patients were sterilized (compared to about 30,000 patients over a much longer period in the USA).
A more effective eugenics program would not only prevent offspring but also remove from society the costs involved in the long-term care of feeble-minded and mentally ill patients. The possibility of the involuntary euthanasia of patients who were a burden to society had been thoroughly evaluated in the 1920 book Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life by Karl Binding, a legal scholar, and Alfred Hoche, a physician. They considered the question
Is there human life which has so utterly forfeited its claim to worth that its continuation has forever lost all value both for the bearer of that life and for society?
They answered affirmatively, and proposed that society was justified in putting patients with incurable disease to death.
In 1939 the war began and the German sterilization program ceased. In its place a secret program called Operation T4 was instituted to provide a mercy death (Gnadentod) for the incurably sick and mentally ill. Patients were killed either in specially constructed gas chambers or by such other means as were found expedient. The number of patients euthanized by the time the war ended was probably around 400,000 (Proctor, 1988, Chapter 7; Pichot, 2001, Chapter 11). The techniques developed in the early stages of this program were then used when the Nazi government decided to murder Jews, homosexuals, communists, Gypsies, Slavs and prisoners of war.
The history of euthanasia in Germany is a horrifying example of the “slippery slope.” By accepting that some people have more of a right to life than others or that a doctor may agree to a patient’s request for death, we slide slowly and inexorably toward complete immorality. Leo Alexander, a medical expert at the Nuremberg trials, stated the problem of the “small beginnings:”
Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans (Alexander, 1949).
For many years after the war, the ethics of active euthanasia were not discussed. We became more concerned with the relief of pain. New protocols were developed to facilitate analgesia, the speciality of palliative care became a medical specialty, and hospices became available to provide a peaceful and pain-free death to patients with terminal illness.
Sometimes, when medication dosages were increased to levels sufficient to relieve severe and unrelenting pain, death also resulted. Such protocols invoked the principle of “double effect:” that an action intended to bring about a morally desirable effect (the relief of pain) is not wrong if it also leads to a morally reprehensible effect (death) even when this second effect is foreseen. This state of affairs is both morally and medically confusing (McIntyre, 2001). Who is to say what is intended and what is just foreseen? The increased pain medication probably does not in itself bring about the death of the patient. Death results from a combination of causes: limiting the patient’s nutrition and hydration adds to the effects of sedation and the ongoing disease. “Terminal sedation” should probably not be considered as an example of double effect, but simply treated as a type of euthanasia.
In the second half of the 20th Century, medicine developed techniques for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and mechanical ventilation. Although these procedures often prevented unnecessary death, they sometimes resulted in unresponsive patients being maintained alive without any reasonable hope for the return of normal consciousness.
These developments led to the principle that life need not be artificially continued if recovery is futile. A patient may decide to forego resuscitation or mechanical ventilation in such situations. This decision may be made by means of an advance directive or “living will.” In cases without such directives, the decision can be made by the patient’s family and caregivers. Accepting these protocols has been a long a complicated process that is outside of the main topic of this posting (see discussion in Pappas, 2012, Chapter 4). Issues remain for patients who have no advance directives and when the family and physicians disagree on whether to maintain life support. Nevertheless we have come to general terms with the idea of passive euthanasia when a patient is unresponsive and the prognosis is futile. Outside of a few jurisdictions, however, active euthanasia remains illegal.
Legalization of Voluntary Euthanasia
Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in Oregon since 1997 (Lindsay, 2009; Lee, 2014), in Switzerland at least since 1998, and in the Netherlands (Onwuteaka-Philipsen et al., 2012) and Belgium (Cohen-Almagor, 2009) since 2002. Each of these jurisdictions requires a formal application from a patient judged competent to understand the nature of their suffering and the consequences of their request (Lewis & Black, 2013).
The incidence of voluntary euthanasia is low but varies greatly among the jurisdictions. In Oregon the incidence is 0.2% of all deaths, but in Belgium and the Netherlands the incidence is between 1.5 and 3 % (the incidence in Switzerland is not accurately known). The incidence would be significantly higher if cases of euthanasia without consent, and cases of terminal sedation were included together with those of voluntary euthanasia.
Investigations of patients undergoing voluntary euthanasia indicate no clear evidence that vulnerable populations are unfairly targeted, or that coercion plays a significant role in the patients’ decisions. In Oregon most patients requesting euthanasia were white, well-educated, and medically insured (Lindsay, 2009). Furthermore, euthanasia does not substitute for adequate palliative care, since most patients ultimately seeking euthanasia have already tried palliative care or been admitted to a hospice.
Nevertheless, two significant issues remain unanswered. The first is the incidence of euthanasia without explicit consent. Although this is not reported in Oregon, it has been documented in Belgium and the Netherlands. When faced with an incurable patient in severe pain who is not able to provide consent, a compassionate physician may nevertheless proceed with euthanasia. The incidence of this is extremely difficult to assess, particularly if one includes “terminal sedation.” The incidence of euthanasia without consent probably equals the incidence with consent (Cohen-Almagor, 2009; Lewis &Black, 2013; Meussen et al., 2010, Onwuteaka-Philipsen et al., 2012).
The second issue concerns the euthanasia of patients with psychiatric disorders. This has become particularly frequent in Belgium (Thienpont et al., 2015; Aviv, 2015). By arguing that mental anguish can cause as much suffering as physical pain, one can make a philosophical case for euthanasia to relieve “existential suffering” (Varelius, 2014). However, we usually believe that psychiatric disorders can be treated, and that even without treatment depression will alleviate with the passage of time. Psychiatric patients are certainly vulnerable and often may have difficulty providing fully informed consent. Thienpont et al. (2015) report that the female/male ratio was 3.3 for psychiatric patients requesting euthanasia and 2.9 for those patients who were ultimately euthanized. They suggest that this is in keeping with the increased incidence of psychiatric disease in women, but the ratio is nevertheless disconcerting.
Objections to Euthanasia
Euthanasia has engendered much public debate (Andorno & Baffone, 2014; Materstvedt et al., 2003; New England Journal of Medicine, 2013; Quill & Greenlaw, 2008; Somerville, 1993, 2014; Smith, 2006; Sumner, 2011, Young, 2012). The main reason for making euthanasia legal is that individuals have a right to decide that a rapid painless assisted death is preferable to one that is prolonged and painful, and to have medical assistance in bringing this about. The main objections are
(i) Euthanasia is unnecessary if there is adequate palliative care. A variant of this argument is that if euthanasia becomes legal, patients and physicians will prefer euthanasia to palliative care. Palliative and hospice care can render the end of life peaceful and pain-free in most patients. Nevertheless, pain medication must sometimes be brought to such levels that the treatment of pain becomes essentially the same as euthanasia.
(ii) Patients may not be able to provide proper informed consent. A state of state of severe pain and distress may preclude proper consent – the patient may agree to anything to stop the pain. This objection could be countered if the patient simply confirmed a previous decision made before the terminal period.
(iii) Patients near the end of life may be very vulnerable to coercion. Opponents of euthanasia suggest that families and caretakers may improperly convince disabled or elderly patients to accept euthanasia. Their ulterior motive might be to be relieved of the expense and effort involved in the care of their elderly relative or to free up an inheritance.
(iv) Allowing voluntary euthanasia is a “slippery slope” that will ultimately lead to killing all individuals whose lives are considered “unworthy.” If we become used to letting people die, we may become inured to killing and allow the old, the disabled and the mentally defective to be euthanized without consent. The story of Jack Kevorkian (Pappas, 2012, Chapter 5) represents the horrors of the slippery slope. Though there may have been some support for his early actions, ultimately he was killing patients who were obviously unable to give consent. Refutations of the slippery-slope argument hinge on strong safeguards to guarantee proper consent and strict sanctions against euthanasia outside of the legal guidelines (Stingl, 2010). The slope may be slippery but we can construct barriers to prevent us from falling into the abyss.
Despite the objections, the great majority of people in North America support the legalization of voluntary euthanasia. Gallup polls (McCarthy, 2014) show that about 70% of respondents in the USA answer yes to the question
When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it?
Support varies with the wording of the question (Saad, 2010). Only 51% agree if the question is worded:
When a person has a disease that cannot be cure and is living in severe pain, do you think that doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?
Both Somerville (1993) and Callahan (2008) have remarked how easily public opinion on euthanasia may be swayed by the choice of words.
In a Canadian poll taken in 2013 at the behest of an anti-euthanasia group the key findings were that
Canadians are about twice as likely to support (63%) as to oppose (32%) a law allowing physician-assisted suicide in Canada. Support is slightly lower for legalizing euthanasia (55% vs. 40% who oppose it), which is likely due in part to providing respondents with information about the rate of euthanasia deaths occurring without patient consent in Belgium. (Environics, 2013).
A year later, an Ipsos-Reid poll performed for a pro-euthanasia group showed 84% of Canadian respondents in favor of physician-assisted suicide. (Ramsay, 2015).
A final survey worth noting is one conducted by the Canadian Medical Association (2011). They found in a survey of their members that
only 20% of respondents would be willing to participate if euthanasia is legalized in Canada, while twice as many (42%) would refuse to do so. Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) are not sure how they would respond, while 15% did not answer.
The Hippocratic Oath asserts
I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asks for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.
Most present day physicians do not swear to this oath, but the idea that a physician should not bring about death has merit. When one is sick and in pain, a physician who will not kill is preferable to one who might be willing to do so. Even if ultimately one could choose suicide.
In Canada active euthanasia is a crime though suicide is not. The Canadian Supreme Courts has examined the issues of euthanasia in three cases: Rodriguez vs British Columbia (1993), R vs Latimer (2001), and Carter vs Canada (2015).
In 2001 Sue Rodriguez, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, wished to be allowed to die by means of assisted suicide when she became totally incapacitated. She wanted to live life to its fullest, and therefore did not wish to take her life before becoming unable to do so. She proposed that the law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide was discriminatory
since it prevents persons physically unable to end their lives unassisted from choosing suicide when that option is in principle available to other members of the public without contravening the law.
The judgment of the court was that the blanket prohibition of assisted suicide was justified since its purpose was to protect life. The court expressed concerns about the possible abuse of assisted suicide were it to be legalized, the difficulties in creating appropriate safeguards against such abuse, and the need to protect those members of society who might be vulnerable to such abuse. The court therefore decided against her request. Sue Rodriguez committed suicide with the assistance of an anonymous physician in 1994.
In 1993, Robert Latimer brought about the death of his 12-year old daughter Tracy by means of carbon monoxide poisoning. Tracy suffered from severe cerebral palsy, epilepsy and mental retardation. She had undergone numerous operations to relieve her spastic and painful state. Faced with further surgery for her constantly dislocating hip, her father decided that dying would be preferable to continuing a life of pain and torture. Latimer was convicted of second degree murder and given the minimum 10-year sentence allowed for this crime. The case went through several appeals. In 2001, the Supreme Court considered a request to reduce the sentence, but affirmed both the conviction and the sentence. They found no justification for non-voluntary euthanasia. Robert Latimer began serving his sentence in 2001 and was release in 2010.
The Supreme Court of Canada re-considered the law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide in its judgment of Carter vs Canada. The case was instigated by Lee Carter, who had been forced to take her mother, suffering from an incurable neurodegenerative disease, to Switzerland for assisted suicide, since this was not legally available in Canada. The court summarized the reasoning of the 1993 Rodriguez judgment:
The object of the prohibition is not, broadly, to preserve life whatever the circumstances, but more specifically to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness.
However, the court acknowledged that since that 1993 judgment assisted suicide had been legalized in several jurisdictions and that safeguards against abuse have been effective. The court agreed that some people may wish to end their lives but not have the ability to do so without the assistance of a physician. The law prohibiting such assistance thus discriminates against these individuals:
An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.
The court therefore temporarily invalidated the law prohibiting physician-assisted dying and called upon the federal government to provide new legislation more consistent with the Canadian Bill of Rights. However, the present government seems loath to address the issue, despite the weight of public opinion (Ramsay, 2015). The government of the Province of Quebec has voted to allow euthanasia, although this decision may be legally contested by the federal government.
Where Do I Stand?
Euthanasia should be legal when a patient with an incurable illness is suffering pain that cannot be adequately relieved by analgesic medication. The diagnosis and prognosis should be confirmed by at least two physicians. Modern palliative care should have been provided and demonstrated to be inadequate. Euthanasia should only be allowed at the patient’s request and only after his physicians have ensured that the request is freely made.
Terminally ill patients who are in obvious pain but unable to consent to euthanasia pose a significant problem for both medicine and the law. We need to develop guidelines and safeguards to allow consent to euthanasia from the family and caretakers in these cases. Otherwise non-voluntary euthanasia may occur and go unreported.
In the absence of unrelenting pain, euthanasia of the elderly, the demented, and the mentally defective should continue to be prohibited.
At the present time there is no adequate justification for assisted suicide for existential suffering. Euthanasia in psychiatric patients is far too susceptible to abuse to be allowed.
Physicians should not be forced to provide euthanasia. Nevertheless, any patient requesting euthanasia should be referred to other physicians who can evaluate the request, judge its validity and conduct the euthanasia. Such referrals should be readily available.
Andorno, R., & Baffone, C. (2014). Human rights and the moral obligation to alleviate suffering. In R. M. Green & N. J. Palpant (Eds.) Suffering and Bioethics. (pp. 184-199). New York; Oxford University Press.
Binding, K., & Hoche, A., (1920, translated by W.E. Wright, P. Deer, & R. Salomon, 1992). Permitting the destruction of unworthy life: its extent and form. Leipzig: Felix Meiner. Translation published in Issues in Law and Medicine, 8, 231-265.
Callahan, D. (2008). Organized obfuscation: Advocacy for Physician-Assisted Suicide. Hastings Center Report, 38(5), 30-32
Kemp, N. D. A. (2002). Merciful release: The history of the British euthanasia movement. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Lee, B. C. (2014). Oregon’s experience with aid in dying: findings from the death with dignity laboratory. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1330, 94–100.
Lewis, P., & Black, I. (2013). Adherence to the request criterion in jurisdictions where assisted dying is lawful? A review of the criteria and evidence in the Netherlands, Belgium, Oregon, and Switzerland. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 41, 885-898.
Lindsay, R. A. (2009). Oregon’s experience: evaluating the record. American Journal of Bioethics, 9, 19–27.
Materstvedt, L., Clark, J. D., Ellershaw, J., Førde, R., Boeck Gravgaard, A.-M., Müller-Busch, H. C., Josep Porta i Sales, J., & Rapin C.-H. (2003). Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: a view from an EAPC Ethics Task Force. Palliative Medicine, 17, 97-101
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New England Medical Journal (2013) Clinical decisions: Physician-assisted suicide. With commentary by Boudreau, J. D., & Somerville, M. A. (Physician-assisted suicide should not be permitted) and by Biller-Andorno, N. (Physician-assisted suicide should be permitted). New England Medical Journal, 368, 1450-1452.
Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B.D., Brinkman-Stoppelenburg, A., Penning, C., Jong-Krul, G.J., van Delden, J.J., & van der Heide, A. (2012) Trends in end-of-life practices before and after the enactment of the euthanasia law in The Netherlands from 1990-2010: A repeated cross-sectional survey. Lancet, 380, 908–915.
Pappas, D. (2012). The euthanasia/assisted suicide debate. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood (ABC-CLIO).
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Proctor, R. (1988). Racial hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
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Somerville, M. A. (2014). Exploring interactions between pain, suffering, and the law. In R. M. Green & N. J. Palpant (Eds.) Suffering and Bioethics. (pp. 201-229). New York; Oxford University Press.
Smith, W. J. (2006). Forced exit: Euthanasia, assisted suicide, and the new duty to die. New York: Encounter Books.
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The term “kitsch” came into being in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century (Dorfles, 1969; Calinescu, 1987; Riout, 2004). The etiology of the word is unknown. One possible source is the verb kitschen meaning “to collect rubbish” (Rugg, 2002); another is verkitschen, “to make cheaply” (Dutton, 1998). Words used to describe kitsch – “tacky,” “tawdry,” “garish,” “chintzy,” “schmaltzy” and “cheesy” – suggest cheapness, ostentation, triteness and sentimentality. Garden gnomes are a classic example.
Kitsch is bad art. However, the judgment of whether something is kitsch or not is highly subjective. Everyone has a personal idea of what is beautiful. In the words of David Hume
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. (Hume, 1757, section 7).
Nevertheless, Hume goes on to state that most people would agree to some general principles of beauty:
It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease (section 12).
Experience and education allow one to understand and apply these principles. Thus we develop good taste. Kitsch is the art of bad taste.
The Rise of Kitsch
Kitsch is a phenomenon of the modern age. There has always been bad art, but this never became popular or widespread. In the past, bad art did not sell. Much of kitsch’s success in modern times derives from a commercial system that encourages its production and consumption. Kitsch is the art of the consumer society.
A major factor leading to kitsch was thus the rise of the bourgeoisie (Moles, 1971; Calinescu, 1987). In the nineteenth century the middle class expanded greatly. The upper middle class wanted to buy things of beauty, but they had not the education to do so with good taste. The lower middle class became able to purchase things beyond the bare necessities, but they were unable to pay for original art and settled for imitations. Industry quickly provided these and consumer kitsch was born.
The industrial revolution gave workers leisure time. So as not to be bored during this free time, people sought activities that were pleasing without requiring effort: entertainment rather than true art. Pleasurable relaxation was the goal of most of society; kitsch was the easiest means to this end. Abraham Moles (1971) considered kitsch to be l’art de bonheur the “art of happiness.”
One might therefore consider kitsch as the art of the people. The following is from Abraham Moles (1971, p. 28, the French is elegant and my translation necessarily inexact:
Le Kitsch est à ce titre essentiellement démocratique : il est l’art acceptable, ce qui ne choque pas notre esprit par une transcendence hors de la vie quotidienne, par un effort qui nous dépasse – surtout s’il doit nous faire dépasser nous-même. Le Kitsch est à la mesure de l’homme, quand l’art en est la démesure, le Kitsch dilue l’originalité à un degré suffisant pour la faire accepter par tous. [Kitsch is in this way essentially democratic: it is acceptable art, art which does not shock us to transcend everyday life, or require any extraordinary effort – especially any surpassing of our present selves. Kitsch stays within our easy reach, whereas art exceeds our grasp; kitsch dilutes originality enough to make it accessible to all.]
However, we cannot lay all the blame on the middle class. Aristocrats have often succumbed to ostentatious displays of wealth that would be generally considered kitsch. The “rich kitsch” of fake ruins and ceiling putti is every bit as bad as the poor kitsch of garden gnomes and fuzzy dice. Furthermore, the merchant class has sometimes displayed excellent taste. Patrons of fine art have come from wealthy members of the middle class as much as from the aristocracy.
Dwight Macdonald considered kitsch as essentially the same as the “mass culture” used to exploit the masses. He distinguished it from folk art which is created spontaneously by the people, and from high culture which is created for the elite:
Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying. The Lords of kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule – in Communist countries, only the second purpose obtains. (Macdonald, 1953, p. 2-3)
Macdonald painted a pessimistic picture of our artistic future:
The Lords of kitsch sell culture to the masses. It is a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple, spontaneous pleasures, since the realities would be too real and the pleasures too lively to induce what Mr. Seldes calls ‘the mood of consent’: i.e., a narcotised acceptance of Mass Culture and of the commodities it sells as a substitute for the unsettling and unpredictable (hence unsalable) joy, tragedy, wit, change, originality and beauty of real life. The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products. (Macdonald, 1953, p. 16, the reference to Seldes is to his 1950 book The Great Audience.)
However, I am not sure that we can always fault the taste of the masses. Popular culture can promote kitsch, but it can also make significant artistic contributions. Shakespeare was notoriously beloved of the masses. Furthermore, he gave the penny public what it wanted.
Macdonald considered as kitsch everything produced by the entertainment industry – radio, television, movies, and comics. Much is but not all. Some works in these modern art forms are both beautiful and significant.
A second factor in the development of kitsch was the development of techniques for reproduction. Multiple copies of an image could be cheaply produced and widely marketed (Benjamin, 1936; Dorfles, 1969; Moles, 1971). Reproductions lack the aura (and the value) of the originals. And when used for purposes other than those of the artist, they might be considered kitsch: Renoir images on biscuit tins, Pollock paintings on silken scarves, Rodin sculptures as bookends.
And yet, and yet. Art has always been reproduced. Engravings of pictures and casts of statues allowed the dissemination of artistic creations. How else can art history be taught or learned? Reproduction is not wrong. It is not forgery. However, reproductions may sometimes be disconcertingly different from the original. The deceptive quality of kitsch may lie “in its claim to supply its consumers with essentially the same kinds of beauty as those embodied in unique or rare and inaccessible originals” (Calinescu, 1987, p 252). Yet one can also say this about original artwork, which is an artist’s reproduction of an experience, not the experience itself.
Most would agree that plastic replicas of the Eifel Tower are kitsch. They serve no aesthetic purpose. In addition, such objects demonstrate “aesthetic inadequacy” (Calinescu, 1987) – their size and the materials they are made of contradict the aesthetic properties of the original.
However, visual art can be beautiful both in itself and in its contribution to our general set of images. A reproduction refers us to the image rather than to the original. Better a scarf should represent a Pollack painting than a cute kitten. The scarf is not the same as the painting, but it may still be pleasing to the eye and thoughtful to the mind.
What makes something kitsch rather than art?
So perhaps we need some criteria in terms of what is represented rather than with how or why it is reproduced. To say exactly why kitsch is bad can be difficult. Kulka (1996, pp 14-42) proposed that kitsch fulfills three conditions:
1. Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.
2. The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.
3. Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.
The next few paragraphs will consider and qualify these three conditions.
Kulka’s first condition is often considered as “sentimentality.” This characteristic of kitsch may have stemmed in part from the Romantic movement in art (Broch, 1969). In the late eighteenth century, art began to consider emotions much more directly than before. People enjoyed having their feelings aroused. Art sought to bring the viewer or the reader to tears. Yet this could easily be overdone, resulting in mawkishness or melodrama. Over the top can be more uncomfortable than uplifting. Tears should not be wasted inappropriately.
Typical examples of kitsch are paintings of the poor designed to evoke feelings of pity. Pity at someone else’s suffering is an important human emotion, but it is meaningless when it does not lead to some action to relieve the suffering. It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to hang paintings of begging children on one’s walls even if they are as technically accomplished as those of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose Little Beggar (Petite Mendiante, 1880) is shown on the right. Bouguereau (1825-1905) was a famous academic painter who became quickly and completely forgotten after his death. He has been recently championed by Fred Ross, whose Art Renewal website reacts against the lack of figurative painting in modern art.
Kitsch often exploits pity – sentimental pictures of sad-eyed children are sold in the millions. Pity is a complicated emotion (Kimball, 2004): although it is primarily related to empathy and compassion, pity slides easily into feeling of superiority and contempt. Nothing can be done – the poor have only themselves to blame. The description of Bouguereau’s Petite Mendiante on the Art Renewal website states “She looks at the viewer with desperation and exhaustion, causing a feeling of sadness in the viewer who knows she cannot be helped.” This comforting conclusion is more rationalization than fact: as William Blake (The Human Abstract from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1795) said
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor
Distinguishing sentimentality from other emotions may be difficult. In J. D. Salinger’s 1959 story Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, Seymour Glass quotes the Zen scholar R. H. Blyth “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it” (p. 78). However, unless we know how God feels about something, this is a difficult criterion to apply. Seymour recognizes that he is being tendentious, but he is sure that God would not be as enamored as his wife of kittens with “technicolor bootees on their paws.” Yet if we cannot appeal to God or some other absolute principle, how do we decide whether sentiments are high or tacky?
Opera is an art of great emotion. The plots are usually melodramatic, and some people may feel that grand opera borders on the realm of kitsch. The emotions are high and the audience’s involvement enhanced by the music. Yet high sentiment is not sentimentality. Opera opens itself up to meanings as deep as the emotions are high.
Art cannot exist without emotion. Art must move us to feel something about the world or about ourselves. The problem is that emotions can be used inappropriately, either commercially to sell worthless trinkets or politically to unite a population behind a party or its leader.
Kundera discusses political kitsch experience in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (p 251). A senator is moved by seeing children running on the grass.
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man or earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch. … And no one knows this better than politicians. Whenever a camera is in the offing they immediately run to the nearest child, lift it in the air, kiss it on the cheek. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.
It is good to feel deeply even about simple things. It is wrong to indulge in these emotions for their own sake, to be to be carried away by them to foolish ends, or to use them falsely to gain the sympathy of others. Political advertising loves kitsch for its sentimentality and its immediacy (Lugg, 1999). Kitsch is the fastest way to a voter’s heart.
In his 1936 article The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin expresses his fear about the use of art for political purposes. He chillingly quotes the futurist Marinetti about the aesthetics of war:
War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages …
This is art used to make the reader follow blindly in the path of fascism. The purpose of political kitsch it to stop critical thought. The viewer or reader succumbs to dangerous emotions and is carried away to inimical ends.
Kulka’s second condition is that kitsch is “immediately identifiable.” Greenberg (1939) suggested that all “academic” art – representational art created accorded to accepted conventions – is kitsch. He was reacting against the academic style of the late nineteenth century, the art of painters such as Bouguereau. He preferred modernist abstract art, which does not give its meaning easily. A skeptic might point out that some abstract art has no meaning to give. Indeed, some of the abstract art used to complement the furniture in modern dwellings is clearly kitsch. It is immediately identifiable as meaningless ornament, chosen on the basis of whether its color complements the sofa.
The art of Odd Nerdrum (1944- ) provides an interesting commentary on kitsch and its relation to representation. This Norwegian artist paints figurative rather than abstract art (Nerdrum & Li, 2007). His painting style is based on Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Some of his paintings are directly representational such as the Self-Portrait with Nosebleed on the left. The technique is breathtaking. The image is as powerful as it is disoncerting.
Most of his images are surrealist – haunting representations of embodied souls in life or afterlife. The painting below shows a group of five women and one boy lying on the ground. They are almost naked. They are wrapped in what seem to be burial shrouds. All are singing. Their eyes are closed; the two staffs suggest that perhaps two of them are blind. This dream-like image is difficult to interpret. Are they singing praises before the throne of God, awaiting the resurrection, or lamenting some tragedy?
Nerdrum has experienced great difficulty with art critics, who describe him as out of touch with our time. He was unable to get a university appointment despite his obvious talent. In defiant response he declared himself an “artist of kitsch” and published a manifesto to justify kitsch (Nerdrum, 1990). Although he is a painter who represents human bodies rather than abstract ideas, his work is not kitsch in the way we generally use the term. His claim is a reaction to Greenberg, who really did throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nerdrum’s impressive technique allows him to create images of great intensity. The paintings stay in the mind, slowly divulging deeper and deeper meanings.
Photography poses difficulties for the definition of kitsch, since nothing is as immediately identifiable as a photograph. Kulka tried to address some distinctions between photography and kitsch. Photography is perhaps too real to be kitsch. A photograph of a sunset is not kitsch. It becomes kitsch if the photograph is printed on canvas to look like a painting, or on a poster with an inspirational quotation. Most photography is not art – it forms a record of something rather than an interpretation. Nevertheless, some photography can be considered art. Then the photograph captures an image in a manner that is meaningfully different from the usual, or preserves a significant moment of existence beyond the present.
Lack of Meaning
Kitsch is minimally meaningful. The image tells us nothing more than what it portrays. There are no levels of interpretation. When there is something more than meets the eye, it is no longer kitsch. Kitsch is always serious; kitsch never makes you laugh. Kitsch is always comfortable; it never unsettles you. Kitsch preserves the status quo; it is the art that is loved by dictators
Common examples of kitsch are the souvenirs that we buy to remind ourselves of an intense experience (Olalquiaga, 1998). The image has significance only for the person who had the experience. For anyone else it is meaningless. A deeply kitsch experience is watching the slide show of someone else’s holiday.
Many kitsch images involve nostalgia. They provide false memories of a time that never was, when we lived innocently in cottages with thatched roofs that never leaked and gardens that bloomed forever. Such images are immensely popular. They are the stock art of bed-and-breakfast and retirement homes. One of the most successful artists of recent times was Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012), the “painter of light” who provided reproductions of his paintings through either the internet or franchised dealers (Orlean, 2001). One of his masterpieces is Nanette’s Cottage:
The painting shows a thatched cottage at evening with all the windows ablaze with light. The chimney is reinforced with an iron ‘N’ for Nanette and a heart shaped stone for love. A small rowboat is tied up in the stream at the edge of the garden, with a teddy bear still sitting on the seat. Upstream beyond the bridge other cottages all have their windows lit in neighborly solidarity with Nanette. Although the profusion of flowers indicates high summer, the home-fires are burning and smoke ascends from all the chimneys. In the further distance, a church steeple rises high enough to touch the sky. Prints of this image can be obtained in various sizes. Special prints can be “highlighted” by artists trained by Kinkade to give them a special depth of color. This adds immensely to their cost. Art for the millions.
Pop and Camp
Any kitsch that aspires to meaning becomes pop art. Warhol’s images of soup cans consider the role of advertising in modern life, and Lichtenstein’s comic-book images comment on our simplification of reality. Pop art is infused with humor whereas kitsch is usually serious.
Another extension of kitsch is camp. The camp sensibility is difficult to pin down (Sontag, 1966). The emotions of camp are always intense and usually unrestrained – the art is usually described as “over the top.” Camp wallows in the exaggerated passions of opera and melodrama. Camp art is often associated with gender ambiguity in all its variety. Camp is simultaneously serious and satirical. Irony is a necessary feature: camp art can be considered at many different levels.
Peter Hujar’s 1974 photograph of the transvestite Candy Darling on her deathbed is one of the great images of high camp. Candy, one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, died of lymphoma. The facial makeup and silken blouse provide an erotic vitality completely at odds with imminent death. If a beautiful lady has to die, she should do so with glamour.
The photograph evokes stock emotions. The death of the maiden is a story that has been told too many times. What is happening is immediately identifiable. This is a deathbed scene.
Yet this is not kitsch. The image conveys many different levels of meaning. Hripsimé Visser describes Hujar’s photographs as “permeated by a realization of the human masquerade” (Stahel & Visser, 1994). Peter Hujar was homosexual and ultimately died of AIDS in 1987. He was well aware of the ambiguities of gender, and death was a common occurrence among his friends during the AIDS epidemic.
Nevertheless, the artist of the image is as much Candy Darling as Peter Hujar. The photograph proclaims a self that was created in defiance of her birth and maintained in the face of her death. One can be whoever one wants to be. Beauty can cheat Death, even if only for a moment. This is both posture and reality, both over the top and down to earth.
Kimball, R. H. (2004). A plea for pity. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 37, 301–316.
Kulka, T. (1996). Kitsch and art. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Kundera, M. (1984). The unbearable lightness of being. New York: Harper & Row.
Lugg, C. A. (1999). Kitsch: From education to public policy. New York: Falmer Press.
Macdonald, D. (1953). A theory of mass culture. Diogenes, 1(3), 1-17.
Moles, A. A. (1971). Le kitsch: L’art du bonheur. Paris: Mame.
Nerdrum, O. (2001). On kitsch. Oslo: Kagge Forlag
Nerdrum, O., & Li, B. (2007). Odd Nerdrum: Themes: paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures. Oslo, Norway: Press Publishing.
Olalquiaga, C. (1998). The artificial kingdom: A treasury of the kitsch experience. New York: Pantheon Books.
Orlean, S. (2001). Art for everybody. The New Yorker, October 15, 2001
Riout, D. (2004/2014). Kitsch. In B. Cassin (Ed.) Dictionary of untranslatables: a philosophical lexicon. (translated by Rendall, S., Hubert, C., Mehlman, J., Stein, N. and Syrotinski, M., translation edited by Apter, E., Lezra, J. and Wood, M.). (pp. 538-539). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rugg, W. (2002). Kitsch. In Theories of Media. Keywords Glossary. University of Chicago.
Salinger, J. D. (1959). Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. And Seymour: an introduction. Boston: Little, Brown. (Seymour’s quotation from Blyth sounds authentic but I have not been able to find its source in Blyth’s published works).
Sontag, S. (1966). Notes on “camp.” In Against interpretation, and other essays. (pp. 275-292). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Stahel, U. & Visser, H. (1994). Peter Hujar: A Retrospective. New York: Scalo Publishers.
A great outpouring of sympathy and solidarity followed the assassination of the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo. A million people gathered in Paris in silent protest. The motto Je suis Charlie was promoted across the world. The magazine refused to restrain its irreverence. The cover of its first issue after the attack showed the Prophet forgiving the blasphemy against him (Tout est pardonné) and supporting Je suis Charlie.
Nevertheless, most Western newspapers did not reprint either this cover or the earlier cartoons that had precipitated the assassinations. Their rationale was that these would unnecessarily offend those who believe that any depiction of the Prophet is sacrilegious. For example, despite the opposition of some of its own journalists, the Toronto Star decided not to publish the cartoons:
We could run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. There is a strong news rationale for doing so. But there are important reasons of principle not to do it. Just as we would not publish racist or pornographic images, we will exercise our judgment not to print the cartoons.
We will not print them because we have too much respect for fellow Canadians of Muslim background. We will not send a message that their way of being Canadian is less acceptable or less valuable than that of any other citizen. (Cruikshank, 2015).
The opposing viewpoint is that the act of terrorism itself justifies the further publication of the offending material. Otherwise we would be submitting to censorship by intimidation rather than by principle:
If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. (Douthat, 2015)
As the weeks passed, there has also been some acknowledgment of the offence (e.g. Tariq Ali, 2015). Not that this could in any way justify the violence. Just that in a civil society one should respect the beliefs of others. Not to do so, particularly when the others are in a minority, is to demean them. It is far better to mock those in power than those without.
Furthermore, the vaunted freedom to satirize the beliefs and actions of Muslims is clearly out of balance with the strict limitations placed on any criticism of Jewish beliefs or history. It is far easier to defame that Prophet than to deny the Holocaust.
Rights and Limitations
The right of free speech has been championed by many authors. The basic concept is that all people should be able to express themselves freely, because only in this way will society be able to discover what is true and right. The freedom must be granted even if the opinions expressed are considered to be offensive or untrue. In the end, truth will win:
And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter. (Milton, 1644).
The basic right of free expression is listed as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948):
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Nevertheless, liberty cannot survive without limitations. John Stuart Mill acknowledged that our freedom to act as we see fit must be curtailed if it causes harm to others:
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (Mill, 1864, p. 22).
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations, 1960, Article 19.3) therefore grants that freedom of expression might be restricted in order to respect the “rights and reputations of others” or to protect “national security, public order, public health or morals.” The restrictions are sometimes difficult to interpret. One should not slander another person, divulge national secrets, incite riots, or spread disease. Yet what are the limits that protect the morals of society?
Pornography and Censorship
Although the main subject of this post is whether or not blasphemy should be limited, I shall briefly discuss another area wherein freedom of expression comes into conflict with morality. How should a society govern the publication and consumption of pornography? I shall use the term “pornography” to mean sexually explicit material without making any judgment of its value, i. e., I shall not distinguish between erotica and pornography (West, 2012).
Most Western countries no longer prohibit pornography. With the internet, pornography has become widely available. The general feeling is that its private consumption should not be regulated. Nevertheless, society still maintains some clear and absolute limits. Pornography with children is considered illegal. This is a clear case where exercise of freedom causes severe harm. No child should be exploited in such a way. Some have suggested that adult pornography also exploits the actors who participate in its production. Yet adult actors can provide consent, and other means of legal recourse outside of censorship are available if consent is not obtained.
A major feminist criticism of pornography is that it portrays women as objects rather than persons and thereby infringes on their rights (e.g., MacKinnon, 1987, p. 148):
Pornography, in the feminist view, is a form of forced sex, a practice of sexual politics, an institution of gender inequality. In this perspective, pornography is not harmless fantasy or a corrupt and confused misrepresentation of an otherwise natural and healthy sexuality. Along with the rape and the prostitution in which it participates, pornography institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy, which fuses the erotization of dominance and submission with the social construction of male and female.
In this way, pornography may demean all women, diminish their rights, and promote sexual violence. However, pornography comes in many varieties, and there is little definite evidence in Western societies that the increased consumption of pornography over the last few years has either decreased the social status of women or increased the violence against them.
If one views pornography across the world rather than just in the West, there is even less evidence that pornography limits the rights of women. States where censorship is so severe that pornography is unavailable are often those in which women have the least rights (Coetzee, 1996, p. 81). Further studies of the sociological and psychological effects of the different types of pornography are needed. Yet in the meantime, it is probably best not to increase limits. We know so little about the scope of sexual feelings, and art is one way to investigate the nature and limits of human desire.
Another consideration is that pornography certainly causes “offence” even it is claimed to be harmless. Feinberg (1985) has proposed that freedom of expression might be limited in cases where it is not directly harmful but simply offensive. The problem is to define what is meant by “offence” (Shoemaker, 2000; Dacey, 2012, pp. 74-81; van Mill, 2012). A simplistic distinction would consider harm as more physical and offence as more mental. However it is also possible to consider both along a single dimension, with offence tending to be less traumatic.
Offence can take the form of disgust, shock, resentment, shame, repulsion, embarrassment, fear, or humiliation. The offending actions or objects are considered “obscene,” a term that perhaps derives from the Latin caenum for filth. Most countries have laws against obscenity, though their usage varies.
One general principle that has been accepted for pornography is that offence should not be relevant if it need not be experienced. Though a person may be offended by the idea that pornography is freely available on the internet, this should not be considered reason for censorship since the person need not force himself or herself to be offended by viewing the material.
Obscenity laws prohibit the public display or advertisement of pornographic images. Similarly a person is not allowed to walk around naked in public or to defecate in the street. Almost everyone would agree with such regulations. A less justifiable example prohibits public broadcasters from using words such as “fuck” and “shit” (Shoemaker, 2000). Offence and obscenity are usually judged on the basis of majority views. However, this often comes down to the most vocal of the offended, and may not take into account the sensibilities of minorities.
Somehow society must determine some reasonable course to prevent unnecessary offence while still protecting the right to free expression. Judgments as to what is offensive should be especially fair. One group of persons should not be able to enforce their sensibilities more than another.
The injustice of allowing anyone to take offence and declare something obscene is illustrated in the case of Maqbool Fida Husain, a famous Indian painter and film director of Muslim origin. In 2006, the 90-year old artist was charged with obscenity for paintings Hindu Goddesses in the nude. Particularly singled out was his painting of Bharatmata (Mother India) illustrated on the left. The painting shows a nude women posed in the outline of India. In the center is the Ashoka Chakra (the wheel of Ashoka, an Indian emperor from the 3rd century BCE, who converted to Buddhism). This wheel, representing the law of dharma, is also represented in the Indian flag.
Multiple warrants were issued for Husain’s arrest. Having decided that it would be impossible to defend himself, Husain left India and lived in self-imposed exile in Qatar. It is difficult to view the charges against him other than in the context of anti-Muslim bigotry. The alleged offences were even more bizarre in light of the long history of Hindu erotic sculpture. In 2008, the Delhi High Court dismissed all charges against Husain and castigated the Puritanism of his accusers. However, Husain never returned to India. He died in London in 2011.
For a religious person, blasphemy can cause far greater offence than pornography. In the past, severe punishments were meted out for taking the name of God in vain:
And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16).
If God were truly omnipotent, He or She would be completely unaffected by any blasphemy. The God of the Old Testament must have been both “thin-skinned and short-tempered” (Dacey, 2012, p. 18).
Although the word “blasphemy” was originally concerned with speech and with the name of God, it has come to mean any expression that holds up to mockery or contempt things held as sacred by others. “Defamation of religion” is the term most commonly used nowadays.
The UN resolution against the defamation of religions was affirmed by a majority of voters but many Western countries voted against the resolution or abstained (United Nations, 2008). They detected some hypocrisy in countries that wished to make religion sacrosanct, and yet persecuted individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and of religion. In some Islamic countries, individuals can be executed for blasphemy or apostasy. A major reason for human rights legislation is to defend those without power to defend themselves. Making it a sacrilege to criticize religion easily leads to the tyranny of the majority religion.
Another argument is that making religious beliefs above criticism is discriminatory against those that are skeptical about such beliefs. Why should it be right for the religious to chastise the behavior of the secular and not vice versa?
Yet, we all take offence when something we hold dear or sacred is treated with contempt. Such offences are not always experienced in the context of religion. As Pope Francis said after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, many people object to someone calling their mother names. People also take great offence at the desecration of their national flag, and many countries have laws against this. Patriotism is often as unthinking as religion. Belief in “my country right or wrong” has a decidedly religious ring to it.
Although many Western countries still have laws against blasphemy, they tend not to be prosecuted. For example, a theater in Sault St. Marie in Canada was charged in 1980 with blasphemous libel for showing Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but the charges were stayed (Walkom, 2015).
Most cases that would have been treated as blasphemy in the past are now considered under the rubric of “hate speech” (van Mill, 2012). Many countries have laws prohibiting the incitement of people to hate others on the base of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Typically the laws concern public speech and do not cover private conversations or internet chat-rooms. Often the laws require that there is clear and immediate danger to the group against which the invective is expressed.
Charlie Hebdo was charged with hate speech after it re-published the Danish cartoons in 2005.The trial led to the magazine being acquitted in 2007 since the cartoons were not deemed hateful of all persons of Muslim origin but only those with terrorist persuasions.
In Canada, James Keegstra was convicted of hate speech in 1984 for teaching in school that a Jewish conspiracy had distorted history for hundreds of years and invented the Holocaust. The point of the trial was that he thereby instilled a hatred of Jewish people in his students (Mertl & Ward, 1986). Although it might be acceptable under the right to free expression to deny the Holocaust, it seems clearly wrong to teach this to children as accepted fact. Yet, the school board had terminated Keegstra’s teaching contract before he was indicted for “wilfully promoting hatred” against Jews. Was the trial really necessary? It was a complex case: the conviction was overturned on appeal and then re-instated by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Hate speech is wrong. However, outside of cases when a mob is harangued to violence against a group of people on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation, or when people are specifically incited to commit murder or mayhem, or when children are indoctrinated with hatred rather than taught tolerance, it is difficult to see clearly how to set the legal limits to freedom of expression.
Society should provide some support for views that are not those of the majority. Sometimes the majority is wrong and the minority should have its say. As Milton said, the truth will be victorious if given free rein in the field of opinion. In relation to religion, surely skepticism must be tolerated. Beliefs can be criticized while still protecting the individuals that hold those beliefs. Agnès Callamard (2005) has proposed that any restriction on free speech should itself be clearly limited:
Restrictions must be formulated in a way that makes clear that its sole purpose is to protect individuals holding specific beliefs or opinions, rather than to protect belief systems from criticism. The right to freedom of expression implies that it should be possible to scrutinise, openly debate, and criticise, even harshly and unreasonably, belief systems, opinions, and institutions, as long as this does not amount to advocating hatred against an individual.
One of the principles whereby one might set limits to freedom of speech is that of fairness. Each group of persons that may be offended by the free speech of another group should be treated equally.
In this context, the argument can easily be made that Islam and Judaism are not treated equally in relation to defamation. Criticism of Judaism is much less tolerated than mockery of Islam. Part of this has to do with the Holocaust. The world recognizes the horrors entailed by anti-Semitism, and wants to eliminate any chance of these recurring (Altman, 2012).
However, should not the same privileges be granted to the religion of Islam? Does not the mockery of Islam support violent actions against Islamic countries? Over the past century, Islamic countries have been invaded and their peoples subjugated. The rights of Islamic peoples in many countries have been subject to tyrants maintained in power by the West.
A rights-based argument against the mockery of the Prophet can be formulated in much the same way as the feminist argument against pornography. Pornography may limit the rights of female persons by encouraging the general view that they are objects of desire and domination rather than individual persons. Submitting the beliefs of Muslims to continuous ridicule may likewise limit their civil rights by encouraging the idea that they are all ignorant fools with dangerous ideas.
After the controversy of the Danish cartoons in 2005, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri sponsored the International Holocaust Cartoon Contest to denounce Western hypocrisy on freedom of speech. The topic of the Holocaust was chosen as it was deemed as offensive to Judaism as depiction of the Prophet was to Islam. The contest did not cause much controversy and some of the cartoons were republished in Western newspapers. The main theme of many of the cartoons was the way that Israel used the Holocaust to deflect any criticism of its denial of human rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories. On the left is the entry of Alessandro Gatto, an Italian cartoonist.
Though Muslim countries have proposed that human rights legislation include provisions against the defamation of religion (United Nations, 1990, 2008), they have been highly selective in their response to the right of religious freedom as proposed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations. 1948):
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
In some Islamic countries, blasphemy and apostasy are considered punishable by death. Freedom of religion in relation to Islam does not always recognize of the “freedom to change his religion or belief.”
However, the West has also been selective in its support of human rights (Mayer, 2006). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations, 1966) differs from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by asserting as its first article:
All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
This striking change came about in relation to the overthrow of European colonialism and the coming into being of new governments in Asian and African countries (Mayer 2006).
The Invasion of Iraq was a flagrant denial of the right to self-determination. In addition, Guantanamo and other prisons operated by the Western powers against Islamic people are a terrible rejection of the right to be free from torture (Article 5 of the Universal Declaration and Article 7 of the Covenant). The overwhelming hypocrisy is that these rights were denied in order to bring freedom and democracy to the benighted peoples of the Middle East.
The concept of human rights is multifaceted. Freedom of expression is just one of many rights. Others are equally important. Every person should have the right to work, education, and security. Many of these rights are not readily available to minorities within Western countries. Mockery or their beliefs simply compounds their sense of disenfranchisement.
Perhaps if all rights were equally available, freedom of expression would cause less offence. The rich and powerful are less harmed by mockery than the poor and powerless.
In 1993 the World Conference on Human Rights proposed that
All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. (United Nations, 1993)
Perhaps we should work harder to give all members of our society all their rights – the full spectrum not just the ones we cherish most. Freedom of speech could then be used to enlighten rather than demean, acting as a gadfly rather than a bludgeon.
Should religion not be defamed?
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, religious leaders both deplored the murders and called for society not to defame religious beliefs. The argument is that such defamation demeans and marginalizes those with sincere beliefs and promotes violent retribution.
The journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo have a right to be offensive. Although they have most notably mocked Islamic beliefs, they have also mocked Judaism and Christianity and invoked the ire of many different religious leaders. The cover on the right is from 2007 during the magazine’s trial (procès) for hate speech. It portrays the leaders of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all calling out for Charlie Hebdo to be censored. The use of the word voiler for censorship provides an added irony in that its non-metaphoric meaning is to “veil” or “hide from sight.” If we grant religions amnesty from ridicule, we shall soon be asked to limit our mockery of politicians, and then we would be on the slippery slope to tyranny.
We should nevertheless perhaps not flaunt the ridicule. Just as we do not put up pornographic illustrations in public places, perhaps the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should not be displayed beyond the front cover of the magazine.
In addition, we should as best as possible grant those with religious beliefs, regardless of their creed, rights equal to other citizens: rights to work, security, education, equality before the law. A civil society grants each of its members their dignity. Ridicule is better used to hold the powerful in check than to demean the powerless.
And, just as in pornography, children require special protection. They should be taught tolerance; they must not be indoctrinated to hate. Schools are not a place for either denial of the Holocaust or defamation of the Prophet. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons might be carefully discussed, though this would take a highly sensitive teacher. No child should feel herself or himself subject to ridicule because of their origins or beliefs. That would be bullying.
Altman, A. (2012). Freedom of expression and human rights law. The case of holocaust denial. In Maitra, I., & In McGowan, M. K. Speech and harm: Controversies over free speech. (pp. 24-49). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Feinberg, J. (1985). The moral limits of the criminal law. Volume 2: Offense to others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacKinnon, C. A. (1987).Feminism unmodified: Discourses on life and law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mayer, A. E. (2006). Clashing human rights priorities: How the United States and Muslim countries selectively use provisions of international human rights law. Satya Nilayam: Chennai Journal of Intercultural Philosophy, 44, 44-77.
Mertl, S., & Ward, J. (1985). Keegstra: the trial, the issues, the consequences, Saskatoon, Canada: Western Producer Prairie Books.
Mill, J. S. (1859/1864). On Liberty. 3rd Edition. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green. (Available at archive.org)
The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is left-wing and strongly anti-religious. In 2006, it reprinted the controversial Muhammad cartoons from Denmark’s Jyllends Posten. The cover of that issue of Charlie Hebdo (left) had shown the prophet “overwhelmed by fundamentalists” bewailing that “it is hard to be loved by jerks.” The magazine was unsuccessfully sued by several Islamic organizations for hate crimes. Since then, and despite the firebombing of its offices in 2011, the magazine has continued its irreverence.
On January 7, 2015, three masked gunmen killed twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, including the editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb) and the senior cartoonist Jean Cabut (Cabu). The shooting was clearly in retaliation for the magazine’s blasphemy. The gunmen were heard to shout Allahu Akbar (“God is great”) and “Vous allez payer, car vous avez insulté le Prophète” – “You will pay for you have insulted the Prophet.” (Selow, 2015).
Blasphemy is a display of contempt for beliefs that others hold sacred. Blasphemy is typically directed against God, but it can also include the people who proclaim God’s will, their institutions, or their treasured objects. Blasphemy is usually verbal – the word comes from the Greek blasphemein meaning to “speak evil.” However, any act of desecration can be considered blasphemous.
Blasphemy is an intrinsic part of the Abrahamic religions. The third of the Ten Commandments prohibits blasphemy: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). In the New Testament, Jesus stated that “he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation” (Mark 3:29). The Qur’an does not have a similar injunction, but states that one should not associate with those that profane the name of Allah: “The most beautiful names belong to God; so call on him by them; but shun such men as use profanity in His names; for what they do, they will soon be requited.” (Qur’an 7:180, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation).
Another way to take the name of God in vain is to assume to speak for Him or Her. Jesus was himself accused of blasphemy “because that thou being a man makest thyself God” (John 10:23), and this was one of the main reasons for his indictment before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:61-64).
Blasphemy as Crime
Blasphemy is a crime in many countries. Although most commonly used in Islamic countries, laws against blasphemy persist in Europe.
In 1766, the 20 year old François-Jean Lefebvre, the Chevalier de la Barre was beheaded in Abbeville, a small town in Northern France. His crimes were not paying due respect to a procession of the Corpus Christi, singing impious songs and vandalizing a crucifix (Chassaigne, 1920). After the execution the body was burnt on a pyre along with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, which had been found in his rooms. The illustration on the right shows a memorial statue in Montmartre. In most of France, the law against blasphemy was abolished in 1791. However, the law persists in Moselle and Alsace as a holdover from the German Criminal Code.
In 1697 in Edinburgh, Thomas Aikenhead, a 20-year old student, was executed by hanging for blasphemy. He had called the Old Testament “Ezra’s fables, by a profane allusione to Esop’s fables” and had claimed that Christ had “learned magick in Egypt” so that he could conjure his supposed miracles (Graham, 2008, p 103). Blasphemy is still a crime in Scotland and Northern Ireland although no one has been prosecuted since the 19th century. The offence of blasphemy was abolished in England and Wales in 2008.
Nevertheless, even though not prosecuted as criminal, Western society does not find it acceptable to deface the Bible. In an exhibit at the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art in 2009, visitors were invited to write comments on a bible (Sherwood, 2012). Many did so. Some comments were scatological, others pointed out the injustice of many biblical stories such as the prophet Elisha causing young boys to be killed for calling him ‘baldy’ (2 Kings 2 23-25), and others added personal comments such as “Holy figures hide behind their religion … Once you have been raped by a priest, maybe you understand.” There was such a public furore that the defaced bible had to be placed in a glass case to prevent further comments.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
With freedom of expression comes the freedom to give offence. Things held as sacred by some may be lampooned or insulted by others.
However, freedom of expression has often been subject to limitation. The plaintiff who makes fun of the judge will be charged with contempt of court. Pornography has its limits though these are now most often defined in terms of exploitation and incitement to violence rather than offense to common decency. Hate speech used to incite violence is prohibited in many countries However, such prohibitions should not be used to prevent the criticism of belief systems. There should be a distinction between the belief and the individual:
The right to freedom of expression implies that it should be possible to scrutinise, openly debate, and criticise, even harshly and unreasonably, belief systems, opinions, and institutions, as long as this does not amount to advocating hatred against an individual. (Callamard, 2005).
The legal suits against Charlie Hebdo in 2006 were made on the basis that publication of the offensive cartoons were an incitement to racist hatred. Blasphemy in the modern legal world has in some sense therefore mutated into hate speech. The judicial ruling was that the cartoons were against terrorism and fundamentalism rather than against Muslim people.
The liberal position on the problem that that free speech can lead to offence is that the offended are themselves free to criticize the offence: the remedy for harmful speech is more speech. However, freedom to respond may be less available to the poor or to minorities than to those in power (Nielsen, 2012). Society must therefore expend additional effort to counter inequalities.
The appropriate answer to hate speech is not just more speech – but also policies and actions to tackle the causes of inequality in all its forms and colours (Callamard, 2006).
However, sometimes “talking back” just calls attention to the offence – how should a woman respond to a racist or sexual slur? It does not seem reasonable that everyone be obliged to fight back when offended. That would just lead to a society with everyone offending everyone else. As Ross Douthat points out, although the right to blaspheme or otherwise give offense is essential to a free society, the freedom of that society is not proportional to the quantity of blasphemy it produces.
Blasphemy: A Proposal
The original religious injunctions against blasphemy were more concerned with the use of God’s name rather than its abuse. One interpretation of the third commandment was that we should not use the name of God to justify things that are not true, such as swearing by God that something made of stone is made of gold (Rashi commentary on Exodus 20).
An even wider interpretation is that we should not use the name of God to justify actions that are against God’s will. Killing another person is against God’s law. The Charlie Hebdo killers who called upon the name of God as a justification for their acts thus committed blasphemy. They were an offence to God.
From Twitter @stephen_strydom (January 8th, 2015)
Unfortunately, the original commandment against murder is necessarily limited. A person might kill someone in self-defense or to save another innocent person. The Qur’an injunction against killing allows such exceptions: “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause.” (Qur’an 17:33). Unfortunately, terrorists apply their own interpretation of just cause.
However, another meaning of blasphemy is to assume that one is God. To take upon oneself the administration of justice (to assume the mantle of God) is to become a false prophet. Such is itself blasphemy.
To call upon the name of God to justify murder is complete blasphemy.
Chassaigne, M. (1920) Le procès du Chevalier de la Barre. Paris: Librairie Victor Lecoffre (J. Gabalda). Available on the Internet Archive
Graham, M. F. (2008). The blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of belief on the eve of the enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Nielsen, L. B. (2012). Power in public: Reactions, responses, and resistance to offensive public speech. In Maitra, I., & McGowan, M. K. (Eds.) Speech and harm: Controversies over free speech. (pp. 148- Oxford: Oxford University Press.