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.
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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.
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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.
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Wagner, R. (1850, translated by William Ashton Ellis, 1894). Jews in Music.
“Death is Nothing to Us”
Death is inevitable. What it entails is largely unknown. Some believe that it permanently ends an individual’s existence; others that it simply provides a transition to another form of life. Most people fear it, but some consider it with equanimity. Among the latter are the followers of Epicurus, who claimed
Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us. (Epicurus, reported by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Inwood and Gerson, 1997, p 32; another translation is by Yonge, 1983, p. 474).
that human beings are made of complex compounds of atoms. At death these
compounds dissolve, releasing the atoms to form other things. The body decays
and the soul evaporates. Once we are dead, we are no more. We cannot feel what
it is like to be dead. And the dead certainly cannot experience pain. Death should
therefore not be feared.
popular during the Roman period. A common Latin epitaph summarized the life of
the Epicurean as a brief interlude between the nothingness preceding birth and
the nothingness following death:
Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care).
As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Epicureanism faded into obscurity. Dante placed the Epicureans in the Sixth Circle of his Inferno (1320, Canto X). Those who did not believe in the afterlife were forced to spend eternity in graves that were completely closed just as in life their tenants’ obstinacy kept them from the truth. The graves were filled with fired graves just as in life the Epicureans were consumed by their heresy.
As the Western world
moved away from the dogmatism of the Middle Ages, the idea that man was not immortal
was once again considered. Those who now reject any belief in an afterlife sometimes
adopt the bravado of the Epicurean epitaph. But more often than not they care
deeply about death as the defining event in a life. It is not nothing.
Atoms and the Void
The philosophy of
Epicurus derives from the atomism of Democritus (460-370 BCE). Democritus was
born and lived in Abdera, a city in Northern Greece, at about the same time as
Socrates was active in Athens. Democritus maintained that everything was made
of tiny indestructible atoms (Berryman, 2016). He claimed to have learned this
from Leucippus, about whom little is known, and who may be more mythical than
Democritus was called the “laughing philosopher” to distinguish him from Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the “crying philosopher,” who believed that nothing was indestructible and that everything is forever changing. The cheerful and the tearful.
Of the many
writings of Democritus, we now have only fragments, the most famous of which
By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void (translation by Will Durant, 1939, p 393).
The concepts of
the atom and the void were derived from a combination of observation and logic.
Everyone perceives that the world contains objects and that these objects move:
matter and motion. Objects can be broken down into smaller pieces, and these
pieces can themselves be broken down into even tinier particles. But this
breaking down can only proceed so far, or all objects would by now have been
broken down to nothing. There must therefore be some indivisible particle
beyond which matter cannot be further broken. These atoms (from the Greek atomos,
uncuttable) are so tiny that they are cannot be seen by the eye: invisible and indivisible.
The void is necessary to explain how things move. How could something change
its location unless there were empty space for it to move into?
Atoms are infinite
in number but of a finite number of types. Moving atoms collide with one
another and join to form compounds. These compounds interact with each other to
create all that exists in the world. Combining atoms is like forming words with
the letters of the alphabet. From a few letters come a myriad words.
Though atoms are
eternal, the compounds that they form are transient. Rock erodes to sand, which
under pressure becomes stone again. Water evaporates and then condenses. Living
things develop, become mature and then die. At death, the components of the
body break apart, releasing its atoms for making other compounds.
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away (Hamlet, V:1)
The soul is
composed of atoms just like everything else. The atoms of the soul are extremely
fine, perhaps similar to the atoms of fire. They permeate the body, giving it a
conscious spirit. When the body dies, the atoms of the soul dissolve back into
the void like all the other atoms of the body. The soul does not persist beyond
death. There is no afterlife. We are transient like everything else, mortal
like all other living things.
Democritus’ absolute materialism differed from the philosophy of Plato, who proposed the primacy of ideas. Indeed, Plato was so upset with his rival’s teachings that he reportedly urged that all the books of Democritus should be burned (Diogenes Laertius, p 393). So much for freedom of thought in a republic governed by philosophers.
The Garden of Epicurus
The ideas of
Democritus were extended by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who was born on the Greek
island of Samos off the west coast of Turkey. In 306 BCE Epicurus established a
school of philosophy in Athens that met in a garden below the Acropolis (Jones,
1989; Konstan, 2018; O’Keefe, 2010; Wilson, 2015).
He wrote extensively though none of his books survived the anti-heretical campaigns of the Christian Church. Most of what we know about Epicurus is preserved in the biography written by Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE), which includes some of the letters written by the philosopher to his colleagues, and a listing of his Principle Doctrines (Kyriai Doxai). The philosophy of Epicurus was popular in the Roman Empire, and several statues of Epicurus have survived in Roman copies (see right).
Among the lost books
of Epicurus was the Kanon (Rule, Criterion) which discussed how true knowledge
could be obtained. Epicurus proposed that sensation is the most dependable
criterion of truth – the world is what we perceive. Ideas derive from rather
than precede the analysis of sensory information. This seems to have differed
from the ideas of Democritus, who believed that our perceptions were as much
convention as reality.
In the lost Peri
Physis (On Nature) Epicurus presented and extended the atomism of
Democritus. He acknowledged that there are only atoms and the void. The body
and the soul are made of atoms that fall apart when the corporeal body dies and
the conscious soul ceases. We do not live forever.
Epicurus appears to have deviated from the fixed determinism of Democritus byproposing the idea of the clinamen (swerve). Atoms falling through the void would never collide to form compounds unless some atoms at some time swerved from their predetermined path. Democritus also suggested that this unpredictable random movement was the basis of our free will, when we act according to what is desired of the future rather than what has been ordained by the past. In recent years similar ideas based on the uncertain behavior of atoms in the brain have been used to explain free will. Unfortunately, these ideas have little explanatory value. My actions are no more free when determined by random events in the present than when determined by the fixed events of the past.
Free will was
important to Epicurus because he wished us to choose the good life. This depended
on maximizing our happiness. Although maligned by Christian polemicists as a decadent
libertine, Epicurus actually practiced an ascetic hedonism. He valued most the
simple sensory pleasures of his garden and the friendship of his colleagues. He
eschewed any participation in politics as causing too much anxiety. His goal
was ataraxia (tranquility, peace of mind, from a- not and tarasso,
Although he was
described as an atheist, Epicurus thought that the gods were real because our
ideas of them were just too clear to be ignored. However, he argued that the
gods were not in any way concerned with human affairs. Like true Epicurean, the
gods enjoy themselves and refuse to be bothered by human politics.
that we should not be frightened of death. Since our consciousness ceases when
we die, death is not painful. Since the gods are not concerned with human
beings, they have not provided an afterlife of punishment for all that we have
done wrong. If we attain a life of ataraxia, it matters not how long we
live (Lesses, 2002; Mitsis, 2002). Death is the natural and inevitable end to
life. The following is from the Letter to Monoeceus:
Get used to
believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in
sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience. Hence, a
correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality
of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time to life but by
removing the longing for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in life for
one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life. Thus,
he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when
present but because it is painful when it is still to come. For that which
while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely
anticipated. So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us;
since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then
we do not exist. (Inwood & Gerson, 1997, p 29)
what he preached. He died from an attack of kidney stones. Despite severe and
prolonged pain, he maintained his ataraxia. His cheerfulness of mind and
his memory of philosophy counterbalanced his afflictions.
De Rerum Natura
In about 50 BCE
Titus Lucretius Carus published a long Latin poem about the Nature of Things.
The poem probably derives from the Peri Physis of Epicurus. Little is
known about the poet. In his Chronicon (circa 380 CE), written some 400
years later, Saint Jerome included an entry for the year 94 BCE:
poet, is born. After a love-philtre had turned him mad, and he had written, in
the intervals of his insanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed
himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age. (translation by
Santayana, 1910, p 19)
Saint Jerome was a
devout Christian, completely opposed to the beliefs of Epicurus, who claimed
that the gods had nothing to do with human life, and who denied the immortality
of the soul. Most critics feel that Jerome was simply trying to belittle the
poet and to cast his work as nonsense: be not seduced by Epicureanism, since madness
and suicide follow from such heresies (e.g., Sedley, 2018, and Smith, 1992 in
his introduction to the Loeb edition of De Rerum Natura). However, the
biography may contain some threads of truth:
The love-philtre in this report sounds apocryphal; and the story of the madness and suicide attributes too edifying an end to an atheist and Epicurean not to be suspected. If anything lends colour to the story it is a certain consonance which we may feel between its tragic incidents and the genius of the poet as revealed in his work, where we find a strange scorn of love, a strange vehemence, and a high melancholy. It is by no means incredible that the author of such a poem should have been at some time the slave of a pathological passion, that his vehemence and inspiration should have passed into mania, and that he should have taken his own life. (Santayana, 1910, pp 19-20).
Natura is like no other
poem: a scientific treatise expressed in verse. The poetry is characterized by
brilliant language and intense imagery. Most impressive is the ongoing energy
of the argument as Lucretius moves from atoms to death, from the soul to the
cosmos, from the weather to the plague.
The poem begins
with a beautiful invocation of Venus as the mother of Aeneas, founder of Rome,
as the patron of all the creative forces in the world, and as the
personification of Epicurean pleasure:
Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome, Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth And the ship-freighted sea — for every species comes to birth Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light. The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers, For you, the oceans laugh, the skies grow peaceful after showers, Awash with light. (I: 1-10 Stalling translation)
On the right is the first page of a 1483 manuscript copy of the poem made for Pope Sixtus IV by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris. The Latin text begins
Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas, Alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa Quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis
The beginning of
the poem immediately questions the Epicurean view that the gods are not
involved with the human world. Why should Lucretius invoke Venus as a partner
in his poetry? The gods are a problem for Epicureanism: if they are real, they
must be made of atoms and, if so, they cannot be immortal; yet, if they are
mortal, they are not gods. Lucretius probably considered the gods more as
metaphors than as real beings. Later in the poem (II: 646-660) he remarks that it
is customary to call the sea Neptune, the corn Ceres and the wine Bacchus
without actually meaning that these things are divine.
Lucretius quickly indicates that superstitious belief in the gods can lead to terrible wrongs by recounting the story of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed at Aulis to propitiate the anger of the goddess Artemis, and obtain fair winds to send the Greek ships to Troy. The illustration at the left shows a fresco in the House of Tragic Poet in Pompeii from about the same time as Lucretius. Iphigenia is carried by Achilles and Ulysses to be sacrificed by Calchas the priest, while her father on the left refuses to observe her death. Above, the goddess Artemis arranges for a stag to be substituted for Iphigenia, who will be spirited away. However, this will be done without any of the Greeks realizing that Iphigenia was not actually sacrificed. Human sacrifice is also part of the Hebrew Bible, which recounts the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis22 and the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges11. As Lucretius clearly states, Iphigenia was
An innocent girl betrayed to a sort of incest To be struck down by the piety of her father Who hoped in that way to get a good start for his fleet. That is the sort of horror religion produces. (I: 98-101, Sisson translation).
Natura recounts the
principles of atomism espoused by Epicurus. Lucretius describes the clinamen
or swerve, and notes its importance for free will. We are not completely
determined by our past:
Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order in-variable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? (II: 252-260, Rouse translation).
Lucretius considers death in many ways. The following passage provides the principal Epicurean argument:
So death is nothing, and matters nothing to us Once it is clear that the mind is mortal stuff. … So when we are dead and when our body and soul Which together make us one, have come apart, Nothing can happen to us, we shall not be there, Nothing whatever will have the power to move us, Not even if earth and sea got mixed into one. (III: 830-1, 838-842, Sisson translation)
adds the analogy of the mirror to the Epicurean comparison of the time before
birth to the time after death. If we are not concerned with what occurred
before we are born, why should we be afraid of its mirror-image: the time after
we have died and once again do not exist:
Now look back: all the time that ever existed Before we were born, was nothing at all to us. It is a mirror which nature holds up for us To show us what it will be like after our death. Is it very horrible? Is there anything sad in it? Is it any different from sleep? It is more untroubled. (III: 972-977, Sisson translation)
The poem goes on
to consider many natural phenomena. Some of the explanations that Lucretius
offers are good, and some are similar to those proposed in modern science.
However, most of the explanations are wrong. Science and poetry are not well
suited: poetry attempts to say things that will last forever, whereas science is
At the end of the
VI Book of De Rerum Natura Lucretius vividly describes the great Plague
of Athens that began in 430 BCE during the Peloponnesian War. There is great
debate about the nature of the plague, which was perhaps caused by an
Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever.
The symptom first to strike was fiery fever in the head, And both eyes, burning hectic bright, were all shot through with red. The throat as well would sweat with blood, all black within. And stung With sores, the pathway of the voice would clog and choke. The tongue, Interpreter of the mind, oozed pus, and, made limp with the smart, Was too heavy to move, and rough. Thence the disease would start, Passing the gullet, to fill the chest, and flood the heavy heart Of the afflicted, and then, indeed, all of the gates of Life Began to give. From the open mouth, there would exhale a rife Stink, like the stench of rank unburied corpses left to rot. And then all of the powers of the mind and body, brought To the very brink of doom, began to flicker. Mental strain Ever danced attendance on intolerable pain; Pleas mingled with moans. Ceaseless retching, lasting day And night, was ever causing seizure and cramp, and wasting away The strength of men already racked with suffering and worn out. (VI: 1145-1161, Stallings translation)
Death was everywhere. Below is a detail of an engraving (from the Wellcome Library) from a 1654 painting by Michael Sweerts, once thought to represent the plague of Athens:
The prevalence of
death tore at the moral fabric of the city:
The present grief was overwhelming. No one any more Observed the rites of burial they had observed before, For the whole populace was thrown in disarray and cowed. Each mourner buried his dead just as the time and means allowed. Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire To drive men on to desperate deeds — so they’d place on a pyre Constructed by another their own loved-ones, and set fire To it with wails and lamentation. And often they would shed Much blood in the struggle rather than desert their dead. (VI: 1278-1286, Stallings translation)
Natura ends here. Most
critics feel that Lucretius died before he could finish his poem, and that he
probably intended to explain how philosophy could help one face the horrors of
such a plague with equanimity. But he did not. And one wonders if he could not.
At the time of
Epicurus, Athens was home to several other schools of philosophy. The most
important of these were the Skeptics who refused to believe in anything, and
the Stoics who differed from the Epicureans mainly in their promotions of
virtue rather than pleasure as the goal of human life (Baltzly, 2019; Long, 1986).
The Stoics proposed that the universe proceeded according to its own Logos, and
that human benefit was not necessarily part of this determined path. One had to
accept one’s fate and do the best that one could. The Stoical idea of the Logos
goes back to Heraclitus. Indeed, Stoics and Epicureans can trace their
emotional origins to tearful Heraclitus and cheerful Democritus.
The Stoics also differed from the Epicureans in their approach to death. While the Epicureans tried to ignore death, the Stoics paid it constant attention. Death brings one’s life to an end, and therefore settles the sum of one’s virtues and achievements. Life should therefore be lived as if death were imminent. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the 175 CE statue of whom is illustrated on the left, voiced these Stoical precepts in his Meditations:
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thy self relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.
Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good
(Marcus Aurelius, 180 CE, II: 5 and III: 17, translation by Long)
more popular with the Romans than Epicureanism. And Stoicism fitted more easily
to the doctrines of Christianity, which accepted and transformed the Stoic idea
of Logos, making Christ its personification.
Epicurus and Modernity
The works of Democritus
and Epicurus did not survive beyond Roman times. However, a manuscript of De
Rerum Natura by Lucretius was diligently copied and re-copied by Christian monks,
and finally discovered in a German monastery in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini (Greenblatt, 2011). The
first printed publication of De Rerum Natura was in 1473.
The rediscovered book
brought the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus to the attention of the
philosophers and scientists of Europe. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1665) in France
and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in England were attracted to the explanatory power
of atoms and developed a “corpuscular philosophy” (Wilson, 2008). They tried
but failed to reconcile this atomism with Christian beliefs in the immortal
soul and a beneficent God.
As science progressed, corpuscular philosophy developed into modern chemistry. Atoms of different types combine to form molecules of various chemical compounds. The pressure of a gas depends on the force exerted by the continual movement of its molecules. This is illustrated on the right, in which five of the molecules are colored red to make their motion easier to follow. The molecules move like the motes of dust in the sunlight that were described in De Rerum Natura (Book II:62-79). Science now knows that atoms are not indivisible, but modern science owes much to Lucretius.
As the Enlightenment
progressed, some thinkers decided to reject God and immortality and to accept
Epicurus’ views of death. Of these perhaps the most famous is David Hume
(1711-1776) who, when dying of cancer, was interviewed by James Boswell
(1740-1795). Boswell was disconcerted by Hume’s refusal to believe in the
afterlife, and by his cheerfulness in the face of death (Miller, 1995):
I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. (Boswell, 1776).
Fear of Death
cheerfulness with which Epicurus and Hume faced death, Epicurean logic fails to
convince most human beings not to fear death. Since death before maturity
prevents us from reproducing, evolution must clearly have given preference to
those whose fear of death made them avoid potentially fatal situations.
pleasure as the goal of life, but had difficulty handling its relation to time.
Common sense definitely presumes that pleasure is greater when it lasts longer.
A death that shortens a potentially pleasurable life should therefore be
feared. Epicurus proposed that ataraxia is the same regardless of the
duration, but his argument is unconvincing:
Epicurus holds that pleasure is the supreme good, and yet claims that there is no greater pleasure to be had in an infinite period than in a brief and limited one. Now one who regards good as entirely a matter of virtue is entitled to say that one has a completely happy life when completely virtuous. Here it is denied that time adds anything to the supreme good. But if one believes that the happy life is constituted by pleasure, then one cannot consistently maintain that pleasure does not increase with duration, or else the same will apply to pain. Or are we to say that the longer one is in pain the more miserable one is, but deny that duration has any bearing on the desirability of pleasure. (Cicero, 45 BCE, II: 88)
Nagel (1990) makes
a similar point:
Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer.
Most people feel
that death comes before their lives have been properly completed. Some things
have not yet been experienced, others have not yet been atoned for; their
achievement is not enough, their legacy not sufficient. As Cicero (44 BCE)
remarked “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.”
The Makropulos Case
How much longer should
one then wish to live? Forever may be as frightening as tomorrow. This idea was
considered in an important paper by Bernard Williams (1973) that took as its
point of origin a play by Karel Capek that premiered in Prague in 1922 – The
Makropulos Case. Leos Janacek’s operatic version of the play was produced
in Brno in 1925.
In the play Emilia
Marty, a beautiful and successful opera singer, turns out to be Elina
Makropulos, a young Greek woman who was given an elixir of longevity by her
physician-father in 1601. Having lived over 300 years without aging she has
returned to Prague to find the elixir’s formula so that she can further prolong
her youth. The following photograph from the San Francisco Opera (2016) shows
Nadja Michael in the role of Emilia in the first act of the opera (which takes
place in a law office):
In the end Emilia
decides that she does not want to live longer. She explains to the others:
Oh, life should not last so long! If you only realized how easy life is for you! You are so close to everything! For you, everything makes sense! For you, everything has value! – for the trivial chance reason that you are going to die soon. … It’s all in vain whether you sing or keep silent – no pleasure in being good no pleasure in being bad. No pleasure on earth, No pleasure in heaven. And one comes to learn that the soul has died inside one. (Janacek version)
Williams (1973) agrees
with Emilia. After a while immortality will become tedious. Human desires are
designed for shorter periods. Evolution has made us long to live longer. Yet
the usual span of human life gives us about the right amount of time to
experience what we can, and to accomplish what we should.
Another aspect of
death not considered in Epicurean philosophy is that it is the end of the
“person.” Each individual spends a lifetime developing a collection of
experiences and achievements, out of which are derived a set of values and an
accumulated knowledge. Warren (2004, chapter 4) considers these as the personal
“narrative.” At death the story ends. The person vanishes. Some traces will be
preserved in the memories of others but these are but faint copies of the
This is the reason
why Lucretius’ analogy of the mirror does not work. We are not concerned with
the time before we were born because we did not exist then. However, this is
not the mirror image of the time after our death when we again do not exist.
Because in the meantime we have existed. Time only goes one way.
Personal annihilation is perhaps the most frightening part of death. On December 23, 1977, Philip Larkin published a poem about death in the Times Literary Supplement. (The full text is available at this link). In a letter to a friend he called it “a real infusion of Christmas cheer” (Larkin, Burnett, 2012, p 495). Fletcher (2007) provides some discussion of the poem and its relation to one of John Betjeman’s. An aubade is typically the dawn song of a lover as he leaves his mistress. Larkin’s poem is a death song about leaving his life. He is intensely afraid:
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse —The good not done, the love not given, time Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because An only life can take so long to climb Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never; But at the total emptiness for ever, The sure extinction that we travel to And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, Not to be anywhere, And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
He laments the
inability of religious faith or philosophical reason to provide any comfort:
Religion used to try, That vast moth-eaten musical brocade Created to pretend we never die, And specious stuff that says No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anaesthetic from which none come round.
Larkin provides us with no resolution of this fear. In the final lines of the poem he watches as the dawn breaks and people get ready for work. Phones will ring and letters will be delivered. Communication is perhaps our only comfort. The following is Larkin’s recitation of the poem.
So we come to the
end of this essay on endings. Though death is not desired, it is inevitable.
Epicurus was right about there being nothing after death, but death itself is
not nothing. It marks the transition of a life from the individual
consciousness to the memory of others. Henry James noted in 1916 when his final
stroke began, “So here it is, the distinguished thing” (Edel, 1968, Callahan, 2005).
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Berryman, S. (2016). Democritus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Boswell, J. (1776, reprinted 1970). An account of my last interview with David Hume. In Weis C. M. and Pottle F. A. (Eds) Boswell in Extremes. 1776-1778. New York: McGraw Hill. (pp 11-15). Also available at PhilosophyTalk website.
D. (2005). Death: ‘The Distinguished Thing,’ Hastings Center Report, 35, S5-S8.
K., (translated and introduced by Majer, P., & Porter, C., 1999). Four
plays. London: Methuen Drama.
Cicero, M. T. (45 BCE, translated by Woolf, R., and edited by Annas, J., 2001). On Moral Ends. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Available at Archive.org
Cicero, M. T. (44 BCE, translated by A. P. Peabody, 1884). Cicero de Senectute (on old age). Little Brown, Boston. Available at Archive.org
Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE, translated by Yonge, C. D., 1853). The lives and opinions of eminent philosophers. London: Henry G. Bohn. Available at Archive.org
Durant, W. (1939). The story of civilization: Part II: The life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster. Available at Archive.org
Fletcher, C. (2007). John Betjeman’s ‘Before the Anaesthetic, orA Real Fright’: A Source for Philip
Larkin’s ‘Aubade’. Notes and Queries, 54, 179-181
Greenblatt, S. (2011). The swerve: How the
world became modern. New York: W.W. Norton.
Inwood, B., & Gerson, L. P. (1997). Hellenistic
philosophy: Introductory readings. 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Jones, H. (1989). The Epicurean tradition.
Konstan, D. (2018). Epicurus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Larkin, P. (edited by A. Burnett, 2012). The
complete poems of Philip Larkin. London: Faber and Faber.
Lesses, G. (2002).
Happiness, completeness, and indifference to death in Epicurean ethical theory. Apeiron, 35 (4), 57–68.
Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic philosophy: Stoics,
Epicureans, Sceptics. 2nd Edition
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lucretius, C. T. (~50BCE, translated by W. H.
D. Rouse, 1924, with introduction and revisions by M. F. Smith, 1992). De
rerum natura. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical
Library). (Latin with English prose translation)
Lucretius, C. T. (translated by C. H. Sisson,
1976). De rerum natura: The poem on nature; a translation. Manchester:
Carcanet New Press. (Blank verse translation)
Lucretius, C. T. (translated by A.E. Stallings, 2007). The nature of things. London: Penguin Classics. (Translation in rhyming couplets)
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (180 CE, translated by G. Long, 1862). Meditations. New York: F. M. Lupton. Available at Archive.org.
Miller, S. (1995). The death of Hume. Wilson Quarterly, 19 (3). 30-39
Mitsis, P. (2002).
Happiness and death in Epicurean ethics. Apeiron, 35 (4), 41–55.
Nagel. T. (1970). Death. Nous, 4,
73-80. Reprinted in Nagel, T. (1979). Mortal Questions (pp 1-10)
Cambridge UK; Cambridge University Press.
O’Keefe, T. (2010). Epicureanism.
Durham, UK: Acumen.
Sedley, D. (2018). Lucretius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Warren, J. (2004). Facing death:
Epicurus and his critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, B. (1973). The
Makropoulos case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality. Reprinted in his Problems
of the Self. (pp 82-100). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, C. (2015). Epicureanism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, C. (2008). Epicureanism at the
origins of modernity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sophocles’ play Antigone tells the story of a young woman who defies the laws of the state in order to do what she believes is right. The issues considered in the play remain as important now as they were almost two and a half millennia ago. Should one follow one’s conscience or obey the law? Does justice transcend the law? How does one determine what is right?
In the words of Hegel, Antigone is
one of the most sublime and in every respect most excellent works of art of all time. Everything in this tragedy is logical; the public law of the state is set in conflict over against inner family love and duty to a brother; the woman, Antigone, has the family interest as her ‘pathos’, Creon, the man, has the welfare of the community as his. (Hegel, 1975, p 464).
The word pathos most commonly means the quality of something that evokes pity. However, Hegel uses the word to denote “an inherently justified power over the heart, an essential content of rationality and freedom of will” (p 232). Pathos is the emotional commitment that defines a person – his or her driving passion. Sophocles’ play presents the conflict of these passions.
The Theban Myths
In order to understand Antigone we need to know what has happened before the play begins. Antigone (441 BCE) was the first of what are now known as Sophocles’ three Theban Plays, the others being Oedipus Tyrranus (429 BCE) and Oedipus at Colonus (409 BCE). The plays were not conceived as a trilogy and Antigone was written before the other two. Aeschylus had also written three plays about Thebes but the initial two of these (about Laius the father of Oedipus and his version of Oedipus) have been lost. Only the third remains: Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE), which describes the siege of Thebes by the Argives. Antigone begins just after the events described in this play.
From the extant plays we can piece together the mythic narrative that leads to Antigone. Laius, king of Thebes, married to Jocasta, is told by the Delphic Oracle that he can only keep his city safe if he dies childless. After having drunkenly fathered Oedipus, Laius has his son left on Mount Cithaeron to die. However, the boy is found by a shepherd and ultimately adopted as a son by King Polybus of Corinth.
When he comes of age Oedipus is told by the Oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Oedipus flees Corinth to prevent this from happening. On the way to Thebes at a place where three roads meet, he comes upon another traveler. They argue and fight; Oedipus kills the man; the man was Laius.
Oedipus continues on to Thebes. The city has long been plagued by the Sphinx, a monster sent by the gods because of some ancient crime of the Thebans. The Sphinx poses a riddle to all who pass by and devours those that fail to answer correctly: “What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night.” The illustration at the right shows a representation of Oedipus and the Sphinx in a vase from around 500 BCE, now in the Vatican. (The sphinx seems much less monstrous than the legend indicated.) Oedipus solves the riddle – “man, who crawls in infancy, walks as an adult and uses a cane in old age.” This releases the city from the monster’s power. In gratitude the citizens of Thebes make Oedipus king and grant him the recently bereaved Jocasta as his wife. Oedipus and Jocasta have four children: the boys Polyneikes and Eteokles, and the girls Antigone and Ismene
The gods, displeased at the unrevenged death of Laius, bring a plague down upon Thebes. In order to stop the plague Oedipus searches for his father’s murderer. In the course of his investigations he realizes first that he was the killer, and ultimately that Laius was his father and Jocasta his mother. Jocasta hangs herself. Unable to bear the pain of his knowledge Oedipus blinds himself with Jocasta’s brooch pins. Exiled from Thebes he seeks sanctuary in the grove of the Furies at Colonus, a village near Athens. Here Theseus, king of Athens, takes pity on him.
His daughters Ismene and Antigone come to comfort their father in Colonus. In Thebes the sons of Oedipus initially decide to alternate the kingship, but Eteokles then banishes his older brother Polyneikes and becomes sole king of Thebes. Polyneikes visits Oedipus in Colonus to get his blessing for a revolt against his brother, but Oedipus curses both his sons and prophecies that they will die at each other’s hand. Oedipus dies. His daughters return to Thebes.
Polyneikes and six other generals raise an army from the rival state of Argos and attack Thebes. The Thebans ultimately defeat the besieging army. Near the end of the siege, Polyneikes and Eteokles fight and kill each other.
The deaths of Polyneikes and Eteokles became a popular motif for sculpture, the illustration below showing a relief on an Etruscan funerary urn from Chiusi (circe 200 BCE).
The following illustration from a 19th century jewel shows a more restrained view of the brothers’ deaths.
The Story of Antigone
After the deaths of Polyneikes and Eteokles, Kreon, the brother of Jocasta, becomes king of Thebes. He decrees that Eteokles be given a hero’s funeral rites but that the body of the traitor Polyneikes’ be left to rot. Anyone who disobeys this ruling will be put to death. Despite the warnings of her sister, Antigone refuses to obey Kreon’s commandment and casts earth over Polyneikes’ body. The illustration below shows Juliet Binoche in the 2015 production of Antigone at the Barbican in London.
Antigone is caught in the act. The following illustration from a Greek vase (circe 400 BCE) shows Antigone, flanked by two guards holding spears, brought before Kreon.
This is the crucial exchange between the two:
Kreon: Now tell me, not at length, but in brief space,
Knew you the order not to do it?
I knew it; what should hinder? It was plain.
Kreon: And you made free to overstep my law?
Antigone: Because it was not Zeus who ordered it,
Nor Justice, dweller with the Nether Gods,
Gave such a law to men; nor did I deem
Your ordinance of so much binding force,
As that a mortal man could overbear
The unchangeable unwritten code of Heaven;
This is not of today and yesterday,
But lives forever, having origin
Whence no man knows: whose sanctions I were loath
In Heaven’s sight to provoke, fearing the will
Of any man. I knew that I should die –
How otherwise? Even although your voice
Had never so prescribed. And that I die
Before my hour is due, that I count gain.
For one who lives in many ills, as I –
How should he fail to gain by dying? Thus
To me the pain is light, to meet this fate:
But had I borne to leave the body of him
My mother bare unburied, then, indeed,
I might feel pain; but as it is, I cannot:
And if my present actions seems to you
Foolish – ‘tis like I am found guilty of folly
At a fool’s mouth! (ll 446-470, Young translation)
This is one of the greatest speeches ever spoken on the stage. It comes in four parts. First, Antigone scorns the proclamation of Kreon. Made neither by the gods of Olympus nor by the lords of Hades, this was an “order” rather than a “law.” Second, she vaunts the eternal “unwritten code of Heaven” that guides human behavior and that must not be disobeyed. In the third section of the speech, Antigone recognizes that her defiance might bring about her death. However, this will bring relief to one who has already lost father, mother, and two brothers. Finally, she tells Kreon that she is not the one who is acting foolishly. He who does not understand the code of Heaven is far more fool than she. The following film-clip shows Irene Papas as Antigone and Manos Katrakis as Kreon (Tzavellas, 1961):
The chorus is upset by Antigone’s defiance. Kreon refuses to grant Antigone mercy and sentences her to be buried alive in a cave. Kreon’s son, Haimon, in love with Antigone, pleads with his father, but Kreon remains adamant. In his defense, he states the case for the rule of law:
Obedience is due
To the state’s officer in small and great,
Just and unjust commandments; …
There lives no greater fiend than Anarchy;
She ruins states, turns houses out of doors
Breaks up in rout the embattled soldiery;
While Discipline preserves the multitude
Of the ordered host alive. Therefore it is
We must assist the cause of order.
(ll 665-676, Young translation)
Haimon urges his father not to be so stubborn:
it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn—they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.
(ll 710-717, Fagles translation)
Kreon refuses to listen to his son.
Meanwhile, Antigone bemoans her fate. She accepts that she did what she had to do, but she regrets that she was not able to marry or have children. She does not understand why the gods have not intervened to save one who served them truly. Before she is taken to the cave she asks the Thebans to behold one who has been condemned
τὴν εὐσεβίαν σεβίσασα. (ten eusebian sebisasa) (l 943)
In an act of perfect piety (Carson translation)
For doing reverence where reverence was due. (Brown translation)
The noun eusebia means an act of reverence or piety; the verb sebizo is to worship or honor. Carson (2015, pp 5-6) remarks about this emphatic conclusion:
Both noun (eusebia) and verb (sebizo) derive from the Greek root seb-, which refers to the awe that radiates from gods to humans and is given back as worship. Everything related to this root has fear in it. But eusebia is a fear that moves as devotion – a striving out of this world into another and of another world into this.
Teiresias, the blind seer, tells Kreon that the gods are displeased: they wish Antigone to be freed and Polyneikes properly buried. Kreon orders Antigone’s release but she has already killed herself. In grief at her death, Haimon commits suicide. In grief at the death of her son, Kreon’s wife Eurydike also commits suicide. Utterly broken, Kreon is led away, his life emptied of any meaning. He is “as a dead man who can still draw breath.” (l 1167, Gibbons translation)
The Choral Odes
One of the great attractions of Sophocles’ play is the way in which the chorus of Theban elders comment on the action. The play contains six main choral odes. The first is a celebration of the Theban triumph over the besieging Argives. The most exciting recent translation of this begins
The glories of the world come sharking in all red and gold
we won the war
the streets of sevengated Thebes
(ll 100-102, Carson translation)
The choral odes were sung and danced by a chorus of about fifteen men in the area of the theatre known as the orchestra (“place for dancing”). Carl Orff wrote music for the performance of Antigonae (1949) that suggests how the chorus might have sounded. The following is Orff’s music for the introduction of the Chorus and the beginning of this first ode:
The second ode, often known as the Ode to Man, considers how wonderful is the creature called man, who can navigate the sea, cultivate the land, tame the animals, build homes for protection against the elements, and find medicine for his ailments. The following translation of the beginning of the ode attempts the rhythms of the Greek:
At many things – wonders
Terrors – we feel awe
But at nothing more
Than at man. This
Being sails the gray-
White sea running before
Winter storm-winds, he
Scuds beneath high
Waves surging over him
On each side
And Gaia, the Earth
Forever undestroyed and
Unwearying, highest of
All the gods, he
Wears away, year
After year as his plows
Back and forth, turning
Her soil with the
Offspring of horses.
(ll 332-345, Gibbons translation)
The following is Carl Orff’s 1949 setting of the opening of the Ode to Man. Orff used the words of Hölderlin: Ungeheuer ist viel. Doch nichts ungeheuerer als der Mensch (Many things are wonderful but nothing more wonderful than man). Orff’s music captures the awe at the beginning of the ode, and then gives a driving rendition of human achievements.
The Greek word used to describe man at the beginning of this famous ode – deinos – usually means “extraordinary” or “wonderful.” It also has connotations of the supernatural or uncanny, the unexpectedly clever, or even the monstrous. The word comes from a Proto-Indo-European root dwei denoting fear. An example of this root in English is “dinosaur.” Deinos has no obvious equivalent in English. The German ungeheuer (enormous, terrible, unnatural) used by Hölderlin captures many of its meanings.
The later choral odes in Antigone tell how human hopes often come to naught, describe the power of human passion, console Antigone as she is led away to her fate, and at the end of the play praise the gods who teach us wisdom. The following are three modern translations of the final words of the chorus:
Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,
and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.
The mighty words of the proud are paid in full
with mighty blows of fate, and at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom
(ll 1347-1353, Fagles’ translation)
Wise conduct is the key to happiness
Always rule by the gods and reverence them.
Those who overbear will be brought to grief.
Fate will flail them on its winnowing floor
And in due season teach them to be wise.
There is no happiness, but there can be wisdom.
Revere the gods; revere them always.
When men get proud, they hurl hard words, then suffer for it.
Let them grow old and take no harm yet: they still get punished.
It teaches them. It teaches us.
Fagles has the gods teaching all of us, whereas Heaney has them only teaching the proud. Paulin gives both meanings. This section from Orff’s Antigonae is appropriately otherworldly: Um vieles ist das Denken mehr denn Glückseligkeit. (Thought is much greater than happiness).
The following is a clip from the ending to Tzavellas’ 1961 film with Manos Katrakis as Kreon and Thodoris Moudis as the leader of the chorus:
The heart of the play is the conflict between Kreon and Antigone. Steiner (1984, pp 231-232) notes that
It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s). The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other. Self-definition and the agonistic recognition of ‘otherness’ (of l’autre) across the threatened boundaries of self, are indissociable. The polarities of masculinity and of femininity, of ageing and of youth, of private autonomy and of social collectivity, of existence and mortality, of the human and the divine, can be crystallized only in adversative terms (whatever the many shades of accommodation between them). To arrive at oneself—the primordial journey—is to come up, polemically, against ‘the other’. The boundary-conditions of the human person are those set by gender, by age, by community, by the cut between life and death, and by the potentials of accepted or denied encounter between the existential and the transcendent.
In his assessment of the play, Hegel focused on the conflict between a person’s kinship-duties and the allegiance owed to the state (Reidy, 1995; Young 2013, pp 110-139). In his mind Antigone represented civilization’s necessary change from family-loyalty to state-citizenship. This fits with Hegel’s general view of history as a sequence of dialectic conflicts between different world-views. Progress occurs as the two competing ideas become reconciled. The tragedy occurs because neither Antigone nor Kreon can see the other side of the conflict. Antigone feels no duty to the state; Kreon pays no attention to his family, completely disregarding his son’s concerns.
The balance between Antigone and Kreon is what makes Antigone a tragedy. Albert Camus (1955/1968, p 301) differentiated tragedy from drama:
the forces confronting each other in tragedy are equally legitimate, equally justified. In melodramas or dramas, on the other hand, only one force is legitimate. In other words, tragedy is ambiguous and drama simple-minded. In the former, each force is at the same time both good and bad. In the latter, one is good and the other evil (which is why, in our day and age, propaganda plays are nothing but the resurrection of melodrama). Antigone is right, but Kreon is not wrong.
In the conflict Antigone and Kreon are very similar in character. Steiner (1984, pp 184-5) points out
Both Kreon and Antigone are auto-nomists, human beings who have taken the law into their own keeping. Their respective enunciations of justice are, in the given local case, irreconcilable. But in their obsession with law, they come very close to being mirror-images.
The tragedy evolves because neither Antigone nor Kreon is able to compromise. They are both bloody minded – obstinate to the point of bloodshed. However, Kreon is the more reprehensible: his edict forbidding the burial of Polyneikes is not based on either divine rule or reasoned thought.
Three conflicting forces are at play in Antigone. One is the law (nomos) of the state (polis). The second is the set of “unwritten rules” (agrapta nomima) that tell us what is right. The third is fate (moira) – the working out of what must necessarily happen. Of these only the first is easy to understand.
Antigone’s “unwritten code of Heaven” is often considered the same as the “natural law” – that which we know because it is an essential part of our being (Robinson. 1991; Burns, 2002). Natural law is understood by “conscience” – our intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. Regardless of how we are educated or how our society operates, conscience tends to work similarly: murder and incest are wrong; hospitality and compassion are right. Human history has long realized that the laws promulgated to maintain order in particular societies may come into conflict with an individual’s conscience. In these cases, the natural law should generally be paramount. This is the basis of civil disobedience. An unjust law – one that is out of harmony with the natural law – need not be obeyed:
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. (King, 1963).
However, the natural law is often difficult to determine. It is understood by intuition, and followed by inclination (Maritain, 2001, pp 32-38). So when should conscience take precedence over the law? The laws promulgated by a state should be and often are derived from the natural law. However, they sometimes also exist to entrench the status of the powerful.
The laws or commandments proclaimed in religious scriptures are also related to the natural law However, even this relationship is complex. On the one hand, the natural law can be conceived as independent of divinity. Hugo Grotius famously stated that we know what is right “even if we concede … that there is no God” (etiamsi daremus … non esse Deum). Others, such as Maritain (2001, p 46), propose that the natural law as perceived by man derives from the “eternal law” as perceived by God. Human perception of the divine law is as yet imperfect.
The relation between natural law and nature is also complex. Laws of nature (phusis) are deduced from experience of the real world. They portray what is rather than what should be. Such laws can be demonstrated, analyzed and tested. The natural laws for human behavior are understood by intuition. We know what is right but we do not understand how we know. Nor can we demonstrate or test the laws that we follow.
If the natural law is the sum of human dispositions, then we might be able to study it in terms of evolution. Since most of human existence was spent in small bands that hunted and gathered on the African Savannah, many human dispositions to behave in particular ways may have been selected to promote the survival of these small groups. Commandments against murder (other than in self-defense) clearly facilitate group-survival. Edicts against incest decrease the probability of deleterious recessive genes becoming homozygous, and by promoting exogamy (marriage outside of the group) enlarge and strengthen the group.
If natural causes such as evolution are the basis for our morality, perhaps we can determine what is right by what is considered natural. Many people consider homosexuality “unnatural.” In the Abrahamic religions, early laws expressly prohibited homosexual relations on pain of death.
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13).
Aquinas argued that homosexuality is unnatural because it does not lead to procreation, which is the natural purpose of sexual intercourse (Summa Theologica II I 94). Yet who or what defines the natural purpose of an act and why should there be only one purpose?
How does Antigone know that she is right to bury her brother, even if her act will entail her death? She is following a “custom” – the Greeks buried their dead. Other cultures cremate their dead, or leave them out to be devoured by carrion-eating birds – “sky burial.” It is difficult to see burying the dead as an absolute requirement of natural law, though some unspecified honoring of the dead seems common to all human cultures.
The Ancient Greeks attributed much that happens in life to fate. Fate was often personified as three women – the moirai. The word derives from meros, a part, share or portion. Clotho spins the thread of a life; Lachesis allots the life to a particular person; and Atropos cuts the thread at death. Neither human nor divine intervention can affect the actions of the fates. The following is a print of The Three Fates (1558) by Giorgio Ghisi.
Although Antigone has obeyed the unwritten code of heaven, the gods cannot intervene to save her from her ignominious death. That has been otherwise ordained – it is her fate. After Antigone is led away, the Chorus remarks that such apparently unjust ends have been suffered by others before her. Fate is a terrible thing:
The power of fate is a wonder,
dark, terrible wonder –
neither wealth nor armies
towered walls nor ships
black hulls lashed by the salt
can save us from that force.
(ll 951-954, Fagles’ translation)
Fate is described as deinos (terrible), the same word that the chorus used to describe man. We are both made and unmade by fate. We should follow the unwritten code of the gods, but doing so will not prevent death. The Fates operate according to some other code. Perhaps they follow necessity rather than justice. Perhaps they follow laws that operate beyond the individual life. The chorus briefly mentions such a possibility: Antigone may be paying for the sins of her father. However, it is possible that the Fates do not follow any code of justice. They may just enforce the physical laws by which the universe operates.
Justice is the human concept of what is right. Our words related to justice – law, morality, fairness, equity, right, righteousness – overlap in their meanings. The Greeks at the time of Sophocles also had many words (Steiner, 1984, pp 248-251; Nonet, 2006). Precise translations distinguishing these one from another are usually not possible, and the usage of the terms changed over the years.
The Greeks often personified their ideas in terms of gods. Themis was a Titaness who personified divine law. Zeus and Themis had three daughters: Dike, law; Eunomia, order; and Eirene, peace. Dike is customarily represented with a sword and a set of scales for weighing right and wrong (as in the illustrated statue from the Frankfurt Fountain of Justice, an 1887 bronze replacement for the original 1611 stone statue). Another Greek word dikaiosune came to mean both a system of justice and the virtue of righteousness (Havelock, 1969). Antigone appeals to Dike as the supporter of the unwritten laws which require the burial of the dead.
The Greeks differentiated nomos – the set of socially constructed laws – from phusis – the laws underlying the universe. The word nomima (laws, regulations, customs) derives from nomos but Antigone used it to distinguish the eternal and unwritten laws from human laws. Words do not clearly show us what is right. And they fail to clearly differentiate laws that are given from those that are constructed. Sophocles’ tragedy deals in part with our inability to know with certainty what is just.
The story of Antigone has been retold many times (Chancellor, 1979: Steiner, 1984). These versions stress different aspects of the story, supplement the main plot with other events, or place the story in a different time and place. For brevity I shall only consider a few recent adaptations.
During the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Anouilh wrote a version of Antigone that was set in modern times. The play was accepted by the censors and produced in Paris in 1944. Anouilh made Kreon a more sympathetic character. He removed from the play the character of Tiresias, who in Sophocles’ original play confirmed that Antigone was right. The chorus was no longer a group of Theban citizens who commented on the actions. Rather the chorus acted as a foil between the audience and the actors, describing what was going to happen and why. In this way Anouilh distanced the audience from becoming directly involved in the tragedy.
Anouilh’s Antigone is more of an existential heroine than a tragic one – she did what she did because she was seeking a reason for her life. As Kreon explains
She wanted to die! None of us was strong enough to persuade her to live. I understand now. She was born to die. She may not have known it herself, but Polynices was only an excuse.
At the end after everyone who had to die has died, Kreon goes on about his work of governing the city. The chorus explains
It’s over. Antigone’s quiet now, cured of a fever whose name we shall never know. Her work is done. A great, sad peace descends on Thebes, and on the empty palace where Creon will begin to wait for death. Only the guard are left. All that has happened is a matter of indifference to them. None of their business. They go on with their game of cards.
Anouilh’s chorus thus appears to attenuate the tragedy. However, Anouilh and his audience most certainly understood the nature of Antigone’s fever as La Résistance.
How could the German occupation authorities have allowed such a production? Steiner (1984, p. 190) notes that the evaluation of Antigone’s story in Germany between the world wars differed from that in other countries. Frightened by the communist revolts that followed the Great War, Germans saw the need for people like Kreon to maintain the safety of the state. So even if they might have felt that Antigone was right, they also knew that Kreon was not wrong. The great German philosopher Hegel had said that the state must necessarily take precedence over family and personal conscience.
Bertolt Brecht wrote and produced a theatrically stunning version of Antigone in Switzerland in 1948. The play was preceded by a prologue set in Berlin in April 1945. This tells the story of how a young deserter from the army came to his sisters’ home bringing food for his hungry family. However, he was captured by the police and hung for treason. His body was left hanging as an example to other would-be deserters. The prologue is doubly distanced from the play. As well as being set in the near present, the prologue is narrated to the audience by one of the sisters but acted out by both. The prologue ends with a police officer asking the sisters whether they knew the traitor. The first denies her brother, but the second goes out to cut down his body.
The play then reverts to Thebes. However, the situation differs from that of Sophocles’ Antigone. Thebes had not been under siege. Rather Kreon had embarked on a war against Argos to gain their iron ore. Eteokles had been brutally killed during this war. Polyneikes saw his older brother being trampled to death, deserted from the futile battle, and was then killed by his own people. The opening choral ode, rather than celebrating the survival of the city, welcomes the wagons of booty and plunder returning from the war.
When Antigone is captured and brought before Kreon, she is bound to a board. Effectively she is carrying a door upon her back. A door she cannot open. The illustration (taken from the Suhrkamp edition of Brecht’s play) is from the first production:
Brecht’s Antigone acts politically. She defies Kreon not so much because of any unwritten laws but because she considers him an evil tyrant. She tries unsuccessfully to goad the chorus to join in her defiance. The exchange between Antigone and Kreon is more extended than in Sophocles. After her initial speech of defiance (much the same as in Sophocles), Kreon praises the success of the war, and Antigone continues:
Antigone: The men in power always threaten us with the fall of The State.
It will fall by dissension, devoured by the invaders
and so we give in to you, and give you our power, and bow down;
and because of this weakness, the city falls and is devoured by the invaders.
Kreon: Are you accusing me of throwing the city away to be devoured by the enemy?
Antigone: The city threw herself away by bowing down before you,
because when a man bows down he can’t see what’s coming at him.
The story plays itself out as in the original Greek, but at the end the city falls to its enemies. The tragedy is that of the people who foolishly followed and who keep following a tyrant. The final words of the chorus are those of despair:
For time is short
and the unknown surrounds us; and it isn’t enough
just to live unthinking and happy
and patiently bear oppression
and only learn wisdom in age.
Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona created and produced a play called The Island in South Africa in 1973 as a protest against the persecutions of apartheid. The play is set in an unknown prison camp clearly modelled on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held. The play follows two cell mates, played by Kani and Ntshona, in prison for the minor offences of belonging to a banned organization and burning an identity card.
In successive scenes, the two men work at digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, rehearse a performance of Antigone that they plan to present to the camp, learn that one of them may be released but not the other, pretend to talk on the phone with friends and relatives, and finally present the dramatic confrontation between Kreon and Antigone. Below is a photograph showing Ntshona and Kani in the National Theatre revival of the play (2000):
Winston fears that his appearance as a young woman will only cause ridicule, and indeed John bursts into laughter when he first sees him in wig and costume. Yet no one laughs during the final scene when on a makeshift stage Winston tells John
You are only a man Creon. Even as there are laws made by men, so too there are others that come from God. He watches my soul for a transgression even as your spies hide in the bush at night to see who is transgressing your laws. Guilty against God I will not be for any man on this earth.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the state. He was not released until 1990.
In 2012 Anne Carson wrote Antigonick, a version of Antigone that is more concerned with depicting the ideas and feelings of the play than rendering a literal translation. She added to the play the character of Nick, a surveyor who intermittently and mutely takes measurements of what is happening. Nick stands for the modern viewer who must somehow assess the play coming from a society many hundred years before our own.
The book is presented with a text that is handwritten by Carson in small black capitals and illustrated with desolate landscapes and surrealistic images by Bianca Stone. These illustrations do not directly relate to the text but add to the book’s sense of incomprehensible passion. Below is a representation the book’s pages at the beginning of the Ode to ManAs can be seen in the ode Carson’s choice of words is designed to bring the audience the sense of the original Greek. The word deinos becomes “terribly quiet” – a description that captures the connotations of incomprehensibility and menace.
Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than man
His footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter
The following illustration shows three other images from the book, one of a wedding cake in desolation, the second of cutlery flying apart under the influence of a thread (perhaps of fate), and the third of a horse upsetting a feast.
In addition, Carson sometimes includes commentary in the text. This brings the meaning up to date. In the original play just before Antigone exits to her death, the chorus provides a long discussion of the way in which fate has acted unfairly, quoting various stories from Greek mythology. A modern audience would not know these examples. In Antigonick Carson therefore replaces this choral ode by verse that slowly goes from mundane commentary to intense grief:
how is a Greek chorus like a lawyer
they’re both in the business of searching for a precedent
finding an analogy
locating a prior example
so as to be able to say
the terrible thing we’re witnessing now is
not unique you know it happened before
or something much like it
we’re not at a loss how to think about this
we’re not without guidance
there is a pattern
we can find an historically parallel case
and file it away under
Antigone buried alive Friday afternoon compare case histories 7, 17 and 49
now I could dig up theses case histories,
tell you about Danaos and Lykourgos and the sons of Phineas
people locked up in a room or a cave or their own dark mind
it wouldn’t help you
it didn’t help me
it’s Friday afternoon
there goes Antigone to be buried alive
we can say
this is normal
or even in the widest definition just
no not really
In 2016 Slavoj Zizek, a provocative philosopher and communist, wrote a version of Antigone that provides three different endings. This idea of multiple endings came from Tom Tykwer’s film Run Lola Run (1998). The plot of Zizek’s Antigone proceeds as in Sophocles until Kreon sentences Antigone to death and is told by Tiresias that he has offended the gods. The first ending then follows as in Sophocles and results in the death of Antigone.
In the second ending the people of Thebes enflamed by the way Kreon offended the gods, rise up and murder him. They set fire to the city. Antigone survives though she is half-mad and does not understand why her simple act of defiance has led to such devastation. The chorus tells her that divine laws are not the ultimate authority:
A society is kept together by the bond of Word,
but the domain of logos, of what can be said,
and this mysterious vortex is what all our endeavours
and struggles are about. Our true fidelity
is to what cannot be said, and the greatest wisdom
is to know when this very fidelity
compels us to break our word, even if this word
is the highest immemorial law. This is where
you went wrong, Antigone. In sacrificing everything
for your law, you lost this law itself.
In the third ending Kreon and Antigone are reconciled, but the citizens of Thebes rise up against their rulers. Kreon is brutally executed because
Much greater evil than a lack of leadership
is an unjust leader who creates chaos in his city
by the very false order he tries to impose. Such an order
is the obscene travesty of the worst anarchy.
The people feel this and resist the leader. A true order,
on the contrary, creates the space of freedom
for all citizens. A really good master
doesn’t just limit the freedom of his subjects,
he gives freedom.
Antigone claims to be on the side of the revolution. But the leader of the people has her executed:
But the excluded
don’t need sympathy and compassion from the privileged,
they don’t want others to speak for them,
they themselves should speak and articulate their plight.
So in speaking for them, you betrayed them even more
than your uncle — you deprived them of their voice.
There is no catharsis. The revolution is brutal. The chorus attempts to excuse the horror by repeating the Ode to Man
There are many strange and wonderful things
but nothing more strangely wonderful than man
But one is left with the nightmare of revolutionaries settling scores by murder. One longs for the simplicity of Sophocles’s original wherein Kreon and Antigone were both striving to do what they thought was right. In Ziztek no one is right. Violence is the only outcome. Justice is not possible. This is not my idea of Antigone. Zizek has not found a way out of the conflict at the basis of the story. Nor has he, a committed communist, portrayed the necessity of revolution as in any way attractive.
Natalie Haynes has retold the stories of Oedipus and Antigone from the point of view of Jocasta and of Ismene in her novel The Children of Jocasta (2017). In Sophocles’ play Ismene, Antigone’s younger sister, is the only member of Oedipus’ family to survive. She initially serves as a foil for her sister, proposing compromise instead of defiance. Later she stands by her sister, though Antigone refuses her support. In Haynes’ novel the plot has changed from that of Sophocles’ plays, but the story still has its necessary confrontations and reconciliations. The plague plays the role of the Fates.
In Home Fire (2018) Kamila Shamsie has reinterpreted the story of Antigone in terms of Aneeka a young Englishwoman of Pakistani background. Her brother Parvaiz is recruited to ISIS and serves with the terrorists in Syria. Parvaiz is assassinated in Turkey when he tries to leave ISIS. The English government refuses to allow his corpse to be returned to England for burial, and arranges for it to be sent to Pakistan. Aneeka goes to Pakistan to protest this ruling but ultimately the body, the sister and her fiancé are blown to pieces in a suicide bombing.
The situation envisioned by Shamsie is clearly very possible. A citizen should have the right to be buried in his homeland. This right was recently tested in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the bombers at the Boston Marathon (Mendelsohn, 2013). No funeral director or cemetery in Massachusetts would accept his body. After much dispute, a Christian woman in Virginia intervened, and the body was finally buried in an unmarked grave in a small Muslim cemetery in Virginia.
Novels are discursive. They provide us with a wealth of detail, in terms of both things and thoughts. They can discuss what might have been as well as what was. They lack the harsh simplicity of a play.
A Play for All Time
Sophocles’ Antigone remains as a stirring invocation to do what is right. The world needs its Antigones. This was particularly evident in the days of Hitler (von Klemperer, 1992). Those who resisted Nazism did not succeed in changing their government. Yet they did show their countrymen that there were other ways to live and die than slavishly to follow a leader more concerned with power than with humanity.
Sophocles’ play returns time and time again. Whenever governments repress the conscience of their people. World War II generated the Antigones of Anouilh, Brecht and Orff. The situation in South Africa brought about Fugard’s The Island. The situation in Northern Ireland led to Paulin’s The Riot Act. Judith Malina translated Brecht’s Antigone while in jail in 1963 because her Living Theatre had run afoul of the US government.
The philosophy of Sophocles combines a respect for human morality and responsibility with an acquiescence to fate (Kitto, 1961, pp 123-127). In this recognition of the role played by fate, Sophocles differs from his predecessor Aeschylus:
The Aeschylean universe is one of august moral laws, infringement of which brings certain doom; the Sophoclean is one in which wrongdoing does indeed work out its own punishment, but disaster comes, too, without justification; at the most with ‘contributory negligence.’ (p 126)
Wonderful though man is he cannot control everything. This is most obvious in the fact of death. Yet before we die we can do what we believe to be right. This will not prevent our death but it will pay reverence to whatever ideas of transcendence we have conceived, be it the gods or the good.
We do not understand fate. I have already quoted the final words of Sophocles’ chorus – their praise of wisdom. Just before this they make two comments about fate. In reply to Kreon’s desire to die the chorus states
That’s in the future. We must do what lies before us.
Those who take care of these things will take their care.
And then when Kreon says that he prayed for what he longed for, they answer
Don’t pray for anything – for from whatever good
Or ill is destined for mortals, there’s no deliverance.
(Gibbons translation, ll 1334-5, 1337-8)
Sophocles is clear. Do what you think is right. Be open to the ideas of others. Do not expect reward. You will die. Life will carry on.
Note: the lines for the quotations in this posting are those in the original Greek (Brown edition) and may not fit the lines of the translations.
The Perseus Library Antigone has the full Greek text with translation and commentary by Richard Jebb (from the early 20th century).
Brown, A. (1987). Sophocles:Antigone. Warminster, Wiltshire, England: Aris & Phillips (Greek text and English translation on facing pages; good commentary)
Griffith, M. (1999). Sophocles: Antigone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Greek texts, extensive notes and commentary, but no English translation).
Orff, C., Hölderlin, F., (1949, CD conducted by Sawallisch, W., 1958, CD 2009). Antigonae. Neuhausen: Profil.
Tzavellas, G. [dir.] (film 1961, DVD 2004). Antigone. Kino International Corporation.
Carson, A., (2015). Sophokles Antigone, London: Oberon Books. This was performed at the Barbican with Juliet Binoche. It is a subdued version of Carson’s Antigonick.
Fagles, R., & Knox, B. M. G. W. (1982). The three Theban plays. London: Allen Lane/Penguin (a fine modern translation)
Gibbons, R., & Segal, C. (2003). Sophocles: Antigone. New York: Oxford University Press (a translation paying close attention to Greek poetic forms)
Heaney, S. (2004). The burial at Thebes: Sophocles’ Antigone. London: Faber and Faber. (perhaps the most beautiful of the translations)
Hölderlin, F. (1804) Sophokles Antigone. (This served as the basis for Carl Orff’s Antigonae). A translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone is available by David Constantine (BloodAxe Books, 2001). The German original is available
Paulin, T., (1985). The riot act: A version of Sophocles’ Antigone. London: Faber and Faber. (translation in modern colloquial English).
Young, G. (1906/1912). The dramas of Sophocles rendered in English verse, dramatic & lyric. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons. (the classical blank-verse translation). Available at archive.org
Anouilh, J. (1946/2005). Antigone. Paris: La Table ronde. (English translation by B. Bray & T. Freeman, Bloomsbury Methuen, 2000).
Brecht, B. (1948, edited by Werner Hecht, 1988). Brechts Antigone des Sophokles. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. (English translation by Malina, J., 1990, Sophocles’ Antigone. New York: Applause Theatre Books).
Carson, A., (2012). Antigonick. (illustrated by Stone, B.). New York: New Directions. Carson and her colleagues presented a reading of Antigonick in 2012 at the Louisiana gallery in Denmark. The Chorus was read by Carson, Antigone by Mara Lee and Kreon by Nielsen.
Fugard, A., Kani, J., & Ntshona, W. (1974). Statements: Sizwe Bansi is dead. The island. Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act. London: Oxford University Press.
Haynes, N. (2017). The children of Jocasta. London: Mantle Books.
Shamsie, K. (2017). Home fire. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin)
Žižek, S. (2016). Antigone. London: Bloomsbury Academic
Burns, T. (2002). Sophocles’ Antigone and the history of the concept of natural law. Political Studies, 50, 545-557.
Camus, A., (1955, translated by Kennedy, E. C. 1968). On the future of tragedy. In Thody, P. (Ed.) Lyrical and critical essays. (pp. 295-310). New York: Knopf
Chancellor, G. (1979). Hölderlin, Brecht, Anouilh: Three Versions of Antigone Orbis Litterarum, 34, 87-97
Grotius , H. (1625) De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace). Paris: Nicolaus Buon. (Preliminary Discourse XI) English translation available
Hegel, G. W. F. (1835, translated Knox, T. M., 1975) Hegel’s aesthetics: Lectures on fine art. Volume I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Available
King, M. L. Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham jail. Available
Kitto, H. D. F. (1939/1961/2011). Greek tragedy: A literary study. London: Routledge.
von Klemperer, K. (1992). “What is the law that lies behind these words?” Antigone’s question and the German resistance against Hitler. Journal of Modern History 64, Suppi. (December 1992): S102-S111.
Maritain, J., (edited by Sweet, W., 2001). Natural law: Reflections on theory and practice. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.
Mendelsohn, D. (2013) Unburied: Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the lessons of Greek Tragedy. New Yorker(May 14, 2013)
Nonet, P. (2006). Antigone’s Law. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 2, 314-335.
Reidy, D. A. (1995). Antigone, Hegel and the law: an essay. Legal Studies Forum, 19, 239-261.
Robinson, D. N. (1991). Antigone’s defense: a critical study of “Natural law theory: contemporary essays.” Review of Metaphysics, 45, 363-392.
Steiner, G. (1984). Antigones. New York: Oxford University Press.
Young, J. (2013). The philosophy of tragedy: from Plato to Žižek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vanity of Vanity
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Thus begins Ecclesiastes, the most unusual book in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Unlike the rest of the Bible, this book claims that the nature of the world is neither revealed to us nor accessible to reason. The universe and its Creator pay us no particular regard. Man is not special. Heretical though these thoughts might be, Ecclesiastes contains some of the world’s most widely quoted verses of scripture. The words of the Preacher resonate through the seasons of our lives. This post comments on several selections from the book.
The author of the book is called Qohelet (קהלת in Hebrew). This word derives from a root meaning to “assemble” or “bring people together.” The name suggests a sage who teaches a group of disciples. The translators have taken it to mean someone who preaches in a church (Latin, ecclesia). Yet Qohelet was clearly neither priest nor preacher. He was a rich man, a master of estates and an owner of palaces. The title Ecclesiastes is inappropriate. As pointed out by Lessing (1998),
thus do the living springs of knowledge, of wisdom, become captured by institutions, and by churches of various kinds.
According to the first line of the book, its author was Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba. However, although Qohelet may have been a descendant of David, linguistic evidence (reviewed in Bundvad, 2015, pp 5-9) indicates that he wrote in the 3rd century BCE during the Hellenistic period (323-63 BCE), some seven hundred years after Solomon. Other scholars have suggested that the author may have written several centuries earlier during the Persian period (539-323 BCE), but this would still be long after Solomon (10th Century BCE).
The first line of the book may have been added by a later editor who wished this scripture to partake of Solomon’s fame. More likely, it is original, indicating that Ecclesiastes is a fictional testament: an imagined description of what Solomon might have thought (see discussion in Batholomew, 2009, pp 43-54). However, the book is ambiguous in terms of its narration. As the book progresses Qohelet becomes clearly distinguished from Solomon. And even Qohelet vacillates between two minds: that of a Jewish believer and that of a Greek philosopher (Bartholomew, 2009, p. 78).
Ben Shahn (1971) imagines Qohelet as a simple teacher. Though once rich and powerful, his thoughts have led him to withdraw from high society. Although dismayed that he has not been able to understand its meaning, he still enjoys the life he has been granted.
Qohelet’s summary of his philosophy is that “All is vanity.” Shahn (1971) presents the beginning of the second verse in calligraphy:
The full verse and its transliteration follows. Note that the Hebrew goes from right to left whereas the transliteration goes from left to right (As Qohelet later says, “The wind goeth toward the south and turneth about unto the north”):
The sound of the Hebrew follows (just in case you wish to denounce the world’s latest frivolity out loud):
The key Hebrew word is havel (הבל). This
indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air (Alter, 2010, p 340)
The word can be directly translated as “vapor” or “breath.” Alter translates havel havelim as “mere breath.” It denotes something without material substance or temporal persistence. Many translators have characterized it in abstract terms: meaningless, transient, empty, useless, absurd, futile, enigmatic, illusory.
The word havel has the same letters as the name of Abel, the second son of Adam, slain by his brother Cain. Qohelet was likely aware of this association (Bundvad, 2015, pp 79-80). Abel was the first man to die. His life was fleeting and uncertain, his death unjust, his person only faintly remembered.
The King James Version of the Bible (1611) translates havel as “vanity.” This word comes from the Latin vanus meaning empty. The translators used “vanity” to denote a lack of meaning, value or purpose. The secondary, now more common, meaning for the word – self-admiration, excessive pride (the opposite of humility) – may have come about as a particular example of worthless activity.
At the time of the King James Version, the term vanitas was also used to denote a type of painting became popular in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. The example below is by Pieter Claesz (1628). These paintings arrange objects to show the transience of life, the limits of understanding and the inevitability of death. Despite their meaning, the paintings are imbued with sensual beauty:
The appeal of the vanitas painting tradition lies in its successful capture of the subtle balance between transient and joyful modes of living, so vociferously endorsed by Qoheleth. (Christianson, 2007, p 122).
After introducing himself and summarizing his message, Qohelet poses the main question of the book:
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? (Ecclesiastes, 1:3)
The word translated as “profit” is yitron (יתרון). This word is only found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes. Perhaps “benefit” might be a better translation (Bartholomew, 2009, pp 107-108). The “labour” involves both physical and mental work. The idea is how best we should lead our lives.
The answer begins with the glorious poem
One generation passeth away,
and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,
and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south,
and turneth about unto the north;
it whirleth about continually,
and the wind returneth again
according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it:
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1: 3-9).
The poetry is beautiful but there is no profit in it. Human beings come and go. The human mind cannot gain sufficient knowledge of the world to understand its workings or to change it in any significant way. The world is as frustrating as it is beautiful. The more one knows, the more one is convinced of one’s transience:
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1: 18)
Qohelet realizes that life can nevertheless be enjoyable.
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2: 24)
This is the old man’s version of the Andrew Marvel’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The sentiment is perhaps as old as poetry. The Roman poet Catullus in the 1st Century BCE also wrote how the sun arises after it goes down but man does not:
soles occidere et redire possunt; nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux nox est perpetua una dormienda. da mi basia mille, deinde centum
The Sunne may set and rise
But we contrariwise
Sleepe after our short light
One everlasting night.
Raleigh does not translate the continuation of the poem wherein Catullus goes on to request a compensatory thousand kisses from his lover Lesbia.
Qohelet has been considering the passage of time. The word used for time in Ecclesiastes – eth (עת) – generally refers to a moment of time. The other Hebrew word for time is olam (עולם) which takes all of time into account and is usually translated as “for ever” (as in Ecclesiastes 1:4). In the first chapter Qohelet contrasted world time with human time.
In Chapter 3, he considers a different aspect of time. God has ensured that events occur at their appropriate time. Eternity has been arranged in its proper sequence.
To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up
that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
Ben Shahn (1971) portrays the essence of these lines with a wheat field at harvest time:
These verses can be interpreted in two main ways. The first proposes that time has been pre-ordained to work out the purposes of God, that we cannot change these things, and that we should be resigned to what happens. Everything is for the best. The other interpretation uses these words to justify one’s actions. Martin Luther quoted these verses when the time had come to speak out against the Catholic Church (Christianson, 2007, p 166). Thus are human actions divinely justified. Luther believed in predestination. He spoke out not by choice but because he had no choice: he could not do otherwise.
These verses were set to music by the folksinger Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. His lyrics directly quote the King James Version using the first verse with the addition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as the refrain. After “a time of peace” Seeger added “I swear it’s not too late.” The song became an anthem of the peace movement. The following is an excerpt:
Qohelet recognizes the beauty of God’s time. Yet he is frustrated that he can never understand it:
I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
(Ecclesiastes 3: 14-15)
This idea of time as divinely ordered but incomprehensible to the human mind pervades T. S. Eliots’ Burnt Norton (1935) which begins:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Qohelet goes on to state that since we cannot understand we are no different from other animals. We live, we die.
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
These statements go against all previous Jewish teachings. Qohelet’s book
amounts to a denial of divine revelation, and of the belief that man was created as an almost divine being, to care for and exercise dominion over the other creatures and all the works of God’s hands. … In the final analysis man is like the animals rather than superior to them (Scott, 1965, p. 205)
Johannes Brahms was devastated when his friend Clara Schumann suffered a stroke in 1895 and was close to death. During this time, he composed his Four Serious Songs Opus 121. The first song is uses Luther’s translation of Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22. The following is the beginning (up to wird wieder zu Staub “turn to dust again”) as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:
Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh; wie dies stirbt, so stirbt er auch; und haben alle einerlei Odem;und der Mensch hat nichts mehr denn das Vieh: denn es ist alles eitel.
Es fährt alles an einen Ort; es ist alles von Staub gemacht, und wird wieder zu Staub.
This first song is desolate – we die like beasts, our life is empty, we are made of dust. The later songs in the series progress from deep sadness to quiet resignation. The final song sets verses from the New Testament, among them
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Corinthians 13:12)
Brahms called his songs “serious” (ernst) rather than “sacred.” This is a fitting description of the book Ecclesiastes.
After considering the inevitability of death, Qohelet turns to evaluate the course of human life. He finds that success does not necessarily reward those who most deserve it:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
A brief adaptation of this verse was included in the posthumously published Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence (1932). The poem Race and Battle is notable for its image of the “streaked pansy of the heart” which recalls the title of his earlier book Pansies, itself a pun on Pascal’s Pensées. Lawrence attempts to explain how to accept that life may be unfair and preserve a personal sense of justice.
The race is not to the swift
but to those that can sit still
and let the waves go over them.
The battle is not to the strong
but to the frail, who know best
how to efface themselves
to save the streaked pansy of the heart from
being trampled to mud.
Lawrence’s poem adds to Qohelet’s resignation some of the later teachings of Jesus – Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Matthew 5: 5,8).
Qohelet’s search for wisdom has led him to dismay. Death is inevitable and unpredictable. Life is without justice. Nevertheless, Qohelet urges us to enjoy our life:
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
White clothes are worn for festive occasions. Their whiteness contrasts with the black of mourning. Anointing one’s hair with oil is another sign of gladness. Yet the most important of Qohelet’s injunctions is to work at whatever needs to be done.
Qohelet’s advice is related to the philosophies of Epicurus (341-270 BCE) in its enjoyment of life and of the stoic Zeno (334-262 BCE) in its promotion of right action. If, as most scholars now believe, Qohelet wrote in the 3rd Century BCE, he could have been influenced by such Greek philosophies. He certainly based his search for truth on reason rather than on revelation. Yet his philosophy is his own. It is religious rather than materialist.
Scott (1965, p 206) summarizes Qohelet’s reasoning:
Thus the good of life is in the living of it. The profit of work is in the doing of it, not in any profit or residue which a man can exhibit as his achievement or pass on to his descendants. The fruit of wisdom is not the accumulation of all knowledge and the understanding of all mysteries. It lies rather in recognizing the limitations of human knowledge and power. Man is not the measure of all things. He is the master neither of life nor of death. He can find serenity only in coming to terms with the unalterable conditions of his existence, and in enjoying its real but limited satisfactions.
Ben Shahn presents the thoughts of Qohelet as balanced between his inability to understand and his realization that life can nevertheless be enjoyed:
Qohelet has much in common with the existentialism of the 20th Century. Albert Camus remarks in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942):
Je ne sais pas si ce monde a un sens qui le dépasse. Mais je sais que je ne connais pas ce sens et qu’il m’est impossible pour le moment de le connaître. [I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot grasp that meaning and that it is impossible now for me to grasp it.]
Camus is much more tentative than Qohelet in his conclusion that we should nevertheless enjoy our life. He retells the myth of Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods because he had tried to cheat death. He was made to roll an immense boulder up to the summit of a mountain, but every time he reached the top, the rock would roll back down and Sisyphus would have to begin his task again.
La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme; il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux. [The very struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. ]
Bread upon the Waters
Qohelet presents us with multiple proverbial injunctions about how one should live one’s life. Perhaps the most quoted of these is:
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 1-2)
The verses have been interpreted in many ways. Merchants have considered them in terms of overseas trade. Christians have proposed that it means to spread the teachings of Christ throughout the world. This idea derives from Christ’s statement that he was the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Qohelet had neither of these ideas in mind. He was encouraging us to be generous, to provide for our fellows. He was suggesting that such human charity could compensate for life’s injustice.
In his own old age, the wise Richard Wilbur (2010) wrote a poem about these verses
We must cast our bread
Upon the waters, as the
Ancient preacher said,
Trusting that it may
Amply be restored to us After many a day.
That old metaphor,
Drawn from rice farming on the
River’s flooded shore,
Helps us to believe
That it’s no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.
Therefore I shall throw
Broken bread, this sullen day,
Out across the snow,
Betting crust and crumb
That birds will gather, and that
One more spring will come.
Light and Dark
Qohelet reminds us that life brings both enjoyment and dismay. The verses are illustrated by Ben Shahn on the left.
Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 7-8)
The last chapter of Ecclesiastes contains its most famous poetry. Qohelet, who has become old and wise, advises his youthful followers. He tells them to rejoice in their youth for life is beautiful. Yet they must always bear in mind that they must grow old and die:
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
while the evil days come not,
nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say,
I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon,
or the stars, be not darkened,
nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8)
Qohelet refers to God as the Creator (borador, בוראיך). This is the only time he uses this term; elsewhere he uses Elohim (אלהים). Qohelet is here invoking Genesis: we must view the end of an individual life in relation to the beginning of all life. Some commentators (Rashi; Scott, 1965, p. 255) have remarked on the relations of this word to bor (בור) which occurs in the 7th verse. This means “pit,” in the sense of either a “grave” or a “cistern.” This verbal association also brings the end of life back to its source.
The poem is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. The initial verse of the poem clearly states that it is concerned with human mortality. Yet how the images relate to old age and death is as uncertain as the breath that ceases. And the poem ends on the words that began the book – all is vanity, merest breath.
A literal interpretation is that the poem describes a village or estate in mourning for a once-great person lately fallen on hard times. Perhaps Qohelet is foreseeing his own death. The windows of the house are darkened, the mill is quiet as the workers remember their late master, the mourners go about the streets, and finally dust is scattered over the body as it is buried.
A long tradition has provided allegorical interpretations of the images, relating them to the physical and mental decline that attends old age. The underlying idea is that the aging body is like a house in decay. For example, the commentary of the 11th-century Jewish rabbi Rashi suggests
the keepers of the house: These are the ribs and the flanks, which protect the entire body cavity
the mighty men: These are the legs, upon which the body supports itself
and the grinders cease: These are the teeth
since they have become few: In old age, most of his teeth fall out
and those who look out of the windows: These are the eyes.
And the doors shall be shut:These are his orifices.
when the sound of the mill is low:the sound of the mill grinding the food in his intestines, and that is the stomach
The problem with such specific allegories is that different commentators provide different meanings. Do the doors that shut denote the eyelids or the lips?
Other interpretations are more abstract. Does the pitcher broken at the fountain represent the bladder or the loss of the life force? Is the silver cord the spinal column or the genealogical tree that ends at the death of a person with no heirs?
Some Hebrew interpretations consider these verses as representing the desolation of Israel following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The image of the golden bowl might then represent the broken lamp that no longer lit the sanctuary.
Some Christian interpretations see the imagery as a vision of the end times that will precede the final judgment. This fits with the epilogue that follows the poem.
No single interpretation conveys the sense of the poem. All meanings overlap. The poem is better listened to than imagined. The following is by the YouTube reader who goes by the name of Tom O’Bedlam
The book concludes with an epilogue that many take to be the words of a later editor. However, it rings true to Qohelet:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
(Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14)
Why else should one remember one’s Creator? Why else should one bear in mind one’s ultimate old age and death? The sentiment is similar to Marcus Aurelius (167 CE):
Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.
Qohelet is also proposing that to be good is to be truly human – “the whole duty of man.” Any judgment of us as human beings must rest on whether we have done good or ill. Qohelet’s instruction derives from man as much as from God.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
sovf dabar hakkol nishma eth ha’elohim yera eth mitzvotav shemovr ki zeh kol ha’adam.
Alter, R. (2010). The wisdom books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes : a translation with commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Bartholomew, C. G. (2009). Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Bundvad, M. (2015). Time in the book of Ecclesiastes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Christianson, E. S. (2007). Ecclesiastes through the centuries. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Lawrence, D. H. (Edited by Aldington, R., & Orioli, G., 1932). Last poems. Florence: Orioli.
Lessing, D. (1998). Introduction. In Ecclesiastes or, the preacher: Authorised King James version. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Scott, R. B. Y. (1965). Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. (Anchor Bible Volume 18). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Shahn, B. (1971). Ecclesiastes: Or, the preacher. New York: Grossman.
Wilbur, R. (2010). Anterooms: New poems and translations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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.
The Saddest Story
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” So begins Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. The narrator, John Dowell, and his wife Florence were rich Americans, living in Europe. They spent their summers at the spa town of Bad Nauheim, Germany, where Florence underwent therapy for her heart condition. In 1904, the Dowells had met an English couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, at the spa. In the following summers, the two couples continued to meet there:
We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy – or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them (p. 11).
The narrator immediately triggers our interest. He also alerts us that he may not completely understand the story he is about to tell us. Why is it the saddest story he has ever heard? Who told it to him? We shall quickly find out that he was one of the main characters in the story. He directly experienced most of its events, but was apparently quite unaware of their causes. His understanding was pieced together later from what others told him, and may not be correct. We may have to figure out what happened for ourselves.
This posting considers the story and its context. It describes the complex relationship between two couples in Europe in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I. It shows a way of life that was falling apart, and a world wherein one was no longer governed by any general morality, but simply sought what one desired.
A brief summary of the plot of The Good Soldier, arranged chronologically rather than in the order of John Dowell’s narration, follows. This outline is far simpler than the actual plot, but it will provide some hooks on which to hang my comments.
1892: Edward Ashburnham, a landed English gentleman, marries Leonora Powys, an Irish Catholic. Their marriage turns out to be unhappy, and Edward, according to Leonora, has affairs with other women, some involving much loss of money. In order to improve their financial situation, the Ashburnhams rent out the family home, and go to India where Edward takes up a commission with the British Army.
1900: John Dowell, a rich American, marries Florence Hurlbird, and takes her to Europe for their honeymoon. During the voyage across the Atlantic, Florence suffers a crisis of the heart during a violent storm. Her physicians forbid any further sea voyage and any sexual relations with her husband. The Dowells wander through Europe, spending their summers at Bad Nauheim, where Florence is treated for her heart condition. The following is a postcard from Bad Nauheim from around 1914:
1904: Edward’s affairs have continued, the most recent of which has involved Maisie Maidan, a young woman with a heart problem, and the wife of one of Edward’s fellow-officers. The Ashburnhams come to Bad Nauheim for treatment of Edward’s “heart” disease, and bring Maisie with them. The Dowells and the Ashburnhams meet at the spa. Soon after their meeting they visit the nearby town of Marburg which has significant associations to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. During the visit Florence flirts with Edward, and upsets Leonora by insulting the Irish Catholics. On their return to Bad Nauheim, they find that Maisie has died of a heart attack. .
Summer 1913: The two couples have been meeting in Bad Nauheim each summer for 9 years. This year Nancy Rufford, the 21-year old ward of the Ashburnhams, has joined them. Edward appears to be falling in love with Nancy and accompanies her to an evening concert in the spa grounds. Florence later goes to join them. She returns very upset, goes to her room, and dies, apparently of a heart attack.
Autumn 1913: John Dowell inherits a great deal of money from the Hurlbird family. He is invited to visit the Ashburnhams in England. Leonora informs him that Florence’s death was a suicide. For years she had been carrying on an affair with Edward without John being aware. On the night of her death, unobserved by Edward or Nancy, Florence had heard Edward tell Nancy that she was the person he cared most for in the world. She was devastated to realize that her affair with Edward was over.
End of 1913: Edward has become unhappily and madly in love with Nancy. He is starting to behave irrationally. Leonora decides that Nancy should sleep with her husband to save his sanity. Nancy comes to Edward’s bedroom but he rejects her. He decides to send Nancy away to India to be with her father, but hopes that she will remain in love with him. Edward bids farewell to Nancy at the train station without betraying any emotion. A few days later, Nancy sends a telegram from Brindisi in Italy, where she is about to board the steamer to India, saying that she is having a wonderful time. Edward believes that she no longer loves him and commits suicide. Nancy hears of his suicide and goes mad.
1914: Leonora marries again. John Dowell buys the Ashburnham home. He goes to India and brings Nancy back. She remains insane.
The Passionate Author
Photograph of Ford Madox Hueffer by E. O. Hoppe, 1912
The story of the novel is complexly intertwined with the life of its author (Saunders, 1996). Ford was born in 1873 as Ford Hueffer. His maternal grandfather was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. After his father, the German-born music critic for the London Times, died in 1889, Ford left school without going on to university and became a writer. One of his early books was a biography of his grandfather. Ford collaborated with Joseph Conrad, wrote reviews and published many novels, the most popular of which were the three books about Catherine Howard and Henry VIII, The Fifth Queen.
Ford had eloped with Elsie Martindale, a school classmate, in 1894. After several years, their marriage became unhappy, and Ford apparently began to have affairs with other women. One of his affairs in the early years of the new century may have been with Elsie’s younger sister, Mary, who was far more vivacious than his serious wife. Succumbing to these family tensions, Ford went to Germany for treatment at various spas for depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. He later recalled
The illness was purely imaginary; that made it none the better. It was enhanced by wickedly unskilful doctoring. … But the memory of those years is of one uninterrupted mental agony (Ford, 1932, p. 261).
In 1908 Ford founded the English Review, a literary journal which published work by various established authors with whom he had become acquainted – Hardy, Conrad, Galsworthy, James – and supported the early careers of Joyce, Pound, and Lawrence. His colleague in this endeavor was Arthur Marwood. The finances of the review were precarious, and Ford was forced to sell it in 1909. In addition to the monetary problems, Marwood had apparently made improper advances to Elsie, and Ford could no longer trust him.
In 1908 Ford began an overt affair with the novelist Violet Hunt, which lasted until the war. Elsie refused to give him a divorce. In 1910 Ford went to Germany to obtain German citizenship on the basis of his father’s birth, and then to arrange a German divorce. Although this plan did not work out, Ford returned to England and introduced Violet as Mrs. Hueffer. Elsie sued and Ford was briefly imprisoned in 1911 for bigamy.
Ford published The Good Soldier in 1915. He subsequently served in the British army in France, an experience which later led to the Parade’s End sequence of novels (1924-1928). After the war, Ford became involved with the artist Stella Bowen. He changed his name to Ford Maddox Ford in 1919. One reason was that he disliked the German name. Another was perhaps that he could live together with Stella under the new name. A new edition of The Good Soldier published in 1927 was dedicated to Stella Ford.
Ford was a man who easily became passionately involved with women. In The Good Soldier, John Dowell remarks
… the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported. For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.
So, for a time, if such a passion come to fruition, the man will get what he wants. He will get the moral support, the encouragement, the relief from the sense of loneliness, the assurance of his own worth. But these things pass away; inevitably they pass away as the shadows pass across sundials. It is sad, but it is so. (pp.92-93)
An Unreliable Narrator
John Dowell’s telling of the story is like that of someone recalling the past, often digressing to explain the background of some person or event, often going back over what he has already described but from a different perspective. It is remarkably similar to the way in which Ford wrote Return to Yesterday, his 1932 set of autobiographical essays. His essay on Some Cures begins with the different therapies he underwent for his agoraphobia, but soon digresses to recall breakfasts with John Galsworthy, the humane way to slaughter pigs, and an anecdote about Émile Zola in London.
Ford called his approach to a story-telling “Impressionism,” describing the technique in two issues of Poetry and Drama, published in 1914 (and reprinted in the 2010 Oxford edition of the The Good Soldier). The idea was to intrigue the reader:
For the first business of Impressionism is to produce an impression, and the only way in literature to produce an impression is to awaken interest. And, in a sustained argument, you can only keep interest awakened by keeping alive, by whatever means you may have at your disposal, the surprise of your reader. You must state your argument; you must illustrate it, and then you must stick in something that appears to have nothing whatever to do with either subject or illustration, so that the reader will exclaim: ‘What the devil is the fellow driving at?’ And then you must go on in the same way – arguing, illustrating and startling and arguing, startling and illustrating – until at the very end your contentions will appear like a ravelled skein. And then, in the last few lines, you will draw towards you the master string of that seeming confusion, and the whole pattern of the carpet, the whole design of the net-work will be apparent. (p. 208)
Though Ford called his technique “Impressionism,” the only thing it really shares with painterly Impressionism is the idea that “A picture should come out of its frame and seize the spectator.” Ford’s approach is essentially Modernist and is more related to Cubism, which was developing at that time in the visual arts. This technique fits very well with cinematic adaptation, where flashbacks, rapid cuts, and shifting perspectives are natural (Harris, 2015). The BBC adaptation of the novel (Billington, 1981) is surprisingly effective.
However, John Dowell’s digressive approach to the story is not his most striking aspect as a narrator. Much of what his tells us is second-hand, pieced together from what others told him. He, himself, is remarkably lacking in perception. We have very right therefore to doubt his interpretation of the events. He is an “unreliable narrator” (Booth, 1961, pp. 155-159). Such a narrator considers the story from a perspective that differs from that of the actual author. Unreliable narrators come in all sorts: some are simply unaware, others are deceptive (Kermode, 1974; Segal, 2015). The reader is left with uncertainty: we must make up our own minds about what happened and why, and we shall never know for sure. The unreliable narrator emphasizes our epistemological uncertainty (Hynes, 1961). Even though we may be fairly confident about the external world, we can never know what is going on in the mind of another. “I don’t know” recurs like a refrain throughout the book.
The central event of the book is the death of Florence, who had gone to bring Edward and Nancy back from the concert in the park. According to her husband, she was upset to hear that Edward considered Nancy, and not herself, the person that he loved most in the world. The cover of the first edition of the book illustrated this episode (right). John Dowell’s description is
Anyhow, there you have the picture, the immensely tall trees, elms most of them, towering and feathering away up into the black mistiness that trees seem to gather about them at night; the silhouettes of those two upon the seat; the beams of light coming from the Casino, the woman all in black peeping with fear behind the tree-trunk. It is melodrama; but I can’t help it. (pp. 89-90)
Yet John Dowell was not there. He only heard about what Edward told Nancy several months later from Edward. He did not know what happened. He only heard several months later from Leonora that Florence had been carrying on an affair with Edward for the preceding nine years. He initially had another explanation for why Florence was upset: that she saw her husband with a man named “Bagshawe,” who was telling him about Florence’s other sexual affairs with a person known as “Jimmy.”
John concluded that Florence’s intense anxiety brought on a heart attack. She was found dead in her room with a bottle of amyl nitrate heart medication in her hand. Later he came to believe that she did not have a heart problem, and supposes that she actually took prussic acid. This poison was known to Ford. His father-in-law, William Martindale, had committed suicide in this manner. During the dark years of his depression, Ford himself carried around a bottle of prussic acid. Supposedly his affair with Violet Hunt began in 1908 when she took away his bottle and suggested that he try “the old traditional way of comfort” (Saunders, 1996, p. 285; Abdalla, 2015).
However, we may question John’s account of Florence’s death. Florence’s uncle had recently died and left her a large amount of money. This was likely why she was dressed in mourning, and therefore unobserved by either Nancy or Edward on the night of the concert. After Florence’s death, Florence’s personal money and the inheritance from her uncle all came to John. John’s description of these bequests (pp. 152-4) comes long after the description of his wife’s death. Florence’s uncle wished that a significant part of his money be used to found an institute for patients with heart disorders. John describes the legal confusion about this part of the will. Despite his claim that he does not need the money, it seems clear that none of it will ever go to any such institute.
Was the death of Florence something other than suicide? Was it murder? There was motive enough – John stood to gain immensely from her death. Poole (1990) has interpreted the story of The Good Soldier along these lines. Nothing is for sure. In an interesting aside John Dowell remarks
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair – a long, sad affair – one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real. (p. 154)
Here John Dowell is using the techniques of literary Impressionism. Perhaps he is lapsing into the persona of the novel’s author Ford Madox Ford. Or perhaps what he is telling us is actually a work of fiction, a story to excuse and cover up what actually happened.
Life at the Spa
At the turn of the 20th century it was fashionable for the rich to spend time in the spa towns of Europe, undergoing various kinds of therapy for various ailments, both real and imaginary. Water therapy has a long history (Mihina & Anderson, 2010; van Tubergen & van der Linden, 2002). In Europe many towns with access to natural springs developed spas, the term coming from the town of Spa in Belgium, which had been famous for its curative waters as far back as the Middle Ages.
Much of the story of The Good Soldier takes place at the spa town of Bad Nauheim. Ford stayed there with Violet Hunt in August 1910. The spa in Bad Nauheim underwent a striking Jugendstil renovation between 1901 and 1911. The following photographs are from a recent album.
The actual therapeutic effectiveness of spa therapy is controversial. Although it can improve a patient’s feeling of wellbeing, spa therapy likely does not change the underlying disease process (e.g. Verhagen et al., 2015). The spa may be a source of rest and relaxation, but it is not a place for cure or care.
Spas are perhaps symptomatic of a decadent society, wherein the rich waste their time in pampered luxury. Times have changed. Unfortunately, we still have the idle rich and we still have spas.
Something evil in the day.
Soon after they meet, the Dowells and the Ashburnhams go on a day-trip to Marburg, a small town not far from Bad Nauheim. The town’s picturesque castle is illustrated in the following postcard from 1909:
Marburg Castle was the site of a 1529 meeting between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. The purpose was to develop a unified set of principles for the new Protestant belief. Unfortunately they could not agree on the nature of the Eucharist. They both disagreed with the Roman Catholics position that the bread and wine served during the celebration of the Holy Supper actually became the body and blood of Christ: the outer attributes remained the same but the inner substances changed – “transubstantiation.” However, they could not agree on a new beleif. Zwingli and the Calvinists believed that the Eucharist was symbolic and that the bread and wine did not change. Luther believed in “consubstantiation” – that the consecrated bread and wine were both bread and wine and body and blood of Christ. Documents at Marburg Castle describe this major disagreement at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. .
The term “Protestant” comes from another document. After the 1521 Edict of Worms had condemned Luther’s ideas as heretical (as covered in my previous posting Here I Stand), another congress published the First Edict of Speyer in 1526, which granted the member states of the Holy Roman Empire some freedom in their choice of belief. A Second Edict of Speyer revoked this freedom in 1529. Various princes and leaders in the Empire quickly issued the Protest at Speyer objecting to this second edict. This Protest maintained the right of the princes and their subjects to determine the way in which they practised their religion, and asserted that Christian belief should derive solely from the scriptures. This all sounds very idealistic, but the protest goes on to affirm the edict’s condemnation of Anabaptists as heretical and urges that they be brought to trial and executed.
The Protest at Speyer may have led to the name “Protestant,” but it does not really establish the core beliefs of Protestantism. For Lutherans, these were enshrined in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. Over succeeding years, other Protestant factions each wrote their own Articles of Belief.
If anything, the Colloquy of Marburg demonstrated clearly that there was to be no unity in belief. The legacy of the Reformation was one of strife. Against the Roman Church and ultimately among themselves.
During the visit to Marburg Castle, Florence Dowell is acting as tour guide. She gets her history wrong but she is enthusiastic. She points to a documents from the Colloquy of Marburg:
She continued, looking up into Captain Ashburnham’s eyes: “It’s because of that piece of paper that you’re honest, sober, industrious, provident, and clean-lived. If it weren’t for that piece of paper you’d be like the Irish or the Italians or the Poles, but particularly the Irish. . . .”
And she laid one finger upon Captain Ashburnham’ s wrist.
I was aware of something treacherous, something frightful, something evil in the day. I can’t define it and can’t find a simile for it. It wasn’t as if a snake had looked out of a hole. No, it was as if my heart had missed a beat. It was as if we were going to run and cry out; all four of us in separate directions, averting our heads. In Ashburnham’s face I know that there was absolute panic. I was horribly frightened and then I discovered that the pain in my left wrist was caused by Leonora’s clutching it. (p 40).
What was the evil? Leonora runs out of the castle with John. She asks him why he does not see what is going on. Later John would understand that this was the beginning of Florence’s affair with Edward, but at the time he was completely unaware. Leonora realizes John’s naiveté, and claims that she felt insulted because she is Irish-Catholic. John is relieved – this can easily be solved by an apology.
Perhaps, the evil that John sensed was the complete breakdown of society’s codes of sexual morality. Green (1981) says that The Good Soldier portrays “a bitter, nostalgic vision of a world in which a sense of responsibility has been whittled down to a façade of respectability” (p 94), “a world whose only certainty is its lack of moral architecture’ (p 102). John wonders
Is the whole thing a folly and a mockery? Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man – the man with the right to existence – a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbour’s womankind?
I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness. (pp 16-17).
But surely this was not the evil that was felt on that afternoon in Marburg? The reader senses some deeper moral horror, something worse than the shocking sexual goings-on, worse even than murder, if that was indeed the cause of the deaths of Maisie on that very day, and of Florence nine years later.
Protestantism may have played a role in this meaninglessness. Perhaps the Protestant Reformation had fostered individual ambition at the expense of the general good. Ford enjoyed the easy Catholicism of Southern Germany, and hated the striving Protestantism of the Prussian North (Preece, 2015). A year after the Marburg visit, the authoritarian Prussians would precipitate the First World War.
This then is perhaps the real evil that we sense. This is why everything seems to happen on August 4th: Florence’s birthday, her elopement with John Dowell, the meeting between the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, and the visit to Nauheim. Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, when Germany rejected an ultimatum to remove its troops from Belgium.
World War I was the horror lurking under what happened at Bad Nauheim and Marburg. Society danced its way through sexual desire and monetary greed. It focused on its own imaginary ailments and paid no attention to what was happening in the world. Society was oblivious: death was in the air and no one noticed. Within five years 18 million people would be killed.
Editions of The Good Soldier (page references are to the Oxford 2010 edition).
Hueffer, F. M. (1915) The good soldier: A tale of passion. Oxford: Robert Lane (Bodley Head).
Ford, F. M., (edited and introduced by Stannard, M., 1995/2012). The good soldier. Authoritative text. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
Ford, F. M (introduced and annotated by Kermode, F., 2005).The good soldier. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Ford, F. M (edited and introduced by Saunders, M., 2012).The good soldier: A tale of passion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Abdalla, V. (2015). The Good Soldier: A tale of poison. Lethal little bottles in the work of Ford Madox Ford and Violet Hunt. In Saunders, M., & Haslam, S. (Eds) Ford Madox Ford’s The good soldier: Centenary essays. (pp. 197-212). Leiden: Brill Rodopi.
Billington, K. (Dir) (1981/2007). The good soldier [DVD]. Silver Spring, MD: Acorn Media
Booth, W. C. (1967). The rhetoric of fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ford, F. M. (1932). Return to yesterday. New York: Liveright.
Green, R. (1981). Ford Madox Ford: Prose and politics. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.
Harris, J. (2015). Screening The Good Soldier. In Saunders, M., & In Haslam, S. (Eds). Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: Centenary essays. (pp. 103-116). Leiden: Brill Rodopi.
Hynes, S. (1961). The epistemology of “The Good Soldier.” Sewanee Review, 69, 225-235.
Kermode, F. (1974). Novels: recognition and deception. Critical Inquiry, 1, 103-121.
Mihina, A. L. & Anderson, S. K. (2010). Natural spa and hydrotherapy. Theory and practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Poole, R. (1990). The real plot line of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: an essay in applied deconstruction. Textual Practice, 4, 391-427.
Preece, J. (2015). Anglo-German dilemmas in The Good Soldier, or Europe on the brink in 1913. In Saunders, M., & Haslam, S. (Eds) Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: Centenary essays. (pp. 223-239). Leiden: Brill Rodopi.
Saunders, M. (1996). Ford Madox Ford: A dual life. Volume 1. The world before the war. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Segal, E. (2015). The Good Soldier and the problem of compositional (un)reliability. In Saunders, M., & Haslam, S. (Eds) Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: Centenary essays. (pp. 64-77). Leiden: Brill Rodopi.
van Tubergen, A., & van der Linden, S. (2002). A brief history of spa therapy. Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, 61, 273–275.
Verhagen, A.P., Bierma-Zeinstra, S.M., Boers, M., Cardoso, J.R., Lambeck, J., De Bie, R., & De Vet, H.C. (2025). Balneotherapy (or spa therapy) for rheumatoid arthritis. An abridged version of Cochrane Systematic Review. European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, 51, 833-47.
Over the past two months I presented a course on the Human Brain to students in the LIFE (‘Learning is Forever’) Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto. The course was designed for the senior layperson. It introduced the basic anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, and described the various disorders that can affect the elderly human brain.
The course was given at a second-year university level. Some of the material may have been more than the students needed to know, but most were able to follow the main points of the talks, and some were fascinated by the details.
The presentations were supplemented with extensive teaching materials – slides, notes, movies, etc. Many of the illustrations were adapted or created specifically for the course. I am now making these generally available through the page entitled Human Brain on my website.
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.
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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.
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Lindsay, R. A. (2009). Oregon’s experience: evaluating the record. American Journal of Bioethics, 9, 19–27.
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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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