14 January 2010

Family of Values: Humanity

Sometimes it seems there is nothing one can do but weep. Or hope

One of the most brilliant men who ever lived, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), once wrote (in Latin, of course):
"Now this supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best. For as a lesser evil is a kind of good, even so a lesser good is a kind of evil if it stands in the way of a greater good; and there would be something to correct in the actions of God if it were possible to do better. As in mathematics, when there is no maximum nor minimum, in short nothing distinguished, everything is done equally, or when that is not possible nothing at all is done: so it may be said likewise in respect of perfect wisdom, which is no less orderly than mathematics, that if there were not the best (optimum) among all possible worlds, God would not have produced any. I call 'World' the whole succession and the whole agglomeration of all existent things, lest it be said that several worlds could have existed in different times and different places. For they must needs be reckoned all together as one world or, if you will, as one Universe. And even though one should fill all times and all places, it still remains true that one might have filled them in innumerable ways, and that there is an infinitude of possible worlds among which God must needs have chosen the best, since he does nothing without acting in accordance with supreme reason." Theodicy

A 'theodicy' is a treatise on the goodness of god (or providence or fate) in the face of evil in the world. Leibniz believed that three spatial dimensions plus one of space/time made for the best of possible worlds for the flourishing of human life and moral goodness.

Some years later, another brilliant man, Voltaire, upon witnessing the utter destruction of Lisbon, Portugal by an earthquake and tsunami on November 1, 1755 (All Saints' Day), wrote a deeply humane poem and a satiric novel about the impact of the disaster on the Panglossian optimism expressed in the works of philosophers and theologians of the time such as Leibniz.

In the latter work, Candide, Dr. Pangloss the philosopher says of the earthquake's devastation: "'For all this,' said he, 'is a manifestation of the rightness of things, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon it could not be anywhere else. For it is impossible for things not to be where they are, because everything is for the best.'"

In the poem, Voltaire says:
"Will you say, "It is the effect of everlasting laws
Which necessitates this choice by a free and good God"?
Will you say, seeing this heap of victims:
"God is avenged, their death is the payment of their crimes"?
What crimes, what bad things have been committed by these
Lying on the breasts of their mothers, flattened and bloody?
Lisbon, which is a city no longer, had it more vices
Than London, than Paris, given to doubtful delights?
If the eternal law which moves elemental things
Makes rocks fall, by the efforts of great winds,
If thickly growing oaks are burned by lightning—
They do not feel the blows which bring them down,
But I live; but I feel; but my heart, deeply hurt,
Asks for help from the God who made it exist.
What eye may see into his deep designs?
From a Being all perfect, evil cannot come to be.
It does not come from another, since God alone is master.
Yet, evil exists. O sad truths!
O astonishing mingling of contrarieties!
A God came to console our afflicted race;
He visited the earth, and has not changed it.
Whatever opinion one has, one should shudder, no doubt.
There is nothing one knows, and nothing one does not question.
Nature is mute, she is questioned in vain.
There is need of a God who talks to humanity.
It is for him only to explain his work,
To console the weak, make the wise person clear.
What can then do, the mind of largest range?
Nothing. The book of fate closes itself before our eyes.
Man, a stranger to himself, by man is not known.
What am I, where am I, where do I go, and from what do I come?
Atoms tormented on this mass of mud,
Whom death engulfs and with whom fate plays—
But thinking atoms, atoms whose eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the skies.
From the very midst of the infinite, our lives go forth,
Without our being able, one moment, to see ourselves or know
A caliph once, at his last hour,
To the God whom he adored, said, for all prayer:
"I carry to you, O Only King, Only Unlimited Being,
All that which you don't have in your immensity—
Deficiencies, regrets, evils and ignorance."
But he might, also, have added: Hope.
What is needed, O mortals? Mortals, it is needed that we suffer,
Submit ourselves silently, adore, and die.
O God, give us a Revelation that we should be humane and

From Hail, American Development (Definition Press)
© 1968 by Eli Siegel

As Theodor Adorno wrote, "[t]he earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz" (Negative Dialectics 361).

Scholars debate whether Voltaire deliberately misinterpreted Leibniz's metaphysical point to make a humanitarian case. Notwithstanding, the Leibnizian view, at base, counsels passivity and optimism in the face of an ultimately benign reality (call it Fate, Providence, God—whatever) in which everything that happens is for the best ("God's will"); and even though this is a fallen world, it will be followed on by a better one in the hereafter.


January 12, 2010, saw an equally destructive earthquake strike Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As of this writing, the extent of the destruction is unknown. What is known is that it was devastating in the extreme: untold thousands have died and even more are injured; entire sections of the city are in rubble; hospitals have been flattened; there is no food, water, or electricity; sanitary conditions are only going to worsen.

It only makes sense at times like these to ask: why? The reality is that Port-au-Prince, a poor, populous city, sits right on top of an active fault line where the Caribbean plate and the North American plate collide. The underground friction as these two tectonic plates shift has been building up for nearly two centuries, and the unleashing of this pent-up force caused the ground under the city to shake. Population growth and unregulated or even absent building codes and urban planning has resulted in overcrowding. Extreme poverty has resulted in poor or even non-existent infrastructure. Accordingly, the city collapsed. Such things happen in this world. The causes are evident.

Is this evil?

No. The Leibnizian/Voltairean debate over whether such could have been the will of some distant creator god or tolerated by some god-who-is-with-us-in-spirit-only or the punitive action of a retributive deity or the work of some evil demon is arcane. Passe. It explains nothing, salves no wounds. However, it excuses heedlessness and cruelty—inhumanity: Why help them since God has seen fit to punish them, or because this was their fate?

[I will not link to the "utterly stupid" remarks of certain public figures—a rancid television preacher and a belching, radio fat-cat gas bag who have been America's first responders in this vein. If you read this blog, you know who they are.]

Natural events are not, in themselves, evil. They are a condition of the planet upon which we live. A fact of life on planet Earth. Inhumanity, insensitivity, cruelty, on the other hand: these are true evils.

No one deserves such a disastrous fate—not poor people, nor black people, nor former slaves, nor French-speaking people; not people whose homes happen to sit on a fault line, nor even folk who have been victimized and impoverished by a corrupt oligarchy and colonial/neo-colonial exploitation. No one. Not even folks whose ancestors might have made a "pact to the devil" (to quote the aforementioned American religionist whose views are truly evil).

Real human beings in Haiti are in desperate need of medical assistance and basic food and water and shelter and sanitation. And here's where we see the true good in humanity. Here is where there is hope for us all. Individuals, non-governmental organizations, churches, nations, even international bodies have mobilized unbelievably quickly to do what they can to help with the almost unimaginable suffering in Haiti. Bless them all. Thank them all. Contribute, if you can. Here. Or here. Or participate however and wherever your conscience leads. But contribute. It is a way we all can participate in this great work of true humanity, this moment of true goodness.

When one person suffers, we all suffer. Now, millions (literally millions) are suffering. It is going to take a massive, long-term humanitarian effort to make even a dent in it. Yet, it is happening before our eyes. Humanity, for a moment, is uniting to come to the aid of suffering humanity. Those who would exploit this calamity for their own profit or political or personal gain are the ones who bring evil into this world.

The real question is: why does it take an event of such enormity to bring out the good in us all (minus, of course, a few ignorant and insensitive, dare I say evil, louts)? Why isn't alleviating poverty and human suffering our abiding task?
O God, give us a Revelation that we should be humane and

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