Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Noga's Note:


Dante, in his descent into the Inferno, reserves his worst, hottest circles for the fraudulent, those who act against their fellow-human beings out of malice and by doing so, work at loosening the very bonds of trust that attach one human being to another, trust being the glue that keeps societies, communities, families and friends, coherent, functioning and benevolent. So in Dante’s Hell, those who gnaw at these bonds, like panderers, flatterers, hypocrites and falsifiers, are considered worthy of the choicest punishments.

Paul Ricoeur, Dante’s junior by some 9 centuries, shares with him one or two biographical traits: They were both brought up Catholic, they are both on a quest for clarity and disambiguation when it comes to the good way in which societie sought to function, and that makes them both, inevitably, interested in outlining a possible understanding of evil and its levels of universal harmfulness.“Desire is innocent”, says Ricoeur. And if desire is innocent, then evil is unnatural, cynical, sophisticated. “Evil is, in the literal sense of the word, perversion, that is, a reversal of the order that requires respect for law to be placed above inclination. It is a matter of a misuse of a free choice and not of the malfeasance of desire. The propensity for evil affects the use of freedom, the capacity to act out of duty – in short, the capacity for being autonomous.” It is interesting that there is a tacit agreement between the modern man, Ricoeur and the medieval bard about the atrociousness of the fraud. False promises are counted as hostile to the rule of universalism and to the respect of the difference between persons.

For Ricoeur, friendship is a corollary of responsibility. For responsibility to be possible, a certain open- mindedness is necessitated centred in the principle of equality and reciprocity. It is a sort of trading off of vulnerabilities. Once we open our mind to the possibility of admitting our potential for being hurt, we can go a step further and embrace the vulnerabilities offered by our friends. That which emerges at that moment of mutual emotional nakedness is what Ricoeur tries to extract and distil from the personal to the universal application of friendship, which he calls “solicitude” or "benevolent spontaneity" (OAA 190).

Out of this transaction of spontaneous compassion with the other, self-esteem is boosted and consolidated. Self-esteem can only build up in response to the other extending towards me, and the other extending towards me is rooted in the principle of benevolent inclination.

To understand the delicate nature of this reciprocity, this mutual flow of responsibility and benevolent feeling so valued between friends, enough to imagine what betrayal of friendship feels like, is like. “Betrayals of Friendship”, says Ricoeur, “tell us a lot about the malice of the human heart. The ruse is a depraved form both irony and skilfulness, a twofold abuse of trust.” Ricoeur places the value of friendship at the centre of the good life. Friendship, for him, is a virtue, which, when tested for its ingredients, we find one important foundational stone among them: solicitude. Solicitude is the stuff that universal human rights are made of. The obverse side of solicitude is rejection, abuse, malice.

For Ricoeur, evil manifests itself in upsetting or reversing, the natural order, “For where the instrument of intelligence is added to brute power and evil will, mankind is powerless in its own defence”. And nothing, he claims, is more natural than the flow of solicitude.

The ancient Chinese sage Mencius (4th century BC), illlustrates what this solicitude means, in practical terms:

This is why I say that all men have a sense of commiseration: here is a man who suddenly notices a child about to fall into a well. Invariably he will feel a sense of alarm and compassion. And this is not for the purpose of gaining the favour of the child's parents or of seeking the approbation of his neighbours and friends, or for fear of blame should he fail to rescue it. Thus we see that no man is without a sense of compassion or a sense of shame or a sense of courtesy or a sense of right and wrong. The sense of compassion is the beginning of humanity, the sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness, and sense of courtesy is the beginning of decorum, the sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Every man has within himself these four beginnings, just as he has four limbs. Since everyone has these four beginnings within him, the man who considers himself incapable of exercising them is destroying himself.


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