Of Qualities Immediately Agreeable to Ourselves

“The tear naturally starts in our eye on the apprehension of a warm sentiment of this nature: our breast heaves, our heart is agitated, and every humane tender principle of our frame is set in motion, and gives us the purest and most satisfactory enjoyment.”, The enquiries concerning human understanding and concerning the principles of morals, D. Hume, Clarendon Press, 1975, p. 257.

I chose this quote six weeks ago and can’t quite remember what I then thought. This is what I (try to) think now:It is sometimes difficult to presuppose the best in people. More precisely: it is mostly impossible to see any good in the majority of people.  But it’s still there (keeping corner cases cornered for a moment); the good I mean, in other people. It can’t be but be there. How would we recognize people or even begin (literally taken) to understand them when there would not be original sympathy from where to start? Surely, one could biologize this (and one should indeed biologize it) into a basic feature of a herd animal. But even so biologized we should not get too mesmerized: this sympathy is the necessary basis on which one can develop a more complex culture, for instance a culture where individuals can see the fact that they are individuals rather than components of a whole.

This is the hard thing: that something simple (sympathy) can be a necessary feature for something that is exceedingly complex (individuality). Because of this being hard we are constantly mistaken in thinking people aren’t benevolent & in believing that simple benevolence is – in itself – a good (because beatitude isn’t a good for any thing that can be an anybody ; not realizing complexity and sticking with sheer stupidity is the worst possible choice, and the most egoistic one). But the thing is that sympathy is both necessary and insufficient for a real culture.

It is necessary (in an a priori synthetic kind of way, I guess) because only via sympathy can we reach the type of error reduction via the collective that allows to name similar things roughly in the same way. But also because only this way it is possible for two people to point to the same thing and know they are pointing to more or less the same thing. And so on. It is necessary, simply put, because only with large amounts of sympathy (or charity or whatever) can we build on top of each others perceptions.

But it is insufficient because there is a need for some difference or some kind of alienation (I am actively wondering at this point whether I am not just repeating something post-modern that I have not read but have heard without really being conscious of hearing it – readers, please help) to be able to go beyond a stupid and merely passive being together. A boundary is needed between you and me so that I can see that there is something new, something you created – and I can inspect that something and reject or improve on it. Which is where the complexity comes in.

So both sympathy/simplicity and complexity/difference are needed, but sympathy comes first and it is impossible to imagine a communication of any intellectual level if there is not first that sympathy of shock when others are shocked, running when others are running. It is a basic condition for intelligent life that it starts from innocent sympathy.

Therefore – to stop in a woolly way – whatever we instinctly recognize as similar enough to us to feel for has at least the right to be treated in accordance with that instinct of benevolence. But also, anything that we would ever be able to get in real communication with will be something that feels sympathy for us and for which we feel sympathy (even if there are baser instincts yet that can temporarily block the sympathy with a reflex of fear, at the time of communication it’s already necessarily passed from fear to sympathy as a base emotion). 

With this Roddenberriesque closing, I leave you in hope of days with more spontaneous hope than these were for me.

[Whilst writing this I was listening to the awesome radio broadcast called Laika available from www.klara.be (go to the tab “Net Gemist”)]

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