“Jesus replied Fear not Albion unless I die thou canst not live
But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me
This is Friendship & Brotherhood without it Man Is Not.”
W. Blake, Jerusalem Plate 95, in ‘The Complete Poems’, pp. 841-842, Penguin Books, 1977.
There is in philosophy of language the concept of ‘The Principle of Charity’: you cannot understand – and you cannot, therefore, be understood – if you do not apply a reasonable dose of charity in trying to understand what the other says. The Principle assumes more than mere benevolence,it assumes that you are sufficiently similar to your interlocutors to be able to finish the thought they express based on the only thing you have: the quote of what they just said. The Principle therefore has little to do with optional charity, the charity that some want us to overtly show during the brief periods we are excused from being ruthlessly ambitious. It is an inescapable and all but soft and fluffy insight; to be what we are, to be communicating social beings requires us to be charitable, all of the time. To cease to be charitable is to cease to be what we are. We can live a whole life without donating and still be perfectly moral beings but we cannot really cease for an instant to want to understand the others, because in that instant we are thoroughly lost and, however much we invent stories to account for what we did in such an instant, we are absolutely unexplainable to ourselves. It is the structure of our being to be charitable; nothing can be less mysterious than to be charitable in trying to understand the others; nothing can be more miserable than not to try to understand the others because nothing can be more miserable than not being understandable at all.
[You will find versions of The Principle in Davidson, Gadamer and Habermas, to name a few.]
So why is there such an apparently abundant lack of charity?
Many would be tempted to say that it is because of ‘nature’; that somehow cruelty is the predominantly natural way of being. It isn’t. The problem does not lie in Nature opposing Reason or Charity or whatever. Language and charity and the rest of it are perfectly natural phenomena. The problem doesn’t lie in opposition, the problem lies in contradiction because whatever is, is limited and whatever is strives to be unlimited. This is how language and reason came about, it’s the drive to become unlimited that is – in a word – embodied by The Word. Language and reason aren’t any less natural than the long neck of a giraffe is. They may both be rare and specific and they both condemn the owners to behaviour that is consistent with the traits: the long neck condemns the giraffe to be standing and language condemns humans to be charitable.
[The above against the naïve reading of Darwinian evolution as an evil force. See also Bergson.]
The problem is a problem of contradiction. The world is composed of things that strive to be unlimited – but the world is – and can’t but be – limited. This leads to scarcity and scarcity leads to strife. It’s not that scarcity and strife are bad – both are perfectly natural. The contradiction lies in humans not being charitable enough to understand that scarcity is a fact. In not understanding this, they lose themselves in inconsistencies where they believe they are in their right not to be charitable; because they have a right to survive.
There is no right of survival. No doubt there’s something like Survival. But there can’t be a right to it. It’s inconsistent to have a Right to Survival. It’s the same contradiction reproduced in something that looks like something we ought to try to understand. Like something we should listen to charitably.
But we ought not try to understand what’s inconsistent. We should not feel compelled to make sense of contradictions. The only Right we have is to try to be understood and the only Duty to try to understand. The Right is the Duty & the Duty is the Right. It is the categorical imperative of being what we are.
[Kant didn’t have it wrong but he didn’t have it enough at the source. It’s not about doing & not doing, it is about being in a certain way.]
So, in being moral we should not fall for moralists and certainly not for moralizing, for
“What is a Wife & what is a Harlot? What is a Church & What
Is a Theatre? are they Two & not One? can they exist Separate?
Are not Religion & Politics the Same Thing? Brotherhood is Religion
O Demonstrations of Reason Dividing Families in Cruelty & Pride!”
[W. Blake, ibid, p. 748]
It is a bad use of reason to split nature and reason. It is a contradiction to split nature and reason. The fact is that when a giraffe lies down it will cease to be a giraffe. The fact is that when one of us ceases to be charitable we cease to be one of us. There is no come-back from that. We can survive and maybe some of them can even survive indefinitely at the expense of others, but it is a survival of something that is not human and it’s survival that cannot really be called living because whatever survives cannot even understand itself. It can maybe function but it cannot understand itself. It will be a living hell.
[The concept of conscience is something that needs to be explained!]
In the end, what we are is first & foremost a product of what others allow us to be. The point is not embracing the other as if she were yourself. The point is embracing yourself as the product of the others. Our identity and our personality is unique – because of scarcity we cannot but express our desire for unlimitedness in a unique way building on what is essentially limited, even if it is less and less limited because of what others before us built and on which we can further build our selfs – but however unique it is, the fact that it is at all is thanks to others. Once we stop being charitable we’re also stopping to be unique. Everything that is not charitable is in the end one limited thing, the thing of not being at all humane.
The fact that we die. The fact that parts of us are continuously dying off. The fact that the mere act of living is tied to a fully inescapable reality of death. All of these facts we need to understand. For all of these feelings we need to express charity. If we don’t feel this pain, we cannot understand those who do and everybody does – because what lives wants to express itself and in order to express itself it needs to live.
[And thus to the very convincing ‘proof of an after-life’ by Kant.]
But it does not need to live.
“But on a silent day of sorrow,
Speak my name in your grief. Just say:
There is the memory of me, there is
In the world a heart in which I live.”
[Pushkin, “The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems.”, p. 72, translated by D.M. Thomas, Penguin Books, 1982.]
Precisely the way we are thanks to the others, the others are thanks to us. If we were at one able to really express our self; if we were at least once really understood; if our charity was exchanged for somebody else’s charity in what only can be called Friendship & Brotherhood; if any of those and therefore all of those, we cannot but continue to express ourselves whether we live or whether we have died.
If it is not enough that our music will continue to be heard in the music that comes after us, what we think we play isn’t music at all. It is mere making noise for the sake of making more noise than others. It is to be a beast without excuse of being just a beast. It is to be beastly.
Let us, let me try to be content with being heard …
[Disregard the feeling of bad poetry you will undoubtedly have when reading this, it is the thought that counts.]
[Whilst writing this I was listening to John Zorn, ‘The Bribe’.]