21 July 2006 - Friday

A permanent state of mutual self-defense

"I don't approve of mixing ideologies," Ivanov continued. "There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, and declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community -- which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality.

"Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can't point out one. In times of need -- and politics are chronically in a time of need -- the rulers were always able to evoke 'exceptional circumstances,' which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism. ..."

-- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940, trans. Daphne Hardy)

The novel is based on the Moscow Trials, in which leading original Bolsheviks were purged by Stalin's regime. In this scene, Ivanov is a cynical interrogator trying to persuade a prisoner (the "sacrificial lamb") to confess for the good of the state.

I find this scene intriguing because in the irony of Ivanov's soliloquy, the author may be trying to do one of two different things. Perhaps the author agrees with his character that a mixture is impossible, and therefore is arguing for absolutely deontological and individualistic ethics; or perhaps he agrees with his character that deontological ethics cannot be implemented consistently, and so is arguing that there must be a mixture of ethical principles in government.

In the former case, the passage would be thoroughly moralistic, libertarian, and pacifistic. In the latter case, the passage would be an argument not as much for individual rights as against inflexible ideology. (Either way, of course, the author rejects Ivanov's absolute consequentialism and statism.)

Given what I know of Koestler's life, and given the paradoxical title of the novel (it was Zero and Infinity in France), I am inclined toward the latter interpretation.

| Posted by Wilson at 15:17 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk , Power Desk