Friday, February 15, 2008

Coming Late to the Conversation: Is Sauron the Good Guy?

Figure 1. page from a manga version of Crime and Punishment (by Tezuka Osamu, 1953)

I am sorry to come late to the conversation that developed in response to Joe Donaldson's post "Is Sauron the Good Guy?" [I am currently at Wake Forest University where I have been guest-teaching on, you guessed it, Beowulf], but I just wanted to say that the level of intellectual conversation here is very, very rich and I am really impressed with all of this commentary on a very difficult question: the nature of evil, goodness, whether or not absolute morality exists, etc. I think Mike Pilato does an excellent job of summing up the different threads of the conversation here and also raising the interesting idea of a pluralistic objective morality, which is not the same thing as an absolutist ethics in which there is always one perfect answer to any ethical dilemma [i.e. God is always right, read the Bible, read the Constitution, read the law codes, do unto others, thou shalt not kill or steal, an eye for an eye, etc.]. Although I would point out that even the Council of Elrond represents different, interested [i.e. subjectively invested in the outcome] parties who, for one reason or other, all come to agree on the importance of destroying the ring--they are a kind of precursor to something like the United Nations [although I'm not sure the U.N. has ever effected a real and lasting peace or helped to avoid disastrous military conflicts, which was one of the intentions behind its foundation: in other words, the U.N. has not triumphed over evil, but then again, although the Fellowship will manage to destroy the ring, that does not mean evil has been eradicated from the world, only that a temporary stay against the wholesale destruction of the world has been effected].

Rocky's point that history is always written by the victors is very apt here, too [and also a famous sentiment echoed by many historians and philosophers over the years], and it connects in certain interesting ways to the idea that one actually can get away with murder sometimes. I want to share with everyone here some dialogue from Woody Allen's film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, during a Seder dinner [a Jewish holiday devoted to the Passover], in which family relatives [one of whom is a rabbi] are arguing over the same provocative moral questions you are all raising here. I will first provide the plot set-up and then the dialogue:

Woody Allen's film, Crimes & Misdemeanors is a kind of creative adaptation of Dostoevky's Russian novel Crime and Punishment. Judah (played by Martin Landau), the sixty-something successful and married opthamologist has been suffering various attacks of his conscience over the fact that he hired a hit man to kill his lover (played by Anjelica Huston), because he didn't want her to expose their affair (which she was threatening to do), and therefore ruin his life and marriage. Repeatedly, throughout the film, he claims he doesn't believe in God, and he doesn't think it's fair that, for one brief adulterous affair, his life should be ruined. How is it justice (?), he wonders, to be destroyed by a "neurotic" woman. He feels he has no choice but to get rid of the girlfriend. He has a patient, a rabbi (played by Sam Waterston), who appears in a dream sequence just as Judah is getting ready to make the phone call to arrange the murder, and says to him, "Don't you think God sees?" To which Judah replies, "God is a luxury I can't afford." The rabbi replies, "Without the law, it's all darkness." Nevertheless, after the girlfriend is killed, he finds he can't sleep at night, and he is convinced he will be caught and punished for what he did. One afternoon, he drives to the house in Brooklyn where he grew up, and as he is wandering through the rooms, he sees himself as a young man and his large extended family having Passover supper in the dining room, and he listens in on the conversation. Saul, his father (a rabbi) is praying and his sister, May (Judah's aunt), interrupts to say, "hurry up, enough of the mumbo jumbo, we're hungry":

Saul: I apologize for my disrespectful sister.

May: This is the twentieth century, you have young boys sitting here. Don't fill their heads with superstitions.

Saul: Oh, the intellectual, the schoolteacher--spare us your Leninist philosophy just this once!

May: Are you afraid if you don't follow the rules God's going to punish you?

Saul: He won't punish me, May. He punishes the wicked.

May: Oh, who, like Hitler?

Saul: May, how can you say that?

May: Six million Jews burned to death and they got away with it!

Saul: How did they get away with it?

May: Ah, come on, Saul, open your eyes! Six million Jews, and millions of others, and they got off with nothing!

Relative 1: How could human beings do such a thing?

May: Because might makes right. That is, until the Americans marched in and stopped the--

Saul: (interrupting) I don't like this kind of talk at my Seder.

May: Okay, okay, all right! You know, wait a minute, there's this joke about the prize fighter who enters the ring, and his brother turns to the family priest and says, father, pray for him. And the priest said, I will, but if he can punch, it'll help.

Relative 2: So, what are you saying May? You're saying you challenge the whole moral structure of everything?

May: What moral structure? Is that the kind of nonsense you use on your pupils?

Relative 2: Do you not find human impulses basically decent?

May: There's basically nothing!

Saul: Such a cynic, my sister, a nihilist--back to Russia!

Relative 3: Listen, I happen to agree with May when it comes to all that mumbo jumbo.

Saul: How can you say that? You come to every Seder, you pray in Hebrew.

Relative 3: Yes, I'm going through the motions. It's like any ritual, it's a habit.

Relative 2: What are you saying, May? There's no morality anywhere in the whole world?

May: For those who want morality, there's morality. Nothing's handed down in stone.

Saul's Wife (Judah's mother): Saul's kind of faith is a gift. It's like an ear for music, or the talent to draw. He believes, and you can use logic on him all day long, and he still believes.

Saul: Must everything be logical?

[at this point, even though this is a fantasy sequence, Judah enters the conversation, while standing in the doorway]

Judah: If a man commits a crime, if he kills?

Saul: Then one way or another, he will be punished.

Relative 3: If he's caught, Saul.

Saul: And if he's not caught, that which originates from a black deed, will blossom in a foul manner.

Relative 3: You're relying a little too heavily on the Bible, Saul.

Saul: No, no, no--whether it's the Old Testament or Shakespeare, murder will out.

Judah: Who said anything about murder?

Saul: You did.

Judah: Did I?

May: And I say, if he can do it and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he's home free. Remember, history is written by the winners. And if the Nazis had won, future generations would understand the story of World War II quite differently.

Relative 3: And if all your faith is wrong, Saul? I mean, Just what if, huh? If, hmmm?

Saul: Then I'll still have a better life than all of those who doubt.

May: Wait a minute. Are you telling me that you prefer God to the truth?

Saul: If necessary, I will always choose God over truth.

[end of film "clip"]

Another interesting counterpoint to Allen's film [especially in relation to Aunt May's commentary] is this excerpt from Freud's Civilization and its Discontents [you don't have to agree with this, by the way, as it's a rather dim viewpoint on human nature, but it's a viewpoint, that's all]:

". . . . men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man]. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien. Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities committed during the racial migrations or the invasions of the Huns, or by the people known as Mongols under Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane, or at the capture of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, or even, indeed, the horrors of the recent World War -- anyone who calls these things to mind will have to bow humbly before the truth of this view.

The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbor and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure [of energy]. In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man's aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of hem in check by psychical reaction-formations. Hence, therefore, the use of methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relations of love, hence the restriction upon sexual life, and hence too the ideal's commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself -- a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man. In spite of every effort, these endeavors of civilization have not so far achieved very much. It hopes to prevent the crudest excesses of brutal violence by itself assuming the right to use violence against criminals, but the law is not able to lay hold of the more cautious and refined manifestations of human aggressiveness. The time comes when each one of us has to give up illusions the expectations which, in his youth. he pinned upon his fellow men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will."

1 comment:

Doty said...

Here's the clip you're referring to:

Crimes and Misdemeanors

I have to disagree with Freud when he says, "In spite of every effort, these endeavors of civilization have not so far achieved very much." I think the instictual violent urges of mankind have been repressed a great deal, and I think that for some (hopefully many), logic and reason have begun to replace primitive urges and violence in instinct. I would venture to say that, could a study be conducted to prove such a thing, there are a whole lot more people nowadays who will, when faced with sudden, dramatic conflict, say, "Whoa, whoa, let's just think about what we're doing!" than there were in, say, the time of Ibn Fadlan. Much of the world now views killing, in any situation, to be horrendous and repulsive. This is a dramatic volta in the history of the world. Wars in present times involve a stupefyingly smaller amount of casualties than in any past time period. And death is not regarded lightly. In America, there are disagreements about whether or not to kill criminals! During the French Revolution, they couldn't kill people fast enough, and many of the people killed were royalty. In many societies in the past, criminals were punished or killed, and there was no question about it. There were no protestors or picket-lines throwing tomatoes at the executioner. No, I think there's been a great deal of advancement in our societies and civilizations toward repressing and replacing violent instincts.