Evil, hope and human progress

Text: Tommaso Ragonese | Photos: Marco Crupi

“[…] philosophers sometimes write with an over-confidence which betrays that they have not experienced the human reality of the dilemmas. The same must be true many times over of someone who, without having experienced them, writes of Vietnam or Auschwitz.”


Jonathan Glover

If one takes an interest in or applies himself to the study of philosophy in a broad sense, he is bound to go through some dark times. Forehead corrugated into a distraught frown, one goes about silently cursing that dostoevskian man rotting in the underground or that Kurtz, whispering ‘The horror, the horror!’ with feverishly glaring eyes. There is sense of despair looming and a brooding angst more or less painful depending on personal circumstances or, in my case, whether or not the sea is in sight. Generally, there seems to be a great deal of suffering in the world and a taste for abstract reflection engenders a tendency to judge it a trans-historical and trans-cultural phenomenon. With a dear friend, we came to label the source of this angst ‘the human condition’. Is it not natural, then, to ask oneself: are things getting any better, or is humanity ‘sinking into a new form of barbarism’?

With XX century history behind them, contemporary Europeans will probably find less motivation to answer the above question optimistically than their great-grandfathers did before World War I broke out. Perhaps to posit that such judgement may be formulated at all is to misunderstand reality altogether or to subscribe to a philosophy of history which is as problematic as it is pivotal to our modern belief in human progress. As Marco Crupi and I the paced the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau we wondered whether man will ever be delivered from the dark side of its nature, whether ‘the horror’ would ever penetrate deep enough into the souls of all those tourists on the camp on that cold November day in 2012 or whether we can be so banally evil that to presume some sort of ‘redemption’ of us as individuals or as a species is utterly ridiculous. Whilst the sun shone on Auschwitz,  the note in my diary sombrely reads:


“Nowhere outside the walls and the barbed wire of Auschwitz-Birkenau has mankind offered a more compelling display of its true nature. Perhaps all the toilsomeness of existence derives from the attempt to remain sane and reasonable twenty, forty years longer, to conceal all of our sordidness, atrocity and absurdity, to have our children believe there cannot be another Auschwitz.”

A weird philosophy of hope.

by Andrea Wolf

What is going on? How have we become this disjointed, sour and hopeless? Back in the good old days we used to have faith – not in God, we have not been that silly for a while – but in the simple things: in humanity, in possibility, in progress. Then we got old. Max Stirner’s prophecy came true, and nobody noticed. Max who? Exactly.

Collective philosophies died in 1844, infected by the thought-virus of a man so ludicrous few even remember him. Not by accident; fewer still will remember his sacrilegious brilliance being slain by the likes of Marx and Engels, cunningly going unacknowledged by Nietzsche. He killed Western Philosophy with one book. But the corpses of his enemies, resurrected by fanatic fervour, wrestled back and triumphed, keeping the zombie walking for another hundred years.

Until, emptied and vacuous, weighed down by the nauseous failures of Communism, Fascism and by the grossly overestimated successes of all forms of Socialism and Liberalism, the sad cadaver finally crumbled, shattering to the ground into billions of lost, dismembered pieces that began aimlessly wandering. That would be us. Meanwhile, in some cheap and forgotten grave, the shunned prophet’s skull maniacally laughs.

This is no ghost story, kids. It is however a story about the spooks we all believe in. You know their names: Family, the State, Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, the Motherland and, of course, Humanity… A spook, according to Mad Max, is any idea one believes and by which is enslaved, which he then uses to enslave others. Perhaps you are more used to calling them “causes”. See, this lunatic Stirner, a disgusting and unnatural specimen to be sure, pointed out that spooks…are not real. My writing hand is real, your reading eyes, your cherished belongings, the things you enjoy or hate, in other words you and your property (a generous term embracing anything you can claim possession of, including your abilities) are real. Ideas or causes are not. They are mental fabrications that exist as long as you exist and keep believing in them.

Then why not make them your property? Which means you may dispose of them however you wish, upholding or discharging them entirely as you see fit, in accordance to the only cause Stirner deemed worthy of value: your cause. “All things are nothing to me/ and I may say, I have built my cause on nothing.” By Jove, what an asshole, right? With that mentality how can we expect to get anything done? Same as always, dear readers: through sheer willpower. That does not mean you should use your will. It all depends on the nature of your cause: maybe you like being subjugated, that’s fine. See, Mighty Max was not advocating for a new system predicated on individualistic gallantry, he was simply pulling the veil off of every system ever conceived. In broad strokes, here’s how it works: someone comes up with a neat spook (say, Religion, or Human Progress, or Civil Society), then proceeds to elevate said fictitious abstraction to absolute value until it draws enough support, then it becomes order, which once established makes it easier to discriminate those against it as unreasonable dissidents, or “inhuman monsters”, as Maxie sardonically puts it. No man has a Right to put another in that category. In fact, no man has any rights whatsoever, for that matter. So Anarchy, then – I hear you venture, scratching your heads, puzzled- we’re talking Anarchy? Nope. Anarchy is a spook. We’re talking dynamics.

The Stirner-ooney basically pointed out how all systems are based on arbitrary and coercive concepts always necessarily referring to something higher and greater than the petty concerns of any single human animal. Hence they are all illusory, all ultimately disappointing and all underlined by the same presumption: that human traits can and should be corrected. Fundamentally, he called bullshit. And History freaked, and that’s why you don’t hear about him so much. “Will this be nothing but a vigorous hand—shake to some obscure nihilist?” Nah, critique’s up next. Just thought first I’d pay homage to the unpreaching genius who desecrated millennia of intellectual vainglory without getting so much as a single thanks.

So back to us and our old age, for this is a mature and borderline senile era of our species: we’ve figured out, nay, had proof, that Santa’s not real, have come to terms with the fact we’re the ones having to buy our children’s presents, but it’s just so damn hard to let go of the magic. There lies the paradox of our rational lives: we want to believe in spooks. We need to believe in something greater than ourselves, even if it’s fake. Illusions are essential to our health. Without them, we feel petty and tiny. By minimising the relevance of our emotional and spiritual attachment to imaginary constructs, Stirner (born Schmidt) was but protecting himself: orphan of father and sent away by his mother, you can see how a clever soul in pain would dismiss the importance of universal values and norms, asserting in their place the natural worth of any one life’s fickle tendencies. I guess such line of thinking helps numb the pain, drenching it in pride. That does not make him wrong: his reasoning is flawless, yet tragically sterile. At the end of the day, producing a personal worldview to make sense of his reality is all a man can ever really do.

Today this seems to take place on an endemic scale: a worldview per capita. In many ways Stirner’s vision has been espoused: all over we are getting unions of egoists freely assembling and dismantling with little regard for superstitious moral obligations. Every man for himself. My life, my choice, my path, my priorities; you’re an instrument, if I can’t use you, I’ll drop you. How logical, how desolate. All as an immune response to a previous season of dreadful totalitarianism, sustained by the spooks of objectivity, community, common destiny. Naturally, traumatized and according with our species’ limited binary elaboration processes, we swung all the way to the other side: relativism, free choice and individuality. Which are also, of course, spooks.

These particular ones were championed by the war’s big winners and still current -though stumbling- leaders of this planet of ours: the United States of America, which wave the spook of freedom every chance they get, while all around people cry out for certainty and security. Poor souls! They don’t realize that freedom and security are actually antithetic. If applied in absolute measure, they are both equally chilling prisons. This sweet confusion derives from a fundamentally naive fallacy, not so much a spook but rather a misunderstanding: that human happiness can be rationally engineered. When in fact, only a couple of things shape mankind’s successions (I hesitate to call it progress, let’s not get big-headed here) and both do so in largely counterintuitive ways: technology and war. The two chase each other, eventually clash, and out comes change. Minimal, evolutionary-scaled and impermanent change, but change nonetheless. And with a little change comes great hope- like the drunken hobo outside your local shop would assure you.

If you thought philosophy or [chuckle] politics drove change, sorry to disappoint: Aristotle’s virtue ethics is 2500 years old and has managed to persuade maybe 5 people in that time. While a politician simply juggles with what is available. A declaration of human rights without electricity and heating would be as useful as a toilet on the Moon. Take slavery: if you thought Abe Lincoln abolished slavery, think again. The Industrial Revolution abolished slavery; since for the first time it made it possible for the world not to need slaves. Technology leads and morality follows.

Humans don’t change with each generation, the technology around them does. Put it like this: we are still the same brain that lived in Babylon, but every century it wakes up and the world around it looks somewhat different. Mankind has not closed in on a new evolutionary step: we’re still the same old Sapiens-Sapiens but every century we are given new toys to play with. Take them and the ability to make new ones away and the rules of survival will reclaim their original form in the span of a decade. As for War, “History’s engine” as Bismarck nicknamed it: well, in large measure it’s what drives technology. Alan Turing’s Enigma machine was the embryo for the computer and would have not come into being had we not needed to spy on Nazis.

War takes out the best and worst of mankind, then once it’s over societies reap its benefits for the time being, until eventually it all gets saturated, stale and decadent. Sounds familiar? Yup, that’s where we are now: at the end of the curve. Humans require conflict to function, peace and prosperity make us sloppy, uninspired and bloated. We need crises to work ourselves up. Not 2008; that was not the crisis: that was the preamble. That was our 1929 Wall Street to the 1941 Pearl Harbor to come. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we need us a War. One as disgusting and bloody and stupid as ever; pathetic, I know, but I don’t make the rules. War will kick-start the wheel once again, ridding us of the nihilist, the relativist and the depressed purposeless to substitute them with the patriot, the overconfident and the misguided valiant, granting humanity some currently unfathomable technological golden goose on the other side.

Not fucking I-Phones, real advancements. The kind that makes one wonder and dream once again. We’ve postponed it long enough, maybe because we’ve gotten so good at this bloodbath thing that next time there’s a chance we might blow up a few continents. But fear not: that won’t be enough to stop us. If you believe we have come too far to ever see War again, that just shows you how arrogant, spoilt and rotten we truly have gotten. Careful now, for technology, in itself a force for progress, is a spook inside a spook, a spook squared. People have a special talent for twisting something’s original intent, for better or worse. Just like Jesus never meant to invent the inquisition, Oppenheimer’s fusion was not meant for the atomic bomb and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom I’m sure in his mind had no connection with freeing slaves. Things take their own droll course. But hey, at least the Internet blessed us with connection through accessible knowledge, did it not? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Seriously, the Internet’s degenerated pretty badly. Point is, we’re the kind of overenthusiastic beast that gets tricked by its own grand expectations, and as we make high plans, we fall spectacularly short (did someone say “End Poverty 2015”?). Then again, other times things surprisingly turn out well, but through an unexpected path. There’s the rub: progress does indeed exist but it’s largely accidental and cannot be programmed. It’s just that we’re in a hurry. Deep down, we know we’re messed up and merely wish very strongly to improve, to never sin again. We’re quite cute that way: so old but still child-like. A Humanist who likes humanity as it is has yet to be born. Or perhaps one existed and died with spit on his face.

You wish to know why there is no philosophy of hope nowadays. For the same reason we live in the surreal absence of any literary, artistic or scientific movement that’s worth a damn. Because it’s not our time, my friends. This we’re in is a ditch: agitating and scrapping will only get us covered in mud. So here’s my absurd philosophy of hope for you: just watch the slide. Know things will have to get worse before they get better. That they will get better, but perhaps we won’t be around to see it. And if we do see it, let’s not get too excited, because it will simply mean the Cycle has started once again. Relish in acceptance: enjoy with ease what you love and look no further. Don’t fight the flow, put down your weapons: they will be put back into your hands when you least want it. Don’t force yourself to be optimistic, it is of no use. Reach out to others: other people are you in disguise. Beware: my spook’s not your spook, and no one spook fits all.

Ivan and the Devil

by Tommaso Ragonese

Not long ago, I was on my way to the Franco Parenti theatre in Milan to watch an enactment of Ivan and the Devil, from Dostoevsky’s novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. As I rounded a corner in semi-darkness, a handful of words written on the wall in a strikingly innocent handwriting caught my attention: ‘Sensibility will save the world’. Already descending into the state of mind befitting a spectator of Ivan Karamazov’s delirious encounter with the devil, I could not help briefly wearing a timid smile, feeling not unlike a murderer who, with fresh blood on his knife, upon stepping away from his victim, had stumbled into children playing with a puppy. To think that we can be saved, delivered from our human condition: a sign of unspeakable courage or simply of an irrational or immature naiveté, a sort of adolescent romanticism? Is there really a philosophy of hope?

I was often ridiculed by others when I motivated my choice to study philosophy at university as fundamentally a need to investigate questions such as the above. I did feel at the time, as Andrea Wolf puts it, that, at the end of the day, all I could really do was to articulate a personal Weltanschauung to make sense of my reality. Fact of the matter is, each one of us is confronted, sooner or later, with questions ‘of ultimate concern’, questions about our being-in-the-world. Questions that oftentimes catch us unprepared: some end up boycotting their relationships, others become creatively neurotic, others travel or have sex compulsively. And equally often we find that it boils down to not having bothered to investigate our ultimate meaning and purpose in life. In Dostoevsky’s words “without a firm idea of what he is to live for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on the earth”.

The terrible question ‘why?’ has haunted thinkers of all times and is known for its tendency to destroy all of our mental constructions. Albert Camus famously said that if we satisfactorily answer the question as to why we should not commit suicide, we will have answered many of the questions of XX century philosophy. Then why are we to live? As all of our causes, or ‘spooks’ as Stirners has it, seem to have crumbled, leaving us ‘aimlessly wandering’ upon the face of this earth, the same question keeps looming: because, as Nietzsche wrote, he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. Auschwitz is a place where this question becomes urgent: why would one want to live with first-hand knowledge of this horror? Yet, you must find that answer or else it will torment you as if the ghosts of the countless people who witnessed and were victims of atrocious evil here were to follow you for the rest of your days. You owe that answer to them.

Relish in acceptance, recites Andrea Wolf’s weird philosophy of hope. But you are too busy dragging Ivan Karamazov’s brother Alyosha around the camp, pulling him by the arm, showing him the horror, after he has asked Ivan: “Will you explain to me why you don’t accept the world?”. Walking by Block 11, Ivan is busy answering his brother’s question by telling of the atrocities committed in Bulgaria by the Turks: ‘burning, knifing, raping women and children, nailing convicts to fences by their ears and leaving them there until morning, when they hang them’. He also tells the story of an infant who, whilst still in its mother’s arms, is fondled by the soldiers to make him laugh and when it stretches out its little hands to grab the pistol the Turkish officer is pointing at him, the pistol is fired right in his face. Children. What do they know of evil? How could you possibly accept the tears of an innocent, guiltless child? Ivan says that it’s not God he cannot accept, but rather how it seems that the world is ordered, how the horror seems necessary so that men can discern between good and evil. And that if it is only at the price of such sufferings that men will know good from evil and finally be able to live in harmony, then this harmony is not worth its price. As you enter a gas chamber Ivan concludes:

“You ought to realise, novice, that preposterous things are all too necessary upon earth. The world rests upon preposterous things, and indeed it’s possible that without them absolutely nothing would ever come into existence…”

In other (Nietzsche’s) words: without cruelty, there is no festival. Suggesting that it is a strange fancy to think that history is a straight line from barbarism to harmony, the festival went on after Auschwitz. Take the Iraq-Kuwait war: when Iraqi soldiers told Ahmad Qabazard’s parents their nineteen-years-old son would have soon been released:

“They were overjoyed, cooked wonderful things, and when they heard cars approaching went to the door. When Ahmad was taken out of the car they saw that his ears, his nose and his genitalia had been cut off. He was coming out of the car with his eyes in his hands. Then the Iraqis shot him, once in the stomach and once in the head, and told his mother to be sure no to move the body for three days.”

It is impossible to make sense of this episode or of the Turkish devilries in Bulgaria without conceding that there is something in human psychology which wires us to be most ingenious and creative at humiliating, torturing, maiming and killing others. In other words, there is in men a built-in capacity to love cruelty which is beyond that which many of us educated, well-bred Europeans would be prepared to conceive. What is perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that, as a fictional character in a Woody Allen’s movie rambles, we read about some massacre in Darfur or some school bus being blown up and all we do is turn the page and finish the eggs from the free range chickens.

We live in an era in which we are bombarded by news feeds, images and videos of the horror as it happens and we linger in indifference: we are served a daily meal of violence and abuse in the news with such unrelenting rhythm that we have grown oblivious to it. People are in their nice homes having a burger and a beer and all they need to do is switch channel on the TV to be reassured that everything is fine, that a new series is coming out soon and that all they need is a new car or TV set. In his book ‘Humanity: a moral history of the XX century’ Jonathan Glover aptly recalls Milan Kundera’s words:

“The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten”. Why else would people so nonchalantly use the holocaust memorial as a background for their selfies, the ultimate display of men’s pathetic narcissism worsened, in this case, by a grotesque lack of historical memory, of mere common sense and taste?

What is more, our civilised countries’ governments in Europe and the United States tend to act only when their interests are at stake. Not to mention the more or less open support of regimes and dictators of renowned cruelty as well as the full-fledged wars waged worldwide by the United States, supposedly in response to threats to their ‘national security’, whilst waving ‘the spook of freedom’. Have we forgotten that regimes like Saddam Hussein’s were supplied with armaments and torture equipment by Western companies?

Brutal realism might be corrosive when applied to any philosophy of hope or any moral system. Moral ‘idols’ and other ‘spooks’ have been already repeatedly debunked by Max Stirner and many iconoclasts after him. Today, XXI century Western individuals are not only caught in socio-economic dynamics which are arguably exploitative and alienating, but are also caught up between new spooks of economic status and prestige and old spooks disguised as some new age spiritual bullshit or other. I am not sure I can wholly subscribe to Andrea Wolf’s view that peace is responsible for us being bloated and uninspired but I feel as though there is a malaise spreading across our liberal, mature, supposedly war-abhorring societies. The dynamics at play in our self-proclaiming civilised world are in fact signalling the triumph of the ‘every one for himself, the earth for everyone’. Reflection is stifled by the widespread acceptance of materialistic measures of one’s worth, cultural consumerism helps to dissipate the sufferings ensuing from alienation. Why would I go to the theatre to watch some character from some Russian novel tear his hair from his head when I can stay home and watch the feel-good movie of the year on my Netflix account?

Ivan Karamazov, like every one of us, does not like to suffer: he curses the devil in his hallucinations. But our civilisation’s unnatural aversion towards suffering, our utter incapacity to see it as necessary on the way to individual and collective self-understanding means that we are breeding emotionally stunted individuals. The kind of individuals that are seen taking selfies at the holocaust memorial and that are likely to be vulnerable to the spooks spouted by the next demagogue harnessing the fear of those who failed to grow up, preaching the same intolerance, violence and racism that were in vogue when people were lined up outside gas chambers. Without suffering, without a hard-earned capacity to make sense of our lives in any meaningful way, without the tools of empathy to ‘reach out to others’, there is little hope that mankind will to grow up, leave the thuggery of the schoolyard and be morally mature (as Richard Rorty once wrote). Ivan Karamazov’s challenge stayed true from the massacres of the Turks until Auschwitz, and is likely to stay true as long as we as a species are around. Living in the hope “to see the lion lie down beside the fallow deer and the one who has been slaughtered get up and embrace the one who has killed him” amounts to being caught up in an irrational delusion, a tragic misunderstanding: that human happiness, to quote Andrea Wolf once again, can be rationally engineered, that human traits can and should be corrected, that we can finally master our own destiny as individuals and as a species.