Evil and European Humanism

Paul W. Kahn, of the Yale Law School

Abstract: One of the great puzzles of the West is to understand how culture has been tied to practices of evil. One view is that evil arises from the failure of culture – as if the civilizing forces have not been quite strong enough to overcome the brutish state of nature. Evil is embedded in our nature and the answer to nature is culture. The opposite view is that nature is innocent and that evil is the product of culture itself. Eichman tells us that he was a follower of Kant; Hitler enjoyed Wagner. Which narrative we tell – that of progress or that of fall – depends, I suspect, on when and where we are telling it.

Kahn, Paul W., “Evil and European Humanism” (2008). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 319. ….….. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/319

This can be reached in pdf format via http://www.law.georgetown.edu/faculty/lpw/documents/Kahnevilandblame.pdf. It is a complex and profound exploration in my initial reading though I have still to comprehend it in the full.

 Cover Illustration: “Abu Ghraib 67, 2005” by Fernando Botero

Paul Kahn is also the author of Sacred Violence; Torture, Terror and Sovereignty (2008, University of Michigan Press).  Among several reviews of his book I insert that by Richard Koenigsberg:

“Paul Kahn explicates nationalism as a form of love seeking to “transcend the limits of the finite body.” By identifying with a nation, one discovers that the finite body is no longer the boundaries of the self. One becomes more than oneself. Love, Kahn says, is felt as an “expansion and relief.” As the boundary between self and other disappears, one experiences the presence of the “infinite in the finite,” which is the “very definition of the sacred.” The self-transcendence of love is the “truth of the self for which we will literally die.”

Hitler’s ideology (see Koenigsberg, 2007) embodied the search for the infinite within the finite; transcendence through love of country. Hitler declared: “Our love towards our people will never falter, and our faith in this Germany of ours is imperishable.” He called Deutschland ueber Alles (Germany Above All) a profession of faith that “fills millions with a greater strength:” a faith that is “mightier than any earthly might.” Hitler explained to his people: “You are nothing, your nation is everything.”

The German nation was an idea or entity that allowed citizens to transcend the boundaries of the self, to become more than what they were, to become everything by becoming nothing. Hitler preached redemption. Nazism begins with that “self-transcendence of love” for which the individual would “literally die.”

Kahn sees an intimate link between love and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of that which one loves. To love, according to Kahn, is not to claim but to “give the self.” Sacrifice is the outward form, the objective appearance of the self-transcendence that is the “end and means of love.” We could not make sense, Kahn says, of someone who claimed that he loved but was unwilling to “sacrifice himself for the sake of his love.” To sacrifice is to make sacred: to “find an ultimate meaning—the infinite—in the finite.”

Hitler asserted that any man who loves his people proves it “solely by the sacrifices that he is prepared to make for it.” In 1914, he tells us in Mein Kampf, he and his young regiment had “gone into battle as to a dance,” with “love in our heart and songs in our lips.” The most precious blood there, Hitler explained, “sacrificed itself joyfully.”

Like Hitler, Joseph Goebbels put forth and embraced a philosophy of sacrifice. In his semi-autographical diary-novel, Michael (1931), Goebbels said that what constituted the modern German was not so much cleverness and intellect, but a new principle: the ability to “give oneself to a cause unreservedly, to sacrifice oneself, to devote oneself to one’s people.” Goebbels defined socialism as “fanatic of love: the capacity for self-sacrifice.” We modern Germans, Goebbels said, are something like “Christ socialists.”

Nazism constituted an ideology of sacrificial death. This is where Nazism began, and where it ended. For Hitler, Goebbels and many other Germans during the Nazi period, there was no distinction between love and death. One offered oneself up for sacrificial death. The purpose of Nazism was to producing sacrificial death (Koenigsberg, 2009) as a demonstration of the depth of one’s love and devotion to Germany.

Kahn understands willingness to sacrifice as the fundamental dynamic that defines the political. Sacrifice, he says—giving oneself up to be acted upon—constitutes a “performance of suffering” for the sake of the beloved object. What love requires is a “kind of self-destruction.” Giving up the self reveals a domain of “transcendent value” that is not subordinate to any other interest, “including life itself.”

The search for transcendence, Kahn believes, lies at the heart of Western tradition. We find it natural to look upward to connect with a third dimension of reality. We worship an omnipotent God, but also look up seeking to fuse our beings with transcendent entities given names such as “nations” or “countries.” We imagine these entities hovering above us. These entities are connected with our lives, but seem to exist separate from concrete experience.

Relating to transcendent entities, we endow our lives with meaning. Love, Kahn says, is the condition of being that is commensurate with our awareness that we exceed every border, that we “are and must be more than the finite self.” The Western tradition of transcendence, according to Khan, tells us that we “find the truth of a limitless self only when we are willing to sacrifice the finite self.”

It is love that promises to turn death to sacrifice: the “meaningless of nonbeing into the fullness of being.” “Through death is life,” Kahn suggests, is the “very bedrock of faith in the West.” If this were not the case—if we did not imagine that we could achieve the infinite through sacrifice—we literally could not live with ourselves for “death is unacceptable to a mind that knows no limits.” The Western mind seeks immortality by fusing with transcendent entities—Gods or nations conceived as omnipotent and ever-lasting.

The desire for immortality, in short, is bound to our willingness to sacrifice in the name of objects imagined to confer eternal life upon the self. The figure of Christ is the Western template linking sacrificial death to immortality. Christ was crucified and then resurrected. By identifying with Christ we come alive through him—we achieve immortality.

Christianity had its martyrs. Nationalism too revolves around martyrs called “soldiers”: men willing to die for their country. According to nationalism, one’s country is the object of highest value. Citizens are expected to love their country. One proves one loves one’s country by a willingness to sacrifice for it. It follows that soldiers are the most virtuous of human beings. Like Christ, they are willing to die to save us. The soldier dies so the nation might live; so that we might live.

During the First World War, Protestant clergy extolled the life of the German soldier. In The Gospel of Nationalism (1986), Arlie J. Hoover summarizes themes that appeared in pastors’ sermons during the Great War. Far from being sinful, the life of the soldier was portrayed as one of the most “exemplary lives one could choose:” a life of moral courage, devotion and self-denial. According to German pastors, the soldier—like Christ—was someone ready to “place his earthly life on the altar of love.” He was prepared to “die for family, brethren, or country.” The soldier says: “It is not necessary that I live, but it is necessary that I do my duty.”

The death of the soldier on the battlefield is the event that defines the ideology of nationalism. The soldier’s death testifies to the significance and reality of one’s country, the entity for which one gives one’s life. Wars represent devotional activities whose purpose is to prove the existence of nations.

Despite our absolute belief that nations are real, we are unable to “see” them. A country, fundamentally, is an idea or abstraction, so how do we come to know that these ideas or abstractions possess reality? We wage wars—to prove that nations are real. Battles constitute a testament or means of testifying. One acts, says Kahn, for the sake of love, but “what love requires is a kind of self-destruction.”

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Filed under cultural transmission, Fascism, historical interpretation, world events & processes

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