On being human
A version of this article was first published: St James Ethics Centre's fourteenth Annual Report, 2003-2004 - October 2004
Picture this: a poolside setting on an exclusive, island resort; an informal gathering of the ‘good and the great’ sit listening to a rising star of Opera Australia sing a suite of Puccini’s most evocative melodies. One of the people listening is the President of Rwanda, His Excellency Paul Kagame.
The audience for this performance includes a number of people who do not belong to the gathering – but happen to be within range of the music. Having not been invited to the party, the fringe dwellers tend to stand in the shadows – enjoying the show with the kind of guilty pleasure many experience when simple good fortune delivers an unexpected windfall. The watchers probably scan the crowd – perhaps they recognise a famous face or two. However, they are too far away to notice any changes to the President’s demeanour.
Sitting nearby, I am in a position to observe more closely – nothing too obvious; just a quick glance, from time to time, to see if the President’s face might betray anything of his thoughts and feelings. Is he moved by the beauty of the music, caught by the themes flowing from the voice of the bella soprano – death, despair, love and hope? Or is the contrast with his own circumstances, the leader of a state struggling (in every way conceivable) to recover from the experience of fratricidal genocide, enough to bear? I cannot tell. Not a look, not a gesture reveals what lies beneath the carefully composed face ...
Why did I focus my attention on the singer and the President? For me, the reason was simple; each represented the extremes of human being. Puccini’s music is sublime. It represents the finest aspects of the human spirit. Rwanda’s experience of genocide is emblematic of the horror of which we humans are equally capable. It is genuinely mysterious that one form of being, human being, should be so capable of embracing both the ‘angelic’ and the ‘demonic’ in equal measure. How can so much beauty come from a creature equally capable of such cruelty and destruction?
One answer to this question has been offered by the citizens of Omelas in Ursula K LeGuin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. LeGuin describes a fictional place, Omelas, in which science, art – indeed the finest achievements of which we are capable, have reached their highest point of development. However, the best of human attainments are built, in Omelas, on the abject misery of a single child. The conditions in which the child lives are truly awful:
... In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually ...
How could it be that good people can allow this terrible evil to persist? Surprisingly, the people of Omelas do not claim to flourish despite the condition of the child – but because of it!
... it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer ...
Is this fiction or reality? Are human beings only capable of producing great beauty because of the great evil that we do? Are great works of the spirit a kind of atonement for great acts of evil?
I have always been suspicious of the claim that suffering (of one kind or another) is the necessary precondition for fine art, spiritual enlightenment or any other kind of higher good. While I accept that suffering might ‘motivate’ many, I see no particular credit in the achievements that result. That is, I think no better of these achievements than I do of those arising from great joy and abundance. If anything, to find inspiration, or God, or anything grand and good while inhabiting the “tents of prosperity” is a noble attainment. While it may be that great good can come out of great suffering, I reject the belief that this, the production of some good will, in some sense, justify such suffering or make it ‘good’. I do not believe that the experience or existence of ‘evil’ is a necessary precondition for producing that which is ‘good’.
My strongest reason for rejecting the idea that we need a ‘Rwanda’ to form a ‘Puccini’ is that this approach fails to recognise the one quality that I think most clearly defines what it means to be human. That quality is the capacity to transcend instinct and desire in order to make ethical choices.
I think that Socrates was right when he claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. His claim was not that an examined life was, in some sense, a more useful kind of life (although that may be so). Rather, I think that he was claiming that those who do not live ‘an examined life’ fail to participate in a form of being that is definitively human. That is, they live a lesser kind of life – quite possibly comfortable, enriched and rewarding (indeed entirely ‘liveable’) but a life not worth living for a human.
Being human means being capable of producing ‘Puccini’ without genocide. That is, it is open to us to make this choice – if we are minded to do so. Unfortunately, many people are suspicious of the ‘examined life’. They perceive (correctly as it happens) that this is a recipe for a more complicated life in which people need to take responsibility for the day-to-day decisions that they make. It is a form of life that is constructively subversive of unthinking custom and practice – challenging ‘common sense’, established norms and what everybody knows is ‘right’ because everybody says it is ‘right’.
Many people shy away from the examined life and embrace alternatives. One option is to pursue a kind of ‘hedonistic’ response (“let’s get drunk, let someone else decide and hope that it’s all sorted out in the morning”). Others surrender to the siren call of individuals and organisations that promise relief from ever having to think again (“Don’t worry about all of this complexity, life can be so much more simple if you leave it all to me ... and obey”).
I do not believe that we can merely ‘wish away’ great evils like the genocide that occurred in Rwanda. However, such events are not inevitable. Amongst other things, the Sydney Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, New South Wales, presents the unfolding history of events leading to the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe. As you proceed through the upper storeys of the museum you begin to realise that a majority of the images show crowds of people ... watching. People watch as the Nazis victims are beaten, reviled, persecuted, tortured and murdered. At the end of all this, one finds a wall inscribed with a number of quotations including Edmund Burke’s famous line:
All that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Good people often drift into a state of ‘doing nothing’. Or they ‘move with the herd’ – allowing truly terrible things to happen before their eyes. Perhaps they are blind to what they see. Perhaps they do not act because they have forgotten how to choose to do so.
To avoid falling into such a state is the challenge of being human.