GOOD / EVIL

ENTRETIEN AVEC JACQUELINE KELEN

Does the technological society still want good and evil?
For her, it is only a question of operating with ever greater efficiency, not of discerning, judging, differentiating.
The writer Jacqueline Kelen, who has just published The Garden of Virtues (Salvador), protests against this mechanistic vision of the human condition.

La Décroissance: Bernard Charbonneau (1910–1996), the great precursor of degrowth, ironically asked us if there was still a  » problem of evil « ,  » in a profane society that loses sight of good and evil in the belief that it can overcome them « . In your new book The Garden of Virtues, you ask after it:  » Are we now so free of everything, since the death of God, that there is no longer any need to make this so-called Manichean distinction, that there is neither good nor evil? « What is your answer?

Jacqueline Kelen: It goes back several millennia, to the dawn of civilizations, and is inscribed in the first texts of humanity which are based on the distinction between good and evil and invite the human being to behave with honesty, justice and generosity, to do good and to avoid evil. It can be read on the clay tablets of Sumer, 6,000 years ago, on the walls of the pyramids and tombs of ancient Egypt, as early as Saqqarah around 2600 BC, or in the Tables of the Law dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai (15th-13th centuries BC). At the Louvre Museum, every visitor can contemplate the black diorite stele, dating from the 1780s BC, which is the famous Code of Hammurabi. This Code sets a moral rule for everyone to use, which, by discerning good and bad behavior, not only ensures order and harmony on earth, but also enables everyone to rise. At the top of the stele stands the Sun-God, guarantor of Justice, facing the King who represents his people. This clearly shows the reference to a transcendence that guides moral life and gives value to human existence. Finally, in the Hebrew tradition, the prophet Isaiah (seventh century B.C.) gives a warning that resonates with us:  » Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who turn darkness into light and light into darkness! [Woe to those who think they are wise and are very clever! 

We could multiply the examples by drawing from all civilizations, from India to China, from Persia to ancient Greece. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, where wars, crimes and horrors are still rampant, man proclaims himself free of any constraint, acting according to his own pleasure, since he would no longer have to answer to a (fallen or non-existent) God and would be sobered up by the opium of religion.

In fact, this proclamation of emancipation is both arrogant and complacent: nothing should limit the individual who will profit from everything and make the economic machine run as smoothly as possible. It is therefore a matter of constantly flattering and reassuring him, of inciting him to extend his empire without any other consideration — what we call his freedom. The threatening shadow of a God of Justice could not frighten him, nor a Last Judgment after death. From then on, the fight between the Vices and the Virtues, which is at the heart of ancient philosophy and of any spiritual approach, has no more reason to exist. All that matters now is his happiness, his well-being, his security and his personal development.

Without reference to a superior instance (whether it is called God, Absolute, Being, Supreme Principle, One), everything becomes relative and scatters in the moving multiplicity; truth, goodness, beauty vary according to one another, countries and times, to the great displeasure of Plato and his immutable and eternal Ideas. A typical example is the collection of chronicles by a fashionable philosopher entitled Morales provisoires. Thus, the narcissistic individual is free to say and do whatever he wants, except for violating the laws of the land. Henceforth, morality is reduced to the legal (what is permitted and what is forbidden), whereas it concerns first and foremost the conscience and responsibility of each individual, whereas it bears witness to the dignity of the human being.

What do we gain from this God-man arrogance, this self-sufficiency? An awful narrowing to the material plane, to the earth and to the present moment. The metaphysical questioning that stimulates the intelligence and the fervor to know is eradicated, the artistic creation that, during millennia, tried to approach the gods is sent back to the platitude or even to the sordid… The more man sets himself up as the master and finality of everything, the more inhuman and stupid the world becomes. Aristotle reminded us, in his treatise dedicated to his son Nicomachus, that « to live is to be useful « , which means that everyone must contribute to the evolution and elevation of all. Nowadays, it is supplanted by the slogans of « solidarity » and « living together ». And the philosopher concluded his work with words that would attract the wrath of contemporary secularism by affirming that man must conform to his divine principle, the spirit, and by stating firmly:  » Therefore, we must not listen to people who advise us, on the pretext that we are men, to think only of human things, and, on the pretext that we are mortal, to renounce immortal things.  »

What is nowadays stifled or trampled on in the human being is the sense of the Absolute, the thirst for the Absolute. As if that which infinitely exceeds man crushed or denied him, whereas it elevates and ennobles him. Hence, the loss of the sacred with its dreadful consequences against the very human being. Places, civil or religious, once felt to be sacred, untouchable — places of knowledge and care, of worship, of refuge, of rest — are given over to ransacking and murderous violence: schools, churches, hospitals, cemeteries? The human body itself is treated as a manipulable, tamperable and disposable object. Thus the recent proposal of « human compost » to enrich the soil after death (no, it is not a joke of the ecologists). What would Antigone say, she who risked her young life to give her brother a burial despite Creon’s edict(1)?

Thus, we reap the poisoned fruits of our denial of the sacred, of our mortifying oblivion of the  » eternal part of man  » that André Malraux constantly invokes. In his magnificent book published in 1951, The Voices of Silence, where he discerns the deep and universal meaning of Art, he writes:  » The sacred does not only imply an absolute, it also implies that the life of the society in which it appears is oriented by this absolute. « Under the guise of equality and diversity, we find ourselves in a world that is flat and conforming, and above all without grandeur. In rejecting good and evil as old lunatics, in cobbling together his own little temporary morality, the happy inhabitant of the 21st century has lost his honor and dignity — but these are still obsolete notions and the talk of grumpy people…

You observe that  » happiness, well-being, healing, letting go, meditation, personal development and self-love, these are the most sold items in the store of illusions. Contemporaries are ready to do anything to create a paradise on earth. All that remains is to defeat death, and we are working on it « .

In order not to shock the dear Narcissus, instead of moral education inciting to know himself, to correct himself and to improve himself by practicing the virtues bequeathed by the ancient philosophy (Strength, Prudence, Temperance and Justice), he is lulled with lukewarm concepts such as benevolence, confidence, esteem and self-love. He does not have to make efforts, to strive (verb forged on the word « virtue »), he must above all be reassured, cuddled. And the techniques of personal development strangely do not concern either the intelligence or the critical spirit, but aim at the corporal well-being, at the tranquillity of the mind or even at the absence of thought. Already Confucius (551–479) stated in his Talks:  » The wise man expects everything from his own efforts; the vulgar man expects everything from the favor of others. And also:  » The wise man aspires to perfection, the vulgar man, to well-being.  »

The therapeutic vulgate that invades all fields of thought and action seems to me to be the main enemy of eternal Morality. Where the latter gives reference points and intangible rules of conduct, and above all awakens personal responsibility and communicates a taste for improvement, a certain benevolent and sycophantic psychology relativizes and sows the seeds of vagueness, it undertakes to excuse the poor and fragile individual, to invoke his childhood, his social environment, in short, to divest him of his free will and his free choice. Morality strengthens and straightens the human being, where the sweet therapeutic speech debilitates him.

What is important is not to have broad ideas, but to have right ideas. And only reflection, collected silence, discernment, and first of all orientation towards the Truth offer a person to act with rectitude and to pronounce just words, at the same time clear, balanced and without compromise.

At present, it is a question of manufacturing consent at all costs, and the simplest way consists in leveling out distinctions and aspirations and in bringing people together on the most common, crudest level, that of the instincts and passions in which the self abounds. The latter is greedy and, of course, egocentric, he needs to be flattered and approved constantly, he demands protection and security and wants to maintain himself without ever being reached or suffering. Thus, through the words and magic recipes of happiness, healing, youth, forgiveness and self-love, we reach a consensus from below and at the same time we encourage consumption since all these products, courses and books are expensive. And while the citizen takes care of his big self full time, he does not exercise his intelligence and he does not rebel. Nowadays, it is no longer the wisdom of the ruler or the friendship between citizens that ensure order and harmony in the city, as Socrates and Aristotle thought, but the generalized search for well-being and festivities that pretend to guarantee them.

And then, the greedy self wants to last and does not want to disappear. So, we will flatter him again by making him dream of an earthly existence of hundreds of years. How will he use it? The question is not asked. In the madness of transhumanism we find combined the unrestrained arrogance and demagogy that despises the human. In reality, what is hard for man is his capacity to delude himself.

It is striking to observe that people who refer any desire to discern Good and Evil to the thinking of George Bush («  A battle of good against evil  »), he had said to defend his war in Afghanistan) are regularly the same ones who stand up in frantic moralizing postures. How to explain this paradox?

Such behaviors show what distinguishes morality from ideology, and thinking men from lecturers. We must remember that the moral life requires a personal commitment, a personal responsibility (President Bush, for his part, led a huge country to follow him), whereas collective movements that support « values » (political, ecological, humanitarian, etc.) always run the risk of proselytism, fanaticism, blindness and indoctrination.

The exercise of the virtues aims at self-control, at the government of instincts and passions, in order to be directed towards the sovereign Good. Virtuous conduct is exemplary, it can be contagious, but it does not enroll or exclude anyone. Morality singularizes, while ideology and militancy seek, in the name of their « values », to gather the greatest number, at the risk of insulting or crushing those who do not join them. Finally, a moral life is dynamic, it is always to be perfected, where an ideology, a system of thought believe themselves to be definitive.

The contemporary media discourse tends to develop the idea that  » the male is evil « . Thus, the man should  » find the woman in him  » to chase away the  » toxic masculinity « . What does this inspire you?

This current discourse seems to me both frightening and grotesque, but it goes back several decades, when some feminists were already making the equivalent between virility and violence or even rape, between masculinity and brutality, and when men started to cultivate their « feminine part », new fathers and nice buddies, soft and fuzzy men…

Such a hateful rejection of masculinity testifies to a refusal of law and authority, it wants to abolish the figure of the Father who distinguishes and separates, to the sole benefit of the Mother who reassures and encompasses. This discourse also ignores what the virtue of Strength represents. This is expressed in courage and valour, patience and resistance, determination and perseverance. It is not the prerogative of the male individual, but through Myths and History, it is this cardinal virtue that makes heroes, sages and saints, from Ulysses to Gandhi, from Heracles to Martin Luther King, from Don Quixote to Thomas More. It is the very opposite of flight, weakness, cowardice and resignation. And it pleases me that in ancient Greek andreia, courage, is forged on the term that designates the male individual, aner.

In these words about « toxicity » and « inner woman », we notice once again that psychology language and therapeutic advice are substituted for sound and firm morals: today’s man is encouraged to look at his navel rather than to exercise his will and courage. Besides, I don’t see how his « inner woman » is more interesting than his male identity.

Finally, the women who denounce this virile plague focus on the corporal and sexual planes, on the flesh, and omit the intellectual plane. Nowadays, who dares to say that the word is still held by men, with the power that attaches? I am thinking in particular of all those self-proclaimed sages, media philosophers and other gurus who occupy the whole space of knowledge, culture, religious and spiritual domain. For my part, it is on the level of moral and spiritual knowledge and the word that promotes it that women have first and foremost to gain their authority and to make themselves heard.

Everything seems to be set up to distract us, especially with the terrifying enterprise of digital technology, to excite our impulses of omnipotence, and to take us away from the quest for the good, the beautiful, the true. How to find the conditions to make something good out of your life?

The vast enterprise of generalized distraction has been highlighted by Philip Murray in our time, but there are predecessors, in particular Aldous Huxley who in 1931, in Counterpoint, wrote:  » The industrialists who provide the masses with standardized and mass-produced amusements are doing their best to make you the same mechanized fool in your leisure time as you are during your working hours. « Since the desire to improve oneself, to rise, and thus to make one’s life something good and useful has been undermined in everyone, there remains boredom, a deadly boredom. The individual will be occupied full time by screens and images, decentered and scattered by a permanent noise and agitation, preventing him from thinking and exercising his critical mind by a flood of advertisements and information. Tranquilizers and euphoriants will do the rest… Yes, everything is done so that the individual does not think, does not wonder, but finds all ready answers, explanations and remedies of happiness. For example, those who today advocate for the legalization of cannabis cite its therapeutic use, but also its « recreational » use.

There is no need to wait for particular conditions to confer a moral and spiritual value to one’s existence, a unique character. By becoming aware of the precariousness of life and its priceless price, a compelling desire rises up in the human being: a desire to venture, to risk, to study, to know, to love, to create, a desire to leave after oneself seeds of beauty, justice, goodness. No doubt most of our contemporaries need to rediscover the love of life, with its sweetness and its bitterness, with its joys and its perils, with its tragic grandeur. Our society does not invite to desire, but to the excitement of the senses and instincts, it does not invite to love life, but to enjoy and to gorge oneself. And no kind of love can flourish in an atmosphere of envy and greed.

I love the beautiful warning given by Teresa of Avila:  » Remember that you have only one soul, that you will die only once, that you have only one life which is short and for which you alone are responsible, that there is only one glory which is eternal, and you will detach yourself from many things.  »

The only way to avoid being engulfed and laminated is to resist, that is to say, to refuse all these screens, connected things and other obstacles that prevent us from seeing others, from contemplating the world, from savoring life and from feeling the caresses of the wind. We can live very well without these supposedly indispensable gadgets, I can testify to that, and above all we live so much better. It is then that those who, freed from these chains, will soon appear as the last living ones, can meet, converse, write and befriend each other.

Jacqueline Kelen is a French writer with a degree in classical literature and the author of numerous books. Interview published in La Décroissance#161, July-August 2019, « Against the Great Confusion ».

Notes et références
  1. NDLR Selon nous, l’humusation ne peut se réduire à l’idée de «compost humain», mais s’inscrit dans une philosophie de «retour à la nature», loin des pratiques commerciales entourant la mort. Elle ne s’oppose donc pas non plus à l’idée de sépulture. Il faut évidemment se méfier de la récupération capitaliste, qui ne trouverait en effet aucun mal à industrialiser le compost humain.
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