Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Sad Ghosts of Hispaniola, Part Two: The Haunting of Eros

Tory philosopher George Grant knew that there was only one way for the human heart to lift itself into the heights of Platonic Eros—that pure, disinterested, universal love. Grant insisted that, in order to start that long and often painful journey, we must always begin selfishly—by loving our own. Our own. That has always sounded so vicious to me, so cold. And I’ve always been slightly ashamed, on behalf of my species, of the undeniable truth of it.

The force of Grant’s certainty has bound my thoughts and dragged them into some of the foggier moor lands of the human experience lately. As I read the tragic accounts of the Haitian catastrophe, I wonder which kind of death touches us more painfully: incalculably massive losses suffered far away by strangers, or the single loss of someone close and dear?

The question asked, we feel the answer even before knowing it—an answer as horrifying as it is inexorable. We may even defer the dark admission by gently touching it from a distance with a question. Think of someone you love, someone whose breath and being have poured themselves into your blood, someone at the thought of whom you feel the air thinning and sweetening. How many Haitians would need to die before you felt their loss as heavily as you would feel the loss of that one person? A hundred? A thousand? Thousands of thousands? More than those, and then countless more. Let millions of strangers die—let their bloated bodies be piled in front of your very eyes—and, while your loved one lives, you shall feel no loss that you cannot negotiate, manage and eventually (perhaps immediately) forget.

Love is what attaches us to others and gives them significance, but love magnifies what it touches so absolutely that it makes us indifferent to those who languish outside its arbitrary jurisdiction. There is a cruel, capricious mystery in this. It isn’t fair; it isn’t right; it isn’t reasonable; it just happens. And no mortality statistic can ever be sufficiently cataclysmic to grieve us so long as that person whose smile we cannot live without is safe. Only by imaginatively placing that person in the midst of the tragedy can we turn it into something real. Only when we imagine that indispensable person staggering—bleeding, starving and weeping—through the streets of Port-au-Prince and feel the vertiginous sickness that comes of watching helplessly as a loved one suffers—only then is the weight of Haiti’s calamity made heavy for us. Only then are we with the Haitians, and only then do we feel with them (and savour the literal meaning of “compassion”).

To value human life as a whole, we must love strangers. To love strangers, we must seed our small, selfish loves with what we most keenly fear: we must put those we love most passionately at hypothetical risk and feel the sting of their imminent loss. The value of life cannot be comprehended in the abstract, as an inanimate concept. It requires a living incarnation, and that incarnation must be loved and must be vulnerable: that is the way in which “love is the law” of all healthy communities.

They who are unable or unwilling to place what they most cherish on the pyre (on the pyre of the spirit, at least) do not truly dwell within the communities to which they pretend to belong. They can barely claim to be human at all.


Peter Burnet said...

Moving, and very Christian, but are you sure you want to stand by that last sentence?

Sir Francis said...

...are you sure you want to stand by that last sentence?

It's the most important sentence of the post, and probably the least debatable.

Aeneas the Younger said...

The problem is that our society and culture is too narcissistic to really LOVE. In the way that it actually exists as an emotion unique to our species.

Neo-liberals/classical liberals are essentially narcissists in that they cannot conceive of a virtue beyond lucre, or self-gain.

Love is giving with no expectation of self-gain.

Dylan said...

Great post, as usual Sir Francis.

May I recommend Stanley Hauerwas' "Community of Character" for future reading.

Sir Francis said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Dylan. I shall look into it.

jkg said...

The ability to consider the "other," I find, has been present in literature and cultural thought in many forms throughout history, yet it is telling when that concept needs to be reintroduced or reminded as something significant in human thought. Individualism has become a victim of its own success, as the inability to empathize beyond the individual sphere has been in part become a consequence of that.

Materialism also plays an integral part as well in this dynamic, and I suspect Adam Smith did not expect such a phenomenon to arise.

Aeneas the Younger said...


Adam Smith would be appalled; he did have an expectation that Morals, Ethics, Religion, and the State would maintain a moderating effect on the market.

Materialism as an ethic would have been a great shock to all the early economists. Most of them were attached to Religious Colleges.

Life is a whole. A holistic experience, but when we relegate all of our lives to the pursuit of commodities, we deny this whole. We become only a part of the whole. A part. Apart.

Shiner said...

Aeneas the Younger is right, Smith is very critical of the rich in his writings, and quite clear about their responsibilities.

From The Wealth of Nations:

Our merchants and master manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effcts of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

jkg said...

I am always amazed at how supposed successors of Adam Smith's legacy conveniently forget (or perhaps tacitly reject) the moral responsibilities that would justify 'the invisible hand' concept.

The Gordon Gecko 'greed is good' mantra has managed to trickle down into populist thought. However, morality is invoked but in matters completely separate of economics. Liberty without justice is a veritable contradiction as Smith said, a contradiction is now a reality.