What do we know? What can we know? What should we know? Is it worse to know too much than to know too little? Is the way of knowledge madness?
Ben Zoma was one of the tannaim, teachers recorded in the Misnah, a part of the Talmud.
The story is told that Ben Zoma was seen staring into space, lost in thought. When asked about it, he said he was contemplating creation, when the waters above were separated from the waters below. What, Ben Zoma wondered, was in between? It was then said about Ben Zoma that he was “still outside”, that is, out of his mind.
The Tower of Babel
In the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 11), a tower reaching to heaven is planned by ambitious and presumptuous people. God thwarts the plan, believing that if they continued, there was nothing they could not know or do. Their infinite power would rival God’s. They had all been together, speaking one language. God separates them and their languages, baffles them so they will no longer understand each other.
The Library of Babel
In his story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges conceives a library containing all books. It does not turn out well:
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proffered dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad…
“The question that imposed itself was: Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually “condition” them against it?”
I am sadly not above occasionally calling some of our leaders and neighbors during these political and public health crises “idiots” and the like. At the same time, I have also been heard to say that some of them are just “bad people.” So: are they evil or simply thoughtless?
This week I turned to Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century.
Initially, I was exploring her writings about antisemitism and totalitarianism. The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) remains a seminal work in this area. It had been a career-long topic for her. In fact, during her studies at the University of Marburg under Martin Heidegger, the Gestapo in 1933 arrested and jailed her for researching antisemitism. After this, she fled Germany.
Her most famous (in some quarters infamous) work is her coverage of the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She refused to categorize Eichmann and some others as demonic monsters, instead seeing what they did as the outcome of their ordinary thoughtless lives. This incensed Jewish communities, who saw her as an apologist for atrocity. The controversy continues to this day. She was of course no apologist, but a brilliant analyst intent on going deeper than our reflexive, if well-meaning, condemnation. (Note: Her regard in Jewish communities has also been influenced by her views on Zionism.)
She died in 1975, having completed two volumes of her three-volume work on thinking, The Life of the Mind. In it, she explains how the Eichmann trial and the banality of evil prompted her work:
Factually, my preoccupation with mental activities has two rather different origins. The immediate impulse came from my attending the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. In my report of it I spoke of “the banality of evil.” Behind that phrase, I held no thesis or doctrine, although I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought—literary, theological, or philosophic—about the phenomenon of evil. Evil, we have learned, is something demonic; its incarnation is Satan, a “lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18), or Lucifer, the fallen angel (“The devil is an angel too”—Unamuno) whose sin is pride (“proud as Lucifer”), namely, that superbia of which only the best are capable: they don’t want to serve God but to be like Him. Evil men, we are told, act out of envy; this may be resentment at not having turned out well through no fault of their own (Richard III) or the envy of Cain, who slew Abel because “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Or they may be prompted by weakness (Macbeth). Or, on the contrary, by the powerful hatred wickedness feels for sheer goodness (Iago’s “I hate the Moor: my cause is hearted”; Claggart’s hatred for Billy Budd’s “barbarian” innocence, a hatred considered by Melville a “depravity according to nature”), or by covetousness, “the root of all evil” (Radix omnium malorum cupiditas). However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as well as in his behavior during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness. In the setting of Israeli court and prison procedures he functioned as well as he had functioned under the Nazi regime but, when confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that he clearly knew of no such claim at all.
It was this absence of thinking—which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think—that awakened my interest. Is evil-doing (the sins of omission, as well as the sins of commission) possible in default of not just “base motives” (as the law calls them) but of any motives whatever, of any particular prompting of interest or volition? Is wickedness, however we may define it, this being “determined to prove a villain,” not a necessary condition for evil-doing? Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought? To be sure, not in the sense that thinking would ever be able to produce the good deed as its result, as though “virtue could be taught” and learned—only habits and customs can be taught, and we know only too well the alarming speed with which they are unlearned and forgotten when new circumstances demand a change in manners and patterns of behavior. (The fact that we usually treat matters of good and evil in courses in “morals” or “ethics” may indicate how little we know about them, for morals comes from mores and ethics from ethos, the Latin and the Greek words for customs and habit, the Latin word being associated with rules of behavior, whereas the Greek is derived from habitat, like our “habits”) The absence of thought I was confronted with sprang neither from forgetfulness of former, presumably good manners and habits nor from stupidity in the sense of inability to comprehend—not even in the sense of “moral insanity,” for it was just as noticeable in instances that had nothing to do with so-called ethical decisions or matters of conscience.
The question that imposed itself was: Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually “condition” them against it? (The very word “con-science,” at any rate, points in this direction insofar as it means “to know with and by myself,” a kind of knowledge that is actualized in every thinking process.) And is not this hypothesis enforced by everything we know about conscience, namely, that a “good conscience” is enjoyed as a rule only by really bad people, criminals and such, while only “good people” are capable of having a bad conscience? To put it differently and use Kantian language: after having been struck by a fact that, willy-nilly, “put me in possession of a concept” (the banality of evil), I could not help raising the quaestio juris and asking myself “by what right I possessed and used it.”
From The Life of the Mind: The Groundbreaking Investigation on How We Think by Hannah Arendt
It profanes talking about her by starting with Phil Spector, but it is an unavoidable preface.
Phil Spector was a genius record producer who changed pop music. He helped turn Ronnie’s extraordinary talent into memorable hits with the Ronettes. He was also a very strange man who abused women, including Ronnie after marrying her, and including another woman he murdered.
Adolescent boys (boys of any age) loved Ronnie Spector. Crush love. It was the pure voice, strong but soft, kittenish but grown cat. It was the songs, tuneful and romantic, about how she wanted you (Be My Baby) or was looking for someone like you (Walking in the Rain) or knew that after you split up it would be better than ever (Best Part of Breaking Up).
Just as much, it was the look. There was and are plenty of beautiful sexy women around, some in your real life, more in the world of entertainment. But none of them looked like Ronnie Spector. Maybe the beauty was a bonus on top of the voice, maybe the other way round. Either way, it is a gift that is cherished.
In November 2020 I was frustrated about the American response to covid. There was a hopeful prospect of a vaccine, but in the meantime, some leaders and citizens were not at all helping. So I posted this, headlined with the above photo of 1,000 matchsticks for those who think better with pictures:
“Right now there at least 240,000 Covid deaths and 10 million Covid cases counted in America. Without major behavioral and policy interventions, there may be 400,000 deaths and 1 million cases a week by the end of year. Yet some governors insist on staying the course, and some people think that even the current restrictions are too much.”
By the end of the following year (2021), even with vaccines, there were about 1 million deaths, and we are on our way to 1 million cases a day, not a week. And, since some things never change, “some governors insist on staying the course, and some people think that even the current restrictions are too much.”
Please feel free to pass this picture on for those who understandably have trouble conceiving big numbers:
Only once since the War of Independence has there been war on much of the American homeland. And even the armed conflict of the Civil War was not everywhere.
The Covid War is everywhere in America. We talk about battles we have won, we talk about the tide of war turning, but the truth is we are up against a brutal enemy we still don’t completely understand and that hasn’t been stopped yet.
In places around the world, there are two things well understood about a homeland engulfed in war: it involves suffering and sacrifice. Of course the citizens of occupied nations are exhausted. Of course their lives have been turned upside down and inside out. Of course they have suffered and sacrificed. That’s what war on the homeland is like. But they don’t have the luxury of pretending that the war is nearly over, based on some magical thinking or spinning of numbers. Because exhausted as they are, aching for things to get back to normal, the enemy is still right outside their door.
Time passes slowly up here in the mountains We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream
Once I had a sweetheart, she was fine and good-lookin’ We sat in her kitchen while her mama was cookin’ Stared out the window to the stars high above Time passes slowly when you’re searchin’ for love
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town Ain’t no reason to go to the fair Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down Ain’t no reason to go anywhere
Time passes slowly up here in the daylight We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day Time passes slowly and fades away
Bob Dylan, Time Passes Slowly (1970)
Of course, if you follow just the science, time actually passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level:
“Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.
“The difference is small but can be measured with precision timepieces that can be bought today on the internet for a few thousand dollars. With practice, anyone can witness the slowing down of time. With the timepieces of specialized laboratories, this slowing down of time can be detected between levels just a few centimeters apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.”
Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time
You may follow just the science, or you may follow just the poetry, or you may follow the first snow of the year. You may believe that no two snowflakes are alike, each one unique, even though we can’t know that for certain since we do not observe each and every snowflake. There is the wisdom from writer William Goldman who observed Hollywood and concluded “Nobody knows anything.” He also wrote The Princess Bride, one of the most magical and unscientific stories ever. Maybe knowledge is sometimes overrated or at least misplaced. Time will tell.