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The Human Condition: An Unsolvable Equation
Simone Weil and the revenge of Plato's Great Beast
It is the classic dispute between conservatives and liberals: the question of the role of morality and the regulation of human behavior, whether by secular law, religious law, or social enforcement. A depressing issue it is, I would argue, because there seems to be no solution.
Simone Weil describes the two ends of the spectrum between laissez-faire liberalism and moral-cohesion-by-force as “Rome” and “Israel” respectively, where Rome stands for complete materialist decay—the proverbial morass of the decadent and godless late empire—while Israel stands for an authoritarian theocracy that micromanages people’s every move.
Both scenarios seem very unappetizing.
And they present us with a conundrum that brings us back to the notorious role of the Law in Paul’s letters: the moral code, enforced by society, acts as a sort of childminder that keeps us from falling into sin and evil. Weil expresses the same idea:
On the non-supernatural plane, society is that which keeps evil (certain forms of it) away by forming as it were a barrier. … [I]t is only society which prevents us from falling naturally into the most fearful vice and crime.
No doubt: take away enforced societal conventions, or change them overnight into their opposite, and see how many people will resist the change and refuse to (often wholeheartedly) follow along the new world. Very few.
Weil calls society the Great Beast, following an analogy for society Plato came up with in the Republic: our default state seems to be to simply declare everything good that pleases the Great Beast, and evil that which provokes a negative reaction. Plato made clear that very often, our elaborate moral theories are simply rationalizations of this basic interaction with the Beast.(And without being too unfair towards professional moral philosophy, there is no doubt that much of it is an attempt to justify the current mood of the Beast, society’s moral stance de rigeur.)
If the Law can be seen as a childminder; if the moral order is, in the best case, just a barrier that keeps us from going overboard morally, but at the end of the day, we are just the playthings of the Great Beast—where does that leave us in the case when societal order disappears? Or when social norms get so inverted that they cease to act as a barrier against evil, but instead like a turbocharger for sin and decay?
And what about the case of a strong moral order which in principle enforces sound rules, but where we find those rules conflicting with specific situations that require a different approach, which they inevitably will if we are brave enough to pay attention?
In both cases, if we don’t want to fall, we find ourselves faced with strong external resistance. Simply by upholding the standards of our conscience, we will provoke the Great Beast to act against us, and we will cease to take this as a sign that our action is bad.
This dynamic will set in motion an individual transformation: we are forced to get in touch with our deepest, most sincere values in the face of a surrounding that doesn’t care, or that is actively hostile.
When this transformation plays out properly, we cease to be children tossed around by forces we don’t understand, and are on our way towards becoming morally self-sufficient.
There are two implications here: first, that we actually need a hostile environment, a “shock to the system,” in order to undergo that transformative process. And second, that there are fundamental differences between individuals: some will find it in their hearts to transform and become morally self-sufficient to a degree, while others won’t, or can’t.
These implications, if taken seriously, are pretty depressing and tend to shatter all those political debates and solutions about morality and its place in society, or the spectrum between “Rome” and “Israel.”
Because if the only way out of the conundrum between theocracy and degeneracy is a society comprised of morally self-sufficient individuals who don’t need that stifling pressure and manipulation from the Great Beast, but at the same time these individuals can only arrive there when faced either with degeneracy or theocracy (or both) and coming through victorious, then it follows that we should embrace degeneracy and theocracy as means towards salvation. At the same time, the very act of inner rebellion against these human conditions, of “waking up” so to speak, is what opens our hearts to that inner voice, that guidance which alone can make us morally self-sufficient. A fine dilemma!
There seem to be two escape routes here: we can deny that resistance from the Great Beast is necessary for moral development, or we can proclaim that individual moral development—moral self-sufficiency—isn’t necessary for a moral society to exist.
I think both of these solutions don’t work.
As to the first (resistance isn’t necessary for moral development), this would basically mean that moral education should be enough to make people resilient towards the Great Beast. OK. But have you ever tried to convince someone who “fell in love” with a manipulative, abusing charmer that this relationship is bad news? Or have you ever argued with someone who derives pleasure from a sense of moral righteousness which purely stems from an alignment with the current values of society, the Great Beast? Chances of success approach zero. The only way out is for the person to go through crisis and suffering to finally wake up and start a process of transformation and healing—a hero’s journey against one’s demons, quite similar to the process of facing society, the Great Beast, itself. (The two go hand in hand.)
The second escape from the dilemma (individual moral self-sufficiency isn’t necessary for a moral society) can’t possibly work either, for it leads straight to “theocracy”—a strict enforcement of moral rules that would disappear the moment the wind changes, which makes it necessary to keep enforcement going perpetually. But since nothing goes on perpetually, and in fact the very enforcement eventually provokes a reaction, the Great Beast will be forced to change its tune sooner or later towards liberalism. Under laissez-faire liberalism, on the other hand, moral self-sufficiency is required almost by definition, unless you want total chaos and decay.
So how can this dilemma be solved?
It seems to me there are two ways: one natural, and one spiritual, if you will.
The natural solution is what we can observe in history. It is the creation by the Weltgeist of a sort of pendulum, which makes civilizations oscillate back and forth between moral decay and authoritarian value-imposition, churning out a few enlightened individuals in the process, while otherwise not moving the needle all that much.
The spiritual solution is for individuals to consciously break the cycle by undergoing the inner transformation which alone leads to moral self-sufficiency.
It is only by entering the transcendental, the supernatural, the authentically spiritual order that man rises above the social. Until then, whatever he may do, the social is transcendent in relation to him.
While theocracy or moral degradation in society can be a great wake-up call and help the process along, inner transformation is possible under all conditions. There is always plenty of external and internal resistance to shape one’s moral compass and strength. Learning how to “walk according to the spirit,” as the apostle Paul put it, is always within our grasp.
Perhaps all we can hope for is individual salvation. But who knows: if enough of us do it, this might have far-reaching, world-changing effects.
Weil expresses our predicament and hope very well:
Modern totalitarianism is to the Catholic totalitarianism of the twelfth century what the spirit of laicism and freemasonry is to the humanism of the Renaissance. Humanity detoriates at each swing of the pendulum. How far will this go?
After the collapse of our civilization there must be one of two things: either the whole of it will perish like the ancient civilizations, or it will adapt itself to a decentralized world.
It rests with us, not to break up the centralization (for it automatically goes on increasing like a snowball until the catastrophe comes), but to prepare for the future.
Our period has destroyed the interior hieararchy. How should it allow the social hierarchy, which is only a clumsy image of it, to go on existing?
You could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything.
Paul certainly thought that a great shift was about to happen and that we should prepare for it spiritually. Simone Weil thought the same—and that the state of deprivation and civilizational collapse of her time in fact offered a great opportunity for growth.
Given the sorry state of affairs we are living under right now, perhaps this time, we will turn the pendulum into a spiral and break free?
“Rome is the Great Beast of atheism and materialism, adoring nothing but itself. Israel is the Great Beast of religion. Neither the one nor the other is likable. The Great Beast is always repulsive.”
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Routledge Classics, 2002, p. 167. The historical accuracy of that comparison is of no great importance here.
Ibid., p. 166
“It is as if a man were acquiring the knowledge of the humors and desires of a great strong beast which he had in his keeping, how it is to be approached and touched, and when and by what things it is made most savage or gentle, yes, and the several sounds it is wont to utter on the occasion of each, and again what sounds uttered by another make it tame or fierce, and after mastering this knowledge by living with the creature and by lapse of time should call it wisdom, and should construct thereof a system and art and turn to the teaching of it, knowing nothing in reality about which of these opinions and desires is honorable or base, good or evil, just or unjust, but should apply all these terms to the judgements of the great beast, calling the things that pleased it good, and the things that vexed it bad, having no other account to render of them, but should call what is necessary just and honorable, never having observed how great is the real difference between the necessary and the good, and being incapable of explaining it to another.”
Plato, Republic, Book VI, 439a
A libertarian might argue that laissez-faire liberalism does not necessarily lead to moral decay if there are very diverse small communities with different societal norms, plus mobility between those. However, it seems to me that mobility already presupposes a certain moral and cultural homogeneity across communities, and so the problem would likely prevail.
Gravity and Grace, p. 166