This essay is a collection of speculative thoughts, diverse and scattered but many times blended and regrouped, inspired by the 2008 movie “ Slumdog Millionaires” directed by Danny Boyle.
“Masked I advance”, Seventeenth-century French philosopher Rene Descartes famously said once about his quest for philosophical truth. A rather strange description, for we frequently attribute to truth qualities such as terrible, beautiful, absolute, relative, objective, subjective, but almost never do we think of truth as being essentially bashful and modest, in need of cover. And yet, how many times does truth elude us, refuse to let us glimpse it, describe it, unveil it?
One of the greatest mathematicians of all times, Georg Cantor, spent his life in a state of great anxiety that required frequent hospitalization, after he felt he had been repeatedly on the verge of unlocking the mystery of the universe, only to have all his mathematical calculations collapse again and again. Of course, it did not help that Cantor intuitively believed God to be a mathematical equation. For if God was an equation, He would understandably feel terrible about it and would try to hide it at all costs. Indeed, if the essence of divinity is to help people, an equation is a naked, kind of in-your- face, “sorry-guys-can’t-do-anything-for-you-see-you-later” disengagement from human life. Would humanity survive such a truth? Very unlikely.
Instead, God must have used that very old trick that many philosophers use when they don’t want to get in trouble: they advance holding the mask of what they absolutely are NOT, while at the same time pointing to the truth. Thus Descartes, believing that the earth is round and mobile, but aware of the Church’s opposition, and wanting to spare himself Copernicus’ fate, will write in his “Principles of Philosophy” :
Let us assume that the earth is at rest, having no innate tendency to motion (because we don’t see any such propensity). But let’s not think that this prevents the earth from being carried along by the current of that heaven following the motion of the heaven without itself moving. (1)
A sentence that would elicit a century later, roaring laughter from Leibnitz.
In His turn, God made sure He was the main inspiration for the loveliest of myths and legends, inserting Himself in countless poems, to cover that incessant buzz still humming from the original big bang that started the universe.(2) The buzz is still in the background , deafening, and to quote an expression from Andre Gide, “bedazzling like the Voice of God.” But, who is listening?
In other words, it is art, that pack of lies, that most of the times make life bearable. It is not only that we cannot face truth. It is also that truth itself feels and knows it cannot hang out naked in the vicinity of humans, keep them company, and still survive. For if truth, always flesh and blood, always “human too human,” to quote Nietzsche, were to part company with us, then it would die. Once in a while, you get to see a movie that embodies this: a truth so terrible it has to turn into an outright lie to live with us.
1) Art, this abominable lie.
“Slumdog millionaires” starts with a scene in a police station, depicting a thin and pale teenager being flogged by chubby middle aged cops with morsels of greasy food dripping from their gluttonous mouths, who keep hurling insults every time the whip lashes their victim’s back. The victim in the scene, a mere child, remains silent, never cries or even complains, and patiently endures the beating as if it was a normal part of his everyday life.
I say art, this abominable lie, for in real life, the police station is never a place where things start, but almost always the place where things end and come to a halt, often indicating the finish line of a young life. It is in a police station, during the last hours of the night, that you encounter those kids, exhausted from insomnia and its nocturnal terrors, walking along the endless and dirty corridors of police stations. Their faces are livid from a relentless and anguished pursuit of a meaningless life, the light of their eyes forever extinguished by the spectacle of the adults surrounding them. They are usually seated at a table, with powerful lights aimed at their delicate skins where pain has already dug bruises and embroidered the mask of a withered and damaged life.
When interrogated by the police, they remain usually silent and hold off for a long time while their faces become more obtuse and their eyes more and more focused, until, suddenly and without warning, the way a child leaves his mother’s womb, words come out, jostling from their mouth: “My mother threw me out on the street,” or “She reminded me of my aunt, I just could not bear looking at her”. Words encompassing the misery of the human race since times immemoria , words that reek of an adult world dominated by vices and stupidity.
This paradox, setting the tone for the movie in the way a prelude announces a sonata, is not unique.
Consider the ending: the tale of two homeless children concludes with a joyous dance imbued with the colorful profusion of a magical evening, instead of closing on sinister thoughts, haunting the somber frigidity of a hospital morgue.
It is as if the director, unfazed by those contradictions, is seeing things we cannot see, to be more precise, seeing things with his eyes closed, the way only a poet would see them (Rene Char, French poet). However, this blind vision does not point to a transcendental magical game, but rather to a reconstruction of our everyday world, a reconstruction that looks as plausible and possible as any other. It points to a truth, terrible in its implications, and unbearable in its scope: that we are free beings, that freedom is our governing principle, not only towards ourselves, but also vis- a- vis God Himself.
What the director is seeing through the tale of those two children is nothing but a remake of the myth of Abel and Cain, which according to most theologians, is the founding myth of human civilization. The literature about Cain and Abel is so abundant and varied it is difficult to claim one has been able to go through it all.
2) What was God thinking ?
A detailed lecture of a large sample shows that one of the prickly points haunting everyone, from the pious Christian to the less orthodox researchers, is God’s reaction to Cain’s murder of his brother. A mystery to be kept that way for all times.
In all three Abrahamic religions, God does not instantly punish Cain by sending lightning and turning him into a black heap of coal. Neither does He shower him with flowers and nice words, mind you. Instead, God voices his disapproval by asking the famous question that has reverberated throughout history, its echo becoming louder and louder the more humanity grows: “Cain , where is thy brother?” But curiously enough, God allows Cain to survive, and even protects him, and proclaims that whoever will do him harm will see harm turned against him sevenfold. And instead of sending him to wander endlessly, He allows him to build a city , to procreate and even, scraping the eternity of the wandering , grants him the grace of death at the end. In essence, he gave Cain the future and by doing so, signaled for History to begin.
Which begs the question: is it possible that God felt that Cain was justified? That the charge against him is not murder one, but rather murder three or four, like a judge who would sentence a man to ten years in jail instead of the electric chair because he was in the throes of a terrible passion that blinded his soul? He deliberately chose to honor Abel and reject Cain without reason. It is not surprising that Cain must have felt such a rejection as totally unfair, arbitrary and incomprehensible, if not straightforward evil, and impossible to live with.
But an evil God would have reveled in Cain’s murder, which of course is not the case. There remains one possibility to shed light on this mystery. Could it be, or better still, is it too much to hope for that God was testing Abel? Is it possible that when God took Abel’s gift and rejected Cain’s, he was testing Abel, and hoping in his heart and against all odds, that Abel would ask back for his gift in solidarity with his brother? That he would refuse God’s blessings because the curse that was thrown on his brother was just totally unjustified, arbitrary and an attempt not only on Cain but also on himself?
If it was, Abel unfortunately failed, and we the descendants pay the price everyday of our lives. But in “Slumdog millionaires,” the little boy passes the test with flying colors. In one of the most brutal and violent scenes, where we have to hang to our chairs to avoid running away in horror, we see little Salim, the child chosen by the adults to lead the street gang, refuse to mutilate his little brother Jamal, even if it is to secure his own position as the “chosen” one. Instead, after a fraction of a second during which we guess a shadow of hesitation, he grabs his brother’s hand and runs to a safer place.
With this flight, and by saving his brother’s life, Salim posits life essentially as a common destiny amongst all men, and solidarity as the only option for man’s survival.
3) Solidarity according to Rorty
No one has argued for such an option better than Richard Rorty, the American philosopher who died a few years ago.
In a reversal of the sterility of political discourse, Rorty defines a liberal society, not in political terms that remain relative, but rather, surprisingly so for an atheist, in messianic terms that look to the absolute. A liberal society is one that aims essentially at reducing if not eliminating cruelty in daily life. It does not look at establishing a political theory based on metaphysical unbreakable grounds. Rather, it supports the pragmatic and the daily rethinking of politics based on daily events. It may lack a foundation, and may not be deducted from universally transcendental principles, but that does not mean it lacks a point of reference. It does not. For it has a goal—to constantly work at reducing cruelty. And this war waged against cruelty takes the form of human solidarity.
To take a current example, gay marriage should be only a political issue, not a theoretical one. Any discourse about gay marriage should not take the form of a discussion of the nature of such a marriage, or its religious merits etc—but simply, besides offering maximum protection for individual rights (the other main tenant of a liberal society), ask the question whether it would be cruel or not, to prevent two human adults from entering into a contract that they fully understand, that they desire, and that would regulate many aspects of their lives. In that respect, supporting gay marriage would be a show of human solidarity.
Rorty’s focus on alleviating human suffering and his appeal to “roll up one’s sleeves and act” instead of wasting one’s time and energy on sterile theories and counter theories is very appealing, and not as easy to refute as one may think. Indeed, philosophers may look at Rorty as anathema. Here is a philosopher who is shouting: Who cares about truth? For if truth is not useful and does not go into the direction of alleviating suffering and reducing cruelty, it is not worth pursuing. Rorty goes even further in his blasphemy when he declares that all philosophy starting with Kant aiming at setting moral principles that are good and valid in themselves is totally futile and a waste of time.
If the Soviet goulags are a direct result of a Marx spending years at the British Library trying to build up sentence after sentence a better future for the world, where wealth would be distributed more equitably, why not burn “Das Kapital”? If the Pope knew about the Holocaust and tolerated it, going to bed every night without being bothered by the mephitic smells that were coming from the gas chambers just a few hundred miles away—How could one not look at the Gospel as a work of fiction? If the chosen people can ascertain their choiceness only by racism, sending to homelessness and shutting the doors to any future for millions of people, how can we not question God’s choice, if not His judgment? And If Islam is a call to mass scale butchery, and if a 13 year old little girl can be sentenced to death and executed for “indecency”, how could one avoid thinking: well maybe we could do without…
4) Let us do without?
What Rorty is proposing in essence is doing away with searching for and enacting concepts that are universally acknowledged as true and good in themselves, and replacing them with some kind of “social therapy”. And the end the philosopher reaches by such a proposition, is, in reality the dissolution of personal freedom.
Throughout the ages, Euripides’ Medea, who slaughters her own children to take revenge on a husband who deserts her for another woman, has remained an extreme figure of the paroxysm cruelty can reach. The play depicts the unbearable passion that engulfs Medea and leads her to refine, adjust, almost rarefy and amplify her cruelty until it reaches unspeakable heights.
Today, Medea would have been treated with massive doses of Prozac, encouraged to spend whole afternoons at the hairdresser and shop for a new wardrobe. The evil that an uncontrollable raging passion represents would virtually not be an object of confrontation per se, but a problem that society has to deal with. Medea is not an evil person, who has the choice, even at the cost of her own life, to control her passion and do the good, but rather a sick person, whose evil nature needs to be kept under wraps, given different directions, or controlled by medication.
By doing so, we virtually lose our moral clarity: Evil become a mere nuisance. Defining, confronting and eradicating evil is replaced by embalming it, diluting it, and cohabitating with it.
Such confusion fails at setting a universal moral tenet that would act as a magnet and regulate political and social settings on a large scale. And this failure has had disastrous consequences throughout history.
Emile Boutroux (died 1921), a French professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne gave a course in 1896 about Kant’s Moral theory. The course is gathered in a book available on Gallica on the internet (3). In it he claims that throughout history, every large- scale organized attempt at infusing more justice into society has been matched with waves of repression and eaten up at people’s individual liberties. Socialism, whose primary goal was a society based on solidarity, and a lifeless cruelty for large sectors of the population, has invariably created, along its course frightful and massive massacres.
The other side effect of a pragmatists democracy seeking solidarity, says professor Boutroux, is its equalizing tendencies that have led to an overwhelming wave of low average-ness threatening the very structure of civilization.
One has only to watch television to see how important and modern those issues are. On the Right and behind the inanities proffered by Sarah Palin, the way water freely flows from a tap, lies quite a legitimate and important question: how can we institute solidarity without sliding into socialism? On the Left, and behind all the enormous amounts of money that Mrs. Pelosi, a symbol of graciousness, wants to throw at the education system, lies the fear of a mediocrity quickly eating up at a large section of society as a result of democracy’s equalizing principles. There is a reason why many people feel a shudder of terror up their spines when they look at the Kardashians.
4) Kant to the rescue,
The only way out of this dilemma, says Bourtroux , is by reintroducing Kant into the picture along with his notion of freedom. Society’s ends are “moral, and can be realized only by the liberty of the individuals themselves”, (4) he says in the introduction to his course.
A discussion of Kant’s concept of liberty is beyond the scope of this essay. But I will try in a few words to show how Kant , by treating freedom both as a means AND an end is able to dissolve the antinomy between solidarity and freedom , and between equality and mediocrity.
Kant starts with a very basic premise: God is unknowable and beyond man’s reach. This is why he can never be the source or the foundation of morality. Man is left with only one thing: his own “Reason” which is the starting point of all moral principles in his life. His aim will be to found morality on the reason-in-itself disengaged from the forms of sensibility.
If reason is the alpha, and the only alpha, then it directs itself towards an end that it can conceive without the help of any external experience or any outside reality. In other words, reason needs to find alone that which it can recognize as good in itself without any other help but its own grey matter. It cannot test, it cannot weigh that which it must recognize as the starting principle of all morality—that principle is already anchored in it.
And that principle, that reason, cannot miss to recognize on its own, says Kant, is the Good Will. And by goodwill Kant means the notion of being obligated to something. In other words, reason may not know immediately what good is. But it knows one thing: that we are obligated, that we have a duty to do something even if we have to suffer from it, even if it costs us our life, even if… so far so good.
Then comes the next question: if the only thing that we can immediately recognize is the obligation itself, then what guarantees that we are obligated to do the good and not the bad? Since God cannot come to the rescue, how do we recognize that the obligation it carries in itself is the obligation to obey a law that wants the good and not the evil? Now remember, reason has to recognize this alone without any help from experience. It does so, says Kant, because obeying the good law engenders in us the feeling of respect whereas obeying the evil law engenders in us the feeling of being trashy. And those two feelings happen to be feelings produced by ideas generated by reason itself and not by any external objects: when I look at someone who has done his duty despite all the obstacles, I express my respect to him. But, when I look at someone who has, for example, climbed Mount Everest I express my admiration. And the two, indeed, are different.
Having in itself the obligation to obey the moral law, the law that produces respect, the law that tells us we are obligated to do our duty, man is essentially free to follow it or to counter it. His, says Kant, is an autonomous will. Choosing to do one’s duty out of sheer will, without any external pressure, but only guided by one’s reason and one’s feeling of obligation fits the essence of man’s freedom. In other words, by choosing to superimpose his will to the common will and the common notion of goodness, man expresses his freedom. If society becomes a community of autonomous wills that chooses freely to do their duties, without any external pressures, it is a community that is ruled by the necessity of freedom and by extension by the rule of law. When morality springs from man himself and his own reason without any recourse to external laws or feelings, then it is a free man who is doing his duty. And it is only a moral and a free man who has rights, not a natural man who is governed by necessity. The autonomous will cannot co exist with laws that suppress freedom, and neither can it survive in a climate imbibed with mediocrity. Because, as Mrs. Pelosi will tell you, exercising one’s freedom requires thinking .
Maybe there is no historical figure that personifies the Kantian ideal, that sublime union between freedom and morality better than Sophocle’s Antigone. Antigone, hailed across the centuries as the ideal rebel, is in fact a most conservative figure. Oedipus ill-fated and cursed sons, Eteocle and Polynice, are engaged outside the doors of the city in a combat unto death and fall onto each other’s lifeless bodies. Creon, their uncle, issues a decree allowing the proper burial of Eteocle but forbidding any honors be given to Polynice ‘s body. He will remain uncovered outside the city, a feast to the vultures. Again, no explanation is ever given to this decree. But the punishment to anyone transgressing the order will be death. Antigone, despite the supplications of Ismene, her sister and Hemon, her fiancé who is also Creon’s son, decides to face up to Creon and to properly bury her brother. There is no indication anywhere in the play that Antigone favors Polynice over Eteocle or that he means something special to her. No, Antigone is moved to infringe Creon’s decree by her sense of duty towards her brother. An unburied body left to the vultures will remain a sign of shame on the whole family. Indeed Antigone, who is about to get married feels she can muster respect only by doing her duty, whatever the consequences. Hence she would transform her bridal dwelling into a burial site and enter it with head held high, secure in her belief that she is doing her duty and that her brother’s destiny not only concerns her, but indeed is an essential part of her moral conscience.
Going back to the movie, one cannot help but noticing that in both the biblical story, and the film itself, the outcome remains unchanged: death. But whereas the real Abel dies an ignominious death, a symbol of servility and cowardice, Salim dies on his own terms and the embodiment of a free human being who has freely chosen to do his duty, despite all the obstacles. It is as if this sacrifice has exhausted him, and his life at the same time. Like those scorpions who die just after giving birth and, still warm with their past lives, are their children’s first meal, Salim knows in his heart that his destiny has been fulfilled. Like all first-born on whose shoulders civilizations and futures are built, he knows it is time to go home, and let life begin.
And as Salim chooses to die the death of a hero, in a hail of bullets, the sound of the machine guns resounded like the echo of a joyful and noisy reunion , the rebounding of hundreds of celestial angels, rushing from all four corners of heaven with their jubilant trumpets , jostling and hustling off, coming together to welcome their brother, their friend, their lover: the prince of Love.
And while Salim lies dying, I could not help but recall those words that Moslems utter when they salute one of their departed brothers, “O soul at rest, return to thy Lord well pleased and well pleasing. Enter as My servant, enter into My heaven”… for indeed it was an exhausted but rested, soiled but immaculate, depraved but redeemed, tormented but consoled soul that went back to its Creator, to bask in His eternal glory.
(1) Descartes : “Principles of Philosophy” # 26 ,Copyright ©2010—2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett
(2) A reference to the “Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) , or whatever remained from the original Big Bang.
(4) Emile Boutroux: ” La Philosophie de Kant “, 3eme partie, page 280. 1926, Paris, Librairie Philosophique J.Vrin.