of cruelty



A political platform without thunderous twists: just make men less unhappy

Long books, nothing against. What would become of us without the Tristram shandy of Sterne, without Ana Karenina of Tolstoy, The Shifting Point by Peter Brook or All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren, or the Leviathan of Hobbes and the Magnificent Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, of the eighteenth-century Gibbon?[I]

Poor people. Who missed the chance to experience a thousand lives in this one, to recognize themselves, reinvent themselves and subvert themselves. These books, although time consuming, are read in one breath, contradictorily devouring and tasting.

Nobody doubts the therapeutic effects of books. You are never alone with them. When in exile, Machiavelli, in his moving letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, tells how he spends his days bored playing with an innkeeper, baker and butcher, but at night he takes off his muddy clothes and puts on “clothes fit for a king” to penetrate “the ancient courts of the men of the past”: books by Dante, Petrarch, Ovid. And the secret of books, it is known, is that they are only complete thanks to the reader, to us. With our repertoire and imagination. Unlike movies and series (which are getting better and better), it is the reader who makes the book. The author helps, but, especially in fiction, it is up to the reader to delineate the characters' faces and gestures, the nuances of feelings and behavior, the details of a ball or a battle, even the smells of the place.

The eulogy for the books is just to praise the books. Starting from the thinness of The prince, manual (hey!) of the art (hmm..) of governing, until today, centuries later, unbeatable. Of Tolstoy, for example, it can be said that The Death of Ivan Ilyich It's the epitome of everything you've written. No forget The Brevity of Life, by Seneca and the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

So let's move on to a tiny 44-page pamphlet, written by the American philosopher and neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty, A secular ethics. With an introduction by Gianni Vattimo and short questions from the audience, it's a masterpiece that will surely lead us to devour and taste other Rorty.

The partnership with Vattimo, a devout Catholic, is constant, see The Future of Religion. They are not salaams of mutual tolerance, in the wake of the think debole (fragile thought). A Secular Ethics it is an introduction to Rorty's thesis that there are no absolutes in philosophy, and only relativism, contrary to fundamentalism and absolutism (and all metaphysics) is the only way to think, better, to face the world. It is a reminder of his long philosophical journey, which began in adolescence when he, from an American leftist family, finds himself torn between the love of orchids (unconfessable in a leftist) and the unshaded purity of Trotskyist thought.

Orchids, or butterflies, fit in a revolutionary thought? He didn't think so, and it was this adolescent angst that led him later to discover how silly and shallow it is to reason in terms of either/or. Better to abandon the pretense of scholastic coherence, and adopt the e/e. For example, on cruelty, a topic that is so dear to him: 1984, by George Orwell is the masterpiece of the dynamics and mannerisms of social cruelty. And is lolita, by Nabokov, the best portrait of the reach and wiles of individual cruelty. They are different spheres, and they model two of the innumerable dimensions of human cruelty. Portraying them in their peculiarities, without forcing parallels and tangencies, broadens the understanding of this human addiction, and, who knows, triggers the desired compassion.

From bourgeois orchids to the adoption of relativism – as a sensible meter –, Rorty wrote The Mirror of Nature, in which he launches the anchor to disdain reading the facts as they seem to mirror us, and admitting that it would be foolish to confine, or put a straitjacket, on the primacy of the single understanding of the phenomenon. It would be more reasonable to accept apparent inconsistencies, if we agree with the disparity of the spheres of life, knowledge, thought, emotions, traditions and choices.

Without abdicating his debt to Heidegger (the “being here” versus the platonic being), Rorty is more the son of Stuart Mill, William James and Dewey. And of distinguished and leisurely Hume,[ii] of whom Immanuel Kant said, with admiration, to have woken him from the “dogmatic sleep”. Hume was an empiricist and a skeptic in philosophy, and a sentimentalist in morals (that is, moral actions come from feelings, not from principles and imperatives).

Rorty is a follower of this lineage, of James's pragmatism and utilitarianism, for which the greater good is “the maximum happiness of each one and the totality of happiness for everyone”, a story that is difficult to equate. It is known that the ideal of a society in which everyone loves everyone as himself is a monstrous chimera. Whose historical perversion was consummated in the totalitarianisms of left and right. But, despite the pessimism, he does not give in to apathy, and engages in the idea that, yes, a society in which “everyone has respect for others” would be possible – in which the desire of the other is not always intrinsically perverse.

Rorty's political platform is an anti-cruelty platform. No thunderous twists. Minimalist: just make men less unhappy.

This is why Rorty has a certain aversion to utopias (just remember that Thomas Morus, the classic utopian, took pleasure in hunting down heretics and sending them to the stake). Hence his ambiguity regarding democracy: sometimes he makes a torn apology for the least bad of systems, sometimes, as in this booklet, he says that it is just one, among others, ways of achieving “happiness”. "Tomorrow could be any other medium."

The only consensus is the need to safeguard the survival of humanity, and avoid cruelty. But for that, it would be mandatory to summon a certain predicate, somewhat missing: the imagination. The gift of being the other, quite different from recognizing otherness: the gift of being Ivan Ilych, Anna Karenina, Winston Smith and the victim of Lolita. But how can this gift be instilled in people, the premise of empathy, especially in a period when indifference thrives?

Some leads are outlined in Rorty's other books and articles.[iii] Just as he upset the notion of philosophy as a mirror of the world, he flicks Kantianism and its noble ideal of the categorical imperative. It would not even be necessary to show us that noble principles crumble quickly when things get tough: we are living this, “my mush first”. The way, then, would be to expand this notion from mine to ours, and from ours to all of us, an identity of the human tribe. Rorty's originality lies in refining and updating that Humean maxim that good deeds are only committed when affection, loyalty, long-distance friendship, those virtues that are dependent on feeling and imagination, come into play.[iv]

We live in the Age of Cruelty. Not the violence, the ferocity, the atrocities, the extremes, the uncertainties, but the sadism that has become the rule, it is no longer surprising and there is no need to account. The recent past is full of them, yes, like the death camps of the Third Reich, the Gulags, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia who broke the fingers of pianists before sending them to re-education camps in the countryside. But these malignancies, when they came to the general public,[v] caused loathing, and some were even judged and punished.

Cruelty, to differentiate it from violence, implies pleasure for the perpetrator and pleasure in the spectacle. They say that the Phoenicians, when they conquered a city, instead of killing the inhabitants, cut off their feet and hands. The gladiators never lacked for an audience, entertainment like the subsequent beheadings in the public square. And the Inquisition, in addition to creating inventive instruments of torture, did not spare bonfires to echo the screams of the victims, burning little by little.

Cruelty is an act of enjoyment. It is the enjoyment of Russian soldiers raping and executing Chechens (watch the film The Search, remake, whose protagonist is a Chechen child who chooses muteness as a defense). Or, if you prefer, watch the daily scenes, of the refugees who die on the crossing, at the work of people smugglers, of the terror introduced by the Taliban in Afghanistan, under the auspices of Trump, of the Buddhists of Myanmar who burn the Rohingya who did not manage to flee , 98% of Afghans at risk of starvation, Yemen, Syria, the….it became monotonous!

Current cruelty is too commonplace, beyond common, routine, trivial. We passed by her. We changed the channel to a romantic comedy.

Intoxicated with impotence, it seems that we are left with only two alternatives: cynicism (self-indulgent) or naivety (combative and adrift). The Search, the film, was detested by the critics, who condemned it as naive for denouncing the immobility of the international community. Revolting against obvious anomalies became Poliana's thing. Well, what do we have with that anyway?

All. Nature is already showing its claws. Misery will knock at your door, or jump over the wall. Bossiness and the bullying, twins of the armor of indifference, will be fearfully accepted.

For Rorty, resistance consists of seeking a pact of minimum agreement. In which the I and mine come close to him, him, with him. Interestingly, only individualism, when extreme in the projection of oneself onto the other, could save us from total ruin. Rorty reaffirms that only when we broaden our community of loyalties, of affective introjection in the other, is it that we will manage to weave a tenuous community of “trust”: “start to increase the number of people who belong to our circle”[vi]. Enlarging the circle is not giving the only piece of bread to the child instead of giving half to a stranger. To widen the circle is to prevent by all means, through the international community, that we have to live this "Sophie's choice".

For Rorty there is nothing simple-minded about this activism. It is not naive nor a far-fetched fantasy, because “only when the rich could begin to see wealth and poverty more as social institutions that are part of an unchanging order” did things change. However, for that to happen, it would be essential to activate the imagination, get out of the sameness, replace yourself, be several in one, what we used to say about reading as a character-building novel.

Conclusion: with good intentions all hell is paved. Paradoxically, only shared selfishness in the awareness of an imminent and common threat (avoiding cruelty) will rescue us, and future generations, from the darkness of sheds or superpowers fighting each other, from greed and inequality, from the snake that has already hatched from the egg. and brings us sadism and destruction.

One catch: Rorty can't answer a question from the audience. Fable question: “I land on an island of a million cannibals. The sum of happiness will be to eat me. It is the island of Hobbes and Freud. How would you escape?” Rorty balks, admitting we can't convince the locals to renounce traditional cannibalism.

It evades but also reaffirms itself: unfortunately we already inhabit this island of cruelty and indifference, and of material (the 1% against the 99%) and symbolic cannibalism. worth rereading Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, to understand what we have become and, above all, who we should stop being. Quickly.

*Marilia Pacheco Fiorillo is a retired professor at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The exiled God: brief history of a heresy (Brazilian Civilization).



[I] Not to mention the volumes of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, by Thomas Hardy, by Gunther Grass, by the Nabokovs. The one thousand and one nights, embarrassingly endless list, which would unfairly escape much.

[ii] See Appendix to Inquiry into the Principles of Morals, 1751.

[iii] In particular, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, and Pragmatism and Politics.

[iv] See “Justice as Enhanced Loyalty” at Pragmatism and Politics.

[v] Historian Walter Laqueur, in The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's Final Solution, reveals that the Red Cross and the Vatican were aware of the death camps from the beginning, and the Vatican facilitated the escape of several Nazis, including Mengele, through the mouse lines of Cardinal Aloïs.

[vi] Quoting author Peter Singer.

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