The cruel and inhuman

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Bolsonaro's cruelty teaches, in the most painful way, that you can't give political power to people who lack compassion.

On February 22, Marilena Chauí gave a beautiful opening speech at the Second UFBA Virtual Congress, later published in the earth is round with the title “The place of the Brazilian university”. Chauí reflects, in a very interesting way, based on the ideas of Montaigne and La Boétie, on the relationship between cruelty and cowardice. She argues that, at the foundation of cruelty, is the fear of the other, which, being seen by the coward as superior to himself, must be eliminated in the physical, moral, psychological and political spheres with the utmost ruthlessness. The cruel person plays before others the role of a courageous individual, displaying a strength he does not have and, therefore, lying about what he truly feels, which is fear and weakness. Chauí draws relevant and important conclusions from this notion of cruelty, and from the fact that we have a cruel and angry president in power, in relation to our society. It refers to the saying “So what? I am not a gravedigger” of the president, the “wind vaccine”, the hatred of thought, reflection, criticism and the university as being different manifestations of the same phenomenon, cruelty, which manifests itself through various cowardices.

Chauí's lecture “makes you think”, which is precisely one of the most important features of the research, as she points out, and I would like to present the reflections that it raised in me. I believe that our society is well characterized as tyrannical, as being guided, in general, not by relations between equal people who have the same rights, but by relations of command and obedience in which everyone accepts to serve, as long as it is on the horizon , even if only virtually, will one day be served. Those at the top of the chain of command believe they have every right to be cruel, and those below them accept abuse as normal. Cruelty and cowardice, then, pervade this violent and hierarchical society. There is, however, another aspect related to cruelty that I would like to explore, as it seems to me to contribute to understanding it, as well as to composing our social context, in which it plays an important role. This approach is not in contradiction with Chauí's exposition, but, taking cruelty from a metaphysical perspective, it allows us to ponder these questions from a different angle, which also ends up having social and political consequences.

Just like Chauí's lecture, these reflections will be emblematic of a cruel act by Bolsonaro. In his “live” on March 18, he imitated the sounds of a person with shortness of breath, mocking one of the main symptoms that someone who is affected by covid-19 feels. As of today, more than 290.000 Brazilian men and women have already lost their lives to this disease, and it is absolutely unbelievable that a person can joke about respiratory failure, the immediate cause of death for these thousands of human beings. It is true that many rejoice in the joke, and we know that there is a percentage of individuals who rejoice in this man and show their teeth at everything he does. But it is necessary to draw attention to a fact parallel to this, namely, his attitude is thoroughly repugnant to countless people. The cruelty of this debauchery is felt by thousands of other Brazilians, who are disgusted by the complete lack of compassion that it exposes, insofar as death by suffocation, caused by the coronavirus infection, is extremely excruciatingly painful. And not just for those who die, but also for those who lose loved ones in this terrible way, and for those who survive with severe sequelae.

Based on Arthur Schopenhauer's metaphysics, we can understand compassion as the foundation of moral conduct and cruelty as its exact opposite.[I]. The immediate contradiction with compassion is why cruelty horrifies us and why we regard the cruel as inhuman. Schopenhauerian philosophy intends to unravel the enigma of the world in an immanent way to it, without appealing to transcendent elements, and its ethics deals with the conducts that actually exist. Thus, when he refers to compassion and cruelty, it is not becoming that he is dealing with, nor ethical prescriptions, but this world in which we live. Compassion, therefore, is the foundation of morality and it is also real, although it often has to face the obstacle of everyday selfishness. It represents, in Schopenhauerian terms, a counterweight to the affirmation of the Will to Life, which is a blind impetus, without telos, voracious and self-contradictory, which sinks its teeth into its own flesh.

The Will to Life is the metaphysical essence of the world. It is constituted of a desire that is never satisfied, which manifests itself in a pain that is never healed, which human beings will affirm or deny. The affirmation of the Will is the behavior in which, deluded by the veil of maya, we don't see through Principium individuationis, or time and space, and we regard the plurality of individuals as essential and real. the veil of maya, it prevents one from perceiving the metaphysical identity of all beings and constitutes the basis of selfishness, evil and, at the limit, cruelty. It is a blindness to the nature of the thing itself, to the root of all that exists and to the likeness of the origin and destiny of all. In this case, the individual sees only appearances, which he perceives as multiple and different, seeing himself as essentially different from others and, most of the time, as the bearer of more rights. He seeks contentment, pleasures and well-being for himself, looking only to his own needs, or, at best, to his close circle. The affirmation of the Will can happen through mild affections or violent passions, in which individuals go beyond the affirmation of their own will and reach the suppression of the will of others.

This understanding of oneself and the world is the basis of selfishness. The egoist does not understand that his essence is the same as that of other beings in nature and other human beings. He recognizes humanity and rights only in himself and in those he chooses, he feels himself the center of the world, the only one who must have his existence and well-being preserved. The selfish individual is aware of others mediately, as something dependent on his own being and existence, while he perceives himself as if he were the in-itself of the world, the complementary condition of the world as representation. If necessary, he would annihilate anyone or the world itself to save himself.[ii]. Selfishness is widespread and injustice is an omnipresent phenomenon, in which a vehement assertion of the Will manifests itself in which an action offends and causes damage to the will of others. It is interesting that Schopenhauer recognizes the strength of selfishness and injustice, and that is why he considers the a priori ethics of duty, such as the Kantian one, as ineffective against such a powerful internal stimulus: “The selfishness it is thus the first and most important force, though not the only one, which the moral impulse need to fight. It can already be seen here that this, to present itself again against such an opponent, must be something more real than a clever subtlety or an a priori soap bubble.”[iii].

However, the human being is the most perfected phenomenon of the Will and has the possibility of reaching a higher knowledge, that is, he is able to see through the veil of Maya[iv]. In this way of knowing, the individual looks into his interior and understands his identity with others, recognizing that it is a single Will to Life in all that exists. So he can see through the Principium individuationis and understands that everything has the same essence. This knowledge is the basis of the moral virtues, which inhibit selfishness and injustice, born of the affirmation of the Will. It is not a theoretical, abstract knowledge, for the acquisition of which formal study is needed, but an intuitive and immediate vision of the metaphysical identity of all things. When this knowledge is perfect, a completely transparent vision through the Principium individuationis, the individual is led to deny the Will and, with that, reaches the maximum point of ethics. People who reach this stage are rare, but those who feel compassion and are inclined towards justice and charity are not so rare.[v]. The just individual, says Schopenhauer, does not seek to increase his well-being by inflicting suffering on others, committing crimes or disrespecting the rights of others.[vi]. The charitable person recognizes his will in those who suffer and identifies with the pain of the other, feeling compelled to help[vii]. As intense as the impulses of selfishness are, real actions endowed with moral value exist and are frequent, which shows that compassion is also a strong and present feeling. Indeed, it is rooted in human nature, it is a fact of consciousness, and it is originally and immediately present in history.[viii].

At work On the Foundation of Morals, Schopenhauer states that the three main motivations of human actions are evil, selfishness and compassion[ix]. Selfishness, which acts for its own good, malice, which acts for the harm of others and can reach cruelty, and compassion. Evil and cruelty are beyond selfishness, because in that case suffering and the evil of others are ends in themselves. It is the highest degree of moral perversity in practice, which accompanies contentment or pleasure in another's suffering, something quite diabolical. “There is no more infallible sign of an utterly evil heart and of profound moral unworthiness than a trace of pure and genuine joy at the misfortune of others.Schadenfreude).”[X]. Actions endowed with cruelty are the opposite of moral actions, and even evil individuals would be accorded some degree of compassion. Thus, according to Schopenhauer, we always hope that appealing to compassion must be infallible, because we believe that it must be present in all people. “On the other hand, those who seem to lack it are called inhuman; just as 'humanity' is often used synonymously with compassion”[xi]. Cruelty disgusts, revolts and disgusts, precisely because it is the exact opposite of compassion.

What is the fate of a country, during a pandemic, in the hands of a cruel ruler who rejoices in the collective tragedy? Bolsonaro's list of crimes and cruelties cannot be written, because it grows every day. His actions to make the fight against the coronavirus unfeasible are diligent, swift, agile and abundant. From the beginning, reinforcing and insisting on what does not solve, spending huge sums of public money on ineffective medications, minimizing deaths, belittling the seriousness of the disease and, at the same time, discouraging the use of masks, discouraging lockdown and distancing society, rejecting and mocking vaccines. Not even the vertiginous increase in the number of deaths and the collapse of the health system in the entire country was able to make him review his way of thinking: because it is not a way of thinking, it is a way of being. It is total indifference, total absence of compassion and pure cruelty against the people. Our abyss is that the fate of the country, at a crucial moment like the one we are in, has been placed in the hands of someone who doesn't care at all about life.

Bolsonaro behaves like a TV show character, constructed as a villain. He doesn't care whether we like him or not, he doesn't care about how badly we talk, because he knows it's a role he plays in front of others. Even when he lashes out at someone because he criticized them, it's only in a performative way. What matters is his popularity and because of it he is capable of anything, of any atrocity: the shortness of breath joke is an example. There are always those who go wild with his displays of savagery, and so he feeds his character and keeps him going. How did we arrive at such a contradiction? We put in the presidency of the republic, the highest position in the executive branch, instead of someone with a great public spirit and a beautiful vision of the future for Brazil, an individual filled with hatred, extreme cruelty and who rejoices in the death of thousands of Brazilians. I believe that the tyranny intrinsic to society is a good part of the explanation, but there is also an aesthetic issue, which is that we are used to these evil soap opera characters, half comic, half tragic. Bolsonaro has fans, who expect him to amuse them with his “sayings and deeds”. The things he says and does should scandalize to such a degree of vehemence that he would be ousted from the presidency immediately, but this does not happen and, in practice, everything is revealed. TV has dampened us, and as much as we rebel, we watch its grotesque shows like someone who watches a bad soap opera or a kitsch auditorium program.

However, inhuman: is no other adjective that deserves a person who has no compassion for asphyxiated dead compatriots and makes fun of it. Who doesn't respect the pain of families who lost their relatives. A president of the republic who does nothing, on the contrary, hinders the fight against the disease. Who doesn't work to help poor families, the unemployed, small businessmen, informal workers and all those who are in need of a financial subsidy to survive. Who doesn't care about fighting the hunger that afflicts more than 10 million people in Brazil today. Who lives by cheering up his crowd and his fans, hoping to maintain his popularity to run for president in 2022. Who, after all, doesn't think about the good of the people, but openly acts cruelly and doesn't even disguise the satisfaction he feels with the carnage.

“The meaning of that question is, of course, only this: How is it possible to be so completely devoid of compassion? Thus it is the greatest want of compassion which stamps on an action the deepest moral turpitude and abomination.”[xii].

Schopenhauer's metaphysics, by unveiling compassion as something inherent in human beings, allows us to have encouragement and hope, even in these dark times in which we live. This is because it is radical, original, does not depend on any kind of incentive, assumption, religion or abstract knowledge. Compassion mitigates selfishness and allows the emergence of justice and charity, fundamental in life in society. Through them, relationships can be strengthened and decisions in the public sphere can be directed towards the good of all, because it will always be clear that the objective of all social, political, economic, scientific and technical institutions is the common well-being of those who share the same essence: human beings, animals and nature as a whole. No technical, economic or supposedly neutral argument can be superior in strength to the needs of the phenomenon of human and animal life, which is always precarious and fragile. In turn, the cruelty that, in the figure of the president of the republic, gained social protagonism, is teaching, in the most painful way possible, that political power cannot be given to people who lack compassion. Power in the hands of one cruel individual will be used to spread and multiply evil and cruelty, and the greater the responsibility of the office, the greater the number of people who will have to bear it.

*Katia Santos is a professor at the Federal Rural University of the Semi-Arid (UFERSA).


CHAUÍ, M. “The place of the Brazilian university”. the earth is round. Published on 26/02/2021. Available in: Accessed on: 17 mar. 2021.

SCHOPENHAUER, A. The world as will and imagination I. Arthur Schopenhauer Sämtliche Werke. Band I. Textkritisch bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Frhr. von Lohneysen. Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2015.

_____. Über die Grundlage der Moral. Arthur Schopenhauer Sämtliche Werke. Band III. Textkritisch bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Frhr. von Lohneysen. Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2012.


[I] SCHOPENHAUER, A. Über die Grundlage der Moral. Arthur Schopenhauer Sämtliche Werke. Band III. Textkritisch bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Frhr. von Lohneysen. Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2012, III, §15, p. 766.

[ii] Ibid., III, § 14, p. 727-728.

[iii] Ibid., III, § 14, p. 730. (author's emphasis)

[iv] SCHOPENHAUER, A. The world as will and imagination I. Arthur Schopenhauer Sämtliche Werke. Band I. Textkritisch bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Frhr. von Lohneysen. Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2015, §56, p. 422-423.

[v] SCHOPENHAUER, A. Über die Grundlage der Moral. Arthur Schopenhauer Sämtliche Werke. Band III. Textkritisch bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Frhr. von Lohneysen. Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2012, III, §17 and §18.

[vi] SCHOPENHAUER, A. The world as will and imagination I. Arthur Schopenhauer Sämtliche Werke. Band I. Textkritisch bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Frhr. von Lohneysen. Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2015, §66, p. 504.

[vii] Ibid., §66, p. 507-508.

[viii]SCHOPENHAUER, A. Über die Grundlage der Moral. Arthur Schopenhauer Sämtliche Werke. Band III. Textkritisch bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Frhr. von Lohneysen. Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2012, III, §17, p. 745.

[ix] Ibid., §16, p. 741-742.

[X] Ibid., §14, p. 731.

[xi] Ibid., §17, p. 745.

[xii] Ibid., §19, p. 767.

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