Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                            ESSAYS
29. On Goil and Evod

philosophy. war. existentialism. pacifism. liberalism. humanism.  terrorism. ism. ism. ism. death.

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               Essay 29.  On Goil and Evod

In Franz Kafka's famous story The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds himself turned into a giant insect. He knows that he is not an insect, but his family can see only his appearance. Gradually, the reality of his new condition becomes part of his self-perception, and the reality of his past and future conditions becomes part of his perception by the family. In the end, both sides seem to lose the sight of the past. His death, partly violent, puts an end to the entire episode.

In  Kafka's short novel The Trial,  Joseph K. wakes up and finds himself involved into a bizarre and dreamlikeKafkaesque, as we now saycourt trial, the reason of which remains unknown. The situation is resolved in the same way as in The Metamorphosis, but more violently.

Kafka's creations are considered examples of the existential thinking. The problems arise from the perception, true or imaginary, of life as something charged with stress, contradiction, nightmare, and dread.

The difference between Kafka and philosophical existentialism is that Kafka's situations are obviously artificial and impossible in real life. They are metaphors, while existentialism regards actual human condition as naturally unnatural.

Some, like Walter Kaufmann,  deny that existentialism is a philosophy:

Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. (Existentialism: from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann,  Meridian, 1975. Introduction).

This seems rather confusing. The "revolts" are numerous and voluminous books. How can a non-philosophy revolt against philosophy by unrolling large texts that look like philosophy, read like philosophy, and are written by philosophers?

Here is an imaginary situation where the fantastic element is absent.

A human being with initials J.K., unlike inanimate things, perceives himself as   J2.jpg (J).
J.K.  is also perceived by other human beings. Each of the others has his own image of  J.K., for example, M.N. perceives J.K. as  K2.jpg(K)  . This is not a true image, J.K. insists, because it lacks the self-image of J.K., which is part of the total truth. The total is larger than either J or K. .

The problems of  J.K. do not end here because religious, legal, and philosophical systems regard all humans as equal under a certain religion, law, and philosophical system. Whether the individual is called J.K. or M.N., or A.B.,  what he thinks about himself, the system, and the others, and what the others think about him—all that is utterly irrelevant for the system.  An ideal democracy does not care at all. The law, however, may hold J.K. as L2.jpg   ( L ) for tax evasion.
Moreover, there are new questions. Do  J J2.jpg, K K2.jpg, and  L2.jpgL which are nothing but appearances, have anything behind them that does not depend on who is looking and from what position?  When J.K. is looking at his finger, is he aware of his looking at his finger? And if you answer yes to a question like this, then you have to be able to answer no to the same question because if you say yes, you automatically assume that no is also a possibility. Is your own existence a possibility or necessity? And so on. An infinite sequence of philosophical questions looks like the infinite mutual reflections of two opposite mirrors in each other.

What is the truth? Has the individual any freedom while being boxed into the system together with the others and a handful of intellectual Styrofoam beads? Has he any individuality? Is his existence authentic or enslaved by the system and the others? What system is true? Which answer is false?

Those are examples of questions modern philosophy considers. Remarkably, a particular philosophy finds itself in the same predicament among other philosophies as J.K. among people. It is scrutinized by other philosophies, as well as by the current predisposition of the society that may or may not give a damn for this or any other philosophy at the moment and for that matter for the truth itself, not to mention the individual. As Karl Jaspers said about philosophers, "We can thereby read their works as if all philosophers were contemporaries." (quoted from Kaufmann).

As an illustration of what a philosophy can say on the subject, I would like to quote Jean-Paul Sartre:

What appears in fact is only an aspect of the object, and the object is altogether in that aspect and altogether outside of it. It is altogether within, in that it manifests itself in that aspect; it shows itself as the structure of the appearance, which is at the same time the principle of the series. It is altogether outside, for the series itself will never appear nor can it appear. Thus the outside is opposed in a new way to the inside, and the being-which-does-not-appear, to the appearance. Similarly a certain “potency” returns to inhabit the phenomenon and confer on it its very transcendence—a potency to be developed in a series of real or possible appearances. (Being and Nothingness,  Introduction, I).

Over 700 pages later, close to the end, the text goes:

The "mine" appeared to us then as a relation of being intermediate between the absolute interiority of me and the absolute exteriority of the not-me. There is within the same syncretism a self becoming not-self and a not-self becoming self.
(Being and Nothingness, Part Four, Chapter Two, II.)

And in the conclusion, one finds:

But the principal result of existential psychoanalysis must be to make us repudiate the spirit of seriousness. .... For the spirit of seriousness, for example, bread is desirable because it is necessary to live (a value written in an intelligible heaven) and because bread is nourishing. The result of the serious attitude, which as we know rules the world, is to cause the symbolic values of things to be drunk in by their empirical idiosyncrasy as ink by a blotter; it puts forward the opacity of the desired object and posits it in itself as a desirable irreducible.  (Being and Nothingness, Conclusion, II).

The fact that somebody like myself has a deaf ear for this kind of philosophy means no more than somebody's ridicule of  classical music.  Philosophy requires hard work and love from the student. As Karl Jaspers noted, "A great philosopher demands unrelenting penetration into his texts" (from Kaufmann, again).

As if anticipating the serious unseriousness of Sartre and Heidegger , Kafka makes the sister of Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphoses feel a great relief after the remnants of her former brother are swept away. She returns from the metaphor to life:

And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their ride their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.

I have been interested in philosophy since my youth, but I stayed mostly on its threshold. Looking inside the vast hall of philosophy, I saw its general map and design but  I could not find there anything more worth of hard work than my immediate occupations. In competition for my time, philosophy used to lose. But my curiosity and the teenager's secret love from afar have survived the years.

I believe today that philosophy is a form of art. It is the art of questioning.

Philosophy does not give any "true" answers.

For example, the question "What can I know?" immediately poses the question "Can I know what I can know?" which in turn branches into:

"Can I know anything?"
"What is I?"
"What is to know?"
"What is anything?"
"What is question?"
"What is answer?"
"What is 'what is?'"

And finally, somebody asks again the old and completely justified from the philosophical standpoint question "What is is?" and gives the answer in the form of a big and obscure book entitled Being and Time, as Martin Heidegger does, or Being and Nothingness,  as does Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a serious question. "It all depends on what is is," as Bill Clinton put it.

It looks like a minefield. Wherever you step, new questions explode in a circle around you.

"What shall I do?" another philosophical question sounds.  As soon as I know what I shall do, I lose all my freedom to choose, there is no way back, and I am my own obedient slave. Any answer kills the question and dies of starvation.

Philosophy is as true as any art: it cannot be false. It is not to be taken too seriously. Its medium is language. The language is regarded as nature or model, and philosophy paints a picture enlivened  with the chiaroscuro of meaning and historical perspective. The picture is framed. It seems that we could understand everything if the picture were an inch longer and wider. The secret key must be right on the edge, under the frame. We look at the other side, but there is no help.

Both art and philosophy have been moving ever farther from the surrounding world and its mundane questions and images. Both modern art and philosophy invent their own building blocks and erect amazing structures from them.

I see even some similarity between postmodernism and pop-art in the selection of blocks from the fringe of real life. It could be a calculated or subconscious desire to go back, down to the primeval dirt littered with elephant dung and to the very beginning of art and philosophy. But it could also be the simple drive for novelty, which is the locomotive of business.

Like any art, philosophy influences our life in very subtle and intricate ways, even if we do not read Plato and Sartre, because it softly and sporadically influences literature, visual art, and even science. It does so by stimulating thinking, disseminating new metaphors, and scattering them over new intellectual lots. The questions are the seeds of some answers on the new soil, especially, in humanities, but they mostly generate new questions. The philosophical production is like the acorns: there are plenty of them but only a few or none grow into new oaks. It is a mental game, a sport, where you play against Aristotle and Hegel. As soon as some philosophy is proven true, philosophy will end. It is like to proclaim the San Francisco Giants the champions from now to eternity.

Like any art, philosophy is a separate world that recruits its fans from both laymen and professionals, some of whom build majestic shrines on the Web: to Kant , existentialists, Spinoza, Michel Foucault, etc., which is impossible to do without love.

The main attractions of philosophy are not just the complex beauty of its evolution and exhausting difficulty but also that you can study it all your life and still discover something new. Philosophy shares this type of attraction with nature, science, art, children, and even pets. Philosophy is a source of fresh surprise. It is like an experienced, generous, and unpredictable partner in love.

Philosophy is a complex non-equilibrium system that never stops evolving.

From the point of view of substance, it makes as much or as little sense as baseball, but certainly makes less money.  Nevertheless, the stars of philosophy are recognizable brand names: Aristotle is "a full service Internet and interactive multimedia design and consulting firm," HEGEL is a "provider of cutting edge audio technology" and Descartes  "powers the next generation of collaborative logistics management on a global scale, providing customers with Internet-based capabilities to optimally manage nChain processes." There is even Spinoza® the Bear Who Speaks from the Heart™: "He is not only a soft, cuddly teddy bear who begs to be hugged, but a carefully designed, dynamically effective resource tool" for children with chronic illness.

Somebody still bets his money on philosophers' fame. Philosophy still offers consolation. This is lovely.

I intuitively believe that philosophy is converging with science exactly where Randall Collins (see Essay 27, The Existential Sisyphus) anticipates it happen: on the grounds of abstract mathematics, or, to be more accurate, on the grounds of the science of complexity.  The peculiar property of this kind of science is that it cannot make a detailed prediction concerning large complex systems. It is very abstract and general.  It is glued to computers. This inherent fusion of chance and necessity and the inappropriately strong humanitarian perfume that science of complexity wears makes it suspicious in the eyes of traditional cool-headed physical sciences as well as humanities. But it really tells something new.

We are now approaching the end of the twentieth century, and it seems that some more universal message is carried by science, a message that concerns the interaction of man and nature as well as of man with man.   

                                                              Ilya Prigogine, Order out of Chaos

I believe that Kant and Hegel will be sooner or later reevaluated in terms of science of complexity and found remarkably prophetic for their time and  translatable into modernity. Approached from behind and taken by surprise, philosophy will be also analyzed from the point of view of psychology and sociology, and this process has already started.

Quantum physics, too, deals with indeterministic behavior of microscopic objects, for example, electrons and atoms. The dramatic difference is that what is going to happen to an individual atom of radioactive element is by no means a matter of life and death for us. On the contrary, the behavior of a large number of radioactive atoms can really be a matter of life and death, but it is statistically predictable.

The behavior of a large complex system, like society or individual, is never completely predictable in principle. Science merges with philosophy  when science becomes too general and vague in predictions, too un-serious, while philosophy becomes concerned about answers more than about questions.

Somebody, probably, has already said all that.

There is a particular and quite mundane problem that prompted me for this recursion.

The society, like individual, can find itself entangled in philosophy because there are other societies and because abstract systems of beliefs float like clouds over the earth, sending down rain and lightning.

Here is an exemplary problem.

We have to respond to the actions of another society. Violence is evil.  We cannot use violence in response to violence, can we?  Being the object of violence is bad. Inflicting violence is bad. Not to respond to violence with violence means a lot of harm. When we look from inside, we are victims. When we look from outside, we are both victims and perpetrators. When we ask the others, we are perpetrators.

Where is the truth?

The truth is, probably,  in the scale of priorities, similar to the Confucian scale of values (Essay 13, On Numbers ). The big difference between philosophy and life is that philosophy, unlike the deli department  in a supermarket, gives no line numbers. The classical philosophy does not distinguish between individuals, while the modern philosophy says : "It's all up to you, buddy."

The individual has to define his or her personal topology (Essay 24) and evaluate the distance to family, friends, nation, its various constituents, the perpetrators, and their own neighborhood. This is a dirty business. It is like choosing between two of your children.

In the days after September 11, I heard it many time: a caller to a talk show or a participant in a discussion asks the question: How can we kill innocent people in response to terrorist murder of our own innocent people? We will be as evil as they are.

I can never forget how thirty years ago I discovered in a library a dusty volume of a complete 100-volume edition of Leo Tolstoy's writings. It opened in the middle of Tolstoy's article in which he, during the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905,  preached surrender of Russia to Japan because the loss of life was much worse. It came as a shock and it still bothers me as a kind of cognitive dissonance: how could Tolstoy write that?

The discussion about violence illuminates a real chasm between action and reflection, the same problem that occupied Shakespeare in Hamlet. Philosophy has always been regarded as escape from real life. Leo Tolstoy was a big detractor of Shakespeare.

The laws of the world inside our head are completely different from the laws of the real world. It does not rain in our brain. There is no wind, no tide. Instead, it is ravaged by  emotional tornadoes and earthquakes of imagination. We can imagine anything, but only a few scenarios have any chance of realization. The world of our mind is like the world of sci-fi movies or MTV.  This is why there is a deep divide between the subjective picture of the world and the objective one. From the inside, we see ourselves as the good victims of the evil. From the outside, brought up on the relativist culture, we can see the fight of the equals. The fog of reflection stops us cold.

The problem, as I see it, is thinking in terms of Good and Evil.  It is obvious that we regard the terrorists as evil. It is equally obvious that  they see us evil. They are violent. We are violent. It is a logical impasse, unless we believe that our violence is justified because it is ours, or no violence is justified and we have to surrender to terrorists and satisfy their demands, or something else.

Thinking in terms of Good and Evil implies that there is a powerful heavenly protector of Good. The other side, however, thinks so, too. This is religion.

To be or not to be?  This question is a step ahead from "what is to be?"  Still, it is philosophy.

Once again, philosophy, like art, is not about truth. Violent conflict is not about philosophy, it is about ideology (Essay 24). Our personal position is not even about ideology, it is about simple reasons. ( Essay 28 ). The simple reasons are about life, health, freedom, and happiness. They are about instincts: the id.

Pacifism is a perfect ideology in times of peace. In times of conflict it faces the same problem that any existential philosophy does: the questions have no answers. They are lost in the Ping-Pong reflections between mirrors.

Is there any other source of belief capable of supporting some of our basic instincts against others?

Fortunately, philosophy has a great rival: the deep and dark instincts of our body. Both the instincts and philosophy, however, have a great common rival. The society calls it history. The individual calls it experience.

There is some delicate irony is in the fact that the some existentialist writers regard individual history as the true essence of human being.

Man is what has happened to him, what he has done. Other things might have happened to him or have been done by him, but what did in fact happen to him and was done by him, this constitutes a relentless trajectory of experiences that he carries on his back as the vagabond his bundle of all he possesses. (José Ortega y Gasset, History as a System.  Quoted along Walter Kaufmann.)

History, unlike philosophy, is a search not as much for questions as for the answers in the form of facts that can be verified, as in science. Individual and national history is the answer to the question what an individual and a nation are in fact, not in reflection. History of ideas includes also the history of reflections.  We ourselves, as well as nations, corporations, and systems, can use history as a single mirror and learn something from studying our moles and wrinkles through the optical, not philosophical, reflection.

The peoples and nations that had been torn apart from the inside in the moment of crisis and showed weakness instead of an ultimate collective will used to be defeated. The peoples and nations that acted upon the urgent needs of the moment (when the distinction between Good and Evil is locally clear) used to win.  As in any act, transition, and change, victory is never guaranteed. Without action, however, the defeat under assault is guaranteed.

Winston Churchill is still my hero of the century.

Philosophy is a paralyzing force if not opposed by action. Our body wants to live, whatever our mind says. Our mind says that only a deadly risk might give our body a chance to live. Our mindless emotions may run ahead of the mind and push us toward action before we run the calculus of chances. The real history is complemented by the imaginary history of  humankind in art and literature, religious and secular: the culture of the time.

I came to the appreciation of history at a later age, around forty, when I realized that I was in the middle of a great historic transformation of Russia. When I  started searching Russian history for answers concerning its origins, reasons, and prospects, I found them.
In American history I find even more answers than I have questions.

One of the lessons I drew from history is the futility of such terms as Good and Evil as universal categories. Neither science nor history knows what they mean. If I know what they are, I know it from my culture.

In his Essay  I:31, On the Cannibals Montaigne seems to speak like a multiculturalist and relativist:

Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.

In time of war, however, a new set of values takes precedence:

Anyway, whether  there is  a case of ignorance so crass and of cowardice so flagrant as to surpass any norm, that should be an adequate reason for accepting them as  proof of wickedness and malice, to be punished as such (Montaigne, Essay I:16. On Punishing Cowardice).

Montaigne fought as soldier. So did Socrates and Sartre (in the Resistance).

From the point of view of history, there are always two opposing sides, Goil and Evod rather than Good and Evil.


                      GOOD + EVIL  ---->   GOIL + EVOD


In time of the conflict, however, there is no history. History is in the making.  It is only for a relatively short transition period in history that one side violently, cruelly, and unstoppably advances without opposition. Then we clearly see the sides as Good and Evil.  In response, we simply take pragmatic steps based on what we are, i.e., on our own experience, if we are blessed to live in a society that can afford such choice, or go against the society if it does not, or just go with the tide. The society and its government have no use for the philosophy of philosophers.  There is only a little bit more use for science, the philosophy of facts. War is mostly about the character.


Conflict and war are transition states. By its very nature, the transition state is abnormal, extraordinary, and exceptionally. War cannot last forever. It is necessary to achieve a new stability and a new peace because we have lost the old one. To me this simple thermodynamic metaphor of the historical situation answers the moral questions without recurring to philosophy. We have to endure the anxiety of the transition state even though it is higher than the anxiety of our initial state.

William Faulkner said in his Nobel speech:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

I see in history the record of the glory of the past rather than the record of violence. It is, probably, an outmoded view.

When I am picking on liberalism, I do not criticize it.  History of liberalism is part of "the glory of the past."  I would be greatly upset by the demise of liberalism. I feel comfortably only in a liberal society. I am looking, however, for an opponent or a containment to liberalism. I see it in humanism.

Liberalism means lowering the barriers. It allows the "low energy" individuals to pass barriers (in airports, too) that would be impassable otherwise, as they are in authoritarian or rough societies. Humanism, which I understand, probably, as collateral to its many accepted meanings,  is raising the barriers to harming each other and to losing human creative potential. Humanism makes distinctions and analyzes topologies. Liberalism has nothing to do with love. Humanism comes from love, and love is selective. Being human carries a liability. To love is a liability, too.

Liberalism and humanism, the brothers, seem to be on opposite sides, like in a civil war.

From afar, all wars on earth are civil wars.


1. Ilya Prigogine is not alone. Another deep and rich author on science of complexity is Stuart Kauffman, for example, in  At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Complexity, London: Viking, 1995. He represents the whole school of the Santa Fe Institute , which is complementary to Prigogine's ideas and incomplete without them.

Two quotations from his book (end of  Chapter 8, High-Country Adventures):

Not only do organisms evolve, but, we must suppose, the structure of the landscapes that organisms explore also evolves.


Evolution is surely "chance caught on the wing," but it is also the expression of underlying order.

José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was the most lucid, consistent, and eloquent among existentialists.

Man invents for himself a program of life, a static form of being, that gives a satisfactory answer to the difficulties posed for him by circumstance. He essays this form of life, attempts to realize this imaginary character he has resolved to be. He embarks on the essay full of illusions and prosecutes the experiment with thoroughness. This means that he comes to believe deeply that this character is his real being. But meanwhile the experience has made apparent the shortcomings and limitations of the said program of life. It does not solve all the difficulties, and it creates new ones of its own. When first seen it was full face, with the light shining upon it: hence the illusions, the enthusiasm, the delights believed in store. With the back view its inadequacy is straightway revealed. Man thinks out another program of life. But this second program is drawn up in the light, not only of circumstance, but also of the first (along Walter Kaufmann).

Ortega was Spanish. Existential ideas seem to be only a small part of his intellectual production. He was most of all interested in problems of  society and its historical choices. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, a German, and Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian, he was elitist. The fact that the three highly original thinkers had been born shortly before Fascism came to their native countries tied them to Fascist ideology in retrospect. All three, I believe, were just sensitive gauges of their national environment and had some reasons not to cater to the common man. Ortega in his
Revolt of the Masses did not.

3. "It is fear that I am most afraid of." Montaigne, Essay I:18, On Fear. Was Franklin Roosevelt inspired by Montaigne? Probably, not. It is just how it always is in dangerous times.


4. One can find a lot of definitions of humanism and its components on the Web. Strangely, none of them contains the word "love."  All treat humankind as a whole. To love abstract humanity more than particular human beings and values?.. See Essay 28.


5. The link between philosophy and preparation to death comes from Socrates ("To philosophize is to practice dying," in Phaedo). In Essay I:20, To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die,  Montaigne writes:


To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

In truth risks and dangers do little or nothing to bring us nearer to death.


6.  "When a bad time starts, it is as if on a smooth green lawn a toad appears; as if a clear river suddenly floats down a corpse. Before the appearance of the toad, the corpse, one could not imagine the lawn as anything but delightful, the river as fresh. But lawns can always admit toads, and rivers corpses,"
                            Doris Lessing, The Four-Gated City, 1969, Part Two, Chapter 1.

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