Monday, January 6, 2014

Pascal, the "Vileness" of Man, and Primo Levi

"The vilest feature of man is the quest for glory, but it is just this that most clearly shows his excellence. For whatever possession he may own on earth, whatever health or essential amenity he may enjoy, he is dissatisfied unless he enjoys the good opinion of his fellows. He so highly values human reason that, however privileged he may be on earth, if he does not also enjoyed a privileged position in human reason he is not happy. This is the finest position on earth, nothing can deflect him from this desire, and this is the most indelible quality in the human heart.

And those who most despise men, and put them on the same level as the beasts, still want to be admired and trusted by them, and contradict themselves by their own feelings, for their nature, which is stronger than anything, convinces them more strongly of man's greatness then reason convinces them of their vileness." (Penses - p159)

Pascals words are especially poignant after having just finished reading Primo Levi's book If This Were a Man

The brutalities endured in Auschwitz is incomprehensible, and of course, the stories have been heard and recounted in many different books. But the thing that stood out to me about Levi's experience is what he noted about the prisoners' transformation that occurred. By the time they left the camp (for those that did) they had completely forgotten how to care. This he noted was the brilliance of the prison camp structure by the Germans. For in this environment it made revolt nearly impossible. Because one had to care in order to revolt. One had to hope in order to revolt. But all that had been taken away. 

Thus this becomes the most perplexing part of the final solution as it converges with Pascal's quote on the "most indelible quality in the human heart." That the Germans could demand to be admired by those they despised shows how there is an inane basis for human morality implanted in the soul of every person. And it is this: I expect to be treated as a person, even from those to whom I do not extend the same honor. 

The lesson for my heart is simple: when I find myself tempted to 'despise' another human, it is a good exercise to simply stop and ask myself how I would want them to look upon me. I never desire to be despised. So how can I learn to love those that i'm tempted to vilify? One thing I've noted about myself over the years is a ready willingness to judge others. This often leads to a subtle disdain in some relationships. But I've also noticed that those once disdained have also eventually become some of my closest friends. I must call upon the power of the Holy Spirit to fight the vile temptation to vilify others, and trust that the Spirit will do an amazing work in that relationship.

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