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1 Tears the Civil Servant Cannot See: Ethics and Politics

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

How does Emmanuel Levinas understand the relationship between the domain of responsibility or the ethical, on the one hand, and the domain of justice or the political, on the other? Broadly speaking, many commentators have argued that Levinas has a story to tell about this relationship that is informative, serious, and compelling; critics, however, claim that whatever Levinas has to say about the matter is unclear and unhelpful. It betrays a weakness in Levinas’s thinking and its implausibility or its irrelevance or both.

In his paper “The Possibility of an Ethical Politics: From Peace to Liturgy,” John Drabinski begins his account by noticing that at least some criticism of Levinas is leveled against the primacy of the biblical tradition and his Hebraism. This is tantamount to claiming that what prevents Levinas from developing his political thought is a one-sided attention to the primacy of the ethical for our lives and too great a dependence on the Bible, religion, and Judaism. Drabinski identifies Gillian Rose as one among several critics of this kind, and he notices too a host of passages in Levinas’s own writings that seem to take the face-to-face and responsibility as a disturbance of the political and as opposed to it.1 But, at the same time, Drabinski is surely right to point out that this criticism fails to take seriously Levinas’s frequent claims that Europe is both “the Bible and the Greeks,” ethics and politics. Any one-sided reading of Levinas that leads to anarchism or asceticism is surely mistaken.2 What Drabinski stakes out is a position between dismissing the political as secondary or derivative and privileging the political at the same level as the ethical. As he puts it, the singularity of the face and the universality of law open up a gap between the two; politics is necessary and yet opposes the ethical. The face signifies without context; the face as citizen is the political, which contextualizes the face.3

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3 The Third Party: Transcendental Ethics and Realistic Politics

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Suppose we take the human condition primarily to involve the self or subject, on the one hand, and the world, on the other. The philosophical project of articulating the structure of human experience would be the characterization of all the ways in which self and world are related and interrelated. If so, then there are surely going to be relations that account for the way the self is related to nonhuman constituents of the world—from sense perception, observation and analysis, belief, and knowledge to desire, various modes of appetite and aversion, and so forth. And there will also be a host of relations such as the physical ones (e.g., the subject is far from the object, near the object, to the left or right of it) and social and economic ones (e.g., the subject is the owner of the object, is the occupant of the object, is using the object, has just paid for the object). With regard to human beings in the world, too, there will be a complex set of relations and relationships—momentary or briefly continuing relations, such as the subject’s being angry with another subject, and ongoing relationships, such as the subject’s being the father or mother of the other subject or the teacher of the subject. Let us take Levinas to be aware of all of this and to include it within the broad domain of human experience, which he would take Heidegger to have called the being of Dasein, and we might call the domain of ordinary, everyday human existence. Levinas’s distinctive claim is that an account of all of these aspects or dimensions of human relatedness to the world is by and large what we think of as our existence as natural beings, but it is incomplete and inadequate to characterize the totality of human experience. Something significant is here omitted, and it is what broadly we might call, after Wilfrid Sellars, the “space of reasons” or what we might refer to as the dimension of evaluative normativity, especially moral normativity. In Otherwise Than Being, with special reference to language, Levinas calls the former aspects of our natural existence “the Said,” and he calls the dimension or aspect that brings with it or introduces into human existence this evaluative normativity and especially moral normativity “the Saying.” The latter, of course, is the descendant of the face-to-face of Levinas’s earlier writings, and it is what he has called the relation with “transcendence” and “enigma” and the relation with the infinite, the face, and so much else.1

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9 Ethics, Politics, and Messianism

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

In a well-known interview, Richard Kearney asked Emmanuel Levinas if the “ethical criterion of the interhuman” were not employed by him as a “sort of messianic eschatology.” Levinas objected to the expression “eschatology” and yet accepted the proposal that the “ethical relation with the other” is messianic, but only when properly understood. That is, he rejected the idea of a historical eschaton, an end or goal, whether we think of it as a face-to-face exposure to an absolutely other, God, or as the completion or perfection of our face-to-face encounters with human others. Ethics has no end; it is not about a historical telos. As he put it, “I have described ethical responsibility as insomnia or wakefulness precisely because it is a perpetual duty of vigilance and effort that can never slumber.” The key word here is “perpetual.” Love, he says, has something incessant and impermanent about it. He refers to the image of Talmudic sages going from meeting to meeting, always discussing the law, in this life and the next, without end. Love or the ethical is like this process that demands ongoing wakefulness and attention.1 If ethics is messianic, it is an episodic messianism that is never complete, and if politics ought to meet ethical standards, it too requires attention and correction, moment to moment.

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8 Zionism and the Justification of a Jewish State

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

There are places in Levinas’s writings where he attends to politics and political values and ideas. Some of these occur in his Talmudic readings, as we have seen. In this chapter, however, I choose a different route. From the early 1950s to the end of his life, Levinas turned and returned to the State of Israel and Zionism, often in terms of its role and place in Judaism and also for other reasons. Since he came to associate the appreciation for the centrality of ethics, responsibility, and the face-to-face with Judaism, any thoughts about how Judaism is related to the State of Israel are thoughts about ethics and politics. It is these writings that I would like to consider, in part to see if what he sees here, in this concrete case, confirms his theoretical account as we have outlined it and in part to determine if he provides any guidance or clues concerning how ethical responsibility has implications for political conduct and political life.

Let me start with a piece from 1951, “The State of Israel and the Religion of Israel.”1 This is the same year in which he wrote “Is Ontology Fundamental?” It is an early essay, a review of a collection of articles by Israeli authors on religion and the state. In it Levinas makes note of a conflict between Judaism, concerned as it is with justice, and the modern state, with its emphasis on human freedom, leisure, and security. Furthermore, modern states, with their universality of purpose and function, have contributed to the decline of the tension between particular religions as particular and clerical and the state as universal and humanistic. Given this situation, what is the special role of the State of Israel for Judaism? Levinas’s answer has two parts. First, he views Judaism in his own particular way: in Judaism the “belief in God [does not] incite one to justice—it is the institution of that justice.” Moreover, this justice is not an “abstract principle” but rather “the possibility for a man to see the face of an other.” In short, Levinas interprets religious language so that it in fact points to the face-to-face as human responsibility and the justice that issues from it. Second, the State of Israel “finally offers the opportunity to carry out the social law of Judaism. . . . [Until now] it was horrible to be both the only people to define itself with a doctrine of justice, and to be the meaning incapable of applying it.” After centuries of statelessness, without the opportunity to realize its special purpose, to apply its sensibility for justice, politically, now, in the twentieth century, there is the opportunity to do so. Levinas summarizes this role and this justification for what Zionism means when he says that “the contrast is between those who seek to have a State in order to have justice and those who seek justice in order to ensure the survival of the State.”2 That is, “justice is the raison d’être of the State: that is religion.”3

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7 Teaching Prophetic Politics: Ethics and Politics in Levinas’s Talmudic Lessons

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Levinas’s published writings include books, collections of essays and articles, interviews, and Talmudic lessons. Generally speaking, the best places to look for Levinas’s comments on concrete and particular situations in which ethics and politics encounter one another are his many published interviews and his twenty-four published Talmudic lessons.1 In the interviews Levinas speaks directly to an interviewer and responds to his or her questions; the informality of the setting often elicits from him examples, illustrations, and textual references and comments that are very helpful for understanding the themes of his thinking. In the Talmudic lessons Levinas selected texts to discuss that were chosen precisely because they expressed themes that Levinas associated with the announced topic of the colloquium for that given year. Often—although not always—in the course of the lesson, he refers to contemporary events or widely publicized incidents that contributed to the choice of that year’s topic. Also, the texts themselves typically include stories or legal discussions concerning particular types of conduct. Hence, both the setting for these lessons and their Talmudic focus move Levinas to make comments that, relative to the bulk of his writings, are quite concrete and particular.

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2 Judaism, Zionism, and the State of Israel

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

In two places in his writings on Zionism, Levinas comments on concrete historical events in Israel’s career.1 One is the visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem and the Knesset in 1977 and the subsequent treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the second is the massacre in the refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in 1982, at the end of the Lebanon War, and the Israeli response to those events. Briefly put, Levinas praises Sadat’s action as an extraordinary ethical gesture that transcends normal political conduct and led to a diplomatic event of major significance. With regard to the complicity in the massacres in Lebanon, although it has not been altogether clear to everyone, he appears to remain silent regarding the victims of the massacres but explicitly applauds the Israeli call for a board of inquiry and for those responsible to be held accountable.2 These are two occasions, then, on which Levinas comments and that call for some kind of ethical judgment regarding political conduct.

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6 Liberalism and Democracy

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

When Levinas was a child, his family had to leave their home in Kovno, Lithuania, during the First World War, and after their return, he lived under the young Soviet government until he left for Strasbourg in 1924. In France he came into contact with a generation of philosophers whose political views had been shaped in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, and he adopted in his own way the ideals of the French Revolution as they were recovered during that period. In the 1930s he was brought face-to-face with fascism and totalitarianism and the question of where philosophy stood in the encounter between Hitler’s fascism and Enlightenment liberalism. In the 1930s, he experienced the impotence of liberalism in the struggle with the forces of fascism, and yet by the 1970s and ’80s he appears to have changed his mind about liberalism and come to endorse the virtues of democracy. He experienced the struggles of French parliamentary democracy after the war and the turmoil of the 1960s, particularly 1968, and while he lived to see the fragmentation of the Soviet empire, it is clear that the horrors of Stalinism had already alienated him from any sympathy with Cold War communism. He had an ongoing dislike for American capitalism. To be sure, throughout his career, he had a complicated relationship with Marxism, at the same time appreciating its strengths and its weaknesses, and he showed strong signs of favoring some form of socialism or at least a welfare state of some kind. One of the perspectives one might take on Levinas’s ethical critique of the political is to place it in the context of his views about these various types of political system and political doctrine, and in this chapter I want to begin to provide such an account.

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5 Responsibility for Others and the Discourse of Rights

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

As I have shown, one of the roles played by the quasi-transcendental or structural relationship that Levinas calls the face-to-face and later calls the self’s infinite responsibility to and for each and every other person is the role of the ground of social and political critique. That is, societies, institutions, political policies, and legal systems can (and should) all be judged in terms of how adequately or how inadequately they promote and permit this responsibility (generosity toward and care) for others. Moreover, since infinite responsibility is characteristic of all human social relationships and relations and since “substitution” is the core of our selfhood, critique can be understood to be the evaluation of all of our experience in terms of what is fundamental and normatively salient about the human condition itself. Critique is about being true to oneself. In the language of Foucault, care for the other and care of oneself go hand in hand.1

Levinas emphasizes throughout his career that for him subjectivity is characterized by its initial and primary passivity, and our social relationships are grounded in heteronomy or an other-determined asymmetry. All of this is intended to distinguish Levinas’s understanding of our existence from those like Descartes to Kant, Fichte, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and beyond, on the one hand, and others such as Spinoza, Hegel, Foucault, and the French structuralists, on the other. This is one way of setting out the background for Levinas’s very unusual approach to ethics, morality, and politics. Another would be to contrast him with any form of materialism or naturalism, in which human agency is interpreted as a complex form of natural responsiveness to physical and basically causal conditions. In any case, the result of Levinas’s conviction that his conception of selfhood or agency is distinctive as normative and founded on an external demand is that his conception of how our lives are socially and politically organized must differ as well. And this difference will have implications for the precise way in which his ethical critique of politics will be realized.

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11 Levinas and His Critics

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

In the course of this book I have had occasion to notice various criticisms of Levinas, but I have not yet responded to them. To some readers I may have appeared defensive and overly generous to Levinas. My goal has been to show the various ways in which his account of human existence as fundamentally, primordially ethical provides Levinas with the tools for an ethical critique of social and political action, programs, institutions, and policies. For this reason, I do not apologize for the orientation or tone of the book, but I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to consider some of the more provocative and controversial critiques of his work. That is the purpose of this chapter.

My reading of Levinas does not indulge in dramatic or hyperbolic interpretation of his terminology. His various expressions for the face-to-face—from enigma and hostage to persecution, accusation, and substitution—and the extreme way in which he characterizes the claim of the other on the self, for example as a form of violence, are intended, I believe, to call attention to Levinas’s break with the tradition of Western philosophy and its conventional expressions. And these expressions and others are suggestive; they recommend interpretations of the intersubjective relation between persons and the various dimensions of our social existence. But I have regularly urged caution about interpreting these terms and about how to understand Levinas’s overall project and its implications. My transcendental reading of the face-to-face is a modest or deflationary one, and I am aware that many will find it insufficiently radical and for this reason a distortion of Levinas’s thinking. Another consequence of my reading, however, is that I am able to defend Levinas against many of his most vigorous critics. The more extreme they read him, the more objectionable he appears to be. This is not always the case, but there are certainly examples of this dialectic among the work of his critics.

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4 Ethics as Critique

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

In chapters 1 and 2 I have argued that for Levinas one role of the ethical is to serve as a ground of critique of political conduct, policies, norms, and institutions. Levinas himself says that politics is subject to ethical critique. Since the ethical is a dimension of every relation and every relationship and insofar as it is constituted by our responsibilities and obligations toward other persons, Levinas must mean that politics is subject to evaluation by the standard of such obligations and responsibilities. Levinas calls the latter charity or love, and as we have seen, he says that it makes a difference whether society and the state are founded on a kind of individualism and personal competitiveness or on charity and justice. How well or how poorly do our political conduct and programs meet the standard of the ethical?

I have also, in chapter 1, compared Levinas’s conception of ethical critique with Avishai Margalit’s arguments in behalf of a decent society, one that seeks to avoid humiliating its citizens and others or degrading them. What is especially interesting about Margalit’s argument for a decent society is that it is similar formally to Levinas’s account of how justice is not sufficient for the best society or form of state. Justice is one thing, and we may feel strongly that a good society must be just. But justice may not be sufficient to make a society a good one; for that we need also an attention to our care and responsibilities for the other person. But what exactly does Levinas mean? If Margalit is concerned especially about respect and self-esteem, Levinas is not in the same sense. Nor is fairness or equal treatment sufficient. Levinas argues that as human beings we want and need more. He is concerned with charity, kindness, and generosity.

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10 Levinas’s Notorious Interview

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

There may be no more controversial comments associated with Emmanuel Levinas than his remarks during a radio interview, broadcast on Radio Communauté on September 28, 1982, in the wake of the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon near Beirut. The interview was conducted by Shlomo Malka, and the interviewees were Levinas and Alain Finkielkraut. A transcript was published in Les Nouveaux Cahiers, but its notoriety, certainly for English-speaking audiences, was accelerated by the publication of an English translation, included by Seán Hand in his The Levinas Reader, published by Basil Blackwell in 1989.1 Introducing the transcript, Hand explains the circumstances that led the Israeli Defense Forces to occupy West Beirut in mid-September of 1982 and the events that followed:

While the move into West Beirut was supposedly made in order to protect the Muslims from the revenge of the Phalangists [after the September 14 bombing in party headquarters in East Beirut that killed twenty six, including Lebanon’s recently elected president, Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite,], the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) actually introduced Phalangists into the Palestinian camps with the mission of clearing out suspected fedayeem, or Arab infiltrators, who carried out hit-and-run raids inside Israel. The Christian soldiers massacred several hundred people in Sabra and Chatila camps over a period of nearly two days with no intervention on the part of the IDF. At first [prime minister Menachem] Begin refused to set up a judicial inquiry, commenting in the New York Times on 26 September that “Goyim kill goyim, and they immediately come to hang the Jews.”2

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1 Just Here Is the End of Suffering: Letting Suffering Be in Early Buddhism

Brook A. Ziporyn Indiana University Press ePub

ONE

JUST HERE IS THE END OF SUFFERING

Letting Suffering Be in Early Buddhism

THE PARADOX OF SUFFERING

Buddhism begins and ends with the problem of suffering. More specifically, Buddhism begins with the Four Noble Truths. At first glance, the treatment of suffering in this teaching seems disappointingly simple, almost simplistic. The First Noble Truth tells us that all experiences necessarily involve suffering. The Second tells us why this is: suffering is caused by desire, or craving, and attachment to desire. The Third asserts that the end of this cause (desire), and hence of this effect (suffering), is attainable. The Fourth tells us how to go about attaining this end of desire and suffering.

Often this formula is understood in a very straightforward way: we suffer when things don’t go the way we want them to. Suffering happens when we desire what is not the case. Usually when this happens, we try to make “what is the case” conform to our desire: we try to get what we want. In this interpretation the Buddha makes the surprise move of approaching the dissonance between desire and reality from the opposite side: instead of changing the reality, change your desire.

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3 Neither Thus nor Otherwise: Mahāyāna Approaches to Emptiness

Brook A. Ziporyn Indiana University Press ePub

THREE

NEITHER THUS NOR OTHERWISE

Mahāyāna Approaches to Emptiness

SO IT LOOKS LIKE MAHĀYĀNA BUDDHISM, IN THE TWO TRUTHS model we were just talking about, makes no claim to offer any statements containing literal information about the ultimate makeup of this world, why it exists, or how it came to be. At the same time, nothing at all is said to describe the state of liberation from this world of suffering, the “other shore,” except perhaps that it is absolutely unlike this world of suffering. These are two sides of the same coin. Neither the world of suffering nor its cessation is what we think it is. In fact, neither can be whatever we might think it is if our thinking makes a definite judgment about them, if we form a definitive conclusive concept of them. Whatever you think, whatever you can think, about any individual thing is necessarily wrong. Why? Because the very first premise is wrong: the premise that there is a thing here at all, in the way we think of things. How do we think of a “thing”? As persisting through time, as underlying and possessing its characteristics, as having definite borders, as arising and perishing at one time and place, being any one way rather than another on its own power, from its own side. What is a thing? A thing is whatever has the power to exclude another thing. Even our usual idea of a “state” is really a kind of “thing” in this sense; when we are in one state, we are not in another. As long as this seems self-evident to us, we are thinking “thingishly.”

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8 Tiantai: The Multiverse as You

Brook A. Ziporyn Indiana University Press ePub

EIGHT

TIANTAI

The Multiverse as You

FROM EMPTINESS TO THE THREE TRUTHS

Question: If you add the idea of Emptiness and the Two Truths theory (chapters 2 and 3 of this book) to the Buddha-nature and Original Enlightenment (chapter 4) and run that through the notion of the interfusion of different points of views in the “new Middle Ways” presenting the non-duality of desire and desirelessness, time and timelessness, good and evil, enlightenment and delusion suggested by the Lotus Sūtra (chapters 5, 6, and 7), what do you get?

Answer: Tiantai Buddhism.

A very greatly oversimplified restatement of the Tiantai view of the relation of conscious beings to the world they live in can be put like this: every event, function, or characteristic occurring in experience is the action of all sentient and insentient beings working together. Every instant of experience is the whole of existential reality, manifesting in this particular form, as this particular entity or experience. But this “whole” is irreducibly multiple and irreducibly unified at once in the following way: all possible conflicting, contrasted, and axiologically varied aspects are irrevocably present—in the sense of “findable”—in each of these totality effects. Good and evil, delusion and enlightenment, Buddhahood and deviltry, are all “inherently entailed” in each and every event. More important, however, these multiple entities are not “simply located” even virtually or conceptually; the “whole” that is the agent performing every experience is not a collection of these various “inherently entailed” entities or qualities arrayed side by side like pebbles in a bag. Rather, they are “intersubsumptive.” That is, any one of them subsumes all the others. Each part is the whole, each quality subsumes all other qualities, and yet none are ever eradicable. A Buddha in the world makes the world all Buddha, saturated in every locus with the quality “Buddhahood”; a devil in the world makes the world all devil, permeated with “deviltry.” Both Buddha and devil are always in the world. So the world is always both entirely Buddhahood and entirely deviltry. Every moment of experience is always completely delusion, evil, and pain, through and through, and also completely enlightenment, goodness, and joy, through and through.

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9 Experiencing Tiantai: Experiments with Tiantai Practice

Brook A. Ziporyn Indiana University Press ePub

NINE

EXPERIENCING TIANTAI

Experiments with Tiantai Practice

TIANTAI BUDDHIST PRACTICE IS AN IMMENSE ARSENAL OF techniques and practices, a pharmacy in which every imaginable medication is made available. After all, following the Lotus Sūtra, Tiantai regards all Buddhist practices (and even non-Buddhist practices) as part of a single vehicle: none are to be excluded, all are to be “opened up” and shown to lead to Buddhahood. This is just what Zhiyi, the founder of Tiantai Buddhism, tries to do in his works on meditation. He gives a practical description of all the traditional meditations of Buddhism known to him, both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, and then “opens them up” by applying Tiantai Three Truths contemplation to them, showing that all of them are ways to reach the ultimate if supplemented and recontextualized in this way.

Here I will not go through the vast and intricate ways he crisscrosses and stair-steps and inter-nests them, although it is fascinating and creative achievement. Zhiyi’s procedure is not at all a rote application of a formula, but rather an extremely innovative discovery in each specific case of how that particular approach can be opened up—much as a master wit may find the specific ambiguity or potential irony in a serious statement and make a joke of it, with perfect timing. Zhiyi cracks the Tiantai punch line to all practices. It is well worth studying how he does it. But here I’d like to give a streamlined account of the basic procedure of a Tiantai meditation derived from Zhiyi’s approach, rendering a usable kernel of that practice for modern readers who are not necessarily interested in the minutiae of the historical record. How would one go about internalizing and actualizing the Tiantai ideas?

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