On the World and Ourselves - Zygmunt Bauman - E-Book

On the World and Ourselves E-Book

Zygmunt Bauman

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Beschreibung

Unde malum from where does evil come? That is the question that has plagued humankind ever since Eve, seduced by the serpent, tempted Adam to taste the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Throughout history the awareness of good and evil has always been linked to the awareness of choice and to the freedom and responsibility to choose this is what makes us human. But the responsibility to choose is a burden that weighs heavily on our shoulders, and the temptation to hand this over to someone else be they a demagogue or a scientist who claims to trace everything back to our genes is a tempting illusion, like the paradise in which humans have at last been relieved of the moral responsibility for their actions. In the second series of their conversations Zygmunt Bauman and Stanislaw Obirek reflect on the life challenges confronted by the denizens of the fragmented, individualized society of consumers and the form taken in such a society by the fundamental aspects of the human condition - such as human responsibility for the choice between good and evil, self-formation and self-assertion, the need for recognition or the call to empathy, mutual respect, human dignity and tolerance.

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Table of Contents

Title page

Copyright page

Preface

1: Reveries of Solitary Walkers

Notes

2: Tangled Identities

Notes

3:

Hic et Nunc

Notes

Instead of a Conclusion

Notes

Index

End User License Agreement

Guide

Cover

Table of Contents

Start Reading

Preface

CHAPTER 1

Index

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Copyright page

Copyright © Zygmunt Bauman and Stanisław Obirek 2015

The right of Zygmunt Bauman and Stanisław Obirek to be identified as Authors of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2015 by Polity Press

Polity Press

65 Bridge Street

Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press

350 Main Street

Malden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8711-7

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8712-4 (pb)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bauman, Zygmunt, 1925-

    On the world and ourselves / Zygmunt Bauman, Stanisław Obirek.

            pages cm

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 978-0-7456-8711-7 (hardback) – ISBN 978-0-7456-8712-4 (pbk.)    1.  Self–Religious aspects.    2.  Other (Philosophy)    3.  Presentism (Philosophy)    4.  Critical thinking.    I.  Obirek, Stanisław.    II.  Title.

    BD438.5.B39 2015

    128–dc23

2015003034

Typeset in 11 on 13 Sabon

by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited, Hong Kong

Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website:

politybooks.com

Preface

This is a book on the dynamics of beliefs and world views – more than anything else, on the impossibility of arresting the process of spiritual change once it has been set in motion. Yet the main theme of the book is, in a nutshell, the transforming power of encounters.

The Greeks thought of wonder or amazement as the beginning of wisdom and the deepest cause of philosophical passion. One recoils from questioning the Greeks' lore from which we all continue to draw our inspiration, but historical experience suggests the need to add a correction to their wisdom: being amazed is not enough, one needs as well to know how to revise the outcomes of such a condition when new experience implies it is necessary. One such correction was made by Europeans in the twentieth century once they perceived the limits of their own civilization after looking at themselves in the mirror of non-European civilizations. Similarly, believers note their own limitations once they open themselves to the accomplishments of non-believers – while the latter wonder at the capacity of religions to placate the anxiety of so many troubled minds.

Such historical movements of thought become particularly fascinating once they turn into biographical problems. For me, brought up in a Catholic family, this happened as soon as I encountered people who thought differently. Opening up to people who drew from non-religious sources, I wondered what kind of power guided their life choices. Those choices led them to searches disturbingly close to my own; moreover, they eroded my reliance on my religious heritage. A several-years-long love affair with literature captured and possessed my teenager's imagination: first the thoughts of Witold Gombrowicz, and after him a long line of others, such as Tadeusz Różewicz, Sławomir Mrożek and Stanisław Lem.

Enriched by that adventure, I returned to the land of my childhood thanks to Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuit Order he brought to life in the sixteenth century. I discovered that there is an open-minded Catholicism able to respect not only believers of other religions, but also the atheists. The Jesuits convinced me that the worlds of Gombrowicz and Loyola do not necessarily contradict each other: paradoxically, they might instead be mutually complementary. I was aware that my experience was anything but common, shared as it was with only a few others; for some time, however, I went on believing that it might become a widespread experience inside the Order. I was, of course, aware that it is more typical for humans to select and memorize data that allow them to compose a consistent – though also for that reason closed – life-project. This is what happened to Polish Jesuits, who embraced Polish Catholicism in its fundamentalist form. For that reason, I left the Order in 2005. Now I know that discovery of a new world can offer happiness of a different, novel kind. This was to become my experience; this book is its (albeit fragmentary) record.

I came to understand that the mind's closure generates anxiety which seeks relief by recruiting others in a similar predicament. Shared anxiety leads to the desire to subdue and subordinate others, and breeds demagogy. Openness to dialogue is the opposite of demagogy and manipulation. We know this intuitively, but are not always able to put it into words. Zygmunt Bauman was one of those people who convinced me that there are ways out of that quandary. Perhaps for that reason, publication of his texts in a Jesuit journal was not enough for me: I wished to know more – to interrogate the author. And my hopes were not frustrated. As he penned in one of his letters:

alternatives are not ‘found objects’ – alternatives need to be made – created; they do not exist by themselves, but derive from our undertakings. They are conceived by refusal to allow things to stay as they are, and mature in the course of our efforts to change them. It does not suffice to pile up arguments in favour of dialogic engagement and list its virtues, advantages and benefits. However convincing those arguments sound, something else is still needed if we want a genuine dialogue – that is, a dialogue with people who hold to the views we reject (including those who run away from such dialogue like the devil from holy water) – to become a realistic alternative. That ‘something else’ is by no means trifling: it is nothing less than an overhaul of the mode of our being-in-the-world; nothing less than a sui generis cultural revolution.

Such a cultural revolution is occurring in front of our eyes – in part thanks to your and my efforts to inspire it. For me also thanks to this second volume of our conversations. This is one of the benefits of encounter and dialogue, and for that very reason encounter and dialogue are worth undertaking – even if we cannot know in advance where they will take us.

Stanisław Obirek

1Reveries of Solitary Walkers

Zygmunt Bauman    Unde malum – whence evil? That is the question that plagued our human brethren and sisters since Eve, seduced by the serpent, the grandmaster of spin, tempted Adam (about whose appetite for spin we know next to nothing), to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and thus to begin the history of humanity.

This was indeed (still is, and will continue to be, let's hope, for a long time to come) a human story; it was, is and will remain a human story for as long as it's lived in the awareness of the possibility of goodness and evil in all things and all actions. Awareness of good and evil was, is and continues to be the awareness of choice; an awareness that things and deeds do not have to be the way they always have been – that they can be different from how they are. And so it is also an awareness of the possibility of living and acting differently from the way we have been doing in the past, from the way we are doing it now and from the way we intend to do it in the future. In conclusion: awareness of good and evil is the awareness of alternatives.

Awareness of alternatives is an awareness of the necessity of choice. Awareness of that necessity is, in turn, consciousness of freedom. Consciousness of freedom is, furthermore, a consciousness of responsibility for choice. And consciousness of responsibility is what makes us human.

Since that fateful bite of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve's descendants are free, and cannot stop being free since they are conscious that things could be different from how they are, that they could act differently from how they do – that they could choose differently.

They know, what is more, that their awareness of the difference between good and evil, their very freedom of choice, makes them responsible for that choice. From freedom of choice comes responsibility for its consequences. To be free is to be responsible for one's choices. And choice – as we know and cannot forget – is the choice between good and evil, between a greater or lesser good, greater or lesser evil. Responsibility and freedom are therefore like Siamese twins, impossible to prise apart even for the most skilful of surgeons. Responsibility comes with freedom, and, as long as freedom lasts, responsibility remains.

The anguish of the unde malum question is ultimately the anguish of inalienable responsibility. It is the price that a free man must pay for his freedom. It is an anguish that can only be taken away along with freedom. But a return to the blissful state of ignorance of the difference between good and evil (the bliss of the unawareness of bliss!) is, as we know, once and for all denied to the descendants of Adam and Eve. Cherubim, an angel's flaming sword, but, above all, awareness of the difference between good and evil – once acquired, never forgotten – guard the gates of ideal bliss. And yet the bliss of forgetting and/or discarding that awareness, and with it its eternal, for better or worse, companion – responsibility – smacks of bondage. Having tasted freedom, a man deprived of it will feel as if he has been thrown into the burning sulphur-filled cauldrons of hell. To sum up: return to the bliss of paradise is once and for all denied to us; some of us may dream of it from time to time, but we can do so (as we find out sooner or later – unfortunately, mostly too late) only at our own peril.

What can I say? It is hard to go through life with the weight of responsibility on your shoulders – it weighs you down and constrains your movements. It can hold you back from fulfilling even the most ardent wishes and, if it fails to do so, it will only add to your burden before capitulating. There is no escape from responsibility; and it is more rigorous in its search for truth, as well as harsher in its judgments, than even the most consummate, the most erudite and pedantic of high court judges. Judges presiding over earthly tribunals may be persuaded of your innocence, sometimes even bribed to acquit you, but your conscience, that tireless police constable in your mind and heart, stationed there by your responsibility from the moment you became aware of it, will not be swayed by even the most persuasive arguments or handsomest bribes – will not so much as take a nap, close its eyes for a moment or look the other way … People may be naive or corrupt, but not morality.

My dear Staszek, I cannot help suspecting – though I have no ‘scientific’ evidence for this – that both our continued fascination with the question unde malum and our ineptitude in finding a definitive answer to it, stem ultimately from our resistance to and protest against the state of affairs outlined above – be they explicit or covert, intentional or unintentional, conscious or subconscious – our intransigence towards the non-negotiability of the absolute, and thus exceptionless, moral responsibility. Wordy evasions, ploys and ruses are as common as they are useless: they can beguile our listeners (especially since we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded, sympathetic interlocutors who are not only willing but also grateful to be thus beguiled) but not the police constable within us. So we need something more. Philosophers, for instance, or scholarly and auratic sages, or demagogues with charisma.

Certain philosophers, and in particular biogeneticists, biochemists or biopsychologists who recently came to their support with their latest research, search for the sources of evil outside the sphere subject to human choices – under a common ‘It's Nature, stupid!’ banner. It is nature, they suggest, that made us able to do evil and to resort to it under certain circumstances. But is it really ‘us’ who resort to evil? Although we use this pronoun in our lay language grounded on the illusion of free will, in a language purified of fanciful terms – and so scientifically correct – we should be saying that this ability is set in motion by biochemical processes taking place in our nervous system: processes over which ‘we’ have no control. Those processes can be investigated, documented, described in detail, even set in mathematical formulae – but they cannot, at least not in the current state of knowledge and technology, be changed or prevented. In other words: it can't be helped.

Are you, like me, struck by the continuity of such reasoning, unbroken even by a radical change of idiom? Whether it's the devil or biochemical processes that are charged with the true authorship of evil, the conclusions are strikingly similar: it is possible (indeed necessary) to pass the blame for evil, hitherto erroneously attributed to human will, to non-human factors independent of human choice. As a matter of fact, both the intention behind such inquiry and the message contained in its results in fact benefited from the change of idiom: after all, it was possible to reason with the devil, to outsmart him or to chase him away by sprinkling him with holy water; sometimes the devil even had to ask his human acolytes for a signed consent to his deeds. There are no such methods, at least not at present, for tackling what the nerves and biochemical processes are doing.

Demagogues are more practical, and ultimately probably more effective, than philosophers and biopsychologists; at least if their effectiveness is to be measured by the numbers of recruits keenly pricking up their ears to their messages and hurrying to join the ranks of combatants in battle. Not many will delve into the deliberations of philosophers; even fewer will understand what biochemists are talking about. In any case, both address their message to those few thirsty for knowledge and craving a deeper understanding.

When I speak of the advantage of demagogues over philosophers or biochemists, I have in mind politicians, who turn not to those few, but to all the rest – in the hope of exploiting their confusion, fear and anxiety for the benefit of whatever cause they are advancing; relying mostly on their ignorance and helplessness.

Demagogues don't go in for subtle and sophisticated argument. They cut across, take shortcuts, go for the jugular. They get directly to the crux of the matter. Because the crux of the matter, let me remind you, is the torment of carrying the unendurable burden of one's own responsibility. There can be no better recruitment slogan, to those who are thus burdened, than the promise to have that burden taken away: the offer of making responsibility collective – or an invitation to hand it over to someone else who promises to cope with the burden better, to lock it in the safety of an unbreakable strong-box, or else have it cashed in a pawn shop. All such proposals and their like have one characteristic in common – they promise an end to the agony of personal responsibility: ‘Trust me, give me power, listen to what I say, do as I tell you – and you will be rid of worry and fear of being excluded or of falling out of line. No one will reproach you for not doing enough of this or too much of that. No one will scold, humiliate, oppress or offend you. It will be I, from now on, who will carry on my shoulders the full responsibility for what you – yes, you here, and you in the second row, and you over there by the window, and all of you together following my commands – will do.’ Sometimes the haranguer will assume the garb of a messenger or an emissary, speaking not so much in his own name as in that of ‘The Cause’, bypassing thereby the issue of command and submission. He will most probably adopt the personal pronoun of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, and will supplement each order with the reminder that together we stand and together fall. The effect, however, is the same: the offer of an a-priori absolution for any sinful act and transgression, on the condition that those acts be the outcome of his orders (in some cases) or the demands of the just cause (in others).

This is a tempting proposition, a proposition difficult to reject – almost like a vision of paradise in which no spectre of responsibility for evil deeds haunts us; one especially difficult to ignore for those many who learned from their own experience that refraining from harming others brought them no good whatsoever; those many frustrated by taking moral responsibility for a recipe for gaining human respect and a gratifying life.

Stanisław Obirek    I am trying to think when I first repeated Eve's or Adam's gesture. When I first felt embarrassment or stinging shame, thus becoming aware of the sense of moral responsibility. Such a moment of awakening from the blissful state of innocence must surely have taken place at some point. I ponder and I ponder but nothing comes to mind.

Monsters and strange imaginings took root and nestled in my mind – as with St Anthony before me – from my earliest childhood. A clear case of unde malum. Catechism, the contents of which have been poured into my mind and heart since my pre-school days, gives a clear and unequivocal answer: peccatum originale as formulated by St Agustine and undoubtedly refined by scholars as peccatum originale originans (thus, giving rise to sin), or peccatum originale originatum (i.e., sin which had been initiated). Whatever he may have called it, it was the concept and not its name that mattered, since it presented the possibility of defeating the snake-headed Hydra. Ever since sin was given a name and its consequences made known to all, a remedy could be found too – an effective measure for overcoming this evil. All we had to do was make use of it. As for the fact that doubts swirled in the mind, and those dispensing means of salvation did not always inspire confidence … a solution was found for that too – ex opere operato! It is not man and the quality of his moral stance, but the act itself, through the secret decree of God, which will make everything all right. It is enough to submit meekly to the healing treatment and everything will become clear. And so every­thing should be simple, all doubts dispersed, all anxiety calmed. Polish language (I am not sure how close it is to its Latin source) informs us of an irrevocable rupture, a tearing apart. It took place at the moment of sinful conception (how else could the said St Augustine have referred to this secret event?) and the equally accursed childbirth, when I left my mother's blissful womb and was thrown into a hostile world. Those two events irrevocably marked my existence. No one and nothing could bring me out of the unfathomable depths of original sin, like the waters of the baptismal font to which my parents, like their parents before them, submitted me. With baptism barely over and the world beginning to open itself up to my curious eyes, it was the turn of confession and First Communion to appease my childish heart. Should that not be enough, there was also the confirmation and endorsement of my chosen path. Finally, priesthood, that ultimate dream of a Christian, who not only gains an open path to heaven but is able to encourage and help others onto it. I had answers to the problems and dilemmas you mention, Zygmunt, at hand, ready-made. In fact I needed to do nothing but submit to the beneficial remedies guaranteed by the Church from my earliest days. Yet not everything rang true, and my heart searched out other laws. And so I did not give in completely to the magical, miraculous power of the sacraments promising salvation. Perhaps I had too little faith and too much reasoning and doubt, as my closest friends used to tell me.

And so a fundamental question arises: what is one to do should the sacrament fail to fulfil hopes vested in it? Because it is rupture and tearing apart that haunts me still, not the beneficial bliss promised at baptism. And so, dear Zygmunt, you have touched upon the essence of our civilization, which, for the last two millennia – certainly since Augustine, mentioned above – solved the matter by introducing the concept of the original sin, and pointing to ways of eliminating it. So what does it mean if the man who baptized Plato and Socrates, the greatest thinker for Christians of all denominations, was in fact the one to make the matter worse and push it into an ever deeper abyss? How else can we explain the ever-lengthening dialogue of the deaf, first begun in paradise, with which you began your still essentially unanswered question. I am skipping the first verses of chapter 3 of Genesis – remarkable for the brevity with which they describe the original sin so reviled by Augustine – to stop as it were on the final chord. Thus, concerned about the strange behaviour of Adam and Eve, God turns to the former and asks whether he has eaten fruit from the forbidden tree. Adam confesses that that is what has happened, but at the same time lays the blame on his life companion. She too has an explanation: ‘and Adam said: the Woman you put in front of me, she gave me of the tree and I ate. And Eternal God said to the woman: what have you done! And the woman said: the serpent tempted me and I ate’ (Genesis 3:12–13). Surely this is a record of escape from responsibility, which takes on the now-familiar form of laying the blame at someone else's door – it wasn't me, she tempted me! Moreover, it is God himself who is guilty, having made Adam unhappy by the presence of Eve the temptress. Eve does not accept responsibility and blames the serpent, also God's creation. And all comes back to the beginning: we are how you created us! And yet this is neither a full nor a correct interpretation of the biblical text. Feminists sensitized us to the role of Eve, praising her for that first bite which opened our eyes and made possible the distinction between good and evil.

And so it is to our ancestral mother to whom we owe moral awareness and the ability to assess our actions. Without Eve, we would be as thoughtless as cows in a meadow, only searching for the tastiest pastures without a thought for the consequences of our choices. Here, in turn, theology comes to the rescue by singing the praises of felix culpa – that is to say, fortunate mistakes and deviations, which give the Almighty an opportunity to act and gladden the repentant soul. Yet repentance is hard to come by, and so mercy is not granted as freely as we would like, and the consequences of mistakes remain. But, resolutely following feminist interpretation, I will be grateful to Eve for her courage and maturity in facing the question of what is good and what is evil. As for the temptation? The serpent probably tempted Adam too; he, however, chose to remain in a state of thoughtless bliss and it took Eve's initiative to shake him out of his stupor, lamented much later by the loner of Königsberg. For Kant, the sober voice of David Hume turned out to be a godsend; for Eve, curiosity was the beginning of suffering, but also the opening up of new perspectives. And so each of us should be thankful for the temptress and not malign her, as is often the case with religious thinkers given to overly doleful theological reflection.

Leaving the biblical myth aside, I think that much of it is in fact about us. This, after all, is its role – to explain what we are like. Gustave Flaubert, following in the footsteps of medieval painters, had his own way of explaining the mystery of the temptation of St Anthony. For him, not just a gathering of monsters advancing towards the holy hermit, but the whole of nineteenth-century science militates against faith, exposing its delusions and shortcomings. As we know from a charming but most significant anecdote, Flaubert forced his friends to listen to his tale about St Anthony for four days, forbidding them to interrupt or comment. Exhausted, they advised casting the manuscript into the fire. Fortunately the author did not do so, and a Polish translator enabled us to enter this curious world of reckoning with religious myths. Does it provide an answer? Undoubtedly it did in the nineteenth century. Today we must undertake our own tests. It is beyond me to picture the turmoil of contradictions within me in the way Flemish masters of the Middle Ages could, nor can I bring myself to such merciless diagnosis of our times as that of the French writer's. I can but closely follow the turn of events, trusting my lack of care will not add to the growing confusion of tongues. Thus, I have a strong impression that primary importance, both in the Middle Ages and in nineteenth-century France, was given to the taming of desires of the flesh, in great measure stimulated by Christian asceticism tinged with Manichean distrust. Today, in the twenty-first century, our demons have taken on a different form. Or so at least it seems to me. My own dreams and desires are different; I am troubled by new temptations. I don't know whether I can give them a name – or, more precisely, whether I dare to do so. Diagnosis surely is the beginning of a cure, and we don't always want to be rid of our ailment.

I have a feeling that I would like to reconcile the conflicting tendencies of our time. On the one hand, I am seduced by individualism and the possibility of writing one's own life scenario, which can and ought to be pursued by every individual at their own discretion; on the other hand, I am aware how painfully such scenarios impact on my fellow beings. The most fervently persecuted are those daredevils who, after years of belonging to a group, take the risk of solitary wandering, rarely shared by former travel companions. ‘Revisionist’, ‘traitor’, ‘renegade’ are but the mildest of epithets they must face. Yet it is not loyalty to a group, but to oneself, that is life's truth, and a common life programme cannot always be agreed on by a group. Is it possible to escape this trap? I believe it is. If awareness of good and evil gives you a choice, then life experience accumulated by me and my fellow beings should sensitize us to the possibility of mutual hurt. It should and it does. It does not matter that we know little about this possibility, and that the media convince us so keenly that it does not exist. Lech Nijakowski recently wrote a remarkable study, named simply The Pleasure of Revenge, about the growing power and curious pleasure felt by many through the possibility of inflicting hurt and pain. Not necessarily physical pain – there are, after all, many ways of eliminating and disposing of inconvenient travel companions.1 We both know how painful words can be, how deeply they can wound and even destroy the sense of human dignity. But is it acceptable to stop at this interface of evil – shouldn't we go farther and, despite ourselves, weave the threads of understanding?

It is, after all, the ones inflicting pain and wielding machetes who often have the greatest need. What if they were to be surrounded not by clever politicians and demagogues of all kinds eagerly taking advantage of social frustrations, but by people with empathy and understanding of their deepest needs – might not the violent death squads be replaced with willing and selfless volunteers? Isn't this the case, for example, in Latin American countries where, despite warnings from the Vatican, thousands of liberation theologians have worked for decades at grass-roots level, with basic ecclesial communities, to bring spiritual and intellectual awakening to millions of people? The impossible was achieved there – Marx and the Bible joined hands and became the tool for transformation of the world. I dream of a similar experience on Polish soil. I know this is a utopian dream, but if enough of us dream it may become reality. Since it happened in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, why not in Poland? No, I do not want power. I am not after any leadership, political or religious. But I support those who have sufficient energy to try. For me, mental experiments and dreams of their realization sometime in the future are enough.

I cannot hide that the emphasis you place on moral responsibility for one's actions is very dear to me. Indeed, I believe that it represents the only opportunity of overcoming the increasingly severe divisions and growing tensions between people – and not just religious ones. One concrete manifestation of this is the belief that ‘There will be no world peace without peace between its religions, there will be no peace between religions without inter-religious dialogue, and no inter-religious dialogue without thorough knowledge of one another.’ This is the often-repeated thesis of Hans Kueng, creator of the Global Ethics Foundation, and a leitmotif running through his efforts to overcome existing and growing inter-religious tensions.2 For this Swiss theologian and Catholic dissident, the main reason for inter-religious dialogue is a pragmatic desire for peace, and the main means of achieving this will be to develop global standards of ethics that apply to followers of all religions. Shouldn't this go beyond the limits of religion? One should certainly be able to reconcile the desire to belong with expression of one's own moral decision, taken at one's own risk. Does this bring a tangible benefit? Rarely – or rather never. And yet only such a communally agreed form of shaping the world permits us to look to the future with any kind of optimism.

Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania    The question – whence evil? – which began Zygmunt's considerations about how our ancestors, having tasted the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, gained awareness of the choice between good and evil and of their own responsibility for that choice, made me question further: what is good and what is evil? And is our responsibility, above all (apart from the harshest and toughest judgment – of our own conscience), towards those for whom our good is evil?

Stanisław touches on this question when he writes: ‘I would like to reconcile the conflicting tendencies of our time. On the one hand, I am seduced by individualism and the possibility of writing one's own life scenario, which can and ought to be pursued by every individual at their own discretion; on the other hand, I am aware how painfully such scenarios impact on my fellow beings.’ These issues deserve a deeper consideration.

There is often a tendency – referring to that first biblical scene – to trivialize the problem of evil, reducing it to simple disobedience: going against prohibitions or injunctions.

Freedom is thus reduced to the choice between obedience to commands and prohibitions of God, of authorities, leaders, parliaments and all institutions, and disobedience whose consequence will be punishment and withdrawal of rewards. This is known in the field of psychology of moral development as conventional or heteronomous morality (in the terms of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg).

But in the very next chapter of the Bible, following on from expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, their son Cain kills his brother Abel, whose sacrifice to the Lord was recognized while Cain's was not. Although the evil perpetrated by Cain is irreversible and God curses him, and he himself says: ‘my iniquity is too great for forgiveness’, it is difficult not to feel compassion for the fact that his sacrifice of fruits of the Earth, won in the hard effort of many days, had not been appreciated. Here, the struggle for approval becomes the source of evil, and questioning the justice of God's judgment leads to disobedience.

SO    This is an important addition to and complication of the argument deriving from the Bible. What is more, Aleksandra touches upon issues that may have escaped our attention, which are worth airing and certainly worth remembering – the problematizing of such apparently obvious concepts as good and evil being amongst them. ‘What is good and what is evil?’ asks Aleksandra. When does my ‘good’ become my fellow beings' ‘evil’? I am very pleased that my dilemma, or rather the unsolvable drama of reconciling my own ways with those of other people, has provoked other questions. I agree that the reduction of the problem of evil to a mere question of disobedience towards authority and power, to the transgression of more or less overt prohibitions and injunctions, is a shameful simplification. I also have the impression that today's moral theology, largely thanks to the achievements of social sciences such as sociology, psychology, ethnography and anthropology, is much more circumspect than it used to be in its judgments and evaluations, particularly the more ruthless amongst them which shape the notions of hell in the popular imagination.

Cain's transgression belongs to such problematized cases. As Zygmunt reminds us, it is not a question of chronicling past events, but of an etiological parable explaining the question of who we are. The authors of the book of Genesis, for certain, dwelt on the question themselves. There was perhaps in it nostalgia and sadness for an irretrievably lost pastoral way of life and the resulting necessity to cultivate the land forever more. Was the shepherd closer to God than the farmer? Perhaps it is good that the Bible leaves us in doubt as to Cain's guilt. Was his guilt as obvious and undeniable as the catechisms make out, or was it perhaps part contrived by the capricious God who, for reasons known only to Himself, gladly accepts one sacrifice only to cold-shoulder another? Did He not, by His rejection, provoke Cain's anger and open the way to his crime? It is a terrible question and every believer flinches before it, and yet compassion for the unfortunate, mentioned by Aleksandra, germinates in our hearts and refuses to condemn unconditionally. This, as we know well, is not tantamount to the acceptance of crime or praise for murderous deeds. It's just that doubt arises over whether it is possible to divide people unequivocally into good and evil, along with perhaps even an attempt to understand the bizarre, and indeed sometimes murderous, deeds of our fellow men, to which, for motives unclear, they have been reduced. Perhaps there is in this unhappy adventure of Cain's an incentive for us to take more interest in the Cains amongst us, to try to understand them, to unravel the secrets of their dark hearts. Hereby opens a whole new chapter of rapidly developing research on memory and amnesia. Why do nations happen to remember the reasons why they carefully cultivate certain places and events, whereas others they tend to pass over in shameful silence, erase from memory or doom to oblivion? I am not talking of ordinary conflict here, of so-called ‘political history’, but rather of individual interventions designed to save our own image of ourselves. Paul Connerton writes about this in an incomparable way, asking the question of How Societies Remember, and repeating this question in another book, How Modernity Forgets.3

I am, of course, aware that I am treading on treacherous ground here, booby-trapped with mines threatening to explode at any moment, but it is surely a ground whose existence is impossible to ignore. Nothing changes the fact that history spared me by allowing me nowhere near collective passions which so easily turn into collective crimes.

The very possibility of participation in such things inspires fear and teaches circumspection in judging others. So many were deprived of this luxury and participated against their own will in things they and their descendants are ashamed of.

ZB    Many centuries before the concept of peccatum originale originans was forged by scholastics, or even before the term peccatum originale was forged by St Augustine, there already existed a biblical parable about the origins of moral suffering coupled with the necessity of choice: the choice between good and evil, between staying on the straight and narrow or losing one's way and going astray, between virtue and sin; in other words, suffering arising from the possibility for evil-doing, then newly conceived, but existing to this day; and from man's responsibility, inextricably linked with it, for the choice between good and evil. As this biblical parable – or more precisely the myth of origins – suggests, this current state of our affairs – from which there is no return and for which, no cure (and which therefore must accompany man constantly and irrevocably through his life) – is a punishment, not a reward; punishment for the sin of disobedience. Note that the myths of origins, the ‘etiological’ myths, are not so much tales of something that happened in the dim and distant past (at least they are not that exclusively) as scenarios of dramas constantly re-enacted, each time experienced anew – dramas in which we all participate as dramatis personae, having internalized the myth and its instructions. And thus we all find ourselves, and will continue finding ourselves (since not much can be done about it), face to face with the temptation to disobey: the selfsame temptation which – once we surrender to it – triggers and sustains our suffering. And so all of us, following the plot you have correctly excavated from the stories, will be enticed to hide from our own responsibility behind the backs of others, shielding ourselves with the virtue of obedience when it comes to excusing our misdeeds.

Let me note that, within the multifarious variety of religious and philosophical ideas about the meaning and purpose of human life – which, according to Karl Jaspers,4 were born almost simultaneously, though independently from each other, in the Mediterranean, Persia, India and China between 800 and 200 BC (a period named retrospectively the ‘axial age’), and which defined the respective profiles of the great civilizations – there was, amongst a substantial list of similarities, a marked absence of the concept of ‘sin’. Buddhists have no concept of sin; instead, they have the concept of ‘three poisons’ (greed, anger and delusion/deception), for which the penalty in the form of suffering follows automatically – that is to say, without punishment meted out by a Supreme Being representing the law violated by the sinner, and without an agency or an institution responsible for interpreting such laws and defining the form and scale of repentance for the sin of disobedience. St Thomas, as you know, defined sin as a moral evil – that is to say, evil resulting from infringement of the law (constitutional law!), whether known or otherwise. And it is here that the heart of the matter seems to lie: Aquinas' ruling was joyfully embraced by the Church as justification for its own monopoly for drawing the line between comme il faut and comme il ne faut pas. In practice, sin became synonymous with offending the dictates of the Church, questioning its absolute power – in short, synonymous with violation of the law and thus non-conformity to the governors of God – rather than with deviant acts, acts harmful to others per se. It was perhaps in this latter sense that Pope Francis, when asked how he felt after his election, answered that he felt a sinner – a denomination all the more expectable as the Church had only a moment ago recognized him as the most sinless of the sinless (the Pope, after all, when called to office by the Conclave, is recognized as infallible in matters of faith, thus, like God, able to do everything except evil).

What is originans in peccatum originale, an (indirect, at least) consequence of this etiological myth of original sin, is the freedom of self-determination, a self-determination poisoned from the outset, and probably forever more by the anguish of the moral man. What divides the blithe state of happy-go-lucky insouciance arising from irresponsibility for one's actions, and the sufferings of conscience already experienced or quite likely to be experienced, is the difference between servitude and freedom, subordination and self-determination. That ‘remedy … [i.e.] effective measure for overcoming … evil’, which, as you say, was found, was not a contraption for changing the human condition (St Augustine did not, after all, offer a means of rendering the original sin null and void); quite the opposite, the very indispensability of a ‘remedy’ was based on the assumed unchangeability of this condition (the original sin can be redeemed and repented, but it cannot be undone) – this unchangeability being in its turn a justification for the requirement of absolute obedience. The remedy for the pain of responsibility is (to use a term imputed by Montaigne to Etienne de la Boétie) voluntary servitude. After the expulsion of our primogenitors, the gates of paradise were tightly locked and definitively bolted, even if we can still exercise the very freedom of choice to which you and I were sentenced to give this freedom up – voluntarily: to submit to a power potent enough to release us from it and promising to use that potency as long as we remain obedient. As long as … And therefore perhaps forever, because – after all – once you accept servitude, you may deprive yourself – willingly or not, knowingly or not – of the possibility of opting out from it.

The power to which you surrendered would not be one whose discretion and care was worth submitting to, had it not reserved for itself, and for itself only, the exclusive right to terminate your relationship. The power to which you surrendered neither issues exit visas, nor permits any deviation from the rule of absolute obedience. How accurate your observation that ‘The most fervently persecuted are those daredevils who, after years of belonging to a group, take the risk of solitary wandering, rarely shared by former travel companions. “Revisionist”, “traitor”, “renegade”, are but the mildest of epithets they must face.’ All of this means that, as you submit (voluntarily, remember, voluntarily!) to servitude, you are made to feel as though you entered bondage: a condition that contains neither cancellation nor ‘change of mind’ clauses. For the power to which you submitted to remain powerful, the alternative to obedience cannot be the splendours and miseries of self-determination, or the consistency-of-life programme you so rightly call for (a kind of consistency, to follow your line of thought, which you determine yourself, taking on yourself full responsibility for your judgment: ‘it is not loyalty to a group, but to oneself, that is life's truth’, as you say) – but Inferno. The price of disobedience must be – and is – hellishly exorbitant. Even such a price won't prevent all and any deviation – but it will at least seriously diminish the likelihood of a decision to deviate being made in the first place. To refer to Georg Simmel's concept of value: the immense value we seem to ascribe to the consistency-of-life programme is in no small measure augmented by the enormity of the price we must pay for it. A superior power may give you the gift of freedom from responsibility, but it will do all it can (and it can do a great deal!) to frustrate your attempts to reject that gift.

Let's talk for a change about dignity. This is not entirely a change of topic, as, first of all, I believe that there is no greater evil perpetrated by one human being against another than that of denying him or her their human dignity, or of depriving him or her of the chance to acquire it; and as, second, mutually recognized personal dignity is not only a prerequisite of that ‘cohesive life’ that you so value and promote, but also perhaps the noblest of all consequences of such a cohesion.

Before we proceed, let me, however, explain what I mean by ‘dignity’. I feel duty-bound to do so, since in colloquial Polish language today – and by no means only there – the concept of dignity is often used with widely varying and irreconcilable sub-texts and meanings. I would like to disassociate myself right away from certain colloquial uses of the term ‘dignity’, to prevent as much as possible any misunderstandings.