2016-08-23

Life Is Not a Utilitarian Calculation

Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 1

In 1990, I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, studying simultaneously in government: political theory, and in philosophy. In an ethics seminar taught by Cora Diamond, we were considering various angles of critique of utilitarianism when Professor Diamond passed out photocopies of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert: "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." Between that poem and some other readings, such as Professor Diamond's own "How Many Legs?" whatever part of me might have been inclined to defend the utilitarian project in ethics was swept away.

Certainly there are times in life when working for a desired outcome is well and good. But the utilitarian claim that calculating likelihood of good outcomes is the whole of the ethical life, I cannot buy.

I took my copy of "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" from Professor Diamond's class, cut away as much of the blank paper as I practically could, and affixed it to my metal filing cabinet, covering it under a layer of clear packaging tape. Ten years later, a then-new acquaintance of mine, LoraKim Joyner, would see it there, and we would read it together and find ourselves crying.

Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924. He was a month shy of his 15th birthday when the Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in 1939 September, beginning a six-year period of occupation of his homeland. The young Herbert continued his studies in secret classes organized by the Polish Underground and in time became a member of the Polish resistance movement.

In 1974, Herbert published Mr. Cogito, a collection of 40 poems. The titles of the book's poems almost all reference Herbert's everyman, Mr. Cogito. A sampling from the Table of Contents:
"Mr. Cogito Looks At His Face In A Mirror"
"On Mr. Cogito's Two Legs"
"Mr. Cogito And A Pearl"
"Mr. Cogito Considers Returning to His Native Town"
"Mr. Cogito Meditates on Suffering"
"The Abyss of Mr. Cogito"
"Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought"
"Mr. Cogito Reads A Newspaper"
"Mr. Cogito's Alienations"
"Mr. Cogito Considers the Difference Between the Human Voice And The Voice of Nature"
"Mr. Cogito Laments On The Pettiness of Dreams"
"Mr Cogito And Pop Music"
"Mr. Cogito Narrates The Temptation Of Spinoza"
"Mr Cogito Occasionally Receives Strange Letters"
"Mr. Cogito's Meditations On Redemption"
"What Mr. Cogito Thinks About Hell"
"Mr. Cogito On The Upright Position"

The book's last poem is "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." ("Przesłanie Pana Cogito," also sometimes translated as "The Message of Mr Cogito.") Whether the titular envoy is bringing a message to or from Mr. Cogito is not clear. But the message reminds us that life is not a utilitarian calculation.

As I read the poem, I imagine what it must have been like to have been in the Polish resistance, as Herbert had been. It would demand courage that could not have relied on hope, for the resistance, realistically, could not have had hope. Resisting the Nazis was not something that one did because one thought Nazis could be defeated. Rather, resistance was just what was required of an honorable life. In that world, at that time, it was evident that evil had won and would continue. The task of good people was hopeless resistance: standing against the Nazis until caught -- as seemed sure to happen before long -- and executed.
"The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"
By Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Bogdana Carpenter

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards — they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called — weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant — when the light on the mountains gives the sign — arise and go
as long as blood turns your dark star in the breast

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Attain the Good You Will Not Attain"
See also
Part 2: No Desire for the Fruits of Your Action
Part 3: Doing Without Hope

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