Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: religion

The Cancer of English Anti-Semitism

The 200 year-old arrangement – by which the Jews rendered money-lending services in return for protection and freedom of travel around the kingdom – was torn to shreds. The first sign was the sudden enforcement of the wearing of the badge of difference, the ‘tabula’. Now they were marked people. Then, the towns in which they were allowed to reside, were limited; whole communities now moved elsewhere. When Edward got back from the crusade it got worse. A state on the Jews in 1275 forbade money-lending, the essential activity, whatever its odium and perils, that supported what would be otherwise indigent communities.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 323

This pattern keeps repeating itself – destroy a people by attacking their rights, their presence and their economic contribution. I explore this issue in more detail in The Unmaking of Man.

The same pattern can be seen in the lives of disabled people trapped in institutions. The same pattern was repeated in Hitler’s Germany.

As Arendt observes the final cruel blow is to rob people of any role – as either exploited or exploiter:

Persecution of powerless or power-losing groups may not be a very pleasant spectacle, but it does not spring from human meanness alone. What makes men obey or tolerate real power and, on the other hand, hate people who have wealth without power, is the rational instinct that power has a certain function and is of some general use. Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order. Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting, because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together. Wealth which does not exploit lacks even the relationship which exists between exploiter and exploited; aloofness without policy does not even imply the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 5

We must protect each other’s rights – with no excuses, no exceptions. But we must also guard against segregation and special badges that mark some people off as ‘special’. And we must never allow anyone to be treated as if they have nothing to offer – we need everyone – everyone has something to offer.

Otherwise, horror awaits.

1275 was a particular low point for England. English anti-Semitism unleashed the trend towards the ghetto and the pogrom, a trend which spread across Europe in the centuries that followed. In turn this led to modern anti-Semitism and the death camps. We may warm our consciences by the fact that the worst excesses were not ours – but many of them started in England and spread outwards like cancer.

The Inquisition – A Truly Modern Institution

The Inquisition was its own dominion of judgement, a state within a state, answerable to no one other than the Pope, the Crown and its own array of imposing bureaucratic regulations. As well as the inquisitors and those who staffed the tribunals of interrogation, a huge array of ‘familiars’, who were responsible for handling the bureaucratic work that oiled the machinery of terror. So many carefully considered regulations surrounded the application of torture, for example, that those who oversaw it constituted the first systematically organised bureaucracy of pain. The Inquisition even had its own miniature armies of protection and intimidation. The Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada never travelled anywhere without his own army of horsemen, especially after an inquisitor had been murdered in Saragossa Cathedral by a desperate group of ‘conversos’. Notoriously, virtually unlimited powers of torture were granted to extract ‘full’ confessions from those suspected of relapsing or, worse, those who were impenitent, active Judaisers. Thus the snooping state made its way into history: servants, family members, neighbours frightened and cajoled into becoming informers and spies. Even in monasteries and convents, monks and nuns would report on brothers and sisters whom they suspected of looking down when the Host was raised, stumbling over the Paternoster or Ave Maria and saying who knew what in the solitude of their cells. Yirimiyahu Yovel is right to see in this the germ of a modern malevolent modern institution rather than a medieval relic. It was indeed something fresh in its inhumanity.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 405

Support for Yovel and Schama is found in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and in Foucault’s account of the prison. The Inquisition may have been one of the first modern institutions, but the hospital, the prison, the asylum, concentration camps and extermination centres were to quickly follow. The religious and the anti-religious joined together in a barbaric assault on humanity.

Modern doesn’t mean better.

And as Arendt and Foucault noticed, the sign of a truly modern institution is that it refuses to accept merely outward signs of conformity. It is not good enough that we seem to be fitting in – we must really fit in – and if not we must be remade or destroyed.

What is the connection between this modern desire to invade the inner private sphere of the mind and spirit and the growing conviction that no such sphere exists? It is almost as if the declining faith in metaphysics (not just Christian, but any deeper metaphysics) leaves us exposed to the most extreme outrages by those who seek control.

Materialism leaves us naked, ready to be herded hither and thither.

Perhaps the Inquisition was the first sign of our declining faith – no longer do we trust in the Holy Spirit and the judgement of Christ – we presume to act on their behalf.

The Emptiness Within

The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain… a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life… It is the actual spring of life within me.

Bertrand Russell from Selected Letters

Bertrand Russell was a celebrated atheist and one of the most important philosophers of the analytical school of philosophy that dominated the teaching of philosophy in Britain and America during the twentieth century.

This analytical approach hinges on a particular strategy for doing philosophy – identifying those truths that have certainty – and building out from there.

Hannah Arendt reflected on the problem with this strategy:

…truth is a rather difficult deity to worship because the only thing she does not allow her worshippers is certainty. Philosophy concerned with truth ever was and probably always will be kind of docta ignoratia – highly learned and therefore highly ignorant. The certainties of Thomas Aquinas afford excellent spiritual guidance and are still much superior to almost anything in the way of certainties which has been invented in more recent times. But certainty is not truth, and a system of certainties is the end of philosophy.

And Goethe made the same point rather more tartly:

To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.

This then leads us to the rather peculiar paradox – we may not be able to have certainty and truth.

To the religious this paradox is resolved through faith and an acknowledgement of the mystery of certain fundamental truths – but to the non-religious this seems like a cop-out. I see no intellectual trick which we use to harmonise these conflicting approaches to life. But I think that Russell’s honesty helps us understand something of the price paid by those who will only have truth with certainty, and so often find themselves without anything.

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