Monday, September 27, 2021

'That Is What Makes Him Human'

Though written more than half a century ago, and devoted to documenting the preceding half-century in the Soviet Union, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs often read like reports from our own time and place. By adhering to first-hand experience, she writes like a prophet. In Chapter 38 of Hope Abandoned  (trans. Max Hayward), “Surviving with Honor,” are several passages I marked during my first reading of the book when it was published in 1974. 

Mandelstam describes attending a Soviet study group in philosophy. Plato was ignored, she tells us, the Greek materialists were favorably mentioned, Hegel was “duly stood on his head” and Kant was “always made fun of and demolished.” His “hapless” categorical imperative was replaced by “the concept of class solidarity.” She writes:


“[I]t would never have occurred to anyone that man might have a soul and everybody was conscious of attending these study circles only out of an instinct for self-preservation. It was a very effective education. We all raised our hands and rattled off the required formulae with great proficiency. Many people still continue to parade the erudition acquired then, and cannot bring themselves to revise it. Why bother, when everything is so clear already?”


Read the subsequent paragraph with 2021 in mind:


“In those woeful times the categorical imperative did indeed seem like the brainchild of an ivory tower thinker ignorant of real life. Everybody tried to save himself, avoiding trouble, and seeing a potential informer in every neighbor and colleague. In such conditions, one is hard put to detect good in anyone, but it nevertheless continued to exist—nothing can destroy it altogether. Of all living creatures, only man is capable of crime, but then again, only man is able to set aside the instinct for self-preservation—that is what makes him human. However few in number, the mere existence of such people gives hope. It shows we are still capable of subordinating our primary urges to a higher voice that is part of our nature, however muffled it may be by the clangor of our daily life.”

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