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Without witnesses

Olavo de Carvalho
O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), July, 22nd. 2000

 

" We have to unmask ourselves to reach the inner authenticity of a culture in which we will, one day, be able to recognize ourselves and feel fulfilled."

J.O. de Meira Penna, Em Berco Esplendido

 

In My Childhood and Youth, Albert Schweitzer recalls the moment when, for the first time, he felt ashamed of himself. He was about 3 years old and was playing in the garden. Then came a bee and stung his finger. He cried and was helped by his parents and neighbors. Suddenly, little Albert realized that the pain had already been gone for several minutes and that he continued to cry only to retain the attention of the audience. When he told this story, Schweitzer was in his seventies. He had behind him a life of achievements, a great life of an artist, doctor, philosopher, the life of a Christian soul devoted to helping the poor and the sick. But he still felt the shame of that first time he cheated. This feeling persisted through the years in the depth of his memory, kicking his conscience at every new temptation of fooling himself.

It should be noted that those around him had not noticed anything: it was only the little Schweitzer who knew of his shame, only he had to account for his act before his conscience and his God. I am convinced that experiences like this one – the acts without witnesses, as I use to call them – are the only possible basis upon which a man can develop an authentic, rigorous and autonomous moral conscience. Only one who in solitude knows how to be rigorous and just with himself – and against himself – is capable of judging others with justice, instead of being led by the screaming crowd, the propaganda stereotypes, or by self-interest disguised in beautiful moral pretexts.

The reason for this is self evident: a man must be free from all external surveillance to be sure that he is looking to himself, and not to a social role, and only then will he be able to make a totally sincere judgment. Only one who is master of himself is free – and nobody is master of himself if he cannot withstand glancing alone into his own heart.

Even the most candid conversation, the most spontaneous confession do not replace this interior examination, because they are valid only if they are the very expression of an interior examination, and not mere passing outbursts, induced by a casually stimulating atmosphere or by vain candor.

On top of that, it is not only the moral dimension of conscience that develops itself through this confrontation: it is the whole conscience – cognitive esthetic, practical. For the interior examination is at once a bringing together and a setting apart: it is the solitary judgment which creates the true intimacy of a man with himself, while it also creates the distance, the interior space in which life experiences and knowledge are acquired, deepened and personalized. Without this internal space, without this personal "world" gained in solitude, man is but a pipe through which information flows in and out, as food transformed into leftovers.

Now, not all human beings are endowed by Providence with a spontaneous perception and a precise judgment of their sins. Without these gifts, the will for justice is corrupted into a projective inculpation of others and into "rationalization" (in the psychoanalytical meaning of the word). Who has not been given these gifts at birth must acquire them through education. Therefore, moral education consists less in memorizing lists of rights and wrongs than in establishing a moral environment conducive to self-examination, to interior seriousness, to the responsibility of each one of knowing what he was doing when nobody was watching.

During two millennia, such an environment was created and sustained by the Christian practice of the "examination of conscience", equivalents of which can be found in other religious and mystic traditions, but not in contemporary lay culture. There is Psychoanalysis, there is psychotherapy, but they only work in this context when they preserve the religious reference to personal guilt and to its healing through confession before God. As society de-Christianizes itself (or, mutatis mutandis, as it loses its Islamic or Judaic content), that reference is diluted and clinic techniques usually lead to the opposite outcome: they abolish the sentiment of guilt, exchanging it for a selfish hardening which is mistaken for "maturity", or for a self-complacent, limp and crooked ability to adapt, which is mistaken for "sanity".

The difference between the religious technique and its modern imitations is that it summarizes, in a single dramatic experience, the pain of guilt and the joy of total liberation. And this cannot be achieved by lay techniques, exactly because they entirely miss the dimension of a "Final Judgment", of the confrontation with an eternal destiny which, by giving to this experience a metaphysical meaning, raised the desire for personal responsibility to the heights of a nobility of soul with which the appearances of "citizenship ethics" cannot even dream about.

For the past two centuries, modern culture has endeavored whatever it can to debilitate, suffocate and banish from the soul of each man the capacity for this supreme experience in which self-conscience is demanded to its utmost, the only one in which someone may acquire an authentic measure of the possibilities and duties of the human condition. "Lay ethics" , "education for citizenship" is all that is left externally when the internal conscience shuts up and when man’s actions do not mean anything beyond violation or observance of a code of conventional acts and casual interests.

In this sense, "ethics" is pure adaptation to the exterior, without any intimate echo other than the one which can be obtained by the forceful internalization of slogans, ready-made sentences and words of order. It is the sacrifice of conscience on the shrine of the official lie of the day.

 

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