Thursday, January 12, 2023

Yetzer Hara

- I'm not saying this is right. We'll just consider and see where it takes us.
- Fine.
- I see the same pattern on three levels. One level: we've already claimed that within a single nation evil has the advantage over good. Evil is single minded, knows what it wants, good is sceptical and cautious. Evil needs to progress because it is destructive, constantly creating disorder within and without, whereas good makes of creativity a foundation for future progress and is fundamentally at ease in the world. Good positively doesn't want, if given any choice in the matter, to waste its time fighting evil. Another level: The French philosopher Jean-François Revel explains in his 1986 book How Democracies Perish that international relations between democracy and totalitarian states work the same: whereas democracies simply want peace, totalitarianism is single-mindedly aimed at world conquest and must be so  because totalitarian societies destroy the lives of their people who far from wanting state expansion only want to leave their prison world given the chance. Totalitarianism's only creativity is in increase of territory, with each increment of increase enlarging borders and therefore risk from across the border, with ending this risk becoming a motivation to futher grabs of territory. Do you accept this parrellel of national and international structure?
- I'm not sure. What is the third level?
- The personal, the individual living in a democracy.
- Why not also in Totalitarianism?
- The individual in totalitarianism is a slave, crushed and silenced. Already in the early 19th century Alexis De Tocqueville in his Democracy in America could see what was weakening the country and what gaining for it strength:
‘ I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America . . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety . . . the majority possesses a power that is physical and moral at the same time, which acts upon the will as much as upon the actions and represses not only all contest, but all controversy.’
A democrat's role is chosen, and so open to deliberation and discussion, but role, once chosen and acceptable to others and oneself, each play or repetition is accomplished without self knowledge. A democrat's chosen role ideally aims towards more and more money and power. Passion, un-selfaware action, is behind the choice, the passions: fear of weakness and desire for strength.
- If passion, fear of loss of role or desire for a more powerful role is the evil in the democratic individual, what is the democratic individual's good?
- Love of knowledge, creativity. Revel argues that democracy, both divided against itself and peace loving, is always at a disadvantage in its fight against totalitarian states which must expand to survive and have no other imperative than survival. The same disadvantage is true within the democratic state, where the type who desire more and more money and power seek each other out, working together to corrupt institutions and turn the institutions against individuals who only want to be left alone to lives their lives.
- Like totalitarians must go against their people and all other states, like organized seekers of money and power in democracy must constantly resecure their hold on money and power, must overpower creative people who only want peace, so our own desires threaten to end finally our search for knowledge. In Judaism, yetzer hara (יֵצֶר הַרַע) is the congenital inclination to do evil by violating the will of God. The Yiddish writer Chaim Grade writes in his novel The Yashiva:
A man should not shout into oneself day and night that one should not love oneself. Let him love himself, yes, but in an intelligent way: through love and wisdom of the Torah. Next to the ocean man feels insignificant. But next to the Torah, which is greater than the ocean, man does not feel insignificant, because he is as great as his grasp of the Torah. The Torah cleanes the sensitive man, the intellectual man, of pride and anger: it makes him modest and patient, it inspires him to seek spiritual uplift and not vulgar physical pleasures. Attempting to uproot from oneself the baser desires solely by the strength of one's will and by studying Musar [מוסר, discipline] books in the dark can only bring one to an opposite result: the baser desires become even stronger.
- Both negative and positive, unwilling and willing attention to the evil in oneself strengthen bad habits and impulses. But knowledge of life and the world strengthens will towards good.
- Yes. By 'Torah' is meant understanding that good leads to God and bad leads elsewhere, the knowledge that allows you to trace both paths and have the strength to and know how to choose between them.
- If then the parallel is complete, if internationally democracy without attention to the evil aims of totalitarian states will perish; if nationally democracy will parish from internal discord if the peaceable do not act to render powerless those who organize themselves to gain money and power; then, would you agree, we as individuals have no choice but to forgo for the time being peace, overcome our resistance to battle and study how to block from development within ourselves our passions for ever more lucretive and powerful roles?

Further Reading: