Written by Elaine Coburn, Associate Professor of International Studies, Glendon
In the struggle for a livable world, for each of us and for all of us, there are many from whom we draw strength. Some are close to us and some we know only through their words. Hermann Levin Goldschmidt, a German Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, is one who speaks directly across a half-century.
In the long shadow of the Shoah, Goldschmidt wrote Contradiction Set Free, first published in German in the 1970s and only recently translated into English. He wrote about his times, but they are familiar to us: he describes false prophets, genocidal violence, totalitarian dreams of domination and fascist hopes for supremacy, nihilistic despair and state surveillance and militarization. He warns of atomic and ecological destruction that threatens the end of human life and the end of much of the natural world. In surveying so much death and so many dangers, Goldschmidt wrote plainly about the “far greater pervasiveness of evil in relation to good”.
And yet Goldschmidt did not counsel despair. Instead, he issued a passionate and anguished call for each of us to respect the singularness of every Other. He reminds us of our profound responsibilities to each human being and to the natural world, in their distinctive differences from ourselves:
Every human being counts, and that means every human being without exception, of every age and of both (sic) sexes, weak and strong, sick and healthy; just as every human being of every skin colour counts and every human being of every faith and every knowledge! And just as every human being has [their] own dignity and value, so does the environment of the human being, from nature to culture, have its own dignity and –especially as nature – its own literally irreplaceable value.Hermann Levin Goldschmidt
In a world whose diversity is known to us, Goldschmidt enjoins us to “hold our ground!” by living up to our responsibilities. This means that our own freedoms must serve the freedoms of others, allowing the contradictions among us to be free. This is not inevitable. It is a political and ethical choice we make to put our own freedoms in the service of others, to allow other human beings and the natural world to express their own particular, irreplaceable qualities. This gives life meaning, “as something more than its own existence”. For Goldschmidt, this act is an expression of love and it is upon this love that our survival depends.
In an era of climate change, we might follow Goldschmidt in seeking “a fundamentally new way” of being together with each other and with nature. This will require us to embrace all the distinctive ways that we know, together and as singular individuals, while holding ourselves accountable to each other. This demands scientific studies that root observation of climate change in systematically gathered evidence, spiritual and existential appeals that remind us of our duties to protect all life, immediate actions to mitigate and adapt to local effects of climate change, and artistic expressions that stir our imaginations and help us realize the urgency of transformation. As Goldschmidt reminds us, commitment to the Other, both human others and the others of the natural world, means embracing the irreducible and irreplaceable plurality of ways of being, knowing and doing.
Yet even in the act of writing, Goldschmidt worried that his arguments might not persuade anyone to action. “[W]ords” he observed, may “lead only to more words whose protest fails to eradicate the oppression against which they are aimed”. The possibility of failing to act against the oppression and destruction of other human beings, and of the earth, is always there. There are powerful actors who prefer profitable self-interest to the survival of many forms of life, including human life and the earth which sustains all of us. Many others suffer in circumstances of conflict and hunger that leave them with little beyond the immediacy of struggles for survival. The urgencies and exigencies of everyday life, even for the relatively more privileged, often loom larger than the most pressing existential questions.
Goldschmidt knew all of this from the agony of his own experience. He knew both the costs of inaction and the costs of standing against the destruction of human others and the other of nature. And yet he insisted, in an unashamedly moral and theological vocabulary, upon the possibility that each of us might act to turn away from evil towards the good. As the most profound and serious commitment, he asked us to respect the distinctive forms of life in other humans and in nature. He called upon us to be accountable, to each other and to the earth that sustains us, not only in our sameness but in our distinctive differences. When freely chosen, taking up this responsibility for new, more livable ways of being all together is an act of love -- and so our most serious duty and our most joyful possibility.
*The reflections in this contribution draw from a paper, for a special issue of Philosophy Now, on the recent English translation of Hermann Levin Goldschmidt’s Contradiction Set Free (Bloomsbury 2020).