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The Importance of Activism


A meditation on John Donne’s Meditation XVII.— “…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


This passage, from John Donne’s 17th Meditation, is one of the most famous in all literature. Virtually everyone is familiar with it, especially in its heavily digested form “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” And everyone instinctively recognizes that it expresses a noble sentiment. Few people, however, give any thought to it; and the ones who do probably decide that it doesn’t have literal significance, consisting merely in a string of poetic metaphors. After all, how could another man’s death really “diminish” me? In what possible sense could his misfortune be mine too? This lack of understanding in itself justifies a reexamination of the passage. But particularly in our troubled era, our age of universal atomization, it is imperative that we understand what Donne meant. Maybe then we’ll appreciate the terrible moral implications of interpersonal isolation.


Donne embellished his thought by invoking God, but that isn’t necessary. In any case, God is dead. (He was one of the unfortunates killed in the French Revolution.) The real meaning of the passage—or the moral meaning; there are others—is that what happens to other people has metaphysical implications with respect to the value of my own life. For other people are me, in some sense: they are self-conscious like me, they have a sense of self like me, they inhabit the same world I do. What happens to them could have happened to me, and in some cases inevitably will happen to me. Their mortality is my mortality, because our essence is the same. They are me transposed in space and time, me in a different consciousness and set of circumstances.


When something terrible, unjust, happens to another person and his life is ruined, human life itself is made valueless. For in a world of injustice, in which destinies are determined by chance, life cannot have the value we privileged ones ascribe to it. The dictates of reason are irrelevant to it; truth is violated by it, and “necessity” is an empty concept. When I read in the paper that the family of an innocent Pakistani man has been killed by an American drone attack I recognize in his despair the worthlessness of my own life, its cosmic littleness—the total irrelevance to life of such notions as reason, truth, freedom, morality, necessity, and justice. If I happen to live well and be happy that’s only a function of chance, because I could have been that man. But, knowing this, how can I be truly happy? How can I be convinced of the value of my life, knowing that life itself is the sort of thing that doesn’t have value?


What I’m talking about is absurdity, in the existentialist sense. Life is fundamentally absurd in a world of violence and coercion. A radical contradiction is manifested between what we, as human beings, demand of life and what is delivered. That’s what absurdity is, that contradiction. It means we are alienated from life, we cannot identify with it or glory in it wholeheartedly, because it is a stranger to the human way of thinking. The beautiful way of thinking. An absurd life is scarcely worth living. Consider a man who is buffeted by forces beyond his control, who is compelled to adopt unfulfilling life-paths, who is beaten into a bland conformity. On a broad scale, it would seem that his life is not a very wonderful or valuable thing. But that man is all of us. He is Everyman. No doubt some of us manage to carve out a little niche for ourselves; but fundamentally we remain subject to chance, to coercive social mechanisms, and the possibility is always real that our peace of mind will be shattered in an instant.


That Pakistani man’s situation is a microcosm of mankind’s agony. It is our collective sorrow magnified to an intolerable intensity. It serves as a reminder that, as things stand now, we are not masters of our fate but are instead blown like leaves in the wind of societal forces. Our “leaders” are in the same position as we, more or less (though they do have more opportunities than we to aggravate or mitigate our problems). But when the issue is something as urgent as the question whether life is to remain a tragic farce or is to become more in line with our notion of what is good, we can’t rely on our leaders to act. We have to act ourselves, to do anything we can to push the world towards sanity. Indeed, if the concept of a “moral imperative” has any meaning at all, this is a moral imperative. This activism. It is not an option or a suggestion; it is absolutely necessary, if only because without such activism life will continue to be the universally valueless, contingent, coerced thing it is now.


In other words, as long as irrationality and senseless violence are the prime movers of life and history, our own individual life will remain an essentially nugatory thing, no matter how happy and secure it seems. Only if we create a stable and just world, a place not ruled by radical contingency, will life stop being “absurd.”


Probably you’ll say that such a world cannot be achieved, that it’s a ridiculous utopian fantasy. And you may be right. In the meantime, though, whenever you read the front page of the newspaper, you’ll hear the bell tolling—for you.

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