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Top>Opinion>"We Must Elevate Ourselves" - Pascal


Akira Suda

Akira Suda [Profile]

"We Must Elevate Ourselves" - Pascal

Akira Suda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Modern German philosophy

I would like to send my deepest sympathy to all of those affected by the East Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Because I am a graduate of Tohoku University, I have many friends, acquaintances, and former teachers in the Tohoku area including Sendai. I was concerned about their welfare when I heard that the locations where they lived-in places such as Watari Town in Miyagi Prefecture and Wakabayashi Ward in Sendai City-were struck badly by the huge tsunami. Fortunately, they were not harmed physically, but I know that they must continue living restricted lives after the earthquake. My son had also lived in Sanriku Town and Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture for three years about ten years ago, so when I heard the reports about people losing their families, it did not seem like a problem that other people had to deal with. I was stunned by what I saw on the news every day and my heart ached for all those people who lost their loved ones.

The devastation in the disaster areas reported after the earthquake is astonishing, and there are many reports that I cannot read or listen to without tears falling from my eyes. There were also many touching words of encouragement. There are times, however, when no words can fill in the void left by such a terrible tragedy. The same thing was written in Asahi Shimbun's "Tensei Jingo" column on April 3rd, 2011. I was in agreement with the article and felt that it was very well written. The reporter who was standing in the midst of the devastation was at a loss for words and invoked the words that Takeshi Kaiko moaned upon his visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp - "I felt as if all words had lost their significance. They weren't even worth a dead leaf." These are more than heavy words-they are groans. The 20th Century German philosopher Adorno stated that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Eastern and Western thinkers standing in the same spot, experiencing indescribable devastation, and the difficulty, or rather, the emptiness that they felt when describing it left a lasting impression on me.

I was extremely empathetic to this wonderful Tensei Jingo, but there was just one point that struck me as odd. I thought that the silence in the areas struck by the huge tsunami is different from the silence at Auschwitz. Auschwitz was a historical tragedy that was created by Hitler's Nazi Party involving crimes committed by people against people. What happened at Auschwitz was a terrible tragedy, but it was the slaughtering of people by people, which is an entirely different sphere from the earthquake disaster. People cannot feel resentment towards nature or hold nature responsible, no matter how devastating the effects of a natural phenomenon may be. Unfortunately, people are still killing each other on this planet. Evils such as war and tyranny are crimes but earthquake disasters are not the result of crimes. They are both hideous tragedies, but I feel that the meanings of the silence that observers cannot break are completely different. Fury follows the silence from the tragedy of war crimes. The silence in the areas struck by the huge tsunami is followed by sorrow. Those who feel anger have somewhere to turn, but those who feel sorrow do not. All we can do when faced with the enormous forces of nature is to realize how small and weak we really are. This is because sorrow runs more deeply than anger and hate wells up from the very foundation of human existence itself.

There was something once said by a philosopher that was constantly on my mind while I was following the coverage of this great earthquake disaster. It is the "thinking reed" quote by the famous Pascal. The famous text that is normally extracted is just a part of the entire quote, but I believe that if you read the entire text, you could understand why this quote floats in my mind these days.

"Man is but a reed, the feeblest one in nature. But he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this."

All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time, which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well - this is the principle of morality." (Pascal's Pensees 347, underlining by Suda).

Humans are nothing but reeds that grow by the water. We are weakly little entities that will be swept away once nature makes the slightest movement. The universe is temporally and spatially expanding infinitely but humans are not spatially expanding infinitely and will not continue to exist forever. However, humans, who are weak and miserable both naturally and physically, are great in that we have the power to think. This is what it seems Pascal is proclaiming. Human dignity lies in not being defeated by natural disasters because we have the ability to think. Therefore, let us think. Think well...and elevate ourselves - it sounds as if Pascal is trying in this way to encourage humans, or rather, the disaster areas.

However, this quote is actually followed by another one (Pensees 365), which states that although the greatness of humans lies in our ability to think, what we think of is utterly insignificant, idle, and full of faults. What Pascal indicates here is what I think about when looking at the political response to the earthquake disaster and above all, the severe accident at TEPCO's Fukushima reactor No. 1 and the response towards it.

By emphasizing the greatness of humans and tragedy, Pascal is shedding light on the existing characteristics of humans, who are situated in the middle, in Pensees. Can humans think properly when faced with the great power of nature? Can we think well? Will we lean toward greatness or tragedy? This is truly a question of morality (of government). All we can do is to be comforted by Pascal's "thinking reed" quote and hope that the Tohoku area, or rather, Japan can elevate itself.

Akira Suda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Modern German philosophy
Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1947. Graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Literature and Science, Yamagata University in 1969.
Completed the Master's Course (philosophy) at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Arts and Letters in 1971.
Withdrew from the Doctor's Course (philosophy) at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Arts and Letters in 1973.
Appointed to current post as Professor on the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University in 1989 after serving as Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University in 1973, Full-Time Instructor at Hirosaki University in 1975, Associate Professor at Hirosaki University in 1978, and Associate Professor on the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University in 1984.
His research has recently spread from Kantism to Heideggerism. Member of the Philosophical Society of Tohoku.
Major publications include Exploration of Philosophy [Tetsugaku No Tankyuu] (Chuo University Press, 1993, co-author)], <Sophie's World> Philosophy Guide [<Sophie No Sekai> Tetsugaku Guide] (NHK Publishing, 1996), etc.
Major translated works include Cassirer - Das Erkenntnisproblem (Misuzu Shobo, 2010, co-translator), Adorno - Negative Dialektik (Sakuhinsha, 1996, co-translator), etc.