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A Thanksgiving meditation

Olavo de Carvalho
Diário do Comércio, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Day—which has been celebrated since the sixteenth century, but was only proclaimed as an official holiday by George Washington—is one of the last remaining motives for the United States not to become a nation of hateful spoiled brats striving for revenge against their benefactors. Notwithstanding the attempts to inoculate them with bitterness and revolt, in general, Americans continue to be grateful for living in such a rich and generous country, so that in their hearts the love of God is indissolubly mingled with love of country. In the United States it is sometimes hard to know where religion ends and civism begins. Upon proclaiming Thanksgiving Day on October 3, 1789, George Washington wrote, “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” These words already answered in advance those who deny the Judeo-Christian origin of American political institutions.

As some American friends have asked me to celebrate Thanksgiving with them by writing a few lines on the sentiment of gratitude, I decided to take as a starting point something which is the least Christian and Jewish I could find: the ideas of the philosopher Peter Singer, a Princeton professor who does not see much difference between killing a chicken to eat it and strangling a baby to throw him in the trash.
Professor Singer's ethics is based upon a set of quite simple and reasonable arguments:
1. To cause suffering is indisputably an evil.
2. We necessarily cause suffering to animals when we kill and eat them.
3. There is no proof that the survival of one animal at the expense of the suffering of another is a good.
4. We therefore live by evil, especially when we intend to see a good in our own survival at the expense of others.
5. If we add up to the suffering we cause to the animal kingdom the evil we have inflicted upon one another since the origin of time, we will see that evil prevails in the world to such an extent that there remains no plausible reason for us to suppose that a good God has created all this.

At first sight, there is no way to refute these arguments. On the contrary, all we can do is accept them and continue to reason based on them, searching for an ethics that does not close its eyes to the hard reality they express.

To begin with, there is no proof that vegetables do not suffer as much as animals when we pull them off the ground, and then cut, cook, and eat them. Since the publication of The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in 1973, until the more recent study by Anthony Trewavas, Green Plants as Intelligent Organisms (2005), evidence has accumulated suggesting that plants possess some cognitive and affective ability. It is true that not everyone in the scientific community accepts these proofs, but the simple fact that the discussion drags on without arriving at a unanimous conclusion imposes on us, in turn, the conclusion that it would be reckless to affirm simply that eating vegetables is a morally inoffensive act.

Even less proof exists that eating exclusively vegetables makes human beings better or less violent. Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian, and the history of the most vegetarian of civilizations, India, is a procession of horrors that continued in the twentieth century, with the massacre of Muslims by Hindus on the occasion of the independence of India, and continues to this day with the systematic slaughter of Christians.

Therefore, there is no formal opposition between Christianity and Professor Singer’s ideas. But there is a difference of scale, for Professor Singer bases all his ethics upon the observation of what goes on in the material world subjected to quantitative determinations, among which the need for food, whereas the Bible includes the totality of this world in the immeasurably larger picture of the divine infinitude.

From a Singerian point of view, therefore, no living being—animal or vegetable—can be murdered and eaten by human creatures in a moral manner. This amounts to stating that eating, in the most general sense, is a sin and a crime. Yet, if everyone had refrained from committing this crime since the beginning of human history, there would be no human history at all, and we would not be here discussing this lovely subject. The indisputable conclusion that follows is that, in the most general sense, human life is a sin and a crime—a conclusion endorsed by the Bible itself under the name “the Fall.”

It is not necessary to be very intelligent to understand that everything that is quantitative and finite, even if immensely large, is contained in the infinite as a grain of sand at the bottom of the ocean. Infinity has no limitation whatsoever and is, at the same time, the only thing that has to exist necessarily. To claim that the quantitative and finite universe is the ultimate measure of reality is self-contradictory, for one thing only ends where it borders another, so that the very idea of finitude presupposes the existence of the infinite beyond the finite. The finite universe is submitted to the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy, and is not able to survive if it is not continuously re-nourished and regenerated by infinity. Moreover, infinity cannot even be considered exclusively from a quantitative point of view, for quantity is in itself a limitation. Infinity transcends every quantitative determination and can only be conceived as a plethora of unlimited positive qualities, the Supreme Good that Plato spoke of. No rationally defensible argument can be put forward against the existence of the Supreme Good, for all the arguments end up attributing infinity to what they themselves admit as being finite. The Supreme Good is, at the same time, the Supreme Reality.

Seen on the scale of infinity, all the evils of the finite world, immense as they may be, are instantly annulled. It is not possible to conceive a single deprivation or limitation that, on the scale of infinity, is not automatically compensated by the unlimited profusion of its corresponding qualities.

The Bible describes the Fall precisely as the instant when human beings lost sight of the scale of infinity, coming to consider the finite world as the ultimate horizon of reality and, for this very reason, finite things as the exclusive object of their desires. The constant pejorative mention of “carnal desires” by religious discourse popularly evokes the attraction between the sexes, but this attraction cannot be good or evil in itself, for it may signify both the obsession with sexual possession of a determinate body and an openness to the desire for the infinite love behind its temporary actualization in the affection between two human beings. According to Ernout and Meillet’s classical etymological dictionary, the word “carnal,” from the Latin caro, comes from an Osco-Umbrian stem meaning “to cut,” or “to turn into pieces,” which subsists more clearly in the Greek karenai, in the Irish scraim, and in the Lithuanian skiriu, all of them meaning “to cut,” or “to separate,” as well as in the Latin curtus itself, which originated the Portuguese verbs cortar, “to cut,” curto, “short,” and lastly castrar, “to castrate.” The carnal desire condemned by the Bible is the hypnotic affection for earthly goods amputated, cut off, separated from their root in infinity. It is the blind desire for something illusory that, in turn, can only result in the separation of human conscience from the divine ground of reality—a phenomenon which concentrates in itself the characteristics of alienation, severance, and spiritual castration or self-castration. Castration consists in the loss of the generative capacity, which is therefore regenerative as well. On the scale of infinity, everything that is consumed, lost, extinct, or spent in the realm of matter and time is instantaneously regained and recreated in eternity. Eternity is the infinite regeneration of everything. Everything that entered into existence for a single moment, as fleeting as it may be, can neither come to exist again in time nor disappear from eternity: what once was “being” cannot return to “nothingness,” because nothingness never was. Considered in itself, separated from infinity, the finite world is the world of continuous extinction, the world of entropy. Spiritual castration consists in losing the sense of perpetual regeneration through a cut between the finite and infinity—the prison in the “carnal” world. In this world, a simple head of lettuce that you may eat is an irreparable loss. Billions of chickens, sheep, cows, and pigs sacrificed in vain on the table of the human species are bloody proofs of the universality of evil and of absurdity.

Professor Singer is totally right in that which concerns the finite world. But curiously, instead of turning gratefully to the infinity that heals and regenerates all, he uses the evil of the finite world as proof of the inexistence of infinity. This does not make sense, since the finite cannot even be conceived in itself as a totality without reference to infinity. This means that Professor Singer condemns the finite world in the very instant that he glorifies it as the ultimate reality, suppressing infinity. But as we have seen, it is this very suppression that makes the finite world evil and unbearable, an image of hell. Professor Singer locks us in hell and then accuses us of living in hell. His arguments against the finite world are true, but on the scale of infinity, they become trite and irrelevant. Our existence only has meaning and value when we recognize the limitations of finitude and, raising our eyes to the infinite, we admit that these limitations are also limited, fleeting, and, in absolute terms, illusory: only divine infinity is truly real. It is divine infinity that makes our life possible, bearable, and full of meaning, unlike the macabre festival of inter-devourment that Professor Singer depicts for us. The sentiment of gratitude toward divine infinity is not a religious ritual, though it can also be one: it is at its basis the only sensible attitude of human beings who recognize the structure of reality and do not let themselves be hypnotized by demonic nightmares, even if they come from Princeton. To give thanks to the Lord is the obligation of all thinking creatures and of all nations.

 

Revised by Alessandro Cota