Imprecation of Existence and Prevention of Existence

Rölleke emphasizes the essentially unrealistic character of the topos of the imprecation of existence and explains the provenance of this unrealistic character in the following terms: “The train of thought of the ancient philosophers was more or less as follows: death is the worst of all evils; an evil is something that one seeks, with all the means at one’s disposal, to avoid or to combat; how much more, then, would one seek to avoid or combat this worst of all evils! But death is an evil that can at best be postponed, never completely avoided. The only way of avoiding it would be – to never have been born. And thus we have, on the one hand, the childish nature of the deduction of the proposition and, on the other, its utterly unrealistic character.” (Rölleke)

One might call the topos of the imprecation of existence an unrealistic and egoistic, or merely self-related, antinatalism, since (at least in terms of its literal phrasing and initial apparent meaning) it appears to be a formulation restricted in its application to the one lamenting individual alone. As Rölleke’s exegesis brings out, however, this imprecation of existence always also bears a universally valid and applicable character and implies that it would be better if not just this lamenting individual but humanity in its entirety did not exist. That there always attaches to the egoistical or merely self-related form of antinatalism an element of universal antinatalism becomes clear where we remind ourselves that experiences of suffering are not merely something undergone by a few specific individuals but an essential aspect of the Conditio in-/humana.

Against this background the imprecation of existence can be seen as indeed the nucleus of a universal antinatalism: one which thereby seems anchored much more deeply and broadly in human cultural history than is usually supposed. And just as the imprecation of existence represents a nucleus, of initially merely egoistical import, of a tendentially universal antinatalism, so too does it harbour in every case a latent reproach to those parents responsible for the begetting of each respective imprecating individual. This reproach indeed is, due to a deeply-rooted àParent Taboo, only very seldom explicitly expressed; but it is inevitably implied already in the four-thousand-year-old exclamation: “O that I had never been called into life!”

The realistic core of that which Rölleke calls the unrealistic character of the imprecation of existence is the moral imperative that prescribes existence’s prevention: i.e. the abstention from all procreation – since it is only in this way that human beings can be prevented from getting into situations in which they cast such an imprecation upon their own existence.

In view of all this it seems astonishing that this imprecation of existence, manifesting itself everywhere and in all historical periods, should indeed have remained so markedly limited to the self and to the lamentations of the self and we have to ask: why did the formulation generally remain a self-related one instead of empathetically extending itself to the plight also of others? Why is it that this cry of pain that pervades our cultural history tends to remain passive, instead of extending itself actively and anticipatively, with anticipative and preventative effect, to the prospective fate of others? This would be the step from the ex post facto imprecation of one’s own existence to the prevention of future existences.

There follows directly from the self-referential “It would have been better for me never to have been born!” the notion “it was bad for me to have been born!” And, insofar as this “me” is, for the respective parents of each individual brought into the world, always only an – initially unknown, merely imagined – “someone”, this self-referential imprecation of existence always implicitly comprises the idea: “it is bad to beget anyone, to give birth to anyone!”. Or, expressed in positive terms: “It is better if one has no progeny.” This conclusion is supported by that imperative of universalization that is inherent in every form of ethics: whoever imprecates his own existence is bound, in terms of the logic constitutive of every line of ethical reasoning, to take explicitly into account the conditions of the possibility of the imprecation of their own existence on the part of other human beings. No one is really master of their own fortune or misfortune; but very many of us are masters or mistresses with power of decision regarding the fortune or misfortune of others: namely, over those new human beings over whose being or non-being we have the power to decide. To be born may be a fate – but begetting and bearing other human beings does not have to be! It is so less today than it ever was. In times and places where contraceptive methods are generally easily available it may indeed be reasonably demanded that the merely self-referential topos of the imprecation of existence be construed as an imperative exhortation to existence’s actual prevention.

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