Primal Guilt

In his 1979 book The Imperative of Responsibility Hans Jonas treats the presence of human beings on the earth as indeed an unconditional imperative. Which is as much as to say that human beings ought to be, and are to continue to be brought into being, quite regardless of whatever conditions they might have to live under. Some years later, however, we see Jonas begin to express some doubt regarding this ruthless principle of an absolute imperative to exist, under all and any circumstances whatever. That “responsibility vis-à-vis Being”, as the “guardians” of which Jonas had long conceived us, begins to take on the form of a guilt:

Jonas’s Confession of Primal Guilt

“What exactly is it that justifies our imposing existence on a being – a being that cannot possibly have had any part in this choice – by bringing it into the world? There is a sort of primal guilt involved in the begetting and bearing of a child. Because we do not just give the child the >Gift of Life; we impose it upon him [>Diktat of Birth] without his having asked us to do so. We do simply presupposing that this child will surely “want his own life”, that is to say, that the life we are bringing into the world will surely be one that will embrace and affirm itself. But this is, in a certain sense, to be monstrously presumptuous.  Every one of us must be prepared to respond to that cry which once issued from the mouth of the prophet àJeremiah: “O Mother, why did you bear me?” And the response to this cry can only be: “Because the order of things in Nature will have it so, that it is only under this condition that human beings can be – although this being is a gamble, inasmuch the bearing of children means that the beings born are not only empowered to be human beings but also condemned to it”.

– The burden of existence is heavy, and perhaps those human beings whose existence has been the most worthwhile have been those who have suffered most under this burden. I remember once asking Martin Buber, who had known Kafka personally, what kind of impression this great writer had made. I will never forget his answer: “I can say one thing for sure: he was the unhappiest man I have ever encountered. Nevertheless, that a man like that should have existed is surely worth all the suffering. This is a terrible thing to say, I know, but his sufferings surely were ‘worth it’. [>Damnators]. Let me rather turn the question around. The problem, surely, consists not in what we owe the new-born baby in order that he or she might survive – this, we may say, is the aspect of positive responsibility – but rather in how far we may legitimately go in imposing existence upon a child that has been begotten by us.” (DIE ZEIT, 25.8.1989 Nr. 35, p. 9–12)

Just a few years before his death in 1993 we begin to see the re-emergence in Jonas’s statements of those >Gnostic themes and sentiments in the examination of which he had first made his name as a scholar. Jonas openly concedes that existence is an imposition; it is not so much “given as a gift” to the child – as the metaphysics favoured by all parents would have it be – as “dictated” to the child, and the child “condemned”, without his consent thereto, to take the burden of existence upon himself.

In the case of human beings who have contributed a great deal to human culture, such as Kafka, Mozart, Beethoven or Van Gogh, this “suffering from existence” is often at its most intense – but it is a suffering, Jonas suggests, that can be seen (at least retrospectively) to have been “worth it”, since the imposition of existence upon these men has resulted in their giving so much to others that has, perhaps, made existence easier for these many latter to bear: great books, great music or great painting. Jonas is performing, here, a crude utilitarian calculation in the worst sense of the term “utilitarian”: “condemnations to exist” are necessary because, without such condemnations, there could not only be no “useful” human beings but indeed no human beings at all. The question of just why there should be human beings remains, however, no more elucidated by Jonas in this context than he succeeds, elsewhere in his work, in justifying the imperative that there be a human race. Instead of this, it begins at least to dawn on him that the condemnation of human beings to an uncertain existence might be something irresponsible. Whereas in most of his writings Jonas tends to aspire only to equipping human beings, using the tools of metaphysics, to deal with present and future outbreaks of barbarism – to render them, in one image used by him, “Auschwitz-proof” – so that human existence is not sacrificed to the anticipable horrors of what it is to be human, here at least Jonas raises the key question of the >Limit Value, inasmuch as undertakes to consider “how far we may legitimately go in imposing existence upon a child that has been begotten by us”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.