Monday 2 May 2005

Vice (2005)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIII No. 1 Spring  2005


by Vladimir Krasikov

For two thousand years, moralities have rested upon a traditional metaphysical dichotomy, that between virtue and vice. But what generally is vice? It is a linguistic sign, comprising three basic semantic structures for each of its three possible embodiments.

The first. Vice is a passion, a natural love for something that a humane-being corporally and psychologically cannot live without: fame, money, wine, women etc. It is a separate passion that makes people blind, that hypertrophies itself and that usurps the place of the whole, disrupting the normal harmony of different inner necessities and interests. 

These passions and objects of longings are socially quite normal in themselves. In this case vice expresses the growing gap between strongly expressed natural inclinations and public norms. Passions turn into vices, a human-being symbiosis of corporal orders, psychological habits and states of consciousness.

Consider the cases of a weak resistance to the appeal of alcohol, or peculiarities of the metabolism, sexual constitution or temperament. Self-interest, hungering for drugs, ambition, voluptuousness - in Russian, all these words include the notion 'love'. This is the passion of nature, it is irrational and we understand that, feeling sorry for its victims, muttering only 'never make promises you cannot keep'.

The second kind of sign represented is Vice as a defect, a psychological lack, a consequence of the absence of culture, or of self-consciousness, or lack of work of the self-consciousness on oneself (laziness, apathy of soul, it dissoluteness). Cowardice, recklessness, anger, ruthlessness, shamelessness, irresponsibility, prodigality, callousness, lack of will et cetera. Other people's attitude to these 'defects' is less tolerant than in the first case. They feel the failure to counteract them on the part of their carriers is also 'irrational' yet here reason should have had more say.

The third sign. This interprets vice as an unequivocal and chronic departure not only from social norms, but also from anthropological ones, which are always wider and more tolerant. Thus we have vice as perversion, hatred, ill-intention, gloating, malice, criminality, debauchery, dissipation. Both the enslavement of the man by passion and the enlarging of the crack of defect into a deep sincere break, becoming an obscenity. The first two senses of the word 'vice' are within the framework of social norms, that is, society tolerates them. Not so the third.

Human life as well as the life of many other beings is squeezed between needs, desires and activities that satisfy them. The pauses when we are not anxious about physical needs, or we are not under power of desires to stand out against others or striving for possessing things and values, are rare and short-term. These neutral 'life pauses', free from needs and desires allow for the pursuit of abstract virtue and absolute values. But simultaneously it is that veil which must always hypocritically cover real necessary and the lurking passionate truth of human life.

The needs and desires initiating human activity express a physiological nature and public instincts. The basis of life is that people are beings having physical needs, seeking for public consolations, understanding and recognition. The majority of people use their consciousness only for service of the body, no matter whether they understand it or not. Some people are able to look at themselves critically and to see the whole truth. But they are capable only of the greater solitude and are indeed more likely to experience the feeling of being incarcerated in the flesh, of hopelessness and endlessness.

The great thinkers of antiquity found the origin of sufferings and anxieties of human soul in needs and desires. This origin is natural and that is why it is substantial. There are two different levels in a human-being: the body and the consciousness, between which an indistinct break and constant opposition exist. One can dominate the other, or, which is most unpleasant, both can constantly change roles and places, making human existence a nightmare of uncertainty and absurdity.

The ancients put forward the project of the suppression of the passions and shadowed ego, establishing in place the dictatorship of reason. Rationality and understanding the good were to be the necessary threshold of an ontological jump to another, definitely spiritual existence. For the idea of 'pure consciousness' has always charmed and attracted the representatives of intellectual part of mankind. Its relative embodiment became problematic and at the same time possible on way of self-restriction, self-checking and asceticism. Its complete embodiment was postponed until Transition in another world - whether through a natural death of a body, or break of consciousness that had collected in itself previous understandings and managed by a titanic intellectual effort to make of them a new ontology and thus to move to another, true measurement.

And indeed nothing has changed for the past several thousand years. Yet, from the evolutionary point of view, our species is young and one can hardly expect any significant natural, i.e. biological changes. A chain of generations lost in thousand years before us, and rolling waves of new lives transform for us, short-term beings, instants from the point of view of a star time scale into stability almost of eternity.

Consciousness of the majority of people is being focused directly or indirectly on service of body and mentality and social-symbolical aspirations. It is genus, The Whole that is tenaciously keeping billions of individual consciousnesses in a collective-unconscious bridle, but so, that each time it is perceived as especially individual, as an independent almost narcissus-like existence. Consciousness of oneself and ability to make choices lie in the individual illusion of autonomy and self-sufficiency.

And this is supported by individual character of satisfactions of physical needs and public instincts. For the nature of corporal satisfactions is such that they always individualised. Even voluptuousness which assumes a partner, nevertheless is independent and individual. Sexual love is a connection of halves of one natural whole. Individual corporal needs are naturally connected and so are social aspirations. And the measure of development of the latter determines degree of satisfaction of the first. The excessive propensity to satisfaction of the first frequently harms success of realisation of the latter. 

Social instincts induce human-beings to aspire to universal aims and purposes. These may involve attracting others' attention, or having a constant influence on others, on shared projects. The situation here is dual: social instincts are inborn, forms of their satisfaction are public, but nevertheless their satisfaction due to self-consciousness becomes individual and intimate in character. Human aspirations to riches, glory, authority, honours, spiritual influence - all strengthen society for the majority of citizens are involved in 'the Game' and play by keeping common rules. Individuals usually do not think of it.

The social environment with all its norms is as natural for them as the forest is for an animal. They follow their social instincts as well as their individual mental and physical prompts. In this 'self-ness', licence is a source of novelty in human development. But the payment for it is high. For the individual it is the disappointment that comes with the belated understanding of their real dependence and banality. For society, it is constant contentions, enmity and wars, a difficult zig-zag search for unity. Selfishness, thus, is natural and understandable, but to that extent when its social displays are self-controlled.

Children pass the stage of egocentrism, that points at the natural primordial character of this human relation to the world and to oneself and also at yielding to one's self-changing efforts. But many turns to be incapable for such efforts because of weak presence of one psychological qualities and excessive development of others, or absence of culture of self-consciousness and self-restrict or combination of all of these. It is possible to regard self-love as a nest where our passions and vices are nestling. Self-love is a nestling both of greatness and vice, it is a source of creating and destroying. It is absence of remoteness from oneself, self-indulgence that result in transformation of inclinations in passions and passions in vices. Merging of human-being with himself is only maximisation of love to himself. Actually it results in the valid ignorance of ourselves and self-submission to our inclinations. On the contrary, doubt in ourselves the split of ourselves by reflection weaken confidence in ourselves, but only this forms love to ourselves among the other people.

Self-love is natural and primordial. Moreover it is a base type of love as a feeling of high friendliness, attention and protection. We are called to love even our neighbours like 'ourselves'. It is ridiculous to demand we love others, more than ourselves. Ridiculous, because it is against nature, against the instinct of self-preservation. Even mad love when man at some moments is seriously ready to give his life for his beloved is merely a bright example of love-to-himself. 

Selfishness though, is the origin of all existing evil...  

Selfishness though, is the origin of all existing evil. The natural inclination of love to itself becomes a self-passion, fussiness and vanity in all that concerns personality. One should not necessarily understand it the way that we mean only dull-witted, closed from external influence, self-satisfied people of the narcissus type. There are quite reasonable and critical, reflective persons among the selfish. However their criticism and reflection is directed only outwards, but not on themselves. Personal opinions and actions are regarded as taboo. It is not a rational prohibition but the stronghold of complacency and sincere belief in moral virtuous impeccability. These people as a rule are successful and vigorous certainly can recognize certain small blunders and casual omissions but they are seriously convinced of their own correctness and legitimacy.

We are managed by them - self-satisfied, self-sufficient and self-confident - in all spheres of social life. They are attractive only in a role of sufferers, in the rest such people are real 'substantial bearers', personified bundles of passions. As well as narcissus persons. 

The passions occupy people because their self-consciousness can not resist them, as they identify themselves with the passions. And how one can want to destroy or essentially restrain himself, bring harm? Though human-beings remain rationalists, rationally acting - there is no denying that power-loving, litigious, misers are rationalists - but only in relation to external, not internal life. People become miserable prisoners of passions, panderers of their lacks, they give themselves to arms of passions. This by the way is precisely expressed in the appropriate characteristics: he was seized by an unfortunate passion; carried away by passions; he is powered by feelings, not mind; enslaved by passions.

If the ego, the spirit lose their sovereignty then biological fury comes forth making of human-beings so many prisoners. Passion is a sincere impulse for something, moral thirst, hunger, involuntary attraction, unrestrained, unreasonable desiring. The original, sense of 'hunger' is 'saturation', aspiration to satisfaction, and in Russian 'belly' meant earlier not only stomach, cavity with digestive organs but also 'life' of human-being and animal. 'Thirst' signifies a desire to drink. 'Thirst' means much stronger desire, than 'hunger', again in accordance with original physiological 'denotates', for physiologically dehydration is much more exhausting and less bearable than absence of food. It is no mere chance that these words are synonyms, revealing and simultaneously clearing up senses of a 'passion'.

There is a deep semantic relationship between them, since they point at kindred human phenomena: appropriation and absorption. At the same time it is possible to speak about their infinite insatiability, their insatiable thirst. 

So it seems that passions are a calque from physiology, a victory of a body-mentality above spirit; a victory of a body-mentality above self-defining spirit. This is an absolute tragedy - as most people have no personal history of spirit at all: instead they consciously and with pleasure choose the tangible and socially prestigious. The problem arises only when one has something to lose. When consciousness of dissonance arises.

When an enslaving passion does not bring clearness of a self-satisfied spontaneity of pleasure, and thus reduce self-consciousness to the state of gloomily snarling but powerless slave. When a human-being man realizes that he has lost something important, having got nothing in exchange. What he was taking for an abyss of pleasure, what could be changed for a boring mind and burdensome duties of the control and responsibility turned out to be a humiliating slavery, in which hedonistic moments, moments of pleasure 'come together' as the passion overrides all.

Passions are fed by our power - the power of self-conscious will. Will is a regal sceptre and authority. While ego keeps the will it is a self-consciousness, i.e. consciousness that manages itself. If there is no will the consciousness becomes a servant, a rational guide of passion and ego becomes its personification. The harmony between two levels of existence in the human-being always is relative and transient. The struggle - between what 'I' want and what my animal belly wants - is eternal. 
Self-indulgence, weakening of discipline, search of accessible pleasures are certainly much more comfortable for a body than restraint, discipline and restrictions. But the latter is an indispensable condition of self-development and cultivation of the spiritual intentions. And people surrender. The mental and physiological nature cries out: 'That's it, and it is real - O! the pleasure of assignment and absorption!' And non-corporal desires, non-pragmatic aspirations, non-utilitarian, not-just-for-show attractions imperceptibly turn pale, lose their former appeal, and those inclinations that are habitual or saturated with power become monsters. Only when passion is tamed by an active ego can the flowers of the human spirit bloom.

Address for correspondence 

Dr Vladimir Krasikov is Professor of Philosophy of Science at Kemerovo State University.

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