Original Sin

It seems to me now, each creation bears an original sin; something sown into the thread which makes the tapestry beautiful and possible, but also prompts an inevitable contradiction and, thus, a crisis and a cry for overcoming; something that is both the moment of birth for all future glory and the point of departure for every future error. Within each creation there is, too, a chance to dispose of the flaw at inception, at the behest of some contemporaries; but the pleads are swallowed, evil granted its useful role, and tragedy thus ensured — leaving all the effort to succeeding generations, and always at a greater cost.  To apply this metaphor to various histories, for the purpose of illumination, is, I think, a worthy endeavor.

For example, in the United States of America, the original sin is the institution of slavery. Slavery built America into what it is today while demanding of all moral persons its immediate abolition. Thomas Jefferson serves as the metaphor incarnate, as well as its father; though the full trilogy is stopped short: it is Jefferson’s children who will bear the cross for his myriad failures.  Among them: Jefferson’s admonition of slavery in the Declaration of Independence was edited out by opponents (essentially, the Southern States) who were necessary allies for the imminent revolution, his attempts to construct a Virginia Constitution banning slavery were too late, and he did not participate at all in the drafting of the federal Constitution, thus missing the slavery question altogether.

These early regrets were not for a lack of trying, but neither do they conclude the charges.  When a slave revolt in Haiti forced Napoleon’s sale of the Louisiana Territories, it was Jefferson who, as President, denied the proposal of Thomas Paine to develop these newly purchased lands with a slate clean of human bondage. Jefferson’s decision to geographically extend slavery ensured the carving of a nation half free and half enslaved, and in those emerging borders was written a Civil War.

Many times was the original sin of the United States vulnerable to a less bloody defeat — all of them early. As time developed, war became inevitable, and though man places most his focus on the climax, he cannot exonerate the foreplay.  Perhaps, what we often consider the crucibles of history, are merely the final conflicts prompted by an incalculable list of moral failure.

The original sin shows up elsewhere, too, if we can find it.  I see it in the birth of Western Philosophy, as Aristotle’s Law of Identity, which makes the syllogism first useful and then useless.  Observe:

“A = A” sounds simple, even tautologous, if not harmless — but far from it. Not only does its practicality as a heuristic or a general principle fail, but it represents a fundamental error in thinking.  We are led to believe by the Law of Identity that “a dollar is a dollar”, but we know now how many ways this is not true.  A dollar changes value constantly.  A dollar tomorrow cannot do the same as a dollar today. Perhaps what we mean when we say “a dollar is a dollar” is that it is such at a specific moment of time.  The trouble with this it that a moment is over just as it begins.  If time is anything, it is moving, and likewise, then, identity.

Furthermore, as Leon Trotsky put it in his introduction to dialectics, “A dollar in the embrace of a president ceases to be a dollar.”  By Aristotle’s logic, we would expect a dollar to have equal value regardless of who wields it — but a dollar in the pocket of a thrifty man is worth more than one in the hands of an alcoholic.  Thus, we now have the issue of further qualifying our statement from “a dollar is a dollar” to “a dollar is a dollar at a specific instance of time and in a specific location of space.”  Fitting last words for any man sunk in the quicksands of sophistry.

“A dollar is a dollar” is only useful, if at all, in the midst of a very simple transaction, whereby a dollar purchases a pound of sugar, and a pound is assumed to always be a pound and a dollar always a dollar — and the traders always in agreement about what those words mean.  But a more advanced weighing tool, and the minds of more skeptical people, reveal the discrepancies between one pound of sugar and the next, between a dollar today and a dollar tomorrow, between Truth and truth.  As empiricism and the means of analysis improve, this “Law” of Identity which was once reliable becomes necessarily a burden.  Yet, the burden persists…

In almost all political conversation you can find concepts of “woman” and “man”, of “black” and “white”, of “capitalism” and “socialism”, as if these things were static, as if the Law of Identity applied.  “A man is a man”, except when he is French or Egyptian, rich or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, and so on; then he is something else entirely.  Is “man” not, as centuries of humanism now have tried to teach us, a concept to be overcome?  Each of these adjectives, too, that describe him, cannot be treated as solid, but must acquiesce to the dialectical sift.  What does the sentence, “He is healthy” mean?

The sin shows up in our conceptions of others and of ourselves.  Everything — from “I am a nice person” to “I am a liberal/conservative” to “I love you” to “I am a man/woman” to “I am right” — becomes obvious simplifications meant to convey… well, what, exactly?  As I wrote in a previous post:

Signals are concerned with outcome, with reception. Those rewarded too cheaply are offered the same. Integrity is not required except where those who dig dig deep – and nowhere is there a man who requires integrity of himself, whether or not he can get away with it. Because you can always get away with it. The privileged life is one long farce without a punchline.

The desire to overcome this original sin is the desire to “dig deep”; it is the willingness and courage to reject cheap signals: your consent should cost much more than it does.  The Law of Identity seeps into the core of our psychology and reveals itself in the sloppiness of our language.  I am reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem, “August 1968”:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

America’s original sin caused a Civil War; a nation fighting with itself.  What of Aristotle’s?


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