The era of Manichaeism: how to save a public debate that is increasingly fighting between Good and Evil

Even if by now we are used to it, the most striking thing, to follow even superficially the political debates, the articles of the opinion makers not to mention the various utterances on social networks of those who boast (sometimes wrongly) to influence the thought and values ​​of others, is still the almost uncontrolled spread of what we can call a culture of excess in judgments, political and more upstream moral, which in turn produces a way of reasoning, and above all a way of being in front of others, who do not know the sense of the limit. A culture that consequently tends to absolutely oppose its own indisputable reasons to the indisputable wrongs of others, so that almost every discussion, whatever the topic, resembles a competition to silence the opponent rather than a dialectical confrontation. .

In this way, precisely in the era that preaches the most extreme subjectivism of values, attitudes of life and even one's way of being, the debate on the choices that characterize civil coexistence is becoming in common feeling (alas, more and more conditioned by superficiality of media communication, based on short disposable slogans) every day more rigid and approaches a sort of "metaphysical" struggle between Good and Evil, understood as two alternative and absolute worlds including the individual, illuminated by the mass media and by the "experts", he is obliged to participate, obviously militating (even if only by accepting the dogmas without discussing) on ​​the "correct" side of the dispute without compromise, often not even at the level of dialogue and mutual respect, with those who "stain" themselves with guilt to think otherwise.

This mental attitude even insinuates itself in shady scientific circles, and not only in the most questionable humanities by their nature, but also in the natural sciences, where the value of experiments and data is often interpreted and sometimes forced towards conclusions aimed at absolutizing a position. at the expense of another that is "demonized" (the example of many theses spread during the pandemic is there for all to see). This mentality even insinuates itself into the way of reasoning and expressing one's ideas typical of private life: it is not uncommon for friends to break up following quarrels on this or that topic relating to political and social current events, and in the general mentality is increasingly widespread (which affects both professional scholars and ordinary people) according to which the fact that another thinks differently from us is almost equivalent to a personal insult. Some might say that all this is typical of a world that wants to be more and more exact and that tries to reduce its margin of error to zero even in moral and civil judgments, a world that is the result of social progress that goes hand in hand with the technological one. .

The conception according to which human, social and political reality can be divided neatly between absolute good and absolute evil is not, however, the fruit of the digital age or even of globalization: it is not for nothing that it is called "Manichaeism", from the name of one of his most famous supporters, the Persian prophet Mani (216 – 277), one of the great religious leaders in the history of mankind. Mani preached a religion that united Christian elements (he himself proclaimed himself apostle of Jesus Christ) and Iranian traditions linked more or less directly to Zoroastrianism and its clear distinction between two divinities essentially equal and opposite to each other, precisely that of Good and that of Evil, which govern the world and society. Manichaeism spread above all in the intermediate area of ​​the world between the Roman and Chinese empires, strongly linked to the culture of the Persian empire, but also to that of Eastern Gnostic Christianity, partly different from the Mediterranean "orthodox" one. In the Latin West it took hold a century after the death of its founder in a period in which the classical world was moving towards the end, and in that era of crisis (which many compare to the present one) it made many proselytes, perhaps precisely for the fact that it offered "simple" criteria on the basis of which to interpret and come to terms both with the culture of the barbarian populations, who first peacefully and then by force were settling in the Roman territories, and with the social changes that were sinking an empire increasingly unable to manage civil life and large-scale economic activity.

In the long run, however, Manichaeism did not take root in the West, and its disappearance was not so much the result of the persecutions (always obviously despicable) to which its exponents were subject, but was above all the result of a cultural choice. The elites and both Roman and barbarian populations, first in conflict then in symbiosis with each other, preferred to choose the concrete path of experience as a guide to moral and civil choices: they therefore rejected the ethics of absolute good and absolute evil ( by virtue of the common "classical" Christian faith in the one God, source of good) and made the ethics of the limit their own.

Often the great geniuses in their lives are the mirror of an era: one of the most convinced adherents to the absolute Manichean ethics was the young and brilliant African rhetorician Aurelio Agostino (354 – 430), who used his extraordinary skills for a long time to support the distinction and the uncompromising contrast between good and evil, until gradually (much more gradually than he says in the "Confessions" ) the future bishop of Hippo and saint, in adhering to Latin Christianity reached a conclusion that still sounds today "Unsettling" for many, that is, that absolute evil in itself does not exist, but is only a form of "deviated" good, and deviated precisely because it is made absolute, because no human reality according to Augustine is such, neither in negative nor positively, but it must be evaluated in its inherently limited nature: absolute is obviously only God. Christian (and Jewish) mythology expressed a similar concept when it affirmed that Lucifer, the Prince of darkness, was not at the triumph than the best angel of Heaven, who had claimed to make his goodness absolute, thus sinning pride.

Even many sincere admirers of St. Augustine are a little cold in the face of these theses, and even with the veneration that one must have in front of figures like his, they almost softly doubt that the great thinker has taken a tangent on this issue. How can we say today – they ask – that evil in itself does not exist after the Nazi extermination camps and Soviet gulags? Yet the tragic history of the twentieth century in many ways gives reason to Augustine's theses, and the affirmation that the excess of good, the absolutization of good leads to evil should serve as a warning to us that too often, and too heartily light, in the name of abstractly noble principles we contrast good and bad in a "Manichean" way.

Another great, not a philosopher-theologian but a writer, one of the protagonists of the literature of the last century, the Russian Aleksàndr Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008), who suffered the legalized violence of the Soviet regime on his person, expressed this idea in one of the passages deeper than “Gulag Archipelago” , stating that “ To do evil, man must first feel it as good or as a legitimate, sensible action. … We need a social theory that allows us to justify ourselves in front of ourselves and others, to listen, not reproaches, not curses, but praise and homage ”. And indeed in the face of the horrors of totalitarianisms, one thing that is disconcerting, almost as chilling as the crimes committed, is the fact that the majority of those who committed them were convinced that they were doing good, or at least doing their duty, in the name of community brotherhood in Germany, in the name of international social justice in Russia.

Fortunately, we live in less tragic times than the generations that preceded us, but the risk of losing the awareness of the limit in the evaluation of human things and falling prey to the current version of Manichaeism, obviously in the name of the noblest ideals, is very strong, especially in the younger generations, less and less educated to reflect on the past and too often linked to the belief that some guided tour or worse some virtual reconstruction are enough to draw lessons from history, especially from the recent one. Of course, the political and social debate must be lively and even harsh, not made up of compliments, like any real competition, but it cannot go so far as to "demonize" the opponent by trying to silence their ideas and almost "eliminate" them (for luck only in the media sense) the figure.

Today's Manichaeism is strong because it offers the public "easy" solutions and thus dispenses with the fatigue, doubts and inevitable errors of every reasoning and every decision that have to deal with an often complex and rapidly changing reality which is that of our age. However, there are good hopes that even this form of Manichaeism will not take root in Western countries, especially now that the awareness of the cultural specificities and fundamental values ​​of our civilization is beginning with difficulty to re-emerge (after the decades of globalist flattening). An important role can be played by opinion makers, scholars, all those who, as they say with a pompous expression, “make culture”. It would be important to create, beyond the opinions of individuals, a way of reasoning based not on contrasts and excesses of the Manichean type, but on evaluations (even harsh, even controversial) linked to the concept of limit as a fundamental guide to empirically distinguish the things to be approve and those to reject or fight.

So we should ask ourselves if religious tolerance must go so far as to respect personal prevarications (for example against women), or that of individual life to the point of erasing gender differences, if acceptance must also involve uncontrolled openness to clandestine, if environmentalism is to include adherence to the thesis of global warming, if health protection must necessarily require sweeping measures such as lockdowns , etc. This would open a space for debate from which only the Manichean on duty would be excluded (obviously not with some "excommunication", but by his own extraneousness to it), who refused to "get his hands dirty" by taking the responsibility for making mistakes (because only do-gooders are never wrong) in his positive or negative judgments. A space for debate that could only be the result of a way of dealing with reality in its various aspects (from political – economic to health) in a non-dogmatic but empirical way, a way of reasoning that is extremely popular today. need and which has always been one of the fundamental principles adopted by those who profess to be liberal.

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This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Atlantico Quotidiano at the URL on Sat, 19 Jun 2021 03:58:00 +0000.