A Potential Problem

Many are the problems we have to face in this world. There are social, political, economic, religious, biological problems, which in turn are divided into others of a different kind. We can be unable to distinguish between good and evil, we can lack sufficient money in order to satisfy our necessities, we can feel lost or confused and try to find help or hope in different religions and we can also suffer from different types of diseases.

Throughout human history we have mainly adopted two different approaches regarding problems. The easiest choice has been the most spread: to solve them rapidly and superficially, by treating symptoms when they appear. The other way has been to detect them before they appear and to find their root. These are two essentially different ways of doing things. The former implies improvisation; the latter premeditation. Nonetheless, both, albeit to a different degree, imply an analysis of the problem. It is not difficult to realise that someone wants to fight with you if they punch you; what is difficult is to know their intention just by looking into their face, before they actually punch you.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Caspar David Friedrich)

It is said that our intellectual capacity (our reason), responsible for both evil and good things, is what distinguishes us from animals. It is the blessed or cursed mark of humanity. We are impulsive, territorial, irrational, are we not? The point, I think, is to be able to combine rationality and irrationality. Rationality and irrationality are not themselves good or evil: both rational and irrational actions have led to big tragedies in history. Any dictatorship is an example of how reason can be used to do evil things. Or perhaps the desire for destruction and control dictators had was just a natural and irrational impulse coming from their own psychology…

Hannah Arendt claimed that any person is able to perpetrate the most atrocious crime as long as they do not think (on their own). She arrived at this conclusion after having studied in depth the Nazi regime. She realised that not all people in the system could be evil demons. That was a way too simplistic conception. Plenty of people did what they did because they did not want or could not use their more personal capacity, their thought. When someone does not think on their own they become a puppet for other people who usually do think. “If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay -others will easily undertake the irksome work for me”. Immanuel Kant wrote this in 1784 in his article “What is Enlightenment?”. It is still a valid reflection, am I wrong? The thing is that sometimes to not think can be very negative, as in the previous case.

The lack of thought of the masses is and has always been present in history. In Antiquity, only some people could afford such an extravaganza as thinking, normally the richer and more powerful. Slaves could not but to realise their purpose: to serve their lord. Things were not much better during the Middle Age. Life conditions did not allow an average person to just make a pause to reflect and, in any case, in Europe theocentricism and the Inquisition rendered nearly impossible to pose some questions. The Modern Age came and there things were better, for privileged people of course. The vast majority of the population was still illiterate in most of the world. At last, at least in the so-called Western World, would people have a chance for change in the 18thcentury. In that century different intellectuals began to propose ideas so bizarre such as public education, the separation of powers, the right to vote and the right of people to self-government. Towards the end of the century, took place a grand event which, after a huge number of deaths, was to change history: the French Revolution. Ever since, the aforementioned ideals started to be regarded as attainable goals. Nowadays, in Europe and some other places, those ideals are in part a reality.

The Death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David)

In present days a lot of people are conscious of their rights and a lot of people still find thinking on their own annoying. We privileged people (I am not referring to the rich and powerful) have so many distractions that we also do not take a break and think. Only a few do. Why bother to think? Many of us take for granted that we deserve what we have and that we will always have it or we have always had it. We do not stop to think about how novel what we have is. We do not value the effort of the many people who with their lives fought for causes they considered to be fair. We see ourselves as individuals and not as a group and that is why history repeats itself.

We speak of rights when it is convenient for us and we are not aware that they are not only rights. They are rights-duties. We have some privileges as humans, but we also have some associated responsibilities. I remark upon the paradox: we have rights as a group, but we exercise them as individuals. That contradiction is resolved by introducing the concept of duty. Since we have rights within a group, we also have responsibilities: our privileges must not interfere with those of our fellow citizens.

To think critically should be a duty. The decision one takes affects the others, depending on the respective positions each person has in the society, but that is always the case. People cannot just suddenly get angry when they have allowed problems to grow for years. We need a critical analysis, free of rage. To not think, to stop thinking or to just go with the flow is, at many levels, a real potential problem.

Note: This text is the English translation of an article which I wrote in Spanish in 2015. I have also translated it into Greek. 

Post Author: Santiago Oribe

Citizen of the world, in a very specific and in a broad and profound sense. I believe in the power of education, culture and love to change the world, starting from ourselves, and I am always in search for the Truth (may such a thing exist) with a critical and passionate approach. As Sartre put it, we are “condemned to be free”, so we create our own and personal way with every decision we make. We have inherited ideas, institutions, etc. and it is our duty to contribute to the development of our species and the others in this enormous and tiny planet of ours.

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