Monday, September 21, 2015

On refugees (2)

“... and suddenly I discovered Descartes among a group of refugees and quickly I took a snap shot ....”

I finished my last blog remarking that there might be a Descartes among the refugees who look for a better life in Europe. I didn’t mention the name of Descartes without reason, for 22 years old Descartes left his native country France, afraid that he could be arrested because of his ideas. He went to the Netherlands, where he stayed twenty years, till he left for Sweden, where he died.
It’s not exceptional that philosophers and others have to leave the places where they live because of their ideas. Also in the Netherlands in the days of Descartes it could be dangerous to have unusual ideas, although the country had the reputation to be tolerant. Especially it could be dangerous to have ideas that conflicted with the reigning religion. Spinoza, excluded because of his atheistic views by the Jewish community of his home town Amsterdam, first felt forced to leave for the nearby Ouderkerk. Although he returned to Amsterdam after some time, soon he preferred to leave the town permanently and finally he established himself in The Hague.
I’ll walk with seven-league strides through history till I arrive in the twentieth century. So, for instance, I’ll not talk about Rousseau, who fled France in 1762 persecuted because of his ideas, or about Voltaire who had taken up his residence in Switzerland just a few years before Rousseau went to live there, also for avoiding arrest by the French authorities.
In the twentieth century it was especially for political reasons that philosophers had to flee. They were victims of the reigning ideology, be it communism or nazism. In the latter case philosophers (and many others) didn’t only have to flee because of their ideas, but also if they belonged to the “wrong race”: They were Jews or of Jewish descent. Most members of the Vienna Circle – a kind of philosophical debating club – fled from the Nazis to the USA (like Carnap, Feigl and Gödel), or sometimes to Britain (Neurath) or New Zealand (Popper). Wittgenstein, who was already in England, did not return to Austria. The members of the Frankfurt School – a sociological current centred around the Institute for Sociology in Frankfurt, Germany – fled via Geneva and Paris also to the USA, although most of them returned to Europe after the fall of Nazism. This was, for instance what the philosophers-sociologists Adorno and Horkheimer did. Their colleague Walter Benjamin found himself forced to commit suicide during his flight (in 1940 from France, occupied by the Nazis). An outstanding philosopher who fled communism was Kolakowski from Poland. Kolakowski had developed a kind of revisionist Marxism, which was rejected by the communist leaders, who deprived him of his academic functions. In the end Kolakowski went to the West.
Most philosophers mentioned here were welcomed in their new fatherlands, or at least they were treated in a decent way. That needed not always be so. Montaigne was not a political refugee, but once he had to leave his castle because the plague reigned in the region where he lived. Travelling around with his family (and some servants, I suppose) he could not find a refuge, although he was already a well-known man. In his Essays (Book III-12) Montaigne tells us that
“I myself, who am so hospitable, was in very great distress for a retreat for my family; a distracted family, frightful both to its friends and itself, and filling every place with horror where it attempted to settle, having to shift its abode so soon as any one's finger began but to ache; all diseases are then concluded to be the plague, and people do not stay to examine whether they are so or no.”
In need and no longer being the lord of his castle when he was on the run, Montaigne was considered as vermin and bringer of the plague, and not as a man respected by his environment. His social network collapsed as soon as he had to flee and no longer counted who he was, despite his past.
Actually this is the situation many refugees are in. Most are not welcomed but feared because they might bring misery, even if a few weeks ago they lived yet in their own country as well respected citizens. In this case the misery is not a contagious disease but the fear of social unrest and instability and the fear that the refugees “pick our houses and jobs”. So you don’t handover to them the food parcels they need – containing only bread and water –, but you throw them in the mob, as I have recently seen on TV in a report about a reception camp for refugees in Hungary (as if they are animals in a zoo).
This is how Montaigne continued his story:
“And the mischief on’t is that, according to the rules of art, in every danger that a man comes near, he must undergo a quarantine in fear of the evil, your imagination all the while tormenting you at pleasure, and turning even your health itself into a fever.”
A parallel with a refugee camp is easily drawn. The Latin proverb “Homo homine lupus est” (Man is a wolf to another man) has got man interpretations, but there seems to be a kernel of truth in all of them.

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