Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Primo Levi - quote

From Primo Levi's afterword to the combined volume of If This is a Man and The Truce, which relate the author's experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz and on his journey home.
It is, therefore, necessary to be suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason, and of charismatic leaders; we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgment and our will. Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion. It is better to renounce revealed truths, even if they exalt us by their splendor or if we find them convenient because we can acquire them gratis. It is better to content oneself with other more modest and less exciting truths, those one acquires painfully, little by little and without shortcuts, with study, discussion, and reasoning, those that can be verified and demonstrated.


  1. How's that for a counsel of despair then - "Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion."

    Why not, "... it is as well to exercise your reason in evaluating and analysing their message" ?

  2. I'm not so sure I agree with all of it either. Yes, be skeptical, but the difficulty in acquiring a 'truth' has no bearing on how true it is.

  3. Cath, I agree that exercising reason in evaluating the messages of others is the key to distinguishing reliable from unreliable claims.

    However, I can't agree that this is a "counsel of despair". After all, I live my life without relying on the claims of any prophets, and it doesn't seem particularly bleak to me. Of course, some people might draw parallels between secular heroes - scientists and philosophers and such - and religious prophets. I think the metaphorical "prophets" of secular thought differ from the literal prophets of religious and ideological thought in exactly the ways that are important to Levi's thought above.

    Levi is talking in this passage about how the Fascists won over the public mind in Germany and his native Italy. Certainly, it is reasonable to take a skeptical (but not kneejerk dismissive) approach to politicians who claim to be able to solve all social ills.

    Having said that, I think I can see how, to someone who finds deep meaning and comfort in the words of prophets, an injunction to toss aside the words of prophets would certainly seem to be a desperate move.

    Notsofriendly, you're right that the difficulty in acquiring a truth doesn't bear on how true it is. But Levi's injunction is to "be suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason ... we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgment and our will."

  4. "How's that for a counsel of despair". Cath, no one mentioned despair apart from you. Were you ever given a choice about religion?

  5. Anonymous, I mentioned a "counsel of despair" - cliched but convenient for a chat among friends. The mere fact that it is difficult to distinguish "true prophets" from "false prophets" is not a good reason to "treat all prophets with suspicion". Some prophets are true prophets, especially if you can conceive of "prophet" as anyone with a message or philosophy to share, and it would be a shame to miss out on their valuable insights on life and human nature by genuinely treating every viewpoint with suspicion.

    I fail to see the connection between that point and whether I was "given a choice about religion".

    Note to Tim: somehow I must have signed up to email notifications for comments on this post, otherwise I wouldn't have noticed this new comment. I confess my initial reaction was, Oh great, another pointless argument with anonymous atheists and their random ad hominem strife-making. Since it's courtesy of your friendly blog, however, I'm willing to make a gesture of a reply, in the hope that the tone will not degenerate in the way it often does elsewhere!

  6. Cath, thanks for the gesture. You display more patience than I felt when reading that comment. I certainly don't want things to degenerate into people slinging insults at each other without listening.

    Because it's never happened here, I don't know what administrative injunctions I might impose. I certainly value constructive dialogue over unthoughtful reinforcement of stereotypes.

    Anonymous, it does appear that all you are doing is parroting a preconception that some apply uncritically to all religious people. Do you have something more substantial or rational to offer?


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