“Be Brave”, een hoofdstuk uit “Nobility of Spirit” van Rob Riemen, heeft me diep geraakt. Ik wil daar graag via citaten iets van overbrengen. Een poging tot het raken van de essentie vergt een lang verhaal:
“Socrates,” Aristocles said, “because of my build, my physique, the friend I lost always called me Plato, “the broad-shouldered one.” I left as Aristocles to discover how the world really is. I have returned as Plato to learn what the world should be.”
“Plato, dear friend, come here and let me embrace you. Now do you understand why you first had to abandon your family, your books, and me as well, and join that damned war? That you first had to become familiar with life before you could understand it? If you want to understand life, if you want to find a true answer to the question of what the right way of life is, then before anything else, this must become the vital question of your life, one that burns within like an inextinguishable passion. But as long as it is no more than a dutiful phrase, your existence will be nothing but the uncritical acceptance of the expectations of your family and your community, or else an obidient adjustment to the prevailing mores and customs. But if, now that you have seen so much senselessness, the question of what is really meaningful has become inevitable; if, once you have known pale desolation, you seek true consolation; if you are conscious of having lost what is dearest to you and the question of what still makes life worth living arises in silent despair, and, at the same time, you comprehend how empty the fine words are that priests spew, how hollow all complacency is, how pointless the existence of the mighty so frequently is, how you can be extremely erudite and still completely ignorant; if you know the deep-seated fear of perceiving when you are old that you have wasted your life with all sorts of things that, when all is said and done, are of no importance at all because they have no real value- then, my dear Plato, the question about the meaning of life and the right way to live has become the vital question of your life, and all that remains is the quest for truth. I am no oracle and don’t want to be one, so don’t expect me to tell you what the truth is. But your question is mine, so let us examine it together. Come, let us go. We are not alone in asking that question, and who knows what others might be able to tell us. Besides, what is more enjoyable and instructive than a good conversation?”
I don’t believe that a single day has gone by since that unforgettable encounter that we have not been together. If not, I can’t imagine when. How many years since I returned? Five. It seems like fifty- although I am only twenty-eight. I don’t believe, dear friend, that anyone knows you as well as I do. I have come to think like you; you have taught me your method of reasoning; you have convinced me of everything that you believe in. Although I’m here not to miss a single word of what you’re about to tell these people, I already know what you will say. And after this trial I shall once again write everything down, despite your skepticism about my scribbling.
” Something is truly known only when it can no longer be forgotten. Something is truly understood only when it is known inside the soul. Therefore it is better not to write things down, Plato. Books make people lazy, for it gives them no further need to remember, and instead of true knowledge, all you have is book learning.”
We examined the meaning of the word “brave” and learned that the essence of true bravery does not lie in heroic conduct toward others but in the courage to dare to be wise oneself, in practice of justice and other virtues, and in unconditional loyalty to the quest for truth”
In the state prison of Athens, a month after the death sentence is pronounced, Socrates drains the cup of poison.
In the state prison of Rome, in February 1944, Leone Ginzburg is tortured to death by his Nazi executioners.
A meaningful life knows no coincidences, but neither is it without choice.
“Everywhere, in everything, to always be on the side of freedom, against injustice, on the side of knowledge, against superstition and fanaticism, on the side of people growing to full stature, against reactionary movements- those are our goals.”
In this mission statement Leone Ginzburg recognizes a concise description of the European ideal of civilization. However, it is to a different mentor, Socrates, that he owes the insight that at the heart of all culture lies an attitude toward life, a personal ethics, in which words can be meaningful only if they are converted into actions, in which unconditional loyalty is devoted to a never-ending quest for the only thing that can provide life with meaning: truth. It is this attitude toward life that Socrates called human wisdom and true bravery.
Mussolini is overtrown on July 25, 1943. Ginzburg goes to Rome to take up his political activities once more. In September the Nazi’s occupy Italy. He is arrested in November because of his collaboration with a clandestine resistance newspaper. The Italian Fascists turn him over to the Germans. In the state prison of Rome he writes a letter to Natalia, his wife and mother of their three children, that is to be his testament to life. He tells her how he persists in trying to overcome his fears about his own fate and focuses instead on the suffering of his fellow men. He ends his letter with the words: “be brave”. He is referring to Socratic bravery: the courage to be wise, to continue making the distinction between good and evil, to be loyal to the quest for truth. To be brave in the same way is what he himself wishes.
Is it a nightmare? Or not? The visitor (a priest) in his cell begins to speak.
“Do you remember me? I think so. Yes it is I. We do know each other. We were colleagues, although you always did your best to ignore me. And why? Because even then I had taken an oath of obedience- was that why you free intellectuals looked down on me? Are you a lesser person when you’re willing to bow to authority?
“Why are you allowing them to torture you? Why won’t you ever adapt? You still don’t get it, do you? Don’t you understand that you could happily be with your wife and children instead of lying here, dying in a pool of your own blood on the floor of this icy cell? After waiting all these years, let’s finally have our Socratic conversation, before it is too late?
Why this absolute need for freedom and democracy?
“Is anyone who respects the truth going to ask the opinion of the first stray man he meets? What if Columbus or Copernicus had put the discovery of America or the turning of the earth to the vote? Well, any comment? And Plato, our divine Plato, was he not prophetic when he predicted that all democracy would end in tyranny? People cannot handle freedom; it makes their lives too difficult.
“What I truly don’t understand is how you possibly think that democracy and your culture can coexist. The masses are not interested, because their heads want no questions and their bellies want to be fed. Politicians are not interested, for their power depends on the stupidity of the masses. And the truly powerful, those who have the money, are not interested, because culture costs money.
Doesn’t it amaze you that a Catholic priest like myself is now wearing a swastika? Isn’t the Roman Catholic Church the best institution to teach absolute obedience and the art of adaptation? Would a real priest continue speaking when the Holy Father says “silence!”?
“Let’s bring this Socratic-style discussion to a conclusion and say that it cannot have been because of the world that you brought this terrible fate on yourself. Your life, too, should be too valuable for such a hopeless case as our world.”…
“Only one possibility remains. It’s not the world that you’re concerned about, it’s merely yourself. What was it that Socrates said in his defense? “Give attention and thought to truth and understanding of your soul!”. How melodramatic. You really believe that nonsense? I find that hard to accept, and yet it’s the only explanation I can come up with for the life you led and the choices you’ve made.
“Well, then, what now? In the first place, the “divine” seems problematic to me when both you and I know that the only god that can conceivably exist is truly omni-impotens. And surely I may assume that you, too, have knowledge of Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud, who, each in his own way, merely repeats what Callicles so correctly posited”.
The voice grows louder, grimmer.
“Why, then, all this nonsense about a soul and divine truth! I know, I’ll burn in hell if it’s true. But the only hell there is, my friend, is here on earth- a hell from which I’ve managed to escape.”
It is silent. The sound of a slamming door. All goes black before his eyes.
Suddenly another image fills his head. An early summer morning.
…He is ready to head for Rome, but his young wife insists that he at least drink his coffee. Shortly thereafter they are outside the door together, in front of the small house where they have spent three of their five married years. A stately blue heron flies by. She embraces him, gives him a kiss. “Be careful,” she says softly. He looks into her eyes, smiles, caresses her short hair, and says: “be brave.” Then everything goes white.
From: Nobility of Spirit, a forgotten ideal, by Rob Riemen.
(chapter four: Be Brave)
Yale University Press. New Haven & London.
“Nobility of Spirit” is te bestellen bij Nexus Instituut
“Nobility of Spirit” was a present from an old friend, zie: atelierbezoek (3)