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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: February ::
Re: Universals and the Human Condition
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0117.  Tuesday, 15 February 1994.
 
(1)     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Feb 1994 10:29:10 -0400
        Subj:   Another posting on universals, hopefully the last.
 
(2)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Feb 1994 09:00:37 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   [Re: Universals and the Human Condition]
 
(3)     From:   Richard Jordan <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 15 Feb 1994 22:28:25 +1100 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0112  Re: Universals and the Human Condition
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Feb 1994 10:29:10 -0400
Subject:        Another posting on universals, hopefully the last.
 
To all and sundry:
 
Thank god for the voices of reason on this list, piping in from Montpellier and
elsewhere.  Whether or not there are universals, is universally difficult to
determine.  Hey, there's one!
 
Seriously, whether we can understand Shakespeare's ideas because we all derive
from the same essential seed of Adam or mind of God, or because those of us
claim to have some inkling of Shakespeare, however vague, just construct things
in similar ways is more or less irrelevant to our appreciation of the text.
The point is that we get some sort of resonance, so that we can comprehend the
ideas and emotions being evoked, but which is nevertheless subversive, or at
any rate different, enough to cause us thought, as it probably was for the
original audience itself.  I like to think that the Shakespeare-beyond-
all-other-Shakespeares (to forego the usual debate about constructions of the
authorial presence) probably wanted it that way.
 
Over the years, SHAKSPER has given me some hope for electronic text as a
medium.  While in most other forums, the loudest, most obnoxious people tend to
dominate, we have a tradition of mutual acceptance and 'laiciti', as Luc would
put it, "fair play" as George Orwell would put it, or "sitting together at the
table of brotherhood" as Martin Luther King, Jr., would put it.  The fact that
such compromise, give and take, what you will, exists in our virtual, though
nevertheless very real, community is a good omen for the future of true
communication, despite whatever limits are imposed by the medium.  Furthermore,
it borders on a damn necessity in our age of multiculturalism and global
awareness. Naive as it may seem, I tend to think the world would become a
better place if it would learn more from our ideal little republic of letters.
 
        Naive but sincere,
                I remain,
                        Yours virtually,
                                Sean Lawrence.
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Feb 1994 09:00:37 -0600 (CST)
Subject:        [Re: Universals and the Human Condition]
 
Thank you, Luc Borot, for that eloquent, lucid and surprisingly gentle reproof
to Terence Hawkes.  Mr. Hawkes likes to play the mischievous wit, it seems, and
may not know how nasty he sounds. Thank you also for reminding us of the
sufferings of Salman Rushdie-- and how little we in the U.S. have done in this
matter is worse than that of any other western nation, for reasons that are
probably related to the decline of civility you have noted in our list, which,
perhaps, will be temporary because of your fine letter.
 
Piers Lewis
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard Jordan <
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Date:           Tuesday, 15 Feb 1994 22:28:25 +1100 (EST)
Subject: 5.0112  Re: Universals and the Human Condition
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0112  Re: Universals and the Human Condition
 
Jefferey Taylor writes: "there are people who are very different from the rest
of the world who live and breathe in places where we would not be able to
breathe well enough to live.  But more important, the appeal to biology ignores
the observation that the meanings we attach to experience are determined by our
contexts and choices."
 
In _The Merchant of Venice_, Shylock asks Solanio and Salerio a series of
questions, at the opening of Act 3:
 
"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses,
affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled
by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not
bleed: If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if
you wrong us shall we not revenge?"
 
Shylock's questions address the same problem which we are considering in
our current debate: i.e. are there any universal human qualities, experiences
and/or values that transcend cultural differences? Shylock's questions may
be hypocritical, as his treatment of Christians seems mainly to focus on the
last shared characteristic he mentions, revenge. Or Shakespeare may be
directing these questions ironically toward members of his audience, some of
whom would  have seriously regarded Jews as devils rather than human
beings (see Joshua Trachtenberg, _The Devil and the Jews_,1943).
Nevertheless, it is possible, and valuable, to take these questions in a
straightforward way.  If we do so, the answer implied by the responses of
Jefferey Taylor and other supporters of absolute cultural relativity is No, a
Jew's pain is not necessarily the same thing as a ChristianUs pain.  Carried
to its logical extreme, this becomes: A Jew's death is not necessarily the
same thing as a Christian's death.
 
Luc Borot has made a valuable contribution in calling attention to the ethical
aspects of this argument, which have so far been ignored.  The denial of the
universal in human experience is repugnant to logic and to biological science
but also to ethics.
 
It is repugnant to logic, because if the human race has no universal
characteristics, there is no human race; if a class has no universal defining
characteristics it is not a class. Absolute cultural relativism could claim the
existence of different and alien races, but not of a human race.
 
The basis of such claims as have been made here for universal human
experience within the sphere of biology seems to me important and telling;
and it is understandable that the supporters of relativity are not generally
prepared to admit biological universality, since if we all share significant
biological experiences, then it is quite possible that the social and personal
consequences of those experiences might also have universal aspects to
them. But, to paraphrase a noted author, Death is death, in spite of all
controversy. Place a corpse before a Christian, a Jew, and an atheist, and
they may well disagree about the meaning of death, but only a madman or a
mystic among them would deny the fact of the biological end of life.  All men
are mortal is the classical major premise that makes us all one UNIVERSAL
human race (and miraculous exceptions simply prove the rule).
 
But the ethical consequences of denying universal humanity are horrendous. If,
as some of us here have claimed, there are only shared experiences and values,
but no universal ones, then it becomes possible to conceive of the existence
of two societies (or of two individuals) with no shared qualities,  i.e. with
NO shared humanity  If you find, or believe you have found, a society or an
individual where there exists nothing in common with yourself, then -- as
someone else in this discussion has already claimed -- there are no rules. If
there are no universal human experiences or values linking us, then the
persecution of aliens CANNOT be attacked ethically on the basis of a shared
humanity; for there would be no such thing. For a Nazi to kill a Jew as an
alien intruder in German society would be as justifiable as for a farmer to
kill a fox in his hen house. The Jap, the Hun -- these caricatures have been
the products of war propaganda machines which have aimed to make it possible to
pull the trigger on the alien enemy without the guilt that would accompany
doing the same thing to a human being whose humanity we believed we shared;
they have succeeded because they have effectively eliminated the belief in
universal human qualities in the enemy.
 
As for the practical consequences of this debate, the value of which has been
questioned, I would say two things: 1. Usefulness in the classroom is not a
valid test of truth or value; this world is full of interesting things that have
no pedagogic use (thank God!). 2. If you want to read _Lear_ as if its images
of death, age, love, parent-child relationships, etc have no universal
significance, no one will stop you, but why you would waste your time on a
play about one silly old man who buggered up his life so badly is beyond me.
 
Finally, to those who have posted angry messages claiming to be bored by
this discussion: the Del key in most mail and news services deletes messages
at the point after the subject heading has been listed but before the message
is read.
 

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