Kyiv, Ukraine: February 26, 2022. Image Credit: Serhii Mykhalchuk
The news is filled with images of atrocity livestreamed from the street. Ukraine is under siege. Russia is merciless in wreaking destruction. In this moment, I am reminded of a short essay by Emmanuel Lévinas, “L’actualité de Maïmonide,” translated as “The Contemporary Relevance of Maimonides.” Published in the April 1935 edition of Paix et Droit, the Paris-based journal of the Jewish organization L’Alliance israélite universelle, the essay mounts a polemic against the rise of German Nazism, “an arrogant barbarism established in the heart of Europe.” Lévinas called this a “pagan” barbarism, defined as “neither the negation of spirit nor ignorance of a unique God,” but rather, as “a radical incapacity to break out of the world.”
For Lévinas, the pagan world is exemplified by the unchanging cosmos of Aristotle, a cosmos of eternal celestial bodies rotating around the earth in perfect circular closure. Incapable of breaking out of itself, this paganistic closure defines an incapacity to see outside of itself—and herein lies its barbarism. The radical incapacity to see outside of itself leads to the denial and destruction of what is radically other. Just as malignant narcissism describes a pathology of appropriation and expulsion, this arrogant barbarism has no tolerance for the otherness of the other, no respect for its right to be. Such was the pagan barbarism of National Socialism. Hostile to whatever, whomever is alien, it demanded a closed world of Blut und Boden, “blood and soil.” It knew change only as geopolitical expansion, the brutal and narcissistic expansion of itself.
From the standpoint of 1935, the contemporary relevance of Maimonides lies in his penetrating critique of Aristotle. Judaism is thus the antidote to Nazism. According to Lévinas, this antidote lies in the distinction between Athens and Jerusalem, in the Jewish idea of divine creation, a power unknown to the eternal cosmos of Aristotle, for whom the unmoved mover is the source of cosmic motion. By contrast, the power of creation signifies a capacity to reimagine and remake the world. Ultimately, for the Lévinas of Totality and Infinity (1961), this is why ethics as first philosophy begins with taking responsibility for the other. To radically remake the world requires openness to radical alterity, the possibility of the radically new. This is why divine creation signifies the essence of freedom, the power to be free from the past, to create entirely new futures, by first taking responsibility for the other.
Today, once again, an arrogant barbarism has invaded the heart of Europe. Only now, the heart has moved east, from Germany to Ukraine, at the geopolitical border between liberal democracy and authoritarian tyranny. As the malevolent government of Vladimir Putin decimates Ukraine’s cities and slaughters its civilians, there is little doubt that the geopolitical order is regressing. From the highest aspirations for a global humanity, unified by international commerce and the sharing of cultures, the world must now contend with a megalomaniacal tyrant, determined to restore the Russian Empire from Europe to Eurasia. Now, a New Iron Curtain divides the world between the allied countries of NATO and the world’s most heavily armed nuclear terror state.
It is imperative to recognize the implications of this new geopolitical order, defined by the polar opposition between the democratic West and the authoritarian East. Already, the West has taken the proper first steps to isolate Russia through economic sanctions. There should be no illusions about the complete effectiveness of these efforts or Russia’s ability to circumvent them. But in the epoch of global capitalism, where capital is the lifeblood of global culture and exchange, Russia must be cut off by all means. There is nothing short of regime change in Russia, and the commitment by Russia to make reparations to Ukraine, that can permit this agent of war crimes to reenter the economic, cultural, and political partnerships that define a global age. Today, the world can no longer tolerate the tolerance of anti-democratic regimes.
But this is why I am reminded of Lévinas, who was captured by the Nazis in 1940, the same year his Lithuanian family was murdered by Hitler’s regime. Putin has created an epoch of Ukrainian diaspora, while those who remain in the country are destined to live or die as freedom fighters for a demolished nation and its young democracy—notably, the form of polity Socrates regarded as best for people who are free. So again, to remember Lévinas, and to acknowledge the heroic fate of Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, let us recognize that freedom and democracy are both impossible if we do not take responsibility for the other. This is the call of ethics. It is required to imagine another future, to free the world from arrogant barbarism, to break out of the world in which we now find ourselves, divided by the fall of Putin’s New Iron Curtain.
Lucas Fain is a philosopher and visiting scholar in the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University. He is the author of Primal Philosophy: Rousseau with Laplanche (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).