Levinas: Peace and Proximity

In one of his late works, Alterité et Transcendence, 1995, (the year of his death) Levinas develops a notion of peace that ranges from an idea of personal peace, to the political question of world peace, and the role of the state. What are the philosophical roots of the European ideas about justice and peace, and how do they relate to religious conceptions? In the following, I will quote one short excerpt from this text, entitled “Peace and proximity.”

Here is the Text:


The problem of Europe and peace is precisely the problem posed by the contradiction in our consciousness as Europeans. It is the problem of the humanity within us, of the centrality of Europe whose “vital forces” – those where the brutal perseverance of beings in their being still remains active – are already seduced by peace, by peace in preference to violence, and, more precisely still, by the peace of a humanity which, European within us, has already decided in favor of Greek wisdom such that human peace is awaited on the basis of the True. Peace on the basis of the Truth – on the basis of the truth of a knowledge where, instead of opposing itself, the diverse agrees with itself and unites; where the stranger is assimilated; where the other is reconciled with the identity of the identical in everyone. Peace as the return of the multiple to unity, in conformity with the Platonic or Neoplatonic idea of the One. Peace on the basis of the truth, which – marvel of marvels – commands humans without forcing them or combating them, which governs them or gathers them together without enslaving them, which, through discourse, can convince rather than vanquish, and which masters the hostile elements of nature through calculation and the know-how of technology. Peace on the basis of the state, which would be a gathering of humans participating in the same ideal truths. Peace which is savored as tranquility that guarantees a solidarity – the exact measure of reciprocity in services rendered among fellows: the unity of a Whole wherein everyone finds their repose, their place, their seat. Peace as tranquility and repose! Peace as repose among beings well-placed or reposing on the under­lying solidity of their substance, self-sufficient in their identity or capable of being satisfied and seeking satisfaction.
But the conscience of the European is henceforth guilty because of the contradiction that rends it at the very hour of its modernity, which is probably that of the balance sheets drawn up in lucidity, that of full consciousness. This history of peace, freedom, and well-being promised on the basis of a light projected by a universal knowledge on the world and human society – and even on religious teachings that seek justification in the truths of knowledge – this history does not recognize itself in its millennia of fratricidal, political, and bloody struggles, of imperialism, of human hatred and exploitation, up to our century of world wars, genocides, the Holocaust, and terrorism; of unemploy­ment, the continuing poverty of the Third World; of the pitiless doctrines and cruelties of fascism and National Socialism, up to the supreme paradox where the defense of the human and its rights is inverted into Stalinism.
Hence the contestation of the centrality of Europe and its culture. A weariness of Europe! A break in the universality of theoretical reason, which arose early in the “Know thyself’ in order to seek the entire universe in self­ consciousness. Hence the affirmation and valorization of particular cultures at all corners of the world. An’ affirmation finding an echo and recognition – and often an origin – and always a sympathetic intelligence at the summits of the European University itself. An interest directed, in our old world in the name of Europe’s ancient universalism itself, at the innumerable particularisms which have pretensions to be its equal. An interest that no longer derives from some taste for “barbarous exoticism” but from the exaltation of a logic other than the logic of Aristotle, a thought other than Civilized. An exaltation which is perhaps explained by a remorse nourished by the memory of colonial wars and of a long oppression of those who were once called savages, of a long indifference to the sorrows of an entire world. And thus, the contestation of the centrality of Europe from Europe itself. But perhaps, precisely in this way, a testimony to a Europe that is not simply Hellenic! And also in this way, the problem of knowing what is the right contribution of the latter in a Europe that one would like to think faithful to all of its promises.
Europe against Europe, under yet another aspect and with regard to the most dramatic possibilities . The great empires which, to such a large extent, decide the destiny of our planet, issue from a European politics, economy, science, and technology and from their power of expansion. Universalism or imperialism! European empires extending beyond geographical Europe, rivaling one an­ other in power, to the point of preparing – if necessary – to destroy the very earth that bears humanity. Explosion of the earth itself by an energy that the search for truth – become modern science – released from being. It is here that truth threatens being itself, it is here that truth threatens, we might say, being as being, and disqualifies the Europe that discovered these forces, and left them uncovered. But, doubtless, this way of disqualifying and accusing already proceeds from a spiritual vocation in which the love of wisdom does not translate or dry up the powers of love.


This guilty conscience does not only express a contradiction between a specific cultural project and its effects. It is not uniquely made up of the seductions of a peace guaranteeing everyone the tranquility of their happiness and the freedom to possess the world and, doubtless also, the possibility of possession that nothing should spoil. It is not the failure of a speculative or dialectical project in the Hegelian style – a project indifferent to wars, murders, and suffering, insofar as these are necessary for the unfolding of rational thought, which is also a politics – insofar as these are necessary in the formation of concepts of which the logic and the rational accomplishment alone would count. It is not the intellectual deception of a system belied by the incoherences of the real that is the drama of Europe. Nor is it even just the danger of dying that frightens everyone. There is anxiety in committing the crimes even when the concepts are in agreement with each other. There is an anxiety of responsibility that is incumbent on everyone in the death or suffering of the other (autrui).The fear of everyone for themselves in the mortality of everyone does not succeed in absorbing the gravity of murder committed and the scandal of indifference to the suffering of the other ( autrui). Behind the danger that everyone runs for themselves in an insecure world, there dawns the consciousness of the immediate immorality of a culture and a history. Will we not have heard, then, in the vocation of Europe – prior to the message of truth it bears – the “You shall not kill” of the Ten Commandments and the Bible? In chapter 32 of Genesis, Jacob is troubled by the news that his brother Esau – friend or foe – is marching to meet him “at the head of four hundred men.” Verse 8 tells us: “Jacob was greatly afraid and anxious.” What is the difference between fright any? The rabbinic commentator, the celebrated Rashi, makes it clear: he was frightened of his own death but was anxious he might have to kill.
In thinking about this ethical moment in our European crisis – in thinking about our anxiety – or the anxiety of Jacob – troubled at the prospect of committing violence – albeit necessary for the logical unfolding of history – albeit necessary in its unfolding commanded by the march of truth, advancing in absolute thought and promising at the end of the journey the peace of the “identity of the identical and the nonidentical,” in thinking about this ethical moment in our European crisis (notably testified to in the philosophical work of Franz Rosenzweig, schooled in Hegelian thought but also acquainted with the First World War, though only the First), one can ask oneself if peace has not to respond to a call more urgent than that of truth and initially distinct from the call of truth. One can ask oneself if one should not understand the very ideal of truth – which no European could refuse – already in terms of an ideal of peace which, more ancient than that of knowledge, only comes to open itself to the call of truth. One can ask oneself if knowledge itself and the politics ruling history do not come into their high office when they already respond to the demand of peace and let themselves be guided by this demand. But in this case, peace would no longer amount to a simple confirmation of human identity in its substantiality, to its freedom made up of tranquility, to the repose of a being found founded in itself, in its identity as an ego. Henceforth it would no longer be a matter of the bourgeois peace of the man who is at home with himself behind closed doors, rejecting the outside that negates him; it would no longer be a matter of peace conforming to the ideal of the unity of the One which every alterity disturbs. In a sensibility where the scandal of murder does not find itself suffocated even when violence is rationally necessary – peace could not mean the serene calm of the identical; nor could alterity be justified uniquely as the logical distinction of parts belonging to a divided whole, which rigorously reciprocal relations unite into a whole.
One must precisely place in question the conception according to which, in human multiplicity; the ego would be reduced to a part of a Whole, which reconstitutes itself in the image of an organism – or a concept – whose unity is the coherence of its members, or a comprehensive structure. It is necessary to ask oneself – and this would be the other side of the alternative – with regard to the identity of the ego, if the alterity of the other (autrui) has not – straightaway – an absolute character, in the etymological sense of the term – as if the other (autrui) ·were not merely other in a logical sense, other of an alterity logically surmountable in a common genus – or transcendentally surmountable in lending itself to the synthesis operated by a Kantian “I think.” It is necessary to ask oneself if peace, instead of being the result of an absorption or disappearance of alterity, would not on the contrary be the fraternal mode of a proximity to the other (autrui), which would not simply be the failure to coincide with the other but would signify precisely the surplus of sociality over every solitude – the surplus of sociality and of love. We do not use this word, so often abused, lightly.
Peace as a relation with an alterity, irreducible to a common genus where, already in a logical community; it would only have a relative alterity. Peace independent, then, of any belonging to a system, irreducible to a totality and refractory to synthesis. A project of peace different from the political peace spoken of above. An ethical relation which, thus, would not be a simple deficiency or privation of the unity of the One reduced to the multiplicity of individuals in the extension of a genus! Here, on the contrary, in ethical peace, the relation is with the inassimilable other, the irreducible other, the other, unique. The unique alone is irreducible and absolutely other!
But the unicity of the unique is the unicity of the beloved. The unicity of the unique signifies in love. Hence peace as love. Not that the unicity of alterity is henceforth thought of as some subjective illusion of the lover. Quite the contrary, the subjective as such would be precisely the breakthrough – across the impassive essence of being, and across the rigor of its logical forms and genera, and across the violence of its perseverance in being toward the unique, toward the absolutely other, through love, human proximity, and peace. A proximity different from some “short distance” measured in geometrical space separating the one from the others. Peace different from the simple unity of the diverse integrated by synthesis. Peace as a relation with the other in its logically indiscernible alterity, in its alterity irreducible to the logical identity of a final difference attaching to a genus. Peace as an incessant watch over this alterity and this unicity. Proximity as the impossible assumption of difference, impossible definition, impossible integration. Proximity as impossible appearing. But proximity! Husserl’s famous “appresentation,” not as an impoverished repre­sentation but as the mysterious surplus of the beloved. The proper excellence of transcendence without reference to the immanence of the true, which in the West passes for the supreme grace of the spiritual. Indeed, it is evident that it is in the knowledge of the other (autrui) as a simple individual – individual of a genus, a class, or a race – that peace with the other (autrui) turns into hatred; it is the approach of the other as “such and such a type.”


We have not conducted this formal analysis of peace – as the relation with the unique and the other, a relation designated by the general term love – without attempting to deformalize these structures and rediscover them in their concreteness, that is, without a phenomenology. We have thought that the unicity and alterity of the unique is concretely the face of the other human, of which the original epiphany lies not in the visibility of a plastic form, but in “appre­sentation.” The thought that is awake to the face of the other human is not a thought of . . . , a representation, but straightaway a thought for . . . , a nonindifference for the other, upsetting the equilibrium of the steady and impassive soul of pure knowledge, a watching over the other human in his or her unicity which is indiscernible to knowledge, an approach of the first corner in his or her proximity as neighbor and unique. Face before any particular expression and beneath any expression, which is already a countenance given to the self, hiding the nudity of the face. Face which is not dis-closure, but the pure denuding of exposure without defense. Exposure as such, extreme expo­ sure to death, to mortality itself. Extreme precariousness of the unique, precariousness of the stranger. The nudity of pure exposure, which is not simply the emphaticalness of the known, of the disclosed in truth: exposure which is expression, first language, call and assignation.
The face is thus not exclusively a human face. In Vassili Grossman’s Life and Fate the story is of the families, wives, and parents of political detainees traveling to the Lubyanka in Moscow for the latest news. A line is formed at the counter, a line where one can see only the backs of others. A woman awaits her turn: “[She had never thought that the human back could be so expressive, and could convey states of mind in such a penetrating way. Persons approaching the counter had a particular way of craning their neck and their back, their raised shoulders with shoulder blades tense like springs, which seemed to cry, sob, and scream.” The face as the extreme precariousness of the other. Peace as awakeness to the precariousness of the other.
For, in this extreme straightforwardness of the face and its expression, assignation and demand that concern the ego, that concern me. In this extreme straightforwardness – its right over me. The demand that concerns me as an ego is the concrete circumstance where this right signifies. As if the invisible death which the face of the other ( autrui) faces were my affair, as if this death regarded me. In this call to responsibility of the ego by the face which summons it, which demands it and claims it, the other ( autrui) is the neighbor.
By starting with this extreme straightforwardness of the face of the other ( autrui), we have previously been able to write that the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace, the “You shall not kill.” The face which already accuses me makes me suspicious but already claims me and demands me. The right of the human is here, in this straightforwardness of exposition, of commandment and of assignation, a right more ancient than all conferment of dignity and every merit. The proximity of the neighbor – the peace of proximity is the responsibility of the ego for an other, the impossibility of letting the other alone faced with the mystery of death. Concretely; this is the susception of dying for the other. Peace with the other ( autrui) goes that far. It is the whole gravity of love of the neighbor, of love without concupiscence.
Peace as love of the neighbor, where it is not a matter of peace as pure rest that confirms one’s identity but of always placing in question this very identity, its limitless freedom and its power.


But the order of truth and knowledge has a role to play in this peace of proximity and in the ethical order it signifies. To a great extent, it is the ethical order of human proximity that gives rise to or calls for the order of objectivity, truth, and knowledge. Which is extremely important for the very sense of Europe: its Biblical heritage implies the necessity of the Greek heritage. Europe is not a simple confluence of two cultural currents. It is the concreteness where theoretical and Biblical wisdom do better than converge. The relation with the other and the unique that is peace comes to demand a reason that thematizes, synchronizes and synthesizes, that thinks a world and reflects on being, concepts necessary for the peace of humanity.
Doubtless, responsibility for the other human being is, in its immediacy, anterior to every question. But how does responsibility obligate if a third party troubles this exteriority of two where my subjection of the subject is subjection to the neighbor? The third party is other than the neighbor but also another neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other, and not simply their fellow. What am I to do? What have they already done to one another? Who passes before the other in my responsibility? What, then, are the other and the third party with respect to one another? Birth of the question.
The first question in the inter-human is the question of justice. Henceforth it is necessary to know, to become consciousness. Comparison is superimposed onto my relation with the unique and the incomparable, and, in view of equity and equality, a weighing, a thinking, a calculation, the comparison of incom­parables, and, consequently, the neutrality – presence or representation – of being, the thematization and the visibility of the face in some way de-faced as the simple individuation of an individual; the burden of ownership and exchange; th necessity of thinking together under a synthetic theme the multiplicity and the unity of the world; and, through this, the promotion in thought of intentionality, of the intelligibility of the relation, and of the final signifyingness of being; and, through this, finally, the extreme importance in human multiplicity of the political structure of society, subject to laws and thereby to institutions where the for-the-other of subjectivity – or the ego – enters with the dignity of a citizen into the perfect reciprocity of political laws which are essentially egalitarian or held to become so.
But the forms of spirit which are thus promoted and the notions such as being or rational truth which thus assume an original character in every sense and the political unity with the institutions and relations that are established on this basis are, at every moment, on the point of carrying within themselves their center of gravity and of weighing on their own account the destiny of humanity, as the source of conflicts and violence. Consequently, it seemed to us important to recall peace and justice as their origin, justification, and measure; to recall that this justice, which can legitimate them ethically -that is, preserve for the human its proper sense of dis-inter-estedness under the weight of being – is not a natural and anonymous legality governing the human masses, from which is derived a technique of social equilibrium, placing in harmony the antagonistic and blind forces through transitory cruelties and violence, a State delivered over to its own necessities that it is impossible to justify. Nothing would be able to withdraw itself from the control of the responsibility of the “one for the other,” which delineates the limit of the State and does not cease to appeal to the vigilance of persons who would not be satisfied with the simple subsumption of cases under a general rule, of which a computer is capable.
It is not without importance to know – and this is perhaps the European experience of the twentieth century – if the egalitarian and just State in which the European is accomplished – and which it is a matter of founding and, above all, preserving – proceeds from a war of all against all – or from the irreducible responsibility of the one for the other, and if it can ignore the unicity of the face and love. It is not without importance to know this so that war does not become the institution of a war with a good conscience in the name of historical necessities. Consciousness is born as the presence of the third party in the proximity of the one for the other and, consequently, it is to the extent that it proceeds from this that it can become dis-inter-estedness. The foundation of consciousness is justice and not the reverse. Objectivity reposing on justice. To the extravagant generosity of the for-the-other is superimposed a reasonable order, ancillary or angelic, of justice through knowledge, and philosophy here is a measure brought to the infinity of the being-for-the-other of peace and proximity, and is like the wisdom of love.

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