“The Isle of Slaves” (Empathy 2)
Actively learning to understand one other
Striving to harmonise social relationships
The Isle of Slaves“, set in a pastoral environment in the 17th century, is really far away from the complexity of our time. However, we can get inspired from it and find out what challenges are awaiting us in the present and what we can do to face those challenges.
First challenge: Selfish vs Social
I chose some episodes to approach this archetypical duality that is the ground for many social conflicts at all levels.
Summer 1929, Tiber Valley (Central Italy)
A young lady was caring for her flowers on the hill just before the sunset, when frantic voices from the plain below caught her attention. She walked closer to see what was happening:
“A group of women were harvesting the field that day but something went wrong and they didn’t achieve the target set for them. The landlord came galloping on his furious horse and blamed them for the failure. On the spot he decided that they deserved to be locked into a barrack until next day when they had to catch up with their work“.
The lady shared this event in a private letter written to a friend after WW2 and confessed to have been quite shocked that evening and also very surprised the next day when many workers agreed with the punishment inflicted by their lord…
This episode shows that harsh relationships between lords and servants survived for long time until recent years. And also that human relations -even when harsh and hurting, as represented in the play or in this episode- could be really hard to explain with logical arguments!
However, the social and historical context in which such relationships were built has a decisive impact on the quality and intensity of those relationships: lords and servants often lived in the same house or farm, shared a significant part of their lives together, their means of living where strictly depending from one other, they even shared the same fate.
They were tightened to one other by a direct, personal bond with clear, simple roles: one was leading (like an old-fashioned authoritarian good father in the best case); the other was following (or submitted).
Such life conditions created a background of common experiences and might explain why -despite the arrogance of the lords or the vengeance of the slaves- at the end of the play they were capable to forgive and embrace one other.
We learn here that changing human relations does not necessarily imply turning the existing social structures upside down -like a revolution does for example-, but goes through a deep transformation of the heart and mind, that turns upside down how we feel, understand and care for one other.
The approach of “changing yourself to change the world” might seem quite naif nowadays and not really adequate to deal with the intriguing complexity of modern society and problems of global dimension… surely social policies need to be set in place in any country.
We should anyhow be aware that “changing yourself can change the world” and no social programme can succeed without the intense participation of certain number of human beings who donate their lives, ideas, passion, ethos to their community (however small or big it might be).
Spring 1889, Massachusetts (USA)
A business man is working at his desk, covered with books and papers recording the growth of the companies he set up and owns.
From his window, over the well-cared garden and the blossoming edge, his eyes weigh the cottage of one of his workers.
“The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the labourer with us today measures the change which has come with civilisation“, he notes observing the distance -in terms of dollars- between the shelter that a worker might afford with his wages and the mansion that he enjoys with his family thanks to his “surplus wealth” as he calls his fortune.
He is a capitalist, republican, strongly nationalist and firmly pacifist: surely a successful businessman.
He is one of the richest man in history with his asset equivalent to $372 billion (in 2014 US dollars). He is though not blind to the social inequalities determined by the massive concentration of wealth.
Andrew Carnagie is his name. He is preparing notes and ideas for an article titled “The Gospel of Wealth” to appear on the North American Review in June 1889, then published later in 1901 by the Century Co.
He begins writing his article:
“The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship“.
Andrew believes that a wealthy man should consider his fortune as “trust fund” that he should wisely administrate and use to compensate the “temporary unequal distribution of wealth” and for “the reconciliation of the rich and the poor“.
The wealthy man should give back his wealth to the good of the community before passing away because no wealth can pass with him:
“The man who dies rich thus dies disgraced …” is Andrew’s conclusion.
Whatever the opinion one might have about Andrew Carnagie, it is a fact that he did what he said -as gentlemen do– and gave back all his wealth to charitable purposes!
“During his lifetime, Carnegie gave away over $350 million. Many persons of wealth have contributed to charity, but Carnegie was perhaps the first to state publicly that the rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes.“ (from Columbia library)
Doing so, he opened the way to modern philanthropy.
Philanthropy is where in my opinion a seed of fraternity lies: the act of giving is not forced by any law or external pressure but simply by a free, ethical impulse to compensate and harmonise the “temporary inequalities” existing across a society.
November 2017, reading in my room (England)
A year ago the Credit Suisse released a global wealth report revealing that One Percent of the world population holds over 50% of the global wealth! … I asked myself: how much could the global wealth be? … well, it discovered that it is about $280 trillions…. a long long queue of zeroes… ‘God bless you’, I whispered!
The same report predicts that the future growth of wealth will be almost held by the same hands: ‘God bless you again!’
It would be easy to note that the capability of human beings to produce wealth is stunning! their ambition to grasp as much as possible of it is equally astonishing…
Let’s go through some other papers and find that 50% of the world population lives with $2.50 per adult per day (as estimated by WorldBank in 2008)… oh my god!
I imagine that many people would like to be Trivelin and punish the wealthy One Percent to swap status (and money) with the poor Fifty Percent. Admitting for a moment that it might be good time by time to reshuffle the cards of this global monopoly game, such a swap might be fully ineffective… (think about…)
Tackling poverty and social inequalities in the age of the global village requires though different and various actions from appropriate social policies from governments to philanthropic initiatives as we saw in the episode of Andrew Carnagie.
Every philanthropic gesture (large or little)is effectively a signal indicating a good way to administrate a “surplus wealth” as nowadays is put into practice by -for example- “Giving Pledge” and “Giving while living“.
“Giving Pledge” was founded in 2010 by Bill and Melanie Gates together with Warren Buffet to promote “a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back“.
Also remarkable is the example of Charles Feeney who has given back all his wealth in support of his “Giving while living“:
“By devoting the majority of your wealth to philanthropy during your lifetime, you can experience the immense satisfaction of not only making a difference, but seeing it happen now. Giving While Living is an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy by which you actively devote your money, skills and time to make a difference sooner rather than later. You can learn and make adjustments to get the biggest bang–and impact–for your buck“.
Philanthropy at any level rests on the understanding of one other and its gesture of caring for who is in need of help contains a powerful antidote to selfishness.
Although the current level of philanthropic actions wouldn’t be sufficient to eliminate poverty and social inequalities, the act of giving -not forced by any law or external pressure- is a free, ethical impulse that may feed the seed of fraternity.
I know that objections might be arisen against those examples: some people might argue that the surplus wealth has being actually created thanks to slavery (when there was), low wages, child exploitation, gender pay gap etc… All these bad and unfair behaviours -which anyway not even revolutions have ever been able to remove from humans- have surely to be restrained by legal, cultural and social initiatives, but such an argument does not reduce the value of philanthropy.
I feel only that philanthropic actions are good and what is good is good.
February 2018, “Fair Shot”, a book by Chris Hughes (USA)
“When Martin Luther King Jr. began his fight for the guaranteed income in 1967, there were 40 million Americans living in poverty. today, fifty years later, there are still 40 million Americans living in poverty and even more lower-middle-class people who are teetering on the brink of economic collapse.”
Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, makes the sad remark at the end of his book “Fair Shot – Rethinking inequality and how we earn” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), He then continues with his hopeful proposal:
“We have the power to change this. A guaranteed income of $500 per month, paid for by the one percent, would lift 20 million people out of poverty and give them a fair shot at economic independence“.
The proposal of a guaranteed income is not new but new is the suggestion that the costs of the guaranteed income should be paid for by the ‘one percent’ of American billionaires through progressive taxation…
In a world of constantly new devices but no new ideas, Chris makes the appreciable effort to encourage people of his country to restore the “American dream” and significantly he -as lucky member of the One Percent club- feeds the hope thatthe massive wealth available today can be used to reduce poverty and social inequalities.
As “architect of President Obama’s campaign” he adds his proposal to feed the dream for a fairer society: its proposal might look debatable and would probably leave untouched the causes of poverty and social inequalities but it is at least a good attempt to reshape the current social benefit system with creativity and to give a “fair shot at economic independence” for the poorest people in his country.
The duality selfish vs social that is well visible in social contexts at all times lies in fact in the depth oif the human being and a great real progress would be to openly acknowledge that as human beings we are double, we are selfish, we are social.
Being selfish and being social are two faces of the same coin like breathing-in and breathing-out are two moments of the same process.
Should a man take side for one of the two poles thus denying the existence of the other, he would feed a unilateral power in his community and sadly contribute to intoxicate the social environment.
The balance between selfish and social can’t be found as a merge of the two opponents but in a middle space where a completely new third element appears. This third element has been named by the French revolution in its great intuition: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité“.
What emerged at social level was the duality freedom vs equality while fraternity was essentially left as topic of sermons and good intentions or to the initiative of a few people of good will.
The historical context led people to take side for one or the other pole generating very divisive times followed with devastating fractures and conflicts on political and social realms.
It is nowadays time to open the door to the third principle that can harmonise the polarity freedom vs equality which is expression on a large scale of the duality selfish vs social.
May I mention here that a great contribution to clarify this complex issue has been given by Rudolf Steiner whose suggestions for a threefold society are a real source of inspiration for a new creative shape of the community to come.
Fraternity is indeed the key to shape a fair, harmonic, human-centred society.
2) Prejudice vs Open-mind
A second factor of troubles for the social relationships is prejudice. This issue does not appear in the play “The Isle of Slaves” but we know how disruptive was the influence of prejudice in the past centuries. Nowadays the impact of prejudice is not less damaging.
It is about how we build a judgement of one other, what representation we create of another person and how judgement and representation become effective in a social context either in a positive or negative direction.
It is not only about census and power -which anyway still shape someone’s social reputation– but all those elements that behind the curtains contribute to build a social profile of a person.
In the ancient Rome for example the Senate used its powers to facilitate the honours and glory of a consul who was well-regarded and well-connected while building bumps and hinders to thwart the rise of a less beloved consul. Is it something that still happens? (Rhetorical question…) Yes, but only sometimes in such a rough way as in the ancient Rome, nowadays it almost happens in a much more sophisticated path.
May I go behind the most evident cases such as mobbing, excluding or softly pushing out of the way… and take an example from the Italian literature.
Luigi Pirandello -Nobel prize winner for literature in 1934- wrote many novels and plays representing how individuals might fall behind the mask that a group of people projects on a person.
The mask created by rumours and prejudices may trap that person paralysing his or her personal development as well as confining him or her to a marginal social status and poor reputation (read “La Patente / The Licence*” as example of such a mechanism – * English version not available online).
Projections, rumours, mis- or counter-representations of another human being are the root of prejudices that might disrupt individual lives and even communities.
The responsibility to tackle such a ruinous phenomenon can only be taken by open-minded people who work hard at individual or communal level to change the way we look at one other.
For instance when something goes wrong in a situation, it is easy to project the fault of the negative event on the vulnerable rather than the powerful. Or to throw the blame on a stranger rather than a well-connected.
A strong antidote against the spread of prejudices is to keep on hold any photographic judgement about a person and accompany her or his development with empathy asking: is she or he doing something good or bad for the community?
The following wise tip may be also considered when we build the image of another human being: “If you see a person as it is, you trap him or her into the present status. If you see how she or he can flourish and shine, you will help him or her develop the best talents“.
The most simple medicine is to make a judgmental process fully transparent and share the process with the person involved, honestly and frankly.
3) Hypocrisy vs Honesty
The third line of social fracture is very subtle and one of the most disruptive.
The best antidote is honesty, not only in terms of “not stealing” but speaking truly to one other, feeding trust and confidence in one other.
Prejudice and hypocrisy are somehow related and both can be reduced -if not eliminated- with fair behaviours, good will, esteem of one other and love for truth.
The little play of Pierre Marivaux with his dream of a new Arcadia harmonious society led to enlighten some questions of the current issues; hopefully next play will inspire some answers…
2nd November 2020
19th February 2020
28th January 2020