wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Alain Finkielkraut

In The Name of Humanity

It goes without saying that those who call themselves men know that they share basic physical similarities with other members of the species who come from elsewhere. If, nevertheless, they still give foreigners the names of insects or birds, it is because looking human is not enough. To belong to humanity, one must also practice certain specified customs dictated by the gods. In societies in which tradition reigns, there is, in other words, no place for the concept of tradition. Custom is sovereign because it is not seen as custom.

In societies like these, Shylock's tirade falls on deaf ears. His pathetic invocation of kinship among men, his desperate reference to shared reactions and drives, loses all power of persuasion. Having hands, organs, a body, senses, desires, and emotions; bleeding when pricked; laughing when tickled; taking revenge when hurt—these characteristics are perhaps universal, but they do not guarantee universal safe passage or even mutual recognition. What distinguishes some two-legged voluble creatures from others and allows them to join the community of humans is their way of life.

The Bible and philosophy gave our civilization the means to repudiate and challenge this widely held distinction between humans and nonhumans. To the people with whom he makes the covenant, to his dear beloved nation on whom he showers curses in ways unmatched by any other divinity, this God of the Bible declares: 'The sentence you pass shall be the same whether it be on native or on stranger; for I am Yahweh your God.' The one God reveals to men the unity of humankind. An incredible message, an astounding revelation, which led Emmanuel Levinas to say, 'Monotheism is not an arithmetic of the divine. It is, perhaps, a gift from on high that makes it possible to see man's similarity to man beneath the continuing diversity of individual historical traditions.'

Beginning with a simple, big, and irreverent question—'What is?'—philosophy reveals the same truth as the Bible, but in an entirely different way. According to Goethe, 'to be filled with a rush of emotion before the fantastic reality' that nothing said in the past predicts the future; to resist the answers handed down by the ancestors and think with unprecedented audacity about 'what is truth, what is just, what is beautiful'; to say no longer, 'this is good because it is our way' but to say instead, 'where is the good so that we may serve it?' all this makes room within the self to look at the self from the outside. Customs that have ruled from time immemorial are suddenly open to comparison and judgment. For the first time, it is possible to distinguish the essential from the contingent, the natural from convention. Instead of experiencing it as truth, tradition becomes the subject of reflection. In the process of questioning the ways of the ancestors, an extraordinary concept emerges or allows itself to be seen, namely, the idea of a single humanity. That my customs follow one set of rules means that I could have had others without jeopardizing my membership to the human race. My humanity, in other words, is no longer tied to the way I do things. From this point on, I lose the right to judge those who act differently from me as unsuitable to bear the name of man.

With the rise of philosophy, truth freed itself from the chains of tradition: there was only one truth for all those not blinded by tradition. It sought a place for itself among all reasonable souls, everywhere and in every kind of climate.