On Justifications

Philosophical fiction or a prose poem about suffering innocents and the theodicy
philosophy, fiction
2008-09-262009-01-16 notes certainty: emotional importance: 0


In the bes­tiaries of Borges are always to be found some men­tion, how­ever oblique, of the Tzadikim Nistarim, the sadly named ‘Lamed Wufniks’. The tale goes that they are 36 humans who form an invis­i­ble col­lege of virtue. Should one real­ize his mem­ber­ship, he is imme­di­ately gath­ered up and his place assumed by another liv­ing wor­thy; fur­ther, their fate is human­i­ty’s, for should ever the Nistarim cease, his­tory will end in the brim­fire of Judg­ment Day. They are the right­eous man for whose sake Sodom is spared; the flooded sur­vivor to whom the divine promise is made; the daily suf­fer­ing scape­goat for mankind.

Per­haps they are an essen­tially Judaic retelling of that Bud­dhist cos­mogony in which the uni­verse is every instant cre­ated and destroyed exactly alike a bil­lion bil­lion times. Awake to the empti­ness of being, an enlight­ened one accepts this cease­less point­less churn of real­i­ty. But can a West­ern mind accept this? Rather instead, con­jure this melan­cholic image - cos­mic jus­tice for this mun­dane world eter­nally frus­trated by unwit­ting virtue.

In my darker moments, a sim­i­lar pall is cast on the para­ble and I won­der if it is not what it seems, if per­haps it is a Kafkaesque joke - a sub­tle dis­proof of the exis­tence of good. For if it is good for evil to be pun­ished, for jus­tice to be done, then must­n’t even the best of deeds if they frus­trate jus­tice be, in the final analy­sis, ranked as evil itself?

In my lighter moments, I am still trou­bled. It strikes me as juve­nile. It is a com­mon­place among chil­dren that they are per­form­ing, always per­form­ing for an invis­i­ble audi­ence; or that the world exists only as it meets their eyes. These beliefs are akin. What then is more juve­nile than the entire cos­mos saved from utter perdi­tion by one’s unac­knowl­edged virtue?

I have thought on it, and would like to offer another fable for this sec­u­lar age - for as the medievals had their saints so should we.

This is it: that at any instant on this globe, there are 36 souls, briefly pure, all engaged in some act, large or small; in the secret record of their lives as recorded by the angels, it will serve as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of their lives. So, then, there is a con­ti­nu­ity - if not the con­ti­nu­ity of the orig­i­nal. My saints are exten­sive in space, not time. They flicker lam­bently over the world, mem­ber­ing mul­ti­tudes. Each is unaware of his true voca­tion, of the mere moments granted them among the heaps of their lives. But I feel that there is some­thing truly human about liv­ing for a gen­uine and true moment, no mat­ter the brevi­ty. “We go from antic­i­pa­tion to antic­i­pa­tion, and not sat­is­fac­tion to sat­is­fac­tion”, after all.

What is this act? I do not know. The ways of heaven are not the ways of men; their judg­ments are not ours. But this is how I like to think: It is a man and a tank; Williams at the Hall; a child fly­ing a kite. It is Oppen­heimer at Trin­i­ty; St. Fran­cis on a hill; Ein­stein in the wind.

It is Simon car­ry­ing the cross.