Issue #69 February 2024

The Reality of Violence: Reflections on the genocide in Gaza

Henri Michaux, Untitled, (1969)

Amid the horror of the genocide perpetrated by the Israelis in Gaza, in plain view of those who still have eyes to see, the events of October 7 continue to represent a stumbling block. Not so much for those henchmen of the criminals who are vomiting their filth in the press or so-called intellectual circles—they just perform their usual obfuscatory job for the political and military tyranny in whose payroll they are—but for the many beautiful souls who have their delicate sentiments troubled by “terrorist” attacks and the killing of civilians. Because it is ultimately this mass of lazy cowards that provide the best cover for massacre and torture, it is time to address their mental confusion.

The confusion has two related sources. One is the rhetoric of nonviolence, variously exploited by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and other assorted gurus; the other is the delusion that, by using nonviolent means or simply doing nothing at all, one can remain innocent in the face of a human natural world that is, in Kant’s view, the seat of radical evil.1placeholder I will proceed here to refute both the rhetoric and the delusion, beginning with the latter.2placeholder

Return to the inaugural scene of Western philosophy: the death of Socrates. In the Crito, Socrates’ best friend urges him to take advantage of his last chance to evade. Crito has a number of practical considerations to offer. The guards can be easily bought, and a number of people, including some foreigners, are happy to pitch in; nor should Socrates worry that his friends will suffer from the outcome, as they “would be justified in running this risk to save you, and worse, if necessary” (45).3placeholder But Crito knows better than limiting himself to such mundane matters; his friend, he is well aware, is “the kind of man who listens only to the argument that on reflection seems best to [him]” (46). Therefore he has thought out three arguments to prove to Socrates that remaining behind and letting himself be executed would be for him the wrong thing to do: that he would be doing a wrong to himself, by choosing what is worse for him (death) over what is better (life); to his children, by refusing to bring them up; and to his friends, by making them acquire a bad reputation for “cowardice and unmanliness on our part, since we did not save you” (46). He runs the arguments quickly, as he believes time to be of the essence, and then tries to put pressure on Socrates: “Take counsel with yourself, or rather the time for counsel is past and the decision should have been taken” (46).

But Socrates will not be hurried. He has answers for all of Crito’s arguments. They should not worry, as they were never supposed to do before this occasion, about what the majority, who had the power to sentence him to death, “will say about us, but what he will say who understands justice and injustice, the one, that is, and the truth itself” (48). As for his children, they could either stay in Athens while he leaves town, in which case it would make no difference whether he is alive or dead, or they could go with him, and be exiled themselves, since he would be “making strangers of them” (54). As for being an enemy to himself by choosing death over life, “the most important thing is not life, but the good life” (48), which is attained by “never do[ing] wrong” (49). In the circumstances in which he now finds himself, a wrong was done to him, but that is no justification for him committing a wrong: “Nor must one, when wronged, inflict wrong in return” (49). And, if he evaded, he would in fact be doing a wrong to the laws of Athens, as he imagines the laws themselves would tell him when he is trying to leave: “Do you not by this action you are attempting intend to destroy us, the laws, and indeed the whole city, as far as you are concerned? Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” (50). Bottom line: for him, his only two options are saving his life by committing a wrong or dying innocent—and, when it is put that way, the choice is obvious. Crito can only admit defeat, shrug his shoulders, and confess: “I have nothing to say, Socrates” (54).

But, despite the admiration we feel for this extreme display of moral integrity, its logic doesn’t quite work. No reason is offered for why it would be worse for his children to be brought up in exile by a live father than to be left orphans—or even for why it would be just as bad—hence why it would not be doing a wrong to them if their father let himself be killed. As for his friends, they are given short shrift by being stuck with the opinions of the majority, when Crito also says, if only in passing, “[I will] be deprived of a friend, the like of whom I shall never find again” (45)—isn’t it a wrong, then, to so deprive them when one could avoid doing so? And, when it comes to oneself, is one entirely innocent if one gives up any further cognitive or moral development one could have, even at the age of seventy (something deeply relevant to me, given my age)?

What Socrates is skirting here, with supreme elegance and unnoticed by most, is the presence of a moral dilemma: a situation in which you cannot avoid doing wrong, no matter what choice you make. Ancient Greek philosophers were singularly obtuse to such occurrences, what with Plato’s focus on an ideal realm in which everything works for the best, Aristotle’s focus on the perfect balance achieved by the phrónimos (but see a trace of the issue in his treatment of epieíkeia, late in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics and with an oblique reference to Socrates’ fate), or post-Aristotelian focus on freeing oneself from unnecessary desires in order to reach ataraxía. The obtuseness was singular because within the same era playwrights were giving powerful representations of (moral4placeholder) dilemmas. Antigone, in Sophocles’ tragedy by that name, can only do one of two things: violate the laws of the family and the dead, and let her brother Polynices go unburied, or violate the laws of the city and the living, and bury him. Agamemnon, in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, can either violate his duties as the commander of the Greek fleet by letting it rot on the shore in the absence of wind, or violate his duties as a father and sacrifice his daughter. Dramatic examples both of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, which bring into sharp relief the less dramatic, but ubiquitous, dilemmas we ordinary people face in daily life.

It would take a great philosopher who was also a great writer to make dilemmas part of the ethical conversation, and he paid a dear price for it: his works banned by the Index of Prohibited Books, nouns and adjectives derived from his name become synonyms in English of “marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith”,5placeholder and, possibly the worst of all, his legacy being found by his presumed allies (with friends like these, who needs enemies?) in the sharp separation of politics from morality. Contrary to these lame, disingenuous “defenses,” Niccolò Machiavelli’s legacy is a clear confrontation with a human moral condition in which dilemmas are unavoidable, and a development of morality which does not push them under the rug but places them front and center in the context of our concerns.

Here is a typical passage from The Prince:6placeholder

“[O]ne must know how to colour one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived. […] A prince, therefore,  need not necessarily have all the good qualities I mentioned above, but he should certainly appear to have them. I would even go so far as to say that if he has these qualities and always behaves accordingly he will find them harmful; if he only appears to have them they will render him service. He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.” (57)

A cursory reading would have us see in this text a classical case of (no more than7placeholder) evil counsel, or if you prefer of the political irrelevance of ethics. But that would be a mistake, for such is not the position the text implies. There may be times in which goodness is prevalent, as we read in Discourses on Livy:8placeholder

“[L]et a prince put before himself the times from Nerva to Marcus, and compare them with those that came before and that came later […]. [I]n those governed by the good he will see a secure prince in the midst of his secure citizens, and the world full of peace and justice; he will see the Senate with its authority, the magistrates with their honors, the rich citizens enjoying their riches, nobility and virtue exalted; he will see all quiet and all good […]. He will see golden times when each can hold and defend the opinion he wishes. He will see, in sum, the world in triumph, the prince full of reverence and glory, the peoples full of love and security.” (32-33)

But, even assuming that the above is a realistic description of the state of the Roman Empire from 96 to 180, no such description is applicable to most times, including Machiavelli’s own. In those times, if indeed his hero Cesare Borgia, after using Remirro de Orco to pacify and unify the Romagna, in order to deflect the popular discontent he had thereby attracted, had “Remirro’s body […] found cut in two pieces on the piazza at Cesena, with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside it” (The Prince 25), it is because he considered his other options to be worse—and, in Machiavelli’s judgment, not just pragmatically but morally worse.

“Cesare Borgia was accounted cruel; nevertheless, this cruelty of his reformed the Romagna, brought it unity, and restored order and obedience. On reflection, it will be seen that there was more compassion in Cesare than in the Florentine people, who, to escape being called cruel, allowed Pistoia to be devastated. So a prince must not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine.” (The Prince 53)

Cesare’s options were not whether to be compassionate or cruel, but only whether to be selectively cruel against few or generally cruel against the whole people, allowing the State to go to ruin and undeterred crime to spread. He faced a dilemma; and, if too many princes fail to imitate him and refuse to take responsibility—moral responsibility—for the hard choices to be made, Italy, Machiavelli laments, will never be liberated “from the barbarians” (The Prince 82): from a “tyranny [that] stinks in everyone’s nostrils” (The Prince 85).

Henri Michaux, Untitled, (1960)

One of Kant’s last published works adds a wrinkle to the debate, and also lets us see Socrates’ predicament in a clearer light. In 1796 the Swiss writer and political thinker Benjamin Constant challenged Kant9placeholder on his view that it is an unexceptionable duty to tell the truth, by bringing up the case of a murderer who comes to your door and asks you about the location of the victim he is pursuing. You know that the victim has taken refuge in your home; but, claims Constant, the murderer has no right to being told the truth, and you have no duty to tell it to him. Kant responded in “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy” (1797).10placeholder The essence of his response is contained in the following passage:

“Truthfulness in statements that one cannot avoid is a human being’s duty to everyone, however great the disadvantage to him or to another that may result from it; and although I indeed do no wrong to him who unjustly compels me to make the statement, if I falsify it, I nevertheless do wrong in the most essential part of duty in general by such falsification, which can therefore be called a lie […]; that is, I bring it about, as far as I can, that statements (declarations) in general are not believed, and so too that all rights which are based on contracts come to nothing and lose their force; and this is a wrong inflicted upon humanity generally.” (612)

For Constant, the case was a simple one of doing no wrong, as the only person who could be suffering from a wrong—he thought—was the murderer, toward whom duties of the sort are suspended. But Kant reconfigures it as a dilemma, where I have to choose between doing wrong to the victim by revealing their whereabouts and doing wrong to humankind by weakening the credibility of statements anyone makes. As with all dilemmas, we are forced to choose among evils, and we can well decide that the evil inflicted on humankind is less, here, than the evil inflicted on the victim; but an evil it is nonetheless—there is no way that an evil, by being less in comparison with another, can be catapulted into being a good. Socrates’ case was analogous, and was properly to be seen as a dilemma: between the wrong done to his friends, his children, and himself by accepting death and the wrong done to the laws of Athens by weakening their hold on the citizens. In both cases, innocence is out of the question: one will have dirty hands whatever one chooses, and an empty claim to purity of heart must be replaced by a mature evaluation of the size and scope of the evils involved.

I believe that all human choices are made within dilemmas, though not necessarily as tragic as those faced by Antigone or Cesare Borgia, by Socrates or by the nameless character in Constant’s story. But this is not the place to argue for this personal view. It is, rather, the place to point out that what is facing a Palestinian who intends to counter seventy-five years of oppression, apartheid, wanton murder, arbitrary imprisonment and torture, exile, and ethnic cleansing is, undeniably, a dilemma. Those butcher sionists will not relent before UN resolutions, worldwide protest, or boycott of their products; but they might if a few bodies were found cut in two pieces in piazzas—and, if that were so, it would be wrong not to cut bodies in two pieces. Just as it would be wrong to do so, for sure; but here there would be no good options and, if this form of resistance to tyranny is the lesser evil, then it is what the moral person ought to do. The faint of heart who do not recognize this truth and let themselves be convinced to redescribe resistance to tyranny as terrorism are the main reason why the tyranny can prosper unperturbed. Those faint of heart are not innocent; no one is here, where even doing nothing is doing something, and specifically something evil. I may be mistaken in thinking that the evil they thus unwittingly do is the worse one; but an evil it unquestionably is. They should crawl out of the woodwork and, instead of issuing a few complacent, self-satisfied slogans, ask themselves the hard questions the situation requires.

Move to rhetoric now, where my line will be a brief one. As dilemmas are inescapable, so is violence. For the sake of simplicity, let us define an act violent if it results in imposing someone’s will on someone else.11placeholder Within dilemmas, where no good options are available and the only choice is among evils, we could also say that the choice is among different ways of being violent. And, if you choose violent course A to counter violent course B, you’d better have reasonable assurance that it will work; otherwise, you will obtain the brilliant outcome of adding your A to the existing B. With Gandhi, King, and Mandela, strikes, boycotts, and marches ended up being (somewhat) effective, as violent means of imposing the will of the oppressed on the will of the oppressors, but don’t be seduced by the leaders’ rhetoric into thinking that such were nonviolent means. Blood was mostly spilled by the oppressors; but spilling blood is not the only way of forcefully prevailing over another—there is also, for example, emotional blackmail. Nor should you be seduced by the fact that these particular, relatively bloodless means were effective into thinking that they could be of universal use. What worked with the British, with the JFK and LBJ presidencies, and with the near-universal isolation that grew around South Africa would not have worked with Hitler, and will not work with those Israelis who have well learned the latter’s lesson and are anything but isolated—in fact receive vital support for their brutal violence from the “civilized” West, temporarily forgetful of its emphasis on human rights. Something else is in order, if the evil of oppression must be countered here.

One main reason why I am writing this is that, as often happens, I don’t see my position being represented in public discourse. Despite the high level of condemnation of the Israelis’ indiscriminate killing of women and children, I find too many qualifications added, blaming the “horror” of October 7. So I want to voice where I stand in the starkest manner. In Palestine, horror has been the constant state of affairs in the past three quarters of a century—for Palestinians. Which brings me to an obvious conclusion: Israel is evil. As there ought to be a State where Germans can live peacefully but the Nazi State ought no longer to exist, and there ought to be a State where South-Africans, both black and white, can live peacefully but the old apartheid State ought no longer to exist, there ought to be a State where the inhabitants of Palestine, both Jews and non-Jews, can live peacefully but the current repressive and genocidal State of Israel ought no longer to exist. Its “right to defend itself” is equivalent to the one the Nazi empire could have claimed after subjugating most of Europe and proceeding to the systematic holocaust of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents, disabled people and other “undesirables.” The violent horror this State carries out must be countered, by means that cannot but be themselves violent. So the Hamas resistants have done what they had to do—and of course it was evil; but, if it worked (and it is still possible that it will, despite the unspeakable pains suffered by their people), it will be the lesser evil, compared with what the alternative was—and is. We must applaud them for what they have done: for the hard choices they made, and that could redeem not just them and their people but also all of us lazy cowards.

Ermanno Bencivenga is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities, Emeritus, at the University of California. The author of seventy books in three languages and one hundred scholarly articles, he was the founding editor of the international philosophy journal Topoi (Springer) for thirty years, as well as of the Topoi Library. Among his books in English are Understanding Edgar Allan Poe: They Who Dream by Day (Newcastle upon Tyne UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2023); Kant’s Copernican Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); The Discipline of Subjectivity: An Essay on Montaigne (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Logic and Other Nonsense: The Case of Anselm and His God (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); A Theory of Language and Mind (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997); Hegel’s Dialectical Logic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ethics Vindicated: Kant’s Transcendental Legitimation of Moral Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Theories of the Logos (Berlin: Springer, 2017).


For this view of Kant, see for example his Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason 80, in Religion and Rational Theology, translated by Allen W. Wood and George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 55-215.


The present article is complementary to my previous “Justice and Violence” (The Philosophical Forum 37, 2006, 233-242). Here I detail the inevitability of choosing among evils; there I explore what general provisions ought to be taken in light of this inevitability.


All Crito quotes are from The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1975).


From now on, I will omit this qualification, as moral dilemmas are the only kind to be considered here.


In the entry for “Machiavellian” of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.


Translated by George Bull. London: Penguin, 2003.


The significance of this qualification will be apparent shortly, when I emphasize that, though the counsel is indeed evil, the choice here is only among evils.


Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.


In a pamphlet in French, titled Des réactions politiques. Kant refers to its German translation in Frankreich im Jahr 1797, published in 1797.


In Practical Philosophy, translated by Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 609-615.


In “Justice and Violence” I define violent any act that “shuts down the rational register of discussion” (235). Without entering here into an explanation of what that register amounts to, I can arrive at the current definition by simply saying that an act that shuts it down is one that replaces right (the province of reason) with might (the province of empirical interactions), hence rational discussion with imposition.


February 2024


A Locus of Contradiction: On Georges Bataille’s Sovereignty

by Tung-Wei Ko

The Reality of Violence: Reflections on the genocide in Gaza

by Ermanno Bencivenga

Berkeley/Norinaga/Marx; Awareanalysis, Part 2: Capitalism, burnout, depression

by Raphael Chim

'Of the Mode of Voting' by John Stuart Mill (and of Over-Sharing)

by Stephen Leach