The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 7 of 12

(Continued from Part 6)

7. Perception and unexpectedness

Of course, neither a sense of responsibility nor any act done in service to a responsibility is necessarily a matter or a manifestation of the transcendent. Responsibility can be a product of social pressure and can take the form usually known as duty. As duty, responsibility is predominantly – if not exclusively – a role undertaken to satisfy others’ expectations. Accordingly, duty is a service which can be demanded by others. However, that responsibility which is a matter of transcendence never comes to be as a result of its being demanded, and it can never be demanded. Responsibility as duty can be delegated; transcendent responsibility can never be delegated to anyone else.

If Staros had ordered Welsh to get the morphine to the mortally wounded soldier, Welsh would have been at least as brave in doing what he did as he was when he did it on his own initiative and without having been ordered. The relief delivered to that fallen soldier would not have been at all lessened if Welsh had been ordered to undertake that mission. There could even have been a no less genuine realization that there was goodness (that needed) to be effected in the world and made manifest in taking care of that soldier. In that situation, the realization would appear to have taken place within the person of Staros. Welsh’s undertaking and accomplishing the task would still have been praised; it likely would have been deemed every bit as deserving of the Silver Star. And, yet, despite the extensive similarities between the two situations (the one in which Welsh acts on his own and the one in which he is ordered), it is unlikely that the response to what Welsh did when ordered would have been identical to that which occurred after he acted entirely on his own. Is there anything of significant note which would explain these differences in these responses and distinguish these situations?

It might be argued that, if he had been ordered to attend to the wounded soldier, Welsh could have exhibited the same bravery in precisely the same way that he actually did when he undertook the mission on his own – for nothing but the sake of goodness itself. The fact that Welsh could have acted for goodness’ own sake in both cases is not sufficiently exhaustive to establish that both situations are identically significant. The fact that Welsh could have been acting for goodness’ sake in both cases and yet effected different responses compels some consideration into the nature of manifestation itself.

If the medic had not been killed while trying to help the wounded soldier, the response to the medic would not have been the same as that which occurred when Welsh acted on his own. And this is so despite the fact that the medic was not ordered to help the wounded soldier. Staros tells the medic, “I can’t ask you to go out there.” Staros’ choice of “ask” might mean he cannot in good conscience either request or order that the medic attend to the soldier, but, in either case, the response to the medic braving fire can be expected to be different than the response to Welsh’s own unsolicited action precisely because there is a sense of duty assigned to the role of medic, a duty which is not similarly assigned to the other soldiers’ roles. The medic would not seem less brave owing to his having a duty which the others do not have, but with that duty comes some expectation. What distinguishes the medic’s action from Welsh’s is the absolute unexpectedness of Welsh’s action. It is that unexpectedness that makes the transcendent manifest in the sense of being more apparent, more likely to be perceived, or more noticeable as distinguished from being real or having been part of an occurrence in the world.

Staros’ own response to the medic having completed the mission would have been different from his response to Welsh’s successful completion of the mission. This is in part because Staros was aware of the medic’s intent before the medic undertook to make his entirely private intention an actual, public, this-worldly event-occurrence. The medic had said that the wounded soldier would “be dead before they can ever get him back to the surgeon … Well, maybe it’s worth a try. Maybe I can at least get a syringe of morphine in him.” By making his intention known before undertaking his mission, the medic made his act less unexpected. However, being less unexpected in no way diminishes what goodness there is in (association with) the act – regardless of whether that goodness is objectively transcendent or not. The degree of unexpectedness only affects the likelihood that some person(s) will come to perceive – and appreciate – qualities in association with what occurs.

A characteristic of this-worldliness is that it is inescapably a world of appearances. Appearances are not necessarily illusions; rather, appearances are matters of perception. This-worldly reality is the reality of appearances; it is the reality of that which is perceived and might ever be perceived, and perception itself is a matter of conditioning. Hannah Arendt says:

Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence … In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which … possess the same conditioning power as natural things.11

Perception is conditioned by things which a person has “come in contact with”, by situations experienced, and by the person’s own interpretations of what has been perceived (experienced). This is to say that how a person interprets an event – what a person thinks about an experience and the manner in which a person thinks – can affect what that person later perceives and how that person later acts. Unexpectedness is not necessary for perception to occur, but interpretation – just as is the case with human vision – does depend upon there being recognizable contrast. Unexpectedness is itself one sort of contrastive matter, and so is exceptionality.

In effect, all perception is constituted, characterized, or conditioned by interpretation. Any great goodness in Welsh’s act to help the wounded soldier is perceptible only by means of interpretation, and that interpretation will itself characterize Welsh’s act in terms of some sort of contrast. The most conventional interpretation of Welsh’s action would describe it as having been “selfless”. Given the context in which the action took place, wherein it is expected and proper that each person would be largely consumed with concern for his own self, it makes sense to interpret Welsh’s act as selfless inasmuch as something other than a concern for his own self had to have occurred in order for Welsh to act as he did. However, every soldier who charged the enemy could just as well have been acting with something other than a concern for his own self; therefore, if there is something to be seen in Welsh’s act as distinguishing it from the charging soldiers’ acts, it is something which is better to be described other than in terms of selflessness. Indeed, what most notably distinguishes Welsh’s act is seeing in that act – not selflessness, but – something other than and beyond selflessness: Welsh was not selfless when he acted; instead, it was his very self which acted for another self.

This is not a matter of duty; it is a matter of transcendent responsibility. It is not a responsibility which Welsh could have delegated to or demanded of any other person; it is not a responsibility which anyone – including the military through its own code of ethics – could have imposed upon Welsh. It is his own self’s responsibility.

It is the same transcendent relationship which Pvt. Witt had earlier perceived. Witt’s interpretation of what he perceived made relevant what he had perceived; it had the effect of conditioning him for setting about through his actions to give that transcendent responsibility a durable this-worldly place in the person of his own self. Such an enterprise would, if successful, have the effect of making the transcendent at least a little more commonplace within the world and, thereby, less obvious in terms of exceptionality. In fact, the presence of the transcendent which had become Witt’s near ceaseless motivation (and, hence, part of his very person as well as many of his actions) was not readily noticeable for those around him, but its reality, its relevance was there nonetheless – even if any of those who might come to see it first had to be conditioned in order to perceive it and themselves respond to it as relevant.

Continued in Part 8

11 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p.9.

This entry was posted in Arendt, Ethics, Film, Morality, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Religion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 7 of 12

  1. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 6 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 8 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

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