“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I first realized I didn’t agree with this saying when I spoke at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at Kenyon College where I was teaching in 1988. “The Night of Broken Glass,” as it’s known in English, is often cited as the beginning of the Holocaust, so by that reckoning November 9, 1988 was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. I was asked to speak as both a philosopher and a child of Holocaust survivors. The evening’s ceremony included a brief march in which people carried lit candles.
The symbolism of the candles was on my mind because I’ve also got my own, more personal associations with candles on that date. November 9, but in 1965, was the date of the East Coast blackout, where much of the northeast US went dark, including New York City where we lived. We had a lot of candles at home because November 9 was also my father’s birthday. Living in Poland then, he had turned 16 the day of Kristallnacht. Maybe one of these days I’ll write something more about my connections to November 9, because that date in 1989 was when the wall came down in Berlin, the city of my birth, the city where my parents met and married.
As we all looked at the lit candles in the dark during that college ceremony, I said that this saying presented a false choice. The Holocaust is a case where we need to do both, light the candles as well as curse the darkness. Illuminating the events by understanding them, as we were trying to do in our educational environment, doesn't mean we shouldn't nonetheless curse that darkness. Intellectual understanding doesn't replace moral condemnation or emotional release.
Which brings me to the second saying with which I disagree. It’s best known in the French form in which Tolstoy used it in War and Peace: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Sorry, not as far as I’m concerned. The saying inhabits too mechanistic a universe. We can understand what drives a person to do something, but there’s always at least one moment of choice. Call it my existentialist side trumping my determinist side. I want to uphold the principal that what one person can do, another can understand. Otherwise, what are we doing in the university anyway; if we can’t in principle come to understand each other we may as well all just go home. “Nihil humani a me alienum puto,” wrote the young Karl Marx in answer to a question about his favorite maxim, quoting Terence. “Nothing human is alien to me.” But we still may – indeed, sometimes we must – deem actions unpardonable even if we understand them. Again, it’s the Holocaust that comes to my mind here.
Am I too quick to condemn and too slow to forgive, too unwilling to temper justice with mercy? Perhaps. But I think we rarely get the balance between the two exactly right, and I find I’d rather err on this side than the other.
Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012).