The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi (1919-1987), best known for his Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man (English title: Survival in Auschwitz), was also a prolific author of essays, short stories, and other works. In his review of the newly released Complete Works of Primo Levi, Edward Mendelson writes about Levi’s moral understanding of the universe, which underlay his work both as a writer and as a chemist:
Unlike almost everyone else who wrote about science in the 20th century, Levi never imagined that science was value-free. Just as human beings were moral or immoral, so, in his eyes, were chemical elements and compounds: “Sodium is a degenerate metal”; “chlorides in general are riffraff”; cerium “belongs to the equivocal and heretical family of the rare-earth elements.”
Morality, as Levi understood it, is not a set of rules or laws imposed by some divine power beyond ordinary reality; it is integral to reality, a matter of fact, not of opinion. In both the concentration camp and the laboratory, to lose sight of morality was to lose sight of what is real. Levi said of the Nazis who took up Nietzsche’s myth of the superman: “It is worth considering the fact that all of them, master and pupils, gradually took leave of reality at the same pace as their morals became detached from the morals common to every time and every civilization.”
The core of Nazi barbarism, as Levi saw it, was its reduction of unique human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category—Jews, for example—that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value.