Primo Levi’s Natural Law

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.

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More about: Friedrich Nietzsche, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Morality, Natural law, Primo Levi, Science

The Dangers of Diplomacy with Iran

Aug. 21 2018

Although President Trump’s offer to meet with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic was rejected, the possibility of direct negotiations remains. Ray Takeyh and Mark Dubowitz warn that Tehran could use talks to stall and gain leverage over Washington:

The mullahs understand that just by staying at the table, Americans usually offer up concessions. [They] are betting that the Trump administration may become weaker over time, preoccupied with domestic politics. Best to entangle America in protracted diplomacy while awaiting what the regime expects will be midterm Republican losses in Congress and the return of a more flexible Democratic president to power in 2021. This is what [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei probably meant when he stressed that negotiations have to wait until America is softened up.

Diplomacy would surely blunt the impact of U.S. pressure. The mullahs believe they can undermine the escalation of [U.S.] sanctions by being diplomatically flirtatious and know well that America seldom disrupts negotiations with military action. Indeed, as a prelude to the talks, Iran may even resume its nuclear activities to frighten the Europeans and gain leverage by putting even more pressure on Washington to adjust its red lines.

Should negotiations begin, the Trump team should take sensible precautions to avoid the predicament of the Obama negotiators. The administration will need to maintain its maximum-pressure campaign and its negotiating demands. . . . Any negotiations with the Islamic Republic should be time-limited, and Washington must be prepared to leave the table when it confronts the usual pattern of regime bombast and mendacity.

Donald Trump should insist on direct talks with the supreme leader, as he did with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un: Rouhani is a lame duck without any real influence. The administration also should demand that Europeans join its sanctions policy targeting Iran’s ballistic-missile program, support for terrorism, and human-rights abuses as a price for their participation in the talks.

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More about: Ali Khamenei, Donald Trump, Hassan Rouhani, Iran, U.S. Foreign policy