The Mourner’s Hope: Grief and the foundations of justice

Martha Nussbaum in The Boston Review:

On August 16, 2008, Martha Nussbaum—University of Chicago professor and Boston Review contributing editor—became a bat mitzvah. Part of the ceremony is the d’var Torah: a talk by the bat mitzvah on a section of the Torah portion (parashah) and the haftarah (pl. haftarot, a biblical reading accompanying a thematically related Torah portion). Nussbaum’s talk is reproduced here.

Martha When we are babies, we are very needy and we experience a great deal of pain. We long to be held and comforted. We long for a world in which every pain is nullified, every separation suspended by an embrace. That means that we want to be the center of the universe. Because, after all, the only way we would ever get immediate relief of every pain would be to turn others into our slaves. At first, our only awareness of others is as dimly seen forces that minister to our needs. When they do so, they can be sort of loved. (I say “sort of,” because it is not really love when an infant welcomes the breast or runs to be comforted.) When they do not minister to our needs, when they obstinately go their own separate way and fail to meet some imperative of nurture or holding, we feel rage. We want people to be the way we need them to be. Freud called the infant “His Majesty the Baby” for good reason: babies, like kings, do not understand that other people are real; they just want to rule them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, commenting on the tendency of small children to make slaves of their parents, saw here a major threat to the very idea of a social order based on justice and political equality.

The personal call for comfort, in its infantile form, is sheer narcissism. Unreformed, it will surely defeat any thought of justice, since it does not even involve the understanding that other people are real.

More here.