The Devil as the Loss of Empathy
Kaunas, Lithuania / 15 Sep.'15 / 20:59
Dr. Leonidas Donskis

The Devil in politics is not a fantasy. Its existence is manifested in many ways. One is the subversion and destruction of a universal social and moral order. Another is the loss of memory and empathy towards others, resulting in mass psychosis.

Europe is conscious of these two manifestations of evil. The most comprehensive effort at exorcism has been made after the two World War cataclysms. Yet the devil lurks in the shadows of radical and hateful discourses. Both of its aspects are powerfully resurgent in modern Russia, the country whose writers strongly felt and lucidly described the touch of the radical evil whose essence lies in a deliberate rejection of human self-worth, dignity, memory, empathy, and in subversion of the humane powers of association and compassion.

Back when the movement for Lithuanian independence was just beginning in the late 1980s, we encountered Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance. We thought of it as a sensation, even a miracle. This film was an allegoric and symbolic tale of the invasion of the human soul by an almost satanic totalitarian system, taking away its memory and its capacity for empathy.

The storyline follows the local murderer and dictator Varlam Aravidze. He strikes a satanic figure – complete with his devilish charm and his taste for a spectacle. At his behest, an ancient holy place – an allegory for history and memory – is destroyed, while Aravidze recites William Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet to his future victims. Shakespeare’s words “tired with all these, for restful death I cry” make a cruel mockery of the victims’ fate. Later, Varlam gives a wonderful performance of an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore - Di quella pira – “the horrible blaze” invoking the unquenchable fires of inferno. In the opera, the blaze refers to a pyre about to consume the protagonists’ mother – a symbol identified with his country by Aravidze himself in the film.

Aravidze is denied the sonnet’s “restful death”. A woman whose family was murdered by the monster appears. She cannot come to terms with the remains of Varlam Aravidze peacefully resting in the land of Georgia and digs him out of the grave. Tormented by her accusation, the murderer’s son refuses to bury his father, having come to the realization that the loss of conscience and human sensitivity is too large a price to pay for remaining loyal to the family and to the memory of his father.

Until the crimes of the past are recognized, the family’s - and by extension the entire nation’s - present fails to congeal. The present becomes a surreal nightmare, both the hostage and victim of the lie. Abel Aravidze’s son, the grandson of the murderer Varlam, is unable to bear the burden of shame and pain for the destroyed destinies of the town’s people, whose lives had become mere details, insignificant trifles in the family’s stories about their proud past and heroism.

The Georgian film director understood and described the Shakespearean dilemma well. What is more important: the historical tale that inspires the town and builds morale among its citizens, or the truth and conscience? Can they coexist peacefully? Can and should the flesh-and-blood human beings - our neighbours, classmates, whole political, social or ethnic groups - be taken out of history, be reduced to insignicant items, for the sake of preservation of the official, flattering version of history?

During times of upheaval, at critical historical junctures of intense social change, people can lose some of their capacity for empathy, refusing to apply the ethical perspective to other people.


These others do not necessarily become enemies or demons. Worse. They are seen as mere statistics, circumstances, obstacles, factors, unpleasant details and obstructing circumstances. They are no longer people with whom we would like to meet face-to-face, whose gaze we might follow, at whom we might smile. They are reduced to being objects, stripped of their dignity, uniqueness, and value.

Zygmunt Bauman called this “the adiaphorization of consciousness”. People who have lost their sensitivity temporarily or for a long time are no demons themselves. They simply remove from their range of empathy certain individuals or entire groups of people. The Greek stoics of antiquity and later on, religious reformers and thinkers in the Renaissance believed, that there are things inessential and unimportant, matters over which there is no point to even argue or cross swords. This kind of unimportant thing was called an adiaphoron (from the Greek ά- , a negative prefix marker, and διάφορος, “different” = “indifferent”). An example of usage is found in a letter that Philipp Melanchthon wrote to Martin Luther in which he said the Catholic liturgy was an adiaphoron, hence it was pointless to argue about it with the Catholics.

We are capable of withdrawing our empathy and also of returning to it. This withdrawal-and-return mechanism (to borrow and slightly remake Arnold J. Toynbee’s term) only shows how vulnerable, fragile, unpredictable, and universally valid human dignity and life is.


The withdrawal of empathy is often a preface for unthinkable cruelty. It is a mark of the Devil.


The Devil can strip human beings of their memory and of empathy. By losing their memory, people become incapable of critical questioning of themselves and of the world around them. By losing the powers of individuality and association, they lose their basic moral and political sensibilities. Ultimately, they lose their sensitivity to another human being. The Devil, who safely lurks in the most destructive forms of modernity, deprives humanity of the sense of place, home, memory, and belonging.

Since seeing Repentance the Georgian cinematography has come to me as an eye-opening and stimulating experience. I was captivated by the image of an evil character who recites Shakespeare by heart and sings Verdi’s aria from Il Trovatore before murdering his neighbours. Or, better still, in another scene he devours the fish – a commonly used symbol of Christ – while listening to his son’s confession about the split of his moral consciousness. This led me to assert that Georgia was perhaps the first country in the former USSR to fully grasp the depth of turpitude and cynicism that permeated the regime. The film in question was the first and the most profound manifestation of settling the accounts with evil without starting a noisy argument about who has been suffering the most or who has been the guiltiest in that story.

Abuladze foresaw the thorny way Georgia has struggled through since. Its former colonial master, Russia, has yet to embark on the path.

Leonidas Donskis is a Lithuanian philosopher, historian of ideas, and writer. A former Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). Donskis has written and edited over forty books, seventeen of them in English. His works have been published in eighteen languages. He serves now as Professor of Politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Donskis holds an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bradford, the UK (2011), and an Honorary Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from Valahia University in Târgovişte, Romania (2014).

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