In Praise of Pilate

(i.e., the noble art of washing one’s hands)

by Luigi Corvaglia

pilato

  1. I’m voting for Barabbas. I’m not convinced by the other one

Of all sure things, the surest is doubt

Bertolt Brecht

Some historical figures are doomed to be forever remembered as less than gratifying examples, perhaps due to alleged indecent acts committed by them or for issues that are entirely secondary to their life story. Caligula, for example, is remembered as the madman that appointed a horse to the senate and everyone associates Emperor Vespasian to some inelegant, yet useful, urban street fixtures. General Cambronne is also well known to students as someone well acquainted with profanity. Yet the same moral contempt that is given to he who was the governor of Judea during the years described in the Gospels is applied to no one else: Pontius Pilate. He washed his hands. Not even the human and political flaws of Emperor Nero, who, according to legend, was playing the lyre while Rome was burning, are emphasised as much as those of the one who had the misfortune to represent the Empire in that Middle Eastern land around 30 AD. This man suffers from terrible press. Indeed tradition has made him the quintessential example of ignorance and cowardice as a person who does not take a stand and allows the perpetration of injustice. But is this really the case? The first person to put the question in other terms was the Law philosopher, Hans Kelsen. The greatest exponent of legal positivism wrote that the telling of Jesus of Nazareth’s trial “becomes a tragic symbol of the antagonism between absolutism and relativism”[1]. The absolutism of Christ, the relativism of Pilate. Of course, while the governor cannot be defined as a champion of freedom, he is, however, a representative of the Roman Empire and, so, an absolutist politician but, from an ethical and religious point of view, as a polytheist, he is very tolerant. The scene narrated by the Evangelist John, furthermore, is sublime and almost humorous when presenting the comparison between the ironic tone of the governor of Rome and the seriousness of Christ. The latter, as sure of himself as the son of God can be, responds as if he were not able to grasp more than the literal meaning of the Roman’s words. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks sarcastically, convinced that he is dealing with a crazy person. “So you say – the Nazarene responds – For this I was born and for this I have come to the world: to bear witness to truth. Everyone who is of truth hears my voice”. Here the sceptical Pilate, with the same ironic manner, asks, “What is truth?” It is a rhetorical question to which, however, the Nazarene seems tempted to reply. Pilate does not know what truth is, this truth that the man in front of him seems to blindly believe in. He is sceptical and a relativist. He therefore relies, so consistently, on the will of the people, putting the decision before the purest democratic process: direct democracy. Addressing the Jews, he says “I find no guilt in him”. It is extremely evident that, as a tolerant and fallible person, Pilate is willing to save someone who believes in things that he does not. In fact, he says “You have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you wish then that I free for you the king of the Jews?” The people had a different opinion. They supported a certain Barabbas, who only appears in the Gospel at this point (“Barabbas was a thief”) in the sense that the issue was not originally made as a choice between the two. Simply, the Jews replied, to Pilates offer, “Not this man, but Barabbas”. This famous scene is surely an extremely valid argument against democracy. It is, though, especially valid for whoever is convinced that the crucified man was really the Son of God and that he brought truth. Otherwise, the choice made by the Jews when they found themselves faced with the prospect of saving a bizarre messiah, like the many that were around in the region, or a guy who was unpopular with the Roman Empire and – as it appears to be[2] from some sources – a fighter against Imperial occupation, it seems quite rational.

That which motivates Pilate to not take a stand is indeed the lack of absolute imperatives, a lack which is the real source of tolerance. Indeed, Kelsen wrote that the process of entrusting the decision to the people may appear questionable only on the condition “of being so sure of our political truth to impose it, if necessary, with blood and tears, to be so sure of our truth, as he was, of his, the Son of God”[3]. In other words, people that are guided by categorical imperatives and unique, incontrovertible and superior truths are, inevitably, lead to impose their vision “with blood and tears”. Moreover, if others make a mistake and do not grasp the importance of the good we are bringing them, what kind of hesitancy would we ever have in hurting them, given that it would be done in the name of good? The followers of Christ have provided us with ample proof of this for centuries. Those who, in contrast, wash their hands, far from necessarily demonstrating cowardice and indifference, supply a guarantee of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Simplifying greatly, Popper would say we have “closed societies” in the first instance and “open societies” in the second. To better clarify, we can try, by way of example, to align the following historical figures with one of the two prototypes used here – that being Jesus and Pilate – arranged as they are into two groups structured as follows: Group A: Stalin, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Mussolini, Ho Chi Min, Ron Hubbard, George W. Bush, Rev. Jim Jones, Al Bagdhadi; Group B: Voltaire, Gandhi, Giordano Bruno, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Lessing, Lev Tolstoj,. Anna Arendt, Bertrand Russell, Gaetano Salvemini. Which of the two groups, irrespective of the quality of their message, appears to be more characterised by the sureness of the ethical superiority of their vision and the contextual necessity to impose it? Which, on the other hand, is more characterised by scepticism, respect and tolerance? It seems clear, if we free our minds from emotional fog, that the answer to the question “who is more similar, in terms of logic, to Christ and who to Pilate” holds great surprises for people that are not accustomed to reflection. This, obviously, does not concern the quality of the idea. It is well known, in fact, that Christ brings a message of love and brotherhood which is very different to the Hitler-esque delirium (which owes a lot to the Gospel of John…). The core of the argument does not lie in which ideas are supported, but in how they are supported. We can euphemistically say that the ideas that are supported with more “enthusiasm” are those which are considered to be dogma and, as such, cannot be proven in their claim of absolute truth. The greatest example is religious ideas, but also political ideologies. Moreover, demonstrable concepts do not require great effort to be imposed; the effort is needed to convince others only of that which cannot be proved, which then is, usually, the fact that we are better than them. In fact, Voltaire said, there are no sects in Geometry. Geometry is proven, transubstantiation is not.

2. Sympathy for the Devil

And I was ‘round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate

washed his hands and sealed his fate

The Rolling Stones (“Sympathy for the Devil”, 1969)

The devil, it is said, is the one who instils doubt. Yet from what is said, we can draw the conclusion that it is actually from this doubt that freedom and tolerance arise, namely from the awareness of the fallibility of human justice. Those who love freedom do not bring infallible ideas and ethical, religious, moral or political imperatives. Those who love freedom do not bring truth. Whoever becomes the bearer of absolute truths does not love freedom. In the way that science provides more information about what is not than what is, defining the on going state of knowledge as temporary truths, the lover of freedom does not say “this is true”, but, instead, like Bertrand Russell, says “I am inclined to believe that in the current circumstances, this is the best opinion”[4].  We are not speaking of that relativism that is promoted by the so-called postmodern thought. This denies the existence of objective reality and produces more damage than blind fideism. Reality exists. It is, however, difficult to grasp it in all its aspects and being sure of all our assertions on it. Here we are talking about the fallibility that comes from uncertainty to set against the certainty based on non-objective data.

   Returning to the comparison between monotheism and polytheism, which was illustrated by the example of Jesus and Pilate, while also extending it beyond narrow religious limitations, we can say that freedom is founded on polytheism of values. There are many assumptions tied up in this statement. The first, and most important, is that whoever dreams of a perfect society is a totalitarian. A perfect society, in fact, can be considered as such because it is based on irrefutable perfection, namely on the dogma surrounding the superiority of a certain social, ethical and economic order over another. It is, therefore, a form of monotheism. Even democracy, if it becomes the sacralisation of the will of the many, can become fanatical and dangerous for those who do not fall in line. It happened with the followers of Rousseau under Robespierre, but also in Cromwell’s England. Absolute faith in popular sovereignty makes popular sovereignty impossible. In the old Soviet Union, the maxims of Karl Marx were so indisputable as to contribute to the way that geneticists conceived the procedures for improving wheat production. Marx was truth. The messiah. Historical truth, on the other hand, tells us about the soviet agricultural disaster. Paul Claudel wrote “when man attempts to imagine paradise on earth for others, the immediate result is a very respectable hell”. Why? Because aspiring to supreme good is the desire that Paul Watzslavick defines as “ipersolution”, that being an action which is thought to have a salvific role, carried out by the most aware individuals and in the interests of “humanity that is as much in need of help as it is obtuse”[5]. The problem is that the best of all possible worlds is not absolute or objective, but subjective. Bringing the subjective to the collective entails the sacrifice of the individual for the whole, i.e. the blood and tears that Kelsen spoke about. Robert Nozick, in “Anarchy, State, Utopia”, compiles a list of names, including Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Allen Ginsburg, Thoreau, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Hefner, Henry Ford, Socrates, Lenny Bruce, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Colombo, Freud, Ayn Rand, Thomas Edison, Kropotkin and various others, as well as “you and your parents”[6]. After which he asks the reader to imagine that all these people live in any of the utopias imagined throughout the centuries. What would be the perfect society that would work for all these people that are so different? Would private property exist? Would there be religion? Which one? Different faiths? And what about marriage? Monogamous or polygamous? Nozick concludes saying “the idea that there is a composite response that is better that any other to all these questions, a society in which they can all live in the best way, seems incredible to me”[7]. This means that a society must establish itself as a ”framework for utopias”, i.e. “a place where people are free to voluntarily associate themselves to pursue and try to create their own vision of a beautiful life in an ideal community, but where no one can impose their own utopian vision on others”[8]. So, polytheism.

There are those that will think that what has been ascribed to utopias, namely intrinsic totalitarianism, is something that does not affect that which, by definition, is based on the fight against authority: anarchy. Nothing could be further from the truth. If, indeed, for anarchy we intend a new society that were to universalise the supreme good of freedom and were to statically structure itself as a place without conflict, the totalitarianism of the matter remains intact. In this meaning of anarchy, though, the overwhelming majority of people that define themselves as anarchist are not aware of the paradox, what Berdyaev wrote still holds true: “Any kind of confusion and identification of freedom with the good itself and perfection is equivalent to the negation of that freedom, recognising the way of violence and constraint. Good by any means necessary is no longer good, instead it degenerates into evil”[9]. The “good by any means necessary”, the imposed virtue, in fact, is more fitting for priests and messiahs. It is monotheism. We will call this concept “naïve anarchism”. More than one less-naïve anarchist realises this paradox. Thomas Ibanez is among these. He clearly describes the logical “short circuit”, a paradox into which the kind of libertarianism that intends to limit the infinite forms of existence to one falls. He writes: “from the instant that the need for freedom is placed as a fundamental value, any opinion that implies the need for less freedom is automatically and necessarily an option that is less “legitimate”[10]. In fact, we can do nothing other than label visions that use definitions like “anarchic communism”, “anarchic collectivism”, “anarchic primitivism” and other oxymorons, as naïve. Indeed, the adjective that is associated to anarchy, setting limits, in fact, reduces the likelihood of the complete manifestation of different options and it contradicts the underlying idea – that anarchy, in fact, has no limits of any kind. As Ibanez says, “wanting to be a theory centred around freedom, anarchy opens onto a culture that requires the support of everyone in order to exist and contests the legitimacy of everything that it is not”[11]. This monotheistic theory does not seem to give in to the devilish temptations of doubt. Others, like Faust, are more closely acquainted with the lord of darkness. Proudhon, for example. For the French man, any attempt to reduce a plurality to a singularity is a hostile act against freedom. Starting with contradictions. The synthesis of antinomian pairings is artificial or deadly or, in any case, the negation of freedom: “There is no resolution to antinomy. This is the fundamental vice of Hegel’s system”, he writes. So, “antinomian terms do not resolve themselves so much as destroy the opposite poles of an electric battery”[12]. Included in antonyms are the ones between private property and collective property, between socialisation and individualism. Another great of anarchic thinking and action, Errico Malatesta, even though he always defined himself as a “communist”, but in the fallibilist sense  described by Russell (that being a man “inclined to think that in the current circumstances this is probably the best opinion”), expressed himself in such a way so as to illustrate an approach that is anything but naïve. He wrote: “One may therefore prefer communism or individualism or collectivism or any other kind of imaginable system, and work with propaganda and example to the triumph of their aspirations; but one must look carefully, under the price of certain disaster, at stating that their system is the only infallible system, good for all people, everywhere and at all times, and they should achieve triumph with the persuasion that comes from evidence of facts instead”[13]. A matter worthy of Pontius Pilate, so close to empirical fallibilism and pluralism and so far from the ignorant fascism of anarchy’s many poor souls1.


[1] Kelsen, H., La democrazia, Il Mulino, Bologna, pg. 452

[2] The 16th verse of chapter 27 of the Gospel according to Matthew regarding Barabbas says:

He had been put in prison for a riot that broke out in the city and murder”

If we consider, instead, the Gospel of Mark (15,7) we find the expression:

“A man called Barabbas was in prison, together with the rebels that had committed a murder during the uprising”.

[3] Ibid, pg. 266

[4] Russell, B., Il mio pensiero, Newton Compton, Rome, 1997, pg. 473

[5] Watzslavick, P., Di bene in peggio, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1998

[6] Nozick, R., Anarchy, State, Utopia, Le Monnier, Florence, 1981, pg. 329

[7] Ibid, pg. 330

[8] Ibid

[9] Berdyaev, N., La concezione di Dostoevskij, Einaudi, Rome, 1945

[10] Ibanez, T., Questa idea si coniuga all’imperfetto, su “Volontà”, n. 3-4, 12/1996, pp. 271-279

[11] Ibid

[12] In Bancal, J., Proudhon, pluralisme et autogestion, Aubier, Paris, 1970, t. I, pp. 106 sgg., 112 sg.; t. II, pp. 45, 170

[13] Malatesta, E., Qualche considerazione sul regime della proprietà dopo la rivoluzione, in “Il Risveglio”, 30 November 1929

1The Italian for “poor soul ” is ” “povero Cristo” ( poor Christ ). In the original script that creates a play on words that it is impossible to render in English.

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