The Moral Imperative to Look, and the Site of Looking

Reading Augustine’s story of Alypius just before reading Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag raises several rather fruitful questions, two of which we find particularly interesting: first, how have the ethics of witnessing violence changed since the 4th century, and second, how does Alypius’ experience fit in with Sontag’s conception of the three basic viewpoints from which one can relate to violence?

Though Alypius recognizes the moral dangers of viewing violence, which we know from the description of his attempts to shield himself from the horrors of a gladiator fight by covering his eyes (Augustine-Alypius, 121), it is first through the moral judgement of St. Augustine, who posits himself morally and intellectually superior to Alypius, that we come to understand the act of viewing violence as immoral. St. Augustine says, “But I had formed some estimate of his deadly attachment to the games, and took it sorely, since he seemed about to destroy his prospects, if he had not already done so. But I had no standing, from a friend’s good wishes or a teacher’s authority, to admonish or put pressure on him to change his ways.” (Augustine-Alypius 119). So, seeing the deadly games as having the power to destroy the future prospects and perhaps moral compass of a human being, St. Augustine fears for his friend Alypius. If St. Augustine were to somehow get his hands on Regarding the Pain of Others written by Susan Sontag in 2003, he would find a much more complicated and nuanced understanding of viewing violent acts. As a matter of fact, the moral codes concerning exposure to violence to which St. Augustine and his contemporaries held themselves would be entirely impractical and laughably idealistic now; because of our constant exposure to images in the modern era via television, film, and social media (which I wish Sontag were still alive to analyze), it is not feasible to avoid exposure to violence. Even if it were possible to avoid the pervasive images and instances of violence in the modern world, Sontag argues that doing so might actually be immoral, which is literally the opposite of what St. Augustine advocated for in the 4th century. The necessity of looking at violence seems to be twofold; first, and most basically, engaging with violent images is necessary to remind oneself of what human beings are capable of doing to one another, “Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.” (Sontag, 115)

So, at the very least, modern humans should be exposed to images of violence as a way to remember that incredible evil between human beings exists, whether our realities reflect this or not. Sontag offers another, more subtle reason for the necessity of exposure to violence, and this comes in the form of claiming responsibility, usually in a collective manner. Speaking of inappropriate emotional responses to violent images especially concerning the phenomenon of western spectators of “foreign” violence, Sontag says, “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response.” (Sontag, 102). So, we find that, between St. Augustine’s time and the present, the morality of viewing violence has changed, has become much more complicated, and has even become necessary as a sort of personal and collective responsibility.

Arriving at our second question about how Alypius might fit into Sontag’s conceptions of violence as viewed by the end consumer (the public consuming violent images via films, news, and television), the “middleman” (the photographer at the scene of violence, risking their lives to document but not themselves perpetrating violence), and those inflicting violence or being afflicted by it, it is quite interesting to think about the inability to place Alypius into any of these categories neatly. Though Sontag roughly tracks these three distinct relationships to violence throughout her book, they become most explicit on the final pages of the book where Sontag describes the general public’s inability (in wealthy nations who have avoided war on their own soil) to understand the experiences of anyone directly involved in, or affected by, war. Because this question is not central to our larger findings and is meant to provoke readers of this post to further thought, it suffices to say that placing Alypius as a certain kind of witness to violence is difficult, and possibly pointless, but perhaps this question might spark an interesting conversation. Alypius doesn’t fit cleanly into the mold of the end consumer because his experience of violence is more direct; he is imbibing, with his own senses, a gladiator fight. From his position, he could certainly see and hear the violence, and possibly could even associate a scent with it after the fact; all of this makes him a closer acquaintance to violence than one who merely studies a photograph. Alypius cannot really be the middleman either, as he can certainly relate gory details of the gladiator fight to others, but he has not the authoritative accuracy of a photograph nor was he placed in any real danger when mentally recording the fight, as journalists are when recording war. Finally, Alypius was obviously not the one inflicting violence, nor was he the person upon which violence was being afflicted, although in a more modern sense he could be held partially responsible for the gruesome act unfolding before him, inasmuch as any of the spectators which made the sport feasible in the first place could be held responsible.

(Group 6)

Works Cited

Augustine, St., et al. Confessions. Éditions Points, 2018.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.

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