Killing a Chinese Mandarin  

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"It is just, though forbidden, to bury Polynices, as being naturally just": these words, in Aristotle's view, implied the supremacy of general laws over particular laws, of allegiance towards humankind over allegiance towards a particular community, of distance over closeness. But as Aristotle himself remarked, both distance and closeness are ambivalent concepts; moreover, they are submitted to temporal and spatial constraints. As we have seen, distance, if pushed to an extreme, can generate a total lack of compassion for our fellow humans. We may ask, How can we trace the boundary between distance and extreme distance? Or, to put it in another way, What are the historical limits of an alleged natural passion such as human compassion?" --"Killing a Chinese Mandarin"

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance"[1] is an essay by Carlo Ginzburg on social distance and the metaphor of the Mandarin button. It was first published in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994) and later collected in Wooden Eyes.


The text references Aristotle's Rhetoric and Diderot's: "Conversation of a Father with his Children".

He cites Franco Venturi who said that Sade's comments on man [below] in Philosophy in the Bedroom would have been impossible without Diderot's Letter on the Blind [below].

"Quelle différence y a-t-il pour un aveugle, entre un homme qui urine et un homme qui, sans se plaindre, verse son sang?" --Diderot
"Qu’est-ce que l’homme, et quelle différence y a-t-il entre lui et les autres plantes, entre lui et tous les autres animaux de la nature ? Aucune assurément. Fortuitement placé, comme elles, sur ce globe, il est né comme elles, il se propage, croît et décroît comme elles ; il arrive comme elles à la vieillesse et tombe comme elles dans le néant, après le terme que la nature assigne à chaque espèce d’animaux, en raison de la construction de ses organes. Si les rapprochements sont tellement exacts, qu’il devienne absolument impossible à l’œil examinateur du philosophe d’apercevoir aucune dissemblance, il y aura donc alors tout autant de mal à tuer un animal qu’un homme, ou tout aussi peu à l’un qu’à l’autre, et dans les préjugés de notre orgueil se trouvera seulement la distance, mais rien n’est malheureusement absurde comme les préjugés de l’orgueil." --Sade

The text mentions text by Charles de Pougens on Sade, labelling him the "extreme but logical outcome of the Enlightenment".

On anterior research into the mandarin button:

"The connection between Balzac and Chateaubriand was first pointed out by Paul Ronal, "'Tuer le mandarin,"' Revue de littérature comparée 10, no. 3 (1930): 520-23. Notwithstanding its subtitle, the essay by Laurence W. Keates, "Mysterious Miraculous Mandarin: Origins, Literary Paternity, Implications in Ethics," Revue de littirature comparee 40, no. 4 (1966): 497-525, does not deal with the eighteenth-century precedents. The relevance of the two Diderot passages for the later developments of the theme is rejected by Antonio Coimbra Martins, "O mandarim assassinado," Ensaios Queirosianos: "0 mandarim assassinado,""0 incesto d"os maias,' imitagdo capital" (Lisbon, 1967), pp. 27-28. See also Raymond Trousson, Balzac, disciple et juge dejean-Jacques Rousseau (Geneva, 1983), p. 243 n. 11"

Another antecedent: Modeste Mignon.

Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men

David Hume in a section of his Treatise of Human Nature entitled "Of Contiguity and Distance in Space and Time":

"We find in common life, that men are principally concern'd about those objects, which are not much remov'd either in space or time, enjoying the present, and leaving what is afar off to the care of chance and fortune. Talk to a man of his condition thirty years hence, and he will not regard you. Speak of what is to happen tomorrow, and he will lend you attention. The breaking of a mirror gives us more concern when at home, than the burning of a house, when abroad, and some hundred leagues distant." [THN, pp. 475-76 (2.3.7)]

"Theses on the Philosophy of History" written by Walter Benjamin:

"Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins."

Benjamin cites Hermann Lotze: "One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future."'

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