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Coetzee and moral principles

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 19 December 2016

There are times during reading in which a statement or observation is made that leaps off the page and infects the mind. This happens when something is written that goes against the prevailing view but which is obviously true. These are statements that disassemble current orthodoxy and promise a new and truer view.

I discovered one such statement in Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello that is subtitled "Eight Lessons". The book follows a time-honoured method in philosophy in which characters are inserted into a narrative framework from which philosophical ideas emerge. It is not so much a novel but a series of lectures. This method avoids arid philosophical discourse and gives the ideas a human face. Coetzee thus avoids abstraction and embodies his ideas in fictional characters.

The principle character in this novel is Elisabeth Costello an Australian novelist. I will focus on Lesson three "The Lives of Animals" in which she argues against the wholesale slaughter of animals for food.


In Lives she debates with academics about her views on animals and at a dinner held in her honour the president of the college, in an attempt to get the conversation onto safer ground, asserts that her vegetarianism is the result of moral conviction. Her answer is galvanising: "No, I don't think so. It comes out of a desire to save my soul." The answer brings silence only broken by the clink of plates.

We can speculate about that silence. Did her hearers think she was espousing the beliefs prevalent in the Medieval Church, or was she an adherent of modern Christian fundamentalism, both of which were and are concerned with our destiny after death? Thus a desire to save ones soul refers to the desire to go to heaven. Our destiny, of course, is linked to our actions in this life.

I would suggest that such a construction does not represent what Elizabeth intends when she talks about the desire to save her soul.

The first part of her answer is a rejection of ethics as a rationally derived set of principles by which one lives. Any reader of Stanley Hauerwas would recognise this. The project of a rationally derived ethical system has been shown to be a fantasy. Not only does it presume that such a universal system could be formulated, it also presumes that people could act according to such formulations.

Any attempt to live thus would be inhuman because ethical formulations would become a barrier to real intimate human interactions. This is why St Paul had such a problem with the law. He saw slavish obedience to the law as an obstacle to Christian community.

Elizabeth Costello's answer to the president is an example of how Coetzee favours the embodied over the abstract. There is nothing more abstract than ethical principles.


To talk about saving ones soul in an academic situation is asking for trouble, the trouble that results in speechlessness and embarrassment because the humanities in our universities have become so secularised that such a statement is met with derision. But what could be more central to the concern of the humanities than the desire to save one's soul?

Notice that she does not say that she wants to save her soul by rationally sorting out a system of ethics. She desires to save her soul; desire is embodied. This is an argument for embodiment and against reason. To say this in an academic setting is to invite bewilderment.

We need at this point to abandon any idea of body/soul dualism and understand humanity as being ensouled bodies. The soul is the essence of the person, the psyche, the consciousness of living.

What she means is that she does not want to act in a way that would damage her self by creating regret and self-accusation. Such elements in our mental life fragment who we are because we are a war with ourselves. We lose our peace. We all know what soul damage is. We discover it when all of our excuses and explanations fall apart and we are confronted by a view of ourselves that we would rather do without. We are all defended against this view and this cripples us as human beings.

To save ones soul is to avoid acts that one will later regret and to act in ways that give a semblance of being truly human as Christ was truly human.

Veterans from armed conflict know what having a damaged soul is like. They are forced into situations in which they have to kill strangers. The medicalization of these phenomena as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hides the fact that killing a human being damages ones soul. Traditionally, such people sought a priest or curate, to cure their souls through the rite of confession and absolution.

Elizabeth Costello will not eat meat because she has come to believe that the wholesale slaughter of animals is a crime against them. As such she has become a stranger and an alien even within her own family and especially in the scholastic community that would claim her as its own.

She likens the slaughterhouses that surround any town or city to the highly efficient Nazi death camps located in various parts of Germany and Poland. She patiently argues against Aquinas and Descartes who state that animals do not have souls and that their deaths are insignificant.

You can see that she is on dangerous ground here and not only in the groves of academe. She brings into question whole industries and ways of living. For example, she argues that we can only kill animals for meat because we have failed to realise the fullness of the lives they live. We can only kill them by reducing them to unfeeling machines.

For example, what do we do to the jaguar when we capture it and place it in a cage in the zoo? How much of the jaguar do we have when we have eliminated what is so essential and beautiful in the animal: its ability to hunt, to move seamlessly through bush and to reach great speeds in an instant?

All animals live complex lives that are largely hidden from us. Neuroscientists and animal learning specialists have not the slightest clue where animal behaviour comes from apart from some Darwinian hand waving. While animals may not have consciousness of their own death they must have consciousness of a kind that enables them to interact in complex ways with each other and their environment that we have no way of investigating.

Elizabeth arrives at these conclusions by rejecting abstract, supposedly rational, thought. In doing so she opposes the central concern of the Enlightenment in which reason is the pinnacle of Being. Instead, she ops for a way of knowing for which embodiment is central. Instead of reducing the lives of animals to insignificance she observes the richness in them, the joy they portray.

In the last chapter At the Gate she finds herself in a netherworld in which she has to apply to enter a gate, obviously the gate to paradise. To enter this gate she has to apply to a panel of judges who insist that she write an account of what she believes. She protests that as a writer and thus "a secretary to the invisible" she is bound to report on revelation. She insists that belief would be an obstacle to her vocation and she has none. The judges find this inadequate and it appears that she is suspended, not being able to go forward through the gate or backwards to her life.

This reminds me very much of Christian embodiment in which we are not so much invited to believe in certain things, to be able to say the creed without crossing our fingers behind our back, but to be part of the body of Christ, the Church. Thus, like Elizabeth, Christians do not have principles, they are not expected to be motivated by deep convictions. They too are secretaries of the invisible for which belief gets in the way. While reciting the creeds in Church has its point, they are rather a guide to the boundaries of faith rather than faith itself.

We do not necessarily have to be as concerned with killing animals as Elizabeth is but what must concern us all is the blindness to the wonder of the world that reason, in its habit of reduction, ushers in. This is the kind of blindness that afflicted those who lived near the Nazis camps. They thought that their senses were deceiving them. They made excuses for not seeing. Elizabeth points to the slaughter yards dotted all around our country and insists that we see what is done in our name to animals who have real lives.

Coetzee has attached, without explanation, an extract from a work by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, written in 1902. You may read the whole piece here. It purports to be a letter from Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon and it is an account of how a successful and fertile writer is struck dumb by revelations of nature.

"In those days I, in a state of continuous in­toxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit: the spiritual and physical worlds seemed to form no contrast, as little as did courtly and bestial conduct, art and barbarism, solitude and society; in everything I felt the presence of Nature, in the aberrations of insanity as much as in the utmost refinement of the Spanish ceremonial; in the boorishness of young peasants no less than in the most delicate of allegories; and in all expressions of Nature I felt my-self."

This is followed by a Postscript written by Coetzee entitled Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon and dated 11th Sept, AD 1603 in which she pleads him to save her and her husband from states of apprehension that are ill suited to them. She pleads for a distracted husband and admits that even she has experienced raptures and protests; "we are not made for revelation". She names this time for her and her husband "A time of affliction". No words can account for their state, "not Latin nor English, nor Spanish nor Italian will bear the words of my revelation."

Coetzee is drawing a point here. Lord Chandos experiences the world as does Elizabeth Costello, as revelation, revelation that alienates them from the rational world and it is a torment to them.

The parallels to Christ are obvious. His seeing of the world was so disruptive of our everyday seeing that he had to be eliminated.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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