Is it ever right to betray?
David J Goldberg is frustrated by a promising study. Amanda Craig muse son misanthropy On Betrayal
Harvard University Press, £19.95 Reviewed by David J Goldberg
AVISHAI MARGALIT is a distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy at the Hebrew University and a former faculty member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Over a long career, he has garnered a host of academic awards and admiring peer recognition, wears his wide-ranging erudition lightly, writes with fluent elegance, and is the author of several important works in the field of analytical philosophy. This, alas, is not one of them.
Formerly, philosophers affected what Bertrand Russell dubbed “the lordly style”, as though they were participating in an elite Platonic Symposium. Nowadays, they disarm the general reader by adopting a conversational tone, to show they are not eggheads but one of us. On Betrayal falls into that category. Margalit slices the subject of betrayal into several thin sub-sections, presents his arguments wittily and aphoristically, and blends eclectic examples from the Bible, history and personal memoir in order to examine “thick”ties of loyalty between members of the same family or ethnic group and “thin” relations between, say, employees of a global mega-corporation, or strangers bound together in a society based on civic nationalism.
But the trouble with analytical philosophy is that its constant sharpening of Occam’ s Razor becomes boring if one
never actually gets around to cutting. As Marion Adams, a friend of Henry James, famously said about The Master, “He chewed more than he bit off”.
An exhaustive survey of many types of betrayal from adultery to treason to
apostasy yields the distinctly bathetic conclusion that, “if betrayal is the price we pay for the type of concealment necessary for civilised life, then it is a price worth paying.”
As compensation, there is an acute- ly original assessment of the Dreyfus Affair and a brilliant chapter on Josephus and collaboration generally; but I won’t be the only reader to turn with heightened curiosity to the section on adultery, only to find it dully unimaginative. Adultery is all about the emotions and therefore is not amenable to dispassionate Reason.
In his opening chapter, Margalit tells the story of Uri Ilan, a kibbutznik paratrooper. In 1954, he and his squad were captured inside Syrian territory and subjected to barbaric torture. Ilan committed suicide in jail.
When his body was delivered back to Israel, it was found that he had written on scraps of paper hidden between his toes: “I didn’t betray. I committed suicide.” At his funeral, chief of staff Moshe Dayan only quoted “I didn’t betray”, because suicide went against the ethos of the Israeli army.
Elsewhere, Margalit passingly considers EM Forster’ s notorious statement that, if he had to choose between betraying a friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country.
Perhaps if Margalit had used these two starting points to expand on the moral and philosophical implications of betrayal in all its complexity, we would have been treated to a “thick” dissection, rather than the disappointingly “thin” slices we are served up.
He slices the subject into several thin sub sections
Margalit: witty, aphoristic and conversational style of philosophical analysis