Pando in Dnipro

Denys Zhadiaiev. Photo courtesy Zhadiaiev.

Pando in Dnipro

By   |  May. 22, 2022

Note from John Cobb: This is an interview with Denys Zhadiaiev, a Ukrainian philosopher and process thinker who is a friend of Pando’s and whom several of us consider a personal friend. He offers a perspective of unfolding events from his own point of view as a resident of Dnipro, Ukraine, and as a professor of philosophy at the university there. 

I personally approach the war quite differently than he does. My own view is that Ukraine should make every effort to negotiate an end of hostilities as early as possible. The result would certainly not be what Ukraine would like, but the longer the war lasts, I fear the worse the situation will be. 

Pando is not a political organization, and we all think for ourselves. But I hope that peace may be restored as soon as possible.

Eugene Shirley: First off, Denys, thanks so much for agreeing to do this in the midst of everything that’s going on. I appreciate you finding the time to correspond while juggling everything that you are. Readers should know that you’ve been a friend of Pando’s from the early days — as a professional philosopher and resident of Dnipro, Ukraine. So let me start off by asking, how are you doing, and how is your family? 

Denys Zhadiaiev: Thank you, Eugene. I am fine. Here in Dnipro, we are much safer than in some other cities. We had several attacks in our city at midnight. Luckily, no casualties were reported. Emergency sirens go off every now and then, but it is still much more comfortable than in other parts of our planet.

What’s happening with you personally? 

It is an interesting experience of introspection. In philosophy, the most prominent ideas were thought out on the edge of life and death. It would be naïve to suppose that Socrates did not understand the danger he faced when he questioned the sources of politicians’ knowledge. The brilliant ideas of Kant and Hegel were developed when Germany was not that wealthy a country. Wittgenstein was writing his Tractatus on the battlefield.

A French friend of mine said that the danger of bombardment makes one’s mind focused. I think my experiences prove the opposite; after hearing the first explosions, your mind becomes distracted – you unwittingly pay attention to every noise. Was that a door slammed or another bomb dropped? Was that the wind starting to blow violently or the distant sound of a siren? Was it a truck approaching or the humming of bomber? The mind is distracted, but you understand the price of every minute. If I decide to postpone this interview for a week or month, nobody might ever read it because it might not have been written.

Personally, I did not and do not feel fear; this is very strange for me. I only ever felt fear as a student. It was clear that a politically-influenced education is not concerned with improving life for future generations (one of my teachers later admitted they were “required” to politically influence students, back in 2003-2008). That sort of influence, by definition, wants to maintain the order and avoid novelty. However, novelty arises naturally both from education and from new generations. That was what made me fear – political education that introduced double standards. “They” – the political authoritarians — expect you to work hard all your life. Yet, any success or recognition which does not maintain the order makes them unhappy. So, I came to the conclusion that learning a second foreign language presented my only chance to avoid living in the comfort of double standards. I think Alfred North Whitehead’s words here explain why. He says, “When words lose their meanings, force comes into power.” That logical controversy scared me more than imagining myself buried under tons of concrete. As strange as it may sound, fear for me was produced by authoritarian “order” and not by physical pain.

Are you still managing to teach? Or are you digging trenches?

I teach philosophy and other subjects at University (now online) for Ukrainian, Moroccan and Nigerian students. Sometimes, I teach students from the Middle East. My family, luckily, is outside Ukraine, and kind people have provided them with all of life’s necessities. Also, my wife already has received legal permission to work abroad.

When free from lecturing, I first help local volunteers with whatever they need. The rest of the time, I spend learning technical skills in audio engineering and communicating with my colleagues outside of Ukraine. We have a surplus of soldiers in the army. So, my local colleagues and I are advised to continue our work. It seems that contemporary war tactics do not require a large quantity of soldiers, but, rather, only some trained with proper knowledge and experience. 

Process thought emphasizes that we’re all radically connected. How does that basic intuition affect your view of the situation there?

An idea of interconnectedness is the answer to many puzzles of this globalized world. Ukraine is interconnected. It has leading positions for many natural resources: wheat, vegetables, metals, oil and natural gas, etc. It is interconnected because others need what we have, and we need what they have. 

Due to this interconnectedness, we do not fear our enemies. Kant explained that the more we are open, the more we are moral and the more we are free. In this context, morality implies communication and interconnection. 

It may sound illogical, but interconnectivity frees people from enemies. 

So you feel that interconnection “protects” you in some sense – and Ukraine in this context? 

Ukraine has no “true” enemies for two reasons: (1) it did not take more than it has given away and (2) it never has invaded other countries. You could say that those who kill Ukrainian civilians are not enemies of Ukrainians; they are enemies of common sense, of any idea of international law or logic. They even are enemies of their own people because it is naïve to think that, by violating the law, one can achieve peace. One must be fairly delusional to think that acting outside the principles of interconnection will lead to a happier, healthier and more bountiful life. 

Process thought also emphasizes the freedom embedded in every moment. Has the current situation led you to think more about freedom? About coercion?

I thought about that no less while reading Spinoza and other philosophers 15 years ago. What I see right now does not inspire new ideas. Rather, it tests conclusions I have previously made.

It cannot be a creative choice to take a weapon and come and kill another person. And yet living a life of creative choice is what being a human is all about.

Are you a pacifist? A nuclear pacifist? And does your experience now challenge you in this way?

To answer this question, we need first to define some terms. For instance, is there a boundary line between “pacifism” and “selfishness?” Does a fear to intervene and prevent violence actually imply that pacifism is but negative passiveness? Can pacifism assume the moral high ground if it means peaceful agreement with dictatorship?

In my view, true pacifism derives from the concept of interconnectedness. I call myself a pacifist, as I always concede to others provided that nobody suffers aside from myself. Is this a form of masochism? I don’t think so. Sometimes, it’s simply easier to show others they are wrong by conceding to them. 

In other cases, pacifism can mean selfishness. One can act passively for little reason beyond cowardice – and allow their “pacifism” to contribute to others’ suffering instead of relieving it. Furthermore, this second type of pacifism – what I call a “passive pacifism” – contributes to the misunderstanding of interconnectedness; it tells us not to intervene when necessary and, as such, actually supports those who do bad things.

Even so, passive behavior is what many philosophers have suggested as a solution in violent situations. And I agree with them 99% of the time. As John Locke beautifully put it: there is no reason to struggle with torment – your effort may actually contribute to its violent nature. It can be better to wait and keep calm; it’s a counter-intuitive strategy that can help that power exhaust itself. 

But – and this is what I was referring to earlier – there is 1% of the time where passive behavior is another justification for selfishness. What if one wishes to rob me but, in doing so, would take the money I need to buy my sister medication? Not resisting would hurt not only my sister but would contribute as well to the moral degradation of the robber. So there are situations where passive pacifism is unacceptable. In these, I would and will resist. 

Of course, this begs the question – to what extent? Shall I fight or kill? We all are equally creatures of nature and the universe. Killing distorts what I would call the cycles of satisfaction in the killer and in the victim. So I would rather resist by speaking to the enemy than acting in a forceful way. But I need to demonstrate at the very least that I do not accept their wrongdoing. In this way, pacifism is not at all necessarily passive.

Now, would I take a weapon to protect my country, or would I kill a human being? To answer that question, we have to properly specify terms. Can an enemy be considered a human being after he blatantly rapes and murders? Will I have the right to consider myself a human being if my passive behavior helps such a person succeed in what he wants? Please define “human being” first, and then I will provide you with an answer. 

But isn’t it dangerous to define someone as less than human because of their actions? Surely the genius of Jesus was to “love your enemies.” Don’t you think it’s dangerous to classify an enemy as “irremediably in-human”? Couldn’t that be used as further justification for war and the perpetuation of an awful cycle of dehumanization? 

This is not that easy of a question to answer, so please allow me to reply at some length. First, human behavior can change. So, any particular actions are not enough to deprive a person from the dignity to be generally called “human being.” But this is true only when we consider situations without ultimate, irreversible actions. In Ukraine, we are seeing such irreversible tragedies that it begs the question of how far to extend the notion of human dignity to the perpetrators.

Second, what Jesus said is true and good for one person: we should forgive our personal enemy and this helps people to disrupt that cycle of dehumanization. However, when it comes to our social lives and co-existence within society, Moses’ commandments of an eye for an eye take precedence. These are the social rules we need in place to coexist. Jesus, appealing to love, raises us beyond causal efficacy, beyond games we don’t want to be involved in, with their cycles of escalation, etc., etc. While Moses – with his quite different approach – helps us to respect each other. And Love and Respect, as a categories, are quite distinct.

To be called a “human being” is not something that refers physically to the human body only. Bare physiology is not what defines humanity. We should rise to the concept. Our humanity is not a given.

Denys Zhadiaiev with anti-tank Czech hedgehogs. Photo courtesy Zhadiaiev.

We may be looking down the barrel of WW3 and all that that entails. It’s a horrific prospect that would concentrate any philosopher’s mind. How does it concentrate yours, and what does it tell you in terms of next steps? Are you frightened?

Let me respond to your question with a question. Would you be frightened if somebody guaranteed you peace at the cost of killing one member of your family? Reflect for a moment on the fact that the Russian invaders of Ukraine promised they would not harm civilians but want to “get rid of” our government.

To be sure, such a sacrifice may seem mathematically justified. But family is not mathematics; neither is our coexistence. Even Immanuel Kant admitted that he has no answer to the question of whether it is morally justifiable to sacrifice the life of one to save many.

I agree with the opinion of the Russian oligarch Michail Khodorkovskiy, that global war may start or not, but potentially it can happen at any time. He remarks on a side of the Russian mentality that I know very well. If a European concedes to his or her opponent, they might consider that concession a chance to advance diplomacy. Russians, however, view concessions not as a long-term strategy, but as a personal loss. They consider them a chance to push forward to make other concessions until defeat. But the logic of wrongdoing is that once an error has been committed, it requires other errors. For instance, if you lied once, you should lie twice because otherwise the falsehood gradually becomes evident. I would call this a reverberation of the initial fallacy

If we build our future on the fear that somebody can always kill someone – or us – then we concede to the “law” of violence, blackmail and lies. What other appetites will the killer have next time, then? What makes him stop now if nothing can? How much will be enough for him? 

After all, philosophy and art would never emerge if we believe that physiological existence is the most important thing in this world. People in dire situations prefer risking death if it means creating a different future or, at least, to avoid a current, perverse reality they would be forced to accept. Socrates struck near to the point when he said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

How does any of this inform your ideas of building a sustainable future? Forgive me even for asking this when your primary concern surely is being physically safe and defending your country. But surely you reflect on what all this means in terms of building a future we want to inhabit. Tell me about that if you would. 

It is ok to ask me – thank you. Physical survival has no meaning if it is not directed to bettering the future of others. As I told you, physical existence may be what we most readily think we value, but human beings, in their normal state, are not limited only by physical existence. To put it bluntly – as being in the midst of invasion and war encourages me to do — you or I would not support someone who rapes or who kills just for sport. It is difficult to imagine we would be able to build a sustainable future on such principles or in league with such people. 

That is to say, we surely want to have a better future, but a better future is not possible when the fundamentals of international law are being violated. There is an inherent disconnect between authoritarianism and sustainability.

Process thinkers are often distinguished by having hope when it is in short supply. Do you still have hope? What do you hope for? How far out does your hope extend, or is it just a day-by-day hope?

Yes, Eugene, I have been hopeful from the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022, when we got messages at 6:00 a.m. that nobody should go to the workplace.

But in another respect, it’s not so much hope that I have as it is a priori knowledge. Despite all the prevalence of obvious evil in the past, humanity still has managed to survive. Of course, however, just because you saw the sun rising for many days in the past doesn’t prove necessarily it will rise tomorrow.

History shows us that when someone starts with the desire to be superior, he surrounds himself only with those who are inferior to him. I’m talking about the Russian president, but not only of him. In the long run, it means he is surrounded by less intelligent people. Corruption ensues at a large scale. But corruption eventually brings about collapse.

We’ve seen this happen with the invaders, where it appears that possibly stolen fuel through a corrupt military has resulted in not enough hours of pilot training. Broken tanks have been found with stolen or outdated equipment. It is reasonable to assume that corruption on this scale results in much distrust and contempt in these circles. It is knowledge of these facts that helps to keep me from despair.

My hope is that at the end of the day, we will understand the truth once spoken by Johann Gottfried von Herder, a German philosopher, who said that any power must perform its primary duty – which is to teach citizens how to live without power. Once it is done, the people in power can retire.

Whitehead put it that influence is more fundamental than power – coercive power. I think this is striking close to your point.

Sure. He also used, in my view, the more careful English word – persuasion – in his later works (1933). It might sound naïve, but persuasion in opposition to force is my hope. Otherwise, we humans cannot be compared to the animal world – our existence is less justifiable than that of animals on the global scale.

I know that you and John Cobb, the dean of process philosophers, have been corresponding quite a bit since the start of the war and have some different views – which John refers to in his note at the start of this piece. Do you have any final comment?

It is okay to have a note from dear John Cobb. I say this for two reasons. First, speaking both for myself personally and for Ukraine, we want the same that he wants – peace above all. And second, by the dual facts of there being formal disagreement between us and the publication of this interview, we all benefit from the democratic principles of the United States. This basic freedom is what is impossible in authoritarian countries, and it names the quest that lies at the heart of Ukrainians’ fierce determination.

Eugene Shirley is founding president and CEO of Pando Populus and a long-time social impact entrepreneur.