(urth) Necromancy, and Severian on trial

maru marudubshinki at gmail.com
Tue Mar 22 17:22:46 PST 2005

Chris wrote:

> The potential for nastyness you point out is a possibility that arises 
> for any moral system that tries to be "objective" (and both 
> utilitarianism and duty-based ethics do this); the main difference 
> will just be the rhetoric employed. ("Fret not, citizens, sometimes 
> individuals like yourselves must be sacrificed for the good of the 
> state.") It's sort of an inherent risk, because the claim that morals 
> are objective puts them somehow "out there" in the world rather than 
> "in here" with your conscience; it implies that if an authority figure 
> sees a particular action as right, and your culture approves that 
> judgment, then if you see things differently you must simply be 
> mistaken, your dissenting view is not likely to be respected.
Yes, but if you are using an objective system, you can fight back 
easily; science strives for objectivity, and generally bows to who has 
better data and explanations, not who is spouting the rhetoric.  What 
about when you have subjective systems? There you are denied even that 
bare chance of making a rational case against the current sub-goals.

> ...
> Now, to drag this whole deal into something that's slightly more 
> on-topic:
> This has been done to death from certain perspectives, but I am 
> interested in the reasons *why* we let Severian off as lightly as we 
> generally do. The guy is a mass-murderer. In bringing the New Sun, he 
> willfully killed more innocent people than Hitler. Yet, even if we're 
> inclined to say that we don't "approve" of Severian or his actions in 
> various ways, we generally don't talk about him in a way that really 
> takes this very seriously.
> Looking at it from a results-oriented perspective (utilitarianism, if 
> you like, but any such perspective will do) his actions are not only 
> justified, they are unproblematic. A "moral jury" of utilitarians 
> would, in theory, not just find Severian "not guilty" of any 
> wrongdoing - they would dismiss the case out of hand, Severian need 
> feel no remorse because he did precisely the right thing. And yet most 
> of us would intuitively say that to contemplate killing an entire 
> world without so much as batting an eyelash is deeply psychopathic.
Not just unproblematic, but commendable. Severian _could_ have refused, 
and doomed the Urthians to their previous doom, but he did not, he took 
that cross on himself.  The situation is analogous to a doomed terminal 
dying patient (say, a 110 year old man), who somehow has multiple livers 
in perfect shape (bear with me), and if you, the doctor will take that 
burden on yourself, you can slice out those livers and give them to a 
bunch of other people who are about to perish of not-having-liver-ness, 
thus saving say a dozen lives while hastening another out the door.

> Finding some kind of rule or duty that would justify Severian's action 
> is a little more difficult, but possible. Such a perspective is a 
> little more intuitive... Severian broke an important rule (and should 
> feel bad about that), but only to avoid breaking an even more 
> important rule (which thus excuses him from punishment/sanction). In 
> such a case the moral court might find Severian technically guilty, 
> but pronounce no sentence. And yet, aren't we still taking what 
> Severian did a little too lightly?
Well, we could take as a duty 'maximize life and happiness', but I don't 
think that's what you are getting at.

> Severian's defense is that the old world had to be destroyed to make 
> way for the new; the rebirth of the planet/race unfortunately requires 
> the death of the old. But isn't this precisely the rhetoric used by 
> tyrants and demagogues to justify horrific crimes? The old degenerate 
> society, they say, needs to die in order to bring about a rebirth, a 
> new order. Their vision of a new utopia - perhaps advanced perfectly 
> sincerely - requires a sacrifice, a cleansing of the old ways: blood 
> and fire. Thinking of it this way are we likely to condone a 
> modern-day Severian who comes to us claiming that we all need to die 
> to bring about some future paradise? When we bring it closer to home, 
> without the benefit of hindsight (knowing that it will, after all, 
> work out for the best in the end), what we see is the case of one man 
> who takes the lives of billions in his hands based on his own notion 
> of what needs to be done - and this is a person who freely admits that 
> he's not even sure if he's sane any more.
The difference is: Severian's plan /worked/.  All the credit, all the 
Another thing: Severian is the rightful autarch of Urth; as a 
feudal/fascist ruler, he claims
ultimate authority over his subjects.  No wonder he wouldn't worry 
whether he should do it or not.

> So a third perspective here is to find Severian guilty and hold him 
> fully accountable; he should be punished for his horrific crimes, and 
> certainly not looked on with approval. Note that this doesn't preclude 
> us for having some sympathy/understanding for the character: Severian 
> was perhaps acting on a deeply felt conviction, a religious or 
> spiritual principle rather than an ethical one. If so then perhaps (if 
> his religious impulse was correct) he will be vindicated in a Higher 
> Court, but as for this world, we can only look upon the man with horror.
> I think that variations of these three ways of looking at things 
> probably cover most of the ways we would tend to treat a human being 
> who had done what Severian did. But I don't think that any of them 
> quite match the actual reaction most of us have to Severian's 
> character. I think that we ultimately exempt him from deep judgment 
> because, in some way, we don't feel that he *could* have done 
> otherwise. And you can only blame someone for doing something if they 
> actually have a choice.
> We get this impression that Severian has no free will in this 
> particular matter, it seems, from the fact that the narrator displays 
> a singular lack of doubt about what he's doing (and yet, does not come 
> off as a fanatic either). The narrator speaks as if under the 
> assumption that the reader could not possibly even doubt the rightness 
> of this action, it simply can't be questioned. This much may seem 
> trivially obvious, I don't know, but I am leading up to a general 
> question about just how we should take this.
Or as if in a dream, or drugged.  It could be that as Autarch, he has 
already been judged or advised so many times, by people so far above the 
norm in intelligence, knowledge, and experience that he doesn't give a 
flip about what the reader may think, he stands with the giants, and 
their appraisal is what matters.

> One way to look at it is that Severian, as an author, is deliberately 
> using this literary device to attempt to keep us from asking him to 
> justify his actions (presumably because he can't). Nobody seems to 
> really want to treat the book and the character as if this is all 
> there is to it, though. So what is *Wolfe* trying to do? It would seem 
> uncharacteristic of him to be making a veiled attack on the notion of 
> free will. At least not as it applies to humans. Is the answer just 
> that we intuitively accept that Severian, as the Conciliator, *isn't* 
> human? To a certain extent it is easy for us to see him as a sort of 
> cog in the celestial machine, a sort of angel (like Tzadkiel) with his 
> own destined role to play, and this is prepared for us quite early on, 
> in the passages about Talos's play. But it seems to me that this can't 
> be all there is to it, because in every other way we *do* accept 
> Severian as human. This paints a very strange picture. Are we to think 
> of Severian as a man or not? And if we do think of him as a man, what 
> sort of strange view of free will are we embracing in doing so?
> '

I do not think the dual 'heavenly-New-Sun-with-no-real-free-will' and 
'human-Severian' is much of a problem; at least it wasn't for most of
Christinaity, and their human portion was not even a torturer but a 

> Apologies for the long-windedness, but to make up for it I will try to 
> sit down and be quiet now.
> -- Civet
Perhaps I should follow the cat's xample..

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