Saturday, September 13, 2014

L.L. Zamenhof was not naive

Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof, creator of the Esperanto language, dedicated his life to the idea of ending inter-ethnic conflict. To speakers of Esperanto (or at least to me), he's a hero. First and foremost, he's a hero to Esperanto speakers in the same way that George Lucas is to Star Wars fans, and J.S. Bach is to people who enjoy pipe organ music: he created magnificent works of art (the language, along with his translations and original writings) that continue to bring us a lot of joy. It's not an exaggeration to say that the reason Esperanto succeeded in becoming a language spoken by tens of thousands of people (or whatever the number is) all over the world was Zamenhof's stubbornness and tenacity in promoting the language and creating, from the ground up, a literature for the language. Unlike the creators of other artificial languages, Zamenhof created not only a grammar and dictionary, but powerfully demonstrated that the language was suitable even for great works of literature by translating, among many other works, examples of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and eventually even the entire Old Testament of the Bible. Zamenhof's early works and translations were able to serve as stylistic examples to other authors and translators, and the body of Esperanto literature snowballed, and became self sustaining.

Zamenhof is also a hero because of his dauntless dedication to promoting friendship and understanding among the peoples of the world. Merely creating a language and attracting a large, stable international community of speakers was not Zamenhof's ultimate goal, nor the goal that fueled his frantic efforts to promote Esperanto. Zamenhof wanted to forever end inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict. He wanted people to see themselves as a part of a family with the whole of humanity, for war against a foreign country to seem as bizarre and unnatural as war against a neighbor or family member. This was the passion that drove him to dedicate countless hours to creating and promoting Esperanto. His hope was that if people could more easily communicate with each other, it would be easier for them to empathize with each other. But Esperanto was only one part of a much larger plan. Zamenhof also promoted a philosophical framework which he originally called Hillelism, after the Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder who was a strong proponent of the "golden rule" which Hillel stated as "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow". Zamenhof meticulously explained and justified Hillelism in a 78 page brochure in 1901. It was a complex proposal, but the essence of Hillelism was simple: "love your neighbor and treat others as you would want to be treated, and never do openly or secretly, those actions which your internal voice tells you are not pleasing to God" (Mi Estas Homo, pg. 69, my translation). The rest of the proposal consists of a scheme for disseminating and popularizing that simple idea, and an attempt to convince readers to participate in that scheme.

Hillelism never gained traction, but up until the end of his life in 1917, Zamenhof continued to refine and promote the idea. In around 1906, he renamed it "Homaranism" an Esperanto word meaning "the doctrine of being a member of humanity treated as unified whole." Zamenhof published iterations of Homaranism in 1906, 1913, and 1917 (I have translated the 1917 version into English). Repacking it and marketing it to various groups, trying to get it to stick, first to the Jews, then to the Esperantists, then to the Free Thinkers, and finally just to anybody who would listen. Zamenhof persevered in his efforts even while World War One was killing his friends, devastating his Polish homeland, and fracturing the Esperanto community; even while his health was failing after a heart attack in 1914.

Zamenhof has often been criticized as naive, even by members of the Esperanto community. Did he really think he could convince people to follow his philosophical program? Did he really think that widespread acceptance of the simple ideas of Homaranism would eliminate ethnic and religious conflict? There is not much evidence of obvious self-doubt in his letters (at least the ones collected in "Mi Estas Homo"), but the fact that he kept revising the proposal is evidence that he never viewed it as a perfect completed product, and after nearly 20 years of failing to attract any adherents it is inconceivable to think that Zamenhof did not realize he was fighting a losing battle. Rather than assuming that he persisted because he was a naive utopian who couldn't see the hopelessness of his position, I think it is a much more interesting line of inquiry to apply the Principle of Charity and ask "Why would Zamenhof persist despite being fully aware of how unlikely it was that his philosophical ideas would attract a following, or reduce conflict in the world?"

I think the answer is not that Zamenhof was naive, but that he was desperate. Zamenhof was a Jew from the ghetto and first hand witness to the violence and suffering engendered by racism and inter-ethnic conflict. He lived through the pogroms of late 19th and early 20th century, and through the destruction of his home town in the First World War. It is hard to believe that someone who was forced to watch helplessly the destruction of his community not just once, but multiple times over several decades, would have been foolish enough to think that there are easy answers to humanity's most difficult problems. It seems to me more likely that he saw what he considered to be the worst problem in the world, and felt an obligation to do whatever he could to find and implement a remedy for that problem, even though he realized his plans weren't perfect and his chances for success were slim. To have moral courage is to fight a battle you know you're going to lose, simply because it is the right battle to fight. Zamenhof's continued revision and promotion of Homaranism demonstrated moral courage, not naivety.

Zamenhof's struggle has been the struggle of idealists probably since the beginning of humanity: Why won't people just be nice to each other? Confucius taught it, Jesus taught it, Buddha taught it, Hillel taught it, Tolstoy taught it, Gandhi taught it, and so did countless other unknown or now-forgotten thinkers. But still today, it doesn't seem to have taken root in a big way in world culture. Zamenhof's fight to end ethnic and religious conflict is as relevant to the 21st century as it was to the 20th. Perhaps his ideas can still offer us useful insights on how to carry on that fight. In the next post, I present an English translation of Zamenhof's final (1917) version of Homaranism.

References and further reading:
L.L Zamenhof. 2006. Mi Estas Homo. Compiled and Edited by Aleksander Korjenkov. Kalingrad: Sezonoj

A Korzhenkov. Zamenhof: the life, works and ideas of the author of Esperanto. Translated by Ian M. Richmond
Article by Esther Schor. Really a fantastic article. I can't wait to read her book when it comes out.
Another great article by Esther Schor.
Another blog briefly discussing Homaranism

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