Does Betrayal Still Matter?

On Betrayal

by Avishai Margalit
Harvard University Press, 332 pp., $26.95


Years ago, in his book The Ethics of Memory (2002), Avishai Margalit described two different kinds of philosophers: “i.e. philosophers,” who are committed to definitions and distinctions, and “e.g. philosophers,” who are committed to examples and illustrations. This is a more fruitful distinction than the standard one between Anglo-American and Continental philosophy: i.e. philosophers are indeed likely to be Anglo-American, but e.g. crosses all geographical boundaries.

Dominique Nabokov
Avishai Margalit, Berlin, 2012

Margalit is very good at i.e.-ing (as this distinction, and many others, demonstrate), but he is fundamentally an e.g. philosopher. For one thing, he doesn’t use “stylized” hypotheticals (the trolley problem, the fat man on the bridge) to advance his arguments; instead, he argues through stories taken from history, literature, and his own life. But the e.g. preference doesn’t have to do only with method; it also shapes the content of Margalit’s books. He is immensely learned and analytically skillful, but he writes about what I think of as down-home topics. He is a philosopher indeed, though none of his subjects are common in the literature of academic philosophy.

His last book before On Betrayal was On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (2010), which focused on examples like the compromise on slavery that made the ratification of the US Constitution possible, the Munich Agreement, and the return of Russian prisoners of war to Stalin’s Soviet Union after World War II. The book before that was The Ethics of Memory. Based on lectures first delivered in Germany, it included a discussion of how Germans should and should not remember the Holocaust. Before that, The Decent Society (1996) described the indecency of humiliation and cruelty and provided a radical alternative to standard philosophical descriptions of the just society.

Justice is a highly abstract concept in philosophical treatises. Humiliation and cruelty in Margalit’s hands are the very opposite: read his examples and feel the indecency. His first book, Idolatry (1992), written with Moshe Halbertal, is about forms of idol worship from theology to politics. The first chapter, “Idolatry and Betrayal,” anticipates his newest book, which is about the experience of betraying and being betrayed: he writes about adultery, apostasy, and treason.

The range of Margalit’s examples is astonishing, and since it is central to his overall philosophy, I want to illustrate it. Here is a list of the events, people, and books that he mentions (some of them briefly, some discussed at length) between pages 85 and 141 of On Betrayal: the Donatists in North Africa in the time of Augustine, Dona Flor in Jorge Amado’s novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Oedipus Rex, Napoleon on his way to Moscow, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, S.Y. Agnon’s The Doctor’s Divorce, the Stasi files, the Anglican marriage rite, Mormon marriage, spy novels, Nelson Mandela, Pride and Prejudice, the book of Deuteronomy, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, an Israeli children’s…

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