Who comes first among all?

A few gems from Is it Righteous to Be.

The exceptional position of the I as the only one having to respond for the other thus finds itself understood starting from the generality of a code of laws, relevant for all of us.  For indeed, in the social multiplicity we are not paired off with the neighbour for whom I am responsible, but are linked also with the third and fourth parties, etc. Each person is, to the I, an other!  The exclusive relation for the I to the neighbour is modified.  How, in effect, can one be answerable for all?  Who comes first among all?  This is the essential ambiguity of the relation between the ethical order of the responsibility for the other and the juridical order, to which the ethical nevertheless appeals.  This is because in approaching in charity the first one to come along, the I runs the risk of being uncharitable toward the third party, who is also my neighbour.  Judgment, comparison, are necessary.  One must consent to comparing incomparable beings.

And in a later interview Levinas responds to the question of his definition of philosophy.

I would say that philosophy permits man to interrogate himself about what he says and about what one says to oneself in thinking.  No longer to let oneself be swayed or intoxicated by the rhythm of words and the generality they designate, but to open oneself to the uniqueness of the unique in the real, that is to say, to the uniqueness of the other.  That is to say, in the final analysis, to love.  To speak truly, not as one sings; to awaken; to sober up; to undo one’s refrain.  Already the philosopher Alain taught us to be on guard against everything that in our purportedly lucid civilization comes to us from the ‘merchants of sleep.’  Philosophy as insomnia, as a new awakening at the heart of self-evidence which already marks the awakening, but which is still or always a dream.


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