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“Sophie’s choice” is no choice – 221

Published on 14 March 2013
Updated on 07 August 2022

“Sophie reveals her deepest, darkest secret: on the night that she arrived at Auschwitz, a sadistic doctor made her choose which of her two children would die immediately by gassing and which would continue to live, albeit in the camp. Of her two children, Sophie chose to sacrifice her seven-year-old daughter, Eva, in a heart-rending decision that has left her in mourning and filled with a guilt that she cannot overcome.”[1] This is “Sophie’s choice”. I’ve seen “enhancements”: if she refuses to choose, both her children will die. This “choice” has now made its way into philosophy seminars.


One remark at the outset: to call Sophie’s situation “choice” is an implicit espousal of the sadistic doctor’s mindset. The “philosopher” is complicit in torturing Sophie, by calling the situation “choice”, when what is on offer is no choice at all, and certainly not one in which Sophie would enter knowingly and willingly. Circumstances beyond Sophie’s control have placed her in a situation where every course of action has catastrophic outcome.

How to get out of the conundrum? Forget ethics! Grab the dice. Let chance decide. This is what the ancient Greeks did (and for good reason). When in doubt, the ancient Greeks asked the Delphic Oracle, or watched birds in flight; others may have looked at a goat’s entrails. The Chinese used scapulomancy. The method was always the same: let chance choose. This entrusting the choice to chance was sacralized.

What was the intent? When catastrophe looms, pain from loss is inevitable. We are ready to bear it – we are fatalists. Fatalism allows closure. The wound is clean and eventually it will heal – albeit leaving scars. We should not, however, also weigh the person’s soul down with guilt for the choice. The wound will fester on forever. Guilt can only be resolved by truth and in Sophie’s case “truth” – the “right thing to do” is not on offer. Sophie is forever on the rack of guilt – which is what the sadistic doctor wanted.

Contrary to fate, truth brooks no closure. For, when “seeking truth” one embarks on a never-ending journey. “Love of truth”, or “faith” may be our spiritual GPS, but all the GPS does, in the end, is obsessively to remind us of our distance from the ideal. We become obsessive.

How much better it would be to outsource the (illusory) choice to a “randomizer” and bear the pain, but not the guilt. Imagine the Palestine issue settled by the roll of the perfect dice – and not by “justice”, or “historical precedent”.

[1]           https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie%27s_Choice_%28novel%29 This text is based on William STYRON’s novel.


4 replies
  1. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:

    Bi, grief and mourning are
    Bi, grief and mourning are emotional states – they belong to our System 1 brain. They trigger tears and wailing, but have also among the highest expressions of art – from Sophocles to Bach. Emotions subside, and after some time on is at peace. The dead stay dead, though in a translumiscent fashion. Guilt is recursive and obsessive – in a way rational but distractive, and belongs in my view to our System 2 brain. Guilt never subsides – both Jean Amery and Primo Levi succumbed to it, many years later. I do not know of great art that has emerged from guilt. Levi’s detachment is the only attitude to take. If one endures fate he may indeed feel guilt that fate has chosen him over another person. But if one is to make fate – like in Sophie’s choice, or when the chaos of battle is to decide – it might might be wise to attempt and outsource the guilt. It is not patent medicine, but the Greeks paid much store by it. They may have been up to something. Between us: I’m only showing a possible way. If it only helps once, it is better than 0.

  2. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:


    guilt is a Christian phenomenon, which arose in XIII century, together with auricular confession AND indulgences (the connection is not accidental). See: Jacques DELUMEAU (1983): The sin and the fear (Culpabilisation in the West XIIIth-XVIIIth century). The tome, in the original French goes to over 700 quarto pages.
    Its intellectual origins lie with Platonism and his march toward perfection: any step backward is perceived as personal failure. The Stoics’s detachment was based on the simple algorithm: you are responsible for what you can change. The rest, forget it. It’s like rain or sunshine.

    My message is that randomizing allows for CLOSURE. We need closure in our daily lives, for otherwise we’ll go over and over the same subject. Randomizing is a good way to get closure.

    • Bi Scott
      Bi Scott says:

      “Guilt” in a broad sense, not
      “Guilt” in a broad sense, not just the Christian sense, includes the study of survivor guilt as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disease, which is not a religious or cultural reflex. I think that underlying your guilt/fate dichotomy may be two different brain-patterns, with guilt triggering the long slow loops of rumination, and fate allowing us to suppress or escape that loop. (The second pattern involves the ‘aha’ moment of inspiration, or right hemisphere gamma peaks). Think in terms of chess versus cards: we’ll readily attribute a loss in cards to chance, but are more likely to dwell over our own failure in chess. Not worth dismissing an argument that elaborates on your own just because you don’t like the word “guilt” or the guilt-culture!

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