In Praise of Necessity

In Praise of Necessity

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Human-reality is free because it is not enough.

Within minutes of striking, the earthquake that shook Iran in 2003 claimed 30,000 souls.  The disaster focused local and international governments and every type of aid group. After the tremors subsided in Bam, politics narrowed to the effort to find and save lives. In its immediate aftermath, diplomatic rifts that had endured between Iran and the United States since the 1979 hostage crisis were suspended.  Instead 1700 workers from 30 countries gathered at the epicenter and pitched side-by-side against the clock.

In their race against time Bam rescue teams pressed through a week looking for the living. As hours stretched to days, hope diminished corpse by corpse.  Eight days into the relief, searchers uncovered a 97-year-old grandmother, Shahrbanou Mazandarani, still breathing and conscious in the rubble.

Had rescuers strayed a yard in any direction this last survivor might well have lain entombed. But she was delivered.  Her resilience inspired euphoria among relief crews. Newspapers around the world announced her recovery. So moved was Queen Rania of Jordan that she flew to Mazandarani’s bedside to encourage her.


This type of rescue is universally recognized as a victory.  The odds against it are overwhelming: a grandmother endures without water night and day in severe conditions, for a length of time that defies medical probabilities,  searchers maintain the fortitude to persist without realistic expectation that any might be found after so much time; they locate her over miles and under tons of debris.

And by the time they did, it required three more hours to shift enough space to extricate the frail and praying Mazandarani.  They called her “the miracle of Bam” after that.  As need connects, her rescue momentarily connected the world. In the press she inspired the kind of affection that stems from the ineffable sense of redemption and decency that such events inspire, her improbable survival a reward that requited the diligence of workers and volunteers.

Natural disasters are a microcosm of necessity, streamlining our behavior and compelling precise actions. In their wake, the necessary commands our time and attention and reduces our focus to that which will sustain and restore. When lives are in the breach, the superfluity of all other conduct is readily apparent. In extremes, engaging in anything less than obliging immediate appeal is not only irresponsible but almost indecent.

In the lab that is any natural disaster we can clearly see the characteristics of necessity. It communicates, connects, compels, obligates, binds, expects, redeems, and perfects. We face necessity daily, not only in extremes, but in every choice and act we take.  Yet so plainly do we understand necessity that we seldom consider it except to address the particulars that afflict us moment to moment. Need is simply a fact of the human environment, like the sky, or air.  For instance although the work is entirely devoted to it, Abraham Maslow did not find it necessary to define need, motivation, or drive in his book, Motivation and Personality.

What is need? Where do we find it, how do we know it, and how does it bear on us?

Need expresses mortality

Need arises with life and sets a clock.  Conditioned by death, life requires.  Thus need is the simple common ground of humanity.

We usually think of need as an absence, the “without which” we are precluded; a gap in our lives that frustrates all going forward. Need can pause us temporarily or permanently redirect our choices and our lives. 

But if need is only life generating itself, it is not so much lack as force. The way “A science’s level of development is determined by the extent to which it is capable of a crisis in its basic concepts,”1 need is a kernel in possibility, “the mother of invention.”

Paralleled in the physical universe by a vacuum, need is a beginning and basis for creation. When the earth was a formless void,2 it was inevitably a source of motion, the beginning of time. An identical enlightenment is that emptiness does not differ from form3.The way a vacuum causes things to speed up4, the urgency of 5an unmet need accelerates. Bearing the tremendous force of a vacuum, the pressure of need is real and ultimately life-threatening.

Need is for action, not things

Unless discharged, need persists.  Need directs us precisely and purposefully:  hunger must be fed, thirst watered.

Necessity has time and location but not space. That is, need is mortal, it takes place in living beings and endures variously. But although it inhabits beings perceptibly, consuming growing and diminishing quantities and intensities of attention, need does not exist apart from the alive. Even when several needs exist within a being simultaneously, one need can’t be measured against another except by priority in time (urgency), nor said to be consuming the whole nor part of the being, though existing in it. Maslow writes that “the individual is an integrated, organized whole.” Consequently  “…the whole individual is motivated rather than just a part.”6 His or her need can’t be isolated since it is a motivating spirit that overtakes the entire being.

Because need has no space nor independent being of its own, we know already that  necessity requires, not a thing, but an action.7  The required act may presume supply.  But when we say necessity obligates, we mean it demands  response. Aristotle defines that a necessary act—responsibility—simultaneously

  • intends the conditions for life and good,8
  • is compelled—that is, is entirely non-negotiable—because it
  • sustains integrity.9

These are useful criteria for knowing what to do—and what not to do. Acts that respond to only one or two parts of the definition are not necessary. In this, we can distinguish true need from more illusory desires.  For instance I may desire a new dress or say “I need a new car,” and even feel their enhancements and conveniences relevant to my life and good; with my image in mind I may feel compelled to buy one or the other, but without extenuating circumstances they are negotiable, neither car nor dress affects my integrity as a human being.

The good—for instance the virtues: justice, prudence, fortitude, temperance—may be practiced, but reciprocating necessity they also cannot accrue nor endure, but are concrete only when they are practiced, real only insofar as they are lived. Ideals exist only moment-to-moment where and as they are realized in acts. Although necessity is itself temporal and temporary, responsibility to it can unite the transient and material with the eternal and ideal by compelling realization in action.  We will see that all right action, or “good” action, is necessary, and not extraordinary.

Need forms the basis for society because it communicates

Need is the basis for community for two reasons:  it is the universal common ground of humanity, and it communicates. We instantly apprehend our own need, it wants no explanation, and because we have felt need we recognize it in others. Personal experience with need is the source of empathy10. “The constituent elements of the social system are communications.”11 Therefore need is social and connecting. The needs—for sustenance, safety, love and belongingness, for esteem and self-realization12 —draw us to each other and create interdependencies among us.  It’s easy to see that mutuality in need underlies any number of social systems, from markets to politics; and further, that need is the first principle of work.13

We have said that need is precise; for instance in family restaurants small children are given crayons to distract them from their hunger while they wait for their meals. But their need can’t be answered by coloring. Sooner or later they must eat. In its specificity need expects. Therefore need is present the moment one begins to wait. Waiting is an aspect of suffering, a burning, the definition of purgatory. Waiting presses for release. The qualifier intolerable so often applied to need demonstrates the pain of mounting pressure and consuming urgency in need as time passes and it is not met. Therefore all the expressions of need are in some way painful having the presence of time and the quality of abiding: discontent, dissatisfaction, desire, envy, and, as we will see, indifference.

Need is painful but meeting it is redemptive

So, need communicates through pain, with the same ability to rivet the mind. “Pain…has the power to chain down our thoughts,” the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote.14 Again “pain is…impossible to ignore…(and) insists upon being attended to,”15

The utility of necessity to mankind goes beyond the animal and somatic sustenance. Its value to the human being resides in the fact that “tribulation is a necessary element in redemption.”16

Redemption simply means freeing through the satisfaction of an encumbering obligation; only by accepting and meeting necessity do we free ourselves and restore our integrity every moment. First, in discharging it, we are released, liberated from the oppression that weighed on us, and second we are then freer and closer to self-actualization17 and the realization of human integrity. The core of human integrity is freedom.18  The pressure exerted by necessity, and its “inspiring principle of action” according to Arendt, “is love of freedom.”19 

To say that need communicates is rather to say that it is perceived. The pain of obligation is always a personal fact, noticed by and available only to individuals and not to the collective. “There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it.”20  Therefore, the need one  perceives is one’s own need, even though its context may involve others. I may refuse to involve myself. But when I perceive an ill, it has a claim on me because satisfying it restores my own wholeness and freedom. When I address my necessity, I do that for the sake of my own peace and well-being. It is only through responding positively to necessity that an individual can maintain his or her integrity. Then clearly, integrity need not be lost once and for all, but may be recaptured again and again throughout one’s lifetime.

The intention of need is to perfect

Need arises where it is not met, in an absence of human integrity, that is in the compromise of freedom, and works toward its restoration or maintenance. Where imbalance exists, there is need; it moves in injustice, illuminating along the spectrum of discontent. But when we have perceived a necessity, we have the ability to not meet it.  For example, whenever we speak of the “conditions of life,” name mortality or refer to the temporary we invoke eternity, because opposites are inseparable. So when we say that the conditions for life and good are necessary, they are so in the context of death, eternity and the unnecessary.

“Free will,” or choice, arises in the intersection of dualities.  When faced with necessity, it immediately follows that will can only be exercised toward inertia; that choice can only be expressed in withholding ourselves21 22,23 That is, while we are able to deny the necessary, we are not free to meet it, since necessity requires, we must meet it.  When we stand in relation to need, we must act. 

The French activist and philosopher Simone Weil wrote,

“where what is good is concerned, a moment comes when we cannot help doing it….. a necessity becomes apparent which we cannot help obeying. Until then we have no notion of necessity and we have no sense of obedience.

“After that we cannot be proud of what we do, even though we may accomplish marvels. We cannot do otherwise….”24

The implication is that responding to need is obliged; an obedience, a responsibility, but duty to integrity. We are compelled. Therefore in answering necessity, in taking responsibility, we attain no merit, we exercise no virtue.  The feelings we know of pride and of accomplishment when any of us do what we should is not virtue, but only the satisfaction of integrity, and the exhilaration of freedom. 

To illustrate the paradox that freedom results only from meeting obligation, consider what we mean when we say an alcoholic should not drink. In fact, given the nature of alcoholism and the conditions for his life and for his own good, it is necessary that the alcoholic abstain. If he continues to drink, and ignores that he is obliged by the conditions for life and good to stop, that unmet need that he stop becomes increasingly urgent. By contrast, in every decision to abstain the alcoholic is redeemed, that is, having met his obligation to himself to stop drinking, he realizes freedom from his addiction.

But he is never “cured” as long as he lives; to drink or not to drink remains as a choice, and yet he can only exercise choice to his harm, and the exercise of his “free” will, or choice, is for him annihilation. Only in meeting the particular necessity he faces perpetually is he free. While choice exists, his necessity has only one recourse; and his freedom does not endure but must be re-established at every choice-point. And in not drinking the alcoholic gains no merit.  He is merely satisfying his own integrity. 

But if the pain of need is perceived by an individual human consciousness, the question becomes how it is perceived. Aristotle says that memory produces experience25, and Nietzsche also claimed that obligations hinge on the memory of suffering. The theory is  superficially plausible (except in the first place) that we recognize an experience like the pain of hunger by comparing it to remembered satiety. But in human beings needs apart from routine physical care consistently and successively exceed the known, with basic needs giving way with each satisfaction to ever more advanced ambitions:  

“But what happens to (human) desires when there is plenty of bread and when their bellies are chronically filled? At once other (and higher) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still higher) needs emerge….”26

So that beyond repetitive animal processes memory cannot suffice to explain the experience of need in man. 

But we can know need by its object: need seeks integrity, strives for wholeness, completion, soundness. Thus need takes its identity from integrity and knows itself by integrity, and what but integrity drives, as need drives?  So it is never lack that moves us to need, but soundness that moves us.  It is our own wholeness that moves us, not a memory of our fully human life, but an expectation of it, somehow sensed.27  In mankind, need is integrity moving to sustain itself.28 

A person’s perceptions of need reveals his or her development—you might even say his or her soul, much the way his or her prayers might. The more well-developed a person is, the more refined will be the things that he or she requires.29


If answering necessity involves no virtue, ignoring necessity or turning away from it is normally abominable. The journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote of a Rwandan woman who, finding herself under attack, gave vent to ululation in the middle of the night.  He describes that her cry was taken up and carried throughout the mountain village.  A villager explained:

“The people are living separately together,” he said, “so there is responsibility. “I cry, you cry. You cry, I cry.  We all come running, and the one that stays quiet, the one that stays home, must explain. Is he in league with the criminals? Is he a coward? And what would he expect when he cries? This is simple. This is normal. This is community.”31

To frustrate, or deny the required—not for lack of capacity but willfully—is to refuse something that must be for the conditions of life and good. 

Besides in desire or dissatisfaction, need is also recognized and expressed in indifference. Indifference—“I don’t care”—is always the case of necessity acknowledged but denied, of withholding the self. Rather than being, as it would seem to speak itself, a neutral position, indifference perceives need, but elects inertia.

In the reductio of recent times, a dismal record of political ravages has collected in the annals of the undone deed.  Since the events of Cambodia in the 1970s, the world has recorded six genocides.

Similar to natural disasters or disease, genocides take lives by the thousands.  But whereas natural emergencies equalize, uniting homeless and homeowner against perils, political traumas begin with inequities.  People are at odds, and have no common cause.  No trust exists that one may expect the normal decent thing from the other. Violence often proceeds door to door.

Neighbors who in an earthquake might have unhesitatingly rushed to aid each other and would have extended every kindness found themselves instead in desperate isolation, attacking or hiding from and fearing each other. The same friendly governments that normally hasten to send planeloads of goods and services in circumstances of natural disaster, as subsequent to the 2004 tsunami, have held back and conducted lengthy evaluations of their positions and economic self-interest while slaughter and starvation continued undeterred32, withholding aid in some cases, for years. 

Political and complex, genocides take a long time to culminate in insurmountable and unstoppable waves.

In his book on Rwanda Gourevitch also details that “…Mass violence … must be organized; it does not occur aimlessly. Even mobs and riots have a design, and great and sustained destruction requires great ambition.  It must be conceived as the means toward achieving a new order…” 

And once the violence begins it is not the work of passion, nor of a breathtaking moment, but must be sustained:  “The killers killed all day at Nyarubuye…and in the morning, the killers went back and killed again. Day after day, minute to minute. Tutsi by Tutsi, all across Rwanda, they worked like that. ‘It was a process…’” 33 

The same may be said for genocide’s cultural opposites and the intentional trajectory that accumulates toward peace, justice, and civilization. The difference in outcomes–war or peace–depends on people’s willingness to inform themselves, to dissent, to cooperate, and to be activists.  It happens over time and it depends on the courage and responsibility of individuals to discern and comply with the necessary act, to acquiesce to the obligation that speaks itself to him or her at the time or place it comes to them.  We have said that necessity is the first principle of work; in fact, responsibility is work.

Today, because politically-motivated catastrophes can be averted in time, injuries and mass deaths that result from them cannot be regarded as accidents of political storm or even primarily as evidence against their direct perpetrators. As media access penetrates every corner of the world and need makes itself known to us everywhere, atrocities remain as monuments to unengaged souls.

Not only are unnecessary acts nihilistic, they are by definition, evil.  This can be clearly seen in the essential contrast offered to goodness and life by acts typically thought of as excessive, such as torture and lying. “Excess and defect are characteristic of vice,” Aristotle taught. Jesus asked: “What father among you would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or hand him a snake instead of a fish? Or hand him a scorpion if he asked for an egg?”34 That the superfluous lacks grace is the tenant of every discipline and art, from athletics to dance to architecture and design:  “Grace consists…. in being the purely adequate expression of its intention or of the act of will, without any superfluity”35 Schopenhauer wrote. Only the necessary is good.

So one must choose a decided way.  Not an unconfirmed way that doesn’t know, that is never sure from beginning to end but a way that takes a stand and progresses along  certain intention—that the living in fact expresses the intention; that accepts that intention is unreal unless it is sustained in consistent responsibility throughout life.

With enough experience one recognizes the futility and sorrow that attends the unnecessary, and only wishes to find the courage to do the right thing: to recognize one’s obligations and meet one’s responsibilities; to abandon concupiscence and every ambition that does not suffice to meet necessity.  In short, one regrets all but those acts that sustain life and goodness and are compelled to preserve integrity.

In contemplating necessity, it becomes impossible to regard need as an oppression, as that which we don’t have, a lack, a hole in the heart, or a gap in the fortunes. Rather we comprehend need as a principle of change effecting the perfection of individual human freedom, a positive response to which is the sole non-nihilistic recourse open to the will, and responsibility to it a main means of growth for the human personality. 

The central fact:  Necessity and integrity are identical, monolithic, the pillar by which we know the meaning of our acts, and ultimately of our lives.  It is against necessity that individuals know their responsibilities, weigh intentions and success, and know the meaning of evil.  All communities are formed on the ground of necessity, and it is within necessity that all religious commandments, civic formulations, precepts, or laws by which we judge human action have their feet.

Comprehending its non-negotiability we begin to love necessity as a Christian loves the cross for the sake of redemption, as it is only through meeting obligations that a human being achieves his essential freedom, from thence “surpassing the world toward his own possibilities.”36



1 Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Joan Stanbaugh, Trans. SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy. Dennis J. Schmidt, ed. Albany, State University of New York Press. 1996. p. 8.

2 Genesis 1:

3 from the Prajnaparamita Sutra

4 “In any case of separation, of absence in one place (or time) and presence in another, there is an inherent tendency for the presence to move towards, fill, and reduce the absence. This is as fundamental as the Second Law of Thermodynamics – that entropy always wins, that the separated case holds more energy than the mixed case. It’s an understanding that has made it into the vernacular, something we know in our bones  – ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, we say, or ‘it’s all downhill from here’, or even ‘the law of supply and demand’.
“….the separated case has more energy than the mixed…. in that energy is released in the mixing. And so, one might say, that a presence, a thing, accelerates into the absence of that thing….” personal correspondence April 14, 2005, Ted Scambos, Ph.D. Senior Research Scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado at Boulder.


6 Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality.  Cynthia McReynolds, ed. Third Edition. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

7 “…for human reality, to be is to act, and to cease to act is to cease to be.” Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Hazel E. Barnes, trans. “Being and doing: Freedom.” Washington Square Press. 1992.  P. 613

8Life and good are transcendentals. “The transcendentals have been understood to have the following characteristics. First, they are convertible with being. Since good is a transcendental property, every being is good and every good is a being. Second, the transcendentals are convertible with each other. Since unity is a transcendental, every unity is good and every good is a unity. Third, there is only a logical distinction between the transcendentals and being; not a real one. Thus, being and good are the same and differ only in meaning; good does not add anything real to being;….” Roberts, Mark.  “Is Beauty a Transcendental Property of Being?” In press.

9 “We call ‘necessary’ (1)(a) that without which, as a condition, a thing cannot live; e.g. breathing and food are necessary for an animal; … (b) the conditions without which good cannot be or come to be, or without which we cannot get rid or be freed of evil; e.g. drinking the medicine is necessary in order that we may be cured of disease… (2) the compulsory and compulsion … necessity is held to be something that cannot be persuaded…(3) We say that that which cannot be otherwise is necessarily as it is, and from this sense of ‘necessary’ all the others are somehow derived…. the necessary in the primary and strict sense  is the simple;” Aristotle,  Metaphysics V:5. Richard McKeon, Ed. Random House Lifetime Libraries. Eleventh Printing. New York. Random House Inc. p. 756.

10 “…the basic ability to comprehend another individual’s experience, a capacity that underlies all the particular feelings and emotions one can have for another…” Evan Thompson, lecture Feb. 2, 2002.

11Maturana, Humbert R. and Francisco J. Varela.  Autopoietic Reflexive Systems Theory.

12Maslow. Abraham. Motivation and Personality.  Chapter 2. Cynthia McReynolds, ed. Third Edition. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

13 “Accursed be the soil because of you…with sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread…” Genesis 3:18-19.

14 Weil, Simone. Waiting for God.  “Essays: The love of God and Affliction.” First Perrenial Classics Edition. New York. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 2001. P. 68

15Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. Harper Collins Edition 2001. Harper San Francisco. P. 91.

16 Ibid P. 114

17 “Almost always associated with negative attitudes toward the need is the conception that the primary aim of the organism is to get rid of the annoying need and thereby to achieve a cessation of tension, an equilibrium….a state of rest, a lack of pain.
“…the drive or need presses toward its own elimination…we wind up with Freud’s death-intinct.
“…If the motivational life consists essentially of a defensive removal of irritating tensions, and if the only end product of tension-reduction is a state of passive waiting for more unwelcome irritations to arise,…then why do people improve?
“When we examine people who are predominantly growth-motivated, the coming-to-rest conception of motivation becomes completely useless.  In such people gratification breeds increased rather than decreased motivation, heightened rather than lessened excitement. ….instead of wanting less and less, such a person wants more and more, of, for instance, education.  The person rather than coming to rest becomes more active.  Growth is, in itself, a rewarding and exciting process, e.g., the fulfilling of yearnings and ambitions, … or most important, simply the ambition to be a good human being.” Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. Third Edition John Wiley and Sons. Inc. 1999. P.

18 “freedom….is very exactly the stuff of my being; and as in my being, my being is in question…” Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Hazel E. Barnes, trans. “Being and doing: Freedom.” Washington Square Press. 1992. P. 566

19 Arendt Hannah. The Life of the Mind. New York. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1978 P. 203

20 Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. Harper Collins Edition 2001. Harper San Francisco. P. 116

21 “If the will is to be freedom, then it is of necessity negativity and the power of nihilation.” Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Hazel E. Barnes, trans. “Being and doing: Freedom.” Washington Square Press. 1992. P. 571

22“…and as with virtue, so with what is taught, that sin is only admitted to the world through the will.”  (citation to come)

23 “Our freedom is only a freedom of better or worse response.” Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. Harper Collins Edition 2001. Harper San Francisco., P. 45

24 Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Arthur Wills, trans.  First Bison Books Printing. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 1997. p. 96/97

25 Ethics

26  Maslow, Motivation and Personality p. 17

27 “the organism itself, out of its own nature, points to an intrinsic range of satisfiers for which no substitute is possible…” Maslow.

28 Also, see Sartre: “…suffering can not be in itself a motive for … acts.  Quite the contrary, it is after he has formed the project of changing the situation that it will appear intolerable to him.” Being and doing: Freedom p. 563

29 See Maslow – the development itself presupposes that the more basic physiological needs and those for safety and security have been met and that the need for higher things means that the soul has progressed in his or her capacities.

30“Sin is basically nothing more than inertia.” Martin Buber, On Judaism p. 82

31 Gourevitch, Philip. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. New York.Picador, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.  1998. p. 34

32,Power Samantha. A Problem from Hell. First Perenial Edition. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. NY, NY. 2003.

33 Gourevitch, Philip. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. New York.Picador, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.  1998.P. 18, 19.

34 Luke 11: 11-13

35 Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. E. F. J. Payne, Trans. Vol. 1. Dover Publications Inc. New York. p. 224

36 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Hazel E. Barnes, trans. “Being and doing: Freedom.” Washington Square Press. 1992.