Moral Responsibility in the Age of Bureaucracy

No twentieth-century writer has thought so deeply, or so yearningly, about natural law as Franz Kafka. Kafka’s is a world in which we seek desperately to know the natural law that is sovereign in human affairs but find that knowledge of the law is withheld from us. For this reason, we lead our lives in a state of, if not original sin, then original guilt – guilt for violating the law, or perhaps guilt for not knowing the law, despite the fact that we wish to know it.

The Trial is Kafka’s greatest elaboration of this theme. Joseph K. is arrested for a crime, but he cannot discover what his crime is. He is convinced that the arrest is a gigantic misunderstanding, but he is unable to bring the inquest to a halt. In the end, he is executed, and Kafka leaves us with the distinct impression that Joseph K.’s crime is precisely his inability to discover what crime he has been accused of. K. never has a formal trial, yet the novel is called The Trial: evidently, K.’s fruitless effort to learn what he is accused of is his trial. His execution is therefore just, because Joseph K. lives in a state of culpable ignorance. In the remarkable parable that his confessor relates to Joseph K. in the ninth chapter, a man comes to the court of justice but is denied admittance. He waits patiently by the gate for years, and at the moment of his death learns from the doorkeeper that the gate will now be closed forever, for it was never intended for anyone other than the dying petitioner. The law is real, and sovereign in human affairs, but forever withheld from us. That is the extremity of our condition.