Saturday, March 12, 2005


I just finished reading The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix, and I have to say the book's relentless chronicling of man's inhumanity to man was pretty depressing. I had liked to think that we are making moral progress, but Mannix's book made me wonder if I was wrong, and if my optimism abour humanity was misplaced. I ended up writing some notes to myself, in which I came to some sort of understanding of the perennial problem of human cruelty. Rather than tidy up these notes, I'm going to reproduce them with only minor editing and abridgments. Maybe some of you have gone through the same thought process and will recognize yourselves here.

Here's what I jotted down:

The thing that haunts me is the fact of human evil. The use of torture, the cruelty, the demonic aspect of people - what is it, if not Original Sin? And yet I don't believe in Original Sin. I like to believe in moral progress. But if someone held the Roman "games" today, wouldn't people show up? They enjoy the emotional pain and humiliation of reality-TV shows, even the surgical disfigurement of The Swan (a show in which contestants are put through plastic surgery). They attend cockfights, dogfights, bullfights, boxing matches, car races that end in deadly crashes. There seems to be something inherent in human nature that responds to blood sport. Maybe we haven't made so much progress, after all. Or perhaps it's better to say that whatever progress we've made is painfully slow, painfully hard won.

I used to think this kind of cruelty was an outgrowth of materialistic culture. The Romans, after all, were materialists who believed in nothing but sensual gratification. On the other hand, the Inquisitors believed they were saving souls, and the Aztecs believed they were placating the gods. It's not a simple matter of "materialism bad, spirituality good." It goes deeper. Any belief system is compatible with torture - as if the lust to kill is so deeply ingrained in human beings that it can be rationalized under any system of thought. If so, it's incorrect to "explain" cruelty by reference to ideology or philosophy or culture. Ethics can mitigate cruelty, but the potential for cruelty is always there, and we are all capable of it.

We all mistreat people, abuse people, insult people. No one is ever blameless. When I was a big sports fan, I used to root so hard for my team that I actually hoped the opposing players would be injured.

And why was I rooting so hard? Because my ego was invested in the team. Their victory was my victory, and their defeat was my defeat - my humilation.

The ego is the key. The small-minded, petty, grasping, insecure, defensive part of us that wants to be superior, wants to control others, wants dominance and power and safety. Only by getting beyond the ego can we escape from violence and cruelty.

The Roman mob rooted for slaughter because they were powerless and frustrated, and it pleased them to see someone worse off than themselves. The Inquisitors were willing to torture because of their egoistic conceit that they, and only they, were in possession of absolute truth. The Nazis worshipped Hitler, a megalomaniac, the personification of ego. The Aztecs, too, were operating on an ego level - they were terrified of the gods, and to propitiate these deities they engaged in wholesale massacres. (The ego is all about fear and vigilance and saving oneself regardless of the cost to others.)

Religious and ethical traditions have always opposed the ego. Greek myths warn of "hubris," or overweening pride, and the myth of Narcissus is a critique of excessive self-love. In the Bible, violence enters the world (Cain's murder of Abel) right after humanity acquires an ego (Adam and Eve's defiance of God). The Ten Commendments stress the need to subordinate the willful self to God, to parents, to social norms. Do not covet = don't be envious or jealous (ego qualities). Do not put any false gods before God = don't elevate the ego to godlike status.

The ego is part of human nature and can't be eradicated. The best we can do is keep it in check. Moral systems teach us this truth. If we have made progress since the days of the Roman "games" or the Inquisition, it's only because we have a long ethical tradition that attempts to put some restraints on the ego.

So it looks like there really is such a thing as Original Sin - and it's the ego. It's part of us all.


That's the end of my notes, but as a coda, here's a quote that just occurred to me. It's from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a play about cruelty and hubris:

But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured
(His glassy essence), like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep ...

Measure for Measure, II, ii. 122-127


Anonymous DH said...

The idea that ego is "Original Sin" is an excellent analysis. The good news is that the fall of many egoists can be found in their egos. Certainly Nixon believed he was an imperial president above the law and overreached. And Hitler's fall was in many ways self inflicted as well. We see similar trends in business and entertainment titans. So, maybe ego is also an equalizer.

March 16, 2005 3:09 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

That's a good point, although the more aggressive egoists can certainly do a lot of harm to other people along the way. A book I just read, "The Sociopath Next Door" by Martha Stout, makes a similar point. Stout, a psychologist, observes that sociopaths frequently fail to achieve any success, and even when they do succeed for a while, they almost always fail in the end because they alienate potential friends and allies, lose people's trust, and engage in reckless behavior that eventually backfires on them. Although an egoist is not quite the same thing as a sociopath, the two types have some traits in common (such as the absence of any real concern for others), and probably overlap in the case of, say, Hitler - a megalomaniacal sociopath.

As an example of an egoist who was not a sociopath, and yet acted self-destructively, I would point to Ayn Rand, who mistreated and abused her husband, friends, and supporters in a variety of ways, and ended up alone and depressed. Paul Johnson's excellent book "Intellectuals" provides many case histories of egoistic writers and thinkers who wrecked their own lives and the lives of those around them.

March 16, 2005 5:21 PM  
Anonymous DH said...

Ego plus talent will buy short term success. Ego plus extraordinary talent will buy you lifelong success but also a tragic Ayn Rand type life.

On top of her ego, part of Ayn Rand's problem was also her objectivism. When she fell in love with Nathaniel Brandon she couldn't deal with it. It was emotional. So, she tried to make it objective and in order to do so forced her husband and Nathaniel's wife to agree that what she was doing was right and fit that ideology. It was her unraveling. Of course one might argue that objectivism epitomizes ego.

I recently read "Lindbergh." He's a man who posessed very little ego. Much pride. But pride's something different. In his case, while he made some P.R. mistakes -- such as his early defense of Hitler's Germany -- in the end his strength of character and basic decency overwhelm the mistakes in the final analysis of his legacy. A strident egoist would not have been able to acquit himself as well.

Maybe money's not the root of all evil.

March 16, 2005 7:07 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Rand definitely rationalized her own emotions. Since she believed she could never have an "irrational" emotion, she assumed that anything she felt was, by definition, logically justified. So it was just a matter of figuring out the justification. Needless to say, she did not extend this courtesy to others. Anyone who dared to disagree with Rand, even on a trivial matter like a song or a movie, was met with fierce hostility and the insistence that there must be something psychologically amiss. Many of Rand's followers were sent to Objectivist psychotherapists to get their thinking straightened out. (One such therapist, Lonnie Leonard, habitually molested his female patients and was eventually barred from the profession.) In short, Rand - as the ultimate arbiter of Reason - was allowed her whims and idiosyncracies, dressed up as supremely rational choices, but no one else was allowed to think or feel anything different from the party line.

Incidentally, Rand lambasted Lindbergh because of his interest in paranormal phenomena. I think this is in her essay "Apollo and Dionysus," but I'm not sure. (That essay appears in her book The New Left, recently retitled The Return of the Primitive, or something like that.)

March 16, 2005 10:27 PM  
Anonymous DH said...

That's interesting that she would attack Lindbergh for his dabbling with the paranormal. He was an intensely curious man allowed by his fame, wealth, and extraoridinary intellect to pursue whatever he wanted. And I would think he would be one of the few men of her time to meet her definition of a "hero." He also looked the part. But I guess even a curiousity about the paranormal just didn't fit her script.

I haven't read her essays but have wanted to. I've always been curious if she ever explained within her philosophy the miracle of creation and the very existence of existence. Those questions that turn people to God or at least a higher power.

How might she explain science never coming close to creating a living organasm capable of reproducing cells from inanimate matter. I consider myself a logical person and it was logic that turned me to religion.

I wasn't aware of the therapist. Tragedy certainly followed in her wake.

March 16, 2005 11:00 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Rand believed that "the very existence of existence" could not be explained and didn't have to be. In her view, "existence exists" is an axiom, a starting point. She also used the old argument that if we need to explain the universe by positing a God, then how do we explain God? This is a strange argument for a philosopher to make, since it has been addressed many times in the literature. (The answer, in brief, is that the universe is contingent but God is necessary. But Rand did not accept the necessary-contingent dichotomy, either ...)

I agree with you (against Rand) that the miracle of creation is not something to be brushed aside. The arguments for the "fine-tuning" of the universe to sustain life are very powerful; they were sufficient to convince the atheistic physicist Fred Hoyle that "a superintellect had monkeyed with the laws of physics." And as you say, it is almost inconceivable that a living cell, with its fantastic complexity, could arise spontaneously from nonliving antecedents. There is a large body of writing on these subjects, and I have read enough of it to be convinced that there is design and intention in the universe.

Incidentally, these same arguments converted the atheistic philosopher Anthony Flew to theism, a conversion he announced recently (and courageously, I think - there is nothing rarer than an intellectual who is willing to change his mind and admit it publicly).

March 18, 2005 1:47 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

One more thing ... There is a good book on the psychologist who molested his female patients: Therapist, by Ellen Plasil. It's out of print but a used copy can purchased at Amazon:

The Amazon page is worth looking at, if only for the reader comments. Plasil gives a memorable account of the stifling atmosphere of the Objectivist movement in New York City in the early '70s.

March 18, 2005 1:52 PM  
Anonymous DH said...

My logical mind not only brought me to a belief in God. It also brought me to Christianity as well. After studying the "historical" Jesus I was forced to decide that Jesus was either a lunatic claiming to be the Son of God, or The Son of God.

Only a lunatic would make such a claim and be tortured to death for hours without a recant. But there's no evidence of mental illness (outside of the claim).In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary.

So, logic delivered an "irrational" conclusion.

The Plasil books sounds interesting. I'll check out your link. It's your posts about Ayn Rand that interested me in your blog as I'm studying her now. Not for school or anything, just because people fascinate me and once I find someone interesting I tend to dwell on them for a while. I just finished with Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plathe, and Malcolm X.

Next will probably be Ty Cobb or Howard Hawks.

March 19, 2005 6:08 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Of all the major religions, Christianity is the one that appeals to me the most and the one that I know the most about. I agree that logic can lead one to become a Christian - I have read some very good apologetics, especially on the issue of "the empty tomb." And I admit to a perhaps unhealthy fascination with the Shroud of Turin (which was not really discredited by carbon dating, despite what people think). Still, after escaping Objectivism, I am loath to join any organized movement again, or to commit fully to any particular philosophy or religion.

If you're studying Rand, you would probably enjoy Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult. It's a comprehensive indictment of Rand and her movement, exhuastively researched, scathingly blunt, and often very funny. Walker sometimes uses a hammer blow where a gentle tap would be more effective, but overall his book makes great "deprogramming" for former Objectivists.

March 20, 2005 12:39 AM  

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