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Posts Tagged ‘Hitler’

The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi, Letter to an individual Bahá’í, through his secretary, 17 February 1933.)

The previous post ended with the following point.

Most of us are trapped in our simulations, created by early experience and powerful influences in the present. Reflecting as an individual and consulting as a community are harder to do than we would like to think and need courage and perseverance in equal measure, courage to risk this shift in processing in the first place and perseverance if we are to learn how to master the skills in each case.

For the impact of destructive processes within the individual there is a wealth of evidence, both social and clinical, which I look at straightaway. I will look at the impact on groups and communities later using the work of Zimbardo as a powerful example.

Processes such as the ones I am about to outline are simply examples of the kind of invisible obstacles we might have to deal with when we are trying to shift our perspectives to integrate experiences and evidence against the grain of our programming. Breaking out of our individual or collective trance is not easy. When the evidence is complex, as with climate change, or collides head on with prevailing dogma, as with the reality of the soul, it’s particularly difficult.

Culture and the Individual

First, let’s take a look at some of the negative influences that operate under the surface within the individual. These do overlap with aspects of the wider culture but are worth considering here given their impact upon every single one of us as an individual.

As adults we may often find ourselves behaving in completely counterproductive or even destructive ways in our everyday lives and haven’t a clue why we do so, or even sometimes that we are doing so.

There are all sorts of ways that our culture subliminally shapes our reactions in ways that would shock our conscious mind. A recent study, for example, looked at the reactions of Americans from all parts of the racial spectrum. One of the experiments involved determining how quickly subjects would shoot at a target person in a risk situation. Pictures of different people were flashed up on the screen, some from a white European heritage, some from a black African heritage. It was no surprise that white subjects would take less time to shoot a black person than a white one. What was shocking was that the same was true for black subjects, so deeply had the toxin of racism infected them as well. What none of the subjects would have been aware of was that they were behaving in this way.

Even prominent people within a culture, those with access to the most information and with the most power to change things, succumb to the insidious influences of their society. Many of the founding figures of the United States were slave owners. Their personal investment in slavery conflicted with their avowed principles such as the equality of all men. John Fitzgerald Medina in his excellent book Faith, Physics & Psychology quotes the explanation given by historian Richard Thomas (iBook page 280):

Since America was not about to abandon slave labor or its policy of dispossessing the native peoples of their land, the only real and practical choice was to minimise the nature of its sins: blacks and native peoples (Indians) were not to be considered on the same level of humanity as whites; blacks were heathen and amoral, next to the apes in the scale of evolution. . . .

The technical term for this is resolving cognitive dissonance, and is a process that I was tempted to include in my earlier discussion of disowning, but wasn’t sure it applied directly to climate change. As Saul McLeod explains:

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).

This of course only works if we can successfully blind ourselves to the fact that we are doing it.

It’s obvious now to most people that the Americans and the British, in terms of race, hoodwinked themselves with this self-deceptive but profitable ploy. What we may not all fully appreciate is how far the toxic ideology of racism that thus developed spread its poison, for how long, and with how much resulting damage.

When John Fitzgerald Medina claimed in his book that Hitler was influenced by American eugenicists to develop aspects of his genocidal agenda, I had to check this idea out further.

I read Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning in tandem with Ricard’s Altruism, quoted earlier in this sequence. He confirms the extent to which the Nazi vision of extermination to gain land was inspired by America (pages 15-16):

Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. . . .

In the late nineteenth century, Germans tended to see the fate of Native Americans as a natural precedent for the fate of native Africans under their control. . . . . For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. ‘The natives must give way,’ he said. ‘Look at America.’

. . . . When Hitler wrote in My Struggle that Germany’s only opportunity for colonisation was Europe, he discarded as impractical the possibility of a return to Africa. The search for racial inferiors to dominate required no long voyages by sea, since they were present in Eastern Europe as well.

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as a Jewish project and felt (page 20):

[a] second America could be created in Europe, after Germans learned to see other Europeans as they saw indigenous Americans or Africans, and learned to regard Europe’s largest state as a fragile Jewish colony.

It is deeply ironic therefore that the nation who saw themselves as liberators of Europe at the end of the Second World War should have been part of Hitler’s inspiration in the first place. So do destructive subliminal processes wreak havoc on a massive scale in our world, especially when potentiated by self-interest. Climate change denial should come as no surprise therefore, given the complexity of the issue and the power of the vested interests who would lose out if something really effective were ever done to address the problem.

It’s a moot point in both cases whether those pulling the levers of persuasion, the propagandists, are as unaware of their reality distortion as many of those who come to believe them.

There are many more examples of this kind to illustrate the way that culture warps and biases our perceptions to devastating effect and I won’t attempt to list them here. We’ll come back to the cultural scale later.

Trauma and the Individual

What is also true is that our personal history has a powerful subliminal effect on us as individuals and can wreck our lives and those of the people closest to us. Trauma is the easiest example to use to illustrate this.

We may be completely unaware of the still active impact of early trauma, to whose current significance we are almost completely blind even if we remember anything at all about it.

Many different models of therapy have developed way to explain how this works.

That there is such an effect and that it is relatively widespread can be demonstrated in many ways. In a study carried out in 2010 and quoted by Koenen et al in The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health & Disease: the Hidden Epidemic (page 13-15), out of a sample of 5692 English speaking Americans 2190 (38.48%) reported some kind of traumatic experience prior to the age of 13.

A recent sequence of posts on this blog looked at the work of a Jungian therapist, Joy Schaverian, with people who had been traumatised by their experiences at Boarding School. She graphically explores through case histories the damage that has been done as well as the repressive mechanisms, with their consequences, that had been mobilised to cope.

To give a brief example, Schaverian explains, when she discusses one of her patient’s difficulties dealing with the time a teacher hit him in the face with a cricket bat, how hard it was for him to fully accept what he was saying (page 57):

Theo first told of this incident early in analysis. Then, a few months later, he retold it, this time with more depth of feeling. It was as though he was at first incredulous but then, as I took it seriously, he began to believe himself and to take seriously how abusive this had been. As Theo recounted it for the second time the feelings associated with the event became live in the session. Theo went white; he felt sick; he had trouble breathing and physically regressed.… The emotional impact of this was fully present in the room. Theo was overwhelmed and speechless.

The benefits of revisiting traumatic events in this way , even when they have possibly been forgotten between sessions are priceless (page 118):

. . . if [traumatic events] can be told they are gradually detoxified, thus eventually accepted as part of the person’s personal history. It is then an accessible narrative and no longer unconsciously dominates their life. When there is no such witness the trauma may become embodied, leading to conversion symptoms such as digestive problems, migraines, chronic pain, poor energy and a large number of other physiological indicators. This may be because the event that caused it is remembered in an embodied sense, but not recalled cognitively and so it cannot be consigned to the past.

We’ll be coming back to the idea of embodied memories in a moment.

Other concepts from different traditions are scripts in Transactional Analysis, which I’ve explored elsewhere, archetypes from Jungian therapy, constructs from Personal Construct Therapy, schema etc. the formation and experience of all of which are shaped by early experience as well as culture.

The examples I want to focus on right now I’ve chosen both because they provide dramatic and detailed illustrations of the invisible impact of childhood trauma on adults and are part of my recent reading around trauma and psychosis.

A recent post includes a detailed example, from their 1991 book The Stormy Search for the Self, of what Christina and Stansislav Grof term a spiritual emergency. Those interested in knowing more detail should click the link above. Basically it explores how a traumatised person was helped through her crisis without standard psychiatric treatment and later in the book how what they call Holotropic Breathwork helps people gain access to embodied memories.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious (page 259):

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

I want to focus on a couple of examples from their earlier work – Realms of the Human Unconscious: observations from LSD research. The use of LSD in this way has come to seem controversial, so much so it was made illegal 1981, six years after this book was published. Some researchers are recently beginning to think more positively about its potential benefits, but we are a long way from repealing the laws that ban it.

Why the Grofs’ research is worth drawing on in this context is for what it seems to reveal about the accuracy with which inaccessible traumatic memories are stored in the brain. LSD helps a person regain lucid and detailed memories, which can then be integrated.

More than that, the Grofs developed a strong sense of the sequence in which such memories can be retrieved and the way they group into a mutually reinforcing layered networks which they call (page 46) ‘systems of condensed experience,’ COEX systems for short.

Both the detail and the interconnectedness of the memories go a long way to explain their power to shape our experience and behaviour in the present in spite of our routine oblivion to their existence. That such interconnected detail coexists with such intransigent forgetfulness explains the power the past experiences have to impact upon us outside our awareness. The examples I’m giving go a long way towards proving how much changing this impact depends upon bringing the whole network of experiences into consciousness.

The work they report on in this book was done in Prague in the decade leading up to 1965.

The layering effect can be illustrated by Richard’s history (page 57-60). The first layer related to his expulsion from university because of his conflict with the communist orthodoxy of the time. A ‘deeper layer . . . . related to Richard’s experiences with his brutal, despotic, and autocratic father.’ Deeper still were earlier memories from childhood such as a strong electric shock at about age seven. A comically horrific encounter with a cow at about one year old was from the next level down. Finally (page 59), he encountered his birth trauma, which he concluded was ‘the fundamental prototype of all the situations in which he felt absolutely helpless and at the mercy of a destructive force.’

The Grofs later explain that, as a general rule, each more superficial level has to be explored before the deeper levels can be accessed (page 71):

The . . . . most important reason for thinking in terms of memory constellations rather than individual memories is based on the content analysis of consecutive sessions of a psycholytic series. Before the subject can approach and relive a traumatic memory from early childhood (core experience), he usually has to face and work through many situations in later life that have a similar theme and involve the same basic elements.

The final result of this LSD facilitated mental archaeology was positive in Richard’s case (page 60):

After the experiences of rebirth, positive ecstatic feelings of long duration occur in Richard’s sessions. They brought about a far-reaching improvement of the clinical condition. His depressions, anxieties, and psychosomatic symptoms completely disappeared and he felt full of activity and optimism.

The Grofs are keen to substantiate that most of these memories are rooted in reality. They quote case examples. For example, the mother of another patient, Dana, (pages 65-66) ‘was absolutely astonished by the accuracy of the account concerning the traumatic event as well as its physical setting. . . . . The description of the room was photographically accurate, even in the most minute detail, and its authenticity was unquestionable because of the very unusual character of some of the objects involved. . . In this case, there did not seem to exist a possibility that this information could have been transmitted by some other means. Before the patient was two years old, the family left this house; shortly afterward, it was condemned and torn down. . . . Dana’s mother gave away many of the things that formed the setting of the relived incident. There were no photographs of the room or of any of the described pieces, and the mother did not remember ever having mentioned any of the objects in front of the patient.’

So that’s what can happen to an individual.

Group Processes

It may seem a step too far to use examples of this kind, drawn from clinical work with individuals, and imply that group processes are similarly potentially pathological and operate all too often outside our awareness and conscious control.

One dramatic body of evidence will have to suffice for now to illustrate how this comparison might not be so far fetched. Philip Zimbardo provides the evidence in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University.

Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this latter point. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

What may seem baffling is how apparently decent people go along with toxic patterns of behavior. The forces that coerce conformity are astonishingly compelling. Haidt talks of the hive effect. In The Righteous Mind (page 247) he asks ‘Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game?’ For him, ‘It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”’ Other experiments such as those by Solomon Asch, have shown how, when the majority in a group identify the wrong line as the matching one, the lone subject of the experiment tends to go long with the majority view at least some of the time: ‘To Asch’s surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed themselves to the ‘obviously erroneous’ answers given by the other group members at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the ‘staged’ trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean [ie average not stingy] subject conformed on 4 of the ‘staged’ trials.’

This video below by Melanie Joy conveys an attempt to unpack some of the detail about how this might work at a cultural level in a context meat eaters may find bizarre. As a vegetarian the validity of her explanation of how collusion is induced is compelling. Meat eaters may have to temporarily suspend their disbelief and step back from their investment in carnism in order to see how her explanation could easily be mapped onto such social toxins as racism and sexism.

Hopefully this helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until, in my view, we are either painfully jolted out of our trance by a spiritual emergency or we painstakingly discover for ourselves the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups. Only then do we have an opportunity to see what is working on our minds and change it.

In a complex world it is easy to hide from the wider but more distant impact of our individual and collective actions. Because the damage is potentially so great, so much greater than it ever was is the need now for our awareness to widen and embrace not just the daunting complexity within us but also that which stands between and outside us.

I have been considering the implications of this in the context of climate change and the afterlife but it also applies to many other areas of human behavior such as deregulation which removes safeguards in the interests of profit, extractivism that aggressively exploits the earth’s resources without sufficient care for the consequences, and a global economic system that harms not just the environment but the workforce to whose country cheaper production has been exported.

Where we might go next is dealt with slightly more briefly in the final two posts.

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events in London and Manchester and of this week’s sequence on Hillman’s book, that dealt in some detail with Hitler, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The posts, of which this is the second, appear on the consecutive days.

The previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . .

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.

Collaboration

During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.

fallon2-b0ee8cb596cc89ff6f00864002eb74ed8351d68e

James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.

Footnote:

[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

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Dad in Civil Defence

My father (centre) in the Civil Defence

In the light of recent events in London and Manchester and of this week’s sequence on Hillman’s book, that dealt in some detail with Hitler, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The posts, of which this is the first, will appear on the consecutive days.

The first memory I have from my childhood is of my father stepping through the backdoor in the morning light after an anxious night scanning the sky and listening for the warning of the siren’s wail. I rushed to greet him as he was taking his helmet off.

I pleaded with him to let me try it on. He wasn’t keen but finally gave in. All I can remember after that was the sting of the dust that fell into my eyes. Since that time I have never been completely able to shake that dust out of my mind.

Baby gas maskFrom time to time over the succeeding years we would take out the gas masks and recall the times spent in the cellar hiding from the bombs with our sawn off Darth Vader headgear at the ready. I have no memory obviously of ever wearing the gas mask for babies, but when we tried on the adult ones after the war we looked like stranded frogmen and the humour perhaps helped soften the memories for my parents. At primary school on rainy days our lunchtime recreation took place in the windowless red-brick air raid shelter next to the playground. The two doors at each end were angled so that almost no light could travel in or out. In virtually complete darkness we would play a variation of piggy-in-the-middle using the stones which lay all around the floor. How there were no serious injuries with so much stone flying through the darkness I will never know.

It was quite some years after the war before the blackout blinds in our kitchen were replaced by something more cheerful and ration books disappeared at last. The terror of those days of war must still have been with me when I went on to grammar school. The last version of the nightmare that had haunted my childhood came only then I am sure. I was running for my life, pursued by the Gestapo. I burst through the doors of the gymnasium at Stockport School and dashed towards the wall-bars at the end (interesting symbol in such a situation). As I clambered to the top, the doors at the far end burst open and the pursuing gang of torturers burst in and I woke terrified.

Later, as I read about the war as a young adult I came to realise that Hitler was almost certainly a narcissistic megalomaniac psychopath. The mystery was how so many people bought into his fantasies and followed him. I could only hope the same thing would never happen again but books such as Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and her concept of the ‘banality of evil,’ as well as Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness were not entirely reassuring on that point.

Altruism Black Earth

What about now?

The spread of a dark ideology is woven into the pattern of our current culture. It is derived from a distortion of Darwinism. It shapes behaviour for which it is also used as an excuse.

I am currently reading Matthieu Ricard’s book on altruism and Timothy Snyder’s book on Nazism in tandem. It feels a bit like switching the light on and off in rapid alternation.

Not that Ricard’s book is blind to the dark side of our world at all. He argues that the prevalent credibility of the specious argument that human beings have evolved to be selfish leaves many people feeling that this is a self-evident truth that we simply have to accept, however reluctantly, and is used by others to explain and justify their self-seeking egotism.

He quotes (page 165) Frans de Waal who, speaking of Enron, the company ‘which went bankrupt thanks to embezzlement,’ said: ‘”the company’s CEO, Jeff Skilling – now in prison – was a great fan of Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene, and deliberately tried to mimic nature by instigating cutthroat competition within his company.”’

Ricard’s argument against accepting this toxic doctrine is, in my view, clear and compelling. He not only quotes Darwin himself as supporting the force of cooperation as an evolutionary positive but also adduces a wealth of replicable evidence to refute the baseless conviction that all behaviour, however apparently altruistic, is selfishly motivated.  This creed is completely contradicted by test after scientific test.

Sadly, though, evidence which is compelling for me is incredible to the all-too-many adherents of this cynical dogma (page 138):

Nonetheless, when confronted with the numerous examples of altruism which, like us, they witness in their daily lives, supporters of universal selfishness set to work proposing explanations that defy common sense. In other cases, they simply take for granted that genuine altruism can’t exist.

We’ve been here before, of course, with the battle being fought by reductionist materialists against the possibility of psi (see my posts on Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain). Daniel Batson, one of the key researchers into altruism, has responded to the critics by repeatedly producing further evidence for the genuineness of altruism that answers their current particular criticism and rules out their alternative explanations. In the end, in terms of this belief in the inherent selfishness of humanity (page 139), Ricard concludes that ‘A theory that is in principle unfalsifiable is not scientific, it is an ideology.’

lebensraum1

For source of image see link.

The Second World War 

And this is where Snyder comes into his own. His book is written as a warning to us that we should not complacently assume that we would never repeat the horrors of the Second World War. He feels that we are not so different from the people of that time that we could never repeat their nightmarish mistakes if the right conditions returned, as well they might, in his view. He raises the frightening possibility that, when we feel sufficiently threatened and an apparently plausible explanation comes along which appears to account for the threat and provides a supposedly effective defence, often by means of eliminating a scapegoat population, the vast majority of us will probably run eagerly after its proponents pleading to get on board, even if it means colluding in the slaughter of millions of completely innocent people, usually somewhere out of sight.

By what kinds of seductive pathways can this hell on earth be approached?

Most people born as I was in the shadow of the war will be fully aware of the Holocaust and its horrendous and abhorrent genocidal processes. What Snyder’s book does is examine in detail the various complex threads of argument by which this iniquity was made so palatable to so many.

In this first post I shall explore only one of these. Another will follow later. I am choosing this one first because of the overlap it detects between racist ideology and the very same culture that helped rescue Europe from Nazism – an irony that we would be wise to remember when we complacently assume that not only were we completely different then but that we could never ever be the same in the future.

While this thread links to the settlement made at the end of WW1 and the allocation of land that Germany thought should be hers, there is more to it than that, though clearly many in Germany felt that the settlement was unjust. And simply adding anti-Semitism into the mix doesn’t quite get there either. We need to add, amongst other things, the idea of Lebensraum and the provision of food that this would make possible. A key paragraph comes as early as page 15 in Black Earth:

“For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European” spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. . . .

For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “Look at America.” . . . . The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way, “The history of the colonisation of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavour the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”

An equally sinister extension of this thesis was (page 17) the idea that ‘experience in eastern Europe had established that neighbours could also be “black.” Europeans could be imagined to want “masters” and yield “space.” After the war, it was more practical to consider a return to Eastern Europe than to Africa.’ To this end Hitler (page 18) ‘presented as racial inferiors the largest cultural group in Europe, Germany’s eastern neighbours, the Slavs.’ So it was not only the Jews who were racially slurred and targeted.

This relates closely to John Fitzgerald Medina’s thesis, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, about how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it.

This is just the starting point for an examination of where we might go from here. Next time we’ll dig a bit deeper into the problem before looking at some of the possible remedies in the final post.

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After describing Hitler’s characteristics, he goes on to attempt to tease out the telltale markers of the demonic (page 223-224):

If the eyes are the mirror of the soul as tradition declares, then was the compelling power of Hitler’s eyes the stare of the demon? Did his eyes reveal the hollowness within, a glimpse into the ice-cold abyss, the utter absence of soul?

. . . . As we noted in so many of the biographies, the urgent certainty given by the acorn seems to put life in the hands of a stronger power. “I go the way that Providence dictates for me with all the assurance of a sleep walker,” Hitler said in a speech in 1936.

Hitler’s certitude also confirmed his sense of always being right, and this utter conviction utterly convinced his nation, carrying it forward in its wrongs. Absolute certainty, utter conviction – these, then, are signs of the demonic.

He develops this further slightly later in the chapter (pages 245-46):

Hitler only followed the demon, never questioned it, his mind enslaved by its imagination rather than applied to its investigation. . . . For what makes the seed demonic is its single-track obsession, its monotheistic literalism that follows one prospect only, perverting the larger imagination of the seed toward serial reenactments of the same act.

I absolutely agree that complete conviction, absolute certainty, are pathological and destructive. This is a theme I have explored a number of times on this blog. However, I have never felt it necessary to hypothesise the existence of a demon to explain it.

My very battered copy of this classic.

My alternative picture is based partly in Eric Fromm. In ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) he develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Eric Reitan is also relevant. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way (‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136):

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. When Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

This is not too far distant from Hilman’s perspective (page 236):

Elevation of the profane by the most profane act imaginable raises its power until it is indistinguishable from the sacred.

There are two other concepts relevant to the contagion of such toxic patterns: the hive switch and the Lucifer effect.

The Hive Switch

Haidt explains the first. The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

The capacity for charisma to carry thousands with it only needs the factoring in of such possibilities as the hive effect.

The Lucifer Effect

Zimbardo explains the second in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this thesis. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

Soullessness  

Coming back to Hillman’s perspective, there is one element that he adduces that may be slightly harder to dismiss (page 230):

Then, too, when we read of the odd coldness in Mary (Bell) and in Hitler, of that impulse toward death, there seems to be something else apart from both upbringing and possible heredity, some lack in their souls, or a lack of soul altogether.

He is ruling out such explanations as psychopathy, abuse or disrupted attachment in childhood as explanations of a coldness that is observed very early in their development. This launches him into an explanation of possible causes for the Bad Seed, none of which are mutually exclusive (pages 230-238): Early Traumatic Conditioning, Hereditary Taint, Group Mores, The Rewarded Choice Mechanism[1], Karma & Zeitgeist, The Shadow[2], Lacuna[3] and finally his pet theory The Demonic Call.

He explains more exactly what he means by the last idea (page 235 and 241):

As the potential for art and thought were given with the acorn, so is the potential for demonic crime. . . . . As Galand’s and Manolete’s potential was given with the acorn, so is the psychopathic potential for demonic crime.

I still prefer the Reitan and Fromm approach here which I outlined in the previous post. There are other ways of explaining a ‘calling’ without invoking a daimon. We all need an object of devotion. Heredity, upbringing and peer influence may shape our sense of it, but the need itself is inherent in our nature at some deep level. We need to be wise in the choice we make, or else we will slide into a dangerous or a meaningless pattern, the former if we choose a dark ‘god’ and the latter if we choose no god at all, trapped in an unconscious yearning for something to give our lives purpose. In addition to the devotion issue there is the related pattern: we all have a thirst for meaning which a convincing object of devotion slakes.

Conclusions

Even though, in the end, I disagree with his core thesis, I have to acknowledge the value that lies in his having raised these issues for consideration in such a clear and compelling fashion. When I look at the book more as a poetic rather than a prosaic exploration it makes for an even more satisfying read.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken him quite so literally as I have in this treatment. After all he is quite clear that he is speaking in the language of myth. Maybe I fell into the trap he describes (page 95:

. . . three modes transpose the mystery of the invisible into visible procedures we can work with: higher math, musical notations, and mythical images. So enchanted are we by the mystery transposed into the systems that we mistake the systems for the mystery; rather, they are indications pointing toward it.

Footnotes:

[1] He writes: ‘If each choice is met with accumulating success… then those successes will reinforce your belief that fate has you on the right track.’

[2] He writes: ‘The psychological propensity to destroy exists within all human beings. . . . Hitler knew the shadow all too well, indulged it, was obsessed by it, and strove to purge it; but he could not admit it in himself, seeing only its projected form [in those he sought to exterminate].’

[3] He explains: ‘[S]omething fundamentally human is missing.’

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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I’m about to recommend a book published in 1996. Not only does that seem a bit late in the day, but also much of the book makes bold statements about a mythological ‘reality’ for which absolutely no proof whatsoever can be adduced and with some of which I completely disagree. Why would I risk my already suspect and flakey reputation with sceptics for such a dubious course of action?

Partly this can be explained by the fact that the book contains genuine insights too valuable to ignore. To support that contention here is a quote of one.

Twenty years ago James Hillman wrote in The Soul’s Code (page 225), in his analysis of what he calls ‘The Bad Seed’:

(Hitler’s rote-learned information) proved his transcendence and disguised his lack of thought and reflection and his inability to hold a conversation. The demonic does not engage; rather, it smothers with details and jargon any possibility of depth.

Our republic should learn this lesson from Hitler, for we might one-day vote into power a hero who wins a giant TV trivia contest and educate our children to believe the Information Superhighway is the road to knowledge.

This quote exactly illustrates the dual nature of this text. It speaks of ‘demons’ in one breath, terminology I find hard to swallow, and follows it up with a breath-taking piece of intuition, the accuracy of which I leave you to judge for yourselves on the basis of recent evidence.

So thought-provoking are such comments that even when they are not as spot on as that one, it seems to me they make the book of great value in spite of its fairy-tale aspects. I am now going to try and make the argument in favour of that position.

One of my main difficulties with his core contention is this concept of the daimon as he spells it. Early in the book he writes (page 8):

The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. . . . . The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is a carrier of your destiny.

As explained by the greatest of later Platonists, Plotinus (A.D. 205–270), we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belong to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul’s choice – and I do not understand this because I have forgotten.

He later unpacks a further implication (page 46):

Since ancient psychology usually located the soul around or with the heart, your heart holds the image of your destiny and called you to it. . . . . Each of our souls is guided by a daimon to that particular body and place, these parents and circumstances, by Necessity – and none of us had an inkling of this because it was eradicated on the plains of forgetting.

The Acorn Theory

While at one point asserting that the life we fall into is our ‘soul’s choice,’ he also states that our daimon has guided us to that decision. Either way I have a problem with the idea that we choose our destiny in this way, but that is not the main issue. I find it confusing that, while he makes it clear at this point in the book that we have a daimon and a soul, he proceeds, in my view, to fudge that distinction by conflating them.

He outlines what he calls his ‘acorn’ theory (page 6):

In a nutshell, then, this book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory’, which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.

After explaining about the daimon and the soul, he states (page 10):

I will be using many of the terms for this acorn – image, character, fate, genius, calling, daimon, soul, destiny – rather interchangeably, preferring one or another depending on the context.

I find the original distinction unhelpful. My sense is that much can be explained perfectly well even in terms of what he is trying to explain and account for by simply using the word ‘soul’ and grasping that there is a dual potential in terms of the soul’s power and development. Turned heavenwards its impact is benign: mired in matter its effects are toxic. Either way it has immense power.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes this completely clear (Paris Talks, p. 97):

. . . when man does not open his mind and heart to the blessing of the spirit, but turns his soul towards the material side, towards the bodily part of his nature, then is he fallen from his high place and he becomes inferior to the inhabitants of the lower animal kingdom. In this case the man is in a sorry plight! For if the spiritual qualities of the soul, open to the breath of the Divine Spirit, are never used, they become atrophied, enfeebled, and at last incapable; whilst the soul’s material qualities alone being exercised, they become terribly powerful—and the unhappy, misguided man, becomes more savage, more unjust, more vile, more cruel, more malevolent than the lower animals themselves. All his aspirations and desires being strengthened by the lower side of the soul’s nature, he becomes more and more brutal, until his whole being is in no way superior to that of the beasts that perish.

This would be another way of explaining why Hillman wonders whether some people might have no soul (see below).

Even so, there was much I resonated to, not least the idea that we all might have a special purpose to fulfill in life no matter how modest our situation or our means. Hillman also rightly pillories the sterile banality of our materialistic way of life, argues against our blindness to the transcendent, and eloquently explains the importance of having a ‘calling.’ The relevance of these issues draws me into his explorations of them.

In the first part of the book he draws most of his evidence from the well-documented lives of celebrities – explaining that he has done so because this is the easiest place from which to draw illustrative data. This makes for a glamorous but unconvincing panorama of film stars and politicians, with the occasional matador (Manolete) and dictator (Franco) thrown in for good measure. Even so the scattering of thought-provoking comments kept me reading.

Perhaps, rather than compile an anthology of one-liners at this point, it would be best to focus on one more substantial illustration, a thread that runs across 70 pages woven into the tapestry of his overall perspective. Any reader of this blog will recognize immediately that this is a theme close to my heart, acorn, daimon, destiny, soul or whatever.

 

Materialism

We are inhabiting a materialistic culture that quarantines the transcendent as though it were the plague (page 110):

In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the west, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

This idea of course is nothing new. Even when he teases out little-mentioned aspects of its character, we are not breaking entirely new ground either (page 128-29):

Scientific psychology carves the kingdom of causes into only two parts, nature and nurture. . . . . We do need to recognise at the outset that division into two alternatives is a comfortable habit of the Western mind.

I did find it intriguing though to reflect on this insight and this was typical of my reaction to the book as a whole. We do live in a world that seems instinctively to dichotomise and categorise, that seems blind to dimensions and ambiguities. This makes what he refers to (page 150) as the ‘folly of reducing mind to brain’ appear almost inevitable and it’s therefore no surprise that it ‘never seems to leave the Western scene.’ As a result (page 151)

The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behaviour by drugs – that is, to drugged behaviour.

So far a perspective that I agree with, well-expressed but mostly familiar. It’s the final devastating point that best illustrates the penetrating courage of his writing (page 184):

If a culture’s philosophy does not allow enough place for the other, give credit to the invisible, then the other must squeeze it self into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional worldview by which they are judged.

That final sentence exactly pins down a fundamental problem. We all too often place denigrating labels on those our culture has helped damage. He has shifted my understanding to a higher level. He does that often enough to make the book a rewarding read.

Vacuous Environments

Perhaps I need to add one briefer example.

We live in a world that has in general reduced our expectations from the numinous to the banal. This has become so familiar as to be largely unnoticed. Credit to him that he sees the issue clearly and refuses to fudge it even though his use of the term daimon may blind some of us to the basic value of his point (page 165):

Perhaps the worst of all atmospheres for your daimon, trying to live with your parents in their place and circumstances, arises when these parents have no fantasy whatsoever about you. This objective, neutral environment, this normative, rational life is a vacuum with nothing blowing through.

In case we didn’t get the point he repeats it later in slightly different terms (page 168):

. . . . It is not ultimately parental control or parental chaos that children run away from; they run from the void of living in a family without any fantasy beyond shopping, keeping up the car, and routines of niceness.

He’s nailed an essential truth again and, in this case, the spiritual aspect of his perspective lends his point an additional power for me at least.

However, in spite of all those positives I was still uneasy.

Bad Seed

The second challenging aspect for me of the first two-thirds of the book was that to Hillman it initially seemed not to matter whether the acorn produces a murderer, a Matador or mystic. There seemed to be a moral confusion blended with the murky mythology. It was only towards the end of the book that he confronts this problem head on and proves beyond doubt that he was not completely blind to it, even though in the end a skilled bullfighter still seems as admirable to him as Martin Luther King.

He first raises the question in the following terms (page 214):

Can the acorn harbour a bad seed? Or, perhaps the criminal psychopath has no soul at all?

He uses as his key example one of the three most notorious dictators of modern times – Hitler – locating part of the problem in the cultural assumptions and patterns of this age (pages 215-16):

Having once appeared in such a virulent form (as Hitler), may that demon not need to blind us again. Our enquiry also intends to lay out specific ways in which the daimon shows itself to be demonic, and a genius, evil. . . . . . Anyone who rises in a world that worships success should be suspect, for this is an age of psychopathy. . . . The habits of Hitler, reported by reliable informants and assessed by reliable historians and biographers, give evidence of an identification with or possession by his daimon. . . . As I want to demonstrate, the acorn theory offers as good a mode as any of imagining the Hitler phenomenon.

He begins by listing seven characteristics of Hitler that in his view capture the way he presents (pages 217-222): The Cold Heart, Hellfire, Wolf, Anality[1], Suicides of women, Freaks[2], and Humourless Hitler.

While these pointers may indeed be applicable to Hitler they don’t advance his case for the existence of a daimon, in my view.

More on that in the second and last post.

Footnotes:

[1]. He explains: ‘Hitler gave himself enemas; he was immensely disturbed by his flatulence; he had obsessive ideas about touching and being touched, about diet, digestion, and personal cleanliness.’

[2] He explains: ‘Hitler’s entourage, however, was most unusual for its collection of freaks in high places, even as others physically like them were systematically expunged in the death camps.’

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‘Dangerous honesty’: The Enigma of Hitler by Salvador Dalí (1939). Illustration: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

‘Dangerous honesty’: The Enigma of Hitler by Salvador Dalí (1939). Illustration: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Yesterday I read a powerfully engaging article on the art of the 1930s which hooked me from the start with references to a picture of Dali’s I’d never even heard of let alone seen, in spite of my interest in the Surrealists. Its analysis of Picasso’s Guernica, a painting whose power I have seen up close,  is masterly. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Salvador Dalí’s The Enigma of Hitler is a ghostly farewell to the 1930s. Painted in the last year of the decade, when Hitler’s invasion of Poland finally brought the years of appeasement to an end, its image of a melting telephone suspended above a photograph of the Führer torn from a newspaper and lying on a plate (otherwise empty except for a few dry beans) recalls the long-distance conversations of barren diplomacy, the anxiety of hearing the latest shocking news, the dread of waiting for war.

An umbrella that could easily belong to the prime minister Neville Chamberlain hangs impotently in the ether, fading away – as colourless as the bleak landscape with which Dalí holds a mirror to his age.

The grey desolation of this image is all the more poignant because Dalí was no political activist. He was, indeed, so reluctant to take sides that he got thrown out of the surrealist movement for confessing that he dreamt about the Nazi leader. “Hitler turned me on in the highest,” he later acknowledged. Yet precisely because he reflected the dark urges of his times with such dangerous honesty, Dalí’s art presents an inner chronicle of the 30s, a secret diary of the nightmares behind the headlines.

No decade has ever been so lucidly portrayed by its artists. If anyone was surprised by the increasing aggression of Nazi Germany or the barbarity of the dictatorships, it was not for lack of warnings in paintings, photomontages, objects or art films such as Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), whose string of violently erotic images reveals a unhinged world.

The reason artists could so acutely expose the demonic politics of the 30s was their interest in the unconscious, which the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 had made the central interest of the avant garde.

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