Sunday, January 6, 2008

Modern Day Molochs

The Greek word, "sophrosyne" ("seh-FROS-eh-knee") is the opposite of another old Greek word: hubris. Hubris, or as the Bible puts it, "pride," is, I believe, the only true crime that exists, because it is the basis of all other crimes.

Hubris is conceit, arrogance, grandiosity, the belief that one is god-like and can transcend human limitations, usually through violence. Hubris devalues other people into mere things. It is the sin of Satan, as described in the Bible.

Sophrosyne can be described as understanding the limitations and imperfections of human nature, of "knowing yourself," of doing nothing in any great excess. It's a type of "humility," if humility is understood as an awareness of the flaws inherent in people. It reminds me of another Greek word, "metanoia," which means to "change the heart and mind, to turn around and go the other way."

Hubris always leads to scapegoating, which the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck correctly identified as the "genesis of human evil." He was right, but did not point out it's based on hubris, and that scapegoating always leads to human sacrifice.

That's the sequence as I see it: hubris to scapegoating to human sacrifice. The Greeks saw the sequence as koros (stability) to hubris (arrogance, insolence) to ate (madness) to nemesis (destruction). I think it's more accurate to say that right after hubris comes the belief in the fairy tale of pure good and pure evil, splitting everyone into all-good or all-bad. That leads to ate, to madness, to scapegoating and human sacrifice. Then nemesis follows.

Scapegoating is when one person or a group projects problems onto another person or group, then tries to destroy them. One side says, "Since we are good, then you must be evil. Being evil, you are the cause of our problems. If we destroy you, evil will cease to exist and our problems will disappear."

Scapegoating requires splitting groups into pure good and pure evil, into grandiose and devalued. That splitting -- indeed that belief -- in pure good and pure evil automatically leads to scapegoating and human sacrifice.

In the 20th century, the best-known practitioners of scapegoating and human sacrifice were the Nazis and socialists. They weren't the only ones, just the best-known. All societies do it. The U.S. did it to alcohol users during Prohibition and does it today to drug dealers and sellers.

You can see the sequence I outlined in any serial killer. Or, in any murderer. They start out stable, then, somehow hubris afflicts them. Then comes the split, with them as good and someone else as evil. They project their problems on the other person, then scapegoat and kill them, engaging in human sacrifice. They do it in the hope they can become "whole." Since it doesn't work, they have to repeat their crimes. That makes serial killers serial scapegoaters.

On a much larger scale, with the Nazis and the socialists, each projected their problems on to others, then scapegoated and sacrificed them. Historians estimate 177 million people died in wars in the 20th century. I've seen estimates of up to 200 million. All scapegoated, all sacrificed, because of hubris -- we are good, and you are evil. You are the cause of our problems, so we must destroy you.

The function of the scapegoat, according to Rene Girard, a French Catholic academic who did his work in the U.S., are two: social cohesion, and the attempt to renew society by doing violence to the scapegoat. He wrote two works, Violence and the Sacred, and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

Both the Nazis and socialists thought if they scapegoated and human sacrificed their opponents, then a new, better society would arise. The U.S. tried the same thing with alcohol and drug prohibition. Get rid of alcohol, and drug sellers and users, cast all problems onto them, see them as evil, then once they are eradicated, a new, better society will arise. Only it won't. It never will.

All, like serial killers, do violence to the scapegoat in an effort to become whole.

Scapegoating and human sacrifice, which is always through violence, will never create a better society. Yet all societies continue to try it, to no avail. None are even aware of what they do. All approve of it and consider it a good thing.

In the U.S., you can see this scapegoating and sacrifice in any election. A politician who fails is scapegoated and then sacrificed by being voted out of office. A better country -- especially a better economy -- is supposed to result. If things get too bad, politicians can be sacrificed the way Mussolini was. All politicians would do well to keep Shirley Jackson's famous short story, "The Lottery," in mind.

The novel that most clearly shows the sequence of hubris to scapegoating to human sacrifice, and the function of the scapegoat, is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. In it we have her god-like heroes, whose problem are due to "looters" and "parasites," all of whom Rand describes as subhuman. Her heroes are all-good; the villains, all-bad.

Rand, by casting all problems, all evil, onto her villains, has them function as scapegoats that must be sacrificed to assure the creation of a better world. Her heroes withdraw into Galt's Gulch to await the destruction of all evil through violence and death. Then, they plan on returning to a fresh, new world. It works in fiction. In real life it wouldn't.

Girard believed one of the most profound importances of the Gospels is that for the first time in history a voice was given to the victim, to the scapegoat. To a lesser degree, a voice was given to Socrates, who along with Jesus, are the two most important deaths in Western culture. But for all practical purposes, it was the death of Jesus, detailed in the Gospels, that showed the function of the scapegoat in society, and how scapegoating leads to human sacrifice.

The fact this function was brought to light in the Gospels is why Girard titled one of his books, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

In no other literature I am familiar with has scapegoating and human sacrifice, for society, been considered a bad thing. Only in the Gospels. In my opinion, the fact the scapegoat function was brought to light, and finally seen as a bad thing, was supposed to put a permanent end to hubris, scapegoating and human sacrifice.

And it did work, for a while. But today, we seem to be going backward. You need look no farther than a nation that claims it is good, has God on its side, has a leader who, afflicted with hubris, believes God chose and talks to him, and who believes he has the right to murder thousands of innocent people on the other side of the world. By scapegoating and sacrificing them the United States shall be made "whole." This is hubris, to be followed by nemesis.

The worst scapegoating and human sacrifice of all is war. We may shake our heads over primitives who rolled infants into the fires in the belly of Moloch, but they didn't incinerate people with nuclear weapons or firestorms, as was done at Dresden. Who exactly are the true primitives? Do we not believe in scapegoating and human sacrifice, to save society, to make it "whole," just as much as people thousands of years ago?

There are five archetypes I have identified that are associated with all societies' attempts at scapegoating: the Mob, the Leaders, the Exaggerated Threat, the Scapegoat, and the Human Sacrifice. I got these from my readings of the Gospels, all of which contain some of the most practical wisdom I have encountered.

Jose y Ortega Gasset referred to the Mob, which is Mass Man, as "without direction, self-satisified, and preoccupied with his own well-being..." In fable they are known as the Sheep, the ones at the mercy of the Wolves. Today, they are often called Sheeple -- part sheep, part people.

Jesus' threat to the leaders of his time was exaggerated by them (even though they truly believed it), so they were able to convince the mob to unite, turn against him and call for his death. The end result: he was scapegoated and sacrificed. " is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not," said Caiaphas, fearing the Romans.

What existed then, still exists today. It'll exist in the future, too. The U.S. was attacked on 9-11. The threat was, as always, exaggerated by our leaders, who apparently truly believed that Islam could conquer the world or Saddam Hussein would fly Drones of Death across the Atlantic. Fearing a mortal threat, and believing their leaders, the mob, mass man, united, as they always do when they perceive a threat. Seeking a scapegoat, everyone first fixated on Osama bin Laden (and exaggerated his threat, turning a man in a cave into an Evil Genius), then later turned to Saddam Hussein. Finding and destroying these scapegoats was to allow the creation of a new, better, safer United States, even if it cost us our liberty.

Obviously, our opponents are doing the exact same thing to us. That's why they refer to the United States as "the Great Satan." Each group says God is on their side and the Devil on the other. Each group scapegoats and wants to sacrifice the other to save themselves. Nothing good can come from this. It never has in the past. It never will in the future.

The exaggerated threat, the irrational, emotion-driven mob united by the leaders, the scapegoat and the human sacrifice through violence, cannot create a better United States, only a worse one.

The first step is overcoming hubris, scapegoating and human sacrifice is to be aware of them, and to understand they never work for any society that tries it. Girard was right about that. If it did work, then there would not be millennia after millennia of war. As long as this law -- if it is a law -- remains hidden, it cannot be dealt with. And until it is dealt with, the human race will do as it always does -- repeat the story of Satan over and over.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Good article, but I noticed you don't mention the various forms of scapegoating that happen in religious institutions. See this:

especially the current issue: