“The fear of humiliation appears to be one of the most powerful motivators in individual and collective human behavior.” ~ Donald Klein
My last few observations on Breaking Bad. I didn't watch the series until it was off the air and then I watched all of it in a week.
All stories are myth.
There is no light on human nature more pitiless and perceptive and accurate than mythology. Through hundreds if not thousands of years all the dross was burned away, leaving some very acute observations about human nature.
Unfortunately mythology is not taught in schools or the churches or by parents. Too bad, since there is wisdom in the stories, wisdom that doesn’t exist at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, places that produce “the Best and Brightest” now busy destroying the United States.
The ancient Greeks outlined this sequence: Koros to Hubris to Ate to Nemesis. They argued about what exactly each word meant. Scholars still argue today.
I’ve heard Koros described as a kind of greed - and had those ancient Greeks been Christian, they would have called it one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I’ve also heard Koros described as what happens to people of unsound character when they gain great wealth and power (meaning, more than anything else, political power, which ultimately is the power to “legally” kill people).
Walter White, ultimately, suffered from Hubris. He actually started out as kind of a wimpy guy, who felt humiliated and powerless, partly dominated by his unpleasant wife, not having the money and power and recognition he felt he deserved. Even at the beginning his flaws were obvious. Even at the beginning he showed his greed and envy and resentment. To quote Wikipedia: "Walt's Macbethian descent into the criminal underworld unearths immense levels of deeply repressed ambition, rage, resentment, vanity, and an increasing ruthlessness which alienates him from his family and colleagues."
He becomes a monster. However, the root of "monstrum" is 'monere' — which does not only mean to warn, but also to instruct, and forms the basis of the modern word "demonstrate." The monster is also a sign or instruction. This benign interpretation was proposed by Saint Augustine, who did not see the monster as inherently evil, but as part of the natural design of the world. This is why the purpose of myth is to entertain and instruct.
A man or woman, a weakling of unstable character, who gains great wealth and political power, then next suffers from Hubris -- another name for the towering, grandiose Pride that afflicted Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Hubris is arrogance, moral blindness, wanton violence, which creates in the afflicted the ability to cruelly and brutally humiliate people without any qualms – the way Herod and Caligula did. They always rationalize as a necessary thing how even the innocent suffer terribly, which is why there exists the ironic observation (which both Jesus and Aesop noticed) that all tyrants call themselves benefactors.
Walter kept saying he did what he did to be a benefactor to his family. Then, at the end, he said he did it for himself. Then, finally, he redeemed himself by freeing Jesse and wiping out Uncle Jack and his crew.
The Greeks, with their usual intelligence and perspicacity, banned representations of brutal public humiliation from their theater as obscene – and the original definition of obscene meant something that should not be shown in public. This is the main reason I watched Breaking Bad once and will never watch it again. It's too painful to watch Walter go insane and what he does to innocent people. And to himself.
Not so surprisingly, the root words of “obscene” and “humiliation” both mean “dirt” – to treat someone as dirt. Humiliation also means “to mortify,” which means to “make dead,” not necessarily physically dead, but worse, dead in psyche, as in the walking dead – zombie or vampire, which is how those whose souls have been murdered by vicious humiliations describe themselves.
Seeing wrong as right is Ate - madness.
It has been noticed for many years by many people that bullies cover up their cowardice with braggadocio – arrogance on top hiding their feelings of humiliation. When such people gain political power millions can die because of their attempts to replace shame with pride (Hitler had one testicle, Stalin had badly pocked skin, fused toes on one foot and a withered arm, and LBJ escalated in Vietnam because he was afraid his critics would consider him “chicken” if he didn’t).
Now we come to Nemesis. Nemesis is the goddess of fate and retribution. You can use many other names: revenge, vengeance and retaliation, payback…perhaps even justice. (As an aside, the Greeks called justice Dike, and it exists because of the criminal acts created by Hubris.)
I find it significant that Nemesis means “fate.” That means cause-and-effect, although I believe it is more accurate to define it as a cybernetic system, specifically a positive feedback system: humiliation leads to revenge, then those who are the objects of revenge seek revenge in turn, and so in, an escalating spiral of death and destruction.
Humiliation doesn’t always have to lead to revenge, if the object of humiliation can maintain his or her innocence, as in such stories as “Cinderella” and the first Harry Potter novel (in both cases they are stories that illustrate the saying, “Living well is the best revenge”).
In a nutshell, when you brutally humiliate people and make them suffer cruelly, and don’t even know you’re doing it, and instead of relieving their suffering you see it as something good and necessary, you’re going to be pretty damned surprised when the people you are oppressing and exploiting and killing rise up and kill you back. You’ll be outraged and consider it ingratitude; they’ll consider it justice.
There have been quite a few people throughout history (Marcus Aurelius for one) who have been able to handle power. Those who consciously seek power over others are avaricious, self-deluded weaklings and can never handle it properly. As Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I prefer the sayings, “Power intoxicates and immunity corrupts,” and “Power is the horse that evil rides.”
As Dostoevsky put it in The House of the Dead, "Tyranny...finally develops into a disease. The habit can...coarsen the very best man to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate...the return to human dignity, to repentance, to regeneration, becomes almost impossible."
The opposite of Hubris is humility, or what the Greeks called Sophrosyne. It can be described as “Nothing in excess” and “Know thyself,” meaning having a clear understanding of your character, your strengths and limitations. It means treating people with respect, not brutalizing and humiliating them. Walter never learned his limitations, basically became insane, but he at last redeemed himself. He may have lost his life but he regained his soul.
“The most dangerous men in the world are the ones who are afraid they are wimps.” - James Gilligan.