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A Few Thoughts On Human Malice

Why do people do reprehensible things? What accounts for the sort of malice one reads about in the news every day – not only homicides and extreme violence, but acts of deviousness and treachery, unscrupulous business practices, rape and spousal battery? Why do the alarm bells of conscience go off in some heads but not in others? Across the last sixty years philosophers and psychotherapists have offered insights into the subject. Here is a sampling of them.


Our Virtually Real Existence, Part 2

Over the last quarter century the experiment in cyber life has gone off with little to no resistance. No sooner did the technologies arrive than the entire world embraced them. In the early days of the web, however, and in the years preceding it, there were some who sounded an alarm. “It’s an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness," wrote one expert. "While the Internet beckons brightly, selectively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this non-place lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where – in the holy names of Education and Progress – important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued."


Renouncing One’s Autonomy

Do people really hunger for freedom, as so many thinkers over the ages have asserted? Or does freedom terrify them – is it something they would rather renounce? “The common man,” Van Wyck Brooks once observed, “has no sense of having surrendered his will: he regards it as a mere pretension of the philosophers that man has a will to surrender. He eats, drinks and continues to be merry or morose regardless of his moral destiny: to possess no principle of growth, no spiritual backbone is, indeed, his greatest advantage in a world where success is the reward of accommodation."


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Reference Section

Bon Mot Archive

Bon Mot

The Beautiful and the True in art do not exist; what interests me is the intensity of a personality transposed directly, clearly into the work; the man and his vitality; the angle from which he regards the elements and in what manner he knows how to gather sensation, emotion, into a lacework of words and sentiments.

– Tristan Tzara, Lecture on Dada


Among the means for the regeneration of mankind, those made with noise and show are of the least importance.

– From The Wisdom of Confucius, ed. by Lin Yutang


The true apocalyptic view of the world is that things do not repeat themselves. It isn't absurd, e.g., to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion, along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known; that there is nothing good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap. It is by no means obvious that this is not how things are.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value


Criticism of tendencies in modern society is automatically countered, before it is fully uttered, by the argument that things have always been like this…Assent is given to what has been drummed into people's heads by philosophy of every hue: that whatever has the persistent momentum of existence on its side is thereby proved right. One need only be discontented to be at once suspect as a world reformer.

– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate...but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.

– Franz Kafka, Diaries


One man thinks pretty much what the man next to him thinks: the human porridge of the traffic accident, weeks ago, or years.

– Thomas Bernhard, Frost
















IN THE ARCHIVE

Philosophy And Depression

Contrary to what is often supposed, depression may not be some “disease” that needs to be extirpated from the mind; it might instead be a natural reaction to one's social surroundings and situation – the healthy suspicion that the life people have actually created, the “structure of society,” is not one worth participating in.


Buber’s I-Thou Insight

"The 'I-It' relationship is characterized by the fact that it is not a genuine relationship because it does not take place between the I and the It. When another person is an It to me, I am, first of all, perfectly alone. I gaze at him and view him from every possible direction, I observe his place in the scheme of things, and I find elements that distinguish him from them. All of this…takes place within me; I am judging and I am observing, and the external world is relevant only to the extent that it enters my being."


Losing One’s Sense Of Belonging

“We do not meet one another as persons in the several aspects of our total life, but know one another only fractionally, as the man who fixes the car, or as that girl who serves our lunch, or as the woman who takes care of our child at school,” C. Wright Mills once observed. “Pre-judgement and prejudice flourish when people meet people only in this segmental manner. The humanistic reality of others does not, cannot, come through.”


A Free Man’s Worship

“A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother.”






























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Cratylus’ Skepticism

Cratylus was a disciple of Heraclitus’ and a contemporary of Plato’s (one of Plato’s dialogues was named after him, in fact). It was Heraclitus who said memorably that “one cannot step into the same river twice.” Cratylus altered the epigram to read, “One cannot step into the same river even once.” As he saw it, the ceaseless flux of life precluded knowledge and understanding, which must rest on far stabler foundations.

The following concise summary of his position can be found in the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Peter Angeles (New York, 1992), p. 277.

[According to Cratylus], no knowledge can be had of reality; one cannot say anything about anything. The communication of knowledge or of anything at all is impossible because all things are in perpetual change. The language that is used to communicate itself changes in the process of communication; the speaker is in a process of change; the meanings and ideas change even as one is thinking and uttering them; the recipient of the communication is in change; and the total environment is in continual change without anything ever remaining the same. Cratylus concluded that one cannot say anything about anything and that one should not try. He refused to talk, since talking appeared to him senseless, meaningless, a waste of effort. He merely wiggled his finger to indicate he was fleetingly responding to stimuli.


Of Celebrities And Media

By Lewis Lapham

The camera sees but doesn’t think. Whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, the object of its affection doesn’t matter; what matters is the surge and volume of emotion that it engenders and evokes, the floods of consciousness drawn as willingly to a blood bath in Afghanistan as to a bubble bath in Paris. As the habits of mind beholden to the rule of images come to replace the structures of thought derived from the meaning of words, the constant viewer eliminates the association of cause with effect, learns that nothing necessarily follows from anything else…

Celebrity is about being, not becoming. Once possessed of the sovereign power to find a buyer, all celebrity is royal. The images of wealth and power demand nothing of their votaries other than the duty of ritual obeisance. The will to learn gives way to a being in the know, which is the instant recognition of the thousands of logos encountered in the course of a day’s shopping and an evening’s programming…Celebrities of various magnitudes become the familiar spirits of insurance policies and shaving creams, breathe the gift of life into tubes of deodorant, awaken with their personal touch the spirit dormant in the color of a lipstick or a bottle of perfume. The wishful thinking moves the merchandise, accounts not only for high-end appearance fees ($3 million to Mariah Carey to attend a party; $15,000 for five minutes in the presence of Donald Trump) but also for the Wall Street market in nonexistent derivatives and the weapons of mass destruction gone missing in Iraq…

Like the camera, the market moves but doesn’t think, drawn as willingly to the production of nuclear warheads as to the growing of oranges or grapes. It doesn’t recognize such a thing as a poor celebrity. Celebrity is money with a human face, the “pegs” and “loops” on which to hang the dream of riches that is “the darling passion” of the American breast. Bipartisan and nondenominational, the hero with a thousand faces unfortunately doesn’t evolve into a human being. Let money become the seat of power and the font of wisdom, and the story ends with an economy gone bankrupt, an army that wins no wars, and a politics composed of brightly colored balloons.


The Necessity For The Name “God”

By John A.T. Robinson

The necessity for the name “God” lies in the fact that our being has depths which naturalism, whether evolutionary, mechanistic, dialectical or humanistic, cannot or will not recognize. And the nemesis which has overtaken naturalism in our day has revealed the peril of trying to suppress them. As Tillich puts it,

Our period has decided for a secular world. That was a great and much-needed decision…It gave consecration and holiness to our daily life and work. Yet it excluded those deep things for which religion stands: the feeling for the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence, and the invincible power of an unconditional devotion. These things cannot be excluded. If we try to expel them in their divine images, they re-emerge in daemonic images. Now, in the old age of our secular world, we have seen the most horrible manifestations of these daemonic images; we have looked more deeply into the mystery of evil than most generations before us; we have seen the unconditional devotion of millions to a satanic image; we feel our period’s sickness unto death.

There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgements of the holy and the sacred, awarenesses of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic, which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else. There is the “Thus saith the Lord” heard by prophet, apostle and martyr for which naturalism cannot account. But neither can it discount it merely by pointing to the fact that “the Lord” is portrayed in the Bible in highly mythological terms, as one who “inhabits eternity” or “walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.” The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of “what you take seriously without any reservation,” of what for you is ultimate reality. [Emphasis in original.]


Jung’s Observation About People

In Man And His Symbols (1964, pp.48-49), Carl Jung offers this observation about the many people he had either known or counseled over the course of his life:

"I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way. I was also surprised to find many intelligent and wide-awake people who lived (as far as one could make out) as if they had never learned to use their sense organs: They did not see the things before their eyes, hear the words sounding in their ears, or notice the things they touched or tasted. Some lived without being aware of the state of their own bodies.

"There are others who seemed to live in a most curious condition of consciousness, as if the state they had arrived at today were final, with no possibility of change, or as if the world and the psyche were static and would remain so forever. They seemed devoid of all imagination, and they entirely and exclusively depended upon their sense-perception. Chances and possibilities did not exist in their world, and in 'today' there was no real 'tomorrow'. The future was just the repetition of the past."


The Revolution Betrayed

By Terry Eagleton

Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it's hard to think of a historical movement which has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins [than Christianity]. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive. The liberal establishment really has nothing whatsoever to fear from it and everything to gain. For the most part, it's become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the rifraff and undercover anti-colonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out. The suburbanite response to the anawim, a term which can be roughly translated into American English as 'loser,' is for the most part to flush them off the streets.

This brand of piety is horrified by the sight of the female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor. It laments the death of a fetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U.S. global dominion. By and large, it worships a God fashioned blasphemously in its own image -- a clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessed God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged piece of the globe just south of Canada and just north of Mexico, rather than the Yahweh who is homeless, faceless, stateless, and imageless, who prods his people out of their comfortable settlement into the tractless terrors of the desert, and who brusquely informs them that their burnt offerings stink in his nostrils...Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neo-cons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right...

The Christian church has tortured and disemboweled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, santimonious, brutally oppressive, and vilely bigoted. Morality for this brand of belief is a matter of the bedroom rather than the boardroom. It supports murderous dictatorships in the name of God, views both criticism and pessimism as unpatriotic, and imagines that being a Christian means maintaining a glazed grin, a substantial bank balance, and a mouthful of pious platitudes. It denounces terrorism, but excludes from its strictures such kidnapping, torturing, murdering outfits as the CIA...

This brand of faith fails to see that the only cure for terrorism is justice. It also fails to grasp to what extent the hideous, disfigured thing clamoring at its gates is its own monstrous creation. It is unable to acknowledge this thing of darkness as in part its own, unable to find its own reflection in its distorted visage...It is hard to avoid the feeling that a God as bright, resourceful, and imaginative as the one that might just possibly exist could not have hit on some more agreeable way of saving the world than religion.

I am talking, then, about the distinction between what seems to me a scriptural and an ideological kind of Christian faith -- a distinction which can never simply be assumed but must be interminably argued. One name for this thankless exercise is what Nietzsche, who held that churches were the tombs and sepulchres of God, called in Kierkegaardian phrase saving Christianity from Christendom. Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless. It is not a project which at present holds out much promise of success.


Darkening Of The World

The following is an excerpt from Marjorie Grene's essay "Martin Heidegger" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ms. Grene passed away in March 2009; she wrote some two dozen books, among which are works on Sartre and Heidegger.

The "darkening of the world" is Heidegger's constant theme. So, for example, in Holzwege ("Woodpaths," 1950), he tells us that we live in the age of research, of the planned, systematic coordination of intellectual tasks. And what sort of tasks can be planned and coordinated? Neat, limited, manageable tasks -- tasks, primarily, that demand inventiveness rather than understanding, tasks for engineering know-how rather than theoretical insight. Heidegger draws no line between pure and applied science. Science for him is research, and research is a procedure for solving well-packaged problems. Such problems are, in general, those of manufacture, of inventing new and better gadgets. According to Heidegger, das Herstellbare, the collection of gadgets, is what we are after; that is what specialization, the rigid departmental structure of expertise in our society, amounts to. And all this vast proliferation of technical skills nevertheless has its inner unity -- that is, its historical and metaphysical unity. It had to happen this way. It had to happen this way because we are fallen out of Being. We are more concerned with beings, from genes to space ships, than with our true calling, which is to be shepherds and watchers of Being. So it is that we are lost, and Being itself has become a haze and an error -- nothing.


(See more from Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Excerpts & Passages: Einstein on God and the Good Life; Rilke’s Imaginary Life Journey; Adorno on Modern Human Relations.)

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