At a brunch an American father mentioned his surprise that his teenage son did not believe that people were naturally good. My son doesn’t believe this either, but in my household this is not surprising.
Of course this is a large subject which would quickly bog down were we to try to define the good. Heading toward a definition of evil, one of the other fathers at the table mentioned self-interest. As in, we humans are willing to do a good deal of harm to others in order to get what we want.
The first father, who does yeoman work with socially and intellectually challenged school children, had a Rousseauian perspective: people are naturally good, and, particularly, we want the best for ourselves—to be successful, well-liked, and so forth. Insofar as we act badly, this is because of noxious social influences. Stymied in our desire to be good, we end up doing evil.
So that was Sunday—Palm Sunday, it so happened. By Good Friday I had read in Frederick Brown’s The Embrace of Unreason about how in 1935 French physicians prevailed upon the government to make the practice of medicine by foreigners, and especially by Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, all but impossible. I was reminded of how, after the Russian Revolution, young mathematicians got in the habit of denouncing their elders as anti-communist reactionaries. This led to the older mathematicians losing their jobs (and worse), which in turn allowed the younger generation to get “good” jobs.
You might say that these examples fit nicely under the heading “self-interest.” But then, in Adam Kirsch’s excellent review of books about how the Nazi concentration camps worked, I read about the Kinderzimmer (or children’s room) at Ravensbrück, the camp for women. “[I]nmates who came to the camp pregnant were forced to abandon their babies; the newborns were left to die of starvation or be eaten alive by rats.”
Of course we can condemn and fear the Germans on account of the Holocaust (and note that most of the killing was not done in the Konzentrationlager, but in the death camps or by the sides of roads and ditches). But for Americans, say, it would take a good set of blinders to do such condemning and fearing without recalling our own extermination of the Indians. And many other cultures have similar events in their pasts.
But there is something particular about the Germans—their sadism—one might wish to say. But, for example, in Tzvetan Todorov’s La Conquête de l’Amerique (The Conquest of America) one can read of the sadism of the conquering Spaniards, and I have never forgotten a C. Vann Woodward review of a book that described the spectacle punishments of black men accused of relations with white women in the American South. In one case the man “had his penis nailed to a block of wood upon which a sharp knife was placed. Then the lightwood piled around him was set afire. He escaped burning by the only means provided.”
Vann Woodward (reviewing a book by Martha Hodes) goes on:
Notices of lynchings were printed in local papers, and extra cars added to trains for spectators from miles around, sometimes thousands of them. Schoolchildren might get a day off to attend the lynching.
The spectacle could include castration, skinning, roasting, hanging, and shooting. Souvenirs for purchasers might include fingers, toes, teeth and bones, even genitals of the victim, as well as picture postcards of the event.
This is not so much sadism, you might well say, as it is, yet again, self-interest. As in the famous public drawing and quartering of Robert-François Damiens, who tried to assassinate King Louis XV, the point of the lynchings was to discourage a certain behavior, to preserve white male Southerners’ hold over both black men and white women. So perhaps the question becomes: To what lengths are we willing to go—or is there no length to which we are not willing to go—to advance our self-interests, or the interests of our class?
In the midst of such gruesome Good Friday reading (and for all I did not read about the practice and agonies of crucifixion), I came back to a favorite passage in Kant’s essay about a “Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” which is much concerned with what he calls the “ungesellige Geselligkeit des Menschen” (the unsocial sociability of Man). Man, he proposes: “expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, for his own part, is inclined to oppose others.”
As an American, living in the United States, I am particularly struck by this suggestion that we come to fear others, and perhaps to develop our ideas of the ungoodness of human beings, through knowing ourselves, from seeing what we ourselves do, listening to our own thoughts and feelings. I do not have the sense that most Americans have this experience. Evil, or aggressive self-interest, is always something on the outside, something other people do, be they Germans or Romans, Saddam Hussein or ISIS; white Southerners, the Ku Klux Klan, the British Army giving smallpox infested blankets to the Indians they were driving out of what became Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, . . .
Legend has it that, on the morning of his quartering and torturing (sulfur, molten lead, boiling oil, . . . ), Damiens said, “La journée sera rude” (The day will be hard). Reading of such events is rather easier, yet hardly something to do every day.
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.
Credits & Links
Pig image is from a Nature article (25 March 2015): Inside the first pig biobank, by Alison Abbott. Caption reads: “Boar 1339 was genetically engineered to have diabetes; its body parts, now in the Munich MIDY-PIG Biobank in Germany, are freely available to researchers.”
Portrait of Louis XV, King of France (1710-1774) is credited to the workshop of Louis-Michel van Loo.
Frederick Brown, The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940. Anchor Books, 2015.
Adam Kirsch, The System: Two new histories show how the Nazi concentration camps worked. The New Yorker, 6 April 2015.
C. Vann Woodward, Dangerous Liaisons, New York Review of Books, 19 February 1998. Review of Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (Yale University Press, 1999).
Immanuel Kant, Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht (Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View). By and large I rely on the English translation prepared by the Kant scholar Lewis White Beck, which appeared in Kant: On History (Pearson, 1963). For more on this essay, see In Kant’s Wood.
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Thou Shalt Not Read