Why are humans so violent? Can anything be done about it? For centuries philosophers, theologians and governments have sought answers to these perplexing and vital questions. Over the past decade, a variety of hypothesis have been put forward by the globes leading thinkers. The belief is that if we could understand the cause of human violence we could reshape the outcome. Over the next few weeks I will be exploring some answers to this question and be reviewing their implications for spirituality. Part one of this series examines some popular modern views on the origin of human violence.
The Moral “No”
Philosopher Kenneth Burke suggested in the 1930’s that because humanity is moralized by prohibitions, violence is rooted in a learned childhood behavior from parents who tell their children “no”. Children learn what is right by being instructed on what is wrong. The trouble with a life of prohibitions is that one can never quite measure up. One can read the famous 10 Commandments as a long list of “Thou Shall Not’s” and as the “shall not’s” outweigh the “shall’s” the intricate system of morality begins to unravel. This unraveling leads us to a moment – usually in the adolescent years – where a child succumbs to the gross sense of inadequacy imposed by the prohibition by either turning inward upon oneself or outward against the world.
An inward turn feasts on a long list of failures and conflicting desires, concluding that one is pitiful and deceitfully rotten to the core, some “thing” deserving of death. The outward turn revolts against the forces which have confined them for years, throwing off the pretense of ever measuring up. This shedding of the only system of morality ever know can take a variety of shapes, this reaction is most notability marked by a predictability strong disdain for a system that held them in bondage.
Ego and the “Self”
Richard Weaver, seeking to make sense of the Second World War, published a lament in 1948 which decried humanities lost connection to the “real world”. We had drifted into a deep state of chaotic, ego induced belligerence to any imposed reality outside of the “self”. Violence, for Weaver, was a reaction against any imposition of an external truth upon the “self”.
Fear of Death
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Becker argued forcefully in The Denial of Death that violence emerges from humanities deep fear of dying. This fear spills out in the form of a denial of our own impending death. The lynch mob mentality which swept through Germany in the 1940’s was an extreme expression of such denial. This irrational belief seduces the mind into thinking the “other” will die so that we will not. Evil becomes an entirely external force working out in the world. They are evil and we are not. Evil must be purged from society so that the pure can survive. If evil is destroyed then the pure will be saved. They will die, I will not. This kind of group-think has led to unspeakable horrors.
If there is a through-line which connects these theories it is that, while everyone recognizes the effects of human violence and the tremendous price exacted on society, nobody is quite sure from whence it came. As G.K Chesterton suggested, humans may be the only real wild animals.
The ancient Hebrew people presented the world with a fascinating description of what goes on in the human soul and its direct outworking into violent betrayal. In the third chapter of the Torah, we read a tale of a pair of prototypical humans conversing with a truly wild animal. This animal convinces the couple that God is not a friend or father but a rival and enemy. We will cover this discussion and the implications for human violence in part 2 of Violence & Spirituality.