Towards a Paradigm for Understanding Violence as a Form of Human Self-Expression.
“Unhappy Greeks! Barbarians to each other!”
To say that violence is a form of human self-expression is at once so obvious as to be almost unnecessary, yet at the same time it demands an explanation. Indeed, it is not only vital to understand that violence is a form of self-expression; it is equally vital that we learn to understand what violence means, and not to shy timidly away from meanings we simply do not like to face or admit to understanding merely because of the emotional stress their contemplation may sometimes cause.
Considering the popularity of the phrase ‘meaningless violence’, and the number of people who might shudder at the very thought that violence might contain some kind of message, this statement does seem to require some explanation:
To say that violence is a form of human self-expression is to say that it is a form of ‘language’, like every other form of human self-expression; and that as such, its meanings may be analysed and interpreted. In this extra chapter, written several years after my original “honours’ dissertation”, as explained in my original introduction, I shall endeavour to explain the nature of this ‘language’ of violence.
No longer will there ever be any such thing as ‘meaningless violence’. Not that there ever was, mind you; but the very idea that violence has ever had any meaning at all is frequently, if not usually denied, disguised and hidden in exactly the same instant that its use renders its meaning blindingly obvious to both the victim and to anyone who chooses to look at it free from the subjectivism of moral judgement and/or emotional involvement; who chooses to look at it ‘scientifically’, so to speak…
The reason for this peculiar phenomenon, in which meaning is at one and the same time magically made both to appear and to disappear simultaneously, is of central importance to any understanding of the phenomenology of violence.
This is why George W Bush’s campaign in Iraq was called a campaign of ‘Shock and Awe’, and not a ‘Campaign of Terror’, which epithet was reserved for his enemies; or why the British refused to admit they either were or ever had been at war with Northern Ireland, in spite of their periodic military occupation of that poor country; or why the USA refuses to admit that there was ever a war in Korea; what we now call the ‘Korean War’ was then just a ‘police action’…
But these reasons will become apparent a little later, when I discuss the practice of scapegoating and how it has from the most ancient of times been such an extremely common form of violence that elements of this ritual are thus often central features of most, if not all other forms of violence, though each form is also replete with its own individual and very particular social meanings.
For the moment, suffice it to say that it is necessary, as we shall see, for the sake and form of the ritual, to lay the blame for any and all wrongdoing of all of the members of the group onto the back of the scapegoat, which is then driven out into the wilderness to die; so clearly there is in this ritual an inherent denial of what is really happening from the outset; it is no mere goat, but a terrible sinner, who is the cause of all of the group’s problems, which is thus exiled.
Thus a ‘double standard’ emerges, which, in order to work at all, must be applied with the efficiency and ubiquity of propaganda. This double standard, with its blatant denial of empirical reality is an essential component of any scapegoating ritual. As I shall demonstrate, these rituals happen all the time for a wide variety of reasons and in myriad forms, but nowadays goats are rarely sacrificed; ironically, modern scapegoating rituals have been transformed into cannibalistic social processes in which humans have (ironically) come to take the place of the goat, as we shall see…
In order to elaborate my ‘paradigm of violence’, I shall look at global culture in the ancient world generally, and most particularly at the cultures of Ancient Greece, or Hellas, as I prefer to call it. There are strong cultural, historical and philosophical continuities between our own modern cultures and that of the Ancient Hellenes, so my choice is far from random. In fact it has often been observed that our modern western cultures are largely modelled on the cultures of those ancient times, whose literature was taught to the governing classes of virtually every modern culture until very recent times; and indeed, in many cases still is.
Indeed the worldview depicted in the surviving body of classical and ancient Greek literature which, together with Jane Goodall’s documentary film “The Demonic Ape”, I shall take for my ethnography, has profoundly informed our most fundamental value-systems and epistemologies for at least three and a half thousand years; much longer than Christianity. It is eternally enshrined in our oldest laws and in the very nature of our democracy. It is built into our architecture and played out on our sports fields. It is written into our novels, theatre and poetry; it is painted and sculpted into our arts. It is ultimately engraved upon our very souls; even upon the souls of those unfortunate individuals who have had little or no opportunity to familiarize themselves with either the history or the literature of those ancient times. The worldview represented by this body of literature thus comprises a habitus which, at the level of ‘primary, primitive aisthesis’ has informed and thus shaped the principle of production of our most ancient value-systems.
This body of classical literature has thus shaped such a large part of our ancestors’ conception of the world, and consequently its history, that the world in which we live and even the very nature of our society itself have been influenced by it to such an extent that it is no exaggeration to say that this habitus has even given our modern societies their most fundamental ‘raisons d’etre’.
Moreover, the habitus represented by the worldview of the ancient world is itself informed by a habitus of violence which, I shall demonstrate, can be traced back as far as our most simian ancestors. In a very real sense it could be said this body of literature gives us our very selves; our ‘souls’. It is part and parcel of who and what we are. It informs our most fundamental dispositions, attitudes and responses to the world in which we find ourselves… If it does not define who and what we are, nor yet what we might become, at the very least it represents who and what we have come from.
Prophecy is not the sole province of the ancient seers and oracles; the principle value of science lies in its predictive function: By tracing the emergence of the violence practiced by our species from its earliest beginnings and following an historical trajectory we may perhaps glean some indication of the general direction in which we are currently moving.
For these reasons I shall be taking a close look at the cultures of the Ancient Hellenes, and most particularly at Sparta and Athens, especially as these warrior cultures all practiced, from their most distantly ancient past, a particularly common type of violence: human sacrifice, in a variety of different forms, as we shall see. I shall show how these are in fact simply different forms of scapegoating rituals, and follow similar ritual structures and processes.
It will also be necessary to look at the cult of the Erynies, (the Furies), and how these sanctioned the oldest of all laws: the Law of Revenge, which was seen by the ancient Hellenes themselves as the oldest and most natural form of justice, and which still informs our own sense of ‘natural justice’ and self-respect. It is thus also in this literature that I believe we may find the sources of both our own taste for violence and our seemingly hypocritical simultaneous abhorrence of it, and indeed it is here too that we may even learn how and why these two apparently incompatible attitudes exist simultaneously in each and every individual, to a greater or lesser degree.
Finally I shall look closely at the ancient Hellenic cults of the heroes, most especially those of Alexander, Perseus, Jason and Herakles; and at that heroic aspect of ancient Hellenic religion which sought to turn their heroes into gods and their history into mythology, why they did so and how this relates to the ‘language’ of violence. This tendency of the Greeks to turn their heroes into gods will also be compared to the ancient Chinese concept of the ‘Son of Heaven’, as well as with the Christian conception of its own ‘Son of God’ and also with Jane Goodall’s concept of ‘the Demonic Male’, Shaka Zulu’s ‘living godhood’, and King Charles I’s ‘Divine Right of Kings’, in order to discover how the violent nature of modern ‘Christian’ societies relates to their own so-called ‘Prince of Peace’.
Violence, Chimpanzees and ‘Theory of Mind’
Violence and hierarchy are both born in the same instant, like cosmological twins. The one implies, supports, and ratifies the other; like time and space, they fulfil each other; they are not separable. Indeed it may well be that this is the ultimate significance behind the original ‘Good Twin/Evil Twin’ dichotomy of the indigenous Americans, among many other cultures.
Although nowhere does Goodall actually state or even hint at any of this, being apparently largely unaware of the true significance of her own ethnographic data, this is nonetheless quite apparent in her documentary film, “The Demonic Ape”, a concept which I find as appalling and misleading as it is emotional and unscientific, which evidently reflects Goodall’s own inability to come to terms with the newly-discovered violence of her erstwhile peaceful ‘subjects’ and their evident delight in it.
More importantly she has completely failed to include in her equation the possible effects of her own presence and that of her film crew. One cannot help but wonder therefore, whether human interference may not have been the ultimate cause behind the chimpanzees’ discovery and development of violence and its uses.
But whatever the truth of this possibility, my understanding that violence and hierarchy are both created in the same instant was both ratified and reinforced as in total fascination I watched how a troupe of chimpanzees split into two groups after the recent emergence of violent behaviour among some of its members, and how one of these groups then turned on the other and completely wiped it out in a frenzy of violence, in a remarkably similar manner to the pattern of group fissioning that Napoleon Chagnon observed among the Yanomamo (1968, p40).
In this film Goodall, in a rare attempt at scientificity, suggests that it is the ability to be consciously cruel in our use of violence which is the true defining feature of our own species. There is, she explains, a qualitative difference between the ‘mindless’ (and hence, ‘innocent’) violence of the great white shark, for example, (which, Goodall informs us, has no ability to feel empathy and therefore no ‘theory of mind’), and actual ‘cruelty’, which in order to be truly considered as such requires the perpetrator to know s/he is inflicting pain on another living creature. To be human, she suggests, is thus to be cruel; to be consciously aware of exactly what one is doing when one inflicts pain on another living, sentient creature; to understand and even to enjoy its distress. Of course this conscious awareness of another creature’s suffering implies ipso-facto some purpose to such cruelty, if only the provision of a ‘sadistic’ pleasure at another’s pain. But as we shall see, in the case of Goodall’s chimpanzees there is in fact a lot more to it than simple sadism, although I do not deny or refute the chimps’ obvious delight in their new ‘magic’. Indeed this delight itself clearly shows us that this sadistic pleasure is certainly an important factor in the social amplification of violence as well as in multiplying its uses and shaping the forms it takes.
Personally although I agree that it is necessary for the perpetrator to be aware that what s/he is doing is hurting another living being in order to be true ‘cruelty’, and also that the use of violence and cruelty among our own modern cultures is sadly ubiquitous, I find her view that cruelty is the defining feature of our species just a tad extreme. In any case, it is certainly now clear that there are other species which also exhibit what Goodall refers to as ‘theory of mind’, and which have also been known to display cruelty: elephants and certain cetaceans for example; indeed Goodall’s own apes are themselves a case in point.
But because this feature (conscious cruelty) is thus not unique to our species, it can hardly be used to define it. Later I shall also give my own hypothesis as to which aspect of human behaviour is not only so universally practiced by, but which is also so unique to our own species, that it might therefore more appropriately be considered our species’ defining characteristic, when I consider what, if any, conclusions on that subject may be drawn from the interpretation of the facts elicited from these ethnographies. Even so, one needs to ask, what is the basis of such joy in inflicting pain? Ultimately, as we shall see, the answer to this is also very simple: the magical power it confers upon its users to turn their peers into subordinates.
Violence, Kingship and Chimpanzees:
The Demonic Ape and the Hero
Although it is an understandable error, I cannot disagree strongly enough with Goodall’s extremely subjective, emotional and far from scientific interpretation of Frodo’s violent behaviour as simply ‘murder’, committed for no other reason than Frodo’s apparent delight in his own cruelty. Here it is quite evident that Goodall herself is under the delusion, caused in part by the very real and understandable shock it involved, that Frodo’s behaviour was simply sadistic, but otherwise ‘meaningless’ violence; indeed this is a common enough response to strong violence, especially when it is aimed in our own direction, as it was at Goodall.
Equally common is a strong desire to eliminate what one now perceives as a threat, usually by killing the attacker. Perhaps what really motivated Goodall was simply a desire for revenge, rationalized as the elimination of a perceived threat. Either way, Goodall’s own desire for ‘justice’ is as understandable as it is inappropriate, subjective and unscientific, not to mention contrary to all established legal precedent.
I do, however wish to acknowledge the importance of her cinematographic contribution, which graphically depicts the development and growing use of violence as a conscious and manipulative technique by Frodo and his troupe, although I must confess that I was sometimes more impressed by what she fails to observe than with what she actually does observe.
Though unremarked by Goodall herself in her documentary, to me her cinematography positively shouts at the top of its lungs about the evolution of political structures via the simultaneous ‘invention’ of both violence and social hierarchy.
It is particularly interesting that the emergence of violence within hitherto peaceful troupes of chimpanzees may have taken place within the context of an unusual external threat to either the troupes themselves, or to their territories. Unfortunately, though Goodall does mention this possibility, she does so only briefly and in passing, apparently unaware of its true significance.
However, there is a great deal of similarity between this process of violence emerging in the face of a gradually-increasing human encroachment on the chimpanzees’ territory, to the historical processes in which the South African tribes and their territories were increasingly threatened by the encroachment of the Boers and the British. This process of gradual encroachment, as we have seen, was largely responsible for the introduction of the social and military transformations which were instituted by Dingiswayo and Shaka, and which led ultimately to the emergence of the Zulu empire. As this may have some bearing on the study of violence generally it is a pity that Goodall fails to follow up this line of inquiry.
Nonetheless, much of her cinematography speaks for itself, to anyone who knows how to analyse it. Most importantly it is quite clear from her film that in the self-same instant in which Frodo discovers that his violent behaviour is an effective means of eliciting deferential and complicit behaviour from his peers, they cease to be his peers; they have become his subordinates. Thus in the same instant that he has ‘invented’ violence Frodo has also created a social hierarchy with himself at its apex, while those who copy his behaviour form a ‘pecking order’ within a hierarchy; those chimps who imitate his behaviour occupying the higher social positions, while the weak, timid and and/or female occupy the lower rungs.
It is also a pity that Goodall, having established that her troupes of chimps have their own troupe-specific ‘cultures’, then makes not the slightest attempt to discern whether or not there was some point of cultural difference between the two sides of the group which led to its fissioning, like some simian version of Johnathan Swift’s Lilliputian “Big Enders/Little Enders” dichotomy, perhaps; or whether this group fissioning had more to do with access to females, or perhaps even access to hunters as sources of protein, as this information might also have proven useful.
Goodall, however, simply omits even to ask these questions, as if the causes of this small-scale ‘civil war’, and indeed the ‘civil war’ itself were of absolutely no significance, except as some kind of aberration, which she quite apparently has a hard time even accepting as real, let alone dealing with it.
It is as though she went along to write a story about the “Teddy-Bears’ Picnic” only to discover that the cannibalistic Teddy-Bears were killing and eating each other in an orgy of bloodlust and cruelty. It just isn’t supposed to happen that way!
Indeed, Goodall seems to have been irretrievably shocked by this kind of behaviour emerging in what had previously been peaceful troupes of chimpanzees. This behaviour just didn’t fit in with what she wanted to think she knew about chimps, especially about these chimps, which she had studied for several years without a violent incident. Unable to understand it, Goodall simply dismisses it as ‘meaningless’ violence. Although she does not actually use this phrase herself, the look of ‘shocked and stunned’ confusion she almost constantly displays, together with her complete lack of analysis of the phenomenon itself, says it all.
Using Occam’s Razor, which suggests that the simplest explanation is the most likely one, we must at least consider the most likely possibility: that perhaps it was the introduction of the use of violence itself which ultimately caused the group to split. In the absence of suggestions of any other serious changes or differences emerging within the troupe’s ‘culture’, and as the only significant recorded change, it at least demands our attention.
The group’s newfound willingness to use violence was itself the most probable cause of the division of the group. Given this new-found willingness to use violence, perhaps combined with an instinctive desire not to have to compete for food with the contemptuous ‘weaklings’ who showed their evident distaste for this new ‘culture of violence’ by attempting to secede from the group, their destruction is quite predictable. The ease with which Frodo’s troupe managed to wipe out the seceding troupe, who evidently put up little or no resistance, would seem to support this hypothesis. And it seems that something else was born at the same time as violence and hierarchy: contempt for the weak and vulnerable, no matter how closely related they may be.
To watch this primordial process happening among troupes of chimpanzees is to watch the genesis of the earliest and most rudimentary forms of genuine warfare; no longer can we think of humans as the only species who makes war! Frodo gradually learns first to intimidate his peers with aggressive displays of branch-wielding and then further develops his repertoire of violence by personally hunting canopus monkeys to the point of reducing their population by ten percent, literally decimating them and thus further increasing his status within the social group as a provider of protein. He even attacks Goodall herself. Next Frodo kills the baby of one of the female chimpanzees from his own troupe. Finally Goodall assumes, not entirely unreasonably, that Frodo was the culprit when her crew discover the partially eaten remains of a human baby which had been snatched from the new human settlement nearby.
Too horrified by it to be able to comprehend this gruesome new twist in Frodo’s career, Goodall is unable to appreciate that this act is not merely incomprehensible sadism. In fact it is rather a deliberate ‘show of force’, obviously intended to send a strong message of discouragement to the invaders in the hope of perhaps persuading them to move out of the area.
At the same time it also demonstrates to his own troupe his fearlessness and his apparent ability to dispose of any threat, including any of them, easily and with apparent impunity, thus elevating his status even further in the eyes of his admiring followers. It is also clear that, in acting aggressively this way, Frodo is consciously using the fear which these violent acts magically instil in the whole troupe as a means of social control, just as much as he is using it as a means of resistance to the encroaching invaders; as indeed did Shaka.
Indeed, in teaching the methods of violence to the members of his troupe, he has effectively recruited and trained an army, after which he even has the courage to violently resist the encroachment of the strange new troupe of hairless apes who have recently moved into the area, by snatching one of their infants; and even by stomping on Goodall herself.
This clearly reflects the deliberate and self-conscious creation of an ‘image’ of himself as a terrible and enormously powerful being, one who has the power of life and death even over the other members of his troupe in his hands, which he demonstrates by killing the baby chimpanzee of one of his own troupe members and also of course by leading the remaining pack members to mercilessly destroy the seceding troupe.
This image, of course, must be constantly maintained and it is enhanced as much by the arbitrariness and capriciousness of Frodo’s actions as by their violence. Shaka would undoubtedly have approved of this simian generalship.
I do agree with Goodall’s conclusion that chimpanzees and other apes are much more intelligent than we ever gave them credit for; and in fact they are perhaps more intelligent than even she herself suspects: By the arbitrariness and violence of his actions and the consequent creation of an image of himself as an almost supernaturally powerful creature, Frodo is consciously using fear as a means of social control in exactly the same manner as Shaka who, as we have seen, cultivated just such an image in order to control what was, after all, a heterogeneous and rebellious agglomeration of the conquered remnants of numerous tribal groups, so effectively that they managed to put up effective resistance for decades against the mechanized might of the entire Imperial British military machine with only their shields and assegais.
That Frodo is quite apparently capable of conscious cruelty is an important observation and an important point of similarity between our species, but that he is capable of such a subtle and ambitious plan in order to elevate himself above his peers is far more significant: To watch the development of this methodology among chimpanzees is to watch from its earliest seeds, the evolution and development of the most primitive form of tyranny, or kingship. Violence thus establishes hierarchy in its most primitive form by making ‘people’ too frightened to challenge its users, who thus gain an almost magical means of controlling the other group members, who are now, of course, subordinates.
It is surprising that Goodall seems not to have even noticed the connection between Frodo’s increasing use of violence and his increasing social status within the group. Nonetheless, Goodall’s own reaction to Frodo’s violent career is intriguing; she quite apparently sees Frodo as a murderer and eventually calls for the intervention of her study group, as the arbiters of human law, to condemn this murderous chimpanzee to death and execute him…
Having thus ‘proven’ Frodo is ‘human’ by proving that he knows perfectly well that he is acting violently and torturing and killing even the more vulnerable members of his own troupe, Goodall now wants to execute him, having herself already judged and condemned him even in the very act of applying the label ‘demonic’ to him. It is perhaps a good thing Goodall decided to study animal behaviour, rather than human law… though perhaps her real gift lies in botany; plants rarely attack humans…
Even so, her behaviour is very interesting and the manner in which she interacts with the troupe must also be examined, something else which she herself again forgets to do, perhaps because her own identification with the troupe is so complete that she even refers to them as ‘people’. And indeed, in doing so, she is not entirely without reason, nor is she merely indulging a personal eccentricity… if by ‘people’ we mean “those creatures which create cultures and engage in social and cultural behaviour patterns which include distinctly symbolic dimensions”, then it is clear that Goodall’s chimpanzees must be considered as ‘people’. Indeed, she demonstrates very well that chimpanzees are not only much more intelligent than hitherto suspected, but also that they also have rudimentary forms of distinct cultures among the different troupes. So her use of the word ‘people’ is thus perfectly appropriate, even if it does seem a little uncomfortable at first.
Unlike Goodall, however, I do not think we now need to include apes as members of the human species just because they apparently exhibit a few behaviour patterns which are similar to human behaviour patterns; after all, so too do rats, dogs, cats, chickens and even ants, to name but a few.
But it does mean that we must therefore accept that the word ‘people’ does not necessarily mean ‘human people’. And although her demonstration that chimpanzees exhibit ‘theory of mind’ may indeed mean that we must give some animal species more credit for intelligence than they have hitherto been given, it still does not necessarily make them human. After all, the same ‘theory of mind’ has been exhibited by orcas, dolphins and even elephants, which, even if they could flawlessly quote soliloquies from Shakespeare and debate insightfully on the relative virtues of the great philosophers, still would not be human.
Certainly the similarities which Goodall observes (and indeed, those she fails to observe) are enough to ‘blur the boundaries’ between the definitions of our species, but only enough to force us to look for new and more appropriate definitions; to more narrowly define our own species.
Ironically Goodall seems to be so engaged in her identification with this troupe of chimpanzees as ‘social peers’ and so busy looking for similarities between our two species that she fails to notice that what Frodo is actually doing when he attacks her is attempting to further enhance his social ascendancy over his troupe by demonstrating his social superiority to her, by intimidating her, just as he had intimidated them, with violent displays of his physical superiority. And, I might add, with equally successful results, if Goodall’s new-found desire to kill Frodo is any indication of the fear his attack must have instilled in her. Perhaps he is also trying to frighten her and her crew away from his territory, which he may well see as ‘under threat’ from these intrusive new hairless apes.
Once again we can see violence communicating its message with perfect clarity in the most immediate and unmistakable manner possible. Yet Goodall still fails to see its meaning, simply because she finds it too shocking to contemplate, apparently.
This is a good example of how and why the meanings of violent expressions both appear and disappear simultaneously: On the part of the perpetrator it takes the form of a denial of any wrongdoing; since weakness itself is seen as provocative, his victim ‘asked for’ such rough treatment. On the part of the victim, it seems to result from a combination of shock, fear and perhaps an unconscious desire not to see the meaning of a violent act, as it inevitably implies acceptance of an inferior or negative social status.
But whether or not victims thus accept inferior social status in their intellectual formulations, they have no choice but to accept it as a physical reality as they are forced to conform to the desires of the stronger and more violent troupe members and most particularly to conform with the desires of the troupe leader; the only other choices being either rebellion or secession, which of course, quite evidently have their own dangers.
Once again too, we can clearly see that just as EV Walter describes in his analysis of the ‘Process of Terror’ (1969, Ch 1), in any expression of violence there are three principal parties to be considered; firstly there is the actor, the perpetrator of violence; secondly, the victim, who is to all intents and purposes, the ‘canvas’ upon which the violent actor ‘creates’, and thirdly there is the audience for whom the meaning of the violence is principally intended, which may or may not include the victim himself.
As I have described elsewhere, all three participants (or participant groups) are bound intimately together in a bond of ‘affective a-priori’ predispositions which are always immediately recognizable to all participants because any individual may potentially play either of these three roles: artist, ‘creation’ (ie. victim), or audience, as we saw was also the case within the context of Iroquois human sacrifice.
It is also interesting to note at this point that Goodall, in her relationship with the troupe, actually conforms to the classic choice for a scapegoat (or a witch – another type of scapegoat).
Firstly, she is an outsider who gradually, and perhaps in the face of some opposition, inveigles her way into some kind of social acceptance within the troupe; an acceptance which is perhaps resented by certain group members.
Secondly, she looks different from, and, one may presume, unattractive to chimpanzee sensibilities, though this does not stop her from attempting to interact with them socially.
Thirdly she does strange things with unusual and possibly magical objects and seems to exhibit powers and abilities that the rest of the group do not fully understand, but which may possibly be interpreted as at least potentially threatening.
Finally, and most importantly, compared with the other troupe members, she is quite evidently physically weak and thus has the most important qualification of all; she is vulnerable.
As a strange, vulnerable and ugly outsider she is thus unlikely to arouse much sympathy among the members of Frodo’s own group, even if she were to be attacked and severely hurt, so there is little or no risk to Frodo of damaging existing alliances within the troupe should he decide to attack her. She is therefore completely vulnerable, the perfect victim; and also the perfect canvas upon which Frodo can create his ‘masterpiece’ of intimidation, killing two birds with one stone by enhancing his own social status at the same time as he establishes and reinforces the low – indeed insignificant – social status of the strange new interloper; letting her know at the same time and in no uncertain terms, that her presence within the group is not entirely welcome.
So the fact that Frodo attacked her was no mere random or ‘meaningless’ event. To imagine it was would be to deny their enhanced degree of intelligence, which Goodall has quite adequately demonstrated. Perhaps it can now be taken as axiomatic that, at least as far as self-conscious, intelligent and reasoning beings are concerned, there is no such thing as ‘meaningless violence’, even when it seems to be arbitrary or random.
Nor was this attack necessarily occasioned by any personal dislike or animosity towards Goodall herself, though it is also quite possible that it may have been triggered by just such a cause. Certainly personal likes or dislikes are not beyond the range of reasonable possibility, especially considering what we now know about the extent of simian intelligence and self-consciousness.
Either way, whether he harboured any personal animosity towards her or not is largely irrelevant; it was a deliberate and conscious decision on Frodo’s part to attack Goodall, perhaps expressing the common resentment of the group; and in doing so to enhance his social standing by generating even more fear and admiration of his own courage and ferocity within his troupe; Frodo now dares to attack even these strange and mystical new interlopers! How brave Frodo must be to thus attack this strange-looking and somewhat magical outsider. Truly he must be absolutely fearless! Whether or not he disliked or perhaps even resented her intrusion, Goodall was certainly a very convenient scapegoat.
Thus Frodo’s attack must even be seen as a political platform; and a not-unfamiliar political platform at that: “Invader Go Home!”, “Chimpanzeeland for Chimpanzees!”, “Death to the Infidel Outsiders!” Sound familiar?
It is curious that while she was actively looking for cultural similarities between chimpanzees and humans, Goodall should fail to notice, or at least, fail to remark upon this most human of all behaviours; politics!
Or perhaps it was just too outré for even Jane Goodall to conceive of a chimpanzee with political ambitions? Nonetheless, having seen the documentary I am quite convinced that this is indeed exactly what I saw.
Like humans, chimpanzees have very expressive faces and one can almost hear the ‘cogs whirring’ as Frodo contemplates the wonderful effect his violent displays appear to have on the rest of the troupe, as he realizes the magical power of violence. And this magic and power is all too easily strengthened and reinforced as the increasingly submissive behaviour of what must now be considered as subordinates becomes its own reward.
Albeit unintentionally, this documentary film demonstrates most clearly that in its most primitive formulation political power is ultimately based on the willingness to use violence, both directly and indirectly, in order to achieve ascendancy over the ‘common herd ’…or the lower classes, if you will.
Thus violence is hierarchy and hierarchy is violence.
Frodo’s archetypal example also demonstrates very clearly the single, most important and central meaning of each and every violent expression. Though, as we shall see, other individual sets of meanings may emerge from particular contexts, the use of violence always ultimately represents a potent and immediate statement of physical superiority, communicated in the simplest and most direct manner possible.
Is there any other kind of superiority? Intellectual superiority, for instance? It would seem not; at least, not in any sense which is actually allowed to count… Even if Goodall had been able to converse with her simian friends well enough to be able to argue the point with him, Frodo’s answer would have been simple, direct and devastatingly effective; more violence… perhaps even fatal violence.
Thus violence stands over and above even reason itself, not by virtue of any inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘correctness’, but simply by rendering reason irrelevant and its use ultimately redundant.
Power is thus, quite simply, the assumption of the freedom to act capriciously, according to one’s own whims and desires; whereas reason implies by its very nature the relativisation, limitation and restriction of that freedom, even if it is self-imposed, as it is with reasonable people. Not to be able to thus completely indulge one’s whims and desires is therefore to be more or less powerless, relatively speaking. Thus the actions of tyrants are essentially and inherently capricious and arbitrary. Thus the ‘absolute’ stands over and above the ‘relative’, not because of, but rather in spite of reason.
When I first started to think about violence and what it means, I occasionally felt it necessary to frequent the sleazy bars where the rougher element of our society hangs out. Although sorely tempted to question some of the denizens of these dens of iniquity about how they felt about violence and their willingness to use it, I managed to refrain from doing so, choosing instead merely to ‘hang out’ and observe them cautiously from the sidelines, so I still live to be able tell the tale.
But I managed to refrain only because I knew intuitively and instinctively what their reaction would be to someone who purports to be ‘studying’ violence. They would simply give him a chance to experience it first-hand; its meaning would be communicated immediately in the most direct manner possible, more than likely via the medium of a clenched fist or perhaps a handy piece of lead piping deftly applied to the medulla oblongata.
“There you go Poindexter,”
I can almost hear them say, mocking my imaginary question as they lay into me with fists and feet flailing in a merciless torrent of bone-crushing blows,
“Now do you know what it means?”
Whatever I might reply to that would inevitably, of course, only elicit further instruction… Violence is not without its own grim form of humour. Indeed it is possible that violence may be the ultimate source of our species’ sense of humour; it is certainly the source of much that passes for humour in many cultures both ancient and modern.
By now of course the meaning of violence at its inmost and deepest level should be quite apparent. At its most simple and fundamental level, then, any expression of violence means:
“I’m better than you! And don’t you forget it!”
In fact for centuries or possibly even millennia, violence has been institutionalised with sayings such as “Might is Right”, or even, “Might Makes Right”… of course, in terms of scientific reasoning this can only be seen as an attempt to give brutality some degree of ‘after the fact’ justification, or validation.
We now need to understand how and why this is so, and why there is still a difference between the prototypical political violence exhibited by Frodo, which as yet knows no form of restraint, social, legal, or moral; and human violence, which over the course of human history has gradually become completely circumscribed by myths, rituals, laws and taboos, to the extent that it is quite apparent that the most violent species on the planet also feels an enormous simultaneous abhorrence and dread of violence in their own midst.
This, of course, is simply the other side of the ‘empathy’, or ‘Theory of Mind’ equation: In order to know and understand that one’s fellow creatures can and do feel pain if they are tormented, one cannot help but know that should that torture be applied to oneself, it could just as easily be oneself who is making all those strangely amusing, though completely unmusical, screaming noises…
This also partly explains why so many of the young male chimps in Frodo’s troupe apparently chose to emulate his violent behaviour: To help the violent to commit their atrocities upon someone else is to escape, at least for the present, from the possibility of being their victim. As Arthur Miller’s wonderful play, ‘The Crucible’ beautifully demonstrates, during the ‘witch-hunt’ phenomenon, once a victim has been named a witch or accused of witchcraft, everyone else reaffirms that person’s ‘guilt’ out of a combination of fear and a sense of relief that it was not they themselves who had been chosen.
As we shall see, the same kind of reasoning applies to any scapegoating ritual. And, of course, for Frodo’s followers, there is also the added inducement of ‘extra meat’… the participants would all share in the ‘spoils of battle’, just as the Achaeans did at the siege of Troy.
Alexander and the Ancient Hellenic Cult of Heroes
Like almost everything else in our society our taste for violence can be traced back at least as far as the ancient Greeks and their love of what we might well regard as the most ancient, as well as the most popular of all human sports: political ambition, otherwise known as the world’s greatest ‘board-game’, “World Domination”.
Although it has been universally played since the dawn of time itself, it is true that it wasn’t until Alexander the Great that this game achieved truly global proportions for the first time. Nonetheless things had clearly been heading in more or less this general direction for centuries or perhaps for millennia previously, evidently as far back as our most simian ancestors.
I have already observed that throughout the course of history the general tendency has been towards the creation of larger and larger sodalities. By the time of Alexander the Great, for the first time it was thought that the whole world had been discovered and was now known to mankind, so for the first time in history it was actually possible to conceive of ‘global domination’.
The dream was truly noble: unifying the whole world; the whole human race. And it was realised to a degree, albeit very briefly, by one of history’s relatively few truly noble heroes. It was because Alexander dreamed of a single united world, that he married off his Macedonian and Greek troops to Median, Persian and Indian women. Sadly his dream survived no longer than he did himself; and it must have been with the bitterest of irony that Alexander, as legend has it, when asked on his deathbed to whom he was leaving the empire he had created, simply replied,
“To the strongest!”
However, it is in any case arguable that his methodology was inherently flawed. Anyone familiar with the works of Euripides (especially ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’) should understand that global unity can never be achieved through violent means; violence only breeds more violence due to the inevitability and universality of the desire for revenge. Thus violence can only divide and separate, even while it appears to be unifying. As the old cliché says,
“Violence begets violence!”
Sadly nations are just like elephants in that they never forget. National and racial loyalties run deep and the historical memory of subjugated cultures is encyclopaedic as well as elephantine. Born inevitably out of resentment at domination and subjugation, secessionist tendencies within any empire held together by force are often so strong that they may well emerge even centuries after the empire has been unified, as may be observed in the cases of Scotland, Wales and Ireland in their often volatile relationships with England within its so-called ‘United Kingdom’.
Be that as it may, it is with Alexander that I have begun my discussion of the cult of the heroes because Alexander is one ancient Greek hero for whom we have plenty of genuine historical evidence, including plenty of contemporary documentation by excellent historians and observers. A comparison of Alexander’s career with that of other Greek heroes will, I believe, provide us with a paradigmatic example of the social process of apotheosis as it was practiced in the Ancient World.
Paradigmatic? Indeed: It is quite clear from a perusal of the histories of Herodotus, Plutarch and Thucydides that Alexander was following a well-known ‘path of ambition’ which was already well established long before Alexander’s time and which had been recognized and followed by heroes of countless generations before him, as exemplified by the stories of Perseus, Jason and Herakles.
Because of the semi-divine status his accomplishments enabled him to achieve, like that of the multitude of semi-divine heroes who had gone before him, following as they did upon various divine auguries and portents similar to those which had surrounded his own birth, Alexander is also a classic, but by no means unique, example of what indigenous South and Meso-American cultures would have recognized as an hombre-dios; a ‘man-god’.
The ancient Chinese would undoubtedly recognize in him the divinely mandated ‘Son of Heaven’, (if only he were Chinese!) Alexander himself, like Herakles before him, claimed to be the son of Almighty Zeus; not just a god, but the father of all the gods himself; The God, who ruled Heaven and Earth!
And before Alexander there was Jason and Herakles. And before Herakles, Perseus and before Perseus… etc… and so it goes, right back to the very dawn of time.
Their stories are structurally remarkably similar in each case, and like Homer’s Odyssey, it is possible that they may have as their ultimate model the Babylonian ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, versions of which have been found on clay tablets which have been traced back as far as ancient Sumer.
Indeed such is the similarity between these tales that some critics have thought that there must be some kind of plagiarism happening here. This does not necessarily follow however; the similarity between these stories may be just as easily explained by their protagonists all following a recognized path of ambition and conquest and operating under a similar heroic worldview or paradigm:
Each of these heroes sets out on a voyage of discovery to conquer new lands battling against strange monsters and other unknown terrors all the way; each hero overcomes many and varied struggles, usually involving an episode in which the hero visits the underworld, demonstrating a degree of mastery over death itself; and eventually each hero usually (though not necessarily always) returns home to claim his birthright as a more mature and worthy ruler, perhaps over much more territory than he had originally begun with. When they die, if they ever do, they are invariably given a place of honour among the stars for the rest of eternity by the gods in recognition of their at least semi-divine status. Some of them even ‘ascend to the heavens’ while they are still living.
It is, of course, also true that until recently the stories about Perseus, Jason and Herakles, and even Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ were almost completely dismissed as little more than fables; mere myths; fairy-stories about people who it was thought may never even have existed.
Recent discoveries however, including the recent discovery of Homer’s Troy on Level VIB at the Hissarlik site which was first excavated in the 1930s by Schliemann, and the discovery of the palace of King Minos on the island of Crete, complete with its ‘labyrinthine’ office-complex, have given us good reason to believe that in fact these stories, though mythologized to a greater or lesser degree, are in fact at least based on genuine historical characters and events.
Given these new discoveries, and also the historical example of Alexander himself, I think it is perfectly reasonable to assume that other traditional Greek heroes like Perseus, Jason and Herakles, as well as Agamemnon, Menelaos, Odysseus and Achilles, were in fact genuine historical characters. Alexander, by his own admission models himself on Homer’s Achilles, and even quite literally ‘follows in the footsteps’ of both Herakles and Perseus, by reconquering all the territory legend had ascribed to them.
I have for a long time harboured a ‘pet theory’ that the real and genuine hardships which Perseus, Herakles, or Jason and their men once faced on real and genuine historical voyages were given a cosmological dimension at a later date by superimposing upon them very specific symbolic forms and meanings, most likely for the purposes of helping acolytes to attain specific, ritually required altered states of consciousness for a variety of purposes during particular religious rituals, such as initiation, for example.
One modern theory has the ‘golden fleece’ being used as a tool to extract alluvial gold from the gold-laden rivers of a near-inaccessible mountain region in north-central Europe; such a ‘golden fleece’ would certainly be a panacea for all the problems a warrior-king might face. It is a plausible theory, if difficult to prove, although there is certainly some strong cultural evidence of a Greek influence in this region, which has thus been assumed to be the site of ancient Iolcos.
But whatever the truth of this speculation, I find in the golden fleece a marvellous metaphor for enlightenment; and the hydra, who grows two heads for every one Jason cuts off, is a wonderful symbol for the nature of discursive thought; Jason’s approach is Zen-like, stabbing at the very heart of the beast and thus killing it and allowing him access to the fleece, symbolizing perhaps the stilling of the mind which is necessary to attain what Indian mystics refer to as ‘samadhi’, a state of meditational bliss experienced only when all discursive thought is stilled.
Another example is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur; the Minotaur is the ‘beast-half’ of man at the centre of the human subconscious. Theseus, in order to confront this ‘beast-half’ of himself is given a thread by Ariadne, so that he might find his way through the Labyrinth. It is now generally agreed that the real labyrinth was the building which housed the bureaucracy of King Minos which was found at Knossos on Crete, and it is also possible that Theseus may at one time have been a bull-dancer (or ‘bull-leaper’) there, as Mary Renault suggests in her historical novel, “The Bull from the Sea”.
Whatever the truth of Renault’s speculation, it is nonetheless quite evident that here again this ‘myth’ is an elaboration of some genuine historical event which has later been given a cosmological significance, having had superimposed upon it certain specific symbolic meanings for the practice of certain types of meditation.
So at some level, Theseus’ Labyrinth is perhaps also the labyrinth of the human mind and the Minotaur the ‘beast-half’ of oneself, while the thread given to Theseus by Ariadne can only be the ‘thread of reason’. Perhaps this even reflects a form of meditation which may have been used in preparation for the bull-dancing event itself.
But however, and to whatever degree their achievements were mythologized and regardless of the purpose behind their having been thus mythologized, I think we can now quite reasonably assume that these heroes were indeed real people, who had, to all intents and purposes, transformed themselves through a career of violent conquest, from ordinary mortals into demi-gods, at least in the eyes of their contemporary Hellenic world, who then admired and even worshiped them as gods, most particularly by trying to emulate them and even to outdo their accomplishments. There is even a readily-perceptible touch of this in the manner in which Frodo advanced his own political career, although it is doubtful that Jane Goodall would appreciate this.
It is important here to make a few observations on the nature of ancient Greek religions generally. These religions, whatever their gods, and whatever the manner of their worship, were also intimately involved with the manner in which the history of their heroes was recorded and mythologized, initially as songs, written in the traditional iambic hexameter, and later also as the theatrical rendition of these heroic histories, as exemplified in many works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides as well as Homer.
It is also interesting to note that the work of these ancient authors displays a gradual progression from the purely ritual, representational and offertory theatrical depictions of their heroic mythology towards a more analytical, interpretive, questioning and even a more experimental form of theatre, which eventually used traditional themes such as the Trojan War or the fate of the descendants of the House of Atreus as metaphors in order to explore social problems then current in Euripides’ own time.
In fact it is perhaps perfectly appropriate to say that the manner in which these heroic histories were lived and recorded, as well as the manner in which they were sung or theatrically represented, comprised the very essence of the ancient Greek religions. Thus all of the heroes had their own specific cults, the size and fidelity of whose followings were directly proportional to the lustre of their reputations and the extent of their conquests.
Heroism and the Scapegoat: Iphigenia in Aulis
In his play, “Iphigenia in Aulis”, Euripides writes about one ‘hero’ who was quite unlike the rest and who consequently is all but forgotten in almost any roll-call of the Ancient Greek heroes.
Indeed, contemplating the differences between this particular hero and the traditional form of hero is extremely instructive. This hero conquered no lands, created no empires, fought no dragons or monsters and rescued no fair damsels from distress. In fact, she was herself a damsel in distress, and during the last few days of her existence she could perhaps have used the aid of such martial skills as the numerous Hellenic heroes who surrounded her might have lent her, had things been otherwise…
Of course, I am speaking of Iphigenia, the unfortunate virgin daughter of Agamemnon, whom he was obliged by the prophet, Calchas, to sacrifice to the blood-thirsty goddess Artemis, in order to obtain a favourable wind and so enable his fleet to set sail for Troy, to sack the city and restore the dignity of Hellenic womanhood… or so the mission was presented publicly… It is difficult to believe, however, that the real motives were anything other than the plundering of the wealthiest city in the region.
In view of this the mightiest heroes of that period, including Achilles, Odysseus and Ajax among them, stood idly by and watched as her father Agamemnon slit her throat and her life’s blood drained away.
It is precisely because of the differences between Iphigenia’s ‘heroic’ self-sacrifice and the familiar pathway to ambition usually trodden by the more traditional heroes that Iphigenia’s sacrifice is particularly significant.
It is apparent from the writings of Homer and Euripides that without a favourable sign from Artemis, the Hellenes simply refused to set sail out of a superstitious fear of failure; theirs was, after all, the largest military enterprise ever undertaken up to that point in their history. One thousand ships full of armed men waited in the bay at Aulis to set sail to sack and plunder the richest city known to any of them, yet all of them yearned superstitiously for some omen promising them a favourable outcome to their enterprise; a favourable wind.
Again we catch a fleeting glimpse of an unconscious ambivalence towards the use of violence, which, whilst far from reluctance, still requires a favourable omen from the gods, thus indicating that what they were about to do ‘had their blessing’. We shall see the significance of this shortly.
Whatever conversations passed between Calchas and his goddess we shall never know, however it is quite apparent that by insisting that Agamemnon sacrifice his virgin daughter, Calchas is in fact demanding an enormous sign of commitment on the part of their commander in chief; perhaps he felt this was the only way this expensive expedition could be kept together for such a huge undertaking. After all, a man who would kill his own daughter for the sake of the expedition would not hesitate to extract vengeance from any coward who might dishonour both her name and her sacrifice by retreating or deserting before their goal was attained. Once the sacrifice had been made, they were there for the duration. Calchas was perhaps wise enough to understand that fear is a more powerful motivator of men than their promises or even their oaths.
In any case, whether Calchas’ motivation was cynical or sincere is of little relevance here. For my present purposes, I merely need to point out that Iphigenia was quite simply a human scapegoat, who had been persuaded by her father that by dying she would be a hero, that by her sacrifice she would free Hellas from the terrible disgrace of having their women stolen by wealthy Asian men; that without her sacrifice the expedition would simply fall apart in dishonourable disgrace without a favourable wind from the goddess. Thus persuaded of her own heroism, she would go to her death voluntarily, as a good scapegoat should if a favourable outcome is to be obtained at all.
But Iphigenia’s sacrifice also indicates that in a sense, scapegoats may be seen as heroes too; although it is true that only a very small handful of notable exceptions have ever achieved the kind of fame and heroic status as did Iphigenia, whose cult still apparently survived down to Euripides’ own time, as evidence from another of Euripides’ plays, “Iphigenia in Tauros” suggests.
What’s more, if there is something of the hero about the scapegoat, there is also something of the scapegoat about the ‘hero’. This may sound strange at first, but it is not so hard to believe if we look a little closer; especially if we consider the eventual fate of Agamemnon, whom, following Euripides, I believe had been manipulated into his ‘command’ by his younger brother Menelaos, and who was treacherously slain in his bath by his wife Klytaemnestra upon his return from Troy, as her vengeance for the death of her daughter, Iphigenia.
We might also consider the biblical proverb,
“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Indeed in Sparta this type of death was highly desired and ardently sought after. They even called it ‘euthanatos’, a ‘beautiful death’, like that exemplified by Leonidas and his famous Three Hundred Spartans, every one of whom died nobly at the pass of Thermopylae resisting the Persian invasion of Hellas led by Xerxes in revenge for the Trojan War (Troy was an Asian city and thus part of the Medo-Persian Empire). It is irrefutable that such deaths as these; and indeed any death which happens within the context of warfare were then, and indeed still are seen as sacrifices. Indeed, war itself may easily be seen as a form of mass human sacrifice.
This meant that you could be a hero not only by winning all of your battles, but also if you ‘died nobly’, to use the language of the period, especially if you ‘died nobly for your country’. In this case you were said to have ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’, to have ‘sacrificed your life for your country’; familiar phrases already in Iphigenia’s day and still familiar phrases even in modern times.
Undeniably such ‘heroism’ as Iphigenia’s is a form of human sacrifice. But a human sacrifice like that of Iphigenia is also just another type of scapegoat, given the title and attributes of a ‘hero’.
The origin of the whole concept of scapegoating can perhaps be traced back as far as the biblical ‘Book of Genesis’, to the ancient Hebrew patriarch, Abraham, when his god Jehovah, after tempting him to sacrifice his own son, finally stayed Abraham’s hand and provided a ram as a substitute for the boy, Isaac. In the traditional Hebrew context of a desert-living, nomadic lifestyle, scapegoats made a lot of sense because the loss of even a single individual might mean the loss of a whole set of skills and knowledge which might be of vital importance to the survival of the group.
As with the nomadic and desert-dwelling Hebrews, this was also true of the cities of Ancient Greece, some thousands of years after the time of Abraham. See for example how much importance Homer puts on the participation of Achilles, without whose aid it was simply assumed that the whole expedition would inevitably fail. Ironically, Achilles spends most of his time sulking in his tent as a result of his disagreement with Agamemnon over the disposition of the captured slave-girl, Briseis, and when he does eventually come out to fight it is impetuously and in revenge for the death of his ‘companion’, Patroclus. Though victorious over Hector, Achilles is killed by an arrow from Paris’ bow while dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy.
However the expedition succeeds anyway with the famous ‘Wooden Horse’ ruse which, of course, was suggested by Odysseus, who turns out to be the real hero of the Iliad, almost as much as he is the hero of the Odyssey. Homer’s intention may thus have been to suggest a triumph of cunning, intelligence and teamwork over the brute force which is suggested by Achilles and his Myrmidons.
Homer sets his scene in the late bronze-age or early iron-age. It is clear that those were times in which many technologies, especially martial technologies such as metallurgy and weapons manufacture and the knowledge of strategy and tactics were rapidly increasing in sophistication.
So, whilst paying every respect to the traditional heroic virtues of strength and courage, as represented by Achilles, Homer is saying that noble as these virtues are, they are not enough; courage and strength without a good brain to direct them are useless or perhaps even dangerous.
Thus the Iliad even represents an historical record of a change in the social perception of heroes; perhaps it even records a transitional phase in the evolution of the very concept of the hero itself:
Achilles, though accorded all the laurels of a true hero by Homer, is nonetheless vainglorious and vindictive, self-centred and shallow; he is emotionally immature and an impetuous glory-hunter. Indeed it is Achilles’ impetuous nature which becomes his downfall when he spontaneously challenges Hector to the duel which was to prove fatal to them both: Although Achilles wins the duel, he is hit in the heel by an arrow from Paris’ bow whilst triumphantly dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy.
If certain individuals in the cities were regarded as of particular importance to the survival of the group, it was even more the case for the nomadic, desert-dwelling Hebrews. Thus, among the Hebrews, a scapegoat was usually exiled instead of the ‘sinner’ whenever serious socially disruptive events occurred, perhaps raising the threat of a dangerous schism among the tribal and nomadic Hebrews, even though it was often, if not usually, the result of the behaviour of well-known offenders.
The ‘blame’ (that is, the ‘pollution’ which attaches itself to any offender) for whatever offence was causing the problem, was laid, with the hands of the offender(s) and of everyone else in the community, onto the back of a goat through the ritual means of either blessings or blows. The unfortunate beast was then driven out into the wilderness to starve or survive according to Jehovah’s pleasure. Whatever happened, it was not allowed to return to the camp; if it did so, it was stoned to death; the most common form of execution practiced among the Hebrews at the time.
It was perhaps for reasons similar to these that the city-dwelling Hellenes eventually introduced the payment of monetary compensation as recompense for the life of a murdered relative. Up to this point, however, ‘justice’ existed solely in the form of the Law of Revenge, which demanded that the nearest relative(s) of a murdered person avenge their death by killing the murderer. For this reason, the corpse of a murdered man was invariably mutilated by having its ears and nose cut off together with its hands and feet, and strung around its neck prior to burial. That way, the murderer only had to deal with living relatives of the deceased.
From the point of view of the civic authorities, if a payment of blood-money is made and the murderer is consequently exiled, he thus takes with him any pollution which his murderous act has attached to his person; and because the Law of Revenge was a purely personal and moral matter, so long as any polluting act of vengeance thus takes place outside the sacred grounds of the city, the civic authorities were satisfied (Mireux, 1954). Undoubtedly there were many who sought both financial compensation and vengeance, but they need not concern us here.
The Law of Revenge
The Law of Revenge is one of the key factors in the social reproduction and amplification of violence. This most ancient of all human laws was held by the Ancient Hellenes and indeed by the ancient world in general, to be one’s ultimate duty to one’s nearest and dearest. But this duty must not be confused with some vague notion about an individual’s ‘right to revenge’. In fact there was much more of an obligation about it, than any notion of ‘rights’; in fact it was a moral imperative to exact revenge for the murder of a relative.
To fail in this most ancient of all duties was to risk being hounded by the Eryinies, the Furies. These were the spirits of the dead transformed into the vampiric monstrosities by which the young Orestes is constantly hounded until he is eventually forced to take the life of his mother in revenge for the murder of his father Agamemnon, which in turn was Klytaemnestra’s revenge for the sacrificial murder of their daughter Iphigenia, for the sake of Agamemnon’s military ambition. So once again Euripides is trying to remind us that violence begets only violence.
What makes Greek tragedy truly tragic is its inevitability… an inevitability which was well-known and understood by the time of Euripides, to be the direct result of the pious application of this very law. Euripides thus attempted to teach the Greeks this most difficult of all lessons: that revenge was always folly, in spite of the strength of a person’s desire for this form of ‘natural justice’ and in spite of the antiquity and supposed sacredness of the law he was daring to question. Euripides thus used the fate of the House of Atreus as a warning to the Hellenic city-states of the inevitable result of the continued application of this ‘law’; what happened within a family might just as easily happen to the whole state or even the whole of Hellas. The principle is the same; only the scale is different.
It is ironic indeed that Iphigenia was used by Euripides in this, his last play, to symbolize yet another generation of Athenian youth who were about to be sacrificed needlessly to yet another round of the Peloponnesian Wars, which resulted from Athens’ imperial arrogance in using the common funds of the League of Delos to ‘…deck Athens out like a prostitute’; the Parthenon itself being a particular bone of contention.
Pericles may be rightly famous as a patron of the arts and philosophies; and it is true that he ‘provided employment for every hand’, but he can by no means be regarded as politically far-sighted. In fact, as it happened, this was to be the final round of these wars, in which Athens would fall to the Spartans: Aided by funds from Persia and the plague; in 404 BC the famous ‘long walls’ of Athens were pulled down to the sound of flutes, thus ending Athenian hegemony in the region forever. Contemporary critics stated that only now that Athens had fallen would Hellas begin to know true freedom, Athens’ reputation for ‘democracy’ notwithstanding. The so-called ‘Athenian Empire’ had lasted less than fifty years and Persia finally had her revenge for Troy.
So what was the nature and function of this most ancient of all laws? How did it come into being? Given that by Euripides’ time it was well-known that ‘violence begets violence’ and that this was recognized as simply the logical result of the pious application of the Law of Revenge, we also need to ask what is there about this law which could possibly have had any evolutionary benefit to either human individuals or human societies? More importantly, given Euripides’ over-2400-year-old message, we also need to ask, is there still any benefit in it at all?
If one considers the inevitability of the escalation of the violence exhibited by Frodo and his troupe, unrestrained by any legal, social or moral taboos, it becomes immediately apparent that it will not be long before even Frodo and his most vicious lieutenants will need to introduce some such new idea in order to escape incessant internecine violence and possibly even the gradual disappearance of his own troupe as they learn to fight for status amongst themselves.
Having only a very limited ability to vocalize ideas (even if we accept at face value Goodall’s report that her chimpanzees have particular vocalizations for particular foods etc), it is obviously still quite impossible for them to come up with a body of law, even an orally-recorded one. However, it is quite possible that a tradition of revenge may be established long before the evolution of speech allows its proper legal codification. Indeed, it is quite possible that we are witnessing in Frodo’s troupe the earliest stages of the social and evolutionary processes which may have led ultimately to the development of human speech, by first of all making it necessary.
Until now it has generally been assumed that the development of speech was the result of a need by early homo sapiens to communicate with each other in order to coordinate their activities during the hunt. It seems however, that another possibility now presents itself; after all, many other predatory social species including wolves, lions, hyenas and jackals manage to coordinate their hunting without the need for any particularly complex vocalizations; or indeed any. Indeed, in the natural world hunting would appear to be a mostly silent process. And indeed, in the context of the hunt, it is more than probable that any vocalization at all might be counter-productive; hunting is necessarily a silent activity. So perhaps it was the growing need to be able to create a body of law in order to deal with the problem of incessant and increasing violence within the social group, rather than any requirement of the hunt, which provided the evolutionary impetus for the development of speech. At this point perhaps it is worth noting the biblical statement,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God…” (Genesis 1:1, King James’ Version)
Certainly this quote from one of the world’s oldest books seems to suggest a strong and extremely early connection between ‘the word’ and ‘the principle of law’, since God is invariably seen as the ultimate source and arbiter of all human laws. It is also worth pointing out that the principle of law operating during the Old Testament since the time of its oldest book, Genesis, until the time of Moses, is again the now-familiar law of revenge:
“…an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”
Moses’ introduction of the Ten Commandments, invoking the authority given to him by his God, was to replace this Law of Revenge with a complete and thorough, if rudimentary, legal system designed as far as possible to keep the peace and prevent any need for private revenge.
Perhaps the ‘invention’ of god was itself prompted by the perceived necessity for a ‘higher authority’ even than the king; one to which even the king must bow, but from whom he derives his own authority which is, of course, now greatly augmented by divine sanction; the alternative being ultimately anarchy… at least potentially; social chaos in which anyone, even the troupe leader, may be killed merely for the sake of demonstrating social status, or perhaps in revenge for the killing of a relative.
Either way the escalation of violence is as inevitable as the eventual emergence of challengers for the leadership position. Our ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’, Frodo, must now learn how to properly control the new magic before it destroys him. And indeed, we are in much the same position, as we shall see.
It is certainly worth noting also that although there are many other social species which do have just such an anarchic nature, where any individual who feels large enough or strong enough to do so might challenge the dominant male, or even in some cases, the dominant female, of the group, yet from a very early time in their history (indeed, from so early that it pre-dates written language) human societies have all had the strongest of laws and taboos about the killing of a king; none of which ever prevented a single king’s untimely demise however, often at the hands of his closest friends or even relatives. To the violent, laws only matter inasmuch as they work to protect those who make them; the ruling classes, and their interests. As soon as laws run contrary to the wishes and desires of the violent ruling classes, they are promptly ignored or else circumvented and of course, readily broken.
Regicide, and, by extension, all forms of treason including desertion, cowardice in the face of the enemy and spying for the enemy were, and indeed still are seen by many people as the worst of all possible crimes. If nothing else the fact that this law pre-dates written language and possibly even language itself demonstrates that this particular crime must have been extremely problematic very early in the development of our species. Perhaps ‘god’ and ‘law’ are both the simultaneous creations of a particularly intelligent proto-anthropoid troupe leader; most probably a leader approaching middle or old age, who with his increasing age and declining physical powers, saw the utility of appealing to a higher, even a ‘supernatural’ cause, from which he derives his power; his ‘mandate’, and thus invented god, religion and mysticism…
His own royal authority is thus validated by the supernatural and the royal succession is ensured for his progeny… at least in theory. But the best thing of all about these inventions, from the king’s viewpoint, is the way in which anything the king does, no matter how arbitrary or barbaric, now has a divine sanction: Since nothing could possibly happen contrary to the ‘Will of God’, success, even of the most barbarous and cruel behaviour, such as wiping out half of one’s own troupe, is thus its own justification; whereas failure and being wiped out by the violent half of the troupe obviously indicates the god’s evident disfavour.
The king can do no wrong, since the king, as we shall see, is also the ‘Son of Heaven’. Of course, since other ‘gods’ had other ‘sons’, this ‘divinity’ often became a bone of contention itself, as did the relative strength or potency of their own particular god’s ‘magic’…
Of course, in Frodo’s troupe, not everyone was quite as ready as he was to use violence at this stage; it had only just been invented and there were evidently many among the group who still distrusted it; with good reason, any one of them could be the next victim. Perhaps some primitive concept of ‘the divine’, or ‘god’, or at least some sense of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – if only in the sense that whereas some things were ‘customary’ and ‘pleasant’, and thus ‘good’, violence most certainly wasn’t and must therefore be ‘evil’ – was already evolving in their peaceful simian minds and perhaps these simian secessionists may even be likened to conscientious objectors.
Thus alongside the simultaneous invention of violence and hierarchy, with its contempt for the weak and helpless, the ‘Good’ is both invented and discovered as a product of the creation of a readily-apparent ‘Evil’.
But it is also possible that perhaps the secessionists just didn’t see the point; violence to them, after all, must have seemed rather destructive on the whole; and terrifying!
Perhaps, like Goodall, they were just too shocked by this sudden change in the group’s behaviour to be able even to properly understand exactly what had happened. Nonetheless it is remarkable how quickly this new magic gained popularity.
But suppose everyone in the troupe was equally prepared to use violence; perhaps had that been the case, the unfortunate baby chimp at least might have remained unmolested as Frodo would then have had cause to fear its mother and its male relatives. Indeed, who knows but that this particular story may not be finished yet; avengers of deceased relatives sometimes wait years before they strike, and when they do it is often sudden, unexpected and lethal.
Indeed, this is why the members of any ‘healthy’ aristocracy treat each other more or less as peers (if you’ll pardon the pun), even though there remains a definite ‘pecking order’ among them. Remember, it was to prevent the possibility of drawing swords that the handshake was first invented. This clearly show how social customs, which may eventually either become, or at least inform laws, emerge in response to the problem of regulating violence within a violent culture.
These, and indeed the whole panoply of social behaviours which are collectively known as ‘good manners’ in any given society were evolved ultimately to prevent humans (the world’s ultimate predators) from tearing each others’ throats out at the first opportunity.
Unless I am much mistaken, it was to save the Israelites from a very real and imminent physical destruction threatened by their dissipation in the desert, as much as to save them from ‘eternal damnation’, that Moses went up into the mountain to meditate on what laws were needed to achieve these social objectives, eventually returning with the Ten Commandments, which he claimed had been written by the ‘finger of God’.
Moses seems to have been able to ‘see further’ than his fellow Israelites, who, newly freed from the strictures entailed by their slavery and bondage to Egypt, were indulging themselves in a degenerate, hedonistic lifestyle which Moses could clearly see was ultimately nihilistic. Thus our laws, like all our other social customs, emerge from the very need for those laws itself, according to familiar evolutionary principles.
Thus too the law of revenge itself emerged long ago from a natural affinity between relatives, often in spite of sibling rivalry, which is now either transmuted into, sublimated by or allowed, indeed often even encouraged to co-exist alongside a fierce loyalty to and love of, first one’s own family, and then one’s own village, and by extension one’s own tribe and nation. This concept was first formulated over 2,700 years ago by Confucius and was eventually developed into what later became known as the “Chinese Concentric View of the Universe”.
This doctrine locates China conceptually at the centre of the world with all the other nations being seen as increasingly barbaric the further they were away from the ‘Central Kingdom’, (Zhong Kuo). But this tendency to see oneself as the ‘centre of the universe’ is not confined to China; on the level of nations, it appears to be a widespread, if not universal phenomenon.
Indeed, regarded from an individual and phenomenological perspective, this is indeed how one actually experiences life itself:
One experiences ‘oneself’ twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week; the time one spends with other people tends to diminish dramatically with increasing social distance. Thus one’s closest and most intimate relationships are with one’s own family, to whom one feels an intimacy not shared with the rest of the world, which is experienced as diminishing in importance, or perhaps even as ‘diminishingly real’, in direct proportion to distance, and hence familiarity.
To hurt or kill any member of a given family is to threaten and hence to offer mortal insult to the whole extended family. Consequently, it becomes a moral imperative to attack and if possible to eliminate this apparent threat. Given the inevitable functioning of the law of revenge, such a response can only end in a permanent blood-feud, or vendetta. Such unenlightened barbarism sadly still exists and indeed is all too prevalent, even in modern times and within societies which still consider themselves to be civilized.
In doing this within the traditional context, however, the family gains a ‘reputation’ for ‘piety’ through the assiduous observation of the Law of Revenge, and with any luck their reputation serves to deter further attackers. This at least, is the theory. But of course, as Euripides realized, it does not deter further attackers at all; quite the contrary, it has a strong tendency to encourage and even to multiply them.
It is easy to see how the Law of Revenge became the oldest of our human laws. But, as many American gunslingers, most notably Wild Bill Hickock, discovered, a reputation for violence is a two-edged sword (ouch!); at the same time as it deterred most ‘ordinary’ people from attacking him, Wild Bill’s reputation was such that other gun-toting ‘heroes’ of the wild west, out to acquire for themselves the elevated social status which was the invariable corollary of such violent behaviour, actively sought him out in droves in order to make their own reputation by killing the most famous killer of their times. Wild Bill was eventually killed by a seventeen-year-old boy named Jack McCall, the son of a near-forgotten mistress, who caught him by surprise and shot him in the back during a game of cards.
Jesse James too, as reported in Bob Dylan’s famous ballad was taken by surprise by a man who had just stayed the night as his guest. In the eyes of heroes and their admirers such sneakiness is often even admired; like kingship itself, the crown exists for he who has the wit to seize it.
The form of ‘one-on-one’ duelling so often practiced by the gunslingers of the ‘Old West’ also contains some very familiar elements of the scapegoating ritual about it, as the loser inevitably becomes a sacrificial offering to the winner’s own heroic cult, thus enhancing the ‘image of terror’, or ‘reputation’ he is attempting to cultivate. Indeed this desire for a ‘reputation’, for fame, is a feature of every kind of duel, combat or war (with the possible exception of some forms of sexual violence and/or spouse-beating); the reputation itself comprises the very essence of the ‘glory’ that all ‘heroes’ seek, while their victims are all sacrifices to the cult of The Hero; hence the importance of ‘bodycount’. (“Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands…”)
Thus we can see that although laws emerge in response to perceived social needs this does not necessarily mean that they always work to society’s benefit.
However, because these laws are seen to have a ‘divine’ origin, they are rarely, if ever questioned. The law of revenge itself, for example, was apparently unquestioned until Moses came along. Even though it has been several thousands of years since Moses began this process of questioning this oldest of all laws, it seems that very little has changed; revenge is automatic still, however stupid, futile and counter-productive.
Of course this period of perhaps a few thousand years is but the ‘blink of an eye’ when seen in evolutionary terms; the real question is, “Will we have enough time to evolve into peaceful human beings before an imminent Armageddon, which is even now hanging over our heads like the mythical Sword of Damocles destroys the world?”, which catastrophe could literally commence at any moment.
Like Frodo and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we need to learn how to control our ‘magic’ before it destroys us.
The Scapegoat and the Beggar:
Returning now to our examination of the twin subjects of scapegoating and human sacrifice, it is worth taking the time to include a few notes about one particular and very specific type of scapegoat, the beggar, about whose position in ancient Greece, Emile Mireux has this to say:
“…a place apart should be reserved for the beggars. Not that the profession – for it was a real profession that men adopted either from necessity or a sense of vocation – was in principle a vagabond’s occupation. But strangers who had been or seemed to have been particularly unlucky adopted it readily enough; as witness Odysseus. It was, as we shall see, a genuine function which one sometimes had to gain, and also defend, with all one’s might. If one lost it, one risked having to go, once again, into exile.” (E Mireux, 1954, p. 203)
Indeed, both Homer and Hesiod list beggars among the demiourgoi, the ‘servants of the community’, or ‘public workers’; civil servants, if you will. The nature of their function was the ritual removal of pollution from the house after a banquet, when they were allowed to enter the house to go from table to table collecting scraps of food, in the process removing pollution, which was transferred along with the gifts of food and drink, again through the media of either blessings or blows (the ‘laying on of hands’), including traditionally, the hurling of a stool (see Odyssey ch. XVII). In return for these gifts the beggar, whose patron was almighty Zeus himself, called down the blessings of the gods upon the household of his host.
Thus his function was dual, he was not only the remover of pollution; he was also the active source and guarantee of joy and prosperity. That the beggar was also a scapegoat is quite clear from the nature of their traditional ritual practices. Explaining the epithet apolymanter, which was frequently applied to beggars, and which has elsewhere been translated as ‘killjoys’ or ‘the scourge of banquets’, E Mireux says,
“This term is derived straight from a Greek verb which belongs to the Homeric vocabulary and admits of only one precise meaning: ‘to purify by eliminating pollutions’. It can in our opinion only mean ‘purifier’. On the occasion of meals or banquets, the beggar plays the part of one who takes pollutions upon himself in order to remove them.
On the plane of daily life, this was the function of the scapegoat… That the part should be played by a ragged beggar was perfectly natural. It was not unusual for the scapegoat, when he figured in official ceremonies, to be represented by a man ridiculously clad in old toggery. The attitude of the public toward the scapegoat was dual; on the one hand he was loaded with gifts and at the same time with blows and insults. Those were the two ways of transferring pollutions in a rite of purification. Beggars were received at banquets in exactly the same manner; for the insults and blows, and notably the hurling of a stool, were traditional, at least in the same degree as the gifts of food. When Eumaeus is bringing Odysseus, disguised as a beggar to his own house, Melantheus the goatherd predicts as much; and the prediction was a sound one, and it was fulfilled, because while one section of the suitors treated Odysseus well, the others insulted him; Antinous and Eurymachus hurling stools at him while Ctesippus aimed a leg of beef at his head.
By his presence and behaviour as a daily purifier, the beggar is in fact a source and guarantee of prosperity. He begins, moreover, by praying Zeus to grant prosperity to those who receive him; and he is himself the living image of prosperity. That is why the beggar is, and professionally must be, a heavy eater and great drinker, a yawning gulf for food and wine…
The beggar is in fine, the ragged bringer of good luck; an office he has not entirely ceased from filling in popular belief.” (Mireux 1954, p. 255-256).
The similarities between the function of the human scapegoat in the Greek context and the animal scapegoat in the Hebrew context should hardly need underlining in spite of their equally obvious differences. Both are essentially about the ritual removal of pollution from the group; in both cases the transfer of pollution is achieved via the ritual medium of ‘blessings’ or ‘blows’; the ‘laying on’ of hands. The hurling of the stool is also strongly reminiscent of the cries of “Strike! Hurl the spear!” which accompanies the ritual of exiling a murderer after accepting the payment of blood-money.
However, in the Greek context, it is evident that the scapegoat is not actually driven from the city, though he may eventually be driven from the banquet, whose end is in any case signalled by his arrival. But although beggars may well have been considered just as socially ‘beyond the pale’ then as they are in modern societies, it was apparently seen as just far too useful to have a few of these fellows around the city permanently for the daily removal of pollution, so their exile to the ‘social death’ of marginalisation here takes the place of the wilderness into which the Hebrews’ goat was driven.
Whipping Boys: Agamemnon
In a similar fashion, the children of some royal families in a number of ancient cultures were never punished for their misdeeds, since by law it was not permitted to assault their royal persons. Instead of being punished himself, a young prince would have a substitute, or ‘whipping-boy’ to take his beating for him. This was usually a child of around the same age as the prince, taken from the poorer element of society to grow up in the palace as the prince’s playmate and friend.
Though life as a ‘whipping-boy’ was not entirely without its rewards, this whipping-boy, in thus ‘taking the blame’ for the prince’s misbehaviour also takes on the ‘pollution’ which is consubstantial with it, fulfilling a similar function to the beggar, and so too joins the ranks of those unfortunates who become society’s scapegoats, which as we have seen, can include anyone, even royalty on occasion, as witness Agamemnon:
Agamemnon, far from being ‘Commander in Chief’, was in fact being manipulated by his younger brother, Menelaos, when he takes on the command of the Greek fleet. Moreover, when Agamemnon is killed by Klytaemnestra, Agamemnon takes the ‘blame’ for the expedition which also necessitated his daughter’s sacrifice; the expedition instigated by Menelaos in order to recover his wife, the unfaithful Helen. This rather begs the question, ‘Why did Menelaos not lead the Hellenes himself?’
Why not indeed? My own guess is that quite probably he anticipated exactly the kind of drastic sign of commitment that might be demanded of him by the prophets and their gods. Certainly there were plenty of precedents before him which might have given him a clue; in any case it was customary for the Hellenes to provide the gods with a ‘noble hecatomb’ before any major enterprise. Perhaps he simply did not wish to sacrifice his own daughter, Hermione, even for the leadership of the very expedition for the sake of which he would demand that his brother sacrifice Iphigenia…
But of course this demand would inevitably be made in the name of Hellas and framed as the protection of the virtues of Greek womanhood, rather than on his own behalf and in order to plunder the wealth of Troy.
Thus even the mighty Agamemnon, warrior and hero that he was, became a whipping-boy, or scapegoat for his brother, the devious Menelaos, who emerges from the Trojan War in remarkably good shape, having sacrificed nothing and no-one closer to himself than his brother and his whole family; thus displaying the regard for brotherhood typical of a true son of Atreus, who feasted his own brother Thyestes on the flesh of his own children. We now need to consider yet another form of ‘scapegoat’, although again it is one which, like Iphigenia, is not normally referred to as such, supposedly fulfilling an entirely different social function which at least nominally gives the victims the illusion of some kind of glory and fame as a result of their ‘sacrifice’ in a similar manner to that achieved by Iphigenia.
I refer to the boys who competed in the annual Spartan ritual known as the Thargelion, or ‘The Whipping of the Boys’, which was the culmination of the initiation ritual proper, the Krypteion.
Krypteion and Thargelion
The krypteion was an extremely harsh test of the toughness, ingenuity and adaptability of the individual. This was a boy’s initiation, during which he would be driven naked out of the city to fend for himself for a whole year, living off the land or stealing food in order to survive, keeping out of sight of all other Spartans; boys who were caught were likely to be killed.
To a Spartan it was thus no sin to steal… but it was both shameful and dangerous to be caught. Although Spartan mothers reputedly doted on every male child, from whom she derived her own status among her peers, they never hesitated to send them off at the age of seven to the agogi, to commence their education, which included all the training necessary for life in the army once they had completed their education and initiation. And later, after initiation and throughout their adult lives, their mothers would never hesitate to send them off to war with the traditional Spartan farewell,
“Come home with your shield, or on it!”
Herodotus records a rare example of one Spartan mother’s reaction to a son who had returned from a battle without his shield: Hitching up her dress she exposed her genitals to him and demanded,
“Do you intend to crawl back where you came from?”
When a boy had completed his krypteion, he was eventually permitted to return to the city, where he would then be inducted into the army, where he would spend most, if not all, of his adult life. But first he must endure the final stage of his initiation, the Thargelion.
We have seen that in the harsh conditions of 17th century North America certain personal traits or qualities were desired and therefore ‘selected for’ in evolutionary terms, which were likely to help an individual and hence the social group to which s/he belongs to survive, such as toughness and an ability to endure physical pain stoically and without complaint.
In ancient Sparta, conditions were at least as tough as those in the American context. Thus it is not surprising to discover that certain rituals emerged in Sparta that were designed to both demonstrate and celebrate these qualities, including, of course, the krypteion itself. But when a boy finally returned to the city after surviving the krypteion, and if he was lucky or clever enough, perhaps even returning home with some booty or spoils of battle, instead of being welcomed with hugs and kisses and the ‘killing of the fatted calf’, they faced the Thargelion or, as it was also known, the ‘Whipping of the Boys’.
During this annual festival, newly initiated Spartan boys competed with each other to demonstrate how much punishment they could take by being flogged with a whip. To demonstrate their physical toughness and their ability to bear pain without complaint, they would refuse for as long as they possibly could to utter the word which would end their flogging instantly, competing with each other until their backs streamed with blood and some eventually passed out. Occasionally a particularly brave boy would die as a result of his beating, in which case he would be given a hero’s burial with all the honours of a traditional Spartan hero; this competition, like all major ancient Greek competitions, was sacred.
Now, whether or not one actually calls them scapegoats, it is quite clear to me that all of these boys, and most especially those who meet their demise in this unfortunate and painful manner, are in fact paying a very high price for this demonstration of the toughness of Spartans, and so fulfil a similar function to scapegoats and beggars at least to the extent that they bring Sparta ‘good fortune’ in the form of an enviable reputation for toughness in a harsh world. And although it may seem superficially that these boys go to their ‘sacrifice’ voluntarily, they really had no choice, having been more or less coerced by a combination of peer-group pressure and cultural expectations not only to compete, but also to refuse to give easily, in cowardly fashion, to mere physical pain. Their pain and the occasional death, however unfortunate unplanned or unintended nonetheless transforms them hermeneutically into human sacrifices and thus into social scapegoats.
As we saw in the case of poor Iphigenia, a human sacrifice is in any case also a form of scapegoat; and indeed any kind of animal sacrifice also fulfils the same function of attempting to purchase the goodwill of the god with regard to one’s enterprises, or at least to avert his displeasure. It is no mere coincidence that animal sacrifices were the only occasions on which meat was eaten, although we must remember that in wealthy and ‘pious’ households (animal) sacrifice was often a daily event.
The most important difference between a ‘human sacrifice’ and a ‘human scapegoat’ is simply that a human sacrifice is usually given the ‘blessings’ of ‘honour and glory’ and even sometimes a social status elevated to that of ‘hero’ and indeed, even to that of ‘god’ among certain cultures, such as the Aztec for example, before they are ritually slaughtered.
A scapegoat, on the other hand, may be subjected to both blessings and blows and along with them accepts the ‘blame’ or ‘pollution’ of the whole group and a social status relegated to society’s margins, the social equivalent of the wilderness into which the scapegoat was exiled; social death.
Neither sacrifices nor scapegoats however, are merely about the passive benefit of simply clearing away pollution, but rather about actively achieving some kind of positive goal or enterprise, by purchasing the gods’ favourable disposition towards it. In either case the nature of the ritual amounts to an ‘economic’ exchange; a purchase. God’s goodwill is bought. Though these two forms of ritual are indeed remarkably similar, we can see how relatively minor differences in the detail of the ritual process can change the meaning of the entire ritual.
Sparta, like Athens and indeed virtually all of the ancient cultures was a slave-owning society whose slaves, the helots, including the entire subordinated remnants of the conquered Mycenaean culture, performed all agricultural, menial and labouring work. Slavery was, throughout the ancient world, simply seen and accepted as the natural fate of anyone weak or unwary enough to allow themselves, or their city, to be captured. Yet this was not the real source of their wealth, since Sparta was more or less disinterested in trade and viewed the merchant classes as beneath them. Spartans made their living by hiring themselves out as mercenaries to fight wars for other countries. Since, as a logical result of the operation of the Law of Revenge at an international level, the whole region was in an almost constant state of warfare, those who survived made a good living.
In spite of this Spartan life was more than usually harsh because they deliberately spurned all forms of comfort, which they thought exerted a weakening or softening influence. Even the food the Spartans ate in their communal mess-halls reflected the deliberate cultivation of an ability to eat virtually anything; a visiting Athenian, Alcibiades, once remarked that after tasting Spartan cooking in the form of Sparta’s infamous ‘black broth’, which was made from a mixture of pigs blood and vinegar, that he now understood why they were so ready to die, since they had nothing in their lives worth living for.
The position of women in Spartan society was unlike that of women anywhere else in the world at the time. The Athenians, whose attitudes towards women were more typical of the Hellene world at the time, basically thought strongly that women should be hidden (and even locked) away from the public view and kept innocent of any education, which was generally regarded as ‘giving a serpent extra venom’.
The Spartans on the other hand gave their women the same education, even including the same physical training as the boys, though in a separate institution. Moreover, girls were encouraged to be just as competitive as the boys and even competed against them on the sports field. Out of Sparta’s wonderful sense of sheer pragmatism the girls were even trained in wrestling, as well as the use of the javelin and discus, as most of the men were usually away at war, so the women too needed to know how to defend themselves.
An interesting side-effect of the almost constant absence of men was the near ubiquity of same-gender sex among women, the name of which practice even comes from the Greek island of Lesbos during the same period, which suffered similarly from a chronic absence of men; although ‘suffered’ may perhaps be too strong a word. It has been remarked that perhaps it was Spartan women who gave rise to the stories about the Amazons, a man-less tribe of warrior women whose archers were reputed to amputate their own right breast in order to facilitate their use of the bow.
Another wonderful example of Spartan pragmatism is the manner in which they were quite prepared to share their wives with foreigners and even helots in order to breed as many sons as possible in order to maintain the dwindling citizenry, and hence also, to maintain the army, which only citizens were allowed to join. Ironically the combination of Sparta’s thoroughgoing elitism and the inevitable attrition due to a state of almost constant warfare, not to mention the rarity of a Spartan’s opportunity to visit his wife, and perhaps also his embarrassment with the whole idea of having sex with a woman, when since early youth they had been institutionally trained into male homosexuality as part of their education, all took such a toll on the citizenry, and thus on the size of the Spartan army, that they made such wonderfully pragmatic ‘generosity’ an absolute necessity. But although a ‘mothax’ was entitled to an education and to join the army, they were nonetheless regarded as inferior, or ‘lower-class’, yet even so, due to their martial skills they might rise through the ranks and eventually even aspire, like Lysander, to the kingship.
When their father, King Aegis, died, the choice for the succession was between the lame Agesilaos and his brother, Latehidas. But an oracle from Delphi which had started to circulate at the time suggested that Sparta would be destroyed if ever a cripple was elected to the kingship. The slightly lame Agesilaos, with the support of Lysander, persuaded the Spartans that since their mother had had an affair with the infamous Alcibiades about nine months prior to Latehidas’s birth, that perhaps the word in the prophecy which had been interpreted as ‘crippled’ could in fact mean ‘illegitimate’ (and Latehidas was a mothax); Agesilaos was elected.
As it happened Agesilaos’ harboured a particular grievance against Thebes which when combined with the elitism which constantly minimized the size of the Spartan citizenry and hence the size of the army, was indeed largely responsible for Sparta’s downfall. As Plutarch explains in his ‘The Age of Alexander’, Agesilaos taught the Thebans how to fight with his repeated attacks upon that city. Undoubtedly these attacks also taught them the strategic necessity of putting an end to Spartan hegemony in the region, which they ultimately did in 371BC at the battle of Lefktra.
Sparta herself was reduced ultimately to the fate many a conquered nation; its sacred rituals, games and dances as well as its people and sacred places were reduced to tourist attractions. Once-sacred games and dances were now performed for tourists from the new star then rising on the political horizon, Rome. Agesilaos ended his career as a mercenary hired out to fight for the Egyptians in order to help pay Sparta’s war-debts. The Egyptians simply laughed when they first saw him, an old man of 80 in a famously ragged cloak, sitting on a beach. His typically Laconic response was,
“You may laugh now, but you will know me for a lion, by and by…”
Life was especially hard for married men in Sparta, as they were not officially allowed to visit their wives even on their wedding night which usually occurred at the age of about twenty-eight or twenty-nine years. They were thus forced to sneak out of the barracks in order to visit them and of course to return unnoticed in order to do so without being severely punished. It does not take too much imagination to see the military benefit in the commando-like skills of stealth which must perforce be developed in order to accomplish such an errand of love. What’s more, since the law required a man above the age of 30 to be married, no-one could escape having to develop such skills. Once a year recalcitrant bachelors were publicly humiliated by having to ritually march around the market-place singing a song which informed the local citizenry of their still shamefully single status.
It is no exaggeration to say that every aspect of life in Sparta was either a preparation for war, or else it was war. The Spartans like all of the Hellenes, admired heroes, who according to the contemporary definition were simply the strongest, the most courageous, the most cunning and the most ruthless hunters and killers. The sense of ‘fair play’ or ‘justice’ that we have grown up expecting from some of our ‘modern’ heroes was almost entirely absent from the concept of the ‘hero’ at this stage in history; that must wait for Chivalry, the Middle Ages, and the Arthurian mythology described in Mallory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, although as with so many other things, the foundation for even this trend was perhaps initially laid by Alexander the Great, largely I imagine as a result of his education, which was imparted to him by one of Hellas’, and indeed the world’s most famous teachers of all time, Aristotle.
As we have seen, Odysseus, far more than Achilles, is considered by Homer to be the archetypal hero and as such, he is used by Homer to represent the fate of ‘Everyman’. So perhaps we can best understand life in Ancient Greece by understanding him:
For Odysseus, as for every man, life was essentially a series of struggles in which honesty and frankness were not always the best policy and in which a man must perforce keep his strength up and his wits about him, lest he succumb to the dangers symbolized by the Cyclops, or the Sirens, or the Lotus Eaters, or Calypso, or Circe, or any one of the innumerable other dangers he faced on his protracted return from Troy.
The manner in which Odysseus, like so many other heroes before him, ‘defies the gods’, is also a very likely scenario in almost any soldier’s life at some stage, but by a curious twist, the courage this displays is seen as being ‘smiled on’ by the gods themselves; this advises the common man that in order to survive it is not enough to have merely the wits of an Odysseus, it is also necessary to have the kind of courage which would dare to defy the very gods themselves. Only such a man is worth saving!
Thus too all the other Ancient Greek heroes usually, at some stage or other, display this defiant attitude although care is always taken to frame it within an overarching piety, which beautifully renders the ‘human condition’ of their situation even more poignantly.
Greek religions were therefore not aimed, like Christianity, at the attempt to create a ‘Utopian’ society, but rather at teaching individual young Hellenes how to survive in an extremely violent and frequently deceptive world, by giving them the examples of heroes who had not only survived but had even accomplished tremendous feats against incredible odds.
Demi-gods, the ‘Son of Heaven’ and the ‘Prince of Peace’
Having demonstrated that the cult of heroes represented a well-recognized ‘pathway’ not only to fame, wealth, kingship and glory, but ultimately to the heavens and demi-godhood, we now need to examine this concept of semi-divinity and compare it with similar concepts around the globe at roughly the same historical period, and indeed throughout history.
Perseus, Jason, Herakles, and Alexander were all subjects of divine portents and omens which were interpreted by the prophets of their times as signifying that their true father was indeed none other than the king of the gods. It seems that this was a far from unique, if not a common ascription for the children of royal households.
This should not surprise us, however, since the godhood had been associated with kingship at least since the founding of ancient Egypt; the Pharoah was seen as the living incarnation of Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. So to all intents and purposes these royal progeny were regarded by their loyal, pious and faithful subjects as the children of the gods; the mightiest of which, like Herakles and Alexander, claimed to be sons of Almighty Zeus himself.
Unlike the Christian god Jehovah, who Christians apparently believe only ever had one son, the more promiscuous Zeus seems to have had an almost infinite number of offspring of both sexes. By the time of the ‘divine’ Julius Caesar these descendents of the gods represented an elite class unto themselves within the upper echelons of the Patrician aristocracy.
Perhaps this concept of semi-divinity allows for the possibility that ‘Everyman’ might also, provided he is pious and faithful and performs all the right sacrifices, through all his victories and successes in the world, come to regard himself as a ‘son of God’, and perhaps even come to be seen as such by the rest of the world; although their ‘divine descent’ also imposes upon them a heavy responsibility; the ‘burden of kingship’.
The manner in which this ‘Son of Zeus’ phenomenon was experienced in Ancient Hellas is virtually identical to Ancient China’s concept of the ‘Son of Heaven’ (Tian Er), which follows the logical principle that in a world full of warring states, the man who was capable of subduing all the other states and unifying the world quite obviously possessed what the Chinese called the “Mandate of Heaven”, and thus had a divine right to rule.
The first and perhaps the greatest historically recorded example of these Chinese ‘Sons of Heaven’ was the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang Ti, who first ascended to the throne of Qin in 246 BC and who ultimately unified China for the first time in 221 BC. Although this empire was as short-lived as Alexander’s, ultimately collapsing in 206 BC and afterwards degenerating through constant warfare and a protracted process of fissioning along racial and clan lines of cleavage into what Chinese historians call the ‘Warring States’ period, nonetheless the example set by Qin Shihuang Ti kindled in the Chinese imagination the desire for empire and an example of how to achieve it.
What few historians seem to realise, however, is that Qin Shihuang Ti was himself also following the examples of such ‘mythical’ Ancient Chinese heroes as Fu Hsi, The Yellow Emperor, King Wen and the Duke of Chou along with all of the oracular advice contained in Confucius’ only real literary legacy to the world, the Ten Wings of the I Ching, or ‘Book of Changes’.
In doing so, Qin Shihuang Ti was also following exactly the same ‘path of ambition’ as the Ancient Greek heroes, and with the same ultimate goal in mind: divinity, or at least semi-divinity. And indeed, who can deny that these heroes, both oriental and occidental, have indeed achieved some small measure of success? They have achieved at least a form of immortality, certainly; for as long as their stories, and hence their cults; indeed for as long as history itself exists, so will their fame. And like the gods themselves, these heroes have had a most profound influence on the thought and behaviour patterns of the individuals, and by extension, the societies and cultures who worship and attempt to emulate, or even to surpass them, right down to our own times.
Christianity, on the other hand, reflects a new and vastly different concept of the ‘Son of God’. Indeed in its concentration on the crucifixion of its own ‘Son of God’, this relatively novel religion has more of the scapegoat than the hero about it, for who can deny that Jesus was a scapegoat? According to orthodox Christian doctrine, universally agreed upon by all denominations, he took upon himself the ‘sins of the world’, receiving them according to the correct ritual form of blessings and blows, and was crucified when he refused to remain in the wilderness and insisted on coming into town; the scapegoat ritual is thus complete down to the last detail, even including the symbolic cannibalism of the Last Supper:
The ‘daily sacrifice’ was also the principle daily meal and in Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life he was thus ensuring the continuation of life after death for his followers, symbolized by the eating of the same bread and wine which ensures the continuity of earthly life. His words, “Take ye and eat, for this is my flesh; take ye and drink, for this is my blood…” also remind us of the inherent cannibalism in the sacrifice he was about to make and in doing so also points out the cannibalism inherent in all forms of human sacrifice and scapegoating rituals generally. According to Christian tradition, his sacrifice as the ‘true’ Son of God was of such value that it purchased ‘Redemption’ for all who believe in it and who were willing to recognize his divinity.
One might perhaps be forgiven for imagining that logically the sacrifice of Jesus should render any and all forms of human sacrifice and scapegoat rituals redundant, however this has evidently proven not to be the case, since similar sacrifices and scapegoating rituals, in a multitude of different forms, are still demanded and practiced to this very day, even in modern Australia; and used to hide ‘a multitude of sins’. This is because instead of being seen as having made scapegoating rituals redundant, Jesus’ ‘self-sacrifice’ is promoted as a model for emulation, this sacrificial role-modelling even overshadowing the central message of Christianity which was expounded by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Far from making scapegoat rituals redundant, it has made them the essence of social process and has turned religious instruction into little more than the preparation of ‘pure’ victims for sacrifice. But this should not surprise us too much, since it could well be argued that Christianity was hijacked from the start by the Roman, Saul of Tarsus; and in any case, social process follows cosmological process, which within the Catholic Church was represented by the ‘Stations of the Cross’, which even frames Jesus’ central message within the overall process of his path to the cross. It is clear from this imagery and the centrality of the clerical construction of the crucifixion as the overarching symbol of Christianity, that the scapegoating ritual of Jesus’ sacrifice is what is seen as important to emulate and reproduce, in spite of its logical redundancy and its inherent cannibalism, rather than the content of his ‘Sermon on the Mount’.
Jesus is also, and by all denominations, frequently referred to as having ‘sacrificed his own life’ in order to ensure the return to life of the faithful on the Day of Judgement. He is also frequently referred to as a ‘ransom sacrifice’ who has ‘paid the price’ of our sins. These phrases are repeated over and over again in Christian prayers and hymns. As we have seen the only real difference between a sacrifice and a scapegoat is that in the traditional nomadic context, the goat isn’t usually eaten because it dies in the wilderness; in terms of semantic content the rituals are otherwise identical. Even if it returns, the pollution attached to it makes it as much the subject of social taboo as the cannibalism inherent in the sacrifice of Jesus; it may be killed, but it will not be eaten. But a sacrifice is often, indeed, is usually eaten. In fact it is only the cannibalism of this ritual, the fact that the ‘body of Christ’ is eaten, which raises it semantically from a ‘scapegoating’ to a ‘sacrifice’.
It is also interesting to note that, as any good scapegoat or sacrifice should, Jesus went to the cross quite voluntarily, except for a brief moment of understandable and very human reluctance during the final night before his arrest. And with his final words, “It is finished”, Jesus was clearly announcing that the sacrificial ritual – the scapegoating ritual – was, as we have seen, complete in every detail.
My personal understanding of Jesus words, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” is that whatever his human or divine status, Jesus himself was a philosopher; a ‘lover of truth’ and a follower of the ‘light of reason’. In observing his own sacrifice Jesus understood his own position as a scapegoat and even understood that this ritual springs from all that is darkest in the human psyche; its appetite for, and its immediate, reflexive and unquestioning recourse to violence, seemingly in denial of reason itself and in spite of the intelligence his father Jehovah had supposedly given them, yet saw it as a necessary historical moment.
Paradoxically, as we have seen, our much-expanded, though perhaps over-rated intelligence was itself the result of an evolutionary process whose ultimate source lay in the decision of our species to engage in deliberate acts of conscious violence and carnivorous behaviour the internal logic of which is potentially catastrophic for the species which invented it. But, as we have seen, violence and the increased intelligence it both demands and gives us, emerges not because of, but rather in spite of reason; belief in the supernatural comes first, scientific analysis much later, and only when the brain is more fully developed.
Several animal behaviourists have observed that predatory species simply require more intelligence in order to survive, even when they have the eyes of an eagle, the strength of a lion, the speed of a cheetah and the claws and fangs of a tiger.
Homo sapiens, when compared to other predatory species, is relatively weak, can’t run worth a damn, has relatively poor eyesight, and no real teeth or claws. The only thing that early humans had going for them in terms of weaponry was their sociality and their ability to co-operate. This was something they had already learned even in their herbivorous state: in order to resist the depredations of leopards and other predators troupes of chimpanzees have been known to retreat into the trees as a group and counter-attack by throwing sticks, stones and fruit at them until the predators become discouraged and leave in search of easier meat.
Indeed, I believe that many animals, especially those which exhibit social behaviours, are more intelligent than we tend to give them credit for. That they have what Goodall refers to as ‘theory of mind’ is demonstrated by their often hierarchical behaviour and the consciousness of self and other which this reflects. Indeed, this accounts for the level of intelligence already achieved by several social species, including some of the primates like Frodo and his troupe, even before their recourse to violence:
Before their decision to become predators these species still had a definite ‘social order’, but this tended rather to be based on seniority than physical superiority. It seems therefore that if it was violence which initially set us on the road to the rapid evolutionary development of our intelligence and thus on the path to becoming human, it was nonetheless sociality itself which started us on the path which led to the drastic social experiment (or perhaps I should say, ‘anti-social experiment’), which violence represents.
Thus, it was in fact due to our relative weakness that it was necessary from the very beginning that we humans develop our intelligence, though at first this intelligence would inevitably take the form of a predator’s cunning; only once it has fully evolved is the mind capable of the higher functions of philosophical reasoning necessary to perceive the ultimate destructiveness and futility of these violent methodologies in spite of their apparent efficacy in the short-term.
As we have seen, homo sapiens much-vaunted ‘intelligence’ emerged not because of reason, but rather in spite of it and it is only within the last two or three thousand years (from an evolutionary perspective, the blink of an eye) that homo sapiens has actually even begun to value reason above those more violent instincts and appetites of our most distantly related simian ancestors.
Over the course of millennia these instincts and appetites have become so deeply embedded in our subconsciousness through such countless generations that it would take a mental and perhaps even a spiritual mutation to change them of the same order as that which was evidently experienced by Frodo and his troupe when they made their decision to become hunters and killers in the first place, but this time operating in the other direction, favouring reason above the instinctive and animalistic brutality of violence.
Indeed this is what the development of laws and polite manners is all about; ever since Moses there have been men – exceptional men – who have attempted to deal with the problem of violence within a violent society. Thus the need which is now pushing us in our current direction, ie, towards the elimination of violence is exactly the same as that which pushed Frodo to his violent assumption of the ‘purple’… survival itself.
Survival itself now requires the valuation of reason above the illusory and inevitably temporary advantages of political power and personal gain; a genuinely community-centred spirit which recognizes the humanity and value of the Other and has the good sense not to seize the temporary personal political advantages which violence might seem to offer in the short term; to learn to value not only one’s own country but indeed in this 3rd Millenium, to value the World – as a whole! – above one’s own personal political ambitions and above and before merely local loyalties such as nationalistic and regional sentiments. Although this represents a complete inversion of what may be regarded as ‘natural affinities’, to do otherwise is to choose to go the way of the dinosaurs.
It is also important to note here, that although the events and circumstances leading up to its sacrifice may for the sake of obtaining a favourable omen be arranged to make it seem as if the victim is going voluntarily to its fate and is often even said to be ‘choosing’ it, or in some forms even ‘asking for it’, this is in fact simply another form of ‘blaming’ the victim… laying the blame even for its own demise onto the back of the scapegoat along with the blame for all the ailments and problems of the group.
Schoolyard bullies, and indeed bullies in general, frequently attempt to justify their depredations by stating, “He asked for it!” Vulnerability or any form of weakness or even any perceptible difference from the socially accepted norm, are themselves thus taken as ‘provocation’ and interpreted as the victim ‘volunteering’ itself for the ‘sacrifice’ of a beating.
It cannot be stated strongly enough, however, that victims do not choose to be victims, even though there is today a growing body of so-called ‘psychological’ literature suggesting otherwise.
Even Jesus was a tad reluctant: the bible pictures him literally ‘sweating blood’ over the thought of what he was about to do, and asking that ‘this cup’ be taken from him.
However, it is also true, as one recent theory suggests, that Jesus may himself have sent Judas to inform the Romans of his whereabouts, which indicates that he even set up his own arrest; as does the manner in which he orders his followers to desist when they start to defend themselves against the Roman guards. He is even said to have healed one guard’s ear, which had been cut off in a struggle with the disciples who were present for the final vigil.
But even this is simply another form of ‘victim-blaming’, but of course it is necessary for the sake of the ritual; and even if he did arrange his own arrest, and even if he did orchestrate the manner in which the meaning of the ritual was structured, perhaps, like Iphigenia, he was in fact merely bowing to the inexorability of social process; but perhaps he himself wanted the good omen which he understood his voluntary submission would represent according to the symbolism of the ritual.
Jesus was evidently perfectly aware of the true nature of the scapegoating ritual he was about to undergo; indeed it could even be said that he himself, though not choosing it, was nonetheless like the Iphigenia and the unfortunate Iroqoian torture victim, at least partially framing it as such quite deliberately so it could be used as a vehicle to carry his very particular social message; a message which, like the symbolic reminder of the cannibalistic nature of his sacrifice which he has left for us in the symbolism of the Last Supper, has evidently been either poorly understood or else completely misunderstood, perhaps even deliberately and wilfully, by almost everyone since the event.
In any case, Jesus’ death conforms perfectly to the structural and hermeneutic demands of either scapegoating or sacrificial rituals and contains all of the essential structural and hermeneutic elements of both. The crucifixion itself thus contains all the essential ingredients for a paradigm of violence.
Violence and the Prince of Peace
Perhaps one of the most peculiarly perplexing and persistent paradoxes one encounters in the study of violence, and perhaps in the whole of history itself, is the manner in which the followers of the Christian religion, whose ‘Saviour’ is still and always has been referred to as the ‘Prince of Peace’, have ultimately been the cause of more bloodshed and human misery than any other single cause in a history which is itself notorious for having been ‘written in blood’.
According to the central tenets of the Christian faith Jesus is their prophet and ultimate ‘saviour’ from ‘hell and damnation’; the price for which is their belief in Jesus and the pious practice of the Christian religion as exemplified by Jesus and his philosophy.
The difference between Jesus’ philosophy and that of the dominant contemporary (Roman) worldview was, at least initially, one of diametric opposition, as we shall see:
The rest of the Roman world, inspired by Alexander the Great, was intent on the game of ‘World Domination’ played in the traditional style with real armies and navies, real soldiers and real battles, all for the sake of determining the relative social elevation of the various countries.
By the time of Jesus’ birth even the traditional tribal egalitarianism of the nomadic ancient Hebrews had long been undermined by the emergence of cities (especially Jerusalem), and kingship (ever since Saul) as well as specialized castes such as the lawyer/priest-caste, the Levites (whom Jesus refers to as ‘scorpions’ and ‘serpents’), thus creating an elaborate hierarchy which was further enhanced by the introduction of the ‘spiritual hierarchy’ also implied by the emergence of the priesthood and especially the Sanhedrin. But Jesus said
“Love your neighbour as yourself”,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
In order to ‘love one’s neighbour as oneself’, it is necessary to treat them genuinely as equals rather than hypocritically paying lip-service to equality whilst simultaneously hammering in the wedge of social and economic division in order to create and/or maintain a social hierarchy based on relative wealth or poverty; this is simply economic violence and like any form of violence it will eventually bring about violent repercussions.
It was for a combination of his egalitarianism and the manner in which he whipped the money-changers from the temple, thus indicating what he thought of such exploitation, that both the Jewish and Roman authorities saw Jesus as a threat to the whole established social and economic order.
Here was someone who wanted to change The System; a man who wanted to treat people as equals instead of dominating and exploiting them. But if everyone was to be equal then who would these ‘exalted’ people have to look down on? And who would do all the work? Besides, being rich is no fun without plenty of poor people to grind into the dust, so why would anyone want to change the system which creates them…? It could not be allowed to happen! It would interfere with business!
So they nailed him to a tree.
But Jesus wasn’t even the first of what I believe is a new kind of human, who preached peace and equality among humankind:
Buddhism is a relatively ‘democratic’ transformation of Hinduism in an attempt to rid it from the more iniquitous injustices of the caste system, which still plague Indian society today in spite of the measure of ‘equality’ supposedly given to them by the Indian Constitution, which Ambedkar and Gandhi ensured gave the vote to even the ‘untouchables’ of the lowest caste, Gandhi’s harijans, the ‘Children of God’.
Of course, ironically, even Buddhism manages to repeat Hinduism’s hierarchical cosmology and social structure. The Buddha and the boddhisattvas are at the top, followed by the priests and monks and finally the people of various social ranks underneath them. Right at the bottom of the Buddhist hierarchy, which is recognizably similar to our own concept of a ‘Natural Order’ (which we derived once again from the Ancient Greeks), are the animals, ranked roughly according to relative cellular complexity, and finally demons right on the bottom. Nonetheless Buddhism remains a significant improvement, especially in its doctrinal emphasis on the value of compassion; Buddha himself said,
“The nature of the enlightened mind is Compassion”.
Gautama Buddha’s strategy was a bit more subtle than Jesus’; upon attaining ‘Supreme and Ultimate Enlightenment’, he told his disciples when they asked him about it, to “Go and find it for yourselves…” until they begged him to form a church and institutionalise his ‘enlightenment’, unaware of the implicit oxymoron.
Nonetheless, Buddha gracefully and with true compassion complied; and today the Buddhist church is a global institution on the same scale as Roman Catholicism. The Buddha, the Supremely Enlightened One, performed no sacrifice comparable to that of Jesus and by all accounts died naturally and peacefully in his bed, surrounded by his devoted disciples.
In Ancient Greece, Socrates was lampooned by the comedian Aristophanes prior to being charged with heresy and sedition and ultimately sentenced to death by poison, since he would not leave his beloved Athens and so refused the option of exile. Though his death was also an execution, which made a social scapegoat of him, he quietly drank the hemlock and died relatively peacefully, surrounded by his devoted disciples; even the jailer who brought him the hemlock wept for him.
Socrates was the ultimate Athenian philosopher. He was also the only man who might have been able to save Athens from its final defeat, which shows clearly how much, or rather, how little respect is accorded to men of reason by those with less.
Lao Tzu was a Taoist hermit and author of the ‘Tao Te Ching’, “The Way and it’s Power”, whose profound philosophy was admired even by Confucius, who himself searched for his whole adult life for a lord to adopt his philosophy and thereby save China, which was disintegrating into a chaotic maelstrom of feuding and wars both within and between the various tribes and states. Confucius died thinking his life’s mission had failed because all of the lords he spoke to refused to listen to him. It was only after his death that Qin Shihuang Ti adopted his teachings as a state philosophy.
Apart from the Ten Wings of the I Ching, Confucius wrote nothing; however, his students gathered together some time after his death to record their Master’s sayings and examples of his wisdom in a small book which became known as the ‘Analects of Confucius’. Although himself a devout believer in a hierarchical social system Confucius’ philosophy aimed ultimately at the cultivation of ‘human-heartedness’ and the maintenance of social order, or ‘harmony’. This philosophy has been the basis of the structure of Chinese life and society for more than 2,200 years although, like Christianity, it has undergone some peculiar and severe transformations and distortions during that time.
In more recent historical times, in South America, we find the hombre-dios, Quetzalcoatl, who changed the nature of Mayan sacrifice by forbidding human sacrifice and desiring that only ‘feathers and butterflies’ be sacrificed to him. This was nothing short of a paradigm-shift; it changed the whole nature of Mayan culture and was perhaps largely responsible for the survival of the Maya out of the scattered remnants of the Aztec and other cultures belonging to the Toltec paradigm which had ultimately all but collapsed in on themselves as a result of constant warfare and human sacrifice to such a point that Cortez and as few as three hundred men could easily capture what had once been the Aztec Empire.
I do not wish to belittle Cortez’ feat, but merely to point out that it would not have been possible at all had he not been able to exploit the structural weaknesses and divisions prevalent within Aztec society, as well as the ‘godhood’ which was conferred upon him by the prophecy of the return of the deified Quetzalcoatl in the year ‘One Reed’, (the year of Cortez’ arrival), together with all of the technological and strategic advantages that the Spanish already possessed.
The important point for our purposes is that the Maya, after the ritual and social reforms of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, survived and their descendents still live peacefully in the mountainous regions of Central and Northern South America to this day. The changes in their sacrificial rituals and the consequent changes in the way they lived in and related to their environment were evidently not without effect.
Even more recently we have experienced the positive power of peaceful persuasion demonstrated by the ‘Great Soul’, Mahatma Gandhi, who without striking a single blow in anger defeated the armed might of the British Empire and forced them to give India its freedom from ‘the Raj’. Furthermore, it was Gandhi himself who made sure that the ‘untouchable’ Ambedkar was principally responsible for drafting the Indian Constitution, which gave even the lowest castes the right to vote.
We also have the current inspirational example of the Fourteenth Incarnation of the Dalai Llama, whose own peaceful struggle against the Chinese occupation of his native Tibet echoes the sentiments and methodologies of Gandhi and is gradually motivating world opinion against the Chinese presence there.
Although as we have seen there may have been a historical necessity for characters like Shaka Zulu and Alexander the Great, either to unify disparate peoples in response to necessity, or else following the heroic ideal and its logic of ‘empire’. Yet it seems that there is also, throughout history, a tendency in oppressed, or sometimes even in warlike societies to sprout individuals with a ‘new’ and completely different view of the world; men who can see a little further than the logic of violence and revenge and how these blind the rest of the world.
Indeed the first of these may well have been the ancient Hebrew prophets Ezekiel and Daniel and later John the Baptist, all of whom predicted an ultimate conflagration during the ‘End Time’, popularly known as Armageddon. Now this is no great feat of prophecy, since the tendency historically has always been towards larger and larger sodalities fighting amongst themselves with larger and larger armies and deadlier and deadlier weapons, until indeed some such final conflagration as Armageddon logically becomes not only eminently predictable but practically unavoidable.
The question for Christians, I suppose, should really be “If there really is a God who is sending genuine prophets to warn about a genuine danger, then why is he doing so? Is he sending them to warn us so we can escape the danger, or just to tease and torment us with promises of an unattainable Heaven and an inescapable Hell to which we are all – or nearly all – to be condemned after our imminent and inescapable destruction?”
If Armageddon is truly inescapable then why would He bother? Just so we can truly appreciate in advance the terror to which we are likely to be subjected? Is God such a sadist? Or is it possible that this new kind of human being has actually undergone some kind of evolution or mutation, whether physical, intellectual or spiritual, which allows them to see the inevitable short-sightedness of the internal logic of cultures of violence and which permits them for the first time to see the possibility of a world without violence?
Would not such a world be just like the ‘Eden’ we are supposed to have originally been ‘evicted from’ for our supposed transgression against our Creator when we ‘ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’ and thus discovered the difference between them, perhaps in some similar spontaneous moment of enlightenment as that we can see dawn on Frodo’s face when he discovers the magical power of violence?
Frankly, whether or not there is a God, the warnings of the prophets should be taken seriously simply because they are also the logical outcome of a simple line of reasoning based on readily observable phenomena. War is a growing business and, sadly, just as it was during the Trojan War and the Peloponnesian Wars, it is still the basis of far too much ‘free’ enterprise.
Unfortunately the usual, predictably contemptuous reaction to such far-sighted and peace-loving people (in western societies, at least) seems to be to kill them, usually in some kind of scapegoating ritual, like those of Socrates and Jesus, in order to maintain the violent status quo, and, of course, the interests of those who are currently in power.
In spite of two thousand years of so-called Christianity, violence of all forms, including war seems to have been an ever more popular means of achieving political ascendancy. There is no denying the power of violence as an argument… it makes being right or wrong totally irrelevant; survival itself becomes the only standard of judgement. Notions of ‘right and wrong’ and concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘democracy’ are thus luxuries only peaceful and unoppressed societies and individuals, who have no reason to fear their neighbours and, perhaps more importantly, who do not cause fear in them, can afford to contemplate.
Christianity originally spoke about a new concept of right and wrong based ultimately on obedience to Mosaic Law and the ‘Golden Rule’ derived from Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In the former, it is said,
“Thou shalt not kill”,
and in the latter,
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Nowhere in Jesus whole ministry does he ever advocate violence as a methodology. Instead of revenge, he taught forgiveness; yet within a single century after his death, the Catholic Church had already begun to use violence as a methodology in order to survive the political turmoil of those times. Although many early Christians did sail off to the ends of the earth (at the time, the British Isles) in an attempt to escape the threat of violence and establish peaceful communities, eventually even these were forced to take up arms to resist later invaders, if not to ‘pacify’ the indigenous peoples, which was largely accomplished for them by the Romans.
As we have seen above, weakness and vulnerability are themselves seen as provocative. Those who practice violence simply do not leave the peaceful in peace. Thus Xun Tzu advises,
“If you want peace, be prepared for war”.
Thus even those who devoutly wish for peace come, in a violent world, eventually to have some knowledge of not only the skills but also the practice of violence. Even though these invaders were eventually incorporated into the Christian faith, irreparable damage had already been done to that faith itself in their very first resort to the use of violence:
“Put not thy trust in princes…”
…the Bible says, yet the early church was eventually forced to do just that in order to survive at all. In doing so, it was inevitably necessary to convert some of these ‘heathen’ princes to Christianity and if that meant that Christians would have to accept some further modification of their hitherto peaceful behaviour by incorporating pagan elements (and even pagan rituals!) into itself, then so be it… And yet of course in doing so the church cannot help but display its own lack of faith in its god by attempting to purchase ‘insurance’ from Mammon.
Furthermore, although Jesus words, “You are the rock upon which I shall build my church”, names Peter as his successor, it was ultimately left to the Roman, Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St Paul, to establish Christianity in Europe, which process was also aided by the spread of the Roman Empire itself. Inevitably the emerging Christian religion took on some new and very Roman characteristics.
Saul of Tarsus and later the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine undoubtedly realized how useful a single god might be in creating an ideology capable of unifying a Roman Empire which was constantly threatening to fall apart at the seams; thus the Roman Empire merges gradually and almost seamlessly into the Holy Roman Empire, with its infamous Schism, its princely popes, battling bishops and saints with swords; the inevitable result of the Church’s equally inevitable absorption of Rome’s traditional warlike ideology and methodologies.
For all their love of Ancient Greek literature, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, had consistently failed to properly understand the lesson taught by Euripides; that revenge was always folly and so they failed to find a way out of their endless cycle of war and revenge, with its attendant policy of deviousness and political corruption in an arena which had become so ultra-competitive that such cheating had become not only the norm, but positively ‘de rigueur’ in spite of any moderating influence a cultivated ‘sense of honour’ might be imagined to have exerted.
As a result such tremendous cleavages became apparent even within Patrician Roman society itself, that the seeds of Rome’s downfall were present and flourishing in the old Republic even before Caesar, in traditional heroic style, declared himself a god, thus turning what had been a republic into an Empire; and in doing so perhaps delaying its ultimate decline for several centuries, as Caesar’s declaration of his divinity had the effect of centralizing power in the hands of the emperor himself, thus minimizing the influence of an inevitably corrupt Senate. After the Divine Julius, Rome’s influence spread even further as the rest of the ‘god-emperors’ followed Julius’ expansive Imperial example; and as Rome spread so did Christianity, a religion of peace in the shadow of the sword, as the whole of the known world experienced the ‘Pax Romana’. Of course this Pax Romana could only exist because of the universal fear of the power of Rome’s legions. However, Christianity’s emphasis on obedience to the authorities of this world also facilitated their converts’ subjection to Rome’s imperial will.
But when the Roman Empire declined so did its power to hold the rest of the European nations in subjection and they inevitably fell to warring again, most probably over the same centuries-old grievances which had divided them before Rome ever rose to power. Though by now thoroughly ‘Christianised’, the European nations had also absorbed much of the warlike and aggressively imperialistic philosophies of the Roman Empire, indeed they had been warlike enough themselves before their absorption by Rome and even Christianity had long ago accepted that one had a ‘God-given’ right to protect oneself, one’s home and one’s family, so to fight and even to kill in self-defence was not seen as a sin.
Moreover, hierarchy and the use of violent methodologies, if only in self-defence, had been adopted by Christians ever since the emperors Diocletian and Constantine had transformed the originally egalitarian religion established by Jesus into that most hierarchical of all human organisations, the Roman Catholic Church, which, following Rome’s imperialistic ideology, inevitably came to see it eventually as their divine mission to convert the whole of the rest of the world, if necessary at the point of a sword.
Thus even the Catholic Church itself had very early in its history started to kill in the name of its Prince of Peace. One of the most significant groups of people exterminated by the early church was the ‘Aryan Christians’, a group of Christians who also believed in the message of Jesus, but who differed on a significant point of doctrine: they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus and saw him more as a traditional prophet whereas Roman Catholicism insists on his divinity.
After the fall of Rome Christianity really took off in Europe during what were to become known as ‘The Dark Ages’. The Dark Ages are so called because virtually all the knowledge of the ‘ancient world’, especially that of the Ancient Greeks, was totally lost to Europe when the great library at Alexandria was destroyed during the third century AD, and, perhaps more importantly, the body of knowledge represented by the druidic religions which had predominated in Europe before them was being eradicated by the Roman persecution of the druids; which was later continued by the newly Christianised Romans who eventually came to be known as the Franks. Virtually the only form of knowledge other than mathematics which was taught from this time until the Renaissance was Catholic Christian Doctrine and this was taught formally only to members of the clergy and to the children of royalty and the aristocracy.
Undoubtedly the Church’s insistence on its own monopoly on ‘The Truth’ was what lay behind the disappearance of much ancient knowledge; through its control of education, the church could teach only that which was favourable to the Christian ethos and dispense with any form of knowledge which seemed to run counter to it, or which represented a challenge to it, often flying in the face of reason itself. Though they had, at least superficially, adopted a philosophy of non-violence, they had nonetheless also become very expert in the use of all forms of violence, including intellectual violence; lies and propaganda. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church was so confident that it had access to ‘The’ one and only Truth that all other forms of knowledge and especially other systems of belief were seen as ungodly and therefore blasphemous, heretical and even satanic.
This insistence on a monopoly of Truth is also used as the justification for much of the church’s violence, including the wholesale slaughter caused by several series of Crusades and Inquisitions: Since propaganda is basically a refusal to recognize reason in favour of a blind insistence on a preferred belief, no matter how bizarre, it should not surprise anyone to find the Christians of the Dark Ages soon engaged in several equally bloody and equally unsuccessful Crusades in the name of their ‘Prince of Peace’.
These Crusades mostly sought to ‘return’ to ‘Christendom’ the city of Jerusalem, which had never belonged to Christendom in the first place. This didn’t matter however; Jerusalem was important to the Jewish religion from which Christianity had emerged and was the site of their Saviour’s crucifixion, so it was regarded as a Christian sacred site, and as such must, of course, be ‘retaken’ in the name of Jesus Christ, regardless of the fate of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants; property has always been seen as being more valuable than human lives, especially the lives of ‘the enemy’, whoever it is. Thus Christians had learned to strike the first blow, even in the name of their Prince of Peace, without even the need for such pretty euphemisms as ‘pre-emptive strikes’.
And after the Crusades, when there were no longer any ‘pagan’ nations in Europe to ‘defend’ themselves from, each individual European nation tended to see itself as being the only followers of the ‘true’ tradition; the only ‘true believers’, and so everyone else was seen as slightly ‘less Christian’, and so slightly less ‘human’. So when examples of un-Christian behaviour could be pointed to as an excuse it is perhaps not surprising to see Christians throughout Europe exhibiting the most un-Christian behaviours even towards each other, including torturing each other and burning each other at the stake under the guidance of the Inquisition; again, all in the name of their ‘Prince of Peace’. The very nature of their religion and its manner of worship had themselves now become causes of lethal conflict between believers who followed slightly different traditions. Ironically these differences in the manner of Christian worship originally emerged out of a desire to reform a church which was seen to have become corrupt and degraded by such questionable practices as the selling of ‘indulgences’.
Moreover, during the Renaissance science was now beginning to cast serious doubt upon the omniscience of the Church and thus to threaten its monopoly on ‘Truth’. But since, whichever side one was on, the opposition were invariably defined as ‘infidels’, ‘heretics’ and ‘blasphemers’ as opposed to the ‘true believers’, they were obviously on a lower rung on the human social ladder and therefore eminently dispensable.
No longer did Christianity even remotely resemble the inclusive and egalitarian religion once dreamed of by Jesus; and the multiplication of Christian sects in the attempt to reform Christianity during the Renaissance and the Reformation only added further fuel to this fire as Christians now fell to fighting among themselves, torturing each other and burning each other at the stake as witches and heretics even within the same country, as religious intolerance, wars and persecution spread like the plague itself throughout Europe during the Reformation.
Even though History itself is written in blood, in the last two thousand years, it is certain that no other single cause in history has been responsible for more bloodshed than has Christianity in its various guises, in spite of their worship of someone who calls himself the ‘Prince of Peace’.
So, even given the need to defend themselves from aggressors in a violent world, why should these followers of the Prince of Peace be even more bloodthirsty and aggressive than anyone else?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in an evident and arrogant assumption that since God was on their side they could do no wrong, even though opposing countries made exactly the same assumption about themselves at the same time. What’s more, Christianity applies a ‘with us or against us’ logic according to which unbelievers can do nothing right; they are automatically labelled as ‘Satanic’; no matter what their religion, it is the work of the Devil and they are all ‘Pagans’.
This is perhaps a religious equivalent of the assumption that ‘the King can do no wrong’… Thinking one has a divine mission and that one can therefore do no wrong can lead to some extremely destructive behaviours, as even pre-Christian Rome discovered under the god-emperors Caligula, Commodus and Nero, who of course, were especially destructive towards anything or anyone who might represent a limitation on their increasingly arbitrary and capricious actions; or who might challenge their authority or omnipotence; thus kings often killed the bearers of bad news concerning the fate of their armies.
Killing the Messenger:
Killing the messenger is, of course, yet another form of scapegoating ritual which sadly is also still frequently practiced in all our modern societies; we even have a neat little psychological catch-phrase to describe the modern version of this particular form of scapegoating ritual; we call it ‘Whistleblower’s Syndrome’.
It is true however that whistleblowers are not always killed in modern societies (although sometimes they still are!) but at the very least they become social outcasts; their careers and hence their lifestyles are usually completely destroyed; they are ultimately reduced to survival on society’s margins, joining the rest of society’s scapegoats, who of course, are all equally ‘economically inactive’ and thus socially dead.
The paired Catholic rituals of confession and communion are undoubtedly two more strong contributing factors to the ferocity of Christian violence, with their implicit absolution for any and all sins committed since one’s last confession and communion. It is therefore worth looking at the popular meanings of these rituals in detail:
According to Catholic tradition this combination of rituals was first established by Jesus himself at the ‘Last Supper’, when, taking a loaf of bread, he broke it and passed the pieces to his disciples, whom he instructed to,
“Take ye and eat for this is my flesh…“
Having done this, he took a cup of wine and passed it around his disciples, saying:
“Take ye and drink, for this is my blood…”
The cannibalistic symbolism is verbally explicit and thus undeniable. So the question we must ask is why would Jesus, who during his life advocated nothing but peace, forgiveness and the love of one’s fellow human beings use such violent symbolism in a ritual of remembrance of himself and the sacrifice he was about to make?
The simplest explanation would be that it was quite simply a means of both demonstrating the cannibalism inherent in the sacrifice he was about to make and a constant reminder that such human sacrifices as this would no longer be necessary, since because he was ‘the Son of God’ such was the value of his sacrifice that it would act as a ‘ransom’ or ‘payment’ for all of the sins of humanity; or at least for all those who chose to follow his teachings.
As I have shown above, two thousand years of historical and ideological distortion of Jesus’ original teachings have ultimately produced a hypocritical society which uses the supposedly unique Truth to which only Christians are privy as an excuse to dominate and exploit any and all other cultures; rather than “Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”, they now appear to believe in a policy of “Do unto others before they do it to you!”.
Domination and exploitation are ‘validated’ by the self-assumed ‘election’ of the Christian community which, even after the ideological and practical social reforms of the Protestant revolution, sees success in this world as prima facie evidence of that ‘election’. Thus Christians assume a moral superiority on the basis of their belief in this cannibalistic ritual human sacrifice and in having been thus ‘Chosen’ to participate in it…
Since they see themselves as the ‘Chosen’ followers of the Son of God, they of course see themselves as the ‘God’s Chosen People’, who are explicitly commanded in their holy scriptures to go forth and convert the rest of the world as part of their divine mission; if necessary at the point of a sword or gun; their violence now being ‘justified’ by their ‘divine mission’ to bring salvation to the pagans.
I’m sure that many rubber-plantation owners have justified the extreme cruelty with which they coerced their workers to work for them and the debt-peonage with which they keep them tied to the plantation, with something like this logic:
“Why, if we bring them eternal salvation, what does it matter how much we rob or exploit these people? By teaching them Christianity we have opened the Gates of Heaven for them; so have we not given them much more than we have taken, even if we treat them like slaves and take everything they have from them, including their very lives? And on top of that, we have civilized and educated these savages to boot!”
The rituals of Confession and Holy Communion are used together by Catholics for the removal of ‘spiritual pollution’, in the form the forgiveness of sins. This means that as long as one goes to confession and communion every week the only sins one needs to ‘do time for’ in Purgatory are those committed since one’s last confession. For the pious that means a week at most. Besides, in Christian societies there was usually a priest near at hand to make sure that most people did not die unshriven, so that with luck one’s period of purgatorial punishment can thus be minimized or even entirely eliminated and one can continue to do more or less as one pleases without being overly troubled by too many unnecessary pangs of conscience.
Although this may not be the official doctrine which is taught by Catholic priests and educators currently, or even historically, it is nevertheless easy to see that many lay members of the Catholic community have always, and indeed still do, see things this way and behave accordingly.
And indeed, the Christian Bible itself – especially the Old Testament – is such a wonderful source of quotations that it can be used to justify any cause, however brutal or perverse. I have lost count of how many times I have seen in many varieties of movies and literature, the clichéd scene in which some violent character quotes, “Vengeance is mine, sayest the Lord!” just before revenging himself on some ne’er-do-well or other. This is interesting in and of itself as it implies an identification of ‘oneself’ with the ‘mind of God’ as expressed in the Bible. Some Christians therefore evidently assume that because they feel they are ‘at one’ with the mind of God, they can do no wrong… and we know where that leads, don’t we?
It is also interesting to note that often, when reason implies the voluntary acceptance of certain limitations on our inalienably animalistic appetites, such as the appetites for food and drink, sex, violence, social elevation, power etc, which are all known to be potentially extremely destructive when out of control, people will often still choose to believe only as much of their traditional doctrine as will allow them to continue their own indulgence.
Often they will even distort official doctrine to conform to their own wishes and desires so that they may continue with their indulgences without it troubling their consciences unduly. Only a true philosopher will actually have the courage to apply what reason tells him to his daily life. It seems that many people, even intelligent ones, actually choose simply to follow their basest and most animalistic instincts and believe only as much as they really want to believe. Thus, regardless of the teachings of their religion or philosophy; many people seem to choose to believe only as much as appears to support or justify their own personal forms of self-indulgence, however improbably.
Such a complacent, lazy-thinking attitude is of course, perfectly natural, but it seems to me that nature is what humanity was put on this planet to ‘rise above’… to transcend… which we do through the means of social process; however the only real forms of ‘transcendence’ which are left to be achieved are all forms of scapegoating ritual… Even Caesar’s godhood ultimately cost him his life and his humanity; scapegoats for the death of the Roman Republic.
But if our species has any single distinguishing or defining characteristic it must surely be this, the manner in which humans – as societies if not as individuals – constantly strive to transcend their baser and more animalistic instincts via the means of social process. In this lies our only hope, however faint.
From this we can see that we are not actually born ‘human beings’ for all that we have all the genetic material of the species homo sapiens; we are born as nothing more than squawling and incessantly demanding little bundles of primal animal appetites and desires. Sadly, all too many people seem to be quite content to remain that way and consequently fail to cultivate their true human potential, that is, their true humanity by cultivating their potential for compassion along with their reason and intellect; for it is only through the processes of education and socialization that these appetites come to be controlled, (at least to some degree) and thus transcended (at least to some extent) since they can not be completely done away with.
Interestingly enough, as far as this admittedly limited transcendence can be achieved at all it is usually accomplished by ridiculing the undesirable or ‘excessive’ behaviour; by demonising and dehumanising it along with its practitioner, usually via the application of unflattering labels such as for example, calling a greedy person a “pig”; or calling a lecher an “old goat”, or calling a megalomaniac a “devil” or a “demon” (that is, in those rare cases where megalomaniacs are not simply admired for the ‘grandeur’ of their ambitions! Indeed these names are often used ironically in admiration too!)
Given the sad fate of Christianity, which has apparently turned into the exact opposite of what it started out to be, one cannot help but wonder whether or not there is any hope for the future of the world at all. Perhaps their predicted ‘Armageddon’ is inevitable, simply because these warlike Christian nations who, justified by their one-and-only Truth, now see themselves as having the right to ‘defend themselves’ with ‘pre-emptive strikes’ and feel themselves bound for an Armageddon which they not only see as imminent but which they even see as desirable and which they stupidly expect to win, notwithstanding that history has demonstrated over and over again that there are no winners in wars, only survivors; and in a nuclear conflict there would few, if any, of these.
What’s even worse is that those who do survive are likely to be the same people who start the apocalyptic conflagration in the first place, in the name of their Prince of Peace of course, and most probably with a ‘pre-emptive’ strike, since these appear to have recently become fashionable; because these war-mongers have all made sure to build their well-stocked atomic-bomb-proof bunkers first, of course, for themselves and their chosen few. But even they may not be able survive a nuclear winter…
Indeed, some scientists have suggested that the only creature capable of surviving a nuclear holocaust is the humble cockroach. Now that’s what you call real progress! We now stand at an historical juncture where Armageddon is not only a possibility; it is an increasing probability; and we are rushing headlong towards it at full speed when we ought to be doing everything we can to avoid it.
Christians, however, apparently seem to think they have nothing to worry about because, of course, God is on their side, so even if they all die, at least they’ll all go to Heaven! Not one of them has yet thought that there may be anything even remotely resembling a contradiction in going to war, especially with a ‘pre-emptive’ strike, in the name of the Prince of Peace.
I sometimes wonder, if Jesus was alive today, whether or not he would recognize Christianity at all. Personally, I think he would disown it.
It is quite apparent that those who practice war as a strategy of social reproduction, even if they do so in the name of the Prince of Peace, are ultimately dinosaurs, who are likely to be responsible for the extermination of our species if they cannot be persuaded to change their warlike ways.
If evolution was what caused humanity to invent violence in order to survive some dire threat and in doing so to develop its intelligence enough to rise above the mere animal, then it cannot be denied that there was once a time and a place, even a historical necessity for violence.
But it is now equally apparent that the moment has passed and this planet is no longer the place. Today the world is a much more explosive place than it has ever been; indeed, today the descriptions of Armageddon found in the bible, once thought of as far-fetched and fanciful seem now all too probable as the world struggles with nuclear arms races among members of the so-called ‘Third World’.
Perhaps evolution is even now trying to show us that unless we can find a more peaceful means of solving, or better still, of preventing disputes between people and countries, Armageddon is inevitable… and indeed, it is looking more and more likely with every passing year. (Thanks GW!)
I realise that the general thrust of this argument is not new; the establishment of the United Nations itself represents an attempt at developing a body of international law to which the whole world can be held responsible as a means of making war redundant, at least theoretically.
It is indeed a great pity that some of the recent decisions of some of its founder-members have evidently made that body largely irrelevant by ignoring its decisions and acting unilaterally in what they mistakenly perceive to be their own self-interest. So much for the concept of the universal applicability of law! So much too for the now rather droll idea that America supports the cause of international justice and democracy; as if democracy could ever be imposed at gunpoint!
But if a bully wants a particular viewpoint to be the only ‘officially accepted’ one, then all he has to do, as Adolf Hitler realized, is voice it often enough and loudly enough and people will generally at least pay ‘lip-service’ to the bully in order to avoid the threat of violence, whether implicit or explicit. Eventually even the worst lies and most dramatic distortions of reality will become accepted as ‘fact’ by the majority of people. Making logic and reason thus irrelevant, this process is most properly called propaganda, and like other forms of violence this intellectual violence maintains the official belief-system, in defiance of reason itself, out of sheer terror of the results of disagreement. Adolf Hitler was among its most notable advocates and exponents, although he used to call it ‘education’.
Effectively that’s how he managed to make the mass-scapegoating of the Jews socially acceptable: by first ‘educating’ German society into accepting the Jew as an inferior and even a demonic creature. They were not regarded as truly human and so were universally portrayed as not only lascivious and vicious but also as being the ultimate cause behind all of Germany’s then myriad social and economic problems, so who cared what happened to them? And if they gradually disappeared, good riddance; why even bother to ask questions about it?
Of course, since this methodology panders to such base and animalistic desires as a virtually universal desire for social elevation as well as a similarly near-universal taste for cruelty, it is easy enough to do. All you have to do is to dominate, bully, exploit and chastise your scapegoats as much as you can whilst encouraging everyone else to do the same; thus appealing to whatever is most base and animalistic in the psyches of those whose consent is still needed, at least tacitly; in this case, the German public.
If the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ lay ultimately with the people, Hitler nonetheless discovered that it could easily be wrested from an apathetic populace by taking advantage of their preference for a ‘strong’ leader and by appealing to all their baser, more animalistic instincts, including their tendency to like to think of themselves as the most superior (and therefore the most ‘human’) race on the planet.
As we have already seen, this is apparently a virtually universal phenomenon; hierarchy itself is ultimately all about the relativisation and creation of a monopoly on humanity. However, it seems that humanity, even as I have tentatively defined it, may well be a relative phenomenon. However, it is certain that its higher levels of development simply cannot possibly be attained by practicing inhumanity; I remember that in the nineteen-sixties the hippies used to say:
“Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity!”
Although there were some German Jews who attempted to resist the rise of the Nazis the vast majority chose to maintain their faith in their God and obey his commandment,
“Thou shalt not kill!”
At least they maintained their integrity and humanity; they did not allow themselves to turn into the very thing they hated and despised. Six million of them were murdered in concentration camps; those who didn’t go to the gas chambers were either worked to death or used as human ‘guinea pigs’ for medical experiments. Whatever the manner of their death, they were all irrefutably scapegoats, whose pain, suffering and death was ultimately what empowered the Third Reich. Thus we see that the scapegoat ritual as a social process was central even to the largest conflict thus far in the whole of human history.
As I have noted elsewhere, in almost any kind of serious human conflict there is almost always a protracted preliminary phase in which the enemy is soundly ‘dehumanised’ and even ‘demonised’; made to appear as even lower than an animal in order to justify any and all violence which is about to be done to them. In their supposed ‘demonic’ behaviour, they are said to be ‘asking for it’… that is, for violent abuse.
Apart from its effect of dehumanising them, this is of course also a ritual means of blaming the victims for the violence which is about to be done to them whilst also circumventing a lifetime of social taboos and being taught how wrong it is to kill people, especially for Christians, whose God forbids it and who have since earliest childhood been taught the message of the Prince of Peace. It is essential to see the enemy as less than human, and less even than animals; to see them as ‘inhuman’ or ‘demonic’ in order to justify killing them.
Of course, in some circumstances and for some individuals this process is more necessary than it is for others. Nevertheless Jane Goodall’s choice of title for her documentary is now easily explained: Since she sees him as a social peer, it is necessary for Goodall to demonise Frodo in order to justify killing him even if it is to be done according to some form or conception of human law, however debased and deformed.
Thus she would turn a ‘hero’ into a scapegoat.
But the need to debase and devalue human beings in order to justify killing them in no way diminishes the bloodlust and ferocity displayed once it is finally accepted as permissible. It is also highly significant that this debasement of others is itself the inevitable result of a hierarchical view of human society; a view which is, as we have seen, inseparable from and even a form of violence itself.
Marie Antoinette’s fatal mistake was not so much in what she said as in the ignorance it revealed about the true nature of reality for the French poor of which the aristocracy were guilty, not to mention the lack of care such ignorance inevitably displayed. This arrogant assumption of their superiority that her whole class displayed was inevitably and correctly interpreted as contempt by the oppressed classes; a contempt which failed even to care enough to be aware of how those classes were fed which provided the wealthy with their riches, or even if they were fed at all! Thus the ‘goose that laid the golden egg’ was left to starve to death… and indeed, so it would have, had it not revolted…
The reason for the success of the French Revolution, or indeed any revolution, lies in another ironic contradiction, which Karl Marx understood very well: the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ lies ultimately with the people’s consent to be ruled, as Charles I of England also discovered to his chagrin when he lost his head after attempting to insist on his own divine right to rule and repeatedly dissolving parliament, a democratic institution which was created precisely to put a limit to the king’s perceived ‘right to rule’; a ‘right’ which can be traced back to that which was seized by our species during its earliest experiment with violence and its simultaneous creation of kingship.
A successful revolution is thus irrefutably justified according to this primal concept and also according to the basic logic of warfare itself, “To the victor, the spoils”. Thus the end has always been seen as more important than the means; yet if the means denies or conflicts with the end, how is success possible? Since revolutions have a general tendency to impose worse tyrannies than the ones they replace, perhaps what is really needed is not revolution, but rather ‘evolution’. Having come as far as violence can take us, and having hopefully learned all that it can teach us, we now need to dispense with it as an attitude which endangers not only our own society but the whole world, before it destroys us all, as it eventually destroyed Ancient Sumer, Assyria, Media and Babylon, Athens, Sparta, Carthage, Rome, the Aztec etc.
We now need to actually start to practice what Jesus, among others, preached and begin to treat each other – everyone – with the respect deserved by equals, rather than the contempt one displays to inferiors and servants. Frankly, I’m not particularly optimistic on this point either.
This then, is the ‘language’ of violence. It is a simple language, with a very limited vocabulary and no grammar. The language of violence is the language of heroes and kings, of war and sacrifice; of scapegoats and whipping boys; of slavery, oppression and economic exploitation, of hierarchy, competition and ‘one-upmanship’; of deviousness and deception.
Law and many traditional social customs throughout history have emerged to exert a sadly all-too-weak and sometimes even an inconsistent counter to the problem of minimizing violence within violent societies; with their violent ideologies and their habit of glorifying even the most horrific aspects of war; although in true propagandist style this is constantly and consistently denied even as the cult of the hero is practiced and proselytised.
Those who lead their countries to war are careful always to prepare a propaganda campaign in advance, to put their violence in the best light possible and if at all possible to attach it to some popular ‘noble cause’. Thus the Greeks at Troy were not fighting for the sake of the plunder they expected to take from Troy, nor yet for the sake of their own bloodlust or their lust for fame and glory; in their own minds they were fighting to protect the honour and virtue of Greek womanhood…
And the USA engaged in its ‘pre-emptive strike’ against Iraq for the sake of ‘liberating’ the Iraqis from oppression and not for the sake of Iraq’s vast oil reserves and the installation of a puppet government which will do what the USA wants it to, thus facilitating further exploitation.
It seems that no-one (certainly, no-one who was listened to!) in the USA thought there was any kind of contradiction about the fact that they were attempting to impose democracy on a sovereign country at the point of a gun. Once again, this is no surprise; truth is always the first casualty of war. But as anyone who cares to think just a little bit more deeply about the nature of things can clearly see, democracy cannot be imposed at gunpoint and war cannot permanently unite different cultures.
Indeed, this was Alexander’s error. Although it is true that, wherever possible, he tried to persuade local chieftains and kings to join his cause voluntarily as allies, and indeed this accounted for much of his success, yet inasmuch as he resorted to war at all he was sowing the seeds of his empire’s ultimate disintegration even while he was creating it. War cannot unify diverse cultures, except perhaps temporarily, but only for as long as force, or the threat of force, is consistently applied. But armed force cannot weld people together; inevitably it causes too much resentment among conquered populations; this would have torn Alexander’s empire apart soon enough even if he hadn’t died so young.
The proof of this is the continuing popularity of Irish, Sottish and Welsh separatist movements even in the so-called ‘United Kingdom’, in response to arrogant treatment by the English, who evidently feel that their Anglo-Saxon blood is superior to that of their Celtic cousins. War can ultimately only divide and separate. A truly permanent unification can only ever be achieved voluntarily, by recognizing the ultimate similarity or even the ultimate identity of oneself and one’s own interests with those of the ‘Other’, however differently they may look, smell, dress, behave or believe.
This is of course, anathema not only to warmongers, but also to many anthropologists, who for a long time have made their living from exploiting the initially exotic-seeming differences between the various cultures of the world and who have even declared that there is no such thing as a ‘human nature’ which is common to all cultures.
I distinctly remember this declaration from a lecture given during my first year at university. I thought it doubtful at the time; I remember remarking to a fellow student at the time that, since anthropologists insist on such absoluteness of difference between the various cultures that anthropology stands in danger of doing an ‘oozelum bird’ and disappearing up its own fundamental orifice by defining itself out of existence. If there is no such thing as ‘human nature’ then what is it that anthropology studies? The ‘Society’ and ‘Culture’ which Anthropology claims as being the proper objects of its study are both the universally ubiquitous products of the ‘human nature’ which they say doesn’t exist.
Now I’m convinced that this view of such vast and irreconcilable differences between the various cultures is simply incorrect; certainly there are many and vast differences between cultures, yet in the final analysis all they amount to are differences of ‘cultural elaboration’.
Fundamentally, we are all the same; all equally human – at least, potentially. Whether or not we, as individuals, ever manage to achieve our full ‘Humanity’ (or Confucius’ ‘ren’: ‘Human-heartedness’, or Buddha’s ‘compassion’ of the ‘enlightened mind’, or Mo Tzu’s ‘universal love’) depends very much on the degree to which it is promoted by society and, more importantly, practiced by the individuals which comprise all societies.
As Shakespeare says through the mouth of Shylock the Jew in ‘The Merchant of Venice’,
“…If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (Act III, Scene I: 63 – 71)
Apart from describing, or at least briefly outlining a paradigm for understanding violence as a form of human self-expression, I also hope to have shown that, for all their cultural differences, at the most fundamental level, cultures the whole world over and throughout history ever since the very dawn of humanity have exhibited exactly the same ambivalent attitude towards violence which I have described above and how this attitude is in turn perpetuated by the heroic mythologies of these cultures, with their associated value-systems and consequent social and individual behaviour patterns.
We have also observed that these heroic mythologies are all remarkably similar in both nature and structure with regard to violence; all of them invariably emphasize the virtues of courage, strength and deviousness over and above the virtues of reason, altruism and compassion regardless and indeed often even in spite of religious beliefs.
It remains to be seen whether or not the social, mental and spiritual evolution of which I have spoken, and for which I hereby express my own profound hope, will occur at a rapid enough pace to unify the world before it is destroyed by any one of a number of potential causes, eg: environmental pollution, global warming, poverty, the energy crisis etc, the root causes of which are all ultimately traceable to our modern western, post-industrialist, capitalist, colonial-imperialist mode of production; or whether our pious devotion to the ‘unquestionable’ and inscrutable sanctity of the status quo will prevent us from escaping the jaws of extinction which gape like Charybdis below us even now, while human life on Earth hangs above it by the merest thread.
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