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‘The Predicament of Man’ – Arthur Koestler


By Arthur Koestler

Excerpted from his book The Ghost in the Machine

All our Righteousness are as filthy rags.


The postulated polarity of integrative versus self-assertive potentials in biological and social systems is fundamental to the present theory. It follows logically from the conhierarchic order-that venerable truism which seems so self-evident and turns out to be so fertile if we take the trouble to work out its implications.

The integrative potential of a holon makes it tend to behave as a part of a larger, more complex unit; its self-assertive potential makes it tend to behave as if it were itself a self-contained, autonomous whole. In every type of hierarchy that we have discussed, and on every level of each hierarchy, we have found this polarity reflected in a coincidentia oppositorum. This sometimes manifests itself in apparently paradoxical phenomena which have caused bitter controversies among biologists, because it depended on the conditions of the experiment which of the opposite tendencies would be more in evidence. In embryonic development, for instance, a cell tissue may show ‘regulative’ and ‘mosaic’ properties at different stages. In social bodies, the dichotomy between co-operation and competition is all too obvious-from ambivalent tensions in the family, to the agonised coexistence of the United Nations. We must now turn to its paradoxical and profoundly disturbing effects on the emotive behaviour of the individual.

Emotions are mental states accompanied by intense feeling and involving bodily changes of a widespread character. They have also been described as ‘over-heated drives’. A conspicuous feature of all emotions is the feeling of pleasantness or unpleasantness attached to them, usually called their ‘hedonic tone’. Freud thought that pleasure is derived from 4 the diminution, lowering, or extinction, of psychic excitation’ and ‘un-pleasure [Unlust, discomfort, as distinct from physical pain] from an increase of it.

This is, of course, true in so far as the satisfaction or frustration of urgent biological needs is concerned. But it is patently untrue of the type of experience which we call pleasurable excitements or thrills. The preliminaries which precede the sexual act certainly cause an ‘increase in the quantity of excitation’ and should therefore be unpleasurable, but the evidence indicates that they are not. There is no satisfactory answer anywhere in Freud’s works to this embarrassingly banal objection. In the Freudian system the sexual drive is essentially something to be disposed of — by consummation or sublimation; pleasure is derived not from its pursuit, but from getting rid of it.

The Behaviourist school, from Thorndike to Hull, took a similar attitude; it recognised only one basic type of motivation, and that a negative one: ‘drive-reduction’ — i.e. the diminution of tensions derived from biological needs. In fact, however, research on ‘stimulus-deprivation’ (undertaken to study the reaction of space-travellers to long hours in monotonous environments) has revealed that the organism needs a continuous flow of stimulation, that its hunger for experience and thirst for excitation are probably as basic as hunger and thirst themselves are. As Berlyne has summed it up: ‘Human beings and higher animals spend most of their time in a state of relatively high arousal and … expose themselves to arousing stimulus situations with great eagerness.’ After bread, the circus games always came next on the list.

In fact, Unlust – discomfort, frustration, etc. – is not caused by an increase of excitation as such; it arises when a drive finds its outlets blocked; or when its intensity is so increased that the normal outlets are insufficient; or for both reasons. A moderate amount of over-heating may be experienced as pleasurable excitement while anticipating or imagining the act of consummation. The physical discomforts of strenuous sports are readily accepted in the pleasurable anticipation of the reward – which may be nothing more substantial than a sense of achievement. Frustration changes into relief the moment it is realised that the target is within reach, that is, long before the actual process of satisfying the drive has started. Moreover, there are vicarious emotions, derived from partial identification with another person, or the heroine on the screen, which are satisfied by vicarious rewards; the consummatory act is lived out in fantasy, in internalised, instead of overt, behaviour. Thus the ‘hedonic tone’ depends on several factors, and could be described as a feedback report on the progress or otherwise of the drive towards its real, anticipated, or imaginary target.

Emotions can be classified according to their source, i.e., the nature of the drive which gives rise to them-hunger, sex, curiosity, care of the offspring, and so on. A second factor to be taken into account is their pleasure-unpleasure rating. To use a coarse but helpful analogy, let us compare our emotional set-up with a tavern, in which there is a variety of taps, each serving a different kind of brew; these are turned on and off as the need arises. Then each tap would represent a different drive, and the pleasure-rating would be represented by the rate of flow — which can be nice and smooth, or impeded by air-locks, or by too much or too little pressure behind it.

Now we come to a third factor: the degree of toxicity of each brew. The self-assertive, aggressive-defensive tendency which enters into a given emotion shall be symbolised by its toxic alcohol content; the self-transcending tendency by its content of soothing, neutral liquid. We thus arrive at a three-dimensional view of emotions. The first factor is the nature of its source, represented by a particular tap; the second its hedonic tone–rate of flow; the third is its ratio of self-assertion to self-transcendence. It is with this third aspect that we shall be mainly concerned.

One of the difficulties besetting this subject is that we rarely experience a pure emotion. The bar-man tends to mix the contents of the taps: sex may be combined with curiosity, and with virtually any other drive. The hedonic tone also tends towards ambivalence; anticipation may make actual discomfort pleasurable, and the unconscious component of the drive may give rise to feelings which change a plus into a minus sign; the pain felt by the masochist on one level of awareness may be experienced as pleasure on another level. But we are concerned with a third type of ambiguity. Leaving aside the extremes of blind rage at one end, and mystic trance at the other end of the spectrum, most of our emotional states show paradoxical combinations of the two basic tendencies.

Take an instinct-drive like care for the offspring, shared by virtually all mammalians and birds. Whatever the emotions to which this instinct gives rise in animals (and some of their manifestations are rather paradoxical), in man they certainly take an often disastrously ambivalent form. The child is regarded by its parent as its own ‘flesh and blood’ — a biological bond which transcends the frontiers of the self; at the same time, overprotective mothers and domineering fathers are classic examples of self-assertiveness.

If we turn from parental to sexual love, we again find both tendencies present-on the one hand, impulses towards aggression, domination, subjugation; on the other, towards empathy and identification. The mixture varies from rape to platonic worship, according to its degree of toxicity.

Hunger is an apparently simple biological drive, which one would hardly expect to give rise to complex, ambivalent emotions. The teeth are symbols of aggression; biting, snapping, attacking and wolfing one’s food are single-minded, crude manifestations of self-assertiveness. But there is another side to the act of feeding, related to magic and primitive religion. It could be called empathy by ingestion. By partaking of the flesh of the slain animal, man, or god, an act of transubstantiation takes place; the virtues and wisdom of the victim are ingested and a kind of mystic communion is established. The costumes and rituals varied; but the principle always involved the transfer of some kind of spiritual substance between god, animal and man, whether the people in question were primitive Australian savages, highly civilised Mexican Aztecs, or Greeks at the height of the Dionysian cult. In the most telling version of the legend, Dionysius is tom to pieces and eaten by the evil Titans, who in turn are slain by Zeus’ thunderbolt; man is born out of their ashes, heir to their wickedness, but also to the divine flesh. Transmitted through the Orphic mystery cult, the tradition of partaking of the tom god’s flesh and blood entered in a sublimated and symbolic form into the rites of Christianity. Even in the sixteenth century, men were excommunicated from the Lutheran church because they denied the doctrine of ubiquity — the physical presence of the blood and body of Christ in the consecrated host. To the devout, Holy Communion is the supreme experience of self-transcendence; and no offence is meant by pointing to the unbroken tradition which connects ingestion with transubstantiation as a means of breaking down the ego’s boundaries.

Echoes of this ancient communion survive in the various rites of commensality — baptismal and funeral meals, the symbolic offering of bread and salt, the Indian taboo on sharing meals with people of different caste. Oral eroticism and quaint expressions like ‘devouring love’, which occur in most languages, are further reminders that even while eating, man does not live by bread alone; and that even the seemingly simplest act of self-preservation may contain a component of self-transcendence.

And vice versa, caring for the sick or the poor, protecting animals against cruelty, serving on committees,’ and devoting one’s time to social work, are admirably altruistic pursuits-and often wonderful outlets for bossiness and self-assertion, even if unconscious. The family likeness between hospital matrons and sergeant majors, surgeons and star performers, do-gooders and hockey-team captains, testifies to the endless variety of combinations into which the integrative and self-assertive tendencies may enter.

To avoid possible confusion, I should point out that according to the three-dimensional theory of emotions outlined above, self-assertion and self-transcendence are not specific emotions but tendencies which enter into all emotions and modify their character according to which of the two dominates. For the sake of brevity, however, it is sometimes convenient to talk loosely of ‘self-transcending emotions’ instead of ’emotions in which the self-transcending tendencies dominate’.

The Perils of Aggression

To recapitulate: the single individual, considered as a whole, represents the apex of the organismic hierarchy; considered as a part, he is the lowest unit of the social hierarchy. On this boundary-line between physiological and social organisation, the two opposite potentials which we have encountered on every level manifest themselves in the form of emotive behaviour. So long as all goes well, the self-assertive and integrative tendencies of the individual are more or less evenly balanced in his emotional life; he lives in a kind of dynamic equilibrium with his family, tribe or society, and also with the universe of values and beliefs which constitutes his mental environment.

A certain amount of self-assertiveness, ‘rugged individualism’, ambition, competitiveness, is as indispensable in a dynamic society as the autonomy and self-reliance of its holons is indispensable to the organism. A well-meaning but woolly ideology, which has become fashionable on the rebound from the horrors of the last decades, would proclaim aggressiveness in all its forms as altogether damnable and evil. Yet without a moderate amount of aggressive individualism there could be no social or cultural progress. What John Donne has called man’s ‘holy discontent’, is an essential motive force of the social reformer, the satirist, artist and thinker. We have seen that creative originality in science or art always has a constructive and a destructive side — destructive, that is to say, to established conventions of technique, style, dogma or prejudice. And since science is made by scientists, the destructive aspect of scientific revolutions must reflect some element of destructiveness in the scientist’s mind, a preparedness to go recklessly against accepted beliefs. The same, of course, is true of the artist-even if he is not a ‘fauve’. Thus aggression is like arsenic: in small doses a stimulant, in large doses a poison.

We are now concerned with the latter, the poisonous aspect of the self-assertive emotions. Under conditions of stress, an over-excited organ tends to escape its restraining controls and to assert itself to the detriment of the whole, or even to monopolise the functions of the whole. The same happens if the coordinating powers of the whole are so weakened-by senescence or central injury — that it is no longer able to control its parts. In extreme cases, this can lead to pathological changes of an irreversible nature, such as malignant growths with untramelled proliferation of tissues that have escaped from genetic control. On a less extreme level, practically any organ or function may get temporarily and partially out of control. In pain, the injured part tends to monopolise the attention of the whole organism; as a result of emotional or other stresses, the digestivejuices may attack the stomach walls; in rage and panic, the sympathicoadrenal apparatus takes over from the higher centres which normally co-ordinate behaviour; and when sex is aroused, the gonads seem to take over from the brain.

Not only parts of the body can, under conditions of stress, assert themselves in harmful ways, but mental structures as well. The idée fixe, the obsession of the crank, are cognitive holons running riot. There is a whole gamut of mental disorders in which some subordinate part of the mental hierarchy exerts its tyrannical rule over the whole; from the relatively harmless infatuation with some pet theory, to the insidious domination over the mind of ‘repressed’ complexes (characteristically called ÂŒautonomous complexes’ by Freud because they are beyond the ego¹s control), and so to the clinical psychoses in which large chunks of the personality seem to have ‘split off’ and lead a quasi-independent existence. In the hallucinations of the paranoiac, not only the cognitive but also the perceptual hierarchy has fallen under the sway of the unleashed mental holon, which imposes its peculiar rules of the game on it.

However, clinical insanity is merely an extreme manifestation of tendencies which are potentially present, but more or less under restraint in the normal mind-or what we call by that name. Aberrations of the human mind are to a large extent due to the obsessional pursuit of some part-truth, treated as if it were a whole truth-of a holon masquerading as a whole. Religious, political, philosophical fanaticisms, the stubbornness of prejudice, the intolerance of scientific orthodoxies and of artistic cliques, all testify to the tendency to build ‘closed systems’ centred on some part-truth, and to assert its absolute validity in the face of evidence to the contrary. In extreme cases, a cognitive holon which has got out of control can behave like a cancerous tissue invading other mental structures.

If we turn from individuals to social holons — professional classes, ethnic groups, etc. — we again firid that, so long as all is well, they live in a kind of dynamic equilibrium with their natural and social environment. In social hierarchies, the physiological controls which operate inside of organisms are of course replaced by institutional controls which restrain the self-assertive tendencies of these groups on all levels, from whole social classes down to the individual. Once more, the ideal of frictionless, pacific co-operation, without competition, without tensions, is based on a confusion of the desirable and the possible. Without a moderate amount of self-assertiveness of its parts, the body social would lose its individuality and articulation; it would dissolve into a kind of amorphous jelly. However, under conditions of stress, when tensions exceed a critical limit, some social holon — the army, the farmers or the trade unions-may get over-excited and tend to assert itself to the detriment of the whole, just like an over-excited organ. Alternatively, the decline of the integrative powers of the whole may lead to similar results, as the collapse of empires indicates on a grandiose scale.

The Pathology of Devotion

Thus the self-assertive tendencies of the individual are a necessary and constructive factor-so long as they do not get out of hand. On this view the more sinister manifestations of violence and cruelty can be written off as pathological extremes of basically healthy impulses which, for one reason or another, have been denied their normal gratifications. Provide the young with harmless outlets for aggression-games, competitive sports, adventure, sexual experimentation-and all will be well.

Unfortunately, neither of these remedies, though often tried, has ever worked. For the last three or four thousand years, Hebrew prophets, Greek philosophers, Indian mystics, Chinese sages, Christian preachers, French humanists, English utilitarians, German moralists, American pragmatists, have discussed the perils of violence and appealed to man’s better nature, without much noticeable effect. There must be a reason for this failure.

The reason, I believe, lies in a series of fundamental misconceptions concerning the main causes which compelled man to make such a mess of his history, which prevented him from learning the lessons of the past, and which now put his survival in question. The first of these misconceptions is putting the blame for man’s predicament on his selfishness, greed, etc.; in a word, on the aggressive, self-assertive tendencies of the individual. The point I shall try to make is that selfishness is not the primary culprit; and that appeals to man’s better nature were bound to be ineffectual because the main danger lies precisely in what we are wont to call his ‘better nature’. In other words, I would like to suggest that the integrative tendencies of the individual are incomparably more dangerous than his self-assertive tendencies. The sermons of the reformers were bound to fall on deaf ears because they put the blame where it did not belong.

This may sound like a psychological paradox. Yet I think most historians would agree that the part played by impulses of Selfish, individual aggression in the holocausts of history was small; first and foremost, the slaughter was meant as an offering to the gods, to king and country, or the future happiness of mankind. The crimes of a Caligula shrink to insignificance compared to the havoc wrought by Torquemada. The number of victims of robbers, highwaymen, rapists, gangsters and other criminals at any period of history is negligible compared to the massive numbers of those cheerfully slain in the name of the true religion, just policy or correct ideology. Heretics were tortured and burnt not in anger but in sorrow, for the good of their immortal souls. Tribal warfare was waged in the purported interest of the tribe, not of the individual. Wars of religion were fought to decide some fine point in theology or semantics. Wars of succession dynastic wars, national wars, civil wars, were fought to decide issues equally remote from the personal self-interest of the combatants. The Communist purges, as the word ‘purge’ indicates, were understood as operations of social hygiene, to prepare mankind for the golden age of the classless society. The gas chambers and crematoria worked for the advent of a different version of the millennium. Heinrich Eichmann (as Hannah Ahrendt, reporting on his trial, has pointed out) was not a monster or a sadist, but a conscientious bureaucrat, who considered it his duty to carry out his orders and believed in obedience as the supreme virtue; far from being a sadist, he felt physically sick on the only occasion when he watched the Zircon gas at work.

Let me repeat: the crimes of violence committed for selfish, personal motives are historically insignificant compared to those committed ad majorem gloriam Dei, out of a self-sacrificing devotion to a flag, a leader, a religious faith or a political conviction. Man has always been prepared not only to kill but also to die for good, bad or completely futile causes. And what can be a more valid proof of the reality of the self-transcending urge than this readiness to die for an ideal?

No matter what period we have in view, modem, ancient, or prehistoric, the evidence always points in the same direction: the tragedy of man is not his truculence, but his proneness to delusions. ‘The worst of madmen is a saint run mad’: Pope’s epigram applies to all major periods of history-from the ideological crusades of the totalitarian age down to the rites which govern the life of primitives.

The Ritual of Sacrifice

Anthropologists have paid far too little attention to the earliest, ubiquitous manifestation of the delusionary streak in the human psyche: the institution of human sacrifice, the ritual killing of children, virgins, kings and heroes to placate and flatter the gods. It is found at the dawn of civilisation in every part of the world; it persisted through the height of antique civilisations and pre-Columbian cultures, and is sporadically still being practised in remote corners of the world. The usual attitude is to dismiss this subject as a sinister curiosity belonging to the dark superstitions of the past; but this attitude begs the question of the universality of the phenomenon, ignores the clue that it provides to the delusional streak in man’s mental structure, and its relevance to the problems of the present.

Let me insert at this point a personal anecdote. In 1959, I stayed as a guest with my late friend Dr. Verrier Elwin at his house in Shillong, Assam. Dr. Elwin was the leading authority on Indian tribal life, Chief Adviser to the Indian Government on Tribal Affairs, and had married a beautiful girl from an Orissa tribe. One day, one of his three sons, a quiet, intelligent little boy of ten, asked to accompany me on my morning walk. At the point where we lost sight of the house the boy became worried and insisted on turning back. I complied, asked him what the matter was, and after hedging for a while, he confessed that he was afraid of meeting some bad men, Khasis, who killed little boys.

Later on, I mentioned the matter to Verrier, who explained that the child had indeed acted on his instructions not to venture out of sight of the house. The Khasis are an Assam tribe who were suspected of still secretly practising human sacrifice. From time to time there were rumours about the disappearance of a small child. The risks of meeting marauding Khasis on the outskirts of Shillong were remote, but still. . . . Then he explained that the Khasis’ traditional method of sacrifice had been to push two sticks up the nostrils into the child’s brain; the more it cried and bled, the more pleased the gods.

I mention this story to give an instance of what the abstract notion ‘human sacrifice’ meant in concrete terms. Surely these Khasis must have been insane? That is precisely the point: the act indicates mental derangement. But it was a universal form of mental derangement, cutting across the frontiers of races and cultures. To quote a recent author on the subject, G. Hogg:

Sacrifice, of course was a gesture: the supreme gesture, if you will. There is no part of the world, however remote, in which sacrifice in one form or another has not played an essential part in the way of life of the people…. Sacrifice, and often as not human sacrifice, was an integral part of the priestly rites, and immolation was very extensively associated with the consuming of human flesh…. The practice of cannibalism, as such, is almost certainly less of an established institution than human sacrifice, or immolation. Nevertheless, except in the case of the Fijians and certain other Melanesian tribes, among whom the sheer lust for human flesh seems to have predominated over all other considerations, the basic ritualistic motive is virtually identical. Both in the sacrifice of human beings, and in the partaking of portions of their flesh before or after the sacrifice, there is always the underlying principle of the transfer of soul-substance.

In Mexico, sacramental rites probably reached a higher degree of complexity than anywhere else. Human flesh was considered the only food likely to be acceptable to the principal gods who had to be propitiated. Therefore human beings, carefully selected, were looked upon as representations of such gods as Quetzalcoad and Tetzcatlipoca and, with most elaborate ceremonial rites, were eventually sacrificed to those gods whom they in fact represented, the onlookers being invited to share portions of the flesh in order thus to identify themselves with the gods to whom sacrifice had been made.

All this has nothing to do with the seven deadly sins — pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth-against which the sermons of the moralists are chiefly directed. The eighth sin, deadlier than all — self-transcendence through misplaced devotion — is not included in the list.

But where is the jury who decides whether devotion is of the ÂŒright’ or the ‘misguided’ kind? As we are on the subject of the Aztecs, let me quote a passage from Prescott, which provides a hint of the relevance of their madness to our own times. Prescott estimates that the number of young men, virgins and children sacrificed annually throughout the Aztec empire was between twenty and fifty thousand; then continues:

Human sacrifices have been practised by many nations, not excepting the most polished nations of antiquity; but never by any, on a scale compared with those in Anahuac. The amount of victims immolated on its accursed altars would stagger the faith of the most scrupulous believer. . . . Strange that, in every country, the most fiendish passions of the human heart have been those kindled in the name of religion!…

In reflecting on the revolting usages recorded in the preceding pages, one finds it difficult to reconcile their existence with anything like a regular form of government, or an advance in civilisation. Yet the Mexicans had many claims to the character of a civilised community. One may, perhaps, better understand the anomaly, by reflecting on the condition of some of the most polished countries in Europe in the sixteenth century, after the establishment of the modem Inquisition; an institution which yearly destroyed its thousands, by a death more painful than the Aztec sacrifices; which armed the hand of brother against brother, and, setting its burning seal upon the lip, did more to stay the march of improvement than any other scheme ever devised by human cunning.

Human sacrifice, however cruel, has nothing in it degrading to its victim. It may be rather said to ennoble him by devoting him to the gods. Although so terrible with the Aztecs, it was sometimes voluntarily embraced by them, as the most glorious death, and one that opened a sure passage into paradise. The Inquisition, on the other hand, branded its victims with infamy in this world, and consigned them to everlasting perdition in the next.

Prescott then devotes a paragraph to the cannibalistic rites accompanying the Aztec sacrifices; but immediately afterwards performs a remarkable mental somersault.

In this state of things, it was beneficently ordered by Providence that the land should be delivered over to another race, who would rescue it from the brutish superstitions that daily extended wider and wider, with extent of empire. The debasing institutions of the Aztecs furnish the best apology for their conquest. It is true, die conquerors brought along with them the Inquisition. But they also brought Christianity, whose benign radiance would still survive, when the fierce flames of fanaticism should be extinguished; dispelling those dark forms of horror which had so long brooded over the fair regions of Anahuac.

Prescott must have known, though, that shortly after the Mexican conquest, the ‘benign radiance’ of Christianity manifested itself in the Thirty Years War, which killed off a goodly proportion of Europe’s population.

The Observer from Mars

The Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment seemed to signal a new departure for man. They did, in so far as the conquest, and subsequent rape, of Nature are concerned; but they did not solve, on the contrary they deepened, his predicament. Religious wars were superseded by, patriotic, then by ideological, wars, fought with the same self-immolating loyalty and fervour. The opium of revealed religion was replaced by the heroin of secular religions, which commanded the same bemused surrender of the individuality to their doctrines, and the same worshipful love offered to their prophets. The devils and succubi were replaced by a new demonology: sub-human Jews, plotting world domination; bourgeois capitalists promoting starvation; enemies of the people, monsters in human shape were surrounding us, ready to pounce. In the thirties and forties the paranoid streak exploded with unprecedented vehemence in the two most powerful nations of Europe. In the two decades following the last great war forty minor wars and civil wars have been fought. At the time of writing, Roman Catholics, Buddhists and Dialectical Materialists are waging another civil war within a war, to impose the only True Belief on the people of an Asian nation; while monks and schoolgirls douse themselves with petrol and burn alive to the clicking of Press cameras, in a new ritual of self-immolation ad majorem gloriam.

In one of the early chapters of Genesis, there is an episode which has inspired countless religious painters. It is the scene where Abraham ties his son to a pile of wood and prepares to cut his throat with a knife, then bum him for the love of jehovah. We all disapprove of cutting a child’s throat for personal motives; the question is why so many have for so long approved of the insane gesture of Abraham. To put it vulgarly, we are led to suspect that there is somewhere a screw loose in the human mind, and always has been. To put it into more scientific language, we ought to give serious consideration to the possibility that somewhere along the line something has gone seriously wrong with the evolution of the nervous system of homo sapiens. We know that evolution can lead into a blind alley, and we also know that the evolution of the human brain was an unprecedentedly rapid, almost explosive, process. I shall come back to this in the chapter that follows; for the moment, let us merely note as a possible hypothesis that the delusional streak which runs through our history may be an endemic form of paranoia, built into the wiring circuits of the human brain.

It is certainly not difficult to imagine that an objective observer on an alien, more advanced planet, after studying the human record, would come to this diagnosis. We are of course always willing and ready to go along with such science-fiction fantasies, so long as we do not have to take the conclusions literally, and apply them to the reality around us. But let us try to do just that, and to imagine the observer’s reaction when he discovers that for nearly two thousand years, millions of otherwise intelligent people were convinced that the vast majority of our species who did not share their particular creed and did not perform its rites were consumed by flames through eternity by order of a loving god. This observation, I realise, is not exactly new. But to dismiss such singular phenomena simply as indoctrination or superstition means to beg the question, which is at the very core of the human predicament.

The Cheerful Ostrich

Before going further, let me try to forestall a frequently-met objection. When you mention, however tentatively, the hypothesis that a paranoid streak is inherent in the human condition, you will promptly be accused of taking a one-sided, morbid view of history; of being hypnotised by its negative aspects; of picking out the black stones in the mosaic, and neglecting the triumphant achievements of human progress. Why not select the white stones instead — the Golden Age of Greece, the monuments of Egypt, the marvels of the Renaissance, Newton’s equations, the conquest of the moon?

True enough, this way offers a more cheerful view. Personally speaking, having written such a lot about the creative side of man, I can hardly be accused of belittling his achievements. However, the question is not one of choosing, according to temperament or mood, the brighter or the darker side; but of perceiving both together, of noticing the contrast, and inquiring into its causes. To dwell on the glories of man and ignore the symptoms of his possible insanity is not a sign of optimism, but of ostrichism. It could be compared to the attitude of that jolly physician who, a short time before Van Gogh committed suicide, declared that he could not be insane because he painted such beautiful pictures. A number of authors, with whose attitude I am otherwise in sympathy, seem to be writing in the same jolly vein when they discuss the future prospects of man: C. G. Jung and his followers; Teilhard de Chardin, and the so-called Evolutionary Humanists.

A more balanced approach to human history might be to view it as a symphony with a rich orchestration, played against a background of persistent drumming by a savage horde of shamans. At times a scherzo would make us forget it, but in the long run the monotonous beating of the tom-toms always gains the upper hand and tends to drown every other sound.

Integration and Identification

Poets have always said that man is mad; and their audiences always nodded delightedly because they thought it was a cute metaphor. But if the statement were taken literally, there would seem to be little hope: for how can a madman diagnose his own madness? The answer is that he can, because he is not entirely mad the entire time. In their periods of remission, psychotics have written astonishingly sane and lucid reports of their illness; even in the acute phases of psychoses artificially induced by drugs like LSD the subject, while experiencing vivid delusions, knows them to be delusions.

Any attempt at a diagnosis of the predicament of man must proceed in several cautious steps. In the first place, let us remember that all our emotions consist of ‘mixed feelings’ in which both the self-assertive and the self-transcending tendencies participate. But they can interact in various ways — some beneficial, some disastrous.

The most common and normal interaction is mutual restraint: the two tendencies counterbalance, equilibrate each other. Competitiveness is restrained by acceptance of the rules of civilised conduct. The self-assertive component in sexual desire seeks only its own satisfaction, but in a harmonious relationship it is combined with the equally strong need to provide pleasure and satisfaction to the other. Irritation, caused by a person’s obnoxious behaviour, is mitigated by empathy-by understanding the motives of that behaviour. In the creative, scientist or artist, ambition is balanced by self-transcending immersion in the task. In an ideal society, both tendencies would be harmoniously combined in its citizens-they would be saintly and efficient, yogis and commissars at the same time. But let tensions wax or integration wane, and competition turns into ruthlessness, desire into rape, irritation into rage, ambition into ego-mania, the commissar into a terrorist.

However, on the historic scale, the ravages caused by the excesses of individual self-assertion are, as already suggested, relatively small compared to those which result from misplaced devotion. Let us inquire a little closer into the causative processes behind it.

The integrative tendencies of the individual operate through the mechanisms of empathy, sympathy, projection, introjection, identification, worship-all of which make him feel that he is a part of some larger entity which transcends the boundaries of the individual self. This psychological urge to belong, to participate, to commune, is as primary and real as its opposite. The all-important question is the nature of that higher entity of which the individual feels himself a part. In early infancy, symbiotic consciousness unites the self and the world in an indivisible unit. Its reflection survives in the sympathetic magic of primitives, the belief in transubstantiation, the mystic bonds which unite a person with his tribe, his totem, his shadow, his effigy, and later with his god. In the major Eastern philosophies, the ‘I am thou and thou art me’, the identity of the ‘Real Self’ with the Atman, the all-one, has been preserved throughout the ages. In the West it only survived in the tradition of the great Christian mystics, European philosophy and science, from Aristotle onward, made every man an island. It could not tolerate those vestiges of symbiotic awareness which survived in other cultures; the urge for self-transcendence had to be sublimated and canalised.

One way of achieving this was through the transformation of magic into art and science. This made it possible for the happy few to achieve self-transcendence on a higher turn of the spiral, by that sublime expansion of awareness which Freud called the ÂŒoceanic feeling,?which Maslow calls ‘the peak experience’, and which I called the AH-reaction. But only a minority qualifies for it. For the others, there are only a few traditional outlets open to transcend the rigid boundaries of the ego. Historically speaking for the vast majority of mankind, the only answer to its integrative cravings, its?longing to belong and to find meaning in existence, was identification with tribe, caste, nation, church or party — with a social holon.

But now we arrive at a crucial point. The psychological process by means of which this identification was achieved was mostly of the primitive, infantile kind of projection which populates heaven and earth with angry father-figures, fetishes to be worshipped, demons to be execrated, dogmas to be blindly believed. This crude form of identification is something quite different from integration into a well-ordered social hierarchy. it is a regression to an infantile form of self-transcendence; and ‘m extreme cases almost a shortcut back to the womb. To quote Jung for a change: ‘Not only do we speak of Mother Church, but even of the “womb of the Church” . . . Catholics call the baptismal font “immaculata divinifontis uterus.” However, we need not go to these extremes to realise that mature, sublimated expressions of the integrative tendency are the exception rather than the rule in human society. In looking at the historic record, men at all times seem to have behaved like Konrad Loreni ‘imprinted’ geese, which forever follow the keeper in misguided devotion because he was the first moving object they saw after hatching, cunningly substituted for the mother goose.

As far as we can look back on history, human societies have always been fairly successful in enforcing the sublimation of the self-assertive impulses of the individual-until the howling little savage in its cot became transformed into a more or less law-abiding and civilised member of society. But at the same time they singularly failed to induce a similar sublimation of the self-transcending impulses. Accordingly, the longing to belong, left without appropriately mature outlets, manifested itself mostly in primitive or perverted forms. The cause of this important contrast between the development of the two basic tendencies will, I hope, become apparent later on. But first, let us have a closer look at its psychological and social consequences.

The Perils of Identification

How does identification work? Let us consider the simplest case, where only two individuals are involved. Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Brown are friends. Mrs. Brown has lost her husband in an accident; as Mrs. Smith sheds compassionate tears, she participates in her friend’s sorrow, becomes partially identified with her by an act of empathy, projection or introjection — whatever you like to call it. A similar process takes place when the other person is not a real individual but a heroine on the screen or in the pages of a novel. It is essential, however, that we make a clear distinction between two different emotional processes involved in the event, although they are experienced at the same time. The first is the act of identification itself, characterised by the fact that the subject has, for the moment, more or less forgotten her own existence and participates in the existence of another person, who may even live at another place in another time. This is clearly a self-transcending, gratifying and cathartic experience for the simple reason that, while it lasts, Mrs. Smith has quite forgotten her own worries, jealousies and grudges against Mr. Smith. The act of identification temporarily inhibits, the self-asserting tendencies.

But there is a second process involved which may have the opposite effect: the process of identification may lead to the arousal of vicarious emotions. When Mrs. Smith is ‘sharing Mrs. Brown’s sorrow” the process of sharing (the first process) instantly leads to the second: the experience of sorrow. But the second process may also be the feeling of anxiety or anger. You commiserate with young Oliver Twist; as a result you feel like strangling Fagin with your own hands. The sharing is a self-transcending, cathartic ‘experience. But it may act as a vehicle for anger-anger as a vicarious emotion, experienced on behalf of another, but genuinely felt.

The anger felt at the machinations of the perfidious villain on the screen — whom Mexican audiences have been known to riddle with bullets — is genuine anger. When we watch a thriller, we develop the physical symptoms of acute anxiety-palpitations, tense muscles, sudden jumps of alarm. Here, then, is the paradox-and the predicament. We have seen, on the one hand, that the self-transcending impulses of projection, participation,. identification inhibit self-assertion, purge us of our selfish worries and desires. But on the other hand, the process of identification may stimulate the surge of anger, fear and vengefulness-which, although experienced on behalf of another person, nevertheless express themselves in the well-known adreno-toxic symptoms. The physiological mechanisms that enter into action are essentially the same whether the threat or offence is directed at oneself or the person or group with whom one identifies. They are self-assertive, although the self has momentarily changed its address by being, for instance, projected into the guileless hero on the screen; or the local soccer team; or into ‘my country, right or wrong?

Art is a school of self-transcendence; but so is a patriotic rally, a voodoo session, a war dance. It is a triumph of the imaginative powers of our minds that we are capable of shedding tears over the death of an Antia Karenina who only exists as printer 1 s ink on paper, or as a shadow on a screen. The illusions of the stage are ultimately derived from sympathetic magic from the partial identification of spectator, actor, and the god or hero whom he impersonates. But this magic is highly sublimated; the process of identification is tentative, partial, a momentary suspension of disbelief; it does not impair the critical faculties, does not undermine personal identity. But the voodoo session or Nuremberg rally does just that. The films shown by the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four aim at regressing the audience to a primitive level, and trigger off orgies of collective hatred. The spectators, nevertheless, are experiencing vicarious emotions of an unselfish kind; a righteous indignation whose manifestations are the more savage because it is impersonal, self-transcending and can be indulged in with a clean conscience.

Thus the glory and the tragedy of the human condition both derive from our powers of self-transcendence. It is a power which can be harnessed to creative or destructive purpose; it is equally capable of turning us into artists or killers, but more likely into killers. It can restrain selfish impulses, but also arouse violent emotions experienced on behalf of the entity with whom the identificatory rapport has been established. injustices, or pretended injustices, inflicted on that entity are likely to generate more fanatical behaviour than the sting of a personal insult. Jenkins’ car may have become a comic clich6, but at the time it was a major contributary cause for the declaration of war on Spain. The execution of Nurse Edith Louisa Cavell in World War 1 caused more spontaneous indignation against Teutonic brutality than the mass executions of Jews in World War II. It is easy to identify oneself with a heroic Red Cross nurse, whereas persecuted Jews may arouse pity, but not impulses of identification.

Hierarchic Awareness

The mechanism which I have discussed-self-transcendence serving as an instrument, or vehicle, for emotions of the opposite class-finds its most disastrous expression in group psychology.

I have repeatedly stressed that the selfish impulses of man constitute a much lesser historic danger than his integrative tendencies. To put it in the simplest way: the individual who indulges in an excess of aggressive self-assertiveness incurs the penalties of society-he outlaws himself, he contracts out of the hierarchy. The true believer, on the other hand, becomes more closely knit into it; he enters the womb of his church, or party, or whatever the social holon to which he surrenders his identity. For identification in this primitive form always entails a certain impairment of individuality, an abdication of the critical faculties and of personal responsibility. The priest is the good shepherd of his flock, but we also use the same metaphor in a derogatory way when we speak of the masses following a demagogue, like sheep; both expressions, one approving, one pejorative, express the same truth.

This leads us back to the essential difference between primitive identification, resulting in a homogeneous flock, and mature forms of integration in a social hierarchy. In a well-balanced hierarchy, the individual retains his character as a social holon, a part-whole, who qua whole, enjoys autonomy within the limits of the restraints imposed by the interests of the community. He remains an individual whole in his own right, and is even expected to assert his holistic character by originality, initiative, and above all, personal responsibility. The same criteria of value apply to the larger social holons — professional groups, trade unions, social classes — on the higher echelons of the hierarchy. They are expected to display the virtues implied in the Janus principle: to be self-regulating autonomous wholes, but also conform to national — or international — interests. An ideal society of this kind could be said to possess ‘hierarchic awareness’, where every holon on every level is conscious both of its rights as a whole and its duties as a part.

However, the phenomena usually designated by the terms ÂŒgroup mentality’ or ‘psychology of the masses’ (Massenpsychologie) reflect a fundamentally different attitude. It is based-to say it once more-not on integrated interaction, but on identificatory rapport. Integration in a social hierarchy preserves the personal identity and responsibility of its holons; identification, while it lasts, implies a partial or total surrender of both.

We have seen that this surrender can take varied forms, some beneficial, some harmful. in mystic or aesthetic entrancement, the self dissolves in the oceanic feeling; one of the French expressions for the orgasm is la petite mort; if passion is ‘blind, true love blurs the view; a visit to the theatre is an escape from the self. Self-transcendence always entails a surrender; but the amount and quality of the sacrifice depends on the degree of sublimation and the nature of the outlets. in the more sinister phenomena of mass psychology, sublimation is minimal and all the outlets are gleichgeschaltet — aligned in a single direction.

Induction and Hypnosis

Among the harmless manifestations of group psychology are such trivial phenomena as infectious laughter, infectious yawning, infectious faintin . The infection, say in a girl’s classroom or dormitory, seems to be transmitted by some subtle germ which fills the air, or by a kind of mutual induction: ‘Whenever I looked at Sally Anne or Sally Anne at me, we started giggling again, we couldn’t stop it. In the end we all got hysterical.’ Not only adolescent girls, but guardsmen lined up on parade, too, are prone to such phenomena: one six-footer happens to faint, and others topple over like ninepins. At revivalist meetings, and the like occasions, the symptoms are more lively: once the first devotee has started to holler, jump, quake or spin, others are seized by an irresistible urge to follow suit. The next step leads to more uncanny manifestations: the tarantula dancers of the Dark Ages, the collective hallucinations of the nuns of Loudun rolling on the floor in the embrace of obscene devils; the lynching crowds of all races and denominations; the reveldes on Hanging Days at Newgate; the jolly French commeres turned into drooling tricoteuses; and, by way of contrast, the rigidly disciplined, ritualised Nuremberg rallies and Red Square parades. Or, for another contrast, the hordes of screaming teenage Bacchantae mobbing Pop-stars, and the leering teen-age Narcissi coiffured like cockroaches.

All these phenomena-some harmless, some sinister, some grotesque-have one basic element in common: the people participating in them have to some extent surrendered their independent individualities, become more or less de-personalised; while their impulses have to the same extent become synchronised, aligned in the same direction like magnetised files of iron. The force which binds them together is variously called ‘social infection’, ‘mutual induction’, ‘collective hysteria’, ‘mass hypnosis etc.; the common element of all is identification with the group at the price of relinquishing part of one’s personal identity. Immersion in the group mind is a kind of poor man’s self-transcendence.

It has also been compared by Freud and others to a semi-hypnotic, or quasi-hypnotic, state.

The hypnotic state is easy to demonstrate, but difficult to define or explain. That, and the uncanny powers it confers on the hypnotist, may be the main reason why it has for so long been treated with scepticism and distrust by Western science, whereas in tribal societies, and in the advanced civilisations of the East, it was used for both benevolent and malevolent purposes. Mesmer produced spectacular cures with its help, but he had no idea how it worked; his spurious explanations in terms of animal magnetism, combined with showmanship, brought hypnotism into further disrepute. In the course of the nineteenth century several eminent English surgeons carried out major operations painlessly under hypnosis, but their reports met with scepticism and hostility. orthodox medicine refused to accept the reality of a phenomenon which could easily be demonstrated, and even for a while became a parlour game. Prejudice wore down only gradually; Charcot and his school in France, and Freud in his early period, produced hypnotic phenomena as a matter of routine, and used them as a therapeutical tool. But it was the Scottish physician James Baird who, in 1841, coined the word ‘hypnotism’, which sounded a little more respectable than the earlier terms-mesmerism, magnetism, or sonmambulism.* At present, qualified medical hypnotists are employed in growing numbers by dental surgeons in lieu of anaesthetists, and the use of hypnotism in childbirth, psychotherapy and dermatology has become commonplace. So much so that we are apt to forget to wonder how it works. For, as already said, it is a phenomenon easy to produce but difficult to explain-particularly in terms of flat-earth psychology.

An explanation, or at least description, as good as any other was given half a century ago by Kretschmer: ‘In the hypnotic state the functions of the ego seem to be suspended, except those which communicate with the hypnotiser as though through a narrow slit in a screen.”‘ The slit focusses the beam of the hypnotic rapport. The rest of the hypnotised subject’s world is screened off or blurred.

A more recent description by an Oxford experimental psychologist, Dr. Oswald, leads to essentially similar conclusions:

The human hypnotic trance [as distinct from cataleptic states induced in animals] has a name that grew out of a resemblance to sleepwalking. The human hypnotic trance is not a state of sleep. Nor, let it be emphasised, is it a state of unconsciousness…. It is not possible to categorise it in a manner that would be universally acceptable. It remains a very definite puzzle. It is certainly a state of inertia, but only in respect of spontaneous actions. In response to the hypnotist’s commands, vigorous activity may ensue without disrupting the trance, or destroying the rapport. It is this rapport that is so characteristic. The hypnotised individual’s own initiative is subservient to that of the hypnotist. Alternatives to that which the hypnotist suggests simply do not seem to arise. If you ask your friend to go and shut the door he may quietly do so, or he may comment that, since he sees no reason for you to be so idle, you might as well go and do it yourself. The hypnotised person just gets on and does it.

Lastly, Drever’s Dictionary of Psychology: ‘Hypnosis: artificially induced state, similar in many respects to sleep, but specially characterised by exaggerated suggestibility, and the continuance of contact or rapport with the operator.?

Freud in his book on Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego took the hypnotic state as his starting point. He regarded hypnotiser and hypnotised as a ‘group formation of two’, and thought that the hypnotic trance provided the clue to ‘the profound alteration in the mental activities of individuals subjected to the influence of a group’.14 Indeed, the ‘hypnotic effect’ of prophets and demagogues on their ‘spellbound’ followers has become so much of a cliche’ that one tends to overlook its literal, pathological relevance. Le Bon’s classic analysis of the mentality of the heroic, murderous mobs of the French Revolution (which Freud and others took as their text) remains as true as it was a century and a half ago. As in the hypnotised subject, so in the individual subjected to the influence of the crowd, personal initiative is relinquished in favour of the leader and ‘the functions of the ego seem to be suspended’, except those which are ‘in rapport with the operator’. This entails a state of mental inertia, a mild form of somnambulism or ‘spellboundness’ which, however, may at any moment burst into violent activity at the leader’s command. Crowds tend to behave in a ‘fanatical’ (or ‘heroic’), that is, single-minded way, because the individual differences between its members are temporarily suspended, their critical faculties anaesthetised; the whole mass is thus intellectually reduced to a primitive common denominator, a level of communication which all can share: single-mindedness must be simpleMinded. But at the same time, the emotional dynamism of the crowd is enhanced by mutual induction between its members, and by the fact that the slits in the screen — or blinkers — are all aligned in the same direction. It is a kind of resonance effect, which makes the members of the crowd feel that they are part of an irresistible power; moreover, of a power which ex hypothesi cannot do wrong. Identification absolves from individual responsibility; as in the hypnotic rapport, initiative and responsibility for the subject’s actions are surrendered to the hypnotiser. This is the exact opposite of ‘hierarchic awareness’, of the consciousness of individual freedom within the limitations of a rule-governed hierarchy. Hierarchic awareness shows the two faces of janus; crowd mentality is like a single, blinkered profile.

it not only implies the suspension of personal responsibility, but also of the self-assertive tendencies of the individual. We have met this paradox before. The total identification of the individual with the group makes him unselfish in more than one sense. It makes him indifferent to danger and less sensitive to physical pain-again a mild form of hypnotic anaesthesia. It makes him perform comradely, altruistic, heroic actions — to the point of self-sacrifice — and at the same time behave with ruthless cruelty towards the enemy or victim of the group. But the brutality displayed by the members of a fanatic crowd is impersonal and unselfish; it is exercised in the interest or the supposed interest of the whole; and it entails the readiness not only to kill but also to die in its name. In other words, the self-assertive behaviour of the group is based on the self-transcending behaviour of its members, which often entails sacrifice of personal interests and even of life in the interest of the group. To put it simply: the egotism of the group feeds on the altruism of its members.

This becomes less paradoxical when we realise that the social group is a holon. with its own specific structure and canon of rules-which differ from the rules that govern the individual behaviour of its members. A crowd is of course a very primitive holon — the human equivalent of a herd or flock. But it remains nevertheless true that the crowd as a whole is not simply the sum of its parts, and that it displays characteristic features not found on the level of its -individual parts.

Needless to say, once the fury of the group is unleashed, its individual members can give their aggressive impulses free rein. But this is a secondary kind of aggressiveness, catalised by a previous act of identification, as distinct from primary aggressiveness, based on personal motives. The physical manifestations of such secondary aggressiveness may be indistinguishable from those of primary aggression-just as the anger aroused by the villain in the film produces the physical symptoms of anger directed at a real person. But in both cases we are dealing with aggression as a secondary process derived from identification with the group in the first case, with the screen-hero in the second.

Sociologists who regard war as a manifestation of man’s repressed aggressive urges make one feel at once that they have never served in the ranks, and have no idea of the mentality of private soldiers in war time. There is waiting-somebody has said that it occupies ninety per cent of a soldier’s time; there is grumbling and grousing, much preoccupation with sex, intermittent fear, and, above all, the fervent hope that it will soon be over, followed by the return to civvy street — but hating does not enter into the picture. In modem warfare, the enemy is mostly invisible, and ‘fighting’ is reduced to the impersonal manipulation of long-range weapons. In classical warfare, attacks were carried out by units — that is groups — against positions held by other groups; the features of individual enemies whom one had killed or may have killed were hardly ever perceived; trying to kill them was under the circumstances a sine qua non of survival, but primary aggression played no significant part in the picture. Nor did ‘defence of home and family’. Soldiers do not fight at their homesteads, but at places hundreds or thousands of miles away, to defend the homes, families, territory, etc., of the group of which they are a part. The professed and occasionally real hatred of Boches or Wops, Fascists or Reds, is again not a matter of personal primary aggression; it is directed against a group, or rather against the common denominator which all members of the group share. The individual victim of such hatred is punished not as an individual, but as a symbolic representative of that common denominator.

In the First World War soldiers in opposite trenches were capable of fraternising during Christmas, and of starting shooting at each other once Boxing Day was over. War is a ritual, a deadly ritual, not the result of aggressive self-assertion, but of self-transcending identification. Without loyalty to tribe, church, flag or ideal, there would be no wars; and loyalty is a noble thing. I do not mean. of course, that loyalty must necessarily be expressed in group violence-merely that it is a precondition of it; that self-transcending devotion, all through history, has acted as a catalyst for secondary aggression.

Sweet Caesar’s Wounds

Shakespeare has expressed this seemingly abstract point with a persuasiveness which no psychological treatise can hope to achieve. In Mark Antony’s oration to the throng of Roman citizens there is a decisive moment, when he deliberately quells their first, superficial resentment against the conspirators. He makes his audience form a ring about the corpse of Caesar — not yet appealing for revenge, but arousing first their pity:

Ant. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

You all do know this mantle; I remember

The first time ever Caesar put it on,

‘Twas on a summer’s evening in his tent,

That day he overcame the Nervii:

Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through . . .

And in his mantle muffling up his face,

Even at the base of Pompey’s statue

(Which all the while ran blood) great Caesar fell.

O what a fall was there, my countrymen!

Then I, and you, and all of us fell down . . .

Having, thus identified ÂŒI?and ‘you’ and ‘all of us’ with the dead leader, and shown them ‘sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor, poor, dumb mouth, and bid them speak for me’, he has got the crowd into exactly the mood he wanted:

O now you weep, and I perceive you feel

The dint of pity: these are gracious drops,

Kind souls, what weep you, when you but behold

Our Caesar’s vesture wounded? Look you here,

Here is himself, marr’d as you see with traitors.

1.C. O piteous spectacle!

2.C. O noble Caesar!

3.C. O woeful day!

4.C. O traitors, villains!

1.C. O most bloody sight!

2.C. We will be reveng’d!

All. Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill!

Slay! Let not a traitor live!

And so mischief is afoot once more, wing’d by the noblest sentiments.

The Structure of Beliefs

A mob in action displays an extreme form of group mentality. But to be affected by it, a person need not be physically present in a crowd; mental identification with a group, nation, church or party is often quite sufficient. If our imagination can produce all the physical symptoms of emotion in reaction to the perils of personae which exist merely as printer’s ink, how much easier, then, to have the experience of belonging, of being part of a group, though it is not physically present. One can be a victim of group mentality even in the privacy of one’s bath.

A mob in action needs a leader. Religious or political movements need leaders to get under way; once established, they still benefit, of course, from efficient leadership, but the primary need of a group, the factor which lends it cohesion as a group, is a creed, a shared system of beliefs, a faith that transcends the individual’s personal interests. It may be represented by a symbol -the totem or fetish which provides a mystic sense of union among the members of the tribe. It may be the conviction that one belongs to a Chosen Race whose ancestors made a covenant with God; or to a Master Race whose ancestors were equipped with a gene-complex of special excellence; or whose Emperors were descended from the sun. It may be the conviction that observance of certain rules and rites qualifies one for membership in a privileged elite in after-life; or that manual work qualifies for membership in the elite class of history.

How do these powerful collective belief-systems come into being? When the historian attempts to trace them back to their origin, he inevitably ends up in the twilight of mythology. If a belief carries a strong emotive power, it can always be shown to spring from archaic sources. Beliefs are not invented; they seem to materialise as the humidity in the atmosphere condenses into clouds, which subsequently undergo endless transformations of shape.

Rational arguments have little impact on the true believer, for the creed to which he is emotionally committed can be contradicted by evidence without losing its magic power. From prehistoric days until quite recent times, that magic was derived from religious beliefs. To dispense with God was unthinkable even to the Founding Fathers of modem science: Copernicus was an orthodox Thomist, Kepler a Lutheran mystic, Galileo called God the Chief Mathematician of the Universe; Newton believed, with Bishop Usher, that the world was created in 4004 B.c. The movements towards social reform were just as firmly based on the ethics of Christianity.

The Age of Enlightenment, culminating in the French Revolution, was a decisive turning-point in the history of man. It was dramatised by Robespierre’s symbolic gesture of deposing God and enthroning the Goddess of Reason in the vacant chair. She proved to be a dismal failure. The Christian mythos had a continuous ancestry which can be traced back, through Greece, Palestine and Babylon, to the myths and rites of neolithic man; it provided an archetypal mould for man’s self-transcending emotions, his craving for the absolute. The progressive trends and ideologies of the nineteenth century proved to be a poor substitute. From the point of view of material welfare, public health and socialjustice, the last hundred and fifty years of secular reforms certainly brought more tangible improvements in the lot of the common man than fifteen hundred years of Christianity had done; yet their reflection in the group mind was a different matter. Religion may have been opium to the people, but opium addicts are not given to much enthusiasm for a rational, healthy diet. Among the intellectual elite, the rapid advance of science created a rather shallow optimistic belief in the infallibility of Reason, in a clear, bright, crystalline world with a transparent atomic structure, with no room for shadows, twilights and myths. Reason was thought to be in control of emotion, as the rider controls the horse-the rider representing enlightened, rational thought, the horse representing what the Victorians called ‘the dark passions’ and ‘the beast within us’. Nobody foresaw, no pessimist ventured to guess, that the Age of Reason would end in the greatest emotional stampede in history, which left the rider crushed under the hoof of the beast. Yet once more the beast was motivated by the noblest ideals-by the secular messianism of the Classless Society and of the Millennial Reich; and once more we are apt to forget that the vast majority of men and women who fell under the totalitarian spell was activated by unselfish motives, ready to accept the role of martyr or executioner, as the cause demanded.

Both the Fascist and the Soviet myths were not synthetic constructions, but revivals of archetypes, both capable of absorbing not only the cerebral component but the total man; both provided emotional saturation.

The Fascist myth is undisguised and explicit. The opium is doled out to the masses quite openly. The archetypes of Blood and Soil, of the dragon-slaying Superman, the deities of Walhalla and the satanic powers of the Jews are systematically called up for national service. One half of Flider’s genius consisted in hitting the right unconscious chords. The other half was his alert eclecticism, his flair for hypermodem avant-garde methods in Economy, Architecture, Technology, Propaganda and Warfare. The secret of Fascism is the revival of archaic beliefs in an ultra-modem setting. The Nazi edifice was a skyscraper fitted with hot water pipes which drew on underground springs of volcanic origin.

The Soviet myth had an equally profound appeal to a large section of humanity. The classless Communist society was to be a revival of the Golden Age of mythology at the highest, ultimate turn of the dialectical spiral. It was a secular version of the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Heaven. One of the salient features of this archetypal myth is that the advent of the Millennium must be preceded by violent upheaval: the ordeal of forty years in the desert, the Apocalypse, the Last judgment. Their secular equivalent is the liquidation of the Bourgeois world through Revolutionary Terror. Some of the early Russian and contemporary Chinese literature extolling Revolutionary justice being done to a ‘putrefied and gangrened Capitalist society’ reminds one indeed of the Last judgments of Griinewald or Hicronymus Bosch. The true believer has a genuine horror of the ‘Reformist’ heresy, the belief in a bloodless transition towards socialism (which caused the Communists to denounce Socialists, and later the Chinese to denounce the Russians, as traitors to the cause). No apocalypse, no kingdom come.

The Split

Fascist propaganda did not take much trouble to harmonise emotion with reason; it dismissed logical objections to its doctrines as ‘destructive criticism’. Goering’s epigram ‘When I hear the word “culture” I reach for my gun’ was a frank declaration of war on the intellect: the rider must obey the horse. The Leninist theory of Scientific Socialism, on the other hand, was an offspring, in the line of direct descent, of the Age of Enlightenment. It was an eminently rationalist credo, based on a materialist conception of history, which derided all emotionalism as ‘petitbourgeois sentimentality’. How is it to be explained that millions of adherents of this rationalist doctrine-including progressive intellectuals all over the world-accepted the logical absurdities of the ‘Stalin personality cult’, the show trials, purges, the alliance with the Nazis; and that those who lived outside Russia accepted them voluntarily, in self-imposed discipline, without pressure from Big Brother? The Stalin regime is a matter of the past, but its lethal rites are being faithfully repeated in China and elsewhere, meeting with the same approval of a new generation of well-meaning sympathisers. At the time of writing, the end of 1966, China is convulsed by another of the mass purges which are endemic in the system; and I have before me a recent cutting with the comments by the official New China agency on a swim which President Mao Tse-tung, ‘the radiant sun that lights the minds of the world’s revolutionary people’, took in the Yangtze river:

His cross-Yangtze swim was a great encouragement to the Chinese people and revolutionaries throughout the world, and a heavy blow to imperialism, modem revisionism and the monsters and freaks who are opposed to socialism and Mao Tse-tung’s thought.

I have spoken of the paranoid streak that runs through History. Modem man may be quite willing to admit that such a streak has indeed existed among the Aztecs or at the tirne of the witchburning mania. He is perhaps less willing to admit that a comparable delusional element was present in ‘the doctrine that nearly all mankind, including all the babies who die unbaptised, are to receive forever tortures more severe than any earthly expert can contrive to inflict, with the corollary that to watch the tortures eternally is one of the delights of the blessed’. Yet this doctrine (the Abominable Fancy, as Dean Farrar called it) was part of the collective belief-system of the majority of Europeans well to the end of the seventeenth century, and for many considerably longer. However, even those who appreciate to its full extent the mental disorder underlying such fancies are apt to dismiss them as phenomena of the past. It is not easy to love humanity and yet to admit that the paranoid streak is as much in evidence in contemporary history as it was in the distant past, but more devastating in its consequences; and that, as the record shows, it is not accidental, but endemic-inherent in man’s condition.

No matter how much the symptoms vary, the pattern of the disorder is the same: a mentality split between faith and reason, between emotion and intellect. Faith in a shared belief-system is based on an act of emotional commitment; it rejects doubt as something evil; it is a form of self-transcendence which demands the partial or total surrender of the critical faculties of the intellect, comparable to the hypnotic state.

Newton wrote not only the Principia but also a treatise on the topography of Hell. Up to this day we all hold beliefs which are not only incompatible with observable facts, but with facts actually observed by ourselves. The hot steam of belief and the iceblock of reasoning are packed together inside our skulls, but as a rule they do not interact; the steam does not condense and the ice does not melt. The human mind is basically schizophrenic, split into two mutually exclusive planes…. The Primitive knows that his idol is a piece of carved wood, and yet he believes in its power to make rain; and though our beliefs underwent a gradual refinement, the dualistic pattern of our minds remained basically unchanged .

Up to the Revival of Learning in the thirteenth century, this dualism seems to have caused no particular problem, because it was taken for granted that the intellect played the subordinate role of ancilla fidei, the hand-maid of faith. But the situation changed when St. Thomas Aquinas recognised the ‘Light of Reason’ as an independent source of knowledge beside the ‘Light of Grace’. Reason was promoted from the status of a hand-maid to that of the ‘bride’ of faith. As a bride, she was of course still bound to obey her spouse; nevertheless she was henceforth recognised to exist in her own right. And with that, the conflict became inevitable. From time to time it reached a dramatic peak: in the burning of Servetius, the Galileo scandal, the clash between Darwinians and fundamentalists, the stubborn opposition of the Catholic Church to birth control. In such climactic moments the smouldering conflict is brought into the open; they provide the split mind with an opportunity to become conscious of its split, and to overcome it by taking sides. Such open confrontations, however, are rare; the normal way of living with a split mind was and is to patch it up with rationalisations and subtle techniques of pseudo-reasoning. These were obligingly provided at all times by dialecticians of various brands, from theologians to Marxian Evangelists. Thus a modus vivendi is achieved, based on self-deception, perpetuating the delusive streak. This applies of course not only to the Western world, but to Hindus, Moslems, and militant Buddhists as well; Asian history has been as bloody, holy, and cruel as ours.

The Comforts of Double-Think

To recapitulate: without a transcendental belief, each man is a mean little island. The need for self-transcendence through some form of ‘peak experience’ (religious or aesthetic) and/or through social integration is inherent in man’s condition. Transcendental beliefs are derived from certain ever-recurrent archetypal patterns which evoke instant emotive responses. But once they become institutionalised as the collective property of a group, they degenerate into rigid doctrines which, without losing their emotive appeal to the true believer, potentially offend his reasoning faculties. This leads to the split: emotion responds to the piercing call of the Muezzin, the intellect shrinks from it. To eliminate the dissonance, various forms of double-think have been designed at various times-powerful techniques of self-deception, some crude, some extremely sophisticated. Secular religions — political ideologies — too have their ancient origins in the utopian craving for an ideal society; but when they crystallise into a movement or party, they can be distorted to such an extent that the actual policy pursued is the direct opposite of the professed ideal. The reason why idealistic movements-whether religious or secular-show this apparently inevitable tendency to degenerate into their own caricatures can be derived from the peculiarities of the group mind: its tendency towards intellectual oversimplification combined with emotional arousal, and its quasi-hypnotic suggestibility by leader-figures or belief-systems.

I can speak of this with some first-hand experience, based on seven years (193 1-8) of membership in the Communist Party during Stalin’s terror regime. In writing about that period, I have described the operations of the deluded mind in terms of elaborate maneuvrings to defend the citadel of faith against the hostile incursions of doubt. There are several concentric rings of defences protecting the fortress. The outer defences are designed to ward off unpalatable facts. For the simple-minded this is made easy by official censorship, the banning of all literature liable to poison the mind; and by implanting a fear of contamination, or of guilt by association, through contact with suspected heretics. Crude as these methods are, they quickly produce a blinkered, sectarian outlook on the world. Avoidance of forbidden information, first imposed from the outside, soon becomes a habit-an emotive revulsion against the dirty packs of lies offered by the enemy. For the majority of believers, this is quite enough to ensure unswerving loyalty; the more sophisticated are frequently forced to fall back on the inner defence positions. In 1932-3, the years of the great famine which followed the forced collectivisation of the land, I travelled widely in the Soviet Union, writing a book which was never published. I saw entire villages deserted, railway stations blocked by crowds of begging families, and the proverbial starving infants-but they were quite real, with stick-like arms, puffed up bellies and cadaverous heads.

I reacted to the brutal impact of reality on illusion in a manner typical of the true believer. I was surprised and bewildered — but the elastic shock-absorbers of my Party training began to operate at once. I had eyes to see, and a mind conditioned to explain away what they saw. This ‘inner censor’ is more reliable and effective than any official censorship. It helped me to overcome my doubts and to re-arrange my impressions in the desired pattern. I learnt to classify automatically everything that shocked me as ‘the heritage of the past’ and everything I liked as ‘the seeds of the future’. By setting up this automatic sorting machine in his mind, it was still possible in 1933 for a European to live in Russia and yet to remain a Communist. All my friends had that automatic sorting machine in their heads. The Communist mind has perfected the techniques of self-deception in the same manner as its techniques of mass propaganda. The inner censor in the mind of the true believer completes the work of the public censor; his self-discipline is as tyrannical as the obedience imposed by the regime; he terrorises his own conscience into submission; he carries his private Iron Curtain inside his skull, to protect his illusions against the intrusion of reality.

Behind the curtain there is the magic world of double-think. ‘Ugly is beautiful, false is true, and also conversely.’ This is not Orwell; it was written, in all seriousness, by the late Professor Suzuki, the foremost propounder of modem Zen, to illustrate the principle of the identity of opposites. The perversions of Pop-Zen are based onjuggling with the identity of opposites, the Communist’s onjuggling with the dialectics of history, the Schoolman’s on a combination of Holy Scripture with Aristotelian logic. The axioms differ, but the delusional process follows much the same pattern. Facts and arguments which succeed in penetrating the outer defences are processed by the dialectical method until ‘false’ becomes ‘true’, tyranny the true democracy and a herring a racehorse:

Gradually I learnt to distrust my preoccupation with facts, and to regard the world around me in the light of dialectic interpretation. It was a satisfactory and indeed blissful state; once you had assimilated the technique, the so-called facts automatically took on the proper colouring and fell into their proper place. Both morally and logically, the Party was infallible: morally, because its aims were right, that is, in accord with the Dialectic of History, and these aims justified all means; logically, because the Party was the vanguard of the proletariat, and the proletariat the embodiment of the active principle in history. I now lived in a mental world which was a ‘closed system’, comparable to the self-contained universe of the Mddle Ages. All my feelings, my attitudes to art, literature and human relations, became reconditioned and moulded to the pattern.

The most striking feature of the paranoiac’s delusional system is its inner consistency, and the patient’s uncanny persuasiveness in expounding it. Much the same applies to any ‘closed system’ of thought. By a closed system I mean a cognitive matrix, governed by a canon. which has three main peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centred on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itsel?The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system: if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian’s prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you yourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do, he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history. And if a paranoiac lets you in on the secret that the moon is a hollow sphere filled with aphrodisiac vapours which the Martians have put there to bewitch mankind; and if you object that the theory, though attractive, is based on insufficient evidence, he will at once accuse you of being a member of the world conspiracy to suppress truth.

A closed system is a cognitive structure with a distorted, non-Euclidian geometry in curved space, where parallels intersect and straight lines form loops. Its canon is based on a central axiom, postulate or dogma, to which the subject is emotionally committed, and from which the rules of processing reality are derived. The amount of distortion involved in the processing is a matter of degrees, and an important criterion of the value of the system. It ranges from the scientist’s involuntary inclination to juggle with data as a mild form of self-deception, motivated by his commitment to a theory, to the delusional belief-systems of clinical paranoia. When Einstein made his famous pronouncement ‘if the facts do not fit the theory, then the facts are wrong* he spoke with his tongue in his cheek; but he nevertheless expressed a profound feeling of the scientist committed to his theory. As we have seen, an occasional suspension of strict logic in favour of a temporary indulgence in the games of the underground is an important factor in scientific and artistic creativity. But geniuses are rare. And if geniuses sometimes indulge in these non-Euclidian games where reasoning is guided by emotional bias, it is an individual bias, a hunch of their own making; whereas the group mind receives its emotional beliefs ready-made from its leaders or from its catechism.

Let me repeat, however, that the amount of logical distortion needed to keep the deluded mind happy in its faith is a factor of decisive importance. Here lies the answer to that ethical relativism which cynically proclaims that all politicians are corrupt, all ideologies eyewash, all religion designed to befuddle the masses. The fact that power corrupts does not mean that all men in power are equally corrupt.

The Group Mind as a Holon

Earlier in this chapter I referred to the tendency of overexcited organs to assert themselves to the detriment of the whole, and then went on to the pathology of cognitive structures getting out of control: the idee fixe of the crank, obsessions running riot, closed systems centred on some part-truth pretending to represent the whole truth. We now find similar symptoms on a higher level of the hierarchy, as pathological manifestations of the group mind. The difference between these two kinds of mental disorder is the same as that between the primary aggressiveness of the individual and the secondary aggressiveness derived from his identification with a social holon. The individual crank, enamoured of his own pet theory, the patient in the mental home convinced that there is a sinister conspiracy aimed at his person, are disowned by society; their obsessions serve some unconscious private purpose. In contrast to this, the collective delusions of the crowd or group are based, not on individual deviations but on the individual’s tendency to conform. Any single individual who would today assert that he has made a pact with the Devil and had intercourse with succubi, would promptly be sent to a mental home. Yet not so long ago, belief in such things was a matter of course-and approved by ‘commonsense’ in the original meaning of the term, i.e., consensus of opinion.

I have suggested that the evils of mankind are caused, not by the primary aggressiveness of individuals, but by their self-transcending identification with groups whose common denominator is low intelligence and high emotionality. We now come to the parallel conclusion that the delusional streak running through history is not due to individual forms of lunacy, but to the collective delusions generated by emotion-based belief systems. We have seen that the cause underlying these pathological manifestations is the split between reason and belief — or more generally, insufficient co-ordination between the emotive and discriminative faculties of the mind. Our next step will be to inquire whether we can trace the cause of this faulty co-ordination — this disorder in the hierarchy — to the evolution of the human brain. Should contemporary neurophysiology, though still in its infancy, be able to provide some indication of the causes of the trouble, we would have made a first step towards a frank diagnosis of our predicament — and thereby gain some inkling of the direction in which the search for a remedy must proceed.


The considerations set out in earlier chapters led us to distinguish three factors in emotion: nature of the drive, hedonic tone, and the polarity of the self-assertive and self-transcending tendencies.

Under normal conditions the two tendencies are in dynamic equilibrium. Under conditions of stress the self-assertive tendency may get out of control and manifest itself in aggressive behaviour. However, on the historical scale, the damages wrought by individual violence for selfish motives are insignificant compared to the holocausts resulting from self-transcending devotion to collectively shared belief-systems. It is derived from primitive identification instead of mature social integration; it entails the partial surrender of personal responsibility and produces the quasi-hypnotic phenomena of group-psychology. The egotism of the social holon feeds on the altruism of its members. The ubiquitous rituals of human sacrifice at the dawn of civilisation are early symptoms of the split between reason and emotion-based beliefs which produces the delusional streak running through history.