Megalothymia: a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways

According to Paul Sagar in “The last hollow laugh: Since Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘The End of History’ 25 years ago, he has been much maligned. His work now seems prophetic

Throughout his analysis, Fukuyama insisted on the centrality of thymos (the Greek for ‘spiritedness’), or recognition, to human psychology: what Thomas Hobbes called pride, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau labelled amour propre. This denotes the need to be liked and respected by other people, and to have that recognition outwardly affirmed – if necessary, extracting it by force. Some human beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best – and others will resent them for that, and vie back. This has the potential to cause a lot of trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they don’t feel that they are getting it, they break things – and people – in response.

Fukuyama thought, human beings didn’t just exhibit thymos, but also what he termed ‘megalothymia’: a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways.

There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed.

Hitler “enthroned by stupid elite politicians” who “asssumed they could manage” him

According to Neal Ascherson

Ullrich has strong feelings about the way Hitler came to power in January 1933, enthroned by a ‘sinister plot’ of stupid elite politicians just at the moment when the Nazis were at last losing strength. It didn’t have to happen. He constantly reminds his readers that Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. ‘We engaged him for our ends,’ said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck.

Britain’s glorious war resisters

According to Adam Hochschild about some anti-war heroes from nearly a century ago

It was in Britain that significant numbers of war resisters first acted on their beliefs and paid the price. They did not even come close to stopping the bloodshed, but their strength of conviction remains one of the glories of a dark time. By the conflict’s end, more than 20,000 British men of military age would refuse the draft. Many, on principle, also refused the noncombatant alternative service offered to conscientious objectors, and more than 6,000 served prison terms under harsh conditions: hard labor, a bare-bones diet, and a strict “rule of silence.” This was one of the largest groups ever jailed for political reasons in a Western democracy. War opponents behind bars also included older men—and a few women—as well. If we could time-travel our way into British prisons in late 1917 and early 1918 we would meet the nation’s leading investigative journalist, a future winner of the Nobel Prize, more than half a dozen future members of Parliament, one future cabinet minister, and a former newspaper editor who was now publishing a clandestine journal for his fellow inmates on toilet paper. It would be rare to find a more distinguished array of people ever imprisoned together.

Slavery and the rise of the West — US Civil War was necessary for ending slavery

According to Eric Foner

Among the many virtues of Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible is its demonstration that slavery must be at the center of any account of Western ascendancy. Without the colonization of the New World, Blackburn notes at the outset, the West as we know it would not exist, and without slavery there could have been no colonization. Between 1500 and 1820, African slaves constituted about 80 percent of those who crossed the Atlantic from east to west. More than any other institution, the slave plantation underpinned the extraordinary expansion of Western power and the region’s prosperity in relation to the rest of the world.

Slavery was stronger than ever in 1860, because it was keeping evil men rich and powerful. We should be thankful to those who died to make men free.

According to David Eltis and David Richardson

the Atlantic slave trade remained strong until it was suppressed. Like the institution of slavery, the traffic that supplied captives did not die a natural economic death. The maps establish that in all the major importing areas of the Americas, the volume of the traffic peaked in the years just before its suppression. This pattern held for Brazil, the United States, and the British Americas as a whole.

According to James W. Loewen

Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them – or forced them to abandon slavery?

To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.

Churchill’s Lucifer of perverted science and Leonardo’s grotesque error

In Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech he said

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Madhusree Mukerjee has shown recently how Churchill was responsible for the Bengal famine of 1943. She describes here how this was largely the consequence of heeding advice from a “trusted old friend”, physicist Frederick Alexander Lindemann and his assistant Donald MacDougall.

Consider the following perverted science that Lindemann advocated in lectures in the early 1930s. According to Madhusree Mukerjee

He had detailed a science-based solution to a challenge that occupied many an intellect of the time: preserving for eternity the hegemony of the superior classes. Any attempt “to force upon Nature an equality she has never admitted” was bound to lead to bloody strife, the scientist asserted in a draft of this talk. Instead of subscribing to what he called “the fetish of equality,” he recommended that human differences be accepted and indeed enhanced by means of science. It was no longer necessary, he wrote, to wait for “the haphazard process of natural selection to ensure that the slow and heavy mind gravitates to the lowest form of activity.” New technologies such as surgery, mind control, and drug and hormone manipulations would one day allow humans to be fine-tuned for specific tasks. Society could create “gladiators or philosophers, athletes or artists, satyrs or monks” at will—indeed, it could manufacture “men with a passion and perhaps even aptitude for any desired vocation.” At the lower end of the race and class spectrum, one could remove from “helots” (the Greek word for slaves) the ability to suffer or to feel ambition.

“Somebody must perform dull, dreary tasks, tend machines, count units in repetition work; is it not incumbent on us, if we have the means, to produce individuals without a distaste for such work, types that are as happy in their monotonous occupation as a cow chewing the cud?” Lindemann asked. Science could yield a race of humans blessed with “the mental make-up of the worker bee.” This subclass would do all the unpleasant work and not once think of revolution or of voting rights: “Placid content rules in the bee-hive or ant-heap.” The outcome would be a perfectly peaceable and stable society, “led by supermen and served by helots.”

It’s possible though to be classist, yet still stay on the side of humanity. For example, consider Henry Petty-FitzMaurice during the European “Great War” of 1914-1918. According to Adam Hochschild

Lord Lansdowne was a great landowner and former viceroy of India, minister for war, and foreign secretary. His doubts about battling to an unconditional victory began after the Somme. Very much a man of his class, he was particularly appalled by the number of British officers slain. “We are slowly but surely killing off the best of the male population of these islands . . . ” he wrote. “Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss.”

When the shocked London Times refused to publish it, an open letter from him appeared in the Daily Telegraph on November 29, 1917, laying out some proposals for a negotiated peace. “We are not going to lose this War,” Lansdowne wrote, “but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it. . . . Just as this war has been more dreadful than any war in history, so, we may be sure, would the next war be even more dreadful than this.” Nearly three decades before Hiroshima, he prophetically sensed something about the future: “The prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction is not likely to stop short.”

Disgust at the perversion of science in the service of psychopathy isn’t a 20th-century invention.

Consider the case of Leonardo’s “grotesque error”. According to Steven Levingston

Da Vinci […] had already painted “The Last Supper,” but it was his thinking on science and technology […] that landed him in Borgia’s service as his chief military engineer. Da Vinci contributed his considerable gifts to strengthening the duke’s fortresses (curved walls reduced the impact of cannonballs), drawing maps (with the use of his invention, the hodometer, to measure precise distances) and building ad hoc bridges for the duke’s army to cross rivers.

Ultimately, however, da Vinci became disgusted by Borgia. By the time he escaped the duke’s employ, da Vinci had undergone “a profound psychological change . . . as a result of his terrifying experiences.” He still worked on his own projects — paintings, designs for buildings, canal improvements — but could finish little. He considered publishing his understanding of science and technology but was unable to see the effort through. After his exposure to Borgia, Strathern writes, da Vinci realized that development of his military engineering skills — once a source of pride and ambition — was a “grotesque error.” While he continued to fill his notebooks with diagrams, drawings and speculations, da Vinci also wrote, “I will not publish, nor divulge such things because of the evil nature of men.” In the end, he left a meager legacy: There are no sculptures, no complete buildings, from his architectural drawings and only a handful of paintings, some unfinished.

Someday soon the “quants” of Wall Street may also be inducted to the Perverted Science Hall of Infamy. According to Robert Harris in “Frankenstein finance: How supercomputers preying on human fear are taking over the world’s stock markets”

The Desertron — or the superconducting super-collider, to give it its proper scientific title — was supposed to be America’s answer to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, a gigantic experiment to investigate the most fundamental laws of our universe. With a circumference of 54 miles, it would have been three times as large and powerful.

Unfortunately it would also have been nearly three times as expensive. In October 1993, in order to save projected future costs of $10 billion, the U.S. Congress voted to abandon the whole scheme — writing-off the work already done at a cost of $2 billion.

For a whole generation of American academic physicists, that decision wiped out their planned careers.

One physicist with a PhD I spoke to when I was researching my new novel, now in his 40s, told me he cried when he heard the news. What was he supposed to do now? He had to earn a living somewhere. His solution, like that of a majority of his colleagues, was to go and work on Wall Street

and

Quants analyse the market with intense mathematical and statistical precision to predict share price movements and the level of investment risk; they sit at screens and rarely talk in anything louder than a whisper.

The trading is mostly done by computer, for which the quants write the programmes. Now, 73 % of shares in New York are traded by computer, either by so-called ‘high-frequency strategies’, which may hold the shares for only a few milliseconds, or by algorithms devised by quants. Algorithms are sophisticated programmes designed to predict the behaviour of the markets.

There is something slightly creepy about it. In the words of Emanuel Derman, himself a leading quant: ‘When physicists pursue the laws of the universe, it seems selfless. But watching quants pursue sacred laws for the profane production of profit, I sometimes find myself thinking disturbingly of worshippers at a black mass.’

Lucretius, Poggio and the Epicurean renaissance

Stephen Greenblatt in his newest book The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began writes about the rediscovery by Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, and the intellectual chain reaction it triggered in Italy.

According to Charles Nicholl in a review in The Guardian, in 1417 Poggio

found his biggest prize – a ninth-century manuscript copy containing the entire 7,400-line text of De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) by Lucretius. This extraordinary philosophical epic poem, composed in Rome around the middle of the first century BC, was at this point known only by name. It was a missing celebrity of the kind Renaissance book-hunters dreamed of finding. Distant hints of its initial impact could be heard in a letter of Cicero’s of 54BC, which spoke of its “brilliant genius”; in Ovid’s commendation of “the sublime Lucretius”; and in Virgil’s lines from the Georgics, “Blessed is he who has succeeded in finding out the causes of things, and has trampled underfoot all fears”, the latter phrase echoing a line of Lucretius’s – “religion is trampled underfoot” – which would send a shiver through 15th-century Europe.

and

The poem is powerfully ranged against spiritual and supernatural beliefs. It posits a solely material world in which everything is composed of minute particles, the “seeds of the things” – the world of “atoms” previously proposed by Democritus, though Lucretius does not himself use that word. Among the dangerous ideas elaborated from this (as summarised by Greenblatt) are that the universe was not created by divine power; that the soul dies with the body; that there is no afterlife; that all organised religions are superstitious delusions; and that the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of physical happiness in the here and now. In short, it offered a highly charged, poetic exposition of Epicureanism, that philosophy of upbeat fatalism which the church had feared and condemned ever since.

This was the incendiary, anti-religious manifesto, ironically preserved for posterity in a monastery library, which Poggio Bracciolini released anew into the world.

and

In 1987, a team headed by a Neapolitan curator and a Norwegian papyrologist succeeded in deciphering and identifying 16 scraps of charred papyrus found at Herculaneum. They proved to be fragments of an early copy of De Rerum Natura – possibly a copy made during the author’s lifetime, certainly one in circulation before August AD79, when Herculaneum was engulfed in the eruption of Vesuvius. Without the copyists and book-hunters like Poggio Bracciolini, these tiny textual remnants might have been all that was left of this visionary poem.

The 1948 war and the descent into Western-style anti-Semitism

Following up to “Islamism and Jew-hatred“.

According to historian Bernard Lewis, the Western-style anti-Semitism taught by the Nazis only became widely popular in the Arab world after the humiliation of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

But why was that defeat considered so especially humiliating? Lewis writes

The main negative quality attributed to Jews in Turkish and Arab folklore was that they were cowardly and unmilitary — very contemptible qualities in a martial society. A late Ottoman joke may serve to illustrate this. The story is that in 1912, at the time of the Balkan war, when there was an acute threat to the Ottoman Empire in its final stages, the Jews, full of patriotic ardor, decided that they, too, wanted to serve in the defense of their country, so they asked permission to form a special volunteer brigade. Permission was given, and officers and ncos were sent to train and equip them. Once the Jewish volunteer brigade was armed, equipped, and trained, ready to leave for the front, they sent a message asking if they could have a police escort, because there were reports of bandits on the road.

This is a very interesting human document. Is it hostile? Not really. It shows a sort of amused tolerance, at once good-humored and contemptuous, that may help us to understand the bewilderment and horror at the Israeli victories in 1948 and after. We have some vivid descriptions at the time of the expectations and reactions of 1948. Azzam Pasha, who was then the secretary-general of the Arab League, is quoted as having said: “This will be like the Mongol invasions. We will utterly destroy them. We will sweep them into the sea.” The expectation was that it would be quick and easy. There would be no problem at all dealing with half a million Jews. It was then an appalling shock when five Arab armies were defeated by half a million Jews with very limited weaponry. It remains shameful, humiliating. This was mentioned at the time and has been ever since. One writer said: “It was bad enough to be conquered and occupied by the mighty empires of the West, the British Empire, the French Empire, but to suffer this fate at the hands of a few hundred thousand Jews was intolerable.”

The Western form of anti-Semitism — the cosmic, satanic version of Jew hatred — provided solace to wounded feelings.

Interesting article, worth reading. I should also warn though that Lewis is controversial because of his views on the Armenian genocide.

The guru of lying

I once heard Elliott Abrams referred to (probably by Larry Bensky) as the “guru of lying”.  This title could also be fairly applied to Leo Strauss.  According to Earl Shorris

One of the great services that Strauss and his disciples have performed for the Bush regime has been the provision of a philosophy of the noble lie, the conviction that lies, far from being simply a regrettable necessity of political life, are instead virtuous and noble instruments of wise policy. The idea’s provenance could not be more elevated: Plato himself advised his nobles, men with golden souls, to tell noble lies–political fables, much like the specter of Saddam Hussein with a nuclear bomb–to keep the other levels of human society (silver, iron, brass) in their proper places, loyal to the state and willing to do its bidding. Strauss, too, advised the telling of noble lies in the service of the national interest, and he held Plato’s view of aristocrats as persons so virtuous that such lies would be used only for the good, for keeping order in the state and in the world. He defined the modern method of the noble lie in the use of esoteric messages within an exoteric text, telling the truth to the wise while at the same time conveying something quite different to the many.

For Strauss, as for Plato, the virtue of the lie depends on who is doing the lying. If a poor woman lies on her application for welfare benefits, the lie cannot be countenanced. The woman has committed fraud and must be punished. The woman is not noble, therefore the lie cannot be noble. When the leader of the free world says that “free nations do not have weapons of mass destruction,” this is but a noble lie, a fable told by the aristocratic president of a country with enough nuclear weapons to leave the earth a desert less welcoming than the surface of the moon.

The “Business Plot” of 1933

According to J. Todd Ring

I am talking about the little known “Business Plot” of 1933, in which a number of the most powerful of the American business elites, including individuals from General Motors, Prescott Bush, grandfather of George Bush Jr., J.P. Morgan and the Rockefeller dynasty, attempted to seize the White House by military coup, and to install a fascist regime in America. Americans as well as people across the Western world, indeed, the world as a whole, should know about this dark scheme by the business elite to destroy democracy, a scheme which would have been successful but for the integrity and courage of U.S. Major-General Smedley Butler.

We are extraordinarily fortunate that the business elite chose the wrong man for the job – that Smedley Butler, very intelligently, listened to the plotters’ plans and went along with them long enough to find out who was involved, and then went immediately to Washington, and testified before Congress as to the atrocity which was being planned by some of the most powerful U.S. citizens and business “leaders.”

Background music does not swell and trumpets do not sound

According to Wilfred W. McClay

When standing before the Lincoln Memorial, we should remember the depth and breadth of Lincoln’s unpopularity during his entire time in office. Few great leaders have been more comprehensively disdained or loathed—or underestimated. The low Southern view of him, of course, was to be expected, but it was widely shared north of the Mason-Dixon line. As David Donald put it, Lincoln’s own associates thought him “a simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker”; he was, in the view of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, a “huckster in politics,” and “a first-rate second-rate man.” When he delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the great speeches of human history, he was completely overshadowed by the two-hour-long speech of famed orator Edward Everett that preceded his. There was little or no applause for him as he concluded his two-minute speech and sat down.  

We need to remember that this is often how history happens. Background music does not swell at the crucial moment, and trumpets do not sound, when the events of history are actually taking place. The orator or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will judge him harshly. Few great men have felt this burden more completely than Lincoln.

We also need to remember how likely it seemed to Lincoln and others that he would lose the 1864 election, and thereby experience ignominious defeat and see the disintegration of the Union cause as he had fought for it. Had it not been for the miracle of Sherman’s and Grant’s decisive victories in the field, such a defeat at the polls would have been likely, as the American people had grown weary of this frustrating struggle. Add to this bleak outlook the weight of Lincoln’s relentlessly self-examining and depressive temperament and his constant, lonely struggles with a crippling sense of failure, and the sheer resiliency of the man becomes awe-inspiring, in ways a marble temple could never convey.

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