"A human group transforms itself into a crowd when it suddenly responds to a suggestion rather than to reasoning, to an image rather than to an idea, to an affirmation rather than to proof, to the repetition of a phrase rather than to arguments, to prestige rather than to competence." ~ Jean-Francois Revel
Between Monsters and Gods
Column by Bob Wallace.
Exclusive to STR
"Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts," wrote Plotinus. A similar theme runs through most of the older mythologies: Did we come from the beasts or from the gods? Are we merely more evolved animals or fallen angels?
The answer, refined through millennia, is this: We're part beast, but far better than they are (though we often sink to their level or even worse), because we are the children of God, made in His image, no matter how much we pervert it. It's the meaning of a fairy tale like Beauty and the Beast, in which the Beast becomes human through love.
When I say we can sink lower than the beasts, it's because we're part devil, which animals aren't. Only people have self-consciousness, and are therefore capable of doing – and rationalizing – evil. Only man is part devil, and rationalizes it as being god-like. It's why we get popular Christian leaders claiming God is pro-war. Of course, they mean God is pro-their war.
Animals exist in nearly all myths and fairy tales. They're symbols of our animal nature. In the story of the Garden of Eden, for example, the serpent is a symbol of our envy, and how envious people can be subtle and clever and backstabbing in their attempts to bring people down. These stories would be more accurate if they didn't consider people halfway between beasts and gods; it's better to say they are midpoint between monsters and gods.
That concept is something horror writers have always understood: The fight is not between Pan or the Minotaur and God; it's between Satan (a human monster) and God, with people oftentimes unable to figure out which side is which.
We share with other social animals, such as dogs, traits such as forming ourselves into hierarchical packs (only we call them tribes, or if big enough, nations) with leaders at the top. Only no animal has ever claimed God favored its pack over every other pack, or claimed He personally installed its alpha dog, or blamed its problems on another pack while completely ignoring what it's done to that other pack, or claimed the other pack's top dog was an insane, evil, homicidal maniac bent on murder and destruction, or went to war, slaughtering puppies and elderly dogs, and justifying it as a utilitarian necessity. Neither do they believe in spells and talismans and magic, as we do.
Our animal nature is not paid as much attention as it should be. We understand social animals like dogs run in packs, and that "primitive" people form tribes, yet we often seem to be clueless that nation-states are just tribes writ large. I seriously doubt there is anydifference between the nature of people today and those of 30,000 years ago, except that we have advanced technology. Yet we still believe in magic and spells and talismans, as they did, even if we laugh at the idea and insist we don't.
When people say "God bless America" or "God bless our troops," aren't they really trying to cast a spell? Do they really believe words can change reality? Or that a bumper sticker that reads, "Support our troops" is nothing more than a talisman ("A trinket or piece of jewelry thought to be a protection against evil")? Isn't this exactly what magic is? The belief that mere words, in the correct incantation, can alter reality to suit your tastes?
Is God supposed to support all the troops, no matter how many bad apples are in the bunch, the ones who only want to kill people for fun? Or no matter what mass murder ("collateral damage") the troops engage in? Aren't the innocent people on the other side supposed to have a protective spell cast on them, too?
I get the impression people don't realize when they pray, they're actually assuming their prayers travel up to God, who sorts them out and decides which ones He wants to use, then sends them down to various recipients. Instead of using shamans or witches to cast spells, people now try to use God as an intermediary. They call this Christian, when they use prayers for murder and destruction, and to support their tribe's soldiers over the innocent people of another's? Mark Twain surely got their number when he wrote "The War Prayer": hey, God, protect our troops, but blow the innocent of our "enemy" to shreds.
These people are also ignoring, if they ever understood, the Commandment that reads, "Do not use God's name for vain causes." It's usually mistranslated as, "Do not use God's name in vain." It's got nothing to do with saying bad words if you hit your thumb with a hammer; it has everything to do with people claiming God gave the thumbs up for their tribe to rub out another.
For the life of me, I cannot figure out how humans turned out like they are. One explanation, both mythologically and religiously, is that when people's eyes opened to all the badness in life, they'd tried to turn themselves into gods to fix it. In the 20th Century, the two worst diseases of we're-gods-and-let's-eradicate-evil-and-bring-heaven-to-earth were Nazism and Communism, which together killed about 177 million people.
The United States seems to be going through a similar phase. Richard Perle and David Frum, two extraordinarily deluded messianic neo-con nutcases, actually wrote a book titled, An End to Evil, a concept not only profoundly anti-Christian, but anti-human. Because to get rid of all evil, you have to get rid of all people.
All religions agree people are inherently imperfect, fallen. Personally, I like C.S. Lewis' term: "bent." People are in some ways born bent, crooked. It's true. I do know a lot of it has to do with people rationalizing and justifying their most awful conduct and lying to themselves that it is, in the long run, a good thing. To do bad things, most people have to con themselves they're doing good things. All tyrants call themselves benefactors, a fact noticed by both Aesop and Jesus.
The story of the Garden of Eden has many interpretations. One of them, of course, is evil being brought into the world through people blaming their problems on others because of envy. Another interpretation is people going from an animal unconsciousness of evil to a human consciousness of it – with most of it being caused by envy and rationalization. It's why animals, having no self-consciousness, cannot do evil. Only people can.
People have lost their animal unconsciousness and instead replaced it with being part human, part monster, and oftentimes claiming the monstrous part is a good thing approved by God. Legitimate religious people in the past – and sometimes even now – claimed many people have a hard time telling the difference between God and the Devil. There was a time when that didn't make much sense to me. It does now.
I suppose when the day comes, if it ever does, when people stop blaming their problems on other people, and envying, and rationalizing their evil as good, and believing they have the god-like ability to get rid of evil in other people while ignoring their own flaws, that is the day people will be closer to God than Satan, closer to what people are supposed to be instead of the monsters they often are.
I can guarantee you one thing, though: That day will not come through politics.