Attention and Mindfulness (2 of 2)

Summary of part one: Attention is “the process of focusing conscious awareness, providing heightened sensitivity to a limited range of experience requiring more extensive information processing” and requires an external stimulus. Research by Colin Cherry (1953), Donald Broadbent (1958), and Anne Treisman (1964) found that we can attend to one task at a time, suppressing all other incoming stimuli, based on quality of sound.


Unknown.png“It is easy to eat without tasting,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn in Coming to Our Senses (p. 118). At first glance, this sentence seems random, out-of-nowhere, and completely absurd. Of course we taste our feed when we eat it! However, Kabat-Zinn argues that while we claim to experience and sense things, we do not truly experience them. His message throughout the book is that we have become out of touch with ourselves, with our senses, our bodies, and with the world around us; we fail to experience things for themselves, insofar as we rush through our lives, treating food as “just another meal,” hastily consuming it, not really taking the time to taste each individual flavor. When we eat a hamburger, all we taste is hamburger, not meat, lettuce, tomato, etc., but just hamburger. Our meals are prepared then eaten, but we do not taste them as they should be tasted. Kabat-Zinn states that when attention and intention team up, we are awarded with connection; from connection, regulation; from regulation, order; and from order, we arrive at ease, contentment. There is an effect called sensory adaptation that we seldom recognize yet is always at work. Constant exposure to an external stimulus builds up our tolerance to it, resulting in the numbing of that sense, to the point that we do not notice it. The reason others can smell our body odor but we ourselves cannot is an example of this, because our odor is constantly emanated, and the brain, to avoid distractions, builds up tolerance, to the extent that we no longer smell our own bodies. The purpose of sensory adaptation is to prevent us from becoming entirely distracted. The world is full of smells, sounds, sights, touches, and tastes, but imagine if we were exposed to all of them at once—this is why we need to adapt to our senses. Of course, were we rapt on studying so that all else was ignored, the sound of a car would still interrupt us, considering the intensity of it would overstimulate our senses. While sensory adaptation has helped us biologically, Kabat-Zinn notes that it also works to our disadvantage, particularly the dampening of our Unknown-4.jpegsenses, without which we cannot live. Breathing is of especial importance in meditation. It is necessary to all living things, we must remember; yet we take it for granted, repeatedly neglecting it, forgetting to check how we are doing it. If we took a few minutes every day to attend to our breathing, we could all reduce stress, find composure, and even lower our heart rate through practice. This applies to all sense. As Aristotle keenly reminds us, “[O]ur power of smell is less discriminating and in general inferior to that of many species of animals.”[1] Unlike most animals, humans’ sense of smell is weaker, and so we rely less upon it. Smell and taste are underrated when it comes to senses, although they are of equal merit. Like breathing, both are taken for granted, appreciated only when we are sick, when we can no longer use them—only then do we wish we could taste and smell again. Just as Kabat-Zinn said, we truthfully eat without tasting. Eating our food, we feel pleasure, in the moment; but if we were sick in the same circumstances, we would appreciate our senses that much more; as such, we must live each day as though we were sick.


There are different kinds of meditations, of ways of being mindful. During meditation, you can do a body or sense scan, where you spend a few moments going through your body, focusing on the sensations in a particular part of the body, examining it, then moving on; or you can, for a few minutes at a time, focus on each of your main senses, perhaps using only your ears for a minute, your nose the next. Proprioception is an obscure sense: it is the sensation of each body part in relation to the others. In a body scan, this is most prevalent, when you feel your body in totality, as a whole, yet are able to focus on one body part. William James, writing about boredom, could just have easily been writing about this state of meditation:

The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time.[2]

Unknown.pngTypically, when one meditates, one can either close or open their eyes, fixing them at a certain point, listening to the sounds of the world around them, acknowledging every part of their body, paying attention to the breath, overcome by a static sense of stillness, as they are neither in the past nor the future, but the present, simply being, moment to moment. There are two types of attention in meditation: abstract, or inward, and sensory, or outward, attention. The former involves impartial introspection, the clearing of the mind, the decluttering of ideas. “This curious state of inhibition can for a few moments be produced by fixing the eyes on vacancy. Some persons can voluntarily empty their minds and ‘think of nothing,’” wrote James, describing hypnotism, though inadvertently describing meditation as well.[3] Sensory attention, on the other hand, is simply being attentive to the senses and all incoming stimuli. If you are interested in meditation, there are several exercises that can be done to sharpen your attentiveness, like dhāraṇā, jhāna, samādhi, or you can practice some brahmavihāras. In dhāraṇā, the meditator is aware of themselves, as a whole and as meditating, and an object; after dhāraṇā, they move to jhāna, which is awareness of Unknown-5.jpegbeing and of an object; and finally, in samādhi, they find themselves in unity with the object. Samādhi is translated to “one-pointedness” and refers to pure concentration, pure attention. When in this state, the meditator is in what William James calls voluntary attention. This attention occurs when there is a powerful stimulus, yet you focus on something of less intensity. If you are studying and there is noisy construction outside, focusing on the studying, even though the construction is louder and demands your attention, would be an act of voluntary attention. This state, however, cannot be held indefinitely. As James writes, “[S]ustained voluntary attention is a repetition of successive efforts which bring back [a] topic to the mind.”[4] Hence there is no such thing as maintaining voluntary attention, rather coming back to it over and over. Brahmavihāras are like reflections upon Buddhist virtues. There are four traditional brahmavihāras: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Feel free, too, to make your own meditation, where you reflect on something outside of the given topics—questions in philosophy, like good and evil, justice, and the sort, are some starters.


Unknown-9.jpegI briefly mentioned the idea of clearing the mind, of emptying it of ideas, and to that I shall turn again. Thoughts, in Buddhist writings, are treated like clouds, wispy and flowing; they are temporary; sometimes they are clear, sometimes they clump together; sometimes they are sunny, sometimes they are like a storm. Either way, thoughts are not permanent, nor can they harm you in any way. Generally, we ought to be on the lookout for negative thoughts. When they arise, we must simply dismiss them. Thoughts are the fire to our thinking’s gasoline, for thinking about our thoughts merely propagates more and makes them worse. It is better to let thoughts pass than to intervene through force. Meditation calls for dispelling all thoughts, good or bad. It is misleading to think that we are trying to get rid of them, that we are trying to single some thoughts out from others. This is not the case; rather, we must acknowledge that we are thinking and let them pass. If a positive thought comes, do not perpetuate it, let it pass; if a negative thought comes, do not perpetuate it, let it pass. Another thing to remember is that simply acknowledging that you are thinking is being mindful, and you should not get frustrated with yourself for this reason. An important facet of Buddhist psychology is the distinction between perception and conception. Perception is pure sensation, and conception is labeling, to put it simply. Sitting in peace and silence, you hear a sound, process it, identify it as the rustling of the trees and the singing of birds, and continue meditating—such is an act of conception, for hearing a sound is perception, but classifying it, labeling it, is conception. Unknown-8.jpegLabeling is necessary for living. Without it, there would be no way to comprehend the world. We would be exposed to a chaotic mess, an overwhelming tidal wave of sensations we cannot understand. Almost everything we see and process is conceptualized: this is a tree, that is a plant, this is grass, that is dirt on which I am walking. One is tempted to think of Kant’s categories of the mind and the differentiation between phenomena and noumena. Our mind actively shapes our world, grouping things together, creating causal links, imposing spaciotemporal relations, constantly conceiving things. Perception is to noumena as conception is to phenomena. Rarely do we perceive things as they are, as things-in-themselves, but conceive them imperfectly. We need to carry this to meditation, in thought and in sensation. We must try not to classify things by texture, color, or shape, nor judge thoughts by appearance, nor label anything as “good” or “bad.” Another danger of thinking is daydreaming, to which all meditators are vulnerable, especially if their eyes are closed. When we doze off, finding comfort and relaxation, following our breath, we might accidentally slip into our fantasies, moving from the external to the internal, where we begin to plan for the future or reminisce in the past. No matter which you do, neither is good. William James warns us, “When absorbed in [passive] intellectual Unknown-10.jpegattention we become so inattentive to outer things as to be ‘absent-minded,’’abstracted,’ or ‘distrait.’ All revery or concentrated meditation is apt to throw us into this state.”[5] By meditation, James is not referring to it in our sense, but to the act of pondering. We should not fall into the trap of thinking about the future or ruminating about the past, because as Marcus Aurelius said, “[M]an lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.”[6] The past is in the past, and there is nothing we can do to change it, and wishing you could redo something will not help. And the future has not happened yet, so making unrealistic expectations will not help either.


images.jpeg“But we do far more than emphasize things, and unite some, and keep others apart. We actually ignore most of the things before us,” notes William James.[7] For such a formidable tool to which we all have access, the art of attention and how to properly apply it has all but been forgotten by today’s society, to their disadvantage. We live in an age where A.D.D is rampant, and more and more kids are diagnosed with it. Further, our technology strips us of our connection to nature, to the world, to each other. We are no longer in touch with ourselves or our senses. With mindfulness and meditation, however, by living in the present and embracing our senses and life, we can make our lives meaningful.

 


[1] Aristotle, De Anima II.8, 421a9-10
[2] James, The Principles of Psychology, XI.2, p. 261
[3] Ibid.
[4] Id., XI.6, p. 272
[5] Id., p. 271
[6] Aurelius, Meditations, III.10
[7] James, op. cit., IX.5, p. 184

 

For further reading: Buddhist Psychology Vol. 3 by Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006)
The Principles of Psychology by William James (1990)
Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein (2016)
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (2014)
Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida (1985)
De Anima by Aristotle (1990)

Attention and Mindfulness (1 of 2)

Attention is vital to our everyday lives. Some of us are better than others at paying attention, but regardless of skill, we all need it, whether we are learning in class or playing out in the field. In a world that values fast, immediate, instantaneous things, attention is slowly fading away, leaving us disoriented and scattered, left in a culture where it is easy to be left behind if you are not fast enough. Not enough of us pay attention in our everyday lives, even in the most simplest of tasks, failing to appreciate the beauty of life, successfully missing the important things, letting life slip out of our grasp. Through a better understanding of what attention is and how it can be used in mindfulness, I believe we can all live more fulfilling lives.

Unknown-1.jpeg


In psychology, attention refers to “the process of focusing conscious awareness, providing heightened sensitivity to a limited range of experience requiring more extensive information processing.”[1] Simply put, attention is the ability to focus your awareness and senses on a particular task, leading to better experience and understanding. In order for this focusing to occur, you need an external stimulus, such as a sound, and an active goal, which is your response to or classification of it such a stimulus. For example, if you hear a dog bark, the barking is the external stimulus, and your realizing it is a dog who is barking is the active goal. The act of paying attention is no direct process but a combination of three processes (Posner, 1995): Orienting senses, controlling consciousness and voluntary behavior, and maintaining alertness. The first stage, orienting senses, is what happens when your sensory organs are directed to the source of a stimulation. When you hear a sound coming from the left, it is your left ear that will process it first, as it is oriented to the direction from which the sound came. Similarly, when you touch something, your hand comes into direct contact with the object. Depending on what sense the stimulus activates, your cortex suppress the other sensory organs while focusing on the active one: rarely do you need your eyes to smell something—it is the nose’s job to do that. When you orient your senses, you tend to use your superior colliculus, responsible for eye movement; the thalamus, responsible for activating specific sensory systems; and the parietal lobe, which is usually responsible for giving us a sense of direction. The next stage is controlling consciousness and voluntary behavior, in which your brains decide just how much you want to focus on a particular sense. Your eyes, when paying attention to something, can dilate or constrict depending on light, for example. Therefore, this 250px-Basal_Ganglia_and_Related_Structures.svg.pngsecond stage’s job is to control your response to stimuli and uses the frontal lobe and basal ganglia, known for their relation to controlling thoughts and actions. Third is maintaining alertness, which is indispensable for attention, for its job is to remain focused on a sense and ignore possible distractions. When you maintain alertness, you use different neural patterns in your reticular formation and frontal lobe. A type of attention known as selection is defined as “the essence of attention” (Rees et al., 1997).[2] Selective attention is the ability to focus on something important and ignore others, whereas selective inattention is the ability to ignore something important and focus on others; the latter is used most often, either for good, as in diverting stress, or for bad, as in procrastinating.

Imagine you are at a party. You are sitting at a table with your friends, deep in conversation; the speakers are blasting music; there are people dancing; and there is another conversation across the room. Engrossed in the talk, you block out all other sound beside your own conversation, when all of a sudden, you hear your name being Unknown-2.jpegmentioned in the conversation across the room. The Cocktail Party Phenomenon, as it came to be called, was studied by Colin Cherry (1953), who found, startlingly, that not only is most information unconsciously processed, but some of this information, conscious or not, is prioritized above other information. A contemporary of his, Donald Broadbent, developed the Broadbent Filter Model (1958) to attempt to explain why this is so. Fascinated by air traffic controllers, whose job it is to receive multiple incoming messages at once and in mere seconds make quick judgments about which is most important, Broadbent began to study divided attention, “the capacity to split attention or cognitive resources between two or more tasks”[3] (Craik et al., 1996), by using a method of testing called dichotic listening, where a subject puts on a pair of headphones and is played a different messages in each ear, simultaneously. Broadbent found that only one channel can be understood at a time, while the other is blocked out. He reasoned that there must be a theoretical, Y-shaped divergence in our minds that, when two inputs try to pass, lets one through and blocks access to the other. He said, further, that we have a short-term memory store that keeps track of these channels. The question remained, though: How does the brain decide which channel to let through? In another surprising conclusion, he found that in spoken language, meaning is understood after being processed; as such, content is not the decisive factor but quality of sound, like loudness, harshness, and from what sex it came. A loud, domineering voice, therefore, will be prioritized over a softer, nicer voice, even if the latter is more important in its message. Broadbent later went back and revised his model, stating priority is based on a combination of quality of the voice, content of the words, and prior experience; however, a later psychologist, Anne Treisman, said that during the Y-exchange, the second channel is not ignored, per se, but suppressed—this would explain the Cocktail Party Effect, because although you do not consciously hear your name, you still process it.

 


[1] Westen, Psychology: Brain, Mind, & Culture, 2nd ed., p. 395
[2] Ibid., pp. 395-6
[3] Id., pp. 397-8

 

For further reading: Psychology: Brain, Mind, & Culture 2nd ed. by Drew Westen (1999)
Essentials of Psychology by Kendra Cherry (2010)
The Psychology Book by Wade E. Pickren (2014)
The Psychology Book
by DK (2012)

Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech, with One and with Two Ears by Colin Cherry (1953)

If Thou Art Pained By Any External Thing, It Is Not This Thing That Disturbs Thee, But Thy Own Judgment About It.

Unknown.jpegIn book 8 section 47 of the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes,

If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?—but some insuperable obstacle is in the way?—Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on thee.

Things in themselves are not nuisances, rather we make them so ourselves. Nothing is either good or bad in itself, although we commonly think they have to, and incorrectly. The thing is, though, that our thoughts, unlike external events, are within our power, and so we are able to change our thoughts, judgments, and perceptions to make things bearable. Aurelius tells us that if we are annoyed by ourselves, we oughtn’t blame it on others or on anything; instead, we should take to correcting our opinions, as they belong to us, so we can fix them. No one stops us from changing our way of thinking except ourselves. Further, he points out that when we think things we would rather not think, we often complain to others and to ourselves, ignorant of the true nature of the annoyance; as such, he advises to simply change our thinking when it appears to be straying. When we notice negative thinking, acknowledging it and knowing it is the cause of our problems is one thing—but actually acting on it and changing it, is another, and is what we ought to do. But often times we will impute our misfortune to some external thing, such as the day, leading to remarks like, “Today is not a good day,” or, “Today does not like me”; however, if we attribute our personal torment to something impersonal, something external to us, we should be doing the opposite, really, for if “day” is what is causing our problems, we know that it is a force greater than us, outside of us, and therefore not concerned with us. Because the courses of our days are outside of our power, we can do nothing to change them, so instead of resisting them, we should allow them to carry out as they please, as per nature, and leave our attitude to ourselves. Hamlet expresses this in the same way: “[T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II.ii.265-66.). Therefore, our perception is what affects our attitude, so your life is what you make of it.

 

For further reading: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (2014)

What is Humorism?

Unknown.jpegPsychology and medicine, finding their beginnings in Greek culture, have come a long way; and since their speculative foundations, their influence has become larger, more pertinent, and more accurate than ever before, with the invention of prosthetics in the field of medicine and cognitive studies in psychology, for example. It seems as though anything is possible, as though nothing cannot be achieved. One may wonder, then, from where psychology came, from whom modern medicine developed. Small questions, like why, when someone is in a bad mood, we say they are in bad humor; or why, when someone is angry, we say they are hot-blooded, or short-tempered, never fail to come up regarding the origins of either discipline. A glance through history, to the invention of psychology, can show us the foundations of both psychology and medicine—the ancient system of humorism.


The theory of the four humors is derived from the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (c. 490-430 BC) who posited the existence of the four basic elements that constituted all of reality: air, fire, earth, and water. Everything in the world, he explained, was a synthesis of all four, each contributing their unique characteristics and properties to create everyday objects. For this reason, early theory in medicine was based on philosophical theory, so the two subjects were closely intermingled, the cause of many a medical error in ancient times. The man whom we ought to credit for the beginnings of modern medicine is the Unknown-4.jpegGreek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BC), who is most renown for the Hippocratic Oath, which is still used today. Despite the countless contributions he has made to medicine, there is difficulty when it comes to pinpointing which works he actually wrote and which works were written by either his student Polybus or perhaps even rival doctors of his. Some of his works, furthermore, seem to diverge in content, contradicting earlier theories. Central to Hippocrates’ method was a holistic approach to the body. “Hippocrates the Asclepiad says that the nature even of the body can only be understood as a whole,” remarked Plato [1]. Each part of the body was to be examined against every other part, so as to treat everything as one. He wrote of a popular principle at the time: “Certain sophists and physicians say that it is not possible for any one [sic] to know medicine who does not know what man is.”[2] Such importance placed upon the human body and its composition made the humoral theory possible, as well as the secularization of medicine itself. Apollo and Asclepius, the Gods of medicine, were thought to be the causes of disease up until Hippocrates, who, diagnosing epilepsy—once thought the work of the Gods—said it “appears… to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than any other disease, but has a natural cause from which it originates like other affectations.”[3]


The natural cause of which Hippocrates spoke was the humors. From the Latin word umor, meaning fluid, the humors were four fluids within the body, each aligning with one of the four elements of Empedocles. Hippocrates identified blood with fire, phlegm with water, black bile with earth, and yellow bile air. During the Scientific Revolution, the 16th-century physician William Harvey performed studies on the circulatory system, when he would eventually disprove Hippocrates and Galen. Acknowledging the two physicians and Aristotle (he supported the humoral theory), he wrote in his book regarding animal Unknown-2.jpeggeneration, “And thus they [the Ancients] arrived at their four humors, of which the pituita [phlegm] is held to be cold and moist; the black bile cold and dry; the yellow bile hot and dry; and the blood hot and moist.”[4] According to Hippocrates, one could tell whether the upcoming season would be one of sickness or health by analyzing the weather; if there were extreme conditions, like extreme coldness during winter or heavy rains during spring, then more diseases were to be expected, whereas normal conditions foretold of health and prosperity. Cold seasons exacerbated the cold humors, phlegm and black bile; while warm seasons exacerbated the warm humors, yellow bile and blood. Alchemist Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or Paracelsus (1493-1541), was a notorious physician during his time, often burning the works of Galen in public to disrespect him and his theories. Instead of the four humors, Paracelsus preferred a more alchemical approach, diagnosing based on saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, and sourness, adding a fifth property, life. In addition, he gave these elements their own properties, such as combustibility, solidness, fluidity, and vaporousness. The human body has a balance to it, what Hippocrates judged as a body’s krasis (κρασις), or mixture. A healthy body has a good mixture, eucrasia (ευκρασια), meaning it has an even amount of all four humors. Pausanias, a doctor in The Symposium, explains that,

The course of the seasons is also full of both these principles; and when, as I was saying, the elements of hot and cold, moist and dry, attain the harmonious love of one another and blend in temperance and harmony, they bring to men,… health and plenty, and do them no harm.[5]

Unknown-3.jpegWhile one should strive for an ideal balance, eucrasia, one should stay as far away as possible from dyscrasia (δυσκρασια), or bad mixture, for if it is extreme, it can result in death. Too much phlegm (mucus), warns Hippocrates, can clog the throat, choking off airflow, resulting in asphyxiation, for instance. Another Renaissance physician, shortly after Paracelsus, named Santorio Santorio (1561-1636), calculated that between the perfect balance of eucrasia and the imperfect balance of dyscrasia lie 80,000 unique diseases stemming from different combinations of humors. Determined to prove Hippocrates and Galen right, Santorio carried out extensive experiments, measuring the body’s temperature before and after diagnosis with a thermoscope, then measuring it daily thereafter, comparing each new temperature to the healthy one.


“Those diseases which medicines do not cure, iron cures; those which iron cannot cure, fire cures; and those which fire cannot cure, are to be reckoned wholly incurable,” stated Hippocrates confidently [6]. Should some poor soul suffer from dyscrasia, there were several cures with which he could proceed, and there was a cure for each type of imbalance. Hippocrates invested his faith in incisions, stating that iron, by which he means knife, is the next step up from remedies; if surgery does not work, he says one should proceed to cauterize; but if fire does not work, then one is out of luck. Other proposed cures were sweating and vomiting, which would either excrete or purge any excess humors. Of course, then there was bloodletting, the deadly, inaccurate method of making a cut in the skin and cleansing the blood. So popular was bloodletting that by the 1500’s, “[t]reatment was still based on the Hippocratic theory of humors, and bloodletting was a panacea.”[7] Virtually any disease could be cured by bloodletting—that is, until William Harvey. Besides these cleansing methods, there was an easier, more efficient way of handling humoral diseases, one which did not require knives or fire: using opposites to counteract. If there was too much blood, a doctor could counteract it with black bile, opposing the hotness and moistness of the former with the coldness and dryness of the latter; similarly, too much yellow bile could be countered with phlegm, and vice versa. Hippocrates was also famous for prescribing his patients varying diets that would in the same way counter the excess humor, usually advising the replacement of wheat with bread, of water with wine.


This raises the question, though: Why does humorism matter, why is it relevant at all, considering it is outdated and completely incorrect, and why should we be interested? As I said at the beginning, humorism was the foundation for psychology; specifically the foundation for the psychology of personality, a much-studied and much-debated area of research today. Roman physician Galen (c. 130-200) was arguably the first person to attempt a formal study of personality. A studied physician of Hippocratic writings, a learned student of Stoic logic, Galen was an empiricist at heart, emphasizing experience over speculation, what he called demonstrative knowledge (επιστημη αποδεικτικη). Neither Hippocrates nor Galen studied the interior of the human body, as the dissection of humans was taboo; thus, their findings were purely theoretical, which is rather ironic for Galen, who did cut open animals, just not humans. Galen identified two types of passions: irascible passions, those which are negative, and concupiscible, those which are positive [8]. He observed four Unknown-1.jpegtemperaments arising from the four humors. (Temperament, interestingly, translates to mixture!) In fact, “Before the invention of the clinical thermometer and even for some time afterwards, bodily ‘temperature’ was only a synonym for ‘temperament.’”[9] His theory of the four temperaments is so influential that their adjectives have carried over today: too much blood creates a sanguine character who is cheerful; too much phlegm a phlegmatic who is calm; too much yellow bile a choleric who is angry; and too much black bile a melancholic who gloomy; and for the latter two, one can say bilious. Hippocrates noticed these characteristics in his time and attested, commenting, “Those who are mad from phlegm are quiet, and do not cry nor make a sound; but those from vile are vociferous, malignant, and will not be quiet, but are always doing something improper.”[10]


One may dissent again: Why is this relevant? for it is outdated. Although Galen’s theory of the four temperaments is largely out of use [11], it has spawned interest in following Hans_Eysencks_4_Personality_Types.gifpsychologists of personality. The infamous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI (1943), can be seen as a derivative. It utilizes different traits to arrive at a certain personality. Those who wish to know their personality have to decide if they are introvert or extrovert, if they intuit or sense, think or feel, and perceive or judge. Another option, the Big Five, or Big Three (1949), identifies people based on their levels of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Big Three limits the scales to neuroticism, extraversion, and openness. Lastly, the direct descendant is psychologist Hans J. Eysenck (1916-1997), whose method of deducing personality was influenced entirely by Galen. Eysenck created a dichotomy between extraversion and introversion, neuroticism and psychoticism, recognizing several character traits reminiscent of Galen.


[1] Plato, Phaedrus, 270c
[2] Hippocrates, On Ancient Medicine, p. 13b*
[3] Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease, p. 326a
[4] Harvey, Anatomical Exercises on the Generation of Animals, p. 435b*
[5] Plato, The Symposium, 188a
[6] Hippocrates, Aphorisms, §7, 87
[7] Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 5, p. 532
[8] This is a very superficial description; for a more detailed one, read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, 1.81.2,ad.1
[9] Boorstin, The Discoverers, p. 341

[10] Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease, 337a
[11] Read Florence Littauer’s Personality Plus for a modern perspective

For further reading: 
Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge by Jacques Brunschwig (2000)
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
Anatomical Experiments on the Generation of Animals by William Harvey

An Intellectual History of Psychology by Daniel N. Robinson (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 3 by Will Durant (1972)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 5 by Will Durant (1953)
The Psychology Book by Wade E. Pickren (2014)
The Story of Psychology by Morton Hunt (1993)
The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin (1983)
On the Sacred Disease by Hippocrates
On Ancient Medicine 
by Hippocrates
On the Natural Faculties
 by Galen

Extra reading for fun: Personality Plus by Florence Littauer (1992)

*Pages referenced to Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 9, 26, by Mortimer J. Adler (1990), respectively

Jack and His Discontents (2 of 2)

We now move onto the late stages of Jack’s neuroticism. Jack, as we have learned, has been repressing his primitive instincts, meaning he has kept them out of the conscious, leaving the ideational presentations stuck in the unconscious, forgotten, neglected, left to multiply like fungus. As Freud said, the longer we keep our instincts repressed, the more time they have to regroup, come together, and create more resistance in our minds, creating tension, Guilt_Finger.gifresulting in the censuring of the ego by the superego, ultimately creating a sense of guilt, the result of a fight or flight response. Freud spoke of an economy in the mind, a national reserve of sorts; when this reserve is depleted, the defense mechanisms of our mind break down. Repression requires energy, and the longer an idea is repressed, the more energy is consumed. By killing the pig, Jack has given his aggression a catalyst, so the impulses grow stronger, eating more energy, his repression slowly breaking down, his aggression shining through the cracks in little bits. We see that, after killing the pig, Jack becomes increasingly aggressive. Slowly but surely, the walls of his mind are crumbling down, and his aggression is able to come through. Ralph lectures Jack for not looking after the fire. Jack notices that he is in hostile territory, and his super-ego begins to hammer on his ego. The guilt that arises thereafter cannot be tolerated by Jack, who is guilty of not completing his duties, who, feeling threatened, turns the anger onto Piggy, presently punching him and knocking him down (Golding 66). Here, there is a struggle between the id, which wants to take out its aggression, and the superego, which instills a sense of guilt in Jack. The result is displacement: unable to cope with the greed of the id and the morality of the superego, the ego decides to appease them both by taking out his feelings on something weak, vulnerable, and defenseless—Piggy. In so doing, Jack has temporarily satisfied his id. Like a hungry child, the id, once fed, will return to normal, until it begins to grow hungry once more. What has just occurred has been Jack acting out. Roger and Jack are both sadists. Golding describes a scene in which Roger throws rocks at the Littlun Henry:

Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins (57).

Roger and Jack have both been raised in a society that values temperance, control, and politeness. They were scolded by their parents not to hurt their siblings; taught in school not to do mean things to other students; warned by the police not to break the law; conditioned by society to be behaved, to be like everyone else, to resist all urges. Think, then, what this has done to their inner aggression, to have been repressed to such an extent! But here, on the island, things are different; no longer is there a higher authority Unknown.jpegto keep the boys in check. Roger, free to do as he pleases, unable to be punished, can be aggressive and not get in trouble. However, it is strange that he refuses to hit Henry directly, throwing instead into a small circle instead. Law and morality still remain with him. Despite his freedom, the idea of restraint has been ingrained into his mind. That there is no evil in him is false; his throwing rocks at Henry is proof of the opposite—Roger’s dark side is stronger than his good, for all this time it has been growing uncontrollably powerful. All it took to release it was the absence of punishment, be it from an external force, like a parent, or an internal force, namely the superego. Without the restraints of civilization, Roger, like Jack, regresses to his primal self, his aggressive, savage self. Fromm wrote,

[I]f the situation changes, repressed desires become conscious and are acted out…. Another case in point is the change that occurs in the character when the total social situation changes. The sadistic character who may have posed as a meek or even friendly individual may become a fiend in a terroristic society…. Another may suppress sadistic behavior in all visible actions, while showing it in a subtle expression of the face or in seemingly harmless and marginal remarks.[1]

Put another way, Fromm is saying that the sadist will feign a pleasant character in a certain environment, say a school, but will reveal himself in a different context, such as an island. This echoes Freud who also noted that society forces us to create reaction-formations. Because we cannot satisfy our aggressive tendencies, we must be exceedingly gentle. Fromm also notes that the sadist, even in a safe environment, will not completely hide his nature, as there will be minor signs, like expressions in the face, of which he spoke.


Unknown.pngFollowing this event, the next major stage in Jack’s neuroticism happens shortly before he kills the pig. Jack is by the riverside, collecting clay, then smearing it on his face, covering it up. He looks at himself at the river and is satisfied. “[T]he mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness,” writes Golding (59). Hereafter, Jack relinquishes all remnants of his past life, devoured by his aggression, which takes control for the rest of the story. A small detail, the mask allows for disinhibition, allowing Jack to take on a whole new persona. This mask hides who Jack was, endows him with new strength, and lets him get away with anything. It is no longer Jack who is acting but the mask. If Jack kills Ralph, it is not Jack who does it, but the mask. One can think of the story of Gyges’ Ring as told in the Republic, in which a shepherd finds a ring that can make him invisible. Granted this awesome power, Gyges abuses it, making himself invisible and killing the king and marrying his wife. Anonymity Unknown-1.jpegbestows upon its subject great powers, including immorality. The mask on Jack’s face lets him be sadistic, for he can no longer be ashamed. A sense of invincibility is coupled with invisibility, seeing as Jack, hiding himself behind the mask, feels untouchable, as though he can do whatever he wants, since it is not he who is doing it. No more responsibilities are expected of Jack hence. When Jack steals fire from Ralph, the two come face-to-face. Committing an unforgivable act, Jack, normally, would not be able to look the other boy in the face, an overwhelming feeling of guilt preventing him; but with his mask, Jack can easily steal from Ralph without thinking twice. Ralph, Piggy, and Samneric try to go after Jack and his hunters at the end, except that “[t]hey understood only too well the liberation into savagery that the concealing paint brought” (Golding 170). Golding adds further that, “Freed by the paint,… they were more comfortable than he [Ralph] was” (173). Anyone who puts on the mask of paint is relieved of all expectancies, of all moral obligations, of all sensibleness. Freud observed that the barbarian was happier than the civilized man, inasmuch as the former could satisfy his impulses, whereas the latter could not; similarly, the hunters are more comfortable than Ralph because they can do what he cannot: gratify their aggression.


Thanatos, the major force through which Jack now operates, is committed to but one task: self-destruction, the return to the womb, to nothingness. Jack is never seen backing away from a daunting task, always one for a challenge, even if it may end up killing him. Eager to kill, Jack volunteers to go on pig hunts constantly, going as far as to hunt the dreaded beast that threatens their existence. Upon climbing the mountain, Ralph considers going back, but Jack calls him a coward, insisting that they go up. Ralph calls their mission a foolish one, and Jack agrees, continuing up the mountain, determined to kill the beast. If this is so, if Jack wants to destroy himself, why is it, then, that he kills the pig earlier in the book? Freud would answer, “It really seems as though it is necessary for us to destroy some other thing or person in order not to destroy ourselves.”[2] The real goal of Thanatos is destruction of the self, but Jack obviously does not want to die, consciously that is, so he must satisfy his death-instinct some other way, viz., killing something else. Simple trade-off: kill something else to avoid not killing myself. Like Prometheus, Jack tries to defy his god (his superego, rather) by stealing fire from their sacred home. It is a forbidden task, one that will surely result in suffering. Only, unlike Prometheus, Jack gets away with it, despite almost being compromised, successfully. This small act of defiance further tips the scale of his death-instinct.

Another trait of the sadist is that he is stimulated only be the helpless, never by those who are strong…. For the sadistic character there is only one admirable quality, and that is power. He admires,… those who have power, and he despises and wants to control those who are powerless and cannot fight back.[3]

Jack emulates Fromm’s description of the sadistic character when he orders his hunters to take the innocent Wilfred into custody to be tortured for no reason. Ralph asks Samneric why Jack ordered Wilfred to be tortured, but the twins have no answer. It seems Jack did so purely for pleasure, for fun, to fulfill his aggressive death-instinct. There is no rational reason for what he did, obviously, except for the fact that it was in his own self-interest, and that he was able to exert control over a powerless being. The relationship between Ralph and Jack is odd, the latter’s respect for the former strained by his desire to remove him from power. In some ways this is true, for Jack does not truly want to kill Ralph, as he harbors a sort of respect for him, for his demotic popularity. What Jack really wants to do is have all the power for himself. Just a few hours before Jack captured and had Wilfred beat, Roger horrendously killed Piggy, to which Jack reacted apathetically, coldly, disturbingly, responding by threatening Ralph that the same could happen to him. If Jack wanted Ralph dead, he could have done it long ago, and easily—but he did not.


1024px-VingtAnnees_258-980x682.jpg“Few people ever have the chance to attain so much power that they can seduce themselves into the delusion that it might be absolute,”[4] commented Erich Fromm. Fortunately, this is true; unfortunately, it is still possible. Completely neurotic now, Jack has become like Mr. Kurtz, gaunt and savage, his loyal hunters willing to do anything for him, as he sits in his throne as though he were an idol, or a god. Power has indeed gotten to him now, to the point that he is worshiped, thought invincible, the true leader of the boys on the island.

In many cases the sadism is camouflaged in kindness and what looks like benevolence toward certain people in certain circumstances. But it would be erroneous to think that the kindness is simply intended to deceive, or even that it is only a gesture, not based on any genuine feeling. To understand this phenomenon better, it is necessary to consider that most sane people wish to preserve a self-image that makes them out to be human in at least some respects. [5] 

Jack may not be totally sane, but he does seek to maintain his human appearance. When he is not off hunting pigs, stealing fire, or torturing kids, Jack is seen giving plentiful rations to his and his enemies’ people, not as an illusion, not to bait them, but to appear in some way humane, to be what remains of his character. In fact, Jack invites Ralph and his friends to join his tribe rather pleasantly, offering them food and protection, all in a friendly tone, no force necessary. It is only later, when he has been confronted, that he forces Samneric to join the tribe by means of  force. While this may be the last of his humanity, it does not change the fact that he is still savage. Having regressed completely to the beginning, Jack is now like his hunting ancestors, hosting ritualistic dances centered on sacrifices, complete with disturbing chants and entrancing rhythms. Jack has become so ill, so neurotic, so sadistic, that he has nearly fallen out of touch with reality, becoming more of a black hole than a human, sucking up all good, drawing in all light, all that is good. Even pure-hearted Ralph and Piggy succumb to his darkness, joining one of the rituals, eventually killing their friend Simon in cold blood. Conclusively, Jack has become a deranged, sadistic neurotic.


In conclusion, to use the wise words of Piggy, “[P]eople [are] never quite what you thought they were” (Golding 49).

 

Glossary:
(Retrieved from Stephen Glazier’s Word Menu)


Acting out- Unconscious expression of previously repressed feelings through specific behavior
Aggression- Hostile, destructive behavior towards others
Death-instinct/Thanatos- Destructive, aggressive compulsion to achieve nonexistence
Defense mechanism- Any of various mental processes, including… displacement,… projection,… reaction-formation, regression, repression,…, used by the ego for protection against instinctual demands and to reduce anxiety
Disinhibition- Removal of inhibition (process of stopping an impulse)
Ego-
 Reality-oriented, structured component of personality that enables individual to function autonomously in the world
Ego-ideal/Superego- Aspect of personality involving conscience, guilt, imposition of moral standards, and introjected authoritative and ethical images
Guilt- Recurrent feeling of self-reproach or self-blame for something wrong, often something beyond one’s control
Id- 
Unconscious, unsocialized component of personality, containing unexpressed desires and motivations and driven by pleasure principle
Neuroticism- Emotional disorder involving basic repression of primary instinctual urge and reliance on defense mechanisms that results in symptoms or personality disturbance
Reaction-formation- Defense mechanism involving denial of unacceptable unconscious urges by behavior contrary to one’s own feelings
Regression- Defense mechanism involving return to behavior expressive of earlier developmental stage, usu. due to trauma, fixation, anxiety, or frustration
Repression- Defense mechanism in which threatening or unacceptable ideas or urges are forgotten
Sadism- Condition in which pleasure, esp. sexual, is derived from inflicting pain on others

 


[1] Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, pp. 107-8
[2] Qtd. in Fromm, id., p. 492
[3] Id., p. 325
[4] Id., p. 323
[5] 329-30

 

For further reading: 
A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud (1975)
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
 by Erich Fromm (1992)

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (1929)
Instincts and Their Vicissitudes 
by Sigmund Freud (1915)
The Ego and the Id 
by Sigmund Freud (1923)
Lord of the Flies
 by William Golding (2011)
Repression
 by Sigmund Freud (1915)

Jack and His Discontents (1 of 2)

So far I have examined Lord of the Flies under the microscopic lenses of Plato, Hobbes, and Nietzsche. One form of literary theory, which is a favorite among many, which has been used on many pieces of writing, and which I will be using in this blog, is that of psychoanalysis, a branch of psychology developed by Sigmund Freud. A simple search containing both Lord of the Flies and psychoanalysis will easily generate several results, all of which are exactly the same, all of which are shallow in their depth, each of them focusing on the tripartite theory of the id, ego, and superego. What I seek to do in this blog, therefore, to distinguish my analysis from the others out there, is perform a case study on Lord of the Flies, a case study focused on one character in particular, a character central to the story, a character whose inner struggle is perfect for psychoanalyzing: Jack Merridew. By the end of this blog, I hope to prove that Jack suffers from neurotic sadism. A glossary can be found at the end to clarify any psychoanalytical terminology that I will be using.

images.jpegPsychoanalysis is the study of the unconscious and how it affects the conscious mind, initially conceived by Freud under the impression that all mental illnesses were caused by sexual tensions derived from a young age. This first stage of his thought, in which sexual energy, or libido, after being kept out of the conscious, caused mental illness, was later replaced by a later, finalized stage, characterized by a complete break away from the libidinal theory, where Freud turning instead to the life and death-instincts, the latter earning heavy criticism from his followers. These two instincts are the main forces behind human behavior, and each has a different motivation, the life-instinct, called Eros, seeking self-preservation and reproduction, and the death-instinct, usually referred to as Thanatos, seeking self-destruction, sometimes “[expressing] itself as an instinct of destruction directed against the external world and other living organisms.”[1] Freud thus created a dualism of impulses in man, a Manichaean tension caused by an internal war of life against death, of creation against destruction. Freud wrote that

Civilization has been built up, under the pressure of the struggle of existence, by sacrifices in gratification of the primitive impulses, and that to a great extent for ever being re-created, as each individual, successively joining the community, repents the sacrifice of his instinctive pleasures for the common good.[2]

According to Freud, the only reason society exists is because individuals give up their individual instincts. If each individual were to indulge their death-instinct, the very instinct of aggression, the very instinct present in everyone, then there would be constant warfare, reckless murder, and rife torture; but, by renouncing and rejecting our impulses, by stifling them, by keeping them out of our conscious, we are able to coexist, to live peacefully and without fear of our aggressive tendencies kicking in and dominating us. There will be no more destruction, either of ourselves or of others. Freud said that civilization represses its desires, by which he means that we force these unacceptable ideas and fantasies out of our minds and into the unconscious, where they are left to fester, unable to torment the conscious mind.

[T]he more a man checks his aggressive tendencies towards others the more tyrannical, that is aggressive, he becomes in his ego-ideal…. [T]he more a man controls his aggressiveness, the more intense become the aggressive tendencies of his ego-ideal against his ego.[3]

Unknown.jpegHere Freud is saying that, over time, the repressing of our instincts will only make the tension worse, as the longer they stay in the unconscious, the more persistent they become. The ego-ideal, synonymous with our conscience, will become stressed as a result, censuring us with a harsher tone, criticizing our lack of control, nagging on us, the voice of authority becoming stronger. As this happens, our reasoning diminishes, and we lose control of our conscious, letting us slowly but surely let our instincts out. However, civilization has not reached this point wholly, the reason being that we have redirected our instincts; Freud says that civilization thrives on sublimation, for it is the only productive way of combatting our desires. Because we all have within us aggression, a seething beast waiting to be released, we usually end up creating reaction-formations to fight back. Instead of letting all of our aggression out, we pretend as though we are happy and grateful, despite the terrifying reality happening below the surface. Little do we know that this pressure, this aggression, is bubbling in our depths.


Jack Merridew is an adolescent boy who was raised in England. In the beginning of the book, we immediately recognize him as a natural leader, a boy whose inherent nature is that of commanding, of gaining respect, of having his voice heard, of getting things done. For the most part, having grown up an English boy, under a Catholic household, as the head of his choir, he has good and proper morals. Jack’s whole life seems to be headed in a good direction, as he has excellent training in being a leader and in displaying Catholic morals. And like everyone else in society, he has been taught to sublimate his instincts, to hide them, to turn them into something productive. In a choir, Jack is able to reach deep into himself and take his inner aggression—with which he has not yet come to terms—and turn it into art, using his voice to express himself creatively, thereby redirecting his impulses into something acceptable. Further, as a devout Catholic, Jack has been Unknown-2.jpegdisciplined to act faithfully and morally. Indulging in his dark instincts would not be very Catholic of him, so he has been taught to repress his desires and act out of kindness and compassion; as we know, though, this is the opposite of what he truly is inside: proof of reaction-formation. When Simon talks to the Lord of the Flies, the pig takes on the guise of a schoolteacher who says, “This has gone on far enough. My poor, misguided child, do you think you know better than I do?” (Golding 141). Golding himself was influenced to write the book after he taught at a young boys’ Catholic school, so it is no surprise that he should put a reference here. One can easily imagine The Lord of the Flies like a concerned, patronizing schoolteacher shaking his head disapprovingly, mocking Simon, for he knows that there is a darkness in all the boys, yet Simon has not yet embraced it. Jack has already given up his Catholic values and given into his darkness, to the disappointment of the imaginary schoolteacher. The death-instinct still lurks unconsciously in Jack, however, and strongly, throughout the first half of the novel. When Jack tries to kill the first pig, he hesitates to drive the knife into the pig (Golding 25-6). There is a voice in Jack telling him that it is immoral, that the blood will be overwhelming, and that ultimately, it will haunt him forever. Later, when the boys create a fire, Jack and Ralph both hesitate to light the fire, because the warnings of their parents still echo in their heads: Do not play with fire! Despite being boys held back by the words of adults, there is still aggression inside of them, waiting to be acted upon.


The next stage of Jack’s neuroticism occurs with the whole pig incident, at which we just glanced. This stage is, perhaps, the most formidable, as it is the first sign we see of Jack’s aggressiveness being released. I like to think of Jack in this stage as regressing, not in the traditional sense, but in an evolutionary sense, insofar as he is almost reverting back to his ancestral roots in the hunter-gathering civilizations. There is a scene when Jack goes hunting, in which we see him get down on all fours, as though stalking; in which we see him sniffing the ground, going so far as to sniff droppings; in which he traverses the jungle, spear in hand, ready to slaughter the pig without mercy (Golding 43-4). Eric Fromm captures this mentality in the following quote:

He [the hunter] returns to his natural state, becomes one with the animal, and is freed from the burden of the existential split: to be part of nature and transcend it by virtue of his consciousness. In stalking the animal, he and the animal become equals, even though man shows his superiority by the use of his weapons.[4]

Jack is seen reverting to his natural state of being, as a predator, as a hunter, getting down on all fours, so as to become one with nature, with the animal, so he can kill it, get food, and feed himself. There is a return, then, to the primitive instincts. Freud declared that “it is easy,… for a barbarian to be healthy; for the civilized man the task is a hard one.”[5] The barbarian, or in this case the hunter, is able to freely act on his aggression, for in doing so he gets to kill and ends up with food and is therefore happy; modern man, contrarily, must keep his aggression in check, must restrain himself from hurting, and hence he is tormented. Jack, channeling his inner hunter, is able to engage his aggression naturally, for it is natural, allowing him to kill without fear of reproach. As a hunter, killing is not for pleasure; killing is now about survival. The question arises: Why the pig? We see that Jack becomes utterly obsessed with the pig, fixated even. Psychoanalytically, he does have a fixation. Thanatos, because it is pure energy, is expressed in a directed charge, similar to an electric current. Now that Jack can channel his death-instinct, he cathects it to the pig—that is, he directs his energy to an object: the pig. Consequently, Jack develops an object-cathexis, his instincts now fixated on the pig, the vulnerable animal now his prey. Evident of this fixation is the fact that Jack claims that he will kill the pig “Next time—!” Unknown-1.jpeg(Golding 26), not once, but thrice (Golding 28, 46). On three separate occasions Jack seems to take offense whenever someone asks him about the pig. It is safe to say that this is a sort of inferiority complex in Jack, a sort of rejection, of himself. When he tried to kill the pig, he hesitated, and now he feels rejected, as though everyone thinks him weak as a result. Jack develops the strange idea that he is being judged, that he is an incompetent hunter, since he is unable to complete such a simple task, causing frustration. This pressure creates a stronger cathexis in Jack’s mind, for his failure to kill the pig makes him want to kill it even more, as he feels doing so will prove himself as both worthy and competent. At this point, Jack is concerned with meat and meat alone, not rescue, not building huts, but getting meat. Food was of paramount importance in the hunter-gathering society, especially meat, for it was more difficult to acquire than berries or nuts. It is logical, then, that Jack should become so obsessed with this task. During the time that Jack is fixated on the pig, there still remains resistance in him, resistance to the idea of killing—indeed, a man’s first kill haunts him forever, so it is a frightening ordeal for Jack. Talking to Ralph, Jack tries “to convey the compulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up” (Golding 46). Reflecting on his two failed missions to hunt the pig, Jack is in disbelief, repeating dreadfully, “I thought I might kill” (Ibid.). In Jack’s voice, one can imagine a sense of surrealism, considering Jack nearly killed for the first time. After killing the pig, Jack describes the experience as follows:

His mind was crowded with memories; memories of the knowledge that had come to them when they closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink. (Golding 65)

Notwithstanding his initial fear of killing, Jack is bestowed with great ecstasy. This disturbing imagery, that of killing being similar to “a long satisfying drink,” is not one of kindness and compassion, but sadism, pure and simple. In addition to these early signs of sadism latent in Jack, there also arises evidence of paranoia, suggestive further of neuroticism. “‘If you’re hunting sometimes you catch yourself feeling as if…. [y]ou’re not hunting, but—being hunted, as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle,” confides Jack in Ralph (Golding 48). This comment reveals another insight into Jack, psychoanalytically, in that it reflects his projecting of his aggression. Because he has not come to terms with the aggression that lingers inside him, because he feels threatened by this new-found aggression, Jack feels it necessary to project his aggression onto the world instead of taking responsibility for it himself because it makes him feel safe, because it takes away the responsibility of having to deal with it.

 

Glossary:
(Retrieved from Stephen Glazier’s Word Menu)


Aggression- Hostile, destructive behavior towards others
Death-instinct/Thanatos- 
Destructive, aggressive compulsion to achieve nonexistence
Cathexis-
Concentration or buildup of mental energy and emotional significance in connection with an idea, activity, or object
Ego-
Reality-oriented, structured component of personality that enables individual to function autonomously in the world
Ego-ideal- Aspect of personality involving conscience, guilt, imposition of moral standards, and introjected authoritative and ethical images
Fixation- Extreme attachment to object or ideas associated with earlier stage of psychic development; halting of stage of personality development
Frustration- Disturbed state occurring when individual cannot attain goal or relieve tension
Neuroticism- Emotional disorder involving basic repression of primary instinctual urge and reliance on defense mechanisms that results in symptoms or personality disturbance
Object- “[T]hat in or through which it [an instinct] can achieve its aim (Freud, Instincts and their Vicissitudes, p. 414b)
Obsession Persistent, pervasive, disturbing fixation on an emotion, idea, object, or person
Paranoia- Persistent delusions of persecution or suspicion of others
Projection- Defense mechanism involving attribution of one’s own unacceptable or unwanted qualities and motives to others
Reaction-formation- Defense mechanism involving denial of unacceptable unconscious urges by behavior contrary to one’s own feelings
Regression- Defense mechanism involving return to behavior expressive of earlier developmental stage, usu. due to trauma, fixation, anxiety, or frustration
Repression- Defense mechanism in which threatening or unacceptable ideas or urges are forgotten
Sadism- Condition in which pleasure, esp. sexual, is derived from inflicting pain on others
Sublimation- Defense mechanism involving substitution of socialized behavior for unacceptable acting out of primary urge

 


[1] Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 709b*
[2] Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, p. 27
[3] Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 715a-b
[4] Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, p. 156
[5] Qtd. in Seldes, The Great Thoughts, p. 149

 

For further reading: 
A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud (1975)
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
by Erich Fromm (1992)

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (1929)
Instincts and Their Vicissitudes 
by Sigmund Freud (1915)
The Ego and the Id 
by Sigmund Freud (1923)
Lord of the Flies
by William Golding (2011)
Repression
by Sigmund Freud (1915)

*All notes are references to Great Books of the Western World Vol. 54 by Mortimer J. Adler (1990)

 

The German Romantic Philosophers (2 of 5)

As we have seen, Romanticism was a revolt against the rational, ordered view of the world, an outlook championed by the Enlightenment, particularly in France. The Germans responded vehemently with their own revolution, inspiring a surge in faith, in the visceral, the emotional. Intuition was favored above knowledge, perception above conception, passion above reason. Part two shall analyze the first two figures of German Romanticism, Jacobi and Herder, the former in favor of faith, the latter nationalism.

Unknown-2.jpegFriedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) was a controversial figure, partly because he wrote several polemics, many of which sought to challenge the status quo established by the Enlightenment, and partly because of his fiery personality, the cause of many a bitter friendship (like the pantheism controversy), despite befriending several vanguards of the time. Recognized primarily as a polemicist, Jacobi was an obstinate critic of the Enlightenment. He saw the apotheosis of reason as distasteful, as reason was, in his view, subordinate to faith, an opinion held by a fellow Romantic and, at one time, friend, Johann Georg Hamann. Science, obtained by observation, supposedly based on reason, had its foundations built upon empiricism, thus making it not objective, as it is so advertised. Jacobi detested science, not only because it aided the Enlightenment in forming a logical theory of the universe, but because it deified the objective, the so-called “true reality.” In all reality, all the scientists were doing was watching phenomena through their senses, then turning those observations into laws, laws that put boundaries on the world, limiting it, depriving it of its beauty, supplanting faith with reason. This, Jacobi thought, led to nihilism, a term actually first used by Jacobi himself. The Enlightenment was nihilistic in that it was fatalistic–it condemned humanity, the entire universe, to a predetermined course, all of its occurrences explainable by scientific laws, thereby reducing all values to science. Immanuel Kant was one of the biggest influences on the German philosophers, on modernity, and at one point, on Jacobi; yet this did not last long, for Jacobi later criticized Kant, dismissing his theory of things-in-themselves, imputing Kant with creating a system of subjective idealism. Faith, as I have said, was central to Jacobi, and the definition of faith, in German glaube, caused some problems for Jacobi when it was interpreted in different ways. Hence Jacobi identified faith with both its traditional definition and with belief, since he felt both were necessary. Intuition was an experienced truth supported with faith, according to Jacobi. If we drop an object, it will fall. But just seeing this truth in action is not enough; we must also have faith in this empirical observation, because without it, there still exists doubt, uncertainty. Further, faith and feeling are superior to reason simply for the fact that reason is formed after sensation, after feeling. First we see the object drop, then we formulate the notion that there is an effect which draws the object downward. In order for faith to work, Jacobi invites us all to take a salto mortale, a leap of faith, a concept mistakenly contributed to Unknown-4.jpegKierkegaard. Faith is almost like a blind trust, for we must put our whole certainty into something, regardless of whether we are certain or not. This leap, then, signifies our trust in the world. This is the first principle upon which philosophy is based for Jacobi. Critiquing Kant, Jacobi wrote that the thing-in-itself, existing in the transcendental noumenal realm, cannot be grasped by reason, precisely as Kant said. If that is so, how can Kant be sure the things-in-themselves exist? Jacobi says that we know they exist not through reason, but through faith. Faith in the phenomenal world means faith in the noumenal world, it follows. Jacobi can hardly be called an Existentialist, but he did place emphasis on the person, rather than speculative metaphysics. In an idea we will further investigate with Fichte, Jacobi said there is an I and a Thou, in other words a subject and an object. Only through the object can the subject be known, for the subject, by resisting something outside of itself, is revealed. With too much emphasis on theory in philosophy, Jacobi turned to action, stating that we are identifiable through action; we are what we do.


Unknown-3.jpegWhile arguably one of the most influential Romantics yet also one of the most unheard of, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) has made a lasting contribution to civilization, not only as a philosopher, but as a historian, a debatable nationalist, a psychologist, and a linguistic theorist. Nationalism can be traced neither exactly nor accurately to Herder, but he definitely is responsible for a different type: Cultural nationalism. In his four-volume series Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-1791), Herder sets up the idea of a creative consciousness. This consciousness is a historical process, one that has shaped, shapes, and will shape society, its work seen throughout history. Creative consciousness is not exactly a forerunner of evolution, yet it is similar, inasmuch as it relates society to a species of some sort, constantly evolving, adapting, assimilating, progressing. As this consciousness progresses, cultures come and go, cultures being different groups of people sharing in common beliefs and practices. Every culture is unique from its contemporaries, exhibiting its own characteristics, the likes of which have never been seen before nor will be seen again. Cultures, therefore, are unique, and there exists no blueprint, no recognizable pattern, for them, as they cannot be predicted, so far as there is no objective framework on which they are to be based; cultures are blank slates, each able to have a special impress made on them. Herder believes in world peace. He thinks cultures should coexist without encroaching on one another. He thinks cultures should respect one another. Based on these beliefs, Herder did not like empires, nations that conquered other nations: by removing a culture and reorienting it, empires are removing an entire past, an entire history distinct to that culture alone; and that history can never be recovered, for it has already been disrespected. Moreover, it removes the identity of the culture itself, practically wiping it clean from the world. The discipline of historicism was also influenced by Herder. To understand a certain aspect of a culture, Herder said, you must understand the entire culture. For example, I took a similar approach when researching this topic: So that I could understand the environment in which the Romantics were operating, I had to study not just the philosophy of the period, but the history, the art, the literature, the music, and the people. Reserved for every culture is a specific goal, a main focus, what Herder calls the schwerpunkt of a culture. Identifying this central idea will help you envisage the context into which you are delving. And what is culture without people? The people, volk, constitute a collective spirit, a volksgeist, that is immanent in that culture. A culture is created by the nature of humans, their expression, and their environment. Regarding the first, humans are sociable; second, Herder praises art, seeing Unknown-5.jpegit as the expression of not just a person but of a people, where there is no objective beauty, allowing cultures to figuratively speak to one another; third, he sets up environmental studies, asserting that the development of a culture is dependent upon its environment. “We live in a world we ourselves create,”[1] and, “Nature has separated nations not only by woods and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates but most particularly by languages, inclinations, and character…,”[2] he says. Also a psychologist, Herder can be called an eliminativist, a view I explain here. Simply put, Herder rejects all “folk psychology,” meaning he discredits any claims about sensations like “reason,” “will,” or “desire.” He also believes that Man is entirely physical, entirely discarding Cartesian dualism, stating that only the brain and the body make up the individual. The idea that the brain is compartmentalized, with individual sections hooked up to individual functions like eating, is also rejected. Herder thought it ridiculous, mystical even, that one part of the brain could do one thing and another something else. Predating Gestalt theory, he says, “The inner man, with all his dark forces, stimuli, and impulses, is simply one.”[3] The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in other words. Man is not identified with his desires, with his thinking, with his instincts, but with all of them; Man is not a single part but a collection. Within every man is an animating force, Kraft. Herder theorized this living force as fundamental to being, to existence; without it, there would be no life. Kraft is what allows us to function, to live, to interact with the real world, with objects outside of us, phenomena. Moving onto his linguistic theory, we find a revolutionary view, one that gave me an epiphany. Language developed and evolved alongside humans–that much is evident, and it was accepted. Each culture had a language that was different from its neighbors, for they progressed differently, and their language had to fit their specific needs. This led Herder to create a theory that inspired the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Because language was relative to each culture, it followed that language must accordingly affect how cultures experienced the world. Insofar as there is no such thing as a perfect translation, it must mean that words will have different connotations to different people; therefore, we all see the world differently based on our language. What made me really think was Herder relating the conscience to an “inward speaking.”[4] This, coupled with Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language, makes up the internal dialogue of the mind. We tend to think in pictures, and when we talk to ourselves in our heads, there is an inaudible voice, but a voice that we can altogether understand, as it uses language–it speaks.

 


[1] Smith, The Norton History of the Human Sciences, p. 337
[2] Meinecke, Cosmopolitanism and the National State, pp. 25-26
[3] Herder, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 8, p. 179
[4] Herder, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 21, p. 88

 

For further reading:
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson (2006)
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
 by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Passion of the Western Mind 
by Richard Tarnas (1993)
The Story of Civilization 
Vol. 10 by Will Durant (1967)
Dictionary of Philosophy 
by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Friedrich Jacobi
The Roots of Romanticism 
by Isaiah Berlin (1999)

Conformity – Part 1

thnkrsThat we are social animals is not up for question. In order to survive, we must stick together, form communities, and work with each other. Without teamwork, without cooperation, without a common goal, and without a mold to which we shape ourselves, civilization would not be possible, seeing as we rely on our peers to overcome obstacles and create laws, which we obey. Put simply, it is within our nature to conform–to shape together. Trends, norms, and values would not be possible were conformity to disappear from our nature. We must, however, begin to ask ourselves: just how much should we conform? How much of our individuality ought we give up to the group? Postbellum research and recent studies are beginning to show exactly how much freedom we are giving up.

In the early 20th century, psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the first experiments in social psychology. In his experiment, Sherif had three individuals in a pitch black room, with only a single light, an optical illusion known as autokinesis, which made the subjects misleadingly believe there was movement, where there was none. Sherif would then ask the subjects to conjecture how far the light moved. One by one the participants gave their own guess, each time adjusting their number according to the previous estimate. As Sherif carried this out several times, he noticed that the guess would change, yet the subjects would nevertheless change their opinion to fit in with the others. Because there was no real answer, and because they were unsure, the participants, Sherif concluded, would always look to their peers for guidance. When he did the same experiment in private, the individuals would still give the collective opinion, the group’s effect still fresh in their minds, making a permanent impression. Whenever we are approached with an abstract problem, we are disposed to conforming with the popular opinion, so as to derive confidence. A score later, Solomon Asch, skeptical of Sherif’s theoretical testing, carried out his famous Paradigm Test. With a sample of 123 participants, Asch took groups of eight, seven of them confederates, peers of Solomon with knowledge of the experiment, and one subject, who had no knowledge of what the experiment entailed. Every experiment comprised 18 tests wherein the subjects were presented with two cards, a single line on one, a set of three of different lengths on the other, but one of three matched the one on the other card. The eight participants were seated at a table, and the subject was always seated either second-to-last or last, so they could hear the confederates first. On six out of the 18 tests, the confederates were instructed to give the correct answer, and the subject did as well; however, on the final 12, the confederates purposely gave incorrect answers. Come the subject’s turn, they would surrender to peer pressure, selecting the wrong line 37% of the time, even when it was obvious. Though two-fifths does not seem substantial, it is a shockingly clear demonstration of how much we conform. Later, Asch did the same test with the same participants, this time in private. Without the confederates, the subjects answered correctly, admitting that they would have felt embarrassed had they not said what the majority had. When asked how they felt, those who answered correctly–even with the confederates–said they felt nervous and not entirely sure. “Living in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight,”¹ wrote Asch after publishing his studies.

Anyone who plays sports knows how it feels to have family and friends cheer them on in the audience. For some, they find it supportive, and it helps them focus; for others, they find it distracting, and it disrupts their performance. Psychologically, it is much more fascinating, much more complex, its effects dependent upon the circumstances. Personally, as a runner, having run in numerous competitions, I have had my fair share of passionate spectators, yelling my name, screaming words of encouragement. In sprinting, however, the moment is gone in seconds, so I never have a chance to register them. When someone’s performance is enhanced due to an audience, the psychological phenomenon is called social facilitation, a finding from experimentation done by Lee E. Travis (1925), which saw 80% of participants improve. J. Pessin, Richard W. Husband, and Robert Zajonc, in the 1930’s and mid 1960’s, respectively, found that social facilitation occurs only when an individual has mastered a specific skill, meaning it is harder to learn or practice a new skill in front of an audience than it is a learned one. In accord with the latter of the three, Edward E. Jones and H.B. Gerard (1967) believed this was a result of arousal, stating that an audience acts as a stimulus, but that it also places more stress on the performer, greatly distracting them from their task at hand. Nickolas B. Cottrell, Dennis L. Wack, Gary J. Selerack, Robert H. Rittle, Thomas Henchy, and David C. Glass (1968) conducted their own tests, claiming instead that this phenomenon occurred as a result of apprehension regarding evaluation. They found that not only did subjects who were blindfolded do worse but that those who were told an audience would not be evaluating them did  worse as well; contrariwise, if they were told they would be evaluated afterward, they did better. Further research from Alan E. Gross, B.S. Riemer, and Barry E. Collins (1973) supported this, adding that the audience’s perception, positive or negative, affected their confidence, too. Were the audience to provide encouraging feedback, all the while watching, the performer felt more confident, more optimistic, whereas those given discouraging feedback exhibited lower confidence. What all of these studies show is that the individual is driven by two factors: the need to be evaluated and watched and the need for a positive self-image. In other words, we care a lot about how we are perceived by others.

Conformity is a “change in behavior or belief toward a group as a result of real or imagined group pressure,”² wrote Charles and Sara Kiesler (1969). While it is helpful to know what conformity is and how it occurs, it is important to know why it occurs, why we conform. David P. Crutchfield (1955) stated that when confronted with conformity, an individual can choose to conform, individuate, or anti-conform. The first option, of course, means doing whatever the group is doing, joining in; the second allows the individual to be himself, to do whatever he wants, regardless of the group’s desires; the third and final option is dissent, an act of rebellion, where the individual does the opposite of what the group does. Interestingly, this can be a paradox: are anti-conformists being true individuals, or are they simply conforming to non-conforming? A triangle is used to represent the three choices, with independence at a different point, as it is on a different plane than the others. Richard H. Willis (1965), on the other hand, thought there were four choices: independence, variability, conformity, and anti-conformity. Using a screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-9-28-40-pmdiamond, Willis suggested measuring an individual’s decisions by moving along the axis, vertically and horizontally, accordingly. Now that we have a solid layout of how we may choose what to do, the question of why we may decide to join a group still remains. Once again there are three core ideas: attractiveness, competence, and status. When speaking of attractiveness, psychologists refer not to the physical attraction we desire but to the power of something to attract, namely the group in question. A group’s attractiveness can be calculated by how cohesive it is, how united its members are, how it functions as a team. Obviously a unanimous vote correlates to a stronger attractiveness, as in Sherif’s autokinetic experiment, when participants would go with the collective answer. In Asch’s experiment, if six of the confederates gave a wrong answer and the last one gave a completely different one, then the subject would be more willing to give their own answer, the reason being that the group’s coherence was not as powerful. Thus, the bigger the group and the more cogent it is, the higher the probability of conforming. The second and third factors, competence and status, deal with how experienced a group or its members are and where they are placed, socially. Those with lower confidence are more likely to conform, for they rely on more intelligent, more skilled individuals whom they look up to as a leader. Usually a single person will be considered the leader by the rest of the group, a strong-willed person, one with experience, one with knowledge, one considered “higher” in ranking. It is easy to understand, evidently, why minorities are easily exploited, especially by demagogues, who will take up the guise of a leader, who will take advantage of the masses, moving them with their words, molding them–and the people almost always willingly listen to them, so they conform. One needs not look farther than Hitler or Stalin, who used their enticing, volatile propaganda to convince an entire people to conform, to not ask questions, to listen to the majority opinion. Occasionally the leader will be put under pressure, inasmuch as they are forced to make all the decisions. With the people’s faith, it is incumbent upon the leader to do the right thing, and everyone will follow. Conformists seek approval; they seek acceptance. Adolescents are predisposed toward conformity, since it is at that time that they begin to find who they are they are, so they seek identity in others. Teenagers will go out of their ways to be someone they are not so as to elicit their approval, to feel like “one of the cool kids.”

In conclusion, conformity is natural, an inherent tendency at birth, a need to feel belonging, to feel like a part of something greater than oneself, to be a community. Not a day goes by that we must choose to conform, to be independent, or to anti-conform. Every day bears a new choice, a new opportunity to choose whom you will follow, whom you will lead, whom you will become. The bottom line is, you have to conform in one way or another, but just how much you conform is up to you.

 

 


¹Pickren, The Psychology Book, p. 320
²Tedeschi, Social Psychology, p. 547

 

For further reading:  1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
The Psychology Book by Catherine Collin (2012)
The Psychology Book
by Wade Pickren (2014)

Social Psychology by James Tedeschi (1976)

 

 

Morality and Suicide Squad

IMG_1167A whole spate of DC and Marvel movie adaptations has recently come out this summer. It is not surprising to see the amount of hype that surrounds these titanic blockbusters. And with the recent arrival of Detective Comics’ Suicide Squad, we are given yet another fast-paced action movie. My overall rating would be pretty high, as there was a genius balance between narrative and exciting sequences. However, there two major disappointments, which I will explain at the end. I had been waiting for this film to come out, and as I watched it, I find a wealth of profound prompts to write on. So, for today’s post, we will explore the philosophy and psychology of the villains of Suicide Squad. Specifically, we shall discuss the rights and wrongs of objectifying prisoners, the ethics of redemption, and the morality of religion and higher/transcendent power (Spoilers ahead).

The one behind Task Force X is a government agent by the name of Amanda Waller. An ambitious and determined agent, she will do whatever it takes, no matter the risks, to accomplish a task. Her great breakthrough consists of recruiting the worst of the worst to do the government’s dirty work. In the case of the DC universe, there are plenty of contemptible and expendable criminals to take advantage of. This is controversial at most, and it brings us to the question of whether or not we should risk prisoners’ lives for dangerous missions. To answer this question, we must first analyze Waller’s motives and her tactics and then the situation and rights of the prisoners. Beginning with the first inquiry, what is Amanda’s main goal and how does she ultimately reach it? We are under the immediate pretense that Waller is supposedly doing us a favor. Her goal is very clear from the start: she wants to protect her nation. How does she plan on doing that? By risking dangerous criminals’ lives to deal with threats. At first glance this seems pretty smart. Not only are we under the protection of trained and specialized mercenaries and serial killers, but, if they die, it lessens the criminal population, thus lowering crime rates, right? Wrong. Note that we are dealing with cold-blooded killers who kill primarily out of either satisfaction or payment. As we will discuss in the following paragraph, these are people, too. They may have killed people, but they have the right to live just like us. Nelson Mandela once explained, “A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” By this merit, we should respect the criminals and treat them like normal humans despite their misdeeds. Again, we are dealing with human beings, not animals. How does Amanda Waller make them do it? Why she makes deals with them, of course. She mercilessly makes them do what she wants them to do against their free wills by threatening to kill them with the bombs she implanted in them. These prisoners have no free choice and must do whatever is asked of them, for their life is at stakes. At one point in the movie, I thought Amanda was dead and thought to myself, “Would Waller’s death be justified?” After some thinking, I have concluded that killing Amanda Waller would be justifiable. Think about it: Amanda is a manipulative and apathetic person who will stop at nothing. Waller even says self-admittedly, “[Because] getting people to act against their own self-interest is what I do for a living.She straight up murders half a dozen of innocents in one scene. This side of Amanda is no better than the criminals. If Amanda is not killed, furthermore, think of how many more people she will manipulate and get killed. It would be utilitarian to kill her, for think of many deaths you could prevent by ending her existence.

We spoke of how a criminal’s right to life should be respected as with anyone else. But this raises another question: Should these villains be granted redemption? Let us look at the situation one more. A select few convicts guilty of countless murders are forced to carry out missions that will surely result in their deaths. I said that these killers are humans, too, and that they should be able to live. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves whether we should—or can, for that matter—forgive these people for what they have done. Each of these villains, we have learned, has killed numerous people both innocent and guilty. I would like to focus on two of these criminals to decide whether they should be redeemed or not. First off, we have “El Diablo,” a man who happened to be tragically endowed with pyromancy. Right off the bat, I admired this character. Diablo never asked for this to happen to him, it just did, and he had to suffer with it. Immediately, we can give him some sense of salvation. This reluctant hero… I mean villain of ours stubbornly refuses to use his powers lest he cause more death and destruction around of him. Here we have a self-conscious man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like all of us, he too has emotions, and when his anger gets the best of him, he cannot hold it back. After accidentally killing his beloved family, he shrinks into penance. This is a truly human struggle. El Diablo realizes he creates harm and genuinely wants to be forgiven. In the end, El Diablo, like a courageous hero in a movie, sacrifices his life in the name of his family and his faithful team. This man had to suffer all his life, and he gave up his own life to save those around him. El Diablo, I conclude, has been acquitted of his sins. Next we have Floyd Lawton, AKA the sharp-shooting mercenary Deadshot. Give him a large sum of money and he will kill anyone you ask. This is a man who deserves no sympathy, for this man will take the life of another for cash. But deep down, this man is also a respectable human being. In his flashback, we see Deadshot nearly kill Batman, but two things stop him: his daughter and his rationality. Let us further examine these two aspects. Deadshot is, you must realize, a parent, and not a bad one. We all have a weak spot somewhere. Deadshot has some humanity beneath his murderous habits. He is also a concerned parent who will do anything for his daughter. Deadshot could have easily escaped his arrest and could have died serving Waller, but he listened to and cared about his daughter. One of his conditions for joining the mission was being able to see his daughter. This is a man who values family above everything else. The other thing that makes Deadshot an admirable man is his self-control and rationality. On one occasion, Deadshot could have killed Batman; on several occasions, Deadshot had the opportunity to shoot Amanda or Captain Flag when their backs were turned; and on another occasion, he could have easily aborted the mission and gone back to his life of crime. However, in each of these situations, which could have resulted in more killings, Deadshot managed to hold back his impulses and act coolly. While he may not hesitate to pull the trigger on a mission, he is able to maturely act without impudence on important occasions.

Finally, we have the characters of the Enchantress and Incubus, who, in my interpretation, are symbols of the death of religion in the modern age. The book All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, tells of the declining supremacy of religion and mythology in the 21st century. As a result of this loss of guidance, we have become autonomous individuals who have lost our values and have thus ushered in an age of nihilism. The Enchantress is something like a goddess who is most likely descended from a civilization with a heavy reliance on shamanism. Viewers of the film even compare her to something like that of a Mayan deity. Her brother, Incubus, is released into the world like a ‘god among men,’ having been trapped in an ancient artifact for nearly seven millennia. There is an important conversation that occurs between siblings that supports my claim. The Enchantress says (I do not have the exact quotes), “The humans have turned against us.” Incubus responds, “But they worshiped us? We were gods to them.” It continues darkly with, “Now they worship machines, so I will build a machine that will wipe them out.” Nothing like a god’s wrath, huh? It is true, indeed, that we have entered a new age of idolatry. No longer do we invest our faith in an omnipotent being, we now worship technology and all the powers it has. The foundation of our society has been built upon science. Everything from the creation of the universe to human behavior is governed by the laws of physics and biology and psychology.  The gods have become obsolete in our industrial times. We no longer need a higher being to tell us how things happen and how we should behave. Dreyfus and Kelly wrote in response, “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us: we have kicked them out,” and, ”Ask not why the gods have abandoned you, but why you have abandoned the gods.”[1] We have not fallen out of favor with the gods, the gods have fallen out of favor with us. At this revolutionary point in time, we have realized that there is no need for deities like the Enchantress or Incubus. In the ending of the movie, before our protagonists fight the gods, the Enchantress tantalizes, “Why do you serve those who cage you?” She then begins offering the villains anything they could ever want. Here the gods have realized that they are not needed and are trying to convince the homo sapiens to come back to them.  “Why do you worship those who do not care about you instead of worshiping us, the gods, who can give you anything you need?” is what she is really trying to say. God is trying to reassert its dominance, it is trying to regain its relevance in a world gone technological and without faith. To combat their imminent obsolescence, they offer a final deal. After Incubus is killed—I am still not quite sure how a man-made explosive is able to kill a literal god incarnate—the Suicide Squad manages to get the Enchantress in her vulnerable state. She is one bullet away from death. As a final defense mechanism, she suggests she can bring back Rick Flag’s girlfriend. Flag sees through this illusion and kills her, giving a whole new literal meaning to Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead […] And we have killed him.” This inevitably leads to the figurative and literal death of religion.

In conclusion, we have gone over several controversial ethical issues ranging from the usury of prisoners to the tragic downfall of religion. We have found that murderers are humans deep down and deserve redemption, that the government should not use prisoners as means to an end, and that religion will eventually become trivial. Beneath this action movie derived from a comic, there is a deeper, more profound lesson, as there is in every film. Because you never quite know what you will encounter, you could unknowingly stumble upon a philosophical moral quandary waiting to be solved.

Personally, I was very disappointed that 1) Deathstroke did not make an appearance and 2) I felt that the Joker was as disappointing Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens. He sadly did not get enough screen time.


[1] Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, pg. 222

 

For further reading: All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly (2011)

5 Principles for Happiness

Unknown.jpegIt seems we are always on an unsatisfactory quest to find happiness. For all the control we have over our lives, it is disconcerting how difficult it is to find happiness. Richard Carlson’s You Can Be Happy No Matter What tells us we have been looking in the wrong place. According to Carlson, a psychotherapist, the reason why it appears this state of contentment and equanimity is so hard to find is because happiness cannot be found. Instead, he proposes happiness is always in us. To find and cultivate it, we must keep in mind five simple principles: Thinking, moods, feelings, separate realities, and being in the present.

It is incredible just how powerful thinking is. In fact, it is a little too incredible. Richard Carlson describes how we must think in order to achieve happiness. He describes the importance of reminding ourselves that we are the thinkers. How we think is merely our perception of the world. What we choose to think, be it positive or negative thoughts, is up to us. After all, we are the ones producing these thoughts. Because we are in control, we can stop thinking these thoughts with the same effort of creating them. Dwelling on these thoughts always leads to unhappiness–not what we are aiming for. Richard uses an analogy to represent this: Our thinking is gasoline, and our thoughts are mini fires. The more we think about something that causes distress, the more it grows out of our control.

Not only can our thoughts be either negative or positive, but they can also be warped depending on our moods. Low moods drastically affect our decision-making, so Carlson offers us the solution of waiting for these low moods to subside. When we are in a low mood, our judgement is unstable and unreliable. We tend to generate more serious and malicious thoughts in this mood, so it is best to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Carlson also warns us not to try and solve problems in a low mood; we will find more clarity in high moods. Conversely, when we are in our high moods, we are more amiable and sensible. It is in this mood that Richard urges us to solve our problems.

However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when we are in a bad mood or when we are taking a turn the worst. Our feelings tell us when we do this. It is human nature to get caught up in the moment, which leads to overreaction and obstinance. It is important to listen to ourselves and be able to understand when we are upset or troubled. Feelings like envy, anger, and impatience are signs that you are in a bad mood and should try to keep things to yourself. Again, our feelings cloud us with questionable judgement. In times like these, it is best to stay quiet and wait for our moods to rise. Good feelings, on the other hand, are a sign you are doing the right thing. Keep doing whatever it is you are doing, for it is clearly working. Richard Carlson likes to think of feelings like alarms that tell us what is happening. Whenever there is a core meltdown, know that you should be skeptical of your thoughts, for they are caused by bad feelings.

The fourth principle, separate realities, explains how we should interact with others. I mentioned in the thinking principle that how we think is merely our perception of the world, so our thoughts should be treated thusly. Everything we see and how we react to our thoughts is filtered by our perceptions, and it applies to everyone else, too. How I feel about one thing can be interpreted another way by you. Consequently, we must be open-minded and willing to adapt to other’s thought systems. Thought systems are an important concept in psychology. Carlson expounds thought systems as a collection of an individual’s habitual or set thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives. Taking this into account, we often find ourselves combatting with another’s conflicting thought system. Since we do not share every belief, Richard recommends we build our tolerance to others’ thought systems. We may never adopt another’s thought system, so our only option is to understand it. Instead of criticizing someone else’s thought system, try to understand it and appreciate it. Whether it be your friend, spouse, or affiliate, understanding separate realities will come in handy.

Lastly, we can all find time for being in the present. For readers who have read my post on mindfulness, this should be familiar. Unfortunately for most of us, a majority of our time is squandered thinking about things we cannot change. Most of our thinking is torn betwixt the past and the future, two tense (pun intended) and ever-changing events that are not worth our time. We should instead be in the moment, which can be experienced, unlike the others. Once again we see the power of thinking. Focusing our energy on things we know are out of our reach is futile. Furthermore, Richard comments on the impracticality of therapy, AA, and dieting programs (not to denounce them, of course). Therapists will tell their patients to examine their pasts, AA members are told to always be thinking of not drinking, and participants of diets are told to constantly be thinking about healthy food. Richard points out how these curative organizations are reinforcing negative thoughts. Remember the gasoline/fire analogy? By thinking about a negative past to understand how you are today, or always reminding yourself not to drink, or selecting foods that will fit into your diet, you are only making the problem worse. Habits form when we think too much about something. We must let go. We must stop thinking about the source of the problem!

In conclusion, I would like to restate the final sentence of You Can Be Happy No Matter What because I felt it was not only true, but it was powerful: You can be happy right here, right now, if you choose to do so.

 

For further reading: You Can Be Happy No Matter What by Richard Carlson (1997)