The Dark Side of the Human Spirit: Take 1

In my post “A Wish in the Wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings,” I wrote:

May the best in the human spirit vanquish the worst in the human spirit.

In thinking of the worst in the human spirit, I was reminded of a chapter in Stephen Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.In chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution,” he writes:

But the practical function of cruel punishments was just a part of their appeal. Spectators enjoyed cruelty, even when it served no judicial purpose….

Samuel Pepys, presumably one of the more refined men of his day, made the following entry in his diary for October 13, 1660:

“Out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition…”

Pepys’s cold joke about Harrison’s “looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition” referred to his being partly strangled, disemboweled, castrated, and shown his organs being burned before being decapitated….

The word keelhaul is sometimes used to refer to a verbal reprimanding. Its literal sense comes from another punishment in the British navy. A sailor was tied to a rope and pulled around the bottom of the ship’s hull. If he didn’t drown, he would be slashed to ribbons by the encrusted barnacles….

The bland phrase broken on the wheel cannot come close to capturing the horror of this form of punishment. According to one chronicler, the victim was transformed into a “huge screaming puppet, writing in rivulets of blood…”…

… Still others, like the American physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, appealed to the common humanity of readers and the people who were targets of punishment. In 1787 he noted that “the men, or perhaps the women, whose persons we detest, possess souls and bodies composed of the same materials as those of our friends and relations…." 

I had to leave out some of the details Steven Pinker gives because the passage was too graphic. But I left some graphic things in because I wanted the message of our brutal human past to come through.

Anger, hatred and cruelty are elements in the human spirit that can be either nursed and encouraged or fought and subdued. Many of those who commit atrocities have spent many years nourishing and tending their anger, hatred and cruelty before the moment when they commit those atrocities. (Some are psychopaths without a conscience.) May we tame our anger at what they have done into an abiding motivation to make the world a better place, safer in all ways from their dark side, and from our own.