Sunday, April 12, 2015

`A Universal Human Tendency'

You can judge a man by the books he reads, the books he rereads, the passages in them he remembers and the ones he quotes to others. The man who judges Polonius a fount of wisdom and cites him in that spirit leaves us with an impression counter to the one he intends. At some indeterminate point, aesthetics and morality intersect, however fleetingly. This is not science; this is intuition tempered by good sense and humility in the face of reality. In reading King Lear again I came upon this passage from Act I, Scene 2, spoken by Edmund, the sociopathic son of the Earl of Gloucester: 

“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!” 

Some years ago, the first book of Theodore Dalrymple’s I bought was Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (Ivan R. Dee, 2001), a collection of pieces written for City Journal. He uses Edmund’s words as its epigraph. Dalrymple quotes a portion of the same passage in 2003 in another City Journal article, and in a 2007 article in the British Medical Journal. He returned to Edmund’s words in a speech he gave last year in Michigan, and glosses them like this: 

“This passage points, I think, to an eternal and universal temptation of mankind to blame those of his misfortunes that are the natural and predictable consequence of his own choices on forces or circumstances that are external to him and outside his control. Is there any one of us who has never resorted to excuses about his circumstances when he has done wrong or made a bad decision? It is a universal human tendency.” 

And it shows up again in Chapter 4 of Dalrymple’s most recent book, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality (Encounter Books, 2015). In this context he notes: “Instead of astrology, however, we believe in psychology, of whatever school—and call it progress.” It takes a deft writer to repeatedly quote an evil fictional character to good purpose.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Ambrosial content in today's post Mr Kurp. We are besieged by these cursed psychologists doing "studies" on us as if we were just another dung beetle and as if we are not informed by something rather finer and more responsible than that which inhabits such creatures.