‘humour and knowledge are the two great hopes of civilization’

the last time i read this book i was seventeen, in kolkata, and with bronchitis. now that i’m healthy and eight years older, two rather long passages from the last chapter stick. given all the recent news, international and domestic, i sincerely think they’re worth reproducing. (any formatting is entirely my own.)

here goes the first:

‘The most important function of sport lies in furnishing a healthy safety valve for that most indispensable and, at the same time, most dangerous form of aggression that I have described in the preceding chapter as collective militant enthusiasm. The Olympic Games are virtually the only occasion when the anthem of one nation can be played without arousing any hostility against another. This is so because the sportsman’s dedication to the international social norms of his sport, to the ideals of chivalry and fair play, are equal to any national enthusiasm. The team spirit inherent in all international sport gives scope to a number of truly valuable patterns of social behavior which are essentially motivated by aggression and which, in all probability, have evolved under the selection pressure of tribal warfare at the very dawn of culture. The noble warrior’s typical virtues, such as his readiness to sacrifice himself in the service of a common cause, disciplined submission to the rank order of the group, mutual aid in the face of deadly danger, and above all, a superlatively strong bond of friendship between men, were obviously indispensable if a small tribe of the type we have to assume for early man was to survive in competition with others. All these virtues are still desirable in modern man and still command our instinctive respect (…)

‘Sporting contests between nations are beneficial not only because they provide an outlet for the collective militant enthusiasm of nations, but also because they have two other effects that counter the danger of war: they promote personal acquaintance between people of different nations or parties and they unite, in enthusiasm for a common cause, people who otherwise would have little in common. We must now discuss how these two measures against aggression work, and by what means they can be exploited to serve our purpose.

‘I have already said that we can learn much from demagogues who pursue the opposite purpose, namely to make peoples fight. They know very well that personal acquaintance, indeed every kind of brotherly feeling for the people to be attacked, constitutes a strong obstacle to aggression. Every militant ideology in history has propagated the belief that the members of the other party are not quite human and every strategist is intent on preventing any ‘fraternization’ between the soldiers in confronting trenches. Anonymity of the person to be attacked greatly facilitates the releasing of aggressive behaviour. It is an observation familiar to anybody who has traveled in trains that well-bred people behave atrociously towards strangers in the territorial defence of their compartment. When they discover that the intruder is an acquaintance, however casual, there is an amazing and ridiculous switch in their behaviour from extreme rudeness to exaggerated and shamefaced politeness. Similarly, a naive person can feel quite genuine hatred for an anonymous group, against ‘the’ Germans, ‘the’ Catholic foreigners, etc., etc., and may rail against them in public, but he will never dream of being so much as impolite when he comes face to face with an individual member. On closer acquaintance with one or more members of the abhorred group such a person will rarely revise his judgement on it as a whole, but will explain his sympathy for individuals by the assumption that they are exceptions to the rule.

‘If mere acquaintance has this remarkable and altogether desirable effect, it is not surprising that real friendship between individuals of different nationality or ideology are even more beneficial. No one is able to hate, wholeheartedly, a nation amongst whose numbers he has several friends. Being friends with a few ‘samples’ of another people is enough to awaken a healthy mistrust of all those generalizations which brand ‘the’ Russians, English, Germans, etc., etc., with typical and usually hateful national characteristics. (…) What is needed is the arousal of enthusiasm for causes which are commonly recognized as values of the highest order by all human beings, irrespective of their national, cultural or political allegiances (…)

‘I agree with Dr. [J.] Marmor’s assertion that modern war has become an institution and I share his optimism in believing that, being an institution, war can be abolished. However, I think we must face the fact that militant enthusiasm has evolved from the hackle-raising and chin-protruding communal defence instinct of our pre-human ancestors and that the key stimulus situations which release it still bear all the earmarks of this origin. Among them, the existence of an enemy, against whom to defend cultural values, is still one of the most effective (…) In human beings, too, the feeling of togetherness which is so essential to the serving of a common cause is greatly enhanced by the presence of a definite, threatening enemy whom it is possible to hate. Also, it is much easier to make people identify with a simple and concrete common cause than with an abstract idea. For all these reasons, the teachers of militant ideologies have an enviably easy job in converting young people (…)

‘In all these respects the defender of peace is at a decided disadvantage. Everything he lives and works for, all the high goals at which he aims are, or should be, determined by moral responsibility which presupposes quite a lot of knowledge and real insight. (…) If I have just said that considerable erudition is necessary for anyone to grasp the real values of humanity which are worthy of being served and defended, I certainly did not mean that it was a hopeless task to raise the education of average humanity to that level, I only wanted to emphasize that it was necessary to do so. Indeed, in our age of enlightenment, human beings of average intelligence are not so very far from appreciating real cultural and ethical values.’

and the second, a few pages later:

‘In its highest forms, [humour] appears to be specially evolved to give us the power of sifting the true from the false. (…) If, in ridiculing insincere ideals, humour is a powerful ally of rational morality, it is even more so in self-ridicule. Nowadays we are all radically intolerant of pompous or sanctimonious people, because we expect a certain amount of self-ridicule in every intelligent human being. Indeed we feel that a man who takes himself absolutely seriously is not quite human, and this feeling has a sound foundation. That which, in colloquial German, is so aptly termed tierischer Ernst, that is ‘animal seriousness’, is an ever-present symptom of megalomania, in fact I suspect that it is one of its causes. The best definition of man is that he is the one creature capable of reflection, of seeing himself in the frame of reference of the surrounding universe. Pride is one of the chief obstacles to seeing ourselves as we really are, and self-deceit is the obliging servant of pride. It is my firm belief that a man sufficiently gifted with humour is in small danger of succumbing to flattering delusions about himself, because he cannot help perceiving what a pompous ass he would become if he did. I believe that a really subtle and acute perception of the humorous aspects of ourselves is the strongest inducement in the world to make us honest with ourselves, thus fulfilling one of the first postulates of reasoning morality. An amazing parallel between humour and the categorical question is that both balk at logical inconsistencies and incongruities. Acting against reason is not only immoral but, funnily enough, it is very often extremely funny! ‘Though shalt not cheat myself’ ought to be the first of all commandments. The ability to obey it is in direct proportion to the ability of being honest with others.

Konrad Lorenz, ‘On Aggression’ (1966) – I’d trade anything to be able to write like this.


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