When Instinct Trumps Reason

By using the line “… we are not the creatures we think we are …” in the previous post, I was reminded once again of what  the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote in the 16th century,  namely that people find themselves with needs and desires without understanding the reasons why they want and act as they do.  Lacking this knowledge about themselves and their place in the world creates the illusion that they can do as they please, and which is a source of much grief in the world when they act against their own interest because they appear not to know any better.

But as much as I am in agreement with Spinoza about much of this, I believe that we do know a lot about what is in our best interest, such as acting in accordance with the unique human qualities that have been gifted to us with the birth of our species. This would include the feelings of empathy and compassion, as well as the ability to reason and  judge the  morality of our actions.

These qualities would have been completely useless to us had we not also been given the capacity to think about these matters for ourselves,  as individuals, as well as the courage to  act accordingly,  regardless of diverging  mass opinions . This as opposed to being purely driven by instinct,  something that would have urged our animal ancestors to prefer the safety of numbers by remaining within the herd  for not other reason than being a member of the same species with the need to conform.

That the latter can be a causal factor in the occurrence of state sponsored violence –  including genocide,  as in the case of Nazi Germany – needs to be seen in the context of the herd instinct being alive and well and continuing to thrive among our species, particularly in the religious and political spheres.  Defined once by Nietzsche as ” the obedience of the individual to the mass, blindly and without reflection”, so long as this primitive and animalistic feature of the human race remains a threat on the horizon, we will remain vulnerable to mass violence on any scale, including war.

History has shown that such outbreaks of mass violence and destruction can be initiated by those who have a purpose for it, and in particular if they are afflicted with a pathological need or compulsion to dominate others and the obsession with the exercise of power. Not easily understood if you are not affected by it, and essentially a delusion about one’s own power or importance, but Adolf Hitler rise to power resulting in WWII is perhaps history’s most  deadly example of how millions of people can be murdered for no reason other than that someone believing in their own divine purpose and invincibility is able to motivate others to act out their deadly manic or paranoid disorder for them.

kristallnacht-1938
Kristallnacht -Jewish owned shop windows smashed- Nazi Germany, Nov  9 & 10, 1938

For instance, if you ever wondered how previous mass-violence events were initiated such as the wave of anti-Jewish savagery and destruction that broke out across Germany on the night of November 8, 1938 – and known as the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass – you only have to watch the massive and adoring crowds at various Trump rallies and their absolute delight in chanting “Lock Her Up” to understand how the herd mind can be manipulated and potentially motivated to commit a heinous act.  With communication skills barely above basic grunting, and employing a simple vocabulary largely limited to hollow phraseology such as  “it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fantastic!”,  a large anti-intellectual crowd  – after being told what they want to hear, e.g., how wonderful they are –  can be  made to focus on a illusionary enemy who is made out to be standing in the way of their promised utopia,  and conceivably set afoot from there.

… we men are constantly in need of “the others,” the herd; we die, or despair, if we are not reassured by being in the herd, of the same opinion as the herd.  (Søren Kierkegaard)