Saturday, June 11, 2011

Desperation and evil

Sometimes, while listening to the news about various horrible events, I reflect on the traditional "seven deadly sins" (the wikipedia article here is fantastic). I am especially keen on the groupings of all of the sins into three: concupiscent (lust, gluttony, greed, envy), irascible (wrath), and "intellectual" (pride, vanity, despair, sloth).

Notice there are nine items here. The modern version combined pride and vanity into one, and despair and sloth into one. I think it's helpful to keep them distinguished. One can be vain without necessarily being narcissistic. Vanity or vainglory carries the connotation of futility, which I might loosely interpret as superficiality. A preoccupation with the meaningless.

Similarly, despair and sloth are related but not the same. Sloth or acedia (pronounced by one of my professors "aksedia") is more like what we would call clinical depression. And it is a mental illness. But calling something a mental illness does not completely empty it of moral significance. If one feels himself slipping into acedia, and he cannot overcome it by sheer force of will, then there is a moral obligation to find help and to persevere.

Despair, however, is less about activity (or the lack of it), but about ideas. Absolute despair is despair of God; but there can also be despair of friends, of love, of one's own prospects.

Anyway, as I listen to the news, I think about the collective sins that are sweeping the world, including my own, and I wonder how the traditional classifications apply.

In the first place, I think of poverty-stricken communities that coalesce into gangs, and here I believe desperation reigns. In terms of sheer numbers, I imagine that most crimes are desperate crimes. Desperation has the ability to turn any decent, good natured person into a criminal; even a murderer. On Paul Kennedy's "Ideas," I learned about Thucydides, who understood this well. Depravity is not a condition of some people, but a latent character of each of us when pushed to our physical and emotional limit. "War takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes."

How does desperation fit into the classical schema of sins? I am not sure that it does. Desperation is not born out of an over-reaching desire for what is not God. Rather, it is born out of an unreflecting impulse to the sudden loss of the entitlements due the human creation of God. It is the self-defensive reaction to violations of human rights and dignity. When food, water, shelter, and companionship are all robbed (whether by human agency or nature), the victim may enter into a mindset determined to reacquire these these things. The desperate mindset will place this re-acquisition at a higher priority than the lessons of civilization of which the comfortable human mind is more capable.

And there you have it: gangs. Collectives of fear within an atmosphere of hostility (cyclically reinforced), for whom the solitary rule increasingly becomes: whatever it takes, whatever works, to protect us and ours. Desperation is at once the greatest threat to civilization and the primordial foundation of it.

But desperation plays a much larger role in human behavior than this. Gangs are perhaps the most basic level of organized desperation. But feelings of desperation can obtain at every level of material wealth and comfort. Perhaps because of this, we can assign a spectrum of culpability to the phenomena of desperation.

The crimes of a truly desperate person might be forgiven on the grounds that, at the limits of human survival, few would act otherwise.

But the crimes of one who merely feels desperate, because of delusions or an exaggerated sense of entitlement, are less excusable. The wealthy who sacrifice thousands of jobs out of fear that their stock might be worth less the next morning. The husband who philanders out of fear that he will never have another chance to feel the thrill of fresh affection.

This exploration reveals that desperation is, in reality, a synonym for the irascible passions--the passions "against" something--in particular, the passions against loss. So desperation is really the opposite side of the coin of wrath, of extreme anger. But whereas wrath is directed at an "enemy", desperation is directed at a "need".

Desperation and anger are of course very close siblings. The whole phenomenon of scapegoating (thank you René Girard) is based on this partnership.

To that extent, aren't all sins, in some respect, desperate? No. The excesses of comfort and security invite a host of evils that have nothing to do with the fear of loss...

[sigh, the necessities of life].