Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The disease called man

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

This phrase is by F. Nietzsche and it means that the human being is a paradoxical being, healthy and diseased -- in him live the saint and the murderer. Bioanthropologists, cosmologists and others state that the human being is at once wise and insane, angel and devil, dia-bolic and sym-bolic. Freud would say that there are two basic instincts in him: one of life that loves and enriches life and another of death that seeks destruction and wants to kill. It's important to emphasize that both forces co-exist simultaneously in him. Therefore, our existence is not simple but complex and dramatic. Sometimes the will to live dominates and then everything radiates and grows. At other times the will to kill wins the game and then violence and crimes such as the one that occurred recently in Rio de Janeiro are produced.

Can we overcome this split in human beings? That was the question A. Einstein raised to S. Freud in a letter dated July 30, 1932: "Is there a possibility of directing psychic development to the point of making human beings more able to resist the psychosis of hate and destruction?" Freud responded realistically, "There is no hope of suppressing human aggression directly. What we can do is resort to indirect channels, strengthening the principle of life (Eros) against the principle of death (Thanatos)." And he ended with a resigned sentence: "being hungry, we think of the mill that grinds so slowly that we could die of hunger before receiving flour." Is this our fate?

Why am I writing these things? Because of the insane person who on April 5 shot and killed 12 innocent students aged 13-15 years and left 12 wounded at a school in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Already a number of analyses have been made and numerous measures have been suggested such as restricting the sale of weapons, putting together police security arrangements in each school, and others. All of this makes sense. But it doesn't get to the root of the problem. The killer dimension -- let's be specific and humble -- lives in each one of us. We have instincts to attack and kill. It's in the human condition. The interpretations we give it are unimportant. Sublimation and denial of this anti-reality do not help us. You have to assume it and find ways to keep it under control and prevent it from flooding the consciousness, strengthening the instinct for life and taking charge of the situation. Freud suggested it: everything that makes for creating emotional bonds between human beings, all civilization, all education, all art and competition for the best, work against aggression and death.

The crime committed at the school is horrible. We Christians know the slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod. Fearing that Jesus, newly born, would later seize power from him, he ordered the killing of all children around Bethlehem. The sacred texts bring the most moving expressions: "A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more." (Mt 2:18). Something similar happened with the families of the victims.

This criminal act is not isolated from our society. It's not that it has violence, worse, it is mounted on permanent structures of violence. Here privileges are worth more than rights. Marcio Pochmann in Atlas Social do Brasil brings some shocking data: 1% of the population (about five thousand families) controls 48% of the GDP and 1% of the large owners holds 46% of all lands. Can a peaceful society be built on such social violence? These are the ones who abhor talk of land reform and changes to the Forest Code. They value their privileges more than the rights of life.

The fact is that in psychologically disturbed individuals, the death dimension, for thousands of underlying reasons, can emerge and dominate the personality. They don't lose reason. They use it at the service of twisted emotions. The most tragic case, studied minutely by Erich Fromm (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1975) was that of Adolph Hitler. Since his youth, he was seized by the death instinct. At the end of the war, noticing the defeat, he asked the people to destroy everything, poison the water, burn the soil, liquidate the animals, tear down the monuments, kill themselves as a race and destroy the world. In point of fact, he killed himself and all his closest followers. It was the rule of the principle of death.

It is for God to judge the subjectivity of the murderer of the school students. For us to condemn what is objective, the crime of grave evil, and know how to place it in the area of the human condition. And use all positive strategies to face the Work of the Negative and understand the mechanisms that can subjugate us. I know no better strategy than seeking a just society in which the law, respect, cooperation, education and health are ensured for all. And the method that Francis of Assisi shows us in his famous prayer: to bring love where there is hatred, pardon where there was injury, hope where there is despair, light where darkness prevails. Life heals life and love overcomes in us the hatred that kills.

1 comment:

  1. Great article about the nature of men, good and evil in us and what needs to be done to straighten the first. I'm putting it in my FB. ♦