The Children of Eris

Near to the beginning of time, Eris, goddess of strife and discord, eldest daughter of Night, gave birth to a great number of children, among them Toil, Forgetfulness, Lies and Falsehoods, Sufferings, Quarrels, Fights, Murders, and Folly or Ruin[1]. These fatherless, unloved, but immortal children of Eris are too several and alike and loathsome to tell apart, and so they are simply called the Kakodaimones or ‘evil spirits’.

Once, many ages before ours, the Titan Prometheus[2] stole some fire from the gods in the stalk of a fennel plant and, taking pity, gifted the fire to mortal man. Zeus, the father of all the Olympian gods, punished Prometheus by bounding him to a cliff overlooking the great sea. Each day a giant eagle tore at his liver, only for the organ to regenerate overnight and to be re-eaten the next day.

Not content with punishing Prometheus, Zeus moved to punish mankind. Thus he ordered the creation of Pandora[3], a beautiful evil fashioned with softest clay and appointed with seductive gifts from each of the Olympian gods. One day – in innocence rather than malice – Pandora lifted the lid of the great jar that contained the Kakodaimones and unleashed the children of Eris onto mankind. By the time she could replace the lid, all the Kakodaimones had fled, and only poor Hope remained at the bottom of the jar.

Many generations of mortals came and passed. One fine spring, Zeus asked all the gods and demi-gods to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the soon-to-be parents of the soon-to-be hero of the Achaeans, the great Achilles. All, that is, except for Eris, who had not been forgotten but ignored, and who exacted her revenge by tossing into the party a golden apple inscribed with the message, ‘To the Fairest One’. As Eris had no doubt expected, the three most beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, began to quarrel over the apple.

To settle their dispute, Zeus appointed the hapless Paris, Prince of Troy, to pick out the fairest of the three. Hera tried to bribe Paris with a gift of the political art, Athena promised him skill in battle, and Aphrodite tempted him with the love of she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. By picking Helen over wisdom and war, Paris enraged Menelaus and the Achaeans, who set out in a thousand ships to deliver Helen from Troy. With the war that came, came the downfall not only of Paris, but also of his royal house, peoples, and city of Troy, ancient Troy, razed to the blood-soaked ground of the once fertile plain of Scamander.

[1] Ponos, Lethe, the Pseudologoi, the Algea, the Neikea, the Hysminai, the Phonoi, and Aite.

[2] The name translates as ‘Forethought’.

[3] The name translates as ‘All-gifted’.

Successful psychopaths (Updated)

Whilst personality disorders may lead to distress and impairment, they may also lead to extraordinary achievement. In 2005, Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey found that, compared to mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, high-level executives were more likely to have one of three personality disorders: histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and anankastic personality disorder.

Thus, it is possible to envisage that people may benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and therefore at building and exercising business relationships; people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, and self-focused, and able to exploit people and situations to their best advantage; and people with anankastic personality disorder may get quite far up the corporate and professional ladders simply by being so devoted to work and productivity. Even people with borderline personality disorder may at times be bright, witty, and the very life of the party.

As the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce … in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’

Update 27/12/11:
Most recently, in 2010, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues carried out a study to uncover exactly how successful psychopaths differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked a number of members of Division 41 (psychology and law) of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who was not only successful but also conformed to Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath,

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.

From the responses that they collated, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues found that the successful psychopath matched the unsuccessful one in all respects but one, namely, conscientiousness. Thus, it appears that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the one behaves impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the other is able to inhibit or restrain those destructive tendencies to build for the future.

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.

Asceticism: Anthony of the Desert and Simeon Stylites

A beacon of the ascetic life is St Anthony of the Desert, the ‘Father of All Monks’, who has the rare distinction of having lent his name both to an Oxford college and to a skin disease (St Anthony’s fire or erysipelas). According to the Life of Anthony by the 4th century and near contemporary bishop St Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony, having lost both his parents, renounced his inherited wealth and devoted himself entirely to religious exercises, heeding the supererogatory counsel of Jesus, who, according to Matthew 19:21, said to the rich man, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.’ After some years on the ascetic path, Anthony took up residence in a tomb near his native village. There he resisted the temptations and torments of the devil, an episode that has often been depicted in art – including by modernists such as Cézanne and Dalí. Demons in the forms of wild beasts attacked him in the tomb, occasionally leaving him bruised and unconscious and in need of care. Having spent 15 years in the tomb, Anthony retreated further and into complete solitude, secluding himself in an abandoned fort in the desert of Egypt and subsisting on nothing more than the food that pilgrims catapulted over the walls. After some 20 more years, his devotees persuaded him to leave the fort to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet ‘Father of All Monks’. He emerged from the fort not emaciated as people had been expecting but healthy and radiant. He passed five or six years with his devotees and then once again withdrew into the Egyptian desert, to a mountain whereupon can still be found the monastery that bears his name, Der Mar Antonios. This time, however, he did consent to receiving visitors and even undertook some travels. In particular, he twice visited Alexandria, once in 311 to support the Christian martyrs in the persecution, and a second time near the close of his life in around 350 to preach against the Arians. One must believe that austerity makes for longevity: Anthony died at the grand old age of 105, which for the 4th century might be considered not far short of a miracle.

Anthony’s life may seem heroic, but it is not quite as heroic as that of St Simeon Stylites, who, in the 5th century, lived for 39 years perched on top of a pillar (Greek, stylos) near Aleppo in Syria. Simeon had initially sought isolation on a rocky eminence in the desert, but pilgrims invaded the area and pestered him for his counsel and prayers. As he could no longer find enough time for his devotions, he felt that he had no choice but to create a small platform atop a pillar, this time trying to escape vertically rather than horizontally. The first pillar was little more than nine feet high, but was superseded by others with the last being over 50 feet and topped with a balustered platform. There, exposed to the elements, he delivered addresses, wrote letters (including one to emperor Leo in favour of the Council of Chalcedon), and admitted of visitors who ascended to him by a ladder. Each year he passed the entire period of Lent without eating or drinking, to which deprivations he added the mortification of standing continually upright. When he became ill, emperor Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to come down to earth and see a physician, but he elected instead to trust in God and made a swift recovery. Simeon inspired several other so-called pillar-saints or stylites to take up his very particular brand of asceticism, not least one St Alypius who stood upright for 53 years before his feet could no longer support him, after which, still atop his column, he lay on his side for the remaining 14 years of his life. Alypius may well have become better remembered than Simeon had the latter not had the first mover advantage. Four basilicas were built around Simeon’s column, and the base of the column and the ruins of the basilicas can still be seen in the vicinity of Aleppo.

In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon says of Simeon,

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Splitting as an ego defense

Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. – Nietzsche

Splitting is a very common ego defense mechanism; it can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes. This is often seen in politics, for example, when members of the Labour Party portray members of the Conservative Party as narrow-minded and self-interested, and conversely when members of the Conservative Party caricature members of the Labour Party as self-righteous hypocrites. Other examples of splitting are the deeply religious person who thinks of others as being either blessed or damned, the child of divorced parents who idolises one parent and shuns the other, and the hospital in-patient who sees the doctors as helpful and dedicated and the nurses as lazy and incompetent. An example of splitting in literature can be found in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The main protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is mystified by adulthood. To help cope with his fear of becoming an adult, he thinks of adulthood as a world of entirely bad things such as superficiality and hypocrisy (‘phoniness’) and of childhood as a world of entirely good things such as innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play, and himself as the ‘catcher in the rye’ who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching the children as they threaten to fall over (and presumably die/become adults).

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

In contrast to JD Salinger, Miguel de Cervantes uses splitting to great comical effect as his main protagonist, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha, guides us through a world that he has repopulated with heroes and villains, princesses and harlots, giants and dwarves – with the heroes being the greatest, the villains the most cruel, the ladies the fairest and most virtuous, and so on. ‘Take care, your worship,’ cries Sancho Pancha, Don Quixote’s peasant-turned-squire, ‘those things over there are not giants but windmills.’ Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying and schematising the situation and thereby making it easier to think about; it also reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing all those who do not share in our opinions and values. On the other hand, such a compartmentalization of opposites leaves us with a distinctly distorted picture of reality and a restricted range of thoughts and emotions; it also affects our ability to attract and maintain relationships, not only because it is tedious and unbecoming, but also because it can easily flip, with friends and lovers being thought of as personified virtue at one time and then as personified vice at another (and back and forth). Splitting also arises in groups, when members of the in-group are seen to have mostly positive attributes, whereas members of out-groups are seen to have mostly negative attributes – a phenomenon that contributes to groupthink. Finally, it is worth noting that both fairy tales and the Church feature a number of sharp splits, for example, heroes and villains, good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, and saints and sinners; and that the greatest characters of literature, such as the Achilles or the Odysseus of Homer and the Anthony or the Cleopatra of Shakespeare, contain large measures of both good and bad, with the one being intimately related to the other.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.


Everything has been figured out, except how to live. - Sartre

Inauthenticity involves pretending to be something other than one is and so, by implication, casting off the freedom to create, express, and fulfil one’s own self. Inauthenticity is often reinforced by sociocultural forces such as peer pressure and advertising, and is motivated by the subconscious desires to fit in, avoid criticism, and minimise or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility. Examples include the teenager who acts ‘cool’, the person who takes an interest in something because others do, and the person who gets married because he has arrived at the ripe old age of 30, 35, or 40 years old.

The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls such inauthenticity mauvaise foie, ‘bad faith’. His paradigmatic example of bad faith is that of a waiter who does his utmost to conform to the archetype of the waiter, that is, to everything that a waiter should or is expected to be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to entertain or even recognise the multitude of other choices that are open to him, the waiter places himself at the mercy of his external circumstances. In this important respect, he is more akin to an object – ‘a waiter’ – than to a conscious human being who is able to transcend his existence to give shape to his essence. As Freud himself commented in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, ‘Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.’

The concept of authenticity does not begin with Sartre or Freud, and stretches at least as far back as Plato. In the Greater Alcibiades, Socrates asks a young and foolish Alcibiades how one is to go about gaining self-knowledge. Socrates maintains that, if one were to say to the eye, ‘See yourself,’ the eye should look into a mirror to see itself. Since the pupil of the eye is just like a mirror, the eye could see itself by looking into an eye. Similarly, the soul can see itself by looking into the soul, and particularly into that part of the soul which has most to do with wisdom and which is therefore most akin to the divine. Self-knowledge, Socrates concludes, is, in fact, no other than wisdom; unless Alcibiades finds wisdom, he will never be able to know his own good and evil, nor that of others, nor the affairs of states. If Alcibiades were to become a statesman – as indeed he intends – without first having found wisdom, he would fall into error and be miserable, and make everybody else miserable too. What is more, he who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom; since that which is better is also more becoming, slavery is more becoming to such a person. Socrates’ conclusions may seem abhorrent to modern sensitivities, but it does stand to reason that the person who unconsciously defines himself according to the likes and expectations of others and, by extension, of society also condemns himself to by far the most dishonourable kind of slavery, the slavery of the mind.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

– William Blake, London

As noted by the 20th century psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, the authentic person does not necessarily need to resemble some kind of freak outsider. If a person engages in a frank and thorough appraisal of the universal and personal implications of the prevailing social norms and then decides to adopt some or most of them en toute connaissance de cause, then he cannot be taxed with inauthenticity. Conversely, it should not be assumed that every eccentric is an authentic. Genuine authenticity lies in the method and not in the madness.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith