Some Causes of Self-Immolation

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1931

Motives for Voluntary Self-Subjugation to Unpleasant Conditions by Human Beings

by L. Theobald, Jun., N.G., A.S.S.,

 Professor of Satanism and Applied Irreverence in Philistine University, Chorazin, Nebraska; Mencken Lecturer on Theology in Holy Roller College, Hoke’s Four Corners, Tennessee.

 

Human action, diverse, complex, and contradictory, has always piqued the curiosity of thoughtful men. From the remotest times philosophers have searched for its basic source or sources; shewing little agreement until the last two generations, when scientific psychology has come to the rescue with considerable pertinent information.

Early interpretations depended almost wholly on the mental habits of their proponents. Many teachers proclaimed a diversity of prime motivations, whilst others sought to unify the various visible impulses and refer them to a common fountain-head. It was of course recognised by determinists that behind any proximate base must lie the general flux of the universe, be it simple or complex; that is, that in the last analysis each human act can be no less than the inevitable result of every antecedent and circum-ambient condition in an eternal cosmos. This recognition, however, did not prevent such thinkers from continuing to seek for the more proximate base or bases, and to speculate upon the immediate strings by which human puppets are moved.

In Grecian times, there persisted the very sound notion that the single dominant quest of life is some sort of happiness, or the harmonious exercise of the sum of man’s various instincts and faculties; though this central idea was conceived in various forms, and subjected to widely different interpretations. Plato imagined three principal springs of human action—physical appetite, pure emotion, and intellectual choice; though we may consider him to have regarded the latter two as outgrowths of the first. Aristotle, impressed by the complexity of man, is less clear-cut and consistent. Epicurus seems to have held the quest of rational pleasure—that is, the balanced exercise of the natural impulses—the mainspring of all sound action; regarding as abnormal or unsound such impulses as tend to disturb equilibrium and lead to misery. The Stoics, though differently conceiving the best interests of man, thought likewise that self-benefit was the ultimate goal of his quest; and pictured a definite principle which impelled his various actions toward that end. Any springs of action apart from that principle or impulse (which was suitably subdivided) were esteemed abnormal and diseased. All these Hellenic estimates had the vast advantage of being based upon a sane and inclusive survey of the various acts of men, and of the evident resemblances in the direction of those acts.

After Greece comes a period of confused and often irrelevant thought concerning human motives, owing to the wide supremacy of cosmic interpretations based on exotic and subjective supernaturalism. The first conspicuous return to honest thinking appears to be the system of Descartes, who referred human action to an exercise of natural instinct as guided by an ill-defined but separate mind”—the two meeting in the pineal gland of the brain. This approach to modern endocrinology was, however, purely fortuitous. Descartes considered the springs of mental motivation to be six in number; admiration, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness; and described in some detail their mechanical operation in the brain as he conceived it. Spinoza far outstripped Descartes in depth and rationality of outlook, approaching the most modern conceptions in his estimate of human motivation. He saw that primitive instincts are desires to preserve and expand the individual, and traced the dependence of the more complex emotions upon them. Therefore, he inferred, action is inspired at third-hand (thought = emotion = instinct) by the natural impulse of man to survive, operating through varied and sometimes paradoxically opposed channels, and in turn derived through an infinite causal chain from the primary conditions of the cosmos. Spinoza, who returned to the sound Hellenic conception of happiness as the goal of mankind, may (despite a debt to Descartes) be viewed as the real father of modern ideas regarding human values and motives. In our own civilisation, Hobbes similarly emphasised the dominance of the survival-element, or self-interest, in human motivation; though he wholly lacked the subtlety and profundity of Spinoza. Hume is not fundamentally dissimilar, and in France La Mettrie and Helvetius likewise kept to a sound Hellenic concept based upon observation.

It was only in the nineteenth century, however, that the unity of human motivation was emphasised again by philosophers of the first rank. Schopenhauer placed the will to live at the bottom of all human action, while Nietzsche very acutely enlarged upon the idea through realisation of the essentially expansive quality of all human urges. For the mere will to live he substituted the more definite will to power. The positivists, such as Spencer, complicated the question by regarding all society as a quasi-biological organism—a concept still surviving in Oswald Spengler. In the twentieth century Bergson relapsed into misty metaphysics, but postulated a pervasive motivating force or élan vital as extending through the cosmos and determining our acts among other things. Bertrand Russell and Santayana favour a diversity of motivating forces, each based on a separate chemical reaction in the body; a mode of thought which behaviourists like Pavlov and Watson essentially pursue. All agree, however, that the single direction of these independent forces is toward the survival and well-being of the organism. As immediate sources of human motivation, the several endocrine glands—which act on the nervous system through the discharge of particles called hormones into the blood stream—are now considered paramount.

Freud largely returns to the concept of a single motivating force in a specific mechanical fashion, assuming the existence in man of a restless libido or impulse of ego-assertion equivalent to Bergson’s élan vital and largely identifiable with erotic instinct. To diversions and modifications of this, induced by conscious or unconscious prudence, he attributes most human action; though he tends to admit sheer self-preservation as a parallel and somewhat differentiated force. It is with Freud that modern scientific psychology, with its recognition of the unconsciousness of our most salient motivating factors, largely begins; but Dr. Alfred Adler apparently clarifies it and carries it further by generalising the main ego-assertion urge beyond the boundaries of the merely sexual. His idea of a basically simple but diversely manifested ego-urge, at times frustrated by prudence or timidity, accounts with remarkable accuracy for the bulk of observed human motives.

Today, then, we may justly regard human action as resulting from a basic organic impulse of ego-assertion, manifested through several distinct physical instincts inherent in evolved nervous tissue, and operating—in connexion with the mentally associative outgrowths classed as emotions—through the system of ductless glands. That the ultimate manifestations are complex and often paradoxical need not be wondered at when we reflect on the complexity of the organism and the divided (and often accidentally conflicting) channels through which the ego-urge functions. For example, biological experience has fashioned, for survival-value under different circumstances, the precisely opposite instincts of overt assertion and defensive abasement. McDougall classifies the instincts and their derived simple emotions under twelve headings, though it is of course obvious that the number of additional emotions built up through combination and complex experience is vast indeed. The list follows. All simple instincts are normal in essence, though abnormal misproportionings, perversions, combinations, and inversions are commonly recognised and exhaustively studied.

 

Instinct         Emotion

Nutrition        Hunger

Flight           Fear

Repulsion        Disgust

Curiosity        Wonder

Assertion        Elation (= courage?)

Abasement        Subjection (= humility)

Acquisition      Love of possession

Constructiveness Creative Delight (phase of aestheticism)

Pugnacity        Anger

Sex              Love

Parentalism      Tenderness

 

The present writer feels convinced that one basic instinct plus its derivative emotion ought to be added to this list; namely, an instinct for symmetry in the abstract, based upon habituation to the ceaseless rhythms and regularities (astronomical and otherwise) of the terrestrial environment, which supplies many aesthetic feelings traceable neither to creativeness nor to any conceivable complex emotion or emotions.

When we come to correlate the human phenomena about us with the conclusions reached by modern observers, we find the majority of cases fitting in readily with the conception of a dominant ego-urge expressed first as physical impulse and additionally as a craving for ego-exaltation on the part of the imagination. We realise, naturally, that the associative and symbolising qualities of the mind will not always cause such an urge to manifest itself narrowly or directly. Frequently there will be imaginative transferences of the ego-image to objects, both concrete and abstract, outside the given organism; so that zeal for the promotion of certain apparently non-personal interests will be observed. This is not remarkable, and does not seem incompatible with the accepted concept of motivation. Occasionally, however, we behold individuals in the act of voluntarily choosing experiences which cannot be other than painful or unpleasant; hence are led to wonder how such choices can be accounted for in the light of our previous assumption.

It may be said, in general, that all, cases of voluntary submission to hardship or pain involve the subordination of a lesser to a greater preference. In each case the individual is really doing, in the end, what most conduces to his own interest through the expansion of his subjective ego-image; and sometimes the case can be shewn to be a merely apparent one, since what seems outwardly unpleasant will not in fact be so to the given individual. At other times it can be shewn that the submission to hardship is not (at least wholly) truly voluntary. Seldom is the motivation simple or even nearly simple; so that it would be an infinitely cumbrous task to list and describe these cases under empirical headings—that is, to list specific cases of objective manifestation (as in the tentative synopsis suggested by Maurice Winter Moe, Esq.) instead of listing the relatively simple types of underlying motive whose combinations create the known array of vastly complex manifestations. In almost every specific manifestation, various distinct motives will be found—mixed in different portions, conscious or unconscious, and of varying degrees of recognisability. No layman is competent to determine the motive of any given course of human action, and there are cases where not even the most expert psychiatrist can speak with any real certainty.

Let us, then, try to enumerate the motives for self-immolation rather than any overt examples of that tendency; considering them in what may or may not be their approximate order of frequency, and mentioning the types of manifestation into which they enter—and which, of course, in a few cases some one of them may singly or at least preponderantly occasion. Upon mature reflection, we seem to recognise eight different species of motive leading toward the self-infliction of hardship or pain; seven reasonably normal, and the eighth technically abnormal although exceedingly common as an ingredient of complex motives.

The Prudential Motive is a name we may apply to that simple and universal policy of mankind whereby an immediate or lesser hardship is endured for the sake of future or greater personal pleasure or security. Of all the motives, it is the one most apt to be found in a relatively uncombined state; and is the least subtle and most direct in its operation. Many of the other motives may theoretically be regarded as subdivisions of it, but in practice we may limit the class to very literal cases, where the rewards are of a rather definite and tangible kind. Its operation can be direct, as in the habit of thrift, suffering experienced in social or political elevation, hard work performed to gratify intellectual curiosity or the ego-urge, hardship endured in mastering a pleasure-producing accomplishment, asceticism suffered for the sake of keener later enjoyment, religious discipline endured for the sake of mythical celestial rewards, political sacrifices undertaken to effect later triumphs, prize-ring bruising in the hope of final victory with purse and honours, and so on; or it can be indirect, as in the observance of general civic or so-called moral inhibitions. It is also embodied in the gregarious subordination of personal tastes to the tastes of one’s group, undertaken for the sake of the pleasure, inherent in environmental harmony. A negative aspect of this motive is that in which fear of adverse consequences is a factor, as in old-time religion, some cases of civic and military obedience, and the like.

The Inertia or Habit Motive explains action or endurance undertaken because of the pressure of custom or precedent on pliant rather than vigorous intellects. The subject does not know how to avoid doing what the group recommends or has always recommended, or perhaps it does not occur to him that any alternative course is possible. This accounts for the tremendous number of instances where petty nuisances are needlessly endured from members of one’s family or from others, where conventional and non-obligatory sacrifices are made, and where silly, meaningless, and oppressive customs or attitudes are kept up after all reason and compulsion for their maintenance has subsided. On a large scale it accounts for the endurance of grave and needless social and civic disadvantages by various elements of a community. This category may be largely an apparent rather than basic one, since its cases can be attributed to the fear aspect of the prudential motive, or can be interpreted as being not really voluntary at all in the subtlest sense. But its empirical existence and vast extent are obvious.

The Approval Motive, whereby we obtain favourable distinction in the eyes of ourselves or of others by following a course regarded as difficult and admirable by the group to which we belong, is also exceedingly common. It is distinguished from a more profound quest for excellence, or a more spontaneous altruism, by its essential superficiality; and it dictates a large part of the social, religious, and civic behaviour of civilised man. It animates most reformers and puritanical prigs, and enters into most visible species of martyrdom, scholastic or other effort, marathon races, tree-sitting, prowess, altruism, and so forth. A distinct variant is the exhibitionist motive, whereby one acquires distinction as an exceptional person by affecting to enjoy what most find unpleasant. We find this variant in such eccentrics as pretend to relish swimming in midwinter, and in analogous types.

The Exterior-Gratification Motive, though challenged by many, who refer its apparent phenomena to the prudential, approval, and perhaps other motives, probably has a distinct existence of its own; as attested by a definite though not very large minority of cases where the springs of certain acts not directly self-benefiting are found to be extremely powerful and at least consciously sincere. We may define this motive as that whereby a person endures hardship or pain—mental or physical—for the sake of some exterior or trans-personally expanded unit with which his ego has imaginatively (associatively or symbolically) identified itself. The existence of these imaginative transpositions or expansions of the ego-image has seldom been denied where self-immolation is not concerned, and there is no reason to limit the recognition to such an area. Primitive instinct—eroticism, parentalism, gregariousness, etc.—often temporarily transfers or extends the ego-concept without much loss of driving force; whilst associative emotion greatly enlarges an array of external or expanded ego-images. One’s clan, race, country, or culture-group becomes an imaginative extension of oneself, as does also one’s social system or body of opinion—political, scientific, philosophical, aesthetic, and so on. In theory, at least, many grandiloquent individuals have professed to identify themselves with the entire human species, the entire realm of organic life, or even the sum total of the cosmos or space-time continuum; but there is reason to think that most cases of this sort are hollow, charlatanic pretensions, and filled with self-deception. At best, most imaginative identifications beyond a roughly defined field approximately connected with racial, national, and cultural group limits are apt to be very tenuous, brief, fragmentary, and consciously or unconsciously insincere. There is, however, an auto-hypnotic and probably abnormal type of powerful cosmos-identification which we know as mysticism, and which figures in the operation of many Oriental religions. The exterior-gratification motive includes most sincere (i.e., not approval-seeking, prudential, etc.) cases of personal altruism, including those fear-cases where the subject symbolises disaster to himself in that of others, and feels impelled to relieve others at the cost of immediate pain. It also embraces many phases of genuine intellectual, religious, and aesthetic martyrdom, most sincere civic, patriotic, and humanitarian sacrifice and endeavour, and most real self-denial to promote intellectual, aesthetic, and moral objects. It motivates such asceticism as is undertaken for example’s sake, and enters enormously into military courage.

The Ego-Expansion Motive, likewise challenged by critics, but presenting too many sound evidences of its existence to warrant a total denial, is that which causes us to endure hardship or pain for the sake of acquiring a genuinely higher intrinsic status in the environing pattern; a status either relative or—in the case of those still believing in absolute standards—absolute. This sincere motivation must be carefully distinguished from that deceptive form of the approval-motive in which the subject dramatises himself and plays rather cheaply and superficially for his own transient benefit. In the case of genuine ego-expansionism, the subject is relatively free from the habit of self delusion and histrionics and really wishes to attain an intrinsically increased development or more important essence in the fabrics to which he envisages himself as belonging. This motive includes most varieties of genuine religious and aesthetic asceticism, much of religious martyrdom (though not of other forms), and much hard work and study in intellectual, aesthetic, and social fields.

The Emotional-Conflict Motive consists of an overpowering or replacement of natural inhibitions or even of pain-consciousness by some powerfully driving urge, as of volition, love, fear, hatred, etc.—which causes the maintenance of accustomed safeguards or even the perception of pain to be temporarily forgotten. This is the cause of that Berserk mood whereby we “see red” and rush joyfully into any sort of danger and sanguinary suffering; and likewise of the “cornered rat” mood in which we defy any hazard in a final burst of fear-born action against the virtual certainty of a greater disaster. It figures greatly in many cases of altruism (combining with ego-expansionism, approval-seeking, exterior-gratificationalism, prudentialism, etc., in many sudden acts of so-called heroism), martyrdom, patriotism, military courage, etc.; as also in a wide variety of fear-moved actions and cases of endurance.

The Craftsmanship Motive is one of the rarest and subtlest of forces; causing certain sensitive persons to experience a positive pleasure, despite incidental hardship or pain, in shaping events, as well as tangible objects and media, in accordance with a subjectively envisaged rhythm-pattern. This motive, beside inciting the subject to direct aesthetic effort in the face of pain and difficulties, covers many phases of aesthetic and religious asceticism, in which the subject takes an abstract delight in having certain patterns of action followed or approached; a delight quite distinct from any improvement of his own status (as under the ego-expansion motive), since in his zeal for the abstraction which he calls “beauty”, “virtue”, or “piety”, he is thinking of the pattern rather than of the performer, and is merely placing himself on a parity with others, for whose similar following of the pattern he is equally anxious. In practice, however, this motive is apt to occur as a concomitant of ego-expansionism rather than alone. In its least mixed form it is probably the chief ingredient of difficult mental, artistic, and kindred achievements. It is probably derived primarily from the basic instinct of constructiveness, plus the parallel motive of exterior-gratification, whereby the symbol of the ego has attached itself to the favoured pattern. Its ascetic aspects are distinguished from pure exterior-gratification phenomena because the safety and status of the favoured pattern are never at stake. The pattern’s importance and security are taken for granted, so that there can be no idea of assisting or benefiting it. It is simply that the subject takes satisfaction in the performance of certain imaginatively related acts in a certain order. However—it is possible that the assignment of creative effort to the prudential class (hardship leading to reward), and the belief that the symbolic glorification of a favoured pattern inherent in its following places pure pattern-asceticism under the heading of exterior-gratification (with the ego transferred to the pattern), may be sufficient to eliminate this special category. Distinctions of this sort are necessarily highly nebulous.

The Masochistic Motive, involving the instinctive perversion known as masochism, whereby a sensuous delight is taken in the phenomenon of pain-perception, is comparatively rare as a pure source of action; though exceedingly common as a component in varying degree of various complex motivations. In its purest form it involves the fantastic and capricious self-infliction or induced affliction of pain, mental or physical. Usually, however, it is a fainter and more veiled auxiliary force. It dominates the mystical aspect of a majority of Oriental religions, and incites many individuals to varying degrees of subtly titillating martyrdom, public or private. It can be found in the voluntarily endured domestic burdens and tyrannies of many households, and in many seemingly unhappy phases of erotic relationships. As an independent emotion it is undeniably abnormal, though most psychologists do not think it absent in small quantity from the average normal personality. Homely adage sums it up in describing the person who enjoys poor health —though perhaps that person adds other motives, such as the ego-expanding gratifications of attention and sympathy, to the sheer masochism of his attitude. The possible connexion of masochism with the basic defensive abasement instinct is at least worth careful study.

Such are the eight well-defined motivational variants which appear, singly or in sundry combinations, to lie behind the whole wide array of self-immolatory acts. Attempts to evaluate such petty human motives, in an infinite and impersonal cosmos amidst which mankind is a negligible and microscopic accident, are at best rather naive; but we may, if we wish, seek to correlate them with this or that system of relative standards. Of such sets the least flimsy and empirical is that determined by organic evolution and aesthetic-intellectual development; which attributes may be said to measure the distance of an individual from the primal protoplasmic jelly. What balance of these motives, then, may we expect to find in the most preferred type of homo sapiens?

In general, we may say that in an evolved and cultivated man the intellect, imagination, and beauty-sense are developed prodigiously beyond their respective proportions in the primitive type. Accordingly, we may expect to find the powers of discrimination, association, symbolisation, and creativeness very strong. Motives dependent on animal instinct, insincerity, stupidity, or poor coordination—like the inertia, approval, emotional-conflict, and masochistic motives—may be expected to be relatively subordinate, hence may be classed as qualitatively inferior; whilst mental and imaginative motives—like exterior-gratificationalism, ego-expansionalism, and crafts-manship—will be very prominent, hence may receive a higher qualitative rank. The prudential motive is equally strong in developed and undeveloped personalities despite natural differences of application, hence may be regarded as essentially neutral qualitatively.

Another set of relative standards is that derived from the needs of human society as the present finds it to be most feasibly constituted; for naturally, a group of all-superior men could never arrive at a state of large-scale equilibrium and coordinated function. What self-immolatory motivations, then, are most socially serviceable in the masses of a people as opposed to its aristocracy? Naturally, the prudential motive must rate high; as must also the inertia and approval motives—since without these there can be no incentives to civil order amongst a herd deficient in the intellectual, associative, symbolic, and creative qualities. However, the exterior-gratification and ego-expansion motives are of equal value so far as they are operative at all on a large scale. We do often find certain of their manifestations in uncultivated though biologically evolved types. The emotional-conflict motive, though disastrous when employed against the social order, is infinitely valuable when employed in society’s behalf; and indeed forms a sort of criterion of manly status among Aryan peoples. The craftsmanship motive is unqualifiedly good except when its ascetic aspect is turned to favour-patterns opposed to the social order, but on this latter account may be regarded as a less certain asset than some others. Masochism can conceivably work to advantage in maintaining order, but it has doubtful implications and is not to be encouraged. With this possible exception, we may say that virtually all the self-immolatory motives are of great value in the masses of society, since so much of social adjustment must necessarily consist of the renunciation of immediate advantages for the sake of a stable order productive of ultimately greater advantages.

That the nature and operation of these seemingly paradoxical impulses do indeed confirm our general belief in ego-assertion or ultimate self-interest as a supreme human motive, or principle underlying action, would appear to be too certain a thing for profitable challenging. As in many other philosophic spheres, the marvellous instinctive insight and subtle comprehension of the Greeks is vindicated after centuries of chaotic eclipse; while exact knowledge is rapidly filling up lacunae hitherto bridged over only by a bold exercise of the disciplined imagination.

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