Cruelty is seen at the cinema and on the television. We read about it in newspapers. There is probably an element of cruelty in your self which you have no wish to have
Although you may not always recognise this cruelty in yourself, you probably do notice many forms of the shadowy side of human behaviour in others: someone being heartless, spiteful, nasty, cruel, or even brutal. A task for personal growth is to learn to recognise the undesirable side of oneself. Hence the phrase most frequently employed by Jungian psychotherapists is `coming to terms with the shadow’. Jung was well aware of the reality of evil in human life.
Denial of cruelty and other evil
However, with a few other notable exceptions, psychologists and psychiatrists have, until recently, traditionally steered clear of speaking of evil per se. This despite the fact that virtually every culture has some word for evil.
“Most of us try hard to deny or avoid the reality of evil: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Or we attempt to neutralize it, dismissing evil as maya or illusion, as in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is tempting to deny the reality of evil entirely, due to its inherent subjectivity and relativity: ‘For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,’ says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, presaging the cognitive therapies of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.” (Stephen A. Diamond, clinical & forensic psychologist)
Some examples of cruelty in history
When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in October 1935 with fantasies of wealth and revenge for Italy’s defeat there forty years previously, he ordered poison gas to be sprayed indiscriminately from the air on military and civilian targets alike.
Stalin’s son Yakov shot himself because of Stalin’s harshness toward him. Stalin had several painters shot who did not depict him “right”.
Historians have estimated Stalin’s regime killed millions of people. Vadim Erlikman, for example, makes the following estimates: executions — 1.5 million; gulags — 5 million; deportations — 1.7 million out of 7.5 million deported; and POWs and German civilians — 1 million: thus a total of about 9 million victims of Stalin’s repression.
Is illness the cause of cruelty?
What is the cause of such appalling behaviour? Surely not just ignorant carelessness of the pain one can cause others? Those who take a benign view of human nature as basically good wonder if criminality of the worst kind must be due to illness?
Hitler was the author of the death of six million Jews, countless soldiers and civilians on both sides killed. These are the actions of a mass murderer. Serious medical biographers conclude that Hitler wasn’t mentally ill. Whether his beliefs were rational is an entirely different matter. Books by like those of Henrik Eberle Was Hitler Ill? and Fritz Redlick Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet conclude that he was sane according to any reasonable definition of the term, and fully responsible for his actions. I would say he had a passion for more greatness or power and no concern for anybody else than himself.
Swedenborg on the source of cruelty
In the West we are familiar with the notion of an afterlife of individual existence in a state of heaven or hell. Hell has traditionally been seen by Christians as a place of punishment as a result of God’s judgment. However a very different view is that a forgiving and loving deity would condemn no-one to a hellish state of existence as a result of any wrongdoing on earth. This approach suggests that although hell is not part of the divine plan nevertheless it is permitted as an inner state of heart and mind shared with others because it is actually preferred by some people, for then they can live within the same sphere as others who likewise want to be cruel and selfish and act in other inhuman ways.
This different view comes from Emanuel Swedenborg. He claimed that subjectively he was able to become conscious of an invisible realm in which his spirit existed and that as part of his journey within a spirit world he encountered some very unpleasant individuals. Many of these self-centred spirit people wanted to be obeyed and praised and were quick to feel slighted feeling various shades of contempt, vengefulness, nastiness and cruelty. The caring unselfish ones however had the opposite feelings.
But how does this account for inhuman actions in the world?
Swedenborg claimed that whilst the presence of these spirit people within his mind had become conscious, it usually remains unconscious with the rest of us. He says that spirit communicators had confirmed his experience that:
- The spirits of self-centred people as well as that of caring ones are unconsciously present with every one of us as we live our lives in the material world.
- Normally, these spirit people are totally unaware that they are with us as separate entities. Likewise we normally are unaware of them.
- They therefore believe that what we remember and think is actually their own memories and thoughts. Likewise we identify their feelings as our own.
- Because both sets of unconscious influences are balanced within our hearts and minds, we each have inner freedom to think and intend well or badly, honestly or dishonestly, fairly or unfairly. The source of our caring or nasty impulses arises outside of ourselves. We are responsible however for which way we face. We can open ourselves up to the negative or turn our face against it, taking instead on board the positive.
And so Swedenborg’s spiritual theory not only accounts for inhuman desires but also our freedom and responsibility to make the right personal choices.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems