Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“He who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

The monster behind the mask

Psychopaths in mythology, history, society and evolution

Evil does exist, and by all evidence it is a disease — perhaps a communicable one.

Behind the mask...

Behind the mask...
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What evil is we cannot easily say; it is far more useful to say what evil does. We may say, then, that we do evil when we rationalize the unconscionable.

All of us do this to some extent as the price we pay for living in a morally ambiguous society, but when it becomes a dominant character trait, it denotes psychopathy. Here we must be careful with our terms. According to current diagnostic manuals, there is no such condition; it is subsumed into the lethally bland “antisocial personality disorder.” However, this may soon change, for the psychopath is distinguished by traits of character as distinguished from behavior: He may be described as an “intraspecies predator,” for often he lives by the immiseration of the vulnerable, and finds his greatest pleasure in harming others and “getting away with it.”

Whether psychopathy and sociopathy are interchangeable, or close cousins, or different gradations of the same condition, remains in dispute; I personally think the terms are in essence identical, and prefer the former as less euphemistic. What is not disputed is that neither condition is to be confused with psychosis. The psychopath is perfectly aware of reality, free of obvious delusions or mania, outwardly sane; he is merely devoid of any sense of right and wrong to guide him, and instinctively prefers evil.

Thanks to popular entertainment, many people mistakenly assume that the psychopath’s brand of evil is the stuff of horror movies: relentless violence with a penchant for gore. This is a terrible disservice to the many of us who will one day have to contend with an actual psychopath, for in this case what we don’t know can and will hurt us.

Although some psychopaths lose control and commit crimes for which they can be punished, the most dangerous variety is what is often called the “subcriminal” psychopath. This individual does indeed commit crimes: He is apt, in fact, to torture those who fall into his power, to inflict emotional distress, to shorten lives; but he is careful always to retain “plausible deniability”: His victims may well know he is committing terrible crimes against their most fundamental, inalienable rights, but they can’t prove it, or there is no provision in the law to forbid it. In the helplessness of his victim, and his own impunity, lies the psychopath’s perverse pleasure.


Loki was sometimes called “mischievous,” but his ideas of mischief tended to involve tricking people into
killing each other.
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We may not be able precisely to describe the psychopath, but we have known about him since at least the first moment of recorded time. He has worn many names. We have called him Loki, Lucifer, Satan, Iblis, Ahriman and Set; in mythos past and present, he is the mischief-maker, the author of deception, the source of evil. His besetting sin is pride: He knows the law, but is certain that it applies to inferior beings; conscience, he knows not at all. To manipulate, to charm victims to their doom, to lie for any reason or none at all, to learn the weaknesses of others and exploit them, to turn friends and allies against one another, to create and spread malicious calumnies: These constitute his method and define his character. Think only of the shadowy figure of the wicked wazir of 1,001 Nights fame whispering poisoned words in the ear of the foolish sultan; there you see him at his most iconic.

Fingolfin vs. Morgoth

Fighting the good fight: The elven hero Fingolfin takes on Morgoth. He lost, but Morgoth was wounded and
had to nurse his wounds in Angband
before renewing his aggressions.
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He reappears throughout our literature: Think now of Sauron corrupting the king of Numenor, or of his mentor, Morgoth, setting the elves from whom he stole the Silmarils at blade to throat. Consider MacBeth, the Scots regicide who blamed his crime on everything but himself until the coming of Nemesis in the form of MacDuff. By contrast, think of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who kills an old pawnbroker because he subscribes to a bad theory by which he thinks himself justified to take a life he deems worthless to fund the illustrious career he imagines for himself; in this he follows the “Ubermensch” fallacy of Nietzsche and anticipates the “objectivism” of Ayn Rand, and his sufferings come because he only thinks he is a psychopath.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla

Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Dictator of Rome (82-79 BCE)
and suspected serial killer.
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The psychopath can be seen in history ancient and modern. Think now of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the dictator of Rome from 82-79 BC: Born to an ancient aristocratic family but hobbled by poverty, he is said to have killed his wealthy aunt Clitumna to finance a career that culminated in posting a list of his enemies in the Forum that conferred their property on anyone who killed them, thereby commissioning his supporters to grow rich by massacring over 1,500 senators and equestrians, some of whom had never actively opposed him. Think of Conrad of Marburg, the efficient papal soldier who put a blade in the hand of the Inquisition, saying always that he fought only to defend orthodoxy against satanic heresies even as he inflicted satanic cruelties upon innocents who fell within his power to chastise. Think also of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Heinrich Himmler, Benito Mussolini and Hosni Mubarak: all men who used lies and manipulation in their foulest forms to gain and expand their power and ordered murder without blinking.

Heinrich Himmler

‘The calm within the storm’: Cold, clinical and imperturbable, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler has been described as
the prototypical psychopath.
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The psychopath also lives among us today. He may be in jail, but too often he isn’t. He may be that neighbor who waits for the cover of darkness to fill houses all around him with air contaminants from whatever he chooses to put in his fireplace or his dryer. He may be that boss who seems to love humiliating his employees. Or he may be a corporate CEO, a head of state, a law-enforcement official, a senior military officer, a judge, a televangelist, a vice-president of the United States. To know him is not so easy, for no sign of his inner perversion marks his face; but he is likelier than not to seem almost preternaturally “normal” — in fact, he is often an aggressive conformist who likes to mount campaigns of persecution against those who diverge from the mainstream.

Dick Cheney

Alive without a pulse”: Former Vice-President Dick Cheney.
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Since he is ambitious and willing to say or do anything to gain wealth and power, the psychopath may be at an advantage over those who are inhibited by conscience and mistakenly assume others are as well. This has enabled many of them to exert both overt authority and covert influence on our societies, and many believe that in consequence most of the world lives (and suffers needlessly) under pathocracy: rule by psychopaths.

Essentially, psychopathy could be defined as marking one end of a continuum from pathological selfishness to pathological altruism. Most people find a balance somewhere in the middle, providing for their own best interest to the extent that their circumstances permit while doing nothing to imperil the essential interests of humanity as a whole. But psychopathy persists; we have, again, seen evidence of it from the outset. Why is this?

It may be merely a matter of junk DNA. According to a recent study, perinatal infections may cause certain mental illnesses by causing genetic weaknesses to express as pathology, and some believe that psychopathy is merely one of the consequences of such an infection. But it is also conceivable that psychopaths have served an evolutionary purpose.

Sir Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill led the fight against the psychopath Adolf Hitler. But was he a psychopath himself?
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John Dalberg-Acton, First Baron Acton, once opined that “Great men are almost always bad men.” A bit of biographical study tells us that not only was Hitler a psychopath, but much of the known behavior of both Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is consistent with psychopathy; and this should not surprise us, for grandiose ambition is among the psychopath’s defining traits, and both men were known to be capricious, manipulative, emotionally cold and capable of cruelty. Perhaps, then, it takes pathology to achieve “greatness” at this level, and perhaps it takes a psychopath to stop a psychopath; perhaps a nation under threat demands the kind of fearless confidence and certitude that only a psychopath can project. Perhaps, also, the strong men of antiquity who first joined families into tribes, tribes into states, states into empires, all were men whose pathological impulse to control others led them to perform a necessary function in our social evolution.

But as psychopaths achieve this kind of “greatness” for themselves, they constrain and damage others. We have passed the time of forming states; indeed, we are now leaving the era of the nation-state behind as direct personal contact between people in distant lands becomes the norm and the oppressed of the world find common cause against their oppressors. Today, psychopaths must not be permitted to retain power, for the stakes are beyond their comprehension: As brilliant as they may sometimes seem, they are defined in part by their lack of moral intelligence, and they now commit stupidities that endanger everything we depend upon for survival.

The evolutionary purpose of the psychopath has been fulfilled. From today, he is a deadly liability who threatens to end our evolution by making our air, water and soil too profoundly tainted to support life. His selfishness blinds him; he cannot see or care that even his own children will suffer and die because of what he does today in the name of securing a prosperous future for them.

Note this, however: I believe that psychopaths are evil, but their evil was not a thing they chose to put on. They were born this way — or perhaps, in part and in some cases, made this way by the conditions of their childhood. It would be unjust to punish them, unfair to exterminate them. But we must still remove their hands from the levers of our world and secure them where they can do no harm until we can learn to cure, treat or at least mitigate their condition.

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