Overcoming Savagery

by Peter Saint-Andre


A human being, when completely developed, is the best of animals - but, when separated from law and justice, is the worst of them all ... without virtue, a human being is the most unholy and most savage of animals. - Aristotle

The genocidal atrocities committed last weekend against Israeli citizens by thousands of Hamas terrorists are literally unspeakable. No words, and certainly no words I can say, have the power to heal such monstrous wounds. Yet one must not remain silent.

It is often said that civilization is merely a thin veneer over the baser impulses of humankind. To the contrary, I believe that many intertwining fibers protect us from becoming the most unholy and most savage of animals: among them law, custom, justice, virtue, reason, truth, discourse, persuasion, commerce, science, art, culture, history, tolerance, moderation, humanity, and simple decency. Tragically, some societies seem to lack many of these qualities and practices, some individuals within those societies are all too willing to exploit that fact by fomenting the most despicable ideologies imaginable, and other individuals within those societies are all too willing to abdicate their responsibility to be human by following despotic demagogues beyond criminality and beyond barbarity, thus descending into pure, unadulterated evil.

What can one person do in the face of acts that so fundamentally violate all human norms and ideals? Aside from speaking out and providing assistance from afar, I see one possibility: more deeply committing oneself to the qualities and practices that make us not the worst but the best of living things. At root, it is only by building up a culture of human fulfillment, both individually and cooperatively, that we can overcome this kind of savagery. Not once and for all, because that is impossible, but here in our own world. The task is ours and the time is now.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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