New Article: When the Majority is really a Mob

My article on Conformism and Crowd-Violence (subtitled “When the Majority is really a Mob”), appearing at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website, should appeal to readers of The Orthosphere.  The article begins with a discussion of René Girard, specifically of his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), from which it moves into a consideration of texts by Seneca (his Seventh Letter) and Saint Augustine (the anecdote of his friend Alypius at the gladiatorial games).  Along the way I discuss the parallels between ancient mob-phenomena and what, in modern politics, is called “community organization.”  I offer a sample below –

Seneca’s vocabulary anticipates many an observation that Girard makes about the category of the sacred, first that, being collective, the sacred belongs to the mob (that is to the lynch mob) and next that it is contagious.  “From the outset of this study,” Girard remarks in Violence and the Sacred, “I have regarded violence as something eminently communicable.”  Taking antique discourse seriously where the modern mentality sees it merely as mythic, Girard notes that “at times it is impossible to stay immune from violence.”  Again: “The sacred consists of all those forces whose dominance over man increases or seems to increase in proportion to man’s efforts to master them.”  From Seneca’s perspective the size of the crowd correlates with its infectiousness, a large crowd being indicative of an especially virulent infection.  Rubbing elbows with the vulgate, as Seneca writes, leaves one “bedaubed” by its toxicity.  But does Seneca, foreshadowing Girard, associate crowds and violence?  The answer is yes and in investigating [the matter] we shall see how Seneca’s discourse differs from Philostratus’ discourse when they both write about theaters and theatrics.

2 thoughts on “New Article: When the Majority is really a Mob

  1. My comment represents perhaps a footnote to the main point of the article:

    Girard reasons as follows: “If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations. The rivalry, if not thwarted, would permanently endanger the harmony and even the survival of all human communities.

    This brings us into the realm of the political, where the political is defined, or at least in this case viewed as a manifestation of desire. It is, of course, political, since Girard’s statement implies not only a danger to, but the very survival of “all human communities.” Although argued within a certain religious context, one doubts that this state of affairs can ever be strictly religious, since “all communities” cannot ever be said to claim one religion, and in any case religion should transcend politics. Also, it is not “individual” since an individual’s actions, no matter how compelling, can ever be said to endanger the survival of any particular community, much less “all” communities (community itself being a proto-political concept).

    The essay turns not on the general idea of desire, but covetousness, that is, a desire for what a neighbor possesses. Question: who is the neighbor for which a desire for their things is forbidden? From a strictly religious standpoint the old stories never precluded the Israelites from making war (a kind of collective covetousness), and at times were encouraged to do it by their tetragrammaton deity. Therefore, we presume that the concept of neighbor cannot imply what it is usually taken to mean within modern-day liberal Christianity–a universal bonding of men.

    Jesus in Luke (6:27) said:

    But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you.

    In Mathew chapter 5:

    43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
    44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

    The Latin translation:

    43 audistis quia dictum est diliges proximum tuum et odio habebis inimicum tuum
    44 ego autem dico vobis diligite inimicos vestros benefacite his qui oderunt vos et orate pro persequentibus et calumniantibus vos

    German jurist Carl Schmitt, [“The Concept of the Political”] commented:

    The enemy is hostis, not inimicus in the broader sense; πολέμιος, not ἐχθρός. As German and other languages do not distinguish between the private and political enemy, many misconceptions and falsifications are possible. The often quoted “Love your enemies” reads “diligite inimicos vestros,” ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν, and not diligite hostes vestros. No mention is made of the political enemy.

    “Never in the thousand-year struggle between Christians and Moslems did it occur to a Christian to surrender rather than defend Europe out of love toward the Saracens or Turks. The enemy in the political sense need not be hated personally, and in the private sphere only does it make sense to love one’s enemy, i.e., one’s adversary. The Bible quotation touches the political antithesis even less than it intends to dissolve, for example, the antithesis of good and evil or beautiful and ugly. It certainly does not mean that one should love and support the enemies of one’s own people.

    Perhaps we ought therefore conclude that covetousness may not be completely proscribed, at least within the context of “the political.” However, to use these words [desire and covet] within a political context is, it seems to me, to twist their usual meaning. In any case, the relationship of “the crowd” to the individual within a political framework is always an important question.

    • Etymology tells us who the neighbor is: He is the one who dwells nigh, that is, close; he is the closest. The German Nachbar is precisely cognate. The Scandinavian granne is convergent in meaning, being cognate with the German Grenz, or border; the granne is the one who lives right on the other side of the property-line.

      An interesting feature of the Israelite conquests in Canaan is the ban on taking booty from overthrown cities. When someone exempts himself from the ban, dissension erupts in the ranks. In the archaic community, possessions are destabilizing.


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