Listening to Lady Macbeth

“I fear thy nature; it is too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (Lady Macbeth)

“Lady Macbeth was a tender and affectionate creature and ought to be represented as such” (Ludwig Tieck*)

Contrary to popular opinion, Lady Macbeth was a tender and affectionate creature.  There is no reason to doubt her when she tells us that she knew “how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me,” and as a wife she was the exact opposite of a “ball buster.”  She enjoyed mothering, really had her man’s back, and all the while glided like a will-o’-the-wisp over the stinking morass of sentimental goop.

Although no stranger to the milk of human kindness, Lady Macbeth also had the good sense to know that it is possible to have too much of this good thing.  She understood that there are times when tenderness must be laid aside, when the milk of human kindness must be withdrawn, when we must steel our hearts and turn our hands to higher things.  To show her husband what he must do when such a time comes, Lady Macbeth gave this famous avowal of her own capacity for inhuman unkindness.  Should the occasion demand it,

“I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out . . .”

The tragedy of Lady Macbeth is that she was overcome by her greatest virtue, by her capacity for inhuman unkindness. Her greatness was founded in her knowledge that it is possible to be “too full o’ the milk of human kindness.”  She was overcome because she forgot that it is also possible to be not full enough.

Lady Macbeth, Odilon Redon (c. 1898)

We today do not need to learn the lesson of the tragedy of Lady Macbeth, since there is no danger that we will let the milk of human kindness run dry.  We shower in the milk of human kindness (between wallows in the stinking morass of sentimental goop).  Many of us run it through our veins as a substitute for blood.  We hunt through the streets in the hope of giving tit to any empty mouth we might find.  “Too full” is in our book not near enough.

The milk of human kindness is our pride, our pinup, and our panacea.

And this is why we today need to learn the lesson of Lady Macbeth.  The one that she taught when she said that a man can be “too full o’ the milk of human kindness,” and that there is reason to “fear the nature” of any man who is. We need to listen to this lesson because our tragedy is to be overcome by the immoderate belief that “kindness is everything,” compassion is the cardinal virtue, and man must never, as the great Lady said, “stop up the access and passage to remorse.”

* * * * *

I recently saw a yard sign bearing a string of liberal slogans, the last of which was, “kindness is everything.”  It might have been the wind, but I seemed to hear the laugh of Lady Macbeth.  As a proposition, this is clearly false, even if we take “everything” to mean (as I believe was intended) “everything that is needed to be a good person.”  One has only to look about to see that kind people do endless harm when they lack prudence, justice and simple honesty.  That kindness is not everything will be evident to anyone who falls into the hands of a kindly old doctor who is careless about washing his hands.

Kindness is not everything. It is not even everything on the sign that I saw.

As you can see, each line can be read at two levels.  Read naively and taking each word at its plain meaning, each line is a platitude with which almost anyone will agree.  Indeed, only a barbarian would object to these propositions if they are read as naive sentiments.  But beneath the first level, there is a second semantic layer in which the words have narrow meanings and the lines are contentious political slogans.  We might call these two layers the exoteric and the esoteric meanings of the lines, the exoteric layer expressing what anyone would read, and the esoteric layer what a fully woke liberal will read.

Take, for instance, the first line. “In this house, we believe:

Black Lives Matter

Read naively, this line expresses the platitude that the lives of Black people have value.  Very few people disagree with this naïve sentiment, and those who do are mostly barbarians.  But when we read the line at the second semantic level, it expresses belief in the organization called Black Lives Matter, and in the doctrines and demands of that organization.  A great many people who believe Black lives matter do not believe Black Lives Matter.

The trick of this sign is to identify the naïve sentiment and the narrow slogan, and to suggest (not at all kindly) that one cannot endorse the sentiment and yet dissent from the slogan.  It tells a person that, if he believes Black lives matter, he must also believe Black Lives Matter.  And if he does not, it gives a sniff and says that he probably does not really believe Black lives matter.

In other words, by identifying the two layers of meaning, this sign asserts that anyone who does not agree with every last jot and tittle of liberal orthodoxy is an uncouth barbarian.  Which is pretty unkind when you think about it.

The trick is repeated in the lines that follow.  Believe that women’s rights are the rights demanded by feminists, or be branded as an uncouth barbarian who says that women have no rights.  Believe that illegal immigrants deserve citizenship, or be branded as an uncouth barbarian who says they should not exist.  Believe what established scientists tell you, or be branded as an uncouth barbarian who says science is not real.  Believe that homosexual couples are in no way different than heterosexual couples, or be branded as an uncouth barbarian who says they do not love.

Calumny of this magnitude is, I believe, unique to people who believe that “kindness is everything.”

* * * * *

We should not be surprised by the nastiness of people who worship false gods.  Anyone will grow sour when life is a string of disappointments. They have followed their formularies and said their prayers, yet all proceeds just as before.  They have made their oblations more profuse and their mortifications more fanatic, yet all proceeds just as before.  This is hardly surprising, since false gods have no ears, but it is also enough to drive one mad.  And it often does.

We see this madness in the increasingly sour outlook of those who have placed their faith in the milk of human kindness.   They believe that “kindness is everything” and that they are kind, and yet all proceeds just as before.  The god must be angered by the gross unkindness of the barbarians.

They should have listened to Lady Macbeth.


* Quoted in Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Criticisms, Reflections and Maxims, trans. W. B. Rönnfeldt (London: Walter Scott, 1897), p. 46.

15 thoughts on “Listening to Lady Macbeth

  1. Pingback: Listening to Lady Macbeth | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Listening to Lady Macbeth | Reaction Times

  3. Everything on that sign can be read as “Go ahead and nig me, I don’t have a gun, and I understand that you’re only robbing (and possibly raping and killing) me because those greedy racist Rethuglicans won’t pay you a living wage.”

  4. I wonder what Lady Macbeth would have thought of the aphorism “Kill ’em with Kindness”.

    That yard sign is also, to my eyes, the epitome of ‘Vain Repetitions’. They are raising up their hedonistic prayers and hoping it grants them special holiness in the eyes of their peers, that the Pantheon of morally relative gods–the god of human rights, of secular science, of pansexuality–will grant them defense from any perverse barbarian who might wander up and suggest that perhaps, maybe, citizenship is a privilege.

  5. There is a house in my neighborhood that has a virtue-signaling sign on its front yard: “Hate is NOT a family value.” Now I’ve never met a person who claims that it is, but that’s not what this sign is getting at. On the face of it, it would seem then to be attacking a straw man, but if you point out that it is a straw man, you would only be accused of being a “hater.” (Those on the cultural left like to invoke the word “hate” with a tone of pious accusation, as if they never hate anyone themselves.) We hosted some guests from Japan some time ago, and one of them puzzled over the meaning of the sign. I translated it literally into Japanese, which left him even more puzzled.

    • That sign has the same double meaning. The surface meaning is a platitude that almost everyone agrees with in a general way. The subtext is a political slogan directed at dissent from the leftist doctrine of endemic hatred as the cause of all the evils in this world. We all understand the subtext, but if we dissent from the subtext we will be accused of dissenting from the surface text.

      • It’s infuriating. In a proper debate, a person should lose credibility if he is found to have inaccurately characterized his opponent’s view, and so he would avoid clearly doing so. Somehow, that’s not how it works in real life.

      • That’s the wonder of being in power. People defer to authority and accept what it says as true. It’s as if one trial lawyer was allowed to sum up the case of his opponent!

      • Do you think a Girardian reading might say, in addition to your insightful analysis, that these are seductions of a sort, designed as you say to scandalise by conflating the naive meaning with the contentious one, with the PURPOSE of drawing the “hypocrite” into the cross-hairs for scapegoating? Progressivism seems to be an agile form of crypto-paganism in a christianised world, where the only visibly justifiable targets for outrage, according to their crowd-based mimetic logic, are “the persecutors/powerful/privileged/oppressors”, who are, in fact, nothing but scapegoats.
        The proliferation of these increasingly perverse progressive slogans are nothing but scandals to ensnare new scapegoats, against whom the mob builds its unanimity, as the noose slowly tightens.
        The gnostic, totalitarian ideology succeeds because of cowardice (after all, who would want to be a scapegoated martyr in an unchristian, ie. blind world?) but the sacrificial consensus ultimately fails because we now know too much of what we do. Or do we?

      • Barbarians (or “deplorables”) clearly serve as scapegoats in the liberal imagination. “Progress” doesn’t happen as quickly as they expect and many problems to which they claim to know the answer remain stubborn problems. I say it is because they “worship false gods” (i.e. have incorrect theories), but they say it is because barbarians are messing everything up. Thus we have classic externalization of internal frustration.

  6. Good post, and it addresses the same leftist tactic as the motte and bailey, but from a different, and helpful, angle.

    There is something working even at the “first level” you mention. Even supposing there were no subversive “second level” message to the platitudes…if they are indeed platitudes, why the need to post such uninteresting ideas in the first place? Even at face value, the messages, just by the fact of being asserted, convey the idea that there are those out there who are so awful that even the most basic expressions of human decency cannot be taken for granted.

    • It’s rather like the “Coexist” bumper stickers. They imply that religious people are always at each other’s throats when its the secular fanatics who are dropping bombs. It’s time we point out which way dehumanization actually flows.

  7. … if they are indeed platitudes, why the need to post such uninteresting ideas in the first place?

    For the same reason that a dishonest car salesman advertises himself as honest. The Pharisee’s public demonstrations of virtue belie a horribly guilty conscience.

    That same dreadful guilt motivates the projection of the SJW.

  8. The Left is always cheating by finding ways to make itself accidentally attractive, such as by showing off all its pretty actresses or portraying its enemies as dumb and inbred (which, even if true, would be irrelevant to the disputes at hand). We on the Right are too good for this. In fact, we prefer to be deliberately off-putting. For instance, by picking Lady MacBeth as our spokeswoman.


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