Sadism Begets Sadism

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of William Shakespeare, the 400th anniversary of whose death has just passed, that he was capable of writing tragedies only about individuals, or small groups of individuals because he lived at a time without ideology. The latter was necessary for killing on a mass scale, Solzhenitsyn said. Two years after Shakespeare died, the Thirty Years’ War broke out, which reduced the population of Germany by about a third. The war was ideological.

Solzhenitsyn also said that the dividing line between good and evil ran through every heart. This is not a contradiction: Ideology encourages or makes easier the commission of evil.

The propensity to do good or evil no doubt varies between individuals for inborn reasons; but that propensity follows, or at least can be conceived as following, a normal distribution, a bell-shaped curve. At the extremes of the distribution are saints and monsters, the vast majority of us lying somewhere in between; but the whole distribution can be shifted in the direction of good or evil by circumstances, among which is the prevalent ideology. When the bell-shaped curve shifts in the direction of evil, disproportionate numbers of monsters emerge who do things that, at other times and in other places, they would not do.

“There can be no greater pleasure in life,” Stalin is reputed to have said, “than to choose one’s enemy, inflict a terrible revenge on him, and go quietly to bed.” He might have added if he really did say this, “secure in the knowledge that one has done well.” Committing evil for goodness’ sake must surely rank as an even greater pleasure than Stalin’s: It satisfies the inner sadist and the inner moralist at the same time.

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