We come into this world programmed for language acquisition. By six, we speak fluently, having accumulated a sufficient vocabulary and, unaware, having mastered a huge “book” spelling out its grammatical rules.
Symbolic language defines us, making us “infinite in faculty.” Yet in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban tells his master, Prospero, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. Damn you for teaching me your language.”
It’s not Prospero’s curriculum that’s the problem. Rather, as with language acquisition, we arrive on the planet neuro-anatomically programmed with The Moral Sense and have for, at least, two thousand centuries. The Moral Sense presents a profound conundrum.
One of my beautiful granddaughters got married last month in St. Paul’s, London. Some twenty family members attended, drinking in the sublimity of the back-lit Cathedral, evenings. At the hour-long ceremony, the splendid St.Paul’s chorus and trumpeter bedewed the wedding with Bach and Handel.
A twenty minute walk from St. Paul’s brings you to Charing Cross, where in 1660, Samuel Pepys watched a man hanged, drawn and quartered, “looking as cheerful as any man could in that condition.” That condition included being partly strangled, disemboweled, castrated and shown his organs being burned before being decapitated. After the execution, Pepys moseyed on, joining friends at a tavern with whom he shared oysters. Bach and Handel were both born in 1685, a mere twenty five years after Pepys’s stroll through Charing Cross.
Pepys was a man of his time, which, unfortunately, had spanned several hundred thousand years. During these numberless, mostly unrecorded centuries, we behaved as dictated by our group, which in turn was under the unopposed hegemony of The Moral Sense.
In “The Emotional Brain,” Joseph Ledoux notes that the emotional behavior of decorticate animals – the cortex surgically removed – lacked any regulation of their rage, which suggested that cortical areas normally rein in these wild emotional reactions and prevent their expression in inappropriate situations. I submit that throughout history, The Moral Sense called the shots, no counter-force available to modify it. We were decorticate.
Since we became fully evolved as Homo sapiens sapiens, the year, 1660, was probably average for “wild emotional reactions.” Torture has always been practiced world-wide. In Pepys’s day, The Judas Cradle lowered a naked victim, bound hand and foot, onto a sharp wedge that penetrated the anus or vagina. Victims were hung upside down and sawed in half from the crotch down. Hundreds of devices were invented to maximize agony. “Codified laws prescribed blinding, branding, amputation of hands, ears, noses and tongues. Executions were orgies of sadism, with prolonged killing such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, pulling apart by horses, impalement through the rectum, disembowelment by winding a man’s intestines around a spool.” Inquisitions were in full swing. Europe was burning witches by the thousands. The Religious Wars halved populations. Slavery was everywhere. From what we can glean from our hunter-gatherer millenia, death by violence was 500 times more likely than now. The Aztecs carried out 40 human sacrifices a day, 1.2 million total.
And so on.
And then came the Age of Enlightenment. Pinker calls it The Humanitarian Revolution. Mankind’s on-going Horror Show went from “the unexceptional to the unthinkable.” Historians are so baffled by the turn-about they are tempted to invoke a Higher Power.
The same century Pepys consulted his private GPS for directions to Charing Cross began The Age of Reason, culminating in The Enlightenment. From these two miraculous centuries, the 17th and 18th, two great documents emerged – the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789, and The American Bill of Rights in 1791.
Decorticate no longer, we finally were a match for The Moral Sense – take THAT! and THAT!! and THAT!!!
(to be continued)