Max Scheler and the Psychopathology of the Terrorist

By Frings, Manfred | Modern Age, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Max Scheler and the Psychopathology of the Terrorist


Frings, Manfred, Modern Age


THIS STUDY REFLECTS an effort to cast some unconventional light on the issue of terrorism. I say "unconventional" because accounts of terrorism reach the general public today mostly through the mass media and convey more often than not social and political bias. The times when people respected the literal meaning of "report," i.e., the art of "bringing back" events without politically tailored inferences, are unfortunately over. My effort here is an attempt to set a stage for an alternative presentation of terrorism.

In what follows I shall identify an aspect of the innermost constitution of a terrorist's frame of emotion. My overall claim is that it is not the visible perception of terrorists' ghoulish acts alone that can provide a basis for an understanding of terrorism, but that it is at least of equal importance to come to an understanding of the psycho-pathological sources of visible terrorism that will lead us to deeper insight into the complexity of the phenomenon of terror. I will first focus on the underlying psychical conditions of contemporary worldwide Muslim terrorism and its etiology. And I will limit the conditions and the concurrent psychic frame of emotions that they engender to what may turn out to be the source of terrorism: resentment.

My argumentation is founded on insights provided by the German philosopher Max Ferdinand Scheler (1874-1928), who offered ample material for grasping the unplumbed levels of feelings that appear to have generated in our era a flow of human hatred.

By contrast to simple cultures linked with smaller ethnic and tribal groups, and also by contrast to the more complex cultures linked to larger populations, Western peoples and their governments are now typified by their highly litigious and rational mind-set. "Reason" was already the very foundation of the Western mentality and aspiration in ancient Greek culture. The god Apollo was the god of reason, of light, of measure, of order. And yet the ancient Greeks also knew well the opposite of reason: the Dionysian irrational element that lurks in the dark corners of the human soul. This incongruous divine duo of the god of light, Apollo, and of the god of loosened inhibitions, Dionysus, played a major role in Greek mythology.

It has been believed ever since that reason provided the original light for human insight into any state of affairs, and that it also provided the logical grounds for the explanation of all things human. In ancient Greece and in the later periods of Western culture, and Apollonian mind-set prevailed over its Dionysian opposite. It prevailed in the medieval artes liberales and in the foundational works of rationalism from Aristotle (435-355 B.C.) to Descartes (1596-1650) to Kant (1724-1804). For all of them reason is the highest and most excellent constituent of human nature.

The Dionysian opposite had usually been distrusted because it was associated with letting loose all rational controls over feelings and passions that at times resulted in the wildest frenzies; but the prevalence of the Apollonian principle resulted in the rationalist belief that all feelings, emotions, and passions were a chaos furnishing shadowy material for the sense of the ineffable. Reason, it was surmised, could put an intelligible order in the chaos of feelings and emotions at any necessary time. The traditional supremacy of the measured, orderly, and rational Apollonian mind-set of Western civilization was affirmed throughout the ages. Until today the ancient Greek view permeates practically all walks of life. Educational courses offered at our universities that deal with the emotional issues of race, poverty, or gender are primarily subject to merely rational explanations. Rational arguments are supposed to neutralize the emotive forces of these issues and to limit solutions of them to what is uncritically assumed to be politically correct.

However, doubt about the Western view of rationality appears in the thought of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).

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