On my daughter Abby’s ninth birthday, I promised her “the greatest gift of all: I’m going to teach you ancient Greek. And just wait until you go to college—you’ll have your pick.” By the time she entered her senior year, Abby was singing Homer, while I dreamt of admissions officers hand-springing over her application. But they ignored it. Abby was wounded, and I was shocked. How could I have been so blind?
From that self-blinding, this (upcoming) book was born. I swore I’d learn why I’d deceived myself, and then, why Western education—from ancient Athens through Enlightenment Germany—had abandoned its mission. During my research, I came to see how baleful this abandonment had been. The rejection of humanist education had not only undermined the public intellect; it had deprived society of a holistically educated subculture equipped to foresee and forewarn against self-inflicted disaster, leaving us defenseless against suicide by overpopulation.
So, I studied the disappearance of Greek and Latin requirements at universities in the late 19th and early 20th century, then retraced western education to its origins in ancient Greece. Drawing upon 45 years as a psychoanalyst and student of classical languages, history, science, and math, I began to understand how the immutable laws of human nature emerged from the primitive reflexes of creatures like amoebae; how those, in turn, arose from gradients, nature’s energy asymmetries; and how every creation of gradients-—humanity is one—is at last torn apart by entropy.
Entropy and Envy
Entropy, a simple physical law, only became evil in its human incarnation. I recognized entropy’s sway deep in our biophysical roots, in envy.
We sometimes use the word “envy” in a light-hearted way. But here we define envy as a manifestation of primary destructiveness. Envy is the angry, painful feeling that another person possesses or enjoys something desirable, often accompanied by a malicious impulse to take it away or spoil it. It has no positive gain except spiteful satisfaction. Envy is inborn, but worsened by adversity.
I went on to identify envy and the self-deception that shields envy from our recognition and management, as the causes of our doom.
To regulate envy—and envy’s corollary, envy-fear, the dread of others’ envy—was never easy. Humans hated the tensions they generated but, to evade them—the innate preference—entailed either their gratification or utter denial, both options pregnant with disaster. To survive, humanity tried to manage these and other unruly drives with superstition, religion, philosophy, and law, together with shame and guilt.
Success in these expedients, particularly as humanity’s excessive growth became an unacknowledged adversity, required maximum willpower and minimal self-deception. To cultivate such virtues, civilized society recruited the rigor and self-observational ethos of paideia, the Greek educational system embodied in the classical humanist university.
Paideia, however, proved to be but a noble half-measure: it had no method for detecting and remediating unconscious strategies of self-deception. Still, it set the stage for psychoanalysis, which did.
But in the end, nothing could save us. The sirens of tension-evasion bewitched us and, as crowding depleted the general willpower, society couldn’t restrain envy or envy-fear, which, in the last 150 years, ruined both the humanist university and psychoanalysis.
When these institutions fell, humanity’s visionary goal of self-knowledge and self-control evaporated. Tension evasion, expedited by technology, the tool of omnipotence, seduced our better angels. And now, envious and deceived beyond redemption, we weaponized reproduction and immigration—the overpopulation-misery relief mechanism—swelling our earthly presence to grotesque proportions, overwhelming environment, and society together, gratifying humanity’s envy and the death-drive animating that black impulse.
Freud’s Primal Scene
To make the death drive intelligible, I dug deeper into Freud’s concept of the “primal scene,” the infant’s image of parental copulation, its exclusion from which excites murderous envy. Since life endlessly produces primal scene analogs like social cliques, envious destructiveness torments us throughout our lives. At length, as though exhausted by civilized restraint, we became pathologically intolerant of tensions, especially those provoked by exclusion. Contemporary America reflects this mental illness in a morbid obsession with inequality; waning willpower; and growing incapacity for difficult work and difficult choices.
Already struggling to make difficult choices in the late 19th century, the university succumbed to envy-fear: it exchanged paideia for vocationalism to appease the masses’ envy. Later, psychoanalysis, with similar faintheartedness, cast off its useful but unpopular ideas and rigor.
These critical events opened the floodgates to cultural resentment in entirely new ways: social justice zealotry, a degenerate form of social justice, a greed for unconditional inclusion, dismantling the foundations of Western culture, and attacking the conditional exclusivity of humanist education and psychoanalysis; society drunken with technology and later, cyberculture; the world fleeing depth psychology; and most fatal of all, the best of us, stricken with envy-fear, railing against social inequality and climate change while refusing to condemn human overgrowth and unregulated migration. The evil of overgrowth—the driver of global warming and mass extinctions—dwarfs the problem of social inequity. But envy and its associated anxieties made us clamor for universal inclusion while we knew, in our hearts, that only depopulation could save the natural world we love and depend upon.
In fairness, humanity had fought the good fight. For a time, paideia had modestly restrained social resentment and envy. Unlike a STEM education or vocational school, paideia taught a holistic tension-tolerance and fortified its students by imposing upon them intellectual rigors equal to physics or any other ‘hard’ science, while providing a moral and cultural education, too.
It fulfilled higher education’s responsibility to teach character, mental strength, and, above all, the ideal of self-knowledge.
And eventually, the classical humanist culture of self-knowledge budded off into psychoanalysis, a bold, systematic, all-out attack on self-deception. Society also torpedoed this admirable, that is, enviable, achievement of depth psychology. So, once we grasp that classical education and psychoanalysis were the institutional guardians of self-knowledge, we can clearly see—first, in the quiet abandonment of classical education and second, in the censorious rejection of psychoanalysis—our tortured relationship to self-knowledge.
Can we now also see why the humanist failure mattered? A meaningful life must embrace, not evade, the work that life’s tensions demand, especially inner tensions. Without strong humanist and psychoanalytic educations to cultivate self-awareness, fortify tension-tolerance, and stigmatize self-deception, we could sleepwalk to monoxide.
It is true: as a warning and diagnosis, this book comes too late. It is, therefore, most of all, a plea—a plea to recognize the importance of humanist education—or at least to recognize humanity’s fate without delusion, and to begin the mourning.
Throughout his life, Mark Adair has immersed himself in humanist education. As a practicing psychoanalyst, he has published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, and Journal of Clinical Psychoanalysis. As Assistant/Associate Professor on Dartmouth Medical School’s clinical faculty, he trained psychology interns and psychiatric residents for thirty years. And as an amateur classics scholar, he has sung Homer in the original Greek to both public and scholarly audiences, lectured at The Classical Association of New England Summer Institute, and published an original translation of an anciently debated passage in Plato’s Timaeus for The Classical Journal. He has also written for the literary journal Bibliophilos and produced a feuilleton for The Daily Bulletin, the newspaper of the American Contract Bridge League Championships. He devotes two hours weekly to math. Mark lives in Vermont with his wife.
The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to email@example.comThe views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.