Hardly a day passes when some barbarous act does not jump to the headlines. Barbarous—there is no other word to describe these vile deeds. Thus, whether it be the sadistic torturing, terrorist beheadings, mass shootings or truck ramming murder sprees (not to mention genocide and war), these acts are becoming ever more common. There is something inexplicable and sinister in such behavior since it seems to go against human nature.
Many simply shake their heads and write off such brutal acts of violence as sad testimonies to man’s inhumanity to man. They dare not delve deeper since it might unearth unsettling questions about our society in general. However, if we are going to address this problem, we need to start asking why do people do such barbarous things.
Perhaps the easiest way to show why some people do barbarous things is first to determine why people normally do not do them. An explanation can be found by taking a look at two fundamentally good human impulses and a key cardinal virtue.
Addressing a Passionate Concern: To Kalon
People normally do not do barbarous things because the most fundamental desires of the human heart go in the opposite direction. By nature, we tend to search out all that is good, true, and beautiful. This first impulse is something that occurs naturally in us and sets in motion powerful movements inside our souls.
Aristotle speaks of what he calls to kalon, that is, our passionate concern for all that is elevated, dignified, and noble. It was something he recognized as universally present in the spiritual core of each human being. These highest aspirations of rational and free beings make us capable of acts of dedication, devotion, and even sacrifice for causes perceived as just.
When the to kalon is in order, people do not do barbarous things. They seek after the high standards of perfection, beauty or excellence proper to human nature. It gives rise to a vision of life that inspires civilizations. We need only look to the great saints, heroes, and martyrs who converted the barbarians from doing barbarous things by introducing high Christian ideals that appealed to this fundamental impulse.
A Desire for Plenitude
The second human impulse is found in our great desire for plenitude: that is, a sense of satisfaction, wholeness or completeness. Not only do we seek the fullness of the good, true and beautiful, but the fullest manifestation of these desires. Our souls are strongly attracted to that which moves us towards plenitude. We rejoice in this plenitude and never tire in seeking after it.
This can be seen in the senses. It is proper for our eyes to see, but we are most drawn to very beautiful objects. When we hear, we experience greater delight by listening to the most beautiful harmonies. Even infants in their primitive reactions shun the ordinary, drably colored ball to go after the Christmas tree ornament that dazzles and sparkles. We naturally tend to the most expressive plenitude of our legitimate desires.
Such good desires for plenitude unleash powerful movements within the soul that serve as the foundation of culture. Indeed, throughout history, man has been drawn to extraordinary panoramas, works of art, music, ideas, or heroic feats that have rightly been called sublime. It is not the mere physical aspects of these things that inspire us to action. Rather, it is a rational appreciation of the spiritual qualities of magnificence, vastness, or grandeur that captivate the soul and speed it on its quest towards plenitude.
When this desire for plenitude is in order, people do not do barbarous things. Rather they do marvelous deeds.
Temperance is the Key
The key to controlling these two impulses is the virtue of temperance. Temperance is the regulating virtue whereby we govern our natural appetites and passions in accordance with the norms prescribed by reason and Faith. Temperance teaches us to desire that which is proper for us and naturally leads to balance, proportion, and magnificence. It allows us to pursue the good, true and beautiful without falling into dangerous fantasies, mental unbalance or errors. It helps us strive wholeheartedly toward the plentitude of these desires without being enslaved by unrestrained passion.
Saint Thomas discusses the restraining characteristic of temperance saying it “withdraws man from things which seduce the appetite from obeying reason” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 141, a. 2). Thus, temperance restrains but it also frees the person to pursue the fundamental desires of the human heart.
When the virtue of temperance is in order, people do not do barbarous things.
Why Do We Do Barbarous Things?
Once it becomes clear why people do not do barbarous things, it is easier to discern why others do them.
The reason is simple. Sin destroys the equilibrium inside souls seeking after the good, true and beautiful. We live in sinful, intemperate and abnormal times in which people claim the right to unrestricted freedom to do whatever they desire, regardless of the consequences. The majority of people are fascinated by the frenetic intemperance of fleeting pleasures and worldly interests that is so much a part of our culture. The unbridled love of sensual pleasures darkens the inner eye of the soul, bringing down all its aspirations. People hate the temperance that seeks to restrain them.
As a result, people refuse to fix their thoughts on Aristotle’s to kalon that naturally beckons to them. They no longer seek the plenitude of sublime things. Rather it can be said of our generation what the prophet Daniel said of similar people of his time: “They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind God’s just judgments” (Dan.13:9).
Replacing the Good with Bad
That is why people do barbarous things. The human heart cannot remain long without an object of its desires. If we will not attach ourselves to the principal considerations for which we were made, then we will latch on to others for which we were not made. When temperance no longer rules, people lose their moral bearings, find false absolutes to follow and eventually embrace the false, bad and hideous.
In addition, the desire for plenitude persists, but it will be misdirected toward the insatiable appetites of vices and passions that are ultimately self-destructive. We will seek out ever stronger sensations of pleasure that gradually become brutal and barbarous.
Thus, if we delve deeper into the problem of why people do barbarous things, we find a culture of frenetic intemperance that favors a return to barbarian times. Sometimes, it manifests itself only in bad manners, vulgarity and loose living; other times it breaks out into violence, cruel torture and sadistic killing that lead to man’s inhumanity to man.
The Object of Our Longings
There is one final consideration. When we search for that which is most elevated, dignified, and noble, we inevitably find God who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness itself. When we temperately seek plenitude, we are inevitably led to finding it in our Infinite God who alone can satisfy the longings of our hearts for all eternity.
The real reason people do barbarous things is that they have rejected God and his law. They have revolted against the order for which we are made. It is no wonder that inhuman and sinister acts keep happening. Indeed, we are made for God, and our hearts will not find peace, as Saint Augustine reminds us, until they rest in him.