Cupio Dissolvi

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (Sidney, Australia) will include a session focused on the question Is progress threatened by the urge to burn it all down?   The title of the session reminded me of something I read quite a few years ago:

Cupio dissolvi…These words have been going through my mind for quite a long time now. It’s Latin. They mean “I (deeply) wish to be annihilated/to annihilate myself”, the passive form signifying that the action can be carried out both by an external agent or by the subject himself…Cupio dissolvi… Through all the screaming and the shouting and the wailing and the waving of the rainbow cloth by those who invoke peace but want appeasement, I hear these terrible words ringing in my ears. These people have had this precious gift, this civilization, and they have got bored with it. They take all the advantages it offers them for granted, and despise the ideals that have powered it. They wish for annihilation, the next new thing, as if it was a wonderful party. Won’t it be great, dancing on the ruins? 

The citation is from an Italian blogger who was only briefly active but put up several interesting and thought-provoking posts.

When I first read the above post, I was reminded of a passage from Walter Miller’s great novel A Canticle for Leibowitz:

…children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens – and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same. 

For discussion: How prevalent is the nihilistic and destructive attitude represented by the above quotes, and what are its causative factors?  To what extent, if any, is it reversible?

Some additional posts from the Italian blogger (Joy of Knitting) are  here and here.

The FDI is scheduled for September 18 and 19.  Steven Pinker is the speaker for this session, and it is chaired by Claire Lehmann, the founder and publisher of Quillette.

24 thoughts on “Cupio Dissolvi”

  1. Not really an answer to your questions but just another thought. In addition to the desire to dance on the ruins, there’s also the recognition that once the blaze has sufficiently consumed the superstructure it will have weakened the foundation enough to require destroying both before rebuilding can happen. It might not be a choice.

  2. Christopher B…”In addition to the desire to dance on the ruins, there’s also the recognition that once the blaze has sufficiently consumed the superstructure it will have weakened the foundation enough to require destroying both before rebuilding can happen. It might not be a choice.”

    Wasn’t that basically what the radicalism of the French Revolution represented?…don’t just get rid of the monarchy, but get rid of everything at least possibly associated with it, down to the names of the months?

  3. that 1:43 pm observation, David Foster, long ago led me to never use “Revolution” to describe events of 1776, but instead use/insist upon “War of Independence”. France had the revolution.

  4. “They take all the advantages it offers them for granted …”

    That is a key point — and one to which we are all susceptible to some extent. We forget how much hard work & investment it took to deliver fresh clean water to our faucets, how difficult it is to keep electric power flowing.

    We see this in the Global Warm-Mongers. They assume that they can get rid of fossil fuels and still keep everything they have today. Maybe we human beings are just not very good at anticipating the consequences of our actions.

  5. Belloc’s passage about barbarians and our tolerance of them is what comes to mind for me:
    “The Barbarian hopes — and that is the mark of him, that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilization has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort, but he will not be at pains to replace such goods, nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is ever marvelling that civilization, should have offended him with priests and soldiers…. In a word, the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this, that he cannot make: that he can befog and destroy but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilization exactly that has been true.
    We sit by and watch the barbarian. We tolerate him in the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence; his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creed refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond, and on these faces there are no smiles.”

  6. “large and awful faces from beyond, and on these faces there are no smiles.”

    Indeed the Fermi Paradox is waiting, as our species is probably not what the universe wants for its mobile operations. )

  7. what we could call ‘mind arson’ is a set of beliefs that all the things that make civilization possible, the foundational institutions, are evil in various ways, racist sexist, zenophobic, the life saving technology that makes all these pretense possible, actually threatens the planet, so you get phenomenon like the extinction rebellion, so called antifa (black bloc) one of the leadiing theorists was antonio negri, a former brigatte rossi militant, of course so called black lives matter, has similar American routes, so a significant plurality, believes nothing needs to be defended, to any significant degree,

  8. David, no, my thinking was more along the lines of Germany or Japan after WWII, the Reconstruction South, or the Russian Revolution of 1917 (no guarantee the rebuilding will be successful). The people lighting the building on fire are not going to be the ones completing the destruction, and they are going to get swept away before they can strike up a tune.

  9. Maybe we human beings are just not very good at anticipating the consequences of our actions.

    Oh we can anticipate the consequences very well. The problem is when the religious fervor dictates that you ignore what your eyes tell you and stick to the narrative that all will be well and end well. By religious fervor, I DO NOT mean Christianity, but the current Gaia worshippers of the climate cult.

  10. We used to joke about the death urge – aren’t there personal drives toward the abyss, toward the annihilation? We feel it a bit when we (well, I suppose we) feel looking into the welll of a great building. I’ve never understood it, but felt its pull. Literature about women’s growth to a certain consciousness often counters the two pulls – probably Kate Chopin does it most powerfully in The Awakening, Nella Larson in Quicksand, in a sense Willa Cather creates the countering powerful life force in Antonia and the opposite in the Lost Lady. Henry Adams is talks about it. All those people were writing a century ago or a little more. Before the dark days and the remarkably fruitful days of the last century.

    You can see these politically but the authors didn’t generally say things that indicated that was what they were describing but rather losing the self in the physical, or losing one’s self in another, or, indeed, never defining the self. This all sounds kind of silly in terms of what you are talking about but the abyss in which the undefined self is lost is not unlike the abyss in which this country will be lost if we lost our sense of the beauty and dignity and courage of the beliefs about the founding and indeed of the heritage we have been so lucky to inherit from the centuries and the work so many did to build the rebar that solidifies our culture and that they are drilling into and weakening every day

  11. The Netherlands government wants to forcibly shut down about 20% of its livestock farms, and greatly shrink another ~33% of them, but of course it’s the farmers who oppose this lunacy who are the “radicals”. The nihilistic lunatics who are destroying the West count on the fact that most people desperately fear being called “radical” and just don’t want to rock the boat, even if the boat is on fire and sinking fast.
    “Radical farmers have promised to escalate their protests against the government’s nitrogen pollution plans, with Mark van den Oever from the Farmers Defence Force promising ‘the hardest action ever’.”

  12. Ginny….”We used to joke about the death urge – aren’t there personal drives toward the abyss, toward the annihilation?”

    There’s an old SF story in which a military robot, designed to operate autonomously, is programmed to respond to unsolvable problems by blowing itself up.

    Is there a similar phenomenon with humans, but at the individual level and at the societal level?

  13. walker percy, called it the thanatos syndrome. what is radical, about trying to preserve their way of life, the sustenance for civilization, is the world run by trifids and/or daleks,

  14. thanks, it’s actually the coinage of an enterprising attorney who runs the invisible serfs collar blog,
    chesterton, is supposed to have said ‘if you don[t believe in anything, you’ll fall for anything’ those that found traditional orthodoxies too unbelievable follow even more ridiculous and noxious creeds, like the gaia hypothesis, where humanity is the threat, the same sex ideology, which is delusion, based on nothing but wrongthink, its not an accident that Christianity and Orthodox Judaism is targeted, but the new idols are celebrated,

  15. “tim powers declare, posits an otherworldly explanation for the Russian revolution,”
    Well, there is the whole story of the origin of the prayer to St. Michael…and the Fatima secrets…
    Satan as portrayed in Paradise Lost is the prototypical leftist–hatred of his creator, will never submit to any authority outside of himself, no meaningful relations with anyone else, desperate longing to destroy anything pure and honest, the Self is all that matters, etc.

  16. the particulars are a certain meteorite, out in the ubar region in arabia, was brought to anchor insurance company, in moskva, and that is where the lubyanka was built, a further element is philby was shot with a bullet made from that meteorite, and when he died, he started the ball rolling, well it’s an interesting conjecture,

  17. how well did the bank of england or the federal reserve, do in staving off the Depression, that’s the acid test isn’t it, have they shown the acumen to gauge booms and busts to any degree of certainty, or have they been midwives to the latter more often then not,

  18. David,
    That seems to make a certain sense – societies often seem to be people write large; its hard not to see the art of Berlin in the thirties and not see a problem.
    The heroine of the Awakening is a textbook case of clinical depression, certainly she is not oppressed by her husband who may not understand her but tries to take every burden possible away from her – she impulsively and inconsistently hugs her children who seem of little interest, the man she is married to, the man she loves and the man she is sleeping with are all different, she faints during a Catholic church service – the positive forces of family, of maternity, of romantic love, and even of religion upset but do not fulfill her (its true she was raised in a rather stark protestantism that of course emhasized individuality though this is vague and echoes the rather emotionless family of her youth). It does seem to me a group of passions, purposes, etc. that Adams sees the 20th century as turning away from in its embrace of the dynamo rather than the Madonna, but then a century played out in which a lot of people seemed to find ways to resolve all this but the amount of serotonin prescribed at present implies a lot didn’t.

  19. I see something else. Western culture succeeded, and dominated the world in large part because of its openness to self-criticism. Western societies regularly demolished ancient traditions and revered institutions and practices when they became toxic (corrupt, obsolete, ossified), and replaced them with something better.

    But this useful ability has evolved into a generalized auto-immune syndrome – a reflexive championing of underdogs and outsiders and dissenters and foreigners, repudiation of any established thing.

    This syndrome is not new. In _The New Meaning of Treason_, Rebecca West summed up the attitude of the intellectual leaders of the British Left in the early 1900s. (She herself was one of them: H. G. Wells’ mistress, close acquaintance of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, etc.) These people were not nihilists. Here is West’s description

    “Many of the rank and file of the Webbs’ followers were positive in their own lesser ways, as civil servants, teachers, doctors, lawyers, bringing a certain new initiative and conscientiousness to their work. The women among them were moved to much usefulness; many of the voluntary institutions for the care of mothers and children which were taken over by the National Health Service were founded and carried on by such women. But positive as both the leaders and followers were, they lived in an atmosphere of negativism. The foundation of their creed was the assumption that there was nothing in the existing structure of society which did not deserve to be razed to the ground, and that all would be well if it were replaced by something as different as possible. They were to do it quietly, of course; but the replacement was to be absolute. To them the past was of value only in so far as it gave indications of how to annul the present and create a future which had no relation to it.

    The condition of these people’s children was paradoxical. They were brought up in a state of complete immunity from any form of physical want. Not only did they never suffer from hunger or cold or lack of clothing, they lived in a society from which such deprivations were being eliminated more quickly and more thoroughly than ever before. They were surrounded from birth by the affection and extremely conscientious care of their mothers and fathers, who took parenthood very seriously indeed. They were exempt from fear of war as we now know it, for the airplane was still a toy, the British Navy was the supreme munition of the world, and it was an article of faith in this group that all foreigners (except, for some reason, the French) were pacifists. These children were, in fact, more fortunate than any groups which had ever existed previously, save certain scattered patricians during periods when the wind blew war away from their cities and trade was good; and even over them these English children had a huge advantage so far as freedom from violence and disease is concerned. Yet they were taught and believed that they were living in the worst of all possible worlds but that they need not despair, as it would be the easiest thing they and their parents ever did to tear it down and make a better one.”

    What is new is the near complete dominance of Left sentiment in the intellectual class. George Murray tracked the change using data from the General Social Survey. As recently as 1972, all major population segments were about equally divided between Left and Right. When Murray looked at the data in 2008, he found that all segments had moved to slightly Right of center, except “Intellectual Upper Class”, which had moved steadily to over 20 points Left (on a scale of 100). If that trend has continued, the skew is now about 35.

    What particularly frightens me about this is that with the prevalence of meritocracy over the two generations, the “Intellectual Upper Class” (and its associates in the “Traditional Upper Class”) is now nearly all really smart and capable people. The brightest kids went to the elite colleges and were assimilated into the Left – even those in STEM.

    The result has been a closed chamber with all the smart people in it, all agreeing with each other – as the ship goes down.

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