Deflecting blame to the stars for our faults

admirable evasionsIn this new book Theodore Dalrymple [pen name of Anthony Daniels] argues that “most psychological explanations of human behavior are not only ludicrously inadequate oversimplifications, …they are socially harmful in that they allow those who believe in them to evade personal responsibility for their actions and to put the blame on a multitude of scapegoats: on their childhood, their genes, their neurochemistry, even on evolutionary pressures.”

A brief quote in the front of the book alludes to Shakespeare as Dalrymple’s inspiration for the book, as well as his decades of experience as a prison psychiatrist. Dalrymple’s one-line quote is part of this scene in, King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2, voice of Edmund:

This is the excellent foppery of the world that when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

Shakespeare, were he alive today, would surely be a conservative. Conservatism involves the understanding that taking personal responsibility for one’s behavior is central to living a good life. This theme occurs often in Shakespeare’s plays. The voice of Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, is well known:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Dalrymple suggests that great literature is a far more illuminating window into the human condition than the assumptions of psychology.

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