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Is it Safe to Assume that Most People have Some

Taste for Cruelty, though Usually Unacknowledged?

Scarce anything awakens attention like a tale of cruelty.

Samuel Johnson

[Many people—perhaps a majority—are acquainted with cruelty in the form of bullying. A bully does not typically select a victim to avenge a wrong, or a perceived wrong, but rather to enjoy the pleasures of inspiring fear in another and making them miserable. Such being the case, it stands to reason that the bully will select victims on the simple and practical basis of weakness and vulnerability. These facts are well known. However, in the passage below we find a deeper analysis of the phenomenon. The excerpt is from the first critical account of the elite public schools to appear in Britain. First published in 1914 in the form of a novel, The Harrovians was based on a diary kept by Arnold Lunn while he attended England’s second most prestigious public school from 1902 to 1906. The small, unattractive, unathletic boy, called ‘Peter’ in the book, is the author himself. The school was organized into ‘Houses,’ each of which consisted of a mix of boys of all ages. Each House had a name and its own internal organization and hierarchy, and they competed against one another in intramural sports called ‘games.’ The term ‘privs’ meant either the privilege to ‘fag’ (i.e. force younger boys to do chores and run errands) and ‘whop’ (i.e. cane or beat younger boys), or the possessors of those privileges.]

The story of a House is the story of certain dominant personalities. In Lee’s Cayley was the one factor that counted. At footer [rugby] Bending was comparatively mild in his absence, but inspired to ferocious zeal when he was playing. Cayley ruled the House, and Fairbanks and his brother privs counted for nothing. He possessed a certain animal magnetism, and it was something more than the tangible discomfort of crossing him that made his sway irresistible. He had redeeming features. There was nothing underhand about his methods. Like many bullies, he was quite fearless. With a certain rough and coarsely engaging humour he waged an open warfare on all forms of authority.

The psychology of the bully would repay more careful study than it has so far attracted. The subject has been obscured by sweeping generalizations more picturesque than accurate. It is often said that bullying has died out in Public Schools. And yet there is probably not one big school which does not have a serious case of bullying to handle for every generation of boys that passes through its portals. A distinct advance has been made in that public opinion no longer tolerates bullying, and that cases which were universal in bygone days are now the exception. The bully has a short-lived reign. He may flourish in a House that has fallen on evil days, but sooner or later public opinion will drive him out of the school and the House will recover with amazing rapidity from his influence. Bullying is usually the child of a stunted imagination, and is therefore rare among clever boys. It is the exception to find it allied to brains, and when so allied it is rather the product of unhealthy appetite and a morbid imagination than of cruelty pure and simple. Such cases are fortunately rare. The average school bully is usually good at games, and, contrary to received notions, is rarely a coward. Nor does he wear a hangdog expression that betrays him to casual observers. The bully is often an unconscious wrongdoer, and cruelty is by no means abnormal. It is one of the primitive instincts. It is a phase of a certain type of growing boyhood; it is the product of the rush of animal vigour that seeks an object for its self-realization. It is common to all children and boys whose intellect develops more slowly than their physical power. The same defective imagination that makes them blind to the sufferings of their victim is often the mainspring of that physical courage which is merely an incapacity to visualize danger and possible pain. To the confusion of moral tales, the bully often develops into the best type of virile manhood. As a boy he has only been half developed, and the school tradition of muscle worship does its best to check the recovery of balance.

Cayley himself was responsible for one of those reigns of terror whose memory is handed down from boy to boy, while myth and legend gather round the name of the oppressor. For Peter and his like the only hope lay in obscurity. No boy dared venture into the yard for fear of attracting his attention. In Hall they sat quietly and did not speak above a whisper when Cayley was present. They bolted their food and fled at the earliest opportunity. And because one boy was more likely to attract attention than a group, they silently made up small parties to slink out together. If detected they ran the risk of being placed on a form and required to sing under a bombardment of sugar. Sometimes Cayley, like Saul when the evil spirit possessed him would sit and scowl at the head of the table. Great and small would shudder, and there would be silence in the Hall.

Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity.

George Eliot

[The following passage is from Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin, 2003. By the 1920s there were two more or less authorized biographies on Einstein. Both authors, Dimitri Marianoff, who was briefly married to Elsa’s younger daughter, thereby making him Einstein’s stepson-in-law, and Antonina Vallentin, another literary friend of the family, presented Einstein’s second marriage (to his cousin Elsa) in a more idyllic light than was actually the case.]

But even these highly sympathetic witnesses revealed some of the cracks in this veneer of domestic bliss. Vallentin wrote that Elsa “knew better than anyone else some of the great man’s weaknesses and certain dark sides of his great qualities.” Strikingly, Vallentin characterized Elsa herself as someone who “had allowed herself to age prematurely, either through laziness or resignation, as though she had deliberately wanted to put an end to her life as a woman.” Marianoff, meanwhile, provided fairly sharp hints that Einstein had no desire to cease living as a man. He told of a conversation with him about “an incident that had been bothering Elsa to the extent of involving her health.” Marianoff wrote that “it was a delicate matter, one that should have been sent into pure oblivion for all concerned.”

On that occasion, Marianoff urged Einstein not to discuss the issue with Elsa again, and he agreed. But as soon as the two men met up with Elsa, Einstein burst out with the whole story, to her evident anguish. Marianoff was “stunned and speechless at this moment.” The two men walked in the garden after dinner, and Marianoff asked Einstein why he had told Elsa something he knew would hurt her. Einstein did not answer immediately, walking on. Then, slowly, he said, “We do things but we do not know why we do them.” And that, Marianoff said, was what truly troubled Einstein: “He was not embarrassed at what he had done, but he suffered much embarrassment because he could not fathom the cause of why he did it.”

People who are brutally honest get more satisfaction out of the brutality than out of the honesty.

Richard J. Needham

The Calvinists took the Catholic idea of the absolute knowledge and power of God; and treated it as a rocky irreducible truism so solid that anything could be built on it, however crushing or cruel. They were so confident in their logic, and its one first principle of predestination, that they tortured the intellect and imagination with dreadful deductions about God, that seemed to turn Him into a demon.

G. K. Chesterton

Cruelty is, perhaps, the worst kind of sin. Intellectual cruelty is certainly the worst kind of cruelty.

G. K. Chesterton

[While attending the elite Jesuit Colegio de BelÚn in Havanna] I remember long sermons for meditation on hell—its heat and the suffering, anguish and desperation it caused. I don’t know how such a cruel hell as the one that was described to us could have been invented, because such severity is inconceivable, no matter how great a person’s sins may have been. Moreover, the punishment for venial sins was way out of proportion. Even to doubt something that wasn’t understood regarding a certain dogma was a sin. You had to believe it, because if you didn’t and had a fatal accident or died for any other reason while in that state of sin, you could be condemned to hell. There was really no proportion between the individual’s sins and eternal punishment.

Fidel Castro

The most cruel people are those who don’t realize that they are cruel.

[A news item from the November 28, 2008 issue of The Star]

Iranian newspapers say a court has sentenced a man who blinded a woman with acid to suffer the same fate under Islamic law. The reports said the 27-year-old man confessed to making the 2004 attack to dissuade others from marrying the woman he loved.

When we think of cruelty, we must try to remember the stupidity, the envy, the frustration from which it has arisen.

Edith Sitwell

Thoughts about Cruelty

All cruelty springs from weakness.


Cruelty isn’t softened by tears, it feeds on them.

Publilius Syrus

The healthy man does not torture others—generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.

Carl Jung

The impulse to cruelty is, in many people, almost as violent as the impulse to sexual love—almost as violent and much more mischievous.

Aldous Huxley

This strange admiration for the person who imposes his will on others, however ignorant and ugly and even cruel that will may be, is an obsession which has been growing on G.B.S. [George Bernard Shaw].

Beatrice Webb

The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.

Bertrand Russell

The outlines of both his intellect and his feeling are sharp, hard and permanent. He is a good hater . . . I have no sense of sin, and no desire to see it punished. Bertrand, on the other hand, is almost cruel in his desire to see cruelty revenged.

Beatrice Webb (on Bertrand Russell)

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.

George Bernard Shaw

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