Christopher Booker on human aggression
The problem of human aggression can hardly be described as a new one. The story of Cain and Abel was, after all, the first recorded consequence of the Fall. But in recent years, particularly embellished with a quantity of not always wholly relevant in- formation about the territorial imperatives of robins and the private life of geese, the discussion of the nature of our aggressive impulses has taken several new turns. One of the more surprising is represented in this book by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, originally written (with more than a nod to Konrad Lorenz) three years ago, and now reprinted in paperback.
Perhaps, Dr Storr suggests, we have been looking at our aggression in the wrong light. Of course much aggression is bad and des- tructive. 'We are the cruellest and most ruthless species that has ever walked the earth', and indeed it may one day be the death of us all. But the fact remains, claims Dr Storr, that our aggression is 'a drive as innate, natural and powerful as sex'. We ac- tually need our aggression, as one of the great driving forces of human existence. We need it to establish our independence as in- dividuals. We need it to master our environ- ment. We need it to survive at all. The recurrent vision of a society without aggres- sion, put forward by Bertrand Russell and the prophet Isaiah. among others, is not just a pipe dream—but a positive denial of the only, force which prevents us from sinking back into a mere vegetable existence. We must therefore learn to accept our aggres- sion, for both good and ill inseparably— even though, pace Lorenz, we may still have a lot to learn from other animals about how best to ritualise our aggression, and channel it into constructive forms of expression.
Now, a lot of people will find a good deal of plausibility in this argument. It is unden- iable that a certain amount of aggression seems to be inseparable from the various stages of growing up, and indeed from many
' otherwise healthy human relationships, including marriage. Furthermore, it is cer- tainly true that we are never going to eradi- cate aggression from human nature, so in this sense it is obviously something we have
Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that Dr Storr is resting the whole of his rather daring case on a sleight of hand. Does it really help to sweep up the whole positive driving force of human nature as aggression in this way? Is it really meaningful to lump all firm, assertive human actions together as
aggressive, without any further qualifica- tion? Surely the point of interest is precisely where and how in human beings this driving force so often turns sour and nasty—be- comes perverted into what the rest of us more readily recognise as real human 'ag- gression'? It is this perverse quality which renders our human aggressioq unique in the animal kingdom. After all, the animals too have the driving force for survival—but no one suggests that in any of them, except possibly the odd lemming, the same force may also be leading to their race suicide.
It is in fact the failure to distinguish the Purposeful, or at least contained aggression of animals from the so often uncontrolled and purposeless aggression of human beings Which makes Dr Stores argument finally
meaningless. It is hard to see that, by his definition, the drunken father who beats his child into insensibility and the mother
who slaps her child on the wrist for its own good are not both acting, in a sense, equally aggressively. A discussion of aggression which does not draw a clear distinction be- tween the two risks the charge of mere play- ing with words.
The real distinction that must surely be drawn is that human actions can only be fairly or usefully described as aggressive when there is some element of 'ego assertion' in them, whether it be individual or collec- tive. This inevitably goes on all the time because man is a fallen and imperfect crea- ture, and resorts to aggression whenever he cannot fit into the world, understand it or harmonise with it. But there is another whole side of human nature which Dr Storr con- sistently misrepresents and ignores through.
out the book—all those tendencies in man which draw him towards a harmony which is not governed by his ego. Not all actions are so self-centred as he implies. And all the expressions of this side of man which makes for his maturity and self-control—the belief in justice, selfless love, the great art and above all the religions of mankind—appear to be lost on him.
One illustration of how seriously this leads him astray may be taken from his comments on art. From Schubert's unexceptionable remark that 'Often 1 feel I do not belong to this world at all', Dr Storr infers that he was a potential revolutionary whose distaste for the Austria of the 1820s was only averted from finding more subversive expression by his creation in his music of 'a world of the imagination, in part tragic, in part a nostal- gic attempt to recapture the simplicity of childhood'. Similarly Beethoven was a naturally aggressive man who sublimated his aggression in the childish dream of the universal brotherhood of man expressed in the last movement of the ninth symphony.
The bankruptcy of Dr Story's theory is finally demonstrated in the closing passages of his book, where he puts forward some suggestions as to how we may learn better to ritualise our aggressions, as we do already in such things as sport and the space race. Dr Storr can find no more uplifting message on which to close (other than a ritual plea for yet 'more research') than the suggestion that the United Nations might do a great deal to alleviate international tension by sponsoring a series of competitions for such things as 'the best designed council house' or 'the most efficient mental hospital'. I sus- pect there is a good deal more to it all than that.
Christopher Booker, author of 'The Neo- philiacs', writes regularly for the SPECTATOR