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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

The Sinner Inside All of Us

In the public squares of the cities of northern Europe in the Middle Ages, a standard sight was of a person ‘in stocks’, their arms, head and legs immobilised within a wooden frame. The person (it was more often than not a woman) had done something wrong – they’d committed adultery, they’d not gone to church enough, they’d read a suspicious book, they’d danced too much, they’d communicated with satanic spirits – and their punishment was to be laughed at, doused in urine or have excrement and offal thrown at them. We shudder at how uncivilised we once were.

Yet we have not, of course, entirely given up on stocks. We too have our range of media-identified villains and our versions of verbal offal: this one slept with the wrong person, that one was privately recorded saying something inappropriate, this third one accepted money from a dubious source. And so we’ll get to work on insults and calumny. Often – as in the Middle ages – the way we justify our brutality is with reference to our enemy’s degraded nature; we can be severe because they have been impure.

Our high handed cruelty is so regrettable in part because it contravenes the laws of self-awareness. The more we understand of ourselves, the more we necessarily reach a surprising, humbling realisation: most of what we condemn in other people is present in ourselves. There is a reprobate, a weirdo, a pervert, a freak, a glutton and a bigot in all of us. The more incensed we are of the ‘sin’ in another, the more we are likely to be harbouring a version of it in our own characters. The strength of our condemnation only indicates how deeply involved we are in matters like impiety, lust, selfishness, tribalism, greed and retrogression. We rush to condemn the wicked out of an unprocessed relationship to our own impurity.

Maturity demands something far more challenging: that we accept without righteousness the presence in our minds of all kinds of impulses and thoughts that violate prevailing morals. We too – like the unfortunate characters in stocks that we have enjoyed laughing at – have had wicked thoughts and perhaps done wicked deeds. We are infinitely complicated creatures, drawn to the light but ineluctably caught up in the darkness, prone to temptation, aspiring to nobility yet repeatedly drawn to baseness.

What should replace offal-throwing is a weary, compassionate sadness for our whole race. The person in stocks is not uniquely sinful, they are perhaps merely uniquely unlucky. Impulses that dwell in all of us were given untrammelled opportunities in their case; we might have acted likewise if we had had their path through life. We should – with self-awareness – shudder for ourselves and pity those who have erred. 

We will have grown up when we can bear to recognise that every flaw we curse in people around us is nascent in our minds. Self-exploration provides the definitive cure for feelings of superiority. To rehearse a by-now familiar point (with a tragically weak hold on our minds), we’ll be kind to others when we can bear to acknowledge the sinful parts of ourselves.

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