HOW SCARED ARE WE?
A short time ago we returned from a wonderful trip into the Julian Alps of Slovenia. But first, we started with a few days overlooking the water at the head of the Adriatic Sea at Trieste. To break up the return to Ascoli Piceno, we also spent a few days in Padua. Padua is another of those places in Italy where the contemporary world is interwoven with a very long imprint of human history. Amid contemporary buildings are Roman ruins and a number of churches dating from the Renaissance. It is also the seat of one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe. Galileo lectured there.
A highlight of the visit to Padua was to see the Scrovegni Chapel to experience first hand the frescoes of Giotto di Bondone. The entire interior of the structure became Giotto’s canvas. Giotto is recognized in the history of western art as marking the transition into a more naturalistic style of depiction breaking with the long dominance of the Byzantine tradition. Giotto executed these incredible frescoes between 1303 and 1305.
Reflecting an age of relatively low literacy, Giotto’s Scrovegni frescoes pictorially tell the biblical story from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the terror of the Last Judgment. Reflecting on Giotto’s Last Judgment, and the interpretations on that theme of later artists, brings inevitable comparisons such as the 1534 – 1541 work of Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
The art of Giotto reflects the prevailing view of an afterlife in the dogma of the western Catholic Church. Reinforcing this doctrinal concept of judgment, damnation and punishment further is the monumental literary work of Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, begun in 1308 and completed in 1320, a year before his death. This work not only forged the foundation for the Italian national language it added further weight to a belief in an afterlife and impending judgment.
As the Christian faith transitioned from a persecuted sect to assuming a role underwriting the power of the State after 313, an issue for believers became inevitable, ‘if we are no longer under persecution and we are in God’s special favor, why do we still suffer from wars, pestilence, hunger and other disasters?’ The response offered by temporal power unable to effectively eliminate suffering was the concept of this life as a trial to earn possible reward in an afterlife yet to come. All that was required was faith. The suffering of Jesus and a pantheon of Saints lead the way demonstrated through their martyrdom response to trial. To complain rather than endure was to reject God’s plan for ultimate redemption.
The unconvinced among the populations of the High Middle Ages who viewed Giotto’s and other similar images of the terror of damnation must have felt seriously ill at ease. The graphic level of detail of the pain and suffering which was sure to await those who turned their backs on the “one true faith” became a powerful element of persuasion. ‘Never mind asking if God truly loves us, why do we still suffer here on earth? Because if you think this is bad, look at what comes next!’ It begins to appear more souls have been brought into the church through literally ‘Scaring the Hell out of them’ than talking about love, caring, justice and mercy.
It may seem counter intuitive but I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t some subliminal attraction that may be operating in a broader understanding of fear. There is something very immediate about fear. Apparently, there is an element of imbedded exhilaration in becoming so intensely self-aware. Perhaps that accounts for the popularity of amusement park attractions that constantly push the limits of what the human body can endure. In the instance of the Amusement Park, there is at least some level of ‘faith’ that all will be all right when the experience is over. After all, there are people exiting the ‘thrill ride’ more or less under their own power. And then there is the apparent stimulating attraction associated with very graphic violence and horror experienced in screen and television dramas. Plus there can be a direct, visceral engagement in the participating in extreme violence in computer games.
Arousal commonly involves some sensation of a ‘rush’ connected to our internal body chemistry such as the stimulation associated with increased levels of adrenaline. The experience of a ‘high’ associated with arousal has been cited as a factor involved in becoming motivated to repeat certain types of behaviors. There is immediacy in the exhilaration of experiencing a ‘high’ that supersedes rationale engagement. In moments of stimulation, energy appears to shift from the more cognitively involved part of our brains to centers involved with intense feeling. Are we possibly not as fear avoiding as we might think? Are we somehow attracted to experiences of being frightened?
Perceptions of who we are seem more visceral than cognitive. At the core of fear is a sense of vulnerability. Our sense of ourselves, involving our identity in the larger context of others around us, is probably far more fragile than we would like to consciously admit. During our lifetimes we expend a considerable amount of effort to bolster and reinforce our sense of self worth. It is precisely this vulnerability that constitutes our Achilles Heel in making us subject to emotionally based manipulation.
The ability to effectively manipulate others through fear is one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of those who wish to bend others to their will. In contemporary advertising, seemingly benign images of products such as cars or other consumer products are essentially playing on generated internal fear of somehow loosing a positive identity or affirmation rooted in comparative status. The essential message is, ‘If I don’t accede to what I am being directed to do, I will suffer negative consequences.’
Living within a larger community of other human beings is the stuff of politics. I suggest that politics involves the persuasion of a body of people to accept some degree of control or direction from those who wish to be in positions of power. Then the operative question of the moment becomes what is the most effective way for those seeking power to persuade those they wish to control? In a utopian world, the methods of persuasion would only involve the presentation of rational arguments backed by demonstrable facts and supported by evidence. Does anyone know of anywhere this can be consistently counted on to take place? No, I don’t either!
So we are left with the stark reality that probably too many of the most consequential decisions we collectively face are most often made in a less than fully rational manner and are probably deeply influenced by emotion. Returning to the proposition of a vulnerable sense of self, nothing can be counted on to stir emotion more than issues repackaged as affecting a promoted group identity. Identity politics is all about instilling labels, making categorical distinctions about those ‘others’ and perpetuation of the notion that ‘our group is under siege.’ And here the ever-powerful fear element becomes even more sharply focused.
It is disquieting to me to reflect on what appears to be a reality that our species has become very accustomed to being persuaded, less by reason, but more likely by our viscera. So many of our institutions and the world of commerce in which we exist have apparently long spoken to our fears and vulnerabilities rather than seeking to uplift our collective minds and souls.
Standing in one of the rooms in the University of Padua in which Galileo is understood to have lectured, a thought occurred to me. Not far from that spot are the remarkable frescoes of Giotto. Giotto, like so many other exceptional artists of that age, were able to survive because their talents became an instrumentality of persuasion in having the masses accept authoritarian power. And in that space where I now had the privilege to stand, one of the iconic minds of that age was presenting ideas that challenged prevailing authoritarian views and encouraged explorative thinking rather than acquiescence to dogma. The forces of authority that demanded blind obedience did not take that challenge well. Galileo was persecuted and not rehabilitated until long after his death when science had totally vindicated his ideas with the resultant extreme level of embarrassment to the church.
Living in Italy is living within a tapestry of a very long history. It is inevitable to see differences particularly in architecture and evidence in what changes in technology has brought to the human experience. But in moments like the one I was experiencing, the long march of time may not have significantly changed other aspects of how we function as a community. It appears voices of science and reason that encourage open exploration of ideas and being prepared to accept change are not always acceptable to more authoritarian segments of society that are fixated on political power.
It is apparent the church found it easier to manipulate the masses into submission by using images stimulating fear. Motivation through stimulating intense fear seems far more effective than being stirred by conviction arrived at through reason. The ideas of Galileo could not compete because they required thinking and openness to something new. As much as it would seem being exposed to sources of fear should be avoided, it is beginning to look like going back for more visceral exhilaration through fear is preferable than having to delve into the unsure and very uncomfortable world of thinking for yourself.
Advances in technology not withstanding, as a species we may not be all that much more developed in how we collectively function in reality than our forebears who were moved by Giotto’s frescoes seven hundred years ago.