Two video clips of Theodore Dalrymple. He reports a patient – a habitual burglar – asking him, “do I keep burgling houses because of my childhood?” – to which Dalrymple replied, “No, it’s because you’re lazy and stupid.”

The crook was amused. i suspect, however, he was also relieved to hear that he was not an automaton, not at the mercy of his childhood. When he asked “do I keep stealing because of my childhood?” perhaps he was not just trying to elicit the sympathy he had come to expect, from fools; perhaps he genuinely thought that Dalrymple, as a consultant psychiatrist, did indeed have the skeleton keys to his psyche. In our society people often place undue trust in psychologists (hence the Moses-like authority of Freud), and accept their myths with open-mouthed credulity, very much the mud-encrusted peasant before the Bishop (i am reminded that the cultured and sophisticated, but not terribly deep, or bright, Gretl Wittgenstein was a great believer in Freud).

The do-gooder impulse is to relieve every man of moral responsibility, to ease the burden of his wickedness by saying, soothingly, “it isn’t your fault – you steal (or commit rapes or murders, etc.) because of your childhood“. There is generally some truth in this – for example, i’ve only read of one serial killer who wasn’t sexually abused as a child – but there seem two consequences of this attitude: the first is quite obvious, that the crook ceases to even attempt to resist his selfish impulses, ceases to feel any guilt – since, after all, it’s not really his fault, he has no control; the second is subtler – a disquieting sense of impotence, of being an automaton, programmed by childhood forces beyond his knowledge or control. And from both of these, i think, will come greater violence – excused by the first, and acting as a revolt against the second, this as an attempt to act, to experience the power of action, even if only in compliance with the master you defy (the supposed influence of your childhood).

The therapist holds out the answer – you need therapy, you need someone knowledgeable, who holds the textbook and manual to your psyche, to intervene and, as it were, restore your default settings. This would be well if human beings were just machines and therapists were service engineers. The modern view of the human psyche is just so. Someone once assured me, that there is no metaphysical or spiritual component to despair – “not in 2010 in the west” – as if there might once have been, but with the Ascent of the Machine, it just went away. In this view of the mind, we are merely machines and can be disassembled, fixed, and reassembled – by a certified engineer. Ask how, exactly, psychotherapists are qualified to poke about in the human mind, and you are told that they have framed certificates from reputable universities – and that explains everything, for as we know people are just machines, and present no greater difficulties or complexity than an uppity photocopier.

And to be treated as a machine, ruled by the occult forces of childhood, seems to me unlikely to promote mental balance, or virtue. Treat people as if they lack souls, as if biological life is the highest criterion, and do not be surprised if people waste years in therapy, and come out little improved.

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