The example I have in mind is the attitude, prevalent in the English-speaking world from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that sex was the root of all evil.
The Victorian horror of sexual desire has been mocked so mercilessly in recent decades, and not without reason, that a lot of people these days have apparently forgotten just how seriously it was taken at the time.
Just now, of course, the emotion at the center of this particular rogue’s gallery is hate.
These days hate has roughly the same role in popular culture that original sin has in traditional Christian theology.
A culture of pretense, hypocrisy, and evasion springs up to allow them to vent the unacceptable emotion on some set of acceptable targets without admitting that they were doing so.
That’s what emerged in Victorian society once people convinced themselves that sexual desire was the root of all evil, and it’s what has emerged in our time as people have convinced themselves that hate fills the same role.
It just meant that people got hypocritical about it. Some insisted that in certain sharply defined contexts—for example, within the bounds of legal marriage—it wasn’t the same, no, of course not, how could you suggest such a horrid thing?
It occurred to me the other day that there’s a curious disconnect between one of the most common assumptions most of us make about how to make the world better, on the one hand, and the results that this assumption has had when put into practice, on the other.
It’s reminiscent of the realization that led James Hillman and Michael Ventura to title a once-notorious book of theirs .
Here again, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that people a century and a quarter ago—most likely including your ancestors, dear reader, if they happened to live in the English-speaking world—saw things the other way around.
To them, hate was an ordinary emotion that most people had under certain circumstances, but sexual desire was beyond the pale: beastly, horrid, filthy, and so on through an impressive litany of unpleasant adjectives.
It was also something that all of them experienced.