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Quizzing the Anonymous
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Of cruelty 
11th-Jan-2012 12:42 pm
In 1300 AD cruelty meant a very particular thing: the opposite of clemency. What we presently call cruelty was called brutality, and there was a clear distinction:

...cruelty is nothing else than sternness in the exaction of penalties. Rational abatement of penalties is an act of equity, but the sweetness of disposition that prompts such abatement belongs to clemency: so also excess of punishment, so far as the outward act goes, is an act of injustice; but as for the austerity of temper that makes one forward to lay on increase of punishment, that excess belongs to cruelty. Mercy and clemency agree in both of them shrinking from and abhorrin the making of another miserable: but to mercy it belongs to relieve misery by the bestowal of kindness; to clemency to diminish misery by abatement of penalties. And because cruelty means excess in the exaction of penalties, cruelty is more directly opposed to clemency than to mercy.

...brutality, is so called from the likeness that it bears to wild beasts [that] hurt to men in order to feed on their bodies, not for any cause of justice, since the consideration of that belongs to reason only. And therefore, properly speaking, it is called brutality, or savagery, when in inflicting punishments a man considers not any fault of the person who is punished, but has regard merely to his own delight in the torture of his fellows. This is clearly a case of brutality: for such delight is not human but brutal, coming either from evil custom or from corruption of nature, as do other similar bestial proclivities. Cruelty, on the other hand, has regard to the fault that is in the party that is punished, but exceeds due measure in punishing. And therefore cruelty differs from savagery, or brutality, as human malice differs from that which is bestial.


Cruelty is a product of rational mind: it is the injustice of exceeding the limits of just punishment; in contrast, brutality is the product of a [corrupt] animal soul. This distinction was already eroded in Montaigne's times, but still not quite. In his famous essay on cruelty
Montaigne says that when people kill their enemies in order not to defend themselves from the actual offence, but out of mere revenge for past offences or, worse, preventively, that's cruelty. Cruelty is wrong, because dead people cannot suffer the humiliation of defeat and repent, which depreciates the value of one's revenge. Cruelty is a display of cowardice and certain corruption of spirit; Montaigne seconds Seneca in calling weakness the mother of cruelty. However, elsewhere he realizes that cowardice alone does not explain cruelty [and there he probably means Aquinas' brutality]

...I could hardly persuade myself, before I had actual evidence, that there exist any souls so unnatural as to commit murder for the mere pleasure of doing so; as to hack and chop off men's limbs, as to sharpen their wits for the invention of unusual tortures and new forms of death; and all this without enmity or gain, but merely for the enjoyment of the pleasing spectacle afforded by the pitiful gestures and motions, the lamentable groans and cries, of a man dying in anguish. This is the extreme limit to which cruelty can attain, "that one man should kill another, not in anger or in fear, but solely to enjoy the sight." http://www.olearyweb.com/classes/philosophyS2/readings/montaigne/oncruelty.html

He grounds such brutality in mistreatment of animals, which he explains by (i) the decline of a belief in metemphsychosis, and (ii) the impulse to inhumanity as implanted in our animal nature. However, there is an opposing impulse, too

...there is a certain consideration, and a general duty of humanity, that binds us not only to the animals, which have life and feeling, but even to the trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and kindness and benevolence to all other creatures who may be susceptible of it. There is some intercourse between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

Another 200 years had passed, and the idea that cruelty originates primarily in brutality to animals became the common currency, and it largely explains why there was an explosion of advocacy for kinder treatment of animals. It is not cowardice that is the mother of cruelty, it is perverted curiosity in little children reinforced by bad example. Here is Locke:

...I have frequently observ'd in children that when they have got possession of any poor creature, they are apt to use it ill: they often torment, and treat very roughly, young birds, butterflies, and such other poor animals which fall into their hands, and that with a seeming kind of pleasure. This I think should be watched in them, and if they incline to any such cruelty, they should be taught to contrary usage. For the custom of tormenting and killing of beasts, will, by degrees, harden their minds even towards men; and they who delight in the suffering and destruction of inferior creatures, will not be apt to be very compassionate or benign to those of their own kind. Our practice takes notice of this in the exclusion of butchers from juries of life and death. Children should from the beginning be bred up in an abhorrence of killing or tormenting any living creature; and be taught not to spoil or destroy any thing, unless it be for the preservation or advantage of some other that is nobler. This delight they take in doing of mischief, whereby I mean spoiling of any thing to no purpose, but more especially the pleasure they take to put any thing in pain, that is capable of it; I cannot persuade my self to be any other than a foreign and introduced disposition, an habit borrowed from custom and conversation. People teach children to strike, and laugh when they hurt or see harm come to others: and they have the examples of most about them, to confirm them in it. All the entertainment and talk of history is nothing almost but fighting and killing. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1692locke-education.asp

Of course, Locke's thinking is self-contradictory: if cruelty is unnatural, then cultural habituation of children to cruelty (which he identifies as its supposed origin) should result in indifference rather than pleasure. So how could it become the source of pleasure? He does not explain.

That was the height of the Enlightenment, and we are well past this light.

In our own age, we are slowly graduating back to cowardice as the mother of cruelty. People (terrorists, tyrants, manipulators, criminals, torturers) are cruel because they are cowards - as if their bravery (which is often quite obvious) would make any difference. This is pathetic demonization of one's enemies. It fools no one, but repeated nevertheless, because any explanation is better than no explanation. Meanwile, it turned out that kindeness to animals is no impediment to killing millions of people. Our torturers and tyrants post the photos of their pets just like everyone else.

Modern pseudoscience
offers a wide range of "evolutionary" explanations of brutality that are not worth examining here for lack of any substantial insight; usually, it is a variety of an ingenous idea that cruelty is caused by the lack of empathy in the brain that is not properly wired. At best this "rationale" might explain what corruption of one's animal soul constitutes brutality; in reality, this description is so unspecific that one cannot seriously call it an improvement on medieval scholasticism. In any case, this is an "explanation" of brutality rather than cruelty, not that the authors of such books know about it.

I believe that no one had tried to explain cruelty for 500+ years; what was writen afterwards can be safely tossed out without much loss. It was expected that fusing brutality and cruelty into one notion would make it easier to explain it away, but (in my view) this approach has failed.

What is cruelty?

11th-Jan-2012 06:56 pm (UTC)
it turned out that kindeness to animals is no impediment to killing millions of people

Locke is talking about unkindness to animals having bad influence; I don't think he is claiming that kindness to animals would save a person from being cruel to people.

11th-Jan-2012 09:01 pm (UTC)
Maybe he did not, but the others did. The English of the 18th century were taking this idea at face value, see e.g.


This is, btw, a development of sentiments noticed by CS Lewis: that every age absolutizes one of the virtues, expanding it beyond all reason. He suggested that medieval people were obsessed with valor (hence cruelty <- cowardice) whereas the modern age is obsessed with mildness (hence cruelty <- mistreatment of animals). That cruelty has little to do with either is not registered, because this chief cardinal virtue has it opposite as the chief cardinal sin and it becomes associated with cruelty. Lewis had an interesting theory that human history would go through the whole rotation of ages associated with the cardinal virtues; perhaps each age would have its own notion of cruelty.
11th-Jan-2012 09:30 pm (UTC)
I think modern evolution can be traced through legal statutes (which codify morals when they become prevalent) from "cruel and unusual punishment" of people being prohibited to "cruelty to animals" as criminal offense. So we weren't too far off from 1300AD in the 18th century, anyway.
11th-Jan-2012 10:39 pm (UTC)
But that's precisely my point: that people today do not quite understand what "cruel punishment" actually meant. It means nothing more than a punishment whose severity exceeds the offence. We mentally substitute cruelty by brutality, because such is the custom of our time. When this phrase was coined it did have the same connotations.

"Cruelty to animals" is another such misnomer. It came late not because people believed that mistreating animals was tolerable, but because it was technically impossible. One can only be cruel to another rational creature. Only when the two notions completely fused did it become possible to talk about cruelty to dumb animals.
12th-Jan-2012 05:22 am (UTC)
I think in "cruel and unusual punishment' it is this, original, meaning of cruelty.
12th-Jan-2012 07:44 am (UTC)
Perhaps - or perhaps not.

This formulaic phrase is from the English Bill of Rights of 1689, so this usage would be anachronistic, although possible, as an archaism. Hobbes, writing 50 years earlier, defined cruelty simply as "vengeance without regard to a future good" - there is no context of just/appropriate punishment. But in Hamlet, the meaning is certainly the old one:

I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So again good night.
I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

O heart, lose not thy nature, let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.
Let me be cruel, not unnatural.

Nero was a brute; Hamlet wants to be cruel, but not brutish.
13th-Jan-2012 05:45 am (UTC)
Not sure about the "erosion" you reported - did you mean it as specific to the English language? As a native French, for me "cruauté" and "brutalité" represent very very different things, actually quite close to your quote of St Thomas Aquinas. I'd be curious about the modern Italian language.

Shouldn't one stick to the original, especially when it comes to language? I am particularly afraid of translation in modern English being somewhat limiting.

But please do not take this comment as a strong critic - the topic is definitely an interesting one. Maybe relevant to English only?
14th-Jan-2012 05:30 pm (UTC)
I apologize for the delay answering your comment.

No, this erosion is not limited to English. Note that even in English there are vestiges of archaic usage. For example, we do not say "police cruelty". It is always "police brutality". It is often said that X (e.g. slavery) is "brutality and cruelty" - as if these are different things; this formula is contained in the English Common Law originating from pre-modern times. If you look up a modern dictionary, however, brutality will be defined as savage cruelty.

It is the same thing in French. Yes, there are two different words and there certain ossified patterns of their usage, but there is no rationale behind it. You can read about "cruauté animale" - though it is impossible to be cruel to an animal, if you take Aquinas' view; one can only be brutal to an animal.
If you ask an Englishman, are brutality and cruelty different things? - you will get a yes. But press harder and you will discover that few people would be able to tell the difference of meanings rather than usages, and the latter would be in the degree of physicality rather than the key difference that Aquinas gives. It is the same thing in other European languages.
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