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Megalomania as a Norm

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A Curse, and a Promise

Megalomania as a Norm
By Jay Werbinox Taylor

The standard dictionary definition of Megalomania describes it as a "mental illness involving delusions of grandeur" and / or an "obsession with one's own importance and omnipotence". Accompanying this definition is a whole possible series of thoughts and mental images that may or may not include Napoleon staring greedily at the shining domes of the Kremlin, Hitler standing malevolent and god-like before a worshipful throng of stiff armed thugs, to one's own employer or supervisor throwing a temper tantrum whilst declaring that everyone who works for him is worthless and incompetent. Ideas about, and images of, megalomania range from the frightening and bizarre, to the cartoonish and comedic. Charlie Chaplin captured the humorous and silly quality of megalomania in his classic film "The Great Dictator", which was a direct and topical parody of Hitler, and yet this same object of comedy left us with a legacy of unparalleled violence, murder, and destruction. Children's cartoons have for generations given us super villains who's sole aim is to try to conquer the world, and the "Superhero" genre, as it is expressed in comic books and the current crop of movies based on them, pits one group of megalomaniacs against another group, yet one side is dedicated to using their extraordinary powers to save the world from evil, while the other is dedicated to dominating and destroying it. Alongside these fantasy based morality tales, we witness the living nightmare that existed under Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime, the phantasmagoric cult of personality that rules North Korea under Kim Jong IL, and the global wide terrorism of Osama Bin Laden, all three of whom are classic, dyed in the wool megalomaniacs.

There are many questions we can ask ourselves at this point. If Megalomania is a "mental illness" involving "delusions" and "obsessions" with grandeur and omnipotence, why is it so prevalent? Why has the human species throughout it's history so often turned to individuals who suffer this "mental illness" to lead it? Why do we continue to do so?

Why are we so fascinated with extreme forms of power combined with god - like feelings of superiority? What does it say about the state of our world, and our own culture, that so many of our recent and current movies revolve around charismatic super-psychos who threaten civilization with destruction and death? Megalomaniacs throughout history have all combined charisma and intense loyalty with lofty sounding goals involving salvation and revolution and new world orders, and the most effective amongst them have proceeded forth from these romantic premises to inspire and instigate the infliction of suffering and death upon fellow human beings. Must the initiation of large scale ugliness and carnage utilize the poetry and imagery of beauty, patriotism, nationalism, and religion to trick impressionable people into committing acts they otherwise might not do? Are megalomaniacal leaders noble people who go disastrously astray in the pursuit of legitimate goals (being human and therefore imperfect) or is death and destruction the real and hidden goal - which hides behind the mask of its opposite?

Does megalomania serve an evolutionary purpose that we do not understand? Would the human race have advanced to its current level of technology and civilization without the presence of individuals who felt an overwhelming calling to achieve some grandiose goal? These are important and difficult questions. As this essay is an examination of the subject of human nature and megalomania, I do not pretend to have the answers. Towards an attempt to acquire new understanding of the subject, however, I have some of the questions.

* * * *

The impetus for this essay came from a piece on megalomania written by A O Kime. In his own essay, Mr. Kime investigates the subject of megalomaniacal psychology as appears in leaders throughout history. How are such leaders possible? How and why do they climb to positions of power, and why do people turn to them. From these questions I came to the realization that leaders, whether political or religious (and there is often very little difference) never exist in a vacuum. One cannot separate the psychology of leaders from the people they ostensibly "lead". A megalomaniacal leader may come to power over a nation because it is filled with - megalomaniacs. This means Napoleon and Hitler governed nations full of little Napoleons and little Hitler's.

No, not everyone in any country at any given time will suffer this affliction, but enough of them will, and those that do are usually motivated to get involved in the political process at one level or another. The truly ambitious rise to levels of expanding influence, even if they never reach the public spotlight. This does not take into account the so called "average" citizen, who may exhibit degrees of megalomania without even realizing it. I myself have witnessed all too many people in our own time feel that they are kicking ass because "Bush is kicking ass". A kind of psychological transference occurs from the citizen who hungers for power in his or her own way, to the leader who actually has the power to initiate things. Think of the armchair boxer who beats the opponent when his chosen guy wins. Consider the grandiose themes of Good vs. Evil that adorn the pro wrestling scene. My point is that megalomania is, to a certain extent, a human condition that is perhaps more prevalent than we realize, and it does not just afflict our ostensible leaders.

A person's ego is but a small part of the total picture that they are, yet it say's a lot about their prominent traits and tendencies. In the same way, those who lead a group or a nation are but a small part of what composes the whole, yet they reveal the tendencies and traits that are motivating the whole; the leaders of a nation are the manifest ego of the nation. When you see old newsreels of Hitler taking the salute from a sea of nameless, faceless people, realize that he is just a focus for THEIR PSYCHOLOGY! The horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust were driven by those who are nameless and faceless to the history books.

* * * *

Let us look at the premise of the standard definition of megalomania.

The first operative word is "delusion"; the question is - is it?...is it always?

A racist TV repairman might one day decide he is a new Hitler reincarnate, and set out to form a white power group to overthrow the US government and set up an ascendant Aryan culture, and most of us would have no problem agreeing that he is at the very least deluded, if not insane. Yet similar ideas haunted a young Austrian drop out and failed artist, and as laughable as such delusions are to those of us who fancy ourselves "normal", the scale of violence this drop out helped to unleash makes HIS delusions not so funny. We recognize that, insane or not, those beliefs and delusions drove him to manifest them into reality. A eccentric individual's bizarre dreams are "delusions" so long as he never achieves them; those who do achieve them become "the real thing". The dead rat vendor in pre-revolutionary France who thought he would one day conquer the world was clearly a kind of loony; the young and obscure military loony who would one day seize the crown of the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither Roman, nor Holy) from the Pope's hand's became an Emperor and a man of "Destiny". Apparently perspectives on reality shift depending on the outcome.

The very sentence "delusions of grandeur" imply that is silly for a mere human being to even associate himself with concepts such as grandeur and significance. The popular morality of equality underlines the idea that no one can be, or should be - better than another. As noble as this concept may be for an over-arching legal structure, it denies the reality of sentient life that strives to distinguish itself. The culture that promotes Free Market Competition and Evolution is antipodal to the sentiments of true equality. Competition shuns similarity and strives to Outdo, and Evolution is hierarchical, with processes that are indifferent to equality, being variations and experiments on a theme.

A moral code that declares All Shall Be Equal would be a natural enemy to all personal estimations of great significance, and would label all aspirations towards an elevated status as "delusions" of "grandeur", implying that grandeur for an individual can be nothing BUT a delusion. Far from being any kind of scientifically based truth, this conceptual limitation is nothing more than a morally biased prejudice in favor of what is common (the group) against a will to distinction (the individual who attempts to rise above the group)

* * * *

Mr. Kime's essay takes an understandable view of human violence throughout history as a disgraceful and unnecessary aberration from a more idyllic, peaceful, and cooperative state of existence that is possibly achievable if we learn to turn away from megalomaniacal leaders who take us down the roads of charismatic inspiration to the dead ends of mass graves and destruction. There is nothing wrong with this view, and the world would be a better place if more people learned to shun "leaders" altogether, and learned to govern themselves. This view also reflects the prevalent thought amongst criminal psychologists, most of whom look at criminal tendencies as an "aberration" from a norm that leads "responsible" people to lead peaceful lives free of the desire to injure anyone or anything. Their failure to discover the true nature of these violent tendencies, however, may lie in a faulty premise of what is "normal", and what is an "aberration."

Perhaps we are too sentimental about human nature. Recent studies on the behavior of Chimpanzees may rip that sentimentality aside. Apparently chimpanzees engage in group killing for no observable purpose beyond a kind of thrill, mob psychology being present amongst them as well as our own species. There have even been chimpanzee "serial killers". Perhaps this feeling of power which seeks a violent outlet is an ineradicable part of all that lives. Observe the world of nature; the vast majority of the animal kingdom exists in a Predator / Prey relationship. Not only do species attack and consume other species, they attack and consume members of their own. Animals fight and defend themselves against other animals all the time, and groups of the same species struggle for power over each other. Rogue bands of apes have been known to snatch a baby from it's mothers arms, kill it, and even eat it. Life forms exist upon the exploitation of other life forms, whether this exploitation involves digestion of sentient and non sentient matter (fruits & vegetables / meat) or struggles for domination and division of labor. As well known as this is to most humans, it is strange that we deny the extent to which the animal world and our own overlaps. We are animals, too, and all sentimental notions aside - violence, aggression, exploitation, and struggle for power is the dominant condition, and not otherwise. Why would it be any different for the human realm?

Perhaps Predator / Prey relationships are the Norm, and not the Aberration!?

Perhaps the conditional transcendence of Predator / Prey is the Aberration, an evolutionary and still developing trend? Perhaps we should instead be studying those individuals and cultures who refrain from Predator / Prey, and discovering what it is that makes them tick? Although violence and conflict will always be a part of sentient existence, we must learn what helps human kind to transcend the more simplistic and vulgar forms of it. After all, the so called "visionary" messages of megalomaniacal leaders have always involved the transfiguring and "ennobling" of violent inclinations by painting them as something grander and higher (when murder and domination is what they amount to)

Mr. Kime utilizes an interesting device whereby a hypothetical alien interviews humanity in an effort to discover what has made him so warlike. This expresses a very popular prejudice that runs through a tradition of science fiction which portrays advanced species as being necessarily free form violence and conflict. This is a continuation of the morally conditioned idea that labels aggressive behavior as symptomatic of primitiveness, - a trait that is supposed to vanish as a species progresses. This assumption is anything but a given. Perhaps the most advanced race of beings in the galaxy would build their culture out of a cauldron of conflict and ruin, much as the "Vulcan's" of Star Trek fame sublimated their intense and violent passions into a form of self mastery. Yes, the growth of self discipline is indeed an element of an advanced culture, yet it is also symptomatic of the NEED for self discipline. Violent passions, and the possibility of averted and actualized conflict will always be present.

Our hypothetical alien may not be surprised at all by our warlike history, for he would have his own history of warfare to draw upon. Intelligence spreads itself out into the world, and lives to discharge its designs upon nature. Therefore the presence of any intelligence in multiple embodiments creates a recipe for conflict at some point. Yes, intelligence must overcome its limitations (by definition) but the aspect of conflict is inherent to it, not an aberration.

* * * *

In conclusion I will return to the subject of megalomania specifically.

Megalomania is not in itself "bad". In the future we may have occasion to defeat a dangerous megalomaniacal leader by pitting other megalomaniacs, who fight on the side of freedom against tyranny, against him. One could argue that anyone who climbs to a position of great authority, or feels a calling to great significance, has a touch of megalomania in them.

What is the difference between megalomania, and healthy self esteem? If an individual truly is capable of works of genius, and is capable of actions that will effect the course of history, then his "megalomania" could more accurately be called Self Realization! In the end it is the outcome that will decide the difference between a loony, and a loony who also happens to be the Real Thing. A third category, a megalomaniac who could have pulled off his grand design, yet failed to get around to it, is another possibility.

Where would our world be without megalomania? It would be without religion, that is for sure! How could any religion ever get started without it? Any man, or woman, who has the audacity (excuse me, I mean the vision!) to claim to be a spokesman for God is a classic megalomaniac, for what could have more grandeur than to submit to a calling that promises to reform humanity from it's erroneous ways, and to lead it towards the "true will of the Creator"? Those who believe in the divine missions of Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed would never consider them as ultimate expressions of megalomania, yet for those of us who do not "believe in them" - they are unthinkable without it.

Consider cult founders and radical religious personalities throughout history (realizing that every religion was, in it's genesis, a cult, and that every cult that has come and gone was - a failed religion) from Pythagoras, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, to Jim Jones and David Koresh; all of them were charismatic individuals who wielded immense authority over their followers, all in the name of some divine mission that would change human history.

For those who consider religion a great blessing, megalomania has given them their greatest gift; for those who think otherwise - it's greatest curse.

For me - my greatest fascination.

* * * * *

What if megalomania, in various degrees, is far more prevalent than we thought?

What if it is closer to being a Norm, and not an Aberration?

Where would our world be without it? Perhaps better off / perhaps worse off; either way we will never know, for it will always be with us to some degree, and the prospects of our future have it growing even larger. It permeates our history, our nightly news, our entertainment, and our politics. One cannot watch Congress, or any one of a dozen popular movies, without confronting it. Perhaps we all have a touch of it from time to time? Perhaps we have bypassed many a small quagmire or tea-pot tempest only because of a vision that we are meant for something greater, something grander. Perhaps someday we can justify our megalomania by living up to it's promise, rather than following it into the mass grave yet again.

Jay Werbinox Taylor

Last modified: 03/11/16