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Prometheus and the Burnt Child

One's own violence is repressed from consciousness as legitimate counter-force against unjust power since aggression is only seen in the powerful enemy.. Denial, repression and concealment of aggression through justification brutalizes.

By Friedrich Hacker

[This essay is translated from the German in: Aggression. Die Brutalisierung der Modernen Welt, 1973, Rowohlt, Hamburg, pp 83-87.]

The burnt child is afraid of the fire. This proverb emphasizes what experience teaches and should teach. People should be afraid of fire! If one has not learned this, one gets burned and suffers pain. Education would spare the child pain through warning. One doesn't need to expose oneself to the danger if one anticipates it in imagination and thought. If the child doesn't want to hear, the child will get hurt. Education and experience help the child to recognize dangers and avoid them on time. The knowledge that certain things and situations are dangerous and painful is necessary. One should guard oneself from these situations, be careful and distrustful and not come near them.

That is the first lesson for adaptation to reality.

The child should be afraid of all contact with fire. The mere approach awakens fear. One should not grasp hot irons. Fire becomes taboo and may not be touched. Soon avoidance of fire is no longer consciously planned but happens automatically and unconsciously. In panic fear, one runs from everything that calls to mind fire.

Phobia is the pathological, unconscious and automatic avoidance of an actual or fear-causing situation of fear.

From a secure distance, one can see the fire. Through the distance, fire becomes an aesthetic object experienced in contemplation. One finds the fire beautiful and interesting in itself, even before discovering that it can be applied in a utilitarian way and made useful instrumentally. However fire is only useful under the condition that it is controlled. "Fire's power is charitable when it tames the person."

The aesthetic enjoyment of contemplation allows the elegant detachment of distance. However one must get involved with fire by learning the routine of fomenting and extinguishing if one wants to make it useful. Secure distance is sacrificed to the goal of utility. One can prevent being burned but not occasionally getting dirty with coals and ashes.

The warming charity of fire is changed to a danger to life when the uncontrolled flames rage through the forests or the streets. "Woe, when it lets fly... "

The fire becomes the symbol of aggression since it must be restrained, controlled and pacified to remain a charity and not cause destruction. Collective protective measures are taken against the fire distress. The fire brigade becomes the model of voluntary necessary organization against the overwhelming common danger. The fire bridles people and devours them. Fire is a power of heaven or a power of hell. Fire is perceived ambivalently as an attraction and a danger, as a hope or as a threat as a blessing or as a curse. Under certain circumstances, fire is injurious to one and useful for others who threaten or inflict suffering with the help of fire.

Whoever controls the fire is powerful. Through its aggressive and destructive potential, fire becomes a means of punishment. Since people use it for themselves, it can also be used against them. One smolders in the fire of hell when one sins. The threat gains its effectiveness by the actual experience of pain and the continuing fear of its repetition and intensification. Successful intimidation is the most frequent but not unavoidable consequence of threat and fear. Some prove their courage by showing there are higher goals than egoistic avoi8dance of pain.

To prove their faithfulness, they go through fire for joy or the good cause. Some play with fire to demonstrate their fearlessness and superiority. Others are irresistibly attracted by the danger. They compulsively seek what they should avoid as a source of fear. Widows in India let themselves be burned at the stake as a sign of faithfulness beyond the grave. Ordeal by fire is organized in rites of probation and initiation. For the community's sake, the individual should submit to a partial self-punishment, pain and suffering to prove his or her worthiness for membership. Loyalty is measured by the degree of readiness for sacrifice. Burning tongs and coals are torture instruments. Through them, loyalty and obedience are forced or their absence punished. Buddhist monks and Czech students burn themselves as living torches to focus the world's attention on their intolerable conditions. With the torture of self-immolation, they criticized collective indifference by awakening collective guilt-feelings. Fire stimulates attention and illumination. Torches are used at protest marches and victory celebrations. Their light flashes and illumines those in darkness and the conditions of those who want to remain in darkness.

"I raise the torch to illumine the conditions," cried Victor Adler in explaining his journalist work to the court. The public prosecutor compared Adler's activity with a man who forced his way into a gunpowder warehouse with a burning torch and asked: "When the fire reaches the gunpowder, which is responsible, the torch or the gunpowder?" - "Mr. Public Prosecutor," Adler replied, "if you don't want an explosion, take away the gunpowder!"

Fire is dangerous. One prays to Saint Florian that he may spare one's own house and ravage his neighbor. The house of the adversary is set on fire. Flame-throwers and incendiary bombs are used against the enemy. Everything gives up in flames in the end of the world of the twilight of the gods.

To use fire rightly, the powers that possess and control the fire need support and assistance. To make the best possible use, they must be able to recruit subordinates. Soon the helpers are completely familiar with fire. Routine overcomes fear. Supervising, taming and controlling the fire become easy to them. They become experts.

Once they were convinced that the use of fire was in their own interest but they were not yet sufficiently informed and trained to understand their own interest. They will share the control of the fire as soon as they become mature enough to exercise the responsibility of control. This moment seldom or never comes. The adolescent children, the assistants promoted from apprentices to henchmen and emancipated persons thanks to their knowledge and abilities now suddenly want to know who really owns the fire. That the reason for the denial of the promised sharing of power lies in their own ignorance, inexperience and immaturity cannot be maintained any more. They have become knowing, experienced and mature. They begin to mistrust the old explanations. They have a right to know why and for whom their knowledge and their experience are applied.

That is the second lesson on changing reality.

The question about legitimation is raised and doesn't fall silent. This question is always answered in the same way. The traditional owners claim that the power of the fire belongs to those who always owned it. As it was, so it shall always be. Tradition legitimates. Children, henchmen and emancipated persons insist on observance of the promise. Possession and control were promised them. The claim to equality legitimates.

Through cunning, deceit and violence, Prometheus stole fire from the gods. The gods are the deceived and the purloined; they are the victims of the crime that could be committed - or as the Prometheus party argues must be committed - because the gods would not voluntarily give away the fire as promised. Thus it wasn't a crime but an act honoring a just demand, a liberating act. Prometheus is chained to a rock. The greed devouring his body would eternally punish him for the outrage of his disobedience. So the traditional legend warns. Prometheus, the criminal, liar, rebel and thief who deceived the gods that trusted and loved him is also the first hero who liberated himself from traditional value judgments and inhibitions to liberate others. He took the responsibility of the crime on himself since his own aggression justified by cunning and violence appeared better, higher and more just than that of the gods that he defied.

Emancipated persons now forcefully conquering the power of fire proudly recall this heroic act and want nothing less than a repetition of the violent act. For them, a new era dawns in which everything will be different and violence will not be needed any more. However nature and the potential danger of fire have not changed. In all times, fire needs control and regulation for utilization and exploitation. Protective organizations against the loss of control arise. Firefighters must be recruited and children taught that fire is dangerous. Apprentices are trained to help in the optimal use of fire. Through the possession of control of a demigod or God, one assures children and apprentices that all measures were taken for their sake but they weren't yet sufficiently informed and trained to see their own interest. Some day control over the fire will be shared with them as soon as they are developed enough to bear the responsibility of control. This moment seldom or never came. Therefore the question is raised again, who legitimately owns the fire? A new Prometheus appears in action, steals the fire and is either wipe4d out and punished as a criminal or is successful and celebrated as a hero.

In this Promethean circle, violence that brought about the change of reality needs justification to consolidate and stabilize the change. However what holds the order together as glue changes into dynamite that forcefully burst the old order. The violence myth that proclaims that all this must occur in the same repetition and that there are simply no alternatives is itself a product of the legitimation mechanisms that excuse and make possible violence.

Since aggression is completely denied for oneself (and for friends and comrades), one believes one can manage without control and without organizations, without coercion and without violence if one only snatches this away from the hated old power that sets out in the name of violence.

One's own violence is repressed from the consciousness as legitimate counter-force against unjust power since aggression is only seen in the powerful enemy on whom it is projected. Because one is forced for purposes of justification to deny one's own aggression and the objective aggression of institutions, one is not prepared in any way to consider the reality of one's own aggression and the practical necessity of coercion and control. One falls into the trap that one tried to avoid and succumbs to that repetition pressure that one wanted to oppose. The new policy that localizes all aggressions in the old (since one's own aggression and the aggression forced by things and projects are forgotten) is only a copy and repetition of the old - since it imagines itself good and nonviolent.

Denial, repression and concealment of aggression through justification brutalizes because aggression that is without alternative must become violence. In the circulation of aggression, violence is the bad circulation. Institutions and organizations that even in the ideal case never manage entirely without power, control and pressure and can never be completely aggression-free are alternatives to violence. Nevertheless conscious and rational planning can reduce the absolutely necessary aggressive factors to a minimum through their recognition and identification and eliminate one's own excess aggression.

Liberation from violence is only possible through institutions that represent equivalents to violence.

That is the third lesson for improving the world.

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