Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of human existence is that humanity thrives on social interaction, yet constantly wrestles with its proclivity to clash, subordinate and master. The adherents of a moral code will perceive their parochial beliefs as correct and moral, shaping the way they perceive the world around them. Playwright Arthur Miller theorises that Christianity’s formative influence upon Western though has led the inculcation off the theology’s ideals into the practice of societies, such as Salem in 1692 or America under McCarthy rule. Not only does the theology categorise all realties of Apollonian descent to be “of God”, but condemns any reality of Dionysian nature to be “of Lucifer”.
Conflict begins to occur when people come to conceive the world of a “Divided Empire”, where otherness can be demonized, and thus destroyed. When such is the case the accuser may ascend their moral high ground, earning prodigious power, whilst the accused are given a demonic overlay and rendered powerless. The subsequent conflict which erupts between these two parties tends to reveal the most basic of human emotion, rendering resolution elusive. Nevertheless, Miller suggests that true power lies with the rare few prepared to remain steadfast in their moral principles. These remarkable individuals are able to avoid conflict their impact paving the way to reconciliation an peace.
Whether by means of the spear for Neolithic man or the judicial court for contemporary society, each seek to recapture the harmony which conflict has shattered. Yet, when society’s tools and institutions become corrupted by the conflict plaguing that society, reconciliation becomes infinitely more elusive. Miller argues that by Christian theology anointing the courts as the “scourge of God”, the religious power that they bequeathed altered their focus from fulfilling justice to one purely of retribution. In such a climate of religiously inspired infallibility, the courts disregard the fundamental principles of justice, such as the presumption of innocence of the accused. The Salem Witch Trials saw the courts embed their own religious beliefs and hypotheses in their evidence, accusing Goody Proctor of possessing poppets after she was accused of withcraft. Instead of legal findings being evidence-based and confirmed by witness testimony, the courts’ divinely sanctioned role granted them with the power of judge, jury and executioner.
In such a climate, the courts’ engage in the persecution of the beholders of any reactionary view, rendering the accused powerless in defending their innocence. Regardless of the degree to which religion plays role in a society, its institutions may nevertheless be corrupted by ideology. The decision of the United States to invade Iraq was based on the presumption that Sadam Hussein had manufactured weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the democratic United States ipso facto held the moral high ground and was justified in attacking autocratic Iraq. Yet, whether in Salem or Iraq, the resultant loss of life was astronomical, the powerful believing they “speak God’s law”. Given the Christian sense that there only exists one definition of Right, any society shaped by this notion will encounter conflict, usually occurring between those claiming moral superiority – the powerful – and those demonized and thus powerless.
Just as social institutions cause harm by their abuse of power so to does the individual wreak profound damage when he pursues self-aggrandisement in the name of piety and the Common Good. With the ability to demonise others, the individualist attains power through cloaking their selfish desires for piety or religious obedience. Passionate lust – normally frowned upon as one of the Deadly Sins – became the rationalised motivation behind Abigail’s selfish desire to secure the love of a married man.
Despite the morally unjustifiable nature of committing treason, orchestrating the murder of innocent people and lust, the ideologically polluted courts granted Abigail with the power of demonic accusation, allowing her to achieve her goal. As the accuser, Abigail was “always holy”, her testimony unquestionably accepted, conventional wisdom being that the courts “must rely upon[it’s] victims”. Immediately the accused were sentenced guilty and executed, rendered powerless once demonized. Causing the death of many and the destruction of their own moral principles, these ubiquitous individualists rise to the powerful ranks of the moral high ground, yet descended into immorality and degeneracy.
– add in McCarthy era, War on terror
Yet, when encountering conflict, Miller suggests that the true power lies with those who can liberate themselves from the shackles of a corrupted ideology and their morally encumbering, self-serving emotions. In doing, individuals like Proctor demand themselves that life be viewed through a moral lens. Actions and options which might have been highly attractive to others, were beyond their frame of reference. Proctor allowed “the magistrate in [his] heart” to govern his choices and, as a consequence, his humanity became paramount to his religious adherence.
Proctor’s decision to defend his morality and to take the path leading to his execution, reflected the actions of a rare yet powerful individual, who is capable of placing humanity above convenience. For this reason, unlike the individualist, conflict was incapable of destroying this remarkable man. Not only did he elect to make a kind of decision which maintained his moral standards, but also made a social statement which was so powerful that it paved the way towards the restoration of peace in Salem. not just for Salem but a message that ought to have been adhered to in the McCarthy era and certainly a method we should use to respond to the War on terror.
Any social authority which believes that it carries the “candle that would light the world”, will encounter conflict when interacting with others. Despite willful intentions, when his society loses sight of its greater goals and engages in the purging of the powerless, humanity must rely upon the powerful few who remain steadfast in their ethical principles, to save society from itself. It is for this reason that Miller concludes that conflict has both “helped and hurt us”, for only in an atmosphere of conflict can ideology’s flaws be revealed, but also can moral man rise to prominence, disseminating vital moral lessons with all mankind.
Other essay stuff
Miler’s Salem, where political power was imbued with religion creating a potent brew, a legislative miasma, a theocracy that threatened to asphyxiate, to stifle, the hard-won freedoms of the innocent.
Salem is not to be seen as an anomaly but as representative of the human condition that reverberates through the ages.
Miller explores the tension between an individual’s liberty and the demands of the society in which he or she lives.
Unfortunately, as Miller states the paradox that still haunts our society placed itself out in Salem in 1692: how can we reconcile individual freedom with rules and regulations of the state or the community? We seem to find it impossible to maintain this equilibrium, given that throughout history, governments have oppressed their citizens, cajoled the underprivileged and demanded absolute conformity to its demands by all and sundry.
Salem is a microcosm of the difficulties plaguing many modern nation states. It is a crucible in which the dynamics of the human condition can be subjected to
Salem may have been a theocracy with a keen sense of the devil’s ability to manipulate and deceive, but we are left with that legacy, where modern nation such as America states will evoke God for its causes, while demonizing any other country that opposes it. Worse the belief that the devil may be embedded in the community, working to undermine the society from within permeates western society. Many so called heretics in the history of the church have been burnt at the stake. Hale states that “until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven,” embedding the belief deep within the human psyche that evil may lurk within the midst of your community, insidiously working against your culture, your political system of your religion.
In a very real sense, every modern society has the seeds of its own destruction embedded within it, waiting to unravel the very fabric of the community. The belief that evil may be lurking in the dark recesses of our society tends to create an unhealthy environment where paranoia may flourish, as was the case with McCarthyism and its un-American trials, where the innocent people were accused of treason. A society under pressure will turn on its own, ironically abrogating its responsibilities of its citizens in the name of freedom and justice. It is under theses conditions that individuals must stand on their own, salvaging whatever they can in the way of dignity and honour least the succumb to deception and lies and injustices.
Salem in 1692 reflected a society in crisis, where individuals, such as Abigail, the quintessential wronged woman, are allowed to vent her vindictiveness in the name of God and State. The rending of the fabric of society allowed every individual with a grievance to channel their malcontent through Abigail and the other girls who are involved in the “crying out” against vulnerable citizens. Hysteria such as experienced in Salem, as Miller points out, may occur in any society that feels under threat, such as a similar “crying out” against those accused of communist activities in the America of the 1950’s, where even famous individuals such as Charley Chaplin and Orson Welles could find themselves blacklisted or jailed for perceived Communist activities, without proper evidence or rule of law.
As society such as Salem that is imploding under its own rigid theocratic regime, its own oppressive bureaucracy, which tend to perceive evil where none exists. In the McCarthyist era their fear of the demonic Communist led to the crying out of ‘reds under the bed’ highlighting the child-like-fears expressed by those who ought to know better. Salem portrays a society so afraid of its own ability to survive =, so afraid of a perceived enemy within, that educated adults, such as Danforth and Hale regress to gibbering wrecks of humanity arguing over the meaning of a poppet. The fear of the unknown of what we don’t understand permeates human existence, leading men and women to quickly degenerate to children to fearing the dark.
We witness how seductive the power of the childhood imagination has on us all when Abigail and the other children draw a significant proportion of the population back into the dark recesses of childhood, where the irrational and fantastic haunt our nightmares, where the invisible become instruments of malevolence. Here in Salem we see our psyches laid before, a childhood poppet becomes a demonic force. Of course, just like out childhood fears, there is no way to prove that a poppet is just a poppet. In the world of Salem, a microcosm of human frailties, any fantasy could be justified, even as Proctor exclaims, “might be a dragon with five legs in [his] house, but no one has ever seen it.” Of course, the tragedy lies in this not being a childhood game, but a hysteria supported by so-called intelligent adults, such as Danforth, with the power of life and death over citizens.
Of course, like in the McCarthyise era, they were those, such as Putnam, who used the hysteria to settle old scores, who allowed their common decency to be sacrificed at the altar of the supernatural. Paris, along with others such as Cheever, could be cast as the ubiquitous opportunist, seeking self aggrandizement rather than truth and justice, sycophantically exclaiming to Danforth that proctor had the intention to “overthrow the court.” Like ant court jester in any era, Paris allowed his basic humanity to be compromised for his own insidious purposes. More to the point, along with all of those in History who have used their religious power as a political tool of oppression, Paris compromised his faith, as well as his basic humanity.