‘Man Is The Cruelest Animal’: Where Is The Viciousness In True Detective?

Man is The Cruelest Animal

Where is The Viciousness in True Detective?

By Professor Randy Mayes (Sacramento State University)

June 15, 2015         Picture: Adam Mulgrew/Behance.

This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.

1. Introduction: True Detective and Cruelty

Zarathustra’s famous assertion that “Man is the cruelest animal,” seems like an apt enough tagline for a show that entertains us with the fetishized torture, rape and murder of young lost women. Is the quotation any more than that? I am not entirely sure, but in this brief essay I will explore the possibility that it is.

Let me begin by suggesting the following. To the extent that True Detective can be conceived as a dramatic exploration of human, all too human cruelty, the crimes and their perpetrators are not of primary interest. I say this for two reasons.

First, we are never provided more than the illusion of understanding the crimes themselves. Does the cult behind them earnestly worship a bloodthirsty god who demands the sacrifice of young lost females as the price of his good will? Or is it a cynical alliance of social elites that uses religion as a front for enacting the profane fantasies of its members? There are, of course, suggestions of answers to these questions, but in the end almost everything about the brotherhood and their motives remains a mystery.

Second, even if we were provided more satisfying answers to such questions, there is little here to justify the suggestion that cruelty is an essential attribute of human nature. A story such as this might have explored the idea, say, that we are all complicit in such crimes, that the cult is just a node at which desires and fantasies buried deep within the human psychosphere are actually enacted. Again, there are vague suggestions of this throughout, but they mostly turn out to be red herrings. Even the nihilistic philosopher detective Rustin Cohle never seems to insist on anything quite so dark about Joe Schmoe (Read Professor Sandra Shapshay’s discussion of “The Ethics of True Detective” for an insight into Rustin’s complex moral psychology).

So, where- if anywhere- does the interesting exploration of man’s essential cruelty occur in True Detective? I suggest that it takes place mainly in the context of the most gripping aspect of the story, the relationship between the two principal agents. In a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Apollo and Dionysus in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, the struggle between detectives Cohle and Hart reveals a far richer range of human suffering and cruelty than the case they are investigating. More importantly, whereas we are transfixed by the garish, indeed, nearly cartoonish, cruelties visited upon the victims, those that occur in the private lives of Cohle and Hart are surely closer to the reality of the human condition.

In the next two sections of this paper I will discuss the basis of Nietzsche’s idea that cruelty is an essential aspect of human nature without reference to True Detective. It is only afterwards that I will suggest how this idea may be seen as central to the story.


2. Friedrich Nietzsche and Cruelty

 In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote:

… O mine animals, are even ye cruel? Did ye like to look at my great pain as men do? For man is the cruelest animal…When gazing at tragedies, bullfights and crucifixions, he hath hitherto felt happier than any other time on earth. And when he invented hell for himself, lo, hell was his heaven on earth.

The idea that humans are the cruelest animal is interesting in that it implies that non-human animals can and do possess this disposition to some degree. This, of course, makes perfect sense in naturalistic terms. Humans are, after all, predators. Predators survive by killing and eating other creatures. Killing typically involves the infliction of some suffering. Eating typically involves the derivation of some pleasure. Hence, if we think of cruelty as the capacity to take pleasure in the suffering of others, it follows immediately that all predatory animals are cruel to some degree. Moreover, since humans are by far the most successful predators in history, it would be reasonable on this basis alone to claim that humans are the cruelest animal.

“Whereas we are transfixed by the garish, indeed, nearly cartoonish, cruelties visited upon the victims, those that occur in the private lives of Cohle and Hart are surely closer to the reality of the human condition”

While Nietzsche is in most ways a naturalistic thinker, he in fact does not appear to have had human predatory prowess in mind when he put these words in the mouth of Zarathustra. From Nietzsche’s perspective, what makes humans the cruelest animal is not their virtuosity at causing suffering and reaping the physical benefits of doing so. Rather, it is that humans have developed a qualitatively distinct way of deriving pleasure from suffering. Not only do we derive all the animal pleasures associated with predation; we derive additional pleasure simply from knowing that we are causing another being to suffer.

Of course, there are primitive senses in which non-human animals can be said to know that another creature is suffering, and to derive either pain or pleasure from such knowledge. Any creature that cares for its young, for example, will be sensitive to behavioral signs of distress which may be said to originate in suffering. This is also the case with any creature that stalks and kills for a living. But it is widely agreed that non-human animals do not possess what contemporary philosophers and psychologists call a “Theory of Mind”, which gives almost all human beings over the age of five the ability to conceive of another being as having its own subjectivity, its own unique perspective on the world. When a human perceives that another creature is suffering she has not simply observed the outward signals of distress, but has also conceived what it is like to be that creature.


3. The Paradox of Cruelty

This however creates a problem: My knowledge that another being suffers just as I do should, if anything,interfere with my ability to enjoy it. It should make me less cruel, not more. I taught my children to imagine how their thoughtless actions are making others feel, not to give them greater pleasure, but to make them feel guilt or shame, and thereby behave more kindly.

“Not only do we derive all the animal pleasures associated with predation; we derive additional pleasure simply from knowing that we are causing another being to suffer”

Yet, this is exactly the problem. A theory of mind would, ceteris paribus, tend to inhibit our ability to cause other beings to suffer. But the problem is that our predatory nature requires it. If a theory of mind is to be useful to us- and it is incredibly useful for predicting the behavior of other creatures- then it must not inhibit us from satisfying our most basic needs.

Let’s set aside the requirement of killing creatures for food. (Though we may observe in passing that both the Cartesian belief that animals lack subjective experience of any kind, as well as the impulse to stop eating meat entirely, may be seen as distinct ways of coping with the question of animal subjectivity.) As the above example illustrates, a parent wishing to bring his child’s behavior into alignment with societal standards must be willing to cause him to suffer. With adults, our ability to maintain order depends on a willingness to enforce our laws with a system of punishment. The same applies to our institutions of teaching and learning. We encourage learning by rewarding it when it occurs and penalizing it when it does not. This system also applies, of course, to the market. The unproductive worker is cut loose, the productive one retained and promoted. Beyond the realm of deliberate behavior modification, an enormous number of human activities, such as the practice of medicine and athletic competition, entail the deliberate infliction of suffering.

It is fine to reply that in all of these cases we deliberately cause suffering only in an effort to produce a greater state of wellbeing. The point being that we would not be able to achieve the things we value if we were unable to deliberately cause suffering in others. Because our capacity for contemplating the subjective experiences of others would typically inhibit us from doing so, the solution hit upon by nature was to give us the power to take pleasure in knowing that another being is suffering.

This, of course, is Zarathustra’s point about the invention of hell, which Nietzsche regarded as an ingenious invention of slave morality. The weak are only able to bear the cruel conditions of their own lives on earth because of the enormous pleasure they take in knowing that their oppressors will know infinite suffering in the afterlife. All of us experience the pure desire for evil doers to suffer, regardless of any future social benefit that may be thereby achieved. All of us also experience what the Germans call Schadenfreude, pleasure in the misfortune of others, even when the others are people we care deeply about. (No? You passed a difficult exam. What is the first thing you feel upon learning that your best friend failed it?)

To a large extent our moral vocabulary is built to hide our cruel natures from us. We do not typically say that we enjoy the suffering of others, we say they deserve it. Many of us subscribe to an unfalsifiable belief in Karma, which permits us to simply assume that those who experience misfortune are being punished for past transgressions. Our moral emotions have evolved specifically for the purpose of blocking the guilt and sympathy we would otherwise feel when people deservedly suffer. Anger, resentment and disgust seem to anaesthetize us in this way while at the same time activating the pathways that will allow us to be pleasured by their pain.

Clearly our ability to enjoy suffering has enormous value. To the extent that it enables the judicious, purposeful teaching and training of the young, it is what has been an essential step toward the amazing fruits of human cooperation. Moreover, our ability to be cruel to ourselves, denying ourselves short-term pleasures for the sake of much larger but temporally remote rewards, is at the very core of human rationality. But this has also in some ways been a deal with the devil. For the reality of human cruelty is that we now all have the capacity to revel in the suffering of innocents. To some extent all of us feel the need for others to suffer, and when we cannot find those who clearly deserve it, we will create them.

Although Nietzsche would agree that the ability to enjoy the suffering of others is an essential step in the social evolution of human beings, it is not how he represents the ultimate value of human cruelty. Rather, for Nietzsche, the human capacity for cruelty is the key to affirming life itself. Nietzsche saw both Buddhism and Christianity as manifestations of the will to power of the weak. Having divined that life is suffering, Buddhism prescribed its elimination through the extinction of desire. Christians, on the other hand, were only able to bear the torments of life on earth by creating an afterlife in which the faithful are rewarded with eternal bliss. Nietzsche saw both traditions as decadent, as saying No to life, as ultimately expressing a fundamental longing for death or extinction. Nietzsche even attributes this decadence to Socrates, whose dying words- “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius.” – Nietzsche understands to express gratitude for being released from life’s torments.

“To some extent all of us feel the need for others to suffer, and when we cannot find those who clearly deserve it, we will create them”

For Nietzsche, the key to affirming life was to categorically embrace all of the suffering that life entails. Nietzsche’s model for this celebratory attitude toward suffering was Ancient Greece. But he was, in my view, also fully aware that human understanding of suffering has become far richer as a result of the increased sensitivity of human consciousness. Embracing the cruelty of the universe is consequently a far more significant and difficult act for a modern person than for a citizen of the ancient world. And it is precisely our developed capacity for delighting in the suffering of individuals that has prepared us for the ultimate affirmation of the cruelty of the universe itself.

Nietzsche’s ultimate test of our ability to affirm human suffering was his doctrine of eternal return, according to which the universe repeats itself perfectly ad infinitum (See Professor Lawrence Hatab’s discussion of the expression of Nietzsche’s “Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence” in True Detective). To the decadent, for whom the ultimate aim is release from earthly suffering, eternal return is so horrifying as to make one wish one was never born. But to anyone who affirms existence in toto, Nietzsche believed, news of the eternal return would be received with the same fervor that the weak receive news of salvation.


4. Where Cruelty is to be Found in True Detective

The young Rustin Cohle is no Nietzsche. In fact at one point he repudiates him. (When Reggie Ledoux, moments before he is executed, informs Cohle that time is a flat circle Cohle responds: “Listen Nietzsche, shut the f#4k up.”) Cohle’s pessimism is Schopenhauerian in spirit (See Professor David Cartwright’s essay on Schopenhauer’s pessimism), his most consistent theme being the illusion of the self, which provides ordinary people a false sense of permanence and significance (Read Professor Evan Thompson’s article on “The Illusion of Self” on June 1st 2015). Cohle characterizes human consciousness as a “tragic misstep in evolution” and embraces the decadence that Nietzsche attributes to Buddhism and Christianity when he informs Hart that the “honorable things for our species to do is …walk hand in hand into extinction.” (See Professor Joshua Dienstag’s essay on Rustin’s philosophy of pessimism)

In fact, Cohle has not come by his philosophy honestly. We are given every reason to believe that it is a view he has developed only subsequent to the tragic death of his young daughter and the consequent dissolution of a previously happy marriage. Neither has it provided him any real peace or detachment. In fact the cruel irony of his condition is that, while Cohle sneers at the throngs who participate in the illusion of permanence and the pointless suffering it entails, it is really he who suffers the most. His knowledge has not given him peace, but has only made him angrier. He is angry that the illusion persists despite his awareness of it. He is angry that the throngs who participate in it do not understand how stupid and pointless their lives really are. Cohle needs others to suffer the way he does, and he is miserable that they do not. Hart summarizes Cohle’s predicament succinctly when he observes at an outdoor revival: “For a guy who sees no point in existence, you sure fret about it an awful lot.”

Martin Hart is no philosopher, but he has a perspective on humanity which contrasts pointedly with Cohle’s. Whereas Cohle understands human failings in largely intellectual terms, Hart sees human nature itself as fundamentally depraved. He insists that without religion holding the threat of eternal damnation over our heads the world would be a “freak show of murder and debauchery.” (See Wilson & Evans on the discussion of religious morality on the show). As with Cohle, this view is clearly an expression of Hart’s own experience. Hart has suffered no great personal tragedy. He has an attractive and devoted wife in Maggie, as well as two healthy and adorable daughters. Though by no means a reflective man, Hart expresses his own propensities in his low opinion of human nature. He sincerely loves his family and desires to be a good husband and father, but he has almost no aptitude for domestic life. He is bored with conversation and lacks all subtlety and patience in resolving domestic conflict. His best memories of life with Maggie were the days before children when they would spend entire weekends in bed. As a young father he feels unappreciated and sexually frustrated. Hart begins an affair with a younger woman, whom he treats as a toy. The affair will end catastrophically, and Hart, while despising himself for his weakness, will nevertheless feel that it is he who has been treated most cruelly.

Morally speaking, Cohle and Hart suffer in distinctly different ways. Cohle’s professed nihilism about God and conventional morality would be expected to lead him to the view that “everything is permitted.” But it doesn’t. Cohle simply cannot use his intellect to escape the cruel tyranny of his character, which is that of a deeply responsible individual. Cohle is genuinely angered by Hart’s infidelity. In one of the most powerful scenes of the series, Cohle mows Hart’s lawn as a way to communicate the enormous risk he is taking by neglecting his wife and family. Cohle is fully aware of Maggie’s attraction to him, but he has no intention of seducing her. When Cohle insists to a female drug dealer that: “Of course I am dangerous. I’m police. I can do horrible things to people with impunity,” we feel that he is trying to protect her from others, not himself. It is Cohle who, after 10 years of torturing himself in the cold of Alaska, returns to Louisiana because, as he explains to Marty, they “have a debt.”

Hart suffers from the opposite problem. While he emphatically embraces an everyman morality, he is a slave to his basest impulses. Whereas Cohle would have passed Mischel’s marshmallow test while still in diapers, it is not clear that Hart would pass it today. Hart acts on genuine compassion when he gives an underage prostitute money to escape into a better life, but years later can not resist her attractions when she returns to thank him. After a decade, Hart still seethes with pure hatred for Cohle, though it is his own serial infidelities that resulted in the awful sexual encounter between Cohle and Maggie. We may chalk his execution of Reggie Ledoux up to genuine moral outrage, but it was this rash act that forced his partner to participate in an elaborate falsification of what occurred there. This permitted the murders to continue for years after the case was spuriously resolved, with Cohle himself ultimately becoming a prime suspect.


5. Conclusion

 In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, the spirit of Dionysus is represented as a raw vital force which, left to its own devices, is chaotic and destructive. The Apollonian spirit, on the other hand, is the source of order and discipline which, left to its own devices, is static and lifeless. Only together, can they produce things of great, life affirming beauty.

Though it is far from a perfect fit, we can see this dynamic playing out in the story, with Hart as the destructive source of Dionysian energy and Cohle as the tortured source of Apollonian form. During their decade long separation their lives lose all urgency and meaning. A lonely and dissipated Hart, estranged from his now ex-wife and daughters, spends his nights in a small apartment sitting watching inane television shows and eating frozen dinners. Cohle passes time in Alaska as masochistically as possible, self-consciously destroying himself with drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Both live in a state of Nietzschean decadence, repudiating their cruel pasts and thereby draining their presents of all value. Cohle’s ultimate return to Louisiana is occasioned by his nagging conviction that there is unfinished business to attend to. He ostensibly refers to the crimes, but of equal importance is the unfinished business between the two men.

The young Rustin Cohle was evidently familiar with Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return before Reggie Ledoux spoke of it shortly before his death. But in 2012, during his interview with Papania and Gilbough, Cohle, cryptically referring to Ledoux, says “Someone once told me that time is a flat circle.” He now elaborates the Nietzschean metaphysic with conviction. Throughout the interview Cohle appears to subscribe to the Schopenhaurian pessimism he espouses in his earlier years. But I suggest that this, like much of what Hart and Cohle recount to the detectives about the events of 1995, is a ruse. Cohle is not the same philosopher he was then. Like Nietzsche, Cohle represents the eternal return to the investigating detectives as a horror, but he himself has come to see it as the one possibility of salvation. His purpose in returning is to discover a Nietzschean moment of ecstatic affirmation, one in which he and Hart might fully embrace all of the cruelties they have experienced and perpetrated. Or die trying.

Randolph Mayes
Randolph Mayes
Randolph Mayes is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Sacramento State University . He received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin.Professor Mayes' main teaching and research interests are naturalism, philosophy of science, logic, and the nature of explanation. He has also published some work on the right to privacy. His caveman name is Og.
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