German Philosophy. Academic thinkers like Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche are not high on the reading lists of most Americans. Nevertheless, the outdated academic relics of old and jaded European culture continue to impact American law and culture in ways that most of us rarely consider. The 1924 murder case of Leopold & Loeb and recent mass shootings like Columbine and the Arapahoe High School shooting may actually stem from the theories of Hegel, Existentialism and other philospohical deceptions embraced by academia in the U.S. over the last 100 years.
Modern Times. Paul Johnson’s MODERN TIMES suggests some of the themes embedded in modern educational theory and public school instruction that instill a nihilistic world view in our youth. In other words, the fact that so many kids turn out “normal” may indicate that many of them are just not paying much attention to the curriculum!
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I read about Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism in Life magazine and checked THE STRANGER out of the public library, a novel by Albert Camus that was almost required reading in colleges, universities and even many high schools in the 1960s. Camus was the philosopher who told the world that suicide is the ultimate question in life because there is no purpose to living and everything in life is absurdity.
Existentialism. Without discussing all the technical points of Existentialist philosophy, Camus’ protagonist kills an Arab man for no reason other than that life feels absurd. Jean Paul Sartre, on the other hand, propagated the idea that it does not matter what you do, since there is no absolute basis for determining morality; thus, each individual must carry out his own ethical agenda and seek transcendence by acting heroically according to one’s own standards.
The epitome of such “heroism” is dying in a blaze of glory with full knowledge that one’s life will irrevocably cease to exist in the midst of overwhelming circumstances. Of course, most school shooters never read Albert Camus, Sartre or any other Existentialist literature.
Hollywood. The silver screen has nevertheless popularized the going-down-in-a-blaze-of -glory philosophy. Starting with movies in the late Sixties like BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE WILD BUNCH and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, we can move right into more recent movies like NATURAL BORN KILLERS. That blood-soaked 1994 psychedelic extravaganza depicts a pair of sadistic lovers becoming media heroes by committing serial murders.
So does the lure of fame and going to the grave with a transcendent badge of existential courage motivate senseless taking of human life? Or is there just something in the nature of our culture that skews certain individuals toward violence and death?
Leopold and Loeb. Two young students who murdered their classmate in the early 1900s provided inspiration for film, theater and fiction. Both came from extremely affluent Chicago families and attended prestigious universities. Precocious teenagers when they met at the University of Chicago, the pair shared Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy which teaches that certain qualities cause superior men to transcend the morality that governs ordinary men. Nietzsche called such a breed of man “The Superman”. The two adherents to the philosophical quest for amoral power began committing increasingly more serious crimes.
They eventually decided to murder 14-year-old Robert Franks in order to demonstrate their belief that the evolutionary process had produced two inherently superior beings. Their defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, saved them from the death penalty by aptly asking the court:
“Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.”
Media Circus. Neither Leopold nor Loeb expected to become famous by means of the Franks murder in 1924. They were aiming to commit the perfect crime. Rhey killed Franks and poured hydrochloric acid on his body to destroy the evidence and hide the identity of the victim. But their crime instigated one of the biggest media circus events of the Twentieth Century. A potent concoction of French, German and Hollywood philosophy still eats away at our civilization. Just like the hydrochloric acid made young Mr. Frank’s body difficult to identify, the roots of modern mass murder are defaced by the deceptions of abstract academic philosophy. Leopold and Loeb still reign in the entertainment world and much of academia.
Perfect Crime. Leopold & Loeb were trying to commit the perfect crime and never expected to become famous by their crime. At the same time, they prided themselves on their ability to throw off the shackles of morality and demonstrate to each other that they had achieved Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideal; i.e., the Superman, who arises above moral arguments that are designed by the weak to hold back those with the will to become strong. Despite the political appeals to social justice and egalitarianism, such Superman morality is at the core of much of our modern culture. It all boils down to survival of the fittest if there is no absolute groundwork for our moral beliefs!