by Ezat Mossallanejad.

In his masterpiece “The Bridge over the Drina”, the Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andric, speaks of a Turkish foreman who orders death sentence by means of horrible techniques of torture against a Bosnian worker due to his alleged attempts at rebellion:

“Everything must be made ready so that at noon that same day he should be impaled alive on the outermost part of the construction work at its highest point so that the whole town and all the workers should be able to see him from the banks of the river…so that midday all the people might see what happened to those who hindered the building of the bridge, and that the whole male population, both Turks and rayah, from children to old men, must gather on one or other of the bands to witness it” (Andric, p.46.)

His order was carried out by a professional torturer, named Merdžan, who crucified the poor victim and prolonged his torture despite his constant pleas to accelerate his death. Merdžan takes pride in his apathy to the victim and in obeying the order of the powerful foreman. It took three days for the worker to die. The Persian king Abbas I, is reputed to have kept five hundred professional executioners in his royal court, including two man-eaters who were assigned to eat prisoners of war alive. The king’s head of the executioners was a person named Ahmad Agha who was once sent to the Northern Province of Gilan to suppress a popular revolt. He went there with iron fists and stayed for a year and massacred thousands of poor and mostly innocent people, indiscriminately. It is unfortunate that in the second decade of the 21st century there is no shortage of human butchers like the king, the foreman, Merdžan, Ahmad Agha, and the man-eaters. It is surprising to a decent human person how one can be reduced to a beast that is absolutely apathetic to the horrible suffering of fellow human beings even if they are enemies. It is my contention that the perpetration of atrocities as such, among others, needs a certain level of philistinism.

Nowadays we read quite a few reports about torture, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity across the globe. In many cases, these crimes are perpetrated by the collective actions of military people or certain ethnic groups. There are horrible cases of public executions or stoning that are watched by thousands of ordinary people. The feelings of apathy in the aforementioned examples are impossible without the existence of philistinism. It can manifest in various forms such as solipsism, pedantism, shallowness, narrow-mindedness, and vulgarism. The term Philistine is originally found in the bible in reference to an ancient people who were well-settled in their cities on the south coast of Canaan during 12th to early 7th century BCE. They were in a state of perpetual conflict with the Israelites (J.M. & Golden, G., 2004, p. 158). The Bible describes them as rough and violent people. In the 17th Century, a German priest used the term against his townsfolk, whom he considered being against education. In 1773, the German philosopher and man of letters, Goethe, used philistine to refer to people who are “devoid of culture and enlightenment” (Arnold, M., 1913, p. 142) The term was later used in the English language to mean “a materialistic person who is disdainful of intellectual or artistic values”. We owe the popularization of the term in its current meaning to the English poet and literary critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), who applied it to “members of the middle class who are swayed chiefly by material interests and are blind to the force of ideas and the value of culture.” (p. 142)

By philistinism, I mean apathy or hostility towards cultural values including altruism, aesthetics, love, and compassion. Philistines are devoid of delicate feeling with no appreciation of the nobler aspirations and sentiments of humanity. Hubbard, author of Philistine: A Periodical Process, interprets the idea of philistinism as: “[…] a little of the wild beast in a man, a something that is fascinated by suffering, and that delights in inflicting pain […]” (Hubbard & Taber, p.78). The above definition is true about torturers who normally go through regular training and systemic indoctrination on the ideology of torture: chauvinism, social Darwinism, absolute loyalty, the sacredness of duty, the significance of their jobs, etc. There is a level of blatant ignorance a torturer experiences when inflicting immense pain on another human being. They often justify their crimes by claiming that they had no choice but to obey orders and perform their duties, and “if I didn’t do it someone else would.”

All philistines suffer from solipsism. They don’t see anybody in the world except themselves. They see themselves through a magnifying mirror and others through a microscope. Philistines take their illusory magnified pictures as real. They become giants to themselves and see others as dwarfs. They all suffer from what is referred to in psychology as megalomania. To maintain this position, they need power – real or delusional. This is a dangerous situation that leads to tyranny and torture. Ignorant and omnipotent persons who set themselves above everything and everybody are capable of committing multiple crimes including the torture of “others” they consider their worthless enemies. Hitler considered himself Fuhrer (leader). He was above all others and his “mission” was to exterminate Jews, gypsies, communists, and homosexuals to purify the human race. The genocidal Hutus in Rwanda referred to their Tutsi victims as Inyenzi (a Kinyarwanda word meaning ‘cockroach’). In August 1979, the Iranian philistine, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared himself the commander in chief of Iranian Armed Forces and ordered the Iranian Army and parliamentary forces to attack Kurdistan. He called his opponents “corrupts on Earth and belligerents to God”. Following his religious verdict thousands of philistines marched in different cities with the chant, “my beloved Khomeini has allowed me to shed blood!” The invasion of Kurdistan by Khomeini’s army and the parliamentary forces led to the massacre of Kurdish people and the perpetration of multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity. Philistines like Hitler or Khomeini are intoxicated by power. There is no flexibility or tolerance in their outlook and practice. Opponents should be suppressed and not be allowed to live. Nothing is more enjoyable for them but to see their potential or actual enemies weak and subordinated. They love to be flattered but pretend that they are humble. This attitude is a green signal to torture and tyranny.

According to the Iranian writer and ex-political prisoner Ms. Monireh Baradaran:

“It is simplistic to think that torturers are a bunch of sadists. There might be quite a few sadistic people among them, but experience has shown that quite ordinary people could become the cruelest torturers. Anybody is capable of torturing others if he stops seeing them in their human caliber. What provides a torturer with the capability of committing the crime of torture is his unquestionable power as well as his closed ideological world outlook.” (Baradaran, p. 31-32)

The philistine’s megalomania does not prevent them from following a culture of servitude. It is astounding that philistinism can combine two opposites: domination and subordination. Philistines are small with the big and big with the small. While they consider themselves the king of cats, they cannot decide about anything without commands from above. Their narrow-mindedness and vulgarism lead them to love a culture of subordination and indoctrination that can include them as both giver and receiver. A tyrannical system that warrants torture propagates philistinism as one of its techniques of survival. Torturers are recruited from among philistines in the rank and file – especially those with a strong tendency for subordination. The insularity of tyrannical systems makes these philistines perpetual captives of their own philistinism with no opening to the world of beauty, wisdom, humanism, love, and compassion. They are brainwashed to consecrate their subordination and justify their crimes in the names of obeying the orders. They are taught to bestow hierarchy as the highest merit. They develop an attitude that is well described by Erich Fromm as a type of psychological necrophilia. It is a “character rooted passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive” (Aggrawal, p. 30). A necrophilic philistine reduces all human persons to commodities that they can shape and own.

Another characteristic of philistinism is a strict allegiance to the practice of utilitarianism. Philistines are so involved in their petty practical businesses that they do not bother themselves to think, read, or listen unless these serve their immediate needs. They love abstract figures and famous quotations that they can use in order to push for their narrow-minded practical purposes. They have no time and interest to analyze their statistics or verify the accuracy of the statement with other people’s experiences. These pedants get intoxicated by what little knowledge they possess and pretend to know about everything. They have no hesitation to resort to plagiarism and demonstrate discoveries of great thinkers as their own. The philosophy of philistines, therefore, is the caricature of other people’s thoughts. Philistines are always motivated by their blind faith rather than knowledge. They develop a passion for their actions and never go for critical reasons. Their passion leads them to make a system that should stay eternally. Faith without reason and passion without wisdom may give a carte blanche to torture and tyranny. Going with their sheer sentiments, philistines commit all sorts of crimes in the name of good against evil. According to the celebrated philosopher, Blaise Pascal, “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” (Gilbert, p. 34).

Philistines are not consistent in their thoughts and actions. They go with the current and are always overwhelmed with petty problems of daily life. They are highly opportunistic with a tendency to change their loyalty overnight. Depending on the situation, they may change from secularism to religious fundamentalism. It is, therefore, not surprising to hear about torturers who served opponent regimes or communist politicians in the former Soviet Union who became staunch supporters of religion in the post-Soviet era in order to maintain their power. Philistines normally lead a double life. While they take good care of their own skin and that of their close family members, they are apathetic to the suffering of others. They are caring people at home and a human butcher in torture chambers or war zones. What will follow is taken from Edmundo Galeano’s masterpiece “The Book of Embraces”:

“…he and he are not the same person…. after all, he is an official who goes to work on time and does his job. When the exhausting day’s work is done, the torturer washes his hands. Ahmadou Gherab, who fought for the independence of Algeria, told me this. Ahmadou was tortured by a French official for several months. Every day, promptly at 6:00 P.M., the torturer would wipe the sweat from his brow, unplug the electric cattle prod, and put away the other tools of the trade. Then he would sit beside the tortured man and speak to him of his family problems and of the promotion that didn’t come and of how expensive life is. The torturer would speak of his insufferable wife and their newborn child who had not permitted him a wink of sleep all night; he railed against Orán, that shitty city, and against the son of a bitch of a colonel who …Ahmadou, bathed in blood, trembling with pain, burning with fever would say nothing.” (Galeano, p. 106-107)

To sum up, philistinism is one of the worst evils that can be inflicted upon an individual, community, or an entire society. Solipsism, vulgarism, narrow-mindedness, and apathy to culture, love, and compassion can lead to hate, to torture, and to tyranny. The prevalence of collective philistinism has led our humanity, on more than one occasion, into a state of fascism. From the regime of Benito Mussolini to the actions of Hitler during WWII to the current events within the autocratic Middle East and Guantanamo Bay, we can easily observe the upper-hand of philistinism. Tyranny and philistinism go hand in hand; one cannot exist without the other. When philistines rule, then torture and similar heinous crimes will surely ensue. The synergy of these two evils produces a vicious cycle that is hard to escape. This never-ending cycle can only be broken with the use of public awareness towards philosophical enlightenment, humanism, and cultural progress. These have the potential to promulgate the feeling of empathy, love, compassion, and humanity. There is an urgent need to fight against philistinism in today’s alienated world that suffers from all sorts of fanaticism and obscurantism.

Philistinism is neither a psychological disease nor a mental health complication – although it has its own peculiar psychological consequences and mentalities. It is mainly relating to a socio-economic system in which greed for money and power has an upper-hand. It is a cultural evil that is connected with a cultural environment in which education is geared towards egoistic and utilitarian purposes. During the Medieval era when philosophy was seen as the midwife to theory, the western world suffered from a sort of collective philistinism. Although philistinism is not inherent in human life, we are all at risk of its infliction. We need constant vigilance against the forces of evil and obscurantism to avoid philistinism. Philosophical wisdom combined with a culture of love and compassion is the best guarantee against philistinism.

Works Cited

Aggrawal, A. (2011). Necrophilia: Forensic and medico-legal aspects. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis Group.

Andric, I. (1997). The Bridge on the Drina. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Arnold, M. (1913). Selections from the Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Baradaran, M., & Shekanjeh, R.  (2001). The Psychology of Torture. Baran Publication.

Galeano, E. H. (1992). The Book of Embraces (translated by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer). New York: W.W. Norton.

Gilbert, R.S.(2005). Exploring: Building your own theology (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Unitarian Universalist Association.

Golden, J.M. & Golden, G. (2004). Ancient Canaan Israel: New Perspective. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Hubbard, E., & Taber, H. (2003). Philistine: A periodical of protest, December 1902 to May 1903. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.

Featured image courtesy: "The Torture of Cuauhtémoc", Museo Nacional de Arte [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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