These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.
- Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
- From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
- Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.
We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.
Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.
While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.
Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.
Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.
He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.
Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.
He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.
In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.
Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."
He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.
He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.
He died by suicide.
Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)
Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.
Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images
The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.
Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.
His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.
He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.
Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.
Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.
He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.
Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.
He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.
Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)
One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.
Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.
As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.
He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."
"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.
Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."
There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.
After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.
"It's not always about agreement, more often it's about business."
The roots of Dutch tolerance run deep. Perhaps its sources are to be found in centuries old Calvinist prescriptions, according to which everyone has the right to interpret the Bible in their own way.
Or maybe in the economy, since international trade necessitated respect for others.
"According to our report, there is no such thing as Dutch national identity," announced Máxima, Queen of the Netherlands, in 2007, which delighted some, outraged others, and left others still unimpressed. This expert report commissioned by the authorities was to establish how the citizens of the country identified with it. The words of Máxima, who herself comes from Argentina and learned Dutch only after her marriage to Willem-Alexander, were quoted in various talk shows and press articles, and the Dutch have quarrelled over them at home tables on more than one occasion since. After all, it is a nation that loves to argue.
The word 'tolerance' doesn't itself appear in the queen's speech. Rather, it resounds between the lines. The monarch recalled the Dutch boys of Moroccan descent who guided her around Marrakesh, switching from fluent Arabic to equally fluent Dutch. She also spoke of Semra, a Turkish national, who, having passed her exams at a Dutch university, displayed in her window both the Turkish and the Dutch flag.
In the 1970s, research published by the British author and scholar Christopher Bagley pointed to tolerance as one of the three national traits chosen by the Dutch to define their own collective attitude. We shall inspect the other two a bit later, but first, let us concentrate on what the researchers agree on. Tolerance, the trait that has become pretty much synonymous with the Dutch around the world, has its roots in something much older than the present-day multicultural society of the country. In order to understand the phenomenon of Dutch tolerance, we will need to explain not only this concept, but a few others as well, including pillars, the poldermodel and gedoogbeleid.
Feel free to pray, just not here
"In a country where international trade makes for the society's basic source of income, citizens grow tolerant by themselves," claims Herman Pleij, a popular cultural history professor and writer. He adds that the greatest driving force behind Dutch tolerance is its citizens' belief that it is simply good for the economy. The Dutch treat politics like business.
As an example, Pleij points to the fact that in the 16th century, trade continued above and outside of religious divisions. In the Catholic town of Vlissingen, the Protestant minority contributed so much to the local fish trade that the Catholics agreed to protect the Protestants from religious persecution, as long as the minority celebrated the Eucharist outside the town limits. This caveat was quickly abandoned, however, and in 1566 the Protestants were allowed to take over one of Vlissingen's Catholic churches. What's interesting – perhaps even more so because such turns of events were at that time more an exception than the rule – is that when the Protestants were moving into their new church and stripping it of all religious images (seen by them as godless), they didn't destroy them, but instead entrusted them – intact – to the local authorities.
Hulst and Bronbeek, on the other hand, had for hundreds of years had their 'simultaneums' – shared churches and chapels with separate Catholic and Protestant sections. One Venetian merchant who stayed in the Netherlands between 1562 and 1566 noted that the country allowed remarkable levels of freedom of speech, and that Dutch women had unparalleled freedom of movement in public spaces. In 1699, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de' Medici, observed that the mercantile city of Amsterdam had "become the meeting place of men of all religions and citizens of all countries, which made it one of the most important cities in existence." Jean-François Le Petit, a French immigrant, praised the city, writing that newcomers from other countries could settle there and nobody asked them where they were from or what faith they professed. Those liberties resulted from, among others, the freedom of religion and outlawing of religious persecution introduced in the second half of the 16th century by William the Silent, Prince of Orange, who was himself most likely influenced by the philosophy of Erasmus.
The Dutch divided
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Dutch, following the French, adopted a centralized political system. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna formally confirmed the creation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau. The country was, however, organized around the 1814 constitution, the provisions of which granted royal ministers powers similar to those held by their modern-day counterparts, and instituted direct election.
What began then was a fascinating process called pillarization. Catholics, conservative Calvinists and socialists fought for their religious and civil rights, demanding the formation of their own parties and institutions. Lay and religious authorities allowed just that, seeing as the growing secularization of society might have easily pushed public sentiment towards hostility. This had to be avoided, and thus the four pillars were created: Catholic, liberal, Protestant and social-democratic. Each one of these was, of course, further subdivided. Every pillar had its own schools, hospitals, shops, and later – radio stations, newspapers and television channels (to this day, older generations tend to view television networks and newspapers in light of their Catholic or Protestant roots). Thus, a Catholic would only buy groceries in a Catholic shop or read Catholic papers. In towns and cities, entire districts emerged populated by mostly single-pillar citizens. The country itself was divided into predominantly Catholic and predominantly Protestant areas.
In order to solve problems at the national level, the pillars would delegate their political and religious elites to make terms among themselves. The art of compromise and the art of negotiation that had grown out of the aforementioned mercantile and nautical traditions became ingrained in the national character. All of these factors seemed to feed into a rather coherent worldview: people differ from one another and there's nothing one can do about it; one should, therefore, tolerate others and make the most of the situation.
The make-up of subsequent Dutch parliaments, starting in the 19th century, points to the diversity of Dutch society. The last time a single party obtained an absolute majority in legislature and could rule alone as majority government occurred 130 years ago. Ever since then, the country has been ruled by coalition governments made up of three to four parties each. For the last 60 years, the Dutch House of Representatives, the lower house of the parliament, has been sat in by members of at least nine political parties, though, at times, this number has been known to reach 14.
The Belgian academic Mick Matthys, author of a book about the differences between the Belgians and the Dutch, quotes a Belgian insurance sector worker to whom one very important trait the Dutch seem to possess is their ability to reach business agreement with people they might find disagreeable. "In the Netherlands, you'll do business with your worst enemy. This never happens in Belgium." This sentiment has been confirmed by James Kennedy, an American historian and scholar of Dutch society, who observes: "The Dutch have this notion that one should rather arrive at an agreement with another person than not; disagreement is tantamount to failure."
"It's not always about agreement, more often it's about business," Pieter van Os, Polish correspondent for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, offers as a good-natured jibe at his compatriots. "When the famous basketball player Michael Jordan was asked why he hadn't endorsed any democratic candidate in an election, he gave a very Dutch answer: 'Republicans buy sneakers too.'"
Social and political scientists agree that the Dutch are largely inspired by trade and business in their views on politics and social matters. Arend Lijphart, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, draws attention to the fact that such an understanding of reality makes divisions and differences a side issue, instead encouraging people to focus on the maximization of profit through accord and cooperation. Lijphart also brings up the old practice of dividing public money evenly between the pillars and the Dutch tradition of calling meetings, summits and debates – democratic tools for drawing shared conclusions. The very title of Matthys's book, Why the Belgians are Right and the Dutch Prove They are Right, alludes to that time-honoured Dutch habit of debating each and every case until an agreement can be reached.
This national trait gave rise to the well-known Dutch concept of poldermodel (in English, 'polder model') multilateral negotiations. Its name comes from polders, the tracts of reclaimed land enclosed by dikes, on which the Dutch have for years built their houses and cities. The polder model of consensus-based policymaking found use and yielded great results at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, when mutual concessions between the government, companies and trade unions saved the Dutch economy from a crash.
Another trait that has helped forge the Dutch national predilection for consensus is the instinctive antipathy towards hierarchy shared by most citizens of the Netherlands. "They automatically assume that every person has something to say and should be treated as an equal partner in a discussion," writes Matthys. The Dutch call this trait of theirs grote mond, which translates to 'big mouth', but it doesn't mean a gossip or a person who can't keep a secret. Rather, it refers to being eloquent, or more of a 'smart mouth' than anything else. Matthys traces the origins of this phenomenon to Calvinist teachings that allowed every citizen to interpret the Bible in their own way and to defend their opinion. He mentions that when he first started teaching at a Dutch university, what surprised him the most was how energetically his students discussed their required reading. "Interestingly enough, those discussions were dominated not by those who had read the set texts closely, but rather by those who'd only briefly scanned them, but really wanted their opinion heard. And what they especially dwelt on was whether those texts had any practical uses or not."
A black mark against Piet
In one form or another, the pillars somehow made it through World War II, but ever since the 1960s, they have been slowly losing their importance. The cultural, sexual and technological revolutions made new generations of the Dutch rethink their role in society – their parents' and grandparents' mindsets were seen as outdated. What's more, the country saw an influx of migrants, mostly hailing from former Dutch colonies, who didn't identify with any of the pillars, and who brought with them their own beliefs and religions. Those changes also brought about substantial revisions in some of the country's deeply rooted customs. One particularly lively controversy broke out over the so-called 'Black Pete', or Zwarte Piet.
Although in most European countries Santa is said to fly over from Lapland, Dutch children believe he comes to them from Spain (and by boat, no less). His retinue isn't made up of elves or angels, either. The Dutch Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) arrives accompanied by short, dark-skinned characters – the Zwarte Pieten. Black Pete has become a divisive symbol and the subject of a nationwide dispute that breaks out in the Netherlands every year in the run up to St. Nicholas's Eve on 5th December. It has been going on for a few years now and has, at times, reached the level of life and death – at least in the media.
The Black Pete tradition was first protested as early as the 1980s by the Surinamese actress Gerda Havertong, who appeared on the Dutch version of Sesame Street. In one of the holiday episodes of the show, Havertong's character admonished Big Bird for calling her a Black Pete, explaining that this name was derogatory and offensive to many Dutch children and adults alike. The debate was sparked off anew and for good around 2011, when the artist Quinsy Gario, himself of Antillean descent, appeared publicly wearing a T-shirt with the caption 'ZWARTE PIET IS RACISME' ('BLACK PETE IS RACISM').
Widespread protests swept the country. A group of Dutch citizens of colour sued the mayor of Amsterdam for agreeing to a St. Nicholas parade with Black Petes in it. Dutch television's 'Head Black Pete', actor Erik van Muiswinkel, decided not to reprise the role for that year's televized St. Nicholas pageant. Prime minister Mark Rutte was asked about the issue at, of all places, the Nuclear Security Summit. After numerous complaints, even the UN established a Black Pete task force.
Conservatives declared the debate an attack on Dutch tradition. They explained that Pete is black with soot because he has to make trips up and down the chimneys of the houses he visits with Santa. What they failed to explain was why Santa, even though he takes the same route, doesn't ever seem even a little sooty. A petition for the preservation of Black Pete was drawn up and soon used to launch the most-clicked on Dutch fan page on Facebook. Within 24 hours, the page garnered over a million likes, overtaking even the Ajax Amsterdam fan page. In Friesland, defenders of tradition blocked the motorway, stopping buses with anti-Black Pete protesters. They were fined for this, but soon found a lawyer willing to defend them entirely free of charge – as "Frisian heroes". In Zuilen, near Utrecht, a few men in shoe-polish blackface entered a local school to give children cookies and campaign for Black Pete.
The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment conducted a survey on the perception of Black Pete among children. It turned out that almost 90% of all Dutch children didn't see the character as offensive or racist. Despite this, most TV stations started introducing Rainbow Petes (only the RTL television broadcaster issued an official message saying that in its programming, Pete would stay soot-speckled). The Dutch, as befits the citizens of a country of compromise, tried to strike a balance. In Amsterdam, the St. Nicholas parade introduced a quota system of sorts. 75% of the Petes were rainbow, white or sooty, and the remaining 25% were black.
The debate, however, returns each year. And there's always St. Nicholas's Eve ahead.
Coffee alla turca
"The square is all cleared up now", read the controversial headline of a 2012 article about the dismantling of a tent camp for people seeking asylum in The Hague. This is just one example that tolerance among the Dutch in two socially important areas – politics and the media – does not fare as well as we might expect. For this reason, the newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad organized a debate on the subject last year, inviting four Dutch women of Turkish origin to join in: two politicians and two journalists. As Yesim Candan (a publicist) explained, after publishing each of her column posts she only needs to wait a few minutes until the first offensive comment appears. When she told her Dutch friends that she was writing a book about sex in Turkey, they would ask: "What does your husband say about this?"
Keklik Yücel – a former Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party) MP – mentioned that when years ago, as a teenager, she worked on a hospital ward, some patients asked her if she had already been forced to marry and if she needed to keep her virginity intact. Years later, when she entered politics, she was struck by how white Dutch people favour other white Dutch people in filling jobs, calling it 'networking'.
Meryem Cimen, city councillor for Haarlem, added that the higher she progressed within the government ranks, the fewer people of colour she saw around her. "There were deliberations at which I was initially considered a waitress by some politician and asked for a coffee, because Turkish women surely cannot deal with anything other than catering," she continued in an ironic vein.
The journalist Fidan Ekiz pointed out that the years of fighting for equal opportunities for people from outside the Netherlands also have a dark side: "When I first worked for a newspaper in Rotterdam, a colleague at the next desk wanted to know if I was accepted into the editorial office because of the parity ensured for Turkish people. And it wasn't even a spiteful question, he was being earnest!"
Both the journalists who participated in the debate are appreciated by their native Dutch colleagues and media recipients for the fact that they write about society without excessively referring to their ethnic origin and religion. Nevertheless, for many Dutch people of Turkish descent, they are almost considered traitors for the very same reason.
Although the Dutch are generally active in the field of charity and care for human rights, not all of them share this attitude. During the refugee crisis, a politician from the then-ruling conservative-liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) demanded that the crews of Dutch ships that rescue refugees encountered at sea be punished, because it allegedly constituted supporting human traffickers. "This is how we become the last link in a chain of human traffickers that extends all the way back to Africa," he said. He didn't have to wait long for a reaction. Comedian and columnist Pieter Derks replied: "Then let's stop reviving people with heart attacks caused by eating fast food. After all, we are the last link in the obesity chain that extends all the way back to America. Let's not pick up litter from the street and throw them into the bin, because people will litter more, and we will be the last link in the chain of carelessness. Just like you are the last link in the chain of indifference."
And this last word – indifference – has been mentioned over the years as the greatest drawback of Dutch society. Journalist Fidan Ekiz believes that this feature is hidden in the Netherlands behind a facade of tolerance: "For years, the Dutch had an attitude to economic immigrants from other countries that ran along the lines of: 'OK, let them cultivate their customs and religions, after all, they will leave sooner or later anyway.'" In turn, the aforementioned Pieter van Os says: "We are a confident, even arrogant nation. Most of the Dutch don't perceive others as a threat, they simply ignore them."
"In our public debate, it is often repeated that tolerance turns towards indifference, that we are living side by side instead of with each other. Empty, convenient tolerance derives from the reluctance to critically evaluate the behaviour and views of other people," sociologist Dick Pels writes about Dutch indifference in De Groene Amsterdammer. He adds that cultural relativism and the belief that "everything is allowed" shape a specific "culture of avoidance", which does not take into account the most important social problems: discrimination, violence, unequal opportunities – thus opening the field for radical politicians.
This is the nucleus of the long-standing dispute between Dutch liberals and conservatives. The former identify the bourgeoisie with people who pass each other indifferently, but with a smile. The latter argue that true civil society requires intervention in the struggle for values. It sounds good, but this slogan unfortunately often hides xenophobia and intolerance. Ever since the high-profile murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, the problem has been particularly present in the Netherlands.
Fortuyn was an ambiguous figure: on the one hand, he made a career attacking the values of Dutch Muslims, and on the other, he was a homosexual who openly spoke about his relationships with Moroccan men. "He placed our debate on the edge of a knife and put the Dutch liberals with whom I myself identify in an embarrassing position. In a sense, he made it clear that when he criticized minorities, he was still more invested in them than we are, because he frequently gave them a place in the public debate. We have long thought that our indifference to minorities was the highest form of tolerance we could offer. Today I no longer think like that," says Van Os.
See no evil?
And what about drugs? If you think that the search for pure Dutch tolerance will be easier in this case, nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to drug policy in the Netherlands, there is another term – gedoogbeleid. This policy avoids punishing certain acts in the name of the greater good, as long as they do not exceed a certain limit. This concept is situated somewhere between tolerance and decriminalization. The Dutch government recognizes that it is better to tolerate the presence of soft drugs because their harmfulness is acceptable, their impact on tourism revenues is positive, and in addition it gives greater control over the sale of hard drugs. Although no self-respecting journalist cites Wikipedia, I will make an exception here, because the verb gedogen is explained there in an endearing manner: it is the behaviour of the father who sees that the child, contrary to the mother's prohibition, has eaten a cookie, while he himself does not mind it. To avoid conflict with his wife and conflict with his child, he decides to pretend he didn't see it. Tolerance, indifference, or maybe shirking responsibility?
The question of sex work is similarly ambiguous in this respect. In the Netherlands, it was legalized hundreds of years ago, and sex workers are self-employed small business owners, forming trade unions. Nevertheless, when they try to open a business account with a bank, they generally face formal obstacles. Although the first female city mayor in the history of the Dutch capital, Femke Halsema, has organized debates about the future of the Red Light District since the beginning of her term, activists complain that she treats sex workers as vulnerable victims of human trafficking, even though many of them see themselves more as tax-paying, conscious citizens fighting to ensure that their profession is no longer considered taboo.
But many conservative residents of Amsterdam city centre are asking for the red-light district to be removed from the city centre. "How can this be?" I ask Van Os. "They've been there for 500 years!" "The Dutch practice the 'live and let live' principle, but that doesn't mean they are open to any type of lifestyle. Tourists smoking marijuana and having sex with prostitutes? Fine. But I have many friends for whom the information that someone uses a brothel service would be tantamount to severing contact with that person. And if they found out that their teenage son had been smoking marijuana, they would be outraged. This is the epitome of indifference: let others do what they want, but not me and not the people in my circle!"
Dutch openness or tolerance would not be possible if it were not for the enormous internal social control. This is another element of the Dutch self-stereotype, since the ability to exert self-control was mentioned by the Dutch – next to tolerance and manners – in the aforementioned research from the 1970s.
"Be normal, that's crazy enough" is a popular Dutch proverb. The appeal for normality and common sense probably appears most often in discussions on controversial topics, as evidenced, too, by the words of prime minister Mark Rutte when asked at the UN summit about the Black Pete issue: "Come on, be normal."
"Is Dutch tolerance just indifference and conformism?" I ask James Kennedy. "The average Dutchman is individualistic when it comes to defining his identity, no-one will tell him whether to go or not to go to church and how to spend his time. On the level of pragmatic action, even at work, he is a collectivist. He cooperates because he believes that this is the only way to achieve the goal. In everyday life, he is a conformist. He does what others do, when it's convenient." "Doesn't this sound inconsistent?" I press on. He replies with a laugh: "Did I say that the Dutch appreciate consistency?"
Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak
Biologists use commonly-found insects that engage in cannibalism to prove a key evolutionary concept.
- Researchers studied cannibalism among commonly-found moths to test an evolutionary principle.
- The scientists concluded that moths with more sibling interaction were less selfish.
- The principle applies to humans and other animals.
A common moth, found in pantries, could explain a crucial link between society and selfishness, according to a new study. Researchers showed that an increase in sibling interaction resulted in less selfish behavior in Indian meal moth caterpillars. In particular, the scientists observed an effect on cannibalism, a behavior some times observed in the moths.
While the experiments dealt with insects, the researchers claim its evolutionary principle conclusions can be extrapolated to humans.
Known also as pantry or weevil moths, the Indian meal moths tend to be a nuisance, laying eggs in cereals, flour, and other foods. What's noteworthy is that they sometimes eat each other, including members of their own brood.
The researchers were able to effect the rates of cannibalism in these moths by controlling how much individual insects could travel from each other. This had an impact on whether sibling moth larvae interacted with each other. The more interaction, the less selfish behavior like cannibalism was observed within 10 moth generations.
The study was carried out by the Rice University Biologist Volker Rudolf, Mike Boots of the University of California, as well as Dylan Childs, Hannah Tidbury, and Jessica Crossmore from U.K.'s University of Sheffield.
In enclosures (top) where food was stickier, caterpillars were more likely to interact with their siblings.
Credit: Volker Rudolf/Rice University
Volker explained why cannibalism, which has been found in over 1,000 species, was worth studying:
"At one end of the continuum are altruistic behaviors, where an individual may be giving up its chance to survive or reproduce to increase reproduction of others," said Rudolf. "Cannibalism is at the other extreme. An individual increases its own survival and reproduction by literally consuming its own kind."
The study supported a 2010 theoretical prediction by Rudolf and Boots, providing experimental proof of a key idea from evolutionary theory. The scientists proposed that as local interactions would increase, the pressure to avoid selfish behaviors would also increase.
"Families that were highly cannibalistic just didn't do as well in that system," shared Rudolf. "Families that were less cannibalistic had much less mortality and produced more offspring."
Applying their conclusions to humans, Rudolf claims that in societies where people live in large family units, there'd be less selfish behavior to find. In more isolated groups, however, where people are separated from their families and live among strangers (because of moving, for example), the reverse would be true.
Eating your own kind can also be influenced by food options, with Rudolf suggesting that "If food conditions are poor, cannibalism provides additional benefits, which could push for more selfish behavior."
Another factor effecting this type of phenomena – spotting your relatives. If an animal recognizes kin, "that limits the cost of cannibalism" but also means "you can afford to be a lot more cannibalistic in a mixed population, which can have evolutionary benefits," proposed Rudolf.
The scientists plan to study further how cannibalism functions in animal groups.
Check out their paper published in Ecology Letters.
For some philosophers, hope is a second-rate way of relating to reality.
While its use in the Barack Obama presidential campaign has become iconic, appeal to hope was not limited to the United States: the Leftist Greek Syriza party relied on the slogan 'hope is on the way', for example, and many other European parties embraced similar rallying cries. Since then, however, we rarely hear or see 'hope' in the public sphere.
Even in its heyday, the rhetoric of hope wasn't universally popular. When in 2010 the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rhetorically asked: 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?' she tapped into a widespread skepticism that views hope as unrealistic, even delusional. Palin's skepticism (many will be surprised to hear) has long been at work in the philosophical tradition. From Plato to René Descartes, many philosophers have argued that hope is weaker than expectation and confidence since it requires belief merely in the possibility of an event, not evidence that it is likely to occur.
For these philosophers, hope is a second-rate way of relating to reality, appropriate only when a person lacks the requisite knowledge to form 'proper' expectations. The radical Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza gives voice to this opinion when he writes that hope indicates 'a lack of knowledge and a weakness of mind' and that 'the more we endeavour to live by the guidance of reason, the more we endeavour to be independent of hope'. According to this view, hope is particularly unsuitable as a guide to political action. Citizens should base their decisions on rational expectations about what governments can achieve, rather than letting themselves be motivated by mere hope.
This skepticism should be taken seriously and can indeed point us toward a better understanding of the rise and fall of the rhetoric of hope. So is there space for hope in politics?
We need to be precise about what kind of hope we are talking about. If we are considering what individuals hope for, any policy that has consequences for people's lives will be tied to hope in some way – whether this is hope for that policy's success or hope for its failure. The generation of such hope isn't necessarily good or bad; it is simply a part of political life. But when political movements promise to deliver hope, they are clearly not speaking of hope in this generic sense. This particular rhetoric of hope refers to a more specific, morally attractive and distinctively political form of hope.
Political hope is distinguished by two features. Its object is political: it is hope for social justice. And its character is political: it is a collective attitude. While the significance of the first feature is perhaps obvious, the second feature explains why it makes sense to speak of hope's 'return' to politics. When political movements seek to rekindle hope, they are not acting on the assumption that individual people no longer hope for things – they are building on the idea that hope does not currently shape our collective orientation toward the future. The promise of a 'politics of hope' is thus the promise that hope for social justice will become part of the sphere of collective action, of politics itself.
Even so, the question remains whether political hope is really a good thing. If one of the tasks of government is to realise social justice, would it not be better for political movements to promote justified expectations rather than mere hope? Is the rhetoric of hope not a tacit admission that the movements in question lack strategies for inspiring confidence?
The sphere of politics has particular features, unique to it, that impose limitations on what we can rationally expect. One such limitation is what the American moral philosopher John Rawls in 1993 described as the insurmountable pluralism of 'comprehensive doctrines'. In modern societies, people disagree about what is ultimately valuable, and these disagreements often cannot be resolved by reasonable argument. Such pluralism makes it unreasonable to expect that we will ever arrive at a final consensus on these matters. To the extent that governments should not pursue ends that cannot be justified to all citizens, the most we can rationally expect from politics is the pursuit of those principles of justice on which all reasonable people can agree, such as basic human rights, non-discrimination, and democratic decision-making. Thus, we cannot rationally expect governments that respect our plurality to pursue more demanding ideals of justice – for example, via ambitious redistributive policies that are not justifiable relative to all, even the most individualistic, conceptions of the good.
This limitation stands in tension with another of Rawls's claims. He also argued, in 1971, that the most important social good is self-respect. In a liberal society, the citizens' self-respect is based on the knowledge that there is a public commitment to justice – on the understanding that other citizens view them as deserving fair treatment. However, if we can expect agreement on only a narrow set of ideals, that expectation will make a relatively small contribution to our self-respect. Compared with possible consensus on more demanding ideals of justice, this expectation will do relatively little to make us view other citizens as being deeply committed to justice.
Fortunately, we need not limit ourselves to what we can expect. Even though we are not justified in expecting more than limited agreement on justice, we can still collectively hope that, in the future, consensus on more demanding ideals of justice will emerge. When citizens collectively entertain this hope, this expresses a shared understanding that each member of society deserves to be included in an ambitious project of justice, even if we disagree about what that project should be. This knowledge can contribute to self-respect and is thus a desirable social good in its own right. In the absence of consensus, political hope is a necessary part of social justice itself.
So it is rational, perhaps even necessary, to recruit the notion of hope for the purposes of justice. And this is why the rhetoric of hope has all but disappeared. We can seriously employ the rhetoric of hope only when we believe that citizens can be brought to develop a shared commitment to exploring ambitious projects of social justice, even when they disagree about their content. This belief has become increasingly implausible in light of recent developments that reveal how divided Western democracies really are. A sizable minority in Europe and the US has made it clear, in response to the rhetoric of hope, that it disagrees not only about the meaning of justice but also with the very idea that our current vocabulary of social justice ought to be extended. One can, of course, still individually hope that those who hold this view will be convinced to change it. As things stand, however, this is not a hope that they are able to share.
This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon magazine from Templeton Religion Trust. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust.
Funders to Aeon Magazine are not involved in editorial decision-making, including commissioning or content approval.
If more people decide to apply pressure through their choices, slowly but surely we would reach climate change herd immunity.
- The relentless degradation of our natural resources is also your fault.
- The same way that vaccines work to create herd immunity in a population, a changing worldview that repositions us in relation to nature can do the same for the environment.
- Environmental herd immunity requires each one of us to make small sacrifices (vaccines hurt a bit but save lives, right?) that have the transformative power to change the world.
Here is a basic point that we often take for granted: To live you must breathe, drink water, and eat. If you don't breathe or don't eat or drink water, you die. That's obvious. Now dial it down a bit. If the air you breathe and the water you drink and the food you eat are of bad quality, you will suffer. You will get sick, your energy will always be low, you will be miserable. I don't think anyone could disagree with this point.
Now comes the point where many people turn off.
Okay, so we need good quality air, water, and food. "So what," you'd say? "It's not my job to fix this. That's why we have a government. It's all the big corporations' fault—their greed, their stockholders. How could a single person make a difference?" Well, you could. And yes, governments and big business can and should as well. When it comes to the environment, you, the government, the corporations, all have a role to play. But in looking at the sources of the problem, the degradation of natural resources due to relentless abuse, it's way too convenient to just sit back and blame others, be it the government or big business. The fact is, when it comes to our destructive relationship with nature, we are all to blame.
It starts with a worldview. How do you relate to nature? Do you miss it? Do you think about it? Do you sometimes wonder whether the choices of what you eat, of how you use transportation, of how you use water and energy play a role that is much bigger than you?
During the current pandemic, we often talk about herd immunity; the idea that if the majority of a population is immune to a disease, a collective change happens and there is ongoing stability: People stop dying in large numbers, and society as whole benefits. Sure, some will still get sick, and some will still die, as happens every year with the flu or the common cold. But the pandemic will be gone. The worldview needed for herd immunity—that vaccination and social distancing and protection measures are individual actions with global impact—catches on and soon the whole world population benefits.
How can we adapt the notion of herd immunity to the environment? Just like when you decide to be vaccinated because it will benefit you and those around you, you decide to reconsider how you deal with the natural world in your everyday choices. You become careful when buying a product, by first checking how the company aligns with your vision for the future. How do their production practices protect the environment? Do they abuse or kill animals? Are they striving to protect air and water quality? Are they producing food with the quality that you deserve and pay for? Or are they stuffing it with all sorts of chemicals, fake flavors, and preservatives? Do their corporate values align with yours? If not, why buy from them? Consumers have much more power than they believe. The marketplace is so vast that you are sure to find alternatives that would better match your vision for the future. If more and more people decide to do this, slowly but surely we would reach environmental herd immunity.
Consumers have much more power than they believe. The marketplace is so vast that you are sure to find alternatives that would better match your vision for the future.
Participants at the 'Rise for Climate 5th Belgian and European march', in Brussels, to raise awareness for climate change, Sunday 31 March 2019.
The United Nations Environmental Program has recently launched a comprehensive plan of action to address three environmental threats: climate change, pollution (air and water), and loss of biodiversity. The plan is very aptly named Making Peace with Nature. The report is based on the latest scientific environmental assessments and looks at the enormous social and economic disparities in the world as the crux of the problem. It calls for global unity and active participation of all nations and economies to guarantee success. The opening paragraph from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres sets the tone: "Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth."
So, we go back to the notion of worldview and herd immunity. The current worldview, the "war on nature," is suicidal. As is shunning from vaccination when the science and overwhelming results support it. We need a new worldview, which can only succeed if it is all-encompassing. Not everyone needs to sign on, but the majority does, so as to guarantee herd immunity. We need a worldview that realigns our thinking about the world and our place in it, that respects nature and the environment as the fundamental resource for our continual existence on this planet. Good quality air, water, and food, are the absolute basics for human existence.
With climate change, it's like watching bombs falling in very slow motion, so slow that everyone thinks they can escape before they hit the ground.
Environmental herd immunity. Not everyone needs to sign on, just the majority.
Credit: Steven via Adobe Stock / Big Think
The pandemic of environmental degradation and destruction is our greatest existential threat now. To survive by achieving environmental herd immunity calls for a revision of how each one of us relates to the planet and to natural resources. A vaccine is something you take to protect you from illness. But its benefits spread, and snowball to protect the population as a whole. Herd immunity. The environmental alarm has been sounded over and over again. But because people don't see the bombs falling and exploding on the ground, they don't correlate what is already happening with the climate to our war on nature. With climate change, it's like watching bombs falling in very slow motion, so slow that everyone thinks they can escape before they hit the ground. That's the old worldview, the one that must change. The new worldview can only become effective if we reach environmental herd immunity. And for that to be possible, you, and I, and most of us, have to take our collective fate into our own hands and change the way we live. Even if change involves some level of personal sacrifice, much like a vaccine. A vaccine hurts, can even make you sore and sick for a couple of days. But that's a very small price to pay for staying alive, for being healthy and able to get out there into the woods, and for knowing that your actions, small that they may be, help change the world for the better.