You may have noticed lately I’ve been squabbling with another bunch of Satanists. It’s ok: as a Satanist myself, I’m not above being bitchy and getting in a good row. Plus, there may just be something in human nature that actually enjoys violence and a nice, dirty fight every now and then. At least it breaks up the boredom, huh?
I don’t mean by that flippant prologue to belittle the very real point of philosophical disagreement the conflict seemed to center on: to wit, what type of groupishness is appropriate for a Satanic group, if any? By “groupishness” here, I mean to invoke the human propensity to self-organize in tight-knit groups of individuals bound by one or more, likely external, factors and devoted to a larger, corporate-level identity that encompasses—and may even supersede—that of individual members. This idea usually goes in the popular science literature under the problematic label of “tribalism.” I reject the use of the terms “tribal(ism)” and “tribe” in connection with this inevitably negative idea of human social organization and conflict out of deference to and respect for Native Americans, for whom the word “tribe” and related forms have a particular, weighty, historical and present significance that I would rather honor than besmirch through the heedless use of unnecessarily fraught terminology.
In one of the many Facebook threads on the subject of my recent spat, someone commented: “sect-bashing makes all religion ugly.” I certainly agree that narrow parochialism, biased fairness, and strictly in-group empathy that feed conflicts between parochial religious and political groups are problematic, if deeply engrained and even prewired, human traits. I’ve said as much on this blog on occasion. But I don’t eschew all groups, nor all inter-group conflict.
Zinn and the Art of Inter-Group Conflict
I once heard historian Howard Zinn speak on campus during my undergrad stint at the University of Georgia way back when. I’ve never forgotten his statement on bias in historiography: it’s not having a bias that’s the problem; it’s having the wrong bias. If you write about war in history and don’t manage to make it out to be something well and truly horrible rather than—say—glorious and just, then you’ve shirked a clear moral duty to humanity as a whole, he argued. Zinn clearly nursed an anti-war bias, and it showed in his histories. His reluctance to endorse the dehumanizing, human-rights-trampling shitshow of modern warfare, however, didn’t render Zinn anemic when it came to all side-taking in cases of conflict. Howard Zinn believed in arguing and pursuing the just cause.
As regards pissing contests with others, I too favor championing a just cause, and I’m not above scrapping a bit if need be to press that cause. My personal disclosure of Zinn-like bias for cases of inter-group conflict goes like this: it’s not taking sides that’s the problem; it’s taking the wrong side. I know: famous last words as epitaph, but whatever. What was it Shakespeare wrote? “Cowards die many times before their deaths”? May I never die (and die again) a coward!
So what sort of groupishness is appropriate for us Satanic heathens? Well, in the past I’ve argued that a Satanic group must, first of all, be one of our own individual choosing: not forged of any birtherism—no putative piety owed to blood, nationality, gender, skin tone, or any other accident attendant on our being pushed or wrested in some particular configuration from some particular womb in some particular place at some particular point in time. I’ve also argued that it must be primarily a source or expression of recreation, chosen for personal reasons of enjoyment, fun, benefit, strengthening, or some such.
As a result, it’ll probably have to be a loose sort of group, somewhat volatile, involving shifting allegiances, comings and goings, some egoic clash perhaps. In these ways, it would be a lot like how a host of psychologists and anthropologists have described small hunter gatherer societies: how they tend to muster in loose groups characterized by frequent shifts in allegiances, to avoid long-term binding commitments among and between individuals, to place high value on personal autonomy, to practice widespread egalitarianism with largely distributed decision-making duties, and to resort to reverse dominance hierarchies, where members come together and use social pressure (and even outright violence in extreme cases) in order to prevent any one strong individual from rising to prominence enough to lord it over the group and threaten everyone’s individual sovereignty.
Such a Satanic group would also be one where the members know a good thing when they’re part of it. When the chips are down and some other group comes calling to threaten the diffuse sense of community all the freaks have formed, they’ll know how to draw together, close unhierarchical “ranks,” and fend off the alpha—or even beta!—types who bring promises or threats of a “better,” more “efficient” or “godly,” and certainly less free, way. In this sense, it’d be somewhat as Plutarch argues in his Moral Essays (2.490b) all the fractious little city-states of ancient Crete once were, constantly making internecine war on one another and seemingly unable to get their shit together and stop the squabbling—until, that is, some external foe came knocking, at which point petty difference gave way to shared determination to make the island free once more for the kinds of squabbles they chose to have. From this, by dubious folk etymology, come the terms we use in English to this day for blending and amalgamating traditions, identities, and beliefs into a new, mottled, manifold whole: syncretism and syncretic.
The turbulent political situation in Crete during the Classical and Hellenistic periods can be understood as representing what happens following a gradual breakdown in the centralized power and social cohesion that had once characterized the great Minoan-Mycenaean states centered on the ancient capital of Knossos. Because of all the infighting over the centuries, the island suffered numerous foreign occupations and external interferences: Macedonians, Romans, Ottomans. Nonetheless, a fierce, independent spirit always remained strong among the native inhabitants. Not coincidentally, given the volatile and lawless environment, another thing the island always seemed to harbor in antiquity that has a clear relevance to the present discussion is pirates.
Satanism and Piracy: An Epiphany
I have two small children who, thank whatever powers may be, really like pirate stuff. Not long ago, we had a pirate weekend of sorts. I had purchased them both little “pirate kits” that contained a hat emblazoned with the skull & bones, an eye patch (of course!), a gilded dagger with a curved jambiya-style blade, a treasure map (also of course!), a spyglass, and a satin satchel of golden plastic pieces of eight. We watched Goonies and Treasure Island, followed by some of the much more recent films of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The girls were arrrrrring and aye mateying all weekend long. I loved it.
As I watched the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Curse of the Black Pearl, with them, a realization came springing into my mind. One of the central conflicts I see playing out in modern atheistic Satanism over the notion of groupishness was being dramatized for me right there on the screen in the form of the two competing groups of pirates: the one headed by Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp, and the other by Captain Hector Barbossa, played by Geoffrey Rush. I saw in these two striving pirate crews two groups of modern Satanists. And this realization entailed a second, though logically prior, one: Satanists and Pirates resemble each other in a conspicuous number of ways that are sufficiently enlightening to our understanding of Satanism to merit sketching the parallels in some detail. This realization, in turn, helped me to see both how Satanists as a whole differ from and relate to society at large as well as how different conservative and liberal groups within that society differ from and relate to one another.
In what follows, I will argue that a Satanic community, such as it is, can find its likely best model and closest analogue in modern ideas about pirates and pirate bands. There’s an inevitable romance to such ideas—I must admit—but I will maintain there’s a kernel of reality as well, in addition to a hope for a better way in the future. For Satanists who care about community—and that’s certainly not all Satanists, as we shall see—this pirate model promises, I think, the right balance of individual autonomy and downright fun scalawaggery to potential for coming together for mutual support and strengthening, especially when the seas get rough. So let’s set sail together and see how all this works out, shall we? On deck, you scabrous dogs! Now…bring me that new horizon.
The Satanist-Pirate Connection
The comparison of Satanists to pirates is not as strange or unlikely as it may, at first blush, seem. In a lecture I gave back in October, I spoke to how, in the original Greek of the New Testament, the term used to describe Satan in the scene of Jesus’ Temptation in the desert in Matthew 4:3 as “the Tempter,” ὁ πειράζων ho peirazōn, literally means something closer to “the one who puts to the test.” The Greek verb underlying this present active participial form is a derived form of the simple verb πειράω peiraō meaning “to attempt, endeavor, try.” The agentive noun formation from this same basic root verb (that is, the noun that describes a person who habitually performs the action described in the verb) is πειρατής peiratēs, literally “one who attempts, endeavors, tries” or “an attempter, endeavorer.” It is this Greek word which provides the etymological origin of the English term pirate via the Latinized form pirata.
Etymologically and conceptually, pirates—peirateis—are those who are willing to “try” or “attempt” anything, freed of restraints and scruples that might hold ordinary others back. In Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Jack Sparrow gives a concrete nod to this conception when he lectures the younger William Turner onboard their newly stolen ship, saying:
“As long as you’re just hanging there, pay attention. Must, should, do, don’t, shall, shall not—those are just mere suggestions. There are only two absolute rules: What a man can do. And what a man can’t do.”
If, as I’ve argued on this site, traditional religion in all its varied forms largely boils down to “an embodiment of the deontic mode: a system of belief and practice built around the principle of do this, as we do and/or say,” then Sparrow’s lesson here demonstrates that pirates must be some of the most irreligious of heathens, indeed proto-Satanists. They await no lawgiver or justice of the peace to provide or enforce for them rules for how to live: they have become their own law. When Sparrow first “sails” into the harbor at Port Royal, he bribes the harbormaster to avoid having to list his name in official records, so that he can remain anonymous in town and free from government scrutiny. As he could gather from the grizzly decomposing pirates he saw hanging from a gibbet in plain sight of those approaching the dock, Port Royal is a town uniquely hostile to pirates’ particular brand of remaining outside of approved power structures. Indeed, during the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean at the turn of the 18th century, a chief motivating factor for pirates and those turning pirate was rebellion against precisely such ruthless power structures. Many sailors turned pirate out of frustration with low wages, slave conditions aboard merchant and naval ships, and unscrupulous behavior by both corporations that tried to refuse wages and keep sailors in hock and a Royal Navy that used pressgangs to force sailors to work against their will for no pay at all.
In my lecture series, I argued that the Biblical figure of Satan or “the Satan” starts off his existence as God’s henchman and hatchet man, enforcing loyalty to the Big Guy by rooting out those humans who have started “thinking big” and potentially rivaling God for power or authority. But at some point, gradually and imperceptibly, Satan starts to go rogue, assuming his place at the head of a band of rebellious, prideful angels in the mythology of heavenly revolt that finds numerous echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible and beyond. In my lecture back in October, I argued that, in the scene of Jesus’ Temptation, “the Tempter,” ὁ πειράζων ho peirazōn, is depicted as having usurped the divine authority to “put to the test” and turned it back on Jesus, God’s putative son. This Greek verb is the same used in the Septuagint translation of the scene of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, which begins by stating that God “tested” Abraham. The original Hebrew term to express this idea of putting Abraham to the test, to see what he was made of and whether he would bear up under the extreme pressure of being commanded to sacrifice his precious son and keep the faith, was nissâ (נִסָּה). That same verb appears in Job 4:2 in the words Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite speaks to him, opening up a spurious argument that no suffering is ever truly undeserved by asking Job:
“If one tries (nissâ) to have a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking [seeing you like this]?”
In Tractate Sanhedrin (89b) in the Babylonian Talmud, Satan appears in a Rabbinic explanation of the scene of Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac, attempting to dissuade the Biblical patriarch from carrying out God’s command. As irony would have it, the Rabbis make Satan quote this very same text from Job 4 to Abraham in a vain attempt to suggest that the former resident of Ur’s faith in the goodness of the God he followed out of Mesopotamia is wearing thin and he should know better than to think that God means him well:
“If one ventures a word to you, will you be weary…you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him that was falling…but now it comes upon you, and you are weary” (Job 4:2-5)
In terms of both text and etymology, then, Satan became in both Biblical and post-Biblical tradition the first (in)famous pirate captain, committing the first really impressive mutiny.
Different Pirates, Different Satanists
While it may be a somewhat natural fit on both etymological and conceptual grounds to regard Satanists and Pirates as kindred spirits, we must also admit that neither Satanists nor Pirates constitute homogenous, monolithic groups. What the two competing bands of pirates in Curse of the Black Pearl—and, by extension, the groups of Satanists they betoken—have in common is that both groups would heartily assent to the toast Captain Jack offers his mate Mr. Gibbs while plotting together on the island of Tortuga: “Take what you can; give nothing back!” In their rational self-interest, ultimate loyalty to self above all, immediate-term pleasure seeking, general antinomy, and strong emphasis on self-determination, both groups of Pirates—indeed pirates generally—seem natural Satanists.
Where they diverge seems most to center on their treatment of others, both pirates and non-pirates. That is, the two groups part ways over the respective size of their internal circles of moral concern. One of these two groups very much sees other human beings principally as a means to entirely selfish ends: a convenience (when convenient) or a hindrance (when not), but always a means, which entails their use without regard to personal autonomy. We see this behavior clearly in this group’s savage plundering and pillaging of Port Royal, their kidnapping of Elizabeth Swann, and their organization into a more rigidly hierarchical band where personal autonomy is less respected and strict obedience to a powerful leader who enforces his will through violence is the principal desideratum. And all of this comes in slavish service to the MacGuffin of a curse that resulted from this pirate band’s own compulsive lust for wealth and power, a curse that now makes that lust literally consume the pirates, body and mind.
The other group, meanwhile, seems to find value principally as inhering within the drive for individual autonomy and, consequently, within individual, autonomous human beings. As irony would have it, even as this group shows less propensity toward hierarchical organization and the demands of strict obedience, they nonetheless display greater loyalty to individual humans valued for who they are and how they act. We see this behavioral irony dramatized clearly at the end of Curse of the Black Pearl, when William Turner risks his own life and freedom in order to save Jack Sparrow from a hanging as a pirate. When Governor Swann takes Turner to task for throwing his lot in with a convicted pirate, the young man, who had earlier grappled with his own father’s piratic history and the question of whether he could simultaneously have been a “good man,” counters that Sparrow himself, though pirate, is also “a good man.” Swann shoots back to Turner: “You forget your place,” to which Turner retorts that his place is with Sparrow. Then, when Governor Swann’s own daughter Elizabeth joins her paramour, affirming that her place is with the pirates as well, Swann suddenly orders the assembled soldiers: “Lower your weapons. For goodness’ sake, put them down!” Only when his own flesh and blood are in harm’s way does Governor Swann find moral scruple in his treatment of Sparrow and, by extension, Turner. This scene recalls the one at the beginning of the film, where Sparrow saves Elizabeth from drowning and, when his identity as pirate is divulged, is ordered by Swann to be executed, despite his recent role as savior. Again, only once Sparrow takes Elizabeth temporarily hostage does Governor Swann order a different, and more principled, treatment of the man. Swann’s circle of moral concern is very narrow, encompassing family relations and fellow, law-abiding, wealthy Englishmen and -women. Turner’s and Elizabeth’s circle, by contrast, extends out farther to encompass a man whom they’ve come to respect and value, perhaps as much as anything else for the principle of happy freedom and self-determination he has come to represent.
The differences between the two bands of pirates depicted in the film mirror similar differences in pirates within the real world, and these differences, in turn, find reflection within the wider non-pirate society as well.
Problematizing Piratic License: Fact from Fiction
The idea of license and freedom from societal restraint in piracy cuts both ways. The reality of piracy, both ancient and modern, is often of individuals freed from conventional constraints in such a way that they become parasitic on human society, not reflective of its best and freest impulses. The ancient term peiratēs most often functioned in classical Greek as a synonym of λῃστής lēistēs, both words meaning principally “robber” or “brigand.” In this sense, the willingness of a pirate to do “what a man can do” becomes not so much the heady uprush toward freedom but a precipitous plunge to the depths of human depredation: not “what a person is capable of” when unmoored from care for oppressive societal expectations, but “what a person can live with themselves for having done” while still largely consumed by preoccupation with those very behavioral expectations and their consequences.
The agentive form πειρατής peiratēs that gave rise to the English word pirate shows up in the Septuagint Greek rendering of Job’s complaint of his suffering in Job 16:9 in a phrase that most English Bibles, in lock-step with the original Hebrew, translate as something along the lines of “my adversary sharpens his eyes against me,” but which actually reads in the Greek: “the weapons of his robbers have fallen upon me.” Here the word “robbers” is πειρατῶν peiratōn, a form of πειρατής peiratēs: it literally means “pirates.” When we recall that Job’s suffering came as a result of his having been given over by God into Satan’s power (Job 1:12, 2:6), the close association of pirates with the agents of some of Job’s trials and travails at the hands of “the (At)Tempter” stands to reason. As chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Job make clear, Satan’s permitted tortures of the pious human included setting his hand against the long-suffering man’s property and prosperity, as well as against the health and integrity of his physical person. In this sense, the Satan of Job is a meaner sort of pirate than the ideal of unfettered personal freedom sketched above.
Historically, piracy arises in the world as a response to harsh necessity. Around the ancient Mediterranean, it arose because the demise of the city-state of Carthage following the protracted Punic Wars, together with the waning of both Seleucid and Ptolemaic Hellenistic kingdoms and compounded by Rome’s simply not being a naval power but rather resting content with hiring private ships as needed, meant that the coastlines and waters of the Mediterranean went largely unpoliced. Constant civil wars had left much of the landmass of Crete in particular devastated, destabilizing the island’s subsistence and economy. Meanwhile, Crete’s largely mountainous geography and ample natural harbors meant that, when people got frustrated with their sorry lots on land and turned instead to brigandry at sea, the place proved more than suitable for their clandestine needs. The other principle source of ancient Mediterranean pirates, Cilicia on the southern coast of Asia Minor in the region of present-day Çukurova, Turkey, also sported a natural defensive ring from the Taurus mountains to the north and east as well as abundant harbors. Plus, with Seleucid power on the wane, the administration there, too, proved both weak and lax. The rebel Diodotus Tryphon, who managed to seize the throne of the Seleucid empire and rule from 142 to 138 BCE, supported and encouraged the Cilician pirates as a way of tightening his grip on the reigns of power.
In the modern world, this connection between powerful warlords and piracy remains in effect. In fact, it featured in the 2013 film Captain Phillips, which dramatized the 2009 highjacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by pirates some three hundred miles off the coast of Somalia. An early sequence in the film depicts the pressure applied by the distant pirate-turned-pirate-king named Garaad to the impoverished coastal people of Somali’s Puntland region. Garaad’s AK-47-toting men menace the coastal people and their families, threatening them with punishment unless they get in the water and raise money by hijacking commercial vessels. In the world outside the film, wealthy Somali expats have also been known to send money back home to finance piracy operations in their home country and pressure locals for returns on their investments in a way similar to what is depicted from Garaad’s goons in the movie. As irony would have it, a partially parallel opening sequence on the American side of the film’s cast features the eponymous kidnapped captain speaking in the car on the way to the airport with his wife, discussing his fears for their children and how difficult it’s getting in the shipping business, what with the top-down pressure from corporate bosses on ships and their crews. The real crew of the Maersk Alabama have actually faulted true-life Captain Phillips for seemingly ignoring email warnings from a private maritime security agency, advising of pirate activity in the area of the ship’s route and warning them to keep at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia. Phillips’ chosen route took the vessel only 300-400 miles off the coast, a much more direct and faster route that would doubtless have pleased his corporate bosses had the gambit worked. In a way, then, the film credits the unfortunate collision course on which its two central characters find themselves to plain and simple human greed applied top-down from distant bosses on the “little people” who must do their bidding.
Author John Boyle contends that Somali piracy as a whole actually received both its impetus and its animus from the depredations of Asian and European over-fishing in Somali coastal waters in the early 2000s. According to Boyle, the illegal poachers all but depleted the waters Somali fishermen had depended on for generations. Somali pirate king Garaad also complains of illegal fishing depleting the coastal waters of Somalia, suggesting that he only backs the hijacking of commercial vessels in order to finance a private war to keep traditional Somali fishery alive. Some “Average Joe” Somali fisherman have likewise spun tales of their turning to piracy in their home country out of anger at illegal foreign fishing operations in their coastal waters. Author Boyle also faults Somalia’s former colonial overlord, Italy, for adding to the region’s piracy problems by dumping tons of contaminated waste in the sea off Somali shores, using the mafia to control the transport and disposal of the waste because it was cheaper than having to get rid of it all properly in the E.U. So perhaps even distant pirate-kings like Garaad find themselves subject to top-down economic pressures from distant corporate pirate-kings.
Another key problem and causal factor in the Somali pirate epidemic dramatized in the film Captain Phillips is the issue of lax and ineffectual governance. Some western pundits have charged that ineffective Somali government is in fact the root cause of piracy along the nation’s coast, emphasizing that Somali pirate operations comprise “highly-organized criminal enterprises.” The tension between this pure-criminality idea of modern piracy and what others see as a complex web of interrelated economic and geopolitical factors forms the likely backdrop for the edge-of-the-seat moment in the movie where Captain Phillips faces down his chief Somali captor and yells at him: “You’re not just a fisherman! You’re not just a fisherman!” The righteous indignation in that line from a man who’s been personally wronged and maltreated does much in the movie to erase or at least blur in memory the opening sequence, which, looking back on it, actually does depict the chief pirate, Muse, as being unusually willing, even eager, for assignment to a pirate mission and to gather his fellow brigands for that purpose. When the Navy SEALs surgically engineer and execute the take down of the three remaining Somali pirates aboard the small boat in which they held Phillips prisoner, the viewer feels palpable vindication.
The whole encounter reminds me of the thrust of a narrative from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar (2.1-2.7) in which Julius Caesar himself was taken prisoner by Cilician pirates in the Mediterranean in 75 BCE. The story first relays the almost comical tale of how Caesar refused to be cowed by his captors, insisting instead on treating them as though they were his crew to captain, even as he openly cavorted and joked with them. Once his ransom secured his freedom, however, the future ill-fated king of Rome promptly assembled some ships of his own and set sail to capture the pirates. Then, when the governor of the province of Asia showed no signs of wanting to be bothered with punishing the imprisoned kidnappers, Caesar pulled them out of prison himself and personally oversaw their crucifixion.
The Somali pirates who hijacked the Maersk Alabama were all between 17 and 19 years of age: caught up in organized crime—certainly—but hardly calculating criminal masterminds themselves. More like bungling kids fueled by their fear and the financial backing of violent overlords, as well as their own steady chewing of narcotic khat leaves, kids who get lucky from time to time in boarding commercial and private vessels, hoping to scare crews and passengers with cheaply made foreign machine guns sufficient to motivate the payment of bribes and ransom. Nonetheless, the ultimate treatment of these kids in the popular imagination of members of the dominant culture that has been wronged by their desperate activity paints a picture of the youths’ own personal animus and criminal avarice, as well as of their thorough insensitivity to standards of fair conduct and the personal bodily autonomy of their victims.
In the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean at the beginning of the 18th century CE—you know, the stuff of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the Disney film franchise—when a similar situation of lax or non-existent political control by centralized powers permitted the formation of a “Republic of Pirates” of sorts in the Bahamas, centered on the capital of Nassau on New Providence Island, the prevailing narrative of pirates written and disseminated within the dominant (and terrorized) European cultures of England, France, Spain, and America had a similar law-and-order emphasis. Plantation owners complained of “impudent and insulting” slaves who, bristling at their servitude, were rising up and joining pirate crews in significant numbers. Boston minister Cotton Mather railed against “sinful” commoners in his city who sympathized, by and large, with the plight and antinomian motivations of the pirates. Woodes Rogers, the two-time governor of the Bahamas who, in 1718, presided over the final collapse of the Pirate Republic formerly established there and was left penniless and friendless for a long while by the power-players in British finance and government for his trouble, eventually won recognition in the form of having his name adorn the main waterfront street in Nassau and his personal motto becoming the official motto of the Islands: expulsis piratis, restituta commercia, “once the pirates were expelled, commerce was restored.” It’s hard not to see in the real Woodes Rogers a prototype of sorts for the fictional soon-to-be Commodore Norrington at the outset of the Curse of the Black Pearl, as he tells the too-young Elizabeth Swann on the way into Port Royal, Jamaica, that what pirates deserve is “a short drop and a sudden stop”—and he intends to make sure they get precisely that.
Part of what makes the first Pirates film so interesting in terms of thinking about piracy, though, is the fact that it portrays two different types or ideas of pirates. The binocular vision the movie turns on piratehood means that it can effectively pit a more real-world conception of what it means to be a pirate against the more romantic, fictional ideal, dramatizing in the form of Sparrow’s reactions of disgust at Barbossa’s and his crew’s transmogrification-by-curse the visceral disconnect between the two notions. When Captain Barbossa explains to Elizabeth Swann aboard the Black Pearl that the curse of the Aztec gold means that he and his crew have been literally consumed by their own greed (“Compelled by greed, we were, but now we are consumed by it”), he’s providing a de facto description of the central dilemma at the heart of real-world piracy: unbridled greed and lust for wealth and power, a lust and greed sufficient to impel its experiencer to prey on the innocent and attempt to use anyone for gain, treating them however he sees fit and discarding them just as quickly, sinking in the process to a standard of maltreatment sufficient for the ancient Greek notion of hubris in the legal sense of physical abuse and outrage with no fear for reprisal and for philosopher Aaron James’ theory of what makes an “asshole,” namely a feeling of absolute entitlement to mistreat others and remain completely immune to their aggrieved cries for redress.
Real-life pirates become parasites on society because society itself becomes parasitic, chewing up and spitting out the less fortunate, less unified, less able to defend themselves in a zero-sum game. One other key shift in human societies that accompanied the Neolithic Revolution and move to agriculture, animal husbandry, and living in large, stratified societies sometime between 10,000 and 7,000 or so years ago, was a rise in specialization in terms of occupation and station in life. This specialization spread over long periods of time in individuals’ lives, requiring longitudinal commitment to training and practice-cum-endurance of single professions. If, as Aaron James maintains, assholes feel some kind of license to treat others outrageously, this idea of occupational specialization and class stratification provides a uniquely powerful tool for building up and justifying precisely such license. To the degree that some occupations and social stations receive special sanction and recognition within society, those who occupy them feel greater personal license of conduct toward others and less fear of reverse dominance behavior, where the oppressed rise up in concert against their oppressor. In general, the power of reverse dominance hierarchies was lessened or even outright broken once humans began living in settled, stratified societies instead of their much older, smaller, and more egalitarian foraging bands. No longer was the problem of assholes rising to prominence and lording it over others’ wills and bodies confined to individuals; now whole classes and institutions were turning asshole.
Pirates of the real-world sort, then, represent the logical outcome of social license wedded to self-interest within an environment where economic opportunity is unfairly one-sided and reverse dominance is simply not possible through socially approved means. The rich and powerful take what they want, trampling those at the margins, who themselves turn rogue if they can, whether from a need to satisfy the greed of overlords without themselves being wholly consumed or for the pleasure of being able to take potshots at the very society that has become, in essence, an institutional asshole in James’ sense. During the eighteenth-century Golden Age of piracy in the Caribbean, one frustrated, financially and physically abused sailor who turned pirate described this very situation as his own:
“Resentment and the want of employ were certainly the motives to a course of life which I am of [the] opinion that most or many of them would not have taken up had they been redressed or could by any lawful means have supported themselves.”
And that all sounds pretty reasonable and good, actually—the turning-pirate stuff, that is! The problem is that so many of these real-world pirates really harbor no true desire for completely breaking free of and breaking up the cycle of assholery in which they and those less fortunate than they have been caught up. Rather, they seem pretty content that the grand machinery be left in place to grind on: they just don’t want to be grist for that mill. Instead, they desire to become millers themselves, hands on the levers of (op)pressure and pockets bulging from the profits. Thus, Somali “pirate king” Garaad touts that he neither knows nor cares to know the names of the commercial vessels his army of pirate underlings seize and ransom. In his own words: “The only thing I care about is sending more pirates into the sea,” words spoken while dressed as any other Somali businessman—so says the reporter—and seated on a hotel restaurant patio on the outskirts of the city of Bosaso, well away from the hotbeds of pirate activity near cities like Eyl, Garaad’s former home, and Hobyo. It’s said that when Garaad took his third wife, the wedding procession included a whopping one hundred vehicles! Meanwhile, don’t forget that other “pirate kings” are allegedly just wealthy members of the Somali diaspora living peaceful, prosperous lives in places like Canada, home to some two hundred thousand Somalis. It’s surely no coincidence that Captain Barbossa in the later Pirates films comes to play the power-politician, organizing a G20-style summit of pirate lords and eventually himself working as a privateer for the king, basically a pirate with official legal sanction (at least from one European power). Actor Geoffrey Rush has described his role’s namesake as a “corporate CEO pirate” who concentrates most of his efforts on amassing personal wealth and power.
The Central Dichotomy of Satanism (and Beyond)
The two types of pirates—or rather, perhaps, two different approaches to piracy—emblematized in the vying bands of the Curse of the Black Pearl film, actually also do a good job of providing a way to think about two competing conceptions of what the soul of Satanism is all about.
On the one hand, there are those Satanists of a more thoroughly self-professed “LaVeyan” character, who tend to take more to heart the Social Darwinian portions of The Satanic Bible. As irony would have it, that material is actually the least original of Papa Anton’s writing. Both Church of Satan (CoS) and former CoS thinkers have widely acknowledged that LaVey cribbed the most thoroughly Social Darwinian ideas in his book directly from Ragnar Redbeard and Ayn Rand. To see the full extent and specific locations of these bits of parroted Satanism, have a gander at the essays “‘The Book of Satan’ from the Satanic Bible” by Michael A. Aquino and “The Hidden Source of the Satanic Philosophy” by George C. Smith IIº, both contained in the “Underground edition” of The Satanic Bible openly available here. Whatever LaVey’s sources for it, Social Darwinism is, at any rate, a gross misunderstanding and misapplication of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. In his 1994 book The Moral Animal, author Robert Wright called it aptly “a spasm of malicious confusion” and an example of “political misuses of Darwinism.” So those for whom Satanism is primarily about personal power with which to make better against would-be opponents in a winner-take-all world that is, in Tennyson’s memorable phrase, “red in tooth and claw” don’t actually end up being terribly LaVeyan at all, if, by that phrase, you mean: honoring the original and radical contributions to world ideas made specifically by LaVey himself and not aped off others. Since LaVeyan is therefore a poor moniker for it, I’ll call this prevalent brand of Satanism “Help-Yourself Satanism,” humorously inverting the phrase “self-help” to invoke the very worst of that particular fraught genre that tends to confuse brashness for bravery, solipsism for solicitude, self-involvement for introspection, libertinism for liberation, and the chrism of privilege for natural charisma.
I don’t think folks who hold to this variety of Satanism are necessarily bad people; they often gravitate toward Satanic philosophy for very good reasons: because it aids them in overcoming real obstacles in their lives, gives them a confidence to believe in themselves, and the like. The problem is that they regard their own struggles as the only struggle, utterly unique and individual in the history of the world. The aloneness they feel in their plight helps them to construct a narrative of persecution around themselves, where they are Rand’s protagonist Howard Roark, bravely facing down evil collectivist critics who would besmirch their reputation and “fake news” tabloid mongers who would spread that contagion far and wide, even as those closest to them disappoint by failing to give themselves over wholly and unconditionally to the Roarkians’ skewed view of things. Not coincidentally, this is likely also the reason such individuals consistently—and often violently—reject suggestions that societal factors like institutional racism and social privilege play a role in individuals’ apparent success or failure: these folks’ self-constructed myth of the aloneness in their plight means that they see the world egophorically in terms of conscious, causal agents; their personal successes rise entirely on the backs of their own efforts, while their failures clearly stem from intentional bad actors maliciously working against them. They absolutely refuse to see themselves as contextualized or even contextualizable. In short, these people forget—to quote another memorable line from Robert Wright’s book—that “the human species is the human predicament.” In many ways, they are like the Biblical Cain, trying to escape notice for their ruthlessly selfish behavior by responding to those who would call them to account with the fateful question that is as awful in its irony as it is for its complete lack of self-awareness: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I liken Help-Yourself Satanists to Captain Barbossa’s vicious and mercenary band of pirates.
On the other hand, there are those Satanists who reject the Social Darwinian elements in The Satanic Bible and replace them with the considerable insights that have arisen in the last fifty or so years from psychology, anthropology, and cognitive science, all of which clearly point to the conclusion that humans are pre-wired for sociability and that our evolutionary strength comes directly from shared ability to live and work closely together with other humans, utilizing empathy to help crowd-source intentionality and smooth out conflicts when they arise. Satanists of this ilk also value Satanism for its strong emphasis on personal empowerment, but they tend to situate their own personal struggles within a larger history of human struggle, as well as with on-going, contemporary resistances to whatever oppressive, patriarchal forces there may be. Satanists in this mold tend to see the Howard Roarks of the world through the lens of Robbie Gould in the 1987 romance Dirty Dancing: even as he hands Baby his dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead with copious notes in the margins, he’s fucked and forgotten the struggling dancer Penny and, though working as a waiter, is white, male, a student in Yale Medical School and therefore already lightyears ahead of either any woman or certainly all people of color on staff at the exclusive resort. Let’s not forget that, although Robbie may be, for the moment, “just” a waiter, he holds that post while working in an exclusive resort, where he merits personal introductions to young ladies and their wealthy families who are personal guests of the resort’s owner! I’m sure Robbie was working very hard to help put himself through school, but again: his own struggles have context; you—and Robbie—ignore that fact at your peril. There’s a reason young Master Gould got introduced to Baby’s family rather than, say, Johnny Castle, dismissively referred to early on in the film as “the entertainment.” When we see Robbie in actual operation in his rarified world, we get the clear impression that he’s not rising on the shoulders of giants in his upward climb so much as keeping all the little people securely beneath his boot-heel, or so he hoped and imagined.
The second type of Satanist is more the rebellious dance instructor Johnny Castle: though somewhat angry and more-or-less permanently on the outs of the rules of polite society, he lives by a personal code that extends beyond the ambit of just his own desires. He wants—and is willing to take—but also believes in giving to those with more need than he. Because this type of Satanist believes in helping themselves as a preparatory shoring up of strength and fortitude before aiding others to do the same, in naming them I’ll invoke a common image from the preflight advisements on airplanes, where we’re told that, in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, we’re to secure our own oxygen mask before turning to help others. For Oxygen-Mask Satanists (O2 Satanists for short) surely intend to use their inner strength and fortitude as Satanists to help others, especially those who, like themselves, are situated on, or even beyond, the periphery of society. A chief concern of these Satanists is working to ensure that everyone can have equal opportunity to breathe free, whether or not they fit into some mold or other or with some group or other. I liken O2 Satanists to Captain Sparrow’s merry and misfit band of pirates.
Circling Back Around
In marking this dichotomy among both pirates and, now, Satanists, we have come back around to the larger conceptual divide between those humans whose moral circle of care and concern is narrow, possibly encompassing only themselves or those so like themselves as to be indistinguishable (parochial group as self), and those whose circle spans a greater diameter and ampler circumference. In pirate terms, there are those for whom freedom from oppression is a proximal concern only and those whose love of the free ocean air stands as a universal principle. These variant conceptions of the goal of human life and the role of other human beings in constructing a personally fulfilling life have clear implications for how these two groups view the concept of power and the proper exercise of power in the world.
As irony would have it, these two piratic/Satanic bands—the one with a tighter moral compass, the other with a much broader one—hold ideas about the nature and exercise of power that are inversely proportional to the sizes and inclusivity of their respective circles of moral concern. Both groups take power as a cover term for control, but the group with the widest circle of moral concern generally holds to an ideal of power as ultimate and uncontested control over self alone, while the group with the narrowest moral concern holds to an ideal of power as permanently and inextricably transactional: control must be exercised over some other. To put it in linguistic terms—‘cause that’s what I do—for the wide-circlers, power is like a one-place predicate, an intransitive verb: you’re either empowered or you’re not, and it’s all about how you feel both within yourself and as a member of a society that can recognize or deny your personal empowerment. The narrow-circlers, however, treat power principally as a two-place predicate, a transitive verb: you have to have power with respect to (and over) another party, and to talk about power without dominance is meaningless. In this difference, for all their antipathy to more normative society, these two groups of pirates and Satanists actually reflect a larger societal tension between groups of people with moral circles of differing size and divergent conceptions of what it means to be empowered and to exercise power.
The gulf that separates different human groups in terms of their respective circles of moral concern and conceptualizations of power forms a chief reason why their members in the larger society so often misunderstand each other’s statements regarding group identity and empowerment. A recent video by YouTube Philosopher Contrapoints about famous-for-now public intellectual Jordan Peterson quotes the popular psychologist as opining as follows about certain, largely left-leaning, political agendas:
“They use all this compassion language, and I’m on the side of the oppressed, all of that posturing. It does nothing but mask the underlying drive to power. And I’ve just been starting to review their curriculum for children from kindergarten to grade eight. It’s pure social justice postmodernism. The people who hold this doctrine, this radical postmodern communitarian doctrine that makes racial identity or sexual identity or gender identity or some kind of group identity paramount, they’ve got control over most low-to-mid level beaurocratic structures, and…and…and many governments as well.” (emphasis added)
Notice that, here, Peterson confuses a broader circle of ethical and moral concern with collectivism and the drive for personal empowerment (accomplished by deconstructing and destroying systemic racisms and regimes based on sexual or gender identity) with a putative, nefarious “drive to power” by indoctrinating the youth. More thoroughly groupish thinkers indulge this baseless fear because it actually reflects how they themselves conceive of and hope to wield power, as well as how they subjugate individual concern and identity to group concern and identity (“…doctrine that makes racial identity or sexual identity or gender identity or some kind of group identity paramount”). In his quote, Peterson shows that he’s most responding to a boogeyman of his own manufacture and reveals his own lack of understanding of the difference in moral bases between different groups of thinkers. What he most fears is a group that functions, from the standpoint of moral fundamentals, just like his own, only with a different orientation.
I think Peterson, along with many of his critics and commentators, also mistake his dichotomizing for pertaining principally to the cultural divide between the generalized political left, or liberals, and the political right, or conservatives. What his remarks actually reveal, though, is the divide between more thoroughly groupish and less groupish thinkers and groups. And this is a distinction that cuts across the left-right and liberal-conservative divides.
When Group Interests Supersede Self-Interest
While I was attending a graduate school of linguistics in the autumn of 2011 and taking a required anthropology course, a moment of controversy broke out when the textbook for the class in one instance made the point that working-class Americans from small towns and rural areas have, for decades, been making political decisions through “values-voting” that go against their own best economic interests.
“…[M]any working-class people today are voting for cultural (i.e. non-economic) values, such as opposing abortion, gay marriage, big government, arrogant liberal elites, affirmative action, embryonic stem cell research, pornography, politically correct college professors, and Darwinian evolution. They seem to spend their emotional and political capital on fighting to keep monuments of the Ten Commandments in public spaces while failing to notice that (a) they are working longer hours for less money, (b) their jobs are being exported abroad, (c) health insurance is becoming less affordable, (d) their pension funds are being laid waste by corporate malfeasance, (e) the environment is being degraded, (f) their children’s future is being mortgaged, (g) energy costs are rising rapidly, and (h) the rich are getting richer while they are struggling to pay the rent.”
As the graduate school in question is primarily a training facility for Christian missionaries who wish to dedicate themselves to the task of Bible translation and so-called “church-planting” in far-flung areas of the developing world, this particular class skewed far more politically conservative than your average college or university group. And that went for the prof as well as the student body, myself excepted. Our instructor took the time to highlight this passage to the class and use it as a jumping off point for a discussion of liberal bias in academia. I, on the other hand, recognized the quote as expressing an important and, to me, baffling truth of modern American politics.
The simple fact is: individuals of all political stripes at times promote their parochial group interests over their own self-interests. Those with stronger group identifications tend to do so more frequently and more thoroughly. If, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, American political conservatives have moral sensibilities that privilege Richard Shweder’s “ethic of community” and “ethic of divinity” over the “ethic of autonomy,” then one would naturally expect them to more frequently and thoroughly subjugate their own personal interests to those of their group, that of fellow political and religious conservatives. It is as a result of this alleged tighter groupishness on the right that Haidt argues that American conservatives have tended to dominate both politically and culturally. Indeed when commentators note with perplexity the support provided to conservative right-wing politicians and political causes by women, people of color (especially, in the current political climate, Latinos), and LGTBQ people, they are precisely concerned with situations of apparent subjugation of individual interest to group interest that seem to require special explanation, at least from the point of view of those on the outside of tight-knit conservative groups.
But of course, those on the left of the political spectrum also often prove every bit as groupish as those on the right, and likewise tend to indulge heavily in ethics of divinity and community, declaring limits of approved and disapproved speech and ideology, while holding certain icons above reproach or even, at times, critical evaluation. This is precisely what enables conservative thinkers like Haidt to question how supporters of the political left would react to desecrations of images of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the like, suggesting that they would be just as incensed as right-leaning conservative Christians tend to be when liberal artists’ desecrate their religious symbols and icons. In the context of Haidt’s (and Peterson’s) concern, one naturally thinks of radical leftist university activists, militantly demanding allegiance and obedience in thought, word, and dead to their own sacred conceptions of what constitutes the antithesis of the racism, sexism, genderism, and so forth that they see and wish to counter in popular society. Such leftist groupists actually share with their far-right, community-divinity confrères and consœurs both a narrow circle of moral and ethical concern and a fully transactional view of power; they just want present power structures to be inverted. It is to fear of this groupish far-left that Peterson appeals in much of his rhetoric.
Yet, as my pirate/Satanist dichotomy posited above was designed to demonstrate, there is a whole swath of more “liberal” thinkers, myself included, who don’t particularly indulge such groupishness at all, who indeed oppose it rather wholeheartedly. Such individuals tend to jettison Haidt’s loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation “moral foundations” in favor of just the liberty/oppression, care/harm, and fairness/cheating foundations. As such thinkers’ moral “tastes,” to borrow Haidt’s gastronomic metaphor, constrict from the posited universal six to just the three, their moral circles widen and begin to embrace diversity and inclusion with maximum personal autonomy. As a result, they tend to abandon the very concept of groupishness altogether, at least as it has traditionally and historically been conceived.
More parochial groupish left- and right-leaning thinkers, meanwhile, favor loyalty, authority, holiness, and hierarchy, so long as they derive their value from right sources: the respective groups’ own. Such groups place strong emphasis and value on their own knowledge communities and tend to eagerly and severely punish those who stray from the bounds approved by tradition and authority. Traditional liberal democratic government and popular culture that has seemed to many in recent decades to seek to maximize the liberty/oppression, care/harm, and fairness/cheating foundations while minimizing the loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation foundations is therefore always viewed as competing with parochial interest and as a threat to the value system. Both the far-right and the far-left tend to converge in their shared interest in opposing such government and popular culture, violently if need be, even indulging talk of overthrow and secession. By contrast, where the Jack-Sparrow-Pirate or O2 Satanist comes to oppose popular government is solely when it teeters in the hands of more committed groupists from either political pole toward fascist-like control and crushing of dissent or when it becomes merely a tool of elite economic interests in the manner of neoliberalism, leaving vast swaths of humanity with less market, social, and political capital out of consideration or, in the language of Aaron James, no longer viewed as “morally real.”
So it turns out I’ve talked about differences in modern, Western human populations that go well beyond the original pirate/Satanist dichotomy I began with. The pirate/Satanist discussion, though, I think casts into specific relief a problem with the thinking of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has theorized that “conservatives” and “liberals” differ in the number of moral foundations they value and in the complexity and richness of their “moral tastes.” I think, actually, that all six of Haidt’s moral foundations characterize many on both the farther left and the right of the political spectrum, and thus cut across the conservative/liberal dichotomy. Indeed, within these groupish groups, the three moral foundations Haidt characterizes as loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation tend to take precedence over all other areas of moral concern, including individual autonomy and personal liberty.
Meanwhile, those WEIRD folks who, like Captain Sparrow’s band of pirates and O2 Satanists, have winnowed the possible bases for moral concern down from Haidt’s posited six foundations to just the three of liberty/oppression, care/harm, and fairness/cheating care almost not at all for transgressions of authority or sanctity and value loyalty principally as an interpersonal concern and not a necessary duty to any particular institution, government, or other collective body, nor even to an abstract ideal. Pirates in general have a similarly asocial view of the loyalty/betrayal moral foundation, as dramatized in Curse of the Black Pearl by the persistent reminders that the pirate code is merely a set of “guidelines” or “suggestions.” Part of what separates Barbossa’s pirates (and the Help-Yourself Satanists I’ve argued they could be taken for representing) from Sparrow’s Pirates (and the O2 Satanists they represent) is that the former view loyalty as personal only to oneself, taking precedence over any concern for liberty/oppression, care/harm, and fairness/cheating, while the latter view loyalty as an interpersonal concern arising principally from the desire to satisfy and honor the liberty/oppression, care/harm, and fairness/cheating moral foundations. For these two fairly antisocial groups that have turned their back, at least in part, on the more staunchly groupish and parochial larger society, loyalty is not paid to abstract ideals or to institutions or collectives. That is, pirates and Satanists in general, of whatever persuasion, share the trait of being emancipated from concern over externalized sources of value: they find value in their own personal empowerment and in the personal freedom and autonomy of the individual. It’s just that some pirates and Satanists stray but little from the normative societal concern for groupishness, while others take their anti-groupish sentiments and actions much, much farther.
The question, then, in cases of inter-pirate and inter-Satanist group conflict is not: which group will prove more powerful and prevail. Rather, the important question for both groups is: is a group so formed in opposition to larger, more groupish society necessarily a weak group, or at least necessarily weaker than other, more unified, less individualistic ones? Could we, in our squabbles with one another as pirates, actually miss the larger point that the more thoroughly groupish left and right might threaten our little a- or anti-social enclave altogether?
According to the oft repeated truism, humans lived as hunter-gatherers for 99% of our common cultural evolution on this planet. With the Neolithic Revolution and advent of agriculture, however, came the first larger-scale, stratified societies and, with those, village and even urban development, lasting art and architecture, and regular militias or even standing militaries. These technical and cultural innovations spread rapidly around the areas where the societies that made them first arose, steadily eclipsing neighboring foraging populations that remained less unified and less technically accomplished, to the point where, in the modern world, only a handful of hunter-gatherer groups have managed to make it to the present day, and none of them has remained wholly unscathed, completely untouched by the predominant, settled, agricultural and animal-husbandry-based way of life humans began adopting and refining almost ten millennia ago.
The loose civilization of the Pirate Republic centered on the Bahamas during the heyday of the real-life pirates of the Caribbean operated under a haphazard “code of conduct.” On board their vessels, pirate governance outside of times of battle was usually rather democratic and egalitarian, with most all the non-enslaved crew having a say in the choice of endeavors, and a fair share in the spoils too. As a result of the more even-handed treatment and pay pirates netted, the real-life pirates of the Caribbean enjoyed significant success in attracting defectors from both the merchant and navy vessels they hijacked, on which mariners often endured slave-like conditions themselves, being constantly cheated of their pay by corporate overlords and forced into involuntary service by naval pressgangs, often without so much as being given a chance to come ashore from one voyage to the next. Despite its meteoric rise and spectacular success in disrupting European and North American shipping, though, the Bahamian Pirate Republic proved short-lived. Offers of pardon from the King of England played on piratic self-interest and ended up fracturing the nascent pirate state even more than internal egoic contests already had. When the newly appointed English governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, arrived in Nassau in the summer of 1718, he found the walls of the Fort crumbling and a thick layer of vegetation that the pirates had allowed to grow unimpeded swallowing buildings, yards, and fields alike. In short, the Pirate Republic of the Bahamas showed signs of internal decay on many fronts simultaneously through lack of concerted, unified effort. The more tightly controlled and regimented English state proved victorious over them in the end.
How will today’s Satanists fare, squabbling amongst themselves as they are, when faced with the regimented theocratic right and the thought-&-speech policing far left alike? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, though: while inter-Satanic conflict is inevitable given the psychology and morality of Satanists, there is also common cause to be had for those wise enough and self-disciplined enough to see it and use it as a foundation to build a stronger resistance. Who will be able to make that move? Who will dare do it? Only time will tell.