On the Notion of Sanity

Photography by: Nina Matthews

By: Azazel

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” – Friedrich Nietzsche


How would you react if a stranger approached you one day and told you that if you ate his flesh and drank his blood on a regular basis that you will find yourself in paradise after you die?  What about a random person telling you that he deserves to rule over you because he won a popularity contest?  Or what about some guy demanding that you obey him because he’s wearing a certain color shirt and a piece of metal that you are to respect – and that failure to comply will result in your person being locked in a cage or gunned down if you try to resist him?  I’ll bet that more than likely you would dismiss such persons as being insane.

Yet such ideas are quite common in modern society – if not central to its functionality!  If you convince people that symbolically cannibalizing some guy who allegedly was the son of a deity you have yourself a religion with about two billion followers; if you convince people that the most popular guy in a given region is the most fit to rule you have a republican-style government; if you convince people that they should obey a guy who wears a piece of metal on his chest, and that this guy can shoot you for failure to comply, you have a “law” enforcement agent.  Such behaviors by individuals are considered lunacy, but when you have a large enough group doing the same thing it becomes only sensible to accept these actions as being legitimate!

Thus, by default, society is the arbiter of sanity – as a matter of practicality, whatever it approves of is rational and that which it doesn’t is madness.  And thus society reserves the “right” to judge the individual as sane or mad.

But, as Juvenal once said, “Who watches the Watchmen?”  If society is the de facto standard of sanity, then who or what is there is judge that society itself is sane?  If society is mad, then it is not fit to be the standard of sanity – but if society is the standard of sanity, then it can’t be insane, regardless of how utterly daft it becomes!

Needless to say, the default standard is a broken one at best – when one considers that we now live in a world where protest is “terrorism” (let alone the fact that people even *believe* in this concept – seriously, talking about “terrorism” like it actually exists is like full-grown adults talking about the monster under the bed…), incorporeal entities can steal your money (oops…“tax your wages”) and use the cash to kill people over 5,000 miles away (whom you have no qualms with, or are even acquainted with for that matter…) and considers the regular Joe with a rifle to be extremely dangerous yet doesn’t consider *a standing military* with access to everything from small arms all the way to nuclear weapons to be concerning in the least (hell, they’re “heroes” in the public eye!) any rational person can see that the world conclude that the world has gone mad.

I don’t know who first said it, but there’s a truism that says “When the world goes mad, only a lunatic is sane.”  If the society we live in has gone completely bonkers (and I have every reason to believe that’s just the case), then it’s up to the lunatics – those that society dismisses as crazy – to fashion a standard to measure the mental health of society (as those judge “sane” by the standards of a world are unfit for the task – assuming they recognize the *need* for the task to be completed at all…): as one of those people the social mainstream considers crazy I offer up this article as contribution towards the establishment of such a standard that the sovereign individual can use as a reference to determine social sanity.

So, here are the cues I propose one must look at…

Rationality of values

When looking at the values of any given society this should be your first criteria – just how compatible are the espoused values with reality?  Are they clearly defined?  Are they realistic in terms of one’s ability to live up to them?  Do they serve a functional purpose?  Any society that holds a value system that is transparent, attainable and functional has the foundation for socially healthy interactions between individuals.

Beware of societies that push unrealistic virtues – as the values espoused tend to trap those who hold them in a never-ending cycle of failure in attempting to live up to them, and when they do live up to them it’s often an arbitrarily imposed burden upon the individual that serves no function other than to frustrate him: for example I will use what is perhaps the most common unrealistic value pushed by any society – the value of righteousness.  The concept is defined in only the most vague terms (i.e. “do the right thing” – with the definition of “right” being a *huge* variable depending on what philosophical perspective is adopted), it’s compatibility with reality is questionable at best (since there are many interpretations of the concept of “right”) and people who try to live up to it wind up doing little more than frustrating themselves (if they ever give any serious thought about the nature of “right” and “wrong” themselves) or else become closed extremists for *their* own interpretation of such concepts.

I consider values such as this to be false values – the only function they serve is to keep people in line with the conventional wisdom (thus making them easier to control).  Any society that highly emphasizes such “values” can be rationally judged as insane by the sovereign individual.

Balance of values

Once one has determined what values are rational or not, the second category of social health is the balance of the espoused values – each value by itself may serve a function, but certain values may be over or underemphasized and that can lead to problems: all values need to be kept in their proper context to function!

For example, most modern society’s claim to value such concepts as freedom (whether they live up to that or not is another question – but more on that later…) but also strive to hammer home the concept of loyalty to that society (often from the moment the child can talk he’s taught to recite pledges of loyalty he doesn’t have the *capacity* to understand – solely for the purpose of instilling loyalty to the establishment) – if a given society values freedom, why does it go out of its way to instill a love of itself and a distrust for rival societies?  Does it not trust “free” people to decide for themselves what kind of society they want to live in?  I’ll admit the need for loyalty *within* a given social unit, but to pledge allegiance directly to it is something of an extreme (and it’s even more extreme when it’s driven into young minds that don’t comprehend it!): assuming that this is unintentional, there is an imbalance of values here that must be corrected for sanity to be restored; if it is intentional, however we have a case of social hypocrisy (an altogether different matter – one that won’t be easily resolved because society does not *want* the imbalance corrected…).

Consistency of values

Finally, one must look and see just how the espoused values of society function in practice – this is where the proverbial rubber meets the road, as all values function only as well as they are consistently applied.

For example, Western society continues to harp on the notion of equality for all but never follows the concept through to its logical conclusion – and this inconsistency appears in both the political philosophies of those who identify as being “right” or “left.”

The inconsistency of the “right” is perhaps more obvious – particularly with the stance it adopts towards immigration (the subtext of which being that “native-born” persons are superior to the “immigrants” – the definitions of such terms being quite relative, of course…) or towards notions of reproductive freedom (that a potential person [not an actual person, but something that *might* live to become one in time] takes precedence over the lives of actual, living people), but one can see this in the “left” as well if one takes the political implications of their worldview to its logical conclusion: as this would be the de facto result of policy for those seeking to limit/ban firearms (in practice, the common man would be robbed of the means to defend himself whilst the state and its agents retain full control of their own weapons – a perfect environment for genocide to happen…) or the use of the powers of state for “humanitarian” purposes (just look at what’s happening in Libya under “humanitarian” guises – whoever controls the monopoly on force gets to define such notions for its own benefit in practice).

In other words, with regards to the value of equality, both the “left” and the “right” apply the idea inconsistently with regard to their espousal of the value – which means both paradigms are socially sick and need to be discarded (as that’s the only cure for a sickness of that level).

In conclusion, I hope that this piece provides a little insight into the nature of social sanity and reveals that the individual is as qualified to diagnose the sanity of social order as said order is as qualified to diagnose him – that the entity that passes judgment can itself be judged…


5 Comments on “On the Notion of Sanity”

  1. Azazel,

    What a wonderfully written piece with so much truth! Kudos!

    I’m not sure that society in general is the arbiter of sanity, though. Is it sanity to accept such mediocrity that 1% of a nation dictate rules for the other 99%? Is it sanity to accept that one culture mandates their preferences for all of the other cultures, when the sum of their culture is much less than the total of all the others? is it sanity that one gender feels entitled to inflict their controls, moray, laws and values onto another gender, when they only equal 50% of the nation?

    I agree with you about the veiled used of the word, “terrorism” today. What we’ve used it for is so far from what the word means; yet we classify things like an insult towards another person as a “terrorist threat” if they meet a protected class of people. However, if that protected class feels inspired to hurl insults to others, that’s okay. Hypocrisy! It is not terrorism to insult another person. It is gauche, rude, any number of things that qualify as bad behavior; but to take this all the way to “terrorism” is insanity.


  2. @ Jen,

    The notion that society is the arbiter of sanity is the accepted conventional wisdom – largely because what people consider to be normal/abnormal is derived from the group that surrounds him: actions that conforms to the accepted norms are considered “sane” whilst those that don’t are not.

    Of couse, this definition hinges upon what people perceive as acceptable or not – meaning that it’s also quite fluid (and thus meaningless apart from social context), as it can be molded and shaped by the opinion setters of society: over time, ideas that were once considered rdiculous may become accepted unquestioned truth and vice versa – and this is where one has the intellectual justification for questioning the sanity of the entity that defines the concept for the rest of us (and thus this is a topic that authority would prefer to obfuscate [or ignore altogether] that discuss openly – to even suggest that society may not be sane poses a threat to power…).

  3. Our society has self-destructive, suicidal tendencies. By the most liberal definitions of norm and abnormal, this would be considered insane. Our society willfully chooses and complies with laws that are sadistic and harm their own well-being. This could hardly be considered sane, either. Instant gratification and a mentality to win at all costs is consistent with megalomania. I agree, you wrote a great article, Azazel and it would be very difficult to find an oppositional debate to it.

  4. And what does the “sane” person in the room do when the rest of the company has gone “mad”?

    I guess that depends on the person doesn’t it? Some will seek to help, others will exit and others will succumb to madness themselves.

  5. @ Grainne,

    “And what does the “sane” person in the room do when the rest of the company has gone “mad”?”

    I’d say that the last sane man has two options – get the hell out of the madhouse ASAP or else find a way to destroy the source of the insanity…

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