Being brothers, were, as long as they lived, in discord with another. Herodotus
Once again, I must give thanks to my public library for exposing me to quality books that had it not been for them, I never would have encountered. Russell Jacoby’s recently published book Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present, is a sweeping and readable exploration of the origins of fratricidal violence. From Cain and Abel to Sunni versus Shia, Jacoby’s book looks at humankind’s age-old proclivity for murdering not the stranger, but the one closest to you.
Jacoby, a professor of history at UCLA and author of The Last Intellectuals challenges the classic assumption that we kill, whether it’s genocide, ethnic cleansing, assassination or homicide, not the stranger or the “other” but those, relatively speaking, who are our neighbors, kin and near co-religionists. Starting in antiquity with the Bible’s Cain and Abel and ancient Rome’s Romulus and Remus, according to Jacoby the Human race has reserved its most violent blood-letting for those seen as being just different enough from us to arouse our passionate rivalry and deep-seated mistrust.
Although I thought Jacoby’s book for the most part is compelling and well-written, I did come away from Bloodlust with a few misgivings. Regrettably, in the later part of the book Jacoby departs from his historical approach and instead opts to spend time engaging in Freudian and other questionable psycho-sexual analyses on the origins of violent hatred. Overall however, his command of history, both ancient and modern, as well as the Bible and western mythology I found quite impressive and helped bolster his arguments quite effectively.
On the minus side, just as some accuse Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond of cherry picking facts and figures in order to support their arguments, I fear Jacoby, despite being an academically trained historian, is also a bit selective when choosing the historical and literary information he presents in order to support his claims. One could also question his skills as a historian, most evident by Jacoby’s assertions that religious differences between groups such as French Catholics and Huguenots were negligible, while failing to account that he is making such a judgement within the confines of our comfortable contemporary secular and somewhat post-Christian setting and not that of the conflicts’ original pre-Enlightenment social and political context.
Reading Bloodlust was a lot like reading one of those long op-ed pieces by a columnist you respect, but don’t always agree with. You enjoyed the writing, you respected the arguments and while you didn’t agree with everything the author said, in the end you probably learned more than a few things.