Darkness is a pervasive theme in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. The play opens with three witches one of whom says ominously, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
The protagonists are Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth both of whom are described as ‘children of darkness’ by the Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley. It is worth quoting Bradley in some detail.
“These two characters are fired by one and the same passion of ambition; and to a considerable extent they are alike. The disposition of each is high, proud, and commanding. They are born to rule, if not to reign. They are peremptory or contemptuous to their inferiors. They are not children of light, like Brutus and Hamlet; they are of the world. We observe in them no love of country, and no interest in the welfare of anyone outside their family. Their habitual thoughts and aims are ... all of station and power.”
Ambition in itself is a good thing. But when ambition is coupled with the characteristics highlighted in the quote above, it paves the way to darkness.
Psychologist Karen Horney (1885-1952) listed ten sources of inner conflicts which give rise to neurotic needs in people. One such source is ‘the neurotic need for power’. This need expresses itself in craving power for its own sake, in an essential disrespect for others, and in an indiscriminate glorification of strength and a contempt for weakness. People who are afraid to exert power openly may try to control others through intellectual exploitation and superiority. Another variety of the power drive is the need to believe in the omnipotence of will. Such people feel they can accomplish anything simply by exerting will power. [as summarised by C. S. Hall et al in Theories of Personality]
The similarity between Bradley’s (a literary critic) and Horney’s lists of characteristics of the power-hungry is striking.
We come across people who suffer from this “neurotic need” all too often in our surroundings, not just in politics. Horney’s solution for this problem is that the person should understand (or be made to understand) that his/her worth does not lie in sitting on a throne pretending or claiming to be a god/goddess. Psychologically healthy life lies in learning to live with other people on a kind of equal footing, accepting them as they are as well as accepting oneself without the facades of the inflated ego.
Horney, however, added that the neurotic is not flexible. Hence the change is not at all easy. In the words of the literary critic, that neuroticism is the “tragic flaw of the character.”
Not all neuroticism makes people children of darkness. The simple fact is that most of us possess certain degrees of neuroticism of one kind or another. The problem is when we start inflicting other people with the fallout of our neuroticism. It is then that we become the children of darkness and create a world where fair is foul and foul is fair.