Book Review: Facing the Dragon
Robert Moore’s Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity is an ambitious attempt to explain the psychology of evil. Why, the author wants to know, do well-intentioned people do horrible things?
His answer centers around the concept of grandiosity—a term that encapsulates both narcissism at the individual level, as well as tribalism at the intersocial level. This universal need to feel important is generally productive, Moore argues, but it is soon corrupted by the urge to create an "other," so we can feel more important by comparison. Even worse, the resulting sense of righteousness completely blinds us, allowing our worst instincts to surface unrestrained.
Moore goes on to explore the fraught relationship between grandiosity and religion, which roots his ideas in history, and results in some strange but powerful advice for regulating our grandiosity in a post-secular world.
The result is not so much a comprehensive theory as a psychoactive half-truth, an overbelief that, once adopted, can help us make sense of behavior which otherwise appears senseless.
To quote Moore:
That is my argument. Whether you agree with it or not, I just ask you to follow it.
A Personal Aside
Motivate me to keep writing:
First, some preliminaries. This book is difficult to approach.
Moore does not corral his argument into a linear set of syllogisms; instead he dances around the subject, showing it from different angles. The reader is left with a strong impression of Moore’s vision, but might struggle to articulate it without doing the same long-winded dance. Anyone who has read a Douglas Hofstadter book knows this feeling.
The chapters are cobbled together from a series of lectures delivered to different audiences at different times, so the material often overlaps, and audience interjections steer the discussion off course. Each chapter is annotated with citations of peer-reviewed research, but the book is light on data, and Moore frequently makes off-the-cuff statements next to which I’ve scrawled "citation needed" in the margins of my copy.
Moore’s double life, as a professor of both Psychology and Religious Studies, leaves this book with a target audience of approximately zero. He faces the same conundrum that William James laments in his introductory lecture of The Varieties of Religious Experience: intellectuals will find it too unscientific, while the religious will find it too sterile.
The intellectual crowd will be turned off by Moore’s obvious distaste for what he calls “modern ‘flatland’ secular culture”. While Moore makes it clear he is not advocating for an atavistic return to tribal religion, he insists that “religious technology” is necessary for our salvation, and regularly talks about practices like meditation, ritual, and prayer (though his definitions of these things are rather loose—one anecdote has him talking to a bunch of conservative Christians about “masturbation as prayer”). He also leans heavily on the big names in psychoanalysis—Freud, Jung, Adler, Kohut—which have generally fallen out of vogue with mainstream psychology (and this blog).
Conversely, the spiritually inclined may be disappointed that Moore refuses to make any metaphysical assertions, or to advocate for any single form of spirituality. In fact, to the degree that they believe their particular religion is in any way special, they will find his theories deeply unnerving. He specifically calls out the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as being “particularly tempted toward literalizing and acting out their sense of special election in violent ways.”
But most of all, Facing the Dragon is hard to read because it insists that you become deeply conscious of your worst qualities. According to Moore, a person’s proverbial dragon is an antimeme tailored exclusively for their own mind. It’s easy for us to see the arrogance, bitterness, and narcissism of others, but unless we deliberately and repeatedly turn the mirror back on ourselves, we are blind to our own.
We love to tell everyone else to slay their monsters. Whatever my race is, I love to urge you to slay your race’s monsters. Whatever my religion is, I love to tell you to slay your religion’s monsters, but I don’t necessarily want to slay mine. Whatever my gender is, I want the other gender to slay its monsters, even though I resist facing the monsters in mine. That is how it works.
When I read the above passage, I found myself nodding fervently. “Yes, people are always telling me to slay my dragons, completely unaware of their own!” And then I realized I was doing exactly that, and had a brief epistemic crisis.
The entire book is like that.
Facing the Dragon begins with a discussion of Evil. (I capitalize Evil here to emphasize how strongly Moore reifies Evil and sees it as an active, willful force in the world.) Evil appears to be Moore’s chief concern, the rest of his theory a means for understanding its dynamics.
He begins by enumerating no less than ten qualities of Evil, distilled from a comparative study of story and mythology, citing everything from the Bible to vampires to John Carpenter movies. Here's a consolidated summary:
“Evil is a reality with an agency of its own.” (This is the hardest point to accept, as it seems equivalent to saying “the Devil is real.” Thinking about Evil as a self-replicating meme will probably suffice, but I think Moore means something much stronger and scarier and harder to justify.)
Evil lies. It cloaks itself in justification, disguises itself as innocence. Evil tricks you into thinking it is Good.
Evil is infectious. It is already “inside the house.” It can possess you before you even suspect it’s around.
Evil co-opts healthy, creative human energy to serve its own destructive ends.
Evil is insatiable. It denies the realities of death and human limitation.
Moore's ambitious attempt to distill Evil's core attributes would be enough to make Joseph Campbell blush. But despite the obviously subjective basis for this list, I find it appealing, and it coheres nicely with my intuitive notion of Evil. I like that it focuses less on specific human behaviors, and more on the general tactics Evil uses to survive, grow, and propagate.
Moore also highlights two mistakes he wants to us avoid when discussing Evil:
First, we must avoid the New Age tendency to deny the reality and power of evil. This widespread “flight into the light” is particularly tempting today, because it requires so little in the way of either reflection or action. It enables continued denial of the seriousness of the situation, and denial of how we as individuals participate in our own destruction and the destruction of our communities and planet.
Second, we must avoid the historically popular tendency to find a human “other” to serve as a scapegoat for the explanation of the impact of evil in our lives, one who…if they are imprisoned, tortured, burned, bombed, and so forth, can be used as ritual sacrificial victims to give us a bogus sense of mastery over our desperate situation…Racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and other misguided tribalisms have majored in this seductive but demonic attempt to locate and suppress or destroy the “toxins” that afflict us.
In short: Evil is real, and it’s your problem.
Within Moore’s mythology of Evil, there is a neutral instinct, more fundamental than Evil, which lives inside every human. Moore personifies it as the Great Self Within; he glosses it with Freud’s Id and Superego, Jung’s Archetypal Self, Adler’s Superiority Complex, and Kohut’s Grandiose Self. It’s what MLK called the Drum Major Instinct—a basic need to feel important.
This instinct—which we will call grandiosity—is not inherently bad. It's what drives art, industry, social progress, really any endeavor that requires faith in our own abilities. But, Moore argues (in general agreement with everyone else above), if left unconscious and unregulated, this instinct becomes corrupted, and causes us to act out destructively. Moore describes his Dragon as a two-faced entity: on one side, the Eastern symbol of strength and luck; and on the other, the dangerous gold-hoarding monster of Western myth.
The dragon guards the treasures of life. Those who avoid it find their lives drained of energy and creativity. Those who encounter it without conscious intention and good will must know its terrible, horrific face.
The dark aspect arises from the fact that grandiosity is an inherently “otherizing” function, where "people try to maintain their sense of significance, specialness, and goodness by excluding other people." The grandiose instinct creates a strong distinction between Good and Bad/Evil, with you squarely on the side of Good.
This tendency to create a vision of the “other” that depreciates it and legitimates murder, and even genocide, is a widespread phenomenon[.] …we lose touch with any sense of their humanity, and therefore lose touch with any sense of limits on our responses or reactions...It may even go so far as to ascribe nonhuman languages or nonhuman essences to them. So you can insert the name of the religion that you prefer to hate when you say “the so-and-so swine”…
[Erik Erikson] called this problem the tendency to pseudo-speciate by which he meant falsely creating a new species category to account for the existence of those people you hate and no longer want to treat as human beings.
Moore is dealing with extremes here, but we see this same idea play out every day. Terms like "sheeple" or "vulture capitalist" or "NPC" are used to signal ingroup status by dehumanizing an outgroup. In fact, a key assumption of Moore’s theory is that everyone struggles with grandiosity:
Narcissistic pathology is more like sin, a condition common to all. Spiritually speaking, you don’t ask, “Am I a sinner?” You ask “How am I a sinner?” So psychologically speaking, you shouldn’t ask “Am I carrying narcissistic pathology?” You should ask, “Where is my narcissistic pathology? How am I acting it out? Where is my continuing residual unconscious, unregulated, grandiosity possessing me and destroying my relationships?”
Since reading Moore’s book, I’ve started to think about grandiosity less in terms of phenomenology, i.e. “what makes me feel important?”, and more in terms of trapped priors: “what beliefs do I have with probability set to 1.0?” Every grandiose instinct seems to be paired with an over-strong prior, though the inverse doesn't seem to hold (e.g. phobias). So we could generalize Moore’s assumption by saying “everyone has over-confident priors,” which is almost definitely true. (I could even imagine fixed priors being necessary for bootstrapping certain types of intelligence—something has to be assumed, or you have no ontological/epistemic foundation to build on.)
According to Moore, there are three strategies for dealing with those grandiose instincts (which again, you definitely have):
Absorb them— P(I have all the answers) = 1.0. Inflate your ego and become a narcissist. If you’re reasonably talented this might actually work, at least until someone or something challenges your self-image, at which point you will likely fly into a rage, sink into depression, or become psychotic. This is the most dangerous option.
Project them onto someone else— P(My guru has all the answers) = 1.0. Maybe it’s your spouse, your boss, or a religious leader. Treat them like a god, hang onto their every word, do whatever they ask. This too will work for a time, until they betray you, or do something that shatters your godlike image of them.
Project them onto your tribe— P(My religion has all the answers) = 1.0. This could be your country, a religion, a philosophy, a political movement, whatever. The more abstract the better—it’s easy for the concept of Marxism/Christianity/Rationalism to retain its splendor regardless of what individual Marxists/Christians/Rationalists do. This is the safest bet for you personally, but it tends to result in “malignant tribalism,” where the group gets collectively inflated and does bad things.
I’m reasonably convinced that these three categories represent a complete partition of the possible answers to the question “How am I grandiose?” Maybe you could be grandiose about a physical object (e.g. a rosary, your Tesla) or an event (Doomsday, the Resurrection, the Singularity), but every example I can come up with is strongly associated with some corresponding tribe and/or charismatic leader.
I’m not entirely convinced that “abstract concept” and “tribe” belong in the same category. But it does seem like a reasonable assumption that if you’re a true believer in X, then you identify strongly with other people who also believe in X. I suppose you could hold some private concept of X-ism as your highest ideal, and insist that no one else truly understands X-ism, but then you’re probably adopting the narcissism strategy.
Assuming these are your only three options, you find yourself in quite a predicament: you can be an asshole, enter an abusive relationship, or participate in a potentially malignant tribe mind. I agree with Moore that tribe mind is probably the best option.
Speaking of malignant tribe minds, we have not yet discussed how religion factors into Moore’s theory.
Moore sees the ability to pool our grandiosity towards collective action as an evolutionary adaptation. He implies (I’m editorializing a bit here) that it developed through the three progressively better strategies listed above: from the pre-social state (blind pursuit of self-interest), to the early god-kings (projection onto another person), to modern religions (projection onto the tribe).
At one time in human history, outstanding leaders carried the group’s grandiosity…Over time he gradually transformed into a sort of deputy or earthly aspect in service of the god…The container for grandiose energy gradually got larger and larger until the group itself, the tribe, became sacred[.]
This resulting tribalism worked well so long as tribes had limited contact with one another, but created serious problems as the world globalized:
Increased contact between people of different tribes, however, made conflict an increasingly important and problematic issue. Note, for example, how conflicting tribal mythologies fuel violence and terrorism in the Middle East.
This is where Evil starts to get a real foothold in the world. In a pre-globalized state, it was mostly exorcized through ritual and ceremony, and at its extremes would result in the ostracization or sacrifice of a few unfortunate humans. But increasing contact with others resulted in two mutually-reinforcing problems for the tribe: a growing doubt in the unique authority of their own religion, and a resulting need to enforce ideological purity through violence.
But Moore believes the reactionary push for secularization is a mistake—like Chesterton's fence, we shouldn't do away with religion until we fully understand its role in regulating our behavior. Progressing secularization since the Age of Enlightenment, rather than freeing us from the excesses of religious fanaticism, has drastically weakened this regulating function and allowed our grandiosity to run amok, leading to environmental destruction and industrialized warfare.
I find this idea surprising—religion seems like more of a potentiator for grandiosity than anything else. But if we accept Moore’s premise that everyone has to be grandiose about something (or that everyone has to have some fixed priors), it makes sense that society would evolve a default sink for that massive source of energy; that, for the sake of social coherence, it would attempt to fix everyone’s priors identically.
Moore deals candidly with this paradox, frequently citing examples of religious atrocities. But he seems to think that asking a question like “Why does religion tend to produce grandiose fanatics?” is like asking, “Why are firefighters more likely to die in fires?”
We can see that clergy of all faiths have very dangerous jobs…When the priest has a true talent for liturgy, what Victor Turner called “ritual genius,” archetypal transference will often occur. This is fine for the congregation, because it passes all its [grandiosity] over to the priest, but the priest now has to deal with [it], and this can tremendously overstimulate his own grandiose self-organization. He may feel enormous anxiety and go get himself a drink. That is why there are so many alcoholic and pedophile priests. They have to self-medicate to deal with the overstimulation coming from…the people.
And later (while arguing that the Pope should get married):
Think if you were the pope. It would be a real spiritual problem to deal with your grandiosity because everyone constantly dumps their idealizing projections onto you. It would be a tremendous problem. If you think the priest has a problem, the bishop has a greater problem, the archbishop an even worse one, and if you were trying to be the spiritual leader of all the millions of Roman Catholics in the world, think of carrying that archetypal burden. Think about going around the world and having 400,000 people gathered in front of you idealizing you while you do Mass. This man obviously has to be relatively healthy emotionally or he would become greatly disturbed.
So clergy have a huge emotional challenge. Just because you are ordained doesn’t mean that your shadow disappears. I deal with clergy all the time who have massive problems managing their own grandiosity. They tend to act out a lot. In fact, the phenomena of clergy acting out sexually, or in substance abuse, workaholism, or any other compulsive behavior, relate directly to the problem of managing their inner grandiosity.
Though initially skeptical, I find myself increasingly enticed by the idea that secularization has allowed our grandiosity to pour into new and strange places, like tech startups, political parties, social movements, and conspiracy theories. I don’t agree with Moore that this is wholly bad—there are plenty of beautiful secular things worthy of our grandiosity. It’s also not wholly new—people have always been grandiose about non-religious things.
But it can’t be a coincidence that the same person who declared “God is dead” also dreamed of a supreme “overman,” and that one of his admirers killed millions of civilians in a quest to establish a "master race." Because nothing is ever a coincidence.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him…What sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
To be clear, Moore is not asking us all to burn our textbooks and get baptized. Rather, he wants us to reclaim what he calls “religious technologies” in order to better cope with the Dragon-y forces that threaten to devour us.
We need creative ritualization…Ritual is a technology of dealing with this problem. We create ritual forms that help us be less destructive. The history of human ritualization is the history of people struggling to find ways to be less destructive.
In a later chapter, Moore lists out specific strategies we can adopt to help deal with our inflated secular egos, which I have consolidated here:
Pray. “This recommendation of prayer is perhaps my most radical,” Moore says. He cites four studies showing prayer to be an effective means of improving mental health. (I have not looked deeply into the quality of these studies, but each of the authors has sold at least one New Age book—an occupational hazard for any academic researching prayer. Higher quality studies have since been done, especially if you count meditation.)
Establish rituals. Moore believes ritual (religious or not) creates a stable foundation for a person’s psyche. He cites both the Catholic rosary and New Age crystals as helpful ritual objects: "Some mentally ill people have found that keeping a rosary in their pocket during the day helps restrain them from acting out destructively…They may reach into their pocket during a meeting and touch the rosary that has been blessed by some priest or nun with whom they feel a deep spiritual connection…Such practices help regulate and limit their chaotic tendencies."
Find community. “It is important…to have people who will remind you when you are getting a little crazy.” This also seems like very practical advice.
Pay attention to dreams. Like any good Jungian, Moore sees dream content as a lens into the deeper, antimemetic parts of the psyche. He includes both normal REM-induced dreams, as well as Active Imagination.
Make myths. Moore places deep importance on the ability of myth to carry otherwise ineffable social knowledge. “Why don’t people start writing their myths and sharing them with others?” He mentions science fiction, but seems to differentiate between myth and story in a way I find confusing. Perhaps he means something like the Dragon metaphor he’s created in this book. Unclear.
At the intersocial level, Moore’s hope is that we can use these tools to evolve a new strategy for dealing with our grandiosity: projection onto the human race. If we can manage to include all of humanity within the walls of our tribe, we might still have conflict, but that genocidal “let God sort 'em out” mentality would be cured (or at least reserved for aliens and cattle).
Moore warns us that this kind of broad social change will be painfully difficult, especially for those who instigate it:
Systems theorists claim that all social groups systematically resist all attempts to change them and their characteristic attitudes and behaviors. So when we try to challenge the grandiosity of our social group and bring its shadow into the light, we can expect that we will come under attack. The greater the challenge, the greater the attack.
A Personal Aside
I have a confession to make: when I first read Facing the Dragon several years ago, I was looking for answers.
While on LSD, I’d had what I now believe to be a classic Ego Death experience. But with no grounding in spirituality or the psychedelic community, I became wildly inflated, and spent over two years vacillating between near-psychotic mania, and—once the resulting behavior caught up to me—a deep, withering shame.
Michael Pollan describes this phenomenon well in an interview with Tyler Cowen:
You’ve had such a profound experience that you think you found a key to reality. You feel very special because you hold this key to reality. I think that’s a very dangerous thing…to come out of it with confidence that you’ve solved some riddle of the universe, that’s always a dangerous thing. And that does lead to dogmatism. It leads to the guru complex.
I knew something was wrong. I knew it vaguely had to do with religious experience, and definitely had to do with narcissism. When I came across a book subtitled Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity, I literally—literally—thought the universe was speaking to me.
And it helped. A lot. I can’t point to a specific line or paragraph or chapter, but once I was finished, I finally understood what I was going through and what I needed to do to get healthy. I’m happy to say that in the intervening years, both my mood and my behavior have stabilized greatly.
I came away with something else too: the answer to a question that had been nagging me for decades, but which I’d never quite been able to articulate.
It’s always been plain to me how individual people end up doing bad things—how lust might lead you to cheat on your spouse, or how rage might lead to murder. It also wasn’t hard for me to accept how broad social evils come about, e.g. how a tendency toward greed leads to poverty.
But I could never understand the grand collective evils, like German Nazism or American slavery or Catholic pedophilia. Many people, acting as a group, delivering unspeakable amounts of suffering to others. It made no sense.
I could accept the facts of what happened, but when I tried to imagine what it was like, especially for the Nazis and the slaveowners and the rapists, my mind would just stop. It was like trying to imagine what it’s like to be a bat. I assumed there must be some mental machinery the Nazis had which I simply lacked. And so I participated in that common fantasy: that had I been raised in early-20th-century Germany, I would have been one of the good ones who spoke out, or at least quietly objected.
After reading Facing the Dragon (and doing some difficult introspection), I get it. I can connect my own sense of grandiosity to what the Germans must have felt when they saw Hitler. I see how the mental forces at play in my own head today, without constant vigilance and clever safeguards, could be amplified until I found myself dutifully committing atrocities in the name of some Higher Good.
It terrifies me.
At this point, it will come as no surprise that I appreciate Facing the Dragon and its grandiose mythology of Evil, given the personal debt I owe it. But I hope I’ve been fair in my criticism as well—it is by no means a masterpiece.
Moore’s greatest accomplishment here is that he’s articulated a scale-invariant theory of evil. His notion of grandiosity—which covers everything from individual narcissism to group tribalism—is a particularly clear lens through which we can study the perennial question of why people do bad things.
Our story has a twist ending: in 2016, Moore and his wife were found dead, the result of an apparent murder-suicide (his niece disputes this). Moore had been suffering from vascular dementia, a disease that can cause confusion and aggression.
What impact does such a violent end have on Moore’s legacy? We could say it was a purely physiological event, with no bearing on Moore’s psychological maturity. But surely if anyone could handle themselves in the face of physiologically-induced rage, it would be someone who dedicated their life to studying the dynamics of evil. Or did Moore’s obsession with evil somehow catch up to him in a moment of weakness?
I genuinely worry about these questions. Moore’s book showed me a part of myself that I would have stubbornly avoided, and helped me make sense of humanity’s darkest moments. It lifted a veil I hadn’t fully known was there. But now I'm staring this dragon in the eyes, and I can't help but wonder what the fuck it's thinking.
Motivate me to keep writing:
Post Script: If you want to see how these ideas play out in a real world setting, I highly recommend Joe vs Elan School, a webcomic about the horrors of the troubled teen industry. It contains terrible evil, a villain with a god-complex, religious experience, even—I shit you not—a flying dragon.