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Kool-Aid, Hemlock and Confucius

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The drinking of two beverages -- sweet Kool-Aid and bitter hemlock, has portrayed suicide in Western culture, but with profound differences in the meaning of the act. In their utilization, far beyond the particular historical circumstances surrounding either Kool-Aid or hemlock, they have assumed roles larger than life. Becoming profound metaphors in our culture, they now address responses to religious and philosophical beliefs. Both have assumed even the role of expressions of popular lingo -- drinking the hemlock or, especially, "drinking the Kool-Aid."

Profound differences, however, separate the two beverages and thus their metaphoric interpretations!

We would do well to stop for a moment and think through these metaphors -- Kool-Aid and hemlock. How could these two beverages, both involved in acts of suicide, come to have such profound differences in meaning?

Drinking the Kool-Aid is of course a reference to the Jonestown Massacre of 1978 when the followers of the Jonestown Temple of the Reverend Jim Jones committed mass suicide by drinking what is generally believed to have been a Kool-Aid-like beverage that had been laced with cyanide. The result was the mass suicide of more than 900 followers of Reverend Jones who lived in the remote commune of Jonestown in the nation of Guyana.

The resulting metaphor, "drinking the Kool-Aid," has come to be used for blind belief and unquestioning acceptance. Its most apt reference is to followers of a particular religious belief where all rational consideration has been put aside and a belief has been accepted with such total commitment that the belief is held even to the point of self-destruction.

To drink hemlock is also a metaphor held deeply in Western culture though of much greater antiquity than the recent event of Jonestown. The circumstance referenced by hemlock refers of course to the trial and eventual punishment of self-assisted suicide by the famous Athenian philosopher Socrates after he is tried and found guilty of "impious acts," supposed crimes against the Greek city-state of Athens in 399 BCE.

The trial and the resulting death of Athens most famous citizen, Socrates, has been the occasion for viewing suicide not as a blind obedience to an inchoate belief system, but as a righteous stand against forces that seek to silence opposition to blind beliefs, in Socrates' case the state itself.

Thus drinking the Kool-Aid comes to mean acquiescence to blind belief while drinking the hemlock by contrast comes to mean opposition to blind belief. The difference could not be more profound. Two drinks -- two different worlds.

And what would Confucius say?

As it turns out, the Confucian Analects has several direct comments about taking a righteous stand and, in so doing, not submitting to the potentially false and erroneous authority of others and their beliefs and practices.

"The determined scholar and the person of goodness will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their goodness. They will even sacrifice their lives to preserve their goodness complete." (Analects: XV:8)

Or again,

"The scholar, trained for public duty, seeing threatening danger, is prepared to sacrifice his life. When the opportunity for gain is presented to him, he thinks of righteousness... Such a person commands our approbation indeed." (Analects: XIX:1)

Kool-Aid or hemlock?

The passages suggest a stand of righteousness, a stand for moral goodness, come what may, where one must be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice -- death.

The commitment to righteousness is in Confucian terms a far higher calling then the potential compromises exacted for the continuation of life. Drinking the hemlock might become the price one pays for a moral stand, a stand of righteous indignation.

Far easier it seems to drink the Kool-Aid -- far easier to follow, follow those who also follow.

And here is the basic question. Do we all have our price? Do we fold, do we compromise, do we give in -- do we all have a price? Or in the words of the theme of our commentary, do we all drink the Kool-Aid?

Did Socrates have his price, did he compromise, and did he fold under threat of the ultimate form of challenge - punishment by self-sacrifice - death at his own hands?

No! He accepted the consequences of his position - he stood on the grounds of righteousness, knowing, as Confucius knew, that for a moral position, the ultimate price might have to be paid.

He drank the bitter hemlock. He did not drink the sweet Kool-Aid.

And so we come to our own time and our own cultural context and we might ask ourselves, is our preferred drink sweet or bitter? Do we find it easier to simply follow, without question, without fuss, regardless of the conditions and consequences of the world we have constructed?

Do we all drink the sweet Kool-Aid? Might there be a few of us who prefer the bitter hemlock?

As Socrates and Confucius have provided profound respective metaphors, East and West, for the conviction of one's moral values, might we not hope that there are others for whom a moral stance is more importance than blind faith and unquestioning acceptance

Around the Web

Confucius - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Confucius (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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