What's the name of this idea?
December 4, 2017 5:03 PM   Subscribe

I read somewhere that sometime in the past couple hundred years there was an idea in western culture that a person's civilized nature was a thin and fragile veneer overlying an uncontrollable and animalistic inner self. Is there a name for this?

I gather that this idea was supposed to apply to individual people (including oneself) and that it gave rise to a fear or taboo of doing anything -- or entertaining any thoughts -- that might crack the civilized shell and let out the sex-addicted cannibalistic idol-worshipper within. It seems pretty clear that this idea was based heavily on colonial racism. This isn't exactly jekyll-and-hyde, although I suppose that story may riff off of the idea. I don't think it's the Freudian "id" either. I'm also not thinking about the analogous idea as applied at the societal level, like fear of communists (the motivation for which is pretty obvious), but particularly at the personal level. Is there a link to fear of heresy?

If anyone has suggestions of where to read more about this as a phenomenon in social history, I'd be grateful for recommendations. I'm also interested in whether this phenomenon has any modern secular incarnations. Thanks!
posted by heatherlogan to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Are you thinking of Hobbes' state of nature?
posted by velveeta underground at 5:19 PM on December 4, 2017

Are you thinking of Hobbes' state of nature?

No; that's about governance. What I'm thinking of is more Cthulhu-esque in a personal risk-to-sanity sense.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:04 PM on December 4, 2017

This sounds a lot like Veneer theory, and the originator of the term (Franz de Waals) does trace it back to Hobbes; Darwin's great exponent T H Huxley is cited as another advocate.
posted by jamjam at 6:31 PM on December 4, 2017

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide
posted by at at 10:44 PM on December 4, 2017

posted by Scram at 11:20 PM on December 4, 2017

It might be only tangential to your concerns, but the most insightful book I ever read about the beast we might all harbor within has been Lyall Watson's Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil.
posted by Chitownfats at 3:41 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Err, just a few steps away from Freud, perhaps.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 5:42 AM on December 5, 2017

Not answers but associations: The poem Wilderness by Carl Sandburg and of course Lord of the Flies.
Also, a bit curious about the notion of this as recent concept. I heard Jeremiah 17:9 (The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?) in church which suggests that people have thinking about what hides under the skin for a little while anyway.
posted by Octaviuz at 11:27 AM on December 5, 2017

Thanks to all for the replies. I guess me using the word "veneer" in posing the question should have tipped me off to a likely Google search!

I'm still curious about whether any historians or sociologists have studied the particular wave of fear/taboos by which individuals reacted to this idea during that historical period, and whether it seemed to have been linked to colonialism. Sort of, a subconscious need to lace your corset really tight and go to church and think pious thoughts, because deep down you're afraid you might actually be just the same as those people that your country is colonizing. That was the question that I meant to ask, but apparently I suck at communicating. :P
posted by heatherlogan at 5:54 PM on December 6, 2017

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