I was searching through the Grand Haggerty library today, looking to settle a question about a work by Voltaire. A friend and I were discussing politics and got stuck on the question of the origins of the word Candidate and whether or not it is related to the word Candide (which I believe is French, and which I was told means 'optimism'). Which, of course, brought to mind the story about the auto-de-fey and how it was just about the most horrible torture people have ever cooked up. Having not heard of it before, this person questioned whether or not such a thing was possible. It was, I said, and it was detailed in Candide. But then I was told I was full of it because, look, there is no article on an auto-de-fey in the Wikipedia entry for Execution methods!
So this got me all ready to stand on my high horse, unwilling to be contradicted by a social encyclopedia over something I feel has a special significance in the realm of academics and thought. Way back when, I took an introduction to philosophy class with a particularly grim professor. This guy was all about the hemlock and looked like he was waiting for someone to pass the cup. On the course syllabus, it listed everything we had to read, when the papers were due, and all the gruesome things that happened to the authors of various works or their characters. Pythagoreas and the field of grass, Socrates and the final happy hour, Nietzsche and his madness, terrible things happened to all these great minds over the years. On the one hand, I guess professors need a way to make the material come to life, and nothing captures peoples attention like the end. On the other, I had the impression this professor was saying something about the relationship between society and violence, and that, one way or another, we find a way to ferret out the smartest and the greatest and destroy them once and for all (Social Darwinism as a Law of Averages).
Anyways, in this class, we did spend time talking about the most horrible fates that befell these great minds and the irony that came along with it. Pythagoreas, with his ideas about transsubstantiation, was killed by a mob when he refused to run over a field of grass because he supposed the individual blades may be reincarnations of former friends. Plato, with his ideal of what a citizen of a state should be, drank his hemlock rather than save his own neck. Nietzsche, with his, um, 'enlightened' views of feminism, by all accounts contracted some hideous disease through his sexual relations that preyed upon his mind and ate away at his soul. There were others, but their stories were not so rich in irony. And don't get me started on the pre-socratics here, I am aware of the role violence played in early Greek society and still think of Anaximander as the real life counterpart to the Christian conception of Satan.
Candide, the protagonist from Voltaire's novel of the same name, had it the worst. This auto-le-fey thing was really bad news. You were hung, stripped of your skin, drown, burned alive, and more, all in front of a big crowd and in an effort to make you confess. It's the sort of thing that can only happen in societies with a highly evolved concept of multiple sins and the need for a method of cleansing each before sending someone to eternal justice. I imagine it took centuries to perfect this particular form of torture and the work of many scholars of the day to really perfect the method of purging the taint on the way to one's maker. From what I hear, this was considered the Cadillac of execution methods. The electric chair is positively burnt out by comparison and this method made the guillotine look like a cheese slicer for it's lack of pagentry.
What's interesting here is that the auto-le-fey, conceptually, was all about cleaning someone's soul, stripping away their sins and sending them to a better place. It is the justification for it that is important, because no one really wanted to live in a world where arbitrary violence is handed out and the state is made to look like a bunch of butchers. This changed over the years. At some point, captial punishment itself was divorced from it's roots as a purification method for the benefit of individual and all pretence about mercy and sanctity was dropped in favor of a purely humanistic version of slaughter for the benefit of society at large. The idea became one of keeping the streets safe from human predators and capital punishment has since been idealized as the ultimate deterrent against specific crimes.
Although we did not go into the ethics or morality of any specific cases, there was a clear subtext here tracing the relevance of execution methods to the particular forms of society in which these people lived. It became the source of my own objections to captial punishment in that, when viewed on a grand scale, societies are always doing terrible things to their brightest minds, it's really just the excuses we come up with for why that change. To call a state sponsored killing justified in any sense is simply a way large numbers of people abandon reason all together, a kind of block party of the passions where someone is going to get left with the entire mess.
For these reasons, I can't believe the auto-le-fey has been forgotten, especially if Candidate and Candide are really related etymologically. What does this mean for our own society and the ways we treat our own best and brightest? Look at what happens to people running for high office. They are ridiculed, judged on sound bytes, opposition groups devote massive amounts of money to investigating and incriminating them, pompous talk show hosts set them up as straw men, people sometimes burn them in effigy, we set up whisper campaigns with jokes about things we tag them with that may or may not be their fault, basically people end up running the gauntlet every time they want to represent the masses. While I thourough vetting of someone's background is certainly in order, there are times when people cross the line and actually damage the lives of private citizens to score political points and use the process as a form of violence. By destroying someone else, another world view can work it's way into existance, and people can only go on with their daily lives once this question about prevalence has been settled.
I remain optimistic that I shall never stand too far out from the crowd, or become a target for this thing that societies do.