Did Cho Seung-Hui Have the "Herostratos Syndrome"?





Mr. Marina is Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.

I doubt that many people have ever heard of Herostratos, a Greek who lived almost 2,400 hundred years ago, but I would suggest that the similarities of Cho’s murderous rampage at Virginia Tech and Herostratos’ actions are striking.  They both represent a kind of revolt against Egalitarianism, a craving to be lifted above the faceless and nameless masses, to make one’s mark on history even at the price of becoming infamous in the process.

In 356 BCE, Herostratos burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. When asked, before his execution, why he had done such a dastardly deed, Herostratos replied that he wanted to be “famous.” Alarmed at such thinking, the Greeks attempted to blot his name from history. After Alexander the Great’s fame, it was pointed out that the Gods had caused his birth that same year to overshadow Herostartos’ act.

The Greeks were unsuccessful in their effort to purge history of Herostratos, but at least they understood his motivation—a desire for fame at any cost.  This has been the prime motivation for many perverse acts in human history, especially in America.

This writer first discussed these factors some years ago in an essay, Egalitarianism and Empire, Actually, two other factors need to be included, Envy, and Equality. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that Envy was the motivating engine of what he called Democracy in America, but it is important to differentiate between Equality and Egalitarianism. The former implies an opportunity to compete, the latter a leveling distribution of results.

In the fourth century, the emerging Alexanderian Empire was an early sign of the rising tensions within Classical Civilization, which would culminate in the warfare-welfare state of the Roman Empire, to which America is increasingly compared. For men like Herostratos, God was, indeed, dead, and they had no real fear of divine retribution for their actions. Neither did Cho!

The growing sense of Egalitarianism was already evident in Jacksonian Democracy and was heightened by the Centralization prevalent after the Civil War.

In fact, the most cogent analysis of what I call the Herostratos Syndrome was offered in a New York Evening Post editorial after the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881, quoted at length in Alexander Stephens's Pictorial History of the United States (1881). Stephens had served as Vice President of the Confederacy, and also wrote a two-volume history of that conflict, focused around the ideas of “Centralization,” and Empire. In that view, he would later be joined by Oswald Spengler, who wrote about “Civilization [Empire] as Centralization unadulterated,” and Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton’s teacher at Georgetown, who voiced a similar outlook.

The editorialist wanted to explain what, in picturesque 19th century prose, he called, the rise of the American “Crank,” which seemed so peculiar to our society. He attributed this to a system of business that promised that everyone could succeed, as well as to a schooling system that promised the same. But the real culprit was the press, which offered instant notoriety and infamy to these Cranks, such as Charles Guiteau, the assassin of Garfield.

Since then, of course, we have endured a number of such “Cranks,” including Lee Harvey Oswald, whose “Historic Diary” repeats his failures, or Arthur Bremer, the inept attempted assassin of George Wallace, whose diary also repeats the same word, “failure,” ad nauseum. Oswald’s whole life was an effort to draw attention to himself, as a so-called Marxist, shooting himself in the leg while in the Marines, and so on. It is clear his “Historic (by whose definition?) Diary,” was written on the boat returning to America from the Soviet Union, in anticipation of a large press conference which never materialized, as he was met by a sole representative of the State Department, which had helped pay for his return. The number of his actions intended to gain fame are too numerous to describe here. He even tried to become a critic of Communism from the Right!

In all of these Herostratics, however, perhaps the epitome is James Earl Ray, the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Before Ray grasped what Oswald had instinctively understood in pleading his innocence after his capture in Dallas and before he was himself killed, Ray was asked by his attorney how he could have been so “damned dumb” as to leave a portable radio with his Missouri Prison number etched on it at the scene of the crime. Ray replied that he wanted the whole world to know he was the one who shot that “F***ing N****r.”

It is a terrible tribute to Ray’s skillful mendacity that before his death he was able to convince Mrs. Coretta King, King’s son, and Jesse Jackson, that he was the innocent victim of some larger, nefarious conspiracy. Instead of executing him, as the Greeks would have done, he remained in prison, expanding upon his fame and notoriety by proclaiming his innocence. And, there was no shortage among those in the media as well, adding to that chorus.

With attempts on the lives of both Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, the increased security has made it easier simply to kill masses of innocent people, whether earlier from a Tower at the University of Texas, or, for example, the murders at Columbine.

Now Cho has successfully joined the ranks of the Herostratics and made his name in history. Our media, unlike the flawed effort of the Greeks to wipe such names from history, has seen to that.  Cho’s act of putting together a video presentation beforehand, attempting to justify his act as a protest against inequality, and then mailing that to NBC, is hardly the act of an irrational person under immediate stress. He knew exactly what he wished to accomplish and had planned accordingly.

There is also the question of what prescription drugs Cho had been taking. The police have not yet released the names of these drugs. We do know, however, that various drugs have been associated with some of the mass killings of recent years.

In Ancient Greece one of the “designer drugs” was hellebore. We will never know if Herostratos was into such drugs, which, when combined with alcohol, could give one quite a high. For a “nobody,” whose efforts to stand out had simply alienated many around him, that could be the final catalyst in tipping him toward an act of destruction or violence that would achieve the notoriety he so craved.

It is perhaps well to note the closing words of the editorialist in 1881, that our method of handling such events may have simply increased the possibility for more such Cranks.


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Herb Hersh - 4/24/2007

Your comment on this tragedy is so muchmore to the point than that imade by a rabbi:
http://www.aish.com/spirituality/philosophy/Where_Was_God_in_Virginia_Tech$.asp .

The latter is a theological acceptance of murder.


Ronald Harold Fritze - 4/23/2007

A very good essay on a terrible problem.

One factual correction, the Temple of Artemis that Herostratus burned was not the one that is listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That temple was the one built to replace the earlier temple destroyed by Herostratus. If Herostratus had not burned it, however, the earlier temple probably would have become one of the Seven Wonders as it was almost as large and magnificent.

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