It is hard to know what our correspondents at the Economist were thinking when they published this coal lump journey through all kinds of Hells on December 22, but it sure was cheeky. I’ve always been a bit partial to Jean-Paul Sartre’s rendering of hell as an exitless room filled with other people, but that’s just misanthropic me. Hells come in all shapes and sizes so there is a bit of something for everyone.
Despite all this variety, one thing is clear: hells have histories and are imagined only in food producing (Neolithic and post-Neolithic) societies. Hells don’t exist in hunter-gatherer and similar small-scale societies. There is obviously something about settling down to live in ever larger groups that drives people to hellish distraction. It’s an ingenious displacement whereby threats of actual punishment get an assist from fears of potential punishment. Hells are of course useful constructs for getting people to internalize the disciplines required for life in larger-scale societies, but they are not indicia of intellectual progress or symbolic sophistication.