The Red King’s Race

Through the Looking Glass, it takes all the running you can do, to stay in the same place. At the far end of the board the Red King sleeps.

How do we know the Red King sleeps? The noise he makes when he snores is like lions and tigers. The noise is terrible but silence would be more terrible.

While the noise persists, the Red King dreams. He dreams of candles which last only for a short while. He likes their flickering light. He likes it when they go out.


In this essay I do not use the term “psychopath” in the clinical sense. Instead I use it to describe the worse impulses of human nature: the destroyer, the sadist, the monster that lives inside of all of us, to a greater or lesser extent. The psychopath is simply the avatar of these impulses; the feral card that we hope we do not turn up from the tarot deck.

Extent is the important question. In some of us these impulses barely register; we might go our whole lives and not be troubled by the impulse to pull the legs from a spider, let alone carve the baby from a womans belly or slice the sex from a mans thighs. There are too many people who want to believe that the worst that humans are capable of should be what defines them.

And the worst is terrible indeed. In some people these impulses are impatient, straining at the straps, eyes bulging with the effort; but in most people these impulses require nurturing, and even then they may never come to bloom. Most people are not inclined to monstrosity, except when the occasion demands it; and even then they suffer with themselves a long time after.

So we do not have to listen to those who believe that we are the worst of us. We can spend our time more productively, we can spend our strength building rails that can guide the worst of us in directions that might benefit all of us. This is the task of history: building the taller and stronger and more complicated scaffold that we call civilization.

Within that scaffold the psychopath labors. Always they try to break free from their constraints – not the constraints of social norms, which never held them – nor the constraints of legal fictions, which they will always flout when they are able – but more resilient bonds of institutions, of corporations, of bureaucracy. These things bind us; but they were built to bind the psychopath.

As long as they remain bound, their labor can be shaped to the common good. This is not necessarily a conscious effort, it is not a work of design; it comes about from necessity, that well-known mother, and is guided only towards necessity’s contingent ends. Yet from this contingency comes the great work which so many have benefited from.

The system is in no way foolproof; the brutal and cunning and determined psychopath may find a way to turn that system to their own service. The Red King throws off the chains of sleep, and all his candles are extinguished all at once; the energy that once went into construction goes into destruction; and the dead can be numbered in their millions.

The social animal cannot survive alone, not nowadays and definitely not in earlier and harder times. Like all of us the psychopath must enlist the support of others to see their projects come to fruition. It is that social nature that enables psychopaths to spill their psychopathy across an entire nation. Under the right conditions inhumanity can always blossom.

Yet that same social nature also provides a solution to the problem. The psychopath prefers the path of least resistance. The psychopath knows that without civilization, they have little chance of surviving. One against the world is the shortest war, and so the psychopath accepts the truce – at least until they can devise a way to escape its terms and conditions.

Furthermore: without the psychopath, civilization would have little chance of thriving; that awful energy is sometimes necessary. Once it is employed, that energy must be employed continually; thus our institutions are deformed by that which they contain; but this is the only proven solution to the problem, and so civilization accepts the truce also.

The Red Kings Race is the truce that both sides strike, knowing the other would prefer them dead, the psychopath always testing the cracks in the walls of its prison, civilization always scrambling to fill in those cracks before they are discovered. And so the race continues: never quite stopping, never quite beginning again.

The history of human civilization is this Red King’s Race. We construct progressively more complex institutions that create constraints on psychopath behaviour. Yet those same institutions always contain in them the seed of destruction that a psychopath might notice, and flatter until it serves the psychopath.

Now riddle me this: what if civilization built its own psychopath from scratch? What if we built something which did not share our norms, and did not suffer our laws – but did not even notice our institutions? What kind of race would be running then, except a race against the best and the worst of our own intelligence – an artificial Red King that we had crowned?


The Red King dreams. He dreams of candles which last only for a short while. He likes their flickering light. He likes it when they go out.

The candles do the Red King’s work for him while he sleeps. As long as the candles do their work, the Red King is not inclined to wake.

As we run our race with the Red Queen, the Red King is always visible in the corner of our eye. He does not stir. If he woke, would we disappear?

Who are we racing against really?

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