Slaying the Vile Beasts Within: Theorizing a Mortification Mechanism

Floyd D. Anderson, State University of New York at Brockport
Kevin R. McClure, University of Rhode Island


We develop a mortification mechanism that complements Kenneth Burke’s scapegoat mechanism. Employing Edward M. Kennedy’s redemptive 1980 presidential primary campaign as our representative anecdote, we chart the stages of his mortification. Our findings show that self-victimage is more complex than scapegoating, has more ingredients and possesses paradoxical qualities.


“[W]hile recognizing the sinister implication of a preference for homicidal and suicidal terms,” Kenneth Burke writes, “we indicate that the principles of development or transformation (‘rebirth’) which they stand for are not strictly of such a nature at all” (Rhetoric of Motives xiii). Using the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s failed 1980 presidential primary campaign as our “representative anecdote,”1 we devise a “mortification mechanism” that complements Kenneth Burke’s “scapegoat mechanism” (Grammar 406). Burke observes that “the Christian dialectic of atonement is much more complex” than scapegoating and that it “includes many ingredients that take it beyond the [scapegoat] paradigm, and has a paradoxical element” (Grammar 406; also see “Catharsis- Second View” 119). We maintain that what Burke says about the Christian dialectic of atonement—that it is more complex, has other ingredients and is paradoxical— also applies to other instances of self-victimage. One might ask in what ways is it more complex? What are its additional ingredients? Why is it paradoxical? These are precisely the questions that our “mortification mechanism” is designed to answer.

Numerous studies of redemptive rhetoric have explored Burke’s rhetoric of redemption, analyzing both scapegoating and mortification. Previous works on redemptive rhetoric that have influenced our own understanding of it include Bobbitt; Brummett (“Burkean Scapegoating”); Carter; Desilet and Appel; Ivie; Leff; Medhurst; Messner and Buckop; and Tilli. None of these works, however, address the dialectical moments associated with redemptive mortification, nor do they provide a mortification mechanism. A previous study of Kennedy’s 1980 primary campaign by Anderson, King, and McClure does view the campaign as one of redemptive rhetoric and it does give attention to mortification, but it does not chart its moments nor provide a mechanism to explicate it.

We have selected Edward M. Kennedy’s unsuccessful 1980 presidential primary campaign as our “representative anecdote,” (Grammar 59) because it exemplifies both redemption through scapegoating and redemption through mortification, enabling us to compare and contrast the two. The view that Kennedy was conducting a losing campaign was widely voiced at the time. Many of the journalists who covered Kennedy’s campaign saw it as a campaign of atonement, comprised of suffering, humiliation and mortification. Such writers as James Reston, Tom Wicker, Anthony Lewis, George Will, Lewis Lapham, and the political writers for both Time and Newsweek all offered variations of this view in attempting to explain why Kennedy persisted in his campaign long after everyone, including his own supporters, had ruled out any chance of his gaining the presidential nomination. The commonly advanced explanation was that he was seeking some sort of expiation and forgiveness for his shortcomings by championing his convictions in a losing campaign, thus subjecting himself to mortification. Perhaps Kennedy’s friend and one-time college roommate, former California Senator John Tunney, best described the nature of Kennedy’s presidential run. Characterizing it a “campaign of atonement,” he added “that campaign and that speech spell the end of the Chappaquiddick era. It was something that had to be done” (“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”).

In this essay we chart the stages of Kennedy’s symbolic self-immolation in order to facilitate our development of a “mortification mechanism.” Our analysis proceeds as follows. First, we detail the sources of Kennedy’s guilt and his need for redemption. Next, we describe how by conducting a losing campaign for principle and by suffering the mortification of one electoral defeat after another, Kennedy sought and gained redemption. Then we discuss how his 1980 Democratic National Convention speech was the cathartic climax of his campaign, enabling him to slay the “vile beasts” within, culminating in transformation, redemption and rebirth. Subsequently, we show how Kennedy’s scapegoating of Ronald Reagan exemplifies Burke’s “scapegoat mechanism.” We then present our mortification mechanism and show how it is exemplified by Kennedy’s self-victimage. Next, we compare and contrast scapegoating and mortification, revealing that whereas the scapegoat mechanism has three moments or stages (merger-division-merger), the mortification mechanism has six stages (division-merger-division-merger-division-merger) and each of the stages exhibit their own complexities and complications. Finally, we show how mortification possesses a paradoxical quality because it involves an “I” divided from its’ “me.”

The Sources of Kennedy’s Guilt and His Need for Redemption

Redemptive rhetoric, according to Burke, involves movement through seven “interlocked moments” or stages: from Order, Guilt and the Negative, through Victimage or Mortification, to Catharsis and Redemption (Rhetoric of Religion 4–5). These are the stages through which we must traverse to discover the sources of Kennedy’s guilt. What violations of the societal “Thou shalt Nots” had Kennedy committed that required him to endure mortification—to slay his own “vile beasts within”—in order to achieve redemption?2 During the halcyon days of his brother’s presidency, Kennedy had enjoyed widespread personal popularity and political support. These increased following the tragic deaths of his two older brothers. But those days came to an abrupt halt with the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, and his resulting fall from grace. Doubts about Kennedy’s behavior—his failure to go to the police until ten hours after the accident— lingered in public memory (Barron; and Beck, Doyle and Linsey). In addition, widely reported rumors and gossip about his alleged indiscrete conduct, including wild and reckless driving, intemperate consumption of alcohol, (Lerner 150; Safire “Waterquiddick”), serial marital infidelity (Chellis 143–147; Goodman 17; Lerner 145–153; Wicker, “Kennedy—Valiant”; “Kennedy Private Life Questioned”), and the so-called “Joan Factor” further eroded his public image. The “Joan Factor” was the notion widely reported in the press that Kennedy’s womanizing had driven his wife to alcoholism (Chellis 143–147; Goodman 17; Lerner 145–153; and Wicker “Kennedy—Valiant”). When Roger Mudd of CBS questioned Kennedy about Chappaquiddick, his marriage and Joan Kennedy’s treatment for alcoholism, both his questions and Kennedy’s fumbling answers did much to exacerbate the lingering doubts (“Teddy”). As a result, Kennedy was widely perceived as a person who had repeatedly and willfully transgressed numerous of the moral, social, familial, and religious “thou shalt nots,” as a person who had repeatedly failed to control his negative impulses. The sources of his guilt were ubiquitous. He was widely viewed as a person much in need of atonement and redemption.

Kennedy’s redemptive campaign reversed a political candidate’s usual emotional progress. At the start of the race in fall, 1979, “when most other politicians were brimming with enthusiasm and energy, he went through the motions of campaigning so ineptly” that his performance actually hurt his chances. Then, after a series of bruising defeats, “he at last became a forceful, zesty campaigner” (Reston). “The contrast between his effective performance in the last days of his campaign and his earlier bumbling efforts could not possibly have been more startling,” Time observed, adding that “the further Kennedy seemed from the nomination, the better he performed and was received by voters. There seemed to be some liberation in losing” (“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”).

Kennedy, by waging a losing campaign for traditional liberal principles, sought to achieve both personal and political redemption though mortification and self-immolation. “After the early primaries,” Kennedy later admitted, “we knew our chances of getting the nomination were remote”(“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”). What he also knew was that large numbers of the electorate shared the sentiment of political columnist William Safire that “when in big trouble, Teddy Kennedy’s repeated history has been to run, to hide, to get caught, and to get away with it” (“Prelude to the Bridge”). Had Safire been entirely right about him, he would have turned and run at that point. But he stubbornly refused to do so. Instead of withdrawing from the race, as many advisors and his closest friends urged him to do, he resolved to carry on bravely in the face of defeat, to take the political opprobrium that was heaped upon him (“Kennedy Goes Out In Style”). In so doing he would prove to himself and to the country that he could meet the tests of character; that he was, in the words of his brother John, a man who “does what he must—in spite of the personal consequences, in spite of the obstacles and dangers and pressures” (Profiles in Courage 246).

In championing traditional liberal convictions—the convictions of FDR, JFK and LBJ—in a losing campaign, Kennedy sought and gained a degree of public expiation and forgiveness for his shortcomings. By offering himself as a victim and by bearing up with cheer and good grace under the attacks of his opponents and the media, and by experiencing the mortification of one humiliating election defeat after another, he silenced many of the lingering doubts about his character. His campaign afforded personal redemption insofar as he was able to negate the charges against his character by virtue of his deeds. The atonement afforded by his symbolic political death, however, opened the possibility of rebirth.

Kennedy’s Convention Speech: Catharsis and Redemption

Kennedy’s August 12, 1980 speech at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden has been accurately described as “the cathartic climax, the final purgative-redemptive moment of the campaign” (Anderson, King and McClure 155). In addition, it dramatically symbolized his rebirth and new identity. Designed to elicit both catharsis and transformation, Kennedy’s speech portrayed him as a cleansed and reborn man, as one who had attained personal and political redemption through self-sacrifice by waging a losing campaign on behalf of his liberal political principles. As he portrayed it, his campaign was “a struggle for salvation” and “a striving for perfection” (Griffin 458). “We kept the faith,” he told the delegates “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, the dream shall never die!” (Edward M. Kennedy 716).

Catharsis, as we have pointed out, was one of the two functions of Kennedy’s convention speech, which functioned simultaneously as a “purification ritual” (Burke PLF 131) and a “ritual of rebirth” (Burke ATH 317–318). For death, at least in one of its “deflections” is rebirth (Burke “Thanatopsis” 369, 372). “The dying to one identity can imply the being born into another,” writes Burke (Thanatopsis 372). Kennedy, by publicly slaying his own “vile beasts,” was able to “negate negations” and thus “produce a positive” (Ruechert 147) in the form of a new identity. From suffering and mortification came purification, transformation and rebirth. Portraying himself as a vanquished but valiant hero, he sought to dramatically symbolize his rebirth and new identity by quoting from Tennyson’s Ulysses lines he claimed his deceased “brothers quoted and loved—and that have special meaning to me now”:

I am part of all that I have met . . .
Tho much is taken, much abides . . .
That which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts . . . strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield (Tennyson Ulysses Lines 65–70).

By identifying himself with the aging wanderer whose years of journey and struggle had made him a wiser and stronger man, Kennedy suggested that he too had emerged from his purgative-redemptive struggle reborn, with a new identity, wiser, stronger and with a new sense of hope and renewed faith, ready to continue the struggle for liberal principles.

As Kennedy delivered his eloquent defense of traditional liberal ideals and values against the neo-liberal policies of Jimmy Carter and the conservative ideology of Ronald Reagan, “nearly each of the text’s 150 well-paced lines drew shouts, laughter and applause” (Magnuson, Brew and Isaacson 16). He was interrupted by applause a total of 51 times and on five occasions there was sustained applause and prolonged chanting of “We want Kennedy.” Some delegates wept throughout the presentation (Devlin 416). As his speech progressed, both Kennedy and his followers, those who pitied and wept for him and for the defeat of his liberal principles, were “cleansed by a bath of pitiful tears, a benign orgastic downpour” (Burke “On Catharsis, or Resolution” 344–345). Kennedy’s declaration that “We cannot let the great purposes of the Democratic Party become the bygone passages of history” (Kennedy 714) elicited sustained applause and brought fresh tears to numerous eyes.

Kennedy’s Scapegoating of Reagan and Burke’s Scapegoat Mechanism

Ironically, in a speech motivated by mortification, one of the strongest sections employs not self-victimage but scapegoating. The object of Kennedy’s scapegoating was the Republican presidential nominee, Ronald Reagan, “who probably more than anyone else personified the growing conservative mood of the country” (Anderson, King and McClure 155). In his attack, Kennedy alternately heaped scorn and ridicule on Reagan while at the same time portraying him as a dangerous man with frightening ideas. It was said at the time that Kennedy “attacked Ronald Reagan more effectively that night then anybody has before or since” (Devlin 416). Scapegoating Reagan enabled Kennedy to unify the diverse convention delegates around their common opposition to Reagan and in the process to ritualistically transfer their collective guilt over the ideological differences between Carter supporters and Kennedy supporters onto the back of the detested scapegoat, symbolically purifying themselves in the process. Ironically, Kennedy’s own status as victim enabled him to more effectively victimize Reagan. Burke describes his tripartite “scapegoat mechanism” in A Grammar of Motives:

All told, note what we have here: (1) an original state of merger, in that the iniquities are shared by both the iniquitous and their chosen vessel; (2) a principle of division, in that the elements shared in common are being ritualistically alienated; (3) a new principle of merger, this time in the unification of those whose purified identity is defined in dialectical opposition to the sacrificial offering (Grammar 406).

This three-fold paradigm of the “scapegoat mechanism” rather accurately describes Kennedy’s victimization of Reagan, but it is not descriptive of Kennedy’s own (or any other) self-victimage. First, let us outline how Kennedy’s scapegoating fits Burke’s three-fold paradigm. In stage one, where there is an “original state of merger,” Kennedy and his followers are merged with other members of the American electorate, among them Republicans and conservatives (including Kennedy’s chosen vessel for scapegoating, Ronald Reagan) in their shared “iniquity” of opposing the policies of the Carter administration. In stage two, where there is a “principle of division,” Kennedy’s vilification and heaping of scorn and ridicule upon Reagan was a way of ritualistically alienating himself and his followers from the Republican nominee and his supporters. In stage three there is “a new principle of merger,” this time in the unification of all those—Kennedy Democrats, Carter Democrats, “Liberal” Republicans—whose “purified identity” is now defined in “dialectical opposition” to Reagan. The long range effect of Kennedy’s scapegoating of Reagan was to enable his own supporters to close ranks behind Carter against Reagan.

Vicarage in Scapegoating and Mortification

Insofar as self-victimage is, according to Burke, one of the “less drastic forms” of suicide, it has “a certain paradoxical element” because “the purgand would seek to cleanse the self by using the self as purgative victim” (“Catharsis—Second View” 119). “The mortified must,” Burke says, “with one part of himself be saying no to another part of himself” (Rhetoric of Religion 190). Thus, Kennedy’s task as “victim” was to substitute, not someone else (as in scapegoating), but some aspect of himself (his own “vile beasts within”) as “vicar,” in order to purify another aspect of himself (Rhetoric of Religion 190). Kennedy was saying “no” to the unruly aspects of his private self in order to say “yes” to his reborn public self.

It is not possible to fully appreciate the purgative-cathartic nature of Kennedy’s speech without relating it to the “act of vicarage, of substitution,” “the principle that underlies purgative victimage in general” (“Catharsis Second-View” 118–119). The principle of substitution makes “for an accountancy whereby the victim designed to suffer . . . may in turn be replaced by a substitute, a scapegoat, who suffers instead” (“Catharsis Second-View” 124). The scapegoat “is profoundly consubstantial with those who, looking upon it as a chosen vessel, would ritualistically cleanse themselves by loading the burden of their own iniquities upon it” (Grammar 406). Mortification, then, is a fundamentally different phenomenon than scapegoating. Scapegoating always involves other agents, loci or events: “in order for A to be cleansed, B must be contaminated or, if A is to live, B must die” (Rueckert 147). In self-victimage, “nothing outside the person involved needs to be polluted or destroyed in order for the purification to take place . . . [It] does not harm, pollute or destroy anyone else” (Rueckert 147). In purifying self, the purgand also purifies followers and supporters.

Charting the Dialectics of Mortification

Let us now explicate a mortification mechanism that complements Burke’s scapegoat mechanism. To facilitate this goal we will chart the various dialectical movements that characterize Kennedy’s self-victimage. Burke’s understanding of atonement through self-homicide was influenced by John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (A Rhetoric of Motives 3–5). Accordingly, our own efforts begin with an examination of the passage Burke quotes at the outset of his discussion:

Messenger: Unwounded of his enemies he fell.
Wearied with slaughter then, or how? Explain.
By his own hands.
Self violence! What cause brought him so soon at variance with himself   among his foes?
Inevitable cause—at once both to destroy and be destroyed (Samson Agonistes, lines 1581–1586).

Milton’s description of Samson as being “at variance with himself among his foes” provides us with a useful clue. Implied in this description are two dialectical stages or movements, one a division (the self in conflict with—divided against—itself) and the other a merger (the self among or “included with” its “foes”).

In charting Kennedy’s self-victimage what dialectical mergers and divisions do we encounter? The first dialectical stage in his mortification involves an initial principle of division in which he is with one part of himself saying no to another part of himself, “at variance with himself.” One part of him, his “I,” is repudiating the “vile beasts” inhabiting his “me.”3 The second stage entails a paradoxical principle of merger in which Kennedy as purgand is actually consubstantial not only with his supporters but also with his political enemies in their mutual detestation of the “vile” aspect of himself that is being “slain” as purgative vicar. Not only is he at “variance with himself,” he is also consubstantial in that goal “among his foes.” Interestingly, Milton’s description of Samson’s self-homicide could easily be confused with a description of the first two stages of Kennedy’s self-victimage. Milton outlines two dialectical movements, one a division (the self in conflict with, divided against itself) and the other a merger (the self “among” or “included with” its “foes”). Kennedy, in Milton’s terms, is “at variance with himself” in stage one, and consubstantial in that goal “among his foes” in stage two. The third stage, a division, is somewhat fluid and overlapping and it may partially occur in stages one and two, but it must reach completion prior to stage four. In stage three a triggering cathartic moment leads to division, namely the complete purging and slaying of “the vile beasts.” Sacrificing its unclean “me,” enables the “I” to start afresh. The fourth stage, a merger, may partially occur in stage three. In this stage the purgand is transformed and reborn. The “I” merges with its new purified self. Besides these four stages in Kennedy’s mortification there are two additional stages which occur, not in sequence, but simultaneously. In stage five, there occurs a new principle of division as Kennedy and his political foes, who had been consubstantial with him in deploring his guilt-ridden state, now become ritualistically alienated from one another, their sole area of agreement having been purged. Stage six involves a new principle of merger, this time in the unification of Kennedy with his friends and supporters around his purified and redeemed new identity.

Scapegoating and Mortification Compared and Contrasted

Our charting of the stages of Kennedys self-victimage, as well as the mortification mechanism that has emerged in the process, clarifies Burke’s contention that mortification is a more complex dialectical process than scapegoating, and that mortification contains additional ingredients not present in scapegoating. Whereas the “dialectic of the scapegoat” involves movement through three dialectical stages, the “dialectic of self-victimage” entails six stages. The tripartite pattern of the scapegoat process is merger-division-merger. The six-part pattern of the mortification process is division-merger-division- merger-division-merger, but the third stage may overlap with the first and second stages and the fourth stage may overlap with the third stage. The last two stages may occur simultaneously rather than sequentially. Furthermore, each of the six stages is more complex than the corresponding stages of the scapegoat mechanism. The initial stage of the mortification mechanism involves a paradoxical principle of division in which one aspect of the sufferer’s self is divided from another aspect of the self, and in which the “I” victimizes the “me” in order to gain purification and redemption. The second stage occasions an equally paradoxical principle of merger in which the mortified is actually consubstantial not only with friends but also with foes in their mutual opposition to the vile side of the self that is being sacrificed.

The third stage of the mortification mechanism, the catharsis stage, has no counterpart in the scapegoat mechanism. It entails catharsis, purgation, and slaying the vile beasts within. The fourth stage involves transformation and rebirth. The negation of an aspect of the self transforms a negative into a positive. The “I” merges with its purified and reborn “me.” The fifth stage involves a necessary principle of division in which the mortified is separated from the “foes” with whom they had been consubstantial in the second stage in their shared rejection of the faulty, unmortified self. At the same time the mortified is being separated from their “foes” in the fifth stage, they are also being merged in the sixth stage with their “friends” or “supporters”—all those who now define themselves in terms of the “cleansed” and “purified” new identity.

Summary and Conclusion

While scapegoating is a well understood process, our analysis focuses instead on the less understood but more complex process of self-atonement. We began by describing Kennedy’s publicly perceived guilt and his need for redemption. Then we showed how by conducting a losing campaign on behalf of his political principles he achieved purification and redemption. Next, we detailed how Kennedy’s speech at the Democratic National Convention culminated in his transformation and rebirth. We then discussed Kenneth Burke’s scapegoat mechanism and showed how it was exemplified by Kennedy’s scapegoating of Ronald Reagan, but was not exemplified by his own symbolic suicide. We then outlined the mortification mechanism that emerged from our charting of Kennedy’s self-victimage. Our survey of Kennedy’s progression through the various stages of the dialectic of symbolic self-suicide clarifies and confirms our contention that mortification is a more complex process than scapegoating, that it contains additional ingredients and is paradoxical.

Our use of Kennedy’s redemptive rhetoric during his 1980 presidential primary campaign as our representative anecdote is synecdochic. Both representative anecdote and scapegoating are synecdoches because they both employ one to represent all. Generalizations, scientific and otherwise, are also synecdochic. Since our own theorizing features a single representative anecdote, we offer no generalizations. Nor would it be possible to generalize from our single example. More to the point, is our representative anecdote actually “representative”? “If the originating anecdote is not representative, a vocabulary developed in strict conformity with it will not be representative,” Burke observes (Grammar 59). Thus, to the extent that Kennedy’s redemptive self-sacrifice is representative, it will be adequate for the analysis of other instances of redemptive self-victimage. Although Kennedy’s redemptive journey occurred in the context of a political campaign, there is no reason to suppose that the various dialectical stages of his redemption is different from those of persons experiencing redemption through self-suffering in less dramatic and less public situations. We therefore maintain that the patterns of divisions, mergers and transformations revealed by our analysis, our mortification mechanism, can be used heuristically to describe, analyze and critique other instances of atonement through suffering and self-sacrifice.


1. For Burke’s discussion of representative anecdote see A Grammar of Motives, 59–61 and 323–325. Also see Brummett, “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism”; “The Representative Anecdote as a Burkean Method, Applied to Evangelical Rhetoric”; and Crable, “Burke’s Perspective on Perspectives: Grounding Dramatism on the Representative Anecdote.”

2. The phrase—“slay the vile beasts within” —seems to have been coined by Leland M. Griffin in his “Dramatistic Theory of the Rhetoric of Movements” (463, 465). Although Griffin cites Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion as the source of the phrase, Burke only uses the terms “slaying” and “vile” but not “slaying the vile beasts within” (The Rhetoric of Religion 190; see also “Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dying” 372–373).

3. According to Burke, modern rhetoric “must also concern itself with the thought that, under the heading of appeal to audiences, would also be included any ideas or images privately addressed to the individual self for moralistic or incantatory purposes” (Rhetoric of Motives 38–39). Viewed from this perspective, Kennedy’s entire campaign can be regarded as a case of an “I addressing its me.” A person becomes their “own audience,” Burke says, “when they become involved in psychologically stylistic subterfuge for presenting [their] own case to [themselves] in sympathetic terms” (Rhetoric of Motives 39). Seen this way, Kennedy’s entire journey through each of the six stages of the mortification mechanism entails an “I addressing its me.”

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