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Evil: A Primer
A History of a Bad Idea from Beelzebub to Bin Laden
By William Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 William Hart
All rights reserved.
WHERE DO WE START?
I am the Lord, and there is none else.
I form the light, and create darkness:
I make peace, and create evil:
I the Lord do all these things.
– ISAIAH 45:6–7
The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.
– JOSEPH CONRAD
The unique and supreme voluptuousness of love lies in the certainty of committing evil. And men and women know from birth that in evil is found all sensual delight.
– CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
No reason. No conscience. No understanding. Not even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong ... what was living behind that boy's eyes was, purely and simply, evil.
– PSYCHIATRIST DESCRIBING THE YOUNG MICHAEL MYERS, IN THE FILM HALLOWEEN
We begin, as we must, with humility and reverence. Not to mention a wee nervousness. Despite five thousand years of recorded human wrongdoing, despite all that our prophets and presidents and scholars and poets and undead homicidal maniacs have told us, the origin and definition of evil remain impossible to pin down.
This is no mere historical curiosity. This is more than clever wordplay by duelling theologians. This is actually where we've ended up after centuries of seeking answers to no less a question than — as Socrates put it — "how we are to live." Socrates believed he knew the answer, and it got him the hemlock. So, on the other hand, did the Marquis de Sade and Josef Stalin and serial killer Ted Bundy — who once described the moment of murder thus: "You feel the last bit of breath leaving their body. You're looking into their eyes. A person in that situation is God!"
They all knew the answer. Inconveniently, their answers were all different.
And when it comes to evil, so are ours. True, we've long had Satan, who emerged in the New Testament as supreme cosmic villain. But while a majority of Americans still profess belief in the Prince of Darkness, for most of us he's lost his luster as a one-stop answer to questions about evil. The more closely we examine evil, in fact, the more it splinters. We've all heard "Thou shall not kill." So killing is evil? Certainly. Well, usually. Can the word evil be applied to a tornado that swoops down upon a grade school and leaves it a sea of bloody, broken wreckage? Our hearts cry out yes! But how can the weather be evil? It's hard to imagine a greater evil than a tiny child crushed by a car, but is it still evil if the driver didn't mean to do it?
Is it evil for a lawyer to help a guilty criminal evade punishment? For a coyote to have your cat for lunch? For CEOs to plunder corporations while balancing on the knife-edge boundaries of the law? For wealthy people to wax richer while their neighbors struggle in poverty? For a human to kill animals for sport or to perform painful experiments on our first cousin, the chimp?
Such devilishly difficult questions. A reasonable approach to answering them might start with the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the word evil descends from ancient Teutonic words meaning "too much" or "over the limit." Yet the worthy OED's first definition is "the opposite of Good." This is not much help; the opposite of a good cigar is not an evil one. At the other extreme is the widely cited 1964 comment by former U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. It's tough to define hard-core pornography, the justice said, "but I know it when I see it."
In fact, it seems we find ourselves without much of a common vocabulary for collectively addressing life's greatest challenge. Evil has always been a topic of discussion on Sundays in America, but over the past two centuries the word has largely faded from common use. It's made a partial comeback with recent concerns over terrorism, but this confused furor, too, only underscores how unprepared we are to wrestle with the concept. As Andrew Delbanco put it in The Death of Satan, "We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world."
The old certainties still thunder forth regularly from podiums and the pulpits. But listen closely, and you'll hear evil denounced or lamented — or brandished against others — but seldom explained. Meanwhile, we inhabit a society morally confused and sharply divided over fundamental questions of right and wrong, as it is about race, poverty, abortion, homosexuality, immigration, capital punishment — to name just a few.
But despite our moral fragmentation, despite what Delbanco calls "this crisis of incompetence before evil," most of us will immediately agree that evil remains brutally real — as real today as in the time of Job or Torquemada or Vlad the Impaler. The twentieth century is commonly called the bloodiest in history. From Cambodia to Rwanda to Bosnia to the latest local headlines, our fellow humans seem capable of committing literally any outrage, of hurling themselves into unbounded savagery or treachery. How? Why? As we charge off into the third millennium, we're still being stalked by fifty centuries' worth of the same terrible questions.
Questions that must have arisen in response to Homo sapiens' earliest experiences of pain and loss. The clay tablets of the Sumerians, who lived five thousand years ago in what is now Iraq, and who are generally credited with the invention of writing, contain laments that seem eerily familiar to us today:
My companion says not a true word to me,
My friend gives the lie to my righteous word,
The man of deceit has conspired against me.
Evil, in fact, may have have commanded our attention before good. Historian Paul Carus says, "There seems to be no exception to the rule that fear is always the first incentive to religious worship ... a powerful evil deity looms up as the most important personage in the remotest past of almost every faith."
In recent centuries we've championed such explanations for wickedness as superstition, ignorance, illness, childhood trauma, social conditioning, and defective genes. But humans' earliest sense of evil was hardly so elaborate; it was likely associated simply with physical survival in a fearsome world. A catalogue of those early evils by Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz included "hunger, cold, fire, landslides and avalanches, snowstorms, drowning, storms at sea, being lost in the forest, the big enemy animals, the ice bear in the north, the lion or crocodile in Africa, etc." Contemporary philosopher Amelie Rorty says our earliest notions of evil involved "abominations — acts that, like incest, cannibalism, patricide, and fratricide — elicit horror and disgust." French philosopher Paul Ricoeur says primitive humans associated evil with the idea of "defilement," a condition that itself had to be countered with some ritual of purification — all of which sounds a lot like the beginnings of humankind's primary answer to misfortune: organized religion.
At some point we began to pray to supernatural spirits to ease their anger at our apparent sins and to protest our innocence. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, dating from perhaps 2500 B.C.E., portrays newly dead souls seeking a favorable judgment from the gods by intoning long lists of the things they did not do, from, "I have not done falsehood against men" to, "I have not built a dam on flowing water."
As the world adopted religions with divinely inspired rules, Rorty notes, evil evolved into a sense of disobedience. Evil became sin. But why do we sin? Many cultures, especially in the Middle East but also in the West, decided early on that promoting evil is the vile work of one or more supernatural beings. The Egyptians had Seth, the lord of the desert whom the Greeks later equated with Typhon, whence the word typhoon. Zoroaster, the widely influential Iranian religious leader of the sixth century B.C.E., is generally credited with identifying the first being of pure evil, Angra Mainyu. The Babylonians had the nocturnal female demon Lilitu; the Israelites had Azazel and Beelzebub, among others; the ancient Germans, Loki, sire of the wolf; the Christians, Satan; and the Muslims, Iblis.
Today we have ... Hannibal Lecter?
This celebrity-villain approach remains humans' most popular way to explain where evil comes from. Of course it's not universal: Millions of us follow creeds, chiefly Hinduism and Buddhism, that either pack the stage with villains or dismiss them all as B-list poseurs. More about that in the next chapter.
But the leaders of the young Christian church also developed another approach to defining evil, this one by focusing on what it's not. This ended with the surprising conclusion that evil does not exist. You read that right. Plato and his later interpreters had defined evil as falling so low on the scale of existence that it registers as a negative, as "nonbeing." This idea fit well with the Christians' urgent need to explain how evil could exist in a world created by a single, all-loving God. Augustine, the fifth-century North African thinker who so powerfully shaped Christian doctrine, concluded that evil cannot exist — cannot have "being" — in such a cosmos, but must be seen only as the absence of good, or privatio boni. To skeptics, this adroit explanation might sound more worthy of Bill Clinton than of a Church Father, but it helped form the foundation of Christian dogma. One especially florid expression of it came from a Syrian monk commonly referred to by the remarkable name of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Around 500 he wrote: "[Evil is] a lack, a deficiency, a weakness, a disproportion, an error, purposeless, unlovely, lifeless, unwise, unreasonable, imperfect, unreal, causeless, indeterminate, sterile, inert, powerless, disordered, incongruous, indefinite, dark, unsubstantial, and never in itself possessed of any existence whatever."
You get the idea. Over the centuries, the Christian Church gradually consolidated its power and its doctrines concerning evil and settled in to battle Satan for the souls of humankind. It also battled Islam, which arose in seventh-century Arabia, even though Islam also preaches the story of Adam and Eve and blames evil on Satan, or Iblis, an angel cast down because of pride. Then, as Mark Larrimore of Princeton writes, came three tectonic historial shifts that wrought monumental changes in our view of evil. First was the Renaissance, usually dated from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, during which humans' focus moved from the afterlife to the life of this world. Evil and suffering, Larrimore says, were less easily explained away with references to cosmic mysteries, because "most people today are unimpressed by the insignificance of this life in comparison with eternity."
Second was the Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century philosophical movement that questioned reigning values and beliefs — notably including Adam's fall and original sin. That, Larrimore notes, undermined the long-standing Christian (Though not Muslim) doctrine that humans deserved to suffer in this world because they were already tainted by evil at birth. This naturally raised the question: if we don't have to suffer, why are we suffering?
We're still wrestling with that one.
Third, Larrimore suggests, came the impact of modern medicine and its dramatic reduction of pain and loss. "The problem of evil became acute," he says, "... once suffering no longer seemed a necessary part of life, but exceptional."
Exceptional, but not gone. Rationalism and science may have led us out of the dank gloom of superstition, but they also shredded the Christian West's once broad and stable beliefs in the origins of evil — then stopped there. They've certainly not banished evil and ushered in utopia, as Karl Marx and other infectious dreamers confidently predicted they would. So where are we left? Evil undeniably thrives, while science denies us any cosmic explanation to salve our wounds or guide us to shelter. This is progress?
Much of the fault appears to be our own. As science nicely explains away so many of our traditional terrors, we cling ever more tightly to others — what's up with those crop circles, anyway? — and discover later-model demons who ride UFOs instead of broomsticks. We seem almost to want evil lurking in our cognitive shadows like a storybook vampire avoiding the sun; content to glimpse it out of the corner of our eye, we seldom try to see its face.
Even Hollywood, so often condemned as the enemy of righteous, God-fearing society, turns out to be a major ally. From Dracula to Darth Vader, horror flicks have only reinforced our deep-rooted belief in evil as a mysterious force unleashed by the violation of some code that ultimately derives from the divine. True, Bride of Chucky is no Paradise Lost, but the underlying moral lessons are the same. The French poet Charles Baudelaire famously remarked that the Devil's greatest trick was to convince us he doesn't exist. Hollywood, au contraire, toils faithfully to assure us that he does.
Why? Because Hollywood knows that evil attracts us, even in little doses. Sociologist Jack Katz quotes a shoplifter: "Once outside the door I thought Wow! I pulled it off, I faced danger and I pulled it off. I was smiling so much and I felt at that moment like there was nothing I couldn't do."
Most of us can at least imagine the thrill of violating a law or a taboo. Usually, of course, we're thinking about minor transgressions that we amiably label "vices," rather than extreme cases in which we've "thirsted after the bliss of the knife," as Friedrich Nietzsche put it. Augustine himself lamented how, at age sixteen, he and some other kids stole pears from a neighbor's tree just to do it. "Foul was the evil, and I loved it," he wrote. "I loved to go down to death. I loved my fault, not that for which I did the fault, but I loved my fault itself."
Now that's guilt. True believers like Augustine easily explain our liking for evil as arising from the foul doings of Satan or his henchmen. Nonbelievers have to explain why we set up moral rules — against theft, adultery, tailgating — that we then lust to break. One popular answer is to locate the problem in biological rules that some scientists believe directly underlie our moral ones. Evolutionary psychologists, as we'll see in chapter 4, contend that our traditionally defined "evils" are little more than manifestations of embedded human survival urges like lust, greed, and aggression.
To confuse things even more, there's our longstanding recognition that, well, evil isn't all bad.
Plotinus, a highly influential Neoplatonist philosopher of the third century, noted: "Vice itself has many useful sides: it brings about much that is beautiful, in artistic creations for example, and it stirs us to thoughtful living, not allowing us to drowse in security." Other thinkers old and new have linked man's rebellious instincts to the precious goal of freedom: "This first fact of disobedience," psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote, "is man's first step toward freedom." French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne went further: "Whoever would take away the knowledge and sense of evil, would, at the same time, eradicate the sense of pleasure, and, in short, annihilate man himself."
Georg Friedrich Hegel, the influential nineteenth-century German philosopher, went even further, linking evil to the emergence of human consciousness and individuality from the primitive soup of animal instincts: "Evil lies in consciousness: for the [animals] are neither evil nor good. ... Consciousness occasions the separation of the ego, in its boundless freedom as arbitrary choice, from the pure essence of the will."
Theories about why evil attracts as well as repels us have filled many volumes and will be touched upon throughout this one. Surely most of us avert our eyes, and our rationality, from evil because we've been taught to do so, and warned that staring too long at the dark side is highly dangerous — a lesson embodied in the Greek myth of Medusa. But the see-no-evil approach hasn't worked very well. Worse, it may even hinder us from understanding evil by confusing two critically different senses of the word:
In the first sense, evil simply means the extremely bad things that happen, from war to crime to Reality TV. Surely we can all agree — OK, not the Buddhists — that empirical evil is an authentic part of everyday life.
In the second sense, the word is defined according to the myth or ideology that a group or society adopts, cherishes, and mercilessly defends. It is here that religion enters, rationality is trumped by revelation, and agreement disintegrates.
Lust, cruelty, greed — examples of evil in the first sense have been constants of human existence from Cain to Al Capone. But the ways in which we address them — our ideologies of evil — have undergone staggering transformations. Listen, for one small example, to this judgment pronounced by a court in Avignon, France, in 1542, during the European witch frenzy that dispatched thousands to unspeakable torture and death:
Excerpted from Evil: A Primer by William Hart. Copyright © 2004 William Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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