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Friday, June 1, 2012

Meditation on Evil

Evil is an adjective or predicate used to describe an action, event, belief, or person.  When describing an action (or practice, behavior, policy) that we disapprove of, we usually use the word "bad" comparing it to other actions. When describing an event (or situation, happening, accident), we might use "harmful" focussing on its effects on us or others. When describing a belief (or thought, doctrine, philosophy), evil is usually equivalent to "mistaken" and is relative to other beliefs. When it describes a person or group, evil is usually interchangeable with "wicked." Just think of the wicked witch of the west.

When we name a person or a society as "evil," that is much stronger than "wicked." Describing people, groups of people, actions, and doctrines as "evil" takes on a more absolute "in itself" meaning. Indeed, calling a person (e.g. an executive or politician) "evil," just because we disagree with that person or her policies and judge them harmful to ourselves and others trivializes the meaning and reality of evil. (E.g. calling George Bush "evil" because he started unnecessary wars or calling the USSR "the evil empire" or naming capitalism as an evil economic system.)

With the advent of monotheism, evil became a mystery, i.e. unexplainable.  A whole branch of theology arose to articulate this mystery.  Theodicy inquires how an all-good God can allow evil in the world, especially if He is all-powerful.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  How could God command his chosen people to commit holy wars, genocide, human sacrifice, capital punishment?  How can he allow slavery, oppression, child abuse, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes that wipe out thousands of men, women, and especially children?

Many stories were developed to account for, if not explain, evil in the world. Before monotheism, evil was simply a part of nature and attributed to how the world was formed including the cutting of Tiamat (chaos) by Marduk, the battles of gods, the tricks of Coyote.   Dualism, e.g. Manichaeism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, responded with an absolute evil principle in contention with an absolute good principle Light and Darkness, Matter and Spirit, or the shadow or dark side of the Force, the feminine and masculine dimension of God.

The main myth in monotheism is that of the Fall of angels and of men through disobedience and rebellion.  This is the story of free will that God gave to the highest creatures in His creation to make them more like Him.  It is they, not God, that brings evil into the world. Evil is not something at all.  It is the absence of Being.  [We saw earlier how monotheism supports a hierarchically organized State, which can brook no disobedience or rebellion, in opposition to tribal societies or feudal chieftains each with their own mythic ancestors and gods.]

There is also the philosophic/scientific myth of a developing or process God in or identified with an evolving Nature and of the contention established by the three laws of thermodynamics, entropy in an expanding, self-contained Universe.

The best treatment of evil is found in literature, even beyond the religious and philosophic myths. Think of Jago in Othello, Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, Anton Chigurth in No Country for Old Men, Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, Satan in Paradise Lost, Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs, Francis Urquhart in House of Cards. Master Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Villains without parallel. So unlike "sinners" as in Graham Green novels the flawed characters in John Updike, Elmore Leonard, Saul Bellow, none of which are beyond redemption.

Indeed do villains really exist?  In comic books there are personifications of absolute evil. But in real life, and in the best literature, even those cited above, it is much more ambiguous. The only unforgivable sin in Catholic teaching is despair, the sin against the Holy Ghost, the belief that one is beyond (including having no need of) redemption because of one or more of the seven deadly or mortal sins. Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus who finally gets punishment for his horrible deeds at the end says: "If one good Deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very Soule."

But even here evil is not absolute or inevitable.  Up through death itself, there is the possibility of a new event in which truth and good reveals itself.  And a society founded on slavery, even oppression and genocide, admits of redeeming qualities and can change as is evident by the existence and especially the victories of rebels and resisters to practices recognized almost universally as evil.

However, in reviewing Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil" as she witnessed the judgment of Adolf Eichmann and in considering Slobodan Milosovich's accusation and now Charles Taylor's conviction of "crimes against humanity" by the international court, we might understand how we can apply evil to a person and perhaps to a group or society without hyperbole and hypocrisy and thus look into evil's nature.

Because a person does bad things or even has a bad habit (i.e. vice), we do not accurately call that person evil.  It is only when that person's character is evil that we can say the person is evil; that is, like some of our villains above, his very way of being in the world is organized or constituted to do evil without compunction, without doubt, without thought. What made Eichmann so evil was not just the terrible system of actions in which he played such a leading bureaucratic role, but that he was satisfied, even comfortable, in his belief system and resulting actions because he really didn't think or care about what he was doing or the effects it had on others.

But to think, to doubt, to care about the moral quality of what one is doing implies that there is an objective standard that is universally accessible.  We have identified such a standard in the very structure of human existence of which we are aware in every conscious act unless we have suppressed, squeezed out, quieted that awareness.  We know that an act, a situation, a policy, a social order is evil if it oppresses, if it turns persons including us into things, objects, commodities to be means to other ends.  We know that an act, a situation, a policy, a social order is evil if it undermines our and others dignity, i.e. commits a crime against humanity.  But when we turn off the awareness of our act, policy, situation, and society by acting without making a responsible judgment because we refuse to think for whatever reason (greed, envy, pride, wrath, laziness), evil becomes irredeemable, unforgivable, even absolute.

Evil is the violation of our and others humanity.  It is the simplifying and reduction of the tensions of our existence so that we forget our past, are careless about our future, reduce the self to an object, and close ourselves to the world as it is, denying our capacity to question, think, and learn.

The story of the Fall along with the story of the two sides of God so well depicted by John Milton and George Lucas is a foundational myth for the American religion showing both the progressive perfectibility and conservative violent tensions in human existence.  It is expressed in many denominational religions as a struggle between sin and grace, yin and yang, angels and demons, light and shadow, destiny and freedom.  This tension can be explained through evolutionary psychology and neuroscience as a fundamental division and competition within thehuman brain.  Indeed the norm is for the tension to exist and the abnormal or psychotic state is the absence of the tension and its struggle.

And so is this the new myth as to how evil came into the world:

Human existence as we have evolved (or were created, if you will) is presence--being here, now, with. It is in the present, in every conscious act of engaging others in our world, that we are also present to who we are (our real) and who we would like to be (our ideal), that is, our fundamental humanity and the humanity of all with whom we are engaged in our evolved violent as well as our evolving empathic nature.  In every act of engaging others in the world we are also deciding our fundamental orientation, how we are wiring our brains, how we are organizing our existence.

It is not a question of having correct or incorrect answers or of having good or bad intentions. Rather it is a question of learning from mistakes and being intentional. The word for sin in Greek means "mistake": the arrow missing the mark. Humans make mistakes, all miss the mark,  intentions will probably never be totally pure, humans have and will hurt others and themselves. But when they are cruel, when they violate others' humanity, when they violate the earth and the very conditions of human existence, and at the same time they consciously choose unconsciousness, forego reflection, refuse to learn from mistakes, refuse to examine their intentions and actions, but instead hold on to beliefs despite evidence, claim righteousness and purity without doubt, deny responsibility, and never ask for forgiveness then humans are introducing evil into the world and into their very existence.

So do we look for the nature of evil in our very existence? The capacity to bring evil into the world is intertwined with the capacity to bring good. It is the same capacity to imagine, to think, to know, to judge, and to act--aware of itself. It is the capacity to use symbols. To eat of the tree of knowledge, i.e. to achieve self-consciousness, a rebellious act, is to bring evil and good into the world and know their difference.  

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