Notes Toward a Definition of Evil
Back in the fall of 2011 I was asked by a friend to try to provide a definition of evil. It was something I often talked about. What follows here is my rather sketchy attempt, notes merely, to delineate what is in truth an extraordinarily complex subject. To do justice, even to my own thoughts, on this subject would require much more time.
Furthermore I am going only going to discuss human evil and leave aside troubling questions about the incidental evils of earthquakes, mosquitoes and viruses. These natural evils do ultimately have to fit into a comprehensive answer to the question of evil, but I believe the real question here relates to that which we find in humanity. The capacity to choose to do evil things.
I have met a few people who actually don’t believe in evil. One woman, an established New York Times bestselling writer, told me that she felt that most things that were considered evils were really just extreme misunderstandings. In other words if people had just had more knowledge evil wouldn’t occur. My response to her… She lives in an incredibly sheltered world.
Let me enlarge that world a teeny bit with a couple of examples of what can only be described as evil.
The first comes from World War Two. In Poland, in late summer of 1944, the Russians were chasing the Nazis as they arrived at the banks of the Vistula River, which runs along the eastern edge of Warsaw. The Poles sensing that the Soviet Army was close rose up to overthrow their oppressors on August 1st. The Nazis were given such a bad time that they actually began to leave… That is until they realized that the Russians were not going to across the river. The Nazis then turned around. Then the city was leveled and more than 200,000 people died before the Poles capitulated near the end of September. The Soviet Army did not help, because they wanted to control Poland after the war. The atrocities got so bad inside Warsaw that troops under the German command even raided a cancer ward of Polish female patients. They were raped in their beds, burned alive and shot if they tried to escape. Illustrations of evil during wartime are endless some much worse than this.
A second illustration comes from the world of science. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, conducted a series of experiments that showed that average people would administer what they were told were lethal electric shocks to unseen strangers at the behest of an authority figure. So focused were they on completing their tasks that they would violate their own consciences to order to perform their instructions. These tests have been replicated in various countries around the world with fairly consistent results.
Finally something from my own life. In the mid-Seventies I worked in a mental institution in California. It was a locked facility. When I first started working there I would come across one inmate named Bryan. I couldn’t tell if he was forty or sixty. He’d always greet me in the same manner. “Hi” he’d say in a high whiny voice. “Hi” I’d reply. “What’s your sign?” he’d ask. I told him I didn’t really follow astrology. “Oh…” he would sound dejected for an instant.“Is my mother coming today?” he’d finally ask. After a few days of this repetitious behavior I thought I’d respond a little differently. “Do you want me to find out whether your mother’s coming Bryan?” He beamed. “Could you?” “Yeah I’ll look into it for you.” “Thanks.” He smiled. I walked over to the nurses station and asked one of the other orderlies if Bryan’s mother was coming soon. He looked at me with a smirk. “Oh you don’t know…” “What?” I said. “Look in the patients record book.” He pointed to a stainless steel folder. I flipped it back, scanned down the page and read the following: “Bryan’s mother had him castrated at the age of six.” And the evil here is not only in the mother’s choice, but also in the ironic smirk of the orderly.
I’ve been thinking a lot of about evil ever since then… And I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First of all evil is connected to choice. It is not merely an ignorance of crucial bits of moral knowledge, but there is something actively added to the mix.
Secondly evil is a relationship. Or rather evil is a breaking of relationships. With Our family, our loves, our children, our friends, our animals, and land, our country, ourselves, and ultimately God. The lie is evil because it severs a relationship, even if only one side of the equation knows it. Likewise stealing, envy, prejudice, etc. are all breakers of relationships. Sex seems to be a zone that breeds strange forms of evil. It is not sex that is evil, rather it is the breaking of that bond of trust which is the real problem, especially when it is inevitable. And there is too much in our age that encourages a narcissistic selfishness with regard to fulfilling one’s “needs”.
One evil often breeds another. To damage a child is to create a crucible of dark possibilities. The abused child doesn’t necessarily become sympathetic with other abused souls. Au contraire, some do go on to abuse their own children.
Evil is often done when we are protecting ourselves. In other words our own pain is the justification for committing acts against others. I’m convinced that no evil is done in the name of being an evil badass. Everyone has a good excuse. Everyone is right in their own eyes. The distance between being a victim and a victimizer is narrow indeed.
The distance between great evil (war atrocities, rape, etc) and everyday evil (drunkenness, gossip, etc) is not very far at all. It could be argued that the smallest act of evil could unleash incredibly dark scenarios. A stupid fumbling advance at a house party sends a girl home on icy roads with too much alcohol in her veins. She crashes and dies on black ice. The boy later kills himself. The community is angrily divided about what to do about the town’s drinking problem. (This is a story I witnessed.)
Evil also tries to eliminate the effects of time. Evil wants it now. The most evil person would be the one who had the will and the means to get whatever was desired as near to the moment desired as possible.
Or look at it this way. You are walking down a busy city street. What can you do that will effect someone for the rest of their life in terms of evil? The options are nearly limitless. You can trip them, punch them, shoot them, push them into the path of an oncoming car, spit at them, yell at them, make derogatory remarks about their body, threaten them, even just laugh at them. And whatever you do will be remembered.
If you reverse this thought experiment and ask what can you do that is truly good to any person on that same street, the options are few. Because any action you do might be misunderstood, or inflame problems that you know nothing about, even a smile at the wrong moment could be construed as cruel. If you gave money to a homeless person, you don’t know if they’ll just go out and buy drugs or booze with it. The only positive thing I can think of would be to save the person from a car accident or a mugging. In other words to stop an active evil. To do real good takes time. You have to know a person’s needs. Good rarely happens instantly, unequivocally.
And so ultimately all questions about evil come back to ourselves, to our own desires, to what we are willing to do to get what we want. If life is only about having fun, feeling good, staying safe, then evil is already at our door. It will manifest itself in hundreds of small but insidious ways. And then the question is what to do about it?
That brings up the question of redemption… but that’s another much longer discussion. Maybe someday I’ll get to it here.
December 8th 2019
(This one was for Vanessa.)
I am currently in Tbilisi, Georgia. Far from everything I have known, living the Anadromous Life on the edge. And hey! You can support our work here and for The Anadromist channels by through in some coin at PayPal. Click THIS LINK HERE! And if you give $!0 per month or more than $50 you’ll get audio lectures. Thanks!