Apr/May 1999 Salon


by Paul Sampson

My friend Joe Ahearn, the estimable poet and publisher, told me that he would like to write a long philosophical poem on the nature of evil. I found myself, while driving home alone after hearing this, contributing ideas. "Joe, be sure you mention [a long list of villains and their villainy]"—and I pounded the steering wheel for emphasis as I ticked off the sinners and their sins.

I compiled quite a litany of evils, certainly good material for a first stanza or book or canto of Joe's poem. But a list is a long way from a philosophy, which is what he intends to produce. Let's see if we can help him:

At the very least, we need a definition of evil. So we start by mining the theologians. Once it was easy (and still is, for believers): Original Sin. Case closed. (I have a friend who believes that he is guilty of Original Atrocity, but he gives himself airs.) My colleague Stanley Jenkins is an adherent of the Original Sin theory, and he can and has and will again explain it better than I can.

Good for Stanley, but that's a bit too pat for many of us. Nevertheless, it's hard to say that there is no streak of built-in badness in our nature. We can't just walk away from this one, though I have a hard time with elevating our ordinary failures to the level of Total Depravity.

Our proclivity for mischief is obvious, and we all get up to all kinds of naughtiness, but it's hard to categorize every wrong as Evil-With-A-Capital-E. Most sins we can and do forgive, at least at a sufficient distance in time (and preferably place) from the sinner. (We even manage to forgive ourselves, which is remarkable, since we can't get very far away from the perpetrator.)

But are there crimes (and criminals) so bad that we can all agree that they embody Evil as a principle? You bet. Hitler and his thugs were not just errant fools like you and me. They were worse, and there are plenty more where they came from.

[As an aside, Death is not the hallmark of Evil, though it is often enough the outcome. Death, as such, isn't even the Enemy. Death, ordinarily, isn't even the Opponent. Death, for most of us, is merely the Timekeeper.]

I suppose what we define as Evil depends on what we fear the most. For me, the greatest evil involves the desire for power over others for your own advantage. This always involves setting the other's value "at naught," as Walker Percy put it. Martin Buber called it saying "I and It" instead of "I and Thou" to another person.

Clearly, I'm talking about something well beyond ordinary self-regard. I'm talking about adopting as a principle the belief that oneself, perhaps extended to one's self-defined elite, is better than all others. And, crucially, this includes the idea that this privileged person or group is entitled to rule all others. It's easiest to see this at the level of Great Leaders and the nations that suck up to them, but the scale of the thing is beside the point. Whether this is the Nazi Party or the Crips or General Motors or the white race or the Christian Church or the person of a solitary murderer is a matter of detail.

And the monstrous thing about it is the self-congratulation of its practitioners. Again, it's easiest to see the evil of the bombastic self-worship of nations during some warlike, patriotic orgy, but it works at the individual level too. I give you, to cite some of my own favorites, the CEOs who downsize and outsource and generally reduce workers to items on a balance sheet, and the investors who reward them in proportion to their cruelty, and the politicians who devise "balanced budgets" that further strip the poor, and all of whom demand—and get—great praise for it. I include their sycophants in the press, who, as workers, ought to know better.

The same principle—setting the value of oneself not merely above but at the expense of others—applies to the despoiling of the Earth for money. The forest clear-cutters, the fishers to extinction, the industrial poisoners—all set their gain as so high a good as to set all Earth at naught. (Joe, pitch it into these destroyers hot and heavy.)

So I find myself lobbying Joe for space in his poem, for attention to the evils that I fear.

The scary question is: how did they get this way?

"The love of money is the root of all evil," says That Book. Okay, but Evil predates money, surely. Anyway, reductionist formulas, even this familiar one, deprive us of the rich complexity we need. Whenever you hear the formula "X is nothing but Y," be cautious.

For instance, Original Sin. If it's the whole explanation for Evil, why doesn't it make us all into monsters? Most of us seem to come down with a relatively mild case of wickedness, unpleasant but survivable. We specialize in embarrassing little sins, lesser evils.

Lesser evils: the Realpolitik of everyday life. Sometimes there are no good choices, and no way to get out of choosing. Even inaction is a choice sometimes, and it may be an evil choice too. If you do not resist evil, you have a hand in permitting it. Resisting evil may mean fighting back, and fighting is always dirty. How do you calibrate the evils you must choose among?

Is there an Evil than which all others are less? Every demagogue will point one out for you. It's okay—it's required!—to wage hellish war and slaughter children to punish The Evil Empire/Saddam Hussein/Slobodan Milosevic or whatever bogeyman you can be made to hate and fear. (Sweet Jesus, we even found the root of Evil on the island of Grenada and duly stamped it out. Feel better now?)

If there were an Evil greater than any other, then would we be free to embrace any means to fight it? Does the end justify the means, in other words, if the end is the destruction of Evil?

Oh come on. You know better. Choosing the lesser evil—assuming that one must choose something—does not justify it. It may excuse it, which is quite a different thing. Anyway, it seems a bit hubristic to assume that any action of ours could eradicate Evil.

The uncomfortable thing is the impurity of our choices. We put people in prison, for instance, and put them to death, not merely because we cannot think of anything better to do with them, but because we enjoy it, take pleasure in it, take pride, take satisfaction. We call it justice, call ourselves The Just. Lately, with the flourishing of privately owned and managed prisons, we have found a way to make a profit from it, too, intensifying our belief in its righteousness.

Oh, Joe, my philosophic friend, I'm little help with your poetic project. I can recite a litany of wrongdoing, but I can't make sense of it. I know the names of many ills, the cure of none.


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