Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Nature of Evil

A friend of mine asked what is evil and what makes evil evil. My response:

In seeking to define this term I have first turned to one of the best known authorities on religion the American philosopher William James and his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience. He writes of two perceptions of evil: the healthy-minded view and the sick soul or melancholy view.

For the healthy minded view he gives Walt Whitman as one of the largest examples:

“…The only sentiments he allowed himself to express were of the expansive order; and he expressed these in the first person, not as your mere monstrously conceited individual might so express them, but vicariously for all men, so that a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses his words, and ends by persuading the reader that men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good. Thus it has come about that many persons to-day regard Walt Whitman as the restorer of the eternal natural religion. He has infected them with his own love of comrades, with his own gladness that he and they exist.” (p. 85-86.)

He goes on to describe the healthy-minded view of evil in general:

“Much of what we call evil is due entirely to the way men take the phenomenon. It can so often be converted into a bracing and tonic good by a simple change of the sufferer’s inner attitude from one of fear to one of fight; its sting so often departs and turns into a relish when, after vainly seeking to shun it, we agree to face about and bear it cheerfully, that a man is simply bound in honor, with reference to many of the facts that seem at first to disconcert his peace, to adopt this way of escape. Refuse to admit their badness; despise their power; ignore their presence; turn your attention the other way; and so far as you yourself are concerned at any rate, though the facts may still exist, their evil character exists no longer. Since you make them evil or good by your own thoughts about them, it is the ruling of your thoughts which proves to be your principal concern.” (p.88-89)

The same sentiment is shared by Hamlet when he says “There is neither good nor evil but thinking makes it so.” Nietzsche seemingly goes beyond this view in his ability to appreciate the role evil can have in bringing about goodness (which is for him power or nobility):

Evil.—Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible. The poison of which weaker natures perish strengthens the strong—nor do they call it poison.

I will only quote the closing remarks of James’ view of the sick soul where he compares it to the healthy-minded view:

[the healthy-minded view]…will work with many persons; it will work far more generally than most of us are ready to suppose; and within the sphere of its successful operation there is nothing to be said against it as a religious solution. But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophic doctrine, because evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

…Here on our very hearths and in our gardens the infernal cat plays with the panting mouse, or holds the hot bird fluttering in her jaws. Crocodiles and rattlesnakes and pythons are at this moment vessels of life as real as we are; their loathsome existence fills every minute of every day that drags its length along; and whenever they or other wild beast clutch their living prey, the deadly horror which an agitated melancholic feels is the literally right reaction on the situation.

It may be that no religious reconciliation with the absolute totality of things is possible. Some evils, indeed, are ministerial to higher forms of good; but it may be that there are forms of evil so extreme as to enter into no good system whatsoever, and that, in respect of such evil, dumb submission or neglect to notice is the only practical resource. (p. 163-165.)


His reply/ opening statement:

Someone asked: "Mr. Webster, what do you consider the most serious thought that has ever entered your mind?"

"The most solemn thought that has ever entered my mind is my accountability to my maker," Daniel Webster

In order to understand what evil is and what makes evil actually evil is first to recognize that we, as human beings, are creations of a creative God who loves us, cares for us and wants us to know Him. He desires this so much that He sent Jesus to die for the sins we committed against God in ignorance and rebellion to what is good, true and right. Therefore, anything that goes against God and His nature is a threat to our being. When humans become the authors of truth and morality we end up making a mess of things...creating chaos and war and destruction. The religious wars of the last 1000 years should be ample proof of this, as well as the theoretical battles that plagued World War I, II and those wars proceeding on account of the Cold War.

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