good and evil

The Cause of Evil

One of the several defining features of the twentieth century has been the utopian thrust of political and social movements worldwide. As far flung and widely ranged as the Boxers and, later, the Maoists in China, the Leninist-Stalinists in Russia, the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the National Socialists in Germany, the dominant theme has been the belief that by changing laws and structures a perfect society can be created, freed of the age-old problems of poverty and crime. This notion pervades even the less extreme segments of political thought, including most American twentieth century politics. In his 1924 Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt traces the genealogy of this idea to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s abandonment of the idea of sin in favor of the belief that the causes of evil lie in society.

Writing of Rousseau, Babbitt claims, “in general, his notion that evil is not in man himself, but in his institutions, has enjoyed immense popularity, not because it is true, but because it is flattering.” The thought that was “central to [Rousseau’s] world view,” according to philosopher Christopher Bertram is the idea “that humankind is good by nature but is corrupted by society.” The causes of the evils that afflict human life, then, are not to be found in individuals, their actions, and motivations, but rather in society itself and its effects upon its members. Presumably, if one can alter the social structures which have produced these ills, one can alleviate, perhaps even altogether obviate, these ills.

Ultimately, what Rousseau accomplished was the overturning of the Christian doctrine of sin. Appealing to St. Paul’s use of the term “old man” to refer to the nature of human beings, inclined to sin, Babbitt argues that the Rousseauistic abandonment of this notion “undermine[s] moral responsibility.” Whereas one had previously been encouraged to look within oneself for the source of evil in the world, the responsibility could now be shifted away from himself and toward others. This is, of course, as Babbitt says, “flattering.” One need not admit one’s own flaws nor take responsibility for them; evil is external, rather than internal. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in the middle of the twentieth century.

Influenced by this supposition, the last two centuries, and the twentieth century in particular, have been rife with grand schemes to overturn existing social structures in the hopes of creating a perfected society free of the evils that have plagued earlier societies. Each, in succession, has, of course, been a tremendous failure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been a supporter of one of these movements, Marxism-Leninism in Russia, early in his life, later became one of its victims as a prisoner in the Soviet gulags. After being released from gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1974 three-volume work Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The failure of the social revolutions of the twentieth century stems, as Babbitt presciently wrote even before most of these revolutions had fully taken shape, from the deadly flaw within their basic premises, their flattering assertion that man is good and it is his institutions that make him bad. “The hope of civilization,” however, “lies not in the divine average, but in the saving remnant.” Any attempt to eliminate evil through social engineering is doomed to fail. It is only through the small, but significant, individuals who are able to develop within themselves the discipline necessary to overcome the “old Adam” that any good may be accomplished.

The passion to punish

But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had — power.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, “On the Tarantulas”

Primary Source: Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.7)

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

 12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

 13 “You shall not murder.

 14 “You shall not commit adultery.

 15 “You shall not steal.

 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

New to the world

I do not deny the rapes, murders, and slaughters that can be laid to the charge of people professing to be Christians. But the world has always known rapes, murders, and slaughters. The Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, the starving of the Ukraine, the genocidal wars of the Turks in Armenia — these evils are not new. But a Father Damien of Molokai, a Belgian priest who connives for the opportunity to minister among lepers in Hawaii, in a place so ridden with disease and crime and the immorality of the hopeless that no sensible person would want to go near; a David Livingstone, making his way to the heart of the Congo, alone, to bring the natives the word of God; a Mother Teresa, loving and tending the destitute of Calcutta, even the pariahs whom a good Hindu of higher caste was forbidden to touch — these are new to the world.

Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith, p. 253

Real Conservatism

Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognise everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning. This destruction of traditional values from above not only leads to negative consequences for society, but is also essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority, which does not accept the changes occurring or the proposed revision of values.

We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.

Of course, this is a conservative position. But speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.

Vladimir Putin, in his recent Address to the Federal Assembly

Popper on changing the world

If I were to give a simple formula or recipe for distinguishing between what I consider to be admissible plans for social reform and inadmissible Utopian blueprints, I might say:

Work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realization of abstract goods. Do not aim at establishing happiness by political means. Rather aim at the elimination of concrete miseries. Or, in more practical terms: fight for the elimination of poverty by direct means‐‐for example, by making sure that everybody has a minimum income. Or fight against epidemics and disease by erecting hospitals and schools of medicine. Fight illiteracy as you fight criminality. But do all this by direct means. Choose what you consider the most urgent evil of the society in which you live, and try patiently to convince people that we can get rid of it.

But do not try to realize these aims indirectly by designing and working for a distant ideal of a society which is wholly good. However deeply you may feel indebted to its inspiring vision, do not think that you are obliged to work for its realization, or that it is your mission to open the eyes of others to its beauty. Do not allow your dreams of a beautiful world to lure you away from the claims of men who suffer here and now. Our fellow men have a claim to our help; no generation must be sacrificed for the sake of future generations, for the sake of an ideal of happiness that may never be realized. In brief, it is my thesis that human misery is the most urgent problem of a rational public policy and that happiness is not such a problem. The attainment of happiness should be left to our private endeavours.

It is a fact, and not a very strange fact, that it is not so very difficult to reach agreement by discussion on what are the most intolerable evils of our society, and on what are the most urgent social reforms. Such an agreement can be reached much more easily than an agreement concerning some ideal form of social life. For the evils are with us here and now. They can be experienced, and are being experienced every day, by many people who have been and are being made miserable by poverty, unemployment, national oppression, war and disease. Those of us who do not suffer from these miseries meet every day others who can describe them to us. This is what makes the evils concrete. This is why we can get somewhere in arguing about them; why we can profit here from the attitude of reasonableness. We can learn by listening to concrete claims, by patiently trying to assess them as impartially as we can, and by considering ways of meeting them without creating worse evils.

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, p. 361

Christianity’s ethical transformation of antiquity

Christianity bequeathed to its members a pervasive sense of a personal God’s direct interest in human affairs and vital concern for every human soul, no matter what level of intelligence or culture was brought to the spiritual enterprise, and without regard to physical strength or beauty or social status. In contrast to the Hellenic focus on great heroes and rare philosophers, Christianity universalized salvation, asserting its availability to slaves as well as kings, to simple souls as well as profound thinkers, to the ugly as well as the beautiful, to the sick and suffering as well as the strong and fortunate, even tending to reverse the former hierarchies. In Christ, all divisions of humanity were overcome — barbarian and Greek, Jew and Gentile, master and slave, male and female — all were now as one. The ultimate wisdom and heroism of Christ made redemption possible for all, not just the few: Christ was the Sun, who shone alike on all mankind. Christianity therefore placed high value on each individual soul as one of God’s children, but in this new context the Greek ideal of the self-determining individual and the heroic genius was diminished in favor of a collective Christian identity. This elevation of the communal self, the human reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven, founded on the shared love of God and faith in Christ’s redemption, encouraged an altruistic sublimation, and at times subjugation, of the individual self in favor of a greater allegiance to the good of others and the will of God. Yet on the other hand, by granting immortality and value to the individual soul, Christianity encouraged the growth of the individual conscience, self-responsibility, and personal autonomy relative to temporal powers — all decisive traits for the formation of the Western character.

In its moral teachings, Christianity brought to the pagan world a new sense of the sanctity of all human life, the spiritual value of the family, the spiritual superiority of self-denial over egoistic fulfillment, of unworldly holiness over worldly ambition, of gentleness and forgiveness over violence and retribution; a condemnation of murder, suicide, the killing of infants, the massacre of prisoners, the degradation of slaves, sexual licentiousness and prostitution, bloody circus spectacles — all in the new awareness of God’s love for humanity, and the moral purity that love required in the human soul. Christian love, whether divine or human, was not so much the realm of Aphrodite, nor even primarily the Eros of the philosophers, but was the love, epitomized in Christ, that expressed itself through sacrifice, suffering, and universal compassion. This Christian ethical ideal of goodness and charity was strongly promulgated and at times widely observed, an ideal certainly not lacking in the moral imperatives of Greek philosophy — particularly in Stoicism, which in several ways anticipated Christian ethics — but now having a more pervasive influence on the mass culture in the Christian era than had Greek philosophical ethics in the classical world.

Robert Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, pp. 116-7