Friday, August 05, 2005

The idea of evil

Recently, the media drew attention to an interesting new development in psychiatry - the possible rehabilitation of the word and concept of evil in the evaluation of particularly sadistic and vicious killers. Dr Michael Stone, a Columbia University professor of psychiatry who has examined several hundred murderers and has devised a so-called depravity table, is unafraid of using the word evil to describe such people. He said that though he was not a supporter of the death penalty, his examinations and conclusions showed that there were people who were neither mad nor disturbed in any classical sense, but who were evil, and must be removed from society - hardly a concept that will appear startling to the average layperson. Other psychiatrists disagree - some (for instance, Dr Robert Simon, who wrote a book entitled Bad Men do What Good Men Dream Of) because they say that evil is a meaningless term since evil is endemic to everyone, others because they totally distrust the idea of evil itself, imagining that we are calling up the shade of Satan, or some other direly non-secular concept. Still others of course naively persist in appearing to think that 'evil' is a synonym for 'ugly' or 'inept', with one saying that because murderer Ted Bundy was 'romantic' towards his girlfriend, the concept of 'evil' couldn't apply to him!

What interested me in this discussion was the poverty of the idea of evil displayed by so many of these eminent men and women. The most humble folktale story of the Devil is more complex, subtle and ambiguous in its exploration of evil than are all the depravity tables of people who, for all their undoubted eminence and record in helping the mentally ill, seem powerless in front of the reality that sometimes - rarely, fortunately - there arise human beings who have deliberately chosen the path of evil. Murderers of the kind Dr Stone examined have not vanished simply because there is a great deal of modern talk about the childhood influences that might have made them what they are, or how responsible society is in grooming them; indeed, these days, the truly evil know all the right excuses and sychobabble and have managed to bamboozle a great many psychiatrists, until now, anyway. Dr Stone's depravity table is merely a 'respectable' way of measuring - supposedly scientifically - what evil is. But it doesn't inspire me.

The old stories of the Devil, and the many explorations of the concept of a personification of evil, from the Adversary to Satan to Lucifer to Mephistopheles, were attempts at imaginatively grasping and understanding what we all know - that we are indeed all born with the 'deficiency' as St Columba calls original sin, and that we must struggle against that part of us which is selfish, narcissistic and wishes others ill. But it is more than that. The personification of evil may mislead the na�ve, but its imaginative force is that it embodies a reality, in all its complexity.

Evil is real, just as good is; you cannot have one without the other. It doesn't come with horns and a tail, not usually - it can be brutish or charming, thick or intelligent, cruel or violent, banal or extravagant, and it can be clothed in any human hide. But true evil is always conscious, it is never a product of mental illness or brain disease or circumstances - though it is usually quite opportunistic. It is always narcissistic, but it can be a negative, or passive one - i.e. the person is incapable of imagining others' suffering or independent existence, which is usually the definition of a psychopath (or, literally, 'soul-sick' - just clothe an old concept in scientific-sounding words and you're right as rain!); or it can be a positive, even more dangerous sort - perfectly capable of imagining others' pain and suffering, and going ahead anyway, because it's pleasurable, because the evildoers love power, because they consider themselves above all laws, whether man-made or divine. Often, such people can be charming, even charismatic. A combination of the two expressions of evil can be devastating - as in the case of the Moors Murderers, for instance, where the charismatic Brady dominated the more passive Hindley; or in the case of what happens in regimes such as Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia and Saddam's Iraq, where a regime is in itself criminal and a charismatic Adversary gives permission to its followers for all normal rules, and the normal preference for good over evil, to be suspended.

We all know that there are indeed people who, though they are human beings, not only exhibit traits and ideas which are inexplicably malign, but actually carry them out in real life. Despite Dr Simon's blithe assumption that 'bad men do what good men dream of' (reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's pious assertion that he was a sinner every bit as much as a real adulterer, because he'd 'committed adultery in his heart'), there is a vast difference between the thoughts that creep into your head on occasion, and actually doing it; it is by their fruits you shall know them, after all. Thinking something wicked in your heart is a sin - and something to confess, and to try and overcome, for that is what makes human life not some neatly plotted graph table but a constant and unremitting struggle - but actually doing it, and doing it in the full knowledge of what you are doing, that is something else again. It is there that evil truly resides - evil that would tear out the very roots of heaven, and make of the whole world, and of humanity, a wasteland without end.
Sophie Masson via normblog.

This a fine piece. I think that the second paragraph is particularly insightful.

(Much as I enjoy Jimmy Carter bashing, in Matthew 5.27�28, Jesus does actually say, "You have heard that it was said, �Do not commit adultery.� But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.�)

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