Living With Evil


………a few thoughts

There’s no dispute that Moral Evil exists, for we see and hear of it, every day. Moral Evil is found in those actions that wilfully cause pain and suffering to one whilst satisfying the pleasure or greed of another. It was the 4th century A.D. Neo-Platonist pagan philospher, Sallustius, a friend of the emperor Julian, who explained — succinctly, it seems to me ― that there is no positive evil; that it is only in the actions of men that evils appear; and that if men sinned and committed evil acts simply for the sake of evil, Nature itself would be evil.

Coping with the effects of Moral Evil has posed a problem that has occupied philosophers for more than two thousand years, and the dilemma it presents is in deciding, going on from the position as put forward by Sallustius, whether Evil exists as a power of itself, or whether it is an unacceptable and integral part of the human psyche. If it exists of itself, theists are forced to take the step of conceding that if Good comes directly from God, then either Evil comes from the same source,―or that there is another God responsible for Evil in all its aspects.

Anyone who believes in a benevolent, all-loving and all-powerful God ― a God that continues to take an interest in humanity ― will also have to add the so-called ‘Natural Evils’ ― earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and physical and mental diseases, &c.,― to the equation; for although Moral Evil is clearly that aspect over which we may have some direct control, Natural Evils are generally agreed to lie beyond our control and responsibility.

“Not so!” I hear argued already, “for to take just one example, the action of mankind in burning fossil fuels is contributing to the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ on the ozone layer and altering the world’s climate and weather patterns, and so affecting the climatic balance of the planet. This is ‘bad’ because we continue to do it, knowing the adverse effect it is having on the world’s climate; continue to pander to the immediate Good of all those self-interested sections of humanity that benefit from the burning of those fuels, while knowing that the action will result in global warming that will ultimately have a bad or ‘Evil’ effect on the future of the planet and humanity as a whole. Here the action of mankind is directly affecting Nature and causing drought and flooding, and so Moral Evils are seen to affect and exacerbate the potential, and even inevitability, of Natural Evils.

“And when you say that we have control over Moral Evils, you are assuming that we have the ability or power to exercise Free Will: that each individual has the capacity to decide for him or herself what is good or evil, and how he or she will act accordingly. But what if I were to argue that there is no such thing as Free Will, and that each individual acts according to programming inherited from his or her ancestors? In that case, none of us can be held responsible for our actions; for we are only acting, in a pre-programmed manner, according to impulses affecting the structure of our DNA, either for Good or Evil, depending on the ethics and morals of the particular society in which we live,―and those in which our ancestors lived and died?”

My reaction to these arguments is that, although I understand the reasoning, I find the overall concepts and implications of the motivating forces, in both cases, too depressing to accept,―and that I must therefore, in response, fall back into a system of reasoning that allows me some hope; hope that will ultimately allow the greatest Good for the greatest number of us. Without hope, there is no future…. and to contemplate the possibility of human DNA acting―somehow―as a channel or host for Evil would seem to acknowledge that there is no hope at all. Evil, in that case, would be replicating itself and spreading with every new generation, and could eventually infest and infect the entire human race.

There are, however some considerations that I feel compelled to throw into the melting-pot…

“Of course”, I might say, “I’m prepared to concede that Good and Evil are present in mankind’s psychological makeup. Even to take the obvious example of allowing poverty within our society while others enjoy the luxury of ‘the good life’, is in itself a manifestation of Moral Evil. Poverty is evil, and the effects of poverty are evil; and poverty, it can easily be argued, leads to justified lawlessness and unrest. The more stratified a society, the more it breeds the seeds of lawlessness. But the breaking of laws is not always bad or evil. On the contrary, it is sometimes the only way of breaking the stranglehold of tyranny, bigotry, prejudice, privilege, exploitation, and cruelty. By the same argument, it is morally wrong and evil that 90% of the world’s wealth is presently in the hands of 5% of its population, and we are justified it trying to redress this evil imbalance in the distribution of wealth.

“Breaking the law because of the effects of a moral evil like poverty, and breaking the law as a means of effecting change, mean that those who break it have the ‘drive’ to want to change the status quo. Drive, and whether we have much of it or not, is derived from and governed by each individual’s biological makeup, and clearly equates with aggression. Aggression, in turn, is commonly considered undesirable and equated with evil; but the drive in man, although it may be inherently risky and dangerous, is not necessarily inherently evil. Without the drive that led men like Thales, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle, to try and understand who they were―and to make sense the world in which they lived―mankind would still be in the Stone Age.

“We know that competitive modern businesses look to young men and assess and use their potential levels of aggression as their means of winning in the market place. Older men, whose biological capacities for high levels of aggression have naturally declined with age, are deliberately rejected for that very reason. Aggression, in this instance, is just a means to the end of achieving success and happiness in the material world;―the ultimate Aim of Man. It is only in the manner in which that aggression is applied that it can ever be considered to be a Moral Evil.

“Epicurus, that wonderfully easy-going, but often misunderstood Greek philosopher, acknowledged that God or the Gods exist, but believed that they took no interest at all in the personal condition or fate of the individuals of humanity. And as the Gods took no interest in him, he saw no reason why he should take an interest in them. I see Natural Evils in much the same way. I acknowledge them as proof of the infinitely dangerous power of Nature;―but as I have no control over them, I see no reason or validity for considering them as anything else but that.

“Man, on the other hand, is a potentially dangerous animal subject only to his intellect and his individual biological makeup and chemical actions and reactions within his body, acting of his own volition within the bounds of the society in which he lives. Man is the sole perpetrator of Moral Evils, and while I see no reason for discussing that which is beyond our control, I believe that it is vitally important, and clearly in our interest, to concern ourselves with the reasons for, the effects of, and the possible ways of controlling and perhaps eradicating the Moral Evils of mankind.”

Most humanists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that the availability of systematic mass secular education was the answer to many of society’s problems; and that education would be the stepping-stone to ridding us of all moral evils. But today, many people feel that education has let us down very badly, and that it has not even made a dent in the armour of Moral Evil. Others feel that it is our system of education that is at fault; that too much emphasis is placed on stuffing our heads with facts and teaching us how to succeed, rather than teaching us how to think and ―even more importantly ― how to relate to and understand other people. Morally, in this case, the teaching of the old Pagan religions, and those of Christianity, would appear to have at least got their values and priorities right, and to have focused on issues of far greater value for the social structure of mankind.

Yet education failed the Greeks, too. The Hellenistic period of religion and philosophy, the period that reached roughly from Plato to St. Paul and the earliest Gnostics, was a period based on the consciousness of failure. It was a morbid period, but also one coloured by the spiritual exaltation that is often associated with morbidness. It had behind it the failure of the old Greek Olympian theology, the failure of the concept of the free city-states that had been crushed by semi-barbarous military monarchies; and it lived through the gradual realization of two other great failures: the failure of human government, even when backed by the power of Rome or the wealth of Egypt, to achieve a good life for man; and lastly the failure of the of the great propaganda and belief of Hellenism, in which the long-drawn effort of Greece to educate a corrupt and barbarous world seemed only to lead to the corruption or barbarization of the very ideals it sought to spread. This sense of failure, this progressive loss of hope in the world, in sober calculation and in organized human effort, threw the later Greek back upon his own soul, upon emotion, upon the pursuit of personal holiness, upon emotions, mysteries, and revelation, upon the comparative neglect of this transitory and imperfect life for the sake of some dream-world far off, which shall subsist without sin or corruption, the same yesterday, today and forever. It seemed to those old Greeks that the power of Evil had corrupted the masses, and that their only escape was to a world within themselves. Their aim was to withdraw from what they saw as the intolerable and increasing tyranny of the senses over the soul, and we can apply the analogy to our own time. But the ascetic movement grew to be measureless and insane, and it seemed, eventually, to foster another form of lust,―and to have similar affinities with cruelty as those brought about by abandonment to physical pleasure.

Sadly, in these early years of the 21st century, prejudice and bigotry have been seen to be as rife and dangerous as they ever were, continuing a long history of Moral Evil. Historically, the most appalling acts of Moral Evil were committed in the name of religion or engendered by the bigotry and intolerance of religion as understood by Man. Stepping back just a few centuries we had the Medieval Crusades during which countless millions died either in fighting or as a result of those Holy Wars fought for one concept of God against another―Christians against Christians as well as Christians against the Muslims; and the 300-year span of Witch-Hunts conducted in the name of God and religion,―witch-hunts that resulted in at least seven million women being tortured and executed by divers appallingly sadistic methods. And to site just a few recent instances of Moral Evil of similar massive proportions we need only to consider the recent problems of ethnic/religious cleansing and mass murder in the Balkans, the Holocaust in which six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis; and Stalin’s extermination of some twelve million fellow Soviet citizens who seemed to him to oppose his power and authority.

Considered like this, one realises that the power of Evil, apparently inherent and certainly perpetrated by Man, is terrifying in the extreme. And if it is breeding, as suggested earlier, through the strands of our collective DNA, it has the capacity, if ignored, to infiltrate and ultimately destroy completely the moral and ethical humanity of mankind.

But we would ignore it at our peril. We must, and can, face and overcome it. Technology will certainly help us to alleviate and control its symptoms, but we need to grasp it and eradicate it at source. Fortunately, we have great blueprints of philosophical wisdom to activate us and set us on our way.

As Aristotle explained, the aim of man is, quite rightly and naturally, the Good Life; the ultimate Aim of man is Happiness. Aristotle went on to explain how this might be achieved, but there was a certain Eusebius, a late Ionic Platonist of whom almost nothing is known, who went straight to the heart of the problem. His Pagan Prayer speaks with a strong and sober voice; a voice unafraid and untrammelled by doubt; a voice that we might do well to adopt and emulate in overcoming and ridding mankind of the power and effects of Evil. Somewhere there in Ionia, he wrote:

“…May I be no man’s enemy, and may I be the friend of that which is eternal and abides. May I never quarrel with those nearest to me; and if I do, may I be reconciled quickly. May I never devise evil against any man; if any devise evil against me, may I escape uninjured and without the need of hurting him. May I love, seek, and attain only that which is good. May I wish for all men’s happiness and envy none. May I never rejoice in the ill-fortune of one who has wronged me… When I have done or said what is wrong, may I never wait for the rebuke of others, but always rebuke myself until I make amends… May I win no victory that harms either me or my opponent… May I reconcile friends who are wroth with one another. May I, to the extent of my power, give all needful help to my friends and to all who are in want. May I never fail a friend in danger. When visiting those in grief may I be able by gentle and healing words to soften their pain… May I respect myself… May I always keep tame that which rages within me… May I accustom myself to be gentle, and never be angry with people because of circumstances. May I never discuss who is wicked and what wicked things he has done, but know good men and follow in their footsteps.”

It is something like two thousand years since Eusebius left his mark on the world, and yet his footsteps still seem, to me, to be the right ones to follow…

Robert Weatherburn Copyright 2016