I seem to need to revisit the subject of evil. Perhaps it will be helpful to hold up alongside the Germanwings' plane crash, other tragedies that prompt associations with evil. And, at least for my benefit, it will be helpful to group these scenes of human suffering into the following categories: natural evil, systemic evil, moral evil, and the archetype of evil.
But before I begin that grouping, I will offer a working definition of evil. From the New Oxford American Dictionary comes this definition:
- "profoundly immoral and malevolent;"
- "(of a force or spirit) embodying or associated with the forces of the devil;"
- "harmful or intending to harm;"
- "(of something seen or smelled) extremely unpleasant;"
All of these are adjectives. Nouns include the following:
- "profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, esp. when regarded as a
- "a manifestation of this, esp. in people's actions;"
- "something that is harmful or undesirable."
Now with those working definitions, I begin my groupings.
With earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc., entire villages may be destroyed, natural habitats ruined, properties lost, even geographical boundaries changed forever, and thousands of human and animal lives lost. The suffering in those situations is without measure. The same holds true for disease, genetic malformations, and catastrophic illness. Lives are wasted, families overwhelmed, and life's savings erased.
We cannot escape the calamitous consequences of these events. Nor are they in any way respective of race, religion, economic status, or locality. We live in a world of unpredictable natural disasters and experience them directly ourselves, in the lives of people we know, or among those we see on our TV screens.
There was a time when the monotheistic faiths may have attributed these natural disasters either to the willful acts of God as punishment of some sort; or, secondly, the events might have been attributed to the work of the devil, Satan, or demons acting in behalf of those fiendish powers. Gradually, however, we are coming to understand that in a universe of freedom, bad things do happen to good people, and we do not resort to labeling our catastrophes as acts of God. We are free from that -- but not quite. For example, even our legal, financial, and insurance systems may still refer to natural catastrophes as "acts of God" (and thus a promulgation of the idea of evil as having from the hands of an idiosyncratic deity!). But, there are still individuals who know better and yet fall into the old trap of viewing God as the cause of all natural suffering. Hardly a month goes by that someone in my consulting room does not ask, in regard to some experience of suffering, "Why is God doing this to me?" The old view of a tyrannical deity whose main function is to reward and punish people -- those views are anchored deeply in the subterranean recesses of our deep psyche.
This is the face of evil that Hannah Arendt may have called banal. In her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt described the role of Adolf Eichmann in following Hitler's order to eliminate the Jews of Europe. She focused on what she perceived to be Eichmann's bureaucratic mentality as the banality of evil by which monstrous actions followed the countless details of institutional decisions that ultimately led to the death camps where five to six million Jews died in the Holocaust labeled simply as the "Final Solution."
Nothing I say will match the barbaric slaughter of the Holocaust, and I mean to do no disservice to that event by listing other examples of human suffering in the same category. They may be of lesser importance in the minds of some, but who can say? Because such so-called banality of evil can live among us and might come to our full attention only later.
Think, for example, of the slave ships that brought people of African descent to our shores where they existed in a servitude that resembled a living death, the after-effects of which still haunt us today and tear apart our people. This is the way of all "isms:" racism, sexism, ageism. It is the way also of so much collective and corporate life in which persons are treated like chattel, objects to be used, abused, moved around, and discarded as impersonal means toward profitable ends. Consider how in the Great Recession of 2008, the big institutions of money and power caught up individuals and smaller groups in a bureaucratic game of high-stakes monopoly through which everyone sought to become rich with little thought to the excesses that crashed on top of the paper empire, driving peoples' personal properties under water and losing the small life savings of others.
I am reminded of a theme in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The farmer is desperate for a loan to keep his farm and looks to the bank that professes it would like to accommodate the request personally but the bank's policy will not allow such a loan as it has to answer to others who control it "back East." To this, Steinbeck will say:
The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man
in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it.
The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster.
Men made it, but they can't control it.
This is the innocuous but destructive banality of evil in which people become trapped systemically to commit acts they want to believe are not of their own doing. All acts of systemic evil begin in the safe fortress of our extremist views, whether they be patriotism, religious fundamentalism, an unregulated capitalism, or an over-regulated socialism.
But here we come to that dimension of evil in which we see our own hand most clearly. In a much studied experiment by the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, reported in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram reports on an experiment described briefly as follows. Individuals participated in administering what they thought to be electrical shocks to another participant in the experiment who was actually an actor pretending to be experiencing the pain of increasing levels of voltage. What Milgram reported in his study, and this has been duplicated in several subsequent experiments, is that a great majority of individuals instructed to administer the painful levels of voltage, when told by the "authority" conducting the process, complied with the instructions even though they believed they were inflicting great pain on another person and, as Milgram states in his book, with no hostility toward the other individual.
The findings of this study supposedly reveal how susceptible persons are to committing destructive acts under the conditions of being instructed to do so by "authorities." The focus here seemed to concentrate on the role of the authorities in leading persons to harm others. But that shadow side of human personality has an even greater window for violent acts to emerge. Think of what individuals can do when they fear for their survival, when they dislike other persons and feel threatened by them, when they are jealous, when they think that for whatever reason they deserve or are entitled to cut corners and get what they want. Psychoanalysis has helped reveal to us how vulnerable we are to the unconscious dynamics of projection of evil upon others, of compartmentalizing our lives, rationalizing, demonizing others, etc. Each of us is capable of these patterns by which the little betrayals become great acts of evil. "Oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive," says William Scott in Marmion. Under the most convoluted cloud of self-deception, believing ourselves to be protectors of virtue, we let slip the shadow life of our worst selves.
THE ARCHETYPE OF EVIL
And the prince of darkness, the archetype of evil, is the devil that dwells within our deep psyche, the collective unconscious, as C.G.Jung has named it. It is this prince of darkness who commands our worst self and who sets loose the fires of destruction that erupt into wars, famine, pestilence, and death. It is this force, the archetype of evil, that functions in our personalities and erupts in our external world as the autonomous spirit of evil that may inhabit persons and groups and nations.
I am well aware that this language may be offensive to some and embraced by others, but in any case the language is not foreign to us. Either as religious reality, hypostasis, or metaphor, the idea of the "devil" holds place in our language, literature, and imagination. Look again at the definition given by the Oxford American Dictionary with which I began.
What do I make of it? As a non-theist, I certainly do not regard the "devil" as a being that haunts our world and delivers us to the hell of everlasting fire and damnation. So I turn to the two sources that have informed me most regarding human nature and the nature of evil.
The first source is that of the New Testament world shaped by Greek thought and synthesized in the Judeo-Christian heritage that has given us those scriptures. In those texts, there are several words used to describe evil as something bad, but only one word describing evil as an active, autonomous agency or principle (See John Sanford's Mystical Christianity, 1997). That word is poneros, used to refer either to the "Evil One" or to evil as a force in itself.
We must be careful here, because, again, this does not refer to a being rambling about in the world. This is a description of a psychic dynamic. It is what Carl Jung called an archetype. You could call it the archetype of the devil, or the evil one, or the shadow, or the adversary, or the power of non-being. Remember, an archetype is an "innate neuropsychic center possessing the capacity to initiate, control and mediate the common behavioral characteristics and typical characteristics of all human beings irrespective of race, culture or creed." (See A. Stevens, Archetype Revisited, p. 352). In other words, and in everyday language, the "archetype of evil" is nothing less or more than what people have meant when they said -- in humor or in sincerity -- "the devil made me do it."! That is to say, in our common wisdom, we know indeed that there are occasions when "something comes over us," "something gets into us," and in those experiences it is as if we are taken over by a foreign power in the service of destruction.
This is our psychological legacy. It informs our notions of evil and makes more understandable our experiences of natural, systemic, and moral evil. Such an understanding of evil brings us to a gravitas in which we regard our encounters with evil as nothing less than an assault against the principle of life, the encounter of Being with the dark force of Non-Being, in which all possibilities for happiness, hope, reverence,and ecstasy hang suspended, awaiting the outcome.