Evil might seem like a strange topic to be commencing the year with, but I have been finishing an article on this elusive theme and these notes are consciously untimely. It is a difficult, awkward topic, weighed with religious and mystical connotations, it does not fit well with many contemporary frames. And yet, it is not without cause that the problem of evil has drawn so many of our greatest minds to consider it. It forces thought and reflection. As Richard Bernstein notes, ‘the discourse of evil in our religious, philosophical, and literary traditions has been intended to provoke thinking, questioning, and inquiry.’ Another reason for considering evil is, quite simply, that it does appear in our world. Reflecting on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admitted: ‘Through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.’
Evil is a thick rope of many complex, twisted, and intertwined strands.
Robert L. Simon
A crime can be ordered, fit in some manner into the rest of our experience. To call an action evil is to suggest that it cannot – and that it thereby threatens the trust in the world that we need to orient ourselves within it.
Evil is simply what should not but does exist.
Over a long period, she had witnessed a young Nazi officer sending trainloads of (mainly) children to the death camps. She said that every day since then she had asked herself how it were possible for him to do it. Hers is not a question that invites an answer.
Against the dark interior of the barracks I see the red-headed girl as she calls to me impatiently: ‘So will they be punished? But say it simply, like a plain human being!’
Tadeusz Borowski, from ‘The People Who Walked’
The real evil is what causes us speechless horror, when all we can say is: ‘This should never have happened’.
A greater evil is always a corruption of a greater good.
He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, from Crime and Punishment.
There is evil because there is freedom.
As far as responsibility is concerned, Kant and a right-wing tabloid like the Daily Mail have a good deal in common. Morally speaking, both hold that we are entirely responsible for what we do.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
One of Tolkien’s most impressive achievements is that he succeeds in convincing the reader that the mistakes which Sauron makes to his own undoing are the kinds of mistake which Evil, however powerful, cannot help making, just because it is evil. A good person always enjoys one advantage over an evil person, namely, that, while a good person can imagine what it would be like to be evil, an evil person cannot imagine what it would be like to be good.
Evil … is always elsewhere, always elusive. It is a ‘marginal hallucination’; it is never in the direct line of vision, it can be seen only out of the corner of the eye.
Evil exists in the realm of human experiences that exceed our capacity to make sense of them. With considerable humility, there is value in exploring these experiences and moments where meaning and comprehensibility start to fall away. There is a point at which explanation, even language, starts to break down and lose its functionality. Evil resides at these edges.