Monday, November 23, 2009

Inoculating Against Evil.

There really is no universally accepted definition of evil, yet we all have some understanding of its essential characteristics and qualities. It could be said that evil is anything that destroys the "fundamental conditions of human well-being." On the spectrum of good and evil, most of us fall somewhere in the middle and hopefully strive toward becoming good or better than we are, and like anything else we try to improve upon, practice makes perfect, or in this case, simply good will do.

"Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life; the longer we continue to make the wrong decisions the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decision the more our heart softens, or better perhaps, comes alive … each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction, also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable rather than the desirable action. On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender and eventually freedom is lost. Between the extreme when I can no longer do a wrong act and the extreme where I have lost my freedom to right action, there are innumerable degrees of freedom of choice. In the practice of life the degree of freedom to choose is different at any given moment. If the degree of freedom to choose the good is great it needs less effort to choose the good, but if small it takes a great effort, help from others and favourable circumstances … most people fail in the art of living, not because they are inherently bad or so without will they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide; they are not aware when life asks them a question and when they still have alternative answers, then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time (the heart of man: it's genius for good and evil)."-- Erich Fromm
Every day, in a world of plenty, more than thousands of people die of hunger, preventable diseases, war, genocide, etc., which can only be attributed to one thing: human evil. Is there any other kind? As far as we know, there is not. According to John Kekes' The Roots of Scott Peck, in his book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil , defines evil as, ,
"The exercise of political power - that is the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion - in order to avoid...spiritual growth."
But why would anyone want to avoid spiritual growth? The answer is fairly simple. Spiritual growth is painful. It always involves self examination, sacrifice, and usually suffering of some kind, not necessarily in that order.

In relationships such as parent/child, teacher/student, employer/employee, officer of the law/citizen, etc. where the person in control, can exercise his or her authority purely for it's own sake, unsubordinated to anything higher than his own will, whether that higher something is God, or love or truth, the occurrence of evil is much more likely. In other words, if the person in power is not trying to improve a situation, or accomplish something creative, and uses that power arbitrarily, that person is almost certain to overreach his or her bounds, and give in to the force in his nature that gives rise to moral wickedness.

We normally associate evil with people who possess a tremendous amount of political power - Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini - because of the catastrophic results. However, thankfully, it is rare that evil people attain a position of great authority. Rather, evil, is much more common in ordinary people we run into everyday.

So, if that's true, why don't we notice? Could it be we're looking in the wrong places and at the wrong people?

It is said that "Idle hands are the devils playground", and "The devil finds work for idle hands to do". While, it's true, distraction and keeping busy is a very important factor in staying out of trouble, it is also very true that evil is not for the lazy because evil is hard work. Not only does evil require at least a small amount of political power, but it also requires keeping up the appearance of one who deserves to have that kind of power and/or control. That's why you find so many evil people in the PTA, the churches, and groups that make one appear and feel morally superior, while at the same time, allowing them influence and the ability to wield that power. Their "good" is all on a level of pretense.

We all commit or have committed sins or evil acts, because we're human beings and we're far from perfect, therefore, it is not the evil act(s) or sin(s) that define evil people, but rather the insidious nature, persistence and consistency of those acts, and most importantly, the refusal to acknowledge it.

So, how do you know that you're on the right path? The crucial step in inoculating yourself against evil is regularly engaging your imagination in rigorous periods of self-examination and reflection, that allows your engaged imagination to transcend the constraints of class, race, economics, sexuality, and gender. Evil people are hard workers, who are able to withstand pain, with the exception of one area: self image. They will not do the work required, and cannot accept the pain of confronting a less than perfect self.
"To reform an evildoer, you must before anything else help him to an awareness that what he did was evil. With the Nazis this won't be easy. They know exactly what they're doing: they just can't imagine it." - Alfred Polgar
The book, Strangers at Home and Abroad: Recollections of Austrian Jews Who Escaped Hitler, is a collection of autobiographical essays by Jews who had to flee Austria after the Anschluss, and who have since lived in exile. Editor, Adi Wimmer includes an observation of German poet, Alfred Polgar, who escaped Germany the day before he was scheduled to be arrested, and remained in exile. Polgar wrote in his essay, "The Emigrant and His Homeland":
"There is a Faust fragment by Lessing, in which the ghost, asked “what is the fastest thing on earth?” replies “the transition from good to evil.” Proof for the correctness of this reply was offered a few years ago by the incomprehensible rapidity with which crosses turned into hooked crosses, and men into beasts. Now and at the same speed we witnessed the retransition."
The “Lesser Traumatized”: Exile Narratives of Austrian Jews by Adi Wimmer Department of English University of Klagenfurt November 1999


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