Evil Be Thou My Good

24 Mar

“So farwel Hope, and with Hope farwel Fear,

Farwel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;

Evil be thou my Good.”

Paradise Lost (IV, 109 – 111)

John Milton

I had this notion when I was a lot younger that it might be instructive to meet someone who was really evil.

Some decades later I still haven’t managed to do this.

That’s not because I’ve led an especially sheltered life, I haven’t. I’ve done all sorts of things over the years and if I’ve never managed to make much money or do anything especially heroic, or even very useful, I have certainly met all sorts of people. Many of them have led much more colourful lives than I have and some of them have not always behaved very well.

So while I have met a few people who’ve done evil things, and a great many who’ve done sleazy, nasty or stupid things, I’ve never managed to meet anyone that I would be comfortable in describing as evil.

Maybe that’s because of the way I tend to define the term ‘evil’.

I think of an evil person as being someone of a certain (im)moral authority. Someone a bit like Milton’s Satan, I suppose. Or at the very least, someone like Hannibal Lector would do quite nicely as an example of an evil person, if he only existed. At the very least, he’s a highly intelligent and perceptive character and (as played by Anthony Hopkins) he can be quite witty and even charismatic when he feels like it.

The problem is that, while Milton’s Satan makes for great literature and even Hannibal Lector makes for a pretty good story, real life is seldom quite so dramatic.

In reality most of the people who do really evil things are not towering intellects or fallen angels, they’re very often boring little people who act out of fear, stupidity, greed, arrogance or ignorance. Either that or they’re the victims of their own warped passions who create further victims in following their compulsions.

You could offer Ted Bundy as a counter example. And he certainly seems to have impressed many of the people who knew him socially as being a gifted young man with a bright future in front of him. His hunting techniques (what else could you call the way he manipulated and deceived his intended victims?) also seem to have shown a certain insight, and even intelligence. He drove a VW Beetle because he recognised that people saw it as a ‘friendly’ car. He wore a plaster cast on his arm in order to solicit sympathy and assistance and also to persuade potential victims that he wasn’t dangerous. On the other hand, he probably spent a good deal of his time planning his predatory activities and, given sufficient time and motivation, even a mediocre mind can come up with an ingenious plan.

Furthermore, I don’t think anyone could have accused Fred West of being a towering intellect and when you look beyond the mythology at the biographies of most of the senior Nazis, you’ll find that most of them were opinionated or opportunistic mediocrities. On the whole, they may, or may not, have had some talent for something or other, but most of them were far from being brilliant minds. Adolf Hitler, for example, had something of a gift for graphic design and for public speaking, but he wasn’t the evil genius that some people apparently want him to be. As a matter of fact he generally only spent an hour or two per day on running the Third Reich, preferring to spend his time on long walks, watching films or pontificating to his cronies.

You could cite Reinhardt Heydrich as an exception; he was an Olympic class athlete amongst other things. Herman Goring was also a rather impressive, if deeply flawed, character but these were the exceptions. For the most part the Nazi leadership were a bunch of loud-mouthed bores who would never have amounted to anything but for a quirk of history.

So when Hannah Arendt used the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ in order to describe Adolf Eichmann, she may have ruffled a few feathers, but I think she had a point.

Amongst the people that I have met personally, the most promising candidate I ever met for the title of ‘evil’, was a distinctly scary individual who, during his detention in the state hospital at Carstairs managed to impress the staff there as being one of their most deeply disturbing guests. (It’s worth bearing in mind that these were trained professionals whose daily business is dealing with violent and dangerous offenders).

I can’t go into detail about this gentleman’s activities for various reasons, but I think it’s fair to say that he showed a certain inventive flair when it came to using sharp implements in order to inflict life-altering experiences on other people.

Having said that, he was also suffering from chronic and severe mental health problems.

That didn’t make him any less dangerous neither did it reduce in any way the need to contain him, But it does lead me to say that he didn’t chose to be evil, so much as he was acting out of fear.

I’m not qualified to make a definitive assessment, but I do think it’s possible that most of the evil things he did (and trust me, some of the things he did really were evil), were just another part of the nightmare he was living through.

I suppose this particular man was exceptional (thank goodness). He was mentally ill and he was a rarity amongst the people who have to cope with mental illness in that he was dangerous to other people. (Most people with mental health problems aren’t dangerous to anyone, or if they’re dangerous at all, it’s mostly to themselves and no one else).

So I suppose I have a lot of sympathy for Saint-Just’s aspiration to establish a form of justice that would not seek to ‘find the culprit guilty but to find him weak’.

Not only do I think this is morally superior, in that it allows more room for compassion in deciding what to do with offenders, but I also think it more accurately reflects the reality of how people come to do the things they do.

Of course I have now committed an offence of my own. I have used the word ‘compassion’ in the context of criminal justice and some people seem to find this infuriating.

When Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was released on compassionate grounds, many of those who disagreed with this decision seemed to home in on this word ‘compassion’.

It seemed to induce a mouth frothing fury in many of them.

I wonder why.

Compassion and a respect for truth seem to me to be the two basic concepts on which any form of morality that I can understand has to be based. (I think I’ll come back to this in a later post).

Of course some people seem to measure their moral status by how many people they can disapprove of and condemn.

My answer to that might be unexpected given that I’m an atheist, but I would suggest to such people that they should try not to reject the sinner along with the sin.

I suppose this is one of the principles associated with Christianity that I picked up from my mother. (She was a sincere, if idiosyncratic, Christian. If more Christians were like her then I might be a bit more comfortable with Christianity and the world would probably be an easier place to live in).

Or if this is too much to ask, maybe we could at least try to understand our sinners a little.

After all, if it isn’t always comfortable, it really isn’t all that hard. We’re all connected to each other, even if we don’t want to be.

Another small thought for you.

Maybe we should try to give people what they need instead of what they deserve. If nothing else, this practice might increase the chances that we, in our turn, might get what we need rather than what we deserve. (And most of us don’t really deserve all that much, if we’re being really honest with ourselves).

That idea didn’t come from my mother, I picked it up from watching Hombre, a western starring Paul Newman, Dianne Cilento and Richard Boone. If you have any sense, you pick up the ideas that appeal to you from wherever you find them, not just from ‘respectable’ sources.



2 Responses to “Evil Be Thou My Good”

  1. Colin 26/03/2012 at 2:44 pm #

    “If you have any sense, you pick up the ideas that appeal to you from wherever you find them, not just from ‘respectable’ sources.”

    To quote Sheryl Crow, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got”.
    Buddhist philosophy in a country rock song.

  2. Hilary 15/03/2013 at 2:16 pm #

    Milton also said “all wickedness is weakness” – perhaps that’s why in some cases evil is banal

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