Grappling with evil

Historians are better placed to explain malicious acts than philosophers, who strive to subordinate them to reason

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A war memorial was vandalised in Chiswick recently. Police appealed for witnesses to an act of criminal damage to the stone bench at the Church of St Michael and All Angels, erected a century ago “to the glory of God and in memory of the 44 men from Bedford Park who gave their lives in the service of their country in the Great War”. The vandals prised off several of the bronze plaques on which their names are recorded. Such crimes are too common to attract much attention, but a local news website reported it.

The ignorant feel entitled to deface these monuments

I went to see the place. Words and pictures cannot convey the viciousness that must have inspired such a callous desecration. Those who survived the war built thousands of memorials like this all over the country, each a thing of beauty as well as a homage to pietas. Now the First World War has receded beyond living memory, the impious and the ignorant feel entitled to deface these monuments of petrified grief. Iconoclasm may have been legitimised by all the campaigns against statues. But this crime, like countless others, was almost certainly not motivated by politics or woke ideology.

It was motivated by evil. Not, certainly, evil in its most extreme form, yet evil nonetheless. We call such acts of vandalism “malicious”, but “malice” is merely the Latinate term for the Germanic “übel”. Such crimes are gratuitous: from the destruction of art or the burning of books to crimes against humanity is, perhaps, a difference of degree rather than of kind. Evil may take many forms, not all of them criminal: think of the cruelty that malicious words may inflict. What all evils have in common, however, is that they are destructive of something precious. The damage may be reparable; the memory of it seldom is.

Evil is, and always has been, the great incommensurable of the moral universe. How is the existence of evil compatible with a rational and benign cosmos? St Thomas Aquinas begins his Summa Theologia with the question of whether God exists — and immediately the problem of evil rears its head. In Part I, Question 2, Article 3, he considers the following objection: “It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word ‘God’ means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.”

Nietzsche was too intelligent to ignore the existence of evil

Aquinas proceeds to list his famous five proofs of God’s existence. Then he replies to the objection by quoting St Augustine: Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in the world, unless His omnipresence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil. Aquinas adds: “This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that he should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.” How this can happen is one of the unfinished tasks of philosophy: for even if philosophers dispense with the proofs of God’s existence, we are left with the scandalous fact of evil.

Evil is a problem that has troubled even those whose world view seems to exclude it. Descartes, whose mechanistic universe functions independently of moral categories, nonetheless in his Meditations introduced the thought experiment of a God, for whom the senses and mathematics are an illusion, and an evil demon “who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me”, in order to subject himself to the most extreme doubt and denial.

Kant, the man who defined the Enlightenment with the Horatian motto sapiente audere (“dare to know”), also coined the phrase das radikal Böse (“radical evil”), the propensity to defy the moral law with which every human being is born. While Nietzsche purported to have traced the genealogy of morals and to have provided the prologue of a philosophy of the future “beyond good and evil”, he was too intelligent to ignore the existence of evil, even if he cloaked it in metaphors such as “the abyss”.

If many intellectuals have inherited a diluted form of the Bloomsbury view that morality is all about personal relationships, not everyone subscribes to E.M. Forster’s dictum: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The extraordinary manifestations of patriotism that constantly surprise those who underestimate the love of country show we instinctively know that our way of life must be defended against those who would snuff it out. Ever since Adam and Eve, the knowledge of good and evil has been our blessing as well as our curse. Most people know there are worse things in this world than are dreamt of in academic philosophy.

This sounds more like sadism than sanctity

To whom, then, should we turn for guidance on how to deal with the inexplicability, ineradicability and ubiquity of evil? Not, I suggest, mainly to philosophers and theologians — if only because they are bound by their chains of reasoning. After all, even the beatific St Thomas Aquinas argued as follows: “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.” He then demonstrates with iron logic that the saints will not be able to pity the damned while contemplating their eternal torments, and will indeed rejoice in divine justice. (Summa Theologica, Part III, Supplement, Question 94, Articles 1-3.)

To us, this sounds more like sadism than sanctity. Not long after he wrote these words, St Thomas died, leaving the Summa Theologica unfinished. We can only hope he was mistaken about God’s purposes; I for one cannot believe that the Angelic Doctor is now looking down on our misery with misanthropic glee.

No, for insight into man’s fallen nature, historians have the advantage over philosophers. This is not just because their methods are empirical rather than metaphysical. It is because history attracts a different, worldlier and more cynical type.

In the rich vocabulary of vituperation of Maurice Cowling, the saturnine sage of Peterhouse, no word was more damning than “priggish”. Historians make good haters. In The History Makers, Richard Cohen’s new history of historiography since Herodotus, he reminds us of the rivalry between A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, who cordially loathed one another and competed to be the best-paid Oxford media dons. They were supposedly commissioned to write each other’s Telegraph obituary, only for the ruse to be exposed when their proofs were muddled up and each was sent his own unflattering portrayal by the other. This tale is unfortunately apocryphal, as Cohen discovered, though it is molto ben trovato.

Historians dabble in the diabolical at their peril

Historians, who are generally driven by the passions, are more likely to understand them than philosophers, who strive to subordinate them to reason. Political philosophers who appear to be exceptions to this rule — Machiavelli and Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton — also tend to prove it, for they were deeply versed in history. The historian’s methodology may be rational, but to impute an artificial rationality to the dramatis personae is a category error. Les passions de l’âme cannot be explained by a “ghost in the machine”; for history is made neither by ghosts nor machines, but by flesh and blood, driven by good and evil. History consists in great part of the inhumanity of man to man; hence historians writing of war and revolution, chaos and destruction have no “problem of evil”. Historians do not judge individuals or nations, only evidence. Their role is to comprehend everything, but not to pardon anyone. Ce n’est pas son métier.

The inescapable reference point on evil for the modern sensibility is Hitler. Because the Holocaust (or Shoah) remains the ne plus ultra of human evil, many writers reach for metaphors into the lexicon of Hell. Historians who investigate the crimes of the Nazis dabble in the diabolical at their peril. But poets and novelists, from Dante and Dostoyevsky to Kafka and Celan, have plumbed the depths of human iniquity.

Nobody has ever defined evil as succinctly as Goethe’s Mephistopheles, when he introduces himself to Faust as “der Geist der stets verneint”:

I am the Spirit of Eternal Negation,
and rightly so, since all that gains existence
is only fit to be destroyed; that’s why
it would be best if nothing ever got created.
Accordingly, my essence is
what you call sin, destruction,
or — to speak plainly — Evil.

It may seem a long way from the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust or the daemonic fantasias of Faust to the vandalism of a war memorial. I chose the latter as a starting point, however, precisely because it is familiar to us all. Our minds are not boggled by a broken bench, but we can sense the nihilistic impulse behind the wanton act, the Schadenfreude and gloating that must have followed. Pace Hannah Arendt, there is nothing banal about evil. It is the only word that does justice to these emotions.

Following the Torah, which enjoins forgiveness in the case of ignorance of the divine law, Jesus forgave those who crucified him, saying: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” We should perhaps give the miscreants of Chiswick the benefit of the doubt and assume that they too knew not what they did.

Our courts, however, are too inclined to leniency in cases of what used to be called “malice aforethought”, and too inclined to limit that concept to murder or other heinous crimes. A lesser evil is still evil. Forgiveness and repentance are inseparable from crime and punishment. But we should not be afraid to call evil by its proper name.

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