St. Augustine asks: Where, then is evil? What is its origin? How did it steal into the world? What is the root or seed from which it grew?
My answer: Any instance of one creature deriving pleasure from the suffering of another is evil.
The basis for this definition is straight-forward; the implications, radical and complex. Pleasure is something we seek in and of itself. As such, it is never sated. So if I take pleasure in harming, there might be no end to how far I will go to satisfy that urge. And the more intense the pleasure, the more extreme the measures I will take. So if harming others becomes a craving, it also becomes monstrous and immensely damaging, in the worst cases increasing the suffering on our planet to horrific proportions.
By this definition I cannot think of anyone who has not indulged an evil impulse at some time or other in his life. Fortunately most of us are soon checked by an innate sense of abhorrence from committing truly awful deeds. I might take a moment’s pleasure in cursing the ‘bastard’ who has crossed me in some way or another, I might even assault him, if my outrage is inflated enough, but the perverse pleasure I derive from my acts of vengeance are soon assuaged and I stop the abuse. I may even feel guilty and stupid after the fact for having lost my temper.
Though we usually restrain ourselves, and even regret our lapses, the ‘root or seed’ of evil St Augustine looks for can be found in these impulses. For if the natural restraint that checks our retribution is removed, or if the object of our hatred is portrayed in such a way that anger overwhelms restraint, then we can easily spiral into a viscous cycle of hatred, punishment, retaliation and self-justification through even greater savagery, greater evil – and there are those among us who have no innate restraints, and are very adept at manipulating our baser motives to their own purposes.
Is hatred, then, evil? Not necessarily. I can hate someone without wishing them harm. I can take steps to protect myself from someone I hate without crossing the line by insisting on ‘punishing’ them. We don’t have to love our enemies, and it would be naive – even irresponsible – to believe we can go through life without making any; but the moment we take pleasure in an enemy’s downfall we have crossed the line from opposing what we perceive to be an injustice to very likely committing one, and to initiating a pattern of retribution and counter retribution.
To fully understand how pervasive evil might be, we have to consider forms the pleasure of evil takes. Some instances of taking pleasure in the suffering of others are obvious. Mass murderers, who torture their victims; people who go out of their ways to abuse animals; megalomaniacs who make murder and maiming state enterprises. Countless instances of these kinds of behaviour can be identified and continue to make headlines. But our propensity to evil pervades society in subtler ways, and unless we develop a lens for it, will continue to undermine even our good intentions.
One example will suffice. Recently I read of a prominent person saying that the poor in our community need a ‘helping hand.’ The comment, made with what appeared to be the best of intentions, rankled. It sounded patronizing and self-satisfying to me. Was that well wisher, in fact, taking convoluted pleasure in the misfortunes of others, feeling grand by offering what was really the most miserly of reliefs at the same time as he spoke out against the dangers of encouraging people to wallow in their poverty? At the very least there was a redolence of evil to his kindness, the possibility he was knowingly offering meager relief purely as a ruse to avoid really address the issues of poverty and homelessness, and that he was feeling pretty clever about having ‘managed’ the situation in a politically astute way. Without accusing the person outright of harboring those kinds of Machiavellian sentiments, I have to be alert to the possibility because I don’t doubt for a minute those kinds of tactics are deliberately adopted.
So what should we do when we encounter or suspect evil? The most important thing is to avoid falling into the trap. Evil is a pleasure that likes to perpetuate itself; the moment I ‘rise to the bait’ by trying to undermine and injure the person who has angered me, I am joining in a game that has no boundaries and very few rules. All to often winning, by vanquishing a foe, becomes the goal, bearing little relation to the larger issue that first brought the contestants together.
In the end, evil itself has to be classified as a condition, a state of being, not a moral issue; and every step – short of countering another’s evil with our own – has to be employed to effect a cure.