Moral Evil In An Age Of Science

Mephistopheles, the most common German Romantic image of the personification of evil.

Mephistopheles, the most common German Romantic image of the personification of evil.

The Devil is the best-known symbol of radical evil.  The existence of radical evil is clear to anyone not blinded by current relativisim.  On the world level it expresses itself in the willingness to put the entire planet at nuclear risk.  At present, with arsenals of nuclear weapons estimated at seventy time the quantity needed to kill every living vertebrate on earth, we are stubbornly making preparations for a war that will profit no individual, nation, or ideology but will condemn thousands of millions to a horrible death.  What force urges us down a path that is daily more dangerous?  To whose advantage is the nuclear destruction of the planet?  Only that force which from the beginning has with infinite cruelty and malice willed the destruction of the cosmos.  If we are to avoid nuclear war, we must confront radical evil squarely.

On the individual level radical evil expresses itself in actions of unfathomable cruelty.  The closest we get to the reality of evil is our won direct experience of evil in ourselves and in others.  Perhaps only sociopaths lack this direct intuition.  On November 14, 1984, UPI reported:

Cynthia Palmer, 29, and her live-in boyfriend, John Lane, 36, pleaded innocent to burning to death Mrs. Palmer’s 4-year-old daughter in an oven.  The two, who told neighbors shortly before their arrest they were “cooking Lucifer,” were arraigned Tuesday in Androscoggin County [Maine] Superior court.  There were arrested Oct. 27 at their Auburn tenement apartment.  Angela Palmer was found stuffed in the electric oven.  The door was hammed shut with a chair. – Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The Devil In The Modern World, p.17

Perhaps the most thorough historic examination of how human beings have tried to understand the reality of evil are the four volumes written by Jeffrey Burton Russell.  As an undergraduate, I read Lucifer: The Devil In The Middle Ages in a seminar on medieval history.  I came across the last volume in a bookstore somewhere, and enjoyed it as much as I had the earlier.  What struck me most was the modern view that evil is an ever-changing tempter/temptress.  In the most famous Faust, Goethe has Mephistopheles approach the  good Doctor first as a small dog, which Faust describes as a homunculus.  It is only later that the verbose, elegant, demonic Mephistopheles appears, promising Dr. Faust all sorts of secret knowledge and, most of all, the love of his life.

While the name “Mephistopheles” is now indelibly linked to the Faust story, the characterization of the demonic in its intercourse with humanity has not changed much at all.  Devious yet refined, eloquent yet quick to anger, promising one’s most secret desires while always holding back the full price to be paid for delivery, how often have we seen such a portrayal?  In The Exorcist, once the demon Pazuzu enters Regan, after nearly destroying the plaster in the rented Georgetown home and indulging in some gratuitous nonsense including peeing on the carpet during a dinner party and masturbating with a crucifix, Pazuzu manages some intelligent conversation with Fr. Karras, at least until it is clear his intention is to remove the demon from the child.  Then we return to gratuitous profanity, including the declaration that the priest’s mother “sucks cocks in hell”.  Then there is the mooing, of course, and the floating.

All of these, both the Romantic vision of Evil as well-mannered and well-spoken while also hiding the horrible price to be paid for our cooperation, and the contemporary portrayal of the physical distortion and destruction of individuals, often accompanied by sexual perversion and impossible physical feats (consider the recent story out of Gary, IN in which witnesses claim to have seen a child climb a wall while possessed by a demon) are not necessarily fully compatible with one another.  When used in conjunction, they often make for a vision of the personification of evil as, in some way, psychotic, not in complete control of his desire to possess the life and soul of the intended target, compulsion overwhelming the need for stealth, charm, and care.  And it is precisely here that the sense of moral evil as, in some way, unintelligible as we discussed yesterday, disappears as we enter a kind of psychologizing of evil, including a therapeutic approach to removing the evil entity, now understood for who and what it is.  We have left the realm both of Burton Russell’s acceptance of radical evil as well as our prior discussion and entered into what amounts to a treatment regimen, perhaps including exorcism along with heavy doses of psychotropic drugs to minimize the expressions of dangerous acts.

Which leaves me wondering if Burton Russell, for all his thoroughness and attentiveness to the reality of radical evil as both a personal and social reality, still tries to understand radical evil – a human phenomenon he clearly states is very real – as something intelligible.  Whether in terms of what he calls “diabology”, or through the use of the Mephistopheles character, in to our contemporary age when horrendous acts become explicable in terms either of political-military ideology and practice or psychological categories, I believe he misses the most distressing aspect of radical evil: that it is is beyond doubt; what it is, and how it expresses itself must be, I believe, unintelligible.  Our desire to explain and understand have to fail when it comes to radical evil as an event, whether interpersonal or social.  Otherwise it isn’t radical evil if those two words are to refer to actual events.

Which, perhaps, begs the question of the reality of the embodiment, or perhaps spiritualization, of radical evil.  Or perhaps “radical evil” is a way of describing events that fails precisely because it is, in the end, meaningless.  Rather than a thing in and for itself, a series of events that exist as a class that restricts itself within its own set of definitions, we are left with the all too human possibility that evil is little more than a human construct.  While that would certainly give my nominalist self peace of mind, I cannot rest easy with such a too-glib conclusion.  While our contemporary understanding of evil, however we wish to understand it, is grossly inadequate to address the realities we encounter in our daily news, from parents locking an infant in a car and leaving it to die to the slaughter of civilians across Syria and Iraq in the name of a twisted combination of politics and Islam, we should be able to do better than swearing, puking, floating children, or doors opening and closing on their own.

What might be most distressing of all: Our modern inability to come to terms with radical evil might well leave us all the more open to its seductions and connivings.  Even should “evil” be unintelligible in and of itself, if we are unable even to recognize it when we encounter it – not in the murderous sociopath or political ideology, but its far more dangerous and sinister reality – we might well find ourselves that much more vulnerable to it.  Not a pleasing thought, that.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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