A question that's been doing the rounds lately. Just as our very own Mr. Eaton weighs in
on David Warren's recent piece
, we have other friends of the Logos saying seemingly contrary things on the same subject.
Why do the translators prefer the mistaken "spiteful" to the accurate "wicked"? They want to empty our tongue of robust morality, or believe it already has been so emptied. Emptied of what, exactly? Mr. Warren's distinction is between morality and psychology, but Mr. Eaton rightly notes the extent to which Mr. Warren must psychologize thus to moralize. He preserves Mr. Warren's point by pointing to the desire to blame externalities for our misdeeds, so as to shirk responsibility ourselves.
I agree, but I like even better the note Mr. Eaton sounds when he remarks that
spite is a passion that seeks to be satisified through revenge, often petty in character. Can you imagine the kind of man who confounds "evil" with "spiteful"?
This is the kind of man whose soul is flattened, who has looked at what is wrong in himself and his fellow man and called it "spite". Spite in addition to being trivial is the opposite of well-wishing or niceness. The kind of man who calls evil "spitefulness" also thinks that "all you need is love". Forget faith and hope, forget wisdom, courage, moderation, and prudence.
This leads to Phil's autobiographical account explaining the root of his interest in political philosophy, beginning with a visit to then-Zaire and a very visceral sense of the lives lost to torture, tyranny, and genocide. Says Phil
After a time, these things begin to get to you. The world, always, is a dreadful and tragic place. Action leads to horror, but so does inaction. That with all things, the hideous always appears, as it always has been and always will be.
Another student in Portland asked me about human sympathy and compassion. Yes, I know those things exist. But I am more concerned with the libido dominandi, with hatred, with the desire to destroy. These things seem the more typical, and the more active, elements of a fractured world.
Phil is driven by this glimpse of our human depths to study "the origins of such evil, why is the world fractured, can it be stopped", and also "morality in warfare - when is it acceptable to kill, whom, how, and why". And let me tell you from experience, the results are impressive. Phil has gone back to some of the greatest minds in our intellectual tradition and is reconsidering just war theory from a point of view made fresh from the originality and unconventionality as well as genius of the sources, and the all-too-vivid sense of the issues at stake. Though being human I am sure it will take him a lifetime to complete the project he's now contemplating -- a return to the metaphysical foundations of just war doctrine and critique of those theories that have lost sight of it -- I believe it will be a lifetime well spent and of tremendous boon to his fellow man, who above all requires clarity of thinking if he is to survive the age.
On a different note, Bill Vallicella asks
Why kvetch about the negative in one’s life when the positive preponderates? Let gratitude for life’s abundance smother petty resentments.
Now Bill is no man to deny the existence of evil. In fact I cite this to make a point about evil's correlate, the absence of which accounts for it in the first place: the love of the good or God. I want to suggest, in other words, that "gratitude for life's abundance" can smother not only "petty resentments" or spitefulness but also evil itself.
Much has been made of the difference between Plato and St. Paul on the question of evil. For Plato, supposedly, there was only knowledge and ignorance of the good; for St. Paul, sometimes I do what I know is wrong. I don't want to pretend to settle this question now and perhaps never will. But I think the classical view of the soul gives us the key to addressing the problem of evil.
By knowledge Socrates was not referring to some intellectual abstraction, but something grasped by a soul that was turned in the proper direction -- toward the true, the good, and the beautiful -- and erotically engaged in that direction. Philosophy or complete interior disposition toward the good is happiness and virtue.
That there are obstacles to this proper ordering of soul -- internal as well as external obstacles -- is so far from news to Plato that it constitutes a chief theme of all his works. In one place he likens reason to a golden cord in the soul -- precious but soft -- while the coarser passions he depicts as iron -- cold but strong, and likely to snap the gold. Socrates, who shows what it means to be a true philosopher, is depicted poetically, "younger and more beautiful" than the real thing, idealized. He walks in the snow barefoot, makes no apparent effort to protect or sustain his body, stays awake philosophizing for 48 hours or more at a time, and drinks all night long without becoming tired or inebriated. Is the perfection of his soul also somewhat exaggerated? Plato makes us wonder.
He does not make us wonder about the common lot of humanity. Every person Socrates meets is non-philosophic. All are confused in their souls, attached to delusions, and hence misdirecting their energies and their lives. And though we don't often see the more concrete manifestations of this dissonance, there is the shadow of Socrates' execution at the hands of angry citizens cast on all the dialogues.
Aristotle makes the point clearly: man is given arms for virtue that he can just as easily use for vice. Therefore without laws and adjudication, man is worse than the beasts: homo lupus hominum
is an understatement.
Given the late hour, and being no Socrates, I will wrap this up. What is evil? It is ignorance, if ignorance means turning away from the truth toward falsehood or being duped by the false promises of false idols. It what happens when we forget the virtues or the orientation toward the good that requires habituation and the suppression of our baser selves. The danger of our flat-souled society is that by shrugging off the awareness of good and evil and their opposition, we will stand by complacently while evil gathers arms meant for virtue.