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What Is Evil? (2a)

August 27, 2016

Yes, evil. Or as Amiri Baraka put it, “evol—love spelled backwards.” That seems to fit Trump. Not a mythic figure. Not even a profound (but limited) character, not an unforgettable ego like for instance that petty, tightening knot, Shakespeare’s Iago, or that grand, ever expanding light and darkness that by contrast is the light, Milton’s Satan. Lacking their capacity for intrigue, or for twisted suffering, he’s just plain, love spelled backwards.

So no wonder he’s baffling. It’s like he stumbled into it, and now is stumbling over it. And the Republicans, and all of us, are stumbling over him. He’s a scandal. In the Greek NT Jesus is called a skandal, literally a stumbling block. In that sense Trump’s a Judas figure, a betrayer and a revealer. He keeps kissing, and we stumble all over ourselves.

As a narrator, subject to some of the same frailties as humans, if not as fragile, I don’t often call a human being evil. I think Trump is only the second one (setting aside the winners of the ASS lifetime achievement award, The Predator Prize). (And hey, how many novels are lucky enough to have an evil character? Yet this one already has two. It’s almost too much for one episodic plotline.)

I think that’s important. Evil is something special. It’s extreme but not unique; indeed the archetypal pattern is present in all of us. It doesn’t just appear in dreams, art, mythology, and religion. It shows up regularly in history, beginning its hopeful and driven career in common activities; so when one of these characters comes along, it’s best to nominate him “evil” as soon as he becomes a candidate for our recognition.

But what am I thinking? What do I mean by that? This page is another attempt to think.

I’m going to take the position that “evil is as evil does.” That is, evil is not inside us (although the archetypal pattern of imagination is), it’s a kind of action.

So first: two thoughts about what goes on inside us:

(1) Humans have to be free to imagine anything that they choose to imagine, or can’t help but imagine. “Free” in the sense of not prohibited (or punished) by others. That freedom is a fundamental requirement of our nature as humans. Prohibition of imagining is the most dehumanizing form of enslavement. It says to the soul, “Thou shalt not.” Thou shalt not image thyself, make up stories that reflect upon factual reality, or enter into conversation.

I’m not saying that we should imagine just anything and everything. Or that every act of imagining is equally healthy. Some imaginations are unhealthy—such as when we are fantasizing but don’t know the difference between that brain activity and rational perception of external reality. Furthermore doing a lot of brain activity of imagining evil acts establishes unhealthy patterns of brain activity.  For instance, children, whose brains are still physically forming, should be protected from forming adult patterns of violence or predation (something that, as Hillary pointed out, Trump doesn’t get; but then neither do a lot of parents and entertainment industry executives.)

(2) But a person who is imagining evil actions is not evil; s/he might be very healthfully creative, both synthetically and analytically; or he might be mentally/emotionally ill. If we know he is ill, we protect ourselves as appropriate (especially if he has acted out before), and we offer help if we can.

For example, imagine that the Vice President of the United States imagines torturing prisoners (physically or by order). That doesn’t make him an evil person. He might need to imagine it, as part of the process of knowing it and reflecting upon its moral quality.   Or he might be ill, in the sense of trauma or personality disorder (perhaps he has a sick imagination—at best his imagination is inadequately informed and reflective). Perhaps he should recuse himself while he gets help. But if he orders the torture; and furthermore, upon reflection, doubles down on it in public statements…he has done an evil thing.

He should at least come clean about it, and work on himself. With professional help. If his imagination comes around to health, then I’m happy with a combination of the Christian idea of a profound change that comes over him, like the garden in spring, deserving of reconciliation, and the classic Greek understanding that for the rest of his life he bears a stain, like a blight that just cannot be gotten rid of. We can mix in some Grk understanding of the limited awareness of us finite beings, and some Buddhist understanding of our frailty and how we go astray. Hey, I’m good with that. The guy probably will stop doing evil things.  (If not, we’ll just have to torture him. I can imagine that.)

So I’m not thinking of evil as something metaphysical or transcendent, except as death transcends life, only to be transcended by life again. I’m thinking it’s a set of human actions with characteristics that put them in a special, designated category. They are an outer and visible sign of an inner and spiritual blight.

They are interesting, psychologically, as symptoms of personality and what humans can be like inside, as they keep pushing the boundaries of what we can be (we call it “inhumane”) as humans. Fascinating. Depressing. Fascinating.

But they are most significant in their results, the pain they cause, and the way they cause it.

On page “What Is Evil (2b)” I’ll muse on, about Trump’s evil acts. What’s he done?  I can’t wait. But if only he would go away—he cannot. Maybe this will motivate us to shorten our election season, if we get Big Money out of political advertising.

[Page 1 of this episode.  Thoughts about T and evil on previous page.]

[MJ comments:  ….isn’t there a Scandanavian figure called “Loki?” And, even thought it’s been a very long time for me, anyway, wasn’t the figure one of thoughless “evil?” I think you give drumpf too much brain power. He, to me suggests thoughless, selfish, childish behavior. He has no idea of the havoc he creates by expressing himself and may only care if someone calls him on it. You understand the many ramifications of evil because you are a thoughful person and a scholar. Drumpf , in my mind, is extremely superficial in everything he does. He is foolishly malevolent. Not calculating.]

[Maybe I should mention that I’m aware of arguments against “free will”—and thus free choice to do something extremely bad (as a characteristic of being “evil”)—from Edwards to neuroscience, and I agree. (BTW so much for Libertarianism, along with the impossibility of adequate info; Oedipus, self-blinding, would be a Libertarian today; but not the blind O of Colonus; he’d be a democratic socialist; what an eye-opener.)]

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