Those of us who are interested in the good life rarely spare a theoretical thought to its opposite. We even have difficulty giving it a name: in terms of individual character, what stands at the opposite end from “good”? Advocates of vast impersonal causes might reply “social pathology” or “antisocial behaviors,” of which the usual examples are violence, substance abuse, racism, sexual exploitation, and bullying. While perfectly acceptable on its own terms, this response makes people into pawns, and character into an iron fate forged by social or economic or biological forces.
Like most people, I believe the individual has some control over his actions. Evolution shaped our biology to prefer certain behaviors, and social and economic pressures may, by a different path, attempt to do the same; but there are always, or nearly always, choices. The sphere of human choice is the concern of morality. And the opposite of good, in our moral tradition, has been called “evil.”
What was originally meant by that word? How did evil arise, and when did it enter the consciousness of our culture? This, sad to say, is an immense subject: a history of evil would be long and crowded with monstrous characters. Here I hope, more modestly, to reflect on the first recognized instances of evil, and to ask whether these primitive events have any import for us today.
We think of evil in terms of harsh moral judgment. Hitler is called an evil character, because he willfully tormented and slaughtered millions of innocents. Yet that isn’t how the term was first understood.
In the first instance, evil was a transgression against the order of nature, which included the social structure, and it bore within itself the most horrible punishments: pain, loss, loneliness, and the loosening of chaos on the world. God might enter the picture, but in a curiously amoral way. The primal loathing of evil rested on fear of universal disorder, and the belief that disordered human actions, however innocently meant, could bring about catastrophe.
Consider the arrival of evil in the world, according to Genesis. The story of Adam and Eve isn’t about good versus evil: neither Adam nor Eve are evil characters, and their transgression, eating a fruit, is wholly devoid of moral implications. Even the motive behind the act would be considered, by most people today, rather noble: they wished to acquire knowledge. Why should they be punished for that?
The story of Adam and Eve is about the entrance of disorder into the world, caused by human attainment of forbidden knowledge. Why forbidden? In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The prohibitions of God and nature often seem inscrutable, if not arbitrary. But in this case, the knowledge provided by the fruit was of good and evil, and on attaining it the human race forever exiled itself from the peace of nature. Animals may feel pain and frustration, but only human beings know shame, self-disgust, moral confusion, moral transformation, and fear of death.
It must be added that the part played by God in the story is rather inglorious. God is absent during the transgression. On his return, he acts dumbfounded and unhappy by what has transpired, but never gives a thought to whether he can, or should, return Adam and Eve to a state of innocence. He’s concerned entirely about his own prerogatives: “The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; what if he now reaches out his hand and takes fruit from the tree of life also, eats it and lives forever?”
The human race, divorced from nature, must be stopped short of godhood. In a preemptive strike, God drives Adam and Eve from the garden, and places an armed guard to bar “the way to the tree of life.”
Consider as well the story of Orestes. Egged on by the god Apollo, Orestes kills his mother in reprisal for her cold-blooded murder of her husband; in turn, he is driven mad and pursued by the avenging Furies, who stand for the primal order of nature. “Murderers of mothers we harry from their homes,” the Furies boast. When Apollo observes that the mother in question has murdered her husband – Orestes’ father – the Furies reply: “Such a killing does not count as blood of kin.”
No more than Adam and Eve is Orestes an evil character. He has done his duty to the gods. But his transgression has been against a power far older than the gods, which held the ties of blood kinship to be the only basis of moral judgment. “Not Apollo, not all Athena’s power, can snatch you from abandonment and ruin,” he is warned by the Furies.
Orestes, desperate, appeals to the gods nonetheless, and the resolution is every bit as precarious as what transpired in the Garden of Eden. With Apollo as his advocate, and Athena presiding over a jury of Athenians, he escapes by the slimmest of margins: a tied vote, which under Athenian law favors the defendant. Human justice supersedes the allegiance to kin blood, but just barely. The gods love the law more than dynastic interests, but their power is circumscribed. Apollo and the Furies face an eternal standoff, and the escape from the natural order leaves Orestes, like Adam, forever stained.
Now consider one last story, that of Oedipus. Far from evil, Odipus is a noble character, dashing and brave but also highly intelligent: “That mind,” exclaims the chorus in Oedipus the King, “was a strong bow.” None of Oedipus’ misfortunes are of his making. Ignorant of his true birth, he kills his father after being provoked, and marries his mother, the queen of Thebes, in reward for ridding the city of the monstrous Sphinx. His own relentless seeking after the truth brings about his downfall.
Oedipus shattered into shards the primal order of nature: murderer of his father, husband of his mother, sibling of his children, he plunged himself, his family, his city, the world, into a moral chaos, where everything sacred is fouled. At first, he is astonished. “Am I all evil, then?” he wonders. “It must be so…” But as the full horror of his profanation sinks in, his mind, like that of Orestes, teeters on the edge of insanity: “God. God. Is there a sorrow greater? Where shall I find harbor in this world? My voice is hurled far on a dark wind. What has God done to me?”
It is part of the nobility of Oedipus’ character that he conquers the temptation of insanity, and contemplates the horror of his life directly, without flinching. He has violated the most fundamental laws of man and nature. At the same time, he’s done nothing wrong. “Before the law – before God – I am innocent!” he asserts, correctly, shortly before his death in Oedipus at Colonus. The contradiction poses a puzzle far deeper and more terrible than that of the Sphinx: how can an innocent man become a source of evil? The answer must be sought in the unrelenting cosmic pessimism of the ancient Greeks.
The gods, particularly Apollo, hover at the edges of Oedipus’ story. Oedipus is their plaything. He suffers, to no purpose and undeservedly, at their pleasure. The moral problem therefore shifts from the actions of Oedipus to the moral quality of the gods and of the natural order itself. Both are capable of evil. Oedipus pays for his profanation with a lifetime of wretchedness, but the gods and the natural order grind on, machine-like, unmoved by his fate or anyone else’s, themselves beyond the reach of judgment. Evil permeates the very fabric of things.
The children of liberal democracy find such a tragic outlook almost as scandalous as incest. We require faith in human perfectability, and ascribe evil to ignorance and prejudice. If, instead, evil is part of the essence of the world, and the human race is a plaything of uncertain destiny, why should we trust in elections, or jury decisions, or the free market? How can justice ever be attained?
Yet regardless of one’s destiny, there are always choices. We can face the inevitable with strength and humanity, or with denial and disgrace. Oedipus the king becomes, by the end of his life’s story, a less towering and awe-inspiring figure than Oedipus the sufferer, who has stamped the nobility of his character on a vile fate. That’s how a Greek would see the matter, and I don’t imagine an American would disagree. The evil of the world can ruin an innocent life, but cannot touch a hero’s character or humanity.
How we respond when face to face with such suffering determines our own character, our worth. In the end, the story of Oedipus isn’t about Oedipus at all, but about those around him, and their reactions to his fall. Some, like Creon, cast him out, then bully him for advantage. They add to the disorder; they are part of it. Others, like Theseus, treat him with humanity – no doubt born of pity, and of a sense that, but for some obscure turn of luck, the ruined life could be theirs, or that of any other innocent.
The ancient poets who first grappled with the concept of evil located it outside the reach of human influence, in the wounded heart of things; to balance the equation, they elevated pity and sympathy, which bind the wounds of the world and – in the inescapable presence of pain and horror – make human life possible.