… for evil is always the self-assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness)
Over the last few years we have encountered the now self-styled Islamic State. If we were paying attention, we have seen them murder thousands, abuse many more, and threaten even more. In recent weeks considerable attention has been given to a series of sweeping attacks and specific beheadings. Videos of these individual atrocities — much more than the mass attacks — have produced a widely shared judgment.
President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and others have communicated their own judgment that this is a manifestation of evil. Canadian Prime Minister Harper said of the Islamic State, “It is evil, vile, and must be unambiguously opposed.” The Australian premier has noted, “We have got a murderous, terrorist organisation – a death cult no less, which doesn’t just do evil, (but) exults in doing evil…”(Perhaps reflective of socialist secularism, I cannot find an example of President Hollande using a French equivalent of evil, but he has called the Islamic State odious, base, and cowardly.)
I’m not entirely sure how to hear “evil” in each of these English-speaking voices. But I have decided the choice of this word reflects the authentic judgment of these political leaders. This is not a cynical manipulation of language to achieve hidden purposes. Rather, to proclaim this “it” as evil is an honest effort by four elected leaders — reflecting a rather broad ideological spectrum and distinct personalities — to communicate the nature of a threat as they understand it.
But while authentic, I’m not sure how accurately their assessment is being heard. Moreover, whether this particular symbolic summary — evil — is helpful to further thought and thoughtful action is worth consideration.
I am well-acquainted with the evil potential of banality, bureaucracy, and petty pride. But I have encountered the profoundly wicked on very rare occasions. No more, perhaps, than many of our Presidents or Prime Ministers or others who have evaded the concentration camps, the killing fields, the warping brutality of a parent, priest, or other particularly intimate power.
But my brief bouts have been bad enough. The most compelling aspect of each encounter being the mirroring, echoing, physical resonance of the external with my own sense-of-self. I perceive evil as insidious: combining both ambush and self-subversion. Whatever is strong becoming a potential synaptic pathway for evil’s advance.
It has been widely noted that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of President Obama’s favorite thinkers. (More on the Niebuhr/Obama link here.) Here and in the quote at the start is a summary of Niebuhr’s own angle on evil and how this reality plays out far beyond the individual:
The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical. It has an easy solution for the problem of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the “common good” may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor. It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.
What I perceive in the most committed terrorists is an expectation of reality that rejects any constraint: no law beyond the self. Ultimate reality — AKA God — is conceived as unlimited freedom, unfettered self-assertion, absolute willfulness. George Weigel argues that this is a “defective hypervoluntarist concept of the nature of God.” It rejects the reality of the whole and the varied relationships that constitute the whole. It is irrational and predisposed to nihilism.
Strains sympathetic to contemporary terrorist thought can be recognized in the primacy of will-to-power found arising in William of Occam and reaching flood-stage in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. (“All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the will to live is objectified.” Schopenhauer) In popular form this worldview can be heard in extreme expressions of American individualism. Everything-Is-Possible-With-God and Anything-Is-Possible-With-Grit share a conception of reality without limits, without pattern, without interdependent relationships. Evil is privation of good, Augustine argued.
Many Americans share with many terrorists a confidence that with the right attitude anything is possible. This is self-interest on steroids. This is a synaptic pathway wide open to self-delusion. We underestimate our self-interest, allowing it to reject many of the relationships from which the true self emerges.
Last week a New York Times/CBS News poll found that, for the first time since 2008, more Americans disapprove than approve of the President’s handing of terrorism. One survey participant was quoted in the Times as saying of the President, “He is ambivalent, and I think it shows.”
Ambivalence is a recognition of contending strengths. It is an acknowledgment of complexity. It is to concede something may exist beyond our full understanding or control.
No one becomes President of the United States without stupendous self-will. No one becomes Prime Minister of Canada, Australia, or the (still) United Kingdom without considerable self-regard and tactically adroit self-interest. In a healthy democratic system such self-interest is grafted onto — or emerges from — some substantial branch of the whole. The greatest leaders become personifications of the whole. They are important agents of influence — even attractors of meaning — in a complex adaptive system.
They are not Übermensch transforming chaos into reflections of capricious personal preference.
Precisely because of their well-practiced self-interest and will-to-power, our politicians may be more intuitively attuned to evil potential than the rest of us. They recognize evil from prior encounters in the mirror. They likewise know — we hope, perhaps pray — the crucial virtue of self-restraint.
So… with considerable trepidation, hesitation — ambivalence — I have decided that evil can be a helpful characterization of what concerns us along the Euphrates (and well-beyond). But to be of practical help, this assessment must coincide with a fuller recognition our own tendencies toward evil. This self-knowledge and thereby deeper understanding of the threat is essential to any hope of effective engagement.
Next Thursday: Evil as absence: Recognizing what is missing.