Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Awful Everydayness of Evil

I have been thinking a lot about evil in the last few hours; actually, I have spent a lifetime thinking about it, but usually from its flip side of goodness. I think that St. Augustine said that evil was the absence of good, a definition that always felt strangely lacking to me, terribly insufficient when I was in my twenties. Now I know that the problem with an absence is that anything coming along can fill it; if there is no goodness in that void, the chances seem rather high that what falls in and gets caught there may not be very good at all. And surely Nature, being Nature, must abhor a void as much as a vacuum, so that the void fills very quickly, and indiscriminately.
How much evil comes though from the most mundane and everyday actions, thoughts that pass by unnoticed perhaps, until collecting like water from a slowly dripping faucet, these thoughts and actions that are spiteful and petty, but minor, these little digs, little selfishnesses, drip by drip drop into that void where there is an absence of goodness until the level rises and the container is a vessel of evil, until the contents define the container?
Someone else said that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. That rang true from the very first time that I ever heard it; I have always known instinctively that one must fight evil the best one can.

In India, according to the asramas or stages of life, one first is a student, then a householder who rears a family and provides, then as family obligations are met and the next generation is rising , one gradually retires in study and prayer living the life of the anchorite, a person who has properly focused his attentions away from the Things of the world and turned (inward or outward as the case may be) to higher Truth, to God. A renunciation of the material is the start of the journey toward the sannyasin stage where one has risen above the mundane, material, and (my take)one sees what is really important. Here is a culture that sees that one must attempt a natural progression toward goodness.
Hannah Arendt wrote of "the banality of evil", a phrase that makes me shiver and think of the everyday practicality of Nazi Germany's extermination plan. The words that caused dreadful deeds were ordinary words: "Board the train." "Take a shower." They still are: "I want that." "I want more." "I want it all." "That should be mine."
Evil usually doesn't carry a chain saw---just orders from someone else.

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