Sometimes—in a fit of suppressed pedantry—I like to dream up plans for courses I might teach someday on wildly unlikely subjects. One of the more plausible of these is a projected seminar on the “pro-evil” tendency in literature and philosophy since Machiavelli. It would be called something like “Defenses of Evil in Western Thought.”
"Has there really been a “pro-evil” tendency in literature and philosophy?"—so I imagine my worldly-wise Freshmen demanding on the first day of class. At first glance, after all, it might seem that “evil” is a word like “bad,” or “wrong”—something that can only be meaningful in reference to positions one does not hold. No one could coherently claim to hold “bad” or “wrong” ideas after all. If we honestly held our ideas to be bad or wrong, we would already have ceased to hold them.
But evil is different. Thinkers and writers and poets seem to agree on what evil looks like: cruelty, violence, unbridled self-assertion, indifference to the pain and needs of others—these are some of its features. Evil, then, is a word with definite content. It is therefore possible to claim that evil is good, and some have done so. Friedrich Nietzsche—who would have to figure pretty prominently in the course—had this to say about it: “pride, revenge, cunning, exaltation, love, ambition, virtue, morbidity:—[…] on the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human society […] man really becomes for the first time an interesting animal, [... Here] the soul of man has in a higher sense attained depths and become evil—and those are the two fundamental forms of the superiority which up to the present man has exhibited over every other animal.” (Horace Samuel trans.)
So evil is a definite thing—a value system, a way of life. And like any other value system or way of life, it is possible-- however ill-advised-- to endorse it. And running through Western thought ever since the Renaissance has been a strand of thought that was willing to take precisely this plunge.
Machiavelli would have to be the first name on the syllabus as the progenitor of this pro-evil tendency. And I don’t think Machiavelli would resent his inclusion. It is easy to accuse Leo Strauss of hysteria or prudery when he taught his students at Chicago that M. was the “teacher of evil,” but I’m not sure M. would feel he was being maligned: this is the man, after all, who wrote in The Discourses that, “evil deeds have a certain grandeur, and are open-handed in their way.” (Leslie Walker trans.) He, like other modern writers, was willing to say some good things about evil.
But what on Earth for? We have to acknowledge that this is all rather strange and unprecedented. Most doers of evil in history have not called themselves evil. They have cloaked their cruelty in righteous fury or patriotic pride or religious passion or pragmatic necessity—or else they have acted shame-facedly out of desire for some immediate gain. “Evil” is what evil-doers call their victims, not themselves. The crusaders butchering the children of Jerusalem were righteous soldiers of God-- the infants they killed "evil." It was the shining “City upon a Hill” that rained incendiary bombs on civilians in Japan and white phosphorus on the people of Fallujah-- members of the "Axis of Evil." It is the “martyrs of Allah” who watch over the progress of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whereas the people languishing without hope in its prisons are the agents of the “Great Satan.” Given all this too-familiar hypocrisy, what exactly could it mean when thinkers start announcing themselves openly as partisans of evil?
It could mean that the modern age is a uniquely depraved one. It can’t be a good sign, we might argue, that our age doesn’t even feel the need to disguise with high-minded rhetoric what previous generations could only bring themselves to do in ignorance or in deceit? This line of thinking would run something like R.H. Tawney’s in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, where the author argued that modern capitalism did not invent greed, cupidity, the thirst for lucre—but it changed our moral vocabulary in such a way that these human traits could henceforth be held up as positive goods-- they no longer needed to either restrain themselves or hide behind hypocrisy.
There’s something to all this. But do we find ourselves a little bit revolted by this nostalgia for an epoch of greater hypocrisy? I know I do. But be careful—that’s how the “teachers of evil” rope you in-- whence they derive their persuasive power. More on that in a moment.
Critics of modernity, Leo Strauss among them, have seen this defense of evil in Western thought since the Renaissance as cause for an indictment of modern society—as the inevitable doppelgaenger of our diseased liberal world. Here’s the argument: Though our society presents itself officially as the opposite of “evil”—as compassionate, as egalitarian, as open-minded, open-hearted, and open-handed: it is in fact Janus-faced. Our apparent goods are inseparable from our evident ills, and these both perpetuate one another in an endless “dialectic of Enlightenment” (as the Frankfurt School put it). The vaunted compassion and empathy of human rights regimes and the welfare state contain within them the dark underbelly of modernity—wars, atrocities, technologies of death. There is a reason, according to this way of thinking (which traverses the anti-modern right and the anti-liberal left) that “teachers of evil” like Machiavelli emerged in the Renaissance alongside proto-Enlightenment thinkers like Montaigne—and a reason why humanity has been impaled on these two horns ever since.
Ok, the big problem with that argument is two-fold: first, suppose we grant the (implausible) claim that discourses of compassion and empathy necessarily give birth to “evil.” Then it remains to be explained how we might oppose “evil”—what ideals or aspirations we could invoke to combat it-- if we now refuse to invoke compassion and empathy in this endeavor. What watchwords would you put in their place—and why wouldn’t these fresh slogans end up as mere synonyms of the words they replace?
Secondly, let us suppose that the discourse of human rights did “give rise” in some sense to the modern rehabilitation of evil. Well, who’s to say this didn’t happen the same way a law gives rise to someone breaking it. That is, who’s to say the second didn’t arise as a reaction against the first? And if that’s the case, how can we blame one for the other? I suppose you might perform some scholastic jiu-jitsu and rumble on about how “these reactionary movements are themselves the distinctive products of our modern era, which could only have come about in response to…” and so forth—but if you go too far in this, you end up being unable to distinguish modernism from anti-modernism and you lose the point you started with—which was a critique of modernity.
So let’s run instead with this idea that the “pro-evil” position is exactly what it appears to be—a reaction against the vaunted ideals of modernity—against compassion, against empathy, against the rights of citizens. Where does it come from? What rancor, what morbid fixations, what weak-spirited resentment could lie at its heart? I hinted at the answer above. At the very root, it seems, there may be no more sinister thing than a deep disgust with hypocrisy, a profound distaste for moral compromise. But what ghastly things can flower from that innocent root!
Modern civilization—liberal civilization—is reared on a compromise. The bloodshed of the Wars of Religion in Europe had left the peoples of that continent sick to the bone of violence and torture. No longer would people be strung up from trees or burned at the stake of thrown into dungeons because of their religious beliefs. Such things were now deemed evil.
Montaigne speaks to us with the humane voice of this weary epoch. We recognize in him the origins of the liberal compromise. Montaigne wished to have nothing to do with sainthood, asceticism, mortification of the flesh, the whole grueling medieval saga of moral perfectionism. Such a search leads us into blind alleys, he insisted, of fanaticism and violence. Rather, we should be content to pursue our own ends, even if they be niggling, petty-minded, self-interested ends. Such self-interest, such meager pleasures, may function as a necessary release, a safety-valve for our passions. What we must not do is repress our passions to the point that they boil over in more sinister ways—in ways that lead us into cruelty, violence, and torture—into evil, in short.
Here comes our modern moral compromise. It’s okay to pursue your self-interest, your selfish desires, we tend to think. But please, we say: pursue them within limits-- in a way that does not conflict so deeply with the interests and desires of others that it results in violence. You are allowed to be a self-centered lout. Your are free to be a brazen and foul-mouthed skinflint factory-owner who bleeds his workers dry. Just please don’t kill and torture and maim anyone—at least not directly and by your own hands. Please just don’t be evil!
It shouldn’t be hard to see why a second strain of thought should have emerged just as this great compromise was being hammered out at the dawn of modernity. There were bound to be saints and sinners who didn’t want to make the compromise. And the saints—who found the concession to limited self-interest intolerably bourgeois, preposterously vulgar and ignoble—were not really so far removed in their response from the sinners—who thought that evil at least had a potential for grandeur—something that mere vice—the déclassé sins of the tavern and gambling table and counting house—plainly lacked. The passage I quoted from Machiavelli above appears in a chapter of the Discourses which is entitled, “Very rarely do Men know how to be either Wholly Good or Wholly Bad.” (Walker tans., p. 177). Machiavelli clearly has some sympathy here for genuine saints, as well as for thoroughgoing reprobates. What he can’t stand is the in-beweenness of the modern world—the fact that “men” do not seem to know anymore “how to be either magnificently bad or perfectly good.” (Walker trans., 178). M. is not necessarily recommending evil. But he’s saying, if you’re gonna do it, do it right. Go the whole hog.
I don’t think I’m being unfair to the saints in suggesting their curious affinity to the sinners. They both share M.’s insistence on frank whole-hoggery. They are both seeking after all-or-nothing propositions. I think the syllabus to my course would illustrate this well, if I ever were to write it. Very few of the readings about evil, after all, could be taken from countries that didn’t also have established traditions of sainthood. Almost none could come from the literatures of the Anglophone countries. We are the ones who gave the world the liberal compromise in its modern, Smithian, Benthamite form, after all. Our sins therefore remain of the modest and retiring sort. Too much greed, too much fast food, a bumptious obliviousness to the needs of others. When we commit evil, it is in far-flung lands where a sorrowing cosmic justice might sigh: “they know not what they do.”
For the real whole-hoggers, the Protestant lands—especially this side of the English Channel-- are arid soil. The Catholic countries, by contrast, are as fertile as they come. There you have the truly debauched libertines-- the ones who make the most dramatic conversions to abstemious religiosity. You have the De Sades and the Baudelaires who are so thoroughly convinced of their own damnation, of their moral irretrievability.
If you want proud, self-affirming evil-- followed by the equally confident volte-face into the arms of the Church-- France in particular is the ticket. Joris-Karl Huymsans, the Decadent writer and aesthete of 19th-century Paris, has a character remark in his novel The Damned that “between the most exalted mysticism and the most cynical Satanism there is but a thin dividing line.” His is “a soul which was already out of control, one which would stop at nothing, to indulge in orgies of saintliness or in ecstasies of crime.” (Terry Hale trans., p. 45). Huysmans should know. The novel quoted here, etched throughout with a visceral disgust for modern bourgeois life, is part of a series of novels about occultism and Catholic conversion in 19th-century France. It straddles that alarmingly “thin dividing line” between evil and sainthood.
I think I can understand the fundamental distaste that underlies this reaction to the modern world-- to the compromises that were necessary to attain some detente in a war of incompatible ideologies. I too am unwilling to accept greed and self-interest as inevitable facts of life, and I’ve tried to argue before on this blog that they are not necessary consequents of modern ideology. I’m also troubled by the possibility that too much compromise over time will erode our ability to distinguish genuine evil from minor failings when it does appear: Western intellectuals’ blasé attitude to Stalinism and our country’s relative indifference toward the use of torture in its War on Terror come to mind.
But I also think that an element of compromise is essential to the formation of a healthy adult personality. Somewhere along the way we have to find it in us to accept our limitations, our imperfections. We have to find some compassion and love for ourselves and humanity despite them. We have to accept that living and doing the right thing are not "all or nothing" deals. This does not mean “excusing ourselves” for anything. Sometimes, in fact, attaining this acceptance is the only way to recognize the reality of our failings and not delude ourselves with fantasies of perfection. The paradox of it is—and I’m going to wheel out poor Erik Erikson again to do my heavy-lifting—that “relative peace of conscience,” is ultimately attained “by submitting to, and even incorporating into [oneself], some harsh self-judgments.” (Young Man Luther, p. 112).
I think it says something for compromise—and against the aspiration to sainthood—that we can identify this alarming family resemblance between the saints and the sinners—that they have even recognized this family resemblance in each other! Perhaps the ultimate symbol of their mutual regard is the uneasy alliance that obtained between the Vatican and the fascist powers between the wars. It is no great secret of intellectual history that there was cross-pollination between Catholic reactionaries and secular Nietzscheans and Sorelian syndicalists in the early days of fascist ideology—even though allegedly the former couldn’t stomach modern life for its depravity, and the second spat it up for its morality! These whole-hoggers clearly found something to admire in one another. They shared the same antipathies—toward liberal democratic society, toward secular tolerance; even if they held these antipathies—on paper—for different reasons.
Be cautious, then. Certainly be cautious when you find the partisans of evil—that is obvious enough. But be cautious likewise when you meet the saints. They, like the evildoers, are looking for a way out of the compromises and constrains and limitations of modern existence. They, like the evildoers, want it all. And there may not be enough to go around.