August 3, 2008


"Evil": Scoff if you must, but you can't avoid it. (Christopher Hitchens, December 31, 2002, Slate)
There is probably no easier way to beckon a smirk to the lips of a liberal intellectual than to mention President Bush's invocation of the notion of "evil." Such simple-mindedness! What better proof of a "cowboy" presidency than this crass resort to the language of good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats? Doesn't everybody know that there are shades and nuances and subtleties to be considered, in which moral absolutism is of no help?

Apparently everybody does know that, since at election times the same liberal intellectual will, after much agonizing, usually cast his vote for whichever shabby nominee the Democratic Party throws up. And he will do so, in his own words, because this is "the lesser evil." So, it seems that we cannot quite do without the word, even though it's worth noticing that some people only employ it in an ironic or relativist sense, as a quality that must be negotiated with, accommodated, or assimilated.

Though the word is often heard on the lips of preachers and moralists, it does also figure in the reflections of modern moral philosophers. Faced with the evidence of genocidal politics in 20th-century Europe, Hannah Arendt, for example, posed the existence of something she termed "radical evil" and suggested that intellectuals were failing to allow for its existence as a self-determining force. Her phrase "the banality of evil" also enjoys wide currency, serving to help us understand the ways in which "ordinary men" can be mobilized or conscripted to do exceptionally ghastly things. If she had said "radical sinning" or "the banality of sin" she might have seemed sermonizing or naive, but then President Bush did not refer to an "axis of sin," did he?

It may not be of much help, in propaganda terms, to describe an enemy as "evil." Time spent in understanding and studying a foe is always time well spent, and absolutist categories may easily blunt this rigorous undertaking. But how far can certain analyses be taken without running up against a recurrence of Arendt's dilemma?

We've been arguing for some time that Mr. Hitchens is in the process of becoming a conservative, so it's gratifying to see him pick up the cudgel on behalf of the concept of evil. However, he still has a ways to go, as witness the way evil seems to be a quality of others here.

Eventually, one comes to the view that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expressed so well:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.

Or, in the words of the poet, Geoffrey Hill:
Evil is not good's absence but gravity's
everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains
inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.

[originally posted: 2003-01-05] Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 1:34 PM

The practical question is not whether evil

exists but how you avoid it -- either as

practitioner or as victim. Solzhenytsin's

answer fails to satisfy.

The neatest example of values clarification

of the 20th century that I know if, surpassing

even Churchill's assessment of the Munich

agreement, came from Antony Flew (my

favorite philosopher) at a meeting of

atheist skeptics sometime in the early '80s.

The discussion was political, and the entire

crowd was piling on Reagan for the simplemindedness

of his "evil empire" slogan.

Flew rose to ask, "Which are you saying?

That it's not evil? Or that it's not an


Posted by: Harry at January 5, 2003 2:37 PM

Mr. Judd;

Solzhenitsyn's statement explains why so many people want
to believe in conspiracy theories.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 5, 2003 3:23 PM


It's very difficult to acknowledge that evil lurks within each of us, which is why so many are so eager to shuck off Judeo-Christianity. One thing I like to point out to folks is that American's concentration camps for the Japanese were the project of two liberal icons--FDR and Earl Warren. We should think on that before we say it could never happen here or I could never take part.

Posted by: oj at January 5, 2003 4:25 PM

Warren was no liberal icon in 1942. He was

a Republican.

It was partly because he decided that he had

made a mistake (committed a sin?) that he

started thinking like a liberal.

And the Japanese and Japanese-Americans

in Hawaii were not put in concentration camps.

First, their labor could not be spared.

Second, the poisonous race hatred of the West

Coast was more genteel in Hawaii.

Third, they didn't have a lot to steal.

However, it is worth remembering that the

government of imperial Japan expected

Japanese overseas to remain loyal to Japan,

not to whatever county they had emigrated to,

and except in the U.S.A. that expectation was

borne out.

Secondly, the Japanese and Japanese-Americans

had their own crimes which they refuse to

acknowledge. Collecting money to buy bombers

to murder Chinese was one.

Posted by: Harry at January 6, 2003 8:06 PM

Hitchens' implacable, irrational hostility to all religious faith makes it currently impossible for him to really be a conservative.

Posted by: Paul Cella at January 6, 2003 10:43 PM
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