Total Depravity

In a deleted chapter of Dostoevsky’s Demons he describes a visit between Nicolai Stavrogin and Tikhon, a holy man. Pevear and Volokhonsky include it as an appendix to their  700 page translation of that remarkable novel. In that missing chapter Nicolai hands to Tikhon a 30 page epistle, a confession, he wrote to help him clarify in his own mind the sort of person he is and the kinds of things that give him pleasure. He is a sensualist, as Dostoevsky would describe him, a man dedicated to getting as much pleasure as he can, perverse pleasure, from his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. He is, in a word, a masochist and a sadist — a man with a dark soul. In his confession he recounts a series of truly disturbing incidents he brought about when he was at the height of his search for pleasure.

At the time he was renting three separate apartments to which he brought various partners for sex and whatever else might delight him. At one of those places his apartment faced onto the landlady’s apartment and he spent a good deal of time watching what was going on in her rooms and became strangely attracted to the lady’s fourteen year old daughter, Matryosha. The landlady beat the girl on a regular basis, frequently for no reason whatever and often with Nicolai watching. And she seemed to enjoy the fact that Nicolai was watching as she did so. At one point Nicolai lost his penknife and mentioned it to the landlady who immediately reasoned that her daughter must have stolen it as the three of them were the only ones home at the time. She took a switch and was determined to beat the poor girl when Nicolai spotted the knife on his bed. He pocketed the knife and said nothing and then watched as the woman beat the girl until welts appeared and the girl whimpered pathetically. He then smiled, locked his door and went elsewhere, throwing his knife away as he went. Nicolai later seduced the girl after which she hanged herself.

Now, for whatever reason, Dostoevsky chose not to include this chapter in the final version of the book. Like many such stories it is quite possible it came from an incident related in the papers that the novelist read daily and from which he took many of the episodes in his numerous novels. In any event, whether this incident is pure fiction or is based on actual events I would argue that what Nicolai did was wrong. I would be judgmental, if you will, and I would hasten to condemn his actions and those of anyone else who repeated such actions or others even somewhat similar. What the man did was cruel and sadistic, depraved. He was wrong.

I think I could provide reasons, if required, for making this judgment, reasons involving the inflicting of pain on innocent persons, the rape of a young girl, the violation of the ethical principles of honesty and respect for persons. In any event, I don’t regard my judgment as simply my personal opinion. It’s not just a gut-reaction, though there is that. In ethics, moreover, there are many such situations in which a moral judgment seems to be sound and capable of defense. In that regard, ethical judgments are not altogether different from the judgments we make about ordinary things and events every day. They can be supported and verified by means of persuasive arguments and the eliciting of known facts or accepted truths about the world.  We make a mistake when we lump all ethical judgments together and dismiss them as mere opinions or ask “who’s to say?”

The same reasoning applies in the case of judgments about ethical values such as generosity and compassion, courage, and honesty. We judge these things to be good just as we would judge the actions of Nicolai to be wrong (to put it mildly). Values are present in our world, as I have noted many (too many?) times. And so also are the opposite, dis-values, if you will, as exhibited in the chapter that Dostoevsky wisely chose to erase from his novel. They surround the events and objects that are part of our shared world and they provide the grounds for making judgments about those events or objects, judgments that can be well-reasoned or wrong-headed. We can never be certain, but we certainly can, and we do, make ethical judgments.

In sum, though at times times strong feelings may be involved, the notion that ethics is based on the subject’s feelings and opinions alone is simplistic and ignores the fact that many such judgments are based on factual information and ethical principles that we all take for granted and which make civilization possible. If there were no such principles we would be in a state of nature in which, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This would be a world, I imagine, in which no one would bother to notice, much less comment upon, the sorts of things people like Nicolai Stavrogin choose to do to himself or to others. Is it possible that this is what we are coming to? I sometimes wonder.

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Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

Ignorance and Fear

Socrates famously said the ignorance brings about evil in the world. He put it otherwise. He said knowledge invariably leads to goodness. I stress the obverse, but in either form he was a bit off the mark, it seems to me. I would say that ignorance leads to fear which quite often leads to violence. It is not ignorance, per se, that leads to what Socrates would call “evil.” It leads there through fear. And we are learning all we need to know about fear these days, thanks to the media, prodded by the frenzied right-wing, who have discovered that fear is an excellent way to control the population, to reject any attempts to control the sale of guns, and get such things as increased defense spending in Congress.

In a previous blog I quoted the Hanlon’s Razor that tells us “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” This is a profound adage, if you think about it. It is indeed stupidity that leads to the fear that, in turn, leads to violence. Think about it. Imagine you are in a dark house alone and you hear something drop in the kitchen. You immediately are afraid and you reach for a poker (if you are near the fireplace) or a make-shift weapon of some kind. Then you find out it was the cat who knocked over the sugar bowl and you breathe easier. Your heart stops racing and you calm down. But think about the direct and immediate connection between your ignorance of the cause of the noise and the fear you feel as a direct result of your ignorance. And one can expand on these examples endlessly and continue to imagine what might happen if you had a real weapon, say a hand gun or an automatic rifle in the drawer next to you. You might have shot the poor cat! Or your nephew. Or a neighbor who was watching television in his living room next door. Absurd, you say? Not really. It simply explains how so many violent acts are committed each day by frightened people who shoot first and think later. I say again, ignorance leads to fear which leads to violence. Not always, to be sure. But often.

And when we consider the widespread ignorance in this country fed by the fear-mongers who feed off it, we might want to pause and reflect. Consider, for example, the self-appointed guardians of our southern boundaries who are armed and ready to protect us from the hated immigrants, children though they be, who (they think) will their jobs away and cripple our economy. I have blogged about this, as I have about their conviction that theirs is a right guaranteed by the Constitution to carry those weapons and be ever-prepared to use them — even though (as I have noted in past blogs) the Bill of Rights guarantees the militia the right to carry weapons, not frightened and stupid thugs. But because many choose to read the Constitution through glasses tinted by fear and suspicion, their right is insisted upon even though it is a fiction.

As F.D.R. said long ago: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Indeed. And its first cousin, stupidity.

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

Being Judgmental

[This is the second of two “re-blogs” resulting from the visit of our granddaughters last week. I have reworked it a bit.]

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she thinks is “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not “look themselves in the mirror,” i.e.,  cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. This is why engaging with people who disagree with us is so terribly important to real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we show not to think and to associate only with others of like minds that is the greatest danger as we are surrounded by the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation, and with cultural diversity rather than intellectual diversity. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with our own agendas and with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Unexamined Life

In Hannah Arendt’s superb book Responsibility and Judgment she draws lessons from the terrors that occurred in Germany before and during the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she calls “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. She is convinced evil comes from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think — to exercise our faculty of judgment.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however, as a moment’s consideration of “talk shows” on radio and TV will attest. Socrates showed us many times that our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudices that prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought. For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and the insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, he only knew that he did not know. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers, like Heidegger), but a few ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but as responsible individuals we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt, and even skepticism, must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought.

Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities almost certainly would never have happened. The refusal to be “judgmental” is irresponsible. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we succumb to the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with “making a living” and the attendant creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Return His Ticket?

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he too returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Tragedy and Conservatism

I wrote in yesterday’s blog that my adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, developed a notion of “unmitigated tragedy” that is based on his conviction that evil is simply a part of the world we live in. It is in each of us and it is in the natural world as well, in our hearts and in the natural catastrophes that destroy lives and property on a grand scale.

This conviction formed the basis of Vivas’ conservatism, and he was welcomed into the bosom of conservative groups as one of the true believers. He argued in print that his conservatism was grounded on his conviction that there is evil in the world and there is nothing we can do about it other than accepting the fact and trying to move on, not to attempt to justify the evil or explain it away, but to reconcile ourselves to the fact of evil if we can. He faulted liberals for their futile attempts (as he saw it) to eradicate evil from the world root and branch. It is a profound notion but one that I doubt is shared by a great many other conservatives whose ideology is based pretty simply on the desire to protect their wealth — and expand it if possible. Vivas called these people “dollar conservatives,” and refused to be grouped with them.

But in any case, as much as I admired and respected Vivas, I think he was wrong. I agree with Camus that we can recognize evil in the world and in ourselves as a necessary part of who we are and where we live. Much, if not most, cannot be justified or explained away. But we don’t have to simply accept it, as Camus himself showed in his brief life by fighting against the death penalty. Indeed, I would argue that we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering wherever possible and try to alleviate wrong wherever we find it — knowing that the problems will never go away completely. Vivas’ thinking smacks of bifurcation: evil is a fact. Either reconcile yourself to it it or despair. There is a middle ground. We can struggle against it wherever possible, even though we cannot hope to eradicate it “root and branch.”

This was Camus’ insight into human existence that he formulated philosophically in his brilliant if somewhat opaque essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In that myth, Sisyphus pushes a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again when it nears the top. But, paradoxically, Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the hill and starts again, knowing the same things will recur. “And we must imagine Sisyphus happy,” concludes Camus. Existence is absurd, but we must push on. Stegner shows the same sort of resignation in the novel I mentioned yesterday, All The Little Live Things. After the trauma of his dear friend’s awful death, and the death of her unborn child, the narrator reflects:

“I do not accept, I am not reconciled. But one thing she did. She taught me the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of  trouble and harm. . . . There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill.”

Life goes on and we must continue to weed the garden. And do what we can to lessen the suffering of those around us. It defines us as human beings who belong on the earth in ways that no amount of wealth and possessions can.

Unmitigated Tragedy

As is the case with many of the words we bandy about these days, we tend to misuse the term “tragedy.” We think that if the running back gets a nasty hit and tears his ACL it’s a tragedy. It may simply be terribly sad. We don’t distinguish between pathos and tragedy. The Greeks thought tragedy arises from the conflict between a wrong that is also right and a right that is also wrong — like Antigone’s dilemma when faced with Creon’s prohibition against burying her brother. You can’t win for losing. Ultimately, somehow, tragedies affirmed the rightness of the universe, a cosmic harmony where wrongs are punished and humans learned by suffering from their mistakes. The evil that they commit is due largely to their overweening pride, or hubris, and they get what they deserved.

Shakespeare pushed the envelope a bit, suggesting that tragedy arises from within human hearts resulting in evil on a scale that defies explanation — not just from simple blunders, but from thoroughly wicked motives, from minds that are deeply disturbed or, perhaps, deeply troubled. There is also the sense in Shakespeare that tragedies are frequently undeserved. This sense of the word is reflected in tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth and, especially King Lear.

My thesis adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, agreed with Shakespeare. He thought there were “unmitigated” tragedies, those that simply could not be explained away.  King Lear, for example, showed us human beings, like Lear’s “dog daughters” Goneril and Regan, who are fundamentally and irreducibly evil. One cannot explain it away on grounds of pop psychology/sociology, or even the machinations of the depth psychologist. They are simply evil. And they are representative of whole groups of people who are simply no damned good — no matter how you look at it. Unmitigated tragedies occur every day and they cannot be explained away.

Wallace Stegner sensed the same thing and wrote a powerful, if disturbing, novel entitled All The Little Live Things about a fascinating young woman who loved life and affirmed her enthusiasm for every living thing, but who died an awful death when cancer worked its way into her liver and kidneys, killing both her and the unborn child within her. That, thought Stegner, is pure evil, and it cannot be explained away as some sort of human mistake.  But let him tell it:

“. . .how random and indiscriminate [evil] is, think how helplessly we must submit, think how impossible it is to control or direct it. Think how often beauty and delicacy and grace are choked out by weeds. Think how endless and dubious is the progress from weed to flower.. . .Think of the force of life, yes, but think of the component of darkness in it. One of the things that’s in the [mother’s] milk is the promise of pain and death.” 

Stegner quotes William Wordsworth in the front pages of his novel: “Oh Sir! the good die first,/And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust/ Burn to the socket.”

Stegner’s heroine is in her early 30s and pregnant. She desperately hopes the baby will be born before she herself dies. So she refuses any treatments that will prolong her own life and threaten the child within her. In the end she also refuses pain killers on the same grounds. She hopes that her child will live, but in doing so dies a gruesome death and her child is born, “a blob of blue flesh that moved a little, and bleated weakly, and died.” There is good in this world, and real beauty. But there is also ugliness and ineluctable evil. Unmitigated tragedy.

One who is able to take the leap of faith, like Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, can somehow embrace the absurdity of human existence. He takes the leap with love and hope — and an anguished heart, because he knows evil is real and cannot be explained away. But he still believes. For the rest of us we are left with doubt, uncertainty, and bitterness when we read or hear about the death of an innocent child or a loving adult. We demand an explanation that makes sense to us. But we cannot find one. The person of true faith, who has taken the leap, doesn’t ask. He simply accepts.

Socratic Doubt

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil — which she calls “banal” — and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by suggesting that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged in our culture these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we listen to the bloat and rhetoric of the politicians and demagogs who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”