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.

The Nature of Evil

A good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, made an interesting comment on a recent blog I wrote about the “banality” of evil. That word is Hannah Arendt’s and it is used by her to describe the evil she witnessed in covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Paul suggested that her analysis does not cover every possible case of evil and he has suggested in the past an interesting model — a human “bell curve” from good to evil with most of us in the middle somewhere and folks at either end either thoroughly evil or inherently good, even saintly.

Now, to begin with, we live in an age that denies the legitimacy of such words as “evil,” insisting the “good” and “evil” are merely words we attach to personal perspectives of our own private worlds. “It’s all relative,” we hear on every street corner. I suggest that this view is simplistic and am convinced on philosophical and psychological grounds that there is evil and that humans are quite capable of performing evil deeds as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion. I find my friend’s model, the bell curve, quite appealing. Most of us do seem to be somewhere in the middle and there are those — like the man mentioned by Paul in his comment who beat up a homeless person on the street because the latter witnessed him stealing from a second homeless man — or like the men who tied up a young Frenchman and beat him with a crowbar and made him watch as they gang-raped his girl friend on a public transport in Rio de Janeiro recently, as reported by Yahoo News.

These strike me as examples of unmitigated evil, a sign that these people are without conscience and quite capable of inflicting pain on others and quite possibly enjoying it. This clearly goes beyond the notion of “banality” that Arendt speaks about. This is not mere thoughtlessness, as Paul correctly points out. Sigmund Freud seems to have been closer to the truth. You may recall that he was convinced we all repress sadistic impulses — which come out when we laugh at the clown who gets hit with a pie in the face, for example — or when the chair is removed from under the man about to sit down at the table. In fact, laughter is one of the main ways we release these sadistic impulses according to Freud. The impulses themselves are not socially acceptable and we are brought up to suppress them as much as possible. We do so, according to Freud, by means of the formation of our conscience  (the “Super Ego”) which keeps those impulses at bay long after we learn to repress them as children. Humor is socially acceptable, as is the vicarious delight we take in viewing an accident, or violent games on TV. Whether we like to admit it or not, these sadistic impulses are there and some people don’t bother to suppress them but rather take delight in expressing them in violent acts toward others — like those actions mentioned above.

I do think we have to allow that Arendt’s analysis of the evil committed by people like Adolf Eichmann can be called “banal,” in the sense that he simply never stopped to think about what he was doing. He was a mindless bureaucrat who fretted about keeping the trains on time. A great many people in Germany at the time mindlessly fell in line with the Nazi propaganda and, given centuries of hatred toward the Jews, they were perfectly willing to look the other way during the “final solution.” Most of these people were not directly involved in the gassing of the Jews — even Eichmann himself never witnessed such an event, we are told. Those that were directly involved in the torture and death of those untold millions of people clearly must be regarded as in a different class altogether from those who oversaw the operation and scheduled the trains. These folks resemble more closely those who today direct drone flights into crowds of people, never witnessing the events and finding solace in the notion that they are not killing human beings, they are killing the “enemy.” The real enemy, however, may indeed be within — as Paul suggests.