Evil from a Western Perspective Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Evil from a Western Perspective

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Evil is an interesting concept in the Western cultural and philosophical canon. It has taken a long time to develop, and its development is marked with both triumph and tragedy. The Concise Oxford Dictionary1 - in common with other dictionaries - has several definitions for the word 'evil'. Included in these are evil as 'morally bad; wicked', deliberately 'harmful or tending to harm', 'disagreeable or unpleasant' and 'unlucky; causing misfortune'. This demonstrates the vagueness of the concept, in terms of definition, but evil as a concept has, itself, an interesting history.

Evil, as the modern Western world understands it, had its origins in the largely arid realm of Persia2 with the religion of Zoroastrianism3. Well, it started earlier - but it didn't catch on and become a world moving trend until Zoroastrianism became a mega-hit in the Middle East. Greece and Egypt had concepts of morality based on right and wrong, but complex moralities didn't sell as well as the hot title 'Good vs Evil' eventually did - after some basic work at the grassroots level. Evil was largely seen as the impurity of the material world4, associated with a god - which was diametrically opposed but somewhat inferior to its goodly cousin. Cleanliness of the flesh was secured through sacrifice, goodly deeds and abstinence from certain foodstuffs.

The Greeks and later Romans were content to live the good life. All this business about austerity and soul-cleansing prayer just didn't sit well with our friends in the West. The Greeks had Plato's Republic, after all. This work of philosophy had morality, but no emphasis on the concept of evil. Plato's rejection of the material world was fairly groundbreaking though, and many think the Republic paved the way to Greek Christianity.

Christianity gained exclusive rights to the Western concept of evil in the Roman era, borrowing it from the Jews, who borrowed it from the not-so-fun-loving Zoroastrians. The Christian franchise would soon be called into question during the crusades agains Islam in the 12th and 13th Centuries. While they had the rights, they tried to expand on them. The work of St Augustine (354 - 430) and St Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 74) would take evil to heights of stardom hitherto unknown. Adding to the Messianic message of the Zoroastrians, they helped 'raise' the stakes for the believers - or so it is widely reported.

Again, evil was considered a part of the flesh and of the material world. Monasticism was largely an attempt at rejecting the evil corporeal universe. In the beginning, monastic types would commit self flagellation, isolate themselves and talk to small animals. Soon though, they got a whiff of the fine life and many of them created health spas and fine wineries around their monasteries. Some kept to austere measures, but many flocked to the materialistic lifestyle popular among aristocrats.

Many resented the austerity and self-loathing lifestyle that typically came with the association of evil with flesh, and the subsequent attempt to reject it. With the arrival of humanism during the Renaissance, the very nature of evil came into question. Exactly what constituted evil, anyway? Were we born with it and if so, why? A millennium and a half of theology went right down the drain - St Augustine never regained the smashing popularity he so enjoyed in life and immediate post-life. The humanists effectively took evil, considered it and made it an official component of philosophy. No longer a subsidiary of theology, philosophy was the new wonderboy celebrity of the educated and University chairs everywhere.

Evil was no longer that conceptual, otherworldly thing out there, trying to corrupt everyone with temptation. Evil did not suffer scrutiny, but was rather invigorated by it. It was flashy, something that everybody wanted a part of. The Philosophers wanted to know just what this evil was that everyone had been talking about for so long. Everybody had a stab at it - Descartes (1596 - 1650), Spinoza (1632 - 1677) and Kant (1724 - 1804). Was evil inherent in humanity, or was morality something that arose from personal choice? Born was the idea of free will being a true necessity. During the Reformation - the most successful trial separation ever - the very concept of violating the individual or impeding self-realisation became evil. Suddenly evil became associated with the old Church itself and with the impediments of progress. Evil had reinvented itself.

With the Reformation, many wondered if universal good and evil even existed! Evil became largely a subjective concept among many intellectuals. Many became agnostics or atheists. Evil was still fashionable, but just didn't have that broad appeal. Most people stuck with Old School Evil, and denounced this new-found progress and griped about material temptation.

By time the industrial revolution was well on its way to covering the world in soot and employing the largest child labour force the world had yet seen, the intellectuals had just about overplayed evil to the extent of almost losing interest in it all together. The idea of universal good and evil just didn't have that shine it had had almost three millennia ago. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) looked at evil, wasn't impressed and wrote the whole thing off as an invention of the Judeo-Christians: a purely linguistic concept. It was evident at this point that evil needed to reinvent itself again - it just wasn't a hot seller. The regular people still thought it was neat though.

Some intellectuals sought to give evil a new shine, but without ever quite calling it 'evil'. Two men emerged on the scene and would largely shape the concept of evil for the 20th Century. Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) and his ideological nemesis, Adam Smith (1723 - 1790). Evil to Marx was capitalism and evil to Adam Smith was collectivization. Many flocked to both ideologies and evil became a very confused concept among the educated. Money was evil, austerity was evil, industry was evil, un-developed land was evil - and on, and on, and on. Who knew what evil was, anyway?

Many intellectuals were simply fed up with evil and just threw it away. 'Evil,' they said, 'what a crock!' Evil, they argued, was a concept that was brought about by the first world. The old notions of evil brought on atrocities and suffering. The righteous had crusaded and brought hardship as a result. Good and evil no longer had the old shine and lustre. Thus Existentialism, moral relativity and a new world of confusion.

Evil is still popular among the larger part of the general population - but has been 'popularised'. Modern evil is most comprehensively expressed in video game and cartoon villains, high fat foods and bad service at the carwash. More broadly speaking, it can apply to overtime, phone solicitors and accountants. Evil is now a very celebrated concept in tabloids, televangelist programmes and action movie villains. Ironically many evil villains are portrayed as Iraqi: Iraq used to be Persia, and Persia is the original home of Zoroastrianism. Small world.

One final point... Contrary to popular belief, evil is not without its redeeming features. A large number of industries and organisations exist to combat evil, such as police departments, the FBI, MI6, security firms, and superheroes (without which the highly profitable comic book business would disappear). If evil were truly thwarted once and for all, there would be less occupations to combat it and therefore an economic recession would result.

1Ninth edition, 1995, p467.2Back when Western community was largely confined to the Mediterranean Sea.3Alternatively called Zarathustranism.4The corporeal bit.

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