This I Believe

george - clinton, New Jersey
Entered on September 22, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: good & evil

Here is a thought about Hannah Arendt and her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The concept of the banality of evil – exemplified by Eichmann, who was such a positive, constructive citizen of the German Reich, a man who did his duty – carries great power. The most terrible atrocities that are committed are so often perpetrated by good little men who are following their orders and performing their roles in an efficient and cheerful manner. Arendt made the amazing observation that Eichmann was a man who had no thoughts. One has to think deeply about what it might mean that a particular human being has no thoughts. I would qualify her description in just one way, by saying he had no thoughts that were genuinely his own. The capacity for independent thinking and judgment, for any kind of authentic originality or creativity, was frozen and annihilated in Adolf Eichmann. If the capacity for creativity defines the uniqueness of human beings, it can be said of Eichmann that he was a man who lost his humanity.

2. On another level, one can raise the abstract question as to whether people are inherently evil. I agree with those who say that we ought not to think of evil as an irreducible component of human nature, somehow built into the very fabric of the soul. One of the many things wrong with such an idea is that it introduces what might be characterized as a theological concept into psychology. I should also say that I have listened to clinical psychoanalytic and psychiatric discussions at case conferences where particular patients are being described, and more than once have heard an analyst describe a patient as “actually evil,” as literally somehow embodying the principle of evil itself. Attending such conferences, I am always relieved that I am not the patient who is being discussed and viewed in this way. For psychology, and particularly for a psychoanalytic theory of personality, it makes more sense to approach the study of evil as a human experience, rather than as any kind of entity, essence, or active principle literally existing within a person or in the world.

3. What is the nature of the experience of evil? This would be our sense that something or someone before us is an implacable, determined threat to the existence of all we hold precious. It is the experience of absolute malevolence, where one becomes aware that a person or group is absolutely dedicated to the destruction of what we most deeply love and cherish – ourselves, our children, our faith, our very worlds as ours to inhabit. So I am not saying that there is anything or anyone literally posing this threat, but rather that an individual is catapulted into the experience of being confronted by evil when he or she perceives that threat is present. So evil, phenomenologically considered, is something that is felt or sensed, and is not to be regarded as an entity having objective existence. We see a demon before us, and we can ask about what are the conditions and contexts within which such a thing appears? This is an empirical-phenomenological question, to be answered by studying examples of the experience in concrete human lives. Bruce Wilshire, my dear friend in philosophy at Rutgers, wrote a book on genocide – entitled Get ‘Em All, Kill ‘Em! – in which he discussed this sort of thing, arguing that genocide occurs when one group begins to experience another group as a dire threat to what he calls the “world-experienced,” i.e., the familiar cultural universe in which members of the former group live. His book is a contribution to the phenomenology of evil, and to the understanding of the consequences that tend to flow from this experience. When people feel confronted by evil, they do desperate, terrible things to avert it, obliterate it, and thereby remove the threat to the “world-experienced.”

4. A few years ago, my son Christopher, then 15 years old, and I formulated and published a Deep Thought that is relevant to this discussion. In what is given below, we refer to the Satanic, rather than to evil, but it reduces to the same thing.


Note that this thought is self-referential, in that it identifies the Satanic – it is therefore itself an instance of the Satanic. The thinking here is that when one is confronted with evil, as an experience, the only response that makes any sense, the ONLY thing one can do, is to devote the totality of one’s energies to destroying it. It will destroy you, so destroy it first! Our Deep Thought invites its own destruction. One responds then to those who appear, in our subjectivity, to embody evil by rising up against them, threatening and attacking them, tending inevitably to produce in their experience a sense that one is oneself the embodiment of evil. A counterattack then occurs, and the human beings involved fall into a death spiral. Absolute conviction on the one side provokes absolute counter-conviction on the other, and there is nothing that can stop the conflict except for the obliteration of one or both sides.

My son and I intended our thought as a kind of warning to stay away from the concept of evil, of the Satanic, because as soon as one applies it, a sequence of events as described above is set in motion. Think of one of our own politician’s use of the phrase, “Axis of Evil,” deadly words heard by those to whom they were directed, words perceived to have been spoken by The Great Satan. The idea of evil as something objectively real should be banned from political discourse, as well as from psychology. But we need to understand it as an experience that some of us have, and of which all of us are capable. Evil in this latter, phenomenological sense is therefore to be viewed as a special kind of psychological catastrophe, one that belongs to that extreme range of subjective events involving the threat of personal annihilation.


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