Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Pure Evil

The following is a post submitted by Matt Valdiviez.

Two recent local crimes have been much remarked on the television news of late. Fortuitously or fatefully, they have tended to be mentioned consecutively in a manner that seems to me to bring into relief a certain dilemma of thought on the nature of evil. The one concerns the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl by a young man, one Efrain Valenzuela, at a house party; the other tells of middle-aged cult-leader Wayne Bent’s sexual abuse of one of his adolescent female disciples.

The cult-leader’s crime, shockingly vile though it may be, seems to me rather less disturbing than the murder. As little as I would care to confess any identifying sympathy with the impulses that would lead a man to molest a child, I nonetheless must admit the intelligibility of the pleasure the man must have been seeking in taking advantage of the girl. It’s a wicked and destructive pleasure in which no man must ever allow himself to indulge, even in thought, even for an instant; yet it is a real pleasure, founded upon passions now native to all fallen creatures, the familiar exhilaration of the sense of the helpless other’s violent and humiliating subjugation.

However the man may have justified his activities (and it appears from the news reports that he had conceived a rather elaborate and impressively fantastic self-defense), there is at the heart of his action the pursuit of something recognizably pleasing and, to that extent, good, though catastrophically twisted. That this particular good has been unlawfully and immorally pursued is beyond question. But one can see nevertheless that the man got something from it, that he was willing to sacrifice conscience for concupiscence. It probably seemed like a good trade at the time.

The other crime, however, seems not to exhibit any such intelligible motive. The culprit apparently found himself the butt of a few friendly jokes and reacted, without hesitation, by pulling out a handgun and shooting the girl in the face. What sort of misconceived good could the young man possibly have been pursuing? This act of violence, which is neither more nor less shocking and disgusting than that of the cult-leader’s pederasty, seems to lack any readily intelligible motive.

It recalls the theme of the acte gratuit familiar from certain modern novels; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Albert Camus’s Meursault, and Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying Judge Holden all embody the possibility of men committing atrocious acts of violence simply for the sake of the violent atrocity, without promise of either profit or pleasure. The theme has been developed in a somewhat more melodramatic fashion in films of a romantic bent in which characters and their moral cosmos tend to be polarized, neatly opposed as good to evil, like the black and white pieces on a chess board. Think of the Darth Vader from the first Star Wars movie (before the psychologizings of the later installments reduced him to a traumatized teenager) or the Joker from 2008’s The Dark Knight. These figures display, in the words of the nineteenth-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a “motiveless malignity.” (Coleridge was actually describing Shakespeare’s Iago.) They seem to do unthinkably evil things for no other reason than to be unthinkably evil, to test the limits of man’s inhumanity to men. They gain nothing from their crimes. They symbolize a purely destructive instinct in us, something like what Freud referred to as Thanatos, the death drive.

But these, of course, are fictional characters whose activities are not really meant to map directly onto the real world of criminal psychology. Yet when one hears of such an apparently gratuitous murder as that of Mr. Valenzuela, one may pause to ask whether there is not something of the same motiveless malignity in him and, therefore, potentially in us all, all flesh falling equally short of the glory of God. Is pure evil a real possibility for human beings? Do we commit acts of wickedness solely because we fail to recognize the higher good and settle for a lesser one? Or do we sometimes indulge in evil for evil’s sake?

Christian theology has been reluctant to take this thought too seriously. At least since Augustine, and most forcefully since Thomas Aquinas, evil, in the theologian’s zeal for theodicy, has tended to be described rather as privation of the good than as any sort of positive entity. We sin because we fail to recognize the higher good of spiritual obedience and settle too readily for the bestial and worldly goods of the flesh, laying up for ourselves treasures in earthen vessels when eternal glory is offered us. By this rationale, if we only knew better, if only our spiritual education could be at last perfected, we would choose righteousness invariably, for our motives are never purely evil, merely deficient in good. But if it were possible for us to commit evil acts from purely evil promptings, this would instantly undermine any confidence we might place in our, or our children’s, spiritual education. No matter how well we had trained ourselves to recognize the cause of righteousness, sin might nonetheless surprise us. Sinfulness could be our nature in a rather deeper sense than that of a mere persistent temptation. If we can do evil for evil’s sake, then we really don’t even need to be tempted in order to fall. For what was it that tempted Mr. Valenzuela to pull the trigger? What good, however meager, could he have hoped to gain by it?

Now it may be that I’ve simply missed the point and don’t really understand just how much genuine enjoyment is to be got from shooting an innocent girl in the head or that the thrill of the transgression is its own epicurean reward. And I have no idea how one might even go about determining whether or not pure evil is a human possibility. Yet the mere thought of it as a possibility seems to me to present something for spiritual edification and admonition. If we are so helpless against evil as to succumb to it without even being tempted, then our sole refuge lies in the righteousness that can only belong to the Lord and his Christ. No vigilance can shore us up against a new fall; no rigidity of devotional habit can insure that we shall not revolt against God and his Creation. Our trust must be solely in his providence, for both our native goodness and the stability of our moral upbringing are illusions.

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