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Prabuddha Bharata, January 2016


The ragged core of a sweet apple

By William H. Gass

Discussed in this essay:
Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy,
by Susan Neiman.
Princeton University Press, 2002.304 pages. $29.95.

Is the motorcar evil? Of course not, because it can have no intentions, no interior life, nurse no resentments, and harbor no malice. In daily life it has become commoner than the cold. In the moral realm the auto lacks pizzazz. It is merely an instrument of evil, rippling or killing thousands every year, consuming many of the resources of the earth, eviscerating cities as routinely as butchers their beef, poisoning the atmosphere, fostering illusions of equality and dominion, encouraging envy and macho competitions, facilitating adolescent fornication, and ravaging the countryside. Its horrid offspring are garages, interchanges, and gas stations. Popular delusions, much destruction, increasing casualties, do not make the motorcar evil, because these consequences were never aimed at. The word in vogue for the damage it does is "collateral". But the most considerable obstacle to calling the car "evil" is that its effects are easily explicable. Carbon monoxide is odorless, but that is the extent of its mystery. The price we pay for our automobiles seems more onerous to us than the cost of their use. Just add air bags and buckle up. Our callous indifference to ruinous truth may be less readily formulated.
Perhaps the cigarette is. Evil. Because it has within it, like Old Nick in "nicotine," habituating elements that mimic the resolutions of intention. Because it encourages cancer to attack the lips that lip it, the lungs that suck its smoke, the eyes its blown smoke stings. Suppose the hands that held a wheel too many hours, too many miles, so many gallons, began to lose their fingers. Then how would we feel? That justice had been done ? For there is something that's suitable about dying from your vices: playing the slots, wasting water, eating burgers. If sins only sickened the sinner, if cramp crippled the fingers of the forger, if every quarter fed to the toothy machine clogged the player's small intestine, there would be some satisfaction in this world. A few zealots - foolish optimists about a moral universe - believe that AIDS is God's punishment for buggery, and that just deserts are at last being generously served. What of such thoughts? Is it in their vicinity that evil really lies ? What sort of heart beats at that rate?
I have for some time insisted that every virtue has seven vices, and one day I intend to prove it. I have used neatness as a showcase because it cancels, hides, and opposes history. Miss Tidy believes that everything has its place and that everything should be there. To deny the parade happened, ticker tape and flag-wave must be swept and furled; to pretend the party was never thrown, its empties need to be recycled, its tin horns packed away; to be able to say some war was never foolishly waged, its wounds needlessly suffered, accounts must be scrubbed, documents shredded, evidence dug up, and history rewritten. This starchy daughter of the regiment loves roll call, frequent inspections, and the constancy of the pyramids. Moreover, one might argue without being simply contrary that chastity is a vice and adultery a virtue. Which one does the sonnet favor?
Nor is any virtue, in Immanuel Kant's terms, unqualifiedly virtuous, for if we were to give our allegiance exclusively to one of them (by dreaming of a society without hunger, for instance), we should have to sacrifice too much else. So that no one might starve, we might give everyone a job. To do that (and the U.S.S.R. and China did do that) we find ourselves asking six men to dig a hole that two might easily shovel, and demand that women we've trained as nurses sweep the street instead. People will not look for or find congenial jobs but labor when and where they are posted. Making work for others is one such assignment. Roads are repaired with forks and spoons when the aim is full employment, and slowdowns are de rigueur. Shop stewards take frequent breaks and the feather bedding is of swan's down. Hurry up and wait is the military solution. When standing in ranks or queues life is as level as a desert and time is too heavy to handle
As Milton inadvertently demonstrated, goodness is confining and limits God's sphere of action, turning him into a droning bore. Eve ate to break the monotony. Eve ate to enjoy the appetite it would give,her. Without misbehavior and misfortune there would be no news. Some philosophers like to argue that "good" and "evil" are co-relative terms, and, like "long" and "short," are necessary to each other. To know the meaning of "evil," you must understand the meaning of "good," as Satan certainly does, since he is a fallen angel. I'm sure he wondered how perfection could survive change. Perfection is more immobile than a mountain. Or, if in motion, as continuous as a heavenly body or a looped tape. Nietzsche thought a grazing cow could be happy because it had no memory of the past or vision of the future, hence no regrets, no anxieties, no invidious comparisons - an eternal now was enough.
As Milton inadvertently demonstrated, goodness is confining and limits God's sphere of action, turning him into a droning bore. Eve ate to break the monotony. Eve ate to enjoy the appetite it would give,her. Without misbehavior and misfortune there would be no news. Some philosophers like to argue that "good" and "evil" are co-relative terms, and, like "long" and "short," are necessary to each other. To know the meaning of "evil," you must understand the meaning of "good," as Satan certainly does, since he is a fallen angel. I'm sure he wondered how perfection could survive change. Perfection is more immobile than a mountain. Or, if in motion, as continuous as a heavenly body or a looped tape. Nietzsche thought a grazing cow could be happy because it had no memory of the past or vision of the future, hence no regrets, no anxieties, no invidious comparisons - an eternal now was enough.
In his brilliant novel The Living End, Stanley Elkin gave God the best possible reason for the mess and misery of His Creation: it makes a better story.

My father had a driving habit. Many do, I suspect. Such men simply like "to take a drive" the way some step outside now "to have a smoke." "What if everybody did?" is the question Kant suggested we put to ourselves. One can understand why philosophers are morally inconvenient. Which is worse: sickening people the way power plants and factories do, or polluting streams by hosing hogs? In any case, repeating the offense seems essential to the elevation of the cause. And the cause, to achieve evil, must be elevated. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, NOW PERFORMING IN THE CENTER RING! RACIAL CLEANSING AND THE CONFISCA TORS! Evil cannot be a simple sideshow - the momentary ogle of a bearded lady or a. lewd peek at some hermaphrodite's; minuscule appliances. Evil is a limelight hog and wouldn't mind the hose.
Aristotle thought moral virtue was a habit. Certainly vice is. Think of rape and murder as a serial rather than a snapshot - six unrelated killings in a week versus four in a month with the same m.o. The American soldier who mistakenly shot Anton Webern can say oops, but not if he's done away with the entire Vienna Philharmonic. What onetime act can be called "evil," can reach that kind of high-pitched crime? A crucifixion? There have been many. Christ's? Yes, but He had to be crucified, He had to suffer, our sins required their goat, nor would we be in a position to be saved as He was, without a death for Him to rise from on a ladder of hallelujahs. The Resurrection was a proof, a promise,; and a preview. All rise, here comes the judge. Had Pontius Pilate known the plot, perhaps we might admire him now for handing down a sentence so hard on the shepherd yet so humanely necessary for his flock.
If repetition is at least sometimes a significant factor, numbers - higher and higher totals - would seem to matter. A RECORD NUMBER OF CHEVROLETS WERE WRECKED THIS LABOR DAY WEEKEND. I have wondered how many Jews had to die before their deaths qualified as a holocaust, in contrast, say, to just another pogrom. How many Africans must starve before the U .N .is moved to make a motion? Which fish was it that grew too mercurial? The straw that broke the camel's back was number - what? How much does the breakage depend on the camel? If the Iraqis kill one G.I. a day, how many days will it be before we withdraw? What a surprise withdrawal will be, because, every day, our casualties were light. So was the straw.
It is apparently worse if the crimes committed against large numbers are not only intentional but organized, as if they were actually one outcome. The Chevrolets were wrecked higgledy-piggledy, Africans die of unexpected thirst and unplanned famine, but the Armenians were the chosen targets of the Turks. The German solution to the Jewish question was a bureaucratic action: offices were opened, agents hired, papers signed, file cabinets filled.
The ancient Greeks did not trouble themselves much about evil. The malfunctions of man and nature were-to a point-easily understood: there were many gods and no dogma. The gods lusted, quarreled, were jealous of their prerogatives and possessive about their powers. Under cover of animals they raped young ladies or in a fume of frustration turned the recalcitrant into trees. During wars they chose sides and constantly interfered with the fulfillment of human intentions - bent flights of arrows, slowed swings of swords. Sacrifices were expected. If the gods demanded the slaughter of daughters, this became inconvenient. It was nonetheless like paying tithes. Evil itself was not an issue.
Bad luck could follow a family the way original sin semen'd its way through the womb of humanity , but, by and large, quarrels were personal, you and the god of light or wine or wheat or war had your bones to pick the way Prometheus' innards were repeatedly vultured, though his crime - the theft of fire from the hearth of the gods - was so serious that his punishment required renewal and his liver grew back overnight like a weed. When Prometheus suffered, he suffered alone; perhaps his mother might be disturbed in her sleep, but not, certainly, the boy next door or the grocer across town or some Spartan and his young companion. If, at creation, the work went awry, it did so because the Real was to mirror the Ideal and could not be replicated in lowly sensuous materials without compromising its purity and falsifying its nature. Is Liberty really a torch-bearing lady? This world, Plato said, is but reflection and shadow.

Evil, as something more than routine wickedness, appears when the pagan world is swept aside by the Judaic/Christian. In its . place there is dogma with heresy as its offspring; law, consequently centralized authority and clerical bureaucracy; duty, thus an even fiercer patriarchy than there had been; overwhelming authority, and the dictatorship of a deity who has triumphed over other chiefs and other tribes, banishing their gods in order to rule alone. Although He (for it is a He in deed if not in anatomy) is given powers beyond dreaming, He must nevertheless assume family or saintly disguises in order to get done all He must do, and includes Himself in His creation (since it is now His) like a drawing done in the draftsman's blood. Consequently, pantheism's presence is assured, and polytheism is only faintly obscured, because there are acres of Angels in heaven and there will be scores of saints on the earth. One of those angels, fallen from favor, is henceforth blamed for everything, since he possesses weapons of mass destruction and has moles and other minions everywhere that the ferrets of the Inquisition find it convenient to go.
The realm of death is where the Titans once ruled, too deeply underground to be responsible for crops, and there the Prince of Darkness was sent, like a child to his room, for disobedience. The sun, the source of light and consequently understanding, blazed from above. The Form of the Good was the sun of the spiritual world, Plato said. Even earlier than he, light (knowledge) was identified with excellence, and darkness (ignorance) with evil. That is, ethical and epistemological concepts were fundamentally intertwined. This is the organizing premise of Susan Neiman's splendid history of modern philosophy, Evil in Modern Thought, though she gives a priority to the ethical chicken that I might reserve for the epistemological egg.
The Greeks were concerned with right and wrong, less so with law and obligation. Knowledge exercised its moral suasion from within, but when there is one God, and when, as always, that God has rules, disobedience is the source and substance of every sin. From the first, philosophers and theologians tended to differ about this, and do so to this day. With the optimism every tautology confers. Plato insisted that men would follow the good if they knew what it was (and if they did not behave it was because their information, like the CIA's, was faulty). In the Judaic/Christian tradition the law was handed out, to my mind, like leftover cheese to a starving population. What it was, was not nearly as important as that it was. Survival depended on unity, unity on regulation. Nourishment of whatever kind was the necessity. That there was a rule of law was more important than what the law was.
There is a day in every year when the hours of light precisely equal the hours of darkness, and the position of the sun on a sundial graphically represents the advance and retreat of its shine. These facts become characters in a moral story and soon enjoy the untrammeled dance of metaphor. The struggle between good and evil in the roles of day and night was continuous throughout the world because neither could be destroyed, only temporarily diluted or delayed. The seasons similarly warred with one another, each victorious, each beaten or making a comeback, arriving like the Marines or fleeing the scene. Manichaeism is an attractive theory if you want to simplify the problem of evil by making sense of it.
The triumph of monotheisms (odd there should be so many Almighties and no one able to put the others out of business) placed a considerable intellectual strain on their attendant apologists, who were constantly personifying the moral characteristics of human action and giving them to the deity: God was vengeful, angry, loving, grateful, and forgiving, as well as attentive and merciless. They let these reified forces run loose as hounds. "There is almost nothing that has a name," Hobbes complained, "that has not been esteemed amongst the Gentiles, in one place or another, a God, or Divell ..." In an effort to restore purity to waters irretrievably contaminated, and order to thoughts irrecoverably muddled, they put polytheism back in action, as I have already suggested (God has a son and that son a surrogate mother, St. Christopher fills in for Hermes, imps hide in closets, dybbuks take possession of the innocent, and witches fly through the skies).
Between a gloriously perfect God and the human soul, imprisoned in the dirt of life and its own body, intermediaries were deemed necessary , and countless numbers of them appeared immediately, if not before the need was seen. No ideology can exist without them. They literally keep it alive. Call them popes, prophets, mahdis, saints, bishops, mahatmas, lamas, rabbis, mullahs, merely clerics: they were as human as you and I, and as hungry - consequently as greedy; as fearful as you and I - and soon as cruel; as agile and inventive, as lusty and carelessly knockabout as you and I. They murdered their enemies and were murdered in turn, urged righteous war on infidel nations, and occasionally preached peace as if they believed in it. They pursued the evil in others the way some sought the deer and the fox, and scoured ,their religious institutions till they were cleansed of heresy. like nations, leagues, and alliances, these institutions needed evil, the enemies who harbored it, and those who threatened them. Evil rarely feels so confident that it will risk appearing naked and without the tailless unhoofed look of the good. Never mind, the world was made better because some of its members were burned alive. You don't need a theory to explain this. You only need history.
When Susan Neiman takes up the tale of woe that is our Western intellectual enterprise, it is 1755 and Lisbon has just been shaken by an earthquake, with much loss of life, property, and confidence. Moreover, the disaster has taken place on the Day of the Dead, November 1, a calendar moment that would nowadays, like 9/11, be subject to many fanciful interpretations. Intellectuals sent twitters of pity to the ruined city, but to the side of their injured views they brought palliating judgments and soothing rationalizations. The air had been sweet with the optimism of Alexander Pope, and alight breeze bore Leibniz's phrase "this is the best of all possible worlds" to every attentive ear. Newton had banished chaos. "God said, 'let Newton be!' and all was light." The argument for design had been triumphantly upheld. Every event served a noble purpose and revealed the hand of Divine Providence in all things. Indeed, the human hand was evidence enough. It was how cleverly it held its knife that was admired, not the thrust that lodged it in a victim's chest.
In response to the tragedy, Voltaire first wrote a poem, a copy of which he requested a friend pass on, along with another on natural law, to Jean d'Alembert, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Upon their receipt, Rousseau objected to the Lisbon poem because it appeared to be an attack on Providence and therefore upon God himself. He complained that by overemphasizing human wretchedness, Voltaire had caused us to be more conscious of that wretchedness. This presumably made us more miserable instead of more informed. Then, like a schoolmaster, Rousseau summed the problem in a single sentence; "If God exists, he is perfect; if he is perfect, he is wise, powerful and just; if he is wise and powerful, everything is for the best; if he is just and powerful my soul is immortal." This dominoarranged rhetoric made its fall-down easy for Voltaire. If the lisbon earthquake was not for the best, then, according to Rousseau's reasoning, God did not exist. But, we might reply, as if philosophy were a game, that the quake was for the best after all. Didn't fires encourage cities to build in brick and stone? plagues compel them to improve their sanitation systems? So who knew what good would come from a vigorous shaking up?
A poem was an insufficient response to 20,000 deaths, so Voltaire, familiar with the satirical tradition of Erasmus, Montesquieu, and Swift, as well as the pessimistic Pope of the Dunciad, in the space of a few days wrote Candide - a better idea. The absurd could only be answered with ridicule. A few important facts did not escape Voltaire. The problem of evil was as much an invention of the human mind (and the emotions that often drove it into nonsense and contradiction) as it was the result of human nature or its environment. It frequently took catastrophes to stir us into action. Superstitions fell as well as buildings, dogmas died when all those people did. Good and evil were seen to be significantly intertwined. Good intentions did sometimes pave the road to hell, but malicious emotions and wicked ambitions often produced profitable politics; greed, useful inventions; and envy, many masterpieces.
The problem of evil comes in two ontological sizes. The first is factual: does it exist as apart of the human condition, and if it does, what is its nature? what are its causes? and how may we rid the world of them? Agents of evil are often identified with evil itself, as the members of Al Qaeda were, making evil easier to remove, as if punishing them would fumigate Enron or allow Serbs to walk upright. The second is philosophical: how shall we define evil? is its character human, natural, or divine? what is its justification? and what does its presence indicate? {Ordinary things signify, evil "portends.")
Occasionally, an issue will wear out its welcome and, without further argument, dwindle away. Events like the Lisbon earthquake or the Holocaust may prompt intellectual inquiries, and their results, in turn, may influence how we choose to cope with evil in the world; but many cosmic moral problems are purely philosophical because they are the result of assumptions that have been embarrassed by facts or come to grief on the shoals of events. Following the Final Solution, God's apologists had a lot of explaining to do. Humanists were equally shamefaced. A few threw up their hands. Wasn't it futile to speak of morality after such a failure of morality? Nevertheless a thousand thumbs were thrust into the dike. Excuses were released like birthday balloons. The majority of these rationalizations continue to be theological and are not regarded with much seriousness by professional philosophers.
The history of philosophy can be roughly described as a series of proposed solutions to specific intellectual puzzles followed by evaluations and rejoinders that lead to new solutions and fresh mysteries. That is: a thinker finds himself in a fix, thinks he has found a way out, is told he has failed dismally, valiantly, narrowly, utterly, tries to fix his fix only to have more faults found, and so on; meanwhile the kibitzers adopt one version of the fix as their own and begin to tinker with it. In this game of serve and volley, God has been called upon to rescue many a system from disaster, a savior indeed for principles that have been threatened with their own kind of extinction.
God certainly existed, at least as an apparently viable hypothesis, at the time Susan Neiman begins her history with the Voltaire-Rousseau quarrel, and she immediately examines Kant's reaction to Rousseau's belief that the impulses in man that have led to the establishment of corrupt and corrupting -societies are not evil in themselves but could have been (and can be) used to create social relations that do not suffer from the mistakes that previously have been made. Rousseau suggests that if children were taught, by word and example, that life punished vice and rewarded virtue, they would be able to follow their basically good impulses with confidence instead of trepidation. As it is, the virtuous are victimized, being more than usually defenseless. But Rousseau's view of history has insufficient scope, for the good are not handicapped, surely, if it is the classical virtues they possess. Wisdom, courage, temperance, justice: these are traits not of the modest and humble but of the strong, assured, and forthright. Pagan virtues give their owners an edge, allowing them honesty, for instance, because the truth takes grit to give and guts to receive. In their lives, inordinate demands have not been made on attitudes or emotions such as "sympathy" and "love," nor has obedience become the center of their, moral interests.
If you are a Kantian, and believe that virtue should be sought for its own sake (as Aristotle also did), then to wish, out of a sense of fairness, for a world where goodwill and good character might be rewarded rather than exploited would be a terrible mistake, because, in such circumstances, no one could say whether virtue or its profit had been pursued. Suppose there were a Divine Providence and that no leaf fell without its say-so; then, Kant argues, "all our morality would break down. In his every action, man would represent God to himself as a rewarder or avenger. This image would force itself involuntarily on his soul, and his hope for reward and fear of punishment would take the place of moral motives." I think, on this point, Kant underestimated our human capacity for self-deception and forgetfulness. Many people believe in Divine Providence and its Overseer, but when a tornado blows away the trailer park they lived in, they thank God for sparing them and congratulate themselves, neglecting to notice -who the wolf was who sent the wind their way and flindered everything they treasured. We know that gambling is for losers, that unprotected sex is risky, that drinking and then driving at high speeds is murderous, but we do it all the same, and even:congratulate those who escape the consequences; so I'm sure we'd be happy to call ourselves virtuous for investing in good deeds only because they paid prolific dividends. We want our happiness to be crowned with laurel leaves, as if we deserved our prosperity, our reputation, our suburban ease. At best, we may have earned it.
People are fond of excusing the deity from theological difficulties by maintaining that we cannot know God or His intentions, but they don't really believe what they say, since they continue to attribute to Him all sorts of enterprises. Prayer similarly assumes too much. That God has intentions of any kind assumes too much. That God cares assumes too much. That God exists in any form, or does not exist in any guise ... assumes too much. Most human worship is idolatrous: it is commercial, narcissistic, childish - "Watch me daddy while I somersault on the lawn," "Jesus is looking out for me;" "God made my first million, and for that reason I have given it to the church; the remaining forty mil are mine." Instead: "Whereof one cannot speak, one should keep trap shut."

God was cleared of evildoing by denying His existence. It was His only excuse, Stendhal remarked, though a good one. However, when Nature was discovered to be indifferent, not just to our fate or to the fate of salmon, buffalo, or redwood forests but to life of any kind, to Nature's own reification even - indifferent to the indifference of its minerals, to the careless flow of its streams, to the fecundity of its own mothering nature - then Man became the prime suspect. The old argument from design, whose candidates for the intelligent cause were God, Nature, and Man - the latter two plainly set up to be lopped off - was turned as topsy-turvy as a lotto basket; since it now had to be acknowledged that Nature was not only the origin of all those dismaying "acts of God" - insurance companies don't have to pony up for but it had allowed human societies of every stripe and character, of peculiar practices and dubious moral ideals (such as human sacrifice, public executions, racial cleansing, clitoridectomies, slavery, inquisitions, professional wrestling, scarification, and so on) to flourish the way the Aztecs and the Mayans or the Greeks and Romans did, as well as Islam managed at one time, or China during certain dynasties, the British Empire most recently, and even the American ego. Yet when these High Societies stumble, fall, or fade away, it pays no-never-mind. Hills and valleys do not weep for Adonais or for anybody else. Nature's built-in sanctions (Men are mortal) inhibit no one, including the intellectuals, who invent new immortalities to combat the death rate, because there is always a brisk market for solace and the honey of future rewards. Maybe it is the manufacture of myth and the promotion of superstition that is evil. I rather like that idea.
Neiman follows the argument like a sleuth, and, indeed, her book is a kind of thriller: What is it that menaces us? Will we find what evil is? And how may we escape it? The path leads from a God found absent past a Nature that's indifferent till it fetches up at the house of man himself: a castle made of rock, on a rugged mountain's top, its walls surrounded by a moat and defended by crenellated towers. For man to exist in harmony with nature had come to mean that he must eat his meat raw, behave with indifference to everyone but his buddies, be wholesomely rude and free of customary social restraints. "Spontaneous" and "instinctive" were momentarily admirable words. A popular Physical Culture movement aped Greek and Roman statuary. The Reich liked hikers. Gauguin said he spat when he heard the word "civilization" (I bet he didn't), and others said they drew their pistols (I bet they did).
By this time, however, love of a "native" life was hopelessly reactionary. Perhaps, perversely, evil wrapped itself in glorious animality - D. H. Lawrence's Nature Boy, Adolf Hitler's blue-eyed blond ones - now that heaven was empty and the earth cruelly unconcerned. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: "We're not in tune. Not like migratory birds./Outmoded, late, in haste, we force ourselves on winds/ which let us down upon indifferent ponds." Without other devices, man surrounded himself with man. But was that a help ? What, after all, were the moat and walls and towers for? ...the readied molten oil? ...the axes and the arrows? Not for fear of the bumblebee. Safe inside we died of damp, infected by our own wastes, impoverished by the expense and loneliness of self-defense. Safe inside we dozed while Judas opened the gate. When we woke to realize we were no longer safe inside, we murdered one another with a zeal that could only be described as sacerdotal. Our own bodies flung our own bodies to the dogs. We had not been created in God's image but in that other guy's.
In the heyday of our reign, lies about Man were as prevalent as those about God had been. We wore our hubris like a festival hat. The entire universe had been made for us. That's why the earth was the center of the solar system. Among the creatures of that earth, we were its hilly aim, the fairest of them all. Man was the measure. Wasn't that the ancient claim? So every human being was of intrinsic worth, equal with every other, and worthy of protection and praise, though we didn't really believe a word of the "worth and equality" cliche, since we were so callous about the welfare of our own species as to shock every other creature into kindness. But not for long were we the glory and the center. As Freud pointed out, the earth has been demoted, our kind tossed among the others like a dirty rag. Perhaps we had a rank. Perhaps we were stationed ahead of the giant lizards who might return when we melted the polar ice, but we certainly were listed behind cockroaches, who had already lived longer than we and had better prospects; nor were we even masters of our fate but prey to drives as remorseless - and desires as insatiable-as wharf rats.
Human beings have rarely given their own lives good grades. Schopenhauer; for instance, was amply prefigured by the ancients. Only persistent thoughts of death, which most men have hated even more than life itself, made them hang around. Neiman quotes Goethe: "In all times and all countries things have been miserable. Men have always been in fear and trouble, they have pained and tortured each other; what little life they had, they made sour one to the other. ...Thus life is; thus it always was; thus it will always remain. That is the lot of man."

What has emerged for me from this wrestle of the human mind with its own inhumanity, as Neiman opens her final chapter by returning to Lisbon's quake and the fascinating doctrinal wars it stimulated, is that whereas the ground of evil is mere immorality, the cause of evil is evil itself. We know that White bigotry produces Black bigotry, and Black bigotry confirms White. I drive-by to shoot your aunt, you drive-by to shoot my uncle. I drive-by to do in your papa, you drive-by to do in my mama - merrily merrily, life becomes obscene. This tit for tat forms a circle rightly named "vicious." But its beginnings lie in a muddle of ordinary misunderstanding and commonplace misfortune, in fatherly tyranny and motherly meanness. To steal Hannah Arendt's adjective, evil's beginnings are usually banal: job losses here, status losses there, humiliations here, foreclosures there, new people moving in, ethnic irritations, chagrin, lifetime disappointment. There is nothing anyone does wrong exactly, but living habits grate, values clash, competitions occur that do not make for harmony and happiness but rather encourage slander and acrimony. Put-upon people tend to club together, and "club" is the right word. Their enemies, the agents of their economic woes and the authors of intolerable blows to their pride, belong to another club, driven together by present prejudice and past subjugations of their own. Clubs, gangs, tribes, sects, cults, parties, movements, blocs: collections of people who have given their loyalty (hearts and minds, as it's often put) to a group whose reason for being is complaint and whose aim is redress and vengeance. Resentment s pursued like a hobby. The weak lie in wait for their opportunity to achieve justice through the infliction of reciprocal pains. They wait to be empowered.
Injustices (and fancied ones are soon added to the real) are catalogued and kept fresh for future use by politicians who lie, bureaucrats who organize, preachers who rant, historians who colorize, and schoolteachers who read and repeat every calumny they can collect, preparing their children to carry on crime. We are the pure, the chosen, the faithful, the saved, they brag - the state, the church, the schools, and finally the nation bray - while they are the beshat, they are the damned, the sinners, idolaters, and agents of evil. Soon every citizen has been trained in fear and blame and hatred like soldiers for battle. We call this being a good patriot
The sandhog wishes to hold his jackhammer, the computer geek his keyboard. Surely that is reasonable. Everyone takes his local miseries to the schools for instruction, to court for justice, church for benediction, history for justification of his historical blames and claims, the military for reassurance and saber rattle, the state for presumption, pride, and swagger; and there he receives indoctrination, bias, mythmaking, fabrication, bluster, and braggadocio. Evil, it seems to me, is a mosaic made of petty little pieces placed in malignant positions mostly by circumstance in company with the mediocrity of the bureaucratic mind, and empowered, of course, by a gunslinger's technology.
Susan Neiman suggests that Auschwitz was our Lisbon, though we have had a number of powerful before-and-after shocks: Passchendaele, the Soviet gulags, Hiroshima, Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda ...a list too long for 9/11 to obscure, crimes greater than our monuments can justify. We are ingenious, however, and we try: ( 1) the Holocaust was a display of God's wrath at .Europe's left-wing, atheist, assimilating Jews-an excuse as old as Eden; (2) the human race advances by means of suffering and catastrophe; the way we learn to fix bridges that fall down or prevent spaceships from exploding - but historical progress, even if painful, is now impossible to carry a torch for; (3 ) oh dear, God does work in mysterious ways, but this "event" was unique in its mystery and horror, so much so that it falls out of history altogether and has no real forerunners, as it will have no progeny, consequently only its survivors are competent to comment on it, otherwise silence and awe is all that's appropriate (Neiman slights this one, my favorite); (4) it was the largest and best organized pogrom in a long history of anti-Semitic persecutions, so apart from size there is no surprise; the Germans are demonically gifted, and this ritual of purification was German through and through; moreover, for most Germans, the killing was done at a distance and never became news, therefore it was as easy to ignore as the mass murderer next door - a move that gets the human race off the hook at the expense of only one nation; (5) the evil that was Auschwitz is not like next year's SUV, simply bigger and more dangerous, nor even a vehicle that runs on brand-new fuel, but an evil as novel as a new species, unique as #3 claims, and therefore naturally mind-boggling-here, the theory of emergent evolution is applied to dastardliness, keeping the holocaust historical; ( 6) since God is gone and nature excused, evil is simply a moral matter, and the question now is: just how much human behavior is so "natural" nothing can be done about it except, as against earthquakes, to build better. We are what we are and that's all we are, said Popeye the Sailor. And Michel Foucault agrees with Popeye, because he argues that the haves are permanently at war with the have-nots. Get used to it, he sternly tells us. It is no longer a matter of Manichaean good versus evil but a contest between those who have it and those who don't, until those who don't do and those who do don't, whereupon the combatants switch ends of the field and go at it again.
Certainly, human horrors are old hat, It is history's major burden, our principal trait. In these recent cases, the surprise is the size of the crimes, not just the sum of the victims but the zeal and numbers of those committing them. Still, it is business as usual down at the old abattoir and carnage yard. It's simply that business is now done at the global conglomerate level. In the near future we shall drone our enemies to death between rounds of gamblers' golf or cowboy cookouts by the corral
Neiman leads the reader through a careful analysis of the relation of intention, act, and consequence to kinds of useful knowledge and degrees of awareness. I give my son the keys to the car knowing he has a tendency to drive too fast, but I don't want him to drink, to speed, to hit another car, injure his girl, raise my insurance rates, bill me for repairs, contaminate the atmosphere, violate his curfew, or make his mother mad, though I know some of these things will happen and that others are likely. "Intention" as a concept is as slippery as an icy street. Moreover, degrees of awareness are mostly issued by poor schools: if I stick a finger in hot grease, I know I will be burned immediately; if I fail to visit the dentist in six months, maybe I shall pay for it, but later { on a payment plan the British call the "never never"). How many consequences am I responsible for when I loan the car or, obedient to orders given me, I sign a writ of execution? How far should I see through eyes my superiors will shade for me?
If Nature is morally indifferent {though not neutral exactly), and mankind is a species contained within Nature, then men can be indifferent, too. Or favor their own species, their own language, their own tribe, as Nature allows peonies their love of-ants, or crows the flocks they fly in or the roadkill they flock to, or us, for that matter, the meat we eat, leaves we chew, or friends we make. We can call good what our pecking orders suggest, and each of us supports what supports our survival. Or not: everything that happens, including the "unnatural," is natural. Tautology tells us so.
But Nature, even from the moral point of view, is not a homogeneous entity. Actually, the word is a wastebasket and probably should never be used for anything other than collecting its ambiguities. There are profound differences between rocks and trees {as the Greeks already knew), between trees and birds, and birds and men, who are ultimately con scious creatures. As conscious creatures, we are aware of what it means to be neutral or indifferent or callous or uncaring or cruel and malevolent. Consciousness may seem transcendent to some, an impotent epiphenomenon to others, and a mistake to a few; but it is with this consciousness that we give meaning to a world that we should be grateful is as meaningless as an earth's shake, because otherwise its purposes would have to be deemed whimsical and malicious. It is consciousness that allows us to devise our works of art and discover nature's laws, but it is also consciousness where we harbor hate and allow our reason to be crowded into a servant's corner, our perceptions to be few and skewed, our sympathies buckled about us like a belt, our beliefs burdened to breaking by superstition.

A great portion of the human race is literally homeless; mass migration is one of the darkest marks of our age, with the hunger, disease, and suffering that attend such displacements. But all of us - even in the comforts of Palm Springs or Beacon Hill - are metaphysically homeless anyway. Consciousness, as Nietzsche observed, though our fundamental means of connection with the world, has cut us off from it, because we cannot live in the moment like an animal but rather dwell in anger at the past and anguish over our future. Home is supposed to spell ease, identity, love, and that wonderful Victorian invention, comfort. Which it can do and sometimes actually does. If one can afford it. Above all, it is our refuge from the world, where we seek protection from its heartless pains. But what a dreary illusion that is. Home is also where we commit murder, mayhem, and suicide, where we shake a crying child loose from its life, where we quarrel like squirrels toward eventual divorce, where we grow accustomed to tyranny and the utility of lies, where we cultivate ignorance and pass on bigotry like a chronic cough, where children get to disobey and disappoint their parents and parents to abandon them, where we find to what lengths "ought" has gone to escape "is," and where the tribe that we have allowed to define us claims its prize.
Evil is as man-made as the motorcar. I suspect that, like the motorcar, evil as a prevalent state of things suits a lot of people. If nature is uneven we can try to even it, but it is we who have made a habit of injustice, and we who must design the institutions that will discourage resentment, malice, ill will, and ignorance while fostering justice, intelligence, learning, and respect. The question is whether it is better to die of a good life or from a bad one. If we fail {and I wouldn't bet on our success), ther e will be one satisfaction: we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.

William H. Gass is the author of, most recently, Tests of Time (Knopf). His last essay for Hallet's Magazine, "In Defense of the Book," appeared in the November 1999 issue.

Artikel erschienen in Harper's Magazine, Januar 2004

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