Thursday, November 16, 2006


On the issue of evil

In his “Inferno” Dante maps out a Hell made of nine circles, the highest, first circle is Limbo, the lowest is the ninth circle reserved for the worst sinners. Every sin is measured with a medieval precision and the sinner given his exact punishment, made of the same material of the sin specified.

When sin is thus discussed, in such laborious, rich detail, it is obvious that Dante was much concerned about the nature of evil, how it manifested itself in the human being. From the careful gradation of Hell, with its descent into ever more harsh and terrible punishment, we can deduce which sins Dante’s contemporaries considered the worst.

He reserved a special cold place for the uncommitted. Those who sit on the fence when bad things are happening all around them, and maintain their neutrality. In Dante’s Hell, those who would not shed blood or tears in life for any cause now shed them for nothing. These moral impotents are doomed to chase forever after a blank banner and feed upon worms.

His worst, hottest circles he reserves for the fraudulent, those who act against their fellow-human beings out of malice and by doing so, work at loosening the very bonds of trust that attach one human being to another, trust being the glue that keeps societies, communities, families and friends, coherent, functioning and benevolent. So in Dante’s Hell, those who gnaw at these bonds, like panderers, flatterers, hypocrites and falsifiers, are considered worthy of the choicest punishments.

Let’s take a leap from Dante’s medieval conception of what is evil and who are sinners, to a major thinker of the twentieth century, Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur shares with Dante one or two biographical traits: They were both brought up Catholic, they are both on a quest for clarity and disambiguation when it comes to the good way in which societie sought to function, and that makes them both, inevitably, interested in outlining a possible understanding of evil and its levels of universal harmfulness.

“‘Desire is innocent”, says Ricoeur. And if desire is innocent, then evil is inscrutable. “Evil is, in the literal sense of the word, perversion, that is, a reversal of the order that requires respect for law to be placed above inclination. It is a matter of a misuse of a free choice and not of the malfeasance of desire. The propensity for evil affects the use of freedom, the capacity to act out of duty – in short, the capacity for being autonomous.”

It is interesting that there is a tacit agreement between the modern man, Ricoeur and the medieval bard about the atrociousness of the fraud. False promises are counted as hostile to the rule of universalism and to the respect of the difference between persons. “Betrayals of Friendship”, says Ricoeur, tell us a lot about the malice of the human heart. The ruse is a depraved form both irony and skilfulness, a twofold abuse of trust.”

Ricoeur places a crucial importance on the value of friendship. Friendship, for him, is a virtue, which, when tested for its ingredients, we find one important matter among them: solicitude. Solicitude is the stuff that universal human rights are made of. I’ll write some more on this subject later on. Right now, I’d like to go back to the issue of evil.

Ricoeur is adamant that evil manifests itself in upsetting the natural order. “For where the instrument of intelligence is added to brute power and evil will, mankind is powerless in its own defence”.

Think about this in terms of my previous post, and see how evil can work its way through the institutions originally set up to defy its very possibility.

Norm Geras, here, speaks of the same type of Ricoeur's evil, the"perversion, [-] a reversal of the order that requires respect for law to be placed above inclination."

At the same time, if acknowledging the 'human side' of what they do is supposed to call for some sort of moral softening of our judgement of what they do, then the answer has to be 'Nothing doing.' The Strange letter contrasts viewing the perpetrators of terrorist attacks against civilians as 'cold and heartless' with a more 'mature and constructive approach'. But one needn't care less whether they're cold and heartless, or are, rather, absolutely dripping with human warmth for their intended victims. What they do is morally appalling, and they are owed no sympathy for it from others, not even so much as an ounce.


At 2:33 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Noga, were ever in the vicinity of Neve Eitan in 1978?

At 7:40 PM EST, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

I can't remember. Why?


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