by Andrew Bard Schmookler
Evil: Lost and Found
Over the centuries, for people whose worldview was governed by the religions of Western civilization, it was reasonably straightforward to conceive of the existence of a “Force of Evil.” Judeo-Christian religion personified such a force in the figure of Satan, or the Devil.
The image of this Supernatural Being enabled people to form some intuitive conception of a powerful force that makes bad things happen: the Devil, with malevolent intent, was always working to get people to do what they shouldn’t do, and to degrade the human world generally.
Wielding his powers with diabolical cleverness, the Devil could make the world uglier. (Quoth Luther: “For still our ancient foe / Doth seek to work us woe;/ His craft and power are great/ And, armed with cruel hate./ On earth is not his equal.”)
The more recent historical emergence of a secular worldview has meant that — in the minds of a major component of the Western world — this supernatural figure has disappeared from people’s picture of what’s real in our world, with nothing equivalent to take its place. And this disappearance of Satan left most of those people with no way of conceiving the possibility of anything existing that might reasonably be called a “Force of Evil.”
With no way of conceiving of anything so coherent as “a Force of Evil” operating in the world, many of those with a secular worldview were left unequipped to perceive such a Force — even if such a thing rose up, as an important reality, right before their eyes.
Yet it turns out that there is such a Force.
It turns out that one can see, operating in the human world, “a coherent force that consistently makes things worse” (Or, to put it another way, “consistently spreads a pattern of brokenness.”) In other words, as I will try to show, we can see at work in our world something that acts in essential ways just like that ancient and freighted concept of “Evil.”
So alike in actiion that it is reasonable to call this “coherent force” by that name.
(For those who dislike that ancient word, “Evil” – which, as I’ve learned from nearly two decades of experience, includes many liberals — I suggest simply disregarding that fraught word and substituting “Force of Destruction,” or “Force of Brokenness,” both of which capture its essence.)
Although it doesn’t much matter what we call this Force, it does matter whether people see there is such a Force.
- Something that is consistent in the direction toward which it pushes the human world, a direction that diminishes the ability of Life to thrive.
- Something that’s coherent– an “It.”
It turns out to matter greatly, because recent history has demonstrated that the inability to see that “It” – that Destructive Force, or Force of “Evil” – can be catastrophic.
I don’t use that word, “catastrophic,” lightly:
It is a catastrophe that Liberal America has done such a poor job of protecting the nation against the extraordinary force that has been taking over the Republican Party (over the past several decades). And a compelling case can be made that the failure (of Liberal America its political arm, the Democratic Party) to better protect the nation has been substantially due to the inability of a largely secular liberal culture to perceive what it was up against, and thus to fight it appropriately.
Not seeing what it was up against, the Democrats failed to see that the usual American political battle over issues and interests had become something more fundamental, to a degree unprecedented in American history comprehensible in terms of “the Battle Between Good and Evil.” How could it be? There’s no such thing!
The blindness of the Democrats to the rise of “a Force of Evil” demonstrates not only the perceptiveness of that bit of baseball wisdom that says, “You can’t hit what you can’t see.” But it also shows that “You can’t see what you have no conceptual way of including in your picture of reality.”
(FDR – a liberal at a time when the old worldview held greater sway — seemed to understand Evil in the old way, and that helped him defeat Evil in World War II. Barack Obama, apparently lacking much of a concept of “Evil,” didn’t see it when it was coming at him. And as a result, ended up barricaded in the White House with his Presidency substantially stripped of its powers, except for the issuance of executive orders.
(And while this exceptionally decent and best-intentioned man was President, his failure to recognize the reality of a “Force of Evil” enabled such a Force to gain in power. Indeed, that failure inadvertently opened the door for what previous generations of Americans would have regarded as unthinkable to happen: i.e. for a human monster like Donald Trump to become President of the United States, and from there to “spread a pattern of brokenness” across multiple dimensions of American civilization and the wider world.)
(In this, Obama was emblematic of a widespread and long-standing inability in the Democratic Party of these times: even as the other side was being taken over by “a coherent Force that consistently makes things worse,” the Democrats continued to talk about their “friends across the aisle,” and sought to conduct “politics as usual.” And a compelling case can be made that a major reason for this was that there was no concept in their minds — no word in their language – for the kind of Force that had taken over the Republican Party.)
An important lesson from this recent American history, then, is that the ability of people to protect the Good can depend on their ability to perceive the reality of a “Force of Evil.” (I.e. to perceive a “coherent force” that consistently “makes things worse” – an “It” that must be fought and defeated.) So helping people see it should fortify the side of Democracy against Fascism.
Our secular worldview, being new, is underdeveloped. One thing that needs to be added is the purely secular understanding of how something worth calling a “Force of Evil” is actually discernible at work in our world, and is something we really do need to see in order to defeat it. The Devil is gone, but there’s something to take his place.
That understanding takes a bit of work, but the continuing dangers suggest that work is worth it. Worth it most immediately because the more people who can see WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, the stronger will be the forces of Democracy that now are embattled against the forces of Fascism. And, pulling back still further to look at the perils facing humankind, the stronger will be the forces that might help human civilization to survive for the long haul against those forces that would drive us to self-destruction. (See the first entry in this series, “The Fate of Human Civilization.”)
The outcome of such battles depends upon the balance of power between the destructive and constructive forces. Which means the American crisis involves the defects of both sides. The current threat emerges from the combination of one side coming under the sway of a Force of Brokenness, while the other side had lost the conceptual categories necessary for recognizing the profound transformation in the nature of the American political battle, and thus in how it needed to be fought.
Understanding the existence and modus operandi of discernable reality that’s reasonable to call a “Force of Evil” would always be of intellectual interest. This is a time when perceiving that reality is more urgent than that. And it is in that spirit that I will try here next to show it.
Connections in the Dense Web of Cause and Effect
The good news is that the reality of this force can be shown.
The bad news is that seeing this “Force of Evil” doesn’t come as naturally to us humans as seeing that “It” personified in the figure of “the Devil.”
We are equipped, by our nature, to imagine something like “our ancient foe.” A powerful enemy is the stuff of nightmares. That’s the advantage of representing “Evil” in terms of malevolent supernatural forces.
But the challenge is different when we operate within a secular worldview. In the secular framework, such supernatural forces are excluded, and truth is to be discovered from the application of reason to evidence. One can see this “Force of Evil” as a naturally occurring dynamic (in the human world) by examining the evidence observable in the dense network of causes and effects. The reality of that Force can be logically inferred from that evidence.
Here’s one way to discover this “coherent force” that acts like “Evil.”
Consider the dichotomous pairs of peace/war, justice/injustice, love/hatred, kindness/cruelty, generosity/greed, integrity/hypocrisy, honesty/deception, life-serving/death-dealing, etc.
For any particular instance of any of those on the “broken” side of such dichotomies, we can ask two kinds of questions regarding their place in the dense web of causes and effects:
- Peering backward, we can inquire about its causes. What is it in the world that produces this brokenness? E.g. What are the factors that led to this war? What were the factors that led to this exploitative social arrangement? Or, what is it that resulted in this person being cruel, or greedy, or insistent on domination? (Many see “evil” just in terms of “evil people,” but people are shaped by their world.)
• Looking forward, we can examine the effects of that war, of that exploitation, or of this instance of human cruelty or greed or lust for power. What impact does this or that broken thing in our world have on how the human world develops from there?
In an unsystematic way, I’ve been asking those kinds of questions for more than a half century, investigating matters like: What led to the United States fighting a Civil War over the issue of slavery? What factors brought about the rise of the Nazi regime? What experiences and cultural influences molded the human monsters who have played a disproportionate role in our history (like Hitler, and Stalin), and what factors enabled such people to play such impactful historical roles? What are the factors that differentiate those people inclined to hate out-groups from those free of such hostilities? Etc.
(Similarly, on the side of “wholeness”: What cultural currents made possible the emergence of Democracy on the North American continent? What impact do love and compassion have on the wider world? Etc.)
What stands out from tracing the various connections of cause and effect is a pretty straight-forward pattern:
Brokenness begets brokenness. (And conversely, wholeness begets wholeness.)
(With “brokenness” understood as whatever is the opposite of life-serving – i.e. as leading to the opposite of the survival, health, well-being and fulfillment of sentient creatures — defined as creatures to whom things matter).
In that dense network of cause and effect, one can trace how wars and injustices and hatreds and cruelty and greed and trauma all tend to generate each other over time. Each form of brokenness tends to produce other forms of brokenness, and to be caused by them.
(Tend to be — overwhelmingly, but not completely: sometimes, “good intentions” can lead to hellish results, and it’s true that an “ill wind” can blow someone “good.”)
Tracing the way each thing that makes the world worse is the fruit of other things that also make the world worse reveals “a pattern of brokenness” traveling through the cultural system. We can see brokenness getting transmitted – over time — from level to level (global to societal to individual and back the other way). And transmitted from form to form.
We can see how the brokenness of hatred makes the world worse, generating for example the brokenness of conflict (and vice versa). How the lust to dominate creates the brokenness of injustice. We can see how the brokenness of war produces the brokenness of trauma. How unbridled selfishness generates the brokenness of discord in human groups. How the unbrokenness of institutionalized unfettered greed can drive human civilization deeper into the brokenness of a climate catastrophe.
We can see something — something worth subsuming under a category rightly called “Brokenness” — moving through the human world in shape-shifting ways.
And from that movement, the operation of something it is appropriate to call a “Force” can be inferred.
(A subsequent piece in this series will show another way in which this Force can be discerned: in the comparatively rare instance of a “Pure Case,” i.e. a particular actor in the world (individual, political party, nation) whose actions are so consistent in making the human world worse that it is “as if” it is possessed by some Force that operates just like the “Evil” of old.)
A Force that Can Be “Seen” as We Can “See” the Wind
A “Force” is something that moves things — as with the elementary physics formula, F = ma. And so it is with this Force that is pushing that shape-shifting pattern of brokenness through the human world, over the course of generations and centuries.
This Force is a natural dynamic. It’s not a malignant Being. It’s just how the world works, a world in which causes produce effects. Through the operation of the empirically observable dynamic of “brokenness begets brokenness,” this Force transmits a “pattern of brokenness” through cultural systems over time.
We can “see” that Force the way we can “see” the wind in the swaying of the trees and the flapping of the clothes on the line.
Unleashed by the Fateful Step onto the Path of Civilization
The idea that “Brokenness begets Brokenness” presents a “Prime Mover” problem: how does the whole thing get started? If each broken thing in the world is the product of prior embodiments of “the pattern of brokenness,” how did Brokenness get into the system in the first place?
Answering that question will be the starting point of the next piece in this series.
The major clue to solving that Prime Mover problem can be found in the previous piece in this series – “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large.”
There I propose a theory of social evolution that describes why the breakthrough into civilization inevitably unleashes a destructive force. It is a social-evolutionary force that arises independently of the nature of the civilization-creating creature—a dynamic that transforms what appears to be that creature’s freedom (to develop its culture in whatever direction it chooses) into a new kind of bondage (in which human choice is made subservient to the reign of power).
That next piece will conclude with yet another way in which the secular worldview of our time needs to be expanded and deepened:
Namely, that in that evolutionary perspective – incorporating both the biological evolutionary process that crafts Life’s creatures, and the later evolutionary dynamic in which the selection for the ways of power inevitably drives the evolution of any creature’s civilization – we can see a battle be waged at the center of the drama of the civilization-creating animal.
Not only does the breakthrough into civilization mandate that “a Force of Evil” will inevitably arise. But also, as another inevitable consequence of that breakthrough, there will be a struggle between two coherent forces, over which will shape the human world: one coherent force that consistently works to make things better (more Whole); and another coherent force that consistently works to make things worse (more Broken).
And, that piece will show, the struggle between those two discernible forces — understood in purely secular terms — bears a striking resemblance to what has traditionally been understood as “the Battle Between Good and Evil.”