My thoughts on the nature of evil

My definition of a good person is someone who understands what is right, and usually does the right thing.

My definition of a bad person is someone whose understanding of what is right is overridden by some more powerful motive – pride, anger, fear, laziness, self-interest or appetites of different kinds.

My definition of an evil person is someone who is actively hostile to the good.   Such people exist, although they are unusual.  I know they exist because I have met some of them, and I recognize the evil in myself.

When I meet someone who is manifestly superior to me in any way, I feel judged.  I feel the lack in myself of whatever quality I admire–achievement, courage, compassion, professionalism in work, whatever it is.  One healthy way to respond to this is to try to emulate the good qualities I admire.  Another is to refrain from making comparisons.

But I feel the temptation to try to tear down the admired person, at least in my mind.   I think of all the reasons they might not deserve credit for being what they are, and all the excuses I might have for not meeting their standard myself.  I can imagine myself trying to tear them down in reality.  That would be evil.  The evil person is committed to the belief that there is no such thing as good, and that the good person needs to be taught a lesson–to be shown that their goodness does not coincide with the way the world is.

During my life, the people for whom I feel the most resentment are not people who are rich and powerful.   They are peers whose achievements are greater than my own.   I have learned to abort these feelings.  If I did not, I would be miserable, and I would make those around me miserable.   When I know someone whose achievements make me jealous, I make a point of going to that person and congratulating them on their accomplishment.   When I do that, I feel as if all the poisonous feelings are draining out of my mind, as if there was a boil that had been lanced with a red-hot needle.

I like egotists–that is, the kind of egotists who think well of themselves without having to think badly of other people.  It is a great mistake to based your self-respect on lookind down on other people.  This is especially true when you look down on other people because of their race, religion, nationality, social class, sexual orientation or political perspective, because your sense of superiority requires no effort on your part.   But it is a a mistake in any case.   No matter who you are, you can always find someone to look down on, just as you can always find someone who by whatever measure is better than you.  I have always found it a mistake to judge myself by comparing myself with others.   I have resolved to never let my sense of self-respect depend on things that are outside my control.

Imaginary evil is glamorous.  That’s why Nazism has such an enduring fascination.   Sauron, the Dark Lord in The Lord of the Rings epic, is a glamorous figure.   But in the story, giving yourself up to the Ring of Power will eventually turn you into a Gollum, someone whose personality has been reduced to a bundle of appetites.   That’s a good metaphor for how things are in reality.   Real evil is not glamorous.  It is petty and trivial.

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3 Responses to “My thoughts on the nature of evil”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    I’ve always found that a well-timed public compliment to one who continually runs you down does two things: It disarms the person because there is nothing he or she could say, outside of thank you. And it makes you feel far better than if you’d continued the war. Maybe even a bit superior … Ah, so I’m not a good person!

    Like

  2. Joyce Ireland Says:

    How true…

    Like

  3. philebersole Says:

    I think it is good to feel good about doing good things, because that makes it more likely you’ll do the next good thing.

    I think holding a grudge is a mistake. I once read a quote by a writer named Anne Lamott, who said: Not forgiving is like drinking rate poison and then waiting for the rat to die.

    I think what is evil is to act on the impulse, stemming from jealousy and a sense of inferiority, to resent people for their achievements and good qualities.

    Like

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