Ratko Mladic was the key player and commander of the Bosnian Serb forces that tried to eliminate Muslims from large parts of Bosnia. His forces were responsible for much social evil, massacring eight thousand Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995: the brutal siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 resulted in the death of 10,000 people. His capture and trial for war crimes reminds us of the torture, mass rape, arson and genocide that formed part of this ‘ethnic cleansing’.
How does one explain these evil crimes against humanity? How could someone like Mladic fundamentally go against human values, and be outside of what civilisation universally sees as acceptable behaviour?
Can a person be evil?
When someone, like Mladic, or one of his followers, harms another person, should they be considered as evil? Or are they so out of harmony with themselves, they should be seen as sick or ill rather than wicked? This may be so. But even if no individual person is evil, this does not mean that some human behaviour cannot be properly considered evil. According to this second view evil is part of the process of individual choice rather than the quality of the person doing the choosing.
Is evil a useful term?
Some people ask whether the social context in which harm to human beings is done, calls into question the idea that such acts can be universally considered as evil. For them, standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice and that the very word ‘evil’ is an outmoded concept no longer fit for purpose.
However, others point out that what counts as evil is all to do with the individual intent, independent of culture. Arguably, those who are willing to go against moral codes will justify their actions if it suits them to do so, whether they be those ship captains and plantation owners who engaged in the slave trade, the Nazis who found mass extermination of the Jews acceptable, or the leadership of the United States Union Army’s massacre of “savage” Native American Indians.
Is evil an illusion?
The results of evil intent are real enough whether they be seen in times of war, suffering of victims of serious crime, or simply those on the end of spiteful gossip. But should we understand evil as a powerful identity that causes suffering in the world? Or is it just a man-made idea that has no reality? Should we ditch the idea of Satan as just old hat?
In one sense perhaps we should. Ever since Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church has defined evil as the absence of good. Just as cold is defined as the lack of warmth, and darkness the deprivation of light, so evil is defined in terms of good. To understand evil one thus needs to understand what is meant by good. For evil is its opposite. To appreciate cruelty one first needs to experience tender care. To comprehend malice one needs to know love. To understand a state of ignorance one needs to fathom a state of knowledge.
Where does evil come from?
Likewise for Swedenborg, evil is the inversion of good. He reckons disorder is the inversion of order, and falsity the inversion of truth. Evil is a quality of life which has no independent origin, but is a distortion of the one Divine life.
Using his psychic vision, he describes a way of life of human spirits in a hidden spirit realm, who choose hatred over love, and crime over justice. One is not normally conscious of their influence but if one continually allows their presence into one’s heart and mind, they are said to then prompt and urge cruelty, sexual violence, and self-ascendancy without any concern for human suffering. We don’t know if people like Mladic will join them in his after-life. But allowing himself to be constantly swayed by their impulses and thoughts, he can become crazed with evil, caught up in a crowd baying for blood. The madness feels overpowering and the individual is swept along apparently helpless to fight against the current.
Actually, Swedenborg says this seeming overwhelming power of evil is an illusion. For there is also a divine sphere of justice and humane concern which is available to us all. This good balances the evil flow. And so we have the freedom to inwardly turn in which direction we wish. But without turning towards what is good we would all be vulnerable to the inflow of cruelty and malice.
Many of us human beings sometimes choose to turn our back on the one Source of happiness and opening ourselves to evil impulses. This is when we put self above all else. That is when what we want determines all our actions together with the fear, pride and greed that accompanies self-love. Just look in at the criminal courts of justice and see what trouble can then be reeked; never mind the international court in the Hague where crimes against humanity are tried. Perhaps the Serb nationalists who still support Mladic will then realise the full extent of the evil their hero has really caused.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems