Evil – Can anyone be so characterised?

Ratko Mladic

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

Cruel humans — How can people be this way?

Nine-eleven was al-Qa’eda’s deliberate humiliation of the West. Such a cruel thing to do. I remember saying ‘Evil begets evil’, and so I am not surprised that this act of barbarism was followed by what I consider to be disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other recent examples of being cruel

I would suggest that the brutality of some powerful people in the West can be heard in the voice of those politicians like US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said “There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan…We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around.”

torture at Guantanamo

Can human cruelty not also be seen in the action of President Bush who tossed aside the civilised principle of habeas corpus by setting up Guantanamo and other torture centres?

History of man’s inhumanity to man

These recent acts of human cruelty are part of a long history of man’s inhumanity to man. The massacres, looting and capturing of slaves by forces led by Attila the Hun in 5th century eastern Europe; the unrestricted bombing of civilians living in cities like Gunernica during the Spanish civil war; the starvation, brutal treatment and extermination of Jews, and other victims of persecution in the Nazi concentration camps.

Ordinary life is full of small acts of cruelty

Human cruelty of course goes on all the time perhaps in less dramatic ways and in a much smaller scale than these. Malicious gossip can destroy a personal reputation; spiteful actions can result in huge distress; nasty comments within close relationships can cause longstanding wounds.

We can all succumb to anger but why do some people feel contempt, or want revenge and act out their feelings in these ways?

Reasons for contempt and revenge

One answer that impresses me is to do with a common tendency towards self-orientation rather than concern for others and a materialistic rather than an ethical focus in our thinking. Depending on the way the individual chooses to live life, these two innocent inclinations can actually amount to self-centredness and preoccupation with bodily pleasures and possessions.

Prioritising number one means seeing things only from ones own selfish point of view rather than trying to understand the predicaments of others. Thinking in terms of physical things means neglecting the ethical dimension.

When people with this state of mind cannot get what they want, I would suggest they are likely to feel contempt towards those who do not favour them and revenge towards those who thwart their desires. Such hostility is the seed of cruel behaviour. When these feelings dominate and people believe they can get away with it, are they not more likely to do mischief, cause injury and act cruelly?

Not everyone thank goodness allows such ugly feelings to determine their actions. But some do. This is not to argue that people will not vary in their behaviour. Some are sometimes spontaneously cruel when experiencing strong feelings of scorn or wanting to get their own back on someone. Some people can make a deliberate plan to intentionally cause hurt. And yet others actually take sadistic pleasure in seeing inflicted pain.

Adolf Hitler is an example of the last of these who took great delight in repeatedly watching the film of the cruel deaths of those who had plotted to overthrow his regime. It’s all a matter of individual choice.

Danger of selfish anger

The main religions all warn against the dangers of this kind of selfish anger that can go wild like a forest fire. In his book Essential Spirituality Roger Walsh quotes a famous Zen story to dramatically makes this point.

A Japanese warrior approached a Zen master to request answers to some questions that had been troubling him. ‘What is it you want to know?’ queried the Zen master.

‘Tell me sir, do heaven and hell exist?’ ‘Ha! Snorted the Zen master in a tone that was half-laugh half-sneer. ‘What makes you think that you could understand such things? You are only an uneducated, brutish soldier. Don’t waste my time with your silly questions.’

For an instant the warrior froze in shock. No one, but no one ever speaks to a Japanese warrior like that. It meant instant death. ‘Are you too stupid to understand what I said?’ roared the Zen master. ‘Stop wasting my time and get out of here.’

The warrior exploded with rage. His hand flew like lightning to his sword and swept it aloft for the kill. But in the split second before the sword descended to crush the monk’s skull, he heard the words.

‘This is the gate to hell.’

Again the warrior froze in astonishment. His own rage brought hell to him and those he attacked. And the master had risked his life to make this fact inescapably clear. Breathing deeply, he slowly replaced his sword and bowed humbly in awe and respect.

‘And this,’ smiled the Zen master, ‘is the gate to heaven.’

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems