Published Humanitas, Volume XXI, Nos. 1 and 2, 2008

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice. “I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!” —Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter VII

An Augustinian Introduction

“Evil is the unbearable lightness of nonbeing,” argues Jean Bethke Elshtain in her reflections on Augustine’s understanding of evil. It is an elegant formulation and captures Augustine’s own sense of evil as “merely a name for the privation of good.” Both Augustine and Elshtain desire to knock evil off its seductive pedestal of greatness. For Augustine, evil is not some great force in the cosmos, which compelled God to create “the vast structure of this universe by the utter necessity of repelling the evil which fought against him.” This was the “silly talk, or rather the delirious raving, of the Manicheans.” Similarly Elshtain, invoking Hannah Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil, seeks to “deprive evil of its seductive powers.” Following Arendt, Elshtain seeks to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil, of the demonic force, to take away from people the admiration they have for great evildoers like Richard III.” To rectify the pernicious Manichaean error of ontological evil—an evil coequal with a good God and no less powerful—evil has to be seen as a deficiency. It has to be seen not as something but nothing—no thing. However, this very solution to correct the error of Manichaeism, when it is extracted from the context of its formulation and asserted in its own right, demotes experiences of incarnate evil, and even, as Arendt once argued, radical evil. It was in fact Arendt’s very attempt to abolish the admiration for a Richard III that had caused, in the words of Elshtain, her “tacit repudiation” of radical evil in “favor of the banality of evil” as embodied in the mid-level functionary Eichmann. Yet, though “Eichmann was neither Iago nor MacBeth,” examples of the latter type populate history and literature no less than the more contemporaneous incarnations of the former. If Eichmann was “sheer thoughtlessness,” then Cesare Borgia was sheer ferocity and power. And have not both types been present at all times? Is not evil at once the active deficiency arising from the will of fallen man and a shadow falling on man and penetrating his heart? Are not men made into monsters both by their own evil choices arising as a result of fallen wills inherited from Adam and by the corrupting influence of the devil? Is it for naught that men pray, “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil”? Are men not in double jeopardy from one and the same evil, in “danger from the devil and from sin, if the Lord does not protect and deliver us”? Nothing is indeed a deadly something and to understand what this something is without succumbing on the one hand to Manichaean dualism and on the other to an overstatement of evil as no-thing, it is imperative rightly to divide evil. Drawing on Augustine and Tolkien no less than modern physics and mathematics, the following meditation seeks to do precisely this. In turn, armed with our insights into evil, the essay reflects on evil’s peculiar modern incarnation as intimated by Tocqueville and then closes with a reminder that, whatever form evil may take, evil as nothing cannot triumph in the face of goodness that is something—indeed everything.

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