The unremarkable nature of evil
Dancing with the devil is all too common.
The evil in the world can seem monstrous to us. That’s because we’re people of good will, or so we like to think. A short review of recent atrocities appears to confirm that a certain radical malevolence inhabits the very few of us who transgress the boundaries of civilized human behavior. On this list we pin Stalin and his ilk and Nazi Germany. Also think of Osama bin Laden and his spin-off sponsors of violence, as well as every terrorist who chooses to shoot up a school, movie theater, or concert crowd. Consider also clergy predators who caused irreparable harm to generations of children and the self-protective insider church culture that blindly shielded them to harm some more.
These are monsters, we repeat to ourselves, given over to darkness in a way the rest of us can barely comprehend. Such persons forfeit their humanity when they hand over their freedom to the incessant drive for power and control or to criminal impulses and murderous consequences.
We can appreciate why ancient civilizations identified a demonic principle at work in the world: some external entity that would possess and transform an otherwise decent mortal into something unrecognizable to act in a way no rational self-possessed human would behave. We modern people may actually find ourselves missing the devil—that reliable Bad Actor who could explain away the truly terrible things that go on around us. Without a personified Satan whispering in the ears of those already comfortable in the domain of deadly sins, we have to accept the ugly reality that individuals who used to be an awful lot like us mutate into horrific creatures under the right circumstances.
What happens if we dismiss the external demons and the notion that extraordinary evil is committed by isolated monsters? We might then arrive at the concept Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt proposed: that the true nature of evil is not spectacular at all but commonplace. “The banality of evil” was Arendt’s thesis, and rightly so. Having escaped Germany before the cruelty of the Third Reich was fatally in place, Arendt originally
supposed, along with the rest of the world, that those dedicated to the machinery of the Holocaust were wicked and vicious on an incomprehensible scale. She presumed the Nazis had, in religious language, “sold their souls” to the agenda of horror and were fiends of the first order.
As a philosopher, Arendt felt compelled after the war to recross the Atlantic for the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the incarceration and destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Arendt expected—and perhaps hoped—to meet a beast capable of such historically singular hatred and violence. To her disbelief, Arendt encountered a paper pusher of such ordinary ambition as to startle and offend those who later read her reports of the trial.
The Eichmann who presented himself in his testimony was anxious to please his bosses and to further his career. He wanted to do a good and thorough job and didn’t spare a thought for the real human beings, the unraveling tragedy, the nightmare of consequences his “good job” cost in terms of flesh and blood. This functionary presumed that the project he was invested in up to his elbows had been determined “upstairs” to be the correct course of action.
He didn’t weigh the morality of rounding up Jewish families or seizing their property. He didn’t wonder if it might be evil to imprison, starve, and finally exterminate people whose only crime was belonging to a selected religious group. He didn’t imagine the death screams of real people he was responsible for provoking. Eichmann, it turns out, didn’t think at all. He just followed orders and did his job.
Certainly, fanatics like Hitler conceived and promoted the horrors of the Holocaust. But their unfathomable success must be attributed to the millions more functionaries who clocked in and clocked out of unremarkable offices, guard towers, and military bunkers, just doing their job day after day without reflection.
Accepting the banality of evil shocks and distresses us more than the presumption that there are rare inhuman monsters of history. Evil is banal because its perfect domain is in the heart of the dutiful subordinate, the loyal patriot, the company guy, the unwavering partisan, and the true believer.
Fidelity isn’t a sin, of course. But unreflective adherence to a group identity that requires us to jettison the workings of conscience—that is, to reject what makes us fully human in the likeness of God—is the very definition of sin. Evil plants its seed in any corner of our lives that is undisturbed by doubt. When we dismiss new questions or information as beside the point, clinging to past assumptions without review, we permit evil to root itself more deeply under cover of this agreeable darkness.
Great evil gets the job done not because of the rare diabolical genius, but because so many more of us go along for the ride, fearing the loss of our jobs, hoping for a raise, imagining the bad-sounding stuff is mostly rhetoric, assuming things won’t go much farther than this, or presuming it’s none of our business anyway.
Evil is not only commonplace, it’s also extremely lazy. Not for nothing is sloth numbered among the deadly sins. When the path of least resistance beckons us not to think too much, second-guess this headline, or wonder why a stranger is offering us a free lunch, we can be sure our dance with evil is already underway.
Each year, Lent turns our attention to the saga of evil as Jesus experiences it. The Holy Spirit and the devil are both present in the story, but only Jesus can choose his dance partner. The devil offers things we all find desirable: food, social power, and personal security. These are not simply Eichmann’s treasures, but ours too. That the world’s most celebrated demon offers heaven’s most worthy son these pedestrian lures is somewhere between pathetic and trite. Yet if Jesus is really human, he’s tempted by these goods the same as the rest of us.
This is important to appreciate: the devil never offers something that looks as terrible as it is. The devil doesn’t come to Eichmann and say, “Murder 6 million Jews.” The message is much smoother and more familiar. The devil says eat your supper, go to church, do your job, earn your promotion, and you’ll be fine, safe, comfortable—even justified. Never mind what the results of an unexamined life might be or how many injustices are committed in the name of making a buck, keeping the peace, not rocking the boat, climbing the ladder, or maintaining tradition.
We know from the gospel story how Jesus views the devil’s silken proposals. If the devil owns the conditions of a human life, the devil owns that life, plain and simple. Jesus will take only bread from heaven, will wield only divine authority, and will accept only his Father’s protection. Jesus prefers to dance with the Spirit of God rather than the spirit of self-interest. And so evil is banished.
Evil, it turns out, is remarkably unremarkable. We can’t pin it on rare monsters but have to consider, in each decision we make, how complicit we may be in its agenda. Dancing with the devil is more common than we think. Dancing with the Spirit requires deliberate, conscious, and ongoing determination.
This article also appears in the March 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 3, pages 47–49).
Image: via Wikimedia Commons