On the Meaning of Evil

‘Evil’ has been forefront in current affairs during the last year. Al Queda is ‘evil’. Saddam Hussein is ‘evil’. We fight an ‘evil axis’. This is not new. The so-called fight for ‘justice’ has been vetted throughout centuries within lexicon of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. This is the appropriate lexicon, however, we seem to have forgotten the meaning of ‘evil’, and with it the nature of justice. As a character on Star Trek once noted ‘truth is in the eye of the beholder’. I find this to be a common trait amongst those over-determined words that inform the meaning, purpose and conduct of our lives. Not the least of these is ‘evil’.

In its earliest uses, evil [ubilo(z)] simply means ‘overstepping one’s limit’. It specifies no specific crime, no proscriptive way of being. In that superficial sense, we can understand the perspectival nature of the term. America can rightly see those who stub the toe of its interests as evil, and the converse–those oppressed by perceived American imperialism rightly believe us to be evil. It is an equal opportunity word–it has no interest, no fixed set of prosciptions. Thus, evil is also in the ‘eye of the beholder’. Unfortunately for those lost to history, the idea this word conveys does have a specific historical referent and a meaning deeper than the implications of its opportunistic employment.

The first and most eloquent equation of ‘stepping beyond one’s limit’ and ‘evil’ rests in Pre-Socratic Greek religion; and it is an idea that would shame both modern moralists and imperialists. The solution of this equation is moira. This word is commonly translated as ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’, but its meaning within Greek religion, and ultimately the ‘democratic’ miracle of Athens, is far deeper. Moira as traced through the early poets and philosophers rests on two precepts: Limit and equality. Each being has its specific share constituting its limit, but each share is also equal to all others–limit itself is the very equality of beings. As opposed to a Post-Socratic idea of ‘limit’ as that life which falls within a proscribed set of predetermined social or moral relations, ‘limit’ in its original sense means acting with reference to the equality of beings. This is the notion that was birthed by Athenian democracy, nursed by 16th century humanism, and came of age with the struggle for human rights. ‘Evil’, according to this definition, is simply acting against the equality of beings.

The Greeks had another positive word to describe this ‘acting toward the equality of beings’. It became the founding principle of Athenian ‘democracy’: isonomia. Literally, equality before the law, isonomia resembles the constitutional precept of ‘equal protection under the law’. However, it has greater reach. On the one hand, ‘before the law’ implies a spatial relationship. We are ‘before’ the law, as if it were an edifice. The ‘law’, in this sense, is not understood as a bunch of fleeting ideas imposed upon us by the whims of legislators, but the edifice of the public itself. Being ‘before the law’ is being in the living presence of the public, the ‘we’. On the other hand [and in a more primordial sense], ‘before the law’ has a temporal meaning–there are principles prior to the ‘law’ in its spatial [public] sense upon which that law is based and by which the law comes to exist. The law has both a ground and a becoming–a ground in what is prior to law and a becoming in its being taken into the realm of the public, changing, growing and reflecting what the public is. For the Greeks, equality predominates both senses of ‘before the law’. We are ‘equal before the law’ in that equality precedes law and equality is what the law achieves through the public.

Throughout all Greek literature prior to Plato one can trace this radical sense of equality as being the essential ‘trust’ of being. In all cases, breaking this ‘trust’ required the ministrations of ‘justice’. Justice itself was the curative realignment to equality. Those who trampled upon the basic equality of another [even the gods] would be brought back to the order of equality by justice. Justice was not retribution, punishment, or revenge, but rather a rectification, a refashioning of the basic equality of beings. We often forget that our own iconography has this vision of justice at its roots: the blindfolded Athena with a balance on her arm. In this image, we see justice as the process by which equality comes to be.

Contrast this with the ideas of ‘evil’ and ‘justice’ as they are commonly parceled out today and we find two angry, displaced children cut off from their history. For most in America ‘evil’ is an action perceived to be against our personal or collective interest and ‘justice’ means the elimination of that threat [be it through death or imprisonment]. People around the world wonder why we Americans fail to understand the causes of anti-Americanism or in the more extreme case, terrorism. It is precisely because in common parlance, we have lost our historical footing when it comes to routine interpretation of ethical norms. If we don’t reattach ourselves to history, we may yet lose a great deal more than we did on September 11.

KURT LEEGE can be reached at: noxes@nyc.rr.com


More articles by:
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South