FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On the Meaning of Evil

by KURT LEGEE

‘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.

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
The Fordist Academic
Frank Scott
Weapons of Mass Distraction Get More Destructive
Missy Comley Beattie
Big Dick Diplomacy
Michael Doliner
Democracy, Real Life Acting and the Movies
Dan Bacher
Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’
Winslow Myers
The Madness of Deterrence
Cesar Chelala
A Kiss is Not a Kiss: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children
Jimmy Centeno
Garcia Meets Guayasamin: A De-Colonial Experience
Stephen Martin
When Boot Becomes Bot: Surplus Population and The Human Face.
Martin Billheimer
Homer’s Iliad, la primera nota roja
Louis Proyect
Once There Were Strong Men
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones
David Yearsley
Academics Take Flight
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail