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.


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