Note on the “Non-being” of Evil

We are accustomed to viewing good and evil as two competing forces. This view is predictably enshrined in super-hero movies. Not only are there good guys and bad guys, but the bad guys pretend to have good motives, while the good guys try to keep their bad motives in check. Such is the way things are “realistically” portrayed in culture. However, this idea of a competition is false, an illusion, because good and evil do not actually exist on an equal playing field. Indeed, they are as polarized in their tendency as being and non-being.

There’s two ways to tackle the problem: 1) freedom versus necessity, and 2) the desire to be.

The reason we are faced with good versus evil is because we are born into a confusion about our freedom, namely, what is it for? We have to make choices about how to use our freedom, and to do so we have to orient it toward some kind of necessity, a goal, etc. But there is a vicious circle here, because we are also free to choose what is necessary (or so it seems). And so we live under the possibility of choosing wrongly. We fall under the sway of doing and living for things that are no good for us, primarily because we are confused and do not see clearly what is good for us. (Once habit and self-deception step in, this pattern can be a real monster to correct.)

At the same time, behind our choice of what is necessary, lies our desire to be. Even the worst choice imaginable, suicide, seeks a state of being that is better than the previous state, even if the new state is imagined as an escape from being altogether.

We are surrounded, at times oppressed, by beings, and they are all sustained by Being. Without this link between “what is” and “Is-Itself,” we would have no joys, no pleasures, no memories, no connections to others, etc.–they would not exist. We are born into an overwhelming abundance of being, and we seek to abide in that abundance or increase it. There is no vice of pride, lust, greed, etc., that does not seek, at its core, for an increase in being; and in doing so, that tries to appropriate for itself some share in the power of Being.

The trouble is that pride, lust, greed, etc., envision a necessity that is false, that destroys being. They pursue poor uses of freedom, and why? Because in seeking an increase in being (supposedly), they seek it to the exclusion of other beings. They seek it to the exclusion of the consideration of Being itself. In brief, they seek being for themselves, rather than giving themselves to Being.

Hence the orientation of the “sinner” is entirely backwards: they can find only non-being. “Insofar as we are sinners, we fail to be, and are not,” says Aquinas. I believe we can interpret this entirely free from moralism and the moral interpretation of sin. Rather, “sin” simply means: to act against the better conscience of Being, of which we have a share. It is to act against a true increase in Being (in life, communion, beauty, love, etc.), if only out of some confusion regarding what that true increase would be. (Again, it is our ignorance of our “final end,” of the authentic completion of our being, that leads to the rift between freedom and necessity, and renders our choices arbitrary; when really “arbitrariness” is utterly impossible.)

Murder is the fundamental “sin” against God and creation and, in a sense, the paradigm and shadow cast for all other “sins.” In just one generation, Adam’s temptation to “be like God” will become Cain’s jealous slaying of his brother. We can leave aside a rational assessment of the murder’s mindset. For his part, the murderer thinks or believes that this murder is necessary, if only to relieve some psychological torment and tension. Somewhere in the murderer’s computation of “values”, they have decided, using their freedom, that giving death is necessary. But what do they really give, except the negation of being? They sever a life from Life forever. They sever themselves from that person’s life. And they sever themselves from communion with Life, for in violating it, they cast themselves out from its meaning and purpose.

Murder is thus an example of how evil acts actually “create nothing.” But this is equally the case for pride, lust, greed, etc., and selfishness of every sort! Sure, these “create” destruction, pain, loss. But if we look closely, it is clear that evil acts will always sever off and isolate the evil actor from the community of Being. At the same time, if the evil actor looks at what he has made, it will always be evident that it is a shambles. Evil might even be defined as a kind of impossibility of consistency. It lacks entirely the ease of being which comes from doing good. Evil is inherently frustrated and frustrating: because its aim is at odds with truth, it simply cannot achieve anything. It cannot accomplish an increase of being, because Being only goes one way–the way of the Good–and that way is irreversible. Whereas the way of Evil never even really starts, because it has nothing to begin. It dissipates upon contact with the ground, disperses itself into a million tiny tracks, but ultimately makes no gain against the Good. (At best, it provokes the blood it spills to cry out against it, so that awareness of the ugliness and futility of Evil can become better known; but this cry will only be registered by the good.)

Good and evil, therefore, are not the same “ontologically,” meaning that they answer the “desire to be” in radically different ways. Being is Goodness. But evil is not against the Good so much as a confusion about what is good. All evil is “in the dark” about why there is freedom, what is necessary, what is fruitful to strive after, what is a good use of time and life. It comes from brokenness and “creates” brokenness. And until it repents of this dispersal and turns back to the Good, it will lack the force of Being (the gentlest force there is: witness the lilies of the field). It will “miss out” on its own existence–it will merely tarry with non-existence until its time runs out.

We know it is good to be. We know it is good to give life, express life, and take joy in life. When we encounter things that take life, suppress life, degrade and depress life, we experience the negation of what is “meant to be.” But only what is meant to be, can be! It could really be very simple, if we so chose.

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