Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Evil is unknowable - and you should not even attempt to know it

From "The Devil" in Meditations on the Tarot by Valentin Tomberg (published anonymously in 1980):

"One ought not to occupy oneself with evil, other than keeping a certain distance and a certain reserve, if one wishes to avoid the risk of paralysing the creative elan, and a still greater risk - that of furnishing arms to the powers of evil. One can grasp profoundly, i.e. intuitively, only that which one loves. Love is the vital element of profound knowledge, intuitive knowledge. Now, one cannot love evil. Evil is therefore unknowable in its essence. One can understand it only at a distance, as an observer of its phenomenology."

This striking and wise passage contains two important assertions:

1. Profound knowledge requires love. I think this is correct. Of course most knowledge, almost all of it, is superficial - but where there is profound knowledge it seems always to have required a sustained attention to the phenomenon. And sustained attention is motivated by love.

2. Deep understanding of evil would therefore require you to love evil, to give it sustained attention. This is ultimately impossible, but the attempt to do it will harm you and aid the work of evil.

These insights negate one of the primary pseudo-assumptions of modern media and arts, and the news; that we 'need to understand' evil before we can effectively deal with it. This is not only false, but deeply morally hazardous... which is, of course, exactly why so many people in charge keep saying it.   


  1. I agree completely.

    I once lived for three years with a roommate who I finally understood to be, towards the end, a profoundly evil man.

    The first few years I found his behavior and psychology so strange and puzzling that I spent hours trying to grasp it.

    Despite his obvious malice, hatred, envy, and deviousness, which he was at pains to deny, or rather disguise, and which he mixed with apparent goodness (I now know, a common tactic of evil) I could not accept what was staring me in the face, especially since as an atheist I had learned to regard evil as a childish illusion.

    I spent hours trying to understand his thinking and motivation, and with growing horror realized I was confronted with evil in a religious sense, that could not be explained in Darwinian terms, an uncanny and troubling experience that assisted in my religious conversion.

    But trying so hard to "get into his mind", to make sense of his confusing behavior, left what I believe is a permanent mark on my psyche.

    I believe that briefly, I was sucked in and became sonewhat evil myself, and at about this time I began to have strange supernatural experiences involving the apprehension of evil, which I won't go into, but made it impossible for me to deny religion anymore.

    Dangerous stuff. Evil is simply to ne avoided and repulsed - engaging intellectually with it is the first step in becoming converted oneself.

  2. Those who try to understand evil or engage with it or ‘explore the dark side’ as in much modern art, film, television and literature, inevitably become tainted by it themselves, if not corrupted. One should understand the fact of its existence and know how it works but anything more gives it a validity it always wants but should never have. All we need to know is that it has no basis in reality. It is a rejection of or rebellion against reality. It is the one thing that does not come from the Creator and therefore should be left well alone.

  3. I wonder if the popularity of horror movies and novels is associated with this seemingly deep desire to know evil. I have myself felt a certain attraction/fascination with the display of evil in horror movies even though I know full well that those movies more often that not are destructive.

    How did your roommate´s evilness manifest itself? Do you think it was supernatural in a more clear or profound way than human darkness usually is?

  4. A further point is that IF it was necessary to explore and understand evil as a prelude to resisting it effectively, THEN there would be no end to the job - and a person might spend his whole life on the task, and still be no closer to completion.

    This is a reductio ad abrsurdum, which proves that we are NOT required to understand evil.

  5. Interesting parallel with the Eastern Orthodox belief that God in His essence is utterly unknowable, and we know Him only through His energies.

  6. @AK - ACtually I think it's almost the opposite! I understand that that Orthodox belief was formulated in response to criticisms of the Hesychast mystical tradition, the critics asserting that God was unknowable and utterly remote from Man, therefore there could be no genuine communion with divinity. The 'energies' idea was that Men could (by ascetic disciplines) achieve a communion during mortal life - but that this was with the energies of God - but not with the essence of God.

    (Adherents of Mormon theology, such as myself, have a very different understanding of God.)

  7. I do not think this is correct.
    Evil is a perversion of the good. Evil is finite. When deprived of fuel, evil sputters and ends.

    Sure, you shouldn't try to know or dwell on evil, but putting it in the 'unknowable' category is to mistakenly give it God like characteristics.

  8. I would suggest that the attempt is largely futile in any case, as when the root of Evil is finally reached, there will inevitably prove to be nothing of any substance there. If we accept that the basis of Evil is denial, rejection, and avoidance of reality, it can be seen as more or less axiomatic that nothing much lies beneath these tendencies (or can lie there) beyond an idealized and inflated Will, which takes capricious pleasure in glorying in its choice to reject the Good that available.

    The quality we perceive as "Depth" represents that expansion in our understanding of reality which opens to us new perceptual vistas, not the willed constriction or denial of this understanding which results in narrowed and defective vision. Evil in contrast possesses nothing but many-layered masks to conceal its essential emptiness, like so many Russian dolls - when the final layer is peeled away, there will prove to be precisely nothing at the heart, merely the void of purposelessness to which its willed rejection of all possible meaning in existence must inevitably lead it. Beyond this, all it possesses are strategies (many and various, Evil is generally a far better strategizer than Good) for expanding the influence of its Will, since its chief substitute for the meaning it has rejected is the pride which feeds upon its own capricious exercise of choice for its own mere sake. Hence, Evil must ultimately in some fashion seek to gain and exercise power over the wills and choices of free spirits - it is literally nothing without this.

  9. @August - I sort of agree, but the 'fuel' for evil is almost everything - the end state is not complete destruction, but it is nonethless a situation in which very little good remains.

    For example, Tolkien's Morgoth:

    Therefore, as a strategy, it is a non-starter to allow evil to consume all its fuel.

    [And I do not regard God as unknowable: God is knowable, in principle and to some extent in practice, and indeed it is our destiny and highest aim to know him, as a friend. I recognize that most historical Christians (at least the intellectual Christians) have said God is unknowable (and therefore we can only submit to his incomrehensible will), but I regard this as an error imported (unnecessarily) by some of the post-Apostolic church Fathers from Classical philosophy - and which reaches its logical conclusion in the other major monotheism.]

    1. "I recognize that most historical Christians (at least the intellectual Christians) have said God is unknowable (and therefore we can only submit to his incomrehensible will), but I regard this as an error imported (unnecessarily) by some of the post-Apostolic church Fathers from Classical philosophy."

      Is that true? I understand classical Greek philosophy did reach some positive statements about God, for example omnipotence and omniscience, and Plotinus' three hypostases. Were these "intellectual Christians" referring to the unknowability of God through pure intellect alone without revelation? Could they have been indulging in hyperbole? Or maybe they were concerned with emphasising that we, as finite creatures, can keep on learning more and more about God...forever.

      I'm curious because, in my understanding of the history Christian philosophy, God's inscrutable will as his primary characteristic became dominant in the thought of Ockham and Scotus. That's about a millenium after Augustine.

  10. If God were unknowable we could have no relationship with him. Besides we are built in his image so we must be able to know him. No doubt we can't know him completely, we can't exhaust him, but if we can love him then we can certainly know him to the degree of our capacity to do so.

  11. A few days ago, as I lay down to sleep, something happened again, and I found myself contemplating the curve of the earth, and having a full body disorientation, as if I were floating around up there somewhere.

    One of the interesting aspects of the disorientation is that I felt my outer ears flex. I don't think I have ever felt them move before. If I had to guess, it was akin to a cat's ears going flat.

    I say all that to point out that I am not particularly knowable to myself, and I am much less than God. Neither the experience nor my physiological response to it. There is, a way of knowing embedded in the Trinitarian tradition, but it is a knowing given, not a knowing that can be done. We don't just say we must obey an incomprehensible will, but that God would dwell within us, and we would be as He is. One must know the goal is impossible without God, but that it possible through God, and finally that it is God. Religions are the same in the sense that they are paths, but they are different in the sense that different paths lead to different places.

  12. My view of the knowability of God, in summary, is that God made the whole of creation so that some Men at least could *eventually* come to know him (on the same level, like grown-up children), and also we have something of God within us, by inheritance - we being his children. So we can confirm for ourselves and by experience (by prayer, meditation, revelation) the nature of God as both creator and loving Father - and *this* is (or ideally should be) the basis of our basic faith, confidence, trust in God.