Saturday, 2 July 2011

The reality of purposive evil


Past societies never had any problem about the existence of purposive evil - intentional evil; this was seen among humans and rooted in the demonic.

But the intellectual elite of Western societies long ago began to discard the concept of demonic evil, and soon after discarded the whole idea of purposive evil, since there was nowhere for evil to be located.

Without the reality of the demonic, to call something evil just becomes a matter of opinion, perhaps a matter of rhetoric.


The point is that to discard the concept of purposive evil is not in any sense sense to disprove it.

To find talk of devils and demons to be childish and embarrassing is not in any sense to refute thousands of years of testimony from the greatest of human minds (including the holiest of human minds).


And suppose that there really is purposive evil at work in the world, yet we refuse to acknowledge its reality?

(After all, human ingenuity can always find other ways to explain reality, leaving out any particular causal variable.)

Well, the obvious consequence is that evil would then be unstoppable.

Bad things might be observed, we might have theories about why these bad things were happening, and these theories might lead to action intended to be remedial - but the bad things would continue because we were not addressing the real cause.


But how would we know that purposive evil was at work? Well, answering that is at least as hard as answering any question about motivations and intentions.

Yet, operating on the assumption that there are no purposive evil intentions is already implicitly to claim that we know that there is no purposive evil.


The way to proceed is to acknowledge and accept the vast consensus of human history that there really is such a thing as purposive evil.

We can then try to understand the nature of  purposive evil - about which there is much less consensus, and also discern whether or not purposive evil is operative in any specific situation.


Purposive evil can of course be overused as an explanation of human affairs, it can be misunderstood, it can be deceptively manipulated.

But so can evolutionary theory, so can economics - these are presumably real explanations for human affairs, but they are hard to understand, their specific relevance needs to be examined, they are open to misuse.


The point is that our society is displaying the most extraordinary and extreme arrogance in not just disregarding but deriding the concept of purposive evil and its roots in an unseen reality of 'the demonic'. This is historically unprecedented. If our society is mistaken about this, then presumably we would expect the consequences to be extremely severe.



Daniel said...

Either purposive evil never existed, and what evil we experience now is merely growing pains that result from the transition from the old superstitions to the new (and purportedly true) scientistic worldview; or it has always and does still exist and we are hopelessly blind to our greatest enemy.

Daniel said...

PS to Dr. Charlton.... and apropos of nothing at all... are you a fan of Owen Barfield? I am reading "Saving the Appearances" and I find it very compelling. I know that Lewis both loved/respected Barfield and considered him a bit of a heretic at the same time.

Barfield paints a very lovely picture of the medieval worldview, but immediately says that a man interested in such things must discover them on his own. He says, "There is the library." Well, but, the library is a big place, and I'm not classically educated and certainly no Oxford Don. Where does one start? I have read the Bible, Chaucer, and Beowulf. I have also read pop history like Will Durant. Is there a good book you can recommend that recreates the medieval mind for a modern reader? The little bits that Barfield quotes, plus what little inklings I gather from my smattering of reading (Tolkien, Lewis, Chaucer, and even Shakespeare) tell me that there's a vast treasure trove to be discovered. But I am somewhat ashamed to admit, I have no idea where to go from here. I read Pascal (via Kreeft), as you suggested, but I'm thinking 3 or 4 or 5 or even 6 centuries before Pascal. I have read Boethius too, but that's not quite it, either. Either an original source, or an excellent modern interpreter of the original material. Any suggestions? My inclination, without outside help, is just to go back to the King James... but the wannabe scholar in me desires some corroboration. Is my question clear?

dearieme said...

I remember a school trip to see a stageing of Othello - no doubt there about evil.

JP said...

Don't you think the current elites regard the Nazis as "purposive evil" - indeed, the very acme of evil, with Hitler as the Devil Himself? That's why anyone today they wish to attack politically is likened to Hitler. Like the Devil, Nazism is somehow always slumbering in the human breast, and ready to leap into action if the Left does not remain vigilant.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - I have reservations about the medieval perspective, as you probably realize - I think it was excessively philosophical. But there is also much to admire, indeed esepcially the philosophical sophistication!

Ive been reading about the middle ages for some thirty years, but recently read books that gave me a clear feeling about the middle ages were Nevill Coghill's book The Poet Chaucer, and his various essays and writings about Langland.

This essay I quoted by CS Lewis was a revelation


and other versions of the same idea are in The Discarded Image book.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - "Don't you think the current elites regard the Nazis as "purposive evil" - indeed, the very acme of evil, with Hitler as the Devil Himself?"

Actually, I don't think they have any clear or explicit idea about *why* Hitler and the Nazis were evil- except for the *false* beliefs that they were uniquely cruel and had a larger number of victims.

Somehow the PC anti-Nazi obsession is utterly compartmentalized, so that it is compatible with an overwhelmingly dominating anti-Israel bias.

I think the anti-Nazi bias is ultimately because the Nazis were a kind of commonsense-Communism - a reaction against Leftism - not because of their totalitarian cruelty (in which they were exceeded by the Communists, who are of course still going).

The anti-Israel thing presumably has the same cause - that the Israelis abandoned socialism.

Really, I think it is all about being an enemy of the Left, rather than anything to do with a recognition of purposive evil.

This sounds like a trivial, petty and inadequate reason for the Nazis (and Israel) attracting such consuming hatred from the Left - and it is indeed trivial, petty and inadequate - but I still think it is the real cause.

Wurmbrand said...

Daniel, some years ago I asked some Barfieldians about "those inexhaustible encyclopaedias in stone, the cathedral carvings" (end of Ch. 11 of Saving the Appearances) and was helpfully referred to the sculpture of Gislebertus. If you can borrow a copy of Gislebertus Sculptor of Autun by Grivot and Zarnecki (Orion Press 1961), I think you will enjoy it. I also recommend Emile Male's The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, which should be easy to find uased or in libraries.

I'm rereading Saving the Appearances just now, myself. I am emphatically not a Barfield expert, but perhaps some Christian readers would find my article, "The Troubled Legacy of Owen Barfield," for Touchstone magazine, of some interest. It is available online. My own title was "Legacy of the Second Friend."

Dave (who commented on the recent Orthodoxy thread), if you are reading this, I too am a Lutheran in the Missouri Synod tradition. Have you, like me, found Chemnitz and Sasse of great value?

Anonymous said...

Nazism is smart socialism, socialism competently executed. That is why the Nazis murdered considerably fewer nazis than the communists murdered communists, and that is why their fellow leftists hate them so much.

On one point the the nazis are in 100% agreement with today's left. Straight out government takeover does not work. Instead, the government tells capitalists what to do in minute detail, while leaving property nominally in private hands - government favored private hands.

On another point, the fuhrer principle, they are in 100% disagreement. In today's bureaucracy no one is responsible for anything. It is completely impossible to find anyone who made a bad decision - observe the Challenger inquiry looking for the man who made the decision to launch.

Purposive evil supposes that there was a demon in charge, but the challenger inquiry could not find anyone in charge.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JAD - shrewd stuff!

dearieme said...

That is the conclusion I reached (years ago) about the nazis too - utterly evil bastards, but much more intelligent executors of socialism than, for example, our own dear Labour Party.

There's a claim that when the nazis read about the Beveridge report they were impressed by its recommendations for a reformed welfare state - recommendations that the Labour government of 1945 was too dim (or too malicious?) to implement properly.

Daniel said...

Dale, thank you!

Wurmbrand said...

Best wishes for your inquiries, Daniel!

I checked the used book site just now and saw that copies of the Gislebertus and Gothic Image books are offered at what seem to me quite low prices.