Wednesday 22 August 2012

Good-nasty = Snape. But who are the nice people on the side of evil?


Traditionally, for Christians, Good and evil are understood in terms of the 'unseen warfare' or 'spiritual warfare' between (one the one hand) God and the angels and (on the other) Satan and his demons - humans are the location of this warfare, rather than its instigators - and the main decision of each person is which side they will take.


At the same time, some people are mostly nice, while others are mostly nasty.

And there need not be much or any correlation between Good-nice and evil-nasty: indeed, the character type of Good-nasty is a favourite in literature.


A recent example of Good-nasty is Severus Snape - who is probably the most interesting and moving character in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling.

Yet, the lack of a framework of spiritual warfare means that the secular perspective misinterprets Snape as a 'morally ambiguous character'.

Snape is not morally ambiguous - he is nasty, as is abundantly demonstrated throughout the series. However, like Harry, he has Rowling's prime twin virtues of Courage and self-sacrificing Love - and these mean that he has chosen the side of Good, as it emerges near the very end of the seven volumes.

Throughout the series we should not be in doubt that Snape is nasty - what we are unsure about - and what the novels mislead us about - is the answer to the question: What side is Snape on ?


In the Harry Potter series, the background of unseen warfare between God and the Devil is only hinted at - and superficially replaced (for much of the series) by Dumbledore versus Voldemort: nice versus nasty, kind versus cruel.

Yet in the Deathly Hallows we recognize that Dumbledore is sometimes nasty, has several nasty traits, has a history of cruelty.

At the secular level, this subverts the moral clarity of the novels - but not if a backdrop of spiritual conflict is acknowledged.


The real conflict in Harry Potter, and in Lord of the Rings and in the Narnia books, is between God and evil - and the bottom line evil is not cruelty but heresy: evil wants to be worshiped as God.


This is clearer in Tolkien and Lewis - but there are sufficient hints in Rowling that this is 'The Dark Lord's ultimate purpose: to be worshiped as an immortal god. Voldemort is, of course, cruel - but it is his indifference to others (e.g. killing Cedric Diggory as 'the spare'), his treating them merely as a means to his end, which is portrayed as his worst sin. They exist only to serve and worship him.


My point would be much clearer is there was a nice but evil character to mirror Snape as nasty but Good - however, I don't think there are any.

Indeed, this is a major deficiency in most modern/ recent literature and narrative art: the way that nastiness and evil are conflated.

Evil people in books, movies, on TV always turn-out to be nasty (cruel, sadistic etc) whereas in real life many of most devoted the servants of evil are (mostly) nice, and not especially cruel.

Can anyone come up with a good example of a genuine, clear cut nice-evil character from art?

Or life?

Somebody really nice, and really evil?



Anonymous said...

Dolores Umbridge?

robert61 said...

How about Candide?

Bruce Charlton said...

Umbridge - nice? No, she is the classic 'thin veneer of nice but a raging sadist underneath'.

I mean someone nice like the legions nice ladies in real life who serve evil that work in middle management: human resources, counseling, child protection and the like. Most of the 'work'-force, indeed. Genuinely nice, genuine servants of evil.

robert61 - from Voltaire? That's a shrewd idea.

dearieme said...

Where do you place Tony Blair in this co-ordinate space?

Daybreaker said...

[a line of prisoners files past a jailer]
Coordinator: Crucifixion?
Prisoner: Yes.
Coordinator: Good. Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each.
[Next prisoner]
Coordinator: Crucifixion?
Mr. Cheeky: Er, no, freedom actually.
Coordinator: What?
Mr. Cheeky: Yeah, they said I hadn't done anything and I could go and live on an island somewhere.
Coordinator: Oh I say, that's very nice. Well, off you go then.
Mr. Cheeky: No, I'm just pulling your leg, it's crucifixion really.
Coordinator: [laughing] Oh yes, very good. Well...
Mr. Cheeky: Yes I know, out of the door, one cross each, line on the left.

Life of Bryan (1979)

I forget which Python said that the idea was to have the crucifixion coordinated by a Roman who did everything but wish the victims a nice day.

It's not really a portrait though, just a comic cameo.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - yes, that's a good example in a way; except that in the Python universe the bottom line is secular - cruelty/ evil versus kindness/ good, so there is no unseen warfare going on.

The 'Coordinator' character (played by Michael Palin) is therefore nice in service to cruelty, whereas what I meant was nice in service of Satan and his strategy for the world.

Incidentally, when I went to watch that movie as an undergraduate, at that point the person I was with turned to me and said (about the coordinator): That's *you*!

I think he meant in terms of his general manner and style of speaking, rather than in terms of his role in life - at least I hope so.

Daybreaker said...


McCord, in The Island (2005). He does get redeemed eventually, but only after he is tracked down and put under severe pressure to change sides, and only by reluctant stages.

Till he's grabbed and forcefully made to think things out again, he's a regular wage-earning part of a system that grows entirely human clones, deceives them with false holes of going to "The Island" (a materialist's paradise) and instead cuts them up for spare parts for rich sponsors.

The two big things about McCord are that he's a character not a cameo, and his niceness to one of the clones (shown in his secret drinking and bull sessions) is perfectly genuine and without ulterior motive. True he's a low-on-the-totem pole lonely guy at his workplace, and he wants a friend, but he is a friend. McCord is the one supplying the booze; Lincoln is not doing anything for McCord, and as McCord well knows Lincoln will never be in a position to.

This friendship doesn't extend to warning the clone Lincoln 6 Echo that his best friend Jordan 2 Delta who has won the lottery to go to the Island will instead be cut to pieces, or that Lincoln himself will go soon after. Nor does McCord have any desire to warn any of the other clones.

Hey, it's a job.

Daybreaker said...

McCord clearly is in service to Evil, not just nastiness or cruelty.

His master, Dr. Henry Merrick, has a God complex a mile wide (which McCord comments on to make it explicit), loves being the lord of his kingdom of deceit and death under the earth, and is happy to be the creator of life and its destroyer on an industrial scale, because (a) the clones "have no souls" - implying that others like Dr. Merrick's rich clients do, and (b) Dr. Merrick is a medical and scientific hero, able do things like cure leukemia. He has plans to set up a children's wing of his clone factory, and is eager to get to it.

The movie also implies that God (the real one, not Dr. Merrick's ego) is active in the story, and that He loves the clones.

Lincoln Six Echo's original and sponsor is dying of disease contracted from a life of loveless sex, and being as he says "no good at confessions and regrets" he's chosen to be reborn physically, in a literal way, with the innocent Lincoln clone doing the dying and the wealthy, vice-ridden Lincoln doing the being healed, without all that repentance nonsense. His plan doesn't quite go as he intended.

For all its rocket bike chases and Michael Bay crudity, The Island is a very unusual movie, and relevant to your interests.

Anonymous said...

That's a tall order to fill as liberals, who make almost all of the art, don't recognize the category of nice/evil.

I am thinking of the father in "The Shining" and other Stephen King characters who are under the control of supernatural evil, but I don't know if they count.

GerardM said...

In the film Lost Boys, Edward Herrmann seems wonderful -- a potential surrogate father -- until it is revealed that he is a demonic vampire. Even so, he honestly wants to act in a paternal role, albeit as the head of a monstrous vampire clan.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a novel called Inferno, based on Dante, by way of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. The sequel, Escape from Hell, was (in my opinion) very inferior, but it had a number of characters who were just not quite virtuous enough. For example, Rosemary Bennett is a former lawyer from New Orleans, and seems decent enough by modern secular standards. Ultimately, she gives in to the temptation to become a prosecutor in the service of Hell, simply because it's a prestigious job with a nice office.

Speaking of Michael Palin -- in the movie Brazil, it ultimately turns out that his character is, in fact, a professional torturer, which seems to be a well-paid office job.

In Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl is secretly a satanist in the service of the Antichrist, but only because she was born into it. She loves kids, and is really very ordinary.

Kenneth Branagh played a charming Gestapo officer in Swing Kids.

Anonymous said...

That's a tall order to fill as liberals, who make almost all of the art, don't recognize the category of nice/evil.

I am thinking of the father in "The Shining" and other Stephen King characters who are under the control of supernatural evil, but I don't know if they count.

JRRT Reader said...

I don't know that Candide is "Evil"-certainly he isn't by the standards of his namesake books. Even viewed objectively, that creation by the hideous mind of Voltaire is indifferent and ineffectual. The character is "nice", though.

The problem here is how ones serve evil while being nice. Would not serving evil imply doing something evil, hence losing any essential "niceness"? It is doubtful that one could serve evil without being somehow corrupted by it.

I would suggest that Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment might qualify; he is charming, polite, and even capable of acts that express a type of kindness.

Maybe some of the characters from the Godfather films meet the criteria; namely, Vito Corleone and Tom Hagan. The director made the second film, in part, as a response and a corrective to those who thought that crime family was somehow good and noble according to their own idiosyncratic fashion.

Or am I confusing "nice" with a certain affability?

GerardM said...

I've heard differing opinions about how historically accurate the film Downfall is. In any case, it portrays Hitler himself as genuinely kind at least to the women in the bunker with him, including Eva Braun, who dismisses his savage cruelty and insane tirades by saying something to the effect of, "oh, that's just him being the Fuehrer." Traudl Junge is just a naive secretary, but even she gets swept up in a surge of misplaced loyalty, missing her chance to escape before the Soviet conquest.

Bruce Charlton said...

Plenty of interesting suggestions - but none of them that fit the bill are well known or iconic.

i don't mean people who are pleasant mannered but work as torturers, or order torture, or anything like that - but people whose evil is indirect and an unintended (but wholly predictable) by product of their 'good' acts.

e.g. Homely female college administrators who run affirmative action/ diversity programs, and perceive only their kindness to the oppressed and underprivileged. They do nothing cruel, nor unpleasant, they have no nasty-little-secrets, they are easily upset and distressed by any arguments and anger, their lives are devoted to nice-ness (and yet...)

GerardM said...

...but people whose evil is indirect and an unintended (but wholly predictable) by product of their 'good' acts.

Mrs. Jellyby from Bleak house? Or the woman in the Screwtape Letters "who lives for others - you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”?

GerardM said...

Anyone reading this blog would probably agree that socialism and affirmative action/ diversity programs are horrible, horrible public policy. At the top levels, these kinds of program tend to attract power-worshipers. But, even so, there are still surely plenty of decent, if naive, people who honestly believe the propaganda. I've been there myself, more recently than I care to dwell upon.

Someone who, in his (or her) heart of hearts honestly believes in [INSERT PC BOILERPLATE] is in the position of the Calormene Emeth from C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, who wrongly thinks he is serving Tash.

JP said...

In Colleen McCullough's "First Man in Rome" series, Cicero is portrayed as a genuinely nice man - loving if henpecked husband, kind father, good to his slaves. Yet he commits some direct evils for "good reasons" - e.g., as consul, putting citizens to death without trial, apparently not realizing the precedent this would set. Furthermore his refusal to support Caesar contributes to the outbreak of the civil war, and his efforts to build up Octavian as a counter to Anthony contribute to the rise of the former, leading to another civil war.

Caesar, in the series, is portrayed as a generally nice person, but his evils are usually intentional (i.e., he would rather plunge the world into war than suffer an affront to his dignitas).

The boni have good intentions, by their lights, but are not portrayed as nice people but as stubborn, stupid reactionaries.

JP said...

Another thought (courtesy of my wife) - in fiction, people whose evil is indirect and an unintended (but wholly predictable) by product of their 'good' acts are usually scientists.

Some examples:

"Dr. Walter Bishop (Fringe (TV series)) - Genius and mad scientist (literally). Responsible for opening a doorway into another universe in order to save an alternate version of his son Peter from dying. His actions have resulted in the gradual breakdown of both universes and inadvertently started a war between them."

The chief scientist at CyberDyne Systems in the Terminator series.

Dr. Charles Forbin (Colossus: The Forbin Project) — designer of Colossus, a massive American defense computer, named Colossus, that becomes sentient and decides to assume control of the world.

Dr. Frankenstein.

The scientists in Jurassic Park who bring back the dinosaurs.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - good idea - I think you may have nailed it there. If so, this (plus my examples of bureaucrats) would mean that nice-evil people were mostly a modern phenomenon.

Perhaps some modernist artists/ architects/ authors (whose work was destructive of beauty) might also be found that would fit?

(Most of them were/ are fairly nasty people - but perhaps there are exceptions?)

Anonymous said...

Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games books might be a fit. She's a functionary in the service of evil, but she's not portrayed as cruel or horrible.

The worst one could say about her is that she's oblivious to the evil she abets, and she redeems herself in the end.

FHL said...

As odd as this may sound, I see the Star Wars movies as being one of the few films to really portray the problem of conflation of niceness with Goodness.

Especially when the "first" episodes (the later, newer ones) are taken into account. Although they seem to be universally hated by critics and series purists, they did seem to portray a reality that was different than what is commonly shown.

They show how senator Palpatine deceives the people through democratic means, portraying himself as being a compassionate and caring hero. Anakin Skywalker falls into his trap, and thus becomes prey to the dark side. The Jedi Knights can easily be thought of as a religious order, but they fall and are persecuted when Anakin, a Jedi himself, betrays them due to his belief in senator Palpatine's "compassion" and his utopian "" view.

FHL said...

Oh, another thought on that matter: I've seen interviews with George Lucas, the director and mastermind behind Star Wars, and I've always thought he was a nasty person. I always thought: "man, he is just a rude, inconsiderate person..."

It always appeared to me that Mr. Lucas was one of those people who just thought "I am always right, I don't care what you think, I won't listen, we're doing things my way."

But, now, as I think of it, I think that the success, as well as any moral/spiritual coherence, of the Star Wars saga must have had something to do with that uncooperative attitude.

josh said...

I would suggest the leads in two similar Woody Allen films; Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.

Daybreaker said...

Movies routinely condemn people who are superficially nice but actually evil, but the viewpoint is politically correct and leftist, so the evil consists in not supporting exactly the sort of politically correct causes that you and I (for different reasons) regard as evil.

o'rety said...

Shame I haven't spotted this earlier. Still, it's so interesting a question...

What about Ellsworth Toohey from 'The Fountainhead'??