11/3/2013 18:31

But there were no evil people

I just returned from a play, an adaption of Gogol's "The Government Inspector" put on by St. Norbert College students. After the show, the cast and audience shared a time of moderated conversation. One person asked something about the evilness of the characters. The student performers generally acceded to the suggestion that their characters were really evil people; they just did evil things.

I'm inclined to think that these students have an incomplete grasp of what constitutes evil. If evil doesn't consist in doing evil deeds what possible definition can there be?

One of the students made an attempt to address this dilemma, saying that evil refers to intentional harm, whereas the corrupt public officials in the play were intending nothing but gain for themselves. This is the classic defense of children who have caused injury: "But I didn't mean to do it."

I suspect this is typical of college aged people. It echoes a comment Ronald Sampson, a lecturer in politics at the University of Bristol, made in a 1969 article. Of his own "expansion of awareness as he grew up, Sampson wrote, "So evil occurred in the world, very great and unbelievable evil and yet there were no evil men, it appeared." ["The Vanity of Humanism"; The Nation, December 29, 1969, page 721.]

Of course there are evil people. The problem in actual reality is that most of us have some redeeming qualities which offset our evil. I do not give up hope that perhaps every human could be redeemed. The other side of this that every human does evil. We initiate some evils and pass other evils along; we close our eyes to some evils and others we see, but cannot see the way out. It cannot be otherwise for beings limited in time and in space and in comprehension, but we nevertheless are doing evil to each other.

In the play, the characters were not as unintentional as the players seemed to wish. They knew that the hospital was subpar and they knew that they were interfering with other people's marriages and they knew that children were being shortchanged in school according to the play's own dialog. And they were knowingly willing to harm others in return for the graft (and, as someone pointed out, out of fear of being brought to light by others in the plot).

There were evil characters in the play, but the players prefer not to admit that they were, in the play, playing evil people. So, in the actual reality game, do we all.