The Great Conversation:
Good & Evil

By Matt McKeown

Throughout recorded history and perhaps before it, good and evil have been among the principal interests of man.

Though the ideas of good and evil cover much of the same territory as those of virtue and vice, the former are broader, including things like health and knowledge as well as the moral conduct of people. Sickness and ignorance are “evils,” but almost no one would call them inherently blameworthy today; in some versions of Greek paganism, ritual pollution or miasma might be read morally, but even this was by no means universal. At most, these kinds of ill-fortune are seen (by some) as punishment for moral failures. In some tellings, this is through the deliberate intervention of the deity, as suggested by Job’s friends in the biblical book bearing his name. In others, such as the Hindu doctrine of karma, the consequences are more along the lines of a spiritual law of cause and effect: the consequences of one’s bad actions are various forms of suffering, and these consequences follow us from one life to the next in the cycle of samsāra or reincarnation.

Since most forms of Hinduism are pantheistic, it is easier to treat evil of all kinds as a sort of immaturity or delay on the path to union with the Godhead. This contrasts sharply with Zoroastrianism, the traditional religion of neighboring Iran, for which evil is not merely a stumbling-block on the path to goodness but a positive and hostile force in its own right, at war with good on a cosmic scale. This dualism is believed by scholars to have influenced the development of Judaism (due to contact between Iranian and Jewish cultures during the Persian domination of the Near East), producing the great flowering of apocalyptic literature known to us principally through the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian book of Revelation.

However, dualism proper is rarely a feature of Abrahamic religions because of their doctrine of creation. The family of beliefs known loosely as Gnostic (or sometimes Manichæan) applies moral dualism still more radically, making matter as such evil; though there were many Gnostic schools, a typical notion was that matter was created by an inferior spirit, the demiurge, possessed of immense power but lacking the wisdom to see that creation was vain and corrupt.

But then I sigh and, with a piece of Scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends, stol'n out of holy writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

William Shakespeare, Richard III, I.iii

By contrast, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite massive internal diversity and their conflicts with each other, are at one in asserting that it was not any inferior spirit but the supreme God who made the world, and that creation was good. Evil, on these premises, is always parasitic rather than positive; it has no existence in itself, but consists only in warped versions of good things, left incomplete or ripped from their proper context. Tolkien’s Catholic sensibility thus shows in Gandalf’s line from The Lord of the Rings, “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book On the Genealogy of Morals, takes a different approach, one less concerned with metaphysics and of uncertain historical validity, but psychologically subtle in its own way. He sets up a contrast between “master morality” and “slave morality,” the former being the self-affirming values of the powerful: goodness is defined in terms of prosperity, happiness, victory, success, and the like. “Slave morality,” by contrast, is a sort of sour grapes judgment, the envious self-consolation of the people that masters dominate; poverty, mourning, weakness, humility, and the like are framed as morally superior. The “upside-down” values enunciated in the Beatitudes, according to Nietzsche, are a sort of spiritual revenge of the defeated upon their conquerors. Of course, whether the “slave morality” redefinition of goodness is objectively a good or a bad thing depends a great deal on our own philosophical definition of goodness, but Nietzsche’s insight can arguably be applied even by the most devout Christian. Insofar as we crave the things that “master morality” defines as good, it makes sense that, when we are unable to get them, we would console ourselves with our imagined moral superiority; the question then becomes whether we need to change our values or to change ourselves.

Suggested reading:
Plato, Apology
The Gospel According to Saint John
St. Augustine, Confessions
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

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If you enjoyed this post, check out these pieces on Geoffrey Chaucer, James Madison, and Willa Cather. You might also enjoy our new Journey Through the Author Bank series and our weekly podcast, Anchored.

Page image of The Fall of Man by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

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