Meandering Thoughts on the Origins and Meaning of Evil


Last weekend was food for thought. I tried a new recipe: pork with a delicious creamy mustard sauce that put fire in our bellies…and fire in our thinking! We had a great family discussion which ranged around immigration, UKIP, housing. The next night we watched Hannah Arendt, a film about a Jewish philosopher who covered the trial of Eichmann, a Nazi kidnapped from South American by Israel and put on trial in 1962. In court Eichmann claimed to be not guilty because he was doing his job and following orders. According to the film, Hannah Arendt found him to be a mundane figure, and after listening and watching him, began to wonder whether ‘evil’ was not about selfishness and power but rather came from thoughtlessness, and the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically evaluating the consequences of their actions and inaction.

So is that the case, I wondered. Is it the Fine Gael Government that is ‘evil’ in relation to the water charges or is it the people installing the water meters (one cannot equate the actions of the Nazis to water charges, it is the principle I am discussing). The holocaust was abhorrent and carried out by many ‘doing their jobs’, following the rules, not taking responsibility for their actions. Is that where evil stems from? Or does evil orginate in the leaders, (Hitler, Maggie Thatcher, Charlie Haughey,  Enda Kenny) who make the laws? Sadly, either way, it means that ‘evil’ stalks our society for that is how the world operates and always has done.

I am not sure it is helpful to label our society evil.  Maybe the word ‘mad’ is better. I do think it is mad to allow 1% of us to own the majority of our wealth and allow our behaviour to destroy our natural habitat. So why are we mad? Does it stem from selfishness? Or does it stem from our inability to engage and critically think about the future that will result from our actions?  None of us want to spend hard earned money by changing our heating and transport habits unless we have to (or are told to by the Government). And how do we stop the inevitable destructive character of capitalism (because that 1% won’t be able sustain the purchase power needed) when today we need to focus on work to put food on the table for our families (and enjoy a few bottles of wine). Do we think critically about the future? Yes, we all love to criticise! It’s our acting on it on as an individual to change it that is the challenge, and that is about individualism and selfishness.

So I am back to thinking that ‘evil’ or ‘madness’ must be sowed in our individual selfishness, greed or laziness. Is it selfish to stop people coming into Ireland or the UK seeking work, refuge and life when there is high unemployment and poverty already in our society? I think so. Is it selfish to look after our own first when others are worse off? Yes. But then others may think it is only sensible. We can’t take responsibility for the world. But I believe turning people in need away is a slippery slope to the disintegration of our civilisation and a slide towards evil, if not madness. It is certainly similar to Eichmann’s argument. Immigration barriers (first to non EU citizens, then to non Western EU citizens, then to our neighbours), suggests to me one person is more valuable than another and who is to decide who is most valuable? I think you will decide your family is more important than mine.

I am reminded of words my mother in law spoke at another (extended) family occasion a few years ago (I think lasagne was then on the menu). We were discussing which was the most valuable virtue:  charity, grace, mercy, kindness or compassion. I was struck by the discussion as it seemed that none of these behaviours were particularly prevalent in our society today. However, my ninety five year old mother in law was emphatic that it was kindness. I bow to her experience. I think she is right. Kindness is something every single one of us can do. It is relevant to each of us. It is a part of our everyday world. An act of kindness makes both the recipient and the giver feel happy.  So, that’s another new year resolution: to try and be kind.

So to end my meanderings about the origins and meaning of evil…my suggestion is that, wherever it comes from, whatever it is, we must kill it with kindness! That may seem a little glib, and not address the many issues raised. But it does come down to principles in the end, and in this complicated world, it is helpful to have guiding principles by which to live one’s life. I ended the weekend watching Silk, a UK legal series. The only way the barrister survives in her chosen profession (which operates in a pretty ruthless, immoral world) is according to her guiding principle, ‘innocent until proven guilty.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s