Should we speak of ‘evil’?

Today a colleague tweeted this Spinoza quote from the Political Treatise:

“Those who take an oath by law will avoid perjury more if they swear by the welfare & freedom of the state instead of by God.”

It made me aware of why Spinoza’s habit of putting things in a conditional manner has always appealed to me so much. To my knowledge he is one of the few philosophers who does this so consistently. And not in order to be vague, but to be precise. Spinoza understood from experience what it was to live under repressive regimes – and he saw two main vehicles for oppression: religion and politics. The main insight from his TPT was that humanity cannot free itself (its mind, its heart) without adressing both institutions – in their entanglement. Both play on our animality – our sensitivity to danger – by promising safety. Politics promises safety of the body, religion safety of the soul. And either one of them may use the other’s reach over our vulnerabilities to intensify their own claim. This happens all the time: when states urge us to trust a certain religion over another – because the ‘strange’ religion threatens our safety. Or the other way round: when religions urge their believers to trust a certain state power – for it safeguards them from instability and chaos.

The entanglement between the two institutions may also lead to an imagined conflict between them. We see it in so-called ‘religious’ attempts to end state power (think IS) or in political movements that try to end the power of religion (all forms of strict secularism). Both movements are confused, for they fail to see that the boundaries between politics and religion are porous. Both overlap. They both play into our natural fear of bad things that might happen, and appeal to our natural hope that this can be solved. To free oneself, therefore, Spinoza held we should address religion and politics in their entanglement and mutual dependency. They can not be separated, but can work together in more and less destructive ways. Their connectedness would be most beneficial to a good life, Spinoza concluded, when religion – albeit in a purified form – would inform politics, and not the other way round. A good life he defined as a life in friendship with others, with freedom of mind and peace of heart. To attain this one should not have religions do political things (then politics would inform religion), but political power play should rather let itself be inspired by religious things, trying to promote justice and charity. This was at least the (contested) upshot of the interpretation I gave in my 1996 PhD thesis on the TPT.

The citation I read on twitter underlines the above. Spinoza was convinced that it was easier to keep true to one’s pledge of allegiance to freedom and welfare, than to one we make to God. God is just too much above human fallibility, one could say, as He is one and ultimately just. Freedom and welfare of the state is a relative thing, and we can more easily remain true to it. My reading of Spinoza was contested as it followed a long period of Hegelian and Marxist interpretations of his work (and combinations of them) – which all aimed to reconstruct it to be progressivist, and teleological. This led to a Spinoza who claims the telos of mankind’s efforts to be absolute freedom of religious oppression – embodied in true philosophy – the mental realization that frees us from irrational fetters.

Such interpretations however overlook how Spinoza did things with words: how he made any philosophical judgements conditional. In his Ethics he mostly uses the formula: ‘in so far as…’. Here, in the PT, he allows himself to be rethorical – without losing precision. Perjury is our condition, he says indirectly. We cannot be completely true to our better nature, to freedom, to friendship – we will always fail if we aim to be ‘good’. To make our failing as minute as possible, Spinoza warns us, we better aim not too high. Freedom and welfare of the state is very important, looking up to them can keep us from doing too bad things – trying to emulate God, however, is so far removed a goal that it will automatically make us fail – and fall into desparation as a consequence.

Being truly religious then, for Spinoza, meant to claim as little as possible about God. It would better show itself in living in accordance with the two main virtues: charity (love of one’s neighbor) and justice (treating others fairly). When we practice those, we do the utmost. Aiming higher is moral pride. However, despite the humility in his philosophy, he was a believer in the modern state, as being the best guardian of the good, free, and peaceful life. A then new political form he helped to carve out philosophically. Living in the 21st century the belief in the state as the guardian of shared and equally distributed wellbeing has tarnished, to say the least. The inescapable awareness we now have of the infinite potentialities of state violence and repression make Spinoza appear not morally humble enough. The modern state tramples justice and charity with ease, even while making its citizens believe they are righteous and good. But where can we find a hold, if we better not even pledge an oath on the freedom and welfare of the state? Where can we look to anchor morality?

What inspired me to ask these questions? It were reflections ignited by the announcement of one of my students, last week, that she wants to write her thesis on evil. During the first discussion we had on her chosen theme I started to wonder why philosophers’ writing on evil had always somehow irritated me. And the Spinoza quote made me understand: speaking of evil creates a fog. It is a conjuring act. It aims to exorcize the bad things we inevitably experience in this life, as well as the bad things we do to others. Using the word ‘evil’ helps us to abstract from real life, and to rise to a metaphysical realm where things promise to be clear and well-defined. Thus we conjure ourselves away from nature’s forces – which play through us, sensitive creatures, when we feel fear and hope. We hope to lose our fear, to be absolutely safe, which inevitable means we will have to bend reality – for safety is not here in this world (not even in the religious beliefs we can have in this world). Bending reality, we will inevitably harm what is in our way.

Perhaps we should loose the concept of ‘evil’, and realize that we just do bad things, as well as good things. Perhaps philosophy cannot even meaningfully define them – as it failed badly at earlier attempts. Wouldn’t we be more true to Spinoza’s caution by abstaining from swearing oaths at all? And would we, in our present times, not better give up belief in the state as the natural guardian of peace and welfare?

Perhaps we should not swear anymore. Nor speak of evil. But attempt to do the right thing on the most inconsiderable playing field. The field without flags. Without honor. Without deaths of honor over flags. In order to be ready for such a post-idealistic politics we should overcome just one thing: the fear of fear. And its denial. Fear is real. As well as bad things. Let’s not clothe them in the solemn, metaphysical concept of evil. It makes us too easily forget those who are hurt by them. The ones that we should mourn, as well as the ones we should – now – try to protect. Only by accepting that the bad things are always already happening, and that we are inevitably involved in them, can we avoid the false consciousness we create when condemning certain acts as ‘evil’. And avoid perjury a little more.

  1. onesis said:

    Angela, this is a very interesting and provocative post. I want to ask you, given your argument that speaking of evil is too “metaphysical”: How then would you respond to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”?

  2. Hello David, thanks for the nice comment! If you type ‘Arendt’ in the search box on the blog you will find I wrote many times on Arendt and evil. I think she gave an important contribution to thinking through the dangers of bureaucracies (coming close there to Foucault’s work on systems of power) – but I think she misjudged Eichmann (as Renina Stangneth has shown in her book Eichmann before Jerusalem). Arendt’s position has been a bone of contention since she wrote that book – but I think not for the right reasons always. We still need a truly philosophical analysis of her work and personal standpoints.

    • onesis said:

      Yes, thank you, Angela, I have read several of your postings on Arendt. I am personally on the track of finding “a truly philosophical analysis of her work and personal standpoints”. I do not think that she would have regarded evil as existing in any metaphysical sense. The most she claimed (as far as I can see) is that she regarded it as an absence of good, not as having its own peculiar identity or character. Hence (in my view) her judgement on Eichmann was of a person who lacked the proper development of moral character. His “evil” was based in thoughtlessness (which in the Socratic meaning that Arendt gave this, is an absence of an internal dialogue signifying an active conscience). Now, even if bureaucracies promote such thoughtlessness in those who operate under their systems of government (which no doubt they do) this happens everywhere and in all locations, and not just in those countries designated as “evil” (e.g, in the phrase “axis of evil”) by certain select nations. Evil as an absence of good is everywhere such thoughtlessness occurs. It would be a great pity not to be able to continue to explore these themes, just because the term has been tarnished by those who give it a particular metaphysical rendition.

      • You are right, I would never want to dismiss an author for using a term which in itself is problematic. That would be the end of thinking! I remember her writing his evil consisted in ‘his inability to think, that is – to think from the standpoint of someone else.’ This ‘internal dialogue’ means having the true insight into the plurality of being human. Actually she already dethroned ‘evil’ from its metaphysical meaning. That was one of the reasons why many thought her work hard to swallow. For it had to lead to the conclusion that the crimes of the nazi’s were in fact more ‘normal’ than one would like to think…

      • onesis said:

        Thank you Angela. I appreciate having the discussion.

  3. Waseem Ahmed said:

    The problem with contemporary philosophers and those of antiquity is that they refuse to settle/surrender, even to their own philosophies, let alone others. Philosophies grow out of prophecies and so the philosophers should, at least, give due credit to the Prophets of God for receiving/conveying divine knowledge and should revere it as the mother of their philosophies.

    Because how can you justifiably deny that from which you have extracted something which holds some value, at least, in your own eyes.

    • Waseem, thanks for your comment. Spinoza was actually the one modern philosopher who did write extensively on the meaning of revelation and of the words of the Prophets with respect to human knowledge! If you want to look into that, you could read his Theological-Political Treatise.

      • onesis said:

        I’d like to enter the conversation with Waseem too, if I may, without taking away from the fact that this is Angela’s blog. It is undeniable that prophets and prophetic worldviews came before philosophy as it began to be written down in the west, starting with the pre-Socratics (eg Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, among others, and then Plato and Aristotle and those following.) These philosophers have continued to influence philosophical dialogue within and between the various strands of prophetic religion. The prophetic worldviews continue to have a direct influence, particularly if one considers the writings of hermeneutical phenomenology. So to accuse philosophers who follow in those footsteps, that they “refuse to settle/surrender” seems somewhat misinformed. There is of course a complete break with the prophetic tradition in quantitative modern science, which relies exclusively on empirical methods involving direct observation. Perhaps Waseem might be best advised to direct his critique in that direction.

  4. Susmita Dasgupta said:

    very interesting because a major difference between the Western Philosophy and the Hindu is the absence of evil in the latter. This absence of an evil creates a system of thought which is dialectical and often tautological as abstract “proofs” and not related to external objects. I have to read Ethics again actually in this new light.

    • Thanks, Susmita Dasgupta, for this comment. As I have not studied Hindu Philosophy, this adds interestingly to the subject. In his Ethics Spinoza is very explicit that evil is not real in the sense that it depends from human valuations – it is not part of nature. I would add: for our perspectived human lives it is important of course, but in this blog the perspective is the relation between politics and the personal life. And how politics can devour our personal lives by using a word such as evil to lead us.

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