Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Good understands evil, but evil cannot understand good. It is an important theme in Tolkien (Gandalf’s explanation of Sauron’s expecting his enemies to do with the ring what he would do) and Lewis (the Dwarves in The Last Battle. Sadly, we also watch Susan go downhill in this way in the first two books, able to interpret Lucy’s actions only in terms of her own self-centeredness). It’s a fantasy standard, but not only fantasy: Chesterton’s Father Brown makes the claim explicitly in a few places, and it is the Harkonnen weakness in Dune.

But these are author-created. Do the authors reflect reality, or are they making characters conform to their beliefs? We see the idea in scripture, John 1:5,
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
but a critic could claim that is equally a put-up job. (Not all critics, would, BTW. There are nonbelievers who might grant that this is precisely the sort of thing the Bible does get right, without signing on to any more of it.)

I think we see it pretty clearly in international relations. Morris Childs, an American ex-communist who frequently visited the Kremlin and was trusted by the Politburo(Operation Solo), found that he had to spend most of his time in later years convincing the Soviets that the US was not preparing an imminent attack just because we had strategic advantage. That America might prefer to be left alone to engage in trade, rather than the headache of governing other countries, was beyond their comprehension. It’s hard to understand the behavior of Palestinians and half the Middle-East in terms other than a blindness that prevents them from considering another attitude to outsiders is even possible.

With a little imagination, most of us can carry this down to smaller groups (our own politicians, particular industries, local disputes) even to an individual level. But does that flow only one way? Might it not also be that good people do not understand evil ones? Such characters certainly show up in literature and popular perception – innocents who are so well-meaning that they trust the untrustworthy, believing them as kind as themselves.

We could get into the questions of morality that result, of the damage that the Neville Chamberlains of the world cause to innocents by failing to appreciate evil, but I would first like to go at the question of ability to understand evil. Could Chamberlain essentially understand that someone might be so evil as Hitler turned out to be, but only deluded himself otherwise – or was NC foundationally unable to even understand the depths of Stalin’s or Hitler’s psychopathology?

I know nice people taken advantage of by the selfish, or even deeply evil. Is their innocence real, or a self-deluding convenience, swayed by a pretty face or glib tongue? Perhaps I am asking the larger moral questions. Do we always let ourselves be fooled?


Ymar said...

If they are truly good people, then it might be possible. If they are Leftists, then no. That's a self deception ploy. They ally with Islamic Jihad not because they misunderstand the jihad intention, but because their methods align, even if their goals diverge.

james said...

Wrt blindness in the MidEast; we seem to have some institutional blinders of our own. The revolt in Egypt kept getting tinted as a Facebook revolt of the freedom-loving youth, and how were the rest of us supposed to know better?

Good doesn't automatically understand evil--we're called to be "as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves," reminding us that understanding needs a little effort. But I like the phrase "Sin makes you stupid."

Sam L. said...

Well, james, my touchstone is this: if the news comes from the NYT,LAT, WaPo, other biggish city newspapers, or major (and minor) networks, I have a healthy skepticism for what they tell me. Many of them have lied to me before.

Texan99 said...

Standing in my enemy's shoes is easier when we share many values but place different priorities on them: for example, I might stress autonomy when my opponent is stressing community. We come to opposite positions, but I can see where he's coming from.

If I run across someone who seems like a pure grifter or manipulator, without a perceptible code or conscience, it's much harder for me to get in his head. All I can do is try to fence him off from anything that matters to me. But it seems to me that I'm not incapable of recognizing what he is, once he demonstrates it a couple of times.

I guess in between is tougher: someone who shares a few of my values, a person about whom you can say there's really someone home inside, but whose approach repels me in some important ways. I'm perplexed and dismayed, not wanting to fight all the time but not being able to understand or trust him either.

I'd like to think that if I were Chamberlain, I'd put Hitler in the second category.

Jan said...

If the Soviets were incapable of understanding us, than I don't see it as too much of a stretch to imagine that Chamberlain wasn't capable of understanding Hitler. There does seem to be that element in a lot of people, even intelligent ones, that cannot grasp that other people's motivations (good or bad) might be different from their own.

What's source of that inability and what to do about it... that I don't know.

Anonymous said...

So good is provincial, able to understand easily that which only like itself? Or is evil, too, provincial? Or is simply that people are provincial, know the familiar, and that it's hard work and sometimes impossible to understand other people and other times?

Brent said...

Well, we have it on good authority that evil may be hard to spot. The devil himself has appeared as an angel of light.

At the same time some "good people" are esconced in a cozy cocoon of composed of equal parts uncritical self-regard and wilfully wrong-headed idealism. It may be hard to acknowledge, much less recognize and confront evil in others for those who can't or won't see evil in themselves.

Der Hahn said...

I think the difficulty with using the Hitler-Chamberlin analogy is attempting to devine how another political leader *in 1938* would view Hitler because we're looking at situation through a post-1945 lens. Did Hitler actually appear that intrinsicly evil in 1938? There's a lot of evidence that people didn't think about him in that way pre-1939. (Those directly impacted by the Nazi pogroms had reason to, and did.) I'm reminded of your post about Chesterton and the casual use of anti-Semetic language in his writing. It's possible that people accepted Hitler's demonization of the Jews as nothing more than political hyperbole.

My guess is that even if Chamberlin thought Hitler was a scoundrel he had reason to believe that he at least a rational scoundrel, much the same way we were able to deal with the Soviets, still deal with the Chinese, but find Kim Il Jong's North Korea a harder nut to crack.

Britain's military weakness between the wars probably played a role as well. It constrained Chamberlin's options. It may also, a bit paradoxially, have caused him to assume that if Germany's rearmament preceded at the same pace as Britain's but started earlier then Hitler did have the stronger military when in fact he didn't.