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Evil

This chapter offers no simple answers to the problem of evil, or even a comprehensive definition for the word. But the range of viewpoints might help to clarify the issue so that we can each make our own conclusions.

Jump to the following topics:

  1. What is evil?  
  2. "Moral evil" and "natural evil."  
  3. We can consider various viewpoints regarding evil.   


What is evil? The definition will be pursued throughout the chapter, but we will start with a few concepts. "Evil" can be viewed as anything which inflicts pain or death, or which obstructs life's freedom, expression, or the resources needed for its sustenance. Some forms of evil include murder, war, poverty, famine, terrorism, obstruction of human rights, rape, racism, sexism, crime, violence, and the many forms of abuse and cruelty.


"Moral evil" and "natural evil." Moral evil is commonly called the human act of "sin," which is reviewed later. Natural evil includes death and illness, and "acts of nature" such as tornadoes, drought, volcanoes, and floods. Although Saint Augustine said that natural evil is caused by the devil, these phenomena might be viewed as simply the innate activities of the planet, and the normal progression of growth and decay and cessation, and Darwinian selection via "survival of the fittest," and the results of the laws of physics -- although we might imagine a world in which the laws of physics don't precipitate such destruction. Natural evil might seem to be random and unavoidable, but some of its resulting human misery can be avoided if, for example, we assume more responsibility for our physical health, and we don't build homes in flood planes, and we develop the type of "sixth sense" or inner guidance which tells animals of impending earthquakes, and if our "karma" does not require us to be involved in the disasters.


We can consider various viewpoints regarding evil. These viewpoints -- some conflicting with others -- can be reviewed as we formulate our own perspective:

  1. Evil is merely the absence of good. The privatio boni concept denies the existence of evil as an active force in its own right. From this perspective, evil vanishes when the thing is restored to its ideal state, in the same way that darkness "vanishes" when we turn on a lightbulb. The basic concept of privatio boni is upheld by certain "New Thought" churches such as Religious Science, but it was rejected by Jung, as explained in the next section.
  2. Evil exists only in relation to good. Jung discarded privatio boni with the logical argument that if "good" is real, its opposite must also be real, with the same "relative" reality of any pairs of opposites, such as left and right, or white and black. Buddhism and Hinduism refer to this fundamental condition of the universe as "duality"; good does not exist except in relation to evil, just as the word "up" has no meaning without the notion of the word "down." Taoism offers the idea that the tao is a balanced state in which neither good nor evil exist; it is only when we become aware of "good" that we must also simultaneously become aware of "evil."
  3. Evil is a distortion of natural affairs. From this perspective, evil actions have their basis in normal psychological drives and "positive intent"; for example, underlying a murder might be the killer's desire for self-esteem. Obviously, such explanations sound ludicrous, but they do so only if we retain our emotional response of horror or disgust; if we strip away that response, we can discern a positive intent within all evil actions. (There is a saying, "No one does an evil act believing it to be evil.") Buddhism approaches this issue with the idea that evil is actually "unskillful action" resulting from ignorance; in that example, the killer was unskillful in his or her attempt to establish self-esteem. (Plato, too, said that evil arises from ignorance.) Distortions can be detected in many so-called sins; lust might be considered a distortion of love or interpersonal attraction, and greed is a distortion of the drive to acquire the necessary materials for life. The concepts of unskillfulness and ignorance (rather than sinfulness) grant us an opportunity to try again without an undue sense of guilt.
  4. Evil occurrences are the result of our karma. For most people, this position is difficult to accept, because it states that we are responsible for every unpleasant situation in our lives. However, the concept of karma is useful in explaining the apparently unjust suffering which results from "random violence" (from nature or from people), and babies born with birth defects. The other difficulty in agreeing with this theory is that we might feel that the self-created "victims" are not entitled to assistance (and some people truly need to be left alone to endure their own trials); however, service to other people can be rightly considered an expression of divine love and compassion, and a natural human impulse to help those people, and a way to create "good karma" for ourselves -- although, if we interfere in situations where the people do need to experience the trials, we literally "take on their karma," and we will be put into a situation where we must go through the same ordeal which we took from them.
  5. Evil is the work of the devil. In this scenario, evil is a religious problem, not one which can be confronted effectively solved through psychology, social reform, or political action. We are dealing with a conscious entity which exists outside of the human realm and is therefore distanced from any human effort to stop evil at its source.
  6. Evil is a psychiatric disorder. During medieval times, mental illness was generally considered to be a form of "demon possession," to be treated by priests and their exorcisms. With the development of the secular science of psychology, "the devil" and "evil" were discarded as relics of an age of superstition. (However, Jung apparently put the real responsibility back on religion when he criticized it for failing to solve the problem of evil and leaving the task to psychology.) In People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck, M.D., said, "Most psychologists have dismissed the concept of evil as a metaphysical abstraction, preferring to work with other abstractions such as the social concept of violence or the psychological concept of aggression. Recently, however, some psychologists have begun to think that a concept akin to the old concept of evil is necessary in order to describe the phenomena they encounter. Certain personalities are so completely founded upon lies and self-deception that traditional sociological and psychological remedies have no effect." ... He continued, "... the time is right, I believe, for psychiatry to recognize a distinct new type of personality disorder to encompass those I have named evil. In addition to the abrogation of responsibility that characterizes all personality disorders, this one would be distinguished by: (1) Consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior. ... (2) Excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury. (3) Pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability, contributing to a stability of life-style but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives. (4) Intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of a mild schizophrenic disturbance of thinking at times of stress." (Copyright 1983 by M. Scott Peck, M.D.)
  7. Evil is "whatever we don't like." This is a reaction of feeling; for example, we observe a crime, and we feel that it is evil. Or we sense an evil quality in a person. Or, when we discern the difference between what we want and what we have, the resulting emotion (such as anger or fear) draws us to judge the condition as evil. These responses are independent of any intellectual analysis, or any referral to laws (manmade or religious).
  8. Evil is a matter of perspective in a conflict. This is similar to the previous viewpoint, except that it can be based on a rational assessment rather than a feeling. This relativistic view declares that good and evil are not absolute values but instead depend upon the relative position of the winner or loser. For example, (1) In a war, the outcome is judged "good" by the victor and "bad" by the vanquished; (2) A fisherman has a "good" day if the fish have a "bad" day; (3) The human mind might discern a loss while the soul discerns a gain -- a lesson learned, or karma resolved. Historian William Branden described an incident which could be considered either an "act of God" or a devilish tragedy when he wrote about an epidemic that devastated New England's Native American population just prior to the landing of the Pilgrims: "The Churchly colonists exulted, with reverence, over the frightful epidemic of 1616-1619 that had cleared so many heathen from the path of the Chosen People."
  9. Evil is a matter of our own thoughts. The previous viewpoint is determined by the position of the winner or loser; this viewpoint considers that we make a similar appraisal within our own minds. As Hamlet said, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." We can select our perspective regarding any situation; for example, when we are confronted by a creditor and forced to pay a debt, we might indulge our anger at having to spend the money, or we might decide to feel relief in settling the account.
  10. Evil and good are a matter of degree. In the last example, we are more likely to have "mixed feelings" of both anger and relief, both happiness and sadness. This mixture occurs not only within ourselves, but also in the social scope of any event; whereas viewpoint #8 examined good and evil from the individuals' perspectives (where the distinction was more clear), viewpoint #10 looks at the whole picture and sees both the "good" of the Pilgrim's fate and the "evil" of the Native Americans' fate. Everything contains some good and some bad; this truth is depicted in the yin-yang symbol which contains a spot of white within the black area, and a spot of black within the white area.
  11. Evil is whatever violates religious laws. This is the claim of any religion which attempts to crystallize spiritual principles and values into religious laws and commandments.
  12. Evil is an archetype. As such, it is the neutral expression of an unavoidable facet of life. Just as all archetypes demand expression, Evil and its inherent urge for destruction bursts into expression from time to time.
  13. Evil is a part of the plan for our growth. The growth toward consciousness is painful, so it must be prodded by the greater pain of our encounters with frustrations, challenges, and suffering -- the situations which we might call "evil." When our environment causes discomfort, we are forced to differentiate ourselves from that environment (in a process which is analogous to a child's ego-building process), by defining our own identity, needs, and desires. To win these struggles, we must also develop our strength, intellect and knowledge, creativity, awareness and alertness, will, and independence and interdependence. Seen in a religious context, evil compels us to build qualities such as humility (in confrontation with both gods and demons which could destroy us), love and compassion (as we help others who have been injured by evil), morality (as we decide how to fight our battles), a congizance of the presence of God (when we pray for help against evil), and a realization that our purpose in life might be to fulfill a transcendent spiritual destiny rather than to enmesh ourselves with the relentless evils which arise in our mere attempt to collect material baubles. However, to follow the analogy of "a fall" as an awakening from childhood, we might foresee a cultural "midlife" when that which we have called "evil" (like the shadow at midlife) is re-examined, reconciled, and brought back into humanity's wholeness.
  14. Evil is the expression of the Jungian "shadow." The contents of the shadow might assume a sinister nature. One reason is because we are directing our anger and fear toward them (in us or in projections); then, what we are seeing is our own anger and fear rather than the contents themselves. Some of the apparently "evil" texture occurs because, as mentioned previously, the contents are undeveloped; rage seems more evil than simple anger. (As Jung said, "... the shadow is merely something inferior, primitive, unadapted, and awkward; not wholly bad.") If our ego associates itself with the qualities of decent behavior, the shadow naturally (and somewhat innocently) becomes the repository of our potential for murder, greed, jealousy, and all other socially unacceptable potentials. Some people fear the shadow's elements because they feel that those elements must be acted out and accepted into the self-image; however, a natural impulse to punch an abusive person, for example, can be suppressed (acknowledged but not enacted), and it does not make us a "bad person." Obviously the shadow itself is not evil; it also contains our "golden" elements -- and even the ghastly elements have a functional quality (beneath their grime) which they can add to our wholeness. The dynamics of our relationship with the shadow can give us insight into the dynamics of our relationship with evil; refer to that chapter. (Jung said that evil can be "integrated" by becoming conscious of it through a "symbolic process which is more or less identical with the psychological process of individuation".) If we simply acknowledge the innate human capacity to do evil in the affronts (big and small) which are committed by ourselves and others, our shadow is allowed to "breathe" and it does not fester into an explosive, hellish force.
  15. Evil is the result of spiritual "ignorance." In this theory, evil acts would no longer be committed when a person gains a sense of spiritual oneness (in which a harmful action would be seen as an action against oneself) and spiritual love (in which we experience the underlying force of the universe as one which grants love to all).

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