Thursday, June 02, 2005

Great Selchie of Shule Skerry: Part 2

The problem with discerning evil begins with the problem of defining evil. It is essentially a moral proposition: evil is that which is not good. But this is not an essentially ethical proposition, at least not in the Western sense, where "ethics" comes from Aristotle's use of the term to describe the habits a member of a community should cultivate in order to achieve a "good" life ("good, " for Aristotle, being essentially one lived happily within a community, and through which one obtains all the benefits of that community). The word Aristotle used, "ethos," meant simply custom or habit. It did not convey the meaning of a systematic order of principles of behavior that it does today, and it certainly did not posit a state of opposition between "good" and "evil." That position, at least as understood in Western culture, as actually more Persian. We get the idea of good v. evil most directly from the Zoroastrians.

It really isn't even a concept in the Bible. God faces no opposition in Creation, or even in the Garden of Eden. It is Milton who later imagines Satan in possession of the snake. Satan has no place in the Hebrew Scriptures except in Job, and there he is merely the first "devil's advocate," providing a literary figure to pose challenges to God, but entirely without authority of his own. Satan reappears in "Q" for the temptations in the wilderness (he does not appear there in Mark, and John has no temptation scene at all). But the idea that God is not the only power on earth is distinctly non-Hebraic. So the idea of evil as a power, is a later Christian rendition, drawn from many sources, not the least of which is the Hellenistic idea that all creation is founded on chaos, which chaos will rule again if it is not actively, and ceaselessly, opposed.

But I digress.

The "problem of evil," then, is a creation of conflicting understandings. For the Hebrews, all things come from God. For the Greeks, all things come from human effort, and the caprice of the Gods (sometimes good; usually bad). The good stuff usually comes from human effort (see Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics). But that's really one question; the other one is, "what is evil?" How do we define it?

Definition, in part, is of course a matter of drawing boundaries, and boundaries are important definers not only of ideas, but of who we are. And defining "evil" allows us to extirpate it from ourselves. After all, I may not be good, but I am surely not "evil." "Evil" is an extreme, even an active thing, a malice that seeks destruction, the "power that seeks my life." But the predator seeks the life of the prey, and we no longer see that as evil, but simply as the balance of nature. Without predators the prey, from insects to deer, soon overrun their corner of the ecosphere. Predators are not evil, they are necessary.

People are evil, because they act out of motivations, because they act on free will. But to the extent that will is inhibited, is not under the control of the "self," (we can leave the establishment of the "self" in Western civilization for another day), we mitigate the punishment, the responsibility, for certain actions. As the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed yesterday, mens rea (a criminally culpable state of mind) is still a necessary part of our criminal law. In fact we get into trouble when we attach the word "evil" to people. It allows us to denigrate them, degrade them, de-humanize them, and then we are free to be evil, too, in the name of opposing evil.

Which is precisely why Jesus tells his disciples: "Love your enemy."

But isn't there evil in the world? If not human, then biological? Cancer, AIDS, bacteria, viruses, earthquakes, famine, flood, fire?

Evil is, first, a moral standard. Evil is not even understandable as a concept outside of some moral system, some moral framework. That framework may indeed be applicable to the world as a whole, but you first have to recognize what you are doing; you first have to take responsibility, as Sartre pointed out, for making that application, that system, universal. And then you have to consider whether or not that system, that standard of measure, has legitimate application to the cosmos as a whole, whether it applies in the truest sense of the word, "universally."

Tekn out of its moral context, but still retianing its moral overtones, "evil," we might agree, is at least that which will kill me, which seeks my life, whether maliciously or simply by its nature. Disease, virus, bacteria, cancer, psycopaths and murderers: all evil. But then is the gunner evil? The Selchie pronounces him good. (That line is so sharp the irony would cut your throat if you moved wrong.) The Selchie pronounces him good, and we can take it in a moral sense (he is a "good man"), a social sense, a professional sense (he is a "good gunner"). And yet he will kill, intentionally, the son and the Great Selchie. He will be a murderer, an intentional taker of life, of life as connected to human life as any life can be, because this animal, like us, can speak.

And yet, will that be evil? The Selchie doesn't think so. The Selchie thinks merely that is fate. This is the very definition of fatalism, the very root of the idea: not that death is to be embraced and welcomed, but that death is inevitable. Beowulf similarly faced death, accepting that his fate as a mortal was to die, and the only control he had was how to face that fate. The Selchie not only faces it, he knows precisely when it will happen, and knows long before, when it will happen. He knows his connection to the humans who hunt the selchies, and he accepts it. Indeed, what else can he do? It is not good; it is not evil; it is fate.

I was considering this again last night, trying to teach the rudiments of deductive reasoning to a writing class. I lean heavily on the syllogism chestnut of "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal," and it suddenly occured to me how this worked as a piece of deductive reasoning. Mortality is proven by death, not by living. In the purest sense, we are none of us proven mortal until we die. We assume our mortality because of the syllogism; because everyone we know, and have known, and will know, have proven mortal. But we still have trouble accepting that we will die. As Derrida puts the question: "My death. Is it possible?" Even if we accept that it is, we still can't quite imagine what our death is; we still can't put ourselves in that place where the end might simply be blankness, non-existence, no-longer-me. We function in terms of the syllogism: since everyone else is mortal, we must be, too. But until that is proven true, we don't really know, and we don't really quite accept it.

The Selchie accepts it, which, in terms of the moral universe of the song, if not the moral reality which created it, is wisdom. But this wisdom leaves us with unanswered questions: is that all there is? Is good only definable by its shadow, its opposite? Is there ever an absolute absence of good, which absence has a presence and can be defined as "evil"? Or does good stand alone; and what would that look like?

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