Reflection and evil

“What attracts men to evil acts is not the evil in them, but the good that is there, seen under a false aspect and with a distorted perspective. The good seen from that angle is only the bait in a trap. When you reach out to take it, the trap is sprung and you are left with disgust, boredom – and hatred. Sinners are people who hate everything, because their world is necessarily full of betrayal, full of illusion, full of deception. And the greatest sinners are the most boring people in the world, because they are also the most bored, and the ones who find life most tedious. When they try to cover the tedium of life with noise, excitement, and violence – the inevitable fruits of a life devoted to the love of values that do not exist – they become something more than boring, they are the scourges of the world…” – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Merton’s right. He’s really just echoing Augustine, who first noticed (to my knowledge) what I remember concluding one day in my dad’s dented, smoke-stained red truck as we headed toward another night of tense quiet – that badness is just the absence of goodness. It sounds much more profound, much more like a discovery, when Augustine said it (which shows that poetic skill is often all that separates children from great philosophers).

The revelation does mean something though. It’s worth some consideration, for we all, from time to time, more often than we like to think, and more often than we realize, find ourselves clenching our teeth after the trap snaps shut on us, leaving us empty-handed, or with hands full of filth after some ill attempt at getting a bit of happiness through wickedness, or meanness, or selfishness. And this sick feeling of disappointment and disgust with ourselves is just that contrast between the good we sough and the filth we procured in the seeking. It’s the realization of this contrast that gives rise to our own self-revulsion, our guilt, and it leaves us with just a few options to go on with: we can put our clothes back on, resolved not to compromise again, not to fudge the boundaries and do the bad thing, holding to our conviction that this was not the right way, or we can choose to continue as we have, numbing our sense of shame and nausea little by little with each repeated infraction. If we are heady enough, we might even call this enlightenment – emancipation from the puritanical values thrust upon us from some dark age, which still inflict us with the pins and needles of some long-amputated appendage still trying to wake.

This second path is possible. We’ve taken it already in a thousand ways, numbing our horror with joking, with art, with tightened jowls, and we can continue, continue on forever until we are as hollow and pleasantly numb as we long to be when we are committing evil, because this is just the desire of the person in the act – that their soul would quell its disgust, or at least quiet its cries of revulsion so that we may continue toward pleasure – a real good – via some dark and destructive route. This amounts to nothing more than a ceasing of reflection. This numbing, this deadening, is not the deadening of the soul that apprehends the moral character of our acts, but is rather the deadening of the mind that sees, quietly, without thesis or elaboration at times, the destruction ahead.

Let’s not go that way. – What then? Merton does not admit here that the wicked could ever escape their boredom, but in the way mentioned above they can. He is simply to hopeful that people either won’t or can’t stop reflecting. But we have. And this is the road to evil. Without our own evaluation of our acts, with the possibility in mind that we might ruin ourselves or others, we will be totally unchained, completely animal.

This is why it’s worth reading, learning, philosophizing. Not because you might win Jeopardy, or score well on whatever ill-conceived standardized test you’ll have to take to do something even more tedious and itself devoid of value. We learn so that we might have categories, instances, examples, and estimates with which to reflect on our own lives. If we don’t have this, we will live as stupidly and ungladly as tyrants.

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