Why does evil exist? That is the question of Western theologians, who refer to it as “the problem of evil.” A second question often comes along for the ride: Can evil be eradicated completely?
One of the benefits of having counseled batterers, murderers, rapists, and the occasional gangster and hitman for six years—all this after growing up in a violent household—is an education in the psychology of evil. I supplemented it by reading widely in folklore, especially folktales, fairytales, and myths. Many deal plainly with evil.
The “problem” of evil arises as a shadow (as Jung pointed out in Answer to Job) of the notion of an all-good God. It’s a bit like pouring olive oil into your palm and then facing the “problem” of turning a stiff doorknob: how you start is the problem. Walking into a sterilized room with muddy feet leaves tracks. So does positing a clean universe authored by a perfect being. The sterility invites the mud.
Living mythologies—that is, mythologies not stiffened into zombies by being hardened into ideologies—contain no perfect beings. Creators are apt to make a universe by spitting, weeping, menstruating, or ejaculating. Trickster gods joke Being into being. No problem there, just a lot to laugh about, and plenty of room to play.
Nietzsche wrote that we are most apt to be struck by a carriage just after having narrowly avoided one. Having made the all-good God problematic, Jung fell into a theological hole by regarding evil as archetypal, “the shadow of the Self.” Evil for Jung is still a primal opposite, still a substance. Instead of the devil, the archetype made me do it.
When we deal with evil in the abstract like this, we conflate two dynamisms, only one of which should be called “evil” in the sense of going out of our way to inflict deliberate harm. And it’s not archetypal or substantial.
As The Gospel of Mary Magdalene opens, Peter is asking Jesus about the nature of sin. Jesus’s reply confuses Peter: sin, explains the Teacher, is relational. “…It is you who make sin,” and in doing so, we get sick and die in spirit.
Evil as a purposive act of domination, diminishment, or harm is something we know we do, from the everyday meanness of malicious gossip to bloody homicide to calculated genocide. In the men’s groups we confronted clients with their accountability: “You say you can’t control your outbursts of rage at your wife? Yet you don’t rage at your boss. Clearly, you’re making a choice.” We often do not know the wounds that drive our evil actions, but we certainly know we commit them. Many are deliberately retaliatory: pain inflicted for some past humiliation.
I have known gangsters who wear rubber gloves to tear open the faces of the victims they beat; sadistic fathers who humiliate their children at home and in public; office gossips skilled at character assassination; rapists who go from woman to woman until, finally, incarcerated. Bosses who scream at underlings forced by the chains of a paycheck to sit silently and take it. Lovers who spend years sucking the vitality out of a partner’s undermined self-esteem. These and other acts intended to destroy not only body but soul and spirit deserve to be called evil. They vary mainly in degree.
Evil, then, is a harm-causing mishandling of human freedom, a choice to attack the very selfhood of someone objectified and degraded as Other than oneself. It is relational. It is not archetypal. Evil exists because some of us would rather hurt each other than grow up enough to manage our emotional injuries.
However, if the archetype doesn’t make me do it, where does the archetypal dimension come in?
To commit evil is to fall into possession by an archetypal role. The Trickster President who lies repeatedly to an entire nation, the Hades banker who secretly steals the life savings of millions of working people, the dictator who takes on the aspect of the Fenris Wolf and triggers a Ragnarok of mass murder, and the self-righteous ideologue who punishes opponents under the proud banner of Justice all suffer, however different their values, from the same infirmity: loss of humanity. Those who do evil parody the worst in the wayward gods robbed of their altars by mechanistic Modernity. Where personhood bows to evil, the daimonic turns demonic. Or as Novalis wrote: Where there are no gods, the phantoms reign. By doing evil, we enthrone them.
Evil occurs when, faced with the rearousal of an unhealed emotional wound, we act it out against someone, Iago-like, instead of making the mature choice to bind up what hurts and move forward. Then the wound cannot heal, we do not grow up, and victims multiply.
Let’s be clear that evil is voluntary; people impelled by organic impairment to inflict harm cannot be held responsible for their actions. They are forced to enact what hides in the shadow of their culture.
A question: Can entire groups be evil? Well, nobody and nothing can “be” evil in the sense that a piece of lead can be metallic. Although the evil behavior of some groups does make it easier to do likewise, especially groups acting out a long-denied and correspondingly potent collective shadow, it’s still a choice. In Milgram’s famous “obedience to authority” experiments, some participants refused to go on administering electric shocks to a supposedly helpless victim even though an authority figure in a white coat told them to. Unlike several past high officials of the American Psychological Association, the refusers possessed a conscience and responded to its promptings.
And so the first dynamic: evil as relational. As for the second:
Even if we bypass the theological question of evil in the world, we are still left trying to understand the sting of injustice when “evil” events befall, especially when the stoicism of writing them off as random provides no solace. If archetypalism cannot explain evil, let alone relieve us of our responsibility for it, might something archetypal peer from behind the apparent unfairnesses we all eventually face?
It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum. Nature also abhors an imbalance, and, if the old stories and new physics be true, will always attempt to correct one. This rebalancing appears to us as the actions of gods in myth and of other supernatural beings in folktales.
The ancient Greeks believed that the goddess Nemesis could rise up to punish those who committed hubris: not just overconfidence, but contempt toward the limitations that come with being human. “Hurrah, boys, now we have them!” boasted George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn before being knocked from his saddle, perhaps by Buffalo Calf Road Woman of the Cheyenne, and killed by the opponents he had so disastrously underestimated. The sinking of the Titanic fits this retributive pattern, with the remains of the ship named after hubristic giants settling in the deeps where Zeus had imprisoned them after their coup against the Olympians.
One of Zeus’s nurses was called Adrasteia, a name also applied to Nemesis as well as to the earthy goddess Rhea. For reasons I won’t go into here, I regard Rhea, mother of the gods, as a personification of the work done by natural forces: the flow and fall of water, the push of the wind, the downhill pull of gravity. Might Justice herself (Justitia, Themis, Athena) be woven into the fabric of the cosmos? Even amoeba exhibit a kinetic sense of fairness.
First of them all came Ananke, Necessity: in Orphic myth a serpentine figure mated to the time god Chronos. As mother of the Fates, Ananke presided over keeping the universal balance, which in antiquity looked like rewards and punishments in Greece and Rome, weird in Scandinavia, karma in India, the Tao in China, and Maat in ancient Egypt. In his book Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener pairs Ananke with causal determinism and Tyche with quantum indeterminacy; but he forgot about tricky Hermes, who rules the capricious subatomic realm.
When things go out of balance, whether planets, people, or photons, Nemesis and her sisters get busy under the watchful eye of Ananke. So do Trickster and Underworld gods, erupting at the most inopportune times from the standpoint of the surprised, but right on Chronos’s schedule from an archetypal point of view.
Even the devil has a place in the maintenance routine of ongoing rebalancing. Whether or not we acknowledge his obvious mythic status as a Trickster, the devil works as an agent of initiation for individuals and cultures alike. Things will go to hell if you allow them to as he assumes shadowy chaotic command of religions, governments, and multinationals that lack the alertness and fortitude to keep him at bay, giving him his due but withholding the keys to the kingdom.
In folktales and fairytales, the devil’s strengthening purpose is even more obvious. We must be brave enough to sweep Hell for him to obtain treasure, or pull out his hairs while he sleeps to gather wisdom. He is the threshold guardian of the Heroic Journey, the temptation of the weak and irresponsible, the grain of sand in the hypnotized eye. Remain childishly innocent and turn your back on him and he will gleefully sink a knife into it. The gift of the devil is shadow vision.
Evil tricksters, clever demons, stern goddesses returning to extract the balance owed: these troubling agents of Ananke keep order in the world.
Which is why we will never rid the world of evil despite all haranguing by polarizing politicians masquerading as pious do-gooders. Evil is a choice, and we cannot eradicate it without doing away with choice. Constant vigilance is the price we must pay for the rights and liberties we still enjoy. Look away for too long and someone heinous will steal them.
Below and behind the human ken, archetypal Necessity holds the worlds in accord however badly her agents maim us until we find the flow and enter in.
Craig Chalquist is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Immanence.