Mini-Feature: Defining Evil

What is your definition of evil?

Evil! Rebellion to God, that is, making God your enemy, whether in matters large or small—although of course small matters in this part of life swiftly grow large.

As opposed to sin, which (as it has grown hard to see in English) is a missing of the mark, a going astray, the errancy to which we are all born and of which we can no more be fully free on this earth than the wheat can be separated from the tares before the harvest.

And what of the desires that tempt us to err or rebel? It would seem that these are, at worst, mistakes, wherein we fail to have known by heart that they lead us astray into rebellion rather than simply lead us on to our worldly target.

But once the teachings that take away our “innocence” have become inescapable, can they still be mistakes? Certainly not honest ones. The biggest hurdle we have to clear today when it comes to evil is accepting the reality that we can do much more than simply harm ourselves, but rather that to ourselves we can do proper evil, making of ourselves vessels or conduits of evil.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


The problem of "evil" has preoccupied much smarter and nicer people than I throughout history, so I don't expect to contribute a lot to the conversation. But I guess you could imagine that the intensity of evil is defined by distance from God--like an inverse-square law, as with gravity. That presents a nice spatial image, and even incorporates the notion of "outer darkness" from the Bible.

But as an argument from definition, it begs the question of "What is 'God?'" We can't just define evil as the absence of non-evil.

Some people like to say that evil is indifference, a kind of selfish apathy about the rest of the world, other people, and even oneself. Laziness certainly feels evil, and so does waste. A child lives in time as though it were limitless, with no consciousness of it as a resource. But as we learn that eternity is really not our medium, we should take a moral lesson that wasting time is among the worst crimes we can commit. As Shakespeare's Richard II realized in jail, "I wasted time, and now time doth waste me."

Of course, this is all talking about spiritual evil, the kinds of sin that worry college professors and other would-be saints. On average, for the purposes of non-philosophical discourse, the question isn't especially hard. For most people, it's pretty easy to identify evil in the form of savage violence, child abuse, or other forms of intentionally inflicted misery.

The thing is, as you get used to the world, it becomes normal to grow accustomed to and accept the presence of evil. You might even say that it's necessary to do so. But, and here we are back to the circular reasoning we started with, you could argue that growing numb to evil is a form of evil itself.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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Evil is hard to define because it is not a thing. That is Augustine’s insight, though his “privation theory” of evil has much in common with similar ideas from Origen, Athanasius, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa. In some ways this was Augustine’s final answer to those Manichaean dualists whom he had repudiated: they thought some things had been created good, and others evil. Augustine thought all good things had been created by one good God: “In this creation, had no one sinned, the world would have been filled and beautified with natures good without exception” (City of God 11.23).

If nothing exists which was designed to fail, it stands to reason that all things which do fail are perverted from their original nature and falling short of it. “All we can do,” laments C.S. Lewis’s devil Screwtape, “is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.” Following Augustine, Lewis represented hell as totally without powers of creation, which come from God. When we sin we do not create: we destroy.

A similar conviction also motivated John Milton to make a point of declaring in Paradise Lost that sex is good. Adam and Eve did get it on in the Garden before they fell, wrote Milton, no matter what “Hypocrites austerely talk / Of purity and place and innocence, / Defaming as impure what God declares / Pure.” (4.744-7). By this rather bold censure of his fellow Puritans, Milton meant to insist that no truly human thing is inherently evil, only mismanaged or degraded. Which does not make the mismanagement any less atrocious: we certainly do terrible things to one another when we allow our sexual appetites to become disordered or even violent. But when we do so we are taking something good—something very good—and twisting or distorting it. That is all evil is, and all it can ever be.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind