I recently read this piece on The New York Review of Books website about poet W.H. Auden. I’ve never read any of Auden’s work, nor had I even heard of him prior to reading this piece, upon which I came in quite a roundabout fashion.
Although the entire piece is recommended, I wanted to focus on one passage that highlights some of Auden’s thoughts on the nature of evil.
By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.
On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.
My wife often says to me, “you’re a good person,” or “you’re a good father.” My response is usually troubling for her: “No. I’m okay, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a good person.” I don’t know that I’ve ever really been able to clearly articulate to her why I feel the way that I do – why I feel that I am probably okay, but that I would hesitate to pat myself on the back and think of myself as “good”.
But this piece and this passage excellently express why I feel the way that I do. I’m not a “good person” who can divide the world into good people and bad people. I’m just a person who generally makes good decisions, but I can have (and have had) terrible thoughts and emotions and urges, and I occasionally make bad, or even hurtful, decisions. Labeling me as “good” implies that I have achieved a certain status via my past actions or decisions and that, once in that box, I have “made it.” I have arrived. I. AM. GOOD. [echoing].
That’s just not the case. And it’s not the case with others, either. If you ever watch a movie, particularly children’s movies, you may be struck that the “bad guy” always announces himself as such, or it is somehow otherwise easy to spot the villain. This is not how it is in real life, and it is surprising to me to see adults, particularly the talking heads on TV and in positions of power, assume the same simplistic view of good and evil.
Real evil, if there is such a thing, doesn’t announce it itself. It is something of which we are all very capable. It is probably something that we would attempt to justify or clothe in gentler robes. The reason real evil becomes hard to spot or that it can be justified is because there are truly very few things, if any, that are “pure evil.” Even taking a human life, typically the most taboo or “evil” action that a person can take, can be labeled either good or evil depending on the identities of the victim and the perpetrator, the context and even the audience.