It is impossible to exterminate evil, but it is possible to restrain and challenge it. As political movements rely on cartoonish and simplistic concepts of evil, as evident in the clickbait headlines during Trump’s presidency, it is imperative to develop a mature and realistic understanding of how evil works. By doing this, an individual avoids further hurt and suffering
A writer who understood this is the Noble laurate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Out of all the quotes in his masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago, one is frequently cited: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The Russian author is correct to warn about the dangers of simplistic morality as well as man’s capacity for both good and evil. However, his thesis proves controversial. Progressive movements, such as Black Lives Matter promise equality, happiness and justice – three things no society has ever truly delivered. When politicians, activists and revolutionaries have tried to establish a utopia, the results are catastrophic – the most notable being the French Revolution, which was swiftly followed by a Reign of Terror.
The future, like the present and past, has difference, strife and injustice. Of course, it is worthy to consider how to improve the lives of others. However, this is not achieved through vague statements such as ‘imagine no police and borders’ or ‘get more women into STEM.’ Such bold language may win over donors, voters and consumers, but they won’t improve the quality of an individual’s life. Revolutionary rhetoric doesn’t work, either. This is because it is impossible to eliminate suffering from the world or an individual. One of the key principles of the Soviet Union was a simplistic mindset about hardship and evil.
Leon Trotsky argued: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.” Trotsky’s logic is faulty for one key reason: it is possible, even desirable, to enjoy life to its fullest even while acknowledging evil, oppression and violence. A happy, enjoyable life is still possible even under Solzhenitsyn’s thesis. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, there was no encouragement to discover meaning or catharsis through hardship. ‘Revolution’ is meant to exterminate life’s pain points: death, tragedy, unfairness, corruption and malice.
A focal point of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was the demeaning of others to lift up allies and fellow comrades. If Chairman Mao assigns evil to his enemies, he will likely do the reverse to himself. Although this is reprehensible, it is politically useful to do this. It also satisfies our human instincts to experience righteousness and to distribute judgement.
Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy on evil is unsettling, because it’s gruelling to confess your faults, especially those causing harm and will continue to do so. When compared to the optimistic messaging of eliminating evil as sprouted by communists, Solzhenitsyn’s thesis is not attractive. Although Solzhenitsyn does not endorse this line of reasoning, one may feel passive and powerless in the face of wickedness, as they can’t stop evil. However, as pointed out by the Russian author, you can weaken evil.
The Soviet Union had their own philosophy regarding evil – to assign it to political dissidents, foreigners, so-called capitalists and the bourgeois. However, the Soviet Union struggled to build an image of goodness, as citizens faced warfare, persecution, paranoia and hunger. When considering the root cause of childish perceptions on evil, it relates the basic wish that the future will not be like the present. Although it’s easy, and tempting, to lecture progressives and utopian-minded individuals the flaws in their vision for the future, there is nothing wrong with wanting to constrain evil or suffering. The problem arises when bold promises are made of a world, or group of individuals, without misery and wickedness. Progressive groups cannot fulfill their commitment of this. It’s impossible and not even desirable.
Goodness means less if evil cannot exist. All powerful moments of goodness in literature, theology and history occur because of an already present evil. In Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov’s goodness is significant because he didn’t always choose it. Both Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky are careful to not confuse morality with purity. The latter is impossible, as every man presents flaws and weaknesses. However, an individual can achieve a level virtue and live by a well-defined moral foundation.
Solzhenitsyn, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, described religion as dealing with ‘the evil inside a human being.’ Religion, according to Solzhenitsyn, is the natural response to man’s both good and evil nature. No one is exempt from this. Therefore, evil lurks in every utopia or a society deemed desirable. Progressive movements are not immune to evil and neither is religion. But maybe, as Solzhenitsyn suggests, we constrain evil or at least tame it.