The Cartoon World of Good and Evil

by Bob Wallace

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about what he called the Primary World and the Secondary World. The Primary World is the real world, the fallen one in which all of us live. The Secondary World is the world of fiction--of fairy tales, fables, myths, cartoons, comics, of both serious and pop fiction.

In the imaginary Secondary World writers often create characters who are clearly defined as good and evil, especially in children's literature, such as fairy tales. The Good Guys are all good, and the Bad Guys, all bad. These simplistic concepts made it easier for children to understand concepts of good and bad. For adults, it allows an escape from a complex world with many grays into one that is as simply and entertainingly black-and-white as James Bond versus Dr. No.

Often, what makes pop fiction "pop" is the fact the hero is Pure Good and the villain, Pure Evil. Superman is good, Lex Luthor, evil. This splitting of hero and villain into all-good and all-bad exists in just about every one of those modern myths that today we call cartoons and comics. That is more important than it seems, because simple-minded cartoon concepts shouldn't be imposed on real life. Which, unfortunately, is what always happens.

In the real, Primary World, on the other hand, there is no good over here, and evil over there, with a clearly defined line (actually, a huge gap) between them. What we have in reality is a continuum of good to evil. Anne Rice, in her novel Interview with the Vampire, made a telling observation about this continuum: where exactly along it is the point where one can step over and be evil, and then step back and be good again?

Unfortunately, in the past, right now, and in the future, this simplistic, childish, imaginary (and therefore non-existent) map of Pure Good and Pure Evil has been, is now, and will be forever mapped onto the continuum that exists in the real world. The results are always disastrous, because one group is always defining itself, as was done in Get Smart, as CONTROL, and its opponents as KAOS. Is it surprising the group defined as evil also considers itself as good, and names the other group as evil? Each group points fingers at each other and says, "No, you're wrong! I'm good and you're evil!"

The result is that each group, defining itself as good and the other as evil, attempts to destroy each other. What we have is a childish, cartoonish concept of good and evil imposed on the real world. This concept belongs in fiction, in the world of Underdog and Simon bar Sinister, Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash. But not in reality.

For a long time I could not come up with a definition of "evil" that satisfied me. I found hints: the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck called scapegoating "the genesis of human evil." Russell Kirk called the source of evil "the monstrous ego." What they were writing about, I decided, are opposite sides of the same coin.

Peck wrote that scapegoating occurs when we refuse to acknowledge our imperfections and instead project them onto other people. In his book, The People of the Lie, he wrote that scapegoating "works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection...[people] project evil onto the world."

Jung called this projection of our "badness" onto other people the "Shadow." He noted that until we accept it and "absorb" it back into us, it will always cause problems. A case in point: in the US we label drug addicts as "bad" people. When the day comes when drugs are legalized and addicts are accepted into society as people with problems, and not the Evil Ones worthy only of prison and death, the problems with drugs will be greatly reduced. It's making peace instead of war. And war, always, involves scapegoating.

I think it is clear that the State is the greatest scapegoater that exists, since projection is what both the Nazis and Communists did to their opponents.

Since they considered themselves perfect (the Aryan Master Race, for example), all imperfections must lie elsewhere, in other, imperfect, people. Remove these imperfections, and Heaven on earth shall reign.

In the 20th century this attempt to eradicate these "imperfections" led to the murders of what historians estimate are 177 million people. It could be up to 200 million. An attempt to create a Heaven--at least through violence--on earth always leads instead to the creation of Hell.

If the State, with its incessant wars on everything, only contributes to scapegoating, then logically it is the free market that reduces it. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God" is not something you will ever hear from supporters of the State. The saying certainly does apply to the free market and liberty, though.

What does the scapegoating is Russell's "monstrous ego," that part of us that considers us god-like, and reduces other people to things. Since it considers itself perfect, of course it has to project evil onto others. Hence, whenever we consider ourselves god-like--Pure Good--all evil has to be projected onto others. This is why we end up with the fairy tale of Pure Good and Pure Evil, with the Pure Evil always projected onto another, scapegoated, group.

The Greeks had a name for this monstrous ego: hubris, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the defining characteristic of the State. They considered it a madness, one that the afflicted never knew was affecting them. They defined a sequence--koros (stability) to hubris (monstrous, conscienceless arrogance) to ate (a madness where evil appears as good) to nemesis (destruction).

I do not find it surprising that modern science now confirms ancient wisdom. The psychiatrists Melanie Klein and Joan Riviere wrote this about projection, "The first and the most fundamental of our insurances or safety measures against feelings of pain, of being attacked, or of helplessness--one from which so many others spring-- is that device we call projection. All painful and unpleasant sensations and feelings in the mind are by this device automatically relegated outside oneself...[W]e blame them on someone else. [Insofar] as such destructive forces are recognized in ourselves we claim that they have come there arbitrarily and by some external agency...[P]rojection is the baby's first reaction to pain and it probably remains the most spontaneous reaction in all of us to any painful feeling throughout our lives."

One thing the Greeks failed to notice, but modern theorists have, is the tendency of the hubristic (which is everyone in some degree) to split everything into "all-good" or "all-bad." Once you are aware of this, you suddenly see it in all people. It is, for one thing, the basis of propaganda: we are noble and all good, and the subhuman demon-enemy is all bad.

This splitting of things into all-good and all-bad, with the attendant projection and scapegoating, appears to start in us as infants. Since it continues into childhood, it explains why fairy tales use such stark concepts of good and evil. It's the only thing children can understand. Unfortunately, it also continues with us into adulthood, with catastrophic results. It is an infantile defense, a concept fit only for cartoons and fairy tales, but one with which we as adults consistently judge the complex world with all its shades of gray.

One interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden supports the view that projection starts in us when we are very young. I personally think this myth makes more sense if we consider Adam and Eve to be about four-years-old, because they are as unaware and ignorant as apples.

In the story, the first thing Adam does, when caught breaking the rules, is to point at Eve and say, "She made me do it." Eve, no different than Adam, then shifts blame onto the serpent. "It's his fault, not mine," she says. An old story, but a very perceptive one that clearly tells us that scapegoating is one of the first things we do. One interpretation of the story claims Adam and Eve's scapegoating, and refusal to accept responsibility for their actions, is what got them kicked out of the Garden of Eden, thereby bringing evil into the world.

Although I certainly don't believe Adam and Eve were real people, and the story is just a myth (although a very wise one), it suggests that if they had not scapegoated each other, or had accepted responsibility for what they had done, they might have been allowed to stay. The moral, obviously, is that one of the first steps back to the Garden of Eden (to the extent it can exist in this world) is acceptance of responsibility and the cessation of scapegoating. It can't be done through violence.

A more modern term for hubris, for Kirk's monstrous ego, is narcissism.

Perceiving people as things, ones not fully human, is the essence of narcissism. Peck wrote this about narcissism, "Since [narcissists] deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world's fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil, on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others." In a sentence, they think of themselves as all good and everyone else as all bad, with the "all-bad" incorrectly perceived as the source of the problems of the "all-good."

Peck was writing about those who are clinically narcissists, but all of us are narcissistic, in greater or lesser degree. All people are imperfect. And is not the first rationalization out of many people's mouths, when angered, " You made me mad"? They project, they scapegoat, they play Adam pointing at Eve, and Eve at the serpent.

I've decided that hubris, which I believe is not only the basis of all crime, but is itself a crime, is the best definition of "evil." Why? Because crime always involves devaluing the victims and ignoring their humanity. Very often, criminals say, "It's their fault . . .they deserved it. . .they made me do it."

One afflicted with the narcissistic, monstrous ego of hubris considers himself, at the extreme, to be god-like and perfect. Considering himself perfect, he projects all imperfections onto others, and scapegoats them. Since the scapegoated are considered evil, murder is an option, one that has been historically chosen.

If hubris is what human evil truly is, it is then, as the Greeks noticed, a form of insanity. Obviously, the opposite end of that continuum is the complete giving up of hubris, of accepting responsibility, of the giving up of scapegoating. The Greeks referred to this as sophrosyne, humility, self-awareness of one's limitations and imperfections.

It is a continuum, but the more one is afflicted with narcissism, with hubris, the more one sees that continuum as either all good at one end and all bad at the other, with nothing in between. That's why we end up with the cartoon world of Pure Good and Pure Evil mapped onto the continuum that exists in the real world. It exists harmlessly in the imaginary Secondary World, but when it makes it way to the Primary World, it causes nothing but horrendous trouble. For adults, I can find nothing useful in it whatsoever. For children, it's a tool whose use they should outgrow.

The word "evil" is always associated with "unholy." That word, unholy, is one variant of "unwhole," the opposite of the related words of whole, holy, and hale (health). Hubris, if it is what evil truly is, is a type of sickness, or, more precisely, a type of insanity that always leads to unwholeness, to destruction, in society. Consider such people as Herod, Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot. Their personal madness, their monstrous egos infecting their societies, created disintegration and genocide. They were, as Thomas Hobbes noted, perfect examples of his saying, "The evil man is the child grown strong." Unfortunately, since the afflicted never knows anything is wrong with them, the only option for "treatment" is to remove them from power or kill them.

A valid question is: why do people follow these terrible leaders? One answer, supplied by Eric Fromm: group narcissism. You can call it group hubris. As proof I offer the fact that every tribe (today, read "nation") that has ever been has referred to itself as "the Human Beings" or "All People." All have been convinced God is on their side. People outside the tribe weren't considered human. From there it is a short step to labeling the outsider as evil, blaming every problem on him, and then murdering him.

The Greeks were exactly right: hubris is followed by nemesis, whether for an individual or society. The foolish and naive who believe in the glory, the grandiosity and the goodness of Empire should pay particular attention to that ancient observation. In my view, the  State is essentially childish,  and as such it will never outgrow hubris. In its madness, unable to tell the difference between "good" and "evil," it always follows the sequence of madness to destruction.

If all I have written has any truth in it, then "evil" does not really exist. Instead, it's hubris that exists, and which we call evil. To me this makes sense, since if evil is defined as the complete absence of good, then we're dealing with something that doesn't exist. Instead, "evil" is an empty concept we bring with us into adulthood from infancy, and is instead generally one we project on people we don't like, who we disagree with, or who have done something bad to us. In their turn, they project on us. As we judge them, they judge us. As they judge us, we judge them. Each denies responsibility and insist the problems are always the other's fault.

I have to be very careful here, but, in a sense, calling someone "evil" is itself a bad thing. A very bad thing, because it is almost always a function of our narcissism and scapegoating. It takes an awful lot of hubris to arrogantly and irresponsibly condemn someone else as evil, because it essentially is saying they are totally evil, with no good in them at all. Has such a person ever existed? Has a totally evil society ever existed? Such people wouldn't be people; they'd be monsters. We often act as if such people and societies exist, and in our blindness attempt to destroy them,  always damaging ourselves in the process.

It's also worth noting that the word "monster" means "an offense against the natural order." It's related to "demonstrate," one meaning of which is "a warning." A monster--as in "monstrous ego"-- is a warning about its ability to destroy the natural order of things. The real monsters don't look like monsters, as they do in fiction. These days, they often wear three-piece suits and ties. But it's not hard to identify them. They all have bloated egos. And they always blame problems on someone, or something, else. And they lust for power, for attention, and even though they never know it, for the destruction of all they consider bad.

I have yet to see anyone come up with a definition of evil that won't lead to scapegoating, murder and, ultimately, genocide. Or that can't be turned around to label the definer as evil and worthy of death. In that sense, the measure we use to judge others is always the measure used to judge us.

The first step to overcoming a problem is to know that a problem exists. Of course, people often deny they have the problem. That's the point of the story of the Garden of Eden. (It's someone else who is the problem, not me.) To understand that evil doesn't exist, and is really hubris, and is a continuum with unwholeness and monstrous egoism at one end, and humble self-awareness and wholeness at the other, is to give up an infantile concept that belongs only in cartoons and comic books.

I don't expect this to happen any time soon. Still, there is always hope, even if the human race, usually courtesy of the State, is constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. Someday, in the future, we will, hopefully, leave the comic-book world we live in, and move into a world in which, as the old but wise saying informs us, the truth shall set us free. 

published at Endervidualism on  6/22/04

Bob Wallace has a degree in Journalism. Formerly a reporter and editor, now an author, Bob penned I Write What I See. Visit his Shameless Book Promotion Page and his Page Full o' Fun. He also blogs. Bob has previously written articles and essays which have been published by, The Libertarian Enterprise, Sierra Times, Strike-the-Root, and The Price of Liberty, in addition to Endervidualism.