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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, January 05, 2006

evil: an introduction

Reading period last night: Shantaram, and a book that arrived in the mail the day before yesterday, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister. Mmm--who wouldn't want to get inside that?

Evil is important to my story. It's not particularly a story of good vs. evil, as in a crime melodrama, but rather the issue of evil, its source and its continuing appearance in the world despite ostensible divine rulership, is central to religion in general and to the evolution of Judaism in this period in particular. Increasingly, scholars of that period are recognizing that there were two main streams of Judaism: the Mosaic stream, based on the laws of Moses and the Torah he revealed to the Israelites; and the Enochic stream, based on the revealed teachings of the patriarch Enoch, who was taken to heaven and given instruction and heavenly tablets directly by angels. Enoch never died; he was simply taken up to heaven while still alive. The Mosaic stream eventually became rabbinic Judaism and the foundation of the religion as it exists today. The Enochic stream was the source of the Essenes and other Jewish groups who were less connected with Mosaic Judaism.

Enoch taught that evil entered the world by way of angels who rebelled against God. In particular, a certain group of angels became infatuated with human women, and mated with them to produce giant offspring who in turn caused all kinds of trouble. These rebellious angels taught humans various things that helped perpetuate evil (as they saw it) in the world, in particular weapons for war and adornments for women to make them irresistible to men, thus promoting fornication and sex in general. In the process, the whole cosmic order as established by God was contaminated, and could not be cleansed again until the end of time, when God would cause evil and its agents to be destroyed so that the original paradise could be restored. The rebel angels became demons, and their leader would become the figure we know as Satan.

In contrast, the Mosaic stream did not mention a rebellion by angels, and for the most part did not emphasize Satan or his role in world history. In the garden of Eden the first humans were tempted to disobey God, setting a precedent for humanity: people would continually disobey God and suffer the consequences. In this context evil is not so much an active enemy of God and the good, but the giving in of individuals to the temptation to sin.

So what is evil? I wanted to find out more, so I bought Baumeister's book, and one or two others (not here yet). He is setting out to explain evil from a psychosocial perspective, using factual data (that is, only real-world examples, not fictitious ones that are often used to illustrate evil and its operation). One of his first points is that actual evil--the way it actually happens in real life, and the attitudes of its perpetrators--is strikingly different from evil as it is portrayed in stories. Far from being cruel, sadistic types who take pleasure in hurting, most evildoers are bland functionaries, people who lack strong emotions about what they do and generally have a workaday attitude. Perpetrators of large-scale evil find themselves fussing with details of how to get more bodies crammed into ovens or how to optimize the use of ammunition for mass shootings.

All very interesting. Baumeister makes the point that evil is largely in the eye of the beholder, particularly in the eye of the victim, since perpetrators never see their own actions as evil. Personally, I find this hard to accept. While it's true that perpetrators may not see their own actions as evil, this doesn't make evil a subjective thing. Surely the Golden Rule is the touchstone for evil: how would I like this to be done to me? What if you were the torturer and I were the one strapped to this rack?

This topic, again, is vast. Think I'll go read some more on it.

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