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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, April 24, 2008

looking at evil

I've sat here for several minutes now, staring at the screen, wondering what to write.

It's not that there's nothing to write about. It's that there seems to be too much to write about. Any topic I might begin with feels like the beginning of a whole journey, a commitment. Everything is interconnected, and to raise one topic feels like it must be related to everything else in order to make sense, or to seem other than merely an isolated, irrelevant interest of mine.

Yesterday I received a new book in the mail--a favorite event for me. This was a small paperback entitled Monarchy, Aristocracy and the State in Europe 1300-1800 by Hillay Zmora. Why this? you might ask.

I was led to it by a particular stream of thought. Following the stream backwards, or, I suppose, upstream: I had arrived at an interest in the idea of aristocracy or a ruling class. The notion of a ruling class seemed to have arisen from the distinction between warriors and producers or farmers. This in turn seemed to have arisen from the emergence of distinct ways of life on two different kinds of landscape: the fertile ground of riverbanks for farmers, and the arid land of the steppes for warriors, who were nomadic pastoralists. Farming and pastoralism in turn seemed to be the evolved extensions of plant-gathering on the one hand and hunting on the other. These different economic activities were respectively engaged in by women and by men, and arose in their turn from more primitive foraging and scavenging. Our early and pre-human ancestors made their living by finding plants and meat to eat where they could.

Why was I interested in all this in the first place? I was investigating the question of evil: what is it, where did it come from? Is its origin in the brutality and hard-heartedness of pastoralism, in which herdsmen round up animals and slaughter them? Exploiting the weak and dumb in order to survive--and then transferring that attitude to one's fellow creatures, and developing an ethos of superiority based on physical prowess and violence? The ruling class.

Cats prey on mice, and mice don't like it. Does that make cats evil? Do they not deserve to live too? Nature seems not to have taken an opinion on good and evil. Does that mean they don't exist?

I'm concerned about the evils of our own time, and of the past century. The rise of mechanized weapons and mechanized bureaucracy seems to have created fertile fields for evil inflicted on a mass scale. Was this inevitable? If so, why? If not, why did it happen? Why is it still happening?

Hillay Zmora, in his book, starts out by saying that the modern European state, founded on human rights and the rule of law, was born from the violence of relentless warfare that had to be financed. Raising money for war was the basis of the modern state.

Yes, I'm curious about these things--they trouble me, and I'm going to keep looking.


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