Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Branches - A Discussion on the Subject of Evil

The subject of evil comes up frequently.  It is a term that is often used, and rarely defined.

What is evil?  The dictionary definition contains terms such as "morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked".  All of these are cultural value judgements, of course.  Another definition said something to the effect of "associated with misfortune or harm".  This one is far more comfortable to me than the first, since different faiths and cultures have radically different standards of morality, but everyone can agree that they dislike misfortune and harm, can't they?

As long as it's personal misfortune or harm, that's true.  In some cultures personal misfortune and harm can be seen as being overall positive, by offsetting a karmic debt in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism to being considered penance for ill deeds in Islam.  Even that definition is of the term is highly conditional, based on the personal and cultural paradigms of the individual.

I propose that the term is the tofu of philosophy and religion, taking on the flavor of that which surrounds it.  So as a mostly freethinker and mostly Taoist Wiccan, what flavor does it take for me?

I considered the mythologies that I am most familiar with: Egyptian and Norse.  Be aware that these statements are simplifications for the sake of brevity; I can discuss them more at length on request.  In Norse mythology, the figures that are considered evil are the Jotuns, the Giants, who are of the same heritage as the Gods but have a difference of opinion concerning mankind and the world.  The Giants will thoughtlessly destroy anything that is not theirs, and the Gods are very much builders and creators.  What they and mankind constantly work to build, the Giants constantly work to destroy.  Unnecessary destruction is their evil.  Greed, and specifically greed for gold, is a marked evil in the Norse tales as well.

In the Egyptian mythos, Set is the ultimate evil.  I have seen his name translated as "Crusher" and "Destroyer".  There is a very similar theme in Egyptian mythology to the Norse mythology above: Set and his minions are all part of the same family as the rest of the Gods, but he constantly seeks to undermine their works.  The other Gods, particularly Osiris and Isis, work to create and preserve a functional and benign cosmos that the Destroyer works to undermine.

When I thought about it, I realized that I tended to agree: unnecessary destruction.  Causing pain, breaking down the works of others without a good reason.  I almost wrote "without just cause" but that would have been trouble because I don't want to explore the concept of justice in this post.

Malevolence.  That seems to be the best word of many possible choices. Every living physical creature destroys as part of the chemical processes that maintain it, but willful destruction, harm, and pain seems to be the core of what I consider evil.

I've seen this sort of behavior change the character of the person engaging in it.  Although I'm a believer in a particular sort of karma, I think that people who engage in willfully destructive and harmful acts create their own personal hells.  There are plenty of literary examples of this sort of character: the one that has committed so many vile acts that they can no longer see good in anyone else.  This often manifests as that person becoming unwilling to believe in the altruism of others and see all of their actions as being fueled by ulterior motives or enlightened self-interest.  This is not just the provenance of fiction, however; I've seen it happen in real life.

I do believe that there are non-humans entities that are malign or at best do not have humanity's best interests in mind.  I do not however see this as suggesting a cosmic force of evil; I think that what humans consider evil is small change on the upper levels of reality.  I do not discount coalitions or cooperation between different sorts of entities but do have trouble believing in evil, as humans see it, as a force of its own.

I tend to try to discourage people from using harmful magick because, as I mentioned above, harmful actions change a person, and also as a matter of personal aesthetics: there is enough ugliness in the world.  There is no need to add to it.  This philosophy extends beyond magick for me but that is where I am the most likely to speak up concerning it.  I don't take the Rule of Three completely literally, but harmful magick does tend to rebound more directly on the life of its practitioner than your average, everyday harmful deeds.

It may not be possible not to destroy or do harm, but it can't hurt to try.  I see "Harm None", like most spiritual laws, as a guideline for behavior and a virtue that can be aspired to but never truly attained.  It's more about the journey than the destination.

This is a post that could branch into many other topics, so I'm going to limit it and end it here.  If there are any comments I may make more posts about the subject, but as it stands, these are my basic views on the matter.  I am interested in comments and feedback on this post, though, because it's a subject that I think needs to be explored and considered more than it is; as I've said above, what most consider evil is based on gut reaction societal consideration rather than reason and personal gnosis.