The Delphic Maxims mention “evil” twice, first as something to be hated, and secondly as something to be abstained from.
But what, precisely is evil?
Old English yfel (Kentish evel) “bad, vicious, ill, wicked,” from Proto-Germanic *ubilaz (cf. Old Saxon ubil, Old Frisian and Middle Dutch evel, Dutch euvel, Old High German ubil, German übel, Gothic ubils), from PIE *upelo-, from root *wap- (cf. Hittite huwapp- “evil”).
“In OE., as in all the other early Teut. langs., exc. Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike or disparagement” [OED]. Evil was the word the Anglo-Saxons used where we would use bad, cruel, unskillful, defective (adj.), or harm, crime, misfortune, disease (n.). The meaning “extreme moral wickedness” was in Old English, but did not become the main sense until 18c. Related: Evilly. Evil eye (Latin oculus malus) was Old English eage yfel. Evilchild is attested as an English surname from 13c.
source: Online Etymology Dictionary
According to Merriam-Webster, evil is an adjective to describe something as “morally reprehensible” or “causing harm”, and a noun for “the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrong doing” or the something that causes it. Extreme moral wickedness…or just the stuff we don’t like. What is or is not evil seems awfully personal.
Back in November, I discussed Delphic Maxim #136, Gratify without harming, and touched on the idea of evil:
Evil tends to be an interesting subject in Pagan communities. Views of what constitutes “evil” as a definition and as an action or behavior vary, but tend to emphasize the “I know it when I see it” subjectiveness of the idea of evil. Of the many discussions (online and IRL) that I have encountered on the topic, my favorite definition comes from an essay on the Wiccan Rede from Proteus Coven–evil is a rip in the fabric of empathy.
All of this really leads me to sometimes think that either everything might be evil (either that, or nothing is)–after all, everything has the capacity to directly inflict harm and misfortune on someone, somewhere. No one lives in a vacuum and even the most altruistic of acts is going to have a downside somewhere down the line (Newton’s Third Law–every action has an equal and opposite reaction, sometimes I think it applies to more than physics). And if everything is evil, perhaps it all cancels out, and nothing is more evil than the next, except in the context of the beholder.
When I ran these two maxims through Google Translate, the result I got was “hate wickedness” and “abstain from wickedness”. Wickedness certainly is implied in the dictionary definitions for “evil”, and indeed, definitions of “wickedness” include the description of “evil”. But I like the word “wickedness” better than that of “evil”–it isn’t as loaded of a term. When we think of evil in its usage, it often to carry an additional subtext–either as an absolute that is part of a moral dichotomy (good vs evil), or as some Supernatural Big Bad Being.
Ultimately, I have to say that evil isn’t supernatural. It isn’t a moral absolute, or the opposite of good. Evil isn’t a specific action or person or event. Evil can’t be defined. But it does exist. Evil happens, and it isn’t everything, or nothing.
Evil is a rip in the fabric of empathy.
Now…I guess I just need to take the time to discuss what the heck that means!!