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!!
Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.*
At the beginning of this Maxim Monday enterprise I wrote about “being overcome by justice”, and its intersection with the 2nd principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. In it, I quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. a couple of times. Somehow in a stroke of kismet or coincidence, I picked its companion maxim for Martin Luther King Day, not really thinking about the timing, until just before I sat down to write. I had an entirely different post in mind until then…something in line with service (which I’ve talked about before) as a form of practicing justice…
The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.*
I think that this maxim happens to be one that Martin Luther King, Jr. might have been a fan of.
I’m not sure there is much I can say on this subject though, that he didn’t say. And on that matter, I’d prefer to let him speak for himself.
There will be hundreds of posts and articles and news clips on Martin Luther King today, as a historical figure, as an icon for justice and civil rights, and as a husband and father. I encourage everyone to watch or read them–the Civil Rights era is an important period of our time that we could all use to be more cognizant of…but this post is not about that, not precisely.
I think we all can agree that practicing justice is a good thing to do, even if we differ on what that means in our own lives, and how we feel compelled to express it. Men (and women) like Martin Luther King do (and have done) a far better job of orating and demonstrating how we can be more just than I will ever be capable of doing. But what I can do–probably my most important contribution towards bending the universe towards justice, is to teach my children what it means to be overcome by justice and to practice what is just, by talking to them about justice and our failings in living justly with honesty and integrity to the best of my ability and demonstrating just actions in my dealings with them and others.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.*
Today my Chickadee asked me a very serious question that I wasn’t quite ready to answer,”Why did a white man kill Martin Luther King? Is it because he was black?” For an almost six year old, this is a serious question that she just didn’t know the answer to. But for me…this question was just a little bit heartbreaking.
Just last week, my baby girl though of skin color as nothing more than nature’s Crayola box. Just last week, my baby girl would tell you that “I’m not white, I’m peach” and would correct anyone that might suggest her bus buddy with brown skin was “black”. As far as she was concerned, our skin colors were no more significant than the colors of flowers, and they should be accurately described. In a mostly white neighborhood, the most significant physical trait of her bus buddy was not the color of her skin, but that “Miss M has ponytails that are better than mine because they have poof.”
And now, not only did she want to know about The Man With A Dream (as she has taken to calling Martin Luther King)–a question much easier to answer than what would follow, but she wanted to know why someone would be mean to someone for having a different color of skin. And then she wanted to know why people would think that they were better than other people for having a different color of skin. And then she wanted to know why people had owned other people. And she wanted to know why we are white, when we are really peach, and why people that are brown are called black, and why any of that matters, because we are all just people. And then she wanted to know if having white skin made people do bad things.
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.*
…And I had a hard time answering some of her questions. I was raised in a family where skin color was treated like eye color…and I come from a place of racial privilege–I’ve experienced prejudice, but never on the basis of my skin color, and never as overt as that sort of prejudice can be. I might intellectually understand that racism exists and where it stems from (we *do* do Civil War reenacting), but I don’t really understand the depths of hatred that it can and has descended to–I don’t get that kind of hatred, and I sure as hell don’t want my children to. I might be guilty of saying something that is prejudiced simply because I come from a place of racial privilege, but that would be/would have been from ignorance, and not maliciousness (and I sincerely apologize if that has ever happened).
How do you explain all of that to a six year old? Especially a six year old with a heart like butterfly wings (seriously, the kiddo gets upset at the idea of hurting someone’s feelings on accident), especially when there are six year olds around the world that LIVE this, on a daily basis. And if not now, from us, when and how will this lesson be taught?
The Hubby and I did our best to explain that people’s minds and hearts can and do change over time. And that people that lived a long time ago had different ideas of what was right and wrong from ours, and that even then they argued over what was right and wrong like we do today. Just because something was right (or wrong) then, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way…as our sense of morality grows into one that is more compassionate and more just, we can change what we do and say to be more equitable and to embrace equality…not just on a basis of race, but everywhere, for every quality that makes us different from one another.
We tried to tell her that sometimes people are afraid of people and things that are different from what they see or do on a daily basis and that sometimes people are afraid of change. That sometimes when people are afraid, they think they need to fight against what they don’t understand, that the fear makes them hate, that the hate can poison their hearts, that poisoned hearts can make them do bad things. We talked about the fact that people are just people, different and beautiful for it. We talked about Martin Luther King, and that he believed in justice for all people that were disadvantaged, whether it be because of skin color, or economic status, or any of the other things that divide us, and we watched The Man With a Dream talk about the day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
I think that he might have liked to see Chickadee and Miss M skipping down the sidewalk, hand in hand, on their way for a play date. I think that maybe, for all that practicing justice often means protesting, it can also means two heads bowed together over a coloring book, drinking cocoa, and watching My Little Pony. Practicing justice is about doing what is right. And what is more right than two six year olds than playing, together, oblivious to the controversies that might have stirred before they were even born?
*quotes are from Martin Luther King, Jr.
…eight words the Wiccan rede fulfill
I’d like to call Delphic Maxim #136 “the maxim for Wiccans”!
So, I’m a big fan of words (English or otherwise)–what they mean, where they come from, alternate and less popular secondary meanings, how they are used and how they can be used–subverted, if you will, etc. The one, obvious term that these two sayings have in common is the word “harm”, and that is the word I want to focus on first. Etymologically, “harm” means to hurt, it means grief, sorrow, insult, pain, and (interestingly to me) 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.
We can only act with indifference towards the needs and feelings of others if they don’t seem to matter to us. When we are in a state of empathy, wholehearted and open awareness of our essential connection, then we know — experientially, not just theoretically — that our actions must inevitably come back on us. We cannot then cause harm without experiencing it ourselves.
(from the same essay)
I think it helps to look at harm in this way as well…as a rip in the fabric of empathy. When we consider our actions on the level of empathy, what we do becomes personal. It is hard to purposely cause harm when you know what that harm feels like. As a mom, its my job to teach my children empathy–because (contrary to what some think) it isn’t actually a natural state (*cough* Ann Coulter *cough* Rush Limbaugh *cough*). Empathy is something that develops over time and is a learned state of emotion, understanding and behavior. Some kids ‘take’ to empathy more easily than others–Chickadee has an overload of empathy, and Sharkbait struggles with it (a common phenomenon in kids with ADHD). As a parent of a kid with ADHD, I will admit that it can be downright hard to maintain an empathetic relationship with a kid with ADHD…in and of itself, maintaining that fabric of empathy is essential, not only to not harm our relationship, but to not harm Sharkbait’s capacity to develop socially (social skills are often a struggle for kids with ADHD as well).
The biggest problem with looking at harm (or evil for that matter) in this way is that it becomes subjective. What I am sensitized to, in terms of my capacity for empathy overall and my ability to empathize on a particular subject specifically, differs from what and how another might feel. For most Pagans, I doubt this is a problem (for most UU’s as well…I don’t think I’d be making an understatement if I said that defining moral absolutes is pretty low on the list for most of us)…but we all still differ here. If the focus of my behavior should be to avoid or alleviate harm (and I think the latter is implied as a substitute) and my capacity to empathize is variable with the capacity of others, then what I perceive as undesirable behaviors will also differ.
To do as I will, or (in the Greek version) to gratify or seek gratification, depends on a subjective idea of beneficial (harmless, or at least relivable harm) actions. Many a conversation that I have engaged in or observed in the Pagan community has reached the eventual conclusion that causing no harm is an impossibility. As guiding ideals, these are both wonderful places to start exploring one’s behavior as an individual and one’s place in a community. But…as a practice, it is impossible to live to such a degree, where every action is harmless (as it seems some have interpreted the Wiccan Rede). So thank goodness that ain’t what it says!
Both of these maxims come back full circle to the idea of “harm”–really of not harming. For the Wiccan Rede its about the phrasing–“An it harm none”, literally, IF it causes no harm, do what you want. And this phrasing brings it parallel to the Delphic Maxim–IF it causes no harm, indulge in that which brings pleasure and satisfaction! Neither acts as a prohibition of harm, but instead both ask us to consider the results of our actions (of our whims and pleasures) and encourages us to choose the methods and madness that cause the least harm.