Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Speak of the Devil.

I've been thinking lately of the Devil. There are many names for what I am referring to and I'd like to make it clear exactly what I'm talking about. I'm not necessarily speaking of the "Anti-God" so present in the conception of many Christians. My subject here is not one who presides over a mystical place of eternal damnation featuring a "lake of fire". In fact I'm not interested in any "otherworldy phenomenon", but rather in the moral calculus of our own earthly existence. If something akin to "evil" exists, then there must somewhere live the embodiment of that quality, or at least the single individual that represents its greatest accumulation. This creature would be the best candidate for the position of "the Devil".

At heart I am a relativist. I tend to discount broad and sweeping terms, and the words "good" and "evil" are examples of the type that tend to create what I consider "false dichotomies". But perhaps they serve as useful shorthand for the effects that the actions of certain people have on others. Certainly many agree that someone like Adolf Hitler fits the common definition of "evil", regardless of the reality that the memory of his deeds are still honored by his philosophical heirs. Similarly, a majority of folks who are familiar with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. consider him a paragon of "the good", yet there are still those who resent the things that he did to permanently change society.

Still there is likely a greater proportion of humanity that puts stock in these categorizations than rejects them. Some believe that "evil" and "good" exist outside the human mind in an objective sense, and work as external forces that possess people. They are somehow beyond the everyday decisions and actions that individuals choose. Others think that these are traits that manifest themselves in the "heart" and/or brain. Obviously this introduces a factor of subjectivity into the moral equation. Furthermore, there is a minority that views these things as more of an allegory. Maybe they aren't willing to commit to the absolute existence of "good" and "evil", but they find them useful labels in describing the choices that people make.

I think the best case for the existence of "evil" is the violation of consensuality. But that's not necessarily within the purview of this particular post, so I won't expand on it. Often "the Devil" takes the physical form of temptation. Someone who is a "bad influence" can be referred to as "the Devil". He/she may try to persuade the individual to do things that he/she believes that they should not do, even though they may want to. I see this as a cop-out. This type of externalization seems like a convenient justification for all manner of misbehavior. The desire to act out obviously manifests itself internally. If you don't have the desire to engage in whatever you define as "sin", then there's no reason to carry it out.

To me, the most intriguing form of "The Devil" is more of a poetic representation. This is an archetype that has found its expression in arts and letters. One notable embodiment of this specter is Dr. Faustus. This is "The Devil" that you make a deal with to get something at the expense of your soul. In this story, "The Devil" is a type of bogeyman who serves as the ultimate heavy in a cautionary tale. He makes you face the truth, and exposes what you are willing to give up to realize your most self-interested dreams. And for this he extracts a terrible price. In giving up the core of your ethics, you merge with "evil" itself. The game is over, and any distinctions melt away. You have become the symbol of your darkest urges.

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