Saturday, December 29, 2007

Is the Harsh and Cruel More Real than the Kind and Compassionate?

I think we have a tendency to think that what is violent, unjust, harsh and cruel is somehow more "real" than what is peaceful, just, kind and compassionate. This feeds the impression that religious belief is a form of escapism for people who can't handle reality. Atheists are folks who are man enough to face the hard facts about the world; religious believers invent a beneficent God to shield them from that reality.

Why do we think that the violent, unjust and harsh are more real than their virtuous alternatives? Partly because of the impression that the vicious are more powerful than the virtuous. We see the kind and compassionate dominated and abused by the vicious every day. It seems that the kind and compassionate survive only at the indulgence of the vicious, or only because the vicious haven't got around yet to crushing them. "Reality" is the dominating power of the vicious, not the healing power of the kind.

We also see that the virtuous are shocked by things that do not shock the vicious. The kind man is often not only unprepared for the assaults of the vicious, but surprised by them, as though he did not expect that such things were possible in life. In the recent film No Country for Old Men, for example, an evil man (Anton Chigurh) plays on the innocence, kindness, and good will of ordinary people to routinely trap them, get what he wants from them, and then kill them. No one, not even the police, is able to stop Chigurh. Anton Chigurh is reality. In the film ordinary life, with its ordinary kindnesses and expectations, is an illusion because it is powerless before Chigurh.

And yet, if we listen to St. Thomas and the classical philosophers, this impression is the direct opposite of the truth. Evil, St. Thomas teaches us, is a deprivation of the good. As a deprivation, the existence of evil is entirely derivative of the good; there can be evil only to the extent that there is a good that can be deprived (thus God cannot be evil because no aspect of his being can be deprived from Him.) Evil is like a hole in something, and a hole is possible only to the extent that something exists that is capable of being holed or, in other words, of supporting a hole. There is no such thing as a purely evil being just as there is no such thing as something that is purely a hole. (A truth used to comic effect by the RoadRunner character in Looney Tunes, who would pick up a hole and carry it around with him, then drop it in front of Wile E. Coyote.)

So we know as a philosophical truth that the good is more real than the evil. And since it is more real, it must ultimately be more powerful as well. Why, then, does evil seem more powerful in "real life?" I will attempt one answer with an anecdote. Once while serving as a company XO in the Marine Corps, my company's NCOs held a closed-door meeting in the first sergeant's office. I needed something from the first sergeant, so I knocked on the door and walked in. I could barely see the NCOs through the cloud of cigarette smoke, which nearly knocked me out. The NCOs (and I) got a good laugh out of this, I quickly got what I needed, and I managed to stagger out the door before collapsing. Superficially, it appeared that the NCOs were stronger than I was, since they had no problem in the smoke-filled room. It was I who could not handle the "reality" of cigarette smoke. But why was this? It was because I had healthier lungs than the NCOs, and so could absord more of the toxins in the smoke. My stronger lungs, paradoxically, made the room unbearable to me.

A similar thing, I believe, happens when the realities of death and war are confronted. The company first sergeant, a wonderful man, was a Vietnam veteran (some of whom were still on active duty in the late '80s). Like many veterans, he didn't speak much about his battle experiences, but he did say that part of himself died in Vietnam. When he said this, I thought of the smoke-filled room. Maybe the realities of war are toxic to the soul like smoke is toxic to the lungs, and the only way one can survive in the face of such realities is for certain sensitive parts of the soul to die. But just as the NCOs lungs were ultimately weaker than mine for their ability to handle smoke-filled rooms, maybe the first sergeant's soul had also lost some of its power in Vietnam - which may have explained a certain melancholy I found in him.

Anton Chigurh's soul, perhaps, had died to an extent that cruelty and suffering could have no effect on him. But, ultimately, this makes his soul weaker and not stronger. It gives him a superficial, temporary power because he his able to react more quickly in his self-created world of savagery, to which he is no longer sensitive but we are; just as the NCOs had the advantage on me in the smoke-filled room. But we see that Chigurh's world is derivative of our world as evil is always derivative of good; it is only because the general world is one of kindness and goodwill that he has any power at all. Were everyone suspicious of him on meeting him, he would not be nearly so dangerous.

more on this to come...