As we explore the Human Spirit, one of the questions that gets asked is: What is evil? And, perhaps even more importantly, what is its cause?
There’s an old saying that goes, “money is the root of all evil.” And, considering the attitudes of some people in the political realm towards economics, it certainly looks like this is often taken this to heart. A lot is said about “wealth inequality” and “redistribution” and such as if money, or at least its distribution among members of society were, in and of itself, the main problem that the world faces today.
But, as most people probably know, this is not even the original wording of this saying. The original message comes from the sixth chapter of the apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy in the Bible.
Let’s put it up here for reference with some of the original context around it:
But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.Paul’s letter to Timothy — Chapter 6
So, according to the original message, it is not money itself that causes evil, but it is the love of money which is the root of evil. That sounds perhaps more reasonable. It certainly sounds a bit less shallow and trite as a saying.
But is that really it? Is the love of money the cause of every bit of the evil in the world?
Notice the rest of the quoted context above. It refers to “many foolish and hurtful lusts” without specifically naming them. It talks of the more “righteous” and “godly” qualities of faith, love, patience, and meekness which are the opposite of evil. And, perhaps most importantly, it points to “falling into” the “temptation” and “snare” of evil as something people do to themselves.
Context is always important in understanding the deeper meaning of a statement.
People often enjoy quoting one-liners. Sometimes, I suppose, because a short, crisp saying can provide a nice, concise, and accurate summary of their basic principles. But I suspect that it’s far too often because they want to stop thinking about it after the one line. Especially if that one line comes from a sacred source that they trust like the Bible.
But, in reality, actual Biblical scholars and others who study complex documents or ponder deeply upon philosophical ideas never do this. They remind you that context is important. For any particular one line phrase, not only is the context within the document, but the context of the document within society is important. For example, Biblical scholars will often tell you that, even for an entire story within the Bible, its context within the secular regional history in which it was written is important. For example, in order to avoid opening up the Bible as a justification for slavery, they say that any references to the subject must be taken in the context of the history of the times. So the plain text of any document or scripture regarding spirituality or morals ought to be taken as merely a starting point for further contemplation. Especially if it comes to us in the form of a one-liner. And a subject such as “the root of evil” requires looking at human nature and society and not just a particular text.
So let’s dive in:
First, let’s separate out “evil” from merely “bad.” In our proper use of these terms, they are not the same thing. Many “bad” things happen that we do not rightly consider to be “evil.” A dozen skiers getting caught in an avalanche on a mountainside is a “bad” thing. We might even call it “horrific.” But we do not rightly call it “evil.” Even if an asteroid were to come by happenstance and collide with the Earth and wipe out an entire city, as horrible a thing as this would be, we would not properly call it “evil” unless someone believed that there was a directing intelligence behind it with the conscious intent to cause the collision.
Again, even in the case of a human agent being involved in the cause of a terrible thing happening, we look at his or her intent to decide whether it is “evil.” For example, if a bus driver on a mountain road did not see a rut until the last instant and his misfortune caused the bus to go over a cliff, the ensuing disaster would be a horrific accident, but would not be properly called “evil.” But if that same bus driver were to drive his bus over the edge of that same cliff in order to exact revenge upon one of the passengers, then that act would certainly be evil.
So, what we call “evil” requires intent, and, like the Biblical quote suggests, it is rooted in human desire.
It is a feature of what we allow or sometimes make ourselves become within the core of our beings. The root of evil is not in a physical act or a physical object or in an economic attribute or even in an expression of ourselves in the world such as wealth. The term “evil” relates to an active attribute that we either cultivate or, at least, fail to eradicate within our souls.
It also, contrary to a simplistic look at our quoted Biblical text, does not necessarily have anything to do with money or even physical wealth of any kind. To illustrate, let’s look at some potential reasons for our bus driver’s act of violence:
He could have been angry at the third party in a love triangle. Or he could have been motivated by hatred toward a member, or even the distant descendant of a member, of a family or tribe whom he thought had wronged his family in some way in the past. Or he could, if his attitude were sufficiently superficial, even have been jealous of the physical appearance or social relationships of one of his passengers. In short, evil can be rooted in either avarice or lust or pride or any of a number of our vulgar and coarse desires. And we see that “the love of money” must be taken as merely an illustration of shallow and selfish desire.
So, is evil rooted in selfishness?
Perhaps. But not in the way that most people would understand that feeling. Because, in our example of the ruthless bus driver, he may very well be taking himself out along with the bus full of innocent passengers in order to exact his violence upon one person. So “selfishness” is not really a very good word to describe the root of evil.
If we look at the relationships between the key people in our example, we quickly get a clue as to the nature of the evil involved in the driver’s act: In each and every case, in his relationship to each of his victims, the innocent ones, as well as the target of his revenge, and even with regard to himself, he lacks an appreciation for the lives of the people involved.
So perhaps we should see the deepest root of evil as not in a “love” of something external but as the lack or a failure of something internal to our souls.
The root of evil is a lack of appreciation for life.
In the case of the merciless bus driver, it is a lack of appreciation for the entire lives of all of his passengers. In the case of a simple thief, it is a lack of appreciation for the rights and will of the living victims of his larceny. In the case of an abuser of drugs or alcohol, it is a lack of appreciation for the potential of the his own Spirit of Life.
But really, the “love” of (or, perhaps more properly, the “lust” for) some superficial thing and the lack of appreciation for deeper things in life are really two sides of the same coin. For example, in lust for a victim, a rapist is overly attached to physical desires and urges, or perhaps obsessed about exercising power over another human being. And this is the same as being utterly blind to an appreciation for the life and spirit of the victim. Likewise, greed in a thief for money or for an item of property is the other side of the same coin as blindness to an appreciation for the life and rights of its owner in his or her act of thievery. And all of these are the result of the focus of one’s soul upon superficial things and away from an appreciation for the value of the Spirit of Life in the surrounding world, and even, to a large extent, the potential of that Spirit in one’s own self.
In short, undue attachment to superficial things is the mirror image of lack of appreciation for the deeper value of Life.
And so, the biblical scripture gives us a hint for contemplation, but not the final analysis. The proverbial “love of money” can only be a branch of evil, or perhaps the nub of the superficial part of the root that we see above the surface. But it is not the whole or deepest part of the root of evil.
The root of evil is in the desolate mindset of utter separateness from the value of Life in the world: either the particular life of a particular victim, or life in general, or, even the constructive potential of life within one’s own Spirit.
So, since we’ve come to a nice, neat conclusion to our little essay here and we’ve wrapped up the subject in a tidy little thesis, let’s ruin the mood with some references to a few practical implications and questions. After all, the subject is “evil,” so ruining the mood seems like an appropriate thing to do:
Now that we’ve got “evil” carefully defined in the box of a concise philosophical thesis, what do we do about it?
In the midst of our supposedly civilized society, we have thieves and murderers and drug dealers and all sorts of miscreants. What do we do about them? There are wars and instances of violence and terrorism in many corners of the world. What do we do about them?
Our politicians often want to appear as though they are “tough on crime” or that they promote the “security of America.” And their sound bite sized solutions often seem to be to, “catch them” and “lock them up” or, potentially, to “kill them.” And these are definitely, in some instances, solutions to an immediate problem.
But are these the real solutions?
In all cases?
And if we implement those solutions in those cases, does that do anything to reduce the actual cause – the root – of even that particular evil in those locations among other people in the future?
Our thesis boils down evil to a lack of appreciation for life. But is there a cause behind that? And is it the same in every case? Is it an inherent feature of those particular “evil” souls? Or is it a disease that any of us can catch?
We’ve defined “evil” as being sourced in the human soul. But whose soul? Are you, the reader here, capable of “evil”? … and, to what extent?
How much do any of us know ourselves?
Would you become a thief? Or a murderer? Or would you involve yourself in a great atrocity against a huge number of people?
A trite feature of the internet is that all arguments eventually tend to devolve to references to Hitler, who is seen as the ultimate evil incarnate in a human being. So we won’t do that here. Let’s refer to something even more painful than that: Let’s consider the ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to that great war.
Vast numbers of people were destitute. The economy was not just in a huge depression as it was in much of the rest of the world. It was completely shattered. Money had become utterly worthless. The famous stories of needing an entire barrel full of printed bills to purchase just some basic food in order to survive were true. And the promise of the Third Reich to those people was one of hope and prosperity and expansion into nearby territory that was rich in resources for growing the necessities of life.
If you and your family were starving and you didn’t see any other hope of a way out of it, what would you do?
Now, not every evil is Nazi Germany.
And not every desperation is as widespread in society as a worldwide depression or mass starvation.
But, since the subject is “evil” and its root in the human soul, we will just leave the questions hanging here as something to contemplate as we discuss various subjects in and about society on this site:
How well do you know yourself?
And how certainly do you think you know what the solutions are for others in the world?