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  • Cruelty, Liberalism, and Liberal Education
  • Ann Hartle (bio)

Evil has many forms. All of the vices, for example, would count as evil: drunkenness and wrath, although very different from each other, are both vices and therefore both evil. Crimes, too, are all evil insofar as they harm others, whether to a greater or lesser degree. Yet we do rank vices and crimes, and we tend to use the term 'evil' to refer to vices, crimes, and immoral actions that are of a certain kind, that have a certain quality. John Kekes has identified this particular quality and given a profoundly perceptive account of it in his chapter on "Disenchantment with Ordinary Life." He concludes that chapter with a refutation of the Socratic dictum: no one does evil knowingly. Kekes's study of the roots of evil leads him to the contrary conclusion: there are people who "do evil knowingly, precisely because it is evil. It thrills them, which it would not do if it were not evil" (116).

The type of human being who enjoys doing evil is often assumed to be mentally ill: he is a psychopath or a sociopath. Kekes rightly refuses to accept this explanation. Rather, he traces the thrill of evil to the phenomenon of boredom. Chronic boredom is not a passing event in one's life but a condition of the soul. As such, it is a possibility in all times and places. In the Middle Ages, boredom was called acedia and was held to be a capital sin. But philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists agree that chronic boredom is especially prevalent in modern times. Why would this be so?

Johan Huizinga's account of ordinary life at the close of the Middle Ages presents a picture of human life from which boredom is absent, a life in which birth, marriage, and death "were raised to the rank of mysteries" by the sacredness of the sacraments, and in which the hardships of life were experienced more keenly.1 Kekes infers that men and women were "fully engaged with their fears and hopes and with what they believed and felt they had to do about them" (108). In particular, he sees in Huizinga's description "a shared ideal sanctified by the church," an ideal that provided hope and solace in the face of pain and suffering.

Kekes points to two ways in which modern life is significantly different, ways that explain the contemporary prevalence of boredom. First, the hardships of daily life have been greatly softened by the increase in comfort provided by technology, medicine, etc. Comfort alleviates the immediacies of pain, illness, and poverty. Second, the authoritative world view of the Middle Ages is no longer accepted by many people. Therefore, the "shared ideal sanctified by the church" no longer has any authority and people "are freer than ever before to choose what they believe and how they live their lives" (109).

The freedom that is characteristic of modern life leads, in many cases, to an absence of direction in one's life and to an inability to distinguish between important and unimportant in one's choices. "All evaluations appear arbitrary because the ground on which they were based has disappeared" (110). Kekes describes the disintegration of the self that occurs under these conditions, a loss of self and of individuality that is not due to external causes but to oneself. When this happens, the thrill of evil can appear to offer a way to experience self-integration and freedom once again.

One of the most famous cases of doing evil knowingly is presented in the Confessions of Saint Augustine. Recounting the many sins of his youth, Augustine singles out one in particular that seems to puzzle him and pushes him to seek its most basic cause. He and his friends stole some pears from a tree near their vineyards. What fascinates him is the gratuitous nature of the act: they did not steal the pears because they were hungry for they had ample and better food at home and, in fact, they threw away most of what they had taken. Augustine is forced to conclude that the evil was done for its own sake...


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pp. 8-12
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