Part of the problem we all face in sorting out what to call these acts is what I’d call the two paradoxes of evil. First, we have to get past the idea that all evil acts are always committed by evil or evil-intentioned people. Let’s call it the Trevor-Roper paradox, because it was brought home to me by a short sharp remark uttered by the British historian H.R. Trevor-Roper. I will never forget the scene: the genteel lounge of the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, where I was interviewing Trevor-Roper, in the course of researching my book on Hitler explainers—he was one of the first and most influential Hitler biographers (his still-perceptive The Last Days of Hitler is really an assessment of Hitler as a whole—or as a hole).
I had asked Trevor-Roper a deceptively simple question I had asked other Hitler scholars and explainers: Did Hitler know he was doing wrong when he was committing his crimes against humanity? I found myself stunned when Trevor-Roper shot back: “No, Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude.” Hitler! Convinced of his own rectitude! Yet it was hard to deny (though some did). Trevor-Roper believed the historical record such as it is shows that Hitler was a true believer in the justice of his acts, considered himself a highly moral savior of humanity from evil, compared himself to a doctor like Pasteur fighting an infectious plague who must exterminate every one of the deadly bacilli threatening the human race (guess who?).
This is almost intolerable to entertain, but it says something almost universally true. Most people who commit acts of terrorism believe they are doing so—by reason of ideology or theology—for a good reason.
Which brings us to the second paradox—the Post Enlightenment paradox—that subverts the use of evil. No ideology has a right to dictate absolute truths to us, but it also makes it difficult to judge absolutely which ideologies and theologies are evil or productive of evil acts and which just differ from ours. It’s the paradox of moral relativism: Must we tolerate even intolerant cultures? Is female genital mutilation just a “cultural tradition” valid as any of ours?
Perhaps the best response to laying off the blame for evil to ideology or theology comes from Murray Kempton, most well-known as a newspaper columnist, though to my mind the greatest American nonfiction stylist of the past century and perhaps the smartest and shrewdest judge of mankind I’ve ever met. (His book Part of Our Time may be the best thing written about ideologies and theologies and their adherents, portraits of communists and ex-communists he knew. You must read it!) Anyway, in a conversation with him you can find in The Secret Parts of Fortune he tossed off one of the single wisest things I’ve ever heard said about ideology and evil: “It took me a while to discover this,” he said, “but the biggest mistake you can make is to follow your ideas to their logical conclusions. You can make a lot of other [mistakes], and every now and then you can be right. But when you follow your ideas to their logical conclusions you are always wrong.”
Wish the Chechen bros had read Murray. It’s what fanatics, Inquisitionists, backpack bombers always do: carry their ideas to their allegedly logical conclusions.
So does that mean we do have ground to stand on when we use the word “evil”? Millions of words have been devoted to the subject by academic philosophers and I have only read a few hundred thousand at most, but I can say that the centuries-old evolution of the debate over human evil has narrowed down to focus on a certain kind of choice. Do we or do we not believe it is possible to commit an evil act knowing it is evil, not just sanctioned or sanctified by ideological or theological authority?
In the technical language of academic philosophy such acts are classed as “malignant evil” or more often, “wickedness.” Doing evil knowing that it is evil. Wickedness sounds so medieval, so Grimm’s—a throwback to the era of Macbeth, in fact—but it remains a subject of serious debate among sophisticated contemporary moral philosophers such as Mary Midgely and John Hick. The seriousness with which this old-fashioned term takes the question blows away the dimwit pop sophistry of pundits forever citing Arendt’s “banality of evil” as if it were profound, when, in fact, that argument no longer deserves serious discussion—based as it is on a blundering misconception of who Hitler’s executioners were.
Strictly defined, wickedness is more often found in literature than life. Pure wickedness is found in Shakespeare’s Richard III (please don’t give me the disability excuse he wickedly tries to elicit sympathy with) and most floridly, most terrifyingly—because it is seems to prey on otherwise previously nonwicked souls—in Macbeth.
And so what does Alan Cumming’s Macbeth have to say to us about all of this? Now, I’ll warn you: I’m writing this while I’m still under the spell of what I consider one of the great Shakespearean stage experiences I’ve had. It solved finally my puzzlement at why I had never before been taken by any staging of Shakespeare’s most intense and highly charged work of dramatic tragedy. So intense and highly charged, I’ve realized, that the language may be too powerful for any actors or actresses to embody. I recommend you read the exceptionally savvy Jonathan Bate’s paperback edition of the play, not just for his smart introduction but for the after-matter, which largely consists of actors and directors twisting themselves into pretzels trying to psychologize the characters. And in the process diminishing the dark and numinous power of the words and the wickedness that pervades the iambic pentameter.