My starting point for thinking about evil is John A Sanford’s Book: “Evil The Shadow Side of Reality”, 1981. He states:
“From the point of view of psychology, then, evil is a necessity if individuation is to occur.”
This quote is typical of the pulpit style of Sanford’s book in which he makes tidy assertions without much gesture to intellectual rigour. Whilst his book is interesting historically and collects together some useful ideas, I believe he fails to really inquire into the nature of evil. It is as if he is too comfortable in his position – a signal that we should beware. We should beware because one thing I have learned from thinking about evil it is that by its nature evil defies easy definition, and when we stop feeling uncomfortable about this characteristic of evil we are in danger of going unconscious to the evil in ourselves.
“Society likes violence. It just likes to be able to control it. Imagine that a guy built an electric chair in his basement, plugged it in, and then went out in the street and kidnapped people, dragging them into his basement, where he puts them in his homemade electric chair and electrocuted them. You know what would happen? After he did this a few times (the state’s not too swift, it takes them a while to catch on) they’d catch him, and throw him in jail. Then they’d put him in an electric chair and throw the switch, and his eyeballs would pop out of his head. And we’d call that justice.” (C Fred Alford “What Evil Means To Us” p.30)
This quotation raises questions about evil that are hard to answer, it is dirty, political, and nasty. Sanford is cleaner, less messy, easier to think about.
What does Sanford mean when he writes “From the point of view of psychology …” ? Does he make a split inside himself between the Episcopalian priest and the Jungian analyst? My dictionary says that psychology is: “… 1. the scientific study of all forms of human and animal behaviour, sometimes concerned with the methods through which behaviour can be modified. … 2. Informal. the mental make-up or structure of an individual that causes him (sic) to think or act in the way he (sic) does. …” (Collins Dictionary of the English Language Second Edition 1986 p.1234). The etymology of the word ‘psychology’ suggests that it is something to do with the study of the soul. I don’t know where Sanford stands when he writes “From the point of view of psychology …”, except that I think he is probably trying to draw a distinction between how psychology thinks about evil and how theology, philosophy, metaphysics, and indeed ordinary people, think about evil. He is either privileging his position as a psychologist, or he is trying to contain evil by regarding it from a particular standpoint. Either way I believe he is missing the point about evil, which is its unboundedness – its connection to ‘precategorical experiences’. I am using the term ‘precategorical’ to denote “… experiences that are prior not just to morality but to the categories that make morality possible, including such basic distinctions as self and other.” ( Alford, p.37) More of this later.
Evil is a necessity. What is evil anyway? This is where I stumbled, and nearly didn’t pick myself up again. It took me into the shadows, hunting for answers about evil.
Evil as the collective shadow, an objective reality:
“While the personal shadow is an entirely subjective development, the experience of the collective shadow is an objective reality, which we commonly call evil” (“Meeting The Shadow The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature” ed. Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams p.165)
Evil as absence, the absence of good, ‘privatio boni’:
“Anyone with unprejudiced common sense will see that the idea of evil as mere absence is no different from the idea of coldness as absence of warmth. Yet if we didn’t put on a warm overcoat in cold weather, we would soon have a positively real experience of this negative quality, this absence!” (“Evil Selected Lectures by Rudolf Steiner” ed. Michael Kalisch)
Evil as a fact of doing:
“Evil needs to be pondered just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but ideal extensions and abstractions of doing, and both belong to the chiaroscuro of life. In the last resort there is no good that cannot produce evil and no evil that cannot produce good.” (“Jung On Evil” ed. Murray Stein p.35)
Evil as an absence of humanity:
“Evil is absence of humanity, the failure to understand or appreciate the humanity of the other. It chills because it threatens our existence, like being dead in the eyes of another.” (Alford, pp.22 – 23)
M. Scott Peck in “People Of The Lie” develops around a theme of evil as a form of “malignant narcissism”, the wilful failure of submission to something ‘higher’ (M Scott Peck “People Of The Lie” p.87):
““That’s crazy,” Beth F., a graduate student in psychology, replies. “Peck’s a narcissist too. If he can’t reach them, they’re evil. What sort of conclusion is that? Maybe they just don’t want to be reached by him. Or by anybody.” That one cannot be reached by another is not evidence of one’s evil. …it is … evidence of how careful we must be about translating our feelings of evil into evidence of evil. They are not necessarily the same.” (Alford, p.23)
‘Malignant narcissism’ is a concept that Peck attributes to Erich Fromm but gives no reference. Whilst I have not been able to trace Fromm’s original reference to this, for a discussion of ‘aggression and narcissism’ see Erich Fromm “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness” pp.271 – 277
Increasingly I became aware of my pursuit of evil as a hermeneutic enterprise. ‘What is evil?’ is a question that hovers alongside “… what is the meaning of of Hamlet? of Crime and Punishment?, or of your own behaviour, your actions, your life?” (Ken Wilber “Up From Eden” p.290) And here again we encounter the nature of evil, for where hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, the shadow (which keeps making its presence felt around evil) is of course “… the seat of intentional if unconscious misinterpretation … a hermeneutical nightmare”. (Wilber, p.290) How easy it is to interpret something as evil out of one’s shadow; or to miss the evil in oneself or one’s context because of the failure to interpret arising from one’s shadow. And evil is more than just interpretation. Hermeneutics is a context to empiric-analytical inquiry, and so the latter belongs within the former.
As I write I am telephoned by a friend who recently walked in on her sister’s boyfriend hanging from the ceiling – she names that as ‘evil’. Not the act itself, but the experience of walking in on it. This is where I have come to, that evil seems more than just “… the impulse to malevolent destruction.” (Alford, p.142) Evil includes “… ravaging illness or brutal violence suffered by oneself or a loved one; loss of meaning, hope, and belief; and utter despair. Evil is not only the cruelty another intends; it is the human suffering we cannot escape.” (Alford, p.16)
My task has shifted from answering ‘What is evil’, to finding “… a category of experience which might help render commensurable … such radically diverse experiences as suffering, illness, “falling on evil days”, the malevolence of the human heart, the Lisbon earthquake (see note below), the Holocaust, murder, going down into a dark basement, and losing oneself to one’s boyfriend.” (Alford, p.18)
Note: “For over a century, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was the paradigm of evil. Tens of thousands perished, Voltaire wrote Candide, and the issue of God’s justice, theodicy, was debated as never before.” (Alford, p.17.)
In his book “What Evil Means To Us”, C Fred Alford approaches evil by asking people about it. He used a questionnaire of twenty-one questions to guide the interview process. He interviewed: a sample of twenty men and twenty women aged from eighteen to eighty years who volunteered in response to his advertisements; a group of prison inmates ranging in age from nineteen to forty-eight, including five women, where he spent two hours a week for a year (a total of eighteen inmates were members of the group overall); and ten staff members from the same prison. All samples were a mixture of self-selection and selection by Alford, to give a spread of age, ethnicity, and gender.
Alford did not just record the content of the interviews, but also the process and made interpretive leaps from the combination of the two. In his first chapter he has this to say about evil:
“Evil is not a residual category, a category we turn to when no other explanations seem to fit. Although the topic of evil is not coextensive with religion, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics, it touches on most of the issues they do. In the end, evil is a discourse about human malevolence, suffering, and loss: why humans are the way they are, and why we live in a world that is this way. Evil is not a residual category but a foundational one.” (Alford, p.18)
Alford goes on to argue that evil is closely connected with experiences of ‘dread’ or ‘doom’. Experiences which relate to the “formless dread” of presymbolic, preverbal experience. He writes that “… what is uncontained is itself experienced as evil because it is uncontained, overwhelming, beyond limits. Not every uncontained experience is evil, of course, only those in which the experience seems boundless, likely to overwhelm the self in tidal wave of emotion. Evil is that which threatens to obliterate the self, overcome its boundaries.” (Alford, p.38)
Alford draws on the work of the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden, who extends the two positions discussed by Melanie Klein et al by introducing a third position – that of the autistic-contiguous position. According to Ogden, autistic-contiguous experience is the most fundamental and primitive mode of being.
“It is called autistic-contiguous because the state it represents is not of two skins or surfaces touching, but one that is two, two surfaces whose contact creates one reality, shared skin. Imagine … that sitting in your chair you feel neither the chair nor the pressure on your buttocks. Instead, there is neither chair nor buttocks but simply “impression”, a feeling with no inside, no outside, and no locus. That is autistic-contiguous experience. Its paradigm is the mother-infant relationship …” (Alford, p.38-39)
Alford points to how this realm of experience is both precategorical and preverbal. “It is the realm of the reality of body experience so immediate and so real that the distinction between bodily and symbolic experience is transcended, or perhaps “undermined” would put it better.” (Alford, p.39) On the one hand, autistic-contiguous experience expresses a profound rhythmic contentment with the world, and if we didn’t have it available to us there would be something hollow and missing in life. Our experience would be of “… a world of symbols whose connection to felt meaning would be obscure.” (Alford , p.39) On the other hand, autistic-contiguous experience can become transformed into dread in an instant, the experience of oneness with the All threatening to obliterate the self in a tidal wave of uncontainable experience, “… where boundaries fail and things that should be separate flow into each other” (Alford, p.39).
In discussing the relationship of the three positions, Alford draws a triangle to represent the frame of a psyche in terms of the three positions:
paranoid-schizoid position depressive position
According to Ogden a healthy psyche depends on an ability to hold a point of tension (my term!) between these three poles. He puts it this way:
“Psychopathology can be thought of as forms of collapse of the richness of experience generated between these [three] poles. … Collapse toward the autistic-contiguous pole generates imprisonment in the machine-like tyranny of attempted sensory-based escape from the terror of formless dread. … Collapse into the paranoid-schizoid pole is characterised by imprisonment in a … world of thoughts and feelings … that simply happen, and cannot be thought about or interpreted. Collapse in the direction of the depressive pole involves a form of isolation of oneself from one’s bodily sensations, and from the immediacy of one’s lived experience, leaving one devoid of spontaneity and aliveness.” (Thomas Ogden, “The Primitive Edge of Experience” p.46 as quoted in Alford, p.42
Alford suggests that evil stems from the formless dread arising out of presymbolic, preverbal experience, which threatens to overwhelm our sense of self. And that doing evil “… is not just about inflicting this dread on others. Doing evil is also an attempt to shortcut our access to the autistic-contiguous position, a dimension of experience that is a source not only of dread but also a source of vitality and meaning in life. In doing evil, the evildoer seeks vitalising contact with the autistic-contiguous dimension of experience while avoiding its price, an awareness of human pain, vulnerability, and death. In a word, evil is cheating.” (Alford, pp.9-10)
Alford’s argument continually places evil, doom and dread in counterpoise to each other. He points to how evil hovers in the space between the desire for autistic-contiguous experience and the terror of being obliterated in that experience. In the autistic-contiguous position dread is primordial, the terror of human limits, of living and dying in a single human body. Dread is the abstract precategorical experience of pain, abandonment, and helplessness; meaninglessness and nothingness are its existential correlates. “Dread is a fear of a living death” (Alford, p.53)
Alford argues that one of the forms evil takes is as a paranoid-schizoid attempt to evacuate the formless dread by giving it form via violent intrusion into another, the other’s body giving presymbolic form to the dread that is evacuated there. (Alford, p.43)
“Putting our dread into the other by terrorising and victimising him (sic), we give form to our dread. It is as if the other were the frame for the picture of our dread, a picture that must be framed before we can paint it, and destroyed immediately afterward, lest it remind us of our dread. Destroying the other, we destroy our dread (or so the fantasy goes), separating from it after having given it protosymbolic form in the body of another. This process applies not just to physical violence but to the cutting remark, the hurtful gesture, and perhaps even the purposeful neglect of the humanity of others, as though some must lose their humanity for others to possess it.” (Alford, p.44)
Referring to the model of the three positions as a triangle, Alford suggests the dread that leads to evil takes place along the left side of the triangle, the side that connects autistic-contiguous with paranoid-schizoid experience.
Dread transforms an equilateral triangle into an acute one, the left side becoming shorter and shorter as these two positions collapse into one another. (Alford, p.42) Violence, whether physical or mental that has a quality of ‘evacuative attachment’ – in which one connects with the other in order forcibly to share an unbearable feeling so as to communicate and be rid of it – would come closer to the paranoid-schizoid position. (Alford, p.44) Violence that seeks to create an edge, a boundary, as though to say you must suffer and die so that I can live, would come closer to the autistic-contiguous position, violence a defence against a merger. (Alford, p.44)
Alford goes on to explain the complex identifications involved in doing evil in terms of the psychological dynamics of a psychopath.
“Precategorical dread evokes the helplessness of infancy, in which the responsiveness of the other is the condition of life itself. … Gross failures of maternal responsiveness are so terrifying they lead the nascent psychopath to identify with the unresponsiveness itself, a failed merger that is the only merger around, the union with the stranger predator.” (Alford, p.57)
He points out that we all experience failures of responsiveness to greater or lesser degrees as infants and in everyday life. Total unresponsiveness – the malignant narcissism that Scott Peck points to – we identify as evil. The difference between us and a psychopath is that the responsiveness we have experienced – and do experience – keeps us from identifying with the unresponsive self. However, for most of us, the cracks that our experiences of unresponsiveness leave in our psyche mean that we are not immune from being overwhelmed by dread at times:
“The psychopathic moment is a virtually universal moment in all our lives. When we are faced with intolerable, uncontainable dread, the natural tendency is to identify with the persecutor, becoming the agent of doom, as the only way of controlling it. Evil is the attempt to inflict one’s doom on others, becoming doom, rather than living subject to it. In this sense evil is bad faith, the lie that one could escape one’s fate by inflicting it on others.” (Alford, p.58)
Alford suggests that the value of seeing evil and the experience of dread in terms of the ‘psychopathic moment’, is that it explains the complex identifications involved. We do not feel terror and then identify with the aggressor, the terror stems from the identification with the aggressor, their aggression suddenly our own, directed against those we care about and depend on, including ourselves and our values. (Alford, p.59)
“For most of us this happens only occasionally. Or we identify with the aggressor indirectly, participating in social systems that inflict the terror of helplessness downward, on select populations such as the poor or prisoners. But we do it. Unlike the psychopath, most of us feel guilty, at least sometimes. Neither guilt nor empathy will change this tendency to inflict terror on others, however. Individuals and societies are quite capable of hardening themselves against their guilt, blaming the victim, and all the rest. The only thing that will change this tendency is the ability of individuals, and societies, to traffic with their dread, to give dread creative form so as to be able to live with it.” (Alford, p.59)
Sadism is often associated with evil – “… the gaining of pleasure or sexual gratification from the infliction of pain and mental suffering on another person.” (Collins Dictionary of the English Language Second Edition 1986 p.1343) Alford says that sadism is properly called sadomasochism, because identification with the victim is central to the act. Identification with the victim and identification with the aggressor – an intimacy which is autistic-contiguous – a shared doom. ‘“Sad-ism” … the sadness of one’s separate fate dealt with by sticking (it) to another: sad i stic to you.” (Alford, p.125) But a shared doom is still doom, so a violent separation is necessary – “… a scratch across the autistic-contiguous surface to separate the parties, damaging the other so as to know who really has the power … and who’s in charge” (Alford, p.125) As victimiser one’s separateness can be known, the victimiser maintains the illusion of being ‘in charge’, and ‘in control’. Erich Fromm misses the importance of identification with the victim when he says this about sadism:
“I propose that the core of sadism, common to all its manifestations, is the passion to have absolute and unrestricted control over a living being, whether an animal, a child, a man, or a woman. To force someone to endure pain or humiliation without being able to defend himself is one of the manifestations of absolute control, but it is by no means the only one. The person who has complete control over another living being makes this being into his thing, his property, while he becomes the other being’s god.” (Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness p. 384-385)
Alford suggests that we want to lessen the amount of evil in the world then we need to teach people how to symbolise their dread, so they can contain it in more abstract and knowable forms. This seemed to be one of the main differences between the prisoners and the other people he interviewed – the prisoners were unable to symbolise their dread. “It is an education that begins with mother and baby and ends with our culture’s finest achievements, such as art, religion, and music. In between is the art of everyday living with our dread, the most important space of all.” (Alford, p.45) I think perhaps this is what the Buddha was trying to do, particularly when he spoke about dukkha – loosely translated as ‘suffering’, but perhaps closer to ‘dread’ and ‘doom’ in the sense that Alford speaks of it. The Buddha particularly made the link with ‘old age, sickness and death’. Alford makes the link with ‘pain, abandonment, and helplessness’, as the empirical correlates of dread. Interestingly, Buddhism has no concept of evil as such. Alford suggests that the willingness to suffer may sometimes be key in transforming evil – I think this is not so very far from what the Buddha was saying, although it is easy to distort!
So what has this to do with ‘individuation’? Individuation as defined by one Jungian analyst as:
“The conscious realisation of one’s unique psychological reality, including both strengths and limitations. It leads to the experience of the Self as the regulating centre of the psyche.” (Nathan Schwartz-Salant, Narcissism and Character Transformation p.180)
The same author defines ‘the Self’ as:
“The archetype of wholeness and the regulating centre of the personality. It is experienced as a transpersonal power which transcends the ego, eg., God.” (Nathan Schwartz-Salant, Narcissism and Character Transformation p.181)
So, individuation is: ‘The conscious realisation of one’s unique psychological reality, including both strengths and limitations. It leads to the experience of the archetype of wholeness as the regulating centre of the psyche. This is experienced as a transpersonal power which transcends the ego, eg., God.’
Alford suggests that avoiding evil depends on the ability to bring all three positions – autistic-contiguous, paranoid-schizoid, and depressive – into play, “ … not in order to overcome our dread, which isn’t possible, but in order to find a form to express it that does not involve the body or mind of another in order to contain it.” (Alford, p.44) I wonder how this relates to individuation. Am I stuck in “the flatlands” with Ogden, what would happen if the two dimensional model of the triangle was to extrude into three dimensions? Or am I to understand that all sublime experience belongs in the realm of the autistic-contiguous? I am momentarily lost. I refer to Wilbur following a dimly viewed lead, and realise that I need to divert to Edward C. Whitmont’s essay “The Evolution Of The Shadow” for a while.
Whitmont is a Jungian analyst based in New York. He uses the term ‘shadow’ to refer to the part of the personality that has been repressed for the sake of the ‘ego ideal’. He explains this as follows:
“… the development of the ego takes place as a result of the encounter between the Self – as a potential personality trend – and external reality, that is, between inner potential individuality and outer collectivity. On the first level of experience between right and wrong, which is the basis for self-acceptance, the beginnings of conscience are vested in and projected onto the outer collectivity. The child accepts himself (sic) in terms of fitting in. Harmony with the Self and thus with conscience appears at first to be dependent upon external acceptance – that is, upon collective and persona values, and those elements of the individuality which are too much at variance with accepted persona values cannot, seemingly be consciously incorporated into the image which the ego has of itself. They therefore become subject to repression. They do not disappear however; they continue to function as an unseen alter ego which seems to be outside oneself – in other words as the shadow. Ego development rests upon repressing the “wrong” or “evil” and furthering the “good”. The ego cannot become strong unless we first learn collective taboos, accept superego and persona values and identify with collective moral standards.” (Edward C. Whitmont “The Evolution Of The Shadow” as included in “Meeting The Shadow” ed Connie Zweig & Jeremiah Abrams pp.14-15)
Whitmont here seems to use ‘wrong’ and ‘evil’ interchangeably here. Jungians appear to do this all the time, except when they refer to the ‘archetypal level of evil’, which I have yet to find a commentary concerning. He goes on to say:
“The existence of or necessity for a shadow is a general human archetypal fact, since the process of ego formation – the clash between collectivity and individuality – is a general human pattern. The shadow is projected in two forms: individually, in the shape of the people to whom we ascribe all the evil; and collectively, in its most general form, as the Enemy, the personification of evil.” (Whitmont, p.15)
So, in terms of Jungian thought, evil as shadow is a necessity if individuation is to occur. But how does this relate to how I have now come to think of evil?
I begin wondering about Ogden’s triangle and the three positions, and I want to fiddle with it, perhaps so that it mirrors the evolution of consciousness mapped so brilliantly by Ken Wilbur. Can I map the autistic-contiguous position onto the uroboric level of consciousness, the paranoid-schizoid position onto the typhonic level of consciousness, and the depressive position onto the archaic level of consciousness? And where does individuation fit in this schema? Perhaps it doesn’t – anyway I am left to wonder.
And as I wonder, I realise that individuation needs to be seen as a process not a goal (similarly enlightenment), and that, in a way, the quote I have been discussing doesn’t make sense in terms of how I have come to think about evil. Evil and individuation are in a way incommensurable. Evil is … (not a thing). Evil is nothing because it is no-thing. But whether individuation is to occur or not, evil is a possibility. To the extent that individuation is about being human, evil is also about being human. To that extent they are commensurable. I rest my case.
Evil “… is not an entity, not an experience, not a feeling, though it may be all these and more. It is not a definition, even if we desperately want to make it one. We define evil because it scares us, because we do not know where it starts, or stops, so we try to confine it with a definition. We define to confine, to keep evil from becoming a precategorical blur. We define evil so that it is something, rather than no-thing. It is precisely the no-thing quality of evil that is so disturbing … The need for a definition is itself a reflection of precategorical dread, an attempt to give shape and boundaries to an experience that we fear possesses neither. Perhaps this is the most terrifying aspect of evil, its unbounded quality, neither inside or outside, but both, passing through us, possessing us in ways we hardly know but deeply fear.” (Alford, p.117-118)
A Brief History Of Everything Ken Wilbur 1996
Collins English Dictionary Second Edition 1986
Evil Selected Lectures By Rudolph Steiner Ed Michael Kalisch 1997
Evil The Shadow Side Of Reality John A. Sanford 1994
Jung On Evil Selected and introduced by Murray Stein 1995
Meeting The Shadow The Hidden Power of the Dark side of Human Nature Ed Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams 1991
Narcissism and Character Transformation The Psychology of
Narcissistic Character Disorders Nathan Schwartz-Salant 1982
People Of The Lie The Hope for Healing Human Evil M. Scott Peck 1990
The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness Erich Fromm 1973
The Scapegoat Complex Towards a Mythology of Shadow and Guilt
Sylvia Brinton Perera 1986
Up From Eden A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution Ken Wilbur 1981
What Evil Means To Us C. Fred Alford 1997