The global political landscape today reads like something straight out of Revelations. On a daily basis, we read shocking stories of the cruelties imposed by those in power. Education and healthcare are being gutted, families are being broken apart, minorities are being senselessly attacked, discrimination is being legalized, dissent criminalized, and corruption institutionalized. The very fabric of society is becoming undone before our eyes, and tyranny is rearing its ugly head. I’ve previously written about the structural conditions that led to this crisis. However, there is something more at play here that needs to be addressed: evil.
It’s become unfashionable in intellectual circles to speak of evil. One may speak of “good” in a utilitarian sense of achieving optimal outcomes. One may speak of rights or values or duties, and criticize others for failing to respect and uphold these things. One may speak of culpability and responsibility, of motives and intentions, of trauma and personality disorders, of socioeconomic conditions and mass psychology. Yet it is still taboo to suggest that there is a force of darkness at play in the cosmos. Even for those of us who profess to believe in God, we dare not acknowledge the Devil.
Discernment of Spirits
There is good reason for this. Among those who are quick to cry “evil,” there is a strong tendency to ascribe it as a quality that people either have or don’t have. Those who believe as they do and act as they act are good; those who hold different values, who live in different ways, who are somehow alien to them, are evil. It’s all very cut and dry, and makes a convenient binary lens through which to view the world that neatly avoids any need for subtlety or critical thinking.
This kind of black-and-white worldview might be called “cartoonish evil.” Yet it is precisely in cartoons where we often get a subtler representation of good and evil. There is a long-standing trope in cartoons in which a character is seen with two miniature versions of themselves perched atop their shoulders. One is dressed like an angel, complete with wings and a halo. The other is dressed as a demon, with horns and a pitchfork. Each whispers into the character’s ear about what they should do in a given situation. The angel tells them to seek the higher path —one that serves the greater good and shows greater strength of character. The demon tells them to give into their urges, acting impulsively out of lust, greed, wrath, or any of the other seven deadly sins.
This is a closer approximation to how we encounter good and evil in our own lives. We confront them within our own conscience. There is, however, a further level of subtlety that few if any such cartoons delve into. The Devil, according to legend, can appear to us as an angel of light. We can be fooled into believing that we are pursuing noble and respectable ends when in fact we are serving selfish and destructive impulses. Lesser known is the fact that angels can appear to be as frightening demons. Doing the right thing can be terrifying, and our psyches are equipped with an arsenal of self-defense mechanisms to convince ourselves not to do it.
These phenomena were a central concern for St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century Catholic mystic famous for founding the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits. He developed a series of spiritual exercises to help the initiate discover and develop a spiritual gift known as the discernment of spirits. The “spirits” in this case may be thought of as motives. They are drives within us that seek satisfaction. One might imagine that Ignatius, like many ascetics before him, would encourage a militant attitude of self-denial, refraining from “worldly” desires. Yet with his keen psychological insight, he realized that desires are actually very important. So important, in fact, that God speaks to us through our desires. The problem is that we confuse desires with whims or impulses. One may feel very strongly in the moment that one wants to cheat on their spouse, or get drunk for the third night in a row, or have fast food every night of the week. Yet these desires are fleeting. Upon satisfying them, we do not ultimately feel satisfied with ourselves. On the other hand, one may have a desire to improve one’s health, to spend more time with friends and family, to perfect a skill, or to pursue a vocation. These desires may not burn as bright in a moment of passion, but if pursued effectively, they leave us with a more prolonged sense of satisfaction.
Ignatius gives a number of exercises for discerning such spirits. He notes a number of features that characterize higher and lower desires. Any desire that comes with a sense of urgency in making a decision, unless external circumstances demand it, is almost always from the Dark One. The Devil will tempt us to fall away from pursuing the greater desires of our souls, justifying us in our indulgences. His voice will say, “It’s okay to cheat on your wife; you work hard for your family,” or “Go ahead and lash out at this person; they deserve it for getting in your way.” Such self-justifications are familiar enough to us all that I needn’t belabor the point. Yet when we are on the right path and pursuing our greater good, Satan takes a different route. He transforms from the Tempter to the Accuser. It is here that the Evil One appears truly frightening. While we are on the path of sin and ruin, he wants us to think of him as our best friend, feeding us one temptation after another. Yet when we turn from that path, and pursue our highest good, Satan loses his temper. “Who do you think you are?” he will say. “What business is it of yours to help these people?” Several saints recount experiencing physical battles with demons during their fasts, in which the demon would literally knock them across the room. We may not encounter anything quite so severe, but we may be called to suffer in pursuit of the greater good.
Satan may use society itself as a weapon against those who pursue the greater good. We are not merely individually fallen sinners. Society itself is fallen, and is often led by the darker impulses in humanity. Bigotry, greed, exploitation, indifference to the suffering of others —these are all too familiar in our society. Our entire economic system is based on rewarding greed and discouraging altruism. The profit motive, we are told, incentivizes people to act for the greater good. Yet environmental destruction, a failing healthcare system, and widespread inequality expose this for the pack of lies it truly is. Exploitation is so rampant that it’s difficult to imagine a society without it. The clothes on our backs are produced in sweatshops by children working in deplorable conditions, while our food is produced by agribusiness firms that dare to patent life itself. Evil of such magnitude, institutionalized into the very fabric of our society, seems insurmountable. One is tempted to give up any hope of changing it, and simply look after one’s own interests.
Meanwhile, charismatic leaders are able to stir up fear of outsiders to send people into a panic, leading them to commit atrocities. Fear can be an overwhelming emotion, and the Dark One loves to prey upon it. As long as he can keep people afraid of one another, afraid for their own safety and security, for their belongings, they will do whatever it takes to make the object of that fear go away. They will support mass incarceration, torture, and even genocide against those they are taught to fear. Such fear is a powerful drug, and when people feel vulnerable, they will seek out whoever is selling it. The results can be catastrophic.
The Evil One may even appear as God himself. He’s a familiar God to most of us: vengeful, petty, elitist, judgmental. He sharply divides the world between the saved and the damned. He takes great pleasure in the punishment of sinners, while blessing the saved with great material wealth and good fortune, not to help them in serving others, but as a reward for being on the right side of his good graces. He always picks sides in wars, blessing whichever side the worshipper is on. He can quote scripture to justify his followers in whatever hateful or selfish desires they pursue. They can do no wrong, for God is on their side.
The Problem of Evil
Why does evil exist in the first place? Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this question for centuries, and I certainly don’t expect to answer the question definitively. However, I would like to do what St. Ignatius did, and study the way evil behaves in order to offer insight into its inner workings. I should first note that the reason Satan can appear to us as an angel of light is because that was his original form. Good and Evil are not equal opponents. Evil would not be possible without Good. It is always and everywhere a distortion of the Good. Satan and his army were brought down from heaven through their pride, which can be a virtue if properly tempered, but without discernment can drag down even the most virtuous souls into damnation. In their pride, the fallen angels seek to spread their misery to others by leading them down the road to ruin.
Evil moves quickly. It leads us to seek quick answers, to give in to urges and impulses, to fear the unknown and fortify ourselves against uncertainty. It makes us feel justified in our own actions, yet quick to pass judgement on others. It takes hold of society, building up barriers against one another, exploiting the weak, casting hostility against outsiders and indifference upon those who suffer. Evil creates suffering while also feeding off of it. Those who carry wounds from their own suffering succumb to temptation to inflict that same suffering on others. Trauma begets trauma. Suffering leads to conflict which leads to insecurity and distrust of others. People build up walls to separate themselves from others, and protect what resources they have from outsiders.
What of the Good? How does it move? What is its place in this grand scheme? If Good is metaphysically prior evil, as we are told by the wisdom traditions of both East and West, why do we not see more of it? The Good works slowly, barely noticeable at first. Someone helps another person carry their groceries, or gives up their seat on a bus for another, or gives them some change for a bite to eat when they’re struggling. Such random acts of kindness may seem insignificant in a world so dominated by evil. However, if one not only performs good deeds, but actively cultivates virtue within themselves, they will be a light unto others, and inspire others to act likewise. The light spreads, slowly but surely, and is recognized by the inner light in others.
The path of righteousness does not offer the same short-term payoff as the path of darkness, but those who follow it will discover over time that a sense of inner peace grows within them, even when times are darkest. This is not to say that such people never face anxiety or depression. This sense of peace is a pure aesthetic appreciation of the Good. One finds comfort in doing the right thing, even when it comes at tremendous personal cost. This inner peace has accompanied many saints on their way to martyrdom.
Evil spreads like wildfire, but Good spreads more slowly, like one candle lighting another, slowly reaching critical mass. This may sound bleak, but the angels know a secret: Evil is unstable, and will inevitably turn on itself. Evil divides humanity against one another, and in the end eats its own. So while the demons preach instant gratification, the angels know the virtue of patient persistence. While Evil consumes itself, the Good grows on the blood of its martyrs and in the hearts of the faithful.
Following the higher path means facing this fallen society and preparing to suffer at its hands. Such is the way of the cross. The good news is that moral courage is contagious. Whenever someone shows heroic virtue, they empower the angel on everyone’s shoulder. The demons will work hard to try to sway them away, and they will still win much of the time, but the angel grows stronger from the support of others. Before long, an army of angels is assembled, strengthened by unity of purpose. While demons sow division and hatred, the angels know the virtue of solidarity. The Kingdom of Heaven is spread out among us, but when it is gathered together as one voice, the Devil trembles.
Those who hope for the intervention of an omnipotent deity should take a closer look at how Good and Evil play out within this world. It is a battle that takes place within our own hearts. The raging fire of darkness tempts people with its immense power, but such power is fleeting, and inevitably leads its followers to their own undoing. The steady, shimmering light of the Good, on the other hand, appears weak and fragile, but those who follow it know that it cannot be extinguished by the darkness, and will outlast it in the end. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones, and the meek will inherit the Earth. In our darkest hour, the light shines through.