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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Origin of Evil

The Origin of Evil.

The Origin of Evil has been ever a subject of deep interest. And in venturing on the discussion of it, our intention is not to wade into theological depths and be carried away by the currents of a philosophy and mode of religious thought fast going out of use, but rather to produce, if possible, such evidence of its origin, as shall not only commend itself on the score of probability, but invite our conviction of its truth by the test of each person's experience. And we would commence at once by saying, that Evil is not a disposition existing of itself, per se, utterly detached as it were from the action that gives it significance. We mean to say, that no conduct could have been styled evil, until experience of its effects should have justified the application of the term. It is the discovery of certain results both in morals and science that attaches any name to them. An endurance beyond the ordinary behaviour of man is called patience. A personal hardihood and forgetfulness of self, either in warfare or in the more stirring events of civil life, obtains the name of bravery. The insensibility to another's pain, combined with a propensity to animal torment, is branded with the name of cruelty. But in all these tempers, and in many more that a moment's reflection will readily suggest, the experience of the action must have anticipated the form of its expression. We could only arrive at a proof of what is evil by a well-considered estimate of an opposite course of conduct.

We would observe, then, that mankind, for its own guidance and distinguishment of impulse, has denominated certain modes of action to be evil, uninfluenced by any preconceived religious bias or theocratic dictation. The Greeks, who were the keenest thinkers of the world, knew nothing of evil personified. Their idea of evil was one simply in the abstract. Their to kakon page 168 inferred an act, not a person. As for the diabolos of ecclesiastical fiction, they knew nothing of it. Their verb diaballo and the adjective diabolos expressed one and the same meaning—that of deceiving and calumniating. Diabolos—in the sense of a fallen angel, a subtle serpent, the tempter of David as well as of the Founder of Christianity, the Evil Spirit "whose name is no more heard in heaven," described finally as an Old Dragon to be bound a thousand years—has no existence in any Greek or Roman mode of God's dealing with his creatures, but is confined to the realms of poesy, and to the creations of a fervid imagination. The to kakon is, and has ever been, something so essentially distinct from to agathon, that no mistake could arise about principles in such direct antagonism. In the very earliest formation of human societies, we can suppose the value of peace to have been contrasted with loss and injury from violence—the beauty of order, with the misery of disorder—the rights of property, with the terror of rapine—the charm of domestic ties, with the gross indulgence of roving appetite and indiscriminate lust. What experience found to be an evil was modified in the course of time, not by any supernatural communication of what was right and what was wrong, but because the genius of mankind recognised its own necessities of action, and on the score of self-preservation was impelled to subscribe to them. It is after this era that Superstition stepped in, and invested a before well-ascertained course of conduct with the garb of religious motive. Wholly based on the contrast between two kinds of behaviour, the notion of evil had nothing whatever in it of supernatural origin. It was reserved for the wit of a comparatively modern age to forge an incident to account for a fact. A cosmogony is introduced which, taking the origination of evil away from human conduct, assigns its source to a cause, that, but for some consideration due to the prejudices of others, we should hold equally credible with the marvellous fictions of King Arthur's Knights, and the Legend of St. George and the Dragon. We need not dwell on the garden of Eden—the creation of man—the making of woman—the temptation—the fall and the consequent curse. We view all these incidents as simply a foundation whereon it is sought to ground the origin of evil. Its most strenuous supporters may perhaps regret so brief a beginning has been accorded to the world. If evil dated its existence only from the first occupants of Eden, what are we to judge of the former tenants of a world who reckon their habitancy not by thousands, but by tens of thousands of years? If science and geology tell us these truths—truths that cannot be controverted from the constantly increasing evidence adduced in their favour—we must either suppose that evil preceded the cosmogony spoken of, or else that mankind was living in that golden age when there was no conception of guilt, and when aggression, hatred, and lust of rule were utterly unknown.

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But passing on, we notice that tendency of the human mind to lean on something. We observe its frequent inclination to yield to an ideal bondage. In the more educated mind this inertness is not uncommonly the result of some disappointment in the virtue of the religious evidence presented to it, and subsequent after carelessness about further examination. Unwilling in the meanwhile to wholly discard the impulse of educational training, man would adopt a middle course, and be content with another's seeming proof of a doctrine or of a question of faith in place of his own moral conviction. He accepts the orthodox meaning and explanation of evil rather on the principle of obedience to a Church, or in despair of arriving at any more satisfactory testimony, than from any innate and conscientious persuasion. Prom observing the operations of Nature, its creative as well as its destructive powers, he finds his perceptions of evil getting misty and undefined. He regards the heavens, and the wonders of creation, and, while fully recognising his own insignificance, is too apt to impute that to supernatural agency which a more steady consideration of natural causes may deprive of any unusual importance. And if the man of education is under some bondage of this kind, the ignorant man is much more so. In him Superstition has an easy victim. Bull in intellect, and ready to take the very first impression that offers, the rude mind is very sensibly affected through the eyes and ears. The earthquake becomes the shock of some evil agency—the thunderbolt an embodied messenger of evil. And when ignorance has its fears indirectly confirmed by doctrines that teach the embodiment of evil, we can hardly be surprised if the untutored mind gets half-paralysed by what is so near a visitation, and at once gives up its independence. Professional cunning makes every provision against all emergencies. If less evil should take place than has been ecclesiastically declared, some power in the interval has been through a clerical medium propitiated: if greater harm take place to the religious votary than was anticipated, then some sin has been kept back, and the evil agency has had free way! Man then, from utter inability to compete with the unseen agencies around him, becomes enslaved to a belief in some evil principle, and, beholding the operation of certain physical laws acting ruthlessly and irrespectively of any conduct on his part, augurs, as he conceives it, some evil agency and the influence of a malignant power. And when we reflect on the potency of the imagination, and its oftentimes system of self-torture, we can fancy what strains the untutored mind endures. While leaning, as well as those more educated, on another's dicta, the more illiterate class have not the same amount of judgment in determining about the more gross attacks on their understanding. Whether the supposed author of evil be brought forward under the figure of the serpent, or of one constantly going to and fro on the earth, of Satan, Beelzebub, or the Spirit page 170 of Evil,—there is always some accompanying idea of a superior power, whose aid is to be solicited only through those who have been specially appointed to give it. Some churches, we may say, have a large stock of this imparted virtue, but a quantity after all scarcely adequate to the demand, if individual independence is to be laid aside and no anxiety to be felt about securing a more sensible basis of confidence. Supposing the same dispositions to have existed among early humanity that hold now—and we have no reason for inferring that any peculiarity of cerebral formation does more than suggest a few peculiarities of conduct—we may fairly conclude that experience became the gauge of moral action, and that its policy was determined, unconsciously as it were, by its effect on the interests and passions of those likely to come within its more immediate influence. Distinctions of character there may well be. The Celt may be lively and sociable—the Teuton may be phlegmatic—the Italian warm and amorous—the Briton undemonstrative—the Lapp of a cold and sluggish temperament in character with the region around him; but with all these marked characteristics, the main impulses of our nature are the same, and are little influenced by either clime or creed. The hardships attendant on the earliest stages of existence were borne by all in their different fashions. Man had to exercise his craft and his ingenuity. The wilderness had to be redeemed, and be brought into some sort of cultivation. The savage beast had to be driven back into further solitude, and its skin furnished the first covering of gradually-becoming-civilised man. Though territory in early times might not have been of the importance it now is, yet the O si angulus ille was no doubt as powerfully effective then as it is apt to be now. So far as we know, no preponderance of one sex over another existed; yet a chance meeting would then as now engender the seeds of passion, and prompt the making use of every endeavour to deprive another of what strong desire had selected for itself. If fortune dealt out with lavish hand to one, and appeared ever niggard to another, the invidious comparison was as potent then as it is now. And even though idleness and want of energy might often have more to do with the latter's condition, than any character of fatality, yet the results would be often one and the same thing in creating hostility and in the waiting opportunity to injure. It was under these and similar circumstances that society for its own conservation was obliged to step in, and enact those laws and regulations that might at least check the evil they could not wholly prevent. If evil was seen to be making rapid progress through the very agencies that were bringing about an increase of civilisation, it only remained for an incipient legislation to be guided by experience, and to deal with the various effects of evil as they came before it, viewing it, in fact, as the creation of circumstance, and in no way dependent on any ideal and supernatural taint.

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"Whatever may be urged by a theological system to make man worse than he is, there is no verified depravity of disposition that leads him to say that evil is good, and good is evil. It is all very well for religionism to magnify human abasement that its healing may reflect more credit on clerical empirics. But man needs little information touching his inclination to evil. While he is aware of its constant aggressions through the medium of his unguarded desires and appetites, and is disposed enough to wage battle with it from a previously gathered experience of two opposite lines of behaviour, he will not, if true to himself, be inclined to engage such an adversary with weapons chosen from any theological armoury whatever, but to encounter it with the resolution to try and act in such a fashion as to secure his own self-commendation, and the tacit approval of the society around him. For it must be further remembered that though society may be somewhat lax at times in its combined action, it will not admit of individual disorder; or refrain from severely animadverting on vice when introduced within the range of public notice. And what necessity is there for religious bugbears and the terrors of superstition? What advantage in picturing the horrors of hell and of an everlasting fire? The consequences of evil are quite enough scaring, without subsidising the torments of an idle superstition. Have murder, lewdness, drunkenness, perjury, cruelty, and idleness no attendant punishments? Is snapping the thread of human life and driving it headlong into an unknown future, no subject of bitter reflection? Does that indulgence to vicious appetite that grows more powerful in the body by the meat it feeds on and never gets wholly extinguished, possess no after drawbacks either by entailing a shattered constitution, or imbecility of mind? Has drunkenness no after recoil in the loss of health and self-respect? perjury no moment of blasting conscientiousness? cruelty no avenger? idleness no self-torment?

"Magne pater divum, sævos punire tyrannos
Haud alia ratione velis, cum dira libido
Moverit ingenium ferventi tincta vencno;
Virtutem videant, intabescantque rclicta."

No superstitiously grounded deterrence from evil can have force equal to the exhibition of evil itself, when temporarily revelling in its deformity and filth, or under a masque of beauty; reminding one not inaptly of the Sirens of olden story, or of the alluring and treacherous damsels of Tasso at the Fountain of Laughter. It is easily seen, then, how what from experience of evil had become a confirmed idea in men's mind—namely, the necessity of securing a common good by individual restraint—how this idea, we repeat it, became reduced to a science; and how the original motive for so acting gradually became mingled with the false glosses of a priestly fraternity, who were glad to see the original motive-influence drift away, and after a while be page 172 lost in the spiritual claims of a clergy, and in their bold enunciation of divine communication. The ignotum pro mirabili—the tendency of an uninformed mind towards the marvellous—was a great aid open to clerical enterprise. It was not to be neglected. While the principles of evil itself could not be gainsaid, its incitements could be insidiously attacked; and its ingredients either diminished or added to—either made stronger or weaker, according as it might agree with the policy of the moment, or be instrumental or otherwise in upholding the worldly interests of a holy brotherhood. The for the most part simplicity of life that marked the Church previous to the reign of Constantine, was far too tedious to be endured any longer. Self-denial had had its day, and had accomplished its intention. The grand and high-motived acts of old Roman and Greek virtue were flouted. The exercise of principles that had enabled them to govern half the world was held a mistake. The impulses that prompted them to the noblest sacrifices, and urged them to incomparable deeds of patriotism were misrepresented. A new era was to open up.

"Jam nova progenies cœlo dimittitur alto."

There was to be peace in all the world. The leopard was to lie down with the kid. War was to deface the Earth no longer. The sword was to be beaten into a ploughshare, and the spear into a pruning-hook. But no times like these ever came in the memory of man. So as an event could not be forged like an Epistle or a Gospel, these pious tricksters of a religious charlatanism were fain to postpone the happy event sine die, or else allow it to be realised at some future period, whereabout they talk so much and know so little. After the age of Constantine, past the days of Charlemagne, and up to nearly the close of the thirteenth century, religious society was being drilled into its belief. The old landmarks had been sedulously cleared away, and the quality of good and the enormity of evil were solely to be measured by ecclesiastical approval and church censure. These were the dark ages, and dark they indeed were—the period of damnatory Creeds and False Decretals: a season fruitful in every manoeuvre that would tend to darken the mind and leave it no chance of healthy action. And even when the obscurity somewhat cleared away, and mankind began to realise the folly of many of those delusions by which it had been so long overridden, it found itself in the condition of that long-imprisoned man who had got to lose every taste of freedom, and whose very return to liberty was viewed with no sense of enjoyment. The mind, from having been so long enslaved, had become used to its fetters; and in a kind of despair of being really persuaded about any religious truth, was content to barter liberty away, and take its convictions at second hand. Then did human malady in its hundred forms come in as an agent and confederate of Superstition. If it made speedy way and the page 173 patient was fast sinking under its virulence, then divinity had been offended; and the only means of spiritual reserve remaining, was a liberal bequeathment of worldly goods to a class who alone kept the keys of the gates of salvation. Whatever occurred was readily met. The talent and quick wit of the priesthood were equal to every emergency. If they were sometimes met with a determination equal to their own—their claims resisted, their status disputed—the disobedient member was burdened with the displeasure of the Church, and threatened with immediate judgments. If nothing then transpired of an injurious character, he was told the long-suffering of divinity was great, but that penalty would sooner or later follow. If punishment suddenly came (in the shape of accident or of illness arising from natural causes), great was the glory of the prophet: if nought took place the delinquent became invested with the interest of a modern Damocles, with the sword of judgment suspended in the air! And so it has come to pass that man is really lashed with the scourge of his own making. He need fear no other. The weaning oneself from the unfounded prejudice of being possessed more or less by some malignant power, or of being invited to do what our moral perceptions forbid being done, should be our devotional aim. It is something to get rid of these hobgoblins of the mind, and to feel conscious while we stand within the charmed circle of moral law, that no harm can befall us. It is further advantage the being able to now and then take stock of our belief, and to rid ourselves of superstitious incumbrances: and above all to purchase independency of mind, at no higher price than those prejudices that have long been fostered and handled with nervous terror. If each one may be called the artificer of his own happiness, it is incumbent on him to play no tricks with his understanding, but to keep persistently to that one interpretation of evil which common sense proves to be the right one. As to any peculiarity of bodily formation leading to some corresponding fashion of conduct—any dislocation in the system arising from physical causes acting almost imperceptibly on our power of action—these would be points that besides being very difficult of definition, might, unless incontrovertibly established by the knowledge of others than ourselves, be likely to imperil watchfulness and demeanour, and lead us to think lightly of our independence. An undivided homage towards what is good, is far better than an unmeaning faith frittered here and there in a sort of mechanical and heartless service. All may not be quite clear, even then, from inability to grasp what perhaps is beyond our ken in much that we see about us and the contrarieties we detect. Still this so-far-secure half-knowledge must be after all broad noon, beside the darkness we have escaped from, and the grovelling extravagancies of a past age.