Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bad to the Bone

Do evil people know they're evil? I used to wonder about that as a kid. It must be a kid thing to think about, because my son asked me that same question a few months back. In comic books and Hollywood movies, they seem to know. They enjoy being evil, and don't suffer from any psychological side-effects, the way most real homicidal criminals do. Characters like Voldemort from the Harry Potter books, or the Joker in The Dark Knight are ontologically evil--they're like a different species, born without empathy, incapable of regret, asexual, and radically anarchic. There are other kinds of characters who are psychologically evil--Norman Bates from Psycho, or Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Something traumatic happened to them, and they snapped. In these cases, a clear connection exists between the "exciting cause" (traumatic origin) of their evil actions and the actions themselves. Often, but not always, this cause is said to be a Bad Mommy. The ontologically evil guys know they're evil, and actually see evil as their "good." The messed up criminals usually think someone else is doing the evil, and they have to stop it.

In real life, only the second type exists--although the "cause" is seldom easy to identify. Ontological evil is a very compelling fantasy, but that's all it is. Hitler, as nasty as he was, didn't sit around thinking, "how can I become the most evil guy in the twentieth century?" No, he thought "how can I do a good deed and rid the world of these undesirables, and restore the Master Race to its rightful position?" He thought he was doing a good thing, and really believed that one day the world would see him as a hero. Didn't have the faintest idea that he was the Quintessence of Evilness (I once had a student use that phrase in a paper, and it stuck in my mind). Hitler and his ilk aside, most evil behavior (yes, I'm making that distinction--the behavior is evil, not the person per se) exists on a continuum. Is it evil to spread lies about someone so that they lose their professional career and have to work at Wal-Mart? Yes. Is it as evil as murder? Of course not. But I personally think that, under the right circumstances, person A (the slanderer) is capable of becoming B (the murderer). There's just a piece missing in some people--usually fear of the Law will keep A from becoming B, but without that, all bets are off.

So, if ontological evil is a fiction (and I realize not everyone will agree that it is), why is it such a persistent and compelling one? Easy--it absolves the rest of us of responsibility, and radically simplifies our moral world. When George W. Bush labeled North Korea, Iran and Iraq (those were the three, I think) the Axis of Evil, he was hoping to simplify our collective understanding of and response to those countries. Although he wasn't saying that all the people in those countries were ontologically evil, he was invoking the idea of ontological evil--comic-book and horror movie evil--to mobilize an aggressive response. On the other side, many leftists suggested that Bush and Cheney were/are themselves ontologically evil. This is also an "enabling fantasy"--a means of gathering your troops for battle. But it's not true.

Now some people will say that the idea of "psychological evil" is simply a legacy of twentieth century Freudianism, which spawned different fictions, like Norman Bates murdering people because his mom's dead body told him to. He was psychotic, and therefore not morally responsible for his actions. The psychological notion of evil gave us the legally messy "insanity defense," which seems to me to be a lame (and inconsistent) way of dealing with this whole issue. As an antidote to "moral fundamentalism," psychology offers a weak and flawed understanding of the real Problem of Evil. Lots of people have Bad Mommies or Daddies, after all, and not all of them become crazed murderers.

On the other hand, some people are simply more suggestible than others, don't you think? You can see this in myriad situations in life. When confronted with an oppressive power, some people fold instantly. Some fight. And some internalize the badness and become even badder than the power itself--because people need Something to Believe In, even if it's a really really bad thing. Is this evil, or just weak? Do some people simply have feeble moral immune systems?

I don't have an answer for any of this, but I think we have an obligation--a moral obligation--to think about it periodically. Will thought so, too.

Although I'm not a conventionally religious person, I think the Bible offers an interesting take on this conundrum. It is, after all, a history of our evolving sense of morality. The Good Book--which purports to be an owner's manual for the human conscience--doesn't answer the question of where evil comes from (even the Devil, I would argue, is a morally ambiguous figure) but it does offer two possible responses to human malfeasance. There's an Old Testament response, based on Law. The Old Testament doesn't care where evil comes from. It just knows that a good society cannot thrive unless evil actions are punished commensurately. And then there's the New Testament response, based on mercy--which is another way of saying "empathy" or, in its twentieth century incarnation, psychology. "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." The origins of their own evil actions are inaccessible to them. They are morally sick. We must cut them some slack.

Will understood these two versions of morality, and invoked them often--although nowhere more consciously than in The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock and Antonio offer Jewish and Christian versions of morality--which is, in that play, inextricable from finance. I'm thinking I'll blog that play pretty's pretty fascinating on a lot of levels.

So, Bloody Richard. He knows he's evil, obviously. Although he tries to offer some "reasons" for his villainy, none of them really hold up. "Since I cannot prove a lover....I am determined to prove a villain," he proclaims in his opening monologue. But then, shortly thereafter, he proves that he's a pretty good lover, at least rhetorically. He seems offended by his mother's lack of affection for him--in Act 2 he complains in an aside that she doesn't wish him a long life--but it's obvious that his malevolence was the cause, not the effect, of the Duchess's lack of affection for him. Like all ontologically evil characters, Richard lives in a morally inverted world, where good is bad and bad is good. He sees everything "through a glass, darkly." He's duplicitous in a literal sense--his outside and his inside are radically at odds. He's a "false glass," a "shadow," a player in the old-fashioned theatrical sense. In Othello, Iago (one of Richard's dramatic descendants) states it well. "I am not what I am," he says. My being, my essence, is a moral black hole. I'm a pure negativity, an antithesis, an empty moral place, a vacuum. I suck bad energy in from others, refine it, and shoot it back out into the world for my own twisted purposes.

That's ontological evil--a problem for physicists more than psychologists. Okay, I'm kidding a little.

At the beginning of Act 3, Richard's duplicity is front and center. When Prince Edward complains that he misses his uncle and half-brother (Rivers and Gray, who've been carted off to prison), Richard insists that they're not good men:

Sweet Prince, the untainted virtue of your years
Hath not yet dived into the world's deceit,
Nor more can you distinguish of a man
Than of his outward show, which God he knows
Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart.
Those uncles which you want were dangerous.

The audience would naturally see the irony in these words, as Richard's "outward show" is in fact an inverted image of his heart. The Prince also misses his brother, York, whom Elizabeth has rushed to sanctuary. Buckingham (Richard's chief minion) insists that York be taken from Westminster by force, since as a child, he can't legally claim sanctuary as an adult would. The Cardinal balks at first, then gives in.

Richard then engages in a little banter with the Prince on the subject of oral versus written history, and the nature of fame. The Prince argues that oral histories are as powerful as written ones--i.e., that one's fame can live on in excess of what the historical records show. Richard's rejoinder is famous itself:

Richard [aside]: So wise so young, they say, do never live long.
Prince Edward: What say you, Uncle?
Richard: I say, 'Without characters, fame lives long.'
[aside] Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.

Richard's quote actually has three meanings. On the surface, he's simply agreeing that, even without a written record ("characters," meaning letters), fame endures. His hidden meaning is that his own fame will live on, even though he has no moral "character." This reminds us that he's going to murder Edward and his brother, York. The third, unintended meaning has to do with Will's slanderous version of Richard's own history. Even without any documentation for his evil doings, his infamy will live on, thanks to this play.

The Vice character was a popular theatrical figure in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance--kind of along the lines of a vaudeville villain, with his twirling moustache (see Snidely Whiplash, above, from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoon), but with a religious undercurrent. This is one of Richard's most self-conscious moments, when he seems to see his own immorality clearly, and also realize that he's a bit of a caricature, a "stock villain."

In the remainder of this long scene we learn two things. Edward's young brother, the Duke of York, is wiser and more astute than the heir himself. He engages in an edgy banter with Richard that's more adult than childlike. The second bit of information concerns Richard's machinations to wrest the crown from his brother's children, whom he obviously plans to murder. He tells Catesby (second minion) to find out if Lord Hastings will join their faction against Elizabeth and her family, and help him win the crown. Catesby asks what they should do if Hastings won't join them. Richard's reply is succinct:

Chop off his head.

Next: Hastings hastens to his death.


  1. Terrific. Richard II congers Richard Nixon for me. The large issue of ontological "badness" is the broader theme of my life and my blog, so you were apt in directing me to this post.

    You raised so many profound issues in broaching this subject: does ontological badness exist; does it exist absent mental illness; what is criminal capacity--in my argot: mens rea or criminal intent; absent ontological badness how does one arrive at "badness;" is "badness" a cultural construct; Manichean-ism and sin? All of this and more spills from your post.

    My head spins, but pleasantly. MMMMMMMmmmmmm

  2. I also think of Richard Nixon--probably that's our age--but I remember people making comparisons/analogies between that tricky Dick and this one...I'm sure he would have chopped off more than a few heads had he the legal power to do so. Hooray for democracy!
    At some point I'd be interested in what you think about this badness issue from a legal perspective--as you see I only touched on it, since I only know what I've learned from Kafka and "Law and Order."