Published on
12 November 2008

Our Culture and the Frivolity of Evil

By: Theodore Dalrymple


'Theodore Dalrymple' is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, a retired psychiatrist who has written widely about culture, art, politics, education, and medicine.  A former prison doctor, he has witnessed the effects of drug use and other social pathologies on the lower rungs of society. His latest book is In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.
Seminar on Wednesday 12 November     

I am very grateful and honoured that the Thomas More Institute should have asked me to speak to you tonight. I come before you in the guise of what in America is known as a public intellectual: that is to say, a person who is prepared to write upon almost any subject, without being a specialist on any. Whether such persons are valuable contributors to intellectual life to be applauded, or a general nuisance to be lamented, is not for me to say; but they (or should I say we?) seem to be here to stay.

My talk tonight is evil, and consists of my almost random reflections upon it. The subject of evil is one in which we are all interested, even those who claim that it does not really exist and owes its shadow-existence to philosophical error. But evil is rather like murder in this respect: we all agree that it ought not to exist, yet we almost all rather enjoy thinking, talking and reading about it. This fact, and I take it to be a fact, is itself one that is worthy of reflection. Why is it that something that we deplore should so interest and even entertain us?

I am not philosopher enough to give you a definition of evil. I admit that I find the concept of evil a puzzling one, for of course the people who do the most evil often imagine that they are doing good. Are they evil, or do they merely do evil? But what is it to be evil if it is not to do evil? It cannot be merely to think evil thoughts, or to have evil desires, for clearly the person who acts on evil thoughts or evil desires is worse, more evil, than one who does not.

There are puzzles such as the one about the person who is, so to speak, bad from birth, by temperament, whether genetically or in some other way physiologically, determined. In order to condemn someone, or someone’s acts, as evil, we require that the person could have done differently if he had so chosen. Yet in looking into the biographies of many of the most notorious people, we see that they have done bad things from the moment they could act independently. For example, childhood cruelty to animals is taken as a prognosticator – not an invariable one, but a highly significant one nonetheless – of future bad behaviour. Yet the child who is cruel to animals is surely not sufficiently self-aware to know that he is being or doing evil. If this is so, his subsequent evil appears to arise from something that is not under his control, and the question arises whether it can then properly be called evil.

I am not qualified to analyse evil in any philosophical manner. However, I am not altogether worried about my inability to define what I mean by evil: first, because I think that it is a little like poetry, in that it is easier to recognise than to define, and most of us tonight would probably have very similar recognitions of evil; and, second, because the philosophers who are competent to analyse evil philosophically have been arguing for millennia about the meaning of the term. Thus I do not have to feel very ashamed about not being able to put an end to the arguments tonight, here and now.

For what it is worth, let me pose an analogy with ugliness. Recently, in a book by Simon Leys, the great Belgian sinologist who for a number of years was the only member of that academic profession fully to recognise the deep evil of Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution about which he wrote with extraordinary wit and clarity, and who is a literary and philosophical essayist of enormous perception, there is an essay called ‘The Kingdom of the Ugly’. In this fragment of only a few pages, he recounts a most interesting and instructive story.

Leys was a café, in which men were sitting, playing cards, reading the newspaper, chatting. In the corner was a radio, from which emerged a mixture of banal chatter and equally banal popular music. The men paid no attention to it. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, and for no obvious reason, the radio began to play Mozart’s clarinet quintet.

Proving that they had not been entirely oblivious to what emerged from the radio, the men all stopped what they were doing and looked at one another, disconcerted. Leys describes how the first few bars of this sublime music suddenly transformed the café into what he called the antechamber of paradise. Then, one of the men stood up, went over to the radio and turned it to another station, thus restoring the drivel that they could all ignore.

The lesson that Leys draws from this is that the true philistines are not those who do not know the difference between beauty and ugliness, but those who, on the contrary, are only too aware of it, as aware in fact as any exquisite aesthete. It is not that they do not recognise beauty; they are against it, they actively hate it, for it disturbs the kingdom of ugliness by which they are surrounded. (This, incidentally, may explain some of the less gracious methods of self-adornment that are so prevalent nowadays.)

There are many philosophical analogies, of course, between aesthetic and moral judgement, and if we draw an analogy with the lesson of Leys’ story about the philistinism of the customers in the café, we might say that people who are evil or habitually do evil are positively opposed to good, since of course goodness, just like beauty, imposes duties and disciplines upon one. As anyone who has tried to create anything knows, it is far easier to create what is bad or ugly than what is good and beautiful. Men often seek the line of least resistance.

I had an early intimation of the attractions of evil when I was quite small. As a boy, I went to a lot of football matches and was enthusiastic about them in a way that I now find very difficult to understand. Anyhow, there was a cup match which I deemed it of supreme importance that I should attend, and as the tickets went on sale well in advance, I took myself off to the stadium and joined a very long queue. I was about eleven years old at the time.

In front of me in the queue was a group of young men. Going along the queue was an old blind beggar, accompanied by a child with a cap into which donors could put their coins. The old man had an accordion and was singing ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank of Monte Carlo’. As he approached the young men they turned up the volume of the transistor radio that they had with them to drown out the old man’s song, laughing as they did so. The poor old man was bewildered, and walked away as if confused and frightened.

I have never forgotten that little incident, and it has haunted me – not continuously, I hasten to add – ever since. The pleasure those young men took in taunting the old man, and laughing at him, taught me that the human heart is not invariably good; that there is a lot of fun in cruelty. But it also taught me something else.

I did nothing to defend that old man. Of course, it would have been unreasonable, as I now realise, to expect an eleven year-old boy to go and tackle a lot of seventeen year-olds, or however old they were; discretion in this case really was the better part of valour. But I knew then, straight away, that I failed to assist the man from cowardice and for no other reason; and furthermore, no one else in the queue intervened either. As Edmund Burke put it, or is supposed to have put it (there is a brilliant essay on the internet pointing out that there is no source of this famous quote), ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’.

Whatever the authenticity of the quote, I think the kind of behaviour that those young men displayed nearly half a century ago has become more widespread since, perhaps because good men did nothing.

If I may now fast-forward by thirty years or so, to a period of my life when I travelled extensively in what is rather condescendingly called the Third World, I will mention my visit to Liberia in the throes of its disastrous and brutal civil war. I will give a thumbnail sketch of the historical context of this civil war.

Liberia was in effect a settler colony, but the settlers were free black men returned to Africa from the United States. Forming no more than a few per cent of the total population of the territory, the settlers and their descendents retained all the political and economic power in the country. For most of the history of Liberia, they used it incompetently, but towards the middle of the last century, they began, under President Tubman, to oversee the development of the country.

In no country in modern times, however, is the majority of the population content to remain in permanent subjection to an hereditary minority, and eventually the Americo-Liberian regime, corrupt but much better than what was to come, was overthrown in a bloody and cruel coup led by a semi-literate master sergeant called Samuel Doe. His regime turned out before long to be far worse than the last, favouring his own small tribe at the expense of everyone else.

He in turn was overthrown by an uprising, the leaders of which soon fell out among themselves and tried to secure by violence a monopoly of power. In the process, the country was destroyed to an extent that was scarcely credible. By the time I reached Monrovia, the capital, by the only boat that ever went there, there was no electricity, no running water, no bank, shop, post office, public transport, radio station, hospital that was functioning.

This was not all. The city had not suffered merely from fire-fights between the various factions that now held a ceasefire. What I discovered was something far more radical, namely the wilful and deliberate destruction of all symbols of what would once have been called civilisation (the word is now rarely used except between quotation marks).

For example, in the hospitals, at least one of which had previously been technically sophisticated enough to undertake open heart surgery, had been destroyed down to the last detail. I discovered not only that the hospital records of patients had specifically been used as lavatory paper by the marauding insurgents, but that they had gone to the trouble of cutting off the wheels of every trolley in all the hospitals – every single one – so that they were beyond either use or repair. They did not do this because they wanted either the metal or the wheels, for they left them stranded where they were; they destroyed, bent, rendered useless every instrument they could find.

Similarly, they had destroyed the university library beyond repair. And in the Centennial Hall, the ceremonial centre of the whole country, where the presidents of Liberia are inaugurated, what I took to be the only Steinway grand piano in the country had had its legs cut off, so that its body was stranded on the ground. The legs were left strewn around it, and even more rampantly it was surrounded by a ring of human faeces, obviously deposited there in symbolic fashion and not merely by coincidence.

It seemed to me that this was a rejection of civilisation itself, albeit a civilisation that was probably felt to be largely alien. But let us not forget that the people who behaved in this fashion had had no hesitation in availing themselves of certain products of that civilisation if they would help them to power, so I do not think my interpretation is either false or forced.

Furthermore, we should not imagine that this violent rejection of civilisation was confined to Africans, that it was somehow an atavism of theirs alone that therefore had nothing to say to us. I met a couple of young British journalists who had also managed to get to Monrovia, and when I told them about the Steinway piano they thought me distinctly peculiar for having mentioned it. Why worry about what was, after all, a merely inanimate object in the midst of a war that so far had resulted in a quarter of a million deaths our of a population of perhaps two and a half millions? That there might be a connection between the destruction of the amenities of civilised life and the killing did not occur to them, so little did they value civilisation. I did not find this encouraging or reassuring.

When I stopped wandering the world quite so much, I returned to England and took a job as a psychiatrist in a general hospital in a slum and in the prison next door, where I also worked as a physician. I discovered a level of violence and malevolence in the general population that I had never previously suspected and that has had a profound effect upon me ever since.

My view, I fully acknowledge, was a partial one. Those who work among criminals often come to assume that the whole world is criminal. Just as John Stuart Mill thought that a physical object could be defined as the permanent possibility of sensation, policemen see people as the permanent possibility of criminal activity. Contact with depravity depraves, not necessarily behaviour, but one’s concept of one’s fellow man. For example, when you learn that prisoners instruct their girlfriends to put packets of drugs in their babies’ rectums, so that they can be removed when they are brought to visit their fathers in prison, and that the mothers are perfectly prepared to do this, one’s conception of human nature is inclined to become less sunny and optimistic.

However, my sample of humanity was not a small one. In my years in the hospital, I spoke to between ten and fifteen thousand people who had attempted suicide: that is to say, had made a gesture that could loosely be interpreted as suicidal. They each of them told me about the lives of the people most intimately connected with them, say four or five people. And, of course, I spoke to a lot of relatives as well.

In all, then, in the hospital, I heard about the lives of perhaps fifty thousand people; and they were lives of such unrelieved cruelty and brutality that I was not surprised that my predecessor in the job, now deceased, turned to drink. If I had not been able to communicate what I saw and what I heard in the hospital and the prison to the public by means of writing, I think that I, too, would have been driven to drink.

Let me give you an idea of the kind of thing that I would hear about day after day, year after year. (Every day, I would go into the hospital saying to myself, ‘I have heard everything, there is nothing left to hear in the way of self-destruction, they cannot surprise me’ – but every day I was mistaken. The variety of human destruction is infinite, I discovered, and hardly a day passed without my recollection of the famous first line of ‘Anna Karenina’, to the effect that every happy family is happy in the same way, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I came to think the same is true not just of families, but almost of individuals. Certainly the ways of being unhappy are much more numerous than those of being happy.)

The case I will give you is as follows. A woman who was herself a heavy drinker appeared on the ward having taken an overdose. The occasion of the overdose was a beating by her boyfriend who broke her jaw in the process (the overdose had not been an easy one to take). I discovered, as I usually discovered in such cases, that this was not the first time the boyfriend had been violent. In fact, he had previously ‘snapped’ her arm, as she put it: that is to say, he had taken it between his arms and broken it as if it were a matchstick.

I discovered also that this man had not many months before been released from prison –  for having murdered a previous girlfriend. Of course, I warned the woman as strenuously as I could of the dangers she was running in staying with him, and I offered to do all in my power to find her a refuge away from the boyfriend.

At first she agreed; she asked that the boyfriend not be allowed to visit her in the hospital. But when he actually arrived in the hospital, her heart melted; she loved him, she said, and hoped that he would change, as he promised to do. They went off together shortly afterwards, though of course she was readmitted several times with injuries.

Now the point about the kind of violence employed by this man – which is admittedly at the extreme end of the spectrum – is that it is not irrational, though it is often presented as such by those who exercise it, and the victims themselves. For, being essentially arbitrary and whimsical, it is calculated to control women, in which it is certainly very successful, at least until the moment the woman decides that she has had enough and escapes it – often or even usually only to find someone else of the same kind.

I have very little doubt that the violent man actually enjoys what he is doing, though he may subsequently deny this for prudential reasons. But it is my view that this kind of violence is more prevalent than it was – although, of course, there is nothing new under the sun and we must not think there was a golden age, at least not before the Fall, in which men and women never behaved badly. I do not have the time tonight to go into the reasons why I think that violence of this kind has increased in prevalence.

But in fact there are very good reasons why it should have done so.

Here I admit that I am speculating. But the fact is that relations between the sexes have become much more fluid in the last few decades; there is no accepted model of what they should be. At one time there was a model: and like all models of human conduct it was never fully adhered to. There was always infidelity and so forth. But nevertheless, there was an ideal.

That ideal was destroyed precisely because it led to a good deal first of frustration and second of hypocrisy. Frustration was precisely what modern man thought he could abolish altogether, leading a life that was nothing but one pleasure after another: some of you might remember the advertising slogan with which a new credit card was launched, which said that it ‘took the waiting out of wanting,’ and thus captured the spirit of the age very precisely.

Sexual freedom was demanded and largely obtained. Intellectuals thought that sexual relations should become healthily biological, as in ‘Brave New World’. It was time to free sexuality from all the layers of guilt that had accreted on it. In the event, part of the programme was carried out: such that it is now quite normal in the city in which I practised for young drunk women to offer themselves in public places to drunk young men without knowing anything about them. I repeat, there is nothing new under the sun; what was new was the scale on which all this happened.

There was a fly in the ointment of freedom, however. The old desire for the exclusive sexual possession of another person did not die with the increased sexual freedom. It does not take very much imagination to understand what the result of a simultaneous desire for complete sexual liberty on the one hand, and the exclusive sexual possession of someone else on the other, might lead to: a great efflorescence of our old friend sexual jealousy. Where fidelity is not promoted even as an ideal, it is not surprising that hardly anyone can believe in it in practice; and since most men are inclined to believe that other people are exactly the same as they themselves, they conclude, if they are sexual predators, that everyone else is a sexual predator. This being the case, they cannot therefore ever be sure that the object of their current affections is not two-timing them, since they have in fact stolen her from someone else (often their supposedly best friend).

In other words, the lack of structure to sexual relations leads to increased sexual gratification, but also to increased anxiety about relationships to others. Many of the fights of the ‘who-are-you-looking-at’ variety, which exert a Keynesian stimulus to our casualty departments on Friday and Saturday nights, occur because of the inflamed and tender egos of those who cannot be sure that they are not being made fools of by their girlfriends. One way to make sure this does not happen is to keep the girlfriends in line by means of violence.

Unfortunately, as I have said, this violence is enjoyable to those who commit it. Anyone who has ever lost his temper will know how gratifying it is to do so, however much it might be regretted afterwards. The violence gives those who commit it a sense of power – which most of them will not experience in any other way. The evil is therefore joyously entered into.

In this example, I think we see the connection between social changes, brought about by the efforts of intellectuals, and the evil committed by individuals, in this case many, many individuals (on my one six-bedded ward in one hospital in one city, I saw four hundred women who had recently been beaten by men, and four hundred men who had recently beaten women, as well as an increasing number of violent women).

Evil emerges when the need for restraint is neither felt internally nor applied externally. I don’t think this conclusion would surprise anyone who believed in original sin.