Realizing that each and every one of us lives inside a story was a sobering experience. As the world’s cultures gravitate more and more towards variations of individualism, a question should beckon to us all: what kind of individual are you? All stories, whether fact or fiction, are made up of individual characters. We experience our personal stories from a first-person perspective thus rarely do we analyze our role in them. Are you the hero of your own story or are you a victim to be saved? Maybe you’re always a supporting or influencing character? Perhaps you’re the villain in someone else’s story.
We usually think of villains or antagonists as fictional characters in stories that we read or watch. We rarely think of them as real characters roaming around our lives. We almost never realize that we may in fact be the villains of our own stories.
Villains are consistently portrayed as personifications of evil. But what is evil? Think about that for a moment, because if you don’t understand evil, can you understand what it means to be good? And worse, if you don’t understand evil, how do you know you’re not participating in evil in some small way in your life? I know, these are heavy questions. But they were too important to ignore. Searching for their answers changed my life.
Evil is one of those words we rarely use anymore; as if it’s associated with an archaic hangover from our superstitious and religious past. I think it’s because evil is something that our modern scientific minds can’t observe in a lab or measure with human technology, so we’re reluctant to use it in our vocabulary. But evil isn’t a scientific concept. It’s an existential concept – a concept concerned with existence.
This blog post will not depress you. In fact, writing this post had the opposite effect on me, for illuminating the darkest of subjects uncovered the most enlightening information.
How Our Ancestors Viewed Evil
There’s a powerful chapter from an old story, a great creation myth in fact, which our ancestors have passed down across generations and cultures to warn us about evil. Before I delve into it however, I’d like to clear the air as many of us look back at our ancestors with contempt, as if they were barbaric primitives that left us with superstitious descriptions of reality.
An agreement has emerged among opposing scholars in the West that our ancestors actually viewed the world very differently than we do today. When describing an object, our ancestors were actually describing the affect the object had on their experience as opposed to describing its material properties. Imagine the first encounter with fire. Our ancestors would not have described it as an ignition point in the combustion reaction where flames are produced. Rather, they would have genuinely described it as they saw it: a magical substance, perhaps a spirit or god, of immense destructive power to be feared.
A good way to understand this in a modern context is to consider the idea that you should treat every gun as if it’s loaded. You don’t point it at your children or play with it. You perceive it as dangerous. If you were then to describe the gun in terms of the affect it has on you, you’d probably describe it as a dangerous, stress-inducing, destructive power that can take lives.
It’s important to ground ourselves in science when approaching this subject. Facts matter. Treating every gun as if it’s loaded is a really good idea and it works, in spite of the fact that not all guns are loaded. This is the difference between a metaphorical truth and a literal truth.
All the above is to prepare you for reading a story metaphorically (interpreting the ideas or feelings that the words invoke) instead of literally. Like all great stories, this one includes a valuable theme or message. It turns out our “superstitious” ancestors were far smarter than we give them credit.
An Old Story About Evil
The story is set in a place called “paradise” which comes from the Persian word “pairi-daēza” meaning walled-garden. What is a walled-garden after all? A safe place where nature exists in an organized manner. The perfect balance between chaos and order. A place of bliss. Yet in this place of bliss there lies a forbidden gateway into the unknown: a tree referred to by some as “The Tree of Knowledge”. I’m sure you’ve already figured out, I’ve set the stage for the story starring Adam and Eve. In its structure, the story of Adam & Eve is far older than monotheism itself.
“God”, a word referring to an unknowable omnipresent infinite, sets the laws of this story’s universe: the Tree of Knowledge is not to be eaten from “lest ye die” according to the Biblical story or become “wrongdoers” according to the Quranic story.
In the Biblical version, the highest of God’s servants, known as “Lucifer”, whispers arguments in the mind of the influencing character, Eve, causing her to convince the protagonist, Adam, to eat from the Tree. We know what happens after. Adam and Eve fall from paradise and descend into chaos. When they wake they realize that they are “naked” and cover themselves. Immediately, what Lucifer whispered to them prior to their fall becomes their reality: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
A similar, yet slightly different version appears in the Quran and it is fascinating nonetheless. Lucifer in the Quran is called “Iblis” (meaning “one who dwells in despair”). Eve is referred to as “Hawwa” (meaning “a tree whose leaves are very dark green”). She is not described as the one who convinces Adam. Iblis deceives both Adam and Hawwa by claiming to be a “sincere advisor”, convincing them to eat from the tree for they will become “masters/owners/kings” and become “immortal”. The rest of the story is similar.
Now what on earth does all that mean? Philosophers and psychologists have interpreted this story as a metaphor on the coming of self-consciousness of the human species. From a story-structure perspective, I think it’s a cautionary tale about the hero’s journey. It tells us how any character can become a villain.
What Adam & Eve Tells Us About Evil
When interpreted metaphorically, the story of Adam & Eve tells that even if our present state may feel like paradise, we are biologically wired to move forward in the world; to explore things of value in the unknown. Biologists refer to this as our central nervous system’s “orienting reflex”. When a loud unknown sound occurs, we orient towards it. We have no choice. It’s a survival mechanism we share with all animals. And the unknown will always be a part of reality. We will always be drawn to it for it will always be the source of new knowledge; we will always be drawn to “eat” from the “Tree of Knowledge”. But we must approach the unknown with caution and skepticism; treat it as if its “forbidden”, not approach it based on ideas by those claiming to be “sincere advisors” as Iblis did in the Quranic story or worse, think that it will make us “immortal”. For in the unknown lies information that when “eaten” or incorporated into our existence, can open our eyes and elevate our awareness of our reality or “wake us up”.
With each elevation in awareness, we gain more power – we become “masters” or “gods” as Lucifer stated in the Biblical story. But an increase in awareness is a double-edged sword for it allows us to understand more about our own nature. We realize how “naked”, fragile, and vulnerable we are.
In Adam and Eve’s case, eating from the Tree of Knowledge thrust them from paradise into chaos, elevating their conscious awareness by making them aware of the tragic condition of human existence: we feel physical and emotional pain, and we are aware that our time will come to an end. We are vulnerable and our time is limited. Surrounded by the chaos of infinite possibility, we feel overwhelmed, aware of our limitation, and thus we become aware of our state of suffering.
With this new found knowledge and experience, Lucifer tells Adam and Eve that they now know good and evil. Why? Because how we behave with our knowledge is a choice between the road to good and the road to evil. Here we find ourselves at the fork in the road and as the saying goes “the devil appears at the fork in the road”.
The Road to Evil
In both versions of the story of Adam & Eve, I think Lucifer and Iblis represent personifications of the inflated human ego and the dangers of the rational aspect of the human psyche. That’s a tough concept for our modern minds to grasp as there is a major emphasis on rational thinking in our contemporary culture. “Lucifer”, meaning “the one who brings light”, persuades Eve using rational arguments. In the Quran’s version, the first wrong act is committed when “God” asks Iblis (Satan) to bow down to Adam but Iblis refuses because he judges Adam as a lesser being. Iblis protests and rationalizes that he is made of fire, so why should he bow before a being made of clay? “God” banishes Iblis for reacting “arrogantly”. There’s an interpretation that Iblis was hurt by God’s request because he loved God too much to bow down to anyone else.
Our reality is structured in way that we can feel pain. Even if caused by undiscriminating, undefinable forces of nature or “God”, hurt will befall us, even while we are in a state of suffering. How we react when we’re hurt decides which road we will take. The story of Adam & Eve cautions that rationalizing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance and condemning the world for hurting us as Iblis did will set us on the dark path to evil. Reactions of pride or arrogance is the first step on the path to evil. As the saying aptly goes “pride goeth before the fall.”
I find it very interesting that the Quran refers to the villain as “Iblis” which means “the one who dwells in despair”. There’s an idea in psychology that too much suffering can cause resentment, a second likely step on the path to evil. Resentment is bitter indignation because you rationalize you’ve been treated unfairly. When we dwell too long in resentment, we feel hopelessness, the third possible step on the road to evil. Hopelessness leads to nihilism, the rationalization that all life is meaningless and the fourth step towards evil. If all life is meaningless, who cares if it lives or dies? Who cares if I live or die? If you think that things are fundamentally unjust, then why should u treat anyone, let alone yourself with compassion? The world is fundamentally unfair. Maybe it should be eradicated. Sounds like we rationalized our way into psychological chaos doesn’t it? Some say that’s what Hitler and Stalin concluded. Their antidote to extreme chaos was extreme tyrannical order in the form of a self-serving ideology which they rationalized, acted-out, and imposed on their societies.
In their pursuit of extreme order, both Hitler and Stalin subjected their people to extreme cruelty and committed atrocity, the final steps towards evil. For evil is having the knowledge of another’s vulnerability, the tragic condition of their existence, and taking advantage of their vulnerability to cause them pain and additional suffering.
In the Soviet Union under Stalin, soldiers would break in to your home at 2am and abduct you. At the prison camps they would immediately strip you and shave you. Once you were exposed in your suffering capacity, it was easier to torture you.
In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the prisoners were required to perform grueling self-evidently unproductive work by carrying 100-pound sacks of wet salt from one side of the compound and then back again, before they were exterminated.
I think you get the chilling picture. And evil spreads like wildfire. Being hurt by the touch of malevolence is one of the hardest things to recover from. It can jolt you to resentment.
Can You Commit an Evil Act?
We’ve all taken steps on the path to evil. Think about the times in your life when you were truly unhappy. Perhaps you hated your job or you were in a bad relationship? Maybe you were working two jobs, struggling to pay off debt, in addition to being in an unhealthy marriage. There are surely times when I started to feel resentful, unaware that it was because I had “dwelled in despair” as devil is so aptly named in the Quranic version of the story of Adam and Eve. The longer I suffered the more I felt hopeless and defeated. Life is fundamentally unfair, I remember thinking to myself. Everyone around me is unhappy. It’s every man for himself. Writing this blog post helped me step off that path. I realized that my “self”, my ego, was exaggerating its-“self” and rationalizing its victimhood.
We modern people have forgotten that the full quote is “every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost”. There’s a chilling thought exercise that I came across: If you were a citizen of Nazi Germany, assuming you weren’t Jewish or a Gipsy, how do you think you would’ve behaved? If you think you wouldn’t have been a Nazi perpetrator or you wouldn’t have gone along, think again. The overwhelming majority of Germans were Nazis. In other words, you would’ve probably been one of them. After all, 100% of Nazi perpetrators were human beings, like you and I.
We usually thinking of evil as something happening to us, but “as none of us has a life in which no evil befalls him, none of us has a life in which he does no evil. The worm is in my rose too.” said Jeffery Burton Russel’s in his excellent booked documenting the history of The Devil. Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist, pointed out that to the degree that you condemn others and find evil in others, you are to that degree unconscious of the same thing in yourself, or at least of the potentiality of it.
Final Thoughts about Evil
I dove into the subject of storytelling as an aspiring screenwriter. I learned that I have to view my villains not as caricatures of evil, but rather as human beings like you and I, born with the capacity of good and evil. After all, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate in literature who wrote The Gulag Archipelago after surviving the concentration camps of the Soviet Union, said: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through every man’s heart.”
In my opinion, the best stories are the ones that do away with cliché type villains. What is the pathway that leads the character to become the villain? Thanos, the ultimate villain in Avengers: Infinity War, suffered chaotically after witnessing the loss of his entire species on Titan. Like Darth Vader of Star Wars before him, Thanos, was thrust on the path to evil when he finally took extreme measures to bring “balance” or “order” to a chaotic universe. I think that you cannot understand your hero unless you truly understand your villain. Recognizing your pathway to evil helps you recognize your pathway to good. Villains, after all, are instruments of the hero’s destiny.
I will leave you with a thought from Wolfram von Eschenbach, who’s regarded as one of the greatest epic poets of medieval German literature. He’s known for a short poem saying that every act has both good and evil results. The best we can do is lean towards the good – that is, intend the good, and you’ll find the harmonious connection that results from compassion with suffering. For we are all suffering. And compassion, after all, literally means “to suffer with”.