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Searching for truth and meaning is always a worthwhile pursuit, especially if the search reveals truth in our own hearts.
In the course of a conversation I was having with the guys in the neighborhood on “Chasing Justice”, we were discussing the topic of Good vs Evil, with a purpose of understanding how these two opposites intertwine in our lives. One question we tried to tackle was: Are people basically good or evil, does circumstance create good or evil in a person? Both concepts can be argued equally and with fact. The following essay was written by my 15-year-old son Jack on this exact topic. I found it most interesting and powerful, his use of reference to make points was done very well. In the interest of furthering the point and deepening the conversation, I offer this essay to you, the America Out Loud family of readers and listeners.
War, murder, rape; all of these atrocities have one thing in common; man. Since the dawn of mankind, the greatest threat to human life is the evil that lays in the breast of other human beings. The earliest pieces of mythology and literature have been used to either describe or explain the inherent evils in the human subconscious, illustrating the dangers that mankind poses to itself. Due to the violent disposition of man, societies have developed that have put the spirit of evil within mankind to rest, but what happens when the opportunity to act on primal impulses rears its head? Psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and authors like William Golding believe, when presented with the opportunity to act without consequence, men will be selfish and destructive. The natural continuation of that question, as well as Freud and Golding’s theories, is, can man be changed? Is evil caused by one’s circumstances or do they simply unearth the savagery that dwells within us all? What inevitably controls the heart and soul of a man?
The concept of evil draws back to humanity’s roots as a species and it is so characteristic of human beings that the stories about our creation and development are rife with explanations and demonstrations of the capacity for evil and the weakness to temptation that is in all of mankind. The Book of Genesis describes man’s first actions in the Garden of Eden, a perfect land where there was peace and man lived in harmony with God’s will, was to disobey God, choosing temptation and ‘evil’ over what they had known to be right (The Book of Genesis). Similarly, in Greek Mythology, man’s lack of willpower over temptation is shown in the story of Pandora’s Box; Pandora, after being told not to open the box that was gifted to her for her wedding, could not resist indulging her selfish desires, releasing death, disease, and war on mankind (“Pandora’s Box, the Greek Myth of Pandora and Her Box”). Both of these stories, supposed to have been written 300 years and hundreds of thousands of miles apart, demonstrate the weakness of will that characterizes man even in our earliest narratives.
Again, from the Book of Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel illustrates that man is also apparently on the brink of murdering even the people closest to him. This tale not only showcases man’s proneness to violence but also their selfishness, as Cain hides his face from God in shame and is more concerned with his own punishment than killing his own brother (Cain and Abel – Bible Story Verses & Meaning). All cultures have their myths and stories that attempt, not only to reveal the dangers of mankind, but they actively try to prevent readers from trying to satiate their savage desires, offering brutal punishment to those that become victims of their own nature; Adam and Eve are banished from paradise, Pandora condemns all of humanity to a range of evils, and Cain must suffer being a lone wanderer on Earth for the rest of his life. From an early point in human history, it is evident that most scholars and authors believed that the pull of evil came, not externally, but from within.
It seems as though modern authors agree that the most dangerous thing that man faces is himself. In their writings, many authors describe the lack of compassion in humans as being universal and, in the end, it is their own undoing. One such work is “The Cold Within” by James Patrick Kinney:
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.
The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.
Kinney’s position is clear, man is selfish and it is what will ultimately destroy him. Using 6 different men, he can show all of the ways man can justify his greed: race, class, religion and even self-righteousness. This theme of inner evil is also used by William Golding in his novel, The Lord of the Flies, where a group of boys are stranded on an island, and slowly devolve into savages, devoid of all civility or morality. In the novel, the boys create an offering to a ‘beast’ and the offering soon becomes a manifestation of evil, a beast in itself, being named the “Lord of the Flies,” sharing a name with an evil entity from Christian theology, Beelzebub. The Lord of the Flies tells one of the boys, “I’m part of you… I’m the reason… things are what they are,” (Golding 143) describing the destructive state of the boys on the island and also Golding’s idea that all men have the capacity to become a beast. The fact that all of the survivors of the plane crash are young is also important to the structure of the novel; children in literature and media are often portrayed as symbols of innocence and purity, but even they are subject to the fundamental flaws of their race in the novel. Golding is saying that even the purest humans are no more than a plane crash away from being as power hungry and savage as the rest of mankind. Sigmund Freud’s theory of the id, the ego, and the superego are a heavy inspiration on the events of The Lord of the Flies, and the main characters are expressions the different personalities of the Freudian subconscious brain (“What Are the Most Interesting Ideas of Sigmund Freud?”). As Jack, the id, is consumed with primal desires and Piggy, the superego, is plagued to remain tied to the civilized world, Ralph, the ego, must discern what is best for himself and the group of boys. The Lord of the Flies is an externalization of Freud’s ideas of mankind, and it showcases Golding’s belief that man is only a short way from deteriorating until they are no more man than a beast is.
Freud’s Personality Theory, that man is constantly trying to suppress an evil that is trying to take hold of his life, has been investigated and tested numerous times since it was authored in 1923, and the results have been mixed. One of the most infamous studies on the human psyche is the Stanford Prison Experiment. In the experiment, 12 guards were given mirrored sunglasses to mask their identity (and provide anonymity), 12 nameless and defenseless prisoners, and instructions to oppress them. The guards, after about a day, became crueler and crueler, to the point that the experiment had to be called off for the safety of the prisoners. The study, although incomplete, concluded that when people were given anonymity and authority over others, as well as being free of consequence, they will abuse their power. Since then, the study has been shown to have influenced the guards in a certain direction, and its credibility as a scientific study has been questioned.
Michael Stevens recently investigated the experiment and tried to rectify the flaws in a more ethical way. In an interview with Dave Eshelman, one of the most infamous guards, Eshelman revealed that “if they [wanted] a show, that prison is a bad experience, then [I was] going to make it bad” (9:32-9:37). This dismisses the experiment as a study of whether men will be oppressive organically, but it can still stand as a study showing how when one is either free of consequences for their actions or given specific instructions to act in a traditionally evil way, they may not question morality. This is similar to Roger in The Lord of the Flies as he did not act in an immoral way until he was given the opportunity through Jack’s leadership. Stevens discussed Eshelman’s feelings during the experiment, to which he responded, “I don’t know if this is a revelation to you but eighteen-year-old boys are not the most sensitive creatures… I cannot say that I did not personally enjoy what I was doing,” (9:41-9:45, 11:00-11:03). This is evidence to support the events of Golding’s novel as well as Freud’s theories; much like how the boys on the island were liberated from consequences by being away from adults, they also enjoyed being cruel and savage, even the characters that were trying to hold onto rationality, “[Ralph’s] desire to squeeze and hurt was over-mastering,” (Golding 145). It is clear that Golding and Philip Zimbardo, the architect of the Stanford Prison Experiment, believe that morality and restraint of ‘evil’ desires are derived from the fear of punishment; would people, who are without influence, act the same way if they were pardoned of the consequences of their actions?
To find this answer, we can look to history, to the societies that incentivized behavior that is traditionally evil; specifically, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In the early to mid-twentieth century, the Nazi Party took control of Germany on the platform of fixing the country; they targeted Jews, Catholics and political enemies all over the country. In concentration camps, Nazi guards were given absolute authority over the prisoners. Stories from prisoners of the camps are rampant with tales of abuse of power and oppression. In concentration camps, there was between thirteen to fourteen million deaths (“Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution.”).
Similarly, in Japanese POW camps in the same time period, American and British prisoners of war were treated so poorly, that over 40% of them died while in prison, compared to German POW camps (not concentration camps) that had a 2% mortality rate (Report on American Prisoners of War). In both of the societies, prisoners were looked on as inferior beings and such dehumanization lent itself to the poor treatment of the prisoners, in line with the Stanford Prison experiment. It seems that in history and in recent studies, it is a feeling of superiority, coupled with consequence-free action that leads to evil behavior.
The final question that can be gleaned from the discussion of man’s true nature is, can man be changed? It is abundantly clear that those we deem to be ‘good’ people can quickly cast aside their values and act in ways many would assume they did not have the capacity to. The true inquiry would then be, can man ever disregard his violent nature? Can morality and reason prevail? The answer seems to depend on the person.
For instance, in The Lord of the Flies, Piggy never succumbs to the pull of savagery as Jack and Ralph do, however, there is a clear distinction between Piggy and the other boys; Piggy has no power. Throughout the novel, Piggy is the clear outcast from the rest of the group and because of this, he never feels the pull to become a savage, as the little power he does have comes from the more leveled playing field of civilization. Despite the fact that Piggy never fully realizes his own potential for evil, there is a glimpse into what he is capable of as he joins the rest of the group in the killing of Simon.
At this point in the novel, Piggy has seen the darker side of his mind, the id within himself, and he is trying to repress the fact that he too was susceptible to human nature, “‘It was an accident,’ said Piggy suddenly, ‘that’s what it was. An accident,’” (Golding 157). Furthermore, when the boys are rescued by the British Naval officer in the end, Jack, who throughout the whole novel steadily moves toward savagery to the point where he is truly more beast than man, regains his civility in the face of an adult. This illustrates that the battle between good and evil, civility and savagery, can never truly be won; there cannot be a coin with one side.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The one common factor in every case is power. Cain had physical power over his brother; each man had the power to let the fire die, and with it, the other men; Jack has power over the rest of the island with his physical strength and abilities, but also his command of the hunters; the guards were given defenseless prisoners and the power to control them; the Nazis and Japanese were given power over those they deemed to be inferior. Without power, men cannot act on their selfish desires because they fear punishment, however, when granted power and immunity from consequence, they may act however they please, and in the most cases, that is to act with narcissistic and evil intentions.
Men are, by nature, what we as a society would consider evil, however, civilization and religion have curbed mankind’s disposition to immorality, but this simply holds the nature of man dormant behind a veil of civility; a beast in a cage is no less a beast and is no less dangerous after the cage has withered away.
Join Lt. Joe Pangaro and the Guys from the Neighborhood every weekday at 3 PM EST on Chasing Justice.
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Wow! This is an excellent piece on good and evil and man’s inherent nature!
Wow, this is an excellent article about man’s inherent nature — good vs. evil.
If you’re only 15 years old and can wrestle with this theme, you’re doing well.