Why write about Satan in the 21st Century? Why not? Taken as a powerful allegory, the notion of a conscious, intelligent malevolent, “Satanic” influence in human affairs is far closer to the mark than, say, a therapeutic medical model for which “counseling”, “dissuasion” and “an appeal to our better nature” are the answers to all human perfidy.
This piece is a revision and compilation of a number of thoughts and observations that were generated by my accidental presence in and among those New Yorkers and tourists who were in Manhattan close to Ground Zero on 9-11-01. Among the two most important insights: (a) I was in the presence of actual evil on a large enough scale to pose a threat to civilization itself (b) All of the people around me, everyone in that cranky, wonderful, vital mix of humanity that makes up New York, all of these people – religious, anti-religious, right, left, center, hip, square, sinful and virtuous – were just different versions of the good. And the lessons about evil itself were equally valuable: (1) Evil is real. (2) It must be defined very narrowly. (3) When it reaches a certain scale, it must be taken very seriously indeed.
Does Satan Still Live Among Us?
A 21st Century Personal Perspective
Jay B. Gaskill
On The Definition and Identification of Evil
My views about evil were shaken and reformed by the events of 9-11-01. Recall those British civilian plane spotters in WW2 who were trained to identify bomber silhouettes. Intelligent identification is essential. I am now focused on the large scale manifestations of evil and on finding a universal perspective that bridges the religious and the humanist-secular worlds.
Oliver Wendell Homes said, “Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.” Purpose matters.
Nazi Reichminister Albert Speer wrote that Hitler’s regime exploited the natural, morally neutral enthusiasm of the scientist and technician. The German physicist, Werner Heisenberg directed the Nazi atom bomb project. Was he a moral hero, as some apologists argue, on the still unproven theory that he secretly slowed down the project due to ethical qualms? Or was he one of history’s great villains who loved science more than morality and just picked the losing side. The role of the scientist employed by an imperial regime who, enthusiastic in his craft, works day and night to make a weapon to kill millions of civilians, contrasts sharply with a common criminal who kills a clerk during a holdup. The evil in first situation eclipses the second.
The scale of evil purpose matters greatly.
The analysis needed to identify evil in its most dangerous forms goes to both the purpose and quality of the threat. I see three universal norms implicated in this analysis: life affirmation, creation affirmation, and the affirmation of conscious being. The latter implies human freedom and dignity. These norms are truly foundational; you will find them embedded in various forms and expressions in all universal ethical systems.
But human life, conscious intelligence and creative potential are difficult – even impossible – to nurture and protect in a raw state of nature. Our species has been able to overcome the limitations of that raw struggle with a single powerful social technology – civilization. Therefore a single powerful idea bridges our species’ cultural, religious, and ideological differences: respect for the value of civilization itself. Nothing else reliably protects and nurtures human life, freedom, and creative achievement.
A civilization dedicated to protect these values is our best defense against evil.
Not all civilizations are equal in that respect.
When the threat element of evil is understood as simultaneously attacking one or all of these three core affirmations and undermining the human civilizations erected to protect them, the scale component of evil becomes apparent not only on the emotional level, but self evident on the rational level. This is what Edmund Burke undoubtedly meant when he said, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” This yields a definition of evil on the Edmund Burke scale. Its elements include a profound, active alienation from the affirmation of human life, freedom, and creative achievement – the classic evil mindset; realistic actions to further that mindset, and a unity of malevolent purpose and action (whether the action is accomplished or contemplated) that threatens civilization and the core values civilization is designed to protect. This is Edmund Burke scale evil. Meta-evil represents the purposeful and realistic challenge to the deepest universal values on which human life and civilization rest, a threat to the core values of life, consciousness and creation themselves.
Meta-evil thrives on evil ideologies.
Contrast an earthquake or tornado, with large scale malevolence, like the Nazi death camps. In natural disasters, physical structures and the physical basis for life within the danger zones are harmed.
Our response is prompted and limited by the material scope of the threat. In the case of huge, purposeful malevolence, the situation is qualitatively different; that meta-evil threatens us on several levels, the immediate physical, and on the level of our deepest values. This suggests a related property of evil: while natural disasters are episodic, true evil has “a life of its own,” more like a malignancy or plague.
It is as if evil represents the conscious incarnation of the entropic tendency in the universe, ripped out of its natural context as a part of life processes, a chilling tendency to extinguish life, consciousness and creation, become motivation. This is why the act of recognition of meta-evil, why the recognition itself entails the moral obligation to act; and why there are no passive bystanders who are entitled to say, “this is not my struggle.”
On “Satan” & The Lure of Evil
In ancient biblical terms, evil was the product of a single malevolent meta-consciousness, the anti-god, the “evil one.” I respectfully disagree with the view of Satan as demigod or being or quasi deity, but….a review of the stages of monotheism is useful.
In “stage one” monotheism, God was supreme over other gods and pretenders. In second stage monotheism, there was only one God. In stage three monotheism, one deity is seen as the ultimate unity of being.
Meta-evil, by its very nature, subverts the essential normative integration that is the foundation of “stage three” monotheism, and is seen as aligned in direct opposition to the deity of stages one and two. From a secular moral perspective, meta-evil violates the essential integrity and wholeness of the optimum human condition and attacks the primary social institutions set up to protect human integrity.
In the real world, evil operates opportunistically, as the pervasive undertow, the dis-integrating tendency within an otherwise well integrated moral consciousness. It therefore manifests itself within any setting where the departure from divine or normative human integrity allows an opening. Evil’s omnipresence is like a background pathogen in the “noetic” environment; there is an illusory coherence and unity to it, conjuring the Satan-like phantom image.
Note an important marker: Evil is typically coupled with an attraction, a negative force as it were, a downward tendency; these are potentially seductive qualities that can be experienced in any receptive human consciousness. While natural disasters are episodic, true evil has “a life of its own,” more like a malignancy or plague.
It is as if evil represents the conscious incarnation of the entropic tendency in the universe, ripped out of its natural context as a part of life processes, a chilling tendency to extinguish life, consciousness and creation, become motivation.
This is why I propose the continuing psychological reality of the biblical view of evil, placing evil at the center of malevolent conscious purpose, as personified in the phantom image of Satan.
So it is within consciousness itself – not in the pre-conscious aspects of nature or as some disembodied magic force – that evil manifests itself to us. In the sharp moment of tragedy, we tend to identify “evil” as the universal source of human suffering. This is a mistake. No purely natural disaster, however horrific, can properly be identified as “evil.” From my perspective there exists only moral evil, not so called “natural evil.”
One of the well documented characteristics of the evil mind set is its seductive character. Were it otherwise, the advent of evil would be far rarer. The lure of evil includes:
the psychological lure of destruction, especially for the frustrated powerless,
the lure of sadism, especially for the powerless abused or ignored,
the lure of the grand suicidal gesture, especially for those overwhelmed with grievance,
the lure of pleasure perversely linked with malevolent conduct, and more generally,
the power lure of identifying with the entropic tendency– see #’s 1-4 above.
Instances of each of these seductive destructive psychological tendencies can readily be found in the history of civilization and in last year’s news.
“Enemy” and “evil” are overlapping but distinct categories.
What we humans normally mean by enemy reflects a simple, ineluctable aspect of life in the world. Human actions often – even usually – generate opposition, sometimes determined opposition. When personalized, this opposition becomes what is usually meant by “enemy.” This situation is common, and often represents something over which we, as individuals, have little control, if any whatsoever. There are three categories of examples:
the competitive struggle for common resources;
the natural opposition due to creative conflict, as when new ideas and organizational innovations compete for the future;
and the deeply rooted grievance vs. grievance retribution cycle, each grounded in some merit.
Conflict over these issues can generate an evil mindset and generate truly evil conduct, especially in the third example set. Intoxication with grievance is one of evil’s primary precursor conditions. Indeed, justified grievance is often a more dangerous precondition than unjustified grievance. But human conflicts themselves are not inherently evil. Nor are the enemies these conflicts create necessarily evil. This is the wisdom that is captured in the moral injunction to love one’s “enemies”. We are not asked to love the evil.
This is not to trivialize the nature of human conflict, nor to endorse it. We intelligent humans are – or should be- intelligent, reality-centered moral agents. However, the tensions that accompany all creative activities tends to engender conflict in the real world, the creation of potential enemies is an omnipresent risk. We need to understand the necessary role of conflict, and learn to distinguish ordinary enemies from evil. We need to resist evil everywhere, among our enemies and allies alike.
But as moral agents we must grant conflict its place, even its occasional value in the greater scheme of things. Our best and most realistic hope is to eliminate conflict’s lasting harm, but not conflict itself. This is a lesson that the lower animals seem to have learned via the pressures of natural selection. Few competitions for territory within the same species are battles to the death.
Ordinary selfishness is not per se evil. Many good deeds are done in situations where self interest coincides, and many evil deeds are done in an act of altruistic sacrifice.
Evil may completely capture a mind and yet, sometimes a mind can recover. I have seen both occur. Whether and when evil-mindedness may be seen as a transient condition or a semi-permanent one is an important social question that belongs to the topic of applied ethics.
The four most prominent danger signs of a non-transient, deeply rooted evil mindset are:
a. Links to a strongly ingrained pleasure feedback mechanism. This includes the deliberate use of addictive psychoactive drugs to achieve a slavery relationship.
b. Links to a delusion of reinforcing transcendence. This is illustrated in the suicide killer-martyr, who has been promised some post-death reward.
c. The conscious adoption of a firmly held ideology that demonizes the universal values on which life and civilization are based (life, consciousness, creation, and their necessary corollaries) as abundantly illustrated by the tenacious hold that many anti-life and anti-creation ideologies have been able to achieve in the last century.
d. The deeply held grievance or grievance intoxication. Examples are as common as yesterday’s news; but it is worth noting that the more legitimate one’s deeply held grievance, the greater the risk that it can be perverted to support evil conduct.
Much more can be said about these four danger signs. Human literature and history are replete with countless chilling examples.
Evil as it Reveals the Universal Good
I was in Manhattan on 9-11-01, close enough to see and smell the dust; I wrote my children from there:
“Evil is real. It came to this city, near the Manhattan apartment where we are staying, announcing itself in a succession of grotesquely surreal images of a monumental murder.
“Yet Good is real. The last few days here have recharged my belief in the human capacity for heroism and virtue under duress. It is an honor to be among the New Yorkers. I now understand that evil is like a descending night flare on a battlefield, exposing the configuration of forces below. Its terrible light clarifies the essence of things. In that actinic glare, all our differences melt into insignificance because, after all, they are just different versions of the good.”
Later I added these observations:
The essential reason that our modern, post-modern culture is disabled is that it lacks a moral context wide and deep enough to accommodate evil as an active force in the world. My 9-11 borne insight that our “evil epiphany” (that moment when we achieve the gut recognition of a major instance of evil) has an important beneficial side effect: it reveals the good. This is another way of saying that the recognition of evil can illuminate the large scale moral context. Or reveal its absence.
Are there a few, simple organizing principles for the essential good that is threatened by evil? Is there an overarching moral context for human action?”
I now believe that the moral context of human action is framed in a few, basic affirmations and related precepts, and that the mutual interrelationships of these precepts and core values reveal what evil really threatens.
In effect, any confrontation with authentic, large scale evil enables to reverse engineer the deepest aspects of the good.
In this, we can all share the conviction of those humanists and religionists alike who believe that a universal good always transcends our sectarian perspectives. There actually is an organizing set of affirmations from which what we might call the universal good can always be derived. I believe that this represents a potential convergence of secular and religious ethical thought.
Writing in late 2007, I still share the conviction of those humanists and religionists alike who believe that there is a universal good that transcends our sectarian perspectives.
As I have already said, it begins with life affirmation, leads to affirmation of conscious being, and proceeds to reverence for all creation. Starting with the core value of life affirmation, our species has proceeded to honor the value of consciousness itself, because it is an inextricably bound affirmation. We have learned the significance of conscious being to life itself. Conscious being is the property of life itself having awakened; this is meant in the same sense that life is the property of the universe that localizes and intensifies the tendency toward self creation. Conscious being is the venue of significance, without which the question of value would be incoherent. Conscious being presents three (at least three) powerful, life-enhancing capabilities: compassionate empathy, creative innovation, and foresight. This suggests the moral purpose of conscious being as well as its provenance.
Conscious being, therefore, starts out by serving the life interests of an individual organism within the context of exchange relationships with other organisms. Then, after a period of development, conscious being serves the interests of life in the context of civilization, (its most important technology). Finally, at the most developed level, conscious being achieves the capacity for value universalization.
In this way, consciousness and life affirmation necessarily lead to creation affirmation, though the deep understanding of the universality of the processes of creation, of the roots of life and consciousness in the processes of creation, and the extra-mundane connection between the three meta-values life, consciousness and creation as linking individual living being with the ultimate.
Meta-evil, as I’ve defined it here is actually counterposed to these affirmations. The scale and audacity of that malevolent purpose coupled with willing action to carry out realistic actions to accomplish it should trigger a moral response in any civilized mind. A realistic evil threat on the meta-scale is very often accompanied by a volitional energy, an attraction that carries with it the possibility of malevolent growth. Some ideologies are inherently infused with evil, as defined here. This view of meta-evil entails the intelligent, courageous and dedicated opposition of every moral agent. The status of moral agency means (I submit – by definition mean) that the identification of true evil automatically creates moral obligation to oppose it.
The “ir-rationalizations” for evil are many and varied, but at the end of the day they seem to fall into four categories, each defending a form of psychological/moral encapsulation:
a. Nationalistic and regime encapsulation. Reality disengagement takes place through various forms of disconnection and willful ignorance. This is typified by the willful ignorance of so called good Germans living near Nazi concentration camps.
b. Religious and tribal encapsulation. Value disengagement is achieved through various forms of social encapsulation. Think of the forms of religious tribalism that exclude or devalue the larger human community as outside the realm of ultimate moral value.
c. Location and affinity encapsulation. Responsibility disengagement happens via the seductive appeal to acquiescence based on, “Not in my territory” and “Not my problem.” This is the great weakness of hedonism.
d. Disguised or Undisguised Nihilism. Morality disengagement is the consequence of the post-modern notion that morality and belief are mere conventions. Post-modern ethical disengagement is just the most recent version of the radical existentialist pose that individuals completely determine their own morality. In their most extreme forms these stances deny the very possibility of moral context and moral action, except as matters of arbitrary individual choice. If, for example, I decide to make you morally irrelevant, my decision to deceive or harm you is outside any binding moral context. Evil quickly takes root in this mental soil.
In a separate essay, I have introduced the concept of “malogens”: In this early 21st century cyber-culture, susceptible young men and women no longer have to fall into some sinister cult, or join some criminal cohort to become infected with evil. All sorts of bizarre and ultimately malevolent ideation, fantasies and dark power-ideologies are floating through our culture, just below of the radar of most adults. All these influences are “malogens”.
These ideas act like an odorless and colorless toxic gas that primarily affects the emotionally, morally and intellectually vulnerable among us. Regrettably, that vulnerable population includes a disproportionate number of teenagers. And this presents the grave and growing problem for modern parents: In the current culture, those whose moral compasses have been damaged by the disempowerment of religious and other robust ethical traditions include more young people than ever before. This social problem will not soon go away.
Children and young “adults” are subjected to a seductive torrent of bizarre, unfiltered material, both emotionally and morally disturbing; it seethes through the culture and the adolescent sub-cultures like a computer virus. This toxic material is relatively harmless to those who are well rooted in the deep ethical traditions that have upheld humanity, but it is highly contagious to New Age addled juvenile minds. These malogens are information-carried toxins (really they are moral pathogens); they saturate the internet; they are carried by computers, cell phones and personal contact wherever “modern” juveniles congregate.
My full essay, a case study based on the “Goth Murder” of Pamela Vitale by teenager Scott Dyleski, is archived at http://jaygaskill.com/Malogens.htm .
Has Satan Really Disappeared?
In ancient biblical terms, evil was seen as the product of a single malevolent meta-consciousness, the anti-god, the “evil one” who was in rebellion against the Supreme Being, the Holy One. There is a psychological truth in this vision, even for the non-religious.
Because, evil’s omnipresence acts like a background pathogen, it can be analyzed as an opportunistic infection of the spirit. When it strongly emerges in consciousness, it can produce the illusion of a coherent force, conjuring up the Satan-like persona, a video game monster of conscious being. In this sense, the image of Satan metaphorically captures a latent tendency that has the potential to inhabit any thinking being anywhere. “Satan” is the Anti-One, the Great Dis-integrator and the Great Dissembler.
From both religious and non-religious perspectives, evil represents a subversion of the integrity and wholeness of being.
From a 21st century spiritual perspective, evil is the force that attempts to negate the supreme unity of being, the attempt to subvert all that the Creator (or creation) and the Holy One (or One-ness) represent to humanity in this universe. To the mystics, the enlightened ones, the saints (including those whose spiritual tradition does not name God) evil is that dark presence (easily personified because it manifests, after all, in malevolent human minds) of the tendency toward a breach or rupture of the state of enlightenment that connects each to all being.
From each major human ethical perspective, the evil conduct itself and the choices it represents are understood as purposeful, and represent an ongoing possibility within each precious conscious moment of decision. Evil is the omnipresent threat of the abyss. In this sense Satan lives on into the 21st century.
But for the multiculturalists and the moral relativists of the pot-modern era, evil is an outmoded category. For too many of the post 9-11 intelligentsia, evil is a primitive and inflammatory label for “a different moral perspective”, one that calls out for our “understanding and empathy”.
The Case for a Renewed “Primitive” Perspective
Therefore, I propose that the primitive perspective is essentially true: The world actually is a venue where evil and good forces are locked in an eternal struggle. Several questions immediately arise:
Why? What value does evil add to a universe in which we humans act within a universal moral context? Or is it a design flaw, the dirty residuum of creation than can’t quite be scrubbed away? How could the capacity for motivated evil arise in this universe?
An adequate answer to these questions can be found only in a view of the natural world that includes purpose and counter-purpose as a necessary part of the moral and natural order. I believe that we humans will eventually face natural forces so powerful (and seemingly cunning) that they will achieve the capacity to extinguish life, conscious intelligence, and the creative process itself. Our species’ flirtation with nuclear war was nothing compared to the natural disaster 65-66 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs and nearly sterilized planet earth. The fossil record is replete with hints of the challenges our species will eventually face.
I propose that evil trains us and prepares us to overcome future natural challenges of unimaginable magnitude. Evil inaugurates the arms race that will eventually save us.
I am fully persuaded that the very conditions of existence that allow conscious intelligence in the universe and our human minds in particular to achieve profound creative accomplishment, must necessarily permit such huge latitude of cognitive and decisional freedom that evil minds will always arise among us along with the creative ones.
So it must be.
The Courage to Have Courage
Faith is the essential companion of all action in a world that conceals parts of itself from us. There will never be a time when we humans can “see” everything. But paralysis is not an option. We all live in faith or we don’t live at all. Our faith must require more of us than the conviction that the good is better than the evil.
We humans are able to survive and thrive because of the (so far) justified faith that our creative civilizations are and will remain over time more powerful than the atavistic ones. We seem to face the extreme case where the tendency to nihilistic, even large scale suicidal violence has been successfully yoked to an intelligent motivation based on an evil ideology. The next question is whether we are still able to respond to the Churchillian call for our “blood, sweat and tears” in opposition to the existential evil that now threatens the foundations and security of our very civilization.
Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2007 by Jay B. Gaskill