Talking About Evil by Nigel Summerley and Rowena J Ronson
NS: Is there such a thing as evil, independent of human beings. Is the idea of the devil rooted in some sort of reality? Or is it a way of expressing an aspect of humanity – an internal flaw?
RJR: I am not sure what you mean by ‘independent of human beings’, as I am not a believer in heaven and hell or ‘God’ and his antithesis, the devil. But there is no doubt that evil exists in humanity. It is interesting to question whether it is a flaw or just born out of the survival instinct. What do you think?
NS: I am not a believer either. But there does seem to be a widespread belief that evil exists as something separate from us, something that we can succumb to or be taken over by. But perhaps this is an excuse – like the scapegoat that was blamed for evil things and then driven away or killed. The potential for evil may well be within us all, no? It seems more likely that it is a psychological/self-centred flaw. But why do you mention the survival instinct? Is it that we are prepared to push our boundaries to encompass almost any act – if it is linked to self-preservation?
RJR: How easy it is to think of it as separate from us. It is such a great way for no one to take responsibility for anything. In saying that, I do believe in possession, so in some instances I guess evil can be perceived as a separate entity. I believe we are all capable of anything, yes. But I am not sure we are all capable of evil, although I guess we are all susceptible to being possessed. I am sure you will have something to say in answer to that comment! There is a difference between self-preservation and evil, surely? It may be born out of survival, but it is not what motivates it…
NS: If you believe in possession, then it seems like you are having it both ways… Evil is not separate but it can possess us…? Either it is separate or it is not, surely? I agree that we are all probably capable of anything – or certainly we can never know for sure what we may be capable of. Self-preservation at all costs must lead ultimately to violence – and perhaps also to evil? First, I think we need to clear up this “possession” thing. If we are possessed, what is it that possesses us? And if it is separate from us, what is it, what is its nature and where does it come from? Could we go into this a bit more?
RJR: I would say that it can be separate and it can be part of us. I believe that evil spirits can possess us. Or have I been watching too many films? I also believe that one can be possessed by good spirits too. So in answer to your questions, I believe we can be possessed by spirits, be they evil or otherwise. I am guessing you don’t share my belief?
NS: Saying that evil can be separate from us and part of us seems to be contradictory, although I suppose it is not necessarily so. If you feel that we can be possessed by spirits – either evil or good – then what is the nature of these spirits? And again, this seems contradictory because you were saying earlier that we sometimes look to blame an outside agency for the way we are or the way we behave. I think there is something in this feeling of “possession” but perhaps it is possession by thoughts or feelings that we like to think could never be a part of us?
RJR: I agree that most people do not take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts and resulting behaviour. I am not sure we are conditioned to do so. It is only when people are in crisis and they do some personal development work that they learn the skill. I have learned in life, and I work with my patients with the model that we need to take 100 per cent responsibility for our behaviour. We cannot take responsibility for how the person in the dynamic with us reacts, as that would be controlling and would imply that they should be responsible for our behaviour, which in turn is disempowering. Evil is something else, though, isn’t it – or would you put aggression and lying for example, under the evil umbrella?
NS: Yes, it’s far easier to blame someone else or something else for our behaviour. There may be something in the self-preserving, self-justifying nature of the brain that predisposes us to that? Awareness of what we do and what is being done to us presumably holds the key to placing responsibility where it belongs? Aggression or lying (and other types of “bad” behaviour) could be described as evil or not, depending perhaps on the context or the degree or the result. But I wonder if evil is a mystery that we cannot solve. Is it a word we use to describe aberrant human behaviour stemming from the more primitive actions of the brain and from lack of awareness? Or could it be something that “possesses” us from outside. The latter seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But then what lies behind the way the human brain and behaviour have developed? Is it too fanciful to think that forces of “good” and “evil” may have been involved in our emergence as human beings?
RJR: The idea of forces of “good” and “evil” being involved in our emergence as human beings makes no sense to me. Is there a religious explanation that you are referring to, and if so, can you tell me more?
NS: Not exactly a religious reference, although I suppose that is the basis of much religion – the idea of the opposing forces of God and the Devil. And that can be a metaphor for the human condition. I suppose I come back to the question of whether or not there are forces of evil and good at work in the universe? And is life born out of that? Or is the universe ‘detached’ – neither good nor evil. Or is it good/evil? Or are good and evil ‘human’ terms that have no real meaning in the universe?
RJR: There are opposing forces throughout the universe. In fact, everything exists through polarity, light and dark, but that is not the same as good and evil, is it? Or is it one and the same? I agree the concept of good and evil is human terminology. Other animals are not evil. The reptilian and oldest part of our brain provided us with our basic survival animal instincts. It is from the more evolved parts of our brain that evil has manifested. When we observe animals it is all too easy to project human emotions on to them, but a cat is not evil if it scratches you. We all hear of stories of people who seem completely heartless. I watched last night the new film Monument Men. Forces of good and evil are clearly seen throughout.The selfless men who helped rescue our culture heritage from the nazis. The gold collected by the nazis from the teeth of the Jews.
NS: I am left thinking and feeling that ‘good/evil’ is a red herring. The terms good and evil are simply human creations. There is darkness and light in all things – and perhaps if we are aware of the darkness within us, we will move and act more in the light.