I have recently been reading Terry Eagleton's On Evil, a slightly madcap but always entertaining tour d'horizon of the way the subject of metaphysical evil has been dealt with in literature across time.
Amongst quite a lot of rambling and digression, Eagleton identifies something which I think is of great significance for contemporary society but also, more importantly, for D&D alignments. This is that evil metaphysically speaking expresses itself as simultaneously a rejection of being itself (and hence of the limitations that necessarily accompany being itself) and an ambition to transcend the finite, the temporal, the physical, and indeed the real, and become therefore an infinite expression of 'pure will'. This is as true of the school shooter who expresses his malice towards the very concept of being by targeting children; to the serial killer who transforms human lives into mere objects of his will; to the pedophile who asserts his desires despite and in a sense even because of the way they transgress society's most fundamental limits; and to Nazism and Communism and their absolute refusal to tolerate the fundamental facts of human biological, communal and spiritual life as barriers to the realisation of their utopian dreams. Evil is in fact almost synonymous with what Kojeve saw as the end point of History as such - the 'universal and homogenous state' in which there are no distinctions or classes of persons as such and no limits placed on individual will (because everybody's individual desires are known in advance and realised).
It follows that 'good' is an embracement of being itself - an acceptance and love for the finite, the temporal, the physical and the real - and hence a respect for limitations on the expressions of one's 'pure will' (indeed, a desire to submit and sublimate one's will to 'the greater good'). Good in a sense inheres in a reconciliation of one's will with the fact that there are not only other human beings with wills (and characters) of their own, but also with the fact that there is such a thing as natural right and things that are objectively better and worse than each other for human flourishing in the round and this is discoverable by reason.
This, interestingly (to my eye, anyway) chimes to a certain extent with what we also think of as the dichotomy between chaos and law, which I have written about before, where chaos represents the dissolution of human nature as such and law represents the essential characteristic and requirement for a distinctive human nature to exist in the first place. Chaos/evil despises being but particularly the notion of 'human beings' as a distinct and special category; law/good is the opposite.
Nobody should interpret this as having anything to say about politics, I don't think, not least because nobody ever describes themselves as being 'evil' and even the most evil people - Lenin*, Stalin, Hitler - present themselves (and presumably think of themselves) as doing things that in the long run are objectively 'good'. But I do think it has something interesting to say about metaphysics, and especially the metaphysics of D&D. We talk a lot about the alignment system and its apparent inadequacies and incoherences. Perhaps there is something to it after all, and particularly across the dimension of law/chaos, where chaos is understood to be in some way anti-being, and especially anti-human being, and law as both affirmative of being and essential for human-being.
*Gorky descibed Lenin as being animated by love for humanity but that he percieved it through a 'cloud of hatred', which I think strikes at something important.
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Not bad. My tendency is to look at the good/evil axis from a more spiritual/religious perspective: one of being closer to One-ness (with God, others), or one of separation/selfishness.ReplyDelete
But if I'm reading this correctly, my concept doesn't argue terribly with this concept.
These days, I'm not using alignment in my campaign, but it's not because I don't think metaphysical forces/values aren't possible or even DESIRABLE in the D&D game. It's just that I dislike the system as implemented in D&D, as a behavioral straight-jacket. Humans can't be pigeon-holed as "lawful neutral" or "chaotic good;" we are fickle, whimsical persons gifted with free will and challenged by a variety of circumstance. D&D players are even more so (at least, when playing a fantasy character in a fantasy game). An adventuring party might well take actions that (as a whole) benefit the cause of Law and Good one day, and spit in its eye the next...and the game as written penalizes such deviation (yes, even in a Basic D&D game where a "neutral" character picking up a different aligned sword can take damage).
This is why I dislike alignment change magic and curses, or spells that detect "evil" or "good." This is why the limitations of alignment language or (for me) utter nonsense. I am perfectly happy to entertain the concept of a world with metaphysical forces, either working in tandem or struggling mightily against each other on a cosmic basis. But humans have more variety than angels and devils.
Yes, I basically agree with that approach to alignment - not as a way to describe individual character but as a cosmic conflict taking place which the players may or may not be involved with somewhere along the line.Delete
Put shortly - I dislike this explanation of Good and Evil for many reasons, but not the least because it plants Good as naturally subordinate to Evil. What is commonly perceived as the "Greater Good" is easily manipulated by Evil people.ReplyDelete
I accept your last point, but that's why I want to restrict the discussion to metaphysical good and evil. It is definitely true that the 'greater good' is easily (almost always?) manipulated, but that doesn't mean there is no such thing at all.Delete
I also don't think it makes good subordinate to evil. I think the point is rather that (and this comes across a lot in both Tolkien and CS Lewis) no matter what evil's ambitions are, they have no end product - merely entropy and destruction. Only good creates.
Forgive my tangent here for a bit - Entropy is a physical law, or at least something very close to a physical law, in our universe. To accept the limitation of naturally *being itself* is to be subordinate to entropy. To fight against entropy would involve a kind of rejection of *being itself*, which here is depicted as Evil, when we might understand it as probably the opposite, or at the very least something that could be done for both Good or Evil.Delete
I think the limitation of *being itself*, whether to accept or reject it, isn't quite so clear cut. Ambition and rejecting the current state of affairs is often associated with Evil, but it's both a virtue and a vice in different situations for different reasons.
As for philosophical or metaphysical evil, I think evil is more associated with destruction, but it's easy to imagine a scenario in which something that is created is arguably worse than a scenario in which something is destroyed. Creating the torture dimension = evil, destroying the torture dimension after evacuating it = good.
I strongly disagree with respect to entropy. I accept that there is a physical definition of entropy, but in the wider sense of things gradually falling apart and sliding into oblivion, it would seem to me to be intrinsically 'good' to struggle against that - and really it's what civilization is all about.Delete
I see what you mean about the 'torture dimension' in principle but could such a thing ever exist in reality? It seems like a thought experiment that could indeed only ever exist in the realm of pure thought. The more realistic example would be destroying a death camp being a 'good' act, but of course that would be being done ultimately to preserve and sustain life, and death camps exist to destroy.
So, made a bit of a mistake talking about entropy when what I'm really talking about is the second law of thermodynamics - the entropy of an isolated system cannot decrease. In this case, that's very likely to be our universe. I think we're in agreement about fighting entropy being a good thing, but there's an argument to be made that civilization and life are things in favor of general entropy in a "all water flows downhill" kind of way. I think the post "Meditations on Moloch" on the blog Slate Star Codex made the argument much better than I could, though. If we manage to land any kind of real defeat on the physical process of entropy, it'll be through using or subverting something we don't know about today.Delete
So, with the "torture dimension", I got my wires crossed and made an "argument from evil" about the existence of hell in a religious context. I think there are workable religious responses to this and don't want to delve too far into a religion argument here, but the idea of hell as a torture dimension (as opposed to other conceptions of hell that are less horrible) paints a picture of a fundamentally evil creator. The reason I shy away from using a more realistic example like a death camp is because I agree with your reasoning that death camps are things created in order to destroy - which very tentatively might not apply to a divinely created "torture dimension" for the sake of inflicting punishment on the evil. I say tentatively because I don't really buy this argument myself.
Taking it back to D&D terms, hell and other lower planes generally aren't created by the good gods, they just kind of exist or are byproducts of mistakes or other processes, which is more understandable. The idea of good and evil being not just concepts, but part of a higher order process where good deeds and souls make the upper planes grow in size and strength, and evil does the same with the lower planes, is an interesting one to me.
It's not true that life is in favour of general entropy - at least on a biological level. One of the definitions of "life" is "that which withstands entropy" - as long as we are alive, our cells and the information which they contain cohere; as soon as we die, entropy takes over.Delete
There's a really good book which deals with this topic called The Demon in the Machine, about the cutting edge intersection of physics and biology. (The "demon" of the title is Maxwell's Demon, a 19th century thought experiment about using demons in boxes to avoid Newton's second law of Thermodynamics; turns out something very much like these demons exists within living cells)
Maxwell's Demon was something I obsessed over for a not insignificant period of my life, so I'll have to give that a read. I always wondered why the little guy couldn't "randomly" open the trapdoor to decrease entropy without knowledge.Delete
Interestingly, Eagleton actually brings up the 'torture dimension' thing though using different terms. I basically agree that the idea of 'hell' as a place of eternal torment, which doesn't really exist in Biblical Christianity, suggest an evil or at least morally ambivalent creator. The only sensible way to understand hell theologically I think is as the apotheosis of sin - i.e. the consequence of prideful rejection of god/being, and hence simply the end. You die and the lights go out.Delete
I think that squares far more with what I would conceptualize as a "fair" universe than the alternative.Delete
The Nazis in Three Hearts and Three Lions are in fact described as being agents of Chaos rather than being 'lawful evil,' which is a contradiction in Poul Anderson's conception of evil. Both Nazis and Communists, by wreaking destruction and clearing out vast swathes of the populace, are acting in the service of Chaos' ultimate goal to render the land to ruins where the 'satyr will cry out to his fellow' and 'lilith will find a resting place.' It matters little to the elves and trolls whether the wasteland is verdant and green or barren and gray, so long as it is inimical to human life.ReplyDelete
That's interesting. I've never read it nor been tempted before, but I am now.Delete
That characterisation of evil as repudiation on the one hand and apotheosis on the other sounds very much like Eagleton's Catholicism shining through.ReplyDelete
Your idea of evil reminds me of Terry Pratchett's line "sin is when you treat people as things". A thing being something you'd have no compunction doing whatever you want with.ReplyDelete
Pratchett's definition by way of Granny Weatherwax has always struck me as one of the best and most concise definitions of "sin" that I have ever heard. I was thinking about this as well reading this piece.Delete
Another I like comes from Arthur Machen and goes like this: “...the essence of sin is in… the taking of Heaven by storm… an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner. There are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint. The saint endeavors to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.”
"it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint" - this made me think of a line from William Burroughs, which goes something like "if you get far enough, you may encounter the Devil's Bargain. Every soul is worth saving, but not every soul is worth buying - you should take the offer as a compliment".Delete
That strikes me a decent working definition of sin, even if it sounds as though Pratchett has been going through Immanuel Kant's desk drawers.Delete
"Act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, at all times also as an end, and not only as a means." - Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785)
I disagree that law/chaos are analogous for good/evil. Lawful characters, certainly as I have played them, uphold law even when the law is an ass. There is a really good example of this in Patrick and Scrap's Fire on the Velvet Horizon, the very first creature in that book (I forget it's name). It is a creature that is utterly lawful, but undeniably evil.ReplyDelete
Alignments in D&D though... meh.
I think that's a narrow reading of 'law' to mean positive law as in rules and procedure, rather than law in the sense of order. Order/chaos is actually a better way of framing it.Delete
That's true but, to the extent that I've used alignment in D&D, I interpret law as meaning rules & procedures (and chaos as being opposed to rules & procedures, much more than being deliberately destructive)Delete
I like a game with a Axe of Good that smites evil, and an Axe of Law that smites chaos. If you're going to bother with two-axis alignment in the game, at all, there needs to be a meaningful, gameable distinction between the two axes.Delete
Doesn't this definition make Gnosticism (And Mysticism more generally) a philosophy of evil? In D&D terms, a detached ascetic monk sitting on a mountaintop trying to become one with the universe seems like a manifestation of True Neutrality more than anything else.ReplyDelete
I can certainly see the desire to transcend being a key element of many evil ideologies (Do Not Immanentize the Eschaton, etc). But could we imagine the opposite? Perhaps a desire to embrace the nature of being, to live in the moment, to pay full attention to one's physical manifestation, its hunger and pain and senses. Such a philosophy wouldn't be as imposing on others as a utopian ideal, but is still selfish in its own way. I could see that being the ideal of a group of predatory druids or werewolves.
I know Catholics who absolutely believe Gnosticism to be a philosophy of evil. But then, 4 years ago I went on pilgrimage with a bunch of Gnostics with the explicit intention of immanentizing the Eschaton, so...Delete
As Dan says, Gnosticism is considered a philosophy of evil by Christians in general - it is one of the oldest heresies.Delete
I think what you are describing in the second paragraph, which is basically Zen Buddhism, is an embrace of being in the 'good' sense which I've described, because in correct practice it leads to selfLESSness. Although I don't disagree that there is probably a way to meditate selfishly and turn oneself into a psychopath.
"We are naturally inclined to think that a person who is very disagreeable to us must be a very great sinner! It is very disagreeable to have one's pocket picked, and we pronounce the thief to be a very great sinner. In truth, he is merely an undeveloped man. He cannot be a saint, of course; but he may be, and often is, an infinitely better creature than thousands who have never broken a single commandment. He is a great nuisance to us, I admit, and we very properly lock him up if we catch him; but between his troublesome and unsocial action and evil--Oh, the connexion is of the weakest...We take the very numerous infractions of our social 'bye-laws'--the very necessary and very proper regulations which keep the human company together--and we get frightened at the prevalence of 'sin' and 'evil.' But this is really nonsense. Take theft, for example. Have you any horror at the thought of Robin Hood, of the Highland caterans of the seventeenth century, of the moss-troopers, of the company promoters of our day?...What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?...Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels and in making this effort man becomes a demon. I told you that the mere murderer is not therefore a sinner; that is true, but the sinner is sometimes a murderer. Gilles de Raiz is an instance. So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is--to man the social, civilized being--evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall."ReplyDelete
This endears me. As a rational philosophy? Horrid, insipid, scrap it. As a mythological or fantasy concept? Powerful stuff.Delete
Ah ha. Someone has posted the full quote. The story this comes from, "The White People," is one I found profoundly haunting and would highly recommend.Delete
I'd been reading some Blake around the time I first read this post, so I reflexively reacted against the idea that it's the infinite that's chaotic/evil, and acceptance of limit that's orderly/good. I've since done more reading and come around on the idea.ReplyDelete
On both ends there's something of a paradox. The cornerstone of our self-consciousness as human beings is consciousness of death, of our own personal finitude. However, it's by becoming conscious of death and orienting ourselves toward or from our death that we become capable of fully realizing our works - of art and of the making of history.
In nature alone there is a void, and a fullness. It is shapeless, without beginning or end, and so there is no birth or death, no situation in history, only nature desiring, consuming, and satisfying - eternal dissolution.
From one there is silence, from the other a riotous creation - death of the spirit, death-in-life, versus life-in-death.
I think that's basically right re: orientation towards/from death.Delete
Well, from your description it seems something prodigiously stupid - but maybe it contains something worthy of thought, even if I won't agree with such. Will look up, thanks.ReplyDelete
P.S. By the way, the original annotation of the book actually contains a shining example of said stupidity: "doomed souls who apparently destroy for no reason." While it's well known to anyone who've taken a bit of care to look up an info of the question that reasons of school shooters, etc. are usually quite well known and stem from just that shining Social Order aka "existing" that the author chooses to represent as epitome of Ze Good. %))ReplyDelete
It's a pity that such authors are considered "one of the most respected and influential critics of our day" - and it speaks volumes of the current state of affairs. :((
If one wishes to find some actually worthy thoughts on the question, there is always Chesterton. But nobody reads him today. %(
Are you going to enlighten us about the reasons why school shooters do what they do and how it stems from the social order?Delete
Also: Terry Eagleton is a famous Marxist. The idea that he thinks the existing social order is an epitome of good is...well...Delete
The point isn't that the existing social order is good. The point is that the desire to transcend the very notion of social order is bad.Delete