The Fathers commonly spoke of three things together: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The three are related. And it is necessary to understand these three in order to understand the nature of evil – both why it is evil and how it behaves.
The root of Truth, Beauty and Goodness in the Fathers is Being and Existence. God alone has true Being and all things exist and have their being as a gift from Him. As gifts from God, being and existence are inherently good. Classically, the Fathers describe us as moving from being, to well-being to eternal being. It is a way of describing the path of salvation.
Truth and Beauty can also be understood in this model. Truth is synonymous with true being – with what really is. And so we say that Christ Himself is the Truth, for God alone is the truly existing one. His Being is the cause of all being. We observe that what truly exists is beautiful. It has wonder and order and moves us to desire it.
All of these set the parameters for understanding what is meant by “evil.” Evil is not something in itself. It is not any sort of being, nor any sort of existence. Nothing, not even the devil himself, is evil by nature. Evil is simply a movement away from and against being. It is opposed to being. It hates existence. It is a drive towards destruction.
Evil hates the truth, because the truth is real and exists. It cannot bear the reality of truth’s being. Evil hates beauty for the same reason. And though evil can use things that are beautiful, it only uses them for the purpose of destruction and non-being.
And so we encounter evil in this world. But, in fact, we never actually encounter “evil” as a thing or a being itself. It is always a direction and a movement, or an action with a certain direction and movement. Many things, including our own lives from time to time, are marked by a movement away from truth, being and goodness. Like objects that have their own inertia, that is, once they begin to move in a direction, they seem to want to continue, so, too, evil has a sort of inertia. It moves towards destruction and even seems to take other things along with it.
There are personalities, broken and diseased, that become fascinated with evil (with the original meaning of fascinated). Fascinans is a Latin word that describes a certain power to draw or compel someone. We are “drawn” to what fascinates us. With evil, that same power and attraction can seem to be present. Anger, rebellion, iconoclasm and destruction often have cultural expressions. A young person dressed in black, tattooed, pierced, angry, drawn to very dark, even Satanic music is almost a caricature of this sort of fascination. It can be extremely dangerous.
Such evil need not seem obvious. The forces of our modern world often seem quite benign, even deeply concerned with our welfare. But there always lurks the desire to “remake” and to create a new world and new human beings. Over the three centuries of the Modern Project, some of the most broad-sweeping, systematic and destructive evil the world has ever seen has been unleashed: the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, even the drive towards the amassing of wealth. All of these things (and those that rhyme with them) have in common not only a desire to “build a new world,” etc., but the need to destroy the old or to sweep those things that resist out of the way.
Evil never constructs an empire. Those things that are the hallmarks of civilization occur despite the presence of evil. We have seen evil policies and laws in many political settings, but they have a tendency to collapse. Evil’s drive is towards non-being and it cannot construct the things necessary to survive. It is, I think, why humanity has not simply destroyed itself. Though there is always evidence of a drive to destruction, there is also an instinct for order and beauty. And in the world God has created (even though we describe it as “fallen”), the instinct for order and beauty is simply greater than the drive towards destruction.
This way of thinking about good and evil is not just a way for analyzing the world. It is also a way for thinking about our lives and the path of salvation. It is also a way of discerning the many good things in the world and in civilizations that are not specifically oriented towards the Christian faith in a transparent manner. Christ Himself, the Logos, is the true reason and order of all things and He draws all things towards Himself.
Evil has a deeply irrational aspect, particularly when “rational” is understood as “related to the Logos.” The “will to power” seen in many cultural and political phenomena often has a very evil component. That which is “sheer will” reveals an emptiness. It is nothing but a force and a movement. It is a movement that seeks to impose its own version of order or reality that, as often as not, is destructive.
One of the great dangers of our modern technological, consumer culture is its use of technology to create false realities. The sexual revolution is primarily the application of technology to create a false sexual freedom. The total elimination of the natural consequences of sexual activity is itself a form of destruction and creates a false order. To have a culture where young men and women are sexually active and yet typically barren and marriage-avoidant is not natural, nor according to the order of things. It is a “new” world whose dark consequences are already revealing themselves.
The hoarding of great wealth is also destructive of the true order of things. Only violence (whether implied or potential) can maintain a deep disparity in wealth and power. The violence of poverty (often blamed on the poor themselves in modern culture) is probably the most widespread form of evil in the modern world. Some argue that there is an absolute “property right” taught in Scripture. This is not true. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” We do not “own” anything. We are stewards of what we have been given. Property law, generally a good thing, is nevertheless maintained through the threat of violence (police and civil court). Deep disparity cries out for justice.
Throughout history, not in the manner described by Marxist theory, but, nonetheless, in a common repeated manner, the destructive violence of disparity collapses. Evil always moves towards a collapse. The acquisition of wealth, in opposition to the generosity of sharing what is ultimately a gift, appears to many as a “building up” and a constructive effort. But this is not the Biblical or Patristic witness. Acquisition is not the true source of wealth and the power it gives is in opposition to the power that belongs to God. God gives freely of all that He has and all that He is. Self-emptying and generosity are the source of fullness and true wealth. The wealthy fool will perish along with all of his wealth.
This brings us to reflect on the details of our daily existence. Each day, each breath, represents a unique and generous gift from God. It is immediatey the good thing that He gives to us. The goodness of our life directs us to give to others in turn, and to offer thanks to God above all things. There is, within a gifted existence, not an effort to force and control, but primarily an effort first to accept and to live.
A gifted existence, living with the good, the true and the beautiful, has an inherently traditional shape. The word “tradition” indicates that what you have has been given to you. This does not block creativity, but channels it. There is always the recognition of the destructive tendencies within our refusal to live in a proper manner. We become iconoclasts towards what is given, convinced that we can do better.
The drive towards destruction is the refusal of the gift. Peace does not come in the drive to create change – it comes in the life that rightly embraces the giftedness of all things.