I was told the following story from Spain: a five-year-old girl and her younger sister had been invited to the finca of friends with children of their own. The ancient main building of the finca was several storeys high and numerous employees cooked in the kitchen on the ground floor, a gardener looked after the extensive gardens and lived with his son in a small house near the main building.
As the girl strolled on her own through the gardens she came to the small house. She was unable to speak Spanish but the gardener waved her over. The gardener’s son, about the same age as her, gave her a delicious almond cake on a colourful piece of paper as a gift. Alone with the boy, the girl wanted another cake. The wrapped cakes lay in a bowel on the garden table. Suddenly she picked up a stick lying on the ground and hit the boy with it who ran crying into the house. This was the moment to take another cake. But seeing the crying boy gave her a deep shock combined with the knowledge: that is bad what you have just done. Deeply ashamed, she ran back to the main house and hid under a bench. In this situation no one said from outside what is good or evil. Looking back on her action the girl reached the conclusion that what she had done was bad.
Good and evil in mythology
In mythology and religion the question of good and evil arises in connection with the creation of the human being. Thus the Paradise legend in the Bible tells how Adam is commanded by God not to eat any fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
The Oberufer Paradise play tells this story in dramatic scenes. After Adam has taken the forbidden apple from Eve’s hand and has bitten into it, he says: “Oh, how has my mind been transformed.” From this moment onwards he is no longer part of the harmonious life in Paradise in which he joyfully discovered and named the creation of plants and animals. He suddenly sees himself naked alone with Eve and left to fend for themselves, driven out of Paradise to earth by the Angel Gabriel.
We can interpret this process as an archetypal image of the experience of good and evil. An original unity is destroyed, there is separation and isolation, a command is broken. What is the consequence?
The poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller even interprets the Paradise myth such that God had spoken the command in order for it to be broken. That might appear to be a paradoxical thought because commands or prohibitions are normally expressed to prevent certain actions. At the same time attention is drawn to the prohibited area – just think of the locked door in the fairy tale or the forbidden fruit in the Paradise legend – and a desire aroused in a person for what is out of reach. The experience of evil is thus associated with an experience of boundaries. If they are transgressed, if commands are ignored, that leads to being driven out of Paradise as the Fall shows – a process which represents the destruction of an original unity.
Mani – evil as part of creation
The religious founder Mani (216-276 BC) – other than the Church Father Augustine whose teaching still applies in the Catholic Church today – understood evil as something existential originating at the same time as the good. Mani’s teaching sees evil as part of Creation which is to be redeemed through the action of the good. Humans are beings who have been created both from light and dark forces and who are responsible for the forces which they allow to reside within them. They are thus beings who continue the creation process in that through the redemption of evil they can heal through integration something which has fallen out of the overall context.
I was greatly impressed by an experience I had in free Christian religion lessons. Some class 3 pupils came to me one day and asked me to tell them a really gruesome story. In the search for such a story I came across the fairy tale “The Two Travellers” by the Brothers Grimm, a gruesome fairy tale which at the end nevertheless leads to positive conclusion after many a precipice. It can be seen that the tailor has to go through many terrible experiences and yet does not allow feelings of hate or recrimination to arise in him. After I had told the story, a sigh or satisfaction passed through the classroom.
The pupils had been involved in all the misfortune and could feel in the solution which is described at the end of this story that good and evil in the world are ordered in a just sense. Such a story can serve as an experimental field of the soul and at the same time develop the moral sentiments of the children for which no further instruction is required. Here the level and the spiritual content of the story is particularly important, the effect of which should not be underestimated either in a Grimm’s fairy tale or the Old Testament.
Evil in the twentieth century
An awareness of good and evil awakens in some children at quite an early stage. In this context it is crucial that the question of good and evil is not delegated away from personal responsibility as sometimes happens in the debate about free will. There are of course unimaginably terrible acts which lead to responsibility being assigned exclusively to another instance. The events in the Nazi concentration camps, these sites of organised mass murder, lead to such a conclusion.
The Hispano-French writer Jorge Semprun was imprisoned in Buchenwald at the age of 20. He deals with his experiences in the camp in some of his novels and directs his criticism against any kind of forgetting and displacement because they violate human dignity. Semprun sees his work with these memories as research into the human soul in the face of horror. He summarises the essence of his findings in an outstanding passage in the novel Literature or Life: “The vital thing is to succeed in overcoming the conspicuousness of horror in order to try to grasp radical evil by the roots. Because horror was not evil, or at least not its essence. It was only its garment, its adornment, its pomp. In short, its form of appearance. The essential thing … is the experience of radical evil …”
Semprun’ conclusion, which in its simplicity is both shocking and explosive, gives human beings unavoidable responsibility in that he sees inhumanity as part of their existence: “Evil is not what is inhumanity, of course not … Or rather it is the inhumanity in human beings … Inhumanity in human beings as something that can be part of their life, as their personal project … As freedom … It is therefore ridiculous to set oneself against evil, to distance oneself from it simply by referring to the human factor, the human race …
Evil is one of the possible forms of human beings … The freedom in which the humanity and at the same time the inhumanity of human beings is rooted …”
The modern era is gradually separating itself from external authorities. Humanity and morality are increasingly less communicated by external instances such as tradition, social values, religious practice, that is from outside, but are increasingly becoming a question directed at the individual human being.
Now in view of the shocking experiences of life today the thought that evil has to be guided towards redemption may appear incomprehensible and alien to begin with. But if we add the thought outlined at the beginning, that evil is always separation, isolation and distancing from a wholeness, then human beings have the creative possibility to place what has fallen out of context back into context, to be creative and act for the whole. Christian Morgenstern described the process of such a transformation of the world in his poem which he wrote for the songbook of a group of young students.
The address “brothers” already indicates that the redemption of evil is an act of community in which everyone who hears the call of the ideal is called upon to become involved. Being “brother to everyone” may appear to be a utopia which is hardly capable of being lived or indeed a shocking provocation in the circumstances of life today. But if evil is no longer understood as a force which acts outside human beings but as something which lies in human beings themselves, then overcoming evil can only start in and with human beings. In view of the current situation in Syria and other places in the world we might well ask ourselves what consequences follow from the process of modern civilisation for other cultures and who bears responsibility for that. More than a hundred years later Christian Morgenstern’s poem is still as relevant as ever in the sense of guiding our eyes towards the future.
Song for a songbook for young students
“Brothers!” – Hear the word!
Is that all it should be?
Should it not bear fruit
more and more?
Often the oath was heard!
And often it was kept –
But in the narrow, old
Oh, a new sense!
Learn to recognise it!
Let it burn hotly
Being brother to everyone!
Helping, serving everyone!
Is, since HE appeared,
the only goal!
The evil doer, too,
acting against us!
He too was once
woven of light.
“Love evil – well!”
profound souls teach us.
Learn to steel in hatred –
the courage to love!
“Brothers!” – Hear the word!
That it become truth –
and the earth in future
a place of God.
About the author: Dr Christiane Haid heads the Literary Arts and Humanities Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach and the publisher Verlag am Goetheanum.