Alan Macfarlane, ‘The root of all evil’, in David Parkin (ed.), The Anthropology of Evil (Blackwell, 1985), pp. 57-75 [reprinted in Macfarlane, The Culture of Capitalism]
As Pocock shows in chapter 3, the word 'evil' is of Teutonic origin. The Oxford English Dictionary, and also some other contributors to this volume, distinguish between a strong and a weak meaning. In the strong meaning, ‘evil' is used to mean the antithesis of good in all its principal senses; morally depraved, bad, wicked, vicious. This strong sense of evil, the OED tells us, is 'little used in modern English'; when applied to persons it is 'obsolete'. Contrary to Pocock, I accept this view. The word is nowadays used only in the weak version, meaning to cause discomfort and/or pain, to be unpleasant, offensive and disagreeable, to be 'not good'. It is interchangeable with 'bad', ‘unpleasant', 'harmful'. I shall be concerned here with the strong sense of ‘evil': how, when and why did it become obsolete? The disappearance of evil as a concept is one of the most extraordinary features of modern society. That it is no longer generally possible to conceive of an abstract force of evil is clearly of great interest to historians and anthropologists.
The essence of evil lies in a combination of several features. First, it is shadowy, mysterious, covert, hidden, not fully understood; hence the association with night, darkness, black, secrecy. Second, it is an aggressive or, as the OED put it, a positive force. Evil tries to destroy the integrity, the happiness and the welfare of 'normal' society. It is aggressively, if insidiously, undermining, the worm in the bud. Witches would not be evil if they merely met and danced naked, but they also attack society, causing illness and death. These attacks are not justified; either they are motiveless, or the motives are perverted. God or the ancestors are not evil when they afflict man, for their ends are good: to improve the afflicted. They correct mankind as a loving father corrects a child. Yet when havoc falls out of a clear sky and strikes down an individual or a society, there evil is at work.(1)
Note 1: I am grateful to Professor David Parkin and other members of the 'Evil' seminar for their comments on drafts of this paper. Among these was the suggestion that we still use 'evil’ in the strong sense, for instance to describe the Nazi holocaust, mass torture, sadistic crimes.
This is perfectly true. Yet I would maintain that the Oxford English Dictionary is correct, . in
saying that the word when applied to persons is 'obsolete'. The precise combination of
horror, terror and condemnation that combines beliefs about supernatural as well as natural
threats is almost, if not totally, extinguished at present in much of Western Europe and
When misfortunes occur they tend to be explained by a set of factors. The causes are placed on a continuum, from an extreme of very human, personal, causes through rather abstract, half-human ones to the mechanical and inhuman. Among these are the following: ancestors, witches, fairies or other small spirits, God or the Devil, the stars, 'science', fate and chance. Usually a society will have available a set of two or three of these explanations. The choice of a particular explanation will reflect an individual's location in relation to the unfortunate event, for example whether there was thought to have been some earlier wrongdoing. One of the most puzzling problems for anthropologists has for long been why different societies should have opted for different sets of explanation and also why such sets should change. This essay is a brief attempt to suggest a few of the background factors that lie behind the choice of explanatory frameworks.
The nature of a world in which real evil is all around can be partially diagnosed. First, there is the secrecy. Things are not what they seem: the smiling face conceals hatred, the friendly gesture leads to downfall. The same person is both a neighbour and possibly a member of a secret, subversive, organization. This is a world of limited good, envy, the Evil Eye. Although the forms will differ with the religious system, if we survey all human societies, it does seem roughly to be the case that the strong concept of immanent evil flourishes in the middle range of human societies. Often the concept is weakly developed or absent in hunter-gatherer societies. In many tribal societies, in so far as there is evil, it is usually members of other distant groups who are evil, or abstract, non-human, spirits. It is in the densely settled agrarian societies that anthropologists have had to label as 'peasant' - China, India, parts of South America and Catholic Europe - that evil has developed as a massive moral and practical problem. Each of these civilizations has an intricate theodicy in which evil is given a formal place in the system of explanation, with the curious exception, perhaps, of certain forms of Buddhism (see chapter 8 below). Though the location and attributes of evil are infinitely varied, evil and the concept of evil are of central importance.
It could thus be argued that the moral economy of the peasant society has, as one aspect, the economy of evil. A great amount of energy is spent in trying to hold back and defeat evil through the use of that ‘magic’ that is built into
practical religion in Catholic, Hindu, Muslim and Confucian societies. Life and happiness are thought to be constantly threatened, by women, by death, by secret evil, by diffuse and invisible powers. There is a never-ending war, both within the individual and against external dark forces. An archetypical example of such a world can be seen in much of continental Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. In the Malleus Maleficarum, or 'Hammer of Evil', written by Sprenger and Kramer and published in 1486, we are provided with a compendium of possible evil and a directory of how, through torture, interrogation and trickery, evil was to be eliminated.
Throughout Catholic Europe the Holy Office of the Inquisition, in alliance with the state, set up an elaborate machine for seeking out and destroying secret evil. In that 'everlasting bonfire' (Maitland and Pollock 1952: ii, 659), thousands were burnt to death for their supposed evil works and many
thousands of others were imprisoned and tortured.(2) The world later satirized by Goya, that world of constant threat and evil whose roots Norman Cohn ( 1975) has unmasked in Europe's Inner Demons, is one that is now becoming fully documented. There was believed to be a vast conspiracy of Evil abroad: relapsed Jews, gypsies, freemasons, witches, Lutherans - all were sought out as agents of Evil. Evil was then purged from them by fire and the rack. The Devil was alive and well and hovered over much of Europe. It is clear that, from rural peasant to Dominican inquisitor, few doubted the daily reality of Evil, the Evil One and evil beings. There was a Holy War for four centuries.(3)
Contrast this with the world of industrial, capitalist society in the later
(2) An early estimate by a Secretary of the Spanish Inquisition (Llorente 1827: 583) put the numbers punished by the Spanish Inquisition as follows: 'Number of persons who were condemned and perished in the flames - 31,912; Effigies burnt - 17,659; Condemned to severe penances - 291,450'. Even if, as later writers have argued (e.g. Bennassar 1979), these figures are likely to be inflated, the toll of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions was still enormous. In Portugal there were reputedly almost 900 public autos-da-fé, in which approximately 30,000 persons were sentenced, over 1,000 of them being publicly burnt (Adler 1908: 169).
(3) It has been suggested that the sense of evil among the ordinary population of Europe may have been little developed, and that it was really only in the minds of a small number of the clerical elite and the persecuted heretics that evil was a daily reality. Clearly, the extremes of terror came in waves, and it would be unlikely that people could sustain a constant alarm. Yet a reading of the recent works by Baroja (1964), Cohn (1975), Henningsen (1980) and Larner (1981) will indicate how widespread the alarm was and how it penetrated to the lowest levels of the society. Symbolically, the expulsion of evil at the auto-da-fé involved not just the inquisitors, but the whole population, all of whom took part in the rite. I have here drawn on unpublished work on the Inquisition processes in Portugal, currently being undertaken by a joint project sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and King's College, Cambridge.
twentieth century, the world of Benedorm and Monte Carlo, of 'Jeux sans Frontières' and the Eurovision Song Contest, the European Economic Community and butter mountains. Though 'evil' titilates in the films, television, science fiction and children's stories, in ordinary life the concept and the reality have largely been banished. Most people move in a one-dimensional world that has expelled Satan, witches, the Evil Eye and fairies. The supernatural dimension is dead, except as 'fantasy'. It appears that ‘science' and 'chance' have largely replaced personalized explanation. As Keith Thomas has argued (1970, 1983), the reasons for this transformation are still a mystery. In many ways the world of evil and anti-evil, of witchcraft and magic are psychologically much more appealing than the acceptance of capricious fate. This, then, is the problem: how has evil, however temporarily, been almost abolished?
The conventional wisdom may be briefly summarized as follows. The world of evil was first abandoned in a part of north-western Europe, the same area where the rise of Protestant, capitalist, rationalistic societies emerged. This was part of Max Weber's 'disenchantment of the world'. The turning point was in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. There was then a revolutionary movement, from the mystical, magical universe of medieval Catholicism to the clockwork, mechanical cosmology of eighteenth-century rationalism. There was an expulsion of the concept of evil, first among the elite and then, increasingly, among the hitherto ‘superstitious' folk. The process paralleled and was linked to other attacks on 6 irrationality', the irrationality of despotic government, peasant ownership, familistic sentiments.
The causes of this massive change are notoriously difficult to establish. Once we have abandoned a belief in the necessary progress of 'enlightenment' and rationality, we are forced to argue that the social and other frameworks that had nourished the roots of the concept of evil had changed. Max Gluckman suggested a few of the possible underlying connections between a changing social and economic world and changes in the moral and explanatory theories (Gluckman 1963: chapter 4; 1965: chapter 6). He argued that there was a basic change from a world in which most good things arrive through other people (multiplex, face-to-face communities) to a world in which good arrives by way of impersonal forces, through the exchange of money, contracts, labour, short-term manipulative relationships. As good things come in this new form, it is no longer tempting to believe that evil also flows along personal networks. Thus, a change from a deeply rooted, multiplex, face-to face community to those highly mobile, 'modern' societies would lead to the decline of witchcraft and evil. This is another dimension of that famous movement from status to contract, from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft.
Another interesting suggestion lies behind Keith Thomas's two major works, namely that it is increasing security, arising from greater control over the natural world, that frees men from terror and hence from evil (Thomas 1971; 1983). Through technical, technological organizational and other changes, man's vulnerability is decreased. The mysterious is eliminated, or else is so contained that people can believe that one day all will be explained. Through improvements in the standard of living, through insurance, through the triumphs of exploration and discovery, men became confident. Risk was minimized, shocks were less frequent, logical patterns emerged. A planned, controlled, human-constructed world emerged. There is little place for evil in the polite, orderly world of Jane Austen and Capability Brown. The neat, systematic, mercantile world of the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters finally eliminated the demons that had infested Europe from the fall of Rome to Hieronymus Bosch. Though the romantic revival tried to re-introduce the mystery and some of the horror, the world of Frankenstein, the Pit and the Pendulum and Sir Walter Scott was a fantasy world, a literary genre like science fiction today. Essentially, the argument is that the tree of evil was destroyed when the roots were exposed through the rise of bourgeois capitalism. The process was circular, for it was the elimination of 'evil' that enabled people to investigate the real causes of pain and misfortune. In other terms, 'Science' replaced 'Magic' in the older Frazerian formula.
There is something intrinsically attractive and plausible in this account. It feels like our own life-experience leading up to the present. There seems a natural progression from the childhood of the world, where men feared the dark, ghosts and witches, to the more prosaic world of adulthood, where caprice, chance and psychological or sociological explanations are offered for disaster. This is a world in which people believe that, if only one knew enough, all could be explained. The extension of the argument is that where the social and mental institutions of northern Europe were exported, and later reinforced by a similar ideology in northern America, there evil withered. There were pockets of resistance and accommodation, yet basically mobility, money, markets and improved technology would be more powerful than the missionaries. Much of anthropology's task has been to study and document this ripple effect.
Before accepting the chronology and the explanation, however, let us look a little more closely at the first European escape from this evil-threatened cosmology. This occurred in England. The first thing to establish is when evil as a practical possibility was abolished. This is not easy, for it is notoriously difficult to penetrate to the level of ordinary behaviour and belief in the past. All we can do here, when considering a country of four to five million persons
p.62 over a period of four centuries, is to start by looking at one tiny microcosm, one parish. How did the situation there compare with that on much of the Continent, Scotland and some contemporary peasantries?
During the last twelve years we have assembled, transcribed and indexed all the known surviving records for the parish of Earls Colne over the period 1380- 1750.(4) This was a parish with about 700 inhabitants, on average, situated near Colchester in Essex. It has very detailed records, manorial, ecclesiastical and civil, which enable us to begin to analyse ordinary village life and concepts (Macfarlane 1977, 1983). All these records have been put into a computer database system so that they can be searched instantaneously by word or subject from any direction. We may survey what they reveal about the concepts of evil and related topics.
The first striking fact is how infrequently the word 'evil' is used. In the 10,000 pages of transcribed documents, it occurs (if we include 'evilly' and ‘evils’) only 27 times. This is despite very full ecclesiastical and equity court records where people were frequently abusing each other. The word occurs 6 times in a set of ecclesiastical depositions concerning a case of adultery and only once elsewhere in the ecclesiastical courts. It occurs 12 times in three disputes over property in the Court of Chancery. Otherwise, there is a single reference in each of the following: in a manorial jury presentment, in minutes of a Friends Quarterly Meeting, in memoranda of the Quarter Sessions and in one or two other sources. In all of these sources, the word appears to have been used in the weaker and not the stronger meaning.
Although the records are much less ample in the fifteenth than in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, there is as yet no evidence of either a rapid increase or decline in the usage of the word over these centuries. Nor is there any evidence that it radically changed its meaning as the centuries went by. Its first use in the fifteenth century was in relation to people who broke into other people's property, and were termed 'evil doers'. Its last use, in the eighteenth century, was when it was used to describe debtors who had fled to avoid paying their debts and who were called 'evil persons’. These two uses were characteristic, and they illustrate the most important conclusion of all. 'Evil' as a word was always used in the weaker, 'modern', sense of being synonymous with 'bad', 'criminal'. It was never used in the strong sense of
I am grateful to other members of the Earls Colne project (a project funded by the Social Science Research Council), namely Sarah Harrison, Jessica King, Tim King and Charles Jardine, for the work from which these results are drawn. All the documents for Earls Colne have now been published on microfiche by Chadwyck-Healey Ltd and are available in a number of university libraries and the National Lending Library. The references to 'evil' and similar words are listed in the subject index included in that microfiche, where the full context of the use of the word may be seen.
being totally anti-social. This important conclusion can be illustrated by looking at the phrases in which it occurred.
A suspected adulteress was accused of leading an 'evil or dishonest life', and it was claimed that she never performed any 'evil or dishonest act'. A man was warned by the ecclesiastical court 'for keeping an evil woman in his house'. Intruders, persons who made wagers and defrauded others and those who failed to pay their debts - all were referred to as of 'evil conversation', of 'evil disposition and narrow of conscience' and as 'evil doers'. Evil was used to describe ordinary secular criminal acts. Thus, people were warned against 'felonies, trespasses and other evil acts. . . .'; people claimed that they had been ‘very sore hurt and evil treated by the complainant', that riots had been caused by 'evil persons that are the secret authors or abettors of such tumultuous disorders', that people 'did assault and evil entreat' others. This is a use of the word 'evil' in its widest sense, just as we might today describe something as bad or wicked in a loose way. There is apparently nothing of the association with the Devil, with spiritual darkness, with another moral dimension.
It is always dangerous to work from absences in the records, since the documents were usually created in formal settings. Yet it is striking that, when the word was used, it was always used in the weaker sense. There is certainly no evidence here that evil in the stronger meaning was an important force in the life of the village. This first impression is supported by other related features. One of these concerns those associated concepts in Christian eschatology, the Devil and hell. It is likely that, if this was a world where evil was widely feared, the Devil would not have been far away and people would have been in constant mindfulness of the pains of Hell. This was particularly to be expected in an area of East Anglia that was famous for its strident puritanism. It is curious, then, that a search of the immense number of words that have survived in the records for Earls Colne does not reveal a single use of either the words 'Devil' or 'Hell' (or their derivatives). Never, it seems, did people in their bitter wrangling allege, at least in writing, that their opponents were in league with the Devil, that they would go to Hell. If we were to judge from local and legal records, this was a prosaic world in which evil, the Devil and hell were of marginal significance from at least the middle of the sixteenth century. Since the threat of evil, of the Devil and of hell , is such a useful sanction in societies where it is strongly present, this seems strange. Yet again it fits more widely with other features of the society as revealed in the documents.
Where evil is an ever-present threat and reality, people are constantly seeking protection from it. They engage in a thousand forms of activity to ward it off, protecting their houses, their loved ones, their animals. Although Keith Thomas has documented a good deal of this activity in general (Thomas 1971),
it is striking that so very little evidence survives at the village level for ritual and magical protection against evil. A certain amount of the burying of objects, hanging up of horseshoes, wearing of parts of the Bible round the neck as amulets would no doubt go united in formal records. Yet it is significant that the church itself was very anxious to extirpate such magical Protections, which were thought superstitious and unnecessary. Thus, in Earls Colne an astrologer who used magical books was prosecuted by the church authorities. It seems likely that, if there had been much magical activity, it would have been noticed in the church courts or by the Puritan
vicar of Earls Colne, who -' has left a detailed diary covering the period 1640-83 (Macfarlane 1976). Ralph Josselin does occasionally mention superstitious practices, such as erecting a May Pole. Yet he never reports charms, amulets, magical words or signs that were designed to protect
mankind against evil. The only protection was prayer and an upright soul.
While individuals do not appear to have had a wide repertoire of antidotes to evil, the formal authorities provided even less. Since the work of Robertson Smith (1889), anthropologists have been aware that, in a cosmology where evil is a constant threat, mankind tries to ward it off by various types of ritual activity that will avert the dangers. Among the most powerful of these are the rituals of sacrifice and exorcism. Sacrifice, the ritual destruction of an object and the giving of part of it, often the blood, to gods, ancestors or spirits, is a powerful technique in the battle against evil. Sacrifice acts as a lightning conductor, for the sacrificial animal takes upon itself the sins of the world and carries them away, thus diverting disaster. Man is protected from various evil's, merited and unmerited, by sacrifice. It could almost be asserted that sacrifice and developed concepts of evil are necessarily intertwined. Looked at from this perspective, the total absence, as far as we know, of animal or other sacrifice in Earls Colne throughout the whole period is significant. Even the symbolic sacrifice of Christ on the cross was minimized by the Protestant emphasis on the fact that communion was not a ritual act, a sacrifice of blood and flesh, but merely a commemorative and communal act’ in remembrance of me'. There is no evidence that the rituals of the Church provided an effective shield against evil.
The weakness of ritual is also apparent in the absence of exorcism and possession. Although the rite of exorcism was available in the Anglican church and was sometimes used during this period, there is no evidence in these village records that it was of any practical importance. There is not a single case of diabolic possession recorded and no known instance of exorcism. Physical manifestation of the Evil One seems to have been minimal. The overwhelming impression from all types of documents is of a secularised world where people were concerned primarily with money, power and social
relationships. It was not, as far as we can see at present, a world darkened by the overcastting shadow of menacing evil. Consequently it is not surprising to find an absence of any indication of evil times or evil places. There is no hint that certain days were evil in themselves, that the churchyard or other places were intrinsically evil. Of course, there were unlucky days; it was best not to set out on journeys on them, marry on them or undertake business on them. Yet bad luck and fortune are different from true evil.
Another apparent absence is the concept of the Evil Eye. Just as in Essex as a whole (Macfarlane 1970b), so in Earls Colne, there is no evidence for the developed belief that envy, in a world where good things are limited, endangers all life. In almost all other peasantries, it is believed that certain individuals are born with an evil eye; whenever they look with envy on a thing, it withers and dies. Such beliefs were strongly developed in parts of Scotland, Mediterranean Europe and elsewhere. Yet there is not a single hint, in all of our Earls Colne or wider Essex material, of such a concept, so closely linked to an idea of evil.
More complex is the reality and importance of witchcraft and fairy beliefs. In a general work I have surveyed witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions in Essex over the period 1560-1680, and there showed that Essex was one of the most witch-conscious of counties and that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the peak of beliefs and prosecutions (Macfarlane 1970b). Yet when we place witchcraft beliefs and accusations within the context of all the events within one parish, they become less impressive. In Earls Colne, there were literally hundreds of cases of recorded sexual misdemeanours, hundreds of accusations concerning economic affairs. Yet not a single person was condemned as a witch. The nearest to a formal prosecution occurred in the archdeaconry court in 1581, when Mary Green was accused by the churchwardens of Colne of being 'vehemently suspected of sorcery and witchcraft'. She failed to produce neighbours to swear an oath on her behalf and was thus excommunicated. We hear nothing more of her, so that she probably moved. The wording, alluding to 'sorcery', suggests that she was probably a’ white' witch, that is, someone who was illicitly curing people or searching for lost objects. Apart from several references to a local wizard or astrologer at the same period, this is all we would hear of witchcraft from the records. Nor is there any mention of any other evil or half-evil spirits. There is not a single reference in any of the documents to fairies, goblins, brownies or any of the host of spirits that peopled the high literature of Elizabethan England (Briggs 1962). There are no allusions to stories, myths, beliefs in the fairy world. It is a curiously flat, matter-of-fact world that is indicated by the local records.
Such a picture of practical life is a useful corrective to the exclusive use of
literary sources. Yet there are clearly dangers in using only impersonal, often formal, records. Fortunately for Earls Colne, we are not just left with s material; for one of the richest sources on past beliefs, namely diaries autobiographies, is well represented by the extensive 600-page diary of the vicar of Earls Colne, Ralph Josselin. The full diary has been analysed published (Macfarlane 1970a, 1976), and we may mention some of conclusions to be drawn from the source covering the middle of seventeenth century. The projection of the distinction between good and into strong beliefs in heaven and hell does not show itself in this diary:
‘belief in the after-life does not play an important part in his private thoughts as recorded in the Diary. There is not a single direct reference to hell or to damnation. It thus seems that a Puritan clergyman, who might have been expected to use heaven and hell as threats or inducements to himself and his congregation, showed the most tepid interest in both.’ (Macfarlane 1970a: 168)
Josselin was preoccupied with misfortune, illness and insecurities of various kinds. There are consequently many moving passages on death and disease. Yet what is striking in the Diary is the conviction that all suffering derived from God. In Josselin's thought there emerges very clearly principle that pain and evil came from God. There is no hint in the Diary that Josselin envisaged an alternative source of evil, Satan for example. Again he traces his own and the nation's troubles back to God' (Macfarlane 1970a: 173). Basically, 'Josselin seems to have accepted that pain was either divine purge, as in the story of job, or a punishment' (p. 174). Guilt strike throughout the Diary, for Josselin blamed himself for much of the suffering of those around him; in the most famous instance, he linked too much ch playing to illness and death. Thus, the roots of evil were ultimately in his own corrupt heart. It was no use blaming other people. The cause was either a loving God testing him, or his own, or the nation's failings. There is suggestion that Josselin blamed witches, Satan or anyone else.
Interestingly, however, Josselin also believed in the possibility of diabolical intervention and of witchcraft. He never encountered the Devil himself, he seems to have accepted the stories concerning two of his parishioners, had encountered the Devil. One had been tossed into a river by 'one in shape of a bull', whom it was rumoured was the Devil. Another man visited Josselin to tell him that the Devil had appeared to him: 'the greediness of money, made him desire it, and God suffered it; he [i.e. the Devil] appeared in a black gown, and then in red; he took his blood on white paper.' A few days later Josselin was with the same man and there was a fear that the Devil might appear, but he failed to do so (Macfarlane 1970a: 190-1).
Josselin also believed in the possibility of witchcraft and reported two cases. In the first of these, 'one J. Biford was clamoured on as a witch, and Mr C. thought his child ill by it.' Josselin took the suspect 'alone into the field, and dealt with him solemnly, and I conceive the poor wretch is innocent as to that evil.' The following year he heard from a neighbouring minister that a woman was a suspected witch, who had acted in a suspect manner near a grave. Josselin 'pressed her what I could; she protests her innocency' (Macfarlane 1970a: 191-2). Josselin also believed in the power of cursing.
In this and other respects a personal diary helps to provide an added spiritual dimension to the local records. It shows a world of symbols, signs and visions that are absent from court records. Yet in many ways the Diary complements the other records in its central impressions concerning evil. Evil, the Evil One, the evil eye, the force and danger of evil, are largely absent. The world revealed by the Diary is not one of a constant battle between the forces of good and evil, of imminent destruction and threat from evil-minded persons or evil-minded spirits. Ultimately the individual, through his own purity of heart and through understanding God, can control the world. This is a world fully consistent with that we shall examine in relation to Josselin's great contemporary, John Milton, where evil and good are interchangeable. Josselin is primarily concerned with practical problems; with making money above all, and secondarily with establishing good relations with his neighbours, his family and God. The quality of this world can be most startlingly shown if we compare the atmosphere of this Diary, cosy and suburban in many ways, with the feeling portrayed by a fictional account of the mental world of another branch of Calvinism, the horrific account of the Devil and pure evil in James Hogg's The Private Memories and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). There is portrayed a world where Hell, the Devil, real evil and darkness are a felt reality; that account leaves the landscape of Josselin's Earls Colne seeming a sunny, open and this-worldly one. Evil is never entirely banished, of course, but it is just a shadow on the edge of this English world, not a central pervasive feature, as it is in many cultures.
These are impressions based on one small example. Yet they are consistent with other contemporary evidence for the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Those familiar with the most detailed English diaries and autobiographies of this period, for example those of Samuel Pepys (Latham and Matthews 1970), John Evelyn (de Beer 1955) and Oliver Heywood (Horsfall Turner 1882), will know that there is very little in them about evil in the strict sense. Occasionally there are strange intrusions from another dimension - ghosts, poltergeists, the odd witchcraft trial. Yet the tone of all of the diaries is this-worldly, prosaic, not soaked in evil. The same is true of another genre, letters, which have survived in considerable numbers from the fifteenth century. The famous collections of the Pastons (Gairdner 1901), the Celys (Hanham 197 )
and the Verneys (Verney 1970) have scarcely anything in them suggesting an interest in evil in the strong sense.
The absence of a horror and concern with evil is also clearly indicated by English proverbs. The various dictionaries of phrase and fable and handbooks of English proverbs contain very little about evil. For instance, the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (1952) contains only a few proverbs under the title 'Evil'. In almost all of these it is clear that the word is being used in the weaker sense. For example, there is the proverb 'Evils (Harms, Ills, Mischiefs), of two / choose the least', which is first quoted for Chaucer (using the word 'harms'). Another is that 'Of Evil (ill) manners, spring good laws'. Hell is equally lightly treated. There are only 11 proverbs cited, including 'From Hell, Hull and Halifax, good Lord deliver us'; 'Hell and chancery are always open'; 'Hell or Connaught' and other frivolous ones. None is concerned with the horrors of Hell, how to avoid Hell and so on. Hell is a place that is 'full of good meanings and wishes', 'paved with good intentions'; 'He that is in hell thinks there is no other heaven.' The Devil receives more attention, but again is treated with a frivolous lightness which is significant. 'The Devil always leaves a stink behind him'; 'The Devil gets up to the belfry by the vicar's skirts'; 'The Devil is a busy bishop in his own diocese'; 'The Devil is an ass'; 'The Devil makes his Christmas-pies of lawyers' tongues and clerks' fingers'; 'The Devil will not come into Cornwall, for fear of being put into a pie' and many others. In sum, 'The Devil is not so black as he is painted'; he is a joker, God's ape, puny and weak, a trickster in a safe world.
Of course, the majestic prose of the Bible gives us a vision of a society where evil, hell, the Devil and all his works were very important. It would be foolish to overlook this dimension, and we can represent it here by one quotation. The Lord's Prayer included the phrase 'And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil.' In his catechism, one of the sixteenth century Protestants, Thomas Becon, quoted this slightly differently as 'But deliver us from the evil.' What was 'the evil'? It was 'Our arch-enemy the devil, author of all evil . . .'. Becon referred here to St Paul, who had equated the evil and the Devil. Satan, Becon tells us, brings about two major species of evil, of the soul and of the body. The evils of the soul include 'incredulity, misbelief, doubting.... uncircumcision of heart, corrruption of judgement, error, heresy, schisms, controversies in religion, sects, pride of the mind, obstinacy in wickedness, fleshly lusts'and many others. There were also many evils of the body, including 'sudden death, plague, pestilence, unwholesome weather ... famine, hunger, battle, dearth, beggary, loss of goods, infamy, shame, confusion, madness . . .'and a host of others (Becon 1845: 196). It is essential to remember that, at least nominally, this was a Christian civilization based on the premise that there were tangible evils, the Devil and Hell;
catechisms, sermons and much of education were founded on these beliefs. Yet, just as Keith Thomas has shown the amazing amount of religious ignorance and even stark atheism in this period and country (Thomas 197 1: chapter 6), so it may be that, while people knew little of God and Christ, they also knew little of the Devil, and cared less.
A satisfying explanation of the absence of absolute Evil, the Devil and Hell will need a fuller treatment. It is clearly no coincidence, for example, that England was the only major European nation to have no Catholic Inquisition and no inquisitorial process under law. The terror of evil was not encouraged. Another part of the solution, as well as further evidence on the nature - of the problem, is provided by two of those who wrote in England during the period under consideration. They have provided two of the best accounts of the problems of evil and good known to us, namely Shakespeare and Milton.
One of the most striking features of both authors, making them seem very ‘modern' and relevant to us, is that they are concerned with a grey world where good and evil are interchangeable; where it is impossible to be certain, to have absolute moral standards; where nothing is entirely black or white. This is clearly the case in Shakespeare's treatment of all his central characters - Hamlet, Brutus, Prospero, Macbeth and even Iago. For them, the choices are difficult, there is no absolute standard, things are not what they seem. Shakespeare even suggests reasons why good and evil have become blurred. Money, he shows, could change one into the other. Here he is touching on a central paradox. In a capitalist society, evil becomes good, good evil. Karl Marx quoted Shakespeare approvingly because he had seen this central feature (Marx and Engels 1974: 102; Marx 1973: 163). A passage from Timon of Athens (Act IV, scene 3) is worth quoting at greater length than that in Marx's work. Timon digs in the ground and finds gold.
What is here?
Gold? yellow, glittering precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist. Roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair;
Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young, coward, valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? What this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides;
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless the accurs'd;
Make the hoar leprosy ador'd; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench: this is it
That makes the wrappen'd widow wed again; ....
Thus, gold transforms everything, from black to white and back again; it brings together as equivalents things that are not really on the same plane and divides things that are naturally together. Man is no longer able to discriminate between what is good, what evil.
This confusion at the heart of life is echoed in Milton's greatest poem. The central theme of Paradise Lost is the battle between good and evil. Yet the struggle is not between two opposed sides, but within the same principle. The poem is an attempt to state the paradox that good and evil are entirely separate, yet also entirely the same. It grapples with the problem of how evil emerged at all, for it arose out of goodness. The problem is given one formulation in the myth of the garden of Eden, where evil was present even in a perfect Paradise. Once evil has emerged as distinct from goodness, having become separated, the problem for both is to prevent their mutual contamination and a tendency to become joined again. The attempt to foil God's attempt to bring them back into his mercy is the subject of many of Satan's famous lines in the poem. 'If then his providence/ Out of our evil seek to bring forth good, / Our labour must be to prevent that end, / And out of good still find means of evil' (book i, line 157). The world has to be redefined in order to achieve this. 'So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, / Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; Evil be thou my Good' (book iv, line 108). Yet, just as evil has emerged out of the principle of good, so it is possible for good to emerge from evil. This is the constant threat to the fallen angels; that God may win them back and turn their evil into good, for the power of goodness is very great: 'abashed the devil stood, And felt how awful goodness is' (book iv, line 846). Ultimately, good and evil are not separable. Heaven and Hell, the Devil and God are in essence different aspects of the same power.
Milton's poem could be seen as the eloquent expression of the tragic recognition that the simplicities of a childlike black and white vision were not sufficient. It is all a matter of how we look at things, a subjectivist world in which man cannot depend on any external, eternal, objective, moral laws. Milton needed to justify the ways of God to man; as a result, each man would
act as a judge upon God, rather than the reverse. Morality was in the eye of the beholder. As Pope would put it, 'Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood / Our greatest evil, or our greatest good' (Essay on Man, epistle 2, line 9 1).
Pope, indeed, represented the culmination of a trend towards ethical relativism which argued from growing evidence that every civilization had its own appropriate moral system. Pascal had summarized this view in the seventeenth century. 'We hardly know of anything just or unjust which does not change its character with a change of climate. Three degrees of polar elevation overturn the whole system of jurisprudence. A meridian determines
what is truth.... There is not a single law which is universal' (Pascal 1844: ii, 126ff.). Pope took the next step:
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
(Essay on Man, epistle 1, line 289)
Beyond this lay extreme cynicism, as expressed for instance by Charles Churchill:
Keep up appearances; there lies the test;
The world will give thee credit for the rest.
Outward be fair, however foul within;
Sin, if thou wilt, but then in secret sin.
(Churchill 1970: i, 71)
In a short essay such as this, it is possible only to raise a few questions and hint at an answer to the problem of the origins of the disappearance of pure evil. Both the answer and the problem are encapsulated in St Paul's warning that 'The love of money is the root of all evil' (1 Timothy 6: 10). This dismissal of avarice is one of the central pillars of that judaeo-Christian tradition upon which western civilization is based. Yet, it could equally well be argued that the love of money - the famous propensity to barter, trade, accumulate - is an equally important pillar of this civilization. Adam Smith most clearly exposed this foundation of modern society, a feature without which modern societies would immediately collapse. As he put it, 'The division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived . . . is the necessary ... consequence of a certain propensity in human nature ... the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another' (Smith 1976: book 1, chapter 2, 17). This division of labour and all that flows from it is thus based on a propensity that is, in the ethical terms laid down by the formal theology, evil. The foundations are laid on individual acquisitiveness, the love of money and pursuit of profit. Thus, good and evil are mixed in the roots of modern society.
Yet money, and all it symbolizes, is the root of all evil in a deeper sense than this. Viewed from outside the system, money can be seen to do something even more insidious. It subtly eliminates the very concept of evil. Or, rather
it makes it impossible to discriminate between good and evil, throwing people into that confusion that cast the angels from Paradise and afflicted Shakespeare's central characters. ‘Money', which is a short-hand way of saying capitalistic relations, market values, trade and exchange, ushers in a world of moral confusion. This effect of money has been most obvious where a capitalistic, monetary economy has clashed with another, opposed, system. Thus it is anthropologists, who have worked in such areas of conflict, who have witnessed most dramatically the effect of the introduction of a monetized economy. They have noted how money disrupts the moral as well as the economic world. As Burridge, for example, writes of the effect of money in Melanesia: money complicates the moral order, turning what was formerly black and white into greyness. Money, he argues, 'reveals the vice in cultivated virtues, allows no vice without some virtue, concedes an element of right in wrong-doing, finds the sin of pride in an upright fellow.... money invites a complex differentiation and multiplication of the parts and qualities of man' (Burridge 1969: 45). More broadly, it is money, markets and market capitalism that eliminate absolute moralities. Not only is every moral system throughout the world equally valid, as Pascal noted, but, within every system, whatever is, is right.
The consequences of money and the mentality associated with it are equally apparent to the major sociological thinkers. One of the most eloquent descriptions of the way in which money destroys moral polarities, qualitative difference is in Simmel's (1950) essay on the’ Metropolis and Mental Life':
‘By being the equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes the most frightful leveller. For money expresses all qualitative differences of things in terms of 'how much?' Money, with all its colourlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money. All things lie on the same level and differ from one another only in the size of the area which they cover.’
(Simmel 19550: 414)
The consequences of this moral revolution were already apparent to people in the most developed capitalist economy, England, by the eighteenth century.
What had happened was that capitalism had fully triumphed: to modify Swinburne, 'Thou hast conquered, O pale Capitalism; the world has grown grey from thy breath.(5)’ It has now become clear that what was considered to
Note 5. Swinburne's original (in Hymn to Proserpine ) referred to Christ, 'O pale Galilean', rather than capitalism.
be the root of all evil, namely the love of money, was also the root of all that was good, namely the bargaining, market principle of Adam Smith. This paradox was so horrifying in its implications that, when it was pointed out starkly, there was fierce condemnation. The man who made the unspeakable truth known was Bernard Mandeville, a Dutchman who had settled as a doctor in London, in his Fable of the Bees. The sub-title of the work summarized the theme: it was 'Private Vices, Public Benefits'. The work, published in 1714, went alongside a doggerel poem entitled 'The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn'd Honest', first published in 1705. The theme of the poem was that it was out of the private passions and vices of the citizens - their lusts, acquisitive spirits and aggressive competition - that public benefits flowed. As Mandeville rhymed,
‘Thus every part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradice;
Flatter'd in Peace, and fear'd in wars
They were th'Esteem of Foreigners,
And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,
The Balance of all other hives.
Such were the Blessings of that State;
Their Crimes conspired to make 'em Great;
And Vertue, who from Politicks
Had learn'd a Thousand cunning Tricks,
Was, by their happy Influence,
Made Friends with Vice: And ever since
The Worst of all the Multitude
Did something for the common Good.’
(Mandeville 1970: 67-8)
Out of vice and evil passion came forth wealth and goodness. Evil lay at the heart of good in a capitalist society, just as evil had lain at the heart of good when the good angels had arisen to build a new world in the midst of Paradise. Mandeville's message was that, if one tried to be privately virtuous, the public world would collapse. Right at the end of the Fable Mandeville concluded that:
‘After this I flatter my self to have demonstrated that neither the Friendly Qualities and kind Affections that are natural to Man, nor the real Virtues he is capable of acquiring by Reason and Self-Denial are the foundation of Society; but that what we call Evil in this World, Moral as well as Natural, is the grand principle that makes us Sociable Creatures, the solid Basis, the Life and Support of all Trades and Employments without exception: That there we must look for the true origin of all Arts and
Sciences, and that the moment Evil ceases, the Society must be spoil'd if not totally dissolv'd.
(Mandeville 1970: 370)
This was Mandeville's central message, and it was incorporated in the great work that was written by the very moral Adam Smith, and which would outline the basis of the capitalist system:
‘Without any intervention of law, therefore, the private interests and passions of men naturally lead them to divide and distribute the stock of every society, among all the different employments carried on in it, as nearly as possible in the proportion which is most agreeable to the interest of the whole society.’
(quoted in Hirschman 197 7: 110–11)
Thus private vice, passions and interests have merged into public good.
Ironically, the foundations of Paradise were laid in Hell, and Hell in Paradise. The serpent of desire propped up the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Or, to put it another way, the serpent was also the tree. By being that tree, he led to the ultimate confusion, the inability to distinguish between good and evil. When the fruit was tasted, it was found that, rather than containing the new knowledge that enabled man to discriminate good from evil, it contained the deadly knowledge that it was now impossible to distinguish the two.
If the thesis advanced here has any truth in it, namely that capitalism and a money order were fatally intertwined with an inability to distinguish good and evil, it is clearly necessary to go further. We need to probe deep into the origins of capitalism in order to seek out how it had eliminated the opposition of good and evil. Such an adventure is for another occasion. What is clear is that, at least at the popular level in England, the ambivalences and contradictions were present back to the start of the sixteenth century. From other work on related themes, it seems likely that they were present much earlier, at least back to the thirteenth century (Macfarlane 1978). It is possible to argue that ordinary people in England had for centuries been accustomed to a world not of absolutes, but of relative good and evil, where all could be changed by money. It is appropriate and hardly fortuitous that Shakespeare should have provided the most exquisite expressions of that uncertainty in the midst of the period, or that in its full flowering Pope should have summarized the indecision and confusion so grandly:
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
He Hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
(An Essay on Man, epistle 2)
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