The Dynamics of Evil

Doug McManaman
Date: Winter, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. (Lk 16, 8)

There is a kind of naiveté among Christians with respect to the workings of evil. Few people understand how evil works. Part of the problem is that we live in a culture that virtually denies evil, because it denies that there is any objective measure of the good, and many Christians have allowed themselves to be influenced by this aspect of pop culture. What follows is a brief exposition on some basic characteristics of the workings of evil.

Scripture and tradition both teach that the fall of Lucifer originated in a will to ascend above the entire hosts of heaven: "How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How are thou cut down to the ground!...For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:...I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most high." (Is 14, 12-14). The root of all sin is pride, which involves choosing one’s own will over and against the divine will. To give oneself over to sin is to make one’s own will a law unto itself and to subordinate everything else, including divine law, to that will. One makes oneself one’s own god. This is the egotism that is at the heart of all sin.

But sin also disfigures; for one of the effects of divine grace is that it beautifies the soul, which manifests in the countenance. Sin, however, destroys the grace of God within the soul and damages one's character, rendering it unsightly even to the sinner. That is why both egotism and self-loathing are dual attributes of moral depravity. As a person plunges more deeply into darkness, not only does he become more egotistical, but also the more unsightly does he become to himself.

This is a problem for the unrepentant sinner. For he cannot bear the shade of this self awareness, but he has a radical need to be affirmed. It is of the nature of egotism to regard oneself as superior to others, and so the egotism in him demands that he be recognized as such. His desire for affirmation is commensurate with the intensity of his own egotism, and so his desire for affirmation is inordinate. Yet if people are allowed to behold the depravity in him of which he is aware, they will inevitably reject him, for he is an object of loathing even to himself. He cannot afford to allow others a glimpse of his true self. And so, to procure the affirmation he requires in order to convince himself that he exists and is superior, he sets out to create an image or reflection, one that is highly likeable and acceptable. Thus, the clandestine and narcissistic nature of evil.

According to ancient Greek myth, Narcissus was punished by the gods for his callous rejection of Echo, who fell in love with him, but who died of a broken heart as a result of being spurned by him. The gods made him fall in love with his own image. He would live till he saw himself. Eventually, he caught sight of his reflection in the water, became enthralled with his image and refused to leave the spot. He died of languor and turned into a flower.

The narcissist, contrary to popular opinion, does not love himself. Rather, he loves the reflection that he beholds through the affirmation, adulation and praise of those who are taken in by his façade. It is the false self that he loves, not his true self, which is dilapidated and fractured. The Devil is the Father of Lies (Jn 8, 44), and the life of the narcissist is more or less a lie. Moreover, lying affords him a feeling of superiority that feeds his egotism; for he believes that he is brilliant, and the fact that he has so many people deceived only supports his conviction.

But it is precisely this element of disguise that people have a tendency to overlook today. We are wont to believe that evil, character disorder, psychopathy, etc., are easy to detect and that such people cannot but inspire fear upon a first encounter. This, however, is only the case with those not intelligent enough to disguise their depravity, like the common criminal. The most dangerous among us are those intelligent enough to appear as paragons of virtue.

Narcissists will defy authority, but inconspicuously. They have a way of making their disobedience appear loving and heroic. Moreover, they are crafty and calculating. They are long-term plotters who scheme months or years in advance, like the brilliant chess player who plans ahead ten or twelve moves more than the average player. They calculate ultimately to procure and maintain positions of power, which provide them with the narcissistic fuel that they continually require, such as praise, adulation, approval, or barring that, fear and the feeling of being notorious. Their entire lives are a struggle to procure this fuel, and they will employ the most devious means at their disposal to get it.

The depraved narcissist in a leadership position will see himself as bestial. He will take pride in the feeling that he is a shark among porpoises, or a wolf among sheep. But he carefully hides this side of himself from others, except the targets of his vindictive nature whom he regards as possible threats to his charade.

Still, he beholds his unsightliness. To deflect from this, the narcissist will commit to a genuinely good cause. His commitment to the cause, however, will be one-sided, unprincipled, and inconsistent. And he will take advantage of every opportunity to favour a person who is down and in need -- as long as the prospects that he will be of use later on are good. Such favours might include providing employment, personal counselling, boosting one's confidence, flattery, listening and being sympathetic (at least apparently), etc. Such opportunities ensure loyalty, and a loyal following makes it all the more difficult for anyone who sees through the facade to depose him. Moreover, these opportunities help to persuade him that perhaps the gnawing awareness of that damp and dark cellar at the heart of his character was only a passing fancy.

Should a person no longer be needed, or worse, should one happen to become a threat to his facade, such a one is likely to get a taste of the narcissist's darker side, even one who has been a close "friend" to him for a number of years -- a narcissist's loyalty is paper thin, for he is incapable of genuinely intimate friendships. But only the targeted will experience his vindictive nature, for he is careful to keep this side of himself from others, for it is an inconsistency that might expose him. So adept is he at this narrowly focused persecution, in fact, that any attempt by the victim to tell another will in all probability make him (the victim) appear as if he is losing his mind.

The depraved narcissist is very ready to forgive the faults of others, not because he is loving, but because he is indifferent. In fact, inordinate leniency is typical of narcissists. They are either vindictive or lenient, but rarely just. Leniency, which is a vice, is hard to distinguish from clemency, so it enables him to feel virtuous, and it also helps perpetuate the appearance of moral purity. Moreover, leniency provides another opportunity to ensure loyalty.

But ultimately, the narcissist is indifferent to injustice and its victims. As St. Thomas Aquinas argues, the more excellent a person is, the more he is prone to anger (S.T. I-II, 47, 3). But the narcissist experiences no righteous indignation. He only rages against the person who is a threat to his charade and/or who refuses to cooperate with his underhanded schemes. But he will not be incensed at injustice.

There have been a number of false norms that have been made popular over the years that have only made it easier for the depraved and pathological narcissist to continue undetected; the popular exhortation to be tolerant, positive, non-judgmental and inclusive are prime examples. If a person sees the glass half full, he is positive and optimistic, but negative and pessimistic if he sees it half empty. The problem here, though, is that evil is parasitic. As St. Augustine said, there is simply no such thing as pure evil, because evil is a lack of something that ought to be there. Pure evil would be nothing. The optimist who refuses to see the lack lest he feel negative is blinding himself to evil and contributing to the creation of the kind of environment that the depraved require in order to flourish. Good is the very subject of evil. And so there will always be something good to behold in the morally depraved egotist. That doesn’t change the fact that he is evil.

So how is it possible to maximize one's chances of penetrating the almost impenetrable disguise of the depraved? There are a number of precautions we can take.

First, there is a difference between trusting another and trusting in another. We ought not to forget that every man is fundamentally a man: "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes" (Ps 118, 8-9).

We should also understand that things are not always as they appear to be. Evil is brilliantly inconspicuous. Some people are not always who we expect them to be, for we naturally project our own basic character traits onto others. But this is not always prudent: "There is a wickedness which is unscrupulous but nonetheless dishonest, and there are those who misuse kindness to win their case. There is the person who will walk bowed down with grief, when inwardly this is nothing but deceit: he hides his face and pretends to be deaf, if he is not unmasked, he will take advantage of you. There is the person who is prevented from sinning by lack of strength, yet he will do wrong when he gets the chance" (Si 19, 20-30).

To keep oneself from being fooled by the narcissist whose facade includes Catholicism, we only have to remain faithful to Peter. By remaining faithful to the Holy Father, one takes a path that ultimately the narcissist cannot follow. There will be made available to us all sorts of solid objects for us to hold onto thatwill provide the appearance of stability, but these solid objects are only floating debris, pushed along by the current. Only the rock (petros) embedded into the river floor is truly stable and unyielding. Hang onto that, and we resist the passing current of deceptive ideas and ever changing mores, and we just might keep ourselves from falling into the web of the artful but deceitful scheming of those who belong to darkness.