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Elliot Rose on the absurdity of "Evil" as a principle

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2003 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

Below is a quote from A Razor for a Goat by Elliot Rose (University of Toronto, 1989; originally published sometime back in the early 1960's if I'm not mistaken). This book debunked Margaret Murray's theories of an alleged underground Pagan "witch cult" in the Middle Ages. One chapter, "The Powers of Darkness," is devoted to refuting Montague Summers's ideas as well.

In that chapter, the author explains why he personally does not believe in a Devil.  Elliot Rose is a moderate-to-liberal Christian with a very down-to-Earth humanistic concept of "Evil." In the excerpt below, he explains why it is not logically possible for a being with any power at all to be consistently devoted to "Evil" in the sense in which Rose uses that term.

Please note that Rose's writing predates the soundbite era, so you'll need to force yourself to pay attention. But hopefully most of you won't find it too hard to read.

... There can be no absolute evil at all; or certainly no consistent will to absolute evil. Evil, simply as such, cannot be pursued as an end; if Satan wants to encourage some particular sin, he will have to make a truce with some particular virtue. Satan himself cannot be absolutely evil, and remain effective. To suppose him formidable is to suppose him strong, intelligent, determined; and that is better than to be week, foolish, and inconstant. What is better is relatively good, and without the assistance of relative good, Satan would be powerless. [...]

That which is good in itself does not cease to be good in itself because it is used for evil purposes; beauty is still beauty, though a snare; skill remains skill though the handmaid of crime; knowledge is still knowledge though twisted to support a lie; and they remain, in themselves, better than ugliness, ineptitude, or ignorance. Even moral goodness so perverted remains intrinsically good. Courage is still admirable though a burglar needs to possess it; and the patience required to pick a lock is a virtue though in the man who so misuses it it is found in conjunction with avarice, which is a sin. The commendable qualities of Satan, if any, are to be commended; and if he has none, he is not to be feared.

A quite random study of the imaginative literature on moral themes will make this clear. It is a familiar problem that the bad characters in books are more convincing than the good; but it is a much worse problem to draw the protrait of a convincing and really horrible devil. In fact, it cannot be done. Consider how Milton was thwarted in Paradise Lost; to make Satan a possible character on the epic scale, he had to make him heroic; show him wholly evil, and he would be merely laughable, a squalor self-fettered in slime, and there would be no Adversary and no plot. Critics have been known to assert, on this ground, that Milton really sympathized with his Satan. But how otherwise could he possibly have been represented, in a work of serious moral purpose? The Middle Ages, by and large, had preferred to let their Devil exemplify a wide range of vices; and in consequence he became for them a mere grotesque. A sickly misshapen goblin out of Heironymous Bosch, vicious but impotent, or a grand operatic Prometheus; these are, more or less, the alternatives.

Every real person combines virtues and vices; thus far, we are all more devil than angel. Therefore, villains are commonly made complex and interesting, like real people. Perfect characters are not interesting, because there is no conflict in them; we know what they will do, and what will happen to them. That is what Fiction means. But outside fiction the best people we meet -- not necessarily the churchgoing, but the generous, the courageous, the determinedly honest -- make more impact than the ruck of hommes moyen sensuels, the moral plebs to which most of us belong. Villains, in real life, hardly matter; they are, by and large, people about as morally slack as ourselves in different circomstances.

If we can once get beyond the Sunday-newspaper idea of Sin and consider the subject as a whole, recognizing that one sin, Sloth, is a condition of most other sin, and one virtue, Fortitude, a condition of most other virtue, we can eccept virtue as strength and vice as weakness, which is what the words mean.

-- Elliot Rose, A Razor for a Goat, pp. 183-184.

In general, Christians with a humanistic approach to morality tend not to believe in a Devil. Those Christians who do believe in a Devil tend to define "Good" and "Evil" not in terms of concrete benefit or harm to humans, but in terms of submission to or rebellion against the will of the Christian God.

See also my article Satan and "Evil" in Christianity.

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