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Monday, March 02, 2009
Dr. Dalrymple has an excellent column this week in the New English Review on the thrill of reading (and writing) about evil in comparison to doing likewise about good. As he points out, "a newspaper that reported only acts of kindness and generosity would be insufferably boring and would go bankrupt." People want to hear and read about bad people and evil deeds.
To write of good people is often to sound either naïve or priggish; whereas to write of the bad is to appear worldly and sophisticated. One of the reasons, of course, for the difficulty of writing interestingly of the good is that there seems so much less to say of them than of the bad. The good act according to principle, and are therefore lamentably (from the literary point of view) predictable. Once you know how they behave in one situation, you know how they will behave in others. The bad, by contrast, have no principles beyond the pursuit of short-term self-interest, and sometimes not even that. They are therefore not predictable and their conduct is infinitely various.
At the same time, of course, there is the problem of evil: how it arises, and how it triumphs. No one troubles himself to anything like the same extent over the problem of good: how it arises, or how it triumphs. Perhaps this is testimony to the victory of Rousseau’s idea that we are fundamentally good by nature, though deformed by society, over that of Original Sin, which proposes that we are all sinful from birth.
It occurred to me in view of the problem of good – I mean the literary problem, not the metaphysical one – to try to write interestingly of some of the very good people whom it has been my fortune to encounter in my passage through this vale of tears we call the world.
I think... of the adolescent son of a female alcoholic patient, nasty and violent in drink, whom I expected to be adversely affected by growing up in an atmosphere of every conceivable kind of squalor, physical, emotional and moral. If he had been truculent and aggressive I should have understood it; if he had thought he was hard done by, I could hardly have disagreed with him. But instead of being such a young man, he was extremely well-mannered and attentive to his own education, not resentful in the least; moreover, he looked after his disagreeable mother with a tenderness that was amazing to behold and (frankly) impossible to understand, considering the dog’s life she had led him. Where did such goodness come from? It was at least as difficult a problem as that of evil.
I met in an obscure part of Nigeria an aged Irish nun, well into her seventies, living in an isolated convent with other nuns, who made it her work to bring food to the prisoners in the local prison. I have very little doubt that they would have been severely malnourished or even starved to death without her arduous attentions; she made sure that each of the prisoners, some of whose sentences had expired but who had not the requisite money to bribe the gaolers to release them, and others of whom had been on remand for ten years, was fed. For it was a matter of fact, accepted as a law of nature, that officialdom would steal whatever there was to be stolen.

The nun had nothing but her moral authority to effect her work, and she had no reward but the gratitude of the prisoners and the compliance of the guards. It was clear that they all now had both a respect and an affection for her; she carried around with her an aura of invulnerability to the world’s evil. But none of this had gone to her head, on the contrary; her humility was genuine and unselfconscious, and I suppose if asked she would have denied any special merit in her conduct. The reproach to one’s own comparative lack of humanity was implicit rather than explicit. The power of example is that it is exemplary, not declarative, much less declamatory.

It is not of course for me to say whether I have been able to interest the reader in some of the remarkably good people whom I have met, or whether they would really rather have heard about the baby-sitter whom I met who killed the three infants in his charge because he didn’t like the noise they were making that interfered with his concentration on television. It might be said that, having described the goodness of these five people, I would have nothing more of interest to say about them; whereas, had I chosen the four or five greatest moral monsters whom I had encountered, I would have much more to say.

But this is not quite right; the fact is that we are much more interested in the life histories of the moral monsters than in those of people like the five exemplars whom I have described. Their lives were neither uniform nor without interest, but I did not enquire into them with the same curiosity that I have employed in the cases of the moral monsters.

In summary, it may be said that evil attracts and engrosses us in a way that good rarely does.


D.J. Williams said...

Telling, isn't it? Reminds me of a Ravi Zacharias quote - "Put the Sermon on the Mount on TV tomorrow night and watch the ratings drop, put on David and Bathsheba the night after that and watch them skyrocket. In our minds, evil is intriguing and full of charm."

Anonymous said...

Dalrymple, being an atheist, doesn't understand the fleshly charm of evil. However, he does rightly diagnose society's misunderstanding of man's inherent qualities.

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The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
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