Quote of the Week: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on Good and Evil

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

This passage from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is a warning to those who see the world in black-and-white terms. The idea of evil people doing evil deeds out of sheer malevolence fascinates us and makes for a powerful motif in fiction. Consider Aaron from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, who makes the following confession:

Even now I curse the day — and yet I think
Few come within the compass of my curse –
Wherein I did not some notorious ill;
As kill a man or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it (…)
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Real world villains do not think of themselves like this. When Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that “[a] judgment is being visited upon the Jews that, while barbaric, is fully deserved by them,” he did not see himself as a villain. After all, “[o]ne must not be sentimental in these matters. If we did not fight the Jews, they would destroy us.” He did not support the murder of Jews because he was in favour of evil deeds; rather, he saw such killings as morally justified.

And in a way, that’s much worse than mere malevolence. As Solzhenitsyn puts it: “The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.” The main problem isn’t evil people; it’s people who are so convinced of the righteousness of their own cause, that they are willing to use any means necessary to advance it.

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