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Culture of Evil Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Monday, 29 November 2010

Some fifteen years ago in National Review, Robert Reilly – currently known for his book The Closing of the Muslim Mind – wrote a seminal essay entitled, “The Culture of Vice” (which can still be found online here). I have often returned to this brief, remarkable essay. It explains better than almost anything I know what has happened recently to our culture and why.

He begins with the famous citation from Aristotle that men start revolutions from motives stemming from their “private lives.” Plato had long taught us that a disorder in the soul, especially in the souls of the talented and attractive, would eventually, if not corrected, result in a disorder of the polity.

Reilly explains how this happens. Essentially, evil and good change places both in custom and law. Evil still remains evil. Good remains good. That does not and cannot change. But we can pretend that the two can transform themselves into each other.

“Vice” is a technical term. It means a bad or evil way of life by which we habituate ourselves always to choose what is wrong over against what is right. Our freedom is such that we can do this. “Virtue” is the opposite of vice.

Habits whereby we usually choose what is right, but not always, Aristotle called “continent” and where we mostly choose what is wrong, but not always, ”incontinent.” He thought that most people most of the time fell into these two middle positions.

Aristotle, however, was aware of the probability that those who choose evil in their own souls will corrupt the rest of the society. This process of overturning good to call evil good is what Reilly means by the “culture of evil.”

Essentially, this is the project that C. S. Lewis once pointed out of making what is evil to be good and what is good to be evil. This latter cannot be done in fact. But it can be made to appear that it can. Such is the power of public opinion and positive law.

Reilly demonstrates this process with how homosexuality and abortion came to be considered “rights” and “virtues.” Both remained what they are, no matter what they are called, of course. That is, their corrupting effects will be manifest even though we refuse to recognize them.

What is brilliant about the essay, however, is the clear insight into the process by which what is originally seen to be a vice can, over time, come to be called a “virtue” or “right.” The main issue does not at first appear in the public order.

The general steps are these: The first step is sympathy. We do not recognize a natural law in things and especially human things whereby we know what these vices are. We plead sympathy for the one who practices them. If he refuses to repent or seek forgiveness, he must come to hate a world that defines vice as vice. He turns on the world, not his soul.


         The final step: What was once called virtue becomes a vice
         (Innocence between Virtue and Vice by Marie Guillhelmine Benoist, 1790)

Everyone wants approval. The tolerance of the vice comes next. It is an exceptional case, but we overlook it. It is purely private. But it is what we want. We cannot accept the distinction between practice and tendency. We have a “right” to practice our vice. The word “right” is so fuzzy, yet powerful in our culture.

If we have a “right,” nothing really can be wrong with our ways. Those who insist that something is wrong “discriminate.” The law must guarantee our “right” to practice what we define as good. To do this, we must eliminate from the world any sign of that understanding whereby certain activities are wrong or unnatural.

We develop a theory of the cosmos. It reveals nothing about what we are. Our freedom thus really means our “right” to fashion ourselves to be whatever kind of being we want. No standard of the human exists.

The final step makes what was once called virtue to be a vice. Moreover, it is embodied in the civil law. No one can question the legitimacy of the vice-become-virtue. The whole structure of education, work, military, government, and religion must conform to the “new law” now normative for everyone.

When it is spelled out this way, we can see that such is pretty much the path that western civilization has followed in the recent past. The “private” vices have become public law imposed on everyone. It is all very logical, as vice usually is. Reilly’s description of the projection of our inner vices onto the culture is gripping.

What is also provocative about his analysis is the realization that no one can simply live with his own sins if he chooses not to acknowledge what they are. He must insist that his sins be recognized as good. Christianity has long suspected that purely “private” sins do not exist. Reilly’s essay tells us why. It is, as I say, a remarkable essay.

 
James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.
 
 
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Comments (16)Add Comment
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written by Ross Howard, November 30, 2010
A good article, as is Robert Reilly’s article. I find the reasoning similar to Pascal in Pensees:
“Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.”
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written by Bill, November 30, 2010
Thank you, Fr. Schall! People often tell me that the reason my adult children, my wife and I attend a Traditional chapel is the nostalgia for the Latin Mass. I explain the real reason we go is the Sacrament of Confession. Sins are identified as SINS and they are never allowed to become acceptable. Absolution MAY BE WITHHELD. When the entire Church demanded this of Its priests/penitents, the Church flourished. Without it, the Church has become a collection of simpletons and buffoons (many of whom are pro-abortion and pro-homosexual marriage!) which no one takes seriously.
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written by Louise, November 30, 2010
Thank you, Fr. Schall for an excellent essay. It reminds me of something I heard once but can't remember where: "Cain will never allow Abel to live." Your essay explains why.
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written by Louise, November 30, 2010
. . . and doesn't this also extend to our children and all those we love. E.g., someone discovers that his daughter whom he loves better than life has had an abortion. How, then, could abortion be wrong because his daughter is the kindest, gentlest being in the whole world who would never hurt a living soul? He reasons that his previous pro-life position was misguided. Abortion couldn't be wrong if his daughter did it--but the word "grandchild" disappears from his vocabulary.
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written by Joe, November 30, 2010
Father, intriguing column, and one that bases its premise that Man is a hybrid of good and evil and then chooses one over another. But what if man is not intrinsically good, as Freud said in this passage from "Civilization and Its Discontents":

The bit of truth behind all this--one so eagerly denied--is that men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbor is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture, to kill him.

"Homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man): who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history?"

Alluded to be Hobbes in Leviathan, I believe, to the effect: "My biggest fear is that any man may be my murderer."

Our first reaction is to deny Freud's observation, because we could hardly co-exist if we did not. But denying it does not make it untrue. Down in our consciousness, man is indeed a wolf to man; and we may trace our mental miseries to the continuing struggle, which we do not always win, to repress that terrible reality.

Freud himself found out only too well that his nightmares became true just before he died in London in 1939 as World War II and its horrors were just beginning. Those horrors would not have surprised the author of Civilization and Its Discontents.

Nor, should I add, should it surprise any of us in 2010 as we look back over 70 years of unstoppable moral depravity and cultural decay.

Sorry to be the skunk at the garden party, father. But some of us believe that in the war of Good vs. Evil, Good just doesn't stand a chance. As Casey Stengel, I believe said, "You could look it up."
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written by Jacob, November 30, 2010
Joe...look on the bright side buddy!

You're ignoring all the extreme goodness that has coexisted with the evil you speak of since the beginning of humanity at least.
Read about the saints..they will show you that man is both good and evil not just one or the other.

If you don't temper the Hobbes and Freud you read with Augustine and Aquinas you'll have a nakedly honest opinion of the world, but one which completely lacks maturity and wisdom.

A child looks at a broken bicycle and cries that it wont work...a man attempts to figure out how to fix it, even if he might not be able to.

Besides if Hobbes and Freud are right about everything then why go on in this hell world of wholly evil human beings?
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written by Louise, November 30, 2010
This just in:
"Apple has always been among the most progressive companies and earned a 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, and yet, the company has approved application that is offensive to Americans who support equality and free choice," the petition notes.

"The Manhattan Declaration application exists to collect signatures on a website which espouses hateful and divisive language, the very kind of language I hope the iTunes Store will not want to help disseminate. Despite the store rating the application 4+ ("no objectionable material), I can assure you that the application does in fact contain lots of objectionable material."
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written by John McCarthy, November 30, 2010
Once again, Fr. Schall, brilliant...Thank you, thank you.

I/we experience what Fr. Schall is explaining in two contrary daily events: first, our inveterate tendency to justify ourselves in matters large and small; and, second, in our tendency for forbear and forgive ("Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.".

For sure, we are bedeviled!
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written by Other Joe, November 30, 2010
Lust, envy, greed, sloth and gluttony are now classed as either rights or as positive social or political good. That's five out of seven. Pride is implied in the self-esteem basis of modern education. All that's left is anger and that comes in, late in the game, to enforce respect for the others - hey! What are you looking at? It is a perfect inversion of values. Nietzsche predicted it along with C.S. Lewis and the rest. It is now here. Historically, it doesn’t work out very well.
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written by Achilles, November 30, 2010
Joe, Hobbes’ comment would be perfectly justified in prison, not in a monastery. In reducing man to observable phenomena, you completely miss the point of the Good Father’s essay and have in front of you an unbridgeable canyon between the True nature of man and an anthropology that sits you much closer to omniscience than you actually are. Our opinions that don’t converge with reality don’t matter a whit. Skunk though you may be, rest assured that Good will surely Triumph, we have a much better source than Freud or Hobbes for that!
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written by Joe, November 30, 2010
Response to Jacob: Yes, I've read Aquinas and more of Augustine including City of God and his Confessions, the latter containing his pre-conversion adolescent remorse for stealing pears. Oh, that all men were like Augustine, who could feel pangs of conscience over such a small sin and agonize because he had "been ashamed to be ashamed."

History informs us that the vast majority of sinners who committed much more horrible acts were not nearly as conscience-ridden, perhaps not at all.

Like Augustine before his epiphany in the sunny garden, one cries out, "Give me chastity -- but not yet!" Perhaps some day a line of Scripture shall pop out of nowhere, prompted by tole lege (take up and read) and suddenly I will find my heart filled.

Meanwhile, stay thirsty, my friends.
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written by The Moz, November 30, 2010
Addiction to gambling is not a vice; it is no different than being born short or bald; Pornography is not a sin; it is no different than a preference for creamy fatty foods; Homosexual escapades are not intrinsically disordered and wrong they are no more dangerous than sky diving; Polygamy is not hurtful to women and men it is to relationships what living with roommates is to going to College; Abortion is not the termination of life in its earliest stage it is the freedom to cut off your nose to spite your face. What is vice must be called vice and vice versa. Our way of thinking seems eerily reminiscent of what Orwell warned us about in 1984. But we're too liberated for that now; now we know the power of ourselves; that ultimate power that is so appealing and so easily gratifying it makes mush out of our virtues and our vices.
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written by Ray Hunkins, November 30, 2010
Thanks to Fr. Schall for this insightful essay and for the reference to Mr. Reilly's fascinating piece. Today we learned that through "polling" the Pentagon has determined it would not be disruptive to end "ask don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military. I remember 1993 when "ask don't tell" was sold as the solution. There was an uproar. It has become normative and now the time is ripe for the next step. What is so discouraging is our military, and particularly the officer corps, is on board. All except the Marine Corps. Semper Fi.
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written by Joe, December 01, 2010
FYI, Ray, 40% of combat troops against changing DADT. Ending it will damage if not destroy unit coherence.
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written by John Coalson, December 03, 2010
Thank you, Fr. Schall!
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written by stanley, December 07, 2010
"to make virtue to be a vice" is the aspect least discussed.

What I love about Eric Voegelin and his analysis of these topics is his focus on language. He touched on it a little in the Toronto DVD. Fr. Schall's language is impeccable. But you can understand the rebellion of the talented and attractive when they hear less then stellar formulations or certain types of dogmatic language about what is good/virtuous etc.

Voegelin talked about it as "paranoia" in Toronto. Both sides retreating and using defensive words, etc. He was very good at reminding "us" to stick to reality and reason when discussing these issues.


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