On Human Evil

“No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”–G.K. Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown


I hold two literary opinions that I rarely discuss with friends, because they are the sorts of opinions that make one unpopular. The first is that CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series is better than JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The second is that GK Chesterton’s Father Brown is a better detective than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In both cases, my reasoning is the same: there are far more serious and profound ideas at stake in Lewis and Chesterton’s work than there are in Tolkien’s and Doyle’s. The latter works are entertaining. The former are important.

I am not going to talk more about Lewis and Tolkien here, but I do want to talk about why Father Brown is my favorite fictional detective. Sherlock Holmes solves crimes through precise logic and a vast storehouse of knowledge, which is way cool and spectacular to watch. Others solve crimes by intrepid detective work, procedural maneuvers, or hard-boiled moxie. Father Brown solves them by understanding human nature.

Chesterton’s fourth collection of Father Brown mysteries, The Secret of Father Brown, is set in a frame narrative in which a wealthy American asks Father Brown how he has managed to solve mysteries that nobody else can solve. He wants to know the secret, and Father Brown obliges: “You see,” he says, “it was I who killed all those people.”

What he means by is that, in order to solve a murder, he must first recognize the he is capable of committing the same crime. He taps into the evil that he is capable of and, in a very real sense, becomes the murderer. When he completely understand the point of the view of the murderer, he has no trouble solving the murder. To do this, he must empty himself of “the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls.” He must acknowledge the fact that he is capable of every imaginable deed. And he can never argue that any type of evil is foreign to his human nature.

I reread The Wisdom of Father Brown this week precisely because I needed this reminder. When I heard the news last Sunday that nearly 60 people were killed, and nearly 500 more wounded by a Las Vegas gunman, all of my inclinations were to label the shooter as something fundamentally not like me: an inhuman action, an unfathomable act, pure evil, something foreign and alien to my nature. And from my reading of the news this week, I observe that I was not alone.

It is comforting to cast evil as something completely outside of human nature. It’s how we reassure ourselves that we are good, and that most people we know are good, and that somebody firing a thousand rounds of ammunition into a crowd does not share any part of our nature. We know that we would never, under any circumstances, do such a thing, and that allows us to expel pure evil from our species and take comfort in our common humanity.

But this is a lie. If we can learn anything from the 20th century’s tortured history of atrocity and genocide it is that acts of supreme evil are generally committed by people a lot like us. Sometimes they are following orders, or trying to get a promotion, or just acting in service of their country or cause. The idea that there are a small number of purely evil people in the world who somehow lack the ability to empathize with others is itself a colossal failure to emphasize with others.

And the consequences of believing the lie are severe: until we recognize our own capacity for evil, we can never understand it. If we never understand it, we cannot prevent it. But if we face it head on and learn how to control the evil that we are capable of, we become capable of influencing others. Because the same humans who are capable of great evil are also capable of truth and beauty and goodness and love. All of that is part of human nature too.

Chesterton was a religious writer in an irreligious environment, and he believed that the claims of religion should be taken seriously. One of those claims is that our primary responsibility as human beings is to recognize and act on our fundamental spiritual kinship with other human beings. Talking about “pure evil” or “inhuman evil” is a cop out. The real problem is human evil, which, like human goodness, is never pure, always complicated, and very much a part of our natures too.


  1. My firm belief is that one cannot be capable of the greatest good unless one is also capable of the greatest evil. That capacity for evil is inherent in humanity, and I believe the line is very, very thin. Unfortunately, you are completely wrong on Tolkien, for which you are now unpopular, at least with me ;-).

  2. I know it’s fighting words, but Christie’s stories and detectives are much better.

  3. As I read Shirer’s Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, this summer, I could never escape the fact that the German people were no different than the allies. They were all human. I felt labeling Hitler as some lopsided maniac was lazy. It dehumanizes him; the very act which gave him infamy.

  4. The more crime I see the more I’m struck that even the most “evil” people aren’t evil all the time. Robbers stop to give food to their buddies on the street. White collar scam artists attend church and volunteer at soup kitchens. Rapists genuinely thought the woman would want it. Murderers have children they love and treat gently. Something inside them clashes in one type of interaction and leads to selfishness, deceit or violence — but that isn’t how they act to everyone and in every situation. Admitting that means they’re not monsters. Admitting that means they’re just like us.

  5. cookie queen says:

    Yes. Narnia is better.

  6. I like this post, because it squares with my first-hand experience. I was personally acquainted with an individual who eventually went on to kill three people in a murder-suicide in public. This man was not “pure evil” at all. He was not a psychopath. In fact, I had seen him do kind things for others. I did notice though that he had a tendency to blame others for his problems. He had some mental health issues which included a lot of anxiety, however I strongly feel this was no excuse, although it may have been an aggravating factor in his decision. Anxiety or not, he left a note that clearly stated he understood what he was doing. Ultimately weather we become evil or not is all about choices we make. We each have the capacity to make a good choice or a very evil one.

  7. Webmaster feel free to delete this comment.

    It’s easy to condemn the snipper who shoots 550 innocent people, but what about the individual, who for rlcheous or self-richeous reasons with his espousal of certain “doctrine”, helps bring about the death or dehumanizations of an equal number of people. It’s easier for us to condemn the shooter than the cleric. Why is that? Does the fact that we go easy on the latter make us complicit in the act? Doesn’t that to a certain extent dehumanize us? On the compendium between good and evil, doesn’t that push us away from good?

  8. Personally, I don’t agree with you on this, Michael. While I have my own set of flaws and sins, of which I am well aware, I am also aware of limits beyond which I will not go, simply because that is not who I am. I would never fire a thousand rounds into a crowd of concert goers. For starters, I detest guns. I also would never rob a bank. Heck, I even pay the Utah use tax, so I’m not even capable of petty tax evasion. So, no, I cannot imagine some of the horrendous crimes that some people commit. We are not all Ted Bundys. We are not all Mark Hoffmans. Empathy is one thing, but it is terribly difficult to imagine doing thing you simply find repugnant. So, yes, try as I might, there are lots of people, including Donald Trump, whom I will never fully understand.

  9. Antonio Parr says:

    Criminals (by T-Bone Burnett)

    I’ve seen a lot of criminals
    I’ve seen a lot of crime
    Doing a lot of evil deeds
    Doing a lot of time

    We speak of these men as aliens
    From some forbidden race
    We speak of these men as animals
    We will lock in a cage

    But there’s one man I must arrest
    I must interrogate
    One man that I must make confess
    Then rehabilitate

    There is no other I can blame
    No other I can judge
    No other I can cast in shame
    Then require blood

    I see him in the shadows down the hall
    I see him in the plaster on the wall

    There is no crime he cannot commit
    No murder too complex
    His heart is filled with larceny
    And violence and sex

    His heart is filled with envy
    And revenge and greed
    His heart is filled with nothing
    His heart is filled with need

    He’s capable of anything
    Of any vicious act
    This criminal is dangerous
    The criminal under my own hat

  10. “until we recognize our own capacity for evil, we can never understand it” — For some of us “recognizing our own capacity for evil” feels like looking into the abyss of insanity. That’s an objection but not a bar. We should go there (looking in, not jumping in). Empathy requires it.

    (I’m tempted to quote “we all go a little mad sometimes” but I’ll settle for “I go a little mad sometimes.”)

  11. Thanks, Michael. FWIW my first “spiritual burnings in my bosom” were as a kid while reading Narnia and LOTR (and also while watching Star Wars).

    This reminds me of an article by Jim Faulconer in response to the Aurora shooting: “We ought not to minimize the wrong done to the victims in Aurora. We absolutely ought not to do so. That would be a sin because we would refuse to recognize their value and their suffering and the suffering of those who love them. But there is also no point in minimizing our own sinfulness by maximizing the sinfulness of others.” The very short article merits a full read: http://www.patheos.com/mormon/fallacy-pure-evil-james-faulconer-07-27-2012

    ChrisClarke, I am currently reading Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and I was struck with the same impression. It reminded me of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men about how ordinary people can do awful things. Another good read is Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. It is the flip side of the coin showing how ordinary people can do exceptionally good things. My takeaway was that a series of consistent, mundane, self-focused (or service-oriented) actions–colored by a narrative that justifies our actions–can lead us to do great evil or great good. It’s not as simple as that. But I think it’s important to remember this when we think about what it means to be human as we hold up the image of others to compare to our hagiographic mirrors.

  12. Dayyyng, nice post, Michael!

    When these shootings occur, I find myself asking a sort of psycho-legal question: “Who had the last clear chance of getting through to this guy before he went all the way over to the dark side? Who could have introduced a little compassion into this guy’s situation before he decided to hammer on the evil button in real life, instead of just in his imagination?”

    It’s obviously an unanswerable question, going way beyond the canon of information we have available to us on any given shooter. But was it possibly his wife or girlfriend? Was it his mom or dad? Was it his community or church or pastor or teacher? Was it all of the above?

    This isn’t to blame these people at all, in any legal or moral sense. This is to say, there are opportunities to stop evil far before it ever happens. It requires you to be that wife, girlfriend, mom, dad, community, church, pastor, or whatever, who tries their hardest not to let people get so isolated and bored and nihilistic that they think of violence as a solution to their inner problems. Those opportunities for preventing evil are disguised as everyday, unimportant interactions. Un-congratulatable but entirely essential. Recognizing that is a way of giving moral gravity to civility, sociality, and friendship. Yet it also introduces a lot of custodianship and paternalism into the question, and that I don’t know how to square all the way.

    I guess I’m saying: I agree that they’re direly underused by the mainstream media and humanity in general, but I fear that empathy — and imagination, which is its faculty of origin — are not the whole solution. On an individual moral level, (when not purely contemplative, when paired with active virtue), yes, they are, absolutely.

    But on a societal level? I’m not sure it’s enough just to share kinship in the imagination.

  13. I side very strongly with Tolkien on LotR vs Narnia but agree with Chesterton over Arthur Conan Doyle.

  14. Great post, Michael. We moderns are for some reason, really averse to the idea of repentance and forgiveness. So when sin confronts us we either excuse it or rationalize it, or, where we cannot, we cast sinners as irredeemable, wholly other and not like us.

    You are wrong about Tolkien and Lewis though. Fight me, you inhuman dog.

  15. Miss Marple from Agatha Christie also uses her knowledge of human nature to solve mysteries, along with Father Brown.

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