I was walking through the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of the Borders in Glendale when a totally random thought occurred to me. I think what brought it to my mind is the question: what is the cause of evil? I was flipping through random fantasy novels where characters are neatly pigeon-holed into Good or Evil, and clearly in the real world nothing is that obvious.
And since I was born and raised Roman Catholic, I had no choice but to go back to my roots, and when you look at the Genesis and various apocrypha regarding Lucifer, it becomes quite clear that the first and the second sin is Pride.
I think that Islam makes it even more explicit that this is the sin of Iblis, and I think John Milton catches this sentiment very well in the line from Paradise Lost: “Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
So Satan’s rejection of God is the first sin: a sin borne of Pride, of thinking that you understand the pattern of the Universe better than anyone else. And so is Adam and Eve’s disobedience with regards to eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some argue that they thought that they could usurp the knowledge of God themselves, once again demonstrating the attitude that they think they know better than anyone else.
And I think that this is a pretty accurate depiction of where Evil comes from: the unbending, insolent insistence that you of all people know exactly what the right thing to do is, and that everyone else is dead wrong.
You see this kind of sin well-evident in some Christian fundamentalists who insist that they hold the only key to salvation and that everyone else is just damned, not to mention their Islamic fundamentalist counterparts who will actually kill other people in the name of God, which is the ultimate blasphemy if you ask me. You see this level of arrogance in the Bush Administration, who, despite continuous setbacks and failures, simply refuse to admit that they made a mistake and that they are wrong.
The irony is that this kind of sinful pride is exactly what Jesus Christ rails against in the Gospels. He constantly mocks the Saducees and the Pharisees who insist that they are righteous and uphold the laws of God and would rather destroy Christ and his followers than admit to the possibility that there are other ways. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if Fundamentalist Christians and greedy Republicans who claim to be Christian simply read a different Bible than I do.
Now maybe it’s misleading to call this sin “Pride” since the term actually has quite a few connotations in English. After all, you are supposed to be proud of yourself and your accomplishments, right? And it’s equally misleading to use the term “Shame,” which, while related, has a completely different connotation in English.
In Tagalog, the word hiya, while commonly translated as “shame,” probably better encompasses what I’m trying to say. One can also translate hiya as “shyness,” or perhaps even “humility.” This relates to a common Tagalog phrase that is used to deride another person: walang hiya, commonly translated as “without shame,” but probably more accurately meaning “without humility.” I know you can say the phrase “without humility” in English just as well, but it simply doesn’t have the negative connotation that walang hiya has. Being walang hiya is considered a definite character fault.
And so I can’t help but agree that Pride itself is the cause of all Evil in the world. As soon as someone begins to believe that they are the end-all, be-all of all answers, that they havev the Final Solution™, all sorts of hell breaks loose.
Which touches upon a pet topic of mine: the mistaken identification of Faith with Certainty. I remember this lesson well, which was given to me in high school by the Jesuits. Faith is not Certainty. Faith is about Doubt. If you cannot experience Doubt, than you cannot have Faith. Faith is never about knowing exactly what is going to happen next. It is precisely about not knowing, and perhaps about being afraid of the future, and yet still trusting to God that whatever needs to be will happen.
Or, to put it more succinctly, if you think you know all the answers, then what do you need God for?
And notice that it has nothing to do about everything turning out all right. Some of the most Faithful men and women in human history have outright been violated and massacred, and yet I do not think this at all degrades the nature of their Faith in God, nor God’s Faith in them. It all comes down to Jesus praying in the Garden at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39): “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but as You want.” This is the core of Faith, to put your life in God’s hands, even if it might mean being tortured and killed for doing what you think is right.
The Fundamentalists and religious extremists, the terrorists and the Bush Administration show none of this character of humility, and frankly, every time they talk about God, I feel they are outright blaspheming.
But what do I know.
Interestingly, the only Fantasy writer I’ve read who explicitly uses the Sin of Pride as the Source of All Evil is J.R.R. Tolkien. Now, this is probably not surprising since he was Catholic. Morgoth is clearly his interpretation of Satan. But it is interesting how many of his characters fall in The Lord of the Rings. Saruman starts believing more in his own craft and wisdom than in his mission for the Valar. Denethor trusts more to the foresight he gleans from the palantir than he does in the strength of his own people. Boromir is undone because he thinks that he can actually wield the One Ring against Sauron. All these people fall from grace because they think that they know exactly what the right thing to do is, trusting to their own devices instead of understanding their context in the world. Sauron himself falls precisely because of the folly of his own pride, unable to countenance the idea that his enemy would send such humble folk as hobbits into his land to destroy the One Ring rather than try to wield it against him. Then of course there are the Sins of Pride committed by both Elves and Men as depicted in The Silmarillion: Fëanor’s doom-laden Oath to retrieve the Silmarils at all cost in defiance of the Valar, destroying anyone in his way, even if it meant killing his own kin, and Ar-Pharazôn’s attempt to land in Aman with the thought of wresting immortality from the Valar.
Now I lie, the two other major fantasy series that I’ve read Memory, Thorn, and Sorrow by Tad Williams and The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan likewise touch upon the Sin of Pride as the Source of All Evil. However, Williams’ world of Osten Ard is essentially a transcription of real-world human cultures to geography resembling Middle Earth, although his character of Ineluki the Storm King, who defied the rules of Nature in order to destroy his enemies at the cost of the lives of his kin and his own soul, is rather interesting. The Creation of the Sword Sorrow seems to be a rather nice allegory to the creation of nuclear weapons, although I would not accuse Williams of being intentionally allegorical. (The same allegory charge has been made with regard to Tolkien’s One Ring, which he vehemently denied.) And while Jordan’s story of the Westlands has become mired in such complexity far rivalling and far more tangled than Tolkien’s lucid intricacies, Sha’itan is simply a very thinly veiled version of Satan himself.
Then there is Ursula Le Guin’s completion of her Earthsea Cycle with The Other Wind. Le Guin prefers to keep Evil more realistic, and never relegates its Source to a single focal point like how most fantasy writers do. And given the Taoistic aura of Earthsea, Le Guin is more interested in discussing disorder and imbalance, from which both Evil and Good may arise. Still, the greatest source of disorder and imbalance in the world is again caused by a transgression of Pride, with Wizards attempting to obtain immortality by cheating the Dragons, and ending up perverting the very nature of Life and Death instead.
Now I don’t claim to be a holy person myself. The judgements I render are the judgements of a flawed person. And I realize that there are plenty of problems with living continuously in a sea of uncertainty. Sinful pride is unfortunately often confused with simple confidence, and without at least some confidence, it is extremely difficult to live in this world.
Interestingly, science itself however agrees with reality as being, by its nature uncertain. Despite Einstein’s wishful thought that “God does not play with dice,” the elucidation of the principles of quantum mechanics as embodied by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle makes it quite obvious that it is not within our abilities to determine the exact state of reality. We can’t even be completely sure about things in completely theoretical realms, thanks to Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness.
Which simply leads me to this conclusion: Beware of anyone who is too sure of themself. Healthy amounts of doubt should be considered a virtue (although I agree that radical skepticism has its profound limitations.) Anyone without doubt should be watched closely, since they are likely to commit quite Evil acts in the name of Good.
Of course, even in my lifetime, it has become obvious that not enough people understand or even know history to prevent it from repeating itself. (As George Santayana notes: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”) But I suppose all we can do is hope.