Adam and Eve eat the Forbidden Fruit at the Tree of Life in Paradise, sculpted at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France

Adam and Eve eat the Forbidden Fruit at the Tree of Life in Paradise, sculpted at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France

A number of years ago,  I started a novel trilogy which I have yet to complete. I intended to call the trilogy The Best People, and in it I hoped to examine the different value systems that make up American society, or in other words to look at what different groups of  Americans would consider to be “the best people.” American society has grown much more diverse and complex than it was when I began working on the first projected novel in the 1980’s. But certain universal themes never change. The question of what kind of person one finds most desirable to be is still relevant.

Underlying any human value system are the deeper issues of  whether one believes in the concepts of good and evil, or whether one views life as merely a matter of getting one’s own needs met in the most pragmatic way possible regardless of how others are affected.  Most of us find ourselves somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes.  The philosophies that we adopt or create reflect some combination of  living by social norms that others will admire or tolerate,  balanced with the  pursuit of  our own self-interest. As we learn to love,  hopefully most  of us transcend mere practical social considerations and develop some type of altruism.

It is out of the intrinsic human need to both have our own needs met and to have  love in our lives that our ideas of good and evil are born. For each of us feels a tension between selfishness and selflessness, if we are caring people. One understanding of good and evil which has been around a long time, but which has attracted new interest recently is the philosophy of dualism. A dualist believes that good and evil are parts of the same whole, and that it is impossible to have good without the corresponding presence of evil. To me, this is a dangerous idea, because it rationalizes evil and it precludes the possibility of moral progress.

A dualist believes that good and evil are parts of the same whole, and that it is impossible to have good without the corresponding presence of evil. To me, this is a dangerous idea, because it rationalizes evil and it precludes the possibility of moral progress.

Probably this philosophy appeals to people for two reasons. First of all, it justifies our basic laziness and apathy. If it is impossible to eradicate evil, then we don’t have to bother fighting it in the world or in ourselves. Secondly, most of us have a fairly anemic perception of what goodness is. We tend to see goodness as insipid, as the mere absence of evil or lesser naughtiness. We see good as a kind of milquetoast acquiescence to dull conventions, devoid of passion and imagination. We see good as sexless. An example of this is how in the classic seventeenth century poem “Paradise Lost,” literary critics and readers generally recognize that in his attempt to portray the Garden of Eden story in verse, John Milton inadvertently depicted Satan as a much more attractive figure than God. Furthermore, our subsequent ideas of Eve as a sex goddess mostly came from Milton’s seductive portrayal of her.

This is ironic, because in any traditional theological understanding of  Genesis,  God created sex and all other good things. Satan only has the power to pervert, twist or misuse those things. But according to traditional Jewish and Christian belief, Satan was the most beautiful angel God created, second in power only to God.  Thus, any beauty or power that evil seems to possess comes from the mix of good that is present. According to this thinking, Satan uses the good that God created to seduce and deceive us into destructive behaviors, to disguise the real nature of evil, which is always ugly and hurtful. A thoroughly evil person, or a demon, cannot experience joy, but can only experience glee at another’s misery. It is  from this glee that sadistic behavior finds its reward.  It is thus possible to become addicted to evil for its own perverse sake.  If a spark of real humanity remains, however,  evil  is in the end enslaving,  becomes monotonous and therefore boring, because it alienates us from more joyous possibilities.   Like all the bad habits and addictions that comprise it,  our slavery to evil eventually  leads to self-loathing and despair, or to the death of the spirit.

Good is always compromised where evil is present. While it is true that goodness cannot be appreciated or savored without an awareness of the true nature of its opposite,  an existence without the presence of evil would in reality be so liberating and wonderful that human beings who have learned about the reality of evil from human history would never want to go back to that fallen state. That possibility of such a heaven inspires people of faith.  It is ironic that the phrase “original sin” (which is found in neither the Jewish Old Testament nor the Christian New Testatment) was coined by religious thinkers, because there is nothing original about sin. All of us are prone to selfish behavior, which is at bottom what sin is.

True goodness is courageous, willing to sacrifice honor, or material things or life itself if need be, to do the right thing or to strive for a better world.

True goodness in a mere human being, on the other hand, would be completely original.  Also goodness, to the degree that it can be found in human form, is one of the most exciting things one could ever encounter. For real goodness is vital. Rather than settling for complacency, true goodness will not accept less than the best that life can offer in terms of joyous experience. True goodness involves great discipline, which others cannot help but admire, because a truly good person will not settle for less than the best he or she can be. True goodness is courageous, willing to sacrifice honor, or material things or life itself if need be, to do the right thing or to strive for a better world. True goodness makes a person joyous and nothing is more attractive to behold than a radiant face. If it were possible to find a completely good person, nothing would be more thrilling, but it would be scary, because it would require us to similarly strive to achieve our highest potential. The Gospels have endured, not only because of the miracles in which many of us still believe, but because of the nature of those miracles. Every account of a healing, or the feeding of a multitude, or the restoration of life to someone’s brother or son or daughter, was not motivated by a flashy display of supernatural power, but by the miracle of perfect love.

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