Here and there – Evil á la mode; and Iago

 

Last year Fox News, a part of the Murdoch Empire and an aider and abettor of Donald Trump, paid out huge amounts of money to settle sexual harassment claims against their CEO – and to settle with him.  Such is the evil of our times that, as I recall, both settlements ran to tens of millions of dollars.  Earlier this year, Fox News was forced by public opinion to sack its number one attraction, and Trump’s biggest fan and supporter, Bill O’Reilly.  He, too, was a serial abuser, and the undisputed world champion of hypocrisy.  He too handed over many millions of dollars to the victims of his abuse.  Such is the contempt for truth now in public life that O’Reilly was suffered to say that there was no truth in the allegations against him – he was just paying out all those millions to protect his children from bad publicity that had no foundation.  I don’t know whether O’Reilly, too, employs the lie ‘fake news.’

On the weekend, The New York Times reported that O’Reilly had agreed to pay one of the victims of his abuse more than $30,000,000.  That was the cost of her silence – but someone has ratted.  And now it gets worse.  With knowledge of that deal, the Murdoch family offered O’Reilly a renewal of contract at $25,000,000 a year.  Does anyone get to say grace at the start of these lucre-shovelling sessions?

There is evil all around here.  We have monopoly money figures that of themselves corrupt the recipients.  Just look at the spectacle that our bankers have made of themselves.  But there is a vicious disparity in status as well as wealth and income.  The case of that rutting pig Weinstein shows just how corrupted these people can become, and how moguls get to believe that they are untouchable.

But it also showed how vulnerable to predators are those at the bottom.  It’s as if we were reinstituting serfdom of a quite medieval kind – a form of rightlessness deriving not from contract but from status.

As I see it, this is evil, very evil.  And it is just these rents in our communal fabric that lead to cancers like Hanson, Farage, and Trump, so that they can spread their own kind of evil.  It’s all very depressing, and it prompts reflection on the nature of evil.

Roger Scruton – Sir Roger if you go in for that kind of thing – is an English philosopher who gets up people’s noses big time on some issues.  He calls it as he sees it, and tact or social nous may not be his strong suits.  He is however an urbane man with wide interests who is capable of speaking plain English.  I think that he subscribes to the Church of England, and I know that he is an opera fan, and that he wrote a book called I Drink, Therefore I Am.  It’s hard to dislike such a bloke, and he represents a full blooded defence of religion that both God and we badly need.

Scruton’s book On Human Nature has a lot of university type language, but there are some insights there for people who are not familiar with the ontological argument for the existence of God, or Kant’s celebrated refutation of that argument.  (Yes, of course – existence is not a predicate.)

The book is a revolt against the notion that we humans can be defined biologically, genetically, or even, I think, scientifically.  It may even be a reaction against Bryan Cox.

Wait a minute: science is not the only way to pursue knowledge.  There is moral knowledge too, which is the province of practical reason; there is emotional knowledge, which is the province of art, literature, and music.  And just possibly there is transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion.  Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world?  Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world and so help us to be at home in it?

Scruton seeks to explain our humanity by looking at our capacity to reflect on ourselves.  He refers to an Islamic teacher, al Fārābī, who offers us the insight that ‘the truths furnished to the intellect by philosophy are made available to the imagination by religious faith.’  Scruton’s opening lecture on ‘Human Kind’ has a ringing finale:

Take away religion, however, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness.  Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead.  Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’, which is why people so readily fall for it.  It makes cynicism respectable, and degeneracy chic.  It abolishes our kind – and with it our kindness.

It’s been quite some time since anything like that was taught at university under the heading of Philosophy.

It is the subject of evil that is of interest to us now.  Bad people, Scruton says, are like you or me, but evil people are visitors from another sphere, incarnations of the Devil.  ‘Even their charm – and it is a recognised fact that evil people are often charming – is only further proof of their Otherness.  They are, in some sense, the negation of humanity, wholly and unnaturally at ease with the thing that they seek to destroy.’

That seems to be about right.  Scruton reminds us that Goethe gives to Mephistopheles the line: ‘I am the spirit that forever negates.’  We’re not just talking of the person who sucks the oxygen out of a room.  Bad people tend to ignore others because they are guided by self-interest – just look at Trump – but the evil person ‘is profoundly interested in others, has almost selfless designs on them.’

The aim is not to use them, as Faust uses Gretchen, but to rob them of themselves.  Mephistopheles hopes to steal and destroy Faust’s soul and, en route to that end, to destroy the soul of Gretchen.  Nowadays we might use the word ‘self’ instead of ‘soul’, in order to avoid religious connotations.  But this word is only another name for the same metaphysical mystery around which our lives are built – the mystery of the subjective viewpoint.  Evil people are not necessarily threats to your body; but they are threats to yourself.

The relevance of all this to Iago is obvious and Scruton makes the link himself.  In watching the play, we are quickly shocked to find that Iago really intends to destroy Othello.

Peering into Iago’s soul we find a void, a nothingness; like Mephistopheles, he is a great negation, a soul composed of anti-spirit, as a body might be composed of antimatter.  The evil person is like a fracture in our human world, through which we catch glimpses of the void.

These insights, which are strong, lead Scruton to refer to ‘the banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in the bureaucratic mindset of Adolf Eichmann.  And he powerfully reminds us that concentration camps ‘were designed not merely to destroy human beings, but also to deprive them of their humanity.’  He then goes on to refer to what he sees as the ‘paradigm of evil – namely, the attempt or desire to destroy the soul of another so that his or her value and meaning are rubbed out.’

The book concludes with some comments on faith, and the notion that religion ‘is a dedication of one’s being’ and concludes with a reference ‘ to the two great works of art that have attempted to show what redemption means for us, in the world of modern scepticism: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.  In the wake of these two great aesthetic achievements, it seems to me, the perspective of philosophy is of no great significance.’

Would that others of us could be so modest (even if he lost me on Parsifal).  But as ever, we needn’t press the labels or categories too hard.  (George Bush Senior said that ‘labels are what you put on soup cans.’)  Nor should we forget another remark of Hannah Arendt.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.

This may be hard to square with Scruton, but people who choose to demonise Stalin and Hitler want to run away from history and they demean their victims.

Iago has these lines:

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly… (5.1.18-20)

There is a primal, Garden of Evil, feeling about that type of envy, and it calls to mind the visceral description by the same writer of the type of person who sucks the air out of a room, the common garden smiling assassin.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous…

…..He reads much,

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men …

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

Whilst they behold a greater than themselves.

And therefore are they very dangerous.

(Julius Caesar, 1.2.200-215)

You would not want to stake your house on spotting the difference between the badness of Cassius and the evil of Iago – or, for that matter, what category you might reserve for Eichmann.  It may be best to leave all that stuff to God.  Those issues are certainly way above my pay level.

But let us go back to Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill O’Reilly.  A friend of mine – as it happens, the one who attends mass in a cathedral – astutely observed of the problems of Fox that ‘a large part of tabloid journalism involves the exploitation of human misery’ – or at least, I may add, misfortune.  It is therefore ironic that O’Reilly lies that he is paying out protection money just to avoid exploitation from the gutter.  The exploitation of the gutter is the business model of Fox News, and the modus operandi of President Donald Trump.

Are we then tip-toeing ever closer to the rim of the volcano that we have always sensed lies below us?

Why did the Roman Empire fall?  Edward Gibbon, the great historian, said:

The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind.  But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of its immoderate greatness.  Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it subsisted so long.  The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple.  The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.

The United States is not there yet – but Gibbon looks to me to have diagnosed precisely the condition of the actual decline and coming fall of the Murdoch Empire.

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