Ponerology

This is a term with which I have been familiar for a few years. The term is based on the Greek word πονηρός, an adjective which is also used substantively, meaning pain-ridden, and by extension evil. Those who use the term ponerology invariably mean the study of evil. Demonology is a discipline within the study of theology, and the mystery of evil has been the most profoundly studied by Russians like Dostoyevsky and Berdyaev to name just a couple.

I haven’t time to go into it completely, but I will attempt a brief summary. This topic has been provoked by the reflection of capital punishment, itself related to crime and human depravity. Jesus said plainly in the Gospels that we were to love our enemies, including people like Hitler, the SS guards at Auschwitz and the ghouls who would rape, murder and eat your children. But, what does that love mean? If evil is not stopped or at least resisted, it will become the kingdom of hell on earth. This has been seen in history from Nero, Vlad the Impaler, the Turkish Sultans, Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler and so many others. We cannot come to a satisfactory conclusion about the question of killing tyrants and criminals so dangerous and horrible that they cannot be incarcerated in normal prisons. We really need to move on, and ask ourselves where all this evil comes from.

Heinous sin is obvious in genocide, military aggression, colonialism, the destruction of the environment, destroying the economy to make big money, and then on a smaller scale in child abuse, rape, bullying, manipulation, waste, neglect and so many other signs.

How can this be when all the people we know, or nearly all, are decent, hard-working, caring about other people, honest with money, generally virtuous whether or not they believe in God or the principles of a religion? Most of us dream of a better world, care about those we love and those who obviously need our help. Throughout history, good people have been unable to bring about lasting peace, justice and harmony.

Why do we get evil people? What makes them evil? I’m not talking about people who sin by weakness, but those who revel in the misery of others? I have written on Gnostic themes like the Archons, which more or less correspond with the Devil and demons in orthodox Christianity. There are more modern views too, which need to be critically studied.

Some Catholic moralists have ventured onto speculations about “structural sin”, which shows intuition, though such are often incomplete. It would seem that some environments and contexts are more conducive to people turning bad, though not all people from an identical context would turn out to be evil? Is there an intrinsic predisposition, fitting the nation of total depravity as found in Calvin’s interpretation of Saint Augustine’s theology? I personally am more convinced by the more Christian humanist notion that sees more good people than evil people, unlike the pessimism of the Jansenists and Puritans.

There is the old quote from Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984):

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Our complicity with sin is usually one of omission. We tolerate evil, and then become complicit in it. This is what happened to the German people in the 1920’s and 30’s, and it can happen again. It is happening with the refugee crisis in Europe, the rise of the Right, Islamic jihadism and the continuing war in the Middle East. We do tend to deny what doesn’t immediately concern us. To what extent do we become responsible for this kind of evil?

Certain groups of people and institutions are strongly drawn to causing harm, destruction, cruelty and suffering in others.

The biggest and most soul-scouring question is to what extent can and should we prevent and resist evil, above all in the name of Christian love and “turning the other cheek”. This is surely the criterion by which Christianity is judged as too weak to be of any use in the “real” world. Strict Islam would seem to fit the bill better – but unfortunately that religion has shown itself not to be free from evil!

The struggle against evil seems futile and we make little progress in identifying the real issues. A most interesting theory is that of psychopathy, exactly like the ghouls who have usually ended their lives on the gallows or the electric chair. At an individual level some on the most impressive work has been done by the Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare in his check-list of characteristics that define the psychopath, the sociopath and the malignant narcissist. Dr Hare is specialised in the study of criminals and the possibility of their rehabilitation.

He proceeded by studying factors containing sets of characteristics, the proportions of which would differ from person to person. Such characteristics would be for example: impulsiveness, aggression, Machiavellianism, persistent criminal behaviour, lack of empathy, shallowness, superficial charm, manipulativeness, etc.

Psychiatrists have found that psychopathic personality disorders cannot be cured and the person himself will not have the self-knowledge needed to recognise that there is a problem. When they commit criminal acts, the only way to deal with them is to keep them locked up or kill them (in countries that have capital punishment). Not all psychopaths are criminals and thus do not end up in the courts and prison. They are gifted leaders and are particularly suited to a highly competitive environment. They run businesses, banks and political parties ruthlessly. They are only called to book when they are overthrown, convicted for crimes against humanity, big-time tax fraud or whatever. The successful psychopath takes over a country, and the unsuccessful one goes to prison or quietly lives off the energy of other people, sucking their spiritual life blood like vampires.

Looking at it like this, we would seem to be faced with intrinsically evil people. We are brought to the Augustinian notion of total depravity. Because of original sin, fallen man cannot follow God, refrain from evil or accept salvation unless endowed with grace. There is no free will. In Augustinian and Calvinist teaching, this is the condition of all of us, and only a very small number (identified by their financial success, naturally) are the predestined Elect. God created man in the same way as a turtle lays a thousand eggs to produce three or four viable turtles. Perhaps a few percent are afflicted with total depravity like an equally small percent are mystics and saints, and the rest of us have our lives to work everything out with God’s help. Could this be so?

In practice, when a psychopath commits criminal acts, he is treated as one with moral and legal responsibility and free will. It would appear that the psychopath is not suffering from a mental illness, but is – evil.

Human society has evolved from families and tribes to nations and groups of nations living hierarchically in dense cities. Technology and science have evolved for the best and the worst. All that incites and encourages the competitive “alpha” man. The scope for destruction becomes greater with “mega-societies”. Fortunately, the same technology has strengthened our ability to unmask the shenanigans of the psychopaths by means of alternative news websites and to blow whistles on Big Brother. We might not be able to do much against corrupt businessmen and bankers, politicians who lie through their teeth and would like to start World War III for money – but we can blow their covers of deceit and secrecy, out them if we dare.

I don’t think that psychopathy accounts for everything. If psychopaths are humans, then they are at a disadvantage in terms of knowledge of God and salvation. I have read theories according to which they are not humans, but the offspring of reptilian beings – demons, archons or beings descended from the nephtalim who were beings from before the Flood recorded in the Book of Genesis and the holy books of most of the religions of the world. I find such an explanation à la David Icke difficult to swallow, but it would leave humans as fundamentally good though capable of sin and evil. Apart from evil deeds and the characteristics of a psychopath, how do we tell the difference? Is our intuitive judgement infallible? Another thing to consider is that it suffices to believe that so-and-so is not human – and therefore we don’t have to respect his life or human rights. Is that not how the Nazis got so many people to hate and kill Jews? That would be too easy.

An interesting study is on by the Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski, who wrote Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, (Grande Prairie: Red Pill Press, 2006). I have a copy of it, but it makes heavy and difficult reading.

His main preoccupation was psychopathy in politics, the so-called pathocracy, rule by the sick. He saw history as oscillating between “bad times” like Nazism from 1933 until its defeat in 1945 and “good times” like the 1950’s and 60’s until the energy crisis of the 1970’s. Similarly, there was the Belle Epoque from about 1890 until 1914, then there was World War I, the growth of totalitarianism (Nazism and Communism) and World War II, a period spanning over thirty years. However, the 1920’s were quite jolly, despite the fact that so many families had lost their young men in the trenches.

Perhaps this is what happened with Atlantis, the Roman Empire when they fell, as seems to be happening today with American hegemony in the world. If enough psychopaths and narcissists get into power in a country, that country becomes a totalitarian state and turns against the people by means of surveillance and violence. A kind of ‘anti-morality’ comes in together with a perversion of language and conceptual thought. The Orwellian dystopia illustrates how far things could go, at least in theory. From this comes the cult of the infallible leader who can never be wrong. Eventually, a pathocracy contains the seeds of its own destruction, and it collapses. This happened in the past and is happening now. However, the process is rarely “clean” and many innocent people suffer when the collapse does occur. One cycle closes and a new one begins.

This might serve as an explanation to all the cloak and dagger lying that goes on surrounding issues that touch on American hegemony in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I am particularly horrified by the would-be resurgence of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the corrupt royal family in Saudi Arabia who are little more than a “successful” Daesh – with just about the same religious ideology and callousness. We are constantly lied to by by our ruling classes and politicians. What are they hiding? Yes, I know that this sounds like conspiracy theory thinking and paranoia. I now hear this way of thinking from my father who has always been a moderate English conservative who eschews all extremes and irrationality. Things are just not the same as years ago!

The fall of a pathocracy is always tragic, violent and destructive. We think of the defeat of the Nazis from June 1944 until the executions of most of the war criminals after the end of the Nuremburg Tribunal in October 1946. Many of the rats escaped to South America and the Communist bloc, but their rule was over. For the drama of their downfall, I recommend Der Untergang, the famous film that shows Hitler raging at the Generals, accusing them of betrayal and how he would drown them in their blood or hang them from meat-hooks with piano wire. People were committing suicide, like a scene from I Claudius and the fall of the Roman Empire. The kingdom divided against itself can but fall.

Pathocracy is like cancer in the human body. The disease goes too far and kills its host. The pathocrats become greedy and turn against each other. This stifles the system they promote and competence becomes subservient to cronyism and corruption. By 1944, it was said that Hitler was fighting for the Allies by making too many strategic errors to the exasperation of professional Army officers and strategists! When we see this, the end is not far away.

Finally the flesh rots away and the bones begin to show. The mask is off and citizens begin to react. The first of the heroes die like martyrs, and the popular movement gains momentum. The downfall and defeat of the Nazis cost countless lives and too many cultural treasures in Europe. Amazingly, the Soviet regime collapsed bloodlessly and without a war in 1989. This may happen with our European Union and the USA, leaving people to reorganise their lives is small communities. We can only pray that we be spared from a nuclear holocaust, now that Saudi Arabia has the Bomb.

We will never be through with evil in this world. It comes and goes, up and down throughout history. The important thing is that we ourselves should recognise the potential for evil within ourselves and “put on the armour of God”, that we may be able to withstand. Evil is a terrifying mystery that none of us will ever fully understand.

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11 Responses to Ponerology

  1. You know, father, I am struggling with writer’s block and depression at this time but you have touched upon some themes in my next installment of the “death” series. This will incorporate some elements from Tolkien, naturally. It’s a subject that’s too big for me, really. I’m just one lonely individual. I have my faults. I am a sexual pervert, I am obsessive, apathetic, lazy, I treat good people like crap, &c. I wouldn’t have said I was “evil,” though. It is in my nature to be horrified at things, such as the psychopaths we have both read about (Mrs Clinton is one for sure). I am easily moved by things, and these feelings are not shallow, I feel them. I just have my faults. My answer is not to build a concealing wall but to proclaim them, loudly, from the rooftops. It will all be revealed on Domesday anyway, so why not go the whole hog?

    • Relax, Patrick. You are an “aspie”, not a psychopath. I have been reading about Aspergers, because it seems to answer some questions in my own life. In the view of many “aspies”, it is both a handicap and a gift. I can’t stand large groups of people and small talk or being told to “play the game”. I like, as the Americans say, to “cut the crap” and concentrate on things that really matter, even if they seem like obsessions to other people. The aspie seeks a high view of life. The very fact you are being self-critical proves that you are not a narcissist, because they are “always right” and can take no criticism. “Aspies” are often over-sensitive and suffer from an excess of empathy. The narcissist could not care a damn how other people feel, and some take pleasure from seeing other people suffer.

      It is spring time now. How about taking a bus or a train to Rochester, and then go for a long hike along the Medway with a good pair of boots and a rucksack? One day, I’ll bring my boat to England and have a good sail round there – lots of islands to explore. Do be careful about death obsessions, because they can really hit your spiritual and psychological life. That doesn’t mean not seeking the true medieval notion of the Ars Moriendi and wisdom, but too much darkness à la Lord Byron or Mary Shelley is not good.

      Look after yourself…

  2. J.D. says:

    Even though I’m confessionally a Roman Catholic who prays according the the Julian Calendar and according to the style and liturgical customs of the Russian Old Ritualists I often feel like both Rome and Orthodoxy make too much of human goodness and that men like Blessed Augustine and Martin Luther were more correct. We are fallen, corrupt, and absolutely and completely incapable of moving one millimeter towards salvation without Jesus Christ. Salvation is a free gift. The sheer evil in all of us, and in human history and current events should show us just how sunk in corruption we are.

    Sometimes I think that there is some natural goodness in man, but for the most part we are sunk. The crazy thing is that knowing that we are sunk and totally in need of Christ is actually quite liberating, at least for me. I remember years ago wallowing in the horribly depressing pelagianism of Buddhism and feeling this awesome burden lifted off of me when I had this experience of Jesus that forever changed me. It was profound and liberating. No more do it yourself!

    Somehow I think Luther got right that we are sinners yet also justified. There’s a profound tension in us, and ultimately it’s not resolved by rosary counting, indulgences, having Masses offered or keeping the fasts but in truly running to Jesus Christ in our utter corruption and trusting in His mercy. Of course ritual and all that are beautiful guideposts and anchors for us, but ultimately they are meaningless and empty without Christ.

    • I have been giving this comment some thought, and I seem already to have expressed the idea in my posting.

      If you, Calvin and others were right, then it is not Christianity that we need but pure Sunnite Islam and the harsh regime of Sharia law, the Inquisition and the way things are done by Saudi Arabia and Daesh. Puritanism has grown soft since the mid 17th century! All pleasure is sin, so has to be rooted out and eliminated. Of course, that would go round in a full circle because the only solution to evil is evil. So, press the red button and nuke the whole planet, until earth looks like Venus or Mars with about the same amount of life.

      Not only is such an idea depressing to the point of contemplating suicide, I do believe it is wrong. Some, or a few, are evil, perhaps almost totally evil, and seem to be predestined to hell. Most of us don’t have the slightest inclination to kill people, abuse children, rob banks or whatever. We might not be particularly holy, but we try to live life whilst respecting other people and wishing them well in every way possible. Already, there is a difference between psychopaths and ordinary people like you or I. Then, you have the mystics and the saints, those who are aware of another dimension within them and the transcendence of God.

      My conclusion, given that we are all different, is that some people are totally depraved, and others not. Perhaps there is a vast continuum between depravity and sanctity, and that God leaves the world to continue for the sake of good people and those who desire a spiritual basis to their lives.

      • ed pacht says:

        To me this is one of those areas where apparently contradictory statements are both entirely true. St. Paul says that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and speaks of himself as unable to do as he believes to be right (Rom, 7) — yet calls us to grow into the fullness of the image of Christ. Then there is Christ’s ancestor, King David, referred to as a man after God’s own heart and yet a flagrant sinner. I see no opposition between total depravity and entire perfectability, between the inability to resist temptation and the ability to decide to do so, but, on the contrary, find it necessary to accept both simultaneously. To reject one side as do the hypercalvinists or to reject the other as do extreme arminians is to unbalance the whole of theology until it devolves into real ugliness. We are indeed all different, and evil certainly seems more manifest in some than in others, but he who would claim to be without sin and thus better than others (as, for example, those Pharisees who were the object of Jesus’ ire) will at least border on the psychopathic. It is repentance (like David in Psalm 51), recognition of our own sinfulness and the desire to change, that enables us to accept the predestination to glory for whosoever will accept it.

  3. J.D. says:

    Father-

    I’m no fan at all of setting up a 21st century version of the Catholic State, some sort of Puritan village or anything like that of Sunni Islamic theocracies. Personally I’m quite apolitical, finding in the Fall and man’s imperfection a perfect excuse to eschew politics or any kind of grand schemes of a utopia run based on any ideals be they religious or secular. I’m more hands off in that department, which is probably why I am positively repulsed by Traditional Catholicism and it’s Throne and Altar ideology, and it’s many of its members seeking obsession with making of the Kingship of Christ some sort of dictatorship run by popes, bishops and inquisitors.

    All I was getting at is that it’s liberating to feel ones lack, and to rest in God.

    Mr. Pacht is on to something…. I’m not very educated but there’s something profound in what you say. It’s like a zen koan, this tension between total depravity and entire perfectibility. Anymore whether it comes to matters of ecclesiology or matters like this I try to see them more as a mystery that is just not solvable by human reason alone.

    To conclude I’ll say that by and large I find your own blog and many of the discussions on it to be one of the most thought provoking on the net.

    • ed pacht says:

      Yes, I pretty generally go on the assumption that if I understand something thoroughly, I’ve missed something very important. That’s why I have no trust in ideologies of any kind. In any realm of thinking, be it theology or science or politics or ????, we have to do the best we can and realize that our answers, good as they may seem, are inevitably flawed and need to be corrected. We see (as St. Paul says) “through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” When “then” arrives, we’ll all be amazed at how far from right we were.

    • I didn’t think you were. I just reasoned along the lines of reductio ad absurdam, as I often do to the exasperation of many. I think Ed is onto something too. I am increasingly aware of the radical difference between human individuals – and the lack of a common humanity. What do I have in common with some people? Nothing. And this concerns me. Either there is something wrong with me or I become too aware of the illusory nature of the holographic universe. Human reason is up against a stumbling block!

      • ed pacht says:

        What do I have in common with some people? Far more than I realize. Far more than I want to admit. There is far more in common than the differences I so easily perceive. The Pharisee in his prominent place up front thanked God that he was not like that awful publican behind the pillar. The Pharisee did indeed have fewer visible faults than the publican, but he refused to see that the faults he did have were equal to or worse than the publican’s. The publican knew his faults and laid them honestly before God. If the Pharisee had done likewise these two, so very different, would have been fully equal in God’s sight. We are all sinners. We are all called to the grace of God. We all bear the image of God. All of us have marred that image. Though we are all so apparently different, it is not the differences that God sees, but the way in which we live out those differences, and accept or reject His grace.

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