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Absolute Evil

One of the most intriguing facts of life is that good can generate evil and evil can generate good. Les Miserables is a the wonderful novel by Victor Hugo, in which one of the characters is a poor inn-keeper named Thenadier who does not mind lying, cheating or stealing to get ahead. After the battle of Waterloo, he sneaks onto the battlefield to steal jewelry off of the bodies of dead soldiers. He comes upon a man’s arm protruding from under a pile of dead bodies and spots a gold ring on one of its fingers. When he reaches down to remove the ring, the hand grabs him. He discovers the man is still alive and is compelled to help the wounded soldier off the battlefield, thus saving his life. He was forced to be good in spite of his evil intention. At the end of the story Thenadier wants to expose the hero of the story, Jean Valjean, and prove that he is really a bad man. Jean has saved the life of a man named Marius who was in love with Jean’s daughter. This evil man, Thenadier, wants to prove that Jean is a murderer by revealing that he had seen Jean carrying away a dead man’s body from the sewers. That body was actually Marius and Jean was actually saving his life, but Jean had never told either Marius or his own daughter that he was the one who had saved him. Thenadier goes to Marius and says, “I saw Jean carrying away a dead man from the sewer.” And through this accusation of Thenadier, Marius discovers that it was Jean, his own father-in-law, who had saved his life, but had never wanted to tell him. Once again, Thenadier’s intention was evil, but his action leads to good.

There are many instances in both life and literature in which a man acts in a very bad way, but the outcome is positive. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine comes to Elizabeth Bennet in order to prevent Eliza’s marriage to Darcy, who is Lady Catherine’s nephew. Her efforts end up having the very opposite result. They persuade both Eliza and Darcy that the other is willing for the marriage. The Black Plague, which destroyed one-third of the population of Europe during the 15th century, also resulted in the destruction of feudalism and generated the impetus for the birth of democracy. It created such a scarcity of labour that former serfs migrated to towns where they were well-paid for their services and became free men. In our own lives we can see that wrong things done to us have sometimes brought great good in their wake. Many highly successful entrepreneurs trace back their success to early failures in which they learned invaluable lessons that they later applied profitably.

Sri Aurobindo explains this phenomenon for the first time. This is possible because there is no such thing as absolute evil. Evil is relative. It comes from an absence or limitation of consciousness, an absence or limitation of knowledge. It is not a thing in itself. Even when evil is on the surface of a person, there is more of consciousness behind, and so the result may be mixed. The evil intention expressed also gives unintended expression to the element of good in the person’s consciousness.

The same thing is true in the opposite direction. We may try to do something good, but it may have bad consequences. We can explain it in many different ways. We may say our motive was not lofty enough. Or maybe we did not have the right knowledge to do good. Mercedes’ intentions were good and she was truly in love with Edmund, but their relationship brought him intense suffering, which was converted for him into wealth and happiness only after they were separated and he gave her up for good. In North and South, a story about the American Civil War, a lady of very good intentions and actions constantly brings misfortune to those who try to help her. Her outer nobility conceals the low consciousness of her origins which brings misfortune to her and others.

This complexity of life with all its combinations should not frighten us. We should understand how it happens. Just because a man is a devotee of Mother does not mean he is all good. Just because someone is an Ashramite does not mean he is very pure. Humanity is a mixture of impulses, because our consciousness is divided and ignorant. Until we overcome division, ignorance and ego, we cannot be rid of evil. 

book | by Dr. Radut