The question of good and evil is a largely philosophical question. Entire books on the subject have been written by scholars and philosophers through the ages. Nowadays, there seems to be some question as to whether or not good and evil actually exist. On one side are the relativists who claim that everything is relative, that good and evil are only figments of perception. On the other side are the absolutists who claim that morality is measured by absolute moral precepts that cannot be violated. Of course, that distinction may be something of a simplification. I’m sure there may be other flavors of nihilism besides relativism, and there may be other flavors of … what’s the right word here? … ethicism? … besides absolutism. Personally, I lean far more toward absolutism than I do relativism. However, I don’t think morality is limited to just absolutes. There are definitely some: rape is wrong, murder is wrong, etc… but not everything is so clear cut. There are some shades of grey and even some things which are entirely relative (arguing which is more sacred, Hannukah or Christmas, seems silly to me). That said, I do want to be clear: I believe evil to be very real. The question I wish to address here is: How do you represent evil in Literature?
What must be present for there to be evil? A few things come to mind: sentience (a rock cannot be evil), free will (a magically enslaved creature is not evil, insofar as its actions while enslaved are concerned), and ill intent. I’m sure I’m probably missing one or two. It’s been a while since I studied philosophy. Anyway, if you look at these characteristics the first two appear to be prerequisites of evil but not causes of evil. But the third is such a cause. Ill intent is almost a circular definition for evil. Hmmm. Perhaps I was too quick there. Although it is most certainly a cause, it may not be the only cause. I can imagine an evil being that holds no ill will toward someone while traveling with said someone for a short period of time. It is like the evil is repressed for a while. This makes me think that the evil is more permanent than simple ill intent. It is a property of the creature’s soul, if you will, or their character.
In the comments of an earlier discussion we mentioned ideology as the source of evil. Upon reflection, that seems accurate. If an individual’s ideology causes that person to kill and maim others without cause, it is safe to assume they are evil at heart. But that is an extreme case. Evil can occur in degrees with murder and death on edge of the spectrum, and simple selfishness on the other.
More can be said, of course, but I’ll leave it there for today.
Last time I wrote, I listed a large number of writing types and a few means of looking at each type. From the large list, I selected the following types: philosophical essays, novels, and short stories (and poems); and I claimed that of the many different ways of looking at a piece of writing, the ones I was interested in included: as a means of self-expression, as a means of communication, and aesthetically. Today, I’m going to combine both thoughts, and evaluate each type of writing in accordance with the ways of looking at it. And maybe add one or two thoughts to top it off.
I wrote tons of philosophical essays in college. And I can tell you most emphatically that philosophical writing is all about communication. I guess there is some self-expression involved, and, I suppose, aesthetic writing is always a plus, but the primary duty of the philosopher is to communicate, clearly and cogently, some thought worth telling. That’s why it’s so difficult to read. Seriously. It’s a paradox, but not really. Natural language is so vague, that philosophy involves going through various literary contortions to precisely delineate the exact meaning the writer wants to express and none other. It’s that ‘none other’ bit that is problematic. Oh yes, and there is Logic involved. Lots and lots of logic. Philosophers are basically the inspiration for Star Trek’s Vulcans.
At the other extreme, I think, is poetry. That seems to be largely a work of self-expression, greatly concerned with aesthetics almost above all else. It does communicate thoughts, but it is as much emotional thinking as it is analytical. It is something that you either ‘get it’ as it comes across, or you are hopelessly lost. But, like I said, my experience in poetry is limited, so I could be totally wrong.
Novels and short stories, though, are kind of a hybrid. They involve both self-expression and communication. Pretty language has a place, dressing the work up as an art form, but it is useless if it does not communicate some thought relatively clearly. Like poetry, the thought need not be purely rational (unlike philosophy—irrational philosophy is like a computer spewing out illegitimate code); it can be emotional, or humorous, or what-have-you. But it must be communicated clearly enough that the average reader will get the point without too much difficulty.
Regardless of which type of writing engaged in, many of the best examples involve some kind of social commentary, be it a critique of the current political structures or what-have-you. But that isn’t an absolute necessity. I enjoy stories that are just stories all the time.
I do have one final thought concerning the distinction between philosophy and literature (in whatever form). Literature consists largely of opinion (admittedly opinion that is defended or critiqued to varying levels and degrees, but it is, all the same, just opinion). Philosophy is concerned with knowledge. Which is one of the reasons it makes virtually no progress. I took four years of philosophy, and what do I know with absolute 100% certainty beyond a shadow of a doubt? Not much: I know I am not omniscient. That’s one thing. And I know 2+2=4. It’s a small kernel of truth, but it is truth nonetheless.
Take that Mr. Relativist! (Yes, I have this horrible fixation on murdering the hideous relativistic beast that is slowly eating our society alive!)
Bwu-ha ha ha!
Perhaps, this was covered in English 101. If so, I missed the class. I thought I’d take a few minutes (or paragraphs, as the case may be) to ruminate about the various types of writing and the reasons for writing. Both for your edification and my own.
Off the top of my head, I count seven different types of writing: literary essays, philosophical essays, scientific papers, novels, short stories, poems, and other non-fiction. I think that covers the whole gamut (And to think that going into this, I was expecting to get away with just listing three—Wow! How my thoughts run away with me!). For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore literary essays, scientific papers, and other non-fiction. I’ve helped write and publish only one scientific paper, and I don’t think I’ve ever written a literary essay (unless you count my blog—hey, that’s probably a whole new subsection … so there are eight different types of writing, maybe). My experience in poetry is equally limited; it usually only comes to the fore in the context of my other writing. The battle-hardened warrior must solve an ancient riddle to win the prize, and, of course, the riddle is in the form of a poem. Still, I will have a couple thoughts I want to share regarding poetry. I am more experienced in writing philosophical essays, novels, and short stories: I took four of years of philosophy in college, and I have learned the literary ropes, mostly on my own (a few classes here and there, but not many).
Anyway, with respect to these types of writing, I have a couple thoughts. First, there seems to be three ways of looking at any kind of writing. First, one can look at it as a means of self-expression. This is a completely solitary activity. The ultimate goal of the writing need not concern another human being in any way. Such a work can be seen strictly as a piece of art; and what it means is often subject to interpretation. Another way of looking at writing is as a means of communication. The primary purpose here is not as a work made strictly for one’s own enjoyment, but rather, to make a connection with someone else; to bridge that gap between two people and share a thought. Finally, one can look at writing aesthetically, but at this point, I think I’m getting a little out of my depth. Most people claim this last facet is all subjective anyway, except maybe a few philosophers who may not be convinced. I know I can recognize bad writing in a universal sense, and I think most people agree Shakespeare had a way with words. But clearly, it is not cut and dry like a math equation.
Perhaps there is a technical name for these three aspects of writing—self-expression, communication, and aesthetics—but regardless I believe they provide a critical lens through which any writing can be examined, at least, superficially.
Anyway, I’ve reached my self-imposed word limit for the day; next time, I will examine each type of writing (novels, short stories, poetry, and philosophical essays) through each of these lenses. We’ll see which belongs associated most appropriately with which.