Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser
“Marooned in dismal isolation in that suburban house in Abbottabad, the leading global bogeyman of the 21st century found himself sunken into laughable obsolescence,” so wrote Matthew Norman in the Telegraph last week. And terrific piece it was too. Responding to the recent release of letters found in Bin Laden’s hideout, Matthew Norman depicted the former head of Al-Qaeda as an irritable and fractious Victor Meldrew, blanket over his knees, forever grumbling about the incompetence of his subordinates.
Turning Osama Bin Laden into Victor Meldrew was exactly the sort of strategy that Professor Lupin advised his students to adopt when dealing with a boggart in the third of the Harry Potter films. A boggart is a shape-shifting creature that takes the form of its victim’s worst fear. The way to defeat a boggart is to imagine it as something foolish. Evil takes itself terribly seriously and cannot cope with being laughed at. But rightly seen, evil is pathetic.
In a brilliant little book “On Evil”, Terry Eagleton writes that evil “has the ludicrous pomposity of a clown seeking to pass himself off as an emperor.” It’s an insight that traces its origins to a theological observation made by St. Augustine and others that evil is not something obscenely glamorous or dangerously adventurous - nor indeed, is it like the thrill seeking supernaturalism of modern horror movies - but rather, at its heart, is something cold, empty and hollow. It’s a form of nothingness. Hannah Arendt called it “banality.” Which is why Matthew Norman’s description of Bin Laden’s “laughable obsolescence” seems to me entirely spot on. This is the true face of evil.
Augustine’s theological target was an influential sect known as the Manachees who believed that the world was involved in a cosmic and supernatural struggle between the opposing forces of good and evil, both of which had equal reality. The modern day equivalent of this is the view that politically the world is divided up into light and dark, and that it’s the job of those who live in the light to wage war on those who live in the dark. Initially a member of the Manachee sect himself, when Augustine finally met one of its leaders he realised it’s dualistic world view was built on little more than fear and cheap sloganeering.
But to say that real evil is empty and dull is not to deny it. As Freud was much later to speculate, the death drive in human beings is a powerful force that seeks to eliminate the inherent tensions of life by collapsing the world into nothingness. And just as it seeks to reduce the world to rubble - sometimes literally - so it also reduces those who practice evil to rubble themselves. Yes, of course, there are times we have to resist the presence of moral evil with force. But we must not go on to dignify it with some deeper purpose or greater supernatural reality. The best defense against the dark arts is the deflating power of laughter.