“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”
By Maria Popova
“One has to assume that every man is a thinking reed and a noble nature, even if only part-time,” Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt in their poignant correspondence about good, evil, and human nature. Looking back on ten years of Brain Pickings and the ten most important things I learned in this decade of reading, writing, and living, I not only agree with McCarthy wholeheartedly, but would raise her and insist that we must assume a basic human goodness in everyone, as an existential imperative. And yet evil undeniably exists. So how do we reconcile these parallel truths and continue to live with radiance not only undimmed by the existence of darkness but defiantly intent on increasing the world’s store of light?
That’s what the Nobel-winning Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940–January 28, 1996) explored when he faced the Williams College graduating class of 1984. A century after his compatriot Dostoyevsky made his case for why there are no people — a century that had seen two world wars and Russia’s descent into a communist dictatorship — Brodsky considers evil and its most powerful antidote. The speech, eventually included in the 1987 Brodsky anthology Less Than One: Selected Essays (public library), has only swelled in timeliness in the decades since, as we watch evil attempt to grab power and we strain every nasty nerve to counter it.
Brodsky addresses the next generation:
No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.
In a sentiment informed in large part by his longing for a counterpoint to the dictatorial communist groupthink that had consumed his homeland, as it had mine, Brodsky adds:
The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.
Brodsky believes the most robust mode of resistance to evil is what he irreverently refers to as “the famous business of turning the other cheek” — those verses from the Sermon on the Mount, which influenced the three titans of nonviolence: Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, who discussed these principles in their fantastic forgotten correspondence about violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who built upon them his ethic of love and nonviolent resistance. In a passage of acute timeliness today, Brodsky considers why these timeless tenets of unrelenting goodwill have fallen out of favor in the modern world:
The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas on agency and victimhood, and one which Brodsky would expand upon four years later in what remains the greatest commencement address of all time, he adds:
The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.
(Or, as the case has been in the overwhelming majority of human history, when one man starts to think that he is better than one woman — or, even more alarmingly, than the whole of womankind.)
Brodsky argues that such warping of intention and outcome arises from a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Sermon on the Mount. He cites three verses in particular, tied by moral and logical cohesion:
But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
Brodsky peers into the deeper implication:
The meaning of these lines is anything but passive for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.
Writing two decades after Susan Sontag’s abiding admonition against interpretation, Brodsky considers the perils of our long cross-cultural history of misinterpreting these verses and reappropriating their intended meaning:
Ethics based on this faultily quoted verse have changed nothing in post-Gandhi India, save the color of its administration. From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s all the same who makes him hungry. I submit that he may even prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry state if only because this way social evil may appear to come from elsewhere and may perhaps be less efficient than the suffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien in charge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy.
Similarly in post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this misquoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation’s resolve in confronting the police state. What has followed is known all too well: six decades of turning the other cheek transformed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that the state today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face. As well as at the face of the world.
Ever the master of nuance, Brodsky uses this cautionary tale of misconstruing the notion of turning the other cheek to returns to his central point about countering evil:
I must admit that I feel somewhat uneasy talking about these things: because turning or not turning that other cheek is, after all, an extremely intimate affair. The encounter always occurs on a one-to-one basis. It’s always your skin, your coat and cloak, and it is your limbs that will have to do the walking. To advise, let alone to urge, anyone about the use of these properties is, if not entirely wrong, indecent. All I aspire to do here is to erase from your minds a cliché that harmed so many and yielded so little. I also would like to instill in you the idea that as long as you have your skin, coat, cloak, and limbs, you are not yet defeated, whatever the odds are.
Complement this particular portion of Brodsky’s wholly terrific Less Than One with Maya Angelou on courage and facing evil and Plato’s abiding wisdom on how to negotiate our parallel capacities for good and evil, then revisit Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading and his six rules for playing the game of life like a winner.
Find other enduringly ennobling commencement addresses in this ongoing archive, which includes masterpieces like Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood (Wesleyan, 2004), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Tom Wolfe on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual (Boston University, 2000), and Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the meaningful life (Naropa University, 2015).