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Writings, 1980-1989


Kenneth Westhues

Lecture in the National Colloquium, Ohio Wesleyan University, 27 January 1988. Thanks to Gregory Brown, J. R. Kelly, and Anne Westhues for critical comments on a preliminary draft. Published on the web, August 2003.

Apart from selecting a partner for marriage, no choice so preoccupies Ohio Wesleyan students as that of an occupation or career. By enrolling in university, you have already declared your choice for an intellectual field. Not that you are headed necessarily for writing or academic life. But you plan to live more by your wits than by your hands, to make a living on the basis of what you know: not assembling furniture but designing it, not building houses but handling the legalities when they change hands, not making shoes but managing those who do. The degree you earn is a claim of expert knowledge. Its possession, so you intend, will land you a satisfying, white-collar job. Still, you must choose some specific field.

You are hardly the first to face this choice. In 1588, four centuries ago this year, Christopher Marlowe wrote the story of a young man in Europe who had just graduated. "Settle thy studies," Faustus says to himself, "and begin to sound the depth of that thou wilt profess." As the father of one of you might put it, "Make up your mind how you're going to earn a living."

Faustus can hardly decide because he knows so much. He is swollen with cunning and self-conceit, "glutted now with learning's golden gifts." "Is, to dispute well, logic's chiefest end?... Then read no more: thou hast attain'd that end: A greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit: Bid Economy farewell.... Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold, And be eternis'd for some wondrous cure... The end of physic is our body's health. Why, Faustus, hast thou not attain'd that end?" Being healthy already, he doesn't need to practice medicine. But how about law? "This study fits a mercenary drudge, Who aims at nothing but external trash; Too servile and illiberal for me."

Faustus therefore chooses the devil's magic, it alone promising satisfaction of his boundless ambitions. "It is the works of sorcery, the necromantic books, that Faustus most desires, O, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honour, of omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artisan! All things that move between the quiet poles Shall be at my command: emperors and kings Are but obeyed in their several provinces, Nor can they raise the winds, or rend the clouds; But his dominion that exceeds in this, Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man. A sound magician is a mighty god: Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity."

Faustus conjures up the devil and makes a solemn pact with him: he surrenders up to him his soul, "So he will spare him four-and-twenty years, Letting him live in all voluptuousness." During this almost quarter-century Faustus has indeed all kinds of fun, even crashing a party of the pope, where all goes well until the pope starts crossing himself. "Come on, Mephistophilis," Faustus cries to his diabolic companion, "what shall we do?" Replies the devil, "Nay, I know not: we shall be cursed with bell, book, and candle."

Says Faustus, "How! bell, book and candle - candle, book, and bell - Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell."

Which is where he ends up, since that was the bargain made. The play concludes with this chant: “ Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, And burned is Apollo's laurel bough, That sometime grew within this learned man. Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall, Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise, Only to wonder at unlawful things, Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits To practise more than heavenly power permits."

The story of Faustus had circulated in Europe long before Marlowe wrote it down, but the play helped seal its important place in Western mythology, a place confirmed by Johann von Goethe's classic rendition of the story, completed in 1832, and by the countless references to it in European and American literature.

The question I raise here, however, is whether this story is today of more than antiquarian significance, whether it has any practical value to you in the choices you face, occupational choice in particular. Does Faustus belong with cannon balls and wooden plows in the museum of once functional but now useless artifacts? Or is the option he chose still dangling in front of you and me? The question is whether evil is still an alternative; whether sin, the intentional embrace of evil, is still a possibility; whether the devil's magic is still an available career.

I raise this question with some reluctance, knowing my inability to capture in words of reason the shivers of fear, revulsion, and allure that mere mention of evil sends down the spine. Besides, I doubt your eagerness to hear a lecture on the topic. Fire and brimstone are not likely what you came to university to learn about. You may well leave this room after while repeating what the little boy said after his first long day in Sunday School: "Until this class, I didn't know what hell was."

It is a quarter-century since I spoke publicly of evil, though I grew up with a keen sense of it—as my father did, his father, and a lineage of peasant farmers extending back to Marlowe's time. In my late teens I could recognize sin as unmistakably as Methodists once could tell the smell of beer. And when my certitude was challenged in college, when I was confronted—as my forefathers had never been—with the enormity of difference in definitions of evil across societies and over time, I at first identified my challengers as evil.

Over about a two-year period, however, I came to accept the human variety, the humanly constructed character of life, the historical origin of moral principles, the social conditioning whose products we all are. I entered the culture of modernity or the Enlightenment, and shifted my studies from classical philosophy to relativistic sociology. Then I felt remorse, as I still do, for the hurt my adolescent moralism had caused classmates and teachers. I felt repugnance, as I still do, for witch hunts and imputations of evil against people who might simply be marching to a different drummer.

Some of you students may even now be in the midst of a transition similar to mine when I was your age. But probably most of you have never known so rigid, traditional, well-anchored and secure a culture as I grew up in. During this past quarter-century in North America, the culture of modernity has crept into corners heretofore untouched—not just geographical corners but seemingly all nooks and crannies of the mainstream way of life. The sexual revolution, the soaring divorce rate, the Vietnam debacle, the decline of organized religion, terrorism on the right and left, and criminality at the highest levels of government—these are just some of the developments that have heightened public uncertainty about right and wrong. We have learned to tolerate more different drummers than Thoreau ever dreamed of, So much that in academic life, as in the news media, to speak of evil is almost a taboo. The rule is to stick to the facts and present hard evidence, but to keep value judgements to yourself, since everything depends upon your point of view.

My purpose today is to violate the taboo and to spotlight something that does not depend upon your point of view, something whose denial is the root of evil. This something is not the Christian God, nor any god in particular. I am not here boosting the Moral Majority, nor the fanaticism and dogmatism of current attempts to recover certainty. The restoration of purpose, direction and meaning to this magnificent life we live, all of which have been lost in the cult of ethical neutrality and boundless tolerance, must not be at the expense of the awareness of history and freedom that has been gained.

Based in part on Ernest Becker's thought, my argument begins with the hardest empirical truth: that none of us matters much as an individual, that we are all in the same boat heading to our graves. Death, the temporariness of each of us, is our supreme commonality. Relationships among people that somehow affirm and build upon this fact of all facts are good. Relationships that repudiate it, deny it, pretend that it isn't so, are evil.

The most famous political enemies in Canada these past twenty years were Pierre Trudeau, the federalist prime minister, and René Levesque, the separatist Quebec premier. One evening last fall, Levesque fell dead of a heart attack, and the next morning Trudeau arrived where the body of his adversary lay in state. "You have no right to be here," a young Levesque admirer screamed at him. Trudeau answered, "One day you, too, will die," and he went in to stand silent before the corpse of no more or less a human being than himself. It was a simple gesture that affirmed the inescapable truth, in Donne's words, that "no man is an island, entire of itself...; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

The most obvious evil is a relationship wherein one causes another's death and glories in it, is enhanced by it. Becker noted that the Nazis hastened their mass execution of the Jews and other prisoners as the evidence mounted that they would lose the war. The truth of their own mortality, of their common bond with everybody else, became harder to deny, so that wholesale killing was the only way left to maintain the big lie: "I will not die, you will—see?"

Evil seldom glares so plainly as from the Nazi hell. You and I are not normally faced with even the scattered little hells of our own society: the scenes of murder, rape and assault, the institutions where inmates or patients are tortured, the homes where wives are beaten or where children are abused. The students here are young enough never to have had to grapple personally with the evil of war, wherein each side rejoices in how far its dead soldiers are outnumbered by the corpses on the other side.

Yet these examples, like the Faustus myth itself, are in one respect poor guides to us, since they leave us feeling smug and satisfied so long as no real blood is on our consciences, nor any formal deal with the devil. But plunges into evil happen mainly in plays and on TV. Evil and good are never absolutes in real life. In practice, each is but a usually slight departure from the way life is currently arranged. Evil is a little lapse, a relation between people that denies their common mortality more than the previous relation did. Goodness is a little lift, a relation that somehow expresses their eternal common bond more perfectly than was earlier the case. To be a Faustus in real life, you simply choose day by day whichever available option lets you pretend a little more that others will die while you will not, or that you will die while others will not. An evil career, like a good one, is made of tiny steps.

Sometimes the step is a little bigger, and then you feel it all over, as I did once long ago during recess on the grade-school playground. I was bright, well-liked, but small for my age. He was ungifted, unpopular, but big. We fought, everybody cheered for me, to my surprise I bent him to his knees so that he cried, and then I saw such dirtiness in me as had never been there before. I don't know that I counted this a sin. It wasn't on the list in my prayerbook. But I knew I had somehow dragged the human species down.

Any relationship is evil to the extent that it tends toward the magnification of one party at another's expense, the exaltation or heroizing of one on another's back, the sacrifice of one for another's advancement, since such imbalance contradicts the common, certain fate that awaits them all.

One clear example is the gravest choice you students will make in the next few years, your choice of a marriage partner. Have you not dated somebody who liked you so much that you could taunt, belittle, ridicule, humiliate him or her, and he or she kept coming back for more? Did you feel the wicked pleasure of basking in another's love, without having to give any back? Such is the start of a marriage blessed by Beelzebub, especially because its children will not see the beauty of give and take, mutual enhancement and growth.

Maybe you have been on the other side. You worshipped that other one, who treated you like dirt. And there was pleasure in it, pleasure in utter surrender to the other's power and abnegation of your own responsiblity. It has been observed that male terrorist hostage-takers often have no need to rape their female captives. So great is the allure of make-believe invincibility that the women willingly give themselves, even as many women inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald lusted for their SS overlords.

Evil resides not in individuals but in relationships. It is empirically inaccurate to divide the world into perpetrators of evil and innocent victims, for the data show, as in the case of child abuse, that the most likely perpetrators of an evil are those who were its victims earlier. No tango, whether ugly or fair, is ever danced alone. Labeling an individual as evil, especially in a public ritual, serves no purpose but to let the rest of us set ourselves wrongly apart and superior, turn another into a goat for carrying our own sins. What we need to oppose is not this man or that woman. Nature will finish them off soon enough, of its own accord. The proper object of our hate is relationships, ways of interacting that ravage all concerned, both those who starve from too little power and those who founder on too much.

The implication of this principle is clear for your choice of a husband or wife. Break up with the date who brings out the worst in you, whatever the money or status you might be passing up, and pursue that friend who brings out the best in you: the one who allows and requires you to negotiate, reciprocate, take turns, the one with whom you are able to share an admission of common mortality, the one whose equal you can most easily be. It is not that some people you date are good and others bad. It is a matter of finding amidst the mystery of human difference a good match, a dynamic coupling that will go somewhere good.

But your family is just one of the two main contexts by which your place in the overall historical process is defined. The other is your occupational career. What does this line of thought imply for your choices in this respect?

Danger, first of all, by virtue of your enrollment in university. Evil, to be sure, can be done in ignorance or by accident. No one can know to what extent evil done by another is a conscious, willful act, or simply a case of stupidity, previous conditioning, or body chemistry gone awry. In the main, everyone is swept along by forces beyond comprehension, let alone control. Added reason never to condemn another, even when avoidance or physical resistance is required.

As you cultivate your mind, however, evil in the narrower, uglier, purposeful, intentional sense becomes more of a possibility. You find out about alternative ways of life, different approaches and techniques, and thereby you make yourself more able to choose between the greater and lesser evils available at any given time. It is no accident that Faustus was a learned man. The horror of his story consists in the fact that he knew better, that he consciously weighed alternatives and chose a diabolic one. Now you are in his shoes, and the question is whether you will choose the devil's magic, too.

Such a career remains available, and Mephistophiles is still looking for recruits. Magic is not a separate field from law, business, English, social science, and the rest. It is any one of these, provided the knowledge gained is guarded jealously and kept from those who could also use it, and provided it is used to manipulate and intimidate other people, as a means of demonstrating the possessor's superiority, pretended immortality.

Let me give you an example of unmagical knowledge. Last fall, in the midst of a home renovation, I carried the broken lockset from the front door to a local locksmith, intending to buy a replacement. "No need," he gruffly told me, "just file down this piece, have that one welded, and save yourself a hundred bucks." That locksmith was a far cry from Faustus. He shared his knowledge with a stranger, used it not to separate himself from another and exercise superiority, but to lift another just a little toward his own level of expertise.

That incident made me recall another almost twenty years go, just after I had received my doctoral degree. At a family reunion I engaged one of my few well-schooled relatives in resounding dialogue about some fool academic thing, using whatever jargon set us apart, all for the sake of dazzling and intimidating the other relatives standing around. It worked, too - like magic.

Whatever your major field, you here are learning abstract principles that will set you apart from most of those with whom you will interact in your jobs: from your students if you are a teacher, your patients if a doctor, your clients if a social worker, your subordinates if a manager. These principles, certified by your degree, will be magic in so far as you make them an extrinsic thing possessed, a bag of tricks, a set of supposedly true and timeless, ethically neutral standards, skills, or facts beyond dispute. Your knowledge is then a way of asserting your superiority over others, of putting other people down, even when (for a fee or salary) you work your magic on them. For you are the priest, the miracle-worker, the one in the know, and your students, patients or clients are mere supplicants. If one of them should question what you say, you answer with the smile of a condescending know-it-all, as if to ask, "What degree do you possess? Are you a recognized authority? Do you imagine yourself to be equal to me?"

If you are not to follow Faustus, you will have to place your abstract principles on the chopping block of negotiation in every interaction you have at work. You will have to admit that your certified expertise is certainly provisional, possibly irrelevant, subject to revision and change, and inadequate to prevent even your own demise. If a physician, you will have to acknowledge that the patient knows more about his or her own body than you will ever learn, and hence that the two of you will have to work together. After all, both you and the patient are going to die. Whatever your field, there can be no going by the book, no giving orders, no insisting on your own authority. Instead you say what you believe, listen to what the other says, and then jointly move to solve the problem, to enhance one another's knowledge and skills, to enrich one another's lives. Knowledge is wicked in so far as it is used to keep others under control, to treat, handle and manage them. Knowledge is ennobling in so far as it is traded and shared, used to empower all parties in a reciprocal exchange.

Others will not necessarily ease your rejection of evil in the workplace. Colleagues may urge you to keep your distance, the better to maintain professional credibility. If you become popular among those in the class beneath you, you may be suspected of sharing secrets with them - and the suspicion will probably be accurate.

Nor will those you have the chance to manipulate—students, patients, clients, secretaries, and so on—always respond positively to your refusal to manipulate. As Thoreau observed long ago, most people live lives of quiet desperation. They crave magic for the hope it gives, however false, the hope of eluding their own mortality. Many will prefer that you play god and keep your clay feet covered with expensive shoes. You can help satisfy their craving. Even if you are not some full-blown celebrity, you will probably have a better job, a higher income, a healthier body, a finer car, a nicer home, and more polish than the average American, not to mention the average human being. You will be equipped to put on an air of immortality, to pretend to have everything in control, to be to at least some of your underlings a star for wishing on. If you refuse to act superior, but instead try to engage others in relationships of reciprocity and mutual respect, the risk is that others will let you down.

But this is what the avoidance of evil requires in your work. It means never letting your own self-worth depend on some superiority you enjoy over those with whom you interact. The moment you accept as a measure of yourself, how you compare to somebody else, evil grows in you. The game of one-upmanship was invented by Satan, for it drags the human species down. Your self-worth might better depend on where you can go with other people, as you challenge each other's wits, swap your respective ideas, and respond creatively to each other's concerns, out of respect for the death awaiting everyone.

But why? To the extent choice is possible, why choose good over evil? Why not ignore the fact of your equality with everybody else and claw your way to the top, screwing your fellow humans as opportunities arise? Or why not forfeit your autonomy and surrender yourself to some would-be all-powerful other, and enjoy life like a gigolo?

As an empirically-minded man, I cannot threaten you with eternal punishment. The data on any afterlife are simply unavailable, and I will not tell you stories for which I have no evidence. It is death itself that counts, and its implications for the short lives we lead. In this very worldly context, evil does indeed lead to hell. When Faustus asked the devil where hell is, the devil answered not with a dogma but with the empirical truth: “ Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd In one self place; for where we are is hell, And where hell is, there must we ever be...."

Hell is any relationship wherein one party crawls over another to gain ascendancy. Heaven is any relationship wherein all parties pull one another creatively along. I lived in an uncustomary heaven for three weeks last fall, working alongside a carpenter named Siegy during the aforementioned home renovation. Not only was he highly skilled, but he had about him an aura of exceptional goodness. He showed such respect for me that I could not help but respond respectfully. Sometimes he brought us coffee, sometimes I did. Sometimes we did things his way, sometimes mine. We traded money for work but more than that, each of us developed his skills, and the job itself turned out well. Much of the reason for our multi-faceted success, I think, lay in a thought that seemed to be on Siegy's mind as much as the hammer was in his hand, the thought he spoke very bluntly and deliberately one day: "We all finish in the same hole."

This recognition of our common mortality, and of the equality it implies, enabled Siegy to exemplify perhaps the key attitude by which hell is precluded and heaven is defined. The new kitchen countertop he built for us was a masterpiece of cabinetry—until the plumber accidentally put a gaping crack in it while installing the taps and sink. When I showed Siegy the damage, he was horrified. "Everybody makes mistakes," I said weakly, "even you." "Yes," he answered, "but this is a big mistake." "Just please try to fix it," I bravely continued, "charge me whatever is fair, and then I'll come to terms with the plumber." "You I don't charge nothing," Siegy stormed, "but tell the plumber I want a hundred dollars."

The renovation ended, Siegy went off to his next job, and we moved into our kitchen with the cracked countertop. This worried me, for Siegy was soon to return to his home in Argentina. But on a Sunday morning three days before his plane would leave, there he was at our door, tools in hand. He worked on the crack like a surgeon suturing a wound. The operation took all morning. "Perfect" he said when he was done. "What do I owe you?" I asked, assuring him again, falsely, that I would reimburse myself at the plumber's expense. "Nothing," Siegy said quietly, "sometimes you have to forgive." There is no reason ever to forgive—in the sense of real forgiveness, not just a calculated ploy—except out of resignation to the fact, as Siegy put it, that we all do finish in the same hole.

The evidence is clear that goodness is worth pursuing simply for its desirable long-run effects on earthly life: for the sake of beautiful homes, happy marriages, productive careers, a furthering of the human species' wondrouus journey through time. The historical record shows by and large that societies based on slavery or caste division simply did not develop so far or so rapidly as more open, egalitarian societies. Over the long haul, goodness triumphs over evil, precisely because it is more in touch with the hardest of empirical facts.

You here can be grateful to have been born in a good country, a society founded explicitly on the recognition of human equality. A lot of goodness has been institutionalized in these United States, and many kinds of evil will land you promptly in jail: like beating your children, treating women as inferiors, or persecuting black people, actions which you might have gotten away with even half a century ago.

Still we cannot spend our lives winning victories over evil that have already been won. The choice before us is either to raise human interaction here and now to a higher level of democracy and reciprocity or to help lead this country down an evil garden path. That path is already marked by some current trends: the concentration of ownership of productive resources in ever fewer hands, the widening gap between rich and poor, the enfeeblement of the mass of citizens by the cult of media superstars, the reduction of sex and marriage to temporary pleasureful liaisons on one's way to the top, the bureaucratization of professions and workplaces, the intimidation of citizens by credentialed experts in ever more aspects of life, the increasingly unforgiving competition for high-status jobs—all trends that falsely exaggerate human differences, use them to create hierarchies and pecking orders, instead of treating the modest, very temporary differences among us as bases of mutual enhancement, creativity and growth.

Goodness triumphs over evil only in the long run. Faustus himself had twenty-four years before the axe fell. Countries can have much longer. It may be that our lifetimes in this corner of the world coincide with the time and place where the little lapses day by day tip the scales against the little lifts. It may even be that the goodness in this whole way of life is being depleted as surely as the fossil fuels upon which this way of life depends. Perhaps other societies on other continents will have to carry the human journey on to greater heights. Maybe the main contribution left for our civilization to make to history is our libraries, whose books can be read in some distant century by descendants of those humans who will have survived the nuclear war.

But since this need not be the case, you act in the short run as if it will not be. Your individual end, like mine, is coming soon enough anyway. What is there to do but look at all the people whose lives touch ours, and see if we can achieve with them today a more mutually enlivening, constructive, and productive relationship than we had yesterday? If you have the chance to step on another and start clawing your way to the top, hold back. Don't join the losing side, even if you'll be dead by the time the loss is clear. If somebody else tries to step on you on his or her way up, resist. Rolling over and playing dead are also ways of joining the losing side. We are all in this together, after all, and none of us is any more immortal than the next. We might as well try to get along, to grow together in the pot we share—and let Faustus go to hell without our company.