… a thought making crooked all that is straight.

W.E. Butler

The evil in my bathtub

While reading W. E. Butler, I came across a chapter called The Kings of Edom in which he tries to describe evil. The premise for this chapter is that the magician must work on his [sic] character by rooting out the evil within. In order to root out the evil, one must know what evil is. It is a slim volume (entitled Magic, Its Ritual, Power and Purpose) so I wouldn’t expect the author to go into huge amounts of detail, but … yes, you’ve guess it … I don’t agree with a lot of what he says.

Firstly he states that: “The first type of evil is the innate resistance of form to force.” By this he means the concept of inertia or the restriction of free-flowing force, and here at least he admits that some kinds of evil are not evil at all. So, for example, Evil No. 1 expresses the restriction of force in the form of steam (force) in a steam engine (tool of restriction) producing positive results, which means it is not evil. Butler calls the results “useful work” … so any force I can harness that makes useful work is an evil which isn’t evil? This is therefore good? Oh, the grey fields of semantics that stretch before me…

Then, for Evil No. 2, he makes a rather extreme leap from the mundane example of a steam engine to the superlative metaphysical concept of “The Abortion of Space”, that space where “evolving life, finding no resistance, no fulcrum for its lever, may be absorbed and rendered impotent… ” (sounds like the town centre on a Saturday night to me). So I am at a loss to find a mundane example that would fit his idea of inertia that is evil… either it is a steam engine (useful and good) or an archetypal emptiness outside the bounds of description (bad).

Evil No. 3 he calls “unbalanced force”. He doesn’t seem to mean neutral forces that need a tool (magician) to be applied in one direction or the other; here, he speaks of a “perfectly good and useful force or energy [which] is displaced in space or time and the resulting out-of-balance is definitely evil.” Thinking that we might be getting the nitty-gritty of it, I read on to his next example… “The water in the bath is good, but the same water escaping from the bath and cascading down the stairway, is evil.” Now, call me pedantic, but I would call an overflowing bath an inconvenience or an annoyance but not evil. I understand the idea that he is trying to convey, but really … a bath. What about genocide, rape, child abuse, the petty emotional abuses between parents and children, between lovers and friends? Nope. A bath. How very English.

Under the banner of Evil No. 3 he also speaks of displacement of energy in time. He talks of modern civilised man regressing to a “lower and primitive level of human culture” (regression to the past), and of people trying to materialise in the present a state of civilisation only possible in the future (anticipation of the future). On a macrocosmic level I think that this could put a severe cap on progress, as how would any civilisation develop without those people who strive to manifest “higher concepts” now. He rags on pacifists (bearing in mind this was written shortly after WWII), saying that they are trying to manifest a future state of humankind in the present; i.e. we are not ready for pacifism so we should not attempt it. But this also presupposes that mankind would be capable of it in the future. Who is to say what state of civilisation is unattainable to us in the here and now, let alone in the future? This philosophy, in my mind, leaves no room for idealists, scientists, artists, inventors or even mystics.

Confusingly (to me) he states that these two shades of evil under Evil No. 3 are “positive evils” … but wait! There is also something called a “positive positive evil” which is manifest in “the existence of organised evil”. Here we touch on the “calculated beastliness revealed during the second World War”. Now the language may be anachronistic, but we know what he means. From here he moves on to say that, “All the old religions have taught of organised spiritual evil, and the Christian Faith has personified it as Satan.” After this he goes a bit “Atlantis”, a bit “Lemuria” on me, and starts talking about the psychic atmosphere around the earth becoming over-clouded with evil and that every two thousand years the Logos and Lord of Light transmutes the “evil conditions of the planet … into higher conditions and influences – a World Alchemy!” Naturally he is talking about Jesus, but I can’t actually remember any period of peace or goodwill following the supposed life of Jesus … war followed war followed persecution followed occupation followed crusade etc. etc. THIS is the world alchemy? THIS is the righting of balance? And since we are at that two thousand point of transmutation yet again … tell me, where are the signs for another such alchemical experiment?

Okay, so on a macrocosmic level, I think his examination of evil stinks. However, on a microcosmic level I can see some value.

Evil No. 1 (the evil that isn’t evil, remember?): The productive and creative harnessing of internal forces and energies to achieve some type of gain (financial stability, health, creative expression, happy relationships, etc.)

Evil No. 2: The uncontrollable abyss of anger turned inwards (an internalised abortion of space), the dark shades of depression, the feeling of futility in the face of a meaningless world.

Evil No. 3: In social anthropology taboo is defined as “matter out of place”, hence having sex in a Christian church is taboo but having sex in your own bed is not – in the former it is in “the wrong place”, in the latter it is in the “right” place (right and wrong as judged by the respective society you live within). So could Evil No. 3 apply to us when we are in the wrong place in life – the job we know is wrong but never have the courage to leave; the relationship we know is harmful but never have the strength to finish. And then we can also be in the wrong headspace: angry (which can be a misdirected expression of hurt or love or fear), afraid (sometimes an expression of the need for change against the overwhelming feeling of helplessness). So Evil No. 3 could be “matter out of place” mundanely, emotionally and spiritually and pushes us to question “Am I in the right place?”.

I also like the idea of regression to the past and anticipation of the future applied as evils to the microcosmic self. Briefly (because it is a simple idea), how often do we get bogged down in dwelling on the past or dreaming about the future without realising that the sands of time are slipping through our numb fingers all the while and we are not living NOW?

And as for positive positive organised evil … this is where I come unstuck on a microcosmic level. Maybe this is the meeting point between the evil within me as an individual and the evil within us as a social community. This is where evil steps across the boundaries of internal expression and becomes manifest in the larger community of mankind. Maybe this is where we decide whether to stay silent as so many did in Nazi Germany, to lock our doors against the screams, to turn off the television when the reports of war get too unpleasant. This kind of evil doesn’t need us to become card-carrying members of the Nazi party or to search websites on how to become a suicide bomber, all it takes is silence; the quiet consent. Here we encounter Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”; a choice we encounter daily.

So, this is what I have squeezed out of Mr Butler, and since his premise was one of microcosmic application, perhaps it was more successful than I at first supposed. However, it is still a very unsatisfactory treatise on evil, but an interesting exercise nonetheless.

Now, excuse me while I go and check my bath, one can’t have beastly unrestrained evil flowing all over the floor, now can one??
© starofseshat 2008