While many assume the concept of “evil” has always been a part of humankind’s sociological and cultural development, it is in reality a relatively modern concept. This article explores the historical, spiritual, philosophical, and socioscientific perspectives of the concept of “evil.”
Good vs Evil
One of the more interesting and perhaps revealing aspects of the concept of “evil” is that while the belief in its existence may be cross-culturally universal, how it manifests within a given culture relates directly to the norms and accepted moral standards of that particular culture. Although seen as the opposing force of “good” by many cultures today, by and large, evil has a regional definition that reflects behavior that is deemed threatening to societal stability. Therefore, what is perceived as evil in one setting (the public displaying of female breasts, for example, in Amish country, Lancaster, PA) is seen as a societal norm in another (such as on the beaches of Brazil or the French Riviera); in Lancaster, it represents an “evil” that could infect long-standing cultural beliefs, while in France it is a healthy and normal interaction with nature.
Middle Eastern Roots
Broadly speaking, most people of the Western World would probably define evil as intentional negative moral acts that are considered cruel, wicked, selfish, or perhaps serving a demonic purpose–murder, maiming, rape, hurting a child, elder, or defenseless individual. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, evil is often personified by Satan, the antithesis of God. Although Judeo-Christian beliefs can be historically traced to Eastern philosophy–from ancient Indus Valley Aryan groups to Persia to Fertile Crescent indigenous peoples–the concept of “good vs evil” doesn’t manifest in cultural scenarios until the advent of Zoroastrianism (the worship of Ahura Mazda) in Persia (modern Iran) which has been traced to about 2,500 years BP–but is probably older.
While anthropology recognizes the concepts of good and evil as socio-spiritual reactions to societal stressors, psychology takes a much different perspective. Psychology acknowledges that many human behaviors are “hard-wired” into human behavioral patterns (and cross-cultural syncretism serves to embed these ideas into cultural fabric), and deviant behavior classified as “evil” is most often seen as nothing more than the errant firing of neurotransmitters, brain-chemistry imbalances, or mal-developed wiring (or combinations resulting from head trauma). (Many saw Saddam Hussein, pictured here, as the epitome of a mentally deranged, evil individual.) But even from this hard-science “nothing-happens-except-at-the-cellular-level” perspective, psychology recognizes that if an individual (or an entire society) perceives “evil” as a reality, then it does exist–and is therefore as real and powerful as any other idea.
The Manifestation of Evil
Regardless of where the concept of “evil” may have originated, and regardless of one’s spiritual, moral, academic, or cultural inclinations, the belief in evil has become so ingrained in the human condition that few individuals emphatically deny that evil exists. And whether it’s an ancient philosophy born of a mythological drama (as with Zoroastrianism), a concept brought to this earthly realm by divine interaction (as seen in Judeo-Christian texts), or simply the manifestation of malfunctioning neurotransmitters, virtually world-wide, it is perceived as a component of moral and societal balance. “Who” introduced this idea to the world is less important than how it ultimately affects the society today.