Solzhenitsyn on what it takes to do evil

This is a crazy-busy week. I’m preparing for a writers’ conference on Friday, when I will be pitching a literary agent. So there aren’t any great blog posts planned. But I came across this quote, and wondered if my wonderful, thought-filled readers had any thoughts on it.

To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, quoted in the New York Review of Books. I found the quote in This Week, 2/12/16

Any thoughts?

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19 thoughts on “Solzhenitsyn on what it takes to do evil

  1. I think anyone who does evil is bath*t – the person isn’t in his/her right mind and has no concept of true goodness, not really. That’s a wimpy reply, but I tried.

    I’m VERY excited you’re going to this conference!!!!

    I’m hoping that you blog about it afterwards if you’re not too exhausted, even briefly…and most importantly, I hope that you meet an agent who will have the GOOD (and I mean GOOD!!! REAL good) sense to take you on as a client.

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  2. I think it is possible to deceive oneself into thinking that one is doing the ‘right’ thing even while committing the worst atrocities, and Solzhenitsyn is right in that respect. This ‘group’ evil, or collective evil, is able to occur when people look the other way, or choose to not see. But whether an individual who commits acts of abuse or violence, or even manipulation/coercion, is doing it because he or she genuinely believes he or she is doing ‘good’ – that I would dispute. They get pleasure from the sense of power, but not necessarily from a sense of doing good. It is a very thought-provoking idea, though. I would be interested, when you’re not quite so busy, to learn your thoughts.

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  3. Some people take a perverse pleasure in doing evil, because it makes them feel good, or gives them a buzz or a kick of power or something. When Saul was zealously persecuting the early Christians, he was a man on a mission. How much of that was on the behest of his superiors, and how much of that was his own misplaced sense of duty can’t be known. Also, what he was doing by any standards was evil, yet he claims in all truth that what he did, he did in ignorance. He must have felt some satisfaction in what he was doing, or he probably would have stopped at some point. So, a person can be completely misguided and still be doing evil. Whether they get a kick out of it, or not, the result was the same, the violent deaths of some early Christians.

    In our own times, or recent history, we can look at the Nazis and see similar things. ‘I was only obeying orders’ is often the blanket cry of many of those involved, yet when people have looked closer, the regime gave people an awful lot of autonomy and personal freedom to do to others whatever they wanted, to exercise power any way they wanted, and to savour that. What we all ask is, at the deepest level, ‘could I have done those things in a similar position?’ Our judgements are faulty, our sense of goodness only rice paper thin. We all have a capacity for the most selfless good, and we all have a capacity for the most appalling evil. In this world, true goodness is almost an aberration, and evil manifests itself everywhere. But then we have a mighty God we can call on. Amen!

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    1. Good examples, C.C. I’ve read lots of different theories of why the Holocaust happened, what “ordinary” people did/didn’t do to prevent it, and all that. In the end, the motive doesn’t matter much (though it’s fascinating to analyze as a preventative measure) because the outcome was the same.

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  4. If not convince themselves it’s good, they might at least be trying to talk themselves into thinking it’s not so bad. That’s what I see in my life anyway.

    Hope the conference goes well and that the agent loves your pitch and your book and working with you and then doing it some more with your next book!

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  5. I find this quote quite interesting. I can’t say that I agree with it. What it is saying, in my opinion is that man is truly good, just poorly misinformed or confused. It reminds me of a pastor who was preaching and said: ‘we can be sincere, just sincerely wrong. While I believe it is not always true, I do believe that many people commit evil, believing what they are doing is right.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Rose. I wish I’d taken the time to look up the context for the quote, especially what Solzhenitsyn was speaking about: human nature? specific types of evil? (such as the communist regime he was imprisoned under.) our capacity to justify our wrong doing as “good” or at least “better than the alternative”? It does seem to lend itself to your interpretation.

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