Rarely a day, rarely a minute goes by when we don’t have to decide who we really are. Evil versus good is not a question of them and us and when. It is a question of us and us and now.
I don’t remember much from my freshman Intro to Philosophy course 40 years ago, but I do remember a debate about the ancient Latin proverb “Homo hominis lupus-man is a wolf to men.” A wolf in this case is meant to invoke something predatory, animalistic and without a conscience. I also remember learning that many centuries later Freud asked rhetorically of that same proverb: “Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?”
During my rabbinical studies I discovered that same man-as-self-predator thinking in the Talmud when the rabbis claimed, “Without government and law, people would swallow each other alive!’ Watch the news for five minutes and it’s pretty hard to argue with any of them. But there is a different view about human nature. On that other side is much of the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Aquinas, Dewey, Gandhi, Anne Frank and so many others who believed that people are basically good and kind. Watch the volunteers at any food pantry, consider the anonymous blood donor or a local patiently giving directions to a lost stranger and it’s pretty hard to argue with any of them either.
We live surrounded by the fictional world of literature, film and television as well as a real world buffeted by political and military conflict. Both spheres so often perpetuate a dichotomy that’s as old as humankind, positioning good versus evil, us versus them. If only things were that simple. Ask any addict fighting to stay sober one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Ask any man or woman with a wandering eye deciding whether or not to remain his or her best and truest self. Ask anyone who has ever felt tempted by anything, eaten of the apple and then felt shame. When it comes to good and evil, we are each at the center of our own existential drama, torn between two fundamental and oppositional forces wrestling within us for control.
The debate between those who believe we are wolves and those who do not begins anew for each of us again and again throughout the days, weeks, months, years and decades that become the sum of our lives. The question is not really about our essence but about our essence at a given time, in a given moment. This poses a spiritual and moral challenge not to or about others, but to each of us internally, and that challenge is perpetual until we die. “The line between good and evil,” said the Soviet-era dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who survived the gulag by eating rats and knew a good deal more than most of us about evil), “is not a line that separates us from them. It is a line that runs down the center of each of us:’
In a religious context, this rift between good and evil is often understood in terms of heaven and hell. The common understanding is that if we are righteous in this life, we will spend an eternity in a sort of utopian afterlife; and if we are wicked while alive, we will forever endure unimaginable suffering in the netherworld. But heaven and hell are a far more complicated concept than a destination after death.
Consider the parable of a man who wants to know the secrets of heaven and hell. God grants his wish and sends him a guide to escort him first to hell, where they enter a large room in a beautiful palace. The residents of hell are seated around a banquet table. Golden platters are piled high with the most delicious food imaginable. But none of the food has been touched. The emaciated dinner guests are moaning from the constant ache of hunger. “If these people are so hungry, why don’t they eat?” the man asks his guide. “Look closely;’ the guide replies. “They are chained to their chairs, have no elbows, and their arms are locked straight before them. They cannot bend their arms to bring the food to their mouths:’
The guide then takes the man up to heaven, where they enter a banquet room identical to the one they had visited in hell. The diners in heaven are also chained to their chairs and have the same unbendable arms as those in hell, yet here everyone is fed and happy. ” What gives?” the visitor asks his guide. “Why are these people so happy if they can’t help themselves to the food?” Again, the guide tells the man to look more closely. He does and discovers that each person is lifting his or her stiff, unbending arms to feed the person across the table.
A cynic might suggest that the people in heaven who are feeding one another across the table are doing so only to be fed themselves. That this is not evidence of people being “good” but simply of enlightened self-interest. But then why do the people in hell behave differently? Surely, they are also self-interested. Surely, they also want to be fed. Which means people in hell behave differently because hell lacks something present in heaven. That something is the ability to look outside oneself, to see and to care about others who are starving too.
The ancient rabbis in their imaginings about the Ten Plagues in the Bible ask how dark was the darkness described in the ninth plague. They answer that it was so dark the Hebrews and the Egyptians could no longer see the humanity in each other. Why on some occasions do I give money to the homeless woman who offers to wash my windshield at the gas station but on other occasions look away? Because like all of us for whom empathy comes and goes, I am sometimes in heaven and sometimes in hell. There are moments of light, many of them, when I can feel so keenly the suffering of others, and other moments when I am in a dark too dark to see and can think only of myself.
Maimonides said, “Each person should feel as if all the deeds of all the people in the world are being weighed on the scales of the heavenly tribunal and he or she should feel as if all the deeds of all humanity are in a perfect balance, and that the next deed that he or she does will tilt the scales for the entire world one way or the other?’ In the Maimonidean cosmology, the world depends upon whether or not we reach across the table. Most of us will never be confronted with a choice of whether to commit a heinous crime or to help cure someone who is gravely ill. We will likely never have to decide whether to save a life or look the other way. But rarely a day, rarely a minute goes by when we don’t have to decide who we really are. Evil versus good is not a question of them and us and when. It is a question of us and us and now.
It is strange to be writing this piece about the false dichotomy of good and evil and the complicated business of being human while sitting behind a sleek, marble desk overlooking the rooftops of Paris from a room at the Hotel Lutetia. The Lutetia was built in 1910, and its famous guests have included Pablo Picasso, Charles de Gaulle, Andre Gide, Peggy Guggenheim and Josephine Baker. James Joyce wrote part of Ulysses here.
Things changed when the Nazis occupied Paris in June of’ 40 and the Abwehr (counter-espionage)”requisitioned” the hotel. They used it to house, feed and “entertain” the officers in command of the occupation. Ironically, today the Lutetia is owned by an Israeli company. The company recently spent hundreds of millions of euros to remodel and rebrand it. It is from this place, where some of history’s cruelest men made some of its most vile decisions, that I am pondering good and evil after a enjoying a fresh-baked croissant and a frothy cappuccino. As it is with buildings, so it is with places and with people. We are each of us so many things. . .
Homo hominis lupus? In the end, I don’t buy it. It is too simple, too one-sided. I believe in a different wolf story. It’s a wolf story of the Native American people. The story of a chief telling his grandchildren that there is a war going on inside every one of us. It is a war between two wolves. One is the wolf of kind ness, humility, sharing, rescuing and peace, and the other is the wolf of self-interest, arrogance, violence, coldness and cruelty.
His grandchildren asked the great chief which wolf wins the fight inside us, and he said to them, “The wolf that will win is the wolf you feed.”
Steve Leder is the author of More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us