Evil as Losing the Ability to Act

  • Daryl Koehn


We tend to think of evil as something dramatic and glamorous, a view reinforced by popular culture. Films and magazines portray evil as the rare work of genius. The French philosopher Simone Weil attacked this view, arguing that, whereas “fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound and full of charm,” real evil is stupid and insipid.1 Weil is not entirely correct in her assessment. As we will see, evil assumes a variety of forms and hides itself from itself. In this respect, evil deserves to be called cunning, not dismissed as stupid. Weil, however, is also partly right. The shrewdly articulate film villain Hannibal Lector titillates more than the obviously sick Charles Manson. The clever criminal captures our imagination and seduces us into believing that evil involves complex, malicious motives. Therein lies the problem, for evildoers are more ignorant than malicious. They are trapped in unsatisfying, neurotic modes of behavior. Since they do not know who they are, they cannot escape their self-inflicted suffering. They behave almost mechanically, not creatively. In that respect, both real and fictional evil is, to use Weil’s adjective, insipid.


Nazi Regime Magical Thinking Racial Purity Fantasy World Revolutionary Theater 
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© Daryl Koehn 2005

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  • Daryl Koehn

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