Recognizing reality and demanding to change it are fundamentally different activities. Both wisdom and virtue depend on keeping them separate, but all our hopes are directed to joining them.” — Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought
In a relativistic world a murder mystery in the hands of a master writer can be a sword, rightly dividing hypocrisy from truth. The mystery writer is also a problem-solver and a moral arbiter; the pleasure for the reader is in the careful twining of many threads to make a coat of justice.
James Lee Burke, author of 30 novels and two collections of short stories, is a master of the genre—indeed, he was named a Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America in 2009 and has twice won their Crime Novel of the year.
Dave Robicheaux, former cop for the New Orleans Police Department, a dry alcoholic, and a police detective in Iberia Parish, is one of Burke’s most compelling literary creations. Robicheaux, a Vietnam War vet and a life-long resident of coastal Louisiana, has no qualms about calling out the evil ones in our midst.
In Robicheaux’s cultural hierarchy, the small-time hoods and grifters make up the lowest level. They are the bottom-feeders, those desperate enough to attach themselves to powerful and twisted people whose need for distance and deniability make them almost invulnerable. Robicheaux is not without sympathy for these figures whose lives are steeped in violence and despair. It’s a measure of Burke’s vision and compassion that he gives them a solid dignity in the midst of every trigger pulled or fist cocked. As for the rich, morally bent, and self-righteous, Robicheaux finds them, binds them to the case, and pulls the threads together.
Reading Burke at his best is like swallowing nails dipped in chocolate. On the one hand, he’s a word-painter who can put you in a late-summer electrical storm along the bayou in a flash. In the next moment, violence erupts as inevitably as lightning. Robicheaux believes in evil because he has seen it in the eyes of the wealthiest, the most powerful, and often, the most revered in his society. What truly distinguishes these people from their small-time counterparts is the level of self-deception they are capable of maintaining. While they believe themselves to be virtuous, natural-born citizens of the elite, educated, and genteel, their feral nature is only a few insults from the surface. In those moments, Burke’s prose reveals the skull beneath the skin. It’s like walking in a thoughtful daze through a gallery of impressionist paintings and rounding a corner to find George Bellow’s paintings of bare-knuckled and bloodied fighters surrounded by dissolute ghouls.
But Robicheaux—and Burke—live in a universe that is tragically evil. That is, those who are marked as evil may have chosen their actions but were acting on compulsions beyond their control. Through a long apprenticeship in deceit and denial, they now look back in anger to see how far from their innocence they have come. There was no moment in which they stepped across a threshold into evil, but they are undeniably in that far country now.
Perhaps the one thing, besides shock and grief, that unites us in the face of an unspeakable tragedy like the shooting of concertgoers in Las Vegas, is that we search for a reason Why? We look for trace elements of aggression in the killer’s childhood, we mine the memories of his neighbors, we sift the impressions of doctors, teachers, relatives—anyone who might be able to put the mark of Cain on his forehead with some degree of certainty. Psychologists and pundits stack up the similarities in the profiles of mass murderers, and we all look for patterns. This is natural and commendable, as difficult as it is for determining cause. But if society does not care enough to search for answers in the face of such tragedies, then we are truly at a moral tipping point. Outrage is a sign of conscience: the lack of it may be the first symptom of moral paralysis.
The moral philosophers of the Enlightenment separated natural evil from moral evil. Tsunamis, wildfires, hurricanes, avalanches had all been thought to issue from the hand of God as punishment for sin. But Rousseau took the evil out of natural evil by thinking of them as simply nature following the laws of God. What mattered more was the “evil that men do,” and especially so since we are beings endowed with reason. Why do we do evil then? It makes no sense from a rational standpoint, so we have to seek an explanation elsewhere. Broadly speaking, Rousseau located the cause of evil in the subversion of the individual by society. Kant saw moral evil arising from our denial of our autonomy and our moral duty.
Rousseau thought the key to moral improvement was education. He spent much of his time trying to work out a social contract between the individual and society. Most problems, he thought, could be negotiated by reasonable people working together. One result of this was the decreasing role of God in human affairs. In her rewriting of the history of philosophy in Evil in Modern Thought, Susan Neiman says, “The more responsibility for evil accrues to the human, the less belongs to the divine.”
This resistance of nature that we see and experience, says Neiman, is not the work of angry gods “but simply part of the arbitrary stuff of the universe.” They are part of living with limits. Finitude isn’t a punishment; it’s simply part of our structural framework. As Neiman so succinctly puts it: “We have purposes; the world does not.”
So, the problem of evil became irresolvable. The way Kant figured it, the problem of evil was that we are dissatisfied with the difference between the way things are and the way they should be. The first is the realm of nature, the second of reason. “Happiness depends on events in the natural world,” comments Neiman, and virtue depends on us exercising our reason. We can’t control much in nature—and that includes our happiness—but we may have more control in the realm of virtue driven by reason. “The one [reason] is a matter of what ought to be; the other [nature] is a matter of what is.” For Kant, what was most important was distinguishing between the two. “Recognizing reality and demanding to change it are fundamentally different activities. Both wisdom and virtue depend on keeping them separate, but all our hopes are directed to joining them.”
Or as the Rolling Stones said: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
Kant would agree. The gap between the is—the way things are—and the ought—the way things should be will never be entirely bridged. But we’ve got to try: our dignity as humans and our hopes for this world demand it.
Such tragedies as the San Bernardino shooting, the Charleston killings, and the massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs demand a rational explanation. We struggle to find one, and if we can’t find a common pattern or a series of movements, we despair because above all else we want to live in a rational universe. We shudder to think—and we dare not say—that there may not be a rational explanation for these people running amok. If that is true, then we are faced with the fact that without a clear cause these events cannot be predicted nor can they be prevented. And the tragic result of that is a fortress mentality and officially sponsored societal paranoia.
Social psychologists and psychiatrists hope to find a cause someday that will explain—as fully and as clearly as possible—why these killings occur. They will continue to gather evidence, try out theories, hope to understand. But we must also realize, as Kant so brilliantly works it out and as most scriptures testify, that we humans are limited, finite, broken, and fractured. This is not a cause for despair, said Kant, but rather simply the way things are. We can do better, and we should try, even while realizing that all our efforts will fall short of perfection. For Christians, this means we live under sin while sustained by grace. Resistance to evil, says Scripture, is not futile.
And the worth of our striving can be measured by the degree to which we act with compassion toward those who are suffering and wisdom toward those who bring the suffering.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.
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