Published in Church and Life (1834) 03.05.2012 to 23.05.2012 No 8, Pg2
Modern fiction, whether it has come to us via the printed word, or by way of the silver screen, has offered us many examples of the ‘villain’. In the Star Wars franchise, we have a prime specimen in Darth Vader; dressed in black, a towering form, his searching, menacing, echoing breath, accompanying every movement.
We look in terror as he cuts a trench of destruction and misery, across a number of trembling generations, who comprise that troubled galaxy, so far, far away. Everything about this man-creature, sets the nerves on edge; his only redeeming quality being, that as his son Luke Skywalker is about to perish in front of him – a latent spark of parental humanity eventually ignites in order to rescue Luke, and by so doing restores Vader to his true nature; uttered of course with a dying breath. The modern villain tends to be stark; their evil shouts at us – they do not leave us guessing as to who they are, or what they stand for. In a world increasingly grey, it is ironic that the good guys still wear white, and the bad guys still wear black; at least in the films. But does evil always come dressed in black? Is there a worse form of evil that lurks in this world, then that which is obviously at war with us – then that which confronts us face to face?
The 19th Century English novelist, Charles Dickens, in his work, Bleak House, offers the reader a chance to ponder the nature of evil. A brilliant study in character, we are immersed into a world filled with virtue, vice and the curious admixture of the two. One primary character of this novel, is Harold Skimpole. Skimpole can best be described as a simpleton, a man too childish to look after himself, let alone his family; both of which he has handed the responsibility to others to care for. So devoid of maturity is Skimpole that throughout the novel, character after character makes allowance for him and provides ‘outs’ for his many indiscretions – financial or otherwise. Those who read Bleak House for the first time often feel frustrated by Skimpole, and wish him to somehow just ‘grow up’. If Skimpole were not such a ‘child’, one could easily accuse him of being a parasite. But child he is. Or is he? At the close of the novel, Skimpole’s benefactor, blinded throughout the novel by Skimpole’s ‘simplicity’ is given an insight into Skimpole’s true nature. Skimpole has used others for his own ends – and cares nought for anyone, except himself. In a postscript to Skimpole’s life, his last will and testament reveals a man only too aware of the ways of mammon; only too aware of the savage world of adulthood, as distinct from the playful, serendipitous world of the child. Skimpole is a man filled with hatred, a man who has dissimulated and through this duplicity, infected the lives of honest folk. As distinct from Darth Vader, who obviously has more than a few socialization issues; Harold Skimpole is a man acutely depraved –Skimpole uses the guise of goodness in order to corrupt, destroy, ruin and infect. The evil of Skimpole makes one shudder; for one can only muse how this middle-aged ‘child’, and then some, lay in bed at night, (a bed provided to him courtesy of the charity of others), having feigned innocence through out the day, and seeking each night to plan the next day’s charade. Skimpole is nearly the ‘perfect’ villain – for he exemplifies the evil that theologians speak of; the cancer-like evil; that which takes all it’s life-blood from goodness; that which could not exist without goodness; an evil that rides goodness nearly into the ground, but at the last moment, just before goodness takes a dying breath, evil releases the weight of its heal from the throat of goodness, knowing that if goodness perishes – so too does evil lose its life. For evil is nought else, but the negation of goodness; and if goodness expires – so must evil also expire. Evil may be filled with hate, but it is not stupid. Skimpole only has life, because good people in Bleak House, are naïve; they do not suspect that someone could be so base. Being lead like lambs to the slaughterhouse, goodness is eventually spared suffering by revelation – not solely Divine, but by a maturity of realization. As a disease is cut out in order to stimulate health in the body – so too Skimpole is found out for what he is – vile and sinister, and is eventually cast out. What does Skimpole do when he is cast out? He sits back and in the writing of his will – spits venom at goodness.
St. Thomas Aquinas in his analysis of the Lord’s Prayer provides a wonderful exposition on the line of the prayer; “But deliver us from evil.” The Dumb Ox teaches that this particular petition speaks not only about sins, sicknesses and afflictions that befall people, but has the important dimension of calling on God to protect us from weighty temptations. Evil according to Aquinas comes in many forms, and we should pray that our resolve, our Faith, should see us with God’s help, strong. Aquinas is too erudite to leave his readers believing that if evil befalls someone, it must be because they are in someway a greater sinner than their neighbor. Far from it, we understand in the trials of Job, that evils can afflict the most saintly of characters; the language of the Crucifixion is more than adequate symbolism of just how perfect goodness is persecuted in an imperfect world. When we pray that we be delivered from evil, we pray according to Aquinas because: “He [God] delivers us from evil insofar as temptations and trials are conducive to our profit. Thus He does not say, Deliver us from trials, but from evil, because trials bring the saints a crown, and for that reason, they glory in their trials. Thus the Apostle says, “And not only so, but we exult in our tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience.” “In time of tribulation Thou forgives sins.” (Aquinas, The Three Greatest Prayers, 1990, pp. 156 – 157).
Skimpole’s wretchedness is made ever more bleak by the callous hypocrisy to which he responds to the kindnesses that have been offered to him. Skimpole has had every reason to be happy and grateful in life, with the exception that he hates goodness. Thus Skimpole is a ‘great’ villain; for villainy is at its lowest point when it is inspired by a singular hatred of goodness. Ill health, which Aquinas would consider as an evil afflicting a person, is as a result of humanity’s imperfect and fallen nature. But this so termed ‘evil’ is less than that evil which Aquinas describes as a temptation against goodness; for in the former case, the body is being corrupted, but in the latter, the soul and the virtue housed therein is being attacked. Hence nothing is more succulent to those with hearts of pitch than the planned destruction, or pain afflicted to that which is consistent of the highest levels of purity and goodness. Crimes of passion may make newspaper headlines; but it is the crime of dispassion, sealed by a feigned kiss, that should also make us pray to be delivered from. For poignantly and powerfully, Christ’s invective was not meted out against those who nailed Him to the Cross, but to those hypocrites who in reality hated goodness, but who covered their real intent under a garb of goodness. Give us Lord the eyes by which to see the world for what it is, and deliver us Lord from evil, in whatever form it takes and in whatever form it is offered to us to swallow.
This post is also available in: Ukrainian