Is evil real or a delusion? King Henry V, according to Shakespeare, was dealing with deluded but evil people when he coined this phrase. “If little faults, proceeding on distemper, shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye when capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d, and digested appear before us?” Henry lays a trap for three treasonous nobles by offering to forgive a peasant for the drunkenly insulting his majesty. His three treasonous friends counsel against showing such leniency while believing their own crime remains a secret. Soon they learn their crime is exposed and plead for royal mercy. “The mercy that was quick within us but late, by your own council is suppress’d and kill’d: you must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy; for your own reasons turn into your bosoms, as dog upon their masters worrying you.”
Chewed, Swallowed, and Digested Camels
I cannot prove Shakespeare was thinking of Matthew 23:24 when he composed Henry’s speech. “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” The imagery is of people who are focused on the purity of their food. While trying not to eat anything unclean, they have embraced other unclean things. Jesus uses another comparison to drive home this point. “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and other kinds of filth” (v. 26b emphasis added) They have done the best they can to appear righteous.
Why would they need Jesus to point this out to them? Because they have ignored what they do for so long it is no longer apparent to them. Parents, who claim they do not understand why their children can be so racist, sexist, or classist, never see the same biases in themselves. It can be apparent to other people. But it is not apparent when we associate with people who share the same biases. It feels insulting or nitpicking (straining out gnats?) when someone exposes our biases to us. They are chewed, swallowed, and digested camels.
A Real Delusion
Conspiracy theories, lies, and statistics make false claims about reality. It is easier for many to accept these false claims than deal with the painful truths about themselves. The desire to defend one’s self tempts us into self-delusion. I have written about our tendency to fool ourselves in other places. We willingly “drink the Kool-Aid” in order to avoid self-examination.
Is evil a real delusion? The connection John’s Gospel makes between lies and murder is eye-opening. “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because their is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Another point about this text is how easily it has been adapted in the past to support the lies of Anti-Semitism. The text is often applied to other people and not ourselves.
Consider for a moment, though, the Capitol Riot. Lies about a stolen election were repeated by Donald Trump and his followers and reported in various media. Some rioters believed the lies enough to want to cause harm and even murder. It was not enough for the rioters to know such actions had been taken beforehand, Pizzagate for example, on false claims. The delusion was real enough to cause blood to be spilled…again.
Evil is a lie with real results. But it is by nature untrue and therefore unreal. At the risk of confusing categories, consider how a shadow is an image with real effects. When we say it is 98F in the shade, we make a claim about the temperature in the open. The shadow results from blocked light. But it does not cause the benefit of blocking the heat.
Evil, in the light of truth, is not real. In fact, falsehood cannot be discussed without understanding truth as real. Evil though must also be real just like an object that produces a shadow. What form does that object take? A lie. Evil actions including lies are based in some form of deception. These deceptions manifest as beliefs with the will to power. The delusion is the reason Billy Graham made the mistake of lending legitimacy to Richard Nixon. Decades later, his son made the same error with the same delusion.
People believing they deserve something covet and/or steal. People believing another person is the source of their misery attempt to maim or murder. People desiring to escape punishment because it seems undeserved lie about their actions.
A person commits to evil once it has been chewed, swallowed, and digested. After that it may be ignored, excused, or denied. If a fool calls a wise person a fool, does that diminish the wisdom of the wise? Evil does not diminish the good. Lies do not alter the truth.