On the “Demonic Nature of Social Evil in Our Time”

On the “Demonic Nature of Social Evil in Our Time” July 17, 2015

While working my way through Ernest Becker’s splendid book, The Structure of Evil, I came upon this gem (I have edited the section to incorporate gender inclusive language, and have split the text into more paragraphs for ease of reading):


Demon Seated, by Mikhail Vrubel
Demon Seated, by Mikhail Vrubel


Humanity must confront the underlying alienation that exists in every age, and alienation exists wherever the individual does not have a commanding view, a unitary critical perspective by which to take in hand and react to the determinants of his social existence.

Having failed to do this, the twentieth century gathered all the evils that could seem possible to befall humanity: genocide of millions, recurrent world war, race and hate riots, famine and world-wide misery for the vast masses of humanity. And the outlook for the future is more of the same: atomic war, violent revolutions, mass starvation.

In our time, we have seen the demonic emerge in all its starkness, and we have learned why it emerges: the demonic comes into being for man whenever he is manipulated by large impersonal forces beyond. Thus, when modern people set in motion vast social institutions but do not take critical control of them, the institutions assume their own momentum; the people who run the institutions become like ants mechanically doing their duty, and no one dares to question the routine to which the institutions conform.

The result is that there is no way of breaking through the uncritical fictions that control society and that are embodied in vast and powerful, faceless organizations. Responsibility is nowhere; grinding power everywhere.

Where are the “centered” persons–as Tillich called them–who should guide and shape this impersonal machinery, according to an ideal vision of humanity? Where is the responsible dissent, the continued review of the ends of action? Without these the world of ineluctable movement assumes its own laws, and, like a black widow spider of science-fiction proportions, it turns on and consumes the very people who give it life.

This is the demonic nature of social evil in our time. It is a fitting culmination of the failure to heed the Enlightenment lesson: if humanity fails to introduce critical reason into the realm of human affairs, they must be prepared to suffer evils which they could have prevented (141-142).


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