One of the illusions of ordinary life is that good and evil are to be found entire, that there are some people that are all good and others that are all evil, that one can join causes and have no fear that one is on the side of the angels, and that opposed to you are the darkest and most wicked of people without any goodness whatsoever. To be sure, there are great evils in this world, many of them attached to popular ideologies, but most people who commit and support great evils view themselves (not surprisingly) as good, and view their causes as just, and turn a blind eye to their excesses and their evils. Whether we see the desire to affirm our patriotism or loyalty to institutions leading us to deny or minimize the evils that have been committed in the name of our country or institutions, or whether we have loyalty to a cause that does not allow us to see its evil underside, such as the way that the cause of supporting the rights of woman leads to the most wicked injustice towards the innocent unborn, human beings and our causes are not as simple and straightforward as we would like to believe.
Most of the time we are able to rest in these illusions about our moral probity and the general wickedness of our opponents, but there are some people at some times who are unable to do this. Quite strikingly, some of the most notable achievements of moral philosophy in the 20th century came from survivors of the various inhumane prison systems established in such places as Nazi concentration camps or the Russian gulag archipelago or the Chinese laogai. In particular, there is a striking resonance between the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi concerning one very important matter that we are prone to forget, that the frontier of good and evil does not lie between men but within them. Although both of these men were eloquent and intelligent and massively influential writers about the evils they suffered and the wicked regimes they suffered under, whether Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, their writing cut far deeper than merely to criticize those regimes and the evils they inflicted, but cut into the self, reminding themselves and everyone else that we all have some evil inside of us that we must recognize and struggle against.
For Primo Levi, this point was brought home in a poem he wrote late in life that undercut the view of the Italian partisans he had once fought with as being the repository of the virtues of anti-fascism in democratic Italy. He closes a poem “Partigia” with the following chilling lines:
What enemy? Every man’s his own foe,
Each one split by his own frontier,
Left hand enemy of the right.
Stand up, old enemies of yourselves,
This war of ours is never done.
The war that Primo Levi encouraged others to fight, and the war he likely fought, as well as Solzhenitsyn and others, was an internal war. Every human being is involved in a civil war, whether we like it or not. If we have managed to avoid the internal conflict between various parties or ideologies within our societies and communities, if we have avoided the struggle between different camps within institutions, if we have avoided the struggle between families divided against themselves (and, sadly, I have avoided none of these great evils), we have before us the ugly prospect that each of us, no matter how fortunate our lives, cannot avoid the reality of a brutal struggle within ourselves against our own native evil bent, wherever and however it may manifest itself. It is strange that both Levi and Solzhenitsyn were able to eloquently discuss this particular matter, and what it is that led them to do so? If most people are unaware of the frontiers of good and evil within them, are unaware that within us likes some border between human decency and the darkness of the abyss, what aspect of experience made these two sensitive chroniclers painfully aware of it.
Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the experience each of them had. Primo Levi was a Jewish chemist who had been part of a partisan band and had seen first hand his own folly and his own willingness to skirt the laws (albeit unjust laws) and make a shadowy existence. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian officer whose frank and forthright criticism of Stalin as a fool and a criminal in some personal letters led him to be denounced by his own words and serve a ten-year sentence in the gulag system as a political prisoner. Both men benefited in unjust circumstances from being privileged prisoners in some fashion whose intellect and skills gave them advantages when it came to food and strength that allowed them to endure when others died in the face of starvation rations and brutal living conditions. And both had a lot of time to reflect upon their folly in the midst of dark nights spent in the prison of their own minds, where sleep was made more difficult by virtue of being thoughtful and sensitive people with a fair degree of literary flair. In making sense of their own imprisonment and their own suffering, and in seeing the inhumanity they were treated and the moral compromises they and others made in order to eke out a horrifying existence, they saw the darkness within themselves being revealed through their response to their circumstances.
Why is this war of ours never done? Because we are the theater of the war. However hard we fight, however noble our ideals and efforts, the enemy always has a foothold somewhere within us. If we have suffered traumas, our nightmares and anxiety provide a way for the enemy to torment us from within. If our lives are going well, on the other hand, we may be complacent about the state of things internal because everything external is going so well. Furthermore, our tendency as human beings to be blind to our own flaws and those of our allies and only aware of the evils of those we struggle against, that innate tendency towards double standards and hypocrisy that no human being or institution is immune to, allows the war of ours to go on, sight unseen, as long as we live. And the battle against evil is so complex as well that we cannot master all of its facets. There are positive evils in the abuses we inflict on others with teasing worlds or in the gratification of our lusts, negative evils in our laziness or inattention to what we should be doing and what needs to be done, and far too much to do given the limitations of our resources of love, generosity, and attention that needs to be done for measurable progress to be made in our world. And yet this reality is rarely seen and acknowledged except by those who must wrestle with the darkness within themselves and all around them in order to make some sense of the horror of their existence.