What Is the 'Root' of Evil?

January 3, 2007

'There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.' ~ Thoreau

Lake dweller Henry David Thoreau enjoyed an enviable, pastoral life in the pre-industrial age. Living in the woods on the shore of the 60 acre Walden Pond, a mile from the village of Concord, Massachusetts , Henry had ample time to dwell on the topic of good and evil.

The year was 1845. Slavery existed then in America . The Mexican War had not yet begun but would very soon. The War Between The States (for some unknown reason called a civil war) was 15 years in the future, but the issues drove many men into a frenzy. Most of the native tribes, 'Indians,' living west of the Missouri River, hadn't yet been eradicated. And all of these topics and hundreds more caught the attention of Thoreau. Like Tolstoy, 50 years later, Thoreau dwelt on the topic of good and evil, (among many others), trying to determine the clearest definition of the two in a so-called civilized society.

What he discovered was what most folks discover. Nobody much gives a damn about good and evil. Most folks were just too busy. At any moment, anywhere in the Western world, most men simply want to work and relax, 'get paid and laid,' as my younger brother so clearly defined the focus of most civilizations. The only root most men want to strike lies between their legs.

Good? Evil? Can anyone define the terms? The Seven Deadly Sins your definition of evil? What about a flag-waving series of wars based on lies? Is that good for some people and evil for others? Most folks prefer their Congressmen or televangelist or talk show host to define good and evil and do all their thinking for them. Never mind that these televangelists and US Representatives seem to represent themselves, rather than any declared ethic, and instead rapturously rubberstamp those wars.

'What is hateful to yourself, do not do to another . . . That is the whole law,' Jewish rabbi Hillel taught about 2,000 years ago. But how many top Jewish leaders today make foreign or domestic policy with that wisdom in mind? How many so-called Christian leaders conduct their lives with the Sermon on the Mount in mind? Nobody in Congress that I know, aside from Ron Paul. Otherwise, how could so many hypocrites have voted for the Iraq War?

One hundred and sixty years ago, Henry Thoreau protested the flag-waving imperial war of his day. He protested a poll tax by going to jail. (See Mass Moments: Henry David Thoreau Spends Night in Jail) Who would do that today? One out of a hundred people, maybe? One of a thousand?

Can a person protest evil?

Several years ago, I got off my fat ass and protested a war. I spent Saturdays and Sundays in the weeks before the war, standing on a busy street corner in Coral Springs , Florida with my sign. 'War $200 Billion'Peace Priceless.' Nobody joined me. A few people gave me the finger. Several people honked and waved and one or two even stopped to ask me what the hell I was doing.

What could I tell them? What does the protest of one person accomplish? Opposing evil? What a laugh. Two weeks before the war, the drumbeats growing louder, only a fool would have predicted that American politicians and the collaborative media would seek a peaceful way. So I stood there, filled with self-doubts, wishing I was getting paid and laid, aware of my futile gesture. Striking at the roots of evil? Hardly. Probably not even striking at the branches.

Thoreau defended the Abolitionist John Brown for attacking and occupying the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. For his efforts, Brown and his co-conspirators'or heroes'got hanged. What did Brown accomplish? Did John Brown hack at the roots of evil? Did Thoreau? A large number of people were killed in the raid on the arsenal. What did Brown accomplish but agitate a hornet's nest that eventually led to the Confederacy and the War of Secession and a half million dead? Arguably, taking up arms against evil might then become a greater evil. Nuclear retaliation'or Mutually Assured Destruction'comes to mind.

The Root and Branches of Evil

How does a person recognize the so-called greater good and the greater evil? When I define 9-11 as the root of evil that led to the imperial wars in the Middle East, I assert my belief that a conspiracy of evil conspired to create a false flag event by the state. Was 9-11 a root of evil? Or a single branch of a greater evil? Because a state grown wholly out of control, branching out in a thousand directions, without remorse or ethical qualm, cannot be anything but evil. The 911 conspiracy might have been only a larger branch that I continue hacking at.

Tolstoy (an admirer of Thoreau) spent the last years of his life writing short stories and moral essays: "What Then Must We Do?" "What Men Live By." "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" The essays dealt with good and evil, the moral duty of a man, the lassitude of society.

Not surprisingly, Tolstoy determined that evil has plagued humans since some men asserted control and others let them. He wrote: 'Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us . . . . In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.'

Is the war-loving state the stem of evil, while the root cause is a society's willing surrender to it? Or are humans predisposed to evil? My buddy Bill, a former Philly cop, believes humans possess damaged DNA and act accordingly. Not sure if that defense would hold up in a court of law but the evidence'that humans are flawed--is overwhelming.

'There are two basic reasons why people commit evil,' wrote Fred E. Foldvary, in "The Origins of Evil." 'Some people are simply amoral. They lack sympathy and don't think there is any morality. To them their victims are like rabbits. They think, if someone is weak or foolish enough to be a victim, they deserve no better . . . . But most evil is committed by people who believe they are doing good.'

Presto. Or by people too lazy or programmed to reflect upon their actions.

Like most folks, I'll continue hacking at the branches of evil, and tell myself it is a good thing to do. After all, to strike at the root might require I get my hands dirty and acquire the proper digging tools. Who wants to do that? Most importantly, however, I would need the wisdom and ability to recognize the root when I see it and not mistake it for a fallen leaf.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @ Gmail.com