Go to the Digital Library top page!

Language Arts

Ordinary Evil

BY | Candace Vogler

SESSION 1: Whether Evil Is Something

Candace Vogler discusses St. Thomas Aquinas's question of whether evil is something.
(1:15 min)

When mainstream contemporary philosophers take up the question of why people act unethically, they tend to locate the source of trouble in one of three human failings: rashness, weakness of will or ignorance of the greater good. Moral evil, on these accounts, is a mistake, normally caused by an episode of irrationality (although ignorance of the greater good wouldn't be irrational in someone who had no way of knowing better). There are a lot of reasons why philosophers gravitate toward these thoughts. After all, rationality--excellence in the exercise of human reason--is supposed to improve our lives. Virtues show themselves as excellences of human character that are likewise supposed to make our lives go better. And part of the way in which ethical goodness is supposed to improve our lot is through its wisdom, suggesting some inextricable link between ethics and reason.

St. Thomas Aquinas
Web Gallery of Art
enlarge Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas by Benozzo Gozzoli.

I agree that ethical goodness is both wise and useful in human life generally. The rewards that virtue brings to a good person are no less significant, I think, for their tendency to consist in intangibles. Excellence in the exercise of reason seems to me likewise wonderful. I have, however, lost faith that the word "rationality" names all-around human excellence, and with it, the confidence that individual wrongdoing always incorporates sins against reason. Now, you'd think that any sensible person, having unavoidable contact with accounts of the meticulous plotting and coordination that laid the groundwork for some spectacular feat of human badness, would doubt the claim that immorality is irrational. Unlike virtue, which shows itself most plainly when you stand to lose something important by doing as you ought in a world where goodness is no insurance against catastrophe, the exercise of reason can be turned entirely to private gain, or to the advantage of one group at another's expense. But, for me, it took reading a largish chunk of the still larger corpus of Saint Thomas Aquinas to give adequate attention to this fact.

Aquinas begins his disputation on evil with a quaintly premodern-sounding question: Whether evil is something? [An malum sit aliquid?] While it seems that evil is something, or can be counted among things, or is a principle of things that makes things happen, the saint argues that evil has no independent existence. Instead, "that to which evil happens is a distinct thing inasmuch as evil is the lack in a thing of some particular good" (St. Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Jean Oesterle). He thereby dispenses with the Manichean postulation of independent principles of good and evil at work in our world. It is a subtle point that has even more going for it than its denial of a specific heresy might suggest.

Editor's Note
To best appreciate this seminar, read Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Man of the Crowd".

Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" starts with remarks about an evil that cannot be alone and a book that does not permit itself to be read, then lifts the covers on deathbed scenes. "Men," we are told, "die nightly in their beds wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eye--die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave." The paragraph concludes, "And thus the essence of all crime is revealed." But unless the essence of all crime is something on the order of pride ("No, Father, you don't understand! I am a monster!"), or a species of guilt so inflated as to make a psychotherapist a better choice than either a real live priest or a real dead ghost (it is unclear which sense to give "ghostly"), the conclusion is obscure.

Abruptly, before we have a moment to wonder about that, we find ourselves in a London hotel café with a convalescent first-person narrator, who has a cigar in his mouth, a newspaper in his lap, and such high spirits over the return of health and strength that "Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain." Evening falls, and:

by the time the lamps were well lighted, two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the sea without.
Contemplation yields an elaborate taxonomy of the types of people moving past outside the café window. Our narrator begins with generalities about the masses then descends to detail, regarding "with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance."

About a third of the tale is given over to his taxonomy of the kinds and classes of Londoner on the street at various hours of evening. All of these subspecies have a place in the life of the City, which is, after all, marvelous.

Suddenly, everything freezes at the appearance of a singular face, "(that of a decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age,)--a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression." Fairly consumed by the vision, our narrator's interpretive proclivities hit a wall. The old man has the face of "the fiend":

As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose, confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense--of supreme despair.
Edgar Allan Poe
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-104482
Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849.
In attempting to classify the old man, notice, our narrator initially produces a series of adjectives of the sort that have become familiar in the last year. What kind of person would engage in terrorist acts? Someone cunning, cautious, cool-headed, greedy and envious of our wealth, malicious, amused by the spectacle of disorder, vengeful, buoyed up by the sense of triumph that deliberate sacrifice can bring, but also impoverished, frightened and, quite possibly, bearing the weight of a kind of despair. Notice too that the list does not add up to a motive. It eludes the kind of classificatory impulse that lends order to scenes of collective urban humanity. And so our narrator is forced to postulate a heart linked to a face for the first time all evening: "'How wild a history,' I said to myself, 'is written within that bosom!'" (Domestic history, by contrast, is what he has been reading in the costumes and comportment of strangers.) Fairly burning with curiosity, our narrator grabs his coat, dashes outside to keep the old man firmly in view, and winds up following his quarry for a night and a day.

The old man apparently hunts for crowds, and, when he finds them, walks back and forth, immersed in the traffic. Somehow, the old man feeds on the vitality of masses: whenever the crowd thins out around him, he panics and races through the city until he happens upon another bustling scene where he can melt into another throng. It is as if a figure from our initial deathbed scene rose and went wandering, using the collective life of crowds to keep going, the very life that parceled itself out into in tidy categories of people for our narrator before the old man made an appearance.

Poe's narrator describes the old man by saying that he is like a book that cannot be read. Discuss Poe's choice of metaphor of reading.

What connection, if any, does Poe make between reading and order?

Stranger still, our narrator, who was, actually, good at tracking urban subspecies from the comfort of his café, seems to lose all capacity for classification in the old man's wake. The figures of his London become congeries of individuals, and our narrator is forced, in the end, to abandon all hope of reading the book of wild history in the old man's bosom. According to the narrator, the moral of the story (not unlike the opening of the story) is: "The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the 'Hortulus Animae,' and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that 'er lasst sich nicht lessen.'" We have arrived at the worst heart of the world by way of trying to understand what was writ in the bosom of the old man, whom we met in, and followed back to, the street of the hotel café, "that most thronged mart of the populous town," which is, the narrator remarks, "the heart of mighty London."

SESSION 2: Hearts and Bones

In its wicked aspect, then, the heart of the world (for it is odd to think that the world has more than one heart--a worst, a better, etc.) is a bigger, fatter book than a devotional primer intended to instruct gentle readers in the cultivation of character (and gardens). God has mercifully arranged it so that the bigger book is illegible. But the illegible book is precisely what those desperate men found in their hearts on their deathbeds, what leads us back to the hotel café in the heart of London, and what would seem to be the dark twin of the thin, good book. What is going on here?

Poe had his finger on the strand of thought about evil that informed Aquinas's disputation. Like natural evil, moral evil--or, as Poe puts it, "crime"--has no independent essence. It is instead parasitic on what's good. And the parasitism may explain the uncanny multiplication of pages in that unwieldy, illegible book of the bad potential in the heart. The problem is this: not only is there potential badness in any heart that requires careful cultivation (which is, on this view, any maturing human heart), that potential isn't constrained by any independently describable essential quality. Evil isn't its own thing. Because of this, it can take shape in surprisingly many, infinitely many, unexpected, novel ways.

This is easy enough to see with so-called natural evils. There are, for example, infinitely many sorts of accidents of birth or fortune that can interfere with a living thing's vital processes. Take our species, for example. Think of actuarial tables, warning labels, the results of research into the human genome, lore and technical instruction about what to do in case of fire, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood and the like. These constitute fat books of natural evil. Concepts such as risk, defect, injury, illness and damage give a clear sense of the way in which natural evil is parasitic upon good. There is how things are supposed to go for a living human being (which needn't be how things actually do go for any of us). Then there are all the ways that things can go wrong, indexed to a sobering array of points of human vulnerability. And while we are unable to give a full account of how things are supposed to go for a human organism (actually, in this case, we seem to have clearer access to the bad than we do to an uncontroversial account of all-around human health), we have learned how to chart many possible points of disruption, disorder and so on.

These ills are measured in degrees representing various ways of falling away from how things are supposed to be with one of us. Each fall involves privation of good. And, in spite of all this knowledge, people who work in hospital emergency rooms will tell you that there is an abiding sense of novelty in the sheer variety of ways that things can go wrong. My sister the surgical technician was talking to me once, describing a long day in emergency given over to an especially arduous operation, when she broke off abruptly and said, "Who knew that anyone could have that kind of trouble with a lawnmower?"

Consider the notion that natural evil is not its own thing, but is parasitic on, or is a falling away from, what is good.

Does this notion of parasitic evil hold universally; what might this notion of evil lack?

And what of manmade badness done to or made for one or more of us at the hands of one or more of our fellows? Poe's suggestion is that potentiality for wrongdoing is ubiquitous among us. If we pair the size of the book of the heart's bad aspect with what stopped our sociologically inclined narrator's happy categorization of Londoners--the singular face, the "absolute idiosyncrasy" of expression--we could go so far as to suggest that ubiquitous, indeterminate possibilities of human evil individuate human beings, pick out ones from others, and make each of us distinctive.

SESSION 3: Capital Vice

Thomas Aquinas, of course, had no place for that thought. But he did devote considerable attention to crime--in his parlance, "sin," since the deepest source of the laws broken in wrongdoing was divine. "The first principle in practical reason is founded upon the meaning of good," he wrote, "Good is what all things pursue" (Summa Theologiae). Beginning from Aristotle's remark that "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim" ( Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a 1-3), Aquinas argues that the good has the character of an end. He uses this thought to illuminate good and evil alike, actually.


Practical Reason and Practical Good
Practical reason is reason in or toward sound action or policy. I follow Aquinas in taking it that practical reason aims at practical good, even in cases where the action or policy in question is in some respects evil. Aquinas sorts practical good into three categories--

  • good in the sense pleasant,
  • good in the sense useful, and
  • good in the sense fitting.

For Aquinas, there is a single last end for people given by our place in God's plan. Consideration of the last end lends deep unity to Thomistic thought about practical reason and ethics. Where we are meant to wind up is in Paradise, occupied in everlasting contemplation of God. The pleasures of the wicked may explain and show the point or good of some of what the wicked seek, but pale in comparison with Paradise. The prospects of short-term gain might attract our interest and show the good in doing some of the bad that we do, but because our long-run is very long indeed, there could not be a sound way of discounting the future in favor of the temporally proximate (where temporal proximity might involve the whole of worldliness). The life of the virtuous on Earth might be rough-going, but, by God's grace, beatitude is virtue's ultimate reward, so virtue remains useful and fitting, even when it looks as though acting from it will bring disaster to one's mortal life. Roughly, the formal account of practical reason is calculative, and the irrationality of anyone in possession of revealed truth determining himself to an unethical life is clear.

What I hope will strike the non-Catholic student of Aquinas's practical system isn't the image of so many cogs and wheels set fortuitously spinning in a single direction by the hand of a foreign, pre-modern God, but rather how difficult it will be to motivate any such satisfying unity without the theology. What unifies his account of reasons for acting, hence the good in action, hence practical good, is the ultimate end.

Acting well and faring well
Traditionally, the difficulty in giving a unified account of good in action lies in understanding the relation between acting well (acting from and for the sake of ethically sound practical considerations) and faring well (pursuing private advantage or pleasure). It is relatively straightforward to get things going if moral reasons turn out to be inextricably linked with mean-end reasons for acting. Then the distinction between acting well (acting for and from morality or virtue) and faring well (successfully acting in order to attain one's ends) are tied together closely enough to show acting well to be in one's (long-term) interest. (In effect, Aquinas takes this route.) Similarly, if you deposit in some agents a practical orientation that favors acting well (e.g., virtue), and treat both the ends that arise from this orientation (e.g., virtuous ends) and the constraint these agents show in their other pursuits as the normal outcome of the good practical orientation, then your agents will tend to act well even in pursuit of private gain. A less subtle strategy involves crediting agents with an inclination toward acting well, such that they will be unhappy with ill-gotten gains, and hence won't be able to fare well unless they act well. Variants of all three are around these days.

usly the thought that acting well can lead to significant personal loss, and is anyway no guarantee that good things will come one's way, then giving a unified account won't be easy. Consider: Kant, who is the source of some of the best arguments about the frequent failure of fit between calculative reasons and considerations of pleasure on the one side, considerations pertinent to morality and virtue on the other, holds that faith is necessary for practical reason. Kant's way of effecting linkage between acting well and faring well is to require that we will ourselves to be only as happy as we are good.

Immanuel Kant
The Hundred Greatest Men
(New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885)
Immanuel Kant.

But without faith, given that we are necessarily interested in faring well and know full well that Nature does not reward us for virtue or morality, we have no reason even to hope that a virtuous or dutiful life will be a happy one. You can't set your sights on faring well in proportion to acting well (i.e., you can't will it) if you have no reason even to hope that a virtuous and dutiful life will have some measure of happiness in it. Neither virtue nor morally fitting conduct is any insurance against getting struck by lightning, or falling rocks, or stray bullets or bombs. Any natural or manmade disaster that befalls you can wipe out your happiness for a long time, should you survive. Practical faith is faith that acting well and faring well will not come apart entirely. Getting these two to work in concert is a task even Kant thinks requires faith in a divine order of justice, although this bit of Kant has received very little contemporary attention outside the circles of Kant scholars.

Immoral acts
But things look even worse than these remarks suggest if we press the topic in a different direction than Kant did. The trouble becomes most acute if we think carefully about individual immoral acts and vice (with special emphasis on capital vice--vices that ordinarily operate as the ends of various other vices).

Candace Vogler reviews contemporary virtue theory and its treatment of vice.
(3:03 min)

Armed with an account of the good things in life and revealed doctrine about the last end, Aquinas theorizes not only ethically sound intentional action, but also ethically deplorable intentional action. Both revolve around pursuit of as such desirable things. Both display practical reason, that is, reason in action. And Aquinas's account of culpable wickedness provides unflinching treatment of the reasons for and sources of first-rate and lesser varieties of human badness. We have neither a modern nor an ancient equivalent for this work among the standard sources for contemporary secular moral philosophy. One half suspects that faith gave Aquinas the courage to do it. I mean, once you appreciate the power of the work on viciousness, and if you are committed to secular ethics, it really does seem that all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put reason and ethics together again in a way that shows individual wickedness to be necessarily irrational, or even unfit.

Many arguments surrounding the bioethical debate on human cloning are based on the assumption that human cloning is unethical and immoral.

Drawing from what you have learned about good in action, how might you argue that human cloning is virtuous or vicious?

It is depressing to have to pay attention to viciousness. Contemporary secular ethicists don't, as a rule. But some of what people deliberately do is very unethical, and blinding ourselves to what can be said on behalf of what people in fact deliberately do is blinding ourselves to what they are up to in action, to the nature of their purposes. This is no minor limitation for a theory of practical reason. It is something more on the order of willful refusal to look at our chosen topic from the aspects it presents to us. The aspects in question are aspects in light of which a pursuit presents itself as desirable in the eyes of the pursuer and in terms that make sense (even a veritable witches' brew of vice is heated by the flames of incentives to pursue genuine goods).

Candace Vogler talks about vice and classifying evil.
(1:45 min)

Capital vices take genuine goods as their objects. Worse, capital vice is cultivated--one habituates oneself to it rather than being afflicted by it. It shows strength of will, not weakness of will. That is why it is possible to treat the reason in viciousness systematically, both substantively and formally. Aquinas points out:

Now that one sin be directed to another can occur in two ways: in one way on the part of the sinner himself, whose will is more inclined to the objective of one sin than of another; but this is accidental to the sins themselves [i.e., however statistically widespread among people, the link between kinds of wrongdoing is idiosyncratic rather than calculatively sound], hence no vices are called capital according to this; in another way, from the very relationship of ends, one of which has a certain affinity with another, in such a way that for the most part it is ordered to that other, for example, deception which is the end or aim of fraud is ordered to amassing money which is the end of avarice; and in this way the capital vices are to be taken. Therefore those vices are called capital which have ends principally desirable in themselves in such a way that other vices are ordered to them. (On Evil, q. 8, a. 1, p. 312)
The ordering of one vice to another in capital viciousness, that is, is impersonally tied to the character of the vices in question. There are seven capital vices:
  • Pride
  • Avarice
  • Gluttony
  • Lust
  • Anger
  • Acedia
  • Envy
Pride seeks the excellence of honor and renown. Avarice has as its object acquisition and control of wealth. Gluttony fixates on eating, which is crucial to the preservation of the individual. Lust has sexual pleasure as its object, which (at least) pertains to the good of preserving the species. The relation of the remaining three--anger, acedia, and envy--to good things is less in the pursuit of an as such desirable good than in the avoidance of a bad thing. The man who is in one of these ways vicious sees a spiritual good or the good of some other person as an impediment to his own good, which in turn makes the perceived genuine good painful to behold. The operation of envy, acedia, and anger involves a self-protective aversion to the pain that comes of seeing a good not one's own as an obstacle to one's own well-being.
Acedia vs. Sloth
I use acedia rather than sloth on purpose. Most of us have come to associate sloth with plain laziness. Acedia is more interesting. In acedia apprehension of some spiritual good becomes painful to the agent. Sometimes this is because he does not want to leave off doing things he otherwise wants to do for the sake of helping to realize the spiritual good, and, while this version involves laziness in spiritual matters, our "lazy" man can be very, very busy with his own affairs. Sometimes it is that he is unwilling to allow himself to hope and work for a spiritually better circumstance in his life or the life of his community. And here, it is much more akin to an important form of depression and carries some of the underlying anger that one associates with depression, tinged with an anxiety that he is on the verge of despair. Here, he may be practically paralyzed, but not because he is in any ordinary sense lazy.
Whether or not we agree with the catalog of capital vices (e.g., lust is not everywhere taken to be a vice nowadays) or the specific analyses of their operations (e.g., a secular theorist might make humanity the source of the good that becomes aversive in acedia), what we find in Aquinas is something on the order of a theory about immorality. Without the theology, what the theory shows is the sense in which it befits a vicious person to act viciously.

This is not to say that there aren't genuine human goods that become inaccessible to the deeply vicious. It is merely to notice that the very habits that place these good things out of the vicious person's reach tend also to suppress her inclinations to pursue them. The envious person, for instance, who is inclined to see in others' well-being a painful reminder of all that she lacks and an outright impediment to her enjoyment of what she has, will not be much moved by an argument that our collective well-being demands that we jointly seek justice (and, hence, that she ought to support justice), even though collective well-being almost certainly demands some measure of justice. Rather, relations of justice established for the sake of widespread well-being hold out the prospect of infinitely multiplied sites of pain for an envious person.

Others' misery soothes the envious like few other things can. This is why the envious are not merely unhappy, but toxic. It will not do, here, to insist that happy anticipation of her own increased well-being ought to carry an envious person over the hump. As Aquinas points out, capital vice is corrosive. The vice that erodes the envious person's ability to enjoy what she already has produces so acute an awareness of the inadequacy of what life brings that even a decided improvement in her fortunes is lost on her. And it is not that her failure to be moved by our arguments is rooted in imperfect reason. If we seek to show her that justice is in her interest, we must take into account her understanding of what is in her interest. As she understands it, collective well-being is not in her interest. If justice will produce collective well-being, then justice is not in her interest either.

Errors in practical judgment
As ethicists hope will be the case, the wicked do turn out to be making an error in practical judgment on Thomas's account, but this is a conclusion drawn in light of the larger theological system, centered on a discussion of our last end. In short, the wicked miscalculate--not about what they are doing here and now, exactly (although wickedness tends to disorder even in this life, on Aquinas's view), but rather about what they can expect to gain by their deeds. There is in wickedness "a turning towards a transitory good and a turning away from an unchangeable good" (On Evil, q. 8, a. 1, p. 313). That is, the lives of the deeply vicious are disordered at root with respect to their last end. And no matter how wanton the individual has become, and no matter how deeply corrupted his character, it remains true of him, qua member of the species lowest in the order of intelligent beings and highest in the order of organisms, that his last end is otherworldly and that he needs the virtues in order to live well in light of this larger order in life. Thus, it befits even a confirmed scoundrel to change his ways.

Notice that there will be no such straightforward link between ethical conduct and a claim about how it befits every one of us to live if it is implausible to credit the vicious individual with having an end that might be served by virtue. If we are strict about "ascribing" ends to people, if, rather than supposing that the envious person has proper ends about which he is in a muddle, we notice that some of his ends are unethical, then we are not going to get this sort of account of the irrationality of acting from envy. The Thomistic account of why it does not befit a man to act from capital vice depends upon the character of the last end. Lose the last end, and you lose the moral science. Lose the moral science, and, in light of the theory of vice (which has, I take it, independent plausibility), you lose the claim that practical good is singularly unified. Given the theory of vice, minus the theological frame, individual immorality need not be rash, weak-willed or ignorant. That is, none of the usual secular modern philosophical accounts of bad action need apply.

Aquinas thought that there were normal weaknesses in human nature, points of common moral vulnerability involving inordinate (i.e., contrary to God's law) attachment to worldly goods. What vice aims at is, after all, control of worldly goods. There are some general things one can say about ubiquitous possibilities of individual evil on this view. Nevertheless, there are infinitely many ways in which individual tendencies to wrongdoing can show themselves. As in the emergency room, an abiding sense of terrible novelty attends the account. Goods are many. Appropriate paths of their pursuit are few. We are creative.

SESSION 4: Back to the Café

Is this what Poe was after, then, the thought that not only is potential for evil at once indeterminate, ubiquitous and isolating, but that there are awful patterns to wrongdoing that can take the shape of vice? This is part of it, but the patterns at issue in Poe's story at once outrun and embed trouble in individual wills.

Remember that opening scene? Remember the anguished dying men? It is natural, at first, to suppose that they are seeking absolution for their own misdeeds. But Poe's way of leading us into London through the view from a café window, and back again, opens onto an even worse possibility: the desperate dying men may be burdened with the realization that their lives had been made to fit social niches which were partly made possible by social ills that no one person caused and that no one person could correct by his own hand.

This scenario haunts our story because of what the narrator saw outside that window initially (it would have been hard to avoid noticing such matters in an early nineteenth-century metropolis like London, after all, and Poe loved cities). Our narrator delighted in the spectacle of the gas-lit London crowds. But there was, actually, no unmixed philanthropy expressed in his initial catalogue of the types of people outside. Here is an example of the narrator's observations:

The tribe of clerks was an obvious one.... There were junior clerks of flash houses--young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips. Setting aside a certain dapperness of carriage, which may be termed deskism for want of a better word, the manner of these persons seemed to me an exact facsimile of what had been the perfection of the bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before. They wore the cast-off graces of the gentry;--and this, I believe, involves the best definition of the class.

...There were many individuals of dashing appearance, whom I easily understood as belonging to the race of swell pick-pockets with which all great cities are infested. ("The Man of the Crowd")
The whole of the rank-ordered array of subspecies jointly produce in concert (although not by design) the life of the city--a life magical in its variation and bustle. The good that describes each type of niche--the good of fancy clothing (however outmoded), of steady income and of participation in commerce, or the good of increasing one's holdings by adroit, skilled effort--is, moreover, good. Nevertheless, the various classes of person observed are all, somehow, tainted by the very histories that make their sort of person possible. Among the multitude our narrator finds "modest young girls returning from long and late labor to a cheerless home," "feeble and ghastly invalids...who sidled and tottered through the mob, looking everyone beseechingly in the face, as if in search of some chance consolations," "drunkards," and "pie-men, porters, coal-heavers, sweeps, organ-grinders...ragged artizans and exhausted laborers of every description, ...all full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity." The observation of species made possible by the domestic history of London, that is, does not yield a serene vision of the well-ordered society. This is the life on which the old man (the undead hand of the past, perhaps?) feeds.

Who are those ghostly confessors to whom anguished men turn on their deathbeds? What is the substance of these confessions? It's hard to say. Is one distressed about one's own victims? Those toward whom one was negligent or indifferent? One's own ancestors? The victims of one's own ancestors? Whole great washes of humanity that may have been wasted in the rise of one's city or state? How big does a horror have to get to mount a burden so heavy that it can only be thrown down into a grave? And what is required to inspire nameless remorse of the magnitude that is supposed to be visited upon men nightly such that the sense of awfulness spreads out from individual hearts to take in the heart of the city and the heart of the world?

If the dying men take personally every historical wrong that made possible nineteenth century London in all of its charms, then these evils are too many, too various, and too distant to permit absolution of any of distressed individual man. The subject of such absolution wouldn't be an individual person at all. It would be something more on the order of a mode of social life. No one could soothe an individual overwhelmed by systematic inequity in the enabling conditions of his rapidly departing life.

To see this, imagine something more intimate. Imagine that your parents are dead. Imagine learning that they committed hideous crimes before you were born. They had, say, several murders and mountains of fraud to their credit, and their ill-gotten gains paid for things that made your life rewarding. What could you do with information like that? Visit the victims' graves and apologize? Find their descendants and try to help?If this is a local example of the kind of thing that comes back to haunt Poe's dying men, impersonally, massively, on their deathbeds, small wonder that confessors can't help.

Poe's story lodges itself in individual and city at the same time, and what distinguishes man and town alike, what sets them apart from other men and other towns, isn't pretty. The net result is a human landscape without any moral high ground. No wonder the population moves like water, flows in tides, appears as a sea of human heads. There's no dry land (and, as if to punctuate this point, rain falls, sporadically, all night long as our narrator trails after the old man--both figures are drenched as they move through the city, buoyed up by multitudes). Some such interpretation seems necessary to explain that first paragraph, and why it is that a third of the tale is taken up with accounts of the sordid, unhappy kinds of people rushing past the window. Something like this also seems necessary to make sense of the title. After all, the old man isn't the man of some private nightmare. He is the man of the crowd.

"Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul", not only can't be alone because it can't subsist; it can't be alone because it is embedded in the conditions that made the variety of forms of individual urban life possible. That is what I mean by saying that Poe's story gives the kind of thought that we find in Aquinas a modern turn. It takes the old idea about evil and writes it across the whole urban landscape. Its horror belongs to modernity.


Candace Vogler

Candace Vogler is Co-Director of the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. The reading of Poe in this seminar was developed in connection with the MAPH colloquium in collaboration with Jay Schleusener, Co-Director.

Vogler works and teaches primarily in ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy; other interests include feminism and gender studies. She is the author of Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press), John Stuart Mill's Deliberative Landscape (Routledge, 2001), and the co-editor of a special issue of Public Culture devoted to disability studies and criticism, The Critical Limits of Embodiment (Fall 2001), as well as essays on such topics as intimacy, Elizabeth Anscombe's work in practical philosophy, Rousseau and contemporary social contract theory, philosophy and literature, feminism, and sexuality studies. Her research interests center upon the strengths and limits of liberal humanism in ethics, in moral psychology, in social and political philosophy, in gender studies and in cultural studies. She is currently beginning work on a book about virtue theory and self-culture focused ethics more generally called Moral Blindness.

COPYRIGHT Copyright 2003 the University of Chicago.

(c) 2004 The University of Chicago :: Please direct questions or comments to furlong@lib.uchicago.edu

Need help searching?
Search help

Search eCUIP:

Examples: or
Contact eCUIP!

Need help?

Return to the eCUIP top page!