Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

Richard Holloway: On Evil

The structures of evil spring from the same archetypal well from which we create god and good. In this world of duality one cannot exist without the other.

This month, rather than write my own essay, I have chosen to share with you a quote from one of my favorite books, Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity, by Richard Holloway. 

Paul Tillich … believed that the idea of the demonic was the mythical expression of an important human reality, namely, the structural, and therefore, inescapable, power of evil.

There is a type of mind—kindly, liberal, humanist—that either refuses to, or is incapable of, confronting the intractability of … evil. It sees only ‘individual acts of evil, dependent on the free decisions of the conscious personality', it believes ‘in the possibility of inducing the great majority of individuals to follow the demands of an integrated personal and social life by education, persuasion, and adequate institutions' says Tillich.

– Note from text: Paul Tillich
The Protestant Era, Nisbet, 1955, p.xxxv.ff.]

This kindly belief in progress and human perfectibility was destroyed by the horrible wars and purges of the twentieth century, as well as by our explorations into the depths of our own psyches. The great analysts of humanity's sick soul, Freud, Jung and Adler, explored and recorded their encounters with destructive forces deep within us that unpredictably determined the energies of individuals and whole groups. It was as though, through their encounter with the unconscious forces within us, they were being offered a preview of the great horrors that were to erupt on the conscious surface of history.

The wars and persecutions of the 20th century … have forced us to confront two almost ungovernable sources of evil, which Tillich called the demonic. One is the hidden continent within our own nature that we call the unconscious; and the other is the herd instinct, the collective dimension of humanity that can take over or possess our individuality.

These demonic forces, together or separately, can create structures of evil that are beyond the influence of the normal powers of personal good will. They promote individual and social tragedy of the sort that we witnessed throughout the last century, and which we continue to observe helplessly in the genocide and civil strife that disfigure the present.

Our impotence in the face of this kind of structured evil, our recognition that the institutions we create have a collective dynamic that often overrides the ethics of the individual, and our experience of the brutal reality of the group mind, all persuade us that there are systems of evil that are superhuman in their power and imperviousness to human rationality …

The myth of the demonic is a way of expressing the eruptions and collisions of evil and suffering that so disfigure our history. If it is hell we are thinking of, then we have confronted it in our own time in a series of monstrous evils that might have been scripted by Dante. And none was worse or more archetypal than the holocaust, the destruction of six million Jews in the death camps of Europe. It was as if the hell of the Christian imagination had finally erupted into history and established itself in our midst …

There is something of the demonic here, something beyond explanation, something right off the trajectory of history.

Richard Holloway
Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity pp. 104-8.

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy