Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto

IS EVIL AN ILLUSION? In Divya Dwivedi editor, "Virality of Evil. Philosophy in the Time of a Pandemic", Rowman and Littlefield, London 202, pp. 40-48.Dec/06/2023


The pandemic caused by the coronavirus has sparked a debate among many philosophers as to whether this evil is entirely "natural" or a "social" fact (for some it is social to the extent that it does not even exist, in short, it is entirely a sham). This debate is profoundly shaped by an opposition that has a clear metaphysical origin, that between "nature" and "nurture", or between "biological reality" and "social product". It is a categorical opposition that I personally reject. For this reason, I will not ask to what extent evil is natural or cultural, rather I will look at how Evil has been considered not only by our philosophical tradition but by Western thought in general.  

I want to mention that personally I don’t believe in either Evil or Good. In my opinion, these are allegories of our ethical judgements, which are always terribly human. I won’t say anything about what think evil is, but rather how our culture has confronted up to now the question of good and evil. 




The Western philosophical tradition has always attempted to dismiss the belief in Evil.

Yet, surely no one can deny that the world is full of pain, injustice, and evil persons ... The point is the ontological status of all this misery. According to many philosophies, Evil has the status of an illusion. It would be wrong, however, to believe that this doubt concerning the existence of evil is the whim of philosophers who refuse to accept reality. For instance, even modern physics – especially Einstein - claims that time is a human illusion. 

From the very beginning most of philosophical thought has postulated a close connection between Being and Good. Hence the idea that what is not Good, that is, Evil, is non-being; that non-being may appear as Being, though in fact it is not. Starting from Plato, Western thought has linked ontology to something which, in general terms, we may call ethics. In other words, it has identified a profound coincidence between what is and what is good. In Platoιδ?ες, appearances – today we would call them the structures, - are what is truly real (ουσ?α). And the structure of ?γαθ?ν, of Good, is the sun of the other structures, a sort of super-structure. Good is more real than any other thing. In this perspective, evil, κακ?ν, exists only as ε?δωλον, as semblance, non-reality, as the imaginary mould of ε?δος. Following in Platos’ footsteps, Augustine also denied the existence of evil, claiming it “exists” only as the deprivation of Good. 

Spinoza argued that evil is such not with respect to the order and laws of Nature-God, but only with respect to laws governing our human nature. Deified nature is Good, only man errs, only man endures evil.  

It would be wrong to view this ontological repression of evil as typical of past metaphysics, and to view that we moderns, being more courageous, would not repress it. Today many of us who claim to reject the metaphysical tradition believe, without realizing it, that evil is nothing other than the shadow of Good. 

We may think of the conception that dominates the Western ethical and political world today, and increasingly inspires the way we conceive of democracy, human rights, free trade ..., that is, utilitarianism. This philosophy, based on the line of thought developed in the culture that has economically and culturally dominated in the last three centuries, is defined by Bentham (1907, 20) as follows:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.[1]

This conception has been widely criticized because it mixes what is (the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure) and what ought to be (we ought to avoid pain and pursue pleasure). It is said that Bentham confuses Sein and Sollen – the terms used by Kelsen – “Is” and “Ought”, merging ethics with ontology. But in fact this coalescence between “Is” and “Ought” is, in fact, an essential element of the utilitarian conception.   

         Freud turned to this utilitarian conception when he spoke of Lustprinzip, translated as “pleasure principle”, which I prefer to call “desire/pleasure principle”, or even better, lust principle. Later Freud had to make a place for the “beyond the Lustprinzip”, he had to admit that it isn’t true that humans tend to avoid pain and maximize pleasure, at least this is not all they do, which means they are not totally utilitarian: at least in part human beings are seduced by something that has no regard for their pleasure or pain, which means that human beings are inhabited by Evil.  



         I will not address the complex issue of whether pursuing what is considered useful conflicts with the pursuit of one’s interest by others. Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand” was theorized to explain that if and only if everyone pursues their own personal interest, the general interest will also be benefitted. The more selfish individuals are, the happier society will be as a whole (Kant’s ungesellige Geselligkeit). Now, we know this is not true. In many miserable societies, individuals are also selfish (many are indeed corrupt) but this does not make them happy societies. Selfishness alone is not enough to build an altruistic society.    

We may also ask: do all women and men find it desirable to live in a democratic society, where civil rights are guaranteed, where women have equal rights, etc.? I have met several people who, having lived under Fascism, Nazism, or Stalinism, are nostalgic for them. Back then, they say, they were happier then than today. Not just because they were young, but because when they were young they believed that the society they lived in was a happy one. In short, what makes me happy can make you unhappy, and vice versa. Over four centuries ago Etienne de la Boétie preventively questioned the “invisible hand” when speaking of voluntary servitude. That is, human beings do not spontaneously tend towards either liberty or Good, but enjoy being enslaved, and adapt well to Evil. 

         This is why when the utilitarian West, via the Americans, defeats dictators in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or elsewhere, they are not always welcomed with open arms, quite the contrary. We may say that the interest of many Iraqis, Libyans, Afghans, etc., does not coincide with the ontological utilitarianism of the West.



         We are familiar with the torment of monotheistic thought: if God can be identified with Good and Truth, how is it possible that there is so much evil on earth, in other words how is it possible for non-truth to be true? This forces us to believe that non-being actually has a form of being – this problem arose shortly after Parmenides. In fact, I have the impression that every philosophy must address this fundamental problem: “what kind of being is that of non-being? Are not illusions entities as well? And so on.”

         This torment was later developed by Rousseau’s conception, which in turn permeates Marxism and the political culture of the left. With Rousseau truth and good no longer coincide with God, but with Nature. Human suffering is not caused by Nature but by human beings themselves, who, inventing society, Kultur, have constructed a sort of evil non-nature, which we repeatedly expose as non-truth. From culture derive private property, inequality, women’s inferiority to men, etc. Rousseau further developed the Western metaphysical tradition that views evil as a human product, and specifically as a product of a humanity that has become alienated in culture. This divide between nature and nurture will permeate modern thought, from biology to philosophy. For instance, the question “Today girls still prefer to play with dolls while boys prefer to play with swords ... is this a matter of nature or culture?” is a question that entails the fatidic distinction between sex and gender: while the first is natural, the second is a historical-social construct. According to the vision that is permeating everything today, nature is what we must return to, while culture – in particular its economic structure – is the origin of all oppression. The ideal of a “natural culture” stems from this vision, and we take for granted it is the best, we identify it with Good (indeed: what is communism according to Marx if not the restoration of a culture that is finally true?). We ensure for example that all human beings are born free and equal – equal with regard at least to the abilities we view as essential, namely the possibilities to learn and be good. Modernity is grounded in the myth that “we are born free and equal” – which resulted from the combination of monotheisms and the Enlightenment. “We are all equal” actually means “we are all good!” Bad are those who refuse to understand that we are all good and equal– and so they deceive themselves. Like Plato, today the majority still thinks that evil is the result of ignorance. In fact, we often hear intellectuals say that the resurgence of fascisms, racisms and sovereignist ideologies is the effect of the ignorance of the masses, which means that more education is necessary to beat fascism. According to them, when fascism is not a matter of personal interests, it is about ignorance – despite the fact that some of the most prominent members of the European intelligentsia adhered to fascism or nazism, people who certainly were not ignorant. I don’t think I need to mention these people by name, since the list would be very long.

In this context, which some say is ideological, the fact that Nature shows a side that we cannot call evil (in fact, we assume that ethical judgments do not apply to nature) but, we may say, harmful, and sometimes devastating, for us, embarrasses this vision. We have seen this emerge in the wide-ranging debate that took place around the coronavirus pandemic.



As long as we are speaking about disasters that are not intentionally caused by humans, but closely connected to technology, such as countries polluted by dioxin, Chernobyl, Fukushima ..., it is easy to say, as Rousseau did criticizing Voltaire: “we were asking for it!”. However, how does one conceptualize something like epidemics, which have always existed in the world? Today, many find it difficult to accept the simple idea that nature, not having to follow any divine or human plan, has no regard for what we consider useful. That from nature we may derive also destruction. Hence the temptation to search for human causes – that is, human faults –of disasters such as pandemics, especially the one we are witnessing today. What is missing here is that humans can also be the victims of nature (as well as victims of themselves); in fact, this idea is treated as a naive illusion: humans must be guilty of their troubles. Humanity is too powerful not to be guilty.

There is an Italian expression that can be translated as “It’s raining ... thieving government!” So, this belief in the quasi-omnipotence of powerful men, with the power to make rain, is not a recent one, but an old one. In ancient Greek the word α?τιον means both ‘cause’ and ‘guilt’. Also, some primitive societies (such as Jivaros in Ecuador and Peru) refuse to admit that certain natural deaths are casual: in fact, according to them they are caused by human malevolence, black magic in particular... Today’s beliefs are somewhat similar. That is, we tend instinctively to identify guilt as a cause, whereby the cause of illness and death coincides with a transgression of an “Ought to”. The meaningless indifference of nature to what we consider useful is therefore denied, and pain is moralized.

This belief in the evil superpower of humans takes various forms, from the most common to very sophisticated philosophical forms, often supported by some of our most important thinkers (I would say that an almost organic function of intellectuals is to criticize the society we live in, whatever it may be. But this need to criticize one’s own society often leads to disguised forms of conspiracy theories.) Speaking of the reactions to covid-19, we have witnessed typical scapegoating. China is to blame for the pandemic. But at a much more sophisticated level, the scapegoat is the capitalist market, techno-science, bourgeois political power, our utilitarian conception ... Some say that the global capitalist market is the cause of the epidemic because it enhances mobility. Is mobility, following the technological development of transport, a paradigmatic trait of capitalism? Certainly, fast transport is among the causes of the rapid spread of the epidemic today, but this cause is viewed as a guilt – that of a society which one detests. “Nature is rebelling against man” is a modern cliché. In the past it was God who caused plagues to punish us for our sins, today it is Nature. 



The present situation highlights a strong trend in modern thought: while in the past evil was non-Being that lured man, today evil has increasingly become what defines the very being of man. On the one hand this reversal results in a moral condemnation of humanity in its entirety, while on the other, its exaltation precisely because it is evil. 

This “Satanization” of humans characterizes many modern philosophies, which view human subjects (not Homo sapiens, the biological species, but the subject that is embodied in him) as a break in the positivity of nature. Humans bring the negative into the world, and, because of this, evil. This insertion of the negative into nature is also what defines humans philosophically. Thus, Sartre conceived of the subject as a for-self – negative instance – which is opposed to each being-in-itself. Moreover, so-called post-structuralism developed the idea that language de-naturalizes not only Homo sapiens, but also nature.

It is true that the human being as ζοον λογον εχων, – an animal inhabited by language – is not viewed as the creator and master of language, given that language is the master of man (as Heidegger wrote). This is, however, in my opinion, false modesty: in fact, if it is true that language is the master of man and not the other way round, it is also true that man is the only slave of language. It is an extraordinary privilege. As the Biblical myth says, human beings had the privilege of being the only entity to rebel against the will of God. Heidegger spoke of language as the “house of Being”, and it must be noted that houses are always human constructions. 

By means of “speaking animals” language introduces lack and absence into the world, it “kills the thing”. We may say that this is a modern philosophical version of the myth of original sin: women and men become human by means of evil, and their becoming human generates evil in the world. Yet today this human fall corresponds to extraordinary human elevation. Today, Homo sapiens can claim to be proud of having been driven out of the Garden of Eden. According to this view man’s technical dominion over nature is nothing other than an extension of this original de-naturalization of the world, which for some philosophers is consciousness (Sartre), for others language (Lacan).

Western metaphysics displays a formidable historical continuity, from the Bible of monotheisms to the modern philosophies, a continuity we may want to question, in order to interrupt it. In fact, this inviolable divide between subject and world, between culture and nature, between language and things, that has always shaped our way of conceiving of the human condition, should perhaps be rethought. We may find that the divide is not where we have always expected it to be. 



Today Evil, brought into the world by humans by means of language, increasingly constitutes the nobility of humans, of which they should somehow be (secretly) proud. 

This shift is exemplified by Goethe’s Faust, whose vicissitudes open onto a modern vision of ourselves, or rather, onto the ideal of the modern intellectual elite. Modern men and women must confront Mephistopheles continuously. Human beings tend to describe themselves as monsters, as a monstruum (monster comes from the Latin word ‘show’), as the extraordinary show of a void in the compactness of Being. The satanic celebration of humanness compensates the grief caused by the de-divinization of its matrix.

It is no coincidence that modern literature, theatre and cinema, feature a series of human monsters, starting from the retroactive deification of the Marquis de Sade. Followed by Moosbrugger of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Blanchot’s writing on Evil and Literature, Foucault’s Pierre Rivière, and finally Chigurh, in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, or the serial killer of Lars von Trier’s film The House Jack Built. The fascination that men “beyond Good and Evil” exert on many of us today is due to the fact that the horror man once inspired in us becomes a sort of admiration for the horrendous character of man. (In Latin horrendous means horrendous the way we intend it, but also ‘terribly beautiful’. The word indicated something out of proportion). Monsters arouse an insoluble ambivalence because they show that certain humans can be totally counter-natural; however, precisely this being counter-natural renders them majestic. There is reason to suspect (few would admit to this) that Evil is the masterpiece of mankind. Hence the widespread belief that the world is in a very bad state ... Everything is getting worse. All data that point to a general improvement in our quality of life are ignored or denied.  Is this bent, contrary to that of progress, something that is feared and therefore denounced? Or is it something that is secretly desired? Desired because we are fundamentally convinced that Evil is the truth of human beings, and that the ultimate object of human evil is man himself.

This has to do with the idea of the de-naturalization of the world made possible by language, by Kultur, by neoteny... It is a break with nature imposed by culture, the origin of all evil according to Rousseau, while in the 20th century it is the distinctive trait not only of human uniqueness, but also of our true freedom. Sade’s imprisonment in the Bastille and in psychiatric hospitals becomes a paradoxical testimony to the immense freedom of human beings in general. 

The complete alienation of human beings from nature, by means of language and perhaps also of philosophy, therefore by means of techno-science, leads to the technological destruction of the planet and therefore of mankind, but also to a sort of desperate kind of freedom that constantly lures man, be it from a distance. 

In this perspective, Good seems now an illusion, while Evil seems to reveal to us the profound truth of Homo sapiens as an oxymoronic, paradoxical separation from nature and from our ownnature. This ever-increasing human exile from Being – a crime for some, a condition of freedom for others –suggests an idea not many are willing to avow: that Evil is the truth of human beings.


Sergio Benvenuto




[1]Bentham, J. (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1907.

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