Is it possible to talk about Evil in the time of pandemics?

Speech at the webinar UNESCO

29 June 2020


Evil is a noun that evokes something general, philosophical, transcending all bad things. More than bad, an adjective.  When, in a language, we have a noun, philosophers think that there is an essence to ponder. And, in fact, Western thought, since ancient Greek times, has questioned the essence of Evil. And the most frequent answer, from Plato up to today, has been that Evil is not an essence, because Evil does not actually exist. Evil, as Augustine of Hippo said, is not Being, but just a loss of Being. Evil is either an illusion, or the effect of human illusions.

But is this just old metaphysics? We moderns think we are more “realistic” and disenchanted. We think we know that bad things exist. But bad things are one thing, Evil is another.

One of the most influential thinkers of modern times, especially with regard to politics and society, is Rousseau. Even Marx and Marxisms are unthinkable without Rousseau. In my country, Italy, one of the key features of the Five-Star Movement (one of the two main ruling parties) is the Rousseau platform, an online space designed to enable direct democracy; the Italian ruling party declares itself Rousseauian. In fact, all environmental movements in the world – and I share most of their aims – are a form of Rousseauism. In short, Rousseauism is one of the few ideologies ruling the world today.

According to Rousseau, Nature is always good, it is humans who have introduced evil into the world by building a society, or a Kultur, a culture as we would say today, which is the cause of our discontent, of our Unbehagen. Humans are unhappy because they have cut themselves off from nature. Even in 1755, when the Lisbon earthquake elicited disputations among some philosophers, including Voltaire, Rousseau stated that the casualties were caused not by a nature indifferent to human well-being, but rather by man himself, who had built cities with precarious tall buildings. With Rousseau, philosophers do not say explicitly that Evil is non-being, but that Evil is introduced by humans into a nature which is in itself benevolent. It is man who brings anti-nature —and thus Evil — into the world.

Most of the commentaries I’ve read and heard during these months of the coronavirus pandemic – by sociologists, philosophers, politicians, and learned journalists – have been, I think, with only a few variations, just a re-run of Rousseau’s argument against Voltaire regarding the Lisbon earthquake. It has been taken for granted that the Covid-19 epidemic is unlike any other; that this virus is the result of human intervention and not the usual predictable mutation and spill-over between species (which Darwinism explains quite well); that this virus is the consequence of climate change (which in turn is the effect of human industry), or of the politics of deforestation, or of human proximity to animals resulting from the expansion of cities, or of the feverish pace of our international travels, etc. Of course, the various ideologies stress different points. For environmentalists, the human sin is industry and its threat to nature, for Marxists the Original Sin is the capitalist market and social inequalities, and so on. (Yet I wonder how social inequalities can be linked to an epidemic which has hit the wealthiest regions of the world, such as Lombardy and New York.)

The biologists and experts in virology I have spoken to about this interpretation say that there is no evidence to support this idea; even if, of course, the increase of mobility spreads viruses more easily and quickly. For example, China is one of the countries in the world that has pushed most towards re-forestation in the most recent decades, and yet coronavirus was generated there.

In fact, there is no essential difference between the Coronavirus and other viruses or bacteria that have plagued humanity for centuries, long before capitalism, industrialization, or man-made climate change. The Spanish flu, which killed millions of people throughout the world one century ago, was far more deadly than this Coronavirus, but at that time industrialization was quite limited, and most of the planet was agricultural. But there is a very strong need among modern men, and among philosophers as well, to denounce humanity as the cause and source of all evil. Like Spinoza, we think that “Being is good,” and that evil is a human creation. Of course, Homo sapiens produced a lot of “bad” things which harm themselves, such as wars, polluting industries, deadly weapons, the exploitation and enslavement of other men… But to point out the bad products of human beings is one thing, to consider humans the only real cause of evil is another.

This intellectual reflex of thinking that if there’s a catastrophe, the cause has to always be human, expresses a very ancient reaction which is found among many primitive cultures. The Jivaros, a tribe of South America, are convinced that if a relative dies, even at 80 and in his own bed, it is always as a consequence of a murder plot – and they have to find the culprits and punish them. A deep-rooted human reflex takes for granted that all terrible things are either a human product or a divine product. Either a god punished us, or, if we no longer believe in gods, evil humans are to blame. So while a few centuries ago the Covid-19 epidemic would have been interpreted as an act of the Almighty to punish us for our sins, today the Almighty is no longer a god but “powerful men or women” – industrialists, politicians, capitalists, the WHO, or, according to Trump and other fascists, the Chinese. These powerful men are the ultimate cause of all disasters, Covid-19 included. A great ethnic distance separates those of us who live in industrial countries from the Jivaros of Ecuador, but the scapegoat mechanisms are absolutely the same. A superior mind is always considered the cause of catastrophes: once it was an enraged god, now it is the human being, the new Satan for many.

Perhaps the time has come to recognize that humans are neither gods nor devils, that humans are only humans.


But please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t exclude that in this pandemic there is some indirect contribution by humans. For example, in certain countries the health system responded quite well to the epidemic, in other countries a lot less so. Chinese health policy, which produced one of the most effective responses, can teach us a lot about improving how to cope with an unexpected epidemic – because there will certainly be others, as there have always been. In fact, our major response has consisted of social dìstancing, just as Europeans did during the famous 14th century plague. But it is one thing to improve our response to an epidemic, and quite another to accuse Humanity of being the source of all evils.

We can even find a human contribution to the catastrophic effects of a tsunami, for example, by acknowledging that it is dangerous to build houses too close to the ocean, or that rescue efforts were insufficient in the case of the 2004 tsunami. But it would be absurd to say that the 2004 tsunami was essentially linked by the tourist industry simply because many victims were tourists from non-Asian countries! It would sound absurd, just as it sounded absurd for me to read the many sonorous commentaries on the Covid epidemic signed by some philosophers. To give you just an example, one philosopher said that the coronavirus epidemic was linked to the capitalist market because this propels mobility, which in turn favours the spread of viruses. Our need to criticize the kind of society wherein we live – which is in itself a good aim – sometimes pushes us to come up with some really imbecìle ideas.

I think that at the base of these many commentaries to the pandemic you will find the same dynamics which creates what used to be called urban legends, and are now called conspiracy theories. They are not new, in all epochs there has been a very strong appeal to consider some men as the authors of disasters. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.C., first the Emperor Nero, and later the Christians, were believed to be the authors of the fire. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, everybody was convinced that the authors were the pro-Papist partisans, the French, and one of them was hanged. There is a huge resistance in human beings, even well-read ones, to accept that nature or chance are the ultimate origin of human suffering. In this sense, we are all like the Jivaros, we need to find the culprits of everything, especially of our death. We need scapegoats, even if today the scapegoat is not a specific human being, but Humanity itself—no longer Nero, but capitalism, communism, our social structure, and so on. This is because humans are thirsty for meaning, and finding the culprit of a meaningless event saves us from what we humans fear the most, our own Boogeyman: the ocean of sense-lessness which surrounds the small island of the human construction of sense.




Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059