Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the Reality of Evil

I like "Heart of Darkness" first of all because it has both philosophical and psychological richness. It is also literary. The book discusses good and evil and unchecked power. It seems to me that the story is plausible on a psychological level, although I certainly am no psychologist.

First, something needs to be said regarding the problem of good and evil since I understand that liberals and conservatives view this concept differently. Dennis Prager, the radio talk show host, said, “No issue has a greater influence on determining your social and political views than whether you view human nature as basically good or not.” He further stated that his experience as radio talk show host had led him to conclude that “the major reason for political and other disagreements I had with callers was that they believed people are basically good, and [he] did not.” He believes that “we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil.”

He lists four reasons why this issue is so important. (1) If “people are born good” then evil has its source outside of the individual. Prager states that this often leads to the conclusion that the source of evil is poverty. (2) If people are born good, character development will not be stressed. “You will teach [children] how to struggle against the evils of society -- its sexism, its racism, its classism and its homophobia. But you will not teach them that the primary struggle they have to wage to make a better world is against their own nature.” (3) If “people are basically good, God and religion are morally unnecessary, even harmful. Why would basically good people need a God or religion to provide moral standards?” (4) If “people are basically good, you, of course, believe that you are good -- and therefore those who disagree with you must be bad, not merely wrong. You also believe that the more power that you and those you agree with have, the better the society will be. That is why such people are so committed to powerful government and to powerful judges. On the other hand, those of us who believe that people are not basically good do not want power concentrated in any one group, and are therefore profoundly suspicious of big government, big labor, big corporations, and even big religious institutions. As Lord Acton said long ago, ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Lord Acton did not believe people are basically good.”

Prager concludes his article by stating that if the West does not soon reject “humanism and begin to recognize evil, judge it and confront it, it will find itself incapable of fighting savages who are not noble.” [Note: all quotations are from Dennis Prager are from an internet article at http://jewishworldreview.com/0103/prager123102.asp] Individuals must be taught to do good. I agree with Prager that babies are born innocent but not good.

The characterization of Kurtz in the novella traces a person’s unchecked descent into absolute evil and final recognition of the horror of that descent. I think “Heart of Darkness” demonstrates brilliantly an individual’s as well as civilization’s capacity for evil.

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