:: Blog | Nov 3/22
I love Thrice. I don't think there's any hiding that fact. The last one of these ...
:: Quest | May 24/13
A long-standing franchise with an ordinary product that all tastes the same ...
:: Writings | Sep 25/16
Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

Martin Buber: Toward a Definition of Evil

Indeed, the way of the righteous is one path - for it is the path - but the way of the wicked is many ways and simultaneously not a way at all. Instead, the wicked merely possess an illusion of having a way9 and it is in this sense that Buber defines evil as a lack of direction - a 'vortex of chaos' and therefore not a path but a 'pseudo-decision which is indecision.'10 While initially this definition appears to be unclear and rather abstract, Buber's notion of evil is in fact quite concrete. Buber's philosophy and theology at first both resonate with a purely conceptual vibe, however, both are intricately and intentionally blended with ethical concerns. Being of the Jewish tradition, Buber argues that in Judaism 'ethics and faith are no separate spheres,' and to do good is to 'fill the world with God.'11 He flatly states that Judaism is not content with truth as merely an intellectual concept for its goal is 'truth as deed' and its 'longing for God [a] longing to prepare a place for Him in the true community.'12 Thus, the notion of evil in Buber's thought does not escape a materialising process; rather 'evil' is as concerned with action as 'good' is. However, one must not make the mistake of assuming, since good as deed reveals God between humanity, that therefore evil is simply the opposing - inaction, which is, simply put, to not do the good deed. Neither should one mistakenly count any actions themselves as evil for actions are simply occurrences which manifest good or evil and therefore evil is not in nature action, but it arises out of the primordial choice.13

Everyone is faced with a primal decision, so argues Buber. It is a decision of good and evil made within the person's very being.14 It is here at the decision we encounter Buber's two stages of evil, where the first is identified as indecision. Indecision is inexorably linked to the moment of awareness towards possibility, which itself 'generally coincides with puberty without being tied to it'15 - it is potentiality which separates humanity from the animals.16 Everybody, Buber states, at a particular point in the course of their lives, is overwhelmed by myriad possibilities of actions - one's reality is so besieged by images of potential that they create a 'dizzy whirl' from which the human soul strives to escape.17 From within this 'vortex of chaos' there are only two options for the soul: grasp at anything and cast the passions upon it, or attempt at self-unification.18 Should the soul cling to an object outside the dizzy whirl, the 'undirected possibility' becomes replaced by 'undirected reality' and if the soul seeks unification then the soul has opened itself to awareness of direction - and in doing so it has orientated itself toward the one way.19 As a part of this process, the human soul is confronted with what Buber calls 'the opposites of being.'20 Buber uses a well-known episode from Genesis to delineate this particular concept. Adam and Eve, in eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, are awakened to possibility; in this moment they are shamed by their misconceptions of their selves, perceiving what they are as 'intention' rather than 'intended' - that is, they identify the self as an 'intended shall-be' instead of a 'so-being,' therefore becoming ashamed of being as they are.21 Thus, in effect, the first humans chose to withdraw from God's will and protection and by doing so embarked upon the false path of indecision, continually playing with possibilities and images.

Indeed, this notion of images is important, as it is because of images that Buber believes God looked upon the human race and harboured regret over their creation.22 The imagery of the possible is deemed evil on the basis that they distract from the divine reality - they are temptations toward false ways which derail the human soul from the true way insofar as they entice the soul to incarnate a reality derived from possibilities. It is the 'imagery,' or yetser, which drives the human soul to attempt at forging a reality which is 'no longer divine but his, his capriciously constructed, indestinate reality.'23 While it is not the imagination itself which is wicked, the actions which arise from the imaginings - the yetsers which lead the human soul astray - are. However, it is not entirely evil, for if the yetser is directed toward the proper end it becomes good. That is, the yetser can be directed toward the one way when the 'evil impulse' and the 'good impulse' are united - the 'evil impulse' manifests as passion and is directionless when followed blindly; however, when united with the 'good urge,' which is pure direction toward the one way, the 'evil impulse' becomes focused.24 And in this uniting of the urges - in the focusing of the passions toward the one way - man becomes whole.

  1. Martin Buber, The Way of Man and Ten Rungs (New York, NY: Citadel Press, 2006), 107.
  2. Buber, Good and Evil, 128.
  3. Martin Buber, On Judaism (New York, NY: Schocken Books Inc., 1996), 111.
  4. Ibid., 110.
  5. Buber, Good and Evil, 130.
  6. Ibid., 102.
  7. Ibid., 125.
  8. Buber, Between Man and Man, 77.
  9. Buber, Good and Evil, 126.
  10. Ibid., 127.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 74.
  13. Ibid., 76.
  14. Ibid., 92.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 97.