Like Those Who Came Before

A friend attended a lecture on the nature of evil the other day. The speaker’s theme was that we are no less evil now than we ever were, and in fact, that the 20th century was more evil than all the ones before it.


First, yes “we” are no less evil now than “we” were “before.”

Nor are we more evil. Evilness has been pretty static over recorded history, and presumably over all the time that homo sapiens have been in existence. There have always been some really bad people, some really good people—a whole lot in between.

There always will be.

It seems that each generation from time immemorial has felt that things were “getting worse” than they used to be. Come on. Things have not been getting progressively worse for all time. It’s just in our nature to idealize the good old times and bemoan the failings of the contemporary world.

This tendency finds expression in the speaker’s inane conclusion that the 20th century was the most violent of all time.

Hello! More violent than the Dark Ages? More violent than ancient Rome? More violent than the Crusades? The Inquisition?

Than slavery?

Are you kidding me? They used to burn witches alive. In other words, take a torch and light a living, breathing woman on fire and watch her burn. Alive. For sport.

They used to quarter people. Alive. They used to go watch lions eat people for fun. Women used to be property.

It has always been violent.

It has always been bad.

It has always been good.

From the beginning of recorded history, there have been kind, peaceful, generous, empathic, courageous, heroic people fighting the good fight. And winning…a little.

Not outright. And they likely never will win outright. I’m sorry. I didn’t create the world. If I had, it would be different.

But get over the fatalism. “We” are never going to arrive at this destination of perfect, universal goodness.

Nor will we ever succumb to universal badness.

One last note. This speaker also theorized that technology makes it possible for all the really bad people to wreak more havoc than they ever have before in history.


It also allows the other people to wreak more goodness.

We have weapons of mass destruction.

We have tools of mass construction.


Technology gives us tools to fight famine, sickness, disease and old age. Tools of mass production that make scarcity scarcer, and that will eventually render it obsolete. Tools of globalization that make it harder to see each other as “other.” Tools that open up the arts to more than just the elite progeny of the first world. Tools of information that make it possible for anyone to pursue any dream. Tools of freedom that allow social media to play a central role in peaceful revolutions. Tools to detect, respond to and limit the damage done by bad actors.

If the thesis is that we have lost more lives to modern weaponry than we have saved through modern science, mass distribution and the information highway—

I’m going to need proof.

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