Is Evil Something That We Learn, Or Is It Just An Acquired Taste Acting Unjustly?

 

“…So someone who wants to know the cause of our learning something really wants to know the cause of our doing good. So let’s have no more of your wanting to hunt down this mysterious evil teacher. If he is evil, he is no teacher; and if he is a teacher, he is not evil”…Augustine

Painfully watching the PBS NewsHour last night, and the difficult task of the French and African national forces, fighting and dying while trying to keep “religious” people, in the Central African Republic (CAR), from slaughtering each other. I am at once struck by the tragic contradiction of “religious people”; taking a directive from their respective god (or perhaps the same god) to kill those who follow a religious tradition different from their own; and I can only wonder if God, is in fact directing either of them. Imagine that, a religious war without God.

The next morning; as an obedient student of a good High School English Language Arts program, I  treat the news report as literature; and then go on to instinctively compare and contrast its “main idea” with two powerful passages from my morning reading meditation. I am reading from: On Free Choice Of the Will by Augustine; he writes in response to a question from Evodius- “But if we do not come to know evil things, how is it that human beings perform evil acts?” And, Augustine replies:

        “Perhaps because they turn away from learning and become strangers to it. But whether that is the correct explanation or not, one thing is certainly clear: since learning is good, and the word ‘learning’ is correctly applied only when we come to know something, we simply cannot come to know evil things. If we could, then they would become part of learning, and so learning could not be a good thing. But it is a good thing, as you said yourself. Therefore, we do not come to know evil things, and there is no point in your asking from whom we learn to do evil things. Or else we do come to know them, but only as things to be avoided, not as things to be done. It follows that doing evil is nothing but turning away from learning…”

And further in the passage:

“…So someone who wants to know the cause of our learning something really wants to know the cause of our doing good. So let’s have no more of your wanting to hunt down this mysterious evil teacher. If he is evil, he is no teacher; and if he is a teacher, he is not evil”

 

        As an educator I am  pleased to read that Augustine affirms what I have always believed; that ‘learning’ contrary to popular belief is not a neutral act; it is what it can only be, a positive force for good, and for doing good in the world. I have often bristled when hearing someone express: that a person can go to prison and “learn to be a better criminal”. But in fact this “learning to be a better criminal” is actually the absence (if we agree with Augustine’s logic, and I do) of learning. The objective of learning to help human beings to become fully human, to see their own humanity reflected in another, and therefore come to appreciate the humanity of others. Learning is the self-realization of a person’s “specialness” on this planet, to realize ones unique talents and gifts that only you out of all of the billions of people on the planet can offer to the world. Learning is seeing oneself as an instrument of service, and not a cause of suffering. Learning is to find, discover, uncover and develop ones true self; one’s true calling and reason for the time period in which we enter and leave human history, also known as one’s lifetime, our biographical contribution. And so the question is not: “What is in your wallet”; rather, the question is: what contributions are in your biography? A criminal, a person that inflects pain and harm on another, no matter how technically proficient in performing these terrible acts, is a person who has not learned anything about life in general, or most important about their own life in particular. That is why as educators we must never teach a “technical rich” but “soulless poor” lesson. The world is full of technically competent immoral and unethical people, why create more? During the height of the Nazi curse; Germany was producing more than its share of world renown: scientist, musicians, engineers, writers, painters, and yes, theologians. And yet with all of these worldly technical and scholarly attributes; there existed in that country, a terrible absence of learning about what it means to be fully human. I am wondering what absence of learning is taking place in the CAR. I have read both the Bible and the Quran (cover to cover), and I have not found a teaching in either book that suggest that what is going on in the CAR is right or can be justified. More than anything else that country is in need of Muslim and Christian teachers; and to paraphrase Augustine, if they are evil they are not teachers; and therefore cannot teach evil; and if they are truly teachers they are not evil; and can only teach the art of being, and doing good.