Transforming Evil — Tackling the Problem

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…
– Matthew 5: 38-40

The words quoted above are among the most difficult and challenging in the Bible. But their sense – non resistance of evil – is crystal clear. At the end of the last chapter two ways of responding to evil were spoken of: 1/ fighting and destroying it; or 2/ reforming and transforming it. In the above quote, the second approach is indicated. These words are an explicit call for outer non-resistance coupled with an implied inner attitude of redemption, transformation and metamorphosis.

Needless to say, few people who call themselves Christians even attempt to practice this noble teaching. Certainly no nation state does so today (although Mahatma Ghandi attempted it during his years as political and spiritual leader of India, up to his assassination in 1948). In recent times it has become common for even the ‘Christian’ Western countries to respond to an evil action such as a terrorist outrage with more violence and even vengeance. Words such as ‘massive retaliation’ and ‘retribution’ are commonplace. While the Old Testament law of an ‘eye for an eye’ called for revenge to be limited to one eye for one eye, the modern law of the political jungle often regresses to the taking of ten enemy eyes for the loss of one eye.

Given the belligerent state of 21st century civilization and culture, it is remarkable to learn that many hundreds of years ago there were groups and individuals who attempted sincerely to live by the teaching of non-resistance to evil. The Manichaeans were key among them. Incredibly, their teaching spread far and wide without the use of violence, forced conversion or coercion of any kind. Originating in Ancient Babylonia, the Manichaeans eventually gained adherents across North Africa, Europe (as far south as Italy), and east as far as China. It is no exaggeration to say that at one time Manichaeism was a major world religion.

Mani’s life and teaching

Mani was born in AD 216 in the region of modern-day Iraq. The context within which he grew up was one of vigorous religious and spiritual debate. He would have come across various types of Christians as well as Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Jews, and pre-Christian ‘mystery’ religions and sects. But Mani had his own inspiration – a being he called ‘the Twin’ – who told him that he had a personal mission to fulfill. According to an ancient Coptic text, this Twin revealed to him the hidden mysteries of existence, including ‘the mystery of light and darkness, the mystery of the contest, the war, and the great battle caused by darkness’.1

On the basis of his spiritual revelation, Mani began a great spiritual movement which has come to be known as Manichaeism – although Mani and his followers thought of themselves simply as Christians. For many years Mani enjoyed the royal patronage of the Iranian king Shapur I, but one of his successors eventually imprisoned, tortured and executed Mani. He died in the city if Gundeshapur in 277 AD at the age of 60. Despite many attempts to physically exterminate his movement completely, Manichaeism survived and eventually inspired other Gnostic-Christian sects such as the Cathars, Albigenses and Bogomils.

In the past hundred years or so, many Manichaean writings have been discovered, and quite a lot is now known of Mani’s philosophy and teaching. A fair bit is also known through the writings of his enemies, such as the Christian Saint Augustine, who was once a Manichaean but later wrote many polemic tracts attacking his former beliefs.

Apart from being a spiritual teacher and leader, Mani was also a distinguished artist, and is said to have communicated spiritual truths through his paintings. This is significant because at the very heart of his so-called ‘dualistic’ teaching are the themes of light and darkness. Mani is said to have withdrawn to a cave for a year, emerging with a scroll of pictures of extraordinary beauty. One can imagine that his teachings of light and dark were dramatically illustrated in his paintings.

Good and Evil

Traditional interpretations of Manichaeism have suggested that it was a philosophy which feared and shunned matter, and that Manichaeans wished to escape the ‘evil’ physical world. Manichaeism is spoken of as a dualistic religion, which sees good and evil – or light and darkness – in eternal conflict and forever separated. The world, which was evil, was a place of sin that had to be transcended as quickly as possible. While it may be true that many Manichaeans and later Manichaean-inspired sects such as the Cathars had beliefs based on these ideas, quite another understanding of their philosophy is also possible, as can be seen from the intricate Manichaean creation legend, told in many versions in the surviving literature. What is given here is a greatly shortened, composite picture, encompassing only the most important points.

In essence, Mani speaks of three periods of cosmic history:

* A time in the distant past when light and dark, or good and evil, were quite separate.

** The present time, when good and evil have combined within human beings.

*** A future time when good and evil will no longer be mixed together.

In the beginning was the Father of Greatness, who lived in his Kingdom of Light. Light was separated from the dark depths, where the evil forces were active. In their interminable strife, these destructive forces arrived one day at the borders of the territory of Light, where they glimpsed a few beams of it. The dark forces wanted to control the Light, and set about to do battle with the Kingdom of Light. The great Father, aware that his kingdom was about to come under attack, prepared to defend it – but what could he do? His kingdom only constituted goodness, so he could only fight evil with goodness; punishment and force could not be considered. Consequently, he allowed the Mother of Life to emanate from him, who in turn gave birth to Primal Man. This primal human being (the ‘soul’), armed with elemental forces, descended into the darkness to do battle.

A great war then took place, in which the forces of darkness tore apart and devoured the Light. The result was that, for the first time, a mixture of light and dark was created. But the primal human soul was still caught in the darkness. So, the forces of Light raised up the human being to the Light, but its soul was left behind in the darkness. The world was then created by the good forces as a mechanism for liberating the remaining light. But in a desperate attempt to keep the light, the dark powers created the earthly human being, in order to imprison within human bodies the light (the human soul) which they had seized.

So, according to the legend the human body belongs to the dark powers while the human soul is of the light. The human being as a whole is a mixture of light and dark. On the one hand we have become enmeshed in the evil powers, while on the other we carry the seed of redemption – the light of the human soul – within us. In uniting itself with evil, the good gives the possibility for metamorphosis. The lower nature is redeemed by the higher nature; the dark is transmuted by the light. In this sense, Manichaeism can be understood as a spiritual system which seeks to transform evil, rather than one which simply shuns it.

Another important theme that emerges from the legend is the idea that the good can only combat evil through its own nature. It cannot fight it with aggression or violence, but can use only its qualities of goodness. In relation to the ideas presented in the last chapter, it becomes apparent from this legend that Manichaeism belongs to the second approach to evil described there: the approach that seeks to reform evil. Its relevance to our theme is now revealed. Far from being the preserve of dusty history books, the ancient teaching of Manichaeism can be seen as a spiritual impulse which is alive today in the approach to evil which works for its transformation into good. In relation to our main theme, this means the metamorphosis of the destructive aspects of materialism into a spiritual culture.

The Esoteric Movement of Manichaeism

It is important to distinguish between: 1/ the historical manifestations of Manichaeism as they have been documented by academics and historians; and 2/ the spiritual archetype of Manichaeism itself.

The historical study of Manichaeism can only tell us about the past; the many different forms that this spiritual movement has taken on the stage of world history, which includes the Cathars, the Albigenses, the Bogomils, and of course the original Manichaeans themselves. The spiritual archetype of Manichaeism, however, has to be differentiated from these past manifestations. This ‘archetype’ is the pure ideal which has not yet appeared in its fullest, truest sense on earth.

By means of explanation, an analogy can be made with Christianity. Over the past two thousand years, since the founder of Christianity – Jesus Christ – appeared on earth, many different churches, sects and groups have been founded in his name. Many of the practices of these various Christian groups differ greatly, and their teachings and interpretations of Christianity often contradict each other. Quite frankly, in an objective sense they cannot all be ‘true’. Yet most of these Christian groups believe that only they practice the ‘true’ form of Christianity, and that the others are at best seriously misguided, or at worst ‘doomed’. For example, Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah Witnessess, all of whom confess to the Biblical New Testament, hold radically different positions on basic aspects of Christian teaching.

Another view of this problematic situation is that the different interpretations of Christianity represent stages or elements of Christianity’s gradual process of incarnation, i.e. its revelation and establishment on earth. None is wholly right or wrong, but rather each embodies a step along a path – a lengthy process of evolutionary development – which may yet take many thousands of years to come to fulfillment. The archetypal, esoteric, spiritual form of Christianity exists independently to this outer developmental process. Hidden from view, it remains as a shining light to be aspired to.

If we apply this thinking to Manichaeism, it is conceivable that it, too, has an archetypal form which likewise can only reveal itself in stages. As with Christianity, its earthly, physical manifestation is in a process of evolution. Therefore, its essential nature should not be judged from its past history. This is not to say that Manichaeism has not been a great force for good in the past, but that its true revelation and inner mission are yet to find their complete fulfillment.

The above concept of spiritual evolution was put forward by the spiritual teacher and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. A highly advanced seer, he was able to research and study the spiritual facts connected with the earth and humanity from his own direct perception of higher dimensions. Steiner spoke of Manichaeism as a spiritual movement with a great task for the future: the transformation of evil itself.

The Manichaeans, said Steiner, understood that – according to a vast cosmic plan – evil was to be allowed to peak. This culmination of evil was permitted by the good powers in order that people should overcome it through inner force, and ultimately be strengthened in the process. The final result would thus be a greater good. In this sense, evil plays an important part in the drama of human life by providing the necessary resistance for the good to be challenged and invigorated. But this process of transformation, said Steiner, was only to begin in a small way in our time. In the distant future – when more highly-evolved forms of evil would show themselves on earth – the clash between good and evil would intensify and the good forces would have to develop quite new qualities to be successful in their task. But Steiner was insistent that true initiation in Manichaean spirituality had to remain hidden from the majority for a long time to come.2

How are we to understand all this? What does ‘transformation of evil’ mean today? There is little doubt that many people already work in the front line of the fight against evil: one only has to think of those who counteract child abuse, the dealing of hard drugs, criminal mafias, violence, etc. But I suspect that most of the people involved in this kind of work do not see it as their task to ‘transform’ the evil they confront. Their job is simply to try and stop the perpetrators of evil and to hand them over to the ‘justice’ of the legal system. In relation to the two ways of confronting evil spoken of earlier, this process represents, quite literally, the ‘fight’ against evil which seeks to crush and defeat it.

Some people involved in similar types of work do however see it as their task to try and transform criminal behavior in others. The methods they use are many and varied, and might typically include counseling and therapy of different kinds. While there is no doubt that such a direct meeting with the outer manifestations of evil is noble work, regrettably it is not something which everybody is able to do in our time. Such work would simply not be appropriate for many people. For example, trying to reform a murderer who suffers from deep psychological disturbances requires in-depth training, specialist techniques and great skill. This is an important vocation for certain individuals, and is a pointer to the type of meeting with evil which will increasingly be called for in the future, but it is not one that is generally applicable today. Wonderful as it is that people undertake these important societal roles, it is not the purpose of this book to speak of this type of immediate confrontation with evil.

But there is something which all human beings can do today to take part in the process of transforming evil. It is something we can do right now, and does not necessarily call for an outer confrontation with evil. It is hinted at by Rudolf Steiner in the notes he wrote on Manichaeism to his friend, the French writer Edouard Schuré. The Manichaean goal, said Steiner, consists of ‘the true understanding of the nature of evil’.3

This may at first seem an enigmatic phrase, but can be readily understood. One of the most direct and intimate experiences of evil that human beings can have is in connection with our own inner nature. We all know what it feels like to experience jealousy, spite, hatred, blind fury and so on. These human characteristics, related to our passions, emotions and thoughts, can be addressed – although it may take a lifetime to inwardly transform them. But nevertheless it is possible – through great self discipline and force of will – to have a personal experience of what it means to metamorphose destructive and negative aspects of our nature.

However, other types of evil manifesting outside of ourselves also exist. Over such evils it is much more difficult to have an effect. Here we can think of many cultural phenomena, such as wars, media disinformation, mass starvation, environmental destruction, etc. In relation to the central theme of this book, the philosophy of materialism – with its many negative influences – has also been considered as a kind of evil. Such evils work insidiously and in many ways are greater than any one person. While individuals or groups can confront these evils through political activism, etc., it is certainly much more difficult to influence them in an outer sense – let alone to begin to ‘transform’ them.

But there is a way of having a very direct influence on these evils. This method can stand alone, or it can complement external action. It entails a sincere and sustained effort to understand evil. Such understanding is not meant as a purely intellectual, brain-oriented exercise. True cognition at deeper levels – understanding of the essential nature of what is being observed – is a spiritual tool. This form of thought becomes, in itself, a redemptive force.

Thought as a Spiritual Force

This idea may appear absurd to a person who reduces the human being to a biological entity. If thinking is merely a physical process connected to the sending of messages via neurons – a process traditionally believed to be fundamentally similar to the way electronic computers work – then surely it cannot have any wider effect. Of course, a thought which is voiced orally, written down, transmitted via electronic media, etc. may have an effect on other people and the world. But if thinking is seen to be merely a physical process of the body, then in itself – without external communication – it cannot have any wider impact.

Another view of thinking, however, is that it is a tangible spiritual process with a physical counterpart. According to this conception, thoughts comprise an actual spiritual force. This force has at least as much effect on the world as outer, physical actions. Seers, such as the Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater, have written about how thoughts appear and what effect they can have on other people.4 Individuals who have spiritual perception speak of how a negative thought directed against a fellow human being is equivalent to striking that person physically.

Most people, whether clairvoyant or not, have some inkling of this. Many of us will have had the experience of walking into a hostile place and feeling the malicious thoughts of the people there. Other times we might go somewhere and feel immediately at home among the ‘good vibes’ or pleasant atmosphere. It is common to sense when a person is angry with us, or conversely to feel great love and warmth emanating from a close friend or partner. Many spiritual teachers, from the Buddha onwards, have spoken of the value of ‘right thinking’ or ‘positive thinking’. Good thoughts, it is said, shine spiritually like a beacon of light, whereas negative, ugly thoughts appear as dark and dirty.

Picture for a moment a person deep in thought. Whereas previously we may have seen that individual as a self-enclosed entity – locked in inner brain activity – with this new perspective we can picture the thoughts expanding beyond the person’s head, radiating into the wider world.

If it can be accepted – in theory at least – that thoughts have an impact on the world, then the challenge of transforming evil becomes more approachable. Qualities of insight, clarity, understanding and cognition take on a new significance. When we think in a spiritual way about a problem connected with evil, our thoughts are not only restricted to ourselves, but have an incisive effect on the human drama taking place around us. If individuals aspire to understand the truth behind the negative manifestations of materialistic culture, their efforts will have a powerful effect in counteracting its dangerous and degenerate external aspects.

From In the Belly of the Beast, Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 2004, Chapter 1.4.

See also:
The Real Omen
In the Belly of the Beast
Brothers of the Shadows