Back to Basics: Good and Evil

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Martin LeFevre

One of the best studies of good and evil by an American writer is Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd.” If you haven’t read the novella, there’s an excellent 1962 film with the same title, which stars, and was directed and produced by, Peter Ustinov.

The central characters are masterfully rendered. They’re played by Ustinov as Captain Vere; by Robert Ryan, as the cynically evil master-at-arms John Claggart; and by Terrence Stamp as the fatally innocent Billy Budd.

Melville literally and symbolically drops Budd into hell, as he’s impressed onto a late 18th century British warship from a merchant ship named the “Rights-of-Man” on the high seas. But Billy quickly wins the respect and hearts of the crew and captain, and is promoted in rank.

Events unfold with tragic inevitability as the sinister John Claggert singles out Billy Budd for mistreatment and slanderous treason. In the climactic scene, Claggert absurdly accuses Budd of masterminding a mutiny.

Captain Vere confronts Budd with the charge in front of his accuser. Billy, who like a child loses his power of speech with strong emotion, is unable to answer with words. He strikes Claggert with both of his fists with such fury and force that Claggert falls and hits his head on the corner of a beam, instantaneously killing him.

Well, almost instantaneously, because an evil smile creases Claggert’s lips as he fades into unconsciousness and death. He knows that Budd will be hanged for striking a superior officer.

The fatal flaw in the captain, as the arbiter of authority, is that he puts duty before justice, head before heart. After a tortuous court martial presided over by the captain and three officers of the ship, Billy Budd is hanged. To the end he bears no grudge, and his last words are: “God Bless Captain Vere!”

Melville’s story is more ambiguous than the movie’s plot, which has one more twist at the end, which I’ll leave for readers who wish to watch the film. But the last words of the film hold up very well: “Justice will live as long as the human soul; the law as the human mind.”

Billy Budd was completed the year Melville died, 1891. Rife with Christian symbolism of the Fall of Adam and the crucifixion of Christ, Billy Budd is nonetheless a subtle philosophical treatise on the nature and operation of good and evil in man.

Though the text is not clear (undoubtedly deliberately so), the movie comes down on the side of the human heart, as flawed and foolish as it is. Claggert reeks with evil, but Ryan portrays him, exceptionally and astutely, as an almost sympathetic figure. (Interestingly, Robert Ryan’s son became a philosopher, and I studied under him at a university in the Northwest.)

Claggert’s view of man is one that many, if not most people in the West now share—unregenerate, self-serving, and incorrigibly base. In this view, human nature is directly derived from the predator/prey archetype in nature. Melville, and Ryan in his rendering, makes the point that such a worldview doesn’t just lend itself to evil, but is a wellspring of it.

The unanswered, indeed unaddressed question is the relationship between good and evil. Are they two sides of the same coin, as depicted in the novella and film, or are they completely distinct and unrelated phenomena?

My own view is that they are completely distinct. Evil does not flow from or exist in nature, as the Claggert character and many other real characters believe. Nor is it a supernatural phenomenon. Evil is a byproduct of the wrongful use of ‘higher thought,’ and an ineluctable characteristic of consciousness as we usually know it.

If Claggert signifies Satan, what does Captain Vere represent? Vere obviously stands in for societal order, but not in a heavy-handed or simplistic way. He is an intellectual and decent man, and his argument for the necessity of Budd’s execution is one that he admits goes against his own sentiments.

The Billy Budd character is simplicity and innocence itself, in the way young children are guileless and without artifice. One hears a bit of irony in Melville’s depiction of him, a stab (and perhaps pang) at Jesus’ injunction: “Truly I tell you, unless you return and become like children, you can’t enter the kingdom of God.”

In the movie, and to a more uncertain degree in the book, evil wins. “Where’s Claggert?” asks a crewman as the crew is assembled to watch Billy Budd hang (the crew was only informed of Claggert’s death as the charge was read with the noose around Budd’s neck).

“He’s here,” says the wise old sailmaker (played by Melvyn Douglas), the only crewman who intuited what happened before the execution.

Whether Claggert’s view of the human prospect is self-fulfilling, or proven wrong by the transmutation of consciousness in human beings, many people now hold it. ‘Man is hopeless,’ many say and many more secretly believe, without realizing that in making or believing such a separative statement (which never includes the speaker), they are man.

For what is man but the creature that separates, divides, and fragments without end? And what is evil and hell but the quitters’ domain, the stinking and shrinking space of all the Claggerts who desperately need their vicious-circle worldviews confirmed?

Another world truly is possible, though not through any ideal of activism, which at best hacks at the leaves and branches of darkness and evil, but through self-knowing and transmutation in the individual.