What's Evil Up To?
Storytelling 101 teaches that a good story must have conflict of some sort. Likely the most common conflict in the history of stories is good vs. evil. The best examples of this conflict (in my opinion) don't just assume which side is "good" and which side is "evil". A common idea passed around among storytellers is that the best "villains" don't see themselves as the bad guy.
So what is "evil" for purposes of a good story? Perhaps one way to begin the exploration of that question is to eliminate what evil ISN'T. There are tons of stories that involve some sort of battle between different species for survival. Godzilla crawls up out of the Pacific and stomps his way through Tokyo. Evil, right? The aliens in Independence Day attack Earth, slaughtering millions. Evil, right? The nasty creature from the movie Alien attacks humans so it can stuff eggs into their bellies. Evil, right?
Not so fast. Typically, the backstory on Godzilla is that he got pissed because of all the nuclear testing in the Pacific after World War II. He sees humans as a threat to the planet. All of that destruction of Matchbox cars and 12" high cardboard buildings was done in defense of nature. You might disagree with his philosophy and his methods, but it's possible he has a point. The aliens from Independence Day are raw materials raiders. They go from planet to planet looking for stuff they need to survive and take it. If someone or something on that planet tries to stop them, they kill it. That, along with the creature that stuffs eggs down your throat in Alien, are just examples of species trying to survive. If that's "evil" then so are spiders that eat crickets or the Corona virus when it makes someone sneeze.
"Evil" is a lot more than just "the thing the good guys are fighting". Thanos wanted to save the universe from an overpopulation of life. Anakin Skywalker (right before his full plunge into the dark side) wanted to bring "order" to the universe. If you asked either of them, neither would have likely admitted to being a "villain" (before they killed you).
Sometimes you will see a story where the antagonist just wants to destroy all life. The mysterious (mostly because the writer didn't bother explaining it) entity from The Fifth Element and the Justice League villain Darkseid fit into this mold. So do the machines from the Terminator franchise (at least with respect to humanity). While this does make for a scary antagonist (as death and suffering are practically universal fears among intelligent creatures), I think this type of villain is sort of thin. Why? Let's assume that you are Darkseid or the weird planet-thing from TFE and you succeed in erasing all life from the universe. What then? What's the point? Your rasion d'etre is gone. And if YOU are alive, don't you have to get rid of yourself to really be successful? At least the machines had determined that humans were irrational and an all around bad idea.
Let's dig deeper. One motivation that I find tremendously dark is "because I can". Sometimes this is packaged as "evil for the sake of evil". Usually these figures are immensely powerful. There is no overarching principle guiding their actions other than their own whims. This unpredictability is a big part of what makes them so disturbing. Lots of demons and devils fit into this mold. They gain a certain satisfaction from causing misery or death. Their gain is your loss. They have no remorse and no moral boundaries. They just do whatever they can get away with because they can get away with it. And this gets me to what I consider to be the true heart of darkness. Power.
It has been said that humans really only have two emotions - power and fear. Power is the perception of being able to manipulate one's environment, and fear is power's opposite. "Good" tends to foster the existence of actors constrained by principles. Those principles can be The Ten Commandments, ethical frameworks from various philosophers, etc. These actors follow certain laws so their actions are more predictable. Humans like predictability in their environment. Problems arise when the defense of these principles require (wait for it)...... power. The corruptive nature of power arises from the fact that it allows one to accomplish things. It really is a lot easier to get things done without all those silly rules. After all, if one's cause is just, isn't it ok to bend those rules just a bit in order to defend it? And after victory is achieved, shouldn't I get to retain that power since I've already demonstrated that I won't misuse it? Trust me, I'm one of the good guys!
The root of all evil is power (the Bible said "love of money" but money is simply a form of power). It is the ability to do things. Once someone has gained that ability, the analysis they used to use to determine "what should I do?" is slowly replaced by "what can I do?" Then ethics becomes an exercise in possibilities instead of one involving measured actions within a specific context. Boromir. Anakin Skywalker. Macbeth. Willow from BTVS. The Devil is in a number of stories where He makes a trade with someone. That someone gets the ability to do something. In return, the Devil gets that person's soul. In effect, that person has traded what he once was (a person with at least some hint of principle) for the simple ability to do something. He has plunged entirely into the Realm of the Pragmatic and now acts without any limit except his own ability to act. Look at Tolkien's LOTR trilogy. Powerful leaders on the "good" team (Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, etc.) all strenuously rejected the idea that one of them should take The Ring. They understood full well what would happen - the power of the ring would bring with it a corrupting influence to match. Boromir could not resist, and his effort to seize The Ring led to his death.
In a future post, I'll address the opposite theme. What is "good" and how can it ever win without becoming corrupt by the allure of the practical (or can it?).