The Psychology of Evil

Circle IV

It’s funny how things swim together in your head. I’ve just started reading The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo and thinking about how his words apply to me. On page 4, this is written:

Lucifer’s sin is what thinkers in the Middle Ages called “cupiditas.” * For Dante, the sins that spring from that root are the most extreme “sins of the wolf,” the spiritual condition of having an inner black hole so deep within oneself that no amount of power or money can ever fill it. For those suffering the mortal malady called cupiditas, whatever exists outside of one’s self has worth only as it can be exploited by, or taken into one’s self. In Dante’s Hell those guilty of that sin are in the ninth circle, frozen in the Lake of Ice. Having cared for nothing but self in life, they are encased in icy Self for eternity. By making people focus only on oneself in this way, Satan and his followers turn their eyes away from the harmony of love that unites all living creatures.

The sins of the wolf cause a human being to turn away from grace and to make self his only good – and also his prison. In the ninth circle of the Inferno, the sinners, possessed of the spirit of the insatiable wolf, are frozen in an egocentric reality.

*Cupiditas, in English, is cupidity, which means avarice, greed, the strong desire for wealth or power over another. What cupiditas means is the desire to turn into oneself or take into oneself everything that is “other” than self. For instance, lust and rape are forms of cupiditas because they entail using another persona as a thing to gratify one’s own desire; murder for profit is also cupiditas. It is the opposite of caritas, which means envisioning oneself as part of a ring of love in which each individual self ahs worth in itself but also as it relates to every other self. “Do unto others as you wold have them do unto you” is a weak expression of caritas. The Latin, “Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” is probably the best expression of the concept “wherever caritas and love are, God is.”

After typing this out for you, my mind is flying in so many different directions it’s hard to choose one to write about. So let me just say that recovery has disabused me of the notion that I could never do that. Given the right set of circumstances I could. So could you.

In terms of sex, I know I could sink to abysmal levels of depravity. Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it. But in other areas I still think there are some things I’d just never do. Like I just know I’d never torture a prisoner of war. This one hits home for me since I once had the job description of interrogator. And I am quite certain now, as I was then, that I would not torture anyone. Ever. I’d never abrogate a person’s basic human rights under the Geneva Convention. Period. Except this book suggests otherwise. I find that pretty damn scary. I’d much rather think of myself as a good person, one who would do right no matter what. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way things are.

I’m not talking about a religious view that we’re all sinners or fallen from grace.
This book is a realistic exploration of human behavior, which is not as internally governed as we believe. It’s shaping up to be an interesting but disturbing read that I hope will elaborate on ways we can strengthen ourselves and our institutions to better maintain moral behavior.

A recovery program can be seen in this light: a discovery of ways to maintain moral (i.e. sober) behavior.



  1. I do have children, and although It’s been years since I saw “Sophie’s Choice” but I found it a most disturbing movie. I used to think I’d choose differently than Sophie, thinking along the lines that there are things that are worse than death. But now that I’m older, I don’t know what I think I’d do. I only know what I hope I’d do.

    I used to believe that while everyone of us is capable of evil, I personally am incapable of some kinds of evil. But that’s just wrong. Now that I’m older, I’m only sure of how I would behave in those areas where I’ve been tested, and even those are dependent on the circumstances.

    I want an inoculation, that’s why I read books like this. I want to be able to be able to hold onto my morals and choose my own behavior rather than being swept along in group-think. Just like I want to choose my own sexual behavior rather than being driven by an addiction.

    Thanks for your comment – it really got me thinking.

  2. I had to think about this for a while.

    Like you, there are so many thoughts fluttering through my brain. However, there was something that stood out, I’d like to comment on.

    Have you ever seen or read the movie/novel, “Sophie’s Choice”?

    I ask, because you mentioned one thing you would never do, and that was to torture someone. What I find interesting here is the notion that we all have our boundaries, some very clearly defined, maybe others not. I certainly thought I had mine, until dealt with the actual situation. I recently said that experience can be a humbling teacher.

    The book you referred to states that we are all capable of doing the very things we despise. I tend to agree. I have learned that our boundaries are only defined by our value system, which is a subjective system. Let me give you an example.

    I don’t know if you have children or not, but if don’t, then imagine someone you dearly, dearly love. Someone who you would, without hesitation, give your life for. Then imagine a situation where you had to choose between torturing an innocent person or torturing your child, or perhaps, worse giving up your child’s life.

    Do you see my point?

    You value your child’s life more than this innocent person, and so your boundaries then must readjust. If you haven’t seen “Sophie’s Choice” I highly recommend it. It deals with the complex issues of what we are capable of, when forced into a situation that seems incomprehensible to the human soul.

    Intriguing blog…


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