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Evil (Not) Then and Evil Now: A Test Case in ‘Translating’ Cultural Notions

Thomas G Palaima

University of Texas at Austin

My seminar paper has its genesis in examining in Hesiod and the book of Genesis ancient Greek notions of the creation of the world and the place of human beings within it. Comparison of the Hebrew and early Greek accounts of the ‘loss of paradeisos, Eden, the Golden Age’ through collaboration with a scholar of ancient Semitic texts, dialects and religion and understanding how the Hebrew creation account is translated into Greek in the Septuagint and later into Latin in the Vulgate began a long exploration of the concept of ‘evil’ that is still in progress.

For decades, I have looked at and thought about the worst things that human beings can do to one another individually and in social groups. In seminars on the human experience of war and violence through time, I have invited in scholars, journalists, authors, film-makers, military veterans, poets, translators and songsters who have confronted what we call ‘evil’ and those who do ‘evil’. Among these are James Dawes (Evil Men and That the World Will Know), Seymour Hersch (My Lai), Ricardo Ainslie (Long Dark Road: race-crime murder of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, TX), Rolando Hinojosa Smith (Korean Love Songs), Jesse Odom (Through Our Eyes­—Iraq), Wallace Terry (Bloods—Vietnam and civil rights movement), Tobias Wolff (In Pharaoh’s Army), Nancy Schiesari (Tattooed Under Fire and Canine Soldiers—Iraq and Afghanistan), Charles Neider (The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones), oral historian Joan Morrison (From Camelot to Kent State), Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America), Peter Meineck (Aquila Theatre NEH projects), and Michele Kay and John Burnett (reporting war in Vietnam and Iraq). This exploration includes intimate grappling with ‘evil’ as in Lionel Dahmer’s controversial A Father’s Story, his look back upon how his son came to be the Jeffrey Dahmer that the world knows. There are also ancient and modern philosophical threads to be followed, for example, the recent collection of Pavlos Kontos (ed.), Evil in Aristotle (2018) and the full-scale studies of John Kekes and Martha Nussbaum, beginning in the 1986.

Our thoughts then operate in two different worlds. In one world, some people believe in ‘evil’ and use or even manipulate the word to mark out certain exceptionally ‘bad’ acts, actors, turns of event, and bad effects on ‘good’ people. See George W. Bush’s use of ‘Axis of Evil’ from his State of the Union address (2002) onward. Even Dalton Trumbo, whose Johnny Got His Gun (1939 and 1959) gives us the worst that can happen to a soldier in war, and who also most likely gave Bob Dylan the phrase ‘masters of war’, uses the term ‘evil’ in describing the period of HUAC black-listing of ‘communist’ writers.

Then there is the ancient Greek world. Consistent with the force of the concept of raˤ in the Hebrew original, in the Septuagint our proto-humans violate the prohibition to partake of the fruit of the tree of καλὸν καὶ πονηρόν.  πονηρός (ponēros) conveys ‘having to do with ponos’, i.e., ‘the pains of hard toil’. It is not like English ‘evil’. Likewise the pithos in Hesiod’s account of Pandora (WD 93-105) contains κήδεα λυγρά. ‘mournful troubling cares’ and opening it lets μυρία λυγρὰ κατ᾽ ἀνθρώπους ἀλάληται (WD 100)  ‘many many many mournful things  wander randomly’ (i.e., without plan). The earth is filled with κακῶν among which are νοῦσοι that silently bring κακὰ ‘bad things’ to mortals.

My seminar paper will explore this ‘absence of evil’ also in the Iliad and other works of Greek literature and highlight firsthand responses of modern thinkers in order to frame the general question of the difference between then and now.

I think the difference has a lot to do not only with the theological systems at work in the two general historical cultures we are considering, but also with profound differences in sensibilities about the human condition and the place of human beings in the world.

Session/Panel Title

Translating Evil in Ancient Greek and Hebrew and Modern American Culture

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