Justice at its most basic level involves caring about more than the self. Ego is the core and root of injustice.
- . . . evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole . . . [Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (Scribners, 1944), p. 9.]
- The foundation for the Buddha’s teachings lies in compassion, and the reason to practice the teachings is to wipe out the persistence of ego, the number-one enemy of compassion. [Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.]
Evil is present when we fail to account for the whole. Happiness should not come at someone else’s expense. This is another way of looking at the Golden Rule and worth-based justice.
· Arbitrary power is to the mind what alcohol is to the body; it intoxicates. Man loves power. It is perhaps the strongest human passion; and the more absolute the power, the stronger the desire for it; and the more it is desired, the more its exercise is enjoyed: this enjoyment is to human nature a fearful temptation,--generally an overmatch for it. Hence it is true, with hardly an exception, that arbitrary power is abused in proportion as it is desired. The fact that a person intensely desires power over others, without restraint, shows the absolute necessity of restraint. What woman would marry a man who made it a condition that he should have the power to divorce her whenever he pleased? Oh! he might never wish to exercise it, but the power he would have! No woman, not stark mad, would trust her happiness in such hands. [Theodore D. Weld, American Slavery as It Is (1839).]
· I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others . . . People like me want to satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course, there are people and objects in the world but they are all there only for me. [Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), quoted in Jung Chang, Mao: The Unknown Story (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), chapter 2.]
- James Lincoln Collier, The Riseof Selfishnessin America, (Oxford University Press, 1991).
- Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin Press, 2004).
- Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (Penguin, 2006).
- Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random House, 2011): eventually, Britain took the Union’s side but principle may have had nothing to do with it.
- Richard Kluger, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011): describing “the active and often ugly process of taking a continent.”
- Will Storr, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (The Overlook Press, 2018): “Locating the Western penchant for self-absorption in 2,000 years of history.”
- Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: A Recent History (MCD, 2019), on how greed and myopia are at the core of inaction on climate change: “It is an account of what went wrong — of how it was that a moment of growing awareness of climate change, and an apparent willingness to act on the knowledge, was allowed to dissipate into stasis and inaction.”
- David Enrich, Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Tale of Destruction (Custom House, 2020): “. . . unchecked ambition twisted a pillar of German finance into a reckless casino and fostered a culture in which amorality and, ultimately, criminality thrived.”
- Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman (Tim Duggan, 2020): “M.B.S. saw no need for checks on his power and crushed all threats to it. … He would stop at nothing to make Saudi Arabia great again, on his terms.”
History is littered with the evil of conquest.
- Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (Viking, 2016).
The Vietnam war happened because no one in power, in the United States, would admit that the war was a mistake.
- Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History (Knopf, 2017): “ . . . Burns and Novick, in their introduction, proclaim their intention to do what few have done: recount the war from not just the American viewpoint but from that of the North and South Vietnamese too.”
- Max Hastings, Vietnam: A Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (Harper, 2018): “‘If America’s war leadership often flaunted its inhumanity, that of North Vietnam matched it cruelty for cruelty,’ Hastings contends.”
Remarkably egocentric people:
- Laurence Bergreen, Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2016): “‘I have lived as a philosopher, and I die as a Christian.’ These were, supposedly, the last words of Giacomo Casanova, the 18th century’s most infamous adventurer, trickster, gambler and libertine. It is just the sort of thing he would have said, for he was a master of self-justification. Defending his exploits came as naturally to Casanova as slurping oysters from the bodice of a nun in a Venetian casino.”
- Lindsay Harper, The Philosopher's Ego (2008)
- Honore Daumier, The Beautiful Narcissus (1842)
- Caravaggio, Narcissus (1599)
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Pete Seeger, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (additional performances by Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, Marlene Dietrich and The Brothers Four)
Film and Stage
- Macbeth, Shakespeare’s dramatic treatise on greed and runaway ambition
- Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s adaptation of “Macbeth”
- Yojimbo and Sanjuro, films about raw power. Yojimbo is a straight-up Japanese melodrama in the style of American horse opera, while Sanjuro is “a mischievous, sly, good-humored presentation of a crusty old samurai caught between two groups of plain incompetents, with a playful satiric point”
- The Treasure of Sierra Madre, about greed in the mountains, in search of gold
- Knife in the Water(Nóz w Wodzie): confining three poorly matched people on a boat together, the film “is a devilish dissection of man in one of his more childish and ridiculous aspects”
- Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes(Aguirre, the Wrath of God), an historical drama about a ruthless and megalomaniacal conquistador
- The Big Heat, featuring “dice, vice and corruption”
- Blue Collar, in which workers discover“how powerfully malevolent the union can be in a system that counts on petty divisiveness to keep the larger power structure intact”
- Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler)
- The Damned(La caduta degli dei), about greed in Nazi Germany
- Dance With a Stranger, “an uncompromising look at obsessive love and its consequences on others” (review)
- The Earrings of Madame de . . .: of luxury and loss
- Eight Men Out, about the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal
- Eyes Without a Face: a man surgically removes the faces of young women to restore his daughter’s appearance after a tragic accident
- The Grifters
- Happiness, with tongue in cheek
- The Last Seduction, about a woman with “undiluted self interest”
- Lovely and Amazing: “The movie zeroes in on contemporary narcissism with a needling accuracy that illustrates exactly the way some people allow their insecurities to poison their intimate relationships.”
- Married to the Mob, where everyone makes compromises
- Monsieur Verdoux: murder as the logical extension of business
- The Private Life of Henry VIII
- Stormy Monday, a film noir crime thriller
- Story of Women, about a woman who performs abortions for money in Nazi Germany and then is executed for depleting the pool of potential soldiers
- Sweet Smell of Success, about everyone out for himself
- Traffic, a “profound and gloomy meditation on greed, violence and contemporary ennui”
- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: vanity and cruelty among two theatrical sisters, one a child star who faded early and the other a successful actress disabled by an injury; see also the remake
- White Heat, about a “mother-dominated psychotic who dreams about being on ‘top of the world’”
- Plein soleil (Purple Noon) (Lust for Evil) (Blazing Sun) (Full Sun): the protagonist “believes that getting his own way is worth whatever price anyone else might have to pay”
- In Seven Beauties, the “hero” preserves himself against a background of profound evil
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
“Why is it human nature to want what we can’t have? In 1827, the 23-year-old Hector Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre in Paris; Harriet Smithson, a charismatic Irish actress, was playing Ophelia. Berlioz was smitten and wrote her an impassioned letter – Smithson did not reply. Undeterred, he continued to bombard her with messages but she left Paris without making contact.” Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Episode in the Life of an Artist, Op. 14, H. 48 (1830), “tells the story of an artist's self-destructive passion for a beautiful woman. The symphony describes his obsession and dreams, tantrums and moments of tenderness, and visions of suicide and murder, ecstasy and despair.” Top performances are conducted by Monteux in 1930, Ormandy in 1952, Ormandy in 1960, Norrington in 1989, Gardiner in 1993, Boulez in 1997, Colin Davis in 2001, Nézet-Séguin in 2010, van Immerseel in 2010, and Roth in 2019.
Giuseppe Verdi, Macbeth (1847) (approx. 140-160’), is an operatic version of Shakespeare’s tragedy about unbridled ambition and unchecked ego. Its lessons are about greed, power and leadership. “What is singular about Macbeth, compared to the other three great Shakespearean tragedies, is its villain-hero. If Hamlet mainly executes rather than murders, if Othello is ‘more sinned against than sinning,’ and if Lear is ‘a very foolish fond old man’ buffeted by surrounding evil, Macbeth knowingly chooses evil and becomes the bloodiest and most dehumanized of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists.” An excellent filmed recording is by Hampson, Marrocou & Zürich Opera, Welser-Möst conducting, in 2001. Top audio-recorded performances are by Taddei, Gencer & Gui in 1960; Guelfi, Gencer & Gavezzini in 1968; Milnes, Ludwig & Böhm in 1970; Verrett, Cappuccili, Abbado in 1976 *** (with video); Milnes, Cossotto, & Muti in 1976 **; Zampieri, Bruson & Sinopoli in 1983; and Keenlyside, Moore & Gardner in 2013.
Béla Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A Kékszakállú herceg Vára), Op. 11, Sz. 48 (1911, rev. 1918) (approx. 56-105’): the duke’s new wife learns that he has many other interests, including three other wives, who are being confined in the castle. Bartok was in personal crisis when he composed this. He had married a teenager, and the marriage was troubled. “I am a lonely man!…I may have friends in Budapest…yet there are times when I suddenly become aware of the fact that I am absolutely alone! And I prophesy, I have a foreknowledge, that this spiritual loneliness is to be my destiny.” “Who was then Bartók? For some people, he was cold, lacking emotional intelligence, remote, detached, mathematical, unfriendly, pedantic, caustic and humourless; for some others, he was warm, passionate, friendly, caring, engaged, good humoured.” “Bartók’s personal philosophy was stoic and pessimistic. He held himself apart from others, independent of the ambitious struggle after ‘trifles.’ As a consequence he felt lonely. In his first mature work, the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók translated his own sense of profound spiritual isolation into music.” Here are links to performances conducted by Kubelik, Dohnányi and Elder. Best recorded performances are by Székely, Palánkay & Ferencsik in 1956, Hines, Elias & Ormandy in 1960, Berry, Ludwig & Kertész in 1965 ***, Ramey, Marton & Adám Fischer in 1987 ***, Lloyd, Lawrence & Adám Fischer in 1988 (video), Howell, Burgess & Elder in 1992, Polgar, Norman & Boulez in 1993, Kares, Vörös & Mälkki in 2021.
Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera (1928) (approx. 68-100'), portrays a society made decadent by rampant egoism (including capitalism, in Weill's view) and social apathy. “Set in a society obsessed with money, filled with corruption, where evil runs rampant, and all seem immune to the sufferings of the poor, it is a satire of both traditional opera and the capitalistic Weimar Republic.” “The source for the work was John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a humorous ‘ballad opera’ . . . (which) consisted of dialogue interspersed with 69 songs, mainly popular ballads of the British Isles and France, and well-known opera arias . . . A satire of both Italian opera conventions and the political corruption of England's reigning prime minister . . .” Here are links to the 1931 film; to performances conducted by Bernstein in 1952, Matlowsky in 1954, Brückner-Rüggeberg in 1955; and Silverman in 1976, and to a 2016 production, largely from behind the scenes.
- Wilhelm Furtwängler, Symphony No. 3 in C-sharp Minor (1954) (approx. 56-65’): the composer was explicit, he composed this symphony as a tragedy.
- Stephen Albert, Into Eclipse (1981) (approx. 30’) consists of a prologue and five songs on the Oedipus tragedy.
- Stefan Wolpe, Zeus und Elida, Op. 5a (1928) (approx. 27’); Schöne Geschichten, Op. 5b (1929) (approx. 24’): two “decadent” works from Berlin in the 1920s
- Kurt Weill, Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) (1933) (approx. 32-39’), is a sung ballet, in eight parts. “The surface meaning of The Seven Deadly Sins is clear enough, especially if we bear in mind Brecht's full title, ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petit-Bourgeois’ (Die Sieben Todsiinden der Kleinbiirger). In so far as the two sisters are but aspects of one person, the singing Anna is ‘reason’ and the dancing Anna ‘instinct’ - in other words, intellect versus flesh, the favoured theme of both tragedy and comedy.”
- Grigory Frid, Phädra, Op. 78, No. 1 (1985) (approx. 24’), a tragic work for string quartet and piano, based on a 1677 play by Racine, in which the characters fall victim to their own egos.
- Arnold Schoenberg, String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 10 (1908) (approx. 31-32’): Schoenberg dedicated the work “to my wife”, who was then having an affair with their friend and neighbor. “Compounding this marital crisis was his disappointment at Gustav Mahler’s departure for the United States. It was to counteract these setbacks that, in 1907 and 1908, Schönberg clearly parted ways with musical tradition, dissolving tonal harmony into atonality and entering that expressionist period of his career that would mark electrifying turn in the compositional development of our century.” “The latter two movements . . . are set to poems from Stefan George's collection Der siebente Ring (The Seventh Ring), which was published in 1907.”
- Lukas Foss, Song of Anguish (1953) (approx. 22’), are songs drawn from the biblical book of Isaiah, which “address the people’s perversion of moral values, their arrogance and self-righteousness, their adherence to false leadership, their dishonesty and self-delusion, and their hypocrisy and outright malevolence.”
If one places one's self at the culminating point of view of the question, Waterloo is intentionally a counter-revolutionary victory. It is Europe against France; it is Petersburg, Berlin, and Vienna against Paris; it is the _statu quo_ against the initiative; it is the 14th of July, 1789, attacked through the 20th of March, 1815; it is the monarchies clearing the decks in opposition to the indomitable French rioting. The final extinction of that vast people which had been in eruption for twenty-six years--such was the dream. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book First – Waterloo, Chapter XVII, Is Waterloo To Be Considered Good?]
In Tom’s hurried exchange, he had not forgotten to transfer his cherished Bible to his pocket. It was well he did so; for Mr. Legree, having refitted Tom’s handcuffs, proceeded deliberately to investigate the contents of his pockets. He drew out a silk handkerchief, and put it into his own pocket. Several little trifles, which Tom had treasured, chiefly because they had amused Eva, he looked upon with a contemptuous grunt, and tossed them over his shoulder into the river.
Tom’s Methodist hymn-book, which, in his hurry, he had forgotten, he now held up and turned over.
“Humph! pious, to be sure. So, what’s yer name,—you belong to the church, eh?”
“Yes, Mas’r,” said Tom, firmly.
“Well, I’ll soon have that out of you. I have none o’ yer bawling, praying, singing niggers on my place; so remember. Now, mind yourself,” he said, with a stamp and a fierce glance of his gray eye, directed at Tom, “I’m your church now! You understand,—you’ve got to be as I say.”
Something within the silent black man answered No! and, as if repeated by an invisible voice, came the words of an old prophetic scroll, as Eva had often read them to him,—“Fear not! for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by name. Thou art MINE!”
But Simon Legree heard no voice. That voice is one he never shall hear. He only glared for a moment on the downcast face of Tom, and walked off. He took Tom’s trunk, which contained a very neat and abundant wardrobe, to the forecastle, where it was soon surrounded by various hands of the boat. With much laughing, at the expense of niggers who tried to be gentlemen, the articles very readily were sold to one and another, and the empty trunk finally put up at auction. It was a good joke, they all thought, especially to see how Tom looked after his things, as they were going this way and that; and then the auction of the trunk, that was funnier than all, and occasioned abundant witticisms.
This little affair being over, Simon sauntered up again to his property.
[Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852), Volume II, Chapter 31, “The Middle Passage”.]