Calvin: People are Shit

If you ask Aquinas, he’ll tell you that people are fundamentally good, but that some of them have a distorted vision or approach. The classic example I keep coming back to is adultery: sex is good in itself, but getting it by cheating on your partner is bad. A good thing acquired in a bad way. Calvin doesn’t truck with that shit; as far as he’s concerned, people are just depraved. They don’t want good things in bad ways, they want bad things because they are bad. We’ve got two totally different views about human nature and the nature of evil. For Calvin, it starts with the devil.

In Chapter 14, in Book One of the Institutes, Calvin describes Satan as tempting Eve “that he may deprive God of His due honour, and plunge man headlong into destruction.” Satan is as much part of God’s creation as anyone else, and so in Aquinas’s terms, he should be equally subject to the ‘wanting good things in bad ways’ rationale. But there’s not really any way to understand Satan’s goal within that framework. What’s the good thing that he wants? Calvin continues, “Truth he assails with lies, light he obscures with darkness. The minds of men he involves in error; he stirs up hatred, inflames strife and war, and all in order that he may overthrow the kingdom of God, and drown men in eternal perdition with himself. Hence it is evident that his whole nature is depraved, mischievous, and malignant.” There’s no room here at all for Aquinas’s theory of good and evil: in Calvin’s view, Satan actively, knowingly, and maliciously wants evil things because he’s basically just shit. Evil is a thing that people can actively pursue, not as a misguided attempt to get something good in itself, but because they actively want the evil thing.

It’s something of a tangent, but I’m watching Mindhunter again – I started from the beginning and watched through to the end of the new season. It’s about the development of the Behavioural Science Unit at the FBI, where FBI agents delved into criminal psychology to build up psychological profiles of serial killers. If you’ve seen Criminal Minds or whatever, it’s like the historical originator of that. There’s a really fascinating dynamic in Mindhunter – there’s a tension between the FBI agents, who’re trying to understand serial killers, and the regular rank-and-file police, who’re happy to write people off as ‘just evil’. The dramatic arc of Mindhunter is the realisation that we can understand serial killers, and that understanding makes their crimes more horrific, rather than less. More horrific, that is, because we can understand and relate to the motivating base impulses – things like shame, guilt, or fear. One killer is constantly belittled by his mother, so he goes out and murders old ladies as a kind of displaced angry reaction. It’s horrible, but it’s not alien. It’s comprehensible. We understand the feelings of shame and humiliation, and the desire to lash out at the people who hurt us.

Mindhunter is framed as a shift – a development, even – from rudimentary good-evil concepts into the troubling depths of the human psyche. But there’s something of the difference between Calvin and Aquinas in there. Calvin would definitely identify with the police, who write people off as simply evil. Some people just want evil things. Aquinas, on the other hand, would probably have more truck with the psychological method. The guy who murders old ladies wants love and respect from his mother. In itself, wanting love and respect from your mother is a good thing. Feeling hurt when you don’t receive that is natural and healthy. Wanting not to feel hurt is fine. All of those things are fine and good things to want and feel. The problem is the conclusion. This guy decided that the best way to soothe his troubled soul was murder – a good thing desired in a bad way. Like adultery.

And I guess that’s the problem with Calvin’s position here – this ‘just evil’ stuff doesn’t really cut it any more. It’s not convincing. In some ways we’re in an interesting space with Calvin – he seems old-fashioned, but in a weirdly familiar way. His vision of evil is very Disney villain – there’s no logic or psychology behind it, they’re just evil. It feels like something from when we were young, something that we’ve all sort of moved past. It’s weird to have it come up again as someone’s legitimate belief – to see it at the start of the process, if you like, when it’s all shiny and new. It’s weird moving from that to Mindhunter, where Calvin’s theory seems old and spun out, unable to sustain itself against our overwhelming dedication to the psychological.

Don’t feel too sorry for Calvin though – I don’t think his theory is necessarily all that good for us. Here’s a question: when Calvin says that everybody is evil, do you think he’s including himself in that? He is and he isn’t. He would agree that on his own merits, he’s as corrupt and evil as the next guy, but he’s also pretty convinced that he’s going to heaven. He believes that God has intervened and made him one of the elect. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect, but Calvin definitely sees himself as being filled with the Holy Spirit, meaning he’s able to improve in a way that’s just not accessible to other, un-elected people. He is a winner speaking to other winners about losers who are beyond help. In that context, writing the losers off as ‘evil’ feels like a salve for what is otherwise a terrifying moral vision. Calvin emphasises the gap between the church and the world instead of our common humanity, bolstering isolationist tendencies and in some cases giving rise to an obnoxious sense of superiority. The unearned arbitrariness of election is meant to be humbling, but humility can, counter-intuitively, be a breeding ground for arrogance. There’s a certain sort of person who is humble because they are convinced that humility is a morally superior behaviour. They take pride in humility because they see it as a mark of their own special election, rather than because of any of the intrinsic qualities of humility per se. If Aquinas was here, he would say that these people take humility, which is a good thing, and desire it in a bad way. I would just say that they’re shitheads.

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