19th Sep 2007


Letter from a former professor of philosophy. God, I have never learned decently any kind of philosophy.


I’m curious what Vietnamese think about “evil”. Do you have such a word or concept parallel to our western concept?

The roots of our word/concept in western languages lie in our Christian tradition. So it’s not clear to me whether and what it might mean in the absence of that tradition.

We tend to apply evil to the “intentions” of actions as opposed to the disadvantageous (bad) consequences that may or may not result from certain choices. So for instance, the concept of evil evolved in the Christian tradition around the time we started thinking and talking about the “will” and the “inner” springs of human action and behavior. Traditionally, an early Christian differentiated him or herself from their Jewish (or pagan) brethren in that it was sufficient for the latter to obey the laws in order to be pious whereas a Christian must do more … he or she must also “want” or “will” to do good in order to truly fulfill the law.

The Greek and Roman tradition (pagan) had no concept of the “will”. Actions were determined by “reason” vying against the passions; and a bad outcome was attributable to an irrational “calculation” of the costs/benefits of the consequences. No separate “inner” or mental faculty of the will. Which is why tragedy as a literary form was born and thrived in Greece (and died under the intellectual conditions of Christianity) because actions, no matter how rationally chosen and ordered, could still inevitably lead to bad consequences because what matters is not the inner intention of the actor but the external unpredictability of making choices in a pluralistic world involving other free agents capable and liable to react. There could be no concept of a “good man” in the Christian sense in Greece (good totally apart from his efficacy in the world); nor could there be a concept of a tragic hero in the Christian era.

The Jewish commandment not to commit adultery is replaced in the Christian tradition by not “coveting” thy neighbor’s wife. A Jew is pious simply by restraining himself and obeying the commandments of his faith regardless or even against his inner impulses; a Christian is only truly pious and “good” if he is pure in his will “inside” as well. According to Jesus, this was a radicalization of the Jewish law … “I come not to break the law but to fulfill it.”

It was only once this “inner realm” of the “will” was opened up for inspection (by St. Augustine) that the idea of evil emerges in our tradition. It was applied to the will and the inner intentions of man not simply to the “bad” outcome of his choices. Without the whole metaphysical and theological apparatus of Christianity behind it, I’m wondering if it’s possible (natural from an anthropological point of view) to still have a concept of evil?

The most articulate and intriguing answer in the west to this question is Nietzsche. Generally a pretty inaccessible writer because he wrote in aphorisms and assumes a significant degree of familiarity with the entire western tradition of philosophy and theology in order to read. (He also was clinically insane most of his active life). But two of his most easily readable books address this issue: “Beyond Good and Evil” and The Genealogy of Morals”. Have these or any other of his works been translated into Vietnamese? Arendt’s “banality of evil” lies squarely in this Nietzschean tradition and its attack on Christian values.

Does Vietnamese have anything like the concept of a tragic hero?

12 Responses to “Evil”

  1. Linh Says:

    Well, of course, I’m not a student of philosophy so I don’t know much about the terminology of evil, will, etc.
    But I think that professor understands “evil” and “will” completely in their religious meanings. In their religious meanings, “evil” things are whatever you did in contrary to the law or the will of God (or gods). But I think that concept is not purely a Christian concept. In our language, “evil” things are the things done in contrary to the accepted moral law of the community. We call it evil. And in fact, though the moral law in Western countries has deep roots in Christian tradition, I think in general meanings, “evil” is things done which violated the accepted morality. And generally, what people did count, not their inner intentions.
    In Confucian tradition, I suppose there are two kinds of evils. The first kind is committed by the wicked people (tiểu nhân) though they can be prevented by the law and by imitating the good ones. The second kind of evils is committed by the “good people” (quân tử) if they are careless. So, in the Confucian philosophy, people are entitled with free will, much more than in the Christian tradition, where free will is predetermined by the law of God- which seems contradictory to me.

    I also disagree with his ideas about tragic hero and will. Aristotle defined tragedy as a form of art involving the hero’s change of fortune. And he mentioned that “The change to bad fortune which he undergoes in not due to any moral defect or flaw, but a mistake of some kind.” (wikipedia entry of tragedy). So, it’s clear that the “inner” faculty of the will is what drives the heroes to their bad fortunes. It’s true that in Greek tragedies, human fates are often driven by the will of God, regardless what they did or things. But they still have certain choices and indeed, it’s their choices that make them more tragic and more human. Prometheus declined Zeus’s offer is a choice. Achilles killing Hector is fate but returning his body to Priam is a choice. Oedipus killed his father is a fate but no-one asked him how to punished himself as he did by his force of will. I also disagree with this sentence “nor could there be a concept of a tragic hero in the Christian era.”. How about Hamlet, King Lear? Aren’t they tragic hero? Or the concept of evils. Ajax Minor is “evil” when he violated God’s law and so is Orestes, in the same religious manner as some Christians being evil when they violate God’s law.
    For some of his questions, there are several works of Nietzsche having been translated, most notably “Thus spoke Zarathustra”. I don’t think the two aforementioned were translated.
    For the last question, I don’t think we have kind of tragic heroes in our Confucian tradition. It’s because of the old beliefs that if you do good things, you will enjoy luck and happiness. I think this belief is derived from both Buddhist theology on cause-and-effect (nhân quả) and by Confucius teaching that men should strive to perfection and goodness in whatever situations.

  2. Nam Says:

    I’ve never heard of “tragic hero” and I don’t really understand this concept, but was Tống Tương Công a tragic hero ? what about hara-kiri people in Japan, are they tragic heroes ?. Anyway, either if they are (in Christian or Western view) we probably don’t have the concept.

  3. Linh Says:

    Tống Tương Công is a comic figure, not a tragic hero. Everybody ridicules his actions.
    I think in some sense, Kinh Kha and Cao Tiệm Ly are two tragic heroes.
    The closest one near a tragic hero in Vietnamese tradition is perhaps Quan Âm Thị Kính. No matter what she tried with good intentions, she was always misunderstood and got bad consequences. However, this fact is unbearable in our traditional thinking so she is still eventually rewarded by nirvana- which proves that in our traditional concept, there’s no place for a tragic hero, who’s got a reversal of fortune regardless of his qualities or actions.

  4. Nam Says:

    Thanks Linh, agreed, I’m getting closer to understanding the concept.

  5. today20 Says:

    The reply of the professor:

    I think Linh makes a good point about Shakespearean tragedy as an example of tragic heroes being meaningful in a Christian era. My point that a tragic hero could not arise in a Christian (i.e. post classical) era is clearly overstated.

    However I would say that by the time of Shakespeare, Western society was rapidly secularizing. Probably one of the reasons tragedy is re-born in the 16th and 17th centuries (I know of no important examples of tragic literature in the preceding 3 centuries of the Renaissance) is due to the rapidly weakening influence of Christian values and the Christian world-view on the European mindset, and the emergence of an “enlightened”, rational, secular society.

    The main point I am trying to get across is the difference between “bad’ and “evil” … or between a bad person and an evil person. The latter is laden with demonic and Satanic connotations which in our Western thinking ties it to religious and specifically Christian sentiment. Without a belief in the “sacred” and “holy” and therefore in their opposites of “hellish” and “Satanic”, I don’t think you can have a concept of “evil” specifically different from simply bad or harmful or wrong.

    It begs the question, therefore, what do we mean and intend by “sacred” and “holy” and do these concepts exist in the Confucian tradition.

    I believe the origin of a “sacred” or divine comes from very primitive Western religion (deep in our history prior to any organized public religion and certainly prior to Judaic-Christian traditions) and primitive man’s response to death and the consequent worship of his ancestors occupying another “invisible realm”. But this realm was not understood and “experienced” as holy or sacred or divine in our modern sense until the evolution of a purely secular or profane realm of life and experience to contrast with it. It simply was, and needed to be attended to with all the reality of the everyday “‘world of appearances”.

    This happened throughout the Mediterranean with the emergence of cities or the “polis”. Originally, cities were in fact organized around temples. They were not secular realms at all but a public extension of an extended family or “tribes” worship of its common ancestors. Eventually this “space” around the temple lost its relation to ancestral worship and became purely secular or “political”. At that moment, western man started to experience and think about a separate “divine” or sacred realm (the word itself comes from the same root as “sacrifice”).

    Its interesting to me that much of our early religion was caste in terms of purity and in terms of disease and health. Possibly because much of primitive religion developed in response to the death of elders and the need to do something with the body and to remember/honor the dead as a means of coping with sorrow. Disease and decay was an issue with the dead body and therefore influenced the practices and language of early religion. And I think this follows through to our idea of the sacred being “pure” and it’s opposite (demonic, hellish, Satanic) being impure. Hence an evil man was not just bad; he was in some ways impure, diseased, etc.

  6. today20 Says:

    But clearly the evil man was not necessarily “bad” or impure in body or in appearance. Some other aspect of human being must be at stake when a man is evil. The idea in the west of a “soul” arises around this time and these sets of issues. This is the link in Christianity to the will. The evil man is not simply bad … he is not simply one who makes choices that harm other people … he is “diseased”, impure, “inside”. This “inside” is his soul and what specifically is rotten is his will. Moreover, he is to be judged by the quality of his will and not by the efficacy of his actions. It is not the tragic reversibility of his fortunes in the world, due to acting and speaking in a pluralistic realm occupied by other free agents capable of unpredictable and uncontrollable re-action that is worthy of being understood and evaluated … as it is in classical tragedy.

    I’m getting a sense of how different our histories and our traditional worldviews are from the references to the Chinese and Confucian traditions. Its very interesting to me. So I have another question … is there a concept in Chinese or Confucian tradition similar to the western/Christian concept of the soul? Do you know its origins?

  7. Le Says:

    – Good/evil are labeling concepts which I think not quite conflict with the idea of tragedy that we are having. This kind of tragedy happened despite good intentions from humans. We may see that it is natural for human being to feel suffering from this kind of tragedy. But I believe that Christianity has no objection against this feeling of suffer, as long as the person strongly keeps his/her faith in God’s will. Tragedy do exist in Christianity, not as random ways of life to happen, but as a challenge from God to human faith. So despite the suffering, human has to go on, believing that God is holy, and always has his way to put things in right places in life.

    – The term “sacred” or “holy” are key concepts in Christian metaphysics. I believe that Confucius do not have equal terms for these concepts. That is because Confucius goals did not include any attempt to rigorously dig deep into the metaphysics of human nature. Instead, Confucius chose only to speak of things that he thought that were relevant. For example, he said one should love all human, since to love is the nature of human. But he would not go further to explain where that nature came from. That is different from Christian religion, where all the goodness of human could be traced back to the holy nature of God. That is not to say that the terms “sacred” and “holy” do not exist in Eastern cultures. We may find such terms in Buddhism, even though they need to be put into some certain perspective to find similar ground with Christian ideology. We also need to mention Hinduism, although I am not too familiar with it. Again, it has similar terms, but may require further adjustment to find a relevant ground.

  8. Le Says:

    The concept of the soul is at a level of metaphysics that Confucius chose not to confront. His talks concerned very much with the human mind, but not deeper than that. As a result, interestingly, Confucius refused to talk about such ideas as “life after death”, “ghost”, and so on. Obviously he must have recognize how complicated and stimulated such level of metaphysics would cause to the human minds. Those effects could have pushed people’s imagination out of the controlling environment that Confucius would prefer to keep remaining.

    Despite its absent in Confucius philosophy, the concept of the soul still exists in folk cultures. Even the very minor group of people had recognized this idea. They not only think of human soul, but also the soul of animals, jungles, mountains, … For more populated culture, the concept of human soul well integrated with religions. The difference with Christian tradition of belief possibly is that the soul normally is not corrupted by evil in term of resulting in evil wills. Unless the soul is possessed by a ghost/demon, but that’s a different story. More importantly, Christian tradition emphasizes a fight of good against evil, which do not popularly exist in Chinese/Indian based cultures.

  9. today20 Says:

    Also from the former prof:

    Tragedy refers first of all to a very specific form of drama originating in ancient Greece . The idea of a “tragic hero” derives from this dramatic form. This original meaning of tragedy and the tragic hero are different and more specific than that of everyday language today. A tragedy tends to mean an event in which someone (generally important in some way) has suffered harm but who is innocent.

    Tragedy was originally a ritualistic celebration for the sake of the god Dionysius … the god of wine and passion. The “plays” were performed with a chorus and originally one but eventually three actors. They were the principle form of non-political social activity in ancient Mediterranean cities. They were written in poetic verse, accompanied by music and essentially sung. Think of modern opera.

    The principle actor (the hero) was always a public figure … head of a household/clan, ruler of a city … who was “great” in the sense of recognized publicly as an individual embodying the supreme civic “individualistic” values of the 5th century b.c. … courageous, handsome, strong, prudent/restrained, and “wise” in the way that an experienced ”practical” man of action is wise … an effective and strong leader.

    The plays themselves were poetic attempts to imitate and express the dilemmas of acting publicly and individualistically in a city of other free and individualistic men. Generally, their point was to show how human choices and actions, performed openly by “great men” of sound judgment, in and with other free men capable of re-acting, can lead to totally unpredictable consequences. The “greatest” of men and the best of judgment are not immune from the dictates of fate and are vulnerable to a reversal of fortunes due to the simple fact that all men occupy the city alongside a plurality of other free men. Man therefore is always a victim, as well as an agent, of his own choices in the public realm. Practical wisdom … this is before Socrates and Plato and “philosophical wisdom” …. comes from suffering the consequences of your own choices.

    The key here is the public realm in which the hero is acting. The tragic hero must first of all be a “great man”. A great man is not simply a powerful man. He’s certainly not a “good man” in the Christian sense, pure in his intentions. He’s strong, resolute, successful and most importantly recognized as such in public by his city. His virtues are not of the “soul” or of the mind, but of his outward persona and reputation in the city. You can only have a tragic hero in this sense if you have these essentially public conditions of the city.

    My presumption is that Vietnam and perhaps Asia more generally has not historically had such conditions for the public concept of “greatness” in the western sense. There needs to be a high degree of individuality, openness, participation and equality … in a word, democracy … for this concept of greatness to be relevant. I remember visiting Hue last Christmas and walking around inside the walled “city”. In this world (not too different from places I’ve been in Japan , China , Korea ) there really was not a “public space”. Or, to the extent that you call this a public space, it was occupied really only by one person … the Emperor. It was not a pluralistic city of free and equal men prepared to react and respond to each other’s actions.

  10. today20 Says:

    The tragedies all essentially depict a reversal of the hero’s fortunes, his fall from greatness. It’s worth thinking about what this says about freedom and the human condition. There is no evil here, no “guilt” on the part of the hero. The bad that befalls the hero is not due to the wickedness of his intentions or for that matter anyone else’s intentions. It’s simply written into reality and the human condition that even greatness can’t escape what is fated. This is totally unchristian. There is no after-life in which the hero, because he’s “good” in the sense of just and pious and innocent is ultimately rewarded.

    Sorry this is so long. And probably not very illuminating. (It’s hard to think about such matters in the midst of financial markets and a hedge fund office). But it raises two other questions in my mind.

    In Vietnamese culture (historically or today), what values constitute a “good” or great man? Are they traditionally “inner virtues” or are there any moments in your history during which such “public” virtues prevailed?

    The tragic hero in western culture was a good/great man who did not achieve happiness. Happiness is a central concept of Greek tragedy and in fact Greek philosophy. It was not a subjective condition of man, to be equated with some form of pleasure. But a public/objective condition of his life and his reputation. Do Vietnamese thinkers and writers talk about happiness?

  11. Le Says:

    Any hero is the one who performed great self-sacrifice to improve some other life/lives. The hero may die as a result of his/her act, but as long as his/her ideology is fully carried out, we would not call that person a tragic hero. Instead, we may call him/her an unlucky hero.

    A tragic hero is in a different category. This person is the one who performed great sacrifice to try to live up to his/her ideology. However, despite that great sacrifice, the person could not fulfill that mission. Why not? There could be two possible reasons. First, it is because reality was more complicated than what one could expect of. Second, the ideology of the hero even though is nobly admirable, but it is either self-conflicting, or simply against the nature of life.

    King Lear’s life is one example of being tragic. His kindness to the/some daughters created a decision which came to destroy on his family. King Lear is not really hero. But Hamlet is. To fulfill his father’s will, he became the cause of his loved woman’s death. Which then created a chain of reactions that cost his mother’s life, and his own. All of his noble quality had come together to cause this great tragedy. In other words, his noble quality was a part of this tragedy.

    The significance of tragedy in these scenarios is that it reflects the struggle between human and the inevitable nature of life. That inevitability of life is somehow very specially beautiful. It shows the complexity and depth in both nature and humanity.

    Once we put our perspective in that context, we see that the concept tragic hero appears many times in different culture. Tragedy happened in the history of any culture. The one who rejects tragedy is the one who refuse the inevitable depth and complexity of life/human nature. Was Jesus himself not a tragic hero with his failure to salvage the Jews? Was Confucius himself not a tragic hero as he critically failed his ultimate goal to stop the violences and create long-run social order in his life time? Similarly in some way, was Ghandi not a tragic hero? And some may debate about this, but I say that even Ho Chi Minh was another appropriate example of a tragic hero.

  12. Le Says:

    In Confucius ideology, the central virtues for a “gentleman” (người quân tử) is someone who is Kind, Righteous, Proper, Wise, Faithful, and brave enough to live up to these virtues. We need to notice two things. These virtues here are ranked accordingly (so kindness is the most important virtue). Second, being Proper is a mean to be in harmony with the world, including yourself, people around, the society, and the natural conditions.

    In Buddhist ideology, Kindness is the central virtue for the way of living. Being Wise and Resolute are parts of the way to practice Buddhism. But being Kind is the ground for all other virtues.

    We may say that the Buddhist and the Confucius traditions together shaped morality of people. Up until the 19th century, all the virtues in the Confucius ideology still had strong influence in what the society accepted as morality. But after the French took Vietnam as a colony, Confucius tradition increasingly lost its values. Especially after Communists took over control of the country, a new set of values was imposed on Vietnamese people. It were also war and poverty that strongly affected the common social belief in morality. Nowaday, the virtue of good man is a combination of what is left from the belief in Confucius and Buddhist ideal virtues. That is Kindness. But this particular kindness is usually looked at from the perspective of an individual, who tries to be in a harmony with the community. I believe this is what is left from the Confucius culture. I also think that this sense of thriving toward harmony is the root of the politeness we still see in Japan culture, a culture which still very much keeps Confucius tradition alive.

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