The Coherence of the Force: How “Evil” Transmits Its Pattern of Brokenness in Shape-Shifting Ways

A recent posting, A Multi-Dimensional Picture of Evil delineated four major questions about evil that the picture I’m presenting claims to clarify: definition, source, case study, and workings.

The last of these, I said, had been “presented only in occasional bits and pieces.” Accordingly, the piece ended with a promise to post this piece to “provide the beginnings of a more systematic delineation of the modus operandi of evil that should help to explain how it can be that, in the human world, a major dynamic is ‘a coherent force that works to spread brokenness (and thus to destroy wholeness) in the human system.'”

This is that piece.


My definition of “evil,” stressed that it should be understood as a force that operates in a coherent way, over time, and has a consistency in its impact on what it touches.

This idea of a coherent force is one of the ideas about the human world most important to my basic message in this series — specifically to the notion that “the Republican Party has become an instrument of an evil force” — but it is also perhaps the most difficult to wrap one’s mind around.

I will try here to make that idea more intelligible by fleshing it out, or at least sketching it in a bit.

Let me begin by adducing three principles important for being able to grasp the nature of the force of evil (or force of brokenness).

First, brokenness begets brokenness.

Second, as brokenness is transmitted, it can change forms so that, in its concrete manifestations, it does not look like the same thing.

And third, brokenness gets transmitted in the human system from level to level, and back again. Levels here refer to matters of scale, with the global intersocietal system at the largest scale, and human collectivities (societies, nations, organizations) at an intermediate scale, down to the more intimate (families, and the individual psyche).

Brokenness is an abstraction, but that does not make it any less real. Indeed, often it is by recognizing the reality of the abstract level that we discover what forces govern our world.

“Gravity,” for example, is also an abstraction. Newton discovered one of the main forces at work in the cosmos by putting together the fall of an apple from a tree with the movement of the moon around the earth, and of the planets around the sun.

So also with the force of evil: we can recognize that force in action when we can see past the differences at the concrete level to the abstract quality — brokenness — that is being transmitted.

For example, war represents a kind of brokenness. The traumatic effects of war on human beings are also a kind of brokenness. They don’t look the same. But it is by recognizing the abstraction they have in common — brokenness — that one can perceive the somewhat hidden reality of a vast force — the force of brokenness, of “evil” — at work.


Some good illustrations of this “coherence of the force,” moving through time and transmitting its pattern from form to form and level to level, can be found in the rich literature by which some outstanding thinkers have sought to make sense of that historical nightmare, the rise and brutal reign of Nazism in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century.

I’ll suggest ways that some of these insights can be connected to show how the patterns of brokenness get transmitted, demonstrating the coherence of the force.” The causal connections among these phenomena are of course more complex and multi-dimension than the few brushstrokes I’m presenting here can show. But these brushstrokes do capture important sinews of the causal structure.

According to THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES, the level through which the main impetus of brokenness enters the civilized human world is not the depravity of human nature but rather at the other, more global level of the system: the intersocietal system of “sovereign” societies. With neither a biological nor a human-designed order to regulate the interactions of these entities, the inevitable result is the disorder of anarchy and the concomittant struggle for power.

In such a system, the principle of “the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must” gains its power to condemn all the systems of civilization to struggle with the force of brokenness. For the brokenness ramifies from the disordered intersocietal system to the other levels of the human system.

Under the Nazis, the Germans were grotesque practitioners of that “principle” by which the strong do what they can. But, according to the profound German-Jewish social thinker, Norbert Elias, the militaristic, domineering, sadistic behavior in that 20th century flush of German power was itself, in part, the consequence of the long experience by previous generations of Germans of their relative weakness — hence their victimhood — in the international arena.

Elias writes:

“Following the internal clashes between reigning Protestant regional princes and the Catholic imperial house, and the smouldering religious wars of the sixteenth century, in the seventeenth century Germany became a major arena of war where the rulers and armies of other Catholic and Protestant countries fought out their battles for supremacy. And the armies of regional magnates fought each other in German territories, too. They all needed quarters, and food from the fields. Insecurity grew. Bands roamed the land, burning and murdering. A great proportion of the German populace became impoverished. Experts reckon that during the Thirty Years War Germany lost a third of its

Describing the painful consequences for the Germans, over several centuries, from their weakness relative to neighboring nations that had achieved national unification sooner, Elias writes this about the problems engendered by being the weak who suffer what they must:

[T]he relative weakness of their own state, compared with other states, entails specific crises for the people involved. They suffer from physical danger, begin to doubt their own intrinsic worth,feel humiliated and degraded, and are prone to wishful thinking about the revenge they would like to take on the perpetrators of this situation.

This free play of power among societies generated, at the level of German society, an orientation toward power and the struggle to prevail and dominate over others. Elias writes of German culture in the generations leading up to the rise of the Nazis as one where “a tradition of conduct in which life is seen as a struggle of all against all has gained dominance, and where there are institutions directed towards bringing up people with an appropriate personality structure…”

Thus, the brokenness in the overarching system gets transmitted — and transmuted — into the form of a society characterized by a “harshness of human relationships which finds expression in the use of physical violence” — he is speaking here of the German dueling culture — and this harshness, he says, “spreads like an infection.”

From the level of the society to the level of the family, certain kinds of power relationships get transmitted. Wilhelm Reich, in his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism, writes that “the authoritarian family…is a factory where reactionary ideology and reactionariy structures are produced.” The “first cultural precept” of “every reactionary polity,” he says, is the protection of this kind of family as a means for “safeguarding of the state, culture, and civilization.”

For an understanding of how this authoritarian family transmits brokenness to the level of the developing human individual, we can turn to Alice Miller’s fascinating book, For Your Own Good.

Miller writes about a “poisonous pedagogy” articulated in Germanic culture over several centuries. This frightening literature expounds not the covert parenting practices of a few criminal parents, but the proudly enunciated recommendations of cultural leaders regarding how children should be brought up.

Among the core beliefs identified by Miller are that “responding to a child’s needs is wrong ” and that “severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.” “Suppress everything in the child,” she quotes the highly respected nineteenth-century expert, Herr Schreber as telling parents. Parental love, these Germanic child-rearing experts taught, should work to assure “that the child learn at an early age to renounce, control, and master himself, that he not blindly follow the promptings of the flesh . . .”

This poisonous pedagogy works to get parents to convey to the child that his very nature as evil, as bad, as something to be transformed. Simply because he is a child, he is treated as unworthy of respect.

The brokenness of war manifests itself here as a war within the individual human being. The demands of society, internalized by the vulnerable and dependent young human being, make war upon the innate needs of the human creature.

In the face of this assault, if it is harsh enough, the child surrenders to the greater power. He identifies with the dominating will of the parent, representing the power structure of the authoritarian society. He surrenders his will. Another expert, Herr Sultzer, claimed that there will be no “serious consequences” from the annihilation of the child’s will. The child will “forget he ever had a will.”

(It seems to me likely that this annihilation of the will, embedded in the child-rearing practices of the Germanic culture in the generations leading to the Nazi nightmare, can be connected with another of the recurring insights to be found in the literature exploring the meaning of the rise of the Nazi power. Erich Fromm, one of several interpreters to make this point, emphasized in his 1941 book Escape from Freedom that those who were drawn to the Nazi totalitarianism under the domination of the Fuehrer, were unable to cope with the freedom of a more democratic order. My thought: if the will of the child has been “annihilated,” it would make sense that the adult would not be in touch with that part of himself that, in conditions of freedom, can find its own way without being told by superiors what to do.)

The brokenness thus transmitted down to the level of the individual human psyche generates an energy of brokenness that can transmit the pattern of brokenness back up into the higher levels.

Miller describes a woman, for example, who had been ill-treated in her family, but was not allowed to express her resentment. The energy of resentment, however, could find a more socially acceptable avenue of expression — toward a scapegoat. In a passage that might be a text-book example of the psychological mechanism of “displacement,” Miller writes:

[S]he told me with what enthusiasm she had read about “the crimes of the Jews” in Mein Kampf and what a sense of relief it had given her to find out that it was permissible to hate someone so unequivocally. She had never been allowed to envy her siblings openly for being able to pursue their careers. But the Jewish banker to whom her uncle had to pay interest on a loan—he was an exploiter of her poor uncle, with whom she identified. She herself was actually being exploited by her parents and was envious of her siblings, but a well-behaved girl was not permitted to have these feelings.

(This story connects, of course, with another aspect of brokennes that was endemic in German culture for centuries, and that was there for the spirit that animated Nazism to exploit: German anti-Semitism. The historical background leading up to the Holocaust has been presented in various places, including The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933, a rather elegiac picture, and the more outraged picture presented by Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust .)

The Roman poet Horace said, “If you drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back.” So it is with the natural will of the human being. The will may bend to submission, the child may “forget” he has one, but the will does not disappear.

Hermann Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, recalled his own upbringing in late nineteenth century Germany:

It was constantly impressed upon me in forceful terms that I must obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers, and priests, and indeed of all grown-up people, including
servants, and that nothing must distract me from this duty. What-ever they said was always right. These basic principles by which I was brought up became second nature to me.” [quoted in Alice Miller, p. 146]

Submission may have become “second nature” to Hermann Hoess, as he says, but look what happened to his first nature. Even as he fitted himself as a dutiful part of a tyrannical regime — overseeing the horrors of Auschwitz — he himself also willed the most brutal dehumanization and annihilation of others.

Here is nature, thwarted, coming back with a pitchfork of its own: the will, driven underground, reappears in satanic form.

Brokenness cycles through the system, changing forms as it moves from level to level, but forming a pattern that subtly infiltrates the human world.

“Among the leaders of the Third Reich,” writes Alice Miller, “I have not been able to find a single one who did not have a strict and rigid upbringing.”


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  1. Powerful. Can you give other examples? Certainly Nazi Germany is one among many. Unlike most of the world’s peoples, the Germans have at least partially confronted their dark past. Most of us are in complete ignorance or denial of the genocides of our countries and/or our forbears.

    The article impresses upon me further the wisdom of a friend, Michael. I don’t know if the wisdom is original to my friend or only relayed by him. Nevertheless, here it is. “There is only one sin: the sin of domination.”

    The more I contemplate this the more I realize that all “sin” can be boiled down to an attempt by one human being to dominate (and hence suppress the essence) of another human being. Domination stems from brokenness and begets brokenness.

    • In answer to your question, Dave, about other examples, I would say that I am most knowledgeable about two reasonably “pure cases”: the German case discussed in this piece, and the re-emergence of this force (notdormant but contained since the Civil War, and now fully erupted again in our times) on the political right in America.

      In a variety of other cases, my knowledge is much spottier, or there are more isolated incidences of an “evil force” manifesting itself, rather than something that’s visible over a vaster range (in time and space). While one can talk about destructiveness or evil when confronted with a Gulag or apartheid or the Reign of Terror, etc., I don’t feel able to talk about an “evil force” unless I’ve seen enough of its various manifestations and of how it moves through time to discern the vastness and interconnectedness that the phrase “evil force” signifies as I use it.

  2. It`s complicated and the idea that discipline can warp children, producing lack of empathy in the adult, does not answer fully, the actions of world leaders: they make mistakes, pushing the envelope and creating unintended consequences. Wilson entered WWI without thinking of the consequences: this led to revealing the mask that Andy just described, which would never have occurred, otherwise – then, no WWII, no holocaust, no sixty million deaths.

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