Thomas De Quincey

The principle of evil

We are not to suppose the rebel, or, more properly, corrupted angels—the rebellion being in the result, not in the intention (which is as little conceivable in an exalted spirit as that man should prepare to make war on gravitation)—were essentially evil. Whether a principle of evil—essential evil—anywhere exists can only be guessed. So gloomy an idea is shut up from man. Yet, if so, possibly the angels and man were nearing it continually.

Possibly after a certain approach to that Maelstrom recall might be hopeless. Possibly many anchors had been thrown out to pick up, had all dragged, and last of all came to the Jewish trial. (Of course, under the Pagan absence of sin, a fall was impossible. A return was impossible, in the sense that you cannot return to a place which you have never left. Have I ever noticed this?) We are not to suppose that the angels were really in a state of rebellion. So far from that, it was evidently amongst the purposes of God that what are called false Gods, and are so in the ultimate sense of resting on tainted principles and tending to ruin—perhaps irretrievable (though it would be the same thing practically if no restoration were possible but through vast ├Žons of unhappy incarnations)—but otherwise were as real as anything can be into whose nature a germ of evil has entered, should effect a secondary ministration of the last importance to man’s welfare. Doubt there can be little that without any religion, any sense of dependency, or gratitude, or reverence as to superior natures, man would rapidly have deteriorated; and that would have tended to such destruction of all nobler principles—patriotism (strong in the old world as with us), humanity, ties of parentage or neighbourhood—as would soon have thinned the world; so that the Jewish process thus going on must have failed for want of correspondencies to the scheme—possibly endless oscillations which, however coincident with plagues, would extirpate the human race. We may see in manufacturing neighbourhoods, so long as no dependency exists on masters, where wages show that not work, but workmen, are scarce, how unamiable, insolent, fierce, are the people; the poor cottagers on a great estate may sometimes offend you by too obsequious a spirit towards all gentry. That was a transition state in England during the first half of the eighteenth century, when few manufacturers and merchants had risen to such a generous model. But this leaves room for many domestic virtues that would suffer greatly in the other state. Yet this is but a faint image of the total independency. Oaths were sacred only through the temporal judgments supposed to overtake those who insulted the Gods by summoning them to witness a false contract. But this would have been only part of the evil. So long as men acknowledged higher natures, they were doubtful about futurity. This doubt had little strength on the side of hope, but much on the side of fear. The blessings of any future state were cheerless and insipid mockeries; so Achilles—how he bemoans his state! But the torments were real. By far more, however, they, through this coarse agency of syllogistic dread, would act to show man the degradation of his nature when all light of a higher existence had disappeared. That which did not exist for natures supposed capable originally of immortality, how should it exist for him? And that man must have observed with little attention what takes place in this world if he needs to be told that nothing tends to make his own species cheap and hateful in his eyes so certainly as moral degradation driven to a point of no hope. So in squalid dungeons, in captivities of slaves, nay, in absolute pauperism, all hate each other fiercely. Even with us, how sad is the thought—that, just as a man needs pity, as he is stript of all things, when most the sympathy of men should settle on him, then most is he contemplated with a hard-hearted contempt! The Jews when injured by our own oppressive princes were despised and hated. Had they raised an empire, licked their oppressors well, they would have been compassionately loved. So lunatics heretofore; so galley-slaves—Toulon, Marseilles, etc. This brutal principle of degradation soon developed in man. The Gods, therefore, performed a great agency for man. And it is clear that God did not discourage common rites or rights for His altar or theirs. Nay, he sent Israel to Egypt—as one reason—to learn ceremonies amongst a people who sequestered them. In evil the Jews always clove to their religion. Next the difficulty of people, miracles, though less for false Gods, and least of all for the meanest, was alike for both. Astarte does not kill Sayth on the spot, but by a judgment. Gods, no more their God, spake an instant law. Even the prophets are properly no prophets, but only the mode of speech by God,—as clear as He can speak. Men mistake God’s hate by their own. So neither could He reveal Himself. A vast age would be required for seeing God.

But for the thought of man as evil (or of any other form of evil), as reconcilable with their idea of a perfect God, a happy idea may, like the categories, proceed upon a necessity for a perfect inversion of the methodus conspiciendi. Let us retrace, but in such a form as to be apprehensible by all readers. Analytic and synthetic propositions at once throw light upon the notion of a category. Once it had been a mere abstraction; of no possible use except as a convenient cell for referring (as in a nest of boxes), which may perhaps as much degrade the idea as a relative of my own degraded the image of the crescent moon by saying, in his abhorrence of sentimentality, that it reminded him of the segment from his own thumb-nail when clean cut by an instrument called a nail-cutter. This was the Aristotelian notion. But Kant could not content himself with this idea. His own theory (1) as to time and space, (2) the refutation of Hume’s notion of cause, and (3) his own great discovery of synthetic and analytic propositions, all prepared the way for a totally new view. But, now, what is the origin of this necessity applied to the category as founded in the synthesis? How does a synthesis make itself or anything else necessary? Explain me that.

This was written perhaps a fortnight ago. Now, Monday, May 23 (day fixed for Dan Good’s execution), I do explain it by what this moment I seem to have discovered—the necessity of cause, of substance, etc., lies in the intervening synthesis. This you must pass through in the course tending to and finally reaching the idea; for the analytical presupposes this synthesis.

Not only must the energies of destruction be equal to those of creation, but, in fact, perhaps by the trespassing a little of the first upon the last, is the true advance sustained; for it must be an advance as well as a balance. But you say this will but in other words mean that forces devoted (and properly so) to production or creation are absorbed by destruction. True; but the opposing phenomena will be going on in a large ratio, and each must react on the other. The productive must meet and correspond to the destructive. The destructive must revise and stimulate the continued production.


MLA Citation

De Quincey, Thomas. “The principle of evil .” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 3 Jun 2015. 25 Mar 2023 <>.

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