Knowing good and evil

Riesman, David

KNOWING GOOD & EVIL CURIOSITY & AMBIGUITY DAVID RIESMAN From Genesis 3, v: For God doth know, that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened; and ye shall be as gods, knowing...

...I have encouraged them, most of them not churchgoers, to go to church on Sundays, to watch and to listen, to keep a diary, to see whether possibly they are moved in spite of themselves...
...For curiosity to flourish, stndents and their teachers need to focus both on good and on evil, with the emphasis depending on the emphasis of the epoch in which they are living and working together...
...When I was a student, I visited the Soviet Union...
...Everything depends on maintaining curiosity about both good and evil, on our willingness to shed the arrogance that we are as gods, even though in the end we too, like gods, must make judgments: we must distinguish the better from the worse, the greater good and the lesser evil, in those mixtures which everywhere make up the human condition...
...Thus, the differentiated effort to understand a mixture of good and evil in an institution or in a country cannot get started, for there is no curiosity: there is either, among the educated, willed ignorance or premature closure...
...This article was delivered as a talk at Harvard's Appleton Chapel...
...And yet people wanted to believe the good: because the language was the language of international socialism, and because the visitors were critical of their own countries, and condescending toward the Soviet Union, they failed really to appreciate the extent of evil...
...Any foreign journalist could tell us of people who were taken out of their houses at night and shot or sent to labor camps...
...These people behave as gods in their arrogance, but unlike gods, they know not good and evil, but only one or the other...
...There have been times in our history when America has seemed a kind of Eden, as if Adam and Eve had not learned of good and evil...
...Americans of the sophisticated strata often harbor a new vanity: that our country is the worst, most: imperialist and most racist, the bringer of evil to the rest of the pure world...
...Currently, I have many students who believe so firmly in evil that they are not curious...
...I more...
...I was there with a number of leading fellow travelers...
...And because they had to look only on what was good, when we made an alliance of convenience with Stalin in the Second World War in order to defeat Nazism, we had to persuade ourselves that good old Uncle Joe was not fundamentally evil...
...I/or END tO reflect here about the knowledge of good and evil and its relation to the fundamental curiosity which led Eve to violate God's commandment, a curiosity which is supposed to be bad for cats, but as a 'result of which we possess the Bible, the Koran, the teachings of Buddha and of Confucius, of Aristotle and Plato...
...Such discoveries breed a cynicism that their peers reinforce...
...For instance, if I want to teach them something about the sociology of large hightechnology corporations, they assume they already know: these are evil bureaucracies, greedy and corrupting-corrupting to those inside them and to those outside them over whom they have power...
...Ever since I began teaching, I have sought to make students curious about American religions...
...if their parents were religious, they have broken away...
...I I I I Commonweal: 46...
...Let me give another example...
...I have wanted them to compare liturgical practices, to observe, for example, the immense diversity within Roman Catholicism according to social class and ethnic group, as well as the more commonly recognized diversity among the different Protestant sects, even within different congregations of the same church or sect in the same city...
...often today their parents, themselves college-educated, regard themselves-as freethinkers, but they are not free, because they do not think about religion, and thus are easy prey to ideologies which are not called religion (a recurrent theme of Robert Bellah in his work on civil religion...
...Everything depends on local context, of this time and this place...
...All around us was evidence of evil: ruined fields and starving peasants...
...Perhaps people learn evil at that point in their lives as children when they discover that, though Wheaties may be the Breakfast of Champions, they do not themselves become champions: lies are being spread around and adults help them become perhaps prematurely "wise" to the fact that politicians or advertisers on television are not to be believed...
...Even 25 years ago, horrified by the evils of Stalinism and of Nazism also, we Americans have felt very good about our country, and have seen other countries in an ethnocentric way, much as many of the early...
...Since Vietnam, since all the revelations of the last decade...
...Today the climate is radically different...
...I am not contending for some simpleminded moderation which strikes an even balance between emphasis on good and emphasis on evil...
...But many of these students, like many of my colleagues, are anti-religious bigots: that is, they already know that religion is the opiate of the masses...
...and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil...
...They do not want to know I DAVID RIIESMAN is a professor in the Department ¢~Sociology at Harvard and author of The Lonely Crowd...
...Rather like our cutting off and not recognizing Russia or China because they are evil, or self-righteously, in Woodrow Wiison's style, espousing human fights even where the basic fight of survival in an age of nuclear weapons may be at stake...
...British and American...
...Americans did who wanted to build a City on a Hill, a new Eden...

Vol. 106 • February 1979 • No. 2


 
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