The Devil You Know
by Ben Stone
(audio version at bottom of this page)
There is a way of thinking that has for some time now, disturbed me. Sometimes it’s expressed in the phrase; “Choose the lesser of evils.” However I find this statement easy to refute by simply asking why I must choose evil at all. It seems to me that if I willingly choose evil, to any degree, I am not only complacent to evil but I am committing an evil act. How can a person of clear conscience intentionally commit an evil act? And once the evil deed is done, isn’t attempting to justify it also evil in and of itself? Therefore in choosing the lesser of evils I have fallen into another old adage, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Ah, but leave it to the smooth tongue of the Irish to say something completely unacceptable in a way that convinces you to accept it. And that would be, “Better to have the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Curiously, as best as I can tell, this old Irish phrase appeared around the time certain second-tier Irish leaders and land owners conspired to assist the Roundhead invasion of Ireland in return for special treatment and payments by one Oliver Cromwell. Perhaps that other saying, “Speak of the Devil and he’ll be before you.” has a degree of truth to it as well. Also the statement, “You get what’s coming to you.” has some merit.
So in justifying an invitation to the devil, one claims familiarity with said devil. Isn’t that an odd method of redemption? Let’s hop in the Way-Back Machine and try it in some statements:
“Yes, I invited Charles Manson to our dinner party because I know him much better than Elvis.”
Now let’s crank that dial back to 1938!
“Yes, I invited Adolph Hitler to the Bar Mitzvah because I know him so well and I’ve never met Rabbi Rosenthal.”
Doesn’t this work wonderfully?
It’s funny how if you just say the same thing in a different way it shines a whole new light on the subject. Let’s do one more.
“Yes, I invited Attila, prince of the Huns, to the counting house to assist with the audit. After all, I have known Attila since he was a child and I have never met this General Arnegisclus.”
(Do I get my History Geek Card stamped for that last one?)
You can clearly see my point, but some level of concern always lingers when letting go of the familiar and grasping at the unknown. However Sun Tzu teaches us to always know our enemy. And knowing your enemy is done for the purpose of defeating your enemy, not submitting to him. So then we are left with no practical excuse for accepting evil. We must, if we are to walk our path in life blameless, become familiar with but refuse to choose evil. If evil is thrust upon us we must use wisdom in seeking a way to avoid or resist it, but we must never choose to accept it. However, this is only half an answer. If we can be convinced to resist the familiar evil we must know that which we are to grasp. So we look back to Sun Tzu and see that we are not only to know our enemy but we are to know our self. The way to become confident in rejecting evil is by better knowing ourselves.
The Bible describes the network of tents and ritual objects that the Levite priests used in the ceremonies involving the sacrifice of animals prior to entering the presence of the Ark of The Covenant. (That’s the Indiana Jones ark, not the flood ark.) Before they could enter the main tent, after having brought a lamb to the alter and having slaughtered it, they washed their hands, faces, and beards in a huge basin that had been made by pounding bronze into the shape of a bowl and then polishing it to a gleaming finish. The effect of this highly polished surface covered in water was to create a mirror the priests could look at as they washed to make sure they removed all traces of the lamb’s blood. You see, if you are familiar with the Indiana Jones movie, they didn’t want to enter the presence of the Ark with the stains of slaughter on their hands because it could have adverse health effects.
For us, this is an example of knowing our self. As we examine our self and become more familiar with that face in the mirror, it becomes easier to understand our friends and neighbors. As we remove the stains of slaughter from our own lives and get better acquainted with our own strengths and weaknesses, we can begin to see ourselves as others see us. The more we do this the easier it is to understand the choices and actions of others when we interact with them. And the better we know our friends and neighbors the better we can learn how and when to trust them. As we learn more and more about our self and others we see that people really are mostly the same. Sure we all have strengths and weaknesses, but most people are not much different than you and me. Most people want the best life possible and prefer that life to be as peaceful as possible.
Now the fear of the unknown can begin to fade away as you learn that your neighbor is not so different after all. You realize at some point in this process, that the guy down the street has no more desire to rob you than you do to rob him. That’s not to say that there are no robbers, it just means the average guy down the street is no more likely to be a robber than you are.
But what of the robber that does exist? Who can we trust to help us with him?
Well, if we know one, we could ask a bigger tougher robber to help us with the robber. Perhaps if we knew a big strong gang of robbers we could ask them to defend us from the robber. But then, why would a gang of thieves protect us from other thieves?
Well, we could pay the big powerful gang to protect us from small gangs and individual thieves.
That doesn’t make sense does it?
That would be like choosing one evil over another simply based on familiarity.
Like if it were better to have the devil you know than the one you don’t.
The Devil You Know (audio version)