Woe to the Wise

February 2011

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
And prudent in their own sight!

— Isaiah 5:20-21

Who defines what's good and what – or who – is evil? Here's a suggestion: ‘History is written by the victors.’α

I'm not saying good and evil can't be nailed down; not at all. What I am saying is that calling woe on ‘those who call evil good, and good evil’ is a fairly large barrier thrown in the way of those trying to figure out which is which.

In The Last Ringbearer, the events of The Lord of the Rings are re-told from the Mordor side of the fence, presuming Tolkien's books to be the history of the victors. Even considering the undeniable racist overtones and anti-industrial bent of the original, my first response to this retelling was a faint outrage. Good and evil seemed so self-evidently clear in Tolkien's Middle Earth.β

And yet. It's so easily told from a different perspective, and so convincingly that – especially given my own sympathies – it'd be easy to jump sides.γ

Or take the film 300, which sides you with a bunch of homophobic, racist, violent and generally unpleasant dudes who are bigger assholes than the army trying to invade their little nation, and tells you that they're good and righteous and noble.

‘Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil’ turns out to be a pretty revealing sort of accusation. It's the sort of thing said by people who already know they're in the wrong, but can't afford for anyone else to realise the truth. It's what The Last Ringbearer's Aragorn might say when people begin to suspect that he's just a puppet for the Elves, throwing the humans of Middle Earth back into the dark(er) ages. It's what Leonidas the Spartan king might say when the women and children of Sparta – and the queer, the disabled, the pacifists – start asking whether they might really be better off under the rule of Xerxes, whose camp is filled with people like them. Calling woe is how you kill dissent.

The mistake made by that millennia-ago biblical scribe was assuming an objectivity – a neutrality – that doesn't exist. The history was written by the victors, and no one ever casts themself as the villain. If you truly want to be on the side of the good and the right, you'll have to start by asking: which side is that, exactly?

(See also The Sword of Good, a short story with very similar ideas.)

  1. Said by Winston Churchill.

  2. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it:

    …the author gets to create the whole social universe, and the readers are immersed in the hero's own internal perspective. And so anything the heroes do, which no character notices as wrong, won't be noticed by the readers as unheroic.

  3. I haven't entirely made up my mind on this yet (in part because I'm only a third of the way through the book.) I'm inclining towards ‘everyone's guilty when it comes to war,’ but I gotta say Gandalf is looking pretty bad at this point, and the Elves are just plain inhuman.