Threshold of Goodness

Wanted poster for the International Criminal T...

Wanted poster for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

Nobody is born evil.

Nowadays we tend to connect evil with suffering insofar as we explain away acts of evil by describing the suffering of the perpetrators.  But is this really sound logic?

Some people experience great suffering, but not everyone who suffers passes on the pain.  On the contrary, many people who have suffered choose to dedicate their lives to alleviating, rather than causing, pain.

Which means that it isn’t a simple equation – suffering does not necessarily mean that the victim automatically becomes a perpetrator. This fact suggests that, regardless of how we are treated, and the fact that this is often outside our control, how we act is always inside our control.

So then, given that most of us are just regular people, why do some of us end up choosing to act in ways that can only be described as evil?

In 1994, over a period of 100 days, approximately 800,000 people were killed in the small East African nation of Rwanda.  It’s hard work killing 800,000 people in a hundred days and it took thousands of murderers.

It’s extremely unlikely that such a large number of irredeemably psychopathic killers lived in Rwanda in 1994.  Which is a scary thought as it means that these murderers weren’t a different creation – they were just regular people – like us.

No matter who we are, or what we think about ourselves, potentially we are all capable of evil because, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn says –

…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (1)

So.  How does a human being take that step too far and move from being merely flawed to being evil?

In the Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn presents a very interesting hypothesis about this transition from imperfect to evil –

Physics is aware of phenomena which occur only at threshold magnitudes, which do not exist until a certain threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed… You can cool oxygen to 100 degrees below zero centigrade and exert as much pressure as you want; it does not yield but remains a gas.  But as soon as minus 183 degrees is reached, it liquefies and begins to flow.

Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude.  Yes a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life…But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope.  But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return. (2)

This is such an interesting hypothesis, especially if you add it to the idea that there is real choice involved.

However, once we accept the possibility of each and every one of us being capable of evil, we also need to accept the possibility that we are also, each and every one of us, potentially capable of extraordinary goodness.

It’s vital to see our potential for goodness just as much as our potential for evil, as otherwise we will tend to become paranoid – terrified that any minute we are all about to cross over a threshold into being evil.

Rather than worrying about how we may be bad, perhaps instead we could concentrate – and teach our children to concentrate – on aiming for the threshold of goodness at all times?

Evil is the absence of good, just like darkness is the absence of light.  We ‘defeat’ darkness by turning on the light, in the same way we can ‘defeat’ evil by ‘turning on’ goodness.

Simple really, don’t you think?


(1) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, p.168.

(2) ibid,  pp 174-175

The Women of Rosenstrasse

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian writer and Nob...

We have become so result oriented that we have moved away from doing what we believe is right towards doing only what we believe will succeed.

This move has defined us by our successes and failures rather than our actions. Hence a moral action that doesn’t result in a ‘successful’ outcome is seen as a waste of time. Meanwhile, an amoral – or even immoral – action that brings about a desired result is seen as not only more practical but also better in every way.

This approach has very serious consequences, because the choice between good and evil is ours.  Individually.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. (1)

Butterfly Effect Actions for Change – Part 7:
The Women of Rosenstrasse 
On February 27, 1943, the ‘Final Roundup’, took place in Berlin. This operation involved arresting the Jewish husbands of Aryan German women and their Mischling (mixed ancestry) children.  Within hours of the arrests, 150 women had gathered on Rosenstrasse where the Jewish prisoners were being held.
By the second day, 600 women were gathered outside, holding hands, singing and chanting, ‘Let our husbands go.’
On day three, the SS were ordered to fire warning shots into the crowd – which they did several times.  Every time the soldiers fired the women scattered and hid in the surrounding alleyways and then regrouped.

“The SS trained machine guns on us: ‘If you don’t go now, we’ll shoot.’ But by now we couldn’t care less. We screamed ‘you murderers!’ and everything else. We bellowed. We thought that now, at last, we would be shot. Behind the machine guns a man shouted something – maybe he gave a command. I didn’t hear it, it was drowned out. But then they cleared out and the only sound was silence. That was the day it was so cold that the tears froze on my face.” (2)
The soldiers couldn’t be seen to mow down the flower of Aryan womanhood so the firing stopped.
Now the women were joined by others – men and women unrelated to the prisoners – and the crowd swelled to over a thousand.
On March 7th, Goebbels let the prisoners go – even 35 men who had been sent to Auschwitz were brought back to Berlin.

The women of Rosenstrasse got their husbands and children back but their courage actually achieved more than that –

…the Rosenstrasse women had forced the Nazis to make a choice: They could accede to a limited demand and pay a finite cost – 1,700 prisoners set free, if all the intermarried Jewish men were released. Or they could open a Pandora’s box of heightened protest… For the Nazis, maintaining social control was more important than making sure every last Jew made it to the gas chambers…

The protest confronted Nazis officials with an unresolved question: what to do with other intermarried Jews….On May 21 Himmler’s deputy released them all, everywhere, from the camps. (3) 

I’m sure the women of Rosenstrasse didn’t think they’d succeed when they took to the streets demanding that their husbands be released.  I’m even more sure they didn’t think other women’s husbands would be released.

But they still acted – with great courage – and did what they believed was the right thing to do, with no regard to the outcome.

Even if they had failed in their objective, their actions would still be brave and praiseworthy.

If they had stopped to consider their chances of success – they probably wouldn’t have even tried.

Makes you think… 


Photograph – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – on a train in Vladivostock as he returned to Russia in 1994 for the first time in twenty years.

(1) —  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956

(2) – Nathan StoltzfusResistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany. Rutgers University Press, 2001


(4) In 1995, a memorial created by Ingeborg Hunzinger, an East German sculptor, was erected in the nearby park (which was ironically the site of a former synagogue). The memorial, named “Block der Frauen (Block of Women)” reads The strength of civil disobedience, the vigor of love overcomes the violence of dictatorship; Give us our men back; Women were standing here, defeating death; Jewish men were free.