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The Most Evil People in History: An Essay on Human Malevolence
What Makes Someone Evil?
If we were to take an informal poll on the most evil person in the history of the world, odds are good that someone like Adolf Hitler would win the top spot. The atrocities committed by Hitler and his subordinates certainly qualify him as evil, and he is almost universally regarded as the most horrifying villain the world has ever seen.
It doesn’t matter your race, color, religion or nationality, pretty much everyone agrees that Hitler was a really, really bad man. Yet if you were to ask Hitler himself back in the days of his most grievous sins, chances are he did not see himself as an evil person.
It’s hard to imagine what would have been going through his mind, but doubtless he thought he had good reason for doing the things he did.
The same is likely true for the rest of the most evil people in history. From Vlad the Impaler (the real-life Dracula) to Napoleon to Genghis Khan, these people brought death and destruction everywhere they went, but they probably thought of themselves as anything but evil.
They did what they did for many reasons, but none of them woke up each morning thinking, What can I do today to ensure that I go down in history as one of the most horrible people to have ever lived?
The image of the super villain wringing his hands and cackling to himself as he plots the destruction of the world is better left to Super Friends cartoons and Austin Powers movies.
In the real world, nobody ever thinks of themselves as an evil person. So why do some people end up that way?
Who Decides What is Evil?
While it’s true that there are some mentally ill people who are quite aware that their actions are wrong, immoral, and downright evil, yet they can’t stop what they are doing, other people fall into evil behaviors as a result of the environment around them. In this way, good and evil are very much a matter of context.
For example, some people regard sports like boxing and mixed martial arts as barbaric, but how would they feel if these events went to the death?
Better still, what would happen if the President of the United States were to suddenly announce that all the major sporting stadiums in the country should be opened once a month in order to let criminals fight for their lives against wild animals? It would alleviate the overcrowding of our jails, and provide entertainment for the people.
Chances are good that people around the world would soon be declaring the President an evil person, and probably a little crazy. The Fox News network would have a field day! Yet this is exactly what went on in ancient Rome.
Were the ancient Romans who attended the gladiatorial events evil? Were the politicians and leaders who allowed it bad people? From our perspective today it’s inconceivable, but back then, viewed in context, it was the norm.
They weren’t evil, not in their own eyes.
Definition of Evil Based on Cultural Reference
Don’t even think of trying to start a religion involving ritualistic sacrifice. The Feds will be banging on your door faster than you can say Waco. Yet in many ancient cultures this was an accepted practice, and not only was it not considered evil, but in fact quite the opposite.
In pre-Columbian America many groups such as the Mayans and Aztecs practiced these rituals as part of their religion and their culture. There was nothing evil about it, to them back then anyway.
So, it seems that evil is very much about cultural mores and standards. What may be evil in one time and place may not be considered so in others.
So does this excuse a guy like Genghis Khan for the murder and mayhem he caused?
Khan came from a culture with a high regard for strength and power. He united countless tribes and built them into the Mongol Empire. If you were one of his people likely you didn’t think of him as evil at all.
Like a smiling politician promising no new taxes, he was getting things done for you and making your life better. He only seemed evil if you were on the wrong end of his sword, which, as it turns out, a lot of people were.
Can we say the same for Hitler? Had the Axis powers won World War II would history have been written with Hitler as the noble conqueror who lifted his people to prominence? It’s a scary thought, one that makes us a little nauseous for sure.
Are there Evil Forces at Work in Our World?
Is Evil Relative Even Today?
What would happen if somehow all the “evil” in the world was abolished? What if, suddenly, there is no more violence and malice? Maybe, like in Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek world, mankind suddenly wises up and rids itself of all the hatred, anger and malice that usually leads to our less savory deeds.
What then? Would we live in the utopia that all those hippies promised us back in the 60s, or would we make a new evil? In the absence of murder, would changing lanes in traffic without signaling be considered evil? If nobody ever steals anything, would eyeballing your neighbor’s new car be just as bad?
If evil is based on our cultural reference, then it stands to reason that evil is also relative. What might be terrible in one time and place would be “not so bad” in another. Does evil have degrees, or is it absolute? Stealing $100 from orphans is evil. Is stealing $100,000 from them a thousand times more evil?
Those who decide the punishments for criminals have a more literal task at hand when it comes to weighing the extent of wrongdoing, but for the rest of us, thankfully, the issue is more philosophical.
Evil, it seems, comes in degrees, but the exact cutoff point between acceptable debauchery and punishable wrongdoing probably varies depending on the eye of the beholder. What's evil in the eyes of a devout religious person may simply be a normal Saturday night for a lot of other people.
Why are We Evil?
This article probably raises more questions than it answers, but that’s the point. Hopefully you can see that this essay is meant as food for thought and not as any sort of statement by the author.
Thinking is good. As history has shown, unless people guard themselves diligently against the evils of the world they can be consumed by them. If nobody ever stopped to think about it, slavery would never have been abolished, the fighting pits in Rome would still be open, and we’d all be speaking German.
Edmund Burke said All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. But who is evil and who is good is apparently for the majority to decide, based on the mores of the society in which they live.
Nobody ever thinks they are evil, yet some people do horrible things. Perhaps it’s our nature, but maybe someday we’ll rise above it.