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 acts, chances are he did not think of himself as a bad person. It’s hard to imagine what would have been going through his mind, but doubtless he thought his actions made sense somehow.
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 and Charles Manson, these people brought death and destruction everywhere they went, but they 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?
Likewise, when an everyday person commits an atrocious act it isn't likely they spent any amount of time plotting in a secret lair and cackling like a super villain. While their actions and the thoughts that led up to them may be horrific, they probably never thought of themselves as evil.
So why do some people end up that way, and who decides what is "evil" anyway?
What Defines Evil?
Certainly 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. That is sad and unfortunate, and not what this essay is about.
Most people view evil as a matter of context, and dependent on the times they live and the culture around them. We know some thing are wrong, but the only real reason is because we, as a society, decided it is so. Anyone who strays from that norm is seen as immoral, wrong and evil.
It's necessary construct in any culture. For society to function there must be rules to keep people in line and prevent them for harming each other. But are we fair to judge other cultures, in the present time or historically, by our standards?
For example, 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 each other and maybe some 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 a depraved person, and probably insane. Rightfully so, given the norms in our culture today. 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.
In their own eyes, they weren't bad people doing bad things.
Definition of Evil Based on Cultural Reference
Today, a religion involving ritualistic sacrifice is seen as inhuman and horrible. 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 malevolent about it, to them back then anyway.
It seems that evil is very much about cultural mores and standards. What may be wrong and horrible 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, he was getting things done for you and making your life better. He only seemed like an awful person 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 other leaders who caused huge amounts of suffering? Had the Axis powers won World War II would history have been written with Hitler and Mussolini as the noble conquerors who lifted their people to prominence? It’s a scary thought, one that makes us a little nauseous for sure.
History, as they say, is written by the victor, and it is the victor who gets to set the tone for society and, sometimes, the world at large.
Everything is Relative
What would happen if somehow all the “evil” in the world was abolished? What if, suddenly, there is no more violence, anger and hatred? Maybe, like in Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek world, mankind suddenly wises up and rids itself of all the 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 wrong? 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 wickedness have degrees, or is it absolute? Stealing $100 from orphans is awful. Is stealing $100,000 from them a thousand times worse?
Looting a store during a power outage is a terrible thing to do. Looting a store during an apocalyptic event after society has crumbled, not as bad.
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 immoral 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 bad 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.