Evil: ex malo bonum

Evil. ex malo bonum

Enrico Canuto, Former faculty, Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy


E tu, Cielo, dall'alto dei mondi
sereni, infinito, immortale,
oh! d'un pianto di stelle lo inondi
quest'atomo opaco del Male!

G. Pascoli, X Agosto


Myriads of religious, consecrated and enlightened people, theologians, philosophers, scholars, observed, experienced, suffered and questioned about evil. Let me approach this assembly on tiptoes.

Merriam Webster dictionary definition is three-fold

1) passive definition: the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing

2) active definition: something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity

3) materialization of the active definition: a cosmic evil force.

Passive definition focuses on condition and feeling of the evil victims, whereas active definition focuses on the origin and source of such condition. Subjects who suffer and victims affected by distress are not made explicit, but they are perceived as human beings, as evil is commonly taught as a passive/active condition of human life, where human beings are at the same time victims and perpetrators.

The word evil derives from Old English yfel, in turn from Proto-Germanic *ubil- (moden German übel meaning evil). Of the two alternative Proto Indo-European (PIE) roots which can be found in the literature, I selected the root whose meaning is very similar to the PIE root of the Latin malum, meaning evil. The PIE root is the diminutive of *upo, *up-elos, where *upo means under, below, being the root of Ancient Greek {\upsilon }'\pi \acute{o} (hypo-) and Latin sub-. Actually, according to [2] the root *upo should mean also up from under, over, and this meaning is assumed by [1] as the etymology of evil. I would be inclined to under because of malum and \kappa \alpha \kappa \acute{o}\varsigma etymologies (see below). Further, Merriam Webster cites the archaic meaning of inferior for the adjective evil.

The previous etymology is the parallel of the Latin word malum for evil. The word is akin to English word small  from old English smæl in turn from the Proto-Germanic smal- meaning small animal, small. The common root should be the PIE *(s)mal-, *(s)mel- meaning smaller animal, like the Ancient Greek \mu \tilde{\eta} \lambda o\nu meaning sheep, goat. An indirect proof of the etymology of malum, comes from the comparative peior, peius of the adjective malus,-a,-um. The PIE root should be *ped- with the meaning of foot, like Latin pes, pedis, and soil, ground like Ancient Greek \pi \acute{\epsilon} \delta o\nu.

Ancient Greek [1] deploys two main words for evil, \kappa \alpha \kappa \acute{o}\varsigma (also \tau \grave{o}\; \kappa \alpha \kappa \acute{o} \nu) and \pi o\nu \eta \rho \acute{o}\varsigma. The etymology of the former being disputed, let me propend to something similar to the previous ones, related to lowness and soil. A possible source is the PIE root *kakka meaning to defecate with derivations in all IE languages, e.g. the Ancient Greek \kappa \alpha \kappa \kappa \acute{\alpha} \omega. The latter word comes from the name \pi \acute{o}\nu o\varsigma, meaning toil, burden, and often means ‘oppressed by toils’, and in moral sense ‘worthless, dishonest’. Starting from the Greek of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (from III to I century BC), and continuing in the New Testament, passive meaning converts into active to indicate morally evil and evil incarnate (the devil).

Etymologies of evil, malum and perhaps  \kappa \alpha \kappa \acute{o}\varsigma show the conceptual way of describing evil as an inferior living condition, like that of small animals (malum), which may further degrade to the level of ground (peior). An immediate citation is the Jesus’s parable ‘The Prodigal Son’,  who having wasted his paternal legacy, on the soil, competes for food with swines.

Lucas, 15, 13-16 ... et non post multos dies congregatis omnibus adulescentior filius peregre profectus est in regionem longinquam et ibi dissipavit substantiam suam vivendo luxuriose, et postquam omnia consummasset facta est fames valida in regione illa et ipse cœpit egere et abiit et adhesit uni civium regionis illius et misit illum in villam suam ut pasceret porcos  et cupiebat implere ventrem suum de siliquis quas porci manducabant et nemo illi dabat.

Luke, 15, 12-16. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

Evil actions and condition as inferior is confirmed by Italian (and English) words like bassezza (lowness),  abiezione (abjection, from Latin abiectus, past participle of abicere, to throw away), degradazione (degradation). 


Many scholars (but not all of them, see for instance P. Ricoeur [3]) when treating about evil, join evil with good, as F. Nietzsche’s pamphlet ‘Beyond good and evil’ [4].

My effort is to first understand essence and origin of evil, and then investigate about good.

As a first instance, evil of every kind is strongly observable in and by human kind, and persistent in time and space, also under modern unprecedented welfare. Think of husbands (now the miserable word ‘partner’ is used when wedding has been avoided) who slaughtered wife and children – wife, who attended them, offered them her body, generated their children, but dreamed of separation. Evil occurs in very subtle ways, being strictly related to the essence of life competition and surviving. Life being complex looks very fragile and requires energy and tricks to survive and reproduce (the magic strategy to survive!). Living beings learned how and when to exploit other living beings to the purpose. This is the origin and source of active evil, the life background. Pain, the passive form of evil, is intertwined with life, being a manifestation of life fragility and degradation. Early newborn manifestations are weeping, weeping, weeping.

As a second instance, good appears weakly observable, short lasting and ambiguous. Look at the newspaper chronicles: mainly evil facts are reported, the same by movies and by modern computer games. This entails that good requires strong, painful efforts, if not the life sacrifice, to be created and maintained, hardly is recognized, and its creation starts and passes through evil. Ex malo bonum. I have recently read the history of the eight year Lin Zhao’s passion in Mao’s prisons, ended with her execution in 1968 [5]. Rehabilitation came in 1981. Under severe and continuous harassment by guards and inmates, family pressures, affected by tuberculosis, she never submitted to re-education, but freely expressed in blood letters, poems and documents her thought, dreams, Christian faith and protest. She painfully struggled to convert enduring evil into a fragile good, only came to light years after her death.  She became a martyr, but who knows and recognizes her and her deeds? Good may be compared to a hidden seed in the ground. It takes time and care to flourish and become visible, but when visible, it may be easily eradicated by anybody to any purpose. Let us recall the Parable of the Sower in Matthew, 13.                           

Matheus 13,3-9, ... et locutus est eis multa in parabolis, dicens: Ecce exiit qui seminat, seminare. Et dum seminat, quaedam ceciderunt secus viam, et venerunt volucres caeli, et comederunt ea. Alia autem ceciderunt in petrosa, ubi non habebant terram multam: et continuo exorta sunt, quia non habebant altitudinem terrae:  sole autem orto aestuaverunt; et quia non habebant radicem, aruerunt. Alia autem ceciderunt in spinas: et creverunt spinae, et suffocaverunt ea. Alia autem ceciderunt in terram bonam: et dabant fructum, aliud centesimum, aliud sexagesimum, aliud trigesimum.  Qui habet aures audiendi, audiat. 

Matthew, 13,3-9, Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9Whoever has ears, let them hear.”                                           



[1]  A. Ruppel, Kakology: a study of some evil words. In A. Chignell and S. MacDonald (eds.) Evil: The History of a Concept (Oxford Philosophical Concepts), Oxford University Press, 2016.

[2] Anonymous, The American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots Appendix, in The American Heritage dictionary of the English Language, from https://web.archive.org/web/20171117052309/https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/indoeurop.html

[3] P. Ricoeur, Le mal. Un défi à la philosophie et à la théologie, Labor et fides, 2004.

[4] F. Nietzsche, Beyond good and evil, Lightning Source, UK.

[5] L. Xi, Blood letters. The untold history of Lin Zhao, a martyr in Mao’s China, Basic Books, New York, 2018.

[6] E. Benveniste, Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Paris, Minuit, 1969.


Martyr, from Ecclesiastical Latin martyr, in turn from ancient Greek \mu \acute{\alpha }\varrho \tau \upsilon \varsigma ,-\breve{\upsilon }\rho o\varsigma, witness. The PIE root is disputed, but the roots *(s)mar, *(s)mer, to remember [2], seem appropriate. See Latin m\breve{e}-m\breve{o}r, mindful, Sanskrit, smar-âti, to remember, Ancient Greek, \mu\acute{ \varepsilon }\rho - \iota \mu \nu \alpha, care, Latin mor-a (?), lateness. During the early Christian centuries, the term acquired the extended meaning of believers who are called to witness for their religious belief, especially in the face of authorities.

Saint, from Latin sanc(i)t-us, past participle of the verb sanc-i o, to make somebody inviolable by consecration, to hallow. The PIE root is disputed. Some scholars [6] assume the PIE root *sak, *sek, sacred [2], Latin s\breve{a}c-er, sacred, archaic Latin, sak-ros (Lapis Niger, VI century BC), archaic Greek, hág-os,  which is completed by nasal infix so that *sa(n)k. I am very doubtful, since Latin verbs with nasal infix like vi(n)c-o, to win, lose it in the past participle, vict-us, what does not occur to sanc-io, and to the similar verb vinc-io, vinc(i)t-us, to gird.  Other scholars relate sanc-io to archaic Latin and Italic (semi-)god Sanc-us (Fidius), god of trust (fides), but of course Sanc-us may derive from the same root as sanc-io. A further proof of the different stem and meaning from sanct-us to s\breve{a}c-er may be Latin s\breve{a}cr\bar{o}sanct-us, meaning ‘sacred because of a sanctioned act (consecration), thus inviolable under penalty of death’. Further, the vowel a in s\breve{a}c-er is short, but long and nasal in sanct-us.