There is a special day we all celebrate in some way, shape or form. It is the day we are born. We live our lives for as long as we can, the best we can, and then we eventually move on from this mortal world. As with our birth, our death is also often celebrated.
Life and death are the natural order of world in which we live in. One is generally considered a miracle, or a blessing, while the other is something we all must experience and come to terms with at some point in our lives. We are mortal humans and throughout history, the meaning of life and death have held great symbolism.
Some of us choose different means of celebrating life and different means to celebrate death. Different religions and cultures from the beginning of our existence to the present day have vastly changed.
Throughout time, life and death have held a stigma of good and evil. Life and death have respectively been associated with good and evil. The mixture of life, death, good and evil is much more complex than simply placing a label on either. It’s the ultimate gray area.
Some lives we consider to be evil. Just about every religious and ancient text has some deity that has fallen from the grace of good and become the representation of living evil. Beyond the religious texts, there have been countless humans who have occupied their time on this earth performing evil acts. These evil acts are evil because we place them next to the good people and the good acts performed. Joseph Stalin is but one example when compared to Gandhi that we compare an evil life to a good life.
Yet again, the lines of life and death; good and evil are blurred as they have all evolved. Stalin did have supporters and Gandhi did have enemies. It’s the ideological perspective that has always been different. It is the opinion of those living in the contemporary time in which these individual lived can the most authentic judgment be passed. That is not to say we can’t look back today and say definitively that Stalin represented evil and Gandhi represented good.
The lives of God-Kings in ancient times were considered “good” lives, as they ruled by some sort of divine right to establish and maintain order within a society.
Many of the barbaric acts we read about that these kings performed are seen as evil by today’s standards but how can we today, living in modern times, pass judgement on what was truly good and evil? We only know what we experience and see in front of us. We have never had to endure a life through those unique times in history. We lack a true understanding of what it meant to live during this period in our history.
There are so many historic examples I could use but one really stands out to me as an example of what it meant to differentiate between good and evil – life and death. I could have looked to any religious text, I could have gone back to any ancient Pharaoh, Greek City-States, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire or any specific king/queen of any territory in the world. Yet it is the Vikings that sincerely peeked my interest of life and death and the blurry, intertwined line of life and death.
The Vikings believed in a higher power. They had Gods they worshipped. Yet their version of life and death, good and evil is astonishing. Their Gods ironically supported peace through strength.
For the Vikings, life was expansion. Life was for living to fulfill the human appetites. Death was not considered evil. What we would consider murder, even of innocent people who chose not to fight back was not an evil act to the average Viking.
The concept of killing to take ones possessions did not constitute an evil act. In fact, it promoted life, duty and honor in a twisted way and was glorified by the plunder of riches, land and people they acquired. The glorification led to killing, raping and pillaging to be consider “just” or good acts. To take a life equated to strength. Strength in life equated to good. The Vikings had no concept of what evil was in regards to their treatment of their fellow man.
Today we look at the actions of the Vikings and we are appalled. Just as the Greeks and Romans used brutal tactics to expand their wealth and territory so did the Vikings. And just and the Greeks and Romans glorified horrific acts and considered them good, so did the Vikings. We can’t empathize or even begin to understand the justification for their actions as “good” since the society we live in today would not tolerate even a hint of any of those actions. We read microscopic details of the empires and leaders while conveniently skipping over the rhetorical concepts of their views of life, death, good and evil. The average human is unaware of what was considered acceptable behavior for all the historic and ancient cultures and in turn would be shocked – unable to grasp their concept of these fundamental ideologies.
We evolved. Humans evolved. Society evolved. All lives, slowly but surely began to have more and more meaning.
The Vikings eventually blended in to civilization throughout the northern and western parts of Europe. Their old ways of glorifying life through death had been altered with their immersion in to Christian, Islamic, Judaism, other pagan religions and even non-religious cultural societies. Their original and traditional ways eventually faded away. Today we look back on them with disgust, but hindsight is always twenty-twenty. We never lived in those times. How can we truly understand what it meant to live, die and what was good or evil during those dark ages? They were the norm. They were accepted.
In contemporary times, there are still many ways to examine good and evil and connect them to life and death.
So many cultures believe and practice so many unique rituals that surprise even the most unaware of us. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and numerous other religions and cultures believe life is a blessing and we have a choice to live good or live a life of evil. We also have an understanding of how life and death blend with good and evil. Choice. Understanding. Choice was removed from many ancient civilizations, as was an understanding of the distinction between all features.
Today any association of evil within any religion is loosely tied to death. Suicide bombers who choose to act do not believe they are acting with evil intent. Some Irish-Catholics bomb Irish and British Protestants and consider their actions just – good. The same for the small portion of Muslim’s who believe by killing innocent people, they are acting for a righteous cause. Both expect their deaths to be celebrated for the actions. Both consider the death of others not to be evil, but to be progress for their cause – ultimately, a good deed.
Recently, police officers are being shot and attacked on what seems to be a daily basis. Do the attackers believe they are justified in their actions? Just about every attack has been linked to a cause or a belief. While we may believe in the cause, we may not agree with the actions of the extremists who who acted with malicious intent – evil. While those who believe in the cause, yet would never act in an extreme manner, do they empathize with the attackers? Thus adding more of a blur between what is good and evil. A justification of life and death.
Today we know good when we see it. We celebrate the lives of those who lived and performed good deeds and services for others. These good deeds and services might not necessarily impact a large portion of the population, but some things as simple as raising a family, being a productive and upstanding member of society, lending the occasional helping hand when necessary and many other good deeds that go unnoticed equal the sum of a good life. This is the contemporary understanding of a good life.
Evil is a bit more tricky to understand. We all have our versions of what we consider “evil.” While good has become more cemented within society and widely accepted as such, it is evil that is still a raging enigma. Many of us are so quick to blame an action as “evil” without fully understanding the means of which the evil was performed. I say this not as a justification for what we believe to be good versus evil, but an acknowledgment that some might argue the fundamental ideology. While their is an overwhelming view of good versus evil, it is not universally accepted and understood.
The one thing that has certainly evolved and stuck with evil is death. No longer is it blended and blurry as we have seen in history. All lives matter. Any action that takes the life away from another human being we consider as some form of evil; even if the means are justified.
It is a complicated and convoluted time in which we live. While the lines between life and death, good and evil have become more clear to us, let us not forget that it is the perception of good and evil from each individual that sets it apart. And as the saying goes, “perception is reality.”
Our perception of good and evil will always divide us. However, the celebration of life and death should unite us as we have hope for the newly born, and we honor the recently deceased. Even as they have evolved, their is still a division within each culture and in society as a whole. It is only through the understanding of life and death, the celebration or condemnation of deeds performed can we understand that good and evil will continue to evolve.
Maybe in a thousand years from now, scholars may look back and see our ways and our views of life, death, good and evil just as jaded as we view the same concepts from a thousand years ago from our current time. While a lack of empathy will always cause confusion to those who will one day sit in judgement of our actions today, the facts will always remain consistent. As the evolution of life, death, good and evil progress, so will the understanding of the fundamental concepts as to why we humans have behaved the way we did.
Author: Adam Wilkinson