At the grave risk of over-simplifying, the list is brief: destructive scapegoating behavior, intolerance of criticism, concern with public image, and deviousness. These characteristics, back in 1983 (note well the next year), were widely considered the description of evil. Now look at the White House. What do you see? I know that I’m reading into the current situation, but how can one not? I have never read anything by M. Scott Peck before. Growing up I saw The Road Less Traveled on many, many bookshelves of friends and clergy. I recently picked up Peck’s People of the Lie because, along with Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, it convinced many in my generation that demons actually exist. At the time, still pretty much a Fundamentalist, I didn’t require any convincing. Reading Peck’s People, however, in the era of Trump is a frightening thing. And not just for the politics.
I always find books by psychologists and psychiatrists difficult to read. I admit to having had a less-than-ideal childhood, and although self-healing is possible such books make me think I should spend my free time in therapy rather than writing. In any case, People of the Lie is difficult in another respect as well—the labeling of evil. Peck advocated for the scientific study of evil. Good and evil, however, have generally been considered values rather than facts. Science studies the latter while religion and philosophy deal with the former. Not that lines in the sand are intended to be permanent. Still, what one person calls evil may not be what others call evil. Peck focuses primarily on narcissism and laziness as sources of evil. He may very well be right, especially with the narcissism aspect, but some of the patients he described certainly didn’t seem evil to me.
Many aspects of this book could be discussed on a blog like this. No doubt many of them will be, in sublimated form, in future posts. Books, however, are part of the context in which they’re read. In Peck’s day, the great political evil still fresh in many minds was the Vietnam War. Today’s world, however, is one where Vietnam, Watergate, and even to a great extent the tragi-comedy of the W administration have all been eclipsed. The cult of personality headed by one of the most obviously narcissistic individuals this nation has produced makes what Peck labeled “evil” seem perfectly normal. And those who have the authority to do something about it either sit idly by, or worse, use it for their own means. Roads less traveled indeed.