All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1970

Resist Not Evil

Some twenty years ago FEE pub­lished a small book by Henry Haz­litt, Will Dollars Save the World?, a critique of the Marshall Plan. Over 90,000 volumes were sold and the response was overwhelmingly favorable. Later, a national maga­zine of enormous circulation con­densed the book. The reaction from their readers was generally unfavorable. Why?

Condensation is the art of skel­etonizing, leaving the subject bare of explanation, that is, with cate­gorical statements standing alone. Ideas are communicated simply and understandably by explana­tion, not by abbreviation. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but only for those who already apprehend the idea; others miss the meaning.

Consider the Decalogue. Here we have Ten Commandments rath­er than ten explanations. These Commandments suffice for those who believe them to be the re­vealed Word of God, but these wonderful and righteous thou­-shalts and thou-shalt-nots have little if any enlightenment for non­believers; in their case, compre­hension requires further explana­tion.

The above is but background for another Biblical injunction (Mat­thew 5: 38-39):

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

These words, I believe, contain a remarkable truth, but in the form of a mere admonishment. Unless one explores the reasoning and insight behind it, this truth lives in darkness. Let’s see if it can be brought out into the light.

I confess at the outset that my interpretation is possibly at vari­ance with numerous other inter­pretations. Variation here is to be expected, for who can say for certain what was really meant?’ Perfect communication presuppos­es the perfect sayer and the per­fect hearer. Conceding Jesus to be the Perfect Sayer, who among us can claim to be the perfect hearer? No one! Not only are all of us imperfect hearers but also we are up against the inaccuracies words have suffered by translation: Ara­maic to Greek to Latin to English and so on. Absolute accuracy is out of the question as any compe­tent linguist will attest.

To illustrate: What is meant by “The meek shall inherit the earth”? Assuredly, not the Mr. Milquetoasts which the present usage of “meek” suggests. That doesn’t make sense to me. What does seem sensible is the Old Eng­lish usage of “meek,” meaning the teachable, the humble in spirit, the learners as distinguished from those afflicted with the little god syndrome, the know-it-alls.

Thus, any person’s interpreta­tion of “Resist not evil” logically rests on what makes sense to him, which is to say, on his idea of the ideal, on what his highest con­science dictates as right. This may not in fact be right but is as near to right as he can get. The original context, “Resist not evil,” may simply counsel nonviolence, but I am sure that the saying has wider overtones of meaning. It suggests that we do not try to construct our lives around a negation.

Some Signs of Enlightenment

To assess the relevance of “Re­sist not evil” in today’s world, it is necessary to recognize several civilizing ideas that have come to light—though never wholly un­derstood and practiced—since its pronouncement. Slavery then was morally acceptable, but today it is regarded in the West as an evil institution. The closed society is at least intellectually demolished and the tenets of the open society are no longer esoteric. During the last seven generations the princi­ples of limited government and the rule of law have gained some rec­ognition. Equality of opportunity for each individual, regardless of creed, color, race, or station, is not in question among enlightened people; the dignity of each human being is accepted, indeed, insisted on by many people! In numerous respects there has been some change for the better during the past nineteen centuries.

In the light of this moderate enlightenment, the admonition, “Resist not evil,” relates to a dif­ferent form of retribution than in New Testament days. It advised then against the practice of forcibly inhibiting evil; now it may be interpreted otherwise, for in an enlightened society it is the male­factor himself who invites being brought to justice. Ideally, at least, the taboos are codified, posted, and the penalties made known: “Do not jump off this cliff except at your own risk!” In the essentially free society the penalty for evil is not “an eye for an eye” as in Hammurabi’s time or Matthew’s time. The retribution is self-in­flicted; the one who performs an evil deed initiates the penalty meted out to him. He asked for it!

Assuming mankind to have ad­vanced in moral insight does not mean that good and evil have vanished from the human scene; they contest on higher levels. An act that wasn’t thought of as an evil centuries ago—enslaving a person, for instance—may later be regarded as evil. With this recog­nition, freeing a slave is for the first time regarded as good. Or, to use another example: in the ab­sence of moral sensitivity, certain overt acts may be evil, but there is nothing evil in only thinking about the acts. As the moral nature of an individual advances, the thought becomes as evil as the deed, and freeing self from such thoughts becomes good. In brief, as the moral nature ascends, man becomes conscious of evils never previously thought of as such. The opposites are forever at work, once at a brutish level and later, perhaps, at a saintly level.

I infer from this line of thought that “Resist not evil”—assuming an enlightened society—moves to a new and higher plane. The con­frontation not to be resisted is no longer at the eye-for-an-eye level of physical vengeance but at the thought level. Let me quote Aldous Huxley on witchcraft to make my point:

By paying so much attention to the devil and by treating witchcraft as the most heinous of crimes, the theologians and the inquisitors actu­ally spread the beliefs and fostered the practices which they were trying so hard to repress. By the beginning of the eighteenth century witchcraft had ceased to be a serious social problem. It died out, among other reasons, because almost nobody now bothered to repress it. For the less it was persecuted, the less it was prop­agandized.2

During the first two years of FEE, a celebrated columnist of a persuasion quite the opposite of ours, devoted five of his columns to FEE, each a tirade loaded with gross misrepresentations. To us, at least, this was evil. But we turned away from this “evil,” that is, we in no way resisted it—nary a rebuttal or acknowledgement! We provided this scribbler noth­ing whatsoever to scratch against, without which he could not con­tinue. He gave up, never again mentioning FEE as long as he lived.

As in the case of witchcraft, I am convinced that much of the rioting and anarchy presently in vogue is stimulated and worsened by all of the attention paid to the malefactors, that is, by the re­sistance to these evils. What un­enlightened people won’t do to get themselves on TV or otherwise in the public eye! Publicity and no­toriety hold more charm and in­ducement for such people than does greatness and fortune for others. “Resist not evil” counsels that they as persons be ignored, in the sense of not berating them.

And observe how attention to this axiom works its wonders in daily transactions. While most of our dealings with others are hon­orable and above board, now and then we experience shysterism: a broken promise, overcharge, underquality, an attempt to “get the best” of one. Resist not this evil; that is, pay no heed; not a scold­ing word; simply walk away and fail to return. While resistance will harden the malefactor in his sins as he rises to his own defense, nonresistance leaves him alone with his soul, his shop, and his jobbery, a plight that even a male­factor will ponder and understand.

Second Blow Starts Fight

Confrontation is always of two parts: the confrontee and the con­frontor. Neither one can exist without the other. This brings to mind the old Arab proverb, “He who strikes the second blow starts the fight.” There can be no fight without a retaliation.

But is one to “turn the other cheek”? That seems to be what “Resist not evil” commends! Only to get socked again? Wrote Kon­rad Lorenz, the noted animal psy­chologist:

A wolf has enlightened me: not so that your enemy may strike you again do you turn the other cheek toward him, but to make him unable to do it.³

Consider what happens if one does strike the second blow. There follows a fusillade of blows until one or the other is done in, the victor no less a model of rectitude than the vanquished. All loss and no gain! Witness wars!

This analysis, however, is meant to engage our Biblical axiom at the ideological level. As previously suggested, this presupposes a civilization less brutish and more moral than marked earlier times. That the presupposition may be somewhat extravagant is attested to by the difficulty all of us en­counter when trying to appre­hend, let alone practice, “Resist not evil.” Should this run counter to your instincts, you’re not alone; it does to mine. And only by a resort to reasoning at an untrod level are my combative instincts revealed to be faulty. I have ar­rived at the point of not overtly “telling ‘em off,” but what I still think to myself isn’t under con­trol! Covertly, I still resist, and if that isn’t all bad it is at least half bad.

Rationally judged, “Resist not evil” is counsel of the highest order. It cautions me not to argue with anyone. And let my case go by default? To the contrary, as the best way to win my case!

… assume to dictate to his judg­ment, or to command his action… and he will retreat within himself, close all avenues to his head and his heart… 4

In a word, away with confronta­tion!

Strict attention to this axiom has yet a further refinement. It is to refrain from ideological or phil­osophical discussion with any per­son unless I be seeking light from him or he from me. And what a waste of words and time this eliminates! Is this to hide our lights under a bushel? To retire to a do-nothing status? Again, to the contrary.

To waste neither words nor time is to make way for productive and constructive effort: learning the principles of freedom and the fallacies of its opposite, and how to explain them. If we learn these things—which presupposes your and my seeking—then others will seek from us. When confrontations are abandoned, the way to enlight­enment is open. Instead of two squared off against each other, there stand two peacefully gaining from each other or, at least, one from the other.

To resist evil is to sustain, en­courage, and prolong it; to resist it not is to substitute questions and answers for blows and coun­terblows; it permits the practice and the sharing of such truths as any of us may come upon. And is this not the proper path for hu­man progress?



1 See The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, Vol. VII, p. 301).

2 See The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley (New York: Harper & Row Pub­lishers, Inc., p. 128), 1952.

3 See “Morals and Weapons,” the final chapter in a fascinating book, King Solomon’s Ring, by Konrad Z. Lorenz (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.), 1961, a paperback.

4 Abraham Lincoln. 

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”