The Devil and the Star: There Are No Evil People

“I do not know these good people,” the prisoner replied.

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

“And now tell me, why is it that you use the words ‘good people’ all the time? Do you call everyone that, or what?”

“Everyone,” the prisoner replied. “There are no evil people in the world.”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

This passage from Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant satire of the Stalinist regime sticks with me, possibly more so than any other in literature. In this scene, Pontius Pilate is confronting Christ (the “prisoner” in question) about the charges for which he has been condemned to death, and the other prisoners who are sentenced to crucifixion alongside him. The others are thieves and murderers, in contrast with Christ who has truly committed no crime—and Pilate is baffled that Christ nonetheless refers to them as “good people.”

There are no evil people in the world is a theme that runs throughout the novel. Even at Satan’s grand ball at the climax of the book, when Margarita—the witch queen who presides over the sabbat—is confronted with a parade of murderers, traitors, and petty criminals, she still finds it in her heart to treat each of them with dignity and respect. At the end of the night, she pleads for forgiveness on behalf of one of the attendees, a woman who had murdered her own infant because she could not afford to feed it:

“In view of the fact,” said Woland, grinning, “that the possibility of your having been bribed by that fool Frieda is, of course, entirely excluded—being incompatible with your royal dignity—I simply don’t know what to do. One thing remains, perhaps: to procure some rags and stuff them in all the cracks of my bedroom.”

“What are you talking about, Messire?” Margarita was amazed, hearing these indeed incomprehensible words.

[…]

“I am talking about mercy,” Woland explained his words, not taking his fiery eye off Margarita. “It sometimes creeps, quite unexpectedly and perfidiously, through the narrowest cracks.”

Woland, a.k.a. Satan, is a force of cosmic punishment. His role is to torment evil people and to inflict the suffering that they deserve because of their wrongdoings. But Margarita insists on mercy. She knows full well the terrible thing that Frieda has done,* but she believes that Frieda is not an evil person—that she deserves a chance at redemption. There are no evil people in the world.

This push and pull between punishment and mercy is key to the novel, and Bulgakov’s narrative ultimately comes down on the side of mercy. It’s not naive about that judgment, though. Living under Stalin, Bulgakov was all too aware of the horrors that human beings could inflict on each other. He knew that people could do terrible things, and the novel reflects that with its parade of the worst humanity has to offer. Yet still, Bulgakov offers us this puzzling maxim, and seems to earnestly believe it. Why?

Whenever I read this book, I’m struck by the difference between doing bad and being bad. Plenty of people, from Frieda the infanticide to the men crucified alongside Christ, have done bad things. Indeed, many of those people do bad things unrepentantly, reveling in their actions and the harm they cause to other people. But I think that the core of the conversation between Christ and Pilate (or between Margarita and Woland) is that simply doing something bad doesn’t mean that someone is essentially, immutably bad in their essence.

Woland and Pilate both believe that someone who does bad simply is bad. For them, there is no difference between what you do and what you are. If you do bad, you are bad, and if you are bad, you deserve to suffer and be punished. Margarita and Christ, on the other hand, hold that someone’s actions don’t define their essence. They allow that people can do bad things for a variety of reasons and in a variety of circumstances, but that nonetheless no one is fundamentally evil. Someone may be misled about what the right thing to do is; conversely, they may know that what they do is wrong, but still choose to do it anyway. Even so, the wrongness—the evil—is a feature of their actions, not of them.

Why does this matter? Because when you see evil as an essential feature of a person, it is easy to tell yourself that person deserves to suffer. In the buildup to the crucifixion, we see Pilate desperately trying to convince himself that Christ deserves to die; if he can just tell himself that Christ is evil, then he can wash his conscience clean, because evil people deserve to be crucified. But if evil is in the action and not the person, things get much harder. If we do not believe that people are evil in the core of their being, then it is harder to tell ourselves that they deserve to suffer—and we find ourselves, like Margarita, pleading to ease the suffering even of those who have done terrible things.

This concept is not unique to The Master and Margarita, of course; I just find the theme particularly well expressed there. In broad strokes, this is the difference between retributive and restorative approaches to justice. Retributive justice says that wrongdoers deserve to be punished; restorative justice asks us to redress the wrong rather than the wrongdoer.

In Tarot terms, I see these themes in the Devil and the Star. The Devil (like Woland himself) tells us that people are inherently selfish and wicked. The Star (like Margarita) protests that we are not our actions, and there may always be an opportunity for people to do better than they have done in the past.

Between them, interestingly enough, sits the Tower: The experience of a sudden, unexpected, but inevitable calamity. The Devil comes before the Tower; he has never experienced disaster. He sees the wrong actions of other people, and he blames them fully, believing that they deserve whatever they get. The Star, on the other hand, comes after the experience of the Tower. She has known suffering, and it gives her more compassion. She believes that suffering is bad and should be eased—even the suffering of people who have done bad things. The idea that people deserve to feel pain is a lot harder to hold on to for the Star than it is for the Devil, because she has felt pain herself.

Bulgakov did not have an easy life. He knew what suffering was like, and he saw plenty of it in the Soviet Union under Stalin. And still he came away with the shocking, radical view: There are no evil people in the world. Still, he privileged the Star over the Devil.

This is a view I try to hold onto in my own life, although I’m not always successful. It’s easy to write others off as bad people, to decide that they don’t matter and they deserve to suffer. It’s much harder to say that there are no bad people, only bad actions, and to approach all the harm and wrongdoing in the world with the compassion and grace of the Star.

______________________________________________________
*Frieda’s case is morally complicated, because she killed her infant swiftly as an act of compassion rather than let it starve to death. There are people who would argue that her action was not morally wrong. Nonetheless, we’ll at least allow that Bulgakov seems to judge it as wrong.

4 thoughts on “The Devil and the Star: There Are No Evil People

  1. Jack, thank you for your piece and The Devil. I always have difficulty with this card and usually am struck with guilt when it shows up in readings for myself- which is does often- for some reason(lol). I like the bridge you build between the Devil and Star- with the journey related to the Tower in between. This is so refreshing to me! Kept up your writing,

    Like

  2. Out of the many times I’ve heard this book alluded to, I had no idea that that was what it was about! I gotta read this now.

    Like

  3. As a newby to your blog, this post brought me here. Well that and your YouTube videos. But this title called to me enough for me to read.
    I just wanted to say how much I appreciate this piece. I’ve always had what I thought was a ‘unique’ relationship with The Devil and The Star. Reading your thoughts here made me feel way less alone in my own thoughts.
    Thank you for that!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s