Right now, I’m slowly making my way through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Like most books that centre around the events and characters of the Second World War, it’s a fascinating and disturbing book. And one of the things it’s caused me to really start thinking about is the fragility of evil.
I’ve been unashamedly influenced by the work of Nassim Taleb, and one of things—possibly the thing—that I learnt from the Incerto is that The only certainty in life is that the fragile will break. Taleb doesn’t (to my knowledge*) explicitly state this, but it stands out as one of his core ideas concerning antifragility and the effects of the what he calls “the extended disorder family” (uncertainty, imperfect and incomplete knowledge, the unknown, entropy, error, time etc.). Consider his work and you’ll see this, that the majority of his heuristics, strategies and philosophy are concerned with assessing, fortifying against and exploiting fragility.
The Third Reich, like any other regime or institution built atop of inhumane ideologies and practises, stinks of what Taleb calls fragility. Such regimes and cultures are always built upon unstable foundations, upon the suppression of truth, on the beating down of natural human drives and instincts and desires, on actions that prioritise short term gain over long term survival. That’s why they never endure. Because lies are vulnerable to disorder. Because society wide suppression weakens with the passage of time. Because the longer a people is held down, the more likely it becomes that someone amongst the oppressed will stand up and fight back.
Regimes like the Third Reich are macro examples of the fragility of evil and untruth. What about a micro example?
Undercover agents have to assume identities. They can’t just play a role, they have to be someone else. Obviously, this is incredibly stressful, emotionally and psychologically. That’s why undercover agents don’t stay undercover for an entire life. It’s impossible to inhabit another identity and forget yourself. Along with the internal risk, the internal stress of pretending to be someone you’re not, there’s external risk. It’s safe to assume that every extra minute spent undercover increases the chances of being discovered as an agent. Think about it. Which undercover agent has the best chance of succeeding: the one who has to play the role for a night, or the one who has to play the role for a decade? Who is at greater risk of being exposed?
In the above example, we can see the truth of what Taleb says, or implies. To pretend to be someone else makes you fragile because, with the passage of time, the cracks in the facade of the alternate identity you’re assuming will begin to show.
In the same way, evil tries to assume another identity; that of a non-human entity. It tries to transcend its essence, to forget its human roots and take on the role of a brute and a beast. But trying to be something you naturally are not is fragile.
I suppose that’s why I’ve come to have hope in the human race. Yes, there are groups and people who satisfy the criteria we have for “evil.” But evil people and evil groups are, as history repeatedly shows, fragile.
Truth is less fragile than lies. Freedom is less fragile than oppression. Joy is less fragile than terror. And that’s what evil relies on; lies, oppression and terror. But the good is less fragile, and given enough time, always triumphs over the evil. So perhaps we can make an addition to the maxim stated at the beginning of this piece: The only certainties in life are that the fragile will break, and that the good will outlive the evil.
*The closest he gets is in the prologue (emphasis mine): “Time is functionally similar to volatility: the more time, the more events, the more disorder. Consider that if you can suffer limited harm and are antifragile to small errors, time brings the kind of errors or reverse errors than end up benefiting you. This is simply what your grandmother calls experience. The fragile breaks with time.”