Man is but Unprincipled Clay

A student submission on June’s theme of Good versus Evil

Author: Daanish Malik

I argue that the race of man is neither inherently evil nor good as the “dark figure” proclaims, but rather, we are born into an unprincipled vacuum void of such concepts unless we dictate them. That we are born with the potential for either, not a predisposition towards either. Like a lump of wet clay that has yet to be given shape, children must be instilled with the principles that guide “good” behavior as dictated by the value judgments of whichever cultures they belong to. For reference, a value judgment is a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of something, based on a comparison to something such as a particular set of values—the values of Puritan culture, for instance. But, if we were to impose a morality system we can all agree upon, I suppose we could make the case that humans are instinctively good.

More to the point on the topic of cultures dictating value judgements, the lack of a universal consensus on what constitutes good or evil — abstract concepts that do not exist in objective reality as it stands — must make one question how an individual can inherently be something that must be ascribed to them by another’s value judgements. How can one culture dictate good and evil to another, both with a different set of principles as dictated by their respective set of values as set down by their deities and the like? How would I apply my culture’s definition of good and evil to the actions of the men and women of Salem, and vice versa, how would a Puritan of the era judge my actions? Despite our predilection for our supposed universal morals, we can’t fall back on them as some manner of baseline. 

On the matter of judgment, what makes a person inherently “evil.” The temptation to do evil? A susceptibility to moral corruption? Committing sin, whether it be a covetous thought or heinous crime? Of course, the theological origins to the inherent evil of man can be traced back to the Original Sin, or the fall of Adam and Eve, but I ask you this: what makes a “good” man if all men are “evil?” Does Goodman Brown and all the seven deadly sins that he indulges in throughout his journey that might have occurred within what might very well be a “dream of evil omen” for all intents and purposes prove him to be an inherently “evil” man? (Hawthorne 11).

Puritan theology — an understanding of which certainly enhances an understanding of the text — would dictate that the inherently evil natural liberty of mankind is what led Goodman Brown “deep into the heathen wilderness” and that God, the embodiment of perfection, provides the path to goodness, to salvation, but only through submission to authority, or civil liberty as dictated by God’s laws (Hawthorne 6). But the crux of that argument lies in whether or not God’s laws are truly the decrees of a divine entity, or the fabrications of mankind who themselves sought to establish civil liberty? That the race of man sought goodness after finding themselves to be wanting and found it within themselves? 

Even after his encounter with the fiend worshippers, does not young Goodman Brown “[snatch] away the child as from the grasp of the fiend himself” in an effort to preserve her innocence from the (debatable) witch Goody Cloyse (Hawthorne 11)? Admittedly, one could chalk it up to an instinctive urge to protect a vulnerable child as opposed to anything as meaningful as I proposed above, and yet does that not prove innate goodness? A peculiar interaction to an outside observer, interrupting the catechism of a little girl as administered by “that excellent old Christian,” drawing both the potential ire of a witch as he views her to be and perhaps the disapproval of the community (Hawthorne 11). 

Furthermore, what of the fiend worshiper at the witch-meeting, “a woman, with dim features of despair, [who] threw out her hand to warn [Goodman Brown] back?” (Hawthorne 9). The woman whom Goodman Brown wonders to be his mother? Even in the throes of this unholy communion, there arises an instinctive goodness not spurred on by divine law or even common law. And on the matter of parentage, did young Goodman Brown smartly lash Quakers or set fire to Indian villages as his forefathers had, good friends of the devil that they were (Hawthorne 3)? Actions framed in a sinful light, the story never makes mention of Goodman Brown following in their footsteps of violence nor cruelty, nor does he embrace the devil as they had upon his return to Salem, warding himself from those whom he believes to be fiend worshippers as though they were an anathema and finding their anthem of sin dreadful, as though it would incur the thunderous wrath of God on Salem’s congregation (Hawthorne 11-12). Are these the actions of a man who has succumbed to his evil nature, the actual force that it is within the story? 

Ultimately, I would return us back to my claim that children must be instilled with principles that guide them towards either good or evil behavior, and though young Goodman Brown is an adult husbandman at this point, we can refer back to “his own dead father [beckoning] him to advance” deeper into the wicked congregation as an imperfect example of such guidance (Hawthorne 9). What lessons did his father instill in him in life that may have led to Goodman Brown’s sinful trip into the woods, whether they had been taught directly to the child or learned through observation? Though we know not why Goodman Brown snatched away the child being instructed by Goody Cloyse, would it not be reasonable to assume he feared that the fiend worshiper would make a witch of the girl? That Goody Cloyse would teach evil to a child far removed from such matters of deviltry? Ultimately, I argue that the race of man is not inherently evil, but rather that evil — much like with good — must be taught. 

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