Evil Knowledge? A Cautionary Tale from Shakespeare

The senior class at Chesterton Academy recently staged a remarkable production of Macbeth. I say “remarkable” because when the play is done well—which it was in this case—what everyone remarks about is what a powerful and provocative piece of drama it is. G.K. Chesterton says this is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy because it is a Christian tragedy as opposed to a pagan tragedy. It is not a tragedy of fate, but of free will. Macbeth is a good man who makes a very bad decision, which is then followed by more bad decisions, which eventually lead to his destruction. It is a vivid portrayal of the consequences of sin. And as a play, it has everything: murder, madness, gut-wrenching sadness, comic relief, swordfights, ghosts and witches.

What about those witches? Macbeth is lured by the prophecies of “the three weird sisters” who seem to be telling him good things. He will be honored. He will be king. But he is not content with letting this future simply come along in good time. He gives in to the temptation to force its fulfillment. But after he murders the king and rises to the throne, he is, in a word, agitated. He is kept awake by his guilt. (“Macbeth hath murdered sleep.”) He finds he can no longer pray. So where does he go for comfort? Back to the witches. Back to the ones who did not make him happy in the first place. He gets more twisted prophecies that he foolishly follows to his demise. When he is about to die, he pitifully realizes how he has been deceived by

“These juggling fiends. . . that palter with us in a double sense.
They keep their words of promise to our ear
And break it in our hope.”

The word “witch” has the same root as the word “wit.” It means “to know.” Witches have a knowledge that we do not have, but it is a knowledge we do not need to have. Yet we are always drawn to knowledge because we think that more knowledge must be good. And if not good, at least neutral. Better than ignorance. What we never consider is that some knowledge might actually be evil. Chesterton says, “When spirits avowedly avoid the word ‘evil,’ or hint that from a higher standpoint there is no evil, I have no doubt whatever that there is evil in that. Hell alone produces anything so horrible as that optimism.”

 

This lure of forbidden knowledge, which started in the Garden of Eden, and continued throughout history, certainly in such things as witchcraft, has always lurked in the shadows, never shedding light, but only more darkness. It hides in new forms that avoid the word “evil,” and try to avoid even the whiff of controversy. It only offers endless potential and wish fulfillment. If it can be known, then we should know it. If it can be done, then we should do it. What’s to stop us? And think of all the good that could come this knowledge that we do not have. All we have to do is creep into those dark places and take it. Thus, we tinker with God’s created order without considering the chaos we are causing. We play mix and match with pieces of life. If it does not quite go the way we like, we kill what is inconvenient to our purposes, just as Macbeth murdered Banquo and the wife and children of Macduff.

We stir up strange brews to see what they will do, or we make them do what we bid. Just as the witches tossed in the ever popular eye of newt and toe of frog, they also included finger of birth-strangled babe. We add magical cells from aborted babies. Where else might this dark wit be found? We build machines to think for us and save us the bother of having to think for ourselves, machines with increasing “intelligence” that become more complicated than we can control. And we do not stop. We want more of this knowledge because more knowledge must be good. Except we have forgotten to think about what “good” really means. The problem, says Chesterton, is that we live in an “age of great apparent progress in knowledge, combined with a curious historical and philosophical ignorance.”

The Church wisely warns us to stay away from witches, to not cross certain boundaries in medicine, to keep our science subjected to our morality and not the other way around. A sound theology and a complete philosophy are not only useful tools, they are a shield and a sword to protect us. “For religion,” says Chesterton, “is a battle; and to have your thinking unfinished is to be fighting unprepared. If there is an enemy in the field, he will not wait until we find truth, he will already be leading us into error.”

And there is an enemy in the field. There are such things as evil spirits. There is a such a thing as evil knowledge. And we have not only denied the reality of these things, we have lost the power to cast them out. Chesterton says we have combined “the occult with the obscene; the sensuality of materialism with the insanity of spiritualism. In the story of Gadara we have left out nothing except the Redeemer, we have kept the devils and the swine.”

 

Dale Ahlquist

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Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense." Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published All Roads: Roamin’ Catholic Apologetics. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

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