The Last Word of the Human Drama

We assume in the philosophy of drama developed [in my Filozofia dramatu] that evil belongs to the category of phenomena that distinguish themselves from the rest of objective phenomena in that they are possible exclusively between the persons of the drama. Evil presents itself to us as either a tempting or frightening specter invoked by the presence of others alongside us. It is as if a third someone—someone who, while being among us, can speak to us. Does something more hide behind this specter? We will not settle this. The phenomenological method we adopted for our research does not permit this. But let us not bemoan this limitation. The position occupied remains in harmony with the classical philosophy of evil, which proclaims that evil is a lack of being; for what is the phenomenon if not a lack of being—claiming to be being? Yet, we also do not fall into the contradiction with the Manichean conception of evil, according to which evil exists as an independent being. Maybe it really exists, however, we stop at researching phenomena themselves. In this way we take up a neutral stance from the start, not opting for any of the feuding parties.

We ought to say something similar about the good. It also emerges as a phenomenon from interpersonal space. It speaks to us as a third someone, from us and not from us, from others and not from others. But is it something more besides this? Is it an independent being? Or, only an illusion of an independent being? We will not settle this. We will also maintain neutrality about the issue of the good. We desire to study the good according to how it is given to us. We can know nothing about a good that is in no way given to us. We have not experienced it, so how can we understand it?

The biblical story about the fall of Adam and Eve still remains the horizon of the philosophy of drama. The philosophy of drama does not run away from metaphors, because it knows that metaphorization belongs to the nature of thinking. Hence, its philosophizing is decidedly a “thinking from within the metaphor.” In the story about the fall the voice of the good that resounds between Adam and Eve, is the voice of God. The voice of evil is the voice of the tempter (in this instance the serpent). This third one (and maybe also this fourth) appears between the two persons of the drama. Does this this third really exist? This question is the eternal torment of ontology, which believes that only what is real can act. In his acting man equally succumbs to what is and what is not. In philosophy the possibly existing demon plays the same role as the demon who really exists. According to Kant, God played a similar role in classical ontology. So, instead of asking, “What is?,” we asked, “Whom and what are we listening to?”

We are speaking about a voice. This is significant: the main metaphors with the help of which the Bible (and not only) attempts to describe the experience of good and evil are connected with the experience of hearing. Good and evil let themselves be known through the voice. In distinction from this, things are given to us through sight and touch. We ought to say: the good does not let itself be seen, but it does let itself be heard. Similarly evil: evil cannot be seen, but it can be heard. Good and evil come to us most frequently through prohibitions and injunctions in which the objective content is less important than the tone with which they are given. The picking of the fruit from the tree became something more than an object changing place, since it was the violation of a previous prohibition. Neither the fruit upon the tree calls for picking, nor do things call to not touch—a third one calls, who has come between us. Lévinas’s philosophy of the face also witnesses to the primacy of speech in the experience of the good. The face, contrary to what might be suggested by the literal understanding of this word, is not what is visible, but what is heard. The face says: “You will not commit a murder.” The speech of the face emerges from the horizon of the good and awakens a desire for the good in those who hear it.

Usually studies about the mystery of good and evil consider in the first place the question about the nature of the good, and only later the question about the nature of evil. In this introduction to the philosophy of drama we took a different path: we began with evil in order to, through evil, come slowly to an understanding of the good. This is the result of the conviction that the good is admittedly closer to our hopes, but evil is closer to our experiences. The philosophy that adheres to applying the phenomenological method is, in a way, predestined to admit the primacy of the study of evil before the study of the good.

Let us try to capture what is fundamental in speech about good and evil as we conclude these analyses. Let us ask about the last word—the last word of evil and the last word of the good, uttered over a man.


We already said: evil leads to condemnation. Its goal is to hear, “You are condemned.” The one who is condemned is evil. He, and his existence, is evil. Scheler wrote, “The existence of a negative value is itself a negative value.” The existence of an evil man is an evil existence.

We know that evil speaks to man either as a temptation or as a threat. The ultimate goal of evil is to lead man to the state in which these words become the truth: “He is evil.” Whoever is evil should be condemned. Because there is nothing that could justify his existence.

What does it mean to say I am evil? We know that these words can take on various meanings. The analyses conducted so far drew attention to several possibilities. Thus: I am evil because I am ugly. Moreover: I am evil because I am rebellious. Also: I am evil because I am a liar. And also: I am evil because I am a betrayer. Ugliness, lying, the ability to rebel, and to betray are manifestations of my existential evil.

But before I can say—because of ugliness, lying, the ability to rebel and betray: I am evil, the word “I” must take on a particular meaning. One should first identify me with a certain value (namely: beauty, truthfulness, obedience, and faithfulness) that I lack, but would like to possess. The man who, because of ugliness, comes to the conviction that he is evil has identified the whole of his good with beauty, and that is precisely what he lacks. The same applies in the other cases. Now that he sees that he is not like what he thinks he is, he falls into despair, like someone worthy of condemnation.

The identification of the I with a certain value—an “axial value”—we call the process of egotic solidarization. The process going in the opposite direction is a process of desolidarization.[1]

What is the purpose of evil speech then? It strives to arouse in the consciousness of the drama’s person a process of constituting axiological meaning whose final result will become the identification of the I with evil. The beginning of this process is dialogue with evil—evil that threatens or tempts.

Good speech, dialogue with the good, is parallel to evil speech. Good speech leads to the binding of the I’s consciousness to values that can lend a helping hand in the dispute with evil. So what if I am ugly since I am truthful? And if I have been caught lying, this is nothing, because I am obedient to my master. And if I am not obedient to the master, than I am faithful to my neighbor. Thus, in the dispute with evil, the I inspired by good speech changes the planes of its proper existence—withdrawing from one in order to be itself in another. And it will never be convinced that it is evil. It will always find some good, some value, under whose roof it will search for shelter.

All these changes of consciousness are an internal reflection of the external drama of man. The particular chapters of the drama leave behind ever new layers in the souls of those persons participating in it. The external dramatic thread changes into the internal thread. Interpersonal good and evil become the good and evil of a man—evil that destroys him, and good that builds him up.

Aesthetic Condemnation

We spoke earlier about going astray in the element of beauty. We turned our attention more towards the positive side of beauty, taking into consideration the beauty of the other. The beautiful person grabs, changes, justifies us—like some work of art. But in the beauty that reveals itself to us there is also a hidden germ of contempt. Beauty can, in any moment, turn to the artist delighted with it with the words, “You are not worthy of me.” These words sound like a condemnation. Beauty lets it be understood that only the beautiful can stand in its retinue. Whoever is not beautiful falls victim to contempt. They can admire, but they will not be admired. 

Aesthetic condemnation, whose basis is the experience of beauty, differs essentially from condemnations that are, let us call them, “ethico-religious.” The voice of condemnation does not fall here from interpersonal space, from some third, but directly from the work of art itself. It mocks and it has contempt. However, precisely because of this it is not a voice that speaks good and evil. Here we hit upon an essential difference between aesthetic experience and ethico-religious experience. Aesthetic experience is the intrigue of two, whereas ethico-religious experience requires some third. Anyone who has become the victim of contempt from the side of the work of art—and to become the victim of contempt is to acknowledge that the contempt is deserved—knows that he is ugly. His ugliness has an existential character. This means that he is ugliness itself. This cannot be changed. You can hide existential ugliness, but it cannot be changed. Changing it would mean committing suicide. Indeed, aesthetic condemnation sometimes leads to suicide.

Yet, a dispute with aesthetic condemnation is possible. There are two possibilities: either, give the condemnation the lie, and show that it is wrong, or, change the axial value of egotic solidarization. In this second case beauty stops being an integral component of the I. Another value takes its place.

Man says the following in changing the axis of egotic solidarization: oh well, I am not beautiful since, for example, I am diligent. Beauty stops being what one is and becomes something one possesses. What you have can be lost without you ceasing to be what you are. This is the manner in which aesthetic condemnation misses the mark. It does not evoke despair, at most only a shrug of the shoulders.

Political Condemnation

Absolute power accuses and condemns with words that simultaneously contain its justification: “You are a rebel.” Absolute power sees man as subject through the prism of a never completely extinguished rebellion. Man is an indomitable anarchist. Opposition is his will’s principle of action. Freed from the control of power, man immediately becomes an arsonist who wants to set the world on fire. He replies with recalcitrance to every call to obedience. This is why he needs the authority he does not want over him. Authority, to control a human being, must use fear or deceit. Fear and deception are intertwined into one in the formula of accusation and condemnation: “You are a rebel.”

Political condemnation resembles aesthetic condemnation in certain respects. Here some third is also not necessary. The more absolute the power the greater independence it displays in condemnation. Truly absolute power always speaks in its own name. It does not permit any instance above itself—an instance the subjected could have recourse to. A relatively absolute power allows such an instance and even strives to establish it. Only then some third enters between it and the subjected—God, the Law of History, Progress, or Humanity. The negative side of some third is then the some fourth—a demon, a misunderstanding of the historical moment, backwardness, or inhumanity. 

Therefore: you are a rebel because you do not listen to God but a demon, because you do not understand the laws of History, because you are not following Progress, you go in reverse because you are not acting in the interest of Humanity. Power, making itself the representative of these and similar values stops being a pure absolute power. This does not mean that it is limited in its potency. Because it tries to exploit some third for those of its goals that appear in interpersonal space.

Therefore, I am a rebel. I must go into exile if I agree to this condemnation. However, exile will not change my essence. I will also be a rebel in exile. Thus, it is better for me to perish. Is this necessary? Could I not change? No, this is impossible. After all I am a rebel. If my rebellion were only an event everything could be fixed. But I am a rebel. The only way out in this situation in for me to not exist.

I have to deny the accusation to save my life. My denial is: I am not. I am not a rebel because I am obedient to someone and something else. This obedience expresses itself through my faithfulness. I am faithful—this is an answer and a rescue.

Denial of the accusation entails an opening onto some third to whom or to what I am faithful when I rebel against power. Power wanted to exploit this against me, but now I exploit it against power. The third: maybe it is God, maybe my neighbors, maybe my own conscience. Each one of them is a concrete incarnation of the ideas of good and evil. In this way the fields of ethics, law, morality, custom, and religion begin to spread widely before the subjects and authorities. There is now no space for the absolute command of absolute power and absolute obedience to this power. But there is also no place for self-will, anarchy, and the terror of unbridled individuality. Ruling and subjection begin to depend upon what happens between people.

Religious Condemnation

“Go cursed into the eternal fire” [paraphrasing Matt 25:41] is what the verdict upon the condemned sounds like. The tragism of this verdict is that God pronounces it—the Eternal Heart. If somebody else were in the place of God it would be possible to argue with the verdict, but in the case of God it is not possible. Absolute Truth does not make mistakes. The Absolute Good is not unjust. The Eternal Heart is not cruel. Nonetheless, the verdict is what it is. 

Incomprehensible Wisdom can suffer from the verdict, but can it change it?

I am condemned. Why? Because I am evil. What does this mean? Let us first look at the path that led to the condemnation. Then we will attempt to grasp the state of condemnation.

Betrayal is the beginning of the path to condemnation. This is how it looks in a nutshell: I was chosen by the Good and the act of this election awakened in me the good will of choosing the one who chose me. I chose it. But the time of trial came. I betrayed. The one who chose me repeated the act of election. But then rebellion came into me. I betrayed. The act of the repeated election did not awaken in me the good will of choosing the Good that chose me. Rather, it awakened the opposite—the will to oppose, ill will. This is how I became evil. Does a rescue exist for me? If it exists then, above all, it exists in me. I can only become good myself. However, I have just become evil. I have locked myself up in this anger. I have hardened. I can be destroyed, but I cannot be changed without myself. The condemnation that comes from God is a judgment about who I am.

Condemnation is the consequence of a specific dialogical situation that comes into being when the call of the Good does not awaken in man a response of choosing the good, but causes an all the more resolute choice of evil. This is how the road of the second fall goes: the higher the good calling, the higher the resistance and the deeper the anger grows. To deny a small good, a small anger is enough. To reject the Eternal Heart a vast anger is needed.

Looking at the perspective of the path to condemnation we see the outlines of the state of condemnation. This state is reminiscent of despair, about which Kierkegaard wrote that it is a “sickness unto death.” The state of despair is a chosen state. It does not befall man without his consent. However, man does not choose despair for himself as despair. Despair comes when man chooses evil and does this against the Good that has elected him. In choosing an increasingly great evil against an increasingly great good man chooses his own curse. Living through his curse man agrees to be in despair—despair is his very breath. This should bring him to death. But death is impossible. The spirit cannot be killed. The condemned exists but he exists a cursed existence—an existence whose expression is the cursing of existence. The condemned curse. Those that curse become the cursed. This is how the closed circle of evil comes into being, which is no longer reached to by the voice of the Eternal Heart.


The path to salvation leads in the direction opposite that of the road of condemnation. The path of salvation is the path of a continually renewed faithfulness to the Good that calls. It is incarnated in me thanks to my choice, it also goes through a trial situation. However, man is a weak creature, so every trial ends with his greater or lesser defeat. Even victories are crises of some sort. After the crisis, one hears a new call and this complements the new repetition of the choice. And so, step after step, in flights and falls, fidelity is born—an absolute fidelity, that is, fidelity without regard for circumstances. This is what opens the road to salvation. Salvation is expressed with the words, “Go and be blessed.”

The state of salvation can be thought of as a state of justification, which is the opposite of the state of condemnation. Condemnation means despair. Happiness is the opposite of despair. If despair is a “sickness unto death,” then happiness will be something approaching a “vigor for life.” Man is wholly healthy—he has a healthy soul and body, reason and will, healthy senses, and healthy feelings. Health continually brings and multiplies life. Such life is a mark of blessedness. Happiness is the expression of a continually growing life.

But happiness is only an approximation of the state of salvation. To push this approximation further we must say: the state of blessed happiness is a state of election. It does not come by man without his will. In this choice happiness is not the theme of the choice. The Good is the theme of the choice. Happiness comes when man chooses the Good against the evil that is pulling him in. By choosing the Good that is giving itself to man, man becomes happy. The higher the good he chooses the stronger is his life. Continually choosing life according to the Good man rises towards something that is above time. He is convinced that it is as if the Eternal Heart pulls him towards itself. Man has put his fragile fate under the roof of the Good, which blesses him.

The question, “Who are you?,” is born at the outset of the drama. There appear two opposing possibilities in the end: cursed or blessed. Man’s drama takes place among these possibilities. What do they mean? We do not precisely know that. This ignorance does not prevent us from living among them, thinking according to them, judging others and ourselves according to them. If someday they would disappear from our eyes and ears, then we would stand helpless upon the stage of the world, like words that have forgotten the grammatical rules that make them into speech.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This last chapter of Fr. Tischner's Philosophy of Drama, translated by Artur Rosman, is reprinted here by kind permission of Zbigniew Stawrowski, director of the Tischner Institute

[1] Józef Tischner, “Solidaryzacja i problem ewolucji świadomości,” in: Studia z teorii poznania i filozofii wartości, ed. Władysław Stróżewski (Warsaw: PAN, 1978).

Featured Image: Jacek Malczewski, Ezekiel's Vision, 1917, PD-Old-90.


Józef Tischner

Fr. Józef Tischner was one of the greatest Polish philosophers of the 20th century and was the unofficial chaplain of the Solidarity movement. His books in English include Marxism and Christianity; The Quarrel and the Dialogue in Poland and The Ethics of Solidarity (both out of print). 

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