An interesting set of Open Yale lectures on the Old Testament make the argument that the evil ball didn’t find its way into Mesopotamian humanity’s court, philosophically speaking, until the development of Judaism.
The Jews demystified evil. Before their belief system came along, it was an animate force, a thousand little devils on shoulders, a thousand gods and malign spirits doing their thing for the greater bad. But when Simon’s brothers schemed to kill him for his coat, they weren’t possessed. They were just greedy, jealous assholes.
Certain branches of Christianity then went and remystified evil, of course, but it was never quite the same again. In the belief that there’s a devil lurking about, whose greatest joy in life is coaxing people into knocking over a convenience store, we see in some ways a return to one of the oldest human beliefs: that every human phenomenon is indeed a spiritual one, and that good and evil are constantly at war for our souls. Still, the cat of agency had already been let out of the bag of tortured metaphors, and even at its devil-made-me-do-it-est, Christianity stressed that there was a choice involved. It was possible for people to resist the supernatural lure of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The nature of evil is one of those questions that pops up everywhere. If the gods are good, we wonder where all the wars and famines come from. If the gods are not so good, we wonder how best to buy them off. If it’s a mixed crop, we can’t help but wonder if they’re at war, and if we should bet on bad or good. It’s so common a question that you need to have an answer for your own writing.
At long last, an excuse for all those Dark Lords and Forests of Woe and Killzor, God of Evil! Toss all that shit in there. It’s okay!
A society with a belief in tangible, spiritual evil is a superstitious society. It propitiates a hundred not-so-nice deities to look the other way. It prescribes exorcism and two aspirins for migraine relief. When the crops go bad, it accuses brownies, witches, or convenient foreigners. It has laws about ‘the evil eye’, and countless folk rituals to avoid it. Got a haircut? Burn the hair, or it might fall into the hands of a witch. In this sort of worldview, luck and simple coincidence are the sorcerous mumbo-jumbo. When weevils infest your favourite cigar, it’s because you pissed off the weevil spirit. Sacrifice a goat, and do better next time.
A world where this sort of belief system represents reality opens up some of the oldest fantasy cliches. If evil is an animate force, after all, perhaps it can be fought. Perhaps it makes sense, all of a sudden, to gather three dudes, an elf and a dwarf to head through the Vale of Darkness to the Mountain of Grim of Deeds, swords in hand. The orcs they butcher along the way can be cheerfully forgotten; they’re just mindless servants of the Dark Powers, after all.
If the Dark Lord can be killed, our dear adventurers will strike a blow for good, and it doesn’t seem quite as hokey as it otherwise might (well, it does, but in a good way). We depressing existentialists know that offing a Dark Lord really just takes out one of a thousand threats (and banking regulation would, frankly, save more lives at lower cost), but the Free Peoples of the World live in a different context. Their accomplishment is very real, and may have dramatic consequences. Evil might actually scurry back to its hiding places. There might be a happily ever after. Dwarves and elves will live together in harmony.
The Anthropogenic Theory of Evil…
… is one we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on, I don’t think. Should we want to see a society that believes people and chance are responsible for the bad things that happen in the world, we can look out the window.
Perhaps the only thing that needs pointing out, here, is that the tropes of high fantasy are not modern, and that they don’t fit well into this sort of context (unless you’re playing at deconstruction). Sure, there may be a Dark Lord out there, and maybe he needs some offing, but he’s really not much more than an unpleasant dude who gathered a big army. We know full well that stopping him may do some good, but it’s not a panacea. And if we believe that evil is a reflection of choices made and not in some way inherent or supernaturally powerful, all those butchered orcs start to look a little bit like a war crime.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that beliefs are a spectrum, and that it’s perfectly feasible to have a society that believes garden-variety bad things are just boys being boys, while famine and natural disaster are matters of pissing off the wrong god. Moreover, as with any belief system, it won’t be universally held. Those pesky evil deniers have been lobbying pretty damn hard.