Mar 15th 2021

Human Folly and the Nature of Evil: Francisco Goya at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Sam Ben-Meir


Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.

Perhaps what is most startling about the etchings of Francisco Goya, presently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the artist’s intensity of focus, his obsession with understanding the nature of human evil. Goya was a child of the Enlightenment, and he knew what it was to see humanity as the pinnacle of creation, the paragon of animals, the embodiment of reason, “in form and understanding how like a god?” as Hamlet would say. Yet this same creature, the light of reason in the world, was capable of the most barbaric cruelty. In one series after another Goya’s etchings attempt to grasp the universality of evil, to see it as an essentially human problem to be understood in terms of our capacity for moral choice. Evil is universally human, for Goya – a propensity in human beings that is at once basic and inextinguishable.

Among the exhibition’s opening prints are works from a series based on paintings by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, including “A Court Jester, El Primo” (1778) – and like his venerated predecessor, Goya emphasizes his subject’s interiority; even going beyond Velázquez in his accentuation of El Primo’s penetrating, and rather defiant gaze.

The “Garroted Man” (ca 1775-78) is an important piece in that it indicates the humanitarian concerns that would return with full force in the Disasters of War series, created between 1810 and 1820. Goya has removed from the image anything that could draw the viewer’s attention away from the man who has just been strangulated – he sits with his legs outstretched, his eyes swollen and shut, and his back against a wooden post, outfitted with a lever to choke the life out of him.

Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos, created between 1793 and 1798, is one of the most astonishing achievements in the history of printmaking. The series of eighty aquatint etchings, published in 1799, may be said to constitute and convey a pessimistic appraisal of the human condition. There is little if any relief from its frank, uninhibited exploration and depiction of human folly, error, and superstition. If there is any hope of salvation, it lies in the unity of reason with the infinite fecundity of human imagination.

The Caprichos can be fiercely critical of Bourbon Spain, underscoring the pervasive hypocrisy, corruption and ignorance; made only worse by the “Lamentable abuse of early education,” as he writes in the caption to plate three, entitled “Here comes the bogeyman.” Goya included ironic, satirical, or ambiguous captions to accompany each of the eighty prints – generally reflecting his disillusionment and increasing bitterness towards a world he saw slipping into chaos and confusion.

In plate twelve, “Out hunting for teeth,” we find Goya’s first reference to witchcraft, a theme which would recur and develop as the series progressed. A woman is attempting to pluck the teeth from the dangling corpse of a hanged man, as these were popularly believed to possess magical properties: “without this ingredient there’s not much you can do,” as Goya writes with typically biting irony.  Once again, the poverty of education allows the common people, and women in particular, to continue to “believe such nonsense.”

Goya explicitly and vehemently rebukes the Spanish Inquisition in the twenty-third plate’s depiction of an auto-da-fé, beginning and ending his caption with the same two words, Mal hecho, (“For shame!”). A condemned woman sits atop a raised platform, her head bowed in abject humiliation: during such ceremonies of public penance the accused would wear a capirote, a pointed hat of conical form indicating their supposed crimes. This ritual was generally followed by the execution of the heretic, by public burning or some other suitably horrific method.

Plate forty-three, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” is among the most recognizable images of the entire series: a figure, presumably the artist himself, cradles his head, face down, within his folded arms, in an attitude of profound anguish and desolation. Surrounding him are a frightful bevy of nocturnal creatures, owls, bats, and felines. Goya himself was no stranger to severe depression, undoubtedly exacerbated by repeated bouts of severe illness which left him essentially deaf at the age of 46.

Witches and witchcraft, sorcery and supernatural creatures are recurring themes and Goya does not flinch from examining the darkest corners of the human mind, the nightmarish, and what we might call metaphysical evil. Plate forty-five, “There is plenty to suck” reveals a basketful of dead infants whose life has been “sucked” out of them by two witches or vampires, who are now taking a pinch of snuff after their ghastly meal. This is an especially striking example of Goya’s exploration of what we may call the horror of evil.

Plate sixty-four, “Bon Voyage” offers perhaps the darkest vision of the entire series, a group of witches and demons swoop through the nighttime fog carried on the back of a loathsome creature with human legs, batlike wings, and one of Goya’s most terrifying of faces – turning the scene into something at once spellbinding, dreadful and appalling to behold. The series concludes with the return of dawn in Plate eighty, “It is time” – as we see four men in ecclesiastical robes stretch and yawn; but their deformed and distorted features remind us that, for Goya, it is the corrupted and fraudulent clergy who are the true witches and hobgoblins.

Evil is something real and substantial for Goya. He rejects the long-held belief that evil is nothing in itself, mere privation, an absence of being. Saint Augustine for example would argue that evil lacked any positive reality of its own. As he states in Book XI, Chapter nine of City of God: “[Evil] is not a positive substance: the loss of good has been given the name ‘evil’.” Augustine’s notion of evil as a negation or mere lack of being predominated well into the modern era, and indeed may be seen to linger on to this day. But it is far from perfect and seems to fly in the face of abundant experience to the contrary. In “God save us from such a bitter fate,” (1816-20) a bandit has seized on a young woman and boy and is leading them away to meet a cruel end, underscored by the exaggerated use of the dagger which he keeps pointed at his victims.

The horror we register in facing evil arises from realizing far from being a mere absence of being, evil overruns, it spills over; not simply because it can be awful and unendurable, but because, as Goya is well aware, we cannot adequately comprehend evil. Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil.

Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war that does more than anticipate Sherman’s dictum that war is hell. The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors. War destroys the bonds of our shared humanity. Goya was a witness to the scenes he portrays and part of his aim is documenting history, rescuing the fallen and the defeated from the oblivion of time. “Cartloads to the cemetery” (1812-14) is one of several prints that Goya devoted to Madrid’s 1811-12 famine, during which some fifteen percent of the city’s population died. Even in invoking the anonymity of mass burials, Goya does not lose sight of the individual, unique and irreplaceable.

There are moments when Goya appears almost ready to despair – for example, in plate seventy-nine, “Truth has died” (1814-15), we see a radiant young woman – the personification of Truth – lying lifeless on the ground. In its companion piece, however, plate eighty, “Will she rise again?” the young woman has opened her eyes and light appears to be streaming from her to the anger and amazement of those around her. The enticement to evil is indeed a defining characteristic of the human condition; but Goya is unwilling to despair, even amidst the darkness of war – the child of the Enlightenment holds out hope in the final victory of Truth, and Imagination united with Reason.


Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: " The devastation of war is a recurring theme in Turner’s work, and unlike his contemporaries Turner is willing to forego the occasion to bolster national pride or the patriotism of its fallen heroes. In “The Field of Waterloo” (1818), Turner’s great tragic vision of war, “The…  dead of both sides lay intertwined, nearly indistinguishable surrounded by the gloom of night.” Near the bottom center there are three women. The one farthest from us is bearing a child and in her right hand a torch which illumines the sea of mangled bodies. Beside her is another woman struggling to keep a third (also with child) from collapsing outright. Turner reflects not only on the dead and dying, but on the widows and orphans that war produces."
May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "