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 professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

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

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "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 ........ 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."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "