In her book New Demons, philosopher Simona Forti traces the genealogy of philosophical evil, beginning with what she calls the “Dostoevsky paradigm.” According to her reading of the great Russian novelist, individual evil stems from the will to achieve God-like omnipotence. Yet humans are incapable of creating objects out of nothing. Thus, the only path by which to approach God’s power is one of total destruction. A person with an unchecked will to power turns to evil and death because he cannot create life.
Fyodor Dostoevsky lived from 1821 to 1881 and wrote dense psychological portraits of power, destruction and morality. His work emphasized that only the most talented, capable or socially-endowed individuals would ever approach immortality by producing some work or event that would see their names go down in history. All humans eventually return to nothingness. And the names and acts of the vast, vast majority exist in eternal anonymity.
That is not the case in 2015. Thanks to the proliferation of mass and social media, any previously unknown person can define an image of herself. That image exists permanently and can reach to billions of people around the globe. And it does so regardless of the existence of qualities that would have made a person famous in previous centuries. It is now possible to create a media persona out of nothing. Anyone can craft a virtual selfhood that can reach others’ awareness from out of thin air. Immortality, at least in name, is far more accessible now than at any other point in human history.
21st-century media allows humans to more closely approach the power to create from nothing. It also opens an avenue to create a persona through destruction. While the evil of a character like Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s novel Demons would have never garnered infamy outside his own town, today’s localized acts of evil can be harnessed to create villainous personas on a global scale. Many writers, reporters and commentators talk about “copycat crimes.” Perhaps the underlying mechanism of such crimes is an extension of the Dostoevsky paradigm in which modern media unlocks new capabilities for creation through destruction.