Narcissism and the Dynamics of Evil

Narcissists and Religion

Narcissists, in accordance with their Machiavellian mindframe, will often appear religious, especially if they are leaders. But they may also ascribe to a religion in an effort to understand their special status, which they believe they enjoy. As Samuel Vaknin writes of the narcissist: "he is a captive of the false conviction that his uniqueness destines him to fulfill a mission of cosmic significance."22

The narcissist despises authority and is totally incapable of collaboration. That is why he inevitably seeks a position of authority, even in a religious context. Should he be Catholic, he will most certainly come into conflict with the teaching authority of the Church, for he has a need to defy authority, and he refuses to be measured by anything larger than himself, even God. Vaknin describes what the narcissistic cycle of extreme valuation and devaluation looks like in a religious context. Those who are sources of narcissistic supply are highly valued by the narcissist, not for their own sake, but for what they provide him. Should that production come to a stand still, should a person ever come to discover the true nature of the narcissist hidden underneath all his colorful layers, he is quickly and thoroughly devalued and demonized. As was said above, the narcissist is initially religious in an effort to understand his own uniqueness. He is a disciple -- chosen -- by virtue of a special quality in him, and not really by virtue of the mercy and gratuitous love of God. He is incapable of genuine humility and worship of what is larger than himself, and so God is eventually devalued, for He does not remain a source of narcissistic supply for long. The true disciple delights in the law of God: "The law of your mouth is to me more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces" (Ps 119, 72). But despite appearances, the religious narcissist personally finds that law a maddening nuisance that unnecessarily limits his sources of narcissistic supply, namely the entire secular world. Religious narcissists, thus, tend to be compromising liberals, watering down the difficult truth so as to be more inviting and inclusive. But all they ever really invite and include are sources of narcissistic supply, nothing more (this, of course, is not to suggest that all liberals are narcissists).

But religion has afforded the narcissist with a position of authority, which in turn is a reliable source of narcissistic supply. Hence, the reason some of them do not leave the Church--much to the dismay of some of the faithful. They are inconsistent in their leadership; for they are disloyal to the teaching magisterium, but they demand unquestioning loyalty and absolute deference to their own authority. Should this demand for obedience become too obvious, they can very cleverly appear to employ a democratic style of leadership and receive input from everyone. With a large enough number of people at hand, the clever narcissist can find fragments of his own vision in some of their ideas. If one watches carefully, one notices how he collects those very pieces and assembles them into a vision which everyone thinks was democratically determined. But the final product in no way will have differed significantly from what he had decided originally, before consulting anyone. The democratic process, which was under his control from the beginning, only lends the appearance of collaboration and democracy.

The pseudo-religious narcissist will especially identify with certain biblical imagery, such as the Good Shepherd, which depicts a human person amidst irrational animals of an inferior nature. The Parable of the Talents lends itself very well to the narcissist's twisted mind. In this parable, some servants are given five talents, another two, to a third only one, each in proportion to his ability. The narcissist of course sees himself as a ten and everyone else as a two or a one. Only those whom he needs and who supply him with fuel qualify as a ten, but these may quickly find themselves reduced to a two or a one should their status as supplier suddenly change. Such a parable can become a useful tool of manipulation and flattery. In short, the narcissist's use of scripture is as twisted as Satan's in the temptation in the wilderness.

There have been a number of false norms that have been made popular over the years that have only made it easier for the depraved and pathological narcissist to continue undetected. The popular exhortation to be tolerant, positive, non-judgmental and inclusive are prime examples. If a person sees the glass half full, he is positive and optimistic, but negative and pessimistic if he sees it half empty. The problem here, though, is that evil is parasitic. As was said above, there is simply no such thing as pure evil, because evil is a lack of due being. The optimist who refuses to see the lack lest he begin to feel negative is blinding himself to evil and contributing to the creation of the kind of environment that the depraved require in order to flourish. Good is the very subject of evil. And so there will always be something good to behold in the morally depraved egotist. The half full/half empty platitude is simply useless, except for the ridiculously cynical that no one takes seriously anyway.

The biblical precept not to judge (Cf. Mt 7ff) is not and has never been an unqualified and absolute norm, as if making judgments were intrinsically evil. Rather, the biblical norm is qualified by the context in which we find it: "Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the great log in your own?...Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother's eye" (Mt 7, 4-5). Scripture does not assert that all of us have logs in our eyes that we are forever unable to remove, thus barring us from ever having to judge that someone might have a splinter in his. The norm bears upon the hypocrisy of the morally blind passing judgment on someone much better off morally and spiritually. It is not a precept against making judgments; for as St. Paul says: "The spiritual man judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one (1 Co 2, 15). Scripture is filled with examples of negative judgments (Cf. Acts 5, 1-5; 8, 21-22; Rm 1, 1ff; Eph 4, 5). The narcissist is ever scheming to create a safe environment primarily for himself,23 and so what could better serve him than to be surrounded by people who are committed to an unqualified refusal to make judgments?

Narcissists will forever seek positions of power. But such positions must be forever denied them. They must never be given authority. But so few are denied positions of authority because they are so adept at disguise. They are convincing, articulate, and charismatic. But the narcissist is all about power. His entire leadership is a game played ultimately for the sake of himself. Everyone under his authority is being abused in one form or another, and the damage he can do is far reaching. The facade he uses to hide his depravity and fool the world may very well contain genuinely good things, such as religious, political, judicial, or educational principles. But most of his victims will forever associate his deception with these good things and will be unable to distinguish between what is genuinely good from the narcissist's abuse of it. In rejecting the one, they inevitably reject the other. How many good things are irretrievably lost to others as a result of such abuse?

Conditions for Penetrating the Disguise

How is it possible to maximize one's chances of penetrating the almost impenetrable disguises of the character disordered? And how do we keep ourselves from falling into the web of their deceitful scheming?

First, it is a mistake to decide never to trust another human being. There are many honest persons who are entirely trustworthy. But there is a difference between trusting another and trusting in another. We ought not to forget that every man is fundamentally a man: "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes" (Ps 118, 8-9).

We should also learn to cultivate a kind of "spiritual Kantianism"; for it was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who distinguished between phenomenon (appearance, or the world as it appears to us) and noumenon (the thing in itself, insofar as it is not an object of our sensible intuition). This distinction may not be sound epistemology, for it led ultimately to Idealism and Post-Modernism, but we should nonetheless understand that things are not always as they appear to be. Evil is brilliantly inconspicuous: "There is a wickedness which is unscrupulous but nonetheless dishonest, and there are those who misuse kindness to win their case. There is the person who will walk bowed down with grief, when inwardly this is nothing but deceit: he hides his face and pretends to be deaf, if he is not unmasked, he will take advantage of you. There is the person who is prevented from sinning by lack of strength, yet he will do wrong when he gets the chance" (Si 19, 20-30).

Anyone who goes for a stroll in a posh residential neighborhood naturally assumes that the interior of the houses are for the most part as attractive as their exterior. No one, upon entering, expects to find a desolate interior, that is, a mass of rubble. But some human beings are not always whom we expect them to be; for we naturally project our own basic character traits onto others. But this is not always prudent: "Someone with a sly wink is plotting mischief, no one can dissuade him from it. Honey-tongued to your face, he is lost in admiration at your words; but behind your back he has other things to say, and turns your words into a stumbling-block" (Si 27, 22-23).

The character disordered are highly intuitive. Samuel Vaknin writes: "The narcissist, above all, is a shrewd manipulator of human character and its fault lines."24 Moreover, he "is possessed of an uncanny ability to psychologically penetrate others."25 If we do not wish to find ourselves cooperating in the underhanded schemes of the character disordered, we must decide from the outset never to compromise justice, nor do evil that good may come of it. We ought to commit to frequent confession, for unrepented sin can lead us to becoming permissive under the guise of being tolerant and forgiving. But the permissive are not forgiving, only indifferent. The unrepentant excuse themselves, and motivated by an unconscious desire to be excused by others (not forgiven, which implies confession and contrition), he will readily excuse the faults and failings of others, obliging them to do likewise. Hence, the current widespread approbation of tolerance as the perfection of justice. But tolerance is not necessarily a virtue, for there is a great deal that love refuses to tolerate. Again, such confusion only establishes the conditions that the character disordered depend upon in order to keep themselves from being exposed. We can undermine such conditions by praying that we might be given a horror of sin and by cultivating a hatred of injustice.

To keep oneself from being fooled by the narcissist whose facade includes Catholicism, we only have to remain faithful to Peter. The narcissist cannot help but defy authority, and if he is highly intelligent, his dissent will be subtle and covert. He will be loved by the majority for his "progressive" and "compassionate" posture, but he cannot afford to be too overt in his liberalism. If he is ordained, he will plot for ecclesiastical office, for he is not content with the humble and obscure life of a simple priest, which is why as a priest, his ministry almost always takes on a theatrical hue. He will do things out of the ordinary, often subtly unorthodox, things that call attention to himself and make him popular with a particular contingent of the parish. But underneath the facade, nonetheless, lurks a man who is anything but compassionate, as some people eventually discover.26

By remaining faithful to Peter, one takes a path that ultimately the narcissist cannot follow. It is by virtue of this fidelity that we share in the benefits of Christ's prayer for Peter: "Simon, Simon! Look, Satan has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22, 31). All of them will be sifted like wheat, but Peter will not fail, not by virtue of his own strength -- from this angle, he failed -- , but by virtue of Christ's prayer for him. There will be made available to us all sorts of solid objects for us to hold onto that will provide the appearance of stability, but these solid objects are only floating debris, pushed along by the current. Only the rock (petros) embedded into the river floor is truly stable and unyielding. Hang onto that, and we resist the passing current of deceptive ideas and ever changing mores.


1 "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." NE. Bk 1, 1. [Back]

2 Enchir. 13. [Back]

3 Sartre writes: "But if existence really does precede essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, existentialism's first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men." Existentialism and Human Emotion. New York:. Philosophical Library. 1985. p.16. [Back]

4 Often the terms 'personality' and 'character' are used interchangeably. But if by personality we mean aspects of the self that are determined, such as temperament and environmentally determined behaviour patterns, neurosis, etc, then character is not the same thing as personality. One may have a distasteful personality, but good moral character. Conversely, one may have a great personality, but bad character. [Back]

5 The Meaning of Love. London, Floris Books. pp. 42-44 [Back]

6  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth Edition (American Psychiatric Association), lists the following criteria for 301.81 Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. requires excessive admiration
  5. has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  6. is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  7. lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  8. is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Samuel Vaknin, a leading authority on Narcissistic Personality Disorder, proposes the following amended criteria:

See Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited. Prague & Skopje: Narcissus Publication, 2003. pp. 20-21. Let me say at the outset that I do not deny that there are a host of environmental conditions that are common in the upbringing of those with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder that contribute to it, such as a narcissistic parent, humiliation, etc. But environmental conditions are never enough to explain human behavior. I would argue that freedom and will consist in our relationship to our environment and all that determines us. [Back]

7 According to Alexander Lowen, there are degrees of narcissism. Beginning with the lowest degree, there is the phallic-narcissistic character, or what Samuel Vaknin refers to as the somatic narcissist, the narcissistic character, the borderline personality, the psychopathic personality, and the paranoid personality. Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. New York: Touchstone. 1997. pp.14-24 [Back]

8 Samuel Vaknin writes: "Our experience of what it is like to be human - our very humanness depends largely on our self-knowledge and on our experience of our selves. In other words: only through being himself and through experiencing his self - can a human being fully appreciate the humanness of others. The narcissist has precious little experience of his self. Instead, he lives in an invented world, of his own design, where he is a fictitious figure in a grandiose script. He, therefore, possesses no tools which enable him to cope with other human beings, share their emotions, put himself in their place (=empathise) and, of course, love them - the most demanding task of interrelating. He just does not know what it means to be human." Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited. p.92. [Back]

9 Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. pp. 26-27. [Back]

10 "…since the narcissist is unable to secure the long-term positive love, admiration, or even attention of his Sources of Supply- he resorts to a mirror strategy. In other words, the narcissist becomes paranoid. Better to be the object of (often imaginary and always self-inflicted) derision, score, and bile- than to be ignored. Being envied is prefereable to being treated with indifference. If he cannot be loved- the narcissist would rather be feared or hated than forgotten." Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited. p. 97. Further on he writes: "Hate is the complement of fear and narcissists like being feared. It imbues them with an intoxicating sensation of omnipotence. Many of them are veritably inebriated by the looks of horror or repulsion on people's faces: 'They know that I am capable of anything.' The sadistic narcissist perceives himself as Godlike, ruthless and devoid of scruples, capricious and unfathomable, emotionless and non-sexual, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, a plague, a devastation, an inescapable verdict. He nurtures his ill-repute, stoking it and fanning the flames of gossip. It is an enduring asset. Hate and fear are sure generators of attention. It is all about Narcissistic Supply, of course - the drug which narcissists consume and which consumes them in return." Ibid., p. 161 [Back]

11 Samuel Vaknin writes: "The narcissist derives his sense of being, his experience of his own existence, and his self-worth from the outside. He mines others for Narcissistic Supply - adulation, attention, reflection, fear. Their reactions stalk his furnace. Absent Narcissistic Supply - the narcissist disintegrates and self -annihilates. When unnoticed, he feels empty and worthless. The narcissist MUST delude himself into believing that he is persistently the focus and object of the attentions, intentions, plans, feelings, and stratagems of other people. The narcissist faces a stark choice - either be (or become) the permanent centre of the world, or cease to be altogether. Ibid., p. 95 [Back]

12 Nicolo Machiavelli. The Prince. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Great Books of the Western World. R. M. Hutchins, editor in chief. Volume 23. Machiavelli - Hobbes. p. 25 [Back]

13 Loc. cit. [Back]

14 Loc. cit. [Back]

15 Loc. cit. [Back]

16 "Terror denotes an intense fear, which is somewhat prolonged and may refer to imagined or future dangers. "Horror" implies a sense of shock and dread. The danger to which it refers contains an element of evil and may threaten others rather than the self." Lowen. Op. cit., p. 132. [Back]

17 Op. cit. p. 126. [Back]

18 "He idealises his nearest and dearest not because he is smitten by emotion - but because he needs to captivate them and to convince himself that they are worthy Sources of Supply, despite their flaws and mediocrity. Once he deems them useless, he discards and devalues them similarly cold-bloodedly. A predator, always on the lookout, he debases the coin of "love" as he corrupts everything else in himself and around him. Ibid., p. 149 [Back]

19 "The narcissist "knows" that he can do anything he chooses to do and excel in it. What the narcissist does, what he excels at, what he achieves, depends only on his volition. To his mind, there is no other determinant. Hence his rage when confronted with disagreement or opposition - not only because of the audacity of his, evidently inferior, adversaries. But because it threatens his world view, it endangers his feeling of omnipotence. The narcissist is often fatuously daring, adventurous, experimentative and curious precisely due to this hidden assumption of "can-do". He is genuinely surprised and devastated when he fails, when the "universe" does not arrange itself, magically, to accommodate his unbounded fantasies, when it (and people in it) does not comply with his whims and wishes." Ibid., pp. 98-99 [Back]

20 "Narcissism is ridiculous. Narcissists are pompous, grandiose, repulsive and contradictory. There is a serious mismatch between who they really are and what they really achieve - and how they think about themselves. It is not that the narcissist merely thinks that he is far superior to other humans intellectually. The perception of his superiority is ingrained in him, it is a part of his every mental cell, an all-pervasive sensation, an instinct and a drive. He feels that he is entitled to special treatment and to outstanding consideration because he is such a unique specimen. He knows this to be true - the same way one knows that one is surrounded by air. It is an integral part of his identity. More integral to him than his body... Because he considers himself so special and so superior, he has no way of knowing how it is to be THEM - nor the inclination to explore it. In other words, the narcissist cannot and will not empathise. Can you empathise with an ant? Empathy implies identity or equality, both abhorrent to the narcissist." Ibid., pp. 153-154 [Back]

21 Dr. Stanton E. Samenow, leading expert on the criminal mind, writes: "Despite possible differences in background and the difference in modus operandi of the crime, the mentality of a person who robs a bank and a corporate executive who perpetrates fraud is the same. Both pursue power and control at the expense of others. Both are able to shut off considerations of consequences and considerations of conscience. Neither has an operational concept of injury to others. Neither puts himself/herself in the place of others. There are numerous other thought patterns common to both. Furthermore, the offense for which either is caught more likely than not represents only the tip of the iceberg of each offender's irresponsibility and illegal conduct. Both know the laws, calculate carefully so they can succeed at their objectives. Both experience excitement at each phase of the crime -- from the initial idea through the execution of the act(s) itself (themselves). If apprehended, each will case out those who hold them accountable and feed them what they think they want to hear or ought to know. And they will try to dispel responsibility by implicating or outright blaming others. Concept of the Month, May 2003 [Back]

22 Op. cit., p. 202. Furthermore, he writes: "God is everything the narcissist ever wants to be: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, admired, much discussed, and awe inspiring". Ibid., p. 396 [Back]

23 "He recruits people around him to affirm his choice and to confirm to him that reality is unreal and his fantasyland is reality. …The narcissist does not go through a midlife crisis. Forever the child, forever dreaming and fantasizing, forever begging for accolades, the narcissist’s sad figure inhabits the twilight zone between sanity and its absence." Ibid., p. 215 [Back]

24 Ibid., p. 174. [Back]

25 Ibid., p. 189. [Back]

26 "The narcissist is seething with enmity and venom. He is a receptacle of unbridled hatred, animosity, and hostility. When he can, the narcissist often turns to physical violence. But the non-physical manifestations of his pent-up bile are even more terrifying, more all-pervasive, and more lasting. Beware of narcissists bearing gifts. They are bound to explode in your faces, or poison you. The narcissist hates you wholeheartedly and thoroughly simply because you are. Remembering this has a survival value." Ibid., p. 207 [Back]

1, 2,