Darkness is special: of all the senses, vision is so dominant that its absence is felt immediately and acutely. In some people darkness causes fear (which is foolish), in others it fosters a focusing: we instinctively strain our remaining senses. (We do the same in related situations of impeded vision, such as foggy mornings or badly lit rooms.)

Still, darkness tends to leave us less in control, since it so severely limits perception and reduces the effectiveness of our actions — and paradigmatically so. Thus it has come to stand symbolically for hostile or at least unfavorable environments. With respect to people, it can sometimes signify evil or desperate streaks within their psyche, such as when we refer to the 'darkness within someone's heart', or the 'dark corners inside a person's memories'. (We might speculate that, by analogy, it is those people's lack of power over some of their bad character traits that makes the metaphor an apt one.) And though all this belongs in the poets' toolboxes of figurative speaking, there must have been something in darkness that has inspired associations of that sort.

The naturalist account that I've alluded to, the view that darkness is simply associated with situations of powerlessness, situations which we have a built-in aversion against (presumably developed in an evolutionary way), seems unlikely to be the whole story. It explains our instinctive caution and dislike of darkness by assigning it to a long-standing reaction to what from experience is characterized by heightened danger — something to get away from, and quickly. It doesn't account, however, for the emotional intensity that darkness generates, especially in comparison with other forms of impaired perception and impeded action. As an empirical description, moreover, such a view may well state that people tend to value dark surroundings negatively, but that many people do so (even when it is a habit that has evolved) doesn't make it necessarily a good thing to do. Values, in general, should result from rational reflection, not from instinctive habits. (Not that instinctive habits are useless — they're certainly good to have in many other contexts; but again: we're talking about valuing things, and the actions, feelings and beliefs that flow from such valuations.) Mere descriptions of behavior, even behavior that expresses values, aren't sufficient where reasons are needed for seeing something as good or bad.

Where can we locate, then, the ambivalent attitude to darkness with respect to our views of what's good and bad? Fear seams inappropriate; for fear is a negative emotion that takes its object, in this case darkness and what may result from it, such as our inability to recognize dangers in time, as something bad or evil. A better reaction toward unfavorable or dangerous external circumstances is caution: realizing and weighing the imminent threat or unpleasantness, and taking suitable measures if possible. Likewise, even though darkness may have a focusing effect, that seems not a sufficient basis for counting it among the things valuable.

A border case is perhaps that of people who have to accept permanent blindness, for instance resulting from an accident or illness. For them, lasting darkness will become the shaping condition of their future lives, and they may well take it as a chance as well as a curse: the world of their experience will be reduced by one dimension, the dimension of sight, but in exchange the sensitivity of their other senses might increase, and so compensate at least for part of the loss. Might someone in that situation then take the perpetual darkness to come as a good thing, a blessing that enables such an enrichment? Certainly, if they take such a view, that's an admirable strength of character, and there must be something very valuable involved here. But it seems wrong to locate the goodness, the real value, in the external circumstances that have merely brought the opportunity for excellence; clearly, what's admirable here is how the blind person has sustained her attitude. (Someone else, in an identical setting, may have despaired and sunk into weakness and helplessness — and since the situation is by hypothesis the same, the role of blindness is invariant; it's the attitude taken, and the excellence of character or the lack of it, which made the difference, and that's where we should look for what is goodness or badness in these examples.)

As with many things that happen in the world around us, darkness is something we have to deal with sometimes, and here we have a range of attitudes to choose from. As ever, the real goodness or badness lies in which of them we take, and what that tells about us. Questions of good and bad are questions about ourselves, rather than about darkness (and light). Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.