Beyond The Problem Of Evil

Beyond The Problem Of Evil evil Beyond the Problem of Evil Introduction: The problem of evil is, in my opinion, the best point of departure for a fruitful dialogue between Christianity, traditionally conceived, and those strands of modern philosophy which have been perceived–indeed, have sometimes perceived themselves–as a threat to that tradition. As such, I will attempt first, to outline the problem of evil in the starkest terms possible, presenting Augustine’s approach to its solution followed by a critical analysis; second, to present an alternative approach to the questions which give rise to the problem–an approach derived in large part from Spinoza and Nietzsche; and, third, to show how this more philosophically acceptable alternative can be expressed in the categories of faith, allowing us to reappropriate the tradition *beyond the problem of evil*. PART ONE: Augustine’s Approach to the Problem of Evil Simply put, the problem of evil resides in the apparently unavoidable contradiction between the notion of God as omnipotent and omnibenevolent, on the one hand, and the existence of evil (natural and moral), on the other.{1} Indeed, granting that God is all powerful, it would seem impossible for us to vouch for his benevolence, considering our first-hand experience of evil in the world. Likewise, if we grant from the outset that God is the paradigm of goodness, then it would seem that we must modify our conception of his power. However, Christian orthodoxy remains unwilling to modify its conception of God’s goodness or his power– thus, the persistence of the problem. St. Augustine was fully aware of this problem and spent much– perhaps most–of his philosophical energy attempting to come to terms with it. In *De ordine*, he writes: Those who ponder these matters are seemingly forced to believe either that Divine Providence does not reach to these outer limits of things or that surely all evils are committed by the will of God.

Both horns of this dilemma are impious, but particularly the latter (1.1.1). His approach to a solution to this problem is three-pronged: 1) he holds that evil is a privation and cannot be properly said to exist at all; 2) he argues that the apparent imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole; and 3) he argues that the origin of moral evil, together with that suffering which is construed as punishment for sin, is to be found in the free choice of the will of rational creatures. As a Manachee, Augustine believed that both God and the principle of evil were some sort of material substances, neither deriving its existence from the other. Evil, although somehow *smaller* than God, was, nevertheless, infinite and presented a real problem for God to overcome in the course of his cosmic existence. He describes his motives for believing such things as follows: piety (however bizarre some of my beliefs were) forbade me to believe that the good God had created an evil nature (*Confessions* 5.10.20). Even after Augustine had abandoned these bizarre beliefs of the Manachees and had, as a Christian, arrived at the notion of God as an immutable, spiritual substance, the existence of evil still troubled him for: Although I affirmed and firmly held divine immunity from pollution and change and the complete immutability of our God, the true God .

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. . yet I had no clear and explicit grasp of the cause of evil. Whatever it might be, I saw it had to be investigated, if I were to avoid being forced by this problem to believe the immutable God to be mutable. .

. . I made my investigation without anxiety, certain that what the Manichees said was untrue. With all my mind I fled from them, because . .

. I saw them to be full of malice, in that they thought it more acceptable to say your substance suffers evil than that their own substance actively does evil (7.3.5). He began to arrive at a solution to this difficulty after having been introduced to some books of the Platonists (7.9.13). His exposure to the neo-platonic notions that existence is good and that evil is a privation, led him to see that even the corruptible world is good: It was obvious to me that things which are liable to corruption are good. If they were the supreme goods, or if they were not good at all, they could not be corrupted. For if they were supreme goods, they would be incorruptible.

If there were no good in them, there would be nothing capable of being corrupted. . . . all things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good. If they were to be deprived of all good, they would not exist at all. .

. . Accordingly, whatever things exist are good, and the evil into whose origins I was inquiring is not a substance, for if it were a substance, it would be good. . .

. Hence I saw and it was made clear to me that you made all things good, and there are absolutely no substances which you did not make (7.12.18). For [God], he goes on to say, evil does not exist at all (7.13.19). It would seem, then, that evil is an illusion of sorts. This brings us to what we referred to above as his second approach to the problem of evil which endeavors to explain this illusion. In *De Ordine*, speaking with respect to those aspects of creation which, if not actually evil, are, nonetheless, disconcerting to human beings, Augustine remarks that what delights in a portion of place or time may be understood to be far less beautiful than the whole of which it is a portion. And furthermore, it is clear to a learned man that what displeases in a portion displeases for no other reason than because the whole, with which that portion harmonizes wonderfully, is not seen, but that, in the intelligible world, every part is as beautiful and perfect as the whole (328-9). Anticipating this conclusion at the beginning of that same work, he criticizes those who think the whole universe is disarranged if something is displeasing to them, comparing them to those who would criticize an artisan when they had no concept of the whole project, having seen only a small portion of it (240-1).

Likewise, in Book Seven of his *Confessions*, he argues that things appear evil when considered from a finite perspective, isolated from the totality of which they are a part. Superior things, indeed, are self-evidently better than inferior, but sounder judgment holds that all things taken together are better than superior things by themselves (7.13.19). All things include corruptible things, the destruction of which brings what existed to non-existence in such a way as to allow the consequent production of what is destined to come into being (*City of God* 12.5). Most people would find this explanation tenable when applied to conflicts which arise among non-human creatures; or, as an explanation of our aesthetic displeasure in the face of some seemingly absurd, but relatively trivial, natural phenomenon; or even, perhaps, with respect to human suffering, conceived of as a temporary expedient to a greater good. This perspective encourages us to trust divine omnipotence and to acknowledge the limits of human wisdom–neither of which is ultimately repugnant.

It falls short in most people’s eyes, however, if it is intended to convince them of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering construed as retributive justice. The notion of eternal torment causes particular difficulties. This aspect of the tradition might be overlooked as a mystery to be lived with if orthodoxy permitted one to think that God, although infinitely good, is of merely finite power. But it seems incomprehensible that omnipotent God could punish human beings for something that he, by virtue of his omnipotence, seems (at first glance, at least) ultimately responsible for. Does Augustine assert that this seemingly untenable aspect of reality, which is implied by the conjunction of human perdition and divine omnipotence, is nothing? Or that it merely *appears* evil when considered in isolation from the totality of which it is a part? As we shall see, the answer is in one respect no, but in another, yes. The answer is no, insofar as Augustine does not merely dismiss those who raise this problem by referring them to the two approaches to the problem already considered. Rather, addressing those who attempt to lay blame on God for the sin of human beings and the punishment consequent to that sin, he takes a third approach, arguing that the origin of moral evil and the punishment it entails is a consequence of the free choice of rational creatures.

Sin, Augustine argues, is voluntary, disrupting the order of the universe, while the punishment is said (redundantly) to be penal, restoring that order (*On Free Will* 3.9.26). The important point is that insofar as we must talk of evil as if it were something, God is not responsible for it, rather his creatures are. God is to be praised insofar as he is willing and able to harmonize the dishonor introduced by the evil will of individual creatures with the honor intrinsic to the whole (3.9.26). If we inquire as to the cause of the evil will, Augustine claims an ignorance of sorts, consistent with his notion of evil as a privation: We cannot doubt that [evil] movement of the will, that turning away from the Lord God [our aversion to the unchangeable good], is sin; but surely we cannot say that God is the author of sin? God, then, will not be the cause of that movement; but what will be its cause? If you ask this, and I answer that I do not know, probably you will be saddened. And yet that would be a true answer.

That which is nothing cannot be known. . . All good is from God. Hence there is no natural existence which is not from God.

Now that movement of aversion, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement; and all defect comes from nothing. Observe where it belongs and you will have no doubt that it does not belong to God. Because that defective movement is voluntary, it is placed within our power. If you fear it, all you have to do is simply not to will it. If you do not will it, it will not exist (2.20.54). Pressed further, he says that an evil will is .

. . the cause of all evil wills, indicating that no cause is to be found outside the will itself and suggesting that to look further is itself evidence of an evil will (Cf. *The City of God* 12.7). Despite this rather radical appeal to human freedom and his pious admonition that one ought not to look further for the cause of an evil will, Augustine realizes that he is not yet off the hook. He goes on to show that the necessity intrinsic to foreknowledge, *per se*, is not inconsistent with the notion of free will (3.4.10).

But considering the fact that divine foreknowledge is coupled with omnipotence, how, in the final analysis, is the creator to escape having imputed to him anything that happens necessarily in his creature (3.5.12)? Augustine spends the next 20, or so, paragraphs attempting to defend God against those who would cry foul. He begins by insisting that piety requires that we give thanks to God–period (3.5.12). Then, he reaffirms his position that sin originates in the free will of human beings and that we have no right to criticize God for not creating us without the ability to turn away from him (3.5.14). He goes on to assert that even the worst souls are, by virtue of their reason and their free will, superior to corporeal things and that, as such, God should be praised for their existence, whatever defects they exhibit (3.5.16). Then, after once again affirming that there is no conflict between the necessity of sin and its voluntary origin, he describes unhappiness as the just reward of ingratitude (3.6.18).

Finally, to those who say they would prefer not to have existed, he indicates that they are fooling themselves –that their desire to exist, even in their misery, confirms that existence is the greatest boon (3.7.20). Indeed, he argues that the suicidal person’s desire for death actually reflects a desire for rest, not the desire for non-existence (3.8.23). All this is highly interesting and very relevant to those who are determined to come to terms with themselves and with God. Nevertheless, it would be an understatement to say that it does not conclusively demonstrate that the origin of every aspect of creation–including those wills which are called evil and those creatures which are eternally damned–should not ultimately be attributed to the will of God. Augustine senses this, but can only assert that while the human *ability* to sin–together with the *possibility* of experiencing the misery that accompanies sin)–is necessary to the perfection of the universe, actual sin and actual misery are not (3.9.26).

These assertions are correlative with second and third approaches presented above–the former with his position that the imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole; and the latter with his insistence that the origin of moral evil, together with that suffering which is construed as punishment for sin, is to be found in the free choice of the will of rational creatures. But consistent with the first approach–evil as a privation–Augustine seems to be saying that inasmuch as condemned souls are constituted by their evil wills, for which no cause is to be found outside of their own freedom, they are in fact *nothing*. Nevertheless, insofar as they actually *are*–existing eternally as immortal souls, however defective– they must be considered good and we may attribute their origin to the divine will. If, however, we ask why God, in his omnipotence, chose to create beings with the ability to choose eternal self- destruction, Augustine can only a assert that creation is more perfect by virtue of these seeming imperfections–i.e. the *ability* to sin, together with the *possibility* of experiencing the misery that accompanies it (3.9.26).

Thus, it seems that Augustine, in the final analysis, depends more heavily on the first and second approach, the appeal to the free choice of the will failing ultimately to eliminate the problem. Having considered Augustine’s approach to our problem, we are now in position to articulate clearly what is at stake. The real *problem* in the problem of evil–the core of it, as it were–is that granting God’s omnipotence, there seems to be no way to avoid the conclusion that God finds the perdition of an indefinite number of human souls acceptable in light of the greater good which their perdition makes possible. Thus, even if we grant that, it makes sense to talk of a rational creature freely choosing its own perdition, and even if we hypothesize that God has in some sense limited his power with a view to creating more glorious creatures by virtue of their free will,{2} it is nevertheless the case, according to the tradition, 1) that, in the light of his eternal existence, God knows the end from the beginning; and 2) that he had no need to create; and even if he chose to create, he might have created differently. As such, we cannot avoid placing full responsibility for existence–including every aspect of human experience, whether in this life or the next–squarely on God’s shoulders.

Let us admit that when we bow before God, it is not because his justice has been demonstrated to us. It would seem more reasonable to say that we bow before his power. It is pointless to try and defend God against those who cry foul. A more fruitful approach, as we shall see, is to understand why we ought, indeed, to bow before his power.{3} Rather than attempting to *justify the ways of God to man*, let us show those who would *reply against God* the foolishness of their objections, admonishing them, in the Spirit of Augustine, to give thanks.{4} But this can only be done if we let the dialectic of the problem take us beyond the confines of orthodoxy and, finally, *beyond good and evil*.{5} PART TWO: Spinoza & Nietzsche on Evil For Spinoza, evil presents no *problem* in the sense that it does for Augustine. Not directly constrained by Christian dogma, he is free to modify the traditional notions of God’s goodness and power–both of which he does.

What is interesting is that many of his conclusions are strikingly similar to Augustine’s. Considered from a strictly philosophical perspective, Spinoza’s position seems to preserve and explain more fully that which is most philosophically defensible in Augustine, while at the same time excluding that which is most philosophically *offensive*. Preserved, in a sense, and more fully explained, is the neo- platonic concept that evil is a privation which cannot be properly said to exist at all, as well as the notion that the apparent imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole. Excluded is Augustine’s assertion that the origin of moral evil–together with the origin of that suffering which is construed as punishment for sin–is to be found in the free choice of the will of rational creatures. A brief review of Spinoza’s metaphysics will allow us to explain this more clearly. For Spinoza, there is one substance, God or Nature, which constitutes the whole of reality and which has infinite attributes, only two of which we can know–extension and thought.

He avoids the mind/body problem by adopting a parallelism characterized by the notion that thoughts relate causally only to thoughts and bodies relate causally only to bodies. An infinite number of individual entities–modifications of the divine substance–proceed by necessity from the divine nature. Our essence is the *conatus* with which we endeavor to persist in our own being (*Ethics* 3, Pr. 7). Considered under the attribute of extension, this *conatus* would be equivalent to (or at least analogous to) the genetic code which governs the growth and development of our bodies. Considered under the attribute of thought, this *conatus* is called *will* (E3,Pr9,Scol.).

Since *virtue*, for Spinoza, is *power*, an individual, acting according to its essence, endeavors to bring about those conditions in which its power of activity is increased (See E3 Pref. and Def. 8). As rational animals, the highest good for human beings is achieved through the intellectual love of God. The *intellectual* aspect of this love is important for two reasons. First, insofar as our *understanding* of God (or Nature) according to the attribute of extension increases, we are better able to produce those physical and environmental conditions in which we can flourish; and, insofar as our understanding of God according to the attribute of thought increases, we are better able to control our emotions.

Second, insofar as we find ourselves subject to adverse conditions that are beyond our control, we find consolation in our understanding of the necessity of events (see *APPENDIX B* which is attached to this paper). According to Spinoza, nothing is good or evil in itself but only insofar as the mind is affected by it. Because our happiness and unhappiness depends on the quality of that which we love, true blessedness is attained by loving that which is infinite and eternal–viz. all that follows from the eternal order and nature’s fixed laws (*Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect* 233-235, hereafter *TEI*). Our achievement of blessedness through the *intellectual love of God* entails that we come to know and love ourselves as we are essentially.

We sin, in a manner of speaking, insofar as we desire or seem to desire that which is contrary to our essence. I say seem to desire, because, for Spinoza, the self, considered as such, cannot desire that which is contrary to its own advantage. And insofar as the self acts according to reason–which for Spinoza is the only time human beings really act at all–it will pursue its true advantage and be resigned in those circumstance that are beyond its control. However, because human reason and power is limited, individual human beings are sometimes controlled by passive emotions. Such emotions constitute our bondage to external powers.

Propositions 4 and 5 of Part Four of the *Ethics* state that: 4) It is impossible for a man not to be part of Nature and not to undergo changes other than those which can be understood solely through his own nature and of which he is the adequate cause. 5) The force and increase of any passive emotion and its persistence in existing is defined not by the power whereby we ourselves endeavor to persist in existing, but by the power of external causes compared with our own power. We see, then, that for Spinoza, unlike Augustine, evil is something which we suffer, not something we actively choose. However, this seems quite consistent with Augustine’s notion of evil as a privation–a diminution of my ability to express my essence which is due, however, not to the free choice of my will, but to the force of external powers which happen to conflict with my essence.{6} I am free only insofar as I will my own essence, which, *a priori*, expresses the will of God. The degree of my self knowledge and the extent to which my essence finds expression in the world is dependent upon my environment. Insofar as I seem to will that which is contrary to my essence, I am in bondage and am not, strictly speaking, willing at all.

Furthermore, because the power and will of God is manifest only in activity, Spinoza would agree with Augustine that insofar as anything *is*–insofar as it exists (endeavors to persist in its own being)–it derives its being from God. In his *Tractatus Theologico-Politicus*, Spinoza formulates these ideas as follows: Whatever man . . . acquires for himself to help preserve his being, or whatever Nature provides for him without any effort on his part, all this is provided for him solely by the divine power, acting either through human nature or externally to human nature. Therefore whatever human nature can effect solely by its own power to preserve its own being can rightly be called God’s internal help, and whatever falls to man’s advantage from the power of external causes can rightly be called God’s external help. And from this, too, can readily be deduced what must be meant by God’s choosing, for since no one acts except by the predetermined order of Nature– that is from God’s direction and decree–it follows that no one chooses a way of life for himself or accomplishes anything except by the special vocation of God, who has chosen one man before others for a particular way of life (89-90).

The happiness and peace of the man who cultivates his natural understanding depends not on the sway of fortune (God’s external help) but on his own internal virtue (God’s internal help) [111]. This is hard medicine, but in my opinion it constitutes the only philosophically consistent position that still allows us to make sense out of the tradition. It remains for us to show how it does so, but first we must relate Spinoza to Nietzsche. Despite significant dissimilarities between Nietzsche and Spinoza–in both philosophy and temperament–Nietzsche often takes positions that are strikingly similar to his predecessor’s.{7} In *Human, All Too Human*–written during his so called positivistic period–we find Nietzsche taking the following positions: We don’t accuse nature of immorality when it sends us a thunderstorm, and makes us wet: why do we call the injurious man immoral? Because in the first case, we assume necessity, and in the second a voluntarily governing free will. But this distinction is in error ( 102).

The man who has fully understood the theory of complete irresponsibility can no longer include the so-called justice that punishes and rewards within the concept of justice . . . ( 105). If one were omniscient, one would be able to calculate each individual action in advance, each step in the progress of knowledge, each error, each act of malice.

To be sure, the acting man …