"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 29, 2012

Evil II–Augustine and Kierkegaard

In my first post on the subject of evil (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/does-evil-exist.html), prompted by an excellent series by Clare Carlisle of the Guardian, I discussed Augustine’s explanation that evil is not a thing in itself, but the denial of goodness.  Carlisle (in the second piece of a series) observed that Augustine need to reconcile the absolute goodness of God with the existence of evil in the world; and he could never either believe that God had a co-equal, the Devil, or that He would create a force, evil, that was contrary to him.

Augustine came to regard this cosmic dualism as heretical, since it undermined God's sovereignty. Of course, he wanted to hold on to the absolute goodness of God. But if God is the source of all things, where did evil come from? Augustine's radical answer to this question is that evil does not actually come from anywhere. Rejecting the idea that evil is a positive force, he argues that it is merely a "name for nothing other than the absence of good".

This explanation has always seemed too tame for most philosophers and for the rest of us who see people contemplating, plotting, and doing evil – a conscious, deliberate amoral act, not just an absence of an abstract.  The horrors of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot are not just ‘not good’ actions, but something far worse.

Augustine, however, had a second theory, one which corresponded more to the real world:

Augustine thinks that our goodness is derived from God and completely dependent on him. "When the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil – not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked," he writes in The City of God.

Because we are free, Augustine argues, we must be able to choose to turn away from God, to disobey him and to try to live independently – maybe as if he didn't exist at all.

The ‘free will defense’ says that evil is a consequence of freedom; freedom is a good thing and therefore we have to accept evil as its unfortunate side-effect.

So far, so good; but given the extent of evil in the world – not just the Hitlers and Stalins but the Bernie Madoffs, Big Tobacco conspiracists, and those like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello who appear to have no political, social, or economic motivation for their torture and destruction of others, how can we account for the fact that so many use their God-given free will to turn away from Him, from goodness, and to choose evil?

Augustine was more interested in theological philosophy – explaining theoretically the world of God and the world of Man and how the two intersected – than in answering the question of why people choose evil.  It was enough for him to explain the nature of evil and the philosophical construct – free will – which permitted it and to consider its spiritual consequences.  It took a 19th century philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, to attempt to answer this question.  Writing when he did, he was exposed to the various social, psychological, economic, and cultural factors which might propel men towards evil; and could therefore add to Augustine’s thought without damaging his theory.


Photo of Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard accepted Augustine’s conception of good and evil, especially that evil was caused by men turning away from God as a free choice, but said that this was because of a combination of pride and fear:

Kierkegaard thought that our freedom is itself a big nothing. He describes it as a yawning chasm at the heart of human existence, which has to be filled with decisions and actions. But of course this emptiness can never be filled. When we look down into the abyss of our freedom, says Kierkegaard, we feel sick and dizzy. We take a step back. All that nothingness makes us anxious. We are, in fact, afraid of our own freedom.

Kierkegaard agreed with Augustine that human beings are fundamentally proud, always wanting to overreach themselves, transgress any limits imposed on them, and deny their dependence on God. But he also emphasized that we are as fearful as we are proud – that we shrink back from the unlimited dimension of our being, which is freedom. This makes us very contrary creatures: we think we want to be free of all constraint, but at the same time this freedom terrifies us. Human sinfulness, says Kierkegaard, is a result of this unhappy combination of pride and fear.

This in itself still does not explain why some of us choose evil actions over good ones – both would help fill ‘the yawning chasm’. Kierkegaard offers the following:

Our failure to be good, he argues, is due to the way we deal with being both less and more free than we wish to be. Like stroppy, insecure teenagers, we crave independence, resent authority, and are scared to take responsibility for ourselves.

In other words, like teenagers who have not reached a level of maturity to analyze the ethical and moral consequences of their actions, we act impulsively.  The fear of a chaotic world of choice, unknown risk and consequence, and endless deliberation is such, that we act before we think.

Jean-Paul Sartre echoed Kierkegaard in his philosophy of Being and Nothingness:

Sartre contends that human existence is a conundrum whereby each of us exists, for as long as we live, within an overall condition of nothingness (no thing-ness)—that ultimately allows for free consciousness. But simultaneously, within our being (in the physical world), we are constrained to make continuous, conscious choices.

It is this dichotomy that causes anguish, because choice (subjectivity) represents a limit on freedom within an otherwise unbridled range of thoughts. Subsequently, humans seek to flee our anguish through action-oriented constructs such as escapes, visualizations, or visions (such as dreams) designed to lead us toward some meaningful end, such as necessity, destiny, determinism (God), etc. (Wikipedia)

Where Kierkegaard sees this anguish translated into evil actions, Sartre seems them as neither good nor evil but steps to constructing a being, a personality, a character which gives some meaning to life, although artificial.

Although the vision of Sartre resonates more with me than that of either Kierkegaard or Augustine, I prefer that of Machiavelli and Nietzsche to any of these (see my blog post, above).  Machiavelli (and his advocate, Shakespeare) believed that there was no such thing as good or evil, just variations of human actions determined by human nature; our social, cultural, and economic ecology; and the precedent of history.  Nietzsche agreed, but added the element of will.  The greatest expression of any human being, confronted as he is by the valueless (meaninglessness) of life, is to follow his own primitive, basic, fundamental desires and ambitions to their logical conclusion.  Tamburlaine was a greater man than the grocery clerk.

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