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

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Nature of Evil IV

I have commented before on Clare Carlisle’s series on Evil in the Guardian (11.12.12), and this week she has written about suffering and its relationship to evil. How should we interpret suffering?, she asks. Is it a confirmation that evil does, finally, exist? Or is it simply the by-product of human nature?

Religions have approached the subject of suffering from radically different points of view.  Christianity holds that suffering is at the very heart and soul of humanity.  There was no suffering in the Garden of Eden, when both Adam and Eve loved and respected God, and only began once they rejected Him and his laws. After than one, brief period of innocence, life would always be torment and pain. Buddhists believe differently:

Instead of starting with the essential goodness of a divinely-created world, the Buddhist worldview takes suffering as its basic principle. The Buddha summarized his teaching by outlining four "noble truths", and the first of these is that suffering is the universal character of existence.

This means that while Christian theology has to contend with a "problem of evil", Buddhists need to explain why life is not only worthwhile but even, at times, enjoyable. And interestingly enough, their response is similar to the Christian idea that evil has no reality in itself. The ordinary sources of happiness in the world are, Buddhists claim, illusory.

Most interesting of all is the philosophy of Nietzsche who believed that suffering was something to be embraced by Supermen, who in their valiant expressions of pure will and desire, freely and willingly confronted suffering as necessary.  It was for weaker men, members of ‘the herd’ which was frightened of pain, avoided it at all costs, and therefore would never be great.

The act of taking on profound human suffering as a means of personal empowerment makes such an individual GREATER than other human beings. It allows individuals to cast aside old values and beliefs and forge their own intimate meaning in life. In doing so, they emerge free of the herd. They can rightfully look down upon those still squandering their lives, avoiding suffering as much as possible, reacting in fear when suffering comes forth, relying on ridiculous belief systems and avoidance mechanisms to fight suffering.

Far better to face it courageously, with unflinching hardness of spirit, learning what it can teach, and experiencing the entire endeavor as a transformation rather than as an affliction. This is the “discipline” to which Nietzsche refers and it should justifiably be a source of pride in the individual (Angelfire.com, The Aristocracy of Suffering).

Thus Christianity sees suffering as a consequence of defiance of God.  Evil, as interpreted by Augustine, was the absence of good.  This was the only way that he could explain or justify the existence of evil in a world created by God.  The casting out of Adam and Eve in addition to being a castigation and a punishment, was also the creation of a world of the absence of good and its consequence, suffering.  The only way for human beings to deal with suffering was to see it as the necessary result of godlessness.

Buddhism made no conclusions about good or evil, just reality.  Suffering exists and will as long as human beings do; but rather than ponder why it exists, whether or not it is the result of evil or not, Buddhists encourage us to accept it without questioning; then to move on to the path of spiritual enlightenment.  Acceptance is critical in a valueless world.

Nietzsche’s atheistic view took a more robust, muscular approach to suffering.  He, like the Buddhists didn’t care why it existed, and accepted it as is.  Where he differs, however, is in his adopting of it as a means to human fulfillment. While not exactly the enlightenment envisaged by the Buddhists, Nietzsche’s goal is the final and complete expression of the pure will of the Superman. 

But although Nietzsche is probably the most radical of all the western philosophers, both Jesus and the Buddha were more radical still. While Nietzsche mounted a formidable intellectual challenge to established beliefs, these two religious teachers emphasized that freedom from suffering involved something beyond the intellect. The Buddha in particular found that the habit of thinking is part of the trap we find ourselves in, and so he argued that we cannot think our way out of suffering. And Jesus, too, preached a transformation of the heart and not a transformation of ideas or values.

I do not agree.  Nietzsche was more radical by far; and he was no more circumscribed by intellect any more than Jesus or the Buddha.  Not only was Nietzsche advocating action beyond morality, beyond good and evil; he was actively encouraging human beings to confront challenges, to welcome them, to even search them out as a way of attaining his own version of enlightenment. Jesus and the Buddha were far more passive and intellectually philosophical in their approach.

Nietzsche is the philosopher who has best deal with the problem of evil.  He dismisses the concept and is not even interested in determining what it is or what its implications are, or especially where it came from.  We live in an amoral world, and Nietzsche was always trying to define the role of the human being within a nihilistic universe.  Embracing suffering, using it to achieve superiority and personal greatness, was the only way forward.

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