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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Does Evil Exist? Augustine, Kierkegaard, And Atrocity

Father Murphy hitched up his cassock, shot his cuffs, adjusted the frilly lace borders on his surplice, kissed the old Spanish cross on his rosary beads, and began: “Brethren, we are gathered here in Christ’s name to revere him, to supplicate him, and to give thanks to him for dying on the cross for our sins.”

The priest was calm and composed as he always was at the beginning of his sermons; but we all had learned that the more patient and reserved he was at the outset, the more explosive the final bombast.  Today was no different. “The Devil is among us”, he intoned, “and you are worshipping him”.  Here he paused and swept his arm across the congregation.  “He is sowing evil, and you are cultivating it.  He is spreading filth, lies, and calumny, and you are his agents.  He is inciting you to lechery, adultery, and self-abuse, and you are following his way.  If he is evil, you are evil.”

Here the congregation squirmed and rustled.  Father Murphy never minced words, but this was as direct and uncompromising as he had ever been.

“But there is hope.  Jesus Christ is the way, the light, and the path to salvation; and if you follow Him and turn your backs on evil, you too can attain the kingdom of heaven.” A sigh of relief from the worst sinners in the pews.  Smug smiles from the sanctimonious. Children who wondered what this was all about turned to their parents who shushed them. Father Murphy had gotten the hook in early, and he intended to make us us twist and turn.

The subject of evil has been discussed for centuries; and every era has not only its definition but its perpetrators.  Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot in their day were considered evil, beyond any psycho-social or cultural consideration.  More recently ISIS was considered evil because their brutality was beyond the bounds of decency, morality, and religion.  They are the devil incarnate, a scourge upon the earth, a vile curse on humanity. 

Of course they are nothing of the sort and are only resorting to age-old tactics of fear and intimidation especially effective in an age of Western retreat.   Hamas blows children up in buses, the Taliban explode car bombs in crowded markets.  Boko Haram kidnap, rape, and enslave young girls.  The list of atrocities is endless.  IEDs frighten American soldiers more than frontal attacks.  Viet Cong punji sticks, excrement-smeared, sharpened bamboo staves well-camouflaged with grasses and palm fronds, were as terrorizing as mortar fire.

Genghis Khan thundered out of the Asian steppes thousands of miles to the east and west slaughtering millions, decapitating those who resisted, and impaling their heads on stakes along the roadway.  Hitler rounded up Jews and incinerated them in gas ovens. Stalin consigned hundreds of thousands to death in Siberian gulags.  Millions died from forced starvation and labor at the hands of Pol Pot and Mao.  America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan but only after firebombing Tokyo.

There was nothing new, then, in ISIS’ techniques.  For them the ends justified the means, and those ends – a glorious world caliphate, a religious kingdom, and pure, unsullied, true believers – were worth fighting for. Many political leaders have had clear ends in mind.  Hitler wanted to rule all of Europe.  Stalin envisioned world communism.  Pol Pot wanted to take the entire world back to the Year Zero.  Few since the Crusades have had a religious goal in their sights; but ISIS and their fellow Islamist radicals do indeed see a new godly, heavenly world for which all must be sacrificed.   It is one thing to understand the mind of a Stalin or Hitler who behaved no differently from English kings, Russian emperors, or Chinese mandarins; but to imagine the ferocity of a religiously-inspired jihad? Difficult to say the least.

Since we cannot understand the motivation, intent, or absolute commitment to ISIS’ goals, we brand them as evil, moral outcastes, creatures of the Devil himself.  Worst of all is the realization that to defeat this unknowable and frightening enemy, we must adopt his ways.

Inquiry into the nature of evil is not new.  Philosophers since Aristotle and especially his intellectual descendants Augustine and Aquinas have pondered the unanswerable question – how could evil exist in a world created by a beneficent and all-merciful God?

Augustine needed 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". (Claire Carlisle, The Guardian. 
 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. (op.cit.)
Dostoyevsky in The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov ponders this same issue.  The Grand Inquisitor argues that Christ has betrayed mankind by promising possible heavenly rewards if they chose properly between right and wrong instead of providing bread and sustenance.  People do not want freedom of choice, the Inquisitor said, even though it may lead to a heavenly eternity.  They want to eat.

Kierkegaard argued much in the same way:
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. (op.cit.)

These philosophical arguments are interesting, but they all assume that there is such a thing as evil.  Whether it is an absence of good, the Devil, or simply immoral acts committed because of ‘wrong’ choice, they admit that evil exists.

Most historians take a more dispassionate, disengaged view of ‘evil’.  It does not exist, they say, but is simply an expression of human nature and the genetically-determined self-protective, aggressive, and territorial imperatives that characterize it.  Yes, some acts seem particularly vile, but if one looks back far enough in the long trajectory of human history, the ‘barbarism’ and ‘inhumanity’ of man is common, predictable, and inevitable.

Describing acts as ‘evil’ is a way of qualifying the most egregious acts in society.  Cheating and stealing are minor, everyday crimes; but when Bernie Madoff cheated his friends and fellow Jews out of millions of dollars in savings, he was beyond secular justice and deserved spiritual opprobrium.  He was evil.  Government officials, trade union leaders, and municipal administrators who siphon off public funds for their own personal profit are evil because they have willfully and deliberately bilked needy citizens from their rightful due.

Catholic priests who abused children are called evil because they betrayed not only a civic trust but a religious one.  These were men of God, anointed as vicars of Christ to do his will on earth, to follow his example of goodness and charity. When they seduced young, innocent boys and used their secular and religious authority to corrupt them, they were evil.


The acts of Bernie Madoff and Catholic priests, however, are not evil at all.  Human beings have behaved in dishonest, predatory, and selfish ways since the beginning of time.  It isn’t just kings and emperors who betray, defile, and savage others.  Commoners are quite capable of the same moral delinquency.  They are evil only in the scope and scale of their crimes, not in the nature of them.  Evil is simply Number 10 on a moral scale of 1-10 where 1 is pilfering a few of the company’s pens.

Since evil does not exist as an absolute; and since morality is relative, then American foreign policy strategists should be able to easily jettison their old Christian, traditional values when it comes to meeting the enemy – ISIS and Islamist radicals – on their own grounds.  If they have to justify their actions in moral terms, then they can say that the ends justify the means.  A generous world of liberal democracy, civil rights, and individual liberty is surely worth the price of civilian deaths, intimidating and brutal tactics, and harsh and uncompromising occupations.

Morality, like evil, is a secular construct.  As Ivan says in The Brothers Karamazov, it is only the thought of immortality – i.e. a final moral judgment – which keeps people in line; so it should not be hard to align practical military strategies within such a temporal and impermanent frame of reference.
There are many who believe that such moral relativity is nonsense.  The Bible is clear on right and wrong.  Hell is very real, and we all risk damnation to eternal hellfire if we stray from the straight and narrow.  The guideposts are in place, visible, and unmistakable.

These same Biblical fundamentalists, however, are as morally relative as the rest of us.  The bombing of Dresden was not an evil act, incinerating thousands of innocent civilians, because it was necessary for the war effort. There are as many good Christians behind bars as apostates and unbelievers because they managed to parse the Bible a bit differently than Sunday preachers.

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov is initially abhorred by his thoughts of murder, but over the course of time he is able to completely justify his actions.  The landlady is no more than an insignificant fly who is of no good to anyone, who is herself a moral reprobate, and her murder will only be an execution.

Shakespeare took evil to new heights when he created Iago, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, Richard III, and Macbeth; but he was not acknowledging evil as a special crime against humanity and God.  He simply saw the dramatic potential in characters who took depravity to such extremes.  Nietzsche in his belief that only the best and the brightest were Supermen who rose above good and evil to an amoral world of individual expression, espoused the same belief.  There is no such thing as absolute evil except as a common feature in all mankind; and the only validation of life is to rise above petty, temporal moral codes.

ISIS is not evil, certainly no more than Pol Pot, Boko Haram, or Genghis Khan. In fact the chances of more ISISs are good.  In a world where competition for territory and resources is increasing rapidly, more and more individual groups will demand and fight for their rights to them.  The idea of an inclusive liberal democracy with all sharing the common wealth is a pipe dream.  ‘Evil’ will be with us for a very long time.

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