Saturday, April 28, 2007

Thoughts on Evil 3

Thoughts on Evil 3
The following is a continuation of the previous post.

I have referred to Fr Patrick Carmody, B.D., M.A., and M.Phil. before in these pages. I was privileged to have Paddy as a philosophy lecturer in Mater Dei way back in the late seventies – he was and is a brilliant philosopher. He always set me thinking, and it was he who sent me out to Belcamp College to interview Fr Colm Connellan O.M.I. who had done his Ph. D in this area and who then was a lecturer in philosophy at U.C.D. Colm had written a book on the problem of evil and he lent me this book and some others along with a sheet of important references.

I cannot locate any copy of my thesis as it is probably buried somewhere under a mound of papers in my attic. However, I remember some key points which somehow remain in my mind after 30 years.

The first major Christian thinker on the problem of evil (more correctly mystery of evil as I’ve explained in the previous two posts) needless to say was the redoubtable Augustine of Hippo, or St Augustine, (354-430 AD). This Augustine may be said to have left his prints all over contemporary and subsequent Christian thought. However, what is undeniable is that this great saint and scholar was a brilliant intellectual and spiritual genius. The intellectual problem that then faced Augustine was the perennial seeming contradiction in the apparently unavoidable contradiction between the notion of God as omnipotent (all powerful) and omni-benevolent (all good), on the one hand, and the existence of evil (natural and moral) , on the other. Given that God is all powerful why then does He not act to eliminate it? He obviously is not as benevolent as we are led to believe. If we grant God’s total benevolence or goodness, then in this conception of things, he is consequently not all powerful. So we have a glaring contradiction in terms. Christian "orthodoxy" remains unwilling to modify its conception of God's goodness or his power and hence we have 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 putting forward a solution St Augustine showed great insight and creativity it could be argued. He had three main points as I remember: (1) He argued that evil in itself could not properly be said to exist at all. A rather novel, almost stupid position insofar as it seems to deny our experience in the world. However, what Augustine was getting at was his contention that evil while it did not exist in itself, existed as a privation of the good, that is, a privation or lack of a good that should be there in the first place. Augustine’s Latin is beautiful – “privatio boni malum est” - “evil is the privation of the good.” (2) He argues that the apparent imperfection of any part of creation disappears in light of the perfection of the whole. This is allied with what may be called the Principle of Plenitude which states that if the world is to be as perfect as possible it must contain as much as possible. I think St Anselm went on to develop some thoughts on this latter theory. (3) St Augustine 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. (This is called the Argument from Free Will.)

St. Augustine believed that God made a perfect world, but that God's creatures turned away from God of their own free will, through different types of falls (the main fall being that of Adam and Eve) and that is how evil originated in the world. It shows how God has allowed evil to exist in the world because it does not conflict with His goodness. He did not create evil but is also not a victim of it. He simply allows it to exist. Indeed, Augustine argues God does not want evil to exist, but He allows it because He cherishes man’s freedom and because He does not wish to force man to love Him as love in itself can only be freely given.

Another point that remains with me from all those years ago is the phrase “logically prior.” In the thought of Augustine the good is always logically prior to evil. In other words there has to be some good there first to be corrupted. For example, you break your leg. The evil is the break or fracture and the consequent pain which can only exist if the leg (good and whole) is there in the first place to be broken. The same can be said of say an apple which rots, the rottenness can only inhere in the goodness of the apple which is there in the first place.

All of the above is classical thinking and it does seem a little irrelevant to lived reality and to everyday experiences. I grant all of this, but classical thinking in itself is beautiful and its categories did form the foundation stones for modern thought which we may feel deals more concretely with day to day living.

In short, let us be humble and admit that from the vantage point of the early 21st century we do after all stand on the shoulders of giants.

The cross, needless to say, is ultimate Christian symbol of victory through death over evil. The above picture is one I took Summer 2003 in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.

To be continued.

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