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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The idea of evil and the problems which it has pre-
sented to thinkers throughout history have expressed
incisively the great divide in men's outlooks on nature
and on human experience: the fundamental philo-
sophical distinction between a natural-scientific and a
spiritual-religious attitude. Scientific naturalism has
been concerned with description and explanation and
on principle has been neutral to any basic evaluation.
But religion, men's deepest response to the Highest,
has been essentially and thoroughly evaluative. Going
beyond the domain of description and explanation its
judgments have been verdicts either of worship or
of condemnation.

In a religious perspective the idea of reality has been
completely imbued with the idea of perfection: ens
realissimum ens perfectissimum.
First and last, religion
has set out with a primal and ultimate recognition of
consummate perfection in all its aspects. Men have
exalted their conviction of the essential supremacy of
their ideals and have proclaimed them as divine in
origin, sanction, and final justification. The maturing
development of men's ideas of God has been due to
man's progress in evaluative insight and vision.

The very growth in spiritual intelligence has em-
phasized the radical problem of evil. In its devout
conviction religion has declared: “Great is truth and


it will prevail”—and likewise for the other supreme
values. But do the facts of life really and finally sustain
this belief in man's status in the universe? Is external
nature really attuned to our highest values, or is it
neutral to them, or even, in a sort of counter-religious
demonic outlook, is it actually malign? The confirma-
tion of religious assurance hangs upon the settlement
of these issues. The actuality of evils demands recon-
ciliation with the prevailing reality of the Divine. The
problem of evil is imposed by our experienced frustra-
tion of values, by the clash between what ought to
be and what actually is. Religious reflection has not
been able to shirk this problem. Even a brief consid-
eration of its treatment in the ancient religions would
disclose its abysmal character. Modern philosophy and
literature have expressed the persistent embroilment
of secular thought in the issues of the traditional
theodicies. The words of Charles Bernard Renouvier
are brought to our attention: “Life can concern a
thinker only as he seeks to resolve the problem of evil”
(Lasbax, p. 1).

Religious thought in India, Brahmanic and Buddhist,
set out with a firm conviction of the evil in the whole
world of finite existence, but these two religions enter-
tained different explanations of evil and different
prospects of deliverance. Brahmanic pantheism con-
templated the world and ourselves in it as manifesta-
tions of the Infinite Brahman. Everything whatever,
in its inmost reality or soul, Atman, is one with the
Infinite; but considered in their apparent multiplicity,
things and persons are corrupt and illusory. Man's only
hope is in his eventual saintly deliverance from the
veil of illusion and the cycle of rebirth, in his absorp-
tion in Brahman. The Brahmanic sages were reluctant
to confront resolutely the basic questions which em-
broiled their theodicy: Why should Brahman be mani-
fested in this world of delusion and evil? Does not this
propensity towards finite existence stain the perfection
of the Infinite?

Buddhist reflection followed the more radical course
of avoiding the pitfalls of theodicy by a fundamental
atheism. It rejected all substantial existence as illusory,
Brahman and Atman alike, infinite or finite. There are
no real substances; there are only processes, but all
of them are processes operating in strict retribution,
Karma. The course of human existence is a wretched
round of evils and miseries. This universal woe is due
to men's deluded and futile attachment to the lusts and
interests of their imagined soul or self. The deliverance
from this evil state is possible only through the extinc-
tion of self-engrossment. To these three cardinal truths
or convictions the Buddha added a fourth: his program
of a life of progressive liberation from egoism, leading
towards the utterly selfless blessedness of Nirvana.

To Zarathustra (Zoroaster) in ancient Iran the basic
fact of existence, and thus the first principle of cosmic
interpretation, was the universal opposition of good
and evil. This radical conflict, evident throughout na-
ture and in human life, indicated a cleavage reaching
to the very roots of being, a fundamental dualism. In
the Zoroastrian theology the perfect creation by God,
(or Ohrmazd), Ahura-Mazdā was countered at each
turn by Ahriman's evil work: darkness against light,
corruption and banes against all purity and health and
life. The daily conflicts between good and evil in our
character and careers are only incidents in the univer-
sal war between the two creative cosmic powers. True
religion is in man's loyal cowarriorship with the Lord,
Ahura-Mazdā, in every thought and word and deed
that resist and defeat and destroy Ahriman's evil crea-
tion: in industrious and productive labor, in pure con-
duct, truthful speech, saintly thought. This world con-
flict, though immemorial, was regarded by Zarathustra
as destined to end in the final overthrow and fiery
destruction of Ahriman's entire evil creation. Thus the
initial and basic dualism of good and evil in Zoroastrian
theology reached its climax, not merely in an assured
meliorism, but in the conviction of a finally perfect
world order.

Unlike the sages of India, Greek thinkers were at
home in this world and did not seek deliverance from
evil through escape from finite existence. Beginning
with the sixth century, philosophical reflection turned
away from the traditional polytheistic mythology to-
wards the ideal of ultimate divine unity, contemplated
as perfect and sovereign Reason. Most emphatically
in Platonism, this rationalism was decisive in the theory
of knowledge, in ethics, in metaphysics. Truth and
perfection and abiding reality are all rational. Error
and evil and unstable multiplicity are in the material
world and in processes of sense-impressions, desires,
and impulses. Our human nature is a tangle of appetites
and a dynamic drive of energies, but it also possesses
intelligence and should be controlled and directed by
rational judgment. In the words of Socrates, the unex-
amined, unintelligent life is not worth living. Plato
portrayed the process of rational mastery, aristocracy
(dominance of the best), as the right fulfillment and
self-realization of personality. This positive Higher
Naturalism of the Platonic philosophy of life did not
quite silence the tragic note in his theodicy, but it
would not yield to final negation. In human life and
in finite reality there was always the drag of corrupt
matter. Plato was no docile optimist; he declared:
“Evils can never pass away; for there must always
remain something which is antagonistic to good”
(Theaetetus 176; trans. B. Jowett). But he resolutely
rejected any cosmic despair: God desired that all things


should be good and nothing bad “as far as this was
attainable.” God alone is absolutely perfect; any finite
world would of necessity have its strains of imperfec-
tion. So corruption and evils are actual: to be recog-
nized and confronted and, within the range of our
rational powers, to be overcome. In Greek ethics, this
is the problem of reason and the passions; in Greek
philosophy of religion, we may note here a trend in
theodicy which is to find its concluding classical ex-
pression in the Enneads of Plotinus.

Between Plato and Plotinus, Greek philosophers
with one notable exception exalted reason as the mark
of the supreme and perfect reality. The exception is
the Epicurean materialistic view of the world process
and human existence as a scrambling and unscrambling
of atomic configurations and motions. So-called good
and evil alike are in the mechanical contacts and reac-
tions of our sense organs, in pleasure and pain.

Against this atomism, the Stoic sages of Greece and
Rome contemplated the material world itself as mani-
festing a hierarchical order, from the most rudimentary
dust to the highest rational perfection of God. In this
cosmic scale of being, men may yield to the drag of
lower desires and passions or, resisting all evil lures,
the sage would follow the lead of rational intelligence,
in apathy, the passionless life of godlike serenity which
alone is virtuous and truly good.

Before Epicurus and the Stoics, Aristotle pursued the
course of realistic rationalism. He contemplated nature
as a cosmic process of the hierarchical realization of
potentialities: each type of existence is the Form or
fulfillment of capacities of a lower order and in turn
has the potential capacity to serve as the Matter of
a higher order of being. Aristotle's God is Pure Form
or creative reason in eternal self-contemplation. In
human nature and experience, the curve of perfection
ascends from Matter, bodily desires, and inordinate
passions towards the realized Form and harmonious
fulfillment of our humanity in balanced rational ex-
pression. This Aristotelian distinction of the evil and
good aspects or stages of human experience was posi-
tive but also coolly objective, without the tragic over-
tones of reflection that mark any ecclesiastical demand
for a theodicy.

Philosophical theodicy finds its classical version, both
its consummation and its self-criticism, in the Neo-
Platonism of Plotinus. The Plotinian cosmology con-
templated the entire course of nature as the self-
manifestation of God. The thorny problem, why or how
perfect Deity should be manifested in such an imper-
fect world, was not evaded by Plotinus. He met it by
a reinterpretation of the process of self-manifestation.
God alone is absolutely perfect; the divine perfection
radiates or emanates in nature, through the zones of
Reason and Soul, to the outermost rim of least self-
manifestation, in the world of Matter. These are all
degrees of perfection, but, being emanations, they are
not and cannot be consummately perfect. They are less
and less luminous as they radiate towards the outer
darkness or the abyss of material existence and its
corruptions and evils. Our human career is a contention
between the urge godward and the evil drag of sen-
suality. Plotinus resists any cosmic pessimism: each
level or zone of emanation has its appropriate perfec-
tion, but what is appropriate to animal or plant or
other material existence is not befitting the life and
career of men. Our true fulfillment is in turning
godward, towards the life of reason, and even beyond
reason, towards the mystical ascent in ecstasy.

The intensified gravity of the problem of evil in
monotheistic worship is evidenced strikingly in the
Hebrew religious development. The prophetic refor-
mation, starting in the eighth century B.C., advanced
from the tribal monolatry of the popular cults towards
ethical monotheism and personal worship. The fuller
attainment of this religious maturity by the prophet
Jeremiah, in the days of the siege and destruction of
Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile of the people of
Judah, raised grave perplexities in the traditional doc-
trine of men's covenant or contractual relation to God:
of God's justice in rewarding the righteous man with
prosperity and other blessings and punishing the
wicked for their evils. Against the confident recital of
the first Psalm were the tragic facts of Hebrew life.
Bad men as well as good escaped the horrors of the
national ruin; and what multitudes of choice wor-
shipers of Yahweh were driven into exile by the godless

This predicament and quandary of religious thinkers
provided the setting for the Book of Job: the probing
of the problem of evil as evidenced in the underserved
misery and ruin of righteous men. The nameless poet
of the Hebrew dramatic masterpiece proposes in
searching dialogue alternative answers to the questions
which perplex theodicy. He portrays an outstanding
righteous and prosperous Job, who is laid low and
stricken with ills, a mass of sores on the trash heap
of the countryside. The longest dialogues consider the
traditional doctrine, expounded by Job's prosperous
friends, that God brings evil to men justly, as punish-
ment for their sins, and that Job must therefore confess
his hidden misdeeds and repent. Against their orthodox
pronouncements stands God's own recorded praise of
Job as his choicest worshiper. Are we, then, to follow
Satan, the Adversary in God's cabinet, and regard Job's
sufferings as a testing of his righteousness, as gold is
tested by fire? But Job's firm loyalty has already been
declared by omniscient Deity. Or are the tribulations


of the righteous a mystery in the vast universe of
mysteries? The poet of the drama has no formulated
solution of the abysmal problem, but he does portray
the right way in which men should confront it—in
forthright integrity.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a sardonic reflection of
another side of the problem of evil: not the unmerited
sufferings of righteous men but the final futility and
vanity of all so-called attainments and satisfactions of
human life. They are all vanity of vanities, a striving
after wind. Good men and evil, winners and losers, all
of them “go unto one place; all are of the dust, and
all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). This is the
dour and sour negation of any abiding worth: value

Christianity was fundamentally a gospel of salvation
of sinful men. The conviction of sin, the vilest evil in
existence, and of man's own utter incapacity to sur-
mount it set the conditions of any orthodox Christian
theodicy. Any depreciation of the radical depravity and
any moral self-reliance were impious insults to the
solemnity of Divine Grace. In thus concentrating its
view of evil on sin, Christian theology depreciated
other ills, to be endured or even welcomed by the
repentant and saintly soul, ready to suffer and be
persecuted for righteousness' sake. In this radical
transvaluation and spiritualizing of all worth, the
problem of evil became a problem of interpreting sin:
its essential nature, its origin and ground in God's
perfect creation, the blessed redemption from it for
a saintly minority, and the everlasting damnation of
countless unsaved multitudes.

According to Saint Paul, the essential evil, sin, is
in man's straying from the straight path of right-
eousness into the erring ways of the flesh. Paul's initial
education was classical, but we are not to regard his
contrast of the spiritual and the carnal as a mere
rephrasing of the Greek dualism of reason and matter.
Nor are we justified in interpreting the Christian ideal,
the contempt of this world for the love of Christ, as
explicitly ascetic. The sinful life in detail is worldly
and carnal, but sin essentially is man's perverse scorn
of God's will.

The radical depravity vitiates even that which, in
its right measure, is good, when it is set above its better
and higher values. “He that loveth father and mother
more than me is not worthy of me.” While ascetic
saintliness did become exalted in Christian monasti-
cism, the basic Christian idea was not a stark antithesis
of the spirit and the flesh. The antithesis was directional
and gradational; the good was always in the upward
reach, the evil in the downward drag. Nowise asserting
this as a rigid formula, we may yet recognize that,
while asceticism did gain ascendency in traditional
Christian devotion, the fundamental Christian idea was
not a reduction of the evil to the carnal. Whether
manifested in sensuality or in vain pride or ambition,
the basic evil, sin, is always in the depraved straying
of man's will from the higher to the lower. So we find
it affirmed by the two pillars of orthodoxy. Saint
Aquinas declared: sin is essentially aversio, man's turn-
ing or straying from the immutable Good to some
mutable good. And more than eight centuries before
him, Saint Augustine, in his City of God, had given
the finest expression of this Christian conviction:
“When the will abandons the higher, and turns to what
is lower, it becomes evil—not because that is evil to
which it turns, but because the turning is perverse (sed
quia perversa est ipsa conversio

The recognition of the fundamental nature of evil,
of man's sinful bondage, and of his only hope of re-
demption through Divine Grace, accentuated the other
demand of Christian theodicy, to explain this evil
depravity of man as nowise compromising the absolute
perfection of man's Creator. Augustine's version of
orthodoxy reflected his strong reaction against the
Manichaean heresy, to which he had been attached
for some ten years prior to his conversion. Manichae-
ism, fusing the Zoroastrian antithesis of good and evil
with the Greek dualism of reason and matter, ascribed
the evil strains in human life to man's inherently cor-
rupt bodily nature. Against Manichaeism, Augustine
upheld the Christian truth that God is the sole creator
of all existence, creator of the material world, and that
everything in nature, as the above quoted passage
maintains, is essentially good in its place and role in
creation. Evil is in the will's perverse misdirection of
choice. But Augustine rejected also the opposite
Pelagian heresy, that our will, though inclined to sin,
has also the capacity to choose the good. Between these
two counter-fallacies, Augustinian theodicy pointed to
the source of evil in Adam's original disobedience to
God's will. The possibility of Adam's evil choice was
allowed by God, else it would have lacked the quality
of a free and morally responsible act. But that choice,
when once made, that original sin involved in its dire
consequences all of us, tainted children of Adam. Left
to its own resources, our will is bound to sin and to
its ruinous retribution. Our only possible refuge, wholly
unmerited, is in God's grace.

Augustinian theodicy has largely set the direction
of later Christian doctrine but has also aroused much
criticism and controversy. It has been restated more
rigidly, e.g., in Calvinism, or it has been revised so
as to allow some semi-Pelagian implications. Au-
gustine's critics have pressed the point that Adam's
fateful choice, while freely his own, was yet repre-
sentative of his character, and they have raised the


question whether God could not have created an Adam
that would have freely made a good choice, as he did
actually create an Adam that freely chose evil. Fur-
thermore, how are the rest of us, countless multitudes,
justly punishable through all eternity for our sinful
wills, sinful through no decisive choice of ours but due
to our evil inheritance as children of Adam?

Ethical theories have been distinguished by their
alternative views of the Highest Good. Religious tradi-
tion adoring all supreme perfection as Divine, has
contemplated with dismay its demonic counterparts of
utter evil. Embattled against the blessed angelic and
archangelic host are the wicked cohorts of the Lords
of Darkness. Kinships as well as differences in the
various faiths have found expression in their views of
the Evil One. The extensive study of them would
comprise an important part of the history of religions.
Mara the Tempter tried to dissuade the Buddha from
his holy mission, even as Jesus was tempted by the
Devil in the wilderness. Most terrifying in evil majesty
was the Zoroastrian Ahriman, and it has been con-
jectured that the grim dualism of the Zendavesta may
have had some influence on Jewish and Christian
demonological speculation.

Popular superstition and folklore, hagiography and
solemn theology teem with stories of demonic incur-
sion. With their protean and tireless wiles the countless
devils hold in bondage the unregenerate multitude, and
they are ever ready to invade the cells of devout monks
and nuns, to assume priestly vestment and desecrate
the eucharist itself. Most of these stories are medieval.
Modern Christian piety has been engrossed in its strug-
gle with definite evils to be overcome and vicious
tendencies to be curbed, but it has shown a steady
decline of interest in the traditional demonology. The
idea of the Devil, however, has stirred the imagination
of great poets to dramatic expression of the problem
of evil. Three outstanding works of genius should be
noted here, however, briefly: Milton's Paradise Lost,
Byron's drama, Cain, and Goethe's Faust.

Milton's Satan is an archangel fallen and depraved.
The noble qualities of his erstwhile supernal character
are not extinct, but they have been perverted by
misdirection to evil ends and have made his spiritual
downfall the more abysmal. The firm courage, heroic
devotion, and pure loyalty of an archangelic character
have been corrupted into desperate temerity and re-
bellious unyielding arrogance, a resolution indomitably
malign. In Milton's moral philosophy good and evil
are determined by opposite directions of the will:
towards devotion to high ideals which mark the truly
intelligent spirit, or in the downward sweep of lusts
and perverse drives.

The most significant difference between Byron's
Lucifer and Milton's Satan is in the evaluation of their
characters. Byron seems to praise what Milton stigma-
tizes. Satan's rebellious disdain appears in Byron's
Lucifer as indomitable pride; furious violence is ro-
mantically exalted as heroic ardor. Byron's tragedy also
expresses the forthright, though futile, refusal to wor-
ship mere omnipotence. It ends on a note of final moral
chaos, when Cain's revolt against a God who demands
cruel animal sacrifice sweeps him to blind fury in which
he slays his own brother Abel.

The philosophy of life in Goethe's Faust defies any
cursory formulation, but the poet's guiding idea of good
and evil can be recognized clearly. Goethe portrays
man as seeking a finality of achievement and satis-
faction which no experience in life can yield. It is this
sense of eventual frustration which leads Faust to
barter his soul's salvation to the devil for one moment
of supreme and consummate bliss. But the dramatic
career through which Mephistopheles leads him
teaches Faust in the end that the true value of life
is not in the ardor of gratified desires or in any seem-
ingly final achievement, but rather in the creative
pursuit itself, in high endeavor and noble hazard:

Of life and freedom only he's deserving
Who daily must win them anew

(Part II, Act V, Scene vi).

Against this heroic dynamism of Goethe's ideal of the
good we have his portrayal of radical evil in the moral
nihilism of Mephistopheles, who recognizes no degrees
of worth:

Step down here! I could also say: Step up!
'Twere all the same

(Part II, Act I, Scene v).

Within but also beyond the theological demand,
insistent in religions of salvation, to reconcile the evils
and the sinful corruption of creation with the infinite
perfection of the Creator, philosophical thinkers have
sought a basic evaluation of existence. The alternative
appraisals, optimism and pessimism, have been enter-
tained in their literal meaning, to signify views of the
world as the best or the worst possible, but more
generally they have expressed a fundamentally ap-
proving or a condemnatory evaluation. Philosophical
reflection has rarely proceeded to unqualified eulogy
or stark malediction, but the intensity of poetic speech
has not stopped short of either extreme. Examples of
both are not lacking; the following two may suffice.
On the one hand, Pope's firm complacency:

All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.


On the other hand are black pages of utter despair,
as by Giacomo Leopardi:
Nought is worthy
Thine agonies, earth merits not thy sighing.
Mere bitterness and tedium
Is life, nought else; the world is dust and ashes.
... Scorn all, for all is infinitely vain.

The cloudless noon of philosophical optimism was
the early eighteenth century. Its leaders were Leibniz
and Shaftesbury; the latter comes close to unqualified
laudation of all existence. In contrast to them was the
darkening outlook on life which marked later eight-
eenth-century thought and the systematic pessimism
of some nineteenth-century philosophers, Schopen-
hauer and Hartmann, and most desolate of all, Julius

Shaftesbury's optimism led him from the particular
apparent evils and woes of daily life to the universal
system in which they are all transcended as elements
in the cosmic perfection. Evils and woes are like the
shadows that set off the light and beauty of the whole
picture or like the discords which swell the fuller
harmony of the composer's masterpiece.

Leibniz is less rhapsodic but no less assured in his
philosophical theodicy, which he would justify on ra-
tional grounds. He distinguishes three principal kinds
of evil: physical evil, or suffering; moral evil, sin; and
what he calls metaphysical evil, that is, the imperfec-
tion which is inevitable in finite existence. He depreci-
ates the gravity of bodily aches and woes as less com-
mon and severe than grumblers aver, as largely
avoidable or due to intemperance or other vices, to
moral evil. The problem of moral evil involves Leibniz'
theodicy. He cannot regard moral evil as an imperfec-
tion staining the Creator's own activity, and he prefers
to interpret it as due to metaphysical evil, the imper-
fection characteristic of all finite existence. Leibniz'
appeal here is to his principle of the “compossibility”
of God's attributes. God in His omniscience recognizes
what we ourselves must understand, that any created
world would have some imperfection. In His infinite
goodness he has chosen the least imperfect world, and
by his omnipotence he has created it, “the best of all
possible worlds.”

Leibniz' theodicy was judged as precarious in its
theological implications. If our woes and sins are basi-
cally due to our essential imperfections as God's crea-
tures, we cannot complain of the Creator; but can
He then rightly condemn us for being such as He has
created us? Leibniz' reduction of the moral antithesis,
good-evil, to a metaphysical one, infinite-finite, has
been criticized as compromising ethical judgment and
all basic valuation, human or divine. And has Leibniz'
optimistic intention been realized? Voltaire's irony may
be recalled here: “If this is the best of all possible
worlds, what must the others be like?”

The outstanding systematic doctrine of pessimism in
the nineteenth century was Schopenhauer's philosophy.
In sharp opposition to all rationalism, Schopenhauer
regarded nature as reasonless at the core, as a blind
drive or urge or craving which he called the Will-to-
live. It is manifested at every level of existence. In
human life it is active as insatiate desire. All our ex-
perience is a form of craving concerned with attack
or defence; our intelligence is a tool of the Will-to-live;
it is analogous to the dog's keen scent or even to the
snake's venom. In all his greeds and lusts man is ever
wanting, insatiate and ungratified. The distress of un-
satisfied desires may occasionally be allayed by the
pleasure of some fulfilled want, but only to be re-
aroused by a new greed. Thus our life is a continual
round of frustration: selfish, ruthless, wretched, and
futile, a bankrupt enterprise.

Schopenhauer's pessimism is not absolute. He
pointed out two ways of escape from the wretched
tangle of will-driven existence. One of them is in the
disinterested contemplation of aesthetic experience. In
creating or in beholding art, intelligence regards or
reveals things as they are and not as objects of our
desires. This artistic emancipation from selfish craving,
however, is transitory. A more radical denial of the
Will-to-live is achieved in the morality of compassion.
Evil conduct is most usually due to selfishness. Less
common but more wicked is malice, which is not
merely callous to the woes of others but actually gloats
over them. Virtue and good conduct can only be in
the curbing of these vices: in justice which is willing-
ness to bear our own burdens, and in humane loving-
kindness which moves us to relieve the woes of others.
But in this benevolent sympathy the moral saint is led
to recognize the fundamental evil in life, the will-
driven craving itself. So he may proceed to ascetic
negation of all desires and ambitions, to the selfless
extinction of the Will-to-live, Nirvana.

This proposed aesthetic, moral, ascetic deliverance
has been criticized as inconsistent with Schopenhauer's
metaphysics. If the ultimate reality is the Will-to-live,
how is the alleged desireless contemplation possible
in art? If man is by nature a tissue of selfish and ruthless
desires, how can he ever act with genuine compassion?
How can the ultimate Will-to-live be denied, in ascetic
saintliness? Schopenhauer's successors have had to
grapple with the fundamental discrepancy of the two
sides of his pessimism.

In the most distinguished revision of the philosophy
of the Will-to-live, Eduard von Hartmann maintained
that neither the irrationalism of Schopenhauer's meta-


physics nor the rationalism of Hegel explain adequately
the complexity of nature, which is unconscious urge
with the capacity for conscious and intelligent mani-
festation. So in interpreting human nature we should
recognize the tangle of will-driven greeds but also the
positive values attainable by our intelligence: logical,
aesthetic, moral, religious values, genuine and maturing
in our development. Thus Hartmann described himself
as an evolutionary optimist, but the dark pessimistic
tone prevailed in his account of the human quest for
happiness—a deluded and futile misdirection. He dis-
tinguished three stages of Man's Great Illusion. In
classical antiquity men sought happiness in their own
lives on earth. Disenchanted in this vain pursuit, men
turned to the Christian gospel of immortality. The
modern advance of knowledge disabused this baseless
longing for personal happiness after death. Then men
pinned their faith on a new ideal of social progress
and well-being in the future. But the course of history
is once more undeceiving men. We are bound to face
the grim truth; while we may and should promote the
values of civilization, riper intelligence should lead us
to abandon the delusion of attainable happiness, to
recognize the essentially tragic course of human exist-
ence. Hartmann even entertained the ideal—today we
regard it as a constant menace—of man's eventual
universal self-extinction.

Most dreary of all pessimists, Julius Bahnsen rejected
all gospels of deliverance as weak palliatives. He would
not yield to any optimistic concessions and held firmly
to his desolate outlook: there is no way out. Our life,
and nature altogether, are hopeless tangles of self-
rending activities, ruling out any rational direction or
organization. For Bahnsen, Macbeth's dismal soliloquy
closed the entire argument:

Life's but a walking shadow...
... it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

(Act V, Scene 5).

As has been noted in our brief survey of the thought
of classical antiquy, the basic ideas of good and evil
have been expressed in various theories of ethics.
Ethical reflection has tended to concentrate on the
problems of the moral standard and the Highest Good,
and any review of the principal alternative theories
would take us to other articles. But one doctrine of
widespread modern development that should be noted
has given a seemingly plain account of good and evil:
a critical revision of the old Epicurean hedonism.
Reaffirming the reduction of good and evil to pleasure
or happiness and pain or displeasure, modern utilitari-
anism answered the old question, whose pleasure?, by
an altruistic answer: the greatest happiness of the
greatest number. There was disagreement regarding
the other disturbing question, what kind of pleasure
or pain? Jeremy Bentham was concerned with quantita-
tive valuation and proposed a hedonistic calculus of
pleasures and pains as a guide in moral deliberation
and choice. But John Stuart Mill emphasized the im-
portance of distinguishing the quality of pleasures and
pains in evaluating the good and evil in various pro-
posed actions or experiences: “Better to be a Socrates
dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” This radical revision
affected the entire basis of strictly hedonistic valuation,
for as Mill recognized, the qualitative appraisal de-
pended on intelligent judgment.

The issue between optimism and pessimism which
signalizes the fateful importance of the right choice
of values, and thus of the basic role of intelligence in
valuation, leads us to recognize a related and more
general issue which has affected our basic ideas of good
and evil. The history of thought manifests repeatedly
a correlation of optimism with rationalism, and of
pessimism with irrationalism and skepticism. This cor-
relation is not hard to explain. One side of the argu-
ment is expressed in Hegel's magisterial pronounce-
ment, “The Real is the Rational, and the Rational is
the Real.” But doubting Thomases may still press the
decisive question, whether our intelligence does have
this alleged rational capacity to comprehend Reality.
If we recall the first sentence in Aristotle's Metaphysics,
“All men by nature desire to know,” and if we recog-
nize the urge for understanding as man's distinctive
characteristic, then any denial or doubt regarding the
attainability of this fundamental value would signalize
human life as a losing venture. Skepticism exposes the
radical evil of irrational and meaningless existence,
especially when it results in the annihilation of values.
More dismally than any philosophical formulation,
poetic outburst has expressed this “sense more tragic
than defeat and blight,” as in James Thomson's City
of Dreadful Night:

The sense that every struggle brings defeat
Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;
That all the oracles are dumb or cheat
Because they have no secret to express;
That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain
Because there is no light behind the curtain;
That all is vanity and nothingness.

Men's reactions towards this skeptical outlook have
varied. Some minds have recognized our inconclusive
and downright incompetent thinking but have refused
to be tragic about it. Montaigne was explicit but also
genial about his motto, Que sçais-je? (“What do I
know?”). Disavowing any claims to real understanding,
he was content to tread the twilit alleys of human


experience, an aimless pilgrimage but most interesting
withal. Life and the world offer us no ground of reli-
ance, but no reason for fear or complaint either. We
take things as they come, serene in fortuitousness.

Genial skepticism was intolerable to minds commit-
ted to the demand for understanding. So Pascal, while
assured about the valid theorems of the geometric
method, recognized the incapacity of reason to answer
reliably the ultimate questions which most concern us:
about the existence of God, about man's moral career
and final destiny. “When I consider the short span of
my life,... I am dismayed to find myself here rather
than there;... Who has put me here? By whose order
and direction has this place and time been allotted to
me?” (Pensées, No. 205). Pascal admitted this, his basic
incertitude, but he refused to accept it. His attitude
towards his tragic skepticism varied. He sought deliv-
erance from the doubts of the intellect in the insistent
demands of the heart. “The heart has its reasons which
reason does not know at all.” In his tragic perplexity,
confronted with the dual hazards of belief and unbelief,
his will inclined him to wager on the problematical
but infinitely momentous alternatives of faith. But
again, his searching reason would refuse to surrender
its quest: “All our dignity... lies in our thought....
Let us therefore strive to think well: such is the foun-
dation of moral life.”

In our day existentialism has reaffirmed the quanda-
ries of rational intelligence, but in its search for alter-
natives to it has followed different paths. Against all
rationalistic reliance on theology, dogmatic or philo-
sophical, Kierkegaard had emphasized an existential
dialectic, a living truth expressed in the unique reality
of his own spiritual crisis, which he did not merely
know, which possessed him in consecration, in life and
death. He would thus face God in self-penetrating
encounter, and would not merely be doctrinally con-
versant about God.

This surrender of rational proof to the demands of
living conviction has been reaffirmed as repossession
of orthodox verities by the pious fiat of unquestioning
devotion, itself due not to any wisdom or merit of ours
but to the working of God's grace in us. Thus, accord-
ing to Karl Barth, we are raised from the evil vanity
of rational self-reliance to the godly refuge of faith
and consecration.

But the existential dialectic may proceed in an op-
posite direction. Disavowing all faith in God or in any
supreme values as unwarranted, Sartre, starting with
explicit atheism, begins with the primal existential
reality, oneself. I am myself, I am what I choose and
become. That is my freedom and my engagement in
this world of reasonless and unprincipled process. It
is a nauseating bewilderment, but it is also a respon
sibility without contrition. If I am judged, it is by a
court of my own self, of my own continually self-
propelled career. Without any moral corpus juris of
genuinely positive and negative values, good or evil,
we have here only one's own continual self-assertion
and self-attestation, the freedom to which one is always
condemning and entrusting oneself.

The idea of evil has been expressed forcibly in the
counter-appraisals of the historical process: the affir-
mation or the denial of social progress. The cult of
progress has been called the modern man's religion,
or the new superstition. The citing of evidence on the
opposite sides of the controversy has been an assess-
ment of modern ideas of the positive and negative
values of life, good and evil in social perspectives.

The optimist's inventory emphasizes modern tech-
nological improvements in every field of the social
economy. We hear, as it were, modern versions of the
great soliloquy of Prometheus. Past ages were cramped
and crude in their isolation and short-fingered indi-
gence. But modern knowledge, expanded research, and
perfected technical mastery have unlocked boundless
resources in nature for our advantage and well-being.
We have shrunk the barriers of space and time and
achieved instant communication on earth and beyond
earth. The advance in curative and preventive med-
icine has eliminated one burden after another and has
lengthened man's life span. Our public education, al-
ready universal in the West, is radiating its enlighten-
ment and bringing the gifts of trained intelligence to
vast areas of formerly dark ignorance.

Against this technological eulogy of the modern age,
social-historical pessimists have cited our glaring spir-
itual barrenness, the vulgarity and corruption, the
inequity and violence of modern life, the disastrous
turns in our contemporary crisis which threaten not
only the well-being but the very existence of humanity.

The disdain and despair of civilization as a corrupt-
ing process were expressed with romantic fervor two
centuries ago by Jean Jacques Rousseau. He flouted
the cultivation of the arts and sciences as pandering
to the luxury and idle curiosity of the rich, who thrive
on the miserable toil of the masses. The entire social
system, with its governments that sustain exploitation
and oppression, was denounced by Rousseau as a
wicked fraud.

Of more recent memory is Tolstoy's condemnation
of our social system as un-Christian and wicked. Our
civilization does not unite men in true Christian
brotherhood. We exalt self-gratification and self-
aggrandizement. We not only condone sensuality but
pander to it in our art and literature. We profess a
concern for peace but gird ourselves for war and tax
ourselves to build the most destructive armaments. We


not only accept but also support and promote an eco-
nomic system which exploits the masses for the enrich-
ment of the few. This unjust system has entangled us
all, so that even the few of us who aspire to a better
way of life are made willy-nilly participants in mani-
fold social evils. In all this advocacy of a radical social
reform and reconstruction, Tolstoy was appealing to
the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. In his stern
verdict on our civilization he was also criticizing him-
self. His refusal to participate in the evils of our social
system marked the thoroughgoing change in his own
later course of life.

The world crisis in our time has aggravated the
confusion in our social outlook. On all sides we hear
the warnings and the ominous blasts of the prophets
of doom. Two disastrous wars and the postwar piling
up of defensive and offensive armament have poured
out our treasure that, rightly spent, might already have
served to wipe out poverty and revitalize and raise
culture throughout the world. As it is, aggressive
nationalism and racial or religious hostility are vio-
lently ranging nations and social classes against each
other. Ironically, the very advances of knowledge and
technology are aggravating some of our social prob-
lems. The population explosion which menaces us with
global starvation is partly due to the reduction of infant
mortality and the improvement in sanitation achieved
by modern medical science.

Between placid optimism and the pessimistic doom,
the ongoing historical course, from primitive and
barbaric stages to the widening scope of civilization,
has been recognized as an expanding range of the fields
in which human values may be pursued and realized,
or frustrated. Spreading civilization shows how much
higher and higher men can rise, or how much lower
and lower they might sink, each depending on the wise
or misdirected choice of values. Our present nuclear
age sets out these alternatives of good and evil with
crucial momentous clarity. We have split the atom,
but we have not united men in a humane social order.
Our present atomic technology can enable us to
achieve a civilization of unimagined progress, but we
might also blow ourselves to ashes.

The evaluation of the principal versions of the idea
of evil inclines us to a gradational view. Value judg-
ments are seen as forming a hierarchy which consists
of choices which are not on a par but are lower or
higher. In its choice between them, good and evil are
rightly conceived as directional, and at every level of
experience men may contemplate the prospect of a
higher attainment, but also face the hazard of degrada-
tion. In philosophy and literature this idea of the issue
between good and evil has found reasoned or imagina-
tive utterance. Religious meditation has no better ex
pression of this conviction than the passage from Saint
Augustine's City of God cited above, which may well
be recalled here: “When the will abandons the higher,
and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil—not be-
cause that is evil to which it turns, but because the
turning itself is perverse.”


E. M. Caro, le pessimisme au XIXe siècle (Paris, 1876).
Paul Claudel, et al., le mal est parmi nous (Paris, 1948).
Paul Haberlin, Das Böse (Bern, 1960). Eduard von Hart-
mann, The Philosophy of the Unconscious, trans. E. C.
Coupland, new ed. (London, 1931); idem, Zur Geschichte
und Begründung des Pessimismus
(Leipzig, 1891). William
King, An Essay on the Origin of Evil (Cambridge, 1739).
Émile Lasbax, le problème du mal (Paris, 1919). G. W.
Leibniz, la théodicée (1710), in Leibnitii Opera, ed. J. E.
Erdmann (Berlin, 1840). Ernest Naville, le problème du mal
(Geneva, 1868). Plato, Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin
Jowett, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1892). Josiah Royce, Studies in Good
and Evil
(New York, 1898). Arthur Schopenhauer, The World
as Will and Idea,
trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, 6th
ed., 3 vols. (London, 1907); idem, The Basis of Morality,
trans. A. B. Bullock (London, 1903); idem, Studies in Pes-
trans. T. B. Saunders, 4th ed. (London, 1893). A. G.
Sertillanges, le problème du mal, 2 vols. (Paris, 1948-51).
Paul Siwek, The Philosophy of Evil (New York, 1951). James
Sully, Pessimism (London, 1871). Radoslav A. Tsanoff, The
Nature of Evil
(New York, 1931; 1971). R. M. Wenley, Aspects
of Pessimism
(Edinburgh and London, 1894). Charles
Werner, le problème du mal dans la pensée humaine
(Lausanne, 1946).


[See also Buddhism; Demonology; Dualism; Existentialism;
God; Happiness and Pleasure; Hierarchy; Neo-Platonism;
Right and Good; Sin and Salvation; Theodicy; Utilitarian-