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Lecture IX. Theories as to the Origin and Nature of Evil


THE various theories which have been devised to explain the nature and origin of moral evil are attempts, in different ways, to answer the question, how, consistently with our belief in an infinite or absolutely perfect Being, we can account for the existence of that which we must conceive of as antagonistic to His nature or opposed to His will. If evil be not absolute, if it be not traceable to something independent of the mind and will of God and limiting His perfection, are we compelled to regard it as due to a contradictory element within the divine nature—to a will which wills at once that which is good and that which is evil? Can we conceive of God as absolutely perfect, and yet as the author of that which limits His power, wisdom, and goodness? The inadequacy of most of the theories to solve this apparent contradiction is traceable to the imperfect notions of the relation of God to the world which I have examined in former lectures; and the only adequate solution is that which is based on the Christian doctrine of that relation, or on the idea of God as revealing or manifesting Himself in nature and in the spirit and life of man.

In the first place, what has been called the negative or privative theory of evil is the natural or necessary outgrowth of a Pantheistic view of God's relation to the world. According to this theory the introduction of a contradictory element into the nature of God, or the necessity of making God the author of evil, is met by a virtual evaporation of the existence of evil; in other words, by maintaining that what we call moral evil or sin, when closely examined, has no positive, essential reality; or, according to a modified form of the same theory, that it is involved in, or is only another name for, that imperfection which necessarily pertains to all finite being.

In the second place, it is only another form of the same theory of negation or limitation according to which the source of evil is supposed to lie, not simply in the finite, but more particularly in the sensuous nature of man, or in the conflict which necessarily arises between the flesh and the spirit, the sensuous and the rational elements of man's nature. Embodiment in a corporeal nature is the necessary condition of the individuality of each finite spirit; and, according to this theory, it is not the finite spirit simply as finite, but the relation of the finite spirit to its material or fleshly embodiment, which hinders it from becoming the pure organ of the divine or infinite spirit, and which creates that negative element in man's nature which is the essence of evil.

In the third place, the theory which, with various modifications, attempts to obviate the necessity of ascribing to God the causality of evil by tracing it simply to human freedom, owes its origin to that which we have designated the Deistic or abstractly Monotheistic conception of God's relation to the world. The possibility of sin, it is maintained, is involved in the very idea of moral agency. Virtue or goodness is obedience to an outward moral law or lawgiver; but obedience, to have any moral value, must be that of a being who is capable of disobedience. Sin could only be prevented by such an interference with human freedom as would virtually destroy the nature of man as a moral agent.

Lastly, as, after a brief review of the more important of these theories, I shall attempt to show, the Christian doctrine of sin, in which lies the only adequate explanation of its nature and origin, springs out of that notion of God's relation to the world which, as we have seen, constitutes the fundamental principle of Christianity—the principle, namely, that God is essentially self-revealing, that it is of His very essence to manifest Himself in and to the finite world; in other words, that the finite spirit is the necessary organ of the being and life of God, and that this self-revelation implies in the finite spirit an element of distinction or difference, which contains in it at least the possibility of sin.

The first of the foregoing theories, that which resolves moral evil into negation or privation of being, meets us in the course of speculation, sometimes in a more superficial, sometimes in a more strictly reasoned and philosophical form; and in the latter, if not in the former, it is, as I have said, the necessary outcome of a pantheistic view of God's relation to the world.

1. In its more popular form it attempts to avoid making God the author of evil by identifying moral evil with finitude, or with that imperfection which necessarily pertains to all finite being. It is a contradiction in terms to suppose that the Author of nature could create a world absolutely perfect; in other words, could impart His own infinitude to the finite. The Author of the world is the source of all that is positive or good in it, but He cannot be regarded as responsible for that imperfection or limitation which is the necessary character of any finite world. The cause or author of a being's existence is only the cause of what it is positively, but not of what it lacks or is not. The sculptor gives form and beauty to the marble, but he is not the cause of its lack of life. That the semi-transparent body is partially luminous is due to the source of light; that it is not perfectly luminous, to its own opaqueness. That the vessel in the stream moves at all is to be ascribed to the force of the current; that it moves with limited rapidity, to its own inertia. God is no more the cause of evil than the sun is the cause of darkness and coldness, or the painter or sculptor of the absence of life and motion in the work of art. The amount of good communicated to any being is conditioned, not merely by the will and power of the giver, but by the nature of the receiver.

It is true that, in the case of human givers, the utmost which the giver chooses to bestow may fall far short of the receptivity of the object on which he operates. The benefactor who relieves the wants of the poor is not the cause of their remaining poverty; he is responsible for it only if his resources admit of a less stinted charity. But, in the case of the relation of the divine benefactor to man, it is not the goodness of the former but the nature of the latter that presents an insuperable obstacle to the removal of an imperfection, which is of the very essence of all finite being. God is the source of all the positive good that is in the world; the imperfection and evil are due to the inherent limitation of the finite.

To the theory of negation in the form in which I have now stated it, the objections are so obvious that the only wonder is that it should have imposed on some of the greatest minds in the history of human thought. The most cogent of these objections is, that it destroys the moral view of evil by identifying it with the metaphysical notion of finitude or limitation; and that, even if this notion should be accepted, limitation or imperfection, in order to be evil, must be conceived of as the falling short, not of an unattainable but of an attainable ideal.

(a) The first of these objections—that which turns on the abstract notion of limitation or negation—will be more appropriately dealt with under the second or more strictly philosophical form of the doctrine in question. Here it may be enough to remark that, apart from metaphysical argument, it is an obvious weakening of moral evil to reduce it simply to negation or non-attainment. At most we could embrace under this category only such sins as are traceable to deficiency, sins, that is, of ignorance or infirmity, not sins which involve a positive activity of the will of the agent. Even with respect to the former class, the ignorance or infirmity which is or leads to evil must be, not invincible, but voluntary and avoidable. Natural imperfection, with its necessary results, is no more culpable than bodily disease or mental weakness or aberration. But there is a vast range of evil which cannot be brought under the definition of negation or natural limitation. The greatest number of sins are not those of non-attainment, or falling short of ideal perfection, or even of conscious acquiescence in a lower as compared with a higher possible good; rather they are sins which betray a measure of positive activity, sometimes an intense activity, of will. It would be a ludicrous euphemism to describe such sins as treachery, lying, theft, malice, revenge, murder, as moral defects or shortcomings. Moreover, even in the case of sins which in one sense are purely negative, or which do not betray themselves by positive external action, a silent but most real force of will is often operative. To refuse to listen to the call of duty, to stand still when the claims of affection, patriotism, philanthropy are pressing upon us, and, wherever any personal risk or cost or sacrifice is involved in helping others, to hold back and do nothing—this seemingly negative attitude may sometimes be the result of a fierce inward struggle of the meaner with the nobler nature; or where it is not, it betrays a force of selfishness all the more intense that it acts with the unconscious but imperious activity of a second nature.

(b) But a second objection to the theory in question is, that imperfection, in order to be moral, must be the falling short of an attainable, not of an unattainable or impossible standard. To identify sin with imperfection is the same thing as to confound absolute with relative goodness. The infinite is the only absolutely perfect, but there is nevertheless a perfection which is possible for the finite. For goodness does not consist in the attainment of an absolute standard, but in being adequate to our own; not in the fulfilment of any ideal, but in acting up to the highest we know, and at the same time striving after the knowledge of a higher. Evil, on the other hand, is not a falling short of the absolutely highest, but of the highest we know and are capable of reaching. Each lower order of being is imperfect compared with those which are higher, and all finite beings compared with the infinite; but each has its own ideal type or standard, by the realization or non-realization of which its true perfection or imperfection is determined. It is no defect in the plant that it cannot fly, nor in the irrational animal that it cannot reflect and reason, nor in man that his body is not immortal or his mind omniscient. It may even be said that, within its own sphere, a living progressive being is capable of different perfections, or of a perfection which at every successive moment is passing into imperfection. The germ or bud may be perfect, though it does not possess the perfection of the full-grown flower. Childhood is imperfect as compared with manhood, but it has an ideal of its own, to attain to or fall short of which is its perfection or imperfection. The only perfect man was one who did not leap at once into a full-blown maturity, intellectual or moral any more than physical, but who grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man; yet was He perfect from the beginning: His childhood, boyhood, youth, had each a relative perfectness of its own, and His whole human life that moral and spiritual perfectness which lies, not in the transcending of the limits of the finite, but in the finite spirit becoming the perfect organ of the infinite.

2. The more strictly philosophical and thorough-going form of the theory of negation or privation is, as I have said, that in which it is directly traceable to a pantheistic conception of God's relation to the world. The popular objection to Pantheism is that, by identifying God with the world, it makes God the author of evil. But, as we formerly saw, such an objection is no longer relevant to Pantheism when we examine into its fundamental principle and essence. Pantheism supersedes all inquiry into the authorship of moral evil by reducing it to nonentity. Evil in Itself, it points out, has no positive or affirmative reality; and the reality we ascribe to it is due only to what may be called the illusion of the finite, the fictitious substantiality which, when we look at things only from a partial and individual point of view, imagination ascribes to things that are unreal and insubstantial. As error or falsehood has no positive reality, but is only the irrational, putting on for the moment the guise of rationality, so sin is only the unreal, assuming the semblance of the real. And as, for the mind that grasps the truth, error vanishes away into nothingness, so for an intelligence that could contemplate all things from the point of view of the infinite, or “under the form of eternity,” evil would be seen to be only a phantom that dissolves before the light. According to the well-known dictum of Spinoza, all determination is negation. Figures in space, for example, have no positive, but only a negative, reality. The appearance of reality which belongs to them, is got only by cutting them off by artificial boundaries from the infinite space which is in them and around them. Their very essence is negation, privation, want of being. Break down or obliterate the artificial limits, and they cease to be. Their arbitrary existence passes away into that boundless extension which is the only reality. In like manner, any apparent reality which pertains to finite beings, material or spiritual, is not positive but negative; it expresses, not what they are, but what they are not. It is due to the false abstraction by which we determine or mark off a portion of being from that pure indeterminate Being which is the only absolute reality.

From this point of view we can see how, for a thorough-going Pantheism, the terms good and evil, virtue and vice, have either no meaning at all or a meaning different from that which ordinary thought attaches to them. They gain a meaning only in virtue of the fictitious independence or individuality which imagination ascribes to finite beings. We condemn or approve the actions of ourselves and others, because we ascribe to each individual a self from which these actions spring. But if the notion of an independent finite self is an illusion, if its only being is non-being, then self-denial and selfishness and all the kindred virtues and vices are evaporated with the self to which we ascribe them. We create fictitious standards of human perfection, and judge men according as they fulfil or fall short of them; we regard men as good or evil, better or worse, in view of this arbitrary ideal. But inasmuch as the only perfection is that of the infinite, and no finite being can be nearer the infinite than another, our moral differences are lost in that universal negativity or nothingness which pertains to all finite agents alike.

A theory which thus resolves sin into negation or non-entity may seem scarcely to call for serious refutation. The consideration of it, however, is of indirect value, as a step towards a higher and more tenable solution of the problem. The objections to it are mainly those which, as we have seen, apply to a pantheistic view of God's relation to the world, and which need not now be restated. But there are two of these objections the special application of which to the subject before us may here be pointed out.

In the first place, if we look for a moment to the abstract antithesis of affirmation and negation, it is to be considered that negation is not resolvable simply into non-entity or nothingness. In the intelligible world, negation forms as essential an element as affirmation, and each of the ideas so designated is unthinkable apart from the other. An element of negation enters into all reality, even the highest. An infinite which is pure affirmation without negation, and a finite which is pure negation without affirmation, are equally impossible conceptions. You cannot think or form an idea of anything without distinguishing or determining what it is from what it is not; you cannot pronounce of it what it is not, apart from the conception of what it is. In the system of the universe all realities, from the lowest to the highest, involve the presence of both elements, and there is no reality which can be conceived of as a simply positive, self-identical unity. Reality is always unity in difference.

Moreover, as objects rise in the scale of being, the element of negation becomes more intense; and so far from the highest of all beings, the infinite unity, being that in which the element of negation vanishes, it is rather to be thought of as that in which all possible determinations or negations are embraced. In other words, elevation of nature is marked, not by an approximation to, but by a further distance from, pure indeterminate being. In inorganic material substances, for example, negation has a function as essential as affirmation. No material substance is a simple undifferentiated unity. In the stone that lies seemingly moveless and self-identical, there are present intense oppositions of attraction and repulsion, force and resistance; and its very immobility is the result of the equipoise of affirmations and negations, of activities straining against and counteracting each other.

If we add to this the element of motion, as in the projectile, the falling stone, the revolving planet, the new element is the expression in a deeper way of the presence and inseparable unity of positive and negative, of affirmation and negation. For, if we ask ourselves what the conception of motion involves,—in the first place, we cannot conceive of it without including in our thought the negation of rest, and if we try to think of either motion or rest by itself, it inevitably becomes indistinguishable from the other, or ceases to be thinkable. And, in the second place, motion, uniform or accelerated, can only be conceived of as the unity of that which ‘is’ and that which ‘is not.’ It is, but for no infinitesimal fraction of time can we say of it, ‘it is here and not there.’ Hereness and thereness are incessantly passing out of and into each other, and position is subjected at every passing moment to the dominion of negation.

If, again, we rise to organic substances, the element of negation has a still higher and more comprehensive rôle to perform. In the plant or the animal body there is at once the affirmation and negation of the mere mechanical and chemical relations of the inorganic world. The laws of the inorganic world are not annihilated in the living substance; their activity is only negated in the sense of being taken up into the higher activity or affirmation of organization and life. Moreover, within the living body, each individual member or organ includes in it as the very condition of its existence, at once affirmation and negation. You cannot determine it save with reference to its limits and relations. It is not a mere self-identical thing existing in and for itself; it exists through what is not itself or other than itself, namely, the other members which in one sense are outside of it; and its health, its vitality, its essential nature, is maintained only in negating its mere isolated being, and in entering into action and reaction with the other members of the organic whole or unity which embraces all their differences.

Further, the ideal nature of the organism is not immediate, but is reached by a process of growth or development; and development is not the addition of the same to the same, but involves perpetual negation of sameness, negation solved at each successive stage in a higher and richer affirmation; and its final perfection is the annulling of all the prior stages and their reaffirmation, absorbed and transformed, in the unity of the completely developed whole.

It is, however, when we rise into the region of intelligence or self-consciousness, that we reach the highest opposition of affirmation and negation. The element of negativity, so far from being reducible to mere nothingness, constitutes an essential factor of the spiritual life, and manifests itself therein in its intensest form. The realm of knowledge and moral action is one the very existence of which is maintained by the perpetual play and reconciliation of antagonisms; and its unity is the highest of all unities, just because it is the solution of the profoundest of all oppositions or distinctions. For into the very essence of a self-conscious nature there enters the supreme opposition of self and not-self, of the thinking subject and the object thought of; and the whole life of spirit, theoretical and practical, has for its secret spring and nerve the perpetual positing of this opposition and its perpetual transcendence. Remove either of these elements, and the other becomes a meaningless, unthinkable abstraction.

Lastly, it is the same principle which applies to that distinction of finite and infinite, which Pantheism, in resolving the former into the latter, misinterprets. We cannot conceive of the infinite as the purely indeterminate; for that which has no determinations is indistinguishable from nonentity. It is not the finite only which becomes nothing, when absolutely opposed to the infinite, but the infinite also, when absolutely opposed to the finite. The infinite which we reach by abstracting from the finite, becomes itself only an abstraction. It is true that, even as an abstraction, it is necessarily, if only negatively, related to that from which we abstract. But if we retain and try to think it in the region of abstraction, the effort becomes an impossible one. For a bare self-identical infinite is an infinite of which nothing can be said and nothing thought; which we cannot think of as either living or lifeless, intelligent or unintelligent, good or evil; for to think it would be to qualify or determine it, that is, to reduce it from pure indeterminateness. To make it a possible object of thought, it must qualify or determine itself, it must relate itself to that which is other than itself; in other words, it must be an infinite which contains in its own essence the element of the finite. On the other hand, a finite to which the infinite relates itself, cannot be the mere negation of the infinite. As we have already seen, a nature that is conscious of its own finitude shows thereby that it has already transcended its finitude, that it is not merely negatively but positively related to that which is beyond the finite. The discovery of the vanity, evanescence, and unreality of our life apart from God, is the discovery at the same time that our true and real life is in God. Conscious negativity is something more than nothingness. The negation that belongs to the finite is only a step in the process by which we rise to the affirmation of a higher unity, the essential unity of the human spirit with the divine.

This leads me to the second objection to the negative or privative theory, namely, that it depletes the notion of sin of any moral and spiritual element. It leaves unexplained, in the moral sphere, the consciousness of guilt, in the religious sphere, the sense of estrangement from God. If evil be that which ought not to be, it is impossible to identify it with finitude or limitation of being. A merely quantitative finite has no other meaning than that of being the contradictory of the infinite; that such a finite should not fall short of or should cease to be opposed to the infinite, would be a contradiction in terms. The notion of moral evil or sin implies, as we have seen, that it is the falling short of an attainable standard, the non-realization of the ideal of one's nature; and to bring the negation of the infinite under this notion, there must be a sense in which the infinite is not the contradiction, but the truth of the finite, the object or end in which alone man's nature can be perfectly realized. And this again implies that a nature for which sin is possible must be one which, in being opposed to the infinite, is in contradiction with itself, in a state of inward disharmony or conflict. Opposition to a merely external power or will is not necessarily evil, and can only become evil when the external authority is one which we ought to obey, obligation to which is recognized as the law of our nature, obedience to which is, in one sense, obedience to ourselves, disobedience to which is disobedience to ourselves. The discord, therefore, in which sin consists must be the discord of an infinite with a finite element, both of which are in our own nature; and the solution of that discord implies that there is a sense in which the finite is no longer the contradictory of the infinite, in which the seemingly impassable barrier between them can be broken down, and the finite can rise into participation in the very life and being of the infinite.

Now, if we ask what this infinite and what this finite element in man's nature is, and how we are to conceive of the conflict between them out of which sin arises—the answers to these questions will carry us beyond the theory of negation or privation, and compel us to examine some of the other theories that have been propounded as to the nature and source of evil.

Meantime, let me say that it is only by viewing man's nature as a nature in which an essentially infinite element is contained, that the direst aspect of moral evil and of the results it involves can be discerned. A life lived only for the finite, for the attainment of finite ends and the satisfaction of finite desires, would be innocent and harmless, if man's nature were wholly finite. What makes such a life evil, is to be seen only when we consider it in the light of its inherent capabilities, and of the self-contradiction it involves; or, in simpler language, when we think of the wasted powers and misdirected aims, the ruin and wretchedness of a nature made for God, when it squanders itself on shallow and finite satisfactions. Nor, in order to see the full meaning of this thought, is it enough simply to contrast, as picturesque writers have often done, the original greatness of man's nature with the degradation and ruin into which it has fallen through sin. Pascal and the Puritan writer, Howe, for instance, have employed such analogies as that of a “ruined temple” or a “dethroned monarch” to lend force to the representation of the misery of man's fallen state. The pity we feel for fallen greatness, for the abject poverty of the man who has seen better days, for the squalor and indigence of one who once revelled in princely affluence, is of another and deeper kind than is awakened by the condition of the born beggar. The sight of an edifice originally mean and unlovely does not affect us with the same mournful impression as when we visit the scene over which war and destructive violence have passed, and stand in contemplation of the ruin of some fair palace or stately temple—of the scathed and shattered columns, the broken arches, the half-buried fragments of exquisite tracery, the indications of the vast extent and architectural splendour that pertained to the original structure, but which are now only faintly traceable amidst dust and foulness. So, as these writers would represent to us, it is when we discern in man's ruined nature the indications of an infinitely exalted origin and destiny that we have the true measure of sin's destructive power.

But these and similar pictorial analogies fall short of the reality they would depict in this respect, that the contrast they present is only that of the past with the present condition of man's nature, of a greatness in it that is gone, with its existing meanness and degradation. But the true contrast is rather between a greatness and a meanness which are, both alike, present in every sinful soul; in other words, between an inalienable and indestructible infinitude, which is the true ideal and essence of man's nature, and the base and inadequate ends on which it wastes itself. In a life of purely sensuous or worldly enjoyment, considered simply in itself, there is nothing wrong or deplorable. To find our satisfaction in the pleasures of appetite and sense would be a harmless thing, if we were made for nothing better. If there were in the structure of our being nothing of larger and wider range than the things of time and sense, our satisfaction in these things would be as innocent and as little productive of shame and misery as the contentment of browsing cattle or the satiated appetite of a beast of prey. But it is the fact that in a spiritual nature made in the image of God there is an infinite element which, without its ceasing to be spiritual, can never be obliterated or extinguished—capacities of knowledge, love, aspiration, self-sacrifice, of a life devoted to infinite ends, of a blessedness in communion with God which is as inexhaustible as its object,—it is this which lends its specially appalling aspect to an evil life, and which is the secret of its inherent wretchedness. For every such life involves in its aims an essential impossibility—the impossibility of making finite satisfactions adequate to infinite desires, of quenching boundless capacities and aspirations by things that are not commensurate with even this passing life, of satiating an infinite hunger by feeding on the husks which can appease only the appetites of an animal. And, let me add, it is this which throws light on the true meaning of what we call shame, remorse, the pain and anguish of an awakened conscience. Even in natures in which on the whole there is little moral sensibility, the unconsciousness of guilt is never absolute. It may be dulled or deadened by evil habit; but unless man could cease to be man, it is there, inextricably involved in the very essence of his nature, and by no suicidal act can it ever be extinguished. Even in the soul of the lowest slave of appetite there is enough of the divine image left to make it capable of avenging its injuries on itself. There are almost always moments of reaction in the most godless and degraded life, when what we call the voice of conscience speaks out, and the man is made to wince under that worst of all tortures, self-loathing and self-contempt And if we ask what this means, what is the secret of those flashes of remorse and self-disgust, those visitations, however transient, of moral perturbation and foreboding, from which few or no sinful men can wholly escape; I answer, they are the voice of the unextinguished divinity within us, the witness, it may be the last and only witness, to the greatness of a nature made for God. A nature not so made would be incapable of such wretchedness: and that our nature is capable of it is the proof that, though it may cast off every other vestige of its divine origin, it retains at least this one terrible prerogative of it, the capacity of preying on itself.