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


THERE are many considerations which lend plausibility to the notion that the explanation of the nature and genesis of evil is to be found in the antagonism of flesh and spirit, of the sensuous tendencies and impulses with the higher aims and possibilities of our rational and spiritual nature. It is the strange characteristic of man's nature that it contains in it elements that are not only diverse but discordant, tendencies and capacities which are apparently, not merely heterogeneous but irreconcilable, and which, in point of fact, are in perpetual warfare with each other. On the one hand, he belongs to the kingdom of nature, is composed physically of the same elements and determined by the same laws as the material world, and is a creature of appetites, impulses, and passions which are common to him with the lower animals. On the other hand, he belongs to the realm of spirit, of intelligence, of moral life, the nature and attributes of which—so at least it is plausibly stated—we can only conceive of as absolutely opposed to those of matter and the material world, and even to those of the animal creation. If matter be extended and infinitely divisible, mind can only be thought of as an indivisible unity, incapable of division or disintegration. If matter be passive, subjected in all its states and changes to a law of external causation, it is of the very essence of mind to rise above the realm of outward or physical force, and to be the source of its own thoughts and volitions.

And the same contrariety obtains, it would seem, in man's spiritual, as compared with his sensuous or animal nature. As a particular bodily organism, with its physical form and structure, its sensitive capacities, its impulses and appetites, each human being is simply one individual existence in a world of individual existences, limited in space and time, and though externally related to other objects, incapable of rising above the experiences of its own narrow and bounded life. In his spiritual nature, on the other hand, he is no longer merely one particular individual amongst other individuals, seeing that he has in him that principle of thought or intelligence, for which all things and beings are, which is present to all objects yet identical with none of them, and without relation to which neither he nor any other being has any existence or reality. As a conscious self, in other words, he has in him a principle which is the presupposition and basis of all objective existence. However poor and imperfect a man's actual attainments in knowledge may be, self-consciousness is in him a capacity which no multiplicity of particular experiences can exhaust, and which, as the form of an infinite content, allies him in essence to the creative source of all finite being. As material, he is akin to the lowest member of the animal creation, nay, to the very earth on which he treads. As spiritual, he can claim affinity to God and the things that are unseen and eternal.

And the same contrast, it is asserted, obtains between the objects of the natural desires, and the object or end in which the spiritual nature finds its satisfaction. The former are ever particular and limited, the latter is universal and infinite. As regards the sensuous appetites, the point of satisfaction is soon reached; but the desires of the spirit, the satisfactions of the moral nature, overleap all actual experience. The physical appetites and desires have no outlook beyond immediate gratification or the satisfaction of the moment; in each particular satisfaction they find for the time an adequate and complete fulfilment; and though the craving of appetite may revive, it revives only as another isolated feeling, to receive only an equally limited and isolated satisfaction. But whilst it is possible to satisfy the sensuous desires, it is never possible to satisfy the spiritual self. The spiritual nature is, or contains in it, the silent prophecy of a future which makes satisfaction with the present for ever impossible; it is the presence in us of an ideal to which no actual attainments in knowledge and goodness can ever be adequate.

Lastly, if we may follow the striking antithetic statement of Kant, the corporeal and sensuous is divided from the spiritual nature by the irreconcilable opposition of necessity and freedom. The appetites and impulses of our lower nature are blind and unreflecting tendencies, seeking their ends unconsciously, and under a law of necessity. And though the living organism rises above inorganic matter in so far as it is capable of feelings of pleasure and pain, yet in the purely animal nature such feelings are awakened instinctively, and under external stimulus which it can neither resist nor modify; and the relation between want and satisfaction, desire and fulfilment, is as independent of reflection and volition as the relation of a stone to the force of gravity, or of one chemical element to another with which it combines. The moral and spiritual consciousness, on the other hand, seems to lift us out of the order of nature into a region where blind necessity and external causation have no place. It involves, as its fundamental presupposition, a capacity of self-determination, of original activity independent of outward circumstances, of being authors of our own actions and architects of our own character. It is of its very essence that its aims and ends should not be those to which it is directed blindly and unresistingly, but those which it consciously sets before itself as ideas of its intelligence and determinations of its will. It is far, indeed, from being lawless; its freedom is no unconditioned caprice, but the law to which a rational and moral nature is subject, is one with which its own essence is in absolute affinity; the imperative it is called to obey is part and parcel of its own consciousness, and the most absolute submission to that imperative is identical with perfect freedom.

Such are some of the considerations which have given rise to that theory of evil, which finds its explanation in the relation of the sensuous to the spiritual nature of man. The principle on which it is based seems to be this, that the native tendencies of the higher nature, which are all on the side of good, are repressed, thwarted, overborne, by the antagonistic tendencies of the lower nature, from which, it would seem, there is no escape. If man were pure spirit unfettered by matter and material conditions, the range both of his intellectual and of his moral activity would be practically boundless. It is the presence of a foreign and heterogeneous element that hinders and represses its inherent aims and aspirations, and hangs like a deadweight on its native energies. If its powers of intelligence had never been impeded by the claims of a corporeal and corruptible organization with which it is inseparably united; if the satisfaction of those universal and illimitable capacities by which the spirit is allied to the infinite and eternal, had known no disturbance from the demands of the bodily appetites and passions; then, instead of being dragged down to the region of nature and blind necessity, it would have been left to expatiate for ever in its native realm of freedom; no taint of sensuous desire would ever have sullied its pure affections, no yielding to the inevitable claims of the flesh would have hindered or arrested its progress in goodness and happiness. But it is not so. The moral history of man, instead of being the unbroken expression of his higher nature, is the result, at best wavering and uncertain, of a perpetual strife between heterogeneous and contradictory tendencies. From the loftier aims and aspirations of the spirit he is ever distracted by the gross physical necessities; the law in the members wars against the law in the mind, and the former, if it do not quell, at least limits and represses the influence of the latter. The serene flow of the spiritual life is ever disturbed and harassed, often counteracted, by the degrading force of the lusts of the flesh; and moral excellence, instead of being a natural, uniform, and continuous development, is attainable, if at all, only as the result of a long and protracted struggle.

Moreover, when we examine the nature of the conflict, it is seen to be by no means an equal one. The pleasures of sense are immediate and certain; the satisfaction of the higher nature, distant, and of slow and uncertain attainment. To appreciate the former, nothing is needed beyond the natural appetites and instincts which are common to all. To see and feel the value of the latter, to discern the beauty and blessedness of things spiritual, demands an exercise of the spiritual intelligence, a measure of moral culture which comes only by long effort and self-discipline. Besides, it may be said that, of the two hostile tendencies, the lower and carnal has the immense advantage of prior and long undisputed possession. The order of human life is, first that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual. The life of the child, or of the member of a rude and undeveloped race, is little removed from that of the animal. The sensuous impulses have been long active ere the awakening of self-consciousness comes. The former have acquired the strength of habit, the prescriptive right to rule, before the latter begins to put forth its claims. Thus, even if the moral and spiritual nature had started into life full-armed, a combined and consolidated force of sensuous desires is ready to dispute its authority.

But, as we know, the moral life is by no means complete, or in full possession of its power from the outset. The moral conflict is at first the unequal one in which feeling, inclination, passion, are on the one side, and only unimpassioned deference to authority on the other. There may come a time in the spiritual history of a man when the moral law shall be recognized as the expression of his own deepest nature, when the voice of duty shall be a voice that speaks in him and not merely to him, and when obedience to it shall be obedience, not to the imperative of an arbitrary power constraining him, but to an irresistible influence that is one with his own will. But at the beginning it is not so. At the dawn of the moral life, duty has for us the aspect of a foreign and arbitrary rule. It reveals itself in a dim sense of obligation, a deference we cannot explain to external commands and prohibitions, which run counter to inclination and the current of our spontaneous life. On the one side there is, therefore, the force of passion, the habitual bent of nature and natural desire; on the other, only the loveless law of right, the cold, stern, passionless presence of duty, with as yet no smile upon her face. No wonder then that the issue of the conflict should be, what so often in human experience it is, and that the sensuous passions should prove to be unequally matched against the undeveloped and immature moral nature.

1. In criticising this theory, it is to be remarked in the first place, that if mind and matter, spirit and sense, were so absolutely heterogeneous as it represents, no conflict could ever arise between them. Two physical forces may be opposed to each other and the result will be determined by their relative strength. Two mental or spiritual forces, two scientific or philosophical theories, two desires, passions, moral tendencies, may contend for the mastery over the human mind and will; and the issue will be decided by the relative cogency of argument or the relative intensity of the appeal to individual susceptibility. But no such conflict can arise between things which have no essential relation to each other or which belong, each to a totally different order from the other. The power of a physical agent cannot be counteracted by argument, nor a mental conviction destroyed—though this has too often been tried—by the agency of fire and sword. Magnetic attraction cannot contend with mental alienation, nor can we attempt to overcome mechanical repulsion by love and sympathy.

If, therefore, sense and spirit, body and mind, sensuous appetites and affections and spiritual aims and aspirations, were, as this theory implies, absolutely heterogeneous, no antagonism could ever arise between them, a deteriorating influence exerted by the one on the other would be inconceivable. If it is of the very essence of spiritual and sensuous activities that the one should be self-determined and the other under a law of necessity, if bodily appetites and desires are, by their definition, blind, unconscious tendencies, and spiritual desires have the principle of self-consciousness for their very essence,—it is obvious that betwixt things so disparate, of either of which we can only pronounce that it is what the other is not, no opposition or contention is possible. The spiritual consciousness could no more be affected by bodily appetites than by the force of gravity; it would be as insensible to the lusts of the flesh as to the disintegrating power of the weather. A moral motive could no more be influenced by a sensuous passion than it could be melted by heat or frozen by cold. Only on one condition can there be any talk of a conflict between the higher and lower nature, if, namely, there be a sense in which mind is capable of becoming materialized or matter of becoming spiritualized. On any other supposition human nature would be a merely external and artificial combination of independent and incoherent factors. Soul and body might exist side by side, but they would not constitute a real unity. The sensuous appetites and impulses, when transferred to the nature of man and so brought into mere outward contiguity with the spiritual nature, would still be devoid of moral character. The sensuous and spiritual elements would exist neither in, nor for, each other. The satisfactions proper to both—to the desires of the spirit and the lusts of the flesh—might go on simultaneously or alternately, but in the unlimited activity of the latter there would be no antagonism to the former; the most unbounded sensuous indulgences would be as innocent in the human agent as in the case of the lower animals, in which they are neither good nor evil.

2. But I go on to remark, in the second place, that this theory, though not a perfect solution of the problem, has a deeper basis than that on which it is generally made to rest. Betwixt flesh and spirit, the sensuous and the spiritual in man's nature, there is no such hard and fast division as would preclude both reciprocal relation and opposition, both conflict and harmony. Apart from the general principle that it is thought or intelligence that gives reality, not merely to outward material nature, but also to what is natural in ourselves, to our bodily organization, our sensuous wants, our animal desires and passions; it is further to be considered that the latter are no longer in man what they are in the purely animal and irrational nature. The sensuous appetites and passions acquire a new character when they become constituent elements in the life of a self-conscious, self-determining being. As motives to human action, they lose their purely animal characteristics; they cease to be what they are in the animal—blind impulses acting under a law of physical necessity and pointing to satisfactions which are limited and transient; they have infused into them a new element, or undergo a transforming process, in virtue of which they are raised out of the sphere of nature into that of spirit, and become rivals of the higher desires and aspirations of the spirit on their own ground.

In the first place, they are no longer blind or instinctive. It is, as we have seen, of the very nature of a purely animal impulse that it determines the subject of it unconsciously. Want and satisfaction are connected by a process of which it knows nothing. It is as little aware of the end it seeks, as a projectile of the path it describes or a plant of the ideal to which it grows. But no such blind impulse can ever become a motive to moral action. As entering into the experience of a spiritual nature, the light of self-consciousness is shed upon it, and it becomes aware at once of itself and of the end to which it points. So, again, as motives to human action, the appetites and desires of the animal nature lose the character of physical necessity and are elevated, so to speak, into the realm of freedom. A purely natural impulse determines the subject of it necessarily and unresistingly. Nature acts on and in the animal—if, at least, the animal is to be conceived as a purely irrational being—through its impulses; and its behaviour under the pressure of appetite or desire is as much a natural event as the motion of a stone under the action of gravity or the liquefaction of a metal under the action of heat.

But, in the animal impulse which constitutes a motive of moral action, a wholly new element comes into play. There is interposed here the activity of a permanent, self-determining subject, which distinguishes itself from all its passions and impulses, which can lay an arrest upon or resist those of them which are the most intense and potent, and which, when it yields to any one of them, transforms it into the desire for a good, with which the permanent self, the spiritual essence of the man, has identified itself. Hence the result is not properly described as the satisfaction of an impulse, but rather as the satisfaction of the self through the instrumentality of the impulse.

Lastly, when they become motives to human action, the appetites and desires of the animal nature may be said to lose the limited, bounded, transient character which belongs to them as such, and to become in a sense participants in the universality and infinitude which pertain to the realm of spirit. It is true, indeed, that no particular sensuous satisfactions, nor any number of such satisfactions, can be adequate to, or capable of fulfilling, the boundless capacities of the spiritual nature; and that, even if every animal and sensuous desire were gratified to the utmost, the spirit, the self-conscious self, would yet remain as far from satisfaction as ever. But the possibility of a conflict between flesh and spirit, between the desires of the lower or sensuous nature and the aims and aspirations of reason and conscience, arises from this, that the self-conscious nature reflects, so to speak, a spurious universality and boundlessness on the former, and when it seems to yield to them is only yielding to the fictitious attractiveness, the semblance of its own infinitude, with which it has invested them. An animal impulse, regarded in itself, has no other end than the satisfaction of a natural want; but an animal impulse in a spiritual, self-conscious nature, becomes the means by which that nature seeks to realize itself. And, though man is infinitely more than any particular desire, though no sensuous gratification, nor any repetition of such gratifications, can ever be commensurate with the capacities of the spiritual self; though, in other words, the keenest joys of sense leave the infinite void unfilled; yet, ever-recurring failure does not serve to dissipate the illusion by which we ascribe to sensuous pleasure a capacity to satisfy the soul. The conflict between flesh and spirit, therefore, is not the conflict between an animal and a rational being, or between a purely animal part of our nature and a purely rational and spiritual; it is the far more intense strife between the higher or spiritual nature, and the lower or animal nature armed with a false and spurious spirituality.

If, then, the foregoing considerations lead to the conclusion that the two elements in man's nature, the flesh and the spirit, are by no means so divided and disparate as to preclude the possibility of conflict between them, and enable us to see in some measure what the nature of that conflict is, the question has now to be asked, whether we can find in this conflict and its result, that is, in the predominance of flesh over spirit, in the conquest of the higher or spiritual by the sensuous nature of man, an explanation of the nature and source of sin.

There are, I think, various considerations which seem to show that this theory cannot be regarded as an adequate solution of the problem before us.

1. In the first place, there are many forms of evil, many sins and vices, which have no connection with man's sensuous or animal nature. Such vices as pride, ambition, avarice, or selfishness, envy, malice, hatred, revenge, have no direct affinity with the sensuous impulses, nor can they be said to yield to those who are guilty of them any sensuous satisfaction. Even sensuous pleasures themselves not seldom owe their attraction to something other and deeper than man's animal nature. It is often, for example, not the mere craving for drink that leads to intemperance. To drown care in forgetfulness, to silence the stings of conscience, to quicken the play of imagination, to quell cowardice and create a spurious courage—these are temptations which appeal only to a self-conscious nature, and of which the excitement and gratification of animal appetite form no ingredient, or at best only a subordinate ingredient. They derive their fuel from passions which are of a purely spiritual nature, or which arise out of social relations possible only to intelligent, self-conscious beings; and they act with a fatal, imperious influence on natures for which the sensuous vices have no attraction. Nay, so far from being connected with sensuous indulgence, there are many forms of vice which lead to the renunciation and repression of sensuous tendencies. Avarice will sometimes surpass the self-denial of the pure and temperate, or even the physical macerations of the saint; will quell in a nature, otherwise prone to sensuous pleasure, any temptation to vicious excess, and will maintain through long years a superiority to self-indulgence, as lofty and sustained as that of the man who is governed by rational and moral principle.

2. Again, the inadequacy of the theory which would explain sin by sensuous impulse, will be seen by reflecting that, on its own showing, the seat of sin lies, not in the sensuous impulses, but in the will that yields to them. The flesh could never conquer the spirit, if there were not in the latter something to which it appeals. It is only a superficial view of the moral conflict, which sees in it a struggle between opposite forces of which the stronger necessarily prevails. It is not always the strongest passion which wins the day. In the moral conflict, the issue on the side of right is often achieved where the sensuous susceptibilities are those which are keenest, and are such as, if left to themselves, so to speak, would sweep the field. The will of man, in other words, cannot be represented simply as the prize for the possession of which flesh and spirit contend. We are merely using the language of metaphor when we apply the notion of external force to the phenomena of spirit, and speak of the will as overpowered by sensuous impulse, or of appetite and passion proving too strong for the feebler motives of reason and conscience. To speak thus, is to leave out of account the all-important consideration that the will is never passive between contending impulses, and that it is according as it throws its weight into, or identifies itself with, one or other of the combatants, that the issue is determined.

For the sensuous impulses are but one of the conditions which make a moral choice possible. It is only by a false abstraction that we resolve moral action into motives and volition, or, otherwise expressed, into a faculty called the will and certain motives acting on it from without. In every so-called motive, to make it operative, the will is already present. In the spiritual sphere, it is the moving body that itself creates the energy by which it is moved. The impulse or passion that rules the will is what the will itself makes it. The materials for moral action, the factors which determine the result, are not fully enumerated, when we specify, on the one hand, the moral imperative, the law of right and the recognition or response it calls forth in the reason and conscience, and, on the other hand, the sensuous desires and passions craving for satisfaction. These are but the antecedents or conditions of action; there is yet another all-potent agency on which the issue depends. It is the will, the self-conscious, self-determining self, that which constitutes the inner spirit and essence of the man, which flings its weight into either scale and so decides the result. Men may lay the blame of their sins on their passions, but unless man can become a mere animal, and as irresponsible as an animal, it is not passion, but the will that could have resisted and yet yields, which must bear the blame. In the moral career the animal in us can never take the bit in its mouth, unless the charioteer voluntarily lets go the reins. Thus neither the moral imperative nor the sensuous passions have any moral significance for us, till we take them up into our consciousness and by a supreme act of self-determination identify ourselves with them, make them our own, part and parcel of our very selves.

But if this be so, it is no longer in either the lower or higher nature, or in their conflict with each other, or in the ascendancy of the one over the other, that we can find the explanation of moral action, good or bad, but in the essential character of the will itself. It is there, if anywhere, and not in the predominance of the sensuous over the spiritual nature, that the solution of the problem of evil is to be sought for.

Whether a completely satisfactory explanation of the nature and origin of evil is to be found here, in the nature of the will itself, is a question which in the next lecture I shall try to answer. Meanwhile, let me remark that the practical result to which the theory we have been considering would logically lead is simply asceticism. If sense and sin be identical, if the existence of evil be traceable to the natural desires and passions, then the sure and the only way to the extirpation of evil is to cut out the element of passion by the root, to mortify or expel from our nature those tendencies from which evil takes its rise. Deliver the spirit from the tyranny that represses its native energies, and moral freedom and goodness will be the result.

But, that asceticism furnishes no escape from sin, many considerations might be adduced to show. I will name only these two: first, that the quelling of the natural desires leaves the deeper source of sin still undisturbed, and, secondly, that not only is there no necessary antagonism between the natural desires and the moral and spiritual life, but, on the contrary, that in that life such desires have an important part to play.

As to the former, experience abundantly proves that the extinction or enfeeblement of the sensuous passions is not the extinction of evil. Advancing years, for example, in many instances at least, bring exemption from many of the temptations of the flesh. If sin sprang only from these, the dying out of sensuous passions would be equivalent to emancipation from sin. But who will say that the exhausted voluptuary has become moral? Amidst sights and scenes that formerly stirred the blood and kindled the unhallowed fire of sensuous passion, no pulsation of animal desire may now stir in the veins of the man whose former life was one of unbridled carnal indulgence. But, not to speak of the fact that the suppression of passion on one side of our nature may only send it with concentrated impetuosity into other channels, and the ejection of one evil spirit only make room for seven others more evil than the first; it is to be considered that escape from animal excess is not, in any such case, the sign of moral improvement, but simply of the removal of the means of indulgence. The aged reprobate's comparative purity is of no more worth than the pauperized spendthrift's emancipation from extravagance, or the innocuousness of the beast of prey when its fangs have been drawn. If, again, we take the case of the voluntary ascetic, the man whose temperateness is the result, not of decaying powers, but of self-mortification, though his abstinence is of a better sort than that of the effete voluptuary, it is of the character not of true morality, but, in its essence, of moral cowardice. To fly from the foe we fear is not to conquer him. To overcome temptation by facing it manfully, and, in the strength of a higher and nobler impulse, to defy its power to overcome us, is one thing; but to escape the moral conflict which is the essential condition of virtue, by, so to speak, drugging or poisoning the enemy, is another, and, surely, an ignoble way of deliverance.

And, in the second place, there is this further consideration, that in the moral life what we call the lower, the bodily and sensuous side of our nature, has still an important and indispensable part to play. It is not necessarily antagonistic, but may become, and is intended to become, ministrant to the true activity and life of the spirit. It is a false spiritualism that denies the legitimate use of sense and of those natural tendencies, which are part and parcel of the nature God has given to us. “I beseech you,” writes a Christian apostle, “that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” And again, “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless.” “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost?” Such words as these suggest to us that, though regarded and pursued as an end in itself, sensuous satisfaction is ignoble and vile, yet that the natural desires and tendencies, when subordinated to the higher nature and its ends, may become, not merely innocent, but essential elements in the moral and spiritual life. The bodily nature of man, its organs of sensation, its nervous system, its susceptibilities of pleasure and pain, its appetites and desires, its relations to its material environment, and so on, is in itself neither good nor evil; but, as the instrument and organ of the spirit, it furnishes the materials which, subjected to the transforming power of the higher nature, become the sources of ideas, feelings, volitions, of all that constitutes the substance of our intellectual and moral life.

It is through the channel of sense that our whole knowledge of nature comes, and all scientific knowledge, in one point of view, is only transformed and elaborated sensation. The glory and splendour of the visible creation, again, the whole range of the aesthetic emotions which are awakened in us in communion with nature by “the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the living air”—all that thrills us by its beauty or subdues us by its sublimity and grandeur, is but the working up, in the secret laboratory of mind, of materials which the bodily senses supply. It is through the avenue of sense that the spirit, otherwise shut up in the dark and narrow prison of its unconscious being, escapes from it to become, so to speak, free of the vast realm of space, with its unnumbered suns and stars and systems.

And the same thing is true of our moral life. A will without particular desires and passions to be either gratified or subdued and made subservient to it, would be only the blank form of moral life without any positive content or the means of attaining it. The moral life, though infinitely more and higher than the natural, presupposes relations created by the natural desires, and rising out of them as its material basis. To live a human life at all, is to live a life of natural wants, and of relations which are possible only through the mediation of natural appetites and desires. The family union, through which the individual first realizes himself as capable of a life beyond himself in the life of others, has its external basis in appetites that are in themselves purely physical. But as the artist transforms mere blocks of stone or material pigments into the fair creations of genius; or as the vital energy of the plant transmutes into flower and fruit the grossness and foulness of the soil from which it springs and of the nutriment on which it feeds, so the life of the spirit transforms carnal appetite and passion into the pure affections, the love, tenderness, pity, compassion, the self-devotion, patriotism, philanthropy, that constitute the web and woof of our higher social existence. It is impossible, therefore, to identify sin with sense or to seek escape from it simply by the crushing or excision of sensuous desires and passions. The moral life is not a passionless life. Often the noblest moral natures, the men who have played the greatest part in the drama of human history, its heroes, patriots, philanthropists, reformers, martyrs, have been men of keen and quick natural susceptibilities, men whose very greatness has been due, in part at least, to this, that the element of feeling and passion, the pulse of natural human emotion, beat with intense activity within them. But it was not mere passion that made them great, but rather this—that moral principle, the inherent energy of a will set on higher and nobler ends, curbed the blind impulsiveness of passion, and by using up its impetuous natural force in the service of God and man, not only deprived it of all grossness and sordidness, but spiritualized and ennobled it.