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


IN asserting that the ultimate source of moral action, whether good or evil, is to be sought for in the will itself, do we not expose ourselves to all the objections that have been urged against “indeterminism,” or that “freedom of indifference” which plays so large a part in ethical controversy? When we speak of the will as having an inherent independence of outward conditions, and a power of identifying itself with any one of the contending desires which solicit it, is not this to ascribe to it precisely that capacity of unmotived action which is meant by the phrase “liberty of indifference,” the untenableness of which has been already pointed out? The main objection to any such freedom is, that in attempting to account for moral action it makes moral action impossible, that it destroys responsibility in seeking to defend it.

Absolute freedom, indeed, it is maintained by its advocates, is the necessary condition of responsibility. If there be any influences, outward or inward, which determine the will independently of its own free activity, then for such action we are not accountable; neither merit nor demerit can be ascribed to it, it has no moral character whatever. To give it that character, the will must possess as its inherent prerogative an absolutely unbiassed power, in the presence of all solicitations, good or evil, of deciding between them and determining its own action. But the obvious answer of those who reject any such indeterminate freedom is, that from a will that is by its inherent nature in absolute equilibrium between good and evil, no action, or only action which is a matter of pure accident, could emanate.

To render the decision of a judge or umpire of any value, he must, indeed, start from a position of absolute impartiality or freedom from outward influence, but not from a position of impartiality to reason and justice. In all cases his decision will involve an act of will, but not of purely formal or empty will. If he be a good judge, it will be the expression of a will imbued with a predisposition to truth and reason, and which, therefore, is intensely biassed towards the claims of the litigant who has truth and reason on his side. If he be a corrupt judge, he will be predisposed to determine in favour of the side with which his own interest is implicated. In neither case can his decision emanate from a will that is free, in the sense of being without character or content. If it were, if the mind of a judge were so constituted as to be absolutely indifferent to argument and appeal, and to retain in it a capacity of deciding for no reason but that he chose or willed so to decide, then the decision would be simply meaningless and irrational; it would be the expression neither of wisdom nor unwisdom, of probity or improbity, but simply of chance or accident. For a mind so constructed any laborious leading and sifting of evidence would be superfluous, and the case might with equal propriety be decided by a throw of the dice.

In like manner, in moral action, absolute liberty of indifference, as it has been called, so far from accounting for good or evil, would be equivalent to absolute irresponsibility. The moral value of any action or course of action depends on the character of the mind and will from which it proceeds, and if that be absolutely characterless and contentless, equally characterless, equally devoid of significance, must be its activity. To base moral accountability on such a freedom is, as has been said, to make a man accountable for his actions simply because neither he nor anybody else can account for them. On the other hand, what gives to actions their moral character is the moral character of the will that expresses itself in them. The will of a man is nothing else than the self of a man or the man himself; and so far from being in any case absolutely colourless and indeterminate, it is that of which his whole life is the outcome. He is, therefore, free or self-determined, simply because his life and actions are the expression or realization of himself.

What light do these considerations throw on the problem before us? If it is not in the predominance of the sensuous desires over the will, but in the will itself, that the source or seat of sin is to be found, can we discern in the nature of the will anything to explain what sin is and how it arises in the moral history of man?

The answer to this question, stated very generally, is this, that in a spiritual self-conscious being, the will is the capacity of realizing the true ideal or end of his nature; and that the good will is that which finds its satisfaction in seeking this end, the bad will that which finds its satisfaction in lower ends; in briefer terms, that goodness is true, badness false or perverted, self-realization. Or we might, from a different point of view, express the same thing by saying that, for a being made in the image of God, sin is selfishness, goodness self-realization through absolute self-surrender to God. But to make this account of the matter intelligible, there are several points which require special consideration.

1. In representing self-realization as the supreme end of life, do we not seem to be reducing goodness to a kind of selfishness? Do we not run counter to all the arguments for what is termed the “disinterested” nature of virtue, and to the universal instinct which makes, not self-seeking but self-sacrifice the highest kind of goodness, and sees in the self-devotion of the hero, the self-abnegation of the saint or martyr, that which is worthiest of honour and admiration? Moreover, do we not, in making self-realization the aim of action, contradict what has become a moral commonplace—that the self-seeker frustrates his own efforts, and that the purest happiness, as well as the highest nobility of nature, is to be attained only by forgetting ourselves and our own interests in devotion to some worthy object or end?

The answer to this objection lies in the distinction between self-realization and selfishness. Rightly viewed these two things are not only different, but diametrically opposed, to each other. It is from overlooking this distinction that a certain school of moralists have maintained the doctrine of universal selfishness. They rest this doctrine on the obvious truism that in every human action the agent does what it pleases him to do. That we choose or will to do a thing, is only another way of saying that we like to do it, or that, all things considered, it is the thing most agreeable to us. No doubt we do many things which are painful and disagreeable, and which therefore involve self-denial; but in every such case the fact that we actually perform the painful act implies that, notwithstanding the pain, we find satisfaction in doing it, and that this satisfaction is more potent than the pain. A nauseous potion cannot be otherwise than unpleasant, but the satisfaction of doing what contributes to health is greater than the dissatisfaction of doing what is physically repulsive. Toil and suffering, undertaken for those whom we love, are not, and cannot be, in themselves pleasurable; but the pleasure of gratified affection overcomes and absorbs the pain of self-denial. The hard, joyless life of the philanthropist, the self-mortification of the devotee, the sacrifices of the hero, patriot, martyr, even if they do not go so far as the supreme sacrifice of life itself, cannot in themselves be other than painful to flesh and blood; but here, again, there is a pleasure which transcends pain, a final, overlapping satisfaction, the intensity of which is measured, but not annulled, by the suffering through which it is won. If, however, an element of pleasure enter essentially into all human motives, and if even self-sacrifice be only a covert self-enjoyment, it is maintained that the doctrine of universal selfishness is incontrovertibly established.

But, as I have said, the plausibility of this argument arises from overlooking the distinction between self-realization and selfishness. It is possible to make our own pleasure the end of our actions, but we are not necessarily seeking our own pleasure because we seek what pleases us. Pleasure comes with satisfied desire, but there must be an object desired before there can be any pleasure in obtaining it. There must be something in the very essence of our nature which fulfils itself in the desired object, and which shows itself in the pleasure that follows that fulfilment. The pleasure of eating does not create hunger, and could not exist if the hunger were not first there to be satisfied. There is pleasure in gratified affection, but we must love first before we can experience the joy of loving; there must be that in our nature which calls forth or fulfils itself in loving acts, before and in order that the pleasure of gratified affection may be felt; and it is not the pleasure that is our motive in loving, but the love itself. In other words, there must be something in fulfilled love which is for us an ideal end, in and for itself; and it is this, and not the ulterior pleasure which it brings, that is the motive of our action.

Thus in pure love and the actions to which it prompts, there is self-realization, but there is no taint of selfishness. And, in general, it is to be remarked that the pleasure or satisfaction which attends our actions, so far from reducing all actions alike to the common category of selfishness, is just that which gives to good, as distinguished from bad, actions their characteristic quality. We might even say, without incurring much suspicion of paradox, that to be pleased in doing evil is that which makes it evil, to be pleased in doing good that which makes it good. No purer philanthropy can be conceived than the identification of our own happiness with the good of others, no deeper malignity than the identification of our own happiness with their suffering or degradation. If the pleasure we feel in doing good made our acts selfish, then what would make them unselfish would be to take no pleasure, or even to be pained, in doing good.

Further, the reference to self, the self-satisfaction on which the theory of universal selfishness is based, is simply that which makes any act the act of a rational or self-conscious being—which makes it possible to say, this act is my act. Without the “my,” and that which it involves, the basest or noblest act swims in the air, or sinks into the blind instinctive act of an animal. In every good or bad feeling or action, there must be a consciousness of self, as well as of the object aimed at. It is because the subject realizes or himself fulfils therein, that the act, in either case, becomes that of an intelligent and responsible agent. What is common to both acts is self-realization; what constitutes the difference of the two is the kind of acts by which the agent seeks to realize himself; or rather, as we shall immediately see, in the one kind there is true, in the other only spurious, self-realization; in other words, in the good act it is the true, in the bad the false, self that is realized.

2. If, then, there is a sense in which self-realization is common to all kinds of human action, how, the question now arises, can we make self-realization the peculiar characteristic of good actions as distinguished from evil? The answer is involved in what was said in a former lecture on the nature of man, as that of a being made in the image of God. It is the universal, and not the merely individual self, that we must seek to realize. Not, indeed, that all acts directed toward the welfare and happiness of the individual, as such, are to be condemned as selfish. If the supreme motive be right, then the self-development and self-culture, intellectual and even physical, which makes the individual a better and more effective instrument for the accomplishment of that end, is not only innocent, but partakes of the nobleness of the end to which it points. It is quite true that the feeblest intelligence, the lowliest and most insignificant work, the unambitious career of the poorest day-labourer or domestic drudge, may be dignified and ennobled by the spirit of love and duty which governs it. “Who sweeps a room as for God's law, makes that and the action fine.” But it is also true that, other things being equal, vigorous bodily health, a cultured intelligence, a mind stored with rich and varied knowledge, the trained and disciplined powers of the statesman, the genius of the poet or artist or orator,—all these things make men capable of rendering larger services to society, and of laying more splendid sacrifices on the altar of religion. If it were possible for a man to reach the ideal perfection of his physical and intellectual nature, so that no member or organ of the body, no activity of the mind should be left undeveloped, but each in its own order should be disciplined, informed, cultured to its maximum of power, and all should be combined to produce the result of a richly dowered, symmetrically formed, beautiful individuality—who can doubt that such a man would have in him the greatest capacities of service for God and man; and who can hesitate to say that such self-culture, instead of being selfish, is the highest duty of every human soul?

But if we ask, in general, what is that kind of self-realization which is the characteristic of good actions as distinguished from bad, the answer is, as I have said, that the true self of man—that self, the realization of which constitutes the ideal perfection of his nature—is not the private, particular self of this or that individual, but the universal, and in a sense infinite self, which is implied in the phrase “made in the image of God.” It is, indeed, only by a false abstraction that we can ascribe any reality to the former apart from the latter. To be absolutely selfish, shut up in any particular isolated individuality, is, strictly speaking, an impossibility. Good or bad, the individual cannot help breaking down the limit that would shut him up from all other beings, as an isolated atom in God's universe. The life of society flows into us and becomes a part of us whether we will or no. Eliminate all in a man's nature that involves relationship to nature and society, all the feelings, ideas, experiences, which come to the birth through the social medium wherein he is embedded, and the result would be, not a human being, but a maimed and lifeless abstraction. But the real universality of our nature is not that which forces itself upon us, and, whether we will or no, breaks down the barrier between the private, empirical self and the world. Our social relations are part of our consciousness of ourselves. The self-conscious subject can realize itself only by emerging from its separate life, and surrendering itself to that which it has only in unity with others, in identification of itself with the larger, other life of the spiritual world around us—the life of the family, the community, the nation, the race, and finally with that infinite life which is ever revealing and realizing itself in the world as a whole. Love, patriotism, philanthropy, religion, are terms which, in condensed form, express the capacity in man of passing out of the narrow limits of the individual self, of realizing himself in an ever-expanding objective world which is his other and larger self, till the process culminates in the identification of thought, feeling, volition, action, of our very soul and being, with the thought and life of Him, of whom all other life is only the partial and imperfect manifestation.

It is not, indeed, implied in what has now been said—it would, indeed, be a contradiction in terms to suppose—that self-realization, so defined, involves the swamping of the individual, personal self in the organic life of the world, or in the life of the Infinite. Such absorption would be, not self-realization, but self-extinction. As has been already pointed out, in saying that your life is my life, the “my” remains, and can never without self-contradiction be obliterated. The other, in and for whom I live, is not simply another, but my other, the other or objective self in which I find myself, or which reveals myself to me. It is still I, who become richer, fuller of life by all I give away. The life I give returns upon itself in a life “more abundant,” and that is deepened and intensified in proportion to the largeness of the circle of objects it embraces. And if we say that religion is the absolute surrender of the soul to God, the surrender derives its meaning and value from this, that it is a conscious self-surrender—that it is not the meaningless rapture of the mystic striving after an impossible self-annihilation, but the “joy in God” of the spirit which, in the inmost depths of its being, thrills with the consciousness of unimpeded union with the life of the Infinite. Of this self-realization the nearest, though still only imperfect, type, is that so often referred to in the New Testament, the relation of the member of a living organism to the other members and to the whole. For, whilst the member of the living body realizes itself, has its perfection, not in any isolated individuality, but in absolute surrender to the well-being of the other members, in the maintenance of a perpetual process of giving and receiving, and in the common and continuous contribution of each and all to the life and growth of the organic whole; yet each member has, and retains to the last, an individuality which, though indivisible, is yet not indistinguishable from the rest. Only in this is the type an inadequate or merely approximate one, that in that vast living organism in which finite souls are one with each other and with God, there is present an element which is lacking to all natural organisms, in virtue of which every member knows and wills itself and its relation to the rest, and is a conscious participant in the universal life to which all the members, each in its own place and function, contribute.

3. What, then, is the bearing of these considerations on the problem before us—the nature of moral evil or sin? It is obviously only in the light of the true ideal of any nature, that we can find the explanation of that which contradicts or frustrates it. It is not therefore simply in the satisfaction of the natural impulses and passions that the explanation of sin is to be found; for if man were a creature of mere impulse, his actions would be as irresponsible, and the satisfaction of his impulses as innocent or devoid of moral significance, as they are in the lower animals. But in the lowest degradation to which a spiritual nature can descend, that which we have called his essential infinitude still remains; and it is its presence, with all its boundless potentialities, that gives the character of evil to a life spent in the satisfaction of merely natural propensities. It is not in the satisfaction of natural desires, but in the fact that it is an infinite nature that is seeking satisfaction in them, that the essence of sin lies.

The question, therefore, on which the moral character of a self-conscious being turns, is not whether the infinite, inalienable element in him shall seek satisfaction, for it can never in one sense cease to do so; but whether it shall seek satisfaction in objects that are commensurate with it—in the universal ends, which we express by such phrases as the good of mankind and the glory of God, or in a life of purely self-centred enjoyment. The moral choice does not lie between the satisfaction of the higher and the satisfaction of the lower nature; for in all actions, whether good or bad, the higher nature is present and operative; but what lends to every vicious and sinful act, or to an immoral and evil life, its distinctive character, is that the whole force of the higher or universal nature is diverted from its proper end to objects that are inadequate to it, objects in which it can never find satisfaction. The desires of the animal and sensuous nature are in themselves innocent; and even the more ideal desires which, though not sensuous, are purely selfish—if they could be conceived to exist apart from self-consciousness—would deserve no moral condemnation. But the misery and shame they involve lie in the fact that it is the higher nature, with all its boundless capabilities, that is striving to satisfy itself in them, and clothing their objects with an illusory worth and magnitude. To feed on the husks of sensuous and selfish pleasure is not evil for the mere animal, but it is evil, it is self-degradation for man, because it is the infinite hunger of a spirit that he is attempting to satisfy with them. And, let me add, we have here, too, the explanation of that disproportionate intensity which often characterizes the selfish vices. We may moralize, for instance, on the folly of ambition, on the illusoriness of that quenchless love of power which to the very verge of the grave will sometimes glow with an exhaustless ardour for new worlds to conquer, in the breast of the man who is soon and inevitably to quit the scene of all his triumphs. The solution is, that it is the very grandeur of a noble nature, its capacity for an infinite satisfaction and blessedness, that reveals itself in the misdirected, ruinous, inextinguishable intensity of the love of earthly greatness.1

On the other hand, our conception of the nature of sin would be incomplete, if we did not view it as involving a wrong done to the lower, as well as to the higher nature of man. For whilst it is the dishonour and degradation of the spirit to seek satisfaction in the flesh, it is equally the dishonour of the flesh to become, not the organ, but the end of the spirit. In the practical, as in the intellectual life, it is, as we saw in the last lecture, the glory of nature to become the organ of spirit. The sensitive nature fulfils its true and proper function when, in the process of knowledge, the organs of sense become the media, through which the raw material of sensations and impressions are subjected to the transforming touch of intelligence, and are wrought up into perceptions, ideas, and the ordered unity of thought; or again, when, in the sphere of imagination, sensations of light and sound and touch are transmuted into the rhythmical harmonies of music and the beautiful forms of art.

So, in like manner, the natural desires and impulses fulfil their proper function, when they cease merely to minister to pleasurable feeling and become transformed into the organs of spirit, the means by which the self-conscious, self-determining spirit seeks its own higher satisfaction, puts the stamp of its own activity on the outward world, and reaches forward to the fulfilment of its own universal ends. The natural desires are potentially spiritual, implicitly related, as ministers and agents, to ends that are beyond themselves; and, therefore, when they are perverted from means into ends, when the universal nature tries to extract an impossible satisfaction out of them, a function is imposed upon them for which they are altogether inadequate. A false strain, so to speak, is put upon them, which is destructive of their healthy action, and which shows itself sooner or later in exhaustion and arrested activity. Not only by physical disease, but by the drying up of the pleasures of sense and the deadening of the desires from which an impossible satisfaction is sought to be extracted, it is proved that a life of sensuous indulgence involves, not merely the degradation of the spirit, but the disorder and destruction of the organs by which it operates. So, in general, the man who makes the satisfaction of his individual self his sole end and aim, wrongs not only his higher nature, but that very individual nature which he seeks to satisfy. For here, as in all organic life, the individual member or organ has no independent or exclusive life, and the attempt to attain to it is fatal to itself. In the social organism, the individual who makes himself his own end, who runs his whole energies into the satisfaction of his own exclusive pleasures and interests, is his own worst enemy. He starves his individual nature of all that wealth of thought, feeling, energy, enjoyment, which would flow into it from its social relations and the fulfilment of its social duties. In estrangement from the progressive life of society and from that infinite life which is realizing itself therein, the nature of the individual becomes dwarfed and dwindled. For, as we have often seen, it is the irrevocable law of our being that we must die to self in order truly to gain ourselves. Only in the absolute surrender of ourselves and our private and particular interests, in devotion to duty and to God, do we find the fulfilment of the true nature and life of our individual selves. For so surrendered, the individual self is not lost or annihilated, nor is one capacity of its being extinguished, but its natural powers and activities, each and all, come back upon it quickened, enriched, expanded by the spiritual principle that controls and transforms them.

  • 1.

    Cf. University Sermons, p. 58 seq.