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Chapter XI: Good and Evil

In this last lecture, rather than attempt to show in outline the application of the ideas we have reached to a number of different questions connected with religion, I have thought it best to develop them by reference to a single one—the problem of good and evil, and especially the latter. Naturally it is only certain aspects of the subject that can be dealt with in an hour, and it would be absurd to attempt even a sketch of the whole problem.

It has a bad reputation, and is often spoken of as though it were in some special sense or degree mysterious and insoluble. But, on the view we have been taking, it seems to be insoluble only as every problem is so in the end. Problems about parts of the whole may be called soluble, but they are so only because we take these parts in artificial abstraction. We say, in effect ‘We will consider A and B only up to a certain point, or in certain relations. They have other relations, but we will ignore these, because for our particular limited purpose it is not necessary to consider them.’ So doing, we can arrive at results about A and B which will hold good within the sphere we have isolated from the rest of the whole. And this we may call the solution of problems as to A and B. But so soon as we remove this abstraction and try to consider A and B as they really are, we are considering the whole: and then we find that, while we can arrive at a general abstract outline of the truth, we cannot fill up anything like all its detail, nor, perhaps, can we form a concrete idea of the experience in which it would be filled up. In that sense every question may be called in the end insoluble, and everything in the end a mystery.

And so it is with evil. We are driven to the conclusion that in the infinite there cannot be evil as there is in finite experience. What we call evil must in the infinite be so changed by the loss of its isolation and by its fusion with other elements that, although it cannot wholly vanish, it cannot retain the character in virtue of which we call it evil; since, if it did, it would produce a discordance incompatible with the nature of the infinite. And we are not without indications in our own experience of the manner in which this change (so to call it) or this transcendance of evil may be effected: for we find within certain limits that what we call evil sometimes turns out not to be so, or again proves the means of good, or can be made the means of good. But the complete solution of the problem we are unable to imagine. Thus, we cannot construe to ourselves the way in which our own evil will, our resistance to good, can positively contribute anything to the infinite experience. And yet it must, if that is the unity of all possible experience. We can only say it must be so, or, to use religious language, that there can be nothing, however evil, which is not an instrument of the divine will.

But if we consider the matter merely on the intellectual side and apart from its bearing on our feelings, it does not appear to differ from other problems. There is, in other words, no difference in kind between evil and anything else that falls short of perfection. Everything finite is limited, discordant and self-contradictory, and we cannot fully answer, in the case of anything finite, the question how it can be experienced as harmonious and free from contradiction. We cannot do so in the case of what we call goodness in ourselves: it still falls short of the infinite, is still imperfect, and cannot in the infinite be exactly what it appears. There is doubtless an immense difference in this matter between evil and good: for we can see that the one is very much further from the infinite than the other, that evil is something far more partial and self-contradictory than good, a mere element in a whole, and not even approaching to a whole as good does. But, on the intellectual side, the problems do not differ in kind, nor do they differ if we compare evil with any other finite existence, such as space or time. So that, as a problem, the question Why is there evil? is the same in kind as the question Why is there finite existence at all? For all finite existence is, like evil, imperfection. We may find that this result—that the intellectual problem in the case of evil is not peculiar—reappears in reference to some further problems.

If we begin now by noticing the bearing of the question of evil on religion, we may see at once how direct it is. On the one hand, religion—in a sense—may be said to spring from evil. If, that is, we were subject neither to calamity from without nor to evil in ourselves, we should not need religion, at any rate not what we now in our imperfect life mean by that word. Religion arises because we are imperfect, because we suffer evil and are evil; it is an attempted escape from the evil which men find they cannot escape otherwise. Remove this evil then, and you remove religion.

And religion, at any rate at its best, is this escape. It is idle to deny it, to stand outside and point out to the religious man that he is poor, diseased, oppressed, heavy at heart because his beloved are dead, troubled by the consciousness of his own faults and sins. He will answer ‘All that is very true, but to me, who have given myself to God and trust him wholly, all this is not evil; on the contrary, it all works together for good, and it becomes evil only in so far as I fail to maintain my union with God, and become again a being separated from him.’ You may reply that this is an illusion, but to the man it is an experience just as certain as a broken leg. To that you may reply that the reality of the broken leg can be proved by examination; but the answer is that the reality of the man's experience can also be proved by examining his life. It is not doubtful that there are persons who do habitually take all the chances and sorrows of life as the will of God, and therefore not as evils, and who also live in the conviction that the evil in themselves is for good, and so in reality is done away; and therefore they are at peace. And in so far as they fail in this and so are not set free from evil, it is only because they fail (as they themselves would assert) in religion. Thus religion, so far as it exists, is release from evil.

If so, we have this result. On the one side, but for evil, there would be no religion. On the other, religion is escape from evil: or, in religion evil disappears. And from this there seems to follow a paradoxical conclusion. In religion evil disappears. Now the disappearance of evil is surely the attainment of all that man can wish, his final aim or good. But if there were no evil there would not be religion. Therefore if there were not evil man could not attain his final aim or good: and evil seems in some way to be involved in the existence of good, to be not only a necessary accompaniment but a condition of good. And though we may seem to have reached this conclusion too easily and with suspicious rapidity, it may none the less be right, though it would not follow that this or that amount of evil, or, again, this or that particular form of evil, was thus a condition of good.

We cannot consider this idea at present. We have first to enlarge the statement that religion, at least in its highest forms, is release from evil. It is not only this, but, it seems, it is the only release from it. Let us see if this is not so. No one will maintain that in what may be called our ordinary experience evil can be escaped: there it is too palpable a fact. It is just as palpable in morality. That is a war with evil, and a partly successful war, but it is endless: the evil is never overcome and the ideal never becomes completely real. In the experience of beauty we rise in this respect higher. Here, it seems, evil does disappear. Certainly while we are absorbed in this experience there is no more evil for us. This is clearly so in the great mass of cases, and even if, as in tragedy, evil is part of the subject, it appears as forced to contribute to a positive result or total effect beyond itself; and this, though it pains and saddens us, still uplifts and satisfies us; we do not wish the pain away. We are satisfied: there is no denying the fact. We return with life infused with a new understanding, and then too are able to some extent to see evil as it appeared in the tragedy. But only to some extent; the release from evil in beauty is partial, there remains much in which we cannot see beauty, or are obliged to see an ugliness which is more than a discord resolved. And yet beauty is a matter of sight, a matter of perception, imagination, feeling, not of faith or thought. And therefore to escape completely from evil in this way would mean, not a hope or even a faith, that all is beautiful, but the direct experience of everything as beautiful. That is obviously unattainable even by the greatest of artists.

What, then, of thought? Can we escape from evil that way? It would be answered at once by some, ‘On the contrary, this is the way to the knowledge that what seemed good to us is really evil, that evil is the very nature of things, that the universe is one ghastly mistake.’ Let us suppose that view, the pessimist's view, to be false and refutable. Let us suppose it established that in ultimate reality there can be no evil, that it belongs only to finite experience, that what is evil here is in the infinite experienced in such a way that there it is not evil. That certainly would be, in one sense, to escape from evil, and it would be so in spite of our inability to reproduce that experience in ourselves. We should in a sense rise above ourselves and, in principle at least, see things from the centre. Still this intellectual escape—for such it is—would not be perfect freedom. For though the philosopher might find this freedom in regard to those evils which lay beyond his control—the evils that happen—the matter would be otherwise with the evil he could control, could fight against and diminish. That would cry out to him ‘Abolish me’, and no certainty that this evil is powerless against God, or is in the infinite no evil, could silence that cry. What would he have to do then? He would have to act on the truth that he knows—not only to know evil away, but so far as possible to will it away, deny it with his whole self not only with his intellect. So far as he could do that, he would escape from evil. But then this means that he would be religious, not merely a philosopher. In identifying his will with the infinite, for which there is no evil, he would be making evil what it really is—not evil, but the means of good.

And this is precisely what happens in the more usual forms of religion, where the ideas employed are somewhat different. Thus it appears that religion is the only escape or salvation from evil; and it is so because of the fact so often insisted on, that it is an action of the whole self.1 The faith for which evil is conquered is no mere belief, it is the will which by identifying itself with the divine will conquers evil and turns it into good.

Let us pause a moment to consider what this suggests. Religion is release from evil, but it is so only because the faith that there is no evil is also the will to abolish evil. This is the will identified with the divine will (no faith without grace), and for God there is no evil as mere evil. It seems then that this human-divine act by which evil is willed away must be a stage in the process by which finite experience is resolved into infinite.

We have been speaking of religion at its best, or at least of a very high form of it, but now, returning to the general proposition that religion is release or salvation from evil, we must remember that there are grades of religion, and that accordingly what is salvation to one may be something far short of it to another, and that there may be attempts at escape from evil which cannot be successful. If we consider this, we shall get more light on our problem.

What man wants, his good, is to be free, not to find himself checked, to escape from his limitations. It is these limitations that he calls evil. He escapes them in religion by union with something which is itself free from them. And, we may say, the position of his religion in the scale depends on what he takes to be this self of his which ought to escape its limitations, and what the things are which he especially finds to be limitations, and therefore how he conceives the power which is to save him from them. Evidently these four, himself, his evils, his salvation and his God, will vary accordingly. And it is essential to remember this, and not to talk as if man and evil and salvation and God meant one thing in all cases; since it is clear that there may be so much difference that one man's God may be another's Devil, and that what one man would count salvation from evil another may count valueless.

For example, if a man is to himself mainly a natural being, good or evil are to him principally natural well- or ill-being; and his salvation is to escape thunder and cold and want of food; and he aims at the union—through gifts and ceremonies—with a God who is mainly a power of nature. On the other hand, if the limitation that most distresses a man is the evil in his own heart and activities, and, again, this same evil in others, that means that his notion of himself is not the same as that of the first man, nor his notion of salvation, nor of his God, who is now principally to him the power that hates this inward or moral evil, and can free him from it. And accordingly this man will be ready to say: ‘Those physical evils are of little account or even of none: they do not concern me—the ‘me’ that matters to me—what I want is freedom from the war in my mind; if I can only get that, the physical evils may stay if they like, and if they can help me to that salvation, why, they are not merely indifferent, they are positively good.’ The religion of the first man we should call a low one, that of the second a high one, and between them would be many gradations.

Again if a man meant by ‘himself’ simply and solely himself apart from everybody else, and wanted to get his private salvation, in the way of warmth and food and property and the like, apart from others and even at the cost of evil to them, we should be disposed to say that he had no religion at all; and if he were quite consistent (which he could not be) this would be true. If he included in his notion of himself his family or clan, or, better still, his nation, we should say his religion was proportionately higher; and we should find too that his notion of what was evil, and what good, had proportionately risen, and with it his notion of God. And, if he were really a religious man, he would now reckon his evil and good to be that of his tribe or nation; and, if the good of his nation involved his private evil, he would say, ‘It does not matter, nay, if my evil serves my people it is not evil to me but good.’ Even if it were his own death, he would say so. And in one way a man cannot go beyond that. Nevertheless as long as a man's self stopped at his country, and his God was only a national God, we should say his religion was still imperfect. It would probably involve on the one side hostility to other nations, and on the other an imperfect estimate of what is truly evil. Though there might be an intense desire to find freedom from moral evil in himself and his nation, still the good would be identified in part with the outward prosperity and predominance of his nation; and he would perhaps feel that he had a right to claim this from his God in return for his worship. We see this stage, for example, in Jewish history, nor is it wholly unknown perhaps in Great Britain.

Above this stage would come that where a man recognised himself in all men, and his God had become a universal God, and good would mean primarily to him, however he might formulate it, that the wills of himself and all men should be identified with God's will; and evil would mean primarily the failure of this union. Also this would be the one and only unconditional good and evil, and any other good, physical, intellectual, or what not, in himself or his family or his nation, would be good only on condition of its serving or being included in that good; otherwise it might even be evil. Any other evil, if it did serve that good, would not be evil but good. That is surely what we must mean by religion now. And in this religion, we must repeat, in his identification of himself with the will of God, or the infinite as will, man attains his sovereign good or absolute end, and is freed from evil and finitude. For evil means not to have what you wish, and here man has what he wishes, for he wishes union with God, and nothing else whatever, except as involved in that; and he has got it. He is freed from his finitude because he refuses to acknowledge as himself anything but the self which is united to the infinite and is a function of its will. Finally we must observe this is the only release from evil he can secure, just because it is inward, freedom of will. So long as he counts natural well-being or any kind of prosperity as unconditionally good, and ill-being or any kind of adversity as unconditionally evil, he never can be secure of good, or against evil, through religion.

I know, of course, that almost everything hitherto said sounds more or less paradoxical. It is a paradox to common-sense to assert that man may attain his good and be released from evil when he is subject to all the common ills of humanity, and this even though he may be poor, friendless, and diseased, and perhaps would welcome the coming of death: or to assert that he may attain the realisation of himself when the greater part of his being is obviously not realised. But then it is not common-sense that makes religion, and religion is a paradox to common-sense, which generally tries to make friends with it by smoothing away all its angles, and mollifying its sternness, and reducing its startling affirmations and denials into comfortable platitudes. But the deeper consideration of things—which, carried out, is philosophy—generally confirms what religion says, though it may change the language and in some measure modify the ideas. And in doing so it generally also discovers that common-sense goes upon assumptions that will not hold. We shall find that this is so here, and, in finding it, we may also be able to see that the paradox of religion is after all what common-sense on consideration would be able to accept.

Let us now consider this result further in the light of objections that will be made to it. And, first, it may be asked ‘Is it not absurd to say that man attains his absolute end when he is obviously subject to the common chances of humanity, and may be poor, diseased, friendless and oppressed; when therefore a great part of his being is very far from being realised?’ To this I answer that the force of this objection rests entirely upon certain assumptions, and that these are false. It rests on the assumption that the attainment of man's end means that all parts of his being are realised. Otherwise it is no objection to the religious man's position to say that a great part of his being is not realised. But this assumption, however natural, is quite false. It is natural no doubt.

We find in human nature a great many potentialities and impulses, and it may seem at first clear that the ideal would be that they should all be completely developed. And yet reflection and experience show at once that this is not only impossible but would be the very reverse of the ideal. And the reason is not merely that man lives in time and that therefore one part of him must retire when another is active—though this fact alone is enough to show that the notion is ridiculous. The reason is that his various potentialities or impulses would necessarily clash, and produce a confusion fatal to all but one or two; the reverse of happy for himself as a whole, unless they were systematised and ordered by relations of co-ordination and subordination, so that his nature became a state, not a mob. But this means, and must mean, negation, the denial of the separate rights of these functions or impulses, the giving up of good for greater good, the good of the whole as a system. Harmony—all system, in fact—implies negation; all know this well, it is the tritest of commonplaces, and yet we are always slipping back into the absurd notion.

It is no sound objection, therefore, to this statement—that in religion man attains his supreme good—to point out that in religion the whole of his nature may not be satisfied, or even cannot be, or that religion involves negation: for unless it did it could not be his supreme good. If the objection is to hold at all it must change its form, and say only that there is too much negation, or that certain negations are needless.

Let us try to see more fully the way in which good and evil are involved in one another, or how good involves negation. Let us take the individual man who, we saw, is particular because he is not others and is exceedingly partial, and see how he realises himself and attains his good. He does so (I do not mean that this is a historical account of the process) by joining himself to others who are also partial, but who, being different in their partiality from him, fill up his gaps while he supplies theirs. As we saw, for example, he is partial—not human nature, but a very defective example of it—because he is a man and not a woman nor yet a child: and he extends his personality in these respects through the family. Thus he gets a good he did not possess in his mere individuality. And so it is throughout. You can regard from this point of view his membership, for example, in a number of other spheres or communities, each of which has a special character and purpose, carried out by members united in this character or purpose but differing in their contributions. There is the rather undefined circle of friends and acquaintances; there is the social system of labour, of vocations or professions, which enables him to clothe himself in return for his services in healing another man's diseases. He belongs to a city; more or less to the republic of letters, of art, of science, in each of which he is able to get from others the good which his own powers would have been unable to achieve. And there is his nation or state, which may be considered from one point of view as the sphere which contains all those others. We may stop there for the moment. He is thus for himself, let us say, the centre of all these spheres, realises himself in each in a special way, through each extends his personality towards the infinity he wants. This is no metaphor. Though he remains in one sense himself and nobody else, these spheres are yet in varying degrees himself. The welfare of his family or country is his: he does not merely feel with its success or failure, its joy or pain, its good acts or its bad ones; he feels all this as his own. If you try, as we saw, to get to some ‘he’ which is apart from all these spheres you come to something contemptible, if to anything, or you come to an egoist—and no man is a mere egoist.

This, then, is the way in which the man realises himself or gets his good. But in every one of these spheres he gets it by negation, and could not get it otherwise. His good is also his duty. At every step his particular self becomes more universal by abjuring its particularity. He gives up for the sake of family life a great deal that would be pleasant to him, and is always giving it up. To make himself efficient in his vocation he works much more than by nature he likes, and narrows himself, neglects or suppresses the capabilities that might have been developed in other vocations. He pays his rates and taxes and serves on juries, and does a good deal more if he is a good citizen, and if his country called on him to risk his life he would admit she had a right to his life. And all this negation or evil is not a needless excrescence on his good, something without which his good in these spheres could be, it is an intrinsic part of it, of which it would be quite irrational to complain if this good is to be at all. The only question is how much there need be. No doubt the less the better, but some there must be. To ask that there should be none is to ask that there should be no good.

There is another thing to be observed. The smaller sphere is contained in the greater, and from the point of view of the greater has no absolute rights against it. From the point of view of the family the individual is only a member of it, not an end in himself. And so is the family to the state, from its point of view. If the family tried to treat itself as final, and seek nothing but its own good, the state would at once negate that pretension by means of the law; and, in fact, through its taxes and the like, and in most countries through its call on men to serve in the army, it does, more or less, interfere with family welfare. Some degree of such negation is always present, and everyone would admit that, if it were necessary, the claims of the smaller sphere must simply go under. That lies in the nature of the good they get by being members of the wider whole. But, again, the less of this negation the better.

Why is this so? Because the smaller is a member of the greater, or, conversely, the greater consists of a number of the smaller. The more, therefore, the greater has, with a view to its own good, to negate the smaller, the more it is negating itself. It is not a new thing—a sort of despot—apart from the spheres within it: it is they united in its own manner. The family thus is stronger and better the less it has to call on its members to deny themselves for its sake, though it must so call on them or be a bad family; and so the state with the families, or, again, with all the vocations it contains. So far as it has to suppress their life it is suppressing its own life. Some such suppression is necessary, there would not otherwise be the state; and that suppression, though it is negation, or apparently evil, is not really evil at all. But where it passes the point up to which it is a contribution to the good of the whole it begins to be wholly evil. All needless self-sacrifice, all diminution of positive being which is not a contribution to greater being, is evil.

The same thing may be put from the point of view of the individual. If he is to be at all what he ought to be, or find at all his higher good, he must more or less deny himself or negate himself as natural. On the other hand, the less this is necessary the better. Why? Because the higher or spiritual in him in denying the lower is denying itself, the stuff it has to work with, the energy it has to use. The spiritual man is not a man without a body, but a man whose body is completely serviceable to the spirit in him, the stronger the better, the weaker the worse, so long as it is so serviceable and does not try to be an end in itself.

These considerations will hold if we pass to the sphere of religion. We have been looking at the spheres of morality: beyond them, not apart from them but enclosing them, is that of religion; as its object, the infinite, is beyond but includes all finite being. Religion we have seen is morality perfected, the good gained in religion is the culmination of the good gained in morality. It is complete self-realisation, and its expression is not merely inward or outward worship but the moral life lived as a divine life.

Here, then, we shall have two correlative truths:—(1) No lower good than that of the whole, and of the individual as identifying himself with the whole, can now be regarded as an end in itself. Any such good is ultimately of value only as a part or differentiation of the ultimate good; and when this ultimate good can be reached only by the sacrifice of it, that sacrifice is not only duty, it is ultimate good or the attainment of the supreme end. And it is so none the less because of the sacrifice, just as when a man can only serve his country by dying for it, his death is not only his duty but his good—his own good and not only his country's.

Further, it is the case that some negation of lower goods is intrinsically bound up with the attainment of the highest good, and is no separable accident of it; and that in every life union with the supreme will demands acquiescence in the loss of much that both is, and ought to be, dear. The postulate of religion is that I am to accept all such loss, however much it hurts me, as ultimately no evil, but good; because it lies in the supreme will which is also the supreme good.

(2) On the other hand, every subordinate good that may have to be denied or surrendered is none the less, truly or religiously regarded, a part or differentiation of the supreme good, and as such has absolute value (unless its subordination is requisite): but any diminution of it which is not required for the supreme good can be nothing but evil. The divine will is, or manifests itself, as the universal will in man, and its content is the whole of that which this will finds to be good—the joy of the body, family happiness, a man's work and his play, his enjoyment of beauty—so far as these enter into the highest good. It is not a religious attitude to treat all this as undivine, or the needless negation of it as good, it is irreligious to do so: and it is all none the less a form of the supreme good because it may have to be surrendered, and because its surrender is then a part of the supreme good. This means, in other words, that, as the state denies itself in denying the family, so all denial of any part by the whole is the self-negation of the whole; and this seems to be the nature of the whole: it is everywhere perpetual realisation through self-negation. If one may put it so, in every atom of the finite, each stone and fly, the infinite asserts itself, and in the death of any midge it sacrifices itself, and this is the reason why everything that is does assert itself and desperately clings to life, and, if it is merely natural, contends for it with everything else. The whole lives in this life. But the limitation, negation and passing away of everything finite is equally the assertion of the whole. It would not be, if there were no finite being, but all finite being means negation, and but for this negation neither it nor the whole would be. And this appears in man, in whom the principle of the whole is present, as free self-realisation through self-denial, the straining towards the highest by surrender of the lower, so far as that is required for the attainment of the highest.

Perhaps we may say that we are able to see in a general way that evil, in the sense of limitation and negation, is essential, and that to inquire why it is, is simply to inquire why there is any being at all. We can even see that, if a soul is to be good, it must have the possibility of being evil, that moral goodness means the conquest of evil, or of the temptation to it, and that to imagine moral goodness ready-made is to imagine a round square. But to understand in detail how evil is essential, and what it would look like from the centre, is beyond us; nor can we tell at all why so much of pain, and again of moral evil, should exist in finite experience.

I will touch only on two questions in conclusion. Religion requires us to accept as the will of God whatever evil comes upon us. Why, then, do we feel sure that we ought to diminish evil so far as we can, natural as well as moral, and that this is a religious duty? If God overrules it all, why should we interfere? The answer, it seems, must be that our interfering, so far as it is wise and good, is itself part of this process of overruling, it is a stage in the way by which the contradiction of the finite passes into harmony in the infinite. We are not something independent and apart from God. He does not—to use religious language—reconcile the world with himself by some process wholly outside of finite spirits, but in them. The completion of this process is beyond us; but we experience and take part in a stage of it. We help to will evil away. Only, this ‘we’ is only ‘we’ so far as our will is God's. The faith by which the world is overcome and evil becomes the instrument of good is itself the action of God in overruling evil. Religion is release from evil because there is nothing in religion which is not divine as well as human.

Can we say anything of the completion of this process? If negation is an essential element in the whole, how does it appear in and to the whole? Does the infinite suffer, or is suffering wholly confined to finite experience?

The infinite contains absolutely all finite experience and therefore all suffering; but does it contain any of it as suffering, or is all suffering then so neutralised that nothing of it remains, but only the positive good involved in it? Of some suffering we can assuredly say this, as of what is suffered by a sense of discord with God. There can be no discord in the infinite, for that means the idea of a ‘should be’ that is not, in other words, finitude. In short, we cannot attribute to the infinite, as such, any consciousness or feeling that all is not well, nor any will for a good unattained. And so we seem to have to say with Aristotle that the divine life is one pure everlasting pleasure.

But then in our own poor experience we know of states in which, though there is suffering, there is no sense that all is not well; we feel that there is a glory in tragedy as well as pain, and we hear, and have no reason to doubt, of a joy in suffering for others, which utterly swallows up the pain, though that is felt, and of men in flame whose faces were radiant with ecstasy. It would be absurd to imagine just such states in the infinite, but perhaps not more absurd than to imagine anything like one of perfectly unmingled pleasure, as we experience pleasure. And those cases where pain is present, yet absorbed in joy, at least suggest the idea that the suffering of the finite, especially in its noblest forms, may in the divine life not be so wholly neutralised as to disappear, but, however changed, may survive as an essential condition of the glory which enshrines it there as here.

Religion is not merely theoretical, an action of intellect, like philosophy, but is essentially, like morality, an action of the whole self.

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