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Meditation XVI: The Problem of Evil (Continued)

The Mediating process whereby Man constitutes himself Spirit: Pain in all its Forms is Evil only if its purpose is exhausted in Time—Excess of Pain.

The Mediating Process.

I feel under no obligation to write an apology for God's world in view of any interpretation of that world save my own. Enough if I can in any way meet my own difficulties. And I need here only allude to our theory of God-creative, of the function of Man to realise himself as Spirit, and of the conflict and casualty necessarily inherent in a world whose method is the method of individuation. I now take these positions for granted.

If our interpretation of Man be a true interpretation, he must be left to find out for himself the purposes of God through the exercise of free reason in the midst of a multiform and (apparently) anarchic and painful experience. He himself has to build every step on which he plants his foot and to erect altars of sacrifice as he climbs.

No thinking man, I presume, will call the conditions under which the idea of Man is to be fulfilled, in so far as they are necessary to that fulfilment, “Evil”. If man is to be man, it is of his essential nature that he should ever strive and fall and encounter defeat in the actualising of himself. In the sphere of personal conduct, as well as in the domain of knowledge, he must pay the price of toil for all he hopes to achieve as truth, and then, alas, too often accept the fact of non-achievement. Such is man's place in the scale of Being, and it is weak as well as futile, to protest. Doubtless, if such be the method of man's spiritual fulfilment, then truly he has imposed on him a hard and never-ceasing task. Neither sentimental maunderings about the Good and the Beautiful nor the quietistic resignation of mysticism are relevant to the needs and duties of a being so conditioned. He must resolutely strive to realise himself as a Will-dialectic supra naturam, or sink to a lower plane of Being.

Let us clearly understand, then, that the position in which we all find ourselves is one involved in the very notion of Man. So far as our vision extends, he occupies an exalted, though perilous, place in the mysterious life of The Absolute. For he is himself a free Ego, called upon to constitute himself, and to give himself a place as Spirit in the divine hierarchy of finite beings. Ego as Spirit, supreme over conditions, is not possible save as the victorious issue of a long and uncertain campaign.

As regards the difficulty of maintaining his corporeal existence, it is obvious enough that man cannot afford to evade his conditions without forgoing his specific manhood. Without these labours of uncertain fruit, and the chances and changes of this mortal life, his free personality would have no meaning: while to imagine it existing on other terms would be to imagine a self-contradiction. The general question, then, is, “Given the Man-plane of Universal Being, does it contain its own justification?”

Of this we may be assured that the supra-natural movement within us which we call Will-reason (the subjective dialectic), and which, lifting the subject-individual out of the series of finite determinations, assigns to us the headship of our system, is compatible only with conditions similar, at least, to those in which we are placed. The same Will which, in its dialectic, constitutes reason in each of us, is, we have seen, at once the possibility of knowledge and the generator of moral and spiritual ideals: out of it also spring Hope and Faith.1 It is in the very structure of this reason also that God Himself is revealed as creative God whose End is The Good, and that we find ourselves sharers of His eternal life in the finite. We are thus privileged to be fellow-workers towards some divine issue. With a great price, doubtless, we buy our imperial position in the divine scheme, but are we quite in earnest when we curse the day we were born? There are moments of gloom for all; but which of us is prepared to sacrifice his endowment of subtle sympathy with all the riches of Being, the charm of nature whose “infinite variety custom cannot stale”; the susceptibilities of feeling which admit us to all the wonders of God; the heart-pulse that beats responsive to all the divine modes of revelation—the ocean, the recurring seasons, the spectacle of the starry heavens? These things make men as gods in their largeness of comprehension. Then, the thrill of human love is ours, the dramatic intensity of life, the graciousness of it in its finest forms, the search for truth—

The patient tracking of the world's great plan

Through sequences and changes myriadfold,2

the humanity which makes all men one, the privilege reserved to man alone, freely, in the name of the Most High, to proclaim Him in the face of the finite, the imperfect and the false. Which of us, I say, is prepared (save in some passing mood) to sacrifice all this on the altar of indolent ease and animal content—the inglorious alternative? When a man reflects on these things, he is constrained to read a great meaning into himself and to be proud of the sad distinction of having assigned to him a share in vindicating for God, as for himself, the supremacy of Spirit in a world of oppositions and negations.

The processes of Nature and the facts of life are not to be measured by the desires of man but by the end of man as spirit. As regards physical pain, moral suffering, and the bereavements that afflict us: let any justly judging thinker cast a retrospect on his own past, and he will see that not only his struggle for material existence and the pains of the body, but the more grievous pains of the soul, the tears of spiritual distress, the longings for the unattainable, the shattered ideals, the enduring memory of errors and shortcomings, and the sorrows that have wrung his heart in the sadder experiences of life—have all been contributory to his fulfilling himself. Spiritual Law assuredly prevails. He has now, as his days multiply, gathered “the far-off interest of years”: the past evil is now his good. “Happy is the man whom God correcteth,” says the Temanite. The spiritual pain of ethical failure perplexes us most. We know that this increases with the elevation of spiritual ideals and the earnestness of ethical purpose. But if man's essential nature and his function on this plane of Being as understood in these meditations be correct, these pains, as correlative of the ideal, are necessary and in their issue good. The fact that pains increase with heightening ideals confirms our reading of man.

Some of the more timid spirits among men will remind us that there is the load of Sin, not in the sense of actual transgression of the moral law, but of that connate depravity that separates man from God. Of this I would say: the consciousness of Sin is the consciousness of the antagonism in which the finite Ego as an individual finds itself to the universal Spirit. This is an inevitable characteristic of the plane of Being into which man is born, and has been rightly designated by theologians “original sin”. But man is not responsible for this; and his task is precisely one of conciliation of himself with the Universal. The method of the evolution of God as man cannot be placed to man's account. It is his actual transgressions that each has to see to. Assuredly he has to suffer for these according to the grade of their iniquity; and if man is to grow in virtue, if his moral culture is to be made sure, if he is to be truly “spirit,” it is impossible to see how matters could have been otherwise. We must accept our punishment with dignity. Repentance and remorse well befit us. Penalty we must bear—nay ought we not to insist on it for ourselves as a kind of moral right, in the interests of our own perfection and growth? Whatever may be doubtful in this difficult world, the moral order is not doubtful, and will not fail to assert itself for individuals as for nations. “Every morning doth He bring His Judgment to light; He faileth not.” But abject despair does not become God's partner in a half-born and inadequate world. Our true penance lies in action. If the condition of our self-forgiveness is suffering and renewed effort after the Good, ought it not to be so? Man's transgression is not his damnation but his opportunity; it subserves spiritual growth. Our weaknesses build up our strength: our defections reaffirm and elevate our ideals.

In fine, if man be a free finite self whose specific function it is, as Will-dialectic, to know, and in that knowing, to affirm spiritual ideas which yield an ideal of life infinite in its character which he is to strive to make his own; then, such a being is unthinkable save as subject to pain, exposed to error, to temptation, to deflection from the right path, and antagonism to the Good. Difficulty, failure and the stress of battle, are implicit in the notion of finite freedom and personality. “Providence has willed,” says Kant in his Pädagogik, “that man shall bring forth for himself the good that lies hidden in his nature and has spoken, as it were, thus to man: ‘Go forth into the world! I have equipped thee with every tendency towards The Good. Thy part let it be to develop those tendencies. Thy happiness and unhappiness depend on thyself alone.’”

All might have been different doubtless: but not any part of the system in which we are involved. We occupy a certain stage of the universal Divine evolving life.

It is not happiness as a diffused sense of well-being which is the end of man's activity. The Stoic and the Apostle alike repudiate an interpretation so banal. Let us clearly understand this. The end is simply the harmonious fulfilment of man's nature as a Will-Dialectic, whereby he becomes a Spirit and attains to that fulness of Being which is blessedness; just as the end of all other existences is the harmonious fulfilment of their specific ideas. On this stage of Universal Being let us recognise the fact that such an equilibrium, physical and moral, as goes by the name of “happiness” is impossible for a creature constituted as man is constituted. This fact alone would drive us to find some other purpose in man, and to recognise in ethical completeness and the fortifying of Will the supreme end of his daily life. And when we do this, we find that ethical completeness—the virtue that consists in the dominancy of the Ego over circumstance is not possible unless it has obstruction, pain, inadequacy, failure to endure and to overcome. In a world where everything was easy and smooth, man would be wholly out of place, though the amoeba might find itself well situated.

These words contain an answer to those who tell us that if God is infinite, he cannot be good, because infinite power could, from the very first, make all things straight. But if the end proposed be a virile will—the dominancy of a free spirit over all that is not spirit, a creature so exalted could not be moulded save from within and by effort and struggle and suffering. No arbitrary act of the Divine Will could effect this end; it would be a contradiction. Only by a toilsome process in time can the end be achieved.

Let us conclude then that the conditions necessary to the fulfilment of man as a free spirit are not, speaking generally, “Evil,” but Good in the making—the inevitable method of a teleological world of free individuals.

Pain in all its forms is Evil only if its purpose is exhausted in Time.

I conclude that what are called evils in the life of the average man are the necessary steps of a process which is justified by the end. Evil appears only where the mediating process, whereby he is required to fulfil himself, presents obstacles greater than is necessary to that end. In a large number of cases it is so; and we shall speak of this in the sequel. Again, if we limit man's life by the present finite conditions, that is to say, if Death close his history, then, I think, there is “Evil,” in the sense of impotence, at the very heart of the world-process. For spiritual ideals are necessarily affirmed, as we have seen, by a creature on the dialectic plane of Being, and these contain their own impossibility of realisation under present conditions. As limited by these, man is in his very essence a hopeless contradiction. God Himself affirms a higher in him than can be mediated here, and thus man is necessarily a failure. The system of which we form a part is irrational; and if it be true that God seeks the Good, He is in some mysterious way unable to accomplish it. A conviction of the continuance of life after death is consequently the very nerve of rational optimism. The Christian conception,

Life is probation; and the earth no goal

But starting-point for man,3

is the truth. That man (interpreted as we have interpreted him) should “ripe and ripe” only that he may “rot and rot” is an incredible supposition.

I have not spoken of Death itself as an evil, because on this plane of Being it cannot be so regarded. The death of those we love is the supreme sorrow of our lives—one of the chief means whereby the human spirit is proved; but death, as the private lot of each individual, is not an evil. Notwithstanding the dominance of the Good on the whole, we yet see that man is in a distressful and perplexed position, which must, if the Good be the purpose of the divine process, be ended or mended. Death ends it or mends it. Man's destiny as spirit cannot be brought to an issue here. That is certain. And when to these considerations we add the multitude of evils that would flow from the annihilation of death on this plane of Being, we see that man's condition, so far from being aggravated by the fact of death, is alleviated, whether it be extinction or continuance. Death is one of the conditions of our tenure, and it is a condition that is in harmony with all the others, and lightens the load of existence. If the idea of man is to be fulfilled, there must be death: it is simply a necessary step in the evolution of the human spirit; it is birth into a higher plane of the Divine evolution. But if man be what I have shown him to be, then death as end-all, while still desirable, is yet a flagrant contradiction in the spiritual order: it is then, to the speculative mind, the sum of evils: it is a grim sarcasm on man's ideals and aspirations, and makes a mock of the best and highest in him.

Could man be interpreted as only a higher type of animal with a larger power of adaptation to environment than other animals and as concerned only with material necessities, there would be no contradiction in death as extinction; but, on the contrary, it might be hailed as the too tardy conclusion of his difficulties and distresses. It is the potential greatness and infinitude of man as spirit that recoil from the thought of death as a cosmic insult, if it be truly extinction. But, if there be continuance, we then see that death is an intellectual and ethical necessity for a creature constituted as man is constituted. He exhausts this life: he can see no deeper: he can go no further: for good or evil he has fulfilled the probation of earthly existence: he is weary: he must be born again. Nay, that mankind as a whole may advance, the individual must retire. The mystery of death is not by itself a mystery: it is a mystery only in so far as life is a mystery; and it is an “evil” only in so far as it is extinction—only in so far, therefore, as it is a profoundly immoral and glaringly irrational event.

The whole spiritual interpretation of life is involved in the answer to the question—

Do we move ourselves or are moved by an unseen Hand at a game That pushes us off from the board and others ever succeed?

Are we organic products, like any other, passing from nothingness to nothingness, coming out of the dark and passing into the dark after fretting our little hour upon the stage?

Come from the brute, poor souls—no souls—and to die with the brute.4

Were it certain that man was not a free personality ever on his way upward—a way that must be rough and steep, if it is to afford him his opportunity of spiritual fulfilment—if, I say, he were not this, but only a vehicle for a Universal Life, being merely allowed to pick up a few crumbs as they fell from the table of “The Absolute,” with the added insult of a few necessary illusions, the conditions of human life would be wholly evil; because they would be unmeaning. Were this so, not one word could be uttered in defence of the system to which we belong save by the fawning slave, or by the traitor within the camp of humanity who, stupid in his astuteness, believed he was making private terms for himself with an all-powerful and arbitrary demiurge. If, on the contrary, our analysis of man and our theory of God be correct, the difficulties and pains whereby man mediates the highest for himself are incorrectly called “Evil”. Even his errors and transgressions subserve his true life.

It may be thought that the optimism of these pages is too pronounced. I submit, however, that I have tried to look at the facts of life fairly as they affect the average man, and this from the point of view of my analysis of knowledge and of the consequent Notion of God as set forth in previous meditations. If, however, I part with God as a God who necessarily seeks The Good and with Man as I have defined him, then, unquestionably, our universe looms before us as a huge blunder. Human life, heaving with emotion, borne aloft by ideals, vivid with hope, and all this wondrous world with its various beauty, its infinite subtleness of grace and tenderness, is a mask of—Nothing!

Excess of Pain.

I have been speaking of the average condition of man. But what shall we say of the excess of pain so obvious to all who have a sympathetic feeling for their fellows? Unquestionably we must include all excess beyond what is necessary to the ethical fulfilment of men as “Evil”. And yet, even this is not wholly Evil if it can be shown to subserve the Good in the individual who suffers, and the Good for the Race. Sorrows and trials of endurance are often seen to accumulate on the more unfortunate of our fellow-men, but we may say with Shakespeare that “in the reproof of chance lies the true proof of men”;5 for it is in the bitterest experiences that the specific attributes of man are called forth—faith, courage, resoluteness, spiritual greatness. The excess of pain that afflicts some may be said to be

… the protractive trials of great Jove,

To find persistive constancy in men.6

It also, I have said, subserves the Good of the Race; for by the evoking of the highest spiritual energy in the few, it extends the moral possibilities of humanity. The sufferers (and we find bright examples in those who have endured, and even invited, persecution and martyrdom) will even rejoice in the sacrifice to which they are promoted. The supreme trials of faith and courage are the means whereby they are elected to the highest spiritual life. “I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” “When He hath tried me I shall come forth as gold.”7 It is our duty in the excess of suffering to rise to the demands made on us, for our own sake and for that of our fellowmen.

Let us admit then that even in the extreme strain to which the best are often exposed, and in the apparently wilful flagellation of circumstance, we yet find a profound significance. The man that suffers and overcomes is himself thereby elevated to a stoic steadfastness and mastery of fate, while the general human level is raised for all time by his heroic example. He is one of those who are elected to shine forth—

Like a great sea-mark

Standing every flaw and saving those that eye them.

But why, it may be asked, a higher spiritual level? Why not be satisfied with the prosaic morality which secures material well-being? Is it not clear that our acceptance of the excess of pain contains a theory of human destiny without which such excess could have no possible justification? Man must bear much in order that he may be man—as the inevitable condition of manhood, provided he is assured of an ideal purpose in the divine order: we can see the reasonableness of this. But on what ground can we justify the more than enough of pain, a call for endurance and conflict that is inequitable—the demand made on some by the system in which they find themselves that they shall encounter and overcome in an unequal contest? Only on the ground that spiritual ideals constitute the truth of man's being.

Nor is this all; for so close does man lie to the Universal that he feels that his acts and sufferings are not for himself alone, but for God. His spiritual victories are needed for the attainment of some Divine purpose for the whole as well as for himself. In other words we believe in God as Spirit and in man's sacrifice and crucifixion as essential to the evolving realisation of that Spirit in creation, as well as to man's own personal distinction and growth. In very truth, God would seem to need the help of man to bring His creation round to its true fulfilment, which is the full actualisation of Himself in the finite. For it is veritably Himself that He has committed to the finite. God has given Himself as hostage. The ethical act of each man co-operates with the cosmic movement towards The Good, and is a factor in the actualisation of it. The answer accordingly is “Yes” to the question of Eliphaz the Temanite (Job xxii.): “Is it any pleasure to the Almighty that thou art righteous? Or is it gain to Him that thou makest thy ways perfect?”

Let us then not desert God in His difficulty. It is only through a persistent striving after ethical ideals that we help Him and help our fellowmen. Do we not also help ourselves? Or, when we have served the cosmic purpose, are we cast aside as broken vessels? Surely not: the acceptance of an infinite ideal here, with all its toil and repression and pain, is the affirmation deep in the reason and the heart, that we are only on the threshold of life. Save on this supposition, the demands made on me, if I am one of those elected to excess of suffering, are the ingenious devices of an enemy of mankind rejoicing in evil for evil's sake: there must be a disinterested wickedness in the cosmic process: or, to put it popularly, a potent and superhuman devil at work whose special object of hatred is Man. Pessimism now rightfully takes possession of us, not merely as a passing mood, but as a philosophy.

It would appear, then, that if we take the idealistic view of man's life and destiny, we can explain not only his life of struggle and hardship in the ordinary case as a necessary correlate of his spiritual position—involved indeed in its very notion, but may even see a meaning in excess of suffering. Where is this excess most cruelly felt? In the highest men and women. It is in them that the pains and oppressions of life are most intense and overpowering—the distressfulness of physical, intellectual and moral difficulties most conspicuous. Mental elevation, refinement of nature and breadth of sympathetic imagination, so far from bringing alleviation, give universality and infiniteness to personal suffering, at the same time that they give the fatal power of more fully comprehending the universal sorrow. And yet, with whatever intellectual pre-eminence and elevation of ethical thought a man may be endowed, he is as helpless as the humblest of his fellows. Assuming the God whom we have tried to understand in these meditations, is it not a wholly inexplicable fact that the man who most fully responds to His idea should have the greatest capacity for suffering, and that he should often have to pay such a terrible price for realising God in himself; and that in a world for which God alone is responsible? Are we not forced again to say: if it be necessary to the far-off purpose of God that creation should be as it is, it must be that the platform which we occupy is only a step in the evolution of that purpose—an evolution in which we personally shall partake. If it be not so, and if man “goes down into silence” when he has served cosmic uses, then he is being utilised for the life of God as a means, and is not himself an end; and the conclusion is inevitable—God does not seek the Good: He is little more than a sentient, unpurposing process, indifferent to man as to all else. Or, finally, there is no God at all, and Nature and Man are the casual, mistaken, and abortive products of an unconscious Force (to be called brute Will if you please) which it would seem to be our duty to defy and outflank somehow or other. We

ache in the grasp of an idiot power.

That interpretation of our experience would seem alone truly to interpret which gives it unity by fulfilling the requirements of the reason in us, while sanctifying and ennobling the life of man, and carrying it forward to those spiritual and transcendent issues to which his whole nature points. Thus we are again brought back to Death as holding the master-key of the problem in its hands. Continuity of life beyond the grave is, I have said, the postulate of all optimism, as it is of Christian ethics. If it be not so, then assuredly the non-fulfilment of the idea of man on this plane is wholly evil: if it be not so, God and Man alike go to pieces before our eyes: they stand or fall together. It would be mockery were the vindication of the excess of evil to take place in and for the cosmic evolution alone, whether in Time or out of Time (whatever that may mean). It is we who bear the burden, we who faint by the way. Shall we not (says Amiel) at death finally “understand, in its unity, the poem or mysterious episode of our existence?” To us, as persons, and in us, the conciliation must effect itself. We are prepared, as beings of finite reason, to accept much and endure much that the purposes of God in us and in the universe may be effected: we are ready, in a free and virile spirit, to reconcile ourselves to our position within one circle of the mighty Orb of Being with all its necessary consequences: we are proud to co-operate with God; but we are entitled to demand that our ethical perplexities and inevitable failures shall to and for us be ultimately resolved. God's honour is concerned. We wilfully, it seems to me, turn aside from the clear indications of general experience and of reason when we refuse to be satisfied, during our brief time-transit, with the prescience and prophecy so firmly rooted in our nature.

In the discussion of these questions it is not so much man and his future that concern us as God and the meaning of His world. Strange it would be if a cruel and immoral natural system could cast up on the surface of existence a being like man, who could judge and condemn it, who could even shed despairing tears over his unconscious and implacable creator, and be ready to sacrifice even life to remedy His fatal blunders. Out of what elements in the natural system could such a creature come? It is only the fact of Absolute Spirit, itself instinct with purpose and love, and striving, along with man and through man, to reduce a troubled system to the harmony of a great idea (which is Himself) that can explain the fact of man. What could a brute unconscious Will effect save the brutal and the unconscious?

The suns of the limitless Universe sparkled and shone in the sky

Flashing with fires as of God, but we knew their light was a lie—

Bright as with deathless hope—but, however they sparkled and shone,

The dark little worlds running round them were worlds of woe like our own;

No soul in the Heaven above, no soul on the earth below,

A fiery scroll written over with lamentation and woe.8

So far as we have gone in our meditation on Evil, we have, I think, shown that both in nature and man The Good is dominant; and, above all, that what is popularly called Evil is not Evil in so far as it subserves The Good in the large acceptation of that expression. And further, as regards the chief sufferer and actor—man himself, we find that (so-called) evil is necessary to the mediating of him as spirit. They are involved in his very definition. In short, God as Dialectic mediates ends that are Good through strife, oppositions and failures; and man, also, as the finite subjective dialectic can and does mediate the Good for himself, for the Race, and for God through strife, oppositions and failures.

If Man, although within nature, is yet above nature as Will-dialectic, and if he can be formed to excellence only through toil and suffering and has, moreover, an immanent divine impulse that carries him beyond the present condition of things into a more harmonious environment, we can acquiesce in the disorder of this inadequate world, accept our load, and contemplate, with the eye of reason and the hope of faith, a great Purpose on its mysterious and majestic way. Only an idealistic view of man and his destiny can, I repeat, justify the ways of the cosmic forces: only a Willed teleological world has any significance; only in such a world can there be found anything we can call God.

It is a superficial way of talking to say that a God infinite and omnipotent could have attained His purpose in a single act. God Himself can act only in accordance with His nature, and can mediate His ends only by the means which can accomplish them. We have to emphasise to ourselves the teleological necessity embedded in the objective dialectic. It is this (and not experience alone or chiefly) which enables us to say Error subserves Truth, Evil subserves Good, Contradiction subserves harmony in the Cosmic system. It is thus alone that God, as finite, can evolve His purposes; which purposes are Himself as All in All. Meanwhile, wherever there is End (be it Truth or the Good), every step in the series that leads to it, already contains the End.

I cling, accordingly, to the conviction that my analysis of man and of the method of God-creative yields me the truth; and, in yielding it, vindicates the method of creation, revealing a God of Love as well as of Reason, and not merely a vague characterless and purposeless “Absolute,” still less a blind Will or a helpless and ignoble Sentience. If it be not so, then am I the irresponsible product of irresponsible and fortuitous forces; and my function, as a castaway on this turbulent and deceitful ocean called human life, and as sole pilot of my fragile bark, is to steer my course as best I may, avoiding shoals and rocks, and setting my sails so that they may waft me into the sunlight of happiness wherever I can detect its gleams. My sorrow-stricken imagination I must repress, and leave some dread unknown Power to bear the burden of the painful and unmeaning world which It has accidentally generated.

  • 1.

    See “Death and Immortality,” The Notion of Futurity.

  • 2.

    J. Thomson.

  • 3.

    The Ring and the Book.

  • 4.

    Tennyson's Despair.

  • 5.

    Troilus and Cressida.

  • 6.

    Ibid.

  • 7.

    Job xxiii.

  • 8.

    Tennyson's Despair.