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Meditation XVII: The Problem of Evil (Concluded)

Superfluity of Pain—The Casual and Anarchy—Faith.

The contingent and casual arising out of the conflict of individua is, as we have seen, man's opportunity as a free self-fulfilling Ego. Given the truth of the interpretation of experience which follows from our metaphysic, we leave the question of the ages, to some extent at least, answered. We are justified in calmly accepting the inevitable, and even in being proud of our heritage of difficulty and pain and death. But, we are not yet at the end of our indictment—an indictment which, if justified by facts, compels us to modify our view, if not of the nature, yet of the conditions, of Absolute Being as creative God.

We have been speaking of the excess of pain which oppresses those who are yet able, by virtue of a high endowment, to contend and overcome. But what of those who from birth are marked as the failures, the waste, of humanity, and who may be found everywhere, but chiefly in our slums, prisons and asylums? “The soul that sinneth it shall die,” says Ezekiel. Just and true; but what of those who suffer, agonise and die for another's sin? Children are born into the world crippled in body or diseased in mind through no fault of their own, and are not even allowed to perish. Millions, who escape the worst conditions, yet grow up with organisations or under conditions that make the true life of a human being impossible for them—men and women whose intellectual and moral failure cannot, in common justice, be counted to them for sin. We have children's hospitals full of cripples and semi-imbeciles. An unheeding and inexorable nature seems to pursue its way relentlessly, here lifting up and there casting down. What Hume says of the animal world is much more conspicuous and appalling in the man-world.

Look abroad and we cannot fail to see that some vessels are made to honour, some to dishonour. The individual would seem to count for nothing so long as the race continues; and as if to ensure this continuance, man is endowed with an overpowering sexual passion which is itself the source of a large proportion of the misery of the world, and the enemy of all that is highest in his nature. For such things it would seem to be impossible to find any justification. As to inherited miseries, bodily and mental, it is surely no apology to say that we are thus taught the solidarity of mankind through the ages. This is to sacrifice individuals to an abstraction.

We see also that intolerable suffering falls constantly on those who need it not for moral purification. “The hidden and awful Wisdom,” says Thackeray, “which apportions the destinies of mankind is pleased to humiliate and cast down the tender, good and wise.” “There be just men,” says the Preacher, “to whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked, and again there be wicked men to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous.” And in the words of Milton—

Just or unjust alike seem miserable

For oft alike both come to evil end.1

“If,” says Huxley (Romanes lecture), “there is a generalisation from the facts of human life which has the assent of thoughtful men in every age and country, it is that the violator of ethical rules constantly escapes the punishment which he deserves, that the wicked flourishes like a green bay tree while the righteous begs his bread; that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children; that in the realm of nature ignorance is punished just as severely as wilful wrong, and that thousands and thousands of innocent beings suffer for the crime, or the unintentional trespass, of one.”

Unquestionably these are things that might have been otherwise without interfering with the divine purpose which strife and pain subserve in the spiritual economy. Even in the ordinary history of each, many can truly say that in the calamities that have befallen them there were aggravations that might well have been spared, and against which they righteously rebelled. There is often also a tangle in our lives from which we cannot extricate ourselves and for which we are not responsible, and which, demonstrably, serves no good end. Even the sanguine, but ever candid, Bishop Butler says: “We cannot find by experience that all our sufferings are owing to our own follies” (Anal., c. ii.), and (we may add) promote, even remotely, the good of ourselves or others. In very truth, we cannot, even with the best will to do so, see that much of man's suffering (not to speak of the suffering of animals) is other than perverse, arbitrary and cruel—often remorselessly cruel. Much of the pain and the torture that abound are not indispensable to the attainment of any purpose ethical or other, and it is only obsequious adulation that can always say, “God's in His heaven, all's right with the world,” even if we accept the highest interpretation of the purpose of our present sphere of Being. The discipline of the human spirit is not served by all that we see and that history records. Much of the misery and sorrow of life might have been withheld without detriment, nay with positive advantage, to the purpose of man's existence as a rational and ethical being charged with his own destiny. Even if the grave be not the end-all, there are yet distresses, here and now, whose significance is far to seek. Man is sometimes subjected to extravagant and purposeless trials of his endurance. There would seem to be a spirit of malevolence at work. Even at those felicitous periods of our own lives when things are so balanced that existence may be not only tolerable but joyous, we have to banish from our minds the thought of the iniquities being perpetrated on our fellowmen by the cruel system of things, if we are not to relapse into gloom and despair. Let us honestly face these facts of experience, whether we can explain them or not.

An adequate interpretation of man and his cosmic position not only vindicates, I have tried to show, the usual conditions under which he has to live and work and die, but establish their necessity. Even excess of pain has its obvious meaning; but why should there be superfluous pain? Spiritual purposes can unquestionably be served without this. The prolonged physical torture which many of our fellows endure, has no ulterior significance, the moral distresses are sometimes intolerable. The unmerited suffering of animals, unable even to cry for help, is a standing blot on the fair face of creation. It is only the ignorant, the unfeeling and self-complacent who can speak of these things with patience. Again, death is a spiritual, no less than a physical, necessity we have seen; but why should it not be always a euthanasia? The purpose, the lesson, and the meaning of death would not be affected thereby, save for the better. Consider also the pains of child-birth. That an act so wonderful as the renewal of life should involve effort we can understand; that it should involve pain might be accepted; but that it should cause agony is evidence of the superfluity of evil. It is an easy process, we are told, among savage races. Think of the contradiction here; our duty is culture, and yet culture brings with it a grievous penalty; and this to be endured by women only, not by men!

Yet again: the contemplation of the world in which we live reveals an enormous waste. Multitudes of beings suffer and die that one may live. And when we come to man, whose function is to find God and live in Him, there are multitudes whose native organisation and environment make it impossible for them to find Him. Think of this soul-prodigality. The contemplation of it gave rise to the doctrine of Predestination and Election with the consequent horribile decretum (as Calvin called it) of Reprobation. “He hath mercy on whom He will have mercy and whom He will He hardeneth.” We in these days reject a doctrine that would refer all to the arbitrary exercise of Absolute Power; and yet the dogma of Election would seem to be the teaching of history. “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, another to dishonour?” “The Lord hath made all things for Himself, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.”

Think, also, of the total failures in the living world—the abortions, the monsters, the idiots. A miserable attempt has been made by Nature in the last-named, and we have the human shape, and that is all. No physiological or heredity explanation of such things can alter the melancholy facts. The Negation in the system of the universe has somehow been too strong for God.

Moreover, as regards the constitution of all alike and the conditions we have to accept, there are many things brutally offensive. They come “between the wind and our nobility”. There are the indignities (to a being of reason, who is capable of sharing the life of God Himself) which are often inseparable from the humiliating incidents of a death-bed, and the crowning contumely of being cast aside into the ground to rot! Such things are not necessary to man's fulfilment. In brief, contradictions are everywhere; and man, himself a bundle of contradictions, intellectual, æsthetic and ethical, is hurled into the midst of them to effect his own life as best he can, naked, unaided and unpitied, beaten, harassed and insulted.

When we contemplate the irrational element—the everlasting No in the finite system, soft words, smooth phrases, are out of place. Strong words and strenuous acts alone fit the situation in which we find ourselves on this plane of God's evolving Being. Look around, for example, and think of the present-day social facts of what is called an “advanced civilisation”! Think of la misère—“a condition in which the food, warmth and clothing which are necessary for the mere maintenance of the functions of the body in their normal state cannot be obtained; in which men, women and children are forced to crowd into dens wherein decency is abolished and the most ordinary conditions of healthful existence are impossible of attainment; in which the pleasures within reach are reduced to bestiality and drunkenness; in which the pains accumulate at compound interest in the shape of starvation, disease, stunted development and moral degradation; in which even the prospect of steady and honest industry is a life of unsuccessful battling with hunger rounded by a pauper's grave” (Huxley, Struggle for Existence). It would almost appear that such things must be, as they have always been. An economic organisation more in accord with the ideal of social justice might remedy many evils, it may be. But not all: the individualism of men is too potent. It is our duty, notwithstanding, to do our best to subdue what is, in truth, anarchy, and to cherish the hope and faith with which man is endowed. These characteristics must have a profound meaning.

I have been speaking of what we see around us. And if, now, we turn to the record of the past and consider the history of mankind, we shall find that God would seem not to rise to the moral standard of man. The record of the way in which the Supreme Power accomplishes the advance of the Race from the abject misery of its infancy by working through the passions and devilry of contending tribes and nations, is too awful for steady contemplation. Torture, sacrifice, the shedding of innocent blood, and misery too deep for utterance, fill the story of the past. Grant that the results for future generations are good (and they are not always so), can this justify the demonic character of the “march of progress”? Can this wipe out the blood-stains, dry up the tears? Assuredly, it cannot. Was all that we deplore in the past, all from which we shrink horror-struck, in the original “purpose” of God? We cannot, and do not believe it.

As some solution of the mystery, we are told that God is not the author of evil, but only “permits” it. But if it be permitted, it must be a fact and power in the cosmic scheme. The ebb and flow of the tide of human progress is the advance and enforced retreat of God, like that ebb and flow in organisms which we call Progress and Reversion. Let us face that fact. If we say that Divine purposes which are good can be attained only through the superfluous physical and moral pain which is rightly called Evil, surely it follows that they cannot be otherwise attained. Evil, defect, negation, are not, says Bishop Berkeley, the object of God's creative power. True; but this can only mean that there is a necessary element of evil in creation; in other words, that creation—externalisation of Absolute Being is impossible save as embodying, as a matter of fact, the principle of Evil. Injustice, nay, even implacable cruelty, beyond the limits necessary to effect the Divine End seem to be everywhere.

Doubtless, if the cosmic method be that of Evolution, we find, as I have already indicated, a partial explanation of much that perplexes us. If Absolute Spirit, contemplating its Idea as wholly rational and good, passes into creation, it can do so (so far as we can see) only as a finite in extensity of parts and a finite in protensity of parts—both alike a negation of its One-ness. Consequently, it is only as a “one-after-another” that the Divine Idea can make itself an actuality in each and, through each, in the Whole. If there be no evolution in Time towards the actualisation of the Idea under finite conditions, then, either the movement we see is not a progress at all, but an aimless repetition of the same that leaves things neither better nor worse; or, it is a movement towards the worse. On the former alternative, what men call God is either impotent or idly indifferent; on the latter, He is evil continually. It is only by accepting the actual as necessarily involving Negation, and Time as part of the Negation, that the imperfection of the finite and the fact of progressiveness can be reconciled with the Absolute Idea. Evolution is movement: it is the naturalistic generalisation of the metaphysical “Becoming”. All is Becoming: all moves either forward or backward. Forward unquestionably, and whither? To the fulfilment of the divine Idea doubtless; but through difficulties and obstructions many. Thus we have a living world and a living God. But the failures, pains and injustices in the process are more than is necessary even to a scheme of things in which struggle and progress are inherent.

Is it not evident that the contingency and casualty in our system have outrun their function in the whole, and set up for themselves as wild, Bacchantic, purposeless forces? We may call this cosmic fact the spirit of Evil or the Devil. Doubtless this, too, is of God, but it is not by God as Dialectic. It is the Negation which makes possible a finite system of individua whose necessary liberty would seem to pass into licence.

The Casual and Anarchy.—The only conception which contains an explanation of superfluous pain lies, as I have said, in this that in the fact of negation (the conditioning moment of the Divine nature as creative) there is chaos caused by the clash of individua. Meanwhile, let us remember that the negation in the Absolute Synthesis is not an act or affirmation proceeding from God as Dialectic but only an inevitable “condition” emanating from His absolute Being as determining itself into individua; the negation is in the affirmation, and has to be encountered and overcome by the Affirmer in the fulfilling of the Absolute Idea in Time, or out of Time. The divine movement has to fulfil itself in and through a stubborn anarchy; what I have called “cosmic sin”. The idea in each, the divine affirmation, will ultimately become identified with the individual and, through the individual, with the whole; meanwhile, the casual which the causal does not yet wholly control, the demonic which resists the divine, is the way of man's world. The Negation has been let go, so to speak, out of the Being of Absolute God as condition of the possibility of creation, and cannot be wholly arrested in its fateful and stupid career. Herein is the devilry, the “something that infects the world”.

It would appear then that this world is not the image of God; but is a system of individuals, each in search of its own, through conflict, struggle, destruction, death. And yet the limits of each are determined by the idea which truly is it, and beyond that it cannot go: thus is the universe saved from total wreck. Meanwhile, the evidences of the triumph of the Good, the Beautiful and the True, are all around us.

The moment we realise that, whatever God may be in His absolute self-identity, He, as creative, could not fulfil Himself as finitised save through discord, pain and death, and that we men, his highest product, have to accept this, and to fulfil His ends in ourselves and in others—nay, also in nature itself, and are needed to co-operate with Him in the overcoming of necessary Evil, we become so far reconciled to our fate: at least, we seem to understand it. But if that fate involve our own annihilation when we have done our work and suffered (I speak of those who are the victims of the system), then we must fail to see that God is Love, and be content to reconcile ourselves to a position that defies all ethical interpretation. That we, who know that we are Ends in ourselves, should be used up as means for God's purposes and tortured in the using, is a conception that leaves us forlorn indeed: it alters the whole aspect of life and duty, while dethroning God from our hearts as unworthy of either love or worship. “If I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me?” If all the toil and suffering of self-conscious beings end in extinction, they may yet, spite of this, courageously carry on the contest, but it must be with sorrow and hopelessness and a silent protest. The braver sort, recognising the pains of their fellows, may set themselves to remove these, but, in so doing, they must feel that they are combating a demonic or blind force that permeates all existence. Good and great men are all we can have to take the place of a now discredited God. And these, doubtless, will teach us to take to ourselves the words of Pindar: “Forasmuch as a man must die, wherefore should one sit vainly in the dark through a dull and nameless age and without lot in noble deeds” (Olymp., i., 82). Man, in any case, must not part with his distinctive nature, and must fulfil it, come what may. But this is the point—that his judgment of the whole (call it a Divine or a Demonic or a blind Will—movement) must be to condemn.

On the other hand, if the cosmos be truly a spiritual cosmos and the end of all be the realisation of the fact and meaning of Spirit in the highest organism, Man, so that therein God may be fulfilled, the system is so far justified; but not, even then, wholly. The stunted tree evokes our sympathy; the toad, crushed under the passing wheel, whose head still lives and blindly feels about for help; the young birds in the nest who call in vain for the mother whom the hawk has devoured; the father who sees his children the victims of incurable disease; the man who is fated to a cell in a madhouse; the child with a rotten inheritance appealing for relief that can never come, are not justified. All creation travaileth. There is something amiss.

I seem to be forced to the conclusion that God is a Spirit, but a Spirit in difficulty. I find that I must modify my inherited conception of God; and it is only when I do so that I seem to approach the understanding of the great enigma, and in doing so, affirm, with more emphasis than ever, the high position of the spirit of man in the hierarchy of Being. God Himself is, I repeat, in a difficulty from which, it may be presumed, He is slowly extricating Himself and us. His life is, in truth, a strenuous life. He sympathises with us; we also must sympathise with Him. Every victory we register is a victory for Him. This is not rhetoric. If the One of Being was to pass into the Many of existence, there was no other way than that we see. The Creative Energy cannot, even if it would, escape these contradictions. They are inherent in creation—at least in this Man-Orb of Being—this plane of the Divine Evolution. The principle of anarchy is involved in the creative movement; but it is not “purposed”. God does not “willingly afflict”. If we are not only fellow-workers, but fellow-sufferers, with God, we then become reconciled with the universe. We gather ourselves together and fortify ourselves with a great Faith, a generous Trust and a resolute Will.

When we think of these things, we realise the greatness and difficulty of the task assigned to men. Men of science must toil to make nature the friend of man: the Healer of the body must pursue his self-sacrificing labours to defeat disease; the statesman must ever strive to bring about better social conditions: the spiritual teacher must labour to fortify the moral energy of man, to conciliate him with God, and to console him in his sorrows: the artist must create ideals of beauty: the philosopher must ever search for ultimate truth. Man's life must be a strenuous life, as is the life of God. God looks to him to save himself, and in all his relations finite and infinite to give true content to the Absolute Idea: and he has equipped him for this task.

Our duty, then, though we are unconsulted partners in the present scheme, is, I think, plain enough. We have to face the fact of failure, of evil, of inevitable misery and cosmic devilry, without exaggerating these; on the contrary, seeing the end in the means. Our duty, I say, is obvious enough; it is to know God in His world and to fulfil His idea in ourselves and in all sentient creatures, bearing our yoke manfully since we are men. To stand aside, and, under the cloak of an effeminate despair or of a self-satisfied cynicism or even of a self-indulgent seductive mysticism, to affect a certain superiority to actual and inevitable conditions is the very suicide of manhood. Out of the strong come forth steadfastness and loyalty; and even a certain sweetness: nay, also, the humour so nearly allied to tears. By every ethical victory which we gain for ourselves or our fellows, we help to build up the universal Kingdom of Spirit. He who calmly accepts the fact of contradictions and imperfection, superfluous evil and demonic forces, and courageously faces the fact, has already partially overcome it. Not, however, by entrenching himself against the multitudinous forces of the Devil will he overcome; but only by going out to meet him in the open field. If men stand together, they can do much for themselves and for God. They have already done much to reduce chaos to order; and that is “but earnest of the things that they shall do”.

It certainly seems to me that our faith in the ultimate issue and our ability to bear present evils are strengthened by thus fairly recognising cosmic anarchy as ever resisting the entrance of the divine Spirit, ever defeating The Good. If it be that the great God Himself is engaged, here and now, in a very serious business, then even to be a humble private in His advancing hosts is a distinction. There will always be a certain proportion of weak combatants to be pitied and helped, of traitors to be shot, and of craven spirits who slink into the rear with the baggage under cover of an easy scepticism as to the conduct of the campaign, or a supercilious and egotistical superiority to their fellow-soldiers. Not to such have the advances of humanity in the past been due; but only to those who have been faithful to ideals and pursued them to the end.

In fine, let me recur to what I have so often said, that, when we contemplate evil rampant in its dire and myriad forms among the sons of men, we are forced to the conclusion that Man represents but one plane in the evolution of the Life of God and, as only one step in an evolution, he is, ipso facto, incomplete. “Suffering,” says Huxley, “is an essential constituent of the cosmic process.” Humanity bears a cross. In what we see, a “further” is involved, if the End be The Good. And when we contemplate the frequent superfluity and cruel purposelessness of evil, the contemplation forces on us the further conviction that the Divine Life has, at this stage of its unfolding, to encounter difficulties which it cannot wholly overcome, but which the actual good we see and the ideals of reason force us to believe mediate a higher and better. We men are sharing the pain of God Himself: we are partners in His cosmic difficulty. Our personal hope is in death, our victory is the grave. This world is a promise; our life an infancy; our knowledge in the last resort a prescience.

Let us have faith that the absolute idea—the initiating all-comprehending Thought—contains the issues of the finite. The finite is as negation within the Absolute Synthesis; it is the method of procedure whereby God lives, and can alone live, as a revelation in Space and Time. There is a necessity in the method; but it is a necessity from within, not a coaction from without. The finite, vast as it is, is not so vast as the Infinite Being in whom all is One. The finite is within Him, and all is being worked out by Him into a conciliated Harmony when God shall be all in all. Finite things and ends will yield to the power of the affirmation, having attained to the fulfilment of the idea by strife and trouble, through which alone it was possible to attain to it. Meanwhile, we must accept Pain as the path which all must tread if they would realise themselves in God and for God.

Consider, finally, the alternatives: The world is a world of Divine purpose and that purpose is The Good, as the Dialectic tells us; or, there is no purpose either good or bad: man simply finds himself in the midst of an unintelligible whirl of atoms among which he has to fight his own way, seeking (foolishly) to preserve a painful life which he knows must soon vanish into nothing. These are the alternatives. Our interpretation of Man, his function and destiny, resting, we believe, on a scientific analysis of his characteristics and his experience, leads us inevitably to the higher and better conviction. And yet, at times, when the pulse of life is low in us, we cannot rid ourselves of the suspicion that it may all be otherwise; and the supreme trial of the thoughtful spirit is precisely that temporary eclipse to which the soul of every thoughtful man is subject, and which even Christ, the prophet of Humanity, shared:—

The sense that every struggle brings defeat

Because Fate holds no prize to crown success,

That all the oracles are dumb or cheat

Because they have no secret to express;

That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain

Because there is no light beyond the curtain;

That all is vanity and nothingness.2

It is just at this crisis of despondency that we find in Man a wonderful thing—his peculiar distinction—the emotions of Faith and Hope which, like wings, support his sinking spirit, bearing him through the temporary darkness into the regions of eternal light. This ideal impulse is no vague sensuous imagination, born of organic desire, but emerges out of the very heart of the subjective dialectic and will not be repressed. It ever points with steady finger to a future in which Faith will become sight, and Hope will be fruition. Surely we are a perverse generation if we refuse to accept the utterances of that in us which distinguishes our plane of Being, that by virtue of which we are men and which stirs in us the very questionings to which it already, in its inmost constitution, contains an answer.

  • 1.

    Samson Agonistes.

  • 2.