Today I preach upon a text from Karl Jaspers wherein he comments on St. Augustine (Plato and Augustine, ed. Arendt, tr. Mannheim, Harcourt 1962, p. 110):
In interminable discussions, men have tried to sharpen and clarify this contradiction: on the one hand, evil is a mere clouding of the good, a shadow, a deficiency; on the other hand, it is an enormously effective power. But no one has succeeded in resolving it.
The problem is genuine, the problem is humanly important, and yet it gives every indication of being intractable. Jaspers is right: no one has ever solved it. To sharpen the contradiction:
1) Evil is privatio boni: nothing independently real, but a mere lack of good, parasitic upon the good. It has no positive entitative status.
2) Evil is not a mere lack of good, but an enormously effective power in its own right. It has a positive entitative status.
A tough nut to crack, an aporetic dyad, each limb of which makes a very serious claim on our attention. And yet the limbs cannot both be true. Philosophy is its problems, and when a problem is expressed as an aporetic polyad, then I say it is in canonical form.
In Support of the First Limb
We need first to consider whether perhaps evil has no positive entitative status and is only as a privation. In classical jargon, this is the view of evil as privatio boni. Thus Augustine, Enchiridion XI:
For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present --namely, the diseases and wounds -- go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance, -- the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils -- that is, privations of the good which we call health -- are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
If evil is a privation or absence then the ancient problem -- dating back beyond Hume to Epicurus -- of reconciling the existence of God (as classically defined) with the existence of evil seems either to dissolve or else become rather more tractable. Indeed, if the evil-as-privation thesis is coupled with the Platonic notion alive in both Augustine and Aquinas that Goodness is itself good as the Primary Good, the unique exemplar of goodness whence all good things receive their goodness, then one can argue from the existence of evils-as-privations to the existence of that of which they are privations. But that is a separate and very difficult topic.
Without going that far, let us note that the evil-as-privation doctrine does seem to accommodate an intuition that many of us have, namely, that good and evil, though opposed, are not mutually independent. Call this the Anti-Manichean Intuition. What speaks for it?
In one clear sense good and evil are opposites: what is good is not evil and what is evil is not good. And yet one hesitates to say that they are on an ontological par, that they are equally real. They are not opposed as two positivities. The evil of ignorance is not something positive in its own right: the evil of ignorance consists in its being an absence of something good, knowledge. The same goes for the evil of blindness and countless other examples. Good is an ontological prius; evil has a merely derivative status as an absence of good.
The anti-Manichean intuition is that evil, while not an illusion, cannot be fully real. It is in some way parasitic upon the good. It cannot exist without the good, but depends on it, the way shadows depend on light and holes on perforated things.
Here is a second consideration. Manicheanism is deeply repugnant to the intellect. Suppose there are two coeval principles, Good and Evil, equal but opposite, neither derivative from the other, forever at odds with each other. This is intellectually repugnant because the mind's explanatory drift is necessarily toward unity. The mind seeks unity in the conviction that reality is ultimately one, not ultimately many, and that therefore the undeniable reality of the many must in some way derive from the the One. Ultimate reality cannot be Two. (Whether the tendency toward unity is only a transcendental presupposition of our intellectual operations, as opposed to a trait of the Real, is a difficult question I have addressed in other posts.)
The second consideration, then, is that our natural intellectual nisus finds ultimate dualism to be repugnant.
In Support of the Second Limb
But if evil is privatio boni, then how are we to think of animal and human pain, whether physical or mental? Pains, which are often far out of proportion in intensity of painfulness to their warning and protective functions, are standardly cited as examples of natural or physical evils. Suppose you have just slammed your knee against the leg of a table. Phenomenologically, the pain is something all-too-positive. The Nagelian what-it-is-like is something quite distinctive. It is not a mere absence of well-being, but the presence of ill-being. Compare an absence of sensation in the knee with intense pain in the knee. An absence of sensation, as in a numb knee, is a mere lack; but a pain is not a mere lack, but something positive in its own right. This seems to show that not all evils can be privations. (And did it have to hurt that much to warn you not to slam your knees and other joints into hard objects?)
Now imagine the passion of Christ and his excruciating death on the cross. Try to convince yourself that what he experienced was a mere lack of well-being, that his horrendous sufferings were privations and deficiencies comparable to clouds and shadows and blindness in the eye.
The argument in nuce is that not all evils can be privations of good because a felt pain is a positive evil sensation that is not an absence, lack, or privation of something good. So the nature of evil cannot lie in privatio boni.
The same seems to hold for mental pains such as an intense sadness. It is not merely an absence of happiness, but something positive in its own right. Hence, the evil of sadness is not merely a privation of the good of happiness. Examples are easily multiplied: Angst, terror, despair, ordinary depression, clinical depression, anomie, the sense of abandonment in a meaningless universe, etc.
Christ on the cross did not merely experience the most horrific physical tortures, but also the worst spiritual torture, the sense of utter abandonment by God together with doubt in the reality of God. What Christ experienced in his passion was the reality of abandonment to evil agency with no consolation. (If you deny that he suffered in this way, then you deny that he was fully man.) Of course, Christ needn't come into this at all since I can make my point using other examples.
Much more can be said in support of the two limbs of our aporetic dyad. But let's consider a possible solution.
Solve the problem in the typical philosophical way by drawing a distinction. Distinguish evil effects from their source(s). Think of evil effects as evil deeds or the consequences of evil deeds. Think of the causal source(s) of evil effects as evil agents who freely (with the liberty of indifference, liberum arbitrium indifferentiae) bring about evil effects. It might then seem that there is a way between the horns of our dilemma. The positivity of evil derives from the reality of the agents of evil whereas the lack of the positivity of evil is due to the lack of reality of the evil effects.
Lucifer, the bearer of light, became a creature of darkness. His Fall came before the Fall of man in Adam. The angel Lucifer was created by the Good, i.e., God. Lucifer, qua creature, was good in virtue of his positive entitative status. To be is to be good. (Ens et bonum convertuntur.) But his will was free, and he chose to misuse his freedom, thereby bringing evil into the realm of creatures.
The solution, then, is that the reality of evil is the reality of free agents who freely do evil deeds whereas the unreality of evil is the relative unreality of evil effects. The responsibility for evil cannot be charged to the account of the Good principle. On the other hand, Evil is not pushed entirely out of the Good principle and hypostatized as on Manicheanism. For the agents, both demonic and human, who freely do evil depend for their existence and nature as free upon the Good principle, which is also the principle of Truth and Being.
The problem with the solution is that God or the Good must harbor within itself the possibility of evil wills and evil deeds.
Enter the Pyrrhonian
Imagine a Pyrrhonian Skeptic making the scene. His precious tranquillitas animi is upset by this dialectical bickering back and forth. So he suspends judgment on the great question and pretends no longer to care. But is this any solution? Not at all.
The great questions are disputed, often bitterly. There is no agreement, and there is no reasonable hope for agreement. But could one reasonably suspend judgment on questions of great existential moment -- especially on the paltry ground that thinking about these things is disturbing?
Either we have a higher origin or we don't. What is the truth? The answer you give will inform the way you live -- and the way you die. The Pyrrhonist stops caring to save himself mental disturbance and anxiety. But is his a peace of mind worth wanting?
We cannot know the ultimate truth in this life (contra dogmatism), but we also cannot reasonably not care what the ultimate truth is (contra Pyrrhonism). We cannot know because of the infirmity of reason: our fallen state has noetic consequences. But we are also inclined not to care because we are fallen and so easily swamped by the delights of the senses and by social suggestions.
There is the complacency of dogmatic belief, but also the complacency of not caring. One succumbs to the temptation of thinking that none of this really matters -- which is itself a sort of dogmatism, that of believing that it's all just a play of phenomena and that when you are dead, that's it. Call it the Great Temptation.
Exit the Pyrrhonian
Resisting the Great Temptation, and avoiding both the complacency of dogmatism and the complacency of the uncaring worldling, we must continue the search for truth which, as Jaspers remarks above, is the way of philosophy.