THE MYSTERY AND THE RIDDLE
REFLECTIONS ON THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
Note: I offer these disjointed and chaotic reflections on the problem of evil in the hope that they may yet be found of value as raw material for thought.
I call Good a mystery because, in my view, it is an ultimate reality. Like being and like intelligence, it is simply there and is not amenable to any explanation. Life is not only self-affirming in a narrow sense; it is, essentially and originally, affirmative of life in its generality and universality — and of more than life, of form and of being. Animal love, animal tenderness, animal sympathy, are observable phenomena that extend far beyond a particular animal's offspring. These phenomena are not explainable by reduction to any extraneous factors or circumstances. But if reality is ultimately good, then the existence of evil – however we define evil – is a riddle that calls for explanation.
In dealing with the problem of evil we have to distinguish clearly between two different problems: (1) The problem of the metaphysical status of evil, and (2) The problem of evil in human behaviour.
The problem of the metaphysical status of evil must have occupied the minds of thoughtful human beings from the earliest times. Human beings found themselves surrounded by forces that seemed inimical: hurricanes, fires, ferocious beasts, pain, and death. Who brought about all that destruction and suffering? The angry gods? And if there is just one most powerful god/dess, is he/she vicious? But in other ways he/she seems to be very benevolent. Is he/she contesting against another equally or nearly equally powerful god/dess?
There were certain creeds that regarded evil as ultimate. But to regard evil as ultimate entails either an ultimate dualism (Ahura Mazda has to fight against Ahriman), which I find metaphysically untenable, or an anthropomorphic conception of the ultimate being as a limited animal with all the constraints, contradictions, conflicts, and imperfections that we find in ourselves (Jahweh, for no conceivable reason makes Satan, and then gives him free rein), which is metaphysically puerile.
So, the metaphysical problem of evil only arises within the framework of a world-view that makes an omnipotent power or powers responsible for the world. If God is personal, omnipotent, and omniscient then, to my mind, no argument can exonerate him/her of responsibility for all the calamities and the suffering that we find all around us. All theodicies are unavailing. But if we elect to give up belief in a personal, omnipotent, and omniscient God rather than allow Evil to dwell in the highest places, then we have no need for a theodicy and we can go on to address the problem of evil in human life, in the individual and in society.
If Reality is essentially creative, as I maintain, then only the transcendent creative act is eternal. All determinate existents in which the creative act is actualized are necessarily transient. All that is actual is in process of becoming. All life is ephemeral. We are constantly dying: not only our body but our feelings, our thoughts, our emotions, our memories, our moments of glory, are constantly passing away, and the death that comes at the end of our term of life is only a more glaring instance of the selfsame process. All of this is tragic but not evil.
Life is intrinsically tragic, as all existence is tragic because essentially transient. And human life will always be subject to the injuries inseparable from its natural frailty. But neither death nor illness nor natural catastrophe can canker life as corrupt thought can. It is the diseased thought of man that mars life and is the origin of all evil: selfishness and bigotry and the valuation of what is of no true value and the worship of false gods. But for these evils, life could be wholly good.
The biological phenomenon of pain is a vital function and is not in itself evil. Even excruciating physical pain, which makes life intolerable, is not an evil in nature. It is in the same class as natural disasters. Of course pain wilfully inflicted by a human being on another living creature, is the most vicious form of evil; but pain resulting from some natural ailment or accident I would not call evil.
I do not concern myself here with the pathological, with psychopathic conditions, which we may be tempted to describe as pure evil. These are explicable, but their explanation is a matter for specialized psychological studies. I do not see them as raising a fundamental philosophical problem.
In the dialogues of Plato we find Socrates again and again affirming that no one does moral wrong willingly. This is a cardinal article of Socratic faith which I seek to vindicate. As A. E. Taylor puts it, "A man has temporarily to sophisticate himself into regarding evil as good before he will choose to do it" (Socrates, 1933, ch. IV). The tragedy of human life is that we sophisticate ourselves into regarding evil as good, not temporarily but permanently, through institutions, dogmas, superstitions, and spurious and meretricious values.
Human beings are human in virtue of their living in a world of their own creation. To take this in the sense that civilized human beings live in an ambiance constituted by inventions, contrivances, systems and organizations produced by the ingenuity of human beings, would be trite though true. What I mean goes much beyond that. I maintain that humankind as a species, and individual human beings, are only specifically human inasmuch as they live in a world constituted by ideas (a blanket term) which are the creation of the human mind, from the most basic concepts which are a necessary dimension of simple perception and without which impressions and sensations remain devoid of subjectivity, to the most sophisticated scientific or philosophical world-view, to the highest ideals of magnanimity, generosity, integrity, and the like. As a corollary to this, I further maintain that all human behaviour is shaped by the cultural make-up of groups and individual persons. I maintain that drives, instincts, propensities, incentives and what not, that are thought to determine bahaviour, are all, on the human plane, neutral, providing the material of action, that can only be actualized in determinate form under the influence of ideas. The same elemental drive under the formative governance of different ideal systems results in radically different modes of behaviour. The same ideal system conjoined to different elemental drives produces forms of behaviour that are modally distinct but essentially congenital. In short, I maintain that all behaviour, on the human plane, is shaped by ideas and ideals, beliefs and superstitions, values and illusions, dreams and fears, that all have their rise and origin in the human mind. The noblest of human deeds and the most atrocious of human actions are equally the offspring of mind-generated ideas: the self-denying benevolence of a Mother Teresa or a Schweitzer equally with the bloodthirsty actions of a tyrant or the deeds of a common serial killer are in a most strict sense realizations of ideas and could never occur apart from the influence of ideas.
Apart from physical catastrophes and natural ailments, all human misery stems from religions — not only the traditional systems known by that appellation, though these have their ponderous share, but also the religions of material values, of false ideals, of the delusions of pleasure, of power or of glory. All of these – equally with the religions of heaven and hell, of divine wrath and divine inculcations, of original sin and original evil – are creeds, systems of belief, set above life and the spontaneity of the pure, unencumbered will which issues in life-affirmation and joyful creativity. The cause of all the misery in the world is to be found in superstition, narrow-mindedness and bigotry — the cause of all misery engendered by human beings resides in the minds, the thoughts, of humans. (Of course a great portion of natural ailments and natural calamities are also human-induced, partly through ignorance and venial ineptitude, but largely through false beliefs, mistaken values, illusory goals.)
Ideas constitute the world of a human being. A brute, or a person nurtured in the wild, in complete isolation from human society, would, I believe, have various drives and impulses, some affirmative and constructive and some negative and destructive. It is only when those drives and impulses are placed under and directed by ideas that they become good in a higher sense, as only spiritual values can be good; or evil as only human behaviour can be evil. Nevertheless, we may be less in error if we call affirmative deeds bereft of thought good, since nature is elementally good, than if we call thoughtless negative deeds evil rather than neutral.
All evil-doing is moral blindness. Macbeth is blinded by the goal he has set himself; his understanding is completely and exclusively riveted to that one goal; he is totally incapable of bringing any other consideration to the light of understanding.
In the way of making for evil, the role of religious ideas cannot be over-emphasized, but the role of the secular store of ideas is equally ponderous: ideas of honour and mastery and propriety and inherited fictions we thoughtlessly hold as to what is desirable and what is beneficial. What a joke it is to call the human being a thinking animal when the whole of humanity throughout its history has been nothing but a solid mass of thoughtlessness. Alas for Socrates! were he to come into our present-day world, he would die of dejection and despair.
Only behaviour that issues from ideas is bahaviour on the human plane. It is then either free action, when the ideas are consciously examined and rationally appropriated or it is determined passion when the ideas are externally imposed and passively acquiesced in. Behaviour that issues from warped ideas is also 'human' in the sense that only human beings are capable of such vicious doings; but it is not free: it is not action (in Spinoza’s sense) but passion. Even when the ideas are good and the behaviour commendable, if the ideas are not rationally embraced, then it cannot be rated any higher than what Plato termed 'demotic virtue'. Socrates' examinings sought to convert the conventionally received ideals of virtue into reasoned principles. That is what moral philosophy can do and should do, to lead us to the fount of all goodness in us, not by analyses and syllogisms, but by revealing the essential intelligibility of virtue as the creative affirmation of intelligence.
All human dealings are intertwined with human-made institutions, human-made laws, and human-made creeds and superstitions – human-made meaning the product of thought, of imagination and of reason, that is, of ideas.
Both Abraham and Agamemnon were willing to offer human sacrifice in obedience to a thought system. Agamemnon was morally superior to Abraham in that he sacrificed his daughter to the good of the community, whereas Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son to no good, but in obedience to the unjustified dictate of a capricious tyrant. But the significant point for our present purpose is that both were acting in pursuance of accepted ideas.
A human being becomes a person when, by virtue of the idea of the 'I' s/he gains subjectivity, positing the self in opposition to the not-self. But the I, the self, like all fictions, has no essential fixity. Over and above its contextual fluidity, (the I that enjoys a nice ice-cream is not the same I that is joyed when my favourite soccer team scores a goal), various experiential and cultural influences are effective in forming the boundaries of the self, and make all the difference between the narrowly constricted self of a James Steerfort or a Uriah Heep and the virtually boundless self of a Daniel Peggotty or a Thomas Traddles in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield.
Perhaps the major fault of traditional psychology was the tendency to fragment the human being. Our starting point, the ground on which we should take our stand and from which we should proceed, should be the whole human being — the only reality we know directly, immediately and unquestionably.
It would be more conducive to an understanding of human nature to regard a human being not as consisting of so many powers, faculties, etc. (as students of the human psyche from Plato and Aristotle down to modern psychologists have tended to do), but as made up of so many different strata or planes of being. Theories of the subconscious and the unconscious have perhaps moved in that direction, but I think there is still need for a more clear-headed approach.
A human being is partly matter; and matter has its own habits, its own character. (My inner mentor tells me not to shun metaphor, for all language is metaphorical and all truth is metaphorical.) A human being is flesh and blood; and flesh has its proper habits and its proper character. A human being is a bundle of drives and emotions and passions; and these psychic factors have their wonted ways and a character of their own. A human being is a reservoir of memories, beliefs, dreams and ideals; and these all, individually and collectively, have their behavioural traits and their character.
Thus an individual human being exists on various planes of being. On each of those planes s/he belongs to a special world and is subject to the laws and influences of that world. On the physical plane a stream of gamma radiation changes her/his constitution. On the molecular plane an aspirin tablet, a glass of whisky, a puff of contaminated air can change her/his temper for better or for worse. On the biological plane a bacterium or a virus can disrupt her/his vital processes. (In giving these instances I speak as a laymen, claiming no knowledge and making no attempt at scientific correctness.) Up to this point we meet with nothing peculiar to humans; in all of this a human being differs in no way from any other animal. But a human being lives also on an ideal plane, a plane constituted by ideas, beliefs, values, purposes. When I speak of an ideal plane I do not refer specifically or exclusively to sublime or elevated ideals. Complete morons apart, every human individual – from a Mother Teresa to the most depraved of serial killers – lives in her or his own world of ideas, beliefs and values. How these ideas (to use this word as a blanket term) are formed or acquired is, in my opinion, the central problem of education, of moral philosophy, of political theory.
For once let us, in philosophizing, follow the example of science. Let our question be, not: How should we act?, but: How do we act? We shall find that we do good spontaneously because there is goodness in us: because we have being and all being is perfection and in its creativity affirms perfection. The difference between the action of one agent and that of another stems from the measure of wholeness realized in the ideal constitution of the one agent or the other.
Goodness, sympathy and tenderness, disinterestedness and generosity, friendliness, love of beauty, love of peace and serenity, love of life, the will to affirm, the joy of creativity — all of that is not only possible and natural but is also amply exemplified in all walks of life, in the animal world, among primitive peoples, and in imaginative literature (which I consider of no less significance than factual records). And normal human beings, I believe, are never without a hankering to all of that and a secret belief that that is the way to true happiness. What, then, are the causes that lead human beings to be (in Aristotle's phrase) 'maimed as regards their potentiality for virtue'?
There are two distinct and opposed religions that go about clothed in the loose cloak of Christianity: one whose principle is love and another whose principle is hostility to sin. The first is life-affirming and joyful and is commonly the source of much good. The second is life-denying and sorrowful and is commonly the source of much evil.
Sensuality, lust, submission to the allurements of pleasure, all that traditional Christian morality castigates as sins of the flesh; all of that cannot justly be condemned on moral grounds. It is on psychological, hygienic and practical grounds that inordinate pleasure-seeking can be taken to task. The distinction here is not indifferent. It is important that our thinking should be clear on the subject, because confused thinking here necessarily leads to a diseased philosophy of life. Acceptance of the denunciation of pleasure on moral grounds results in a life-negating attitude while the unthinking reaction against that attitude results in a more or less dissolute style of life that leaves little or no room for spiritual values.
We need a life-affirming Stoicism: a philosophy of life that holds that our dearest treasure is within us but knows that our inward worth can and must be realized in creative activity, in deeds of love, in 'a thing of beauty', even in simple pleasures. And when we are unfortunate, we can fall back on our inalienable and invincible stronghold within ourselves and forfeit all outer good things without denying their value.
In a nutshell, my position is that, contrary to traditional Christian teaching, the flesh is pure. The flesh never sins. Our instincts, our natural drives, may be blind and may err through ignorance, but moral wrongdoing is always brought about by and through an idea. Does that square with the Socratic position that nobody does wrong willingly? Fully, because the idea that leads to wrongdoing is always an ignorant idea, a fiction taken too seriously, an illusion parading as reality. 'Lead us not into temptation' translates into 'give us understanding', and 'deliver us from evil' into 'free us from self-deception'.
Beasts live and die; they may occasionally suffer, but their life on the whole seems worthwhile. But humans fill their life with false expectations, unattainable desires, claims on others and counter-claims that can only breed tragic conflict and gnawing grief. A human's thought is her/his glory; yet it is just that thought that can turn a human being's life into a sham and a shambles.
Nietzsche was right. Every honest human being will readily admit that there is cruelty in her/him/self and much vice (however this may be defined). But against this I think it is necessary to acknowledge and to emphasize two truths. Firstly, that it is not what we naturally are that matters morally but what we determine to make ourselves into. The ideals we adopt and the values we elect and seek to uphold are what we truly are as human beings. Secondly, there is in us also much natural goodness, the spontaneous affirmation of the love of being and love of life which are our birthright as intelligent beings.
Aristotle speaks of things 'pleasant to people of vicious constitution'. We might think of the 'pleasure' people experience in watching cruel sports or in themselves commiting acts of cruelty and atrocity. Here we are clearly not dealing with pleasure but with the discharge, the outburst, the decompression, of vicious complexes and pressures – reducible to negative beliefs and judgements – formed under the impact of adverse experiences. This applies to all destructive impulses and attitudes.
Violence is possibly a composite phenomenon, and instances of violent behaviour may differ widely in the extent to which the one element or the other enters into their constitution. There is a culture of violence and much violence in the contemporary world is fuelled by articulate systems of ideas and scales of value. But much violence also is mainly a physical eruption. When it is such and to the extent that it is such, it calls for medication rather than edification, as Aristotle rightly thought.
The case of an evil person who desires to harm a good person for no other reason than the other person's goodness is in my view a case of envy. The evil person knows that s/he has a defect; s/he envies the good person for her/his goodness; s/he wants to deface and to remove the good person's goodness as the source of the evil person's painful awareness of her/his own defect. This schematic sketch may sound very silly, but I believe it is basically true.
When a person feels that her/his life is vacant, s/he will choose to fill it with anything rather than face the horror of a blank life, which is the negation of life. This horror of the blank, in fortunate individuals, is the source of creative work, of art and discovery and of heroic deeds and of self-sacrificing benevolence. But in less fortunate persons it can lead to self-torment or torment inflicted on others. I do not think such a person deliberately chooses one of these alternatives in preference to the other; the choice is foisted on her/him by circumstances. I think this explains much of what appears as senseless cruelty and evil.
In every one of us there is a Dr Jekyll and a Mr Hyde. Both the Jekyll and the Hyde are natural and also non-natural: natural in the sense that both are built on raw material that is inborn in us; non-natural because the inborn raw material can never determine specific character; both the Jekyll and the Hyde are the product of ideas and values giving specific shape to the material. How do the Jekyll and the Hyde live side by side in the same person? They do so because all of us are only more or less integrated and streamlined. All of us are the product of multifarious influences, the conflux of various tributaries. Only the most fortunate of us, the wisest and the best, attain a fair measure of harmony and of unity.
I think it is wrong to assume that we naturally seek to maximize our own pleasure. I think the more basic drive is to realize our perfection. The quest of pleasure is only a particular, conditioned, (acquired) specification of the quest of perfection. Likewise, I think people seek power because it is a form of the extension of the self.
I am free when I act spontaneously in fulfilment of my 'self'. But, more often than not, my 'action' is not spontaneous. Leaving aside for the moment the question of external pressures and drives, my spontaneity can be marred by internal conflict. This is possible because 'I' am not a wholly-formed, stable entity. I am continually being formed and re-formed.
In Ethica Nicomachea, 1111a-b, Aristotle criticizes Plato's usage of the terms voluntary and involuntary. To my mind this shows the difference between two mentalities. One might say that while Plato is thinking ethically, Aristotle is thinking legalistically. When Plato says that an act done in anger or in obedience to appetite is not voluntary, he, true to his Socratic inspiration (however much he may have modified the theoretical architecture of Socrates' ethics), means to reserve the appellation voluntary for acts done in exercise of what is best in a human being. In all base and wicked acts a person is not true to her/him/self, and even in neutral deeds a person is not acting on the highest plane of her/his being.
Aristotle says that "outbursts of anger and sexual appetites ... actually alter our bodily condition, and in some men even produce fits of madness" (Ethica Nicomachea, 1147a, tr. W. D. Ross). I think this points to the most distressing and puzzling question relating to the problem of freewill: What determines human behaviour, thought or chemistry? The question here cannot in truth be posed in the form whether x or y. The significant question is, How are the planes of chemistry and thought related? This is an empirical question to be studied by the methods of science. Whatever the results we arrive at, it remains true that only when our behaviour is governed by our ideas are we living on the human plane. But how sad it is to realize what rarity this is in the life of every individual of us and in the life of humankind at large.
"The explanation of how the ignorance is dissolved and the incontinent man regains his knowledge is the same as in the case of the man drunk or asleep and is not particular to this condition; we must go to the students of natural science for it" (Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, 1147b, tr. W. D. Ross). Aristotle is right here. Ethical theory need not concern itself with abnormalities and aberrations, except marginally: "we must go to the students of science" for that. The rapist and the serial killer are for the therapist and the legislator to deal with, not the moral philosopher.
The long and the short of the matter is that when people do wrong, they are not human; they are another kind of being. Aristotle was right: to explain or to cure wrongdoing we have to go to the scientist not to the philosopher. The final word of philosophy is that when a human being is in full possession of her/his humanity, s/he only acts in love and understanding. The Socratic ethics is only seen as wrong-headed when we take it as applying to the sub-humans that the best of us are most of the time and most of us are all the time. When we are and for the duration of the time that we are the human beings we are meant to be, we can do nothing but what we think good and just and noble. That we often do otherwise is regrettable and explainable. The study and the treatment of our behaviour under those circumstances is the task of psychology, psychotherapy, paedagogy, jurisdiction, criminology, and the like. The task of philosophy is to keep before our eyes the excellence we should aspire to and can and do realize — haltingly, intermittently, but, hopefully, in time, more and more consistently. The alternative is to acquiesce in the doom and final ruin of humanity.
Socrates had true insight, the insight that is the essence of wisdom and that is the whole of wisdom. He may have fumbled all his life for the best manner of putting his insight into words. But there was a kernel of truth – most profound and most precious – in his belief that to know what is good is to be good. Perhaps it was unfortunate that he went on to ask: What is that knowledge or what knowledge is that? For knowledge of the good can only be defined in terms of the good. The more opportune question would be: How do we come by that knowledge? And in seeking the answer to this question we find the answer to the first question. The knowledge of the good is not theoretical knowledge. We cannot arrive at it by any deduction or any reasoning. It is an experience. We know the good when the good in us is allowed to flourish.
But how best – coming down to the details and particulars of practice – can we allow the good in us to flourish? That is the problem of education, that is the whole essence of the art and science of education. If virtue is 'knowledge', how can it be taught? The difficulty is engendered by the unfortunate use of the word 'knowledge'. But if virtue is soundness of mind, then it is easy to see that it is not to be taught but developed. This is the positive element in the doctrine of anamnesis: we do not inculcate virtue; we help the soul come to flower.
It is no metaphor to say that the babe at its mother's breast sucks in love. It is there and then that it receives the first seed of morality, which is then nourished by every harmonious sound, every beautiful form, every kindly touch.
How can we relate the influences that mould a child's character in the earliest stages of life to the view that human behaviour is wholly governed by ideas? When a child, in its earliest days, is taught that one thing is desirable and another undesirable, this may either involve the inculcation of a belief or the imposition of a conditioned reflex (or, as is more likely, a mixture of this and that). As long as the desire or the aversion remains merely a 'conditioned reflex', then the agent, in behaving in obedience to those desires or aversions, is behaving on a sub-human level, is not acting on the plane of intelligent personality. All of us live and behave on such a sub-human level most of the time, and for most of the time this is innocuous. But when we find our behaviour clashing with a value we consciously hold, then it is always possible for a well-formed person to examine, to question and to correct her/his habitual attitudes and behaviour. So that it is still possible to maintain that the behaviour of a human being – living and acting as a human being – is always subject to her/his ideas and ideals, good or bad.
Mark Twain speaks somewhere of the collision of a sound heart and a deformed conscience: All human evil – all evil, because I know of no evil outside the sphere of human action and human dealings is attributable to deformed conscience. If we all grew up without any interference foreign to our elemental nature, independently and autonomously like wild flowers, we would all have sound hearts and there would be no room for conscience – sound or deformed – and there would be no collision and no conflict. A deformed conscience is constituted by acquired false judgements and acquired false values; by inherited dogmas and inherited prejudices. Even what we call a conflict of interests cannot arise, on the human plane, without a pre-determined set of ideas and values. Without any conscience whatever we would not have evil, but without an enlightened conscience we would not have the highest, noblest morality.
I don't think that rivalry among 'wild' animals is an evil trait in those animals. They do not act viciously. They do not seek to harm others, but only to realize their own good. The same is also true of little children. Some little children are violent or fierce; many commit acts that, by mature standards, are cruel. But all such deeds and acts have a positive content and if rightly directed will turn to good. When a little child behaves aggressively one moment and the next moment behaves sympathetically, the two types of behaviour do not proceed from contradictory motives but from contrary viewpoints, contrary perspectives. In educating a child we do not have to extirpate its aggressiveness but to broaden its sympathy. In our day-to-day doings we often catch ourselves acting in forgetfulness of the good of others. How often and how effectively one does or does not remedy this forgetfulness may be all that differentiates a benevolent person from a selfish one.
It is said that certain of the brutes – the camel, the elephant – take vengeance on persons that hurt them. It may be that this is not in the same class as vengeance in human beings. It may be that a camel encountering a person that had inflicted harm on it, reflexively acts to pre-empt expected harm. (I purposely express myself here crudely and vaguely as I do not wish to suggest an excursion into animal psychology.) I think this is something quite different from a human being harbouring the intention of revenge, which essentially involves a system of beliefs and values. Of course a human being, being an animal, may also behave in a similar situation purely as an animal. In that case I would not describe the behaviour as morally evil.
I cannot say that I am good and someone else is evil. I know that I am quite as liable as that someone else to be blinded to the good and to be overwhelmed by the contingencies that make for folly and error. The difference lies not in the nature of this or that person; it is simply that some persons are fortunate in having had an upbringing and circumstances that enabled them to be in communion with the good in them while others are unfortunate in that their upbringing or circumstances shut them off, more or less, from the spring of good in them. The only right attitude towards 'evil' persons is expressed in the words of Jesus: They know not what they do.
Does the explainability of evil preclude the condemnation of evil? It all depends on what we mean by condemnation. I say that the evil-doer is not free, is not truly human. That's moral condemnation, isn't it? If by condemnation we mean subjection to penal and corrective measures, that's a practical matter that has to be decided in each case in the light of practical considerations: the good of the wrong-doer and/or the good of other members of the community. It is never morally right to take vengeance.
If I view the wrongdoer as a plaything of forces beyond her/his ken, does that necessarily mean that we have to regard ourselves in the same way? My answer is No, because the point of morality is precisely this, that to attain our perfection as human beings we have to be the authors of our action.
It seems to me that when Plato, in the Symposium, after giving Diotima's account of the ascent to what we may justifiably designate as the beatific vision brings in Alcibiades's account of his own experience under the influence of Socrates, he wants to point out that even such an essentially generous and noble nature as Alcibiades's cannot be brought round to virtue if it has not been in-formed in the first place by the right influences. Virtue indeed is wisdom, but that wisdom is not any kind of theoretical knowledge; it is 'knowledge' of the beautiful and the good as experienced.
A genetic propensity to aggressiveness is not necessarily translated into wrongful behaviour. There are types of characters, modes of behaviour, but determinate behaviour is the outcome of the character or general mode shaped into specific acts by the individual's system of ideas [ideals, values, aims]. I believe that nobody is born a criminal. There is no genetic or inherent criminality; there can only be genetic or inherent irascibility, impetuosity, forcefulness, cunning, roguery, but these are all morally neutral; under the impress of the individual's ideas they can find their realization in heroism, in exploits of discovery and adventure, in flights of fancy, or, on the other side, in criminal deeds and activities.
I do not think that 'desiring to do some harm to the person who is the object of your anger' is 'primitively intelligible' (Peter Goldie, "Explaining Expressions of Emotion", Mind, Jan. 2000, p.28) or rational. You can be pained and angry and yet entertain no desire to do any harm. You may take out your anger on yourself or on an inanimate object, without any desire to harm the person who engendered your anger. And we cannot regard the desire to harm the object of our anger as rational if our action serves no purpose. (Peter Goldie may mean by 'primitively intelligible' no more than that we can imagine ourselves doing the same thing in a similar situation. Properly defined, that would be a legitimate use of the expression. Still, I would think it an unhappy choice since it tends to suggest that the desire is rational, which I do not think is the case.)
Desiring to do harm to the object of our anger is not in the same class as 'desiring' to get away from the object of our fear. A wild animal fighting to the death with another, is not venting its anger. It is defending itself, its young, or its livelihood. Its anger is sheer adrenalin. When the adversary retreats, defeated, the victor entertains no further desire to harm it or to wreak vengeance on it. All our evil desires are belief-induced.
If the inescapable egotism (more accurately: egocentrism) of the human being is taken to be antithetical to morality, then how can we explain our willing submission to the dictates of morality? The egotism of a human being is simply the necessary grounding of all individual activity in a center of self-awareness: to be a self is to be self-centred. This does not preclude the self being expansive and life-affirming. Sympathy is as natural, as instinctive as self-assertion. I venture to say that there is no empirical evidence to show that Hobbes' 'war of every man against every man' has ever been the 'state of nature', not even if we put the word 'animal' or 'beast' in place of the word 'man'. It is not companionship and friendliness and cooperation, whether among humans or among other animals, that call for explanation but antagonism and animosity and conflict. It is these that are due to special causes. I think Kant was not consistent in his endorsement of Hobbes' view of human nature. When Kant says, "As Hobbes maintains, the state of nature is a state of injustice and violence, and we have no option save to abandon it and submit ourselves to the constraint of law", he negates the autonomy of morality. We have to submit ourselves to the constraint of the moral law, but that submission is not a choice of expediency but a choice that responds to a deep-seated aspiration to inner perfection. Even if we had no evidence to the contrary and believed that human association and human solidarity developed only under self-seeking motives, we can still say that the sentiments of fellow-feeling and sympathy and love that were then engendered translated humankind into a realm of autonomous morality transcending all self-seeking motivation.
Benevolence is not opposed to self-love. Far from it. Self-love is the necessary ground for all virtue. Self-love is nothing but the primitive and simple outcome of the joy of living. In a healthy environment it develops into positive and creative life-affirmation, which is the essence of all morality. A vicious person is not motivated by self-love or self-interest. More often than not, a person who wrongs others hates her/him/self more than s/he hates the one s/he wrongs. In all cases, wrongdoing stems from narrow-mindedness, from a constricted personality, from ignorance, not the philosophic ignorance that Socrates advocated, but the moral ignorance he spent his whole life combating.
It is not through knowledge of nature and mastery over nature that humanity can achieve its elusive goal. Technological wizardry, political, economic and organizational acumen may all be necessary conditions of living, especially with our ever-increasing numbers. But it is only understanding, the understanding of ourselves, of the meaning and purpose of life, of what gives life meaning and value, that can make human life worthwhile.
People are beginning to dream of changing human nature by altering our genes. Whether that is possible or not, whether that is desirable or not, I think it is both desirable and feasible to change human behaviour by altering our ideas and beliefs. Of course, before doing that, we have to agree on which ideas and beliefs are to be changed and which are to be adopted. And that is just another reason why, perhaps now more than at any other time, we need philosophy and free philosophical discussion, because only philosophy is competent to examine the wholesomeness and worth of ideas, ideals and values.
Good literature and good art are the best, the most powerful, disseminators of true values. Unfortunately, in our contemporary world, much that goes by the name of literature and art is pernicious because it does not spring from love, does not spring from genuine spontaneous creativity, but from those very false attachments and delusions that it is the task of true literature and true art to remove.
Understanding can change Earth into Heaven — this was my childhood faith and it remains the cardinal article of my religion at the close of my life. But are all people capable of attaining this understanding, this Socratic 'knowledge'? I believe, Yes. As strongly, as unwaveringly, as naively as Socrates, I believe in the perfectibility of humankind. All undeformed minds are capable of flowering into the understanding that makes men good and happy. By a proper education that begins at the mother's breast, fortified by good example and sympathetic handling, nurtured with all forms of beauty, nourished by imaginative representations of fine ideas and ideals — in a healthy atmosphere where these ideas and ideals prevail: aye, there's the rub! for to clear the corrupting influences that infest all human society today is the Herculean task that the combined efforts of women and men of goodwill may not be equal to, so that the utter and final destruction of civilization – perhaps of the very existence of humankind – seems a much more likely outcome than the salvation of humanity .. (I know that I have left my sentence gaping at a chasm; let it be, for such is the state of humanity's fate!)
Life can be beautiful, to humanity at large and to individual human beings. It may be overwhelmed by tragedy and beset with calamities; the heart may be wrung with grief; and yet life can remain pure and beautiful and worthwhile. Why is it then that for most people it is never, and for all people not always, that? It is because of human stupidity and folly and want of understanding.
If I thought for a moment that my optimistic portrayal of human nature would dampen our revulsion and horror at the atrocities perpetrated all around us in the world, I would not have permitted myself to give voice to these views. My hope is that, if we are convinced of the goodness of human nature, that would shore the fortitude necessary to keep up the fight.
The situation of humanity at the turn of the twenty-first century can be summed up as follows: Humanity is now very rich in knowledge, with unlimited prospects of progress in that direction at an unprecedented tempo; at the same time, it is miserably poor in wisdom; not only is it not advancing in that direction, but it seems to be forfeiting much of the tentative gain it had made in past ages, and the path of progress is foggy and uncharted and those who claim to have some idea as to how to tread it are all at loggerheads with one another and often actively at one another's throats. It is a situation that is no less catastrophic than it is tragic.
And the remedy? I have no better claim than anyone else to the possession of the answer, but in such a situation every person must stand up and be counted. This is no time for fake modesty. The remedy, as I see it, is nothing but the old Socratic proceeding: to take hold of a hefty broom to sweep off the junk that clutters our minds and take a good candid look at our inner reality — at our soul in its nakedness.