Wednesday, November 06, 2013


D. R. Khashaba


There are two problems covered by the rubric "problem of evil", two problems which are quite distinct. Merging these two problems together causes endless confusion. The first concerns the evil encountered in human life, and though it is this that we properly call evil, I would say that we do not face a philosophical problem here. The problem is practical; it is serious, grievous, ponderous, but there is nothing mysterious about it. Human evil stems from ignorance, from stupidity, from needless clashes of interests and evaluations. These sources of evil can and must be addressed by patient and persistent efforts by women and men of goodwill. The task calls for Herculean power and Promethean endurance, but it can and must be undertaken, for if we say it is unfeasible we might as well call for the collective suicide of the human race. [In "The Mystery and the Riddle" (included in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009, and also available on my blog) I offered some reflections, mainly on evil in human life.]

The second problem we may designate as the metaphysical problem of evil. But before we delve into that, let us clear out some points. Is there evil in the universe, in the world, in nature? In nature we meet with catastrophes: earthquakes, storms, tsunamis, famines, epidemics. In nature we find animals devouring other animals; indeed, all life lives on other life; worst of all, we find the imperfection of the human race that causes what we referred to as evil properly so called.

At this juncture we need to tread carefully and try to see things clearly. In the first place, earthquakes, storms, volcanoes, are adjustments in the state of nature. They are only catastrophes for human beings; in themselves they are no more evil than a sneeze. Then, animals preying on animals, this is tragic (I will revert to the tragic further on) but if there is no intention to hurt, this too may be seen as a mode of natural adjustment. We destroy viruses and do not see that as evil. The deer devoured by the tiger suffers pain for a while and dies: the pain is tragic, the loss of life is tragic, but this is a natural necessity. I will come back later on to the notion of metaphysical necessity, though not necessarily under that name.

Lt us once more put off the main metaphysical problem for a while to clear out a special version of the problem which we may call the theological problem of evil. If we suppose that the world has been created by an omnipotent and omniscient Creator we have need to ask: Why has It (the Creator) permitted so much pain and suffering, so much misery and sorrow, in the world? If we presume the Creator to be omniscient and omnipotent there is no way that we can exonerate It of all that: the evil would be evil in the will of the Creator. Zarathustrianism supposed there are two original powers ruling over the world, one good and one evil. This would be a possible theoretical way out. But in any case, the notion of a power or powers making or controlling the world from outside it is necessarily riddled with insurmountable difficulties.

If we reject the idea of a transcendent creator or of a power or powers controlling the world from outside of it, we are faced with Being as an ultimate mystery for which we cannot even ask for a cause. To ask how Being came about or why there is being rather than no-being – either of these questions is meaningless, it cannot be answered because, strictly, it cannot be formulated as a meaningful question.

We are faced with Being. But sheer blank Being, the Being of Aristotle after it has been abstracted to a completely bloodless, lifeless, motionless, colourless, strictly stale, sterile, barren no-thing cannot be the source of our teeming, tumultuous, restless world. To be the source of the world we know, ultimate Being must be conceived as fertile, procreative, in a word, creative. But we see that all that is created passes away. Being cannot have actual presence except be in ephemeral, transient beings that pass away as they come to be. That ultimate Being that we find in all the things that come to be and pass away but cannot be reduced to any particular being – that Being I call Reality and the beings that come to be and pass away I call existents.

So I conceive ultimate Being (Reality) as creative, or, more correctly, as creativity, that only has existence in finite, particular, vanishing actualities. Thus we have these first two ultimate principles, the Principle of Creativity and the Principle of Transience. But the ephemeral, vanishing actualities cannot be conceived to have being except under some Form that gives them unity and ideal (conceptual) permanence. These are the Forms of Plato. And this gives us our third metaphysical principle, the Principle of Integrity. Hence I say that we can only conceive ultimate Reality – a Reality that we can think of as the fount and origin of our world – as multi-dimensional.

What bearing has this on the problem of evil? First, on the plane of the universe, if all actual, finite existence is necessarily transient, then all existence is tragic. We are born to die. A song is sung, begins and ends, and its perfection is only realized in its completion. Death is tragic and sad, but it is not evil; life has meaning in its completion in a process the beginning of which is pregnant with the end. In Creative Reality there is tragedy but no evil: creativity is a perpetual affirmation of value. Borrowing the language of Christian theology we may say that Existence is the original sin that must be atoned for by perpetual death.

On the plane of human life, in creativity, in love, in generosity and sympathy and noble sacrifice, in the creativity of art and the creativity of thought, human life is good and shares in the eternity of ultimate Reality. This is the Platonic ascension to the Form of the Good and this is human freedom as seen by Spinoza.

But in the life of the human race there are conflicts, struggle and enmity, hatred and selfishness and greed: all of this is evil; and there is pain and suffering wilfully inflicted, and this is the most grievous evil. Socrates and Spinoza, the Buddha and the Stoics, all of them summed all of this as ignorance.

As far as we know, a human being is the only animal that thinks conceptually, or is the only animal that has taken conceptual thinking to a high level. Conceptual thinking enabled human beings to solve practical problems, to anticipate happenings, take advantage of observed regular occurrences in nature, invent tools, plan and organize, build civilizations, arrive at all the technological wizardry we are drowned in. At this point I have to remark marginally that I make a clear distinction between our conceptual thinking and the intelligence that is an essential aspect of creativity and also make a distinction between, on the one hand, the inventiveness resulting from conceptual thinking, and, on the other hand, what we may call creativity on the spiritual plane, in which I include moral acts as well as works of art and creative thought.

When conceptual thinking enabled human beings to break loose of the immediate present, it led them to have hopes and dreams and desires, and to create for themselves goals and values; they formed such notions as justice and loyalty and honour; they came to desire non-present goods; to dream of finery and luxury and riches; to crave power and mastery. These desires and attachments got jumbled, intertwined, entangled, confused and obscured, and the dream-world of one human being conflicted and clashed with the dream-worlds of other human beings. In short, human beings became too clever for their own good. They have come to have more cleverness than understanding. Now it is the task, the urgent task, of all intelligent women and men of goodwill to work to reverse this sad state of affairs and lead human beings to have more understanding than cunning. The task is urgent because human beings, now over-crowded on their tiny planet, foolishly quarrelling and fighting, shortsightedly devastating the natural environment that gave them sustenance and gave them power, are rapidly and almost irreversibly hurtling towards self-destruction. The gravest danger to human beings – despite all their cleverness and their vaunted technological wizardry – is stupidity. Unless we have more understanding than cunning, we are doomed.

To sum up: No omniscient and omnipotent God is responsible for the world. To look up to such a God to save us is to deliver ourselves to our inevitable fate. In the universe, all existence is tragic, but there is no evil. In human life the evil is in the thoughts we have created in the first place to serve our purposes but then turned into monsters lording it over us. We have to realize that we can only save ourselves if we live in peace and harmony with our fellow human beings and with nature, and that true happiness for a human being is in good deeds, in love and generosity and sympathy and friendliness, and that the richest treasure for a human being is in creative activity, in producing beautiful works of art and thought. This is what Plato called giving birth in beauty.

In what I am saying here, if not in the theoretical matter, at any rate in the practical part, there is nothing new or original. This is what all moral teachers, from ancient Egyptian sages through Jesus of Nazareth to Gandhi and Schweitzer have been saying. But few of us can remove themselves for a while from the din and hubbub of our too-busy life to see the plain truth. It is the duty of all intelligent persons to spread the word: Human beings, be good or be annihilated!

Cairo, 4 November 2013.


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