The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: On Necessarily Making Us “Good”
James V. Schall, S.J. - 02/04/09
bitten apple
There is no such entity in nature as "evil’"; "evil" is merely a name for the privation of good. There is a scale of value stretching from earthly to heavenly realities, from the visible to the invisible; and the inequality between these goods makes possible the existence of them all.
Augustine, City of God, XI, 22.
There is something in Plato’s morality which does not really belong to Plato but is only to be met with in his philosophy, one might say, in spite of Plato: namely, Socratism, for which he was really too noble. “No one wants to do injury to himself, therefore all badness is involuntary. For the bad man does injury to himself: this he would not do if he knew that badness is bad. Thus the bad man is bad only in consequence of an error; if one cures him of his error, one necessarily makes him—good.”
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #190.


The first sentence of Julia Wedgwood’s 1894 book, The Moral Ideal, reads: “No deeper cleft divides human spirits than that which separates the faith possible to men for whom Evil means a mere negation, a mere shadow, a form of ignorance, from that which regards it as an actual existence, a real antagonism to good.” This sentence contains both Socrates—“a form of ignorance”—and Satan—“a real antagonism to good.” Wedgwood is concerned with what “divides” precisely “human spirits.” It has something to do with the way they understand evil. One will evidently live very differently if he logically follows out the implications of one or the other thesis.

In a real sense, the “bad man” does injure himself. Cicero’s natural law also teaches this ironic effect that our own evil ultimately affects ourselves. There is validity to the point. But, as Nietzsche also said against Socrates, the cure of “badness” is not simply to “know” what is good. Aristotle insisted that we can only become good by doing good things. He granted that we also must know what things are good. “All badness is involuntary” is, as Nietzsche hinted, false. All true “badness,” on the contrary, is voluntary.

An “intelligence” component to badness or evil, none the less, is present in actions that are designated as properly “evil.” This intelligence will indicate the “direction” an action, in which some good is lacking, will take. This same intelligence will also indicate how it is that “good” can come of “evil.” It does not come from the “evil” as such but from the good of the being in which the evil is “present” as a lack.

To lose a limb to disease or accident is an “evil,” but not, as such, a moral one. To put into existence an act of intemperance, injustice, or imprudence is a moral evil. It exists without what it should have. This lack is not a mere “negation.” It is due to the actor who puts into reality an act that lacks what is due to it . . .

As the title of Julia Wedgwood’s book suggests, moral “Evil” has her attention. Her concern is not with what is known as “metaphysical” evil, that is, with evil that does not have, connected with it, an element of human, or even angelic, choice. It is this choice that is the root of all praise or blame for our deeds. This praise or blame indicates our awareness of the moral dimension of each human act without which it is not completely understood. Does evil mean, then, that we are caught up in some kind of dramatic cosmic conflict that really has nothing to do with ourselves? Or are we also involved in its very coming to be? Are our choices involved in what is good or bad, in how either comes to exist? Or are we “good” simply if we know what “evil” is. As Nietzsche implied, it seems highly unlikely.

At first sight, one wonders whether Wedgwood’s formulation has a touch of Manicheanism about it. That is, does it imply a “god of good” and “a god of evil” as necessary for the explanation of evil among us? “Is matter evil and spirit good?” as the Manicheans of every age teach us. If so, the essence of sanity is to reject this dichotomy, without, at the same time, making evil to be a mere illusion.

The Genesis account of Creation makes all matter precisely “good,” against the Manichean thesis that it is evil. But Genesis also implies a spiritual component to evil that is neither ignorance nor an alien power. Wedgwood’s initial sentence was not clear on this point. Between ignorance and something with a “real antagonism to the good” a third alternative can be proposed. That in-between posits something that is good but can choose not to be good. This is what human rational freedom means.

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