The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: How Evil Is Evil? How Good Is Good?
James V. Schall, S.J. - 12/08/09
The Fall of Man
“All the love cast for centuries on the roads of time—is it possible that it is forever lost? To exist would be worse than absurd if there were not eternal life.”
—Jacques Maritain, Notebooks, June 8, 1923
“The devil has the widest perspectives for God, and that I why he keeps so far away from him—the devil being the oldest friend of knowledge.”
—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #129
“Morality demands that before evil is done by a man we should do everything to prevent it; and afterwards everything to undo it without inducing a greater evil; but if that is impossible, it demands that we recognize that which is: the existence of the evil that this man has committed, and which is there, which has been committed, which has taken its place in the course of the events of this world, together with the good on which it preys.”
—Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism, 1934

Nietzsche remarks, recalling Genesis, that the devil is the “oldest friend” of precisely “knowledge.” The tree in the Garden was named the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The devil tempted Adam and Eve to partake of its fruit, contrary to the prohibition of God, the only one given to them. Had they not eaten of the tree, they would not, presumably, have had this kind of knowledge that comes to us when we actually do something evil, a concrete, not abstract, knowledge. The command was for their good. It gave them responsibility over their own fate, without which they would not have been free. We presume also that this famous aphorism of Nietzsche does not, in principle, suggest that the primary meaning or cause of evil is knowledge itself, but what we do with it. They understood what the prohibition required of them.

We likewise hesitate to identify the devil with knowledge and God with something else that is not knowledge. Deus Logos Est. The knowledge that an angel can know and God’s own knowledge are not in principle in opposition to each other. How could they be? The “truth” in the being of an angel is ultimately located in the creative knowledge of the Godhead about what is not God Himself, or better about what is known in Himself that can be imitated and chosen to exist outside of Him. The angel does not cause himself either to exist or to exist as an angel. The angel knows his relative rank in being.

Early in An Introduction to Philosophy, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain writes of the Zoroastrian or Manichean notions of evil. It is located in a separate god of evil. In the light of Nietzsche’s remark about the “oldest friend of knowledge,” Maritain’s comments are worth noting:

By his failure to perceive that God is the sole supreme principle and the source of everything which exists, so far as it partakes of being, and that evil is mere privation of being without positive existence, and therefore that no creature is evil by nature, Zoroaster ended in dualism and taught the existence of two principles uncreated and eternal, the principle of Good (Ormuzd) and the principle of Evil (Ahriman), who share the dominion over the universe and whose unrelenting struggle constitutes its history. So far as Ahriman is to be identified with the rebel angel of primitive tradition, Zoroastrianism tended to make the devil a god striving against God.

Often we picture the devil as wanting to replace God, to himself become the one God.

Strictly speaking, the devil cannot think this way. He knows clearer than any other creature that he is not God. But he can, as Maritain put is, “strive against God.” His fallenness does not reduce him to nothing. His being remains what it is. This striving, to the extent that it succeeds, is his evil. He uses his being to corrupt other free beings. He seeks to interfere with God’s good and plan as it exists in creation and in creation’s purpose as it passes through the descendants of Adam and Eve. And the striving against God is not possible without the use of what is good. Good and evil are not two gods. The drama takes place within the souls of finite human beings in their own personhood among beings who are good. Evil remains primarily a lack of what is good as caused by a free being.

These views of knowledge and the devil’s friendliness to it are close to the Socratic affirmation that evil is really but ignorance. All we have to do to rid ourselves of evil is to know the truth. If we know it, we will do it. Learning itself ironically can thus become a kind of god, a cure of evil in the world. This approach is certainly tempting and often tried. It is “intellectual” without being “moral.” It bypasses personal responsibility. If we could locate evil in lack of knowledge alone, we could solve the human problem by progress in knowledge and the sciences, by simply building more schools and hiring more tenured faculty. This solution indeed is what Strauss called “the modern project,” the effort to solve all human problems by rearrangements of differing bodies of knowledge that would find the golden key to perfection . . .

This non-moral solution has zealously been advocated since the modern era began. No indication exists, however, that evil has declined in the light of increasing knowledge. We would, in this view, need no “repentance,” self-discipline, or grace before evil. We only need accurate knowledge. Knowledge alone would cure evil’s consequences. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry for what I did,” we would say, “I know now what I did.” Morality would become similar to correcting an error in a mathematics examination. It would only involve a correct understanding of the formulae, not our acknowledgment of our own contribution to what went wrong.

The stating of such propositions about evil is enough to give us pause. The history of politics shows that those who do the worst of evils are not the dumb, greedy, and stupid. The evils due to simple ignorance or dullardness are nowhere near as damaging as those stemming from what I call the philosophical politicians of this world. The Lenins, Maos, and Hitlers were not ignorant men who happened to acquire power. They were invariably men with a vision of how to make the world better and what prevented their cause to triumph.

This ameliorative or visionary purpose is why they took the trouble of acquiring power in the first place. Their most terrible crimes had a rationale about them, a logic, a knowledge component. Their immediate followers were enthusiastic and excited to participate in world-transforming forces, as they thought. Followers were not innocent of the same temptation of leaders. When their theories resulted in violations of human dignity or the Commandments, they preferred their theories.

We do know, however, that a basic knowledge component is found within anything evil, which is never just a “thing” but the lack of what should be there. Evil, though itself a lack, a nothing, must exist in a something which is good. Nietzsche’s devil is not such a bad character with whom to begin the questions of “How evil is evil?” “How good is good?” The devil makes it clear that the worst evil did not have its origin solely in the conflict of spirit and body as it uniquely exists in human beings. This diversity of parts does cause us problems if we do not relate the parts of our being properly to our end. But really great evils, as Aristotle had already intimated, are found in philosophic minds. The bringing together, or the failure to do so, of knowledge and good in freedom is the essence of the human drama.

But the remarkable thing about evil is not that it occurs only with the great tyrants and sinners. We are sobered by the Christian instinct that evil is present and possible wherever there are men and women, either to choose or to reject it in whatever situation of life they find themselves. Dostoyevsky, in Crime and Punishment, asked whether it was all right with impunity to eliminate an evil old lady who had no redeeming characteristics. He did not think so. Huck Finn is always wrestling with his conscience over what is right and wrong. Hannah Arendt caused something of a scandal in her treatment of the Nazi prison commander who was pretty banal, who was just following orders but who caused enormous evils. She was following a thesis of Augustine. She called it “the banality of evil.” She meant that it was found everywhere, not just in the great and powerful where we can see it more easily.

All of our literature depicts something of the extent and nature of evil, not just of evil alone but of the responses to it. The drama is no less poignant and burdensome among the ordinary people and among the poor than it is among the great and powerful. The reason for this is that all are called to salvation on the basis of their lives no matter in what sort of polity or economy they lived in. If there is anything that is strange about evil, it is the response to it. The whole dramatic interest of Christianity itself is the life of Christ. He came into the world, it is said, not to abolish evil directly but to enable us to have our sins forgiven, almost as to say that by removing evil as such, something greater would also be removed, namely our freedom. The removal of evil could not be a one-way operation on the part of the Godhead.

This very fact suggests, at first sight, that sins are more important than suffering. Adam and Eve did not suffer in the Garden. It also suggests the Socratic principle that it is “better to suffer evil than to do it.” At this point, Christ and Socrates are in full agreement. Both Socrates and Christ suffered evil unjustly imposed on them. They endured suffering when they had to rather than do something that seemed easy and simple, but wrong. They did not seek some “higher good” by doing evil to attain the good.

Something very democratic hovers about evil. It neglects no actual life. Each person decides in his thoughts and deeds where he stands before it. We see its consequences, if we will, in most divorces, however high-minded they are pictured to be. We see it in the effects on children, the spouses. We see it in the tremendous extent of the illegal drug business with its profits and ruined lives, the murders it takes to get contraband into various countries. We see it in the enormous cost to society when individuals refuse to reject what they usually understand perfectly clearly to be bad for everyone. We see that modern medicine and politics conceive themselves as agents to remove “suffering” as the sole human problem. They are not, however, agents to forgive the sins that cause the suffering.


In his Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn tells of a Soviet official by the name of Yagoda. It seems that near the bathhouse on his estate, he used to set up Icons stolen from Russian Churches as objects of target practice with his pistols. Solzhenitsyn wonders if this shooting is an act of an “evildoer.” How are we to understand it? He wonders whether such people, evildoers, really exist.

We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any. It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep their picture simple. But when the great world literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.

We moderns think that such evildoings are really exaggerations. The great writers stretch the point. We read about them. At bottom, however, they talk of something we know in our own souls but we do not want to admit it. The evildoing does not exist outside of us.

Our “contemporary perceptions” will not see the truth in classic writers’ descriptions of evil. Partly they want to prevent us from vividly seeing the evils that we ourselves have put into the world, especially those against life and love, the kind that most often, we think, that lets us do what we want. This reason is, I suspect, why abortion, say, is never seen in its reality on television. In a world where everything is open, it is hidden. Classic evildoers, however, know and admit that they do evil. They hate. They choose to do their deeds. It becomes their life. Such life is “born of hate.” “Hatred of whom?” we wonder. Themselves? Every sin is also an offense against God. This is the root of this hatred, as it is the root of the redemption.

The only thing to hate would seem to be something that is the opposite of their own hatred, something that everyone calls good but they call evil. Further, we cannot just hate an abstraction. Hatred must be personal. God is normally “hated” under the rubric of being the cause of the evil we call good. The essential point of the account of the Fall of Man in Genesis, in fact, was nothing less than man wanting the divine power of being himself the one who defines what is good and what is evil.

The point was that this desire already implicitly was a turning away from the good that was prepared for him had he obeyed and understood that good though from another was for him. Unlike the angel who knows he is not God, man, at least in his own acts, can put into existence acts that are evil—that is, that lack the good that should be in them. Once these acts are chosen and put into existence, they remain in existence in their effect. They may or may not eventually be repented, but they remain, as “lacks,” among the ongoing complexities of actual existence. Human society is a web of actions interrelated as good and evil.

The strangest thing about actual human nature is that its own good was intended to be something more than its own natural good. As Aquinas said, “Homo non naturale sed supernaturale est.” This is an existential statement. It is not a denial that man is man. It is a denial that he is only what man would be were he not caught up, from his beginning both as a species and as an individual within that species, in something greater than he can imagine. “Nothing is more human than for man to desire naturally things impossible to his nature,” Maritain wrote in his Approaches to God.

It is, indeed, the property of a nature which is not closed up in matter like the nature of physical things, but which is intellectual or infinitized by the spirit. It is the property of a metaphysical nature. Such desires reach for the infinite, because the intellect thirsts for being and being is infinite. They are natural, but one may also call them trans-natural. It is thus that we desire to see God; it is thus that we desire to be free without being able to sin; it is thus that we desire beatitude.

What is Maritain saying here? It is “more human” to desire things “naturally beyond” our nature? Is this desire not the very hubris, the pride that we were at pains to blame the devil, that “friend of knowledge,” for?

Maritain’s happy phrase “infinitized by the spirit” means that his finite nature is called to be more than nature assigns to it, noble as that is. His being “infinitized” is not of his own doing. It is the doing of what is not himself, by the Spirit, but it is not contrary to his given nature. The very nature of his intellect and love leave him open to something higher. So, though he is that, man is more than the “microcosmos” to which status the Greeks assigned him. He is literally invited, in his very first creation, to participate in the inner life of the Godhead, something that is not natural to him, yet it is something his nature can be called to by God, but only on condition of its being freely accepted. We are, as Maritain put it, “natural,” but also “trans-natural.” “Intellect thirsts for being and being is infinite.” But the being we encounter, finite being, is not itself “infinite” except in logic. In being it is only infinite if that is its source.

The questions I am asking are: “How good is good?” “How evil is evil?” These are not static questions. Being is not just another thing. As Solzhenitsyn put it, the classic evildoer says, “I cannot live unless I do evil.” “So I’ll set my father against my brother (The Brothers Karamazov). I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Notice that the evildoer, the devil, cannot “drink” the victim’s sins. But he can enjoy the victim’s “sufferings.” Sufferings are the consequences. What becomes visible because of the lack that is in the action that contains the evil. “How good is good?” What is striking about Christ is His relation, in this matter, to the Socratic principle that “It is better to suffer evil than to do it.” We, including Christ, would just as soon not have to suffer anything, no doubt. Since we do suffer, the question becomes how do we suffer?

The point is that the goodness of the good is shown both by the enjoyment and delight of the good that we know and by the suffering of evil rather than the doing of it. “Greater love than this no man hath than he who lays down his life for his friend.” Thus, not only does good present us with our own suffering in its name, but it leads us to friendship. This relationship can ask of us suffering for another. In the case of Christ, the friendship with God is something whose possibility Aristotle worried about. Christ laid down His life as our friends, as He told us. He laid it down to redeem our sins. His suffering was a result which He accepted.


“How good is good?” In the Gospel According to Peanuts, a Schulz strip is reproduced that begins with Lucy and Charlie at the Stonewall. Both look straight ahead, but Charlie has his head on his elbow and hand. He says to Lucy: “All it would take to make me happy is to have someone say he likes me.” As they walk away, Lucy asks him, “Are you sure?” Charlie stops and tells here, “Of course I’m sure.” She replies, “You mean you’d be happy if someone merely said he or she likes you?”

In the next scene, Charlie is at the water fountain in the park. Lucy, looking on, continues, “Do you mean to tell me that someone has it within his or her power to make you happy merely by doing such a simple thing?” They walk on in the park, both with eyes straight ahead. “Yes! That’s exactly what I mean,” Charlie affirms.

Obviously thinking of herself, Lucy admits, “Well, I don’t think that’s asking too much. . . . I really don’t.” Lucy then looks directly at Charlie. “But you’re sure now? All you want is to have someone say, ‘I like you Charlie Brown . . .’ And then you’ll be happy?” Charlie, echoing her words, throws up his arms in elation, “And then I’ll be happy!” In the final scene, to a totally deflated Charlie Brown, Lucy, walking away, says firmly, “I can’t do it!”

This amusing scene contains a good bit of philosophy when sorted out. In a sense it presupposes the whole content of Christian revelation also. No doubt, there is something pleasantly naïve about Charlie and preternaturally hardheaded about Lucy, who is often said to represent the Protestant notion of the Fall and salvation by faith alone. Happiness, of course, is the result of receiving that good for which we are created. Charlie is always a bit forlorn, looking for someone, anyone, to love him. The very idea that he is lovable gives Lucy much pause. Every football season he puts his trust in her and every season she betrays his confidence by removing the ball just before he kicks it off.

Lucy for her part, while credulous of Charlie’s innocence about just one friend, is forced to admit that if this is what he wants, it is just a little thing. What can harm anything if she tells him she wants to be his friend? This whole conversation presupposes the “We are to love one another as I have loved you” of Scripture. It also portends the judgment scenes of Matthew, where we do not do such a simple thing as give a glass of water to a little one. Lucy is quite sure Charlie is a little one. Lucy is the woman of the world. She cannot stand naïveté. Charlie is just babbling pious phrases. “Are you sure all you want is for someone to say, ‘I like you Charlie Brown’?” He is sure but she just cannot do it. Lucy herself, of course, finds herself in the same situation when Schroeder, the pianist of whom she is most fond, won’t give her the time of day.

Ralph McInerny recently wrote on the Catholic Thing website of the mind of the modern philosophic atheist who wants easily to write off these questions of good and evil by a simple syllogism. It goes: “Evil exists. It can only exist if God permits it, because he is omnipotent. But if he is omnipotent and permits evil he cannot be good. The suggestion is that, if two of the divine attributes, omnipotence and goodness, cannot coexist, God as believers think of Him is impossible.” But these tired old arguments deflect attention to our input into the evil of the world. They also miss the fact that good things are given to us as well as the sufferings that we experience. Our understanding of good and evil “would make utterly no sense if earthly life were all we could expect.”

A correspondent by the name of “Willie” wrote to McInerny that both moral and physical disasters have to be reconciled with God’s love. We are to pray to be “delivered from evil. Why? I guess the bottom line of our question is ‘Why do we die?’ We are told we are here only temporarily. I ask, ‘What did man do to deserve this?’” It is this question that Benedict deals with in Spe Salvi. We did not do anything to deserve our existence. Death is both a punishment and a blessing. If prevents us from living endlessly this worldly life that modern science and ideology proposes to us as an alternative to what God has promised us. “Even the goods we work for rely on their achievement on unexpected twists and turns. If we in a whimper recognize the role of god in our lives when things go wrong, the psalmist is there to tell us that all of the works of the Lord bless the Lord. Creation is a chorus of gratitude and praise that drowns out complaints.”


How good is good? How evil is evil? “What formally constitutes His (God’s) Nature, so far as we can conceive it, is the act of intellection,” Maritain wrote in A Preface to Metaphysics.

But the privilege of God which most astounds our reason, His Glory, is the fact that in Him the ultimate and principal overflow—that of whose very nature it is to be an overflow—namely His Love, is identical with His essence and His existence. For God’s fundamental love is itself His elicit love and His esse. Therefore, from this point of view, when we regard God in the aspect of His glory, subsistent Love is his true and most secret Name, as subsistent intellect is His true Name when He is regarded in his aspect of His essence taken as such. Ergo, sum qui sum—Deus caritas est.

The “glory” of God astounds our reason. His love is identified with His essence and existence. It constitutes an “overflow,” as Maritain put it. The very superabundance of God is already present in His being. Deus est. Deus Logos est. Deus caritas est. What did we do to deserve our temporariness? Why do we die? Is that the worst evil? It is if Christ did not die and did not die for our sins. How good is good? It is good enough to restore what is lost by those who listen to “the greatest friend of knowledge.” But it is not great enough to make a free being not to be a free being. Nor would we want it to be. It is great enough to redeem a free being who commits evil. It is not great enough to save him if he chooses not to be saved, for that would mean that he would cease to be what he is.

How good is good? It is good enough to create and invite other free creatures to live within its own inner life. How evil is evil? It is evil enough to reject this invitation. In the overflowing abundance of God’s inner love, His only choice was to create a world in which He would give being and respond to the free responses of the free beings He created. Outside these parameters, there could be no love or no overflow of His glory because His being cannot contradict itself or the beings that are rooted in his knowledge that results in what is.

“It demands that we recognize that which is: the existence of the evil that this man has committed, and which is there, which has been committed, which has taken its place in the course of the events of this world, together with the good on which it preys.”

“The devil is the oldest friend of knowledge.”

“To exist would be worse than absurd if there were no eternal life.”

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