Evil: Back in Bad Company
by Graeme Hunter
Most Christians thinkers have viewed evil as a
privation, a derivative reality, like a shadow. Shadows are privations of
light; they are real things, but dependent on the bodies that cast the
shadows. They are darkness where light should have been. Similarly evil, a
secondary reality, is only the absence of good, a void where goodness
belongs. On this understanding of evil arose the account of sin, grace,
and the fallenness of the world fundamental to orthodox Christianity.
During the slow growth of a secular society over the last several
centuries, the shadows in our official picture of reality were gradually
removed. People preferred to imagine that there is but one way of being
and that way good. Evil came to be regarded by the enlightened as an
outmoded expression for a set of "problems" that the applied scientific
method in engineering, medicine, or the social sciences could be expected
gradually to palliate, if not overcome.
Recent years, however, have witnessed a marked reversal of opinion
among secular thinkers. More and more frequently, evil is coming to be
numbered among the basic facts of which any plausible theory of ethics or
society must take account. Moreover, there is a growing consensus that,
though here and there an affliction or two may be corrected, the treatment
is likely to be only temporary or else to have side effects that will
leave the sum of evil unchanged.
This shift of attitude was no doubt anticipated, as most developments
are, by prescient social critics. But it has stolen up quietly enough to
have surprised most of us. It is doubtful, for instance, that as recently
as twenty years ago many people would have criticized what few would dream
of writing today - what the late Sidney Hook was able to say in good
conscience in 1974:
In the age of AIDS and the collapse of welfare economics, barely two
decades after these words were written, not even shallow optimists admit
to having much hope for either of the developments that Sidney Hook still
Given the rapidly expanding horizons of knowledge in our age, there is
nothing in the nature of things which requires that the sick, any more
than the poor, must always be with us. If scientific medicine develops at
the same pace in the next few hundred years as it has in the last century,
it is not shallow optimism to anticipate that the most serious forms of
sickness will disappear and not be replaced by others.
Even the smug scientism with which talk of evil was once likely to be
rebuked has itself receded in all but the backwaters of our civilization.
This was brought home to me with great force several years ago. In 1988 a
brief favorable review of Jeffrey Burton Russell's The Prince of
Darkness was published in one of the prestigious journals (if memory
serves, it was the Times Literary Supplement). In the course of
his review, the critic reported, without scoffing or even skepticism, the
author's implicit position that if there was no devil, there was certainly
someone very like him doing his work.
What had become of Enlightenment optimism while we were not watching?
Though this question was not explicitly answered in the book, Russell,
like his reviewer, wrote quite as if, among sensible people, there had
never been any question of the importance of evil.
Evil is of course an intrinsically unattractive subject. In addition,
its association with Christian doctrine sufficed for many years to
discredit it as an admissible topic of secular discourse. Today, however,
a mankind that is emerging from its adolescent secularist rebellion is
having second thoughts. We are seeing evil with new eyes and in a new
setting: not in the context of sin, forgiveness, and redemption, but
rather in that of noticeably pagan ideas, such as victimization, ill luck,
fate, and tragedy.
The path between a Christian and this nascent secular understanding of
evil does not merely have a history, and a fascinating one - it is wholly
entwined with the notion of history itself. For centuries Christendom had
a concept of universal history as an all-encompassing providential
framework of events, whose capacious frame could contain and shape to one
desirable end the different and often conflicting efforts of all
generations and individuals. This basically Augustinian conception
gradually transformed into the secular doctrine of "progress," and this
transformation in turn fulfilled itself in the historical determinism of
Hegel and Marx. Just a few decades ago most thinking people still
considered some kind of universal history to be the medium in which all
things lived and moved and had their being.
Recently everything has changed. Few people today see any purpose in
universal history and fewer still expect it to disclose the meaning of
their lives. Its former prestige has also vanished. It is this collapse of
confidence in history that seems to be the radical cause both of the
renewed consciousness of evil and of the pagan framework in which it is
now so often discussed. Here is how these changes came about.
The historian J H Plumb, in his book The Death of the Past,
has described how the study of history paradoxically lost meaning in
proportion to its own success. As history grew linearly in prestige, it
exploded exponentially in detail, until mastering a single decade of local
history could easily fill the lifetime of a specialist. The embroidering
of minutiae in which the writing of such histories came to consist was of
course incompatible with achieving sufficient distance from the matter to
allow its larger pattern, if any, to emerge. Looking for meaning in
history on the grand scale therefore risked becoming the occupation of
Writing in 1969, Plumb remained optimistic that this destructive moment
might be followed by a later constructive one in which the one-sided
stories of the past told by our ancestors would be replaced by a grand new
synthesis, one that would "help us achieve our identity, not as Americans
or Russians, Chinese or Britons, black or white, rich or poor, but as
men." On that noble note he ends his enlightening book.
The last quarter-century, however, has not borne out his hopes. In
fact, Plumb would have a great deal of trouble today even publishing that
final sentence, because of its reference to our identity as "men." Today
he would have to say "men and women," which of course would ruin the whole
picture of unity and harmony that he hoped future historians would
develop. Even if he refused to say it, the publisher's politically correct
text-editing program would likely say it for him.
And this is significant. As the overall pattern of history has
disappeared, we have not in fact searched for deeper patterns, as Plumb
hoped we would, but rather for smaller ones, ones that might prove more
resistant to fading. We have sought to ground a pattern in something we
can still believe in, and such things are few. Sex, race, culture are
among them, but even that list is unstable. The idea of history has been
blown to pieces, not to be put back together again, but perhaps only as a
preliminary to being blown to atoms. "Each of us is thrown back upon
himself," says Jean-Francois Lyotard in his famous introduction to
postmodernism, "and each one knows how little that self
Universal history has been challenged by revisionists of
bewildering variety. Feminists, homosexuals, and blacks, to mention only
the most prominent, are prolific in what might be called "advocacy
histories", histories that magnify the achievements of some target group
through a sometimes violent massaging of the facts.
Gertrude Himmelfarb charitably calls such new histories "creative"
("Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History," First Things,
November, 1992). As she shows, they are also makeshift, partial,
perspectival, and usually grounded in the biological nature of the
historian. Even to call them "partial histories" could be misleading, if
that were taken to suggest that there is some whole story into which they
fit. For Afro-centrist history, where blacks are the driving force behind
events, will not merge with that of American Indians. And neither will
have the least connection to the feminist "herstory," with which today one
could stock a small library. The mirror of universal history is shattered.
Our biologically-based historians ground their idea of goodness in
biology also. The only good is a materially and psychologically satisfying
life. But such goodness is fragile, because no guarantee of it can be
found in biology. On the contrary, as biological organisms we are at the
mercy of external contingencies which at all times threaten to undermine
our wellbeing. We are prey to what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in
The Fragility of Goodness calls luck, but what John Kekes, in
Facing Evil, calls "evil", which he defines by its consequences as
"undeserved harm inflicted on human beings."
Neither of these works claims any connection to any biologically based
history and no doubt their authors, if asked, would disclaim any. Nor am I
suggesting otherwise, but rather pointing out that the problem they
articulate is one that the upsurge of such partial histories readies us to
understand. It is the fact that evil no longer appears to us to be
swallowed up in providence or in the upward swing or dialectic of
universal history that makes it seem such a palpable factor in everyday
lives. Each partial history spins a warm cocoon around the biological
family of its authors. But its dimensions are tiny, and outside it howl
the alien and hostile elements.
Both Nussbaum and Kekes find it convenient to portray the effect of
luck or evil through the study of tragedy. In the classical tragedies or
in those of the modern period, despite considerable variations in form and
content, there is always what I A Richards called "the tragic experience"
- the spectacle of a protagonist who stands uncomforted and alone,
suffering fortune's reverses without any undue fear and without illusions.
It is this heroic image, rather than any literary feature of tragedy, that
has captured the imagination of a growing number of secular thinkers
today. To them it suggests a new moral ideal, appropriate for our
demystified yet troubled times. Heroes and heroines, we will sink
unrepentantly into the underworld after the example of Don Juan.
It must be admitted, however, that, like other ideals, this one is
likely to fall short of complete realization in everyday life. Some have
described it in ways more mindful of the weakness of our flesh. The
literary critic Edward Dahlberg in Reasons of the Heart reminds
us of the shabbiness that the pursuit of this ideal is likely to result
Dahlberg's version is strikingly borne out in practice. For instance, the
term that comes up from the grass roots of biologically based thinking is
"victimhood," of which "puny stoicism" is a better gloss than "tragic
experience". A "victim" may find himself in a tragic situation without
necessarily undergoing the "tragic experience". This is because he will
lack the self-possession, the confidence, or the sense of his own dignity
to face extinction without fear or illusions. Great eras of tragic writing
have coincided with great conceptions of the dignity of man. But we in the
present era, insofar as we are the intellectual heirs of Darwin,
Nietzsche, Freud, and other depreciators of mankind, are withered stoics,
as Dahlberg said, having no well of living water from which to draw.
The more rational we are the less legendary are our lives. It is
impossible to go back to the ancient superstitions. There is no Jehovah,
no Zeus, or Christ, and we are forced to accept our tears and diseases
like puny withered stoics who stand benumbed on curbstones or prowl
through the megalopolitan shambles.
The eminent French philosopher and Academician, Marcel Conche, comes
closer to labeling neutrally the contemporary self-understanding of
secular society than have any of the philosophers discussed above. In a
recent book, Temps et Destin, he says it is the "consensus of our
age" to regard certain aspects of our situation as destiny. These
include the place and date of our birth, our condition at birth, both
social and physical, our ethnicity, nationality, and so on.
Such things are our portion, our moira, that ancient Greek
conception of fate which, Conche thinks, is once again becoming
fashionable. In the age of progress it was thought that the accidents of
birth (or at least any stigma attaching to them) could all be overcome.
But in the world-weary twentieth century we have learned, or ought to have
learned, according to Conche (and those who endorse these partial
histories), that these accidents are in reality insuperable. What is given
to us at birth is what we can never rise above or change.
Conche, too, calls his a "tragic" vision of the world. It is one which
he admits can easily degenerate into nihilism and despair, but which he
thinks need not do so. Our life may be only a vapor, its goods but toys,
yet if we stand up for them, if we definitely affirm their value to us, we
can still live life with honor and dignity. Such a view of life is tragic
because it simultaneously recognizes both how important the goods of this
world are to us and yet how precarious is our enjoyment of them, due to
the unalterable characteristics given us at birth, and due, ultimately, to
Conche does not take this tragic and fatalistic vision to be something
done in a corner, and yet he is aware that it is not something we hear
about on the news. Our neighbors have not lately taken us aside to confess
their fatalistic leanings. It would have been clearer to call it the "as
yet unspoken consensus of the age".
What Conche is writing of is the logical consequence of the views of
today's growing class of persons who are un-churched, disaffected, and
disenchanted with the secular "big pictures." One does not hear such
people openly endorsing the new consensus, but it is nevertheless the
foundation of what they actually say and do. Luck, evil, victimhood may be
merely expressions of a new fatalism or stages on the way toward it. Or
perhaps they are independent alternative manifestations of the
vulnerability and pointlessness to which we suddenly feel subject.
Whatever most deeply reflects the spirit of the age, one may doubt
whether many who are touched by it will bear their lot with anything like
the tragic nobility that several of today's philosophers idealistically
suppose. Anyone who considers them critically for even a brief moment will
recognize that today's conceptions of luck, evil, victimhood, fate, and
even tragedy are expressions of despair. They are what remains in lives
when every hope of finding objective meaning is removed.
Certainly our Victorian forebears, who looked forward to this century
with such optimism, could not have predicted the whimper with which it
would end. But then they would never have anticipated the thoroughgoing
rejection of Western culture and history, especially in the West itself,
which constitutes the middle term between their hopefulness and our gloom.
To repudiate one's past has consequences in the search for meaning in
life. To find meaning in our lives is to see them as fitting into a larger
story, which implies projecting them against the background of some
culture or other.
Indeed, more than the mere past has been lost. The atheistic or neo-
pagan detractors of Western culture have lavished most of their attention
on demolishing its religion: Christianity. Thus vertically (in religion)
as well as horizontally (in time), Western civilization has suffered the
collapse of its former dimensions. It is easily grasped that men with
neither a past nor a religion, men of nothing and nowhere, sense their own
futility and are prone to despair. And whether we regard this as a
supernatural or as a natural penalty, it would be difficult to overlook
how well it answers the offense of antireligious warfare.
That trace of cosmic justice deepens if we reflect for a moment on the
nature of despair itself when seen from a Christian perspective. St
Bernard of Clairvaux defined it well as a condition arising through
ignorance of the nature of God. This is a thought packed with wisdom,
which it is most interesting to explore in contrast with the five elements
of contemporary despair: luck, evil, victimhood, fate, and tragedy. This
will provide a vivid comparison between the religious viewpoint we are so
cheerfully abandoning and the cheerless ersatz coming to us in its place.
Take luck, to begin with. A banal but representative image of
luck (both good and bad) in our time is provided by one of our
characteristic institutions, the ubiquitous lottery. A tiny few it
destines for extreme and sudden wealth (uncritically assumed to be good
luck), while it condemns the many to greater destitution. Here I do not
refer merely to the modest price of a ticket, but to the mental
destitution that must precede the buying of it.
To those who believe in luck as a metaphysical concept, of course, the
lottery does not appear so dreadful. To them, life itself is a lottery
that all must play (the so-called "genetic lottery," for instance) and
that ultimately all must lose. All luck therefore is in the end bad luck,
and their despair is ignorance of the justice of God.
Next consider evil. As stated earlier, evil is not really the
contrary of good, but its shadow or privation. It is the absence of a good
that should by rights have been. Moral evil is a privation of proper
intention; physical evil of the normal course of events. Such
considerations lead straight to the center of traditional metaphysics.
Recent secular philosophers, on the other hand, consider evil to be
"undeserved harm inflicted on human beings", a characterization shallow in
at least two places.
First, because it implies that all harm that is not self-chosen is
undeserved there is thus no place in the thinking of these philosophers
for that instinctive inclination to evil which Christians call original
sin, and without which no deep grasp of the social or even the natural
world is possible.
Second, it implies that all hardship is a form of harm, thus leaving no
room in their universe for redeemed suffering. The felix culpa,
or happy sin, is unintelligible to them. They fall into despair from
blindness both to the necessity of evil in a fallen world and to how it is
nevertheless to be redeemed. Their despair therefore originates in
ignorance of the plan of God.
Though the notion of victimhood, no less than the others, is an
expression of despair, it is impossible to overlook its comic aspect. It
is "in" to be a victim today, and with this latest peripeteia
of the human comedy, people struggle to be so identified in order to reap
victimization's paradoxical rewards. This is reminiscent of the way rich
people once strove to appear proletarian, when it was fashionable to be
Beneath the absurdity of such posturing, however, lurks a deeper vein of
semantic foolishness, which no one given to satire should overlook.
Originally the victim was the sacrificial animal, whose gory death was to
assure the happiness of those performing the sacrifice. By extension a
victim became anyone whose well-being was destroyed, especially if it
happened through the cruelty and for the gain of someone else. In current
usage, however, even this extended sense is barely a memory. Our victims
are often only the heirs of victimhood, and in many cases even the
original victimization was more imagined than real. To these epigones,
nevertheless, the descendants of the victimizers must make perpetual
In addition, it is understood that this task can never be
accomplished, since hereditary victims, due to ancestral misfortune, are
not responsible for their lives, their behavior, or their choices, and are
therefore destined forever to beget more victims. Hence in perpetuity, or
until fashion decrees otherwise, the world must stand on its head:
"oppressors" must make sacrifices to their "victims" and be rewarded with
never-ending showers of complaint.
That this low farce does not provoke the world to ridicule rather than
contrition, can be explained only by the slenderness of our comprehension
of suffering. To suffer has come to mean to fall behind, as if on an
endless treadmill, where catching up is unthinkable. It seems that a
single blow to our tenuous autonomy is sufficient to destroy or at least
to damage it forever.
But suffering used to be understood differently. Eliot mentioned it in
his Preludes as the central supporting prop of all things:
Christians conceived of suffering as a prelude to understanding, to the
growth of our souls and more effective imitation of Christ. The victim's
despair arises, as St Bernard says, from ignorance of God-in this case of
his will that suffering be redeemed.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Next consider fate. The Stoics held fate to be the logic of
the unfolding universe, the immutable linking of cause with effect that
forged the chain of time. Men, they said, were like puppies tied to the
oxcart of events. They could trot along willingly behind it or they could
be dragged, straining at their leash. But they could change nothing nor
deflect the cart in the slightest from its path.
Because the universe is so well-ordered it seemed to them to follow
that it is designed without regard to our chaotic lives. In the best of
men the recognition of fate could call forth a tragic heroism and
high-minded submission to the inevitable. For the rest it could lead only
to despair. Although some of the Stoics use the term "providence," they do
not mean by it the foresightful provision made in the universe for its
human inhabitants by a God who stands outside. Their providence is really
only a form of doom. Therefore they either teeter above despair or fall
into it through ignorance of a truly provident God.
Finally we come to tragedy or rather to the "tragic
experience" supposed to epitomize our time. Fragile beings, inadequately
equipped, we are pitted against forces that spare us only by oversight and
with whom to contend will never be a possibility. Lacking hope, which is a
Christian virtue, the most we can exhibit is its pagan counterpart,
courage. And thence arise the tragic possibilities of our lives.
Yet at the same time the very imbalance of power in which we find
ourselves must always tend to make us figures of satire rather than
tragedy. Can we really expect to wrest a sense of value from our crushing
defeat by stubbornly esteeming things that, in truth, are valueless? In
the end even this will-to-meaning seems futile. Loud exhortations to value
the valueless seem unlikely to keep us from suspecting that our lives are
in reality not merely un-worthwhile, but absurd. In Christian terms,
therefore, our despair is once again a species of ignorance. We cannot
admit or even imagine what might be called the "tragi-comic" dimension of
a divinely ordered universe.
Where tragedy presupposes a world that is
either evil or at best a plaything of luck, in tragicomedy (think
especially of Shakespeare's later plays) evil goes no deeper than the
level of appearance. Underlying the unfolding of everyday life in time,
with its undeniable burden of chance and evil, is an enduring reality that
is wholly good. The typical tragicomedy ends with a scene or two wherein
some great calamity, which hitherto has been advancing inexorably and now
seems on the point of destroying everything, is suddenly averted. It is
then discovered that hidden forces of good were in fact working all the
time to bring about that end.
The faithful Gonzalo, at the end of the
Tempest, in summing up its action, beautifully expresses the
This vision of the world, though perhaps not lending itself to the same
theatrical depth of expression as tragedy, is nevertheless connected with
a philosophical understanding of things that is arguably deeper than that
of the tragedians and at odds with it. Here is the vision of mystics and
of the metaphysics and ethics of Plato. Its metaphysical expression is in
the Platonic allegory of the sun, in which Plato says that just as the sun
is at once the most visible of objects and the reason for the visibility
of others, so the good is simultaneously the most real of things and
ground of the reality of all things.
O, rejoice beyond a common joy! and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: in one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle, and all of us ourselves,
Where no man was his own.
The upshot of this for understanding the world is that we have not
understood a thing until we have seen what is good about it. If Plato is
right, then the Freudians, the Marxists, the long succession of
fashionable theorists who traffic in suspicion, believing they have
explained a thing when they have reduced it to something low, evil, or
unsightly, will not ultimately be vindicated. Instead, creation is good,
bearing in itself the marks of order and intelligence, and must finally be
understood in those terms.
Socrates, at his trial, expressed the moral dimension of the tragicomic
vision of the world when he reminded his jury that a good man cannot be
harmed by a bad, either in this life or in the life to come, and that his
affairs are not neglected by the gods. All the obstinate attempts of his
friends to portray him as a victim, a tragic figure, a symbol of human
impotence before evil or bad luck, fall away from him with that profession
The classic religious statement of the "tragi-comic"
understanding of life is of course that of the first four books of the New
Testament, concerning the death, resurrection, and promised return of
Jesus Christ. This simple story is erected as a bulwark against precisely
the tragic experience of life, whether it be seen as evil, bad luck,
victimization, or fate. Shakespeare's Tempest, cited earlier, is
an allegory of that very tale and every tragicomedy borrows features of
The secular picture of the world is reflected in its biologically based
histories and in the new importance it gives to evil, luck, tragedy, and
fate. That despair saturates this view of things is, of course, no proof
that it is false. Alas, it does not even guarantee that it will prove
short-lived. Weariness tosses no one to another's breast, but leaves him
only in sullen possession of his own.
Yet as secular thinking matures and its consequences become more
obvious, it cannot avoid making its historical and cultural alternative -
orthodox Christianity - more attractive. As freedom to fate, as comedy to
tragedy, as grace to luck, and as good to evil, so must our historical
faith appear to those of our time who have struggled to do without it.
 Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 41 (March 1994):
Graeme Hunter teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of