In Confessions and Anathemas (Aveux et anathèmes), philosopher Emil Cioran wrote the following:

Kant waited until the last days of his old age to perceive the dark side of existence and to indicate “the failure of any rational theodicy.” . . . Others have been luckier: to them this occurred even before they began to philosophize.

Fallen Angel (detail), by Alexandre Cabanel
Theodicies are attempts by several thinkers to adapt the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God with the presence of evil in the world. The term “theodicy” (théos; god, and dikē; justice, judgement) was coined by Leibniz in the 18th century, but the attempt to solve the problem of evil has existed since antiquity. They are usually formulated within a monotheistic context and there are several different theodicies: Jewish, Christian, Muslim theodicy, etc.

One of the most important and worked on theodicies in the history of theology is that of St. Augustine, who lived between the 4th and 5th centuries. In this version of the argument, evil itself is non-existent, it is only the negation or absence of good. Augustine's argument was later embraced and adapted by St. Thomas Aquinas, Calvin and others. The argument goes like this: the divine essence being equivalent to good, God and all creation would be good, while evil would be the result of man's free will and would have entered the world after the sin of Adam—which doesn't explain the treacherous serpent in the Garden of Eden, but that's besides the point here.

This argument faces a series of problems when we question the divine ordering of all existence. If we consider that God has given us complete freedom to act—let's ignore the problem that omniscience would cause if we were totally free—then the classic Augustinian explanation of evil being the absence of good puts the blame solely on humanity. We inherit the guilt of Adam, we are just as guilty as he was, and our destiny is to live with the evil that we “create”. We can, of course, point out that we were not the ones who sinned in Eden, and that it is unfair to punish us for something we did not commit, just as Pelagius—an ascetic who was a contemporary of Augustine and rivaled his ideas—preached.

It is customary to attribute to Pelagius the beginning of what would become Pelagianism, a heresy according to Catholic orthodoxy. For the sake of simplicity, I will treat this information as correct, although some academics dispute it. Pelagianism denies that original sin has tainted all of Adam's offspring, something that makes us prone to do evil despite of our free will. For Pelagius, we have complete free will and we are not inclined neither towards good nor towards evil. To a greater or lesser extent, though, all major Christian denominations teach the Augustinian doctrine to this day: that is, they teach that while we do have free will, we are prone to do evil by our very nature, inherited from Adam.

However, if we are not inclined towards evil (and neither towards good) as stated by Pelagius, we would not need divine grace to be saved—something that, according to Pelagius, would increase human responsibility (and guilt). One of his arguments against the Augustinian theodicy was that original sin and the inclination towards evil would take away the individual human's responsibility to choose between good an evil, right and wrong, and that the Augustinian view led people to be careless in their Christian practice. According to Pelagianism, if people believe they are inclined to do evil, then that takes some responsibility off of their shoulders, since they can't help falling into temptation.

Augustine disagreed with this thesis because, according to him, if man were totally free to choose between good and evil without the help of God, it would mean that humanity could be good only by its actions, which would mean that humanity ultimately doesn't need God. For Augustine, this would diminish or nullify Christ's sacrifice in order to justify the human race. In the end, the view of original sin as a mark of all mankind won the argument within the Church. The idea that came to reign in Christianity is that we are free, yes, but inclined to evil, so we need divine help.

What is not clear in Pelagianism is where the evils that exist in the world (those that are not direct fruits of human action) come from. For the early Catholic orthodoxy in formation, the evils of the world existed because of original sin, which contaminated everything with its unkindness: we were condemned to work in order to eat, and we were condemned to mortal lives full of suffering and pain—and that also affected the natural world around us. But what about Pelagianism? In Pelagianism, death and the suffering of the body were not part of the human penalty for Adam's original sin, they were merely natural attributes of creation, so they shouldn't be considered evils in the same way as human wrongdoing can be considered evil—although for Pelagianism, death was a release from the burden of life, which in a way betrays a belief that life is suffering; but Pelagianism doesn't necessarily equate natural suffering with evil. 

Before the theodicies proposed by Augustine and Pelagius, there was that of St. Irenaeus, who lived in the 2nd century. Irenaeus argued that evil and suffering were necessary to form the human soul. Men are not born perfect, but achieve perfection through life and all the suffering it carries—this, therefore, would be the best of all possible worlds, since it would enable us to achieve perfection through the challenges that life imposes on us.

This theodicy tries to justify the presence of the evil that results not only from direct human action, as Pelagius does, but also the evil that exists in the natural world (e.g. diseases, natural tragedies). It is so because God wanted it this way, and Irenaeus believed that we can overcome suffering and perfect our souls. Therefore, for Irenaeus, man can cause harm, but the natural world around him also causes harm. In a way, Augustine preaches the same, except that, in the case of Augustine, the evils of the natural world come exclusively from the original sin and the subsequent Fall of Man—that is, they were not created by God for the purpose of perfecting us after the Fall, like Irenaeus believed.

In the 18th century, David Hume wrote the following in his work Dialogues on Natural Religion:

And is it possible, CLEANTHES, said PHILO, that after all these reflections, and infinitely more, which might be suggested, you can still persevere in your Anthropomorphism, and assert the moral attributes of the Deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power we allow is infinite: whatever he wills is executed: but neither man nor any other animal is happy: therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of Nature tends not to human or animal felicity: therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?

One aspect to note here is the idea that the course of the natural world does not tend towards human or animal happiness.

Although Plotinusthe great neoplatonist who lived in the 2nd century—was not part of the monotheistic religions of his time such as Judaism and Christianity, he also saw evil as a deprivation, an absence, just like Augustine and most of Christendom. But all of these positions that treat pain and suffering as deprivations and negations are contrasted with the theology of groups such as the Marcionists, the Gnostics and the Manichaeans. For them, there is a dualism between the world of matter, created by an ignorant or malevolent Demiurge, and the world of spirit, superior to the material universe.

For the dualists, matter is evil by its very nature and must be abandoned for the spirit through asceticism and other spiritual exercises. Man's action, directly or indirectly—as in the case of contaminating the world because of original sin—is not necessary for pain and suffering to occur. Pain and suffering occur in the natural world itself, among animals. Gnostics and Manichaeans do not find any problems in explaining this: according to them, our world was created by a deity who simply does not have the attributes of omnipotence and benevolence to begin with.

This explanation for the presence of evil has the advantage of not trying to join the creator of our physical universe—who is ultimately responsible for our sufferings, be them man made or natural—with the figure of a benevolent deity. The Greek pantheon also had this advantage, since their gods were full of vices and failures just like us—even so, it's worth remembering that the Greeks explained human suffering with the myth of the theft of the divine fire by Prometheus, which unduly benefited humanity. Prometheus was punished by Zeus and humanity began to suffer by having to work, fight, marry and reproduce.

Commenting on pantheism, 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote the following on his work Parerga & Paralipomena:

It would obviously have to be an ill-advised God who knew no better way to have fun than to transform himself into a world such as ours, into such a hungry world, where he would have to endure misery, deprivation and death, without measure and purpose, in the form of countless millions of living but fearful and tortured beings, all of whom exist for a while only because one devours the other. For example, in the form of six million Negro slaves who receive on average sixty million lashes a day to their naked bodies; and in the form of three million European weavers who vegetate feebly in stifling attics or desolate factory halls, plagued by hunger and grief, and so on.

In several parts of his work, Schopenhauer claims that an omnipotent and benevolent God could never have created this world. According to him, all attempts to attribute omnipotence and benevolence to the deity responsible for the creation of a world so full of pain and suffering were doomed to fail. For Schopenhauer, it makes more sense to attribute the creation of the world to the devil—or a similar figure—or to an accident. Responding to Leibniz and his hypothesis that this is indeed “the best of all possible worlds”, Schopenhauer wrote:

Even if Leibniz’s demonstration were correct that among all the possible worlds this one is still the best, still this does not represent a theodicy. For the creator did not create merely the world, but also possibility itself; accordingly he should have arranged the possibility in such a way as to allow for a better world.

But generally what screams too loudly against such a view of the world as the successful work of an omniscient, all-benevolent and at the same time omnipotent being is the misery of which it is full, on the one hand, and on the other hand the obvious imperfection and even burlesque distortion of its most perfect of phenomena, the human. 

In Schopenhauer's philosophy, suffering and pain are positive forces, that is, forces that move the reality of the living. Pain, boredom and lacking: these things are not negations of a fundamentally good reality, but fundamental forces of reality, much more present than pleasure, satiety and all the things we consider to be positive or good. Evil is not ephemeral or illusory. He writes:

Accordingly I know of no greater absurdity than that of most metaphysical systems which declare evil to be something negative, whereas it is precisely the positive that is making itself felt. On the other hand, the good, i.e., all happiness and satisfaction, is the negative, that is, the mere suspending of desire and ceasing of a pain.

In the 20th century, Cioran wrote the following in the work Exercises of Admiration:

The problem of Evil actually troubles only a few sensitive souls, a few skeptics, repelled by the way in which the believer comes to terms with it or spirits it away. Hence it is to these that theodicies are primarily addressed, attempts to humanize God, frantic acrobatics that collapse and compromise themselves on this ground, constantly belied as they are by experience. Try as they will to be persuasive, they fail; they are declared suspect, incriminated, and asked for accountings, in the name of one piece of evidence — Evil — evidence that a de Maistre will attempt to deny. “Everything is Evil,” he instructs us; yet Evil, he hastens to add, comes down to a “purely negative” force that has nothing “in common with existence,” comes down to a “schism in being,” to an accident. Others will assert on the contrary that quite as constitutive of being as Good, and quite as real. Evil is nature, an essential ingredient of existence and anything but an accessory phenomenon, and that the problems Evil raises become insoluble as soon as we refuse to introduce it into the composition of the divine substance. Just as sickness is not an absence of health but a reality as positive and as lasting as health, in the same way Evil is worth as much as Good, even exceeds it in indestructibility and plenitude. Good and Evil principles coexist and mingle in God, as they coexist and mingle in the world. The notion of God’s culpability is not a gratuitous one, but necessary and perfectly compatible with the notion of His omnipotence: only such an idea confers some intelligibility on the historical process, on all it contains that is monstrous, mad, and absurd. To attribute goodness and purity to the creator of becoming is to abandon all comprehension of the majority of events, especially the most important one: the Creation. God could not avoid the influence of Evil, mainspring of actions, an agent indispensable to Whoever, exasperated by self-containment, aspires to emerge, to spread Himself and corrupt Himself in time. If Evil, the secret of our dynamism, were to withdraw from our lives, we should vegetate in that monotonous perfection of the Good which, according to Genesis, vexed Being itself. The combat between the two principles. Good and Evil, is waged on every level of existence, including eternity. We are plunged into the adventure of the Creation, one of the most dreadful of exploits, without “moral purposes” and perhaps without meaning; and though the idea and the initiative for it are God’s, we cannot reproach him for it, so great in our eyes is His prestige as the first guilty party.

In another one of his works, The New Gods, Cioran writes:

Since evil presides over all that is corruptible, in other words over all that is alive, it is absurd to try to prove it comprises less being than good does, or even that it contains none at all. Those who identify evil with nothingness suppose they are thereby saving their poor Good Lord. We save Him only if we have the courage to sever His cause from that of the Demiurge. Having refused to do so, Christianity inveterately sought to impose the inevidence of a merciful Creator: a hopeless enterprise which has exhausted Christianity and compromised the God it sought to preserve.

In other words: when we attribute omnipotence to the figure of the creator of the universe, all attempts to absolve him from the evils of the world are futile. If God exists, he is guilty, according to non-dogmatic perspectives that have no commitment to defend him. Throughout the history of the great monotheistic religions there has been a tremendous effort to spare God from being guilty of the world's evils.

True rhetorical juggling was employed in the efforts to exonerate God from being guilty of the evils suffered by creatures. However, from the perspective of negative or pessimistic philosophy, from the perspective of thinkers such as Schopenhauer and Cioran, the creator, if he really existed, would be guilty. What is more, he would deserve our contempt and hatred if he really existed. Misotheism (an aversion or hatred of God or gods) would not be a gratuitous act of rebellion, but a perfectly justifiable response.

by Fernando Olszewski

(This article was originally published June 8th, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)

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