Deadly nothingness: a meditation on evil.

Author:Steeves, Rouven J.

"I see nobody on the road," said Alice. "I only wish I had such eyes," the King remarked in a fretful tone. "To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!" --Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter VII An Augustinian Introduction

"Evil is the unbearable lightness of nonbeing," argues Jean Bethke Elshtain in her reflections on Augustine's understanding of evil. (1) It is an elegant formulation and captures Augustine's own sense of evil as "merely a name for the privation of good." (2) Both Augustine and Elshtain desire to knock evil off its seductive pedestal of greatness. For Augustine, evil is not some great force in the cosmos, which compelled God to create "the vast structure of this universe by the utter necessity of repelling the evil which fought against him." (3) This was the "silly talk, or rather the delirious raving, of the Manicheans." (4) Similarly Elshtain, invoking Hannah Arendt's conception of the banality of evil, (5) seeks to "deprive evil of its seductive powers." (6) Following Arendt, Elshtain seeks to "destroy the legend of the greatness of evil, of the demonic force, to take away from people the admiration they have for great evil--doers like Richard III." (7) To rectify the pernicious Manichaean error of ontological evil--an evil coequal with a good God and no less powerful--evil has to be seen as a deficiency. (8) It has to be seen not as something but nothing--no thing. (9) However, this very solution to correct the error of Manichaeism, when it is extracted from the context of its formulation and asserted in its own right, demotes experiences of incarnate evil, and even, as Arendt once argued, radical evil. (10) It was in fact Arendt's very attempt to abolish the admiration for a Richard III that had caused, in the words of Elshtain, her "tacit repudiation" of radical evil in "favor of the banality of evil" as embodied in the mid-level functionary Eichmann. (11) Yet, though "Eichmann was neither Iago nor MacBeth," (12) examples of the latter type populate history and literature no less than the more contemporaneous incarnations of the former. If Eichmann was "sheer thoughtlessness," (13) then Cesare Borgia was sheer ferocity and power. (14) And have not both types been present at all times? Is not evil at once the active deficiency arising from the will of fallen man and a shadow falling on man and penetrating his heart? Are not men made into monsters both by their own evil choices arising as a result of fallen wills inherited from Adam and by the corrupting influence of the devil? Is it for naught that men pray, "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil"? (15) Are men not in double jeopardy from one and the same evil, in "danger from the devil and from sin, if the Lord does not protect and deliver us"? (16) Nothing is indeed a deadly something and to understand what this something is without succumbing on the one hand to Manichaean dualism and on the other to an overstatement of evil as no-thing, it is imperative rightly to divide evil. Drawing on Augustine and Tolkien no less than modern physics and mathematics, the following meditation seeks to do precisely this. In turn, armed with our insights into evil, the essay reflects on evil's peculiar modern incarnation as intimated by Tocqueville and then closes with a reminder that, whatever form evil may take, evil as nothing cannot triumph in the face of goodness that is something--indeed everything.

The Dual Nature of Evil: An Introduction

Let us then consider in more detail Augustine, who, as in so many thorny theological matters, brought clarity and balance to the discussion. In a sermon on the Lord's Prayer, Augustine proclaims,

"Lead us not into temptation," will not be said, except where there can be temptation. We read in the book of holy Job, 'Is not the life of man upon earth a temptation?' What then do we pray for? Hear what. The Apostle James saith, 'Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God.' He spoke of those evil temptations, whereby men are deceived, and brought under the yoke of the devil. This is the kin of temptation he spoke of. ... What then has he hereby taught us? To fight against our lusts. For ye are about to put away your sins in Holy Baptism; but lusts will still remain, wherewith ye must fight after that ye are regenerate. For a conflict with your own selves still remains. Let no enemy from without be feared: conquer thine own self, and the whole world is conquered. What can any tempter from without, whether the devil or the devil's minister, do against thee? (17) Leaving aside the vital consideration of regeneration and who can properly resist evil--a question of eternal significance but beyond our present meditation on the nature of evil--Augustine's understanding of evil is that it is at once internal and external to man. Indeed, though the conquering of self is given primacy, the reality of external evil is not only assumed but asserted. The battle is fought in the heart of man, but the assault comes from without no less than from within. How can we best comprehend this simultaneity of nothing that is something? James Schall, in an essay entitled "A Meditation on Evil," provides good counsel: "Strictly speaking, however, that about which we can 'meditate' is restricted to a something, to some good, to some reality, to something that is. ... Any meditation on evil is an aspect of the meditation on nothingness." (18) Therefore, to illuminate in some way the nature of evil, we are well served to first reflect on the one thing that is truly something: the Good. Does the Good itself reflect an external-internal simultaneity that can help us understand the simultaneity inherent in the nothingness of evil?

The Dual Nature of Evil: What the Good can Teach Us

Arguably, few passages of Scripture better reflect the mystery of simultaneity than Paul's words to the church at Philippi: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." (19) At first glance a paradox seems to exist, for the burden to work diligently and in all humility inspired by the righteous fear of the Lord is placed squarely on the shoulders of man. Yet, in the same breath, Paul explains that we are but clay in the Lord's hands. (20) What seems to be a paradox dissipates when we glimpse the right order of things and understand that, though wondrous and mysterious, it does not defy explanation. As Augustine comments on Paul's words,

We therefore will, but God worketh in us to will also. We therefore work, but God worketh in us to work also for His good pleasure. This is profitable for us both to believe and to say,--this is pious, this is true, that our confession be lowly and submissive, and that all should be given to God. (21) If God is the author and perfecter of the good faith, then our labors are done in Him and His work is accomplished in and through us. (22) It is in light of this great mystery expounded in Philippians that Augustine writes,

Consider, now, whether the apostle did not thus long before foresee by the Holy Ghost that there would arise adversaries of the grace of God; and did not therefore declare that God works within us those two very things, even 'willing' and 'operating,' which this man so determined to be our own, as if they were in no wise assisted by the help of divine grace. (23) John Calvin, expounding on the same verse, elaborates on Augustine's teaching: "There are, in any action, two principal departments--the inclination, and the power to carry it into effect. Both of these he [Paul] ascribes wholly to God." (24) There is then a twofold external-internal simultaneity in the Good. First, it works at once transforming the heart of stone (internally) into a heart of flesh, which causes the heart to will to look outside itself (externally) to power from above to renew the mind. (25) Second, this internal-external simultaneity at once requires the labors of man (internal), and yet these labors are themselves the work of God (external). In all this man's agency is indeed required--that is his willing and working--but viewed from the vantage point of a more encompassing horizon, even willing and working are themselves gifts of God. Therefore, what at first seems paradoxical is resolved in the clarity of the divine mystery, which will convince the humble who know that man sees only from the vantage point of a mirror dimly.

The Dual Nature of Evil: The External-Internal Simultaneity of Nothingness

The simultaneity inherent in the outworking of the Good is then established, but can the same be said of evil? Without falling into the mire of Manichaean dualism, one can, I think, safely assert with Paul that a certain parallel can be drawn with evil. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul states, "You are slaves of the one whom you obey." (26) To be a slave requires the existence of a master, and, though this master may not be eternal, he may well maintain a certain ontological reality. Paul elaborates: "Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness." (27) There can be no doubt about the master of our righteousness, but what about our slavery to sin? Is sin purely internal, a corrupted will inherited from Adam and employed by ourselves, which then causes us to fall only further from grace? Augustine is keen on asserting man's culpability as already seen in his discussion of the Lord's Prayer: "Let no enemy from without be feared: conquer thine own self, and the whole world is conquered. What can any tempter from without, whether the devil or the devil's minister, do against thee?" (28) Yet, note that Augustine does not deny a real devil, who "prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking...

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