Lapsarian loquaciousness lingers here on Arimathea, as Kristor graciously invests his considerable talents to help us understand the fall. For the full background thread of this post, please see “Orthodoxy and Evolution,” “Kristor on the Fall,” “Evil Christians,” and “Unde Malum.” Kristor has responded to my criticism in “Unde Malum,” and he defends his theory that the fall occurred due to ignorance. I need some time to think about his response, but I would like to share his argument as today’s entry. I am not posting Kristor’s genteel introduction because my narcissism requires starvation rather than indulgence.
. . . Over many years of wrestling with this issue, I had finally arrived at ignorance as the only possible way by which the first sin could have happened. I have never been wholly satisfied with the notion, but then I have never found anything else nearly so adequate. And it seems to me that there must be a way to make sense of the Fall; for after all, it happened: it is an actual fact of being, and since being is intelligible, this fact too must be somehow intelligible. I agree with you about the utter unintelligibility of evil, yet it seems to me that its unintelligibility is deeply connected with our ignorance. Indeed, I would suggest that they are coterminous. For, could Socrates have been just wrong about the pivotal role of ignorance in sin? Would that not make him wrong also about anamnesis? And would it not also make Aristotle and Aquinas wrong about the omnipotence and necessity of God?
But those are some pretty big jumps. Let me pull back, a bit. Let me sum up what follows by saying, simply: if a thing is absolutely unintelligible to us, is it not
for us to know anything about it? And does not that metaphysical ignorance suffice to provide for the possibility that we might turn toward it, without knowing what we were doing?
What is, is ipso facto intelligible. To the extent then that a thing is existentially depraved, that depravation is in itself unintelligible. As you say, we reckon the defect of a thing by reference to the perfection of its nature. That part of the whole virtue of a man that is lost by his surrender to alcoholism is not known in itself. Rather we compare the remnant virtue of the fallen man to the virtue of the perfect man, and tot up their positive values, and then take note of the difference between the sums thereof. The drunk are slovenly, perhaps, and smelly; the sober, in general, not so much. So noting, we apprehend in either sort of men positive values, actual habits of becoming and properties of being. The drunkard’s depravation is unintelligible in se, and incalculable; the negative of virtue is just nothingness, which has no mete or measure. So, we cannot reckon it in our calculus of goods. How could it be otherwise? For
non-being has no goods
. And any depravation of being, however trivial, is through and through just a portion of sheer nothingness, no? It has no properties, for it does not exist to have them. So, it cannot be even apprehended, let alone comprehended. Indeed, it is immense; not that it is large, so much but that it is, in the original sense of “immense,” immeasurable, incommensurable with anything that is. Thus the merest jot or tittle of sin is equal to the whole infinite difference between being and non-being; is an abyss without bottom. This is part – just one part – of the reason that only God had the ontological resources to redeem our fallen nature. God has the power to redeem sin because it is the power to create ex nihilo.
Alright: if evil is simply unintelligible, then it simply cannot be known; there is nothing about it that we can grasp, because there is nothing to it, at all. So, we cannot but be ignorant about it, ex ante. Indeed, even ex post, we cannot know it directly, but only by virtue of its consequences in the derogation of our being.
We all “understand” what it is like to err out of ignorance, because we have all done it. We are all ignorant. So we “see” how it could have come to pass for Satan, that he found himself in a state of sin, without having recognized beforehand what that would mean for him, what its consequences would be for his life. Indeed, it seems that this is the only way Satan could have found himself in such trouble; if he had known beforehand what he was getting himself into, his decision to get into it would be incomprehensible; indeed, it would be metaphysically impossible. But I don’t think that this sort of understanding amounts to comprehension of evil in its essence, there being no such thing out there to comprehend. It amounts only to recognition of a shared misadventure. In that sense, only, do we “understand a mistake due to ignorance.”
You say, “the choice is not an arbitrary one, as between unknown paths.” But it is. Because evil is utterly unintelligible, we could not have known the path of evil before we took it; and until we had taken it, we could not have known how precious our life was, by contrast, before we Fell. You can’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone. Before we Fell, we understood neither the nature of the Fall, nor the full value and beauty of our innocent obedience.
And this, it seems to me, is why the myth of Eden puts the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil at the very center of the story, and of the Garden. Before Adam and Eve ate of that Tree, they were ignorant even of their nakedness; no alternative thereto had ever occurred to them. They had no idea why anyone would ever want to hide or cover anything in the first place. And their very first acts after they ate were to cover, and to hide. It cannot be that this crucial aspect of the myth indicates nothing at all to us about how the Fall happened. What does it tell us? Not having Fallen, Adam and Eve did not know what it was to Fall,
and they did not, therefore, know that they had not Fallen
Notwithstanding all that, can we make sense of the original decision to sin? Can we discover the inner logic that undergirded that decision? No. Nor did I mean to suggest that we could. The appeal to ignorance, rather, suggests that there is no order or logic to the original decision to sin, because it was, not a decision to sin – not a decision intentionally aimed at pain and death – but just to do something that was not yet fully understood. That decision was like the thrashing about of an infant, who by his thrashing rolls himself off his changing table, and so plummets to the floor. The baby’s thrashing is not disorderly or illogical – indeed, it may be an expression of overflowing joy, of pure untrammeled orderliness and goodness, so far as they may be expressed in a baby – but it is not informed, or therefore constrained, by knowledge of what a fall from the changing table could mean: it is ignorant of falling. It is ordered only by such simple, exquisite goods as he so far comprehends. The appeal to ignorance, then, just is an appeal to the ultimate unintelligibility of evil.
It is difficult, from our fallen perspective, to conceive of a state of utter ignorance of the wages of sin. But if the world is a creation of a perfectly good God, such a state was a metaphysical necessity for at least the first instant of the first creaturely career.
The abyss of evil in se is as sheer and dark to us as non-being. We may gaze into that abyss, but we can never see it. We cannot comprehend it, the way we comprehend intelligible things like engines or syllogisms.
Yet do we, when all is said and done, comprehend engines or syllogisms? No; what a vain conceit! They are intelligible, to be sure; but who has plumbed their uttermost depths?
But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living. The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me. … Whence then cometh wisdom? Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air.
Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears.
God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven; To make the weight for the winds; and he weigheth the waters by measure. When he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder: Then did he see it, and declare it; he prepared it, yea, and searched it out. And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.
Socrates agrees with Job: to depart from evil is understanding; so, to be evil is to want understanding.
I really appreciate the following point: “This is part – just one part – of the reason that only God had the ontological resources to redeem our fallen nature. God has the power to redeem sin because it is the power to create ex nihilo.” I have never considered that before, but I find it very insightful. I also like the clever teaming of Socrates with Job at the end. Maybe Plato did study with the Hebrews when he was in Egypt. I tend to think that he and his teacher received their inspiration more directly, but the spark of the divine is evident, regardless.
Update: Kristor explains his arguments more fully in “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness.” See my response with “Before Choice,” followed by “Kristor Poses Evil Problems.”