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Friday, February 18, A.D. 2011
Unde Malum

Forgiveness Sunday is still a few weeks away, but the entries this past week have largely concerned the fall. In his comments to my “Orthodoxy and Evolution” post (followed by “Kristor on the Fall” and “Evil Christians”), Kristor notes that the cosmos had been tainted before the fall of man by the initial angelic/demonic rebellion against God. When I responded to Fr. Andrei’s interpretation of Genesis, I did not consider this first rebellion at all. I think that something like Fr. Andrei’s interpretation could avoid my criticisms if we took account of the original theomachy.

Kristor suggests that this initial fall, like the following human fall, occurred because of ignorance. For why else and how else would creatures rebel against the source of their being? Being necessarily imperfect and lacking omniscience, they rebelled against God and turned their back on their origin and destination. I do not accept this interpretation, but my argument will be long and, to use a Kristorism, anfractuous.

At the outset, let us acknowledge that we rational beings want to understand being. We are agents of truth, and our minds are oriented toward knowing reality. In our fallen cosmos, we are aware of its fallenness, and we naturally seek to understand it. So, we seek reasons to understand why beings reject their creator. We attempt to comprehend evil.

Following many wise men, I propose that such a natural desire cannot be satisfied, and such is due to the perverse anti-nature of evil that defies the normal order. We Christians hold that God is all good and that God created the world from nothing. As such, the world is good, but it is good in a derivative way. It is not truly perfect, as it is not God, but it is an image of perfection. This good reflection of God manifests in space and time the manifold beauty and order of God’s eternal ideas. I am a Platonist, and I think that these ideas are eternally in the mind of God, reflecting the infinite multiplicity inherent in the divine essence. If God is beyond being, then the ideas are the beingness of being—the eternal, fully intelligible, logical hierarchy of being. As a Platonist, I subscribe to this because it, and it alone to my knowledge, safeguards the integrity of our knowledge. It is the necessary assumption of man, and it presents the only metaphysical system not damned eventually to lead to nihilism. Those are strong claims, but such a position is whither I have gone in my own pitiable search for wisdom. Nominalism and “realism-lite” fall apart under fundamental considerations. Yet, this post is not a defense of Platonism but rather a response to Kristor’s explanation of Lucifer’s fall.

If we grant that the world is good—that being is good—then what is evil? For evil is not something created. Rather, it is the perversion of being, wherein creatures fall short of being what they are—what they were created to be. The exact understanding of this idea has varied a bit. Some philosophers and theologians hold that evil is simply the lack of goodness, and any lack of goodness implies evil. As such, creation by definition would be good insofar as it exists, but it would also be evil as it is not God. Therefore, according to this view, evil is a necessary consequence of God’s creating in that he brings something into being besides himself. Such a view, then, explains the problem of evil by making it an unfortunate requirement of reality.

I do not accept this view. I would say that the necessary imperfection of creation allows for the possibility of evil, but I would not call such imperfection evil itself. I, rather controversially, distinguish between types of imperfection. There is the imperfection of creation’s not being God. There is also the imperfection of what the Peripatetics call potentiality. Then, there is the imperfection that we see as unnecessary and blameworthy, which we call evil. For if the lack of goodness of creation were necessary evil, then wouldn’t the various levels of imperfection within that imperfect cosmos be contingent evil? As such, I argue that they are really different imperfections. God is perfect. God eternally has the idea of an oak tree, which is less perfect than God; it lacks every perfection not inherent in the idea of oak tree. There are particular oak trees in time and space; they are even less perfect than oak tree-ness because they cannot manifest the bountiful fullness of the idea. Each particular oak tree will not be all the others, and therefore each oak tree falls short of the plenitude of oak tree-ness. These particular oak trees exist at divers stages of development in time, starting with acorns. Acorns are thus even less perfect, being oak trees only potentially. Then, there are diseased particular oak trees, rotting away and dying. Lastly, there are dead oak trees, not to mention images of oak trees that other beings may create. These examples show several levels of being manifesting God’s perfection imperfectly.

So, I would argue that evil is a form of corruption that deteriorates being. It is a characteristic of fallen nature, and this is why I found Fr. Andrei’s interpretation so difficult to accept. For it seems that an unfallen cosmos would appear radically different from the world that we experience in time and space. Only the noblest activity of our mind is able to glimpse being not in a state of decay. Some Platonists think that such a world is the ideas themselves; they hold that instantiation in time and space requires generation and decay. That is certainly true for the world of particulars as we perceive it, but I do not know if it must be true of the world on the level of particular beings. We have no access, it seems, to any other world that manifests the ideas in time and space without corruption. Perhaps, Eden was different. Perhaps, the eschaton will be different. We just do not know.

As rational, deliberating beings, men experience another kind of evil than existential evil. We have intimate experience with moral evil, and I believe that it horrifies us even more so than bodily corruption. For there is an orderly system to nature with generation and decay. Even if such an order requires death and loss, we can still see a certain beauty and logic to it. It is certainly this insight that leads men like Fr. Andrei to propose that the laws of fallen nature are divinely intended. As I wrote, I do not believe so, though God has made some fine lemonade from the lemons of the fall. The cosmos, even marred and corrupt, exhibits the divine splendor majestically. Existential evil, it seems, only bothers us to a degree, though I am not minimizing the horror of suffering and mortality.

In contrast, we fail to see any such beauty or order in moral evil. Moral evil, whether our own or another’s, repels us. We can only tolerate it by ignoring it or attempting to justify its wickedness. For, as wicked, moral evil is by nature undesirable and intolerable.

Both Dionysius the Syrian (the “pseudo-Areopagite”) and Augustine of Hippo offer excellent analysis of the metaphysics of evil. As Kristor occasionally reminds us, to the extent that something is, it is good. Therefore, every soul that desires and everything that every soul desires are good. For it is impossible to desire evil as such. What, then, is moral evil? Moral evil is desiring things contrary to nature—contrary to their appropriate priority in the hierarchy of being. A drunk may desire a particular pleasure, and the pleasure itself is good. Yet, the drunk sacrifices many higher goods, such as the integrity of his reason and possibly the well being of his family, for the lower pleasure that he seeks. The drunk, insofar as he is a man, is good. The pleasure is good. Yet, his particular disordered choosing is evil. Moral evil, then, is a disorder of the soul’s deliberative and appetitive faculties. This idea of disorder can be used to think of evil more generally; it is a disorder—a marring—of God’s plan. Of course, divine providence may use such disorder to bring about good, but that does not make the disorder good.

Such reminds me of Tolkien’s brilliant cosmogony in the Silmarillion, the Ainulindalë. The fall in Tolkien’s mythology occurs because the chief of the Ainur whom Eru creates to assist in the shaping of the world through music refuses to follow the chosen composition that Eru makes. This rebellious Ainu is named Melkor, and Melkor’s dissonance disrupts the song of creation. However, Eru uses this dissonance and incorporates it into the composition, such that the world produced manifests sorrow as well as joy in its beauty.

Why, though, would anyone attempt to alter the composition of the master composer or thwart the blueprint of the divine architect? The classic explanation is pride, wherein the creature values himself over God. Note that the creature is good, but God is better, and creatures desire God over themselves according to proper judgment. The disordered priorities in pride incur the fall. Yet, why would that happen?

I mentioned that we naturally desire to know the world, and being aware of its fallen state, we attempt to understand evil. Yet, I stated that we cannot understand evil. For evil is not. It seems that being is intelligible and that what is intelligible is. That being is intelligible is a necessary assumption of any philosophical approach to the world that does not refute itself. If I proposed that the world was not intelligible, then I would be guilty of making a claim about the world about which I just stated that I cannot make a claim. I would undermine myself as a speaker. That the intelligible is follows from our reflecting on metaphysics. Ideas are that which primarily exist; they are fully intelligible, and they are not contingent in the way that becoming things seem to be. Even if we do not experience such ideas in time and space through empirical observation, we can still talk about them and reason about them. We do not think about nothing; we think about objects that have being or about intersections of being, as when we take various parts and put them together to imagine a chimera. Such may seem strange to folks who take concrete particulars as their touchstone of reality, but it does make sense when you accept that particulars are not the metaphysical foundation of being. Rather, they are the “showing up” of ideas, or the ideas instantiated in time and place. Being so limited in our experience, it would be presumptuous for us to hold that non-contradictory ideas are non-existent everywhere. We cannot affirm that they instantiate somewhere without evidence, but given the plenitude of the cosmos, there very well might be worlds with unicorns and cyclops. What we do know is that such ideas are intelligible and that we can reason about them with other rational minds. In that, they exist.

Being is intelligible, and that which is intelligible is. Moreover, we Christians hold that something is good insofar as it exists. Therefore, we get a relationship among being, intelligibility, and goodness—a basic principle in Christian Platonism. Accordingly, evil is unintelligible. For evil is not good, and if it were intelligible, it would have being and therefore be good. Our awareness of evil is not positive awareness; rather, it is an awareness of a lack of being where there should be being. It is a form of knowledge that is not knowledge—wherein we somehow grasp that worst type of imperfection. We know that a pot is broken from knowing what a unbroken pot should be. We know what infirmity is by understanding health. It is odd to speak about evil. As I wrote previously, to speak about evil is to bastardize language, as we are dealing with a perversion of the order of being that taints everything that concerns it, including thought.

Yet, we wish by nature to comprehend, and this is why attempts to rationalize evil—to make it intelligible—are quite normal and understandable. However, an evil that has been rendered intelligible is no longer evil. Pangloss never conceives evil because he refuses to accept it as the malicious disorder that it is. Unpleasant necessities are not evil; they are simply rules that we, in our ignorance, do not understand and, not seeing their point, would rather them be otherwise.

I fear that Kristor’s explanation of Satan’s choice incurs this criticism. For a mistake due to ignorance is understandable. In such a scheme, the input delivered an expected output, and if we do not like the result, we can blame the designer. Yet, I do not wish to blame God. I also do not think that Satan’s fall was necessary. If it were, it would again make evil a constituent of reality and therefore intelligible. Rather, Lucifer’s preference of himself over God, just like Adam’s choice in the garden, is absolutely unintelligible. In this context, we are dealing with moral evil, and such evil choices contravene an intelligible moral calculus. We cannot make sense of it; there is no reason, no contributing factor, no excuse—evil is that bizarre parasite of being for which there can be no rational account. We thus see why myth is necessary to convey the story of the fall in Genesis; the lesson defies λόγος.

The precondition of ignorance and imperfection is necessary but not sufficient to explain the fall. Ignorance allows for such an unfathomable move, though it seems to me that not all ignorance is culpable. That any unfallen creature would turn away from its source and prefer the lower to the higher seems to follow another trajectory than trying the unknown because it is unknown. For the choice is not an arbitrary one, as between unknown paths. Rather, it is the deliberate rejection of the source of being for nothingness. It seems that such a choice ought to be impossible. For desire only aims for the good, but disordered desire chooses wrongly. Underlying that disorder, though, at the very heart of sin, is the unintelligible choosing of nothingness over being, though perhaps under the mistaken guise of being and goodness. Because we make such mistakes, Kristor and others trace the fall to ignorance. Yet, such a move only pushes the problem of intelligibility back another step. Ultimately, it just does not make sense. It cannot be known because it is not.

Update: Kristor responds in the next, snarkily named entry, “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” and he explains his argument further in “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness.” You may read my response in “Before Choice,” followed by “Kristor Poses Evil Problems.”

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 18, Anno Domini 2011
Religion | OrthodoxyPatristicsScriptureNon-ChalcedonianismProtestantismRoman CatholicismComments
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