A Short History of Ideas – Evil

History and Fiction
As Christianity spread its influence over Rome’s old empire, with its promise of immortality for those who repented of their sins, the concept of evil and what it represented became a subject of vital importance. In my last post on Sin, Saint Jerome is noted as having coined the phrase, “women are the root of all evil”; it naturally followed then that the current thinking would place sex at the epicentre of evil. It was the sin of lust that had taken hold of Adam, and lust is still regarded as something inherently dangerous, somehow different to the act of procreation. What made it so evil?
Saint Augustine, an early Christian Theologian who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, attempted to shed light on the evils of sex. He explained that because the sexual impulse arises independently in the body and cannot be controlled by the mind, it must be evil. The whole concept of virtue was, at the time, connected to the idea that instinct was dangerous, and should be repressed. Virtue required self-control, and lack of self control was the sin of Adam: the evil that caused the Fall of Man in the Genesis of the Old Testament. In our present way of thinking, such statements appear extreme; these days instinct is more often seen as a positive force. But at the time, our view of instinct was deeply coloured by the writings of the Old Testament, for “as a result of this sin, man, that might have been spiritual in body, became carnal in mind” (Russell, A History of Western Philosophy).
Because of these ideas a vow of celibacy was imposed on the Christian (Catholic) clergy, and often on others who held high functions. Unnatural though it was, it was an attempt to modify human nature. Whether it worked or not, depended much on the will power of the individual, and would probably have been more the outcome of character than anything else. But still, such efforts did not address the general evil that made its way into people’s lives: the evil of misfortune.
When the Great Plague struck Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Old Testament’s threat of damnation seemed fulfilled. Questions were raised which were hard to answer: if God was all-powerful, why did he not prevent suffering? Renaissance Humanists such as Erasmus took the bull by the horns and produced a Greek New Testament in Latin in 1522 to counter the Vulgate Bible of Saint Jerome, which had been based on the Hebrew texts. With this revival of Greek thinking, the words of the Greek Stoic Epicurus were brought to the fore again:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
God seemed to “delight in the torments of poor wretches”, remarked Erasmus, speaking of the ravages of the plague. As a prominent writer of his time, Erasmus was an important voice during the Christian Reformation. He accepted the idea that people were prone to sin, but believed that grace could save them. Grace was also an impulse, but a positive one. The Ancient Greeks called grace charis. It comes from the word to rejoice, to be grateful. In the Hebrew it is chen, a word which implies moral kindness. In the Catholic tradition grace can only be attained as a result of baptism. But even if Renaissance humanists had put Greek philosophy back on the reading list, the world had changed since the days of the Ancient Greeks. The progress of the Renaissance meant bigger cities, and bigger cities meant more crime; grace, whatever it meant, was in short supply.
If, in the words of Epicurus, God was neither willing nor able to prevent evil, how could the suffering caused by evil be accepted?
Was it a test, as in the Book of Job, where God heaped misery after misery on poor Job to gauge the depth of his faith. Natural disasters such as the plague could perhaps be seen as such, but what about the misery heaped on humankind by himself; what about the ultimate evil, the evil of war?
Contradictory though it seems, the Church had provided its answer through the influential work of Saint Augustine, who said that war was not a sin, provided it was carried out in self-defence. Suffering could be inflicted on an enemy as long as the cause was just. War was therefore legitimised. As to what constituted a just cause, the Christian crusades easily provided a precedent. But the justification of war would underpin politics even as the Church lost its influence after the time of the crusades. There would even be men who would positively advocate war during the Renaissance: men such as Niccolò Machiavelli, for example. How much influence would he have on the problem of evil, and where would his ideas take us?
Next Week: A Short History of Ideas looks at War…

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