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Most Christian thinkers have viewed evil as a privation, a derivative reality, like a shadow. Shadows are privations of light; they are real things, but dependent on the bodies that cast the shadows. They are darkness where light should have been. Similarly evil, a secondary reality, is only the absence of good, a void where goodness belongs. On this understanding of evil arose the account of sin, grace, and the fallenness of the world fundamental to orthodox Christianity.

During the slow growth of a secular society over the last several centuries, the shadows in our official picture of reality were gradually removed. People preferred to imagine that there is but one way of being and that way good. Evil came to be regarded by the enlightened as an outmoded expression for a set of “problems” that the applied scientific method in engineering, medicine, or the social sciences could be expected gradually to palliate, if not overcome. Recent years, however, have witnessed a marked reversal of opinion among secular thinkers. More and more frequently evil is coming to be numbered among the basic facts of which any plausible theory of ethics or society must take account. Moreover, there is a growing consensus that, though here and there an affliction or two may be corrected, the treatment is likely to be only temporary or else to have side effects that will leave the sum of evil unchanged.

This shift of attitude was no doubt anticipated, as most developments are, by prescient social critics. But it has stolen up quietly enough to have surprised most of us. It is doubtful, for instance, that as recently as twenty years ago many people would have criticized what few would dream of writing today, i.e., what the late Sidney Hook was able to say in good conscience in 1974:

Given the rapidly expanding horizons of knowledge in our age, there is nothing in the nature of things which requires that the sick, any more than the poor, must always be with us. If scientific medicine develops at the same pace in the next few hundred years as it has in the last century, it is not shallow optimism to anticipate that the most serious forms of sickness will disappear and not be replaced by others. In the age of AIDS and the collapse of welfare economics, barely two decades after these words were written, not even shallow optimists admit to having much hope for either of the developments that Sidney Hook still found plausible.

Even the smug scientism with which talk of evil was once likely to be rebuked has itself receded in all but the backwaters of our civilization. This was brought home to me with great force several years ago. In 1988 a brief favorable review of Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Prince of Darkness was published in one of the prestigious journals (if memory serves, it was the Times Literary Supplement). In the course of his review, the critic reported, without scoffing or even skepticism, the author’s implicit position that if there was no devil, there was certainly someone very like him doing his work. What had become of Enlightenment optimism while we were not watching? Though this question was not explicitly answered in the book, Russell, like his reviewer, wrote quite as if, among sensible people, there had never been any question of the importance of evil.

Evil is of course an intrinsically unattractive subject. In addition, its association with Christian doctrine sufficed for many years to discredit it as an admissible topic of secular discourse. Today, however, a mankind that is emerging from its adolescent secularist rebellion is having second thoughts. We are seeing evil with new eyes and in a new setting: not in the context of sin, forgiveness, and redemption, but rather in that of noticeably pagan ideas, such as victimization, ill luck, fate, and tragedy.

The path between a Christian and this nascent secular understanding of evil does not merely have a history, and a fascinating one, it is wholly entwined with the notion of history itself. For centuries Christendom had a concept of universal history as an all-encompassing providential framework of events, whose capacious frame could contain and shape to one desirable end the different and often conflicting efforts of all generations and individuals. This basically Augustinian conception gradually transformed into the secular doctrine of “progress,” and this transformation in turn fulfilled itself in the historical determinism of Hegel and Marx. Just a few decades ago most thinking people still considered some kind of universal history to be the medium in which all things lived and moved and had their being.

Recently everything has changed. Few people today see any purpose in universal history and fewer still expect it to disclose the meaning of their lives. Its former prestige has also vanished. It is this collapse of confidence in history that seems to be the radical cause both of the renewed consciousness of evil and of the pagan framework in which it is now so often discussed. Here is how these changes came about.

The historian J. H. Plumb, in his book The Death of the Past, has described how the study of history paradoxically lost meaning in proportion to its own success. As history grew linearly in prestige, it exploded exponentially in detail, until mastering a single decade of local history could easily fill the lifetime of a specialist. The embroidering of minutiae in which the writing of such histories came to consist was of course incompatible with achieving sufficient distance from the matter to allow its larger pattern, if any, to emerge. Looking for meaning in history on the grand scale therefore risked becoming the occupation of dilettantes.

Writing in 1969, Plumb remained optimistic that this destructive moment might be followed by a later constructive one in which the one-sided stories of the past told by our ancestors would be replaced by a grand new synthesis, one that would “help us achieve our identity, not as Americans or Russians, Chinese or Britons, black or white, rich or poor, but as men.” On that noble note he ends his enlightening book.

The last quarter-century, however, has not borne out his hopes. In fact, Plumb would have a great deal of trouble today even publishing that final sentence, because of its reference to our identity as “men.” Today he would have to say “men and women,” which of course would ruin the whole picture of unity and harmony that he hoped future historians would develop. Even if he refused to say it, the publisher’s politically correct text-editing program would likely say it for him. And this is significant. As the overall pattern of history has disappeared, we have not in fact searched for deeper patterns, as Plumb hoped we would, but rather for smaller ones, ones that might prove more resistant to fading. We have sought to ground a pattern in something we can still believe in, and such things are few. Sex, race, culture are among them, but even that list is unstable. The idea of history has been blown to pieces, not to be put back together again, but perhaps only as a preliminary to being blown to atoms. “Each of us is thrown back upon himself,” says Jean-Francois Lyotard in his famous introduction to postmodernism, “and each one knows how little that self is.”

Universal history has been challenged by revisionists of bewildering variety. Feminists, homosexuals, and blacks, to mention only the most prominent, are prolific in what might be called “advocacy histories,” histories that magnify the achievements of some target group through a sometimes violent massaging of the facts. The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb charitably calls such new histories “creative” (“Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History,” First Things [November 1992]). As she shows, they are also makeshift, partial, perspectival, and usually grounded in the biological nature of the historian. Even to call them “partial histories” could be misleading, if that were taken to suggest that there is some whole story into which they fit. For Afrocentrist history, where blacks are the driving force behind events, will not merge with that of American Indians. And neither will have the least connection to the feminist “herstory,” with which today one could stock a small library. The mirror of universal history is shattered.

Our biologically based historians ground their idea of goodness in biology also. The only good is a materially and psychologically satisfying life. But such goodness is fragile, because no guarantee of it can be found in biology. On the contrary, as biological organisms we are at the mercy of external contingencies which at all times threaten to undermine our well-being. We are prey to what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in The Fragility of Goodness calls luck, but what John Kekes, in Facing Evil, calls “evil,” which he defines by its consequences as “undeserved harm inflicted on human beings.”

Neither of these works claims any connection to any biologically based history and no doubt their authors, if asked, would disclaim any. Nor am I suggesting otherwise, but rather pointing out that the problem they articulate is one that the upsurge of such partial histories readies us to understand. It is the fact that evil no longer appears to us to be swallowed up in providence or in the upward swing or dialectic of universal history that makes it seem such a palpable factor in everyday lives. Each partial history spins a warm cocoon around the biological family of its authors. But its dimensions are tiny, and outside it howl the alien and hostile elements.

Both Nussbaum and Kekes find it convenient to portray the effect of luck or evil through the study of tragedy. In the classical tragedies or in those of the modern period, despite considerable variations in form and content, there is always what I. A. Richards called “the tragic experience”—the spectacle of a protagonist who stands uncomforted and alone, suffering fortune’s reverses without any undue fear and without illusions. It is this heroic image, rather than any literary feature of tragedy, that has captured the imagination of a growing number of secular thinkers today. To them it suggests a new moral ideal, appropriate for our demystified yet troubled times. Heros and heroines, we will sink unrepentantly into the underworld after the example of Don Juan.

It must be admitted, however, that, like other ideals, this one is likely to fall short of complete realization in everyday life. Some have described it in ways more mindful of the weakness of our flesh. The literary critic Edward Dahlberg in Reasons of the Heart reminds us of the shabbiness that the pursuit of this ideal is likely to result in:

The more rational we are the less legendary are our lives. It is impossible to go back to the ancient superstitions. There is no Jehovah, no Zeus, no Christ, and we are forced to accept our tears and diseases like puny withered stoics who stand benumbed on curbstones or prowl through the megalopolitan shambles. Dahlberg’s version is strikingly borne out in practice. For instance, the term that comes up from the grass roots of biologically based thinking is “victimhood,” of which “puny stoicism” is a better gloss than “tragic experience.” A “victim” may find himself in a tragic situation without necessarily undergoing the “tragic experience.” This is because he will lack the self-possession, the confidence, or the sense of his own dignity to face extinction without fear or illusions. Great eras of tragic writing have coincided with great conceptions of the dignity of man. But we in the present era, insofar as we are the intellectual heirs of Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and other depreciators of mankind, are withered stoics, as Dahlberg said, having no well of living water from which to draw.

The eminent French philosopher and Academician, Marcel Conche, comes closer to labelling neutrally the contemporary self-understanding of secular society than have any of the philosophers discussed above. In a recent book, Temps et destin, he says it is the “consensus of our age” to regard certain aspects of our situation as destiny. These include the place and date of our birth, our condition at birth, both social and physical, our ethnicity, nationality, and so on. Such things are our portion, our moira, that ancient Greek conception of fate which, Conche thinks, is once again becoming fashionable. In the age of progress it was thought that the accidents of birth (or at least any stigma attaching to them) could all be overcome. But in the world-weary twentieth century we have learned, or ought to have learned, according to Conche (and those who endorse these partial histories), that these accidents are in reality insuperable. What is given to us at birth is what we can never rise above or change. 

Conche, too, calls his a “tragic” vision of the world. It is one which he admits can easily degenerate into nihilism and despair, but which he thinks need not do so. Our life may be only a vapor, its goods but toys, yet if we stand up for them, if we definitely affirm their value to us, we can still live life with honor and dignity. Such a view of life is tragic because it simultaneously recognizes both how important the goods of this world are to us and yet how precarious is our enjoyment of them, due to the unalterable characteristics given us at birth, and due, ultimately, to death.

Conche does not take this tragic and fatalistic vision to be something done in a corner, and yet he is aware that it is not something we hear about on the news. Our neighbors have not lately taken us aside to confess their fatalistic leanings. It would have been clearer to call it the “as yet unspoken consensus of the age.” What Conche is writing of is the logical consequence of the views of today’s growing class of persons who are unchurched, disaffected, and disenchanted with the secular “big pictures.” One does not hear such people openly endorsing the new consensus, but it is nevertheless the foundation of what they actually say and do. Luck, evil, victimhood may be merely expressions of a new fatalism or stages on the way toward it. Or perhaps they are independent alternative manifestations of the vulnerability and pointlessness to which we suddenly feel subject. Whatever most deeply reflects the spirit of the age, one may doubt whether many who are touched by it will bear their lot with anything like the tragic nobility that several of today’s philosophers idealistically suppose. Anyone who considers them critically for even a brief moment will recognize that today’s conceptions of luck, evil, victimhood, fate, and even tragedy are expressions of despair. They are what remains in lives when every hope of finding objective meaning is removed.

Certainly our Victorian forebears, who looked forward to this century with such optimism, could not have predicted the whimper with which it would end. But then they would never have anticipated the thoroughgoing rejection of Western culture and history, especially in the West itself, which constitutes the middle term between their hopefulness and our gloom. To repudiate one’s past has consequences in the search for meaning in life. To find meaning in our lives is to see them as fitting into a larger story, which implies projecting them against the background of some culture or other.

Indeed, more than the mere past has been lost. The atheistic or neo-pagan detractors of Western culture have lavished most of their attention on demolishing its religion: Christianity. Thus vertically (in religion) as well as horizontally (in time), Western civilization has suffered the collapse of its former dimensions. It is easily grasped that men with neither a past nor a religion, men of nothing and nowhere, sense their own futility and are prone to despair. And whether we regard this as a supernatural or as a natural penalty, it would be difficult to overlook how well it answers the offense of anti-religious warfare.

That trace of cosmic justice only deepens, if we reflect for a moment on the nature of despair itself when seen from a Christian perspective. St. Bernard of Clairvaux defined it well as a condition arising through ignorance of the nature of God. This is a thought packed with wisdom, which it is most interesting to explore in contrast with the five elements of contemporary despair: luck, evil, victimhood, fate, and tragedy. This will provide a vivid comparison between the religious viewpoint we are so cheerfully abandoning and the cheerless ersatz coming to us in its place.

Take luck, to begin with. A banal but representative image of luck (both good and bad) in our time is provided by one of our characteristic institutions, the ubiquitous lottery. A tiny few it destines for extreme and sudden wealth (uncritically assumed to be good luck), while it condemns the many to greater destitution. Here I do not refer merely to the modest price of a ticket, but to the mental destitution that must precede the buying of it.

To those who believe in luck as a metaphysical concept, of course, the lottery does not appear so dreadful. To them, life itself is a lottery that all must play (the so-called “genetic lottery,” for instance) and that ultimately all must lose. All luck therefore is in the end bad luck, and their despair is ignorance of the justice of God.

Next consider evil. As stated earlier, evil is not really the contrary of good, but its shadow or privation. It is the absence of a good that should by rights have been. Moral evil is a privation of proper intention; physical evil of the normal course of events. Such considerations lead straight to the center of traditional metaphysics. Recent secular philosophers, on the other hand, consider evil to be “undeserved harm inflicted on human beings,” a characterization shallow in at least two places. First, because it implies that all harm that is not self-chosen is undeserved, there is thus no place in the thinking of these philosophers for that instinctive inclination to evil which Christians call original sin, and without which no deep grasp of the social or even the natural world is possible. In the second place, it implies that all hardship is a form of harm, thus leaving no room in their universe for redeemed suffering. The felix culpa, or happy sin, is unintelligible to them. They fall into despair from blindness both to the necessity of evil in a fallen world and to how it is nevertheless to be redeemed. Their despair therefore originates in ignorance of the plan of God.

Though the notion of victimhood, no less than the others, is an expression of despair, it is impossible to overlook its comic aspect. It is “in” to be a victim today, and with this latest peripeteia of the human comedy people struggle to be so identified in order to reap victimization’s paradoxical rewards. This is reminiscent of the way rich people strove to appear proletarian, when it was fashionable to be so. Beneath the absurdity of such posturing, however, lurks a deeper vein of semantic foolishness, which no one given to satire should overlook. Originally the victim was the sacrificial animal, whose gory death was to assure the happiness of those performing the sacrifice. By extension a victim became anyone whose well-being was destroyed, especially if it happened through the cruelty and for the gain of someone else. In current usage, however, even this extended sense is barely a memory. Our victims are often only the heirs of victimhood, and in many cases even the original victimization was more imagined than real. To these epigones, nevertheless, the descendants of the victimizers must make perpetual reparations. In addition, it is understood that this task can never be accomplished, since hereditary victims, due to ancestral misfortune, are not responsible for their lives, their behavior, or their choices, and are therefore destined forever to beget more victims. Hence in perpetuity, or until fashion decrees otherwise, the world must stand on its head: “oppressors” must make sacrifices to their “victims” and be rewarded with never-ending showers of complaint.

That this low farce does not provoke the world to ridicule, rather than contrition, can be explained only by the slenderness of our comprehension of suffering. To suffer has come to mean to fall behind, as if on an endless treadmill, where catching up is unthinkable. It seems that a single blow to our tenuous autonomy is sufficient to destroy or at least to damage it forever. But suffering used to be understood differently. Eliot mentioned it in his “Preludes” as the central supporting prop of all things:

I am moved by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing. Christians conceived of suffering as a prelude to understanding, to the growth of our souls and more effective imitation of Christ. The victim’s despair arises, as St. Bernard says, from ignorance of God-in this case of his will that suffering be redeemed.

Next consider fate. The Stoics held fate to be the logic of the unfolding universe, the immutable linking of cause with effect that forged the chain of time. Men, they said, were like puppies tied to the oxcart of events. They could trot along willingly behind it or they could be dragged, straining at their leash. But they could change nothing nor deflect the cart in the slightest from its path. Because the universe is so well-ordered it seemed to them to follow that it is designed without regard to our chaotic lives. In the best of men the recognition of fate could call forth a tragic heroism and high-minded submission to the inevitable. For the rest it could lead only to despair. Although some of the Stoics use the term “providence,” they do not mean by it the foresightful provision made in the universe for its human inhabitants by a God who stands outside. Their providence is really only a form of doom. Therefore they either teeter above despair or fall into it through ignorance of a truly provident God.

Finally we come to tragedy or rather to the “tragic experience” supposed to epitomize our time. Fragile beings, inadequately equipped, we are pitted against forces that spare us only by oversight and with whom to contend will never be a possibility. Lacking hope, which is a Christian virtue, the most we can exhibit is its pagan counterpart, courage. And thence arise the tragic possibilities of our lives. Yet at the same time the very imbalance of power in which we find ourselves must always tend to make us figures of satire rather than tragedy. Can we really expect to wrest a sense of value from our crushing defeat by stubbornly esteeming things that, in truth, are valueless? In the end even this will-to-meaning seems futile. Loud exhortations to value the valueless seem unlikely to keep us from suspecting that our lives are in reality not merely unworthwhile, but absurd. In Christian terms, therefore, our despair is once again a species of ignorance. We cannot admit or even imagine what might be called the “tragi-comic” dimension of a divinely ordered universe.

Where tragedy presupposes a world that is either evil or at best a plaything of luck, in tragi-comedy (think especially of Shakespeare’s later plays) evil goes no deeper than the level of appearance. Underlying the unfolding of everyday life in time, with its undeniable burden of chance and evil, is an enduring reality that is wholly good. The typical tragi-comedy ends with a scene or two wherein some great calamity, which hitherto has been advancing inexorably and now seems on the point of destroying everything, is suddenly averted. It is then discovered that hidden forces of good were in fact working all the time to bring about that end. The faithful Gonzalo, at the end of the Tempes, in summing up its action, beautifully expresses the tragi-comic vision:

O, rejoice Beyond a common joy! and set it down With gold on lasting pillars: in one voyage Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom In a poor isle, and all of us ourselves, Where no man was his own. This vision of the world, though perhaps not lending itself to the same theatrical depth of expression as tragedy, is nevertheless connected with a philosophical understanding of things that is arguably deeper than that of the tragedians and at odds with it. Here is the vision of mystics and of the metaphysics and ethics of Plato. Its metaphysical expression is in the Platonic allegory of the sun, in which Plato says that just as the sun is at once the most visible of objects and the reason for the visibility of others, so the good is simultaneously the most real of things and ground of the reality of all things. The upshot of this for understanding the world is that we have not understood a thing until we have seen what is good about it. If Plato is right, then the Freudians, the Marxists, the long succession of fashionable theorists who traffic in suspicion, believing they have explained a thing when they have reduced it to something low, evil, or unsightly, will not ultimately be vindicated. Instead, creation is good, bearing in itself the marks of order and intelligence, and must finally be understood in those terms.

Socrates, at his trial, expressed the moral dimension of the tragi-comic vision of the world when he reminded his jury that a good man cannot be harmed by a bad, either in this life or in the life to come, and that his affairs are not neglected by the gods. All the obstinate attempts of his friends to portray him as a victim, a tragic figure, a symbol of human impotence before evil or bad luck, fall away from him with that profession of faith.

The classic religious statement of the “tragi-comic” understanding of life is of course that of the first four books of the New Testament, concerning the death, resurrection, and promised return of Jesus Christ. This simple story is erected as a bulwark against precisely the tragic experience of life, whether it be seen as evil, bad luck, victimization, or fate. Shakespeare’s Tempest, cited earlier, is an allegory of that very tale and every tragi-comedy borrows features of it.

The secular picture of the world is reflected in its biologically based histories and in the new importance it gives to evil, luck, tragedy, and fate. That despair saturates this view of things is, of course, no proof that it is false. Alas, it does not even guarantee that it will prove short-lived. Weariness tosses no one to another’s breast, but leaves him only in sullen possession of his own. Yet as secular thinking matures and its consequences become more obvious, it cannot avoid making its historical and cultural alternative—orthodox Christianity—more attractive. As freedom to fate, as comedy to tragedy, as grace to luck, and as good to evil, so must our historical faith appear to those of our time who have struggled to do without it.

Graeme Hunter, whose “The Case for Discrimination” appeared in First Things in April 1993, teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa.