The Problem of Evil: Insights of BOETHIUS

– 6th Century AD –

It’s a famous atheist argument: “If God exists, why does he let good things happen to bad people?” This paradox dates back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who argued that the universe was not designed, all things are made of random conglomerations of atoms, and since there is no soul that can survive the body after death, we should enjoy our lives while we can.

Very few of the writings of Epicurus survive. We rely on the early Christian writer Lactantius (250 – 325 AD) for the earliest formulation of the “Epicurean Paradox”:

God, [Epicurus] says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?

In essence, Epicurus argues that (1) an all-powerful God could destroy all evil and (2) an all-good God would destroy all evil. So why is there evil? He concludes that there is no God.

After more than twenty centuries, this is still a common argument. Much of Epicurean philosophy survives in a poem written by Lucretius in the first century, On the Nature of Things, which argued that the universe is too imperfect, and suffers too much decay, to be created or upheld by a God or gods. Seventeen centuries later Voltaire called himself a “latter-day Lucretius,” and wrote an entire satirical novel, Candide, ridiculing the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. In his 1779 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume uses the Epicurean paradox to criticize the idea of a God with human-like characteristics.  In 1957 Russell put it like this in his Preface to Why I Am Not a Christian:

Apart from logical cogency, there is to me something a little odd about the ethical valuations of those who think that an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent Deity, after preparing the ground by many millions of years of lifeless nebulae, would consider Himself adequately rewarded by the final emergence of Hitler and Stalin and the H-bomb.

More recently, in his 2004 book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris quotes the above passage by Bertrand Russell and concludes:

This is a devastating observation, and there is no retort to it. In the face of God’s obvious inadequacies, the pious have generally held that one cannot apply earthly norms to the Creator of the universe. This argument loses its force the moment we notice that the Creator who purports to be beyond human judgment is consistently ruled by human passions ….”

The question of why evil exists is quite possibly the most trusted weapon of atheist philosophers. They tend to use it rhetorically and sarcastically, as Christopher Hitchens does against the notion of a designed universe: “Meanwhile, the sun is getting ready to explode and devour its dependent planets like some jealous chief or tribal deity. Some design!”

But I think the question of why evil exists can be answered—and without the evasive argument that God’s plan is beyond our understanding. I think Boethius succeeded in doing so – way back in the 520s A.D.


 


I’ve promised an answer to the Epicurean Paradox: How could a loving, all-powerful God let there be bad things? It may seem to you that we’ve bitten off more than anyone can chew. If philosophers have been debating this question for centuries, how could it have a good answer expressible in a single essay?

First of all, this question has been answered before—again and again, in fact. The only reason the paradox has survived so long is that Lactantius’s resolution of it has survived so long. And Augustine’s and Boethius’s and Aquinas’s and every other brilliant theistic philosopher’s. It’s only been over the last 100 years that people have stopped reading these classic resolutions and treated it like it’s some new idea that modern atheists like Bertrand Russell or Sam Harris came up with.

Secondly, the task is not as hard as you might think, because the paradox is actually sillier than it seems at first glance. It has the same logical formulation as the following “paradoxes”:

  1. John likes donuts. Every donut he gets increases his happiness. So how could a benevolent, endless-donut-producing factory not bestow upon John an endless supply of donuts? If it cannot do this, then the factory must be broken somehow. If it will not do this, it must not care about John’s desires. Hence, all donut factories are either defective or malevolent.
  2. How could benevolent parents not reward their children for everything they do, good and bad? If they lack the power to bestow rewards, they are not parents. If they lack the will to do so, they are not loving parents.

These paradoxes may be logically the same as the Epicurean Paradox, but they are not exactly analogous. We live in a world where bad things happen to innocent people, but no one believes that a parent should punish their child for being good. It is also likely that many donut factories are run out of greed and not benevolence, so this version of the paradox admittedly lacks realism.

But in terms of logic, it will help to see exactly where these silly paradoxes go wrong. In the first place, it is not healthy for anyone to consume an endless supply of donuts. Arguably, a benevolent donut factory would not grant John’s wish. The source of the contradiction here is in the concept of happiness. We have John’s immediate happiness (the deliciousness of the donuts) vs. John’s long term happiness (his health or non-health).

The problem is similar with the parenthood paradox. Parents punish their children, causing immediate unhappiness. But long-term happiness increases, because the child learns from it.

Now, the problem of evil is really the sum total of all such paradoxes. It’s the question of why children suffer punishment and John suffers donut-hunger, and why there is hunger at all in the world, why there are wars, why some people are criminals, why people are mortal, why the Holocaust happened, and every other negative thing about existence. It’s about everything bad … or even not-perfectly-good.

The subject matter of the paradox is, I admit, huge. But the paradox itself is still—from a logical point of view—silly.  It still relies on vagueness. Why do bad things happen? Well, what do you mean by “bad”? Relative to whom or what? Short-term or long-term?

Logically, it’s an ill-formed paradox. But it seems to capture a worry that obsesses us in modern times. Why does the world seem like such a crappy place? How you answer this question will largely determine your outlook on life. If you think that the world is woefully ill-designed, you might become a progressive and try to fix the entire thing, or maybe a cynic who pursues momentary pleasures. But if you can understand that the world is a deeply-interconnected whole that is good overall, and evil only in limited ways, you might—as I would urge—find a more fulfilling task in turning inward and trying to reform your own life.

So let’s a go a little deeper.


 


Enough evasion. Let’s get right to it. The Holocaust happened; Stalin starved millions of peasants; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was one war, but the innocent casualties it caused are dwarfed by the continual effects of famine and drought. Millions of innocent children die of hunger every year.

Is all this suffering really necessary? It seems that anything I—a comfortably-fed peace-time American—have to say on the matter would be inadequate. But perhaps we can consult Boethius, a former Roman Consul and Master of the King’s Offices, who was stripped of all his titles and possessions, imprisoned on false charges, and eventually executed. While in prison, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, a long philosophical meditation on why evil and injustice exist in the world. As a sufferer of so much injustice himself, maybe he knew what he was talking about.

Despairing, alone, and forsaken in his cell, Boethius writes that a “woman of majestic countenance” appeared to him, “whose flashing eyes seemed wise beyond the ordinary wisdom of men.” She is Philosophy, and she tells him she is there to give his soul “medicine” which will help him see the true nature of things.

Boethius laments his bad fortune, but Philosophy tells him how Fortune would respond to his complaining:

I [Fortune] nourished you with my abundant gifts, and, being inclined to favor you (an attitude which you seem to hold against me), I endowed you with all the affluence and distinction in my power. Now it pleases me to withdraw my favor. You should be grateful for the use of things which belonged to someone else; you have no legitimate cause to complain as though you lost something which was your own.

If Boethius is unhappy, Philosophy is saying, then it’s his own fault. He was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the Empire. And why? Because Fortune had bestowed upon him a lucky birth into a high-ranking family, a good education, and a government favorable to him. Why should he complain merely because he is brought back to the same level as the rest of humanity? And even if he is in prison and soon to die, isn’t he lucky to have lived at all? Life itself is a gift of Fortune.

A truly wise and virtuous man, philosophy says, is always happy, because he possesses the most valuable thing of all: himself.  But what of the tyrants that had stripped Boethius of all his possessions, and what is worse, executed so many innocent people? Were they not in possession of the Empire, and therefore the happiest of men? Not according to Philosophy:

Just as virtue is the reward of virtuous men, so wickedness itself is the punishment of the wicked.

It follows that all evil people are unhappy, and all good people are happy. If we accept this principle—perhaps not an easy thing to do—the problem of evil disappears. The innocents who suffer and die unjustly—the victims of the Holocaust, of the atomic bomb, and of Stalin—are not really suffering at all, but the happiest of people, precisely because they are good people. Those guilty of doing so much harm, because they are the most evil, are in fact the unhappiest of people.

Problem solved.

Okay, sure, you’re thinking, wasn’t that a little too easy?

Maybe so. It does seem like cheating to say that good people who suffer aren’t really suffering.  But what is interesting about Boethius’s view is that it’s the same as that of Socrates and many other ancient philosophers. It was a view that had been around for a millennium already, and probably longer. Material goods do not bring true happiness. Goodness brings happiness. Courage in the face of adversity brings happiness. Being cruel to others cannot bring happiness, no matter how wealthy you are, because material happiness is an illusion. Instead, being cruel makes one woefully unhappy. Because if you realize how cruel you are, you suffer from conscience. And if you don’t realize how cruel you are, you obviously suffer from stupidity.

In Book I of Plato’s Republic, this is precisely what Socrates sets out to show. At the conclusion of the argument, after taking his skeptical opponent through every other possibility he finally gets him to concede his point:

SOCRATES: Then the just is happy, and the unjust miserable?

THRASYMACHUS: So be it. … Let this, Socrates … be your entertainment …

The skepticism of Thrasymachus—who lacks the intellect to argue with Socrates, but still feels like he is being misled somewhere—is understandable. It seems obvious that good people suffer all the time, and that evil people often get away with their crimes and are happy. What does it matter that you have Socrates himself to analyze the notions of happiness and justice for you, and prove that the two are—theoretically at least—the same? We are still left with the brute facts: millions of innocent people have been killed or have gone hungry.

But Boethius makes another essential point, attacking the problem from a very different direction:

Although nature makes very modest demands, avarice is never satisfied.

Human beings need relatively little to live happily. Food, water, shelter, companionship. In a very poor country, on the brink of famine, if you have these things you will feel blessed. But if this is all you have, and you live in the United States, you are more likely to feel impoverished. How poor would you feel if you couldn’t afford a cellphone, or a television, or even a soft bed to sleep on? You might easily call yourself unhappy … even if you are better off than the vast majority of people who have lived since the dawn of humanity.

As Boethius writes,

Even if God were overgenerous with treasures of gold and deigned to satisfy every plea … still all this would not satisfy. Ravenous greed would devour everything and then discover other wants.

Imagine a world where everyone is fed and no one dies before their time. In such a world, what is the worst thing imaginable? Lack of indoor plumbing, maybe? Being homeless? Might people then argue that a truly just world would never permit such extreme suffering as not having a hot shower available?

Okay, then let’s say everyone has indoor plumbing, a house, and a comfortable bed. Now what is the worst thing imaginable? Not having Internet access? Not having a car? Since these would be the worst things imaginable, the argument of Epicurus would still go through, and we would still conclude that the world is unjust.

When would this game end? When John has infinite donuts? When no child is ever punished?

Indeed, rich people are often spoiled in this way. As Boethius puts it:

Those most blessed are often the most sensitive: unless everything works out perfectly, they are impatient at disappointment and shattered by quite trivial things.

Okay, so rich people are spoiled. But if God were truly perfect and omnipotent, why would he create a world that was imperfect in the least respect? Why not create a world where no one is spoiled, everyone is good, and everyone is happy? Why did God not simply create a world of perfect happiness and be done with it?

Because such a world would lack the most valuable thing of all: self-possession.

The enjoyment of material things is superficial, and therefore imperfect. It never brings perfect happiness, and how could it? Philosophy admonishes Boethius for being overly concerned with material things:

They forsake those who are content with them, and they do not satisfy those who are discontented. Why then do men look outside themselves for a happiness which is within? You are confused by error and ignorance and so I will point out to you the source of perfect happiness. Is anything more precious to you than yourself? You will agree that there is nothing.

Essential to self-possession is freedom of choice. “There is free will,” Boethius writes, “and no rational nature can exist which does not have it.”

And here we see the problem with a world created where everyone is perfect and good and happy. In modern times, we call such a place “Utopia,” and we find the idea creepy. A place filled with mindlessly-obedient, robot-like beings sounds horrible. Utopia is a place without free will.

Human beings are imperfect. We don’t know everything. We usually can’t predict all the consequences of our actions. Often we are too lazy to. So it is inevitable that—having the ability to make our own choices—we will often make mistakes. Sometimes we will make huge mistakes (e.g. WWII). And here we have one reason that the world is imperfect. Human do not mindlessly do whatever is best. Humans make their own decisions, and often those decisions are mistaken, or even evil.

Why does evil exist? At least part of the answer must be that we imperfect humans have the ability to make our own choices.


 


The argument from human choice only applies to sufferings caused by self or others. We might well argue that things like the Holocaust must be possible because humans must be able to make choices—even hugely mistaken ones. But what about natural disasters, where humans are not to blame? Why must our existence include such things as famines, earthquakes, and floods: causes of so much innocent suffering?

Boethius justifies adversity in this way: “Providence gives a mixture of prosperity and adversity … she tests with hardships in order to strengthen … virtues by the exercise of patience.”

But this way of seeing things can only go so far. Disasters can kill innocents immediately, without any such benefits to virtue.

It would seem that in a truly perfect world, there would be no natural disasters. But, ah, once again, we’re on the slippery slope of an overgenerous God. In a world without floods, earthquakes, or famines, people would complain of the injustice of rainy days, sweltering heat, or icy roads. And in a world without such things, we would call blustery days and foggy mornings disasters. And if we took this argument to its limit, and demanded that all problems and inconveniences whatsoever must be punishments for human error, then we are left in world with nothing that is not human. In other words, for there to be air and rocks and trees and animals at all, they must be independent of humans and capable of frustrating us. For there to be an outside world, it must be beyond our control. But in a world where every event is a result of human choice, nothing is outside our control. In such a world, there would be no world, only naked human will.

If humans had perfect, godlike knowledge, there would be no disasters. We could foresee them and prepare accordingly. The occurrence of disasters is a direct result of our ignorance of the world. What makes the world the world is that we do not entirely understand or control it. To demand a world that is entirely under the control of human choice is to demand the abolition of world.

So why does evil exist? Another part of the answer is that we humans have a world.


 


Okay, so maybe part of being human is making choices and mistakes. And another part of being human is living in a world that is not under our control. But still: what is the point of all this suffering? Why can’t life be like a video game, where you can make wrong choices or suffer bad luck, but you’re never physically punished or killed for it? Wouldn’t such a world be still more perfect than ours?

Let’s come at this problem from still another angle. Imagine a city, filled with innocent millions. A gigantic bomb strikes, and they all die immediately, painlessly. Does anyone suffer?

Arguably, no one suffers, unless you count grieving family members. But why should anyone grieve at all if no one suffered from the strike itself?

Obviously, pain, discomfort, and suffering are not the only bad things. Death, in itself, is considered bad. A painless death is considered better than only the worst forms of torture. And this has nothing to do with the “experience” of dying. We fear the extinction of our own existence, even if it is filled with suffering, and we lament the extinction of other human beings’ existences.

In modern times you will often hear people talk about “reducing the overall suffering of humanity” as if we could measure how happy and sad everyone is and add it all together to see how good the world is getting. Philosophers call this way of looking at things “utilitarianism.” Utilitarians will often argue, for example, that abortion is okay because it can reduce poverty and the unborn children won’t know the difference anyway. This argument, in fact, has become a dogma in many political circles. But according to this reasoning, a bomb dropped that kills millions of innocents painlessly is equally benign – there will be more food for the survivors and those who died were killed so suddenly they didn’t know the difference anyway.

Utilitarianism, therefore, is a horribly inadequate theory of right and wrong. We cannot and should not determine right and wrong based merely on pleasure and pain. What, then, should our theory of ethics be? I would argue that we turn to the oldest religions and philosophies, the ones that have survived through the most hardships over the eons. When Boethius, who has been with us through a Dark Age and all the bloody revolutions in Europe, says that the purpose of pain, suffering, and death is to increase virtue, we should take him seriously.

But when millions of innocent people are killed, how can virtue possibly be increased? Boethius could do little more than say that these people go to heaven. But we modern philosophers have another logical tool at our disposal: Darwin’s theory of evolution. The theory of evolution is not at all—as many skeptical Christians assume—a theory of how monkeys randomly mutated into humans.  Rather, it’s a theory of cause and effect, a recognition of the following logical necessity: whatever is better at surviving and reproducing, survives and reproduces. Biologists use the word “fit” to describe what is better at passing on its existence. I prefer to use the term “virtuous.”

If we apply Darwinian reasoning to the case of abortion, we can finally see the higher purpose of such evil. Mothers who are more willing to kill their unborn children will—logically—have fewer children. Over time, the virtuous policy of preserving unborn life and creating more life will come to predominate. Biologically, we call this change evolution. Theologically, Boethius calls such change Providence:

Some people fear to undertake burdens they could easily bear, while others treat too lightly those they are unable to handle; both types are led on by Providence to find themselves by trials.

Humanity finds itself by such trials. The early Christians valued family and spirituality; their Pagan brothers valued politics and worldly success. The former were fitter, more virtuous, and thus Christian Europe was born. It is through such trials—often bitter, often bloody—that God forms mind.

By destroying millions of innocent lives, Nazism and Stalinism destroyed themselves. Not only evil, but stupidity is destroyed this way. When humans pack themselves in dirty, grimy, vice-ridden cities, millions die of disease, addiction, and crime. Such concentrations of population are much more vulnerable to natural disasters. Pollution causes ecological crises. It would seem that the world economy, in fact, is headed to disaster as we heedlessly use up natural resources, pollute, and build up industry—rather than pursuing a natural life, closer to nature. The punishment for this stupidity will likely kill millions of innocents, as it has before. Perhaps billions this time.

But who among us are truly innocent? Almost all of us take part in the foolish, doomed project of modern civilization, simply by going shopping. If there are any who are perfectly good, they are wise enough to know that all pain, all death has a higher purpose—as the Christian martyrs did. You can understand this purpose in terms of God’s plan, or you can understand it in terms of evolution. It is all the same. To the extent that Boethius was innocent, his courage in the face of adversity is that much more admirable. He died a martyr for the idea that truly good people never truly suffer, but are in fact the happiest of all. He suffered to show the nobility of suffering. How can we not join him in dignifying the suffering and death of ALL innocent people, in revering them, in justifying them, in showing their supreme value? Don’t they deserve our reverence, at least, who suffered to ennoble the whole of humanity?


 


Every day, humans are given choices between good and evil. Ignorant as we are, we often choose what is more evil. That we are free to choose, logically implies the possibility of evil.

This reasoning alone suffices to refute the Epicurean Paradox. To ask why evil exists is to ask why choice exists. To ask why choice exists is to ask why there are humans at all.

But our doubts go much deeper than this. Modern philosophy, smitten as it is with utilitarianism and other pragmatic doctrines, wants to see all the evil in the world as fixable. Science, supposedly, is our savior. It can and will eliminate all the worst kinds of suffering in the world. But for this to be possible, evil must be disposable. It must be unnecessary.

But evil is necessary, or it wouldn’t exist. The definition of choice implies it. And this is why the most progressive, most utilitarian societies tend to reduce human freedom. This is why the modern West is strangling itself in rules and regulations. The fewer choices people have, the less possibility of evil. We can see this in everything from the expulsion of controversial thinkers on campus, to the rigidification of the two-party, limited-choice political system of the United States.

All things being equal, we should prefer knowledge to ignorance, light to darkness. But if we demand of God a world where all darkness is abolished, we demand no world at all: perfect blank whiteness. For there to be a world there must be contrasts. Pain/pleasure, knowledge/ignorance, freedom/slavery, self/world, good/evil, choice/compulsion.

Utilitarianism—perhaps I should say liberalism—seeks a reductive way of seeing things. It focuses on a particular shadow, or a darker shade, or perhaps the deepest black it can find and says, “Why is this here? If I eliminated this one shadow, wouldn’t the world be a little better?” But it entirely neglects the whole. It would, if it could, make the entire painting white … shadow by shadow.

A former skinhead may prove very effective at preaching against being a skinhead: Something that is evil for you in this moment may be good for your life as a whole. A man who is unjustly persecuted may become a martyr and an example for generations to come: Something that is evil for your life may be good for your society as a whole. The collapse of civilizations clears the way for new cultures and new history to be made: Something that is evil for a society may be good for humanity as a whole.

Evil exists in a local sense, but it is always good relative to the whole, because it is a part of the whole and a necessary contrast to local good. Just as being in the dark is bad, but there must be shadow for light to be visible at all.

The assumption that “evil” has a single meaning is another example of modern sophistry. In the Epicurean Paradox the term “evil” confuses several different meanings, just as the term “being” did as the ancient Sophists used it. This is the source of the paradox.

Once you understand that there is such a thing as a greater good, you can begin to see what is meant by “God.” Once you understand that it is possible to redeem even evil, you begin to see what is meant by “Providence.”

As Boethius writes:

Since all fortune whether sweet or bitter, has as its purpose the reward or trial of good men or the correction and punishment of the wicked, it must be good because it is clearly either just or useful.

To shun suffering and death as absolutely evil is to shun life.

To write off the torments of the innocent is to write off the heroism of Boethius, Socrates, Job, and even Jesus. To write off the deaths of the innocent is to devalue the victims of the Soviet Union, The Third Reich, and the atomic bomb.

And to blame these woes of modern life on the Designer of the universe, is to neglect our own responsibility for them. Things like totalitarianism exist because we demand utopia. Things like the atomic bomb exist because we demand scientific solutions. Things like pollution and resource depletion exist because we demand more plastic goods. It is not the world that is broken, but our desires. It is not the world that must fixed, but our own souls. The world is ruled by natural laws, fixed and eternal. The soul is ruled by fickle desires, striving for the light. Turning outward, I see that the world is ordered and majestic; the world is beyond me. Turning inward, I see that I am imperfect and finite; I can improve.

Suffering has meaning. We do not live in a senseless world. God’s hand is the law of evolution, a law of justice that guarantees that every form of destruction against humanity drives the holy force of selection, which in turn shapes the priceless virtues of the human soul.

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