Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

MAIMONIDES: On Evil in A Good World

Here’s an age-old problem: if God is all-good and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world? The answer to that question isn’t an easy one. Maimonides starts by pointing out that human beings are composed of two things: matter and form. What does that mean? Matter is concerned with things like eating and drinking and copulation and passionate desire for these things, as well as anger and all bad habits. Form is that part of us which gives man’s apprehension of his Creator, his mental representation of every intelligible, his control of his desire and his anger, his thought on what ought to be preferred and what avoided…and so forth. It’s very important that we remember people contain both things at once, both matter and form. Without either one we wouldn’t exist because it is impossible for matter to exist without form and for any of the forms to exist without matter. We’re in the delicate position of being made in the image of God and His likeness while at the same time being bound to earthy, turbid, and dark matter, which calls down upon man every imperfection and corruption. We’re being pulled both upward and downward at the same time. No wonder people are confused.

That’s all well and good but it still hasn’t answered the question: why is there evil in the world? Part of the reason is because of matter, the material we’re made of; part of the reason is because of form, the thoughts we have. Maimonides points out that the Bible is aimed mostly at curbing our physical appetites or at least containing them within reasonable limits: the commandments and prohibitions of the Law are only intended to quell all the impulses of matter. This includes things like eating, drinking, copulation, anger, and all the habits consequent upon desire and anger… None of these activities are necessarily bad. But any of them can become bad when they exceed reasonable limits. Our “form” as human beings is what helps keep these desires in check. We weren’t made to live like beasts. Maimonides firmly believes we were created by God to live decent lives. However, he also knows that matter is a strong veil and whenever we try to understand divine things we are separated by a veil from God because we’re physical beings. Maimonides goes on to say that the apprehension of His true reality is impossible for us because of the dark matter that encompasses us and not Him, for He is not a body. (Note: it’s interesting to consider a previous reading, The Gospel of Mark, from Maimonides’ point of view. God puts on “matter” (human flesh) and becomes pure “form” living in the material world.)

Evil then only occurs within this whole context of matter and form. In The Book of Genesis we read that God created the physical world and it was good, all of it. So God doesn’t create evil. Evil is the absence of God’s presence, whether it’s in matter or form. In Maimonides’ words: evils are only evils in relation to something…all evils are the lack of something. For us death is evil; the lack of life, which God created as good. Illness is evil; the lack of health, which God created as good. Ignorance is evil; the lack of knowledge, which God created as good. Every evil is just the absence or corruption of some good which God created and gave to us. A simple example is someone turning out a light. All of a sudden it’s dark. Darkness is the absence of light. For people who are afraid of the dark, darkness is an evil. Is darkness really “evil”? No. Maimonides says every ignoramus imagines that all exists with a view to his individual sake; it is as if there were nothing that exists except him. And if something happens to him that is contrary to what he wishes, he makes the trenchant judgment that all that exists is an evil. Let’s put this in perspective. We’re part of a universe that is more immense than we can imagine. Most of it is dark. Does that mean most of it is evil? No. It’s just dark. God created light to shine in the darkness so people wouldn’t be afraid. The absence of this light is what some people call evil.


Blogger Ulysses Discussion Group said...

This is a marvelous summary. I just wish I'd read it before I tried (several times)to work my way through the Mainmonides essay. It kept putting me to sleep, and each time I reread a page it was like reading it for the first time. Sometimes St. Augustine does that to me. Now, I wish I'd gone to the discussion even though I felt like an ignoramus with nothing to offer. I could have just listened and enjoyed it. Gael Stahl.

`Gael Stahl

1/26/2010 4:13 PM  

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