Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, October 05, 2012

MELVILLE: Billy Budd (Chapter 11: The Problem of Evil)

Exodus tells the story of the Hebrews being delivered from bondage to freedom.  It also accounts for the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses.  Hobbes gave us another list based on reason and natural laws, which turned the State into a “mortal god.”  Those were big issues painted on a big canvas.  They give explanations about how whole nations come into being and why.  Melville takes us on a much more intimate journey inside the individual human heart.  The story of Billy Budd explores the mystery of evil but never fully explains it.  That’s why it’s called a mystery; evil remains a dark and destructive force in human affairs despite our best efforts to understand, control or contain it.  In Othello we read how a bad man (Iago) sets out to destroy a good man (Othello).  Why?  Iago probably doesn’t even know himself.  All he says at the end of the play is: Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: from this time forth I never will speak word.  And in Exodus we read that the Lord said unto Moses, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he refuseth to let the people go.  Why?  We don’t know.  Pharaoh may not know himself why his heart is hardened.  Melville seems to have meditated on this problem of evil and came up empty.  He says that Coke and Blackstone (English jurists and writers on law) hardly shed so much light into obscure spiritual places as the Hebrew prophets. And who were they? Mostly recluses.  The best lawyers in England didn’t know the human heart as well as a few obscure and eccentric recluses.  And who were these recluses?  The dictionary says they’re “people who live in seclusion or apart from society, often for religious meditation.  For Melville evil is located in one of those obscure spiritual places that can only be explored by someone willing to live apart from society and think long and deep about the meaning of life.  Aristotle also recommended the contemplative life as one of life’s highest goals, but only for a few people.  Wisdom may not be so much a state of being but rather a lifelong quest for understanding; or a certain way of life.  And the question remains whether wisdom is best found living within society by being part of the crowd or is found instead in the solitary pursuit of silence and contemplation.  Socrates sought wisdom in the marketplace; the ancient Hebrew prophets sought wisdom in the deserts or the back roads of lonely mountains.  Billy Budd did not go to sea to find wisdom; he went because he was a sailor and that’s what sailors do.  What Billy found was evil in the form of a man named Claggart.  Claggart hated Billy Budd because… why?  Because Billy was good?  Or because he was popular with his shipmates?  Maybe just because Billy was happy and Claggart wasn’t?  Who knows?  Like Iago, Claggart may not even know himself why he hates Billy.  All Claggart knows is this: he hates Billy.  He hates him with the passionate hatred that lies beyond human understanding.  It’s like the old limerick: I do not like thee Dr. Fell; the reason why I cannot tell.  But this I know and know right well; I do not like thee Dr. Fell.  Even the narrator of the story can’t give us a good account of Claggart’s hatred.  At the time my inexperience was such that I did not quite see the drift of all this. It may be that I see it now. Melville must believe that many times only in hindsight, after much reflection, can we grasp the deeper truths of ordinary life.  And even after much reflection we’re often swayed by our own educational backgrounds and personality quirks.  For example, Melville wonders how much Americans have been influenced by the Bible: And, indeed, if that lexicon which is based on Holy Writ were any longer popular, one might with less difficulty define and denominate certain phenomenal men. As it is, one must turn to some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured with the Biblical element.  Melville seems to be saying that in the old days men read the Bible deeply and so they understood clearly what good and evil was; they grew up with stories about Cain and Abel or the crucifixion of Jesus.  No more.  These stories used to be part of the Great Books tradition.  Without these stories we easily lose our way in the modern world.    


Blogger SMJ said...

Some Thoughts on Melville and the Problem of EVIL

I cannot disagree more strongly with your implication that the people whom the Lord destroys (or allows to be destroyed through his failure to save them), are somehow the victims of their own moral corruption. Really? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible reveals a shocking degree of collateral damage. In the old Testament, many people are slaughtered for no good reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We haven't the faintest clue what motivates God to allow the innocent to suffer. We assume (or hope) there is some good reason for it. Otherwise, the world we occupy makes no moral sense and punishment is doled out on a random basis.

If we are to preserve the idea that God is good, we must find a way to rationalize the carnage that happens to people who deserve better. Whether it is Desdemona murdered by her husband, or Abel murdered by his brother, or Billy Budd executed by a captain who believes more in the institution of law than in the sacrament of mercy, the good people of this world are being snuffed out.

And let's not forget the trials of the ancient Hebrews who were subjected to the whims of an angry God. It wasn't just Pharoah who persecuted them. Time after time, God hardens Pharoah's heart so that he will not let the people go..[Chap.7, Verse 3]: "And he hardened Pharoah's heart, that he harkened not unto them"; [Chap.9, Verse 12]: "And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharoah..."; and so on, and so on [C.10, V.1; C.10, V.20; C.10, V.27; C.11, V.10; C.14, V.4; C.14, V.17.] It makes you wonder if Pharoah had any real choice in the matter.

Regarding Socrates, It is not accurate to suggest that Socrates went to the marketplace to find wisdom. He went to the marketplace because that is where people gathered, and he wanted to find out for himself if anyone there was in possession of knowledge. He soon discovered that wisdom was not to be found in the marketplace. Yet, Socrates still hoped that by engaging his fellow Athenians in a dialectical conversation, he might discover if wisdom was really possible for men to acquire. But he failed in this quest. He never did find the answers he was seeking.

Just as Socrates was unable to find a wiseman in Athens, Melville is unable to identify or even comprehend the source of evil in the world. He just knows that it exists. Perhaps, in the early days of the Republic, when men still spoke a common biblical language it was easier to identify evil when one found it in one's path. But seeing evil and understanding why it exists are hardly the same thing. As Melville himself says, "As it is, one must turn to some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured with the Biblical element." The Bible is a collection of stories whose secrets are not easily revealed. It has the exasperating property of being interpreted by different people at different times to mean entirely different things.

So we are left to figure these stories out for ourselves. Here is one curious aspect to the problem of evil: God is good. Evil is contrary to God's nature, therefore evil cannot arise from God alone. Evil can only be a product of man's free will (the disobedience of the divine law). So evil requires freedom in order to exist. Why? Because if freedom does not exist, we could never disobey God. Conclusion: the gift of freedom requires the proximity of evil. Isn't this a strange result? Maybe this explains why the human soul is in such dire conflict with itself. We want to be good (most of the time), but we also want to be free. Yet freedom is the very condition which makes our own fall from grace not simply possible, but inevitable.

11/02/2012 11:10 AM  

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