Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, August 17, 2013


What is evil? For some folks defining evil is kind of like trying to define pornography. Here’s what one judge had to say about pornography:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description "hard-core pornography" and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (Justice Potter Stewart) 
  The Jewish philosopher Maimonides tried to define evil in the 12th century. He wanted to go beyond the common-sense notion of “I know it when I see it.” Maimonides wanted to examine evil as a philosophical concept rather than an everyday experience. In everyday speech we can talk about the evils of poverty, the evils of cancer or the evils of war. But are these really evils? Maimonides would answer: yes and no. For Maimonides “evils are only evils in relation to something…” There’s not a tangible something out there somewhere, a thing that we can point to and call Poverty or Cancer or War. These things really exist. But they only exist “in relation to something” else. For poverty to exist there has to be money; poverty is not having money. For cancer to exist there has to be health; cancer is not having health. For war to exist there has to be peace; war is not having peace. So for Maimonides, evil is not having something; it’s NOT having something:
“evil is the privation of this thing or one of the states suitable for it… all evils are privations.”
 For example, cancer itself isn’t the evil. The evil comes in being deprived of something else, in this case good health. Maimonides puts it this way:
 “With respect to man, for instance, his death is an evil, since death is his nonbeing. Similarly his illness, his poverty, or his ignorance are evils with regard to him, and all of them are privations.”
On first reading this sounds like Maimonides is just splitting hairs. Medieval philosophers were famous for doing that. But if I’m the one with cancer then a philosophical definition of evil is useless to me. Who cares if the evil of cancer is a lack of health? As Maimonides says, evil is only an evil “with regard TO HIM” as a real person. In Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilych, we see this philosophy in action. Ivan can understand the logic of mortality perfectly well. He just can’t understand the reality of his own death and his own non-being. Maimonides knows this. He knows that human beings are frail creatures. Like Chekhov in last week’s reading, Maimonides was also a doctor. He knew that this frail human body and mind of ours is part of the whole problem of evil. He goes on to say that
 “Great evils that come about between the human individuals who inflict them upon one another because of purposes, desires, opinions, and beliefs, are all of them likewise consequent upon privation. For all of them derive from ignorance. I mean from a privation of knowledge.”
 For Maimonides ignorance is the real evil. Some Great Books authors agree with Maimonides on this point. Socrates seems to think that we do evil only because we have a faulty notion of what good is. If we really know what good is then we will reject evil. Others disagree. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kurtz looks into his own heart and is horrified at what he finds. He’s not ignorant of the true nature of evil. He knows perfectly well what it is. In the dark and distant jungles of Africa he’s been seduced by it. His mind is still perfectly clear but his heart has been turned evil by dark forces. So does evil come from human ignorance or dark forces? These two definitions of evil are not just splitting philosophical hairs. They matter. If evil is merely human ignorance then education is the answer. On the other hand, if evil is an active dark force set loose in the world, we’ve got a whole different set of problems on our hands. Either way defining evil is a serious business. “I know it when I see it” is not good law; it’s even worse as a philosophical answer for evil.


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