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The Problem of Evil

Any scheme of philosophy that recognizes evil as a factor to be reckoned with, in dealing with problems of human existence, seems to some persons to savor of pessimism. In whatever light the theme may be presented, in whatever fashion it may be treated, they regard any serious consideration of it as altogether superfluous. They are satisfied either entirely to ignore it, or to dismiss it with the briefest negation. If evil is an illusion, they say, why recognize it, even in a doctrinal way? What profit can be derived from an intellectual discussion of a myth? Is it not sufficient to reiterate such positive sentiments as "All is good" and "God is all, and in all," and relegate the negative aspects of life to oblivion?

Sufficient as these positive affirmations may be for ordinary practical purposes, there is, nevertheless, a sense in which evil does exist, and in which it becomes necessary to recognize it as an element of experience, if we are to obtain the deepest insight into life. Granting that what appears to the finite mind as evil, does not have its origin in the essential nature of things, —that it is not recognizable as such in the Absolute consciousness, the fact still remains, that in any profound analytical study of life, this problem figures in a prominent way. To be sure, we may so direct our attention as completely to shut it out from view; but this manner of disposing of the issue suggests the action of the ostrich, which buries its head in the sand in order to escape impending danger.

The problem of evil is of the deepest moment in a contemplative survey of life, even though it be recognized that evil itself has no valid basis of existence in spiritual Reality.

As the pendulum of thought swings backward from the depressing pessimism of the recent past, an accelerating momentum naturally tends to carry it beyond the point of perfect equilibrium, in the direction of an unduly exalted optimism. The present reaction against an excessive, and in many cases almost exclusive, contemplation of the nether side of existence, bids fair to engender, in some instances, an attitude in which only certain beneficent features of life are taken into account. By singling out such features, and dwelling upon them apart from the grand whole of life, we may obtain a view quite as ill-balanced as the characteristically pessimistic one. Between these two danger points, the Scylla and Charybdis of speculative thought, the impartial, earnest truthseeker must steer his bark. On one side lie the seething depths of a despairing pessimism; on the other, the deceptive, alluring shoals of an ecstatic optimism. The ship of life can be piloted successfully only in deep water; but it must be in the calm depths, where the current flows firmly and steadily.

What explanation can be offered of experiences commonly termed "evil"—pain, suffering, conflict, death, and the like? How can their presence in the world be reconciled with the existence of a Supreme Being who "is love"? What are their true values in the picture of life? How shall we properly estimate their worth in the grand total of experience? Distinctions of good and evil originate in the mind of the thinker; they are not inherent in objects. Objective expressions are pronounced good or bad, according to our attitude toward them. "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." A thing, event or condition may appear at one time good, and at another, bad, according to the way it is viewed—the light in which it is seen. These distinctions are matters of consciousness. An experience which, regarded by itself, is suggestive of evil, may be deemed good when considered in its relation to some larger end.

A picture without lights and shades would be anomalous; the execution of a picture is effected by intelligently observing their gradations, and adjusting them in such relative proportions that each will play its part most effectually in producing the general result. But it is possible to scrutinize the picture so closely that we shall find in it little else than mere technical details of shading. In one sense, this estimate of it is literally correct. Studied solely with reference to color-gradation, it consists primarily of shades. They are its life; they give it character and emphasize its bright features; the strength and disposition of its shadows determine its effectiveness. But this estimate is decidedly inadequate from a genuinely critical standpoint. Such observations may be perfectly correct as far as they extend; but other considerations are indispensable, if even the faintest appreciation of the deeper significance of the picture as a work of art is to be obtained. Its worth depends on the manner in which it portrays ideas that must be interpreted through qualitative as well as quantitative relations.

Darkness, as a phenomenon of the natural world, denotes merely the absence of light, in a relative degree. Even there, absolute darkness does not exist; it only seems to exist when contrasted with stronger light effects. But the phenomenon of darkness is essential to an appreciation of light effects. The negative element in perception is necessary in order that the positive factor shall be appreciable. One may be fully aware of the true character of a phenomenon, the value of which is purely negative; but that circumstance need not in the least detract from the vividness of the suggestion it is instrumental in conveying. Likewise, if one considers a picture solely as an effective combination of shadows, correct as that estimate is, as far as it goes, his impression of the artist's intent is of a wholly misleading character. One construes the instrument as the end. Were it possible to imagine a picture without shadows, it would be utterly lacking in character. Contrasts are due to the recognition of both the negative element, darkness, and the positive element, light. Neither one, apart from its contrary, can be employed to represent the essential idea of the picture, but both together serve to reveal its beauty.

Light shining through a photographic negative produces a perfect picture; yet an examination of the negative itself reveals no such picture, but, instead, imperfect, and often grotesque images. The finite spectacle of life is the negative through which Absolute Reality shines, to manifest a perfect picture. Cold, bare facts do not constitute the reality of life. When we view a cathedral window from the outside, it suggests gloom and cheerlessness. We may try to penetrate its dense substance, in the hope of discovering what lies within; but it proves an unyielding barrier to the sense of sight, and refuses to disclose the secret. We might study it from that standpoint forever, without arriving at a satisfactory conclusion regarding its artistic intent; but, if we change our point of view, so as to approach it from the inside of the edifice, we are instantly attracted by a beauty and warmth of coloring in no way perceptible from the outside. The very forms that, viewed exteriorly, appeared cold, dismal, lifeless, and devoid of expression, when viewed interiorly, are transformed into ideals that manifest absolute beauty.

When we analyze the world of finite forms, we perceive evil, suffering, and abnormality. Only when the light of the Absolute Principle radiates through it, is it transformed into a world of beauty, truth, goodness and harmony. The steady, monotonous glare of light, untempered by shade, soon becomes as unendurable as the depressing gloom of darkness, unrelieved by light. Either condition tends to induce blindness. The significance of those factors of experience, commonly regarded as evil, depends on the interpretation we give them. If we regard them as intrinsically evil, instead of attaching to them only such incidental importance as they possess by way of revealing a deeper Universal consciousness, they seem to suggest the existence of some malevolent power, actuated by a diabolical purpose.

Heroism that faces difficulties construed as essentially evil, often presages despair; but faith that comprehends their true nature, enables one to surmount them, and cause them to be instrumental in yielding a deeper soul-consciousness. So, while evil is not absolutely real, it plays, even as a phenomenon, an important part in the drama of life. Any single object or experience, regarded in the partial sense as a fragment, provokes a certain feeling of dissatisfaction. In one's inmost Being one longs for perfection, completeness, infinity; yet a state of existence into which the conception of partiality (implying a complementary something unrealized) did not enter, would be one of such unrelieved monotony that spiritual blindness would ensue.

In a great work of art, the unity of completeness is attained through a combination of individual effects. The execution of all its details is controlled by the creative Spirit, manifested through a pet feet ideal. Its success depends on the faithfulness with which each component part contributes its share to some larger effect, so that, comprehended as a whole, the work will give perfect satisfaction. Any career consisting of a steady, unbroken flow of pleasurable experiences would, in its entire aspect, produce an impression not altogether agreeable. Every satisfying effect, whether derived from a work of art or a life of active effort, is due to the presence of elements that, observed apart from the whole, are disappointing, perhaps even ugly. Analysis conceals harmony and ideal perfection, while synthesis reveals them. The way life appears, depends on our attitude toward it—whether we try to arrive at a just estimate of it through its details, or interpret its details in the light of its completeness as an ideal unit. Details are indispensable to the realization of a perfectly satisfactory effect. Phenomena that, distinguished separately, seem, in the act of perception, like flaws or blemishes in their relation to the whole, because they suggest imperfection or ugliness, are factors essential to the complete representation. Every detailed expression of a perfect ideal exhibits certain phases that may be construed as imperfect, in a way; and such imperfection must be accounted for, not on the supposition that the ideal is deficient, but solely on the ground of the inadequacy of our method of trying to comprehend its significance. Parts cannot exist without a whole; they must be parts of something. The fact that we recognize them as partial is evidence that we have knowledge of a complete unit to which they are related.

"The evil is null, is naught, is silence implying sound; What was good, shall be good, with, for evil so much good more; On earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round."

Life viewed in detail may seem to exhibit attributes entirely foreign to those revealed by contemplation of it in its totality. As we know it in the light of Absolute consciousness, we discern in it neither good nor evil, in the finite sense. Appreciation transcends discrimination. The bright and the dark spots of the finite picture resolve into an infinite ideal.

The signification of the term "good," when used to designate the absolute quality of experience, is quite different from its signification when applied to relative distinctions. There is a relative sense in which experience consists of both good (the positive element) and evil (the negative element). In the absolute sense, "all is good," not because those factors of life which the finite mind accounts evil, have been eliminated from experience, but because, in the higher vision, both its good and evil aspects are transfigured and made to blend together in a satisfying whole.

The endless array of forms in the world, as we interpret it physically, may be likened to separate threads or strands woven into a tapestry. One may trace the courses of individual threads, and even gain an exhaustive knowledge of their several characteristics, without entertaining the slightest idea of their superior worth and significance as necessary portions of the whole fabric. The chief value of the finished product depends on the faithfulness with which it embodies the idea of the designer. However beautiful and perfect the threads may seem individually, they utterly fail to serve their intended purpose, unless they so harmonize and blend as to produce the desired effect. The weaver, from his comprehensive view-point, is able to form a correct estimate of the potential value of each separate thread that is being woven into the fabric in process of construction, and, therefore, to discriminate in the proper disposal of all. The design already exists, perfect and complete, in his mind; and it is simply reproduced, in the weaving, under outward conditions. But one not already familiar with the design, is soon confused in attempting to follow the threads separately through their obscure, intricate courses. The whole piece looks, to him, like a mass of hopelessly tangled materials, giving no evidence of design, beauty, or other aesthetic or practical considerations that would be likely to compensate for the trouble and expense entailed by such an elaborate method of workmanship. In like manner, the real meaning and intent of our finite lives can only be known in the light of a Universal consciousness. We are both actors and spectators in the drama of life.

Were we to assume the standpoint of an orchestra player, buried in his own part, and devoting all his energies to its execution, we should hear only a din of harshly discordant, irritating sounds. Each individual instrument would seem at variance with all the others, and they, on the other hand, would seem bent on drowning its tones. Yet each seemingly insignificant part, untuneful and out of place though it might sound to the discriminating but miscalculating ear of one who tried to follow it alone, would be considered indispensable when estimating the effect of the whole performance. To appreciate the beauty and grandeur of the music in its entirety, we must get outside the din and inharmony attending the technical rendering of its several parts, and assume the standpoint of the conductor, or the composer. Then, for the first time, the work would appeal to us as harmonious and inspiring. Every detail of the performance would thus become intelligible, and more deeply significant than it would have been possible for it to appear without the practical observations acquired through experiences that were, in themselves, perhaps vexatious and well-nigh unendurable; for we would then be fitted to understand the importance of each part in its relation to the others, and its ultimate bearing on the whole production. Therefore, we would be able to view the whole situation both critically and appreciatively, and to realize the fullest meaning of all we had seen and heard. The facts of din and dissonance would be just as certain as while we felt the depressing influence of their spell; but they would no longer remain in evidence; for the grander idea of the whole composition would so overwhelm them as to transform ugliness into beauty.

Suffering and disappointment may be very much in evidence in the finite consciousness; but their import depends altogether on the plane from which one regards them. They play a most important part as agencies in awakening men from the sluggish repose of ignorance and selfishness, on the lower planes of consciousness. Some awaken slowly and reluctantly, only after being repeatedly aroused by most distressing experiences; but then the need of awakening is most imperative. We live in dreams until the burden of suffering becomes unendurable, and impels us to awaken to consciousness of Reality. Suffering in dreams may be most intense; but when, on awakening, we realize the nature of our misery, it is forgotten in the joy attending the discovery of a more real state. Intensity does not indicate reality. Forces that clash most violently, are soonest spent. Evil symptoms are transient and suicidal. From the universal point of view, we may know life, not in dreams, but in the full light of awakened consciousness. Above all the hardships, pain, discord, and even the horrors that invade the realm of finite conceptions, we may delight in the eternal harmony that attends the consciousness of an infinite Reality.

In music, every major scale has its corresponding minor, and every scale its minor intervals. Minor intervals give it depth and richness. Without the minor quality, it would be tame and monotonous. Many of the deepest expressions are tinged with the somber, subdued undertone of the minor. Yet how different is the hopeless melancholy, represented by a doleful, unrelieved minor strain, from the spirit of joy and triumph revealed when the minor strain leads up to a full major chord! Should the music end in the midst of the minor passage, we might indeed pronounce it unconsoling and morbidly suggestive. But we wait expectantly for the coming of the major chord; for the light it sheds over the otherwise gloomy minor passage, alters its complexion. The weakness of the minor is supplemented by the strength of the major, and the whole effect is glorious.

We live to overcome, and rejoice in triumphing. We glory in the consciousness of power to transcend each finite plane, and make it a stepping-stone to others above. Life is both high and deep. Only by coming up from its depths can we appreciate its heights. The glory of the view from the mountain-top, is due to the presence of valleys below. In the comprehensive view from above, they appear totally different from the conception we entertain of them while groping our way through the dark, gloomy forests that line their recesses; but the change is in our view-point, not in the valleys themselves. Neither mountains nor valleys could exist alone. The one kind of formation implies the other. Knowledge of good implies knowledge of evil also. The timid, apprehensive Israelites saw only forebodings of disaster in the Red Sea and the wilderness. But, to the larger vision of Moses, such obstacles vanished in anticipation of possessing the Promised Land. So, as our thought lingers on the lower planes of consciousness, on its journey to the realm of spiritual Reality, which it seeks to possess, we seem beset on every hand by evil forces. Ideas seen in perspective, as they are projected in a world of time and space, often appear distorted. As time and space have no absolute values, the angle and extent of the perspective in which things appear, must depend on the attitude of the observer. If our world seems essentially base, evil, unsatisfactory, it is an indication that we see life at too close range—too narrowly. Were we to adjust our view-point, after the manner of the greatest seers, the real value of our world would be more readily appreciable.

In a microscopic inspection of life, its negative features are magnified into prominence as evils. We need to stand off and look down on the finite spectacle from the view-point of eternity.

The transcendental view of life is the only thoroughly satisfactory one. It is to obtain that view-point, that humanity yearns and strives, wittingly or unwittingly. Its scope is inclusive, not exclusive. If the aspect of things which the finite mind regards as evil, were eliminated from experience, life would be characterless. The severest trials are often invaluable. They subserve a larger end, by impelling us to expand in consciousness, so that our thought shall include, surmount, and transcend the evil. Thenceforth it ceases to exist as evil; it is absorbed in a larger ideal.

Clear and cool, clear and cool,
By laughing shallow, and dreamy pool;
Cool and clear, cool and clear,
By shining shingle, and foaming wear;
Under the crag where the ouzel sings,
And the ivied wall where the church-bell rings,
Undefiled, for the undefiled;
Play by me, bathe in me, mother and child.
Dank and foul, dank and foul,
By the smoky town in its murky cowl;
Foul and dank, foul and dank,
By wharf and sewer and slimy bank;
Darker and darker the further I go;
Who dare sport with the sin-defiled?
Shrink from me, turn from me, mother and child.
Strong and free, strong and free;
The flood-gates are open, away to the sea.
Free and strong, free and strong,
Cleansing my streams as I hurry along
To the golden sands, and the leaping bar,
And the taintless tide that awaits me afar.
As I lose myself in the infinite main,
Like a soul that has sinned and is pardoned again.
Undefiled, for the undefiled,
Play by me, bathe in me, mother and child.
—Charles Kingsley

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Frank H. Sprague

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