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What is the Meaning of Evil?

By common consent, any rational solution of the origin, nature and purpose of evil is one of the most difficult and profound undertakings in which the human mind can engage. As a problem it has been regarded as insoluble, and has steadily held its place as the king of all mysteries. The seeming universal presence of evil as co-existent with an omnipotent and omnipresent Deity of goodness and love is the paradox of the ages. It is the mental and spiritual Sphinx, or the great interrogation point which has challenged reason and pressed for interpretation upon all generations of men.

If conventional and accepted religious systems be questioned they will reply that evil and sin are terrible realities, everywhere waging a hand-to-hand conflict with good, the outcome of which, at least for the present, trembles in the balance. Theology will answer that under the powerful beguilement of a great evil personality, mankind fell into "an estate of sin and misery," and so continues. Ethical systems will testify to the omnipresence of their great enemy, whether it be personal or impersonal. Turning to the physical sciences, biology would note an all-prevailing antagonism and selfish struggle and point to the world as constituting one vast cemetery. Anthropology, paleontology and archeology would respond that even the fittest survive but provisionally, and that that small minority in its turn is relegated to the less fit majority. Material evolution would add its endorsement. In many cases, also, the specious plea would be put forth that the cosmic order itself contains no sanction for morality. Thus the plaint becomes a chorus, and in one form or another all prevailing philosophies, whether their viewpoints be supernatural or naturalistic, recognize a great objective Power other than the Good, and acknowledge this invincible antagonist to be the arch-enemy of man.

The sense of a fundamental dualism being universal, there has been no end of effort to interpret the great antagonistic force. Was it eternal or created, inherent or incidental, educational or vindictive? If created in an economy which is monotheistic, what a reflection upon its goodness and even its justice! The assumption that it is a living objective principle, implacable and irrepealable, has filled the world with sorrow and pessimism. Even where a more modern and liberal philosophy has proclaimed its waning power as related to human destiny, the general materialistic view-point in great measure still emphasized its hostility.

While the belief in a great adverse Personality having a general headship has weakened, the case is not much improved, if, in human consciousness and belief, an impersonal and all-powerful cosmic principle or the same diabolical character takes his place. A careful study of the psychology of man shows that belief, fear and pessimism, when seated in the human consciousness, can to their subject clothe even unreality with dynamic realism. "If you keep painting the devil on the walls, he will by and by appear to you," says the French proverb.

No means of reconciliation between good and evil has been found by philosophy, science, or logic, and an elastic supernaturalism has not been more successful. All have been confronted by an unfathomable and essential dualism. The universe has been made twain, or in reality divided against itself. The term, supernaturalism, is here employed only to denote what some mistakenly believe to be beyond the realm of orderly law. But the spiritual—for which the term is often used—is as natural (normal) as that which is material. Dualism being in its very nature an insurmountable barrier in the direction of any solution of the problem of evil, the only alternative is monism. A still further and deeper study will reveal that this monism must include, not only good and evil, but also what are known as spirit and matter. These are not separate and antagonistic powers and entities, but varying aspects and concepts of the unitary order. But we must not anticipate.

Turning for a moment to prevailing systems of Christian theology, we find that those which are still most largely accepted—if judged by their still existent formal standards—have for their primary foundation the literal story of Eden with its introduction of evil. But many of their personal exponents, now swayed by the irresistible influence of modern thought, admit that the historic narrative must be a matter of correspondence, allegory and symbolism. But these always have some deep and real meaning. From every reasonable point of view the literalized story of the "Fall" as the origin of evil is untenable. The validity of the dogmas, the foundation for which is thus so clearly removed, need not be discussed in this connection. But the Edenic tradition is by no means the only arbitrary attempt to account for the origin and persistence of the adverse principle. Each religion has its unique hypothesis. Comprehensively studied, these hypotheses have so many similar features as to suggest a common root. Space will permit of but one or two illustrations.

In the religion of ancient Egypt, Osiris is essentially the good principle, and his warfare with evil is perpetual. His brother Seth, called by the Greeks, Typhon, is his opponent. They represent light and darkness, physical good and physical evil, the Nile and the desert. The warfare is for the welfare or the destruction of the human soul.

The Zoroastrian creed was also fundamentally dualistic. Ormuzd and Ahriman were the representative antagonists. They were both creative and original spirits, and the existence of evil in the world was thus supposed to be primary and fundamental.

In Buddhism matter, conscious desire and existence constitute the main elements of evil, and the blotting out of these conditions in human consciousness makes up the triumph of the good. This transcendent, formless, tranquil state is Nirvana.

The spectacles of human pain, misery and guilt, with seeming undeserved calamity and uninvited disaster, have caused a common revolt from the hypothesis that the cosmic order is the sole manifestation of a beneficent and loving Deity. An anthropomorphic and even capricious divine administration, subject to certain limitations and imperfect dominion, has inferentially been assumed. From the generally admitted premises any other logical conclusion would be difficult. Comparatively, the universality of law is but a concept of yesterday, and any theory of its complete beneficence must wait for future understanding and acceptance. Thus, during the entire historic period, and among all peoples, whether Christian or Pagan, Gnostic or materialistic, theistic or atheistic, Calvinistic or Arminian, dualism in some form has prevailed, and man has trembled before an adversary of superhuman power which, whether or not an objective reality, he has erected in his own consciousness. From the ancient Greek philosophers and Hebrew seers, who found the idea of divine justice irreconcilable with wickedness triumphant and innocence trampled underfoot, down to the modern pessimist and atheistic materialist, there is a profound conviction that we live in the midst of a perverted moral order. Even Nature, "red in tooth and claw," seems a living though unintelligent epistle wherein diabolism stands out in characters of bold relief.

It has been respectively affirmed that evil is a creation of the devil, which is to be redeemed through Christ; that it is an influence from an inferior though unconquerable perverse spirit; that matter is inherently adverse to righteousness or, according to Plato, "brute matter;" and finally, by pessimism and materialism, that there is no God or moral order, but only blind unmoral Force. The Christian ideal of confidence and trust, even under divine chastisement, though reflecting upon the deific character, has in it a kind of prophetic reconciliation and final spiritual beneficence. It is therefore far superior to all other religious systems. The true touchstone for any philosophy or religion is its ascertained and experimental relation to the constitution of man. Does a theory or hypothesis fit him, his needs and capacity, and also make for harmony in a general unitary design? If so, there is valid endorsement and even proof. Factors must be studied, not singly, but in relation and interrelation. Among them all man himself is the most significant. Can a beneficent teleology be discerned? Persistent analysis and specialism have greatly displaced an intelligent synthesis. The whole is often hidden by one of its parts, therefore objective misplacement and disproportion are the result of a faulty subjective bias.

Man wittingly or unwittingly violates law—physical, mental, or spiritual—and the inner tribunal and sequential penalty judge him. The law in itself may be kindly and the penalty educational, but to his untrained vision they both seem adverse and even evil. But only through some experimental infraction of the moral order can undeveloped man divine its mandates. Only the freedom of choice, and some degree of discipline, greater or less, for missing the mark, make developed moral character and spiritual fiber possible. As man progresses in inner unfoldment and attains higher evolutionary planes, his divergence from the moral highway will become more slight. At length he will feel its leadings and outgrow the necessity of the hard punitive cuffs and blows which are provisionally required to startle him and push him out of the deep ruts of animality. If man could know and do only the good he would be an automaton, and to him, being destitute of any point of comparison, it would not be good. Growth is only possible through wise choosing and exercise. Where there is but one, choice is impossible. Enforced and involuntary virtue, unmixed with freedom to choose unwisely, would be slavish, and to man as he is constituted would virtually become vice.

Anticipating for a little our conclusion, we will concisely state it, and then proceed to show how logic, analysis and relativity buttress and confirm it. Evil is real as a relative subjective condition, but unreal as an objective entity. It is man's faulty practicing, and has no seat or power outside of him. As designating a lower round in the ladder of human ascent than that occupied by the observer, it is pertinent as a term, but yet without abstract realism in the nature of things.

Human definitions of evil are most unstable. Ethical standards are continually shifting, as measured by differing races, religions, legislative codes and especially by successive eras. Previous to 1850, with rare exceptions, slavery was not only excused but sanctioned by the leading authorities of religion, politics and social economy. It was even "divinely instituted." Briefly put, it was not evil. Today, a paltry half-century later, such an ethical standard would be rated as barbaric. Glance forward a little, and note another almost certain readjustment—nay, revolution! War, when thinly glossed with patriotism, so called, by the side of which slavery as formerly practiced in the United States is but a pygmy of evil, remains ethically correct according to the general sentiment of the nations of Christendom. But there is every indication that long before A. D. 1950, no one will be bold enough to defend it. Then it will be unmitigated evil. What a continual alteration of measurements! We are like people upon an express train when the whole landscape seems to be flying by while they remain stationary. Good and evil are not abstract opposites separated by a great, unbridgeable gulf, but changeable subjective relations.

But it may be plausibly objected that although institutions and customs, like slavery and war, change in human appreciation, there are qualities which remain intact. Take love and hate. Would not the former through all ages remain good and the latter evil? This presents dualism in its strongest form; but let us look a little deeper. Love and hate are real as relative educational states of consciousness, but who will affirm that hate has any cosmic objective reality? Love being positive has valid realism. Hate is a negative condition. These qualities are what men see and feel in themselves. Says Emerson: "Evil is merely privative, not absolute; it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity."

As man is constituted, love could not be discriminated if there were absolutely nothing else. All true interpretation must include some degree of contrast; indeed, the human consciousness itself consists of one interminable procession of contrasts. As man feels evil or hatred within, it seems to be veritable without. It is a magnified reflection of his subjective consciousness, for as he is against things they seem to turn themselves against him. His own imperfect inner states are stamped upon all his environment. He is looking through a colored lens. This is a necessary psychological and spiritual stage for an immature and progressive free moral being to pass through. Logically, this brings us to the border of a positive idealism, which teaches that each one for himself creates his own objective universe. If he makes his own world, including his own good and evil, does he not inaugurate his own heaven and hell? When, therefore, he has fully conquered himself he has conquered the world. Dr. John Fiske has discussed "the mystery of evil" from the scientific standpoint in a way which has attracted wide attention. His masterly logic is irrefutable, and no loophole is left for the entrance of any theory of dualism. It therefore becomes highly significant and encouraging that monism is not merely the product of "metaphysical speculation," but that science and positive spiritual philosophy converge to a common conclusion. It may be added that religion, when vitally rather than dogmatically defined, is in full accord. Dr. Fiske clearly shows that evil has an indispensable function and is not something interpolated from without. His illustration through the contrasts among colors, though perhaps familiar, is apt. If there were but one color it would not be a color. As the human mind is framed, contrasts, are absolutely indispensable.

In the grand epic of Job, Satan, the personification of evil, is represented as the tester, the prover, or in reality as the educator of men. In that highly dramatic picture of the process of human spiritual evolution his part is presented as normal, and he is painted with none of that radical and destructive malignity with which he is conventionally credited. In fact, he is represented as among the sons of God, and as holding dignified converse with the Deity. His office is the placing of obstacles and doubts in the pathway of man, so that through the exercise of overcoming, he may gain strength to mount to higher levels. It is obvious that, when thus interpreted, he ceases to be the traditional devil. He is a spiritual fencing-master through whose activity man is to gain moral and spiritual dexterity and power, but ignorance transforms him into a real enemy.

The experience of Job, in substance and degree, delineates the travail of every human soul in its birth to the higher consciousness. As a literal transaction it would be meaningless. As the composite photograph of a great process in the kingdom of the soul, it has startling significance. "The world, the flesh and the devil" have long been regarded as the trinity of evil, but it increasingly appears that the first two are good when not abused. When misplaced, they form an image of the third. Asceticism is thus stripped of its theoretical virtue and sanctity. Body and soul are no longer regarded as hostile factors, but as congruous and supplemental in their relations.

"Thinketh no evil" virtually puts evil out of existence. To paint its picture and dwell upon it, even for the well-meant purpose of a righteous opposition, is to increase its realism and scatter its seed. This has been the conventional, but unscientific and unsuccessful way in which the world has tried to get rid of it. After a vain trial of realism for ages for its suppression, why not employ idealism? "But I say unto you that ye resist not evil." The scientific value of non-resistance is that it destroys all the realism that evil possesses. In proportion as one turns his back upon it and leaves it behind, it dissolves into its native nothingness. The pessimist magnifies it, and disarms poor humanity in the assumed conflict. The optimist sees the educational and corrective side of evil experiment and thereby transmutes it, and so brings goodness into expression. "Evil, be thou my good," said Milton.

If God be All in All, eternal, omnipotent and omnipresent Love, he could not have created essential evil, or its personification. "All that he made was very good." But, unconsciously to himself, man is a creator. His constructive thought uprears specters of misplacement and ignorance, and they solidify before his eyes and threaten him. In a deep sense, for him who believes in a personal devil and fears him, there is one. Regardless of the lack of abstract reality, his own malignant mental image of such a being stands out before him charged with the power which he has conferred upon it. The human imaging faculty is an instrument of unimagined creative significance.

But it must be admitted that the only evolutionary approach to an intelligent appreciation of Reality—as Universal Goodness—lies through a field of adverse appearances. Like the windmills which confronted Don Quixote, they seem like veritable giants. As soon as intelligent discrimination takes place, the force of contrast urges one forward. Negatives and penalties continue their fearful prodding from behind, until self-formed ideals of good are erected in front and beckon an advance. As the prevailing sense of self is material, man counts things that physically threaten, not only as evil, but as morally evil. An indefinable feeling of guilt makes a demand for an available "scapegoat" in the shape of something outside, which shall either bear the blame or atone for it. Although reflected as in a mirror, man does not recognize his own thought-likeness. One tumbles and falls, and then blames the beneficent law of gravitation.

Let not some shallow critic claim that this philosophy is an apology for evil or sin, or that it logically sanctions any kind of iniquity. When understood it does exactly the reverse. There is no "dodging." The only salvation is that which comes through character. All sin, even that of ignorance, plants the seeds of its own punishment, and no interpolated "scheme" can or should prevent it. The penalty is its corrective and educational counterpart. Pain and punishment are therefore the beneficent friction that turns men back from what would otherwise be self-destruction. They are like a thick hedge of thorns which guard the edge of a precipice. Punishment is self-imposed. If fire burned one's body painlessly, the careless would soon be without hands. Our course through life is laid by a compass of constant choosing, and the wisdom of our choices should increase by experience. There is no escape from penalty except by a putting away of its cause. Transgression and punishment are differing aspects of the same thing. A true philosophy of the economy of evil, although it limits it to the subjective realm, discourages sin vastly more than any system which promises a "scapegoat." If one wittingly violates law, he only adds compound interest to his own discomfiture. Optimism and idealism, therefore, far from glossing over sin, give it no soil or moisture for growth. Every law of one's own being invites, nay, urges, compliance and harmony. It pleads with him to be "saved." Man should therefore study himself. All the forces of the universe are inherently beneficent, and punishment forms a negative though important part of such beneficence. If the moral order in itself needs no revision it honors its author. If it be susceptible to improvement, it indicates a Deity who is changeable, if not unreliable. Man must conform to God, and not God to man.

When, as indicated in the allegory of Adam and Eve, the God voice of intuition, reason, and moral responsibility began to make itself audible in the garden of the human soul, a great evolutionary boundary was crossed. It was from the ignorance and instinct of animalism into the domain of an educational experience of "good and evil." Positive good can be known only in the light of some degree of its contrasted negative. Man had arrived at the capability of becoming Godlike. This was not merely one great historic racial transaction, but the general order of development for the individual consciousness. When pre-Adamic man becomes Man, a divine restlessness takes possession of him. A paradise on a higher plane than the former one is now demanded. Here is the genesis of evil. Some "missing of the mark" was absolutely essential before man could ever rise through the increasing wisdom of voluntary choices. Thus, evil is the name of the "growing pains" of good. It is the acrid and unripe fruit, which, through seasonable warmth, moisture, and even tempest, appears later in delicious golden clusters.

It is at once evident that evolutionary processes are not completed on this human plane of existence or present embodiment. If this were the only proof of man's future continuance, it would be conclusive in itself. Perhaps it is not so very important whether the particular method be spiritual advancement on the next plane or "reincarnation," but progress must continue. Nothing in the whole moral order is abruptly broken off. Everything guarantees mental and moral sequence. Conservation and continuity have no accidents. Cause and effect, and supply and demand, are unitary in combination, and completeness is assured by the very nature of things. Progress is therefore eternal, and a certain negative relativity of so-called evil ever pushes from behind as a fulcrum over which there is a never-ceasing moral leverage. Says Carlyle: "Spiritual music can only spring from discords set in unison."

Evolutionary development is now beyond the realm of mere physical forms, its activity being more marked among the unseen lives and souls which mold and uprear them. The climax of size and crude muscular strength in organisms seems to have been passed. The present trend of science, also, is from the physical and seen toward the psychical and unseen. As the viewpoint of the Real is approached, evil retreats and dissolves. All that is vital in religion, positive in philosophy, true in morality, veritable in science, inspiring in nature, and beautiful in art are but varying and fragmentary aspects of the great unit of Truth. Evil is what appears upon turning the eyes backward and downward. When at length everything is polished by the friction of unwise experiment, each factor will find its fitting niche and specific interrelation. Men often criticize the moral order, pointing out its short-comings and possible improvements. Ingersoll would have made health contagious instead of disease. Under such an economy doubtless it would be regarded as of little value. The logic of the situation as already noted brings us not only to what philosophy denominates monism, but to spiritual monism. Not that matter is bad or unreal, but rather a name for the cruder aspect of things. This is not pantheism, but ideal and spiritual realism. If the cosmic order be the multiform though unitary manifestation of one all-prevailing Deity, we are in the midst of a glorious Theodicy. We have an all-wise and beneficent Heavenly Father who is "without variableness or shadow of turning." Unity, perfection, and potentiality are guaranteed without a hair's breadth of deviation. Life is one, even though in multiform demonstration and individuation. It makes visible its own slower vibrations and erects them into forms which we measure by our sensuous discrimination. In the drama of the Whole each principle and force plays its normal role, and perfectly fills the character. The universe is a never ending panorama rolling noiselessly in the atmosphere of divine optimism. As Robert Browning puts it:

"There shall never be one lost good! What was shall live as before; The evil is null, is naught, is silence implying sound; What was good shall be good, with for evil so much good more; On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round."

Pessimistic superficiality is synonymous with spiritual blindness, while optimism beholds unity in variety and "good in everything." Organization requires and includes diversity of function, so that even a negative, like evil, has its legitimate office. Contrasts counterbalance each other, and thus the rounded sphere of the whole divine order has polish, symmetry and completeness.

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Henry Wood

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