I’d like in this post to ruminate a bit on some points raised in a couple of papers on early modern thinking on the nature of evil by Samuel Newlands.
The papers are:
Leibniz on Privations, Limitations, and the Metaphysics of Evil (henceforth ‘Leibnitz’)
Evils, Privations, and the Early Moderns (henceforth ‘Evils’)
A full list of Newlands’ papers can be found here.
Although I cite both papers, there is quite a lot of content that is common to both of them (the second is perhaps an early draft of the first). I won’t bother with page references, since quotes from these papers can be located by a text search in the relevant document. For more detailed discussion of the seventeenth-century reception of Stoic and Epicurean ideas, see Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, chapter 1, section 1.
NEWLANDS APPROACHES the question of evil via the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages and the development of philosophical thought on the subject as represented by (mainly) Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibnitz, and takes as his starting point the idea that ‘evil was a privation of goodness’. This, which he calls ‘traditional privation theory’, is predicated on the premise that ‘evils are absences or lacks of appropriate perfections, perfections that things ought to have’ (‘Evils’):
In Scholastic Aristotelianism, the nature of a thing was given by its intrinsic telos: the end towards which a thing tended determined the perfections or excellences it ought to have. A subject was evil, therefore, insofar as it lacked perfections that, by its telic nature, it ought to have. Among other things, this meant that the lack of sight would be an evil for a goat but not an evil for a rock. (‘Leibnitz’)
Perfections, by their nature, are good, so the Scholastic position, largely laid down by Aquinas, is that evil is the absence of good. However, it is not simply that. Aquinas took exception to the Neoplatonic idea that ‘evils are just a lack of being, goodness, perfection, and reality’, which Newlands calls the ‘evil as negation’ theory. By this theory, Aquinas argues, ‘a man would be evil who had not the swiftness of the roe, or the strength of a lion’ (‘Leibnitz’). Therefore, there is an important distinction between the idea of evil as an absence of good in a negative sense and in a privative sense.
Nevertheless, both the negative and the privative views of evil share in common the idea that evil does not exist in itself, but only as the absence of its opposite. At this point, I would like to stand back a moment from what Newlands is saying and introduce another, completely contradictory point of view, the Epicurean postulation of pleasure as merely the absence of pain. To understand just how categorically opposed the two positions are we need to recognize that, from an Epicurean point of view, pleasure is essentially equatable with good, and pain with evil. Therefore, the assertion that pleasure is the absence of pain is tantamount to an assertion that good is the absence of evil.
From a Christian point of view, the Epicurean position is theologically very suspect. If God made everything, and everything that God made was good (Genesis 1:31), then evil could not be a ‘thing’; it could only be a lack, an absence. The Epicurean notion that good is the absence of evil is a direct reversal of this notion, and it follows from such reasoning that evil must exist as an objective entity. The idea that evil existed in its own right was ‘traditionally associated with Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism’, and could not be consistently combined with two other central Scholastic doctrines. First, goodness and being are convertible, which meant that to the degree to which a thing or any of its properties are real or have being (esse), to that degree the thing or its properties are also good – and vice versa. Second, God is the primary source of all and only goodness, which, by the convertibility of goodness and being, entails that God is also the primary source of all and only reality or being. (‘Leibnitz’)
By denying that evil had an independent, objective existence, God could be exonerated from being the cause of evil. Evil was not part of God’s creation, but came about only through ‘the privative failure to act as one ought’, or, as Descartes has it, ‘error is not a pure negation, but rather a privation or lack of some knowledge which should be in me’ (‘Evils’).
Descartes’ reiteration of the theory of evil as privation suggests its survival beyond medieval times. However, as Newlands shows, it is under threat from ‘The growing belief in the triumph of 17th century mechanism, according to which the motion and impact of bodies sufficed to explain all physical events’ (‘Evils’). While accepting privation in the abstract domains of mental and moral worlds, Descartes challenged it in the physical world; a clock that failed to keep proper time, or a person who suffered from a sickness was not merely the result of a lack, but could be ascribed to a physical cause (‘Evils’).
As the seventeenth century got under way, the privation theory of evil came under attack from both philosophers and theologians (‘Evils’). Newlands devotes considerable attention to Malebranche, saying:
Malebranche focuses on one of the toughest cases for privation theory: pain. Malebranche argues that the experience of pain is not just the deprivation of an appropriate good such as pleasure. Rather, ‘pain is a real and true evil…thus not every evil is an evil just because it deprives us of good,’ adding later that pain ‘is always a real evil to those who suffer it, as long as they suffer it.’ Malebranche implies that at least some physical evils like pain and suffering are not merely absences of an appropriate good. The evil of pain is sometimes quite positive and real, suggesting that the evil of pains has a positive nature that is opposed to the good, pace privation theory. According to Malebranche, some pains are intrinsically evil.
Newlands does not bring Epicurus into the picture, but the association is clear and significant; ‘Malebranche[’s] verdict on the intrinsic evil of some pains is now the dominant and mostly unquestioned view in most contemporary discussions of evil’. The Epicurean approach has, in effect, largely ousted the Scholastic view.
Stoicism (which also lies outside the scope of Newlands’ paper) is more easily reconcilable with the privation theory of evil. Pain, as Newlands has pointed out, is one of the biggest problems for the privation theory, and the Epicurean idea that pain is intrinsically evil undermines it from several points of view. The Stoic approach, which denies that pain and suffering are in themselves evil, or that pleasure is in itself good, fits more closely with the perspective of the Scholastics. Stoic philosophers themselves were divided over the issue of how to respond to pain and pleasure, with some asserting that the wise man will avoid the one and embrace the other insofar as this is not incompatible with the practice of virtue, and others pursuing the aim of inuring the self to both pain and pleasure, and attempting to rise above them. The first approach is suitable for the average Christian, while the second one is the posture of the ascetic saint and the martyr. In Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, I trace the steady tendency towards the rejection of Stoic principles over the course of the seventeenth century, and the trend towards seeing pain as an evil to be avoided, laying down the foundations of the taboo on suffering that largely prevails in modern Western society. Newlands takes a different path, through the Scholastics and the reception of their ideas by the philosophers of the seventeenth century, but comes to a very similar conclusion.