The Early Modern View of Evil

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.

The Genealogy of Masochism

Krafft-Ebing’s derivation of sadism and masochism from the names of Sade and Sacher-Masoch (Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie, 1886; edition used, 1894, p. 11) may not be fully analogous to Freud’s appropriation of the name of Oedipus, but still less can the relationship between Sade and Sacher-Masoch and their creations be compared to that of, say, Faraday to the light bulb; on the spectrum between creating something that simply did not exist before and giving a name to something which has always existed in the human psyche, it makes more sense to see Sade and Sacher-Masoch as weaving into a sustained discourse strands of narrative and impulse that reflect something intrinsic to human nature.

As Deleuze puts it, ‘The Middle ages, with profound insight, distinguished two sorts of diabolism; the one by possession, the second by a pact of alliance’ (Gilles Deleuze, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris, 1967, p. 20; my translation)]; sadism, Deleuze suggests, is a development from, or form of, the first, as masochism is from/of the second. The seventeenth century, with its belief in witchcraft, retains elements of the medieval Weltanschauung, while at the same time highlighting prurience in discourses on suffering – sometimes with the frankness that Foucault speaks of, but sometimes through censorship or proto-pornographic narrative – in a way that foreshadows the cataloguing of sadism and masochism in nineteenth-century sexual taxonomy.

From a socio-psychological point of view, Baumeister sums up the broad consensus that ‘most sexual practices have been known and enjoyed throughout history, but masochism is a rare exception … which spread through Western society during the early modern period.’ He cites a number of sources confirming the apparent
absence of masochism in the ancient and medieval worlds, noting that during the Middle Ages the Church pronounced its views on ‘homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, abortion, contraception, adultery, coprophilia, prostitution, anal sex, transvestism, and a variety of other practices … but apparently there was no mention of masochism’, from which he concludes that there was ‘a lack of
masochistic sexual activity’.

Baumeister contrasts the ‘abundant evidence of masochistic
activity beginning in the eighteenth century’ with the ‘lack of any such activities prior to the renaissance’, and notes that, while prostitutes through the ages are on record as catering for a variety of sexual appetites, there is no reference to ‘prostitutes providing sadomasochistic services’ in the ancient and medieval worlds, concluding ‘there is no disputing the contrast between the abundant
evidence of masochism after 1700 and the paucity of such evidence before 1600 … sexual masochism underwent a dramatic increase in Western culture late in the early modern period’ (Roy F. Baumeister, ‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, in Baumeister, ed., Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings, Philadelphia, 2001, pp. 296–313; pp. 308–9).

The one area in which there is some doubt in this seemingly iron-clad argument is the suffering people have undergone over the ages in the name of religion. Baumeister is more tentative about this, but tends to see it as unrelated to masochism: ‘Probably it is a mistake to regard those activities as masochistic … sex and religion provide radically different contexts, and it seems unwarranted to assume that activities have the same meaning in religious ritual
as they have in sexual play’ (p. 308). Baumeister finds broad support for this view in the work of Bullough and Tannahill, but ignores the fact that the architects of the concept of masochism – Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing and Lacan – all saw it as closely related to religion, particularly to ascetic flagellation.

Part of the complexity and sensitivity of this issue arises from the difficulty of defining the limits of what masochism actually is. Initially a simple enough idea (the deriving of sexual pleasure from suffering, as Severin apparently does in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im
), it is complicated by many factors, among them Freud’s postulation of three types of masochism – erotic, feminine and moral – and Dingwall and Bell’s addition of ascetic masochism. The spread of the semantic range of the word ‘masochism’ – particularly into contexts where there is only the concept of some underlying displacement of sexuality and no actual overt sexual activity – leaves
it open to such a wide range of interpretation that it begins to lose its value as a conceptual tool.

Bersani compounds the difficulties, extending the word in the
opposite direction and attempting (developing from Bataille) to see sexuality as ‘self-shattering’ and consequently masochistic; ‘sexuality … could be thought of as a tautology for masochism’. As he himself recognizes, this kind of ‘breakdown of conceptual distinctions’ leads to ‘logical incoherence’ and, while for him such
incoherence may have value in so far as it ‘accurately represents the overdetermined mind prescribed by psychoanalysis’, it presents huge practical problems (Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave?: And Other Essays, Chicago, 2010, pp. 25, 109 and 100).

At the same time – as Baumeister observes – it is precisely the concept of masochism which pinpoints the seventeenth century as pivotal in the history of suffering. One cannot simply discard it, nor can one wholly reject the accretion of meanings which have grown up around the original impulse to be dominated of Sacher-Masoch’s Severin, but at the same time, if one is to explore ‘the relationship between asceticism and sadomasochistic eroticism’ (Virginia Burrus, Sex Lives of Saints, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 9), one needs to heed Bataille’s basic caveat; although ‘both experiences have an
extreme intensity’, Bataille does not intend to imply that ‘eroticism and sanctity are of the same nature.’ On the contrary, while sanctity ‘brings us closer to other men’ (that is, other people), eroticism (which ‘is defined by secrecy and taboo’) ‘cuts us off from them and leaves us in solitude’ (Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo, New York, 1962, pp. 252–3).

Sadomasochistic discourse arises ‘from the ruins of politicoreligious means for achieving submission or shattering of the self’ (Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts, Baltimore, 2002, p. 103). It is, at least in part, a
consequence of the early modern transition from the ‘inclusive-existential’ or sub specie æternitatis world-view, with its hermits, its monastic orders, its martyrs, to ‘positional-existential’ ideologies, with their emphasis on personal identity in the social context. As the individual’s inner relationship with God starts to give way to societal relationships, the sense of division between the public sphere and private identity grows. The communion of recognition that all are sinners isreplaced by the isolation of inner shame:

In one way it is easier to be receptive to de Sade’s eroticism than to the religious demands of old. No-one today could deny that the impulses connecting sexuality and the desire to hurt and to kill do exist. Hence the so-called sadistic instincts enable the ordinary man to account for certain acts of cruelty, while religious impulses are explained away as aberrations. (Bataille, Death and Sensuality, p. 183)

Bersani’s apparent descent into conceptual chaos may actually provide constructive insights here. The big problem with Baumeister’s analysis is that, at the same time as supposing that ‘sadism is historically older than masochism’, he seeks to turn on its head the ‘prevailing theoretical position … that masochism is [psychologically] derived from sadism’, arguing that ‘it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must be the secondary, derivative pattern’ (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, pp. 308, footnote, and 208). It is hard to understand how masochism can be psychologically more fundamental yet historically younger than sadism, but Bersani hints at an explanation. In his interpretation, the first reality the infant is faced with is an outside world of tremendous power. it cannot possibly fight or protect itself against such power, and gains reassurance by surrendering itself to it. Sex, in adult life, is, by Bersani’s analysis, simply a re-enactment of that early masochistic surrender (The Freudian Body, p. 39). If Bersani is right, masochism is not discussed prior to the early modern period, not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere. One’s life is not one’s own, but held in trust; sexual congress is an act of naked, defenceless self-exposure; those who ‘take the sword’ are merely preparing to ‘perish with the sword’, and man’s only hope is to place himself abjectly under the heel of his God and cast himself at his mercy. It is only as society moves away from the ‘inclusive-existential’ preoccupation with the meaning and purpose of a transient and uncertain life towards the ‘positional-existential’ drive to identify oneself in terms of one’s relationships with others that the impulse to surrender starts to become deprived of legitimate contexts, manifesting itself in that particular nexus of neuroses and anxieties and compulsive self-destructive behaviour that modern psychopathology terms ‘masochistic’.

(Adapted from the introduction to the book. Download the complete introduction here.)

Ignatius Loyola

Dominique Bouhours (The Life of St. Ignatius, London, 1686, pp. 64–5) recounts how Ignatius, wandering between the French and Spanish armies, is suspected of being a spy and apprehended by some Spanish soldiers:

They stript him, and carried him in his shirt to their Captain. The Remembrance of Jesus Christ, expos’d naked to the Eyes of the Jews, fortify’d Ignatius in an exigence of so great Humiliation: But the fear of being tortur’d did a little terrifie him.

This is a curious little tale. Ignatius whips himself daily, and his
desires for self-abasement are so great that (according to an early
biography) he would ‘beseech our Lord, that his body after his death
might be cast vpon a dunghill, that it might be eaten by foules, and
dogges’. He even confesses to the impulse to ‘goe vp and downe the
streets naked, and al bemyred, that he might be accounted a foole’
(Pedro de Ribadeneira, The Life of B. Father Ignatius of Loyola,
Authour, and Founder of the Society of Iesus, Saint Omer, 1616, p.
139). He is even content to be stripped and abused, both physically and verbally, by a group of soldiers. And yet, faced with the prospect of being subjected to torture at the hands of professionals, he is

In the event, the captain takes Ignatius for a fool and dismisses him,
upbraiding the soldiers for bothering him, whereupon ‘the soldiers,
before they parted with him, us’d him very roughly, both in words and blows.’ At this, we are told, ‘The joy which Ignatius had, in being us’d in the Camp of the Spaniards, much after the same rate of Jesus Christ his usage, in the Court of Herod, hindred him almost from feeling the rude treatment of the Souldiers.’

Protestant controversialists, of course, had a field day with accounts
like this, which, as far as they were concerned, had no place in
religious discourse and were nothing other than the Catholics
proclaiming their insanity out of their own mouths. Edward Stillingfleet (apparently commenting on Nicolaus Orlandinus’s Latin account of this episode), comments drily that Ignatius ‘might have saved himself the labour of whipping himself that day’ (A Discourse Concerning the Idolatry Practised in the Church of Rome, London, 1671, pp. 313–14), and Wharton mocks him as one who would ‘counterfeit the Fool and Ideot, that he might be beaten the more severely’ (Henry Wharton, The Enthusiasm of the Church of Rome, London, 1688, p. 94).

To the Protestant Englishman, Ignatius springs from the same stock as the heroic Amadis, the parodic Quixote, even the picaresque anti-hero Guzman de Alfarache, with the caveat that, while they were all mere fictions, Ignatius actually walked the earth, embodying his fantasies in the establishment of the Society of Jesus, whose members, in turn, continued to spread the insane beliefs of their founder.

(Adapted from Part 1, “The Suffering Self”, Chapter 2, “Suffering and Sexuality in Catholic Hagiography”.)

The Sex Lives of Saints

This is another book I found very useful in my work on early modern attitudes towards suffering. Virgina Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), discusses the saints of the early Christian period, but it got me thinking about how the accounts of these saints were received in the early modern period. Her treatment of a passage from Saint Jerome prompted me to conduct a survey of translations of that passage into various European languages during the early modern period. The fact that they all, to some extent, censored the original passage proved very useful to my thesis. The Catholic Historical Review contains a good review of this work.