Does Evil Exist?

We had a really great class in both sections today.  We began by tackling Boethius’s famous distinction between fate and providence, and the class followed along pretty well as we worked out the categories.  Boethius calls Fate the temporal unfolding of the eternal idea for history, which he names Providence.  So the relationship is not unlike the idea of a house in the architect’s mind and the process of building and dwelling in that house: whereas the latter goes through a process of building and moving and decay and renewal, the former remains in idea form, unchanged, throughout.  Some students were already anticipating Boethius’s objections to Philosophy in book five when he notes the damage such a conception of events does to ethics, but we’ll get there when we get there.

Our really fun discussion, though, came when we ran headlong into Boethius’s most radical statement yet in the book: “Evil is thought to abound on the earth.  But if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there is evil anywhere” (110, Victor Watts’s translation).  That launched us into our full-throttle discussion of privative and positive theories of evil and the Gilmour Challenge, the question that I asked both classes but which went unanswered in either:

Does any evil entity, man or devil, ever do what he does seeking out something that is not itself good?

My students gave their best shots, but to summarize my answers as I played Boethius, a serial killer seeks a sense of power, and God is all-powerful; a complete hedonist seeks out pleasure, which is a gift from God; a tyrant wants power (see serial killer); and a man consumed by avarice seeks to possess material things, and God created matter.  I’m pretty sure that my students still think that evil exists, but I figure that, if nothing else, I’ve given them some good food for thought.



Filed under Boethius, teaching

5 responses to “Does Evil Exist?

  1. Adrienne

    What about a sadist?

  2. A sadist derives pleasure from hurting people–pleasure is, in itself, a good.

  3. “All things truly wicked start from an innocence.”

    -E. Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.

    “Evil, be thou my good.”

    -you know who, from you-know-where.

  4. I do know who, and I do know where. What’s interesting is how the so-called Satanist school of Milton criticism ignores the possibility that Milton might have been making a Boethian joke with that line. Those darn Romantics, I tell you.

  5. It’s also possible that Milton was simultaneously acknowledging that linguistically, our capacity for explaining the relationship between good/evil and God/Satan sorely lacks subtlety and the irony of Satan’s “free” declaration of his rebellion. For without God/good, there is no Satan/evil. Like an atheist, the negation of the thing is still the thing itself.

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