on 19 May 2012
I wasn't sure what to expect with this book and I confess I was dismayed to find Auschwitz and September the 11th both featuring prominently in the introduction. Nazis are, of course, still the modern epitome of evil and though I don't dispute their place near the top of that particular hit parade, at least in the 20th century, I can't help feeling that all that could be said about their appalling degeneracy has been said. Can it be that talk of the evils of Nazism has become a bit trite? Equally, however horrendous the attacks on the twin towers, it was surely the fact that we got to watch such a spectacular event live on TV that gave it such import, not the (let's face it) relatively modest death toll when you compare it with events such as, oh I don't know, the invasion of Iraq, say?
So, I guess I was a little sceptical then when I first ventured this text. However, I am happy to say my concerns were soon dispelled. Auschwitz and the twin towers don't feature for another 250 pages and when they re-emerge they are handled with at least a degree of balance.
What we get instead is a history of theodicy from the enlightenment to the post war period. What is theodicy you ask? Well, I didn't know myself until I read this book. Apparently it is a name for those theories put forward by thinkers to explain how a world created by a benevolent God can contain so much suffering and evil. The problem logically put is this:
1. God is good.
2. God is omnipotent.
3. Evil exists.
All three of these propositions cannot be true. If God is omnipotent and truly good he wouldn't allow evil. So, either God is omnipotent but chooses not to prevent evil, meaning that he can hardly be called good, or God is good but he cannot prevent evil, meaning he is not omnipotent. This kind of religious paradox is well encapsulated by the following puzzle: can God create a rock so big that even he cannot lift it? An answer either way is a blasphemy.
A number of Christian apologists have created theodicies refuting the third proposition: that evil exists. Leibniz claimed that our world was the best of all possible worlds, an idea so redolent with deliberate self-delusion that it's almost laughable.
The predominant claim has been to blame human beings themselves for evil, letting God off the hook even though we were made by him and in his image apparently. St. Augustine developed the idea of original sin in order to exonerate God - we're all guilty just by virtue of being born. Rousseau gave us the blame too, though through cumulative historical mistakes rather than from an ancient crime perpetrated by our forbears, Adam and Eve.
Of course all this is a gift for indignant atheists because there's only a problem if you insist on the existence of an all powerful, all loving God. Remove this element from the equation and we have simple brute fact; the world can be a very nasty place. But what is interesting about this book is its suggestion that, according to a number of thinkers, this is from where theodicy itself springs. The world can appear miserable and senseless, sure, but the essential human response is to ask the question `why?' Nature is not equipped to answer, for such enquiries are alien to her. For nature there is only `is'. The human thirst for meaning creates transcendental agencies to supply the missing `because' - Gods!
So we see that rather than theodicy being devised to justify God, God may have been devised to provide theodicy. It has proved to be an imperfect solution, clearly.
The most interesting sections of this book concern Bayle who laughs off theodicy and supposedly embraces the idea that all God's works are beyond human reasoning (possibly concealing a strong atheistic bent beneath pious platitudes); Kant who argues that if innocence and merit did always meet with earthly happiness and reward, any moral impulse in humanity would be completely nullified by instrumentalist gaming (and think of the loss of free will that this might entail); and De Sade who alternates between atheistic, nihilistic sensuality and a belief in an inverted God who delights in cruelty and exhorts his creations to revel in the same mire.
Freud takes the psychological approach of course; we are overgrown children who have been taught by our parents that good behaviour warrants treats. We seek in earnest for signs of this transaction in the Universe, generating all manner of metaphysical constructs to replicate it. Marx rails against the mythology created to retain the unjust power relations in society; the meek shall inherit the earth indeed.
The discussion is rich and broad-ranging, examining diverse ideas such as that 20th century formulation `the banality of evil' and the impulse, even in those antithetical to religion, to erect some kind of quasi-theodicy to help us accept the unacceptable elements in our world.
Even though Neiman purportedly writes this book outside the hallowed walls of the academy and refrains from many of the usual academic conventions, she does assume a basic grounding in the thought of the philosophers discussed and the reader will need this to get the most from the book. I found her prose engaging though there are occasional awkwardnesses.
I took two things from this book. Firstly, it made me reflect on the fact that if there is no God and no transcendent reality then there really is no record or ledger of human injustice and suffering other than human memory itself, which is fallible and disappears with a few generations. Even books and electronic data decay or are lost eventually. It is sobering when you consider that the perpetrators of some of the most unimaginable cruelties in history lived happy and fulfilled lives to ripe old ages. No account will be made at the end of time. How apt the adage, justice delayed is justice denied.
Secondly, I have had an awareness of one silly aspect of my own behaviour for many years that this book brought into focus. One misses the same bus three days in a row. `How bloody typical!' one might say. `It always happens to me'. As if the Universe itself were conspiring against you. Or the computer won't do what it's supposed to and one gets angry. `For God's sake!' one might say, or some similar harangue to the Universe (or anyone who will listen). It is quite astounding just how pervasive providential thinking really can be. The idea that we vaguely imagine that someone is listening to our complaints about those daily minor injustices and recording our grievances, or that someone or something is testing our limits. Like a child with a grazed knee who only cries when he is certain his mother is looking. Evidence of our own little personal theodicies.