David Banach

Department of Philosophy Saint Anselm College

The Rebel and the Saint: Reading Camus with Dostoevsky

Slideshow                                            Abstract

Presented at the 2013 ACTC Meetings in Ontario April 2013.

Click the above link to listen, or right click to download to your computer.

“It’s not lymphoma, it’s leprosy!”  Ack!!!!  Yes, I admit I was watching re-runs of House the other night.  It seems the other televisual options included a ruined baseball stadium filled with Godzilla eggs, a WWII movie about carnage on the German front, and a variety of news shows featuring politicians and pundits running around with their hair on fire, not to mention winter storm warnings and a meteor exploding over Russia.  As Mel Brooks said, “High anxiety, you win!”

What is it that people find so attractive about the raised emotional pitch, especially in fiction?  (As if we didn’t have enough of that in daily life.)  I’m not going to say this is a recent phenomenon, or an American one.  Check out Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or better yet, Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention the ancient Egyptian story about what happened to Osiris.  (Look it up.)  We humans enjoy being shocked and horrified.  But why?

If Plato is right, it might simply be a common and understandable mistake.  “Whenever anyone’s soul feels a keen pleasure or pain,” says Socrates in the Phaedo, “it cannot help supposing that whatever causes the most violent emotion is the plainest and truest reality, which it is not.” (83c)  Really?  If things that cause a profound emotional surge aren’t the most real, what is?

The Buddhist scholar and retreat master, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that we deal with our emotional storms the same way we face violent weather; go home, close the doors and windows, be still.  Reality is to be found in the quiet of our hearts when we are calm, not in the tempest.

Elijah found that God was not in the heavy winds or in the earthquake or in the raging fire, but rather in a still, small voice.  He had to be very quiet to hear it.  And once he listened, he was refreshed and fortified. (I Kings, 19:11-13)  He did not withdraw from the chaotic world permanently, but he did need to take a break.

We, too, need a break, but events and entertainment conspire to keep us riled up.  Even when we go on vacation, there is so much to do and to experience that we return home exhausted as often as not.  And when we “relax” with our portable electronic devices, well, de Tocqueville would not be surprised.  We need a real break.

But we also need to do something different.  We need to be still yet alert.  And this is a work quite unlike what we are used to, as well as a relaxation that can’t be found on TV or the internet or in collision sports.  There are no fireworks in this practice of being still.  But there is a deeper reality, a plainer and truer reality than what we can encounter by any other means.  Be still, yet alert, without trying to control the outcome.  Then sometimes, High Anxiety, you lose.

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the great 18th C. Scottish skeptic David Hume considers four hypotheses about the first cause (or causes) of the universe: “that they are endowed with perfect goodness; that they have perfect malice; that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice; that they have neither goodness or malice” (Part XI).

The first hypothesis is clearly false, he argues, given how much suffering and evil there is in the universe. But the second is also false, since there is also goodness in the universe alongside of all the evil. The third hypothesis is Manichaeism, the thesis that there are good and evil gods locked in eternal struggle; this Hume rejects on the grounds of the uniformity and steadiness of the laws of nature, which sometimes make us happy and at other times make us suffer. This leaves the fourth hypothesis as, in Hume’s judgment, “by far the most probable:” the causes or causes of the universe is or are completely indifferent to our happiness. It is (or they are) neither benevolent nor malicious. On Hume’s view, the most that human reason can establish is that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence” (Part XII, penultimate paragraph).

The presence of evil in the universe is a standing challenge to the belief in a God who is all-good and all-powerful, as Hume never tires in pointing out. But is the notion of a morally indifferent God really all that probable? Or does it, too, face some challenges?  The cause of the universe cannot be morally indifferent in the way that the laws of physics are indifferent, since whatever caused the universe must be the author of the laws of physics. But why would a being cause the universe and its laws to exist? If this being acted freely, then it presumably acted for a reason. To act for a reason is to act for a goal that one judges to be good. A creator acting before there is a world and causing that world to be can only be acting for the sake of some good, and (before anything else is) that good can only be itself. If we conceive of the causing of the universe as a free act of an agent, then, we cannot conceive of it as being morally indifferent.

On the other hand, we might view the cause of the universe as operating by a kind of necessary emanation, not a free act of creation or initiation. The problem with this is that the universe does not seem necessary. It seems, rather, to be one of many possible universes. It seems shot through with contingency. It does not have to be the way it is. This suggests that the first cause of the universe made something like a free choice of this universe and its laws and not some other. We are back, then to the question of why it acted at all, and this leads away from the thesis that it is morally indifferent.

Hume is right to point out the difficulties in the notion of a perfect God who creates an imperfect universe, but his solution of a morally indifferent creator has its own problems.

A fundamental puzzle in the philosophy of love concerns the question, how does love begin?  Here’s what I mean.  It seems that love demands two desires, the desire to put the beloved’s needs ahead of my own (self-sacrifice), as well as the desire that the beloved love me in return or at least acknowledge my love in the appropriate way (reciprocity).  I submit that the two requirements of self-sacrifice and reciprocity are fundamental to all kinds of loving relationships, whether romantic relationships, friendships, or familial relationships.  But is it possible to express both desires at the same time?  If not, then it seems that we can never begin to love because we will be stuck in an impossible situation where we must desire that another love us in return, while at the same time denying that desire by sacrificing our own needs for the beloved’s, giving without expecting return.  Philosophers and theologians have typically offered three different solutions to the puzzle, although I submit that none of them are satisfying.


One way to solve the problem of how love begins is simply to deny that love truly requires self-sacrifice.  On this view love is a sophisticated form of self-love.  This approach solves the puzzle by claiming that love does not require an absolute sacrifice of oneself and one’s projects for another.  Love just doesn’t demand that I put another’s needs absolutely ahead of my own.  The contemporary moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt defends this position in The Reasons of Love.


Another solution to the conundrum is to deny that reciprocity is a legitimate part of love.  The Swedish-Lutheran bishop Anders Nygren argues for this position in Agape and Eros.  According to Nygren, true love should only be identified with self-sacrificial agape and any love that looks for reciprocity is hopelessly confused and selfish.  So, he solves the puzzle of love only by denying that love should involve the desire to be loved in return.


C.S. Lewis represents a third possible solution to the puzzle of love.   In The Four Loves, Lewis recognizes both self-sacrificial love, what he calls gift-love, and love that desires reciprocity, which he terms need-love.  However, as is indicated in the distinct terms that he gives to them, Lewis believes gift-love and need-love are two different kinds of love that spring from two fundamentally different impulses.  Lewis recognizes that both loves are a good and necessary part of every relationship, but he insists that they are two different emotion-virtues.  Thus, he solves the puzzle of how love begins by dividing love into self-sacrificial love and need-love that desires reciprocity.  But might there be another alternative to these three positions, one that maintains the dual demand of self-sacrifice and the desire for reciprocity, yet one that maintains the unity of love?


I would like to suggest that a compelling alternative solution to the puzzle can be found in Jean-Luc Marion’s recent work The Erotic Phenomenon.  (It can also be found in Augustine and in the Augustinian tradition generally, but that’s a topic for another day.)  Marion’s solution to the puzzle rests on his distinction between expecting reciprocity and hoping for reciprocity.  To expect to be loved in return means that I demand it.  If I expect to be loved in return, then I can never begin to love because I have not met the requirement of self-sacrifice.  I only decide to “love” when I have absolute certainty that my love will be reciprocated, so there is no risk.  On the other hand, Marion argues that hope for reciprocity is something entirely different.  When I hope for love I am not demanding it; I don’t have total assurance that my love will be returned.  I take the risk to love, sacrificing myself for the sake of the beloved, while maintaining the hope that the beloved will return my love.  I still desire reciprocity, but I do not demand it.  Thus, the puzzle of love has been solved because the demands of self-sacrifice and reciprocity have both been met.  I submit that Marion’s solution is a preferable alternative to the three solutions offered above because it acknowledges the necessary place of both reciprocity and self-sacrifice, as well us giving us a unified account of love.

Aristotle argues in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness, the ultimate human good, is contemplation. In support of his position, he continues his reflection on what we mean by happiness, which he began in Book I. There he had suggested that, whatever we mean by happiness, it is something we want completely and forever. If we think about it, the idea of partial happiness or happiness cut off is not as good as full happiness continuing; and the idea of happiness continuing for a while and then being interrupted or ending is not as good as happiness continuing without interruption forever. This leads him to the idea of happiness as something we cannot lose and of the happy person as self-sufficient. Since the ethical life, exemplified most perfectly, perhaps, in friendship of virtue, requires other people, thus rendering one less self-sufficient and subject to loss, it is to this degree imperfect and as such cannot be what we mean by happiness of the ultimate human good.


Now clearly Aristotle thinks that friendship (that is, perfect friendship or friendship of virtue as he presents it in Book VIII) is loved for its own sake; so to that extent it is as choice-worthy as contemplation. And Aristotle does say that moral virtue is more permanent than knowledge of the truth. “For in none of man’s actions is there so much certainty as in his virtuous activities (which are more enduring than even scientific knowledge” (NE 1.11.1100b114-15). That being so, one can speak of the permanence of friendship as an indelible perfection of the soul. And if the soul is immortal, then so is the friendship.


But beyond this, I would like to argue that the goodness of actions such as friendship, which intrinsically involved in time, should not be judged by the degree to which they are not subject to time. Thus it would be odd to remove time from our judgment of the beauty of a piece of music. Although, the harmonies as they appear on paper and can be conceived are part of the aesthetic beauty of the piece, it is far more beautiful when actually played by excellent musicians: that is, music is meant to be heard (a temporal activity) to be fully appreciated. Likewise, friendship is most perfect, as Aristotle admits, when the friends are actually together. True enough, the commitments, loyalties, and memories of shared moments that an individual has apart from his or her friend, are real parts of the excellence of the friendship. But the full perfection—the happiness—of friendship only exists in the presence of the friend.


The idea that friendship is less perfect than contemplation because it renders one less self-sufficient might suggest that we should distance ourselves from friendship. But to do this is to choose to reject something self-evidently good, to turn away from something we know to be intrinsically choice-worthy. Such a choice would be self-defeating since selves are only distinguished in the context of other selves.


Not only can friendship be said to be as good as contemplation; there is a way in which it could be said to be better. As persons are more perfect than principles, and persons are only fully known as individuals, one might argue that friendship permits the highest kind of knowledge to be contemplated. And for the Christian tradition, the contemplation of God is an act of friendship, a participation in the friendship of the Holy Trinity. To contemplate an impersonal principle, a first abstract truth, would be to fail to contemplate the highest being.

Of course, Christian contemplation of God is not the worship of an abstract principle, nor indeed do I think this is Aristotle’s idea of contemplation. Although he does not have a doctrine of creation, Aristotle’s God is understood by him to be more perfect than we. Thus, contemplation must not be destructive of human personhood: otherwise, we are not perfected, and our philosophical quest for happiness is in vain.

Our society is increasingly sensitive to the ways in which hateful speech can lead to violent actions or discrimination against people based on skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national background. This is a good thing: we all have a moral obligation to be courteous and respectful in the way we talk to and about each other. In speech as in all other actions, we should treat others as we wish to be treated. Moreover, hateful stereotypes can indeed foment discrimination or even violence (witness the Matthew Shepard tragedy).

However, the category of impermissible speech seems to be widening all the time, and this can pose some problems for freedom of speech and inquiry. Consider some examples. The mother of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who took his own life after being secretly filmed in an intimate act with a man, has recently left her evangelical Christian church because that church teaches that homosexual acts are morally wrong. She now believes that such teaching helps to create the homophobia that drove her son to suicide. In Canada, where hate speech is illegal, some Christian pastors have been prosecuted merely for condemning homosexual activity from the pulpit. Some Christian theologians, seeking to overcome centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, have called for Christian churches to stop teaching that Jews ought to convert to Christianity or that Christianity has replaced or superseded Judaism as a religion. Many people today who criticize Islam are attacked as Islamophobes, since a negative opinion of Islam could lead to discrimination against Muslims. Pro-life activists are sometimes blamed for attacks on abortion clinics or providers, merely because they condemn abortion.

Such thinking seems to take mere moral or religious disagreements and elevate them to the level of impermissible speech. The reasoning seems to be that certain moral or religious judgments have been associated with hateful, violent, or discriminatory actions in the past, so such judgments must now be abandoned to avoid such abuses. I see four problems with this reasoning.

First, moral and religious disagreement is an irreducible aspect of the human condition. Such disagreements are not going to end anytime soon.

Second, the problem is not the mere fact of disagreement but the way the conflicting positions are expressed. One can express a principled opposition to homosexual activity, for example, using language that is restrained, respectful, and non-abusive, or one can express it in abusive or hateful ways. The latter is wrong; the former is not. We should focus on educating people to express their differing moral and religious beliefs in language that is as fair and as respectful and as courteous as possible. But surely it is utopian to tell them to stop disagreeing at all.

Third, the range of beliefs that have been associated with violent, abusive, or intolerant behavior is huge. Atheism was part of the official ideology of Communist countries that brutally persecuted religious believers for decades. Should we tell atheists to abandon atheism because of the crimes of some other atheists? Adolf Hitler and the Nazis incorporated Darwinian evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetic theory into their racist ideology. Should we tell biologists to stop teaching these theories because they have been associated with a violent and repressive political movement? The language of universal human rights was an integral part of the French Revolution, which led to the Reign of Terror and the imperialism and tyranny of Napoleon. Should we abandon any talk of universal human rights for this reason?

Fourthly and finally, there is a self-referential logical problem with telling people to abandon moral or religious positions that have been associated with violence or intolerance or discrimination. Not long ago a gay-rights-activist shot a security guard at the office of an anti-gay-marriage organization in a Washington DC suburb of Virginia. If moral opposition to gay marriage or gay sex is wrong because it has been associated with violence against gays in some times and places, must we now say that a pro-gay-rights position is wrong for the same reason? Is everyone thus morally obliged simply to stop talking about gay marriage, the moral status of gay sex, or the dangers of homophobia? This is a reductio ad absurdum of the failure to distinguish between mere moral or religious disagreement, on the one hand, and truly hateful speech, on the other.

            There have been many advances in recent years in the human genome project, which studies the gene sequence of humans.  For the most part, these advances have great promise for humankind, especially in the early detection and curing of diseases.  The tools for genetic research are becoming more and more sophisticated; genome sequencing is becoming less expensive and more available. Further, researchers examining the DNA of cells are able to find things that they had not expected to find things for which they were not even looking.  But a problem has arisen.  Donors and research organizations sign legal documents that stipulate that the donors are to remain anonymous and are not to be contacted for any reason.  This has resulted in an interesting ethical dilemma for the researchers.  Here are two examples.


At the Center for Translational Pathology at the University of Michigan, a researcher found something unexpected.  He noticed that a man with cancer, a subject in one of his studies, had the genes of the virus that causes AIDS.  Only further testing could tell if the man actually had AIDS.  But there was a problem: the man had donated his cells on condition that he remain anonymous and that he not be contacted by the Center no matter what.  Because of the non-disclosure agreement signed by both the subject and the Center, neither the researcher nor anyone else at the Center could contact the man and inform him of what had been discovered and advise him to seek appropriate treatment.


Another case is fraught with even more serious consequences.  A young woman, in whose family there was a strong history of breast cancer, signed up for a study being conducted by the National Institutes of Health that was trying to find cancer genes that, when mutated, greatly increased the risk of breast cancer.  The woman, who was aware of her family history and fearful of her risk of contracting breast cancer, had, previous to donating her cells for this research project, decided to undergo surgery to have her breasts removed prophylactically.  When she consented to donate cells for the study, she clearly indicated that she did not want to be contacted by the researchers, whom she had told of her plan for the surgery during her initial screening process for donors.  The research ultimately showed that the woman did not have her family’s breast cancer gene, but the researchers were legally barred from informing her of the discovery and thus preventing her from proceeding with the now completely unnecessary double mastectomy.


Dr. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, has said: “We are living in an awkward interval where our ability to capture information often exceeds our ability to know what to do with it.”


Here are some thoughts on this issue.


  1. The NIH and similar medical research organizations are in the business of improving the standards of health and physical well-being of the general public.  Their findings are used to develop and advance our knowledge of those procedures and practices and products that can ensure the health of the people.  Even though these organizations are not in the business of treating people for medical conditions, the results of their work directly affect treatment.
  2. The consciences of the researchers ought not to be weighed down by their discoveries when, as the above situations indicate, the donor really needs to be informed of these discoveries in order to make a more informed decision about obtaining medical attention or  reviewing a medical decision than he/she might have without that information.  In other words, the burden of the decision for medical treatment or not ought to rest with the donor.  It is unfair to force the researcher in a situation where he/she would violate legal documents and agreements when the health and/or life of a donor is potentially at stake.
  3. It would seem a commonplace to assert that the privacy right of a donor discovered to have a condition or disease that is a potential general health threat (bubonic plague, for example) ought to be informed of this in spite of the privacy right because that right should not be held higher than the right of the general public to a healthy environment and information about potentially harmful and/or lethal situations.  That donor must seek medical treatment whether voluntarily or not, and the general public needs to be informed in general terms about the threat.  Privacy rights, then, clearly have limits within the context of the commonweal.
  4. While someone who voluntarily participates in such research programs as conducted by the NIH and other organizations does indeed have a right to privacy and anonymity, and certainly these research organizations ought to respect that right of the person as an individual.  However this standard operating procedure only to the extent that the welfare of the general public is not jeopardized.  Further these organizations might have other obligations to the donor who is not only an individual but also a member of the general public which these organizations are established to serve.  Thus the NIH and other organizations need to create documents for their donors that will enable the organization to inform a donor of any medical information that is learned about that donor during the time of the research that pertains to the donor’s individual health.  Then it would be up to the donor to determine what course of action to take: ignore the information, act on it, wait it out.
  5. If whatever is discovered has ramifications for the health of the general public, the research organization, in addition to contacting the donor, ought to inform the appropriate government agencies about the threat posed by the situation.  Any individual who does not wish to abide by the stipulations in these documents ought not to be accepted as a donor for research purposes.


What do you think?  How would you advise the NIH and other research organizations on this issue?

As is well known, Plato’s Theaetetus defines knowledge as, roughly, justified true belief.  It is also well known that Descartes sought a certain and irrefutable foundation for knowledge and found it in the fact that whatever else he doubted he knew for sure that he existed.  Both of these thinkers would hold that knowledge must be true—or else it’s not really knowledge.

On the other hand, it is common to say that scientific knowledge is always changing, and that what passed for knowledge in ancient times—or even last week!—was mistaken.  It is also common to use expressions, such as “true for me,” or “true for you,” as well as, “that’s what I got out of it,” in the sense that what you got out of it could be quite different and yet we’d both know what the book (or movie, etc.,) was about.

An easy way to solve this conflict of intuitions is to hold (1) that real knowledge is always true, but (2) sometimes in the past (or in the present) we have thought (or think) that we knew (or know) something when we actually didn’t (or don’t), i.e., that apparent knowledge can be false.  In fact, I like this solution, but at the same time, something about it bothers me.  It’s facile.  It overlooks a serious difficulty.

Consider my set of beliefs at any given time.  Experience has taught me that the set taken as a whole most likely contains false beliefs, but it’s impossible for me to hold that any single member of the set is false—after all, it’s a belief.  So I believe with regard to the set that it contains false beliefs, but there is no single belief in the set such that I believe it is false.  Belief is not knowledge, of course.  But unless the set of propositions I claim to know is extremely small (confined, say, to simple arithmetical statements and Descartes’ cogito), the same difficulty that affects my set of beliefs also affects my set of knowledge claims.  In other words, I know with regard to the set that, if past experience is any guide at all, it contains false propositions; but there is no single knowledge claim within the set that I know, or even could now know, to be false.

The upshot seems to be that I am constrained to believe, with regard to the things that I know, that at least some of them are possibly false.  Nor will it help to say that when “S knows that P,” then it is always true that “S knows that S knows that P.”  This may be true, but the higher order claim is subject to the same difficulty as is the simple and direct claim.  I can know something, and know that I know it, and yet be mistaken.  But there’s no way of knowing!

At least, there’s no way of knowing until I find out.  Hmm . . . .  Maybe I should withhold judgment and never claim to know anything until I’m absolutely sure?  But how is that different from resolving never to claim to know anything until I actually know it?  Which restores the conundrum:  I can’t know anything without believing that I know it, and believing that I know it blinds me to the possibility that it might be false, since real knowledge has to be true.  Again, I know the set has false members, and yet I know each member of the set to be true.

Or should I bite the bullet and hold that it does make sense to claim quite openly that many of the things I really know are in fact possibly false?  This solution to our difficulty is called fallibilism, i.e., the view that our knowledge claims are in many cases fallible.  It doesn’t exclude the possibility of genuine insight into self-evident propositions; what it excludes is rather the infallibilism that results from holding that knowledge is by definition true.  I can truthfully say that I know the principle of non-contradiction, but I can also truthfully say that I know smoking and junk food are bad for us.  In Sleeper, Woody Allen imagined a world where science had shown that tobacco and hot fudge are the keys to longevity, but it would be absurd for me to claim that I don’t know otherwise—even though science may one day prove him right!

Evil and the It’s-Worth-It Thesis

All of the most plausible responses to the problem of evil –the problem that the reality of evil in the world causes for believers who hold that the greatest possible being (God) exists– reach the same point but then advance no further. Less convincing responses typically downplay the reality or severity of evil, or they downgrade God to something less than the greatest possible being. The most plausible responses do neither. Instead, they identify some good that can be realized and advanced thanks to the reality of bad things (reconciliation with God in friendship and familial love is one candidate), and then they maintain that the realization and advancement of this good is worth the reality of bad things in this world. Thus, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil come down to an it’s-worth-it claim. But is any good truly worth the variety and amount of evil that the human race and the rest of the natural world have caused and suffered over tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years? The most plausible responses never get around to manifesting the it’s-worth-it claim, and how one would go about doing so is not obvious.

The difficulty in showing it’s worth it is the incommensurability or irreducibility of many values. Community, life, health, knowledge, beauty, and many more are different like apples and oranges, and nobody has ever shown that this many units of one are worth that many units of the other. Similarly, nobody has ever shown that something like heavenly community in the future is worth the destruction of earthly goods now. But here are three approaches to making good on the it’s-worth- it claim.

First, one could maintain that God possesses not mere omnipotence (the ability to do everything that can be done) but super strength omnipotence (the ability to do what cannot be done). Accordingly, God can square the circle and specify precisely the square root of 2. So also, God can conquer the problem of the incommensurability of values and make the disvalues in the world truly worth the realization of some positive value. The difficulty with this approach is that it quickly turns our talk about God into gibberish. If God has super strength omnipotence, then he can also conquer every contradiction. Thus, the propositions “God exists” and “God does not exist” can be both true because God can bring about the truth of a contradiction. They also can both be false, and they also can both be true and false. Likewise, for “God is good” and “God is evil,” “God loves human persons” and “God does not give a damn about them,” and so forth.

Second, one could say that the incommensurability of values is a problem for us, but it is not an intrinsically insurmountable problem. Accordingly, God, the ultimate mega mind, can in some way that we cannot understand perform the calculus of values and show that the reality of evil is worth some good that will emerge. This approach to showing that it’s worth it, however, is unsatisfying because it leaves the mystery of understanding the it’s-worth-it claim where we found it: a mystery.

Finally, one could say that God is in the same boat as us with regard to the reality of evil. I cannot bring a child into this world without also guaranteeing that she or he will suffer, fail dismally as a moral agent, and ultimately die. I cannot pursue health in myself or others without drugs and treatments that cause all sorts of bad side effects. I cannot write this blog with risking confusing, angering, or demoralizing readers of it. So, just as I cannot bring about many goods without at the same time bringing about a host of evils, so also perhaps God cannot either. Moreover, the evils that I do bring about are worth it in the sense that they are worth it to me: I want to realize certain goods in this world (rather than do nothing) and do not intend, not even a little bit, the evils that I bring about as well. Similarly, perhaps one can say of God that whatever good He is trying to realize is worth it because He would rather do something than nothing and He does not intend the evils that come about in the course of pursuing that good. The difficulty with this approach is twofold, however. On the one hand, just as the defense of human actions by appeal to the distinction between intended goods and unintended evils often appears to be mere sniveling or shuffling, so also defending God by appeal to the same does not appear to preserve His perfect goodness. On the other hand, God appears to be as puny and weak as human agents who are stuck in a universe that disallows the bringing about of good without the bringing of evils as well.

In the end, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil hit the same sandbar that impedes further progress on the problem, and how to get off the sandbar is hard to figure out.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Wolf writes, “the beauty of the world, which is soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” The experience of beauty is like that: we take joy in beauty, yet even in the midst of that joy, we are saddened by our awareness of its transience. All good things must come to an end: the colors in fall, fresh snow in winter, the innocence and spontaneity of a child, the very lives of the people we love so much.

Surely the anguish of losing the things that matter most to us and render our lives meaningful is one of the principal things motivating religious belief. William James says that at the heart of religious faith is the belief that “perfection is eternal,” that is, that the best things are the more eternal things, so that ultimately goodness has the final word in cosmic history. The atheist alternative is to say that the best things – love, goodness, beauty – are temporary and fairly recent aspects of cosmic history and will ultimately disappear without a trace, swallowed up by an indifferent universe.

Some philosophers, like William James, think that religious belief is warranted because our lives are made richer, more purposive, and more meaningful by believing that “goodness is eternal.” Others, like Friedrich Nietzsche, heap scorn on this as weakness and cowardice in the face of reality. For Nietzsche, Plato emblemizes this sort of cowardice: Plato longs for the “ideal” (Goodness Itself) and devalues the “real” (life as it is here and now). In a revealing passage in his Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche tells us, “My recreation, my predilection, my cure for all Platonism has always been Thucydides” (and also Machiavelli). What Nietzsche likes about Thucydides is his brutal, uncomplaining, matter-of-fact honesty in describing and accepting the world as it is. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the Athenians responding as follows when other Greeks criticized Athenian imperialism: “It has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger… calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice – a consideration which no one has ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might. … the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  It is surely this passage and others like it that Nietzsche has in mind when praising Thucydides. Nietzsche contrasts Plato and Thucydides as follows: “Courage in the face of reality is…the point of difference between natures such as Thucydides and Plato. Plato is a coward in the face of reality – consequently, he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has control over himself – consequently he also has control over things.”

Are Plato and William James really just cowards who can’t deal with reality? Hardly. In fact, they are careful thinkers who strive, in their very different ways, to be attentive and faithful to a central aspect of human experience. To love something or someone is to be committed to that value or that person. This attitude of commitment is logically incompatible with any attitude of indifference to, or any devaluing of, the thing or person in question, with merely shrugging one’s shoulders when that value or person is violated. Nietzsche’s contempt for Plato (and Christianity), and his glorification of Thucydides and Machiavelli, mean that he has contempt for the justice that was violated so cynically by the Athenians and for the human lives that have been destroyed in every unjust war ever waged. To love is to feel anguish at any violation of what one loves. To renounce such anguish as cowardice is to reject the commitment that is its flip side.

Of course, it is possible to reject Nietzsche’s repugnant cynicism while not embracing theism. One could be an agnostic or atheist who affirms the importance and objectivity of moral norms. Derek Parfit and Albert Camus both fall into this category. Yet I cannot help but think that such a view must leave one constantly vulnerable to despair. Indeed, for Camus the contrast between the strength of his moral commitments and the indifference of the universe was a paradigm case of absurdity. If the universe is absurd, why should we care so much about it? How can one care so much about it and avoid despair, unless one believes that “perfection is eternal,” and thus that absurdity is only the appearance of things and not the ultimate reality?

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