Evil and Meaning in Life

“The message is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some of the monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.”


To many religious believers, one of the hardest aspects of maintaining their faith is steeped in mental gymnastics: using the pole of a loving god to leap over the reality of a horrible world. There are many clever and not-so-clever ways that religious people pacify themselves; often, in the most obscure, self-congratulatory way: the creation of Original Sin, free-will, gays, drugs, abortion. The “problem of evil”, as a whole, deserves a special consideration, however, in a way that may be secularised.

ScreenHunter_02 Jan. 17 10.49 The philosopher Susan Neiman has an entire reworking of the history of philosophy with this in mind. Her book, entitled Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy, ignores the usual Cartesian beginnings of modern philosophy. She begins rather with her “first Enlightenment hero”, Alfonso X, king of Castille.

Alfonso, who lived in the 13th century, commissioned several Jews to instruct him in astronomy. One, Rabbi Isaac Hazan, completed what became known as the Tablas Alfonsinas. Years after studying them, Alfonso remarked: “If I had been of God’s counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better.”

Upon Alfonso’s death, his reign fell into ill repute. Commentators used this single sentence as a means to undermine his memory: one spoke about Alfonso’s entire family being struck by lightning and another detailing the “fires of heaven” burning in the king’s bedroom. There were no doubt many reasons for trashing Alfonso, but one reason we can be fairly certain of rests in his heroic blasphemy. Some even suggested that the reason the kingdom faired so poorly arose as a result of that single sentence (or some version of it).

This mattered for one very important reason: a human presumed himself smarter than god. A human saw the fallaciousness of many of god’s designs. Calling god out on an imperfection was the first step toward denying him all together. This Promethean attitude would lead us to take a firmer grasp of reality, an attempt that would begin and build science, and lead to undermining every aspect of religion. It also, however, leaves us searching for answers.

Along with Neiman, many philosophers – like Bryan Magee – have stated their annoyance with colleagues, who appear to take a lax interest in the relation between the world and philosophy. These philosophers’ main criticism is that their colleagues have either lapsed into jargon and technical obscurity about pointless subjects or are simply not interested in public matters. Nigel Warburton describes this stereotype as someone who is excellent at solving logical or abstract puzzles, but can’t boil an egg. Whether this is true or not is not my point here. Its importance rests in how Neiman takes her challenge further.

She is countering the banal, analytic tradition by engrossing philosophical thinking in what Kant considers “the first controversy in the history of philosophy” (Neiman’s words). This is the concern about appearance and reality, a problem begun with the Ancient Greeks (one need only think of Plato’s early Socratic dialogues). We are used to reading about how philosophers or thinkers attempted to reconcile their inner and outer worlds, into some sort of coherence. However, according to Neiman, this is a mistake. As she beautifully states:

“The worry that fuelled debates about the difference between appearance and reality was not the fear that the world might not turn out to be the way it seems to us – but rather the fear that it would.”

As Bertrand Russell said: “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” Neiman, rightly or wrongly, takes it as a given that the thinkers concerned have a sense that there is no ultimate, happy purpose to existence. What drives the greatest minds is their awareness that essentially it is our imposition of purpose onto a purposeless world that must either be confirmed as detrimental and true, or satisfying and false. The latter is the bedrock of religious thinking.

Essentially, we wonder about things that happen to us and their contingency: Are they part of some greater cause or merely happenstance? If the former, what cause and why is the cause seemingly bent on destroying us (the religious Problem of Evil)? If the latter, what meaning does existence have if it is meaningless? One can see how important answering the questions of contingency in human life becomes.

Whether Neiman is correct in her assessment, I do not think it lessens the engagement she musters. If readers disagree with her, they are forced to face her challenges, to render the axiomatic considerations of philosophers anew with a resolute distinction of demarcating Neiman’s challenge. If nothing else, it allows the reader to see classic works and brilliant thinkers in a new light. Being somewhat of a pessimist myself, I agree with her following sentiments:

“We worry about how to maintain a commitment to fairness when the world as a whole does not. We ask about the point of making theoretical sense of the world when we cannot make sense of misery and terror. Growing up makes us think more and not less often about whether history presents anything but grounds for despair, or whether hopes for progress are based on anything but wishful thinking. We may do it with irony, with dryness or passion, but we find one way or another to engage with some piece of the problem misprized as the meaning of life.”

Meaning of life? Neiman forces us then to focus on meaning in life. It is possible to take this out of the fumbling hands of the religious and look at this problem anew. Making sense of a world filled with horror may have begun its life as a problem to reconcile an arbitrary deity, but now it is a problem that matters for all: how are we to make sense of life, of meaning, when the world itself is devoid of meaning? The history of philosophy, according to Neiman, has been the fight against wallowing into despair as awareness of the horror, in the world and of the world, grew.

Now, is the time to face up to it and might be the most important questions we ever ask ourselves.