Questions of Good, Evil, Honour, and God – Part One

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The following text is the second draft of the first section of part one of my forthcoming (2014) work, Questions of Good, Evil, Honour, and God. Part two deals with good and evil in the context of Islam, jurisprudence, and my philosophy of pathei-mathos especially in relation to the concept of honour. Part three deals with questions relating to religion, law, and the reformation of individuals; and in the fourth and final part I present some tentative conclusions.

A pdf of parts one and two is available here – questions-good-and-evil-parts-one-two.pdf

NASA/HST - NGC 1300


Questions of Good, Evil, Honour, and God

(Part One)


Introduction

For the past three or so years, as I developed my ‘numinous way’ and then last year refined it into the philosophy of pathei-mathos, I have reflected more and more on questions concerning good, evil, honour, God, and religion and ethics in general; related as these matters are (at least according to my fallible understanding) to our nature, and possible development, as human beings, and thence to matters such as society, culture, and the jurisprudence by which modern societies function, or endeavour or aspire to function; and manifesting, as answers to such questions should, at least some explanations concerning the evidence that we human beings possess, and have possessed for thousands upon thousands of years, a paradoxical character, capable of – and having done – both honourable and dishonourable deeds, of being both ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Thus some of the questions of concern are: (i) what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’; (ii) have the definitions and thence the theology and epistemology and the morality of religions, over millennia, enabled more and more of us to avoid doing or causing what is ‘bad’; (iii) what, if anything, can or perhaps should replace such definitions, such theology, such epistemology, such morality – such religions – for those who do not or cannot accept such religious answers and the guidance so offered; (iv) does jurisprudence – and thence The State – offer an acceptable alternative; and, perhaps most importantly, as I have endeavoured to intimate in some other recent musings, (v) can we as a species change, sans a belief in some reward or the threat of punishment – be such karmic, eschatological, or deriving from something such as a State – or “are we fated, under Sun, to squabble and bicker and hate and kill and destroy and exploit this planet and its life until we, a failed species, leave only dead detritic traces of our hubris?” [1]

Today – thousands of years after the births of Lao Tzu, of the Buddha, of Moses, of Jesus of Nazareth, of Muhammad – horrid things still happen every minute of every day to people who do not deserve them, who have done nothing dishonourable. Horrid things caused by other human beings, and it certainly seems to me that we, as a species – en masse, world-wide – cannot seem to prevent ourselves from doing what is bad, here understanding and accepting, initially at least, ‘the bad’ as that which harms or kills or causes suffering to others. All we seem to have done is manufacture more excuses for ourselves and for others in order to try and justify the harm done, and the killings and the suffering caused, and thus

“…latterly, in the name of some country, or some nation, or some political ideal, or some cause, or on behalf of some-thing supra-personal we believed in, we sallied for to war or did deeds that caused suffering, death, destruction, and inflicted violence on others. Defending this, or attacking that. Invading here; or colonizing there. Dreaming of or determined to find glory. Always, always, using the excuse that our cause, our ideal, our country, our nation, our security, our prosperity, our ‘way of life’, our ‘destiny’, hallowed our deeds; believing that such suffering, death, destruction as we caused, and the violence we inflicted on others, were somehow justified because ‘we’ were right and ‘they’ our foes, were wrong or in some way not as ‘civilized’ or as ‘just’ as us since ‘their cause’ or their ‘way of life’ or way of doing things was, according to us, reprehensible.” [2]

But is ‘the bad’ really that which harms or kills, or causes suffering to, others, and if so, is it necessary – moral – to qualify this understanding by appending ‘without just cause’ to it, and what, therefore – as others, from the Jus Papirianum attributed to Sextus Papirius to Augustine of Hippo to Thomas Aquinas and beyond, have saught to define – is a ‘just cause’ so that ‘the bad’ is then understood to be “that which harms or kills or causes suffering to others without just cause”.

Part One

Good and Evil – An Early Christian Perspective

Given the influence of Christianity over individuals in the West during the past two millennia, especially in terms of eschatology and jurisprudence, it seems apposite to consider how the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are presented in Christian scripture.

In Genesis 3.5 it is written that:

ᾔδει γὰρ ὁ θεὸς ὅτι ἐν ᾗ ἂν ἡμέρᾳ φάγητε ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ, διανοιχθήσονται ὑμῶν οἱ ὀφθαλμοί, καὶ ἔσεσθε ὡς θεοὶ γινώσκοντες καλὸν καὶ πονηρόν. [3]

What, therefore, is meant by γινώσκοντες καλὸν καὶ πονηρόν? Most translations – modern and otherwise – provide something akin to “knowing good and evil” which we, after two thousand years, presume to associate with some theological ideation such as ‘the forces/realm of good’ contrasted with (or verses) ‘the forces/realm of evil’ as if both have or can have an existence independent of the physical world and independent of ourselves, an existence or a force associated, or seemingly associated, with a being described, in the Hebrew scriptures, as נָחָשׁ – a serpent – and in LXX as ὄφις, a mythological creature familiar to readers of Hesiod’s Theogony [4] and from myths and legends concerning the oracle at Delphi and the Πύθων, which is both curious and interesting given that נִחֵשׁ can signify divination (qv. Genesis 44.15, for example) and the whisper (the hiss) of a soothsayer or an enchantress.

But, in respect of this ‘good and evil’, might the Greek of LXX – and the Hebrew text – suggest something other than such a theological ideation? That is, how might the Greek text have been understood in its time?

The Greek of LXX contrasts κάλος with πονηρόν. Now, κάλος is classically understood (as often in Homer) as ‘what is pleasing’ (as in pleasing to look upon) and that which is considered beneficial and/or admirable (as in admirable deeds); whence what is beautiful/healthy and what is noble or honourable. Classically understood, πονηρόν is ‘wearisome’ (as in Hesiod, for instance in reference to the tasks that Hercules has to endure) and also what is considered dishonourable or cowardly, as in Sophocles, Philoctetes v.437 – πόλεμος οὐδέν᾽ ἄνδρ᾽ ἑκὼν αἱρεῖ πονηρόν, ἀλλὰ τοὺς χρηστοὺς ἀεί (battle does not willingly take cowards, but – as of old – the honourable).

The classical meaning of the Genesis text – of the Greek still understood at the time of LXX (c. 250 BCE) and before later interpretations [5] – might therefore seem to suggest some contrast between what is beneficial/admirable/beautiful/noble/honourable and what is wearisome/cowardly/dishonourable.

Interestingly, the sense of the Hebrew text of Genesis 3.5 seems to follow the sense of the Greek, or vice versa [6] – יֹדְעֵ֖י  טֹ֥וב  וָרָֽע . That is, “knowing tov and rah,” with טוֹב suggesting pleasing, pleasant, beautiful; and רָע suggesting adversity, unpleasant, harmful, injurious.

In Genesis 8.21, πονηρόν also occurs, again usually translated as some abstract ‘evil’ – man’s heart is evil from his youth, and so on – even though the classical/Hebrew understanding of the term suggests the former more personal sense of dishonourable/injurious, as does its occurrence in the New Testament, as, for example, in Luke 6.45 where it is – interestingly – contrasted not with κάλος but with ἀγαθός, and where the context – of a healthy (a good, κάλος) tree not bearing rotten/bad (σαπρός) fruit, καλὸν ποιοῦν καρπὸν  σαπρόν – also suggests not some abstract (demonic) ‘evil’ but a dishonourable (a bad, cowardly) person bringing forth some-thing bad, burdensome, dishonourable, and thus unhealthy, as rotten fruit is unhealthy and harmful, with Luke 6.43-5 therefore translated thus:

For no healthy tree brings forth rotten fruit just as a rotten tree cannot bring forth healthy fruit. For each tree is judged by its fruit. A good person from the store of good in their heart brings forth what is good, and a bad person from their bad store brings forth what is bad; for it is because of an overflowing heart that the mouth speaks.

Οὐ γὰρ ἐστιν δένδρον καλὸν ποιοῦν καρπὸν σαπρόν, οὐδὲ πάλιν δένδρον σαπρὸν ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλόν, ἕκαστον γὰρ δένδρον ἐκ τοῦ ἰδίου καρποῦ γινώσκεται· ὁ ἀγαθὸς ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ θησαυροῦ τῆς καρδίας προφέρει τὸ ἀγαθόν, καὶ ὁ πονηρὸς ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ προφέρει τὸ πονηρόν· ἐκ γὰρ περισσεύματος καρδίας λαλεῖ τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ

This ‘healthy tree’ and ‘rotten fruit’ make sense, for how can a tree be evil? Similarly, the contrast of πονηρόν with ἀγαθός also makes sense in referring to a bad person and good person, for ἀγαθός is classically understood as brave; honourable; well-bred (as often in Homer) and as implying a personal quality, such as prowess, excellence, in some-thing – or good at some-thing – as in The Agamemnon of Aeschylus:

ὅστις δ᾽ ἀγαθὸς προβατογνώμων,
οὐκ ἔστι λαθεῖν ὄμματα φωτός,
τὰ δοκοῦντ᾽ εὔφρονος ἐκ διανοίας
ὑδαρεῖ σαίνειν φιλότητι.
Yet to he who has a good knowledge of his herd
A person’s eyes cannot conceal what is a feeble begging for friendship
Behind a pretence of reasoned good judgement.     (vv. 795-798)

and as in Oedipus Tyrannus by Sophocles:

ὁρᾷς ἵν᾽ ἥκεις, ἀγαθὸς ὢν γνώμην ἀνήρ,
τοὐμὸν παριεὶς καὶ καταμβλύνων κέαρ;
Observe where you have come to with your prowess in reason
By me giving way and blunting my passion. (vv. 687-8)

The scriptural contrast of rottenness and health is also evident, for instance, in Romans 12.21:

 μὴ νικῶ ὑπὸ τοῦ κακοῦ ἀλλὰ νίκα ἐν τῷ ἀγαθῷ τὸ κακόν

where ἀγαθός is contrasted with κακός rather than with πονηρόν. Although the verse is often translated along the lines of ‘Do not let evil conquer you, instead conquer evil with good,’ classically understood κακός is what is ‘bad’ in the sense of some-thing rotten or unhealthy, or – the opposite of κάλος – what is displeasing to see. κακός is also what is unlucky, a misfortune, and/or injurious, as for example in The Agamemnon

τὸ μὲν γυναῖκα πρῶτον ἄρσενος δίχα
ἧσθαι δόμοις ἔρημον ἔκπαγλον κακόν
Primarily, for a lady to be separate from her mate –
To remain unprotected by family – is a harsh misfortune  (vv. 862-3)

Given the sense of ἀγαθός previously mentioned (with reference for example to Luke 6.45) and this sense of κακός, then Romans 12.21 might suggest: “Do not let what is rotten win; instead, overpower what is rotten with what is good,” and good in the sense of beneficial and healthy, so that an alternative would be “Do not let what is harmful win; instead, overpower what is harmful with what is healthy.”

Similarly, Romans 12.17 – with its contrast of κακός and κάλος – would imply:

Do not render what is bad with what is bad; rather, show concern for what all see is good.

μηδενὶ κακὸν ἀντὶ κακοῦ ἀποδιδόντες, προνοούμενοι καλὰ ἐνώπιον πάντων ἀνθρώπων·

Understood thus, the impression is not of ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching but of something rather gentle, something much more human and appealing and understanding of human nature; something evident, for example, in the well-known passage (Romans 13.10) ἡ  ἀγάπη τῷ πλησίον κακὸν οὐκ ἐργάζεται· πλήρωμα οὖν νόμου ἡ ἀγάπη: love brings no harm to the neighbour; love is the completion of the law.

Furthermore, it is this love which is healthy and good; which can ‘overpower what is harmful’, what is bad.

What these examples reveal – and many other examples from Christian scripture could be adduced – is not abstract, impersonal, theological concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ but rather something personal that individuals can relate to and understand, and it is tempting therefore to suggest that it was later, and theological, interpretations and interpolations which led to a harsh dichotomy, an apocalyptic eschatology, a ‘war’ between an abstract ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and that with such interpretations and interpolations – much in evidence in the persecution of alleged heretics – the simple gospel message of the health of love was somehow lost for a while, to be, later on, re-expressed by people such as William Penn, who wrote, in his Some Fruits of Solitude, “Let us then try what love can do.”

David Myatt
2013

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Part Two

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Notes

[1] Blue Reflected Starlight. 2012

[2] qv. A Slowful Learning, Perhaps. 2012

[3] Septuaginta – Vetus Testamentum.  c. 250 BCE.

[4] qv. the Chimaera (vv. 319ff), described as having three heads, one of which – ἣ δ᾽ ὄφιος – was a serpent, a dragon: ὄπιθεν δὲ δράκων.

[5] The current consensus is that LXX was written around 250 BCE, give or take a few decades. This is the Hellenistic era of Euclid and Archimedes; a period when Homer was still recited, and the classic tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and others, some two or more centuries before, were still understood and appreciated, just as the language of Shakespeare – and his plays – are understood and appreciated today. This appreciation of classical Greek literature continued into the Roman era and beyond, with the cultured Cicero, for example, often explaining classical Greek terms for his Latin readers, and with Marcus Aurelius – Roman Emperor a century after the time of Jesus of Nazareth – writing his ‘meditations’,  Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν – in the same (possibly Attic derived) κοινή Greek as that of LXX and the New Testament.

It is therefore seems likely that the scribes of LXX – and possibly those of the New Testament – were also familiar with the earlier classical literature.

[6] The date of the Hebrew scriptures has been much discussed. The earliest fragments of extant texts of both LXX and the Hebrew scriptures currently known suggest that LXX is slightly (but not much) older than the written text of the Hebrew scriptures of which papyrus fragments survive. However, according to Jewish aural tradition the scrolls of the Torah were first written c. 1000 BCE and thus would predate LXX by many centuries.

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Image credit: NASA/HST – NGC 1300