Evil: Challenges between Theoretical and Practical Aspects

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Thinking about evil is a difficult and painful work. It is also challenging as it raises many questions regarding its theoretical and practical aspects. What are these questions? Read to find out.

Image of two open gates - one leading to hell and the other to heaven.
It is important to see how the theoretical aspects of what evil is and how it relates to humans interlocks with a set of practical proposals about how to respond to it. (Image: Kletr/Shutterstock)

Definition and Theories

Evil is something that is not just against the moral order, something that is not just wrong, but intentionally and wilfully against that order. Part of the power of evil is the way it insinuates itself intimately into people’s lives. When we talk about the problem of human suffering, we talk about pain that seems pointless or useless in some sense; pain that is inflicted for no point at all.

In thinking about evil and pain in this way, we can distinguish between three large families of theories about evil.

According to the first theory, evil is somehow against the order of the cosmos itself. The second view does not see evil as essentially against the cosmos, but rather as fundamentally part of the cosmos itself, part of our natural makeup. The third account is called the ‘evil as maturation’ account. According to it, our moral maturation requires a kind of rebellion against God or the moral order—however one thinks about that—a kind of wounding in order to come to gain wisdom.

Learn more about the cosmic struggle between God and darkness.

Theoretical and Practical Aspects of Evil

It is not enough to know how exactly someone theoretically talks about evil; one has to see how that theoretical picture of what evil is and how it relates to humans interlocks with a set of practical proposals about how to respond to this reality.

The practical and the theoretical are actually two sides of the same coin, and changes in one formulation affect the other formulations; so one has to understand both to understand either.

A chessboard with all chess pieces in their respective places.
Direct confrontation is one way to test evil. (Image: IMG_191/Shutterstock)

Whether we can test evil by direct confrontation, by aggressively arming ourselves against it in some way, or by trying to absorb it into ourselves as marks of our glorious martyrdom for our God. Whether we develop techniques to resist its assaults on us by nonviolent practices in which we must be trained, these and many other kinds of practical proposals are all intimately related to particular theoretical visions of what evil is for each of these thinkers.

Narration of Evil

We study the different thinkers, texts, and traditions not just because it’s interesting to know what others thought, but because it can be enormously useful.

In fact, humans have always wondered about what other people thought about these problems, and their own thinking about evil has always gone on against a backdrop of other and previous ways of thinking about it.

Learn more about the cruel paradoxes of fate and responsibility.

Abstract versus Concrete

In thinking about these things, there is foremost the question of abstraction versus concrete description; abstract thinking versus concrete narration of evils. Plato and Aristotle fought it out over this in some ways, as did the 17th-18th century thinkers Gottfried Leibniz and Pierre Bayle.

The issue they fought over was this: Can a theoretical representation of evil capture the full reality of evil; can it capture its depth and its breadth? That is, is it possible for a theory to accommodate the enormously different empirical realities that we name with the term ‘evil’?

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Transcendent or Mundane

A second challenge is the question of whether or not evil is transcendent or mundane. What is the relationship between evil and the gods or God, or however one construes the absolute moral order or divinity that surrounds the cosmos (or if one does at all)? Might evil be something that God plans out in advance? Might evil have a positive function in the moral structure of the cosmos?

Here, there’s a debate going back to the Christian theologian and bishop Irenaeus and leading into the 20th century. Many Christians have said for a long time that the fall of humans, that evil’s introduction to the cosmos is, as the Latin phrase puts it, a felix culpa, a ‘happy fault’.

Is there some way in which the fall itself was used by God to elevate humanity above what it would have been otherwise?

Natural or a Violation of Nature

Different theories exist about whether evil is natural or not. (Image: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock)

A third question is the question of whether or not evil is in some way a healthy part of our world or something that is wholly destructive and parasitic on it.

There’s a question also about whether or not evil is natural, or a violation of nature.

Barbarism versus Civilization

Another question that’s become increasingly important in the last century is whether evil is a matter of barbarism versus civilization, or whether civilization is itself in some complicated way complicit in evil; whether civilization—human civilization—might itself be in some important ways a function of evil.

Remember, as early as we go back to, say, the Hebrew Bible, the Tower of Babel itself—the first genuinely human social event—is precisely designed to be a rebellion against God; and in the 20th century, lots of thinkers about the Holocaust have suggested that, in fact, the Holocaust itself could not have happened absent the conditions of modern societies and civilization.

Learn more about the seminal views of Plato and Aristotle.

Teaching versus Learning

The 20th-century Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was a survivor of the Nazis and the Soviet Union.

He once wrote: “Teachers in our high schools pound into us that history is the teacher of life. But when history crashed down on us in all its brutal glory, I understood, in the very real glow of flames above my home city, that she was a strange teacher. She gave to the people who consciously survived her, and to all who followed her, more material for thought than all the old chronicles put together. A dense and dark material. It will require the work of many consciences to shed light on it.”

He says that his teachers tried to teach him, but he truly learned only from seeing through his own eyes his own city on fire; and what he learned was not quite what he thought his teachers were trying to teach him, that history was a strange teacher.

In doing this, Herbert suggests some profound tension between the effort at direct teaching and actual learning. This challenge between what we can call book learning and life experience is one of the deepest we have to face.

Common Questions about the Theoretical and Practical Aspects of Evil

Q: How can one define ‘evil’?

Evil is something that is not just against the moral order, but something intentionally and willfully against that order.

Q: What do many Christians call the evil’s introduction to the cosmos?

Many Christians have said for a long time that the fall of humans, that evil’s introduction to the cosmos is, as the Latin phrase puts it, a felix culpa, a ‘happy fault’.

Q: Who was Zbigniew Herbert?

Zbigniew Herbert was a 20th-century Polish poet, who was a survivor of the Nazis and the Soviet Union.

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