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EVIL . If there is one human experience ruled by myth, it is certainly that of evil. One can understand why: the two major forms of this experiencemoral evil and physical evilboth contain an enigmatic element in whose shadows the difference between them tends to vanish.

On the one hand, it is only at the conclusion of a thoroughgoing critique of mythical representations that moral evil could be conceived of as the product of a free act involving human responsibility alone. Social blame, interiorized as guilt, is in fact a response to an existential quality that was initially represented as a stain infecting the human heart as if from outside. And even when this quasi-magical representation of a contamination by an external or superior power is replaced by the feeling of a sin of which we are the authors, we can feel that we have been seduced by overwhelming powers. Moreover, each of us finds evil already present in the world; no one initiates evil but everyone has the feeling of belonging to a history of evil more ancient than any individual evil act. This strange experience of passivity, which is at the very heart of evildoing, makes us feel ourselves to be the victims in the very act that makes us guilty.

On the other hand, it is also only at the conclusion of a comparable critique of mythical representations that physical evil is recognized as the effect of natural causes of a physical, biological, and even social nature: sickness, which often takes the form of great epidemics ravaging entire populations, simultaneously attacks each person in the very depths of his existence by making him suffer and is spontaneously experienced as an aggression, at once external and internal, coming from maleficent powers that are easily confused with those that seduce the human heart and persuade it to do evil. Moreover, the sort of fate that seems to lead the sick and aging to the threshold of death tends to make mortality the very emblem of the human condition. From this, it is easy to take the next step and consider suffering and death as punishments. Do not guilt and mortality constitute the same enigma?

The persistence of mythical representations of evil can be explained by a third phenomenon, namely the extraordinary way in which guilt and suffering remain intertwined with a stage of development in which the human mind believes it has freed itself from the realm of mythical representations. To declare someone guilty is to declare that person deserving of punishment. And punishment is, in its turn, a suffering, both physical and moral, inflicted by someone other than the guilty party. Punishment, as suffering, therefore bridges the gap between the evil committed and the evil suffered. This same boundary is crossed in the other direction by the fact that a major cause of suffering lies in the violence that human beings exercise on one another. In fact, to do evil is always, directly or indirectly, to make someone else suffer. This mutual overlapping of evil done and evil suffered prevents the two major forms of evil from ever being entirely separate and, in particular, from ever being entirely stripped of their enigmatic character. An essential opaqueness in the human condition is therefore bound up with the experience of evil, which is continually carried back to its darkness, its obscurity, by the exercise of violence, always unjust, and of punishment, even when it is held to be just.

This invincible connection of moral evil and physical evil is expressed on the level of language in the specific "language game" designated by the general term lamentation. Lamentation, indeed, is not confined to the moanings rising up from the abyss of suffering, announcing the coming of death. It encompasses the guilty and the victims, for the guilty suffer twice over, first by blame, which states their unworthiness, and then by punishment, which holds them under the reign of violence. With lamentation, the experience of evil becomes heard. The cry becomes a voice, the voice of the undivided enigma of evil. Lamentation forms a bridge between the evil committed or suffered and the myth. And indeed it connects suffering to language only by joining a question to its moaning. "Why evil?" "Why do children die?" "Why me?" In turning itself into a question, lamentation itself appeals to myth.

Myths of Evil

How does myth reply to the enigma of evil? It provides the first explanatory schema available to humanity. Myth replies to "why?" with "because"which claims to fulfill the request for sense that is the mediation of lamentation. We shall discuss, in conclusion, why this claim is doomed to fail. But first we must discuss the power of myth.

Before stressing the fantastic, legendary, and even delirious side of myths, three features must be noted that define myth, at least provisionally, as an appropriate response to the "why?" that rises up from lamentation. The first characteristic of myth is to state an order indivisibly uniting ethos and cosmos. By encompassing in a single configuration celestial and terrestial phenomena, inanimate and animate nature, seasons and festivals, labors and days, myth offers a privileged framework of thought within which to link together moral evil and physical evil, guilt and mortality, violence and punishment: in short, a framework that preserves, in its answer, the unity of the enigma of evil as a question.

Next, the ambivalence of the sacred, as Rudolf Otto describes it, confers upon myth the power of taking on both the dark and the luminous sides of human existence. Many myths point to a primordial sphere of existence that can be said to be beyond good and evil. Finally, myth incorporates our fragmentary experience of evil within great narratives of origin, as Mircea Eliade has stressed in his many works on this topic. By recounting how the world began, myth recounts how the human condition reached the wretched and miserable form that we know it to take. Theogony, cosmogony, and anthropogenesis therefore form a single narrative chain that scans the "great time" of origin. Order, ambivalence, and omnitemporality are thus the major features of myth, owing to which the mythical explanation can claim to provide an all-encompassing framework for evil.

This is all we can say about myth in general, however, without running the risk of applying to one precise category of myth characters belonging solely to another. This is not to imply that we must cease to speak of myth in general: the case of myths of evil is exemplary in this respect. It appears, in fact, that myth, considered as a type of discourse, draws a certain unity from the place it assumes in a hierarchy of levels of discourse that can be organized according to stages of increasing rationality. Myth constitutes in this regard the lowest level, coming before wisdom and gnosis, which leads to the threshold of the rationalizing theodicies of philosophy and theology. One must be aware, however, that the ordering principle thus alleged is the offshoot of a certain idea of reason that was, in the West, born with philosophy itself. A purely comparativist approach could never assume unreservedly this "prejudice of reason." On the other hand, if we bracket it completelyand doubtless this must be the case in a purely descriptive history of religionsthen we expose ourselves to the inverse danger, which is that the universe of myths will splinter into an infinite number of parts.

It is precisely this feature that prevails in the case of myths of evil when we bracket, at least for a while, the question of the place of myth in an ordered series of levels of discourse. Order, ambivalence, and omnitemporality then appear only as inconsequential abstract and formal elements in relation to the explanatory schemas that mythical thought has produced throughout space and time. Nowhere else as much as in the area of the explanation of evil does myth reveal itself to be this vast field of experimentation, which is unfolded in the literature of the ancient Near East, India, and the Far East. In this immense laboratory everything occurs as if there were no conceivable solution that had not been tried at one point or another as a reply to the enigma of evil. It is precisely here that the myth forms the great matrix in which are rooted the sapiential, Gnostic, and properly speculative modes of the great discourse proffered by humankind in the space opened up by lamentation between the cry and utter silence. In this sense, myth remains the schema for all subsequent speculation. The question then arises whether, outside any hierarchical order of discourses, this great phantasmagoria of evil lends itself to some typology that will not do violence to its proliferating diversity.

A prudent reply is needed to this methodological question: on the one hand, myths of evil lend themselves to classification by virtue of their narrative character, mentioned above as the third general feature of the mythical universe. Narratives of origin are presented as dramas recounting how evil began; it is therefore possible to apply a structural analysis to them that reduces them to a relatively limited number of ideal types, in Max Weber's sensethat is, of paradigms constructed by comparative science midway between the clearly transcendental a priori and empirical proliferation. The ideal types are those of an exemplary story, organizing segments of action, characters, fortunate and unfortunate events, as in the great epics that take place in our time, after the beginning.

The proliferation of myths can thus be mastered to a relative degree by a typology of dramatic paradigms. On the other hand, individual myths contain so many inconsistent elements, which convey a desperate attempt to explain the unexplainable in order to give an account of what is inscrutable, that they prove to be in large part hostile to all classification. At the most they present "family resemblances" that cause a number of overlaps between types of myth. There is no myth that, in some way or other, does not coincide with another myth. In this way we are prevented from working out a table of the strict play of differences and combinations among myths. In The Symbolism of Evil, I proposed a typology limited to the ancient Near East and to archaic Greece, that is, to the cultural memory of the European. (I shall discuss below a vaster typology that will take into account Indian and Buddhist mythology.)

The ancient Near East and Archaic Greece

The restricted typology of The Symbolism of Evil verifies the two opposing characteristics mentioned above. On the one hand, the attempt to classify myths in terms of a limited number of paradigms is relatively successful; on the other, the overlapping that occurs shows that every paradigm implies in some aspect or another a very different paradigm.

For a static analysis of the myths of evil, the myths of the cultural sphere considered can be divided fairly easily into four great paradigms.


In the myths of chaos, illustrated most strikingly by the Sumerian-Akkadian theogonic myths but also by the Homeric and Hesiodic theogonies, the origin of evil that strikes humans is included within the larger narrative of the final victory of order over chaos in the common genesis of the gods, the cosmos, and humanity. The great creation epic, Enuma elish, makes the appearance of man the final act in a drama that begins with the generation of the gods. One can truly speak in this connection of an epical ontogenesis to describe this sort of total narrative. As regards evil in particular, it is noteworthy that chaos precedes order and that the principle of evil is coextensive here with the generation of the divine. The poem does not hesitate to characterize as evil the hates, the plotting, and the murders that mark not only the primitive struggles among the most ancient gods but also the victory of the younger godsMarduk, for example, in the Babylonian version of the myth.

Evil therefore precedes humankind, who finds it already present and merely continues it. Evil, in other words, belongs to the very origin of all things; it is what has been overcome in setting up the world as it now is, but it, too, contributed to this state of affairs. This is why order is precarious and its genesis must continually be reenacted by cultic rites. If, in this family of myths, the fall is mentioned, it is never in the sense of the unprecedented emergence of an evil that would be simply "human, all too human," but as an episode in the drama of creation. In the same way, the failure of the quest for immortality, recounted in the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, is tied up with the jealousy of the gods, who trace out the boundary between the sphere of mortals and that of immortals by an act of violence placed beyond good and evil.


An evil god and a tragic vision of existence are depicted in the second paradigm of evil in European culture. Here, evil is in a way shared by humankind and gods. It calls, on the one hand, for a figure with the stature of a hero, possessing higher qualities than ordinary men but who commits a grave error, which can be said to be neither the effect of mere ignorance, in the Socratic sense, nor the result of a deliberately bad choice, in the Hebraic sense. Moreover, the overwhelming error that precipitates his fall is deplored by the tragic chorus and by the hero himself as a blindness that has crept over him as a result of the jealousy of the gods; thus the hubris of the tragic hero is at once the cause and the effect of the wickedness belonging to the plane of the divinities. Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound is the frightening document of this tragic theology and this tragic anthropology in which the hero in a sense cooperates in a loss, the origin of which is superhuman. It is important to note that the tragic myth produced a spectacle, rather than a speculation, a spectacle that makes the spectators participate in the tragic drama through the catharsis of the emotions of terror and pity.


The third type is illustrated by Archaic Orphic myths, which are continued in Platonism and Neoplatonism. This can be termed the myth of the exiled soul, imprisoned in a foreign body. It assumes a radical distinction between a soul, akin to the gods, and a body, perceived as a prison or a tomb. Life itself appears as a punishment, possibly for some fault committed in a previous life. Evil is therefore identified with incarnation itself and even, in certain Far Eastern mythologies, with reincarnation. The model of the body-as-prison, extended by that of the repetition of reincarnations, is further darkened by the model of infernal punishment, as if life in the body were the image of hell. Life is then a death, which calls for a death that will be true life. Only through purification, at once ethical, ritual, and meditative, can the soul be delivered from this quagmire of bodily existence, which itself mirrors hell. In a sense, this myth alone can properly be termed a myth of the fall, for the incarnation itself marks the loss of an infinitely superior condition and so a loss of height, of altitude, which is precisely what the word fall signifies.


Compared with these three paradigms, the biblical myth of paradise lost differs in three ways. First, the Adamic myth is purely anthropological, excluding any drama of creation in which evil would originally be included: creation is good, very good; humankind alone initiates evil, although tempted, to be sure, by the serpent (an important feature discussed below); but the serpent too is a creature. Next, evil is clearly ethical, in the sense that it results from an act of disobedience. It therefore cannot be a matter of hubris, which like disobedience would represent a blindness sent down by jealous gods, although "Second Isaiah" does not hesitate, after the difficulties of exile, to make his confession in the form of God's own self-presentation, as in prophesy: "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create war, I am the Lord, who does all these things" (Is. 45:7). Finally, evil is not the result of the fall of the soul into a body; it consists of a gap, a deviation of humankind as a whole, of the flesh, which is unaware of the body-soul dualism.

The Adamic myth is therefore anthropological in the strongest sense of the term, to the extent that Adam is Man, neither a Titan nor a captive soul but the ancestor of all humankind, of the same nature as all the generations springing from him. If the Adamic myth nevertheless deserves the title of myth, this is inasmuch as the narrative in which it consists is incommensurate to the historical time in which the exemplary adventure of the people of Israel takes place. The myth elevates to the level of exemplary and universal history the penitential experience of one particular people, the Jewish people. All the later speculations about the supernatural perfection of Adam before the Fall are adventitious interpretations that profoundly alter the original meaning; they tend to make Adam a superior being and so foreign to our own condition. Hence the confusion over the idea of the Fall.

The intention of the Adamic myth is to separate the origin of evil from that of good, in other words, to posit a radical origin of evil distinct from the more primordial origin of the goodness of all created things; humanity commences evil but does not commence creation. However, it is in the form of a story that the myth accounts for this catastrophe at the heart of the goodness of creation; the passage from innocence to sin is narrated as something that took place. That is why the explanation given here of the origin of evil is not yet elevated to the plane of speculation, as will later happen with the dogma of original sin, but remains an etiological myth involving legendary characters and fabulous events.

With respect to its structure, the myth takes on the form of a twofold conflict: on the one hand, that between the central figure, Adam, and the Adversary, represented by the serpent, who will later become the Devil, and on the other hand, that between the two halves of a split figure, Adam and Eve. From this complex configuration the Adamic myth receives an enigmatic depth, the second pair adding a subtle psychological dimension and an internal density that would not have been attained by the confrontation between Man and his Other alone. In this way the myth universalizes the penitential experience of the Jewish people, but the concrete universal that it forges remains caught up in the gangue of the narrative and the symbolic.

The protohistorical myth is the only vehicle for a speculation akin to sapiential literature. In order to state the discordance between a creation that is fundamentally good and a historical condition that is already bad, the myth has no other resources than to concentrate the origin of evil in a single instant, in a leap, even if it stretches out this instant in a drama that takes time, introduces a series of events, and involves several characters. In this way the myth reflects in its very structure, in which the concentrated instant and the extended drama confront one another, the structure of the phenomenon of evil as such, which at one and the same time commences with each evil act and continues an immemorial tradition.

The etiological character of the myth is further reinforced by the narrative of the maledictions that ensue, following the initial act of disobedience: every human dimensionlanguage, work, institutions, sexualityis stamped with the twofold mark of being destined for the good and inclined toward evil. The power of naming all beings is so deeply perverted that we no longer recognize it except in reference to the division of speech into different tongues. Work ceases to be a sort of peaceful gardening and becomes hard labor that places man in a hostile relation to nature. The nakedness of innocence is replaced by the shame that casts the shadow of concealment over all aspects of communication. The pain of childbirth tarnishes the joy of procreation; death itself is afflicted by the malediction of the awareness of its immanence. In short, what the myth recounts is how it happened that human beings are obliged to suffer the rule of hardship as we know it in our present condition. The myth's "method" is always the same: stretching out in the time of a narrated drama the paradoxicalbecause simultaneousaspects of the present human condition.

This is the restricted typology that we can construct in the limited sphere of the archaic state of the European. Before attempting to move into other cultural spheres, it is important to do justice to the contrary aspect stressed above concerning the level of the typology of myths of evil: the paradigms, we said, are not simply distinct from one another in the sense of Weberian ideal types but they overlap with one another to such an extent that we can discover in each one some aspect that lends it a family resemblance to the others. The danger of the structural approach we have followed up to now lies in giving an exaggerated cohesiveness to narratives of origin that also possess a composite, paradoxical, even extravagant character, well suited to the heuristic function of myth, when myth is considered as a thought experiment that unfolds in the region of the collective imagination. This is why the static analysis of myths, governed by the search for and the description of ideal types, must be completed by the addition of a dynamic approach to myths, attentive to the internal discordances that make them overlap in places and in this way outline a vast narrative and symbolic cycle.

If we take the Adamic myth as a point of reference, we find in it the muted echo of all the others and vice versa. We can therefore speak of a tragic aspect in the Adamic myth, expressed in the deep and shadowy psychology of temptation. There is a sort of fatalistic side of the ethical confession of sins. But there is also an irreducible remainder of the theogonic combat, which can be seen in the figure of the serpent and in other biblical figures related to the primordial chaos. What is more, the essentially ethical affirmation of God's saintliness can never entirely rid us of the suspicion that God is somehow beyond good and evil and that for this very reason he sends evil as well as good.

This is why later speculation will continually return to what is at once an unthinkable and an invincible possibility, namely that the deity has a dark and terrible side, in which something of the tragic vision and also something of the myth of chaos is preserved and even reaffirmed. If this admission shows itself to be so persistent it is precisely because the human experience of evil itself contains the admission that, in positing the existence of evil, humankind discovers the other side of evil, namely that it has always existed, in a paradoxical exteriority that, as stated above, relates sin to suffering within the undivided mystery of iniquity. The acknowledgment of a nonhuman source of evil is what continually gives new life to theogony and to tragedy alongside an ethical vision of the world.

The same thing should be said with respect to the typological distance between the Adamic myth and the myth of the exiled soul. It is not by sheer chance that, under the influence of Platonism and of Neoplatonism, the Adamic myth has almost fused with the myth of the Fall. There was most likely in the original myth a tendency that led it to confuse the quasi-external character of evil as already present with the body, understood as the sole root of evil. In the same way, the Babylonian exile provided the model of banishment, which continues with that of the expulsion from the garden of paradise. The symbols of captivity and of exodus that underlie the Adamic myth thus lend themselves to contamination by the symbolism, coming from another source, of a fallen "soul." Elevating the figure of Adam above the condition of ordinary mortals doubtless facilitated the reinterpretation of the myth of disobedience in terms of a myth of the Fall: when Adam is represented as a sort of superman endowed with all knowledge, beatitude, and immortality, his degradation could be represented in no other way than as a fall.

This play of overlappings could be considered from the perspective of each of the four myths that structure the symbolic imagination in the Western world: there is no myth of chaos that, at one moment or another, does not include the confession of sins by a repentant sinner; there is no tragic myth that does not admit the deep fault tied to a hubris for which humankind recognizes itself to be guilty. And would the fall of the soul be such a misfortune if humankind did not contribute to it at least through consent?

Hindu and Buddhist mythologies

The division into four great paradigms that we apply to the vastalthough restricteddomain of Semitic archaism and Hellenic archaism, which, together, structure the cultural memory of the West, itself constitutes only a restricted typology. What happens when Westerners attempt to extend their vision to a wider field? Does the typology offer the same features of relative order and of multiple overlappings when we try to pass from the restricted form to a generalized form? For anyone who undertakes the perilous task of incorporating into his or her own vision the universes of thought that entertain complex relations of distance and proximity with one's own cultural memory, two warnings should be taken into consideration: first, it is senseless to seek to be exhaustive; there is no Archimedes point from which one could attempt to raise the totality of mythical universes. We must always confine ourselves to limited incursions into the regions that we intuitively suspect will contain treasures likely to enrich our cultural memory, and from this results the unavoidably selective nature of the itinerary of these incursions.

Second, we must give up the hope of any simple taxonomy, such as a distribution into monisms, dualisms, and mixed forms of these. These distinctions are practically useless on the mythical level itself, assuming they have a less debatable validity on the level of more speculative discourse. The two examples we have chosen, Hindu mythology and Buddhist mythology, taking into account the first warning, also raise issues related to the second warning: Hindu mythology perhaps more than Buddhist mythology confronts us with a profusion of explanatory frameworks requiring a taxonomical refinement that challenges any classificatory principle. Buddhist mythology, perhaps more than Hindu mythology, shows us how the same "solution" can oscillate among several planes of expression, from the level of legend and folklore to that of a metaphysical speculation. This profusion and this variation of levels constitute fearsome challenges for any attempt at typology.

If we admit that theodicy is not restricted to monotheism but forms the touchstone of all religions, when the existential need to explain suffering and moral evil is brought to the level of language, then we can seek and find theodicies in all of them. If, moreover, we admit that Vedantic Hinduism, in which the problem of evil is dismissed rather than resolved by a refined speculation on the relation between suffering and ignorance, is not the same as all systems placed under the vast heading of Hinduism, we can, following Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty in The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, 1976), class the expression of theodicies on the clearly mythological level as Puranic Hinduism. These figurative and narrative theodicies lend themselves to a certain classification of different conceptual attitudes toward evil, a classification that struggles with the proliferation of myths to the point of succumbing under their weight.

O'Flaherty, our guide through this labyrinth, observes that four characters can assume the role of the villain in the drama: mortals, fate, demons, and gods. The first type of myth, which recalls the Adamic myth, seems surprising if one considers the doctrine of karman, according to which our present experience is the direct result of the good or bad actions of previous existences to be the Indian solution to the problem of evil. Neither gods nor demons are then to blame, and even blame itself is obliterated by the recognition of an eternal cycle in which everything is justified and finds its recompense. The paradox lies in the fact that the feeling generated by rumination on past faults opens the way for all sorts of speculation on the moral responsibility of humankind for the origin of evil, nuanced by the attitude that human beings are always as much victim as guilty party (as we see in the myths of the loss of a golden age).

After all, the very doctrine of karman posits that the links in the endless chain of evil are our desires and our sins; Buddhism takes this as its starting point. The paradox, however, is reversed when a primordial fall is evoked; then it is fate rather than humankind that is to blame. This forms a second cycle of myths, where we see God or a god create evil as a positive element in the universe, whether he acts as a willing or unwilling instrument of fate or whether he himself decides that evil must come to be. Logical thought tends to see a contradiction here between being constrained or deciding freely to create an ambivalent universe; Hindu thought, however, moves effortlessly between what ultimately appears to be two variants of a dharma that abolishes the distinction between what is and what ought to be.

The opposite is no less true: it is because a doctrine like that of karman proves to be emotionally unsatisfactory in certain ways while remaining valid in the eyes of the wise that mythology continually reworks the variants, producing new divergences. It is then not surprising that mythical speculation turns toward gods and demons. Myths placing guilt on the shoulders of gods or demons proliferate, all the more so as ethical and cosmic dualism, illustrated in its purest and most coherent form by Manichaeism, was never victorious in India: the ambiguous nature of the demons, and even of the gods, served to thwart this clear and radical distinction. India prefered to struggle with the paradox of superhuman entities, which are almost all of the same nature and which are distinguished and opposed to another only by their combat. Those who always win are gods, but because their adversaries are never really eliminated, the kinship of the gods and the demons always resurfaces.

Here the guide we have chosen to follow remarks with irony that as a consequence of these reversals the gods reputed to be good are more wicked than we might expect and that the demons reputed to be evil prove to be good demons. This gives rise to a reflection on the demonic as such, in which power overrides benevolence, thus verifying the extent to which myths operate as depth probes sounding the ambivalence of the human condition itself, while on the surface they seem to operate as explanations. By recounting our origins, where we come from, myths describe in a symbolic way what we are: the paradox of the good demon and that of the evil god are not merely playful fantasies but the privileged means of unraveling the tangled skein of passions belonging to the human heart. When the myth tells, for example, how the gods corrupted the demons, something is said about the hidden perversity of the "higher" part of ourselves. When the myth recounts the birth of death, it touches the secret thread of our fright in the face of death, a fright that in fact closely links together evil and death and confronts death as a personified demon.

The fact that myths are indifferent to logical coherence is attested to by another cycle of myths, characteristic of bhakti spirituality, where we see a god create evil (for example, a fallacious heresy) for the good of humanity, a lesser malediction freeing a graver one. The cycle is then complete: submitted to this stringent economy, humankind is carried back to the problem of its own evil, as in the theory of karman. This cycle, however, is considerably vaster than that of the restricted typology with which we began. It is also more loosely knit. And it is truly in the mythic theodicies of India that we see verified the notion suggested at the beginning of this article, namely that the mythical world is an immense laboratory in which all imaginable solutions are tried.

This acceptance of multiplicity by the same culture confirms one of the conclusions arrived at by our restricted typology (restricted to the archaic Semitic and Greek worlds)namely, that in every myth, owing to its own incoherence, we discover a sketch in miniature that another myth will develop on a much larger scale. The feature that has not received sufficient attention, however, has to do with the difference in level that allows us to go beyond a lower truth (for example, the struggle between gods and demons or the corruption of demons and mortals by the gods) by means of a higher truth (for example, karman ), which, far from eliminating the prior truth, confirms it in its subordinate place. This is what Buddhism forcefully demonstrates.

Buddhism poses a singular problem for any careful investigation, not only with respect to the multitude of mythical figures of evil, but also to the oscillation between different levels of discourse. On the one hand, indeed, no religion has gone so far toward a speculation stripped of any narrative or figurative element on behalf of a doctrine of inner illumination. On the other hand, Buddhism seldom appears in a form completely cut off from popular beliefs and from their characteristic demonology, especially in the cultural universes previously shaped by Hinduism. What is more, Buddhism has generated within its own midst, if not a new demonology, at least a mythical figure of evil, Māra, somewhat comparable to Satan in late Judaism and in early Christianity. Buddhism reinforces in this respect the hypothesis according to which one can speak of the origin of evil only by way of myths. At the same time it appears to constitute a counterexample to this hypothesis, because mythology seems at first to be so incompatible with the purified form of spirituality characteristic of Buddhism. It is, to be sure, in the Pali canon and not in the Mahāyāna documents that T. O. Ling, in his Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil (London, 1962), finds the most striking illustration of this phenomenon, which at first sight seems paradoxical.

To begin with, one must admit that a wide gap exists between pure Buddhist doctrine and popular mythologies concerning the origin of evil. The latter are characterized basically by the radically external nature they attribute to demonic powers, represented as threatening, terrifying, devouring creatures. In addition, as is not the case in Iranian dualism, these demons form a swarm in which it is difficult to distinguish the forces of evil from the forces of good. Finally, the principal resource of humans in defending themselves against these external forces is an action itself turned toward the outside, whether this is a propitiatory sacrifice, an invocation addressed to higher powers or the manipulation of hostile forces through magical actions, or even the constraint that is supposed to be exerted on the gods by self-mortification.

On the other hand, if, following T. R. V. Murti in The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London, 1955), we take as our criterion for Buddhism the "philosophical" section of the canon, that is the Abhidhamma Pitaka and, more precisely, Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), which in the Theravāda school is at once its conclusion and compendium, then we are correct in speaking of a Buddhism without mythology, as Ling does. The thinking behind this radical position is easy to understand. In the first place, the doctrine is entirely directed toward the purely mental conditions of the evils of existence. These conditions are analyzed, catalogued, and hierarchized with the most extraordinary care; they are also submitted to an exploration of the "dependent origination" of the lines of interdependence, which allows the sources of evil to be tracked down in their deepest hiding places. What the analysis exposes are not external forces but, basically, ignorance, which itself results from false views of the world, generated in their turn by an overestimation of the self. Popular demonologies are precisely the crudest sort of expression of these false points of view.

The second reason for incompatibility with mythology is that the analysis itself, in certain schools, is confined to scholasticism, due to the subtlety of its distinctions and derivations, and is placed in the service of a wisdom aimed at establishing a state of emptiness, a void. This state is entirely separate from the familiar realities of everyday existence and wholly unrelated to the fantastic creatures produced by desire and, even more so, by fear. Demons vanish along with all external reality as a result of the purifying meditation that deserves the name of enlightenment.

And yet, it is not simply a matter of making concessions to popular beliefs if the Pali canon assigns a place in its teachings to the Evil One and gives him the name of Māra. This entity can be termed mythical due to his resemblance to the demons of popular belief and, more precisely, due to his personification of original evil. Ling confirms here the earlier analysis of Ernst W. Windisch in Māra und Buddha (Leipzig, 1895). According to both of them, this figure is finally not foreign to the central core of Buddhism to the extent that it is part of the very experience of the Buddha's enlightenment, as a force that threatens, attacks, and seeks to distract the individual from contemplationa force that the wise person must address, confront, and finally conquer.

Specialists in this field argue whether this confrontation with the threat of distraction is characteristic only of the first stage in the spiritual adventure or whether it is present up to the end; they argue whether the proliferation of legends that attribute to this figure of evil the status of a demon result from subsequent contamination by the surrounding demonologies or whether they develop a mythical core inherent in the pure doctrine. The essential point is that the figure of Māra in its barest signification is the product of Buddhism. Ignorance driven out by knowledge; shadows dissipated by that enlightenment, are experienced as an inner adversity that is spontaneously personified in the figure of an adversary. As is not the case in popular demonology, however, Māra is personified by a single figure, symbolizing the internal enemy, namely the adversary of meditation.

If Buddhism seems to confirm in such a paradoxical fashion the thesis that one can speak only in mythical terms of the origin of evil, this is because the source of evil, however much it may be interiorized, retains a certain hostile nature that calls for a figurative approximation in terms of externality. Expressed in external terms, the myth gives a symbolic expression to the interior experience of evil.

Beyond Myth?

Myth, however, is not alone in using language to deal with the enigma of evil. I mentioned above that there exists a hierarchy of different levels of discourse within which myth takes its place. We can go beyond myth in two directions, that of theodicy and that of wisdom. These two paths often intersect but they conform to two distinct series of requirements.

The path of theodicy

Theodicy replies to a demand for rational coherence. This requirement stems from lamentation itself, inasmuch as it carries within it an interrogation: "Why? Why must my child die? Why must there be suffering and death? How long, O Lord?" But it also stems from myth itself, inasmuch as it brings the reply of a vaster and more ancient order than the miserable condition of humankind. This reply, however, suffers at once from an excess and from a defect: an excess resulting from a proliferation that staggers the imagination (the mythical world, Lévi-Strauss observes, is a world that is too full); its defect is due to the mutual incompatibility of myths, to their internal contradictions, and, finally, to their narrative form itself: to tell a story is not to explain. Rationalization has taken a number of different forms: in India, this involves the grand speculations on karman, on the degrees of being, on the order of things placed beyond good and evil. In Buddhism, this concerns speculation on the tie between ignorance and suffering and, above all, on the tie between wisdom, which I shall discuss below, and suffering. In Greece, myth was surpassed by philosophy, which essentially separates the question of origin in the sense of foundation from the question of the beginning in the sense of theogonies and genealogies. By virtue of this fundamental clarification, Plato prefers to say that God is the cause of good alone rather than to say, along with myth, that the gods are bad or that they are beyond good and evil.

In the Christian sphere, rationalization takes place within theology, mainly at the time of the confrontation with gnosis, which is still no more than a rationalized myth, and in connection with an overall hellenization of speculation. In this regard, the doctrine of original sin in Augustine offers at once the features of an antignosis as a result of what its conceptual framework borrows from Neoplatonism (being, nothingness, substance, etc.) and the features of a quasi gnosis, and hence of a rationalized myth, due to the way it mixes together the legal model of individual guilt and a biological model of contamination at birth and of hereditary transmission. This is why such rationalization was continued beyond this quasi gnosis in onto-theologies to which we owe the theodicies as such, in Leibniz and, finally, in Hegel. To these theodicies we owe, if not a solution to the enigma of evil, at least the transformation of the enigma into a problem, namely whether or not we can maintain the following three propositions at once: God is all-powerful. God is absolutely good. Evil exists. This is not the place, however, to weigh the success or failure of rational theodicies.

The path of Wisdom

Assuming that a coherent reply could be given to the enigma that has been raised in this way to the level of a rational problem, there could still be no exclusive means for explaining it. The question of evil, indeed, is not simply "Why does evil exist?" but also "Why is evil greater than humans can bear?" and, along with this, "Why this particular evil? Why must my child die? Why me?" The question is also posed, then, to wisdom.

It is Wisdom's task first to develop an argument on the basis of this personal and intimate question that myth does not treat, since it invokes an order that does not concern individual suffering. Wisdom thus forces myth to shift levels. It must not simply tell of the origin in such a way as to explain how the human condition reached its present miserable state; it must also justify the distribution of good and evil to every individual. Myth recounts a story, Wisdom argues. It is in this sense that we see the Book of Job question explanation in terms of retribution in the name of the just man who suffers. If the Book of Job occupies a primary place in world literature, it does so first because it is a classic of Wisdom's argumentative mode. But it is so because of the enigmatic and even perhaps deliberately ambiguous character of its conclusion. The final theophany gives no direct reply to Job's personal suffering, and speculation must be made in more than one direction. The vision of a creator whose designs are unfathomable may suggest either consolation that has to be deferred until the eschaton, or that Job's complaint is displaced, even set aside, in the eyes of God, the master of good and evil, or that perhaps the complaint has to stand one of the purificatory tests to which Wisdom, itself grafted on a certain docta ignorantia, must submit so that Job can love God "for nought" in response to Satan's wager at the beginning of the tale.

This final suggestion reveals the second function of Wisdom, which is no longer to develop arguments or even to accuse God but to transform, practically and emotionally, the nature of the desire that is at the base of the request for explanation. To transform desire practically means to leave behind the question of origins, toward which myth stubbornly carries speculative thought, and to substitute for it the question of the future and the end of evil. For practice, evil is simply what should not but does exist, hence what must be combated. This practical attitude concerns principally that immense share of suffering resulting from violence, that is, from the evil that humans inflict on their fellows. To transform desire emotionally is to give up any consolation, at least for oneself, by giving up the complaint itself. It is perhaps at this point that Job's wisdom coincides with that of Buddhism. Whatever can be said of this meeting of two such remote traditions of wisdom, it is only at this point that myth can be surpassed. But it is not easy to give up the question "why?" to which myth attemptsand failsto reply.

See Also

Chaos; Devils; Fall, The; Myth; Sin and Guilt; Suffering; Theodicy; Wisdom.


Davis, Stephen T., ed. Encountering Evil; Live Options in Theodicy. Edinburgh, 1981.

Ling, T. O. Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil. London, 1962.

Murti, T. R. V. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. 2d ed. London, 1955.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley, 1976.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. Boston, 1967.

Windisch, Ernst W. Māra und Buddha. Leipzig, 1895.

New Sources

Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, N. Y., 1999.

Adams, Marilyn McCord, and Robert Merrihew Adams, ed. The Problem of Evil. New York, 1990.

Card, Claudia. The Atrocity Paradigm. New York, 2002.

Copjec, Joan, ed. Radical Evil. New York, 1996.

Geddis, Jennifer. Evil after Postmodernism: Histories, Narratives, and Ethics. New York, 2001.

Lara, Maria Pia. Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives. Berkeley, 2001.

Matthewes, Charles T. Evil and the Augustinian Tradition. New York, 2001.

Morrow, Lance. Evil: An Investigation. New York, 2003.

Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. The Many Faces of Evil: Historical Perspectives. New York, 2001.

Swinburne, Ricjard. Providence and the Problem of Evil. New York, 1998.

Paul Ricoeur (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 29 2018


The descriptive-normative term evil is a significant anomaly in our relativistic and noncognitivist age. Otherwise careful thinkers deploy it as if its extension were obvious and indisputable. And yet it is used in widely differing ways even in our own time. A narrow meaning confines it to the deliberate infliction of harm. This corresponds to only part of the so-called problem of evil, and it is different again from what is feared by those who pray, "deliver us from evil."

Aspects of the problems of wickedness, of suffering, of finitude, and indeed of meaning come together in reflection on evil. But it is not obvious that these problems form a larger whole. Paul Ricoeur (1985) suggests that it is distinctive to western thought to see "sin, suffering and death" as aspects of a single enigma.

Evil's enigmatic character seems to demand narrative treatment. How did evil come into the world? Why and how are human beings sucked into it? And no less important: what can be done to escape it? Given the variety and extent of evils, we should perhaps not be surprised to find every tradition replete with stories and theories. As Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty has suggested, a welter of often incompatible stories may be the most psychologically satisfying response to an insoluble problem.

Yet evil is not just an intellectual challenge. Some of the worst forms of suffering human beings endure are caused by human agents. Our capacity for inflicting such suffering challenges our very understanding of human agency. Can a will capable of evil ever be fully trustedor even understood?

The challenge goes deeper yet. Because vulnerability to evil and a capacity to inflict it are parts of human nature, evil is not something we can hope to consider in a disinterested way. The very desire to generate a disinterested account of it has often been seen as itself a manifestation of evil, whether as hubris, curiositas, or disregard for the humanity of one's fellows. Religious ritual is turned to because we are out of our depth, our capacities for understanding and reform so weak it is a danger to take comfort in them.

It is sometimes thought a specifically modern condition to be suspicious of philosophical theodicies, but the truth seems closer to the opposite. What is specifically modern, rather, may be supposing that we can peer into the abyss without being overwhelmed by it.

The following discussion will first survey understandings of evil as a problem so broad that it defies conventional intellectual or ethical response. An account of the changing fortunes of philosophical accounts of "the problem of evil" will show the distinctiveness of modern discussions. Reference to other traditions will be made, but the discussion will focus on Western materials.


Modern understandings of religion make accounting for evil one of the fundamental tasks of religion. It is widely believed, for instance, that Buddhism is primarily a response to a universal "problem of evil." But dukkha, "suffering, unsatisfactoriness" is not evil. Different traditions define different things as evils (as they do goods), and prescribe different kinds of responses. Thinking about evil is usually accompanied by ritual.


Ricoeur has argued that an "enigmatic element" makes evil the realm of human experience most profoundly ruled by myth.


Myth narrates the creation or emergence of the world, often out of chaos. Suffering and death are often presented as the consequences of poor choices made by the first humans. But the miserable lot of humanity is also sometimes seen as the result of the carelessness, malice, or envy of the gods. Not all gods are good. The orderly world we know may be the result of the destruction and dismemberment of a primordial evil power. In many traditions the world remains evil, a place of exile or punishment.

The creation or imposition of meaning and order is precarious. Jon Levenson has shown that the fear that chaos will return permeates the Hebrew Bible. The force of evil, associated with the seas and often represented as a sea monster (Leviathan), continually threatens order and is continually reconquered by God. That God will prevail is never in question. He may need reminding, however.


The world may be the site of a struggle between good and evil forces. True dualism, such as that of the Manichaeans, is rare; even in Zoroastrianism, the eventual victory of good and light over evil and darkness is assured. But dualism haunts monotheism, as the near-omnipresence of the devil in Christian tradition shows. While defeated by Christ, Satan is still the prince of this world. His power and indeed his very existence are a serious problem for monotheism. What kind of God permits the devil such poweror is God too weak to control him?

Beyond good and evil.

One response is to assert that evil happens when God turns his back on creation or is silent. The hidden God is beyond our understanding. But perhaps evil is no less an expression of the divine nature than is good. "I form the light, and create darkness," says the God of Second Isaiah, "I make peace, and create evil" (45:7). It has even been suggested, as the Jewish mystical Book of Bahir puts it, that "God has an attribute called 'evil'."

Metaphysical accounts.

Metaphysical views of the nature of evils arose in response to tensions within and among mythical views.


Many traditions speak of a fate or order to which even the gods are subject. This fate can be just, as in Buddhism's karmic "law of cause and effect." It can also be meaningless. "Vanity of vanities," says Qoheleth, "all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Eccles. 1:2).

Among the most widespread of these views is the view that time itself leads to decay and returns creation to chaos. Rituals like the human sacrifices of the Aztecs sought to erase time. In most ancient traditions, time moves in greater and smaller cycles. Even if all rituals are correctly performed, the world will one day succumb to chaos, but from its ashes a new world will emerge. Only in noncyclical traditions are the depredations of evil seen as final.

The philosophical correlate of cosmological dualism is the view that evil is an inescapable part of creation: the stuff of which the world is made is inert or even resistant to order. In his Timaeus Plato argues that the demiurge brought the best possible order to unruly matter. Aligned with other dualities inherited from Pythagoras, the dualism of reason and matter was soon connected with mind/body dualism. While opposed to each other, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism both offered dualisms of matter and spirit.


In response to dualisms, evil was reconceptualized. It is not a substance or a force at all, but just an absence, a privation. God created ex nihilo, nothing constraining him. "Whatever is, is good, and evil is not a substance, because if it were a substance it would be good" (St. Augustine, Confessions 7.12). This was the official view of medieval theologians, but it is difficult to maintain in practice. Reproducing a similar move in Plotinus, Augustine conflated it with a dualism of body and soul to arrive at the view that it is because we are made of nothing that we are prone to error and sin.


A different kind of view claims that it is impossible or undesirable to create a world without evil, either because there cannot be evil without good, or because good cannot be recognized without evil with which to contrast it. These often conflated views are sometimes described as examples of "aesthetic theodicy." The place of evils in a good creation is justified by reference to the value of beauty or variety. A mosaic is not only more beautiful with dark as well as light pieces but impossible without them.

Human evil.

As the pawn or the prize of the forces that made and govern the world, the human being has always been seen as a source of evil.


Humanity may be seen as essentially limited because its understanding is finite. Justifications of evil almost always appeal to a bigger picture the questioner does not or can not see. Incomplete understanding of things not only leads to error but is also a reason human beings should not expect to be able accurately to judge God's work. Finite reason may be seen as essentially incompetent to understand reality or divinity at all. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:89).

Negative theology starts from this premise, as do those views that insist on the centrality of paradox to a proper human understanding of God. God may operate by different standards than ours. He may indeed make the rules. The moral and even the logical laws that rightly bind us come from God but in neither case do they give us access to his nature. Human evil can thus arise from resentment at creaturely dependencebut also from misplaced efforts of imitatio Dei.


Free will is the centerpiece of reflection on human evil. This view goes beyond the evil that humans do out of ignorance to assert that free will is the ability to choose between good and evil. Evil can be deliberately willed, not just under the view that it is good. It undermines freedom to invoke a tempter here. (It also makes the creator of the irresistible temptation the true author of evil!) A free act has no cause beyond itself. As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it when asked why Satan willed evil: "Only because he wills this will has no other cause by which it is forced or attracted, but it was its own efficient cause, so to speak, as well as its own effect" (De casu diaboli 27).

But an understanding of freedom as "liberty of indifference" does not yet explain why human agents might choose evil, and indeed has a hard time doing so. Augustine insisted that trying to understand an evil will "is like trying to see darkness or to hear silence (City of God 12.7). Immanuel Kant thought evil "radical"it is not grafted onto a human will pre-disposed to the good but is a tendency at its very "root." Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling took the next step and insisted that freedom is abyssal in good no less than in evil acts, opening the way for postmodern explorations.

Not all human beings were thought to be similarly able to use their free will for good. It was Eve who succumbed to the serpent's wiles and submitted to Adam's authority in punishment. Throughout history groups denied (and so demonstrated) their own capacity for evil by projecting this onto outsiders.

Original sin.

Not all explanations of evil as the consequence of poor or perverted human choices think human will is free. On some accounts, the wills of fallen humanity are no longer free to do good at all; only humanity's original parents had complete freedom. The idea that we are responsible for the sins of our ancestors and for evil acts of our own that we could not avoid seems incoherent and masochistic. It does, however, give human agency a cosmic significance. It was a human act that brought death into the world.

Original sin can be understood in less dramatic ways as a humility that expects human failure and so is not thrown into despair by it. It may also provide a framework for conceptualizing the ways in which our societies and characters are shaped by the ignorance and injustice our ancestors left us.

The Problem of Evil

The experiences of wickedness, suffering, and death are presumably universal, but they do not come to pose intellectual problemslet alone a single problemuntil there are philosophical expectations with which they clash. For most of Western history, the problem of evil has been dismissed as beyond our ken. Philosophical engagement with it is the historical exception.


Discussions of various kinds of evil appear in some of the oldest texts from antiquity.


The biblical Book of Job is often seen as an early response to the problem of evil, but it is both less and more than this. The Book of Job recounts the vindication of the innocence of a human sufferer by the very God who permitted the infliction of the suffering anddespite Job's pleas and accusationsnever explains why. Appearing in a whirlwind, God rails at Job for the effrontery of his demand to understand what was going on. "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" (38:4) But it is Job's friends, who interpreted Job's suffering as punishment, whom God condemns: "ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath" (42:7).

Is the Book of Job itself an answer to the problem of evil? Job's example shows that the faithful can live without knowing the reason for their suffering, but his story's power comes from its insistence that the problem of the suffering of the just is at once inescapable and insoluble.

Hellenistic debates.

In its philosophical form, the problem of evil seems to be one we inherit from Hellenistic philosophy. Stoics asserted the existence and intelligibility of providence. Epicureans argued that the way to achieve happiness was to accept that there is in fact no providence, to avoid such pains as can be avoided and stop thinking of the rest (like death) as evil. Skeptics argued that it was best to avoid strong views for or against providence, and poked holes in the arguments of both sides.

What made this the first real debate on the problem of evil was the overall agreement of the parties concerned on meansphilosophical analysis of human experienceand endseudaimonia, happiness in this life. Both of these would be called in question by Christianity, leading to an eclipsing of this problem until the revival of the Hellenistic philosophies in the changed world of early modernity.

Religious views.

Religious traditions are important sources for thinking about evils.

Jewish views.

Jewish tradition does not offer systematic accounts of evil before the medieval period. Apparent injustices are either consequences of past or foreign sins or tests that will be redressed in the world to come, but the point is that God, who has bound himself to Israel despite its flaws, is perfect and perfectly in charge. "The Lord has made all things for Himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Prov. 16:4).

While there may or may not be evil powers, there is an evil inclination in human nature itself, which the human individual is free to resist. This evil inclination, too, is part of a creation that the God of Genesis deemed "very good," however, so it is not to be rejected as alien but assimilated. In a widely quoted early rabbinic view, "had it not been for the Evil Inclination, no man would build a house or marry a woman or procreate children." Even when kabbalistic authors argued that evil came from the godhead or was a consequence of the flawed design of the Creation, the emphasis was always on the power of free human good deeds to repair the world.

Christian views.

An understanding of a God mercifully active in history shaped the way Christians, too, approached (or avoided) the problem of evil. Christian views were various, but John Hick has argued that Augustine was the father of all the most important elements. Alongside aesthetic views and the claim that God brings a greater good out of every evil, the central claims were the privative nature of evil and the Fall. The last were not explanations for woes of the world so much as reasons for the questioner not to get stuck in the question, however. The answer lies not in philosophy but in conversion and repentance.

Moral and Natural Evil

A distinction is commonly made between evils that are caused by free human acts (moral evil) and those that are part of nature (natural or physical evil). Moral evils alone seem our responsibility, and so natural evil has largely fallen away in secular discussion. (It lives on in a different form as the problem of suffering.) And yet in experience the two seem entangled.

Moral evil causes suffering in its victims, and suffering seems to be the only way to atone for it. But evil seems deeper than the distinction between agent and victim. Paul Ricoeur (1985) describes a "strange experience of passivity at the very heart of evil-doing." And the extremest forms of suffering, as Simone Weil argued, can feel deserved.

Caution about these categories is in order. Historically, they are the remains of the closed system of culpa (fault) and poena (penalty), which from Saint Augustine of Hippo on claimed to justify all evils at once. All natural suffering, including death and even the carnivorousness of animals, was understood to be just punishment for the crimes of men (or angels), crimes defined not in terms of the harm they do to other creatures but of disobedience or rebellion. Ignoring victims, this system elides the central problematic of modern discussions, innocent suffering.

Conceptually, most discussions of moral evil subscribe to a philosophically embattled understanding of human freedom, which is threatened also by developments in the sciences. By restricting discussion to intentional individual acts, these theories also obscure (and quite literally naturalize) social or cultural evils.

This is not to say that philosophical reflection has no part to play. No less a figure than Thomas Aquinas mentioned the problem of evil as the first objection to the existence of God. Aquinas discussed evil in many places and even devoted a separate work to it, but his final view was that it was the special kind of nonproblem that privatio implies, pointing toward the good, and so toward God. The point was that philosophical reflection conducted without the acknowledgement of the differences between ourselves and God leads nowhere.

The problem of evil remained a challenge to natural theology. Theodicy became harder to avoid as physico-theology came to seem more and more important. Reformation theologians insisted the issue be faced head-on, albeit for a different reason. Martin Luther thought it necessary for philosophy to experience shipwreck over evil. And John Calvin insisted that while it was importunate to claim to be able to understand the fallen world, a view of God without providence was tantamount to atheism.

Theodicy and modernity.

The problem of evil as a philosophical challenge to the intelligibility of the world, with or without God, became a central concern of Western thinkers with the rise of the modern age.

The invention of theodicy.

The goodness and intelligibility of creation became a battlefield in the fight for religion as the world became increasingly disenchanted, as religious authority fractured, and as confidence in the capacity of human beings to make objective moral judgments grew. The problem of evil was presented as proof for the incompatibility of reason and faith by the skeptic Pierre Bayle in the 1690s. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz responded with the claim that this is "the best of all possible worlds," a view he traced back to Plato. His argument is entirely a priori, however, and designed precisely to prevent anyone's drawing conclusions like those of Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide (1759). Sounding more Stoic than he knew, Leibniz argued that if we knew all that God does, we would see why this was the world he chose.

The challenge of new Skeptics and Epicureans made this position seem weak, and a half century of nervous teleologizing ensued. Arguing that human beings can and should see the optimality of everything in the world, from bedbugs to avarice, these arguments were quickly conflated with arguments like Bernard Mandeville's linkage of "private vice" with "public virtue," and seemed to many to undermine not only religion but morality too. If the world, with all its horrors, cannot be improved upon, and for reasons we cannot hope (and perhaps do not need) to understand, why do anything at all?

Theodicy overturned.

Immanuel Kant presented theodicy as the enemy of piety and ethics. In a manner Luther would have appreciated, he argued that the experienced "failure of all philosophical efforts in theodicy" ensures the continued importance of moral struggle and makes religious faith both permissable and necessary. Kant commended the figure of Job for basing his religion on his morality and not his morality on his religion: both do better when the pretension to theodicy is abandoned. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer in their very different ways found this view premature, insisting that one needed either to find the meaning of suffering in history or to accept that there is and never will be one.

Friedrich Nietzsche dealt the decisive blows to theodicy. In the Genealogy of Morals (1887) he argues that "evil" is not merely a human category, but a bad one, developed by creatures of ressentiment chagrined by the excellence of other human beings. Arguing that the others must be evil because they themselves were good, "slaves" and their priests succeeded in upsetting an earlier and more noble set of values. The noble "free spirit" does not ask whether the world is good or meaningful (this question defines nihilism) but affirms it in all its joys and pains. Value is not found in the world but generated by the overflowing vitality of creative spirits. Nietzsche's historical relativization of value categories and his call for a transvaluation of contemporary values spelled the end of theodicy, at least in continental European thought.

Epicurus' Old Questions

The monotheistic problem of evil is often summarized as a trilemma cited in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (book 10): "Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"

While it seems to force the question, "God or evil?" the trilemma can be approached in other ways. Ancient skeptics and dualists found it congenial to their ends. Theological reflection has taken the "aporetic" path of accepting all of the three claims as valid. So understood, the trilemma challenges us to deepen our understanding of the nature of the divine attributes and of evil.

Contemporary developments.

But the philosophical problem of evil has not gone away, in part because the twentieth century brought with it new and unprecedented horrors. Some religious thinkers have responded to the "logical problem of evil" (Is the existence of evil compatible with divine omnipotence and goodness?) by proposing views of a divinity in some way limited in power; the growing, suffering God of process thought is an example. Hick's "Irenaean" view of theodicy argues that God is doing as well as anyone could at the time-consuming task of getting human beings freely to love him.

Analytic philosophers of religion have largely moved beyond the logical to the "evidential problem of evil" supposedly inaugurated by Hume in his Dialogues. The question is no longer whether evil in the abstract is compatible with theismthat may even be truebut whether the quantity and variety of evils we find do not constitute an argument for the irrationality of theism. While still far from concrete, discussion now hangs on the existence of "horrendous" or "irredeemable" forms of evil.

But there are also strong religious movements rejecting the very enterprise of theodicy, in Christian thinkers like Karl Barth (building on the Lutheran Søren Kierkegaard) and Jewish thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas (building on the Neokantian Hermann Cohen). Especially in response to the Holocaust, thinkers have argued for the obsolescence of all traditional views and have urged reconceptualizations of God and his relation to human history and suffering.


After decades of neglect, the language of evil has been reintroduced to public life in the rhetoric used by political leaders in the early twenty-first century. Some political theorists, too, have argued that a revival of the language of evil is required to maintain a sufficient outrage at genocide, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and threats to the ecological stability of the planet.

Shared indignation at the worst things people do seems to be all that remains of a shared normative view of the world. But does this justify reviving the language of evil? Feminist scholars are not the only ones to caution against so quintessentially dualistic a concept. Evil allows no compromise. But the history of human societies shows that it is almost always the other who is demonized. Perhaps what Carl Gustav Jung called a "morality of evil"an integration through honest recognition of the capacity for evil in human natureis safer.

The modern problematic of theodicy, with its confidence in reason and shared conceptions of the good, may not survive our postmodern age. As long as we try to make moral sense of the world and of human life, however, "evil" will remain a challenge and a temptation.

See also Christianity ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Natural Theology ; Religion ; Theodicy .


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Bernstein, Richard J. Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2002.

Copjec, Joan, ed. Radical Evil. London: Verso, 1996.

Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. 2nd ed., with a new preface. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel, ed. The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Larrimore, Mark. The Problem of Evil: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

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Levenson, Jon. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

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. The Symbolism of Evil. Translated by Emerson Buchanan. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.

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Williams, Rowan. "Insubstantial Evil." In Augustine and His Critics: Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner. Edited by Robert Dodaro and George Lawless, pp. 105123. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Mark Larrimore


views updated May 23 2018


"Evil" can be defined as that which opposes, or is the antithesis of, what is good. There is no precise articulation of the nature of evil in the creeds of the Church, nor is there any explicit or definitive Christian doctrine of evil. For biblical writers God's reality was accepted unquestioningly, and evil was accepted as an inevitable aspect of the world. Since evil was (and remains) the source of incredible human suffering and anguish, the biblical response did include appeals to God for understanding, and petitions to God to reduce suffering. The classic example is Job, but there are many other biblical writings that address the issue of understanding God's relationship to evil (cf. Ps 10:1, 22:1, Lam 2:2022, Jn 9:15, Lk 13:15, etc.).

In Scripture. While the Scriptures display remarkable consistency and coherence about God and evil, the sacred authors did not produce a systematic theology of evil and suffering, nor did they theorize about God's hidden will in permitting evil and suffering, with a few exceptions (cf. Ps 10:1; Ps 22:1; and Ps 42:9; Lam 2:2022; Jn 9:15, Luke 13:15; etc.). Evil is understood predominantly, though by no means exclusively, as divine punishment for sin (cf. Jer 44:2223; Gal 6:78; Mt 7:1819; Am 3:8; Lam 3:38; Is 45:7; etc.). Other explanations attribute evil and suffering to divine warnings and tests of faith (2 Cor 8:2; 1 Pt 1:67; etc.), to divine discipline (1 Cor 11:32; Dt 7:47; Heb 12:512; etc.), and as a means of expiation or atonement for sinas displayed in Israel's sacrificial system of mandatory expiation (Lev 17; Jgs 2:18; Jer 8:21; Ps 126:56; etc.). The New Testament provides some unique perspectives on evil and its relationship to God; it teaches, for example, that evil has redemptive value, a view inspired especially by the Servant Songs in Isaiah (Is 41:14; 49:16; 50:49; 52:13 53:12), and patterned on Christ's suffering on behalf of all humanity (cf. Mk 10:3839; Lk 14:27, etc.). Most importantly, perhaps, the New Testament teaches that suffering is not in every instance to be understood as directly attributable to a divine purpose, but that free creatures, both human and angelic, are the source of much, perhaps all, evil. The older view that God causes evils for justifiable reasons was softened, accordingly, by this understanding of human and angelic free will as the source of much suffering. Evil was understood as the result of satanic forces under the leadership of Satan, the personification of evil, yet also an ontological reality: "the lord of this world" (cf. Jn 12:31; Jn 14:30; Jn 16:11; Jn 17:31; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2; 6:12; etc.), "the adversary" (1 Pt 5:8), the "tempter" (1 Thes 3:5; 2 Cor 11:3), etc., who endlessly goads humanity into sin and brings about trials to discourage us and weaken our resolve for goodness (cf. 1 Thes 2:18; 1 Tm 4:17), etc. The human mind was thought to be the battleground for spiritual warfare between God and the demonic (2 Cor 10:35; Eph 6:1012). Christ conducted spiritual warfare in His ministry, exorcizing evil spirits and showing by example that evil is an affront to God and must be resisted. Christian theology holds that Christ defeated Satan by the Cross and Resurrection, freeing us from the bondage to sin and the fear of death (Heb 2:1415; 1 Cor 15). Christ urged His disciples to continue the fight against evil and He gave them power and authority to do so in His name (cf. Lk 9:1; Lk 10:19; etc.). So focused was Christ's battle against evil powers that St. Paul's letters defined Christ's atoning death as a ransom to Satan (Gal 3:20; 1 Tm 2:6; Col 2:15; Rom 3:25; and cf. Mt 20:28; Heb 2:14; 3:15; 1 Jn 3:8; etc.), a view held by the Church for a millennium until St. Anselm of Canterbury (10331109) proposed an alternative view of Christ's death as an atoning satisfaction for humanity's sinful rebellion against God, rather than for a ransom to be paid to Satan (see atonement).

The Source of Evil. Traditionally, Christian theologians have referred to the Adamic Fall (Gn 3) for an understanding of the source of evil, the view that evil emerges from the misuse of human freedom. While this had been foreseen by God, the gift of freedom, nonetheless, was an essential and fundamental gift from God, one that distinguishes humanity from all other creatures and gives man alone the ability to choose good and evil. The misuse of freedom by Adam and Eve (Gn 3) introduced sin and suffering into a world created good (see suffering). This "original sin" largely corrupted human nature, though not completely. As St. Augustine explained (City of God XIII, 14), the corruption is inherited "seminally" ("in the seed") by Adam and Eve's progeny. Ours is a world, accordingly, in which we are estranged not only from God, but from our spiritual nature, the world itself, and one another. This understanding of the Fall of humanity into corruption and sin became the dominate Christian explanation for evil and suffering. Interestingly, the Old Testament makes no mention of the Adamic Fall after the account in Genesis 3. The account was revived in the intertestamental books of Jubilees and 2 Enoch, and taken into Christianity by St. Paul's image of Christ as the second Adam who had overturned the sin of the first Adam (Rom 5:1217; 1 Cor 15:2122; Rom 5:16). The more common Old Testament view is that evil and suffering have their source in the breaking of the covenant established by Yahweh with the patriarchs Abraham and Moses. A further (and much less influential) view of evil's origin is found in the account of the sinful mating of the "sons of God" with "the daughters of men," caused by their "evil imagination" (Gn 6:5), an event that led to God's punishment by the catastrophic flood (Gn 6). The sinful actions noted in Gn 6:5 were elaborated in the Watchers legend in 1 Enoch in the intertestamental period. By the time of Christ, the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 had been coalesced with the "evil imagination" account used in Rabbinic Judaism, and taken up by St. Paul who taught that Adam's Fall was explained by an "evil imagination" that was passed on to his progeny (see Hick, Evil, 2025; see also 2 Esdras 3:2122: "For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him"). Augustine developed the theory of concupiscence (lust, sexual desire, etc.) as the source of evil within humanity, a theory that was integral to his defense of human freedom and doctrine of original sin (see Evans, Augustine, 13267, etc.). St. Thomas later adapted this view, but with a more positive and optimistic emphasis about the condition of the human soul (see Summa theologiae I. Qs 8182; Rahner, "Concupiscentia").

Kinds of Evil. A common division of evil is that into metaphysical, physical, and moral, as explained in the following sections.

Metaphysical Evil. The metaphysical notion of evil comes from leibniz. This type of evil results, in the opinion of some, from the mere finitude of created beings, i.e., from the absence of a perfection not required for the natural integrity of creatures. According to this conception, evil would affect all created beings universally and without any fault on their part. This view was revived in the twentieth century by several philosophers [cf. M. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Halle 1927) pp. 175180; K. Jaspers, Philosophie (Berlin 1932) 2: 196199; J. P. Sartre, L'Etre et le Néant (Paris 1943) p. 481], for whom original sin is the universal perception of a nature in anguish, conscious of its limits and native imperfection. Such a metaphysical notion of evil can be contested since finitude in itself is not an evil. It is indeed the negation of a higher perfection (e.g., man is not an angel), but not as a privation (e.g., man is not deprived of the perfections proper to an angel). If there is evil in the notion of metaphysical evil, it may be in the fact that limited and finite creatures inevitably will choose evil over good, and must deal consciously with the inevitability of the ultimate threat of finite existence: death. For the Christian, however, death itself is not an evil, but has been overcome by Christ and eternal life gained. "The last enemy that will be destroyed is death" (1 Cor 15:26).

Physical Evil. Physical evil is that affecting a nature, i.e., a being defined by an essence or by an ensemble of properties. It must not, therefore, be restricted to corporeal evil, for it is much wider in scope, and can be attributed to any nature, corporeal or spiritual, whose integrity it alters. Moral pain or sorrow is a physical evil in that it deprives the soul of its natural equilibrium, just as blindness deprives the body of its natural integrity. The same holds true for all psychological ills affecting spiritual powers, such as psychoses and neuroses.

In this category of physical evil are often included cataclysmsearthquakes, typhoons, epidemicsthat afflict greater or lesser areas of the earth. Writers like voltaire draw arguments against divine providence from these events. Yet evil property so-called does not lie in these cataclysms, which after all flow from natural laws. Evil rather lies in the sufferings, often great and terrible, that accidentally follow in the wake of such phenomena. What is implied here, then, is basically the problem of suffering, with its correlative, that of the providence of god.

Material things can lack the integrity that is proper to their natures. In speaking of non-living things, we sometimes say they are "altered," such as bad wine, i.e., wine that has turned sour or has been diluted. But the evil, properly speaking, is not in such things: howsoever altered or imperfect in their own order, they are what they are by virtue of natural laws. It is man who classifies them as good or bad according as they suit his needs or not. Poison, for instance, is a natural thing, and as such it is good. Evil lies in using poison in a harmful manner, as an instrument of murder. In this case, the evil is in man. Among living beings, natural evil consists in suffering, both physical and moral, that destroys emotional harmony and equilibrium, which constitute the proper perfection of a sensible being as such.

On the matter of suffering, one must distinguish between man and animal. Man is par excellence the subject of suffering; not that he suffers more, quantitatively, than animals, but because he is aware of his suffering. An animal suffers pain without being able to reflect upon it. Awareness of pain serves only to intensify the evil. But this situation provides man with an opportunity to dominate and conquer sufferingan ability that the animal, being identified with suffering and so to speak drowned in it, does not possess. Man can accept suffering as expiation, if he is guilty, or as an act of fortitude, if he is innocent. From this, it should be evident that for man suffering is not an absolute evil, or at least, if it is really an evil, it is not the evil in itself. Whatever the suffering, it can be either vanquished or diminished by means provided by science, or else overcome by the courage of the one experiencing it, and thus be further ordained to man's moral and spiritual welfare. What would be classifiable as absolute evil, on the other hand, is suffering that could serve no purpose.

The brute animal as subject of suffering does not pose the same problem. Lacking reason, it lacks also a proper finality within itself. The brute is one among many, an instrument in the service of man. Man can use such things for his own advantage, though within the bounds of right reason. Were he unnecessarily to inflict sufferings upon them, he would offend God who requires of man that he make wise use of creation. Man would also degrade himself in seeking perverse satisfaction in the suffering of a sensible creature.

This leads to the problem of death. Death is exclusively the concern of man, for man alone knows that he will die and is capable of anguish as he faces death. Is death an evil? While this problem calls into play all the conceptions of mankind, one may still reduce it to its essential elements. In any event, death cannot be the evil. Either man dies completely, or his soul survives the ruin of the bodily organism. If he dies completely, death takes away the problem: evil annihilates itself in its very realization. Moreover, how could death appear as an evil, a privation, for a being destined by nature to die completely? Death appears as evil only to the being that aspires not to die, and perceives this aspiration as fulfilling a need of its nature. This is the case for man, who seems unable to banish the scandal of death. We are here face to face with mysterya mystery on which Christian faith alone can shed light. For faith teaches us not only that the conditions of man's dying are the result of a fault affecting the destiny of all mankind, but also that the trial that is death is the very door leading the faithful to an eternity of happiness (De malo 5.45).

Understood biblically, such physical evils are the result of a fallen world, a world corrupted by the prideful evil imagination of humanity (Gn 3). Thus, while historical skeptics like Hume, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, etc. and contemporary atheists like Michael Martin and William Rowe have argued that the horrors of physical evils are decisive evidence against belief in God, Christians believe that such evils are the price we pay for living in a fallen world. In the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, furthermore, the world is described as an aesthetic whole that is good from God's perspective, while the parts are evils and seen (often) only as such (see Confessions VII, 22; CG XI, 1618, 22; etc). Despite the fallen nature of the world, God uses evils for good ends (Rom 8:28), for example, as means for expiation for our sins, or as means by which to achieve good ends not otherwise attainable, etc. Physical evils, moreover, are to be understood as unavoidable byproducts of natural laws that are goods in themselves, being necessary to support human life. As St. Thomas explained: "Many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist; for fire would not be generated if air was not corrupted, nor would the life of the lion be preserved unless the ass was killed" (Summa theologiae I. Q48). This, indeed, is a partial explanation for the long-held Christian belief in o felix culpa ("O happy fault"), attributed to St. Augustine and others but first used in the 5th century or, perhaps as late as the 7th century (in the Exsultet in the Roman Missal ). This belief holds that it is better to have a world in which there is evil than a world without evil, since evil must be seen in the light of Christ's redemptive act. Evil is "fortunate" because is has merited such a great and wonderful redeemer (O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem ). Physical suffering, then, is not an absolute evil: God remains in sovereign control and "works together all things for good for those who love God" (Rom 8:28), as should we (cf. Rom 12:21, etc.). The very nature of physical evils cannot be divorced from the providence of God; we must not attribute these sufferings directly to divine causation, but the good which results is God's work.

Moral Evil. Moral evil, consisting essentially in the disorder of the will, is called fault or sin. This species of evil presents the greatest problem, raising as it does the crucial question: how can its existence be reconciled with the infinitely good providence of God?

In contrast to physical evil, moral evil is that found in a rational and free nature as such. Properly the soul is its immediate subject, or more precisely, the will, with its power of obeying or disobeying the norms of moral conscience and the divine law. Moral evil is therefore a privation of rectitude required by the natural law, a privation affecting a free will, which through its own fault lacks a perfection it ought to have (De malo 2.12).

Moral evil or the disordered will, however, is itself an "evil of nature," viz, an evil to which a rational and free nature is subject. While this pertains to the general category of physical evil, of which it is a species, its specific nature is such as to justify the distinction between physical and moral evil. Physical evil, as already defined, is always an evil suffered, whether this affects a corporeal or a spiritual nature; such evil is received in a nature whose integrity it violates. Conversely, moral evil results from the voluntary activity of an agent who, in depriving himself of a perfection to which he is obliged by nature, inflicts upon himself a self-mutilation. Moral evil is thus properly constituted by this very activity (De malo 1.3).

This point is important in a consideration of evil, for it is precisely in the disordered will that evil assumes its tragic and mysterious character. Though the evil of the world with its attendant sufferings may be a heavy burden on man's reason, the perversity of the will, by which man denies his proper nature and insults God, is an even greater oppression. Thus, it would seem that the essence of evil resides in this perversity, which gives rise also to the evils of the world. In fact, Judeo-Christian revelation considers this moral lapse, inaugurated by Adam and transmitted to all humanity through original sin, as the first cause of all the ills of the world, viz, suffering, inter-personal conflicts, injustice, violence, and wars (cf. St. Augustine, Vera relig. 12.23: "Evil is either sin, or the punishment due to sin").

Since it is voluntary privation, a refusal to consider here and now the moral rules for right action for the purpose of a good that is not the good, evil is a consequence of liberty. Such a "negative positivity," such placing of a negation or a refusal, makes the will disordered and defines evil properly so-called (malum culpae: moral fault, sin). It is obvious from this that the problem of evil appears primarily as a voluntary perversion; it is the problem of the nature and form of this "power of nothingness" that springs from a nature endowed with liberty. Put in this way, the problem of evil is above all a problem for Christians. Pagans, except for those involved in Greco-Oriental religions, were aware only of the physical ills affecting humanity, namely, misery, ignorance, and errancy.

Evil as Privatio Boni. The view of evil as "untruth" (aristotle) and as having no reality in itself (plotinus), was developed by St. Augustine in his debates with Manichean dualists who distinguished between spirit and matter, rejecting the flesh (matter) as evil and demonic. Augustine defended Christian belief against the Manichean objection that the Christian God, as the creator of all things, must then be the creator of evil as well. augustine responded with the privatio boni view of evil that he had found in neoplatonism: God, he argued, creates only what is good and, as such, evil has no genuine reality of its own (ens reale ), but rather, is to be understood as a subjective human concept (ens rationis ) (see Enchiridion XI, etc.; see also St. Thomas, Summa theologiae I, Q49; De Malo I, 3; etc.), as parasitic on the good and as that that deprives a good creation of its good (see Schwarz, Evil, ch. 2 and Hick, Evil, ch. 3). St. Augustine (cf. On Nature and Grace; Enchiridion XIXIV), and later St. Thomas (Summa theologiae I, Q14, 46, etc.), explained this as the corruption of our divinely given "telos," the falling away from the good intended for us by God, a view of evil described by St. Augustine variously as privatio, deprivatio, corruptio, amissio, vitium, defectus, indigentia, and negatia. What God creates is good and that which deprives the good has no ontological status.

Satan and Evil. Another view of evil gives it a much clearer ontological status, but that has been long neglected by most theologians and rejected by the secular world's fascination with reason and the scientific method during the past three centuries. This view of evil has its basis in the biblical teaching that Satan and his demonic horde of fallen angels (Mt 25:41, 2 Pt 2:4) have been engaged in spiritual warfare against God. It has been argued that after Augustine, the centrality of the spiritual warfare theme was subsumed under the more dominant theme of the all-encompassing providence of God. Rarely has the spiritual warfare theme been exploited by theologians in response to the theodicy issue (see Boyd, God at War ). While God permits satanic evil powers to wreck havoc on the world, the Church has been given "all power and authority to cast out demons" (cf. Mt 10:18; Mk 16:17; Lk 10:19; Lk 9:12) and, indeed, has an obligation to do so. As the ministry of Jesus and his disciples demonstrated, evil is not to be explained away as serving some mysterious divine providence, at least not in every case. Evil, rather, is to be resisted and defeated, except in those instances in which God is enacting just punishment or achieving some greater good through His permission of evil, a permission that allows evil uses of free will in both humanity and satanic forces. Amos 3:6 ("Does evil befall a city unless the Lord has done it?") warns of God's coming punishment if the people do not repent. By permitting the destruction of the kingdom as a deed of Satan, God accomplished His purpose, since the evil of the people had to be punished (see Boyd, God at War, 15052). The point here, however, is that not all evil is to be seen as the means by which God fulfills His purposes. Indeed, the evil misuse of free will by humanity (and satanic powers) causes evils that God does not seek; yet in His incomprehensible goodness, God salvages whatever good can be achieved in these evils (Rom 8:28).

Bibliography: g. boyd, God at War (Downers Grove 1997). g. r. evans, Augustine on Evil (Cambridge 1982). d. r. griffin, God, Power and Evil (Philadelphia 1976). j. hick, Evil and the God of Love, rev. ed. (New York 1978). g. h. joyce, Principles of Natural Theology (New York 1972). k. rahner, "Why Does God Allow Us to Suffer," Theological Investigations XIX (New York 1983); "Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace" and "The Theological Concept of Concupiscentia," Theological Investigations I (Baltimore 1961). h. schwarz, Evil: A Historical and Theological Perspective, tr. m. worthing (Minneapolis 1995). r. a. sungenis, Not By Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification (Santa Barbara, CA 1997). b. l. whitney, Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of Evil, 19601991 (Bowling Green State University 1998).

[r. jolivet/

b. whitney]


views updated May 23 2018


For most twentieth-century philosophers, intent on dividing philosophy into discrete subdivisions, the problem of evil was a matter for philosophical theology, ormore rarelyfor ethics and moral psychology. The theological question is as easy to state as it is hard to answer: How is a world full of evil and suffering compatible with the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent creator? The ethical question is altogether different: How can rational beings commit evil acts? The first question has preoccupied theists since The Book of Job; the difficulty of finding a satisfactory answer has served many as a reason for rejecting theism. The second question has been answered in some religious traditions by the appeal to original sin, but in recent years more it has often been viewed as outside the focus of traditional philosophy. The history of modern philosophy reveals that the problems are related, and part of a larger set of questions that precedes both: Can we make sense of the lives we are given? Does human reason have the ability to find or make the world intelligible? These are not questions that are driven primarily by theological or ethical concerns, but that drive those concerns, and arguably philosophy itself.

Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins in wonder; for Schopenhauer the main subject of this wonder is the world's evil and wickedness. Even if misery were visited only on the wicked or completely outweighed by goodness, alone might well question why it should exist at all. Idle curiosity alone might inspire such questioning about why things are as they are in general; but that questioning is likely to become urgent when things go wrong. If the principle of sufficient reason is the claim that nothing happens without a reason, then there are two choices: to seek an explanation for the evils in the world or to abandon the principle of sufficient reason itself.

Orthodox thinkers have often taken the latter route, maintaining that belief is not only a matter of faith but of absurd faith. Pierre Bayle (16471706), the French philosopher known as "the arsenal of the Enlightenment," took this view to its logical conclusion. He thought that Manicheism, the belief that the universe is controlled by equally powerful good and evil forces, is the scientific explanation that best conforms to the data. Insofar as faith prescribes monotheism, however, Manicheism is precludedalong with any attempt at scientific explanation altogether. After all, Bayle concludes, the new Cartesian philosophy teaches that properties like color are only secondary to mathematical properties, which we do not perceive but infer. With this great a gap between experience and scientific explanation, why take the latter seriously at all?

Bayle's "theory of the incomprehensibility of all things" was the target of Leibniz's Theodicy (published 1710). Concerned to reconcile faith and science by proving that both were based on the principle of sufficient reason, Leibniz argued that anguish over God's seeming tolerance for evil resulted from ignorance of His ways. Ptolemaic astronomy did not challenge the work of the divine creator but rather that of the early cosmologists. Similarly, Leibniz promises, later scientific discoveries will reveal our discontent with the world to be a function of our ignorance. God has reasons we do not yet understand, but if our knowledge were as infinite as the creator's, we too could recognize this world as the best possible one.

Voltaire's Candide ridiculed such arguments, and Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion demolished them. The later Kant found Leibnizian attempts to verge on blasphemy and thought the appeal to God's unknown reasons to be a mockery of suffering that required "no refutation but the abomination of anyone with the least feeling for morality" (1968). What unites their rejection of Leibniz's theodicy is the rejection of a metaphysical tradition extending back to Plato. For this rationalist metaphysics, the appearances we see appear to reflect evil and corruption; the reality behind them is truer and better than what we experience. Against this view, the more empirical outlook of Voltaire, Hume, and Kant can be seen as a moral imperative, for it implies keeping faith with the world's victims by acknowledging the reality of their suffering. But can that reality be acknowledged without entirely capitulating to it? Is it possible to maintain that evil is not essential to the world but rather an unhappy accident?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) adopted just such an approach, and Kant found his solution so extraordinary that he called him "the Newton of the mind" (1942). Rousseau substituted the idea of history for the idea of original sin that had seeped into the most sober discussions of evil. Humankind was created morally neutral; a series of accidents based on minor instances of vanity and greed cascaded into the moral deterioration known as civilized society. At any particular point, we might have stopped the process, which has now gone so far that only the most radical measures hold promise of salvation. The Discourse on Inequality is Rousseau's diagnosis of evil, and his own replacement for the myth of the Fall; Emile is his recipe for a cure and the hope of salvation. The mixture of self-help manual and sacred text, science and literature is crucial: Rousseau argues that the problem of evil was so deep that it could only be approached on all fronts. Different forms of pedagogy, arts, political organization, religion, and metaphysics are all required to respond to it. Small wonder that Rousseau's plans for simultaneously reshaping individual human beings and their societies spurred the French Revolution.

The worry fueling debates about the difference between appearance and reality was not the fear that the world might be different than it seems, but rather the fear it might not. By acknowledging the reality of evil while maintaining that reality could be changed, Rousseau dislodged the problem of evil from the theological context in which it had been embedded.

That context is exemplified in Christian Wolff's work, which still divides evils into metaphysical, natural, and moral evils. The first evil was the imperfection in the substance(s) of which the world is made; the second was the suffering we experience through earthquakes, floods, plagues, and the like; the third was the cruelty and injustice we visit upon each other. After the mid-eighteenth century the two former evils were viewed as natural limits and natural catastrophes, devoid of significance. The only remaining evil is the moral evil committed by intentionally acting human beings. This absolves God of responsibility for evil while turning our attention to questions of ethics, psychology, history, education, and economics. With these issues in the forefront, nineteenth-century philosophy carried on the discussion of evil. While theistic discourse receded ever farther to the margins, modern thinkers remained preoccupied with the meaning of life and the intelligibility of a world full of evil. This was true not only for philosophers sometimes considered peripheral to the canon (for example, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Schopenhauer) but also for those central to it (for example, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and Hegel). Nor it is a matter of national heritage: the sober Briton John Stuart Mill could write about the problem in terms almost as vehement as Nietzsche's.

The problem of evil was no longer central in twentieth century philosophy, but it persisted in different forms, retaining the bond between ethics and metaphysics. No one would take up Hegel's project of "theodicy, a justification of the ways of God (such as Leibniz attempted in his own metaphysical manner, but using categories which were as yet abstract and indeterminate)" (1975, p. 43). In the wake of Auschwitz, every form of theodicy was viewed with suspicion. But thanks to the work of two very different twentieth-century philosophers, the problem of evil remained a major concern of philosophy. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was criticized for deflating the gravity of Eichmann's crimes by calling them banal. In fact she sought to justify a world in which criminals like Eichmann are possible, by showing they are not the result of deep or demonic impulses but of mindless and not entirely intentional behavior. With this work Arendt takes up a project going back to Rousseau: Explaining the existence of evil allows us to show that it does not belong to the essence of the world, and that it may be at least partially eradicable. In thereby reducing the role of intention in moral evil, Arendt challenged a conception of evil that had dominated modern thought.

The other twentieth-century philosopher in question, John Rawls, is known for his insistence that political philosophy is independent of metaphysics, but in later works and conversations he made clear that the problem of evil was a major concern behind his work. The author of the first major English book of substantive ethics since Mill, Rawls wrote in response to two metaphysical and moral problems that ground the problem of evil: the problem of contingency and the problem of reconciliation. In Justice as Fairness he invokes Hegel to stress political philosophy's role in providing reconciliation. Rawls's goal is to show that a realistic utopia, in which greatest evils are eliminated, is possible; without that hope "one might reasonably ask, with Kant, whether it is worthwhile to live on earth" (1999, p. 128). Such passages encourage renewed attention to his main work, A Theory of Justice, the two principles of which show that human beings need not resign themselves to fate but can meet "the arbitrariness of fortune" with measures of their own (p. 102). If the problem of evil is evident in the work of two such different contemporary philosophers, it is likely to occupy major philosophers, whether theist or not, for the foreseeable future.

See also Arendt, Hannah; Aristotle; Bayle, Pierre; Cartesianism; Enlightenment; Evil, The Problem of; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Mani and Manichaeism; Mill, John Stuart; Plato; Rawls, John; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Virtue and Vice; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Wolff, Christian.


Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking, 1963

Bayle, Pierre. Historical and Critical Dictionary. Translated by J. J. Knapton and P. Knapton, 1738. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1984.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Hume, David. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, edited by J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Theodicy, edited by Austin Farrar. Translated by E. M. Huggard. La Salle: Open Court, 1985.

Kant, Immanuel. Reflexionen. Kants Gesammelten Werken, Band 20. Berlin: Akademie Ausgabe 1942.

Kant, Immanuel. "Über das Mißlingen aller philosophischen Versuche in der Theodizee." In Werke, Band 8, edited by Wilhelm Weischedel. Frankfurt/Main: Shirkamp, 1968.

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Rawls, John. Justice as Fairness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Richardson, Henry, and Paul Weithman, eds. The Philosophy of John Rawls. New York: Garland, 1999.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse concerning the Origins of Inequality, edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Translated by E. F. J. Payne, Dover, 1966.

Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet. Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories. Translated by Donald M. Frame. London: Penguin, 1981.

Susan Neiman (2005)


views updated May 29 2018


Evil is an umbrella concept that includes both a moral aspect (sin) and a natural, nonmoral aspect (suffering). Most religions address both moral evil and natural evil.

In the two largest religions in America, Judaism and Christianity, interest in the nature of evil is a secondary interest; the primary interest is in salvation from evil. Still, both of these religions, and many others, teach certain things about evil. Some religions approve of evil. For example, in Satanism it is taught that evil should be embraced. This is a rare view; most religions teach that moral evil is to be avoided rather than embraced. Some religions deny or minimize the importance of evil. For example, in the Church of Christ, Scientist, goodness has been understood to be more real than evil. This also is a rare view; most religions acknowledge the reality of evil.

In the early part of the twentieth century some liberal and modernist forms of Judaism and Christianity seemed to lack a serious view of moral evil; they were characterized by confidence in human progress by means of education and goodwill. Across several decades, optimism concerning the manageability of evil has diminished and is now regarded by many Americans as naive. The realistic attitude that Judaism and Christianity have traditionally taken toward evil is one of the factors that renders these faiths plausible to many thoughtful people in America. Embracing, denying, and minimizing the seriousness of evil are not characteristic of very much religion in America.

Moral Evil (Sin)

Moral evil is an important concept in the religious thought and action of the majority of Americans. Within the Jewish and Christian traditions, moral evil is presented as having two faces. Just as crimes have perpetrators and victims, so moral evil has perpetrators and victims. Perpetrators of moral evil are persons who know the difference between right and wrong, who have the power to choose either right or wrong, and who choose to do wrong. An example is a person who betrays and thereby needlessly hurts a friend. Victims of moral evil are persons who are in the grasp or power of forces beyond their control, so that they do not have the power to do what is right. Examples of victims are persons who, because of their addiction to drugs, diminish their own lives and harm the lives of those they love.

Most religions recognize the distinction between perpetrators and victims. Nevertheless, within the religions there are intense discussions about the distinction. One such discussion within Christianity and Judaism concerns the nature of the moral evil that victimizes people. For example, what is it that causes people to become addicts? There are both Jews and Christians who think that the question is not a proper one. They insist that every human being has the freedom to choose between good and evil, that some have freely chosen evil, that addicts are simply people doing what they have chosen to do, and that there is nothing else to be said about the matter. In other words, addicts are actually perpetrators, not victims, or at least they began as perpetrators and then developed a habit or taste for drugs. Those who take this position point out that it offers a high view of human beings because it holds human beings responsible for everything that is wrong in their lives. To do this, to hold people responsible, is to affirm their freedom and therefore their dignity.

Few if any Jews or Christians would retreat entirely from the concept that human beings are responsible for some of their conduct, but many have come to doubt that human beings are responsible for all of their conduct. They are convinced that there is more to evil than discrete choices made by free, rational individuals. One of the things that has called attention to the fact that there is more than this to evil is the history of the twentieth century. To speak of individual choices just does not seem to do justice to the immensity of the evils of the century. Something more seems needed to account for what Adolf Hitler did to millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others in the Third Reich, for what Joseph Stalin did to millions of his countrymen, and for what Pol Pot did to many of his countrymen.

But what is this "more"? One traditional set of candidates is the devil and the demons. In Europe and North America the view that there are actually personal demons that oppress people has been losing ground for centuries. It does not help the case for demons that they are widely believed in throughout the industrially undeveloped world, for that leads naturally to the conclusion that belief in demons is one of the superstitions that should be sloughed off once scientific enlightenment is available.

Some traditional Christians and Jews have always retained a belief in demons because there are references to demons in the Bible. This belief got support from one movement that arose within Christianity in the twentieth century: Pentecostalism. But most Christians who reflected carefully on the power of evil tended to turn in other directions. One of those directions is psychology. Throughout the century there has been widespread interest in psychology, and the principal forms of psychology have acknowledged that darkness exists deep within the self of human beings. Various explanations have been offered for this evil. For example, human beings have something like a memory of early childhood experiences of powerlessness that generate fear and rage, and these emotions propel human beings to do evil.

Others have sought an explanation for evil in evolution. Human beings, it is said, have evolved from lower forms of life whose survival depended on their being violent; the tendency to violence has remained in human beings as they have evolved, and their violence leads them to do evil things. Ironically, human beings, unlike lower animals, kill even when killing is not necessary for their survival. Others have looked for an explanation for evil in the social character of human beings, a view that owes much to the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In isolation human beings tend to be good, but in the collective they become capable of evil they would never dream of perpetrating on their own—for example, the evils of racism. Moral human beings create immoral societies. Still others have looked for an explanation for evil in the institutions of society. Organizations, bureaucracies, and especially governments diminish and dehumanize human beings and thereby launch them into conduct that is contrary to their otherwise good tendencies.

These explanations seem plausible to many Jews and Christians. There is much less naive optimism about people at the end of the murderous twentieth century than there was at its beginning. In the industrially developed world belief in personal demons still stretches the credulity of most people, but recognition that there is more to evil than the choices of individuals is widely accepted. Additionally, it is now widely acknowledged by Christians and Jews that there is a mystery to evil. Evil is not something that human beings happen not to understand; evil is something that will always defy human understanding. This is not surprising, because to understand is to grasp the rationality of things, and what is characteristic of evil is that it is not rational at all but rather irrational.

Natural Evil (Suffering)

In the Jewish and Christian faiths, there is a close connection between sin and suffering. Suffering, it is said, is a consequence of sin. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, displays that connection. Until Adam and Eve had sinned, they lived a life free of suffering; as a consequence of their sin—indeed, as a punishment for it—they were driven from Eden and began to experience suffering.

Formed by this teaching of Scripture, American Jews and Christians tend to acknowledge that moral evil can lead to suffering. They accept the link between sin and suffering that is taught in the Bible, but they also are aware that a great deal of suffering is not attributable to any moral failure. For example, some babies are born with birth defects that cannot be attributed to any conduct of either their parents or any other human beings. In the Bible the Book of Job is addressed to the question of undeserved suffering, so there has been an awareness of the problem for centuries.

Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims do not make any attempt to understand the problem. They see it as an act of loyalty to God to refuse to ask why bad things happen to good people. They regard uncomplaining submission to whatever happens to them as part of their obedience to God. Many others, however, do attempt to understand the problem of undeserved suffering. Their attempts are exercises in theodicy, a defense of the power and goodness of God in the face of undeserved suffering.

Suffering is a universal human problem, but it is a problem in a special sense for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This is because these religions have an understanding of God that says that the one and only God is all-good and all-powerful. But, the argument goes, if God is all-good, then God must want to prevent undeserved suffering; and if God is all-powerful, then God must be able to prevent undeserved suffering; but since undeserved suffering happens, it follows either that God is not all-good or that God is not all-powerful. This is the most powerful and influential argument ever made against faith in God, so it is not surprising that some people have been led by this argument to surrender their faith in God altogether.

Others have been led to surrender some aspect of their faith in God. For example, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner says that he believes that God is all-good but not all-powerful; God is very powerful but not powerful enough to prevent all of the suffering that occurs in the world. On the other hand, Christian theologian Frederick Sontag has affirmed that God is all-powerful but not all-good; he even speaks of a demonic side to God.

These are ideas that are held principally by intellectual minorities in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The majority of the faithful of these religions have retained the traditional belief in a God who is all-good and all-powerful. They recognize that there is a mystery about suffering that they cannot explain, but they also welcome such relief as the various explanations may provide. They look forward to a time when all undeserved suffering will be ended, and they expect that it is only then that human beings will have a full understanding of undeserved suffering.

Both moral evil (sin) and natural evil (suffering) continue to occupy an important place in American religions today, just as they have in most religions since ancient times, and there is no sign that their importance will be diminished in American religion in the near future. It is rare for anyone in an American religion to claim to have a comprehensive explanation for the nature of sin and suffering; it is much more common for people in American religions to acknowledge the mystery of these great human problems. It is even more common in religions in America for the claim to be made that God provides salvation from evil. In that claim lies the good news that is most characteristic of each of the religions.

See alsoDevils, Demons, and Spirits; God; Hell; Psychology of Religion; Psychotherapy; Satanic Bible; Satanists; Sociology of Religion; Suffering; Theodicy.


Davis, Stephen T., ed. Encountering Evil. 1981.

Duffy, Stephen J. "Our Hearts of Darkness: Original Sin Revisited." Theological Studies 49 (1988): 597–622.

Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. 1966.

Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen toGoodPeople. 1981.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. 1937.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and ImmoralSociety. 1960.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny ofMan. 1941, 1943.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. 1967.

Tilley, Terrence W. The Evils of Theodicy. 1991.

Fisher Humphreys


views updated Jun 11 2018


A word that closely approximates the English word evil is the Sanskrit and Pāli term pāpa, which can be used to describe anything bad, wicked, troublesome, harmful, inauspicious, vile, or wretched. Although Buddhists have formulated various interpretations of the evils and misfortunes that befall human beings, from an ethical perspective they regard evil as the consequence of previous harmful actions that, by the cause-and-effect laws of karma (action), return to beleaguer the perpetrator. In its chapter on pāpa, the Dhamma-pada (Words of the Doctrine) articulates the moral dimensions of the notion of evil as wrongdoing that brings about further harm and unfortunate consequences in this life and the next: Evil conduct should be avoided just as poison is avoided, for it results only in sorrow.

The mainstream Buddhist schools do not face the problem of theodicy in its classic form, which arises in monotheistic traditions that accept an all powerful, all knowing, and fully benevolent creator deity who still apparently allows suffering and misfortune to strike the innocent. For one thing, Buddhists do not accept the notion of a creator god who could be held accountable for evil. Instead, evil is simply an inevitable feature of saṂsĀra, or the cycle of rebirth; those who acknowledge the first noble truth recognize that life in saṃsāra entails duḤkha (suffering). That which humans may be inclined to call evil (i.e., suffering) has been from eternity a necessary condition of life in impermanence, which ceases completely only upon the attainment of nirvĀṆa.

Buddhism also offers a thorough explanatory account for what prompts immoral deeds: The condition of sentient beings in saṃsāra is to be beset by ignorance and craving. Sentient beings are deeply mired in greed, hatred, and delusion, which are the roots of harmful acts. Harmful acts bear consequences for oneself and others, implicating the wicked further into a cycle of evil and suffering.

Yet as Buddhist doctrine developed philosophically, a distinctive form of theodicy emerged in some traditions within the MahĀyĀna. As Peter Gregory argues, the Chinese Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixin lun) poses questions about the presence of ignorance in light of the tathĀgatagarbha doctrine, which holds that all beings contain the germ of enlightenment and are, in their true nature, intrinsically enlightened. If the mind is by nature enlightened, how did it come to be defiled by ignorance and suffering? For Gregory this philosophical problem exposes a fundamental issue that Buddhist karma theory does not satisfactorily resolve. Although karma theory accounts for the apparent injustices in the world, it does not ultimately explain the metaphysical fact of why human beings find themselves in such a world to begin with. Although early Buddhists chose to avoid metaphysical vexations of this sort, later Buddhist philosophers did attempt to tackle such questions.

Moreover, from the soteriological point of view, there is a long tradition in Buddhism of identifying the religious life as poised beyond the dualism of good and evil. The Dhammapada asserts: "But one who is above good and evil and follows the religious life, who moves in the world with deliberation, that one is called a mendicant" (267). Indeed the quest for nirvana is the aspiration to transcend the world of karma and morality, and thus good and evil, altogether.

Karma theory notwithstanding, Buddhists have throughout their long history accommodated theistic and animistic accounts of evil in more pedestrian ways, and they have developed technologies (e.g., spells, deity propitiation, astrological advice) to ward off evil. Some scholars, such as Gananath Obeyeskere and Melford Spiro, have suggested that karma theory provides little sense of comfort or control over the dayto-day depredations that are regarded as evil. In this view, while the notion of karma provides an exhaustive and failsafe account of the causes of evil, it is not always psychologically or experientially satisfying. Past immoral deeds that result in present suffering are both remote and unknown since few have memory of previous lives. Moreover, it is the nature of evil to victimize those upon whom it falls, and to exert itself in an immediate way as an imposition from the outside. Such cruelties as accidents, sudden illnesses, and premature death arrive unannounced and unforeseen, often visiting the apparently innocent and striking with powerful and unyielding vengeance. Viewing evil as the result of malevolent influences from meddle-some deities or inauspicious arrangements of celestial bodies, while not entirely consistent with karma theory, provides an immediate recourse for warding off, or at least containing, misfortune by ritual and apotropaic means.

Finally, Buddhists have also found meaning in evil through mythology. The cosmogonic myth recounted in the Aggañña-sutta (Knowing the Beginning) provides an account of the origins of evil in the gradual descent

of originally divine beings. These beings are at first celestial, incorporeal, and entirely happy, but they devolve into earth-dwelling, corporeal, and ultimately thieving, deceitful, and violent creatures. As the celestial beings come to crave food and begin to taste the savory crust of the earth, they introduce scarcity to the world, followed by competition, thieving, and the taking up of sticks against one another. In this myth, a world without evil can be imagined, and the "fall" of the world into evil is attributed ultimately to sensual desire. The chain of events that leads to the presence of evil in the world is driven by desire and greed.

Another mythic complex, widely depicted in Buddhist art and legend, centers on MĀra, a Satan-like deity of lust and death. Māra, accompanied by his legions of demonic forces and his temptress daughters, arrives to menace Gautama as he sits under a pipal tree on the night of his enlightenment. Māra is able to assume shapes and disguises and to harness all manner of demonic forces to oppose the Buddha's enlightenment. Once recognized, however, Māra is powerless, suggesting perhaps that evils are illusory and defeated when exposed. Māra symbolizes all that the Buddha conquers: ignorance, darkness, craving, lust, and destruction. With the conquest of Māra, the round of rebirth ceases, and death is vanquished.

See also:Death


Gregory, Peter. "The Problem of Theodicy in the Awakening of Faith." Religious Studies 22, no. 1 (1986): 63–78.

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Ling, Trevor Oswald. Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil: A Study in Theravāda Buddhism. London: Allen and Unwin, 1962.

Norman, K. R., trans. The Word of the Doctrine (Dhammapada). Oxford: Pāli Text Society, 1997.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. "Theodicy, Sin, and Salvation in a Sociology of Buddhism." In Dialectic in Practical Religion, ed. E. R. Leach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Spiro, Melford E. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Maria Heim


views updated May 14 2018

230. Evil (See also Demon, Devil, Villainy, Wickedness.)

  1. Ahriman represents principle of wickedness; will one day perish. [Persian Myth.: LLEI, I: 322; Zoroastrianism: Benét, 16]
  2. Alberichs curse on the Rhinegold ring: possessor will die. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Rhinegold, Westerman, 233]
  3. Apaches name given to Parisian gangsters. [Fr. Hist.: Payton, 31]
  4. Apollyon demon, personification of evil, vanquished by Christians wholesomeness. [Br. Lit.: Pilgrims Progress ]
  5. Archimago enchanter epitomizing wickedness. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
  6. Ate goddess of wickedness, mischief, and infatuation. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 32]
  7. Avidyā cause of suffering through desire. [Hindu Phil.: Parrinder, 36]
  8. Badman, Mr. from childhood to death, has committed every sin. [Br. Lit.: Bunyan The Life and Death of Mr. Badman in Magill III, 575]
  9. black symbol of sin and badness. [Color Symbolism: Jobes, 357]
  10. black dog symbol of the devil. [Rom. Folklore: Brewer Dictionary, 329]
  11. black heart symbol of a scoundrel. [Folklore: Jobes, 223]
  12. black poodle a transformation of Mephistopheles. [Ger. Lit.: Faust ]
  13. crocodile epitome of power of evil. [Medieval Animal Symbolism: White, 810]
  14. darkness traditional association with evil in many dualistic religions. [Folklore: Cirlot, 7677]
  15. Darth Vader fallen Jedi Knight has turned to evil. [Am. Cinema: Star Wars ]
  16. dragon archetypal symbol of Satan and wickedness. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 34]
  17. Drug principle of evil. [Zoroastrianism: Leach, 325]
  18. Gestapo Nazi secret police. [Ger. Hist.: Hitler, 453]
  19. Golden Calf Mephistos cynical and demoniacal tarantella. [Fr. Opera: Gounod, Faust, Westerman, 187]
  20. Iago declaims I believe in a cruel god. [Br. Lit.: Othello ; Ital. Opera: Verdi, Otello ; Westerman, 329]
  21. John, Don plots against Claudio. [Br. Lit.: Much Ado About Nothing ]
  22. Klingsor enemy of Grail knights. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Parsifal, Westerman, 248]
  23. Kurtz, Mr. white trader in Africa, debased by savage natives into horrible practices. [Br. Lit.: Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness in Magill III, 447]
  24. lobelia traditional symbol of evil. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 175]
  25. Loki god of fire, evil, and strife who contrived the death of Balder. [Scand. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 560]
  26. Mephistopheles the cynical, malicious devil to whom Faust sells his soul. [Ger. Lit.: Faust, Payton, 436]
  27. Miles and Flora apparently sweet children assume wicked miens mysteriously. [Am. Lit.: The Turn of the Screw ]
  28. Monterone after humiliation, curses both Duke and Rigoletto. [Ital. Opera: Verdi, Rigoletto, Westerman, 299]
  29. oNell, Peg wicked spirit claiming victim every seven years. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 323]
  30. Pandoras box contained all evils; opened up, evils escape to afflict world. [Rom. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 799]
  31. Popeye degenerate gangster and murderer who rapes Temple Drake. [Am. Lit.: Sanctuary ]
  32. Powler, Peg wicked water-demon; lures children to death. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 323324]
  33. Queen of the Night urges the murder of Sarastro, her husband, by their daughter. [Ger. Opera: Mozart The Magic Flute in Benét, 619]
  34. Quint, Peter dead manservant who haunts Jamess story. [Am. Lit.: Turn of the Screw ]
  35. Rasputin immoral person of tremendous power and seeming invulnerability. [Russ. Hist.: Espy, 339340]
  36. Satan the chief evil spirit; the great adversary of man. [Christianity and Judaism: Misc.]
  37. Vandals East German people known for their wanton destruction (533). [Ger. Hist.: Payton, 705]
  38. Wicked Witch of the West the terror of Oz. [Am. Lit.: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ]
  39. Wolfs Glen scene of macabre uproar. [Ger. Opera: von Weber, Der Freischütz, Westerman, 139140]


views updated May 21 2018

evil evil communications corrupt good manners proper conduct is harmfully influenced by false information or knowledge; the saying is also used to assert the deleterious effect of bad example. The saying is recorded from the early 15th century. Often with biblical allusion to 1 Corinthians 35:33, ‘Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.’
evil doers are evil dreaders someone engaged in wrongdoing is likely to be nervous and suspicious of others. The saying is recorded from the mid 16th century.
the Evil Empire a term for the former Soviet Union, deriving from a speech by Ronald Reagan in 1983. The name is often used allusively of a political approach focusing exclusively on the perceived dangers from a particular direction.
the evil eye a gaze or stare superstitiously believed to cause material harm; the expression in this sense is recorded from the late 18th century.
evil to him who evil thinks the person placing a disgraceful interpretation on words or actions is likely to bring ill upon himself. A saying, recorded from the mid 15th century, which in its French form honi soit qui mal y pense is the motto of the Order of the Garter.
never do evil that good may come of it the prospect of a good outcome cannot justify wrongdoing; often with biblical allusion to Romans 3:8, ‘And not…Let us do evil, that good may come.’ (Compare the end justifies the means.) The saying is recorded from the late 16th century.
of two evils, choose the least a statement of what to do when none of the possible course of actions is palatable. The saying is recorded from the late 14th century, but the idea is found earlier in Greek, in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, ‘we must as a second-best course, it is said, take the least of the evils,’ and Latin, in Cicero's De Officiis, ‘of evils choose the least.’

See also axis of evil, a great book is a great evil, money is the root of all evil.


views updated Jun 11 2018

e·vil / ˈēvəl/ • adj. profoundly immoral and malevolent: his evil deeds. ∎  (of something seen or smelled) extremely unpleasant: a bathroom with an evil smell.• n. profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, esp. when regarded as a supernatural force: good and evil in eternal opposition.PHRASES: the evil eye a gaze or stare superstitiously believed to cause material harm: he gave me the evil eye as I walked down the corridor.the Evil One archaic the Devil.speak evil of slander: it is a sin to speak evil of the king.DERIVATIVES: e·vil·ly / ˈēvəl(l)ē/ adv.e·vil·ness n.


views updated May 17 2018

Evil. The furthest reach of wrongdoing and wrong being. Although Kant maintained that the only evil thing is an evil will, there is much in human experience which evokes the word which is not a product of the will. Indeed, Hannah Arendt, observing the Eichmann trial, spoke of the banality of evil, lying as it does so far outside the compass of will, and being ‘excused’ by the appeal that, in a totalitarian regime, to obey orders and not to think is the only behaviour possible. Religions tend to see the occurrence of evil as the consequence of personal agency in the cosmic order (personified as Satan, the Devil or Iblīs, Māra, etc.), which if made absolute leads to dualism, an eternal principle of evil; and in either case, religions offer resources both to recognize and combat evil.