SYNOPSIS OF GOOD AND EVIL

“Where there is good, there must be evil.” – Lu Wang, 13th century Chinese metaphysician.

In summing up the place of good and evil in a personal philosophical program, the following points are worth emphasis.

You will have to choose an understanding of the words ‘good’ and  ‘evil’ that is comprehensive enough to encompass their full meaning;  an error in definition may have later consequences. My definition of ‘good’ is that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe . Notice that omitting the latter meaning neglects the value of other living things. Evil then is the opposite.

Goods and evils can be classified as I have done in Table 1 in the Appendix, but the reader may have other thoughts, and the exercise of writing them down is likely to be helpful. Goods can be intrinsic, that is, good in themselves; or instrumental, that is valuable as means to other goods. They can also be internal to the individual and/or external, that is, outside the individual or shared. Intrinsic and internal goods are likely to be more vital to personal meaning and fulfillment. Goods can be ranked, albeit inexactly, but the summum bonum or highest good for most of us is likely to be the dual hope of happiness and meaning.

Evil can be natural or due to free agency; the latter being caused by accident or human imperfections of immaturity, error (especially mistaken certainty), weakness, selfishness (especially self-aggrandizement), and malice. Therefore the twin goals of self-perfection and humility are potent means to limit evil.

Humanity tends to view the universe as the stage for a conflict between Good and Evil, and this mythology has great power in our lives. Varied philosophical sources tell us the best way to defeat evil and separate oneself from it is to be a force for good; that is, good will – the commitment to do good – is the means to both defeat evil and transcend it. Traditionally the ‘saint’ and the ‘hero’ are the two apex manifestations of the self-perfection, humility, sacrifice, and selflessness that allow humans to side with goodness in the universe, and achieve apotheosis.

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GOOD VS. EVIL – PART II

In Part I, we discussed the enduring tradition of the conflict of Good and Evil especially as it was presented by the ancient prophet, Zarathustra. This mythological conflict survived into modernity – consider World War II conceived by many as a symbolic battle of the virtuous Allies against the evil Fascists. More recently the  light and dark sides of the force in the Star Wars saga or the conflicts in the wizarding world of Harry Potter are fictional but powerful examples. Ultimately this conflict seems to be a  recurring paradigm of the human interpretation of the cosmos

It is no accident that Friedrich Nietzsche adopts the personage of Zarathustra in his masterpiece, Thus Spake Zarathustra, to present an alternative narrative. He challenges traditional values and the very  existence of God. In his synthesis, man must awaken from complacency and dependence on religious and state authority; embrace life, existence, and this world; and remake himself as an uberman (superman). Human weakness is manifest in  failing to accept the world as disordered and to recognize that sometimes what is considered evil turns out on closer examination to be good; that is good and evil are not absolute. Virtue is being true to oneself, through will to power, that is command of oneself and one’s future. It is also acceptance of the eternal recurrence, that is the complete embrace of that which is as if all that happens has happened before and will happen again an infinite number of times.1

In another of his masterpieces, Beyond Good and Evil, he also challenges the goodness of truth. To Nietzsche, the value of an idea has greater significance than its truth, if fact what is health-producing is truth. The question of will is not whether it is free or unfree, but whether it is strong or weak. The will to power may be more powerful than self-preservation, and man must get beyond existing valuations and live creatively, even dangerously. But despite all of his irreverence, he never loses his admiration for the psychological discipline of the saints.2

1Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper&Row Publishers, 1961, pages 686-696.

2Ibid, pages 686-703

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GOOD VS. EVIL – PART I

The world turns and the world changes… In all my years, one thing does not change…The perpetual struggle of good and evil.” – T.S. Eliot, The Rock.

 

Prehistoric humans lived in a world natural wonders – sun, moon, stars, earth, storms, animals, food plants, and so forth. In the absence of science, most if not all human societies came to see or explain at least some of these phenomena as divine or as deities. With time they personified them and polytheism was the result. During that prehistoric era, they also came to distinguish desirable things (e.g. food) from undesirable things (e.g disease) and eventually abstracted from that contrast the idea of good and evil forces or agents in a struggle, each trying to dominate the cosmos, setting the stage for the mythological conflict of Good and Evil.

Virtually every culture and most religious traditions incorporate the struggle of these two forces into their belief system, and seek to ascertain the impact on man and his place in it. One of the earliest of these comes from the Vedas of the subcontinent of India where two deities were considered most powerful: Vishnu (the preserver – also called Krishna) and Shiva (the destroyer).

In Persia, perhaps drawing on a similar Aryan tradition, a prophet known as Zarathustra, derived a religion and philosophy focused on the struggle between Good and Evil, perhaps 600 to 1000 years before Christ. He preached a near monotheism with  Ahura Mazdah as the supreme god, Lord of Light, Lord of Wisdom, ‘God of gods,’ ‘the first and the last.’ However a series of evil spirits he called Druj (servants of the Lie) led by Ahriman (also known as Angro-Mainyus) were fighting with Ahura Mazdah to dominate the universe. In his system Evil comes from free will, and cannot create; it is ‘not-life.’ Humans are born into the struggle and their role is to take individual responsibility and be active and diligent in the cause of good (inactivity is equivalent to aiding the Druj). Man’s duties then are to make all enemies into friends, to make the wicked righteous, and to make the ignorant learned. The greatest virtues are piety and honesty or honor.

After Zorasterism was adopted in Persia, these ideas worked themselves into Judaism and then Christianity where the evil spirit was called Satan and finally into Islam where it was known as Iblis (or Eblis). This dualism was also reflected in the two equal gods of Manichaeism, an extinct religion embraced by Augustine before he converted to Christianity.

1Gore, Charles, The Philosophy of the Good Life. Everyman’s Library, 1954. Chapter 2 – pages 31-52.

2 Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, 1954, p. 369.

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THE SUMMUM BONUM (HIGHEST GOOD)

The highest good of the mind is the knowledge of God, and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God.” – Benedict De Spinoza, Ethics.

 

Few philosophers attempt to rank goods and evils, but for thousands of years, philosophers have been trying to determine the most desirable good often referred to as the summum bonum or ‘supreme good.’ Classical Greek philosophers believe the highest good is eudaemonia, which translates roughly as ‘happiness,’ but is more commonly thought to mean ‘flourishing life.’ Aristotle feels that since man is in essence a rational being, his highest good is the exercise of his rational powers or contemplation. St. Thomas Aquinas thinks God created man to seek beatitude or supreme blessedness. Spinoza echoes this in his Ethics. Montaigne considers pleasure attendant to virtue – especially in the form of contempt of death as the means to tranquility – as the ultimate good for most men.

In a different vein, Utilitarians see the highest good at a societal level as the maximum happiness or pleasure for the largest number. To my knowledge, in all of philosophy, only Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of this approach, attempts to rank and quantify goods – in his case: pleasures and pains. However his list is intended to guide governance, whereas the list in Table 2 is focused on individuals. His list of pleasures includes wealth, skill, friendship, good reputation, power, piety, imagination, and relief. His list of pains includes: privation, awkwardness, enmity, bad reputation.  He also has the following on both lists: sense, benevolence, malevolence, memory, expectation, and association. He goes on to define each and attempts to create a ‘hedonic calculus’ by considering several ‘calculable’ factors: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent.

I attempt in Appendix – Diagram 1 to create a chart ranking the goods listed on Table 2. For each of us, I suspect internal and intrinsic goods rank the highest in thinking about our own life. The two highest ranking goods by this process seem to me to be equal: happiness and meaning. I suppose some readers will feel they are essentially the same, but in my mind and perhaps by philosophical tradition they are distinct.

As in all things, I think it may be best for each reader to create his own chart. In later chapters we will come back to the question of the summum bonum, but in general this site will consider happiness (in the sense of eudaimonia) and meaning as the twin supreme goods.

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