SelfDefinition.Org

Conquest of Illusion J. J. van der Leeuw

Theosophical Publishing House 1928

J. J. Van der Leeuw

Chapter 7  The Phantom of Evil

After this I saw God in a Point, that is to say, in mine understanding,--by which sight I saw that He is in all things. I beheld and considered, seeing and knowing in sight, and with a soft dread, and thought : What is sin? -- JULIAN OF NORWICH [Wikipedia]
 

The Opposites, Good and Evil

OF all the terrors which man has created for himself there is none more potent than that of Evil. From the earliest times, when primitive man lived in a world peopled by awful mysteries, malignant entities ever seeking to oppose and harm him, to the present day, Evil in some form or other has appeared as an objective reality, a power opposing good, evil in its very nature, sometimes even as a being, a Lord of Evil. The ancient Egyptian thought of evil as threatening him in many strange forms; we need but read the Book of the Dead to see how profoundly the Egyptian's life, especially after death, was dominated by fears of strange and evil beings, hard to overcome, and harmless only to him who could repel them by the magic of ceremonial incantation. There was, in the religious outlook of ancient Egypt, no doubt about the reality of evil; was there not eternal strife between Osiris, Isis and Horus, and the evil One, Set or Typhon?

In the religion of ancient Persia this dualism of good and evil is even more pronounced; life is seen as an eternal battle between the power of Good, Ahura Mazda, and the power of Evil, Anra Main. The follower of Zarathustra looked upon himself as the champion of Ahura Mazda, a soldier fighting under Him in His great struggle to overcome the evil One. There is no doubt in Zoroastrianism about the objective reality of evil, good and evil are an eternal duality, two distinct powers, battling for supremacy.

Zoroastrian dualism had a profound influence on Jewish religious ideas; in the Old Testament too evil appears personified; Satan, the Prince of Evil, is the Enemy of the human race. In Christianity this conception of a personified Evil has remained the dismal heritage of Jewish tradition; however little justification there is to be found in Christ's actual teachings for the conception of an objectively real evil; the early Christians, in their fear of a world full of temptation were only too ready to recognize the sly cunning of the Enemy of the race in the beauty of the world surrounding them, where a little introspection might have shown them their own weakness in being unable to rejoice in that beauty without becoming enslaved by it.

In the history of philosophy we find of necessity a continual endeavour to deal with this problem of evil which, more than any other philosophical problem, affects us directly in our daily life. Here certainly we are not dealing with a vague abstraction, of interest only to the subtle theologian or the philosopher, far removed from daily life. The experience of evil as a power opposing good, the realization in ourselves of an incessant struggle between lofty aspiration and earthly desire is too real to be denied. All day long we are conscious, in some form or other, on the one hand, of our own volition and determination, on the other hand, of a power resisting us and even enticing us away from the goal we set ourselves. The literature of all nations and of all times is replete with the theme of this struggle between good and evil, noble aspiration and ignoble desire in man's life. Few indeed are the works of literature in which that theme, in one form or another, is absent; the life of every human being is but a chapter in that eternal epic of the struggle between good and evil. The consciousness of this struggle has hardly ever been expressed more dramatically than in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, where the Apostle says:

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

(Romans, vii. 19-24.)

It is but natural that, like St. Paul, we should instinctively localize evil in our physical nature, the 'body of sin ' of which he speaks; we somehow feel that the tendency for evil is inherent in matter as such, and in many a philosophy, even in Platonism and in Neo-Platonism, it is matter and its evils which obscure the good of the spirit. Yet, if we come to analyze our wrong actions we cannot attribute them simply to our body and its tendencies, we ourselves must give our sanction before an action is done and hence we are conscious of a sense of guilt or even shame when we have done that which is not right. If our wrong-doing were merely inherent in the body we should not have that sensation in ourselves of having done wrong; we know but too well that, at the moment of our action, we willed to do that very thing even though we-knew all the time that it was wrong. Granted then that evil in us lies in a wrong use of the will even then the question remains what it is in man that makes him consent to do the wrong thing. It is but a philosophical platitude to say that all things are good and that evil is but the absence of good; this intellectual ingenuity may sound reasonable, but it means nothing. We know only too well that evil or wrong-doing is not a mere absence of good, not a colourless neutrality, but rather something positively different from goodness, apparently it's very opposite.

What then is the origin of this evil, whether inherent in matter as such, in the human will as a tendency, or personified in the Prince of Evil, who wages a perpetual warfare against the Power of God? In Christian Theology especially do we find it difficult to account for the existence of evil whilst looking upon God as the Creator of all things. How can a Creator be omnipotent and good and yet create evil or allow it to originate? Either God created evil with the intention to do so, in which case we cannot call Him good, or else He could not help creating it or, even worse, evil has an objective existence apart from the divine Being, eternally opposed to Him, in both of which cases we can hardly call God omnipotent. It does not help us to say, as is often done, that he gave free will to man, power to choose either good or evil, and that man chose wrongly. If man could choose wrongly that inclination for evil must have been created in him, had he been created all good, he could only have chosen good, and thus the problem remains the same. Even less can we look upon man's deliberate choice of evil as an unforeseen misfortune in the scheme of things, something of which the Creator had not thought; in that case where is divine Omniscience?

We can see the inability of orthodox Christian theology to deal with the problem in the following words from the much used Manual of Theology by Dr. Strong:

Evil is a fact as things are now, but we believe that it was not a necessary part of the scheme. We see how God over-rules it for good, how He uses it in the education of mankind; we know that, through His Son, He saves us from it ; and the possibility of it seems to our minds to belong to the exercise of free choice. Further than this we doubt whether the human mind can go. But the mystery which remains insoluble is after all a meta-physical or intellectual mystery; there is no room for doubt either as to God's Hatred of evil, or His Power to overcome it the Incarnation is the measure both of His Hatred of evil and of His Power.
(p. 226.)

Here, as elsewhere, we find the reality of evil accepted unhesitatingly; instead of first analyzing the problem and seeing whether it is justified or whether in the problem itself there are misconceptions, man wearies and tortures his brain is attempting to solve that which cannot be solved. Our explanations or solutions may be ever so logical; we do but compromise ourselves in our attempts to solve a problem which is essentially wrong. Above all, however, we must guard against empty phrases such as 'evil is but the absence of good,' or 'there is no evil but ignorance,' or, worst of all, 'in this world of opposites we cannot have good without evil as little as we can have light without darkness.' All such phrases are empty of meaning; when we do evil we know but too well that there is more in it than ignorance, ignorance alone would not give us a feeling of guilt, shame or even self-contempt. Our experience of evil, our consciousness of doing wrong is real enough, to deny that would be absurd, but to accept therefore the problem of evil as a real problem, to be solved as it stands, is worse. Let us then lay aside the problem for a while and enter the world of Reality, where we can know things as they are.

top of page

 

Good, Evil and Reality

When we enter the world of the Real we do not leave one world for another, we do not withdraw for a moment from a physical world which is less real into a spiritual world of a higher reality. That is a misconception against which we must guard incessantly; there is but one World and that is the world of the Real, in that world are all things, also those which we call 'physical objects.' Thus we do not forsake one world for another, we do not enter a higher or loftier realm, we enter the world of things-as-they-are and in that world we experience the reality of that which in our world image appears as our physical universe.

When, in the light of this experience in the world of Reality we consider the problem of the origin and existence of evil, we see that the problem has become empty of meaning, there is nothing in the world of Reality which we can call evil. Neither can we there call anything good, the words 'good ' and 'evil ' have no meaning whatever in the experience of Reality; we experience things as they are and cannot say of them that they are either good or evil in themselves, they are what they are and their being is their justification. We can now understand why Julian of Norwich, in the account of the supreme mystical experience of her life, says that she beheld God in all things and, in beholding Him thus, thought 'with a soft dread ' what is sin? To one who had been brought up in the dogmatism of mediaeval Christianity with its emphasis on man's sinfulness and the reality of evil as a power in his life, it must indeed have come like a shock to find that, in the world of divine Illumination, the very word 'sin' or 'evil' had become void of meaning. In the supreme Experience we are no longer in the world of relativity hence good and evil have become words without meaning.

As little as we could say that anything is in itself either spirit or matter can we say that anything in the world of Reality is either good or evil. We found matter and spirit to be ways in which things as they are appear to us as human beings and we have seen that it depends on our place in the scale of all things whether a thing appears to us as spirit or as matter. It was our forgetfulness of our personal relation in those conceptions of spirit and matter which caused us to look upon them as absolute realities, independent of our human consciousness, instead of as relations to that consciousness.

Our psychological procedure with regard to good and evil is much the same; in our contact with things-as-they-are in the world of the Real some appear to us, or are experienced by us, as good and others as evil ; these two, good and evil, thus denote the way in which realities appear to us at our human level. So far no illusion, no danger of error, has crept into our conceptions; our experience of certain things as good and of others as evil is real enough. But when we forget that these terms, good and evil, do but denote the way in which things-in-themselves appear to us, when we make objective realities out of things which are but relations to us, then we have created monstrosities which henceforth will ever haunt our philosophical atmosphere. Good and evil are real enough as relations of things to us, human beings, to absolutize them is to create insuperable and insoluble problems.

We shall presently see the meaning of the terms good and evil in the world of relativity, where they not. only have a profound significance, but in which they are a very real experience for every one of us. At present, however, we are considering the problem in the light of ultimate Reality and there neither good nor evil have meaning; they are not ultimate realities. We find many who are willing to accept that evil is not an ultimate reality; we have already discussed the philosophical platitude of saying that evil is but the absence of good. But there are few who in the quest of ultimate Reality are able to relinquish entirely their anxious clinging to the world of relativity; they will recognize that evil has no objective existence, but surely, they say, good has a real and objective existence, do we not speak of God Himself as good, the supreme Good indeed ? Would not our whole life, the entire moral structure of our social order collapse when we no longer recognize the ultimate reality of the Good?

If we fear to take leave of the familiar features of our world-image we had better not embark on the quest of reality. Ultimate Reality is not conditioned by any results which we may right or wrongly fear for ourselves or the social order in which we live, ultimate Reality is. And in this Reality nothing is good as little as anything is evil; if we wish to call this absolute and ultimate reality' God ' then we certainly cannot say that this God is good. We can only apply the word 'good ' to beings or things in the world of the relative; thus we can speak of the Deity of a solar system as being good, He to us is indeed the supreme Good, of Him we can say that He is Love, Goodness, and whatever other qualifications we may use in attempting to describe the supreme Being for this our universe in the world of relativity. But none of these terms can ever apply to absolute Reality, the Absolute is truly 'beyond good and evil.' To think of ultimate Reality as 'good ' is as unphilosophical as to think of it as 'spiritual,' it is neither the one nor the other, it is That which to us appears as matter or spirit, good or evil.

Let us, however, guard against the equally serious, if not more serious, mistake, of trying to transfer the Absolute into the world of the relative and to look upon 'being beyond good and evil' as a possible achievement or ideal in human evolution. Ultimate Reality is beyond good and evil, only in our experience of ultimate Reality are we beyond good and evil, the moment we enter the world of the Relative good and evil are very real indeed.

top of page

 

Good and Evil in the World of the Relative

If then in the world of the Absolute nothing is either good or evil, while in the world of the relative we are painfully aware that some things are as evil as others are good, what is it that causes us to experience some things as evil and others as good?

Let us begin by realizing that at every point of the vast scheme of evolution certain things are right and fitting for the evolving creature, others are not. Thus certain conditions of life were right for the prehistoric reptile; when, however, the winged creature evolved it needed and utilized conditions of life very different from those which were right for the reptile. The same holds good for different creatures at the present time; water is as right and fitting an environment for the fish as air is for the bird and earth is for the mole. For each of these the environment of the other would be fatal; that which is right for the one is wrong for the other; to say that any environment is right or wrong in itself would be to forget the relativity involved and make an absolutistic absurdity out of that which is a relative truth.

This conception of relative fitness and 'rightness ' is found again in the life of every individual creature in the species; that which is right and necessary for the egg is no longer right for the young bird, and the environment of the helpless fledgling is no longer suitable for the full-grown animal. It is the same in our human life; conditions which are right for the infant would be absurd for the youth and those which suit a grown-up man might well kill a growing child. Relativity reigns everywhere; what is right for one is wrong for the other, nothing is right or wrong in itself.

Proceeding from the physiological to the psychological we find the same to be true. The scheme of life which suits a certain type and is the very condition of its self-expression would be a hindrance and an impossibility both for a less evolved and for a further evolved type. There 1s a scheme of life which we can express in rules of right and wrong for each stage of evolution and that which is right for one stage is generally wrong for another.

In Hindu philosophy this fact is taught as the doctrine of dharma, a word which is variously translated as' duty," law,' ' right,' or 'virtue,' words which seem far enough apart, but which yet are contained in the full meaning of the word 'dharma.' There is no English word to translate all that dharma means, the nearest translation would perhaps be' the Right,' that which is lawful, right and fitting. This rightness or fitness would then be law in social procedure, duty in the life of the individual, truth in philosophical and religious matters, but always the central idea would be that which is right and fitting. Thus, in the Manu-Smrti we find it said that there is a different dharma for each of the yugas, or periods of evolution, that is to say that at every stage of evolution a different set of laws, customs, and even ethical precepts, are right and fitting for a group of human beings.

In Hindu philosophy we find the conception of dharma not only used for the nation or race but also for the individual. As a consequence of the doctrine of reincarnation Hinduism knows the caste system in which four castes are recognized, the priests or teachers, the warriors and rulers, the merchant men and artizans and those performing menial labours. Each of the castes represents a stage of evolution and has its own set of rights and duties, its own dharma ; what is right for one caste is wrong for the other, but no scheme of life can be looked upon as right or wrong in itself. Within each caste again the doctrine of dharma is pursued and the life of a member of the higher castes is divided into four stages or ashramas, those of the disciple, the householder, the dweller in the woods, and the homeless wanderer. Each of these stages has its own set of rights and duties corresponding to the mentality of the period in life of which they are the expression. Thus that which is the right or duty of the disciple, is wrong for the householder or for the dweller in the woods, and no scheme of life or set of rules is wrong or right in itself.

There is then a dharma, or right and fitting scheme of things, for our humanity at the present day, expressing the spirit of the Age, differing of course for every race and every nation. Even within each nation there are necessarily some who are in advance of others and some who are behind the general level of evolution; the first will be beyond the dharma of their nation, the others have not yet quite reached the level of which it is the expression. Yet there is a vast majority in a nation or race whose level of evolution is about the same and for whom about the same rules of life hold good. This general dharma of our Age is expressed in our moral and ethical conceptions which embody that which in these days we hold to be good or evil, right or wrong. It is inevitable that some of our social conventions and moral customs lag behind the evolving spirit of man of which they were the expression, consequently they are often but a burden to those who are ahead of their times. Even so there is a morality, a conception of certain things as good and others as evil which belongs to this age, just as every age in the past has had its morality.

It is not difficult to see that for primitive man, who was but just evolving from a state of unconscious unity, self-assertion was as right and necessary as it becomes wrong and superfluous when man returns to Unity, where the law of his life is renunciation, self-surrender and service. We are at present emerging from a period of excessive individualism and in our social life self-assertion is still the rule and renunciation the exception. Yet in our ethical code we recognize service to our fellow-men as right and noble, selfishness as wrong and ignoble; the ethics which we admire and strive to realize are thus always a little in advance of the general practice, just as on the other hand many conventions and customs have become rigid forms which the spirit of man has outgrown.

We can readily see that there must be a morality as far beyond our ideals of the present age as ours are beyond those of primitive man. Thus the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are the rule of life for those who are approaching the stature of the Christ-man, they are as yet in advance of the spirit of the Age and could hardly yet be introduced as a social code. Christ taught them to his disciples, and those who are willing to follow in his footsteps try to practice these teachings. But if it became the duty of all to give their coat also when their shirt was taken the wicked would flourish exceedingly and soon enslave the good, the least moral among nations would trample on the noblest, ignorance and greed would enthrone themselves in the seats of the rulers of men. The morality of the man in the street or of the nations of to-day is not yet the morality of the disciple of Christ, that morality would fit them as little as a morality which they have outgrown.

Yet we instinctively feel admiration and respect for the morality for which we may not yet be ready and disdain the morality which we have outgrown; even though we may not yet try to live according to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount we recognize their exalted level and would fain look upon them as absolute and ultimate morality, as right in themselves. The reason for this may well be that the morality of the Sermon on the Mount is the morality which will be ours when we near the completion of our evolutionary cycle. In the world of the Real we are even now that which, in evolution, we do but gradually become, and some glimpse of what we are to be some day is caught by us at times and makes us see as the highest morality that which expresses the nobility which one day we shall achieve. We, however, live in forgetfulness of our true nobility and allow ourselves to be enslaved and dominated by the bodies which are but our instruments, our servants. Thus the morality which is too far advanced for us as long as we are thus enslaved may yet awaken in us a response of admiration and respect. Yet even the highest morality which we can recognize must of necessity be relative, the expression of a certain level of evolution; beyond it again there may be conceptions of right and wrong, good and evil, the very nature of which we could not understand at present, even if they were explained to us. Without exception, therefore, good and evil are terms denoting the relation of certain things, events or beings, to us at our present level of evolution.

top of page

 

Our Social Code of Ethics

We should make a serious mistake if we thought that the fact that nothing is good or evil in itself and that there is no absolute good or absolute evil, makes ethical endeavour impossible or superfluous in our lives. Most certainly nothing is good or evil in itself; good and evil have no reality as entities or powers, yet even so they are very real as relations to us and the most important fact remains that in our lives certain things stand to us in the relation we call 'good,' others in the relation we call 'evil,' certain things are right for us, being a fitting expression of what we are at the present moment, other things are wrong and do not fit. That which fits we call 'right,' that which does not fit we call 'wrong;' in the use of the words 'good ' and 'evil ' we go a little further in that and are wont to call evil the scheme of life which we have outgrown, good both the scheme of life which is ours and that which we have not yet reached. Even so they remain terms denoting a relation of things to us.

What makes our conceptions of good and evil even more difficult to analyze is that many of the things, which we call evil or wicked or which, on the other hand, we suffer as right and acceptable, are but so to us because of the conventions and social customs in which we have been brought up. Thus we call it evil and wicked to torture an animal, yet sanction such torture when it is called sport; we do not hesitate to kill and maim millions of animals for the sake of amusement or vanity while we feel a righteous indignation when we see a man beat his dog. Yet, those same things which we sanction as legalized cruelty would be looked upon, and are looked upon, with uttermost horror in Buddhist countries where harm done to any creature is considered to be always wrong and is never legalized under the name of sport or sanctioned by the demands of fashion.

On the other hand there are things which to us seem immoral, of which we think with horror and which yet in other civilizations were or are customary and not immoral. Thus we look upon the Greek conception of life as a noble and lofty one, yet in ancient Greece certain social customs were common and accepted which at the present day we condemn as criminal. Again we are accustomed to the marriage of one man to one woman and look with horror upon the custom of polygamy, even though the increase of divorce makes the dividing line between modern marriage and either polygamy or polyandry but a slight one. Even so, in theory we condemn them. Yet these forms of marriage are still looked upon as moral in various races and it might well be that, if we had been born among them and been accustomed to them from childhood, they would not in any way strike us as immoral. In fact, if presently another greater and more terrible world-war should break out, in which modes of destruction were to be used, more horribly efficient even than those we have known in the last war, the number of men killed might well be so overwhelming that polygamy would become a necessity to save the race, and no doubt we should soon get used to that which we now consider with horror as immoral. After all we need not necessarily call King Solomon an immoral man because he happened to have several hundred wives, it was his misfortune rather than his fault, and, in the social outlook of his day, which we admire sufficiently to make it part of our sacred Scriptures, his excessively numerous household was not in any way looked upon as a sign of wickedness or immorality. Custom too is relative, but, because it is custom, we forget its relativity and look upon things as absolutely and in themselves right or wrong when in many cases they are but so to us through custom.

Let no one be deceived into thinking that the knowledge that good and evil are but relative implies a relaxation of ethical effort and an indifference to social progress. The danger of any attempt to state the reality of things, which, of necessity, is above the intellect, is that, since the exposition, can never be a complete or a correct one, those who cannot themselves transcend the intellect will attempt to digest intellectually that which belongs to the world of the Real and in doing so will inevitably misunderstand or even distort that which they cannot grasp. It might seem a logical conclusion to say' if nothing is good in itself, if all good and evil are but relative, there is no longer a standard of ethics and behaviour, and whatever I do, however wicked or evil it may seem to some one else, may well be right and good for me. Who is there to impose upon me an absolute code of social ethics and individual morality when I know that all morality is relative, that good and evil do but denote relations? And if there is no ultimate and absolute good what incentive is there left for those who try in uttermost sacrifice to improve social conditions, why reform if even the highest good we can see is but relative? '

It is in such distortions that we see the utter inability of the intellect and of logical reasoning to appreciate reality. Certainly, good and evil are but terms denoting a relation and are not absolute realities in themselves, but that does not for a moment make ethical demand for the individual less stringent or the need for social reform less urgent. Though we can never speak of any behaviour as being absolutely and in itself good, this does not mean that nothing can be said to be good, moral or ethical at all for a community. On the contrary, if the relativity of good and evil is understood it follows inevitably that there must be a code of ethics and of behaviour which for a particular community at a particular time is right and any transgression of which is evil and wrong. In a similar way the relativity of good and evil does in no wise mean that social conditions must ever be stagnant; social evolution remains a reality and the work of the social reformer will ever be the expression of the principles of the next stage in evolution.

Thus the very thought of relativity gives power and authority to the code of ethics of any community since it shows us why, for that community, such a code of ethics is right, must be right. There must of necessity be exceptions in every community, there are always those who are either beyond the social morality of their time and those who have not yet reached its level. The former will suffer since their own code of ethics will cause them to be the victims of their less evolved fellowmen; was not Christ Himself done to death by those to whom His principles seemed but blasphemy? On the other hand, those who are as yet behind the morality of their times will find it hard, if not impossible, to comply with it and, in their transgressions, will lay themselves open to the coercive and corrective measures which all communities institute against those who break their laws.

Even so the criminal laws of a country are never a perfect embodiment of the code of ethics which would be right or fitting for that country; but too often things are punished severely which hardly seem to deserve such punishment and much is left unpunished which yet calls for correction. It is doubtful whether any community has the right ever to punish those who offend against its code of ethics. It is clear that a community has, not only the right, but the duty to protect those who have reached the general level of evolution against the backward ones and to correct these backward ones, whom we call criminals, by placing them in an environment where they can be helped to grow to a higher level of morality. Such measures, however severe they may be, are coercive and corrective ; they cannot be called punishment. The idea of a community retaliating on the individual who has done wrong and exacting 'an eye for an eye ' may fit in with the more bloodthirsty ethics of the Old Testament; it hardly seems suitable for a civilization which protests its belief in One who certainly never taught either punishment or retaliation.

Since the code of right and wrong for a group is not only the expression of the level it has reached in evolution, but already aims at the next stage towards which that group is evolving, morality is ever of a progressive nature, expressing the spirit of the time and also the spirit of the immediate future. Thus the intensity of our endeavour to do the right thing and of our opposition to all that is wrong or evil is strengthened rather than weakened when once we' see the truth of the relativity of good and evil, when the phantom of Evil is laid.

top of page