Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Berdyaevian and Manichaean Approaches to Evil

In class on Monday, we talked at length about what good and evil are in relation to creation, and how evil can come out of a good creation (or if it can at all).  We didn’t discuss it at length, but we bumped up against the problem of how evil can be a negation/non-existence of sorts and still be experienced by us in the physical, existing, forceful way that we experience it.  The traditional Christian perspective seems not to square with our experience, or for that matter with Tolkien’s vision.  In LOTR, evil is a proactive, living force, not only embodied in orcs and trolls but also in the physical tremors and terrors brought on by the Nazgul, or by catching the eye of Sauron in a Palantir.  It seems that the Manichean, dualist model of good against evil matches Tolkien’s world well, and ours in a similar way.
            One approach towards explaining this is the one that Sayers unpacks in quoting Berdyaev: “…we are compelled both to identify evil with non-being and to admit its positive significance. Evil is a return to non-being, a rejection of the world, and at the same time it has a positive significance because it calls forth as a reaction against itself the supreme creative power of the good.”

            Although at first enticing, this view must at least be fleshed out before it can be ascribed to as an explanation for evil as we actually encounter it.  Plenty of evil, as encountered in our lives, offers an opportunity to express the creative power of good, but it seems an overstep to claim that this is what gives it a positive significance.  Whether or not I react well to some horrendous tragedy in my life isn’t what makes said tragedy have a positive significance and impact (I use positive here in the sense of something that really exists and has active effects). 

However, if we peer closer into Tolkien’s world we might see the beginning of an answer.  In his world, Manichean at first sight, evil is actually always a perversion of originally good raw material.  Although the battle between good and evil reoccurs in each age and is never fully finished within the story, the evil always rises by coopting good creations.  In Middle-Earth, this dynamic is particularly easy to see, as whole races are cobbled together as pale shadows of old, good ones.

On this account, evil demands a response from the good.  Frodo taking up the ring, for instance, is a creative choice of good.  Seeing the consequences of evil beginning to play out in his life and circumstances, he chooses to craft a new narrative, although he doesn’t know how it will end.  A similar dynamic occurs in the story of the fall of Numenor, in a more impersonal manner.  The “waves like unto mountains moving with great caps of writhen snow”, an expression and result of great evil, quite literally throws the Numenorean exiles onto the shores of Middle-Earth, where they begin again to create good kingdoms.

            Of course, there are also examples of evil not drawing out good in immediate response, but rather succeeding at twisting more good things to evil: Smeagol’s tragic story is a helpful example of this.  One way of explaining this through the Berdyaevian lens would be to claim that evil demands the response of the good, but that often people are unable to respond that way within themselves.  Smeagol doesn’t have the resources or wherewithal to reject the call of the Ring or seek help.  But this seems in fact to be evidence that evil is a positive force regardless of the creative reaction of good – if it’s so strong that it pushes individuals to greater and greater evil, it can’t be the good left undone or unfulfilled which gives it this power.

The answer we began to discuss in class may be the most helpful, contrasted with both the Manichean and the Berdyaevian approaches.  If we understand free will in every person as the freedom to create, then every subcreator, in the moment of his or her creation, must choose whether they will create something in line with the broader creation of the universe, or whether their creation will borrow from the good to produce something antagonistic to the first, underlying creation.  The ability to partake in the creative gift brings with it the ability to create something toxic, an antimatter version of the good.

Sayers uses two lenses to discuss whether something is good: moral good and aesthetic/fittingness good.  Looking at the world as a supreme creative act, it’s possible to view moral evil as a mar on the good in the singular case of creation/subcreation, and yet a piece of the overall aesthetic vision (which ultimately, in the Second Coming, becomes one with the moral vision through a redemption we can’t understand yet).  This approach might allow us to acknowledge the positive existence of evil while denying it the status of a complement to the good.  In addition, it might help us see how creative acts may bring about evil and yet still be licit as part of a broader creative act.

--Santi Ruiz


  1. Interesting question about whether evil can be "a proactive, living force" while at the same time exist only as a corruption of the good. Can there be evil without a will? You mention tragedy, but are disasters evil in the same way malevolence is? That is, the willful intention to harm? Where does this willful intention to harm come from? "Misused free will" is the problem Tolkien said he hoped to make visible and physical. The evil of his characters depends on the corruption of the will, not simply creation--except that the will is a creature of Iluvatar/God as well. RLFB

  2. RFLB is getting at a distinction that is very important to make with respect to Morgoth. Since the Ainur enter Arda, Melkor is trying to destroy whatever they create. At some point, he seems to settle on corrupting their creations. This clearly exhibits some form of creativity, but it is motivated purely by (1) the desire to mock and minimize the creation of others, and (2) the desire to, eventually, destroy the creation that he had mutilated.