Tag Archives: sin

Desiderius Erasmus & Martin Luther: The Debate Over The Ancients

22A valuable contrast between Erasmus and Luther’s conception of Christianity can be found in their respective views on the question of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. The two distinct conceptions of Christianity that emerge from Luther and Erasmus’ critique of the freedom of the will is both symptomatic and a consequence of how they handle, respectively, the debate over the value of Ancient writings within Christianity.

Why should the treatment of Ancient writings be thought of as pivotal in understanding the respective writings of Luther and Erasmus? The writings of the Ancients acquire new importance when one considers that what occurs in Christianity in the 16th century is a shifting and re-ordering, a re-assimilating of ideas and information handed down from the Scholastics who, in their own time, enacted a similar organizing process on the writings handed down from the early Church Fathers and the Ancients.1 The social and economic forces that give rise to such revolutions and re-configurations of thought go far beyond the scope of this essay, but let it be taken as fact that such large-scale events in the history of ideas occur and are treated in modern scholarship. Neither Luther nor Erasmus’ concepts of the freedom of the will are unique to the Sixteenth Century, nor do their differing conclusions have origins in their respective writings. Their respective ideas on the freedom of the will come from either the re-instituting of St. Augustine’s late writings on grace, as is the case with Luther, or in the case of Erasmus, it is a buttressing and shaping of ideas stemming from Scholastic Theology and the early Church Fathers. In either instance, the question of the value of Ancient writings for Christians is implicitly assumed; for what occurs in the writings of Luther and Erasmus is either the conditional inclusion or explicit rejection of Ancient writings, thus indicating the writings of the Ancients is not simply a benign subject in Sixteenth Century Christianity — in any case, the writings of the Ancients are anything but ignored by Luther and Erasmus. Thus, by including or excluding the writings of the Ancients in Christian thought, Luther and Erasmus re-institute and reshape ideas that neither originated, and they reshape or reject such things as the writings of the Ancients depending on where the answer to a certain question is punctuated (like the freedom of the will).

Luther insists on a sharp distinction between faith in the benevolence of God and faith in the strength of one’s good works to rouse God to an act of benevolence or mercy. Luther insists on man’s incapacity to influence the possibility, or impossibility, of his salvation, and he states categorically that man cannot raise the soul out of the mortal, sinful body through acts performed by the body:

It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties…or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.2

Luther has only provided a negative definition of man’s situation thus far, and the question remains, what can man do for himself? The answer Luther gives is that one can do nothing but hope for God’s grace:

God has put my salvation out of the control of my own will and put it under the control of His, and has promised to save me, not according to my effort or running, but…according to His own grace and mercy…3

Thus, Luther conceives of man’s will as bound and unable to do anything good outwardly. Yet, are man’s actions toward reconciling himself to God the product of man’s incapacity to do well (which would render such actions innocent but nonetheless meaningless), or are man’s actions necessarily evil and nothing more, the consequence of original sin? Luther is resolute on the question of how man’s actions are received by God:

[I]f it be proved that our salvation is not of our own strength or council, but depends on the working of God alone…does it not evidently follow that when God is not present to work in us, everything we do is evil, and that we of necessity act in a way not availing unto our salvation? For if it is not we ourselves, but God only, who works salvation in us, it follows that nothing we do before His workings in us avails unto salvation.4

It is clear that actions give no answer to the question of whether one will or will not receive God’s grace, for actions have no effect upon God who is not moved by actions any more than His ways and reasons can be apprehended by human reason. The result of this view is Luther’s rejection of all forms of pious activity, except perhaps the activity of hating the fallen world and the fallen men who inhabit it. The following citations give a more complete picture of the degree to which man errs in his estimation of himself in relation to God: “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God,” and further, “[t]o love God above all things by nature is by nature a fictitious term, a chimera, as it were.”5 Such errors, resulting from the corrupt nature of anything willed by man, are the objects of Luther’s hatred and scorn. Yet there exists a paradox of sorts in the temporary remedy Luther offers for the problem of man’s corrupt will that cannot love God wholly and desires to replace God: “To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.”6 The paradox of the command to hate the world and the self is that neither of these acts implies God will accept man on account of his actions, no matter how extreme or honestly intentioned, for salvation is beyond man’s control. Like Luther’s conception of the human will bound to the very source of evil itself (pride), Luther’s conception of how man is to approach God, if such possibility even exists, is through mortification and complete effacement of the self. The absolute divine freedom of God’s power to bestow or refuse grace to man is all that is left for man, and nothing in between; except self-hatred as a spiritual exercise. Luther, in raising the concept of grace to the level of apotheosis, almost precludes for man the necessity of living, or even ever having been born.

In the exchange of ideas between Luther and Erasmus on the question of grace alone versus free will, Erasmus is in earnest to point out to Luther the paradoxical nature of what Christian life becomes in light of man’s evident inability to do anything good or beneficial for himself. Upon this head, Erasmus writes,

Let us assume the truth of what Wycliffe has taught and Luther has asserted, namely, that everything we do happens not on account of our free will, but out of sheer necessity. What could be more useless than to publish this paradox to the world?… How many weak ones would continue in their perpetual and laborious battle against their own flesh? What wicked fellow would henceforth try to better his conduct?7

Indeed, this strikes at the heart of the matter. Erasmus does not concede to Luther’s implicit assumption that Luther has found out the mind of God, i.e., the necessity of grace, through some undisclosed means, and that Luther’s assumptions are necessarily infallible. Man thinks himself free, but such is not the case, says Luther. Man, by Luther’s definition of him, has become the very mechanism of sin, and God has all but abandoned man in his corrupt condition, leaving behind only the faint hope in man of receiving an unpredicated salvation.

Erasmus observes that Luther marginalizes a large portion of Revealed theology in his radical claim that man’s will is implacably bound by evil and only God’s grace can save souls otherwise justly bound for hell. Erasmus’ response to the entirety of Luther’s anti-theology of grace is thus summarized:

It is incompatible with the infinite love of God for man that a man’s striving with all his might for grace should be frustrated”, and, “it results that no sinner should be overconfident, none should despair. No one perishes except through his own fault.8

Clearly Erasmus understands salvation is what is at stake in discerning what underlies the debate over the will as free versus the will as bound; it is precisely what salvation means to Christians, and where and how to seek salvation that is the issue upon which all other issues in the lives of Christians rests. Erasmus concludes, contra Luther, that actions qua actions in Christian life are neither detrimental nor vain, as Luther has it, but indeed such things as religious ritual and acts of piety, Erasmus maintains, are all necessary for Christians to live a life of obedience to God. Erasmus sums up his position on the issue of how the freedom of the will leaves ample room for virtuous actions to operate as a conduit for Divine grace:

Sin has corrupted [free will], but not extinguished it…Even the most obstinate sinner will retain this grace which is common to all mankind. Thus, everyone is free to speak or to keep silent, to sit or to stand up, to help the poor, to read holy books, to listen to sermons. Some now hold that such acts in themselves can in no way lead to eternal life…[but] such works, because of God’s immense goodness can prepare for the reception of grace, and move God to be merciful.9

It could be suggested that ‘immense goodness’ is precisely what Luther’s God is lacking. That Erasmus does not deny the function of grace for salvation is evident, yet Erasmus maintains that man, while divided from a perfect union with God, must take certain steps toward the repairing of the schism between God and man that had its origin in man’s first disobedience. Men’s good works are, to Erasmus, symbolic gestures that declare an intention contrary to the will to sin and do evil — that is, contrary to the example of Adam and Eve. Though man can never cure himself of sin, Erasmus has Luther and Wycliffe in mind when he maintains that living should not be discarded as a vain and worthless endeavor in lieu of “the private opinions of one or two men” that stress what is wicked and damnable in man. Let this stand as a sufficient account of Erasmus’ position on the freedom of the will, and press ahead to the issue of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. By doing so, more light will be shed on the consequences that follow from Luther and Erasmus’ contrary positions on free will versus grace alone.

To what extent the writings of the Ancients should be tolerated or proscribed in the practice of Christianity is the hub around which many of Luther and Erasmus’ contentions on the matter of the freedom of the will revolve, and is central to what both Luther and Erasmus conceive Christian life as ultimately representing. Scholastic philosophy and theology provide a touchstone of where Luther and Erasmus are apparently in agreement, for both soundly reject what Scholasticism can be generally taken to stand for: the conjunction of the Christian faith with Aristotle. Luther’s position on the question of Scholasticism is wholly negative, and can be briefly summarized by citing a few of Luther’s sweeping pronouncements against both Aristotle and his inheritors:

It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle…Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle…Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This in opposition to the Scholastics.10

These pronouncements encapsulate Luther’s abhorrence of Aristotelian philosophy and its influence on Christian thought; additionally, and on a more personal note, Luther declared Aristotle to be a “damnable, arrogant, pagan rascal,” and a “beast” to boot. To round out Luther’s condemnation on the possibility of fides and ratio in union, a few passages touching directly on Luther’s reaction to the Scholastic influence in Christianity are necessary:

For over 1,200 years the church remained orthodox. On no occasion, and in no place, do the Fathers mention the word transubstantiation—monstrous whether as a locution or as an idea—until the specious philosophy of Aristotle took root in the church, and attained a rank growth in the last three hundred years. During this time, many other perverse conclusions were arrived at. Examples are: “That the divine Being is not begotten, nor does it beget”; “That the soul is the form to which the human body corresponds as the substance”; and the like.11

The period of 300 years mentioned by Luther corresponds to the age in which Scholastic philosophy flourished in Europe. This business of philosophy, viz., pagan philosophy (no other kind exists for Luther), Luther understands as a fraudulent activity that signifies nothing about, nor avails the condition of the inner man, which is one of sin and failure. Thus, in Luther’s view, the writings of the Ancients, be it in the shape of pagan philosophy or any other, can do nothing to gratify man’s need for salvation; philosophic endeavor only places in man a false sense of confidence and a false sense of attainment. In short, there is, for Luther, neither justification for philosophy, nor any endeavor that places itself between the individual and God. To theologians,

…the blind pagan teacher, Aristotle, is of more consequence than Christ. Aristotle’s writings…should be set aside along with all others that boast they treat of natural objects, for in fact they have nothing to teach about things natural or spiritual…God has made him [Aristotle] a plague on us on account of our sins.12

Throughout the work entitled The Pagan Servitude of the Church, Luther battles the doctrines taught by Scholastic Philosophy by using the same Aristotelian jargon employed by the Scholastic philosophers themselves in his effort to demonstrate the absurdity and uselessness of Aristotelian and Scholastic teaching. After a lengthy stint of criticism, Luther tires of the issue he has been battering away at and mordantly remarks,

Out of this theory has arisen that Babel of a philosophy of a constant quantity distinct from substance, till the stage is reached when they themselves do not know which are the accidents and which the substance…[b]ut let us not carry on our dialectics too long.13

The doctrines elaborated in the Scholastic tradition are to Luther nothing more than brazen complications of the simple precepts contained in Scripture, precepts that beg of no further elaboration. Luther draws the conclusion that, “[t]hough philosophy cannot grasp it [the precepts of Scripture], yet faith can. The authority of the word of God goes beyond the capacity of our mind.”14 Faith, then, is what’s necessary concerning salvation, not philosophy. All reliance on the power of reason, and similarly, the power of the will, Luther tells us, are acts of “concupiscence against God,” and reliance on reason or the will is “evil and a fornication of the spirit.”15 Luther views Scholasticism and piety as expressions of man’s desire to be God, to topple God from the seat of Judgment. The unapologetic rejection of any function of reason has its parallel in Luther’s rejection of all outward displays of piety — and both intellectual pursuit and piety are finally condemned under Luther’s doctrine of grace. Such is Luther’s grand thesis by which he refashions the Christian faith from the top down.

The absolute rejection of Church tradition and traditional forms of wisdom as practices or statements without authority or necessity is the bedrock of Luther’s radical conception of Christianity. Responding to Luther’s writings on grace, Erasmus points out this position: “Luther recognizes no authority of any author, however approved, except that of the canonical books…”16 Erasmus, too, accepts the canonical books as the final authority, but he also recognizes the decisions of the Church as authoritative, and the acceptance of such decisions indicate toleration of sources of wisdom peripheral to the canonical books. Erasmus addresses the use of the writings of the Ancients in a way that is superficially similar to the methodology employed by Luther, yet Erasmus comes to conclusions very different from those drawn by Luther. Some of the similarities should first be noticed. Erasmus denounces the Scholastic’s penchant for interpreting Christian doctrine through the lens of pagan philosophy. Writing in an incredulous vein, he ponders the possibility if ever “the apostles, who baptized far and wide…taught what are the formal, material, efficient, and final causes of baptism.”17 The following is a prime example of Erasmus’ derision of the Scholastic philosophers, and will be sufficient to understand his view and see that he accords with Luther on this point:

Then…putting on a whole new face, they propose some question of theology ‘never heard of before on earth or in heaven,’ and this they take for an occasion to show off the higher reaches of their art. This is where they attain the peak of theological pomposity, battering our ears with majestic titles and citing Distinguished Doctors, Subtle Doctors, Supersubtle Doctors, Seraphic Doctors…They scatter over the unlearned audience their syllogistic majors and minors, their conclusions, corollaries, ridiculous hypotheses, and hair-splitting distinctions….And this is how they assemble their chimera, a monster such as Horace never imagined…18

Clearly Erasmus wants to refute the use of Aristotelian logic by theologians as a tool that, for no other reason, guarantees the theologian possessing the greatest subtlety triumph in religious controversy. The mysteries of the Christian faith contain for both Erasmus and Luther mysteries that, like the peace of God, surpass all understanding. Erasmus does not assume such mysteries exist merely for the sake of man’s finding an efficient and tidy solution for them. He states his position on the question of religious mysteries, though he is vague in defining boundaries on which to judge, saying,

Some deserve study, perhaps a solution: I don’t deny it. But there are a great many others that are better ignored than explored (it’s an important part of knowledge not to know certain things), and still others were better off withholding judgment than making a decision. Finally, if a question does have to be decided, I’d like to have the decision reached reverently, not peremptorily, and on the basis of Holy Scripture, not some petty rationalizations worked out by men.19

Further, Erasmus poses a question that is also implicit in those writings of Luther that treat of Aristotle and the Scholastics, “What…does Christ have in common with Aristotle?”20 Luther’s reply: Aristotle has nothing to do with Christ, for “the Holy Spirit is greater than Aristotle”(viz., greater authority than Aristotle). 21

One final passage from Erasmus may be cited to connect what has already been mentioned on this point, and advance yet a step further. The following passage has a two-fold significance in this account of Erasmus’ thought, for not only does it express what has already been made clear regarding Erasmus’ criticism of Aristotle and Scholasticism, but it indicates that Erasmus has in mind concerns of a more scholarly nature, and in this respect he goes far beyond the single-mindedness of Luther’s thinking:

[T]he present mode [of theology]—not to mention the base barbarity of its crude and artificial dialect, its deliberate ignorance of all good literature, its indifference to languages—is so contaminated with the teachings of Aristotle, the inventions of petty human beings, and the laws of pagans, that I can hardly taste in it a faint flavor of the pure undiluted Christ. (Emphasis added).22

What is most important to notice here is what Erasmus affixes to the criticisms of Aristotle we have already seen so many examples of, and that is his criticism of the modern ‘mode’ of theology for its barbaric ignorance of languages and literature. The next question must necessarily be, which languages and which literatures, does Erasmus have in mind? Erasmus is probably not referring to Latin since it was the ‘universal’ language of the Church, of men of letters, and of scholars in the Sixteenth Century. Considering that the “five-languaged Saint Jerome” stands as an exemplar of Biblical scholarship in many ways to Erasmus, the languages referred to must be the original languages of the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek. Erasmus’ letter to Martin Dorp defending his ‘mock encomium’ bears this out, for Erasmus several times admonishes Dorp to add to his studies “at least the study of Greek literature.” But Erasmus fine-tunes his persuading of Dorp to take up Greek by baiting his request with something more compelling than the study of Greek literature — the study of Scripture:

[I]f you imagine that, as things stand, you can gain real knowledge of the art of theology without command of the languages, especially that in which most of the holy scriptures are written, then you are badly mistaken….without knowledge of Greek, scholarship is lame and blind.23

For Erasmus, knowledge of Hebrew and Greek may indeed be primary to understanding the Scriptures, but Erasmus is also completely familiar with the writings of the Ancients, both Greek and Latin. His book of Adages contains a wealth of quotations drawn from Greek and Latin sources, and the Praise of Folly is littered with references to Classical literature, to say nothing of the numerous other works of Erasmus which contain similar matter.

Erasmus may deny the possibility of the conjunction of faith and reason, but that does not prevent him from conjoining the character of Christ with an allusion to Silenus, the drunken and obese companion of Bacchus, “I myself in my collection of Adages…have called the Apostles Sileni, and indeed referred to Christ himself as a sort of Silenus.” The interest here lies in the implicit reference made to Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, wherein Socrates’ speech-loving interlocutor, Phaedrus, compares Socrates to Silenus in the same context as Erasmus regarding the Apostles and Christ. This kind of allusion would be unthinkable if Erasmus holds the same view as Luther, where the activities of mankind are rendered incomprehensible and useless in light of the corruption of original sin and God’s pending judgment. The scholarly interests of Erasmus have no abiding place in Luther’s view of the world, where the learning of Greek in order to read Classical literature must be considered a malfunction of good sense, or worse. Luther recognizes this malfunctioning of good sense in Erasmus, for Luther takes him to task many times for committing what he views as nothing short of idolatry of Ancient writers:

What shall I say here, Erasmus? You ooze Lucian from every pore; you swill Epicurus by the gallon. If you do not think this topic [free will] a necessary concern for Christians, kindly withdraw from the lists…Plato and Socrates may be good friends, but truth must be honored above all.24

Luther, though characteristically extreme, rightly understands Erasmus in this latter assertion, for Erasmus himself confesses as much of his own accord, “so great is my dislike of assertions that I prefer the views of skeptics whenever the inviolable authority of Scripture and the decision of the Church permit.”25 With this confirmation by Erasmus we are immediately back in the company of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, all of whom defended in various ways the freedom of the will, but more to the point, Erasmus’ distaste for assertions recalls the Ephectic School of skepticism, who taught the suspension of judgment in all things.

Now, having taken notice of some of Erasmus and Luther’s arguments, we have a solution to the question posed from the beginning, i.e., whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value at all for Christians. The answer to this particular question, though, is only meaningful in light of such particular views on the freedom of the will contrasted to the necessity of grace alone. Without two such opposing suppositions, how the writings of the Ancients are used (or not used), and by whom, is an unsupportable topic to give attention to, for it is difficult to locate, presently, two individuals with precisely this sort of concern weighing upon their minds. But with Luther and Erasmus we have two definite positions to consider on the question of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. So the next consideration is to give an account of how Luther on one hand, and Erasmus on the other, envision the lives of Christians to be — with and without the writings of the Ancients, with and without the freedom of the will.

Erasmus’ phrase, the ‘pure undiluted Christ,’ can be understood as a line that demarcates how Luther understands the lives of Christians to be, opposed to how Erasmus conceives of Christian life. But what does the phrase the ‘pure undiluted Christ’ mean? In the case of Luther and Erasmus, it means two very different things, and points to two different conceptions of Christianity, as I will try to illustrate. The figure of Christ purified of everything worldly, philosophical, sinful, Aristotelian and Scholastic, is Luther’s model of rebellion, Luther’s revolutionary archetype. Although Luther conceives of man’s will as unfree and bound by the shackles of sin, Luther nevertheless has the project for humanity to work on. His tyrannical concept of God leaves nothing for men in the sphere of action, not good works or any other act that can be thought of; Luther’s morality is a morality of intentions and nothing more.26 Faith, then, not philosophy, reason, or the will, is what must rule men’s hearts and minds. But faith cannot abolish sin, only grace can. So the project for Luther becomes, in his righteous indignation, the overturning of every bastion of worldliness, from the Church to the universities, all of which he views as “but wide open gates to hell.”27 Faith in the figure of the pure undiluted Christ is the antidote to the poison of reason and the will; He represents the infallible, eternal judgment of God, as well as Luther’s paradigm for religious revolution. A Christian may no longer find the trappings of his faith in the world, for Christianity can not be practiced, works are of no use to man. Faith and hope in God alone is what is left for Christians, and the necessity of rebellion from any authority that is not God pure and undiluted:

Furthermore, to put aside all kinds of works, even contemplation, meditation, and all that the soul can do, does not help. One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.28

Erasmus’ knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of Scripture, is employed in his research and efforts to sort out the errors contained in the Vulgate, errors which have complicated Scriptural hermeneutics and led theologians into voluminous disagreements. All such problems Erasmus undertakes to disentangle through his translating of the New Testament into Latin from the oldest known Greek and Hebrew sources, an effort akin to the thirteenth labor of Hercules. Uncompromising scholarship is, for Erasmus, a way to seek out the ‘pure and undiluted Christ’ of whom he speaks. This does not imply the advantage of study for its own sake, or as an end in itself, nor study as the highest good (theoria), as Aristotle has it, but study and learning for the sake of understanding what God desires for man, how God wants man to live. In Erasmus’ letter to Martin Dorp, Dorp is castigated for asserting that no one should “put any trust in the books of those who have deserted the Roman church.” This is an absurdity to Erasmus, and he counters with,

What are you saying? That we shouldn’t read the books of those who have deserted the Christian faith? Why then is so much authority granted to Aristotle, a pagan who never so much as heard of the Christian faith? The entire Jewish race departed from Christ; are we to pay no attention to the psalmists and prophets who wrote in their native language?29

The correction of the young Dorp’s opinions does not stop there, for the use and value of the writing of the Ancients still remains to be demonstrated, in light of what the Ancients can teach about Scripture:

Saint Augustine in his last years, when he had long since been created a bishop, expressed grief in his Confessions that as a young man he had avoided works of literature which would have been of the greatest use to him in interpreting Scripture.30

Here, then, in Erasmus’ arguments for how the writings of the Ancients benefit the Christian understanding, is his answer to Luther’s vision of man as a creature of untold misfortune, paralyzed in thought, word, and deed. Erasmus’ Christian man has living blood in him because he does not, and cannot, possess all the answers to the mysteries of religion, but his will is nevertheless free, even in a state of semi-ignorance. Because man’s nature contains many facets and complexities, so too, thought Erasmus, must his life in the practice of Christianity; to reduce the profundity of the Gospel message to a deterministic formula that precludes more in the practice of Christianity that it admits would imply the abrogation of the practice of the Christian faith itself. What would be left of man qua man? Acts of piety, like the activity of scholarship, is beneficial in turning individual men toward God; man, for Erasmus, cannot understand the deepest things of God, that is clear; but he can, in his thoughts and deeds, undertake to fulfill the sort of life exemplified by the ‘pure undiluted Christ.’

1 Ref. Josef Pieper, Scholasticism, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend Indiana, 2001), pp 22-5:

Probably the boundary line marking the end of the Middle Ages can be more distinctly discerned if we keep our eyes fixed on the second factor we have been discussing. I mean the astonishing fact that the young peoples who penetrated into the Roman Empire from the north should have considered it their task to master and assimilate the accumulated body of tradition they found, including the enormous harvest of patristic theology as well as the wisdom of the ancient world. For only in the light of this fact can we understand one decisive trait of medieval thinking: its ‘scholarly’ aspect—to which, after all, the name ‘scholasticism’ refers. Truly to understand Scholasticism, we must bear in mind that it was above all an unprecedented process of learning, a scholarly enterprise of enormous proportions that went on for several centuries. If both the pagan and the Christian heritage of the ancient world were to be truly incorporated, ordering of the existing material undoubtedly came first and foremost. Moreover, that material had to be ordered in terms of being made accessible to teaching and learning. Inevitably then, the whole prosaic work of organizing, sorting, and classifying acquired a hitherto unknown importance.

This passage relates in many ways to the task Erasmus undertook in collating a great number of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts for his translation of the New Testament into Latin. This passage also seems to spell out the existence of an underlying mindset or attitude that may have been more pervasive in the Middle Ages, but existed nonetheless into the Sixteenth Century and beyond. The example of the Seventeenth Century Encyclopedists stands out especially when one considers the hypothesized origin of the ‘encyclopedic’ attitude for the collecting and ordering of information is imputed in the above passage to the Scholastics. Such an idea takes on profound relevance because the perpetuation of the ‘encyclopedic’ attitude itself becomes so central to the proliferation the history of the arts and sciences in the West.

2 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Anchor Books, New York, 1962), p 54.

3 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, translated and edited by Ernst F. Winter (Continuum Publishing Company, 2002), p 136.

4 Ibid. p 111.

5 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 17-18.

6 Ibid. #95

7 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 11

8 Ibid. p 29-30.

9 Ibid. pp 28-29

10 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 43,44,50.

11 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 267.

12 Ibid. p 470.

13 Ibid. pp 268-9. See also S. T. Coleridge’s comment on Luther: “Luther—a hero, fettered, indeed, with prejudices—but with those very fetters he would knock out the brains of a modern Fort Esprit.” From S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (The Folcroft Press, 1969), p 11.

14 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 270.

15 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 22.

16 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 13.

17 Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams (Norton Critical Editions, New York, 1989), p 59.

18 Ibid. p 65.

19 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 239.

20 Ibid. p 239.

2118Martin Luther, The Pagan Servitude of the Church, in Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 270.

22 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 239.

23 Ibid. p 244.

24 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 175.

25 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 6.

26 This idea of a morality of intentions in Luther was drawn from the lectures of Dr. Janowski.

27 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 476.

28 Ibid. p 54.

29 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 247.

30 Ibid. p246.

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Nihilism, Evil, & God: Dostoevsky Versus Nietzsche

img052Friedrich Nietzsche is generally regarded as having given the par excellence account of the origin and consequences of nihilism, deriving from his conception of the death of God. Yet Fyodor Dostoevsky offers an alternative account of the cause of nihilism in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879), that locates the cause of nihilism not in the death of God, but in man’s understanding of God in relation to the problem of evil. Far from Nietzsche’s representation of God as an exploded fiction, God Himself is implicated as the primary source of the conflict between the evil and suffering that mankind experiences, and the deficit in reasons for why, if God is just and benevolent, man was ever allowed to suffer at all.

Nietzsche’s theory of the “will to power” stands as a challenge to Dostoevsky’s cautionary axiom, “if there is no God, everything is permissible.” The “will to power” is simultaneously Nietzsche’s all-inclusive answer to the mysteries of human psychology, and his answer to the question of how one should live. By inverting the consequence of Dostoevsky’s claim that the absence of God entails the absence of any restriction on human behavior, Nietzsche spins his predictions and hopes for the future of mankind out of the unlimited “permission” granted by nihilism. The absence of God does not precipitate the absolute social and moral ruin of man; on the contrary, within the shapeless matter of nihilism lies the means for crafting man’s redemption without God, his liberation from all empty dichotomies (good and evil, true and false, subject and object, cause and effect), and the possibility for his re-acquaintance with the total potential of the will that has lain dormant since the end of Imperial Rome.

Nietzsche holds that “the character of existence” is inherently brutal, and men possess no special quality to distinguish them from brute beasts, except a talent for self-deception — men dream of themselves as created just a little lower than the angels on the scale of created things, when in reality they are brutes that possess the same unlimited desire for power common to any beast — even the most cursory examination of the habits of man confirms the fact.1 Dostoevsky enters a similar description of human nature in The Brothers Karamazov, but with the additional implicit premise that man’s barbaric actions are a result of the great distance that lies between man and God— God being perfect and lacking nothing, and man being imperfect and sorely deficient in his capacities and his “Euclidean” faculties:2

By the way [says Ivan], a Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow… told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in all parts of Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by their ears to fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them — all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel… I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness. 3

Because weakness and corruption is common to the nature of mankind, it is only a matter of time before men become cannibals and butchers of other men without the authority and Providence of God to restrain them from giving free reign to the worst side of their nature. This is the reason why no flowering of culture and art is foreseen in the conclusion to Dostoevsky’s tales of the madmen that nihilism produces. In his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the fictional society built on the totalitarian principles of the Grand Inquisitor is awash with men’s blood, with torture as its chief art.

Within this work, Dostoevsky provides two conclusions concerning why nihilism, which renders mankind’s experience of evil and suffering meaningless and absurd, can never supply a starting or stopping point in mankind’s search for the meaning of why he experiences evil. The first is that man is foremost a moral being — he possesses a conscience that acts as a guide for moral behavior. Yet the conscience, if God does not exist, has no other function than as a hindrance that can be gotten rid of by habituation since the categories of good and evil, true and false do not have any objective existence; as the “active” nihilist might maintain, whenever the bite of conscience is silenced, the resulting sensation of increased power “presupposes a resistance overcome.” If the conscience that prevents man from doing anything and everything that comes into his head is silenced, and his actions, no matter how extreme, contain no further consequences than those imposed by positive law, then he has nothing greater to fear (should he be caught) than punishment by a civil authority. If God is not watching, mankind, in this case, has no moral incentive that prevents him from lapsing into brutality and cannibalism.

Alyosha Karamazov, one of the three fraternal protagonists in The Brothers Karamazov, provides the second reason why nihilism as an answer does not suffice (and this must be taken in light of the first reason): he maintains that only if God Himself suffers along with mankind can God be exonerated for having ever allowed even one man to suffer. God, Alyosha maintains, has come in the Person of Christ and has given “His innocent blood for all and everything.” This formulation, which comes, in The Brothers Karamazov, at the end of the chapter titled “Rebellion,” is illuminated by contrast with the statement, “if there is not God, everything is permissible.” The latter is a core statement in The Brothers Karamazov, and serves to crystallize the meaning and purpose of Ivan’s stories of human barbarism, and his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism constitutes a broad base from which are derived the dichotomies of master/slave moralities, “active” and “passive” nihilism, and his conception of the “overman.” The fact that Nietzsche appears not to place an overwhelming emphasis on nihilism as the center of his thinking in his published works does not disprove the implicit fact that if nihilism as a foundation is taken away, the project of the revaluation of values, as Nietzsche conceives of it, makes no sense. One must postulate nihilism as the antecedent of all events (namely the death of God), and all modes of acting, in order to attempt to move beyond nihilism. The so-called death of God is another way of proclaiming the end of the possibility of metaphysics as an objective construct. Metaphysics, by definition, is the search for transcendent principles that exist independently of the material world, and dictate the rules concerning how all things material things (subject to generation and corruption) are essentially ordered. It can be said, then, that the existence of metaphysical principles is tantamount to an ordered kosmos. As a result of the death of God, the possibility of attaining objective knowledge about the world (particularly, for our purposes, in the area of ethics) is rendered an impossibility, as all truth claims are without any ultimate significance or meaning beyond what the individual attaches to them. The universe, human life, and morality have the value of nil after God ceases to stand as the absolute guarantor of meaning in the universe, as the purposeful creator of human life, &c. Without the death of God, there is no validity to the genealogical critique of values, nor is there any such thing as the self-deception of “passive” nihilism for the individual to extricate with his “will to power.” Where else in Nietzsche’s vision of the world but with the death of God could nihilism originate, or the genealogical critique of values for that matter? The conclusion is that nihilism, precipitated by the death of God, is the necessary basis on which all of Nietzsche’s thought rests.

If, for Nietzsche, the death, or non-existence, of God is the catalyst for nihilism, in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brother’s Karamazov, the catalyst for nihilism is, ironically, God Himself; or rather, the inscrutable nature and will of God. In the chapter entitled “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” Christ returns to earth “in the most terrible time of the Inquisition” (i.e., the 16th century). He performs miracles, and has a magnetic and transforming effect on the mass of people that gather in awe around Him; but the Grand Inquisitor does not receive Christ’s unexpected visit in quite the same way, and promptly has Christ arrested and thrown in prison. Upbraiding and haranguing Christ for undoing the Church’s work of rescuing humanity from its misery, the Grand Inquisitor maintains that humanity is wretched due to the fact that the moral example Christ set for man is impossible for man to live up to, or even to approximate. The Grand Inquisitor avows that Christ gave men their freedom from the Mosaic Law when all they wanted was bread; that is, Christ’s gift of freedom was bestowed on a recipient ill suited to accept such a gift, being “weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious.” 4 Man was previously guided in his every action according to the dictates of the Mosaic Law — which commandments are characterized by necessity and orderliness — but Christ’s work abolished the Law and replaced it with man’s freedom to choose between good and evil, having only His superhuman ideal as a model for his actions.

According to the Grand Inquisitor, the desire of all men’s hearts is not the exercising of their freedom to choose between good and evil out of the resources of their respective conscience, but to be ruled and ordered under a lawgiver, who’s sole purpose is to take such decision making out of their hands. The Grand Inquisitor strikes upon a very simple remedy for the absurd meaninglessness of human suffering, but only after he himself spent nearly a lifetime subduing his flesh and subsisting on roots in the desert in order to make himself “free and perfect” before God:

[A]ll his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it was no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that thy will never be capable of using their freedom… In his old age he reached the clear conviction that nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit [the devil] could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly “incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.” And so, convinced of this, he sees that he must follow the council of the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least on the way think themselves happy. And note, the deception is [carried out] in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long.5

Christ came to give men their freedom from the Mosaic Law. After Christ’s work, the written law is no longer binding over the hearts of men; the conscience is now the seat of judgment between good and evil, and “man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as a guide”6 Men though, according to the Inquisitor’s estimation, are incontinent — they have an inability to do what is good and moral, while having perfect knowledge of what goodness and morality demand. Freedom is the most terrible burden God could have placed on humanity, since so few are capable of being consistent with so perfect an exemplar as Christ. The presence of God’s moral standard in the world is an burden that men can neither throw off nor endure, and so men alienate the freedom given them by Christ as a gift — an ill conceived gift indeed, according to the Inquisitor, and he gladly takes the freedom from men and exchanges it for happiness.

Under the dictatorship of the conscience, a corollary to the gift of freedom, man is unhappy and ever mindful of his continual failings when compared to the life lived by the theanthropus, Christ. Conversely, under the dictatorship of divine law, or even the rule of a civil authority, man’s life is content because his conscience is clear — the decision to do this-or-that, or not, is never his to make, and thus ultimate responsibility for the consequence of his actions is taken from him as well. In the Grand Inquisitor’s indictment of Christ, it is Christ’s eradication of the Mosaic Law that has placed God beyond the reach of man’s ken, and beyond the goal of man’s “merely mortal” activities:

And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest forever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and emblematic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all… for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.7

When God bestowed the gift of free moral agency in the matter of salvation to a weak and rebellious animal such as man, the nature of God’s decision demonstrated that God’s will is radically free to alter, modify, or abolish what He has previously decreed, and furthermore, the divine decision does not have to accord with man’s abilities or faculties. Christ is, as He declares Himself to be, not the destroyer, but the fulfillment of the Law,8 thus the end of the Law is freedom through Christ. Man, whether under the old Law or the new, is entirely reliant on his own abilities and faculties, and can neither destroy the Law himself, nor can he fulfill it — thus, even what God decrees specifically for man is in every sense “exceptional, vague and emblematic.” The same God who led the Ancient Hebrews out of slavery and through the wilderness has deliberately become an obsolescent God with the advent of the Incarnation, and His sinless example. How is man to be saved under such a situation, and what guarantee does man have that God will not again alter the rules, leaving man’s mind, actions, and hopes clouded even further? Indeed, such a possibility always exists if God is bound by nothing, and acts according to His omnipotent will.

The eternal standards of truth, good and evil, and the way to salvation, are all overturned by the advent of Christ’s example, which example is set by God’s free choice. Being unable to grasp the full capacity of this change, man is forced to turn to other resources, and rely on other faculties that were not necessary in order to adhere to the Mosaic Law, such as reason, in order to discern between good and evil, and to determine by what means he might be saved — by God, or by human industry. Nihilism, according to Dostoevsky, is a result of man’s bewilderment before and omnipotent and willful God (and not because God simply does not exist); man’s subsequent reliance on himself and his own powers is due to the fact that he is forced to compensate in light of the fact that what God has determined as good cannot be relied upon to be good for man.

The Grand Inquisitor embodies Dostoevsky’s particular conception of nihilism, viz., and nihilism’s revolutionary and bleakly individualistic spirit. When Christ returns unexpectedly, performing miracles and disrupting the proceedings of the Church’s authorities, the Grand Inquisitor demands to know why Christ has come, and assumes that His visit is for no reason other than to spite man’s obviously epistemically precarious position, and spur on his desire to move beyond such a position. Christ never says a word during the whole of the Inquisitor’s interrogation, and even to the Inquisitor’s most tremendous disclosures there is no discernible response from Christ:

Just eight centuries ago, we [the Catholic Church] took from him [the Devil] what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work… It has long to await completion and the earth has yet much to suffer, but we shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man.9

Man, taking up the sword of Caesar, does not overcome God, nor can he ever — the Grand Inquisitor has no illusions that his vision of a utopian Rome is for any other world than the one inhabited by man, and can never extend into the sphere of the divine. Only by seizing upon and cultivating the Promethean spirit can man do for himself what Christ rejected with scorn to do, that is, to found a universal state and attain universal happiness. Because only a few men, out of the whole host of mankind, have the potential to come close to living up to Christ’s moral example, the Inquisitor asks Christ what need mankind-at-large has for a God that has overestimated man’s capacity to manage the intellectual and bodily exertions that necessarily come with the exercise of freedom? In the nihilistic spirit of the Promethean, the Grand Inquisitor finally commands Christ, “Go, and come no more… Come not at all, never, never!”10 The Promethean efforts of a few men (i.e., the Grand Inquisitor and a few others like him) to rescue humanity from self-destruction and to bring about universal happiness provides the foundation for totalitarianism; the incomprehensible God is replaced by the institution of a state religion, which is actually no religion at all, only an absolute civil authority armed at all points in the tinsel and trappings of religion.

Nietzsche holds that to believe in the existence of objective values is to believe in an illusion that is devoid of any constructive meaning, and therefore nihilistic: “In religion the constraint is lacking to consider ourselves as value positing.”11 Nietzsche maintains that the capacity to actively create values necessarily takes into account the many nuances and shades of distinctions involved man’s experience of the world, and reflects man’s actual subjective experience in ways that all closed (and therefore passive) forms of value judgments fail to. The origin of nihilism, for Nietzsche, lies in two opposing directions: the first is moral passivity (which he conceives of as a negation of existence, and therefore lacking any actual meaning), and the second is the power to actively create values that have meaning insofar as they are powerful. Regarding the former, when the will of the self is subordinated to the will of God, or alienated to what Nietzsche often refers to as a “beyond,” the content of experience (that is, willing, hating, loving, &c.) is negated, and man’s “will to power,” which is an affirmation of life, is replaced by the “will to nothingness,” or the denial of life:

metaphysics, religion, morality, science — all of them only products of his [man’s] will to art, to lie, to flight from “truth”… This ability itself, thanks to which he violates reality by means of lies… He himself is after all a piece of reality, truth, nature: how should he not also be a piece of genius in lying… That the character of existence is to be misunderstood — profoundest and supreme secret motive behind all that is virtue, science, piety, artistry… Man has once again become master of “material” — master of truth! — And whenever man rejoices… he rejoices as an artist, he enjoys himself as power, he enjoys the lie as his form of power.12

When man’s moral character is shaped according to the dictates of a universal moral norm, the question of “what kind of man should I be” is simply a given — the answer lies not with the will of the individual, but with the will of God. Man’s nature is shaped not by his intellect, but by the dictates of his will; the justification behind all moral and intellectual hierarchies is the power that one interpretation of the world has over all other interpretations — power equals precedence. In his study of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Gilles Deleuze points out that, “We know what transmutation or transvaluation means for Nietzsche: not a change of values, but a change in the element from which the value of value derives.”13 This shift he describes represents not the reversal of evil transmuting into good, or vice-versa, but that all interpretations of what is good or evil, or beneficial or harmful, are materializations of the “element” that Nietzsche calls the “will to power.” As a source or criterion for all valuations, the “will to power” transcends all valuations of good and evil, and true and false, by transferring the source of all moral standards from the objective and eternal perspective, to the subjective individual perspective. Rather than delimiting thought or action by assigning to them certain levels of truth or falsity in relation to an abstract objective standard of true and false, thought and action are more effectively measured according to the quantity of power behind, or inhering in a given thought or action. This is why it is better to say that the individual will naturally seeks power — all individuals have discrete perspectives on the world, and power is the element of differentiation between individuals; and since there is nothing that inherently binds one perspective to another, power determines the precedence of thought and action between individuals. By this rationale, the question of “what kind of man should I be” is always open-ended, because there is no given direction, save that the will’s sole desire is for the increase of power.

Nietzsche divides nihilism, as was mentioned above, into two rather flexible, basic categories — “active” nihilism and “passive” nihilism. “Active” nihilism is nihilism divested of its religious trappings, and with a bent not necessarily toward self-destruction, but decidedly toward the destruction of what passes for true, right, or authoritative. This is not the nihilism of the herd (of which Christianity is representitive), but the nihilism of Nietzsche himself. The individualist, according to Nietzsche, is the man who has the will to believe in himself, in the truth of his own powers, and in the efficacy of his own volition. The “active” nihilist, as opposed to egalitarian man, is radically individual. Yet Nietzsche does not concede that the “active” nihilist is capable of discovering the means to direct his destructive despair toward creating a new world of “higher” values (values that exalt what is noble, exceptional, and powerful) in place of the world of popular pseudo-religious values that he takes the same pleasure in destroying that the condemned man takes in a last act of vengeance against his punisher:

Nihilism does not only contemplate the “in vain!” nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy. — This is, if you will, illogical; but the nihilist does not believe that one needs to be logical. — It is the condition of strong spirits and wills, and these do not find it possible to stop with the No of “judgment”: their nature demands the No of the deed. The reduction to nothing by judgment is seconded by the reduction to nothing by hand.14

Aside from Nietzsche’s conception of the nihilist as those possessing a “strong spirit and will,” i.e., the “active” nihilist, he formulates the antithetical condition that he calls “passive” nihilism to accord with his conception of Christianity, which he believes epitomizes the steamroller effect that mediocrity has on everything it rolls over:

The lower species (“herd,” “mass,” “society”) unlearns modesty and blows up its needs into cosmic and metaphysical values. In this way the whole of existence is vulgarized: insofar as the mass is dominant, it bullies the exceptions, so that they lose their faith in themselves [i.e., the exceptional individuals lose faith] and become nihilists.15

Christianity seeks to replace the world as it is with the soul’s wish fulfillment of immortality in a “beyond.” The postulating of a “beyond,” to Nietzsche, is nothing but a subterfuge; the rejection of the world in the Christian worldview as corrupt and passing away devalues experience in the world in favor of a heaven that transcends all material existence. Nietzsche’s line of reasoning assumes that the ens realissiuum is the fiction of fictions, and the experience of life as an “end-in-itself,” or as a perpetual “becoming,” is wasted at the expense of the sacred wish of the soul’s immortality:

The Christian conception of God — God as God of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit — is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types. God denigrated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God — the formula for every slander against “this world,” for every lie about the “beyond”! God — the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!16

Nietzsche’s rationale for attacking the values of Christianity lies in his assertion that “slave morality” paralyzes and cheapens the value of what is truly noble and powerful by equating nobility and power with dominant egalitarian “virtues;” for example, the toleration and encouragement of mediocrity is understood in the framework of slave morality to be evidence of greatness of soul and the strength of virtue. Whether the conception of Christianity that Nietzsche demolishes with his genealogical method is an historically accurate conception is certainly debatable, yet Nietzsche’s point that any culture’s avid promotion of egalitarian pieties is a sign of an impending cultural eclipse is well taken.

Art, that is, creation as such, is for Nietzsche the most potent means of stimulating life, of making life something man can endure; but art has a greater function beyond providing a comfortable assurance to the bien pensant pieties of the self-deceiver. Art contains the means to reveal “the terrifying and questionable character of existence,” and thus it presents, by analogy, another side of the “will to power.” Because truth cannot be known objectively (since nothing exists “in itself” or “through itself”), truth is necessarily the domain of the artist, who fashions what passes as “the truth” according to this seemingly simple dichotomy: truth as the “will to power,” or truth as the “will to nothingness.” The exceptional man, the “strong spirit,” as Nietzsche calls him, desires to “live dangerously,” to say Yes to life, and this mode of affirming the will and the self contrasts to all forms of the “will to the denial of life.”Nietzsche’s conception of the artistic life relates dialectically to his conception of the self-overcomer, i.e., destroying to create, creating to destroy, with all dialectical oppositions being ultimately obliterated in the eternal return. The values created in the course of the will’s drive toward the expansion of its power are always provisional at best, because values are created out of, and according to, the individual’s will, which is to say, the individual’s perspective. Even though Nietzsche dispenses with any localized standard for the establishment of values by placing the creation of values in the hands of the self-overcoming, his explanation for the phenomena of pain and suffering in the world provides a clue about what sort of standard the values of the “strong spirit” comply with, and that standard is reducible to one word — power — which is the objective of the unceasing drive of the will. The quantifiable increase or reduction of power in the individual man is the only kind of economy Nietzsche recognizes. Whereas the “passive” nihilist, or the “good” man, seeks to mollify his desires and neutralize his pains and pleasures within the safety of the group, the will of the “strong spirit,” or the “evil” man, is driven both by a staunch individualism, and the creative benefits that come from unmitigated hardship, suffering, and destruction:

Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful when it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, through his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten. Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil, belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species. To be sure, this economy is not afraid of high prices, of squandering, and it is on the whole extremely foolish. Still it is proven that it has preserved our species so far.17

Nietzsche’s conception of theodicy (if I may be permitted to stretch the meaning of the term) is bound up with the principle of the “will to power,” and ultimately derives, again, from his considerations concerning nihilism. Nietzsche, declaring God to be dead, aims at eradicating the entire edifice of value judgments altogether — no longer can good be discerned from evil, or truth from falsity — every means of judgment and determination has been abrogated when no such thing as truth exists, only interpretations of, only perspectives on, “truth.” As Nietzsche has it, God is not the arbiter of moral standards, nor, ultimately, is man; the principle of the will is the determining factor of all that is, and directs the unceasing and limitless accumulation of quantifiable power. By this standard, the source of human pain and suffering, of human hardship and brutality, is part and parcel of the essence of “the character of existence”:

Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…18

The innumerable discrete wills that strive to assert and increase their respective quantity of power do so without any final goal, except a further increase of power. If the active principle of the will is interpreted as Nietzsche’s singular metaphysical principle, then the goal-less, unceasing march of wills willing power, and willing in opposition to every other will, is his theodicy— the operation of will in his eternally recurring cosmology vindicates, or justifies, the phenomena of pain and suffering. Being neither “good” nor “evil,” pain and suffering play a necessary role as a component facet of the driving principle of all things, the will:

Man does not seek pleasure and does not avoid displeasure… Pleasure and displeasure are mere consequences, mere epiphenomenona — what man wants, what every smallest part of a living organism wants, is an increase of power. Pleasure or displeasure follow from the striving after that; driven by that will it seeks resistance, it needs something that opposes it… man does not avoid it [displeasure], rather he is in continual need of it; every victory, every feeling of pleasure, every event, presupposes a resistance overcome.19

An “economy of high prices”20 is the preserver of the species in a world where the categories of good and evil do not apply: only the distinction between strong wills and weak wills is relevant to an understanding of the order of things. The story is of a similar nature with Nietzsche’s interpretation of all the other commonplace dualisms found in value judgments: pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, &c. These sensations signify, respectively, either an increase or decrease of power, according to the strength of the action of the will.

For Dostoevsky, the question of why man, as God created him, suffers and experiences evil, strikes at the heart of the question concerning what the nature of God is, and how man comes to terms with, or rejects, a God that transcends his primitive “Euclidean mind.” The question of why is there evil in the world is, to Ivan’s “Euclidean earthly mind,” impossible to settle:

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart… and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?… Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to “dear, kind God”!21

The question of why God could just as easily have created a world where evil does not exist, as a world where it does, is the axis on which Ivan’s argument for atheism turns: why the world is overrun with evil is far from self-evident, and no sufficient reason can be uncovered for why the world is thus and not otherwise. Evil exists in a plenary of forms, and for this reason Ivan finds the world as it is, and consequently the God who permits evil, for any reason whatever, unacceptable. The world, in Ivan’s mind, is devalued to the point of absurdity and meaninglessness as a consequence of the problem of evil: man is forced to beg the question of why there is evil at all if God is good and benevolent, and all of His works are good. In short, Ivan says that he is an atheist by default because he cannot supply a satisfactory answer to why men (and especially children) must become causalities of God’s unknowable reason for allowing the world to be overwhelmed by evil before He finally redeems His creation through His goodness. Ivan’s rejection of God is not tantamount to his disbelieving in the existence of a creator, &c.; it is his rejection of allowing any recourse to God in order to explain the existence of evil. If mankind suffers, there must be a reason — but no viable reason can be given for the fact that mankind does suffer; thus, mankind suffers for nothing. For Ivan, God exists, but He may just as well not, since the existence of an infinite, incomprehensible God explains nothing to finite men of simple mind about the problem of evil, or anything else. Ivan’s argument against God is not an argument spun out of the subtleties of logic; rather, it is argument made on instinct. The fact of evil is an inescapable reality, and his reaction to the immediacy of the misery that inexplicable evil entails leads him first to question the goodness of God, then to reject God, and the evil nature of the world altogether. That “there is a strength to endure everything” is Ivan’s answer to the inexorable conclusion that existence is futile; but that strength to endure everything is a tenuous strength, as Ivan’s end in madness reveals.

Dostoevsky’s account of theodicy in The Brother’s Karamazov acts as a foil to the moral and social disorder that he envisages as an inevitable consequence of nihilism. Ivan’s rejection of God stems from his inability to cognize, or otherwise grasp with his “Euclidean mind,” the meta-narrative of God’s plan for redeeming the fallen world from evil and suffering — God is rejected on the grounds that the “higher harmony” of good and evil that He intends to bring about at an indeterminate future time is incommensurate with the severity of suffering endured by human beings — is it not possible for the same “higher harmony” to exist without being fashioned from human misery? The answer is yes, but if God does not exist, or if He is rejected on the grounds that He torments human beings by allowing them to suffer unnecessarily, then what is there to restrict or prevent man from rejecting compassion and charity and giving full reign to the lawless and brutal side of his nature? What motivation would there be for men to be civil, if not for the presence of a divine authority regulating and instructing man in his actions? Why would men endure evil and suffering and be compassionate if there were no ultimate purpose, or no higher good for doing so? Ivan’s rejection of God’s Providential authority for the bringing about of a divine harmony between the murderer and his victim allows for the possibility that man has no legitimate reason not to murder his fellow man — Providential authority or not, evil is part of the nature of men.

Since God, understood as either a concept or a reality, according to Nietzsche, possesses no more efficacy than the strength of the weakest kind of men (who are the representatives of the Christian God on earth), the will of the individual, by virtue of his superior strength, must naturally reign supreme. All that is required for this seemingly obvious fact to become a reality is that the resources of the will be exploited to their fullest potential. Even though terms such as “master morality,” “individualism,” and “subjective” play a large role in describing how reality is parsed up in the theory of the “will to power,” the world ordered according to the demands of the principle of the will is actually rigidly hierarchical, and distributed on a scalar magnitude. The efficacy of the will manifests in the degree of independence seized upon by the individual, and accordingly, when there is an individual possessing a powerful will, there is likely to be far greater numbers of subordinate wills beneath him; and beneath these subordinate wills… &c. The hierarchy that arranges itself according to degrees of power springs from the internal source of the will of the individual person, rather than from without, as is the case in a hierarchy that begins with God at the top, and continues in a descending order with all less perfect, or less divine beings, occupying their respective, untransgressable positions in relation to God.

For Nietzsche, nihilism is a negatively idealistic, decadent dead-end, and he has no illusions about the destiny of cultures and moralities that grow out of views of the world where the belief in a “beyond” persistently diminishes the value of the world, and where egalitarian envy of the strong crushes the exceptional man to elevate the mediocrity. According to Nietzsche, the mores, laws, and truths of man in the post-Classical era are nothing more than expressions of servile weakness stemming from an institution-based sublimation of the “will to power.” The state of civilization post the imperium Romanum represents a reversal of the power structure that built and preserved Antiquity for millennia due to the fact that the slave has enviously usurped, and thus corrupted, the virtues of the master; as a result, the weak now dominate the strong:

the imperium Romanum… [was] not buried overnight by a natural catastrophe, not trampled down by Teutons and other buffaloes, but ruined by cunning, stealthy, invisible, anemic vampires [i.e., the early Christians]. Not vanquished — merely drained.”22

The means by which Nietzsche seeks to overcome the nihilism inherent in the religious values is by reinventing (what he takes to be) the bedrock of the secular values of Antiquity — nobility, bravery, and power — for the modern world. The creation of values in accord with the demands of the “will to power” is Nietzsche’s answer to how nihilism is ultimately overcome, and this conception provides at least a provisional structure for the framework of secularized morality that he envisages. The advent of Nietzsche’s Romanesque “overman” signifies the time when the last shadow of an illusory God on the cave wall has been blighted out, and when what made the men of Antiquity great is successfully reinstated. This is achieved by redefining how the standard for the legitimacy of any given thing is defined — God is replaced by the “will to power, ” and the individual is the sole arbiter of what is harmful or beneficial to him; and what is harmful or beneficial is always decided in relation to his will’s limitless desire for the acquisition of power. The relation of the individual man to God, insofar as morality is concerned, is not a reciprocal relation; man can adhere, or not adhere to the dictates of the moral law because the moral law is not his own construct, and lies outside of his power to change; Nietzsche’s conception of the “will to power,” by comparison, is circular — the antecedent, will, always implies the consequent, power. As Nietzsche has it, God, as the foundation of the moral law, ought to be rejected because the demands of the moral law are always in opposition to the demands of the will; thus, the demands of the moral law can never actually be instantiated or fulfilled, whereas the demands of the will (for the self) is most easily known thing in the world. For Nietzsche, there is no precedent for holding the Christian values of charity, pity, and humility over and above the will’s insatiable desire for power, when charity, pity, and humility ostensibly contradict what precisely constitutes the “character of existence.” Any other basis, besides power, upon which values are created (or have been hitherto created), is simply a corruption of the will’s active principle. The “will to power” is not a rational process of thought that aims toward the discovery of truth; rather, the “will to power” is a pure act of creation, or affirmation — it is the willing of truth: “truth is… something that must be created, and that gives a name to a process, or rather a will to overcome… as a process ad infinitum, an active determining — not a becoming conscious of something that is in itself firm and determined…”23

To be in accord with the nature of the will, man must become the rule giver to himself, for the will cannot abide outside rules imposed on its archaic desire for power. The will of the self-legislating, self-overcoming individualist (i.e., Nietzsche’s “overman,” Ubermensch) is always a subjective center unto itself. The ideals generated out of this radical individualism are at all times, and all ways, a fluctuating, organic creation guided solely by the will’s desire for power. Aristotle refers the type of men who are their own masters as megalopsychia, or the man who possesses greatness of soul. Such ones as these are Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and Nietzsche’s “overman,” viz., they who give to themselves their own rules, their own morals, and their own ideals. This is not to say that megalopsychia lives in open defiance of all laws that exist outside of, or in spite of their nature, or simply cannot abide any law; rather, the rules such severe individualists give themselves are part and parcel of their own nature, and accord with the order of nature to the same degree as the rules guiding the slave, the incontinent man, or the self-deceiver are in violation of the order of nature:

Therefore if, as they say, men become gods by excess of virtue, of this kind must evidently be the state opposed to the brutish state; for a brute has no vice or virtue, so neither has a god; his state is higher than virtue, and that of a brute is a different kind of state from vice.24

Given the nature of the will as Nietzsche conceives of it, the expectation of the advent of a Promethean figure (his obscurely drawn “overman”) is consistent with the demands made by the theory of the “will to power,” but the flesh-and-blood manifestation of the Promethean “overman” follows neither of necessity, nor teleologically from Nietzsche’s conception of the “will to power.” In Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brother’s Karamazov, the dawn of the Promethean spirit in man is caricatured, ironically, by the Devil himself; and the pastiche is even carried using terminology that anticipates Nietzsche’s theory of the “will to power,” and his vision of the advent of the “overman”:

I maintain that nothing need be destroyed, that we only need to destroy the idea of God in man, that’s how we have to set to work… As soon as all men have denied God — and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass — the old conception of the universe will fall of itself without cannibalism, and what’s more, the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal and will accept death proudly and serenely like a god. His pride will teach him that its useless for him to repine at life’s being a moment, and he will love his brother without need of reward… What’s more, even if this period never comes to pass, since there is anyway no God and no immorality, the new man may well become the man-god, even if he is the only one in the world, and promoted to his new position, he may lightheartedly overstep the barriers of the old morality of the slave-man, if necessary. There is no law for God. Where God stands, the place is holy. Where I stand will at once be the foremost place… “all things are lawful” and that’s the end of it!25

It must be borne in mind that neither the Promethean efforts of the Grand Inquisitor, nor Ivan’s rejection of God on the grounds that God explains nothing about why man must suffer and experience evil, represent Dostoevsky’s final answer to the question of whether God is necessary for man’s moral life and thought. In fact, his portrait of nihilism serves to implicitly show precisely why God is necessary — that man without God is but one step away from cannibalism and brutality. For Dostoevsky, the possibility of man successfully propping up traditional or conventional morality with “humanistic” atheism, purified of the anthropomorphisms of religion, is an absurdity. That man is “weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious” is a given to Dostoevsky. Man is no Prometheus; rather, he is in constant need of aid coming from outside of him. If divine law, or the ever-present eye of god, is done away with, man lives in rebellion from all that has hitherto preserved him. Dostoevsky admits that human nature is guided largely by its own inherent baseness, but the added observation that man is naturally rebellious provides the key to understanding Ivan’s atheism: the instinct towards baseness is the instinct to rebel (this instinct is best observed in the self-interestedness of children). Incontinence, or self-indulgence, is the foundation for Dostoevsky’s conception of nihilism, which is the license to do anything, so long as the consequences (i.e., under positive law, &c.) can be circumvented. The totalitarian authority of the Catholic Church, as it is portrayed in the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” is not in place to prevent people from “sinning” — rather, the state’s only purpose is to subdue men by subduing their conscience, and this is accomplished by taking away their freedom and accountability (freedom and accountability mutually imply one another), which the people (because they are as nothing more than children) willingly alienate to an authority.

Ivan’s rejection of the eschatological conception that God will bring about an harmony between good and evil at some distant point in time does not necessitate that man must undertake the Herculean project of founding a universal state for the institutionalization of happiness. Rejecting God on the grounds that He is capricious in His decrees and inscrutable in His designs does not necessitate that man take steps in any particular direction, or adopt any particular ideology to compensate for his palpable dilemma. Indeed, once God is done away with, an unlimited number of radical possibilities emerge. One point is certain: once the divine order has been rejected (whatever the grounds for rejecting it may be), the notions of how good is discerned from evil, and how true is discerned from false, can be redefined according to an arbitrary standard, or thrown out altogether.

Dostoevsky’s portrayal of man’s attempt to create moral norms without God in The Brother’s Karamazov represents an ironic parable against man’s egotism, vanity, and brutality, while Nietzsche’s presentation of the “will to power” as an endless “becoming” represents man’s vanity, egotism, and brutality apotheosized to the status of the highest values. Nietzsche holds that a wholly secularized culture will be born out of the ashes of nihilistic, or traditional religious values, with his visionary “overman” as its image and embodiment. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, holds that it is not within man’s power to overcome nihilism — without God, man will inevitably destroy himself. The figure of the Grand Inquisitor represents the failure of man’s attempt to enforce moral standards without God. Under the rule of the Grand Inquisitor, the penal institution replaces man’s conscience as the only deterrent against immoral or criminal behavior. Nietzsche predicts that universal madness (lying just under the surface) will break out when the fact that God is dead is finally understood in its totality. The sooner the gravity of this fact is understood and dealt with, the sooner man can realize the truth of his potential as a “will to power.” The curious fact behind the Nietzschean view of things is that it can only provide the most superficial account of the “character of existence” — there is nothing novel in asserting that every civilization is built out of human tears and misery (e.g., Hegel famously refers to history as a slaughter bench) — but that does not account for the “why,” which nihilism cannot answer. Ivan asks to what end is mankind served by God’s plan for bringing about a harmony between god and evil in some distant future while meanwhile mankind suffers inexplicably? Ivan’s question is far more compelling in terms of the practical function of morality because it addresses the problem of evil and suffering in terms of how mankind experiences it, and does so without any valorization of evil and suffering that ends with such a phrase as, “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” Because the exploitation and “overpowering of what is alien and weaker”26 is a natural consequence of strength passes unquestioned as a self-evident rule, Nietzsche’s thought on the reality of suffering fails to account for why anyone or anything suffers at all, or why the problem of evil was ever a valid moral question in the first place. He gives us an account of the benefits of suffering which no man feels, and confounds common experience by promoting a conception of wanton power that appeals wholly to the instinct while it neglects the mind, and provides no new insight into the inexplicable adaptation of man to the world that man lives in and communally experiences.

1 Cf., Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Random House, Vintage Books Edition, New York, 1974): “… in nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to life. The great and small struggle always revolves around superiority, around growth and expansion, around power — in accordance with the will to power which is the will to life” p. 293, aphorism 349. After the first reference, all references hereafter to the following works of Nietzsche are (deriving the abbreviation from the title of the English edition) abbreviated as: The Will to Power is WTP; The Gay Science is abbreviated as GS; The Antichrist is abbreviated as A; Beyond Good and Evil is abbreviated as BGE.

2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett (Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1995): “… I tell you [says Ivan] that I accept God simply. But you must note this: if God exists and He really did create the world… He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space” p. 217. All references hereafter to Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, are abbreviated as BK.

3 Ibid., p. 220.

4 For a parallel illustration of man’s responsibility after the work of Christ for being his own moral guide, sans the guidance of the Mosaic Law, witness Adam’s (in Milton’s Paradise Lost) indictment of God just after the Fall:

O fleeting joys

Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes!

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me, or here place

In this delicious garden? As my will

Concurred not to my being, it were but right

And equal to reduce me to my dust,

Desirous to resign, and render back

All I received, unable to perform

Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold

The good I sought not. To the loss of that,

Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added

The sense of endless woes? Inexplicable

Thy justice seems; yet to say truth, too late

I thus contest; then should have been refused

Those terms whatever, when they were proposed… (bk. X, ln. 741-757)

5 BK, pp. 240-241.

6 BK, p. 234.

7 BK, pp. 234-235. The following quotation, compared with the formulation made by the Grand Inquisitor above, makes clear the contrast between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche’s conceptions of Christian values: “I do not like at all about that Jesus of Nazareth or His apostle Paul that they put so many ideas into the heads of little people, as if their [Christ or Paul’s] modest virtues were of any consequence. We have had to pay too dearly for it: for they have brought the more noble qualities of virtue and man into ill repute; they have set the bad conscience of the noble soul against its self-sufficiency; they have led astray, to the point of self-destruction, the brave, magnanimous, daring, excessive inclinations of the strong soul —“ WTP, p. 122, aphorism 205.

8 Matthew 5:17.

9 BK, p. 237.

10 BK, p. 241.

11 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (Random House, Vintage Books Edition, New York, 1968), p. 16.

12 WTP, p. 151-52, aphorism 853, I.

13 Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson (Colombia University Press, New York, 1983), p. 171.

14 WTP, p. 18.

15 WTP, p. 19.

16 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist,in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (Penguin Books, New York, 1982), aphorism # 18, pp. 585-586. Italics in the original.

17 GS, p. 73, aphorism # 1

18 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, New York, 1989), p. 203

19 WTP, p. 373, aphorism 702.

20 GS, p. 73, aphorism 1.

21 BK, p 223.

22 A, p 651, aphorism # 59.

23 WTP, p. 298.

24 Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, New York, 1941), 1145a23-27: p. 1037

25 BK, p. 609.

26 BGE: “’Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequent of the will to power, which is after all the will to life” p. 203. Italics in original.   

By Our Own Quickening Power: The Devil, Descartes & Milton On The Question of Theodicy

In the long tradition of Western philosophy, the question of by what means, if at all, do humans comprehend the ways and designs of God, dates back to the earliest efforts of the pre-Socratic philosophers. The later tradition of Christian philosophical inquiry, which commenced with the writings of Origen in the 2nd century A.D., carried with it from its inception the burden of the question of theodicy, and expanded the nature of the investigation to account for the agonistic struggle for the souls of men between an infinite, providential God and His adversary, the fallen angel called Satan.

One subcategory within the general issues investigated by the question of theodicy examines one of the oldest questions facing man’s experience of the world: whence evil? As the antithesis of good, evil is necessarily the privation, negation, or deception of the good. To rephrase the question, because I am afflicted in some way, or deceived, God cannot be good; were God good, I would not be afflicted or deceived; hence, my being subject to affliction and deception contradicts God’s goodness, and implies that if it was an omnipotent and benevolent God who created me, I would not be afflicted or deceived in any way. A multitude of responses have been advanced to elucidate the question and to absolve or convict God of responsibility for the evils that dominate human life, and in reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, we come upon a late contribution to the argument, and in a poeticized rather than a systematic or analytic form.1 The particular concern in Milton’s poem is with accounting for the origins of things, be it the creation, evil, rationality, man— in short, he is concerned with accounting for not only the origin of all things, but with their respective destinies as well. As a Christian poet, Milton holds that only the proper understanding of the eternally existing foundation of things facilitates true human knowledge, and only with this proper understanding can life be rightly lived; all else is a sinful perversion and corruption of the designs and intentions of God. Hence, the light of God’s revelation gives assistance to the fallen human understanding only to a certain and limited extent; knowledge of divine truth must be actively sought, insofar as it remains unrevealed in particular practical matters and cases in human experience. With the limited battery of tools that revealed knowledge provides as a guide for conduct, the cognitive faculties of the will and reason can either act as aides for the understanding and for proper conduct, which ultimately leads souls to God, or as misguided vehicles for justifying sinful and irrational behavior, which lands unrepentant souls in the immortal fry of perdition. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin. While man only through the light of revelation knows all of the latter truths, according to Milton, the right exercise of the faculty of reason exclusively coincides with a sincere belief in the truths of faith. According to Milton, the truths of reason and the truths of faith are not mutually exclusive epistemic categories; they are, in fact, two sides of the same epistemological coin.

While Milton’s conception of theodicy in Paradise Lost has no doubt been explored from many angles by many commentators, one side note of interest lies in the similarity between how the question of the origin of conscious beings is explored in Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost, and also in Descartes hypothetical “evil genius” (deus deceptor) from the Second and Third Meditations. Satan’s argument for self-creation in book five of Paradise Lost bears a strong, though likely inadvertent correspondence to the fallacious logic of the argument for self-creation employed by Descartes in his Meditations. Descartes was the “father” of modern philosophy in the sense that mind, or the content of mind takes precedence over the fallible operations of the senses. Cartesian philosophical idealism does not have a direct parallel to Milton’s conception of rationality and the freedom of the will, yet Milton is arguably a philosophical idealist in the same sense as Descartes, in terms of the priority of reason over the data or content of sensory experience.

Milton’s idealism, as well as Descartes’, is evident in the comparison of the two respective arguments for self-creation. The philosophical thrust of these arguments is contained in the philosophical question of theodicy, which is that God, whatever His purposes or designs might represent to human consciousness, is ultimately incomprehensible in His purpose for allowing evil (Milton) and error (Descartes) to actively impair man’s ability to reason, and thus come to knowledge of the truth. Under these conditions, theodicy is either impossible, or there is no such thing as a consistent theodicy. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin.

In the First Meditation, Descartes introduces the hypothesis of the deus deceptor in order to push the limits of skepticism further than have Sextus Empiricus and all previous philosophical skeptics, including Montaigne and Pierre Bayle:

And yet firmly rooted in my mind is the longstanding opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am. How do I know that He has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now? What is more, because I sometimes believe that others go astray where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square… But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way because He is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with His goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to His goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.2

Note that the structure of the second part of the hypothesis of the deus deceptor resembles the famous Epicurean argument: because there is evil, then God is either evil or impotent or both. Descartes’ argument is analogous: because I have a nature which sometimes deceives me, God is either evil or impotent or both. In other words, the fact that I have a nature subject to deception is proof that God did not create me.3 One notable fact is that in Paradise Lost, neither Adam nor Eve question how they originated,4 whereas Satan, in book five, argues that since none of the fallen angels, including himself, recalls being created, if follows that, “We know no time when we were not as now;/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power…”5 The argument for self-creation questions the existence of God, and from this it follows that Satan’s adversary is not an omnipotent and benevolent God at all, but a demiurge imposter who has set himself up as a tyrant. Accordingly, Satan and the fallen angels have just as much right to heaven as the imposter posing as God. In similar fashion, in the Third Meditation, Descartes inquires as to whether or not the idea of a being more perfect than himself must necessarily proceed from some being which is in reality more perfect, and examines the possibility of whether he himself, who has such an idea of a more perfect being, could exist if no such being existed:

For whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself, presumably, or from my parents, or from some beings less perfect than God… Yet if I derived my existence from myself, then I should neither doubt nor want, nor lack anything at all; for I should have given myself all the perfections of which I have any idea, and thus I should myself be God… And if I had derived my existence from myself, which is a greater achievement [than to emerge out of nothing], I should certainly not have denied myself the knowledge in question [i.e., the knowledge of the many things of which he is ignorant, such as his origin]…

The logic of the argument for self-creation mirrors not only the terrifying logic of the deus deceptor, in which all knowledge is made absurd and impossible, but also the perverted logic of Milton’s Satan, where all manifestations of God’s goodness are inverted so as to seem absurd and unjust. If we consider Milton’s invocation to Book III in light of the question of the source of things— be it creation, revelation, Christian epic poetry, then the fear that the poem may well be nothing more than a self-created fantasy becomes apparent:

Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,

Escap’t the Stygian Pool, though long detain’d

In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight

Through utter and through middle darkness borne

With other notes than the Orphean Lyre

I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,

Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down

The dark descent, and up to reascend,

Though hard and rare…6

Milton distinguishes his source from that other than Satan, who had proclaimed himself in Book II as “Alone, and without guide,”7 though by the ninth book, Milton seems less certain that an appeal to the muse will procure the inspiration that he relies on: “If answerable style I can obtain/ Of my Celestial Patroness,” he will succeed, but not “if all be mine,/ Not Hers who brings it nightly to my ear.”8 This echoes, albeit in a different mood, Satan’s fatuous speculation that he and the other angels were “self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power.”

In book seven of Paradise Lost, God speaks illuminatingly of his own character:

Though I uncircumscribed myself retire,

And put not forth my goodness, which is free

To act or not, necessity and chance

Approach not me, and what I will is fate.9

The philosophical distinction between necessity, fate, and foreknowledge is complex, and need not detain us. Milton’s project of justifying the ways of God to men becomes less relevant and less meaningful when the answer to the question of why is such-and-such state of affairs so receives the answer “because men and angels have chosen,” which is tantamount to something to the effect that “it is so because it is so.” In Milton’s cosmology, evil and good are ultimately of a piece because God, from which these two principles are derived, is Himself a unity; in the end, evil is good because the source of all things is good, and what seems like needless suffering (good as evil) is, in the end, necessary for immutable goodness to remain self-identical and infinitely free.

In his book Christian Doctrine, Milton writes that, “From the concept of freedom… all idea of necessity must be removed… The matter or object of the divine plan was that angels and men alike should be endowed with free will, so that they could either fall or not fall.”10 In terms of Milton’s conception of theodicy, such an a posteriori case for the freedom of the will is weak when the breakdown of the rational faculty seems to be part and parcel of the human condition. All men inevitably go wrong in thought, word and deed, and no matter how efficaciously the intellect is exercised, men and angel’s willful choice to fall or not fall cannot be considered a genuine choice extended by a benevolent and omnipotent God. Yet, according to Milton, “divine foreknowledge can no more affect the action of free agents than can human foreknowledge… because in both cases the foreknowledge is within the mind of the foreknower and has no external effect.”11 How can Milton reconcile the “free agent” who exists under the crippling curse imposed under Adam and Eve’s first disobedience, with the passive foreknowledge of God that redeems men according to merit rather than predestination?

As the presence of a rational faculty, which is tied directly to the freedom of the will in men, questions the justness of paralyzed divine foreknowledge, so too does the respective Miltonic and Cartesian arguments for self-creation question the existence of God, as well as the justness of God’s actions. Yet what both arguments fail to account for, as both Milton and Descartes were aware, is the palpable limitation in the exercise of cognitive faculties that finite entities such as Satan, the res cogitans of the Meditations, and normal human beings necessarily experience: thinking is not tantamount to creating, nor is the flawed assumption that to be unable to recall a time before one existed mean that either one is the creator of oneself, or that one has always existed. The claim of self-creation made by the deus deceptor and Satan, respectively, and the difficulty with which man apprehends goodness and truth in a world that has come under the dominion of sin and death,points to the origin of error or evil, insofar as it is a byproduct of a perversion of Milton’s principle of right reason, and the Cartesian principle of the light of nature. Under these conditions, the faculty of reason, like the freedom of the will, mirrors the self-identical nature of the divine mind in some respects, rather than the indeterminacy of the way in which the material world is ordered.

In his Meditations, Descartes argues that the data apprehended by the senses are an obstacle to knowing the truth, and that only the rational mind, which inspects the a priori contents of mind, can apprehend the indubitable truth of the existence of God the creator and the immortality of the soul. While there is an apocalyptic element to Descartes’ thinking, Milton’s ontologically ambiguous portrayal of Eden in Paradise Lost presents the reader, on the one hand, with a picture of the most perfect habitation for man; and on the other, Eden as a wilderness that ever exists in a perilous balance between self-generating over-ripeness and rapid decomposition. In the brief period after man was created by God, and before his fall, the question of the reliability of the rational faculty (intellect plus will) as an effective means for coming to an understanding of truth comes under an ironic scrutiny in Milton’s portrayal of Adam and Eve as inexpert stewards and tenders of paradise:

forth came the human pair…

Then commune how that day they best may ply

Their growing work; for much their work outgrew

The hands dispatch of two gardening so wide…12

Because Eden in “One night or two with wanton growth derides,/ Tending to wild,”13 Eve argues that “till more hands/ Aid us, the work under our labor grows,”14 and thus she enjoins Adam to divide their labors in order that their efforts may be better rewarded. As any good capitalist would argue, the division of labor makes perfect rational sense; yet in the antediluvian world of Eden, rational argument must either contend with or align itself to the content of revelation, as in the case of the angel’s warning to Adam that he and Eve must not separate, unless she unduly expose herself to the wiles and seductions of the serpent. Eve’s argument that she and Adam divide their labors is in accord with reason, but out of sync with the content of revelation; the question then arises, precisely where does free and rational human choice intersect with the infinite will and foregone decrees of God?

While the rationally underprovided author of this paper can offer no settlement, it is clear that in terms of human action, for a decision to be made, one has to be attracted or repulsed by the good or evil that presents itself. Objects attract the will, but not when objects are identical, as in the case of “Burdian’s ass.”15 In his dialogue Crito, Plato argues that men are incapable of doing evil because they cannot do good, thus everything men do is by chance rather than method or intentionally; hence the necessity for the iron hand of the Philosopher King to rule men who cannot rule themselves. Yet men do ostensibly know what is right and wrong, whether it is according to societal norms or natural law, and Christians are refreshingly commonsensical in their explanation of the moral distinction of good and evil as the result of original sin— knowing good and evil comes through the everyday experience of being either wronged or benefited, and then acting in accordance with the circumstance. The Greeks gave a very rational answer to why men pursue what they pursue, but it is morally vacuous, commands a totalitarian solution, and runs counter to everyday experience. So why, according to philosophical idealists Milton and Descartes, do we pursue evil when we know the good? The answer, in both cases, is that the contents of our perceptions deceive us, and only reason is a sure and able guide between one choice and another, between sin and redemption. So, to reiterate the question posed above, i.e., how fit are the recipients of reason to employ the faculty of reason, it should be pointed out that the question presupposes the human faculty16 of reason as a perfection in the human genus; but it is clear that the rational faculty, in a fallen world, is far from perfect or reliable for performing the critical judgments necessary to be constantly in accord with right reason, or otherwise avoid error. If we add sense perception into the will/intellect equation, the faculty of reason must either stand on its own (per se), operating without any influence from the senses, and neither the will or intellect goes wrong; or, reason, operating with the senses, is constantly assailed with misleading and erroneous sense data, thus impeding the will and intellect with an admixture of falsehood, which may even be mistaken betimes for truth. Reason does not supply foresight, and thus Eve’s decision to divide the share of labor with Adam was indeed rational; and yet without the apocalyptic knowledge possessed only of Adam to avoid the consequences of dividing their labor, it was impossible for Eve, though she be rational, to be cogitatively in accord with Milton’s conception of right reason.

Where is the question of theodicy in all of this? With the popularization of Newtonian, and later, Cartesian mechanistic physics, the gloriously romantic universe of Milton, that set no bounds to the imagination of man as it played over space and time, was swept away. In its stead reigned a conception of space that was identified with the realm of geometry, and time with the continuity of number. Instead of the miraculous creative and conserving powers of God, the ultimate elements of the kosmos, in a geometric sense, were reduced to portions of space. As Descartes famously announces in his Fourth Meditation, the Aristotelian search for final causes in the natural sciences and physics is useless to any understanding of immediate, or efficient cause. Asking the question of why, in the ultimate sense, is such-and-such state of affairs the way it is, is devoid of content in the face of the practical question of how is such-and-such a state of affairs the way it is. While Milton and Descartes were in relative intellectual agreement regarding the necessity for asserting the freedom of the will over any theological or philosophical formulation that asserted the bondage of the will, they were out of agreement in terms of whether or not the kosmos operated according to mechanistic laws. Milton was a theo-philosophical contemplative in terms of his investment in the question of theodicy and right reason, yet he was also a hard-line consequentialist ethically. Safeguarded, then, somewhere between action and contemplation lies Milton’s conception of man and God, and his conception of man’s relation to God. In both Milton and Descartes’ respective writings, preserved is a version of man’s moral nature that is structured by a formal conception of God that, at least superficially, is built on the evidences of Scripture. Such a conception of God retains (much according to the philosophical tradition) the monotheistic attributes of omnipotence, omni-benevolence, and infinity, among others. As opposed tothe philosophes naturelles of the latter 17th and 18th centuries, neither Milton nor Descartes ever abandoned the question of theodicy for the life-raft of materialism and fictionalized historicism, maintaining until the end, in their several ways, that morality cannot be cashed out in mechanical terms any more than beauty or truth.

1 Cf. Paradise Lost, V: 99: Best image of myself and dearer half,

The trouble of thy thoughts this night in sleep

Affects me equally; nor can I like

This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear;

Yet evil whence? In thee can harbor none,

Created pure. But know that in the soul

Are many lesser faculties that serve

Reason as chief…

All references to Milton hereafter are cited as PL, and otherwise as the respective work quoted in the text body.

2 Descartes, Meditations,AT VII, 21; CSM II, p. 14.

3 To expand the argument, if God were evil, he could not create, since evil is a privation of good; and because the act of creation is a perfection, if God were evil, he would necessarily be impotent to create the kosmos; thus, neither the kosmos nor mankind could be the work of God.

4 Cf. PL, VIII: 250 ff: For man to tell how human life began

Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?…

But who I was, or where, or from what cause,

Knew not…

To which God replies : “Whom thou sought’st I am…”

“Author of all this thou seest

Above, or round about thee or beneath…

5 Ibid., V: 859-61.

6 Ibid., III: 13-21.

7 Ibid., II: 975.

8 Ibid., IX: 20-21.

9 Ibid., VII: 170-74.

10 Milton, Christian Doctrine, 1:iii.

11 Ibid.

12 PL, IX: 197, 201-203.

13 PL, IX: 211-12.

14 PL, IX: 207-8.

15 An ass find himself in a pasture with two identical bails of hay on either side of him; because there is no difference in quality or quantity between the two bails, the will of the ass is paralyzed, and he starves to death because he cannot choose betwixt them.

16 Human reason as opposed to God and angels, which are ontologically distinct, immutable, and, by degrees of perfection, more rational beings.