Why Evil Exists
Dr. Charles Mathewes is Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he teaches religious ethics, theology, and philosophy of religion. He earned his B.A. in Theology from Georgetown University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Chicago. From 2006 to 2010, Professor Mathewes served as editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the flagship journal in the field of religious studies. He was Chair of the Committee on the Future of Christian Ethics for the Society of Christian Ethics, the inaugural Director of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion, and he currently serves on the House of Bishops Theology Committee of the Episcopal Church. He is the author of Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, A Theology of Public Life, Understanding Religious Ethics, and The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. He is also associate editor of the 3rd edition of the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Senior Editor of Religious Ethics: The Major Works/em>. He has been a Mead Honored Faculty-one of UVA's highest teaching awards-and also a Mead Endowment Teaching Award. Every year since 1999, Professor Mathewes's classes have been named as exemplary classes for prospective students to attend during UVA's Days on the Lawn
01: The Nature and Origins of Evil
Consider the range of human thought across history, which has sought understanding of evil. First, examine three dominant historical views of the nature of evil. Then, grapple with the key questions of abstract theory versus concrete description, the transcendence or mundaneness of evil, and evil's function in nature and civilization.
02: "Enuma Elish"—Evil as Cosmic Battle
In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, see how the dualism of good and bad divine powers locates evil as an innate structure of reality. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, probe one of the earliest recorded attempts to understand suffering and to find meaning in the face of death and evil.
03: Greece—Tragedy and "The Peloponnesian War"
This lecture explores contrasting views of evil and suffering in ancient Greece. In Greek tragic drama, trace the cruel paradoxes of fate and responsibility, under divine governance, that afflict the characters. Conversely, uncover the historian Thucydides' linking of evil to "accidents" of circumstance and chance in his account of the Peloponnesian War.
04: Greek Philosophy—Human Evil and Malice
The inquiry continues with the seminal views of Plato and Aristotle. Follow Plato's developing views of evil as "miseducation," a political fact of human society and ultimately as metaphysical revolt. Then ponder Aristotle's "mundane" vision of malice and evil as akrasia, weakness of will, and a misordering of fundamental human drives.
05: The Hebrew Bible—Human Rivalry with God
The Hebrew Bible roots evil in various forms of rebellion. In the Hebrew book of Genesis, see how the Fall actualizes an intrinsic potential for evil. Then consider three faces of rebellion: the rejection of God's plan (the Fall), interhuman strife (Cain and Abel), and direct rivalry with God (the Tower of Babel).
06: The Hebrew Bible—Wisdom and the Fear of God
The Hebrew Bible also offers a contrasting view of evil and suffering - as phenomena reflecting the mysterious will of God. Explore the implications of the covenant between God and Abraham, and Abraham's mandated sacrifice of Isaac. In the book of Job, see how Job's faith is established through determined acceptance of suffering.
07: Christian Scripture—Apocalypse and Original Sin
This lecture addresses the New Testament heritage on evil. Uncover the early Christian view of a cosmic struggle between God and darkness in the Gospels and the book of Revelation, noting numerous references to demonic powers. See how the doctrine of original sin is linked to the very goodness of Jesus.
08: The Inevitability of Evil—Irenaeus
The early Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyon proposed an important "theodicy" or theory of evil. Discover the tenets of Irenaeus's thinking, based in his view that the descent into sin is necessary for the fulfillment of human destiny. Study his conceptions of natural and moral evil, and the redemptive "tutelage" of suffering.
09: Creation, Evil, and the Fall—Augustine
Saint Augustine propounded another seminal "theodicy" of evil. Contemplate his two foundational claims: evil as "privation" of fundamental good, and evil as perversion of human nature toward the meaningless. Consider also his views on the rationale for evil, evil's ultimate mysteriousness, and its interior implications for the doer.
10: Rabbinic Judaism—The Evil Impulse
Rabbinic Judaism resists the Christian "cosmic drama" of sin and redemption. Study the rabbinic conceptions of tov (goodness/conscience) and ra (badness/self-interest), as each functions in human nature. Also grasp the notion of ra as a practical challenge of will and responsibility and an ultimate gift from God to mature humanity.
11: Islam—Iblis the Failed, Once-Glorious Being
Islam locates the origin of evil precisely in the rebellion of Iblis, the fallen angel. First, define the relation of the Qur'an as a sacred text to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Then probe Iblis's fall through his "misappropriation" of faith, and the paradoxical dimensions of evil as both personal and impersonal.
12: On Self-Deception in Evil—Scholasticism
The monastic tradition of Christian scholasticism offers compelling views of satanic psychology. In the thought of Anselm of Lyon, explore the "logic" of Satan's rebellion against God, rooted in bottomless, unspecified desire. In Thomas Aquinas, trace the psychology of Satan to a self-deceptive motive to become what God is.
13: Dante—Hell and the Abandonment of Hope
Dante's Inferno poetically elucidates Christian thinking on evil. In his observation of the damned, see how the literary "Dante" learns the meaning of both pity and piety. Then grasp the nature of Satan's punishment, revealing Hell as a self-made crucible where the damned become what they internally want to be.
14: The Reformation—The Power of Evil Within
This lecture investigates the pivotal thought of reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. In Luther's works, discover his view of Satan as a subtle, inner force, working to induce delusive thought and action. Also study Calvin's core conceptions of moral predestination and the innate depravity or corruptibility of the human spirit.
15: Dark Politics—Machiavelli on How to Be Bad
Niccolò Machiavelli's writings are often read as a nihilist sanction for wickedness in government. Push beyond that view to a deeper understanding of his thought, suggesting practical means for dealing with the inevitable "dirty work" of politics, with the determined aim of the stability and good of the polity.
16: Hobbes—Evil as a Social Construct
Hobbes, considered the first modern Western philosopher, proposed a hugely influential understanding of good and evil. Study his conception of innate human savagery, amoralism, and self-interest in the "state of nature," and his theory of compensating social contracts, suggesting that moral distinctions themselves are invented constructs of language.
17: Montaigne and Pascal—Evil and the Self
Philosophers Montaigne and Pascal offered sharply contrasting, "interior" accounts of sin. Evaluate Montaigne's view of zealous extremism as rooted in pathologic denial of the "disorderliness" of human nature, against Pascal's contention that that very nature requires spiritual zealotry to counteract and heal it.
18: Milton—Epic Evil
Milton's Paradise Lost is another deeply influential literary meditation on evil. Here, travel deeply into the psychic agony of Satan, in Milton's complex portrait of temptation, choice, rebellion, and futility. Conclude with reflections on the distinction between satanic and human sin, and the Fall's significance in God's plan.
19: The Enlightenment and Its Discontents
The Enlightenment fostered several critical arguments on the problem of evil. Track the debate questioning the limits of reason in dealing with evil between Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Leibniz and later between Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Then follow David Hume's incisive critique of both religious and atheistic thinking.
20: Kant—Evil at the Root of Human Agency
Kant's extraordinary insights revolutionized Western philosophy. Grapple with key elements of his thought, including his view of all arguments for and against an omnipotent God as essentially indeterminate, morality as located in the human will, and "radical evil" as the tendency of that will to privilege itself above the general good.
21: Hegel—The Slaughter Block of History
Hegel was the architect of a global philosophical system encompassing the realities of evil. Study his conception of original sin as a condition of alienation rooted in the human impulse to reflective self-consciousness, and his grand vision of history as the intelligible working out of the problem of evil in time.
22: Marx—Materialism and Evil
What is the relation of human social systems to evil behavior? Explore Marx's legendary analysis of material circumstances as the source of both thought and action, material inequalities as the wellspring of evil, and his determined view that transforming social conditions would erase the motive for human oppression.
23: The American North and South—Holy War
Two American voices spoke poignantly of the evils of slavery. In Huckleberry Finn, see how Twain portrays the agonizing moral double bind that afflicts Huck in his friendship with the slave Jim. Contemplate Lincoln's distinctly theological interpretation of the Civil War, and his visionary conception of healing for both North and South.
24: Nietzsche—Considering the Language of Evil
In imagining humanity's future, Nietzsche urged a profound rethinking of morality. Probe his view of the duality of good/evil as a structure that constrains and punishes, his "challenge to truth," and his proposal of a "pragmatic language" focused on the fruitfulness or healthiness of action and the cultivation of human creativity.
25: Dostoevsky—The Demonic in Modernity
Dostoevsky's novels were driven by an obsession with Western intellectual movements that attacked traditional morality. Observe his portrayal of nihilist revolutionaries in Demons, undone by their failure to understand evil in their own nature, and of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, as he rejects moral structure, destroying his own soul.
26: Conrad—Incomprehensible Terror
Conrad's writing is perhaps the most profound modern literary representation of evil. In Heart of Darkness, sense the white colonials' corrosive moral rot, revealing a savagery greatly exceeding that of the "primitives" they claim to civilize. In The Secret Agent, witness Conrad's prescient evocation of the desire to destroy civilization itself.
27: Freud—The Death Drive and the Inexplicable
In Freud's psychoanalytic picture of evil, study his notion of the pleasure principle and the roots of pathological behavior in the conflict between human desires and constricting cultural roles. Then follow his later delineation of the "death drive," a core, destructive force of the psyche in eternal struggle with Eros.
28: Camus—The Challenge to Take Evil Seriously
Two novels by Camus speak deeply to post-war thinking on the phenomenon of evil. Examine The Plague as an allegory for a society possessed by evil, resistant both to confronting evil and to recognizing its eternal recurrence. Contrast this with Camus' depiction of a "prophet" whose only prophecy is our own fall.
29: Post-WWII Protestant Theology on Evil
Three challenging perspectives: Explore Tillich's conception of the demonic as human "possession" by dimensions of reality beyond the personal self; Barth's vision of Das Nichtige ("the nothing"), a force opposing creation, to which God says "no"; and Niebuhr's "diagnosis" of sin as rooted in the desire to escape our condition as both matter and spirit.
30: Post-WWII Roman Catholic Theology on Evil
In modern Catholicism, grasp theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar's nuanced spirituality of hope, based in the conviction that God's providence is so powerful that salvation is a possibility for all humanity. Then study Pope John Paul II's precise delineation of "objectively" evil actions as a resource in the church's larger public discourse.
31: Post-WWII Jewish Thought on Evil
The Holocaust radically challenged Jewish conceptions of evil, faith, and identity. Grapple with four major Jewish thinkers, confronting the apparent death of the God of the covenant, as they urge profound questioning, new understandings of faith, and a turning to fellow humans to find meaning in healing the world.
32: Arendt—The Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt's writings provide critical insights into modern political evil. Look deeply into the totalitarian mindset and its intent to control and transform human nature. In particular, grasp the singular "moral inversion" underlying the genocidal actions of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, which "justified" history's darkest hour.
33: Life in Truth—20th-Century Poets on Evil
Three 20th-century poets responded powerfully to political oppression. Hear Paul Celan's evocation of the annihilation of meaning, continuity, and time itself in the death camps. Follow this with Czeslaw Milosz's searching words on the legacy of past suffering, and Zbigniew Herbert's vision of the power of art and beauty in opposing totalitarianism.
34: Science and the Empirical Study of Evil
Contemporary psychologists have attempted to measure human tendencies toward what we may call "evil" behavior. Examine three landmark experiments studying obedience to authority and willingness to participate in cruel acts, and review the troubling evidence suggesting that human actions are driven much more by context or situation than by innate "character."...
35: The "Unnaming" of Evil
This lecture proposes serious reflections on humanity's current capacities to respond to evil. Grapple with highly relevant issues, including the question of whether our past resources of understanding are equal to current challenges, a possible template for anticipating genocide, and our tendency to "serially" forget the lessons of the past.
36: Where Can Hope Be Found?
Professor Mathewes reviews the many themes and "layers" of thinking that articulate humanity's struggle with evil. Conclude with thoughts on what a workable present stance may be, balancing the intractable challenge that evil presents with the affirmative sense of the world revealed in our resilient will to face it.