فصل 6کتاب: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / فصل 6
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Who Is Pulling Our Strings?
Augustine (354–430) desperately wanted to know the truth. As a Christian, he believed in God. But his belief left many questions unanswered. What did God want him to do? How should he live? What should he believe? He spent most of his waking life thinking and writing about these questions. The stakes were very high. For people who believe in the possibility of spending eternity in hell, making a philosophical mistake can seem to have terrible consequences. As Augustine saw it, he might end up burning in sulphur for ever if he was wrong. One problem he agonized over was why God allowed evil in the world. The answer he gave is still a popular one with many believers.
In the medieval period, roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth century, philosophy and religion were very tightly interlinked. Medieval philosophers learnt from Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. But they adapted their ideas, applying them to their own religions. Many of these philosophers were Christians, but there were important Jewish and Arabic philosophers such as Maimonides and Avicenna too. Augustine, who was much later made a saint, stands out as one of the greatest.
Augustine was born in Tagaste in what is now Algeria in North Africa but was then still part of the Roman Empire. His real name was Aurelius Augustinus, though he is now almost always known as either St Augustine or Augustine of Hippo (after the city where he later lived).
Augustine’s mother was a Christian, but his father followed a local religion. After a wild youth and early adulthood during which he had a child by a mistress, Augustine converted to Christianity in his thirties, eventually becoming Bishop of Hippo. He famously asked God to make him stop having sexual desires ‘but not yet’, because he was enjoying worldly pleasures too much. In later life he wrote many books including his Confessions, The City of God and almost a hundred others, drawing heavily on the wisdom of Plato but giving it a Christian twist.
Most Christians think that God has special powers: he or she is supremely good, knows everything and can do anything. That is all part of the definition of ‘God’. God wouldn’t be God without having these qualities. In many other religions God is described in similar ways, but Augustine was only interested in a Christian perspective.
Anyone who believes in this God will still have to admit there is a great deal of suffering in the world. That would be very hard to deny. Some is the result of natural evil such as earthquakes and diseases. Some of this suffering is due to moral evil: evil caused by human beings. Murder and torture are two obvious examples of moral evil. Long before Augustine was writing, the Greek philosopher Epicurus (see Chapter 4) had recognized that this presents a problem. How could a good, all-powerful God tolerate evil? If God can’t stop it happening, then he can’t be truly all-powerful. There are limits to what he can do. But if God is all-powerful and doesn’t seem inclined to stop it, how can he be all-good? That didn’t seem to make sense. It puzzles many people today too. Augustine focused on moral evil. He realized that the idea of a good God who knows that this kind of evil happens and does nothing to prevent it is difficult to understand. He wasn’t satisfied with the idea that God moves in mysterious ways that are beyond human comprehension. Augustine wanted answers.
Imagine a murderer about to kill his victim. He is poised over him with a sharp knife. A truly evil act is about to take place. Yet we know that God is powerful enough to stop it happening. It would just take a few minor alterations to the neurons in the would-be murderer’s brain. Or God could makes knives turn soft and rubbery every time someone tried to use them as a deadly weapon. That way they would just bounce off the victim, and no one would get hurt. God must know what’s going on as he knows absolutely everything. Nothing can escape him. And he must want the evil not to happen, because that is part of what it means to be supremely good. Yet the murderer kills his victim all the same. Steel knives don’t turn to rubber. There is no flash of lightning, no thunderbolt, the weapon doesn’t miraculously fall from the murderer’s hand. Nor does the murderer change his mind at the last minute. So what is going on? This is the classic Problem of Evil, the problem of explaining why God allows such things. Presumably if everything comes from God, then the evil must come from God too. In some sense God must have wanted this to happen.
In his younger days Augustine had a way of avoiding believing that God wanted evil to happen. He was a Manichaean. Manichaeism was a religion that originally came from Persia (present-day Iran). The Manichaeans believed that God wasn’t supremely powerful. Instead there was a never-ending struggle going on between equal forces of good and evil. So on this view, God and Satan were locked in an ongoing battle for control. Both were immensely strong, but neither was powerful enough to defeat the other. In particular places at particular times, evil got the upper hand. But never for long. Goodness would return and triumph over evil again. This explained why such terrible things happened. Evil came from dark forces and goodness from the forces of light.
Within a person, the Manichaeans believed, goodness came from the soul. Evil came from the body, with all its weaknesses and desires and its tendency to lead us astray. This explained why people were sometimes drawn towards wrongdoing. The problem of evil wasn’t such a problem for them because the Manichaeans didn’t accept the idea that God was so powerful that he controlled every aspect of reality. If God didn’t have power over everything, then he wasn’t responsible for the existence of evil, nor could anyone blame God for failing to prevent evil. Manichaeans would have explained the murderer’s actions as due to the powers of darkness within him leading him towards evil. These powers were so strong in an individual that the forces of light could not defeat them.
In later life Augustine came to reject the Manichaean approach. He couldn’t see why the struggle between good and evil would be never-ending. Why didn’t God win the battle? Surely the forces of good were stronger than those of evil? Although Christians accept that there can be powers of evil, these powers are never as strong as God’s power. Yet if God was truly all-powerful, as Augustine came to believe, the problem of evil remained. Why did God allow evil? Why was there so much of it? There was no easy solution. Augustine thought long and hard about these problems. His main solution was based on the existence of free will: the human ability to choose what we will do next. It’s often known as the Free Will Defence. This is theodicy – the attempt to explain and defend how a good God could allow suffering.
God has given us free will. You can, for example choose whether or not to read the next sentence. That’s your choice. If no one is forcing you to read on, then you are free to stop. Augustine thought having free will is good. It allows us to act morally. We can decide to be good, which for him meant following God’s commands, particularly the Ten Commandments, as well as Jesus’ command to ‘Love thy neighbour’. But a consequence of having free will is that we can decide to do evil. We can be led astray and do bad things, like lying, stealing, harming or even killing people. This often happens when our emotions overpower our reason. We develop strong desires for objects and for money. We give in to our physical lusts and are led away from God and what God commands. Augustine believed that the rational side of us should keep our passions under control, a view he shared with Plato. Human beings, unlike animals, have the power of reason and should use it. If God had programmed us always to choose good over evil we wouldn’t do any harm, but we wouldn’t really be free, and we couldn’t use our reason to decide what to do. God could have made us like that. Augustine argued that it was much better that he gave us choice. Otherwise we’d have been like puppets with God pulling all our strings so that we always behaved ourselves. There would be no point in thinking about how to behave since we would always automatically choose the good option.
So God is powerful enough to prevent all evil. But the fact that evil exists is still not directly due to God. Moral evil is a result of our choices. Augustine believed that it was also partly a result of Adam and Eve’s choices. Like many Christians of his time, he was convinced that things went terribly wrong in the Garden of Eden as described in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. When Eve and then Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge and so betrayed God, they brought sin into the world. This sin, called Original Sin, was not just something that affected their lives. Absolutely every human being pays the price. Augustine believed that Original Sin gets passed on to each new generation by the act of sexual reproduction. Even a child from its earliest moments bears traces of this sin. Original Sin makes us more likely to sin ourselves.
For many present-day readers, this idea that we are somehow to blame and are being punished for actions that someone else committed is very hard to accept. It seems unfair. But the idea that evil is the result of our having free will and not directly due to God still convinces many believers – it allows them to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God.
Boethius, one of the most popular writers of the Middle Ages, believed in such a God, but he wrestled with a different issue about free will: the question of how we could choose to do anything if God already knows what we’ll choose.
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