The Moralist and the Moralizer
…no expedient could be more sophistical than that into which theodicy, in its desperate straits, has sometimes been driven, of trying to justify as conditions for ideal achievement the very conditions which make ideal achievement impossible. (Santayana, 1954:308 ).
To the unerring question, ‘why is there evil in a world created by the ultimate good?’, the moralist responds not so much by questioning the good in itself but rather the goodness of the good as a consistent and unerring force. To this same question the moralizer calls into question the goodness of the questioner herself. The odyssey of theodicy has these Scyllae bordering its passage and in the responses it receives these other Charybdes through which it must book and negotiate such passage. Today, we might adjust the assumptions that originally undertook to pose the problem of theodicy as a problem and do so in a number of ways at which both the antique moralist and moralizer alike would have trembled. But in so doing, we neither expunge the fact of evil ‘in’ the world nor do we solve the problem this elephantine presence continues to pose for us as a species.
For moderns, theodicy presents the problem of evil in the world as part of that selfsame world rather than as an import, so to speak, from a specific source otherworldly and also maleficent. Evil, in a word, is possessed of no ulterior or exterior intentionality. One finds today the expression which defines evil as wholly human. Animals, by contrast, are incapable of it just as they know not the good. The moral animal which I am, however, finds the world divided but the more so an imbricated and puzzling mélange of good and evil, a chiaroscuro of light and dark. Indeed, ever since Aristotle attempted both the coinage of ethics and thus its separation from metaphysics, we have been aware of a discourse that works within this odd mix of passion and compassion. Not that the former is always given over to evil nor the latter immediately predisposed toward the good. No, the passions are by their own nature aloof to ethical entreaty, and where and when they are called to account by my existential conscience they are already transmuted into compassions. That we can feel both umbrage and empathy with the evildoer is pressing evidence which compels us to reconsider our own relationship with morality at large.
That we are ourselves part of this ever-changing admixture of purposeless evil irrupting onto the calculated landscape of ordered goods may be cause for a gnawing despair. How then might we be trusted to confront evil? How then would we be sure we are capable of identifying the good, let alone acting upon it or toward it? In pre-modern echelons of morality, to be noble, to be honorable, to have integrity or even to be ‘holy’ would, by one’s essential character, orient oneself towards the good, while knowing that both the devil and death rode alongside us, the one casting us ever downward to eventually be greeted by the other. In my desperation I might well be tempted to regress in the direction of the older understanding of theodicy. I might wash my hands of the source of evil, implanted in the human soul as it was from without, while resolving to combat it nonetheless and to the best of my still only human abilities. This kind of old-world auto-assuagement actually has no authentic autochthony to it. Instead, it gratifies the ego by suggesting that I am in reality sourced at the least in a value-neutral nature, at best fully in the contrasting good, a flash of light marking the far end of the tunnel of mortal life. For morality, in one of its most specifically historical guises, is meant to assuage nothing less than mortality itself.
The premodern sensibility calls also into question the idea of the ‘good death’. We do not see emblems of light and the good tarrying with those which threaten at every turn the uncoiled mortality of human beings in action, living in the world. Today, by contrast, we undertake to be the willing vehicles by which a good death can transpire. Assisted suicide for those whose quality of life has waned beyond the pale transform of both doing good in the world and feeling good about being alive, as well as celebrating life in wakeful wakes rather than morosely musing about death in the memorial, are two contemporary examples of how we have adjusted our relationship to both morality and mortality. Death is itself no longer to be seen as either an evil by its own nature nor as the end result of some evil originally unrelated to such an outcome. No, death is instead the completion of being, as in Heidegger, or the closing of a circle, or the utterly natural result of the breakdown of organicity and thus also its miraculous Gestalt of consciousness. And just as is nature neither good nor evil, so too cannot be its confines.
So far so neutered. Hamlet, in his oft self-aggrandizing soliloquies, was prescient of both the later idea of youth in general – his character is a liminal one more suited to a Goethe perhaps than a Shakespeare – and the yet deeper insight that death in fact has no ‘sting’ to it. For the premodern audience at the Globe we might suggest that this absence was implying salvation, that Hamlet, for all his scheming, was essentially in the good, in the right, and even if his character was half-formed, it was yet forming in the right direction. But today we would offer a different reading: death has no sting because it inherently has no meaning beyond itself. The sting which might have singed the soul of the premodern personage has been dislocated, removed from the weft of essential Being and ported over to the warp of historical beings; for it is the living person who dies in our witness and thus death not only is dispossessed of its patent force, it also loses its own persona as a form of ultimate Being.
This is one of modernity’s essential ironies: that a living death trumps any possible end, that the afterlife is a mere after-image of life as we know it and can know it. Furthermore, that living-on expresses the will to life, yes, but also speaks against immortality as a manner of degrading both the present and the future, the one as transient and the other as specious. At once mortality, having lost its edge and perhaps also a good bit of its edginess, commits immortality to a belated grave. And through all this once ran the skein of morality expressed in the active ethics of both the imagination enamored by the world of forms and the intellect equally harnessed to that of norms. In short, morality was understood to be as external as was both evil and also death. In altering the essence of the source material from the gold of the gods to the leaden leadership of human history we have practiced a kind of transmutation in reverse. A yet further irony, the Greek melancholia is thus preserved – the antique ages were more heroic and closer to divinity than are our own – but without any sense that this is a ‘bad thing’. To have preserved this other evaluation, which is more truly to be named a judgment, is to cast oneself as a mere moralizer. ‘The whole world’s going to hell’, when in reality certain regions are simply suffering from a momentous demographic shift for which they were ill-prepared. It is a long way, perhaps, from metaphysics to population pyramids, but even so, all of the noise one encounters whilst making the journey from one to the other, from the widest if oft imaginative sensibility to a specifically narrow moment in modern history, betrays the more essential movement away from identifying morality with not only the metaphysical – its sources, its motives, its telos – but as well betrays ourselves to the ‘world game’, which has already and always ‘blended us in’. Indeed, for the modern, to discover the means by which I am so blended is a goodly part of the process which Selbstverstandnis requires of each of us.
If the moralist may now object that this is at best a sociology of selfhood with neither tendency nor intent at anything more profound, one can immediately agree but with the caveat that such an analytic device is still necessary to self understanding. Now the question arises whether or not it is as well sufficient for the fullest comprehension of what I am. In a world bereft not of morals per se but rather their deeper purpose – if anything, morality is in the way of modernity, a holdover from another age, much as communism theoretically seeks to expose capital as a direct and even auto-mimetic precursor to itself, differing only in its stubborn and staid grip on premodern symbolic forms – mine ownmost being as Dasein need not submit to any final judgment. No Horus awaits me, I must not balance my inexistent soul upon his scales, I need pass through no pearly gates, I need submit no vouchsafe against my sins, and I need no free pass to have lived with such sins in an earthly life so that I might continue to exist indefinitely by vindicated virtue of that unearthly. No, instead, morality is a mere means to a normative end, since ethics, by its own active essence, cannot be counted upon to shore up this or that rule. Oddly, ethics has become more ethereal, by and through its constant jurisprudence, than morality ever could claim to have been.
Let us now return to the problem of theodicy, but recast in the pragmatism of what we take to be our own history and the more so our own time. Primordially, if there were religions at all, they were without Godhead of any kind. Animism is the most democratic of beliefs. All things contain spirit, the world is a spiritual vessel and thus by definition cannot be divorced from the soulful realm of the ether and of the immortal. In the Agrarian epochs, Gods appeared, invited, as were the Near Eastern mascots, Yahweh included, or uninvited, as in the Eastern pantheisms. The former held an historical, even human interest, while the latter maintained their divine aloofness to all things passing in this world and even the world itself. For the Easterner, the entire teleology of morals was to transcend the ego, so the Gods were understood as much abstracted role models, acting as forces of nature and of time, personified as beings which could not be, if taken as living entities. But in the West, the essential purpose was rather to preserve and ultimately exalt the ego, so our Gods took on the mantle of much more direct and anthropomorphic role models. The egotism of the West conquered the world but it also ended up subjugating itself to its own munificence. We are, in our latter-day modernity, slaves not to mortality as such but rather to all that which compels us to dwell in the cage of iron, velvet-gloved as our keepers may be.
And would not the transcendentalist of the ‘orient’ murmur in his patent wisdom that such could be the only outcome of the exaltation of the ego? The flexible but yet unbreakable latticework with which we surround ourselves admits neither morals nor ethics, exudes neither good nor evil, and is overcome not by self-understanding alone nor yet by the non-rational. Indeed, it is this last which has entangled us, making us ripe for imprisonment by wholly rational means. The fear of mortality compels an overstatement of experience as vulgar Erlebnis; I must ‘pack in’ to my life as much as possible in the time allotted me. But such a fear, once assuaged and thence overcome by non-rational beliefs, can today be only irrational; it can accept no premodern succor nor can it be overcome, as yet, by hypermodern device. If morality attempted an ill-advised bulwark against history, its better selfhood was indeed historical, for through this interested presence, projected and extrapolated into Godhead in the West, experiential ethics was uplifted into a way of life. Erlebnis thus attained its more noble meaning: as experience in the service of self-understanding rather than as a series of happenstance adventures and misadventures. It is through morality alone that both the Quixotic and quotidian alike become principled and disciplined, and today we have no further need nor indeed justification in making our experience somehow ‘more’ than either, as if ‘packing it in’ could itself be extended to a yet other form of existence, shorn of mortality and morality the both.
If then there could be a modern morality, its buttresses spring from Dasein’s experience of the world at large and larger than my ownmost being, rather than a self-absorbed contemplation of ‘why I exist’, or even why does the ‘I’ exist. For us, history and morality must come to trust one another without entirely ceding to ethics alone the adjudication of human experience. Morality and history generate knowledge from this Humean wellspring, while allowing ethics to convene and reconvene alongside and in front of their combined presence. Theoditical issues can only be confronted in such terms as these; neither good nor evil are ‘experiences’ that can be passed over without both subsequent analysis and evaluation. That they tinge the everyday without being irruptive to it is both disturbing on the one side – is evil truly normative and thus as structurally likely as is good? – and liberating on the other – good and evil are in fact wholly within my control and that of others like myself. For the modern West, inflated ego packed with mere experience is the greatest evil, history and morality transmuted into discourse, art and science, the greatest good. It remains to be seen if we can, as a culture and as Mitsein, come to terms with this jarring and unsettling contrast of both motive and outcome. That this challenge must be met brings morality, history, and ethics together in novel fashion. Perhaps the very lack of experience we ourselves bring to this opened space of thought and action will be propitious of a new understanding; one that recognizes the truer relations between nature, selfhood, lived time and judgment, all held within a world that is itself an impassive and impartial movement surpassing any and all human history and eschewing any universe of morality. What humanity is, over against this world beyond good and evil, can then be understood not as a countervailing force ranged in confrontation with nature but rather as a practice within that selfsame nature, and I a practitioner, replete with reason as the epitome of what that nature has proclaimed as its highest force.
G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.