Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Orbis Non Sufficit

I'm working my way slowly through Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman (Princeton, 2002).  It's interesting, and it covers matters I don't know enough about.  It makes me want to read more Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, and Hegel, the surface of whose work I've barely scratched.  I doubt I'll get very far with that wish, but it does map out some of what I need to know.

Neiman sees the Problem of Evil as the core of philosophy, and perhaps of theology as well.  (I nearly wrote "religion" instead of "theology."  I think religion is prior, logically and historically, to theology.)  She writes that for Hegel the Problem of Evil is central, and he thought he'd basically solved it.  "Philosophy," she quotes him, "should help us to understand that the actual world is as it ought to be" (100).

Unsurprisingly, many people object to such a program.  Neiman argues that Hegel was no sunny optimist, he didn't ignore the many terrors the world contains; he simply argued that it was impossible for things to be otherwise than they are.  Following her explication, I think I can agree with Hegel, provided we understand how his approach can be misunderstood and misused.

First, what is "the world"?  I suppose I should have studied German, because it would help to know if Welt feels the same in German as World does in English.  If it's meant to extend to the entire universe, then Hegel might well be right.  Certainly there is no reason to believe that the universe is structured to protect us or give us meaning; the universe has no feelings, and William Blake's claim that a bird in a cage "puts all Heaven in a Rage" is absurd.  We all die, most of us get sick, and this has nothing to do with human failings, as some attempts to solve the Problem of Evil argue. Ironically, it seems to me, it's as egoistic to believe that human beings could have designed a better universe than God did as it is to think that human actions can cause 'natural' disasters like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.  But it's a common religious belief that our misbehavior gives God sick headaches, and that he watches every one of us closely to add our sins to our entry in his cosmic ledger.

Second, the misuse I mentioned is not just fatalism, but the selective complacency about the appropriateness of the World As It Is which is popular among rulers and their toadies.  It isn't specific to religion, as the persistence of Social Darwinism and scientific racism should remind us.  The Divine Right of Kings easily becomes the Evolutionary Right of Elites with barely a twinge of dissonance.  Human beings can't put All Heaven in a Rage, we can't delay the exhaustion of the sun or the heat death of the universe, but we can (for example) put kings' and queens' necks on the chopping block, and we can jail bankers whose recklessness derails the economy.  We can change our laws to make society better.  Not necessarily good -- Social Security, for example, didn't eliminate death, it didn't even eliminate poverty among the old entirely, but it lessened it.  Evolution doesn't determine political systems or social arrangements.  Kings and dictators are part of the World As It Is, but so is the resistance that blocks, frustrates, and overthrows them.  It won't matter to the universe, but it matters to us, and we can have an effect on the human scale.

Is this really not obvious?  Not, evidently, to those who try to justify evil on the human scale by calling it natural.  But that's too easy.  More pervasively in our time, it's not obvious to those who try to justify the status of the rulers by defining them as meritocratic "elites" who just naturally should be in charge.  Which, come to think of it, is why Mary Midgley's appeals to human nature rub me the wrong way.  She doesn't support oppressive arrangements, of course, she's a nice, humane, liberal lady.  But her conception of human nature is equivocal at best, vacuous at worst.  Maybe I'll have to try reading some Hegel, to try to find out if he recognized this.