Enchiridion XXVII


As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.

This mysterious line is of immense importance. A single sentence, this lays out the conclusion to an argument whose premises are unstated. The argument is a proof, whose consequence is a view of the problem of evil similar to that adopted by St. Augustine.* 

As noted before, the Enchiridion records only the summary conclusions of the Stoic school that Epictetus founded, and not the underlying arguments. Lacking the unstated premises, the proof's force and its consequences may not be obvious. 

So here is a reconstruction of how the unstated premises might be stated:

1) All things come to be because they order themselves by their own nature, or because they are put into a particular order by someone or something else. (Aristotle Physics 1)
1a) An example of the first is living beings, which grow into what they are because of internal processes like digestion that let them turn other parts of the world into material for their own order. A child grows into an adult because it is realizing its own internal natural principles of order.
1b) Examples of the second include artifacts, which are made by someone else; and accidental features of nature like weathered riverbeds or seashores. They become what they are because of an external activity.

2) Things like human beings that are internally ordered have a nature; the reason a dog grows into a dog and a man into a man is that their natures differ.

3) Determining the good for a things requires looking at its nature, then; dogs can profit from eating different things than men, for example.

4) Human nature differs from dogs, other lower animals, and plants in that it has an additional capacity for reason that allows it to obtain fuller goods than irrational natural drives.

5) Human nature's highest good is eudaimonia, a flourishing that comes from ordering all your activities in accord with the reason that is the highest part of your nature. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1)

6) This ordering produces virtues (arete), which are excellences of capacity that allow you to pursue the highest good even more fully. 

7) Euidaimonia is reached when you exercise your arete in accord with your reason: thus, you can become happy by living the most virtuous life that is possible for yourself, which reason can tell you how to do.

8) Since this is the highest good for your nature (5), and your nature determines the good for the kind of being you are (3), attaining eudaimonia is the proper mark to aim at in your life.

9) Because the reason that is part of human nature (4) gives you the ability to hit this mark (7), nature can be said to contain a mark that is intended for you to hit and not miss.

Therefore, a mark exists in nature that is happiness and the highest good;

Marks do not exist to be missed, but to serve as targets to be hit. The mark does exist. Therefore nature is such that evil is not its intended end. Good is -- the highest good, and happiness, that comes from learning to hit the mark.

This leads to the solution of the problem of evil, which is that it is not the case that the gods have made an evil world, or a world in which evil is a necessary part. The gods have made a world in which good is the intended mark of nature: by pursuing your rational nature and developing your natural virtues, good and not evil is what you will obtain. Evil comes from people ignoring their reason, or their virtues.

What about random accidents, such as a rock falling upon your child? Those are events of type (1b), things that do not arise from one's own nature (what Kant will later call autonomy) but from outside forces that may be random chance (which Kant called heteronomy). They are not evil, no more than the carving of the river or seashore was evil. They are just the random workings of things that have no will of their own.

Therefore, the existence of the mark proves that the nature of evil is not part of the world. It is a failure by some of us to live up to the good -- to hit the mark that nature has provided. 

*(For St. Augustine, this is placed in the Christian context: God did not create a world with evil in it, nor that is evil by nature, nor in which evil is a necessary part. Gods will is perfectly good; but our free will allows us to fail to attain the goods that God made possible for us, or for others to harm us out of a failure of theirs to pursue the good that God would have wished them to pursue instead of what they chose. Evil is also then a human failing, or a collection of them, rather than a charge that can be laid at the feet of God -- as Job did not do, at least not at first.)


J Melcher said...

It may be worth noting that one of the common Hebrew words translated into English as "sin" litterally means "missing the mark" and is used in some contexts as if launching a projectile at a target and in others as if hacking at wood to shape it and construct something useful. "Sin".
It's a failure.

douglas said...

So in simpler fashion, evil is the lack of good (or God)- rather than a thing unto itself. Darkness relative to light, the void relative to the solid. If I recall correctly, that's the model Augustine used, derived from Platonic sources.

J Melcher said...

So ... evil is the lack of good (or God)- rather than a thing unto itself.

Well, not "so" on that basis.

There are other Old Testament words for evilness. One which applies to false weights and measures, or moving a stone boundary marker or milestone, or destroying the physical record of a contract / covenant (especially like, a peace treaty) between authorities... The word for that sort of thing is often rendered into English as "abomination".

But given Grim's discussions here, I might now prefer translating it as "perfidy". Societies find it convenient, in a high-trust group, to rely upon the symbols of things rather than start each social interaction from scratch. But those who would advantage themselves by abusing the trust, debasing the symbols, those people aren't making a mistake or falling short of a target. They are perfidious and abominable monsters who feed on faith and trust and good-heartedness. And when all social faith is consumed, the monsters, too, find themselves destroyed.

Modern culture most often references the Bible's use of "abomination" in citing Deut 22:5 The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God." But it's not skirts or kilts or pants or bras, per se, that are a problem. It's a social theft of the privileges awarded each sex. As the US tried to avoid drone or cruise missile strikes on civilian women, so Osama Bin Laden hid in the burqua and hijab of a woman. He took, stole, perfidiously arrogated, the protection offered others to protect himself.
Abominable. More than a mistake. More than "Sinful".

The world is fallen and sinful, but as there are a thousand points of light there remain pits of deeper darkness.