Authentic Theodicy?


William Blake, Satan Smiting Job With Sore Boils, c. 1826

by Tamar Aylat-Yaguri

A philosophical theodicy aims at establishing the responsibility for evil in the world: if evil is inevitable for human beings, then God, the absolute and only creator of the world, is held responsible for it, and theodicy is doomed to fail. If, on the other hand, human beings are free not to have sin, and are themselves responsible for evil and suffering, then God’s holiness, benevolence and justice are maintained, and theodicy is proved to be possible.

“Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). God says this in his heart, after the flood he brought on mankind is over and Noah’s ark is anchored. It’s important to note that man is not all evil, it is his inclinations that are so. In his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant adopts this Genesis view and asserts a radical evil in human nature. Evil can be predicated of man as a species, in the sense that we may presuppose evil as a propensity to be subjectively necessary to every man, even to the best. “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The Ecclesiastes quote sounds much stronger than Genesis. If it is consistent with Genesis it seems that there is no one who is righteous and never sins – even though man has the disposition to be good.

An international workshop (held December 14-15, 2011) in honor of Professor Sanford Budick (The Hebrew University), studied “Philosophical Perspectives on Paradise Lost (Book IX)”. One of the more ambitious challenges involved is reflecting upon “theodicy that can be uniquely achieved precisely through the contradictory rhetorical movements of a literary text.” (Tzachi Zamir, The Hebrew University).

Professor Stephen M. Fallon (University of Notre Dame), spoke on‘Good lost, and evil got’: Narrative and Theodicy in Paradise Lost”. Fallon’s formulation of Kant’s view about men innate propensity to evil, goes like this: “We carry with us from God into the world a disposition to good, a free disposition confirmed by acts of the will adhering to the eternal moral law. But when we choose the inclinations of our sensible nature over the demands of the noumenal moral law and Wille, that free choice begins to enslave us…. Repeated choices establish a predisposition: good choices re-establish the good predisposition originally ours; evil choices – the evil disposition Kant identifies as radical and innate evil”.

Kant’s position “On the Failure of All Attempted Philosophical Theodicy” (1791) [or as Budick translate it: “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy”] does not entail men’s irresponsibility for sin. Indeed, man has free choice and as such is responsible for whatever he has made of himself. Yet, viewed from within a deterministic, time-bound world, it is impossible to determine whether a human choice is free or not, since a free choice can not be attributed to anything in time subjected to a deterministic laws of nature. It is, therefore, impossible for any human to affirm any choice as a free one.

Fallon extracts from Milton an attempt to give a philosophical theodicy in Kantian terms. In Paradise Lost, it is Milton’s goal “to assert eternal providence / And justify the ways of God to men”. Adam’s and Eve’s free will removes any necessity to sin and secures a possibility for them to resist temptation and thus to avoid sin. Milton has to make Adam’s and Eve’s choices plausible yet not inevitable. Following an Aristotelian prescription, Milton has to “prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities”, and exclude the irrational. Maintaining this prescription would allow a convincing account of Adam and Eve freely eating the fruit.

Milton’s philosophical theodicy is advanced by a sequence of elements in the plot, which include: a separation scene (that contains a set of antecedents to the eventual fall), establishing Eve’s ultimate choice, hence establishing her freedom of will – showing her to be neither intellectually inferior to Adam nor the weaker link of the story. Construing Eve’s and Adam’s motivations, further develops Milton’s account of their free choices, and avoids determinism. Fallon concludes his analysis of Milton’s narrative with what he calls “an ironic collapsing of Aristotle’s terms”. He claims that “from a point of view that is skeptical of creaturely freedom, Milton collapses the probable (Eve and Adam may well have acted in this way) and the impossible (viewing such action ultimately as free rather than determined)”. If I understand correctly, for Milton it’s probable that Eve and Adam acted freely, yet it’s impossible to view their act as other than free. Nevertheless, Milton is not giving a propositional proof that in fact there is freedom, but he is giving us “the experiential feel” of what it would be like if they were free.

William Blake, The Temptation and Fall of Eve (Illustration to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”), 1908

Since Milton’s expansion and disposition of Adam’s and Eve’s choices is in time, and subject to laws of nature, any conclusion on his part that these choices are free “seem to be ill fated”. Instead, as Fallon suggests, Milton is successful in adequately expressing “what a fall into an evil predisposition would feel like”. An ironic tone is accompanying Milton’s Adam saying: “Good lost, and evil got”. The irony lies in (Milton’s/Adam’s) the understanding that “the knowledge offered by the Tree of Knowledge is experiential rather than propositional [propositional knowledge is the what, the content or meaning of a declarative sentence; experiential knowledge is a sense of how something feels]. Adam and Eve already knew what good and evil were in propositional terms before their fall: goodness is obedience to and harmony with God, and evil is disobedience to and alienation from God”

Literature, it is stated clearly, can “communicate, the [phenomenological] texture of experience, a sense of how something feels”. Moreover, literature attempts to bring that understanding into our own life, and in Milton’s case, “to make us own our failures rather than merely project them onto Adam and Eve”.

Existential Philosophy on Theodicy

Inspired by Fallon’s paper, I want to consider theodicy from an existential perspective, more accurately from a Kierkegaardian perspective. When a rural pastor wants to maintain that God is always just, he talks in his sermon in a stentorian voice, and makes every local peasant understand “the upbuilding [blessing] that lies in the thought that in relation to God we are always in the wrong” (EO II, 339). This theodicy can be universally understood because it carries an ethical rationale. It would be a contradiction to claim that both man and God could be simultaneously right and just. Either God is in the wrong (and there is no theodicy) or man is in the wrong, always in the wrong, and there is theodicy.

Budick, in his book on Kant and Milton, mentions both “the linkage of the poetry of Milton with that of Job” and Kant’s extensive and substantive exemplification of an authentic theodicy as is the book of Job (75-6, 228). Kierkegaard takes the book of Job to be an all together different case.

For Kierkegaard, this impossibility, this contradiction, that God is in the wrong and that man is in the wrong is apparently the case when it comes to Job. God is the first one to agree that Job “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). And still in his answer to Job, God scorns him in saying: “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:8).

Kierkegaard asks about this dilemma in Repetition:

“Was Job then in the wrong? Yes, eternally, because there is no higher court before which he could come. Was he in the right? Yes, eternally, in that he was in the wrong before God” [– no human being can/should find Job wrong!] (Repetition 69).

Is there or is there not a theodicy after all? Indeed, it is beyond understanding: it is a paradox. Kierkegaard mocks the Aristotelian prescription to “prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities” in claiming that some of the Biblical stories exemplify the improbable impossibilities.

On Job, Kierkegaard writes:

“Who could have thought of such an ending? And yet, no other ending is conceivable, even if this one also is inconceivable. When everything has ground to a halt, when thought ceases and speech is silenced, when explanation retreats in despair – then a thunder-storm is necessary. Who can understand this? And yet who could think of anything else?” (Repetition 69).

That is, we can give the experiential feel of freedom, and even the feel of God’s being in the wrong when he punishes Job, who was “blameless”. But getting the experiential feel of this existential paradox is not to give a logical resolution to the question of theodicy. The project of undertaking to provide a theodicy is mistaken – from an experiential point of view.

We must leave in place, and just live through, what Tzachi Zamir so aptly called “the contradictory rhetorical movements of a literary text” or what I’d call, with Kierkegaard, the contradictory movements of a human existence.

About the Author

Tamar Aylat-Yaguri is a philosophy lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Her main fields of interest include existential philosophy, in particular that of Kierkegaard, philosophy of education and the meaning of life.