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The devil is real, and we all know him

It is Halloween, the day when the dead walk and the devil rides.

We’re plagued by children who are risking diabetes, if not their immortal souls, by demanding the sort of sweets you only give to kids you hate. The Christians down the road, not realizing, as Luther did, that the devil can’t bear to be mocked, are holding a ‘light party’ in protest against the trick-and- treaters.

And, between door-bell rings and dispensings of deadly substances to skeletons, I’m reflecting on a talk I recently heard by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It was on her wonderful book, Plato in the Googleplex. In the book, Plato wanders through modern America, watching, talking, bemused, amused, dismayed, misunderstood. It’s an audit of Platonism. How has it weathered?

The talk itself was a dazzling justification of the whole business of philosophy – an empassioned attempt to revive its original meaning: the love of wisdom.

She described how, as a 13 year old in an orthodox Jewish home, she discovered Plato, and had the first of her intellectual ecstasies. She came to him partly, at least, because the Holocaust had taught her that ideas were dangerous. Philosophy, she thought (and Plato in particular), gave her a way of evaluating the dangerousness of ideas.

Socrates, she noted, was killed because he questioned the fundamental premises on which people based their lives. People don’t like that, and they react nastily. The lesson she took away, and that she taught so scintillatingly in Blackwells, was that all people who agree with Plato that their own premises can and should be examined should come to the table and sort out the world.  Many won’t be there, of course. The absentees will mostly be religious. And she was frank: ‘I don’t know what you do about them.’ So we have a new sort of Manichaeistic dualism: there are the children of light, who examine their premises, and the children of darkness, who don’t. It maps very neatly onto the most famous Platonic aphorism, which Goldstein expressly, repeatedly and forcefully disowned: The unexamined life is a life not worth living.

The most interesting thing about all this is that she ditched, wholesale, the Theory of Forms which, for many, is Platonism. What, I asked her, would Plato have thought of Neo-Platonism. He wouldn’t have liked it at all, was the answer.  It’s perhaps not surprising: Goldstein and her husband, Steven Pinker, are among the most prominent architects of organized non-religion, and the Theory of Forms has a tendency to make people come over all mystical. For Goldstein, then, Plato is all about attitude and method, and not at all about substance.

Goldstein’s Plato doesn’t help to explain much of what happens in the world. When religious fanatics decapitate children, it’s not sufficient to say that they need to be prepared to examine their premises – although that would certainly be a help. Fully-leaded Plato does help: to decapitate a child is to run headlong from any conception of the Good. And where do you get if you do that? To its polar opposite, Evil. Plato’s main contribution to our ability to explain the world is not the explicit theory of forms, but the implicit theory of anti-forms.

We’re all Platonists. There’s a striking consensus on what constitutes evil. Yes, taboos differ between societies, but no one, anywhere, thinks that cruelty or selfishness are good.  There’s a universal and explicit moral grammar. There may be discussion about what, in particular circumstances, constitutes cruelty or selfishness, but everyone in every culture is counselled to abjure the Platonic anti-form of the Good.  Those ideas are embodied in every philosophical system there has ever been: in Aristotelian notions of human thriving, in Utilitarians’ theories of value (which tell them that you should kill one to save five), and even, twisted but recognizable, in Nietzsche’s blusterings.

So, when the door-bell next rings, I shall say, as I hand over the gobstoppers: ‘I applaud your acknowledgment of the reality of evil. You stand in a great tradition.’ If that doesn’t get the social workers visiting, I don’t know what will.

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11 Comment on this post

  1. “Yes, taboos differ between societies, but no one, anywhere, thinks that cruelty or selfishness are good.”

    I think this statement is trivial. Cruelty and selfishness are concepts with badness built into them. That would essentially be like saying “Everyone agrees that wrong acts are wrong.”

    If the statement isn’t trivial, it’s incorrect. People often say things like “You have to be cruel to be kind” or “There’s a lot to be said for acting selfishly.” Presumably, these people don’t use “cruel” or “selfish” to denote intrinsic wrongness or badness.

    1. I usually define cruelty as taking delight in inflicting pain or misfortune on others. This seems to be a badness-free definition that makes the claim that cruelty is bad nontrivial.

      When people say “You have to be cruel to be kind” they likely use the word in a different way from intrinsic badness or my case of delighting in pain, they just misuse the word to denote sternness or something similar.

      1. You mean sadism, rather than cruelty. Cruelty doesn’t imply any personal feeling of delight. Fate can be cruel, indifference can be cruel. Neither imply delight in the suffering of others.

        More to the point, sadism is certainly a better example for your point than cruelty. But even still, I think it’s incorrect to say that no one thinks sadism is good. Some people believe the suffering of criminals in prison is part of the justification for imprisonment, and take joy in knowing that criminals suffer. They think that the suffering of these prisoners is in fact a good thing, because it evens the scales of justice, or something(very, very wrongly in my view). Other people do in fact simply delight in the suffering of others– dogfighters, for example(I’m leaving aside sexual sadism, which is very complex, and I think values pain itself rather than suffering).

        Unfortunately, I think it’s a mistake to believe in any substantial global moral consensus. We can and do make moral progress, but the gulfs of moral disagreement in our world are wide.

  2. I know you mean to be provocative here. But Nietzsche is, in fact, is one of the most important critics of philosophers who illegitimately inject metaphysics into ordinary thought. To say that cruelty is wrong, and then to suddenly introduce THE FORMS without any justification (in order to vindicate your (philosophical bff) is precisely the error Nietzsche regularly mocked. Next time, try taking him at his word.

  3. I think another historical figure ( Thomas Aquinas ) has some comments relevant to your thesis. From ‘Summa of the Summa’, edited and annotated by Peter Kreeft.

    Question 49 – The Cause of Evil
    Third Article – Whether There Be One Supreme Evil Which is the Cause of Every Evil?
    I answer that, It appears from what precedes that there is no one first principle of evil, as there is one first principle of good.
    First indeed, because the first principle of good is essentially good, as was shown above. But nothing can be essentially bad. For it was shown above that every being, as such, is good; and that evil can exist only in good as in its subject.
    Secondly, because the first principle of good is the highest and perfect good which pre-contains in itself all goodness, as shown above. But there cannot be a supreme evil; because , as was shown above although evil always lessens good, yet it never wholly consumes it; and thus, while good ever remains nothing can be wholly and perfectly bad.

    I’ve omitted all the references to other Questions and Answers which Thomas used to connect his arguments, so there’s a lot missing.
    Anyways, it appears Thomas did not think that good and evil are merely opposites, that there might be a more nuanced way of understanding them.
    It’s enough to make me wonder about your premise that ‘The absentees will mostly be religious.’

    1. Neil: many thanks. You and Thomas Aquinas will certainly be at the table. But that doesn’t make me revise my comment.

  4. Hello Charles,
    Thanks for your interesting (as usual) post.
    Just one point : you write that “all people who agree with Plato that their own premises can and should be examined should come to the table and sort out the world”
    Whilst I might agree in principle, isn’t there a sort of internal contradiction in this ?
    Ie, those who continually examine their own premises are exactly those who won’t want to “sort out the world”.
    Or am I being too pessimistic ?

  5. Anthony: many thanks. I presume you’re thinking that someone who examines their own premises wouldn’t want to sort out the world because they wouldn’t be able to say with sufficient certainty that the world was wrong. If that’s so, I can’t agree. Constant re-examination of premises doesn’t imply (or doesn’t necessarily imply), that one is vacuously norm-free. I imagine that most obsessive premise-examiners would agree that (for instance) sadistic cruelty is wrong. Many of the examined premises will relate to the ways in which that wrongness is described, or its origins, or what to do about it.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Charles
      I’m not sure that sadistic cruelty is worse than non-sadistic cruelty. (It seems to me that most of the long list of historic examples of cruelty was not executed by sadists, but you may of course disagree.)
      Nor that all those who agreed that sadistic cruelty is wrong would be able to agree on anything else. Nor even that those who agreed should on that account be better able to sort out the world.
      But, as you might guess, I’m not 100% certain…..
      I agree that how we describe, or attribute origins of, or propose solutions to the world’s problems is linked to our “premises”, but I wonder sometimes on the direction of causality..

  6. Anthony: many thanks.
    Whatever the roots of your morality, surely sadistic cruelty is more blameworthy than non-sadistic cruelty. That’s not to say that one might, given the option, prefer to be tortured by a sadist than a twisted idealist, since the sadist might have enough, and stop, whereas the idealist (perhaps despite a personal distaste for cruelty) might go on and on for the good of ones soul. I entirely agree that most of the world’s cruelty is not sadistic.

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