On the Relative Nature of Good and Evil

Just as all the ocean may be represented in a single drop, so may a thinker or writer’s perspective and perception be represented in small ways throughout their texts. Today, we will focus on a few small quotes from both Homer and Dante illustrating their shared perception that God exists as Nature within (and without) man, and that as God is both the form of man (soul) and the form of Earth (as heaven–or the soul of the world–that which forms it), there can be no such thing as absolute evil or absolute good within the realm of human nature (because God’s nature is perfect.)

We will begin with Homer’s Odyssey. Once Odysseus has symbolically woken up from his sleep aboard a fast-as-thought divine ship of the Phaiakians on his homeland, which he does not recognize due to mist sent by Athene (is this perhaps internal mist?), Athene approaches him incognito as shares the following notion–she says that she, so like one’s nature or soul,  would never abandon him because: “you are fluent, and reason closely, and keep your head always,” (13.332) and that she loves him because “you wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature.” (13.293-294) Is she saying that she will always be with a man who follows his own nature? Of course she is. Throughout the text of the Odyssey, either Athene, Ino, or Hermes helps Odysseus whenever he finds himself in a new situation which his “mind” or “Athene” must figure out the solution to. One might even consider the notion that Athene is simply an external representation of Odysseus’ internal workings, and Hermes too. It is almost as if what is within is the same as what is without. Let us add to this.

Remember that Athene has implored Zeus to help Odysseus escape captivity in Book V. Hermes then gave the order to set him free as well. Ino then helped Odysseus in the water after his raft was destroyed by Poseidon at the end of Book V. In Book VI, before Odysseus even awakens, Athene sends a dream to Nausikaa to ensure that she meets Odysseus the next day. Then after Odysseus has met Nausikaa, Athene in the form of a young lass directs him to Nausikaa and Alkinoos’ house (and places a mist around him). Hermes then helps Odysseus with instructions during the Circe episode even giving him black and white moly to help prevent him from turning into an animal (a representation of keeping one’s mind to stay human?), and later Athene meets and plots with Odysseus on Ithaka and even ensures, with Zeus’ help, that the fighting between him and the suitors ends in Book XXIV. Hermes also, finally, escorts the dead to the underworld in the same book, similarly to him conducting Priam to a similar world in Book XXIV of Homer’s Iliad.

Image result for athena appears to odysseus

(Athene pointing the way home to Odysseus)

This all goes to show that the pagan or Olympian gods do not reward subjectively “good” or “bad” actions, but rather those actions in accordance with one’s nature, or inner deity. Though Odysseus may be sleeping with Circe or shooting an arrow through Alkinoos’ throat, it is precisely because these actions serve a larger purpose of either honoring the xenia (guest-host relationship), or in someway serve the divine plan in a way Odysseus or us would not otherwise see. An action which may be called evil or good to human eyes, thus, always mistakes a personal judgment for a divine judgment which it has no claim to, unless, of course, it understands the “divine plan”, which it generally does not. On to Dante.

In Canto 2 of his Paradiso:

“Direct your mind to God in gratitude,” she told
me, “who has conjoined us with the first star.”

It seemed to me that a cloud covered us,
shining, dense, solid, clear, like a diamond
struck by the sun.

Within itself the eternal pearl received us, as
water receives a ray of light while still remaining whole.

If I was a body–and down here it cannot be
conceived how one dimension could accept an
other, a must occur, if body coincide with body–

It should kindle within us more desire to see
that Essence where is seen how our nature
and God became one.” (Paradiso 2.29-42)

If one closely analyzes the action of the quote above, one will immediately observe that the pilgrim could either be in an intangible, clear, and eternal space within or outside himself  (as shown in the lecture before), and this “encapsulated space” or space is clear and shining and receives the pilgrim, or his form and Beatrice’s, “as water receives a ray of light.” Water, which is translucent, like space, or a crystal, takes light into itself not by possessing it, but by reflecting it. If one then understands the function of the mind or rational soul as reflecting the world of reality, or the mixture of heaven and earth, or form and matter, in a purely formal way, one then understands the mind, like space, to appear precisely as that which it represents, like water reflecting light, in the presence of light or understanding. One might understand this as the Father and the Son sharing the truth or the Holy Spirit (as a messenger between), showing both reflecting each other! The Son, therefore, would be the mind or rational soul of an individual, and it would reflect the reality outside, or the Father, for which one was created to see.

The next quote of Dante’s then tackles the notion of evil in human nature in a characteristically circumspect way.

“There we shall see that which we hold by
faith, and not by demonstration, but it will be
self-evident, like the first truth one believes.

I replied, “My lady, as devoutly as I can I
thank him who has removed me from the
mortal world.

But tell me: what are the dark marks in this
body, that make people down there on earth
tell fables about Cain?” (2.43-51)

Here Dante is cleverly addressing the following question: if a celestial body, or intangible one, like the moon, or the soul, is perfect, how is it that there are seeming imperfections in both man’s soul and this  celestial body (the Moon)–why are there dark spots on the moon and why did Cain do what is apparently evil if human nature is good? First, one should consult this former lecture in order to see Dante’s proof that the root of good and evil, form and matter, and human and divine, all spring from the same source. Then, the question becomes: if human nature is the same as divine nature, how is it that some humans seem to be imperfect? Well, the answer, unlike one might suspect, does not involve there being a difficulty between how the form and matter of a person interact, nor does it have anything to do with the fact that with free-choice, a human can do as he pleases. For there is no such thing as an imperfect nature, there is only a such thing as a person whose nature appears to be lesser or darker relative to others.

First, though, Dante cleverly indicates that he does believe the soul within and heaven or reality “without” to be the same:

“Now, as under the blows of the warm rays of
the sun the subject of snow remains naked
of its former colors and chill,

just so, you, who have become such in
intellect, I wish to inform with light so lively it will
tremble when you see it.” (2.106-111)

If one here follows the analogy, Dante is comparing the soul to melted snow with the snow reflecting on it. What is melted snow? It is water? What is this image of the soul then but the exact same image of the Sphere of the Moon above: “Within itself the eternal pearl received us, as water receives a ray of light while still remaining whole.” It is therefore clear that the Sphere of the Moon and the Soul are “made” or “formed” of the same substance which lies beneath. How, then, could there be imperfections in either if it were not caused, as the pilgrim suggests, by denser and rarer amounts of matter obscuring the nature of the whole? The answer is simple: there is no such thing as an evil or bad nature–only those natures which do what is called bad or evil in accordance with human laws. By the Divine Law, there are only differing degrees of perfection, no good and no evil. So even a murderer of a brother, a fratricide like Cain, lived out his nature, though humans perceive him and his actions as dark or evil. But as we now understand from what appear to be blots on the moon, such dark or evil actions, also like the phases of the moon, are not ultimately evil, but relatively so compared to the “brighter natures” or “actions” of others.

“From that nature comes what seems different
from light to light, not from dense and rare:
it is a formal principle that produces,

confomably with its goodness, the dark and
the bright.” (2.145-148)

Just before this quote, Dante’s Beatrice explained that each celestial body, or soul, mixes to differing degrees with Intelligence (136), and therefore each alloy, or celestial being/soul has a differing nature. That then which appears dark or evil to human perception, by Divine perception, or Truth, is simply that nature or soul which Intelligence has not bequeathed more “goodness” into, and therefore appears to our senses to be lacking. By Divine vision, then, good and evil do not have absolute existence.





On Evil: The House of Atreus

Yesterday, we considered the relationship between education and evil and how and why education might appropriately approach the subject. But, as Socrates might so aptly remind Meno, it seems that we do not even know what evil is. So, the purpose of the article today will be to examine several examples of times when an evil action might be said to have occurred. And through examining situations in which evil events have happened, perhaps we will reach a more generalizable or universal account of what evil is.

The first example we will consider is that of a father sacrificing his daughter for military glory (yes, before even Stannis did it). Such an act, devoid of context, seems blatantly evil. Let us, however, examine exactly why it is that Agamemnon sacrificed his young daughter to the goddess Artemis and see whether context tempers our judgment. As the story goes, Agamemnon was hunting with his men as they camped at Aulis before setting sail for Troy. During this hunt, Agamemnon either claimed to have hunting abilities beyond those of Artemis, or he killed a sacred stag of hers. In any case, she was angry, and he was at fault. Artemis, therefore, turned the winds of the sea against the troops and marooned them on Aulis. The prophet Calchas prophesied that Artemis would only be satisfied by the blood of one of Agamemnon’s daughters. Under the pretense of being wed to Achilleus, Iphigeneia was brought to Aulis just to discover to her horror that she was actually to be sacrificed. Supposedly she was gagged and pled with her eyes until the axe met her throat.

Now, let us consider the situation in its broader context: Agamemnon was field-marshal and commander of 1000 ships set for Troy. Had he not sacrificed his daughter, which he at first did not wish to do, his men would have been stranded on Aulis by the winds of Artemis. So, which is more important: honoring the dignity and valor of the assembled men and bringing justice to the nation of Troy who abducted Helen, queen of Sparta? Or the life of Agamemnon’s young and unwed daughter? To add to this, was Artemis’ request in the first place a bloodthirsty and evil demand of a thoughtless word of Agamemnon? And thirdly, was Agamemnon’s tricking his daughter into coming to Aulis in the first place (under the pretense of marrying Achilleus) evil itself? We will move forward with examples before pausing for further reflection.

After Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Klytaimestra never saw her husband in the same way again. Betrayed and hurt, she became prey for the enemies of Agamemnon and their plots while Agamemnon was away at Troy for ten years. Aigisthos, the cousin of Agamemnon who had murdered his father, Atreus, found his way to the court of Klytaimestra and became her lover. During this time–seven years–he effectively ruled Argos and convinced Klytaimestra that it would be just for her to execute Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. When Agamemnon returned, she and Aigisthos murdered Agamemnon in cold blood (and his new concubine Kassandra). Put blandly, and how Agamemnon presents it in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey (lines 409-428),* Agamemnon was murdered by his faithless wife who served the interest of herself and her new lover by killing him.

Is the situation quite so simple, though? In sacrificing Iphigeneia, did not Agamemnon earn the wrath of the furies (by spilling the blood of a family member)? And since he did not confer with his wife, was she completely and outrageously in the wrong for killing Agamemnon? Was her reason for killing him justice for her daughter, or was it due to new love for Aigisthos, the hated rival of Agamemnon? Was her crime senseless, and must a crime be senseless to be evil? Let us continue forward with this question in mind.

Continuing down the branches of Agamemnon’s family, let us consider his son, Orestes. As we are told in Sophocles’ Electra and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Orestes was given over to Strophius and his son Pylades to raise (though in the one play by Klytaimestra (Agamemnon) and the other by Electra (Electra)). After coming of age, Orestes felt a duty to avenge his father’s death, so he ventured to Mykenai and with the help of Pylades and Electra he slew both Aigisthos and his mother Klytaimestra.

Now, this situation is even more complex; for on the one hand might see it this way: Orestes justly avenged the murderers of his father, the rightful king of Argos/Mykenai. On the other, however, he is an upstart refugee who has killed not only the king of Mykenai himself, but also his mother, in cold blood. Even if one concedes that Aigisthos “had it coming” and that Klytaimestra herself warranted punishment, was it right for Orestes to kill her himself? Did his duty to his father outweigh his duty to his mother? These examples all seem complex, and in their complexity there seems to be some justification for each of the characters. And due to this very presence of reason, validly judged by sound minds, though the crimes above all seem “bad”, they do not seem evil. Is it thus the case, then, that an action which admits of a reasonable or just reason cannot by definition be evil? Let us now consider an act which may shed a new light on our perception of evil.

The final example we will consider is at the very highest branches of the House of Atreus, Tantalos and his son Pelops, perhaps a prima facie example of that which we call evil. Tantalos, already being in trouble on the mortal plane, was given refuge on Olympos by Zeus. But Tantalos, having the nature that he did, was not satisfied simply to enjoy the camaraderie with the gods. No, he decided that we wanted to test their omniscience, and the way he thought to do this: make a stew with parts from his disembodied son. How utterly wretched. This brings us to our closest expression of evil and what differentiates it from something “bad” or “wrong”. There seems to be something ineffable and inexplicable in true evil. As if the process of thought which led up to it included a creative leap that a healthy or sound mind might not make. So much does this appear to be so that upon looking at the reasoning of an “evil thought”, shock rather than recognition fills the observer as he gazes with horror at the chimerical result of such abominable thinking. Let us consider this further.

If we are to label Tantalos’ actions evil and not simply unjust, cruel, bad, illegal, and mean, there must be something ineffable in what he did, or so “wretched” and “wrong” that what he has done does not admit of being spoken of–because its very mention might upset or bring about the wrath of the gods. This is an artful way of expressing that there is something beyond rational in an evil action–super or sub-rational. Certainly what Tantalos did in Antiquity was punished by the gods: his own father, Zeus, banished him to Tartaros, the deepest pit of Hades, where he would forever be submerged in water he could not drink and just below a tree of fruits from which he could not eat (Homer’s Odyssey Bk XI 581-585). But one must ask one’s self, was Tantalos’ killing and feeding of his own son to the gods to test their omniscience absolutely unthinkable? If yes, then one has there one’s definition of evil and a prima facie evidence of evil stripped right out from Greek mythology.

The nature of evil having been determined, we will move forward and consider further aspects of it in the article which is to follow.

*This is also the topic of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.