Posts Tagged ‘Tolstoy’

Book on the Problem of Evil and Suffering

March 22, 2018

Peter Vardy, The Puzzle of Evil (HarperCollins 1992)

Back at the weekend I put up a piece about some of the books I’d read about God and religion, which might be useful to anyone wishing to explore these issues for themselves. This was in response to a request from Jo, one of the great commenters on this blog, who asked me a couple of questions about them. This is another book, which I think might help people with one of the most difficult problems in theology: the problem of evil. To put it simply, this is the question how a God, such as the one Jews, Christians and Muslims worship, who is wholly good and omnipotent, can allow evil and suffering. The counterargument frequently made is that as evil exists, God is either not all-powerful, or not good.

Peter Vardy is the lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London, and the book is written from a Christian perspective. It has the following chapters

Part 1 – The Problem of Evil

1. The Problem Stated
2 A God’s Eye View
3 the Free Will Defence
(i) The Free Will Defence Outlined
(ii) The nature of freedom
(iii) The utopia thesis
(iv) The FWD defended
4 Natural Evil
(I) The Devil and natural evil
(ii) Its this the best of all possible worlds?
(iii) Matter as evil
5 Is it all worth it?
6 Conclusion to the Problem of Evil

Part II – The Mystery of Evil
7 Introduction
8 The Euthyphro Problem
9 Albrecht Ritschl – Absolute Value Judgements
10 God Almighty
11 Can God Act in the World?
12 Animal Suffering and Physical Evil
13 Moral Evil – Job and Ivan
14 The Devil and All His Works
15 The Challenge of Freedom
16 Conclusion.

Vardy goes through and analyses and critiques arguments and attempted solutions to the problem of evil from Irenaeus, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to modern theologians and philosophers. He finds many of them inadequate, but in his conclusion fully asserts the Christian response to suffering. This is that meaning and purpose for human beings can only be found in the love and fellowship of God, that God does indeed act in the world and answer people’s prayers, but that such actions are rare and sparingly used, and that a world with less suffering could not have been created. This last is qualified with the statement that this is a matter of belief, and cannot be justified. He also states that there are forces of evil deep in the human psyche, and may be a real, independent force of evil outside of us. Which sounds very much like the Devil to me. However, that force cannot do more than persuade. It cannot take away human’s freedom. He also states ‘I am convinced that the power of evil is very real and that it needs to be fought both within us and in the world around us.’ On human free will, he states

Human beings are free to take responsibility for themselves as individuals, no matter what their circumstances, and to respond to God or not. I accept that the price for doing this will be high and that the road may be one that few will be willing to follow.

This last statement of what he considers should be the Christian attitude to evil concludes with

I accept that I could be wrong about all the above statements but am ready to stake my life on the “if” that I am right. I cannot do more. (pp. 203-4)

He also makes it very clear that Christians have a moral duty to fight evil. He writes

Augustine’s position, “I believe in order that I may understand”, rests on an opening judgement which cannot be proved, but once this is accepted then many things make sense which would not otherwise do so. The faith position is an altogether more positive and optimistic one than the assertion of meaninglessness. It maintains that although evil is a terrible reality 9it can be overcome and one of our main tasks as human individuals is to fight against it. Indeed the problem of evil is not at heart an intellectual one so much as an existential one – the presence of evil should call us to engage with it and to fight against it. As soon as we are overawed by evil’s power and allow it to have mastery we will cower beneath it in fear and trembling. We may have many excuses for doing this, we may hold that it is none of our business, or consider ourselves too weak or think that as we are not too badly affected it does not matter. Evil, however, spreads and unless it is combated its power will grow. We cannot stand idle and watch it increase – we have to face it now no matter how great the personal cost may be. Some may consider us foolish and certainly fighting evil wherever we find it (particularly in ourselves) can be a lonely and heartbreaking business. However the choice is simple: submit and be overcome or stand and fight and find freedom. This is a choice that needs to be lived out and so this book is, at the end of the day, a call to action. (Pp. 202-3)

Warning: in some places, this is not an easy book to read, as Vardy illustrates how pressing the problem is, and the terrible power of evil, with examples from ordinary life, such as the accidental death of children, to the sadistic acts of vile regimes. This includes the guards in the Nazi death camps throwing Jewish children alive into the quicklime that was used to destroy the bodies after death. He doesn’t dwell on these examples, but uses them to show that this is far more than an academic exercise.

On the other hand, he also uses the works of Tolstoy, and in particular The Brothers Karamazov, to explore the problem of evil, as well as the Book of Job in the Bible. Regarding the chapters on ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ evil, this is a distinction theologians and philosophers make between humans and the natural world. ‘Natural evil’ are disasters like earthquakes, plagues and so on, which bring terrible suffering, but the forces themselves don’t actually have free will. ‘Moral evil’ refers to humans, who do have free will, and are free to choose whether they pursue a particular course of action, or commit a crime or an atrocity, or not.

I’m very much aware that not all the readers of this blog are Christians by any means. I hope, however, that this might help those wishing to explore the problem of evil from the Christian tradition, and am aware that other religions have their own.

But I also hope that whatever our personal religious or philosophical views, we can all agree that, as human being, we do have freedom and a moral duty to fight evil and suffering.


The Daily Mail and Milliband: Proof You Can Tell He’s Doing Something Right

October 2, 2013

The Daily Mail’s attack on Milliband’s father suggests that the leader of the Labour party must really have them rattled. They can’t, it seem, be content to attack the man’s policies, but have to launch an ad hominem attack, not just on the man, but on his father. Ralph Milliband died in 1994, and so can’t answer back, nor sue for libel. As Milliband said in his right-to-reply piece, reproduced on Kittysjones’ blog, ‘You can’t libel the dead, but you can smear them’. Now Ralph Milliband was a distinguished Marxist intellectual, and this intellectual legacy appears to threaten the Conservatives, even if his sons, as members of New Labour, don’t share his views.

Milliband states that the Mail’s article is purely based on a single entry his father made in his diary when he was an adolescent. I can well believe this. From what I understand about the experience of Jewish immigrants to Britain of Milliband’s senior generation, rather than hating Britain, many of them were extremely patriotic. The office of ‘Chief Rabbi of the British Empire’ in British Judaism was modelled on the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury as head of the Anglican Church. The motto of the Jewish equivalent of the Boy Scouts was ‘to be a good Jew and a good Englishman’. One of the paintings by the 20th century avant-garde artist, David Bomberg, shows the interior of a Jewish bath house. The colours used are red, white and blue, those of the Union flag. I have the impression, though I’m no art historian and know next to nothing about Bomberg, that this was a genuine expression of his love for his country.

What many European emigres didn’t like about Britain was its anti-intellectualism and ‘boy’s club’ atmosphere. Many of them were extremely highly educated and cultured men and women, and they disliked the philistinism they found in British society. Those raised in the Continental intellectual culture, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, have often commented on its comparative absence over this side of La Manche. One British Jewish intellectual, Steiner, compared Britain with France. In France, he said, they’d fight duels over disagreements about Hegel. In Britain the attitude is simply, ‘Oh, don’t be so silly’. I think Steiner liked the British attitude as showing far more common sense, while being aware of just how hostile British culture could be to intellectual debate. The Daily Mail, however, has over the years done its level best to keep this tradition of fierce anti-intellectualism going. Way back in the 1990s Paul Johnson, one of the Mail’s columnists, wrote a book Intellectuals. This took a number of leading intellectual figures, such as Karl Marx, Kenneth Tynan, Hans Christian Andersen and so on, and examined not their ideas, but their own personal lives. Most of them were shown to fall far below the standards of correct behaviour and bourgeois decorum demanded by the Daily Mail. As did Johnson himself, who all the while he was pontificating on British moral decline and the evils of today’s lax sexual behaviour was regularly getting a good spanking by his mistress. Private Eye wrote a mock hagiography for him in their ‘Lives of the Saints’ column, in which the great man said to his mistress ‘You must spank me on the botty and show me no mercy!’ Now it’s pretty true that many great men had feet of clay, and some of them were pretty horrible human beings. As Private Eye pointed out in its review of Johnson’s book, the shoddiness of their private lives no more invalidates their work than the second-best bed negates the beauty and value of Hamlet.

And some of the pieces written by the Daily Mail’s writers over the years are bizarre, if not absolutely bonkers. JUlie Burchill once wrote a piece in the Mail of Sunday, which, through several turns of highly convoluted, and indeed, sheer lapses of logic, attacking the sincere anti-Fascists, like Orwell and Steven Spender, who went to Spain to fight Franco in the Civil War. They were not motivated by heroism and the desire to see a Europe free of Fascist tyranny, according to Burchill. No, they were just like the tourists, who go to Spain to watch the bullfights. Burchill has said of her writing before now that she starts with a drink in front of her, which by the time she’s finished is all gone. She has also boasted of taking enough cocaine to stun the Colombian army. Reading pieces like that, I believe her. As for attacking the anti-Fascist veterans of the Civil War, this raises once again the spectre of Conservative hypocrisy. Orwell in one of his articles described how the Stock Exchanged cheered General Franco when he launched his revolt against the Republic. The leader of the National Front in the 1960s, Fountaine, was a former Tory, who had fought for Franco during the Civil War. he was thrown out of the Conservative party after making anti-Semitic comments about Jewish influence at one of the party’s meetings. He wasn’t the only Tory to admire the Spanish dictator. Martin Pugh in his book on British Fascism between the wars also notes that Winston Churchill also admired him for his authoritarian leadership. Churchill was certainly not an anti-Semite, but his opposition to Nazi Germany came from a conviction that a strong, militarised Reich threatened the British Empire, not from an opposition to Fascism per se. Hence Orwell’s comment in another of his articles that the run-up to Second World War hade produced some truly remarkable turns of events, ‘such as Winston Churchill running around pretending to be a democrat’. In the Tory party, Anthony Eden was a much stronger, and far more determined opponent of Fascism.

As for Paul Johnson, he himself is also capable of making bizarre, distorted attacks on the character of great men. A decade ago now he attack the great Russian novelist, Tolstoy, in the pages of the Spectator, for being responsible for the rise of Stalin. This is such a gross distortion of Tolstoy’s views and character that, as with Burchill, you wonder if he was drunk or on drugs when he wrote it. Tolstoy was a communist, who believed in the collective ownership of property. He was not, however, a Marxist, but Christian, as well as a vegetarian, pacifist anarchist. Unlike Marxism, which holds that society is formed and progresses through inexorable social and economic laws, Tolstoy believed that history was made not through impersonal processes, but through the actions of millions of individual people. He expressed his distinctive view of history as formed by countless individuals, rather than the actions of great men, in his masterpiece, War and Peace. He got his idea on passive resistance from the tactics used by a Chechen Sufi leader, who was captured and exiled to Russia after the Russian invaded his country. Tolstoy himself wrote pamphlets denouncing violence, and in turn influenced Gandhis own conception of the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa – nonviolence. As an anarchist, he also hated the state for its violence and oppression. In contrast to Stalin, who demanded absolute devotion, constituting a form of secular worship, Tolstoy himself lived simply. Despite being a member of the aristocracy, he wore a peasant’s smock and taught himself their skills, such as sewing boots. There is absolutely no comparison whatsoever between Tolstoy and Stalin, and the great novelist would have been repelled and revolted by everything Stalin stood for.

The vicious, mean-spirited attack on Ralph Milliband is just another demonstration of the Heil’s abysmally low standards of journalism: bizarre, ad hominem rants with little basis, or even concern, for factual accuracy.

Now both Pride’s Purge and Kittysjones have written excellent pieces, which I’ve reblogged, on how the Mail supported Mosley and Hitler. In fairness to the Daily Mail, they did run pieces critical of him after his organisation’s intolerance and thuggery became very clear. Nevertheless, there still remained some respect for the man even after he had been discredit and revealed as an anti-Semite and would-be fuhrer. One of his biographers, Skidelsky, maintained that Mosley was not actually anti-Semitic, and only became so after he encountered opposition from the Jewish organisations. skidelsky points out that Mosley’s notorious ‘biff boys’, the uniformed stewards at his rallies, were trained by the Jewish boxer, Ted Lewis. According to Skidelsky, Mosley was far more influenced by Mussolini than Hitler. This view has now been rejected by later historians. Martin Pugh points out that Mosley’s BUF contained a large number of anti-semites, and that Mosley quickly turned to Hitler and the Nazis when Mussolini’s leadership of international Fascism began to wane. After Hitler’s seizure of power, Mosley changed the BUF’s name to ‘the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists’. Mosley was indeed a Nazi, and so shares their guilt for the horrors they committed.

This has, however, only been recognised very recently. When Mosley died, the newspapers all printed sympathetic, even glowing obituaries. The BBC’s satirical sketch show, Not The Nine O’clock News sent this up at the time in their song about him. If you listen to it right to the end, you’ll find that the point of the satire isn’t so much Mosley himself, but the fact that the newspapers all wrote obituaries praising him. Here it is: