Rational Evil

Dennis Prager , in this episode of his Prager University series of videos, takes on an ever popular heresy:  evil is irrational.  This heresy is popular for any number of reasons but doubtless it all boils down to the belief, completely unfounded in human experience, that reasonable people will agree on what is good and what is evil.  The experience of the last half century in the West should have knocked that bit of foolishness into a cocked hat.  Agreement on good and evil in practice is largely a matter of convention.   If the social norms of a people come under challenge, we quickly see apparently reasonable people disagreeing on such fundamental questions as whether an unborn child has a right to life, or whether sex outside of marriage is evil. 

Concepts of good and evil are either based on revelation from God, or are matters of opinion to be argued about.  Fewer people in our society believe in revelation, hence good and evil become matters of opinion for debate.  When the debate is joined we often find that there is little agreement on goals and that therefore what is rational to each individual takes varying paths to differing goals.  Widespread disagreement on good and evil also causes the State to grow ever larger to enforce the version of good held by those in power in the State.  John Adams saw all this when he wrote on October 11, 1798 a letter to the officers of the first brigade of the third division of the Massachusetts militia:

While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.


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  1. I sometimes fancy that Natural Law thinking has done real harm to Christian witness and provided a cover for civic religion.
    The Neo-Thomists had developed a theory of Natural Law, based on Suarez’s interpretation, or rather, travesty of St Thomas. They had talked of a “natural order,” governed by Natural Law, consisting of truths accessible to unaided human reason, as something that can be kept separate from the supernatural truths revealed in the Gospel. This “two-tier” account of nature and grace was based on this view that the addition of “grace” was something super-added to a human nature that was already complete and sufficient in itself and apart from any intrinsic human need
    In the memorable exchange in 1910, in Blondel’s publication, L’Annales de philosophie chrétienne, between Maurras’s Jesuit defender, Descoqs and the Oratorian Lucien Laberthonnière, Descoqs, a follower of Suarez’s interpretation of St Thomas had allowed the political sphere a wide degree of political autonomy and he was prepared to detach “political society” from “religious society.” Laberthonnière had retaliated by accusing Descoqs of being influenced by “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.”
    So far as I know, this exchange has never appeared in English, which is astonishing, as it was what united such disparate thinkers as Blondel, Maréchal, the Dominicans, Chenu and Congar and the Jesuits, Lubac and Daniélou. It was a fundamental moment for the Nouvelle Théologie, much as Keble’s Assize Sermon had been for the Oxford Movement.
    Thus, Maurice Blondel, insisted that we must never forget “that one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly complete (boucle), even in the sheerly natural order”
    Jacques Maritain, too, declared that “the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being . . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account” and “Man is not in a state of pure nature, he is fallen and redeemed. Consequently, ethics, in the widest sense of the word, that is, in so far as it bears on all practical matters of human action, politics and economics, practical psychology, collective psychology, sociology, as well as individual morality,—ethics in so far as it takes man in his concrete state, in his existential being, is not a purely philosophic discipline. Of itself it has to do with theology”

  2. Preamble
    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
    In the 52 words of the Preamble to the US Constitution, the Law of the Land lies the reason and purpose of the United States of America which cannot be corrupted, not changed because the Preamble addresses the human rights of : “We, the people of the United States of America”, past, present and future generations. The human rights of all people, the human species, conceived as sovereign persons, innocent and virgin, perfect, until visited by the sins of corruption and concupiscence of their fathers.
    Had Adam, the first human being, told Eve, his wife, that “NO” I am not eating the apple”, Eve’s corruption would have been annihilated, as a husband has rule over his wife’s vows, oaths and indiscretions. The human race might have come into being, as each individual might come into being under Adam’s correct, politically correct and perfect obedience to “their Creator” for the common good.
    Correctness is necessary for the common good. Correctness is spelled out in The Preamble. “ in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” Our posterity are all future generations yet to be born known only to God in God’s infinite wisdom. “ and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our posterity” brought forward from all past generations, our posterity are guaranteed the “Blessings of Liberty”
    “do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” “do ordain”, that is to make into law and establish this law throughout the land.

    “Violation of the Preamble to the Law of the Land, our United States Constitution is violation of “We, the people”, past generations, the now generation and all future generations. The Law is alive and living in time and in eternity, now and forever.
    The dictates of being human are inscribed in the Preamble.
    If the Liberal Left does not like it, they can go live somewhere else. Being inhuman and overriding another sovereign person’s human rights is demonic. Evil is practiced by the demonic.

  3. “Descoqs, a follower of Suarez’s interpretation of St Thomas…” “Human existence is the criterion for the objective ordering of human rights.” Francisco Suarez

  4. But Suarez overlooked St Thomas, where he says, ““even though by his nature man is inclined to his ultimate end, he cannot reach it by nature but only by grace, and this owing to the loftiness of that end.” [In Boethius de Trinitate, q. 6, a. 4 ad 5.] for he says, “the happiness of any rational creature whatsoever consists in seeing God by his essence” [In IV Sent, d. 49, q. 2, a. 7:]

    Again, St Thomas says, ““The nature that can attain perfect good, although it needs help from without in order to attain it, is of more noble condition than a nature which cannot attain perfect good, but attains some imperfect good, although it need no help from without in order to attain it.” [ST I-II, q. 5, a. 5 ad 2] and he quotes Aristotle as saying “that which we are able to do through friends we can in a certain way do on our own.”

    This is also the teaching of St Augustine, when he says, in the first line of the Confessions, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

  5. To the extent I’m following your reasoning Michael (if I’m following your reasoning because I’m not at all familiar with the debate you describe), I’d say that, at least as far as the good ol’ U. S. of A is concerned, our prevailing schools of social thought are predominantly structural and post-structural, i.e. social rather than moral, so I don’t see where natural law fits in to our present debates, except perhaps by its absence.

  6. Ernst Schreiber
    Descoqs had urged Catholic support for Charles Maurras and his ultra-nationalist political party, Action Française because Maurras, though an atheist, who did not recognize the supernatural constitution of the Church, nevertheless had great esteem for the Catholic Church, along with the monarchy, as “the rampart of order” and assigned her a privileged position in his new order.
    Descoqs argued that Catholics could collaborate with positivists like Maurras, because “these latter have very just, though incomplete and ‘deficient’ ideas on several points: order, authority, [and] tradition.” (In other words, they were neo-fascists.) He maintained the natural order has “its proper value and relative independence” and insisted on maintaining the “essential distinction…between purely political and economic questions and moral and religious questions.” Laberthonnière, Blondel and their supporters insisted otherwise; for them, the two were inseparable. That was the crux of the quarrel.

  7. Michael Paterson-Seymour,
    You are certainly correct on the misreading/misinterpretation of Saint Thomas first by Suarez, then by the Neo-Thomists writing after the call by Pope Leo XIII for a return to Thomas as a perennial philosophical/theological system. I will not get into the specifics of the late 19th century French Political questions.

    Thomas was building his system fundamentally on Augustine, the Doctor of Grace. Thomas however enhanced the place of creation/nature, while Augustine had done so with grace. While Thomas emphasized the distinction of grace and nature ( in much the same way as Chalcedon emphasized the two natures of Christ) he never radically separated them, as did Suarez and the later Neo-Thomists ( actually creating a ‘Nestorian-like’ theology of nature and grace). Thomas held to the profound and fundamental unity of nature and grace given by Augustine (analogously giving us the unity of the Person of Christ of the Council of Ephesus). Thomas saw grace perfecting (or building on) nature. This axiom does not only give us the distinction of nature and grace, but reveals that nature is perfected, most fully itself when graced. As Saiint Irenaeus would write (in 187 AD) “The Glory of God is man fully alive and man fully alive sees the Face of God”. This is a far cry from the almost accidental relationship between nature and grace in Suarez et al.

    It is in this light that we need to see Thomas’ teaching on Natural Law. Thomas believed that the Eternal Law in the mind of God is revealed first in Natural Law then completed or perfected by Divine Law (revealed in both Old and New Testament). As nature is ‘perfected’ by grace, according to Thomas, so natural law is ‘perfected’ by Divine Law. This is fully revealed when we realize that what the New Testament reveals is the Law of the Spirit (grace) with Christ Himself as our new Norm.

    To return to the actual point of the above article, especially quoting Jihn Adams, then this dynamic, completing, fulfilling, perfecting relationship of grace to nature, reveals just how fundamental moral and religious people are to the commonweal.

  8. “Made me think of the evil of the Reign of Terror, dedicated as it was to Reason.”

    To eat of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the REASONABLE thing to do:

    Genesis 3:6

    So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [the lust of the flesh],
    that it was pleasant to the eyes [the lust of the eyes],
    and a tree desirable to make one wise [the pride of life],
    she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.

    But Jesus did NOT do the logical, REASONABLE thing in Luke 4:1-13 and Matthew 4:1-11.

    He did NOT turn the stones into bread [the lust of the flesh].
    He did NOT bow down to worship Satan at the sight of all the kingdoms of the world [the lust of the eyes]
    He being empowered as God did NOT dash Himself down from a great height [the pride of life]

    Reason unbridled by religious charity always leads to the dominance of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. It is unreasonable to humble one’s self. But to do otherwise is to forsake eternal life in Heaven for Esau’s REASONABLE bowl of porridge.

    1st John 2:15-17

    15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

  9. I am not sure how to express this, but here it goes:
    There is some excellent argument offered at this site that when I have the time to read I am glad of it. However, it comes across as a closed discussion among a few individuals trying to prove this or that to the other one with a few listeners, like me, listening in. That’s fine if this is the purpose of The American Catholic. However, my first impression was that The American Catholic was intended to permeate the general American Catholic population, welcoming discussion, encouraging thought and dare I say, nourishing conversion while presenting Truth. Granted it would be a slow process and the general Catholic population is woefully ignorant of our faith, but it seems to me that is where we have to go and “elevate.”
    I have not often replied, but I have on a few occasions and only once did one person reply. Following the thread of several discussions it suggests to me the usual pattern is engagement of those few persons known in a sort of intellectual parry. Again, fine if that is your purpose and for the few, informative and interesting. But with no disrespect intended, in fact only admiration, I still yearn to discover a vehicle for reaching, inviting, enticing, engaging a broader population. Perhaps I am very mistaken and you have a large and growing participants. If so, I gladly stand corrected of my ignorant impressions.

  10. We have far more readers than those who are actively involved in the comboxes. Our daily hits vary from a usual 4,500 up to a high of 12,000. Our hard core of commenters is usually about fifty individuals with the individuals changing somewhat over time. A highly popular post will usually have comments from people outside of the core. I am always interested in comments from people who do not regularly comment, because new insights are always welcome. (Unless they are crazy of course. 🙂 )

  11. Kevin,

    Perhaps I have been one of those to whom you refer. I am sorry if I have come across as just wanting to carry on a conversation with just a few. That is not my intention

    I suggest you jump in. If it seems I have not really responded to your point. Point it out to me. Faith filled, reasoned questions and discussions are what we try to attain here

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