Necessity of Evil

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Part 1

Pierre Leroux, "Necessity of Evil" [part 1 of 2], The Spirit of the Age, I, 18 (November 3, 1849), 273-5.

Translated for The Spirit of the Age,



WE exist only in relation with the exterior world, or with internal ideas which have their source in our previous relation with this world. If this relation is agreeable we call it pleasure, but this is a transient thing. Happiness is such a state that we should demand its duration without change. Now if the exterior world were unchangeable, immutable, there would be no reason nor possibility of our intervening or acting upon it; and if in changing it should excite only pleasure, or if the ideas and passions awakened by this exterior relation wore immutable, or pleasant only, all this would preclude any wish to interfere with these relations, they would awake no desire, consequently no activity, no personality, and the result of this immutability would be not life but death, not happiness but annihilation.

If, as a celebrated myth says, man had his beginning in happiness, he existed only as an appendix to his creator; he lived in the bosom of God, innocent but unconscious. In passing from this state he has not fallen, but has exchanged happiness for virtue, unconscious innocence for activity, for personality, that is for true life.

Evil is then necessary to awaken desire and consequently activity and personality, that is, it is the very condition of actual life; its need ceases as soon as the force within us is sufficiently vital to act in the perfecting of life and the world, without being pricked into action by its sting.

Under the myth of the three places, Eden, Earth, Paradise, lies the fact of an unconscious inactive life, then a life active through suffering, thence to a life active without suffering; but the placing of the first and last of these states in a chimerical Eden and Paradise has caused the middle term Earth to fail of being appreciated, and it has been so slandered by theologians that from time to time there have arisen up partisans in its behalf, defenders of earth from the charge of absolute evil laid upon it.

In fact, absolute evil is as impossible as absolute happiness. The same instability of things, which precludes the one, precludes also the other. Evil is transformed by time, by memory, by the development of contrary passions, even by the exhaustion of the power of suffering. But although there is in nature, apart from any religious ideas, a perpetual resource and remedy against suffering, yet the doctrine of compensation which teaches that the happiness of all is equal, and that a deficiency in one point is made up by a superfluity in another, and the reverse, is not true.

This point of view has arisen and should arise in the train of Protestantism, for Protestantism was already to a certain extent a return to nature. Next to Protestantism came the controversy of Boyle; then the religious Optimism of Leibnitz; then the Epicurean Optimism of which we speak.

The first point of this philosophy is that happiness is the law and rule of all beings.

The second that in the destiny of each, good and evil are mutually compensated.

The third that consequently all destinies share equally in good and evil: so says Voltaire.

As heaven about us wove our human life
It used a mingled thread of peace and strife;
Desire, distaste, calm reason, folly free,
Moments of pleasure, days of misery;
These wake up man, in these his essence lies,
His nature formed of blended contraries;
All equal weighed in God's impartial scale,
All taste the sweet and none the bitter fail.<ref>Discourse in verse.</ref>

The conclusion of this system is immobility; for if all conditions are equal, if all have the same measure of good and evil, and if the sole law of our being is happiness as this system understands it, then it would be folly to wish to change the conditions of the world. As well fool as wise man; as well barbarous as civilized; and one may finally arrive at the conclusion, that the happiest of organized beings is the most simple—an oyster or a coral.

The principle of the system is absurd. Happiness, as it is understood, in the first axiom of Voltaire, is not the end of created beings. Creatures are not made to be happy, but to live and to become developed by advancing towards a certain type of perfection.

The lyric Pindar said "Life is the track of a chariot;" but it is of elapsed life, of dead life, he speaks. Living life is the, wheel in movement. The revolving, advancing wheel is never fixed; it is never between the points, yet it passes successively all points. So of life: we are never in an idea nor pleasure nor suffering; but we are ever coming out of one to pass into another.

Our life is the emersion from an anterior state and immersion into a future state. Therefore the only permanent condition of our being is aspiration.

The problem of Happiness is the foundation of philosophy and religion. What is good? the only question among the sects of Greece; it gave rise to the hundred and eighty sects enumerated by Varro which may be reduced essentially to three: that of Plato, Zeno and Epicurus. 1. Those satisfied with nature or if not satisfied, accepting it as a master from whom there is no appeal; (Epicurus). 2 Those discontented with nature and appealing from it to themselves; (Zeno). 3. Those who regard nature as an imperfect and transitory state, the faults of which it is possible to correct by conforming one's self to a certain ideal; (Plato).

Plato preceded the others by a century: a century before Plato, Democritus and Heraclitus represented the contrasted ideas of Zeno and Epicurus.

The principle of the school of Epicurus was the acceptance of nature as it is; of Zeno, the reprobation of nature and the complete substitution of a different life called virtue; Plato neither absolutely accepts or rejects nature, but imports into Greece the oriental ideas of the fall and redemption.

The philosophic partisans of nature in the eighteenth century, the Deism of Bolingbroke, Pope and Voltaire, the egotism of Rochefoucauld, the sensualism of Condillac, the well-understood interest of Helvetius, the atomic materialism of the French Savans, the utilitarianism of Bentham are all comprised in Epicuns. This great man appears in history among the greatest of sages. By a curious symbol of his destiny he was called in his childhood a hunter of spectres, because ho went with his poor mother from house to house making lustrations in order to put to flight evil spirits. He has ever been and will be the hunter of Spectres, he who saves from superstition. It is useful and necessary to bring men back to a view of a earth. What distinguishes Epicurus from his followers is the sanctity with which he did this work, instaurating a contentment with the earth in a manner altogether religious. Among all the ancient sects Epicurianism endured the longest; it flourished around the author in his garden and still subsisted six hundred years late; when Christianity carried all before it. It flourished at the fail of Paganism as it was re-born at the fall of Christianity; and thereby is shown the necessity humanity is under, of destroying through doubt the old religions, which obstruct its path; thus its reign at certain epochs is good and necessary When religions fall into decay, man is forced to accept the present life as it is; the sage seeks to pass it away with the least possible torment; the fool wastes and devours it. Then come those epochs so marked in history of double-refined passions, of unbridled pleasures and profound melancholy, of incredulity and superstition. Then also comes Epicurus, under this or some other name, calming the insatiable desire of happiness with which men are enfevered, and saving them as far as possible from false voluptuousness itself. This doctrine is a retreat for humanity, preventing a complete overthrow. Yet humanity having rallied and under this shelter re-taken confidence in itself, it soon perceives that its fate is not to fly, not to take refuge in anything; but to march onward to now conflicts. Epicurianism, at all times an influence useful in some respects; has at certain epochs an office of incontestable legitimacy.

This system, which has for its principle the acceptance of and satisfaction with nature, can only be comprehended and adopted by the favored few; the slave Epictetus needs a Zeno: Thence arises a sect which reproves and rejects nature. The nature of man, according to the Stoics, consists only in his liberty. He is free only in attaching himself to nothing which is not completely in his power. The participation of the Stoic in life consists only in voluntarily obeying destiny, that is in voluntarily doing the part destiny bestows, but without being interested in it; for in being interested he ceases to be free. The morality of the Stoics was to despise life by taking refuge in one's self; to leave to destiny the responsibility of its work; not to temper the passions but to uproot them; to make of one's self a free intelligence, a liberty. Such was their disdain of life that they were desirous to demonstrate that the human soul is perishable; and such their disgust of the world, that their system gave to the sage the right of taking away his own life this right being the natural result of his liberty and the need of his virtue.

Plato, as it has been said, neither absolutely accepted or rejected nature. His works are a mingling of Socratic inspirations and Oriental solutions. The double character, of a Greek who had conversed eight years with Socrates and then, long a disciple of the Pythagoreans and the priests of Egypt, is seen in his works. With Socrates all investigation turned upon the question of morality and happiness; Plato accepts this direction, but solves the problem with a Theology drawn from the Egyptians and the Pythagoreans of Magna Graecia, themselves a branch of eastern philosophy. Plato, following Socrates; says that the object of all study is to find The Good; and the mode to this is the study of man, self-knowledge; but instead of adhering to this mode, he solves the question of "the good" and "the best by some ancient religious solution—no longer a Socratic Greek but a priest of Memphis. The soul, according to Plato, is a self-active force, but fallen and united to matter; it lives in a kind of imprisonment and exile; so that man is composed of two different principles: 1st, the rational; 2nd, the animal. The former has power to return to the blessedness of spirits. How is this return possible? By renewing its knowledge of Ideas, the eternal types and models of things.

These Ideas exist in God and traverse the world, for God has made the world on the model of Ideas. How can the soul gain knowledge of Ideas, disembarrass itself of Nature and so rise to God?

Through love. Love of the supreme Beauty; great in proportion as the soul is pure; adoration of this Beauty produces virtue.

Happiness consists not in the relation we have to terrestrial objects; but in our relation to the supreme Beauty which is concealed behind these objects as behind a veil. These Ideas; archetypes of things exist, in God; he is therefore the Supreme Good, and man's happiness consists in being as like to him as possible; thus the two guides to God, or good, are reason and love.

Let what Plato calls love be named Grace; explain moreover the real and objective existence of Ideas, the mysterious tie between God and the world j realize completely this Word, this Wisdom, which Plato distinguishes in God, the creative thought of God in potentia, as the Ideas are his creative thought already effectuated; find for this Word a man in which to incarnate it; make for him a history, a tradition; and all the links of the mysterious chain that unites man to God are illuminated and lo!—Christianity.

Plato applies his doctrine not to the rejection of but to the perfecting of human life; he also held the Pythagorean opinions of metempsychosis and successive existences and so was saved from the total rejection of nature and life, into which the Stoics and Christians fell. Our being, according to him is an aspiration to reach the Sovereign Good, but this can be reached only through the world; not immediately but progressively by uniting one's self with all the finite manifestations of good Science; art; polity, draw their reason of being from the Idea of the Sovereign Good, which is their aim.

Platonism, Stoicism; Epicureanism; the three solutions of the question proposed by Socrates; being largely developed; the work of Greece was accomplished and then Christianity appeared, a mingling of Platonism and Stoicism; its theology Platonic, its morality Stoic. Like the Stoics the Christians rejected the world, but the former took refuge in man; the latter, realizing the Word of Plato bowed to the divine Word, and substituted grace or divine action for human virtue; the Stoics abolished nature and substituted virtue or human force, the Christians abolished both nature and man and substituted divine action or grace. The protest of nature and man against this sacrifice appears in the revival of the Epicureanism or modern Deism.

Part 2

Pierre Leroux, "Necessity of Evil" [part 2 of 2], The Spirit of the Age, I, 19 (November 10, 1849), 289-91.

Translated for The Spirit of the Age,



In answer to the question: "What is our condition in this life and how should we comport ourselves in relation to the good and ill found in it?" Plato replies: we must live this life and concern ourselves with it but idealize it. Epicurus merely accepts it; and Zeno inculcates the not being interested in it, making of oneself a free force, an absolute power, emancipating oneself from life by contemning it. The doctrine of St. Paul, developed by S. Augustin, is to free oneself from this life, to consider it as Plato did, contrary to the original nature of man, but to find the Savior in the Incarnate Word, the Wisdom of God in God.

The Means, indicated by these different philosophers, are conformable to the different aims they assign.

What says, "Love—seeking God in thy love." Epicurus: "Love thyself," Zeno: "Deny thyself." Paul: "Love only God."

Love is the means equally indicated by Platonism, Epicureanism, Christianity. The Stoics perish from having no object; the Christian turn away from man to love God. If one loves neither the world nor its creatures, it is necessary to love God and this is what Christianity has done; while Stoicism disappears from being no object of love. Stoicism, true at its commencement, soon became an error. Its principle, that we should aspire to be a free force, is true; but the pretension, that we should be a force entirely free, destroys instantly all the goodness of its principle. Its fundamental error is in having exaggerated the effort we should make; so that believing nothing done as long as we have not arrived at a complete emancipation, we thereby destroy all tie with life and the a world. To be a Stoic and to take a real interest in the world was an inconsistency. Some great men doubtless committed this happy inconsistency and having by force made of themselves Gods, they regarded this holy Spirit, which they believed to be in them, as a kind of favoring Providence, whose duty it was to watch over the human race. But this was an inconsequence that the theorists of the sect never committed. This doctrine taught nothing as the end of love; therefore it had no solution of life. Why be a Free Force a will, a God? Is it to act on the world. But in order to be that Free Force one must detach e himself entirely from the World. Therefore why live? why should the world continue to exist? Thus Stoicism taught disdain of Society, contempt of life, suicide and the end of the world.

Epicureanism is ordinarily represented as the doctrine of pleasure; nothing is more false as far as it regards the teaching of Epicurus. His true doctrine was on the contrary very sad. One should seek contentment, it is true, but of an altogether negative kind. The aim was merely not to be unhappy, to avoid agitation, cares, inquietudes, all occasions of suffering. Conceal thy life was the proverb of the Epicureans. Their maxim was not to intermeddle in public affairs. Sensual luxury was considered as a necessity; but far from maintaining that voluptuousness was in itself a good, the wise man strove only to diminish this necessity, to live more and more in repose, out of the reach both of the passions and of the world.

The sovereign good of Epicurus consisted in a calm with a certain sort of contentment, founded on the consciousness of not suffering and of having escaped numberless perils. This quietude is altogether negative; so that Epicureanism has never been able to remain in it: and this is so true that what is commonly understood by this word is rather the doctrine of the Cyrenian school than that of Epicurus. Deprived of all ideal, one is insensibly habituated to regard sensuality as a good and not as a cure of ill; it is sought rather than waited for. Such a tendency is inevitable. The profound cause of this is, that our life is a continual aspiration, and without some firm resting place we cannot resist the force that draws us on. Epicureanism necessarily results in a narrow egotism or in sensualism; the maxim of Epicurus "Love-thy-self" is transformed either into egotistic prudence, full of void and weariness, or into irregulated earthly loves.

To Platonism is opened equally two different routes "Love God," said Plato, "love the Beautiful, love the Celestial Goodness from which thou hast sprung and whither thou returnest." If thou lovest not this end, in vain wilt thou seek thy happiness in created things; thou wilt find no sustenance for thy, soul for thy soul can be nourished only on the beautiful. One may understand this precept in two ways. One may, as Plato positively indicates, seek the beautiful, through the world, by the means of the world, in the world; extract it thence and return it thither again: or considering only the object God, the Infinite Beauty, one may fancy oneself capable of being put in immediate relation with that object independently of the world, and so call out with passionate appeal for every thing to disappear before it. This last has Christianity done.

The maxim of Plato was "Strive to become like to God as much as is in thy power." The Christians cut off this restrictive condition which preserves nature and life. Like the Stoics they have desired a prompt; rapid, instantaneous salvation.

They have said to the world as the sage of Seneca: " Non placet; Liceat eo reverti, unde venio." In this consists the separation of Christianity from Platonism. Plato has two means to remount to God, reason and love: the Christians recognize only Grace; this is the doctrine of St. Paul and St. Augustin, and the true doctrine of Christianity, whatever efforts may have been made to preserve the principle of free Reason.

Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Epicurus, Paul, Augustine, are the successive terms of the development of the question of Happiness; Socrates begun in the west the philosophic antiquity that Augustine terminated, by opening the religion of the Middle Ages. It is a continuous argument. This sublime dialogue lasted ten centuries, and yet it might be formulated in a few words:

Socrates. Let the sophists be silent. Let the learned cease to puff themselves with pride and heap up foolish hypotheses to explain the world. Let the artists know that art without aim is a puerility and a poison. The sole knowledge worthy of man, which gives to Science and Art a true distinction, is the knowledge of "the good" and "the best," and this is acquired only by study of ourselves; know thyself therefore.

Plato. From the study of ourselves we learn that man is a force originally free, not actually united to Tatter which appears coeternal with God. We tend to return to our source by the natural effect of life, which is an aspiration, a continual and endless love; we can return thither only by attaching ourselves to the perceptible rays of Divine Beauty. It is therefore towards God that Science, Art and all Life should aim. O! Greeks, you are children. I have traveled among those who have given you all the knowledge you possess, and this is what those masters have taught me.

Zeno. If man is originally a free force, why not emancipate himself at once? Why not recover his true nature by separating himself rationally from the world?

Epicurus. You are dreamers. I am the first of sages. Are you not all under the yoke of Nature which has created you in one of its infinite combinations? All wisdom consists in obeying Nature's inevitable prescriptions, shielding oneself from its blows as one does from a fierce animal that one wishes to use.

St. Paul. I am at once free and bound. I am carnal, sold to sin. I do not the good I love, but the evil I hate. Who shall deliver me g The Grace of God through Jesus Christ.

Pelagius. At least we are free in something; if we tend to God, it is in virtue of an inherent force, by our own liberty and merit.

St. Augustine. No. Sin has reft us of all. The love which saves us is not of us; there is in us no trace, no vestige of it; God gives it when and as he pleases. We are free in nothing. O my God! Thou commandest that I love thee; give me what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.

The advantage resulting from Epicureanism is the perfecting of the material life. By sanctifying the care of the material life, Epicureanism has been the indirect cause of those numerous capabilities of perfection that human intelligence has found in the properties of matter.

If the life that we hold in common with animals had not met a reasonable justification, human intelligence would have been still farther precipitated into that purely contemplative route into which Christianity plunged with so much ardor. It is evident, that all the sciences of experiment, which consist in discovering the will of Nature in order to turn away evil effects and to accumulate good, have fundamentally a certain affinity with Epicureanism; so they have always sought in it the justification of their efforts. And let it not be said that men would have made these discoveries without this philosophy; from the sole fact that they are useful. If there were no doctrine which presented utility under a moral aspect, humanity would utterly have condemned it: for the law of humanity is to be moral.

A sublime effort towards liberty, Stoicism has given birth the benefits of another order. With Epicurus the work is to avoid evils by obeying Nature as an intelligent slave; with Zeno it is necessary to be free. Twenty centuries have rolled away; and now let us ask if the evolutions of the world have not wrought a growth of liberty in our natural and social conception, and if this aspiration to be free,—source of Stoicism—has not had its realization. Man has enfranchised himself from man and Nature. He will free himself more and more. Man will become more and more the equal of man, and nature will become obedient to him. We are to-day almost as powerful over Nature as the Jupiter of the Greek Olympus; and the time approaches, in which Epictetus can no longer be another's slave.

But of these various solutions, that which has had the greatest influence on the World is incontestibly the idealism of Plato. This was truly the spark of life that animated the West. Like the statue of Pygmalion, which is marble until the moment of contact with divine love, the West remained without moral light until the revelation of Plato. It is Plato; so long surnamed the Divine, happy interpreter of the anterior philosophy, who first caused to descend upon us the fire by which we live.

When he taught that the distinction of men consisted in the satisfaction of an innate need of beauty and goodness, human morality awoke to self-consciousness. Then truly for the first time Western man turned his face towards heaven. For the revelation of this attraction towards the beautiful was the revelation of what is called Heaven.

The sciences were for Plato the incomplete but accessible realization of the human ideal. The known sciences received a new impulse from Idealism; those almost unknown sprung to life. In the bosom of Plato was found Aristotle, as strongly attracted towards virtue as his master. Aristotle produced Alexander, that missionary of philosophy, so penetrated with the ideal that the earth could neither satisfy or contain him. Alexander transported Greece into Egypt, to its cradle. Then from Alexandria the flame spread to Rome, and the Romans begun to ask towards what star humanity was marching.

Idealism, realized anthropomorphically by the Jews, produced Christianity. Then the whole West became directed with so much earnestness towards the Ideal, that not only was the material life despised, but man fancied himself able to unite himself, without the mediation of this life, to the Divine Beauty. Thence Monkery and the Christianity of the Middle Ages; thence the Anthonys, Basils, and Benedicts, those sublime practicians of Platonism interpreted by Paul, Athanasius and Augustine; thence two orders, two worlds.

When St. Thomas in the thirteenth century explained St. Paul by saying, that it was sufficient to have God virtually for own object in our love for his creatures, the ascendant period of idealistic Stoicism was terminated. Then revive the Sciences with the study of Aristotle, the Arts with the Crusades; and ancient Platonism is set forth anew in Italy as a rival of Christianity. There is a passing out from the phase absolute Christianity, which would have God alone for object; and while this doctrine is always admitted, another route to it is followed. Man reverences the Ideal, but still does not reject the Earth. He has Religion, but admits Science. He has the Gospel and the Fathers, and introduces the doctrines of the Peripatetics. He has hope of Paradise, and meanwhile painting seeks to realize on earth divine forms. He still believes in the celestial Jerusalem, when Leo X. raises his temples and his palaces towards the heavens. It was at this epoch that the doctrine of the Ideal largely produced its fruits.

Science and Art had received the illumination of baptism and Plato embraces the whole modern world by two universal ties; love and art. What artists have come forth from Idealism! If Lucretius and Horace are the sons of Epicurus, how much more numerous is the posterity of Plato! In his Divine Comedy, Dante relates that it was Virgil who was his guide to Heaven. In reality Virgil is a reflection of Plato, and a reflection which announces Christianity. From Virgil to us what tolerably sublime monument of art is there that is not imprinted with Idealism.

The alliance of Stoicism and Platonism in Christianity, that is, a supreme contempt of earth united to a love of the ideal, was absolutely necessary, in order to effect the emancipation of Women and Slaves, and to civilize the Barbarians. It is by elevation to absolute purity, absolute isolation from humanity, through renunciation of the world, celibacy and convents, that the human type was first perfected.

But this consideration must not make us forget that Epicureanism has been the counterpoise to the excess of Platonic Stoicism. It has said to the proud Idealism that menaced to destroy the terrestrial basis of existence. Thou shall go no farther. It has sanctified that kind of devotion to the natural laws which has been the source of so many discoveries, and whence has resulted the industrial power.

Already, it is the alliance of this power over nature with the social sentiments sprung from Platonism, which has caused the result that we now see thirty millions of men living in a kind of Equality, while ancient nations know only the condition of Castes.