“It’s an old story
but one that can still be told.”
— Herbert Mason, The Epic of Gilgamesh.
It’s important to pay attention to the history of the question of evil. Seeing how our understanding of evil changes through the centuries shapes our present response to it—and may give us more compassion and forgiveness for others looking back.
Depending on how one defines evil, the earliest recorded story of its entrance into the world is in the Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma Elish. We will compare it to the account in Genesis 1. We’ll also look at the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest stories in the world, and one that has helped to shape how we view friendship, loss, and death. Finally, we will look at Susan Neiman’s book, Evil in Modern Thought, to see how philosophical thinking about evil has changed since the Enlightenment.
The Enuma Elish (named after the first line which begins, “When on high”) is the Babylonian cosmogony myth (story of how the world and the universe came to be) and theogony myth (story of how the gods came into existence). It is also the oldest combat myth on record, in which the universe is seen as a battlefield split between good and bad divine powers.
In this story, reality begins with two gods, Apsu and Tiamat. They create all the other gods, which live in Tiamat’s body until she births them. The children of that generation, the grandchildren of Apsu and Tiamat, get on their grandparents nerves. As children do, they get noisy, so noisy that Apsu, their grandfather, threatens to kill them. Before he can, Marduk, one of the grandchildren, gets wind of the plot and kills his grandmother, Tiamat. From her body he forms the earth and the sky, and in the process becomes the primary god in the Babylonian pantheon.
This myth has several aspects that are key to understanding prehistorical views about evil. First, Tiamat, the chaos god, is not identified with evil as such. Rather, the emotions of hatred, envy, fear, and murderous rage are associated with the younger gods such as Marduk. Second, these gods, the ones victorious over Apsu and Tiamat, show us that evil is in some way intrinsic to reality and the inevitable conflict to establish the cosmos. Because it is brought to being through conflict and chaos, through combat, the cosmos is laced with evil: evil is literally embedded in the very substance of the cosmos.
When we turn to the Biblical creation myth of Genesis, especially the first one in Genesis 1, we can see some striking differences from the Babylonian combat myth. For one thing, there is no destruction at the creation of the world. Rather, God “created the heavens and the earth” without struggle. The “deep” (tehom) over which God’s spirit hovers, passively awaits God’s action. Further, God sees what God has created and deems it good, very good in fact, if God says so Godself. The author of Genesis 1 seems to be distinguishing the narrative in contrast to the Enuma Elish, with which he was most likely familiar.
For the ancient Hebrews the Fall is not the entrance of evil into the world. Rather, Adam and Eve actualize the potential for evil, which is part of the structure of the cosmos that God has created. As Charles Mathewes, a scholar of religion, points out, despite the fact that the Genesis account resists the Babylonian combat myth, “it still suggests that evil and temptation were a potential presence in the world (Mathewes 20).”
Adam and Eve act on that potential, eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the serpent’s words, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This raises all sorts of interesting questions.
What is the sin here? Is it the experience of temptation or the disobedient act itself? Does God know evil objectively or subjectively, from observation at a distance or experientially through suffering from it — or causing it? Was the Fall inevitable, given the combination of human freedom plus desire, arrogance, and ignorance?
Or is the Fall a tragic breakthrough of human consciousness, one that opens the universe to us through imagination and desire, but in so doing defines our limits and their consequences?
The Hebrew root of the word for ‘knowing’ suggests an intimacy that goes beyond acquiring a set of facts; it’s more akin to sexual intimacy in which two become one. In some way the knower and the known enter into one another. For convenience we might think of the symbol of the Tao, two complementary opposites joined as one.
The third great myth is the Sumerian-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the first recorded attempt, as Mathewes says, “to understand and inhabit a world in which suffering occurs and perhaps a world in which suffering is partially constitutive of what makes us human (Mathewes, 9).” The tablets found at Ninevah date back to the 7th century BCE, but scholars now believe that the oral traditions of Gilgamesh most likely emerged about 3,000 BCE, well before the Genesis account.
Gilgamesh is the aggressive king of the great city of Uruk. He harasses and tortures his people until they cry to the gods to give him a competitor to distract him. The gods send Enkidu, a wild man from the desert. The two meet in the wilderness, engage in combat, and Gilgamesh is the victor. They become best friends and go on many adventures together. But the gods become jealous of their friendship and kill Enkidu. Wild with grief, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find immortality.
“Perhaps insane, he tried
to bring Enkidu back to life
To end his bitterness,
His fear of death.
His life became a quest
To find the secret of eternal life
Which he might carry back to give his friend.” (Mason 55)
Through a perilous journey Gilgamesh makes his way to the sea of Death, on the shores of which a young woman finds him and cares for him in his extremity. She tells him:
“The gods gave death to man and kept life for
Themselves. That is the only way it is.” (Mason 65)
Eventually, Gilgamesh returns to his city of Uruk, older, sadder, perhaps wiser, knowing now that death is what lies ahead for every person, and in that knowledge he is able to find some peace in the achievements of his people.
From these three ancient myths we can glean a number of insights. From the Enuma Elish we see that combat and conflict is riddled through human consciousness from the beginning. From the Epic of Gilgamesh we understand the tragic joy of friendship and the limit of death upon all our passion and loves. From the Genesis account we learn that knowledge acquired through defiance gives us both freedom and terrible suffering. But most of all it means we are separated from God. Innocence to experience and then to a chastened, but healing, innocent experience.
Now, a leap of centuries to 1755 and the city of Lisbon.
The earthquake in Lisbon on November 1, 1755, took an estimated 60,000 lives in a matter of hours. Hundreds of people who had gathered for All Saints Day services perished in churches. Many rushed down to the quay and the harbor, only to be engulfed by the tsunami that sunk ships and swept hundreds of people out to sea. Then the fires burned for five days. The earthquake devastated areas of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and North Africa, and was felt as far away as Norway, Sweden, and Italy.
The Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the history of philosophy, for it marks the beginning of modern philosophy and its attempt to take responsibility for the world we find ourselves in. Up to that point earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other natural disasters were ascribed to God’s acts of judgement on a stubborn and sinful people. After Lisbon scientists, philosophers, and eventually theologians, separated natural disasters from moral evil.
It is Susan Neiman’s thesis in Evil in Modern Thought, that “the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought (Neiman 2-3).” In fact, she asserts that the problem of evil is the heart of philosophy, especially from the early modern period until the Holocaust. The other end of the spectrum she examines is the Holocaust, what she refers to as Auschwitz. Whereas Lisbon provoked tremendous discussion and the production of essay, plays, books, and bad poetry, the philosophical silence after Auschwitz was deafening. Here we reach the limits of reasoning. If Lisbon differentiated natural disasters from our own moral evil, in an effort to take more responsibility for our actions, then Auschwitz simply stunned philosophers, humanists, artists into silence.
“Before Lisbon, evils were divided into matters of nature, metaphysics, or morality. After Lisbon, the word evil was restricted to what was once called moral evil. Modern evil is the product of will (Neiman 268).”
The problem of evil exists, Neiman and countless others have noted, when we try to hold three propositions together:
God is benevolent
God is omnipotent
No matter how you bend or twist or crush them together, they will not fit. One of them has to go.
“The premodern world,” says Neiman, “experienced earthquakes with fear and trembling that not only didn’t threaten religion but often enhanced it (Neiman 246).” Science looked at the earthquake as the natural world following certain immutable laws. In that regard, there was no sense in blaming God nor should it be taken as a judgement. Rather, there was some relief and certainty in seeing these terrific natural forces at work. Newton, with his laws of the universe, both freed the world from God’s arbitrary judgements and shrank the sphere of God’s influence.
But Auschwitz was several orders of magnitude beyond Lisbon—in fact, not even in the same category. “Auschwitz was conceptually devastating because it revealed a possibility in human nature that we hoped not to see,” says Neiman (254).
The moral conundrum of Auschwitz is that natural evil is now in the category of regrettable accidents and metaphysical evil is just the recognition of our finite limits, but moral evil is that which is produced with evil intention. Yet, “at every level,” notes Neiman, “the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously known (Neiman 271).”
Theodicy, the attempt to rationalize evil with a good and omnipotent God, springs from the desire to see the world put right. If our century has given up on theodicy it has more to do with our recognition that reason cannot explain evil, but hope cannot give up on seeking a better world.
In a sentence that frames the Parkland students so well, Neiman says, “In the child’s refusal to accept a world that makes no sense lies all the hope that ever makes us start anew (Neiman 320).”
Mason, Herbert (1970). Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Mathewes, Charles (2011). Why Evil Exists. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses.
Neiman, Susan (2002). Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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