Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

At Sunday School in The Channel Isles about 150 years ago I was taught to sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful‘ the opening verse of which is: ‘All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all’. Mrs Phillips, our teacher, didn’t mention the habits of Giant Water Bug (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_water_bug) or any of the other routine horrors and cruelties of nature. She declined to inform us that the natural world that the Lord God made is drenched in perpetual suffering. It wasn’t the time or place to discuss the problem of evil.

Annie Dillard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Dillard#Religion) does face up to evil. In her acutely observed reflections on the nature of creation she writes the following:

‘A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. Frogs have an inelegant way of taking off from invisible positions on the bank just ahead of your feet, in dire panic, emitting a froggy “Yike!” and splashing into the water.  Incredibly, this amused me, and, incredibly, it amuses me still.  As I walked along the grassy edge of the island, I got better and better at seeing frogs both in and out of the water.  I learned to recognize, slowing down, the difference in texture of the light reflected from mud bank, water, grass, or frog.  Frogs were flying all around me.  At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog.  He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump.

He didn’t jump; I crept closer.  At last I knelt on the island’s winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away.  He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes.  And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag.  The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed.  His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent.  He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.  I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall.  Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing.  I gaped bewildered, appalled.  An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away.  The frog skin bag started to sink.

I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one.  ”Giant water bug” is really the name of the creature, which is an enormous, heavy-bodied brown bug.  It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs.  Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward.  It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite.  That one bite is the only bite it ever takes.  Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s muscles and bones and organs–all but the skin–and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim’s body, reduced to a juice.  This event is quite common in warm fresh water.  The frog I saw was being sucked by a giant water bug.  I had been kneeling on the island grass; when the unrecognizable flap of frog skin settled on the creek bottom, swaying, I stood up and brushed the knees of my pants.  I couldn’t catch my breath.’

This marvellous collection of observations from a year spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia is in the tradition of Thoreau’s Walden (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden) and amounts to a profound exercise in theodicy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/).

Should you be at all troubled, as Annie Dillard was, by the perpetual omnipresence of suffering, and wish to give the matter some thought, here are a few ideas. Evil is not the most comfortable subject to consider. Apart from its inherently unsettling nature, a short effort at reflection quickly reveals some serious problems in trying to conceptualise the phenomenon. In the literature there are two main contentions.

1) Evil is a deficiency of goodness. In the human moral sphere it is the failure to act well. Sins are ones of omission as much as commission.

2) Evil is an independent (perhaps supernatural) force or principle unto itself.  One is minded of 1 Peter 5:8 “your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”. Evil is not passive on this account. It is energetic and destructive, relishing the disaster and suffering that it wreaks.

There is also an important distinction to be held between moral and natural evil. Moral evil flows from human action or inaction. Natural evil flows from natural events outwith our control. As for the latter, William L. Rowe gave a famous example of “In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering”. (Rowe, William L. (1979). “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism“. American Philosophical Quarterly 16: 337.) What ‘greater good’ or ‘unfathomable divine intention’ could possibly justify this intensity of suffering? It is but one tiny example of the continuous omnipresence of suffering that we cannot bear to contemplate, but is nevertheless real.

For my money Adam Morton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Morton) has written the most accessible and sound introduction to the subject in the ‘Thinking in Action’ series from Routledge. At only 168 pages, On Evil is an ideal entry point. The author argues that any account of evil must help us understand three things: why evil occurs; why evil often arises out of banal or everyday situations; and how we can be seen as evil. Drawing on fascinating examples as diverse as Augustine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, psychological studies of deviant behaviour and profiles of serial killers, he argues that evil occurs when internal, mental barriers against it simply break down. He also introduces us to some nightmare people, such as Adolf Eichmann and Hannibal Lecter, reminding us that understanding their actions as humans brings us closer to understanding evil.

Go on to read Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (1984) by Mary Midgely. For Midgley, as for Aristotle, wickedness involves an unwillingness or an incapacity to live in accordance with true human nature, which is in essence moral and good. It may be chosen voluntarily and we bear responsibility for such choices, but at the same time it signals a lack of true self-knowledge and self-realisation. That is all that wickedness implies: it is, in effect, merely banal ineptitude. You may not agree that evil can so easily be marginalized to the realm of human error and ignorance. To find out enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wickedness-Philosophical-Essay-Routledge-Classics/dp/0415253985/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419330142&sr=1-9&keywords=mary+midgley

The next step should be to John Kekes (1990) Facing Evil. The author seeks to show that the prevalence of evil presents a fundamental problem for our secular sensibility. He develops a conception of character-morality as a response. He argues that the main sources of evil are habitual, unchosen actions produced by our character defects and that we can increase our control over the evil we cause by cultivating a reflective temper. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Facing-Evil-John-Kekes/dp/0691020957/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1419763668

For a thoroughly absorbing discussion about the connection between evolution and evil go to Timothy Anders (1994) The Evolution of Evil: An Inquiry into the Ultimate Origins of Human Suffering. With the acceptance of Darwinian natural selection, ‘evolution’ has been equated with Providence: It is widely supposed that evolution always does what is best, and always in the most efficient way. The term ‘evolution’ has even come to be synonymous with progress or improvement by suggesting that natural selection operates always and wholly for the good of each individual organism. Timothy Anders takes issue with this popular conception, and suggests that it is based on wishful thinking and anthropocentric bias. As Anders sees it, the process of evolution is neither progressive nor benign.  At its every turn, evolution creates newly minted forms of suffering, hardship, and conflict, which the organisms produced by it are obliged to endure. Anders describes the human organism’s inherent physical defects, the serious disadvantages of reliance on intelligence and learning, the anti-human traditions prevalent in all human cultures, the atrocities of the ignoble savage, and the biological roots of interpersonal conflict. This is not a book for Pollyanna or the inhabitants of Beldingsville. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Evolution-Evil-Enquiry-Ultimate-Suffering/dp/081269175X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-3&qid=1419764026

For a broader discussion about the treatment of evil within the history of philosophy I highly recommend Neiman, Susan (Princeton University Press, 2002) Evil in Modern Thought. Evil threatens human reason, for it challenges our hope in providence. For eighteenth-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was a manifest evil. Today we’re more inclined to see evil as a matter of human cruelty, and Auschwitz as its extreme embodiment. Tracing our understanding of evil from the Inquisition to contemporary terrorism, Susan Neiman explores who we have become in the three centuries that separate us from the early Enlightenment. In the process, she rediscovers the history of modern thought and points philosophy back to the questions that originally animated it. Whether expressed in theological or secular terms, evil poses a problem about the world’s intelligibility. It confronts philosophy with fundamental questions: Can there be meaning in a world where innocents suffer? Can belief in divine power or human progress survive a cataloguing of evil? Is evil profound or banal? Neiman argues that worries about evil are the real drivers of modern philosophy. Traditional philosophers from Leibniz to Hegel sought to defend the Creator of a world containing evil.
Inevitably, their efforts–combined with those of more literary figures like Pope, Voltaire, and the Marquis de Sade–eroded belief in God’s benevolence, power, and relevance, until Nietzsche claimed He had been murdered. They also yielded the distinction between natural and moral evil that we now take for granted. Neiman then turns to consider philosophy’s response to the Holocaust as a final moral evil, concluding that two basic stances run through modern thought. One, from Rousseau to Arendt, insists that morality demands we make evil intelligible. The other, from Voltaire to Adorno, insists that morality demands that we don’t. Compelling and beautifully written, this book re-tells the history of modern philosophy as an attempt to come to terms with evil.

For a defence of the existence and goodness of God in the face of evil go to John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (1966, 1985, reissued 2007) Hick argues that suffering exists as a means of spiritual development. In other words, God allows suffering so that human souls might grow or develop towards maturation. This is the so-called ‘Soul-Making Defence’. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more with this line of argument. There is so much evasion and speculative fantasy as to be sickening. Further bibliographic detail available at  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Evil-Love-Emeritus-Professor-John/dp/0230252796/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419761078&sr=8-1&keywords=evil+and+the+god+of+love

A second widely read attempt at theodicy is found in Austin Farrer, (1962) Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited: an essay on providence and evil, containing the Nathaniel Taylor Lectures for 1961. London: Collins. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Love-Almighty-Unlimited-Austin-Farrer/dp/0006414095/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419765170&sr=1-1&keywords=farrer+ills+unlimited

If you seriously doubt whether Hick’s or Farrer’s lines of argument can possibly account for the sheer extent and intensity of both moral and natural evil (as I do), you’ll find an ally in Stephen T. Davis. His rebuttal is found in Encountering Evil (2001) Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Encountering-Evil-New-Ed-Theodicy/dp/066422251X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419761387&sr=1-1&keywords=encountering+evil

Useful to have at hand is the anthology The Problem of Evil (1990) edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams. This offers an introductory essay plus a selection of papers from journals. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Problem-Evil-Oxford-Readings-Philosophy/dp/0198248660/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-2&qid=1420134030

The deepest account of the problem of evil in fiction is still probably that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) Reviewed by me here at https://sbr.lanark.co.uk/2013/07/the-brothers-karamazov/  Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brothers-Karamazov-Fyodor-Dostoevsky/dp/0099922800/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419761988&sr=1-1&keywords=brothers+karamazov

For general guidance on reading about The Problem of Evil use this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil  Follow up with a lifetime of reflection on the concept of evil with the article and bibliographies in the Stanford Encyclopedia at this link http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil/

Also engage in some reflection on the subject by listening to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ 45 minute episode on Evil. Available from the link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00547g3  With Jones Erwin, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Limerick; Stephen Mulhall, Tutor in Philosophy at New College, Oxford; Margaret Atkins, Lecturer in Theology at Trinity and All Saints College, University of Leeds. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg. first broadcast Thursday 3 May 2001.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974.

224 pages in Canterbury Press paperback edition.

ISBN 978-1848250789

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Annie Dillard

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