Chapter 2: The Problem of Evil

Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue
by Maurice S. Friedman

Chapter 2: The Problem of Evil

In no other area of human experience is it more difficult to preserve the attitude of the ‘narrow ridge’ than in one’s encounter with evil, yet here too the metaphor of the ‘narrow ridge’ expresses the central quality of Buber’s thought. Many in our age who discover the inadequacy of the simple moral opposition between good and evil tend to reduce evil to illusion or objective error, or to absolutize it as something radical, pure, and unredeemable. As a result, most of those who think and write about this problem do so from the standpoint of a choice between that attitude which sees good and evil as part of a higher unity and that which sees them as irreconcilable opposites. Although shadings from the two extremes exist and are recognized, neither side recognizes the independent reality of the position between -- the dialectical attitude toward evil which sees it as both real and redeemable. Those philosophers and theologians who have followed Martin Buber in the ‘I-Thou’ philosophy have usually not seen that this dialectical attitude toward evil is inseparable from it as he understands it.

Evil is one of the deepest and most central problems of human existence -- a problem which every individual and every age must face for itself. The problem of evil is significant not primarily because of one’s conscious concept of evil but because of the total attitude expressed in the whole of one’s life and thought. This attitude, in Buber’s words, is ‘a mode of seeing and being which dwells in life itself. ‘It underlies all our valuations, for valuing is nothing other than the decision as to what is good and evil and the attitude which one then takes toward the possibility of avoiding evil or transforming it into good. Valuing lies in turn at the heart of most fields of human thought. This is clearest of all in ethics, which is essentially the study of the relation between the ‘is’ of human nature and the ‘ought’ of human possibility. But it is no less important in psychology and the social sciences, for all of these fields are conditioned by the fact that their subject of study is the human being in his relation to other human beings. This implies a recognition not only of the central importance of valuing in human life but also of the way in which the values of the psychologist and the social scientist affect their methods. In literature and the arts valuing affects the relation of the arts to human life and the critical standards by which the intrinsic merit of works of art are judged. This does not mean that all these fields are subject to the censure of some external standard of morality but rather that inherent in the very structure of each are value assumptions. These value assumptions rest upon an implicit and often unconscious attitude toward good and evil.

Buber’s system of valuing is so closely connected with the problem of evil that this problem can be used as a unifying centre for his work without doing injustice to the many different fields in which he has written. This is, of course, to use the phrase in a somewhat different and broader sense than is traditional. Traditionally, the problem of evil has been limited to the fields of metaphysics and theology. In our use of it it must be broadened to include other important phases of human life -- philosophical anthropology, ethics, psychology, social philosophy, and even politics. This does not mean a change in the problem itself so much as a shift of emphasis and a greater concern with its concrete applications in the modern world.

In theology and philosophy the problem of evil is ordinarily treated under the two headings of natural and moral evil. For the primitive man no such distinction existed, for everything to him was personal. Misfortune was looked on as caused by hostile forces, and these forces were conceived of not as manifestations of one personal God but as many ‘moment Gods’ or specialized personal deities. The Book of Job, in contrast, rests on faith in one God who transcends the nature which He created. Nature is no longer personal in the old sense, yet God is felt to be responsible for what happens to man through nature, for it is He who directly sustains nature. The Greek view, on the other hand, tends to make God into an impersonal first cause. The development of science and secular civilization since the Renaissance has fortified this view. By the time of Hume, God is no longer considered the direct but only the indirect cause of nature, and nature is not only considered as impersonal but also as mechanical. There is no ‘problem of evil’ for this mechanistic and deterministic view of the world, for the place of God is finally taken altogether by blind chance, causality, and impersonal law. Yet the reality underlying the problem of evil is present all the time and in intensified form. The consequences of this view are reflected in writers such as Melville, Matthew Arnold, and Thomas Hardy, who picture the universe as a cold, impersonal reality hostile to the very existence of man. ‘The heartless voids and immensities of the universe’ threaten to annihilate all personality and human values.

Few modern philosophies supply a standpoint from which the problem of evil can be adequately recognized and dealt with. For scientific realism ‘evil’ is simply technical error. For pragmatism it is ultimately anything which threatens subjective interest by creating deficiencies or preventing their being overcome. For philosophical vitalism evil is the static, anything that stands in the way of vital evolution, while good is vital movement, which it is assumed will ultimately be triumphant, as if there were still another principle of good underlying the whole process. In criticism of this non-dialectical immanentism as it is expressed in the philosophy of Bergson Buber writes:

The crucial religious experiences of man do not take place in a sphere in which creative energy operates without contradiction, but in a sphere in which evil and good, despair and hope, the power of destruction and the power of rebirth, dwell side by side. The divine force which man actually encounters in life does not hover above the demonic, but penetrates it. (Martin Buber, Eclipse of God, Studies in the Relation between Religion and Philosophy [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952], ‘Religion and Reality,’ trans. by Norbert Guterman, p. 31.)

There are four types of evil of which the modern age is particularly aware: the loneliness of modern man before an unfriendly universe and before men whom he associates with but does not meet; the increasing tendency for scientific instruments and techniques to outrun man’s ability to integrate those techniques into his life in some meaningful and constructive way; the inner duality of which modern man has become aware through the writings of Dostoievsky and Freud and the development of psychoanalysis; and the deliberate and large-scale degradation of human life within the totalitarian state.

What new attitudes toward evil do these typically modern manifestations of evil evoke in the modern man? A greater belief in the reality of evil, certainly, and an impatient rejection of the shallow optimism and naïve faith in progress of preceding ages. For some this has meant a more and more complete determinism and naturalism, for others a return to Gnostic ideas of dualism or early Protestant emphases on original sin. Many have lost the belief in the dignity of man or have tended to move away from life in the world to the certainty of a mystic absolute. Finally, a new attitude original with our age has been the atheistic existentialism which grits its teeth in the face of despair and, assigns to man the task of creating for himself a reality where none now exists. A striking example of the way in which the attitude toward evil has been influenced by the horror of recent events is found in a statement of Jean-Paul Sartre born out of the experience of the French underground:

For political realism as for philosophical idealism Evil was not a very serious matter. We have been taught to take it seriously. It is neither our fault nor our merit if we lived in a time when torture has been a daily fact. Chateaubriant, Oradour, the Rue des Saussaies, Tulle, Dachau, and Auschwitz have all demonstrated to us that Evil is not an appearance, that knowing its causes does not dispel it, that it is not opposed to Good as a confused idea is to a clear one, that it is not the effect of passions which might be cured, of a fear which might be overcome, of a passing aberration which might be excused, of an ignorance which might be enlightened, that it can in no way be turned, brought back, reduced, and incorporated into idealistic humanism.... We heard whole blocks screaming and we understood that Evil, fruit of a free and sovereign will, is, like Good, absolute.... In spite of ourselves, we came to this conclusion, which will seem shocking to lofty souls: Evil cannot be redeemed. (Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Literature in Our Time,’ section iv, Partisan Review, XV, No. 6 [June 1948], p. 635 ff.)

What unites all these attitudes toward evil is their common origin in a deadly serious recognition of the power of evil in the modern world and the intensity with which those who hold them attempt to work out a means of meeting this evil which will enable them to retain their personal integration. But they do not all hold, as does Sartre, that evil is absolute and unredeemable. For those who hold the dialectical attitude toward evil, good cannot exist in solitary splendour, nor is it opposed by a radically separate evil with which it has nothing to do. Evil must exist in this middle position, but it is bound up with good in such a way that both are parts of a larger process, of a greater whole, which is at once origin and goal. Thus evil is in one way or another recognized as having reality, even if only that of a temporary accompaniment of unredeemed creation, but its reality is never permanent, nor is it ever completely divorced from the good. Hence it is capable of redemption by the process of the world spirit, the grace of God, or the redemptive activity of man.

Although many significant changes occur in Buber’s thought during the fifty years of his productivity, it is in this middle position between the unreality and the radical reality of evil that we shall always find him. His attitude has changed from a tendency to regard evil in largely negative terms to a tendency to ascribe to it greater and greater emotional and ontological reality. But he has never considered evil an absolute, nor has he lost faith in its possible redemption. Elizabeth Rotten has quoted Buber as saying, ‘One must also love evil . . . even as evil wishes to be loved.’ (Elizabeth Rotten, ‘Aus den Offenbarungen der Schwester Mechtild von Magdeburg,’ Aus unbekannten Schriften. Festgabe für Martin Buber, ed. by Franz Rosenzweig and Ludwig Strauss [Berlin: Lambert Schneider Verlag, 1928], p. 65 f.)This statement is symbolic of the way in which he has consistently answered this question: good can be maximized not through the rejection or conquest of evil but only through the transformation of evil, the use of its energy and passion in the service of the good.