The Problem of Evil in Antiquity
1.
2.
3.
Methodological prelude: four
dimensions of PE.
The message of the Greek tragedy.
Select philosophical answers to PE.
Four Dimensions
How do I
cope with evil?
Existential
Theo-logical
Solutions
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Existential
Unde Malum?
Theo-logical
Solutions
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Existential
Theol-logical
What is evil?
Solutions
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Are God and evil
compatible?
Existential
Theo-logical
Solutions
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Four dimensions
How do I
cope with evil?
Are God and evil
compatible?
Existential
Whence is evil?
Theo-logical
Solutions
What is evil?
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Epicurus: speculative philosophy must
be existentially relevant
“Vain is the word of a philosopher
which does not heal any human
suffering. For just as there is no
profit in medicine if it does not
expel the diseases of the body, so
there is no profit in philosophy
either, if it does not expel the
suffering of the mind.”
Epicurus (?), frag. 54.
Epicurus (341 -270 BC)
Existential Dimension
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
Why is my suffering so bad?
Does my suffering have any meaning or purpose?
How do I cope with my problems?
Where is God?
Does God care?
Divine Justice Questioned
“I am surprised at you, dear Zeus! You’re lord
Everywhere, hold all honour and great power;
You know the mind and heart of every man;
Your rule’s supreme, my king, in all the world.
How then, O son of Kronos, can your mind
Bear to see criminals and honest men—
Both thoughtful men whose minds are moderate,
And sinful weaklings— share the selfsame fate?
No divine rules are fixed for men, no road
To travel which will surely please the gods.”
--Theognis (6th c. BC), Elegies, 373-82.
More questions:
1. Why do other good people have to suffer?
2. Why do some righteous people suffer and some
wicked ones seem to prosper?
3. Why is the distribution of evils so uneven?
4. Why is there gratuitous misery?
5. Why are there horrendous evils?
6. Why does anybody, including animals, have to
suffer at all?
A classical expression of Greek pessimism
“Suffering for mortals is nature’s iron law.”
--Euripides, Hippolytus.
“For man the best thing is never to be born,
Never to look upon the hot sun’s rays,
Next best, to speed at once through Hades’ gates
And lie beneath a pile-up heap of earth.”
--Theognis, Elegies, 425-8.
Euripides (480-406 BC)
Compare the following familiar text:
“We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed, by
their Creator, with certain
unalienable Rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty, and the
pursuit of Happiness.”
--The unanimous declaration of the thirteen
united States of America, July 4, 1776.
Epicurus on the real cause of suffering

Fear of
Death
 Future misfortune
 Unknown
 Inevitable

Edward Munch, The Scream (1893)
How to cope with the fear of death:
“Death, the most terrifying of
ills, is nothing to us,
since so long as we exist, death
is not with us;
but when death comes, then
we do not exist.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.
James Warren, Facing Death: Epicurus and His
Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Seneca: face life’s adversities stoically
You ask, “Why do many adversities come to
good men?” No evil can befall a good man;
opposites do not mingle. Just as the countless
rivers, the vast fall of rain from the sky, and the
huge volume of mineral springs do not change
the taste of the sea, do not even modify it, so
the assaults of adversity do not weaken the spirit
of a brave man. It always maintains its poise,
and it gives its own color to everything that
happens; for it is mightier than all external
things…
--Seneca (4 BCE- 65 CE), On Providence, I.3.
Seneca the Younger (or Hesiod?)
(4 BC- 65 AD).
Suffering as a Learning Experience
“Zeus, whoever he is, made this
eternal law: that men must learn by
suffering.”
--Aeschylus, Agamemnon
Aeschylus (525-456 BC)
Aristotle on tragedy
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
Plot is central, character is secondary
Elements:
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Pathos (tragic event, accident)
Peripeteia (reversal of circumstances)
Anagnorisis (recognition)
Tragic catharsis:

“A tragedy is an imitation of an action that is
serious and has a wholeness in its extent, in
language that is pleasing (though in distinct ways in
its different parts), enacted rather than narrated,
culminating, by means of pity and fear, in the
cleansing (catharsis) of these passions.”

Aristotle, Poetics, 6.
Wait till the end…
“Therefore, while our eyes wait
to see the destined final day, we
must call no one happy who is of
mortal race, until he hath crossed
life’s border, free from pain.”
--Sophocles, Oedipus the King.
Sophocles (495-405 BC)
Stoics: “The bigger picture” theodicy
Life
Event
Zeno (333-264 B.C)
Plotinus: Aesthetic Analogy
We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that
the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture; but
the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot. Or
we are censuring a drama because the persons are not all
heroes but include a servant and a rustic and some
scurrilous clown; yet take away the low characters and the
power of the drama is gone…
--Enneads, III. 2. 11.
All the world’s a stage…
“Murder, death in all its guises, the reduction and
sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a
spectacle as the changing of scenes in a play; all is
but varied incident of a plot, costume on and off,
acted grief and lament.”
- Plotinus, Enneades, III. 2. 15 (trans. Stephen MacKenna)
Pleasure and Pain Calculus
The total amount of pleasure
in the world outweighs the
total amount of suffering
Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716)
Individual life vs. history as a whole
The “cunning of reason”
Hegel (1770-1831)
Tapestry analogy
Thornton Wilder
(1897-1975)
Temporal existence vs. eternity
Heaven will make things right
The “Bigger Picture” Solutions
Eternity
World
History
Event
Life
Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion:
“I absolutely renounce all
higher harmony. It is not
worth a tear of even one
tormented child.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81)
Existential
Unde Malum?
Theo-logical
Solutions
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Fate
IDEAS
GOOD
Matter
Demiurge
Plato on the causes of evil
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Ignorance (Socratic view)
Inferior gods
Receptacle (hypodoche)
Hierarchy of being
Plotinus: the Great Chain of Being
The Reason is the sovereign, making all: it wills things as they are
and, in its reasonable act, it produces even what we know as evil: it
cannot desire all to be good: an artist would not make an animal all
eyes; and in the same way, the Intellect would not make all divine; it
makes gods but also celestial spirits, the intermediate order, then
human beings, then the animals; all is graded succession, and this in
no spirit of grudging but in the expressing of a reason teeming with
intellectual variety.
--Enneads, III. 2. 11.
Existential
Theol-logical
What is evil?
Solutions
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Epistemological dimension
1.
2.
3.
4.
What is evil? Moral/ natural evil distinction.
Is the distinction between good and evil real or
notional?
What is genuine evil? Does genuine evil exist at
all?
Is the domain of valuation coextensive with the
domain of being?
Heraclitus: the distinction between good
and evil is merely notional
From the gods’ standpoint
everything is good; the
distinction between good
and evil exists only in
human mind.
--Heraclitus (535-475 BC).
Is value externally attached to being?
Being
Values:
good/ evil
Plotinus: being and value are interrelated
The Good is the source of all being.
Pure evil is me on, non-being.
Being
Value
Do the “Bigger Picture” theodicies deny genuine evil?
Eternity
World
History
Event
Life
Are God and evil
compatible?
Existential
Theo-logical
Solutions
Epistemological
Metaphysical
Plato: God does not cause evil
“For the good things we
must assume no other
cause than God, but the
cause of evil we must look
for in other things and not in
God.”
Plato, Republic, 379C.
Theodicy trilemma attributed to Epicurus
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Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is weak (imbecillus).
Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent (invidus).
If God is both able and willing, whence then
is evil? And why does he not remove it?
--Lactantius, De ira dei, 13. 20-21
(my free translation).
Epicurus (341-271 BC)
Three horns of the trilemma:
1.
2.
3.
God is perfectly good & just.
God is all-powerful.
Evil exists.
The denial of divine providence
“If god is able to take care of everything but does not wish
to do so, he will be considered malevolent,
and if he neither wishes nor is able, he is both malevolent
and weak;
but to say that about god is impious.
Therefore, god does not take care of the things in the
cosmos.”
Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, III. 3. Ca. 200 CE.
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Philosophical Approaches to Problem of Evil