The Phenomenological Problem of Evil: Nietzsche’s Axiom and Pieper’s Solution
Within philosophical literature, the problem of evil has been traditionally classified into two versions, namely, the ‘intellectual’ and ‘emotional.’ This has been, on both sides of the discussion, methodologically unchallenged. This paper, though, attempts at arguing that this classificatory assumption has created a misunderstanding of the problem of evil itself and in so doing closes the epistemic space for a possible solution to the real question asked when the problem of evil is formulated. I am not suggesting that the aforementioned versions of the problem are insignificant and unfruitful; rather, my claim is that the real experientialcomponent of the question has been overlooked. Consider Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphoristic insight into our experience of ‘evil’: “[Evil] is my a priori.” Nietzsche, in arguing that evil, and thus the problem of evil, is for him a priori, hints at a problem of evil which does not only involve bare, objective facts of evil, nor a problem of evil in which our emotional states are taken to be most fundamental; instead, he hints a form of the problem of evil which is as pervasive as it is real, namely, what I shall call the phenomenological problem of evil. In this paper, I will delineate what this problem exactly is, describing its various dimensions in detail, and attempt at providing an answer to the phenomenological problem of evil by using the notion of the ‘viator’ (or ‘viatores’, ‘status viatoris’) extensively discussed in the work of German philosopher Josef Pieper. The structure of this paper will be as follows. First, I will clarify what the phenomenological problem of evil is and involves, and thereafter separate it from a closely related version of the problem of evil, namely the existential (or ‘emotional’) problem of evil. Then, I will move onto exegetically provide an analysis of Pieper’s concept of the status viatorand make a distinction between the individual viatorand the collectiveviator. Having done this, I will explain how the notion of the collective viatoresprovides a unique and satisfactory answer to the phenomenological problem of evil. I will conclude on a brief theological note, conjecturing that God’s omniscience is enriched if God not only propositionally knows facts about evil, but has experiential knowledge of them (something peculiar to a conception of God akin to the Christian God). Consequently, I suggest that this might also be a possible route for thinking of a plausible, theologically informed philosophical answer to the phenomenological problem of evil.
Overlooking the emotional problem of evil, the so-called ‘intellectual’ problem of evil comes in two forms. First, the logical version suggests an implicit contradiction in the proposition that an all-good (omnibenevolent), powerful (omnipotent), and knowing (omniscient) God can co-exist ontologically with evil. Secondly, the probabilistic version is a weakened—logically speaking—version of the logical version which can be presented in three forms, respectively. The first version argues that it is more probable than not that given the sum total of evil in the world, the existence of God—with the properties aforementioned—is improbable. This second version contends that it is more probable that there is no God given what the universe we inhabit looks like i.e., cosmic waste, natural evil, lack of purpose, et cetera. The third version is of the form that if God existed, it is probable that He would remain significantly less hidden than He is, if knowledge of Him was the warrant or ground for a relationship with Himself. While there are responses to both these forms of the problem of evil worth noting, the focus of this paper is on a third version of the problem of evil, namely, the phenomenological problem of evil. But, what exactly isthe problem? This version involves concepts which are often generalized, but which merit separate and concrete attention. Three mental states are, I suggest, peculiar to this version of the problem of evil: loneliness, despair and a sense of abandonment in one’s suffering. The problem, though, is not a logical problem i.e., the consistency between the proposition that God exists and evil exists; rather, it is a problem of—and herein lies the problem—how theism (or Christianity, particularly) answers the problem of the raw, what-its-likeof evil. In his 1995 ThePhilosophy of Existentialism, Gabriel Marcel, himself a Christian philosopher, puts it this way:
Evil which is only stated or observed is no longer evil which is suffered: in fact, it ceases to be evil. In reality, I can only grasp it as evil in the measure in which it touchesme—that is to say, in the measure in which I am involved…being ‘involved’ is the fundamental fact.
Nietzsche, too, in his 1887 On the Genealogy of Morals, understood that the meaning and interpretation of the phenomenologically felt suffering was the real problem: “The meaninglessness of suffering notsuffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far…”While an in-depth analysis of these mental states is inherently beyond the scope of this paper, I would like to focus on the first of them, loneliness.
The phenomenological problem of evil involves loneliness insofar as suffering is something which occurs to a subject in her/his subjectivity. In Richard Swinburne’s terminology, it is a privatesubjective experience, something to which the subject in question has privileged access.Further, the what-its-likeof suffering is an experience or event which is intimately tied to her/his experience and orientation both in and towards the world. As Thomas Nagel puts it, in a different context, “every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view”, implying that the subjectively felt phenomena of evil is connected to a person in not merely an existential, but phenomenological way.
The existence of loneliness within the phenomenology of evil is a peculiar feature of evil itself. We feel that we are left to suffer on our own, trapped within our own subjectivity.Consider the interesting feature of our existence: “I can know that you are in pain from the way you behave, even though it is logically impossible for me to experience your pain.”While consolation (in whatever form) is perhaps the closest mode of human understanding towards another experiencing the phenomenology of pain or suffering, it will never be an experience of that suffering itself. This element of suffering is exemplified in literature, too, as Samuel Beckett’s Hamm in his 1957 Endgamecries that “there’s no one else.”The solution to this phenomenology of loneliness in suffering, it seems, would involve moving beyond the subjectivity of the suffering, and enter into an objective realm of mutual phenomenological struggle which would in turn transform the initial subjectivity of suffering. However, the objection arises: This answer allows there to be no God, and simultaneously a solution to the experience of evil and suffering. Thus, this cannot be a satisfactory answer to the problem raised since it works withoutGod. In response, I would add that such a struggle as I have described must be purposive, since a collective struggle towards ‘nothing’ is not itself sufficient for a solution to the problem.The question, then, becomes in what precisely a solution to this loneliness consists in, and what sort of ontological framework might be adopted to devise such an account.
Josef Pieper’s philosophical anthropology begins with the general axiomatic assumption that human beings are viatores. For Pieper, human existence is essentially “on the way, being who are “not yet.””As a matter of the Latin language, ‘viator’means a “wanderer, walker, wayfarer, pilgrim”,the antonym of which is the “status comprehensoris…[the] one who has comprehended, encompassed, arrived, is not longer a viator, but a comprehensor.”Hence, the nature of a human being is “being as becoming”, “always dynamic (geschehendes Sein)”:
…man, as long as he exists in this world, is characterized by an inward, as it were ontological quality of being-on-the-way to somewhere else. The life of historical man is structured as becoming, “not-yet,” hope.
Pieper’s work on hope (hoffnung) reveals that it is only the viator that hopes, since although she is “on the way”, she hopes for a particular destination, a choice “between the shores of being and nothingness.”This is what Pieper also identifies as the human being’s “essential creatureliness, the “not-yet-existing-being” of his own existence”, the answer to which “must not be despair”, but “that [which] corresponds to man’s actual existential situation”, namely, “hope.”While Pieper in another work argues that it is only the Christian that can rightfully hope for Being (the foundation of happiness), he suggests that the notion of the ‘viator’ is characteristic of our humanly existence. As to the human being in general, Pieper argues that we must take the human being as a whole, and not consider her or him as “purely spiritual” nor “purely material”; indeed, “…the fact of being determines entirely the internal structure of the creature.”Pieper’s view is thus ontologically holistic; however, what is important for our purposes is this notion of the viator, extended collectively. I will distinguish between the individualviator, and the collectiveviator. What I have subsequently described should be understood as the individual viator. It is the single, isolated human being who is existentially oriented towards Being, and who is a “pilgrim” who hopes. However, I will define the collective viatoras the structure of humanity directed, based on hope and in the context of human history, towards Being. The collective viatoris the collective and unified entirety of humanity towards our inevitable situation, “the end”, if you would like. The nature of what lies beyond this end is up for dispute; however, what we cannot dispute is that there is such an end—whether it be infinite nothingness or Being. Intrinsic, though, to both the individualand collective viatoris the “force underlying it all” which is directed towards “the good.”The question now arises: What does the collective viatorcontribute to the discussion of the phenomenology of evil?
The collective viatorinvolves human beings, structured on hope, towards ultimate fulfillment. What should be emphasized, though, is the nature of a journey or “pilgrimage” towards fulfillment. This pilgrimage involves much spiritual and material struggle, and much of the experience itself beings into doubt any such “ultimate fulfillment.” It is here that I want to mention the collective viatorin relation to the individual phenomenology of evil and suffering. On the framework Pieper adopts, human beings are not isolated beings who suffer (some significantly more than others) in the hope of less suffering eventually; rather, they are oriented towards fulfillment, and in this fashion see their suffering as meaningful. However, this only solves the objectiveproblem of evil in that it answers the logical question of ‘can there be meaningful suffering?’, instead of the direct subjective problem of the phenomenology of evil and suffering itself. On Pieper’s framework, though, we have a solution: Human beings collectively suffer together, and are called towards a virtuous, loving engagement with one another as they are on-the-way towards fulfillment. In this sense, they bridge, and thus move beyond the threshold of, the subjectivity of their own suffering and realize that while they must suffer within their own subjectivity, they do so collectively within humanity; such humanity—collectively—is itself oriented toward ultimate fulfillment. Yet, an important question remains: Though collective suffering on-the-way seems to get us to break the mere isolated subjectivity of our own suffering, it seems as though this is not constitutive of such suffering being meaningful; so, what remains to constitute meaningfulness? If this argument has a familiar ring to it, it is because it is (something like) the argument of Blaise Pascal:
It is absurd of us to rely on the company of our fellows, as wretched and helpless as we are; they will not help us; we shall die alone.
Remembering that it is the phenomenological question we are asking here, I would argue that it is such “ultimate fulfillment” which is constitutive of the collective, communal suffering as meaningful (whereas Pascal is pressing the necessity of making “ultimate fulfillment” move beyond the boarders of mere finite existence).Of course, I am presupposing that there is no gratuitous evil and suffering; however, this seems to be a philosophically defensible position of which I will say nothing more.What remains, though, is the question at hand: Can “ultimate fulfillment” make the finite suffering of the collective viator meaningful? The answer, of course, depends on what one takes “ultimate fulfillment” to involve. For Pieper, a Catholic philosopher, “ultimate fulfillment” is to be found in the infinite God who is Goodness, Beauty and Truth Himself. Pieper, in another work devoted to the subject of happiness and contemplation, he says the following:
In this historical existence, it is true, in statu viatoris—the sages agree on this doctrine—for man here on earth, there is nothing more meaningful than the love of God, the persistent striving for “the whole good.” But this is so because it may be possible for us to desire God with our whole beings, but not (not yet!) to possess Him wholly. Nevertheless, desiring aims at possession. And possession is had in contemplation.
For Pieper, eternity with the infinite God Himself is sufficient for such a collective struggle towards “ultimate fulfillment” to be meaningful. An objection here is lurking: If God is really the highest good—in modern parlance a ‘maximally great being’—could not God create a world with no suffering? This objection misses the point: The point is not over whether God was unjust in His creation of a world which is suffused with suffering, but what He doesgiven that genuine suffering exists. However, I want to take Pieper’s argument one step further. On the framework Pieper is arguing for, God enters into historical reality in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. In this final analysis, I want to suggest two reasons why on Christianity this offers a further solution to the problem of the phenomenology of evil and suffering. First, if Christianity is true, then Jesus—God—suffers withus. Instead of abolishing evil and suffering, He shows us how to turn to God in love and trust despite the circumstances life throws our way. In this sense, it is not just other human beings who suffer with us, but God Himself suffered with us. This expression of love informs how we think of the phenomenology of evil and suffering since God Himself entered into it and shows us that no matter the extent to which we suffer, the infinite God of Love once suffered with us, and in the end will provide “ultimate fulfillment.” Secondly, on Christianity, God is not a disinterested God Who watches His little ones suffer, but who enters into historical reality and experiences the evil and suffering itself; this being said, He moves from having mere propositional knowledge to experiential knowledge, and thus has an enriched knowledge of our human suffering. In this sense, the God of Christianity has a way of knowing which, relative to other monotheisms, is not present i.e., God does not enter into history in those religions. As such, the problem of the phenomenology of evil and suffering is plausibly answered by understanding the nature of the collective viator, and this is best suited in a Christian theological context.
In this paper, I have argued that the phenomenological problem of evil and suffering is a lesser-discussed, albeit important, problem of evil which had its brief historical moment in Nietzsche’s aphorism, and which received an indirect solution in Pieper’s work. By conveying Pieper’s philosophical anthropology of the ‘viator’as a solution, I have therefore argued that one of the most prevalent features of suffering, loneliness, is plausibly answered. Further than this, I argued that by making a distinction between the individual and collective viatorallows us to see humanity as a being-on-the-way which has as its final end “ultimate fulfillment.” If this analysis is correct then it plausibly follows that a Christian metaphysics best captures the meaningfulness of such a human pilgrimage. An interesting conclusion, though, is that on Christianity, God’s experiential knowledge of evil and suffering furthers a respect of His knowledge which is a plausible candidate for a respect in which the concept of God in Christianity is superior to rival monotheistic conceptions of God. In this way, I would agree with Linda Zagzebski when she argues that if God has a more intimate knowledge of us, we should expect “a model of how an omniscient being knows his creatures” which goes beyond “the model of the deity reading off all the propositions about the world in his mental encyclopedia.”
Alston, William P. “The inductive argument from evil and the human cognitive condition.”
Philosophical perspectives5 (1991): 29-67.
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame and Act Without Words I. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1957. Print.
Craig, William Lane and J.P Moreland. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.
Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003. Print.
Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Hospers, John. An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall,
Nagel, Thomas. “What is it like to be a bat?” in Mortal Questions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 1979. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On The Genealogy of Morals” (1887) in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. tr.
Walter Kaufmann. New York, NY: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. London, England: Penguin Books, 1966. Print.
Pieper, Josef. Death and Immortality. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. South Bend, Indiana:
St. Augustine’s Press. Print.
—Divine Madness: Plato’s Case Against Secular Humanism. Trans. by Lothar
Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995. Print.
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997 and 2012. Print.
—Happiness and Contemplation. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1958. Print.
—Hope and History. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Great Britain, UK: Burns and
Oates Limited, 1967. Print.
—Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. Introduction by T.S
Elliot. New York and Scarborough, Ontario: A Mentor Book, 1963. Print.
—Le Concept de Création: La “Philosophie Négative” de Saint Thomas d’Aquin.
Trans. Piere Blanc. Jacob, Paris: Ad Solem, 2010. Print.
—“On Hope” in Faith, Hope, Love. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston and Sister Frances
—Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. Trans. Lothar Krauth. San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990. Print.
—The Christian Idea of Man. Trans. Dan Ferrelly. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s
Press, 2011. Print.
—The Silence of Goethe. Trans. Dan Farrelly. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s
Press, 2009. Print.
Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974. Print.
Rehman, Rashad. “A Teleological Argument: Cosmological Fine-Tuning, Facts and
Explanations.”Semi-Colon IX.III (2015): 46-51.
—“Theistic Explanations of the Ontology of Consciousness.” Discussions: The
Undergraduate Research Journal of Care Western Reserve University. Vol.XIII.I: 17-23.
—“The Ontic Foundation of Hope: Josef Pieper’s Critique of Atheistic Existentialism”,
The Oracle: York University’s Undergraduate Philosophical Review. Issue 10, 2017: 23-
Sartre, Jean-Paul.Existentialism is a Humanism. Trans. Carol Macomber. New Haven and
London: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.
Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
Swinburne, Richard. Mind, Brain, and Free Will. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013.
—Providence and The Problem of Evil. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Treanor, Brian and Sweetman, Brendan, “Gabriel (-Honoré) Marcel”, The Stanford Encyclopedia
of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
Zagzebski, Linda. “Omnisubjectivity” Accessed:
http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/39971.pdf. April 5th, 2017.
Quoted in Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 205.
I overlook here the emotional problem inasmuch as it is not a philosophically significant facet of the discussion, although one might suggest that the phenomenological problem is a sub-set of the emotional version. For epistemic simplicity, I overlook these methodological considerations and argue that the phenomenological problem is itself a separate, though related, problem.
Some of the most prominent responses to the logical and probabalistic problem of evil are William P. Alston’s “The inductive argument from evil and the human cognitive condition.” Philosophical perspectives5 (1991): 29-67; Craig, William Lane and J.P Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), Chapter 27; Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974). Print; Swinburne, Richard. Providence and The Problem of Evil. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998). Print; Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Print.
Treanor, Brian and Sweetman, Brendan, “Gabriel (-Honoré) Marcel”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/marcel/>.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On The Genealogy of Morals” (1887) in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. tr. Walter Kaufmann. (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2000), p. 598.
For an in-depth analysis, see his Mind, Brain, and Free Will. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), Chapter 3.
Nagel, Thomas. “What is it like to be a bat?” in Mortal Questions. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 167.
For an argument that this is in fact our situation, see Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism. Trans. Carol Macomber. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007). Print.
Hospers, John. An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 384.
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame and Act Without Words I. (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1957), p. 13.
Albert Camus seems to think otherwise in his Myth of Sisyphus; however, though Pieper would note this as simply a nihilistic heroic orientation towards fate, even atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel suggests this is not a plausible model. See Nagel’s Mortal Questions, Chapter 2.
Pieper, Josef. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. Introduction by T.S Elliot. (New York and Scarborough, Ontario: A Mentor Book, 1963), p. 104. He shortly thereafter quotes Pascal, who seems to be the originator of the idea: “We are not…we hope to be”. (p. 129 in Death and ImmortalityPieper says it is the translation of L. Brunschvicg (Reference below)).
Pieper, Josef.Death and Immortality. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press), p. 75.
Pieper, Josef. “On Hope” in Faith, Hope, Love. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston and Sister Frances McCarthy.
(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997 and 2012), p. 91.
Pieper Josef. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. Trans. Lothar Krauth. (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 42.
Ibid., p. 75.
On Hope, p. 96.
On Hope, p. 98. For such a defense that hopeis the only legitimate existential response, see hisHope and History. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. (Great Britain, UK: Burns and Oates Limited, 1967). Print; see also Goethe’s dictum which is in accordance with Pieper in his The Silence of Goethe. Trans. Dan Farrelly. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2009). Print.
Pieper, Josef. The Christian Idea of Man. Trans. Dan Ferrelly. (USA: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011), p. 42.
In Defense of Philosophy, p. 65. Although for Pieper this element of the human to experience the divine cannot be understood in scientific terms. See especially his Divine Madness: Plato’s Case Against Secular Humanism. Trans. by Lothar Krauth. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 17.
Pieper, Josef. Le Concept de Création: La <<Philosophie Négative>> de Saint Thomas d’Aquin. Trans. Piere Blanc. (Jacob, Paris: Ad Solem, 2010), p. 21. In the French translation of Pieper’s German: “…aussi l’idée que le fait d’être créée détermine entièrement la structure interne de la créature.”
See “A Teleological Argument: Cosmological Fine-Tuning, Facts and Explanations.” Semi-Colon IX.III (2015): 46-51; “Theistic Explanations of the Ontology of Consciousness.” Discussions: The Undergraduate Research Journal of Care Western Reserve University. Vol.XIII.I: 17-23.
Only the Lover Sings, p. 43.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. (London, England: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 80.
I have defended this thesis here: “The Ontic Foundation of Hope: Josef Pieper’s Critique of Atheistic Existentialism”, The Oracle: York University’s Undergraduate Philosophical Review. Issue 10, 2017: 23-31.
Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 548-549.
Pieper, Josef. Happiness and Contemplation. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1958), p. 98.
Zagzebski, Linda. “Omnisubjectivity” Accessed: http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/39971.pdf. April 5th, 2017. It is a good philosophical question, which I will not ask, if omnisubjectivity (as proposed by Zagzebski) or a more rich concept of omnipresence will play into the phenomenological problem of evil. I suspect it will, but I will leave this as a conjectural thought for a future paper.