An Argument that Mitigates the Problem of Evil?
(Minor Revision September 15/16)
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
David Hume (paraphrasing Epicurus c. 300 BC)
Once, when I was crossing the Perriar River by the ferry at Alwaye [the place was India and the year about 1925], there was a rickshaw on it, accommodating a very large Indian, with a very meagre one at the pulling end. A colleague from the College who was with me overheard someone on the ferry remark: ‘Look, there’s one man pulling another along. And they say there’s a God!’
To spare the reader, click HERE to see the main ideas in bold.
As the above quotes suggest, the fact of evil has often been felt to weigh against the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. But how heavily it weighs, and what kind of evil weighs the most, has been and remains a matter of hotly disputed opinion. Traditionally, evil has been divided into two main categories: natural evil and moral evil. The evil that seemed to decide the question of God’s existence for the man on the ferry was moral evil, specifically, the exploitation of man by man. For most philosophically-minded persons, however, it is natural evil (described by philosopher A. C. Grayling as, ‘disease, catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and the like’) that takes pride of place. Naturalists (aka materialists) in particular lay the emphasis on evil in Nature. There are two solid reasons for this. The first is somewhat strategic: even if evil is God’s punishment for man’s violation of the moral law, that justification fails to explain why the innocent (and animals) suffer, say, from hurricanes or disease. How, they ask, can an omnipotent, benevolent God allow such a thing?
The second reason is tied up with naturalism itself and the need for consistency. According to the naturalist, only nature exists. From this it follows that there is no part of man that lies outside nature, including his moral values and ethical behavior. Therefore all evil is, at bottom, natural evil. In practice, of course, even the hardest of hardcore naturalists, if he happens to be a judge, will differentiate between the wife who accidentally kills her husband while backing out of the driveway, and the wife who, after conspiring with her lover, dispatches her husband using a car as the murder weapon. The philosophical principle, however, seems clear enough: if you are a naturalist you either say that evil doesn’t really exist, or you say that what we call “evil” is a purely natural phenomenon. Thus, an email friend of mine, a hardcore naturalist, writes: ‘I don’t even believe in evil; “evil” people are just living as their brains tell them to.’ When we get into borderline forms of naturalism, such as George Bernard Shaw’s belief in creative evolution or the “Life Force,” evil is sometimes given a beneficial role. According to his biographer Michael Holroyd, ‘Shaw believed that what we have learned to call evil is technically an error in the experimental process of trial and error by which evolution must advance.’ But for both the naturalist and the pantheist evil is bound up with the existence of the material world; it is not preternatural or an invader from some transcendental realm.
I will therefore base my argument for mitigating the problem of evil on the assumption that we need only consider natural evil. It is not that moral evil doesn’t pose its own problems, for the naturalist and supernaturalist alike. For example, why did an all-good God create beings that are capable of, and even strongly predisposed to, moral evil? An answer that most people feel has some degree of plausibility is that moral evil is an unavoidable consequence of the highly valued gift of free will. (Obviously, this answer carries no weight with determinists. But determinists are in a small minority; and hardcore determinists—called “incompatibilists” in philosophical circles—those who believe that any autonomy or freedom of choice is sheer illusion, are a minority even among hardcore naturalists.) There is no ready answer, however, when it comes to evil in nature. Consider the following list of (mainly) natural evils:
ACTS OF NATURE & NATURAL THREATS
Earthquakes and tsunamis
Storms, floods and mudslides
Droughts and famines
Epidemics (AIDS, The Spanish Flu, The Black Death, etc.)
Viral Disease (e.g., smallpox killed an estimated 300-500 million in the 20th century)
Microbial Disease (e.g., malaria is the greatest historical cause of premature death killing one to three million every year)
Genetic disease (e.g., Down’s Syndrome & about 7500 other congenital illnesses)
Parasites, venomous snakes et al., rabid dogs, ornery hippos, man-eating tigers, etc.
Falls (stairs, ladders, balconies, cliffs, defective parachutes, etc.)
Boat sinkings (especially ferries) & drownings
THE HUMAN CONDITION
Poverty & exploitation
Depression & other mental illnesses
Ugliness, physical deformity, mental disability
Physical disability (blindness, deafness, lameness, etc.)
Loneliness & boredom
Alcoholism & drug addiction
Cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.
Ill health, chronic pain, quadriplegia
Accidents (automobile accidents, industrial accidents, house & other fires, mining accidents, train crashes, airplane crashes, structural collapses, freak accidents)
Aging (arthritis, osteoporosis, cataracts, hearing loss, Alzheimer’s, etc.)
Infant mortality & death in child-birth
Economic calamities (depressions, bank failures, unemployment, hyperinflation, etc.)
War (including the threat of nuclear war), class conflict, social unrest
Crime-related death and mayhem
Unfulfilled or frustrated desires and ambitions (e.g., unrequited love)
Instinctive dislike of certain people in our lives, including next of kin
Admittedly, some of the above evils could fall into either category (famines, for instance, may be caused by nature or by man) or into both categories (boredom could be a natural evil or it could be a moral one). You are welcome to add to this list, but it should be sufficient to remind us how daunting non-moral evil is and how endlessly varied. I therefore propose to simplify the argument by considering only the evil that arises from collisions between moving objects or masses. Actually, only one of the objects needs to be moving, so “collisions” also includes falls (collisions with the ground) and falling objects (that collide with something on the ground). There should be no objection to this widening of the concept of “collisions” when it is remembered that Einstein told us that there is no such thing as absolute motion. According to the General Theory of Relativity, whether an object is at rest or in motion depends on an arbitrary frame of reference.
Strictly speaking, the evil caused by collisions is not caused by collisions per se, but by the destructively high energies associated with moving objects, even objects moving at everyday speeds such as a slammed door or a child on a bicycle. Even a single joule of energy—an alkaline D cell pushed off a table hits the floor with about one joule—can seriously damage a delicate organ such as the eye or cause acute pain to the shin. Fortunately, the vulnerability of our body is usually disguised by the efficiency of its extremely sophisticated systems for avoiding pain and injury, and it is these systems that allow us to feel reasonably safe despite being surrounded by dangers on every side.
The equation that gives the energy of moving objects, known as kinetic energy, is KE = ½mv2, where m is the mass of the object and v is its velocity. According to this equation a 20 kilogram child riding a 10 kilogram bike at 4 metres per second involves 240 joules of energy. From the same equation a 7.9 gram bullet leaving the barrel of an AK-47 at 715 metres per second carries 2019 joules, approximately the energy expended by an adult in going up one flight of stairs. These energies are determined by the gravitational constant, G, or, in terms of general relativity, the degree of space-time curvature locally caused by a given quantity of matter. Now it is a well known fact that physical constants like G are fine-tuned for the universe we live in. If G was slightly smaller, gravity would have been too weak for stars and planets to form, and if it was slightly larger the universe would have stopped expanding after the Big Bang and collapsed long before the conditions needed for life had time to develop. So if we wish to live in a universe that has allowed stars and planets to form, and if we also wish to live on a planet where moving objects are common—presumably an environment like the moon, where nothing moves except shadows, would be considered too dull—then we must reconcile ourselves to the death and injury that results from collisions; primarily from collisions between vehicles—over 3000 fatalities per day and 50,000 to 120,000 injuries—but also from the energies of moving masses such as tidal waves, mud slides, overflowing rivers, tornados and hurricane-force winds. Though of lesser importance, one must also consider falls (especially the falls of the elderly) and falling objects (especially buildings in earthquakes).
Rather than have to send God back to the drawing board to create a new world from scratch, one might be tempted to argue that He should have guided evolution in such a way as to give the human body greater mechanical strength. Then it could safely absorb the energies caused by common, unavoidable collisions. However, this is impossible. Any physiologist will tell us that the human body is a stunningly brilliant compromise between structural fragility and functional versatility. With respect to the evil caused by collisions, no remedy can be found either in modifying the fragile structural mechanism which is the human body, or in altering the gravitational constant.
In his 2008 article, The God of Suffering, philosopher Peter Singer argues that an all-knowing, all-powerful God would have created a world without so much suffering in it. Otherwise, ‘He must be either evil or a bungler.’ But how much suffering is too much? Presumably a world in which the worst thing that ever happened to us was that we once stubbed our big toe would be a world in which “the problem of evil” wasn’t recognized as a problem at all, much less a powerful argument against the existence of God. But if a stubbed toe, painful as it can be, is inadequate, just how much evil is required to make the problem of evil an argument to be reckoned with? Since evil is so variable, many-sided, and even subjective, it would be unfair to ask the philosopher to be precise on the question of quantity. Perhaps a good way to circumvent the difficulties of distinguishing between kind and degree is to postulate that the evils that arise from collisions are alone sufficient to call into question God’s existence. It seems reasonable to suppose that even if all other evils were eliminated, the volume of death, serious injury, pain, grief and material destruction caused by collisions would be too great in the eyes of many to exonerate an omnipotent, benevolent Creator.
However, since we can’t get rid of collisions without also getting rid of our world and all its good points—and if that was the price we had to pay, we wouldn’t pay it—it would then seem to follow that “the problem of evil” in this world of ours can be replaced by “the problem of creating such a world.” This substitution greatly simplifies the argument, and is held to be justified on the grounds that if the existence of evil is inconsistent with an omnipotent, benevolent God, then so is the creation of this imperfect world we inhabit—notwithstanding the fact that it is only “imperfect” from a human perspective. Presumably, if the God of the theist existed, He would have created that so-called New Earth that is prophesied in Scripture and that religious believers yearn for. Better still, He would have placed us in heaven immediately after bringing us into existence, He would have seen to it that we never experienced anything but bliss. What possible purpose could be served by first having to pass through this vale of tears with all its dangers and uncertainties? Humanly speaking this is a very understandable attitude, and, at first sight, a plausible one.
Before examining this point of view, it might be well to pause and compare the amount of good in the world with the amount of evil. Without going into details—for instance, whether or not the disadvantages of plate tectonics, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, are outweighed by the advantage of a planet that is not geologically dead—we submit that the good outweighs the evil by a very considerable amount. There are two reasons why we often fail to notice the preponderance of good over evil, despite its self-evidence. First, where evil is concerned a sincere loathing is mixed up with a morbid fascination—at least in the vast majority of people. And since news corporations have to sell their product every day of the week, they make full use of this instinctive curiosity about evil while devoting almost no time at all to good news, which people find very dull. The result of filling the popular mind and imagination with stories and images of evil is that we end up with a very unbalanced picture of reality.
Second, human beings not only tend toward dissatisfaction, but they also have an almost unlimited capacity for taking things for granted—health, for example. This bias towards dissatisfaction with one’s lot (which, in the Buddhist attitude towards life, has produced an age-old reaction against something as natural and useful as desire) focuses our attention on evil and makes us forget the actual good we have. The “proof” that good outweighs evil lies in the fact that 99 people out of 100 would be very unhappy to be informed that tomorrow was going to be the last day of their lives! Despite all the pains and disappointments, most people value life very highly. (It has been said that perhaps the most despairing cry of the pessimistic mind is that the world is never quite as bad as it ought and should be for intellectual purposes.)
Even so, an omnipotent, omniscient God that carelessly left His sentient creatures exposed to the blind, indifferent forces of nature is a God whose existence remains problematic for thoughtful sensitive people. If, however, one can imagine some benefit or satisfaction that would more than compensate us for having done time on ‘the rack of this tough world,’ then the whole complexion of the problem of evil changes dramatically. But is it possible to discover some ingenious scheme or rationale that would completely clear God of the charge of permitting pointless suffering? Specifically, is it plausible to suppose that this perplexing and unsatisfying life of ours is a crucial stage through which we must pass, and that the evils and suffering we must endure are indispensable if we are to secure a much greater enjoyment, a richness of experience that could not come about in any other way? Without straining credulity or indulging in mental gymnastics, I think it is reasonable to believe, based on our experience and knowledge of the human condition, that this could indeed be the case. However, I don’t mean to imply that those who think otherwise are unreasonable. Many beliefs are a matter of opinion, especially in cases where reason can never be completely disentangled from desire nor freed from the biases of temperament, upbringing and circumstances. Nevertheless, of all open questions, the patient and unprejudiced exploration of this particular question may yield greater intellectual and emotional rewards than any other.
According to Aquinas, evil has no independent existence but is a parasite on good; thus every being, as being, is good, and no being is said to be evil except insofar as it lacks being. But even if we agree with him, we still have to answer the question: Why is it God’s will for us to experience evil, to suffer? I submit that the answer can be reduced to one word: love. Unfortunately, to explain why love (of a very specific kind) requires evil calls for a good many words.
“Love” is a word which the human race usually honours and respects, but the reality behind the word is something that is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. It is sometimes said that love makes the world go round, but hate and envy make it go round even faster. In other words, we pay lip-service to love. Part of the difficulty arises from the fact that love is a cover for a number of quite different things. One can sympathize with Gore Vidal when he said, “Since I don’t really know what other people mean by love, I avoid the word.” Nevertheless, there is reason to think that the love which may explain why a benevolent God allows evil is not an instinctual love, such as sexual love, parental love, affection or companionship. All of these loves are known in various degrees among the higher animals. There is, however, a kind of love that is distinctively human, a love that can coexist and blend with the instinctual loves but unlike them is directed towards individuality, towards the value and uniqueness of one particular person. (There must be many popular songs that take this kind of love as their theme. One by The Seekers, a big hit back in the 1960s, was I’ll Never Find Another You.)
It could be argued, I suppose, that animals are also individuals and, in that sense, unique. But their individuality is too limited for us to regard them as persons with rights—the opinions of some pet owners notwithstanding. History and experience show that it doesn’t matter how big or how strong, how graceful or majestic an animal is, it is not valued for itself—pets excepted. Mankind values the species, but not the individual tiger or blue whale. When tigers were plentiful Maharajahs and English sahibs shot them as if there was no end to them. Likewise, some species of whales were slaughtered to near extinction, and sharks and dolphins continue to die in massive numbers as a result of the industrialized methods of commercial fishing. If, one day, science were able to explain consciousness in terms of biochemical processes in the brain, and if the scans of dolphins’ brains (which are bigger than ours) were to reveal that they were our emotional and philosophical equals, perhaps we would feel terrible about killing so many. For the time being, however, the kind of love we can feel towards living creatures that we consider persons (where persons are beings with histories or stories that have the potential to interest us) is restricted to other human beings. But before we investigate that kind of love, let’s pause to consider the animal experience a little more closely.
At 500 pounds an adult male wildebeest is three times our size. Although the wildebeest regularly succumbs to lions, leopards, cheetahs, jackals, wild dogs and, most dramatically, crocodiles, its average life span is twenty years, about four times less than ours. Nevertheless, if an old wildebeest could talk it would certainly have some tales to tell. But, of course, we’re anthropormorphizing when we imagine ourselves having his animal experiences while retaining our human outlook. We quickly check this tendency by reminding ourselves that the wildebeest doesn’t feel his adventures with human intensity, doesn’t vividly recall his near shaves or his neighbours’ tragedies, and certainly has no inclination to talk about them in wildebeest language. So when we see a wildebeest run down by a cheetah, or torn apart by a pack of hyenas, or dragged under water by a giant crocodile—assume you are on safari or are watching Nature on PBS—we feel only a little, ephemeral distress because we figure his life is not very interesting to him, and not very different from the lives of any of the other wildebeests covering the savannah as far as the eye can see. In other words, what the wildebeest lacks is not size (he’s bigger than us), not longevity (he has a respectable life expectancy), not heart-stopping adventures or tremendous challenges, but a personal narrative in the course of which he is able to grow emotionally, intellectually, morally and spiritually—or degenerate, as the case may be. (Before we leave him behind it should be noted that, in common with us and presumably with animals in general for hundreds of millions of years, the average wildebeest’s life is quite bearable most of the time, admittedly not wonderful but neither devoid of solid satisfactions.)
In the animal kingdom, love, such as it is, rarely seems to rise above the level of instinct. In our species it often does. In some Christian terminology, non-instinctual love is called “gift love,” or, more obscurely, “charity” or “agape.” In the secular world it might be called “altruistic love” or simply “true love.” But these terms are all inadequate in one way or another. Gift love emphasizes sacrificial love; charity suggests alms-giving; altruism implies unselfishness or benevolence; and “true love” usually means romantic love. The love in question, however, must involve some kind of self-giving with a mysterious union of persons as the goal, but union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. While Christians believe that the fruition of this love (which, for want of a better term, we will henceforth call “gift love”) is the highest form of human fulfillment, it is a fact of daily experience that its essence, the gift of self in the form of time and attention, aid or concern, is often far from enjoyable. Therefore this kind of love is not very popular. Nor is it universally recognized: Kant’s, ‘Love is a matter of feeling, not of will or volition; hence there is no such thing as a duty to love’ would probably ring truer to more people than M. Scott Peck’s, ‘Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional.’ Emotional love is immediately rewarding, sometimes sensationally so; hence the human race has always been drawn more strongly to the excitement of emotional love than to the labour of gift love.
The poet John Keats wrote that nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced. Aging and death are probably the best examples of things that human beings find hard to believe in until they experience them personally. Gift love, often emotionally dry, is another one of those things. We know that it is a fact in the same way we know that mortality is a fact, but it has an aura of unreality. One of the reasons, as was noted above, is that strong emotion is typically absent. Another reason is that one doesn’t want to believe in things which may involve sacrifice or some kind of suffering. To make gift love vivid—and it’s a more a question of being reminded than informed—it may help to look at a few concrete examples.
Kenneth More was a popular British actor of the 1950s. He and his wife, Angela Douglas, separated for several years during the 1970s, but reunited when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The disease made it increasingly difficult for him to work and his last job was in a US TV adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. In 1981 he wrote that:
Doctors and friends ask me how I feel. How can you define “bloody awful?” My nerves are stretched like a wire; the simplest outing becomes a huge challenge—I have to have Angela’s arm to support me most days . . . my balance or lack of it is probably my biggest problem. My blessings are my memories and we have a few very loyal friends who help us through the bad days . . . Financially all’s well. Thank goodness my wife, who holds nothing of the past over my head, is constantly at my side. Real love never dies. We share a sense of humour which at times is vital. If I have a philosophy it is that life doesn’t put everything your way. It takes a little back. I strive to remember the ups rather than the downs. I have a lot of time with my thoughts these days and sometimes they hurt so much I can hardly bear it. However, my friends always associate me with the song: “When You’re Smiling. . .” lt isn’t always easy but I’m trying to live up to it.
In this love, which More calls “real love,” giving is the dominant and most obvious characteristic. More also alludes to his wife’s forgiveness, presumably for his infidelities. The readiness to forgive is usually considered an indispensable part of gift love. However, the naturalist, who tends to see every form of human love as a refinement of animal instinct, might reasonably argue that More’s desperate need was at the root of his intensity of feeling and depth of gratitude, all of which would have been absent had he remained healthy. As for his wife’s devotion, maybe, despite everything, she never stopped loving him on the level of romantic instinct. Or perhaps she was one of those people who need to be needed. It’s possible of course, but, like all the higher things in life, gift love can always be explained in terms of lower needs or ulterior motives. If you’re not prepared to believe in the higher things to begin with, you certainly can’t be made to believe in them through argument. First hand experience, however, often brings about a change in attitude.
Our second example comes from the experience of British journalist and media personality Malcolm Muggeridge. Raised in a socialist family and disillusioned with politics in Britain, the 29 year-old Muggeridge went to Russia in 1932 as The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent. His pregnant wife accompanied him, their idea being to stay on in Russia where they thought ‘a new age was coming to pass.’ Thanks to a German businessman, Herr Schmidt, whom they met at an embassy party and who had a dacha that he and his girlfriend, known as Die Kleine, only visited on weekends, they were able to stay at Kliasma outside Moscow while searching for suitable accommodation. Shortly thereafter Muggeridge’s wife, Kitty, fell seriously ill. In addition to unthinking self-sacrifice, the appreciation of one particular individual above all others and the terrible fear of losing that person figures strongly in this account.
We took walks in the woods, and smiled at children playing, and felt, as we hadn’t in Moscow, that we were living in a country rather than a regime. Then, suddenly, Kitty got ill, developing a very high temperature. . . For the next days I forgot everything except looking after Kitty. The thought that she might die filled me with desolation. All our quarrels and jealousies and harsh sayings and infidelities dissolved away; and all I saw in the universe was her flushed face, very youthful looking in its sickness, very alert and resolute, picked out as though spot-lit in the midst of an immense darkness. If she should die! A secondary terror was that I might catch the illness, and so be unable to look after her. What would happen then? Inevitably, I thought the symptoms were unmistakably developing, and secretly took my own temperature; positively dismayed, absurdly enough, to find that it was normal. Kitty’s mattress was intolerably uncomfortable, so I gathered others in the dacha and piled them on it. Die Kleine, when she came at the weekend, very sweetly made no complaint about losing hers.
I slept on the floor beside Kitty’s bed, waking up from time to time to look at her, taking her temperature far more often than was necessary; childishly enraged when it remained high, and equally childishly uplifted when it dipped down. In the morning I washed her as well as I could, very gently when I came to the swollen belly, and combed her hair. For an enema we had only rather crude sunflower oil, but I managed with this, experiencing a kind of blissfulness in the process. We had with us the Everyman edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedies (I must, in jettisoning books before we left Manchester, have given this volume a non-bourgeois imprimatur), and I read aloud to her Hamlet and Cymbeline. In the evening, when Lena was in the dacha, I took a walk in the pine woods, up and down the straight paths. For the time being all my professional journalistic interest in the regime had evaporated; how many hours people worked, their real wages, rent, rations, whether the Consumers’ Co-operatives, so dear to Mrs Webb, functioned successfully or not. My mind had momentarily stopped working in that sort of way. It just suddenly seemed to me that Russia was a beautiful place—these pine trees, dark against the snow which had now begun to fall, the sparkling stars so far, far away, the faces of the Russians I met and greeted, these also so beautiful, so clumsy and so kind. Tovarich!—it meant something, after all. Brother!
The next day I went into Moscow in quest of a bedpan. It happened also to be the anniversary of the October Revolution, and I had a press pass for the parade in the Red Square. The only possible place where I might find a bedpan, Herr Schmidt had told me, was in the commission shops; a sort of Soviet version of pawn shops, where the relics of the old Russian bourgeoisie brought their family treasures—ikons, pieces of furniture, books, stamp collections, Czarist medals even, anything that could possibly have a value—to exchange them for money to pay taxes and procure necessities. . . When my turn came to be attended to, it was obvious that the shopman assumed I was a seller rather than a buyer. He asked me arrogantly what I wanted, clearly anxious to hurry on to the more agreeable and rewarding business of Valuta [foreign currency] transactions. When I explained in my halting Russian that I wanted a bedpan for a sick wife, and that I would pay sterling, his interest kindled a little, and he produced a porcelain object which, if not exactly a bedpan, could be made to serve the same purpose. It was wrapped up for me in an old issue of Pravda; I paid in Valuta, and we parted amicably. . . .
I arrived back in Kliasma triumphantly bearing my bedpan, to find Kitty much better and sitting up and ready to laugh over my adventures. The sense of relief drove away all the fears that had been haunting me—only £90 left of our travellers’ cheques, and very little money coming in; the impossibility of settling in the USSR as we had planned, or of going on being a foreign correspondent in Moscow, indeed, of working for The Guardian at all; the need to find somewhere for Kitty to have her baby, as well as a job for me. All these dilemmas seemed of no account in the light of her returned health and smile. A local woman doctor who visited her from time to time came in that evening, found that her temperature was normal for the first time since her illness began, and shared in our rejoicing. She was a cheerful amiable soul, the best type of Soviet product; simple, capable and pleasant looking, with a warm bright face. We managed to converse in a mixture of Russian and German. Her equipment struck me as primitive. For instance, her stethoscope was like a little wooden trumpet, and she had no drugs of any kind, not even aspirins. One of her favourite treatments, called banki, which she insisted on administering on this last visit, consisted of warming up a lot of little glass pots and then affixing them to Kitty’s back. As they cooled, they sucked in the flesh, giving excruciating pain, and, allegedly, easing the bronchial tubes. The whole process was so bizarre that we couldn’t help laughing, which, of course, made the pain all the greater.
This so painful laughter was the sign for me that Kitty was now alive. What an ecstatic experience to see someone greatly loved who has been languishing and dying thus come to life again! Blood moving through the veins and arteries, like traffic after a stoppage; nourishment again taken, gulped down greedily. . . Likewise, air greedily breathed in. Talk returning, and laughter; even irritability—all manifestations of life. Like Lazarus raised from the dead. . . So, this preposterous laughter of ours, making the little banki jars quiver and shake, to poor Kitty’s greater anguish, was particularly joyous as an outward and visible manifestation of her recovery. She was, after all, alive; the graph was upwards, not downwards; our journey was not over, the road stretched onwards.
Along the straight paths through the pine trees I tried afterwards to sort it out in my mind. How suffering, rather than pleasure, should be the sacrament of love. The imperfection of the flesh so much more crucial than its imagined perfection; the transports of tending it in sickness far transcending those of coupling with it in health. A contradiction, a mystery.
To these examples the sceptic might reply, “Nobody denies that gift love can be an intense and powerful experience, especially in the case of a young man fearing for the life of his pregnant wife. But such experiences are few and far between. Moreover, even Cardinal Newman concedes Kant’s point—‘love is a matter of feeling’—when Newman writes, ‘It is obviously impossible to love all men in any strict and true sense.’ In other words, emotional love is love in the strict and true sense. Newman then goes on, ‘What is meant by loving all men, is to feel well disposed towards all men, to be ready to assist them, and to act towards those who come in our way as if we loved them.’ ‘As if we loved them’—what a dreary phrase. No wonder the human race fails to catch fire when gift love is held up as a duty or an ideal.”
“Personally,” continues our sceptic, “I prefer the emotional realism and down-to-earth practicality of George Bernard Shaw when he said in a 1937 broadcast to the Sixth Forms, ‘I was taught when I was young that if people would only love one another, all would be well with the world. This seemed simple and very nice; but I found when I tried to put it in practice not only that other people were seldom lovable, but that I was not very lovable myself. . . You will find yourself making friends with people whose opinions are the very opposite to your own, whilst you cannot bear the sight of others who share all your beliefs. You may love your dog and find your nearest relatives detestable. So don’t waste your time arguing whether you ought to love all you neighbours. You can’t help yourself; and neither can they.’ No, I don’t think we can blame the human race for being more strongly attracted to emotional love than to gift love, or for failing to attach any great significance to the latter beyond the subjective meaning we read into it on those rare occasions when it forms part of our personal experience.”
Well, we needn’t debate whether emotional love has a stronger and more immediate appeal than gift love, or whether the excitement and pleasure of the former is more accessible than any ecstatic fulfilment of the latter. We already know the answer. What we want to know is whether gift love, in the end, outstrips all other kinds of love, incorporating and transfiguring them in the process. If this is a real possibility—and we already see some evidence in eros (romantic/erotic love) which, at its height, obliterates the distinction between giving and receiving—then we have a good reason for accepting evil as an uncongenial travelling companion on our earthly journey. For it is not easy to imagine how else human beings could be individualized to the degree required for a love that desires union with another (and with others), and not merely the sensual, emotional, or aesthetic pleasure they sometimes cause us to feel.
The Irish mercenary “Mad” Mike Hoare claimed that adventure and hardship are inseparable. Now what if our earthly lives were totally devoid of adventure and adversity, in fact little more than a round of enjoyments. What then would differentiate us beyond physical appearance and differences of temperament such as a cheerful disposition? We might not be quite as like as peas in a pod, but surely we would fall into a kind of sub-personhood. In any case, little would be gained by a union of persons so similar to one another. We might just as well love ourselves as try to love others, for all they can give us; and since we already love ourselves and are united with ourselves, by stopping there we also spare ourselves a good deal of aggravation and inconvenience. By contrast, G. K. Chesterton proposed that an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. If he’s on the right track, then the problem of individualization may only be the problem of evil rightly considered.
To reinforce the point, imagine a novel in which nothing unpleasant ever happened to any of the characters; their comfortable lives were simply an endless succession of pleasures and diversions without any trace of frustration, disappointment, or tragedy. It’s doubtful whether anyone has ever attempted to write such a dull novel; common sense would prevent it because, artistically speaking, failure is considerably more interesting than success. And even in real life our instinct is to agree with Aldous Huxley when he remarks, ‘I can sympathize with people’s pains, but not with their pleasures; there is something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness.’ And yet, happiness that goes beyond pleasure and comfort is not boring; indeed, when you experience this kind of happiness you can never imagine yourself growing tired of it. Nor do we, in theory, object to other people being happy. When we do it’s usually because we have failed to distinguish between happiness and its lesser aspects or counterfeits, such as fun, excitement, or mere comfort. Einstein seems to have conflated these lesser things with happiness when he wrote, ‘I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves—such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine.’ In Einstein’s defense, the struggle for a happiness that is elusive, perhaps even unattainable, does seem to satisfy some instinct that is very deep in us. But if the failure to achieve happiness seems philosophically profound and artistically appropriate, does that failure have to carry over into real life?
Apparently it does—or at least there’s a lot of experience to support that perception. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, ‘The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’ Well, some kings may be very happy, but the problem of happiness is as much a problem for kings as for commoners. In our day billionaires rather than royalty might serve as a better illustration. Imagine an old billionaire who has lost his health. How much would he pay to regain it? The answer is obvious: virtually his whole fortune. How much would he pay for youth? Once again, virtually everything. How much for beauty? I think it’s safe to say that he or she would think nothing of parting with a few billion to be fair of face and figure. And yet we know that there are people who are healthy, young, beautiful and rich who have managed to get themselves into a state in which their capacity for enjoyment has become so enfeebled that it’s almost impossible for them to get through the day without the help of drugs or alcohol.
This curious fact points to an important conclusion. The worst of evils is not to be found among those most commonly feared: illness, poverty, old age or ugliness. The worst evil is the collapse of desire, the incapacity to enjoy anything that life has to offer. Bertrand Russell was aware of this dreadful possibility: ‘The search for an outside meaning that can compel an inner response must always be disappointed: all “meaning” must be at bottom related to our primary desires, and when they are extinct no miracle can restore to the world the value which they reflected upon it.’ Arthur Schopenhauer, the first great Western philosopher who was explicitly atheistic, also saw the danger: ‘If every desire were satisfied as soon as it arose how would men occupy their lives, how would they pass the time? Imagine this race transported to a Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted, where lovers find one another without any delay and keep one another without any difficulty; in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another, and thus they would create for themselves more suffering than nature inflicts on them as it is.’ For Russell, love is part of the solution—‘The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’—though his concept of love was a mixture of emotional love and altruism. For Schopenhauer, on the other hand, love is an impulse that is more likely to lead to unhappiness than its opposite. Unlucky in love himself, he nevertheless believed that nothing was more important than the love between the sexes because through it the next generation comes into existence. But for Schopenhauer happiness was never part of the plan; and he certainly didn’t believe in gift love.
There are things in which people disbelieve, not because there’s no evidence for them but because they’re not a feature of everyday experience. To believe in gift love is hard because most of the time its possibilities are hidden, not because people doubt its existence or are unaware of its power. Unlike emotional love, gift love fails to stir the imagination. Also, it requires faith to believe that a love that is volitional in origin will eventually assimilate and eclipse every other kind of ecstatic experience; so the natural tendency is to be sceptical. But if this scepticism is a mistake (though a very forgivable one), then one can dimly see how the problem of evil is no longer a philosophical problem, but only a moral and emotional one. The evils we have to face in life are necessary in order to differentiate us to the degree required to make the higher love substantial. Moreover, the experience of recognizing, fighting, enduring, and perhaps ultimately overcoming evil not only sets human beings apart from one another in a way that uninterrupted pleasure and comfort never could, it also occasions heroism. And with heroism comes one of our greatest satisfactions: admiration. ‘A world,’ writes C. S. Lewis, ‘in which I was really (and not merely by a useful legal fiction) “as good as everyone else,” in which I never looked up to anyone wiser or cleverer or braver or more learned than I, would be insufferable. The very “fans” of the cinema stars and the famous footballers know better than to desire that!’
In a culture where the values of equality and fairness are often regarded as sacrosanct, Lewis’s point of view is an unwelcome one: nevertheless, it merits further examination. Hero-worship, being irresistible to human beings, is probably as widespread in our age as in any other—though the heroes are more likely to be athletes and film stars than warriors and saints—but it is a mark of modernity to deprecate it. A friend of mine expressed a common attitude when he wrote, ‘I’m afraid I’m one of those people who doesn’t really believe in heroes.’ Do scepticism about heroes and scepticism about objective values, also a mark of modernity, go hand in hand? For those who believe in objective values, heroism is an objective value par excellence; and gift love (for those who believe in it) is one of the wellsprings of heroism.
Of course, one could hardly maintain the concept of gift love unless one believed it was grounded in something less fickle and fleeting than emotion—though one must not jump to the conclusion that emotion has no role to play. Yet it would be foolish to deny that gift love requires a measure of faith. We are all familiar with the hardcore naturalist’s cut and dried definitions of faith: irrational belief; believing things without evidence. Despite the fact that “blind” faith is a reliable feature of human nature, the naturalist definitions are often too simple, too narrow in scope, especially when it comes to the many splendoured thing called love. C. S. Lewis offers something more complex and subtle: ‘I define Faith as the power of continuing to believe what we once honestly thought to be true until cogent reasons for honestly changing our minds are brought before us.’ In any case, plenty of things require faith that it never occurs to most people to doubt. Beauty, brains and talent are notorious for being unequally distributed, and it was doubtless this fact that prompted Aldous Huxley to remark, ‘That all men are equal is a proposition to which, at ordinary times, no sane individual has ever given his assent.’ Yet, how many people ever question the ideal of equality? Still, it could be argued that a genuine belief in equality is mystical rather than rational, since we believe in spite of the visible evidence and not because of it.
As we have seen, admiration implies some kind of inequality. Since the modern sensibility tends to view inequality as an unmitigated evil, this is a discomfiting thought. However, further analysis may lessen the discomfort by showing that inequality is not an evil in every respect, just as evil itself, insofar as it makes certain kinds of good possible, is not evil in every respect. Thus, growing old and dying is evil in one respect, but good insofar as it makes way for the next generation, even better if it is the gateway to a higher and happier mode of being. Try, for a moment, to imagine a world in which there is no inequality between human beings. Everyone is equally young, healthy, attractive, intelligent, talented—even equally virtuous. Such a state of affairs is clearly impossible in the world we inhabit, but even if it were possible it is doubtful whether such a world would be desirable. Faced with the prospect of absolute equality, it probably wouldn’t be long before we started having second thoughts, for it would soon become obvious that some kinds of inequality are good because they produce or intensify many of the things we value, such as variety, competition (what is the purpose of the Olympic Games if not to establish inequality?), hierarchy and, of course, admiration.
Like admiration, love can also feed on inequality. While love may reach its peak between equals, there are forms of love that can only exist between unequals—the love between dog and master, for example. Since inequality is unavoidable in a pluralistic world, and since a love the essence of which is giving usually involves some degree of inequality, which position should we prefer, that of the superior or that of the inferior? If we consider the love between man and woman, then, in the absence of an ideal complementary equality we would probably be the happier party if our lover was our superior rather than our inferior. Their superiority would just be one more reason for finding them lovable. We wouldn’t want them to be immeasurably superior, but we would like it even less if they were immeasurably inferior. Alexander Pope conveys the mirthlessness of being surrounded by inferiors in his timeless insult to the poet and essayist Joseph Addison, a man who was polite to everybody but superior to everybody:
Like Cato, give his little Senate laws
And sit attentive to his own applause.
Nothing is more chilly than to be king of your company. Happily, in contrast to other social relationships, it is the nature of a love whose essence is self-giving to raise the inferior party to a kind of equality. In a way, the inferior party gets the best of both worlds.
We have argued that the experience of evil not only individualizes human beings, but greatly increases the opportunities for gift love, the distinctively human kind of love that is directed towards individuality. Gift love, in turn, raises up its object and imparts to it the likeness of the lover. It also solves in the best possible way a highly intractable problem, the problem of envy. The seven deadly sins of traditional morality are lust, gluttony, greed, anger, sloth, envy, and pride. The philosophically sceptical and morally permissive climate of our age (which is hostile even to the word “sin”) leads us to regard these faults less with shame than complacency—with one exception. Envy is a sin that very few people are inclined to acknowledge, much less boast about. Yet envy is one of the most universal of sins. Who can’t remember some occasion, usually from their youth, when they felt intense envy for another person’s attributes of body, mind, or personality. It is very natural (and very excusable) to feel envy for the good things that someone else has and we lack. However, the way in which human beings deal with feelings of envy probably accounts for more history than we realize (start 47:50 minutes in), for this unacknowledged sin is very often at the root of human motivation. It’s no wonder the Canadian poet Al Purdy declared at the end of his memoirs his outright hostility to the idea of increased self-awareness: ‘If human beings ever know fully all their own meanings and motives and hidden-to-themselves feelings, it would be a sad day.’
Good exists—or, for those who don’t believe in good, things that please us exist. Inequality not only exists, but must exist in any plural reality that a sane mind can conceive. Thus we can see how evil can come out of good, for envy is unavoidable in beings like ourselves who are outraged by inequality and unfairness. On the other hand, most people will readily admit that good can also come out of evil. We have offered gift love as an example. Gift love can turn inequality to our benefit by uniting us with someone greater than ourselves, thereby allowing us to possess and be possessed by the person whose pleasing attributes we would otherwise envy. Or, in the words of Samuel Johnson, ‘To love one that is great is almost to be great oneself.’ We submit, then, that there is no better way to cure envy than through gift love.
Perhaps the most paradoxical (yet almost universally accepted) way in which evil produces good arises from what many would consider the greatest evil of all: war. War, though a man-made evil, is not always a purely moral evil. The British historian Christopher Dawson wrote, ‘A great war is not a matter of human choice. On the contrary, it marks the point at which events pass out of human control. It is a kind of social convulsion—an eruption of the forces which lie dormant like the subterranean fires of a volcano on the slopes of which man builds his cities and cultivates his fields.’ However that may be, war provides the largest and most dramatic arena for the display of courage. And even though physical courage is not necessarily a moral quality, there are few things that human beings admire so spontaneously or celebrate so much.
From time to time some of the intellectual class mount an attack on courage, but their efforts are about as successful as attacks on Shakespeare. Shakespeare gives far too much satisfaction for us to bother about his many deficiencies. Similarly, the human race gets far too much enjoyment from the display of courage to ever let itself be persuaded that this peculiar and paradoxical quality is not a good and noble thing. One only has to think of the highest military decoration that Great Britain awards for bravery “in the face of the enemy” to realize the foolishness of trying to denigrate courage. The Victoria Cross (or VC)—supposedly derived from Russian cannon captured at the siege of Sevastopol—was introduced in 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Obviously, the intrinsic value of the medal is slight. Good imitations could probably be produced in China cheaply enough to sell in dollar shops. Since the medal has fetched over £400,000 at auction, its value must therefore be extrinsic. The value of any one of the 1300 to 1400 VCs in existence depends on its provenance, that is, on the documented record of its ownership from the time it was awarded. But the value of the medal is also influenced by the dramatic and romantic quality of the story attached to it. Similarly, it is the quality of the story attached to a person that, more than anything else, determines their fame in the eyes of the world.
In addition to calling forth courage, war gives rise to loyalty, sacrifice, and glory, things which seem to exalt the human condition. But if such life-enriching experiences and qualities are to exist at all, then evils such as aggression, destruction and death are necessary ingredients in the lives of some men and women. Granted, most of the enjoyment from these lives is of a vicarious kind. The triumphant warrior and the fallen hero give far more to their beneficiaries and admirers than they ever receive themselves. Notice, however, that what the few have to suffer is often greatly exceeded by what the many enjoy because of that suffering. ‘No habit is so important to acquire,’ said Aristotle, ‘as [the ability] to delight in fine characters and noble actions.’ In any case, it should be self-evident by now that where war is concerned, no amount of eloquent denunciation or bitter experience will ever prevent mankind from cherishing and celebrating the greatness that organized violence sometimes produces as a byproduct. But for those who would brush aside the indisputable good that war sometimes occasions (such as bringing one’s parents together) and forcefully remind us of its unspeakable horrors, there is another point to be made.
All wars come to an end—although another big one might bring the human race to an end—but the wonderful stories that wars produce are next to immortal. The Trojan War was long, but the story of the Trojan War far outlives it. This fact may have an analogue with respect to the evils of our earthly existence. Life seems long when, in the words of William James, ‘radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn.’ But life is soon over. Eventually most of us we will echo Schopenhauer: ‘A man must have grown old and lived long in order to see how short life is.’ And when that time comes, the facile assumption that our present dissatisfaction with the world could never be affected (or even invalidated) by any future knowledge or fruition of a divine plan will not seem so self-evident. In fact, it may not even seem particularly probable.
At this point in the argument it might be worth considering to what extent the belief that there’s no objective evidence for a supernatural order of being (evidence which, in the final analysis, must amount to interference with nature by supernatural power) has its origin in the fact that we often feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of the evil we see being inflicted on others—this is in addition to our own experience of evil. Out of that knowledge and experience arises a dissuasion that is only partly intellectual in character; it also has a powerful emotional component. But suppose the emotional factor was weakened or deadened by the certainty of a surpassing happiness in store for those who ‘bear their share of the world’s pain,’ a certainty that religious or mystical experience often engenders. (To those who have been granted a mystical experience—by God or by Nature—the idea of preferring, say, complete sexual and romantic fulfilment would make them laugh. One doesn’t have to read very hard between the lines of their testimonies to conclude that, from their point of view, such earthly delight is chicken feed and preferring it to what they’ve experienced would be like a child preferring a piece of candy to the offer of a million dollars.) Suppose further that the torrent of mystical experience that comes down to us from every century, every culture, and every type of person was known to correspond to some objective reality. How would that affect the problem of evil? In this thought experiment, negating the emotional impact would undoubtedly weaken the philosophical argument from evil. In other words, philosophical arguments sometimes involve feedback loops inasmuch as an existing philosophical conviction can affect the strength of an argument that bears on that conviction. C. S. Lewis put it more simply and more fundamentally: ‘What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.’
In the legal profession there is an adage that runs, ‘Hard cases make bad law.’ In philosophy things work somewhat differently: an extreme case can serve a useful analytical purpose, as in the fashionable study of ethics through what is jocularly referred to as “trolleyology” (i.e. ethical dilemmas typified by the runaway trolley problem). With this in mind we will complete our argument by studying the coexistence and interaction of good and evil through the lens of an extreme (and certainly unique) case. But it will probably be useful to start with some background information.
The overwhelming majority of scholars concede that Jesus was a historical figure, and therefore that Jesus’s mother was also a historical figure. If you bar Mary on the grounds that she is not “in history,” as usually understood, then by far the most famous woman in history is Joan of Arc (1412–1431). In fact, she is the third most studied human being after Jesus and Napoleon—is there another woman who has been the subject of so many films (about forty) and documentaries? This information may come as something of a shock because Joan’s story has a fairy tale quality to it; and, indeed, for four centuries after her death she was almost more a literary than a historical figure. But in the 1840s Jules Quicherat, a professor (and later director) at the Ecole des Chartes in Paris, assembled all the historical documents relating to Joan. They ran to five volumes. It turns out that we know more about Joan of Arc than any other medieval figure, more about her than just about anyone else until modern times.
Yet, until Quicherat made it clear to the academic and wider world that she was a historical figure about whom much information was available, it was hardly surprising that Joan should have been regarded as quasi-legendary, shrouded in myth, perhaps a merely inspirational presence in the background of battle. After all, why would anyone in their right mind entrust an army to a teenage peasant girl without, needless to say, any military training? We feel there must be a rational explanation. So, too, felt Pius II, the humanist pope who occupied the chair of Peter from 1458 to 1464. Pius left memoirs which included a summary of the history of the fifteenth century, and, although it contains some misinformation, his account of Joan’s life was generally sympathetic. He nevertheless concluded, ‘Whether her career was a miracle of heaven or a device of men I should find hard to say.’ He also gave intellectual currency to a recurring theory first hinted at by a Burgundian chronicler, namely, there was a political conspiracy that used Joan as a tool. Pius writes:
Some think that when the English cause was prospering and the French nobles, at variance among themselves, thought no one fit to be commander, one shrewder than the rest evolved the cunning scheme of declaring that the Maid had been sent by heaven and of giving her the command she asked for, since there was no man alive who would refuse to have God for his leader. Thus it came about that the conduct of the war and the high command were entrusted to a girl . . .
To shorten this essay, skip to the last three paragraphs.
According to historian Frances Gies, author of Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, 1981, ‘Opinion about Joan has a history of its own, spanning the centuries between her death and the present day, from the contemporary chronicles, French and Burgundian, through the nationalistic English histories that culminated in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I, the Voltairean scepticism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the new patriotic ideology of the French Revolution, to the concepts and fashions of the present day, including the anthropological, the Freudian, the mystical, and the faddish and freakish.’ But whether you believe Joan’s “Voices” to be heaven sent, a product of her own imagination, symptoms of a rare form of schizophrenia (Joan’s voices were comforting and loving rather than abusive and hostile), or simply a freak of nature, the indisputable fact remains: since the writing of human history began Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen. It is a unique and imposing distinction. More to the point, in lifting the siege of Orleans, defeating the English at Patay and driving them out of the Loire valley, fighting, negotiating and bluffing her way to Rheims where the dauphin received his crown, she changed the history of her nation and created a new national consciousness. And in the process of doing this she was instrumental in bringing the longest war in European history to an end.
Many people, believers as well as sceptics, are scandalized that the Church should have canonized someone who not only attached herself to one faction in a political struggle but incited human beings to kill other human beings. (In the Condemnation Trial Joan touchingly but naively remarked that she had “never killed any one.”) And if that weren’t bad enough, Joan insisted to the day she died—with one brief, apparent lapse—that she did everything under direct orders from God. Indeed, her conviction that God was on the French Armagnac side was one of the most galling things about her as far as the Anglo-Burgundians and their sympathizers were concerned. Frances Gies writes:
Was not England a Catholic realm? Were not the Burgundians and Parisians good Catholics? Why should God be for Charles and the French and against Burgundy and the English? Joan never directly addressed this question, but her position might be defined: In the dynastic quarrel and feudal dispute, God might be neutral, but with the English occupation of northern France the issue had become (though the modern term did not yet exist) national liberation, which God’s justice favoured. And perhaps God might be favouring the English as well as the French in wanting them to quit France, where so many of their “people of small or middling estate” had been “brought to die.”
Blaming someone always implies the claim that we would have behaved differently in their shoes, or at least known better. Whether or not we think extreme pacifism intellectually defensible, it is worth noting that three brilliant men, a great playwright, a great mathematical logician, and a great physicist had all thought their way to the position that it is never acceptable to participate in war. But when the Nazis came along each of them publicly disavowed their extreme pacifism and announced the need to fight. Their names were George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Unlike them, Joan of Arc was never a pacifist. In her times and circumstances it’s hard to imagine anyone being a pacifist. English captain Sir John Fastolf (the original for Shakespeare’s Falstaff) summarized fifteenth-century military doctrine by prescribing that English soldiers should march through enemy territory ‘burning and destroying all the lands as they pass, both house, grain, vine, and all trees that bear fruit for man’s sustenance, and all cattle that may not be driven, to be destroyed; and those that may be . . . spared in addition to the sustenance and provisioning of the army, to be driven into Normandy, to Paris, and to other places in the king’s obedience.’
Joan’s father was a big man in the village of Domremy. When the civil war spread to this previously peaceful corner in 1419, Jacques d’Arc (Jacques Darc at the time) and an associate, Jean Biget, led a delegation that leased an abandoned fortress on an island in the Meuse opposite the village where the population could take refuge with their animals. The following year English and Burgundian armies moved into Champagne, to the west of Domremy. In 1423 the damoiseau de Commercy, a local squire-turned-brigand with a nasty habit of switching sides, extorted a protection arrangement from Domremy, with Jacques d’Arc signing for the village an agreement to pay an annual fee levied on each household in return for immunity from pillage. The value of the protection proved slight in the face of bands of soldier-brigands roaming the district. When Joan was thirteen one such routier, Henri d’Orly, raided Domremy and neighbouring Greux, carrying off livestock, furniture and other belongings. Thanks to the good offices of the lady d’Ogéviller, her cousin, the count of Vaudemont, pursued the raiders, fought off an ambush, and recovered the loot. In 1428 the Burgundian governor of Champagne was subsidized by the English regent, the duke of Bedford, to equip 1000 men-at-arms to capture Vaucouleurs. This military expedition (which failed in its objective) involved burning the villages in its path. The fortress on the island offered insufficient protection, and the people of Domremy and Greux, including Joan, carrying their possessions and driving their animals, fled to the fortified town of Neufchâteau nine kilometres to the south. Domremy was burned to the ground. We all know the familiar slogan, WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER. But the verdict of history and human experience is that war (always excepting nuclear war) sometimes is the answer; which is why the normal person, who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances, would probably go along with Arthur Conan Doyle that ‘Jeanne’s mission was on the surface warlike, but it really had the effect of ending a century of war.’ In any case, it is clear that Joan learned as a child all she needed to know about the consequences of defencelessness and non-resistance.
So much for the ‘Joan as war-monger debate.’ The Hundred Years War between England and France began in 1337 with a feudal quarrel superimposed on a dynastic dispute. This dispute went all the way back to 1066 when French duke William of Normandy conquered England, in which he was now an independent sovereign, while still owing feudal homage to the King of France. By Joan’s time the conflict had evolved into a civil war, with the French Burgundian side allied with the English against the French Armagnac faction. The 116 year war, though interrupted by long truces, was terrible for the peasantry; during periods of enforced idleness or while waiting for tardy pay cheques the unemployed mercenary bands turned to rape, pillage, extortion, and every form of cruelty. When England was finally separated from her Burgundian ally by the Treaty of Arras in 1435, the eventual outcome was a foregone conclusion. By 1453, twenty-two years after Joan was convicted of heresy in a political trial and burned at the stake, England had lost all of France except Calais, which remained in English hands for trade and diplomatic reasons.
They say it’s hard to forgive someone you’ve wronged. Be that as it may the English took their defeat at Joan’s hands very badly, and 350 years were to pass before they got over their anger at this woman. In the Duke of Bedford’s letter of 1435 to the boy king Henry VI, explaining the disaster, the Maid was characterized as ‘a limb of the fiend.’ According to the founder of the Saint Joan of Arc Center, Virginia Frohlick, ‘From 1430 until 1793, whenever the subject of Joan of Arc came up, all the English histories were filled with resentment and repeated the same old claim that she was inspired and accomplished her deeds through the power of Satan.’ She was a whore, a heretic, and ugly into the bargain. Yet the modern reappraisal of Joan began not in France, but in England. In 1794 the English poet, Robert Southey, wrote an epic poem in honour of Joan, and this one work turned English popular opinion around almost overnight. In 1803, for reasons of nationalism, Napoleon jumped on the bandwagon, and by the end of the nineteenth century she was being invoked by the left and the right, by Republicans and Catholics, by all and sundry.
My own interest in Joan of Arc was sparked by something I read in a book of quotations from Winston Churchill: ‘There now appeared on the ravaged scene an Angel of Deliverance, the noblest patriot of France, the most splendid of her heroes, the most beloved of her saints, the most inspiring of all her memories, the peasant Maid, the ever-shining, every glorious Joan of Arc.’ I remember feeling surprised; I didn’t know that Churchill was such a romantic. Later I discovered that he went even further: ‘Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years.’ But it was Yankee cynic and curmudgeon Mark Twain of all people, a man who cared little for the French and even less for the Christian religion, who went as far as it is possible for one person to go in praise of another:
Taking into account, as I have suggested before, all the circumstances—her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life,—she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.
That passage is from the end of a piece that Twain wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 1904, but his enthusiasm for Joan had begun more than forty years earlier. Fifteen-year-old Twain was serving his apprenticeship as a printer when one day a page from a book about her—whose it was he did not say—blew across his homeward path. Reading about Joan’s persecution in prison by her English captors, he was enthralled. He was also surprised to discover that Joan was a real person. He later claimed that the stray leaf from the book had opened the world of literature to him. Perhaps his passion for Joan led him to exaggerate, but the important thing is that she brought a lot of happiness into a life that had more than its share of tragedy. Part of that happiness came from writing a book about her. The book was “private and not for print, it’s written for love and not for lucre.” He was afraid to append his name to it for fear people would think it was meant to be funny. The critics did not agree with him, but on his 73rd birthday, when all his major books were far behind and he could judge without prejudice, he gave his final verdict: “I like the Joan of Arc best of all my books; & it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others: 12 years of preparation & a year of writing. The others needed no preparation, & got none.”
“OK,” suddenly interjects our sceptic, who has been silent for some time. “So Mark Twain admired a girl warrior who was also a virtuous and altogether appealing sort of person. He was probably infatuated with her. People always get pleasure from that sort of thing, and I don’t begrudge him. But what does all this have to do with the problem of evil?”
The problem of evil is, in essence, the problem of our experience of suffering and adversity. Nietzsche claimed, ‘The preponderance of pain over pleasure is the cause of our fictitious morality and religion’; but the preponderance of pain and hardship over pleasure and enjoyment also seems to be a major cause of the widespread rejection of revealed religion and religion-based morality. Whether, in fact, the average life contains more misery than enjoyment is a question that is bound to be answered, at least partially, according to temperament—“Will you sit down with me? and we two will rail against our mistress the world and all our misery,” says Jacques (Monsieur Melancholy) to Orlando in As You Like It. But attitude, especially attitude that is rooted in one’s philosophical position, also has a major role to play. So any philosophical analysis or perspective that can shift the balance of pleasure and pain in the direction of the former is an argument that mitigates the problem of evil. And this is where Joan’s story is relevant, despite its uniqueness.
It must be conceded at once that in Joan of Arc we are dealing with someone who is not only one of the hinges of history, like Luther or Lenin, but an intensely romantic figure. The word ‘romance,’ first and foremost, conjures up the feelings of excitement and mystery associated with love between the sexes. But romance also means the sense of greatness and fascination inspired in us by a particular kind of story or career. If the story is true, then so much the better. Lenin’s career was truly remarkable, but it was not a romance. The lives of Jesus and Napoleon both contain tragic and romantic elements. Joan’s story, however, is an extraordinary blend of tragedy and romance; and that is what human beings love and appear to need, either in a piece of fiction or in a real life—though preferably not their own. In the epic film Lawrence of Arabia, King Faisal tells an American reporter, “In this country, Mr. Bentley, the man who gives victory in battle is prized beyond every other man.” Not only in Arabia. A successful warrior, however, is not necessarily a romantic figure. Unlike the romanticized Henry V of Shakespeare’s play, the real Henry V was ruthless, superstitious, and cruel—he used to say that war without burning was like beef without mustard. Glory is also a part of romance; the poet wrote, ‘There’s no glory like those who save their country.’ But while Winston Churchill and Charles DeGaulle may have saved their respective countries, they were not very romantic figures. Joan, on the other hand, fulfills the requirements of romance in every way imaginable.
When the rehabilitation inquiry visited Domremy 27 years after Joan left on her mission, all her friends and neighbours testified that she was “just like everyone else.” For Joan was not only a brave and virtuous heroine, she was also a simple and unremarkable young woman who found herself charged with a mission that she was very reluctant to accept. She was thirteen years old when her “Voices” first appeared to her—they were actually apparitions of the early Christian saints St Catharine and St Margaret, St Michael the Archangel, and unnamed others. For a number of years they merely encouraged her in the pious and charitable practices for which she was known and sometimes teased. At some point, however, they began to reveal a more serious purpose. Brushing aside her objection that she lacked the necessary qualifications, they set her two main tasks: raising the siege at Orleans and escorting the dauphin (Charles VII) to Rheims to receive his crown in an ancient ceremony full of ritual and tradition. Unfortunately, the balance had been slowly but steadily tipping in favour of the English at Orleans, which had been under siege for almost seven months by the time Joan arrived with a relief army; and Rheims, the coronation city of French kings for over 400 years, lay deep in enemy territory.
Now let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Joan’s voices really were messages direct from on high. The sceptic might plausibly argue that no benevolent God would saddle a wholesome young women with such a task, especially knowing the fate that lay in store for her. Granted it makes for a terrific story, but why should any human creature have to undergo such an ordeal? The kinds of suffering inherent in such a difficult and improbable mission were bad enough: scepticism, mockery, opposition at every turn, any number of heated arguments with proud warrior nobles and seasoned mercenary captains who had their own ideas about tactics and strategy, two near-fatal wounds and numerous lesser injuries, physical and mental exhaustion, political indecision, and, not least, betrayal. All of these Joan experienced and overcame to carry out the mandate from heaven. But there were other less obvious sources of stress and anxiety that one can’t help but feel she could have been spared.
For instance, Joan’s father had a recurrent dream that she would “follow the soldiers”; in other words, he dreamed she would become a camp follower, a tart. He shared this dream with his wife who, probably feeling it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, passed it on to Joan as a warning. Moreover, Jacques D’Arc told his sons to drown her should such a thing come to pass—in the event he didn’t have the opportunity to do it himself. Joan was questioned about this during the trial:
Didn’t your father have dreams about you before you left [for Vaucouleurs]?
JOAN: When I was still with my father and mother, my mother told me many times that my father had spoken of having dreamed that I, Jeanette, his daughter, had gone away with the men-at-arms. My parents took great care to keep me safe, and held me much in subjection. I obeyed them in everything, except in the case at Toul [where she went to court over a false claim by a man who said she had promised to marry him, and, representing herself, won the case]. I have heard my mother say that my father told my brothers “On my word, if my dream about my daughter ever came true, I would want you to drown her; and, if you don’t do it, I’ll do it myself!” He nearly lost his senses when I went to Vaucouleurs.
So Joan found herself faced with the dilemma of whether to inform her parents about her mission. She asked her voices for guidance. They told her, in effect, that it was her call. “What in holy hell!” our sceptic suddenly exclaims, understandably indignant. “Isn’t it enough to put this woman through military campaigns, political intrigues, prison, a rigged trial and death by fire without burdening her with anxiety-causing, guilt-making headaches of this kind? All part of the divine plan, you say? I know exactly how Lenin felt when he declared, ‘It is taken for granted that for us Communists, there is no God. But even if God did exist, that would be but one more reason for us to fight him, so evil do we find the works attributed to him.’ ” The only answer to such a reaction is to concede that there is no end to the number of things about the divine plan that are bound to upset us when viewed from a temporal perspective. But if there is a divine plan, maybe that’s what we should expect.
In any case, this particular trial that Joan had to bear should be seen as part of a larger element in her story, an element that has been embellished and falsified by Shakespeare, Voltaire, Schiller and many others. But—as evidenced by Elton John’s song Did Anyone Sleep with Joan of Arc?—it undeniably adds to her fascination. Of course, this aspect is her sexuality. Given the circumstances, it was to be expected that Joan would be the target of sexual rumour, innuendo and insult. During the raising of the siege of Orleans, which consisted of four actions over five consecutive days, the two sides were often within earshot of one another. The English occupied the fortified southern end of a nineteen arch stone bridge across the Loire. The French held the end which lead into Orleans, situated on the north bank. A few days prior to the fighting, Joan and the English commander, Sir William Glasdale, exchanged angry words across the two spans that the French had demolished. She called on Glasdale and his men to surrender on pain of their lives. They called her a cow wench (roughly, a peasant whore) and threatened to burn her. After two victories Joan dispatched a final summons. The English had already made their contempt for her authority clear by holding her herald in violation of military etiquette, so the message was tied to an arrow. She gave it to an archer: “Here’s news for you! Read it!” The English replied with insults and derision: “Here’s news from the Armagnac whore!”
Joan was particularly sensitive to accusations of sexual impropriety (or, more colloquially, to being called a slut) and not just because of her father’s dream. She had taken a vow of virginity for the duration of her mission, an extremely sensible thing to do in light of the catastrophic effect that sleeping around with her co-commanders would have had on the army’s morale. In fact, she took great care to avoid being seduced by her comrades—and she needed to. When the military governor of the fortified town of Vaucouleurs, Robert de Baudricourt, finally agreed to provide her with an escort of six men to take her to the dauphin at Chinon, some of them had every intention of making sexual advances. For a start, they weren’t sure that Joan was quite right in the head, and one can hardly blame them. Setting out in late winter—February 13, 1429—they covered the five hundred kilometres in eleven days, travelling by night while passing through enemy territory, giving a wide berth to towns with English or Burgundian garrisons, sleeping side by side on the ground. The opportunities were there, but, as some of them testified twenty-five years later in the rehabilitation inquiry, they marvelled at their restraint.
Of course it was partly Joan’s singleness of purpose and their failure to find fault with her character that inhibited them. But it’s highly implausible that it had anything to do with a lack of sex appeal. The English charge—after a number of defeats convinced them that Joan was not a whore but a witch—that she was so ugly no man would have her doesn’t stand up either in the historical evidence or in common sense. Her co-commander duke d’Alencon and her squire Jean d’Aulon, along with other members of her entourage, had many occasions to see her in various states of undress while in the field. It is clear from their testimony during the rehabilitation inquiry that they admired what they saw. Gobert Thibault elaborated that while they sometimes felt a carnal urge for Joan, they “never dared give way to it . . .” In any case, how often do we come across a plain or unattractive individual who also happens to be young, healthy, well-coordinated, and endowed with abnormal energy and stamina? In Mark Twain’s opinion, ‘supremely great souls are never lodged in gross bodies’; and that seems to fit our experience most of the time. Moreover, the fact that Joan was well-spoken without being vehement and persuasive without being overbearing is consistent with the ancient precept, ‘a sound mind in a sound body.’
That Joan was sexually assaulted on more than one occasion is very likely. That there was at least one occasion we know, because the assailant, a Burgundian knight by the name of Haimond de Macy, briefly and obliquely described the assault in his deposition for the rehabilitation inquiry. Since many of the 115 witnesses who testified during the rehabilitation process supported the side that brought about her death, some actively involved in the trial, a blanket amnesty was granted to the witnesses. But sexual assault was only a small part of what Joan had to endure as a political prisoner. After the Burgundians, who had captured her, sold her to the English for 10,000 pounds, she was guarded by five English soldiers of the lowest rank, houcepailliers in French (the word has come to mean abusers), two outside the cell and the other three keeping her company day and night. Their orders were obviously to wear down her resistance, drive her round the bend, do everything to make her life miserable short of killing her prematurely. They tormented her psychologically—she was almost certainly subjected to sleep deprivation—sometimes telling her that she would be killed, sometimes that she would be freed. They made sexual overtures, and she complained bitterly to Cauchon and Warwick during the trial that one of her guards repeatedly threatened to rape her. (Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais and a long time supporter of the English-Burgundian party, organized and oversaw the entire condemnation trial, while Warwick was the governor of Bouvreuil castle where Joan was imprisoned.) A second examination for virginity was carried out, this time under the direction of the Duchess of Bedford, sister of the duke of Burgundy and wife of Bedford, Henry V’s brother and Regent of France on behalf of the English power. After confirming the earlier result the Duchess gave strict instructions that the guards were to cease and desist. Nevertheless, the harassment continued. Jules Michelet, an anti-clerical 19th century French historian, wrote, ‘The history of this woman brings us time and again to tears.’
Joan’s captors had to walk a fine line. Since English strategy was to discredit Charles by having the Church condemn as a witch and a heretic the woman who was responsible for his coronation, it would have been a disaster if she had died before being convicted. But the trial did not go smoothly, as they foolishly hoped. Having no charge to lay against her they had to fish for one. However, the unlettered peasant more than held her own against dozens of “assessors,” highly educated clerics mainly from the University of Paris (a power unto itself and very pro-English at that time) who were firing questions at her. Several times Joan had to say, “Beaux seigneurs, one at a time.” They knew all the legal and logical tricks, but she fended them off with her prompt replies, flawless memory, and flashes of wit. The verbal traps didn’t work: “Does God hate the English?” — “Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there.” “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?” — “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”
What began as a public trial was from the sixth session on conducted in private. The French prosecutors started to get desperate and their English paymasters increasingly impatient. The inner circle of the prosecution voted to put Joan “to the torture.” She was shown the instruments of torture, but her spirit of defiance made them think better of acting on their decision. Eventually they broke her by threatening her with life imprisonment. The details are complicated and somewhat ambiguous—interested readers will have to delve into that part of the story on their own—but the wearing of men’s clothes, initially only touched on by the court, was made the instrument of her condemnation when no other viable alternatives presented themselves. They took away her woman’s clothes and left her old clothing in a sack, effectively forcing her to break her promise not to reassume men’s clothing. When they informed her, early on May 30th 1431 two days after she had put on men’s clothing, that she would burn later that morning, she was beside herself with grief, indignation, and remorse—“I would rather be beheaded seven times than burned!. . . I appeal to God, the great judge, the wrongs and grievances that have been done to me.” Years later Jean Toutmouillé, who was present at the scene, reported to the rehabilitation inquiry that “the poor woman” wept and tore her hair.
Joan soon regained her composure and accepted her fate. She listened patiently to a long homily directed at her by Nicolas Midi who wished he was somewhere else—many involved in the trial were serving under duress. She took full responsibility for her actions, forgave her enemies, and asked forgiveness of anyone whom she had wronged. The historical record tells us that in addition to the crowd in the large market square in Rouen there were 800 English soldiers on hand to maintain order: that may seem an exaggeration, but, in anticipation of success, preparations were already being made to launch a new military offensive. Doubtless the authorities also wanted the soldiers to witness the destruction of the girl, not yet out of her teens, who had caused them so much loss and national humiliation, not to mention something akin to supernatural fear.
Joan’s execution was one of the great dramatic moments in history. Many in the crowd, including a few of the soldiers, were profoundly affected by the way she met her end. Some of the assessors and court functionaries also had second thoughts. Among her enemies, Cardinal Beaufort and Louis of Luxembourg were moved to tears during Joan’s final prayers and lamentations, while John Tressart, one of Henry VI’s secretaries, left the scene of the execution emotionally distraught. Even Pierre Cauchon, to whom Joan had said, “Bishop, I die through you,” wept discreetly. Later, when the news reached Paris, the Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris (composed by a pro-Burgundian clerk of the university) reported, ‘Many people said here and there that she was a martyr and that she had been sacrificed for her true Prince, others said that she was not and that he who’d protected her for so long had done ill. So said the people. But whether she did well or ill, she was burned on that day.’ Her executioner, who found that her heart wouldn’t burn despite his best efforts, feared he was damned.
“A fat lot of good that did Joan!” retorts the sceptic. Granted, from a naturalist’s point of view what happened to Joan of Arc shouldn’t happen to a dog and it’s inconceivable that an omnipotent, benevolent God would have permitted it. But what if the naturalist is mistaken in thinking that everything about us is mortal, and that, aside from her story, nothing of Joan remains? If the existence of temporal evil is being used as evidence for the improbability of God’s existence, then the sceptic may be pre-judging the case by assuming too easily that temporal evil can’t possibly be made to serve (and enhance) non-temporal good. Anyhow, it is indisputable in Joan’s case that what she had to endure in the last two years of her life has been vastly outweighed by what the human race gained in consequence. For those who hold to Jeremy Bentham’s axiom—it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong—it would appear that God did right by arranging for Joan to suffer and be burned at the stake. Note that if God had arranged for her to be acquitted at the last minute—as she fondly hoped—the artistic satisfaction we take in her story, and its moral power to inspire, would have been substantially reduced. As Frances Gies explains, ‘The martyr’s death seems necessary to sanctify even the noblest cause. Without it, patriotism is worthy of admiration, but with it, in Yeats’s words, referring to martyrs in another struggle for national liberation, “A terrible beauty is born.” ’
Nor would Joan have necessarily been better off by returning to the house of her parents in Domremy, perhaps to marry and bear children, probably to grow old and decrepit, and certainly to have to repeat her story endlessly about those two adventure-filled years that changed the history of her country. After having lived so intensely, could she really have enjoyed that? While it’s true that the king ennobled her and her family, thereby removing the need to return to a peasant’s way of life, Joan never enjoyed court life and always felt out of place in any company but that of fellow soldiers. Moreover, she had a mystical bent, something that seems to disqualify a person from finding even normal contentment in this imperfect world. All things considered, perhaps death was the best and most humane solution for her. The pain of being burned alive is unbearable to think about, but the inhalation of smoke and super-heated air ends it very quickly—probably in well under a minute. Joan herself said she preferred to do her penance all at once.
Some people will be appalled by this answer to the philosophical problem of Joan’s short, uncomfortable life (and, by extension, to all the other short, uncomfortable lives). In Joan’s case, especially, it seems too harsh—even though her “Voices” always refused to give her any assurance that she would escape the punishment meted out to unrepentant heretics. But it is essential to look at the big picture and to take the long view—especially the long view. First, let’s examine the big picture.
More than a century ago Mark Twain estimated that 500 million Frenchmen were beholding to Joan; she not only turned the tide of war in France’s favour, but to a very considerable degree brought to birth a new national consciousness and gave her country a founding hero. But that’s a local affair. Consider what she gave to the human race in the realm of narrative, inspiration, and art. Leaving aside the first two, which have already been touched on, the quantity and diversity of art that owes its existence to Joan of Arc is phenomenal. To appreciate the full extent of Joan’s cultural penetration one should consult the Wikipedia article Cultural depictions of Joan of Arc. The categories include literature and theatre, operas and oratorios, images, sculpture, films, and, not least, popular culture. In this last category we have advertising, music, television, video and computer games, comics and animation.
Joan inspired her first artistic effort very early in her career. She lifted the siege of Orleans in May, 1429. In July of the same year, Christiane de Pisane, a prolific medieval author, court writer, and feminist poet hailed Joan’s achievement in a 1400 line poem that ended, ‘. . .the kingdom, once lost, Was recovered by a woman, A thing that men could not do.’ Pisane was the first in a long line of artists that included Francois Villon, Shakespeare, Rubens, Voltaire, Schiller, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Leonard Cohen, and Elton John. Through their art and, of course, through the work of innumerable historians, Joan has entertained, fascinated, and inspired millions for over half a millennium. Humanity owes her a debt that can never be repaid.
Yet, if we truly believed that, subjectively speaking, the year of soldiering was a lark and the year in prison no more stressful than a walk in the park, we would owe her nothing. Without the danger, the fear, the pain, the frustration and disappointment, without the burden and the struggle she and her story would be of no interest to us. It’s a curious thing how little the external facts count by themselves. William James wrote, ‘The practically real world for each of us, the effective world of the individual, is the compound world, the physical facts and emotional values in indistinguishable combination. Withdraw or pervert either factor of this complex resultant, and the kind of experience we call pathological ensues.’ In Joan’s case, withdraw her subjective experience of hardship and the kind of experience we call indifference ensues—at least as far as we’re concerned.
“OK, OK,” exclaims the sceptic, “I concede that Joan, through her trials, gave enjoyment to the human race out of all proportion to the pain and suffering she personally had to undergo. But she’s a one-off. Despite its bloody chaos, it’s doubtful history will ever send us another Joan. History has used up its Joans: in fact a second Joan would be hackneyed. But nothing can change the fact that untold numbers of human beings have suffered every bit as much as she did and have died unknown and uncelebrated. And if we had known about them, most would more likely be cause for pessimism or cynicism than for books and films.”
Not so fast, for this view may be due to insufficient analysis. There was plenty of cause for pessimism and cynicism on both sides of the conflict during Joan’s time. In the eyes of many of her contemporaries it must have seemed that her life had ended in failure, quite apart from the manner of her leaving it. She had failed to take Paris, which must have weighed heavily on her during the long months leading up to her execution. She had failed to achieve the release of Charles of Orleans, the Lord of the city she had saved (though they never met) and to whom she was devoted—Charles had been a prisoner of the English since the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and wasn’t to be freed until 1440. Most of all, she had failed to break the English power, which was to survive for another twenty-two years. (In the first year after Joan’s execution, English military fortunes seemed to return to pre-Joan days, but many of Joan’s military gains were not reversed and after the second year the English lost as often as they won; by 1435 the initiative, both military and diplomatic, had passed to the French.)
Of course, Joan has always had her devotees, particularly the people of Orleans who, with a few exceptions during times of war and social upheaval, have faithfully celebrated her raising of the siege of their city every year for almost six hundred years. But for centuries she was anathema to the English, something of an embarrassment to the French monarchy and its official historians, and a puzzlement to the papacy. Instantly famous across Europe the moment she appeared on the scene, her reputation went into eclipse for almost 400 years after her death, becoming, as we have already noted, more a literary than a historical figure. What’s more, the literary treatment of her was often marked by satire, ridicule, and bawdiness. Even today when there are few historical figures—and no women—more famous than Joan of Arc, many find her almost as easy to ignore as any of the untold millions whose tragedies are unknown to history.
Appreciation and indifference are mutually exclusive. Despite Joan’s fame, it is very understandable (and perhaps justifiable, given the cultural climate of our time) for most people to feel indifferent to her. Indifference is a natural human response to anything we are unacquainted with, and most people are barely acquainted with Joan—it should be added that they are also barely acquainted with almost everyone else outside their own narrow circle of family and friends. But most people improve on acquaintance, and this is especially true in Joan’s case. One need only inform oneself about the historical facts and the stock image of Joan—by her mere presence on the battlefield an illiterate peasant girl, shrouded in myth, spurs otherwise incompetent soldiers on to victory—soon fades away. Indifference is usually replaced by admiration, but antagonism and resentment are not uncommon, especially among the intellectual class. Even while she was alive Joan aroused, with a few exceptions, a furious hostility among the educated elite—‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’
Let’s now consider the long view, which, by its nature, cannot be other than speculative. The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye informs us that, ‘The analogy is a particularly tricky form of rhetoric when it becomes the basis of an argument rather than merely a figure of speech.’ Nevertheless, many of our arguments and explanations have no alternative but to use analogy. But whether we consider some particular analogy apt or inept is often determined by the philosophy that we bring to it. With this in mind, we offer the following analogy for the reader’s consideration.
Bearing in mind that interest is an aspect of enjoyment, Joan’s story, thanks primarily to the element of adversity it contains, will interest most of the people who truly listen to it. Perhaps if we knew the story of the average man or woman who passes us in the street, it, too, would be capable of interesting us, interest that owes its existence, once again, to the adversity that is to be found in every human life. Admittedly, the story of an ordinary person won’t be as interesting and enjoyable as the story of an extraordinary person, but it is important to remember that the enjoyment that we get, even from extraordinary lives, often comes well after the fact. Joan’s enemies certainly took no pleasure in her spectacular victories; it may be surmised that the pleasure of Charles and his councillors was amply mixed with envy and nervous apprehension; Joan’s family and supporters would have been too sick with worry to get much pleasure from her meteoric career; as for the inhabitants of Orleans, their pleasure would have been swamped by relief and gratitude, since they knew only too well what lay in store for them if Joan’s rescue attempt had failed—ten years earlier Henry V’s successful six month siege of Rouen had left over 10,000 of the 70,000 inhabitants dead from starvation. On the other hand, Joan’s companions in arms, d’Alencon, Dunois, La Hire, de Xaintrailles and others certainly delighted in her successes, while the rank and file, needless to say, adored her. No doubt Joan herself experienced moments of elation, but we can only guess how she would have replied to the question, “Are you getting much enjoyment carrying out this mission of yours?” Since she strongly disapproved of profanity—hardened mercenary captains, to their astonishment, refrained from blaspheming until Joan was out of earshot—she probably would have just rolled her eyes. Generally speaking, war is not an enjoyable activity, even for the victors: ‘Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.’
I now invite the reader to entertain the possibility that it is not only Joan’s memory that lives, but Joan herself; to allow that she may be even more alive than you or I due to the existence of another mode of being temporarily hidden from our eyes. In this supernaturalist scenario, would she be entitled to enjoy her story, enjoyment that wasn’t accessible to her when she acted it out? I don’t see why not—if she’s alive. C. S. Lewis tells us that perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If so, why shouldn’t those who give enjoyment receive enjoyment in the measure in which they gave, albeit in the fullness of time? And if it’s true for Joan then it can be true for the rest of us. Seen from a metaphysical vantage point which is inaccessible by the methods of empiricism and well hidden even from speculative thought—to see and feel the truth of this arrangement beforehand would spoil everything—every life may, in the fullness of time, take on the character of an epic romance. Human beings can’t live without meaning, and the most meaningful kind of meaning (certainly the most popular kind of meaning) is a story about a person and full of sentiment, the more romantic the better.
One might think that those who prize understanding, especially scientific or analytical understanding, are the exception. I believe a closer look would show that assumption to be false. ‘The logician,’ wrote G. K. Chesterton, ‘like every other man on earth, must have sentiment and romance in his existence; in every man’s life, indeed, which can be called a life at all, sentiment is the most solid thing.’ If romance in the conventional sense is not possible in a given life, then it will be sought in other ways, usually through fantasy but sometimes through the most unpromising (in the eyes of many) interests and pursuits. Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician since Aristotle, was, like many of his kind, an emotional cripple; but in her 2005 book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, Rebecca Goldstein informs us that Gödel ‘was a man of deep passions, as his life will bear out; but these passions were kept scrupulously hidden and they were rigourously intellectual.’ Sentimentality is only sentiment that rubs you the wrong way.
When Jean de Metz first set eyes on the strange young woman who had arrived in Vaucouleurs seeking an audience with Robert de Baudricourt, he must have felt a mixture of curiosity and amusement. The governor had refused to see her more than once, but her absurdly stubborn belief in her improbable mission was already public knowledge. De Metz wasn’t quite a nobleman, but he was a knight in the service of the governor and she was just a peasant girl dressed in the poor red cloth called russet. It was undoubtedly with a sense of effortless, almost unconscious, superiority that he playfully addressed her: “M’amie (sweetie, honey, luv), isn’t it inevitable that the king (i.e. the dauphin) will be driven out of France and we shall all become English?” Like many others he could see the writing on the wall, that things had come a long way from the days of the abbot-statesman Suger who, half a century after the Norman conquest, asserted, ‘The English are destined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French and not contrariwise.’ Joan was only seventeen when they first met and de Metz thirty, an age when most men can’t look at a healthy seventeen-year-old woman without, at some level, assessing her suitability as a sexual partner. He couldn’t have dreamed then that in a very short time he and five others would be risking their lives to escort her several hundred miles through enemy territory on the off-chance that the heir to the throne of France might condescend to admit her into his presence; nor that he would become her treasurer, part of the military “household” that included squires, pages, heralds, and Jean Pasquerel, her chaplain and secretary.
Old attitudes never disappear overnight, and a man of de Metz’s social position would almost certainly have felt a sense of entitlement vis a vis a young unmarried peasant woman. So when he testified during the rehabilitation inquiry a quarter century on that, though he slept on the ground right next to Joan, he “was in such awe of her that I would not have dared go near her; and I tell you on my oath that I never had any desire or carnal feelings for her,” it is probably safe to assume that we’re not getting the whole truth. He ‘doth protest too much.’ But a little bit later in his testimony he declared “. . . I was on fire with what she said, and with a love for her which was, as I believe, a divine love”; and there is little reason to doubt his conviction. However, had he or any of the others slept with her, a possibility some of them had definitely entertained when they set out on their journey, we can be pretty sure that de Metz would never have made that statement. And we can be absolutely sure that Charles wouldn’t have given her an army, for she would have failed the first virginity test, the one carried out at Poitiers where, after making a favourable impression on Charles at Chinon, she was sent off to be questioned and judged by a panel of learned ecclesiastics. She said she was a virgin, “La Pucelle”; if it was proved otherwise they would have branded her a liar and assumed that she was lying or deluded about her “Voices” too.
It is not uncommon for a man to sleep with a woman whom he once thought as lovely as a goddess, and, after a while, not to be able to remember her name. De Metz probably would have remembered Joan’s name even if he had made love to her, but there’s no chance that we would. She would have been lost to history. Physical love lasts as long as the appetite, but the “divine love” that de Metz referred to was still vivid to him decades later. That kind of love, whatever its ultimate nature, was evident to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Indira Gandhi after half a millennium. Many others over the centuries would make a similar claim. Indeed, in the supernaturalist scheme of things the keen admirer of Joan can expect far more intimacy and fulfillment in his or her relationship with the heroine than would ever have been possible as earthly lovers. For in the realm of the spirit (as in the realm of mathematics) the familiar limitations of time and space don’t apply, and saints are believed to be the most available of all people, as well as the most alive. But perhaps the sceptic is right and the only thing that remains of Joan is her memory, a perfectly respectable opinion so long as he doesn’t defend it by presupposing the point under debate, i.e., by assuming what it is his business to prove*, to wit: nothing could compensate Joan (or us) after death for what she (or anybody) had to suffer in this life!. . . in any case, unless God compensates us and makes us understand why a long agony—although life is hardly that—is a necessary preliminary to a much longer ecstasy He couldn’t possibly be both omnipotent and benevolent. . . but since any God worthy of the name must be omnipotent and benevolent, and since our experience and awareness of evil is no illusion, then God’s existence is clearly contradicted by the evidence!
That life can be unbelievably awful is a fact which few people would dispute, especially as we are provided with a daily diet of the awful by news corporations that know only too well how to appeal to public curiosity: for example, they know that ‘Scarce anything awakens attention like a tale of cruelty.’ But life can also be unbelievably sweet. Human nature being what it is, it is much easier to believe in the awfulness than in the sweetness—unless, perhaps, one happens to keep a detailed diary of the inner life. In fact, it is very easy to lose sight of the sweetness altogether, mainly I suppose because the sweetness forms such a small part of human experience. The awfulness, too, is only a small part of most people’s lives, but the awareness of it as an ever present threat looms large in the human psyche while the familiar truism that ‘all’s well that ends well’ usually slips below the radar screen of our consciousness.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard took the view that, ‘It is very dangerous to go into eternity with possibilities which one has oneself prevented from becoming realities: a possibility is a hint from God.’ (NEW LINK) Perhaps, but not all possibilities commend themselves to us equally. Some are purely arbitrary postulates. To others we are led by rational considerations, or by our intuitions, or by a very fallible sense of what lies within the realm of the probable. However . . . if it should transpire that the fever of earthly life was only a preparation—and a very advantageous preparation—for life as we wish it could be and sometimes feel it ought to be, then I fancy the reaction of the sceptic will be very different from what it would be on learning, say, that two times three really equals five—“You could have knocked me over with a feather!” Rather his reaction, a trifle rueful perhaps, will be more like—“After quantum theory** I should have guessed that something like this might be the case.”
* the word “prove” is being used in the ordinary wide sense in which it can embrace any and every variety of sufficient reason—as in, “to prove beyond all reasonable doubt”—and not in the sense of logical or mathematical demonstration such that the conclusion cannot be denied without thereby contradicting the premises
** “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” —attributed to Niels Bohr
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