Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review of John W. Carlson's "Word's of Wisdom": "Evil"

 In my previous entry, I asked, “Given the plethora of dictionaries, one might wonder: do we really need another? Why purchase John W. Carlson's Words of Wisdom?” I examined some of the cognitive narrowness that underlies the bibliography. See also this entry. Here I look at the content of Carlson’s book by examining how he defines one of the terms. In order to give the reader an idea of what he may be missing, I try to be fairly thorough below.

To see the relative value of Carlson's entries, we can turn to an example -- "evil," for instance. Carlson uses a similar method in his introduction, n. 11, where he demonstrates the inadequacies of various modern dictionaries by analyzing their definition of “being”. Here I will compare Carlson’s entry to that of other dictionaries in the same genre (unmentioned in his introduction or bibliography): Wuellner's Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy (1956), and Signoriello's Lexicon Peripateticum Philosophico-Theologicum (1931); this is more than a dictionary because of the helpful “Effata” section, which I will describe below. For additional interest, I will briefly look at Peter of Bergamo's Tabula Aurea (1484); because of its scope, it is both more and less than a dictionary. Less, because it provides only Thomas's definitions and uses of terms; these may be too narrow for other scholastic traditions to agree with. More, because it provides many references for Thomas's various uses of a term; this is far more than one can expect from even a good dictionary.

1. Carlson: evil:
Not merely the lack of good, but the absence of a good that ought to be present -- e.g., blindness in an eye. Evil is commonly distinguished into "natural" or "physical" evil and "moral" evil, the latter involving bad personal acts, which result specifically from defective uses of the will. In Scholastic terminology, moral evil is sometimes called "evil of fault" (Latin malum culpae) or "evil done."

2. Wuellner: evil:
The privation or lack of a good which naturally belongs to a nature; the absence of a good which is natural and due to a being.

[Wuellner divides “evil” into six categories (I will not provide the definitions he gives for each)]
  • metaphysical evil: anything finite, because lacking in complete goodness; any limitation even though it is natural to a being (Leibniz; but not accepted  in scholasticism as a correct description of evil).
  • moral evil: privation of rectitude in human acts; a sin. [Moral evil has three species: formally evil, intrinsically evil, and materially evil.]
  • Occasion of evil
  • Physical evil
  • Principle of evil
  • Supreme evil

Wuellner also provides his usual concise references: “St. Augustine, Confessions, passim. S.T., I, 48, aa 1-3; 49, a. 1; I-II, 18, a. 1; 19, a. 5; C.G. III, cc 6-8. De Malo.”

3. Signoriello: malum (my translation):

[First entry directs the reader to Defectus-Malum-Peccatum-Culpa

 Defectus (defect) simply signifies the negation of some good. But malum (evil) signifies privation, or a defect of being in the thing, of something which it naturally ought to have; e.g., “the lack of life in a stone can be called a defect but not evil; but for man death is a defect and evil” (In lib. II Sent. , d. 30, q. 1, a. 2). The evil that is vulgarly called metaphysical, or the defect of every mode of perfection in a created being, is not properly evil because any created being excludes perfection, still less calls for it. Peccatum (sin) consists in action, “insofar as what is not upright as the end demands; for example a grammarian not writing well, or a doctor not preparing a medicine well” (ibid). Culpa (fault) “adds to sin, since it is an act of the will”; for “sin is in things which exist according to some art; but fault cannot exist unless it is in things that exist through the will; for reason cannot obtain fault except in what is condemnable, nor condemnation should be given on account of an inordinate act unless that act was under the subject’s dominion; but to have dominion over one’s acts, such as able to do something or not to do something, is characteristic of the will” (In lib. II Sent., d. 35, q. 1., a. 1).

[Second entry on malum: malum naturae and malum culpae]

The malum naturae (evil of nature) is an entiative privation to something due; its kind in man is the privation of an eye or a foot, etc. This evil of nature “whenever it arises from natural causes, then it is called an evil of nature not only because a good of nature is lacking, but also because it is an effect of nature, such as natural death, and other similar defects: but other times an evil of nature proceeds from a non-natural cause, such as death which is violently inflicted in persecution” (I-II, q. 42, a. 2). The malum culpae or morale (evil of fault or moral evil) consists in a discrepancy between one’s actions and right reason.
[Effata: scholastic philosophic axioms. I list only the axiom, not the rather helpful explanations for each]

Evil is the contrary to both good and evil.
Evil in some way follows from good.
Evil is praeter intentionem (other than the intention) in the thing.
Evil is in the many, good is in the few, or, evil more than the good is found in the many.
Evil is not some nature. From this axiom follows others:
            Nothing is able to be per se evil.
            Evil is in some good.
            The supreme evil simpliciter is not able to be.
            Evil does not wholly devour (consumit) good.
            Evil has some sort of cause.

4. Bergamo: malum

[Bergamo’s analysis of Thomas’s use of malum is so extensive that I can provide only an outline of his entry. He provides categories of analysis. I will provide a couple of examples for each category.]
Quid: 1 Evil is something, and it is a being of reason, but not a real being. 2 Evil is not a pure negation, but the privation of a good. 3 Nothing is evil essentially, nor through participation, but through the privation of participation.
Comparatio: 15 It is impossible for a greatest evil to exist. 16 Thus there is no greatest evil. . . . 18 It is impossible for evil to be a first principle.
Causa: 23 Evil is not a cause, except per accidens. 24 Evil is a cause per accidens in two ways: as a deficient good, or doing evil aside from one’s intention.
Effectus: 30 From evil good arises, and the converse; nevertheless, occasionally and not directly.
Divisio: 31 Evil is twofold: evil in itself and partaking of evil. . . . 40 The evil of pain is opposed to the good of the creature, but the evil of fault is opposed to the uncreated good, not as it is in us, but as it is in itself.
Naturae: 43 In natural things, the evil of the agent arises from the evil of the actions, but in voluntary things the converse is the case. [e.g., a tree is called “bad” because it bears rotten fruit, but a person’s actions are called “bad” when the person who performs them is rotten morally]
Mali: 59 Evil persons are worse than beasts are like to them, for they follow passions like beasts, for they love bestial things. 60 Evil people pretending to be innocent are worse than public sinners. . . . 63 The company of the evil is to be avoided for many reasons, and the company of the good is to be desired for many reasons.

Here, then, are some thoughts on Carlson’s Words of Wisdom:
A)    His definition of “evil” is poorly worded. He begins, “Not merely the lack of good . . .”Definitions should always state positive content and not mere negations of something else. 

B)    His definition does not explain why good “ought” to be present. The other scholastic dictionaries note that it is a lack of something due to the nature of the thing

C)    His definition is breezy and thin. He divides evil into two categories (natural/physical evil and moral evil) but discusses only moral evil. And his definition of moral evil (“involving bad moral acts” [redundant] “which result specifically from defective uses of the will”) leaves out the crucial matter. Why are moral evils defective? Because, as Signoriello points out, it diverges from right reason. But, as Wuellner shows, this counts only for formally evil moral acts; other evil moral acts are such intrinsically, that is, aside from the intention of the person. Oddly, Carlson has an entry instrinsic(ally) evil that is not linked to the main entry on evil; he defines intrinsically evil according to its object, which is more precise than Wuellner’s focus on deviation from “the norms of morals . . . and eternal law”. 

D)    His historical analysis is somewhat convoluted and thereby unhelpful. He says, “Historically, questions have been raised about the ‘real existence’ of evil. Here the perennial tradition follows and clarifies the position of St. Augustine: evils are ‘real’ as privations, but they do not ‘exist’ in the sense of being themselves metaphysical subjects of being.” First, as throughout the dictionary, he does not explain which voice in the “perennial tradition” makes the claim that he does. Apparently he knows the “perennial tradition” so well that he can confidently be its voice. He then nods to St. Augustine without providing any citation, leaving one unconvinced that the Church Father would have nodded back and agreed that Carlson accurately summarized what he meant. Finally, Carlson’s understanding of “real” and “subject” is confused. Peter of Bergamo claims that, according to St. Thomas, “Evil is something, and it is a being of reason, but not a real being.” Bergamo’s citation is I, q. 48, a. 2, the relevant section of which reads, “evil is neither a being nor a good,” and Thomas gives the example of an morally evil end which deviates from the order of reason. Hence, one could conclude that evil is a being of reason (i.e., a privation of right reason and an acceptance of specious reasoning). Thus, contrary to Carlson, a privation is not “real” being. Furthermore, Carlson’s use of the word “subject” implies that being is an accident that inheres in a thing. But this is a controverted philosophical claim, one discussed in detail by the scholastics. If he wanted to follow Thomas, it would have been preferable to say, as Bergamo says, “Nothing is evil essentially, nor through participation, but through the privation of participation.” Whether or not one accepts Thomas’s understanding of participation, this at least does not presume that the “perennial tradition” agrees that a subject is “something that exercises being or existence,” itself a problematic definition (I leave it to my fellow bloggers to discuss it).

Against my critiques, one might say that Carlson is doing the best he can, that his work is better than nothing, and that at least it is in print. But I wonder if he wouldn’t have helped himself out much more by translating an older scholastic dictionary, or by re-working Wuellner’s dictionary (which is both more accurate and less than half the length) in light of contemporary developments and concerns. As it is, Carlson’s Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition bites off more than he can chew. There is as much theology as there is philosophy in it, which is another indication of the dictionary’s over-reaching nature. I am sad to say that what could have been very valuable is only minimally so.

"Evil words corrupt good manners," says the old proverb, variously attributed to St. Paul (1 Cor 15:33), Menander, and Aeschylus. This much one can derive from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs. That information, combined with nuggets gleaned from a Biblical commentary and Wikipedia, reminds me that a variant on the translation -- "Bad company corrupts good morals" -- was the inspiration of the name of a 1970's rock band. My point here is that there are so many sources of information available that another dictionary needs to be pretty remarkable to justify its existence. Being in print does not count as being remarkable, unless you happen to be the publisher. If a dictionary does not serve its purpose and clarify the meanings of words, it is attaching vague ideas to terms that the student will later use to the detriment of authentic learning and conversation. "Vague words are bad manners," one might say. Or, "Muddy terms pollute the stream of conversation." Thus, regarding the entries in Words of Wisdom themselves, their usefulness lies mostly in a) reminding a reasonably well-read student of philosophy or theology of what he already knows, b) suggesting descriptions of a term that often cohere with more accurate definitions found in truly scholastic and Thomistic works, and c) hinting to the reasonably well-read student that he turn elsewhere for a more careful analysis of the term in question.

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