Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
It's not fair.
Why doesn't somebody make the world a better place?
“Theodicy” isn’t a word you hear very much today. If you do, then you probably assume that it means something vaguely religious. That’s true, but, more importantly, theodicy is a useful concept to help us understand what our instinctive assumptions about how the world should work are, and why we are inevitably frustrated, and angry when they are disappointed.
The term means roughly “defence of God.” It was coined by Gottfried Leibniz in a book he wrote in 1710, though he didn’t invent all the supporting arguments. Leibniz, one of those universal geniuses the era threw up, mathematician, philosopher, speaker of multiple languages and much else, was trying to find an answer to the traditional Problem of Evil. Briefly, that can be stated as: why does an omnipotent and benevolent God allow evil in the world? If God is really omnipotent, He can prevent all evil. But there is evil, thus He cannot be benevolent if He permits it. Or if He can’t prevent evil, He cannot, by definition, be omnipotent. You can have one or the other but not both. Get out of that.
Well, theologians from at least Augustine onwards had argued, essentially, that God may be good, but humans are very flawed and it is they who create evil. But it was less obvious why, for example, so many children died at a young age, or why diseases and natural disasters caused so much death and suffering. Whose fault was that? Leibniz argued that God, though certainly benevolent, could not for practical reasons create a world entirely without suffering and evil. Nonetheless, God had effectively optimised the world (Leibniz was a mathematician, remember) to be the best that is achievable. We live not in a perfect world, therefore, but the in best that is practically possible given the constraints: the best, in his famous phrase, of all possible worlds. Whilst we remember Voltaire’s sarcastic and deliberately obtuse criticism of this idea more than the idea itself, it was Leibniz who had the greater influence in the long term.
Eighteenth century rationalism, of which Leibniz was an early sighting, was uncomfortable with the religious side of religion: miracles, eschatology, teleology, saints and devils; all that seemed uncomfortably archaic, and needed to be jettisoned in the new rational, scientific world. But rationalists didn’t manage to abandon religion completely either. The result was Deism, which presented God as the Great Architect, carefully designing an optimised, maximally benevolent universe before retiring to do something else, and leaving humans to get on with it. God did not intervene in human affairs, not take any interest in them, really. (As Charles Taylor has convincingly shown, this was the beginning of the end for Christianity: it no longer claimed to explain very much, or provide a framework for existence, and thus it slowly faded away.)
But its patterns of thought did not. Modern Liberalism, which essentially replaced Christianity and took over many of its universalist assumptions, was based on Reason, just like the religion of the Deists. The world could not possibly be as chaotic, violent and full of suffering as it appeared to be. There must be a hidden benevolent logic, and it must be possible to appeal to rationality and good judgement to put an end to suffering and evil. (Thus, of course, Nahum Tate’s rewriting of King Lear to give it a happy ending, consistent with the views of the time about the actual nature of the world.) There were no fundamental irresolvable problems, therefore; only difficulties of understanding and communication. Leibniz had dreamed of a universal language based on mathematics, which would prevent war and conflict by avoiding misunderstandings. Today, Liberalism essentially shares the same aspiration: everybody should speak English and open a MacDonald’s and then problems that might otherwise produce conflict will go away. Indeed, for many liberals, the continued existence of evil in the world is essentially a consequence of the non-adoption, or refusal, of western values and customs.
But Christianity is only one of the component parts of this thesis. After all, Christianity is actually untypical in that it was the first universalist religion, the first to claim, as it were, universal jurisdiction. Nobody would have seen the gods of Greece and Rome as either benevolent or omnipotent: they were worshipped largely because their favours were needed, and their anger had to be avoided at all costs. Nonetheless, most religions and philosophies took as their backcloth the idea of some kind of moral order in the universe, which you would be wise to respect. The best-known examples are probably from Confucianism (not itself really a religion), where a just ruler, and indeed an enlightened person, followed the way of Heaven: or else. In many societies, these different elements came together to form a weight of tradition, like nomos in Greek: sometimes translated as “law," but more properly “how things should be done.” Suffering and evil, as well as plagues and natural disasters, arose because the natural order of things had been violated. The remedies included repentance, prayers, offerings, and human and other sacrifices, as well as a return to righteous conduct, depending upon the context.
But this kind of thinking was not imposed from above: it seems to be innate in human beings. Even in the most repressive political systems, it is popularly assumed that a certain order reigns at the highest level, with the power to right wrongs. In democratic Britain, large numbers of people still write directly to the Queen to resolve problems, continuing a folk-belief that the Ruler is wise and benevolent, but just misled by courtiers. (“If only the Führer knew," “If only Stalin knew," all would be resolved). Until his death in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was still telling people that he could get out of the concentration camp he was held in, if he could only find a good lawyer. Unsurprisingly, the wished-for intervention was often divine, or at least quasi-divine in nature. Puritan literature, in particular, was full of improving histories about how the righteous triumphed in the end, and the wicked always came to grief. But the same idea existed in other traditions: in France, for example, under the God-King Louis XIV, whose emissary appears at the end of Molière’s Tartuffe to right all wrongs, and punish the wicked villain.
We seem to pick up this idea first as children: we are weak and helpless, and we rely on our parents, who by comparison seem powerful, to make things right for us. As we get older, we begin to realise that actually our parents are not the godlike figures we once thought they were, and this is the ultimate source of much adolescent angst. When unwelcome things happen to us and our parents can’t help, we react with anger and disappointment. We subsequently look for others to play the same role— schools, universities, employers, ultimately the government. Do something! we say. Make it go away! Put it right! When governments can genuinely do little or nothing, we simply redouble our demands, as we once redoubled our prayers, in the belief that ultimately moral indignation can change the nature of reality. (Twitter is the modern form of praying).“It” shouldn’t be like that, we say, and if we display enough moral indignation, we can change “it.” This produces an almost literally magical style of thinking: how else to explain the idea of a NATO No-fly Zone in Ukraine, when NATO is militarily weaker than Russia? It’s not an accident, I think, that before the modern era, the word most associated with “intervention” was not “humanitarian," but “divine.” And God, of course, was omnipotent, whereas unfortunately governments are not
As we get older, we project the godlike image we used to have of our parents onto other authority figures, and we are inevitably disappointed and angry with them, as we were with our parents, when things do not go as we would like. Thus, the serial “failures," that are attributed to governments, states, and that nebulous successor of the Church, the “international community.” Our real complaint is not with politicians or institutions, for all that they can always do better, but with the nature of the world itself, and its failure to correspond to our wishes and expectations, no matter how hard we pray, and no matter how many sacrifices we make. Where is the Umpire who’s going to tell the Russians that they are in the wrong and should go home? Perhaps if we shout a bit louder, the Umpire will appear.
Other cultures are not as naive as we are, or at least they know how to use our naivety against us. Liberalism’s doggedly optimistic view of the world, that ultimately good sense and reason will prevail over “hatred” or some other cause of conflict if only western mediators can get involved, has survived a good thirty years of serial disappointments. If it is starting to fray at the edges under the relentless battering of repeated failures, it remains powerful, because the Liberal imagination still fails to comprehend the reasons why conflicts actually arise in the real world, and so has no alternative frame of reference. Above all, Liberalism’s neurotic desire to Do Good in the world, at whatever cost to those being gooded, leads western states and institutions to try to play the role that divine forces once played, and western media and political elites to demand that they indeed do so. After all, the United Nations may not quite be the equivalent of the Power of God, or even the Catholic Church, but if it’s all you’ve got, then it’s all you’ve got. And of course the very process of anointing western states and international institutions with these powers they don’t actually possess, means that we are disappointed and bitter when it becomes clear after all that, yes, they don’t actually have them in real life.
In Transactional Analysis, a type of psychotherapy, there is a phenomenon known as the Karpman Drama Triangle, named after its deviser, Stephen Karpman. It posits three roles: that of Persecutor, Victim and Saviour, and suggests that in personal life we adopt these roles to achieve our objectives and manipulate others. Experiments showed that people (western students anyway) would preferentially fall into the “Saviour” role most of all, even beyond that of “Victim," perhaps because, in the end, we like to feel good about ourselves. The best “fit” clearly occurs when the “Saviour” shares the perception of the “Victim” that they are indeed a Victim, and the “Victim”’s identification of their Persecutor. Then, both Victim and Saviour are happy.
The application of this model to modern international crises is obvious enough. Liberalism, like Christianity, has always had a powerful normative, messianic urge. The world must be converted and remodelled, and heresy must be fought wherever it may be found. Missionaries wanted to save souls: liberals want to save whole communities. The desire to be a Saviour is thus independent of the supply of genuine Victims, and if there are none obviously around, they must be sought out, or even invented. Needless to say, cultures more subtle and devious than ours understand this instinctively. Since the end of the Cold War, the West and the institutions it dominates have been manipulated endlessly by groups and nations that know how to pose as victims. In some cases, from Bosnia in 1992 onwards, moral blackmail and sophisticated PR techniques have been employed, but in practice that’s not always necessary. So strong is the desire to be a Saviour that, as in the Kosovo crisis of 1999, or even Ukraine today, people will believe literally anything, no matter how manifestly impossible, if it allows them to play the role of the Saviour, or to demand that others do so.
In the past, intervention, no matter how ham-fisted, counter-productive and morally suspect it might be, was at least technically possible. And because it was Right, not even disappointments such as Libya could entirely extinguish elite enthusiasm for sending other people off to kill and die. But the world is suddenly revealing itself to be a rather different place from that which we had thought it was. Liberal ideas no longer carry all before them. Powerful and important states do not share dominant Liberal assumptions; And it turns out that our power to go around the world righting wrongs, punishing the guilty, succouring the innocent, is nowhere near as great as it used to be. The process of adjusting to that fact will be as significant as the widespread loss of religious faith in the twentieth century. It’s only just begun, and I have no idea how it will end.