A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Of the Benevolence of the Deity

December 4, 1754

My Dear Mr. Avenger,

‘Tis out of the great Respect I have for your Wisdom and Learning that I write to solicit your Opinion of an Argument I have come across in my Lord SHAFTESBURY’s Works. I shou’d very much like to have your Reflections on this ingenious bit of Reasoning of his Lordship, who was attempting to prove the benevolence of the Deity. I find myself in Disagreement with him, and since, as you know, I idolize this great Man, I must therefore suspect it is me who is mistaken. For this Reason, I seek your Judgment in this little Matter.

The Divine Mind, says my Lord, must really be benevolent, because Malice can only come from an Opposition of particular Interests, and since the Deity cannot be sayd to have any such particular Interests (His Mind being in every respect universal, and He being powerful enough to overcome any Opposition to His Interest in an Instant), it follows that He cannot be said to bear any Malice towards his Creatures. To avoyd Misrepresentation, I provide here his Lordship’s very Words:

“There is an odd way of reasoning, but in certain Distempers of Mind very sovereign to those who can apply it; and it is this: ‘There can be no Malice but where Interests are oppos’d. A universal Being can have no Interest opposite; and therefore can have no Malice.’ If there be a general Mind, it can have no particular Interest: But the general Good, or Good of the Whole, and its own private Good, must of necessity be one and the same. It can intend nothing besides, nor aim at any thing beyond, nor be provok’d to any thing contrary. So that we have only to consider, whether there be really such a thing as a Mind which has relation to the Whole, or not. For if unhappily there be no Mind, we may comfort our selves, however, that Nature has no Malice: If there be really a Mind, we may rest satisfy’d, that it is the best-natur’d one in the World” [Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. I, pp. 39-40 — Ed.].

‘Tis a pretty Argument indeed. And tho’ asserting the Benevolence of the supreme Maker is certainly sound Divinity, with which I wou’d not quibble, yet ‘tis not sound Philosophy. For his Lordship’s first Premise, that all Malice must spring from the Opposition of particular Interests, stands it self in need of Demonstration. Indeed, we might imagine for a Moment, for the mere sake of idle Speculation, that which ‘tis Heresy to believe in good earnest, that the Deity, far from being benevolent, is indeed purely malicious. Let us, I say, imagine this, whilst still allowing that He has no particular Interests; such a Deity might still be said to possess disinterested Malice. Disinterested Malice, tho’ thankfully rare, yet we must admit that there are those few moral Monsters among us who, implanted with the Seed of pure Evil, may possess it in some considerable degree. Indeed, if we take an honest Accounting of our inward Souls, of those secret Springs of our Actions, we must admit that we are at Times our selves moved from a Maliciousness that is best describ’d as disinterested. We thus differ from the moral Monsters of our Species more in Degree than in Kind. Such is the Patrimony of that original Sin of our first Parents.

The Spectacles presented in the Bear-Garden for our dubious Edification, in which we revel in watching such a noble Beast torn apart by Dogs, attest to this disinterested Malice, for in the absence of a Wager, we cannot be said to have a particular Interest in whether Bear or Dog is destroy’d; we simply wish to take joy in the suffering of another Creature whose Existence bears no other Relation to our own. Now, one supposes this might be characterized as an interested Malice, our real Interest being the supposed Profit gotten by being entertain’d rather than in the more monetary Profit to be had by wagering.

Yet in Truth, it is still a disinterested Malice. For first, there can be no Doubt that taking any kind of Pleasure in the Misfortune or Suffering of a Fellow-Creature is an Example of what we call Malice. Second, where that Fellow-Creature (as I said) bears no Relation to me, nor to my Interests, then this Malice must needs be disinterested. At bottom, it is Suffering as such that I take Pleasure in, whether it be the Suffering of the Bear or of one of his canine Tormentors. The Bear-Garden represents simply the Occasion to satisfy this perverse Lust. This is what makes a Taste for such Spectacles vicious in the utmost degree. If the Bear were attacking me, and if in fending it off, I caused it much Hurt, tho’ my taking Pleasure in its Hurt wou’d still be vicious, it wou’d be less so than where I take Pleasure in hurting it unprovok’d.

(The seeming inability of my Neighbours to comprehend this has made me the Laughing-Stock of this Neighbourhood, for I cannot take any Joy in the Hunt and abhor its Cruelty; what they see as mere effeminacy in me, I flatter myself in thinking is a Mark of no little Vertue.)

Rising from the Bear-Garden and the Prize-Fight to the bloody Productions of our English tragick Stage, this same disinterested Malice is evident among audiences of the better Sort. The Portrayal of the gruesome Death of a tragick Hero, perhaps with all his Friends, Servants and Kin piled up in a bloody Heap of Dead around him, is the preferr’d Occasion for People of Quality to Vent this same sort of Malice. The Taste for such refin’d Atrocity is a Vice barely mitigated by the Fact that the Suffering and Death portray’d is fictional only. Perhaps, if the Play be well-writ, it will contain some Instructive Moral, but any such Edification is wholly undone by this peculiar Habit of our English Authors of catering to the baser Elements of our Nature whilst they presume to instruct. Why cannot the Violence happen off-Stage? Why must the Audience be made to watch a Man disembowel himself before them, that they might believe they have got their Shilling’s worth from the Entertainment?

It may be that amongst all the earthly Creation, it is only Mankind that may be motivated by this pure, disinterested Malice. But if Man is made in God’s Image, and if a Man might be radically evil in this Way, why may not the Deity be so too? I must admit to you, dear Friend, that in my darker Hours, I cannot look upon this Theatre of Pain without being led to reflect that its Manager must be perverse.

Such a kind of unmotivated Malice as I have been describing is near as evil a Thing as can be imagin’d. It shou’d lead us to consider the possibility that disinterestedness, however virtuous it may be in a Judge or a publick Minister, yet on other Occasions is perhaps not always that Vertue or Good it is imagin’d to be by some, including my Lord Shaftesbury. I am here reminded of an Observation of the late Lord Bishop of DURHAM, who said that “Disinterestedness is so far from being in it self commendable, that the utmost possible Depravity which we can in Imagination conceive is that of disinterested Cruelty” [Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726), Preface, para. 39  ̶  Ed.].

Thus, Lord Shaftesbury’s Demonstration leaves us only with the uncomfortable Contemplation that either the Deity is wholly benevolent or else He is possess’d of the worst Kind of Maliciousness imaginable, the disinterested Kind. If this were the Case (which I hope it is not), it wou’d seem, then, that like other Characters stamp’d with the Impress of Greatness, the Almighty does nothing by half Measures.

Such are my unorthodox thoughts on the Matter. Pray, show this to no one, but rather burn it, and send me your Reply by the next Post.

As always, I am, Sir,
           Your humble Servant, etc.

                   Jos. Darlington, Esq.
                           Darlington Close
                           Horton-Cum-Studley, Oxon.