Friday, July 16, 2010

Paul Ricoeur - The Symbolism of Evil


In this section, Ricoeur wants to "re-enact" the confession of evil as it appears in its different phenomenological phases. Two key definitions:

1) Myth: not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men. Myths seek to account for the "crisis" in the bond between man and the sacred, which also provides man with a sense of the whole in which he lives. Myths are a species of symbols, developed in the form of narrations and articulated in a time and space.

2) Symbol: when myths are no longer explanations, they are demythologized but raised to the dignity of a symbol, which is a dimension of modern thought. Symbols have three dimensions: a) the cosmic (relating to the world), b) the oneiric (relating to the psyche), c) the poetic (relating to expressivity). Symbols have both a literal sense and point beyond themselves to something like a stain; they are thus opaque, as opposed to allegories. Symbols are analogical meanings which are spontaneously formed and immediately significant

The first primary symbol of evil is defilement, or unclean contact. Defilement occurs objectively when a quasi-material something infects as a sort of filth, thus inciting an anonymous wrath carrying a deadly power. It is experienced subjectively as dread or terror. Defilement has more to do with happenings in the world than with the intentions of an agent, and it exists at a stage when evil and misfortune, the ethical and the physical, have not been separated. Defilement is the first schema of the rationalization of suffering. It is experienced in the sight of other people who excite feelings of shame and under the influence of the word which gives it expression, thus making defilement both a social and linguistic phenomenon. Its symbolism of stain, preceding the division of ethical and physical, has become irrational for us. Defilement occurs in many places, but it is primarily a Greek phenomenon, and in its purer forms, pre-monotheism. In our fear of anonymous vengeance, we demand that sins be punished, thus expressing an implicit veneration of an order of punishment and expiation, which involves a hope that fear can disappear from the life of conscience.

The second symbol is sin, which is always sin against God, before God. Thus, it only comes into existence with the establishment of a covenant, making it a personal bond. In the covenant, God's infinite demand on his people is expressed through finite commandments; the distance between the two causes distress and distance. The fear of an anonymous wrath in defilement becomes fear of the wrath of God. In its negative aspect, sin is a broken relation rather than a harmful relation, a nothingness in comparison with the something of God. Here sin is seen as "missing the target" or a "torturous road," leading to a symbolism of return. A broken relation allows for pardon, making it a test of one's devotion rather than an obstacle. But sin is also positive and communal (Us poor sinners). It is in the sight of God that the reality of sin is preserved. Thus sin is something internal, unlike defilement, but objective, like defilement. The symbolism of redemption completes the symbolism of pardon, a negative phenomenon, by taking into it the symbolism of purification, a positive phenomenon. This new cycle of symbols gravitates around the theme of "buying back."

The third symbol is guilt, which is an internalization and personalization of sin. If sin is the ontological moment of fault, guilt is its subjective moment, the for-itself to sin's in-itself. Guilt is contemporaneous with defilement in being an anticipated chastisement, but different in no longer resulting from the violation of an interdict. It rather results from the evil use of liberty. In guilt, the prophetic call turns a juridical contract into a personal accusation; man becomes a measure, a quantitative reflection of sin, which is always only qualitative (you are or you ain't). The individualization of guilt breaks with the "we" of the confession of sins. Guilt means the primacy of "man the measure" over "the sight of God." Pharisaism or "the scrupulous consciousness" is a first "type" of guilt, which involves a "thoroughgoing heteronomy" where the Law has been wholly revealed in the past. It is the scribe's task to find it. Pharisaism extends the ideas of personal imputation of evil according to its connection of reward and merit. The exactness of the scrupulous conscience demands a slow progress toward salvation. The other "type" of guilt is that of Paul, who introduces the "curse of the law." Paul discovered that the law itself is a source of sin, or boasting of self-justification. He thus included pretension, morality and immorality all under the heading "flesh," thus splitting the I between flesh and Spirit. For the confession of sin as affecting a person as a whole is substituted an examination of the purity of intentions. Sin becomes guilt as an inversion through excess; sin becomes so abundant as to require a superabundance of grace.

The three primary symbols of evil coalesce in the servile will, where freedom must be delivered and this deliverance is deliverance from self-enslavement. This concept is insupportable for thought, and cannot be said directly, yet it is the central theme of salvation. According to its three primary symbols, the servile will has three schemas: 1) positiveness (defilement), meaning evil is not a simple lack but a positive power. 2) externality (sin), meaning evil comes from the outside. 3) infection (guilt). In short, the seduction from the outside is ultimately an affection of the self by the self, an auto-infection, by which the act of binding oneself is transformed into the state of being bound.

The following chart might help a bit with this section:


In this section, Ricoeur wants to see the primary symbols of evil in motion, that is, in myths of evil. The three functions of these myths are 1) to embrace mankind as a whole into one ideal history, 2) to manifest the universality of man in a movement from beginning to end, 3) to explain the discordance between end and present situation of man. In myth, symbols gain a new significance and are placed within a narration that aims at a cosmic whole. The myth thus seeks to reunite us with a lost wholeness. There are four primary myths of the beginning and the end: 1) the drama of creation, 2) the Adamic fall, 3) the tragic, 4) the Orphic myth of soul and body.

The first myth is the drama of creation, which recounts the victory of order over chaos. Chaos is anterior to order, and thus the principle of evil is primordial and coextensive with the generation of the divine. Evil is thus primordial and constantly being overcome in the creative act. Violence is inscribed in the suppression of chaos. There is no place for the fall here, because the problem of evil is resolved from the beginning. Every historical event is a reenactment of the drama of creation. The King, as both the grand penitent and the personification of a bound and delivered god, takes on supreme importance in contradistinction to an avowed Enemy; this myth is thus the foundation of a theology of war. This myth is most prominent in the Babylonian "Enuma elish," but can also be found in a "recessive" form in the Hebrew king and a "mutant" form in the Hellenic titan. In Judaism, the enemy is demythologized and historicized in the guise of Egypt, and slowly, as evil is no longer identified as primordial, a new myth is needed.

The second is the tragic myth of the wicked god. In tragedy, the divine power can lead astray and blind human beings. The tragic virtue of moderation can only be understood in relation to the god's jealousy of human beings. This hostile transcendence of tragedy cannot really be thought because it would lead to a scandalous theology of predestination to evil. The innocence of God excludes the tragic myth. There is no genuine end to the tragic, and thus no real salvation, but the spectacle nonetheless offers a kind of aesthetic transposition of fear and pity.

The third is the Adamic myth, the anthropological myth par excellence. Here, 1) the origin of evil is related to an ancestor of the human race, 2) the original of evil is radically separates from the goodness of things, 3) other characters of evil appear alongside man. Since God is good, evil must enter the world by a catastrophe of the created. Whereas Plato concluded that God must not be the cause of everything, the Jewish thinker concludes that God is the cause of everything and that man is the cause of everything that is vain. In the instant of the fall, sin loses innocence. Man's desire to know good and evil, to be like the gods, is insupportable. The knowledge offered by the serpent may be called "the evil infinite." The serpent represents the quasi-externality of evil, which St. Paul identified with the flesh. Man is not the Evil One, but he is seduced by him, is evil by yielding to the Evil One. Evil is thus already there, but I am still responsible for it. In the Adamic myth, the present kingdom of the drama of creation becomes "the kingdom to come," a second creation.

Finally, the myth of the exiled soul posits that man is divine as to his soul and earthly as to his body. Evil here is the forgetting of this difference. The body is a jail of the soul, which longs for its own divinity. One purifies one's body through knowledge.

In the final chapter of Section II, Ricoeur explains "the cycle of the myths" as they revolve around the Adamic myth. Ricoeur sees the strength of the Adamic myth lying in the fact that it absorbs the others in some fashion. For the tragic, the Adamic myth retains the serpent, which represents the already there of evil. The tragic representation here continues to express the reverse side of the confession of sins and the other pole of human evil. But, and this is key: only he who confesses that he is the author of evil discovers the reverse of confession, namely, the non-posited in the positing of evil. Just as the tragic anthropology finds representation in the serpent, so too does the tragic theology find expression in the God of Job, the unverifiable aggressor God. As in tragedy, Job's situation is not changed, but his view has, and he is ready to convert freedom and necessity into fate.

The tragic theology is invincible because it is unavowable; thus, a learned theogony as one finds in the drama of creation is the only means of making tragedy intelligible. In this way, the wicked god of tragedy becomes a logical moment in the dialectics of being.

The dualism of the Orphic myth stands in stark contrast to the monism of the Adamic myth. While the tragic myth interprets passivity and seduction in terms of divine blinding and the theogonic myth interprets them in terms of a resurgence of primordial chaos, the Orphic myth develops the aspect of the apparent externality of the seduction and tried to make it coincide with the "body." St. Paul latched on to this myth but was saved from gnosis by his Adamic mythology. Plato comes close to a Biblical conception of evil but is separated from it by his attachment to the Greek conception of desire.

Let me attempt to sum up the key points in this difficult and exhausting section: first, what is the source of evil?

1) Adam: man is to blame.
2) Tragedy: god is to blame.
3) Drama of creation: primordial chaos (god is not to blame).
4) Orphic: the body (part of man is to blame).

Second, how are the myths related through the Adamic myth?

1) The Adamic myth pins the source of evil on human actions, but its anthropological focus is counterbalanced by the admission that evil comes from elsewhere, the serpent. This second side of the Adamic myth is only opened up once one has confessed one's sins; in confession, one admits fault, which paradoxically also allows one access to a side of evil for which one is not responsible. This second side is...
2) The tragic myth. The tragic myth is the flip side of the Adamic myth. Not man but the gods are responsible for evil. This flip side is unavowable in the terms of the Adamic myth, where God is wholly good. This unavowability makes the tragic myth slip into...
3) The drama of creation because the drama of creation can at least be thought under the heading "God is good." The drama of creation is related to the Adamic myth, that is, a proper theogony and a proper anthropology are related only indirectly, through the unthinkable.
4) Finally there is the Orphic myth, and it is somewhat difficult to place in relation to the other two. In theory, the Orphic myth and the Adamic myth are completely opposed, as the Adamic myth pins the blame on man as a whole, while the Orphic myth splits up that supposed whole. But in actuality the Adamic myth comes very close to the Orphic myth in the hands of Paul, just as the Orphic myth comes close to the Adamic in Plato.

In the conclusion, Ricoeur says "the symbol gives rise to thought." Pure reflection is a broken enterprise because it will always rely on something outside of it. What we need is an interpretation that respects the original enigma of the symbols, that lets itself be taught by them, but that, beginning from there, promotes the meaning, forms the meaning in the full responsibility of autonomous thought. Ricoeur desires a second naiveté which aims to be the post-critical equivalent of a pre-critical hierophany. This second naiveté would be a second Copernican revolution.