“Everyday joy is at once a claim that the good is ontologically primary with respect to evil and the deed that backs the claim up.”
Introduction: the primacy of joy1
Evil is a curiously Janus-like phenomenon. On the one hand, it pervasively colors historical existence, from which it can be no more removed by human effort than death (the two phenomena are, in fact, intimately connected). Because of this ubiquity, evil insinuates itself even into the fabric of the everyday and so becomes “banal,” to use Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase. On the other hand, no matter how common evil is in fact, no matter how widely diffused in “structures of sin” that shape whole cultures and in which we are all more or less complicit, evil never quite manages to complete its colonization of the normal, and its “banality” always betrays a conscience that has either never awakened or has lulled itself to sleep. No matter how seemingly inevitable evil is, then, it never altogether loses its power to shock, but always remains a scandal.
It is a good thing that evil scandalizes us. Our sense of outrage testifies that we have not yet lost the ability to recognize it for what it is. If evil is evil, in fact, it is because it is not normal, but abnormal, monstrous, and prodigious, no matter how prevalent it may be de facto. What is normal is not evil, but the good. In saying this, we formulate the experiential root of the classical Christian doctrine that evil is not equi-primordial with the good, but rides parasitically on it—is a “privation of a due good,” in the scholastic language of Thomas Aquinas. At stake in Thomas’ admittedly dry definition of evil is nothing less than the affirmation that reality is basically good, and that it is good to exist in this world, despite the presence of evil in it. It is this affirmation that I would like to develop and defend in what follows.
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1. For my mother.