Evil: In Search Of A Metaphor— Camus and Job
Like pornography, evil may be difficult to define (or impossible, see William Hart, Evil: A Primer: The History Of A Bad Idea From Beelzebub To Bin Laden), but we know it when we see it. Albert Camus, Algerian-born Nobel prize-winning author (1957, Literature) provides two glimpses into the nature of evil through his books, The Plague and The Fall. After listening to a series of lectures by Charles Matthewes (University of Virginia) through The Teaching Company course on Why Evil Exists, I read those two of Camus’s most important works Matthewes highlights. In this essay, I compare Camus’s metaphors for evil with those of the ancient biblical book of Job to help us think through what we mean by evil.
Evil as Disease: The Plague
Describing the growing insidious march of death through infected rats in the author’s Algerian homeland (the major city of Oran near Algiers), Camus chronicles the efforts of compassionate Dr. Roland Rieux and his friends to stem the tide. Except for a mandatory quarantine, nothing avails against the relentless, growing body count. But until the epidemic runs its course, fear also destroys the normal behavior of ordinary people. After the town closes its gates to prevent the plague spreading, the narrator relates:
Rieux was already halfway down the stairs, and when he stepped out into the street two men brushed past him. They seemed to be on their way to one of the town gates. In fact, what with the heat and the plague, some of our fellow-citizens were losing their heads; there had already been some scenes of violence and nightly attempts were made to elude the sentries and escape to the outside world.
Infected rats spread death to everyone. Adding to the misery of heat and death in Oran, people panic: do we stay and die, or try to escape? But even if we escape, we infect others. Disease describes the nature of evil for Camus in The Plague, a thinly veiled description of the march of death brought about by Nazi Germany, that insidious, deadly political philosophy of Camus’s day and of my childhood. Evil is the silent, but deadly disease, against which we feel helpless.
Evil as Monster: Job
Early in his story, Job experiences evil. Through reports of two disasters of supernatural magnitude, a lightning strike from the Mediterranean (west) destroys his sheep, and the hot sirocco wind off the desert (east) touches off a tornado that kills all of his ten children. Two man-made evils also change his life. One marauding band of Sabeans (from the south) kills his servants and steals his livestock. The Chaldeans (east) would not cross the desert, but instead follow the Euphrates river valley to invade from the north. Their careful military planning of three separate, coordinated raiding parties show their deliberate effort to inflict evil. A Palestinian patriarch, Job experiences destruction of businesses, employees, and children, from all points of the compass. With his non-Hebrew name, Job experiences evil as a human, rather than solely Hebrew issue. Later, his health also suffers. Evil confronts Job as the succession of losses against which he rails to God. Righteous, but suffering, he complains about the injustice of his life, for which he holds God responsible. All of us can identify.
In the face of such evil to Job, for most of the book, God maintains silence. Job’s three Wisdom colleagues (usually misnamed “friends”) do most of the talking, with Job given the freedom to reply after each of them speaks. The colleagues provide Job the well-known (both then and now, unfortunately) easy “answers” to the mystery of “Why did this happen to me?”
Evil as Monster: Behemoth and Leviathan
When, after he patiently hears Job’s accusations of injustice, God finally speaks, he first barrages Job with questions on how well he understands the physical world and the behavior of the animals. Those questions humble Job (Chapters 38-39). God then asks Job what he will do with two monsters of overwhelmingly power, whose descriptions take on mythic proportions: Behemoth (based on the hippopotamus) and Leviathan (based on the crocodile). This is evil.
Behemoth, “Who I made as I did you,” and “the first of God’s works,” represents such uncontrollable power that “only his maker can draw the sword against him” (Chapter 40). In that same chapter, God also describes the sea-monster Leviathan, also untamable, and asks, “There is no one so fierce as to rouse him; who, then, can stand up to me?” (Chapter 41). Evil for Job, then, describes monstrous devastation, death , and loss against which we are helpless. Only God can bring this evil under control. In Chapter 11 of my Tragedy Transformed:How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours (2015), I provide a more detailed discussion of those monsters.
Through these metaphors for evil, like in The Plague, and Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, we confront evil as The Uncontrollable. An accident, the sudden death of a friend or loved one, disease, war, or earthquake, for example, can plunge us into a rage against events out of our control.
[Continued next blog. Images: Camus: en.wickipedia.org; William Blake, Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. With Descriptive Letterpress, and A Sketch of the Artist’s Life and Works. By Charles Eliot Norton (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1875). Chapter: PLATE XV. “Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee. ”Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/2155/200016 on 2013-09-17]