The Symbolism of Evil

In late June, I was sitting in Paris, gazing at Soleil Couchant, a darker, yellower piece amongst Monet’s water lily series. It would be nice to pretend that I was doing so with artistic insight or with deep reflections on the nature of changing creation. But a significant motivation of my extended contemplation was that outside the Jardin des Tuilerieswas a crowded thirty degrees in the shade, while le Musée de l’Orangeriehad both seats and very good air conditioning.

I was in Paris to participate in a summer workshop at the FondsRicoeur, the archive of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, set within the courtyards of the Faculté de théologie protestante. The workshop operates by taking up a particular text of Ricoeur’s and spending an entire week on that single book, analysing it together with scholars from different disciplines and languages and seeking context and connections with the rest of his sprawling oeuvre.  This summer we had taken up The Symbolism of Evil, a quite peculiar book in Ricoeur’s corpus, which pursues his overall project on the human will by way of the great symbols found in the myths and stories we tell about our experience of evil.  The only way, Ricoeur suggested, that we could grapple with that experience, since rationality fails in the face of it.

One striking contribution Ricoeur makes in this book is underlining the real ambiguity of the story of the creation of humanity. In both the dual stories of Genesis, the capabilities of humans – Adam’s facility to name the creatures for example – are sometimes situated before the Fall, and at times after. So there is difficulty in how to understand human activity in relation to the Fall. This has led to great fractures in theological thinking about sex and politics, especially. As Ricoeur puts it, we can make ‘two interpretations of civilization and sexuality’, and the fact that such diverse readings are possible, ‘is by itself full of meaning; every dimension of man – language, work, institutions, sexuality – is stamped with the twofold mark of being destined for the good and inclined toward evil’ (p.246).

The ambiguity of human action has played on my mind since that Paris gathering, as I prepare new teaching on the human condition for our new Masters programmes, but also as I, like you, read the global news. Yet I keep coming back to that indulgent hour spent with the Water Lilies, too.  Monet had been painting his ponds at Giverny for twenty years before he embarked on the project to gradually paint their recurring moments of light – clouds on water, morning, sunset.  He began that cycle in the spring of 1914, staying in Giverny, painting, right through the Great War that began just months later.  In the wake of the 1918 Armistice he offered them as a gift to the nation of France, though his work continued through the mid-1920s.

When Ricoeur says that ‘Sin may be “older” than sins, but innocence is still “older”’ (p.251), it is a reminder that the inclination toward evil is not an inevitability, but is always at play with a more profound hope in goodness. Although we do not all have Monet’s privilege (or skill!) of painting in a French garden while global politics becomes more obviously characterised by confrontation and hostility, the water lily cycle is a powerful herald of humanity’s potential. The destiny for the good, in Ricoeur’s work, is not really about a promised paradise, but about what we can do and create in our humanity: the work for beauty, for community, for the good.

Written by Dr Amy Daughton, Director of Studies at MBIT, 13thAugust 2018