Sunday, November 22, 2009

Celebrating Goodness

Thanksgiving will be here in just a few days and many of us will find ourselves sharing with family and friends those things for which we are thankful. I have noticed that, from time to time, people will formulate their thanks in a negative way. That is, instead of saying, "I am thankful for my health," they will say, "I am thankful for not getting sick this year." This is rarely intended and I probably ought not read too much into it, but it seems to be illustrative of a problem we sometimes have.

St. Augustine, when confronting the problem of evil, argues that evil does not exist. Literally. He contends that being is itself good. All things that are are good. If something seems to be evil, it is deficient in being; it does not as fully exist as a proper, good thing. If I have not yet entirely bastardized Augustine, we might put his concept into colloquial terms by saying that goodness is like heat: there is no such thing as evil (or cold), only the absence of good (or heat).

However, being thankful for "not getting sick" represents a kind of anti-Augustinianism. It places the emphasis on evil (in this case, sickness), and suggests that goodness is only the absence of evil, and not a thing in itself. This is a very dreary form of thanks, since it implicitly says, "The world is full of evil, but I have been lucky to avoid most of it." Such a statement says nothing about goodness, implicitly denying that one is thankful for it.

Last month I was in Dallas for the wedding of two of my classmates. After the reception a gaggle of alumni went out for drinks together at the Gingerman. One classmate suggested that we play a drinking game. I think mine were not the only eyebrows raised just a little. Drinking games, really...? But as our colleague explained, this "game" was different. The concept was simple enough: taking turns round the table, each person would sharing something they enjoy. The speaker, along with any others who enjoy the same thing, would take a swig of beer. Most drinking games are built on coercion: if you fail to do X, you must drink. This, it was explained to us, is a mistake. Drinking should be a joy, and should be associated with joyful things. It should be a celebration, not a punishment.

And a celebration it was. We shared joys from our undergraduate days together and from our more recent adventures in various places. Stories quickly came to the fore, stories about classes and pranks and epic road trips. We toasted academic nerdery and cute children, beloved friends and favorite places. It was more than mere thankfulness for the absence of ill in our lives: it was a celebration of real, active, vibrant goodness in our lives.

Photo credit: Today's picture comes from jypsygen's Flickr account. It is, admittedly, not from our trip to the Gingerman. But it is an authentic Dallas Gingerman photo, which counts for something, I think.


Paul said...

I think saying that evil is merely privation is too tidy. There's quite a lot of flux within being, and absence is essential for identity, speech, beauty, love... One 'privation' would have to be understood subjectively as it would be a boon in other subjective senses. This wouldn't allow for evil to be satisfyingly evil (or rather, for one's struggle with it to have legitimate weight) if it were really only non-being, and illusory as such.

My loved one dies. This is evil, no? But he's in a better place... Is it not wrong and petty to see privation where, at least as far as being goes, we claim that only what is good enjoys status as real? The 'loss' cannot be understood apart from the phenomenon of my subjective experience. What actually exists is only the good of death. Am I consoled by this? Or am I wrong if I'm unsatisfied?

A man rapes someone. I don't have a gripe with what is lacking in existence, some supposed rectitude in the man's soul that would have prevented him from committing such an evil act. No, I recoil at what is actual, the state of affairs that IS. And while you could tell me that what I'm actually troubled by is non-existence framed by only good, such an academic and dubious assertion is unsatisfying.


I would agree though, that one can't properly be thankful for what is not--as you say, for not getting sick. Thankfulness is a way of encountering something, and as such, must arise from actual experience.

Aaron said...

Your criticisms of my metaphysics all ring true. It's been some years since I read Augustine; do you know to what extent he deals with these issues? In other words: is the problem in my account of Augustine, or in Augustine's conception itself? Moreover, even if Augustine never resolves these issues, can his insight regarding good and evil, being and nonbeing still be usefully salvaged?

I'm glad to see that you agree that thankfulness must come from an encounter with being, with goodness. That having been said, I wonder if your emphasis on subjectivity can yield up further insights. I suppose the "encounter" bit is already moving into the subjective realm. But is there more here?

Margaret Perry said...

i like this tradition. i am going to adopt it.