Friday 4 October 2013

Knowing the Good

In an interview with Eugenio Scalfari, published in La Repubblica on 1 October 2013, Pope Francis was asked, “Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?” He replied, simply, “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.” Scalfari pushes him: “The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that's one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.” Francis responds, “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.”

The “subjectivity” of the Pope’s approach puzzled some, but what he said was perfectly in line with the rest of Catholic teaching. It did not aim to be a complete or systematic teaching on conscience, which can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to which the Pope adheres. It was certainly not an “authoritative” statement, of the kind that emerge when a Pope is called to speak from the “chair of St Peter” to resolve some matter in dispute for the whole Church. It was a conversation, an interview, a friendly engagement. It was one of the things that Pope Francis does best.

In particular, it did not mention our responsibility to develop and educate this “vision” or “idea” of good and evil that we may have. We do not just pick it off the shelf, or let another (whether it be a parent or a teacher or a newspaper) determine it for us. The Church’s teaching on morality is part of that process of self-education – that is, assuming we give any credibility to the Church as an authority for us, then we will need to take her teaching into account as we work through the arguments and concerns in our own minds, rationally. (She is one factor, but an important one.)

The statement is right, and corresponds to what John Henry Newman wrote in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in stating that we can only fight evil and follow the good according to our own best idea of what these are. Even if we are going to make mistakes, because we have not yet fully understood everything, we have to do the best we can in the given moment with what is available to us.

In a previous post (How We Know) I explored the way in which our minds know the world around us. This time I want to reflect on how we know Good and Evil, and discern between them. I take it that one lesson of the Genesis
account of the Fall and the taking of the Fruit concerns this very question, for the Serpent tells the couple that “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). This raises a host of questions, not least what is supposed to be wrong with “knowing good and evil”?

The answer seems to lie in the difference between knowing good, and knowing good and evil, and knowing evil. God wants us to know the good, not to know evil. We often assume we can only know the good if we have a choice between them, and know them both equally. But that is not right. If we know them equally, we are changed by both, and our knowing of the good is changed and spoiled. In the end, if we know both, we will know only evil. On the contrary, if we know the good, by adhering to God, the evil becomes irrelevant to us.

But what is the good? What makes it part of the world? What kind of thing? It is any kind of thing, provided it will fulfill and complete us. It is what we are drawn towards because we want to become fully what we were made to be. We see our fulfillment in the “good”, and we are attracted by the radiance – the “beauty” – that connects us with it, like a pathway across the water.

Aquinas and others have seen Beauty as an aspect of the Good, and these ideas are certainly very closely interwoven, but they are not identical. Beauty is the radiance of the Good and the True, and that radiance of being is another aspect of Love, which is the self-giving act at the heart of all existence, especially the existence of God. It is the dynamic act, the verb not the noun, that reaches out and across the differences between things and unites them, or gives them the savour of one another. That is how the angels communicate, according to St Denys – by the giving of light. God himself dwells in light, inaccessible light (1 Tim. 6:16). It is inaccessible because it is his gift to himself; and at the same time it has become accessible, because he has given us this very self in his Son.

We know evil by suffering it. We know the good by being drawn to its beauty and ultimately by sharing it. And as for conscience, that is the self-knowledge, the eye of the heart, the memory of the breath of God (Gen. 2:7), by which we recognize the good as good – as containing that promise for us. No wonder we must each have “our own vision of good and evil”. No one else can do our seeing for us.


  1. It would be interesting to explore another sense of "know" as perhaps intended by the tempter in Eden. I'm not an expert on Biblical language, but isn't there an important, even central notion of intimacy and communion at all levels of the being in the sense of "know" as in "And Adam knew Eve his wife"? If this sense extended also to other things than one's spousal intimacy, knowledge of evil would entail not just intellectual awareness of it and the suffering of it as you wrote, but chiefly a kind of identification or intimacy with evil. By contrast, before the fall, we would have "known" evil in the same way that God does, and which does not entail an evil in itself: by the "negative presence" of a due good.

  2. Indeed, good point. St Thomas is very good on how God "knows" evil.

  3. Very interesting stuff! According to my brother in law, Dr. Nathan Schmiedicke who has a doctorate in Scripture, he said that "knowledge of good and evil" in this context is an idiom that means "the entire span of knowledge," ie "everything from the good to the evil."

    Your points are well taken.

  4. “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good,” says the Holy Father. I am not trying to be critical here, but to say this without adding that we have a moral responsibility to discover what the truth really is will lead people astray. What is more, we don't really need to encourage people to move toward that which they perceive as good. We can help but be moved toward that which we perceive as good. That's the nature of the good, that we are moved towards it.

  5. I'm sorry, I was writing quickly. I meant to say that we can not help but be moved to that which we perceive as good.