What is “evil”? We are prone to judge things as “good” or “bad” according to the common sense and customs of society. If so, sense and customs are relative standards of judgment that can differ from one time and place to another. Would it be able to turn the general perception of evil on its head when we question the very values that people use to justify censuring the speech and behavior of others as evil?
Viewing evil through the lens of two pivotal notions of “sickness” and “the Devil,” this book illustrates the meditations of French author André Gide (1869–1951), who wrote from the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, in his own confrontation with evil and his unique philosophy of evil that he has developed with such meditations as a stepping stone. As a Protestant and a homosexual, Gide was a minority in French society, and in confronting the norms and common sense shaped by the Catholic and heterosexual majority, he strove to reinterpret evil from a perspective that differed from prevailing religious values, while still remaining a Christian. The principal aim of this book is to expound his logic and explain its contemporaneous and contemporary significance.
As indicated by the French word “le mal (evil),” sickness was indeed regarded as evil from a medical and religious point of view. Nevertheless, not only was Gide sickly since childhood, but he also acknowledged sexual orientation such as his desire to masturbate and his homosexuality, which were nothing other than sicknesses according to the medical discourse of the time. Christian morality also equated sickness with sin and thus regarded it as something to be conquered. This led Gide to associate himself with evil and suffer from a sinful conscience since childhood, though he would eventually come to grasp the idea of evil in his own way through his literary works.
Part I examines Gide’s views on sickness from childhood until the 1900s in the context of the medical and religious discourse of the time. Part II analyzes symbols of “sickness” in Gide’s works after the 1910s, when his meditations on sickness deepened his Christian philosophy. It then highlights (1) the logic with which he tried to reinterpret sickness within the framework of Christian belief, despite the fact that it was regarded as evil in the Christian value system, and (2) the critical consciousness toward existing religion that can be discerned from said logic. Part III looks at “the Devil” as the representation of evil that arose within Gide after “sickness” and expounds the point of the argument he used to interpret the Devil in a way that did not contradict his faith.
What Gide attempted through his literary works is to deny that sickness and the Devil were evil; to question anew the prevailing Christian worldview, which sought to eliminate or conquer them; and to affirm his own self, which embodied these “evils” without a say in the matter. According to Gide, living in a way that is true to oneself, rather than wasting one’s life fixated on eliminating evil, aligns more closely with Jesus’s words as recorded in the Gospels. Gide was a writer who battled with his society and times as a Christian to the very end. However, by no means does Gide’s stance of affirming everyone’s life and asserting the existence of multiple value systems only have significance within Christianity. Gide’s decades-long meditations on evil arguably have a universal range that goes beyond himself and Christian societies.
(Written by: NISHIMURA Akie / February 13, 2023)
The 3rd UTokyo Jiritsu Award for Early Career Academics (The University of Tokyo 2022)