The Symbolism of evil

21 Sep

One of Paul Ricoeur’s characteristics is the search for explanations about who men are and the circumstances that affect them, among them there is an approach to evil as it affects all people, directly or not.

This search in philosophy comes from Plato, who defined the Supreme as: the final destiny of all things, which for Aristotle is the best good, linked to the logos, thus science, while in Christian philosophy it will be God and paradise.

Also important is the Neoplatonic thought of Augustine of Hippo, for whom evil is the absence of good, and thus is not its opposite, but its absence.

Medieval philosophy associates Good with paradise and evil with that which leads man to his destruction, not only in eternal life, but already in this life, see for example Boethius in his “Philosophical Consolations” and Thomas Aquinas for whom it is an “imperfection” of the Being, of virtues in the nature of the being, which deprives it of good.

In contemporary philosophy, the idealist and Enlightenment vision relativizes it and will almost inevitably fall into Manichaean views of evil and good, that is, arbitrary, much more dependent on conventions and social collusion.

Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas stand out in their treatment of good, they revisited the question of the relationship between good and being in a similar and different way.

For Levinas, good precedes being, but it is not in consciousness or in discourse, thus it transcends being, thus defining it as the otherness of being, that which links it to infinity and its ontological sense, it is that of the ethics of Other.

Paul Ricoeur, when penetrating through hermeneutics more deeply into the question of evil, takes up the question of myth, especially the Adamic myth (Cain killed Abel) where myth “is the sought-after place of fusion between history and fiction” (Ricoeur, 1976, p. 295), but also addresses the “symbolic” issue of evil.

This text cited above is fundamental to understanding Ricoeur’s thought because he deals with it within what for him is today’s “crisis of philosophy”.

The symbolic issue of evil is the salvific death that does not end, but reinscribes the history of humanity in mythical guidelines and even the Enlightenment and idealism are not outside this, as they will create symbolic structures of “salvation” of man.


Ricouer, P. (1976) La philosophie aujourd´hui: entretien sur ce qu´on appelle la crisis de la philosophie. Lousanne: Grammont-Salvat, 1976.

Ricoeur, Paul. (1969) The Symbolism of Evil. Boston : Beacon Press.




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