The Symbolism of Evil, by Paul Ricoeur
My interest in philosophy, over the years, unfolded not in a deeper study of logic and mathematics, and then, perforce, of late modern American and English philosophy heavily encumbered by a disdain for anything pre-modern (unless a post-modern bias can be detected and salvaged from the dusty past, eisegetically or otherwise); but rather lurched pleasantly off the beaten swath into the more charming and interesting (and sometimes disturbing) groves, bowers and fields of Literature, Poetry, Anthropology, Archeology, Theology, and Mysticism.
In this vein, where these fields merge insouciant of the artificial divisions erected by post-modern Academe, I read secondary works by Mircea Eliade, Thorkild Jacobsen, Henri Frankfort, Eric Voegelin, Eugene Webb, Rudolf Otto, Levy-Strauss, R.C. Zahner, Jeffrey Burton Russell, T.S. Eliot, Etienne Gilson, Henri Bergson, Gustave Flaubert (his massively turgid novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony being a remarkably juicy and jampacked treatise on the ancient and medieval history of heterodox and gnostic theology); and many others -- including today's selection, where anthropology, psychology, theology and philosophy all intersect: The Symbolism of Evil, by Paul Ricoeur, published in French in 1960 (English translation, 1970).
Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), would probably be labeled a "Continental philosopher" -- meaning that he didn't disdain mythology, poetry, art, theology, Judaeo-Christianity and the Middle Ages as sources of philosophy. The online Stanford Encyclopedia (linked above with Ricoeur's name) tells us that while he was an existentialist up to about 1960, he embarked upon an intellectual departure in the form of what they call "hermeneutic phenomenology" -- and they quote Ricoeur in this regard:
“...there is no self-understanding that is not mediated by signs, symbols, and texts; in the final analysis self-understanding coincides with the interpretation given to these mediating terms.”
This by itself would mark nothing new in the history of philosophy, insofar as Thomas Aquinas -- not to mention many of the classic philosophers of the Graeco-Roman tradition -- basically said the same thing. Ricoeur, however, seems to have genuinely contributed new insights to this millennial contemplation and conversation.
The Symbolism of Evil was part of a three-volume project which included Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, and Fallible Man.
What fascinated me initially, back in my college years studying philosophy and comparative religions, was the title; for one of my special interests was theodicy and the problem of evil. And thank Allah that I didn't box myself in to bracket out either Theology or Philosophy from my intellectual curiosity in this regard (much less other areas, as noted above, including Mythology, Literature and the Arts).
When I got into Ricoeur's book, I was further intrigued by his liberal deployment of terms and concepts from the fields of anthropology and comparative religions, which included taking mythological concepts seriously as markers and signposts along the way to truth. The fact that Ricoeur took seriously such terms as "sin", "defilement", "guilt", and "fallenness" (among many others) -- without the usual snide mockery veiled in between the lines or openly snarky one often finds in post-modern secular philosophy whenever it gets within the general vicinity of religion (of course, mainly Judaeo-Christian, with other Third World ethnic religions more often than not escaping their urbanely condescending sophistication) -- really impressed me.
A good introduction into the content and vision of the book is this essay on the Strong Reading blog. Now that I am re-familiarizing myself with Ricoeur's book, I notice something I never thought of before: His analysis of the symbolisms surrounding the symbolism of evil -- particularly including defilement, but perhaps every unit of the constellation -- may provide a good framework by which to understand the alien ideology of Islam.
I cannot explain in any detail what I mean now, as this only occurred to me today. But what I can say now is that my intuitive sense leads me to conjecture, tentatively, that the psychocultural anthropological theological concept of defilement may be one major fault line demonstrating the chasm that separates the Muslim mind from the mind of all other cultures as illuminated by their comparative histories of culture and religion. Namely, that while Islamic culture may share one facet of defilement -- its nature as a primal, pre-cognitive disposition in the human mind as the mind begins to relate to, and to explore, its needs and the context of webs of meaning in which its needs acquire significance, if not efficacy -- Islamic culture parts ways with all other cultures (whether primitive or refined, tribal or civilized) in its dogged cultivation of a projection of defilement onto the Other.
Certainly, degrees of such projection can be found in other cultures (particularly the more primitive ones). But the massively obvious and distinctive factor of the cultures that in history have evolved into sophistication -- Graeco-Roman theology; Judaeo-Christian theology; Hinduism; Buddhism -- is that they have translated that fundamental primal factor of defilement into self-knowledge, moving it away from a fear of and hostility to the Other as they have traveled the long process of transcending tribalism toward universalism.
A quote from the Strong Reading blog sketching out the concept of defilement may be helpful at this juncture, but the reader should take care not to get distracted by apparent complexities therein:
The first primary symbol of evil is defilement, or unclean contact. Defilement occurs objectively when a quasi-material something infects as a sort of filth, thus inciting an anonymous wrath carrying a deadly power. It is experienced subjectively as dread or terror. Defilement has more to do with happenings in the world than with the intentions of an agent, and it exists at a stage when evil and misfortune, the ethical and the physical, have not been separated. Defilement is the first schema of the rationalization of suffering. It is experienced in the sight of other people who excite feelings of shame and under the influence of the word which gives it expression, thus making defilement both a social and linguistic phenomenon. Its symbolism of stain, preceding the division of ethical and physical, has become irrational for us. Defilement occurs in many places, but it is primarily a Greek phenomenon, and in its purer forms, pre-monotheism. In our fear of anonymous vengeance, we demand that sins be punished, thus expressing an implicit veneration of an order of punishment and expiation.
When reading the above explanation, the reader should primarily focus his mind on the fact that in Islam, the concept of "filthy" (najis; cf. Koran 9:28 -- "Truly, the Mushrikoon are filthy...") is central to its obsessive-compulsive disorder by which it cordons off all things un-Islamic from Islam and from Muslims, not only conceptually, but also psychologically and physically.
Islam seems to be the only seemingly sophisticated religious culture ("world religion") that massively retains, and assiduously and with dogmatic fanaticism cultivates, a consistent projection of defilement away from the self, onto the Other -- with this projection, in addition, further buttressed and animated and galvanized by a fanatically dogmatic context of violent and/or military hostility.
Another way to put this is that Islam is the only Universalist creed that has remained massively Tribalistic: its Universalism is really a Super-Tribalism with only a pretense at best to Universalism, not an authentically universalist embrace of the Other. An oxymoron, to be sure, conceptually; but in practice, it works as a global enterprise of hateful and hostile voracity, only sometimes smoothed over by a measure of sophistication in terms of a cultivation of clever deceitfulness whenever Muslims perceive themselves to be too weak, vis-à-vis the "filthy" Other, to act out openly their supremacist expansionism that is both the raison d'être and the logical conclusion of their hateful and hostile voracity.