Evil as a Gateway to Eternal Life

Certain evils are considered good because they have the ability to bring an individual closer to God and thus, eternal life. In Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, St. Basil of Caesarea makes it explicitly clear that there are two types of evil: one that is created by humanity and the other by a well-meaning God. The latter is considered that which is “toilsome and painful to our sense perception: bodily illness, and blows to the body, and lack of necessities and disgrace, and financial setbacks, and loss of property” (Foltz, 129). St. Basil asserts that God has the capacity to enact punishments in the form of sickness and poverty in order to ensure salvation at the completion of one’s lifetime. Consider a man facing blindness, and weakness, and famine, and shame, and poverty. * This very man does not have the same sight, energy, or financial funds to commit sin when compared to a wealthy noble man in good health. Therefore, the evils that torment his everyday life on Earth have the ability to provide him with eternal life in heaven. This idea of evil breeding a sinless and godly individual comes into play in The Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In this tale, a knight overcome by lust rapes a woman and is commended to die by King Arthur only to be saved by the ladies of the court who propose a challenge. They claim that the knight will be pardoned if he returns and can answer what women desire the most (Chaucer, 904-905). 

As it so happens, the knight who committed a great sin meets an old woman wise beyond her years who kindly offers her aid on the condition that he completes any favor she asks of him after he lives. The old woman’s answer (sovereignty over a husband) saves the knight’s life and then, she proposes marriage to which the knight begrudgingly agrees (Chaucer 1038-1057). Soon after, this god-fearing woman who saves a life is cast down as less than her husband in social status and class. However, she rebuttals by gently saying, “poverte ful ofte, whan man is lowe, makes him know his God and also himself” (Chaucer 1201-1202). There was nothing prideful, nothing sinful, nothing of injustice inside the woman’s heart, arguably in part because she faced financial setbacks. ** Thus, the concept of evils such as living in poverty being advantageous is included in both The Canterbury Tales and Medieval Philosophy. The old woman who proclaims the way of God is one of great piety who embraces her age in a mild and gracious manner.***

* Polysyndeton, Farnsworth Book

** Anaphora, Farnsworth Book

** Ethos on the old woman, May Book