Erik Tonning – Theodicy and the Re-invention of Nature: From William Paley to Samuel Beckett

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Sacred Modernities: Rethinking Modernity in a Post-Secular Age

18 September 2009

speaker_erik_tonningErik Tonning (Regent’s Park College, Oxford)
Theodicy and the Re-invention of Nature: From William Paley to Samuel Beckett

William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) defined the parameters of debate about nature and God in nineteenth-century Britain, even when its conclusions were rejected. In his last chapters on theodicy, Paley does not shy away from the implications of a natural world of superabundant fecundity, pain and death. He bravely insists that every instance of evil is brought forth to promote a greater good, and that there is benefit and compensation in much apparent evil (mortal illness, for instance, contains intervals of ease (!) and reconciles us to death). However, Paley’s death-laden design became harder to accept for many after Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33) vastly increased the sense of the time-scale of destruction needed to reach the age of civilized man; and Darwin’s doubts (letter to Asa Gray, May 1860) about a ‘beneficent’ creator employing the ruthless mechanism of natural selection to design the Ichneumonidae that feed off living caterpillars are of course famous. Thus Paley’s influential defence of ‘design’ in fact spurred the unprecedentedly widespread rejection of such a Creator on moral grounds.

My paper will argue that this moral rejection remains implicitly grounded in a traditional Christian concept of nature as fallen and redeemable – in bondage to decay yet submitted thus in hope – and that the rhetorical strategies chosen by imaginative writers to articulate this rejection and explore alternative visions are shadowed by that concept. Alfred Tennyson’s and Matthew Arnold’s poetry of mourning is pervaded by the sense of an indifferent and all-destroying nature. Ultimately, though, death itself is being mourned here, for when death is no longer the Last Enemy but merely ‘natural’, all life grows deathly. For Thomas Hardy, indeed, human consciousness is a burden and an anomaly that is not worth the price: his is a nature fallen through and through, not least in producing endless Romantic illusions of redemption. Samuel Beckett’s work takes this determined ‘anti-anthropomorphism’ to a logical extreme: his characters are increasingly trapped in an inhuman System (e.g. ‘the net’ in Godot, the revolving spotlight in Play, the serial motion in Quad). Yet paradoxically, at the heart of that System we find once again the imperturbable deity of the 18th and early 19th century theodicy of Universal Harmony, reinterpreted as evil Demiurge. The Nature created by this deity is indeed rejected by Beckett and his 19th century predecessors: but the deep structure of that rejection remains fundamentally Christian.

Dr Erik Tonning is a Fellow of the Centre for Christianity and Culture, Regent’s Park College, Oxford. He is the author of “Samuel Beckett’s Abstract Drama” (2007) the editor of “Sightings: Selected Literary Essays” (by Keith Brown), and the author of several articles on Samuel Beckett and Christianity, the topic of his current post-doctoral research.


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