I’ve just finished Terry Pratchett’s latest Unseen Academicals. Not his best, but rather engaging and very funny in places. A welcome return to Discworld after the slight distraction that was Nation.

This isn’t a post about wizards and football (the “subject” of the book) though. Among the moments of humour, telling comment on modern times, the human condition and some downright hilarity a single paragraph punched me squarely between the eyes. I thought I’d share it with you:

“The Patrician took a sip of his beer. ‘I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the banks of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining on mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.’”


7 thoughts on “Quote

  1. Moving past my initial reaction of “ewww”…

    Firstly, I think the mother-children thing always intensifies the question of evil, because it’s something that touches everyone. (Slight tangent) I remember the bit of Alien Vs Predator that disturbed me the most was when Alien used an ante-natal ward to lay eggs in the women, killing them & their babies. Terrifying.

    But as for whether we need to become God’s (or whatever’s) moral superior…this brings us back to the question of whether it’s God who causes the evil in the first place – I don’t believe it was. I reckon if we all embarked on a mission to become his ‘moral superior’ we’d end up creating more destruction, grief and pain in the process.

    How does one even attempt to become God’s moral superior anyway?

  2. Stefan says:

    Great quote! I just did not know there was a competition with God about the title of moral superiority since we are not sharing the same moral standing…

  3. Um. OK.
    In my second term at l’Abri we studied a book based around the question on whether we had morally outgrown God. ie, were the morals of a modern westerner better than those of the (Judeo-Christian) deity, as we understood them. It was a terrible book, but an interesting premise, and one that has stayed with me.
    I like this quote because it puts the issue so succinctly: if we are morally appalled by the natural order of things, does that mean we have (or need to) morally outgrow our creator (should such a thing exist)?
    So, in relation to that context:

    Liz – you don’t really address the question. It’s easy to suggest that ‘moral’ evil in a human context could be ‘unnatural’ (ie, outside the intended created order), but that doesn’t work so well with the natural world. Did animals not eat each other before evil came into the world? How can you effectively argue such a thing, when then natural world is the only starting place we have for our observations…? (asks the empiricist in the corner)

    Stefan – I have so much respect for you my friend, but this is a cop-out. It effectively annuls the argument by suggesting that only God can have moral authority: His word is law – deal with it. While theologically valid, it sucks as an argument – it’s self referential, and has no explanation for why/how we as humans could come to a place where we see such an outlook as morally inferior.

    Come on guys, you can do better!

  4. Am clearly going to have to sign up for email notifications of comments if you’re going to moan about people not getting into discussion!!

    Can animals be evil? Isn’t that a simply human (or moral) activity/label? Surely animals can only be evil if they have morals – which would lead us into ‘do animals have souls’ territory. Animals eat each other because it’s what they’re programmed to do. It’s survival.

    The Patrician witnessed a completely natural act, one that is built into the way in which natural world and feeds the food chain. That is not evil built into the universe – distasteful? yes. Evil? no.

    Maybe Phil’s right – vegetarianism would put us all on a level of superiority to a God who designed the universe to kill and eat its various inhabitants.

    That’s probably still not an answer, but it is a continuation of the discussion!

  5. bluemoon says:

    @Liz. Note that Terry doesn’t mention God just a supreme being. Ok that might be being picky (especially as in the Discworld universe there are ostensibly many gods and therefore ‘God’ would be incorrect in context) but the point is that God is not necessarily that supreme being. Given God’s questionable actions in the bible it is possible, if improbable, for us to become his ethical superior. Another possibility is this is the patrician’s way of saying ‘Give it 110%’.

    Define evil. Then decide if it is relevant. Assuming for a moment that the beaver and salmon have the capability of moral reasoning, the beaver would think it good, the salmon, almost certainly, evil. The labels are entirely subjective. That’s not to say they are meaningless though but I don’t think they are relevant to this example as neither the eater nor the eaten are capable of such reasoning and would not be able to change their actions even if they were.

    So I agree with Liz’s 2nd comment, this is not an example of evil. Maybe Terry’s message here is the way things are, tradition, the crab bucket mentality discouraging change, is what we should overcome to create a less ‘evil’ world.

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