Within the confines of the Augustinian philosophy we find a possible solution to an age old philosophical labyrinth: what is evil? Augustine grappled with this problem throughout much of his early adult life. While struggling with his personal iniquity he embraced the Manichean's philosophy. Later, upon further investigation he developed a Monistic theory that had Platonic roots at its base. The pinnacle of Augustine's explanation of evil is described in terms of privation and perspective, it is from these seeds that evil could be rationally understood. This paper will endeavour to trace Augustine's conception of evil from a flimsy philosophical foundation to a sturdy one.
Some problems arise when we attempt to contemplate an infinitely good and wise God that sculpted the cosmos from nothingness.
"What eloquence can suffice to detail the miseries of this life...who can enumerate all the great grievances with which human society abounds in the misery of this mortal state? Who can weigh them?" (City of God, XIX, 4).
How do you reconcile the wisdom and goodness of God with the vast abundance of evil that exists in creation? If God truly is good and wise, then why should mankind and other creatures under His watchful eyes have to endure vast arrays of pain and illnesses. Or why should people die? Why is this the nature of things: shouldn't the world around us be a far better place to dwell?
Early Years and Beyond:
A simple solution that Augustine adhered to early on in his life was that of the Manicheans. The Manicheans believed there was two principles in the universe: one was a supremely good principle while the other was a supremely evil principle. God was responsible for all the good that was evident within creation. Evil, inversely, could be traced to a power that is equal to God's power and acts as His adversary. This philosophy attempts to explain the universe in dualistic terms. This idea came as a great comfort to Augustine who struggled with sexual immorality. For now he believed that an evil principle existed, and that it inhabited man without formally composing his actual being. In this context, he could believe that there was something separate that `lived' within him that did evil; he personally did not sin. Therefore, while he still managed to intellectually grasp the fact that God could never be the Author of evil, he found a `loop hole' through which he could still indulge his carnal appetite without affecting himself. Responsibility was past on and he was found to be without blame.
The other possible choice to the dualistic universe was Monism. It is a monistic view of the world that Augustine would cling to later in his life, rejecting the hollow Manichean philosophy. In Monism there is only one absolute origin of all being. This presented Augustine (and others) with philosophically troubled waters; if one supremely Good principle created everything, then where did evil come from? Was it created by the Good? Now, since all things are created by God, and God is infinitely good, then everything that this good being makes should likewise be good. What then is evil, if it is not a being?
"Behold these things pass away, that others may replace them, and so this lower universe be completed by all its parts. But do I depart anywhere? saith the Word of God. There fix thy dwelling, trust there whatsoever thou hast thence, O my soul, at least now thou art tired out with vanities. Entrust to Truth whatsoever thou hast from the Truth, and thou shalt lose nothing; and thy decay shall bloom again...and all thy diseases be healed". (Confessions, IV, xi, 16).
Augustine learned that he must cling to God. It is within his God given authority to exercise a personal liberty: one that allows you to choose to follow God, the Unchanging, or suffer degradation. The responsibility of evil lies with him since the home of his soul is the Unchanging Goodness. Therefore, free will is the key to the problem of evil. Within the Monistic framework we are accountable for our actions and the evil that we do. If man so chooses, he need not bow to the temptation of sin. His will directs his course.
The concept of physical evil may be resolved or understood as a lack of comprehension of God's heavenly intention and the order God planned in nature. That which may seem to be evil to the casual earthbound spectator is something that is appointed by God and allowed to occur so His purposes can be fulfilled. If we could see creation in its entirety we would understand that the inadequacy of being and shortage of order would all emerge as something that was good. It is important that we do not fall into the trap of understanding all of nature as being simply a convenience for ourselves.
"What more useful",
"than fire for warming, restoring, cooking, though nothing is more destructive than fire burning and consuming? The same thing, then, when applied in one way is destructive, but when applied suitably, is most beneficial".
And speaking of poisons:
"...even poisons, which are destructive when used injudiciously, become wholesome and medicinal, when used in conformity with their qualities and design ... for no nature at all is evil, and this is a name for nothing but the want of good." (City of God, XI, 22).
God is supremely and unchangeably good. All things that God made are created good. These created things are not supremely and unchangeably good. However, if all the good of all the things in creation where taken as a whole, then the ensembled constitutes would be very good (Enchiridion, 10). From our perspective something may appear to be a grievous evil. However, in light of all creation this isolated incident may have a designed purpose to bring out some good.
During Augustine's intellectual maturation he learned that there is no being that is God's opposite. It is impossible for God to share with another in the creation process and still maintain His complete omnipotent and omniscient Creator status. An all powerful God should not need the help of another to order the cosmos and design the pattern of the stars in the night sky. The answer Augustine sought laid in the concept of a privation of being: or that evil is a lack of being. In this context blindness is viewed as an evil. For blindness is a privation of the function that the eyes are expected to preform: notably, that of sight. Other examples can quickly be illuminated with little effort; death is a privation of life, deafness is a privation of hearing, and a cavity is a privation of enamel. Evil is nothing more than what we call the absence of good. Disease or wounds mean nothing but the absence of health, for when a cure found, that does not mean that the evils which were present (the disease or wound) go away from the body and subsist elsewhere. In truth, they cease to exist altogether. The wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance. The flesh itself is the substance, and is therefore something good. The evils, the wounds or disease, are privations of this good called health and are nothing more then accidents.
In each case some form of good or being was taken away. Therefore, it is an impossibility for evil to exist by itself; being must be present for a privation to affect it. Evil, therefore, can only exist within being. Physical evil is a privation or deficiency of physical being. Moral evil is a deficiency of man's will.
If there is something that we could call true evil it is that which cannot be harmonized with God's vast goodness. This evil which is irreconcilable with God is what Augustine refers to as moral evil. The seeds of moral evil are sown within man. It's source, from which its fountain flows, is man's will, which like everything that God made, is vulnerable to privation. When privation affects man's will then imperfection follows and evil results. Man is no different from other creatures in that he was formed from nothingness and is prone to corruption and evil. However, man does differ from other creature in some ways: he has the freedom to choose what he wishes to do. Therefore, man is free to accept or reject the good; it is his option to choose that which is right or wrong, and as such, to freely choose to do evil or not. Man is unique in this capacity, for the remaining biota found within creation have determinate activity which is pre-ordered to the good. However, this may still appear to be evil to us, though (as seen) we'd be mistaken.
Creation is Good:
All things that exist are good within themselves; this is qualified by the fact that the Creator of them all is ultimate goodness. However, since that which is created cannot be supremely and unchangeably good like God, then their good may be diminished or increased. If good is diminished then evil occurs. Albeit, even though some good may wane in something all of its good cannot be vindicated. If this were to occur, the being as such, would cease to exist. Some good must remain to comprise the being, because the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being itself; it does not matter what type of being it maybe, or how seemingly insignificant (Enchiridion, 9-14 and 96). When it is corrupted its corruption is an evil, because it is deprived of some type of good. This is logical, for it cannot be hurt if it is not deprived of good. Since it is hurt, it must have been stripped of good. It then follows that if a being is being corrupted, that it must possess some good within it. If, within the being, there is a component that cannot be corrupted, this being will undoubtfully be an incorruptible being. This process of corruption will, therefore, culminate into the manifestation of some extreme good. If the process of corruption continues indefinitely and therefore does not end, then there must be some good left within the being that is capable of being corrupted. However, if the process of corruption completely annihilates the being then there will be no good left within it; likewise, it will cease to be. Therefore, corruption can destroy the good only by destroying the being. It follows, then, that every being is good. It is a great good if it can not be corrupted. It is a little good if it can be corrupted. Since Satan was created as an intensely good being, he has a vast capacity to do evil. Finally, if the being is completely consumed by corruption, then the corruption itself must cease to exist, as there is no being left in which it can dwell.
Augustine struggled with the concept of evil throughout his early intellectual life. With great pain and labor God revealed to him the answer to this perplexing crux: why does evil exist? Augustine stressed that evil should be defined as a privation of the good. Evil is a deficiency of being that can only have its source in the good. He applied his analysis to both physical and moral evil: physical evil being a privation of some physically good component, and moral evil being a privation of the good formulating a man's mind. Furthermore, he emphasized that evil cannot have an independent existence from God (the good), for it would be self-consuming.
Augustinus, Aurelius, Saint, Bp., of Hippo, trans. by Demetrius B. Zena and Gerald G. Walsh. The City of God. Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1954. Augustinus, Aurelius, Saint, Bp., of Hippo, trans. Dods, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Charity, S.C.M. Press, 1955.
Augustinus, Aurelius, Saint, Bp., of Hippo, trans. Pine-Coffin, R.S., Confessions. Cox and Wyman Press, Great Britain, 1970.
Burleigh, John Henderson Seafort, The City of God; A Study of St. Augustine's Philosophy. Oxford Press, London, 1944.Rigby, Paul, Original Sin in Augustine's Confessions. University of Ottawa Press, Canada, 1987.
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