Unit 2: Metaphysics

27 Augustine’s Treatment of the Problem of Evil

Rocco A. Astore

Rocco A. Astore is currently an Adjunct Lecturer of Philosophy at CUNY: Borough of Manhattan Community College as well as an Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy at St. John’s University, both in New York City, New York. His interests include metaphysical topics primarily of the Early-Modern Period.

God is omnibenevolent, or all-good; however, evil abounds. Now, if we enter Augustine of Hippo (354CE-430CE), philosopher, and theologian, often known as one of the most influential doctors of the Catholic Church, we find that such a problem was nothing new to this titan of thought. First, this chapter will unfurl with a description of Augustine’s treatment of the problem of evil, by drawing from his seminal work the Confessions. Next, this entry will then propose arguments given by Augustine, who wishes to negate the idea that evil can be a substance, that evil truly exists on its own, and finally his understanding of the true source of the appearance of evil in our world.

Now, from nearly the onset of Confessions Book VII, we readers find Augustine asserting the following:

“…I set myself to think of You as the supreme and sole and true God with all my heart I believed You incorruptible and inviolable and immutable…”

In other words, Augustine understands nothing to possess the capacity to blemish God or cause God to sway. This is important for us to note for we must first establish why it is that God is all-good to Augustine before tackling how Augustine treats the topic of evil.

So, as for God’s all-good nature, we locate in Augustine one who first considers that because that which can change is of less perfection than that which can undergo no change, it must be that God, as perfect, is verily immutable, or unchangeable. That is because to Augustine God is conceivable, or thinkable as “mighty everywhere” and “nowhere bounded” and thus nothing can overpower God or cause God to be other than supreme, or limit God by stopping God’s perfection from being the cornerstone of reality. In other words, we find Augustine revealing to we readers how it is that God cannot undergo corruption, due to God’s unchangeableness, which leaves God only to remain as the “all-good Creator.”

Next, if God is without a tinge of corruption and even without the potential to suffer from corruption, and therefore, everlastingly good, God, from Augustine’s vantage, cannot be that which causes evil. That is because evil is unakin or estranged from the nature of God. As such, is it not the case that all things created by God must therefore be themselves good, initially? Or as Augustine attests:

“Who made me? Was it not my God, who is not only Good but Goodness itself?”

In other words, we find the beginnings of Augustine’s belief as to why it is that all people are born good because of their creator being and being at the pinnacle of all that is good. That is, God can only create good things alone, for, Augustine, a precursor to Descartes, would believe that it would be unlike God to create something that was absent of goodness because if God begrudged a creature of goodness, that would imply that God is corrupt, and thus not all-good, or perfect.

Accordingly, we find Augustine’s argument that because we are not as great as God, for we are not God, and rather made in the image and likeness of God, we are finite and swayable, and thus able to succumb to corruption. However, we should note that Augustine finds that although the human soul, which is free to go against God, since God as all-good would never prevent us the power of freedom, can breed evil, we are nevertheless initially good. That is because if God created us corrupt, we would never be able to undergo corruption, since we would already lack goodness. In other words, just as something which is already the worst cannot become worser, people, who are beings who do face evil, and can become worser than we know ourselves to usually be, shows to Augustine, that we were therefore initially good.

As such, if God is always good and people initially good, nothing that contains a soul, or a substance can truly be evil from its start. Consequently, our first question as to if evil exists as a substance, we find is impossible to be so, because substances like God and ourselves are either good or good and therefore, insofar as substances go, there is no option, or room for evil to be truly all that real to Augustine. In fact, we find Augustine asserts the following as to how it is that we can understand evil as unsubstantial and therefore also unreal:

“…evil whose origin I sought is not a substance.”

“…To You, then evil utterly is not—and not only to You, but to Your whole creation likewise, evil is not…”

Moreover, because evil is not, or that evil bares no reality as a substance, we may declare from an Augustinian lens that it is we who misunderstand evil on the one hand, and due to our lack of infinite knowledge, or omniscience we commit evil on the other. That is and drawing from Augustine’s own example as found in Confessions Book VII Chapter V, it is we who misinterpret something such as that we fear evil, when, in reality, it is evil for us to fear. In other words, evil is not independent of us, and hence it is truly nothing to fear, for it possesses no compelling power over us, who are, at least, initially good. At the same time, it is when we give into negative inclinations and manifest negative emotions, due to our finite knowledge and will, especially when leading to affecting others detrimentally, that we then undergo fear because we committed evil. That is, or as Augustine declares:

“…the fact that we fear is evil”

Consequently, what then is the cause of the appearance of evil in our world? Simply put, Augustine adheres to the view that our limited, or finite minds and their lack of absolute knowledge, or the knowledge of God who knows all of time since God, as eternal, can only create in one eternal and single act of creation, is the basis of why evil emerges in our world. In other words, from an Augustinian viewpoint, if we possessed absolute knowledge, as does God, then we would know all the consequences of our actions, and to Augustine, this would in the very least help us to refrain from doing evil. Lastly, let us understand Augustine, as one who denies the substantiality and independent existence of evil. As well as one who holds to the notion that it is human finitude, our absence of infinite knowledge, and our ability to sway that leads to the arrival of evil in the world, or the abuse of our will leading us to stray from the all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfect God.

Additional Resources

Jaspers, Karl. Hannah Arendt ed., The Great Philosophers Volume I (Harcourt Brace & Co.: New York., 1962).

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy (Simon & Schuster, Inc: New York., 1972).

Brown, Peter. Augustine: A Biography (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2000).

 

 

Reference

Augustine. F.J. Sheed trans., Confessions (Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis., 2006).

 

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Augustine’s Treatment of the Problem of Evil by Rocco A. Astore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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