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A discussion on the question of evil in the light of Augustine's 'Confessions'

An idea central to the thought of Saint Augustine was that regarding the question of evil. Following his separation from the Manichees and arrival in Milan to hear the sermons of Saint Ambrose, Augustine had come to the conclusion that the Manichean, dualist idea of evil as a substance - a polar opposite to the substance of good - was unsatisfactory, and strove to find a better explanation for this problem. This he attempted with the help of inspiration from the works of Platonic writers, adopting Plato's hierarchical model of the world and discovering that the question of evil can be reduced to a more fundamental question: the question of free will.

An examination of Augustine's approach to the question of evil can be begun by viewing his world in terms of Plato's. Taking from Plato, Augustine's world is hierarchically arranged, with the principle of ordering in this hierarchy is based on intrinsic value. In other words, the higher something is on the scheme of things, the better or more worthy it is. Augustine goes on to identify his notion of God with Good, or in essence Plato's form of The Good, and he equates both with Being. Because Augustine's hierarchy is a hierarchy of value, that which is at the top of the hierarchy is that which is best, and it is therefore also that which most truly is. The things lower on the hierarchy are not as good, and so don't exist as fully [1]. This gives us the notion of degrees of reality [2]. Many might argue that a thing is either real or it is not, it either exists or it doesn't, but this is not the case where Augustine is concerned. In his view (and, of course, Plato's) there is simply no problem whatever deriving an "ought" from an "is"; what most truly is is what is best, and so is what ought to be. The more a thing exists, the more it ought to exist. With a more detailed examination of Augustine's hierarchy, it can be seen that physical objects, bodies at the bottom of the hierarchy, and indeed all of creation by comparison with God, is in Augustine's phrase 'prope nihil', or 'next to nothing'. Creatures like us are not nothing, of course, but by comparison with the Being that is God, they are next to nothing. Creatures are, but they by no means exist in the fullest sense - this is reserved for God alone. In virtue of being the most real, God is also the Good par excellence. If there were anything in Augustine's world that was purely evil - so that it were not even in the slightest degree good - then, by the equation of Good with Being, that thing would simply not exist. There is no place on Augustine's hierarchy of reality for a principle of evil, a kind of "Form of Evil" to match the form of Good [3].

This approach to the world seems to be much more satisfying than that of the Manichees. They were dualists; for them, the world is split between two poles, a force of good and a force of evil. Under the Platonic equation of Good with Being, this is simply not possible - if God created everything below him on the hierarchy, then he would have created the force of evil too, and so could hardly be said to be good par excellence [4]. Since there is no force of evil, everything on the hierarchy is good, albeit in varying degrees. Evil of course is a fact that has to be accounted for (Augustine knows too much about evil to deny that) but his account of evil does not begin by finding a place for it on his hierarchy. For Augustine, there is nothing that can be evil by its nature. Augustine rejects the notion that is sometimes referred to as the theory of 'metaphysical evil', the theory that anything falling short of the Good (God) is to that extent 'imperfect', and therefore bad or evil by its nature. Augustine, though, is not of course denying that people sin, that they do things something that they ought not to do, and things sometimes happen that ought not to happen. Taking Augustine's viewpoint, when we say that a thing is good in a certain respect we mean that there are certain real features about it that make it good. But when we say that something is evil in a certain respect, we do not mean that there are some different real features about it that make it evil. Instead we mean that the features that, if they were present, would make the thing good in that respect are not there. In other words, evil is not just the absence, the non-presence, of good. If it were, then the less good would automatically be the more evil, and we would be back to the Manichean polar view that has already been rejected. Augustine thinks of evil as a 'privation' or lack of good, not just an absence or non-presence of good. A lack or privation is not just an absence - is an absence of something that ought to be there. In essence, to say that something is evil for Augustine is to say that it does not have certain good-making features that it ought to have [5].

The lower things on the Augustinian hierarchy are not as good as the higher ones: there is an absence of high-degree good in their case. But they are not on that account evil, because this absence is not an absence of a good they ought to have. If it were, this would amount to saying that lower goods ought to be higher goods, which is ridiculous. But how can we account for the fact that people do what they ought not to do, and why do things happen that ought not to happen? On Augustine's hierarchy, in simple terms, the higher things ought to have power over the lower, while the lower things ought not to have power over the higher. When things are as they ought to be - the higher ruling the lower - then that is just, and ordered. Otherwise, it is unjust, and disordered [6]. Therefore evil then must be injustice or disorder.

To summarise the approach so far, the analysis of the notion of evil has led to the notion of 'ought', which in turn led to the notions of justice and order and their correlatives injustice and disorder. To ask how evil arises is to ask how we can account for disorder or injustice in the world. But how does it come about that lower things on the hierarchy can come to have power over the higher ones? It is certainly not God who gives lower things power over the higher, because God has arranged things so that the higher have power over the lower, just as they ought, not the other way around. But the question remains: who upsets the just hierarchical order that has been established by God? The answer is that humans do, and we do it through our free will. Lower things can appear to be given a power over higher things by us, a power that they don't really have even after we have given it to them. Take love as an example: when you love someone, that person, in a sense, has a power over you that he or she doesn't really have. You give certain considerations power in your life that otherwise would not have that power. Certain situations command certain responses on your part, even though you still have the power to do otherwise. You have the power, but you choose not to exercise it. This case brings the role of will to the forefront, and leads to an evaluation of the apparent paradox of evil [7]. If God knows about evil by his omniscience, has the power to prevent it by his omnipotence, and is benevolent and just and so will arrange things to avoid evil wherever he can then it looks as though there can be no evil in the world. It has been successfully prevented by a power strong enough to do so. And yet God is supposed to have all these properties, even though there is evil in the world. This paradox, in essence, is the traditional 'problem of evil' [8].

For a believer in God, the existence of evil is a paradox, but Augustine does not try to eliminate its paradoxical nature. Augustine wants to show that intellectual honesty does not require a refutation of faith and belief in God, and he attempts this not by removing the element of paradox but by showing how it can be reduced to a familiar paradox that we cannot deny: the paradox by which we give power over us to things that we have power over - and that moreover we still have power over even when we give them power over us. For Augustine, this fact just cannot be denied. We have free will, and that means we can use it in this disordered way. But in what sense does Augustine think we have free will, and how can he be so sure we have it in that sense? Augustine argues in 'On Free Choice Of The Will' that nothing can force a mind or soul that is just to submit to what he calls "lust". The Latin is 'libido', and it means any kind of disordered desire by which one's highest values are placed in things that we can lose against our will. The reason nothing can force a mind or soul to do this is that God has made the world justly (if this is not believed to be the case, then you don't have the problem of evil to begin with). Since the order of things is just, things lower than a just soul cannot force it to submit to lust. They don't have the power; they are simply not strong enough. As well as this, other just souls cannot force one of their own to submit to lust (first of all, they are just by hypothesis, and so would not do such a thing, but second, if they tried, they would ipso facto become unjust, and so fall in the hierarchy of things). Nor can things above a just soul on the hierarchy force a just soul to submit to lust (in a sense they have the power to do so, since they are higher than the just souls, and so have power over them, but they would not do such a thing, and would fail if they tried) [9]. Augustine concludes, if a just soul falls from its place, it does so under its own initiative, since nothing else can make it do so. Therefore, it has only itself to blame - it falls by way of its own free will.

Augustine believes he can be sure he has free will, and so he has what he needs to make his solution to the problem of evil work. Augustine's plan is to reduce the paradox of the problem of evil to another paradox that he thinks he can prove we must accept, even if it does appear paradoxical. Basically, Augustine's notion of free will is the notion of a will that nothing can overpower. It is not subject to external constraint. What the will does it does not because it is caused to do so from some external agency; it does so under its own steam. Does this fit with Augustine's hierarchy? Isn't God just, and hasn't he arranged things so that while the lower does not have power over the higher, the higher does have power over the lower? Doesn't it follow then that everything higher than the will has power over the will, so that it is not free from external constraint after all, and is not entirely in its own power? Higher things cannot not force the will to choose evil since in the very attempt to do so they would sink lower in the hierarchy and so lose the power to do so. But couldn't they force the will to choose good? Augustine never really considers this point, but what he might have said is that, strictly speaking, what has a place in the hierarchy is not a will but a soul. It is true that higher things have power over human souls; they have this power to make the soul choose good. God could make human souls choose good. Of course, if this was so then the souls wouldn't be free, but he doesn't. He chooses not to exercise that power, and leaves it up to the souls themselves. On this view, then, free will (and Augustine has argued that every will is a free will) is not some separate faculty of the soul. If it were, it would have a place on the hierarchy, and so could be overpowered even if it isn't, but that would be contradictory, since wills are necessarily free. On the contrary, the will is just the same entity as the soul itself - only we call it a 'will' because it is left to its own power [10]. Taking this logical assumption into account, here Augustine arrives convincingly at a conclusion that for many may not be a definitive answer to the question of evil, but is the closest that anybody has come to it.

In conclusion, Augustine's reduction of the question of evil to the question of free will certainly comes close to giving reason for the existence of evil despite the paradoxes involved with faith in the Good. Augustine explains in his attempt to answer the question that to do evil, to be evil, is a choice that each of us makes freely; it cannot be a tendency given to us by our creator, it cannot be prompted by anything external to us. With this view Augustine believes he has reconciled his belief with the paradox that there can be no evil in his hierarchy of being.


1. Saint Augustine 'Confessions' (Penguin Classics, London, 1961; Book VII, Part 11, p147)

2. Genest, Jeremiah 'Augustine On Evil'
( - accessed 7/11/2000)

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. ibid.

6. ibid.

7. ibid.

8. ibid.

9. ibid.

10. ibid.