Saturday, April 8, 2017

Augustine on the Origin of Evil (Notes:51)

Early in Augustine’s life, he would pose the question of evil; it is something which, despite wrestling with throughout his whole life, he never quite managed to let it go in revelation of some great answer. But as with other aspects of Augustine’s philosophy, the question of evil would go through a platonic stage with a Trinitarian twist.

The first book where Augustine deals with this subject is a dialog called On Free choice of the Will. The dialog begins with someone asking “Isn’t God the cause of Evil?” It is a jarring question. After all, if God created everything, then evil came from God, otherwise, how would it have emerged if not from God, creator of all things? But if this is the case, then God is unjustly punishing sinners; supposed that God created human nature in a way which it was bound to turn to evil, then when we did evil, then we, as human beings, would be merely doing what God had designed us to do. God then punishing us for being how he created us, then, is an unjust act.

So, for Augustine, then, the question on the origin of evil has two aspects: the metaphysical aspect (whether evil is a component of creation and what evil constitutes; how God, as a presumably purely good entity, is able to create evil, something not of himself), and the moral aspect of the question (how do we reconcile the existence of evil with the goodness of God? Doesn’t evil’s existence go against the claim that god is wholly good as a creator? And if evil did not emerge from god, then how does one reconcile the idea that god did not actually create all that affect us?).

Augustine’s initial failure to answer this question drove him to the Manaqueism, who taught that evil was independent of and external to, good; the idea being that because the entire universe is a battle ground for these two forces, whenever we do something bad, it is the evil force who has temporarily triumphed in the local skirmish. Because to Augustine, however, it was inconceivable to imagine a being greater than God, how would one corrupt the incorruptible? The violable is lesser than the inviolable (etc.). Augustine began to believe that what the Manaques called ‘goodness’ was not like this arrangement because what they called good was subject to defeat at the hands of evil (the inviolable become violated). Ergo, if God is supreme creator, then he must be inviolable.

Though Augustine realized this before coming to Platonism, the Platonists helped him see that if God was going to be like this—inviolable and supreme—then he had to stand apart from space and time. Truth itself, Augustine comes to believe, is like this: particular truths come into and out of being, but Truth itself, is eternal and unchanging. And yet, Truth is clearly real, despite it being above our minds while regulating our minds. Truth, also stands outside of space and time—it would be pointless to ask how old Truth is or how far Truth is from two distinct points. The Platonists help Augustine realize that being real does not demand being spatially or temporally extended.

More importantly, though, Augustine learns from the Platonists that Truth is the very same thing as God. When you think about Truth regulating and changing your mind, it is God regulating and changing your mind. It is God to whom all other things must conform if they are to be true; when things depart from God, they depart from Truth and fall into falsehood.

Things other than God have being because they are from God, but they also lack being because they are not wholly what God is—they are corruptible, extended in space and time. Augustine comes to his account of evil by meditating on the corruptible.

But, what do we mean by corruption?

Well, corruption means, in part, damage—it loses some of the good that it had. What that means is that every corruptible thing is good, because if it were not good than it could not be damaged (if it has no good then there is no good to lose, no damage or corruption to suffer). So anything which is capable of being corrupted is, to some extent, good.

From this account, Augustine realizes that if you took away all of a thing’s goodness, then it would cease to exist. For if a thing existed, but lacked goodness, then it would be incorruptible—incapable of being damaged. Evil, there forth, is not a reality in its own right; evil is a privation, a lack.

To illustrate this, Professor Williams says to think of a hole in a shirt. What is a hole in a shirt? It is a space where a shirt ought to be. It is not an actual thing like a button or a pocket which is added onto the shirt—it is a subtraction from the reality of the shirt; it is important that the ‘ought to be’ is in this example, since holes for sleeves are planned by design, and therefore constitute the good of the shirt. This is not the same as a hole in the shirt, which constitutes damage and therefore corruption.

Evil, accordingly, acts in the same way: just as a hole in a shirt in damage—a hole where shirt ought to be—evil is the ‘hole’ where goodness ought to be. It is not a positive reality in its own right (like a horse, or a tree, or an angel). This conclusion solves the metaphysical problem for Augustine.
But that does not solve the moral question since we can still ask why this lack comes about.

Even though evil has no positive reality of its own, does not God still allow damage and corruption? To answer this, Augustine draws on the Christian notion that God is a trinity. Since God is perfect goodness, and because God is a trinity, it is not surprising that goodness too is threefold.

This is the fusion of Platonism into Christianity—Augustine says that Goodness is: Measure, Form, and Order. It follows then, that evil is a perversion of Measure, Form, and Order. So the origin of evil is not but one question, but three questions.

By Measure, Augustine means the greatness or excellence of a nature. The more Measure a thing has, the more it resembles God. This is the sense in which angels are ‘better’ than human beings—they are more like God, higher in their nature; it is also in this sense that worms and vipers are low-level goods. So the privation of Measure is a lack of a sense of any relation to God. It is the distance between the nature of the creature and the nature of God. Still, this is not evil, since evil, remember, is a lack of something where something ought to be—both examples, humans, and worms, are designed by God to be how they are, nothing is lacking. It is God’s choice that there be a vast assortment of creatures with their own level of Measure (from inanimate objects to worms, people, and angels).

Form, meanwhile, is that which judges whether a creature is living up to the standards of its nature. It is the sense in which a knife has good ‘form’ if it cuts well, if it does its job as a knife, as cutting things, well. Ergo, a virtuous human being is better than an unvirtuous human being. Whereas Measure is merely the closeness of a creature to God, all humans have the same Measure, but not the same Form. Though there is many privations in Form—from sloppy thinking to improper eye-sight—but the most important is wrongdoing, or sin—moral evil, in other words.

We now come to Order. Augustine uses the term to refer to the harmonious arrangement of things. The way in which the various components of the universe fit together both locally and globally. The privation of Order, of course, is Disorder (or ‘Natural Evil’ as contemporary philosophers call it). Augustine would have to reject the idea of Natural Evil, though, because to him there is no privation of Order; what we call disorder may be alien to us, but were we to look out into the cosmos we would see that everything is perfectly ordered: Augustine uses the example of a painting—if you look real close at one splotch, then it may seem nonsensical until you pull far enough away to see the whole painting and realize that that splotch was what exactly was needed to contribute to the beauty and the reality of the painting.

So, though we see God get off the hook for the existence of evil and how it comes about, we still need to ask ourselves how it comes about—how is it that moral evil exists? Is God responsible for this? Why, in other words, did Adam fall?

Augustine wants to strongly imply that there is no answer since evil is a lack. To ask how evil came to be in Adam’s will is to ask how Nothing came to be in Adam’s will. Nothing has no cause or explanation. So, to a certain extent, the origins of moral evil, must remain a mystery. This is at least the account for Original Sin. Does it hold up in later, modern, sin?


In principle, it is open to Augustine to explain post-Fall sins either in that same exact way or some other way. Augustine will suggest, though, despite it not being in the purview of this lecture, that post-Fall sin is different from Original Sin and demands a different lens; one which involves the idea of Grace and a return to God.

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