Philosophy Theology

Augustine on the Nature of Evil

Although Confessions is long-winded prayer and an autobiography, Confessions is also a work of profound philosophical and psychological importance.  The first half of Confessions roughly deals with anthropology, the tension between desire and reason, and the need for reason to order desire to achieve what desire seeks.  The second half of Confessions shifts to a more philosophical and theological commentary, which includes Augustine’s famous meditation on evil.

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Augustine’s treatment of evil follows the broader classical tradition but is also intertwined with a Christian theological controversy: Manicheanism.  Manicheanism was a radical dualist and gnostic sect that Augustine was once a member of, it was influenced by Neoplatonism as well, but can be understood as a neo-Platonic heresy too (for instance, Plotinus rebuts the dualistic Gnostics in his own Enneads).  The Manicheans promoted the view that can be traced back to Marcion of Sinope, one of the most notable early heretics who promoted the view that matter was evil and created by the low god of matter (the Demiurge) but that Christ was the embodiment and reflection of true God (e.g. Wisdom) of immaterialism and goodness.  Doctrinally, orthodox Christianity rejects both monism (materialism only, or idealism only) and dialectical dualism (the separation of good and evil being idealism and materialism respectively) – it is therefore inaccurate to characterize Christianity is promoting dualism, although a cursory reading might seem to suggest this (dualism is prominent in Gnosticism and various strands of radical Protestantism owing to their unwitting and often unrealized theology of absolute divine simplicity rather than divine simplicity as defined by the ecumenical councils).

The Manicheans followed the precedence in viewing the body and the world of matter as entrapping one’s soul and rational intellect, causing it to be obsessively concerned with material things only and therefore prevent the ‘mind’s road to God.’  Though Manicheanism is named after its founder, Mani, Mani was not unique in establishing this view that corporeality was evil (darkness) and spirituality was good (light) where in this material world the corporeal beauty or light was the emanating flashes of the soul trying to escape its terrestrial imprisonment and the grand battle and drama of the world was this contest between bodies of darkness and spirits of light. There were many teachers in antiquity who taught similar doctrines, like Marcion of Sinope and Valentinus of Rome—both gnostic leaders who had sects named after them.

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Augustine followed the orthodox reading of Scripture from Genesis 1. God created the world and it was “good.” Rather than matter being evil; and matter was preexistent chaos in Manichean doctrine, matter was good though of a lesser good. Integral to Augustine’s theodicy, if we wish to call it that, is the typical early Christian belief that there was no equality of goodness among all things (Confessions, vii.xii.18)[1] but a gradation of goodness through a laddered hierarchy of being.

Rather than argue, as the Manicheans did, that evil was a thing, Augustine argued that evil was no-thing. There is nothing evil which exists. There is merely corruption, or privation, of that which exists. “It was obvious to me that things which are liable to corruption are good” (vii.xii.18). Why? By the logical entailment of corruption. If something can become corrupted that means it is, in corrupt form, a depreciation (or privation) of its good form. Logic necessitates this law of entailment. “If there was no good in them, there would be nothing capable of being corrupted” (Ibid.). In establishing the reality that all good things entail the possibility of corruption given the acceptance of corruptibility, Augustine can conclude “evil does not exist at all” (vii.xiii.19).

Thus, all things that exist are, by nature, good. Everything that exists entails the possibility of corruption. Ipso facto, “evil” is not a thing but a “privation of some good” (vii.xii.18). That privation of some good is the slippage into isolation which depreciates totality. That is, goodness is the whole, the total whole, rather than an isolated ingredient. This is because Augustine is not a reductionist. Augustine is a unitive pluralist; like a giant painting a painting is only beautiful when it is revealed in its total splendor. When you concentrate only on small sections, or darker coloring, you confuse this for ugliness or evil because you have lost sight of the whole. Taken as a whole, the entirety of that which exists is good.

Evil, therefore, is also a product of incorrect thinking. This was the error of the Manichees. “But in the parts of the universe, there are certain elements which are thought evil because of a conflict of interest. These elements are congruous with other elements and as such are good, and are also good in themselves” (vii.xiii.19). Note what Augustine says here, part of the identification of things as being evil is from improper reasoning, “there are certain elements which are thought evil.” With this newfound insight, Augustine says, “I no longer wished individual things to be better, because I considered the totality” (Ibid.). Things that exist as they are cannot get more being. Augustine, here, establishes a principle which later 20th century existentialists like Simone de Beauvoir, who was in her own ways radical Augustinians of an atheistic existentialist stripe, would pick up on.[2] Man’s being, indeed, the creation as being if it has any being, is what it is. Creation, as being, cannot get more being. It can, however, by the law of logical entailment, suffer a privation of being when not considered as part of the cosmic whole. “Yet with sounder judgement,” Augustine muses, “I held that all things taken together are better than superior things by themselves” (Ibid.).

Continuing with his reflections on the origins and ends of evil, Augustine meanders into a discussion of falsity. Falsity, Augustine maintains, is that which we signify when we encounter improper reasoning. Falsity exists only because of incorrect reasoning—a reasoning which has led to a depreciated understanding of that which is. “So all things,” Augustine says, “are real insofar as they have being, and the term ‘falsehood’ applies only when something is thought to have being which does not” (vii.xv.21).

Now encountering the question of wickedness, Augustine identifies wickedness as the depreciating medium from which evil emerges as a privation of goodness. For wickedness is in the will of man, and the wicked will is transfixed on lower goods rather than the totality of goodness within the whole. “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, towards inferior things” (vii.xvi.22). Wicked wills are the medium from which evil emerges as a destruction of the whole because the wicked will only concentrates on isolated lesser, and ephemeral things, which would not exist without the Being that sustains it, namely God.

It is here that we need to read between the lines to understand what exactly evil is, then, in Augustine’s theodicy. Will is predicated on actus, or movement. Wicked wills compel action to lesser things which disintegrate, or isolate, or destroy, a lesser good from a larger total good. Evil, then, is an action of destruction or privation which is motivated by improper reasoning which leads to the will acting upon these improper thoughts. (Like identifying one’s happiness as going to consummate from a rape of woman; or identifying one’s power in murdering the king and usurping the throne; or in identifying the acquisition of money for oneself as that which will bring meaningfulness to one’s life.) Therefore, evil is the movement of will the away from Truth and the Absolute Good—evil is no-thing and has no substance. I would like to add, here, that evil is not “non-being” as some say (especially those influenced by eastern philosophies) because that’s a contradiction in ontic metaphysics.

Augustine’s theodicy seems perplexing and counterintuitive to most on first read—but once understanding it many will realize that his view of evil is probably what we ourselves unconsciously believe too. (1) All things that exist are, by definition, and being, good. (2) Evil, therefore, does not exist. Instead, what we call evil is a privation of goodness, which is a privation of being. (3) We reason incorrectly, and weakly, so begin depreciating totality. This depreciation of totality which stems from improper reasoning leads some to conclude that evil things exist (like the Manichees). (4) Wickedness is the will transfixed, or concentrated, on lesser things which tear apart the isolated lesser things from the whole. This tearing apart of that which exists as a part of a larger totality is what we call evil. (5) Evil, therefore, is an action of destruction rather than anything that exists substantially. For actions that cause the depreciation of being is what we call evil as it takes away goodness which exists.

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It is important to remember that Augustine’s discourse on evil comes at the threshold moment of his life; he is in Milan standing at the cusp of his conversion. Christ and the Scriptures are manifestly present in this book; whereas in the preceding books, while Augustine constantly interjects his confession with Scriptural allusions and quotations (mostly from the Psalms), Christ has largely been invisible save for one direction mention in Book III (cf. iii.iv.8). His decade long flirtation with Manicheanism has come to an end. He is a catechumen in the Catholic Church and attending mass and listening to the preaching of Saint Ambrose. Though, as he confessed earlier, while a catechumen he was also hedging his bets knowing it would be some time before his confirmation—this in-between time is when he begins to encounter the works of the Platonists (namely Plotinus) which helps direct him away from the errors of Manicheanism and to the partial and glimpsed truths of Neoplatonism. This Neoplatonic ascent allows Augustine to catch a brief glimpse of the supreme good (God), but he crashes down because he cannot willfully sustain on his own. Here, he turns to God and the Catholic Church which is detailed in Book VIII which contains his famous conversion scene in the gardens of Milan.

But in moving away from Manicheanism he wanted to refute the Manicheans. That is the primary reason for his discourse on the nature and end of evil in this book. As he is approaching Christian orthodoxy, he must free his mind from all the errors impregnated into it by Manicheanism. Platonism may have served as a first undressing and washing away of the Manichean errors, but as Augustine acknowledges, it in of itself did not provide the saving waters of grace through baptism.

In the end, Augustine concludes that evil is an action that depreciates the goodness of being; whatever that being is and however much that being has. The worst evil is the elimination of being (i.e. death or killing) because it is better to be than not to be. Some things have less goodness in comparison to other things. But all things have a goodness relative to their individual instantiation. The destruction, or depreciation (privation) of this goodness through improper willing is what evil is. Evil is destructive action. It is not some-thing that exists in substance. Only goodness exists in substance. When we mar this substance of goodness we suffer corruption. Corruption is that privation of goodness from wicked action.

Deep down, many people in the West today still share Augustine’s sentiment over the nature of evil without recognizing it—a testament to Augustine’s longstanding and enduring cultural legacy. We, like him, tend to think things that exist are good. We, like him, tend to identify evil not so much with any sort of substantial thing but with “wicked” or “evil” actions. Evil is the movement of the will away from the good; and this movement away from the good is a privation of the good—this is what we call “evil.” There is no evil substance. The belief that there is evil substance, a substantive and substantial evil that does exist, is the second most dominant view of evil in the West.


[1] Citations come from Henry Chadwick’s translation and I’m following his intertextual notations.

[2] See, in particular, Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity.

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