Augustine and Evil (knievel)

Alright! We said we’d do this last week, and we’re actually doing it, so be excited. I know I am. We were chatting about the whole free will thing, and I asked if God gave us our will, why isn’t He responsible for our sinfulness? If everything that we are comes from God, why is it our fault when we do bad things? This extends beyond the free will question – it’s also about our personalities, our souls, our desires – if we’ve been given everything that we are, why is it our responsibility when we do bad things? Surely it would have made more sense for God to just make us in such a way that we couldn’t do bad things, and then nothing bad would ever happen and we could all just get on with living decent lives.

There’s all sorts of different responses to the question, but today we’re going to look at Augustine’s answer. It comes at the start of Book XI in City of God, where the positive Christian construction takes the place of the extended rebuttal of the pagans. I’m pretty sure we’ve touched on this line before:

“There can be no doubt that the fault of wickedness supervenes upon a faultless natural state. Evil is contrary to nature; in fact it can only do harm to nature; and it would not be a fault to withdraw from God were it not that it is more natural to adhere to him.” (XI, 17)

The point is, here, that we were in fact created to be good. Every time God makes something in Genesis, He looks at it and goes “Yeah, that’s good”. It’s not that we were somehow designed with a compromised nature – on the contrary, we were made perfect. This perfection was perverted, through the freely made decision of the first humans, and we all bear the consequences of that choice. Evil is thus a perversion, a denegration of our initial state of perfection:

“evils can harm natural substances liable to change and injury, although the very fact that perversions are perversions is a proof that such natures are in themselves good” (XII, 3)

If people weren’t inherently good, perversion/evil wouldn’t be destructive. Augustine argues that evil is a fall, a degeneration from our perfect state to a lesser state of being (note the hierarchy again: Plato’s influence). He also notes that there’s a difference between ‘evil’ and stuff that just hacks us off, pointing out that fire’s not great if you stick your hand in it, but that’s because you’re stupid, not because fire’s ‘evil’. Evil is a fall, a lessening of being, a crumbling away into nothingness.

So then: where does evil come from? Why do we live in a reality where evil has the possibility of existing? Augustine basically straight-up says he doesn’t know (XII, 7). He describes evil as silence, or darkness – as nothingness, basically – and says that he doesn’t know what causes it (and furthermore, he doesn’t think it’s possible to know). What he does say is that we’re created in perfection, and any fall away from goodness is a voluntary decision, a willful self-destruction of our (initially) perfect nature. This is the free will stuff again, by the way. The question of whether or not God’s responsible is pretty directly answered, through the whole concept of the Fall, but there’s not really any straight answer on why evil exists.

That said, we almost don’t really need to know. Most of the times that I’ve had this conversation about sin and punishment, it revolves around the idea that God’s not playing fair by punishing us for stuff if we’ve got this sinful nature that He gave us in the first place. That’s not really an accurate description of the situation though, given how Augustine’s presenting it – I daresay he’d had similar discussions back in the 4th century. Probably the most pertinent reply in that situation is another question: given that God made us perfect, what could possibly make us want to stray?

Bit of a short one today, but I feel like I’ve been talking about this central concept of evil throughout several other pieces on Augustine, so I don’t feel like I’m neglecting anything. Drop me a line if you’d like to talk about anything more in detail though! 🙂


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