Aquinas: The Nature of Evil

We’re jumping ahead now to Aquinas on evil. There’s a couple highlights that are worth mentioning between our last port and this one – for instance, in 1a.45.3, Aquinas writes that “Creation puts a reality into a created thing only as a relation.” This is a really neat one-sentence summary of the stuff we were talking about the other week, with creation & the issue of subjects. Further, in 1a.47.3, Aquinas argues about whether or not there are multiple universes, which I wanted to stop and talk about – but I decided not to. Instead we’re getting straight into evil.

Much of what’s here will be familiar if you’ve read Augustine. If you haven’t, there’s a quick overview here, in one of my earlier posts – from over two years ago, believe it or not. Aquinas asks in 1a.48.1 whether evil is “some sort of reality.” So is evil, like, a thing? Is it a force? What is it? Well, Aquinas argues, we talk about virtues and vices, and virtues are good, and vices are evil, so evil must be the abstracted category that vices belong to – so therefore evil is a real thing. Or a real category, at least. Plus, if evil didn’t exist, there could be no evil acts, for “what does not exist does not act.” Clearly there are evil acts – therefore evil exists. You might point out that evil itself is not acting in an evil act – obviously the actor is an evil person. But if that’s true, then evil is a characteristic that can be possessed by individuals, much like happiness or hunger – and therefore it exists.

The answer, Aquinas suggests, is that evil is an absence, or a deprivation. Evil is the hole in a doughnut. Have you come across that joke? Here’s the thing – if you look at a doughnut, your regular ring-shaped doughnut, there’s clearly a hole in the middle. But if you eat your doughnut, where does the hole go? You didn’t eat it – so where’s the hole? Obviously the solution is that the hole never existed as an entity. The hole is not a thing, it’s an absence of thing. Evil is like that.

The rest of the argument falls under that basic definition of evil as lack. Vices are not the opposite of virtues in the same way that black is the opposite of white. If vices and virtues are treated as true opposites, it sort of implies that evil is a thing in the same way that good is a thing. Instead, Aquinas insists, actions are good when you do them properly and bad when you don’t. There’s also an issue of balance involved. Say you were off getting drunk. You don’t want to be drunk because you really deeply desire to stumble around like an idiot and throw up in the toilet. You’re getting drunk because you want that warm happy feeling. Or, in Aquinas’s words, you want “to obtain the sensuously pleasurable outside the order of reason.” You’re putting sense and the ability to walk straight on hold in order to get that happy buzz. You’re putting one good on hold to get an inappropriate amount of another. Again, you’re not really seeking ‘evil’, per se. Evil isn’t a thing that you’re after. You just want too much of a good thing. So again: evil in and of itself is empty and has no meaning. It only makes sense in the context of goodness, as either a deprivation or the introduction of a good thing into the wrong place. Forks are good, and toasters are good, but when you combine the two – it’s a good thing in the wrong place.

There’s a bunch of really cool ideas that come out of this definition of evil. Firstly, evil doesn’t really act, except by virtue of associated goods. So – this gets a little abstract, but stay with me. Say a child wants to run across the room and kick his baby brother. The kid is jealous, right – so we might say that jealousy is an evil feeling. But really, the kid is just jealous because he loves his mum and he doesn’t want to lose that love to the baby. At base, then, jealousy is rooted in love, which is good. If the boy had no love for his mother, he would have no jealousy; evil only exists as a parasite on goodness. Similarly, he can only run across the room because he has legs to run with and eyes to see where he’s going and energy because he’s been fed – there’s a whole bunch of associated good things that are involved in this one evil action.

What’s more, Aquinas says, evil is fundamentally pointless. Nobody actively wants evil things. Our kid from the previous paragraph wants love, and he’s willing to something bad to get it, but ultimately his desire is for a good thing. Thus, evil is never desired “save in virtue of an associated good.” I should clarify – obviously this concept seems too simple. There are probably lots of examples that would upset the apple cart, and I’m sure people have spent hundreds of years pouring over those examples and figuring out whether or not this theory can hold any water. I’m not endorsing it, necessarily, I’m just talking about it. Anyway: let’s pull up one instance that might upset our apple cart. Imagine someone who’s out for revenge. They’ve been wronged, and they’re gonna kill a bitch. Isn’t that actively wanting an evil thing? Well, arguably you could say that they just want justice – that’s a good thing. Or maybe they want to punish the person to resolve internal trauma – obviously that’s a bad method of resolution, but at base there’s a fundamentally good desire of not wanting to be traumatised. Another spanner in the cart might be the Joker – some men just want to watch the world burn, as Alfred says. Again – I’m not claiming to have resolved human nature with this one single theory. There are further questions and issues to work through. I’ll finish with this, though – Aquinas can have the last word:

“Hence evil belongs neither to the integrity of the universe nor serves its development, except incidentally because of an accompanying good.” 

That’s encouraging, isn’t it. Next week, more evil.

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