PHL 205 Lecture 5: Augustine on Evil
There are strictly speaking two questions:
(1) What is evil?
(2) Why is there evil in the world?
The second question is especially pressing for someone who holds that the world is the creation of a good God. Let‟s
address these questions one by one.
I. What is evil?
1. Augustine’s early (Manichean) view of evil:
Evil is some material substance
“For the same reason I also believed that evil is a kind of material substance with its own foul and misshapen mass,
either solid which they used to call earth, or thin and subtle, as it the body of air. They imagine it to be a malignant
mind creeping through the earth. And since piety …forbade me to believe that the good God had created an evil nature,
I concluded that there are two opposed masses, both infinite, but the evil rather smaller, the good larger.” (Conf.
5.10.20; see also 7.5.7)
o Evil has existed, but God did not create the evil, therefore there must be an opposed nature
Problems with this view:
Then there must be two fundamental cosmological principles: God and the Principle of Evil. But this dualism simply
doesn‟t work (Conf. 7.2.3).
o The idea of two opposite principle is impossible
o If you say „they have to interact‟ this can mean two things: they have to because (a) of something intrinsic to
them or (b) because of something extrinsic. If (b) is the case they do not seem to be first principles. If (a):
what could this mean? Maybe that they would suffer harm and destruction if they don‟t interact. But then
this seems to jeopardize their status as first principles and it seems as if a multitude of principles could
collapse into a singular principle. If they face no harm and destruction then there seems to be no point of
interacting. (general interaction problem)
The Manichean account cannot make sense of the idea that human beings are morally responsible for their bad actions.
“With all my mind I fled from them, because in my inquiry into the origin of evil I saw them to be full of malice, in
that they thought it more acceptable to say your substance suffers evil than their own substance actively does evil”
o This jeopardizes personal responsibility
It is simply not true that the world consist of good and bad substances. Everything that exists is good. Proof in Conf.
2. Augustine’s mature view: Evil is simply a privation, the privation of goodness. Since everything that exists is good, evil things
are also somewhat good. But evils are evils insofar as they lack something, something they ought to possess. This is what it
means that “evil has no existence except as a privation of good” (Conf. 3.7.12).
Material things are perishable, it has to be good. Only the good things can be corrupted
- His conclusion would be: everything that exist is good. Evil lack something (which is good)
o Evil has no existence except in the privation of good
II. What is the origin of evil?
1. Wrong conceptions of the origin of evil
From the discussion of the ontological status of evil we have already learned that evil is not caused by an evil first
principle. But then, where does evil come from? In particular: where does it come from if everything comes from a
A famous ancient view about the origin of evil is that evil comes from matter (Platonist). But Augustine seems to reject
o “What then is the origin of evil? Is it that matter from which he made things was somehow evil? He gave it
form and order, but did he leave in it an element which he could not transform into good? If so, why? Was he
powerless to turn and transform all matter so that no evil remained, even though God is omnipotent? Finally,
why did God want to make everything out of such stuff and not rather use his omnipotence to ensure that
there was no matter at all? Could it exist contrary to God‟s will?” (Conf. 7.5.7)
It‟s not matter, its free will
His argument consist of rhetorical questions
The reason why matter is excluded is because everything that exist is good. Matter exist,
therefore matter is good.
o Matter cannot be the principle of evil because
(a) it is unclear how matter itself can be evil and
(b) This would conflict with God‟s omnipotenc