Augustines Treatment of the Evil

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The theme of the evil has been a universal concern for philosophers and religious leaders of all historical epochs and all nationalities. With emergence of the Christian philosophy, this matter acquired a new meaning and new philosophical ground, suggested by Saint Augustine. The controversy of coexistence of the good and the evil in the world was justified and explained by him in a quite original way, which opened new horizons for humane vision of reality. Augustine suggested that the evil cannot exist independently as an absolute entity but only as part of beings and phenomena, which are essentially good.

When Christianity spread across Europe, it became obvious that apart from religious doctrine it needed philosophical grounding. The Bible was compelled from pieces originated in different epochs and written by different people, who apparently were influenced by a whole number of factors ranging from personal beliefs to the political situation at the time. Thus, in its early stages Christianity lacked integrity and unity, because its different parts were contradictory to each other. One of such dilemmas that were posed by philosophy is the problem of the evil in relation to God. In Christianity, God is declared to be omnipotent, all-seeing and all-loving, so this raises a number of questions about the origin and justification of the evil in the world. The dilemma consists in the fact that if God is all-seeing than he is aware of the evil that is committed on the Earth. Hence, if he is almighty, than he is able to prevent this evil from happening. However, if he sees the evil and can stop it, why does he allow it happening? In this case he is either not all-loving or not omnipotent, which sounded as a challenge to philosophes to explain.

Saint Augustine was a devoted proponent of Christianity, so the option of God’s not being perfect in any way would not satisfy him. So, the philosopher’s claims were based on theodicy, an axiom suggesting that God is faultless and just. To prove this point of view and resolve the dilemma of the evil and God, he resorts to both purely Christian arguments and classical philosophy including Plato.  Referring to Plato, Augustine repeated his suggestion that the evil is not an independent force that competes with the good. Instead, he claims that the good is the nature of absolutely all things in the Universe, even those which can be characterized as evil ones. However, because of the reason that people and phenomena have a limited time to last, they cannot realize their potential goodness to its full, hence the evil emerges as imperfection of the initial goodness. Thus, evil is not a quality of things but lack or absence of a certain quality represented by the good.  Augustine also uses Aquinas’ ideas, which present “goodness as achieved actuality. In other words, to be good is to express your own nature” (Thompson).

Although this vision partially resolves the dilemma, it still does not answer the question why God allows the world to be imperfect instead of making it perfect according to his own nature. So, Augustine uses purely Christian justification to explain this situation and refers directly to the Bible. Because of the original sin, Adam and Eve were separated from God, as well as their descendants were. Due to their wrong moral choice they were devoid of perfection and yet acquired responsibility and freedom of choice. Hence, Augustine states that God is not responsible for the evil that takes place in the world, as it is responsibility of humans. To understand the philosophical premises that Augustine used, it is important to note that there are several types of the evil, which are classified by him. The first type is the so-called natural or metaphysical evil, which is independent of humans, their choices and activities. It refers to natural disasters, deceases and death, and is not influenced by people. Metaphysical evil and natural evil are synonymous, but natural evil refers mostly to phenomena of nature, while metaphysical evil is a more global term. It exists because it is a part of world’s imperfect nature, as designed by God for people after Adam and Eve, so the nature of human universe has inbuilt imperfection. Another kind of evil, which is called a moral one, is quite different in its nature. It results directly from the freedom of will, which people have, and which makes them take wicked choices sometimes. Hence, it is impossible to blame God for this type of the evil, as it is caused by humans. The natural evil is considered to be the primary one, as it would have existed even if there were no moral evil. However, if there were no natural evil, moral evil would have not existed either because no notion of imperfection would have been available to humans to follow. Hence, as explained by  Augustine, natural evil is crucial for understanding the origin of all evil and is caused by falling of the angels and then the original sin committed by Adam and Eve.

When discussing Augustine’s views of evil, it is worth saying that they underwent certain evolution throughout his life. In his early writing, he focus more on the fact that humans have free will but tend to abuse it; hence, the existence of evil. However, in his later works Augustine’s philosophical views transformed. The concept of free will as a source of evil remained but the philosopher started to pay more attention to predetermination. He insisted that “predestination is not based upon God’s prevision of faith and good works, but that faith and good works are the result of grace which follows from eternal predestination to salvation” (Griffin p.55). Augustine focused on explaining the fact why good and wicked people seem to get the same benefits and the same share of suffering in this world. Hence, the idea of God’s justice was challenged by this dilemma. However, the philosopher has several arguments to defend God’s justice. First of all, he believes that human idea of justice is wrong because it is confined to living in the material world. Yet, what a person gets today is just a small share compared to afterlife. So, Augustine suggests that it is wrong to judge about God’s justice only upon present, while future praise and punishments are not yet revealed. Besides, because human mind is limited, it is impossible for it to grasp the good that stands behind many situations that are interpreted as evil. This means that suffering can lead to moral perfection, which is good in the end. Secondly, seemingly negative experience can be a lesser evil to the one, which is avoided as a result of a small evil. Finally, evil can be a path to future good, which is stored for a person.

To conclude, it would be true to say that Augustine is successful in justifying existence of evil from different points of view. Although he partially focuses on predestination, he still believes that existence of evil is caused by misuse of good. This happens because people have free will, so they generate evil by their own imperfection. Although it might sound pessimistic, these responsibility and freedom give people a chance to affect the universe in a positive way and decrease the amount of evil by the right deeds.

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