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The Problem of Evil

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Jimmy Thomas

Phil 50

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The Problem of Evil

Everyday at least some kind of act happens where someone dies, where someone is killed. Anyone can read the newspaper or watch the news and find suicide bombings or mass murders that happened that day. Many have tried to understand the evil of this world and make sense of it, but the doctrine of evil is one of the most debated areas of philosophy. Many have come up with their own doctrines but only one doctrine of evil, by Augustine, remains the main source of understanding evil and where it comes from.

Augustine's doctrine of evil is certainly among the more debated areas of philosophy. In this paper we will examine Augustine's arguments on the idea of evil and determine whether or not they are still satisfying in the modern world. We do this first by examining what Augustine believed evil actually was and where it came from. After we review Augustine's views on evil, we will consider arguments that claim Augustine's interpretation to be insufficient for explaining evil in the contemporary world. We will find that although Augustine's arguments on the subject of evil are enough to explain evil itself, they fall short in helping us to understand the root causes of evil.

In Augustine's time, the Manicheans dealt with the question of evil by teaching that, within man, there are two fundamental principles struggling for supremacy; one good and the other evil. In this battle it is the evil principle that gives rise to the immoral or sinful actions of an individual person. The essential problem with this doctrine was that it allowed the Manichean to escape moral responsibility for his own sin because a person could simply say that an immoral act was an instance where the evil principle that existed within him had overwhelmed the good nature.

St. Augustine's new understanding of evil is most easily explained in what may loosely be called the form of a mathematical proof. Many of St. Augustine's arguments in regard to the nature of evil are based on the following axioms:

Axiom 1: God created all things

Axiom 2: God is good

Axiom 3: Evil is not good

If we were to summarize the Manichean criticism of Catholic doctrine into the theorem "God created evil" we would quickly find such a theorem to be false. According to Axiom 2, the idea that "God created evil" must be false because a good God could not create evil things unless of course evil itself was good. By Axiom 3, we know that evil is not good so this cannot be case. Therefore, the theorem is false, and logically, the opposite of the theorem must be true. This (dis)proof gives us what we shall refer to for our purposes as Theorem 1: "God did not create evil". The book of Genesis further supports this theorem because after viewing all that he had created, God saw that it was good (and therefore, not evil).

If God did not create evil, we are still left with the question: "What is evil and where did it come from?" By Axiom 1, we know that God created all things. However, by Theorem 1, we know that God did not create evil. It logically follows that if God did not create evil, then evil must not be a "thing" (because as we learned in our proof of Theorem 1, God only created good things). However, this is an unsatisfactory definition of evil because it simply tells us what evil is not rather than what evil is. We know that evil is not a thing, but to find the true nature of evil we must consider a different line of reasoning which first considers the nature of God.

According to Augustine, God is being itself; the most pure and supreme form of existence. Everything else is God's creation and fits into a descending scale of being where the further something is from God, the less true its existence. This may be described as what we might call a "ladder of being" where, close to God, Augustine places heavenly beings such as angels. On the next rung of the "ladder" he places the human soul and near the bottom he places all other material "things."

For Augustine, evil has no positive nature, but the loss of good has been given the name "evil." Evil is not a thing, but rather, a name for a lack of true existence or a label for how far a person has descended the "ladder of being" away from God. The Manichean doctrine that evil is a substance that exists in conflict with God has no merit for Augustine. Augustine observed that evil always injures, and that such an injury is a deprivation of good. If there wasn't deprivation the injury would not have existed in the first place. Since all things are made with goodness, evil must be the privation of goodness.

Thus, the final question to consider about evil is how man, a creature created good by God, can do evil? The answer may be found in Augustine's doctrine of free will and the corruptibility of man. According to Augustine, God is both good and incorruptible. His creatures are good but not incorruptibly, necessarily, or absolutely good (this distinguishes them from God). Additionally, man has the gift of free will that allows him to turn away from God or act in a manner contrary to His command if he chooses to do so. Failing to obey God moves a person away from Him, and this act of disobedience is what we call evil. As Augustine himself writes in The City of God, "when the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower it becomes evil, not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself if wicked."

Based on the interpretation of Augustine's doctrine of evil given above, it would certainly be tempting to argue that Augustine's arguments are inapplicable to the contemporary world. A modern critic might argue that at the time he wrote books such as the Confessions and The City of God, the world had not seen such extreme incidents of what we would call "evil" today. A person who had lost family members to the Holocaust in Germany or the September 11th hijacking attacks on the United States would argue that the events that took place during modern times are nothing like what Augustine could have possibly imagined, and in light of recent history, one cannot make a rational argument that evil does not exist.

These critics would certainly be correct if Augustine had said that evil was "nothing" or that evil "does not exist". These quotes often attributed to Augustine are misinterpretations



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