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Empty Evil and the Positive Devil in Augustinian Philosophy
Very few people have made a lasting impact that has extended past their earthly lives. Those who do often seem to accomplish such a feat by a matter of coincidence, occurring only as they are performing their normal work. St. Augustine of Hippo was such a figure. In an age of heresy, undefined doctrine, and political upheaval, St. Augustine developed a clear and cogent thought, not as a matter of self-seeking, intellectual waxing but as a response to the controversies of his day, controversies that any good bishop would deal with. Influenced by his life experience, St. Augustine posited a revolutionary view of evil and its role in the world, building upon his metaphysical and ontological groundings.
If nothing else, St. Augustine is known for going from playboy to pastor, having Christianity's greatest conversion story aside from St. Paul. He was born "of a pagan father...and a Christian mother, St. Monica," who tirelessly tried to keep her son on the right path, in the North African city of Tagaste in 354 (Copleston 40). His parents provided him with a solid educational foundation, but as a youth, St. Augustine preferred to "play...than study" (Copleston 40). At the early age of 11, he was sent to Madura, a town where he studied Latin intently and was exposed to for the first time to a highly pagan culture (Copleston 40). He went on to the big city of Carthage with, as Copleston described, its "licentious ways," drawing the North African further from his mother's faith (41). In fact, St. Augustine not only gained training as a rhetorician but also "took a mistress, with whom he had a son in his second year at Carthage" (Copleston 41).
In a sense, though, St. Augustine always aspired for the truth. With Catholicism behind him, he became interested in the Manicheans, a sect founded by supposed-visionary Mani, holding that there were two cosmic principles constantly in strife: the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Evil. In its beliefs, the human soul was a shattered particle of the Kingdom of Light that sadly existed in the world; by necessity, therefore, the soul had to free itself from the evils of the world, of which the body was the main component, and regain its former status. Being full of wayward passions, St. Augustine favored the system, enabling to "attribute them to an evil cause outside of himself" and giving light to the problem of evil (Copleston 41). Manichaeism also was purely materialistic, something St. Augustine deemed necessary because of his difficulties in conceiving an incorporeal substance (Copleston 41). Rationally, the Manicheans lived an ascetic lifestyle, in hopes of freeing the soul, but it was a lifestyle that St. Augustine was not forced to live during his nine years as an adherent, not being part of the elect (Copleston 41).
After his own schooling, St. Augustine worked as a teacher of rhetoric, eventually starting a school in Milan. The city's bishop, St. Ambrose, seemed to open St. Augustine back up to Christianity, augmenting his questions of Manichaeism, such as the necessity of eternally conflicting principles (Copleston 42). The breakthrough, though, occurred when St. Augustine was introduced to neo-Platonism, freeing him from the belief of materialism and enabling him to adopt one of a divine incorporeal substance. Evil, then, no longer had to be a dueling concept, but was rather a privation. St. Augustine was set ablaze; neo-Platonism allowed him to embrace Christianity as the one, true faith. With such a conversion, St. Augustine viewed Manichaeism disdainfully, describing its followers as "people whom I should have vomited forth from my overloaded stomach" (Conf. 7, 2, 3).
St. Augustine returned to his native Tagaste, setting up monastic communities, writing prolifically, and being ordained a priest against his will (Copleston 44). He was later ordained as an auxiliary bishop and then the "ruling Bishop of Hippo," the North African diocese of which Tagaste was a part (Copleston 44). St. Augustine was an outspoken leader of the Church, defending it from three separate heresies. In his lifetime, St. Augustine wrote over sixty works and countless other letters, a truly stunning feat (Copleston 42-45). In the year 430 as the Vandals who inspired him to write City of God were laying siege on Hippo, St. Augustine died (Copleston 47). As Copleston dutifully noted the seemingly miraculous aftermath, "The Vandals subsequently burnt the whole city, though the cathedral and library of Augustine were left intact" (47).
St. Augustine was first and foremost a Catholic theologian, who in his works carved a unique philosophy, colored by his life and previous philosophic schools, most notably neo-Platonism; strangely, this quasi-philosopher--being the most apt term--has influenced great minds through the ages, such as Descartes, St. Anselm, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
His metaphysics was clearly essential, similar to the Platonic philosophy, and started with the immutable, "ineffably and invisibly great and…beautiful" God as supreme creator (City of God 2, 4, 2, as in Copleston 69) Not being a true philosopher, St. Augustine offered some proofs for God's existence, but they were often left undeveloped, not trying, as Copleston stated, to convert "the atheist...[but] to show how all creation proclaims the God whom the soul can experience itself (69). Moreover, intellectually accepting a Supreme Being "is one thing; to bring that truth home to oneself is something more (Copleston 69).
St. Augustine's main proof for God's existence is from thought, a concept furthered by Descartes. The mutable mind had the ability to apprehend immutable truths that cannot be changed or change (Copleston 68). These truths were accessible to all, showing themselves in daily life. For example, all people had an inherent concept of equality, a universal standard understood to mean the same thing; with that knowledge people were able to judge the equality or inequality of objects. For St. Augustine the only source for these truths "must be founded on being, reflecting the Ground of all truth...Truth itself, reflecting the necessity...of God" (Copleston 68). If there were no eternal God, there would be no eternal truths. St. Augustine also believed that God kept all things in existence at every moment by allowing them to partake in His Being and that He was something that nothing greater existed, fundamental later to Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Anselm, respectively (Copleston 70). Finally, St. Augustine turned his attention to the visible world. Unlike Plato, he believed that the world was intelligible, its "very order, disposition, change, and motion...all silently proclaim(ing)...God" (City of God 2, 4, 2, as in Copleston 69). Insight of the divine could be had from the world, a world in which, as St. Augustine proclaimed, "our God has made 'all things very good'" (St. Augustine 7, 12, 18; Gen. 1:31). Further, creation was not ambiguously spawned by an impersonal Good but "by God's free act" (Copleston 74). Copleston went on to note that this concept was "essential to [St. Augustine's] insistence on the utter supremacy of God and the world's entire dependence on Him" (74). God, for St. Augustine, was defined as Goodness then, joining Being and Truth as already established.
As Christianized as it was, St. Augustine's philosophy still retained Platonic influence. Though man was a unified whole, there was a "superiority of soul to body" (Copleston 71). Earthly goods were good in their own right but, when treated as ultimate goods or ends, weakened the human person. As Copleston summarized, "Creation cannot give the soul the perfect happiness it seeks, but points upwards to the living God that must be sought within" (69). Creation pointed to its creator, the eternal, "the source of happiness, as objective beatitude," showing that the way to happiness was one and the same for all: God (Copleston 71). As St. Augustine's main proof for the existence of God demonstrated, all people had knowledge of eternal truths. But unlike Plato, they had them within; they did not need to ascend to a superior Form outside of this world, much less the body. Therefore, everyone had within himself the divine, needing only to look inside. As St. Augustine described it, "I entered and with my soul's eye...saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind" (7, 10, 16). By turning inward, St. Augustine turned to God and "saw...Being" (7, 10, 16). Thus God was the controlling exterior force of the world by His creation and the controlling interior force by His presence within the human soul.
Like Plato, St. Augustine ascribed to an essential metaphysics. All beings received their very being from the immortal Being. All of the Forms of objects resided in the Logos or Word, Jesus for St. Augustine, and existed eternally there with God the Father. With God's giving of His Being, creation was driven towards God as its end. Furthermore, "Our God has made 'all things very good,'" and these "very good" things were created to be part of the God's grand scheme (Saint Augustine 7, 12, 18; Gen. 1:31). As Williams wrote, "To be at all is to have a particular place in the interlocking order of things, to be possessed by 'measure, form, and order,'…[to be] actively exercising the ordered and interdependent life that belongs to the creatures of a good God" (106). The sign of divine authorship usually was the triumvirate of measure, form, and order; where they were, so was God, furthering St. Augustine's belief of an intelligible world. Created things also existed "in the interlocking order" and as "interdependent life" (Williams 106). The point was striking: all the actions of a creature did not affect solely the actor but also many others. For example, when a boy dropped a piece of bread, he set off a chain of reactions affecting many creatures. That bread was then, perhaps, picked up by a bird that fed it to its nestlings that were able to grow strong, learn to fly, and mate, producing their own nestlings. The effects of the cause could go own indeterminably. Williams later noted, "I cannot specify what is good for me without including what is good for you in the same calculation" (112). Personal flourishing could only take place within the scheme of creation. Thus, with creatures interdependent on each other actions could lead to much good or much harm.
St. Augustine's essential metaphysics led to a novel ontology. Succinctly, to be was to have some goodness by partaking in God's Goodness; a creature's very existence proved that it was good, in some sense. To be more truly was to manifest the Form more truly. As Copleston stated, "Creatures have ontological truth insofar as they embody or exemplify the divine mind" (73). So, as it was for Plato, the truest horse would possess most greatly the Form of horseness. But unlike Plato the very existence as a horse is a good. Insofar as something existed, then, it was good. As Copleston noted, "The goodness of creatures, their positive reality, reveals the goodness of God" (72).
If goodness, though, were tied to existence, the question became what it meant for some creatures to have more goodness--or to possess their form more truly--than others. Williams emphatically denied "different degrees of 'thereness'" (106). He explained St. Augustine's belief as one in which "a greater existence of a person is one who lives more fully than another person...a 'lower' form of existence is no less existent" (106). Therefore, the greater existence that came from greater goodness was one of actualization, fulfilling potential, ordering a life to the things above, a statement dripping with Aristotleanism. To be less was not to be a shadowy figure but to be less realized, less human. Conversely, as St. Augustine stated, "If [creatures] were deprived of all good, they would not exist at all" (7, 12, 18). Further, applying it to St. Augustine's belief of interdependence, actualization was greatly reliant on others, God's interlocking order. Williams acknowledged the ontological magnitude of interdependence by stating, "Each thing is what it is in virtue of where it stands in the universal order" (113). A thing's very being, its degree of actualization was affected by the interlocking parts of the intelligible universe.
For St. Augustine, the "peak of material creation is man, who consists of body and immortal soul" (Copleston 78). Man, unlike other creatures, had reason and will, in its spiritual soul. The concept of the will as the decision-maker of the person was a point emphasized by St. Augustine. As he wrote, "If you do not will it, it will not exist" (On Free Will 2, 20, 54, as in Philosophy 56). St. Augustine believed that the will was truly free and could be ordered as an individual saw fit. The will, though, was a means to the end of God, being "an intermediate good when it cleaves to the unchangeable good as something that is common property and not its own private preserve" (On Free Will 2, 19, 52; as in Phil. 54). The will thus had the ability to turn to God or away from Him. When it turned away, St. Augustine stated that it "sins...will[ing] to be governed by its own authority" (On Free Will 2, 19, 53, as in Phil. 55).
"All good is from God. Hence there is no natural existence which is not from God" (On Free Will 2, 20, 54, as in Phil. 55). Evil, being not good, was not from God, the creator of all things; therefore, evil could not be existent. Sin and evil, though, were experiences of the Augustinian world. By his abandoning of Manichaeism and embracing of incorporeal substance as divine, St. Augustine could not easily ascribe evil to a corporeal outside agent who inflicted it on creatures. His neo-Platonic background, though, gave him the means to answer the dilemma. Evil, for St. Augustine, was not a thing, but a "no-thing," a void, a privation of good. As Copleston noted, "Evil cannot strictly speaking be called a 'thing', since this word implies a positive reality, and if moral evil were a positive reality, it would be ascribed to the Creator" (Copleston 84). God created all things and created them good; therefore when people acknowledged something to be "evil" it was to say that the good that should be present was missing. Evil, then, was a hole, or, as St. Augustine put it, "that which falls away from essence and tends to non-being...[and] to make that which is cease to be" (De Moribus eccl. 2, 2, 2, as in Copleston 84).
As St. Augustine asserted to God, "For you evil does not exist at all, not only for you but for your created universe" (7, 13, 19). Evil as privation, though, is a difficult concept for humans to grasp because of its seemingly tangible nature. Williams shed clarity on the concept, stating:
There is no thing for God to see. Of course God is aware of the states of affairs we call evil; but unlike us, God is not tempted to short-circuit the argument and ascribe to evil a substantive life it does not and cannot have (107).
had to develop their senses to see like God. Williams later stated that people
needed to have "the capacity simultaneously to grasp the nature of evil as
the perversion of my own capacity to see or know, and to become open in love and
knowledge to the reality of God" (107). Humans had to view creation as one
from their perfect God and not wish for certain aspects to be "better"
than what they were. As St. Augustine realized, the totality of creation must be
considered (7, 13, 19). The divine author created a great array of beings, not
all equal to each other, and did so for a reason. If He desired, He could have
created a world containing only spiritual substances, but He did not. St.
Augustine, though, trusted and recognized God's plan, writing, "With a
sounder judgment I held that all things taken together are better than superior
things by themselves" (7:19). Moreover, as Williams analyzed, "God
looks at the whole of creation and approves the value or good it exemplifies as
a whole, irrespective of particular existents" (107). No amount of
deprivations could cause God's stamp of measure, form, and order to disappear
from the world; the totality would always be driven by and towards God. The
goodness of the totality of the world, though, did not make evil acceptable.
Making this point, Williams stated:
Sin is not in some ways 'good', or even bearable...what is good is the process of the universe which, in God's providence, includes in its final reckoning the manifestation of the gravity of sin and the triumph of God's healing and rectifying act. (115)
Evil, for St.
Augustine, was not permissible and would have eternal consequences, not on the
totality of the world but on the individual.
St. Augustine's evil was a deprivation of good, not possibly created by the all-good God who created all things good. Yet, deprivations occurred from somewhere in the good creation. St. Augustine answered that challenge by ascribing the source of evil to an individual's free will, not an outside source. Each person had the decision to turn upwards toward God or below to His creation as absolute ends. As St. Augustine stated, "Because that defective movement is voluntary, it is placed within our power" (On Free Will, 2, 20, 54, as in Phil. 56). Such a movement inherently denied God as Being, Goodness, and Truth. The individual pridefully created his own order, rejecting God's authority. Once God had been rejected, the individual developed an ignorance of the good, of Truth. Finally by not submitting to God, the individual lost his freedom and developed concupiscence, a tendency to seek the nothingness of evil rather than good. The individual clearly then had "a 'lower' form of existence," dimly manifesting his essence or form, but still possessed an inherent goodness by his physical existence (Williams 106). This descent into privation and away from goodness was controlled by the will but did not occur instantaneously; it was, as Williams pointed out, a "process" (105). The individual became more and more corrupted until he became "imprisoned, enslaved, hemmed in" by his desire for the "unreal and groundless" (Williams 111). Individuals often fell by incorrectly viewing good created things as supreme goods. St. Augustine believed things of the world were good but needed to be recognized as only mutable, fleeting goods, not as the Good.
The free will enabled evil to occur, but in another sense, as Williams noted, "the location of evil [is] in the malfunctioning of relations between subjects" (112). Interdependence was key, the universe having an interlocking relationship. Therefore, an individual's turn from God surfaced in inter-personal relationships and had harmful affects on other people. Those affects, though, did not cause another to sin but made a given situation more difficult to decide on clearly. These situations allowed internal vices to surface and tested the person's virtues. By means of example, a person maliciously offered an acquaintance, who was known to be an alcoholic, a drink. The offer-er put his acquaintance in a tempting situation. The fight, though, was always within the alcoholic; the externals, such as the alcoholic tendency, just made the decisions more difficult. The offer-er himself turned from goodness by his very offering, a malfunctioning of his will, showing its malfunction in a relationship. Thus, a wicked being can heighten the likelihood of another's turn toward evil, while the turn was made solely by the actor and his free will.
With evil non-existent and only a privation of goodness, it would seem that an invisible world of spirited beings such as demons and angels would also be non-existent, lacking a positive existence. St. Augustine, though, was a Catholic bishop and theologian in line with the Church. With full belief of the fact, he stated, "Scriptures are true" (7:25). Some scholars went so far as to say that St. Augustine's theory of rationes seminales was developed solely to reconcile his beliefs with philosophy, not being something he would have posited otherwise (Copleston 76).
Further the concept of spirited beings also logically worked. God created man as a composite of body and spirit and created the other things of the world as completely bodily. Therefore, to create beings totally of spirit made sense. Those beings, though, should not be thought of as equal to God because of their spiritual nature; God created them with particular essences, not the supreme, infinite essence of God Himself.
Finally, St. Augustine repeatedly gave evidence in his works that he believed in a positive existence of spirited beings. For instance in book nineteen of The City of God alone St. Augustine mentioned "demons," "angels," "devil," or "Satan" eleven times (as in Phil. 91-111). His most striking passage explained the seeming contradiction between his ontology based upon goodness and the existence of the presumably purely evil devil. "Not even the devil himself is evil, so far as its nature; but perversity makes it evil" (The City of God 19, 13; as in Phil. 103). The devil itself, then, had some goodness in it, however meager, because of its very existence. Clearly, St. Augustine held that spirited beings, notably demons, did exist.
St. Augustine was no Manichean. Therefore, there was much of a question as to what demons' roles were in the world, something St. Augustine did not leave entirely unanswered. Evil, as Williams clearly noted, could not possess "a power of initiative, a capacity to set intelligible goals in a lastingly coherent manner" (111). Demons, being the most evil of creatures due to their straying furthest from their essence, lost all coherence, all order when they embraced the privation of good. Though not possessing coherence and initiative, demons had a positive existence for St. Augustine and, therefore because of their corrupted nature, had a unique role in Augustinian metaphysics.
All demons were created as completely spiritual beings, angels meant to glorify God as only a completely spiritual being could; they, like humans, had free will, which they used to turn away from God, thus becoming corrupted spiritual beings. This turning of the will, though, had more ramifications than a human's turning because, as Williams stated, "a corrupted angelic will is an immeasurably greater problem than a corrupted human will" (111). The "greater problem" stemmed from the fact that a completely spiritual being had more abilities, more of a role in the interlocking universe.
St. Augustine made it clear in The City of God that demons could have a positive reality without becoming the Manichean Kingdom of Evil. Speaking of the devil, he stated, "God [does not] thereby punish the good that he has created, but the evil that the devil committed" (19, 13, as in Phil. 103). The devil did not create evil; the devil only "committed" it. The devil clearly had no power of initiation, being only able to commit evil, like a human. St. Augustine also again emphasized that God created only good, present in the devil's existence, and punished the devil for its turning away from Him.
In summation, the devil only committed evil by the turning of its soul from God but, because of its spiritual nature, presented "greater problem" than a corrupted human will in the interlocking universe. The devil's precise role in the world was its role in the interlocking. It became like the offer-er of a drink to the alcoholic, not initiating the evil in the actor but putting him in a more tempting situation. St. Augustine clarified the devil's relationship to the human race, writing that it was "the devil's fruit tree, property from which he may pluck" (Marriage and Concupiscence 1, 23, 26, as in Duffy 109). The devil, by its state of spiritual being, was able to choose the individual it desired to tempt, plucking the fruit but not causing it to rot. Duffy went on to quote St. Augustine again, elaborating, "[Humankind] is a 'plaything of demons,' who are agents of a superior justice flooding the world and bearers of temptation, disease, and natural disasters" (Against Julian 6, 27; Duffy 109). The devil's power was great not because of its great evil, which is only a hole of goodness, but because, as Williams noted, "evil derives from those elements... that are most alive and active" (111). "Those elements" in a spiritual being were indeed great, explaining the power that a being with so much deprivation could possess. Further, the devil plucks the fruit that was rotting already, ready to shrivel to nothing, allowing the devil to become an agent "of a superior justice." Those who were already corrupting left themselves more open to a tempting situation supplied by a demon. The rotting person, being tempted, easily committed evil, allowing for self-inflicted punishment, "a superior justice." "Temptation, disease, and natural disasters" were just other means used by demons to tempt humans to turn from God. It cannot be stressed enough that in none of St. Augustine's writings did he allow for the devil, demons, the Kingdom of Evil, or any other being to be an external source of evil, forcing other creatures to fall. Demons only tempt; the power to turn to or away from God was always in the free will of the person.
St. Augustine of Hippo, as the first great Christian philosophical force, had a dramatic influence on Western civilization for centuries. He Christianized Platonism, treating it only as the handmaid to his Christian theology. He knew the errors of the world first-hand, developing his distinctive world view from his experience. Most dramatically, St. Augustine developed a concept of free will and a positive reality of the demonic world and demons' role in the interrelated world without falling into the error of Manichaeism. St. Augustine, as Williams accurately observed, "defends the integrity of the personal agent from a mythological conception of something outside that agency displacing the person's own responsibility" (113). St. Augustine walked a fine line, balancing philosophy and theology, God and His creation, evil and free will, an accomplishment of such magnitude that has rarely been seen since.
Copleston, Fredrick. A History of Philosophy: Volume II. Westminster :Newman, 1962.
Duffy, Stephen. The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology.
Collegeville: Liturgical, 1993.
Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions. 2nd ed. Ed. Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1973.
St. Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford, 1998.
Williams, Rowan. "Insubstantial Evil." Augustine And His Critics. Ed. Robert Dodaro
and George Lawless. London: Routledge, 2000. 106-23.