By Maria Schmidt, Ave Maria University
The following essay won Best Systematic Theology Essay, in the Summer 2022 Clarifying Catholicism Theology Essay contest. To view other category winners, click here.
Augustine recounts his theft of the pears, lamenting: “Now let my heart tell you what it was seeking there in that I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.” This passage contextualizes Augustine’s understanding of evil as a privatio boni – there is “no reason” for his wickedness. However, Augustine does not here reduce evil to chance, for the evil was a product of his “seeking” – it was a sinful choice. Yet, how can something have no reason if choice is a kind of reason? In response to this dilemma, some have argued that Augustine presents evil as completely inexplicable since it does not come from either God or chance. Others insist that Augustine is mistaken in defining evil as a privation since evil has tremendous force, which seems to derive from either man’s autonomous will or some other evil substance. In my response, I wish to defend Augustine’s articulation of evil as privatio boni, while showing that evil is not radically inexplicable. I will show this by generally sketching Augustine’s conversion from Mani to Christ and by drawing out what is implicit in Augustine’s theology: namely, that man’s potency for order and disorder serves as an explanation so that evil is not completely inexplicable, although it still cannot be fully explained and ultimately terminates in the mystery of God’s eternal will.
In his youth, Augustine could not envisage the immaterial to be anything more than a sort of ethereal matter, and this misunderstanding made him especially susceptible to the Manichaean account of evil. As Cress explains, the Manichees held that “evil is, in and of itself, something real and positive, a thing brought into being by a powerful evil deity.” Manichaeism taught that the human soul is good but is trapped inside evil matter which causes man to sin. Since the sin is not in the soul, the person cannot be held accountable for their fault, which is a very appealing idea. Augustine admits, “I liked to excuse myself and to accuse some unidentifiable power which was with me and yet not I.” Although Augustine later became disillusioned with Manichaeism, he saw that there is something true about the incompatibility of soul and body, good and evil, that leads to constant warfare between people or within individual persons.
Augustine began to search for a more coherent intellectual account of the problem of evil, and he turned to the Platonic ideals, which then sent him in the right direction. Augustine relates, “By the Platonic books I was admonished to return into myself.” In some ways, the Platonist account was like Manichaeism, teaching that evil is opposed to the good which comes from God. Plato says, “God, being good, cannot be responsible for everything happening in our life, as is commonly believed, but only for a small part. For we have a far smaller share of good than of evil, and while God must be held to be the sole cause of good, we must look for some other factors than God as cause of evil.” Plotinus developed Plato’s thought and identified the cause of evil with matter. However, this view of matter is very different from the Manichaean view, for Plotinus believed that matter itself is privation and therefore cannot be fully substantial. He writes, “evil is not in any sort of deficiency but in absolute deficiency; a thing which is only slightly deficient in good is not evil, for it can even be perfect on the level of its own nature. But when something is absolutely deficient—and this is matter—this is essential evil without any share in good.” Although matter is a privation of the good and is a complete lack of goodness, it is not simply nothingness since it is still an image of being (eikon tou ontos). As an image, matter has a kind of power to cause evil. Di Silva clarifies that for Plotinus, “matter masters what is imaged in it and corrupts and destroys it by applying its own nature which is contrary to form […] Till it has made the form belong to matter and no longer to itself.” This Platonic account of evil defines evil as privation, but in calling evil a material image that has its own power separate from God, it limits God’s omnipotence.
Yet, the Platonic notion of evil was redeemable precisely because it considered evil as privation, and this aspect is compatible with the Christian view. Augustine began to realize that Christianity could help him develop a more cohesive intellectual account of evil when he heard Ambrose preaching on the book of Genesis. Evans relates that Ambrose was “drawing upon the comments of the Cappadocian Fathers, who had been for their part borrowing from Neoplatonic accounts of exactly the set of problems about matter and spirit, good and evil, with which Augustine had been wrestling.” Shortly thereafter, Augustine converted. For a while, he had been grappling with the emotional pain of dismissing his mistress and with his burning thirst for truth. This vulnerable state made him more receptive, and so when he heard the child singing, “tolle lege, tolle lege,” he took up the book of Romans and was convicted of his need to live chastely. This radical reorientation in his life also influenced his interpretation of evil. He now believed that God is existence itself, omnibenevolent and omnipotent. Here, the distinction between Creator and creature is of chief importance. God is the
one good in itself and in the highest sense, that is, by nature and essence [propria natura et essentia] and not by participation [participatione] in some other good. And there is another good that is good by participation, deriving [habendo] its good from the supreme good which however, continues to be itself and loses nothing. This good, as we have said before, is a creature [creaturam] to whom harm can come through defect but God is not the author of such defect, since He is the author of existence and, as I say, of being.
God has power over all things that exist because they derive their existence by participation in Him, and they are good insofar as they exist. Therefore, evil cannot exist. Augustine raises his heart to God: tibi omnino non est malum, “For you, evil does not exist at all.” Hence, with this new understanding, Augustine denied the Plotinian idea that evil is a material image of the good. Augustine now understood that evil as privation means that evil is non-being simpliciter.
As Evans states, Augustine was now left “with the new difficulty of showing how something which does not exist can be such a powerful influence in the world.” For it seems that privation and power are contradictory. As one criticism of privation theory claims: to characterize evil as privation trivializes the tremendous suffering of humanity and the unspeakable horrors that persons have positively perpetrated against one another. In this aspect, Manichaeanism is appealing since it can account for the power of evil; but the weakness is that it cannot support the sovereignty of God and the ordered unity of reality. Still, we are left wondering how something so deadly can be nothing. Undoubtedly, Augustine understood how obscenely forceful evil is. Cress explains, “Several times Augustine described evil as what hurts [quod nocet]; yet he repeatedly insisted that only what is good is capable of causing harm. That evil is able to cause anything at all is owing to the goodness in which it parasitically inheres; that it causes harm is owning to the fact that the good in which it inheres is not good to the degree that it should be.” Hence, evil is the result of some realized potency for disorder within the person. As Augustine expounds in De Moribus Manichaeorum, “what is corrupted is actually perverted; and what is perverted is deprived of order; and order is good.” It is precisely because of disorder and privation that evil has so much power and that human desires run amok. Williams articulates this beautifully: “what we experience and call evil is, indeed, not simply a void, a lack; but it is the effect of a lack, the displacement of true by untrue perception. A vacuum is a ‘lack’, an absence; but its effects within a system of forces may be powerful.” Misdirected goods cause tremendous damage because they are not ordered to God. Thus, the privation theory accounts for the human experience of the reality and power of evil.
Augustine has described what evil is, but he must also account for the whence of evil, especially moral evil. Augustine’s privation account explains the origins of evil as arising from a perverted will, or mala voluntas. In his City of God, Augustine emphasizes how the perversion of the will first arose in Adam and Eve, and all subsequent generations bear the stain of this sin first sin as concupiscentia and libido dominandi. Augustine writes,“I know also that, where the will becomes evil, this evil would not arise in it if the will itself were unwilling; and its defects are therefore justly punished, because they are not necessary, but voluntary.” This pinpointing of the will as the origin of sin gave Augustine “a cause for evil which did not lie in a God wholly good and therefore incapable of evil,” as Evans states. Augustine thus places the responsibility of sin on man. In order to defend this notion, however, Augustine must answer what the cause of a perverted will is, and this is a difficult problem to solve.
First, Augustinedenies that the cause is simply from lack of knowledge. Thus, Augustine contended with the Socratic view that the sole cause of a perverted will is ignorance. As Socrates had claimed, “nobody willingly […] does evil.” There is some merit to this idea that ignorance is the root of an evil will. Evidently, many perpetrators of evil seem to have no understanding of goodness. As Williams states, “if evil itself is never a subject or substance, the only way in which it can be desired or sought is by the exercise of the goods of mental and affective life swung around by error to a vast misapprehension, a mistaking of the unreal and groundless for the real.” Thus, it would seem that ignorance is the cause of a perverted will. Perhaps inadvertently, this Socratic belief makes evil a matter of chance since it places the origins of evil completely outside the intention of the agent. If the evil occurs by chance, then the agent cannot be responsible for such actions. Willows expands on this idea: “for the first humans to have responsibility for [original sin], they must be causally connected to it. If the origin of evil was a random occurrence, then it is not the fault of humanity.” If the perversion of will is attributable neither to man nor to God, it follows that it is either caused by an evil substance or is a matter of chance. Since the former cause is ruled out in the response to the Manichees, then it must belong to the latter. If the perversion is attributable to chance, then it seems that some blind force has a power that is not derived from God. However, Augustine insists that nothing is outside God’s providence since all existence comes from Him. As Evans expounds, Augustine “explored ways in which the seemingly disorderly events in the universe can be deemed to fall under providence. […] So he eliminates ‘chance’ as a form of evil and seeks to bring all events ultimately under divine control and to regard them all as ultimately for good if God permits them.” Hence, evil is not the effect of some random occurrences stemming from the vicissitudes of life.
Moreover, the greater problem with the Socratic account of an evil will is that it cannot account for those human actions where the person chooses wickedness for the sake of the wickedness itself, as Augustine did when he stole the pears. The choice freely arises from the person’s will. As Augustine says, “It is by his own free will that each person abandons God, and is deservedly abandoned by God.” This leads to the further conclusion that “an evil will is the efficient cause of a bad action, but there is no efficient cause of an evil will.” Augustine stresses that “the soul was not forsaken by God first, and so then forsook Him; rather, it first forsook God, and so was then forsaken by Him. For its own will was the originator of its own evil, just as the will of the Creator, both in making it when it did not exist, and in re-making it when it had fallen and perished, is the originator of its good.” Clearly then, the will is the cause of the perversion, and ignorance cannot be the sole explanation of an evil will, though it may be involved in malicious and perverted choices; but the darkness of the intellect in such cases is often due to the clouding effect of the disordered desire, wherein the intellect serves the will instead of the will serving the intellect. Therefore, neither the intellect’s ignorance nor fortuitousness is the efficient cause of an evil will, and so men are responsible for their evil choices.
Yet, Augustine has still not answered how the will is perverted nor has he shown how men can choose evil for evil’s sake when evil is non-being simpliciter and therefore cannot properly be an object of desire. Perhaps Augustine was wrong to define evil as privatio boni? Carlos Steel argues that Augustine’s position leads to the conclusion that “Whatever exists, even the lowest thing on earth, is good, and thus can never be the cause of evil. It is not the inferior thing that corrupts the will, but it must be the will itself that perverts itself by turning away from the superior to the inferior.” Indeed, Augustine himself says that the will corrupts itself. Thus, Augustine seems to align with Kierkegaard who taught
“that without revelation nobody would ever have comprehended the real essence of sin, namely that it is not something negative, a privation, a failure, a fault, ignorance, weakness, sensuousness, finitude. Christian dogma characterizes sin as a position. […] Christian doctrine shows that sin is rooted in willing, and relies on the concept of defiance to define it: sin occurs when a person refrains from doing what is right even though he understands it. There is no excuse or explanation, no per accidens effect of desiring something good. There is no other explanation of sin beyond the will and its positive act of defiance.”
Prima facie, Kierkegaard’s view flows from Augustine’s. Afterall, if the evil will is the efficient cause of sin, and there is no efficient cause of an evil will, then the will is autonomous and causes its own actions. Accordingly, it appears that Augustine contradicts himself and believes that sin is not non-being but is a relationship founded upon defiance. This perspective surely exonerates God from any connection to man’s sin.
Yet, Augustine explains himself elsewhere, and Kierkegaard’s observation does not perfectly parallel Augustine’s, for if the human will is completely autonomous, it would have its power and existence separate from God. Augustine would have to deny that God’s divine providence extends to all things, “so that those particular aspects which offend us are blended aptly and fittingly enough into the whole.” Furthermore, although Kierkegaard is correct to say that sin produces a relationship founded on defiance, he is wrong to assert the sin is substantial. Williams admits that evil is a shift in relation to God, the evil itself is insubstantial. As conveyed above, Augustine thoroughly refutes the idea that evil is a substance. Instead, a man is able to choose evil for evil’s sake not because he is choosing non-being simpliciter but because a man is able to prefer goods that have a less perfect degree of being: “the defections of the will are not towards evil things, but are themselves evil. […] It is turning away from that which has supreme being and towards that which has less.” Williams eloquently summarizes, “even twisted and nightmarish desires are movements towards order, an order hideously misunderstood, it may be, but order or harmony, non the less.” Therefore, the will cannot be perfectly autonomous, evil cannot be chosen as non-being simpliciter, and the will must derive its existence from God.
Nevertheless, another objection arises. If the perversion of the will does not arise from either God, ignorance, chance, an evil substance, or a completely autonomous will, it seems that the origins of evil must be radically inexplicable and that there is no explanation of evil whatsoever. In his article, “Augustine, the origin of evil, and the mystery of free will,” Willows says, “Augustine is relying on the idea that to comprehend something is to understand its cause.” Augustine also declares that “an evil will is the efficient cause of a bad action, but there is no efficient cause of an evil will.” Evil comes from nothingness, and nothingness is incomprehensible. Therefore, we cannot understand the origin of evil. Indeed, Augustine beseeches his readers, “Let no one, then, seek to know from me what I know that I do not know; unless, perhaps, he wishes to learn how not to know that which we should know cannot be known.” Willows states that if a cause were given for evil, this explanation “would integrate the evil will into the metaphysical structure of the universe and bring us to the first cause as the ultimate explanation of evil.” Thus, the privation account of evil would make the problem of evil even more poignant. Willows adds, “Augustine needs to rely on a radical inexplicability which neither offers any kind of cause nor declares the impossibility of a cause for the origin of evil. […] Augustine’s argument needs to show that evil cannot be explained, even if we want it to be.” Then Augustine can truly lament with the Psalmist: “Delicta Quis Intelligit?”
Though Willows’ argument is compelling, his conclusion “that evil cannot be explained even if we want it to be” is not entirely sound. Certainly, man cannot understand the inscrutability of the divine will and why He directs things the way He does. Augustine proposes that “to seek the causes of these defections, which are, as I have said, not efficient causes, but deficient, is like wishing to see darkness or hear silence.” Calgano echoes, “The Christian philosophical tradition understand the limits of the mind’s ability to account for evil and accepts it, both in relation to human behaviour and to God, as a mystery – the mysterium inaequitatis.” Truly, one cannot understand deficient causes in the same way one understands positive causes since the mind cannot grasp what is not there. Yet, it does not therefore follow that evil is completely inexplicable since “those things which are known not by their appearance, but by their lack of it, are known […] only by not knowing them; and so our knowledge itself is a kind of not-knowing.” This knowledge is something because privation differs from absolute nothingness. It is knowledge that evil arises from “a defection from good.” As Calgano stipulates, “[evil] desire marks a lack of being or a privation of what ought to be present, namely, a directed and well-ordered love of self, others and God.”
Now we will draw out more explicitly what Augustine has implied all along: the key to resolving the apparent discrepancy between the necessity of God’s providence and the freedom of the human will is the concept of man’s natural potency for order and disorder. Man’s creatureliness manifests his potency or possibilitas for order and disorder; man is capable of possessing blessedness or of falling into misery. Evil arises “not from the fact that the man is a natural creature, but from the fact that he is a natural creature made out of nothing.” Augustine speaks of the angels, but it also applies to man since both are rational creatures, saying, “The fallen angels, therefore, either received less of the grace of the divine love than those who remained steadfast in the same love; or, if both good and bad angels were created equal, then, while the latter fell by their evil will, the former were more amply aided by God, and achieved a fullness of blessedness so complete that they became wholly certain that they would never fall from it.” Therefore, we see that creatures have possibilitas boni but tend toward non-existence and privatio boni if they are not sustained by God, who is the source of all existence and goodness. This may seem a shocking assertion. However, it contradicts neither the sovereignty of divine providence nor human freedom. As Djuth explains, “As long as the necessity associated with the unavoidability of sin [due to concupiscence] or the irresistibility of grace [due to God’s sovereignty] refers to the constraint that habit places on the will, necessity is compatible with volition.” Augustine affirms this in De Libero Arbitrio: God’s providence takes the will of the rational creature into account; God moves man to freely choose. Thus, the Christian concept of potency upholds the truth that God’s actuality precedes man’s possibility, that man may lose this possibilitas boni due to free choice resulting in privatio boni, and that man is capable of receiving the good again if God chooses to grant it. Therefore, though man’s finite mind cannot plumb the depths of God’s will, Augustine can still uphold the notion of potency to show that there is no true contradiction between God’s providence and human freedom.
Consequently, we see that Augustine’s notion of man’s natural potency fortifies his understanding of evil as privation. In Augustine’s teaching, Manichaean dualism and Platonic notions of evil meet their demise. Evil does not derive from an evil substance nor from the material image of being. Rather, evil is non-being simpliciter that can only exist as a disorder in a good already existing. The effects of this corruption are deadly and powerful, and still men often knowingly choose lower goods over higher ones. Thus, the evil does not arise due to chance since it arises in the will whose choice has no efficient cause. This does not mean that the will is completely autonomous, but that the will operates freely by God’s power. If man rejects God and He withdraws power, man experience the privation of good. Hence, evil is from a deficient cause and the origin is not completely inexplicable. Yet, man’s mind cannot properly understand what is non-being simpliciter, nor can man search the profundity of the Lord’s ways. Thus, we must admit that despite our knowledge, there is vastly more that we do not know. The privation of the good ends in the mysterium inaequitatis. Let us therefore join our voices to Augustine’s and the Psalmist’s: “O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.”
Augustine. The City of God Against the Pagans. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Trans. R. W. Dyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Calcagno, Antonio. “Hannah Arendt and Augustine of Hippo: On the Pleasure of and Desire for Evil.” Laval Theologique et Philosophique 66, no. 2 (2010): 371-385.
Cress, Donald A. “Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil: A Defense.” Augustinian Studies 20 (January 1, 1989): 109–28.
Di Silva, Maurizio Filippo. “Plotinus and Augustine on Evil and Matter.” Revista Archai: Revista Sobre as Origens Do Pensamento Ocidental 23 (May 1, 2018): 205–27. http://dx.doi.org/10.14195/1984-249X_23_7.
Djuth, Marianne. “Possibility.”In Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (1999): 663-667.
Evans, G. R. “Evil.”In Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (1999): 340-344.
Plato. Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Classics, 1974.
Plotinus, Ennead I, trans. Armstrong, A. H. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.
Steel, Carlos. “Does Evil Have a Cause? Augustine’s Perplexity and Thomas’s Answer.” The Review of Metaphysics 48, no. 2 (1994): 251–73.
Thompson, Samantha E. “What Goodness Is: Order as Imitation of Unity in Augustine.” Review
of Metaphysics 65, no. 3 (259) (March 1, 2012): 525–53.
Williams, Rowan. “Insubstantial Evil.” In On Augustine by Rowan Williams, 79-106. London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2016.
 Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 2.4.9.
 Cress, “Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil: A Defense,” Augustinian Studies 20 (January 1, 1989), 110.
 G. R. Evans, “Evil,” In Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 340.
 Augustine, Confessions, 5.10.18.
 Evans, “Evil,” 340.
 Augustine, Confessions, 7.10.16.
 Plato, Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (New York: Penguin Classics, 1974), 2.379c.
 Plotinus, Ennead, trans. A. H. Armstrong, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 1.8.5.
 Maurizio Filippo Di Silva, “Plotinus and Augustine on Evil and Matter,” Revista Archai: Revista Sobre as Origens Do Pensamento Ocidental 23 (May 1, 2018): 205–27, §2; cf. Plotinus, Ennead, 1.8.4.
 Evans, “Evil,” 341.
 Augustine, Confessions, 8.12.29.
 Evans, “Evil,” 341.
 Samantha E. Thompson, “What Goodness Is: Order as Imitation of Unity in Augustine,” Review ofMetaphysics 65, no. 3 (259) (March 1, 2012), 528-529.
 Augustine, “De Moribus Manichaeorum,” In The Catholic and Manichaean Ways of Life, Trans. Idella J. Gallagher and Donald Arthur Gallagher (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1966), 2.4.6.
 Augustine, Confessions, 7.8.19.
 Di Silva, “Plotinus and Augustine on Evil and Matter,” §3; cf. Augustine, City of God, 12.1.
 Evans, “Evil,” 341.
 Cress, “Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil,” 113.
 Cress, “Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil,” 112-113.
 Augustine, “De Moribus Manichaeorum,” 2.5.7.
 Rowan Williams, “Insubstantial Evil,” In On Augustine by Rowan Williams, 79-106 (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2016), 113.
 Augustine, City of God, Trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 12.22, 13.1-3; cf. Calcagno, Antonio. “Hannah Arendt and Augustine of Hippo: On the Pleasure of and Desire for Evil.” Laval Theologique et Philosophique 66, no. 2 (2010), 372.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.8.
 Evans, “Evil,” 342.
 Cf. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 3.5.1113b14-17, 7.31145b23-27.
 Williams, “Insubstantial Evil,” 111.
 Willows, “Augustine, the Origin of Evil, and the Mystery of Free Will,” 262.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.6.
 Emphasis mine; Evans, “Evil,” 342.
 Augustine, “On the Gift of Perseverance,” in Four Anti-Pelagian Writings, trans. John Mourant (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 6.(12).
 Augustine, City of God, 12.6.
 Ibid., 16.15.
 Williams, “Insubstantial Evil,” 111: “The more such a [sinful] pursuit continues, the more the desiring subject becomes imprisoned, enslaved, hemmed in; the more the typical excellences of will and intelligence are eroded.”
 Carlos Steel, “Does Evil Have A Cause? Augustine’s Perplexity and Thomas’s Answer,” The Review of Metaphysics 48, no. 2 (1994), 255.
 Steel, “Does Evil Have A Cause?” 271.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.4.
 Williams, “Insubstantial Evil,” 108, 113.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.6, 12.8.
 Williams, “Insubstantial Evil,” 112.
 Adam M. Willows, “Augustine, the Origin of Evil, and the Mystery of Free Will,” 257.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.6.
 Willows, “Augustine, the Origin of Evil, and the Mystery of Free Will,” 261.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.7.
 Steel, “Does Evil Have A Cause?” 256.
 Willows, “Augustine, the Origin of Evil, and the Mystery of Free Will,” 263.
 “Who can understand sins?” Psalm 19:12.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.15.
 Ibid., 12.7.
 Calgano, “Hannah Arendt and Augustine of Hippo,” 373.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.7.
 Djuth, “Possibility,” 665.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.9.
 Antonio Calcagno, “Hannah Arendt and Augustine of Hippo,” 372.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.6; Augustine, De Correptione et Gratia, 12.38.
 Augustine, City of God, 12.6.
 Ibid., 12.9.
 Djuth, “Possibility,” 667.
 Evans, “Evil,” 343; cf. Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio, 3.3.8.
 Djuth, “Possibility,” 665.
 Psalm 34:8.