Book VII of St. Augustine’s Confessions is incredible. It’s astounding to me how much he thinks like a modern man – in particularly, how his thought process in his search for truth follows exactly how I would have proceeded were I a nonbeliever, but with greater intelligence and honesty.
His thought progression when discussing his search for the origin of evil was particularly interesting to me. No one reads this anyway, so I’ll outline it just for my benefit.
- Where did evil come from?
- Or does it not exist at all? But if it doesn’t exist, why do we fear it? If our fear itself is meaningless, then that fear itself is evil, because it tortures us for no reason. Either the evil we fear exists, or our fear itself is the evil. So where does evil come from?
- Was something bad in the material God used in creation, so that it was not turned good? But why?
- Did he lack power to convert it so that no evil remained? But how, if he’s omnipotent?
- Why we he choose to use it instead of destroying it completely?
- Or did it exist against his will?
- Things prone to destruction are good:
- If they were supremely good they would be indestructible.
- If they were not good at all there would be nothing in them that could be destroyed.
- Destruction is obviously harmful, but can only do harm by diminishing the good.
- So either destruction harms nothing, which is impossible, or all things that suffer harm are being deprived of some of their good.
- They can’t lose all their good – if they did they wouldn’t exist. If they did exist without any good, they could no longer be subject to destruction, and that would make them indestructible, which makes no sense, that they would be better for having lost everything good in them.
- So anything that exists is good.
- Evil then is not a substance, otherwise it would be good. Since if it were a substance, it must either be indestructible, and thus supremely good, or destructible, and nothing can be destructible unless it is good.
- Nothing is evil in what God has created. Parts may seem evil because they don’t fit other parts, but in the parts they fit, they are good there. Far be it for us to say it should not be this way, when we can’t see how it all fits together.
He seems to be talking about nature here, and it makes sense to me. Even nonbelievers see this in nature – I recently saw a video of a pod of orca whales working (successfully) to separate a gray whale calf from its mother as it crossed an area near Monterey Bay. The video is disturbing, and one’s gut reaction is to see it as wrong, but the producers note that this is nature at work and all fits into a larger system. When we can’t see the larger picture, it’s hard to see how incidents like this are good. It takes being able to see everything to see how it fits together.
In the end, I don’t think Augustine’s explanation for the existence of evil, that it’s simply a corruption of good, is a slam dunk – I find the process behind it more interesting than his conclusions. Many people today act as if ancient peoples were simply unthinking and never considered questions like these. But if you read them you realize they thought more carefully and deeply about these issues than virtually anyone does today.