Goodness and Evil in Augustine’s Enchirdion (cir. 420 C.E.)

In Chapters 3 and 4 of Enchirdion: On Faith, Hope, and Love, Augustine discusses God as the creator of all, both representing the goodness of all creation and, by way of God’s innate nature, allowing for the existence of evil.

What Augustine seems to propose is a concept of theodicy[1] as a means to argue for the personification of God’s goodness in everything God has created. Not only, then, is there an attempt to “characterize the topic of God’s govern[ing] of the world in relation to the nature of man [but it allows for a] justification of God’s goodness and justice in view of the evil in the world.”[2] Subsequently, when considering the relationship between good and evil as possibilities in the created world, Augustine is able to postulate that “in this [world], even what is called evil, when it is rightly ordered and kept in its place, commends the good more eminently, since good things yield greater pleasure and praise when compared to the bad things[3]. It is precisely through this fashioning of theodicy[4] that Augustine operates from the supposition that God, as creator of all and the origin of all goodness, imparts an innate “goodness [into] all creation”[5] that provides for evil to exist innately.

Evil, as Augustine argues, can never exist as such unless goodness can be brought forth from it by God’s omnipotent power and goodness,[6] where it can be further presumed that, if “God is the author of everything [and], if evil is something, it follows that God is the author.”[7] What this means, then, is that just as goodness comes from God, evil must come from goodness, even if God embodies only goodness and evil exemplifies a distortion of that goodness[8] –the relationship between good and evil as it is woven into this contradiction[9] can be better explained, as a take on Augustine’s own argument, as “two poles, two opposite directions, the two arms of a signpost pointing to right and left [that] are understood as belonging to the same place of being, as the same in nature, but the antithesis of one another.”[10] In other words, since goodness cannot exist without God,[11] evil, as the antithesis of goodness, could never exist without God, existing not as goodness does but, instead, as a form of non-being.[12]

In this, subsequently, it is necessary to argue for the existence of evil being possible only out of the existence of goodness when both are considered as existing along the same timeline,[13] whereby evil is not evil without having first been in a state of goodness.  Specifically, when assuming more ontological terms, “evil is not a positive power; it is the negation of the spiritual. It is participation in matter, in non-being, in that which has no power of being by itself. Evil arises when the soul turns to non-being,”[14] where goodness has being and substance. For Augustine, evil “is not a substance [but] the wound or the disease [that] is a defect of the bodily substance which, as a substance, is good. Evil, then, is an accident, [for example], a privation of that good which is called health.”[15] In effect, Augustine provides a “double interpretation of evil [which] is non-being, a privation, and nothing positive,”[16] in order to define evil not just as an entity in and of itself but, particularly, in relation to God and the goodness of God’s creation.

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[1] This term was first introduced by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German philosopher (1646-1716), who argued that a world containing moral and physical evil is better, because it is metaphysically richer that one containing good only, and that, furthermore, God must have created the best of all possible worlds. What theodicy asks is how we can believe that God is both good and sovereign in the face of the world’s evil. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 381; 679.

[2] William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 573.

[3]  Augustine, Enchirdion: On Faith, Love and Hope (1955), chapter 3, paragraph 11.

[4] All theodicies, in effect, view evil as making for a good that is ultimately greater than what is attainable without it. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 679.

[5] The title Augustine uses for chapter three, which, perhaps, suggests that Augustine realizes that, in order to understand the problem of evil (the title of chapter four), it is first important to embrace the notion that humankind “cannot resolve the problem of evil by denying or limiting either the reality of evil or the goodness and power of God” Ibid., 241.

[6] The Omnipotent God, as having the Supreme Power over all, would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil. Augustine, Enchirdion: On Faith, Love and Hope (1955), Chapter 3, Paragraph 11.

[7] Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988, 242.

[8] To use Augustine’s own words: “Esse qua esse bonum est.” This means “being as being is good.” In order to be “a being” from something that is already “a being” implies that evil is a distortion of something which has being, becoming pseudo-real only as much the undistorted state of goodness has ontological realness. Evil, as a result, is only a distortion of a good creation. Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 53-54.

[9] Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988, 241.

[10] Martin Buber, Good and Evil: Two Interpretations (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 121.

[11] The Christian believes that nothing exists save God himself and what comes from him. Augustine, Enchirdion: On Faith, Love and Hope (1955), Chapter 3, Paragraph 9b.

[12] Evil is a return to non-being, a rejection of the world, and at the same time it has a positive significance because it calls forth as a reaction against itself could not exist. The possibility of evil is the condition of the good. A forcible suppression or destruction of evil would be a great evil. And good easily turns into evil. God’s toleration of evil is a paradox which is not sufficiently dwelt upon. God tolerates evil, allows evil for the sake of the good of freedom. Toleration of evil is a part of God’s provincial plan. Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man (London, UK: Robert MacLehose and Company Ltd., 1937), 41.

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche refers to this in the following terms: “What time experiences as evil is usually an untimely echo of what was formerly experienced as good.” Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1968), 280.

[14] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 53-54.

[15] Augustine, Enchirdion: On Faith, Love and Hope (1955), Chapter 3, Paragraph 11.

[16] William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 161.

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