What is the problem of evil

The problem of evil in connection with free will in Augustine

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2. General remarks on the problem of evil in Augustine

3. The two kinds of evils

4. Free Will - A Possibility for Evil

5. Evil Will - Guilt and Mercy

6. The sinner Augustine

7. Conclusions


1 Introduction

Where does the evil come from? People have always been concerned with this question, because after all it is also very strange why there are, for example, wars, deadly diseases, natural disasters, etc. “If there is a God, why does he allow all of this?” Most people will be familiar with this question, either because they have already been asked it, or because, like me, they have already asked someone or at least themselves have asked. The philosophers, too, have always tried to devote themselves to this problem and to find a conclusive explanation for it. So it is a problem that can and probably needs to be looked at from multiple angles. It goes without saying that completely different approaches have emerged over the course of time.

In this work I would like to deal with Augustine's solution. As is well known, he was both a philosopher and a Christian, although at that time the distinction was certainly less strict than today. His remarks on this problem are very interesting and, in many respects, represent the beginning of a new approach for me. He also asked himself what role people play in this. He is a rational being who, so to speak, has received a free will for self-determination in trust. Now, however, people keep doing things that are wrong because they are always harming someone, mostly themselves, in some way. It would go too far to list all of man's faults here. The question that matters is: Why is he doing these things? Where does evil come from and what is the connection between evil and free will? It is precisely to these questions that I would like to try, with Augustine's help, to find an answer.

Since Augustine dealt with this problem in many of his writings and the material of the original texts is correspondingly extensive, it will be a little difficult for me in this context to obtain the necessary facts in any case only through interpretative comprehension.

Let me begin this work with some general statements about Augustine's views on the problem of evil in the world.

2. General remarks on the problem of evil in Augustine

In all of his works Augustine deals again and again with the order of the cosmos and divine providence, the providentia. A problem related to this, which Augustine did not first notice, is that of theodicy. Is it possible that everything that happens within the world order is subject to Divine Providence, including the evils, the mala? If man's freedom would then not be restricted, if not lost, because ultimately the responsibility for all his deeds, including those of the wicked, would no longer rest with him but with God. Of course, not only the evils we do but also those we suffer play an important role in this context. Since Leibniz one speaks of the distinction between malum physicum and malum morale. Augustine also made a distinction between these two types of malum in De libero arbitrio 1,1, and especially if one tries, like Augustine, to answer the question of where evil comes from, this distinction is extraordinarily important.[1] However, I would like to go into this in more detail in the next section of this work.

Augustine dealt with the problem of evil throughout his career. In De ordine (386) he tries to find the connection between the ordered cosmos and the evils. In De libero arbitrio (388-391) Augustine deals with human freedom and evil deeds in order to find out how it is related to divine providence. In addition, in this work, as in De vera religione (389-391), it is asked for the first time what connection there is between the willful apostasy of the angel Lucifer and the origin of evil. In the Confessiones (397-401), Augustine gives the answer to the question of where evil comes from as the reason for his turning away from Manichaeism towards Neoplatonically influenced Christian teaching.[2]

In all of his approaches to solving this question, Augustine remained conscious of tradition and largely followed the Platonic, Stoic and Neoplatonic teachings. So also in the statement that God as “Providence” is responsible for the good in the world. In contrast to the Manichaeans, who assumed a good and an evil principle, Augustine believed in the unity of the world.[3] What is meant above all is that the cosmos is orderly and perfect. Augustine makes this clear again and again using the example of numbers.

Nowhere is it more orderly than in the area of ​​numbers. The entire work of creation is ordered by the principle of numbers, as the celestial bodies prove by their periodic movements. In De immortalitate animae VIII 15 Augustine describes the movement in nature as “motus ordinatissimus”. The author of these movements is God. The temporal and changeable beings have their constancy through the order that he has given them. And although they change, they are always subject to order. Hence Augustine means by “order”, “to give the changeable nature a direction of movement that corresponds to the number and beauty of the whole”. But how is it that humans do not see all things in the world as harmonious? Since he belongs to this order, it is not possible for him to see the entire concept of world architecture from his position. The comparison with a post in the battle line, who cannot see the order of the entire army from his place, seems to me quite plausible.[4]

This order, since it comes from God who is good and only creates good, is accordingly just as good. The fact that there is evil in the world was just as undisputed for Augustine as it is for us today. Since he accepted all these claims without objection, did not even question them, Augustine had to put up with the objection that since there is nothing in the world that does not come from God, the sole Creator of the world, evil arose through God is.[5]

Influenced by Neoplatonism, Augustine assumed that evil cannot be ascribed an existence of its own, because everything that exists can only exist through participation in form and order and is itself good due to the divine origin, which is good[6], even the devil. Augustine describes this, for example, in De libero arbitrio I, 3,127: "Omnis natura in quantum natura est bona est." Evil, since it has no existence, is nothing: "Malum nihil est." (Soliloquia I, 2,3) The Two possible interpretations of this statement, that on the one hand there is no evil and on the other hand that it can be understood as “the nothing”, which acts like a threatening dark power, are both used by Augustine. This gives him the opportunity, depending on the need for argumentation, to use either one or the other possibility of interpretation.[7]

Evil can only be understood as the deprivation of the good, as privatio boni, which robs the good things of their goodness like a bad side effect. I think the comparison with a parasite like the one Schäfer makes is very meaningful. This also explains why there can be no evil in itself. Evil in itself would mean that what was originally good has been robbed of all its goodness. This would have taken the basis of evil. The parasite would have lost the host and thus no longer have the opportunity to continue to act.[8]

Plotinus identifies this inanimate status of evil with matter, which he considers to be evil. Augustine does not agree with this view. He also allows matter a small part of being. Something that has no being is 'nothing'. This nothing can be compared with the nothing out of which God, according to the creatio ex nihilo theory, formed the world. Through this formation he gave being to the world. But this being can be lost or rather stolen, for example through natural disasters or incorrect human behavior. The share in the good and thus in being is lost more and more until it is finally what it was before creation: nothing. So when Augustine combined the doctrine that the world was created by God and the definition of malum as absolute non-being, he could respond to the objection that God created evil by stating that something did not exist Being possesses, therefore not is, cannot have been created at all.[9] As I said, the loss of being can also be caused by faulty human behavior. What is meant by this is the malum morale: the evil intended by humans, i.e. willful evil. The malum physicum is the other form in which evil occurs. In the following I would like to talk about this and the connection between the two types of evils.

3. The two kinds of evils

As I said, Augustine also held the view that there are two types of evils, those that we ourselves cause and those that we suffer:

"Duobus enim modis appellare malum solemus: uno cum male quemque fecisse dicimus, alio, cum mali aliquid esse perpessum."

"Because in a double sense we call something bad, once when someone does something bad, then also when he suffers something bad"[10]

The mala physica, for example, are the criminal courts imposed by God. However, these can only be called evil from the human side; from the divine side they are good, like everything that comes from God. For this type of evils Augustine does not usually use the term “evil”, but for example “misfortune”, with which he wants to express the constant turmoil of human existence.[11]

I do not want to say too much about malum morale at this point, as I will deal with it in detail in the further course of this work. However, I think it is worth mentioning that the malum physicum is inextricably linked with the malum morale. It follows that he who violates the divine order will never achieve the goal of his violation. So when the human mind turns to the physical, it will only experience the physical. This is a disappointment for the spirit because it always strives, even if unconsciously, for the spiritual. Therefore, the life of the person who is ultimately gifted in spirit and thus never achieved what he wanted to achieve with his moral failures is constantly torn back and forth and shaped by misfortune, i.e. by malum physicum. It is therefore divine justice when God imposes judgments, for the order that He has given the world means that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished by misery. This is how Augustine describes it in De ordine I 7: 17-19.[12]

4. Free will - the possibility of evil

In De libero arbitrio, free will is described as a spontaneous element of human action. It is the ability to choose between good and bad without paying attention to external or internal influences. This makes it clear that the will not only serves as an instrument for the realization of any rational or irrational goals, but also offers the possibility of free decision for or against reason. With this Augustine reveals his solution to the problem of evil in the world, because although the will is a good gift from God, it also offers man the possibility of abuse, which God sees but does not prevent, since he wants to leave human freedom untouched . The question arises, why does God allow such abuse in the first place. This is because there are three forms of goods. For if God's best gift caused evil, he could be found guilty of doing so. The will, however, is only an average good, which, in contrast to a minor good, is inevitable for a good life, but, unlike a high good, cannot only be used for good. This is how Augustine describes it in De libero arbitrio II 19, 50 ff.[13] And elsewhere:

“So when the will is attached to the universal and unchangeable good, it attains the greatest and highest human goods, while it is itself only an intermediate good. The will, however, which turns away from the unchangeable and general good and [...] turns to a lower good, sins. [...] "[14] So it is not the lack of insight but the evil will that is the origin of evil in the world.[15] At this point Augustine, by the way, distances himself somewhat from the Neoplatonic view that otherwise strongly influenced him, according to which the cause of evil is the mixing of the soul with matter[16], since, in his opinion, this does not make it clear that man must seek the origin of evil not in matter, but rather in the soul, in himself.[17]


[1] Fuhrer (2004), p. 89

[2] Ibid.

[3] Flasch (2003), p. 92

[4] Keller (1993), pp. 227-229

[5] Fuhrer (2004), p. 90

[6] Flasch (2003), p. 96

[7] Hauskeller (1999), pp. 26-28

[8] Schäfer (2002), p. 423

[9] Fuhrer (2004), pp. 92-93

[10] De lib. arb. I 1,1 (translated by W. Thimme)

[11] Rief (1962), p. 253

[12] Ibid., P. 254

[13] Horn (1995), pp. 132-133

[14] De lib. arb. I 2.53 (translated by W. Thimme)

[15] Horn (1995), p. 133

[16] Plotinus, Enneade I 6, 9

[17] Hauskeller (1999), p. 38

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