Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Problem of Evil (7.3.4-7.8.12)

Adam and Eve2Augustine now affirms his belief that God created man, both body and soul, and all other corporeal things without defilement and that God is “in all respects unchangeable” (7.3.4). At the same time he acknowledges that the “cause of evil has not been clarified or disentangled” (7.3.4.). He is aware of the Church’s answer, “that the cause of evil is the free decision of our will, in consequence of which we act wrongly and suffer your righteous judgment” (7.3.5). Yet Augustine is led to question. He begins to see that the human will is at the root of his failed perception. As a Manichean he was a mere spectator who was subject to involuntary acts. Now he realizes that he is a moral agent responsible for his own actions. This leads to further questions. If God who is “Goodness” himself made him how, did Augustine derive the ability to will what is evil and refuse to do the good? Can we blame the devil? Then where did the devil come from? What is the origin of the evil will in the devil who was also created “entirely by the supremely good creator?” (7.3.5). It seems that all these answers are a dead end leading back to seeing the cause of evil in the free decision of the will.

Anticipating the later argument of Anselm, Augustine proposes that “No intelligence has ever conceived of anything better than you …” because otherwise the mind would have been able to attain something better than God himself (7.4.6). If God’s nature is totally immune to corruption then where does evil come from? In the end the root of evil will be traced back to its origins and will express itself in the possibility that evil has no being at all.[i] At this point Augustine is able to point to his faith in Christ, and in the Catholic Church. His faith is “still in many ways uninformed, wavering and at variance” with the Church, yet his mind “drank it in ever more deeply as the days passed” (7.5.7).

Touching on his past beliefs as a Manichean, Augustine gives a brief digression on why he rejects astrology. He relates how Vindicianus convinced him with a story from Firminus who knew of two people born at exactly the same moment but from completely different circumstances. They had identical horoscopes but completely different lives. One pursued a brilliant career and made lots of money, while the other was a slave. Augustine notes that the same problem occurs with twins. They are astrologically identical but suffer different fates. The example of Esau and Jacob comes to mind.

Augustine returns to the problem of evil and fin himself still in an interior turmoil, though he affirms his faith the love of God and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and “in the holy scriptures which the authority of your Catholic Church guarantees” (7.7.11). In the light of this faith gradually the darkened vision of his spirit began to improve day by day.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)

[i] Vaught, Encounters with God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books VII-IX, p. 33.

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