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Augustine On Evil

What Is Evil and How Does It Arise?

Augustine's world, in the best Platonic fashion, is hierarchically arranged. The principle of ordering in this hierarchy is based on intrinsic value. That is, the higher on the scheme of things, the better or more worthy. Once again, note the Platonic concern with values.

Things higher on the hierarchy are thus better than things lower on the hierarchy. You can guess in advance how in general this is going to look:



Human Souls



Don't worry about the positioning of angels and devils on this scheme. I simply stick them in for the sake of completeness. I think I have them where Augustine would put them.

Now so far this ordering looks pretty innocuous. It's just a way of ranking things according to what you think they are worth. But the arrangement has metaphysical overtones.

Augustine, unlike Origen, refuses to follow the neo-Platonists in putting God, the One or the Good, above the realm of being. On the contrary, in view of Exodus 3:14, which Augustine takes very seriously, God is a being par excellence.

That is, Augustine identifies: God = Good = Being. Hence, since that which is at the top of the hierarchy is that which is best (because the hierarchy is a hierarchy of value) it is therefore also that which most truly is. The things lower on the hierarchy are not so good, and so don't exist as fully. What we have here is a theory of degrees of reality.

Many people have a prejudice against theories like this. Perhaps you want to think of reality or being as an all or nothing affair. A thing is either real or it is not, it either exists or it doesn't, and that is all there is to it. Being or reality is like an on/off switch; it has only two positions.

Not so for Augustine and lots of other people. For them, being or reality is more like a rheostat, a volume-control on a radio. You can turn it up or you can turn it down. And while of course the radio is either on or off, nevertheless there is a whole spectrum of degrees between being on "all the way" and being off altogether.

There is a perfectly respectable philosophical tradition that treats reality as coming in degrees in this way. And it is important to realize that there is nothing incoherent about thinking of things this way. It is in no way a denial of the truism that things either exist or they don't. And there is not even anything especially mysterious about the view (although it may well be historically associated with other views that are pretty mysterious). So if you find yourself wanting to dismiss theories like this out of hand, I suggest you examine your reasons carefully.

Having said that, it is also important to realize how foreign this way of thinking is to us - or at least to some of us. On the Platonic/Augustinian view, for instance, there is simply no problem whatever deriving an "ought" from an "is". What most truly is is what is best, and so is what ought to be. The more a thing exists, the more it ought to exist. Nothing could be simpler.

Let us look at Augustine's hierarchy in more detail. Physical objects, bodies at the bottom of the hierarchy, and indeed all of creation by comparison with God, is in Augustine's phrase "prope nihil" - "next to nothing". Creatures are not nothing, of course, but by comparison with the exalted reality of God, they are next to nothing. Creatures are, but they by no means exist in the fullest sense. That is reserved for God.

Creatures, then, are not fully real. They exist, but not fully or completely. Another way some people put this is to say that they are in part, and are not in part. Some things follow from this:

(1) Change or becoming is another striking case where we have things that exist but not completely or fully, things that are in part and are not in part. What is changing or coming to be is real in some sense; it is not completely nothing. But it is not yet fully real; it is only "on the way", it is coming to be. (Compare Aristotle's analysis of change in the Physics.) In fact, this kind of in-between status seems to be characteristic of change or becoming, and is what makes change so hard to grasp philosophically, as people have known ever since Parmenides. Therefore, creatures, which exist but not fully or completely, which are in part and are not in part, are linked with change and becoming. Hence we get with Augustine, just as we have already seen with Justin Martyr, the identification of creaturehood with mutability. Change is the mark of a creature. Immutability or fixity is the mark of God alone. It is a divine characteristic.

(2) Since Augustine identifies Being and One (unlike Plotinus), therefore reality and unity go hand in hand. Hence that which is most real is also that which is most one. In short, God is absolutely one, and therefore has no parts. Things that have parts are, in some sense least, a plurality. God, therefore, who is to the highest degree one, can have no parts. Lesser things, on the other hand, things lower on the hierarchy, are composites and do have parts. Hence, not only is mutability the mark of a creature, composition is also the mark of a creature. (This also fits in with point (1) just above, since the traditional analysis of change requires composition.)

(3) God becomes identified with the good old Form of the Good. God, in virtue of being the most real and the most unified, is also the good par excellence. Now notice that there is nothing at the opposite end of the hierarchy which is purely evil. Indeed, there cannot be. If there were anything in Augustine's universe that was purely evil - so that it were not even in the slightest degree good - then, by the equation of good with being, that thing would not exist in even the slightest degree. In short, there is no such thing. There is no place on the hierarchy of reality for a principle of evil, a kind of "Form of the Evil" to match the Form of the Good.

Contrast this situation with the Manichean picture that attracted Augustine in his youth.


human souls


force of evil

The Manicheans were moral dualists, and with it metaphysical dualists. For them, the world is split between two poles, a force of good and a force of evil, and everything in between is a mixture, containing some good and some evil. In virtue of their allowing a separate force of evil, a second pole, the Manichees were committed (whether they realized it or not) to rejecting the equation of good with being.

This is another case where Augustine's reading of the Platonists opened his eyes. They showed him how to avoid the Manichean solution to the problem of evil, the postulation of a separate and independent force of evil. They suggested to him the equation of good with being.

Many neo-Platonists would not have accepted this equation; they would have put the Good above being. Still, it is not at all far fetched to say that they suggested it to Augustine. Until one gets so far up on the neo-Platonic hierarchy that one is beyond the intelligences/intelligibles (the latter-day Platonic Forms), being and goodness go hand in hand. Degrees of being exactly match (indeed, exactly are) degrees of goodness all the way up the neo-Platonic ladder, except for the very last step. Hence it is not at all hard to see how Augustine might have found his equation suggested by their doctrines. And in any case, Augustine certainly says it was the Platonists who showed him how to avoid Manicheanism on this point.

The Christian doctrine of creation rules out the Manichean schema. If God created everything below him on the hierarchy, then he would have created the force of evil too, and so could hardly be said to be good par excellence.

Manicheanism in effect entails a denial of the doctrine of creation insofar as it postulates an independent force of evil, not subject to and not created by God.

(4) Augustine not only will not allow that there is an independent force of evil. He also will not allow that things below God on the hierarchy are mixtures of good and evil. Everything on the hierarchy is good - in varying degrees. Nothing on the hierarchy is bad. Evil of course is a fact that has to be accounted for. Augustine knows too much about evil to deny that. But his account of evil does not proceed by finding a place for it on the hierarchy of being.

Augustine cannot say that human souls, for instance, since they are midway down the hierarchy, are to some degree ontologically bad. He cannot admit that because souls are created by God, and so if they were bad in any degree, God would be directly responsible for evil, and so not be good par excellence. In short, Augustine must reject the theory that is sometimes called the theory of "metaphysical evil", the theory that anything falling short of the highest good (God) is to that extent "imperfect" and so bad or evil by its very nature. For Augustine, there can be nothing that is evil by nature.

Augustine has to say that everything on the hierarchy is good, although in varying degrees. But to say that something is less good is not automatically to say it is more evil. In short, the notions of good and evil are not polar opposites for Augustine, as they are for the Manichees. Good and evil are not like hot and cold. As something becomes less hot it becomes colder, and as it becomes less cold it becomes hotter. But good and evil are not like that.

Here we see the ontological rationale behind the famous Augustinian thesis (in the Confessions and in On Free Choice of the Will) that evil does not exist. Evil is not a positive entity for Augustine.

This means not only that there is no primal force of pure evil, as the Manichees held. It means also that, strictly speaking, there are not even lesser evils. There is simply no place at all on the hierarchy for things that are ontologically evil.

It is very hard to make sense of this doctrine at first. Augustine is not of course denying that people sin, that they do things something that they ought not to do. What then is he saying?

People sometimes do things they ought not to do, and things sometimes happen that ought not to happen. This notion of "ought" is the key here. It adds a whole subtheme to the picture I have been presenting.

Good and evil, I said, are not polar opposites. That is, it is not the case that the less good is automatically the more evil. Nevertheless, good and evil are contraries, in the sense that a thing cannot be both good and evil in the same respect at the same time. (Consult Aristotle's De interpretatione on the difference between contradictories - which correspond very roughly to what I have been calling here "polar opposites" - and contraries.) The way this works is as follows. Augustine thinks of evil as a privation or lack of good, not just an absence of good - not just the non-presence of good. There are two sides to this notion:

(1) First, the linguistic side. (Note to head off a misunderstanding: This is not the whole story. There is also point (2) listed below. If this first point were the whole story, then evil would be merely the absence, the non-presence, of good.) Our language deceives us if we are not careful. We say `The wall is in the light' and we say `The wall is in the darkness'. Syntactically, these two sentences are quite similar. But there is a great difference ontologically in what is said by them.

The first sentence is in a sense an accurate representation of the situation it describes (assuming the sentence is true, of course). There is an entity we are calling "the wall", and there is something called "light" (an odd and mysterious kind of entity, to be sure, but never mind that), and the two are related in a way expressed by the words `is in'. As long as we don't push the point too far, we can say that something like the early Wittgenstein's "picture-theory" of language applies to this sentence.

The second sentence is different. It is not an accurate representation of the situation it describes, even if the sentence is true. The "picture theory" does not apply to this sentence. There is no entity called "darkness" that is related to the wall, when the wall is "in darkness", in the way light is related to the wall when the wall is "in the light". And when we say `The wall is in darkness', we do not mean to suggest that there is such an entity - or if we do, we're wrong. All we mean to say is that the wall is not in the light. We do not have to appeal to some third entity, darkness, in addition to the wall and the light.

Now similarly - although, I emphasize again, this is only part of the picture - when we say that a thing is good in a certain respect, we mean that there are certain real features about it that make it good. But when we say that something is evil in a certain respect, we do not mean - at least not if we are Augustinians - that there are some different real features about it that make it evil. Instead we mean that the features that, were they present, would make the thing good in that respect are not there.

(2) But there is more to it of course. To say that a thing is evil in a certain respect is not just to say that it is not good in that respect. That is, evil is not just the absence, the non-presence, of good. If it were, then the less good would automatically be the more evil, and we would be back to the polar view that Augustine rejects, the view that creatures are somehow metaphysically evil just in virtue of being inferior goods.

Augustine rejects that, I said. For him, evil is the lack or privation of a good. A lack or privation is not just an absence, at least not as we are using the terms here. A lack or privation is an absence of something that ought to be there. Here we have that "ought" again.

In short, to say that something is evil for Augustine is to say that it does not have certain good-making features that it ought to have.

Now the lower things on the Augustinian hierarchy are not as good as the higher ones. There is an absence of high-degree good in their case. But they are not on that account evil, because this absence is not an absence of a good they ought to have. If it were, this would amount to saying that lower goods ought to be higher goods. And that is ridiculous. One might just as well blame the moon because it is not the sun. Augustine argues forcefully against this kind of thinking in On Free Choice of the Will, III, 5.

How then are we to account for the fact that people do what they ought not to do? Why do things happen that ought not to happen?

This is basically the problem of Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will. I will not here give you a play by play account of what goes on there; read it for yourself. Rather, I will try to systematize (very tentatively) what he does there and elsewhere.

The main link between the notion of good (the hierarchy) and the notion of ought that seems to be operative in Augustine is this:

The higher things on the hierarchy ought to govern and rule the lower. That is, they ought to have power over them. The lower things ought not to govern and rule the higher. They ought not to have power over the higher.

When things are as they ought to be - the higher ruling the lower - then that is just. Otherwise, it is unjust. When things are as they ought to be, then they are ordinatus, ordered or well-ordered (not of course in the mathematical sense). Otherwise, they are disordered.

Evil then is injustice or disorder, when lower things have power over the higher, reversing the proper arrangement of things.

This notion of order is absolutely central in Augustine. At Cassiciacum, shortly after his conversion, he wrote a tract De ordine. (On this see the Confessions.)

To summarize, the analysis of the notion of evil led us to the notion of "ought". That in turn led us to the notions of justice and order and their correlatives injustice and disorder. To ask how evil arises then is to ask how we account for disorder or injustice. That is, how does it come about that lower things on the hierarchy come to have power over the higher ones? What gives them that power?

Does God give lower things power over the higher? Certainly not. Why not? Because God is just, in the sense we have just learned. That is, God has arranged things so that the higher have power over the lower, just as they ought, not the other way around. (Notice, incidentally, the metaphysical implications of this claim. Causality runs down Augustine's hierarchy, but not up. The lower does not have power over the higher.)

Once again, how do we account for injustice or disorder? Who upsets the just hierarchical order that God has established? The answer: Men do, and they do it through free will. Now I will look later at Augustine's notion of free will - exactly what he thinks it is and why he thinks men have it. For the present suffice it to say that it is by free will that men give lower things power over the higher.

So here is the situation. God gives higher things power over the lower; the lower is subject to the higher. God is just and not evil. On the other hand, men sometimes give lower things power over the higher - and in particular, over them. They are unjust and evil.

Now you may very well object at this point: Which is it? You can't have it both ways! Either higher things have power over the lower or they don't. If God gives them that power, then how can men take it away, upset the order and give lower things power over the higher?

The answer, paradoxically, is that for Augustine you can in a sense have it both ways. Lower things can be given a power over higher things, a power that nevertheless they don't really have even after they are given it!

An example. When you love someone, that person is in a sense has a power over you that nevertheless he or she doesn't really have. You give certain considerations force in your life that otherwise would not have that force. Certain situations command certain responses on your part, even though you still have the power to do otherwise. You have the power, but you choose not to exercise it. You abdicate that power, turn it over to another, even though you retain the power all along.

This case is love is especially instructive, because it brings the role of will to the fore.

Recall the old Biblical (and for that matter Greek) notion that you are a slave to the things in which you place your ultimate values. You are subject to them. The just man places his ultimate values in the highest things, so that he is subject to the things to which he ought to be subject. He orders his priorities correctly. The unjust man gets it all mixed up.

So here you have it: God gives higher things power over the lower. Man sometimes gives lower things power over the higher. Neither of these facts gets in the way of the other. Paradoxical as it may sound, the higher is both subject to and ruler over the lower. God does not give the lower power over the higher, and so he is not to blame. That is man's contribution. Man is Nyssa's Demiurge of evil.

Now notice: There is a paradox about evil in the world, at least there is a paradox if you believe in any kind of a traditional God. If God (a) knows about evil by his omniscience, (b) has the power to prevent it by his omnipotence, and (c) is benevolent and just and so will arrange things to avoid evil wherever he can (which, in virtue of (a) and (b), means that he will avoid it everywhere), then it looks as though there can be no evil in the world. It has been successfully prevented by a power strong enough to do so. And yet God is supposed to have all these properties, even though there is evil in the world.

That is the paradox, the traditional "problem of evil". It is not a silly problem, and it cannot be easily disarmed. All the usual stuff about how God is "testing us" by inflicting evils on us is ridiculous; if God had just consulted his omniscience, there would have been no point to a test. All the usual stuff about how God is "teaching us" by allowing evils, that he is "building our characters", is equally ridiculous. If he had just resorted to his omnipotence, he could have created us at the outset with the knowledge and the characters he wanted us to have. And if you think there is something impossible about that, then I suggest you are compromising God's omnipotence, and are treading very close to heresy. And all the talk about how "God's ways are not our ways" and how "God's goodness is not what we mean by goodness" is just an evasion. If God's goodness is the kind of thing that inflicts plagues on innocent people and contrives to bring sweet little babies into the world with horrible birth-defects, then his goodness certainly isn't what we call goodness. It looks exactly like what we call fiendish evil!

My point here is not to argue that the problem of evil refutes the existence of anything like the traditional God. My point is rather that the existence of evil presents a real paradox to anyone who wants to be a believer. In my opinion, it is probably the most serious problem a believer has to face; compared to it, the metaphysical difficulties involved in the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity are but mere bagatelles.

Augustine, to his credit, does not resort in his most careful moments to any of the sophistries I've just rehearsed (although you can find traces of them here and there in his writings). For a believer, the existence of evil is a paradox. Augustine does not try to eliminate its paradoxicalness. That remains. What he does instead is to reject the view the because it is paradoxical, we should give up one of the paradoxical ingredients and, since we cannot deny that there is evil in the world, we must abandon the faith and deny either that God exists or that he has the traditional properties he is supposed to have (which, I suppose, amounts to the same thing).

Augustine wants to show that intellectual honesty does not require this apostasy and blasphemy. And he does this not by removing the element of paradox but by showing how it can be reduced to a familiar paradox that we cannot deny: the paradox by which we give power over us to things that we have power over - and that moreover we still have power over even when we give them power over us.

This is a fact that Augustine thinks just cannot be denied. We have free will, and that means we can use it in this disordered way. If this fact yields results that sound paradoxical, that's just too bad. The air of paradox can perhaps be explained away, but that is not the point, and Augustine doesn't especially try. He is content to observe that you have no less reason for accepting the paradox involved in the problem of evil than you have for accepting the paradox that seems to be involved in the case of free will. In fact, they are ultimately the same paradox.

Augustine's strategy is this. The existence of God appears to be incompatible with evil in the world. So too, the fact that I can freely subject myself to things lower than I am on the hierarchy appears to be incompatible with the fact that nevertheless I am not really subject to them at all, and would not be even if I so chose. Whether either of these apparent incompatibilities is a real one is something we fortunately don't have to decide. For, incompatible or not, we cannot deny either of the apparently incompatible ingredients of the second paradox, for reasons we shall see. And, since for Augustine the problem of evil is reducible to that second paradox, it follows that we have no good reason to deny either of the apparently incompatible ingredients there either. In short, whether we can "solve" the problem of evil or not, it gives us no reason to deny the existence of God.

Now whatever objections you may have to this theory as an exegesis of Augustine, there are at least two major objections to it, among perhaps many others, as a theory in its own right:

(1) First, it is always open to you to say that, just as the problem of evil shows that God doesn't exist, so too the paradoxes about free will just go to show that free will doesn't exist either, and is just an illusion. But, as we shall see below, Augustine thinks he has an answer to this one.

(2) Second, even if you accept Augustine's notion of free will, you might think this whole approach is insufficient. After all, even if God does not give lower things power over the higher, he nevertheless allows it insofar as he gives men free will and then lets them give lower things power over the higher. Hence you still have a case where God allows evil he could have prevented. (In the final analysis, remember, God doesn't have to create at all.) Isn't God therefore at least guilty of negligence?

Augustine tries to answer this second line of objection in Books II and III of On Free Choice of the Will. He asks there, why did God give men free will if he knew they were going to abuse it? I'm afraid I don't think his answer there is very successful. So problem (2), in my opinion, still stands.

But what about problem (1)? Augustine thinks he has an answer here, and in order to see what it is, we need to look at his notion of free will more carefully.

All About Free Will

In what sense does Augustine think we have free will, and how can he be so sure we have it in that sense?

Augustine argues there that nothing can force a mind or soul that is just to submit to what he calls "lust". The Latin is `libido', and it doesn't just mean sexual lust. It means any kind of disordered desire by which one's highest values are placed in things that we can lose against our will. (The highest things on the hierarchy appear to be the things that we cannot lose against our will, so that there is a connection in Augustine between justice and things that cannot be lost against our will.)

The reason nothing can force a mind or soul to do this is that God has made the world justly. This is not just an assumption Augustine has pulled out of the air. If you don't think God does things wisely and justly and well, then you don't have the problem of evil to begin with, and Augustine would have never written his book.

Since the order of things is just, things lower than a just soul cannot force it to submit to lust. They don't have the power; they are simply not strong enough.

Neither can things on a par with a just soul do it. That is to say, other just souls cannot force one of their own to submit to lust. First of all, they are just, by hypothesis, and so would not do such a thing. But second, if they tried, they would ipso facto become unjust, and so fall in the hierarchy of things and end up not strong enough to overpower the just soul after all.

Nor can things above a just soul on the hierarchy force a just soul to submit to lust. In a sense they have the power to do so, since they are higher than the just souls, and so have power over them. But they would not do such a thing, and would fail if they tried. The reasoning is basically the same as in the previous case.

Augustine concludes, if a just soul falls from its lofty place, it does so under its own initiative, since nothing else can make it do so. Hence, it has only itself to blame. That is, it falls voluntarily and out of free will.

Now at this point, Evodius (Augustine's interlocutor in the dialogue) objects: That's fine, Augustine, provided we start off just. But what about those of us who start off foolish and unjust? Your argument says nothing that applies to that case. And since in fact we all fall into that category, your argument seems irrelevant.

Augustine answers that it doesn't make any difference. But, instead of going on as one might expect to duplicate the earlier reasoning, this time for unjust souls (in fact, it is not clear that he could do this), he tries to offer a general argument applicable to all souls, just or not.

He distinguishes a good will from an evil will. The good will is "the will by which we succeed in living rightly and virtuously and in arriving at the highest wisdom". That is, it seeks wisdom and virtue. By a little manipulation, it can also be shown that this will is just - that is, well-ordered.

Now Augustine argues that, peculiarly, this kind of will is one that is self-satisfying. That is, if we order our priorities so that we want wisdom and virtue, that is itself a wise and virtuous choice, so that we already have wisdom and virtue. (Here we see why it is that the good - that is, just - will is a will for that which cannot be lost against our will.)

In Book I, Ch. 13, Augustine goes through the four classical cardinal virtues and shows that the good will ipso facto has all four of them. The will that has ordered its priorities in this way has made a prudent, fortitudinous, temperate and just choice.

So this good will is, curiously, self-satisfying. By contrast, the evil will, the disordered will, is for what can be lost against our will, and so it is not automatically self-satisfying. The good will is as near as no matter to the just soul that Augustine had argued earlier could not be overthrown.

Now Augustine makes the important move: Not only is the good will self-satisfying. It is the easiest thing in the world to get: all you have to do is want it. His reason is curious: "For what is situated more under [the control of our] will than the will itself?" (I, 12, 86.)

Curiously, this argument may work in the case of the good will:

(1) to have a good will = to will to have wisdom and virtue.

(The first identity is by definition; the second is because the good will is automatically self-satisfying.) Hence, on the basis of (1):

to will to have a good will = to will to will to have wisdom and virtue

The proof is by simple substitution. (Note: Is there a problem here about opaque contexts?)

This is why, for Augustine, you cannot against your will have a good will. If you have a good will, it is because you want to have it. And conversely, if you want to have it, you do. For Augustine, this much is just a point of logic.

Now Augustine wants to generalize this, it seems, so that for any x, to will x it just to will to will x. Thus, if you have a will of any kind (good or bad) for anything, it is because you want to have that will. Do you want a drink of water? Yes. Is it against your will that you want a drink of water? Well, hardly. You want a drink of water because, I suppose, you want to want one.

Now it is perhaps not legitimate for Augustine to generalize in this way. Perhaps he is concentrating too much on the case of wanting the good will, where - if anywhere - it works. In any case, it is easy to see why Augustine needs to generalize here:

(1) In the first place, this is going to be Augustine's notion of free will. The will is free because all these iterations (to will to will to will . . . to will x) collapse. You never will something involuntarily.

(2) In the second place, if you could not generalize - if the point worked only for the good will - then one might object as follows: Yes, if I have a good will, it is only because I want to. But I don't have one. Unfortunately, I have an evil will. Now the evil will wills things we can lose against our will, so that it is not automatically self-satisfying. In the case where x is something we can lose against our will, to will x = to have x, so that it does not follow as a mere point of logic that to will to will x = to will x. Hence, it does not follow that if I have an evil will for x, it is only because I want to. As far as logic goes, I might have an evil will for x even though I don't want to have such a will. This wouldn't happen, of course, if I had wanted to have a good will rather than an evil one. For then I would automatically have had the good will. But suppose I put my ultimate values in wealth, which I can lose against my will. It follows that I don't want a good will, but it does not follow that I do want to place my values in wealth. I might want to have a different evil will - for example, for fame and reputation, which I can also lose against my will. But nevertheless, against my will, I want wealth instead. The substitution argument doesn't prevent this, and neither does anything else we have said so far.

Hence we have not shown that evil wills are in their own power, and are therefore free. The example shows two things: why it is illegitimate for Augustine to generalize from the case of the good will, and also why he needs to do so.

There are various ways Augustine might try to get out of this impasse. He might, for instance, have tried something like this: Suppose:

(1) You have to will some kind of will or other. That is, given that you have a will, you either will the good will (you place your values in things that cannot be lost against your will) or else, for some x such that x can be lost against your will, you will to will x (will to place your ultimate values in x).

(2) Now you have the good will if and only if you will it, from the above discussion.

(3) Hence if you have an evil will for x, that must be because you will to have an evil will of some kind or other. It may be an evil will for something besides x. But it is some kind of evil will you want.

Hence for Augustine the will is free in this sense: You have a good will if and only if you want it. Likewise, you have an evil will if and only if you want an evil will. You may not want the one you get, but you are going to want some evil will. Hence the will is free to that extent - and you are justly punished.

However all this works out, let us just grant Augustine his claim for the sake of argument. Let's grant him across the board that the will is in its own power, that it is legitimate to generalize as he does. I think Augustine supposes that his general claim is just as much a point of logic as the particular case of the good will. It isn't, but let's just grant him his point.

Then it follows that all wills are necessarily free. You can't have a will that isn't free. Now no one doubts that we have wills. That is an undeniable fact of experience. Some people do doubt that their will is free, but that just shows that they don't understand the "logic" of the situation. Hence, Augustine thinks he can be sure he has free will, and so he has what he needs to make his solution to the problem of evil work. The apparent paradox that arises from trying to reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil is reduced to the apparent paradox that emerges from our having free wills (see above). But that apparent paradox is no reason to deny that we have free wills, since Augustine thinks he can prove that. The paradox must be resolved, if it can be resolved, in some way that Augustine doesn't worry about. And so, by the same token, the apparent paradox of the problem of evil is no reason to deny the existence of God (much less the existence of evil).

Augustine's general strategy, then, is to reduce the paradox of the problem of evil to another paradox that he thinks he can prove we must accept, even if it does appear paradoxical. I think this is a very slick strategy, whatever we may think about the details of it.

Now what does Augustine's notion of free will mean with respect to the hierarchy of values we talked about earlier?

Basically, Augustine's notion of free will is the notion of a will that nothing can overpower. It is not subject to external constraint. What the will does it does not because it is caused to do so from some external agency; it does so under its own steam. Now how does this fit with Augustine's hierarchy? I thought God was just, and so arranged things that, while the lower did not have power over the higher, the higher did have power over the lower. (Recall the notion of justice.) Doesn't it follow then that everything higher than the will has power over the will, so that it is not free from external constraint after all - is not entirely in its own power? Of course, higher things could not force the will to choose evil, as we have seen, since in the very attempt to do so they would sink lower in the hierarchy and so lose the power to do so. But couldn't they force the will to choose good?

To my knowledge, Augustine never explicitly considers this point. What he might have said, but didn't, is this: Strictly speaking, what has a place in the hierarchy is not a will but a soul. Now it is true that higher things have power over human souls. They have this power - they are strong enough - to make the soul choose good. God could make human souls choose good, and so presumably could the good angels. Of course, then the souls wouldn't be free, but it could be done nevertheless. But it isn't. God could make souls choose the good, but he doesn't. He choose not to exercise that power, and leaves it up to the souls themselves. So too, presumably, the higher angels do not exercise the power they have - perhaps because they place their ultimate values in God (as is only "just") and so agree to leave souls alone because he wants them left alone. On this view, then, free will (and Augustine has argued that every will is a free will) is not some separate faculty of the soul - some ontologically distinct part of the soul. If it were, it would have a place on the hierarchy, and so could be overpowered even if it isn't. But that would be contradictory, since wills are necessarily free. On the contrary, the will is just the same entity as the soul itself - only we call it a "will" because it is left to its own power. Recall Augustine's definition of man: man is a soul, but a soul insofar as it rules a body. We call the soul a man only when it governs and rules a body. We also call it a will only when it is left to its own devices. In each case, we are talking about the same entity, the soul.

All this, of course, is extrapolation. But it does foreshadow the later mediaeval problem of the relation between the soul and its powers. Some people, in the broadly "Augustinian" tradition, wanted to say that there was no real distinction between the soul and its powers. That is exactly the line I have suggested here.

Finally, there is an additional problem you may want to consider: Is the notion of free will as simply freedom from external constraint enough for the assigning of moral praise and blame? If it isn't, then Augustine's whole approach to the problem of evil will not work.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest