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Augustine, Nietzsche and The Problem of Evil

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Evil and its origins is a very difficult subject to comprehend. It is a concept people have been contemplating for centuries. At the forefront of this subject are the arguments put forth by two of the most well-known philosophers in history, Saint Augustine and Friedrich Nietzsche. Both men are from very different time periods, each with different influences and cultures. Therefore, it is appropriate to analyze and differentiate the arguments of these men in reference to the “problem of evil.” Their viewpoints have stark contrasts from each other and each provide compelling points as to which approach is more feasible. Both approaches are appealing to different groups as well. 

Augustine provides insights in a religious context and relates the “problem of evil” to the absence of good or the absence of God. Nietzsche offers an approach through the concept “God is dead” that provides ethical implications. The approach of Nietzsche in regards to the “problem of evil” is more convincing because of his “death of God” stance, its moral and ethical implications, and how it relates to humanism. In order to make the decision as to which approach is more compelling, it is important to understand the fundamentals of each argument. For Augustine, the basis of his argument begins with the reality that he accepts God as omnipotent and all-good, “Is not my God not only good, but the supreme Good?”. This concept is important to understand because Augustine was a devout Christain. Augustine had trouble connecting how evil was able to exist and persist in the world if it was created by an all-good, all-knowing God. Augustine believed there had to be an origin of evil other than God. After all, he spent a good portion of Confessions attempting to find this origin. Augustine arrived at two conclusions as to where evil came from. The first conclusion was evil came about from free will, “namely that the free choice of the will is the reason why we do wrong and suffer your just judgement” (pg. 133, Confessions). The term Augustine used for free will was cupidity which is uncontrolled greed and desire. Using free will in the proper way is something Augustine struggled with in his life, with a good example being his sexual adventures when he was young. However, if God gave us the gift of free will, he essentially giving us the will to do evil things. The second conclusion is idea that evil is essentially a privation, or lack of good, “’For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’” (City of God Chapter 9). Through this avenue of thought, it is still questionable because how could evil exist if God created this world to be all good? How can there be a loss of God in a world that is intended to be all good? Both of the conclusions put forth by Augustine are notable, but they are still incomplete. They do not provide a clear answer for the “problem of evil.” 

As for Nietzsche, one of the ways he addresses the “problem of evil” is through his famous saying “God is dead.” For most of his adult life Nietzsche was an atheist. He lived in a time where scientific discovery had begun to question the divine laws that had dominated science up until that point. Since he was an atheist, he did not believe evil was related to religion in any way. Instead, he believed that evil was just a part of life and that we must accept it as such. It is through our language and psychological discomfort that we give evil its negative connotations and relation to religion. As stated by Nietzsche in Twilight of Idols, “explanation of unpleasant general feelings. They arise from beings hostile to us (evil spirits: most celebrated case). They arise from actions we cannot approve of” (pg. 63, Twilight of the Idols). However, the title of this excerpt comes from is, “the entire realm of morality and religion falls under this concept of imaginary causes” (pg. 63 Twilight of the Idols). Imaginary causes is the key phrase to understand because according to Nietzsche, the ideas surrounding evil are more real than evil itself. Humans make evil what it is through giving it its negative connotation. Nietzsche proposes people should disconnect the concept of evil and religion entirely. People should instead accept the idea that evil is a natural part of life. 

Another convincing argument that can be derived from Nietzsche’s approach to the problem of evil is its ethical and moral implications. Nietzsche is considered one of the Fathers of Existentialism and one of the 5 characteristics of existentialism is there is an ethical focus. This relates to the choices people need to make in order to know what to do and how to live your life authentically. Evil is a real thing for Nietzsche in that people give it meaning and power. It is stated in Twilight of the Idols, “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar” (pg. 48, Twilight of the Idols). In this instance it is important to note that God could be interchanged with any word. Put evil in the place of God and it does not change what Nietzsche is trying to say. Evil will be around as long as grammar allows it. If people continue to use evil in the way it has always been understood, then it will continue to persist. People will not consider the ethical and moral implications when they think of evil and people will continue to treat others terribly. This is even evident today as there is a lot of evil in the world, yet there is nothing being done to change the meaning behind it. It will continue to limit the positive effect that people can have on each other, thus limiting the potential for human growth. The last major way in which the “problem of evil” can be analyzed through Nietzsche’s approach is how it relates to humanism. Along with an ethical focus, humanism is another major characteristic of Existentialism. Humanism focuses on how people can find meaning in their lives. A major limitation to finding this meaning is the “problem of evil” and how people interpret it. Nietzsche proposes, “morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation” (pg. 66, Twilight of the Idols). Nietzsche is saying that people react to something because people need an explanation for everything. It is in human nature to search for answers to difficult questions. This leads people to interpret things in a certain way. These different interpretations can lead people to discover the hidden meaning in their lives. One way to discover these meanings is through understanding evil in a different way. Instead of interpreting evil as a bad thing or in a moral sense, we should interpret it as biologically based or in a naturalistic sense. Interpreting evil this way can help people to realize the underlying meaning in their lives because they are no longer restricted to think of evil in a certain way. This could open different trains of thought for people that could lead to discovering different truths about life, whatever they may be. 

The major difference between the arguments proposed by Augustine and Nietzsche regarding the “problem of evil” are their relation to religion. Through Augustine’s arguments, it can be inferred they stem from his belief in the existence of an all-good, omnipotent God. Augustine also seemed to be concerned about the problem of evil not only because he is a devout Christian, but he experienced evil throughout his life. In fact, all people experience evil at some point in their lives and Augustine knows evil is a real force in the world. As for Nietzsche, he attempts to disconnect evil from religion. He proposed people should think of evil as a natural part of life. Nietzsche was very concerned with breeding people to think in a certain way. Rather than develop of reason through religion, people should develop through education and culture. For Nietzsche, evil is dangerous for human growth potential because it focuses on negative emotions. For Augustine, evil is seen more as sin and suffering and a disconnection from God. One major problem in the approach of Augustine is it only appeals to Christianity. Granted he was a devout Christain and lived in a time where Christianity was growing, but his views still only appeal to the Christain followers. I am a Catholic and my faith is very important to me, but another flaw for me is that Augustine’s approach is not complete. I am left with too many questions and contradictions in the approach of Augustine. The free will and privation of good arguments only bring up more questions in regards to evil’s existence. Evil itself had to come from somewhere, it is not just the result or absence of something. With all of this being said, there can be some benefits from adopting the approach of Augustine. While I may disagree with the following viewpoint, some may agree that free will is the true source of evil in the world. This can be evidenced by past and current events. Still evil in this case is the result of something, it is not something itself. 

Even though I find Nietzsche’s approach to the “problem of evil” more convincing does not mean there are flaws in his arguments. One major flaw I in the approach of Nietzsche is how he is unable to explain the existence of evil as a natural part of life, let alone that it is a good thing. It would be difficult to explain to a mother that her child was killed in a school shooting just because it is a natural part of life. The fact that evil is natural and people should accept that is highly unlikely in extreme cases like this. However, people are going to have bad days where things just don’t go right. For example, someone might miss their train or poke their toe into a door. Would these things be considered evil? This is where I see a major benefit in the approach of Nietzsche. When it comes to smaller cases like these, it will be easier to dismiss them as natural things and they can happen to anyone. These cases can be explained easier in the context of evil as a natural part of what happens in everyday life. I find the approach of Nietzsche more convincing because many of my personal experiences relate better to the arguments proposed by Nietzsche. Throughout my childhood and into high school, I played multiple sports ranging from football to track to soccer. As many people may know, with sports comes injury. I was specifically being bogged down by injury while playing soccer in high school. I struggled to find consistency in my health, no matter how hard I tried to stay in good shape. I would attribute my injury history to being a bad and evil thing, but I am not the only one to struggle with injuries in sports. Over time, I slowly began to realize that injuries were a natural part of sports, just as Nietzsche believed evil is a natural part of life. My injury history also helped me realize some truths in my life that I had not realized while playing sports. I slowly began to accept the painful truth that competitive sports were not in my future beyond high school. This relates to how Nietzsche’s approach relates to humanism. I was able to accept this truth and began to search for a deeper meaning and truth in my life. 

The reality is that we may never find the answers to the questions regarding the “problem of evil.” There will be more people in the future like Augustine and Nietzsche who will attempt to answer these questions. I certainly hope so because it is important for people to ask these questions about our existence. It is questions like those regarding the “problem of evil” that allow the human imagination to test its boundaries. It is our ability to reason and contemplate on our origins that makes humans unique among other lifeforms. It is through these questions that some of the greatest avenues of thought have emerged. These types of issue propel thought forward, and help people to look forward to the future with passion and optimism.  

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