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Augustine’s Definition of Evil: Physical & Moral Evil

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The problem of evil has always challenged the rational capacity of human beings. The queries like what is evil, what is there evil, what is the cause of evil, is there any relation between good God and evil are pertinent even in contemporary society. Though there is a multitude of views regarding the concept of evil. Augustine’s problem of evil has always been an enigma for many philosophers. There are three types of evil according to Augustine. They are metaphysical, physical, and moral. In this assignment, I would like to focus more on physical evil and moral evil.

Different kinds of evil

Augustine started by saying that God created all things perfect, both humans and animals, but due to man’s turning away from the highest good (God), he failed from the original righteousness. As a result, suffering and pain came into the world. Therefore, according to Augustine, evil does not have its own existence but exists as a privation of good. St. Augustine has described evil as privation Boni. Evil is something related to the badness of human actions. According to St Augustine evils are of three types, they are metaphysical evil, physical evil, and moral evil. Here metaphysical evil is not really evil.

Physical Evil

Physical evil is also known as natural evil. Physical evil is independent of human volition. Physical evil is depending on the operation of nature. It is something a disorder of nature. Examples of physical evils are hurricanes, cyclones, famine, pests, earthquakes, falling of trees, death, etc. Death is a physical evil because it obstructs mental peace and harmony. Physical evil is a natural phenomenon and it is harmful to human beings. They are non-moral. A human being is not morally accountable to physical evil. Evil or suffering that is not the result of a rational being but rather of the course of physical events.

When Augustine speaks of physical evil in the City of God he says: “I must now turn to those calamities which are the only thing our accusers have no wish to endure. Such are hunger, disease, natural disasters”. All these evils listed by Augustine do not make people evil because they are unable to regulate them because they happen naturally. Nevertheless, Augustine traced the origin of these natural evils that man has no control over, to the collapse of the first man, stating that when Adam was formed, he lived in a state of grace, a state of eternal happiness, but he immediately surrendered God’s will and turned to his own will, failing in damnation.

Therefore, suffering and pain, which were the consequences of his fall, came upon him. This Augustine explained very well in On the Free Choice of the Will saying that: “When the first man was damned, his happiness was not revoked so far as to deprive him of his ability to have children. From his descendant, a lovely adornment of this world was able to come about. Yet, it was not fair that he begets offspring better than he was himself” (On the free Choices of will). This directly implies that the sin of Adam is seminally present in us and that is why we experience all this suffering which the first man experienced as a consequence of his fall.

Moral Evil

God created every human being out of his love and with free will. Thus moral evil is caused by the violation of free will. Moral evil is a direct violation of moral law. It is different from physical evil and intellectual error. Moral evil, referred to as sin by theists, includes injustices committed by persons, such as lying, stealing, and killing. Evil or suffering that is the result of the action of some rational being.

Augustine’s main motive in philosophy was the quest for the cause of moral evil in the globe because his adolescence and youthful age were swallowed up with lust and promiscuity. He decided to look for a fresh life paradigm and find out why there is so much evil in people’s lives. This quest brought him into the hands of the Manicheans who informed him about the values of light and darkness that cause good and evil respectively in people’s lives. Using the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, he dismissed the hypothesis and acknowledged moral evil as a deprivation of some good due in practice generated by free and accountable moral agents.

The central paradox of the problem of evil can be briefly stated. If God is perfect goodness and if he is omnipotent, evil cannot exist. But it is manifestly a reality of some sort and a formidably powerful one. So, if we are to concede its existence, one of the two other ‘poles’ must shift. Either we must say that God is not wholly good and that he permits or is even the author of evil. Or we must say that God is not omnipotent, and although he is wholly good and would prevent evil if he could, he is powerless to stop it. These were the terms in which the dilemma presented itself in Augustine’s day”.

The Manichee account of the problem of evil took the three ‘poles’ of divine goodness, divine omnipotence, and the presence of evil apart by separating the good and the omnipotence of God.

In human beings, compounded of body and soul, the eternal war in the universe was rewarded in microcosm. That went a long way toward explaining the observable ills of the human condition and Augustine’s own consciousness of internal fighting. It also made it possible to understand human souls as sparks of the good spirit stuck in evil material bodies.

“The Christian Augustine was never quite able to free himself of certain Manichean legacies in his own account of the problem of evil. When he had broken free of the Manichees, Augustine was forced to turn elsewhere for an explanation of the problem of evil”.

“As a Christian, he came to see sin as the act of the evil will, and thus itself a product of evil. So sin and evil become aspects of a single problem. To believe that evil was the result of a wrong act of will by a rational creature fit the case of satan as well as that of humankind. It gave Augustine a cause for evil which did not lie in a God wholly good and therefore incapable of evil”.

“A further aspect of the consequences of evil is the tendency for the distortion of intellectual perception, taking the form of twisting out of shape. So that the sinner could no longer see things as they are”.

“The interferences of sin and evil with intellectual understanding come logically first because no thinker impeded by them can see his way to a solution of the problem of evil”.

“He and his informal philosophical group explored ways in which the seemingly disorderly events in the universe can be deemed to fall under providence. They must do so if God is indeed all-powerful and therefore also omniscient. But in order to do so those which seem evil must somehow be transformed into good, or he cannot countenance them. So he eliminates “chance” as a form of evil and seeks to bring all events ultimately under divine control and to regard them all as ultimately for good if God permits them”.

“Pelagius agreed with Augustine that evil is nothing; that was not the problem. Indeed, it seemed to him to strengthen his case, because it was possible to argue that something which does not exist cannot have so radically damaged human nature.

“The basis of Augustine’s mature doctrine of evil, then, is that evil is “nothing”. But since to be nothing is to depart from the God who is Supreme Being that means that evil takes away into its negativity all good, all joy, all charity, all reconciliation with God, all hope of heaven for the sinner who is infected with it”.

“Augustine’s account of sin as inordinate desire conforms to his account of evil (or badness) in general. He holds that evil is no substance or nature but only corruption or privation in something that is itself good. A thing’s being evil does not consist in its possessing or instantiating some real property or nature additional to its own nature but, rather, in its own nature’s being defective or corrupted, it’s lacking being to some extent. Fundamentally, moral evils are defective acts or states that constitute corruption in rational nature”.

Whether God foreknows everything or free-choice

Augustine takes Cicero as his target. As represented by Augustine, Cicero argues that if God foreknows all events, then all events happen according to a fixed, casual order then nothing depends on us and there is no such thing as free will. If we can then add that God foreknows everything. But Augustine attempts to defeat this argument by insisting that our wills themselves are in the order of cause and says it is necessary that when we will, we will by free choice. Moreover among the things that God foreknows are the things that we will to9 do of our own free choice. This premise and God’s foreknowledge rather than being as threat to free will is in a way its guarantor


Augustine’s definition of evil as the privation of the good enables him to explain manifestations of evil as the lack of created goodness. In addition, his conception of some apparent evil as a result of our limited human perspective accounts for some evil. But, moral evil is the privation of goodness in the human will. Augustine bases evil in the will as a solution to the problem of the source of evil. This solution guarantees that the one God is the creator of all good and that he is not responsible for evil. . Evil in the world is a reality because it exists, but it does not have substantial existence.

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