Augustine: The Scholar of 'Evil'

In a fitting sequence to yesterday's post, today marks the liturgical feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, bishop and doctor of the Church. Augustine's contribution to the theological and philosophical positions of Catholics throughout history has been immense and, as we have recently seen, he continues to play a role even today. Heck, it seems like everyone from Pope Benedict to Nancy Pelosi consider themselves Augustinian thinkers...

Much of Augustine's writing is characterized—by most scholars—as being rigoristic or highly delineated. In other words, his thought is starkly incongruent with most of today's relativistic positions, and is conversely quite well articulated, even to the point of being somewhat doctrinal. Of course, this isn't a critique of the great thinker (of whom I'm quite fond), but rather a realistic forward to his work, and perhaps a brief explanation of why modern personalities often find him somewhat difficult to read. Saint Augustine's most popular work, Confessions, is but one of nearly countless articles and books penned by the fifth-century scholar. City of God and De Trinitate, as well as De Doctrina Christiana and his range of letters against various heretics, mark his other more notable works.

It would be hard to single out just one or two points which Augustine contributed, above all else, to the situation of Catholic theology in the early Middle Ages. Nonetheless, his consideration of the nature of "evil" would be ranked high on anyone's list. The quick summarization of his view: "Evil is the privation of a due good." It is not a substance in itself, but is rather the lack of substance where one should be able to find it. In other words, it is non-being where being ought to be.

Such a simple doctrine as this revolutionized the world in which Augustine lived. Because of his roots as a Manichaen—a belief system which professed that evil and good battle in the cosmos, each force being equal to the other in power and existence—the theologian was well aware that such a unique view on 'good and evil' was indeed revolutionary. Nevertheless, because of his faith and astute understanding of reality, he was able to deduce that evil could not 'exist' in the same way as anything else. Reality is logical; evil is illogical. It occurs when people do things that are contrary to goodness, the ultimate aim of mankind and the ultimate expression of logicality and order. If goodness and good things are rationally desirable, then anything to the contrary is thus irrational and thereby non-existent (in the strict metaphysical sense of the word). This perception of evil as non-being was a radical departure from Manichean thought, as well as from Eastern world views, and marked the beginning of a new form of thought in Western philosophy and theology. Augustine made great progress in our understanding of God, and our perception of his activity in the universe.

For this reason, I would submit that St. Augustine is perhaps one of the greatest sources for the pro-life cause. Despite the clear controversy of late, involving misinterpretations of his doctrine and extrapolations of his thought processes, Augustine himself would nevertheless admit that the deprivation of life where life exists is the greatest form of evil: death. Conversely, to foster and pursue goodness where it exists is precisely the aim of man, and the reason for which he was created. Ultimately, this is made manifest in the beatific vision.

The Augustinian bottom-line is this: God is good, and goodness is made temporally present in the dynamism of created things and, above all, in a human life. Anything promoting the contrary is evil. And I would challenge any politician to represent that view as constitutive of their platform.