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transform Neoplatonic notions of the problem of evil? Augustine's understanding of the problem of evil in De Natura Boni is a carefully articulated dismantling of the Manichean teachings about evil that Augustine himself once held to be true. The Manichean dualistic world view contained an understanding of evil that Augustine found wholly unacceptable from a Christian standpoint, namely that evil is a separate power in the universe, opposed to and equal with a good power. Augustine held that there is only one God in the universe, and as such is left to provide an account of evil in this framework. Augustine's conception of the problem of evil was influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Plotinus. Augustine's own unique conception of the problem of evil is best understood in the context of Neoplatonism and as a polemic against the Manichees. An important backdrop to Augustine's relationship with Neoplatonism is the extent to which Neoplatonic conceptions of Truth helped him to move beyond Manicheaism. Neoplatonists held that Truth was an unchangeable, nonextended and nonspatial being who is present over everything and governs everywhere.1 This is a stark contrast to the Manichean dualism that Augustine outlines in Confessions.2 This Neoplatonist understanding of Truth is important for Augustine for two primary reasons. First, it helps him to conceive of a deity that is incorporeal but also present in this world. Second, this leads him to reject the two equal powers of the Manichees in favor of one supremely good and powerful deity. However, in rejecting the evil power of the dualism, Augustine is left with having to provide an account of evil while also maintaining his newfound belief in one supreme God. The account of the problem of evil for the Neoplatonists is articulated clearly in Plotinus' Enneads. Plotinus held that the Good is that on which all else depends, which leaves no place for
1 Burns, J. Patout. “Augustine on the Origin and Progress of Evil.” The Ethics of St. Augustine. Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1991.pp 69 2 Augustine, Saint. Confessions (Oxford World's Classics). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1998. Bks 3-5
evil.3 To maintain this understanding of the Good, Plotinus insisted that evil must be situated in the realm of non-Being. By this he meant that evil is not nonexistent, but rather some vague copy of Being.4 Plotinus is attempting to provide an account of evil which still maintains that it is real and exists, but which also excludes it from having a Being within the Good. Plotinus' understanding of evil as non-Being which still has some kind of existence is more clearly understood in the context of Plotinus' hierarchical understanding of the trinity. Plotinus thought that God was 'the One', who is above 'Being'. Below 'Being' is a third 'tier' in Poltinus' hierarchy called 'the World Soul'.5 This hierarchical conception of God was decisive in helping Augustine to break from the Manichees and understand how a transcendent God might be articulated. Although the hierarchical order is clearly not in line with the Christian doctrine of trinity outlined at Nicea, which Augustine affirmed, it is an example of how Augustine was influenced by Neoplatonic teachings in forming his own theology.6 By using this hierarchical ordering of God, then, Plotinus sought to describe how evil could have some kind of existence that is outside of the Good, and thus came to the belief that evil is absolute lack.7 What Plotinus has done is essentially place evil into a metaphysical hierarchy. At the top is the Good, on which all else is dependent and which is understood by Plotinus to emanate completely onto that which is below it. Eventually there must be a bottom to this hierarchy, which is the last, where nothing else is produced. This last point in the hierarchy is where Plotinus identifies evil as non-Being.8 By establishing evil at the bottom of a metaphysical hierarchy, Plotinus has effectively established that evil is necessary and inevitable in his world view. There is one additional significant point in Plotinus' conception of the problem of evil. He identifies the last point of the hierarchy as Matter – that which contains no residue of good in it.9 By this, Plotinus does not mean the modern understanding of matter as something tangible such as a body or a chair. In fact, these understandings of matter are contrary to what Plotinus means by
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Plotinus. The Enneads. London: Penguin Classics, 1991. 1.8.2 Plotinus 1.8.3 Evans, G.R. Augustine On Evil. Cambridge: CUP, 1982 pp 31-32 Evans pp 32 Plotinus 1.8.4 Plotinus 1.8.7 ibid
Matter. The meaning is tied up with his metaphysics, and the emanation from the Good at the top of his hierarchy. Since the last point, where evil is, is that point at which nothing more is produced, Matter is best understood as that which is void of all qualities.10 Plotinus' conception of Matter is analogous to his understanding of evil as non-Being. As Rist explains, “both [matter and evil for Plotinus] are a kind of non-being, although not absolutely nonexistent. Both are totally devoid of form and quality, though they may be said to have a nature and character by their 'effects'.”11 Put simply, Plotinus' conception of the problem of evil is that evil is a necessary privation of the Good which is rooted in the bottom of the order of the world known as Matter. Augustine's conceptual formation in addressing the problem of evil is certainly indebted to this notion of privation found in Plotinus, but Augustine does not simply dress up Neoplatonism in Christian language. Rather, Augustine takes certain concepts found in Neoplatonism and develops them within his own prior Christian framework in order to present an argument against what he took to be the heresy of the Manichees. As Bonner notes: Augustine has taken from the Neoplatonists a certain conception of evil which he has modified and developed in the light of Christian dogma in order to provide an effective weapon for demolishing the arguments of the Manichees. Created things are good; there can be a hierarchy of created things, some more and some less good, without necessarily involving any existence of Evil. Evil arises from the corruption of a nature which is essentially good; if it were not corrupted, it would be wholly good; but even when it is corrupted, it is good in so far as it remains a natural thing, and bad only insofar as it is corrupted.12 Augustine's own conception of the problem of evil is thus influenced by Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, but in no way does Augustine simply transfer Neoplatonic concepts into Christianity. The accounts that both Augustine and Plotinus provide are both more nuanced than the basic notion of evil as the privation of good that they share in common. Augustine rejects the ideas clearly held in
10 Plotinus 2.4.8 11 Rist, John. “Plotinus on Matter and Evil.” Phronesis 6, 1961 pp 160 12 Bonner, Gerald. St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies Norwich, 1986 pp 204
Plotinus that evil is a necessary part of the hierarchical, causal structure of the world, and that evil should be linked with matter. Augustine's rejection of these two aspects of Neoplatonic philosophy is ironically influenced in part by another aspect of Plotinus' thought. Augustine did accept that at the top of the created order, there is the Good that emanates totally onto that which is below it. Although Bonner is correct to note that there is a significant chasm between the Christian doctrine of creation out of nothing and the inherent dualism in Neoplatonism,13 Plotinus' emanationism actually helped Augustine to conceive of his doctrine of creation out of nothing. However, unlike Plotinus, Augustine did not grant evil a substantive and necessary ontological status; since for Augustine matter depends on God, it cannot be understood as evil.14 Nevertheless, Plotinus' emanationism is crucial for Augustine's conception of creation out of nothing.15 For Augustine, emanationism “explains the emergence of reality by means of an infusion of being from an abstract transcendent and wholly infinite source of power and goodness.”16 This is a critical distinction to make, not only because it is significant in Augustine's overall notion of the problem of evil, but also because it demonstrates the method in which Augustine critically adopted and reformulated Neoplatonic concepts that he judged to be compatible with his Christianity. His nuanced reading of Plotinus enabled him to develop a notion of the problem of evil that is greatly indebted to the concept of evil as the privation of the good, but also is an overall rejection of the problem of evil as Plotinus presents it in the Enneads.17 Augustine's doctrine of creation out of nothing is an important part of his notion of the problem of evil. His synthesis of various Neoplatonic themes which ultimately rejects the Neoplatonic conception of the problem of evil is perhaps the most original and provocative part of Augustine's attempt to account for evil. The originality of Augustine appears just in his steady refusal to hypostatise evil. It is
13 Bonner pp 201 14 Torchia, N. Joseph. Creatio ex nihilo and the theology of St. Augustine: the anti-Manichaean Polemic and beyond. New York: Peter Lang, 1999 pp 174 15 Williams, Rowan. “Insubstantial Evil.” in Augustine and his Critics: Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner. Dodaro, Robert and George Lawless, eds. London: Routledge, 2000 pp 114 16 Torchia pp 36 17 Evans pp 39
Plotinus who identifies evil with 'Matter'–not indeed with material existence, but with the potentiality in which material existence originates. For Augustine, creation de nihilo is simply creation, and creatureliness means a being which is not God's and therefore not unchangeable. His whole conception of moral good and evil is dynamic: man's soul is in the making and cannot stand still. Righteousness is its movement towards integration, sin its movement towards disintegration–a verging ad nihilum, an 'unmaking'. Change is the rule of temporal existence, changlessness is the quality of the eternal, the limit towards which the creature may approximate.18 Augustine essentially adopts Neoplatonic metaphysics as the basis for his doctrine of creation out of nothing. However, he critically rejects Plotinus' argument that emanation is involuntary and thus that creation is a causal necessity. Rather than causal necessity, Augustine argues that the emanation of creation is a free act done out of the loving will of God; instead of Plotinus' abstract Good, the Good from which the emanation flows that Augustine refers to is a personal God that establishes creation as a free act of willing love.19 This understanding of creation establishes the framework for Augustine to present an argument about how evil entered into the world. “Augustine claims that on the basis of his newly acquired [Platonic] metaphysics God can be claimed to be the creator of all things without blaming him for the evils in creation.”20 Augustine's doctrine of creation out of nothing is the key for understanding this seemingly counterintuitive claim. The free act of God's will in lovingly creating the world rather than simply the causal necessity of God's nature implies that God created the world because he wanted to.21 This establishes a relationship with creatures who can freely choose to love back and participate in creation.22 As Plantinga points out, Augustine's argument here is that “God could create a better, more perfect universe by permitting evil than he could by refusing to do so.”23
18 Burnaby, John. Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938 pp 37 19 Cousineau, R.H. “Creation and Freedom. An Augustinian Problem: 'Quia Voluit?' and/or 'Quia bonus?'” Recherches Augustiniennes 2. Paris, 1962 pp 262-69 20 Brachtendorf, Johannes. “The Goodness of Creation and the Reality of Evil” Suffering as a Problem in Augustine's Theodicy.” Augustinian Studies 31, 2000. pp82 21 Rist, John. Ancient Thought Baptized. Cambridge: CUP, 1994 pp 265 22 Cousineau pp 269 23 Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Eerdmans, 1974 pp 27
The act of creation out of nothing establishes a universe in which there are free, rational and moral agents; the voluntary evil of those creatures, called sin, introduces evil into the world.24 This concept of creation out of nothing is tied up with Augustine's most well-known privation account of evil, and together they provide a thorough description of Augustine's notion of the problem of evil, as Stark articulates: The concept of nothingness is present in Augustine's notion of sin in these two ways: first, nothingness is the source of the defective movement of the human will (aversio) and second, this movement reaches out to grasp transient, natural things which, though good in themselves, tend towards nothingness. Augustine's conception of the problem of evil is a subtle and sophisticated one, which relies heavily on the highly developed concepts of both being and nothingness. For this ontology, Augustine was greatly indebted to Neoplatonic philosophy.25 In ontologically ordering creation to be from God out of nothing rather than of God out of nothing, Augustine establishes a dynamic doctrine of creation that accounts for the origin of evil in the free will of humans. This is not simply some kind of attempt to “let God off the hook” for evil, but rather a nuanced account of the origin of evil that is, as Stark rightly points out, tied up with rather sophisticated concepts of being and nothingness. Augustine's privation account of evil does not seek to downplay the vivid reality of evil in the created world; he is not saying that evil is an illusory phenomenon, but rather, in a detailed argument against Manichean dualism, that evil is parasitic on the original goodness in nature established by God. “Evil is a good thing run amok.”26 Augustine's nuanced account of evil as the privation of good is certainly indebted to Neoplatonic notions of the problem of evil. The very cornerstone of Augustine's theory is directly taken from Plotinus' writings. However, it is important not to overly credit Neoplatonic writers for Augustine's privation account of evil. While Augustine was influenced greatly by some key Neoplatonic themes such as privation and emanationism, Augustine critically recapitulates these
24 ibid 25 Stark, Judith. “The Problem of Evil: Augustine and Ricoeur.” Augustinian Studies 13, 1982 pp 118 26 Cress, Donald. “Augustine's Privation Account of Evil: A Defense.” Augustinian Studies 20, 1989 pp 113
themes into his own prior framework of Christianity. Augustine's use of Neoplatonic notions of the problem of evil is much like Stark's analogy of a toolkit.27 Augustine made use of the metaphysical concepts in the philosophy of his day in order to forge his own unique response to the problem of evil.
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27 Stark pp 118
Bibliography Augustine, Saint. Confessions (Oxford World's Classics). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1998. Augustine. Augustine: Earlier writings (Library of Christian classics). London: Scm Press, 1953. Bonner, Gerald. Augustine: Life and Controversies. Norwich, 1986. Brachtendorf, Johannes. “The Goodness of Creation and the Reality of Evil” Suffering as a Problem in Augustine's Theodicy.” Augustinian Studies 31, 2000. Burnaby, John. Amor Dei: A Study of St. Augustine's Teaching on the Love of God as the Motive of Life. First Edition.. London: Hodder & Stoughton 1938., 1938. Burns, J. Patout. “Augustine on the Origin and Progress of Evil.” The Ethics of St. Augustine. Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1991. Chadwick, Henry. Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2001. Cousineau, R.H. “Creation and Freedom. An Augustinian Problem: 'Quia Voluit?' and/or 'Quia bonus?'” Recherches Augustiniennes 2. Paris, 1962. Cress, Donald. “Augustine's Privation Account of Evil: A Defense.” Augustinian Studies 20, 1989. Evans, Gillian R.. Augustine on Evil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Matthews, Gareth B.. Augustine (Blackwell Great Minds). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. Plantinga, Alvin C.. God, Freedom, & Evil. Dearborn: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989. Plotinus. The Enneads. London: Penguin Classics, 1991. Rist, John M.. Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Rist, John. “Plotinus on Matter and Evil.” Phronesis 6, 1961. Stark, Judith. “The Problem of Evil: Augustine and Ricoeur.” Augustinian Studies 13, 1982. Torchia, N. Joseph. Creatio ex nihilo and the theology of St. Augustine: the anti-Manichaean Polemic and beyond. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Williams, Rowan. “Good for Nothing? Augustine on Creation.” Augustinian Studies 25, 1994. Williams, Rowan. “Insubstantial Evil.” in Augustine and his Critics: Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner. Dodaro, Robert and George Lawless, eds. London: Routledge, 2000.
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