You are on page 1of 15

Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLVI/ 3, 315-329

The First Evil Will

Must Be Incomprehensible:
A Critique of Augustine
Robert F. Brown

ABSTRACT
The thesis of this paper is that an absolute origin of evil, arising from the
free will of a creature, must be incomprehensible. Although Augustine
occasionally acknowledges this point, nevertheless in a number of betterknown passages (chiefly in The City of God) he attempts to give a causal
account of the fall of Adam and/ or Satan. Much of the subsequent Christian
tradition has unfortunately followed his lead, and major recent
commentators routinely ignore or passively approve of his conceptual error.
Augustine offers three unacceptable explanations of the fall, which conflict
variously with his own doctrines of divine omnipotence, the goodness of
creation, and creaturely free will and responsibility, as well as violating the
canons of sound argumentation and explanation. First, his contention that
free creatures made "out of nothing" inevitably fall makes the fall seem
ontologically necessary (unfree) and thereby lays the ultimate responsibility
for it on the Creator. Second, the appeal to pride as an explanation is a
spurious causal account, for "pride"is only a synonym for "fallenness"itself
and not a possible antecedent condition in a being created good and not yet
fallen. Finally, his assertion that the first sin is intrinsically comprehensible,
but not comprehensible to us because we are fallen, is an obfuscation
masquerading as an explanation, for we have no warrant for supposing that
this assertion is true or even meaningful.
Instead of seeking causal explanation Augustine should have stayed with
his own wiser observation that an evil will has no efficient cause. Theology of
the Augustinian sort (which comprises much of the Christian tradition)
ought to concede that the fall as a work of genuine freedom is an absurd
"fact," an incomprehensible given which steadfastly and in principle resists
causal explanation. The concluding section of the paper draws upon
Ricoeur's insights to tell why the narrative structure of the "Adamic myth"
(which has important positive functions of its own) begets as an unfortunate
byproduct this tendency to spin out a causal account of the first evil, with the
conceptual confusion resulting from it.
Robert F. Brown (Ph.D., Columbia University) is Associate Professor of Philosophy
at the University of Delaware. His publications include The Later Philosophy of
Schelling: The Influence of Boehme on the Works of 1809-1815 (Bucknell University
Press, 1977), and Schelling's Treatiseon "The Dieties of Samothrace": A Translation
and An Interpretation, AAR Studies in Religion, 12 (1977).
315

316

Robert R. Brown

Introduction

he thesisof this paperis thatan absoluteoriginof evil,arisingfroman


exercise of free will, must be incomprehensible / 1/. Perhaps some
might wish to argue in behalf of the more general thesis, that any very
first instance of willing, by a being possessing free will, must be incomprehensible. But I wish to limit consideration here to an absolute origin of
evil.Therefore my focus falls within that more general type of philosophical or
theological position which holds that there has occurred (or eternally occurs)
a primordial "fall" of creatures away from the first principle or God. The
problem of how there could come to be many independent beings (or wills),
existing in separation from one another and the first principle, is a recurrent
difficulty for certain forms of speculative metaphysics. In the broadest sense
the issue arises against the background of the one-many problem, from
ancient philosophers such as Parmenides, Plato, and Plotinus, to modern
systematizers such as the German Idealists. Within this larger context, I
restrict the present analysis to that type of position which attributes the
alienation of such independent beings from one another and from God to the
fact of their own freely willed evil.
In accounts of this type we sometimes find philosophers or theologians
wrongly attempting to provide a convincing explanation for why the free
being in question first willed evil. We find them trying to make the first choice
of evil seem credible to us, hence comprehensible. Augustine is the principal
offender in this regard. Due to his enormous influence in the western tradition
his account of the origin of evil, together with the conceptual errors it
embodies, has been endorsed uncritically by many others after him. This
paper is a critique of Augustine's inconsistent analysis. Following the critique,
by employing resources from the phenomenology of Ricoeur I indicate briefly
why Augustine may have been drawn into the philosophically misguided
quest for a causal explanation of the first instance of willing evil.
Focus on Augustine
The early Christian tradition, after several centuries of vigorous debate,
chose to locate the source of human evil exclusively in the exercise of will
rather than in a deficiency of intellect. By doing so the church self-consciously
widened the ideological gap between itself and the still-influential schools of
ancient philosophy. Augustine stood at the pinnacle of this effort with his
distinctive doctrine of will as the locus of human freedom and responsible selfdetermination. At his best Augustine suggests that a very first instance of
willing evil, such occurs at the fall (in which a being freely alters its
fundamental condition) must be unexplainable. Therefore a theologian
should not seek a cause for the fall of Adam (or Satan before him). However,
contrary to his better instincts, he also hedges repeatedly on this point, for he

The First Evil Will

317

offers various explanations why a free being would turn away from God. In
doing so Augustine makes the pretense of showing the absolute origin of evil
to be understandable. He should instead have left it as a "brutefact" which the
theologian can only point to but in no way comprehend.
The prevalent view in the Christian tradition since Augustine's day has
been that he rendered coherent and rigorous the account of how the first
persons (and Satan before them) could and did freely choose to fall away from
God without God in any way being the cause of, or a responsible party to, the
act. Augustine carries out this task in part by making three contentions. The
first two serve as explanations for why the first creatures choose evil as they
did. The third tries to persuade us to believe that there is a good explanation
even if we cannot know what it is. The three contentions are:
1. Free creatures made "out of nothing" have an inherent weakness which
makes their falling inevitable.
2. Pride is the cause of the fall.
3. The first sin is "enormous," beyond the comprehension of fallen beings
but not totally incomprehensible in principle.
The major interpreters of Augustine's thought almost uniformly applaud
these assertions, or at least cite them with no further comment as if they were
satisfactory / 2/. On the contrary they ought to be castigating Augustine's
inconsistency, for each of the contentions runs counter to the spirit of the
voluntarism which Augustine himself instigates in the western tradition of
philosophical theology / 3/. The correct move for Augustine would have been
to forego any such rationalizations and face directly the consequences of
holding that the initial willing of evil by Adam or Satan is uncaused, hence
incomprehensible (in principle).
Although in the ensuing exposition and critique I speak often of Adam
and Satan, the main issue is not a narrowly theological one. For Augustine all
persons after Adam are inescapably blighted by Adam's fall, hence not truly
free themselves. Therefore if we wish to see what the Augustinian
philosophical doctrine of will has to say about the circumstance of freely
willing evil, we must look to his statements about Adam (and Satan). In an
Augustinian analysis of free will, but one stripped of the theological doctrine
of the transmission of original sin down through the generations, every free
person would be viewed as at least initially in the original position of Adam
before the fall.
Foundations of Augustine's Voluntarism
Augustine's reflections on the nature of will derive from two convictions
which are shared by most of the philosophers and theologians who could also
be called "voluntarists"/4/. The first is the belief that humans are in a
condition other and less than they ought to be. They are fallen from an ideal or
primordially possessed superior status. The second shared conviction is that
humans are themselves responsible for their fallen condition. The com-

318

Robert R. Brown

bination of these two convictions, with emphasis on the second one


(responsibility), often but not invariably generates an ontology in which will is
the central component. (Plotinus is one notable exception.) Augustine's
Christian version of these is well known but nevertheless requires summary
restatement, because it defines the parameters for his well-intentioned but
ultimately unsuccessful treatment of the first instance of willing evil by a
creature.
God cannot be responsible for the fall. God created the world "out of
nothing" in the sense that, if he had not created there would be nothing at all
other than God alone, not even a pre-exisited eternal matter. God has
sovereign control over all the constituents of the creation. Nothing in the
creation can limit him in any way whatsoever unless he chooses to let it do so
(aside from the standard exclusions that God cannot will logical contradictions or moral evil). God creates only beings with natures which are
good. Augustine must say this in order to shield the divine goodness, for God
alone is responsible for every created endowment possessed by the creatures.
Evil therefore is not a positive quality, for no created nature as such is evil.
Evil is but a privation of some feature in a being which ought to possess that
feature fully. Such evil can be introduced into the creation only by will, the
free will of certain creatures endowed with it. Free will is unquestionably a
good. God bestows it as a power possessed by certain kinds of creatures. The
use of free will can be for either good or evil, and the free creature (at least in
the original condition) bears the sole responsibility for its use. The free
creature can therefore will evil on its own initiative. When it does so it alters its
created nature by introducing a privation into it, which is the point of
insertion of evil into the creation. For this act the creaturealone is responsible,
not God. Satan and Adam freely initiated evil among angels and humans
respectively. Why did they do it? Analysis of ,the Augustinian answers to the
question will show the inadequacy of his explanation for dealing with this
particular issue.
Rist clarifies nicely the various senses in which humans have a will which is
free (220f.). My summary interpretation of his distinctions is as follows.
Voluntas is not a decision-making faculty. It is rather the basic core of an
individual as a moral personality. It has no specific cause for being as it is; it is
the fundamental character from which all of one's actions proceed. Arbitrium
is the psychological expression of will, the conscious power of choosing
among alternatives. The will is free (within limits, of course) as arbitrium, and
therefore aware of its responsibility for the choices it makes and assents to.
But at the level of voluntas the person is governed by the basic love which
draws him or her one way or another. Fallen humans are "free" and
responsible for their choices (arbitrium) but incapable of turning their will as
love (voluntas) toward God unless assisted by grace. In this paper we need not
be concerned with the complex relation of voluntas to arbitrium because the
focus is limited to that primal act in which Adam freely turned his (wholly
undetermined) voluntas away from God and thereby rendered himself
incapable of turning back without grace so moving him.

The First Evil Will

319

In light of these foundations, Augustine seems right on track in much of


The City of God (XII, 6-9), with a consistent analysis of the evil will / 5/. Here
he asserts that an evil will has no efficient cause, or no "essential"cause. The
evil will stands as efficient cause of an evil deed, but this will itself has no
efficient cause. If the first instance of evil willing did have an efficient cause,
that cause could only be the nature of the willing being itself. (Excluded from
the outset are the other two possibilities: it has a prior evil will as its cause;
God himself causes the evil will.) If the first being that willed evil had a created
nature that was good, its willing evil is an inexplicable fact which cannot be
accounted for by its nature. It cannot have possessed an evil nature, for God
doesn't create evil natures. Augustine refers to the purported impetus to the
first evil as a "deficient"cause. This idea is not without severe difficulties of its
own, for it depends on the Neoplatonic view of evil as a privation of being.
Much as Plotinus speaks of mi on, Augustine says that a "deficient" cause
cannot be known in the true sense of "know."One seeks it as one seeks to "see"
darkness or to "hear"silence (XII, 7). If the very kind of thing it is supposed to
be is to this degree unknowable, it seems problematic in what sense one is
entitled to speak of it as a "cause." Augustine does explain (XII, 8) what a
defect in a creature is, namely, an evil contrary to that creature's nature.
However a defect is not actually a cause of the initial willing of evil, but is
either its effect or simply a synonym for the evil willing itself ("defection").For
the primordial instance of willing I contend that there can be no cause other
than the willing itself, and that that is not a proper use of the term "cause."
However Augustine does not stick consistently with his own best insights.
Instead he offers explanations for the first instance of willing evil, accounts
which he thinks make the event comprehensible. It is these attempts to explain
the first evil will which I discredit in the following section.
Unacceptable Explanations
What is the first instance of a will willing evil? For Augustine it it the fall of
Satan, although he also applies a comparable analysis to Adam, whose fall is
first with respect to human creatures. I am concerned with the Augustinian
analysis of a first instance, and not with theological history. Therefore in
criticizing Augustine's three contentions I draw freely upon elements which
illumine the issue, whether they be from the account of Satan or from that of
Adam. (The descendents of Adam in the Augustinian account are not of
particular philosophical interest because they are born as already blighted by
original sin, hence are not free in the sense that Satan and Adam were, that is,
possessing the ability to determine absolutely their own dispositions vis-a-vis
good and evil. By a Pelagian reading of history, however, others subsequent to
Adam might also be viewed as possessing this ability.)
I. Free creatures made "out of nothing" inevitably fall.
In his development of this position in The City of God Augustine says such
things as these:

320

Robert R. Brown

1. A creature is mutable because it is made out of nothing rather than out


of God, for God alone is the unchangeable good (XII, 1).
2. Being created out of nothing is the reason why a creature which has the
capacity to be blessed cannot be blessed by itself but only by God (XII, 1).
3. There is no efficient cause of the evil will in a mutable nature (XII, 6-7).
4. An evil will can exist only in a nature created out of nothing (XIV, 11).
5. That a nature is, and is good, is because God created it; that it falls is
because it is created out of nothing (XIV, 13).
This solution gives God credit for the goodness of the created nature (its
being) but not the responsibility for its fall. But in endeavoring to make the fall
comprehensible Augustine attributes it to an inherent weakness which creatures must possess, by virtue of their being created out of nothing. This
weakness precipitates their fall, in fact makes it inevitable.
Augustine experiments with a particular application of this explanation
when he examines the view that Satan was evil from the very beginning of his
created existence (XI, 13-15). But he finally rejects it (XI, 15) with the
realization that "if sin be natural, it is not sin at all," and the contention that
Satan was once in the truth and only "sinned ... from the beginning of his
sin," not "from the beginning of his existence." But he does not display equal
wisdom in renouncing another argument pertaining to the angels (XI, 11 and
13). In an effort to draw some initial distinction between the good and evil
angels he is torn between two mutually exclusive aims. On the one hand, he
wishes to say that both sets of angels must have commenced their existence
absolutely equal to one another, so that God the creator cannot be held
responsible for the crucial difference between them. On the other hand, if the
fall of the evil angels is to be comprehensible, from the outset there must have
been some difference in their status vis-A-vis God. The latter is the case
because it is seemingly impossible to conceive how a being possessed of
complete wisdom and blessedness could ever choose to turn away and lose it.
It is not plausible to hold that angels could be ignorant of the consequences of
choosing to rebel against God. Therefore Augustine feels constrained to
devise an explanation for why the evil angels willed as they did.
The account he gives is that the good angels were granted full knowledge
of the blessedness that was to be theirs eternally, whereas the angels who
would fall were not (logically could not be) granted this advance knowledge.
Lacking such assurance they gave themselves over to fear and ignorance, a
wavering attitude which made possible their fall. Augustine might have tried
to justify this blatant inequality by pointing out that a being which was as a
matter of fact going to fall freely couldn't possibly have knowledge of its
eternal blessedness (because it wasn't going to possess it). But a wholly good
God then should have withheld such foreknowledge from the good angels as
well, to keep all on an equal footing. Circularity enters his argument because
Augustine regards the knowledge (assurance) of their eternal blessedness
which God initially gives to the good angels as that which really enables
(causes?) them to adhere steadfastly to the good. By this account the good

The First Evil Will

321

angels appear not to be truly free at all, but determined, for God has actually
"caused" a behavior that is supposedly freely willed (XII, 9 says they "were
more abundantly assisted"). If we are to count the foregoing as a causal
explanation of the differential behavior of the two groups of angels, then the
only truly free angels turn out to be those who are about to fall, and the price
of this freedom is an inevitable fallenness. Moreover, the inevitability of their
fallenness evidently throws the entire responsibility back onto the Creator's
shoulders.
I have discussed the angelic example at lengtn because in it Augustine
ventures too far, showing inadvertently the untenability of this type of
explanation. In other contexts he also speaks of Adam's mutability as a cause
of his falling. In fact Adam and Eve, like the bad angels, also are afflicted from
the outset with an uncertainty as to how long they will perseverein blessedness
(XI, 12). This affliction seems to be a contributing factor to their eventual fall.
These passages, too, risk laying the whole matter at God's doorstep.
Apparently Augustine doesn't recognize consistently that this explanation
an
appeal to an inevitable mutability of the creature won't do for his
by
purposes, for two reasons. First, it militates against the freedom and therefore
the responsibility of the creature, because the specified mutability makes it
impossible that the unassisted creature not fall / 6/. Augustine doesn't seem to
be bothered by this rather obvious point as long as he can arrange things so
that this inevitable weakness of the creaturecannot be blamed on God, for if it
were the Creator rightly could be held responsible for evil. The second
difficulty is that to stick by this position is to imperil his own conception of
God's sovereign creative power. Consistent with his doctrine of divine
omnipotence, Augustine ought to hold that there can be only one feature of
the creation over which God cannot have perfect control, namely, the initial
acts of will on the part of free creatures. To bring in a second such feature, an
inherent weakness which necessarily plagues all creatures, a disability which
neither they nor God can prevent, is to yield too much ground to Platonism
/ 7/. Moreover, even if this move be allowed, it absolves God of responsibility
for evil at the cost of also relieving creatures of the responsibility. If they must
succumb to this congenital weakness, then this explanation hardly serves as a
satisfactory account of why the first evil willing occurred on the part of afree
creature.
II. Pride is the cause of the fall.
This is the rationale for the first instance of willing evil which Augustine
reiterates most frequently and with the most variations. Perhaps because of
this fact it is the one most often echoed with approval in the subsequent
theological tradition, which is unfortunate because its very familiarity blinds
our sensitivity to its total failure as an explanation. Pride is variously said to
be: "the origin and head of all these evils" (i.e. the vices of the devil) (XIV, 3); a
"defect of nature" (XIV, 13); "the craving for undue exaltation" (XIV, 13);
"the beginning of sin" (XII, 6); what occurs when a soul becomes
"inordinately enamoured of its own power" and thus rejects higher authority

322

Robert R. Brown

(XII, 8); the seeking of an excuse for one's sins (XIV, 14). The pride of the evil
angels is seen in their lust for self-advancement (XI, 33) and goes hand in hand
with their love of deception and their envy.
Augustine begins XII, 1 along the proper lines by crediting the original
difference between good and bad angels not to their created natures, but to
their diverse wills. He immediately goes astray, however, by attributing the
diversity of will to pride on the part of the bad angels. What a grand solution
this is: Satan turned away from God because he was proud, and thereby
became a self-centered rebel. But just a minute! Why was he proud? Did God
create him proud? Certainly not, for then God would be responsible for his
fall. Did he make himself proud by the free exercise of his will? So he must
have done, if Augustine's intent to defend the initial freedom and
responsibility of the will is to remain intact. If Satan made himself proud, then
this act of will is itself the fall, and not a "cause"of his falling. Pointing to pride
therefore cannot constitute an explanation for the fall (an account of why the
first evil will willed as it did). It is only the substitution of a synonym for the
inexplicable free act of falling itself. This substitution of "becoming proud"
for "falling"or "first willing evil" is attractive because, by drawing an analogy
to the everyday human sin of pride, it makes Satan's act more vivid, more
appealing to the imagination, more amenable to dramatization. But it
explains nothing, it in no way renders Satan's fall understandable.
Augustine repeats essentially the same account when it comes to Adam,
for he avoids the easy way out of depicting Adam as a witless victim of Satan's
deception or superior power. He heavily underscores Adam's freedom and
responsibility. Adam was corrupted by his own will (XIII, 14). He was proud
as well, his evil will preceding all his evil acts as a deliberate "falling away"
from God, so that he was not deceived (XIV, 11). He would not have
succumbed to the devil's temptation had he not "already begun to live for
himself" (XIV, 13). Adam's pride is not the origin of evil, absolutely
considered, but it is a comparable origin so far as the human race is concerned.
In Adam's case no more than in Satan's does an appeal to it explain why
Adam fell.
It is pride which Augustine puts on center stage, although its defect as an
explanation is patent. In this circumstance it is emphatically not true that
"pride goeth before the fall." Instead, pride is the fall. Because no causal
explanation of this first instance of pride can be given (other than the
unacceptable one of ascribing it to God's creative work), appeal to it fails in its
aim, which was to make the fall understandable.
III. The first sin is beyond the comprehension of fallen beings.
Augustine makes one other attempt to dispel the difficulty, in his evasive
declaration that the first instance of willing evil is understandable in principle
but in fact is beyond the powers of comprehension of fallen humans /8/. (He
handles this issue in terms of Adam's fall, not Satan's.) Because all humans
after Adam are fallen, none can grasp what it was like to be Adam before the
fall. Hence none can in fact comprehend why Adam fell, although we are

The First Evil Will

323

asked by Augustine to believe that his fall is understandable (has causes?)


viewed from the perspective of a non-fallen or a divine knower.
There are at least three things wrong with this argument. First, although it
seems to parallel another argument found in Augustine's doctrine of
predestination (that God's decision to elect to salvation certain people but not
others is based on good reasons which are not accessible to humans in this
life), not all invocations of a divine knowledge or justice, in principle beyond
our comprehension, are equally credible. The predestination case, whatever
its degree of plausibility, maintains that there are qualities of humans which
are factors influencing God's choice, but which they themselves are incapable
of recognizing. There is nothing logically contradictory in such a contention.
However the argument about the fall asks us to suppose that there are causes
for the first willing of evil which we cannot grasp. Yet on Augustine's own
account of the responsibility of the falling being there cannot be any such
causes for, if there were, these causes would be created and moved by God
who would then be ultimately responsible for evil. The appeal to incomprehensible causes is an evasive move so worded as to disguise its
illegitimacy.
The second difficulty with this move is that Augustine in another context
is very happy to produce a long list of the characteristics of Adam in his
blissful condition prior to the fall. For example, Adam is said to have been
untroubled by disease, fear, or anxiety, never too hot or too cold, and able to
engage in sex without being disturbed by passion or shame (XIV, 10 and 26).
Some items on this list have no particular scriptural backing, and must have
been deduced by an extrapolation from (and inversion of) elements in our
present human existence which are knowable by us. But if such a far-flung
extrapolation can be made in the case of other features of human existence, it
is not readily apparent why it could not be made also in the case of willing evil.
Augustine quite unfairly asks us to concede that a first willing of evil has
causes, as do the specific acts of willing evil by already fallen beings, although
we cannot ascertain what such causes are.
The third difficulty is that Augustine is cashing in on an ambiguity in
saying that the sin of Adam is enormous, hence beyond (fallen) human
comprehension. On the one hand, if he really means that it has a "cause"
which to us is not knowable (as in the preceding), then it cannot meaningfully
be comparable to other sin which we do know. It is meaningful to speak of a
particular cause which is undiscovered (even undiscoverable for some
practical reason), or of a cause which is identifiable but the exact mechanism
of its causality not discernible. But I submit that the concept of a hypothetical
cause which we in our present circumstance cannot in principle identify or for
which we in our present circumstance cannot in principle grasp the
mechanism of its causality, is empty of significance. If Adam's sin is like this,
its supposed causes are literally incomparable to any causality we can
meaningfully discuss. On the other hand, if the "enormity" of Adam's sin is
simply its vast consequences for him and his posterity (this is perhaps what
Augustine really means), that is irrelevant to the issue of its cause.

324

Robert R. Brown

In summary, Augustine's attempts to attribute the first instance of willing


evil either to the free being's createdness out of nothing or to its pride, are
unsatisfactory. And his contention that its putative actual cause is beyond our
comprehension is a fruitless final attempt to evade the obvious conclusion
which he himself also suggests in other contexts: that the fall cannot have a
cause at all, hence is strictly incomprehensible. He should instead have stayed
with his own preferable argument that an evil will has no efficient cause at all.
Nevertheless it is humanly understandable that Augustine hedged his bets.
Why others are eager to follow his lead is explained in the concluding section.
Why We Seek Explanation for the First Evil Will
In his book The Symbolism of Evil Paul Ricoeur indirectly tells us why
Augustine and others seek explanations for the first instance of willing evil. I
say "indirectly" because the main purpose of his chapter on the "Adamic"
myth is to provide a phenomenological profile of the myth as a whole taken
together with its correlative salvation myth. Ricoeur also displays an antiAugustinian orientation, similar in some respects to that of this paper, when
he declares: "The harm that has been done to souls, during the centuries of
Christianity, first by the literal interpretation of the story of Adam, and then
by the confusion of this myth, treated as history, with later speculations,
principally Augustinian, about original sin, will never be adequately told. In
asking the faithful to confess belief in this mythico-speculative mass and to
accept it as a self-sufficient explanation, the theologians have unduly required
a sacrificium intellectus where what was needed was to awaken believers to a
symbolic super-intelligence of their actual condition" (239). To correct this
error the sequence should be reversed. Actually the initial concern is to grasp
one's present condition, experienced as fallen. This task leads one back to the
Adamic myth as a symbolic expression of this present condition. In Ricoeur's
eminently sensible view the myth, properly interpreted, presents a possible
structure for interpreting one's present existence rather than providing a
quasi-historical account of how a "very first sin" happened.
Both the genius and the snare in the myth of Adam's fall reside in the same
feature, the fact that the story narrates events which occur in a temporal
sequence. This temporal dimension is the basis of the story's fascination and
power, but it also is at odds with what the philosophical theologian ought to
say about a first evil will. The theologian ought simply to say: the fall occurs,
but no cause or reason can be given for it. There are no extenuating
circumstances which can serve to get the free and responsible perpetrator off
the hook. In Ricoeur's words: "The first man, in his turn, is summed up in one
act: he took the fruit and ate of it. About that event there is nothing to say; one
can only tell it; it happens and henceforth evil has arrived"(244). But there is
also that other feature of the story, standing in tension with the simple
declaration that evil is freely willed, namely, the dramatic structure itself.
There are other characters in the tale: God with his specific prohibitions; a

The First Evil Will

325

serpent-Satan with his tempting words; Eve with her gullibility and her
influence upon Adam. What functions do they fulfill?
Ricoeur's ingenious proposal is that the narrativestructureitself conveys a
second aspect of evil as we suffer it here and now. Not only do we know evil in
one sense as something which we initiate by our decisions and for which we are
personally responsible. We also encounter it as something already on the
scene before we are, which lures us into its web. In order to impart both
dimensions of the present experience of evil the Adamic myth must be a myth,
that is, a temporal narrative. The figure of the serpent especially symbolizes
the aspect of evil as "already there." By their roles in the plot both the serpent
and Eve serve to spread the guilt around, so that it seems not to be concentrated entirely on Adam (257). On one hand Adam does the evil deed by
himself. Yet on the other hand he doesn't, for it is also told that the serpent and
Eve do it for him. The narrative format is indispensable for expressing
simultaneously both aspects of evil. The final mythic product resists complete
demythologization, for it depicts a paradoxical teaching about the nature of
evil, a paradox which rational theology cannot resolve. Ricoeur expresses
these points very well. However it is now necessary for me to go beyond
Ricoeur in order to make a specific application of his insights to my critique of
Augustine.
The narrative structure of the myth, indispensable for representing the
aspects of evil as "already there," creates the difficulty for Augustine and
others. Although a vital constituent of a symbolic expression of the
experience of actual evil in the present events of one's life, it only brings
confusion to a theological treatment of the very first instance of willing evil.
For if the one who first wills evil be genuinely free, responsible, and alsofirst,
then evil cannot in any manner have been "already there" (given the other
features I have pointed out in Augustine's Christian doctrines of God and
creation). The error is that Augustine and many others take this mythic
expression of evil as "already there"to be a part of the account of the very first
instance of evil. As so mistakenly employed, it appears to present causes or
reasons for Adam's decision: causes, such as factors bearing on Adam which
predispose him to succumb (the serpent's guile, Eve's influence, his own
naivete); reasons, such as the external motivation ("ye shall be as gods").
Human curiosity seeks to know the causes of everything. Kant contends
(and I am inclined to agree with him) that the very way our minds operate
compels us to suppose that all events in time have causes which are other
events in time. Therefore we are driven to seek to discover in each case what
those causes are. Part of what it means for something to be comprehensible to
us is our ability to view it as caused, as a member of the universal system of
cause and effect which constitutes our world. Something absolutely uncaused
would resist successful integration within the system of other things which we
know. It is of course logically possible that there might be such a thing. But, if
so, it could not be known by us (in the foregoing sense of "know").We would
find it absurd. We might wish to acknowledge it as a very strange sort of
"fact," posited as the absolute starting-point of a particular causal series. But

326

Robert R. Brown

we could not "understand"it itself if it had no cause. At best we could only


point to it and say: "thereit is; it came about I know not how (and in principle
I cannot know)." What sort of thing such a "fact" would be could only be
inferred from its consequences in the world.
My thesis is that it is just this sort of philosophical animal which Augustine
tries to catch by the tail. In his better moments he recognizes the first evil as
genuinely first when he says: "Thereis no cause of willing but the will itself." In
his worse moments, which unfortunately predominate, he forgets himself and
tries to give it a causal explanation. Then Augustine wrongly seeks in the
narrativestructurein the myth of the fall an explanation of the first instance of
evil, when there cannot in principle be any such explanation. In this vein he
even adds to the Genesis story his own variations and embellishments.
Realizing that, if the figure of the serpent be taken literally, there must have
been a fall prior to Adam's, he pushes the "veryfirst" instance back onto the
angels. This maneuver initially makes the Adam story seem more plausible,
but it is only a diversionary tactic. Whether by an Adam or by a Satan, the first
instance of willing evil remains as resistant as ever to these humanly
understandable but misguided efforts at explanation. That so many other
theologians followed his lead, and that so little criticism of the philosophical
indefensibility of this procedure has been voiced from within the theological
community, is disconcerting to say the least.
Concluding Summary
I have argued that Augustine commits a conceptual blunder when he
attempts to give a causal account of the very first instance of a creature'sfreely
willing evil. None of the three explanations he offers both is compatible with
his own theological presuppositions and can withstand critical scrutiny. The
contention that free creatures made "out of nothing" inevitably fall makes the
fall seem ontologically necessary (unfree) and thereby lays the ultimate
responsibility for it on the Creator. The appeal to pride as an explanation is a
spurious causal account, for "pride"is only a synonym for "fallenness"itself
and not a possible antecedent condition in a being created good and not yet
fallen. Finally, the assertion that the first sin is intrinsically comprehensible,
but just not comprehensible to us because we are fallen, is an obfuscation
masquerading as an explanation, for we have no warrant for supposing that
this assertion is true or even meaningful. If only Augustine had shown some
forbearance by sticking to his own formulation that the first evil will has no
efficient cause, then the mainstream of the Christian theological tradition
could have been, in this regard at least, on a sounder conceptual foundation.
Postlude
Perhaps it is too disquieting to conclude this paper so negatively. How, the
reader may wonder, would I propose to handle the issue of the fall differently?
What constructive interpretations are there within the Christian tradition

The First Evil Will

327

which may be alternatives superior to Augustine's? At this point I see two


possible and quite interesting ways to go. On the one hand, one could follow
Irenaeus and Schleiermacher in asserting without embarrassmentthat there is
an original imperfection of human nature somehow making fallenness
inevitable, but which is nevertheless compatible with God's goodness and plan
of redemption. On the other hand, one could consider the notion of a
"transcendentalfall" as it appears in Kant, Schelling, and Tillich, as a possibly
superior way of expressing theologically an "irrational" primordial fall which is uncaused and free. Neither is without its conceptual
difficulties. But I intend to continue exploring both, in the quest for
something better than the inadequate Augustinian account of the first evil
will.

NOTES
I use the term "incomprehensible" throughout the paper, as well as a few
/ 1/
synonyms such as "inexplicable." By these terms I wish to convey the notion of
something which cannot be fitted rationally into our knowledge of the world as a
closed causal system, even though it might well have been anticipated from a
preliminary consideration of the thing in question that it could or should have been so
fitted in. Perhaps loosely analogous is the case of an odd puzzle piece which cannot be
fitted into any of the remaining spaces, even though one picked it up with the
expectation of adding it to the jigsaw puzzle. More precisely, I mean something which
cannot be fitted into our ordinary world view because it resists being regarded as the
effect of something else which is its cause, and does so steadfastly and in principle. Of
course some philosophers deny that there ever could be such a thing. What I maintain
is that if one wants to speak of a very first instance of willing evil, and to do so within
the Augustinian theological context I describe, that instance must be such an
"incomprehensible" thing.
Aside from passing references to pride one doesn't find any serious discussion
/2/
of whether or not Augustine's accounts of the first sin are actually satisfactory in a
number of full-scale studies (Peter Brown; Portalie; Teselle). Bonner more fully
elucidates, but does not challenge, the thesis that the fall is due to the inevitable
imperfection of creatures (359). Gilson discusses pride, albeit ambiguously, so that it
could be a synonym for the evil will itself ratherthan a cause of it (150f.),and also refers
to Augustine's Platonism in saying that " ... [these principles] . .. even prove that
since God did create, evil was inevitable . . ."(145), but in neither case does he criticize
Augustine's views. Despite Green's detailed analysis of the historical and biographical
factors in Augustine's preoccupation with pride as the initial sin (405-31), he doesn't
step outside the role of historian to ask the critical question: Is Augustine's treatment
of the first instance of willing evil theologically or philosophically satisfactory?
/3/
Sontag maintains that Augustine's intellectualistic metaphysics controls his
theory of free will and thus makes it deterministic (300). On the contrary, I hold that
Augustine's theory of will is at odds with his metaphysics and that he disguises the
inconsistencies. If one takes the Augustinian theory of will at its best without the
overlay of metaphysical "explanation" for the will's willing as it does, and develops it

328

Robert R. Brown

more consistently, one discovers the vital impetus for the subsequent voluntarist
tradition in the West (Duns Scotus, some nominalist theologians, Luther, Fichte,
Schelling, et al.). A process metaphysics (as Sontag outlines it, but not by name) is not
the only alternative to Augustinian intellectualism.
The main focus of my analysis and criticism is on the position presented in The
/4/
which is the one typically taken as the philosophically most important
God,
City of
presentation by the mature Augustine of his doctorine of the will and its fallenness. All
parenthetical citations of Augustine in the text of this paper unless otherwise identified
refer to The City of God. Quoted phrases in the text are from the Dods translation. It
was necessary, however, to go to the later anti-Pelagian writings for the textual basis of
the third (and somewhat peripheral) of Augustine's attempts to defend the intellectual
plausibility of the fall.
Cf. On Free Will III, 49: "But what cause of willing can there be which is prior
/5/
to willing? Either it is a will, in which case we have not got beyond the root of evil will.
Or it is not a will, and in that case there is no sin in it . Either, then, will is itself the first
cause of sin, or the first cause is without sin" (Burleigh: 200).
Rist says that the weakness of Adam and Satan "can only be explained
/6/
metaphysically"(233). He goes on to explain correctly that the necessary sinfulness of
these creatures is not due simply to their being created out of nothing, but ratherto the
combination of this weakness with the power of free will which they are given. He
points out that free will is incompatible with the possibility of sinning only in the case
of God. However, it would be a mistake to read this exposition of Rist's as a
legitimation of the explanation for the first willing of evil by an appeal to being created
out of nothing. All it accounts for is the possibility of falling. It in no way shows how or
why this possibility was actualized, other than to shift the ground away from the free
creature'smetaphysical origin to the will that willed the evil. If, on the other hand, it is
suggested that the creature's ontological mutability itself somehow causes the willing
of evil, then the fall is necessitated and not truly free after all.
/7/
Among the Patristic theologians some others have a similar difficulty. For an
example, see my article on Irenaeus. It is possible to circumvent this difficulty at least
partially (Irenaeus does it), but only by jettisoning the traditional doctrines of the
original perfection of Adam and Eve, and of an unrestricted divine omnipotence.
Augustine is not prepared to sacrifice either of them.
Rist links this point with the appeal to pride: "That he failed to do this was
/8/
the mark not of a failure of God's grace but of an inexplicable submission to pride.
Adam's enormous sin is thus beyond the range and beyond the imagination of
contemporary sinners. . ."(230). The texts he cites are: Opus imperfectum contra
Julianum IV,104; Contra Julianum haeresis Pelagianae defensorum I, 7, 33. In both
passages Augustine refers to Adam's falling by his own will as "that enormous sin
(peccatum illud grande), "yet in this immediate context he makes no direct referenceto
pride. Augustine himself doesn't develop fully this third contention about the first
willing of evil (which is actually an unpersuasive rationale for failing to have a good
explanation). In a critique of Augustine it perhaps ought not to be as important as the
first two. However I have given it equal attention because I think it is capable of
standing alone as a separate point, and because it is of interest as the sort of inadequate
answer one often hears from some other religious thinkers.

The First Evil Will

329
WORKS CONSULTED

Bonner, Gerald
1963
St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies. Philadelphia:
Westminster Press.
Brown, Peter
1967
Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Brown, Robert F.
1975
"On the Necessary Imperfection of Creation: Irenaeus' Adversus
haereses iv, 38." Scottish Journal of Theology, 28: 17-25.
Burleigh, John H.S., trans. and ed.
n.d.
Augustine: Earlier Writings. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. (On
Free Will, pp. 102-217.)
Dods, Marcus, trans.
1950
The City of God. New York: The Modern Library.
Gilson, Etienne
1960
The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. New York: Random
House.
Green, William M.
1950
"Initium omnis peccati superbia: Augustine on Pride as the First Sin."
University of California Publications in Classical Philology, 13:40531. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Migne, J. P., ed.
1844Patrologia Latina. Paris. (Contra Julianum haeresis Pelagianae
1864
defensorem, 44: 641-74; Opus imperfectum contra Julianum,
45:1049-1608.)
Portalie, Eugene
1960
A Guide to the Thought of St. Augustine. Chicago: Henry Regnery
Co.
Ricoeur, Paul
1967
The Symbolism of Evil. New York: Harper & Row.
Rist, John M.
1969
"Augustine on Free Will and Predestination."Journal of Theological
Studies, N.S. 20. Reprinted in Augustine: A Collection of Critical
Essays, ed. by R. A. Markus. Garden City, NY., 1972, pp. 218-52.
Sontag, Fredrick
1967
"Augustine's Metaphysics and Free Will." Harvard Theological
Review 60: 297-306.
Teselle, Eugene
1970
Augustine the Theologian. New York: Herder and Herder.