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c ha p t e r 6

Who Is Pulling Our Strings?


Augustine

Augustine (354–430) desperately wanted to know the truth. As


a Christian, he believed in God. But his belief left many ques-
tions unanswered. What did God want him to do? How should
he live? What should he believe? He spent most of his waking
life thinking and writing about these questions. The stakes were
very high. For people who believe in the possibility of spending
eternity in hell, making a philosophical mistake can seem to
have terrible consequences. As Augustine saw it, he might end
up burning in sulphur for ever if he was wrong. One problem he
agonized over was why God allowed evil in the world. The
answer he gave is still a popular one with many believers.
In the medieval period, roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth
century, philosophy and religion were very tightly interlinked.
Medieval philosophers learnt from Ancient Greek philosophers
such as Plato and Aristotle. But they adapted their ideas, applying
them to their own religions. Many of these philosophers were
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Christians, but there were important Jewish and Arabic philoso-


phers such as Maimonides and Avicenna too. Augustine, who
was much later made a saint, stands out as one of the greatest.
Augustine was born in Tagaste in what is now Algeria in
North Africa but was then still part of the Roman Empire. His
real name was Aurelius Augustinus, though he is now almost
always known as either St Augustine or Augustine of Hippo
(after the city where he later lived).
Augustine’s mother was a Christian, but his father followed a
local religion. After a wild youth and early adulthood during
which he had a child by a mistress, Augustine converted to
Christianity in his thirties, eventually becoming Bishop of Hippo.
He famously asked God to make him stop having sexual desires
‘but not yet’, because he was enjoying worldly pleasures too much.
In later life he wrote many books including his Confessions, The
City of God and almost a hundred others, drawing heavily on the
wisdom of Plato but giving it a Christian twist.
Most Christians think that God has special powers: he or
she is supremely good, knows everything and can do anything.
That is all part of the definition of ‘God’. God wouldn’t be God
without having these qualities. In many other religions God is
described in similar ways, but Augustine was only interested in
a Christian perspective.
Anyone who believes in this God will still have to admit there
is a great deal of suffering in the world. That would be very hard
to deny. Some is the result of natural evil such as earthquakes
and diseases. Some of this suffering is due to moral evil: evil
caused by human beings. Murder and torture are two obvious
examples of moral evil. Long before Augustine was writing, the
Greek philosopher Epicurus (see Chapter 4) had recognized
that this presents a problem. How could a good, all-powerful
God tolerate evil? If God can’t stop it happening, then he can’t
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be truly all-powerful. There are limits to what he can do. But if


God is all-powerful and doesn’t seem inclined to stop it, how
can he be all-good? That didn’t seem to make sense. It puzzles
many people today too. Augustine focused on moral evil. He
realized that the idea of a good God who knows that this kind
of evil happens and does nothing to prevent it is difficult to
understand. He wasn’t satisfied with the idea that God moves in
mysterious ways that are beyond human comprehension.
Augustine wanted answers.
Imagine a murderer about to kill his victim. He is poised over
him with a sharp knife. A truly evil act is about to take place. Yet
we know that God is powerful enough to stop it happening. It
would just take a few minor alterations to the neurons in the
would-be murderer’s brain. Or God could makes knives turn
soft and rubbery every time someone tried to use them as a
deadly weapon. That way they would just bounce off the victim,
and no one would get hurt. God must know what’s going on as
he knows absolutely everything. Nothing can escape him. And
he must want the evil not to happen, because that is part of what
it means to be supremely good. Yet the murderer kills his victim
all the same. Steel knives don’t turn to rubber. There is no flash
of lightning, no thunderbolt, the weapon doesn’t miraculously
fall from the murderer’s hand. Nor does the murderer change
his mind at the last minute. So what is going on? This is the
classic Problem of Evil, the problem of explaining why God
allows such things. Presumably if everything comes from God,
then the evil must come from God too. In some sense God must
have wanted this to happen.
In his younger days Augustine had a way of avoiding believing
that God wanted evil to happen. He was a Manichaean.
Manichaeism was a religion that originally came from Persia
(present-day Iran). The Manichaeans believed that God wasn’t
who is pulling our strings? 37

supremely powerful. Instead there was a never-ending struggle


going on between equal forces of good and evil. So on this view,
God and Satan were locked in an ongoing battle for control.
Both were immensely strong, but neither was powerful enough
to defeat the other. In particular places at particular times, evil
got the upper hand. But never for long. Goodness would return
and triumph over evil again. This explained why such terrible
things happened. Evil came from dark forces and goodness
from the forces of light.
Within a person, the Manichaeans believed, goodness came
from the soul. Evil came from the body, with all its weaknesses
and desires and its tendency to lead us astray. This explained
why people were sometimes drawn towards wrongdoing. The
problem of evil wasn’t such a problem for them because the
Manichaeans didn’t accept the idea that God was so powerful
that he controlled every aspect of reality. If God didn’t have
power over everything, then he wasn’t responsible for the exist-
ence of evil, nor could anyone blame God for failing to prevent
evil. Manichaeans would have explained the murderer’s actions
as due to the powers of darkness within him leading him
towards evil. These powers were so strong in an individual that
the forces of light could not defeat them.
In later life Augustine came to reject the Manichaean
approach. He couldn’t see why the struggle between good and
evil would be never-ending. Why didn’t God win the battle?
Surely the forces of good were stronger than those of evil?
Although Christians accept that there can be powers of evil,
these powers are never as strong as God’s power. Yet if God was
truly all-powerful, as Augustine came to believe, the problem of
evil remained. Why did God allow evil? Why was there so much
of it? There was no easy solution. Augustine thought long and
hard about these problems. His main solution was based on the
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existence of free will: the human ability to choose what we will


do next. It’s often known as the Free Will Defence. This is
theodicy – the attempt to explain and defend how a good God
could allow suffering.
God has given us free will. You can, for example choose
whether or not to read the next sentence. That’s your choice. If
no one is forcing you to read on, then you are free to stop.
Augustine thought having free will is good. It allows us to act
morally. We can decide to be good, which for him meant
following God’s commands, particularly the Ten Commandments,
as well as Jesus’ command to ‘Love thy neighbour’. But a conse-
quence of having free will is that we can decide to do evil. We can
be led astray and do bad things, like lying, stealing, harming or
even killing people. This often happens when our emotions
overpower our reason. We develop strong desires for objects and
for money. We give in to our physical lusts and are led away from
God and what God commands. Augustine believed that the
rational side of us should keep our passions under control, a
view he shared with Plato. Human beings, unlike animals, have
the power of reason and should use it. If God had programmed
us always to choose good over evil we wouldn’t do any harm, but
we wouldn’t really be free, and we couldn’t use our reason to
decide what to do. God could have made us like that. Augustine
argued that it was much better that he gave us choice. Otherwise
we’d have been like puppets with God pulling all our strings so
that we always behaved ourselves. There would be no point in
thinking about how to behave since we would always automati-
cally choose the good option.
So God is powerful enough to prevent all evil. But the fact
that evil exists is still not directly due to God. Moral evil is a
result of our choices. Augustine believed that it was also partly
a result of Adam and Eve’s choices. Like many Christians of his
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time, he was convinced that things went terribly wrong in the


Garden of Eden as described in the first book of the Bible,
Genesis. When Eve and then Adam ate from the Tree of
Knowledge and so betrayed God, they brought sin into the
world. This sin, called Original Sin, was not just something that
affected their lives. Absolutely every human being pays the
price. Augustine believed that Original Sin gets passed on to
each new generation by the act of sexual reproduction. Even a
child from its earliest moments bears traces of this sin. Original
Sin makes us more likely to sin ourselves.
For many present-day readers, this idea that we are somehow
to blame and are being punished for actions that someone else
committed is very hard to accept. It seems unfair. But the idea
that evil is the result of our having free will and not directly due
to God still convinces many believers – it allows them to believe
in an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God.
Boethius, one of the most popular writers of the Middle Ages,
believed in such a God, but he wrestled with a different issue
about free will: the question of how we could choose to do
anything if God already knows what we’ll choose.