Evil Is Choosing the Lesser Good – Augustine

Augustine, Roman philosopher and Catholic saint, wrote the first extensive analysis of free will. His greatest lesson for us may come from his interpretation of good and evil, the outcomes of willful choosing. Augustine made an early critical judgment that evil is not the counterpart or opposite of goodness. Evil is instead the diminishment of goodness, understood as foolishly giving priority to lesser goods over greater goods.

Born in the latter years of the Roman Empire, Augustine grew up in a small town in a farming area some 200 miles south of the Mediterranean coast of what is now Algeria in North Africa.

Hammam N’Bails district near the birthplace of Augustine

His mother Monica was a deeply religious Christian; her name indicates descent from the Berbers, a nomadic tribe. Monica remained close to her son into his adult years and exerted a profound influence upon him.

Augustine’s father Patricius may have had Latin and Phoenician forbears and apparently had a Roman kind of civic faith, which directed attention mostly toward community, order, and public good rather than toward the gods. Patricius took pride in his intellectually promising son and made extra efforts to provide him with the best education a townsman could afford.

According to his Confessions, Augustine and several other teenage rascals one night for sheer thrill of criminality shook down a large number of pears from a neighbor’s tree “not to eat them ourselves, but to throw them to the pigs.”[1] The incident itself was not so unusual, but his intense reflection on it would have marked him early as a moralist.

Education offered advancement from small-town provincial life. Augustine trained classically in rhetoric and philosophy and became a teacher himself by his early 20s. Eventually he would become one of the most productive writers of ancient times, leaving us some 350 sermons that have survived intact, and more than 100 books.

To the dismay of both of his parents, the young Augustine began to follow a cultic movement in early Christianity. Manichaeism seemed to answer his piercing question about the existence of evil in a world created by a just and loving God. According to Mani, a Persian ‘apostle of Jesus Christ,’ evil could not possibly come from God, and furthermore evil was too strong to originate from humans. Therefore, the ‘Kingdom of Light’ must be opposed by an equally powerful, completely separate and eternal ‘Kingdom of Darkness.’

Augustine joined the Manichees as an ‘Auditores’ or ‘Hearer’ and remained in that status for 9 years. He remarked later, “From their preaching, I gained an enthusiasm for religious controversy, and, from this, I daily grew to love the Manichees more and more. So it came about that, to a surprising extent, I came to approve of whatever they said – not because I knew any better, but because I wanted it to be true.”[2]

Did you get that? His love for Manichaeism grew, he said, out of his enthusiasm for religious controversy. Some of us might wonder if we should make the same kind of confession.

Augustine converted to Catholic Christianity around age 36. His enthusiasm continued, but revolved into forceful rejection of Manichaeism and other belief systems that cast the world as a cosmic battleground between good and evil. He developed a much different concept of the origin of evil, which I believe, as already stated, stands as his greatest contribution to philosophy and religion.

Augustine came to believe that every creation of God – that is, everything that exists – is good, because God desires and creates only good. However, there is an ordering of lesser and greater goods. The problem occurs when the good things that God has provided to us are desired and used in the wrong order, so that lesser goods begin to overrule the greater.

In his system evil is not the counterpart or the opposite of goodness. Evil is just a lack of goodness. This can happen through the substitution of a small good for a greater good, an act that means forsaking the differential good of the greater. He wrote, “Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains.”[3]

One can parody Augustine’s view of evil as the wrong priority of goods. A lesser good might be the momentary thrill of power in committing murder, a horrifying displacement of the value of the victim’s life. Should this not be judged as opposing good? The problem may be that the same word “good” is used both for the values themselves and for the proper ordering of the values. In both cases, good can be understood to signify that which is chosen.

Much earlier in this series, the beginning of Aristotle’s Ethics was quoted. Aristotle, well known to Augustine, pointed out how closely the notion of good relates to human action, aim, and will –

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and every pursuit, is thought to aim at some good….

Likewise, Augustine’s theory of greater and lesser goods led him to ask critical questions about the human will. He combined the intense call to decision of Middle Eastern Judaeo-Christian religion with the inquiring mindset of the Greeks and thus became the first thinker ever to develop a full philosophy of free will.[4] His book De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Choice of the Will) remains a living classic today.[5]

In Augustine’s view, we are not entirely free to define for ourselves what is best for us. What is best, he argues, are those things we desire which can never be taken away. Such things as “wealth, honors, pleasures, physical beauty” are temporal and are unworthy substitutes for love of what Augustine calls “the eternal law.” Here is a key exchange between Augustine and his student Evodius:

Augustine: Tell me something about those who delight in living rightly, and take such pleasure in it that they find it not merely right but actually sweet and joyful. Do they love and cherish the law that, as they see, confers a happy life upon a good will and an unhappy life upon an evil will?

Evodius: They love it intensely, for it is by following that law that they live as they do.

Augustine: Now when they love this, are they loving something changeable and temporal, or something stable and eternal?

Evodius: Clearly, something eternal and unchangeable.[6]

In keeping with his philosophy of lesser and greater goods, rather than an opposition of good and evil, Augustine presented a graded, rather than polar, contrast between things of the temporal world and heavenly things. In the following passage he speaks approvingly of a remarkable list of desired attributes in Roman individual, family, and civic life – things that his father would have deemed most worthy:

Augustine: So the eternal law demands that we purify our love by turning it away from temporal things and toward what is eternal.

Evodius: Yes.

Augustine: But when human beings in their cupidity cleave to the things that can be called ours only for a time, the temporal law demands that they possess those things in accordance with law by which peace and human society are preserved – insofar as they can be preserved on the basis of such things. The first such good is this body, along with all of the things associated with it that are called goods, such as health, keen senses, strength, beauty, and other qualities, some of which are necessary for good deeds and are therefore to be regarded highly, and others of which are less valuable. The second such good is freedom. Now the only genuine freedom is that possessed by those who are happy and cleave to the eternal law; but I am talking about the sort of freedom that people have in mind when they think they are free because they have no human masters, or that people desire when they want to be set free by their masters. Then, parents, brothers and sisters, a spouse, children, neighbors, relatives, friends, and anyone who is bound to us by some need. Next is the city itself, which frequently takes the place of the parents, together with honors in praise and what is called popular acclaim. And finally comes property, which includes anything over which the law gives us control and which we have a recognized right to sell or give away.[7]

Roman City of Timgad in Algeria

In the following, Augustine is working toward a description of free will, although he has yet to name it, through consideration of mind, spirit, and reason.

Augustine: Here is what I want to say. Whatever this thing is in virtue of which human beings are superior to animals, whether we should call it ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ or both (for both terms are used in Scripture), if it rules and controls the other things that constitute a human being, then that human being is perfectly ordered…. We recognize and acknowledge that animals can see and hear, and can sense material objects by touch, taste, and smell, often better than we can. Consider also strength, health, and bodily vigor, ease and swiftness of motion. In all of these respects we are superior to some animals, equal to others, and inferior to quite a few….

There are other qualities that do not appear to exist in animals but are not the highest human attributes: for example, joking and laughing. Anyone with a proper understanding of human nature will consider these things distinctively human, to be sure, but of lesser importance. Then there are traits like the love of praise and fame, and the will to power. Animals do indeed lack these traits, but it should not be thought that an inordinate desire for such things makes us superior to animals. When that drive is not subject to reason it makes us wretched, and no one considers himself superior to another because of his wretchedness.

When these impulses of the soul are ruled by reason, a human being is said to be ordered. For we should not call it right order, or even order at all, when better things are subjected to worse. Don’t you agree?

Evodius: It is obvious.

Augustine: Therefore, when reason, mind, or spirit controls the irrational impulses of the soul, a human being is ruled by the very thing that ought to rule according to the law that we have found to be eternal.[8]

In the second part of De Libero Arbitrio, Evodius asks why God granted free will to humans, “since if we had not received it, we would not be able to sin.” Augustine’s answer is that human acts of righteousness depend on the exercise of free will, just as unrighteous acts do.

Augustine: If human beings are good things, and they cannot do right unless they so will, then they ought to have a free will, without which they cannot do right. True, they can also use free will to sin, but we should not therefore believe that God gave them free will so that they would be able to sin. The fact that human beings could not live rightly without it was sufficient reason for God to give it. The very fact that anyone who uses free will to sin is divinely punished shows that free will was given to enable human beings to live rightly, for such punishment would be unjust if free will had been given both for living rightly and for sinning. After all, how could someone justly be punished for using the will for the very purpose for which it was given? When God punishes a sinner, don’t you think he is saying, “Why didn’t you use your free will for the purpose for which I gave it to you?” – that is, for living rightly?[9]

Augustine follows these remarks with a different argument that extends and to some degree contradicts the point made above that God gave free will to humans so that they can practice righteousness. In the following he uses the concept of justice to suggest that good also prevails when humans use their free will to sin:

Augustine: And as for the goodness that we so admired in God’s justice – his punishing sins and rewarding good deeds – how could it even exist if human beings lacked the free choice of the will? No action would be either a sin or a good deed if it were not performed by the will, and so both punishment and reward would be unjust if human beings had no free will. But it was right for there to be justice in both reward and punishment, since this is one of the goods that come from God. Therefore, it was right for God to give free will to human beings.[10]

Thus free will in Augustine’s view gives the human person the freedom to succeed or fail. If a person chooses in accordance with reason, which is consonant with the will of God, then happiness will follow. Too often, however, a person’s love for the eternal law of reason will be overruled by lesser human desires. Augustine uses two Latin words signifying desire – libido and cupiditas – almost interchangeably. If a person’s choices are driven by some type of unrestrained desire, then that person will fall from grace, woefully depart from God’s presence, and meet with punishment.

That description of free will sufficed for Augustine, and it still rings true for many today. For others, however, the discussion of free will moves toward something else – something like the freedom described by Albert Camus (also from Algeria) for his mythic hero Sisyphus, who defies the gods and defines happiness on his own terms. This more daunting view of freedom makes humans both sovereign and abandoned in naming the good, defining the aims of life, and marking the terms of success.

Augustine pursued his philosophical quest within the parameters of Biblical authority. A full analysis of Biblical tenets on free will lies far beyond the scope of this blog series. Nevertheless, one especially profound insight on freedom in the Bible seems not to have been recognized previously. In the next blog we shall look at an ancient view on God and human freedom in the Book of Job.


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Header image:  Pear trees. NatashaG, Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain. Hammam N’Bails district, photo by Blackzoro3, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia commons. Roman city of Timgad, photo by Habib kaki, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia commons.

[1] Augustine. Confessions. Book II, Part 4, transl. Pine-Coffin, R.S. Penguin, Middlesex, 1961, p. 47.

[2] Brown, P. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967, p. 48 of paperbound edition.

[3] Augustine. Confessions. Book III, Part 7, p. 63.

[4] Augustine was the first to write directly and comprehensively about free will, but not the first to write about it at all. For example, the Israelite or (more likely) Edomite poet who composed the Book of Job wrote eloquently about growing up and living free in the wilderness (chapters 39-40), which we shall examine in the next blog of this series.

[5] Augustine. On Free Choice of the Will, transl. Williams, T. Hackett, Indianopolis, 1993.

[6] Ibid, p.24.

[7] Ibid, p. 25.

[8] Ibid, p. 14.

[9]  Ibid, p. 30.

[10] Ibid, p. 30.


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