Augustine on Evil

St Augustine of Hippo addresses the God and the problem of evil and suffering in book 7 of the Confessions.  

Evil, to Augustine, was spiritual, demonic and mythological. The nature of Evil for Augustine was in conjunction with the dualism between mind and body. The body is inferior to the psyche and the soul is seen to be floating in time and space. It is trapped inside the material body and death is it's only release. 

Augustine identifies 'hyle' to be a substance of evil, which is chaotic matter or mud. God is seen as an omnipotent and benevolent being, away from 'hyle'. The move is made from physical through to spiritual.  Augustine rejects 'hyle' because it cannot be immutable. If it was mutable, it would be part of God. In other words, 'hyle' is bad, and Augustine wants hyle to be good! 

The two main principles of 'hyle' are 'Distema' and 'ex nihilo'.  Distema is the difference between God and creation. Ex nihilo means that the world was created 'out of nothing'. Thefore, 'hyle' and God cause a problem which allow Augustine to address his solutions.  This seems to be Augustine's way of asserting God and the problem of evil.

Confessions (Penguin Classics)
Amazon Price: $10.00 $4.55 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 18, 2014)

Evil as a Result of Freewill

If there is an omnipotent God, then why is there so much suffering in the world?  Augustine asserts two main explanations: evil as a result of freewill and evil as a deprivation of good.

Augustine is a Christian theologian and he traces evil to the fall of man using Genesis to explain it. The ultimate sin of humaan beings for Augustine is desire. Adam's sexual desire was a sin, and because of this, we are all endangered with sin. So evil emerged from the fall of man. It is considered here, that it is a matter of freewill. If we were not created with the freewill given to us by God, then we may not be considered human beings. It is the misuse of our freewill that is the source of all suffering in the world.

Evil as Deprivation of Good

Augustine's alternative was evil as Prevatio Boni - a punishment for sin. Evil can be seen as the deprivation of good.  After all, if we never experience the bad in life, would we ever appreciate the good?

Evaluating Augustine on Evil

We could consider Augustine's account completely irrelevant, because evil is 'hyle'. Augustine is, in a way, dismissing it as a substance.  In a sense, he is denying that evil exists at all, and so his explanation is not even required.

From a Christian perspective, evil as the misuse of freewill may be a plausible explanation. After all, many evil actions such as rape, war and murder are caused by people, not God. However, this does not account for natural disasters that kill people.

What is your view? Does Augustine offer a clear explanation for suffering? Or do you have an alternative explanation for suffering that still allows for the existence of God? I would love to hear your comments, so please feel free to comment on this article.