By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
There are two major strands of thinking about the concept of evil in Christianity—of Irenaeus and of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Saint Augustine was a philosopher, rhetorician, theologian, bishop, and public official. He may not have been the greatest Latin writer ever, but the Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said that Saint Augustine was the greatest man ever to write in Latin.
The Concept of Evil According to Augustine
Augustine is known for many, many things; he’s perhaps best known as the great theorist of human interiority. He introduced the idea that in some important way motiveless evil is worse than the evil that seems to have rational reasons.
He also said that the true locus of evil’s ‘badness’ doesn’t lie in the effects evil has on the world, but in the derangement of the will that it affects on the person who does it. Saint Augustine is sometimes called the second founder of the Christian faith, and for good reason.
For Western Christianity, Augustine’s influence has been profound, though never without its critics, especially in the past century or so. Nonetheless, he’s one of the greatest thinkers in the West of any religious or philosophical persuasion anyone may care to mention on evil, and with good reason, for his eye saw its own share of evil.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Saint Augustine: Major Works and Facts
Augustine was born in 354 in a backwater town of North Africa to a Christian mother and a non-Christian father. He was primed from an early age by his parents to use his education and his brainpower, which was clearly substantial, to raise his social standing.
He was trained as a rhetorician—a teacher or professor of rhetoric—and he eventually became a professor of rhetoric. He taught first in Rome and then in the imperial capital of the late Roman Empire of Milan, where he once actually gave a speech praising the emperor in the emperor’s presence.
But he found this way of life increasingly unsatisfactory, and he was drawn increasingly to his mother’s Christianity.
He marked his own conversion at the age of 32, and after that, he quit his job and his teaching post pretty quickly and retired with his friends first to a patron’s estate outside of the city of Milan, and then he went back to Africa to set up a sort of lay monastery and think-tank where he and his friends would live celibate lives together.
But after a few years of this very happy retirement, he was forced to accept a sort of vice bishopric role in the city of Hippo on the North African coast. He was visiting the city and was in a church for a Catholic service that day. The bishop of the city pointed Augustine out in a crowd and told the crowd not to let Augustine leave until he had agreed to become his assistant and then eventually his replacement. Augustine became the main bishop of Hippo for almost 40 years until he died.
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The Prominence of Augustine across the Latin West
Augustine rose to prominence first in North Africa and then across the Latin West, to the point that he was known as the major Latin-speaking theologian that the church in the Greek East had to respect.
Never without controversy, he fiercely debated a number of rival views throughout his career. He wrote enormously influential books such as The Confessions, the massive City of God, a huge book on the Trinity, essays, and innumerable commentaries on books about the Bible.
He regularly gave sermon after sermon, some of them lasting hours, and he could apparently keep the people pretty captivated. He also wrote very influential letters. Interestingly, Augustine’s letters and sermons are still occasionally discovered today. Just in the spring of 2008, in fact, a new series of four or five sermons were found collected in an old manuscript book of Great Sermons You Can Use compiled from medieval preachers in Germany.
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Understanding Augustine and Tertullian’s Views about Evil
To understand Augustine’s views, it helps to contextualize them in a setting in which they were first formulated and for which he formulated them, that is, African Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. In order to see where Augustine was coming from in his thinking, Tertullian’s view has to be understood.
First of all, Tertullian thought that humans are confronted with the bare fact of their responsibility for evil. Adam’s fall was his own fault alone, for humans were created entirely free to choose good or evil. After the fall, humanity did suffer evils, of course, but they were all well-merited, and clearly so for Tertullian.
Most interestingly, Tertullian had a very troubling vision of the ultimate punishment of evil. It was a vision deeply disturbing in lots of ways and was famously assaulted by Friedrich Nietzsche almost 1,600 years after Tertullian wrote it. For Tertullian, the watching of the suffering of the damned constituted a significant part of the happiness of those who were blessed.
In other words, and it seems that Nietzsche was right to notice a kind of theological inconsistency about this, Tertullian wanted to say the whole point of Hell, in a way, is to be a spectacle for the blessed who will be able to delight in the sufferings of the damned.
This is, as Nietzsche pointed out, a view of good and evil that is incredibly laced with resentment about those who are causing suffering to Christians in that day. It’s also profoundly punitive, and really quite psychologically disturbing.
Common Questions about Saint Augustine and the Concept of Evil and Sin
Saint Augustine provided one of the major strands of thinking in Christianity after Irenaeus. He was known as the major Latin-speaking theologian that the church in the Greek East had to respect. He wrote many books and gave numerous sermons for the people during his time as bishop.
Saint Augustine wrote enormously influential books such as The Confessions, the massive City of God, a huge book on the Trinity, essays, and innumerable commentaries on books about the Bible.
Tertullian thought that humans are confronted with the bare fact of their responsibility for evil. Adam’s fall was his own fault alone, for humans were created entirely free to choose good or evil. After the fall, humanity did suffer evils, of course, but they were all well-merited, and clearly so for Tertullian.