Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

What Goodness Is: Order as Imitation of Unity in Augustine

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

What Goodness Is: Order as Imitation of Unity in Augustine

Article excerpt


AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO famously argues that evil is privatio boni, a privation of good. (1) There is no such thing as independently existing evil, he insists. Rather, evil things are "evil goods," good things which have become corrupted. (2) If a thing were to lose all its goodness it would cease to exist, for only in this state would it have nothing left to lose. Evil is therefore also associated with a lack of existence (or, as it is often translated, being). Evil things are (esse) to a lesser extent than good things, and the worse they get, the less they exist. In Augustine's view, to be good is to be. (3)

Augustine knew that his Manichean opponents had difficulty understanding his claim that evil does not, strictly speaking, exist. He cites one critic who mockingly suggests that people who believe in the nonreality of evil should try picking up a scorpion; they would quickly experience an emphatically palpable evil. (4) Interestingly, some modern commentators seem to have similar difficulties. Some argue that Augustine's privation theory of evil is too abstract or anaemic to deal with the harsh and very real presence of evil as it is actually experienced. (5) Others dismiss it as a uselessly arcane, overly subtle, or even intellectually dishonest conceptual sleight of hand. (6)

The ways in which Augustine's metaphysics of evil can be misconstrued are legion; here I try to deal with only one of them. The real root of the misunderstanding between Augustine and some of his critics is perhaps not so much the idea of evil as privation, as it is the good which is lacking in an object so deprived. Augustine's implication that there are degrees of goodness and, even more mysteriously, of existence, makes it tempting to ascribe to him views he does not hold: that, for instance, goodness is either a conceptual abstraction (contrived mainly for the purpose of asserting that evil is not substantial) with no obvious correspondence to the world of our experience; or, that it is a featureless "stuff" of which things may have greater or lesser amounts and which God, the source of this stuff, injects into things. (7) Although Augustine's metaphorical language helps to encourage especially the latter misconception, it is, as we will shortly see, nevertheless false that he conceives of goodness (or existence) as a kind of mouldable substance poured out by God, still less that he thinks God makes the world out of his own goodness or substance. What, then, is this goodness, this being, that is lacking when a thing becomes evil?

My aim here is to answer this question while clarifying how apparently amorphous abstractions such as goodness and existence translate for Augustine into the concrete world we know. I argue that order (ordo) is the pivotal concept for doing so. (8) As Augustine says (somewhat obscurely in its context in De moribus Manichaeorum), "what is corrupted is actually perverted; and what is perverted is deprived of order, and order is good." (9) Here, as we will see, Augustine is not saying that order happens to be one good among others, but that what good (or at least created good) is, is order.

While it may be difficult for us to conceive of a lack of good, it is far easier to conceive of a lack of order. In many ways, the idea of order is the keystone of Augustine's philosophy. It unifies and renders intelligible (and certainly more accessible for us) not only Augustine's statements about evil, but also his broader claims that everything that is not God depends on God for its existence.


Augustine's Dualism. Throughout his works, Augustine uses a variety of metaphors to depict the relationship between particular goods and God, the kind of relationship in which privatio boni can occur. All these analogies describe situations wherein one thing depends for sustenance on an originating source: as the dependent thing becomes separated from that source, it is diminished. …

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