Aurelius Augustinus (354–430), bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria), is perhaps the most influential philosopher between Aristotle and Aquinas. As a pagan rhetoretician his career took him from his native Carthage in North Africa to Italy, first to Rome and then to Milan. After having been under the spell of the Manichaean religion, he became increasingly dissatisfied with its inability to answer philosophical problems. In 385 he was converted to Christianity and soon identified with a Neo-Platonic version of the faith. In 395 he became bishop of Hippo. His numerous works include On Free Will, from which our first selection is taken, Confessions, from which our second selection is taken, and The City of God, from which our third selection is taken.
In On Free Will, the chief ethical problem for Augustine is the problem of Evil. What is its definition, source, effect on human nature, and how is it to be remedied? Implicit in his thinking is Epicurus's puzzle: If God is willing to prevent evil and suffering but is unable to, then He is not omnipotent, and hence not worthy of worship. If God is able to prevent evil and suffering but unwilling, then He is not all good and still unworthy of worship. He defines evil as “the absence of good.” Since existence is good (since it is created by God), evil is the negative element of existence, a privation of existence. It is compared to a disease and wound (i.e., absence of health) that cease to exist when the cure comes, “for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance.”
The source or cause of evil is the will, the falling away from the unchangeable good of a being made good but unchangeable. First, the angel Satan and all his followers fell from the high ideal and then humanity, led by the first man, Adam, followed after. The angels and Adam were created with a will that permitted a free option between good and evil. They chose the later and thereby limited the choice of all succeeding human beings. When the will ceases to adhere to what is above itself, its Source (God) and turns to what is lower (itself or created objects), it becomes evil, not because itself is evil, but because of the improper valuing of things.
Evil's power over man leads to ignorance of duty and lusting (libido) after what is hurtful, which in turn lead to error and suffering which lead to fear. Error also leads to a false evaluation of values and virtues which alone explain human pride or foolish joy in earthly success and goods. From these basic evils flow all other forms of misery. A just God must punish evil.
The answer to Epicurus's puzzle is that free will is a good, necessary for doing good, but, as such, it can be directed to evil (through false valuations—created things over the Creator). So it is not God's fault that man sinned and that, consequently, moral evil exists. But he does intervene and save an elect, so that the fall turns out to be a good thing for the elect (a felix culpa—a happy fault).