St. Augustine on the Problem of Evil

Enchiridion, 10-12


In his struggles with the problem of evil, Augustine argues first that the fact that there are things of varying goodness makes for a greater goodness of things as a whole than if there weren't such variety. And he further argues that evil is not something fully real but only something dependent on that which is more real, as disease (which is an evil) can exist only in a body (which is a good). Thus God, as the source of all that is, is not in contest with a positive being or an ultimate reality which is evil and would be His counterpart. Though Augustine's ideas were bold and daring, they troubled many later Christians who felt they were unable to reconcile them with the existence of sin, Satan, and damnation. Yet variations on this theme continue to be popular: what we perceive to be evil is, in some ultimate sense, good. (It should be noted that the classic "problem of evil" exists only in those religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in which there is believed to be a single, good, almighty god, and is absent in other world religions.)

According to Augustine, what happens to vices when they are not residing in a human soul? Can you find any flaws in his analogy of evil with disease? (Remember: Augustine could not have known about germs and viruses!)


By the Trinity, (1) thus supremely and equally and unchangeably good, all things were created; and these are not supremely equally and unchangeably good, but yet they are good, even taken separately. Taken as a whole, however, they are very good, because their ensemble constitutes the universe in all its wonderful order and beauty.

And in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present--namely, the diseases and wounds--go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, (2) but a defect in the fleshly substance--the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils--that is, privations of the good which we call health--are accidents. (3) Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.

Translated by Marcus Dods (1876).


(1) The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(2) Substance" is a technical term, meaning that which endures through time even though it may undergo certain changes of quality or of state. The substance is thus more real than are its changeable features.

(3) "Accident," too, is a technical term, meaning not "happening by chance" but rather "those qualities or states of a thing which might have been different than they are." Thus accidents can only exist if there is something more real of which they can be the features.



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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

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Department of English
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Pullman 99164-5020

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