The Problem of Evil: Augustine and Aquinas

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The Problem of Evil: Augustine and Aquinas

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Definitions of Evil. Medieval theologians’ responses to the problem of evil were influenced by two related but different religious and philosophical systems. A movement that can be called medieval Manichaeism offered a dualist explanation of evil, which differed considerably from that proposed by the Christian Platonism of Augustine in the fifth century and the Christian Aristotelian Platonism of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth. For the Manichaeans, the human body as material was evil. Human reason was a good. Thus, their philosophical and religious life consisted in a purification of the body so that the true “rational” self-purification could be achieved. Manichaeans believed that since God is perfectly good he could not have created the physical world, which is evil, and, thus, there must exist another purely evil principle in opposition to God. Ploti-nus, however, taught that evil was a privation, not an actual force. Thus, Augustine wrote that God created the world as wholly good and that evil is an absence of good that occurs through man’s exercise of free will.

Rejecting Manichaeanism. Augustine also inherited the Christian tradition of respect for the human body. Early in his life Augustine had been a committed Manichaean for more than a decade. As he matured, he rejected not only their definition of evil but also their dualistic view that soul and body were two entirely unrelated and antagonistic substances, and converted from Manichaeanism to Catholic Christianity. For Augustine, as for the Neoplatonic philosophers, being is essentially good, and evil is a privation, not an actual positive force in nature.

Aquinas and Aristotle. Thomas Aquinas inherited both the theological tradition of Augustine, including his definition of evil, and the philosophical-theological tradition of Aristotle. By the time Aquinas earned his doctorate from the University of Paris in 1256, the philosophy faculty had already made Aristotle “the Philosopher” (Philosophus). Just as the Apostle Paul was the “Scriptural” authority, Aristotle was the “Philosophical” authority. Thinkers still read Platonic texts, but Aristotle had provided them with explicit logical methods for the analysis of arguments, and with significant new ideas in physics, metaphysics, theory of knowledge, ethics, and philosophy of mind. Aquinas attempted to correlate the new Aristotelianism with traditional Stoic and Neoplatonic teachings. Like Augustine, Aquinas was fundamentally optimistic even in a time of great military and geopolitical turmoil. His family in the Kingdom of Naples had suffered much during the war between the Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy, including the murder of his brother, but Aquinas adopted a positive and serene attitude to life. For him, as for Augustine, the human body was not something to be despised. Because he held that matter was a positive good, he saw reason and the human body as existing in a positive relationship to one another.

Sources

J. A. Aertsen, Nature and Creature: Thomas Aquina’s Way of Thought, translated by Herbert Donald Morton (New York & London: Brill, 1988);

John M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994);

Edward A. Synam, Entry on Thomas Aquinas, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 115: Medieval Philosophers, edited by Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit & London: Gale Research, 1992) pp. 35–53.

Frederick Van Fleteren, Entry on Augustine, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 115, pp. 53–67.