Augustine on Creation and Evil

Although Confessions is long-winded prayer and an autobiography, Confessions is also a work of profound philosophical importance.  The first half of Confessions roughly deals with anthropology, the tension between desire and reason, and the need for reason to order desire to achieve what desire seeks.  The second half of Confessions shifts to a more neo-Platonic analysis of creation, which is rooted in Augustine’s allegorical hermeneutic (yes – in the fifth century Christians were reading the Bible philosophically and allegorically, this goes even farther back to Origen in Christianity, and into the eighth century BCE in the Jewish tradition where Amos is already allegorizes and metaphorically interpreting stories that become part of the Torah, and Philo is already employing a systematic allegorical reading of Scripture in the first century CE).  Augustine’s commentaries on the nature of evil, time, and creation have been widely influential over philosophy.


Augustine’s treatment of evil follows the broader classical tradition, but is also intertwined with a Christian theological controversy: Manicheanism.  Manicheanism was a radical dualist and gnostic sect that Augustine was once a member of, it was influenced by neo-Platonism as well, but can be understood as a neo-Platonic heresy too (for instance, Plotinus rebuts the dualistic gnostics in his own Enneads).  The Manicheans promoted the view that can be traced back to Marcion of Sinope, one of the most notable early heretics who promoted the view that matter was evil and created by the low god of matter (the Demiurge) but that Christ was the embodiment and reflection of true God (e.g. Wisdom) of immaterialism and goodness.  Doctrinally, orthodox Christianity rejects both monism (materialism only, or idealism only) and dualism (the separation of good and evil being idealism and materialism respectively) – it is therefore inaccurate to characterize Christianity is promoting dualism, although a cursory reading might seem to suggest this (dualism is prominent in Gnosticism and various strands of radical Protestantism).

The Manicheans followed Marcion in viewing the body and the world of matter as entrapping one’s soul and rational intellect, causing it to be obsessively concerned with material things only and therefore prevent the “mind’s road to God.”  Manicheanism’s radical dualism is more pronounced than even neo-Platonism which, properly, doesn’t really view the world of matter as separate from the ideal or evil, but is a poor reflection and embodiment of the ideal and the good but in the pursuit of the good one must “transcend” the realm of materiality to understand what Plato called the “Forms” and Plotinus called “the One” (because Platonism and neo-Platonism is actually a school of idealistic monism).  Furthermore, the Manichean view – which Augustine rightly sees as rejecting the body and material world (flight from matter) – also poses theological problems to the already orthodox view of creation that had emerged from Christianity: creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing).  In reading Genesis 1, God creates the world and all is good.  To charge the world of matter as being evil leads to two logical conclusions: either the claim that matter is good because it is created from God is wrong, or the view that Gnosticism, Marcionism, and the Manicheans had come to adopt – matter is, in fact, evil, because it was created by the Demiurge who is not the real God but a false god (and Marcion believed this false god, the Demiurge, was the god that Jewish religion worshiped).

Augustine would have none of this.  Augustine recourses back on the orthodox understanding of matter from the Platonists – evil is “no thing.”  Everything is good because everything is a reflection of the goodness of the One.  In Augustine’s more Christianized reading, creation is good because it comes from God, and God is, by definition, good – therefore the logical syllogism demands that that which comes from God is good (because Logos is good).  Furthermore, he understands the neo-Platonic conception of God (classical theism) that God is simply the highest metaphysical being, or reality, possible.  (This is the de fide understanding of God in orthodox Christianity.)  Thus, Manichean dualism is “an abomination” for failing to understand the nature of God, heresy for asserting the material world is evil, and explicitly rejecting the notion that creation is good (and thus denying what is written in Genesis 1 about creation being good).

The position that the Manicheans take in charging that matter is evil is ultimately a result of improper reasoning on the part of the Manicheans.  Thus, while evil is no thing and, ultimately, the absence of good, the absence of the good is the result of improper reasoning and rational cultivation.  Therefore, evil is rooted in lack of reasoning and reasonableness according to Augustine.  From this lack of rationality emerges the negation of the good and beautiful which is something rooted and concrete.  If the Manicheans had reasoned properly, and come to the rightful conclusion that matter is good, they would not have come to the conclusion that matter is evil, by extension, implying that God is evil (unless one adopts a dualism which, as mentioned, is heretical).

Evil is simply a word we denote to actions that humans take, but evil is not embodied in anything or anyone (properly understood).  Evil, as a privation (or negation) of goodness, destroys the beautiful.  And this is why we call such actions “evil,” we instinctively know that destroying things that are beautiful is not in harmony with that which is good.  Beauty is associated with the good according to Augustine, which already was established by Augustine in Books I-III when he discusses how the beauty of Virgil and Cicero had led him away from his life of sensual and perpetual lust and toward a life of contemplation that brought him closer to God (which is the renewal of the mind, the beginning of the restoration of imago Dei because God is wisdom so the pursuit of wisdom is coming closer to God).

Thus, we can see how Augustine’s philosophy of evil works: (1) evil is a privation of goodness which stems from improper rationality or reasoning, (2) this improper reasoning leads to a misunderstanding about the fundamental nature of (material) reality (it is good according to Augustine, it is evil according to the Manicheans), this misunderstanding of the nature of reality leads to (3) a want to transform, change, or even destroy the “evilness” of what exists in the world – but there is nothing evil that exists ontologically, (4) in order to avoid evil, one must cultivate their mind and come to a proper understanding of the nature of reality.  Students of Platonism and neo-Platonism know that Platonic epistemology is remembered as rationalism; rationalism is the school of knowledge that asserts reality can be known through reason alone (without the need of observation).  Augustine is not a strict rationalist, but Augustine does make his argument on the nature of evil as being the result of lack of reasoning and understanding on neo-Platonic doctrine (and, in fact, it was Augustine’s reading of Plotinus that led him out of Manicheanism).


The final book of Confessions is Augustine’s beginning of his allegorical reading and understanding of Genesis.  His work here will later come to serve as the foundation of his full commentary on Genesis, De Genesi ad Litteram, in which he goes into fuller detail about how to understand the philosophy behind Genesis.  To understand Augustine’s understanding of creation and its relationship to rationality, one must understand the statement of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.”  In orthodox Christianity, Christ is the Word, and the Word is Logos, or Wisdom and Reason.

In Chapter 2 and 5 Augustine explains that it is through Wisdom, or the Word, that creation emanates from.  Thus, the world is created in wisdom and reason – hence the first principle of existence is reason.  This is why Augustine argued in Book VII that evil primarily stems from a lack of understanding – the Manicheans had failed to understand the wisdom and reason to the world, and in doing so, failed to understand its goodness and beauty that comes from having been created in wisdom.  Thus, creation is rationally ordered having been created from the source of Wisdom (Logos), and to understand creation one must understand wisdom which demands the cultivation of rationality.

To understand creation, then, one must properly understand creation.  This is achieved through a combination of rational cultivation in order to understand what the senses see and observe.  While Augustine drew upon Plato and Plotinus earlier, his proper epistemology is a combination of Platonism and Aristotelianism, this is called “classical empiricism,” where experience and observation helps reason understand what it is observing and questioning, and that reason guides what one observes to a proper understanding of what one is observing or experiencing.

Part of Augustine’s anthropology is his understanding of what imago Dei means.  Imago Dei means “Image of God,” and this is briefly explained in Chapter 22.  Augustine understands imago Dei as the image of reason, or the image of the Mind (among other things since Augustine’s ontology is pluralistic, but as it relates to our concern for creation and as he explains in Ch. 22 imago Dei principally here refers to rationality).  Since God is wisdom and reason, and humanity is “made in the image and likeness of God,” humans are made in wisdom and reason for wisdom and reason.  God is also love so humans are also made in love for love – this is root of our desire for love, goodness, beauty, communion/belonging, etc.  The “Fall of Man” was humanity’s attempt to procure happiness and knowledge apart from the source of happiness and knowledge, and thus our desire is not in harmony with reason, which is to say we are no longer in harmony with the rest of creation since all creation is created in wisdom.  Thus, Augustine’s dignity of man rests upon his capacity for wisdom – reason is what makes humans divine-like, the renewal of the mind is the restoration of the image of God.  Again, we should be able to see the influence of neo-Platonism here.

Since creation emanated from Wisdom (the Word), and since humans are made in the image of God (which means humans are wisdom seeking animals), to understand oneself and the nature of the world means one must cultivate their rational faculties to understand themselves and their desires.  Through this, one will come to a proper understanding of the self and the world, and in this, one is in communion with wisdom and therefore achieves proper knowledge and avoids the errors of evil.  Thus, to avoid evil, and to know nature, one must be introspective and think for themselves.  Augustine even takes another shot at the Manicheans and Gnostics toward the end of the book, Chapter 30, that the Manicheans and Gnostics have failed to comprehend themselves, failed to marry reason with desire, and therefore cannot properly “see God.”

Thus, we see how Augustine’s understanding of evil corresponds with his understanding of creation.  Creation is the product of wisdom and reason, and since wisdom and reason is the Word, and the Word is God, the creation is good which means wisdom and reason is good.  Humans are made in the image of God, which means – as it relates to creation and understanding creation – humans are made in wisdom and for wisdom, that is to say the same thing Aristotle said in Book I of the Metaphysics, “by nature all men desire to know.”  This is codified in Catholic doctrine which asserts that humans seek to “find the truth and happiness” (CCC. no. 27).  Thus, humanity’s capacity for reason is what allows humans to understand themselves and creation, in doing this, one avoids – in Augustine’s mind – the errors and dangers of Manicheanism and Gnosticism.  Finally, then, Augustine’s logic seems to assert that a purely rational world would be devoid of evil.  (But this is not possible according to Augustine for other reasons we will not discuss here.)

To conclude, we can begin to see Augustine’s doctrine of creation.  The world is good because it is the product of Wisdom.  Since the world is the product of Wisdom the world is rationally ordered.  Having been made in Wisdom the world contains a draw to the source of Wisdom – humans can therefore come to understand Wisdom through natural philosophy (the study of the natural world).  This, when done properly, leads to proper knowledge which allows one to avoid the views of the Manicheans or Gnostics: that the world of matter is evil.  Understanding the nature of the world is possible because humans are made in the image of Wisdom.  This ultimately means that “to be fully human” is to be fully rational, to cultivate rationality to understand oneself and the world one occupies.  Augustine’s epistemology, which is embedded within his commentary on the nature of evil, can be understood as a form of empirical realism or rational realism.

2 thoughts on “Augustine on Creation and Evil

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