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  • Online publication date: August 2014

56 - The problem of evil

from IX - Theology

Summary

THE AUGUSTINIAN BACKGROUND

The problem of evil is raised by the combination of certain traditional theistic beliefs and the acknowledgment that there is evil in the world. If, as the major monotheisms claim, there is a perfectly good, omnipotent, omniscient God who creates and governs the world, how can the world such a God created and governs have evil in it? In medieval philosophy in the Latin-speaking West, philosophical discussion of evil is informed by Augustine’s thought. But even those medieval philosophers not in the Latin-speaking world and not schooled in the thought of Augustine in effect share many of his views. For these reasons, it is helpful to begin an overview of medieval responses to the problem of evil with a brief description of Augustine’s position.

Augustine struggled with the question of the metaphysical status of evil; his ultimate conclusion, that evil is a privation of being, was shared by most later medieval philosophers. But ‘privation’ here is a technical term of medieval logic and indicates one particular kind of opposition; its correlative is ‘possession.’ A privation is the absence of some characteristic in a thing that naturally possesses that characteristic. So, on Augustine’s view, evil is not nothing, as he is sometimes believed to have maintained. Rather, it is a lack or deficiency in being in something in which that being is natural. Nothing about this metaphysical position constitutes a solution to the problem of evil; nor did Augustine or any later medieval philosophers suppose it did.