Saint Augustine’s God’s Eye View on Evil

St Augustine is considered by many to be the fountainhead of so much of Western Christianity and his thinking on the problem of evil is no exception. Insofar as the problem of evil involves a wider sphere of Christian doctrines – creation, the fall, redemption, and providence – the shadow cast by Augustine is long indeed.

When it comes to the problem of evil there are numerous strands of Augustinian thought, all intricately woven together into a complex fabric that remains influential 1500 years later. Augustine is probably most famously remembered for his privative account of evil, but in this article I want to focus on a different strand of Augustine’s thought: what some scholars call the “aesthetic theme,” but what I prefer to call the “God’s eye view theme.” The idea here is that God sees the universe in its totality and from that perspective it is wholly good. As finite creatures we lack the necessary perspective on the universe and consider much that is evil which actually contributes to the good of the universe as a whole. Augustine here conceives of God as the cosmic Artisan, and the universe is His work of art, containing both gradations and contrasts to make it all the more beautiful in God’s sight.

The influence of Neo-Platonist writers on Augustine is well documented, and we find this same influence here. Consider the following passage from Plotinus:

We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot. . . Again, we are censuring a drama because the persons are not all heroes but include a servant and a rustic and some scurrilous clown; yet take away the low characters and the power of the drama is gone; these are part and parcel of it.”

Compare this with Augustine:

All have their offices and limits laid down so as to ensure the beauty of the universe. That which we abhor in any part of it gives us the greatest pleasure when we consider the universe as a whole. The very reason why some things are inferior is that though the parts may be imperfect the whole is perfect. . . The black colour in a picture may very well be beautiful if you take the picture as a whole.”

In fact, Augustine goes as far as to say, “To thee [God] there is no such thing as evil.” God, reckoned Augustine, has appointed the order of the universe in all its various elements, and when understood properly we see that the entire thing is just as it ought to be, and nothing can spoil it. Even those things we regard as evil have their divinely appointed place in the grand scheme of things. Human beings, as part of the picture, don’t see the whole thing and thus incorrectly judge everything not in accordance with their value in God’s sight but rather on the basis of their usefulness or harmfulness to themselves. The evils we might abolish from the world would be abolished in ignorance of the place they have and the role they play in making the big picture perfect.

Augustine saw beauty in the organic processes of nature: the decay of vegetation and even the devouring of animals by other animals. This is where we find one of the weaknesses in Augustine’s theodicy: his downplaying of the cruelty of nature. Sure enough we can naturally see beauty in the change and decay in, say, leaves during autumn which give rise to wonderful reds, browns, yellows and purples. But leaves feel no pain. The idea isn’t so readily transferable to a deer torn to pieces by a pack of hyenas. Unfortunately Augustine isn’t terribly helpful here because his writing displays a crude insensitivity towards non-human animals. The most useful thing he has to say is that nature is like a great organism which ebbs and flows and continually changes, as individual units die and are replaced by others: “Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” That said, Augustine’s doctrine here makes better sense of the non-animal world, but leaves much of the pain of nature unillumined and shrouded in mystery.

We might also wonder what Augustine makes of moral evil. How does that fit into his system? If the “universe is perfect” and “to thee there is no such thing as evil,” what are we to make of human sins? Augustine simply squeezes the moral failings of humans into his grand scheme with the shoehorn of “moral balance.” Sin is not permitted by God to ruin the perfection of the universe, and thus each sin is balanced out, so to speak, by appropriate punishment. In Augustine’s mind a universe with no sin, and thus no punishment, is not superior to one containing sin and appropriate punishment: “the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin,” and that, “. . . as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.” Ultimately humans are morally culpable for their sin, but God uses sinners to further his own good purposes, and thus the overall beauty of the universe remains intact. “God,” writes Augustine, “judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist.”

That last insight holds great promise for attempts at theodicy, and has been incorporated into many various theodicies over the centuries which have sought to improve upon the Augustinian picture where weaknesses have been perceived. One such weakness that subsequent thinkers have detected in Augustine’s idea is that it seems to slip over into monism; in other words evil seems to disappear entirely, as if it doesn’t – contrary to all creaturely experience – really exist at all. However, Augustine’s idea can be modified using a better analogy than that of a picture, and thus blunt the force of this criticism. Perhaps we should think of a piece of music or a drama – some art-form containing elements of duration and change. On this view evil could be likened to disagreeable clashes within a piece of music – these noises are indeed grating, but they add to the beauty of the piece in the end when we reach triumphant resolution which wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier discordant notes. On this different way of viewing the matter the perfection of the universe is not related to its state at any given point of time. At certain points the evil is stark, very much real and terrible. But given the entire panorama of existence – including the element of time – the universe will be brought to a justifying good in the end.

This, however, leads us to one of the most basic criticisms of Augustine’s theodicy: God’s relation to His creation appears to be cast primarily in impersonal or subpersonal terms. Augustine views the universe as a complex picture whose value lies in the totality of things rather than in individuals. But again it seems to me that Augustine’s theodicy can be modified to nullify this objection. God has freely desired to create personal beings, and one of the insights of modern theologians of all stripes is to stress the desire of God for personal relations with those beings. So, perhaps rather than stress the beauty of the universe in aesthetic terms we could instead stress its perfection in the sense of how well suited it is to fulfilling God’s desires and plans for such creatures, (though we should never forget that God may well have other purposes in creation besides this. The divine purposes may very well be multi-dimensionally complex). Thus, as John Hick puts it: “Instead, then, of thinking of the origin and fate of human personality as a function of an aesthetically valued whole, we should see the great frame of nature, with all its sources of evil, as the deliberately mysterious environment of finite personal life.”

It seems then that with certain modifications this aspect of Augustine’s theodicy still has potential as part of a Christian approach to the problem of evil. In fact, a similar notion appears also in the other major tradition of theodicy inspired by the thought of the Church Father Irenaeus. Irenaeus viewed the world as set up by God and in the process of perfection, a process in which we must participate as free agents. The world is not currently “perfect,” but it will achieve eschatological perfection in time. In this, Irenaeus regarded the work of creation as ongoing. Irenaeus also makes use of the notion cited above in which the universe is better viewed as a drama or piece of music than a picture. For Irenaeus the Kingdom of God was the completion of world history, and will be so great a good as to justify what has happened on the way to it. So, when the world is looked at from beginning to end – with a God’s Eye View – we will see that the entire cosmic drama is good. It fulfils its purpose. Evils, whilst real, are justified by the goods that God will work through them.

Whether we agree with the various twists these thinkers and those who followed them give to these ideas, the notion of a God’s Eye View at the very least reminds us that often things look very different with a different perspective. How often have we looked back in our own lives and viewed an event differently than we saw it at the time? When dealing with the complex interactions of free creatures, the magnitude of the created order, and the purposes of an omnipotent and omniscient God, it should be no surprise to find that there may well be a lot we don’t see.

Stephen J. Graham

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1 Comment

Filed under God, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine

One response to “Saint Augustine’s God’s Eye View on Evil

  1. Pingback: Stephen J Graham and Augustine | RS @ SMC

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