Summa Theologiae 1.49

Short essay: St. Thomas, evil, and creation

In many respects St. Thomas’s ponerology (i.e., doctrine of evil, from the Greek poneros, meaning evil) is quite conventional in its Neoplatonism. Thomas’s discussion of evil in question 48 of the Summa, for example, begins familiarly enough with his denial in the first article that evil is a nature, since every nature has its attendant perfection and goodness, whereas “by the name of evil is signified a certain absence of good” (ST 1.48.1).[1] Thomas goes on to explain in the second and third articles how evil exists in those things that have been corrupted from or fail to attain their intended goodness: the “subject” of evil is some good thing of which the evil constitutes a privation or absence of form that the subject is supposed to have (ST 1.48.3).[2] In the fourth article, Thomas argues that, because evil only exists in a subject that is otherwise good, no evil is or can be completely successful in corrupting the whole good (ST 1.48.4).[3]

Where Thomas does finally depart from or at least improvise upon the traditional Augustinian reckoning of evil, according to Carlos Steel his innovations are more Aristotelian (and therefore still Socratic and Greek, in Steel’s view) than they are distinctly Christian. To resolve the perplexity left open by Augustine and earlier Neoplatonists as to how evil actions are caused, Thomas in question 49 of the Summa applies the Aristotelian distinction between per se and accidental causality.[4] In contrast to classical Neoplatonism’s typical denial that evil has an efficient cause, Thomas begins the corpus of his first article with an emphatic affirmation that “every evil in some way has a cause” (ST 1.49.1).[5] As the “absence of the good which is natural and due to a thing,” there must be a cause to explain why anything should “fail” or be “drawn out” from its “natural and due disposition.”[6] Thomas nevertheless agrees with the Neoplatonic premise that “only good can be a cause, because nothing can be a cause except in so far as it is a being, and every being, as such, is good.”[7] The question, then, is how something good can cause evil. Thomas’s answer is that what is good is able to cause evil, not insofar as it is good in itself (per se causality), but only accidentally. An accidental cause of an effect is a cause that produces an effect not intentionally, but by producing some second, intended effect with which the first, unintended effect is somehow accidentally connected. As we will see later, it is this Aristotelian distinction between per se and per accidens causality that Aquinas applies to the question of how the rational will is ever able to do or choose evil while intending something good.

Although Aristotle’s causal distinction enabled Thomas to answer the question of how evil may be caused by the good, Thomas’s solution came with its own set of difficulties. The problem, in short, is one of reconciling Thomas’s claim that evil “has no direct cause, but only an accidental cause” (ST 1.49.1 ad 4) with the reality of malicious or “radical” evil—instances, that is,  of evil actions appear being deliberately perpetrated by their agent for evil’s own sake. A classic example of such deliberate evil is Augustine’s famous story of the pear-theft recounted in his Confessions. Initially Augustine attempts to attribute his desire to steal and destroy the pears (he had no desire to eat them) to the influence of his friends, friendship and community being themselves good and therefore a possible source of action, even wrong action. Later on, however, Augustine puzzlingly suggests that in stealing the pears the evilness of the action itself was the cause: “I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it… the self-destruction… my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself… I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.”[8] Although Thomas refers to this very passage in his only work devoted exclusively to the subject of evil, De malo 3.12, the fact that Augustine’s extreme remarks appear, at least to the modern reader, to challenge directly the basic premise of his philosophy of action—namely that evil cannot be desired or pursued for its own sake—does not seem to have occurred to him.[9] Steel accordingly concludes his study by drawing a contrast between Thomas’s Socratic optimism on the one hand, which Steel sees as ultimately rationalizing and reducing all evil to a matter of mere “hamartia, to miss the mark, to fail in one’s purpose, to go wrong, to make a mistake, to err, a shortcoming, a defect, a privation,” and on the other hand Søren Kierkegaard’s arguably more biblical and (in this respect, at least) more Augustinian thesis that evil involves an inexplicable yet deliberate, knowing intention and “positive choice” to do evil for evil’s own sake.[10]

A related contrast is one that has been drawn recently by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Against what he perceives to be the optimistic, totalizing, evil-is-necessary-for-the-greater-good theodicies common to both Reformed Protestant theology (e.g., Calvin) and Enlightenment rationalist philosophy (e.g., Leibniz), Hart posits what he finds in the New Testament to be “a kind of ‘provisional’ cosmic dualism,” according to which this “present evil world” is a realm

ruled by spiritual and terrestrial ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers’ (Col. 1:16; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8; Eph. 1:21; 3:10), by ‘the elements (stoicheia) of the world’ (Gal. 4:3), and by ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2), who—while they cannot ultimately separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38)—nevertheless contend against us…[11]

In some ways, incidentally, this is basically the two positions Shippey finds juxtaposed and ultimately unreconciled in Tolkien’s fiction: an optimistic monism reducing all evil to a form of relative non-being existing within an all-encompassing cosmic order on the one hand, and a dualism granting evil its own alien, irreducible ontological status on the other (though Hart sees this dualism as only “provisional” and therefore temporary and not absolute, a qualification that, as we shall see, likewise has important applications for understanding Tolkien).[12] (While this tension is indeed present within Tolkien’s writings, as stated the problem fails to appreciate what I argue elsewhere to be Tolkien’s own profound scholastic subtlety in exploiting the conceptual possibilities within an otherwise Thomistic metaphysics of creation and evil to overcome this antithesis in an even more original synthesis.)

To this end, consequently, it is well that we consider for a moment (Steel’s above critique notwithstanding) the extent to which Thomas’s own theory of evil is in fact indebted to his Christian metaphysics of creation. According to Brian Davies, who has written at length on Thomas’s theory of evil,[13] Thomas’s Christianity is in fact of central importance to his ponerology. Thomas, it may be recalled here, was a deeply committed friar of the Dominican order which had been founded earlier in the thirteenth century partly in response to the Manichaeism of the Albigensian or Catharist heresy.[14] Thomas’s own preoccupation with the Manichaean heresy, however, was both personal and profound, as came to be famously and humorously illustrated in his legendary outburst at the banquet hall of King Louis of France. Apparently lost in his thoughts and oblivious to his surroundings, Thomas stunned his host and fellow guests when he brought his fist crashing down on the table and triumphantly shouted, “And that will settle the Manichees!”[15] Testifying to Thomas’s interest in the question of evil in particular, moreover, is the fact that he convened an entire disputatio on the subject and had its lengthy proceedings published under the succinct title De malo, “On Evil.” Commenting on the significance of this work, Bonnie Kent observes: “Later medieval thinkers, as a rule, did not write treatises or conduct disputations dedicated to a topic so diffuse as evil. There is, however, one notable exception: Aquinas’s disputed questions De Malo (On Evil)…”[16]

As for his general orientation regarding the question of evil, Davies writes how for St. Thomas

the world is created and governed by a perfectly good God who is also omnipotent and omniscient. And he writes about evil in the light of this belief. In the De malo he is not concerned with scientific descriptions and scientific accounts of the causes of particular instances of evil (though he has things to say about them). Rather, he is out to focus on badness or evil in general. And he seeks to understand it as part of a world made by God. Hence, for example, he asks if God can be thought of as causing evil. And his account of human wrongdoing treats it chiefly as sin and as fallings short with respect to God. Hence, too, he touches on specifically Christian notions such as the doctrine of original sin.

In other words, the De malo is very much a work of Christian theology.[17]

Further indication of the fundamentally Christian and creational perspective of Thomas’s ponerology may be found in the less occasional, more systematic (if less comprehensive) treatment of evil Thomas provides in the Summa Theologiae, where he broaches the topic of evil within the context of his broader address on the subject of creation (ST 1.48-9). When approaching evil in the context of the system of Christian doctrine as a whole, in other words, Thomas views it first and foremost as a distinction within creation, reinforcing the point that the being of which evil is a privation is not some bland, theologically neutral concept of being, much less the necessary, mediated, and impersonal emanation of the Neoplatonic One who is “beyond being,” but the voluntary, personal, and immediate gift shared by the One who is Being himself.[18] Evil, in sum, is first and foremost a privation of created being.


[1] “Relinquitur ergo quod nomine mali significetur quaedam absentia boni.” See also On Evil 1.1.

[2] See also On Evil 1.2.

[3] Thomas does not make this same point explicitly in his On Evil, though it is implied in article 2 of question 1, “Whether Evil is Something.”

[4] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?”, 259. Thomas finds the distinction, for example, implied in chapter two of book five of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and applies it to the problem of the causality of evil. Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle 5.3.781 and 789. (See also On Evil 1.3. Aristotle also distinguishes between per se and accidental causality in his discussion of chance in Physics 2.5.) Steel, however, implies that the application of Aristotle’s distinction between per se and accidental causality to the problem of the causality of evil was actually original with Aquinas, whereas Denis O’Brien points out that Plotinus also used the distinction to explain how the soul becomes evil through its contact with matter: “The soul becomes evil, when she does so, only ‘accidentally’, and, even then, only through the presence of matter.” O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 184, citing Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.12 and 14. As John Milbank also observes (“Evil: Silence and Darkness,” 21), preceding Aquinas in his notion of the accidental causality of evil is Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes that “evil exists as an accident. It is there by means of something else. Its source does not lie within itself. Hence something we do for the sake of the Good looks right and yet is not really so when we consider to be good what is actually not so.” Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names 4.32.

[5] “[O]mne malum aliqualiter causam habeat.”

[6] “Quod autem aliquid deficiat a sua naturali et debita dispositione, non potest provenire nisi ex aliqua causa trahente rem extra suam dispositionem…”

[7] “Esse autem causam non potest convenire nisi bono: quia nihil potest esse causa nisi inquantum est ens, omne autem ens, inquantum huiusmodi, bonum est.”

[8] Augustine, Confessions 2.9, trans. Chadwick (emphasis added).

[9] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 268.

[10] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 267-73. On this, compare Lee Oser’s similar opposition, noted earlier, between Aquinas’s “orthodox Augustinian teaching that positive evil does not exist” and Tolkien’s allegedly Kierkegaardian “strong intuition of positive evil, verging on dualism.” Oser, The Return of Christian Humanism, 118.

[11] Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? 62-5. Oddly, Hart seems to view his own critique of the evil-as-necessary-for-the-greater-good defense as fully in line with the thought of St. Thomas, despite both what we have just seen of Thomas’s own Socratic rationalism and what we will see later of Thomas’s justification of evil for the sake of the greater good. I also have questions as to how successful Hart himself is in avoiding altogether this traditional kind of theodicy, as Hart no less seems to “legitimize” a place for evil in the world when he says, for example, that “one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God; or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it.” Ibid., 69.

[12] John Seland, for example, discovers the same kind of “provisional dualism” of the New Testament discussed by Hart in both Dante and Tolkien: “Both of them also take with utmost seriousness the ideas expressed in Ephesians (6:12), 1 Peter 5:8, and the Book of Revelation (12:1-17) that evil is a cosmic power roaming the world to devour and destroy what is good. However, Tolkien stresses the power of this force much more than Dante…” Seland, “Dante and Tolkien: Their Ideas about Evil,” 150.

[13] See, for example, Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, which treats the problem of evil from a Thomistic perspective.

[14] Lambert, The Cathars, 1.

[15] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 100-1.

[16] Kent, “Evil in Later Medieval Philosophy,” 182.

[17] Davies, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Regan, 14-15.

[18] Davies indicates a further Christian dimension to Thomas’s theory of evil, especially vis-à-vis the comparatively more Neoplatonic, Arabic, emanationist, and necessitarian views of some of his contemporary intellectual opponents. Explaining Thomas’s belabored attempt in the sixth question of De malo to show that people do in fact act freely and not from necessity, Davies speculates that the angelic doctor’s purpose here “might possibly have been designed as an attempt to defend the position adopted by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, who in 1270 condemned a number of propositions thought to be assented to by certain Parisian Aristotelians. Tempier denied that people act of necessity, and most of De malo’s Question VI is devoted to arguing at length that people do, indeed, act freely and not from necessity.” Davies, “Introduction,” 13. As we saw in the last chapter, for both Thomas and Tolkien, the reason human beings can act freely (and by implication, can thus be guilty of committing evil or rewarded for resisting it) is ultimately owing to the fact that the Creator himself gives or “guarantees” being freely to the will of finite agents.

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