Tolkien on Evil: the Augustinian context

Tolkien’s Metaphysics of Evil, part 5

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, it was the dualistic account of evil that especially commended itself to Augustine, helping win him over to the sect of the Manichees.[1] Eventually, however, Augustine came to reject the Manichaean portrayal of God as limited and capable of suffering persecution by the Kingdom of Darkness, and through his readings in the “books of the Platonists” he was exposed to the privation theory of evil taught by Plotinus. As the Bishop of Hippo writes in his City of God, “[t]here is no such entity in nature as ‘evil’; ‘evil’ is merely a name for the privation of good.”[2] On account of his belief in the Christian doctrine of creation, moreover, according to which matter, too, is the deliberate creation and thus gift of an all-good and all-wise God, Augustine had additional reason to avoid the more dualistic tendencies of the Neoplatonic understanding of Evil.[3] Thus, Augustine, for example, was inspired to reduce much more effectively than, for example, Plato did, the question of evil to the psychological question of moral evil or sin in the individual soul.[4] In the process of solving Plato’s aporia, however, Augustine effectively introduced an altogether new mystery that would further preoccupy later thinkers such as Aquinas: if evil is nothing, it cannot have a cause, yet how can individual evil wills, which are themselves the cause of all evil, themselves be uncaused?[5]

[1] As Scott MacDonald summarizes the perspective of the pre-converted Augustine, “[g]ranted that evil exists, Christianity appears incoherent: either evil comes from the supremely good God (which is absurd) or it does not (in which case God is not the creator of all that exists). By contrast, as Augustine understood it, Manichaenism had a ready answer to the first question. There are two ultimate sources of things, a good God and a hostile power independent of the good God. Evil derives not from the former but from the latter, and is a consequence of the evil power’s success in its cosmic struggle against the good God.” MacDonald, “The Divine Nature,” 74.

[2] Augustine, City of God 11.23, trans. Bettenson. Boethius similarly writes: “evil is nothing, since God, who can do all things, cannot do evil.” Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Watts, 72.

[3] Elders suggests that it may very well have been the influence of the comparatively positive view of matter in Christian thought that induced later pagan Neoplatonists such as Proclus to modify their position on evil to a more consistent monism, maintaining that evil was a true privation and that matter, as a form of emanation from the One, was therefore not yet evil in itself. Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 125-6.

[4] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 256.

[5] Ibid. On Augustine versus Aquinas on the causality of evil, see also John Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 21.


3 thoughts on “Tolkien on Evil: the Augustinian context

  1. But isn’t there a verse in the Bible that argues the source of all that is, including evil, must ultimately lie in God? I am the Lord, and there is none else.

    “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things”. Isaiah 45:6-7

    Whatever be the nature of evil, how would Tolkien reconcile that with a God who is all good? If you could point me to an answer to that question, I would be grateful.

    • Hi Aditya,
      The traditional, Augustinian answer is that God is indeed sovereign over evil, but if evil is indeed non-being, then it doesn’t have a cause in the same way that created being has. Thus, God doesn’t have to *cause* evil, any more than, prior to the world’s creation, God had to *cause* it’s non-existence. Not-creating something is not the same kind of “activity” as creating something–it is a non-activity. Similarly, God doesn’t cause evil in the same way that he causes the good, since evil is the privation of the good. To reflect this difference, theologians have often spoken of God as merely “permitting” evil. As to the Isaiah passage, my understanding is that the “evil” referred to in this instance does not mean moral evil, but calamity (which is how the NASB, for example, translates it), as in “a great evil befell Israel.” The usual biblical passages invoked to say that God is not the cause of evil would be James 1:13 (“God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone”), 1 John 1:5 (“God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all”), and 1 Cor. 14:33 (“God is not the author of confusion”).
      As for Tolkien, the series of posts titled “Metaphysics of Evil” (of which the above post is no. 5) wouldn’t be a bad place to start, if you were to start from the beginning (but it’s an awfully long series).

      • Ah. Thanks for your answer.

        I did read the first few posts. It’s a bit heavy, as I am learning about these points of view for the first time (the Augustianian, dualitstic / non-dualistic views, etc.). Not done much reading on philosophy. Looking forward to getting through the remaining posts.

        Whether it is the active creation of evil, or simply permitting the absence of good, why does God permit it? Would Augustine say to allow free will? But surely one person’s free will is another person’s traumatic prison (quite literally, if we look back in human history)? Doesn’t God have a moral obligation to not permit evil, or at least structure the universe so that it can permit free will with constraints (so no major wrongs).

        Leave aside the Saints and the logical views for a moment… what is your personal view, if there is one you’d like to share?

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