Augustine: Evil as Privation of Good


Drawing on Plato, Augustine defends the existence of forms, or universals. This Realist belief in universals provides the basis for his understanding of the nature of evil. Augustine asserts that evil lacks any independent or ontological existence. Rather, only good exists, and evil is merely the privation of, or lack of good. This presentation will examine Augustine’s arguments against the reality of evil, after which I will argue that evil is best understood through a Nominalist paradigm. As a descriptive term for existing objects or events, evil is just as real as good.

Augustine’s Arguments for Evil as the Privation of Good:

Argument 1: Universal Forms

“If you look at something mutable, you cannot grasp it either with the bodily senses or the consideration of the mind, unless it possesses some numerical form…If this form is removed, the mutable dissolves into nothing…Through eternal Form every temporal thing can receive its form and, in accordance with its kind, can manifest and embody number in space and time…Everything that is changeable must also be formable…Nothing can give itself form, since nothing can give itself what it does not have.”

Argument 2: Forms Exist In God’s Providence/Mind

“To this Form it has been said, ‘Thou shalt change them and they will be changed; but thou art the same, and thy years fail not.’[Psalm 101:27-28]…Concerning this Form it has been said also that it is ‘permanent in itself, it renews all things.’ [Wisdom of Solomon 7:27]…We understand from this that everything is governed by providence…the immutable Form is their providence, for if it did not exist, then they would not exist either…Body and life, they are both formable, and since they dissolve into nothing if form is completely lost, this proves that they exist as a result of that Form which is always of the same nature.”

Argument 3: All Good Is From God

“Nothing exists save God himself and what comes from him…By this Trinity, supremely and equally and immutably good, were all things created…Each single created thing is good…Therefore, all good things, whether great or small, can come only from God.”

Argument 4: Existence Itself Is a Good

“Whatever form remains in a deficient object comes from that Form which knows no lack…No matter how much creatures may lack, and however much they tend toward nonexistence by virtue of their deficiency, nevertheless some form remains in them, so that they somehow exist.”

Argument 5: Evil Commends Good

“Even what is called evil, when it is rightly ordered and kept in its place, commends the good more eminently, since good things yield greater pleasure and praise when compared to bad things…But in the parts of creation, some things, because they do not harmonize with others, are considered evil, yet those same things harmonize with others and are good, and in themselves are good…God is able to bring forth good out of evil…Far be it from me, then, to say ‘These things should not be.’”

Argument 6: Sin is Seeking a Lower Good

“We must not believe that God gave us free will so that we might sin, just because sin is committed through free will…If man did not have free choice of will, how could there exist the good according to which it is just to condemn evildoers and reward those who act rightly?…The happy life, that disposition of the spirit which clings to immutable goods, is man’s proper and primary good…The will, however, commits sin when it turns away from immutable and common goods, toward its private good, either something external to itself or lower than itself…Neither the goods desired by sinners, nor the free will itself which we found to have been numbered among certain intermediate goods, are evil in any way…evil is a turning away from immutable goods and a turning toward changeable goods…”

Argument 7: Metaphors for Good and Evil

  1. a) “In animal bodies, for instance, sickness and wounds are nothing but the privation of health…When a cure takes place, they are no longer present in the state of health.”
  2. b) “When a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good…Unless this something is good, it cannot be corrupted, because corruption is nothing more than the deprivation of the good…As long as a thing is being corrupted, there is good in it of which it is being deprived…If, however, the corruption comes to be total and entire, there is no good left either, because it is no longer an entity at all.”
  3. c) “No weather is both dark and bright at the same time…These things which do not harmonize with each other still harmonize with the inferior parts of creation which we call earth, having its own cloudy and windy sky of like nature with itself.”

Critique of Augustine’s Arguments:

Criticism of Argument 7: Metaphors for Good and Evil

Is sickness truly a privation of health? Does modern medicine not restore health by killing an infectious virus or removing a tumor of cancer from the body?

Criticism of Argument 6: Sin is Seeking a Lower Good

Sin is certainly selfishness, and so in this sense, it is indeed the seeking of something private or lower rather than the greater good. However, the relation between human Free Will and God’s sovereign plan is certainly open to debate. Augustine’s statement, “We must not believe that God gave us free will so that we might sin”, is a presupposition of ample contention that it should not be considered a certain support on which to build a definition of sin or evil.

Criticism of Argument 5: Evil Commends Good

This may be true, but it does not make evil good. The fact that God can bring forth good from evil does not mitigate God’s condemnation of evil.

Criticism of Argument 4: Existence Itself is a Good

While existence may be considered a good characteristic, it does not follow that good’s opposite, evil, is synonymous with non-existence. For example, a circle could be considered the opposite of a square (round versus curved), yet a circle and a square can exist simultaneously. Also, this argument begs the question of whether evil is the privation of good, as obviously non-existence is the privation of existence.

Criticism of Argument 3: All Good is From God

Isaiah 45:6-7 “That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.”

Matt. 25:41 “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Ezekiel 28:14-17 “You were the anointed cherub who covers, and I placed you there. You were on the holy mountain of God; you walked in the midst of the stones of fire. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, until unrighteousness was found in you. By the abundance of your trade you were internally filled with violence, and you sinned; therefore I have cast you as profane from the mountain of God. And I have destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom by reason of your splendor. I cast you to the earth; I put you before kings, that they may see you.”

James 1:13-15 “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does no tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”

Criticism of Arguments 1&2: Forms

Occam’s Razor: “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” Theories with the fewest or simplest assumptions tend to be correct, and so should be adopted before more complex theories.

Applying Occam’s Razor to Augustine’s Platonic theory of Forms, the simplest explanation is not that there exist eternal Forms of all material objects, and that we intuit similarities between objects based on these Forms.  Rather, the simplest theory is that as rational beings we have an inborn tendency to make sense of the material world by mentally categorizing the objects we sense. Example: Organizing candies (which are all foods and all man-made and all sweets, etc). I conclude that the ‘simplest’ choice between Realism and Nominalism is Nominalism.


If Nominalism is true and the Form of good does not exist objectively, then it is nonsensical to define evil as the privation of good. Therefore, I propose that good and evil are best understood as descriptive terms (adjectives) rather than as material or spiritual objects (nouns). I base this conclusion on two primary considerations. First, Occam’s Razor provides an adequate philosophical reason for doubting the existence of the Platonic/Augustinian Forms of Good and Evil. The simpler theory is that good and evil are not nouns, but adjectives. Finally, it should be noted that far and away the most common use of the terms good and evil in the Bible are as adjectives, not nouns. Thus, the Nominalist definition of good and evil as adjectives is truer to the scriptures than Augustine’s Realism.