In Saint Augustine’s view, sin is a perversion of human behavior and its good nature. But those who are caught in the grip of sin cannot see that what they’re doing is bad. It means that humans have not completely gone astray from the good path because, in terms of how they think about what they’re doing, they have to think about it in terms of a good end.
The Concept of Evil and the Devil from Augustine’s Point of View
From Saint Augustine’s point of view, evil is not mere ‘appearance’. The logic of perversion functions, in a way, to secure the reality of evil. Evil, though, in its effects is simply the lessening of being. Evil is simply the name that is given to the diminishing force that attacks being itself. The devils, for Augustine, turned themselves into small and puny creatures compared to the great and powerful angels they were initially.
A great example of this, in fact, is the famous ‘Pear-Tree Incident’ in Augustine’s autobiographical book The Confessions. In this story, Augustine compares the crime of himself and his friends stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree—and not necessarily eating them but just tossing them on the ground—to the great crimes of Roman history, especially the terrible crimes of the tyrant Sulla.
Sulla, in Roman history, is basically as bad as it gets. He was the evil tyrant who, once he had taken control of the city of Rome, sent his gangs through the city picking up people they didn’t like, killing them, killing their families, and taking their property.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Augustine’s Justification for the Pear Tree Incident
The evil of Augustine and his friends was even worse than Sulla’s because their wickedness lacked even the appearance that Sulla’s did of rationality. Sulla at least had material aims—he wanted power and wealth, he wanted to defeat potential enemies—that motivated his cruelty and savagery.
Sulla is a demon that is in some ways comfortingly intelligible to people. Augustine and his friends just went into the garden to destroy. They didn’t have any aims beyond the mere destruction of another person’s property.
Augustine read this as the epitome of human evil. He thought there was a positive account that he and his friends did it out of love for each other. They did it out of a kind of desire to be a gang together, which is a psychologically acute insight into teenage depredation and crime. But more importantly, Augustine thought what was going on was a crime that really didn’t have many motives, and that’s what made it so terrifying.
Learn more about Hobbes and evil as a social construct.
Unmotivated Evil Versus Motivated Evil
Sulla’s slaughter of the Romans versus Augustine’s gang taking pears that were about to fall away anyway may somehow be less important than what evil does to one’s soul. Perhaps, it means evil is truly a matter of what happens inside the soul, and unmotivated evil, an evil that lacks any obvious material cause, is in some ways the most terrifying kind of evil. The more terrifying thing for Augustine was when people didn’t even try to make sense of the evil that they did.
But if this is so, a question that haunts a lot of Augustine’s writings, a lot of his thought, is that there seemed to be some mysterious parallel between that kind of completely anarchic evil—an evil without a beginning, without a rationale—and God’s mysterious providence. Maybe, human evil is a parallel way, a parallel that imitates God’s mysterious providence in history.
Augustine’s Explanation of Human Behavior
Augustine explained that the fundamental principles of the Cosmos are not to blame for evil. The cost of securing God from responsibility for human evil is to make that evil profoundly mysterious.
Furthermore, because he focused on inner evil, the corruption of the inner self as the root of outward misbehavior, he made evil even more mysterious and perhaps more remarkable in his book The City of God.
Augustine wanted people to find evil actions remarkable because he thought they were astounding. They were a remarkable, mysterious, but not good, fact about people. In a decent world, one would find good actions natural, logical, and wholly reasonable, and one would find cruel or indifferent actions astonishing. The extent to which a person didn’t, the extent to which the person was callous to evil and astonished by goodness, just revealed to him the depth of sin in which people had sunk.
Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.
The epistemological optimism of this view—that is, evil is in some fundamental way mysterious, completely empty of meaning—is complemented by a certain kind of anthropological pessimism; that is, a picture of the human that insists human nature now, after the Fall, can’t be good by itself.
Furthermore, the interiority of the self in Augustine’s picture is very, very profound and amplified. He is, in some ways—and this sense in many other ways—the master of interiority. The question for Augustine is really about whether people are the sorts who have, or can have, a mysterious sort of depth.
Common Questions about Augustine’s Ironic View of Human Behavior
Augustine, in his book The Confessions, compares the crime of himself and his friends stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree—and not necessarily eating them but just tossing them on the ground—to the great crimes of Roman history, especially the terrible crimes of the tyrant Sulla.
Augustine, in the story of the Pear Tree Incident, justified his deeds with his friends, as they did it out of an intention to be a gang together, a crucial understanding of teenage depredation and crime. But more importantly, Augustine thought what was going on was a crime that really didn’t have many motives.
According to Augustine, evil is a matter of what happens inside the soul and unmotivated evil, an evil that lacks any obvious material cause, is in some ways the most terrifying kind of evil.