I’m a little calmer than I was yesterday, a little more rational. And given I’m a philosophy grad student, perhaps it’s not so surprising that my thoughts are taking shape around a philosophical problem. In particular, I’m reminded of Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will and his basic question: why is there evil to begin with?
Augustine starts by giving us a working definition of evil: it is “the love of those things one can lose against one’s will,” which he labels inordinate desire. Basically, this is valuing things too much or too little, based on what they desire. That’s a very roundabout way of describing evil, but think about it. If our action really was justified by the worth of the thing we’re trying to obtain, we wouldn’t call it evil. Take murder. If you kill out of a genuine fear for your life or someone else’s life, we consider that self- or other-defense and while we may mourn it, we don’t blame the killer. If on the other hand you kill someone because they might reveal a secret about you, this is valuing your reputation or your freedom more than their life. This is a mistake.
So how do we avoid this? For Augustine, we need a good mind and to live rationally. Exactly what he means by rational is a tough question; I don’t think he means that we’re like Mr. Spock with emotion playing no role at all. For early medievals reason seems to be be about using your emotion rightly, not being overwhelmed by it (as opposed to not being influenced by it at all). But whatever he means by reason, it’s clear he thinks being rational is the key to avoiding evil. A good mind, a wise mind will value things in the proper way. And it will guide the body. That means that we will only kill, grasp possessions, love people, speak, whatever – in the way that the circumstances demand. Basically you will not murder or steal or whatever because the way you act won’t ever be out of proportion to what the situation actually justifies.
Here, though, Augustine runs into a brick wall because he believes in a creator-God. More than that, he believes that God created Lucifer and Adam as good things, which means they had good minds. It’s no great mystery why Augustine would be driven to steal a pear off a tree or even kill his mistress in a pique of rage, if it had come to that. We are after all fallen. We don’t have a good mind, at least not as perfect as the one God gave us to begin with. But can Lucifer say the same before he rebelled? Can Adam?
Evil comes from either bad perception or bad desires. If I murder someone – if it’s truly murder – then either I didn’t perceive that killing them was evil or I simply didn’t care. But this is precisely the kind of thing that a good mind would fight against. Either we weren’t good to begin with, or Augustine needs to find a way that a good mind could make this kind of mistake.
Augustine’s most interesting work on this topic has to do with Lucifer, and he does think he sees a way for a good mind to fall into inordinate desire. Basically, before his fall Lucifer was so good and so good at perceiving this goodness that he came at resent the fat he wasn’t even more good. (Tolkien fans: think Melkor’s desire for his own melody in the Ainulindale.) At first Lucifer perceived quite clearly that God was God and that Lucifer wasn’t, but he also resented this out of a desire to be better than he was at that point. He wanted to become God. This started out with a good desire but eventually Lucifer’s frustration overwhelmed his good sense and he acted stupidly, in spite of his good mind. Enter evil, stage right.
Obviously this is a much-abridged account of Augustine’s story. And it’s not even a particularly good account because it’s been too long since I’ve read On the Free Choice of the Will. Maybe now’s the time to do that.
The reason I’m thinking about this now, though, is because people’s reactions to the Connecticut shooting have been really interesting on this ground. Some people (myself included) are overwhelmed by grief and don’t have the heart to think too deeply about this. But I’ve seen other people, particularly friends on FB, who have gotten very mad at the shooter. What kind of monster must he have been to do this? It seems beyond the pale that he could have done this and not have been mentally ill in some way. Slaughter of this magnitude seems like proof that something is wrong. And then there is the push-back, both that this lets him off the hook responsibility-wise (he isn’t a monster, he’s simply bad) and that this unfairly maligns people who are clinically ill. It all raises the question, at least to me, of whether a good mind can truly do evil.
I still have no answers. I don’t think Augustine is the holy grail here, either. (Certainly lots of people coming after him still worked on the problem, rejecting some parts of his account.) But speaking just for myself, I find it very gratifying to think these questions aren’t new. And they aren’t simple. The fact that I cannot sort out within a day of a major tragedy whether the Connecticut shooter was mentally ill or morally horrendous isn’t a big surprise. And I’m encouraged, too, by what came next. Augustine talks about Satan and Adam having broken natures, bad minds, but he then goes on to talk about responsibility. For him it’s not an either/or situation. Maybe Adam and Lucifer were “sick” in some sense, but that doesn’t give them a carte blanche excuse here. We are still responsible for perceiving things as well as our natures allowed, loving things in the right way so far as it’s possible. It’s one of the things I like about Aristotle’s ethics, too: he also sees we’re to a certain extent determined by our circumstances, but he still makes room for responsibility.
I know this all seems abstract and I’m using a lot of big words. Usually I try to break philosophy down a bit for you guys because I’m a teacher at heart and I like sharing what I’m passionate about with people who aren’t knee-deep in it all the time like I am. But today I’m still too tired and heart-worn to really do that. I hope you still get something out of my little sojourn through Augustine this morning. And that remembering these questions are millennia old is comforting. I know it is for me.
Over at FB, David Gadon offered an interesting comment about Augustine and my representation of him:
[...] your second paragraph misstates something that I’ve always found rather problematic about Augustine’s account. Specifically, he says that in the case of murder, while you may not be breaking TEMPORAL law – a man made institution which is sometimes in-keeping with God’s will and sometimes not (as in the case of martyrs) – you are certainly breaking ETERNAL law by giving in to inordinate desire. That is, if you kill your would-be rapist or would-be murderer, you are valuing your life and virtue MORE than you’re valuing the commandment against killing. While man-made laws may not care about this, Augustine insists that God still does.
He’s right on that point. It’s been entirely too long since I’ve read this particular book, and I didn’t remember it clearly. I don’t think this affects the overall point of this post (something David emphasized on FB), but it is worth noting. Thanks for keeping me own my toes.