One question preoccupied Augustine from the time he was a student in Carthage: why does evil exist in the world? He returned to this question again and again in his philosophy, a line of inquiry motivated by personal experience. Augustine lived in an era when the pillar of strength and stability, the Roman Empire, was being shattered, and his own life, too, was filled with turmoil and loss. First he lost his mistress, then his mother, and finally his son. To believe in God, he had to find an answer to why, if God is all-powerful and purely good, he still allows suffering to exist.

Augustine’s answers to this question would forever change Western thought. First, he states that evil exists because we have free will. God enables humans to freely choose their actions and deeds, and evil inevitably results from these choices. Even natural evils, such as disease, are indirectly related to human action, since they become evil only when in contact with people. According to this theory, a disease spreads only because men and women put themselves in harm’s way. Augustine gave a more theological explanation later in his life: we cannot understand the mind of God, and what appears evil to us may not be evil at all. In other words, we cannot judge God’s judgment. The roots of both answers stemmed from two philosophies, Manicheanism and Neoplatonism, which shaped Augustine’s ideas.


Popular pages: Selected Works of Augustine