Something Wicked…


I have been re-reading St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and their definitions of what “evil” is.

It seems odd to me that I must determine what is evil in a world that seems to be so often evil everywhere I look. To me, I always considered evil to be bad or immoral acts on the part of human beings. But there seems to be so much more to it than that. Because, simply, what is bad or immoral? To me, giving a child of 6 years old into marriage with a 30-year-old man seems bad and immoral, surely an evil act. Yet in some cultures, this is a common tradition. To them, it is good. So, is there truly an evil that is universal? So I thought on it for a long time.

However, Thomas Aquinas has put it into terms I can understand through different eyes. I see evil as the act, but Aquinas explains evil as a non-existent essence–an element that cannot be a cause or a final end. It is a state, not any one thing. All human beings, according to Aquinas, have a knowledge of good and seek to obtain goodness. However, when they reject the good and willingly choose a direction that “veers away” from goodness, they find themselves “in” evil. It can be explained this way:

A man knows whether or not he can swim, and all human beings on earth are familiar with water. Therefore, if this rational man stands beside a deep pool of water, if he cannot swim, he knows not to jump into the water. But if he does so as a willing choice, he does not become the pool. Rather, he is engulfed by the pool. Also, if he is engulfed by the pool and begins to drown because he cannot swim, then he cannot blame anyone for drowning but himself.

Aquinas says that rational human beings as moral agents of free will are fully able to become “engulfed” in evil of their own free will. This is why people who are mentally impaired in some way cannot be considered moral agents because they are not rational. I suppose children can be placed in this category also. So while mentally impaired people can commit bad acts, they do not end in a state of evil–they are unaware. People who are insane and commit crimes are found not guilty by reason of insanity. Evil, strangely enough, to be truly evil, can only be attained by people of rational minds who have made a willing choice to reject the moral choice in favor of the immoral choice, and this with intent. If Aquinas is right, then the term “criminally insane” is an oxymoron.

So back to the idea of a universal evil…there is no such “thing” because the nature of evil is that it is not a “thing” at all. It’s not an action. For instance, to shoot a person and cause their death is murder. And immoral. Therefore evil, right? But what if the shooter is a soldier or a police officer acting within the parameters of their duty? So shooting itself cannot be considered evil. And for that matter, neither can the act of killing another person. It all depends on the intent of the shooter. If a police officer returns fire, shooting and killing a criminal, it is not the same as some guy shooting his neighbor for stealing his lawn mower. It’s complicated. But what I have gleaned this far is that there cannot be any act that results in a state of evil without the direction of reason, free will, and the intent to do the act. Evil can only be reached by sane persons with their eyes wide open.

I am researching free will and evil in order to better understand Milton and Lewis’ characters in “Paradise Lost” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”. And because I want to see how these elements of free will and evil are applied within their story worlds. In the end, I will be seeing if the characters of Satan and Jadis parallel. Then I will be able to decide if Jadis is an allegory of Satan.


2 thoughts on “Something Wicked…

  1. I think the way you’re using the term “criminally insane” doesn’t quite work here. If it meant what you’re implying, then indeed in would be an oxymoron. But it just means “an insane person who has committed a crime” – and a crime is not the same as evil. In fact, you could almost say that “criminal” and “evil” have relatively little to do with each other. “Crime” just means “breaking the law”, which might or might not be an evil thing, depending on the law (think of people disobeying Nazi laws – they were criminals, but it’s the laws that were evil). Whereas “evil” means… Well, that’s what you’re trying to figure out, isn’t it. 🙂 This is deep stuff.


    • That’s exactly right. We often consider the “act” as “evil”. But Aquinas is saying that evil does not exist as a cause. The “intent” to do a bad thing is not the evil either, since evil is also not an “end”. I find Thomas Aquinas very difficult in places.

      The example of the Nazis was actually a very good one, and brings to mind an important about the nature of evil.

      Hannah Arendt was a German-American political and sociological philosopher who wrote about the trials of some of the more famous Nazi war criminals. The crimes were read out and the details were given about the things one of these men both ordered and overseen. Absolutely dreadful, and enough to shock and awe the court. One would have expected to see a man–the man who did these terrible things–to be a hideous man with cruel black eyes, sallow warty skin, and sharp teeth, etc. People were waiting for the “boogey-man”. No. Not at all. He looked like a normal man, well groomed, polite, well-spoken. He showed no remorse or regret for his actions. He responded very flatly to his accusers that “He was just following orders, and to follow his orders was the law of the country.” What Hannah Arendt noticed about this man was his utter normalness. The type you’d pass in a crowd, and never look twice at. So she coined the phrase that she was startled by “the banality of evil.” Evil is extremely banal–unassuming even–and that is why people tend to walk through it unwittingly, get it all over their shoes, and then not notice after a time how their thinking has changed toward this thing or that.

      Augustine explains Evil as a distance from Good. His is an easier philosophy to follow for me. For him, as with Aquinas, Evil has no “form” (in the Platonic sense). If humans seek the Good which might be broken down into beauty, truth, happiness, and justice, then Good is the ultimate all inclusive Form, and according to Aquinas and Augustine, that Form is ultimately God. Therefore, if God is good, immutable, omniscient, omnipresent, transcendent, and omnipotent, then He must occupy all places of space and have power over them. Furthermore, He knows what dwells within all spaces, so nothing can “sneak up” on God, or alter His world in any way by its own authority. Therefore, Evil is explained as a great “nothingness” that has a presence that does not exist in the presence of Good. It only has an existence as a state of nothingness in relation to its distance from God.

      What is alarming about evil, to my mind, is that evil is where people end up as though “by accident”, as Aquinas puts it. An example might be the alcoholic single mother with two little children. She has enough money to buy either food for her children or a bottle of booze for herself. She wrestles with the decision. Now, people who are not alcoholics will say very easily, “Feed your kids!!” But people who are not alcoholics see the world through sober, unaffected eyes. The mom who is the alcoholic, sees her little bit of money as either food for her kids or the medicine she needs to get through her day. The booze is more than a mere drink of whiskey for her. It is her remedy, her solace, her strength, and her only control over her terrible life. As sober people, we say, “That’s ridiculous. The booze is what is corrupting her life and weakening her. She needs to quit drinking.” And we would be right overall. But that reasoning is beyond her ability. She can only see through her own alcoholic eyes, and to her, booze is good.

      Aquinas explains evil as the consequent “state” of our wrong choices. By choices, he always means the free willed decisions of informed and rational moral agents who rejected the moral in favor of the immoral. And Augustine explains evil as a “nothingness” that occurs in distancing oneself from substantial good through free willed actions. To my mind, evil is a combination of both.

      The alcoholic mom was not born an alcoholic. She did not intend to become an alcoholic. But by making the decision to drink while still in her first rational mind, she was swallowed up by alcoholism as a consequence of her free will choice. After existing within her state of alcoholism, her ability to make rational choices toward the “good” became corrupted by her perception now skewed by alcoholism. So, she is no longer able to see through her eyes once unaffected by alcoholism. Her way of being in the world has become altered to allow alcohol to inform her decisions.

      Now, substitute “alcoholism” for “evil”, and I think that’s pretty much the state that Aquinas posited.


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