Augustine on the Goodness of All Things
Augustine on the Goodness of All Things
W. J. Holly
In book seven, chapter twelve of The Confessions, Saint Augustine produces an argument designed to show that a thing would cease altogether to exist if it were deprived of all goodness. And, from this, he infers that all things that exist are good, and that evil is not a substance.
In brief form, his argument is this:
The Incorruptible Argument:
1) It is always better to be incorruptible than to be corruptible.
2) All things which cannot be deprived of goodness are incorruptible; and, all things which can be deprived of goodness are corruptible.
3) If we take away all the goodness of a thing, it is then incorruptible, since a thing cannot be deprived of goodness if it has none; but, having been made incorruptible, it then would be better than it was before (see premise 1).
4) But, since it is absurd to say that things could be made better by being deprived of all their goodness, we must conclude that a thing deprived of all goodness would cease to exist.
Augustine’s sentiment, then, seems to be that an entity which continued to exist after being deprived of all its goodness would be a conceptually impossible object. Like the “round square,” an object which has been made better by losing all of its goodness would be a contradiction in terms.
Before I criticize Augustine’s argument, let me present two other arguments, the “black pan” argument and the “incorrigible” argument, which I take to be parallel arguments, infected with the same species of sophistry:
If I were to advertise my completely black pans as being “pans that cannot be blackened,” perhaps I would not be guilty of false advertising. But it certainly would be misleading advertising. And, the same brand of sophistry used by Augustine could be used to argue that no pan can be completely blackened: “A pan that cannot be blackened is better than a pan that can be blackened. And, a pan that has been completely blackened cannot be blackened since it already is completely black. So a completely blackened pan would be better than a shiny, completely un-blackened pan (because the former cannot be blackened). But, since it is absurd to think that a thing could exist which had been made better by being made worse, a completely blackened pan cannot exist. It is an impossible object.
It is interesting that Augustine apparently did not notice that a mirror-image of his argument could be used to show that a thing deprived of all evil (or of all defects, flaws, or shortcomings) could not exist. Consider this parallel “mirror-image” version of his argument:
The Incorrigible Argument:
- It is better to be corrigible than to be incorrigible.
- An incorrigible thing is one that cannot be corrected or made better.
- If we deprive a thing of all its evil qualities, then it is incorrigible (by premise 2), since a thing cannot be made better if it no longer contains any evil (any defects or shortcomings); but, being incorrigible, (by premise 1) it now is worse than it was before it lost all its defects and became perfect.
- But, since it is absurd to say that things are made worse by being made as good as they possibly can be made (by depriving them of all evil or defects), we must conclude that a thing deprived of all evil would cease entirely to exist, being a logically impossible object. Thus, all things must be at least somewhat evil, bad, or defective.
- Since God is a being containing no evil, and since it would be impossible to improve or correct God (since He is Perfect in all aspects), therefore God is incorrigible (cannot be improved or corrected). But, if God’s being Perfect entails that He is incorrigible (worse than He would be if he were not Perfect), then God is an impossible being and thus God does not exist.
Since Augustine’s argument can “prove” there is no God just as easily as it can “prove” that no completely Evil thing can exist, Augustine (as a Christian) must reject “proofs” of this variety. And, indeed, such “proofs” do seem to have an obvious flaw:
The “Incorrigibility” argument (immediately above) fails because it has a false second premise. To say that a thing is incorrigible is to say that it satisfies two conditions: It is bad and it cannot be improved or corrected. The paradigm of incorrigibility is the person who is bad and who is so completely set in his evil ways that it is hopeless to try to correct his behavior. On the other hand, a student whose behavior could not be corrected or improved because he already was perfect would be a model student, not an incorrigible. He would lack the first requirement for being incorrigible, namely, being bad.
Augustine’s incorruptibility argument also fails because its second premise is false. To say that a thing is incorruptible is not simply to say that it cannot be deprived of goodness. To say that a thing is incorruptible is to say that it is both good and that it cannot be deprived of its goodness. A public servant is incorruptible if he is a good servant and one who cannot be induced to become a bad one. If, however, he had become so dishonest and corrupt that we no longer can imagine any further possible corruptions, we certainly would not describe him as an incorruptible public servant, except as a joke. Rather, we should say that he was completely corrupted. And, unfortunately, we well know that such public servants do not obligingly pop out of existence.
To repeat, the second premise of Augustine’s incorruptibility argument is false because an object deprived of all its goodness would not meet this second requirement of incorruptibility, that of being good. If, on the other hand, my analysis of “incorruptible” is faulty – if an object need not contain any goodness to be incorruptible – then premise number one, that it is better to be incorruptible than to be incorruptible, is false. And, it would be shown to be false just by the kind of object he imagines in premise three, an object that is called incorruptible only on the grounds that it is so rotten that it cannot further be corrupted. When we are thinking of two clean pans, one of inferior metal which is easily blackened and one of surgical stainless steel that cannot be blackened, we of course are ready to admit that the pan that cannot be blackened is the superior pan. But, when we are thinking of two pans, one which can be blackened because it is clean, and one that cannot be blackened because it is already completely blackened, we are by no means so ready to agree that the pan that cannot be blackened is better.
There are at least two different motives Augustine could have had in presenting this shoddy piece of reasoning. In the first place, he might have seen it as a possible refutation of Manichaeism, the doctrine that there are two opposing forces in the universe, one supremely Good and one supremely Evil. But, we have seen, insofar as his argument can be used to show that no completely Evil being can exist, a parallel argument equally can be used to show that no completely Good thing can exist, either. The second, more obvious motive would be to avoid the Problem of Evil, the problem how evil could exist in things created by the Omnipotent, Benevolent Christian God. But, as an answer to this latter problem, several layers of sophistry seem to be involved.
Let us suppose that his argument is sound, and that it shows not only that no completely evil thing can exist, but that (since substances should be capable of independent existence) evil is not a substance. It seems neither surprising nor edifying to be told that evil is an attribute or a deprivation, not a substance. Who would have thought that a toothache, a flat tire, death, taxes or the crookedness of a deformed leg are substances? They are evils, nevertheless, for all their not being substances. Let us assume that floods are simply situations in which moisture is excessive, and droughts are simply situations in which sufficient moisture is absent; and, that just as sickness is merely the absence of health, a toothache is simply the absence of the absence of a toothache (double deprivation). Still, it would seem a feeble excuse for a car salesman to say he sold us a good car, pointing out that the absence of a functional engine was merely a deprivation, not an evil substance. Cold comfort. At best, the “excuse” Augustine provides God is that He is guilty only of sins of omission, not sins of commission. We still want to know why He left out the things He left out, such as the absence of leprosy.
Augustine’s final sophistry is to conclude that everything that exists is good. He infers this from his conclusion that no completely evil thing could exist. But, of course this conclusion would only entitle him to say that everything that exists is at least somewhat good. It is a shameless “fudge” leave out the qualifying word “somewhat” here. “Everything the Lord has made is at least somewhat good” need not necessarily imply criticism. But, then, neither is it the highest form of praise that one might wish to be able to give.