Why do you make me look at injustice?

     Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? 

     ~Habakkuk 1:3

We can ignore it by sweeping through our so-called newsfeed, or get lost in a screen somewhere, whether a movie, video game, or something similar.  We can ignore it or bury it with drugs, sex, pornography, fantasy, sports, shopping, or recreation. Still, it rears its ugly head: there's a real problem in this world, and it doesn't go away.  In fact, it seems to be getting worse.  The amount of evil, pain, and suffering in the world can lead one to despair, depression, and a life of burying the pain through the myriad aforementioned attempts at resolving the ache within us at the loss we see all around us. When we think about God and His goodness, and we think about the evil in this world, we are either numbed, or vexed, or just plain confused. What should we do? Of course, there are a whole host of attempts at answering this question. In fact, so much literature has been given to this subject that it seems inexaustible. Our goal here is rather simple, however. For starters, it seems reasonable to ask ourselves what evil actually is.  Before attempting to answer the question Habakkuk raises--if indeed there is an answer--it is wise for us to ask exactly what evil is. 

St. Augstine (354-430) asks, "Are those right who ask whence a thing is, when they do not know what it is; or he who thinks it necessary to inquire first what it is, in order to avoid the gross absurdity of searching for the origin of a thing unknown?"1 So steers St. Augustine the inquirer into the problem of evil.  While theodicies and defenses bloom among the thorny question of why there is evil given an omnipotent, omnibenevolent Being, less popular is the selected task of delving the seeming abyss of what evil actually is.  What is evil?  Thomas Aquinas, in his monumental De malo (On Evil) echoes Augustine’s query, “Whether evil is something?”2  What Aquinas is asking is whether evil is “a thing or a being of some kind that exists of itself (per se), i.e. that exists independently.”3  Non-Christian philosophers also recognize the importance of this question, as one thousand years before Aquinas, the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus (AD 204-270) states, “Those inquiring whence Evil enters into beings, or rather into a certain order of beings, would be making the best beginning if they established, first of all what precisely Evil is, what constitutes its Nature.”4  Moving forward from Plotinus, Medieval Scholastic philosophy understands evil as a privation.  On this view and in simple terms, evil is the lack of a good that ought to be.  Additionally, this view espouses that evil is a deviation from a standard or norm that objectively exists. 

But what does it mean to say that evil is a privation, and how is evil related to this apparent standard that exists?  The answer to the question of the nature of evil is bound up in terms of the metaphysical notions of being, goodness, and hence, existence.  To wit: is evil “a real thing with substantial existence in the extra-mental world?”5  If it is not, how should we think about evil in nature, and “evil beings” as it were?  Well, on privation theory, an evil action is one that seeks a "lesser good." If a man murders another man for committing adultery with his wife, for example, the murderer is seeking justice--which is a good.

But, he commits the sin of murder when he acts out of accord with what is good. He commits evil by taking another man's life unjustly. He action is one of a lack of justice where it ought to be. He sought justice, yes, but he failed miserably in doing so. Surely this is a hard concept to understand. After all, we don't want to say that evil is not real, as in the Hindu religion, where evil is maya, an illusion. All the same, evil, on privation theory, has no essence, and is not a thing in terms of that. Some might want to say evil is like a hole in a donut, but that is mistake. The hole in the donut makes the donut what it is.  Perhaps the illustration is helpful to conceptualize what evil is--the lack of good where it ought to be.  So, one who holds to privation theory will say that evil is real, while simultaneously it has no essence or nature. We will explore more of this in subsequent posts.  


1) St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Manicheans (Edited by Phillip Schaff), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 2,  Location 26.

2) Aquinas, Thomas. On Evil, Trans. John A Oesterle and Jean T. Oesterle (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1995),   xii.  In Latin, the question is, An malum sit aliquid.

3) Ibid. 

4) Plotinus, The Enneads, Trans. Stephen MacKenna, Abr. John Dillon (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 56.

5) Mary Edwin DeCoursey, The Theory of Evil in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas and its Contemporary Significance, (PhD diss., Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1948), 35.