Considering Theodicy in St. Augustine’s “On the Free Choice of the Will”

“Please tell me whether God is not the author of evil” -Evodius

St. Augustine’s De libero arbitrio (libri tres) [“On the Free Choice of the Will”] is an exploration into the tension between human freedom and divine determinism. It is presented in the form of a Platonic dialogue between Augustine and one of his student’s named Evodius. The dialogue was written at two different points in Augustine’s life: Book I was written shortly after his conversion to Christianity, and Books II-III were written later in Augustine’s life after further time for theological reflection.

In her book, Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo It, Eva Brann explores the idea of the ‘human will’ as a historically formed invention beginning with St. Augustine and continued in the writings of Aquinas, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and infamously Heidegger. For Augustine, the human will is a concept that runs parallel to the image of God, but it is distinct because the human will allows for perversity. It is the origin of sin. In contrast, all good things emerge from God and He is still all-powerful, despite granting agency to humans. The will is a deeply human desire for control of oneself, others, and the surrounding world.


Notes on St. Augustine’s “On the Free Choice of the Will”

St. Augustine’s “On the Free Choice of the Will” is a dialogue that begins with an inquiry into the problem of evil, however unlike in a Platonic dialogue, the central question in Augustine’s dialogue is not about the nature or form of evil. Instead terms like “sin” and “evil” are taken to be mutually understood (i.e. there is no overarching question like “what is evil?”). For Augustine evil is spoken about as pain or suffering in the modern sense and there are two ways in which evil is manifested: a) someone performing an evil act, and b) someone having an evil act performed upon them. According to the argument, God is wholly good and he deals out both just rewards as well as just punishments. In order to punish someone evil (“suffering” or “retribution”) must befall on them despite God being all good. Therefore, God does not perform evil acts, but he does punish someone which is akin to having an evil act performed upon someone. Per Augustine, God can never perform an evil act.

Where does evil come from? According to Augustine evil comes from a lack of learning (an early echo of Enlightenment thinking). Unlike in the writings of Plato, Augustine suggests that all teachers are good, otherwise they would not be true teachers. Wisdom, for Augustine, is an example of a human in full control of his mind via reason and not bodily lust. Therefore wisdom is connected to an act of will. However, a human being can also use his will for evil. The question of the freedom of the will is also a question of theodicy (meaning the problem of evil in the world, a world created by an omnipotent and omniscient God -the term theodicy was first coined by Leibniz). How is it that God-given free will allows for evil to perpetuate? If there is no free will for humans, then is the totality of life pre-determined and meaningless according to divine orchestration? On the other hand, if humans have the choice of free will then is God is not all-powerful? -or at least do humans possess a certain degree of authority that God does not have?

Regarding this tension Augustine seems to vacillate. According to the argument, God has foreknowledge of everything in mysterious ways that humans do not understand, however humans apparently have the capacity to reason about the things which come from God, since all good things emerge from God, and He has endowed humans with a will that has the power to cause evil (or ‘suffering’). Freedom does not come without a certain degree of security, so free will relies upon the security of God, at least according to Augustine. Sin/evil are a result of the corruption or deprivation of the good, not the polar opposite. As expounded upon in his Confessions, Augustine says that all things in the world as striving toward the good (i.e. God). Evil is simply a mere lack of the good, or perhaps an Aristotelian ‘missing of the mark.’ Thus, Augustine attempts to find a path forward in which God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and also that sin and evil originate solely within a depraved and fallen humanity. He openly acknowledges that his argument is wholly dependent upon the divine authority of Biblical scriptures.

Evodius suggests that perhaps God should not have given free will because it has allowed for evil to enter the world. Augustine responds by noting that a person may not be able to act without free choice of the will. Without free will existence would be absurd. Evodius suggests that perhaps free choice of the will is akin to justice (also a gift from God according to Evodius). This point leads Augustine and Evodius into a discussion about why God exists (based on the assumed authority of scripture) and that all good things come from God. Is the human will counted among those good things? At the end of Book II Augustine concludes that the will is a good thing despite its capacity to perpetuate evil because it originates from God.

“I grant not only that I have a will, but also that it is good” (1.12.25.84)

Augustine says the question of evil should be considered through a “religious” lens – God is good based on an interpretation of Biblical scripture, all good things come from God, God has given humans the ability to choose how they will behave, their choice proliferates evil in the world. Thus, God creates good things, and humans are the true cause of evil (curiously, Augustine makes no mention of Satan, or the ‘adversary,’ which is mentioned in the Bible, often as the embodiment of evil). Ultimately, the origins of evil lie with the humans. In essence, Augustine’s argument is spelled out in Book III below:

“[1] God foreknows everything that will be
[2] We [humans] sin not by necessity but by the will” (3.3.6.21)


For this reading I used Peter King’s excellent translation from the original Latin as featured in Cambridge University Press. Peter King is a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto.

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