Evil What Is the Nature Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Initially St. Augustine favoured the dualistic view that evil was external and separate from the world and mankind that in evident from the Manichean worldview. However, he was later to reject this strict dualism and taker another view of the nature of evil. This was more Platonic and was based on the writings of Plotinus and Porphyry. This refers to the view that evil is a measure and result of our separation from God.

For Augustine, the measure of all existence was God. Instead of the Manichean view that evil existed outside humanity "…as an invasion," he posited the view that evil only existed to the extent that we do not acknowledge and live within God's word and law. ( Augustine Influences Christianity). Stated in another way, evil exists only because mankind refuses to acknowledge God. In essence Augustine defines evil as "…a privation in goodness." (A Brief Response to the Problem of Evil) This means that evil is parasitic on what is good and can "…only be defined in relation to what is good and not vice versa." (A Brief Response to the Problem of Evil)

5. Kant and human will as the source of evil

An important distinction to be made in the understanding of Western though about evil is that this question has been approached from two interrelated but different perspectives. This refers to a view that is specifically theological and religious and a more contemporary view which is more secular and concerned with humanity and rationality. This is a more humancentric view of good and evil, which can to a large extent be discerned in the works of Kant.

Augustine represents a more religious view evil, while Kant can be seen to represent the thinking of the Enlightenment and a more humanistic view of the meaning of evil. As one critics notes, "In contrast with the philosophical tradition that identified evil with the intrinsically deviant character of matter (Aristotle) or with a privation of the good (Augustine and Leibniz), Kant construed it in terms of a positive use of human freedom." (The Fragmented Will -- Kant on Evil).

This in effect means that evil for Kant was a problem that was related to the human free will, and was not something that "invaded" mankind from the outside, as it were. Kant reasoned that if we understand evil as something outside or external to us then this would tend to excuse any immoral or evil action on the part of human beings. He also state that the Augustinian view "…emasculates human freedom." (The Fragmented Will -- Kant on Evil)

Evil in the Kantian sense is intimately lined to the concept of human free will and human responsibility. This view is encapsulated in the following extract from his writings.

Man himself must make or have made himself into whatever, in a moral sense, whether good or evil, he is or is to become. Either condition must be an effect of his will (Willkur); for otherwise he could not be held responsible for it and could thfore be morally neither good nor evil."

(Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason lone, General Observation in The Fragmented Will -- Kant on Evil)

The essence of Kant's view of evil is that it does not necessarily involve God or a theological context. Kant therefore sees evil from a humanistic point-of-view and not from a theological perspective. Evil results from the abuse of free will in not adhering to the moral good. As commentators note, this view is particularly contemporary as it reflects the shift in modern society from the religious to the secular. "With Kant, "evil" gains conceptual independence from its religious origin and becomes a strictly moral problem. Hence, his view is particularly pertinent to our culture, which -- to borrow Nietzsche's expression- lives under the shadows of a dead God." (The Fragmented Will -- Kant on Evil)

Choice and free will as well as human responsibility therefore constitute the nature of evil actions for Kant. Evil is also the lack of accountability in human actions and intentions. The emphasis in his works is the evil cannot be seen as a predetermined part of man's sensuous nature and inclinations.

Kant's view of evil has raised a considerable amount of philosophical debate. He also distinguishes between immoral actions and evil and refers to the dehumanizing effect of radial evil. This aspects are strictly outride the range of this study and the central aspect that needs to be emphasized is that his thought on evil is modern in its focus on the rational rather the emotional view of evil. This also relates to a view of evil from a more secular standpoint when compared to a religious thinker like St. Augustine.

There are of course many other views and theories about the nature of evil in Western thought. These include the views of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. In his writings and plays Seneca seems to suggest the entire world is evil but also that man is responsible for evil action. His plays present us with a society pervaded by what some commentator's term "radical evil." ( Gill) However Seneca also points out that evil is not something that unrelated to humanity; "our evil is not outside of us." (Our Seneca) Seneca also saw evil as related to the human will and notes the difficulty that many people have in taking responsibility for their own actions.

6. Summary and synthesis

The above brief outline of these different views of evil brings us to the question of a possible synthesis. A synthesis is certainty a possibility if one understands that in many respects these views are not entirely mutually exclusive. While the Gnostic views evil as something 'outside' which is imposed on humanity, they were also aware of the role that human free will played in understanding and combating evil. They realized that it is through human will and volition that knowledge or gnosis is acquired. Therefore, one could argue that the view put forward by Kant that evil is related to human will is one that is not entirely alien to the Gnostic view of evil.

Augustine's view that evil is a result of the separation between God and man is also echoed in the Gnostic philosophy. This is clear from the fact that it is only through Gnosis that the separation between man and God is closed.

On the other hand it could also be argued that the view of evil as separate from mankind and the view that evil is due to free will are different in many ways. Yet, I would suggest that both views are necessary in an understanding of the true nature of evil. Both views add to our knowledge of the meaning of evil and its implications in terms of human life and action.

I would also suggest that the Augustine view is more religiously orientated than the Kantian view, which is more contemporary in its emphasis on the humancentric and rational aspects of evil. I also am of the opinion that the religious understanding of evil should not be relegated to the sidelines or neglected is favour of the more secular view, and that both should be taken into account in a full and comprehensive understanding of the nature of evil.

Works cited

A Brief Response to the Problem of Evil. April 22, 2009.

Augustine Influences Christianity. April 22, 2009.


Gill N. Seneca - A Thinker for Our Times. April 21, 2009.

Kant, Schopenhauer, and the Problem of Evil. April 22, 2009.


Our Seneca. April 21, 2009.

Pleroma. April 22, 2009.

Saint Augustine, 2000. April 24, 2009. < http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/augustine/>

The Fragmented Will -- Kant on Evil. April 22, 2009.

The Gnostic Account of the Fall and the Creation of the Material World. April 23,


The Secret Knowledge: Enmity Between Flesh and Spirit. June 11, 2007.


Pleroma in Greek means "fullness." In Gnostic cosmology, "….the Pleroma is the dwelling place of spirit, the non-material reality that permeates all existence. In some models, the Pleroma is made up of the thirty highest ? http://altreligion.about.com/library/glossary/bldefaeons.htm "Aeons," attributes of the ineffable Divine that exist beyond the physical world… (Pleroma).

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