The nature of human morality has intrigued philosophers for centuries. One of the most influential thinkers was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas on theodicy and free will continue to shape philosophical discourse. In this exploration, we delve into the heart of Aquinas’ philosophical framework, seeking to illuminate the relationship between divine goodness, human freedom, and the existence of evil.
Aquinas’ thought is rooted in the Christian tradition, which posits that God, as an omnipotent and benevolent being, is the ultimate source of all goodness. Consequently, the problem of evil – the question of how evil can exist in a world created and governed by an all-good, all-powerful deity – becomes central to his philosophical inquiry. To address this conundrum, Aquinas develops a nuanced understanding of evil as a privation of good, and explores the role of free will in the emergence of moral evil.
Part 1: Historical and Biographical Context
St. Thomas Aquinas, a towering figure in medieval philosophy, was born in 1225 in the small Italian town of Roccasecca. As a Dominican friar and a prolific scholar, Aquinas would go on to author numerous philosophical and theological works that would cement his position as one of the greatest thinkers in the Western tradition. Among his most renowned contributions are the ‘Summa Theologica’ and the ‘Summa Contra Gentiles,’ which remain seminal texts in the realms of philosophy and theology.
Aquinas’ intellectual pursuits were deeply influenced by the rich intellectual climate of the 13th century. The works of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly those of Aristotle, had been rediscovered and translated into Latin, resulting in a renaissance of philosophical thought. At the same time, the scholastic method of inquiry, which sought to reconcile faith and reason, flourished in the universities of Europe. It was within this vibrant milieu that Aquinas’ ideas took shape.
In his philosophical explorations, Aquinas sought to harmonise the teachings of the Christian faith with the insights of classical philosophy. Drawing upon the Aristotelian concept of causality, he formulated his famous ‘Five Ways,’ which provided rational arguments for the existence of God. Central to his metaphysics was the notion of God as the ultimate source of all goodness, a concept that would inform his theodicy and his treatment of free will.
Part 2: God as the Source of All that is Good
For Aquinas, God occupies a central position as the ultimate source of all that is good. Drawing on the Christian tradition and Aristotle’s metaphysics, Aquinas posits that God is not merely a creator but also a sustainer of existence, continually willing the good for all creatures. This divine goodness permeates every aspect of reality, providing the foundation for order, beauty, and virtue.
To understand Aquinas’ conception of God’s goodness, it is crucial to grasp his distinction between essence and existence. For Aquinas, God is the only being whose essence – the very nature of what something is – is identical to his existence – the fact that something is. In other words, God is not just a being who happens to exist; rather, God is existence itself. This unique feature of God’s nature allows him to be the source of existence and goodness for all other beings, which depend on him for their continued reality.
Moreover, Aquinas maintains that God’s goodness is not just a static quality but an active force that continually seeks to bring about the perfection of all things. This teleological view – that everything has an inherent purpose or final end – undergirds Aquinas’ understanding of morality, which is grounded in the idea that the highest good for any being lies in fulfilling its natural purpose, as determined by its Creator.
Yet, the existence of evil and suffering in the world presents a vexing challenge to Aquinas’ vision of a perfectly good God. If God is indeed the source of all goodness, how can there be evil in a world created by him? To address this conundrum, Aquinas puts forth a groundbreaking theory of evil as privation, a theory that we shall now delve into with greater detail, seeking to uncover its implications and significance in his theodicy.
Part 3: Evil as Privation
To grapple with the problem of evil in a world presided over by a benevolent and omnipotent God, Aquinas conceives of evil as a privation, or a lack of good, rather than a positive entity in its own right. This concept of evil as privation is rooted in the Neoplatonic tradition and serves as a cornerstone of Aquinas’ theodicy.
Privation, in philosophical terms, denotes the absence of a quality or attribute that should be present in a being, given its nature or purpose. For Aquinas, this absence of good is not a substance or a force, but rather a negation, much like darkness is an absence of light. He contends that since God is the source of all goodness and existence, it is impossible for him to create evil as a positive entity. Instead, evil arises as a byproduct of the limitations and imperfections inherent in the created order.
To illustrate the concept of privation, one can consider the example of a malfunctioning clock. A well-functioning clock accurately tells the time, fulfilling its intended purpose. However, when a clock fails to keep time correctly, it is not because it possesses an inherent quality of ‘badness’; rather, it is because it lacks the necessary precision or functionality that a good clock should possess. In the same vein, moral evil emerges from the absence or deficiency of good in the actions or choices of moral agents, rather than from a malevolent force or entity.
Aquinas’ view of evil as privation has far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between God, free will, and the existence of moral evil. By asserting that evil is not a creation of God but a deficiency in the created order, Aquinas seeks to absolve God from responsibility for evil while preserving his omnipotence and benevolence. In the next section, we shall examine how Aquinas weaves the thread of free will into this intricate tapestry of theodicy, shedding further light on the emergence of moral evil and its place in the moral landscape.
Part 4: The Free Will and Moral Evil
Aquinas’ notion of free will plays a pivotal role in his theodicy. Free will, as he sees it, is the capacity of rational beings to choose between good and evil, guided by reason and divine grace. It allows individuals to act voluntarily, pursuing their ends without external coercion. For Aquinas, free will is an integral aspect of human nature, bestowed upon us by a benevolent God to enable our pursuit of the highest good.
In Aquinas’ framework, moral evil arises when individuals exercise their free will to choose actions that deviate from their natural purpose or the divine plan. These choices, motivated by ignorance or disordered desires, result in a privation of good – a deficiency in the individual’s moral character or the consequences of their actions. Thus, moral evil is not the creation of a malevolent force, but a byproduct of human freedom and the intrinsic limitations of finite beings.
This understanding of moral evil sheds light on the delicate balance between divine goodness and human freedom. By granting free will, God allows for the possibility of moral evil, but he does not directly cause it. Aquinas argues that this trade-off is justified, as the gift of free will enables the genuine pursuit of goodness, virtue, and love – values that enrich the moral fabric of the universe.
Critics of Aquinas’ theodicy may contend that an all-powerful and all-knowing God could have created a world without the possibility of evil, while still preserving free will. Others may question the extent to which human freedom can genuinely absolve God from responsibility for the existence of evil. These counter-arguments highlight the enduring complexity of the problem of evil and the moral questions it raises.
In the next section, we will draw together the threads of Aquinas’ theodicy, reflecting on the insights gained and the questions that remain. By exploring the interplay of divine goodness, privation, and free will, we will endeavour to appreciate the intricate tapestry of Aquinas’ thought and its lasting impact on the philosophical landscape.
Part 5: Concluding Thoughts
Our examination of Aquinas’ philosophy has taken us from the heights of divine goodness to the depths of human freedom and the perplexing problem of evil. By looking at the intricate relationship between God, free will, and the nature of evil, we can better understand Aquinas’ theodicy and its enduring influence on the philosophical discourse.
The notion of God as the ultimate source of all that is good is rooted in the Christian tradition and Aristotle’s metaphysics. It provides a foundation for Aquinas’ understanding of morality and purpose. Yet, the existence of evil poses a challenge to this vision, leading Aquinas to conceive of evil as a privation of good, rather than a positive entity.
In this framework, moral evil emerges as a byproduct of human freedom and the intrinsic limitations of finite beings. Aquinas argues that God allows for the possibility of moral evil by granting free will, which enables the genuine pursuit of goodness, virtue, and love. While this trade-off may be justified in Aquinas’ view, critics raise questions about the extent to which human freedom can genuinely absolve God from responsibility for the existence of evil.
As we reflect on Aquinas’ theodicy, it is worthwhile to appreciate the historical and biographical context that shaped his ideas. This context allows us to understand the depth and intricacy of his thought, as well as its lasting relevance in contemporary discussions. Although Aquinas’ answers to the problem of evil may not satisfy all critics, his nuanced and compelling account of the interplay between divine goodness, privation, and free will remains a touchstone for philosophical inquiry.
For an overview of the problem of evil, PhilosophyMT has the following video you can watch:
Alvin Plantinga, a contemporary philosopher, presents an alternative approach to the problem of evil with his Free Will Defence. Plantinga argues that it is logically possible for an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God to coexist with evil, provided that human beings possess genuine free will. He contends that God, while capable of creating a world without evil, may have chosen to create a world with morally significant freedom, where individuals can develop moral virtues and meaningful relationships.
David Hume, an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, offers a more critical perspective on the problem of evil. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume challenges the notion of an all-powerful, all-good God, given the presence of gratuitous suffering and evil in the world. Hume’s scepticism invites us to question the coherence and consistency of theistic explanations for evil, and consider alternative frameworks for understanding the nature of reality.
Augustine of Hippo, a 4th-century Christian theologian, also grappled with the problem of evil in his writings, providing a foundation upon which Aquinas would later build. Like Aquinas, Augustine viewed evil as a privation of good and argued that human beings, through their misuse of free will, brought evil into the world. Augustine’s emphasis on the role of divine grace in overcoming evil and restoring humanity to its intended state of goodness offers a different perspective on the relationship between divine providence and human freedom.
To explore the intricacies of the problem of evil and the human condition, consider reading Alvin Plantinga’s “God, Freedom, and Evil,” Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” and Augustine’s “Confessions.” These seminal texts, alongside Aquinas’ own “Summa Theologica,” will illuminate the rich tapestry of ideas that has shaped our understanding of morality, divinity, and the enduring enigma of evil.