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Augustine and the Anatomy of Evil

That dear old lefty rag the Guardian of London has a nice tradition of inviting people to write fairly extended series of brief essays on a wide range of topics. An especially fine example is Jessica’s Martin’s series on Milton’s Paradise Lost, but there have been many worthwhile ones.

Right now Clare Carlisle is thinking about evil — with, I’d have to say, mixed results. She is trying very hard to be fair to Christian reflections on the topic, but doesn’t always resist the temptation to caricature. For instance, in her most recent entry she writes,

So far in this series I’ve considered evil as if it were an individual matter – a question of personal virtue, or the lack of it. In emphasising the relationship between sin and freedom, Christian philosophers such as Augustine and Kierkegaard seem to assume that if we look hard enough at the human condition we will gain insight into evil. This attitude implies that evil has nothing to do with history or culture – as if the fall is the only historical event that matters, at least as far as evil is concerned.

Leaving Kierkegaard aside for the moment, I would just ask whether Carlisle has thought about the kind of book The City of God is? Surely no one has ever written a more expansive, detailed, provocative, and wide-ranging inquiry into the historical and cultural forms that evil takes (and virtue as well). Just as Augustine virtually invented semiotics in his On Christian Teaching, here he more-or-less invents political theology — but a really distinctive and powerful political theology, one grounded in a kind of pioneering cultural anthropology. That is, Augustine explores the cultural practices and habits, including the religious ones, that shape and in turn are shaped by our politics, and he looks at that whole network of forces in light of what the Bible teaches about the coming City of God.

There has rarely been a more ambitious book, and I wish we had an Augustine in our own time to pursue an equally sophisticated analysis of our world. But geniuses like that don’t come along that often.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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