Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume IV/Manichaean Controversy/On the Morals of the Manichaeans/Chapter 8

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Chapter 8.—Evil is Not a Substance, But a Disagreement Hostile to Substance.

11.  For what other answer will you give to the question, What is evil? but either that it is against nature, or that it is hurtful, or that it is corruption, or something similar?  But I have shown that in these replies you make shipwreck of your cause, unless, indeed, you will answer in the childish way in which you generally speak to children, that evil is fire, poison, a wild beast, and so on.  For one of the leaders of this heresy, whose instructions we attended with great familiarity and frequency, used to say with reference to a person who held that evil was not a substance, "I should like to put a scorpion in the man’s hand, and see whether he would not withdraw his hand; and in so doing he would get a proof, not in words but in the thing itself, that evil is a substance, for he would not deny that the animal is a substance."  He said this not in the presence of the person, but to us, when we repeated to him the remark which had troubled us, giving, as I said, a childish answer to children.  For who with the least tincture of learning or science does not see that these things hurt by disagreement with the bodily temperament, while at other times they agree with it, so as not only not to hurt, but to produce the best effects?  For if this poison were evil in itself, the scorpion itself would suffer first and most.  In fact, if the poison were quite taken from the animal, it would die.  So for its body it is evil to lose what it is evil for our body to receive; and it is good for it to have what it is good for us to want.  Is the same thing then both good and evil?  By no means; but evil is what is against nature, for this is evil both to the animal and to us.  This evil is the disagreement, which certainly is not a substance, but hostile to substance.  Whence then is it?  See what it leads to, and you will learn, if any inner light lives in you.  It leads all that it destroys to non-existence.  Now God is the author of existence; and there is no existence which, as far as it is existing, leads to non-existence:  Thus we learn whence disagreement is not; as to whence it is, nothing can be said.

12.  We read in history of a female criminal in Athens, who succeeded in drinking the quantity of poison allotted as a fatal draught for the condemned with little or no injury to her health, by taking it at intervals.  So being condemned, she took the poison in the prescribed quantity like the rest, but rendered it powerless by accustoming herself to it, and did not die like the rest.  And as this excited great wonder, she was banished.  If poison is an evil, are we to think that she made it to be no evil to her?  What could be more absurd than this?  But because disagreement is an evil, what she did was to make the poisonous matter agree with her own body by a process of habituation.  For how could she by any amount of cunning have brought it about that disagreement should not hurt her?  Why so?  Because what is truly and properly an evil is hurtful both always and to all.  Oil is beneficial to our bodies, but very much the opposite to many six-footed animals.  And is not hellebore sometimes food, sometimes medicine, and sometimes poison.  Does not every one maintain that salt taken in excess is poisonous?  And yet the benefits to the body from salt are innumerable and most important.  Sea-water is injurious when drunk by land animals, but it is most suitable and useful to many who bathe their bodies in it and to fish it is useful and wholesome in both ways.  Bread nourishes man, but kills hawks.  And does not mud itself, which is offensive and noxious when swallowed or smelt, serve as cooling to the touch in hot weather, and as a cure for wounds from fire?  What can be nastier than dung, or more worthless than ashes?  And yet they are of such use to the fields, that the Romans thought divine honors due to the discoverer, Stercutio, from whose name the word for dung [stercus] is derived.

13.  But why enumerate details which are countless?  We need not go farther than the four elements themselves, which, as every one knows, are beneficial when there is agreement, and bitterly opposed to nature when there is disagreement in the objects acted upon.  We who live in air die under earth or under water, while innumerable animals creep alive in sand or loose earth, and fish die in our air.  Fire consumes our bodies, but, when suitably applied, it both restores from cold, and expels diseases without number.  The sun to which you bow the knee, and than which, indeed, there is no fairer object among visible things, strengthens the eyes of eagles, but hurts and dims our eyes when we gaze on it; and yet we too can accustom ourselves to look upon it without injury.  Will you, then, allow the sun to be compared to the poison which the Athenian woman made harmless by habituating herself to it?  Reflect for once, and consider that if a substance is an evil because it hurts some one, the light which you worship cannot be acquitted of this charge.  See the preferableness of making evil in general to consist in this disagreement, from which the sun’s ray produces dimness in the eyes, though nothing is pleasanter to the eyes than light.[1]


Footnotes[edit]

  1. [The reasoning here is admirably adapted to Augustin’s purpose, which is to refute the Manichæan notion of the evil nature of material substance.—A.H.N.]