Augustine: De Moribus Manichaeorum. (03/23/2001)

In one of several refutations of the Manichaeans written by St. Augustine (The Morals of the Manichaeans), a sect to which he belonged himself for nine years before his conversion to Christianity, he argues that the existence and nature of God so orders the world that the absence of hierarchical structures in the thought of any person should be taken as a sign of his/her insanity. He places his argument in the context of morality, of his basic distinction between good and evil:

"Thus, on the one hand, God is the good, and all things which He has made are good, though not so good as He who made them. For what madman would venture to require that the works should equal the workman, the creatures the Creator?" (Chapter 4)

In keeping with prior authority in the church, Augustine maintains the rigid distinction between creature and Creator that is demanded by the terms of definition one finds in creationist ideology, namely that God is All-Powerful and man is certainly less than that. Since man is higher than the animals, a point Augustine makes elsewhere (On Christian Doctrine) because possession of a soul elevates him above the brutes, and since animals are higher than plants, a "natural" hierarchy is born from the fact that God created everything that exists in the world. Exactly how and why this perception of reality matters becomes clear as Augustine pursues his refutation of the Manichaeans.

In Chapter 6, for instance, he discusses the concept of corruption by arguing that only a good thing can actually be corrupted, not an evil one, because he defines evil as an absence of the good. Corruption is anything that diminishes the good. Because evil does not contain any element of the good in the first place, it cannot be corrupted since it would be impossible to diminish evil by removing from it that which it does not possess from the beginning. He also states that "whatever is corrupted tends to non-existence" (Chapter 6). He then qualifies this assertion, in Chapter 7, by noting that God does not allow anything He has created from becoming so corrupt that it ceases to exist altogether. He puts it this way:

"the goodness of God does not permit the accomplishment of [anything coming to an end in existence], but so orders all things that fall away that they may exist where their existence is most suitable, till in the order of their movements they return to that from which they fell away. Thus, when rational souls fall away from God, although they possess the greatest amount of free-will, He ranks them in the lower grades of creation, where their proper place is. So they suffer misery by the divine judgment, while they are ranked suitably to their deserts."

While this statement was surely made with only the best possible intentions in mind, where the idea of redemption is included in the notion that people corrupted by evil ("all things that fall away") may ultimately return to their former status, it is nevertheless true that only the worst possible results for social relationships and interactions can be expected to follow from defining the human condition in these terms. This is inevitable because God is the only being capable of judging precisely where anyone in the great chain of hierarchy should reside while in this or that state of estrangement from the good, where "they suffer misery [suitable] to their deserts"; but, the sad and inescapable fact is that only human beings are available in this world to administer and enforce the punishments and "misery" that their "fall[ing] away from God" deserves after the "divine judgment" is rendered. Being ranked in the "lower grades of creation" might be something that absolute Goodness can be trusted to do but, in the absence of the Absolute, where that function must be taken up by other things and beings just as corruptible as the ones being judged, this prescription leads, as it has always done, to a deepening and prolongation of human suffering far beyond anything it has ever needed to be.

A recent federal study found that native Americans are 70 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes committed against them by members of other races than any other minority group in the US. If you apply this Augustinian ideal to that fact, what you discern is that native Americans suffer the highest "misery" rates in America relative to any of the other groups of people here who can be said to have "fallen away from God," since many of us reject the idea that anything like deity exists at all. While one thing may not be directly connected to the other, the very fact that "lower grades of creation" can be said to exist as a result of the "divine law" of the dominant ideology in the Western hemisphere invites, even demands, that someone be found to occupy that status. This is true and inescapable because, if no one occupies the lowest grade of the hierarchy, there cannot be anyone at the highest level either.