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The Modern Schoolman

Volume 89, Issue 3/4, July/October 2012

Theological Themes in Medieval Philosophy

Marilyn McCord Adams
Pages 131-145
DOI: 10.5840/schoolman2012893/49

Evil as Nothing
Contrasting Construals in Boethius and Anselm

Anselm inherited a Platonizing approach to philosophy from Augustine and Boethius. But he characteristically reworked what he found in their texts by questioning and disputing it into something more rigorous. In this paper, I compare and contrast Anselm’s treatment of the trope ‘evil is nothing, not a being’ with Boethius’s use of it in The Consolation of Philosophy. In the first section, I expose a fallacious argument form common to them both: paradigm Fness is identical with paradigm Gness; X participates in paradigm Fness and so is F; therefore, X participates in paradigm Gness and so is G. In the second section, I contrast Philosophy’s “strong medicine”—‘evil is nothing,’ ‘evil-doings are nothing,’ ‘evil humans do not exist’—with Anselm’s development of the point that injustice is a privation and so parasitic on the beings that are deprived. By contrast with Boethius, Anselm emphasizes that the willinstrument, will-power, the will’s action and turnings are something and so from God. Likewise, Anselm insists—pace Boethius—that Adam’s fallen race is still the human race. In the final section, I turn to Anselm’s distinction between injustice (iniustitia) and disadvantage (incommoda), his concession that some disadvantages are something, and his explanation of happiness in terms of advantage or bona sibi. For Anselm, happiness and justice break apart, so that it is possible in this world for the just to lack advantage. Moreover, in the world to come, the damned will suffer radical deprivation—not only of the justice, which they deserted, but of advantages. I contrast this with Boethius’s insistence (based on the argument in section I) that virtue suffices for happiness and vice for unhappiness, and that there is no such thing as bad fortune. I conclude by pondering why Anselm treated disadvantage as a something rather than as a misfit between somethings.