No One Is Totally Evil

No One Is Totally Evil June 2, 2022

Johnhain: Good Trumps Evil / pixabay

We are naturally good, and, despite whatever sin we might do, no matter what vices we might act upon, we still have some good in us. Those who would suggest we are totally depraved, for whatever reason, dishonor God. Indeed, it would be blasphemous to say God could make something which would end up being totally evil. Those who suggest that every human endeavor is, in itself, sinful, because there is something sinful in humanity, or because only God could be said to be absolutely good, would similarly end up undermining the goodness of God.  While, it is true, we are far from perfect, and the good which we do, in comparison to the infinite good which God does, is infinitely miniscule, nonetheless, we do some good, and that good connects us to the good which God does. In this manner, to undermine our good is to undermine God’s good. Even if we do not know or realize our connection with God, even if we reject it, we can still do good, and in and through that good, find ourselves working with and through God’s goodness. We don’t have to know we are doing it to do so. What is important for us is to recognize that we can both be naturally good, and do good, while also, personally, individually, embracing some perversion of the good and do bad. “For the nature of the human is capable of contraries, as there can be an entryway into it both for malice and for virtue; it is correct that in the beginning of this book, namely Genesis, you read, under the appearance of the tree in the middle of paradise, that there is knowledge of good and evil.” [1]

St. Augustine, dealing with those who misread James, those who claimed that James said that once we sin in any fashion, we have broken the law in such a way as to become pure evil, pointed out the absurdity of such a reading of James as it would undermine which people did. For, it is clear, Scripture shows us many who can and are said to have been God’s servants, people who did not always do what was good, and yet because they served God, they still did more good than not: “But God forbid that any of the faithful should think that so many thousands of the servants of God have no virtue when they say that they have sin, lest they deceive themselves and truth should not be in them, because wisdom is a great virtue. “[2] James was talking about the principle of the law, which is love, and how our violation of love, such as seen in bad judgment, undermines love and so truly is a breach of the law itself. James did not suggest all our sins should be seen as equally grave. We can and do evil, but we can and also do all kind of virtues; we often find ourselves doing both every day. The virtues help counteract and repair the harm done by sin, while sin undermines the good which we do, but, nonetheless, no sin utterly destroys the good which we do, nor does it completely annihilate the good within us, so that though we might violate the law, not everything we do violates it. Where the good remains, we must embrace it and use it to help build each other up, overcoming any and all temptation to evil. The more good we do, the more we embrace the good, the more we find it directing us to fulfill the whole of the law, the law of love; or, as St. Photios indicated, embracing one virtue helps redirect us and guide us so that we become more in tune with and engaging all other virtues:

For in the study of virtue lies the root of good action; and the action, if it continues,  is the more easily supported by habit and more readily attracts other such actions as help-mates, and becomes productive of the like when it is regulated by speech – since speech is wont, like a skilled husbandman, to show and help increase the virtues in one and the same sacred plot of the soul, not letting them be torn apart from each other and scattered.[3]

And, of course, though we must work against the evil which we are tempted to do, and also do what we can to heal whatever harm we have caused by the sins we have done, we must also realize the infinite good of God is also at work in and with us, so that all the sin we do, no matter how much we do, is infinitely less than what God does for our sake:

As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are all sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strong flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures. As a man who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest, so is he who remembers wrongs and prays. As the flame of fire cannot be checked from rising upward, so the prayers of the merciful are not hindered from ascending to Heaven. [4]

Just as our good works are, therefore, infinitely less than the goodness of God and God’s actions, and so can be said to be compared to as “rags” (cd. Isa. 64:6), we must also understand this is also true in regards our vices.  They are infinitely less than the goodness which God does for us. Moreover, as goodness relates to what is good and true, what is real, and evil relates to the deprivation of nature, and is not in itself a nature, we must recognize all we are is good, even if our good has been harmed or lessened by the sin which we have done. Thus, Ficino would say that evil, in itself, can be treated as an illusion, that its place is one of conception not an ontological reality:

If He is indisputably without limit and reproduces Himself infinitely throughout space and surpasses everything infinitely in degree of virtue, where then does evil dwell, if it cannot exist with the good, and the good itself fills the universe? Evil therefore has no true place anywhere, only an imaginary one. [5]

This is why we must come to conclude, though there are gradations of the good in the world, in reality all that is, is good, and we must not dismiss that good, even if we find in the midst of that good, some sin which seeks to corrupt and destroy it. No one is totally depraved: it is ontological nonsense to suggest as much, just as it is ontological nonsense to suggest that creation and all that is within it is, by nature, defiled because it is not God. Everything is connected to God and exists within the goodness of God. Indeed, it is that goodness, which is one with God’s existence, which serves as the foundation for all that exists, and do to deny the good contained in anyone is to say the foundation is not good, leading to the suggestion that God must be evil. Let us not ever think such a thing!

[1] St. Ambrose, “On Noah” in Treatises on Noah and David. Trans. Brian P. Dunkle, SJ (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2020), 53.

[2] St. Augustine, “Letter 167 to Jerome” in Letters 165 – 203. Trans. Wilfrid Parsons, SND (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1955), 41.

[3] St. Photius, The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. Trans. Cyril Mango (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1958; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 55 [Homily 2].

[4] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Trans. Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Rev. 2nd ed (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 379 [Homily 51].

[5] Marsilio Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino. Volume 4 (Liber v). trans. by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1988), 48 [Letter 33 to Francesco Sassetti].


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