Notes on “the Secular” (5): Nothing is Evil in Itself

Having spent four posts now defining and examining the dichotomous Sacred Vs. Secular interpretation of reality which I have dubbed “totalizing dualism,” I’ve stated several times that it is incompatible with classical education. In my last two posts for this series, I want to provide some support for those statements from a major author whose inclusion in the canon of books we accept as classical educators, I would assume no one would question: St. Augustine of Hippo.1

In terms of our theology and philosophy about the secular we should begin, surely, at the beginning, where God tells us multiple times after He creates some part of the space-and-time world that it is “very good.” Not to be repetitious, but God made everything that is a part of the space-and-time world “very good.” Therefore, nothing God made is evil in itself. Nothing.

But this means that the things we encounter in the world outside of our being-sanctified churchy-spiritual circles are not evil. Owing to the fact that the English word “secular” and its derivatives come from the Latin word saeculum meaning “age, lifetime” and the Old French word seculer meaning “not living in a religious order,” it is indisputably denotatively true that a thing is not evil because it is “secular.” “Secular” cannot be equivalent to “evil” because the things of which it consists are fundamental parts of the world God made, and God made nothing that is evil in itself.

So I contend that as classical educators we’re denotatively using the secular word family incorrectly if we default to connotatively using them as synonyms for godlessness and evil. And the misuse of words ought to concern us since one of the major themes of classical Christian education, via its Rhetoric aspect, is to use words properly and well and to make actions cohere with true speech.2

Ah, but I’m being pedantic, no? For as I’ve already observed, the common use of these words (“secular,” etc.) is a sort of shorthand, a figure of speech, words being used connotatively within a certain community to convey a certain meaning. Now, ordinarily, words acquiring connotations that go beyond their simple denotations is not necessarily a problem. It happens all the time in the course of normal human speech over periods of time.

Well, again, not to sound simplistic – we ought to understand that orthodox Christian theology and metaphysics strongly forbid this specific connotative use. God made nothing evil; therefore, the secular, considered as a thing, is not and cannot be evil. And since it is not and cannot be evil, no one concerned with the proper use of language should use the words in this way. To be a bit more fine-tuned, it should just be intellectually out of bounds for classical Christian educators to use the words this way.3

In the previous post, I mentioned that I would demonstrate – at least to those who take major classical Christian authors as in some real way normative for our own theological musings – that speaking of “the secular” and its derivative words as being merely the realm of evil, demonic forces such that against “the secular” we must always prosecute a constant, total war, is actually an anti-Christian and un-classical thing to do.

While I can’t do this exhaustively or in a way that no one could ever conceivably raise good counterpoints to, I am going to do it using an authority that only the most obtuse “classical” educator would take flippant issue with, St. Augustine of Hippo, who stands as an integral part of the bedrock of everything we as Western Christians are doing or ever might wish to do.

In his Confessions, a few chapters after explaining in no small detail how God brought him out of the pagan dualism of the Manichees, Augustine writes:

…it was made clear to me that all things are good even if they are corrupted. They could not be corrupted if they were supremely good; but unless they were good they could not be corrupted. If they were supremely good, they would be incorruptible; if they were not good at all, there would be nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption harms; but unless it could diminish goodness, it could not harm. Either, then, corruption does not harm—which cannot be—or, as is certain, all that is corrupted is thereby deprived of good. But if they are deprived of all good, they will cease to be. For if they are at all and cannot be at all corrupted, they will become better, because they will remain incorruptible. Now what can be more monstrous than to maintain that by losing all good they have become better? If, then, they are deprived of all good, they will cease to exist. So long as they are, therefore, they are good. Therefore, whatsoever is, is good. Evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.

Confessions VII.12

Now this is a mouthful, to be sure. Of course, no one will be foolish enough to say that any human author, even the great St. Augustine, isn’t liable to make mistakes, and that when they do, later generations might be able to correct those mistakes. And some among us may point out that in this citation and others like it Augustine is relying somewhat heavily on Neoplatonist philosophical categories. Whatever may be said in general critique of Platonism, Neoplatonism, and non-Christian thought as a whole, I and the bulk of the historic classical education tradition assume the basic normativity of Augustine’s theology of the goodness of creation and the non-existence of evil (since God made all things but can’t make evil). Dissenters should own the burden of proof themselves, since they are the novelty-makers.

Notice first that Augustine says that “all things are good even if they are corrupted.” The distinction here is between the thing in se and a spoiling or dissolution of the thing in se. The thing itself is good; what we mean if we ever say it is “evil” is that it has been spoiled by some factor ancillary to its created nature. Evil is not a thing, but the accidental (contingent) corruption of a thing that is bonum in se – good in itself.

This is of absolutely critical importance in talking about anything by applying to it the term “secular.” It is undeniably true – the evidence hits us in our faces every day! – that things coming to us from the secular domain present themselves to us in a condition of having been spoiled – which is exactly what we really mean when we default to using words like “godless” and “evil.” But that condition of having been spoiled does not entail that the things themselves are evil or godless.

It’s my contention that if we classical educators are just too impatient to make this crucial distinction, ponder it with respect to a given thing in the world, and speak more clearly than the promptings of polemical passions dictate, we’re likely too shallow to do any really serious redemptive cultural analysis.

Notice second that Augustine says that corruption can “diminish goodness.” Again, this means that the thing in itself is good, but when we call it “evil” what we mean is that it has experienced a loss of some of that inherent goodness. It is not evil in se, but rather corrupted good. Moreover, because corruption can exist in various degrees, not all of which require discarding or destruction, it would behoove the careful classical thinker to more closely examine particular things he wants to classify as “secular” when he means by this term “evil” or “godless.” The Evangelical world has long had the problem of attaching “Christian” as a dichotomizing adjective to ordinary earthly matters in order to sort of holy-fy them – which just assumes, wrongly, that the ordinary earthly world is bad in itself. What if the exact same thing is going on with our too frequent use of “secular” as an adjective?4

Notice third that Augustine says that a thing deprived of all good no longer even exists; therefore, if a thing still exists, it still has some good in it. The critical import of this principle for any discussion about secular things consists in the simple application of a theme I’ve already mentioned with respect to the Reformation: the old Medieval dichotomy between Secular and Sacred, taken as expressing a metaphysical antithesis, is fundamentally unbiblical and philosophically corrupt. It doesn’t belong in the intellectual toolbox of any thoroughgoing classical educator.

Elsewhere Augustine writes:

To thee there is no such thing as evil, and even in thy whole creation taken as a whole, there is not; because there is nothing from beyond it that can burst in and destroy the order which thou hast appointed for it. But in the parts of creation, some things, because they do not harmonize with others, are considered evil. Yet those same things harmonize with others and are good, and in themselves are good. …

Confessions VII.13

Here we as classical educators ought to stop for a long moment, for the thought structure in which Augustine is articulating his ideas about evil happens to be a deeply classical one. Namely, on the basis of knowing what a thing is (because they assume that the human mind is made to know reality), classical authors liked to explore the various ways the thing could be either bettered or worsened. In so doing, the nature of the subject at hand tended to get pretty thoroughly covered, and the mind received the thorough training needed to make ever clearer and needful distinctions so as to avoid easily made errors.

So let’s stop and parse Augustine’s words here, keeping in mind the theme of why it’s improper to use the “secular” word family in sloppy ways that imply the things being spoken of are malum in se.

Recall that our English word “secular” comes from Latin and Old French and refers essentially to the current time period and also to modes and activities of life that are not bound up in a formal religious order (as in monasteries and the like). This etymology places the “secular” word family squarely in what we might otherwise call ordinary life, life not specifically oriented toward churchy and ministerial goals. And, though you’ve heard it from me now many times in this series, if one hails from a Reformational tradition, it’s impermissible to label these non-ecclesiastical realities as being somehow of lesser being or lesser importance. 5

What Augustine shows us in the words above is that we shouldn’t speak of “secular” things as being fundamentally opposed to God’s order of the world, since God made all things and nothing can “burst in” from outside His order to destroy it. What can and does happen is that some things fail to harmonize with some other things and are on that basis considered evil even though they do harmonize with yet other things and are not evil in themselves.6

This kind of thinking is not easy to work through, which is precisely why I think it ought to be required exercise for classical educators who like to talk down about “secular” realities. Sloppy thinking ought to come nowhere near classical education activities, and if avoiding it entails slowing down – perhaps even ceasing to write and talk for a bit – and thinking matters through with more care, this will be no bad thing. Perhaps by reexamining our thoughts we may even attain a bit more wisdom than we had before – certainly the main goal of all classical education!

Though much more could be produced on this theme, I think it sufficient for now to engage with one more citation of Augustine, in which he expounds more closely on what “evil” really and truly means:

In this universe, even what is called evil, when it is rightly ordered and kept in its place, commends the good more eminently, since good things yield greater pleasure and praise when compared to the bad things. For the Omnipotent God, whom even the heathen acknowledge as the Supreme Power over all, would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil. What, after all, is anything we call evil except the privation of good? In animal bodies, for instance, sickness and wounds are nothing but the privation of health. When a cure is effected, the evils which were present (i.e., the sickness and the wounds) do not retreat and go elsewhere. Rather, they simply do not exist any more. For such evil is not a substance; the wound or the disease is a defect of the bodily substance which, as a substance, is good. Evil, then, is an accident, i.e., a privation of that good which is called health. Thus, whatever defects there are in a soul are privations of a natural good. When a cure takes place, they are not transferred elsewhere but, since they are no longer present in the state of health, they no longer exist at all.

Enchiridion, Ch. III

Here we read one of the single most important principles of Christian theology: evil is not a thing. Regardless of what one thinks about Greek philosophy in general or Platonism and Neoplatonism in particular, surely it is incontrovertible from Scripture that God made everything and that He declared it all “very good,” so there actually is no thing that just simply is evil. All manner of things that God created can experience privations of their natural goods, corruptions, vitiations, and so on, but no thing that God created can ever just simply be evil. For if all its natural goods get lost, it ceases to exist at all.

Thus we have to return to the fundamental wrongness of using the “secular” word family as a synecdoche for “evil” and “godless.” Whether the terms are functioning as nouns or adjectives, to connotatively imbue them with evil and godlessness is at best a careless misuse of words and at worst an expression of a heretical theology.

This is all the more true if the connotative use is paired with an opposite exaltation of another class of things termed in a totalizing antithetical sense as “spiritual.” Often one finds classical educators speaking and writing as if the cause we are engaged in is basically just a subset of evangelism and apologetics – spiritual activities. But what is this if not the tiresome old medieval Sacred / Secular dichotomy against which the Reformers fought so vigorously?7

What is it if not a total mischaracterization of classical education as being a fundamentally brainy thing involving thinking all the “correct” thoughts about everything by making sure all things we think about have first been baptized with “spiritual” categories? Interestingly, the most thoroughgoing historical instance we have of this kind of hyperspiritualization of something rooted in the ordinary and quite good space and time world was how the Roman Catholic hierarchy attempted to bend all aspects of culture into submission to the pope as Christ’s Authorized Substitute on earth. For Protestant classicists, anyway, probably most of my audience, no more needs be said about the basic errors of that paradigm.8

At any rate, it is quite acceptable within the Augustinian framework I have been expounding in this and the previous post to apprehend something that is “secular” and spend time and energy arguing that it has been corrupted, vitiated, deprived of, various actual goods that God intended it to have (and which, really, are still fundamentally in its being, or else it would have passed into non-existence). But it is quite unacceptable to apprehend something that is “secular” and rapaciously abominate it as fundamentally belonging to the realm of the Devil and so deserving the application of constant, totalizing warfare until it is destroyed.

In the same vein, it is quite unacceptable to portray anything being done within the orbit of classical education as somehow transcending in being whatever it is ranged against because classical is “spiritual” and the other thing is “secular.” To borrow some other terms frequently misused by classical educators who, in my considered opinion, just flat insufficiently understand the texts of our tradition (especially Augustine’s City of God), this sort of dichotomous thinking is not just an instance of Seed of the Woman Vs. Seed of the Serpent, but is instead an instance of attributing real evil to something that God made good but which has been to some degree marred by sinful humans.

Indeed, since we have so many “Romish” ecclesiocrats among us trying to co-opt classical education for purposes alien to its nature (wisdom-seeking), it ought to be plainly said that confusing the general revelation-based Liberal Arts with special revelation-based theological agendas reveals even further lack of proper analysis and evaluation. For in fact, everything used in any Sacred cause (all the material things used in church services, for instance, as well as any mode of educational formation that ministers have gained during the course of their lives in the space-and-time world) originated in the secular.9

Consequently, to imagine that oneself can, as it were, pull such material and temporal things “out of the world” and ritualistically induct them into some sort of metaphysically superior set of purportedly “spiritual” activities (like evangelism and apologetics) is just superstition, not true religion. And it certainly has nothing to do with the great intellectual and ethical tradition (read: mind and body, religious and secular) to which we say we are committed as classical educators.

Concluding these Augustinian thoughts on the nature of evil relative to “the secular,” then, a thing is not and cannot be evil or godless simply because it originates in or persists in the “non-spiritual” realm that a lot of us call “the secular.” Thus:

  • Secular government is not evil or godless because it is secular.
  • Secular music is not evil or godless because it is secular.
  • Secular literature, architecture, artistry, athletics, and are not evil or godless because they are secular.
  • And, to wax probably the most controversial of all, secular education is not evil or godless because it is secular.10

To say otherwise about any of these things than that they are goods that in various ways have experienced corruption (and so may be redeemed) is to maintain not the actually Christian idea of creation but the unChristian idea that there are things in God’s world that are by nature just simply, fundamentally, irremediably evil and which thus must be constantly, actively, and totalistically warred against until they are destroyed.

To avoid such careless verbal distortion of orthodox theology, then, classical educators ought to train ourselves to use the words “secular” and its derivatives far less often when we nearly always mean to say is only that certain things are being wrongly oriented away from God by sinful human beings.

In my next and final post for this series, I will address some of the real live, on the ground concerns that we as classical educators have about things that come to us from the domain of the secular – concerns that we like to connotatively wrap in the term “secularism.”

  1. I’d really like to provide more support from more authors, such as Dante and Calvin, but doing so would make this post fall into that most lamentable of modern impatience-driven categories, tl;dr. []
  2. Yes, I am unapologetically implying that the wrong use of these words can and does spill over into wrong actions by those who use the words wrongly. And the wrong use of words to persuade others to do actions which are wrong ought to deeply concern anyone. As James 3:1 tells us, teachers bear greater responsibility than others. []
  3. For anyone who knows the work of Francis Schaeffer, recall a point he often made about how “connotation words” distort communication about religious matters. In truth, I’m doing nothing in this series that isn’t in some way connected to Schaeffer’s observation on this point. []
  4. The main targets here are, of course, the nouns “government” and “education” – good and noble things in themselves that are often wrongly made to appear intrinsically evil by the sloppy addition of the dichotomizing adjective “secular.” []
  5. To be a Reformational Christian and talk down about “secular” things in radical contradistinction to “spiritual” things is basically to betray one’s own tradition in favor of alien ideas. []
  6. The role of news junkies among us needs to be carefully considered, for they are constantly showing us representative examples of The Latest Utterly Shocking Secular Evil while failing to make distinctions as they rile us up emotionally to engage in war-to-the-knife like a bunch of beasts rather than a bunch of human beings. []
  7. I keep mentioning the Reformation not because I think every classical educator hails from a Reformational tradition, but because most of them do and so this is a graspable point of contact between my seemingly controversial arguments and real goods that they already accept and love. []
  8. I only note, with no small irony, how it tends to be Protestant classical educators who exhibit serious attraction to an error that they might on other points more familiar to themselves (such as soteriology proper) label as “papist”! []
  9. One of Augustine’s most powerful points in The City of God is, in fact, that every convert to the City of God came from the City of Man, so the goal of the Christian is not to seek the destruction of the latter but to wait with patience “until we find them confessing the faith.” []
  10. Like everything else in the fallen world, a school is, on Augustinian categories, “permixta” (a mixture) of good and corruption. This is one hundred percent true of Christian schools, too, whose teachers and students frequently reveal much more subtle modes of captivity to the “secular” than the Bright Shiny ones that tend to appear on simplistic “worldview thinking” charts. []

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