Jung on good and evil

In the Western world, good and evil are largely defined in biblical terms, pushed close to the dichotomy of God as Summum Bonum or absolute good and a counterpart of absolute evil. Carl Jung points out that the notion of evil as substance or being is in fact vigorously denied by the Church Fathers through Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Theologians in the West have always argued that evil does not exist in the form of the devil, that it is merely a privatio boni, a defect or shortcoming of human behavior. This raises more questions than it settles. Jung first quotes extensively from the original Christian sources (here only excerpted) to demonstrate this point.


Nothing evil was created by God; we ourselves have produced all wickedness.

Basil the Great:

Evil is neither uncreated nor created by God. … Evil is not a living and animated entity, but a condition of the soul opposed to virtue, proceeding from light-minded persons on account of their falling away from good. Each of us should acknowledge that he is the first author of the wickedness in him.

Dionysius the Areopagite:

Evil in its nature is neither a thing nor does it bring anything forth. Evil does not exist at all and is neither good nor productive of good.

John Chrysostom:

Evil is nothing other than a turning away from good.


Evil therefore is nothing but the privation of good. … Evil is not a substance, for as it has not God for its author, it does not exist; and so the defect of corruption is nothing else than the desire or act of a misdirected will.

Thomas Aquinas:

Evil is signified by the absence of good. Evil is not a being, whereas good is a being.

Part of the motive of these theologians was to distinguish, especially in the early centuries, Christian doctrine from Manichean, which saw evil as such a dominant force in the world that in order to safeguard divinity from tolerating its pervasiveness — let alone safeguard divinity from the charge of creating it — posited two co-equal gods, one good, one evil. While this explanation addressed the struggle of good and evil in the world, it compromised the biblical depiction of God as absolute good, as Summum Bonum. In reaction, the Church Fathers all the way through scholasticism downplayed the pervasiveness and power of evil, shrinking it to a minor defect of character, as “nothing else than the desire or act of a misdirected will,” as the mere “absence of good.”

We will not pursue the disastrous tolerance of practical evil evidenced through the centuries based on this theological sleight of hand. Nor can the character of diplomacy and social order be attributed solely to theological assumptions. But a morality that concentrated on only a select set of human behaviors has been a long-term legacy of Western thought.

However, while the theologians downplayed evil as being or substance, the biblical tradition is dominated by it. The devil plays a significant role in the books of Genesis and Job, and especially in the regular New Testament references to the devil and hell, culminating in the Book of the Apocalypse or Revelations. Literature ever since, from Marlowe to Milton to Goethe and on to pogroms, revivals, witch hunts, exorcisms, and recent papal affirmations that the devil does exist as a being — all this has saturated minds, hearts, and vocabularies.

This was what so bothered Nietzsche, this contradiction that churchmen allowed tyrants, armies, and abusers their “misdirected wills” and “defects” while horrifying the masses with witches, demons, and damnation.

Jung saw clearly that an underlying tautology exists, beyond human behavior: that if God is the author of good and human beings are the author of evil, there is a clear discrepancy of nature and origin, of theory and reality. To cite his analogy, if light does not produce darkness, then neither does darkness produce light. If humans are the author of evil, then they are also the author of good, because good and evil, or what we call good or evil, involves human judgment.

Both good and evil are categories of values. Human beings are the author of judgments. As Jung explains:

Psychology does not know what good and evil are in themselves; it knows them only as judgments about relationships. “Good” is what seems suitable, acceptable, or laudable from a certain point of view; “evil” is its opposite. If the things we call good are “really” good, then there must be evil things that are “real” too.

Jung defined the shadow and the void as phenomena of mind with enormous and subtle propensities for what we conventionally call “evil.” The existence of shadow and void in human nature provides a more cogent explanation of the function of judgment in the psyche. Judgment is simply too externalized by traditional theological explanation. On this subject even philosophy devolves, we may say, into ethics, which is a logical category for describing behavior but not a holistic psychological explanation of the factors of behavior, especially social behavior. In short, philosophy, like theology, can use logic to circumvent human experience, especially our experience of evil.

Of course, Jung is not the first thinker to shift the issue of evil back to an empirical and realistic level, but he did so with sympathy for the great religious traditions, however inadequately they had addressed such a pressing issue. Jung understood that evil does exist and that psychology must insist on this fact. Evil is not necessarily a metaphysical phenomenon but it is clearly a psychological experience. We should not have to struggle through theology in order to describe evil as an historical experience, as a collective phenomenon.

We are left with a Summum Bonum that we can never attain as realistic behavior nor fully emulate as a model because it is contradictory. Human experience is not so providential to dismiss evil as a bad habit, while entertaining an infinitely powerful archetype like the devil.

The Western world has been focusing for centuries on power as the resource for suppressing evil, instead of realizing that it was the very insistence on the necessary triumph of good over evil that has engendered much of what we call evil, and much that we have overlooked as evil.