Privatio Boni

In his work Confessions, St Augustine attempted to solve a problem that has been at the back of the mind of mankind ever since we developed rational thought. You’ll have thought about it yourself, it is often linked to a summary offered by Epicurus (this is debatable) but it goes something along the lines of:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able to? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing to? Then he is malevolent.

Is God able to prevent evil and willing to? Then why is there evil?

Countless philosophers, theologians and gaffers in the pub over a pint of cider have offered their two penneth. And yet the ‘inconsistent triad’ or ‘logical problem’ (J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism) remains as pointy and uncomfortable as ever.

Still, Augustine had a go at grinding down the corners. He reclassified ‘evil’ as a lack of goodness, privatio boni, and so evil is not a thing in itself, it is a privation, a lack:


If I am a selfish person, I am lacking in selflessness, empathy, care and concern for others.

If I am a dishonest person, I am lacking in honesty, integrity, trustworthiness

If I am a bad person, I am lacking in goodness.


So what has this got to do with running? Well not a lot and at the same time, many things.

When we fail at something, when we DNF for example, it feels like a big deal and that is because it is a big deal. We’ve worked hard, set our sights on a goal, trained, prepared…or maybe we didn’t, maybe we weren’t ready, maybe it was out of our control, just one of those things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we failed and once you fail, you then know that you will fail again and again. An idea that was once so distant from our thoughts becomes the first thought. It endures. When you’re on the way to the start line, when you put your trainers on, when you think about entering a race. What if I fail again?

Chances are, you probably will. We’re taught how to succeed our entire lives, did anybody ever teach you how to fail?

I was thinking about failure as a thing in itself, maybe we should redefine it, just in our own minds, as a form of privation. Why did I DNF? Ask yourself what the ‘lack’ was. Training? Preparation? Something on the day? Positive mental attitude? If you can identify the privation, you stand a chance. You can always replace a lack of something, you can work hard to top up on whatever it is that you need to top up. Why stop at running? You can choose to be more selfless, more generous, more honest…more good. You can try every day, to replace what was missing, or what had been lost.

There always has to be something worth fighting for, something worth changing for, something worth saving.

 ‘It was obvious to me that the things which are liable to corruption are good…If there were no good in them there would be nothing capable of being corrupted.’

Augustine, Confessions.

If you think you’ve failed, you’re lacking in success. Maybe you should redefine what ‘success’ means as well, not just what it means to fail. Maybe you should be happy with what you have. A life full of failure and lack is a half life, a race unfinished, it’s not even a DNF, it’s a DNS.


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