[In the following passage from his classic A Preface to Chaucer, D. W. Robertson, Jr. explains how foreign to biblical and medieval times is the mistranslation “Money is the root of all evil.” As St. Augustine and a host of church fathers made clear, turning away from God and loving things of this world for themselves is the root of all evil. — George P. Landow.

Illuminated initial A

ll creation is good to the medieval mind, for "God saw all the things that he had made, and they were good" (Gen. i.31). Evil was not an entity in itself, not even a "negation" of the good, but merely a privation of it: "Dicendum est quod malum dicitur defectum boni non negative sed prmatiue" It results from the corrupted will of man, for which he has full responsibility, which places qualities good in themselves in an unnatural order. Lechery, for example, as William of Auvergne explains, is good in a hog, but evil in a man. Similarly, the devil is not the almost invincible rebel envisaged by the romantics, an "opposite" of Christ, but a corrupted angel. . . . In the same way, medieval "contraries" like the Church and the Synagogue, the New Law and the Old, Grace and Nature, are not dramatic contraries in the modern sense. The Church is the Synagogue transformed, the New Law is the fulfilment of the Old, and Grace effects a restoration of Nature to something like its original form. Elements such as these cannot be diametrically opposed so as to produce either a "progression" or a "higher synthesis."

This principle applies as well to the "two loves," a favorite realm for reconciliations and syntheses in criticism of Dante, in spite of the fact that what Virgil says about love in the Purgatorlo makes such operations clearly impossible. . . . The classic Christian definitions of the two loves are those given by St. Augustine in On Christian Doctrine: "I call charity [caritas] the motion toward the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one's self and of one's neighbor for the sake of God, but 'cupidity' is a motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of one's self, one's neighbor, or any corporal thing for the sake of something other than God." The importance of this distinction for Christianity is clear when St. Augustine informs us that "Scripture teaches nothing but charity, nor condemns anything except cupidity, and in this way shapes the minds of men." In other words, charity is the basic lesson of Christianity. . . . One loves either the tangible or the intelligible world. It may be possible to move from the tangible to the intelligible, but the two are not opposites, they exist in a relationship of inferior and superior. As for the Christian definition, both loves involve a motion of the spirit toward the enjoyment of something else. A woman may be loved concupiscently with reference to certain physical satisfactions, but charitably with reference to God. But even when these alternatives conflict, they are not contraries. As William of Auvergne puts it, "to desire something and not to consent to the desire are not contraries," or, to put the same idea in another way, "to desire something simply and to desire something else as preferable are not contraries." This being so, it is impossible to "reconcile" or to "synthesize" the two loves. [24-25]


Robertson, D. W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Last modified 14 May 2010