Continuing the series of monthly extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, here is the fourth excerpt (naturally from Chapter 4). The first three chapters in the book deal with Greek and Hellenistic thought. Chapter 4 begins the discussion of the monotheistic religions, moving from the origins of Judaism to early Christianity (the exploration of Islam comes later). This extract is taken from the section on Augustine, the most important of early Christian theologians, indeed with Aquinas the most important thinker in the history of the faith, and one whose views on human nature, free will and, in particular, Original Sin, has been deeply influential.
AUGUSTINE WAS BORN IN 354 IN THE NORTH AFRICAN TOWN OF THAGASTE, IN what is now Tunisia. The city lay inside the Roman Empire and its citizens were deeply Latinized. Augustine’s father Particius was a pagan, his mother Monnica a pious Christian with whom he had intense and often conflictual relationship that helped shape the way he thought about God. Pursuing a promising intellectual career, Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric, first in Carthage, and then in Rome, before taking up a post as an imperial orator in Milan. But increasingly he felt himself tormented by emotional doubt, a torment driven by a desire to make sense of good and evil, and leading to an ever-more desperate search for a safe spiritual harbour.
While still in North Africa, he was drawn towards Manichaeism, a dualistic philosophy first taught by the third century Persian prophet Mani. A much travelled man, Mani imbibed the essence of many faiths, from Zoroastrianism to Christianity, fusing elements of each into a complex cosmology rooted in the eternal struggle between good and evil. All matter was intrinsically evil, while Good was embodied in spirit, whether of the mind or the soul. The human body, like all matter, was evil, and had been deliberately designed by the forces of darkness as the mechanism for imprisoning the soul. The more committed Manicheans, called the ‘Elect’ were profoundly ascetic, despised sex because it produced more evil matter in the form of children, and attempted to evade the world of matter as far as they could, going as far as employing lay believers as ‘Hearers’ to serve them with food and other material needs. Augustine himself was for nine years a Hearer.
Eventually, though, Augustine found too crude the Manichaean definition of all matter as evil and was unhappy with the idea, implicit in the philosophy, that the forces of good could be defeated by the battalions of evil. What he ached for above all was an unassailable notion of the Good. This yearning led him to Platonism, or rather to Neoplatonism, a spiritualised, mystical form of Plato’s cosmology whose most influential proponent was the Egyptian-born, Greek-speaking philosopher Plotinus (204-270). Plotinus taught that there exists a supreme, transcendent ‘One’, that is above all material being, indeed beyond all categories of being and non-being, that contains no division or distinction, is self-caused and is absolutely good. The One did not create the cosmos through thought or action (for it is beyond either), but through a series of ‘emanations’ that originate in the One, but are not actively caused or willed by it. Plotinus uses the analogy of reflections in a mirror that create something new without diminishing or altering the object being reflected. The first emanation is Nous, or mind or reason, from which proceeds the Platonic Forms and the World Soul, which in turn gives rise to matter and to individual human souls.
Plotinus has married here several important threads in the work of both Plato and Aristotle. In The Republic Plato established, as we have seen, the idea of a transcendental reality, more authentic than the material realm that humans inhabit, governed not by a transcendental personal God but by the Forms, the most important of which was the Form of the Good, to which everything ultimately owed its existence, and which was itself beyond and superior to being. In Timaeus, one of Plato’s later and more obscure works, in which the down-to-earth dialectical investigation characteristic of most of his dialogues gives way to grandiose cosmic theorizing, a new conception appears: that of God as a craftsman or demiurge who has sculpted the universe, guided by the perfection of the Forms. Aristotle, critical both of the Platonic concept of the Forms and of the idea of a craftsman-designed cosmos, introduced instead in his Physics the notion of the Immovable Mover. Behind every change in the universe, Aristotle argued, must lie a chain of causes that brings about that change. Such a chain cannot stretch out for ever because ‘it is impossible to have an infinite series of movers’. The chain stops at the Unmoved Mover, the prime cause of all change in the cosmos, but which itself is not caused by anything, which has always existed and always will exist, and which is the ultimate Good since there can be no defect in that which necessarily exists.
Plotinus wove together the Forms, the craftsman and the Unmoved Mover to create an account of Creation and of existence out of which he crafted an ethics that, though distinctive, also drew upon important Greek themes. Evil, Plotinus believed, was associated with matter. Human beings, because of their bodily attachment, were open to being evil. A person was, for Plotinus, a soul employing a body as the instrument of its temporary embodied life. Human flourishing required the separation of soul from its bodily impediment, a separation that is managed though the virtues. The lower form of virtues, which Plotinus, borrowing from Plato, calls ‘civic’, are those practices that serve to control the appetites. The higher ‘purificatory’ virtues are those that help separate the person from the embodied human being. Happiness for Plotinus is ‘a flight from this world’s ways and things.’ The ‘perfect life’ is one in which the disembodied soul lives a life of contemplation.
Augustine found in Plotinus a description of an eternal, unassailable, transcendental reality, the source of creation, of goodness and of happiness, an explanation of evil rooted in a contempt for the material world, and an other-worldly view of morality whose significance could be grasped only by letting go of attachments to sensual pleasures. These were all themes that would resonate down the centuries with Christian theologians, for whom Plato, grasped through the spiritual lens of Plotinus, provided an indispensible intellectual foundation. And yet Augustine also found a void in Plotinus, for his was transcendental reality to be grasped by reason, not faith. And it was faith, not reason, for which Augustine yearned, a faith that could fulfil his need for moral certainties and emotional security.
And so it was that Augustine came full circle and discovered those certainties and that security in his mother’s faith that he had once rejected as intellectually unappealing. His conversion was sudden and dramatic. He was in a garden in Milan, apparently suffering an emotional breakdown. ‘I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears’, he remembers in his Confessions. ‘O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever?’, he cried out. Then he heard the voice of a child from a neighbouring house ‘chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.”’ Taking this to be a ‘command from God’ Augustine picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistles lying nearby and, opening it at random, found himself confronted by a line from the Letter to the Romans:
Not in rioting or in drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.
‘Instantly at the end of this sentence’, Augustine recalls, ‘by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.’
Augustine’s experience of his own conversion to Christianity, his sense of being overwhelmed by an abundance of grace from God that washed away his old sinful, egotistical self, liberated him from his torment and despair, and made anew his soul and his faith, indelibly shaped his sense of Christianity and framed his theology. What he saw as the drama of his own life – that of a weak-souled, morally blind, emotionally wretched man being saved by the unconditional goodness of God – was, for Augustine, also the drama that was being played out on the cosmic stage. As with the man, so with mankind. Through Augustine this desolate vision of human nature came to shape Christianity itself.
God’s most important gift, Augustine insisted, was his love. The Holy Scripture, he wrote, ‘proclaims that God is love, and that love is of God, and works this in us that we abide in God and He in us.’ There was, however, a darker side to God’s love. For the immensity of God’s grace had to be set against the wretchedness of human being. Love of God required humans to deny their love of self and of flesh. But they had only become so besotted with self and flesh because they had rebelled against God. And in that rebellion the God of love seems, in Augustine’s eyes, to have become transmuted into a brutal, even sadistic, figure. ‘I broke all your lawful bounds’, he writes in his Confessions, ‘and did not escape your lash.’ He sees God as ‘always present, angry and merciful at once, spewing the pangs of bitterness over all my lawless pleasures’. ‘O Lord’, Augustine writes, ‘You teach us by inflicting pain, you smite us so that you may heal and you kill us so that we may not die away from you.’ This was not a Platonic God but the God of the Old Testament.
God, Augustine insisted, endowed humans with self-awareness, understanding and free will. But freedom and will had been fatally compromised by Adam’s sinfulness in the Garden of Eden. Sin was like fungus in the trunk of a tree, corrupting the body, weakening it, though not entirely depriving it of its powers. The only act of true free will was Adam’s decision to eat of forbidden fruit. Once Adam had taken that first bite, humanity was lost. ‘Human nature was certainly originally created blameless and without any fault’, Augustine wrote, ‘but the human nature by which each one of us is now born of Adam requires a physician, because it is not healthy.’ ‘All the good things’ in life come from God. ‘But the weakness which darkens and disables these good natural qualities’ derives solely from Adam’s disobedience.
Displaying the deep-seated terror of pleasures of the flesh that he had discovered in Manichaeism, and that had already become woven into the Christian tradition, Augustine believed that Original Sin was passed down the generations through the very act of sexual intercourse. Sexual desire is the ‘daughter of sin’, he claimed, and ‘whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins.’ Jesus alone is without sin because ‘the Virgin conceived without this concupiscence’, an Augustinian word for what he saw as a whirlpool of desire, lust, envy, greed and coveting that was bound to the physical act of sex. Every human who ‘comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin’, their soul degraded, their moral faculties befuddled, and their will to do good corrupted, the result of ‘lust’s darkness’.
Original Sin made it impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because it degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower. Only through God’s grace could humans achieve salvation. ‘It is through the grace of God alone’, the modern theologian Alister McGrath explains, borrowing Augustine’s argument, ‘that that our illness is diagnosed (sin) and a cure made available (grace)’. So enslaved is every human to the service of sin that without God’s grace he lacks the will even to choose to accept salvation. There is perhaps no philosopher who has written more joyously of the love of God and of its liberating presence. And there is perhaps no theologian who has portrayed more bleakly his contempt for the human condition and the wretchedness he felt at being human.
Not all Christians were willing to accept this desolate, guilt-ridden view of human nature. A major theological debate erupted within Western Christendom in the fifth century when a Welsh monk, Pelagius, challenged Augustine’s vision. Pelagius argued that it was possible for humans to achieve salvation independently of God’s grace through the power of reason and the exercise of free will, though he accepted that God’s grace assisted every good work. The relationship between humanity and God was like the relationship between a mariner and the wind. A sailor can set off on his accord, but the wind helps him reach his destination.
Adam’s sin was to set a bad example for his progeny, but that progeny did not inherit an indelible moral stain. What, Pelagius wanted to know, was the point of God giving the Ten Commandments, or of Jesus teaching his Sermon on the Mount, if humans are so full of sin that they could not choose to follow the strictures? It is the responsibility of human beings to follow the Gospels, and to suggest that ‘the frailty of our own nature’ makes us incapable of doing so is ‘to indulge in pointless evasions’.
At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine was the question of whether humans are to be defined by depravity and sinfulness or by reason and the capacity for good. Are humans moral agents? Or are we so crippled by sin that it is impossible for us to have a clear idea of right and wrong? Pelagius belonged to an ethical tradition that drew deeply both upon Greek ideas and upon Jewish concepts of morality and human nature. Augustine, too, wanted to draw upon the authority of Greek philosophers, Plato in particular, but he reworked Greek themes for a much darker, more pessimistic view of the human condition.
Augustine won the dispute. Pelagius was condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage, called by Augustine specifically to denounce his opponent, a condemnation ratified at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Pelagius, and those who supported him, were declared heretics and banished from Rome.
In the struggle between Augustine and Pelagius we can see two threads of Christian thought, two contradictory views of God, salvation and human nature that Christianity has never truly resolved. On the one hand an embrace of a loving God, on the other a sense of terror at God’s anger, wrath and vengeance; on the one hand an understanding of humans as moral agents possessed of free will and capable of good works, on the other a condemnation of humans as corrupted sinners, incapable without God’s grace of telling right from wrong or acting upon it; on the one hand a belief in the Law as God’s gift to humankind that called forth the moral responsibility without which believers could not enter the kingdom of God, on the other an insistence that not through adherence to the Law but only through faith in Jesus Christ could salvation be realized.
Even as Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, these fault lines were visible. Jesus insisted on strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, indeed far stricter than anyone had previously demanded. What was important to him, however, was less the letter of the Law than the inner spirit with which the believer looked upon both Law and God. Jesus seemed to demand of his followers an almost impossible degree of moral purity, a demand that hinted that only with God’s help could humans achieve such moral perfection. For later thinkers, such as Paul and Augustine, not just moral perfection but any form of moral attainment required the intervention of God’s grace.
Early Christianity found its spiritual energy in this tension between Law and grace, free will and sin. Augustine’s victory over Pelagius shifted the balance in that tension and transformed the very character of Christian ethical discussion. Recalibrating the balance between Law and grace, will and sin, created, however, a conundrum. Pelagius had wondered what was the purpose of the Ten Commandments, or of the Sermon on the Mount, if humans were incapable of exercising their moral will? That question could be asked another way. If humans are made moral solely by God’s grace, why talk of ethics at all? As the theologian Stephen Long wryly puts it in the very first sentence of his Very Short Introduction to Christian Ethics, ‘To bring the terms “Christian” and “ethics” together and treat them as referring to a common subject might strike persons of faith or those without it as odd, perhaps even a contradiction’.