Augustine’s The City of God, Part 2

The first 10 books of The City of God was a polemic against Roman polytheistic religion. As we saw last week, Augustine rebuts and ridicules polytheistic religious practices and beliefs with a remarkable amount of efficacy, showing the incoherence of Roman religious myths if they were to be taken seriously, and the hopeless task the pagan philosophers had to face if they insisted on defending those myths and beliefs. In the next four books, Augustine turns his attention to the City of God itself, gradually laying down the Christian alternative to polytheism. He delves deep into fundamental questions regarding the nature of God, the universe, death, and Man.
Some of the topics focused in Books XI-XIV might seem incredibly pedantic and meaningless to a modern reader, even one with a spiritual interest. There is a lengthy section in Book XI devoted to speculation on the nature of good versus evil angels, including whether evil angels had always been deficient in their goodness even before their fall or not. This may seem like the very kind of question referred to by the expression “How many angels can dance on a pinhead?” But if we take even this part of his writing a little seriously, we clearly see that Augustine is just thinking rigorously about the small but pesky implications of certain commonly cited Christian beliefs. For example, the question of whether evil angels were created with some deficiency in the very beginning ties strongly into the question of how evil in general could have arose in the universe, and whether God is ultimately responsible for it.
(The answer is that Augustine believes they were, because otherwise there would be no guarantee that some of the currently good angels will not fall to the dark side later. This is contrary to the Scriptures stating the people of God will one day be equals with the angels. I think Augustine is referring to the following passage:

But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.
Luke 20:35-36 (NIV)

The Scriptures also say that God’s people will “go away into life eternal.” (Matthew 25:46), which means that they are assured of their salvation. If there are some angels which might turn evil in the future, they are not fully assured of their salvation and thus inferior, not equal, with the saints of God. This is a contradiction. From here, it must be the case that all the currently good angels will be good forever and thus assured of their salvation. This argument is laid out in Book XI, Chapter 13, showing Augustine’s incisive use of logic in figuring out the implications of combining Scripture and certain beliefs.)
This issue becomes much more pertinent when we arrive at the topic of human free will. Last week we already found out that Augustine has a proto-Calvinistic view of free will, believing that God’s will is ultimately the cause of everything in the universe, including the evil that rebels against Him. However, it seems that he distinguishes between “ultimate cause” and “efficient cause”, as he states that several things have no efficient cause. This is one of the meatiest parts of the discussions in Books XI-XIV and will be the first topic we examine in this post.

Free Will and the Origin of Evil

The question is that of the origin of the evil will, present in fallen angels as well as Adam and Eve when they sinned in the Garden of Eden. Where does this evil will come from, if initially God created everything and “it was good”? What caused it? Augustine’s belief is that nothing caused it. It seems that he believes that such is the nature of the will: one can’t ascribed external causes to it, or else it would not be free. To bring this point across, in Book XI he gives an example of two otherwise identical men who both see some “corporal beauty” and have different reactions to it. One man wants to engage in illicit pleasures with the body. The other restrains his desire. The first man now has an evil will, although there is nothing wrong about the corporal beauty itself. It is the will of the man itself that is evil. There is nothing else to explain it. In Augustine’s words, it has no “efficient cause.” So we see that an evil just arises by itself, not caused by anything outside of it.
Of course, Augustine has another reason to insist that an evil will simply has no efficient cause. This is because prior to the existence of the first evil will, all wills had been created good by God. Thus, something which could have caused evil will to arise must have been not a will. But it could not be nature either, for nature was also created to be good. Ultimately there is no possible other cause; evil wills just are. To support this perhaps disappointing conclusion, he adds that

“Let no one, therefore, look for an efficient cause of the evil will; for it is not efficient, but deficient, as the will itself is not an effecting of something, but a defect,”
(Book XII, Chapter 7)

echoing his general view (not yet entered into explicitly in City of God, but well-known to the present day) that evil is an absence of God. Augustine also asserts that an evil will is also not necessarily such because it desires something evil. Rather, the very act of rebellion against God, which only later leads to disobedience to His commands, is the point at which the will becomes evil.
All of these thoughts have implications in the general debate over whether humans have free will or hopelessly have their actions determined by a multitude of uncontrollable external factors. Surely, we are influenced by external factors when we decide to do something. Sometimes, as perhaps shown by the famous Libet experiments in the 1980s, these external factors might even be working unconsciously. But for a will to be “free”, does it necessarily have to be uninfluenced by any external factors? Does it need some element of randomness in its behavior? Can there be a compatibilist sort of free will, where external factors come into play but a will is still truly free? If we follow Augustine’s conclusions, there is simply no answer, no way to break down what a free will is, a will just is. The very act of trying to think of free will as a link in a chain of causes and effects is misguided, for creatures with free wills are agents, fundamentally different entities that cannot be characterized as deterministic machines. Trying to do so would be begging the question.
However, it’s important to remember that ultimately, Augustine does impart God with some indirect responsibility for the events that happen in the world. He emphasizes that good-willed angels can be good because God Himself imparted that goodness. Without this grace provided by His Spirit it would be impossible to persist in goodness. Thus angels who turned evil had a deficiency in this goodness that resulted from God either abandoning them or at least not fully imparting goodness to them like the good angels.
Branching away from the subject of angels and evil and turning to the Fall of Adam and Eve, we see that the matter of the will is central to the Augustinian concept of sin. For even before they ate the forbidden fruit, the evil had already been committed: their act of rebellion against God that happened in their wills. They willed to turn against God’s precepts and instead live according to themselves. This leads nicely into the next section: a discussion of Augustine’s beliefs about the nature of the Fall, death, and carnality.

First and Second Deaths, and the Punishment of Sin

It’s actually mentioned in the Bible itself (Revelation 21:8) that the final damnation of sinners in hell is the second death. Augustine delves into the nature of death in The City of God. He clarifies that there are two aspects of death: spiritual death, consisting of forsaking of the soul by God, and physical death, when the soul forsakes the physical body. The first death occurs at the end of a normal life span, in which both aspects happen. In the second death, occurring at the end of the events of Revelation, God still abandons the soul, but the damned are still given a body, for otherwise they would not feel the torments of Hell they are subjected to. When God warns Adam and Eve that they will “die” on the day of eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, He is referring to spiritual death. They did instantly felt shame over their nakedness, and were cast out of the Garden. Additionally, they were condemned to physical death, only that it would occur more slowly.
Despite this, in Augustine’s view, the primary punishment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience was not being cast out of the Garden, or even condemned to die (though that is a part and implication of it). Instead, the punishment for disobedience is disobedience itself. The physical bodies of all humans are hopelessly afflicted by illicit lust, desires, needs, and wants that make it impossible to perfectly obey God’s commands. By eating the forbidden fruit, humans started to live as gods, as the serpent promised: only that they are deficient gods, being subject to these carnal temptations forever.

“By craving to be more, man becomes less; and by aspiring to be self-sufficing, he fell away from Him who truly suffices him.”
Book XIV, Chapter 13

Of course, Augustine’s argument falls apart if one rejects the idea that it’s important to be able to obey the commands of God. Then we could really live our lives as gods, subject only to our own self-imposed moral constraints. We would thus be outside of the City of God, the “other city” represented by the decadence of Rome in that time. Many people choose this path and feel nothing wrong with themselves.
But while Augustine has not yet argued it outright, he does imply that such a life is ultimately doomed. This fits perfectly into his own life journey, as detailed in The Confessions. Augustine strongly feels that all lusts, desires, and wants are ultimately evil, a corruption of the body caused by the Fall. For him, even conjugal sexual intercourse is shameful, for otherwise why wouldn’t everyone start doing it in the open instead of in the privacy of their bedrooms? Ultimately it is motivated by lust. He argues at length that before the Fall, sexual intercourse must have been not directed by lust, but purely by the will, and reproductive organs were moved freely with full control, similar to how we freely move our arms and legs to do all sorts of daily tasks without the influence of lust.
Augustine’s objection to the fundamental nature of lust, extending even “legitimate” sexual desire between spouses, seems to be that it is uncontrollable and unpredictable, causing people to behave irrationally and out of their mind. According to him, this was also the reason that Platonist philosophers disapproved of lust. A basic difference between their opinions, however, is that this led the Platonists to believe that the body is fundamentally a form of punishment for the pure souls originally created by the gods, but for Augustine (and Christianity), it’s only the corruption of the body which is a punishment. Thus after the Resurrection we shall still have bodies, but “spiritual” ones that are able to eat and engage in physical tasks but without the irresistible need to do so, like angels.
As Augustine is regarded as a Doctor of the Church in Catholicism, it therefore makes sense that Catholicism teaches that the only legitimate use of sex is for procreation, just like it was before the Fall. But is this really the only way to think about human desire? By condemning the fundamental dynamic, unpredictable nature of lust, Augustine seems to be throwing out the legitimacy of all forms of human passion and spontaneity. Lust can indeed be evil, but it is only clearly so when directed towards illicit objects. But humans can have powerful desires, even ones that are somewhat unpredictable and irresistible, towards things that are good. They can have a passionate desire to love God and serve Him. To serve the poor, heal the sick, or build great things. As long as this passion is combined with a constantly moderating, supervising rational will in the background, what is wrong with it? Passion and will are in a constant feedback loop. The former is often indispensable in sustaining the actions of the latter. It’s true that one’s faith, for example, cannot be primarily driven by passion. It must be by the will, and I personally think that the Holy Spirit’s most powerful work is that influencing the will, not creating moments of passion. But such a passionate faith would not be in rebellion against God – it would only be deficient and lacking. It would need to be completed by a strong will, also directed towards God.
In short, I think it is equally viable to think of human desire and the fulfillment of that desire to be a gift from God Himself as well. The state before the Fall would thus be the ability for humans to constantly control their passions and engage in pleasures moderately, in accordance with the boundaries set by God. This went away after the Fall, and we are thus condemned with uncontrollable passions, passions that subvert the natural order by subverting the will. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit can one fully regain the ability to direct passion and will towards God. I believe this is closer to what most Protestants believe.

Interesting Last Tidbits

  • There is a famous, poignant passage in John 21:15-17, where Jesus reinstates Peter after having denied Him three times in the courtyard.

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
John 21:15-17, NIV

Checking my Greek version of the NT (Byzantine Textform), Jesus “love” in the first two “Do you love me” is αγαπᾳς (agapas, or agape) while the third one is φιλεις (phileis, or phileo). Peter’s three replies (“I love you”) are all φιλω. In many Sunday school classes this differing uses of the word is taught to be extremely significant (though surprisingly, phileo seems to be superior to agape, in contrast to the common Christian teaching that agape love is the perfect, unconditional love God exhibits and commands, compared to the brotherly phileo love). But in Book XIV, Augustine argues that this passage shows there is no difference in the way Scripture uses words for these two kinds of love. Whether a love is good or bad is not due to the fundamental nature of that love (phileo or agape) but the object towards it is directed. This is in opposition to some Platonistic philosophers who believe that the wise and foolish have fundamentally different sets of emotions.

  • At the end of book XIV, Augustine wraps it up by recapping the fundamental differences between the “two cities”, the earthly and the heavenly: the the city of God is distinguished by being directed towards God, living according to His commands, obtaining its strength from Him, being focused on His instead of their own glory.

“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.”
Book XIV, Chapter 28


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *