To what extent has Augustine’s teaching on human nature caused more harm than good?

It is frequently claimed that Augustine’s teaching on human nature has caused more harm than good. In particular his view of sexuality, of the nature of the will, and the extent of human sinfulness are often asserted to be major elements of all that is wrong or has been wrong with western culture; imperialism, patriarchal dominator-culture, guilt and repression of sexuality, damage to the environment, and damaging gender stereotypes. Often, such claims are followed by further assertions that progress away from such backward attitudes is only possible by a wholesale rejection of the Augustinian current from Christianity, or more usually by a complete rejection of Christianity itself. Indeed, much of what is called the ‘New Age’ (an eclectic pick and mix of spiritualities and religious traditions), is founded on this very rejection, along with a quite sophisticated critique of the core ideas of Augustine. Equally, secular humanism finds much to criticise in Augustine. I want to show in this essay that although these critiques are very popular and are at the heart of progressive liberal thought, they are in large part based on misunderstandings and misrepresentation of the thought of Augustine. These misrepresentations of Augustine are what lead people to assume he has done more harm than good, when in fact he has not – there are other causes I would blame for the effects mentioned above.

Some have claimed that Augustine saw sex as the fundamental entry point of sin into human nature, and that he viewed it as only tolerable within marriage and then only for the purpose of having children, but the obsession with sex is actually more the problem of the modern critic than it is with Augustine. True, in chapter 6 of Confessions, Augustine talks about marriage as a remedy for concupiscence, and laments that his parents didn’t arrange an early marriage for him, as it would have directed his sexual desire to its proper end.But he doesn’t just single out procreation. He recognises that sexual desire finds its true end in love, commitment and procreation – surely a more positive view of marriage than many claim for him?

Another misrepresentation of Augustine, based on a shallow reading of his work, is that he blames everything on lust or concupiscence and forgets about other sins. In the Confessions Augustine draws a connection between his sexual activity and his freedom of will. He found himself unable to give up his involvement with sexual pleasure and felt trapped, in a state of moral paralysis. In Book 8 he says:

” The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes a compulsion. “

As we can see here, his desire for sex is the point of his resistance to the will of God, and his analysis is that the root of the problem is actually weakness of will, rather than lust itself. This weakness of will is perhaps best understood as a lack of charity (caritas), which would have enabled him to love God wholeheartedly, and an excess of cupiditas (self-love) which made him only serve himself. Augustine characterises this conflict using the words of Paul as

“The lust of the flesh against the spirit”

These two lusts or wills were at war deep in his (and our) heart. But Augustine does not identify lust purely with sexual desire. There are actually many forms that the ‘lust of the flesh’ can take such as greed, pride or acedia (spiritual boredom), and he actually thinks that sexual desire is not the most dangerous of these lusts or sins. For instance, because pride is far more subtle than sexual desire, it can do more unseen damage and is harder to root out.

With this understanding, we can now see that the critique of Augustine blaming him for sexual repression and guilt related to sex in Western culture is misplaced. However, it is possible that his interpreters laid too great an emphasis on the sexual element, and that this interpretation actually did some of the ‘damage’. But it should also be considered that this kind of critique derives a great deal from Freud, and therefore needs to be handled with caution, given his now widely criticised research methods, and his reductionist view of the human being.

However, Augustine’s view of human nature is considered to have had a negative effect in other ways. Perhaps the other main way it is seen to do this is in its fatalism about the ability of the will to bring about any real change on its own, without God’s grace, and of God’s electing some people for salvation and passing over others. This fatalism, more accurately known as the doctrine of predestination in Augustine’s thought, seems to me a more profound problem than the sexual guilt accusation, and to a certain extent, it is possible that Augustine’s view has had far-reaching sometimes negative effects. On Augustine’s account, Original Sin has so distorted human nature that it is for him an ontological condition of human existence. In other words, we don’t just do sinful behaviour now and then, sin is part of the very fabric of our existence. We might expect to see this played out in western Thought as a kind of pessimistic paralysis of the will, whereby humans are believed incapable of achieving anything and so in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they don’t. It is almost impossible to say if this is true. Maybe scientific progress would have been quicker, but then again, without the religious background to European culture, as Freud pointed out, the fundamental impetus behind science, that an invisible world with its own specific laws was waiting to be discovered, might not have surfaced.

I would say the doctrine of predestination has made some too obsessed with legalistic notions of right and wrong, and perhaps a disregard for the pain of this world has engendered a certain coldness and cruelty in some, whilst in others it might have provoked an impractical idealism which fails to live in an embodied present. This might have contributed to some of the ills of modernity such as environmental degradation, crony capitalism, and other problems. However, it is worth stating that there are many different causes posited for these ills. Some blame Descartes with his division of the world into mind and body, others find different thinkers and their influence to be crucial. I will briefly look at some of these later.

Most modern criticism of Augustine’s view of human nature relies on a secular account of the world whereby we become more free, happier, and able to pursue our goals to the extent that we are able to drop the superstitious shackles of religion. For instance, Steven Pinker says that the ‘humanitarian principle’, that we should help others because it is in our own best interests, and not from any religious notions, is the way to progress to an ever more tolerant, enlightened and happy future. Culture needs to free itself from religious myths.

However, cultural historian Christopher Dawson argues that “culture consists in a common set of values which serve to unify the various activities of the group. Such values find expression preeminently…in a society’s religious beliefs.” Dawson believed religion to be the key to history, because it is the key to culture. A religion is not simply a theology. Religion must be expressed in sociological ways as well for it “can never escape the necessity of becoming incarnated in culture and clothing itself in social institutions and traditions, if it is to exert a permanent influence on human life and behavior.” The manner in which religion becomes embodied in temporal society establishes the form of a culture.

A people may also lose its religion and become secularized. Without a religion, however, a culture cannot long survive. Secularization is inevitably a sign of “social decay;” since religion provides the principle of inner cohesion for a society, a secular society will sooner or later disintegrate:

“The loss of the historic religion of a society is a sign that it is undergoing a process of social disintegration…We cannot…assume the possibility of a culture continuing to preserve its unity and to persist indefinitely without any religious form whatsoever. When the process of secularization is completed, the process of social dissolution is consummated and the culture comes to an end.”

Rod Dreher claims the Christian West began to lose its way in the fourteenth century, when the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham pioneered the theory of nominalism, which held there is no inherent order or purpose encoded into the material world. This was a radical departure from the philosophy of theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, who believed God’s intention for the material world is inscribed into nature itself, and can be discerned with human powers of reason. The split divided the “enchanted world” philosopher Charles Taylor describes medieval subjects as inhabiting from the disenchanted, meaningless world we now inhabit as post-modern, liberal subjects. We look around us and try to find some sense or meaning in things and events, but agree that meaning may differ depending on the beholder; the early Medievals bore no such burden.

If Dreher is right then this would also free Augustine from the burden of bearing responsibility for harm with his view of human nature. Instead, it is actually when medieval theologians start to deviate from Augustine that the problems of modernity are laid down. Enlightenment ideals of progress then compound the problem by themselves indulging in new myth-making where the faith in a glorious future, which is slowly being attained step by step, actually overrides any evidence to the contrary. This is very clear from Pinker’s analysis, in which he present evidence for progress by pointing to fewer instances of things such as torture, war and so on. It seems highly implausible that such things are actually decreasing, and aside from a veneer of progress of civil and other rights in the West, some would argue that we are actually experiencing an age of barbarism that the so-called barbaric Middle Ages never reached.

In conclusion then, I would say that to the extent that it is possible for any thinker of late antiquity to cause harm which has affected the modern world, then there are just too many plausible alternative sources of such harm, and the direct responsibility that Augustine’s ideas are meant to have, as I have shown, is based on a lack of understanding of what Augustine really thought.

Find out more in my new book for AS Religious Studies (OCR new specification!)

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