Augustine: The Inheritor and Expositor of Christian Moral Tradition.

Augustine’s famous dictum regarding the moral life, “Love God and then do what you want to,” captures in large measure the essence of his theological anthropology, cosmology, and ethics.  He no doubt thought that this way of setting forth the matter was fully consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.  I’d like to explore this briefly with you, looking at how this statement fits into his larger framework of thought.

Augustine has been described by many historians as the most important theological figure in the history of early Christianity in the Latin speaking, western church, second only to St. Paul.  In his journey toward conversion—an event that he resisted — he was always a serious thinker.  The image of promoted by many of Augustine as a profligate hedonist is actually a bit of an overstatement, for he remained faithful to the same woman—who was his “common-law” wife—for almost 20 years.  He had a son with her whom he named Adeodatus, which means the gift of God.  Many have declared this relationship to be an example of his sinful proclivities, but Augustine seems to have lived with her in “marital” fidelity while a non-Christian (he was not baptized).  His departure from her was not of his own choosing, but was pushed upon him because when Augustine began to think about returning to his home, his mother, Monica, was insistent that he could not enter into an actual marriage with her, for they were from two different socio-economic classes—Augustine was from the upper class.  When he and his common-law wife, whose name we do not know, separated, she underwent a dramatic conversion.  It even appears that out of a sense that Augustine was to have great importance in God’s service, agreed with him that they could not be married (for social reasons).  They terminated their long-term committed relationship, and amazingly she left and gave to Augustine custody of their son (truly a great pain to her).  She declared a commitment to chastity for the rest of her life as she left.  Augustine says of her courage to separate because of her faith—and her willingness to declare to him that she would not have another man—““She was stronger than I, and made her sacrifice with a courage and generosity which I was not strong enough to imitate.”  He spent some time trying to assuage his pain in sexual diversions with others.  Interestingly, in “The Confessions” Augustine points to her as a great example and convicting witness in his own subsequent faith.  His story in relationship to her is far from that of a profligate fornicator.

Additionally, as one reads “The Confessions” one realizes that far from a simple “partier” Augustine was a seeker after philosophical and religious truth.  In this regard he read widely and engaged the ideas of religious teachers outside of Christian faith.  The Manicheans, as sect of people devoted to the teachings of a Persian (Iranian) prophet, Mani, who lived in the 3rd century (216-276 AD).  Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology in which there were two eternal competing forces that were the sources of all things.  It described the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. The process of “salvation” in Manicheanism involved an ongoing process in human history through which light is gradually separated from the world of matter, in which it became entangled, and returned to the source of Goodness, from whence it came.  Matter, therefore, was the source of evil.  The beliefs of Mani and his followers were based on local Mesopotamian Gnostic and religious movements. It was very successful quite rapidly and spread far through the Aramaic-Syriac speaking lands of the Middle East and beyond.  Between the 3rd century and the 7th it became for a time  one of the most widespread religions in the world. Manichaean churches and scriptures existed as far east as China and as far west as the Roman Empire.  Briefly this religion was the dominant religious option to Christianity, as classical paganism began to wane.  

Augustine’s nine years long involvement with Manicheanism as a “hearer” came to an abrupt halt when he had the chance to meet the most well-known teacher of this movement and upon conversing with him and asking him a series of philosophical questions.  He had been drawn to them because he was attempting to make sense of how the world could be so filled with pain and suffering and evil and also be such a source of joy and pleasure.  This was not a mere logical problem for him, it seems, but a visceral search.  I think it was also unconsciously motivated in him by the background of Christian influence he had come out of with its emphasis upon the goodness of God’s creation.  When he met the teacher of the Manicheans, the latter could not answer his questions with any sense of coherence and Augustine quickly decided that the meaning of life and the source of Truth could not be found in this religious worldview.  Subsequently, he encountered the writings of the neo-Platonist philosophers—probably Plotinus and Porphyry.  The discovery of these “Platonists” was the most important occurrence in Augustine’s philosophical development before his conversion.  The Platonists allowed Augustine to begin to envision how all of reality—good and “evil”—could be understood as anchored in or produced by a single cause.  Since the Manicheans had emphasized the corruption of the material world as the source of evil, Platonism helped him, as well, to conceive that mater and spirit were not two competing creative forces and sources, but expressions of the workings of the same source.  This, of course, set the stage for him to be able to think about the Christian understanding of God.

In “The Confessions” Augustine, who was highly educated and very influenced by the writings of the famous Roman rhetorician Cicero, makes it clear that he was never drawn in his early life to the writings of Scripture, because in comparison to the writings he read in the classical Greek tradition and the Latin masters, filled with philosophical and rhetorical depth, the Greek of the Scriptures was common and unsophisticated.  It was couched much of the time in stories and aphorisms, rather than philosophical analysis in his view.  His encounter with the Platonists, however, moved him beyond the focus upon rhetoric that was so dominant in his world, and presented him with a structure of thought to engage in metaphysical reflections.  This set him in a good position to begin to envision the world in such a way that proper theological questions began to form in his mind, and it prepared him for his introduction to and the influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who was a Christian theologian with a neo-Platonic bent in his theological approach.  The influence of Ambrose and his talents as a teacher of the Scripture helped to reorient Augustine’s thought and set him up for his conversion experience and baptism.  Reoriented along neo-Platonic lines of thought, as well as embracing in his beliefs incorporating Christian Trinitarian doctrine and soteriology into his reasoning, Augustine traveled the same intellectual path for the next forty-six years of his life.

To be clear about the influence that the Platonists had on Augustine’s thought we can note that in Confessions he is unambiguous in describing for us his “common-sense” materialism that dominated by his philosophical musings prior to encountering these writings.   He could not, he says, conceive of a non-physical substance prior to being introduced to the writings of the Platonists.  Whereas the Manicheans had posited a material ontological essence and a “spirit” essence, it is not at all clear that the non-material “essence” of Manicheanism was a substance in its own right.  It was, he tells us, in the books of the Platonists that he found an intellectually satisfying way to conceive of the possibility of a non-physical substance.  This non-material ultimate substance the Platonists called The One.  The One was not physical, but neither could one call it spiritual.  It simply is the non-material principle that is the ontological source of all things.  Everything has, so the Platonists argued, emanated from The One.  

This is an important concept—emanation.  The One does not CREATE by volitional decision.  All of reality simply is expressed by necessity out of The One, and this source is itself not definable or knowable because there is no differentiation at all in the nature of The One.  Without the ability to differentia human knowledge cannot predicate distinctions and establish boundaries for knowledge.  Hence, because there is no distinction of any kind in The One—it just is—it cannot be known.  But, from the One emanates knowable things, because they are differentiated.  These are Logos (Rational Order) and Soul (living consciousness and reasoning).  Below these there is the world of matter that exists from the rational order.  Human beings exist in the material world as souls who can reason, but are not themselves really material beings in the strict sense.  They are souls that seek to be reunited with The One and to cease to be distinct from all things.  (To this extent neo-Platonism is much like Buddhism.)

Through the books of the Platonists, Augustine discovered an ontological framework in which there is a fundamental divide between the sensible or physical world and the world of the intellectually knowable, but non-material or spiritual.  Although this language can sound dualistic, like the Manicheans, it was not strictly speaking a dualism.  What Platonism gave to Augustine was a hierarchical view of reality which is rooted in the non-material One and which has LOGOS and SOUL/MIND as emanating principles from the One.  This view of a non-material source and substance as being very real—more real than mere sensory experience or the world of our senses, because it is what makes our sensory encounters actually understandable—enabled him to see that all things were ultimately part of one reality rooted in the non-material REALITY.  The divide, then, between the sensible world and the invisible intellectual world is situated within a larger unified hierarchy that begins with absolute undifferentiated unity and progressively unfolds and descends through distinct stages in which there is increasing plurality (differentiation) and multiplying lesser entities.  This culminates in the lowest realm of reality, which is the deeply differentiated, isolated, and fragmented world of matter and sensible objects.  This enabled Augustine, under the tutelage of Ambrose, to metaphysically conceive of the Christian God as the ultimate source and point of origin of all things.  More importantly, Christian faith enabled Augustine to understand that this ultimate source was not the impersonal principle – the One, but the personal God of faith who has will and purpose and acts freely.  No other existence besides God is necessary, unlike the ontology of the Platonists, where The One of necessity emanates as an impersonal force the further impersonal principles Mind and Soul.

This framework, then, becomes the basis for Augustine’s understanding of the real starting point for the so-called “problem of evil.”  Unlike the Manichean dualistic ontology which saw evil as a substantial entity in its own right (which, by the way is the manner in which far too many contemporary Christians see evil), Augustine was able to see that EVIL is not anything in itself.  It has not substantial reality.  Rather, evil is the result of a privation—that is evil is merely a lack of THE GOOD.  Evil is like an empty hole.  A hole is there but you cannot say that the hole is anything in itself…it is merely empty of stuff.  For this reason in his works Augustine discusses the origin of evil as a movement of the will—whether angelic or human—away from God as the true substantial source of all things and toward something that is not God.  Evil then is what results when the substance that God’s goodness truly is no longer gives focus and meaning—and therefore real substantial existence—to the will that now does not desire, choose, and surrender to God, who is the only real source.  Evil, then, is an existential condition (it is part of existence) that only is real as the lack of the Good.  Since all our desires as humans and angels are made, in Augustine’s understanding of Christian doctrine, to be made complete in God alone, and have no completeness in themselves (for God is the only true source of Being), if the will of an angel of a human desires something other than God and orients itself toward that something other, that will now is directed toward nothingness.  Why? Because anything that exists was made only by God’s creative will and was made out of nothing (note, now, “nothing” does not name an entity—nothing means no “thing”), and when that will is directed away from God who is The GOOD itself, all that is left is a will that is seeking emptiness, meaninglessness, purposelessness, and beinglessness.  Evil, then, is not a thing or a principle or a force, but the movement of the will away from the one true source who is Being – hence Goodness.  The results are acts, desires, and motives that are devoid of goodness in themselves and not open to Goodness Itself; this is ultimately all that evil “is”.

Human beings are creatures unique among all of God’s works.  They are intelligent souls who are capable of knowing God and being in right relationship with God, but they exist in intimate and inextricable unity with material bodies.  Unlike his former Manichean travelers, Augustine could not as a Christian divorce the body and soul of human beings and place all the problems of life in the material.  In the intimate union, human beings are simultaneously captured by sensory appetites and experiences that are appealing, satisfying and pleasurable (as well as undesirable and painful) and by the ability to know that material reality is not all there is and that God is our source.  This last ability means that we are capable of pursuing spiritual and intellectual imaginations and thoughts upward toward God, who is Himself the Divine Mind and source of all things.  Hence, if we pay attention to our inward spiritual life (only by Grace, of course) we are capable of pleasing God and knowing God and being set free from the allure of the sensory world.  The problem we face is that we often mistake the sensory objects of our experiences for things that have ultimate value, in part because their appeal to us is so immediate.  However, we also love the pleasurable by the way God has designed us and even though God is the ultimate experience of fulfillment and human pleasure the sensory world and its objects are more immediate and we grasp at them from a free choice of will to turn to the immediate.  (It is hard to seek God by faith and contemplation.)  Hence, we are sinful because of the grip of evil that our choices impose upon us.  Of course, absent the sustaining life of God in us through our willing participation in seeking God, there is only corruption and Non-being (nothingness).  Hence, we are doomed to destruction and under God’s righteous judgment, since we are made for God and only truly human images of God when we “rest in Him.”

Moral evil is, therefore, a matter of our own willful choice, but what about so-called natural evil (or suffering and death)?  In the ontology that Augustine embraced and developed our experience of these thing is only considered “evil’ due to the partiality of our perspective.  Our first-person centered perspective makes us myopic and materialistic and we tend to focus upon our own self-interest, certainly not the good of the whole creation or of God’s glory.  In Confessions and the City of God Augustine argues that if we could see things from the larger context of God’s providence, natural evils are not at all evil.  There is a rightness, he believes, in all things that exist from God’s perspective except for the will that turns from God.  Hence, acts and motives are where we “find” evil, but not in the created actors.

What one sees in Augustine’s moral theology as it grows out of his Christian ontology – as informed by Platonism – is a focus upon inward perspective and desire and motivation of the human person.  This is reminiscent of the move that Clement of Alexandria makes in his treatise The Rich Man’s Salvation.  Actions are right and wrong only in relationship to their motive toward God.  Of course, anything that God has clearly described unequivocally as outside of his will can never be done in a good sense.  However, in many things humans and Christians can partake of them in a good sense, but only Christians can be completely moral in the ultimate sense, for only a lover of God will seek for God in and through all things.  Due to his hierarchy of Being, Augustine posits that in human experience we come to understand that in the great chain of Being that flows by God’s creation and design from God Himself downward through even the smallest and most humble particle of matter we are called upon to recognize our place in the hierarchy.  Hence, morally speaking we are to be aware of those things which are greater than us in the hierarchy (God and the heavenly and intellectual principles) and those which are equal to us (other humans) and the things which are lesser in existential value than us (other created material things and cultural values and objects).  We are, Augustine instructs, to love those things which are higher than or equal to us in importance and value; we are to use things that are lesser in being and value, but only as guided by the proper love for the higher things, especially God as revealed to us in Christ.

Love turned toward the lower and temporal things and away from God is termed cupiditas (love rooted in satisfaction — or eros, in Greek).  Our love for things lower than God is right, however, so long as we love these things (or are attached to and value them) in a non-ultimate sense.  Augustine’s moral theology allows for us to take joy in created things, but only as they help us live and continually remind us of the beauty of God and his great providence and are occasions for us to love God more.  This God-directed and God-informed love is called caritas.  We are to love others, we are to love ourselves, and we can even love our country and our possessions, but only in a way that is careful never to attach ultimacy to them or to seek our fulfillment in them as a final source.  Of course, such thinking leads Augustine to be quite suspicious of powerful human forces such as our created desire for sexual pleasure and intimacy, or even our ability to enjoy natural or human created beauty.  Here is a tension in Augustine’s Platonism and the Biblical faith, I believe.  Platonism caused him to look at things from a bit of a skewed perspective, but nonetheless his reminder that God must be our final longing and love is exactly correct.

In his most comprehensive work The City of God, Augustine utilizes his ontological framework and his moral theology to articulate a theology of history.  Human existence and civilization can be boiled down to the tension and temporal battle between two agencies.  The city of man is the society of persons who do not have the orienting perspective of God’s exalted reality as the ultimate goal of our lives and, therefore, the only true object of our love.  Instead, created things—persons and possessions and pleasures (such as honor, comfort, passion, and human reason’s exaltation)—are the centering objects of person’s pursuits.  The Bishop of Hippo evaluates this “city” in the following manner:  “When, therefore, man lives according to himself, not according to God, he assuredly lives according to a lie; not that man himself is a lie, for God is his author and creator, who is certainly not the author and creator of a lie, but because man was made upright, that he might not live according to himself, but according to Him that made man—in other words that he might do His will and not his own.  And not to live as he was made to live [acknowledging God], that is a lie” [City of God, Book XIV, ch xiii].

Human beings were made for joy and pleasure that can be found in God alone. When a false object becomes the source of pleasure, then there is the beginning of frustration and even pain.  But, we cannot elude the fact that we are driven to seek fulfillment in something other than ourselves, because we are incomplete in ourselves.   All our motives [even in fallen humanity] are, according to Augustine, driven for a desire to find fulfillment and peace.  Again from City of God: “For no sin is committed save by that desire or will by which we desire that it be well with us, and shrink from it being ill with us. That, therefore, is a lie which we o in order that it may be well with us, but which makes us more miserable than we were.  And why is this, but because the source of man’s happiness lies only in God, whom he abandons when he sins, and not in himself, by living according to whom he sins?” [ibid].  One can see, then, that the City of God is ultimately a city that is built upon a fiction, hence it cannot last, because it is not rooted in Reality.

However, since human beings still are motivated by a desire for fulfillment and peace, and since even a fallen intellect still retains the capacity for prudential wisdom, human society is capable, in part, of ordering itself in less destructive ways than might be possible under the sway of sin.  This is related to his ontological commitments in the following way: human beings even in our addiction to the lies of our fallenness are nonetheless creatures made by God and whose being is rooted in the Goodness of God’s own Being (remember the Great Chain).  On this basis Augustine says, “Therefore there is a nature in which evil does not or even cannot exist (God’s own); but there cannot be a nature in which there is no good.  Hence not even the nature of the devil himself is evil, in so far as it is nature [something created by God], but it was made evil by being perverted.”  Human sinners who act in an evil manner—even those who reprobate themselves—are still haunted and influenced to an extent by a desire for the good, because their nature as created things (the fact that they exist as a creature made by God) is good.  So, even when people act in bad or evil ways they are seeking for a good which they think will accrue to them through their sins: the thief steals to get something he thinks will make him happy, the adulterer cheats because she thinks there will be fulfillment in the pleasure or the new relationship, nations that go to war are not seeking conflict for conflict’s sake but seeking peace and prosperity (by attacking another land to expand their influence and security, etc).  When there is a kind of rational ordering in the city of man, there can be the semblance of peace and justice, but it will always be partial, temporary, and fluctuating, because it is not rooted in God and motivated by love for God.

In The City of God, on the other hand, persons are motivated (however imperfectly) by God’s eternal decree to love God with all your heart, etc and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Because of this the citizens of the city of God, which is a spiritual condition not a physical location, sojourn on earth and live in the cultures and politics of the city of man—fallen humanity prior to the eschaton—in a kind of benevolent concern with detachment. 

“Consequently, so long as it lives like a captive and stranger in the earthly city, though it has already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as the earnest of it, it makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered; and thus, as this life is common to both cities, so there is a harmony between them in regard to what belongs to it [the moral life]. This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. . . . so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced.  Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven. . . In its pilgrim state the heavenly city possesses this peace by faith; and by this faith it lives righteously when it refers to the attainment of that peace every good action towards God and man; for the life of the city is a social life” [City of God, XIX, ch xiii].

In Augustine’s view, the presence of the citizens of God’s city will make better the life of the earthly city.  But there are times and issues when the citizens of heaven will have to resist the values and even the laws of the city of man, namely when those laws are in direct and obvious conflict with the true worship of God.  However, until that would happen, those who are the lovers of God in the world will take place in the same economy, the same politics, and the same culture as the unbelievers.  In Augustine’s view, however, their participation in these things would be guided by the values (the Eternal law) of God.  How they would participate, then, in the cultural practice of having servants or being a servant would be shaped by God’s revelation.  How they would treat riches would be subject to the dictum to love those things equal to you and above you but only use the things beneath you in importance.  How they would participate in war and conflict would be guided by the principles of just war.  Christians would be able to fight a just war, but would only do it as an act of keeping peace, seeking justice, and protecting their neighbors.  Mercy would guide war, even for one’s enemies.  Love would create regret for killing, even if it was for justice.  And reason not passion would guide the conscience in matters of proportionality of violence.  In the earthly city, the heavenly citizens must dwell with their fellow creatures, even when they are not followers of God.  Sometimes there must be disobedience, but such disruptions of the civic peace would be justified only by a true and clear sense of the higher calling of God.

So, Augustine can say: Love God and then do what you want.  When one truly loves God what results?  Surrender to God’s revealed, eternal will for our lives, we express that first of all in love of others (neighbor).  We pursue the good of others, along with our own good, but never can use them as means for our own good, because they exist as persons who are ontologically, and hence morally, on the same level of Being as us.  Before God, whom we love, using other persons as objects means our motives and our thoughts are not moving toward God’s Goodness, but away – hence evil.  Furthermore, when we look at the material things of creation – including the desires that are rooted in our physical existence as biological-material creatures – there attends in our hearts a recognition that things such as these –objects and appetites – are “below” us in being and are, therefore, tools to be used to help others and provide for ourselves, but can always be temptations to mammon-centered living.  Pleasures are gifts from God to be used, but they are dangerous things.  When we love God, we know this.  And ultimately, loving God brings with it a reordering of our lives to desire to see one’s neighbors know the love of God for themselves.  Hence, Love motivates ones decisions and actions toward all things and persons.

Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Dr. Blakemore is a co-founder of the JCW Center and the Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary.
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