|Augustine's view of sin in the Confessions
Thomas Aquinas has been accused of doing his epistemology "as if in the garden of eden" on occassion. It isn't that Thomas doesn't talk about sin, but he doesn't talk much about its affects on our knowing. His view of grace is primarily a restorationist poisiton: that Christians, blessed by grace, have their capacities restored and their sin literally taken, not just covered over. Thomas is optimistic about the human condition, after grace.
Now Augustine is sometimes seen to be less optimistic than Aquinas, or more realistic about sins effects, dependng on one's point of view. Pelagianism is not often contrasted with Thomism, but rather, contrasted with Augustinianism.1 Augustine also seems to some to be more "down to earth" than Aquinas' lofty speculative questions like what is the difference between morning and evening knowledge for angels, for example. Some are like Francis Petrarch who "had no use for scholasticism"-- who found himself in need "of a director of conscience whose knowledge of human passions was derived from other sources that the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle."2 Some feel more akindred to Augustine than Aquinas, at least at some point. As Ettionne Gilson has remarked, "It is superhuman for a mind to live constantly at the peak of intellectual abstraction. There are times when feeling insists on some satisfation. From another point of view, an "angelic doctor" [Aquinas] is certain always to please angels, but the common run of men may be excused for craving, from time to time, the company of a merely "human doctor [Augustine]." 3
Augustine was a practical man pressed by the practical day-to-day affairs of life, and this makes his philosophy seem more connected to lived experience:
Augustine (354-430) was the Bishop of Hippo, a North African city, and was intimately involved in the day-to-day problems and sufferings of his parishoners. With the single exception of On the Trinity, all of his works were written to meet practical problems of human existence. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), on the other hand, was born into an aristocratic family and lived as a professor at the University of Paris, far from the problems and sufferings of human existence.4
Aquinas and Augustine obviously lived indifferent times with somewhat different concerns and styles, yet they are not necessarily contradictory-- and well-so for Augustine, since "in matters of theology, one cannot be right against Saint Thomas Aquinas.5 To agree with Thomas is not necessarily to disagree with Augustine. As Gilson reminds us, "The Church asks us to go to Thomas. This does not mean that we are not to go to Augustine."6 If sin is not discussed as much as it perhaps could be in Aquinas, Augustine helps to make up for any excessive silences on the matter. In fact, Augustine's thoroughgoing focus on the topic may have been part of what persuaded Aquinas to focus on other matters. To be sure, sin, pride, and self deceit are all a central theme in Augustine, who gives us a philosophy which seems to center, even revolve around the concepts of sin and grace. To understand Augustine, we must understand his view of sin.
In this paper, I would like to focus in on Augustine's view of sin, what its affects are, and how it relates to our knowing capabilities as subjects, as we find these topics discussed in the Confessions.7
1. What is Sin?
In the Confessions, sin is the willful turning away from God through focusing one's focus on created things or beings rather than the Creator. Augustine tells us early in the Confessions,
But in this lay my sin: that I sought pleasure, nobility, and truth not in God but in the beings He had created, myself and others. (I.20)
Romans 1:21 clearly underlies Augustine's thinking on sin:
For although they [men] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts wre darkened.8
Essentially, sin is forgetfulness, a misordering of priorities, and a failure to properly glorify God. Augustine calls sin "that intoxication in which the world forgets You its Creator and loves what You have created instead of You[God]" (II.3) Sin is a turning away from God, a faithlessness. One acts in bad faith towards God as he refuses to trust in the sustinence of God and seeks instead to make due one's own way:
Thus the soul is guilty of fornication when she turns from You and seeks from anyother source what she will nowhere find pure and without taint unless she returns to you. II.6
Augustine is quite clear that arrogance is a tendency we have, due to our sin nature, yet we will to sin, and are responsible for our actions:
our free will is the cause of our doing evil . . . I was quite certain that it was myself and no other who willed, and I came to see that the cause of my sin lay there. (VII.3)
Although we have a tendency to act selfishly and arrogantly, asserting ourselves inordinantly in matters systematically and habitually, we chose to give in to this tendency towards depravity.
One of Augustine's most famous confessions in his book is the story about stealing fruit from the pear tree with his friends. The allusions here to the tree in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve originally sinned are obvious. He and his friends stole pears, not just for the sake of the fruit, nor was eating the fruit the problem (obviously eating fruit in itself isn't evil). The sin of the act was that he willed to do something he shouldn't, to have power in a way he shouldn't, to overturn the right order of things and attempt to have and to be what was not rightfully his to have or be. Augustine comments:
The malice of the act was base and I loved it-- that is to say I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me-- not the thing for which I did the evil, simply the evil: my soul was depraved, and hurled itself down from security in You into utter destruction. II.4
Depravity is the sinful state of loving one's own downfall, through being blind to it. And "The very limit of human blindness is to glory in being blind." (III.3) Forgetting about God, ignoring God, is a state of "ignor-ance" whereby what should be known is not, and in this case what should be rightfully loved primarily is forgotten in favor of something lesser. Augustine of course gives us examples of the many types of lesser things that one can sinfully pursue-- galdiator shows, emotional theatrical productions, women, fame and honor in the eyes of men, quickness of wit, or power. In any of these situations, we recklessly pursue something single-mindedly which should not be our priority because we believe that this will make us more free, more liberated:
we raise against You the arrogance of a sham liberty, and through the greedy desire to have more (at the risk of losing all) love our own private good more than You, who are the common good of all. (III.8)
Sin is about our taking control and directing our energies towards an end which will ultimately lead to destruction. Sin is overstepping the boundaries of our proper place and proper allotment by arrogantly asserting claim to things which are not ours-- it is the practice of seeing our own good as most important above all others. It is selfishness and pride.
2. The Effects of Sin
This state of "fallenness" or "sinfulness" infects our emotions and our cognitive practices, according to Augustine,
Just as we have sins against others if our emotion, in which lies the impetus to act, is vicious and thrusts forward arrogantly and without measure, and damage to self if that affection of the soul whence carnal desires rise is ungoverned: similarly errors and false opinions contaminate life if the rational soul itself is corrupted. IV.15
This corruption has affected us in that we are limited in what we can have present. We can now only see through a mirror darkly, instead of having pure access to the Divine. Augustine tells us
For if fleshly sense had been capable of grasping the whole-- and had not for your punishment received only part only of the whole as its just limit--You would wish that whatever exists in the present might pass on, that the whole might be perceived by you for your delight. IV.10
But now, man is in a position of more limitation. Before the fall, there was a difference between man and God-- man was finite, and God divine (infinite)-- however, after the fall, there is more limitation, because man does not dwell in the presence of God, so man is not even at his best finite state, but in a fallen finite state. In other words, not only is man not God, no man is the best man, a pure Adam. Only the Son of Man was the exception to this universal depravity.
Sin is arrogance and pride, primarily. And while it is true that the invisible can be "seen" through the visible, this is done through and by faith, not with apodictic certainty. There are limits to our knowing, and yet we have the sinful disposition to try to assert ourselves beyond our limits-- to be as God, and to Know as God. This is the central message of the account of the Fall in Genesis-- that man tried to usurp God's authority by inordinately gaining power through knowledge to rival God. Augustine is well aware of the limits, and our tendency to attempt to transcend our humanness and slip out of our skins. He tells us that one must always remember the law: "From this point: not beyond that." (IV.10) Augustine, in the spirit of Job, says, "Let no man say to you: What is this or why this? He must not say it, he must not say it. For he is a man." (VII.6)
The sovereignty of God is the real focus and reason that the limits of his own perspective as a creature are central in his view of human rationality. Although his reason for concern with the limits of our cognitive abilities is central for Augustine, his emphasis on these limits preceeds those like Nietzsche, Dewey, and Freud in his understanding of the limits of our perspectives. Both Augustine and these others realize that our habits, tendencies, and experiences shape and mould our beliefs, and this limits our understanding. Obviously, Augustine and these later seculars are coming from different ends of the court. Augustine's position might well be stated as "God is. I am not God. Therefore I don't have God's perspective"; while the secular view might be portrayed as saying "There is no God. So no one has a God's-eye perspective. Therefore I don't have a God's eye perspective." However, the point for both can be seen to be that we should practice humility, modesty, and caution in our claims.
Augustine realizes that not only are we blind to many facts, we often are blind to our own blindness and sometimes even intentionally forget about it and act as though it isn't there. As he says, "The very [ultimate] limit of human blindness is to glory in being blind" (3.III) He acknowledges his arrogance before believing, when he was "in love with my runaway liberty"-- his blind bliss. (3II) We blind ourselves to the truth of our blindness primarily through being blind to our Creator: "that intoxication in which the world forgets You its Creator and loves what you have created instead of you." (2.III) Romans 1:25 says "For they exchanged the truth of God for lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen."9 Our attention is drawn soley to the things around us, without mind to the Creator. The blindness to God results from our stubborn self-blinding to our situation and condition as being exactly that: a condition and situation. We try to forget our situatedness by getting caught up in things contingent. But Augustine is no Platonist or stoic. He is not against the this-world, the earthly. He does not want us to realize the ethereal as the truly real and this world as mere mirage. (He says himself, "it became clear to me that corruptiblre [i.e., earthly] things are good" [7XII]) But he does want us to have our priorities straight, and to have our thinking realized in perspective. We must not take our contingencies, or any of the created order so seriously that we forget the Creator by whom and for whose glory it was created. Here we see already why the sovereignty of God is central-- because in realizing this, we are not blind (or perhaps-- when our blindness is removed, we see God as we had forgotten through blindness). God's sovereignity is a necessary condition for "right seeing" and so, for being truly rational and reasonable. It is unreasonable to forget about God. But it is mutually unreasonable to forget about our contingent state of seeing things. We must remember our limits, and not blind ourselves to them. Augustine talks about the limits of our "fleshly sense":
Our fleshly sense is slow because it is fleshly sense: and that is the limit of its being. It can do what it was made to do; but it has no power to hold things transient as they run their course from their power to hold things transient as they run their course from their due beginning to their due end.(4X)
Augustine says that, as punishment for Adam's sin, the intellect of men "received part only of the whole as its just limit" [4XI]. A fundamental reason our intellects are defective is that we cannot see the whole, and "every part is defective that is not in harmony with the whole".
Fortunately, this defect can at least be partially alleviated, as we begin to see creatures in light of the Creator, instead of being blinded to our Creator by the created. Augustine describes the process of having his intellect 'sanctified' when he says,
Just as we have sins against others if our emotion, in which lies our impetus to act, is vicious and thrusts forward arrogantly and without measure, . . . similarly errors and false opinions contaminate lif if the rational soul itself is corrupted. So was my soul at that time, for I did not realise that it had to be illumined buy another light, if it was to be a partaker in truth. For Thou lightest my lamp, O Lord, O my God, enlighten my darkeness" [4XV].
But while a better perspective is gained through acknowledging God and realizing that one sees in part, we obviously are not given an inhuman perspective upon all of reality. We remain humans, even after conversion. As creatures, we are not the Creator, and we say with all created things, "We are not God," and "He made us" [10VI]. In acknowledging that we are created we both acknowledge God's sovereignty and our limited condition.
For in this life knowledge, however great, does not mean perfect blessedness, for that which is stilll unknown is incomparably greater. ("The Usefulness of Belief "in Augustine: Earlier Writings, 285)
Augustine does say we can know the truth. However, some would have us think that grace alleviates our blindness, that we can have our darkness completely dispelled. SOme think that grace works out all the "kinks" in our lives, and through grace we are restored completely. Augustine does not hold this restorationist view. He takes great lengths to emphasize that such a complete blessed restoration does not occur in this life:
Again I said (xi,25), "In religion two kinds of people are praiseworthy-- those who have already found the truth . . . and those who seek it rightly and earnestly. Of these the former are already in possession. the latter are on the way that leads to possession." These words of mine are not erronous if it be understood that those who have found the truth and whom I have described as being in possession are not entirely blessed in this life but in the life for which we hope and towards which we tend by way of faith. . . .(The Usefulness of Belief in Augustine: Earlier Writings, 284)
The point here is certainly not that we must be fideistic in our faith-- that reason has no place. Obviously AUgustine holds a higher opinion of reason than, say, Tertullian, and I agree wholeheartedly with Ramirez when he says "Yet, to make Augustine a champion of faith-- which he undoubtedly is-- it is neither useful nor, in the long run, profitable, to make him an enemy of reason."10 SO as I have said before, Augustine holds to a chastened rationality, a reason which knows it is limited by finitude, sin and subjectivity. How often we see him refer to the passage of Scripture about "seeing in a glass, darkly:"
I do not think it is true that they are or ever have been entirely blessed in this life, not because in this life no truth at all can be discovered that can be perceived by the mind and not simply believed by faith, but because, however much of truth is discovered, it is not sufficient to make men entirely blessed. I would not say that the apostle's statement "Now we see through a glass darkly. . . . Now I know in part," is not perceivied by the mind. Clearly it is, but it does not make men entirely blessed. Perfect blessedness is described in these words. "But then face to face. . . . Then I shall know even as I am known." (The Usefulness of Belief in Augustine: Earlier Writings, 285)
We could say that Augustine has two kinds of knowing at work: first, is the absolute, sure, apodictically certain and rational kind, which we might give a capital "K" so that is is "Knowing"; while the second kind is the common kind of knowing that we do without great thought, on witness accounts, and with faith, not strict rational certainty:
When we speak strictly we mean, by knowing, certain, rational comprehension. But when we are using words as they are used in ordinary parlance, as divine Scripture uses them, we do not hesitate to say that we know what we perceive with the bodily senses, or believe on the testimony of witnesses worthy of trust; . . .(The Usefulness of Belief in Augustine: Earlier Writings, 285)
So if we want to use capital letters, we could say that Augustine says that 'the truth is that we do know (ordinarily speaking), but we don't really Know (strictly speaking).' We know as we can-- finitely, subjectively, through distorted lenses-- but we do not have a perfect vision of truth, much less God's perspective. Grace is meant to cover our sin, not make us just like untainted Adam, or God Himself.
Ignoring our Subjectivity
While we have a tendency to first, ignore our finitude and think we know like God and second, to forget that we have fallen intellects, a third error systematically plagues us. We have the tendency to forget that we view things from a perspective different from others, and we tend to think we see clearly, while others are seeing darkly in a mirror. In a passage from the Confessions, Augustine is discussing how that laws God gives at certain times are different from other times, but all are relative to, and grounded in, the same righteousness. He says some are
scandalized when they hear that something was permitted to righteous men in one age, and not permitted in another; and that God gave one man this command, another that, as the difference of the age required, yet both alike served the same righteousness: . . . (3VII)
Augustine goes on to explain,
Does this mean that justice is unstable and changeable? No, but the times over which justice presides are not alike, for they are times. Men, because their life upon earth is short, are unable of their own observation to compare the conditions of past ages and foreign nations which they have not experienced with those they have experienced. (Italics added, 3VII)
Many are "scandalized' by the truth of this relative standing which they have. Many demand that they do have an ahistorical perspective. But that we wish it so does not make it so.
4. Humility and Grace
Augustine gives us a well-rounded view of what God's grace did for his intellect. On the one hand, through grace he did receive greater understanding. But on the other hand, through grace he simply received relation to God despite his ignorance and limitations. He remains in the midst of this two-sided grace after conversion:
I will confess therefore what I know of myself and what I do not know; for what I know of myself I know through the shinning of Your light; and what I do not know of myself, I continue not to know until my darkness shall be made as noonday in Your countenance [10V].
Here Augustine remains-- in the midst of gace, both more illumined and more aware of his ignorance. A great deal of what "the light" shows him is wisdom in the Socratic form: "I know that I do not know". Here is a brokenness of spirit, not a brokenness that leaves one in shambles, but a brokenness that draws us into a life of humble acknowledgment of the limits of our understanding. Our illumination through grace is left in its two-fold ambiguity in I Corinthians 1:30 which reads,
But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption,"
The wisdom from God is twofold, it seems, since Christ actually reveals God to us informationally, but at the same time provides our knowing-- just as He provides our righteousness, sanctification and redemption-- in our place, in the ways which we cannot and could not ever. He makes up the difference and fills the gap between God and Man, by being all that we cannot be, in our place.
Reason and rationality are not so much a matter of gaining God's perspective as they are of gaining a right account and reckoning of one's own. If this is true, then Augustine's view of rationality is highly epistemological, meaning, he realizes that our being rational has to do with our proper perspective as humans, not necessarily with being able to see things exactly as God does. This means that being highly fallibilistic is an important quality for an Augustinian rationality.
Furthermore, Augustine would be more inclined, it seems, to accept an epistemological notion of truth (as distinguished from a metaphysical conception of Truth with a capital "T") rather than Aquinas' view that our truth is being (i.e., Truth is always capitalized, because all Truth is as God sees it). It isn't, of course, that Augustine doesn't think there is absolute truth, he just doesn't think he will see it, or know that he sees it, 'until his darkness shall be made as noonday'. "Until He comes" we can only wait in hope of His arrival. Until the Truth is fully revealed (whatever that will be like) we live contingently as human beings, according to Augustine. This hopeful expectancy toward the future is the eschatologically positive response with which Christianity should approach contingency and flux. It is a thoroughly positive response to uncertainty and fragmentation, a positivity sponsored by promisary notes of faith received through revelation. We hope in things not yet seen and these things we "know" by faith through grace. In this sense Augustinian rationality is guided by a regulative ideal of what the truth is, without actually 'getting his hands on it'.
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But You, O Lord, abide forever, nor are You angry with us forever, for you have mercy upon our dust and ashes. It was pleasing in your sight to reshape what was deformed in me. . . . And from the secret hand of your healing my swollenness abated, and thetroubled and darkened sight of my mind was daily made better by the stinging ointment of sorrow. VII.8
corruptable things are good VII.12
1Charles Boyer (S.J.), "Jean Calvin et Saint Augustin" (Augustinian Studies, Vol 3, 1972), 13.
2Ettienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, Trans. by L.E.M. Lynch, (New York: Octagon Books, 1983), ix.
4Norman F. Cantor and Peter Kline, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, (Waltham, MA: Blaisdell Publishing Company, 1969), 3.
7Augustine, Confessions, trans. by F.J. Sheed, intro. by Peter Brown, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993).
8New International Version
9New American Standard Version
10J. Roland Ramirez, "The Priority of Reason over Faith in Augustine" (Augustinian Studies. vol 13, 1982), 123.
also seems to some t