Augustine on human nature – How convincing are Augustine’s teachings on the historical Fall and Original Sin? (40 marks)

Augustine was a 4th century philosopher who combined Christian doctrine with Neoplatonism. Augustine philosophy tries to reconcile beliefs about freewill, especially the belief that humans are morally responsible for their actions, with the belief that one’s life is predestined. His philosophy developed at a time when religious pluralism was being increasingly overcome by Christian values promoted by Emperor Constantine. Though initially optimistic about the ability of humans to behave morally, Augustine gradually turned pessimistic, and hypothesised that Original Sin makes human moral behaviour nearly impossible; if it were not for the rare appearance of the accidental and undeserved Grace of God, humans could not behave morally. Augustine’s teachings are problematic because they rely on a literal interpretation of the Genesis story which, due to the advances of evolutionary science and increasing atheism, arguably make them inapplicable to modern society. I will be arguing in support of this statement, utilising the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to do so.

Original Sin is the concept that all of humanity are innately sinful due to the consequence of The Fall, found in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve gave in to temptation and disobeyed God by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, whilst in the Garden of Eden. The biblical consequences of this act being that both Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, with every man thereafter being forced to labour during his lifetime, and woman having the pain of childbirth. Augustine was heavily influenced by Plotinus, who saw evil not as a substance but instead as the absence of good, with God Himself being the Summon Bonum: the ultimate Form of Good. Thus, Augustine theorised that before The Fall, God’s creation was perfectly flawless, where all creatures lived in Concordia and there was no lust, however in turning their backs on the ultimate Form of the Good, Adam and Eve plunged humanity into an imperfect, sinful world. Thus evil occurs as the human misuse of free will; it cannot be from God as He is the ultimate Form of Good.

That being said, Augustine did not see humans as driven by their innate sin. Instead, he argued, they are driven by love. In this, he identified two types of love: Cupiditas; a selfish, impermanent love, often equated with sexual desire, and Caritas; the generous love of others, synonymous with agape, which is an expression of God’s will, with humans being capable of both. He reasoned that, following The Fall, the balance of Caritas and Cupiditas within individuals is no longer maintained, and human nature is essentially self-seeking and particular, it is at the mercy of concupiscence; the uncontrollable desire for pleasure, particularly sexual, which distracts one from loving and obeying God. Furthermore, it is due to this sinful human nature that led Augustine to view the body and soul as two separate entities. He reasoned that before The Fall, the soul will have been in perfect harmony with the body, but post-Fall the soul’s relationship to the body is now unbalanced and uncontrolled. In turn, this has a poignant effect on the individual; post-Fall the soul is self-centred, divided and chases Cupiditas. To exemplify this, Augustine recounted of how he, as a child, stole a pear from a neighbours garden despite not being hungry and having plenty of food in his own home; he stole the pear simply for the pleasure of stealing, thus he chose to follow Cupiditas even though he knew what he was doing was immoral. Hence, Augustine asserted that human beings all have the God given ability to reason and recognize morality and immorality. However this has been corrupted by our permanent state of ignorance developed from our Original Sin, influencing us to continually chase Cupiditas; thus we are beyond rescue through our own efforts and can only be saved from our sin by God’s Grace, the generous giving of God’s love found through Jesus.

Augustine’s teaching could be seen as convincing because not only has it been extremely influential, especially for philosophy of human nature, but because it is entirely realistic in the recognition of human imperfection. Augustine used his own experiences to highlight weaknesses in human nature; it is arguable that in doing so, and in identifying that humans are fundamentally flawed, Augustine showed how humans can make moral progress and develop a harmonious society. Furthermore, Hobbes would agree; he argued that humans are by nature selfish and only work together when it is in their own interests, which is synonymous with Augustine’s argument that humans are driven by Cupiditas and selfish desires.

This argument, however, can be seen to focus too stringently on religion. Augustine’s entire teaching is based on a creationist belief in Genesis and the biblical accounts, and provides no alternative for those who see the Genesis story as literally nor historically accurate, atheists, or those who believe in evolution and natural selection. For those who do accept the Genesis story, it forces them to recognise themselves as innate sinners. Locke would disagree with this possibility. He argued for tabula rasa, asserting that babies are born with a ‘blank slate’ and are able to make free, uninfluenced decisions. This view is also more easily reconciled with the modern Christian theological view of a good, loving God attributing to a benevolent universe, than Augustine’s focus on sin and condemnation.

In addition, Augustine’s focus on concupiscence and sin arguably renders his teaching not only unconvincing but also repressive. Many would argue that sexual desire is a healthy aspect of our human nature, and should not be suppressed. It displays sexuality as impure and shameful. Not only this, but his argument puts Christianity at odds with other religious belief systems which celebrate sexual relationships, for example Judaism and Hinduism which celebrate sexual relationships in the context of marriage. One may argue that sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human nature; it is not a distraction from God but a necessary facet of humanity and pertaining to sexual desire does not make one innately sinful. Rousseau would agree; he reasoned that people are generally good, that they want to defend the weak and are egalitarian, they are not intrinsically sinful as viewed by Augustine.

To conclude, I would argue that although Augustine’s teaching is convincing to the extent that is has been influential, its weaknesses far outweigh this fact. Because his teaching is fundamentally and inescapably Christian, with reliance on biblical accounts and belief, it requires a fundamental, literalist belief in Christianity, and can be entirely disregarded otherwise. Thus, one may argue that it is inapplicable to the modern, diverse and increasingly atheist society of today.


Word count: 1113

Author: Ellie Lord


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